“And We Caught Them:” Comparing the Authoritarian Realities of the Stab-in-the-Back and the Big Lie

There is a saying in German: “lies have short legs”–sooner or later, the truth comes out. What it does not say, and what we have learned over the last five years, is that although lies have short legs, they can still walk all over you. The air is thick with conspiracies claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump by shadowy forces, and that his defeat poses a real threat to the United States. Like everyone who does not believe these lies, I have been trying to make sense of them, and as is often the case with me, that has meant looking to the past for a guide.

I was struck almost immediately by similarities between the Trumpist election lies known collectively as the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth that animated German nationalists in the interwar years with its Byzantine intrigues involving Jews, liberals, Social Democrats, and communists as they ‘betrayed’ Germany to the Allies and sold their country out. But I was skeptical. Historical comparisons are a fickle enterprise–they can be edifying, but they can also fool you into seeing parallels and precedent that are not there. But when noted neoconservative David Frum and the liberal publication Salon both connected the beatification of Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Trump supporter who was shot and killed during the Capitol insurrection on January 6, to Horst Wessel, a young SA trooper murdered by communists in 1930 and who became a mythological figure in National Socialism, I began to take my own thoughts more seriously. If the old far-right and the progressive left can agree that there are parallels between the modern American far-right and the nationalism of interwar Germany, then it was an idea worth exploring. Because I had been thinking the same thing: “I have seen this before.”

The Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth are both authoritarian fantasy that give voice to a dominant group’s fears about its place in society and its perceived loss of power or control. They do this by indulging and validating the group’s fears in an alternate reality. US media has tended to concentrate on the falseness of the Big Lie, but doing so misses the story the lie is telling through the targets the conspiracy chooses. The worlds of the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth are negative fables about who gets to belong and who gets to wield power, where undesirable social elements are destroying society and history, and where ‘real citizens’ are called upon to defend the world before it is unmade. They both insist that traitorous inside forces have conspired to destroy the nation, that the nation is knowable, ethically or racially definable, and that it belongs to a select group that is recognizable by its political allegiance and ethnic or racial identity. The belief itself is irrational, but the world the lie creates is rational, in that it has its own rules, symbols, assumptions, and tests of faith. To understand them is to understand the lie, and to understand the lie is to understand a darker side of ourselves.

I am, of course, not the first person to notice this similarity, or to make an explicit connection between the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back. In a column in the Boston Globe from November 11, 2020, Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, draws a direct link between the Stab-in-the-Back, Trump’s Big Lie, and the slide into autocracy. “What we face now in the United States is a new, American incarnation of the old falsehood,” he writes, referencing the Stab-in-the-Back, “that Donald Trump’s defeat was not what it seems, that votes were stolen from him by internal enemies–a left-wing party.” And the very phrase “the Big Lie” is itself a linkage between the authoritarianism of Trumpist politics and the ultra-nationalism of interwar Germany through the man who coined the term: Adolf Hitler. Hitler outlines the “big lie” in Mein Kampf in a paragraph dedicated to what he believed was a Jewish/Marxist conspiracy behind Germany’s defeat. In contrast to a “small lie” based on logic or persuasion, the “big lie” derives its power from its sheer size and irrationality. “The broad masses of a nation,” Hitler writes, “are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.” It is not difficult to see our present moment in those words, nor does it take much imagination to sense the Big Lie in Snyder’s observation that the Stab-in-the-Back “push[ed] away from a world of evidence and toward a world of fears.” And, I would suggest, the fact that we have adopted the term “big lie” to describe the miasma of falsehoods, innuendos, dog whistles, and paranoid rhetoric of Trumpist politics suggests that we are, however vaguely, aware of the similarities, that nationalist politics have taken firm root in the Republican Party, and that they represent something profoundly dangerous, new yet ominously familiar.

I want to expand on the connection between the Trumpist Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth that Snyder lays out in his column, namely that the Stab-in-the-Back worked because it marked certain groups as “outside the national community” and created a world of fears apart from one based on evidence, and that it convinced millions that “some […] were not truly members of the nation and that a truly national government could not be democratic.” I want to read the worlds of fear the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back create; I want to take them seriously as systems rather than as a collection of lies. Because shifting the conversation away from ‘true or false’ and into ‘why and why not’ reveals Trumpism for what it: a symbolic universe that works itself upon the world through politics or political theater. The Big Lie has become its most powerful engine through a discernible if not imprecise ideology grounded in an emotional truth of national ownership that removes the believer from a reality too shocking to their identity and their place in society and history to accept. It fills this ideological wound with another reality that affirms the believer’s rightful place in the national and social hierarchy. And like the German right before it, the American right that is captivated by the promise and catharsis of the Big Lie has coalesced around a nationalist, authoritarian, racist, and undemocratic form of politics that seeks to stop the forces of change that they feel have betrayed the country.

On Sources and Translations

I have sourced this essay as thoroughly and as transparently as possible. Because the Big Lie is a current and evolving story, I have depended chiefly on online news articles and transcripts of Trump’s speeches, which I have linked to in the essay. All quotations after a hyperlink are from the preceding link. Once a new article is linked, all quotations are from it, and so on and so on. Generally, I have only linked to an article once, though there are a few exceptions to this ‘rule.’ On those occasions when I reference a source linked elsewhere, I have made sure to say in the text where the quotation is from. I have used in-text citations for print sources, or for articles I have only as digital files, or following hyperlinks when I have pulled a quotation from them that is not from the author themselves. Such quotations are followed by citations that look like this: (qtd. in [Author]: [page number]).

Because so much of the research and commentary on the Stab-in-the-Back is only available in German, or because I do not have access to the English versions, I have used several German-language sources. In the interest of readability, I have given all quotations from German sources in English only. All translations and whatever errors they may contain are mine. In the case of a particularly difficult work, or when I have taken some liberties in the translation for the sake of tone or flow, I have supplied the orginal German in parentheses. I have not included the original German in the body of the essay, but I have made an appendix of sorts at the end for the larger quotations, where you can see or read them for yourselves. I have linked all German-language sources with hyperlinks in the text when possible.

On the topic of spelling and punctuation: Since I use them essentially as proper nouns, I have capitalized both the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back. It also helps, I found, to keep track of what I’m talking about when the terms are used so frequently.

And finally, I have provided a lists of works cited at the end of the essay with all articles and books I used to write it. As with the translations, whatever errors there are in the bibliographical informati9on are mine. I have to date never written a works cited page or bibliography without formatting mistakes, and I would be surprised if I started now.

Hagen’s treacherous spear: The Stab-in-the-Back

Throughout the First World War, the German Empire maintained that victory was at hand. Even in 1918, after almost four years of constant, brutal war that killed millions, saw its allies collapse, and a transatlantic alliance coalesce against it, defeat was not part of the official lexicon. According to state propaganda, Germany’s war effort was as strong as ever. Had the country not brought Russia to heel in 1917 after a series of improbably victories and the triumphant Treaty of Brest-Litovsk? And with the eastern divisions now free, did Erich Ludendorff not have a massive hammer with which he could smash the Allies in the west? Yes, there had been setbacks, but, the regime assured the population, Germany’s victory and its place as European hegemon were only a matter of time.

It was all a lie. By the spring of 1918, a keen-eyed observer could see that the empire was in dire trouble. Relentless industrial-scale war had exhausted the country. Extreme losses meant that the country was suffering a manpower shortage it could not overcome; Ludendorff’s spring offensive had all but destroyed what remained of the army; the country was encircled by a British blockade that the navy could not break, and which was starving the cities and denying the war effort vital supplies; and after a year of sporadic deployment, the Americans were finally arriving in force and bringing hundreds of thousands of fresh men to the battlefields in France. Germany was weak, had been outmatched in materiel and manpower, and the regime knew it. Germany’s first postwar president, Friedrich Ebert, admits as much in his speech to returning troops in December 1918, where he assures the men that “no enemy beat you. Only when the enemy’s superiority in men and materiel became ever more pressing did we give up the fight.” Confronted with such a hopeless situation, and in the face of the soldiers’ heroism, he says, Germany had the “duty” to surrender and “not to demand pointless sacrifice from you.” Ebert tries to soften the blow, and to thread a difficult emotional needle, by telling the men that they remained unmatched on the field of battle (a statement that, ironically, contributed to the development of the Stab-in-the-Back myth), but the fact remains that Germany’s military posture was fatally flawed and unable to match the forces arrayed against it. It simply could not have won the war. While the German High Command may not have expected their strategic position to fold as quickly as it did once the Allies began their counteroffensive, by summer 1918, defeat was inevitable. Or to paraphrase Beowulf, the empire’s fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.

When defeat did come, it was a shock to the population. For unlike France and Belgium, no enemy armies had set foot in German territory, let alone occupied it. When the war ended in November 1918, Germany looked, at least in the abstract, like it always had. For the average news consumer, who was not privy to confidential military reports and analyses, the collapse of Germany’s strategic position essentially overnight was so sudden as to appear unreal, like an effect without a discernible cause. Where were the armies who were holding back the enemy, and why were French, British, and American troops suddenly streaming into the country, occupying the Rhineland, and dictating terms? Was Germany not still in Belgium? This kind of defeat, which unfolded in one wild spasm, would be difficult for any people to comprehend, but the imperial regime’s nearly pathological insistence on denying the increasingly obvious reality of its weakness worsened the situation and made a healthy reckoning with defeat and the resulting national humiliation essentially impossible. Fed on a diet of strongman bluster and bellicose confidence, the German population was unprepared for surrender. There was simply no emotional context for the event, no collective grammar for the grief, and no channels for dealing with it. The nation had been emotionally sucker-punched.

This disorientation was worst for those on the right, who had believed in empire and the uniqueness and unmatched vigor and depth of the ‘German spirit.’ Defeat was no simple political disappointment; it was the wholesale destruction of an entire cosmos of assumptions about Germany’s place in the world, who deserved power, and who had the right to wield it. Raised in the heady and warlike mythology of German unification under Bismarck, when Prussia–and then Germany–had bested all its enemies to become the most powerful nation on the continent, the empire’s defeat at the hands of the effete French, the uncultured Americans, and the entitled British was an intolerable indignity. Germany was indomitable and the Kaiser had promised the nation victory, had shown them through all the years of war that they were destined for it. Defeat simply made no sense. To make matters worse, the Treaty of Versailles imposed punishments on Germany that dealt very real blows to its international standing and its self-image. The empire “lost 13 percent of its territory and 12 percent of its population, including 14.3 percent of all arable land and 15 percent of the nation’s productive capacity” (Payne 149). Alsace-Lorraine, the spoils of the Franco-Prussian War–the conflict that had birthed the German Empire in 1871–was returned to France, the Saarland was separated from the rest of the country (its fate to be decided by referendum), the Rhineland was placed under military occupation for fifteen years, and the army was limited to 100,000 men and the navy to 25,000 (149). In addition, all of Germany’s colonies and overseas possessions were placed under League of Nations mandate and doled out to the British Empire, France, Belgium, and the Empire of Japan. Perhaps worst of all, Germany was forced to “recognize full responsibility for the war” and to pay massive reparation payments that reduced it to the “status of international debtor” (149-150). For the right, surrender and its accompanying humiliations were an existential catastrophe impossible to accept. And it did not: faced with the reality of loss and the dissonance of a state information and mythology apparatus that told them that victory was imminent, they looked for the true cause elsewhere. They looked within.

Traitors had undermined Germany’s war effort, they decided, poisoned its spirit. They had stabbed the nation in the back, and were it not for their treachery, if Germany had been allowed to prosecute the war to its fullest ability, free from political concerns and mewling dissent, it would rule from the Pyrenees in the west to the Russian steppes in the east. In the right’s aggrieved imagination, it was the German Revolution of 1918-19, with its Novemberverbrecher (“November criminals”)–the communist revolutionaries and the left-liberal Social and Christian Democrat reformers–and not the allies’ superiority or mismanagement by the German High Command, that doomed Germany’s war effort. Ernst Troeltsch, a liberal Protestant theologian and philosopher who had opposed Germany’s entry into the First World War, outlined this popular conspiracy theory in March 1919:

“People are creating a legend in which Ludendorff could have and wanted to save the empire, but the revolution thwarted his intensions, and international social democracy delivered the killing blow to the empire with joy. All misery comes from the revolution, which has no national mindset (Gesinnung) or morals, and which is embracing the spineless (charakterlosen) Jewish democracy. That this is all nonsense, untruth, or even a baldfaced lie, does not concern the people” (qtd. in Niess: 40).

According to the Stab-in-the-Back, Germany’s defeat was the bitter fruit of a sprawling alliance between forces who were not only politically suspect to the German right, but who, by virtue of their character, were fundamentally un-German and opposed to the German state and the people it represented. Already one can see the outlines of an anti-Semitic national politics in which the state and German identity are defined in opposition to Jewishness, which serves as shorthand for the ethnic and national betrayal of defeat and the revolution that followed. “Jewish democracy” is not just unwanted, it is degenerate, invasive, completely incompatible with Germanness; it is lacking in national character (charakterlos) because it is, to borrow a term from our own times, “globalist” and hostile to a state rooted in a nationalist mindset.

The idea of Germany’s betrayal at the hands of unsavory social elements achieved national notoriety for the first time on November 18, 1919, when Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, former head of the German High Command and one of the most revered national figures in Germany, told a special committee charged with investigating Germany’s defeat that “an English general was right when he said that the German army was stabbed in the back.” The “core of the army” was guiltless, Hindenburg said, but it was clear where the guilt lay. If more proof were needed, he went on, one need look no further than the English general’s statement and “our enemies’ boundless astonishment at their victory” (qtd. in Ulrich). It was a stunningly disingenuous claim given that Hindenburg, along with Ludendorff, had personally convinced the Kaiser on September 29, 1918 that Germany had “definitively lost the war” and that he should accept the Allies’ terms of surrender. Furthermore, the English general in question, Major General Frederick Maurice, denied the statement, saying that “I never anywhere expressed the opinion that the end of the war was due to the fact that the German army was stabbed in the back by the German people. On the contrary, I have always said that the German armies on the Western Front on November 11, 1918 were no longer capable of further fighting” (qtd. in Ulrich). Yet the damage had been done.

Hindenburg’s endorsement of the Stab-in-the-Back before parliament gave legitimacy to the idea and helped a free-floating suspicion surrounding the end of the war to harden into hatred of civilian society and a mistrust of the democratic state, which many on the right saw as weak and duplicitous. According to Otto Dibelius, then general-superintendent of the Evangelical church of Kurmark in Brandenburg and an early supporter of Hitler’s (he would go on to oppose National Socialism for its attempts to influence the church) in a sermon on May 11, 1919: “a people who stabbed its army in the back, who sold out its brothers and sisters in order to extend the hand of peace to foreigners in careless trust, a people who celebrated its defeat with strikes and dancing–a people like that deserves a hard judgement from the hands of the just God” (qtd. in Niess: 40-41). By the early 20s, this apocalyptic version of the Stab-in-the-Back had become an “undisputed fact” in rightwing circles (Gallus). In the radical pan-German (Alldeutschen) and ethno-nationalist (völkisch) parties, the paranoia surrounding “dealing politicians from the moderate or left-liberal camp” had expanded to include entire groups, especially Marxists and Jews (Gallus), which nationalists had long viewed with suspicion as alien elements hostile to Germans and the German state. The result was a mural of German life rich in victimhood, where the once proud nation had been brought low by scheming and racially motivated betrayal. This is clearly Hitler’s assumption in Mein Kampf, where he writes:

“it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. […] By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice.”

Jews and the left are inextricably linked in the Stab-in-the-Back because they embody the fear that the nation will be uprooted and that an internationalist mindset will replace personal ownership and with it loyalty to the state–what Hitler calls the “internationalization” of the German economy at the hands of “joint stock companies” and the “unscrupulous exploiters” of international finance, which he defines as a bizarre alliance between “money-grabbing capitalism” and its “faithful henchmen in the Marxist movement.” No longer rooted in soil and a traditional understanding of what Germany is, the state dies, and with it the social and spiritual home it embodies. Jews and Marxists represent the destruction of the state, economically and racially, by means of a featureless international order anchored in commerce. Their alleged victory in 1918-19 is nothing less than the unmaking of Germany on an existential level. The Stab-in-the-Back as Hitler describes it is a tale of a country that had become foreign to itself through machinations of internal enemies, and the only way to rectify the issue was to throw the enemy down and for ‘real Germans’ to reclaim their state, their culture, and their history for themselves.

These fears were, however, not confined to the fringes on the right; the Stab-in-the-Back quickly became a source of “communication and self-assurance” across “a broad right spectrum” (Gallus), where it served as an “ideological connection between conservative elites and National Socialism” (Boris Barth, qtd. in Gallus). Belief in the Stab-in-the-Back now marked one as a member in the resistance against a decadent, degenerate, and un-German social and political alliance. What had begun in shock and a nebulous feeling of disbelief had become a belief of its own, a quasi-religious battle for what many on the far right saw as the essence of Germany.

The growing emphasis on the mystical nature of the conflict is apparent in Hindenburg’s evolving language around the Stab-in-the-Back myth. In his speech before parliament in 1919, he had been content to imply liberal politicians’ guilt. But in his memoirs Aus Meinem Leben (Out of My Life) from 1920, he casts Germany’s defeat and the alleged betrayal that caused it in mythological terms by comparing the end of the war to Siegfried’s betrayal and murder in the Das Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), the 13th-century German version of the ancient Germanic Sigurd myth as a High Medieval epic. “Our exhausted front collapsed,” Hindenburg writes, “like Siegfried under terrible Hagen’s treacherous spear” (qtd. in Wittstock). In Hindenburg’s telling, honorable and forthright Siegfried stands in for Germany and Hagen for the perfidious, unpatriotic forces that sabotaged the war effort. And just as Siegfried is cut down by Hagen, his close friend and sworn brother, Germany had been laid low by its own misplaced trust. Framed in the context of the Nibelungenlied, Germany’s loss goes from a military defeat to a grand time-defying epic with clear heroes and villains, rights and wrongs. Siegfried is a man motivated by honor and duty, while Hagen is seduced by the allure of Siegfried’s vast treasure. Germany’s enemies, Hindenberg implies, were self-servingly ambitious, loyal only to the promise of personal gain (a claim that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hitler’s). These cowardly enemies had, like Hagen before them, struck down honor for worldly treasure, and in so doing had set in motion a series of events that brought the glorious kingdom to ruin.

Left unspoken in Hindenburg’s comparison is the Nibelungenlied’s imperative for revenge, or its consequences. For after Siegfried is slain, his widow Kriemhild spends years assembling a private army of sworn knights with generous gifts from Siegfried’s treasure. She then uses her army to destroy all the men who had conspired to murder her husband. It is possible that Hindenburg was aware of the revenge subtext in his simile, but the accidental prophecy of his allusion to the Nibelungenlied is hard to deny. Because at her moment of triumph–when the fates of Günther, Hagen, and the great Hunnish king Etzel (Attila) are sealed– Kriemhild is hacked to pieces in Etzel’s burning throne room. Likewise, the German right would embark on its own campaign of revenge, and like Kriemhild it would achieve moments of vengeful catharsis–the French army was, for example. forced to surrender in 1940 in the same rail car in which the German armies signed the armistice in 1918–but the price would be unimaginable. The racialized nationalism that coalesced in the Stab-in-the-Back myth killed tens of millions of men, women, and children through war and genocide, the European continent was laid waste, and the war caused philosophical and social wounds that still seep. Like Kriemhild’s campaign for revenge, the German right’s crusade against shadow foes would end in fire and disaster. For all its obsession with a stab in the back, the right and its fantasies stabbed the world in the heart. And the wound was nearly fatal.

“The Crime of the Century:” The Big Lie

Media coverage has tended to frame Republican embrace of Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud as an act of cynical political opportunism, and there is a lot of truth in that. Trump remains broadly popular among conservatives, and he is still the central powerbroker and ideological focal point of the Republican Party. Yet crass political calculation does not account for the centrality of election conspiracy theories in the modern conservative movement, where echoing Trump’s claims of election fraud have become the litmus test for party membership and ideological purity, even as Trump’s popularity among the general public has remained static. A base motivated by the Big Lie and fortified by voter suppression efforts in Republican-run states may indeed lead to electoral victories, but it is by no means a given that the strategy will succeed. More than anything else, the Big Lie is a story whose primary purpose is the creation of a unified political and social identity that explains the inexplicable and gives voice to deeper concerns about race, power, and fears of national and cultural contamination and decline.

The modern Republican Party sees itself as a bulwark against a creeping leftist assault on traditional American society and the decline of American power. It sees itself as standing against what Alabama Representative Mo Brooks calls in his statement of support for the would-be Capitol Hill bomber on August 19, 2021 “dictatorial Socialism” that threatens “liberty, freedom, and the very fabric of American society” (qtd. in Breuninger). The Big Lie is this fear expressed in and validated by an ideological mythology, where anxieties are given form through symbolic images of ‘real America’s’ enemies that circle true patriots like hungry wolves. The diverse conspiracies in the Big Lie explain and rationalize fear while also reinforcing and radicalizing it. It transforms fear from nebulous emotion into a way of seeing and being in the world. The rogues’ gallery of paranoid passion plays that make up the Big Lie are not random pastiches of rightwing talking points or images: they are legible symbols in their own right that, when taken together, paint the picture of a world under siege by ideological and racial adversaries.

Insistence that Antifa or Black Lives Matter are responsible for the January 6 insurrection (a claim participants deny) is perhaps the most blatant synergy between racial and political anxiety that the Big Lie has to offer. In both groups, the right has found its nemesis, organizations, according to the Big Lie’s adherents, as radical as they are. Antifa and Black Lives Matter offer a perfect real-world stand-in for the fantasy of an aggressive, totalizing leftwing tide obsessed with sweeping away all that makes America what it is. Fears of an ascendant China, and with it the fall of American hegemony and free-market capitalism to communism, find expression in accusation reminiscent of the racial paranoia of Yellow Peril and the baroque plots of pulp serials: that vote tallies were stuffed in Joe Biden’s favor using bamboo-laced ballots from “the south-east part of the world.” Similarly, the idea that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s family conspired with Dominion Voting Systems to steal the election from Trump resurrects Latin American communism as a force committed to the destruction of the American experiment. More importantly, the Chinese and the Venezuelan plots connect the Democratic Party to a vast international leftist conspiracy and imply that it is tacitly if not actively working with traditional ideological enemies to achieve power. The conspiracy symbolically marks the Democratic Party as more loyal to ideology and an internationalist communist/leftist project than to country. They are ready-made traitors constitutionally hostile to Americanness and national loyalty by virtue of their beliefs; they lack, to quote Ernst Troeltsch, a “national mindset.”

The conspiracy does not limit itself to the left, of course; it also implicates the inner workings of the state itself, or countries traditionally considered American allies. The belief that the FBI orchestrated the insurrection points to a distrust of government power, particularly intelligence agencies that make up the alleged ‘deep state.’ The claim that Italian military satellites had been used to rig the election for Joe Biden is overly specific and almost charmingly random at first glance, but it is not hard to unspool the appeal it has for believers in the Big Lie: the fate of the United States is not its own, and the once great power is now the tool of shadowy international cabals. The United States is so fallen from its former place that even Italy, which possesses nothing close to American military, economic, or political power, is able to interfere in American affairs. It is an image tailor-made to express a sense of profound national humiliation, and it dovetails with the broader emotional truth of the Big Lie: the United States is beset by enemies big and small, who are united by their distain for America, its people, traditions, and way of life.

In its completeness and depth, the Big Lie conspiracy resembles what J.R.R. Tolkien calls a “Secondary World” in his essay “On Fairy-stories.” A secondary world is a created universe so real that “you believe it, while you are […] inside” (60). While “inside it,” Tolkien says, what the storyteller creates is true, but “the moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken, the […] magic has failed” (60). The Republican Party has continued to echo Trump’s claims of a stolen election because it cannot afford to abandon them. Doing so would not only undercut Trump as a political figure, it would undermine the conservative movement’s entire reason to exist. The Big Lie is the load-bearing wall in a sprawling nationalist, authoritarian-minded architecture where shadowy, unscrupulous forces both within and without have joined together to destroy American society, values, and history. Perpetuating the ‘truth’ of the Big Lie is necessary for this world’s survival, because admitting that Joe Biden won the election–to allow disbelief to enter the world–would destroy the “magic” of the Trumpist movement, and with it the shared universe that casts Trump’s followers as defenders of the faith and the last line of defense against final darkness.

It may have begun as a cynical ploy to remain in power while shielding Trump’s ego from the wounds of defeat, but the Big Lie has since grown into a self-justifying and self-perpetuating ideology of its own. The Big Lie and the insurrection it inspired have become, as David Graham points out in The Atlantic, proof of Trump’s willingness to fight for the right’s vision of America against what many conservatives believe is an apocalyptic decline of the American way of life. In September 2020, Graham writes, “83 percent of Republicans in a YouGov poll said the American way of life was under threat.” Furthermore, “Trump’s incessant claims since November 3 that the election had been stolen only reinforced this apocalyptic thinking, by seeming to confirm that what rightly belonged to Trump and his backers had already been seized from them.” The Big Lie, with its vast conspiracy spearheaded by minorities, leftwing radicals, and foreign co-conspirators functions as a vast imagination sink into which the right can pour all its grievances, suspicions, and anxieties. What emerges is a world of almost operatic combat between the forces of good and evil, of upright tradition against degenerate modernity. It is a world that affirms the worst in America while allowing its adherents to live out a promised perfected future through fantasy, for when Trump or his movement once again attain power–when the stain of illegitimate defeat is expunged–America will return to its former and promised glory.

The basic conceit of the Big Lie is that, as Trump puts it in his speech in Phoenix on July 24, 2021, the “country is being destroyed by people who have no right to destroy it.” On its face, this sounds like a simple rehash of the familiar lament that the election was “the crime of the century” or a “scam,” but Trump routinely positions grievances about his election loss in a context that hints at a broader defintion of who does or does not deserve power. Immediately after warning in Phoenix of the nation’s imminent destruction, for example, Trump declares that “critical race theory is being forced into every facet of our society.” It would be a mistake to assume a firm ideological bedrock in Trump’s grievances, but if his political career has proven anything, it is that he is an unusually astute observer of his movement’s emotional motivations, and he is remarkably skilled at giving voice to them in a rhetorical style that says what they want and what they mean without stating it directly. So it is not a coincidence that Trump invokes the specter of critical race theory after declaring that the Democratic Party does not deserve power, for critical race theory has become a popular cause of concern on the right, one that cuts to the center of larger anxieties about a loss of ‘traditional’ (white) American power in contemporary society, and which provides the Big Lie with animating energy. Race binds the twin concerns about social power with anxiety surrounding national identity in much the same way the association between Marxism and Jewishness expressed and hardened rightwing rage and antidemocratic sentiment in the Stab-in-the-Back myth. Like its German counterpart, the Big Lie conjures images of a country alienated from itself, where unworthy social elements have usurped the true patriots’ mandate and destroyed the idea of the nation by uprooting it from its traditional self-understanding.

Critical race theory has become an obsession in rightwing media because, the thinking goes, it divides society along racial lines, or is “unpatriotic” because it “tells white people that they’re racist […] just for being white.” Trump plays explicitly on this last theme in his speech to CPAC on July 11, 2021, where he says that “we stand up to political correctness and we reject left wing cancel culture” that is “dragging us backward into the past,” and “bringing our country down” in the eyes of our enemies, like Russia and China, who use racial discord in the United States to humiliate the country on the world stage. Worse still, critical race theory is “teach[ing] our children to hate their country.” Discussions of race, Trump says, are unpatriotic because they deny a history that emphasizes American greatness. “We are proud of our country,” and “we teach the truth about our history,” he goes on to tell the crowd; “we honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln,” and we “strongly oppose the radical indoctrination of America’s youth.” The price of Joe Biden’s victory is the minds of America’s children, the country’s collective psyche, and the idea of the nation itself. To allow a Democratic victory is to wake up in a country made foreign to itself and hostile toward its own being.

Public discussions of race that implicate American society or institutions in oppression are not dangerous to the kind of American citizenship Trump outlines at CPAC because they drag America into the past (Trump’s promise to make America great again is inherently backward-looking, after all), but because they resurrect the ‘wrong’ past. They insert racism into a version of America that is race-less, and therefore essentially white. Trumpist history is, as Megan Garber observes in her profile of Tucker Carlson’s brand of daytime-friendly American nationalism, fundamentally ahistorical. America as Trump and his followers articulate it is “not […] a nation but […] an ongoing work of fan fiction,” one “so enamored with its own woozy mythology that it treats reality itself as unpatriotic.” Patriotism in the Trumpist mold means to worship the idea of America as it exists outside of time. America is a feeling, a fantasy shared with like-minded individuals, not a place with real people and problems, and anything that spoils that feeling, like an accounting for historical wrongs and present injustices, is un-American. The perfect, frozen, immutable, and conspicuously white past that Trump references in his CPAC speech stands in direct opposition to a ruinous American present where, as he says in Phoenix, “crime is surging. Inflation is soaring. The border is gone;” where rioters were “threatening to destroy Washington, DC” during the George Floyd protests; and where immigrants from all over the world are poised to “destroy” the county on a “human basis.” “The Democrat obsession with race,” as Trump calls it at CPAC, is a threat because it denies the unspoken agreement of American society that portions power according to a racial caste system that places whiteness, and only whiteness, at the top of a steep socioeconomic pyramid. The push to include minority experiences, and in some cases to forefront those experiences, in American history is an existential threat to a social order dictated and upheld by race and sealed by a convenient loss of memory.

This looming threat of a radical conspiracy led by Black voters and their allies in the Democratic establishment to overturn traditional American society is the closet thing to an ideological center the Big Lie has. Even before the election results had been fully counted, the Trump campaign began to challenge returns in areas with high Black and brown voter turnout. “If successful,” Bloomberg News noted on November 21, 2020, the Trump campaign’s efforts to challenge votes in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities “would disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters.” Trump’s attempts to “expose voter fraud that simply does not exist in […] overwhelming Black population centers,” as the Associated Press put it on November 22, 2020, is even more striking because Trump’s loss was due to defections in the suburbs, not the cities. According to a post-election analysis by Harry Enten, “Joe Biden won in large part because of a dramatic improvement in the suburbs surrounding the major cities.” Trump did not lose, Enten concludes, because of a “grand conspiracy of big city machines;” he lost because “suburban voters were tired of him.” Despite this fact, as Bloomberg’s analysis out, “Trump and his allies aren’t contesting the outcome of the election in the suburbs,” where he actually lost. Instead, they chose to focus on the inner cities in a campaign of voter disenfranchisement with a pronounced “racial tone.”

The Trump campaign’s concentration on urban centers with high Black populations is not difficult to decipher: it plays on old tropes of Black criminality and implies that Black voters are corrupt and untrustworthy, and that any party which depends upon them is criminal itself. Race and crime are not just connected in the the Big Lie’s secondary world, they are synonymous. Singling out Black voters as the source of voter malfeasance marks them as damaged, while ignoring the suburbs–which Trump erroneously characterizes as overwhelmingly white–signals that only white votes and white voices are real and can be trusted. Trump was not subtle about this connection. In July 2020, when it was becoming clear that the deteriorating COVID-19 pandemic posed a real threat to his reelection chances, Trump attempted to use racial rhetoric around the suburbs to stoke white fears and to garner white support. In a rally in West Texas, Trump “bragged […] that he had ended a government program that tries to reduce segregation in suburban areas” before telling the crowd that the desegregation program had been “hell for the suburbs” (qtd. in Karni), and that he would make sure that “there will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs” (qtd. in Karni). The presence of Black homeowners in suburban neighborhoods is, in the Trumpian imagination, wholly ruinous: it destroys home values and the cohesiveness of the community. More distressing still, it is the vanguard of a leftist plot to destroy America itself. Or as Trump tweeted to the “Suburban Housewives of America” days before the West Texas rally, “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream” (qtd. in Karni).

This kind of apocalyptic language reduces debates about social justice into a Manichean dichotomy of order or chaos, an authentic America or a subversive cabal. ‘Real’ American history and civil engagement celebrate America; other stories are illegitimate at best and nefarious at worst. Un-American elements are coming for the nation’s very nature, and if the George Floyd protests and the campaign to remove statues of Confederate or slave-owning historical figures sparked anxiety on the right about a culturally hostile left, and about who does or should have power in the United States, the 2020 election validated those fears. Almost overnight, America as a reactionary segment of conservative voters had understood it had been toppled by an alliance of leftists and people of color determined to poison society and to subvert the will of the American people–the real American people.

The issue at the heart of the Big Lie’s universe is not just that people got to vote who shouldn’t have, it is that those same people, by virtue of their politics, race, or ethnicity, are traitors to the United States, fundamentally opposed to national history and shared values–they are a real and present danger to the American way of life. Behind rhetoric about ‘fair’ or ‘secure’ elections there is an argument about social and political legitimacy and who has a right to it. When Trump complains in a disjointed interview with the Washington Post about the “thousands” of “dead people that voted,” and then goes on to single out the “illegal immigrants that voted,” or the “Indians who were paid to vote in different places,” he creates a symbolic relationship between the unnatural and illegal act of the dead voting and minority participation that marks minority voters as inherently fraudulent, wholly criminal and devoid of real motivation. Because the minority voter as s/he exists in the imaginary world of the Big Lie is, in a sense, dead. Minorities never vote of their own volition or according to their wishes or priorities: they are pawns inserted into the electoral process by a corrupt Democratic Party intent on, as Trump says in Phoenix, “seizing power and destroying everything we hold dear as Americans” and cementing its political and social domination through fake election wins. The minority voter is essentially a zombie, a vessel in the form of a man or a woman that is driven by impulse and crude stimuli, and satisfied only by victory, by consumption. It is a not a real person, and as such, its vote is illegitimate. In contrast, the Trump voter who believes in the Big Lie has faculties and can choose; they have a sense of responsibility, and the sword and shield of their conviction–he or she is real in a way a minority voter is not and can never be because they are of America and America exists for them.

For the believer, the Big Lie is both a catastrophe and a comfort, a warning and a rallying cry. For by ‘discovering’ and revealing the lies and conspiracies behind the 2020 election, the Big Lie introduces a sense of agency, even superiority, into a psychological world defined by a loss of control, anxiety, anger, and disappointment. When Trump tells the crowd in Phoenix that “the radical left communist Democratic party stole this election, and we caught them,” he is calling them to action in a time of terror and utmost danger, but he has also made the fear understandable by giving it a name. He has reaffirmed ‘real America’s’ ability to sniff out enemies and defeat them, no matter how devious or powerful they may be. ‘Yes, they are clever,’ he says, ‘but we caught them just the same. No one can beat us. No one should or will beat us. And if they they do, it is because they cheated, and we will make them pay for what they have done.’

In the Big Lie, everyone is equal parts victim and avenger, and Trump’s rise was, for a large part of the American electorate, a moment of vengeance against political and social foes. His career has functioned as both a promise and a fulfillment of that revenge. For while Trumpism might promise to make America great again, there is also a sense of living that victory in the present through the Trumpist movement, that having Trump at the head of government and willing to fight un-American forces is a completion of his campaign slogan. For his followers, Trump’s loss is more than an ordinary political defeat–it is a complete reversal of fortune and the death of a revolution. If Trump represents what America should be, his defeat was, for his most diehard supporters, like watching the death of the American dream, or even America itself. Defeat simply made no sense. Confronted with existential stakes this high, many of his followers simply could not accept the reality of defeat, and the Big Lie told them they should not.

Biden’s win should not have been a shock, of course. Even though recent analysis of pre-election polls has revealed that the polling error in 2020 was the worst in forty years, Biden led Trump consistently in head-to-head surveys beginning in September 2019 and continued to do so all the way to Election Day. Despite a massive polling error, the scenario the polls pointed to as the most likely outcome–a Trump loss–came to pass, albeit much more narrowly than expected. Trump could have still won the presidency had only a handful of states he lost gone his way, but his defeat was not surprising to anyone who lived outside of the secondary world of the Big Lie. But like the German High Command in the last months of the First World War, Trump and his campaign insisted on the inevitability of victory despite obvious indications to the contrary, even going so far as to brand defeat inherently illegitimate. Trump began to personally cast doubt on the 2020 election’s integrity in tweets as early as April 2020, and as the months passed, denial of defeat and hostility toward the election became a prominent theme in his stump speeches, where, the campaign hoped, it would motivate a massive voter turnout that would repeat Trump’s surprise 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. At a rally on August 17, 2020, for instance, Trump told the crowd to “make sure your vote gets counted. Make sure because the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

The results of this antidemocratic denialism are as predictable as they are unsettling. Primed by months of propaganda to see Trump’s victory as inevitable or defeat as counterfeit, Trump’s most loyal supports found the president’s loss impossible to accept. There was, they said, “no way in hell” Trump could have lost. A poll just a week after the election found that “70% of Republicans […] say they don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair,” and that belief has only hardened in the intervening months. In a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted in March and released in May 2021, “two-thirds (66%) of Republicans agree that the election was stolen,” compared with only twenty-nine percent of the general American public. And a Yahoo News survey conducted from late June to early August 2021 produced identical results: “66 percent of Republicans continue to insist that ‘the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.'” The durability of belief in the Big Lie testifies to the sealed atmosphere of rightwing media and the essential role the Big Lie has assumed in the conservative movement. Trumpism spun a reality that allows no outside air, no doubt or disbelief. Trump’s loss was and remains incomprehensible to those invested in the Big Lie and the fight against un-American forces it embodies. With no permissible ideological offramp, there has been nowhere for believers to go except further into the Trump movement’s emotional theater of cultural warfare, conspiracy, and grievance.

On January 6, metaphorical warfare became real as the apocalyptic promise of Trump’s post-election rhetoric achieved a new urgency ahead of Congress’s certification of the election results, the final ceremonial act that would seal Trump’s defeat. Trump himself sensed this tension and fed it in his speech from the Ellipse before the storming of the Capitol. “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by radical-left Democrats,” Trump told the crowd just before the mob stormed the Capitol, “which is what they’re doing.” Once again raising the issue of statue removal (“You know they wanted to get rid of the Jefferson Memorial,” he says, and “they’ll knock out Lincoln, too”) as shorthand for a leftist assault on culture, Trump casts the conflict as an existential test of the American spirit, but one that confirms that the country belongs to Trump Republicans and not to the leftist ‘them’ represented by the Democratic Party and the incoming administration. “Our country has had enough,” he says, and “our election was over at 10 o’clock in the evening” when Trump was “leading Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia.” All the votes counted later, votes predominantly from Democratic or minority voters, are illegitimate, and their victory is the final act in a “siege” of American society that had begun long before Trump’s presidency: “our country has been under siege for a long time,” Trump said on January 6, “far longer than this four-year period.” The eruption of violence at the US Capitol following this speech would make clear just how far Trump’s followers would go to prevent the loss of ‘their’ America, and just how seriously they saw the threat, and how closely they believed their fortunes were tied to their president’s.

Since the insurrection, Trump and his allies have worked to portray the assault on the Capitol as either “a normal tourist visit” to Washington, or as a peaceful protest by “a loving crowd.” None of this stands up to the briefest scrutiny or a look at the brutal and disturbing footage from the attack. But statements like these are revealing nonetheless. Because when viewed from within the Big Lie, the crowd’s physical violence and property damage are acts of love, but only for the world the lie exists to protect. Storming the Capitol, breaking its windows, smearing the Capitol Rotunda with feces, and lounging in ransacked offices are public displays of allegiance and commitment to the cause of Trump’s America and his exhortation just before the attack to “show strength,” to “be strong,” and to “fight like hell,” because they would “never take back our country with weakness.” If the government, and perhaps the state itself, are tainted and fraudulent, then tearing them down in the service of truth is an act of duty and affection. To people outside of the myth, the extreme violence and the chants of “traitor” aimed at the Capitol and Metropolitan Police, and promises of retribution against members of the United States Congress, and even Trump’s own vice president, are unconscionable acts of civic and social betrayal. But for those inside the secondary world of the Big Lie, they are a ritual of truth-telling and purification. The police officers, Senators, House members, and the vice president–all who stood in the way of the Trumpist movement of American renewal–had chosen the wrong side. They had made common cause with forces intent on upending or destroying American history and values–they had, to quote Otto Dibelius, “extend[ed] the hand of peace to foreigners in careless trust” (qtd. in Niess: 40). As such, they had earned “a hard judgement from the hands of the just God” (qtd. in Niess: 41). Indeed, movement and God are fused in the believers’ minds, so that the lie becomes a point of access to greater truths and a transcendent personal mission. To assault the Capitol was to turn Hagen’s spear at the last second, to secure forever the truth of an America that exists outside of time and for its own glory, and for the good of those who worship it, and only for them.

Given the cult-like belief the Big Lie inspires in its adherents, it is safe to assume that it is not going anywhere, and the racial nationalism we are facing in the secondary world the right has created is a longterm if not permanent fixture in American life and politics. It is also fair to assume that the Big Lie and its carrier movement, Trumpism, will not deescalate. In all likelihood, it will continue the trajectory of radicalization and hardening antidemocratic sentiment that began in earnest during the protests and riots in the summer of 2020, and which assumed existential importance to the movement in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the 2020 election. For Trumpism or the Big Lie to recede, or for its rhetoric or posture to relax, would require outside reality to intrude upon the internal universe that constitutes it, a process that would essentially mean its death. It is a sealed ecosystem, and as such, it is a radicalization engine; the deeper an initiate goes, the more connections they make between the plots, angles, characters, locations, and motivations that make up the conspiracies, the more committed and the more convinced they become. The more a person indulges in the Big Lie, the more a person becomes like the lie.

All of this raises the question of what we can or should do about it. I have no answers to that, but I will venture a guess. The situation has deteriorated too far, and the lies have become too engrained and self-perpetuating in political discourse for fact-checking to dislodge them. To combat the Big Lie and the Trumpist movement that nurtures it, we need to unmake the universe the lie has constructed, but not through facts because outside information that challenges the lie are are not permitted inside the believer’s reality. The most effective, and perhaps the only way to counter the Big Lie and its authoritarian ambitions is to build another world around it, to offer an alternative, positive set of assumptions about civic life, history, power, and society that are affirming, and which speak to people’s need for belonging and a sense of shared destiny. The ongoing arguments and hyperbole surrounding public health measures to end the COVID-19 pandemic make it abundantly clear that for some on the right, the idea of a shared mission–and perhaps even of society itself–no longer exists. There is no future in which persuasion by facts or storytelling talks the millions of committed election deniers and conspiracy theorists out of the secondary world that they have made for themselves. But we may be able to keep others from finding it and from mistaking the untruths they find there for truth.

We may not fully succeed, but if history tells us anything, it is that we cannot afford to fail. In 1945, German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno wrote that “a German is a person who cannot say a lie without believing it” (124). Of all the similarities between present-day America and 20th-century Germany, this is the one we can avoid, the one we must avoid. Because a country that believes in lies will make war on the truth, and ultimately, on those who tell it.


Hindenburg blames Germany’s defeat on the Stab-in-the-Back before parliament (qtd. in Ulrich):

“Ein englischer General sagte mit recht: Die deutsche Armee ist von hinten erdolcht worden. Den guten Kern des Heeres trifft keine Schuld. Wo die Schuld liegt, ist klar erwiesen. Bedurfte es noch eines Beweises, so liegt er in dem angeführten Ausspruche des englischen Generals und in dem maßlosen Erstaunen unserer Feinde über ihren Sieg.”

Major General Frederick Maurice denies saying the German army was betrayed (qtd in Urlich):

“Ich habe niemals an irgendeiner Stelle die Meinung Ausdruck verliehen, dass der Kriegsausgang der Tatsache zu verdanken ist, dass das deutsche Heer vom deutschen Volk rückwärts erdolcht worden sei. Im Gegenteil habe ich immer die Meinung vertreten, dass die deutschen Armeen an der Westfront am 11. November 1918 eines weiteren Kampfes nicht mehr fähig waren.”

Ernst Troeltsch describes the Stab-in-the-Back (qtd. in Niess: 40):

“Man schafft eine Legende, wonach Ludendorff das Reich noch habe retten können und wollen, aber die Revolution seine Absichten durchkreuzt und die internationale Sozialdemokratie dem Reich den Genickfang mit Freuden gegeben habe. Alles Elend komme von der Revolution, die keine nationale Gesinnung und Moral habe und sich der charakterlosen jüdischen Demokratie um den Hals werfe. Dass das alles Widersinn, Unwahrheit oder gar offenkundige Lüge ist, kümmert sich die Leute nicht.”

Otto Dibelius condemns the revolution and endorses the Stab-in-the-Back (qtd. in Niess: 40-41):

“Ein Volk, das seinem eigenen Heere den Dolch in den Rücken gestoßen hat, ein Volk, das seine Brüder und Schwestern preisgegeben hat, um den Fremden in leichtsinnigem Vertrauen die Friedenshand hinzustrecken, ein Volk, das seine furchtbare Niederlage mit Streiks und Tanzvergnügungen feiert […] ein solches Volk hat ein hartes Gericht verdient von den Händen des gerechten Gottes.”

Hindenburg compares Germany’s defeat to Siegfried’s murder in Das Nibelungenlied (qtd. in Wittstock):

“Wie Siegfried unter dem hinterlistigen Speerwurf des grimmigen Hagen, so stürzte unsere ermattete Front […].”

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The King in the Circular Court

I wrote a poem about what? And why?

I’m almost certain it’s a rule that anyone who writes a 269-line poem about anything has to give their reasons for doing so, along with their thoughts on the matter, in much the same way that someone who ate an entire birthday cake solo would be asked to account for themselves. But if you want to treat this post like an online recipe where I go on and on about how I fell in love with tomatoes during my semester abroad in college before deigning to give you the pasta recipe, feel free to skip this and go straight to the poem below. No hard feelings, I understand.

I can’t say exactly when I decided to write about the pandemic as an apocalyptic fairytale in the style of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th-century alliterative English poem about King Arthur’s young cousin making good on his promise to allow a green giant to cut off his head, but I did. And I know that when the idea occurred to me, it seemed like the most logical thing to do. After nine months of wrangling with the form and structure of the poem, though, I can say that I was very wrong. The King in the Circular Court, the result of all this work, is probably the most illogical writing project I’ve ever undertaken. It was a crazy thing to do.

I may not know when the idea came to me, but I do know why I followed through with it. I knew early on that I wanted to write about the pandemic, that I needed to write about the the pandemic, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I knew I didn’t want to write a conventional story because I didn’t think I would be able to capture what I wanted. I wouldn’t be able to bottle the dread and existential bafflement that have been my default emotional state for the past year and more as I’ve watched the deaths of unimaginable numbers of people, and along with them the very idea of society and a collective belief in the importance of empathy and solidarity as shared values. I also knew I had no interest in an essay because, well, the world has enough of those already. But the world doesn’t have enough alliterative verse. The galloping gait and drumming drone of alliterative poetry feels old, like it’s crawled out of granite smelling of peat smoke, struggle, and nameless things in a fog bank. Alliteration is the monster’s music, and if the pandemic isn’t Grendel stalking our mead halls, intent on butchering those inside and breaking our benches, I don’t know what is. If I was going to write about the pandemic, I realized that I could only do it in language heavy with centuries and ringing with a mail shirt. This made sense to me as I sat locked in my apartment during the summer of 2020, and it still makes sense to me now as we pull ourselves into the spring of 2021 on our hands and knees with our eyes fixed on a hopeful future. Grendel is still hunting us, but there’s a ship on the horizon.

The King in the Circular Court is not a poem about hope, though, nor is it particularly hopeful. I don’t believe in people who write things telling the reader what the work is supposed to mean because, most of the time when I write something, I don’t know what it means. I can say for certain that I was not in a good place when I wrote it, and that it reflects the distilled essence of my mood and feelings toward what has been one of the worst periods in modern human history, and one of the most difficult times in my life. I also know working on it put me in a strange place emotionally. I went whole months in the winter when the pandemic was at its worst without touching it because mining my despair and spending hours beating it into jewelry while dealing with the raw facts of a plague in my rational life was not a pleasant and completely healthy thing to do. Ultimately, though, it was something that I had to do. As difficult and frustrating, draining and downright depressing as it was, writing this insanely long and involved poem was a necessity. I didn’t have control over it: I just did what it told me to do and hoped that it would be finished eventually, because I knew I couldn’t stop until it was done. And now it is.

I have tried to keep to the form that the nameless author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hereafter called the Gawain Poet) used, albeit with some changes. For one, I have used a lot more alliteration than the Gawain Poet. Like him, I’ve constructed the poem around the repetition of consonant sounds in stressed syllables, but where he generally limited himself to 3 to 4 alliterative syllables per line, I…have not. The only defense I have for this is, when you have good words lined up, you use them. And it was fun. Sometimes going overboard is the best way to dive in. I’ve also arranged the poem in sections like he did, with no set limits on how many there should be, or how long they should be. And like the Gawain Poet, I’ve set no fixed meter to lines; sometimes they’re longer, sometimes they’re shorter. Lines begin and end where and when I feel like they should. I have also kept the goddamn “bob and wheel” at the end of each section. I could go on and on about the brutal poetic brass knuckle that is the bob and wheel, but I’ll keep it short: the “bob” is a short line, usually 1 or 2 syllables, followed by “the wheel,” a 4-line rhyming verse of 3 stressed syllables per line. And 2 of the stressed syllables have to alliterate. I did every single one of these wrong initially and had to go back and rewrite them, more than once. I loved that. The only thing I consciously did that may deviate from the form of the original (I don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of medieval English poetry to say for sure) is my decision that all vowels alliterate with each other. This is a rule stolen from Old Norse poetry, which is also based on alliteration. I did this because I could, and because I realized it got me out of a tight spot if I couldn’t think of any other way to alliterate in a line. Finally, there are undoubtedly mistakes in the poem, where the scheme breaks down or where I miscount syllables in a line. I would ask you kindly to keep those to yourself, not because it particularly bothers me that there are mistakes (the Gawain Poet committed similar errors–he occasionally added a fourth syllable to lines in the wheel, for example–and if the master can do it, so can I), but because knowing about of them would tempt me to go back and fix them. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go full George Lucas on it, where I tinker with a piece of art forever in the vain hope of making it perfect. You can’t, and sometimes you just have to let go. The thing is what is, you have to accept that, and part of acceptance is choosing to look past flaws and toward the good in the imperfect whole you’ve chosen to spend your time with. Ask anyone in a relationship.

I don’t know if The King in the Circular Court is any good. I’ve spent too many hours with mental tweezers arranging the food on the plate to really know what it tastes like. But I do know that I’m proud of it, and that I did the best I could within parameters the work set for me. These days, I can’t think of a better metaphor than that.

Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

The King in the Circular Court

Where the sea collided with the coast in a line of lime-white cliffs,
a king reigned high in a tower keep made of terraced stone.
It shimmered and shone like a sheet of water frozen in winter
and split the sky with an ivory splendor rich in spiteful elegance. 
Steep sapphire stairs ascended in nautilus spirals to tall balconies
cut from enormous emeralds and studded with perfect precious stones
that gleamed in the sun that set like a shining red shield behind
brooding blue mountains that crouched in the far misted distance.
Rooks roosted under alabaster eaves and fed their young pearls 
and red gold rings burnished to reflect their blue wings and black beaks.
And around the tower, like a torc of woven silver wire, 
a moat of still water guarded the gates and protected the precious man 
who sat uncaring and unchanging in the center of his circular court,
like a thrall chained to cherished rages, upon a throne of polished 
            black bone.
Marble and moldering bones
wrapped the ruler in praise
away from the world and its moans
that told a tale of disgrace.

For the fields were barren with pestilent frost that bruised and broke
stalks of golden wheat and soured violet grapes on gnarled vines.
The rivers, dammed by dark slime, slowed to sluggish thick pools 
that swarmed with biting locusts armored in bright shining lapis shells.
Leaves, burned brittle by cold and blighted by callous drought and disease,
curled into paper cups that waited to catch the cold poisoned rain
that blew away on cruel winds to fall in sheets upon the wide salt sea.
The folk of the realm, desperate for a defender, gathered together and begged 
in the shadow of the spire, but found the shade of its fabled heights 
bitter cold and unkind; they shivered in its shelter and huddled for warmth
against the damp darkness that numbed their limbs and gnawed their senses. 
The tower's royalty erased them like a shard of an eclipse shucked from the sky
and laid against the late glaring sun in the forest green grass. 
Whether from the field, the fold, or the fastness of a fort town,
the people felt the king's foul nature, his hungry grasp, in its grandeur 
and feared there was small help and tenderness housed in hands as hard
            as those.
They waited for word from the court,
for a path to peace, an ending.
In answer, only the report    
of craven carols and sinning.             

Knights held tourney with token swords in the tall tower,
and their blunt wooden blades and white paper bodkins 
conjured a counterfeit battle din that mimicked bravery.
This pleased the king and kindled the fire of his fantasy,
so that titles tumbled from his wagging tongue at a whim.
He dressed the court in drab pretense cut from royal purple cloth:
the king created a Count of Drippings and a Duke of Custard,
a Baron of Gravy and a Marquis of Bread, men who knelt low
in craven supplication and played at noble postures and pledged
themselves to him in devoted service unto death or dread disaster.
A minstrel played a march upon piles of split marrow bones, and
food festered on pockmarked tables or in putrid puddles underfoot.
Rats ran free and carried off rolls of rich black rye to their dens 
like knights who nick secrets from a serpent's beloved hoard. 
And like a worm, the king's retinue wound themselves around their loot,
their trove of ill-gotten luxury, lusted over it with ancient avarice, 
and warded it with souls wasted by ease and scoured by arrogance. 
Broken bottles spilled brooks of sour wine and wet red throats
that roared bawdy ballads woven from malicious meter and sang
sour lays composed by hearts pickled by comfort in the circular 
Windows painted in perfect
and splendid spring scenes
masked the hateful music
and the sound of sobbing screams.

The tower was too tall, the townspeople thought, the stones too thick,
for His Highness to hear them so far below near the lapping waves.
For surely if their sovereign could see their need and sense their cares,
he would rouse himself to help them, he would raise a ring-heavy hand
pregnant with mercies that hung from his palms like ripe plums 
and wipe worry from their brows and crown their heads with blessings.
So the people decided to ascend to the king in his circular court,
to seek succor at the foot of his regal throne fashioned from bone
and to hear wise words and healing spells echo in the hall of stone.
They began to gather their chaff, the bodies and broken days 
ground to grist and dry memory by the poisoned air and misery.
They brought it all together on sleds or slung over bowed shoulders,
then they donned their finest, their feathered caps and fringed dresses:
coins jingled on shirts and shining red sashes cut like jagged slashes 
across leather smocks and crisp cotton shirts white like winter snow. 
Mouths sucked meat from lean bones that leaked marrow dust
and drank brackish water from drinking skins brittle with mold 
as dogs slunk into thickets to sleep in dry nests of sharp sticks among
            the thorns.
Hunger chewed their cheeks 
and chapped their children's lips,
but the heart holds when it seeks
a way from woe to happiness.                         

Hard hands stacked cow on cart, built stairs from piles of bodies
and raised wooden walls black with ash and riddled with rank rot 
in a blighted monument, which they set with skulls that baked in the sun.
Craftsmen fashioned gables from gristle and fastened them to the tower
with twisted twine, and carrion birds perched upon them and feasted.
Villagers raised their voices and sang songs rich with rhymes from better times,
and when the sun sank behind the hills, they lit dancing fires and worked
by starlight through the dark night and into the shadowless noon the next day.
As their work grew, they hoisted a long ladder high against the tower's 
swaying side and climbed together, hand in hand and sworn to a shared destiny,
in a snaking line that wound its way with slow steps up the sloping walls
of the wretched spire that pierced the horizon like a shining, black bone needle.
The sound of songs climbed to the wide windows that ringed the king's court,
those sightless eyes that saw clouds in clear skies and slights in acts of kindness. 
The people's hopes trailed behind them like pennants trimmed in gold 
and embroidered with ancient arms sewn by hands scarred by heavy sacrifice.
And they offered them up with a pauper's pride as homage to their thane on
            his throne.
The sounds silenced the feast
and marred the merry games,
and His Highness howled as a beast
at the tower that tarnished his name.

The spire grew, spiraling upward into tall crimson clouds.
As it rose, it laid a cold dark dusk across the lavish scenes 
of eternal spring frozen in iron frames and icy tinted glass 
that painted the circular court into a garish, pantomime garden
with a prism pallet of light and lingering summer cloud shadow.
Knights dropped their dull swords and tore their tattered doublets
while the nobles fell to threadbare knees as a frightful new night 
crawled across the tabletops to darken their gilded silver plates. 
The minstrel misstruck the marrowbones with a mighty mallet 
made from mistletoe, and the courtiers quailed and clogged their ears 
with wax and mewling whines against the ghastly music, this 
unwelcome honesty, that unwound the bloody spell the quisling king 
had worked upon their world with worm-eaten promises from his purse
            of lies. 
The king cried and sobbed
at the thieves who threatened the sight
of his majesty, made from mirages 
that gilded his gangrenous life.                   

The whalebone turret of terraced stone and the stark, wailing spike
stood like feuding twins together, stock still with bated breath;
they waited abreast for the first shots like ships drawn up in battle lines.
Peasants and paupers peered out into the evening with milky eyes,
and merchants searched through looking glasses of mirrored silver,
but there was no evidence of a king's power, no imposing princely office,
not even servants to hear their case or to hand down careful judgement.
They found a single, sad figure, enveloped by venomous jealousy.
It was a supine shade of fleeting aspect and a shriveled, flayed conscience
who slinked slithered among cheap treasures and languished alone
surrounded by suitors brimming with broad smiles and pleasing compliments.
The people saw nobles and knights kneel in silent worship of an empty seat,
of a trick of light that sat trundled in velvet, bodiless and bound by his will
to trays of tin coins and mounds of toy soldiers minted with adoring faces
that smiled upon this pockmarked kingdom that clung to the edge of ruin.
It had been forged in royal envy of an enemy forgotten by the rest of the realm,
but which haunted the high chambers of the churlish king and cursed 
            the world.
The sovereign was the servant in the tower,
he knelt to another lord.
For fear was the prince and the power
among the men in the court.

Fear whipped the king into a keening fury with phantom flails.
It maimed His Majesty's reason and gathered ghosts to stalk
his mind's eye and dance taunting steps to soft gut strings that sawed
the air with artless scales and scored his back with biting notes.
The sovereign's soul bloomed with wicked wounds, bloodless welts
that dripped with bitter doubts black as bile and thick like pitch.
He yowled at the stinging pain, the yawning streaks of raw red meat
that he hid under heavy robes and the incantation of royal titles.
But the blows ate at him, egged him on to greater blasphemies;
they were worms in his wits, engineers of hag-ridden spite that hollowed
out his breast and left poisoned paths through the hole that languished, 
blistered with rust, behind brittle ribs and bloodless skin as thin as paper.
Fear came to the king, crooked in its cloak and crawling on long hands
stained with hemlock and trailing stunted legs behind it in the thresh. 
It whispered devilish vendetta in its earl's open ear and sang
hate-filled hymns against the growing tower that overshadowed 
the sight of the circular court, which sat so poor in power and purpose.
His Highness's hands shook and he shouted rancor at the spire,
that specter that spread like a clotted bruise across the untroubled 
scenes of sunlit spring that he idolized, and which hid his hatred of
Courtiers cowered in silence
as their ruler dropped his robes
and leapt with vicious violence
from the tower into the unknown.                    

The people moaned with relief as their lord landed with majesty,
crowned in shining, shimmering jewels that mimicked the sun,
danced with captured daylight, and wove a wreath around his face.
But the brilliance blinded the rabble, those famished farmers,
to the bloodlust that drove their lord and whet is taste for waste and war.
Still, they went to him, weathered hands and hearts hungry for answers,
hopeful in a hopeless task, heedless of the man and his hardened misery.
For though they laid their layman's needs at his feet and kissed his filigreed rings
with practiced fealty, he could not deign to hear of their dire hardships
with the demeanor that a monarch's precious crown promised his people.
The crowd could not see the seething tempest in his mind that made darkened 
mirrors of men's faces and enemies from glad glances and open hands.
For in all the praise they pressed upon their prince, the petitioners did not say
his name, and the silence sawed at his sunken breast, tore it open, and touched
the hard-shelled, bloodless boil that hung where a heart should have beat.
When His Grace finally began to speak, the people paused and hushed to hear
the comfort they craved, and which comes from a king that acts with kindness.
But kindness is the fruit of a life lived in a world wider than itself,
and there was no such bounty in the bones of the beast that brooded before them.
His Majesty lamented his lot, the unfairness of his failure, and he yelled
bitter hexes into his people's faces and heaped damnation upon their heads
            like coals.
For longing looks of grief
stirred no sorrow or sadness.
The only sight he could see
was his envy in all its vastness.

When his curses grew stale, the king struck out with his great sword:
he cut a crystal crescent in the angry air, ranting as he cleaved
strong broad backs, split heads, and hewed hands from empty arms.
He laid whole families low in his fanatical one-sided feud--
rivulets of red-black blood ran down the twisted tower's side,
and he reveled in the slick-floored slaughter; he was the slayer of slander. 
He counted the drops of blood that dripped from his biting blade
and called them rubies, and the wide wounds he cut across cowering
bodies became veins of gold gleaned from from weather-worn stones.
Calls for mercy were music tuned to his name, holy recognition
of his station and the star-blessed favor of his good fortune and grace.
But the silence of the dead was the sweetest song and he filled it with worship.
He swung his weapon until the top of the tower rippled with red waves
whipped by the wind off the sea that beat against the bone-white cliffs.
And when none were left to fall, when all false-hearted voices were vanquished,
the king piled the people's bodies atop the tower in a leaning, woeful cairn,
a spear of blood and bone that scraped the sky and surpassed at last
his own looming tower and court in stature and malignant cowardice.
And once his dread work was done, when dusk finally darkened 
the matching minarets, the king began to climb and crawl over the corpses 
like a spitting viper, spiraling and pregnant with poison, up
            a tree.
At the top of the tower, he glorified
in triumph and the pride of his place
as the mightiest of men, a storied
hero hallowed by fate.                                   

As the king stood, straight-backed, blood-smeared, and haughty,
a wind whirled up from the savage sea and blew against the tower.
Courtiers gawked, wide-eyed and envious through glazed springtime glass,
cheered their chosen lord and sheltered in his long cold shadow.
His victory was their virtue, his power their pleasure, and they wept
for their forever-king, who was elegant in brutality and brilliantly cruel.
The prince heard their chants and his chest swelled with his child's pride,
for what value was love when lust bred such devotion in hungry men?
He gloated, glowing, and the wind grew to a gale and whistled through the gables
that were set with teeth gilded with gold from treasures taken from
burned houses and barren huts; the wealth of forgotten villages shook.
The tyrant staggered and stumbled and the terrible building bowed
in the boiling storm, but bedlam knights proclaimed with vicarious bravado
from open windows that their lord would live to the world's last days;
no storm would stop him. no man could match him, no will would bend him,
for vice was the currency of valor, and no king was richer than he.
But what is princely power against the strength of a gathering storm?
The wind tore at the side of the tower, rattled roofs and tumbled bricks
in answer to the infant-king's arrogance--awnings fell and boards cracked,
glass broke and gables bent, skulls fell from their fittings and thresh blew
from chinks in the walls in waltzing curls that danced like fresh-plucked down.
A groan rose from the guts of the spire and tremors gripped the tyrant,
who answered the fear with curses cut from the same shroud that draped
the still forms that lay folded at his feet in final understanding.
But the tower splintered, its spine broken, brought down by a purpose the prince
could not counter or conquer, could not whip or wound or lay low with scorn.
His royal roost atop the dead loosened and leaned, then tottered, tipped and fell.
The once-ruler reached his hands, rich with royal rings, to shapes as he plummeted--
he grasped at gargoyles worked from wood, held to crenellations that crumbled
at his touch, and he howled at the hands that hung hard and empty to halt him.
But they could not hear his dire hardships, nor do as he hoped--they scored his skin
stripped his robes from his round shoulders and tore his velvet tunic from his body.
The king fell in a freshet of fine gems, bare-chested and bellowing victory songs.
He denied the certainty that descended on his dreams, damned at last by himself.
For His Highness was caught in a cage woven from his wonton wrath and sealed
by a lock wrought from petty reasons and closed by a key cast from fleeting moods.
But in this at last he was lord and master, for his miserable fate was his work alone, and
             our doom.
Marble and moldering bones
had wrapped the ruler in praise
and made him a monarch of woes,
a king crowned by disgrace.                

Brandon’s Trash Cinema Guide, Ep. 1

To help us through this period of altruistic boredom, I’m happy to announce the first episode of BRANDON’S TRASH CINEMA GUIDE!
In this episode, some pointers for selecting just the right boilerplate ripoff, schlock disaster, and ham-fisted drama to brighten these dark days.
1. When in doubt, go Italian. Chances of finding a “good” movie are about 50/50, but while the risks are high, the rewards are even higher. What you can count on, though, is that the gore effects, and maybe the costumes, will be great, because that’s literally the only thing they’ll spend money on. Acting? No. Directing? No. Plot? What’s that? Go Italian. Avante!
1A: If you find an Italian barbarian movie, especially from the early 80s, stop looking and start watching. Your work here is done.
2. Don’t watch bad movies just to laugh at them or to “see everything they did wrong.” This doesn’t mean you can’t laugh at them, because let’s be honest, you’re going to be watching some truly incompetent movies; it’s OK to acknowledge it’s bad or when things go south. But dismissiveness or pretension are not very healthy ways to go about art, or anything, really. It’s mean, and close-mindedness isn’t a fun game, and it’s certainly not something you should practice. Try to meet the movies on their own terms. Sure, a lot of them are shameless and cynical cash-ins, but a lot of them are also genuine works of passion by the people who (tried) to make them. They’re bursting with enthusiasm, and interacting with that can be rewarding. Also, many of these movies will be surprisingly competent and interesting as films, especially in the directing department. You can get a lot out of them, so don’t hamstring yourself from the start by deciding to be a dick. Don’t be a dick.
3. Prepare yourself for a robust degree of sexism. We’re not talking about “problematic” things here, but truly creepy and not OK. That’s one of the prices you pay for this “hobby” (pathology, personality flaw, debilitating addiction?). Teachers sleeping with their students IN THE DORM, after which the student says “see you in class,” and it’s all played like it’s normal? Yeah, that’s going to happen. Prepare yourself. It’s going to be a ride.
4. In monster movies, the real monster is always sexuality, and almost always (but not always always) female sexuality.
5. All Hammer and TROMA movies are worth your time. You may hate yourself afterwards, like when you ate that entire family-sized bag of chips by yourself in one sitting, but if we’re honest, you had no regrets. You loved it.
6. Early- to mid-90s action and sci-fi films are a safe harbor. Chances of success here are high, especially if the scenes are bathed in blue or green light. Don’t ask me what this means, because I don’t know; it was just a stylistic fad at the time, and it usually signals a cheap movie that was plugged into the Zeitgeist, and also probably had no money and was trying to make up for cheap, sad sets by bathing them in “atmosphere.” It’s the Hamburger Helper of set design, and like the shit from the box, it stretches what you have into a filling meal.
7. If the actors look like they’re in disguise rather than in costumes, it’s going to be a good movie. They either raided a community theater prop closet or the crew brought things from their garages. But if the protagonist looks like they’re trying to “blend in” and conceal their identity because no one would actually wear…whatever that is, the movie’s probably going to be a goodie.
8. If the female protagonist is dressed all in weirdly ill-fitting leather, settle in. It’s going to be good.
9. If the title is [adjective] + women from [planet], you might have a winner. It’s worth trying.
10. The quality of a bad movie correlates directly to how much control one person had over the project. For example: if Matt Rowling just wrote the movie, but someone else directed and produced it, it’ll probably be not good, but not necessarily bad. But if Matt Rowling wrote AND produced it? Chances are good you’re dealing with someone who had a “vision,” and that’s almost always a bad (read: good) sign. And if he wrote, directed, AND produced it? This is just going to be amazing. Make some popcorn and snuggle up. The plane is taking off.
DEADLY INSTINCTS (1997): Category: Monster. An alien monster stalks a girl’s school and the local arts teacher takes matters into his own hands to destroy it. Remember that thing about teachers sleeping with students? Yeah, that’s from this movie. It’s great.
THE DEMOLITIONIST (1995): Category: Cop/Action/Superhero. Robocop ripoff about a sexy undead lady Robocop! Nanobot blood transfusions, questionable scientific
ethics, leather for days. It’s all here.
NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988): Category: Zombie/demon/high school slasher. This movie’s just great. Want to watch Dead Alive mixed with an 80s high school party movie with some batshit crazy scenes? This is it. This is the one. Just watch it.
PROJECT METALBEAST (1995): Category: Werewolf/super soldier. Dude injects himself with werewolf blood to become a perfect killing machine. That’s all you need to know. That’s it.
That should be enough to get you started. I’ll return in the next episode to give you some more recommendations. This has been BRANDON’S TRASH CINEMA GUIDE! Happy watching, everyone!

Anglo-Saxon Pop Sensation, Kenning Lōggīns

Scholarly bombshell!

Researchers at Oxford University have discovered an as yet unknown collection of Anglo-Saxon pop sensation Kenning Lõggīn’s work.

Until now, the 7-century poet’s songs and infectious summer hits have only been known through reconstructions based on allusions to his output in 9th- and 10th-century manuscripts, and, of course, through adaptations by modern pop and rock musicians. The recent discovery promises to shed light on one of the greatest wordsmiths of the English language.

Little is known of Lōggīns’ life. It is believed that he was born sometime in the late 500s and that he rose to prominence as a poet by the early 600s, perhaps in the court of King Rædwald, who is widely believed to be the inhabitant of the lavish Sutton Hoo burial mound. Like his lord, Lōggīns appears to have had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity, which began to find acceptance in the Anglo-Saxon world during his lifetime. By the time of his death sometime after 650, however, he had made peace with his new god, for according to later accounts found in a 10th-century manuscript, he was buried in a churchyard, though the location has now been lost.

Even his name is a mystery, since his byname Lōggīns is found nowhere else in English records. While no one has been able to establish a definitive origin for the name, the consensus among scholars is that “Lōggīns” is most likely derived from the Proto-Germanic “luk-,” for “lock,” or “tangle” and may ultimately be related to the Norse god Loki, whose name shares the same origin. In Loki’s case, it may be a reference to his tendency to confuse, to “cause knots.” Lōggīns’ contemporaries, likewise, may have been playing a bit of joke on their friend, whose linguistic games and love for kennings, or opaque metaphorical representations of objects (for example, Beowulf’s “whale-road” for the “the sea”) can make for challenging reading. His songs may have gotten men and women onto the dance floor, they seem to be saying, but the words can also be very confusing.

And what words they are!

Lõggīns wrote primarily in Eddic meter, a Scandinavian form of alliterative poetry composed of lines of two stressed syllables. All vowels alliterate, and consonant clusters like “sk” and “sp” and “sh,” and “sl” must alliterate with words beginning with the same sounds. Alliteration is also only allowed in stressed syllables. Yet in a show of individuality and playfulness unusual for his time, Lōggīns appears to have taken artistic license with the refrain. Truly, he was a master of his art.

Lōggīns’ form of poetry was a rarity in Anglo-Saxon England. Where he learned it is unknown, but scholars speculate that it could be the result of previously unattested cultural exchange between Scandinavia and the English kingdoms, or perhaps it was an independent development from the poetic forms the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought with them over the North Sea from their homeland in what is now northern Germany and southern Denmark. It is likewise unclear exactly how many songs he composed, but we can expect more to come to light now that we have what preliminary reports have described as a “comprehensive” collection and “a find of the century.”

What follows is a side-by-side comparison of Lõggīns’ To Danger’s Hall with singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone from the 1986 film Top Gun. (The similarity between their names is, as Prof. Lawrence Dunwich-White of Oxford’s Jesus College has said, one of the greatest coincidences in history). For their parts, Kenny Loggins, producer Giorgio Moroder, and songwriter Tom Whitlock have been open about the influence the 7th-century poet had on the development of the 80s smash hit Danger Zone, and the synchronicity in themes is indeed striking. What stands out, however, is the men’s skill in their chosen traditions and the vivid images and feelings they manage to evoke.

The literary world just got a little richer today. And that, as Kenning Lōggīns would surely agree, is worthy of song.

*Words to Kenny Loggin’s Danger Zone are courtesy of Google.

Danger's Hall Final


You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: A Vignette of Bar Survival

You’re sitting at the bar and you’re tired. You’re so tired that, for once in your life, you really don’t want to talk to anyone. All you want is beer and silence, and for a moment, as you watch the beginning of the UNC/Duke game in a dull, half-attentive sense of regional duty, there are hints that you might get it. But then you smell it: the perfume of sad desperation from the other end of the bar, wafting from the slumped figure of a man already several beers in at exactly five o’clock. You recognize the overeager interest in any and all conversation, the drunken enthusiasm for a stranger’s opinion, and the sudden expertise in esoterica of all kinds. You do not know this man, but you are certain he has not had culinary opinions about elk until today. And he is hungry, oh, so hungry, and he wants a meal. Bad.

You’re a natural mark for these kinds of people, the lonely, the castaways, the neglected and the grasping, but you don’t worry because there are other people here, the goodnatured bartender and a hemp farmer fresh from a business meeting. They are your line of defense, so you drink and pray that Duke loses, because you believe in justice and there’s no point shaking the indoctrination of a North Carolina childhood after this many years.

The bartender is the first to fall. He’s attentive–he nods at the right time and knows just when to say “that sucks, man,” or “oh, shit”–but behind his eyes he’s already gone. He’s just a body now, twitching like Sonny Corleone under a hail of bullets. All movement is an illusion; what life you see is nothing more than reflex. The hemp farmer with a taste for elk goes next: he entertains a clumsy monologue about gun rights, explains the benefits of hemp plastics, declares his eternal hatred for moles, voles, and ground squirrels, and sips his pluot jerkum until his pizza and bread sticks arrive. He begins to wilt when the man offers to “help” on the hemp farm with high-pitched eagerness, because they’re buddies, pals, the best of friends now. The hemp farmer sighs. You start to think about Chester and Spike and drink faster: you’ve dodged the bullet so far, but you can’t stay lucky forever. The hemp farmer finishes his jerkum, mumbles something about how it was nice to meet the man, and leaves. The man drones on about his job and he raises his voice. He glances over at you, but you suddenly discover a water stain on the copper bar and stare at it. You pray. A couple walks in and you exhale in relief: one of them is a beautiful woman–you are saved. You drink to Jesus, Thor, Vishnu, and Vonnegut.

The man turns to the couple and begins to ask questions. The woman is with her boyfriend, but he’s invisible. The man’s loneliness, stoked by beer, has mistaken itself for confidence. “What do you do,” he asks. She answers, and so does her boyfriend. The dual stimulus is confusing and the man speaks for a moment with the boyfriend until he remembers that his girlfriend has breasts. He likes breasts. “Do you have a sister,” he asks. You almost choke. You turn around, but there’s no fourth wall, no camera or gawking audience: this is real.”Yes,” she says, “but she’s pregnant.” A strange reply, but potentially effective in its unusualness. “She’s resisting,” you think. “Good. Resistance means time, and time means freedom.” The man is undeterred.  “Pregnant and single,” he asks. And just like that, you feel shame.

You try to shake it off, because it’s not yours, but homeless shame must find somewhere to go. The man can’t feel it, so it’s found you. You take a sip and wait for it pass. Some of it must have hit the girlfriend, because she musters a fake laugh and says: “you’re terrible!” The man doesn’t know what those words means anymore, so he leans in and begins to ask more questions. The boyfriend runs interference and he takes one in the shoulder. He laughs and begins to talk about his job. It’s boring, but the man loves it and they talk some more. You are still free. When their pizza comes, the couple moves to a table as far away from the man as they can get and begins to eat. The man, cast once again into the horizonless expanse of his aloneness, looks at you again. You focus on the TV and pray. A man walks in with a growler and you drink to Vonnegut again, because clearly he is the only god listening to this.

The man’s here for a growler fill. This is the merchant marine of the bar, pulling into port for fresh water before leaving again. He’s not here to stay, but the sudden appearance of a new target, however brief, brightens the man’s face. He assails the sailor with a few questions about what kind of beer he’s getting, pretends to have an opinion about it–“oh, yeah! That’s…a good one. Yeah. I like it.”–and strings together some words about growler technology, but the sailor is polite and noncommittal. He gets his beer and he leaves.

You’re alone now. The man glances over at you and begins to fidget. The bartender is out of the running–whatever they to say to each other has been said–and the hemp farmer has left with his pizza. The hot woman doesn’t have a hot pregnant single sister, and her boyfriend still exists despite trying to ignore him out of existence. It’s just you and him. You know what’s coming, so you pour the rest of your beer into your face as fast as you can and wander over to the fridges to find a beer to go. Staying here only invites awkwardness and the kind of forced conversation you came here to avoid in the first place. After a few minutes you find what you were looking for and head back to the bar.

The man has left his chair and plotted an intercept course. He catches you near your stool and looks at you in the eye. His face is on fire in that way only a drunk’s can be: it’s flushed and elastic and the eyes are wide, transformed from the dull cotton dryness of initial intoxication to manic whirlpools. He’s on the edge of a crash and holding on for dear life. “What’d you get,” he asks as he stands well inside your personal space. You hold up the can. “This,” you say. “Never had it before, but it’s supposed to be good. “Oh, yeah” he says blankly, “yeah.” With contact made, it’s only a matter of time now, so you stand at the bar screaming inside your head and raise your hand to get the bartender’s attention. The man makes his move. He leaves his seat and slides his beer along the bar over to the stool next to yours. The bartender takes the beer and moves to open it. “No,” you say, “to go.” The bartender looks at you with a flat expression and his words come out like sighs: “to go.” The bartender’s a nice guy, a friendly stoner with thick twisted locks and a lazy laugh, and he doesn’t deserve to be left with a gravity pit of sadness, but you have yourself to think about. This is not a time for altruism. You pay, wave to the bartender and leave. The man and the bartender watch with empty expressions as the door closes. You were their last line of defense and now you’re gone. And UNC is behind.

At the crosswalk you run into your neighbors walking their two Shetland ponies on leashes. You coo at the horses as they pass and your neighbors scowl and bark a greeting. Lingering only invites awkwardness and the kind of forced conversation they came here to avoid in the first place. They’re a mark for this kind of person, the lonely, the castaway, the neglected and the grasping, but they don’t worry because they have each other and the light is short. This is not a time for altruism. On the other side of the street you catch the smell of meat from an open bar door and wonder if that’s what elk smells like. And just like that, you’re hungry. Oh, so hungry.

Three Conversations with Ape and Canine

One: T.C.O.B.

Setting. Home, a one-bedroom apartment. The weekend. Enter APE to find CANINE hunched over a piece of paper.

APE: What’s that?

CANINE: It’s my to-do list.

APE: You can write?

CANINE: I know, I’m as surprised as you are.

APE: What’s it say?

CANINE: How should I know? I can’t read.

APE: Can I see it?

(APE Picks up list)

APE: “Eat.”

CANINE: Obviously.

APE: Obviously.

APE, cont’d: “Sleep.”

CANINE: Can’t have too much of that.

APE: Or food.

CANINE: You get it.

APE: “Bark and/or howl at noises. Addendum: wake him up in terror.”

CANINE: That’s a classic.

APE: Hmm.

(APE squints at list)

APE, cont’d: “Step on”…what’s this word?

CANINE: “Balls”

APE: “Step on balls?” Why would you write that?!

CANINE: It’s something to do. It’s on my to-do list.

APE: Right, but…why is it there? Why would you do that?

CANINE: I don’t understand the question.


(CANINE leaps into APE’s lap, right onto his balls. APE grabs CANINE and starts to pet her)

CANINE: I have my reasons.


Setting: Home. Night. The TV is on, the lights are off. CANINE and APE are snuggled in a chair.

CANINE: We’ve seen this before. Is there anything else on?

APE: What are you talking about? This is the best.

CANINE: I like the second one more.

APE: What? Are you–– Are you crazy? The first one’s totally better.

CANINE: This is the one with the dog, right?

APE: Yeah, here it comes right––


APE: Je-sus! Calm down! We’ve seen this at least a hundred times. You know––

CANINE: Hey, when’s the dog show up? I like him, though his performance is a little… flat. I have a hard time believing it.

APE: Just…eat some popcorn.

CANINE: It’s OK, I had some poop earlier.

APE: You’re not full.

CANINE: You’re right, I’m not.


Setting: The street. Evening. It’s fall. APE and CANINE are taking a walk.

CANINE chewing.

APE: Are are you eating?

CANINE: I have no idea.

APE: Is it safe?


APE: Spit it out!


APE: Spit it out!


APE: Spit it––

CANINE: Too late! It’s gone!

APE: You remember what happened last time?

CANINE: Can’t say I do, no.

APE: You threw up in the middle of the night.

CANINE: That never happened.

APE: And then you ate it.

CANINE: Oh, right. It was still warm and––

APE: Jesus. Stop. Just–– Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

CANINE: About what?

APE: About what you just ate.

CANINE: What’d I just eat?

APE: You wouldn’t let me see it!

CANINE: That doesn’t sound like me.

APE: It sounds exactly like you.

CANINE: I feel a little attacked right now. Are you sure you’re all right?

APE: Look…can we just finish our walk? I have to cook dinner.

CANINE: Dinner?! Yes!

APE: You just ate, like, ten seconds ago.

CANINE: Mmmm, no.

APE: All right…that’s…we’re going home. I have to cook.

CANINE: What are you going to make? Can I have some?

APE: No.

CANINE : Can I have some?

APE: No.

CANINE: Can I have some?

APE: Sure.

CANINE: What is it?!

APE: Probably just a salad.

CANINE: Oh. Well…never mind. They don’t settle well with me. Remember what happened last time.

APE: Nothing happened last time.

CANINE: I know. What’s the point of that?

One Last Meal

Celebrity grief often feels like a transgression to me, like an ill-advised prayer to a pantheon of gods you know you should stay away from. And at a time when we have made an eldritch, malicious fame vampire our carnival barker-king, mourning Anthony Bourdain’s death – hitching your emotions to the cult of the moving picture and commodity personalities – feels shallow, and maybe even a little dangerous. But feelings are deceptive and not always true. They can talk you out of what you should know and, as they appear to have done with Bourdain, they can convince you that what you believe you know is true, that some nameless ghost knocking at the inside of your mind is more real than what’s in front of you, and that it’s inescapable.

So I’ve sat with my feelings and have been trying to understand why Bourdain’s death has cast such a deep shadow for me, why it has felt more real than all other other things in front of me, all the deaths and calamities I read about and shrug off. Some of this no doubt has to do with my own smallness, that worn and personal provincialism we all live with but ignore. But it is also true that Bourdain meant something to me, that the work he did, and the messy and stubborn curiosity with which he did it, has been real for me in ways I don’t think I appreciated, not until it was gone.

Bourdain wielded a curiosity married to an unsentimental appraisal of the raging, farting, electric shit show of human existence that, though often couched in acerbic wit and sneering contempt, was ultimately idealistic, and even tender. He didn’t just acknowledge the essential nonsense and wall-eyed absurdity of living; he appreciated it, and accepted and cherished it for what it was. In “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the New Yorker article that would launch his unlikely literary career, he paints a picture of the professional kitchen as a collection of human offal and social flotsam, a pocket battleship manned by pirates who are fundamentally dysfunctional but unequivocally alive. “I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life,” he writes, “the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam.” There was something of the German Gossendichter, the “gutter poet,” in how he encountered life, in the perpetual, openminded noir monologue that gravitated to simple, lived experience over gesture or pretense, in the preference for honest, sincere dirt over disingenuous or ironic cleanliness. It’s this, I think, that endeared him to so many, and why his visit to The Waffle House, that midnight sanctuary for scattered and hungry wastrels all across the South, has become something of a cult classic: it’s a love letter to simple enjoyment, to unabashed appreciation and connection.

But he was not a perfect man. He was open about his own flaws, past and present, and he showed an uncommon willingness to publicly interrogate them, to forego the ritualized mea culpa and self-satisfied contrition of political and celebrity apologies in favor of  quiet reckonings. Looking back on the romantic kitchens of his early writing in an interview with Slate last year in light of our culture’s own belated reckoning with sexual power politics and abuse, Bourdain wondered to what extent his accounts of kitchen life and its crass sexuality and hierarchies had “provide[d] validation for meatheads” and “[w]hy was [he] not the sort of person, or why was [he] not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in.” He didn’t spare himself in his appraisal. He had become, in his words, “a leading figure in a very old, very oppressive system so,” he continued, “I could hardly blame anyone for looking at me as somebody who’s not going to be particularly sympathetic.” But ultimately, the responsibility to be open, to provide support against oppression, was his, and not doing so was “a personal failing.”

Whatever he was in his private life, publicly Bourdain was a rare figure, a champion of personal responsibility without the usual appeals to the cloistered, anti-human solipsism of Ayn Rand acolytes. The quest for self-improvement, however doomed, is a private enterprise that is very much a public work, born out in how you attempt to make sense of yourself and what that leads you to do. He ate his way around the world, but what he managed to impart through his travels was a relentless drive to throw yourself against the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the unpleasant, and to hammer yourself into something slightly better through the experience. He modeled a way of engagement free of the kind of sentimental colonialism that underpins so much travel literature and entertainment, the drive to infantilize the world around you, to file it down into either a perfect, idealized picture or a profane object of scorn and superiority. Warthog anus seared in coals and served “al dente” remains a conceptual horror at the edge of understanding, and Thai raw blood soup a Levitical nightmare, but each testifies, in their own way, to human ingenuity and survival, to hospitality and fellowship. Bourdain talked a lot about what he called “the wheel,” the merciless, uncaring whims of fate and oppression, and his travels all played out against a bleak view of human history. But the result was not hopelessness or a lessening of human agency. Instead, ordinary men and women are heroes for enduring it all; there is nothing more honorable, he says in an episode in Los Angeles, than suffering the whippings of fate to create lives worth living, worth tasting, in a world that can be hard and uncaring.

It’s this last part that I find myself missing the most. He was a cantankerous voice of empathy and conscience in a world that slowly descended into ugly self-worship and almost gleeful violence over the course of his career. It’s the cruelest stroke of irony that the world he had such a passion for was a place he felt he couldn’t live in any longer, that his tenacious curiosity and militant advocacy for the simple cook, the peasant, and the migrant worker – the very people who have become the demons in a fairytale of victimhood we’ve spun in our mad collective imagination – should end now, at a time when deliberate cruelty is government policy in the service of bare-knuckle xenophobia and institutionalized hatred. There is a part of me that found a deliverance in the work he did, and who secretly looked for enlightenment through him, a conflicted man who was seemingly doing the best he could with the hand of nonsense he had been dealt. Because if he could be better, could do better in spite of himself, so could I. The world may be a roiling mess, but it doesn’t have to be.

But then again, maybe I had it all wrong. As I go over these last lines, I can’t help but wonder if it’s maybe enough to know that you had a thing, to look at the empty plate, to realize that there is no more, to try to find the last tastes of the meal in your mouth, and then to look up at the people around the table and to realize that that’s what brought you here. Food is fellowship, of presence – of being and having – but it is also loss. There is a stillness after a meal where you mourn what you had, but out of this loss comes possibility, memories, sensations, and the desire to have again what is gone. So you go home and cook for yourself, and then for others, again and again, each time different and each time better. And then you eat. And leaning back in my chair now, I realize that I was fuller than I thought I was.

Thanks for the meal, Tony. It was delightful.





Prez 4 Lyfe

I wrote a rap song about Donald Trump.

But first, a word on the whys and hows:

A couple months ago, I was struck by what I now think of as the “The Unified Gangster Rap Theory of Donald Trump.” Because more than anything else he claims to be – a businessman, a negotiator, the President of the United States – he is a gangster rapper. He’s obsessed with haters and not getting the credit he deserves; he’s psychologically required to brag about how much money he has, how much of a winner he is, and how he got to the top because he’s just better than everyone else. And his dick is HUGE. He’s so much virile man, be almost can’t handle it himself. And I started thinking: “why does someone write a gangster rap song by and about Trump?”

Well, did what I always do: I started with a ridiculous idea and ran with it. I started writing it on Facebook, asking friends to pitch in with some lines. I got some, which I’ve marked in italics (thanks, Séamus and Jonathan!). The rest is from yours truly.

Writing parody is tricky, especially when it involves something as easily lampooned as gangster rap, and it’s even trickier when you realize that winking at the conventions of gangster rap can all too easily devolve into stereotyping and, in the worst case, outright racism. Hip-hop has always been a political statement, a musical form and culture that arose from racial and socioeconomic inequality that are baked into the fabric of American society, and taking it up, even briefly as I have done, is take up these issues and play with them. There is always a danger in doing this, of “taking someone else’s voice” as your own, and in so doing, perpetuating the very cycle of injustice against silenced populations and groups that hip-hop has tried to combat. That I’m a white kid from the South doing it intensifies the risk. I can’t say that this is a good song, or that I’ve completely avoided these issues (I hope so); I can only say that I did it out of affection, and that the subject of the song, and not the style itself, is the target of the joke.

So that’s it. I hope I can make you laugh, maybe think, and that I haven’t insulted the God of Flow and Beats in the process. But that’s enough talking. It’s time to spit some rhymes.

Enjoy, bitches.


I’m out of my tower and I got a bone to pick

Shakin’ walls, breakin’ laws like a toddler fit

Promised to build a wall, now I’m a man on a mission

Never promised the price would leave you a pot to piss in

And speaking of pots, when I’m home in Trump Tower

I love my golden toilets and I love my golden showers

I covet the powers and the prowess of a head-of-state

And tweeting out and seething about what mistakes to make

I’m an island of insanity in a sea of misery

The man without a plan and y’all are all Chris Christie

Who’s he, I forget, let’s talk about me some more

Got some time between meetings and the next Korean War

The POTUS with the mostest is a man of means

Ain’t believin’ what you’re seein’, just ask Fox & Friends

‘Cause I got fat stacks in my slacks and there’s more to come

Yes, son, that’s my name up on Air Force One

I like my name in lights and I like you dead to rights

But most of all I like my daughter when she’s struttin’ in them tights

You know the ones I mean, they’re emerald green

The color of my Jesus, no, not the Nazarene

But a true winner’s godless like hot lips in August

Burnin’ out haters with verbal quadraphonics

‘Cause my flow is manic, organic, and too hot to handle

Check your pocket, check your wallet and lock up your damsel.

Yeah, the bitches know I’m rich and that I know how to please ’em

And keep ’em, ’cause my tie ain’t all that’s waggin’ by my knees, son

Don’t run, just walk and ponder in wonder

The only thing with a circumference greater than all of my blunders

That rips your mother asunder and bankrupts your disrespect

Yeah, you know the time is upon you to contemplate my intellect

That prodigious legal mind and that scholar’s brain

That thinks three fifths ’bout money and one half ’bout hate

And that math adds up, sad cucks don’t know how to take it

‘Cause know-how’s just like sex and I’ve learned to fake it.

And I take shit like this country and I spin it to gold

Say my name and stake a claim, ’cause Trump’s the motherlode


Livin’ like a gangster, born a king.

Got more ice in his veins than a diamond ring

Livin’ like a gangster, born a king

Makin’, makin’, makin’ America great again


Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor

Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor


Hey, I don’t do nothin’ easy, okay, I’m not Obama

So how ’bout I drop some bars, this time without a teleprompter?

I’m a really smart guy, okay?

I’m just tellin’ you the facts, and not in a bragadocious way

I’m, like, the only one with as much money as me

Have you heard of Bill Gates – yeah, okay, he’s rich

But he’s not president, so, you know, is he that lit?

I’m the president, okay,  me – I done won

I’m so good all I make are holes-in-one

That’s golf, a game I’m really, really, good at, by the way – I’m the best

This NAFTA, folks, it’s a disaster, it’s straight ruinin’ the West

I learned that from Steve Bannon, I really, really unimportant guy

But I mean, come on, look at me, who’s more fly?

I rollin’ deep on Mexico, folks, so deep you won’t believe it

I got so many homies, so many there’s, like, no defense against it

None, okay, they’re done, finished – it almost makes me laugh

Even China’s lost track of how much I win, and they’re really good at math

Oh, come on, give me a break, that’s not racist

I’m the most openminded guy, I’ve been places

Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and New Jersey

There’s nowhere in the world women don’t wanna get with me

And no one loves women more than me, let me tell you

They’re all up in my business like Internal Revenue

I’m so, so respectful of beauty and a good pair of breasts

But it’s hard to look that high with my hand up their dress

I love this county, okay, no one loves it more than Trump

Ask anyone, they’ll tell you I’m on the up-and-up

And ISIS, okay, they’re losers, I’m gonna beat ’em so bad

They’re gonna wish I never inherited cheddar from my dad

Who only gave me a little bit, by the way, ’cause I came up on my own

I slung more dimes than a public telephone

But just one more thing ‘fore I drop this mic and leave you in confusion

There ain’t nothin’ to all these stories of collusion

It’s a witch hunt, chump, just haters hatin’ on my shit

I know all there is to know, and ain’t know nothin’ ’bout it

So shortly I be straight beefin’ with Robert Mueller 

Cat be trippin’ ’cause nobody be cooler

Than Trump, the best president you ever gon’ have – I’m tremendous

Man, don’t go listenin’ to all these whack-ass bitches

I go down as smooth as a well-done steak

But bitch, I’m the classiest mistake you ever made


Livin’ like a gangster, born a king.

Got more ice in his veins than a diamond ring

Livin’ like a gangster, born a king

Makin’, makin’, makin’ America great again



Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor

Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor
















Give and Take

PERSONAE DRAMATIS: One of the great apes [APE] and his companion [CANINE]

Interior. A one-bedroom apartment, the Pacific Northwest. Evening.

APE (to CANINE): Come here, we need to go out.

CANINE: Yes! Oh, boy! Out! I need to go out!

Exterior. Patch of pine bark behind one-bedroom apartment.

APE: Do your business.


[CANINE remains motionless}

APE: Do your business.


[CANINE sniffs, pees]

APE: Is that it? Do you need to poop?

CANINE: Nope! I did that this morning!

APE: Are you sure?

CANINE: Oh, yes!

APE: Well, OK, but if you––

CANINE: Oh, boy! In! I get to go in!

Interior. Kitchen. APE is pouring a beer. CANINE is nowhere to be seen.

APE: Canine? Where are you?

[Terrifying, pregnant stillness save the faint sounds of smacking]

APE: Where. Are. You?

[APE goes to door of bedroom]

APE: No, God!

Interior. Bedroom. CANINE on the bed, smacking profanely. On the sheets, a brown smear.


APE: Why?!

CANINE: It’s not what it looks like! I cleaned up!

APE: So it’s worse.


APE: Why?!

CANINE: I had to go out!

APE: That’s what I…get out!

CANINE: You’re upset. Have you tried a beer?

APE: Get in here!

Living room. APE is on the couch drinking a beer. CANINE watches him intensely.


APE: What?

CANINE: Nothing!


[CANINE perches by the door]


APE: What?!

CANINE: Nothing!

[CANINE sniffing treats]

CANINE: I want a treat!

APE: You haven’t done anything to earn one. You only get those when you––

CANINE: Out! I need to go out!

APE: Jesus, Lord of Mercy.

Exterior. Pine bark again.

APE: OK, do your business.

CANINE: What?!

APE: Do your business.


APE: Because you said you needed to go!

CANINE: Oh, I already went! Do we go in now?!

APE: So help me, I––

CANINE: Love you too!

APE: I know. Now, come on, let’s go in.

CANINE: Do I get a treat?!

APE: Yeah, you earned it.



I, Published, Or: The Glories of Shameless Self-Promotion

The day has finally arrived: I have inflicted myself upon the literary landscape with an officially published story. MY FIRST COMIC IS OUT!

“Where can I get what is surely to be a mind-altering journey into brilliance,” you ask? We can get People Skills, the 5-page bundle of inspiration about a robot and a cat told through amazing art by Micheal Evans, RIGHT HERE in the digital comics anthology, Make Out (Volume 2).  

And for just $3 (more if you’re feeling generous), there’s no reason not to support your local organic, free range comic creators. But that’s not all! There are 60-pages of comic brilliance to enjoy, stories forged from the finest mind-steel for as far afield as France! That’s right: you get to make me feel wanted and appreciated by purchasing my story AND you can make a whole lot of other people’s day. What an amazing deal! It’s a no-brainer.

And the fact that my first published story is a comic, a form that has done so much for me in the last couple years, is especially meaningful to me. Because I’m not exaggerating when I say that comics saved my life.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that’s some schmalzy, baroquely emotional bullshit. And you’d be right. But it’s also true.

Three years ago, when I was at the tail end of my PhD and wading through the venomous morass of the revision process and tenured professors’ fragile egos, I was suffering from what I can only describe as profound spiritual decay. I had been a good soldier-monk for five years, writing, researching, and attending what was expected of me, but my heart wasn’t in it, and looking back at it, I suppose it never had been, or at least not enough. That’s not to say that my academic work never excited me, or that I never enjoyed it, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of alienation, a chronic disconnect between the expectations of academia – that it’s a world populated by insightful people jacking themselves into a blazing world of ideas like a cyberpunk data jockey after his last big score – and what I felt: that it was a temple of exactitudes and inflexible dictates that prized conformity over insight. It was a cold place with a cold religion. And I was good at it, too – I knew all the right incantations, the words of power, and the kind of incense that pleased the gods – but I also knew I didn’t care about it, that I didn’t believe in it. To me, an airtight academic argument smelled like what Werner Herzog calls “the truth of accountants,” where all the facts are right, where the plot is perfect, but where there’s no story, no imagination. 

And I missed my imagination. Weaving complex intellectual arguments has its appeal, but if I’m going to be honest, if I had to choose between a nuanced encounter with [insert author/philosopher here] through an application of [insert critical lens here] and any story about a dragon, I’ll take the wyrm. I tried to convince myself otherwise, that I could funnel my love of stories into research, but like most things born of thin ambition, it was a lie. The truth was that I had, somehow, talked myself into joining the Big Bang Theory fan club while deep down I thought that Sheldon was an abusive asshole. It might be someone’s idea of a good time, but I just didn’t get it, and after five years of pretending, I was a bitter, angry, little man. I drank too much, had no hobbies to speak of, and I harbored a deep resentment toward a system that, as I experienced it, was allergic to fun and contemptuous of play. I had to find a way out, or, I knew, it would eventually kill me.

I came to this realization in the most clichéd way possible: one morning, fresh out of the shower, I stared at my reflection – blurred by steam and my bad eyesight – in the bathroom mirror, and said, “what am I doing?” If I had had a red pen, I would have struck through the experience for its triteness alone, but I knew I was right. I was completely lost, and the only thing I really knew was that if I stayed where I was and assumed a role that would allow no time for dragons, pirates, and space ships, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

So I did what everyone who likes to write does when they’re looking for ideas: I procrastinated. And I read. Or at least I tried to, because every time I sat down to read, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t physically do it. In a cruel twist of fate, the medieval dental visit that is a PhD program had robbed me of the very thing that had gotten me to the tip of the educational pyramid: my love of books. After reading unknown thousands of pages for my dissertation, and thousands more in course work, I couldn’t stand to look at a page of words: my eyes would swim, my heart would begin to race, and a wave of nausea would roll over me and submerge any enthusiasm I had managed to dredge up. Like Henry Bemis, I stood in the furnace of apocalypse, undone by irony as my glasses shattered on the ground. But then I remembered: hadn’t I gotten a copy of The Infinity Gauntlet, Marvel Comics’ insane space opera masterpiece, on a whim about a year before? That has pictures. Lots of them. Why not try that? So I pulled it off the shelf, poured myself a beer, and KRAKA-DOOM! it cracked me in the jaw and knocked me through the curtain of space-time into another universe.

The wild art and uninhibited, bonkers imagination were the opposite of the lawyerly bet-hedging and preemptive shadow-boxing with an adversarial reader that I grown accustomed to in graduate school. The book was what it was and it made no apologies for itself. It was like someone had plugged my brain into a neon sign – it made me feel better. I devoured it, and when that was gone, I moved on and sucked the marrow out of another book. And then another. And another, until I had read nearly 5,000 pages. When I wasn’t at work or spending time with friends, who endured my festering angst with divine patience, reading comics is what I thought about, it’s what I did. 

And then one day, while we were poring over the intricacies of Marvel’s Secret Wars event – which included, but were not limited to, bolt-throwing barbarians, journeys of vengeance through Hulk-infested wastelands, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Enlightenment Cannon (yes, that’s a real thing) – my friend Ben, in a moment of simple clarity, said, “you should write comics.” Half a second later, in an even simpler moment of resolution, I thought: “yeah, I should. I will. I am.” And so I did, with no idea of what I was doing, but as soon as I started, I knew I couldn’t stop. Comics were the wild west: I didn’t know any of the rules, but it didn’t matter. I felt a rush – a real physical high – every time I sat down to write or to scribble ideas onto a pad, or to consult and conspire with Ben about ideas for high octane adventures. Because for the first time in a long time, I had something I wanted to learn and to throw myself into. I cared, and as unabashedly cheesy as it sounds – because I know how it sounds – I knew that comics wouldn’t turn me away if I did.

If a person’s life is a book, comics have given me something I never thought I’d have again: a story I want to read. I hope I can do the same for you.