Monday, March 11, 2013
I'm sorry for disappearing so suddenly a few years back. One day I'm still there on the East Coast busily discharging the duties of my profession, while also, I'm sure you remember, circulating in something pretty close to what you could straight-facedly call a 'demimonde': publishing, blogging, tweeting and getting retweeted like a star. And then, the next day, silence. As you probably detected, it was a challenging time for me at many levels, personal, professional, etc. I've been meaning for a long time to write to fill you in on what's been going on, but I had to feel like I was starting to get back on my feet again before I even dared.
I've got my own place now, in Sacramento. Not Sacramento exactly, but Carmichael. Which is basically Sacramento. My upstairs neighbors are a couple of skinheads. It's a good thing I'm white, I guess. They mostly keep to themselves, always loading asbestos-removal equipment into and out of their pick-up truck. It's not so bad. I was living with my mom for the first two years or so out in Fair Oaks (also basically Sac), but she eventually pushed me to get a job at Best Buy, drawing on some connections with the middle-manageriate at our local outlet, connections that also seem somehow to involve Timothy, her Vietnamese manicurist who always works with a parrot on his shoulder. I don't know all the behind-the-scenes machinations that went on, but somehow a job was procured for me, and I guess it's around that time that I started feeling like I'm my own person again. Actually that's a bit of an exaggeration: I'm still so steeped in debt I'm not anywhere near being my own person. I can't afford to be a person for anyone but the credit-card companies and their collectors.
At least I've paid back everything I owed to Best Buy. That's right: for about 9 months I was basically an indentured servant, having ruined a few Bluetooth Cochlears the first week on the job while trying to show some customers how to insert them (I didn't know you had to have a wax-removal certificate from an ENT first). They docked the cost of them from my pay. That was only like half a paycheck, but the real problem started when some of my co-workers (half my age, of course) figured out how to hack the Acer Goggles we had on display in order to get high on the deep-brain-stimulator stuff they were emitting, before the FDA or ATF or whoever handles this sort of thing put a stop to it.
What a crazy story that was! I couldn't believe it when the scandal broke, and Acer's CEO held a press conference to admit they had come up from behind and beat Google at the enhanced-reality-glasses game by including a little photon beam or whatever that travelled directly to the limbic system and induced a low-grade sense of bliss. My co-workers were a bunch of stoner idiots, but to their credit they were some of the first kids in the country not only to figure out what was going on, and why all of a sudden Acer's profits were going through the roof, but also how to up the photon dosage and stimulate the shit out of the hypothalamus. So picture me: a former philosophy professor, 42 years old, lying on the floor of the Best Buy break room wearing those stupid goggles, acering like a teenager, stoned out of my fucking mind, when the manager bursts in and yanks them off my face. All of a sudden, no more bliss. Damn. And he says to me: "Hey genius, I hope you know it breaks 'em when you unblock the photon dosage. You're gonna be paying that off for a long-ass time, professor."
I'm sure you can recall that I was not always like this. I used to freak out at exactly 2 1/4 glasses of wine, chattering anxiously about how 2 is the maximum doctor-recommended amount, and relating all the dark insomniac thoughts about my battered liver that I already knew would keep me up later that night. Yet here I was blasting my hypothalamus into the raisin state. (You saw that exposé where the kids were talking about their 'raisin brains', didn't you? You know, Alex Jones or one of those other CNN guys going to that glasses-withdrawal ward in Tulsa or some awful place? All those kids? How they wouldn't let them have any wires or straws or anything they could try to insert in order to rub their brains directly? Holy shit!)
I guess you could say I kind of lost hope for the future. It has something to do with my precipitous loss of status, but it's not just that. It's also that I know what they said was not true, and that that doesn't matter to anyone. The truth doesn't matter! That's enough to make anyone lose hope.
Did you hear what happened? I usually just suppose people found out, what with the way information travels these days. But who knows? To put it succinctly: I was fired from my job for fabricating, so they said, a round-the-world voyage taken by Immanuel Kant. Can you imagine: Immanuel Kant? The philosopher most famous (i) for having a name that kind of sounds like 'cunt', which is the source of endless ribaldry from the Borscht Belt to the frat house; and (ii) as absolutely everyone in the world knows, for never once in his entire life having left his home town of Königsberg? They say I made up a bunch of fake sources to prove that Kant's mature critical philosophy was largely the product of his encounters with native peoples along his route. Well, guess what? Kant really did fucking go to Sumatra. I proved it before, and I'm not in the mood to do it again. I'm over that.
But in any case the Kant part of it is just the tip of the iceberg, the bit that provides a nice satisfying story with a happy, or at least a poetically just, ending: professor makes stuff up, professor gets fired, professor moves in with mom and gets a job at Best Buy and turns into an Acer junkie. But you have to ask yourself: why would anyone care? Academics make false claims all the time, sometimes billions of dollars hang in the balance, and yet they almost never get punished for it. I made a few claims about some guy's travel plans in the 18th century, and I got fired for it. Don't you think that's a bit strange? Well let me fill you in: there are some people out there who really don't want certain facts to get out, and who have the power to shut you down if you start to let them out. I understand this now: I would never choose to re-fight this battle. It's just not worth it. But I'm telling it to you in private correspondence, only because I trust you and I trust that you understand how important discretion is in this case.
It's not the Sumatra part that gets to them. You might have read, in the original post in that one open-access journal (which was quickly taken down, but of course not until after they'd deposited my $300 publication fee), the part about Kant's sojourn on the Arctic coast of Russia, where he lived among the Tlängit people of the Taimyr Peninsula. This is all documented in Benno Klopp's 1873 book, Die geheime Sumatrareise Immanuel Kants (which has disappeared from nearly all research libraries in the world, for reasons that will become clear). You might also recall the part about the Tlängit concept of nâk, how it means --or at least how Kant thought it meant-- something like 'necessity' or 'fate' or 'weather', and how Kant, d'après Klopp, had taken this concept and placed it at the very heart of one of the antinomies of pure reason in his first Critique. Are you still following? Good, because as I've said I really don't want to have to go over all this stuff again. It's still an open wound for me.
Anyway it's not just about Kant and the Taimyr Tlängit. This is not some obscure question for Aral-Ultaicists and transcendental idealists. No, it is much, much bigger than that.
Have you heard of the Kelpius Brotherhood? They are the followers of a certain Johannes Kelpius, a Bavarian mystic from the late 17th century who established a commune in Pennsylvania, which eventually grew into a whole community with its own private university called 'Wissahickon'. Kelpius was out of his gourd, a sort of L. Ron Hubbard of the Baroque. He combined the crudest understanding of Christianized Kabbalism with an eclectic hotch-potch of already outdated alchemy, astrology, and a fervent belief that Pennsylvania was destined, in the coming new age, to be a religious utopia. He is said to have been in possession of the philosopher's stone, as in, that object of the great alchemical quest for deep knowledge of the mysteries of nature and existence and God and stuff. Supposedly he threw it into the Schuylkill somewhere outside of Philly shortly before his death in 1708. Crackpots like Kelpius were a dime a dozen in colonial America, of course, but he managed to make his legacy endure by developing a tight organization, bound together by oral tradition, secret vows, oaths of loyalty. To this very day Wissahickon has something they call the 'Sub-Brotherhood for the Enforcement of Kelpian Doctrine', also known as the 'Kelpies'.
This gang consists of 200 or so men, mostly local Wissahickon rabble, but also a few recent graduates of Wissahickon's philosophy department who find themselves as unemployable as the day they finished their K-through-12 Kelpian home-schooling and as a result become radicalized in their commitment to the Brotherhood. They have long beards, which is peculiar, since Kelpius himself was beardless and never said anything at all concerning facial hair. But on their understanding the hair 'emanates' from the face in the same way that the world emanates from Ein Sof, which is the Kabbalists' term for the divine. Not every man is expected to have a beard, but only every educated man, whose very face now symbolizes his knowledge of the relationship between God and world. It is for this reason that if a man shows himself to be foolish, or speaks against the officially sanctioned doctrine, the Kelpies will show up with a pair of scissors and exact their punishment.
Now you are about to become one of only two outsiders in the entire world, along with me, who knows this little secret (if you do not wish to be burdened by knowing too much, then stop reading now, my friend): there is a belief, passed down from Kelpius to successive generations of Wissahickon initiates, according to which the Hebrew יהוה is just a ruse, a decoy that distracts the benighted from the true name of God, which is (and you can probably see this coming): נךּ. This is totally insane, of course. Technically the word transliterates as nk, and the suppressed vowel could in principle be an â, but this combination of letters doesn't even look remotely like an acceptable lexeme of ancient Hebrew; the kaph with the dagesh dot in it (indicating a voiceless velar) barely even occurs in the entire Old Testament. But whatever. Kelpius claims to have extracted this bit of knowledge from an esoteric reading of the extremely rare 2nd edition of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth's book, Kabbala denudata, which appeared in Nürnberg in 1686. Now Knorr von Rosenroth was one of the more, shall we say, imaginative of the early modern Christian Hebraists, but he was not sloppy, and he knew not to make stuff up out of thin air. As I'm sure you're beginning to see, the same cannot be said of Herr Kelp.
So anyhow we've got this situation where the Brotherhood takes nâk, or nk, to be the true name of God, where they want to keep this information to themselves, and so really don't want outsiders holding forth with competing interpretations of their cherished little monosyllable. And again, you can probably already see what's coming next. At the time I published my piece, or posted my piece, or whatever, in Knowledge4U (now I remember the name of the online journal!) on Kant's Arctic sojourn and its relevance for Aral-Ultaic linguistics, I was teaching, as you probably recall, at Misericordia University up in Montreal. One night, about a week after the piece went up, Ayelet and I were sitting at home in our apartment on the Plateau, a quiet evening, watching videos on YouTube of animals doing things not usually associated with their species, having a good time. There was a knock on the door; I assumed it was some Canadian humanitarian thing, some campaign for the environment or recycling or something, and I begged her not to answer it. But Ayelet was always a better community member than I was, and she insisted.
They say that the real art of fiction is knowing how to get your characters in and out of rooms, but this is fact so I'm just going to cut to the chase. The Kelpies pushed into the entryway and immediately started making snipping gestures with their scissors, right in Ayelet's face (as she told me, weeping, later that night). I heard a tussle and for some reason imagined the notorious Mom Boucher and his band of Quebec Hell's Angels (les Hells, they call them). But these were no Hells. There were five of them, the oldest no more than 22, all with pathetic whiskers hanging in strands from their faces. Three of them had unusually severe acne. All were decked out in what I only know as 'urban wear' or 'street fashion': those oversized baseball caps with the stickers still on them, sweatshirts that say things like 'Zoo York', and other signifiers of utter cultural impoverishment. And yet, somehow, through these markers of entry-level social status, they also gave off the air of deeply religious, indeed fanatically religious, young men. It may have been that they were wearing their urban gear as disguises, that they had gone undercover to move inconspicuously in the big city. Underneath it they looked, mutatis mutandis, like the riff-raff who used to go around the streets of Riyadh calling themselves, as I recall, the 'Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice'. (Do you remember them? Before... Well, you know.) They looked like typical religious enforcer thugs from anywhere in the world, except with a distinctly blue-collar Pennsylvania air about them. In other words: terrifying.
I had no idea who they were or what was going on. (I would only learn a few days later, when one of the five suffered a crisis of conscience, indeed of identity, and called me to explain the whole thing. It's only thanks to him, to little Gunther, that I was able to piece it all together.) You can imagine my confusion as I came running towards Ayelet and they began shouting, "Where's Bieber!? We're looking for Justin Bieber!" I'm Justin, I said, but this didn't silence them. "Hey Bieber," the one who was evidently their leader intoned, "do you know what 'Justin Bieber' means? It means 'Justin Beaver'." They were, evidently, making fun of my name by riffing on the name of that Canadian pop star. Do you remember him? The one they caught smuggling polar-bear claws for the Chinese mafia after his charity tour of Nunavut? That was weird.
Anyhow the Kelpies seem to have wanted to offend my dignity by associating my name with beavers, which would not in itself have been so bad, but then one of them, the smallest one with the worst acne, with a face that was nothing but pustules, really, started muttering something about how I didn't have a beard, how they had been told I had a beard, how all philosophers have beards. "We came to cut off his beard so he could no longer emanate the cosmos like the Godhead does," little Gunther said (though I did not yet think of him as little Gunther). "Well where's his dang beard, Eberhard?" The Kelpies, it would turn out, did not even know it was possible for a philosopher to not have a beard, so isolated were they at Wissahickon. As Gunther would later tell me, they were even taught there that the hairs of one's beard are a direct corporeal reflection of the ideas in one's mind, so that the longer and thicker one's beard is, the greater one's philosophical attainments are thought to be. The idea of a beardless philosopher, on this understanding, is simply a contradiction in terms.
But the boys had come to cut something, and in the absence of that thing they were looking for, they cast their eyes around for something else. And this is the part where the story grows dark, and I don't think I have the stomach to retell it: the part where the Kelpies turned from merely rough, to simply evil. Their sights landed on Ayelet's beautiful black curls.
Naturally, in the weeks to follow she and I were hardly in good spirits. She insisted she didn't blame me, but I could tell deep down she would have liked for me to have kicked all five of their asses at once. She mostly stayed in the bedroom and read the Pravda archives online (you might recall she's an old-school Kremlinologist). I slept on the couch and let my hygiene lapse. This made her even more disappointed in me those few times a day we passed each other in the hallway, and out of some bizarre self-defeating stubbornness I can barely understand, her disappointment only exacerbated my neglect. For the first time since my undergrad days, I stopped shaving. To my great surprise, the sparsity that had tinged my twenty-year-old beard experiments with emasculating shame was no longer, at forty, a problem. All the empty spaces were filled, and within a few weeks I had a proper 'ensign of manhood about the face and neck', as someone once said. I could have applied for the job of ayatollah! "Well hello, Mr. Ein Sof," Ayelet hissed as we bumped into each other in the doorway of the bathroom one morning. "Isn't that a nice cosmos emanating out of your fucking face."
Ayelet's mockery gave me an idea. As long as I was starting to look like a Kelpie, I thought, maybe I should take a little trip down to Wissahickon and see what I can find. In any case I had been placed on unpaid leave, and was being investigated by a disciplinary committee for fabrication of research evidence (the Brotherhood has friends in high places). Ayelet was treating me like a stranger. I figured I had nothing to lose.
There followed a series of lengthy phone conversations with little Gunther, who explained everything I would need to know in order not to be found out. "Don't walk with your hands in your front pockets," he explained, for example. "Unless you want to have clumps of grass thrown at you by a bunch of guys shouting 'Onan!' 'Onan!'." Also: "If anyone asks you if you want a sip of their Red Bull, which they only drink out of straws, you have to say yes. It's considered impolite to use your own straw, but some people do it anyway." And: "Whenever anyone mentions the name of the great Johannes Kelpius, you have to pause, look toward the Schuylkill, and say, 'Quod erat demonstrandum'." That doesn't make any sense, I interrupted. Saying someone's name doesn't prove anything. "Don't ask," Gunther replied.
I set out to Wissahickon by Greyhound, passing through Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and many other places that until then had been just names for me. While changing buses in Allentown the teenager at the snack bar handed back my change with a 'Happy travels, grampa', which ordinarily would have infuriated me, but under the circumstances made me feel old and wise. I had a bit of grey showing in my long beard, and I knew I would blend right in once I arrived among the Kelpies.
Wissahickon looked like any private liberal-arts college with a hefty endowment: lots of green space, distinguished red-brick buildings in the Georgian style, a few mistaken modernist complexes inserted here and there. The Kelpius Library was one such mistake, but it was at least, to its credit, unusually large for a campus such as this. The library was by far the largest building at Wissahickon, an irridescent flash-cube tower dwarfing the little brick schoolhouses around it. In front was a sort of cubist statue of Johannes Kelpius himself, holding his own head in his hands, a beaming smile on his face, with some sort of glistening silver garlands coming out of his mouth.
I was nervous, and naturally worried I'd be turned away at the door, as I lacked a campus ID, indeed any plausible explanation of what I was doing there. But I kept little Gunther's advice in mind: always reply to salutations by simply echoing back the same words. The library was guarded by a beardless man wearing a jumpsuit, who hailed me with a loud, friendly 'Q.E.D.!' as I entered. Now this made no sense at all, as nothing had even been said, but I remembered Gunther's words and answered, 'Q.E.D.!' I passed through the turnstile without incident.
Do you know how in some restrooms the spaces between the tiles are filled with grout-themed graffiti? Like, little plays on words about 'The Grout Gatsby' or 'The Grout Wall of China'? ('Groutfiti', I think it's called.) Well you can imagine my surprise when, staring at the cracks between the tiles in the bathroom of the Kelpius Library, I noticed that some Wissahickon smart-asses had filled them with nâk jokes, about seeing a red door and wanting it painted nâk, or about how white folks live in fear of a nâk planet. One clever nâk-fitist had even made oblique reference to the band responsable for the 1979 hit, 'My Sharona' (The Knack).
I didn't make much of all this; bathroom walls are there to be written on, after all. And I had work to do: having formulated a precise reconnaissance mission during my conversations with Gunther, I had determined there were two things in particular I could learn there in the stacks. The first was to finally have a look at Klopp's book on Kant's voyage around Eurasia, which up until then I had only seen mentioned in one other place: Erkki Künnapu's History of the Printing Press in Estonia (Toronto, 2004). The Kelpies had eliminated all circulating copies of the work, but they could not possibly purge all bibliographical references.
They had, sure enough, just as Gunther promised, kept a copy for themselves at Wissahickon, right there with all the other Kant books, under that beautiful B2798 Library-of-Congress number I had come to know so well in grad school. It was everything I'd imagined it would be: an exhaustive, rigorously documented account of Kant's day-to-day doings over the entire five-year period of his voyage: the supplies he bought in Yokohama, the illness he contracted in Ceylon, the Indian he met in Surat who wondered how they get so much foam into beer bottles. It was all there! I photographed all 1200 pages with my iPhone, the whole time beaming with a feeling of elation I suspect only researchers can know.
My next task was to move to the rare-books room to request to see what I believe is the only extant copy of the 1686 edition of Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbala denudata. There, too, I met a beardless man in a jumpsuit, who greeted me with a hearty 'Q.E.D.!' And there, again, I answered in the same manner, and was waved in. I was made to deposit all my possessions in a locker, and was given a pair of gloves, but there was no more scrutiny or suspicion here than in any other rare-books collection I've visited anywhere in the world. I even managed to slip my iPhone into my front pocket and to pass into the reading room, with my hidden camera, undetected.
I spent a good 4 hours with that book, poring through it for the slightest clue that might help to explain the peculiar Kelpian interpretation of the true meaning of nâk. I found nothing. Or, rather, I found almost nothing, yet way too much. Two of the pages of the book were thoroughly stuck together, the way I recall books checked out of the public library being, after some careless disgusting kid before me had eaten his apple sauce or wiped his nose while reading Shel Silverstein, say, and then closed the cover and thoughtlessly returned it. I pried the pages of the Kabbala apart, and to my revulsion I found that they had been sealed together by some unidentifiable gunk, some excretion or waste matter of human or animal, God only knows. And next to the horrible stain, a stain so revolting I could barely stand to look at it, someone, God only knows when or why, had written (you guessed it): NÂK!
Was this whole thing a huge fucking joke? What the hell do the Kelpies think they're guarding there? Is the stain in the book supposed to be the secret name of God? Or was this just more graffiti? I had no answers, but nor, from the very second I pried those pages apart, did I any longer have a desire for answers. I snapped a quick photo, removed my gloves, and headed as fast as I possibly could back to the Wissahickon bus station.
Ayelet, whose beauty had easily adapted itself to her new pixie cut, went back to Israel around the time I was slowly slinking home, via Pennsylvania, to California. This was of course before Damascus happened and there was as yet no radiation-zone map you had to check before making travel plans. Last I saw it had moved north pretty much all across Anatolia and up as far as Skopje and Tiranë. (Do you remember in like 1996 at Columbia when we were wondering whether there would be a nuclear attack within our lifetimes? You said yes and I said no. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyhow one of us was wrong.) Ayelet survived, I know that much. I saw on Donky that she went to Sochi with some guy, whom I of course picture as a beefy mafioso in one of those shiny track suits-- the Russians call them 'sportive costumes'. I noticed on Puckr they had kids (alright, I admit it: I even used an illegal Puckr Portal to get into her private feed). Am I jealous? Yes, but I wish them the best. I hope they didn't turn out like those kids in the orphanage in Oman with the polydactyly and the greenish-blonde hair (did you see them on that PBS infomercial for the new thyroid drug? Again: holy shit!)
I figure there's about a 50% chance by now that you believe all of this, and a 50% chance you're thinking: OMG, my old friend has completely lost it. You could well be thinking I sound like some goddamn birther-truther-Sandy-Hooker-CNN-reptilian type. But I only know what I know. I hate turning into a conspiracy theorist more than anyone. I especially hate that my particular tale involves Kabbalah, the secret name of God, etc., etc. As if I were a fan of that awful serial fiction the community-college kids read-- do you remember, that pulp about the Illuminati that the boys who are always speaking up in their philosophy classes like, the ones who are constantly invoking Schrödinger's Cat and 'quantum effects' even when these plainly have nothing to do with anything? But I'm not a community-college student. I'm a professor. Anyway I used to be a professor back before, well, you know the story. Like I said, it's an open wound.
The world is a different place now. The uninhabitable part of it grows bigger every day, and the survivors have mostly just retreated behind their goggles to watch meta-porn and hyper-cat loops. I don't know why it should matter anymore who went where in the 18th century, and the truth is I don't even really see why it's so important to know the real name of God, let alone to guard it like some precious secret. To keep it secret only in order to make a big obscene joke out of it with the other secret-keepers: that really is too much. Again, I've kind of lost hope. But it's at least a small consolation to know that there's still such a thing as friendship.
11 March, 2018
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Note: No rare books were damaged in the making of this story.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 01:45 AM | Permalink