Justin E. H. Smith
I am writing from a motel room somewhere in Indiana. The obese teenage girl who checked me in asked me where I stand in respect of today’s competition between the ‘Bears’ and the ‘Colts’, which, as I know without ever having sought to know, are two nearby cities’ football teams. When I gave her a Canadian postal code in lieu of a zip, she quickly apologized, red in the face, for her attempt at familiar chatter. Damn it, I thought, there I go othering myself again.
Now I’m in my room, there is a corn field out the window, and Every Which Way But Loose is on the TV. Clyde the orangutan just gave a biker gang the finger. Clint Eastwood, as I know in advance, is about to nail Sondra Locke. I hope you’ll excuse me if I get distracted and the narrative flow tapers off.
I am in the American Midwest for a little over a week. Officially, my purpose here is the usual one that takes me wherever I go: academic conferences. Behind this, however, there is a more personal reason: I wanted to return to the place I lived for two and a half years at the very beginning of the present century, and to see if I could make some sense out of it. There is another region of the world –the American West– that will always form the deepest stratum of my psychogeographical sense. Yet the Midwest, too, managed to leave a thin but hard crust over some of the other layers, one that doesn't get in the way of deeper digging, necessarily, but still requires its own equipment and instruments of analysis.
My last trip through Indiana, in early Summer, 2003, was capped off by an ugly traffic accident on the Interstate, as I was travelling south-southeast from Chicago to Cincinnati. The police report is something I occasionally pull out and study when I want, for some perverse reason, to relive the trauma of it. I even brought it with me for my most recent Indiana road trip. One of the witnesses, Tricia Yoder, reports the event as follows: “I seen the black car [mine] driving in the left lane and the blue car [Travis Butler’s] driving in the right lane. The blue car tried to make a suden turn in front of the black car in order to turn around on the hi-way divider to go back the other direction, even thouh the sign said ‘no’ u-turn. The black car did’nt have time to stop and ran into the drivers side of the blue car. I seen it from behind the black car.”
I hit Travis Butler, in other words, who, as I would later learn, was born in 1954 and was a resident of Pulaski County. As I inferred at the time –having, in the millisecond before impact, thoroughly studied and committed to memory the POW-MIA sticker in the rear window on the driver's side– Mr. Butler was a veteran of a certain bitter war. I hit the vet, and he got issued a moving violation on his way to the hospital. It still doesn't seem right. He was, I feel like saying, the legal cause of the collision, but I was the metaphysical cause. Like the ancient archer discussed by Bernard Williams in Shame and Necessity, it does not matter that he could not have known that a runner would be passing in the distance at the moment he let go the arrow. You can't hit someone who passes in front of you without shaking up the cosmos a bit. Our Christian, free-will-based legal system makes a distinction that our not yet fully de-Hellenized, fatalistic subconsciences can't quite accept. You can’t hit a guy without being tainted. You definitely can’t hit a Vietnam vet.
After the cars had come to their resting places on the grassy center divider, I slithered out, stunned, and walked like a zombie over to his car. Are you alright? I asked. ‘Yeah’, he said. Good, I said. I was sincerely relieved for a moment. Then I saw blood streaming from the crown of his head and dripping down, in big, fast drops, behind his left ear. He was not alright.
(Clint has just barged into the YWCA where Sondra is staying. The appearance of a man has put the young women, with their nightgowns and curlers and face creams, into a frenzy.)
The collision solved at least one problem for me: I had been looking for a way to free myself of my 1991 Acura Integra, for which I did not want to have to pay the exorbitant fee required to bring it with me on my impending move to Canada. I was in fact, at that very moment, in connection with the move, hauling nearly my entire library in the trunk, back seat, front seat, front passenger floor, glove compartment, and dashboard of my Acura. I have recently related how some of my most intense interaction with my books occur when I, on frequent occasions, have been obliged to lug them from one domicile to another, but never have my books had quite such an impact as they did that day, when, having rapidly decelerated upon hitting the Vietnam vet's car, my precious copy of volume III of Adam and Tannery's edition of the Oeuvres complètes of René Descartes, which had been resting atop of the pile on the backseat behind my head, quickly accelerated, by some law of mechanical physics that the great French philosopher himself probably discovered, and struck me in the back of the skull.
This as much as the accident itself was a cause of my utter stupefaction, so that when I forced the door open and slithered out to go check on Travis, in my state of curiously heightened alertness I was able to examine the covers of all the great works of philosophy that were spilling out onto the grassy division. There went Jan-Baptista van Helmont's De Ortu medicinae! And there's the single-volume edition of Spinoza's collected works! Why, he barely wrote anything! Any scholar who works on Spinoza should be required to memorize him by heart, I thought. And there's Shame and Necessity! What a book! What a hammer of a book!
Within a few moments the Indiana state troopers would arrive, and I recall them scratching their heads and laughing as they went around picking up the far-flung works of philosophy. I recall seeing one of them holding Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes. “Do you understand this?,” he asked me. No, I said. Not really.
Beyond their content, which I confess by that stage of my life I had only very partially mastered, my books protected as a sort of prophylactic against the Midwest during my extended sojourn there. How could I be absorbed into this landscape of teddy-bears-and-American-flag motifs, of paper towels and doilies and wallpaper with geese with bows tied around their necks, where half the women are named ‘Barb’ and people have signs in their front lawns announcing their preferences in the upcoming election of a county sheriff– how, I say, could this place absorb me if I build an impenetrable fortress out of books imported from Europe and from the coasts? It was not enough for me to do what most small-town university faculty do in parts of America that people who must be completely ignorant of 20th-century political history now insist on calling ‘red’: to build up an ethereal fortress out of NPR broadcasts and perhaps a subscription to the New Yorker. And they bump into each other on campus, each prepared to relate the content of exactly the same story about, say, the Kronos Quartet’s new genre-bending collaboration, while meanwhile the folk surrounding the campus have never so much as heard of the Kronos Quartet, and are satiated just by learning that, say, The Rock will be starring in a new comedy about a private investigator who has to go undercover in a kindergarten.
That was the arrangement, more or less, in the small Ohio town where I lived and taught for a year, before moving to the modest metropolis of Cincinnati, an hour or so away from the university. ‘Cincinnati’, as you may know, is in fact in the genitive case: it is the city ‘of Cincinnatus’, a Roman statesman who decided to retire to a quiet life of agriculture after performing his political service, rather than clinging to power for life. He is thus said to have been a model for George Washington in his refusal to take on the role of King of America. But there is nothing at all in Ohio's southernmost city that suggests the idyllic fields its Roman namesake must have plowed. The city is described by the diabolical reverend played by Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter as the ‘Sodom of the Ohio River’, and I consider that description more or less correct. The place could certainly stand to be razed in an act of divine vengeance.
Cincinnati, right at the boundary between the slaveholding and the free states, was well known before the Civil War for its bounty hunters, who, for a fee, would return runaway slaves across the river to Kentucky: slaves who perhaps believed too soon that they had made it to a better place. When I had just moved to Cincinnati in 2001, there was an extended period of military-style curfews, meant to quell the riots that had followed the police shooting of a black teenager, who had been the 40th black man killed by the police in a period of six years. De facto the curfew did not mean that you could not leave your home after dark, but only that you had better not look like a potential rioter if you do. Still, white people were encouraged not to leave home unless they had to. I still recall the white mayor going on telling Cincinnatians that during the period of the curfew this was a good time to ‘stay home with your family, watch TV, and pray.’ It was striking that these three distinct activities were held to go so naturally together, and the mayor’s easy elision of them has served for me ever since as a summary of the ethos of the place.
I'll spare most of the details of my time there. I wasted a lot of money on visits to a jovial and jaded psychoanalyst, who had once belonged to the true Freudian school but at this late stage in his career believed in nothing at all except human decency; ate at Skyline Chili almost daily; had a brief relationship with a Skyline Chili waitress (my one attempt to go native); went through a bizarre Platonizing phase in my metaphysical views; and spent altogether too much time time (for a grown man, anyway) in a weepy and simpering state. I also spent much of my time commuting, and often left the radio on ‘scan’ as I drove. I liked to see how quickly I could identify the Christian stations, and I found that I always could even before any overtly Christian views were expressed, simply in virtue of the unctuous and condescending tone. No one who listens to these emissions and finds them soothing could be fully emotionally mature.
(Clint and Sondra are ready to do it, but she is unwilling to permit Clyde to stay in bed with them. Clyde is unfazed.)
And I forgot to mention the most important thing about my time in Ohio, namely, that I had a cat named ‘Jim’. As a tiny kitten, Jim had suddenly appeared in the parking lot of a Kroger's. The bag girls were outside playing with him as I walked up one day. They asked me if I wanted to take him home, and I was delighted to say ‘yes’. Almost immediately I began inventing stories about him in my head. I imagined him to be a consummate Southwestern Ohioan. His full name, as it existed only in my head, was ‘Jim Mewker, the Tri-State Euchre King’. I imagined he ran his own HVAC business, complained about the tax-and-spend liberals, liked barbecues, had a moustache.
None of this had anything to do with his real personality of course. What made fantasy-Jim so amusing to me was precisely his total incongruity with real-Jim. Now you’re probably thinking at this point that there could be no possible world in which a counterpart-Jim would really be an HVAC man, a euchre player, and so on, at least if this counterpart-Jim were to remain a member of the same species as real-Jim. That is true, but there are cats out there for whom this description would be infinitely more plausible. Jim was evidently suffering from the trauma of an early separation from his mother. He was inconsolable when left alone for even a few seconds, and whenever possible preferred to be not just at my feet or in my lap, but pressed right up to my face. Real-Jim was a pathetic creature.
One night I awoke to find a bat fluttering around near the ceiling of my bedroom. My landlord (‘Barb’) did not believe me when I told her about this, and the only solution I could come up with was to go to Wal-Mart, to buy a one-man tent, and to set it up on top of my bed as a sort of mosquito net, except that rather than protecting me from mosquitoes it would protect me from my bat.
Now at first I was determined not to let Jim into the tent with me, since I found it very difficult to sleep with him pressed against my face. The very first night, as I zipped up the tent flap, Jim had what I can only call a fit of feline psychosis. He began to claw his way up to the top of the tent, and from there to slide down the side as if it were an airplane's emergency escape tube. He must have done this over 100 times, and would have kept on doing it all night if I had not let him in. He curled up on my face. I lay there wide awake, listening for the flutter of Satanic mammalian wings in the dark outer space of my bedroom. We were made for each other, Jim and I. Inside that one-man tent in that uninhabitable apartment in that damned city in Ohio, we found a shred of consolation.
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