An aeon ago, when Esquire magazine was good, it had a feature called “Surrealism in Everyday Life,” which was filled with silly news items. I think you’ll agree with me when I say that since then, surrealism has become much more prominent in our lives, and much less amusing.
On February 5 I had a phone consultation with a medical specialist. It was a checkup on some lung problems I had last year, the results of a blood clot. Nothing much to write about. But then, on February 11, the hospital sent me a pompously formatted, five-page “After Visit Summary.” It conveyed no significant information about the “Visit” (after all, I hadn’t asked for any), but it did inform me that there should be a “change [in] how you take” a certain “medication.” When I looked up the eight-syllable name, it turned out to be a cream I’d been prescribed a long time ago for . . . a patch of psoriasis.
If there was anything depressing in this world, it was the idea of reporting to some hospital functionary to find out whether I was depressed.
What had gone so suddenly wrong with my psoriasis gunk, I wondered. I got my answer on a later page, under the heading of “When to take this . . . . reasons to take this.” There I was informed: “According to our records, you may have been taking this medication differently.” Differently? Granted, I rarely use the stuff. My only, feeble excuse is that I don’t need to. But why should my lung guy be spying on my less than frequent use of it?
He also seemed to be interested in other things we’d never discussed. One part of the long, long document was a “Health Maintenance Summary” — somebody’s name for a list of procedures I supposedly needed to undergo. The procedures included:
PHQ2 depression screen (yearly)
PHQ2? I had no idea what that meant. I did know that if there was anything depressing in this world, it was the idea of reporting to some hospital functionary to find out whether I was depressed. It was surreal — the notion that of course you have to get screened, and do it yearly.
By now I was confident that my lung doctor had nothing to do with this. He wasn’t addressing any concerns about me; a computer had been deputed to perform the meddling. Its bedside manner was far from agreeable — but then I saw something even more in the line of Kafka and de Chirico:
COVID-19 Vaccine (1 of 2) Overdue since 1/12/1964
How time slips by! I had no idea I was 57 years late on that. But how impressive it was that my doctors knew all about COVID-19, way back then. That’s the science for you!
When you enter the Kingdom of Kovid you immediately find yourself in the land of the surreal. And pace the admirers of Salvador Dali, the surreal isn’t always innocent and fun-loving. Grendel was surreal too — although he at least had the grace to live at the bottom of a mere. Today’s monsters don’t.
Cuomo defended himself in a weird dramatic performance designed to show that he cared very, very deeply for every single person who had ever died in the epidemic.
Andrew Cuomo, for example, rampages in the broad light of day. On January 29, having finally been exposed in the mainstream media for doing what you and I had known for months he had done — caused the deaths of masses of virus victims and covered up the statistical evidence — he defended himself in a weird dramatic performance designed to show that he cared very, very deeply for every single person who had ever died in the epidemic. I pictured him spending his days going from one memorial mass to another and weeping hysterically at every one. But his pity wasn’t lavished only on others. “When my father died,” he said, “I wish I had someone to blame.” There’s the Christlike attitude: “He that is without sin among you, let him grieve because he has no one to throw a stone at. And stop throwing stones at me, for God’s sake!”
It took only an instant for people who have some kind of political memory to recall that Cuomo’s sainted father had died in 2015 — presumably because he, like me, had neglected to get his covid shots. The clever thing that his son was doing, the kind of thing that pundits admire in political insiders who are masters of strategy, was to claim, without actually claiming, that Cuomo Sr. had died of the virus, as his son’s victims had died. The surreal thing was that Cuomo Jr. had good reason to believe that most people wouldn’t care.
“Hey, what’s that thing that flew past the window?”
“Just a pterodactyl.”
Occasionally, it is true, people start getting wise to such attempts to normalize the bizarre. In my own one-party state, Governor Gavin Newsom has stumbled into the danger zone, the place where the surreal world that coddles his illusions about himself abuts startlingly on real life. California has a recall system, and Newsom is going to face an election to determine whether a person of subnormal intelligence and abnormal self-esteem can continue to pass as a leader, thinker, far-sighted statesman, and front-rank candidate for the presidency, despite his ruinous, ever-fluctuating, totally non-scientific lockdown orders; the gross hypocrisy he has shown by violating his own decrees; and the waste of approximately $30 billion in fraudulent payouts to such California covid sufferers as residents of other states and countries, and inmates on death row. How’s that for surrealism in everyday life?
We, the hapless citizens of California, have to live in that surreal world with him.
Suddenly, finding that the recall people were fast approaching the enormous number of signatures they needed on recall petitions, and that his polls were falling even faster, Newsom discovered new algorithms that reversed the “evidence” used to justify his lockdown regime. He started traveling the state, preaching reopening, while reopening practically nothing — who wants to sacrifice power? He paid his audience not with action but with words. And what words they were!
I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican. I care that you’re healthy and safe. And you can live your lives out loud without fear of a pandemic, and without fear of having to go back into the fits and starts this pandemic has impacted in terms of communities all across this state.
Consider what this guy was literally saying. He was saying that he inhabits a world in which people normally live out loud — shouting, I suppose, or screaming all the time. But when a pandemic strikes (and what is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, besides the fact that control freaks like to say pandemic?) they have to go back (starting from where?) into a St. Vitus dance of fits and starts that has been struck, smashed, or otherwise impacted by the pandemic. So you’ve got this dance, see, and it’s weird, and then you’ve got this virus or whatever, dude, and it smacks into the dance, right into it, and then you’re probly sorry you might have to go back into there, dude . . .
Of course, the fits and starts are merely a cliché that the speaker himself impacted. (I realize that “impacted” in that sentence doesn’t make any sense. When in Surrealia, write like the Surrealians.) But he doesn’t want you to get distracted and think he’s just trying to find some dopey apology for himself. For once, he doesn’t want people to focus on him. Hence, he maintains, surrealism isn’t limited to Gavin Newsom. No! It exists in terms of communities all across this state. We, the hapless citizens of California, have to live in that surreal world with him.
Rich people love contributing to virtue causes, not caring whether there’s any virtue in them. Isaiah the prophet had things to say about this.
Fortunately, we’re not all hapless. Consider the government employees who “work” from home, protected by impenetrable telephone trees that tell people in need of services that in this time of health emergency there will be no one taking their call, but they are welcome to leave a message that may possibly, at some time, trigger someone to contact them in some way. So much for reaching out. So much for we’re in this together. But don’t worry. If you’re not working, the government will pay you, unless you’re one of those people who want to make money by actually serving the public — by working in a restaurant, for instance, or a barber shop, or a church, or a nail salon. Then the government will do its best to destroy you. And all the while you’ll be waiting for that magic moment at which somebody like Gavin Newsom decides that society has reached the finish line and can now relax and return to freedom — except that the moment will never come.
The Red Queen couldn’t have arranged things better.
“Are we nearly there?” Alice managed to pant out at last.
“Nearly there!” the Queen repeated. “Why, we passed it ten minutes ago.”
Let’s walk over to another part of the circus. The Lincoln Project, a hate-Trump group “co-founded” by eight Republicans you never heard of, got tons of money from country club Republicans and spent some of it, not very effectively, on the indiscriminate election of Democrats. Why, nobody knows, except that they wanted to make a buck. They knew that rich people love contributing to virtue causes, not caring whether there’s any virtue in them. Isaiah the prophet had things to say about this — see his chapter 1.
Anyway, a former John McCain staffer named John Weaver has now been accused of using his august position in the Lincoln Project to lure young men into getting romantic with him, and the Project has tried every method except renaming itself the Douglas Project to distance itself from Weaver. Many surreal statements have been made. I like this one: “At no time was John Weaver in the physical presence of any member of the Lincoln Project.” Now that’s the kind of guys I want to give money to. They’ve never even met one another.
Oh, I also like Weaver’s combination mea culpa and self-defense, which acknowledged inappropriate messages but refuted “the other smears” made against him (so really, it was all a smear?) by claiming they were produced by “Donald Trump’s enablers as a way to get back at the Lincoln Project for our principled stand for democracy.” I like this because it’s such an excellent illustration of one of the most surreal features of the tawdry amusement park that some call American political discourse. Rationally speaking, accusations can’t be judged by the motives of the accusers. If you call me a communist, the fact that you don’t like communists doesn’t make me a noncommunist. Even the fact that you just plain don’t like me doesn’t make that happen. But I can’t recall a recent public controversy in which the major figures haven’t brought out this funhouse mirror.
Ask an environmental opponent of the internal combustion engine by what process the energy for electric cars is generated. What you see in his face will be — nothingness.
Other reflective devices provide infinite reflections of the same clown act. For generations, most of America’s inner cities have been declining in wealth, safety, education, and morale. The response of big city voters has been to denounce the conditions — and keep electing the people who created them. Now step over to the next mirror, please. When heat waves assailed Texas, normal people might have said, so what’s new? But the disciples of Al Gore and that horrible girl from Sweden knew that this was global warming (aka climate change). Then lots of snow fell on Texas, and they knew that this was also global warming (aka climate change). The power grid failed because the environmentalists’ windmills and solar panels failed. To this they replied that the problem was the absence of environmental measures.
Some mirrors have the trick of returning no image at all. Ask an environmental opponent of the internal combustion engine by what process the energy for electric cars is generated. What you see in his face will be — nothingness. He never thought about that. He has no intention of thinking about that. You might as well be a vampire, hopelessly seeking its own image; you gaze at the conversation and see nothing.
But there’s one thing about our world that isn’t surreal at all, one thing that is dependably, sickeningly, real. That is power, and the drive for power. Surrealism can be gay and witty; it can be a private way of enjoying the world, or satirizing it, or both, as in Lewis Carroll. But it has long been my thesis that in our era weird things that happen to words can usually be traced back to the state. If the state didn’t start the process, it jumped right into it. Hence Cuomo, Newsom, and all the rest of them.
I understand speaking truth to power, but when I hear power — actual, physical, military power — spouting sermons to me, I get a little bit nervous.
A couple of days ago I heard a public service announcement (what an oxymoron that is!) touting the benefits of diversity. The nature of this popular but elusive quality, always being praised but somehow always being sought, did not emerge. Since it would have been easy to say that people who are allowed to be themselves, and be different from other people, generally do good work and come up with good ideas, and this wasn’t being said, I assumed that something else was intended. I assumed that it had something to do with those two words we never hear enough of, race and gender. But if that was true, it seemed odd for the announcement to conclude by stating that diversity will hold us together as we surmount hard times. That looked like apples and oranges to me. If I am gay and you are straight, we’ll be able to — to do what, exactly, that we wouldn’t be able to do if both of us were either gay or straight? It’s swell for us to be diverse, but how does that make for togetherness?
So there was an element of surrealism in the message, or maybe just in the fact that someone would insist on using radio listeners’ time to lecture them like that. It’s sort of like Jehovah’s Witnesses banging on your door. But here’s the really scary thing. Do you know who sponsored the ad? It was the US Air Force. The Air Force! I understand speaking truth to power, but when I hear power — actual, physical, military power — spouting sermons to me, I get a little bit nervous.
Not a military force but equally, it appears, addicted to the practice of serving the public by invading the airwaves is Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, surgeon general of California. She has a PSA devoted to puffing vaccination, a practice that should, one might think, free us of all covid-related restrictions on our freedom. But the end and climax of her sermon is this: “And remember, keep wearing your mask even after you’ve been vaccinated.”
Ma’am, yes ma’am! Now can you tell us why, if you’re so smart, you can’t see how absurd that is?