Joseph walked through the long aisles of the grocery shop picking uptomatoes and cheese and milk and onions and… he stopped suddenly
‘where is the mayonnaise?’ (he thought to himself)
After finding it, he got fish and ice cream and continued on his way,walking slowly then briskly, ever conscious of all around. The Supermarketwas quiet as it tended to be in the evening and the few shoppers whowere there kept their distance due to the global pandemic. Joseph bothliked and disliked the current climate – it mirroring his surreal mindset ofthe past few years so it seemed fitting.
‘The world is strange and now well, at least it’s coming to the surface andchange may finally occur.’
The quiet aisles eased his mood.
‘I’m good at this, look at me, a normal member of society, doing my shopping.’ He smiled inside.
As he left the apartment earlier, he was not feeling so content – his neighbour looked the other way as usual. ‘Why do some people do that’he thought? Leaving his apartment had become an ordeal of sorts now unfortunately. ‘Best ignore, three strikes rule Rooster!’
Rooster was his black and white Persian cat. They moved to theapartment together one year ago after he broke up with his girlfriend. NotRooster’s girlfriend, his – him being Joseph, respectable member of societycurrently in the shop. Rooster was a female cat so did not have a girlfriendbut maybe she did if she was a lesbian cat – or bisexual. Anyway that’sirrelevant. He was feeling ok in the shop.
He browsed the papers as he waited in the queue – ‘the death drive inprint’ he mused to himself. He had not bought one in years but still wasdrawn to some online though was weening himself off the Guardian sincetheir consistent attacks on Jezza Corbyn.
The young woman with the mask behind the screen at the till was friendly,she made eye contact and smiled ‘so that was sweet’ he thought in hindsight. He never understood the strangeness of people or could fully comprehend them or how he should interact. Friends he almost understood, strangers also – it was the in between stage that puzzled him- acquaintances. But he also knew that friends morphed into strangers over time sometimes. ‘Strange…’
The sun was out in the car park so that was great. It had been so dark recently for mid-Summer and Joseph needed the sun. Ever since the sky developed the pinkish blue hue last month, things had been extra strange.But where do we start with when it began? The virus? The wars? The Internet? The famines? The celebrities? The job applications? Joseph had long forgotten.
In the car, which was of course messy as usual, he played on old indierock cd. He knew he should really listen to more contemporary music andhe had friends who were DJs and musicians but in a way, he pridedhimself on his ignorance and obstinacy in the aural field. He also felt hewas nonetheless an expert at music but this did not extend to keepingabreast of well… anything really these days.
The drive home was quiet. The crows outside his apartment did what crows do – fly around and kind of croak crow-like. He liked them but had a watchful, funny relationship with them also. They lived in the trees and watched everyone – Rooster especially as she was a skilled hunter – ‘a wee shit’ Derry people might say. I guess Joseph and the birds were friends in a way (he threw them bread some days) but the birds kept a distance but nonetheless were always there at night so must have been quite happy with the locale as they could always just fly away and build anew nest somewhere better. And they never did.
He always wanted to go away and was often happy planning to go somewhere only to be disappointed by the results. But the process was enjoyable – much like art or literature maybe. Difficult also… Anyway,going away was banned these days so he could not plan anything… which in a way was maybe a good thing. No one had expectations – ‘there’s nothing left’ as Baudrillard once wrote…
As usual in the evening, Joseph sat in his favourite chair beside the window smoking a rolled cigarette and drinking tea on the third floor of his apartment. Thoughts passed through his mind – some funny, some irritating and some intriguing.
Earlier he saw a bee that lived under the ground in a crack in the concrete. He never knew bees had hives underground but then why would he know that? He wondered why it chose to live there and how life was for it. Then he thought of the dead badger he saw on the road twice over the last week. ‘Why did no one pick it up?’ He knew a friend who stopped to bury dead animals and thought he should do likewise but it was a busy road and he was always in a bit of a hurry these days. Lockdown was easing thankfully and life was returning to normal, whatever that means but he still had no time for some reason.
Thankfully it was very quiet as usual. Things did happen in his life for sure but more so on a subconscious or fantasy level – or rather, it consisted of mundane events mixed with the fantastic or paranoid depending on your outlook…
He had not gone out of the apartment much in recent months. He smiled to himself that he was now almost officially a hikikomori and took solace in the designation. 6 months is the correct duration though it is a choice rather than a competition he presumed. And he was pretty close to 3 months bar journeys to get food to eat to stay alive.
The Virus pandemic of course encouraged him and everyone to stayindoors. Outside at times was like a Police state where traffic cops sentpeople home for breaking curfew. This of course led him to consider howin the near future, a government could recall such measures to maximisecontrol…
The public seemed almost more keen on this then the government he mused. ‘Power, eh?’ Anyway, he didn’t dwell on it too long as like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, he would ‘prefer not to.’
That outlook summed up his life in recent years. In general, Joseph sometimes could not see the point in going out when you have to go back home? ‘For what is out there?’ he would ask Rooster..
The Self and the Other? The encounter! The dialectical collision – in a neoliberal, simulated and strange world!?’
Rooster tended to ignore his monologues unless she wanted food or her head stroked. But all in all, she was a great listener and sometimes gave good advice in return.
Joseph had not worked in a field he was trained in in over two years as he was so busy developing an interdisciplinary theory on global alienation and division. He was unofficially unemployed but he did not get benefits and as he awaiting news on recent applications and had his own sources of income.
‘Winners and losers’ wrote Franco Berardi of our late capitalist condition…soon Rooster, soon…’
Unaligned to any institution, he was sure his research would nonetheless prove seminal across a number of disciplines – psychology, sociology and politics to name but a few. He had studied Philosophy and Psychology at University but had lost faith in academia in recent years. Despite getting a first, he was rejected for a research position at his college because he told the Dean that Anglo American philosophy is bullshit – which much of it was but now he knows you don’t say that.
Thus went his illustrious academic career but ‘only time would be his judge’. To make money, he made sculptures of famous philosophers and worked part time as a scrap metal merchant – or he used to….
‘How long do you think this will last?’ his friend asked him online. ‘Calm,rational me says a few months, paranoid me says forever.’
He loved the dumps and yards. Cars piled up on high, screeching machines, paper, plastic, metal, everything everywhere, coming, going.Broken. At the top the sky, the birds and off in the distance the fields. The collision. We come, we go, we trade, we get money. We cry, we lie, we die. Dialectics in motion.’
Those days were long gone though. Joseph, as a committed dialectician never rested on a comforting, dogmatic conclusion but considered the contradictions and mutations of all statements or beliefs in flux – and as all is change, he was relatively calm about the situation.
After putting out his cigarette, he scrolled through his social media feed on his phone, felt tempted to like or comment but held back as usual.‘Voyeurs and exhibitionists’… He was no better and was of course jaded with social media; this being 2020 after all, not 2008 Even then it was an accident and now he was obliged… The twist of course was that he could never leave as ‘virtual death is more real than real death these days?’
Baudrillard said Marx’s concept of alienation is redundant – ‘where bourgeois and proletariat struggle for control – domination, hierarchy –both feel alienated but the bourgeois has power in alienation – –
‘‘For Baudrillard, all life is now a simulation – the real is gone – we havelost touch with alienation’.
As Joseph mused, he was reminded of a conversation he had a year or 2 previously in Tokyo where he told someone how in the future we would never need to meet or go on holiday as we could stay in our room forever and the screen or VR Headset would create our preprogramed friends and locations. Looking back, he thought
‘maybe that was not the future after all?’
Sitting there, he pondered what to do? Send an email, check out the window. He was going to watch another episode of Serial Experiments Lain or listen to another Ballard short story but instead begun to stare intohis fire.
‘Am I alienated’, he wondered?
His thesis addressed this social phenomenon and now it may have become his reality? But then he took solace in considering alienation as intrinsically bound to harmony – and it could also be seen as a blessing for it granted him deeper understanding of the social fabric of most of the world’s population. His was an experiment and if only he could formulate and diagnose the situation then it would all be worthwhile.
‘Derry is a city of joy and alienation, between countries and between…’(he gave up)
He then reflected upon hikikomori’s again.
‘Such funny phenomena. Like ‘Chads or ‘Karen’s’ – ‘maybe they should have a march he thought?’
‘Chads March? They could march with placards as they combed their hair and texted their ladies?Karen’s March would involve going from store to store calling for themanager?And hikikomori’s well, there’s would be cancelled?’
Joseph wasn’t a cynic but tried to find humour in many things. Comedy and tragedy are of course related. Politically he was far to the left and tended to support anti-capitalism, anti -colonialism (in all senses) and Direct Democracy. But he had grown wary of activism also, seeing hierarchy and conflict as intrinsic to it also..,.
Nice liberal doctors categorise people with depression but he knew such classifications were entirely divorced from the subjects social and political milieu. The world was in alienation and divided – ‘it is estranged.’
‘The president of the USA’s mantra was ‘drain the swamp’ and he got elected. That said everything. Imagine standing to be president of a school or University or golf club and your call was ‘drain the swamp?’
Joseph reached for his phone again and googled Yeezy – ‘What would Kanye think or be doing now? Hmm, he’s on a mountain with two of his friends. Hope he’s ok.’
He then reached for his guitar and begun to poorly play the solo from the Stones’ Gimme Shelter. When he was younger, he used to watch Apocolypse Now after a night out and slip into a surreal parallel world.‘We’re all American now wrote Baudrillard.’ Playing it finally (if badly) was thus a fitting symbolic conclusion to this past recurring event. Then he pondered maybe if he was in Vietnam or in a war in a previous life? Then he realised his ancestors of course were – like everyone’s and
‘we all may be living through delayed generational traumas that we cover up with selfie sticks and soap operas – or we use them to confirm we are alive and to observe and resolve conflicts vicariously?’
‘Us and Them
Home – Not home.
Joseph got up and looked out his window. Down below, two men were on the corner in conversation. He could not hear them but imagined what they were talking about. ‘Football? Kant? Rhubarb?’
Then one man turned and looked directly up at him. He made eye contact for but a moment and held his stare. Joseph was shocked. He quickly sat back down at the fire. He then got up and went to the kitchen and made a coffee then went to his door and checked it was locked. He returned to the fireplace and smoked a cigarette then went to the window and was pleased the two men had gone. ‘Weirdoes’ he mused…
‘Do we have a sixth sense’ he wondered? ‘Windows are strange, inside and outside, the Mirror… Home/ Not home… us/ them
He logged into Facebook again – a friend was complaining about a café where social distancing was not enforced. ‘Classic passive aggression’ he thought and scrolled down.
The relations of Self and Other – this Gap intrigued him. Like the space between 2 chords on a guitar – dissonance and harmony…
‘How could conflict or division or indeed communication be understood and indeed resolved on a meta level? To elucidate, how can we define it on an abstract level? Are these the right words?… No it’s jumbled, aaaghhh. Take Israel-Palestine or rival derby soccer clubs or a disagreement at a check out counter. What was the underlying or overriding structure that fermented the fissures or cracks? Hmmm… and how can we build greater harmony and humour?’
For Joseph, Nietzsche’s emphasis on the Will to Power in all human interactions seemed too cold and missed the simultaneous beauty and comedy and love in life. But who was he to question great thinkers – ‘a good philosopher never tells the truth but provokes thought!’
‘Perhaps the concept Estrangement was more apt for his current condition? As it fused the strange with the social fracture… ‘
Rooster was only half listening.
How long had he felt this way? Hmmm, well his last official job involved a senior who he would not say bullied him but who criticised his work in an aggressive tone. Joseph reacted calmly but after it continued for a few weeks, he phoned the superior and quit. This confused the superior as the power balance had now shifted and Joseph could relax for his last month of work.
Joseph of course was no saint either, none of us are and anger was an emotion he disliked in himself and others. But it existed just like the will to power and status. ‘And this brought us in conflict with others…’
‘Power, hierarchy, domination – it is not merely top down of course!’ He rented a room in his apartment and as a landlord received little money. He stood up and looked out the window again and mused aloud to Rooster –
‘In German, ‘Unheimlich’ translates as ‘not at home.’ The uncanny! Dolls, mannequins, robots – they are both alive and dead Rooster! How does this relate?’
Joseph lifted a figurine and placed it beside Rooster.
‘The artist is a myth, a concept of the Enlightenment, it divided artists from non-artists. Failure is success and success is… failure ?
Rather, the concepts are upside down often. To understand alienation and division and the comedy and tragedy, I need failure! It is a blessing, thank you!
Think Kafka or Flann O’Brien…’
Rooster now looked out the window.
‘Art is life crystallized. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, Adorno’s negative dialectics, Baudrillard’s Pataphysics!’
Rooster turned round and looked at him..
‘Is this our home Rooster? Or should we go again?
My home creates the other? Rousseau spoke of private property as infantallizing – like competitions or funding applications in art?
Conflict between catholic and protestant in northern Ireland is a couple having passive aggressive digs in the kitchen over the way the lid is turned on the ketchup. The couple love and hate each other – like Beckett’s characters, they are forever caught in dustbins condemned to share a misery field forever… they think the other is the other and sing but in reality they both love EastEnders and…’
Rooster jumped down and hopped on his lap.
‘Freud’s concept of the Uncanny means eerily familiar – Home/ Not home
He was struggling in his monologue, struggling for resolution…
‘David Bohm said we are all one – nature and humans and animals – one interdependent living organism. The strange is the opening to the other world or the conflicts within this world bumbling to the surface?
Joseph woke up the next day and slowly prepared a coffee, rolled a cigarette and got up and reached for his phone and checked his emails. An email from that college he applied to for a job about a month ago… He walked to the kitchen quickly then back to his chair then looked out the window then he quickly opened the email.
Thank you for your application. We regret to inform you that on this occasion….’
He looked out the window down at the corner. He was calm and smiled to himself. ‘It’s probably not the place for me’ he reasoned. ‘At least they replied, didn’t use my name but hey guess they’re very busy’.
Then his phone beeped. It was K whom he worked with collecting and selling scrap metal! He looked out the window and there was his big truck. His eyes lit up, K waved up to him beckoning him down. Joseph rushed to the door…
Two hours later after collecting and cutting up a small mountain of steel, Joseph and K arrived at the yard. As usual they went round the back so it could be weighed and costed. In Northern Ireland you can sometimes sense if someone is catholic or protestant and this creates a divide sometimes – as a teenager Joseph broke it with rock and roll and romance and beer and cannabis and jokes. As you grow though, identities seem to settle in firmer but ‘all is change and alienation and divisions cannot last forever’ he mused as they drove down the road.
‘preconceptions evaporate through interaction?
politics and the media are division? We are…?’
As the guy in the forklift waved, he quickly put on his gloves and jumped out of the truck. They nodded in acknowledgement – words were not needed in situations like this. Eye contact for half a second is more than enough. These were yard men!
For a few minutes, the four men smashed and crashed the steel with hammers and sledgies. Joseph loved it. They were one in harmony for but a moment. He even made good money.
As he sat at home that night he told Rooster all about his great day.
‘It was an impromptu collaborative performance Rooster
– and a monumental sculpture!
We were surrounded by a wonderful installation suggesting our imminent demise or transcendence in a little corner of….
– transmitted live to planet mars or the otherworld where they are watching our strange little performances J
We were happy and in unison for a wee while today –we shouldn’t get too sad about being apart! It’s not that serious after all is said and done.’
Rooster smiled and ran to the kitchen… Joseph followed…
A short story by Rory Harron, July 2020