Extreme Cases

by Brian Clark

     Phone rings:

     "This is the Modernity Society. We need you to come in and bring us up to date. Please provide records verifying your attendance in Hell."

     Hell. I don't go there. It really burns me up, pun intended, intended as the lowest (get it? forget it) form of humor. In Hell, everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator. I have a feeling this call may be the beginning of some form of descent into endless winding figure eights through the baroque hallways of officialdom, and that the only humor I may soon have left is my aqueous, and even that may sizzle to a raisin. In Hell, everything is cut and dried, follow the green line (wherever it twists), there's no room for me, not even at the end of the hall.

     "Your bus token will be validated upon arrival," the voice from Hell says, and clicks the line off.

     Now I trip none too lightly towards the Modernity Society, dreaming of co-operation and tandemness, nightmaring of all life's end, lip synching to a zip bop riff, scheming a way to describe the plenitentiary of discourse, wrap my message around the Moderns' heads, entrain them with my sales pitch, drum the drones like to heartbeat, syncretic evil on vacation in our town buddy boy, crinkling on the edges, nah, burning down the wrong side, like flames of cellophane and strobe at The Pirates of the Caribbean, the Ideology of Paradise, sing it to me, baby, the Moderns may have heaven on their minds but, blown supersonic and bleachy milky pale, they land on this street, where the phone is constantly ringing, cigarettes are hard to find, answers are never the same, and you still have certain responsibilities.

     The phone rings:

     "Dial-a-Syllogism, thanks for answering. If you've been attending Hell you'll recognize this one: Some people have certain responsibilities. Of this I am certain. Therefore I am responsible. Call back soon and you'll hear a free enthymeme employed by seven successful people."

     The only thing disallowed in Hell is ambiguity. Well, and spitting is frowned upon. Likewise chewing gum, as that generates saliva. Kissing and oral sex are pretty much out, too.

     "Don't you get it?" I find myself screeching at the Director of the Modern Society. "I try so hard to reach you, to make myself clear to you, hell, it's not as if I were chanting madly backwards." Imagine the despair in my voice, the deep pain from years of self-inflicted brain washing and television watching, the rhapsody of irony, and bigamy, and polyploidalism.

     "No need to become pugnacious or loquacious, Ms Hauser."

     "You have me confused with a great unknown American novelist. I'm not even technically a 'miz.'"

     "Perhaps you should bring us up to date ...."

     "The junk mailers spell my name wrong, the phone solicitors act as if they know me, and the Web thinks it's my mate!" I whelp on national VD. The whelp plops into a fishbowl of silence, and swims in isolated circles forever as if nobody knows what I mean. The cameras just stare and stare, whirring like an asthmatic having a bad air day.

     I can't see anybody looking back, and I begin having attendance problems in Hell.

     One person definitely not allowed in Hell, the Minister of Modernity had once updated me, is Sergei Eisenstein.

     "Lookout, he's got a montage!"

     How can I go to Hell and remain unambiguous about it? "We're suffering from redundant isobubblism, and it's dull as dust!" I was heard to snivel on rational TV.

     Sergei and I are able to find a room at the Babel Inn with Spanish speech, though this is somewhat problematic, as I speak very little of anything but English, and Sergei's Spanish is warped by a thick Russian accent that makes him sound like Trotsky uttering his last words while being kissed by Diego Rivera. The room is bigger than our needs, but we'll take it.

     Phone rings:

     "Es por tu." I hand the phone over to the big Russian who looks more like a basketball player than a snoozing ursan. Comrade Eisenstein peers into the receiver like a reincarnated Medieval mischief maker. "The history of architecture is always prevailed by the history of scaffolding," he points out. "This is why architectonics means not just the building itself, but all the simultaneous structural assumptions as well."

     My first visit to Hell was a complete disaster. My guide immediately fell silent, and did not seem to see me the entire time we were humping the scaffolding. My requests for a cigarette were met with a sonic vacuum and my libidinous panderings went unaided.

     "The problem," I tell the Most Modern Minister, "is the isolation. How can I remain up to date when I can't communicate with the denizens of Hell? You can't even get a decent hot dog in this town any more. Personally, I think the whole thing is set to blow."

     Through MoMod's glasses I can see a goldfish swimming within his watery eyes. The fish's lips ripple as if they don't know whether to stay open or to close completely and forever. I am pretty sure this is really occuring when my R*Army blazer bursts into flames.

     "Did you ever take rhetoric in school, Mr. Zlabotnik?" the Keeper of Antiquities for the Modernity Society asks me one day.

     "But of course," I murmur, momentarily imagining that she and me are sitting at one of those quiet outdoor café tables in Europe, our ankles kissing in the manner of the Oroborian Islanders. I may have spoken with an accent when I ordered our attaché et crême du monde to go.

     "Then you know the value of clear, precise thinking, writing, and speech, do you not," her hands make chopping motions, as if preparing sushi according to a mathematical formula unknown to most indigenous peoples, "of not mixing metaphors, of sustaining a logical argument and moving directly to a conclusion?" She peers over the tops of her glasses, her pale blue eyes looking for all the tea in China like spots on a rare koi.

     I nod preternaturally, pretending to understand. "No rum babas with your ambiguity, eh?"


     Sergei hangs up the phone and sighs. "People are so temporal mental. Give them an inch stick and they want the time of day."

     "A ruler or a role model?" I ask, seeking definition like a good little Hell spawn, though please understand that I am only able to gloss Sergei's speech; he may have meant something else entirely.

     I keep trying to press on, persist down the alley, searching for the lost Number 9 bus that honks its horn forlornly on a distant street, practicing abstinence from ambiguity, punctuating myself with logical positivism and reading as I walk from The Pleiadean Book of New Age Gob Slobber, hell yes, it's true, I do feel these waves of patriotism surge over me from time to time, the occasional flicker of filial piety, the desire to erase myself, become a blank slate ready for the tattoo of the state, a feeling which passes quicker than coke through the hallways of Congress when I recall, with mixed green feelings, Minister Modagog's beef with me. I realize, of course, that he has conceived of his question -- whatever that was, I currently don't recall the particulars -- as an end point, a place to finally arrive after the exhausting journey through the gates of regurgitation, while I read his question as a starting point, a cliff from which I leap into the unexplored updrafts of ecstatic ambiguity, necrogenetically giving myself to a life of difference. I touch upon Modagog's question, briefly, as any bird's foot might touch upon the last twig of a left-behind tree.

     But I'm really in hot water now.

     "The question becomes," I am telling the Vice President in charge of Reports on Modernization and Modernity, when was it? just the other week? "one of balance between ambiguity and redundancy. You see -- "

     The old bird stood shaking his head. "No ambiguity can be allowed to creep into the report. That's why it is so important that you do the writing in Hell. Exactitude is tantamount to the future of the world as we know it." Whatever that means, but you can see my dilemma as the truth comes out. I am a reporter plagued by uncertainties, burning, not with the certitude of facts, but with conviction of curiosity.

     Yes, I work for the Modernity Society, writing news of the world and other reports in a plain forward fashion. I write an advice column for the vague varnished, for those poor uncertainty-plagued souls who haunt our Earth. And now the City Editor was trying to move my desk to the morgue!

     "Do I need to repeat myself?" the President or City Editor, I forget which, Fifi I think her name was, asks severely.

     "To a certain extent," I answered truculently. Sergei hung up the phone and sighed, gazing at me fondly, his eyes the pale blue reflection of the sky in a mountain pool. A fish swims beneath the bridge of his nose.

     "Vell," he said, redundantly pushing his glasses up, for wouldn't they just slide back down?

     I spun around to face the ravening Cerebusian dogma and began having attendance problems in Hell, I swear it was that quick.

     Finally up to date on the situation, I realized, jeez shit, I should have simply answered the question, given an unambiguous undistorted echo of information already received, passive nexus of glowing information, no matter how redundant, anything to defeat this state of alternativeness, this alterity ego gone blue and wild with the blues, thinking, I see the red ink on the margins of the preliminary report, disallowing discussion of cognitive processes and I'm blowing fire saxworks on all axes, probing my pockets for a puff of tobacco, thinking, if I even had a light.

     "You have a responsibility to uncertainty," I vented in the vernacular on the video display, what? days, weeks, months ago?

     The phone rings:

     "Greetings, this is an agent of the Modernity Society. We'd like to offer you a job writing a column in The Modern Times. You'd be allaying the doubts and fears of people writing in with their questions from Hell."

     The phone rings:

     "Hi, this is a randomly generated phone call designed to test your reflexes. Please answer the following questions as clearly and simply as possible."

     Somewhere along the line something went very wrong. Could it have been the yeast? It was right about then that I began having problems with my attendance in Hell. I mean, really, these loaves were never going to rise.

     Sergei Eisenstein sits on the street corner writing about ways of organizing information. His mental gymnastics lead him to juxtapose various ideas and images of ideas, often with startling results. Smoking in the balmy afternoon sun, Sergei feels like the King of Serendip.

     I am walking down the road towards that monolithic chunk of architecture, the Ministry of Modernization. I have on my departmental sneakers, and in the twinging whine of the high tension wires I can hear the lawless dialogue going on between ambiguity and redundancy. I slapped my shirt front, feeling for a pack of cigarettes.

     Sergei hangs up the phone and sighs. I feel a momentary pulse of déjà vu, as if reality were a lumpy blanket folded back on itself.

     "I know you've probably heard this all before," said the Main Minister of Modernity, "but we must have unequivocal answers to these important questions."

     "Question the answers, fart breath," I rudely ballyhoo, "you have an answerability, I mean responsibility to uncertainty, a debt to doubt, so to speak, we owe a favor to some foggy notion or other, we need more knowledge of nuances, less insistence on definitive stances."

     I turned to Sergei and gave him a long wet kiss. "Let's go play on words."

     Sergei scribbles a note. The phone rings. The alarm goes off. My report is due. So, who's late to Hell now?