In the end, recognition took weeks. Acceptance, months. Understanding – of all the variables and states involved – still going, and who knows if I’ll ever make it… but if I could pinpoint the person who delivered me to the recognition of those doors in the first place – it would definitely be Alex Sheremet.
Cue months and months back. I was still in the army. I had just watched Evangelion – and was still trying to seek out various meanings, things that would place that work in perspective. An interesting fact about Evangelion. The first time I saw it was way back when I was a child, Primary 2 – showing on some cartoon channel late night. The details are unimportant, and I’ve forgotten the when and where – but the image stuck. This was the first Rebuild movie, with crisp animation that hammered home the atmosphere – the Moon & the giant robot. I had no idea what it was about – it was already more than 50% through and I only saw the ending – but the image lured and teased something higher and unexplainable. That single image stuck over the years – and I would slowly read up about what that show actually was – but I would never touch it until I entered the army. In a sense, it was a pattern that was generated by that chance encounter – coming into fruition years later. In truth, it’s probably more banal than that – but my mind chooses to mythologize it as such.
But I don’t want to talk about Evangelion that much. I came into contact with it – and it became the jumping pad to something greater, with the mediator of that jump being Alex’s article. As I said above, recognition took weeks – and, if you go to the comments section of his article, you can see a part of that (rather cringey) process in action. Either way, something stuck – or perhaps it was just the boredom of the military environment – that made me return to that article again and again, each time gaining a little more sight beyond the surface skim of words, and seeing the things that were really there – rather than imagined. While that was going on, I had also – through his criticism – discovered critic Dan Schneider: who posed even more of a struggle due to his unflinching style – but… well, you can see the end results now.
One thing that both of these critics imparted to me – the most important lesson – was the need to go into fundamentals, and to search beyond gloss & names. The belief – for example – that a person’s method or way of life can be encompassed through a single article – that you can understand a person’s position merely through a sliver of his output. People, for example, thinking that they can understand Dan Schneider through a small handful of his reviews alone – when all that is the surface scum that aggregates into a greater sense of the man. People who see him lob terms like ‘greatness’ or ‘objectivity’ about without understanding what these terms truly entails – and thus believe that he is going by some archaic standard – when his idea of it is a leap into a future that so little people have the ability to accept, even as the times move beyond them.
In a way, it helped to read both of these critics in alternation – because Alex helped to expand on the philosophical underpinnings – while Dan was the practicum. That’s not to say that either one is lacking in the other component, but simply that they had different overall focuses – and one complemented the other. The more and more I read – words melted away – as well as particularities – but method remained. It became tool – or concept. Both critics had divergences, but approached the same higher thing in their own manner.
I’ve now read almost every article of Alex’s on his site – and impressed upon me are his particularities and core themes. Core approach to subjects – no matter how distant they seem in topic. The repeated focus on human folly, impermanence (especially of politics), and evolutionary patterns. The knowledge of Classicism, Chinese philosophies, and Nietzsche. Jabs at Nabokov and Rimbaud. Those little sayings and turns of poesy that litter his articles, and make them more memorable than just evaluation: most prominently “as long as we’re recognizably human” (he even uses the phrase for deadlifting!) – and, here are a few more lengthier ones that I’ve run through my head again and again:
“Perhaps I am biased, here, and feel undue affinity with the subject, since – unlike so many other artists in the world – I am a blank slate. Or rather, I used to be. I was pulled, prodded, numbered, branded, and otherwise owned and passed like so much chattel by everything from politics, to Latin, to powerlifting and drawing. I was going to be great, a visionary, in anything that I’d ever touch, whether that meant being a politician, or one of the few fluent Latinists in the world. I was going to be all of these things until art finally pulled me in, and grew me. I could have been Norman Finkelstein. Some unionist. A yogi. Perhaps this is why I’m sympathetic. But, something didn’t let me, for I knew how such stories end. Every time I see it unfold – for it will continue to unfold in others forever – there is some nascent part of me that understands the mindset, the consummation, and even feels nostalgia in it. Yet, as if this is the drama of some parallel dimension I’ve long left behind, I can no longer reach out my hand and make it stop. Perhaps my hand, at this point, would not even understand it.”
“Politics is an idiot’s game. In fact, it’s been an idiot’s game ever since the first 2 ‘geniuses’ got together in an attempt to solve a very simple issue: how, at a time when things were a bit more, well, visceral, a couple of poltroons might scheme to overthrow their supposed betters. This is, of course, a good thing, for when aristocrats conk, people will be forced to cooperate. They’ll get smarter and better organized, until a new dilemma emerges. People, after all, still need to be led. People, who’ve improved, as a whole, are still and always will be a mob, ruled by intangibles few can ever hope to master. And people, whether they’ve got their heads in the clouds or their asses in the mud, are still aristocrats at heart, and forever part of this transaction.”
“Art is not ‘truth,’ but a dupe’s game wherein the best sleight-of-hand wins, and utterly un-real concoctions — wonderfully sketched characters, poetic dialogue — trick the consumer into accepting them as real, thus lowering one’s autonomic defenses against feeling manipulated or ‘cheated,’ defenses that were engineered into us for reasons of survival, but still come out, now, at the slightest suggestion of deceit. This is why the worst art feels so cheap, so exploitative of people’s emotional weaknesses, and why self-conscious (i.e., pretentious) art, if done well, is so bravissimo, for it STILL manages to get to the core of reality despite its artifice, thus signaling to the viewer a level of technical mastery few art-works can achieve.”
“Interestingly, this is similar to what occurs in objective discussions of art, as human culture is the sum average of ALL discussions, and responds, no matter the seeming diversity of ‘opinions’ (e.g., quantum states, to continue Hoffman’s metaphor), with steady, predictable states that always seem to find some regression to the mean when given enough time. Unlike what we normally think of as ‘average’, however, the result is in fact a seeming contradiction with quantum reality, which, in turn, is little more than a mathematical feature of that reality. The sum total – i.e., the only objective reality – remains untouched. It is, to borrow Hoffman’s use of multiple subjects, like removing a small-‘w’ world and replacing it with percipients who are nonetheless able to re-populate the world with objects, or at the very least have logic rally around them, give them life. This can be seen with simulations, sure. Yet it can also be seen by those who have, in fact, purposed and re-purposed life effectively, and in their own way, and consistently, until a system has emerged. Great artists, for example. In the meantime, scientists and philosophers will continue to play catch-up to things that we’ve known to be implicit in what had always seemed less rational pursuits.”
“Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.”
“To be frank, I don’t give a shit about sports, and probably never will. Their basic point of interest — to test one’s mettle in some semi-standardized fashion — is partly made redundant by the hundreds, if not thousands, of new outlets for such since the nadirs of civilization are now comfortably behind us. The human body is on the outs, and Lance Armstrong must on some level understand this. There was his cancer, for one. There was the belief (fact, perhaps) that his accomplishments were impossible without a little push. And, of course, there was the inevitable fallout, replete with a target-system — and hysteria — unlike in any other sport before it, when the records were smaller, and the men a bit shorter. Yet so many were getting that little ‘push,’ as well. Sure, they went nowhere, but revealed things that no myth-maker ever will, who is just too busy for the pettiness, and the envy, that afflicts the myth-takers”
“But, art is not chaos, nor is it necessarily about reality, at least not in a crude sense. It’s pattern. Realistic situations can arise, but if they are presented in an evocative way, full of irony or juxtaposition or even some insightful commentary, there’s a depth not present in ordinary experience, even if the characters are unaware of the artist’s machinations. “
But all of the above merely appears in the style of criticism & commentary – which must necessarily be rooted in another subject – and have its core diluted as exchange for engaging in a specific communication to a specific audience. What happens when you strip all the above from its limited premises – allowing for free reign and the highest communication to occur? You get Art!
Previously, I had a glimpse of this through Alex’s short story – published on Cosmoetica – called the Sum of Others. It’s a condensation of so many of his themes, stripped down to their core elements with poesy and narrative. Yet, that was just a taster. Recently – Alex sent me two of his novels to check out. He told me to read the unpublished Doors & Exits first, because its superior (evaluated by Dan as a great novel) – and so that’s exactly what I did.
Doors & Exits
Alex’s website that I’ve linked above describes the novel (or, as he calls it, a ‘docudrama’) as such:
“Beginning with three philosophical axioms that, in the narrator’s mind, define the universe and its machinations, the book adjusts, rejects, and renews them till the very end. But while the book’s ‘place’ may be a fabrication, its conflicts are not, for its characters (kids, teachers, and those somewhere in between) have a reality someplace, somewhere, and will repeat themselves – ad nauseam – for as long as we’re recognizably human. This is the little-known difference between Truth and Reality, and Alex’s novel – a ‘genuine fake’! – straddles both.”
This description might seem a little abstract – so I’ll just describe the narrative as simplistically as I can. The main first-person narrator is a Journalist called Bright Carlyle who – in a beautifully poetic foreword – relates to us his 3 rules/axioms that determines existence. I don’t know if I can adequately explain these 3 rules, so here’s the excerpt from that foreword:
It’s hard to see sometimes, but the universe is not that complicated. At first, things churn. That’s easy enough. Then, they mope about through space, shaped to fit anywhere and everywhere, tugging at each other from a great distance. That, I suppose, is the first rule, the axiom that shapes all else, from the spiral of the stars, to the rhythms of the gutter. And as any poor little boy lucky enough to own a telescope in New York could tell you, the two are somehow co-dependent.
Now, I wonder if that’s the key to all this, for it seems that everything wants to somehow get together. To build. At times, I could still see a child with a sand-bucket, staring out into the ambit of the sea. He is tall, important, like something coaxed off of a Romantic painting. He is solitary. Authentic. Yet if you turn your head, just a smidge, there’s a shadow beside him, plopping sand into the bucket, giving firmness to the whims of its companion. In a half-hour, there will be a sand-castle blowing off the coast. But only one boy will get the credit. Only one will be known as the builder. The creator. One boy sees. And the other; well, the other merely believes.
I know this because I was once the shadow on that beach. The accessory. I saw but did not have the skill, the wherewithal, to put that sight to practice. To make it personal not only to me. Yes, I “believed,” but I could do little else. Such is the nature of art. The word “artifice,” after all, is related to it, and it is a relationship most people don’t really think about. Not even the builders.
Yet I am not sad, for things must be this way. For us – the accessories, the believers – there is an exit that, when we go past its threshold, disassembles us to vapor, and where we (if we’re a bit patient) inevitably become a part of something else entirely. To stay within one’s purpose; to be recycled, without a fight or plaint, into something big…I do not think there is much shame in that, even as we wish for more.
That is the second rule. It has something to do with independence; with creation, perhaps, on the small scale. I don’t know what that is, exactly. In fact, I probably never will. But I do know that I am somewhere in this process. You probably are, too.
But that’s all kid-stuff, you say. Arithmetic. Probability. Well, alright. But, there’s the proverbial monkey wrench to all this, too. Rule #2 describes a universe of interlocking squares, where a vibration in one place – any place, really – is felt, almost by definition, somewhere else too, even if that’s on the very edge of the universe.
Now, this is a zero-sum game. There isn’t much movement, even if it feels as if the world is rolling off its orbit. But as the first axiom shows, things are always churning. And, in all likelihood, things will only continue to engender more squares. More repeats of the same. Yet after a million, a billion of the same moves, something goes awry. A peg is not completely flattened. A square is not a square, but its own shape, somehow, and behaves a little differently.
Almost without fail, the universe begins to churn a little harder. It’s trying to bring these trouble-makers into harmony. It’s trying to outnumber them. Usually, they are just pummeled back into the “real” world, probably because they didn’t offer much of anything in the first place, anyway, misshapen, as they were, by mere accident. You know the type. Charles Manson. Fetishists and weirdos of every stripe. Artists who smear themselves with eye-liner, then knock themselves about a room so they could sell the photographic rights to whatever “painting” that might emerge. Blip. Off they go, through that same exit as the rest of us, as if their aspirations simply never were.
Yet what if something here is, I don’t know, useful? And what if we, the collective squares of the universe, rebel against the second axiom: that things mostly blip in and out, on some micro-scale, in pairs, triplets, and so on, and accept – after years of wrangling – just one more shape into our midst? Have we, somehow, moved creation? Did we tweak the engine that stutters life?
Again: I don’t know. But therein lies the seed of the third and final rule. If cosmic lumps like you and me shoot out from the bowels of the world, go here, go there, then make a detour before finally heading for that exit, there is, somewhere along the way, another set of doors, far more numerous, yet far more distant, than the solitary exit that the rest of us must share. They don’t lead to any one place in particular. They don’t advertise. Beseech. If you turn the knob, there is no great sucking sound that pulls you in. Instead, there is only more space.
One should not be surprised, then, that most people turn right around. They want answers. Not more emptiness. Not space. And so they leave. The door stays open just a crack.
Have we hit upon a kind of torture? A dead end? No, I’d argue, for the nature of accomplishment has no end, and nothing’s that quite settled. There are simply more doors up ahead. A few, if one looks closely, are already quite ajar, and some of us are planning to go further still.
In this excerpt, you can already see Alex’s primary style. His narrator talks in casual tone, with all the little quirks of speech, but delivers abstractions grounded with great images (the sandbox image – which can be attached to many things, including a ‘great man’ view of history). But Alex is also capable of setting a scene in a quick, impressionistic form:
I’d gotten off the wrong end. The university parking lot was in a derelict-looking side of town, and cars tended to pile up rather quickly. Yet I was drawn to somewhere more secluded, to the flowers and trees, which gave everything the look of a post-Cambrian playground. It’s been years, I thought, and I’m still surprised to find no one here. The sky was barren. A nearby fountain sounded to no end. The only thing missing – if that’s the right word – was people. Not seeing anyone else around to give me trouble, I left my car among the weeds and made my way inside the building.
Note the natural tenor of the prose, and how it moves deftly in short bursts. Only one particularly uncommon word stands out, and that word draws everything into it. But there’s still that rumination that isn’t just descriptive, about how this place looked in the past.
But, let’s put the style aside from now, and get to what the story is about:
Bright Carlyle is looking to write a book on something and has taken time off his main job to do so. He isn’t quite clear on what themes he wants to write about exactly, but he has decided that he’ll find out at a school named School of the Future located in the housing complex of Count 46. This complex is located in a bad part of the city. The rest of the novel, told to us in a condensed 125 pages, is Bright writing about the stuff going on in the school while he ruminates on his philosophical axioms & comes across a host of characters both human and philosophically symbolic.
This is the meaning of the ‘genuine-fake’ statement in the summary. Alex, as you can see from the above quotes, understands the intrinsic artifice that goes into fiction. So, he doesn’t do anything like extensive setting description or world-building, but merely ‘floats’ up a school around Bright for him to play off of with his thoughts. It also doesn’t matter if he stretches the philosophical voice of the characters (although he doesn’t do it for all characters), because they’re set within the strong poetics of Bright’s voice, which allows for the artifice to be stretched. The easiest comparison to make would be to the symbolic settings in the works of Herman Hesse.
Each chapter is like a mini snapshot on the setting, or short-story made of multiple-snapshots – which then coheres into a greater philosophical point. With an explorative novel like this – focused on the meditations of a narrator walking through a certain humanscape – it is less of an immersive book, and more of a ruminative book – built more for slow imbibing.
Yet, the key difference between this book and another book of its sort – say a Hesse novel or a book like Soseki’s Kusamakura – is the point of entry which Alex chooses. It provides a grounding rather than just floating upon poetic remembrances, symbolic orders & philosophical abstraction – and throughout the book there are both the philosophical mouthpieces and concrete anecdotes to delineate raw nature. An example would be a chapter that makes use of the transgender bathroom case (once commented on by Alex in an article) – to lead up to a greater philosophical point about the manipulation of identity and limiting of free will that the media commits. Another chapter involves a teaching assistant called Mr Alex (who happens to be deeply versed in the Classics & compares his role to the Greek cults) talking about how he imposes order on school-children – and relating an anecdote about the time he relinquished that order out of pity for a certain crying girl who had to go to detention. My favourite chapter within the novel is a story about a boy called Boy Rogers who decides to join a Maoist gang after reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
All of these are things that Alex has concerned himself with in the past. If you’ve read his articles, you can see the correspondences and parallels. For example – Soul on Ice will be familiar if you’ve seen his rap analysis, where he recounts how important the book was to his life. The Classical & Asian references are also present. At one point he uses Yellow Afternoon by Wallace Stevens – which was noted by Dan to be the perfect Wallace Stevens poem. And, the book consistently deals with those main themes again and again – human folly, impermanence, and the patterns that we are stuck to which limits progress.
“I am a parasite. This is not an accusation. It is simply the way things are if one chooses to work this job. Any job, really, in education. There’s this big, bloated apparatus. But for what? To help a few retards tie their shoes, I’m afraid. To teach what is in effect a lump of flesh the bare rudiments. To contain a wilderness.” He fed his cigarette to the furnace. “That’s not cynicism, Bright. It is merely law. People, at best, are average. And kids, by extension, are people. I’m not sure if you realize this, but that is a rare insight. An impossible one. For if kids are not pure, wonderful, benign, but flawed – much more so than adults, even – then why the hell do we worship them? Why the apparatus? The machine? It is a wilderness out there. One does not need gears. Algorithms. One simply needs a machete.” He let this sink in a moment. “This is why I’m a parasite, Bright. I know better yet I continue on. How many, if you look at the whole mass of us, do anything worthwhile? Are we part of some grand purpose? Or are we that dying apparatus? It seems to me that, over time, we have replaced the simple things with ‘complications.’ Now, there is something medical about that term. Antiseptic. Perhaps that is only proper. Perhaps we’ve outlived our original purpose, as creators, and now, we’re simply in a numbers’ game. How many worlds, Bright, have we destroyed? And how quickly? How many can we ‘teach,’ and – more pertinently – how many can we impress by teaching? That is a mere crunch, if you ask me. A formula. Yes, I am a part of it. But I am merely one organism. A single leech. I wonder, then, where the bigger creature churns. Where one might find the mother. I wonder, sometimes, if our entire cosmos might be living on the back of some great animal, and that we’re simply too small, our instruments too clunky, to ever realize it…” (Not a quote from the narrator, but from a character named Mr Alex)
Yet, if this were merely a best-of collection of Alex’s opinions – it would not be art. It is art because of how these things are sewn into a narrative that leads up to a glimpse of something higher through beautiful poesy and the combination of these ideas – all pushing and prodding and fighting each other. Each chapter takes on a kind of analysis of a certain scenario, and by the end it feels like every aspect of our humanity has been commented upon – in the full paradox. It runs the gamut from society, to law, to religion & myth, to sex & gender (homosexual & transsexual), to race, to sports, to objectivity in arts (with a discussion of Twilight no less!), to what maturity & childhood means, to ableism & disability, to academia & school politics, to science. With all that, you have the deeply introspective protagonist commentating on characters, many who lack the ability to ‘see’ and exhibit patterns or say things that they can’t exactly place a finger on, but implies much in the network of the narrative. Even a sentence as innocuous as “where’s the exit?” is granted symbolic meaning due to the ‘exits’ of the narrator’s axioms.
A plethora of techniques are used to swap things out. For example, the Boy Rogers chapter suddenly opens into a kind of anecdotal recount of a teacher’s past without any context – only to jump straight ahead into the present, 20 years later. The way Alex engineers it is jarring, but very understandable – because certain humans are like that, in that their core axioms are defined by an early event that they cannot shake off due to a lack of insight or will to change.
Alex also has a great understanding of voice, and as a result there’s enough variance among the characters. This is probably derived from his background as a person who was born in Belarus, and later moved to America:
I went to high school… I spent a couple of years in New Jersey, but the only high school of any real memory to me is Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island. It was a… I didn’t really think of it like this back then, but when I speak to people now, they say it’s a really terrible school. And I guess in some ways it was. Very overcrowded, very violent… but I really enjoyed my time. I skipped class, I never really went. The teachers, they knew me and would mark me as present in the attendance, and I just sort of did whatever I wanted. At the time it was politics; I was really into politics, and high school let that be an outlet for me. (taken from an Interview /w Dan)
The Russian side comes through with one of the characters, who’s a Russian professor with an accent. Insights & implications are placed into the mouths of lower-class characters with the lack of an ability to grasp the wisdom of their statements:
“Not dat, exactly. But, it’s de whole t’ing, Bright. De whole ‘smart’ t’ing, I guess. I dink I got a lot to say, but I’m no writer. I know dat. But, as a kid, I went here, see? Dis same school,” he said, pointing to the building. “And I never did too well. A lot of de class t’ing, for me, was like a whole new language, or somethin’. Dey were like squiggles. Ideas that don’t seem ta’ count. But, I’d a few t’ings, anyway. De importan’ t’ings. I knew people, for example, betta’ den anybody. I was able ta’ smell danger. Evil. Knew what teacher was tough, and who was gimme. Dat take talent, Bright. Got married. Still married. Kids. Happy. Gotta nice body, even at sixty-eight.” He made a muscle. “Dat take talent, too. But tell dat to a kid, Bright, when nothin’ matta’ but dat grade. That ‘smart’ t’ing. It was hard for me, den.”
But we must make an important note here. Just because the narrator has an ability to see into these characters and ruminate on it, doesn’t make him necessarily better. That’s the trick that’s fostered through the strong poetic voice and philosophy, making you think that he’s somehow above it – and, in a way it also engineers Bright’s own angst towards the whole thing (angst at, for example, how immobile the state of the world is). The 3 axioms are a trick that will, as noted in the summary, change and warp as the novel progresses – leading to the great conclusion at the end that sets all that ego in place (this is probably a technique taken from Woody Allen’s misleading protagonists, among other things). They represent extremes (the ‘study of two extremes’) that, despite reaching towards a greater reality, are still short of it. It is the negation of those axioms that completes the ‘door’.
As such, although there are many things that point to Alex and his own interests, throughout many characters, and some, like Mr Alex, hint at that meta-level – he is not with them, merely within them.
So that’s the overall structure of the book – Bright outlining his 3 axioms, his journey through the school and the cast of grotesques and characters he meets, the angst towards the human condition he carries throughout the whole journey – and the final moment where he steps out of that and departs from his old philosophy. Simple when you look at it from the outside, but with Literature & Art, it’s always about the details and coherence. Within a mere 65,000 words, or 125 A4 pages – the fact that Alex can generate so much coherence and link together so many disparate aspects of humanity in society is absolutely amazing. More importantly, it’s a work of great literature that has bearing in OUR times, although reaching towards universal things. It deals with issues that are more immediate to us, school-shootings, Political Correctness, mass-market popular lit, technology, media manipulation – these topics are taken with no didactics (or, with didactics utilized for a greater purpose) – while always remaining one step ahead. The deeper thrust. Here’s a moment where a top school wrestler on the school team has to ‘lose’ to a disabled child in order to grant that child a minuscule victory, witnessed by Bright:
The bell rang for Brayan and the ref lifted his arm into the air. The two of them exchanged a few words, and Brayan slumped over once again. I watched him stare down Coach, but Coach simply ignored him, and focused, instead, on the big metal doors at the entrance.
The school band began to play the drums. One couldn’t call it music, exactly, but a repetitious beat, like something ripped from a stylized battlefield, that got louder and louder as it wore on.
Outside, I heard the clank of metal and considerable mumbling. Eventually, it got close enough that I could hear the shrill-end of some conversation. A fumble ensued, with the metal slinking away for a moment, followed by cooing and what sounded like warm re-assurance, as if helping to coax it back. At first, we heard nothing but the drums. Then, there was that hesitant squeak again, and the opening of doors.
A boy rolled into the gym in a wheelchair, losing the assistant behind him. A family poster – Charles! – unfurled from the bleachers, as the gymnasium lights blinded him for a moment, forcing him to rub his eyes under his glasses. As he rolled up to the mat, he took out a little bag and gingerly searched for his glasses case inside of it. But instead of putting them away, he took out a small cloth and rubbed the lenses, one by one, breathed on the glasses, then wiped that away, too. For a moment, he seemed uncertain where to put that bag, and simply clutched it to his person. He looked at Brayan imploringly.
“Please,” Charles managed, talking away the bit of drool that gathered at his lips.
Brayan looked on with horror.
“Sure,” he finally said. He tried to take the bag from Charles, but noticed that one of Charles’s hands was stiff, almost unusable, and had to pry it from his fingers, one by one.
“Ok,” Charles said with resignation. “I’m ready.”
And with that, Brayan lay down on the mat, and straightened out his legs. Sweat wept across his forehead and his body seemed to tighten. One thought of Aztec sacrifice. Tenochtitlan. Yautepec.
Then four men lifted Charles off of his wheelchair, and lowered him on top of Brayan. The ref dropped down, made sure everything was fair, and slapped the ground as the bell sounded.
There was a new champion, he announced. Bring us the crown.
Yet Charles had to be raised back up, first. They tried to lift his upper body off of Brayan, but something had grown accustomed to the position, and his fingers had to be unlocked before he was finally lifted to his feet. The crowd had been cheering for a long time, but to see him on his own two made everything louder. A few cameras flashed, but Charles couldn’t muster the eye-rub of yore.
A few kids had run out to congratulate him and pat him on the shoulder. He felt their hands, but as he was recovering from the effects of camera, he couldn’t quite see them, and didn’t know whom to thank in that gurgling way of his. A moment later, Coach walked over to him, and said, “Here, son,” placing the crown over his head.
Charles smiled for the camera one last time. With the crown on his head, a bit of drool collected at the corner of his mouth, but he was tired, now, without the appetite to clean it.
“I told yuh Brayan would do somethin’ big today,” Coach grinned. “That’s probably the biggest thing he did at this school. Shit. Probably the biggest thing he’ll do in his life, maybe…”
The film crews who brought this spectacle back to the news-rooms called this “sportsmanship.” That Brayan was an exemplar of good-will. Breeding. Confucianism. And I’m sure Coach must have felt this way, too. Reveled in it, in fact. But when I looked at all the news articles that had come out, I didn’t see good-will, or sportsmanship. In fact, all I saw was condescension. Charlie, the retard, could never win this sort of competition fair and square. That much was obvious. So, to remind him of his insufficiency, they decided it would be proper to hoist his impotent body up to victory as the world watched. No, he wouldn’t really be winning. Come, now. But the implicit assumption was that he was too dumb, too numb, even, to understand the genuine thing, anyway, and that an imitation was as good as anything for the likes of Charles. That he should get a taste of what the rest of us can experience. That he should win. Feel. Brim up with testosterone. And, as soon as such a taste would be given, it would be taken away again, too, until the next time someone was feeling generous, that Charlie’s time had come once more to feel the whip of sportsmanship.
But, to me, it wasn’t sport at all. I knew better. I remembered the terror of my professor, when I was about to knock him and everyone around him to the ground. I remembered the rush when I’d fight Sal, trying to pound away all difference, all minutiae between us, and I remember somehow liking it. As a wrestler, I remembered how it felt to have a body under me, tiring with the knowledge that it couldn’t budge, no matter how hard it tried. I remembered the first time I pinned my own father, when I knew he wasn’t simply letting me win. That was important. It signaled a change between us. And I remembered my first fight, my very first, out in my backyard, and how natural, how bullish it had felt to destroy, and how human it felt to stay within reason. That was sportsmanship, to me. And that distinction between power and its reining was what it meant to be a man. That is sport, folks, and while self-control was a part of that definition, too, I could not deny that power was the other half. I do not think Charles had a chance to be a man that day. Man does not grovel, or revel in his inner wimp. One would take one good look at Charles’s impotence and immediately decide against him, and his entire person. Where was his outlet? And why must it take a game, a play-thing, for him to feel a trick of manhood? What did it say about that word, and our primitive understanding of it?
These were not the questions posed that day. As the gym slowly emptied, I noticed Charlie in the corner, wheeling himself across the bits of paper and other trash the paparazzi left behind. Just moments before, the gym was active. Full of noise. It was too loud for anything of substance to be noticed. Now, it was too quiet to bludgeon back whatever it was that welled up in the aftermath.
Beyond the comment on how such overt pity towards the disabled is really condescension (a very Nietzschean point – and reminds me of this) – notice how all this is engineered through the poetics, as though Brayan was caught in a primal world far beyond him, and how these patterns might have been repeated from time immemorial, just in a different form. There’s also the off-hand comment placed in the mouth of the coach, about Brayan doing ‘the biggest thing he’ll ever do in his life’ – which links up to the critique of sports as, really, a lesser outlet for human passions. Alex, in this way, analyzes what is unconscious and immutable, rather than turn it into mere comment on our current politics.
This is the fundament that art reveals, and Alex has seen – even as the people who comment on his site would try to label him as something lesser than that. Misplacing his name in a stream of things that reveal more about themselves and the mirrors surrounding them, than what exists beyond them. Alex has probably grappled with these things to – and Bright might just be a construct made of his past woes – but to speculate any more on that would be projection! In the end, somehow, it’s all the simpler – all the more palatable – than all of those things.
Doors & Exits is, in a way, a story about adolescence and what it entails. The school as symbolic setting is (obviously) parallel to Bright’s own education from seeing beyond the surfaces of education – but it’s the how of this education that really sticks the artistry in. It acknowledges that maturity is not necessarily a stage that one transitions into but a state that one has to maintain. Adolescence is the same. A state is always constantly there, and that one has to escape – or, rather, integrate, into one’s being.
I remember a moment when I was playing trading cards with my friends in school, and this was long after the period of our youth when we played those games. We had decided to return to it, probably out of a sense of nostalgia & a way to find a little spot of childhood safe from the stresses of the exams. A certain student saw us, and felt the need to voice his opinion, loudly and rudely, on the fact that it was childish. We shrugged it off. We kept playing. We were childish, because we had yet to orient ourselves towards the higher things that exist. But, so was he – who believed that maturity was about stripping off a few particularities, toys and games, rather than a thrust of the being within himself towards the world. Both of us were play-acting. The world was larger. It still is, to me.
(All excerpts from Doors & Exits are copyrighted by Alex Sheremet)