Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Catch-22 Etc.

I met an interesting man to-day. Together we were the only one’s eating alone in the deli of our neighbourhood Whole Foods equivalent: The Market of Choice. The moment I saw him I knew (toyed with the idea) that he was one of these ex-anti-establishment intellectuals, a veritable wise man of the mountains who periodically combs out his leonine facial hair, dons his Birkenstocks and ball cap and descends to take his noonday bacon-lettuce-and-avocado in the Market of Choice and wonder where the ‘60s went. We exchanged the occasional glance, synchronising our bemused appraisals of the various surrounding displays of consumer and familial foibles in this our late stage capitalist society, and bringing our respective senses of irony, bred on the one hand by the decline of western culture and on the other by the decline of the tradition that has traditionally catalogued the decline of western culture, into ever more perfect harmony. We agreed that not only had the Revolution been televised, but we were currently eating it on Rye.

Or perhaps he was thinking none of these things and our brief moment of pre-verbal human contact while mutually feeling the pull of existential loneliness over a half-eaten all-natural synthetic meat product and avocado sandwich was just that: a briefly human encounter between two merely spatially and not at all ontologically unaccompanied individuals into which I have inserted an entirely unwarranted over-abundance of adjectives and pseudo-intellectual innuendo? Perhaps this is just a be-ball-capped gentleman enjoying a sandwich? For that matter, maybe I’m the hermitic malcontent catastrophising over the mass-consumption of anti-consumerism and the brand name insurrection so carefully marketed to children of all ages between the bulk-buy spelt and the eco-bottles? Am I just projecting these ramblings into the eyes of the as yet mute sage three tables over? I am, after all, the one wearing the Birkenstocks…

He gets up. Actually I don’t notice, there’s a tiny blonde boy wandering around in such a daze that he manages to walk into a shelf backwards. A philosopher in the making. They say Thales fell down a well. Or perhaps a budding amateur social critic; is there a glint of madness in those bleary eyes? In any case, he (my aged co-conspirator in counter-cultural critique, not the boy) pauses beside my table.

“Catch 22? Kids still read that these days?”

Do kids still read that these days?? Kids do still read that these days! At least this kid is reading it, and a fair number of kids of his acquaintance have read it. These days. Of course, this kid is not particularly familiar with the literary tastes of kids these days and once decided that it would be a good idea to wear a monocle to first period econ. A fair number of kids of his acquaintance have been known to intentionally cultivate foreign accents and publicly lament the passing of the days when it was possible to use words like ‘smashing,’ ‘authentic,’ and ‘well-dressed’ unironically.

“I have no idea really, but I’ve been loving it.” I responded. “Apart from being hilarious, I love the idea of Catch-22. I’d never known that part of the Catch was that agents enforcing Catch-22 don’t have to prove that Catch-22 actually includes the provision that the accused violator is accused of violating. If you did a find and replace – Catch-22 for PATRIOT Act – I wonder how close you’d get to the literal text…”

He laughed. Of course he laughed, my partner in dissent and freethinking! Right now, somewhere in the parking lot, there are probably two men in sunglasses, dressed like the early Beatles, arguing over which government listening device, the one stuck under his collar, or the one in my coffee cup, gets to record this conversation. His tail has seniority, but mine’s only got until I finish my latte before he has to plant a new bug.

“I first read it in 1962. I was at Stanford at the time, electrical engineering and philosophy, I wanted to be a big time intellectual, know something about science, religion, a little bit of everything, and in those days part of that was doing analysis. I walked into my first session a few minutes late, and my analyst had his feet up on the couch reading Catch-22. Bought a copy on my way back to school.”

I was speechless. I’m a philosophy major! And I find my probably prejudicially incomplete knowledge of quantum physics a fascinating complement to my likely horribly distorted conception of Buddhism! For god sakes, I sleep with a copy of the Interpretation of Dreams under my pillow just in case! And I want to be a big time intellectual! Unironically!

“Was that the sort of thing kids read those days?”

“Oh yeah. We read Heller, Salinger, Hesse, Camus; I wrote a paper once comparing Catcher in the Rye to the Stranger for a modern lit class. Professor was the most interesting part of that class; he resigned the next year and set up in Menlo Park, turning people on for a fee. It was a different time back then.”

“I hear that a lot.”

“It’s true. We were trying to change the world. It’s hard to imagine now, but Peace and Love, the idea that you should actually be aware of how you live your life, it was all revolutionary. We were trying to live like no one had ever lived before, we were trying to wake up.”

They were also probably the last generation to honestly believe they could change the world. The last generation to think that there was something to wake up for. For whatever reason the wave broke and rolled back, leaving scummy pools of Anarchists, artists, Beats, Buddhists, Hippies, potheads, psychonauts, reactionaries and rebels splattered across the desert from San Francisco to Seattle. Even the kids these days that still think they can change the world, or at least know it needs changing are reading the books their parents read back when they thought they could do it. We read Heller and Salinger and Camus because we don’t have anyone who can write like they did. Where did the 60s go? What happened to the revolution you promised us? Has it really been reduced to Che Guevara’s head (for 5 points name the country of his birth*) and ironic facial hair (what does that even mean? mutton chops on a vegetarian?)?

“Well… Hopefully it was all a preparation for something. Take care, kid.”

[Editorial Note: while the above is loosely based in reality, the emphasis is on ‘loosely.’ The Author does not intend to accurately represent a conversation as it took place, and any similarities to real events are entirely adventitious.]

* Argentina

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