Unpublished Novelist Daulton Dickey Interviews Failed Novelist Daulton Dickey

transcribed by
Julius M. Henry.

Daulton Dickey is a nobody. No one’s interested in him. Yet he runs around the Internet begging for attention and whinging about how no one will publish his artsy-fartsy novels. In a blatant and unapologetic act of theft, I’ve decided to ripoff Kurt Vonnegut’s interview from the Paris Review and track down Daulton—spoiler: he wasn’t hard to find—to ask him questions about life, writing, philosophy, and whatever else popped into my head. Knowing Daulton, I expect pretentious answers. And bullshit—spoiler: he’s an asshole.

Daulton Dickey [DD]: So. Here we are.

Daulton Dickey [Dd]: Indeed.

DD: I wanted to start by filling the audience in on a few things.20160601-230511.jpg

Dd: What audience?

DD: The audience reading this.

Dd: Are you high? No one reads this.

DD: This blog has had over 18,000 views.

Dd: Maybe so, but no one’s going to read this twaddle.

DD: Let’s agree to disagree. [Pause.] Now why don’t we start by telling the audience a little something about you?

Continue reading

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Another Thinking Animal

by
Daulton Dickey.

 

—So tell me why you’re here.

—I’m tired. Not exhausted, but … just, I don’t know, tired.

Sarah’s wearing that gray face sad people wear, that mask with dead eyes looks like an unpainted statue.

—Can you describe it? “Tired” is so …

—Not clear?

—Mmm Hmm.

—I didn’t want no attention, she says. —Some people, I think, will think I did it for attention. But it wasn’t attention I wanted. Continue reading

An Origin of Species

by Daulton Dickey.

 

KA-88 sat on a rock in a desert and glanced at the sky. Hydrated oxide in the atmosphere drenched the dome in sepia hues. Two hundred miles to the east, a cargo freighter sliced through the sepia and penetrated the skin of the planet. KA-88 knew what it contained—microbe guano, three humans, nineteen transhumans; she knew its destination: Ronocae; and she knew its speed: eighty-eight times the speed of sound.

She knew everything.

If a human part of her remained—the emotional, irrational product of those meat machines—she wondered if she’d lament knowing everything. Confusion had its perks. It seemed logical to balk every now and then, to feel uncertain and even frightened. When such experiences coalesced, she conjectured, then they gave rise to mystery, excitement, luminousness.

Correct?

Without so much as vestiges of emotions, she didn’t know. She couldn’t know.

Interesting.

She stood and circled a rock and contemplated her paradox: without emotions, she, an eighty-eight year old transhuman, an organic machine supplemented with silicone neurons and hardware, couldn’t know everything; if she couldn’t know everything, then she didn’t know everything. So how could a transhuman who knew everything not know everything—a clear violation of the law of non-contradiction. Continue reading

A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms — Out NOW!

Click here to buy it.

50% of all proceeds generated from this ebook will be donated to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. apeculiararrangementofatomsdaultondickey

A couple discovers an alien-like element, a woman locked in a ward tries to grapple with her mind, an ex-junkie encounters a possible solution to her problems, two men—broke—just want to get drunk, and, in an infinite story, a man encounters a woman who may hold the key to life and the universe.

A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms is a collection of sixteen moving, funny, and enlightening short stories written in a variety of styles. Individually, they explore human experience. Together, they represent a bleak yet hopeful, and at times comic, portrait of humanity and the human condition.

Part John Barth and William Gaddis, part Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, part Kurt Vonnegut and William S. Burroughs, but in a voice all his own, Dickey has crafted a short story collection that will linger, that will haunt you, that will entertain and, most importantly, stick with you.

The Hills of Zoar

by Daulton Dickey.

Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a window in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter filled with blank pages. She turns the page and scans the textures. Her eyes bounce right to left, right to left, as if reading Hebrew. The textures, fine, almost imperceptible, are arrayed in scattershot patterns. Pulp dropped and compressed into pages. Random. But the textures say something. They mean something. Of that, she is certain.

The window to her right overlooks a brick wall. Someone at some point long ago, probably long before Jane was pushed into this world, had tagged the wall with paint. A cock with eyes and a mustache sitting on top of a scrotum. Above the cock, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, ye who enter here.”

Every now and then, Jane peels her eyes from the book and glances at the graffiti on the wall. She wonders what it means. She wonders if—exempting the eyes and mustache—it is a more or less realistic depiction of a cock. Or a scrotum. Then she wonders if “cock” is even a word people actually use to describe it, or if it’s a euphemism developed and propagated by middle- and upper-class novelists feigning street credentials.

Back to the book: those textures mean something. They spell out a message, a secret story. Why else had the authors included this chapter in the book? It’s some sort of ingenious new printing method: the textures of the page spell out some Voynich Manuscript-style esoterica.

Someone knocks on the door and Jane sets aside the book. She remains seated and stares at the door, stares at the crack beneath the door, as if she can discern the person from the shadow that he or she casts and spills into the crack.

Then there it is again, the knock. This time louder, more forceful.

Jane tip-toes across the room, never allowing the balls of her feet to touch the ground, trying to be as light, and as quiet, as possible.

She stops near the door and slows her breathing as she listens for sounds, for some sort of familiar cough or …

The doorknob shakes and jiggles. The door trembles. Feet scuffle, making sounds like tap dancers tearing up a stage—those gritty yet metallic staccato plops.

It’s times like this Jane wishes she had a peephole. Times like this, she’d be able to scan the outside world through a fish-eye lens and discern or identify whomever dared to harass her.

‘Mist Poe.’ The door muffles the voice, but the voice—nasally and low—obviously belongs to a man. ‘Mist Poe: cracker jack the sack around back. Arms and alms shout farewell.’

‘Crooked, crazy liar,’ she says, in what amounts to little more than a whisper.

‘The obvious doesn’t slow the noon.’

‘I’m comfortable here.’

‘Rape sore hills. Rape sore hills.’

‘No. No, you can’t make me.’

She shakes her head and backs away from the door, still refusing to marry the balls of her feet to the floor.

‘Rape sore hills.’ The man’s voice inflects, transmits authority.

‘No. I’m comfortable …’

The doorknob twists again. Jiggles again. The door trembles and the man speaks again: ‘Rape sore hills, mist Poe.’

Jane Doe spins and rushes to the chair. She drops into it and pulls the book to her lap. She flips the pages, studies them. Not a word in sight. Not a letter or even a speck of ink in sight.

Flipping the pages focuses her attention, and the man’s voice recedes and vanishes.

And she forgets about the man and the door altogether.

Phosphorescent lights bleed white. The room is so well lit that she’d be hard-pressed to find so much as a single shadow. After scrutinizing the book, Jane again sets it aside. She leaves the room to get a drink of water, and when she returns she notices a mural shimmering on the wall opposite the chair. A woman on a horse points to a vaguely Ancient Near Eastern city in flames. Cherubim hover over the woman and drape a cape–conspicuously shaped and textured like a vagina–over her.

The woman on the horse looks familiar, but Jane can’t place her. That likeness. She’s seen it somewhere.

She taps her cheeks with her fingertips and drags them down her chin and neck, stops them on her collar bone. She taps it. She taps it. It sounds hollow, hollow.

That mural, it … Is it new? She vaguely remembers a door. Somewhere. She vaguely remembers the door and somehow, for some reason, associates it with fear.

But then … She dismisses the thought. Her house is an impenetrable cube. No need for a door, she’d told the construction crew before they set out to build the cube around her. No need even for a window, she’d said. I can make both if I want to, she’d said, but I don’t really foresee a situation in which I’d want either a door or a window.

Then she remembers the construction crew. It hadn’t occurred to her then, but it occurs to her now: they weren’t wearing top hats or denim shirts or pants. They weren’t wearing belts or carrying tools. They were dressed in scrubs and white lab coats. And they were depositing and rearranging textures onto paper attached to clipboards while she spoke. And the foreman had a laughable combover. When he spoke, he sort of sung and spit out words and sentences in a nasally and low voice.

But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway? Jane Doe knows as well as anyone that memories can’t be trusted. Trust your memories and you might as well take a blade to the veins in your forearms.

Someone had told her that. But who? And is it even correct, and is it even verbatim—isn’t it more like, “trusting your memories is why you took a blade to your forearms”?

But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway?

She backs up and falls into the chair and pulls the book onto her lap. She flips through it, searches for patterns in the textures of the pulp compressed into, and forming, the paper. She searches. But she hasn’t yet discerned a pattern.

All patterns are discernible. She knows that. Chance isn’t responsible for anything. It’s not even an ontological concern. It’s only a product of the brain, that piece of untrustworthy meat lodged in everyone’s skulls. Of that, she’s certain.

Dislodging thoughts from the meat in her skull, Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a framed painting in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter composed of photographs of aborted fetuses. She turns the page and scans the photographs. Her eyes bounce up and down, up and down, as if she’s reading Kenji and Kanji.

The framed painting to her right depicts a pregnant woman. She’s naked, the woman, and she appears no taller than a four year old child. Her stomach is bloated and corpse colored—green and purple, black and red. And she’s sitting on a man’s lap. The man is adult-sized. He’s wearing a suit and a tie, and a mustache obscures his upper lip. Motion lines, meant to depict movement, surround his leg, creating, or trying to create, the impression that the man is bouncing the pregnant, child-sized woman on his knee. On a banner above the man, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, the hills of Zoar.”

Another Thinking Animal

by Daulton Dickey.

—So tell me why you’re here. ​

—I’m tired. Not exhausted, but … just, I don’t know, tired. ​Sarah’s wearing that gray face sad people wear, that mask with dead eyes looks like an unpainted statue. ​

—Can you describe it? “Tired” is so … ​

—Not clear? ​

—Mmm Hmm. ​

—I didn’t want no attention, she says. —Some people, I think, will think I did it for attention. But it wasn’t attention I wanted. ​

—What did you want? What did you hope to achieve?

—Shit. What you think? ​

—And that seemed like a solution? ​

—No, she says. —Not a solution. An escape. ​

—But an escape’s not a solution. ​

—Didn’t say I was looking for no solution. Escape sounded fine by me.

The doctor glances at his notes. He spins his pen between his fingers and clicks his tongue. Seems like there’s some place he’d rather be, like maybe drinking martinis on his yacht or whatever it is doctors do when they ain’t talking to suicides.

—It says here you’re on LexiPro and Wellbutrin, he says. —Were you taking them when you attempted …

—Hell yes I was, Sarah says. —They numbed things, but they didn’t stop the thoughts, the bad thoughts flying through my head. They didn’t make me feel full when all I feel is empty all the time. Continue reading

A Sample Story From My Short Story Collection

From A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories. Out now via Kindle

Click here to buy it.

Click here to learn about how I’m donating proceeds to suicide prevention organizations.

On the Sidewalk, at Night, as Thunder Roared and the Clouds Threatened Rain, She Encountered a Possible Solution
by
Daulton Dickey.

The man at the counter focused on Alexis as she walked into the store, and as she walked through the store, picking up items and glancing at them, and sometimes seeming to study them, she had this feeling prickling the back of her skull, this feeling like being watched. Hyper agency detection, it’s called. The ability to sense the presence of other people. It was useful to her evolutionary forebears, and it was useful to Alexis as she sensed the man’s eyes penetrate her skull. But she didn’t glance at him to verify whether or not the sensation was a hit or a miss—sometimes people detected agents that weren’t there, a consequence of the evolutionary advantage, and a plausible component to the story of humankind’s invention of the concept of god.

The sense of becoming prey to a man’s eyes didn’t leave her, but she tried to soften it, to forget it, or, at the very least, to diminish its effects while she ambled from aisle to aisle and perused the shelves. And what was she searching for anyway? Why had she stopped at this store, this convenience store, at almost midnight on a Sunday-night-almost-Monday-morning?

Her arms itched, itched, that awful itch-and-sensation-of-not-belonging-in-ones-own-skin that diabetics claimed afflicted them—this sensation they usually noticed before receiving their diagnosis. She clutched them at her chest, her arms, and cupped her forearms, near her elbows. Every once in a while she’d start to scratch her arms, but then she’d catch herself and instead rub her arms, palms against flesh, the way parents do when consoling children.

And she drifted from aisle to aisle, glanced at item after item, as she wrestled with the instinct to scratch her arms. Worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head. Some people called this daydreaming. Others recognized it as a symptom of various attention deficit-type disorders and wrote or asked for prescriptions for medication. But Alexis called it neither—it was simply a thing she did, something to pass the time, she supposed. It was something like a gimmick or a distraction, a way to silence the noises produced by the meat in her skull, meat intent on firing neurons and transmitting impulses in such as way as to bleed into her conscious state and to make her brain and her mind, and her entire body, feel the way her arms felt, feel like nothing belonged, like everything was attached by bristles and super glue, that nothing was certain or sacred or numinous or … Human. Yes, human.

When she reached the wall on the far side, the wall opposite the entrance, the wall replaced by refrigerators with glass doors, refrigerators lined with bottles of soda and frozen pizzas, chilled coffee and microwaveable lunches, she doubled back and, arms still clutched to her chest, made a beeline for the front door.

Hyper agency detection kicked in again, and she glanced at the man behind the counter as she opened the door: he focused on her, tracked her with his eyes and a slow motion panning head, and he sort of smiled this greasy smile, the type Alexis had encountered when men smiled at her with only one thing in mind.

She didn’t return the man’s smile, or even acknowledge it, as she glided through the door and flung it shut.

Clouds obscured the moon. She smelled moisture in the air but didn’t sense rain. Somewhere something was on fire. A house, maybe. She smelled it, too, and she wondered if it was a house, if maybe someone was inside the house, roasting alive and screaming and crying. A person’s mind shuts down in such a situation, she wagered. When you’re on the verge of death, of a death as awful as one by fire, she was pretty certain, your mind shut down. Instincts took over.

She was pretty certain instincts took over.

Her mind shut down the last time she glimpsed death. She was high and naked and lying on the carpet—she remembered it was wet, or was that a false memory, the wetness?—and she felt numb and floaty, as if her head had detached from her body and rolled into a closet, and she saw the world through the crack in a mostly-closed door. Or better yet: the world shrank as she slipped into a lens with an aperture slowly closing.

Her instincts didn’t take over then. That time, and on previous occasions when she’d glimpsed death, she rocked on her belly and closed her eyes and felt a sort of smile bend her lips—she didn’t remember smiling, she didn’t even remember consciously moving her lips, but she did remembered feeling her lips move; she remembered feeling them curl into a sort of smile as the aperture closed, closed, closed.

Clouds collided and merged and thunder rumbled to the east. Lightning flashed. Alexis floated down the sidewalk and glanced at her reflection in the window of a shuttered pet shop. Her face was droopy and her eyes were empty and dead looking. Fitting, those eyes, that face. Fitting because her external self had converged with her internal self, and, for once, for once, the external and the internal commingled in something like harmony.

Thunder rumbled again and lightning backlit the clouds. But it didn’t rain. It didn’t rain yet. Alexis knew rain would fill the streets soon enough, and she didn’t know where to go. Where would she go? Where would she go to stay warm and dry and itch or scratch free? And where would she go to escape that thing she did, that kind of daydreaming but not daydreaming thing where worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head?

And where would she go to avoid the Bad Thing? That, for her, was the million dollar question. Her friends had succumbed to the Bad Thing and none had the desire, it seemed, to try to escape it. Not even Kara. Especially not Kara.

The last time Alexis had stayed with Kara, they spent three days locked inside the house, uncompromisingly high, and they wore these kind of old-lady-house-dress-looking pajamas, and the pajamas were dirty and smelled of urine and vomit, but neither Alexis nor Kara really cared about the stench, and they only rarely even noticed it, and then usually only when one plopped down on the bed and the air concussed and blasted the other in the face; and they were so high, so high they barely even spoke, and when they did speak, they spoke in that whispery drawl people speak after succumbing to the Bad Thing. And they stayed high for three days. Three days, and it felt like ten minutes. And then at one point during the three days, near the end, as Alexis recalled, Mario stopped by and promised Kara more of the Bad Stuff if she’d have sex with him, but Kara was so wrecked by the Bad Stuff that she couldn’t even feign excitement and she couldn’t convince Mario she was enjoying it—and she clearly wasn’t, but she tried, it seemed, to express excitement, at least for his sake. But he didn’t buy it, and the act of catching a woman feigning excitement did more to enrage him than probably anything else. Kara could probably have stolen a gram and it wouldn’t have enraged Mario as much as her whole faking an orgasm act had. And even after they had sex, which was the agreement, not an insistence on enjoyment, Mario refused to give Kara—and, by extension, Alexis—anything because she, Kara, was, Mario insisted, so strung out she was “worthless” and “about as useful” w/r/t sex as “a sock filled with sandpaper.”

Kara was so strung out, she didn’t care. She didn’t care that she’d had unprotected sex with a notorious—i.e. possible carrier of STDs—womanizer. She didn’t care that Mario’d had unprotected sex with her and then protested her lack of enthusiasm, she didn’t care that he’d ridiculed her and her best friend and then left without honoring his end of the bargain—she cared only about succumbing to the Bad Thing, and she was so taken by it that nothing else mattered.

If she returned to Kara’s house, Alexis knew she’d once again succumb to the Bad Thing, and she didn’t oh god want to succumb to the Bad Thing again, even though succumbing to it sounded so goddam good that her mouth, her brains, her bones screamed out for it. Please. God. Just one little taste. One. More. Taste. One little … To stop the burning, the sickness, the itching, the …

She clutched her belly and she fought it. She fought it. She wrestled every sensation tearing through her, the sensations practically demanding attention, the sensations threatening an insurrection, threatening to usurp her arms and legs and get the Bad Stuff and taste it one last time—with or without her consent. But then … Then she clutched her stomach again.

She couldn’t taste the Bad Stuff. Never again. Not now. Not …

She wasn’t certain she was pregnant—that is, she hadn’t verified it with a pregnancy test, but she knew. She could tell. Women knew these things. And she knew a baby was growing inside her, of that she was more certain than anything. And she knew she was going to have it, and she knew she wanted to keep it, and she knew keeping it entailed responsibility, the type of which she’d never really exercised before, and she knew the Bad Stuff would either kill the baby or deform it somehow—maybe not physically but definitely mentally—and she knew the Bad Stuff would splinter or destroy whatever neural processes governed the actions people referred to as “maternal instincts.” And so … No. She wouldn’t go to Kara’s. She wouldn’t fall back or rely on anyone she’d known or kind of befriended—though in those circles, you never really “befriended” anyone; friendship itself only remained strong when someone had access to the Bad Stuff. She could not even attempt to rely on Kara or anyone else now that a baby was blooming inside her.

Thunder rumbled again. It jolted her. She jumped, physically jumped, and her heart pounded. She glanced up and registered the sky, the clouds, and mentally inquired about the rain. Why hadn’t it started yet? It was almost certainly going to start. Any minute now. Any …

And that’s when she saw it. On the sidewalk, near the base of a building, an old barbershop: a one hundred dollar bill. It lay flat on the sidewalk. She stopped and stood over it and glanced down at it. Her fingers curled and closed into a fist—acting on their own; a prelude to insurrection? And she fought the impulse to bend over and scoop up the money.

This required consideration. This required tact.

Hyper agency detection kicked in and Alexis stepped forward and dropped her foot onto the hundred dollar bill, and she glanced around—left to right, forward and back—but she didn’t see anyone, no one, not a single person. Not anywhere. And so she stood, frozen, foot stamped on the money, and she considered what she’d discovered. An answer. A possible answer. Maybe she could use it to find a cheap hotel and regroup. Maybe she could use it to eat. Maybe she could use it to … Maybe just a little taste of it, the Bad Stuff. A small portion of the cash could buy enough Bad Stuff to maybe make her sickness go away or make the itching go away or … But no. No. She was desperate and she was tired and she was hungry, and she was also craving the Bad Stuff, and so while the money might be a blessing there was also an almost equal chance that it might be a curse. And so …

And so she’d just take it. She’d scoop it up and slip it into her pocket and find a cheap hotel and maybe—or maybe not, who knew?—call Mario or Kara and …

She lifted her foot and bent over and tried to scoop up the money, but something prevented her for picking it up. Something prevented her from grabbing it and lifting it and slipping it into her pocket.

She fell to her knees and tried to pick it up and then she tried to wedge her thumbnail under the corner to peel it away from the sidewalk and … This money would really help. It could help and … Maybe a hotel for the night. Or food. Or maybe it’d buy a taste, just a little taste of the Bad Stuff. Or maybe … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under it. If she could only lift the corner, peel it from the sidewalk, she’d undoubtedly then peel the entire thing off and shove it into her pocket and … Maybe just a taste, you know? One little taste and … Just lift the corner. She only needed to lift the corner. But the corner wouldn’t rise. It wouldn’t break free. It …. Probably those assholes, those frat boys assholes … They probably used some adhesive to stick it to the ground. Those assholes pulled pranks like this all the time. They pulled pranks on the poor or homeless and filmed it and put it online so other frat boys assholes could watch it and laugh at the poor or homeless and … It was definitely glued. Definitely stuck there. Definitely affixed to the sidewalk. And … It was undoubtedly those assholes and … If only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner. If she could only lift the corner … God, she was so fucking tired. A hotel room sounded great. It called to her. And food: she could feel her stomach jump into her throat, ready to devour anything, anything. And then maybe she would call Mario. But just for a taste. One last taste before she … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner.

Off and On the Road: an autobiographical appreciation of Jack Kerouac

Off and On the Road
or,
How I Got Stoned and Became a Literary Junky
by
Daulton Dickey.

[Author’s note: this is an old piece, written about 7 years ago. I recently re-discovered it and decided to post it in its entirety, and unchanged, i.e. unrevised.]

Lee[1] blew into his hands and rubbed them together, trying to breathe life into his fingers. Scrunching his shoulders, he pulled his coat collar up and and squeezed the opening at the base of his throat, tightening the collar around his neck. A smile had attacked his face earlier and it refused to retreat, and he bared his teeth as breath escaped his nostrils and slipped out of his mouth. He looked beside him, at RCannabis-Bankay, and his smile widened.

Ray had a way of smiling with his eyes that seemed to inform his entire way of thinking, his entire worldview, and when he smiled at Lee, grimacing without showing his teeth, his eyes curled upward and mimicked what his mouth would have done—should have done—if he wasn’t so self-conscious. Ray shiver-stomped and jogged in place, half warding off the wind, half dancing in anticipation. Then he glanced at me and laughed. I was standing between them—if viewed from above we would have formed an asymmetrical triangle—and crossed my arms at my chest, burying my hands in my armpits, struggling, fighting, praying for heat to engulf me, to inject colors other than red into my hands and face.

“Man,” Lee said, “this is going to be awesome.”[2]

We stood between two houses, Lee’s and Ray’s, and looked to our right, toward the street, and to our left, toward the back alley. But no one showed up.

No one.

Not one fucking person.

We were waiting for Juan, Ray’s half-brother, to deliver our pizza, as we called it, but he was late. And I was worried.

“He’ll be here,” Ray said.

It was cold, and I was tired of waiting. I could, I knew, back out and that would be that. I could simply walk away. Sure, they’d bust my balls, but I’d be lying on my bed in my warm bedroom watching television or fantasizing about being someone other than me—which was something I often did in those days; it’s something I do now, on occasion, though not as frequently as I once did. But I had the most to lose—fifteen dollars—and I had initiated this experiment, put into motion the overwhelming sense of curiosity that had led us to stand between two houses at nine o’clock at night on a weekend in the middle of a Midwestern winter.

Lee, still smiling, preempted my complaints by reading my eyes and laughing.

“He’ll be here,” he said. “Chill out.”

“It’s fucking cold,” I said. “I’m tired of waiting.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Ray said. “That’s all you do.”

“I fucking hate waiting for people. I’ve got shit to do.”

“Like what?”

I didn’t say. It didn’t matter.

The wind whipped us and beat us for ten more minutes before Juan showed up. He delivered our ‘pizza’ in a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag and flicked his wrist and unfurled the bag, revealing a quarter ounce of bright green bud. Smiling, playing the role of wise old sage, Juan opened the bag and held it out to us. We each took the bag and inhaled and commented on its smell, on how good and strong and powerful it smelled, though the three of us knew nothing about marijuana.

###

That summer, the summer of 1994, director Robert Zemeckis released Forrest Gump, a schmaltzy, syrupy, Forrest_Gump_posteroverwrought film designed to manipulate audiences and to win awards. I had seen the film with my family on opening night. At the end of the film, as the audience stood to stroll into the lobby and out of the building, women sniffled and men breathed through their noses, some trying to hide the fact that they were crying, others angry and annoyed that their girlfriends had so easily talked them into seeing such an appalling piece of shit.

I followed my family out of the theater, baffled, unable to comprehend or understand how people had so blatantly submitted to such a manipulative film. Even as a fifteen-year-old kid, I smelled the horseshit Zemeckis and company peddled, and I was disgusted and offended that so many people—an entire fucking auditorium—had eaten that shit with smiles on their faces.

###

About Lee’s house:

The entire upstairs had recently been remodeled and converted into one large bedroom. Lee and his brothers—one younger, one older—shared it. His brothers were gone and his parents were in their bedroom—his parents were always in their bedroom—and Lee, Ray, and I sat on the couch upstairs trying to assemble a bong made out of a 20- ounce plastic Pepsi bottle. After he’d delivered our ‘pizza,’ Juan had told us how to build a bong. We’d asked him to roll us a few joints but he had no zigzags, so we were forced to fend for ourselves.

With half-assed recollections of his instructions, the three of us sat around on the couch watching as the other tried his hand at building the bong. The contraption was a relatively easy machine to construct, but the filtering system stumped us. We 69’ed two bottle caps and glued them together, then we drilled a hole through them and screwed our Frankenstein lid onto the bottle. That innovation filled us with pride. It was, we thought, revolutionary; here was a homemade bong slapped together by three newcomers, and it was, we thought, although we didn’t really know, as good as any bong—homemade or store bought.

With the bong built, we broke up the bud—as Juan had instructed us to do—and stuffed it in the lid, but someone, I don’t remember who, stopped the fun and prolonged our anticipation by suggesting that we needed some kind of filter to insert between the bud and the bottle caps. This freaked us out for a minute, but it was resolved when Ray suggested that we cut a small circle from a window screen and use that as a filter. This, we agreed, was the perfect solution.

###

I’d bought my father a copy of the Forrest Gump soundtrack for his birthday. Even though the movie was atrocious, purchasing the soundtrack was a sound decision because my father was a baby boomer who’d turned twenty-one during the summer of love, and music from his youth filled the soundtrack, music he loved.

I came from a poor family and, even though this was the mid 90’s, no one in the house could afford a CD player, or CDs, so when I bought the Forrest Gump soundtrack, I bought it on cassette.

My father had listened to it once or twice before loaning it to me. But I was young and, I thought, hip and intelligent, and I wanted nothing to do with hippy music. Hippy music was, I thought, full of bullshit slogans and crybaby chants. I wanted real music, music that spoke to me. I wanted grunge.

###

I’d long been obsessed with the notion of getting fucked up. I’d been drinking since I was twelve, and I’d huffed gas on more than one occasion, infrequently but more frequently than any sane person should, since I was ten years old. To me, when I was younger, the notion of getting trashed was a foreign one. I remember as a kid hearing a news report about a man who’d gotten drunk and did this thing or committed that crime and I wondered what it was like to get drunk. More often than not, people accused of vicious crimes while under the influence play the blackout card and claim to have little to no memory of the atrocities of which they are accused. This thought intrigued me. Did one, while drunk or stoned, simply cease to exist? Did he or she become a different person? I tested this theory first with gas, then with booze, but neither put me in the state of mind I’d hoped they’d put me in. I was looking for a chemical or a concoction to send me into another state of mind. I was looking for a reaction that would eliminate the Daulton I was because I wanted to know the Daulton those chemicals or concoctions unleashed. So I tried gasoline and I tried alcohol, but neither offered the solution I wanted.

Pot was, in a way, for me at least, a last ditch effort. Gas and booze didn’t stifle the old Daulton, but, I’d hoped, perhaps marijuana would provide me with the relief I so desperately wanted.

###

I so desperately wanted to stifle that Daulton because he was a geeky neurotic who usually had things figured out before others kids. This, he often thought, made him a drag, and he wanted nothing more than to be able to shut off his brain and partake in the kind of fun kids his age were supposed to have.

###

That, I know, was a long-winded way of saying I was too smart for my own good.

###

This, I know, is a long-winded way of talking about Kerouac. But trust me: I’m getting there.

###

So anyway:

Seeking out and scoring pot was my idea, so I took the first hit.

I coughed and choked. It tasted strange—pot is the only thing I can think of that tastes exactly like it smells, if that makes any sense—and it burned my lungs and tickled and scratched my throat.

Lee and Ray laughed as I coughed and choked and fought through hit after hit. Then I passed the bong around and laughed as they in turn coughed and choked and fought through hit after hit.

The high kicked in before we finished the bowl. It came on fast and I hadn’t recognized it until I started laughing. I started laughing because the world became hazy yet perfectly clear. I diagnosed this peculiar ailment when, taking another hit, passing the bong back to Lee, I turned my head, slightly, and noticed that my eyes moved slower than my head, and that my brain moved slower than both my eyes and my head. This, I thought, was strange. Something was wrong. So, eyeballing the carpet, I craned my neck and swung my head to the right. The same thing occurred: the world slowed and pumped fog into the room; yet everything moved as it always had and the room was clear and free of fog. So I laughed. And laughed. And laughed. Soon, Ray and Lee were laughing at me, and then we all laughed for reasons none of us understood.

###

Here’s the thing about being a disillusioned young cynic:

You always want to get fucked up; you seek out ways of becoming another you. Everything you do is a means to that end. Young freaks either become burnouts or writers or painters or filmmakers or musicians. The techniques may vary but the results, the intentions, are always the same: to eliminate the part of you the public reproaches and to become a newer, better you. To simply express oneself isn’t a valid reason to explore drugs or art or sex. Expressing oneself is easy, and, superficially, it does exist; read poetry or prose written by teenage freaks and you’ll find plenty of self-expression; but the thread running through all such writings is a desire to become someone else; not to become normal, whatever the fuck that means, but to become a heightened, slightly exaggerated version of you—a version of you accepted by society. That, I think, is the goal. Certainly it was my goal. I was a dark kid. My mind leaned toward thoughts of death and decadence. That is simply who I became, how I developed.

In short: I was looking for a way out.

Hence the gasoline and alcohol. Hence the marijuana and, later, the literature.

###

Suffice it to say:

We got fucked up that night.

We giggled and cackled our way through another bong load, and then I headed home. It was late and Lee’s parents rarely allowed his friends to stay too late, so Ray and I hit the road, so to speak, before offering Lee’s parents the opportunity to kick us out—even though they stayed in their bedroom most of the time, Lee’s parents had a preternatural instinct for determining who was in the house, and they always managed to sneak upstairs and surprise us.

So Ray and I sat on his front porch, cackling and staring at the ground, trying to stifle our mania. Ray couldn’t take it, the waiting, the giggled, so he went inside and hid in his bedroom. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was an ailment that would afflict us all, some more frequently than others, over the coming years: we’d smoke pot and hide in our rooms to enjoy the euphoria alone—though not always: I have plenty of stories about being young and fucked up and living dangerously, but that is not the point of this little number.

###

Kerouac is the point.

###

So I suppose now is as good a time as any to explain how I discovered Kerouac, and how he gave birth to my love of literature.

###

But first:

I’ve got to finish the Forrest Gump thread.

###

If you’re still reading this and sighing, thinking, “Fuck, man, get on with it already, for fuck’s sake. Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck,” fear not: the Kerouac thread eventually intersects with the Forrest Gump thread.

###

So shut up already, you damn impatient bastard.

###

Christ. Attention spans are an increasingly rare commodity these days. If a man or woman, adult or child, isn’t delivered the point now now now and on a fucking silver platter with cardboard signs attached to the sides portraying giant fucking arrows gesturing to the point of any given film or book or poem or article, people don’t want it. Most people would rather gag on the spoon feeding them than enjoy the fruits of the labor—if I may use such an ugly cliche, a phrase that hits the ear with a thud.

###

But anyway:

###

Here I am bitching about peoples’ attention spans while my attention is seemingly all over the map.

###

So … as I was saying:

###

But anyway:

###

I left Ray’s house after he went inside and stumbled to my house and somehow made it into my bedroom without having to sneak past my parents. The thought of trying to communicate with them and pretend that I was a-okay had troubled me, and nearly killed my buzz, but when I reach my bedroom, unnoticed, I flopped onto my bed and closed my eyes and dug the high.

At first the sensations were intense, and somewhat nauseating: a million pinpricks seized my arms and back, as though I’d been groped by a four-armed monster whose arms were made out of acupuncture needles. The pinpricks massaged me, then they pulled me back, back, back, and it felt as if I were flying through a tunnel.

The sensations amazed me. I’d never felt or even conceived such sensations. Occasionally they made me laugh. More often than not, however, they sucked me into a void so fully and completely devoid of thought that I simply hovered over the mattress, consumed by the drugs devouring me.

But soon the void cracked, and I instinctively understood that there was only one way to fill that crack. Music. Music, I knew, was the calk used to erase cracks in euphoric, marijuana voids. How did I know this? I didn’t know. I only knew that it was the most sensible and obvious solution to my problem.

So I rolled onto my side and reached for the boombox beside my bed. My head still hollow and floating toward the ceiling. I turned on the boombox and slammed the play button on the cassette deck. Grunge music blasted from the speakers. It was loud and metallic and disturbing. So I popped out the cassette and, rushing, looked through my box o’ tapes, as I called it, and couldn’t find anything comforting or soothing. Then I found it. I found that goddamn Forrest Gump soundtrack. Dad had loaned me, and I more or less shuffled it away. Only it wasn’t so god-damnable now that I was stoned. I suspected the soundtrack, something I’d balked at for weeks, would prove to be the ultimate in weed-void repairs.

Most of the music on those cassettes was as I’d expected: lame hippy shit.

But the songs were mellow and sonic and sent my head into orbit, so the tape stayed in the deck.

Then the song began, a song that would change my life: Break on Through by The Doors. My body jolted as the rhythm pulsed and Jim Morrison’s crooning shouts leaped from the speakers and into my ears. The song sent me into the atmosphere, into the stratosphere, across the galaxy and back again. As soon as it ended, I rewound the tape and listened to it again. And again. And again. I listened to that song until my high wore off. And then I listened to it again.

###

I was desperate to hear more music by the,, so I rummaged through my father’s cassettes, but he didn’t have any tapes by The Doors. Still desperate, and forever broke, I looked in an old cabinet long abandoned by the family. The cabinet, a large wooden box with midget morrisonlegs and sliding doors, housed my parent’s respective LP collections. I dug through the hundreds of LPs and set a few aside, albums by Hendrix, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and then, digging through the final dozen or so, I hit it big: among my father’s albums I found not one, not two, but four Doors LPs: their self-titled debut, the Soft Parade, LA Woman, and Other Voices.

###

Other Voices was crap. It was a post-Morrison catastrophe that I won’t even bother to get into here, but the other albums, oh, the other albums had a permanent effect on me. Here were collections of songs running the gamut from enigmatic—The Crystal Ship, Riders on the Storm—to dark, brooding tours de force—The End, LA Woman, The Changeling.

I listened to those albums over and over, both sober and stoned. While stoned, they affected me psychically; I could feel my brain turning, my thought processes stretching, adhering to the band’s rhythms, copying and retaining Morrison’s imagery and poetics.

###

At this point in the narrative, I’m sure you’re yelling, saying, “Get the fuck on with it, dickwad. How the fuck did we get onto The Doors, for fuck’s sake? I thought this thing was supposed to be about Jack Kerouac. We’re already more than halfway through this story[3] and you still haven’t hit on Kerouac.” To which I will respond: “My newfound love and passion for The Doors and Jim Morrison led me to attempt to read my first book, No One Here Gets Out Alive, a biography of Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman.”

In the book, as it detailed young Morrison’s development, it traced his literary influences and detailed how the young Morrison responded to each book and author he devoured. Of these books, one stuck out. It was On the Road by Jack Kerouac—a book I’d never heard of by an author whose surname the fifteen-year-old Daulton didn’t know how to pronounce.

According to Hopkins and Sugerman, Morrison consumed On the Road vociferously, and even took to imitating Dean Moriarty, even down to his cackle.

###

This, of course, intrigued me. So I abandoned No One Here Gets Out Alive—to this day that book remains mostly unread, even though I still own that copy—and located my old library card—something virtually unused by me up to that point—and rushed to the local library and checked out the book. Although I’d read about it, I still wasn’t certain what it was about. I knew that it was about a man taking a road trip across the country, but I wasn’t familiar with Kerouac or his style, nor did I know that a man could have published what would become a monumental novel that is seemingly devoid of plot.

###

I had a surplus of free time because I’d recently dropped out of school for reasons I won’t explain other than to say that school was something others did while I was out getting fucked up. So I devoted much of my time to On the Road.

###

The opening of the novel failed to grab me. Even though this was my first exposure to literature and one of the first real books I tried to read outside of school, I somehow sensed that the first chapter felt hurried and wasn’t fleshed out. ontheroadCharacters’ names were dropped without context or introduction, and the prose flowed in an unusual cadence—it read less like ‘literature’ and more like oral storytelling. I now recognize that Kerouac’s voice in On the Road is closer to Homer than to Hemingway or to Fitzgerald. What Kerouac has in common with Homer is that both authors’ works are meant to be spoken and broken as the reader—also, in Kerouac’s case, the writer—breaks out into impromptu riffs. But then it felt slow, and I wasn’t certain where he, Sal Paradise, the narrator and Kerouac’s avatar, was taking me. Then Sal hit the road. He dared to dream and left, but his dream wasn’t well thought out. He’d intended to take Route Six across the country in a single bound, from New York to Denver to California, but his plans disintegrated and he was stranded beneath an awning hanging over an old gas station in the rain. His plans forced him to take a bus, and he lamented his stupidity. Then the actual road trip began, and this is where Kerouac won me over. As Sal comes into his own as a traveler, the prose switches gears from fragmented exposition to raw energetic proclamations. As Sal traveled and befriended fellow travelers and fell in love and found himself stuck in ruts working shitty jobs trying to get by, I felt what he felt, felt the raw, intense yearning for life, the desire to break the mold, to do something different, to dream, and not to give a fuck about what others—authority figures—thought about my dreams.

I grew increasingly excited as I plowed through the book. The energy of his prose seized me, filled me with dreams similar to Sal’s. I didn’t necessarily want to hit the road at first, but I did want to find myself. I wanted to find myself because, even then, I realized that I was nothing. I had little ambition. I’d always wanted to do something, to be something; at that time I’d dreamt of becoming a world-renowned comic book artist, but Kerouac and his lust for life, and the energy and excitement his prose exuded, changed that. No longer dreaming of becoming an illustrator, I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to live life according to my rules and to live to write about it, to stop living my life only to document what I’d already experienced.

###

1994 was the most crucial year in my life, and the number fifteen will forever inspire and haunt me. In that year, I lost my grandmother—the first person close to me to die—and developed a fear and obsession with death; I dropped out of school; I began to read and to write; I became an obsessive Kerouac and Jim Morrison freak; and I discovered the wonders of weed. Most of my friends were dropouts or naïve waifs like me, and on any given night you could find us roaming around town, shoplifting or spraying graffiti on walls, mugging other kids and doing whatever it took to score cash to buy some weed. We were always doing something, sometimes stupid and criminal, sometimes more or less innocent, and I’d developed an already-strong memory into a recording device. And when I had downtime—when I was home during the day or night in which my friends and I didn’t get together—I set down on paper, Kerouac-style, our life and crimes and adventures.

###

I read others in those days but I always came back to Kerouac. I read and re-read On the Road and soon discovered his other books—The Dharma Bums, Tristessa, Big Sur, Desolation Angels, Old Angel Midnight, Lonesome Traveler, to name a few—and devoured all of them, but none affected me the way On the Road affected me. His later novels lacked the energy and the desire to live that made On the Road the novel it is today. The novel still inspires because it is pure and inspired; it expressed more than any of his other works the pre-“King of the Beats[4]”-Kerouac’s unequivocal lust for life.

###

I tried to convince Lee and Ray to read Kerouac but they were more interested in getting stoned than reading, so our friendship devolved to thekerouac point where I couldn’t be around them unless I was stoned. We still had great times together, but I was quickly bouncing past them. I was devouring every book I could get my hands on; I was yearning, like Kerouac, to live, live, live. I didn’t want to sit around and smoke pot. I wanted to smoke pot, don’t get me wrong; I just wanted to go out and experience new things while I did it. I wanted to express my lust for life with as much energy as Kerouac had put into his prose.

###

My friend Bill Simmons[5], a kid my age but who was infinitely more experienced than me—he moved and acted and lived and even slightly resembled Neal Cassady, and I often expressed that in amazement—had come back to town after famously disappearing—Bill always disappeared in those days, sometimes for days, sometimes for months or even years, and when he came back he rarely talked about where he’d been or what he’d done.

Bill was, I knew, the moment he returned, my perfect ally: he was intelligent and always desperate to learn and do new things. So I turned him onto The Doors and I turned him onto Kerouac. He and I became best friends and we’d get stoned and read aloud from On the Road and daydream about leaving, about striking out on our own and living life as Kerouac and Cassady, Sal and Dean, had lived.

###

But something came up. As we aged and made plans to leave, something catastrophic always blew our way and derailed our plans.

###

In 1999, when Bill and I were twenty-years-old, we sat around talking one night and finally made definitive plans to leave. Stoned, we talked for hours, cramped in his tiny room listening to music, flipping through my beat-up, dog-eared copy of On the Road, and we dreamed.

###

I was smart enough, or fortunate enough, whatever the case may be, to have scribbled down some of Bill’s conversation that night, on old paper I still have. In addition to writing—sometimes shorthand—what he was saying, he and I typed out a pact and signed it, agreeing to leave that summer, to finally follow Kerouac’s lead—other than writing; to live, live, live.

###

“its adventure jus u & friends
sittin back cruisin radio blastin friends
lookin behind you watchin your back
jus go—s’pose it does work—s’pose
it is great & you’re afraid to go—imagine
the poetry—& I’m not sayin gone forever
just a bit—if we don’t like it—come
back—but what if we do like it? What
then (looking for atlas)

“my friend daulton the big shit talker
talkin shit all day (finds cigarette pack w/
roach in it, pink floyd playing in bckgrnd.) Aww
man. Aw man! Will you look at that (presents
roach; leaves) I’ll be back (seconds later;
enters) writin somethin good (pause) Hurry
up an write—I wanna talk to you

“I’m jus sayin you got u’r family
you can go home right? Feel like
I’m being dictated…listen…listen look man
Look u know what I did one time
I made a woman cum in my hands—
By convincing her she was somewhere else—
I wanna go—u wanna go—you’re scared—
I’m scared—but guess what (throws a
copy of On the Road) is that true or bullshit
is it—its true in his mind—he was
scared shitless—you’re a puss—not
a bitch—a puss—scared” (leaves)

###

July 15 1999
Bill & Daulton
On a search
To find the true
America

(signed)
I am still intoxicated
Bill Simmons
Daulton Dickey

2.23.99
(a.m.)

###

We never left.

###

I found these a few days ago and felt a flutter in my stomach as I read them. It’s been nearly a decade since Bill and I made that pact. In that decade a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. I sometimes wonder if I did Kerouac a disservice by doing as he said—devoting my life to writing—and not as he did—striking on out my own to find my life, to live by my rules.

###

It’s been years since I’ve read Kerouac, or really even thought about him. On the Road has been in the press lately because this year is the 50th anniversary of its publication. To commemorate its 50th year, Viking published a hardcover commemorative edition and finally released the unedited Scroll Version. So, inspired partly by my rediscovery of my pact ontheroadscrollwith Bill, I’ve decided to re-read Kerouac for the first time in at least seven years. I fell out of favor with Kerouac when I discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Joyce, Lethem and Eggers and Chabon and Foster Wallace. To me, then, having read the masters of old and the current crop of future masters[6], Kerouac wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. His spontaneous prose method was, I thought, a waste of time and a squandering of the man’s natural talents. But now as I re-read On the Road, I remember who and where I was when I was fifteen, when I first discovered the book, what I thought and what I felt, and simultaneously, I feel that same sense of wonder, of energy and excitement, and even occasionally stop to wonder where my life would be now had Bill and I hit the road. Perhaps we would have failed and wound up back home a few days later. But what if we had succeeded?

###

Much hype has been given to On the Road over the years, and most of it centers on Dean Moriarty, and how Sal Paradise is simply running around to catch up with his model for a new American hero. As I read the book now, I realize that Dean Moriarty is, at least to me anyway, the least interesting character in the book.

At its heart, On the Road is a classic bildungsroman, a novel about a character, in this case Sal Paradise, coming into his own—spiritually, intellectually, morally. This isn’t a novel about a disparate group of wanderers searching for meaning in a post-war generation generally thought to be devoid of meaning; instead, it’s a novel about a man searching for a simpler life, learning to exist on his own merits and to appreciate the world around him, and to appreciate his place in it. Too, it’s about fun, about living as wild and varied a life as one can live in the time each of us has been allotted on this quivering wheel of meat conception—if I may plagiarize a Kerouac phrase.

###

The novel won’t change me now as it once did, but it has renewed my appreciation for Kerouac, and it’s renewed my appreciation for my own squandered youth. Every decision I made back then was a bad decision. And for years I’ve dismissed everything I did. Back then, to me, the present meant everything. I didn’t look to the future or consider consequences. I lived for the moment. Inspired by Kerouac, I wanted to hear, taste, and see it all, and while fear and inhibitions prevented me from truly hearing, tasting, and seeing it all, I realize now that the things I missed out on aren’t relevant; only the things I did—for good or ill—matter. Back then, of course, this was a moot point to me. I lived in the moment because the moment was all I had; my future was, as it is with every teenager, an abstraction. But now that the future is here, and now that I look back at my teenage years, as seen, finally, through the lenses of Kerouac’s On the Road, I’m not as ashamed as I should be. So I owe my passion for literature and my desire to write to Kerouac, and it is for that, if nothing else, that I am thankful.

[1] All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

[2] Although non-fiction, it should go without saying that all dialogue is simply an approximation of what was actually said. These are old memories and some of them are hazy. I’m doing the best I can, folks.

[3] This story. There will be others. Consider this the first chapter of a memoir in literature, of sorts.

[4] A title Kerouac hated.

[5] Name also changed.

[6] Perhaps. At least one of the latter four will be remembered as such. Maybe not a master, per se, but an author of classic proportions.

The Role of Expectations in Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”

by
Daulton Dickey.

“I was in great perplexity”—or so the narrator of “A Country Doctor” tells us at the start of the story. On the road to visiting a patient, with a gig and without horses, his perplexity is understandable. He is a doctor, after all, and he is in need of transportation to visit a potentially sick patient. 

The story, it is worth noting, is written in the past tense, so the narrator is recounting these events from a vantage point sometime after the events he describes. It is possible that the opening statement—”I was in great perplexity”—is an expression of his state at the time the story begins; however, it’s also possible that the statement is an expression of something we would now call existential angst. 

From where does this “existential angst” spring? The nature of roles and the perception of roles might supply an answer.

As frameworks for viewing the concept and consequences of roles, we can appeal to two thinkers: the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cooley, working in the early decades of the twentieth century, posited what he called “the looking glass self.” Briefly, the looking glass self is a theory suggesting that our personalities are derived from how we perceive others perceive us. As Cooley once remarked, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” (Hood :72)             

In his philosophical treatise Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the Austrian philosopher kafkaLudwig Wittgenstein delineated an ontology that might be useful in viewing the concept of roles objectively. In the Tractacus, Wittgenstein distinguished between things in the universe and the language we used to describe those things, arguing that the language used to describe a thing does not equal the thing itself. To put it simply, the word “matter” is not a component of the thing it is meant to signify; instead, it is a picture of that thing, distinct from it.

We, each of us, play roles. Life is a series of theatrical stages onto which we are thrust, and the roles we play depend on the situation and on the audience, so to speak. Anecdotally, I am different in isolation than I am at work, as I interact with other people. Using “me in isolation” as a baseline, then we can say that I am different at work and different still around friends. Given the situation, given the people with whom I am surrounded, my personality shifts from situation to situation. 

This phenomenon is not unique to me. It occurs to each of us. How we encode and retrieve memories, how we select information, how we spin information to loosen the tension of cognitive dissonance too often blinds us from these situational-personality shifts.

Anticipating Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory, the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once encouraged us to embrace the way the public reproached us because, he claimed, their reproaches came closer to signifying who we really are.

In “A Country Doctor” we find several roles cast, and too often we find expectations met and affirmed, by either the people cast in those roles or the people casting those roles.

Having kicked open an uninhabited pigsty, the country doctor discovers a man inside. The man crawls out on all fours—animal-like—and asks, “Shall I yoke up?” (Kafka: 220) This behavior might be a joke, it might be a gag, but to a man in search of a horse, and to man living in a pigsty, it is an interesting pun on roles.

Expectations of roles play a part in this scenario as well. A few minutes later, when this man is helping to yoke real horses, he lashes out and bites the doctor’s servant girl on the cheek, leaving visible teeth marks. The role he had earlier cast himself in, and the role the doctor might have unconsciously cast, brought about subhuman behavior from a man living like—and joking about being—an animal.

We are who we think other people think we are—if this proposition holds true, then it can help shed light on the man’s behavior, on why he bit the servant girl: he was playing a role, that of a horse, and he was performing as he, or others, might expect him to perform.

Calling on Wittgenstein’s ontology, let us distinguish how things are from the language we use to describe them. For the sake of argument, let us presuppose that this story is true. Now consider the following: seeing a man living in a pigsty, crawling around like an animal, how would you expect A-country-doctor-by-Franz-Kafka-213x300him to behave: like a civilized dandy or like an animal? Assume the latter. Then assume that he picked up on your expectation: now how would you expect him to behave?

Before the man joked about yoking up, before the man bit the woman, he saw the doctor and the doctor’s serving girl. In a class system, a man living in a pigsty undoubtedly underwent social and culture training inculcating subservience to a person of a higher class—even if it is a doctor. It is possible that the man recognized this, and it is possible that it offered another role for him to perform: servant. So, “of his own free will” (Kafka: 220), the man assisted the doctor and the servant girl in yoking the horses.

The language you use to describe people, even if the language you use is nothing more than body language, even if the difference is perceived class differences, can affect how a person behaves.

On biting the servant girl, the man reverts again to his role as animal when it is implied that he is going to possibly rape the servant girl, who runs into the house and locks the door. The man smacks the doctor’s horses, and the horses race away as the man broke down the door to the house and bolted inside.

We are, each of us, a looking glass. The language we use to describe ourselves does not necessarily reflect our personality or behavior. The language other people use, or, specifically, the language we think they use, can and does affect our personality or behavior.

We can find evidence for this, within the context of Kafka’s story, if we jump ahead in the narrative.

Having arrived at his patient’s house, the doctor is rushed inside by the patient’s family. Lying in bed, the patient says, “Doctor, let me die.” (Kafka:221) The patient’s family doesn’t hear his plea; instead, they watch intently, expecting the doctor to heal their son and brother.

The doctor’s role is one in which he cast himself, but his expectations of this role differ from the expectations of those who do not belong to the medical profession. Here, the patient himself has peculiar expectations for the doctor: by pleading with the doctor to let him die, the patient seems to presuppose that the doctor can save his life—which may or may not be the case.

Yet the doctor has cast himself in another role as well, that of master and protector of the servant girl. While he prepares to attend to the patient, his role as master and protector occupies him, and he contemplates fleeing to save his servant from the clutches of the animal-like man.

We each play roles. Roles dominate our lives. In every second of every day, we play roles, we perform. Do these roles, do these performances, lead to existential angst?

To answer this, we can appeal to the philosophical movement known as existentialism, which in its reduced form makes the following claim: “meaning” is a human construct; it is not a thing that exists independently of human beings; and in lieu of latching onto meaning that exists outside of us, we are free to make our own meaning.

To the country doctor, this triggers an interesting question: what does hkafka complete storiesis role mean, a role perceived by himself and others?

The townsfolk view the role of doctor as almost superhuman, or mystical–or magical. Having surrounded the doctor and stripped off his clothes, they sang, “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,/ If he doesn’t, kill him dead!/ Only a doctor, only a doctor.” (Kafka: 224)

The role the townsfolk cast is unrealistic, as unrealistic as the role the patient himself cast when he implored the doctor to let him, the patient, die. It is the case such that a doctor might cure people, or at least ease their suffering. This, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to the doctor as the hinge on which life and death always turns. In some cases, it is possible that a doctor can cure or heal someone. It is not the case, however, that, in all cases, a doctor is able to cure or heal someone. Yet these townsfolk seem to assume the latter. Punish the doctor, say, if he does not give us what we want, if he does not fulfill the role he is expected to play, which is the role of superhuman healer.

This is a role he cannot play, this is a role he does not want to play—the situation created for him has spoiled his role as doctor, and now he wants to finish his business so he can escape. However, he must finish meeting with his patient, who is cast in a role of his own: miser.

To illustrate this, pay attention to how the patient behaves when he finally has the doctor’s attention:

“‘Do you know,’ said a voice in my ear, ‘I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me in my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.’ ‘Right,’ I said, ‘it is a shame. And yet I am a doctor. What am I to do? Believe me, it is not too easy for me, either.’ ‘Am I supposed to be content with this apology? Oh, I must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with things. A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that is my sole endowment.'” (Kafka: 224)

A sense of duty compelled the doctor to visit the patient, duty derived from his role as a doctor. The threats of the townsfolk keeps him by the beside, despite the threats from his patient, despite his patient’s lack of interest in living. The role the doctor plays is as both author of his circumstances and victim of his circumstances, and the expectations he has of himself, and that others thrust onto him, transform his looking glass into a magnifying glass through which rays from the sun pelt and assault him.

His role has thrust him into this circumstance, the expectations others have of him have heightened his circumstance, and he cannot appeal to his role to save him. After all, as he told the patient, “I am a doctor. What am I to do?”

 

Bibliography

Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories (Schocken Books, 1995)

Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)

The Dentist

by Daulton Dickey.

Dentistry isn’t what it used to be. In my younger and less vulnerable years, I’d service fifteen or twenty patients a day without incident. Scrape teeth, inject lidocaine and extract teeth, and then I’d go home and distract myself. Thoughts of work rarely assaulted me. But now I can’t go near a person’s mouth without an armed bodyguard and an exorcist, and the day haunts me well into night.

Just this morning, a scruffy-faced man ambled into my office, complaining of a toothache. My alarm bells sounded on seeing him. His greasy hair and unkempt beard alerted me to potential trouble. And those eyes, black and hollow, dug into my flesh and raised every hair on my body.

‘I got an awful pain,’ he said.

My nurse seated him and eyeballed me, telegraphing SOS by flickering her pupils. I returned the message and, with a flick of my wrist, called Sancho into the room. His name was—honest to god—Sancho Panza and he stood six foot eight inches without shoes. He sauntered into the room, clutching a crucifix, and hovered over me. I couldn’t see his face but I knew his routine: fire mad-looking eyes at the patient, a sort of pre-emptive warning shot, and grimace. Continue reading