I have begun to smooth out the creases. Aided by what I only later came to term a strategy of neglect, the course of action I initially pursued was one that lent itself to my natural passivity, an aspect of my character that has often been mistaken for docility or a certain gentleness of spirit, but which, in truth, resembles something more akin to the militancy of the self-immolating monk (of whom, I should hasten to add – in the general or the particular – I know close to nothing, either from study or from personal encounter, but of whom I have built, as it were, foundations, ramparts, walls and battlements of air and over the fantastical cumulus of which now thrones a terrible spectre of grim resignation, flames of fury licking at the fattened horizon, sickly green smoke asphyxiating the tranquil, verdant valleys, his look of beatific indifference annihilating all). Despite having given the matter considerable thought, I am no closer now than at any point in my recent past to identifying the fateful moment at which this mole of nature – neither vicious nor virtuous, to my mind, in and of itself (that is, my aforementioned passivity, as I will have termed it in youthful conversations inviting the betrayal of confidences) – turned as it were student radical in the fascistic service of political orthodoxy and shut down, as if murdering in the newly-minted libertine one self-loathing bourgeois value after another in outrageous, ever-hungry transgression, each and every egress to the world. There have been days when, seated at my old Björkudden table, pursuing once again the midnight fox of my private history through labyrinthine streets of suburban decay, I have believed myself to have exhausted the beast’s animal cunning and confronted it, this the one last occasion that will prove terminal, its bushy tail quivering low to the ground, teeth bared, saliva frothing in fearful anger, driven to the dead-end of a long-abandoned plot of ground, and cried out, “Here I’ve got you, here the first move against the natural will” – arm now raised against the slavering creature, brute, vital force asserting its primacy once again – “here is where I turned against myself”. But the initial certainty of victory is brief. Indeed, I have variously placed the focal point about which my life spun off towards the cleanliness of death in my childhood, in my youth, in my first tentative steps into adulthood and, on occasion, even in the flower of my ageing. None of these have I deemed satisfactory, and my inward nightly wanderings – the VELUX rooflight as my guide – continue whenever the total blankness of my mind threatens to overwhelm me, attentiveness to the strangled bark of my pitiful history sufficient to ease a troubled conscience. It will come as no surprise that it is in my childhood that I most often believe to find the first scent of the slinking cur. But it is in my more proximate past, rubbing up against my leg, so to speak, that the stench is most pungent. And it is to this that I now turn.
At first I merely neglected to respond to the occasional message that demanded my attention. My lack of action was haphazard. By and large I persisted in the continuation of my expected course of existence, completing what was required of me as a member of the social body, such as presenting myself at the times demanded at my company’s offices (during working hours during the working week) and travelling for leisure at the appointed times of the year to the expected destinations (that is, to anywhere at all, provided a narrative of adventure or recuperation was woven around the lacuna of the everyday). But on occasion, when I saw once more that yet another message had been delivered to me through one of the numerous systems to which I was at the time cathetered – the least egregious of which was the telephone – I simply failed to respond. Initially, this neglect of my social duties may well have been unconscious. Its actuation fluctuated, for instance, according to the balance of my humours and the degree to which I had succumbed to an instinctive slothfulness. However, of this I am certain, in the final analysis it was independent of any other contingency and was, rather, an entirely autonomous force that had begun to unravel the coil of my mortal being in the pursuit of its own flourishing. This was a neglectfulness that sighed contentedly in its application and breathed a leisurely snort of satisfaction at its victory over the claims of the mundane world. Within myself I had discovered brief glimpses of an exotic excrescence and, intrigued, I pursued its cultivation. I began more often deliberately to withhold a reply that had already formed itself in my mind. I neglected to answer both trivial communications – brief hellos from former friends long forgotten, half-hearted requests from acquaintances made the previous night and unmade readily – and those considered non-trivial by ordinary standards, that is, those that might, in due course, directly affect my bodily wellbeing. While I may initially have felt a kind of rebellious thrill at the recklessness with which I was increasingly slipping into an uncharted future – like the methamphetamine-addled former forex trader spending his first night out under the black stars of the underpass – I found that the trivial and the material were now indistinguishable and that no further pitch forward into the abyss affected my sense of stillness. I faced radical uncertainty, wind-blasted, naked, with an equanimity that was profoundly inexplicable. The more I pursued my strategy – leaving the phone unanswered, lit-up and buzzing, a fish thrashing against the arid stinging air, refusing to respond to the insistent red flashes on websites and applications, leaving the door unopened on a Saturday afternoon despite the repeated knocking – the more I was puzzled by the ease and lack of concern with which I accepted my self-imposed quietus. It was as if withdrawal from the world was leading to a withdrawal from the self. I did not know what croaking raven would roost in its place once the citadel had been abandoned.
In time, my strategy of neglect gave way to an active strategy of negation. Despite my already somewhat advanced years, I had in the 1990s and 2000s been an early adopter of digital technologies (a term that is now, of course, nonsensical, describing a cast of mind that is imbibed with one’s mother’s milk – often quite literally, as the mother hunkers over her phone with YouTube clips of hilarious baby fails, while her own wretched gelding is almost asphyxiated by an engorged bosom). The ephemeral appeal of these new technologies – their relative speed, exoticism and, above all, their promise of escape from materiality – was one to which I willingly succumbed. But, much later, once I had begun to seek refuge in the arrest of personal activity and become inured to its pleasure, I turned towards the active destruction of this alternative realm. I took upon myself the priestly task of desecration, methodically toppling the idols of myself that I had been constructing for years, undoing with one finger thousands of lines of addresses that knitted together the records of moments of what had passed for a life, unravelling one by one the forms of being that I had hoped to join together in Promethean promise. Images, texts and sounds were removed from private and public contemplation and with them the links to the detritus of others that had constituted friendships and acquaintances. As I scraped away the layers of accumulated filth, I felt within myself a kind of euphoria of purification. I was Savonarola marching through the muted streets of Florence, my shadow cast before me, a roaring bonfire to cleanse the world. Where once there had been proliferation and fecund growth, now all would be silence and tranquility. Where once there had been the peaks and troughs of an unhinged emotional spigot, now the calm expanse of the emptying delta. I had begun to smooth out the creases.
As I write, I see a sparrow twitching around the patch of grass outside the kitchen window looking for food. I find the lives of small creatures unbearable. Electrical circuits around which currents ricochet frantically. The sooner they stop, the better.
I had opened the door that Saturday afternoon and invited him in. I knew at once what were the steps to be taken. From the moment the bell rang there was an inevitability about each event, however insignificant, from the scraping of his dirty trainers on the mat to the offer of a cup of tea. Our actions had about them the anticipatory quality of ritual, the well-rehearsed rubrics of the sacred. I felt almost touched by how well we performed our roles, by the instinctive respect for civilization’s long-preserved traditions that our actions evinced.
Over the previous days I had been feeling increasingly constrained in my elected hermeticism. Waves of digital self-destruction had culminated in a renewed, vigorous engagement with the ebb and flow of the single, inane voice of the internet. I had come to understand that the destruction of living systems can be accomplished not merely by excision, but by exponential, cancerous growth of malformed tissue. Adopting a kind of poor man’s dezinformatsiya, I brought into being little green armies of the self – vengeful, capricious, spiteful – seeking to undermine the narrative coherence of our precarious world. The effectiveness of my avatars was patent, as the pricked narcissism of morally vacuous individuals kicked back at itself in reflex, exposing the confusion, contradictions and hypocrisy of people who are basically a nice person (or, above a certain point in terms of income or assets, ‘decent’). Every day there were new outrages that demanded public denunciations, campaigns of solidarity, the adoption of slogans, the sharing of edited videos and the screeching of expletives. Every day I sat ready to deflate the poloi, the chicken-headed, aquatic imbeciles that swarm their own excretions.
But I had joined the party rather late, of course, and I found that my contributions to returning the repressed to its rightful place were too little. There were too many, they lacked any coherent sense of self beyond the physical and I was itching for a more radical change, hungry to devour and destroy the one cadaverous thing that they clung to for certainty, their preened, waxed, gym-bloated bodies. In sum, I felt that my removal from the world, my isolation, was insufficient to accomplish my ambitions. I needed to meet in full stride the thriving green shoots of the world and cut them down.
He was selling odd things from a little tray that hung miserably across his stomach and I had opened the door. I invited him in. He scraped his dirty trainers on the mat and I offered him a cup of tea. I noticed he was handsome. While young, his face was old and the rather poetic thought crossed my mind that it was centuries-old. I offered him a cup of tea and he gratefully accepted. A face that had been beaten into shape by the brutal winds of the steppes, I thought, on horseback, always on the move, and now it had found its final expression and defeat in the grey, dull lull of an Oxford afternoon. It had been cut over the years to a fine shape, had a certain nobility to its features, but his expression was pathetic. What did he want a cup of tea for anyway? As I prepared two cups, I heard him shifting nervously in the living room. Belatedly, he was questioning his instinctive behaviour, his trust in me. Inferior in every way, he had merely obeyed my command. Now he awaited further instructions, sensing perhaps what was his allotted role in this metaphysical drama.
The force with which a blunt object must impact upon a skull to do serious damage surprised me. The first swing at him was entirely clear and I put what I had thought my full force into it, but he merely stumbled and caught himself in his fall against the mantelpiece. Thankfully, having had the presence of mind to attack him from behind, I merely took one step forward, returning my arm as I did so to full extension before bringing the Carrara marble chopping block – vertex-first – crashing into his brain. As he had begun to turn towards the source of the attack having stopped his fall, the final blow landed at the top of his right temporal bone and, having lost my own balance, we clattered into an awkward embrace against the empty fireplace, cheek-to-cheek as chaste lovers on the slopes of Mount Olympus.
I observed his body closely. As it began to still and smooth out its last guttering of life, I noted with satisfaction that in this moment I felt for the first time the stirrings still within me of a quiet reconciliation with the vitality of my own body. If this was death, then truly I am alive.