“The Middle” is a 2001 song by the legendary Arizona rock band Jimmy Eat World. Released two months after September 11 as the second single off their fourth studio album, Bleed American, which by then was renamed Jimmy Eat World so as not to trigger the nation, “The Middle” crossed over quickly to the pop charts, where it hit the top five. Its success was surprising, since although it was a one-lick wonder, hard to forget if you’d heard it once, it was also clearly written for an obscure adolescent in London, Ontario, that is to say, me. The lyrics said:
Hey, don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out and looked down on
It just takes some time
Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride
It’s obvious. “Write yourself off” alludes to my wanting (if I couldn’t be a singer, dancer, elementary school teacher, or poet) to be a writer. Other allusions are subtler. “Yet” is my longtime favourite word, the fermata of spoken language. “Only in your head” is the answer to a question I asked myself every day in my diary, while “little girl” is an accurate dig given that I got my period three grades late due to repression. The song remains as I was: emo(tional) and repressed into happiness, bright and in a hurry to please.
Then there’s the title, which can only signify the American city I knew best. Midland, in the middle of Michigan, is a place as far as anyone get from her dreams, but from my hometown it was a three-hour drive, and since — as the Lord would have it — it was also the site of the annual National Holy Spirit Conference at the world headquarters of Mark T. Barclay Ministries, my parents Gary and Linda got the five of us kids into the Volvo and drove there at the end of every winter. I was emo, for sure. I liked going anywhere but home.
As the first one to be born, I was called a “blessing,” which is the Christian word for accident. The three next-borns were conceived more on purpose. Then another blessing. We lived in a yellow brick house in London, Ontario, that had been empty for twelve years and unrenovated for thirty when Linda asked Gary if they should buy it. A four-bedroom house, a single income. It never felt full. Furniture stood like it was outside on someone’s lawn for sale. There were not enough books for a bookcase, there were no cool objects or incidental pillows. My mother couldn’t spare the attention so there weren’t any pets. The Volvo was older than I was and I was too old to sit in the middle and when I had to sit in the middle regardless I wished a dog would run into the road so I could scream.
Four or five times a week we went to church. On Wednesdays for Bible study, on Fridays for youth group, on Saturdays for prayer night, and on Sundays for morning and evening sermons, we drove to an industrial plaza at the city’s edge, where a dozen or more sedans would park under a fluorescent sign: Victory, as in battle. We did not want to go to battle. We were children. But of course our parents, who in their own adolescences had attended religious services once a week and never, respectively, had waited until the moment of our births to adopt a strain of Christian fundamentalism that thrived in opposition to having a life.
The Bible says our lives are not our own. Who wanted mine? I was homeschooled for the first eight grades by my mother, who sacrificed the chance of professional fulfillment to protect us from secularism, scheduling our days to the minute. To get back at her I idolized my dad, a math whiz who gave two tenths of his income to a church where the pastor was the richest man. Double the tithe, the pastor would say. Double the blessing.
If answers were hard to find in the secular world it was because the church had them all. If we were sick, if we were doubting, we were being tested. If people laughed or stared at us for being Christians, or even if they just didn’t like us, we remembered that Jesus had said, had he not, that his followers would be hated and mocked. When there was an election we prayed over who to vote, and miraculously it was always a candidate who opposed same-sex marriage. After I left home and church, my parents would join the nation in electing Stephen Harper, their excitement springing partly from the assumption that this steel-headed Reaganite was even more right with God than he was in his politics, and that if he was silent on marriage or abortion, it was because a pluralized, agnostic Canada had endangered his views.
Evangelical Christianity is rarer north of the border, and in Southern Ontario it is distinctly non-native. Our faith was outlandish to the neighbours and upsetting to my teachers in high school, since I was not allowed to read novels that glamorized adultery or textbooks that posited evolution as more than a hypothesis. To my college friends it was a reluctantly told secret. To my peers in New York, who tend to be beautifully educated and historically liberal, the idea that I was ever so Christian is exotic or quaint, and most of my close friends have never needed question their essential — to me it’s essential — disbelief.
I don’t encourage credulity about the way I grew up, nor do I tell it like a story. Instead I take a handful of former shames, unearthed from the shallowest layer of a dig to the past, and rattle them off, like so:
My mother volunteered at a pro-life clinic after she had me, which I should have found more heartening.
My mother once marched — alone — in a Straight Pride parade.
I spoke in tongues.
When boys became interested my dad took me out to a coffee house, where he asked questions about my faith and my interests and paid for my cheesecake, then drove me home by 9 p.m. curfew, listening to the classical radio station, to show me how anyone who wanted to “court” me should behave.
A big dish at church picnics was known as “angelled eggs” because the ladies who made it were loath to give the devil a place, even if that place was between “would you like some” and “eggs.”
Halloween became “Hallelujah Night,” an opportunity to celebrate God’s Word by dressing as any fully clothed and non-demonic character from the Old or New Testament. I was twice the Queen of Sheba in a peach polyester taffeta dress for an eighties bridesmaid, sashed at my waist like a kimono. Strings of acrylic crystals encircled my head and each wrist. Nobody told me the Queen of Sheba was likely Ethiopian.
Faith healers laid hands on me for ailments I didn’t know I had. A left leg slightly shorter than the right. A “precancerous condition.” Anemia.
I prayed for a sign that God was real and the next Sunday the pastor said someone in the audience had been praying for a sign that God is real.
People have questions. Do I believe in God now? Do I remember when I stopped? Really, I was seven? I was, or maybe I was six, but I did the math on heaven and saw that every day up there is meaningless, each day divided by infinity is not worth defining. This answer too is meaningless, because the question is how.
How could a pair of smart, young, perfectly healthy college graduates at the end of the century decide to raise us like hellions in the ’50s? How could they do it to us? Teach us to read and ban books. Feed us and clothe us and put cold cloths on our foreheads and give us nightmares for the rest of our lives. Every kid wonders how their parents could also be human, but no kids we knew were punished like our parents punished us; and not one of us has unprotected them by saying in public, nor am I saying now, how that was.
I believed two things. One, that my parents had reasons, and two, that of these reasons, the only reason that would allow me to love them was God.
In the car on the way to Midland we were happy. We made our own crowd. Across the border, slush on the road turned more silver. Radio that was playing classical music began to play rock and was switched off in favour of a praise & worship tape. Cooome, went the tape, played thin. Now is the time to worrrrrr-shiiiip. The size and frequency of billboards and family restaurants and light trucks and dogs in their seats made the difference between our two countries, the one we were from and the one we could never get away from.
Our pastor and his family, driving ahead in their Lexuses, were Southern Ontarian but identified, proudly, as American. American flags hung with Canadian ones at Victory. American preachers brought news from the war on American freedoms. Though I would not meet a Jewish person until I was eighteen years old, we were taught that the Jews were our allies and that Jerusalem was the holiest city, the second-holiest being Tulsa, Oklahoma. We gave money to repatriate Jews in Israel, knowing full well that most of them would be killed at Armageddon, leaving a dedicated remnant — eyes, hearts opened to Jesus — to survive the Tribulation and try saving the rest of the world.
“Knowing” meant having heard it from the book of Revelations, which the American preachers studied like a girl with a crush studies her horoscope. Revelations also said that before the Tribulation, Christians would be taken up, or “raptured,” to meet Christ in the air. It did not specify the air in America, but America was the land of firsts and exclusives, and driving to Midland felt more toward, more like destiny, than driving someplace equidistant in Canada where nothing would happen.
Over two rivers a bridge built like a Y — a tridge — looked rusted on purpose. Under another bridge, where there should have been graffiti, was a carefully airbrushed mural of a professional baseball player. We drove on the edge of our seats, looked in vain for vanity license plates, saw instead arenas, gardens, hospitals named for Herbert or Alden Dow. Herbert, the father, founded Dow Chemical here in 1910, and Alden, the son, became the city’s architect laureate, giving the center a low modernist bend. Midland was a remnant itself, an exurb without a commute. A “city of beautiful churches” it was called, with a hundred and eighty places of worship for a populace of fifty, sixty thousand, thirty miles cleared of old white pines.
The promenades at the Midland Mall were laned like the freeway and lit by sky, suggesting all the time in the world. One year at the Barnes & Noble bargain bin I bought an authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher to impress my dad. Another year at Victoria’s Secret, where I was obviously forbidden to buy lingerie, I got a sixteen-ounce body mist — “Love Spell” — that smelled like a licked sugared almond. The Gap was unaffordable. There was always a sale at Express so I could always buy a stretch top, wear it around the mall, and return it when my mother said that if the top fit it wouldn’t have to stretch. At Target, pronounced Tar-jay by Canadians as some kind of joke, I bought my first album on compact disc, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which I told my dad was a gospel record about repatriating Israel.
We stayed at the Fairview Inn, which was twenty dollars cheaper than the Holiday Inn for two adjoined rooms. It was cozier too, we assured our dad. There was a popcorn machine in the lobby, a red trolley going nowhere outside. My brother and I hoarded packets of Carnation hot chocolate to mix with six creamers and a spoonful of instant coffee each, our idea of “mocha lattes,” our first little drug, sipped over bitten styrofoam edge with our feet in the pool. Businessmen in forest green suits talked about fishing and Britney Spears’ influence, about new pharmaceuticals and who in Al-Qaeda was still alive. Flat forest green, treeless green, is the colour of Midland.
I am describing it as it was in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, before I found it unusual for a place to not change. I doubt that it has. Read the news. A merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont hangs over town, but representatives say that the headquarters, employing thousands, will stay at home. The official rate of unemployment, which rose to an all-time high of twelve per cent in 2010, is back at three per cent, pre-9/11 levels. A reverend who preached that being gay was a sin, like alcoholism, was found shirtless on Grindr; a pastor who thanked God that his adopted, teenage daughter had not been aborted is in prison for raping her. No other pastors appear to be jailed. The Fairview is now a Baymont Inn, but foreclosure is yet an uncertainty for the Midland Mall, and you can always go through Arby’s and get the old deal on roast beef sandwiches, like we did, two for each of us, eating neatly in the car on the way back to Mark T. Barclay’s church.
It is still there, Living Word Church, on the map as it is on my mind. A right on Highway 10, two miles north on Stark Road. Church and offices are off-white and low, not quite a compound. Enormous aluminum outline of a dove hails the incoming cars. Pastor Barclay, also called Doc or Brother Barclay, has a much-touted past as a marine — three tours in Vietnam, an honourable discharge — that makes the dove seem like a decoy. As Doc would say, he runs a tight ship. Ushers in teal suits direct traffic in the lot, hand out brochures to new visitors, and point you to your seat, to the bathroom, to the gift shop where they sell a self-published series of Mark T. Barclay books, including How To Relate To Your Pastor and What About Death?
People come from one to six states away for the National Holy Spirit Conference. There is no International Holy Spirit Conference. “Canada, eh?” says every believer we meet, before congratulating us for having “gotten out of the cold.” Ignorance is the only charm at work in these people, who are mostly not poor; or if they are poor they are taught to overestimate, to tithe on the income they want and not the income they have. (This teaching can be found in another book at the gift shop, The Real Truth About Tithing.)
Pastor Barclay is raising money to buy a jet because God wants a jet. Many of his parishioners are working-class, with jobs at varying levels of permanence, and many more are real estate agents, registered nurses, owners of independent roofing companies. Ask a local how he got to this church or don’t ask, and either way he will tell you about a divorce (he doesn’t say “my wife left me”) or a layoff (he doesn’t say “I got fired”) or another, sudden emptiness (sometimes he does say “I got sober, hallelujah, praise the Lord”). The local is not a jet-owner, but to be in the presence of God’s jet would really be something.
Services each begin like a new day at summer camp. Six hundred of us belong here today. We gather on grey carpet before the stage, the air centralizing and smelling like overdried laundry or seltzer gone warm in a can, hands lifted among the poly-satin hyacinths in spray-painted baskets, come, now is the time to worship, singing to the beat of a tambourine, a snare, lyrics on the big screen in bright yellow Arial Bold. We are in the world. We are not of the world. We are in church but we are not churchy, not traditional or denominational or bound by whispered codes, and our song is contemporary but never modern.
From the dove-adorned podium, Doc Barclay shouts out an Amen and we all shout it back. We shout back, I believe everything the Bible says. Everything my pastor says. No matter what the devil says. No matter what people say. We say, I am a believer. Therefore I am a receiver. And I do believe. And I will receive. Absolutely everything. That God has in store for me. In the holy name of Jesus. Say amen. The pastor low-whistles the “wh” in what, or where, or who like he’s from the near South, but he and his wife Vickie are from Michigan. Let’s clap one more time for the television, because by now the cameras are rolling, and the service will be broadcast on local cable, and in future, soon, it will be livestreamed and posted to Vimeo.
Sometimes the pastor is moved to bless or heal certain people, and sometimes he is moved to prophesy, saying he hears that the situation in the Middle East will only intensify, that more and more weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. That there are enemies in the White House who will imperil the reputation of our President. That though our families will be healed and our marriages will prosper, we should beware the globalized banking system, which will make our savings less safe than ever before. That too many of our churches are blind to the forces of adultery and homosexuality, which are an assault on our ministries.
He waits and says this is important now, I am hearing that many in the media will begin to call those who tell the truth “liars,” and those who lie “truth-tellers.” Only those who remember and uphold the difference between “the news” and The Good News shall not fail.
At the end of a service up to two hundred people are moved to come forward and repent for things, then to fall supine and dumb under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Ushers move quick to cover women’s legs with antimacassars. In the aisles, more ushers collect money from those moved to give. Yet none of this is what the average unbeliever calls “moving” in the spirit of politeness. Sermons elsewhere have a universal measure of soul, and the older, sectarian rituals, those elegant multi-step suasions, allow all who crave mimesis to participate without having to be swayed. Here there’s no optional movement. The words and the shouts are to shake us, shake us to the core, and especially to shake off temptation, which is the Christian word for anything worldly. Sin, doubt, uncertainty, open-mindedness, and camaraderie with sinners — temptations all.
A whiter crusade against respectable politics is hard to imagine. Midland’s citizens are ninety-five per cent white, ninety-three per cent born in America, and Living Word Church is not much more diverse. (Unlike with “white working class,” I find the phrase “white evangelicals” redundant, so opaquely white are most evangelicals I knew.) Race and ethnicity are considered non-issues, if considered at all, and class is literally a foreign concept. Our identity is one thing, Christian.
In Midland and Tulsa, Pensacola and Akron, Christians believe that the Earth is doomed not by the nuclear option or by a conspiracy known as global warming but by the hellfire which, when the sixth seal is broken, will waste a third of mankind; and by the mountains which will fall into the sea, turning it to blood and killing a third of its creatures, keeling a third of its ships; and by the great earthquakes, meteors showered down like manna, sun going dark. A doomed Earth is not worth inheriting. Forget being meek. Defending the family and the church are the loudest priorities. When the rest of the world is at war, when disaster and judgment come to American soil, what difference will it make to those who believed, who will be gone?
It’s tempting to look at a church like Living Word Church and see its witless millenarianism as a death wish misdirected outward. It’s tempting to think that Christians who vote against humanity are less human and no more Christlike than most people, are selfish and refuse to be self-aware, are willfully stupid for the stupidest reason, which is fear — and if it’s tempting then I must be Eve, because I think it’s all true.
The Book of Revelations is proof that losers write history too. “What kinds of visions are these, and what kind of man was writing them?” asks the religious scholar Elaine Pagels in her 2012 book, Revelations, answering that its author, John of Patmos, was a Jew who had been radicalized by the Messiah and that his “visions” were hyperbolic takes on the actual wartime in which he lived.
Writing from a desert isle in 90 A.D. after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, “John expresses alarm at seeing God’s ‘holy people’ increasingly infiltrated by outsiders who had no regard for Israel’s priority. In retrospect, we can see that John stood on the cusp of an enormous change—one that eventually would transform the entire movement from a Jewish messianic sect into ‘Christianity,’ a new religion flooded with Gentiles, including Greeks, Asians, Africans, Gauls, Germans, Spaniards, and Egyptians. But since this had not happened yet —not, at least, among the groups John addressed in Asia Minor — he took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture.”
Pagels’ John is a bathetic reactionary, a man with his finger stuck in a dam about to burst. His warnings would expire before they were canonized. By the late second century these new diverse Christians, many of them resident aliens, were major enough a minority to threaten Rome. Out of Carthage came the convert Tertullian, who would give to the persecuted a myth, deciding ex post facto — against historical evidence, says Pagels — that John of Patmos had been exiled for speaking his truth. Many Christians thought that actually, he’d spoke nonsense to the point of heresy, but as Rome began to criminalize the faithful, making martyrs of Justin and Perpetua, more of them identified with this John. Leaders became self-anointed prophets, or non-profit fulfillers of wish. A spectacle was haunting Rome — the spectacle of the Lord’s return, said Tertullian, who claimed to “see so many brilliant [Roman] rulers, whose ascension into the heavens was publicly proclaimed, now groaning in … fires fiercer than those which they raged against Christ’s followers!”
Tertullian spoke to the baseborn, those who were “simple, rude, uncultured, and uneducated,” and told them to be unashamed too. He prized alienation in potential converts and considered religious freedom, but not education or literacy, to be “a fundamental human right.” As Pagels puts it, “he expected his hearer to agree that… truth comes not from sophisticated elites but from ordinary working people.”
In Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the historian argues that because “America … attracted in its early days so many of Europe’s disaffected and disinherited,” and because “the disinherited classes, especially when unlettered, have been more moved by emotional religion, which is at times animated by a revolt against … aristocratic manners and morals,” the revivalist or evangelical church appeals to ordinary Americans by pushing an all-downhill view of the world, one that shuns high culture and higher learning. (His argument works backwards: Christians who go from pre- to post-millenarianism, like my parents did, are seen as being lowered from the middle class.)
Hofstadter traces a spiral from the “literate and intelligent” revivalism of Charles Finney, a populist avant la lettre who sided with suffragettes and abolitionists, to the millionaire evangelism of Billy Sunday, whose arrival at the turn of the twentieth century marked “the nadir in evangelical rhetoric” and the beginning of a big-tent “embattlement with the spirit of modernism.” A country boy and professional ballplayer, Sunday got religion at a Y.M.C.A. around age 24 and was preaching the revivalist gospel by age 35. Communities, then towns, and then cities paid his way all across America, while “love offerings,” two bucks a soul, kept him in pinstripes and diamond pins. He himself gave freely to war efforts and liked to announce that if you took hell and turned it upside down, you would find “Made in Germany” stamped on the bottom. (His parents were both German immigrants.) As a macho anti-establishment vulgarian, he prided himself on abuses of verbiage the Beats wouldn’t rival, to wit saying, “What do I care if some puff-eyed little dibbly-dibbly preacher goes tibbly-tibblying around because I use plain Anglo-Saxon words? I want people to know what I mean and that’s why I try to get down where they live.”
A pastor like the one we called Doc Barclay, so nicknamed for his multiple doctorates from unaccredited schools of the divine, is imitating Sunday. The nadir never ends. He gets down to a level of disquisition that leaves no one out, nor does it leave room for ambiguity. For a pastor to risk being misunderstood by congregants who want to understand is for him to open himself up to questions, and questions are the last thing a charlatan or an idiot invites. Ten times an hour he will say now, I know what you’re thinking or come on now, I’m just saying what you’re thinking, as if saying what everyone else is thinking is not the lowest or least necessary form of speech.
I am thinking of a proverb, popular among the justice-minded on social media, that says if it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary. Syllogistically this doesn’t preclude evangelicals from being radicals too, or revivalist churches from ushering in revolution. It was the mission of the churches I knew to be accessible, if not much help, to the poor. But it was also implied in the messages that “poor” is just a word before “dumb.” My whole life I’ve shirked this implication. I know how much more expensive college has gotten since Hofstadter’s day; but I also think education, following money, is less and less the means to an intellect. Theory can be as stifling to new thought as propaganda or “emotional religion” is, but at least if I cite Derrida I participate in a world of further citations, whereas if I cite scripture I refer to a canon that hasn’t changed in millennia. The New Testament should be read — should only be read — as the first great postmodern text. When one man’s revelations become the everyman’s truth, the literal last word of the literal Bible, then mere inaccessibility — it’s never complete inaccessibility — becomes something worse, a closed book.
Elaine Pagels was fourteen and living in Palo Alto when she joined an evangelical church, finding there “the assurance of belonging to the right group, the true ‘flock’ that alone belonged to God.” This assurance did not come free: she was told not to interact with outsiders, except to convert them. After two years, a friend of hers died in a car crash, and the evangelicals were sorry, saying that since he was Jewish but had not received the Messiah, her friend was in hell. Pagels left. At college she read the New Testament in Greek and experienced its “terse, stark” power, then read Homer and Sappho and was moved the same way. Education brought her there, but she had begun to be learned, to not be talked down to, when at sixteen she refused one explanation.
By the time I got to sixteen, I’d been born again ten times and baptized, in a swimming pool, twice. The Rapture sounded like prom, a big night for suckers, but I was terrified I wouldn’t be asked to go. “Those who are only motivated by the Rapture are unprepared to meet God,” said my dad, an uneasy assurance. Pastor Barclay told a story about how a man once said to him Brother, I’ve been reading the Bible and I can’t find the word “rapture” anywhere, so I don’t know if I believe in this rapture, to which Brother Barclay said the word Bible isn’t in the Bible, and paused and asked does that mean we shouldn’t believe in the Bible? I made a note in neon-green gel pen on my visitor’s brochure. It was my second-to-last National Holy Spirit Conference.
“Imagine taking this approach to the Declaration of Independence, which doesn’t have the word ‘independence,’” I said to my dad. He laughed and prepared to reason with my doubt, but I didn’t want to be reasonable. Every thought about God was like another explanation for a joke. I thought instead, can we please cut it out, can we for one day enjoy a shared reality. There was something in my head from the day before, a story that had happened to me that I wanted to share, but because I knew if I said it aloud it would be taken away from me, I kept it where it would seem too real to be true, or where without any air it would be so preserved as to seem like it had never been real.
It is still there. It’s this, I was in the ladies’ room at Living Word Church, forgetting to wash my hands, looking in the mirror to see if I thought I was pretty, and a girl on a bench by the door asked me where I was from. I remember her as being what I might now call, affectionately, “white trash.” She had stringy limbs, a KNOW FEAR t-shirt on over bike shorts, hair that seemed preternaturally yellow, and she had a reason for sitting on that bench while her momma praised God.
She told me she was just in the coat room, where a boy was changing out of his church suit and into his civvies. He didn’t see her, she thought, when she looked at his naked torso, then fled.
“It was two seconds,” she said, “but it moved me. Do you know what I mean?”
It moved me. I did not know. I thought I didn’t know the same way I didn’t know who to kiss, was unsure what “blow job” even meant. The strangeness of a thing said in bathrooms was nothing new to me then. Yet the strangeness of the word she used, moved, with its uncommon sense, has not been explained from my memory. No one in my life has since used it like that, though we should. To say that something unseeable except in a blur has moved us is obviously right, while the rigid flick of turned us on is wrong; to point out what moves us is a gorgeous way to suggest, sexually and otherwise, orientation. I felt what she meant, a shove in the gut to make room, not like the God-shaped hole I was told I would have if I turned heathen; and I felt myself oriented helplessly away from the light, from the fully revealed.
Movedness was what I ever wanted. That or inanition, nothing between. I was on my way to becoming completely ambivalent about living. To glimpse near-perfection in flesh and then think should I stay or should I flee was one thing that made sense to me.
There is a woman who reminds me of the fear-knowing girl in the bathroom, an actress who is dead now, Adrienne Shelly. In her feature debut, Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, she plays a catalogue model obsessed with the end of the world. I’ll play you a scene. She is in a diner, by accident, with a man she has just called “Mr. Hot-Shot Auto Mechanic Philosopher,” though his real name is Josh and she loves him. Audry (that’s Adrienne Shelly) asks Josh what he’s reading, to which the answer is history. She reminds him that history is almost over. He asks why she thinks the human race is definitely going to kill itself, and she says humans have never invented something (that something’s the H-bomb) and then not used it.
Josh: “True. But that’s not the last word, is it?”
Audry: “What’s the last word?”
Josh: “I don’t know, faith maybe?”
Audry, excruciated: “Which one? Faith or maybe.”
Conveniently, history ended, or was said to have ended, when a few university men felt they had nothing new to say. Only the teenage girl of the late 1990s rivals the fin-de-siècle philosopher in terms of being totally over it, and many who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen when the planes hit the towers are unsurprised to find that history has begun again without us. I studied history — American, European — at college in London, Ontario, thinking it would be an antidote to feeling at a complete loss for time. After dropping out I learned to replace “antidote” with “pharmakon.” If you need to look up pharmakon, you can, and if you need an example, take the history of Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan.
Herbert Dow was a scientist from Belleville, Ontario who found a way to get bromide out of brine, and because brine is everywhere in Midland, Michigan, that’s where he went. He broke a German-backed monopoly on bromide to sell it cheaper to Americans for medicines and tear gas in World War One. After that he was rich, then dead. Dow Chemical expanded to Texas and sold magnesium for Allied aircraft in World War Two, then expanded to Canada and Japan and got into plastics. A decade into the Vietnam War, students made headlines by protesting Dow’s sale of napalm to the American military, but though napalm accounted for less than one per cent of the company’s revenue, Dow stopped selling it only when they lost the contract to Monsanto. In 1999 Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide to become the largest chemical company in the nation, and last year they scheduled the aforementioned “merger of equals” with DuPont, which, if the E.U. permits it to take place, will make it the largest in the world. In 2012 it was discovered that this monopoly-in-waiting had sold $2.5 million in pesticides, potentially for chemical weapons, to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Meanwhile at the University of Michigan, the president’s office is designed by Alden Dow so that it looks like a fortalice. People say this is to ward off the more extreme student protesters, but the younger Dow, offended, says it is to exemplify what he calls “composed order,” which is the big defining principle of his architecture. “Composed order” means, he says, that each part of the building is “pleasantly related to every other part,” producing “creative discussion rather than reactionary resistance.”
When a man feels victorious, then like his victory is in question, he wishes immediately for history’s end. He just wants to wait out the rapture by keeping the war away from home. The one understandable desire — a desire that can only be understood, to paraphrase Wittgenstein in his Tractus, by someone who has already had this thought — is to leave the body by the side of the road and go anywhere. Order decomposes around us. One does envy the certainty, the personal salvation that is preached in free churches and free markets, that is promised by old religions and new ones, our newest religion being organized around and by identity, but these are bad alternatives to doubt. We continue by not knowing which words will be last.