“Small disconnected facts, if you take note of them, have a way of becoming connected.”—Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome
News headlines for July, 2, 2019, seen at a kiosk in Grand Central Station: Trump says tanks will be on display July 4th as a sign of the nation’s firepower; bombing kill dozens and hurts schoolchildren as Taliban talks resume; Israel is blamed for deadly missile strike in Syria; could a mandatory keto diet improve U.S. military performance; and Japan resumes commercial whaling. The traveler saw these notices of strength and power and passed them by in disgust.
On the train from New York City, the advertisement on the wall with a picture of a disconsolate white guy read: “They say laughter is the best medicine. But not when it comes to ED.” The traveler, whose first name was Ed, couldn’t help laughing, which was a relief after his previous revulsion. He wondered why in the 1990s so many men allegedly and suddenly came down with sexual impotence. Was it connected to that other fake medical disease, attention deficit disorder, or to the dawning awareness that American military bravado was a cover for growing weakness?
He remembered that when he was young, he had had an erector set made of metal, and in order to raise something up, you had to use screws and nuts. But that was just play construction and the socialization of boys. Now the pharmaceutical companies had, in an Orwellian fashion, created a new word for male impotence (powerlessness), a mechanical functional term, as if the human body were a machine and men were innocent little boys. “Erectile Dysfunction”—a simple engineering problem.
First create the problem, then sell the solution. Maybe all these damaged men weren’t powerless, just mechanically challenged. Or if they felt powerless but were not sexually impotent, what might be the cause of this feeling? Were they mentally challenged? Screwed by Big Pharma’s propaganda? Gone nuts in a world where technology was rendering them superfluous except for some sperm in a bank?
When he got home, the sojourner, a man of words, wondered further. He saw this advertisement and realized the truth must lie in numbers, a lot of numbers. Didn’t analytics rule the day?
4.3 million men in the UK experience erectile problems: That’s a lot of men. That’s more men than there are words in this newspaper, in fact. That’s twenty-five times more men than there are words in the English language. More men than all the words in all the novels Charles Dickens ever wrote, even. So a lot of men will be glad to know that Viagra connect is now available without a prescription.
In The Wall Street Journal for July 1, 2019, which he found lying on the adjoining train seat, it was reported that Surterra Wellness Inc., a cannabis start-up company, had named the former Kellogg Co. chief financial officer Fareed Khan as its next finance chief. Also joining Surterra were William Wrigley II, the former CEO and chairman of the famous Wrigley candy and gum company, and Ed Brown, the former CEO of Patrόn Spirits Co.
He thought of John Kellogg with his clean-living movement and his obsession with creating anaphrodistic foods like Corn Flakes to curb sexual urges, and he wondered if Ogden Nash’s famous lines needed to be amended: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Should Nash’s words now read: Candy is dandy, liquor is quicker, but cannabis is satoris? Also unfathomable in its ability to generate great profits and higher delusions? These new Surterra guys seemed to think so.
When a woman got on at the next stop and sat down next to our traveler, she immediately started fingering her phone, and when that continued for the next twenty minutes, it so irritated him that he decided to take a nap. He dreamed of how he was a ridiculous man, akin to Dostoevsky’s ridiculous man, but that he was traveling to a place where being ridiculous was a sign of sanity, not an excuse for mockery because the age he was living in was demented. When he awoke the woman was gone. He tried to grasp the meaning of his dream, but was interrupted by his arrival at his stop. Like Dostoevsky’s character, he dreamed he was taken to a different planet, but he couldn’t say where it was. He heard these words: “And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted—you will find out at once how to arrange it all.” Hearing these words, he felt less alone, not exactly a stranger on a train.
But when he got home and emptied his backpack, he saw that a small pocket tape recorder that he had purchased and fiddled with before boarding the train had been turned on to the record mode the whole time. He rewound it and played it forward to make sure it was clear. About halfway through he heard these words, each interrupted by a short pause: “I know-I know-I knooow-yeh-it’s true-I know-yeh-aaah-aaah-yeh-yeh-aaah-mmm-yeh-right-really-aaah-I know-good for her-yeh-yup-right-good for her-yeh-yeh-seeya.” The phone call of the woman in the next seat had been recorded, her eloquent half of it, anyway. His dream vanished.
He placed the tape recorder on his desk and read a quote by Samuel Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, that he had copied out before he took his trip.
“Perhaps that’s what I feel, an outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside, that can be as thin as foil, I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle, I’m the partition, I’ve two surfaces and no thickness, perhaps that’s what I feel, myself vibrating, I’m the tympanum, on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t belong to either.”
Then he went to bed and back to dreaming.
He awoke to this headline the following day: “Navy Seal Accused of War Crimes Acquitted of Murder” for killing two Iraqi civilians and stabbing to death a teenage prisoner.
Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is edwardcurtin.com.