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Oct/Nov 2016 Fiction

Clearance 1949: a Stoic Dialogue

by Jascha Kessler

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection


Szekeli caught up with me again under the Arch. But I was patient with him. This time it all came out. I didn't laugh, and I didn't cry. I tried to practice restraint, to be fair, to do him no harm. Meanwhile, it grew dark and cold under that filthy Washington Square drizzle. All around us, the Academy's effluent of students, disgorged by the hundreds from classrooms, lecture halls, libraries, and labs, flowed in patchy, disconsolate streams toward subway and bus stop, or into fast-food shops around the Village. Even in sunlight, their faces showed no purpose, little joy, and less meaning. Faces that had neither youth nor age in them. Our little coterie of Vets often observed them as we wandered among the chess tables or sat on the rim of the fountain, idly thinking aloud—that is, smoking and silent.

Szekkitch, I say, holding up the mirror of speculation to him once again, hoping he'll glimpse a ray or two of light in its depths. We're still young. What idea can we form regarding the one and only dimension of time that seems possible to us?

"What would that mean?"

I mean, the future?

"Ask Congress. Ask the President. Take it to the Supreme Court."

Szekkhov! I cry. They hate us youth! They have disgraced the past. They are defiling the present. Today we're outflanked. They've blockaded the pass to the future. Maybe we still have some time, maybe not. Anyway, what is time? What are we doing, standing here like ignorant peasants on a burial mound, while beneath our muddy boots lie the lost secrets of some great, lost civilization?

"Science fiction tells us..." he blurts, clutching to his chest his ragged sheaf of notes and bundle of manuscript.

I refrain from telling him I lost my interest in scifi long ago. Its games are played with split cues in the smoky din of some godforsaken poolroom where everyone's too stoned to notice the crazy betting, and they go on stroking the same old eight ball off the hard, threadbare cushions all night, hoping to sink a blind shot in tomorrow's pocket. But sweet, stubborn Szekeli brings me his yarns and waits for my reaction as though I'm an oracle. Towards Thanksgiving he would start to stammer something about a new science of the psyche, but then he'd hesitate, muttering that we're nothing but a bank of tapes. His discovery works like this: To each is given a personal past, recorded live! From each comes a personal output, direct from the cells themselves!

"It's our ne-ne-never-us cistern," he seems to say.

As though nerve fibers infiltrate cells! Even if the proteins remember, they remember for themselves. They know us not. Nothing personal—we don't know them, either, except for our ups and downs. We're epiphenomena, buddy. Furthermore, beneath consciousness, beneath the subconscious, beneath the Unconscious, the only emperor is sheer, potential anarchy, known to the organism—if and when known at all—as the living death. Which is you; which is me. Our spinal cord has but two terminals: one's the bunch of nerves in our brain, the other that little bundle in our anus. The brain at least wears a skull to protect it.

I have attracted his attention for a moment. I go on.

Yes, Szekkovitch, we truly feel the world in those two places only. So, are we going to live head first, or preposterously? That is the question.

He tries to smile. "Man, you don't actually believe only those two pl-pl- places can feel...?"

Oh, some secondary termini: the tip of your tongue, your fingertips, your glans...

He looks puzzled. "I don't see..."

Tip of penis, Szekkel. Only precious thing I had when I came to this school from Tarsus, so to say.

"Oh?" He takes out his reporter's spiral notepad to get the spelling: G-L-A-N-S. "I heard you say 'glands.' Like thy-thy-thyroid. Hey! You soldiered up from Messina? Where's that Tarsus?"

Rural childhood on the Island. Summers Mama cooked for the Gardners on the island off Montauk, winters she flipped flapjacks in Sag Harbor. He works at his writing, takes notes as though all the world's a vocabulary exercise for him. I try once more to distract him.

Have you ever noticed how much low-grade porn there is in science fiction, Szekknik? Why do they like to dress those curvacious android ladies in saran wrap? Boobs for boobs? Is it because your average android has tits, but no cunt?

"Oh, she has one," he blushes. "She should, anyway."

Isn't it because your futurological technist is filled with fear and loathing for the Great Mother of us all?

"That stuff's just stuck in for reader interest. Padding for pulps—they pay only ten cents a word. But I don't do that. I mean, I never try that kind of..."

You won't pander?

"I will not."

But, Szekeli, fiction should have a real twat somewhere in its imaginary garden of harem delights.

"Girls will be wearing transparent clothes as soon as they can produce a fabric that breathes. You'll see."

I should live so long.

"Anyway, that is not what science fiction's about."

Or, they feature low-grade Rosicrucianism, mixed with telepathical talent. Everything goes, as long as it's pre-scientific. Fairytales with fantastic zoology or love stories out of Gothic romances. Feudal hierarchies of ignorance and terror dressed up in platinum and floating on anti-gravity. What you write are good-humored conundrums. Nice.

"Is that what you think? Well, I'm still learning."

Do you know enough science to put it to work in a story? Do your pulp masters? Since when is science mythopoetic? Take science now—

"—What I wanted to ask: Do you think, hypothetically, say, it's possible to get yourself straight if you flush your circuits, wash out the misunderstandings? For instance, what my Mama said when she was three months pregnant. About me, I mean..." He fades, as though a battery in him's fading.

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! There's pie in the sky when you die!

"Funny, so funny!" His abstracted face mottles, pink against that whey-pale skin. It lengthens, angry, severe: the full lips bleach, colorless as his hair. That's the Fleming mother. And where's the Hungarian Dada, of whom he never speaks, except to spell his name right? Seems Dada flew away on the shifty winds of ideological reversal. Mama told him about it in a moment of pique—or spite. Szekeli Senior was keeper of the Party's secret fund in Panama. Couldn't resist a typical Hungarian trick: absconding. With the Party correspondence, membership files, and all the gold. Who knows which way the freighter he hopped in the Canal was heading? East or West, the NKVD would long ago have found him... Szekeli Mama at that time was carrying her own contraband, wanted to deliver in New Orleans. Didn't make it. So that the little fellow got his papers only after a trip to Tangiers 20 years later, when all he'd known since he was three days old was America American. Tagged cadavers on Anzio beach and under Monte Cassio for months. Now he uses the bombed-out landscapes of pocked and burnt-bricked Munich and Berlin to open his terrible tales—a charred asteroid hurtles nowhere through the astral storms among distant stars with a stranded Terra-born couple plunked down on it. She fair, he dark. They are out of molecular biosynfuels. They are out of luck and out of love. An old story: the man is damned, the woman with him; he to scratch their living from that hard-scrabble homestead, she to bear him murderous brats in unmitigated travail on the cold, meteoric land. Poor, fantastic Flemish-Magyar. But he perseveres in writing that stuff and proselytizing me, because he knows I appreciate his subtext—Paradise Lost—if he but knew an epic or two. Today he refuses to be diverted.

"Be-be-because that three-months-old blind worm floating in her uterine broth is fully-formed, provided with a network of growing nerves, right? Did you know that it clues in via the extended antenna array of its own placenta, which scans all the vibrations reflected from the invisible, outside world? It hears. Not asleep, not awake. Just dreaming. And in that suspended animation the fetus hears her shrieking, Tibor! It's your filthy, political brat—I don't want it. You hear me, Tibor! I'm getting rid of it. Now, of course that quivering fistful of jelly doesn't understand those words. It's all Flemish-Hunky to him. But he does listen to that stabbing, squeaking, squawking voice—it's so menacing. And then it feelsoh, how it feels!fists pounding on the taut drum of her abdomen. Fearsome concussions. And that whoop-whoop-whooping, as she wails like an air-raid siren, No no no no! I won't have him, I wont! He's not going to be yours, Tibor, you dog! And he hears a male voice growling like thunder, Go ahead, you slut, you! with your fishy Flemish cunt that you never wash out. Here's another kick right in your stinking Hollander herring-tub! But no use—pounding, jumping, poking, kicking—no use at all: the little pig's knuckle hangs to its rattling, webby net for dear life. That Dutch blood of hers is th-th-thick! That peasant womb is strong. It won't break and spill out his young life. And the crazy woman has more tortures up her skirt for it, too, all crude. Mind you, that crucial tête-a-tête is recorded in the ne-ne-nervous system, buried at the lowest level of wiring..."

As he talks, he pounds at his belly, gazing blankly over my left shoulder, his bitter Gauloise butt drooping from lips flecked with chalky, dry-mouthed spittle, shreds of flaring specks settling on his jacket, flaming out on the cloth or burning black-edged holes into the stained, khaki fabric.

I break into his reverie. Listen, Szekkit, be serious. You're not telling me you are that scrunched-up, black-and-blue little fellow in there?

"Just su-su-supposing? How would I get that cleared? Is there any psychiatrist who can handle that case? Damn right, there isn't! It's an embryonic catastrophe. How would your card-carrying, VA shrink get at the traces laid down on those autonomic tapes? It takes complete identification with the primordial trauma of this 90-day old creature curled in that chamber at the end of that vaginal corridor, a sort of hairless rat in an oxygen flask..."

More like a chrysalid in a cocoon.

"Oh, yah, that's good!" He scribbles again. Waiting for wings. You get the idea. A worm, but alive. So, the way to wipe out that misinformation is to flush the tank and realign circuits. Otherwise, it's hopeless—humanity's finished!"

Purge all personnel files, we're heading for Sector Apocalypse! Bling-bling! Blang-blang! Double red alert! (Miss Roberts, leggo my...! There's no time for foreplay now—come up and see me sometime when we've passed over!)

"What?"

It's not exactly misinformation you're describing. More like terror in the Szekkor Sector.

"Szekeli, my name, please. But I give you only the hypothetical situation. A rat's in a trap—how should that little beast in a belly comprehend?"

A question.

"The question?"

Chicken does not remember egg.

"Well, so?"

Anamnesis. Your only cure. Everyone seems in agreement with that.

"Right, sure. Whatever. Well? For that you need scientific psychology. Since all data is automatically stored. Bits packed into engrams. You can return to them, recall them, relive them. That corrects you."

Tampering with evidence, it's called. Gets you one to ten years on the couch. Lucky to have your sentence suspended, Szekk.

"Please."

I think it's risky business.

"Try and follow me, my friend."

It's an old minefield. Maps all forgotten. You can be blown away—just like that!

"That's why you need a logical system. Why won't you understand."

Oh, but I do! Socrates says you must do this self-examination in order to reincarnate better. Dante says there's not a chance in hell for your getting back anyway, so you better think about it now. Your Mama's and your Dada's own preacher, your fatal predestinator John Calvin, says you may try to correct all you like, but the odds are against you. You're destined for doom and gloom eternal. But you make it sound as simple as opening a package of Jello. All you need is hot water, stir and pour. Any flavor you like.

"Yah, foolproof is what it is. After millions of years of evolution, the human nervous system cannot fail."

So why are you sick?

"Me? Sick? Because it misinterprets. Somebody else makes your mi-mi-mistake for you. I'm not sick—it's the system's crossed wires, and filthy programming."

Szekkmann, you are off the wall. How can you know that?

"May seem to you mere theory. But believe me, it happens to be the case. You don't get it because you're just some aberree."

I'm what!

"Hey, easy does it. We're all of us aberrees! Since the hour of our conception we have been given nothing but misinformation. I know. I have studied the book on this technique. Just the name tells you how perfectly simple it is: Scientology. Science and Logic."

So I hear. A coupon you clip from the back of your Wheaties box gets you a free system. Well, what do you want from me?

"There's this one little hitch. I need a helper to guide me along my tapes as I replay them down to the Alpha Tape. That's my first tape, actually. It seems to come last only because the first one is the last you reach. See? And the last will thus come first. Get it?"

You may have something.

"Then you'll kindly lead me up to the light again."

Well, I don't know if I can do that.

"Come to the Institute tonight and meet a real scientologist. I'll take you to my group leader. You'll be instructed. I can't go it alone. I need a guide."

Just a moment, Szekkio. That must be thought upon.

"You clear me? And I clear you! Szekeli, if you please. It's not hypnotism, if that's what scares you. You're fully conscious. You merely learn how to scan your tapes. Then you'll be getting full recalls in real time. Visio, sonic, tactilic, and olofactoric. Kinesthetic—which is weight and motion. Somatic—that's pain. Thermic and organic—your insides. In Dianetics, organic is also emotive. The fact is, you don't cry because you're sad. You're sad because you're crying. Emotion is physical, not mental like that spooky Freudian stuff."

Maybe it's all just secretions?

"Could be. Why not?"

So how do I qualify for your group's psychopomp training?

"That's the beauty of it. No prerequisites. Anyone from age 13 can be certified. The short course is enough. Absolutely. Because the method is the message: it's automatic analysis because it's geared to your nervous system. Easier than setting up a movie projector. And but what a movie! Visio, sonic, tactilic, olofactoric, kinesthetic, somatic, thermic: none of that psychiatric mumbo-jumbo. The VA fed me enough crap on that Kingsbridge ward, I'm telling you. But I got out before they could torch me."

Sounds foolproof. For crying out loud!

"You'll never solve the problems of the world any other way."

Not even if we're creative?

"Creative? Yah, sure, creativity—some 19th century luxury, like driving a horse and buggy today. Man, to take power we have got to have power! Scientology is spreading. It's logical. You'll see. Hubbard knows what's what. The man has vision!"

I didn't know that El Ron is also to be numbered amongst the prophets.

"His teachings will sweep the globe!"

Hail. Lord of the Engrams. All hail! Listen here, Szekku—

—No. You li-li-listen! I'm not through with you! Be honest with yourself for once, and let me finish, will you! Um, please, it's Szekeli."

I heard him out. He grew inspired as he spoke, gazing past me through the Arch, up Fifth Avenue.

"Now, what we want to do is get at the basic human powers, see? Just imagine what they will be when the billions of circuits in our brain are cleared, and the juice runs full voltage! Without wasting 95 percent of our energy on multiplying alternate transmission lines wherever there's damage caused by fouled wires from experiential traumas. Just think if Con Ed could wire New York like our brain! Okay, can you just imagine the mindpower? There's no computer in the world to match it in sheer infinitude of cross-referenced hookups! Hey, when you get yourself cleared, man, your IQ will go up on an infinity curve. Like this—" and he takes out his felt pen and draws a diagram labeled IQ in the palm of my left hand.

"—No telling where you'll go, because there'll be no stopping you!"

Szikki, the only thing standing between you, me, and happiness is my IQ?

"Oh, yah, an IQ like everyone else has IQ! Stuffed with the random unsystematic information they've dumped on you for 25 years, feeding you irrational garbage that sits there garbled on your tapes, as if a bunch of chimps stuck those million books on the shelves in the library there. How can you be expected to locate what you're looking for, when it could be something you overheard when you were six months old, maybe sleeping? It's all trapped down under that static of radio jokesters playing next door 25 years ago—Ben Bernie and Bob Hope and Jello Again! Jack Benny. Today he refuses to be diverted. Fred Allen and Fibber McGee..."

It was but a little nap, an after-dinner dream.

"But you can! And you will! When you're cl-cl-cleared."

I'll sleep on it.

"How long must we wait for you to see the light?"

Till after the New Year.

It wouldn't do for him. That dry spittle had collected in the chapped corners of his mouth. He squeezed my left elbow convulsively, begging me to sign up for a crash course in clearing technique over Christmas at the Dianetics Institute. In Maryland! Otherwise, he'd go forward by himself. Into the abysm of his abysmal past. Call that forward?

"I want progress! Before it's too late. But we can only go forward through the past. I'll get certified! I'll come back and clear you all."

Clear who all?

"You and your buddies here. You stupidum intellectuals! You guys will never get anywhere. With you guys, it's one big sentimental snafu. Poems, they call them!"

Semimental, you mean?

"Yah, yah, that's good! Hey, if you were cleared, you would take the logical next step."

What's that?

"Switch. Write prose."

Ah, what do I know—besides old communiqués from the foxhole and tax returns? Well, some other records too: birth, and copulation, and death. Should I write history?

"History?"

Everything else is mythology and opinion.

"History!" He glares at me with those weak, Flemish eyes looking the size of Dali's oyster-limp watches through those gray-tinted thick lenses. The silver frames of his Ben Franklin specs are wrapped with friction tape over the earpieces. "Nah, not history. What can history mean to the future? History, he says! Zilch. Re-re- redeem yourself. Write what I write: the one possible literature: S.F."

Someone's betrayed us! The First Galactic Fleet of the League of Spartacists is bearing down on our top-secret time-warp! Set battlecruiser MARS for intercept with barbarian flagship VLAD on emergence from Black Hole in Leda at Tau Upsilon Mu in Cygnus. Entering space tunnel. Subspace insterstitial magnadrive now going hyperspace! Secure all hatches—I said, Now you just cut that out, Miss Roberts!—3...2...1...ZZZZZZZZZOOOOOM! Like that, you mean?

"Yah, well. Say what you like, still SF's the only literature that can be written in our time. The rest is pretentious navel-picking, deep-fried Freudian bullshit, and faggot fantasies for cornering the middlebrow book clubs or giving college professors something to write about. There's no Shakespeare around. No Melville."

Not even a Masefield, Szikker.

"Who?"

Szekeli knows almost nothing beyond Hubbard, Heinlein, Anderson, Asimov, Van Vogt, and Bradbury. But he declaims the Word according to Hephaestus' bastard offspring, his El Ron: This is the age of technology. Now and to come. More so every year. New heaven coming, new earth. So I shout at him, God forbid! Does he hear me? He hears me not.

"If you write for your own times, the only thing you can write is SF. SF's for the good of society as a whole. We'll teach them how to imagine the future of man!"

Szekka, are you serious? With SF?

"What I tell you. Listen, if you're only half as good as Bradbury, you can make a fortune. I intend to. Read him—you'll see how it's done. It's el- el-elementary. Incidentally, the name is Szekeli."

Just follow the yellow brick road. Will I win fame, too?

"And find truth. But, if you live without being cleared, you'll only do more of what we've had—Hemingway, Faulkner. Passé. Heroes of Life and Time."

Once in Vogue... and now they're out. Too bad.

"Across the river and over the hill. Fact is, only SF can be honestly written."

On what basis?

"The source of all true knowledge: Science."

And knowledge will make us wise? When we know what we know for sure, then we'll be really good? Right?

"Right."

Because then we know what's true?

"Yah!"

So knowledge means that what I have in my mind agrees with reality?

"Oh, yah!"

And my mental conceptions give me images that correspond exactly with the world?

"Good, good."

And such images in my mind will not be illusions, or hallucinations, or delusions originating from mysterious causes?

"Right on!"

And thus, I shall live in harmony with nature, because nature is logical cause and effect, and I'll find out all about it through scientific reasoning, with my experiments and applications?

"That's what I mean: materialism plus the dianetics dialectic."

And the same fire that burns the universe burns in my brain?

"I always thought you should write down what you say."

And because everything I do is logical and reasonable, it's right, not wrong. So I must not fear anything out there, nor anything inside?

"That's our Dianetics, yah! But goddammit, for once try and be logical. Get yourself cleared first! Then we can talk your kind of talk."

He was mottling with rage again. I tried to mollify him.

Szekkixx, you're probably right. If science is philosophy. If philosophy is literature. If literature equals scientology—

"So—you'll try? Will you, won't you join with me. Please!" He flips another crumpled Gauloise out of the pack, lights it and drips more smoldering ash down his chin. "We can start a cell here. I mean, a nucleus of Clears. Me first, say, then you and these guys here you kick back with. I'd be proud to be responsible for such a concentration of mental-verbal Clears in one place. Just to think of it, it would be like a super-computer array flickering in front of us, with sheer power to the nth degree... power for good, power for... Je-je-jesus, when I think of it, our cell could be hidden right here in Washington Square, in broad daylight! A force for spreading logic outward over the globe. Organizing and directing the renewal of mankind! Hubbard knows!" He rubs his palms together, producing shreds of skin between his pale hands, white skin that rolls out in little blackened pills, representing a concentration of mental-verbal Clears in one place.

Were it that simple, we'd have a revolution on our hands, a real, true revolution at last! All the others have failed since Robespierre went down.

"Who's that?"

Again with that pencil at the ready. Never mind me.

"Just listen, go-go-goddammit, I'm serious!"

His eyes seem almost to rattle behind those lenses. "The key we've waited for all these millennia since the lost world of Mu! How stupid I am, coming back and going round, in and out, all these millennia, just like the rest of you aberrees, and never grasping the key that was shining all the time right before my eyes! The very key—in the light, in the window! The fundamental technique at last! Listen to me now: clear out your circuits, and you clear out your organs. Gone forever: miseries, ulcers, tics and myopia, your constipation and colitis, hay fever, diarrhea, eczema, those shooting headaches. No more pain. Because the dianetic reviews the basic sensory input-output data imprinted on the nerves. You like hearing about people getting electroshock right in their brains, being injected with insulin convulsions? Believe me, I know! Only because your memory tapes are messed-up you see, well, visions. At the wrong time. Or your body acts manic when some ordinary stimulus makes you remember your own fetus thrashing about during the abortion attempt with a knitting needle and a tablespoon? Can't you see how rational a procedure it will be to unravel your circuits? You want that, don't you? Here's this ultrafine portable mini-calculator in us being burned out by barbarous medics who know nothing about systemic nerve-engineering. Witch doctors with their pseudo-medical degrees on the wall and their Frankenstein paraphernalia. Like when you tried to rewire and crank up your fucking field radio, and the Death's Head SS came back all over you with those 75 mms point-blank and you weren't ever given a manual! Fire... you have to fight fire with fire! How I hate these whitecoats on salary!"

Now, now, Szekku, hatred is not good for you.

"But"—it's running away with him—"dianetics is engineering psychology for this age of engineering."

Yeah, and Comrade Djugashvili is the great Engineer of the Human Soul.

"Who?"

Never mind. We're not in Moscow, yet.

"Get that straight, once and for all! Furthermore, if you want the real truth, we don't need you obsolete, old-fashioned-thinker types to confuse us anymore. What we need now is the basic text on human engineering. Apply the Three R's: Return! Recall! Relive! And we're going to apply it, whether you like it or not!"

But Szakkery, I do believe you, because I must believe. For why? Because it's absurd.

"Furthermore, it's Sz-sz-szekeli! Can't you ever even get my name straight?"

Let us wait for a New Year, Szekkums. Sufficient unto the day the salvation thereof.

It had begun to sleet, a melting, icy rain driven slantwise against us from the Northeast. The bus arrived. I stood at the head of the line, waiting for the door to open. Szekeli had dropped his sheaf of MSS on the sidewalk and stood slapping his pockets for a match, a fresh Gauloise pressed between his split, caked and trembling Flemish-pink lips. I mounted, waved farewell, and went to the rear to sit down over the engine for warmth. He looked down at himself and saw the cigarette burns in his faded and worn olive-green GI sweater. Then he gazed up at the low gray clouds as though he could see them—might even see through them to the infinitely far, black space whose invisible attractors drew him towards its pulsating, fire-filled voids. He seemed to me to stand alone in Washington Square, accusing the sky of dropping those sparks on him as though incited by some indifferent god. And all the while outraged Szekeli cursed. It was Szekeli himself burning Szekeli bit by bit with his own fever.

He knows nothing of tragedy. He's ignorant of comedy's cathartic laughter. He wants but the one thing: to recreate himself. To realize that wish, he must return to the instant before his mother's fat Flamande ovum was kissed by his father's wriggling, Magyar spermatozoan. A likely candidate for self-knowledge? I think not. I stuck his Dianetics brochure into my coat-pocket along with a Watch Tower pamphlet announcing the Second Coming that two haggard, solemn Witnesses of Jehovah had thrust into my hands just before he'd come along.

What is to be done? By whom, for whom? Such people loathe the past. They fear the future. What do they want? Eternity. Infinity. They want it all, and they want it now!

Yet Szekeli will prove successful. He's one of science fiction's very own.

 

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