Without Swordsby Mark Swartz
from the novel Instant Karma, to be published by City Lights fall 2002
Saturday 5 November 1994
Guy Fawkes Day, a good starting point for the journal of an anarchist. “A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy,” Fawkes said.1
Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury, who executed Fawkes and seven others January 30-31, 1606, for conspiring to blow up Parliament, said “The greater the offences are, the more hydden they lie."2 But if an offense, public, private, historic, contemporary, is so great then it can withstand any amount of attention, if a hidden one can stay hidden, then it couldn’t be that great. A man who has cancer in his blood undiagnosed throughout his life, until a truck runs him over, wasn’t a cancer victim.
Sunday 6 November
Bluefin tuna “carry particles of magnetite in their brains that allow them to navigate using the earth’s magnetic field.”3 I am sure that other creatures, such as elephants, have evolved analogous navigational tools, magnetic or otherwise. Such apparatus varies widely in human subjects. My own deficiency in this regard leaves me as disabled as a deaf-mute or a hemophiliac—perhaps more so, since it’s ignored by the same medical establishment that funds research into chronic fatigue syndrome. I have no faith in syndromes, not excluding the big one.
My biochemical distortion was a family joke. My parents would tell friends that if I didn’t come back from a restaurant bathroom after a reasonable amount of time, they would know they could find me hovering between the kitchen and the broom closet. Entering a building through one door and exiting through another. I’ve never know which way to turn to get where I was going; and since I never think of myself as getting lost until it’s too late to recall where exactly I went wrong, directional instinct continues betraying me, and every landmark easily reverses itself on me. Once I set out in one direction, no matter how far along I get, even if everything looks right, I feel unsure of my decision.
The sense of being lost quickly mutates into a self-hatred that has no parallel in any other phase of my existence. The names I call myself, the abuse I dish—if I weren’t so upset, I’d laugh at myself grunting, “Hurray for the God-damned idiot! Hurray!”4 My disorientation increases with complexity of architecture, which is why M.C. Escher is a redundancy for me. Buildings with exits and entrances on different floors stymie me, as do elevators that open in front and back. Urban planners spend seven years in graduate school studying how others have ignored my condition in the past and devising new ways to perplex me in the future. They meet in city hall to dream up highway ramps aiming in contradictory loops, one-ways, and divided highways, and diagonal streets—especially diagonal streets, which require a grasp of eight compass directions at once.
If not for the existence of the Israeli army, made up of Jews who presumably have the same genetic history as I do but zip across unmarked skies and deserts without having to think about it, I would be certain that the condition is racial.5
Monday 7 November
Eve Jablom: a thing of beauty and a joy for none.
Tuesday 8 November
Election Day. Do anarchists vote? They vote for everybody. And they stand outside polling places wearing Brooks Brothers suits and paper bags with holes cut out for the eyes, distributing leaflets with handwritten copies of poems and quotations by Gertrude Stein, Emma Goldman, and Hugo Ball. Anarchists sing patriotic songs off-key and pay compliments to ladies with hats and children with glandular abnormalities. They spew meaningless statistics and warn voters not to eat the donuts that the polling officials are offering. Upon hearing election results on the radio, anarchists laugh themselves hoarse.
Wednesday 9 November
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury describes the members of the resistance as “bums on the outside, libraries inside.”6 In this city we have the reverse.
Eve ensures smooth operation of the library and the library anchors the city morally. There, in the dialogue between texts, among the disputes fueled by dead ideas, the pictures in magazines, the closely argued papers in scholarly journals, mass accumulates, condenses, derives from itself the force of gravity that keeps the city from flying apart. Only to the extent that the police serve and protect the library do they separate society from anarchy. Most people never go to the library, but most people never go to the moon either, and the moon makes the waves in the ocean.
Thursday 10 November
Eve gave me a look of knowing apprehension this evening when I checked out Stephen Hero, as if something she had been wondering earlier now made sense.7 With a couple of keystrokes she could print out a list of every book I’ve ever checked out. I should consider this access as yet another invasion of privacy by government in the Information Age, but instead I hope that what she’d see would impress her. A true Man of Letters! she’d think. A reader with a taste for the neglected classics of the past as well as the more obscure works of the great writers. Charlotte Bronte’s Villette instead of her Jane Eyre. Kafka’s diaries instead of his novels. Not Hamlet, Titus Andronicus.8
If she checks, she’ll notice that Felsenstein, David D., never kept a book out past its due date. That ought to earn me a commendation in the library’s quarterly newsletter.
Friday 11 November
Today I accidentally walked out of the library without checking out Havelock Ellis’s Dance of Life9 and didn’t even set off the alarm as I passed through the electronic gate. I wonder if this feat has something to do with the anti-magnet in my brain. Fine, if it happens in a library, but what about airports? Do the metal detectors ever blink? If I were a terrorist by occupation and was flying for pleasure only, and if I forgot to leave my grenade behind, and if airport security missed it, I would feel obligated to hijack the place.
Though architecturally dissimilar, libraries and airports promote similar world views. Sections are assigned alphanumeric codes, and passage down every corridor tests the skill and memory of the visitor, while workers push glum carts without having to look up to see where they are. Libraries are airports for people who aren’t going anywhere and who are picky about what they read.
Sunday 13 November
In the 11 Salvation Army doctrines,10 there’s no mention of couches sprayed with cat piss, bleach-stained velour shirts, beta-maxes, six-slice toasters, or tarnished heart-shaped cookie cutters. Purple suspenders and broken chair seats. What a revolting place.
No. 5: “We believe that our parents were created in a state of innocency [sic] but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners totally depraved and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.” No. 10: “We believe that it is the privilege of all believers to be ‘wholly sanctified’ and that ‘their whole spirit and soul and body’ may ‘be preserved unto the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And my favorite, No. 11: “We believe in the immorality of the soul, in the resurrection of the body, in the general judgment at the end of the world, in the eternal happiness of the righteous, and in the endless punishment of the wicked.”
Respectively: yes, no, no, no, no.
Monday 14 November
D. Edgar Felsenstein, the first Salvation Army bell ringer with anarchist leanings. I told Mr. Leon, a man whose corduroys are worn smooth on the tops of his thighs but who denies himself the bounty offered by the thrift shop, that I was good at handling change. He said he sees a little bit of himself in me. I told him the holiday season excited me, and he laughed in a way that made me think I had accidentally made a bawdy remark. Get a lot of action around Christmas, Mr. Leon? Tis the season if you know what I mean. You don’t have to spell out for me the reason your pants are worn out.
For me, bell ringing doesn’t serve any amorous function. I’d die if Eve ever strolled down Michigan Avenue. She’s a State Street girl. No, bell ringing has nothing to do with her. It’s the opportunity to keep time as the momentum picks up, as the shoppers grow frenzied and their children suffocate under layers of Thinsulate. There must be more to buy, there must be more to buy. The crowds thicken. The homeless send out for reinforcements. It gets noisy. Cars make sudden turns into walls of pedestrians. At first, people smile at one another, but by mid-December they’re shoving, stealing, tipping over stacks of argyle sweaters. And the weather outside is frightful. And there’s still room on my charge card, so get the hell out of my way. Capitalism shades into Anarchy.
Drop your coins in my can, Sir, and our change will go to the building of pipe bombs for the federal court house and a huge electromagnet to sabotage the phone lines and disrupt cable television transmissions. Hear the chaotic clanging of my bell and dodge my spit and invectives, you bitches and sons of bitches. Why should I thank you, ma’am, when our intercourse is repugnant to me and gratifying for you? Why should I smile? Why should I even let you see my face? The least I can do for you is to make the recipient of your charity unknown to you.11
There are several good reasons for wearing a paper bag over my head while I swing that bell like an ax. The Salvation Army people will have to show me where it says I can’t wear a bag.
Tuesday 15 November
Collected $44.71 today. My breathing dampened the inside of the bag. My right shoulder aches, and my right ear is ringing, ringing.
Wednesday 16 November
Mr. Leon says that customers have been asking questions about me. The paper bag scares them. In the back of the store he sat me down and asked if I knew what I looked like to people with a bag on my head. He stood over me to peer down into my face and grimace.
“Is it the fumes from the traffic? Are you an asthmatic, Dave? There was an asthmatic last year that wore a surgical mask.”
“No, sir, I like the city air. Especially when a bus rumbles past. Buses use ethanol and it burns clean.”
“Are you embarrassed to ring the bell? A lot of brave and honorable men have rung that bell. Soldiers without swords. Afraid your girlfriend’s going to see you in the red smock?”
“No. She. Never mind. I’m not embarrassed. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. It’s not in the 11 Salvation Army Doctrines.”
A pause. He never read them, never even heard of them. “I’m saying it doesn’t look good. Do you know what it looks like?”
How can I know what it looks like? All I can tell is what people look like to me when I see them through the eye-holes in the bag. They look farther away, and the colors are brighter and flattened-out like cartoons. I suppose optics have something to do with it. How do I look to people, Mr. Leon? I suppose I look like a combination town-crier, nightwatchman, and executioner.
Thursday 17 November
I spent the entire evening reading the video catalog that arrived in today’s mail. There are so many movies; I’m sure we’ve reached the point where a person could be brought up in a screening room, all the hours of his entire life watching nothing but movies, skipping meals, an education, a career, sitting in the dark watching nothing but movies, eight per day—or 12 per day if it were on during sleep, and why shouldn’t it? That person would grow accustomed to the codes and patterns that belong to the history of film and eventually believe that he controlled them, and in his confusion he would come to see himself as the vengeful and petty God of the Old Testament. Or at least as a studio boss who sees himself as God.12 I circled more than 40 in the catalog, and this in itself is a pleasurable activity—making calligraphic Os, incomplete; the two ends must miss each other. I ordered only two, hoping it would be okay to send cash. The first is 1941 (1979) Spielberg’s other World War II farce, featuring John Belushi at his coked-up best, a film with a lot of shouting and explosions in it.
The second is The Lord’s Prayer, the only film made by Salim Sultan, an Indian-born poet who served a life sentence for burning down a Catholic church in London in 1920. The catalog says that there was only one print of the film made, and that was thought to be destroyed by psychiatrist/memoirist/drummer Richard Huelsenbeck during a poetry reading at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, but it resurfaced in Texas in the 1970s and was kept by an oil magnate who screened it every year at the company Christmas party so religious types would know they weren’t welcome. The catalog says that the opening sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back, showing the frail singer displaying cue cards with the approximate lyrics to his “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” pays homage to The Lord’s Prayer, though how Dylan or Pennebaker could have possibly viewed the film during its period of unavailability is unclear.
Friday 18 November
Eve has been overworked and inhospitable, just like the Mary that George Bailey never married. Muscles clench in her temples when she tries to smile. She seems close to the edge. How would a librarian act during a nervous breakdown? Would she remember to remain quiet? Don’t be afraid, Eve, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Think of it as accepting a dare. I dare you to laugh out loud for no reason at all. Now I dare you to topple that stack of books. I double dare you to lose your mind.
1 Dictionary of National Biography.
2 Quoted in Mark Nicholls, Investigation Gunpowder Plot, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991, p. ix.
3 John Seabrook, “Death of a Giant,” Harper’s (June 1994) p. 53.
4 Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce’s Ulysses, ridicules himself with these words when he recalls the days of “reading two pages apiece of seven books every night” (New York: Random House, 1934, p. 41).
5 Jews “aren’t made for geographies but for histories” (Grace Paley, Collected Stories, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994).
6 New York: Ballantine, 1953, p. 136.
7 James Joyce, Stephen Hero: “There is an art, Mr Dedalus, in lighting a fire” (New York: New Directions, 1994, p. 28).
8 ”Come and take choice of all my library, / And so beguile thy sorrow” (IV.i.34-35).
9 ”The great writer...knows how to quote.” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923): p. 152.
10 Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr., Soldiers without Swords, New York: MacMillan, 1955, pp. 219-20.
11 Maimonides, in his "Laws of Gifts for the Poor," 10:7 in Mishneh Torah, values anonymity in giving tzedakah.
12 In An Empire of Their Own, Neal Gabler writes, “The Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas-so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American.
Mark Swartz is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.