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The Tower

If you asked Alex why she helped her professor move, she’d probably say, “Well, I haven’t thought about it, exactly”. Then her mind would drift back to the end of class that Tuesday when Professor Fournier, Ms. Anna Fournier, asked the class if anyone wouldn’t mind helping her move into her new apartment that Friday. She’d like, buy them pizza or something. “You guys don’t have to answer now, just come and see me, if you’d like to.”

Alex would say, “I thought everyone would want to. Help the professor and be with her, outside of class. But I was the only one who stuck around and said Sure, I’ll do it.”

Alex took a bus out to Fournier’s soon-to-be former apartment. She expected some kind of philosophical discourse while they moved stuff, and tried to initiate it herself, but Fournier was all about the nitty-gritty basics of moving her this shit into the U-haul van.

“What did I say? Something like, when we were picking up the huge leather sofa, Ms. F do you think us ladies can lift such a big thing? Ironically, of course. The kind of joke Fournier used in class all the time. But no laughter out of her, not even acknowledgment.”

They loaded everything and moved. Loaded everything and moved. Loaded everything- and moved. Three times. By the time they made their last trip, it was 8PM. Alex helped put the bed where it needed to be and moved a few other things in the right rooms.

“It took a while because she wanted everything in the right spot” continues Alex, “She visualized where everything should be while I twiddled my thumbs trying to appear useful wondering if I could leave.”

Finally, finished, Alex collapsed on the leather sofa and Fournier ordered a pizza. While they waited for the delivery guy, Fournier asked Alex to put on some music. Alex looked through Fournier’s Itunes, found The Bends by Radiohead and turned it on. That first watery sound spilled into the room through Fournier’s expensive German speakers. When Alex turned around Fournier was filling an immodest bong with what looked like killer weed.

“I was surprised. But then pleased. That she would smoke with me. That we were smoking together, committing a transgression. And that I got to smoke some weed, plain and simple.”

One hit of that stuff from that thing was all she needed, but they took several.

The pizza guy came, commented on how good the apartment smelled, but wasn’t invited to take a hit. Then Fournier began talking. A lot.

“And then I finally began to relax. Because the whole time previous she was quiet-like. But when she started talking I could settle in, listening to her, eating my pizza, listening to Radiohead, being high. Then, when the song ‘Just’ started, Fournier became filled with enthusiasm.”

Ms. F said, “This whole ecological catastrophe we’re living in can be traced back to a misogynistic dialectic. You have pristine nature, virgin forests, Mother Nature concealing her secrets like some tease, that these phallocentric guys got to probe with their little lab-tools. They treat her like Jezebel, like she needs to be brought under control. Tamed. Groomed and manicured. Dominated and made to produce, made to sub-serve the ends of the Patriarchy. What a croc!”

The pizza was decimated, at this point. Bits of mushroom and globs of tomato sauce covered the cardboard box like a melted face was peeled off the pavement. The chorus echoed inside Alex’s skull:
You do it to yourself
yourself
and that’s why it really hurts
You do it to yourself
.

Alex would say at this point, “My mind could only focus on the lyrics. They made me think about my own shit. The guilt. How all of my problems and pains hurt so much more, it’s true, I do it to myself… No, it can’t be my fault. Not completely… what’s that you’re saying Ms. F? Justa bell? God. Everything she’s saying sounded so abstract. Even she herself looked like a hologram. The only thing that was real in the room were the sound waves of music. God! This is good weed.”

Ms. F kept on saying, “And they think the planet is some kind of cog in a machine, rotating mechanically according to the laws of the universe in a perfect circle. What laws? This planet is a hunk of organic matter wobbling along an elliptical path. The Earth is alive. Plain and simple. Down to the core- it’s an egg. We don’t realize it, that we’re floating in egg-stuff, because air is so transparent. To. But fish would say the same about water, and that’s, you know. Water.”

They both laughed, a lot.

“And even the ozone, or what’s left of it, is more like the yolk of an egg than an empty sky. This whole planet is ovum floating willy-nilly in the Milky Way. Gai-a!!!”

She said it just like that, shouting the ‘a’ like the karate kid. That shout broke whatever tension was in the room into pieces. Stomachs filled, adequately stoned, Anna said, “Check this out.” She dug through one of the cardboard boxes until she found a small wooden box of inlaid wood, done just beautifully, made to show The Tower, like in a Tarot deck.

“Ahh… The Edifice.” She said with a voice of familiarity which Alex grappled to comprehend. “What is it with these guys? They all want to erect their own tower of truth- after tearing down all the other guys’. Descartes, Freud, Locke. Heidegger- the exception- at least he just wanted to tear down the tower of metaphysics, not erect anything of his own. Then again, he made that into a fetish of his own. Haha, what the fuck was I doing? Oh, right.”

the tower

She opened the ornate box. Inside rested a strip of velvet wrapped around two objects. One was a small brass pipe. The other was a mass of what looked like tar, itself wrapped in a crumpled sheet of cellophane.

“Smoke hash before?” Alex shook her head No. Anna picked a chunk of resin with a bent paper clip and dabbed it onto the end of the brass pipe. Then, before lighting it herself, handed it to Alex saying, “Ovum”.

Alex lit up, handed it back. Fournier lit up, handed it back. Back and forth. Back- and forth. Three times.

“Be careful. The pipe gets hot.” Sure enough. The flame on that brass pipe made it hot, almost too hot to hold. Almost. A big Almost because they were determined to smoke all of the hash in that little box with the tower on it.

Alex could say about this period of time little (11PM?) except that, “When I closed my eyes geometric patterns cascaded from the center radiating outwards. And the music was different- French electronica that I don’t remember Anna turning on. And we were laughing and real warm. And close…”

And it happened. First, Anna’s hand was on Alex’s thigh. Next, their lips sealed. Then, there wasn’t philosophical discourse, just the nitty-gritty basics of fucking, heightened by the substances they ingested.

But you wouldn’t ask Alex, because she hasn’t told a soul.

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Squaring a Circle

Alex gets pissed when Derek says that “You can’t see a square-circle in your mind’s eye.” She clenches her jaw so hard she could crack open a coconut. Derek says “Besides, I tend to doubt the existence of a mind, let alone a mind’s eye.” Alex’s breathing becomes rapid, shallow, and hot like malice.

“However”, continues Derek, “Granting you the existence of a mind’s eye, for argument’s sake, you still cannot see a square-circle. You can see a square, or a circle. But not both at the same time. Perhaps you could mean a square superimposed on a circle, or vice versa. But that shape would have curves, meaning it can’t be a square, and it would have edges, meaning it can’t be a circle. Your third and final possibility is to see a square and a circle, side by side. But that would be two distinct shapes, not a single square-circle.”

Alex has not said a word since she told Derek that she just saw a square-circle in her mind’s eye. Now her shoulders are tense like she’s holding two buckets full of sand. She’s angry at Derek, in this moment, but her wrath extends to most of the philosophy department, to which she’s a part. They debate everything, but seem to single her out. The way Alex puts it, whenever she gets her wheels spinning they go and jam a stick in my spokes. The phallic imagery of the word ‘stick’ is no accident. Or at least that’s my opinion.

Derek sits back in his chair, satisfied, allowing Alex to explain herself. She says, “It’s not superimposed or anything. And it’s not two different shapes. It just is.” “But…” says Derek, “… you are breaking the most fundamental rule of logic: X is X. A square is a square, and a circle is a circle. A square-circle is neither a square nor a circle, and therefore does not exist.” “I can’t explain it to you…” says Alex, “It’s just there, when I close my eyes.” Derek exclaims, “Ahh! So it’s a merely subjective phenomenon. Something you cannot prove objectively.” Alex knows Derek has won the debate. Reductio ad absurdum. She’s been reduced to absurdity. Derek swivels himself on his chair, sits upright, and opens a book entitled Cold-blooded Clarity.

At that moment, the something tragic occurs: Alex begins to doubt herself. She begins to believe that she’s no good at philosophy, that she is poor at logic and argumentation. She begins to believe that she’s not as smart as other people in the department, that part of the reason they took her was because she is female. She begins to believe, and this- in my opinion- is the most tragic of all, that her one-time vision of a square-circle is delusion, unreal, untrue.

Alex’s jaw and shoulders begin to loosen. Her heart-rate decelerates and she’s no longer ready to kill Derek. However, an abysmal, lead ball begins to creep down her throat, choking her. It descends further, crushing both of her lungs. Finally, the thing lands in her stomach and remains put, tearing her diaphragm apart. Her chest is an empty shell. From there, a deep-seated, long-term memory replays, dimly beneath Alex’s racing thoughts of what to do next.

Alexander Dovzhenko played chess with his seven year old daughter, Alexandra Dovzhenko. Alex wanted a boy to carry on his name, yet he only had one child and that child was a girl. Lucky for him, he had a name that could be feminized.

Alex was by no means a dour man; he would, however, not let his daughter win ‘just because’. He explained to her that the fundamental rule of chess is that you need to dominate your opponent (all of this in Ukranian Russian, I might add). Alex nodded that she understood but really her attention was fixed on the playing of the game itself, not the outcome.

She was engrossed with the wooden contours of the Bishops, the notches carved into the Knights. She grazed the green felt on the bottom of the pieces, and was thrilled by the CLICK they made against the table. She was bewildered by how the Rooks seemed to never move. She stared in wonder at her father’s strong and delicate hands. She marveled at the utter flatness of the board: the way the Earth looks without your mind’s eye.

Then it would happen. Her father says ‘Check’. She starts to breath quickly and moves her King out of the way. He moves a piece and says ‘Check’ a second time. She stops noticing all the tiny details around her. Her father moves his Queen and says ‘Check’ a third time. She tries to move her King but a voice stops her saying, “You can’t move there”. Alex is terrified. She’s not even there with her father, anymore. She sets her King in the one place it’s able to go. He moves his Rook from the back row and says, ‘Check-mate’. Alexandra becomes very angry with Alexander.

She was not upset because of how the game ended but that it ended. Her sense of mystery was squashed by the game’s own finitude. Her father didn’t know this. He thought to himself, a son would have the competitive spirit necessary for chess.

That was the start of Alex’s- if not indifference- lack of enthusiasm for Alex. When she pursued art through middle school, high school, and college, he appreciated her work, was proud of her, but left it at that. Then, with only three semesters left, Alex decided to switch majors- to philosophy. When she told him he laughed then said, ‘O! You’re serious.’

To obtain the required credits in three short semesters Alex doubled up on classes. Then she re-doubled. She quit going out with friends- she went in for office hours- she absorbed large quantities of caffeine- she became passionate about Hume, Hegel, and phenomenology. And, in my opinion, the most tragic-no-matter-how-pragmatic move she made was: she quit painting. For the time being, she said.

It worked. She entered a highly evolved conversation resplendent with technical lingo and the assumption that you’ve read what everyone’s talking about. She learned how to have her place in the conversation and not appear uncouth. She gained her professors’ approval, who would later write glowing letters of recommendation, which she adjoined with test scores and a personal statement about how Alexandra Dovzhenko- first generation Ukranian Jew specializing in Continental Philosophy- would like to further her studies in nothing less than the Nature of Reason at your fine institution… and when Alex called to tell her father, Alex, that she’d been offered a full-ride-and-then-some at SUNY to study philosophy, all he had to say was a single question: Have you painted anything lately?

After they hung-up, she cried for the first time since she switched majors. A real deluge. Her canvas: the acceptance letter.

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The Bell Between Heaven and Earth

Fritz sat at the head of the table, glowing. The dinner party was past the early stages of food and formality and onto drinks and raucous discussion; juicy gossip of the philosophy department like who was screwing whom and who shouldn’t get tenure; an impassioned diatribe about disco, hip-hop, and punk rock, and how the three were born in the same New York borough in 1977; overflowing confession of pet peeves and childhood fetishes. Fritz remained mostly silent, basking in everyone else’s warmth. Janice, the one undergraduate at the table, sat to his right, lobbing question after yearning question toward him, trying to gain his approval. He responded tersely but in a way that only made her want to ask more questions.

Stan’s voice rose above the rest, “What do you think would’ve been Heidegger’s favorite song- in 1977?” “Let it Be” said Doug. Stan said, “But that was like, ten years old by then.” Doug replied, “But this is Heidegger, of course he’s ten years behind!” Everyone except Fritz and Janice laughed. “Sex Pistols. Pretty Vacant” said Levi, “Because we are. Oh so pretty vacant“. Even Fritz laughed at that one. Janice said, “What do you mean, I don’t get it” “Well, my dear” said Levi, “Dasein, that is, you and I, are hopelessly empty. Inchoate. That’s a bad thing, if we run away from it. But if you stay there, suspended in the midst of nothingness, you just might have a shot”. Janice said, “A shot at what? Where’s the bottle opener?” She stared helplessly at the antique bottle of wine Fritz quietly set in front of her a minute before. “Right here” said Fritz. He handed her a stainless steel wine opener. As Janice struggled to screw it in, she said, “I just love it here. It’s so warm and, and magical. No that’s not it…” Fritz lifted the bottle from her hands.

“It’s Gemütlich“, said Fritz, while efficiently opening the bottle with a POP, “what you are feeling is something no English word can describe”. He poured the white wine generously into Janice’s glass then handed her the bottle. He pointed with his eyes to her left and she automatically passed it to Doug. “Gemewtlish” said Janice. Laurie couldn’t help but snicker as she in turn passed it to Levi, who sat at Fritz’s left. “This bottle looks like it’s come a long way”, said Levi, holding it up to the light. “Where did you, when the hell did you get this? Nineteen-forty…”

“… Last spring” Fritz changed his demeanor from spectator to lecturer, grabbing everyone’s attention, “I was in Würzburg, Germany, visiting a distant cousin. It was March 16. On that same day, over fifty years ago, Würzburg was completely destroyed by British warplanes. It was one of the most senseless tragedies of the war. Berlin was captured only days later. Würzburg was of no strategic importance whatsoever. The British simply wanted to make the German people suffer. Like Dresden- firebombed just weeks before- Würzburg was an old medieval city, made of old, desiccated wood. It and nearly all its inhabitants were incinerated in less than seventeen minutes. From the heavens, Fire fell upon this city as it peacefully slept, nestled in the Franconian hills, hills that are, as it were, carpeted by grapevines. That is where this came from.”

Fritz held out his hand to Levi who, reluctantly, handed him the bottle. Fritz filled his own glass then set the bottle in the middle of the table. “I said the city was completely destroyed. Not completely. In the center, the oldest bell tower of the oldest church still stood, rising out of the carnage. After the war, it was considered whether or not Würzburg should even be rebuilt. It was at this bell tower…” Fritz pointed at the bottle of wine “…that the women of Würzburg rallied (for there were no men left), clearing the entire city brick by brick. Trümmerfrau, or Rubble Women, we call them. The city and all its former buildings were re-built to a T. Anyways, to get to the end, I was there on the night of the 16th, and witnessed their annual memorial. Every light and television in the city is shut off. The city cloaks itself in darkness. Then, for seventeen minutes, every bell in every church rings louder and louder. Both windows and your heart begin to sound and ring and vibrate, to hover and to tremble. The old widows weep.

Silence grew over the table. Janice muffled a burp. “A Toast!” Everyone raised their glass. “To Würzburg!” Almost everyone. Levi’s still sat on the table. Everyone but Fritz looked at him with confusion. Levi asked, “But how did you get this bottle? 1944. It had to be made by the… the Germans were…” “I said I had a distant cousin”, said Fritz. Janice hit her glass a couple times with her fork, the sound resonating through the thick air that had seeped into the room and said, “How ’bout it? A toast to Wurtzburg!’ Fritz’s hand remained raised level. Levi’s hand stayed down. Everyone else shifted uncomfortably.

“I’m not drinking Nazi Wine”, said Levi. There were a few nervous laughs. Some of the hands lowered a bit, but nobody set their glasses down. Everyone looked to Fritz for a reply, and in a sense, instruction. He gave none, except for raising his glass up into the air a little higher, his arm becoming almost straight. Their eyes darted from Fritz to Levi, rising a little when they looked at one and lowering when they looked at the other. Some of the hands began to shake, from the physical strain or nervousness or both. “I’ll toast”, said Levi. “Thank God”, said Janice. “To the destruction of Würzburg” said Levi. Fritz’s hand stayed right where it was. Everyone else’s continued to sway up and back and down and forth like church bells.

“I told you” said Fritz, with gathering impatience, “Würzburg was a peaceful city. It was innocent. As was Dresden. The allies had murder on their mind, not war.” “You did not tell me” said Levi “how you got this bottle. Except for your ‘distant cousin’. Which you continue to distance yourself from…” “… I will not” said Fritz “they were Nazis. I admit it. There’s no such thing as a German- or an Austrian, for that matter- who survived the war who was not a Nazi. Joining the Nazi party was a matter of survival. Fight them and you were dead. It was that simple. But if you’re to tell me a German mother of three is as evil as Himmler, then that’s absurd.” Levi said, “So your ancestors were Nazis. This wine was made by Nazi hands“.

Fritz looked Levi right in the eye and said, “No more a Nazi than your intellectual father, Heidegger was. The Man nearly all of you have built your entire academic career upon”. Everyone else’s hand rose quickly, rigid like a flag at half-mast. Levi drank his entire glass in one gulp and slammed it down.

Fritz quit his argumentative posture and began to speak gently, grazing them with the sound of his voice “Think of it this way” he said, “These grapes arose from the Earth. They didn’t know politics or right or wrong. They became what they are- grapes- from a tiny seed. Their entire existence was mapped out in the beginning within that tiny kernel. We are like those seeds, hopelessly becoming what we already are. We do have, however, some capacity to change things. So did Heidegger. Perhaps he could have done better. But let us not confuse autonomy with godliness. We, like the grapes, have to deal with the conditions of life: Earth, Air, and Water. And Fire. The Fire that fell upon Würzburg was the same Fire used in the Crematoriums. The same Fire vanquished the Armenians and the Native Americans. Yet we drink Turkish Coffee and smoke Virginian cigarettes. Can we not taste Franconian Riesling?”

Prost” “Prost” “Prost” “Prost” “Prost”

The entire table, minus Levi, raised their arms as if performing a bygone salute and tapped each other’s glasses.

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