Friday 5 October 2012

At the Vestal

Cheeseburger Brown's promises are like orange rinds: synclastically concealing pulp. This is why long time readers know never to believe me when I say I’ve made a triumphant return to posting on a weekly schedule, and they recognize that I am in fact deliberately teasing them because I am fundamentally an unkind person who thrives on the misery of others.

How else can you explain the terrifyingly attenuated conclusion of The Secret Mathematic? It’s due to the evil.

That being said it’s true that I have been unholy busy in my capacity as a non-textual crafter of semi-credible impossible things, which is probably good news in some way if you’re taking into consideration how I just co-founded a company to do that. I guess it’s reasonable that a corporate entity shazammed into existence for the purpose of doing something actually does it a lot, but I’m really looking forward to a time when less of it has to be done by me personally every waking hour and some non-waking also for weeks on end.

The guy who can count says we have recouped our startup costs and that we a positive balance at some bank somewhere. That means graph going up, and graph going up means good, apparently. I just don’t have a mind for the complicated business jargon. Apparently upward slanting arrows are a big deal.

Because there have been too many things to do I’ve had to telephone India, so those guys could pitch in. They’re nice people, India. Very polite and courteous and so on. Good for working with Canadians. Russians are great rotoscopers but their questions are too blunt. Plus I think they want to be paid in Bitcoin now. It’s a hassle, Russia. I’m breaking up with you. India is whispering sweet mixed metaphors right in my skype-hole.

Speaking of ethnicities, one of the concern’s recent assignments was to racially cleanse an amusement park so as to have the patrons appearing on screen reflective only of the film’s target geo-cultural audience. That’s the beauty of filming in Canada, really -- you can easily capture footage of all the races of the world and just erase the ones you don’t want. Hire a couple of ethnically appropriate extras for the foreground and presto: world travel.

We also replaced the conifers with palm trees, and converted all text-based signage into icon-based signage. Suddenly the place is an internationally generic random utopia. Like the Holodeck.

Beyond that I’ve also been busy writing a story for you, but it isn’t ready yet. Luckily I wrote this other story, too. Here it is.

by Cheeseburger Brown

There's a way you can feel that has no name.

You may doubt this. If you have a fluency for words your doubt will be especially keen, certain that whether it's a shade of Urdu you're after or a dusting of Basque, somewhere somehow by someone it's been said. But this hasn't. Not even in German.

If you want some, I can get it for you.

Go downtown. Follow the smell of secrets and sin to the right road. You'll find the place if you try. The sign to look for is the lack of a sign. All the other places along the strip have big ritzy signs, flashing signs, Vegas signs. But not the place you're after. That's discreet, sure, but it isn't about discretion: it's a hint.

If it were called anything it would be the Vestal Bordello, but don't call it that. Nobody says that. It's hard to appreciate why until you've been inside. Until you go you'll never understand the cheapening life suffers at the hands of proper nouns.

The Vestal caters to an exclusive taste. There's no sex, so you wonder why it's in such a red district. The truth is that any appetite, if poignant, can consume its bearer.

Pause at the threshold.

Four things are forbidden inside. Stop to think about it before you go on. This is very important. I really can't stress that enough. Don't step in until you're sure you're clean.

At the Vestal there's no technology, no nudity, no touch, and no language.

The first prohibition means you can't bring in telephones or wristwatches or marital aids. The second means you have to have clothes, and you have to be wearing them. The third means you can't touch the staff, ever.

The fourth is key. The fourth prohibition means there is a zero tolerance policy for semiosis. Period. That is to say there is a moratorium on symbolic communication systems of all stripes, from both tongue and finger speaking to Morse code and mime.

Leave your words in the lobby. They'll still be there when you're done. It's a matter of respect. You'll understand soon.

Don't whistle. Don't hum. These too are phrases of a kind.

You must cut the labels out of your clothes and put band-aids over the script in your tattoos, if you have tattoos, even if the characters are Chinese or Inuktitut or Klingon.

If you break the rules you won't have a chance to be sorry. The bouncer is the first evidence of this you'll see. He'll be big. He'll be wide. He'll have no sense of humour. Do not say anything to him. That would get you turned away. The password here is no password at all.

Pass inside. Come to the receiving room. The d├ęcor is elegant, you'll note. These establishments have a long pedigree. Quality carpet, comfy chairs. There are framed portraits of historic clients along the wall and you'll recognize a lot of them. Him and him, naturally, but yes even her.

The madam will meet you and take you aside. Virgo Vestalis Maxima. She'll know you're new. She'll speak to you quietly in French or English. Don't worry. This is the one time any rule is ever relaxed: for virgins like you.

Madam Maxima has been blinded. You can ask if you're interested. Her explanation is frank: “Never do what you deal.”

Recite a valid credit card number from memory. She'll have it checked, so don't mess around. The charge will appear on your statement as something innocuous.

(You can't bring cash inside because it has symbolic representations all over it. Don't ever bring cash.)

Madam will bring out the talent. It's okay to stare.

There's usually a dozen on duty. If you don't have an appointment you'll see whoever's not presently engaged. Some of them might be very beautiful but don't be distracted by that. This isn't about that. This is better than that.

Choose carefully. Take your time. Let madam guide you.

You've found a match if you feel yourself startle or shiver. Perhaps you choose a boy, perhaps a girl. It doesn't matter. You follow them through the corridor to a room. The door is closed softly behind you.

The lights are dim. In winter a fireplace crackles, in summer a fountain chuckles.

Sit down. The talent will sit across from you. You'll want to ask what happens next, to make small talk, to fill the silence. Suppress the urge.

The talent will look you in the eye. Look back.

You can blink but don't look away.

They are there because of their eyes. They'll be wonderful eyes. They'll have the kind of irises you only see in paintings or dreams. Radiant, fractally flecked -- absolutely arresting.

Allow yourself to be arrested. In time, time will stop. Or rather time will lose meaning, which amounts to the same thing when you're biological and travelling at non-relativistic speeds.

Keep looking.

You could lounge here, on the precipice, if you wanted a cheap thrill. But that's just run of the mill Mesmerism, everyday hypnosis as wielded by psychotherapists and televisions, by charismats and crack. Amateurs.

You're going to a place beyond the reach of any church or drug or stretch. This act is older than titans and beer, older than medicine and om. You can't meditate your way there – not alone. Neither can love take you there; Madam Virgo Vestalis Maxima would never consent to deal in such germ-line smut.

The eye of the talent has been groomed into a gateway. Go through it.

Not everyone can handle this. When it first starts happening it doesn't feel like much, so it can creep up on you. You feel things your body remembers but your mind doesn't and it can unhinge you a bit. Your ability to describe your own experiences to yourself will decay. It's okay.

You're being released from all metaphors, analogies, lararia, tokens, glosses, icons and quantities. You're sloughing off layers of memetic varnish.

You'll forget civilization. You'll sublimate to a space of persistent present, where ideas cannot be distilled from acts. This is the big before. This, if you've let yourself fall deep enough, is where each of us lived when we were new.

The first Australians call it the Dreamtime. The first Canadians call it Vision. For today's price-savvy consumer it is a nameless shame.

The semiotic void is a hungry oubliette. Knowledge melts. Briefly, the apple is unbitten. Fleetingly, you get to touch the world of your ancestor's ancestors' ancestors when all of us lived and died under the sky.

Naked existence, unmitigated by culture. A terrible freedom!

You will go to the wordless place, fully awake. This is where the vestals have visited since before Rome. Maybe it's even what Gautama glimpsed – who knows? But don't try to hold on to it. Your memory is toothless here.

Exalt, because your time is short. Madam Maxima has no watch but she counts the seconds. A gentle rap at the door will cause you to blink and shudder and maybe even sneeze. Your hour is up.

Be careful.

Your head will now fill with words. They'll sting. Inured, you'll have forgotten how pointy and skeletal they are, what half-measures they are. You'll resent them a bit, but this'll pass. Don't forget to breathe.

Put on your hat and coat. You'll be billed. No tipping. Don't thank anybody. Don't look at the other johns. Just work your way to the door and slip out, refreshed.

The world will seem worse to you now but save your upset for a private place. Don't freak out on the street. The madam hates dealing with police.

There really is a way you can feel that has no name. Drop by after temple, after church, after your work-out or after your lunch. Drop by in the dead of night or the harsh light of day. People do it all the time.

People you know do it. But they don't tell you.

I'm telling you because I can see all the words behind your eyes. I know how it feels. I see those knotted clusters of semiotic velcro staking claims in your brain, and I want to help.

I like you.

Try it once and you'll be back for more. Maybe many times. Maybe it'll drive you mad. Maybe you'll sell your house and auction your car. Maybe you'll do whatever it takes to once again break the semantic bonds of the endless narration in your head.

Maybe all you'll want to do is be.

It could happen to you, I think, because it happened to me. I'll take my finder's fee now. Be generous. This is how I save up for my next turn. You never would've found it alone. Don't hold out. Can't you see my hands shake? I need this.

And, whether you know it or not, so do you.



SaintPeter said...

I've read that historically we've gone through several types of "economy" - barter, pre-industrial, industrial, and service economies. Each of these economies relies on competing for or trades for different goods - barter and pre-industrial economies are about producing food and basic necessities. Industrial economies surpass this and provide consumer good - essentially luxuries. The service economy gives you "time".

The author of the article proposes that we are soon coming upon an "attention" economy. We've basically reached the point where (theoretically) almost anyone can meet their basic needs. Now we see different companies not competing on price or service, but on their ability to consume your attention.

TV, Internet, Cell Phones, Ads, other people - there is only so much time in the day, so much attention that you can pay. You must sleep for 1/3 of the day, the rest is up for grabs. We split our attention again and again, cutting it into finer and finer slices, choosing where we'll spend our time. Just 15 years ago most of our modern distractions didn't even exist . . could hardly even be conceived of. Now they dominate our perceptions.

Take this to the logical extreme - 100% contention for your attention at all times - and the idea of retreating from the web of semantic words seems very plausible.

What happens when every emotion is available on tap for pennies (nickles, for you Canadians)? Our brains are optimized for stealing bananas and nookie from other hairless monkeys who want to protect their bananas and nookie source. We've already seen (in the US at least) what happens when our money brains get as much food as they want, any time they want. What happens to our brains when they get as much stimulation (dopamine hits) as they want, any time they want? Have we created Niven's "Wire Heads"? What is the mental equivalent of "fat"?

Things to ponder.


Thanks for the words, Mr. Brown. They poke the words in my head and make them jump around in entertaining ways. I am delighted to hear that your endeavor is proceeding with positive upward graph movement. My hope is this creates a sympathetic upwards movement in your bank balance which will in turn improve your free time balance.

*ponders the irony of describing a free time balance considering the prior rumination on attention*

pso said...

I'm speechless.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Startling the guardians or coincidence I once again invoke the ghost of Douglas Adams; now, I wont't cheat and Google it, but I believe in the original BBC radioplay Adams described a similar series of cultural steps: The How, Why and Where stages of evolution, with each charactertized by a key question.

"How do we have lunch?" (Survival)
"Why do we have lunch?" (Inquiry)
"Where can we get a reservation for four?" (Service)

By this measure I think we'd be currently in the Blame phase of cultural evolution, in which the principal concern of many is, "Whose fault is it that lunch made me so fat?"

Indeed SaintPeter I do believe we're veering dangerously close to the Wire Heads, due to the pocket gizmos, but also because of the insatiable appetite of advertising and promotions.

I happened upon the idea for this story when I hadn't been into the city for a month or two due to having my nose pressed without interruption to a grind stone. When I did visit the city* again I was overwhelmed with all the words everywhere. It was difficult to find mental silence when the "reading voice" in my head was constantly being challenged to recite all it saw. In a city, there are words and messages on practically every available surface.

When I brought this up with my brothers and sisters who live in the city full time they all said the same thing, "You tune it out, you don't notice it."

...Which seems reasonable except it isn't true, because as soon as I mentioned a few examples of the things I saw my brothers and sisters were able to finish my sentences for me. That is, though they were convinced they had ignored the messages they had in fact memorized them.

The point is that a man drowning in excessive semiosis will often swear up and down that he's dry as a bone, but this is only because he has lost a reference for comparison.

I like your idea of mental obesity, SaintPeter. Certainly we can identify mental laze (failing to filter one's own thoughts and opinions for fallacioous connections, failing to perform due diligence on sources of information before letting them pop our trust cherry, failing to be appropriately merciless when introspecting, and so on), but I think you may be on to something when you crystalize the other side of the occasion: the mental equivalent of clogged arteries and cardio-vascular delicacy: constant on-demand stimulation.

Maybe we all should all try to spend a few moments each day with our eyes closed and our words quiet, but without being asleep. Would such regular meditations make a difference, do you think?

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

* When I say "city" in this context I mean "megalopolis." Small cities, such as they are sometimes called, are to my mind always "big towns" because I was born and raised in a megalo.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear pso,

I don't get it. Could you spell out your joke using concise description of the concepts involved?


Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

CBB: freaky. What a gift you have.

Pso: heh.

SaintPeter: I read your question as "What is the mental equivalent of 'fart'?" which of course played right into my asinine juvenile sense of humor. Nevertheless, this is another fascinating space of contemplation.

CBB (redux): Thank you for sharing the good news of upward-pointing arrowy lines! Thank you also for sharing the unintended amusement of the aforementioned parks.

You (and your brother) should know that "Desequenced" makes a good background soundtrack for this story. I wanted something to block out ambient noise and yet not interfere with my processing, and Syntax Error turned out to be an appropriate choice.

SaintPeter said...

@Sheik -
Oh, I have Brain Farts all the time.

@CBB -
Personally, I use television to calm and quiet my brain. I find it very relaxing in small doses to ease the burden of cognition.

I have periodically tried meditation but find that my mind is just too busy. Maybe I'm not doing it right, but I find the idea that you're not supposed to think of anything similar to trying not to think about pink elephants.

Instead I find ways to either "turn off" my brain by watching something which requires no/little thinking or by doing something which required different brain parts, like playing Video Games.