In a motley motel room 20 miles east of Memphis, where the only thing cheaper than the beds was the liquor we spilled in them, I stood staring into a rusted mirror behind a bathroom door which on another night had been broken in violence. Outside, my companions drank their shares of the night’s conquest and smoked to the rhythm of lo-fidelity music spitting from crappy laptop speakers.
There I was: Drunk in a foreign place. This is a recurring theme in my life. From New York to London to Memphis to Paris my modus operandi remains constant: assemble friends, arrange transportation, acquire substances, consume. The people, places and purchases vary, but the three always come in combination. I suppose somewhere along the line we saw the sights, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember them.
In Durham the situation is strikingly similar. I have seen the great events of this semester perpetrated on my television. I have seen curses and parades, debates and elections, crises and funerals. I have seen them on ESPN and NBC, on CNN and BET. The heroes and goats are all too apparent, but the details are deformed: filtered through the filthy laughter of my friends and obscured in a haze of inebriation and hookah smoke.
The excitement of new places and the experience of world events—these are our motivations. But we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to tour our world, to witness our world without simultaneously tearing it down. What drives us to collect in these brotherhoods of debauchery and merge our lives and times with feats of self-destruction? Why can’t we do as Jonathan Richman demands—‘take this world, and take it straight?’
Whether visiting a new city or watching the world change on television, one thing is certain: that city, that program, that experience is trying to sell you something. Memphis sells you Beale St. and Graceland. Paris sells you the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. CNN sells you exit polls and Paula Zahn. You can see these things as they are, you can watch them as they air, and you can be their slave if it helps you sleep at night.
But when I see these things, when I watch these things alone and unfiltered I feel nothing save the vague fear that my life has been co-opted by a bizarre aesthetic of consumer cycles and cultural masturbation. And so I act to negate that fear the best I can: by creating an alternate reality to the world I am sold. I gather my friends and together we unite our fears in an intoxicating act of rebellion.
Why should we ‘take it straight’? What does it mean to take the world straight? Most social activities are thinly-veiled euphemisms for collective self-destruction. Sports, politics, religion, love—all have various and insidious methods of breaking the body and torturing the soul—and we love them. We love them for their capacity to reorganize our lives in ways that make them more bearable.
When I am in the company of those I love, my fears are lost in an enticing web of inside jokes and satirical meanderings, tucked between a bottle of scotch and a box of shisha. When we turn on the television or venture out to a foreign town, we are no longer sight-seeing, we are no longer reacting. We create our own experience and force the world to react to us. We proffer our product to be sold at our price, or not at all.
But how long can our rebellion endure? Sooner or later the force of authority or attrition of economy will force us into line, and we will be stripped of the power to play by our own rules. But that is the beauty of self-destruction. With our every expenditure of time, energy and emotion, we slowly fade away. When the world comes to collect us, we will no longer be available to it.
In modern society the aged die mechanized, sanitized and alone. Sterile sheets and white walls are no comfort to me. With my companions I will drink my life on the streets of a strange city; with one last gift in my final breath I will toast my death with whiskey.
Andrew Waugh is a Trinity senior.
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