There was a toxin in the air, I could tell. As I walked down the street I could feel it all around me like an invisible cloud, trying to settle on me, trying to gain a foothold in my clothes, trying to land on my hair, trying to infiltrate my defenses. I walked faster, hoping in this way to offset the progress of this airborne attack, just as one might walk faster in the rain, hoping thereby to get to one’s destination a little bit drier, a little less soaked to the skin.
But where was my destination, I wondered? It would help if I knew that much at least. I needed to know that much or else I was surely lost. The one thing about walking extra quickly when caught in a rain shower is that you have to know exactly where you are going, and keep that goal firmly in mind. Otherwise the whole thing would be a joke, a waste of time, a disaster. What is the point in walking extra fast if you don’t know where you are going? How is that going to help? All that happens then is that you get just as soaked, only you have to walk faster whilst it is happening to you.
I had two main problems, it occurred to me. The first was – as I have just said – that I didn’t have a clue as to where I was going and so my strategy of merely walking faster was not in any way going to help protect me from the airborne toxicity. The second and more serious problem was that even if I did have a destination that I could reasonably expect to reach at some point in the not-too-distant future, it was almost certainly far too late to do anything about the toxins that had already worked their way into my system. To put it simply, the process of toxic infiltration had already reached the point where the end result was an inevitability, a forgone conclusion.
The reason I knew this is that I could already feel the toxins at work in my brain. I could feel cold fingers penetrating deep, causing areas of numbness. Terrible numbness. The numbness wasn’t physical but mental – it was a sort of blankness that was reaching into me, fanning out within my brain and establishing little colonies here and there in strategic locations. I instinctively knew that once such a colony had been established it could not be dislodged. It would dig in, and then when it had consolidated its position enough, when it felt secure enough, it would send out a whole new batch of fingers so as to begin the process all over again.
The numbness was starting to scare me, although from time to time I had the peculiarly incongruent feeling that I was only imagining it. When I could feel the numbness it was like I was forgetting something – it was like I was forgetting how to be me. I experienced what I can only describe as mini-panic attacks when this happened, it was as if by getting panicky enough I could somehow scare myself into remembering myself. I felt like I needed to concentrate very hard on being afraid so that I didn’t lose the feeling, so that I didn’t forget to be afraid. I almost wanted to exaggerate what was happening to me so that I wouldn’t relax and drift off into whatever blank state of mind seemed to be awaiting me. The blankness was out there, it was all around me, and it was closing in.
But maybe that was what I was doing, it occurred to me. Maybe I was exaggerating so much that I was actually making the whole thing up! Maybe it was all in my head – the toxins, the cold fingers, the colonies in my brain, the forgetting, everything. Maybe nothing was happening to me at all – maybe I was just selling myself a story in order to get some sort of perverse twisted thrill. How mad was that, I wondered? Surely that was just as weird a thing to be experiencing as the original ‘airborne toxicity’ business. Or was this idea that I was only telling myself a story in order to scare or shock myself only a story in itself. Maybe when I thought that I was telling myself a story that wasn’t true, maybe it was only another story that I was telling myself a story.
But it couldn’t be ‘another’ story, I reasoned, if the first story wasn’t real, if I wasn’t really telling myself a story in order to freak myself out. Maybe the only story was the story that I was telling myself stories.
My brain was working overtime by now and I felt like I was losing my grip. Not that it had been much of a grip in the first place. It was surely more accurate to say that I was in the grip of these ideas that were currently infiltrating my head. I wasn’t the gripper, I was the one being gripped. The gripper gripped. Only I wasn’t the gripper and so that wasn’t right. There was only the being gripped, not the gripping. Even when I tried to get a grip, by working out in my head what was happening to me, this was really only the alien ideas trying to get a grip on me. Only they weren’t trying to get a grip on me, they were succeeding!
The idea that I wasn’t really being affected by the airborne toxicity, that I was only telling myself that as a kind of a make-believe story or fantasy, maybe that was an alien idea that had successfully infiltrated me. If this was true then that would mean that I was being affected by the toxicity after all, and the toxicity was trying to subvert my own brain against me, trying to make me believe that what was happening, wasn’t happening. Only it wasn’t trying, it was succeeding.
Or was it? Surely my brain couldn’t have been subverted otherwise I wouldn’t be thinking the type of thoughts that I was thinking. I wouldn’t be thinking that alien ideas where taking hold in my brain if they actually had taken hold. Or could it be the case that the thought that alien thoughts were being implanted in my brain was itself an alien thought that was trying to infiltrate me?
All these thoughts – alien or otherwise – were proliferating so wildly at this stage that I just couldn’t bear them any more. They were chasing themselves in tight circles. Multiplying, reproducing, turning into fractals, into patterns within patterns within patterns, into spirals which receded away at dizzying speed into the distance. The more I tried to concentrate on them the faster they receded. I felt like I was looking out of the window of a jet as it accelerates just before taking off, gazing at the ground rushing by me ever more rapidly. I couldn’t bear to look any more. I felt myself losing contact with the ground under me. I couldn’t feel anything there – it was as if my feet were dangling in space, like two rubber bands. I needed solid ground beneath me but somehow – no matter how I tried – I couldn’t seem to reach it. I knew the pavement was there somewhere because I had been walking on it only a moment ago. The problem was – how could I reconnect with it?
I knew I had to do something. I could see a shop just a little further down the road, a newsagent. If I made a huge effort I might be able to get to it. If only I could get out of the street – which was proving severely problematic for me at this point in time – and into the confined and presumably relatively unchallenging environment of the newsagent, I might be OK. Just possibly.
Somehow, I don’t know how, I managed it. I was back in touch with some sort of normality. I stood there, taking my time, professionally scanning the row of newspapers and magazines in front of me, pretending to be looking for something in particular. Perhaps what I was looking for wasn’t even there. In which case I would leave the shop without buying anything and go elsewhere. Row apon row of perfect faces looked up at me from the magazine covers. Immaculately self-absorbed faces – utterly blank, disdainfully devoid of any trace of actual personality, triumphant in their theatricality as if they had found some ultimate form of safety by surgically divesting themselves of every last vestige of individuality. Their blandness was their victory, their victory over life itself, I realized.
I found this thought very interesting. This was something of a revelation to me – it was something that had a very great relevance to my own personal situation. I wondered if this was indeed the perfect defense against all of life’s rottenness, all of its tricks and jokes. Perhaps the models glossily portrayed here in front of me where the consumer culture’s equivalent of Zen Masters. Perhaps each one of them had a black belt in some sort of extraordinarily arcane martial art. The martial art of leaving your body ‘out there’ all by itself, with no actual vulnerable real live person inhabiting it, no one to get hurt, no one who could in any way be ‘got at’. These models served as inspiration to us lesser folk, a shining (or rather blank) example to the rest of us of what we too could hope to attain to. If we tried hard enough.
Then I realized that this wasn’t the case at all. These blank-faced, leopard-skin wearing women already had been ‘got at’ – they had all been infiltrated by the same toxin that had very nearly done for me out there in the street only a few minutes ago. They were examples alright – examples of what happens when this appallingly effective environmental toxin gets a chance to really go to work on you. All that is left after that is the shell, the husk, the mockingly empty mask.
It is definitely true that we everyday people with our unsightly blemishes and unfortunate imperfections are doing our level best to look as much like the blandly perfect supermodels that we are daily compelled to look at. Isn’t this the whole point of shopping after all? And what else do people do other than shopping? Obviously this is the main event, the significant business, the actual focus of life. Why else is this called a ‘consumer culture’? Because it is all about consuming. We work it is true, but only to obtain the money necessary to enable us to carry on shopping. We eat and sleep as well, but also only as a means to an end – so that we can get up the next day refreshed and well-fed to resume the perennial quest of looking for that perfect top, the perfect hand-bag, the perfect pair of shoes.
But then, I realized, the only reason we do this is because there is nothing else left for us to do. Because our brains have been effectively infiltrated, invaded, taken over, subverted… Because our minds are chock-a-block with trashy memes, with mass-produced viral garbage, with endlessly multiplying, intensely malicious and incredibly highly invasive mental software. After that takes hold there is nothing left but the shell, the husk, the outer covering, and all this outer covering can do is shop. Or drink, or gamble, or buy scratch cards, or have sex, or listen to the radio, or watch mindless TV.
I know this sounds ‘over-the-top cynical’, as if I am desperately trying to be smarter than everyone else. But it really wasn’t like that at all – I was actually feeling scared. Genuinely scared. And fear is a pure emotion (if it is an emotion, which I think is debatable) in that it is absolutely free from the wretched taint of superiority, which I must admit I am afflicted with as much as anybody. And with as little justification too, as I must also admit. But right then I wasn’t feeling at all superior – I was feeling scared.
I was feeling scared because my train of thought had reminded me that the toxin that had already infiltrated everyone else was also about to start work on me too. I was scared because I knew that I had no way of stopping what was going to happen, from happening. Once this particular type of toxicity takes hold – as I have already said – there is no way to reverse the process. It might seem strange that I can be so sure about that but some processes are genuinely irreversible – that’s just the way they are. This is a scientific fact: all entropic processes (like a cup of tea cooling down) are impossible to reverse. Of course you can put the cold cup of tea in the microwave and give it a quick blast but then the energy needed to do this depletes something else, entropy is created somewhere else in the system and so no matter what you do you are creating entropy. And entropy, as the Victorians were quick to realize, is one day going to take over everything, like mindless DJ’s on popular radio stations, or scratch cards, or Hollywood films, or McDonalds, or Coca Cola. Or like the whole of American culture for that matter.
I was scared, very scared, genuinely scared, but weirdly – incongruently – I wasn’t scared at all. In fact on another level entirely I felt stupidly blasé about the whole thing. I even felt kind of bored. I pulled a magazine from the shelf at random to have a closer look at it. There was a ridiculous article in it about how some minor celebrity had discovered that her boyfriend had been having an affair with some other minor celebrity and how she had split up with him because of this fact. This story was obviously totally ridiculous because it was just so stupid. I mean, this was supposed to be news, that some celebrity I had never heard of had broken up with her celebrity boyfriend because he had been cheating on her with another celebrity I had never heard of. I mean, how fascinating is that? Do I really want to know all the banal details about their pointless shallow lives?
And yet the sick thing was that some part of me did want to know. I could feel the tug of attraction operating on me, hooking me in, engendering within me the irresistible whim to read on and find out more of the details. It was like some part of me wanted to feed on this trashy story, a wilfully greedy part of me that wouldn’t be denied. It had its snout in the trough and it wouldn’t be budged until it had had its fill. It wanted to feed and feed and feed, and it didn’t give a damn about how squalidly repulsive or gross or demeaning this behaviour was.
But when I say that this was some part of me this is of course not true at all – it wasn’t part of me at all, it was an implanted compulsion designed by highly-trained corporate psychologists who happened to be working for the magazine. This was how they got people to buy their magazine – this is how the whole consumer culture thing works in the first place. It’s all about implanted ideas, implanted desires, implanted inferiority complexes, implanted insecurity, implanted envy, and so on. They make us the unwitting (if not witless) hosts to all their filthy impulses which then multiply within us and control us like the larvae of particular sort of parasitic wasp will jack themselves into the nervous or endocrine system of a hapless caterpillar and cause it to eat and eat and eat and never actually pupate, never actually turn into a butterfly. While they feed on it the whole time. And then finally the voracious wasp larvae swarm out through the skin of the poor burnt-out caterpillar, leaving it for dead now that it has served its purpose.
That was actually a very appropriate metaphor I realized. That was exactly what was happening with us hapless so-called ‘consumers’. It isn’t us who are consuming at all – it was them. The corporate parasites, the high-street chains and the fashion houses and the trans-global multinationals, and so on, were busy consuming us, and at the end of it all, when we are burnt out from feeding on the toxic garbage that they make us crave for every day, then they will leave us for dead and turn their attention to the next generation. We are merely the hosts for their mass-produced commercial memes, their exponentially-proliferating toxic viral implants, their desire, insecurity and envy-inducing malicious software. And the whole time we are so frighteningly stupid that we actually think that we are the beneficiaries, that we are the ones calling the shots. We feel so damn cool in the very latest designer gear, the designer gear that their bent corporate psychologists have programmed us to buy at exorbitant prices.
I came out in a cold sweat when I realized this, but at the same time I could feel that terrible invasive blankness out there, inexorably closing in on me, slowly creeping up on me from all sides. The blankness was when I forgot to be frightened, when I forgot to be me. When I forget what it felt like to be me.
Does anyone really get this I wondered? Do people actually get how terrifying blankness actually is?
The terrifying thing about blankness is that it is blank. That’s all it is – just blankness. Utter blankness. The blankness of blankness. This blankness is blank to everything, including itself. It is so blank that it doesn’t have the slightest clue about how blank it actually is! It doesn’t realize that it is blank – and when it infiltrates us we don’t realize how blank we are. Our stupidity is so great that we think we have lives! Can you imagine that? How stupid is that?
And this terrible, terrifying blankness was almost on me now. It had me surrounded, it had me hemmed in on all sides. And it was so close by that I was on the very brink of forgetting to be afraid…