"The Critique of Everything" from The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House
a privileged radical in the age of global pandemic: a chapter from a novella
In addition to my regular Friday book review and Sunday newsletter, I am introducing a Wednesday post for Fall 2022. Wednesday posts will feature the creative writing I’ve published elsewhere over the last decade, whether in a now unused Medium account I would like to close or in literary journals that have either folded or that paywalled my work years ago.
[The following is the third chapter from my novella, The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House. Publishers Weekly summarizes the book this way in its positive review:
A pandemic-related lockdown tests the residents of an apartment building in this nicely considered outing from Pistelli...This thought-provoking exploration of quarantine life offers plenty of tension.
Written between mid-March and mid-April of 2020 and published in May of 2020, it is the first longform work of literary fiction about the global pandemic. ]
The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House
Chapter 3. The Critique of Everything
He knocked like a police officer or a soldier: three hard raps on the door with the side of his fist. When I didn’t answer right away, because I was spending a rare moment filming a message for my online class—a few students had emailed to complain about my lack of engagement—he pounded three times again. This startled me enough that I rose without turning off the laptop camera; I left the computer open and facing the couch on my trash-scavenged coffee table. I could hardly bring myself to open the door—Louise would have registered febrility in my pulse at this pummeling on the door. Were the round-ups the Internet warned us about beginning at last? Or had my father grown tired of being ignored? Had he sent some of his friends in intelligence to carry me back to the suburbs?
No—the person standing at the door was only my neighbor from across the hall. He introduced himself as Arthur Brand and neither shook my hand nor bowed. He had hair so blond it appeared white; he wore it short on the sides and long enough on top that flaps of it kept flopping into his eyes. He’d brush it aside with his long, tapered fingers, and it would swing straight back. His eyes themselves were pale and red- rimmed and redly-webbed with bloody capillaries. He had belted his white button-down tightly into his tan pants, but it all seemed like it might slip at any second from his emaciated frame. He must have bought the clothes when he was a more substantial man. His cheekbones jutted with such force that I thought they might split the bloodless white skin of his face. I wished Louise Portofino were there to take his pulse; I could never rouse myself in time to do anything necessary, though, not even in my own defense. I invited him inside.
He stood inside the door, put his hands on his rawboned hips, and slowly swiveled his head from side to side on his long vein-strung neck to survey my apartment.
“From my window, it looked like a party last night,” he said with a suspicious smile. “And in pandemic times!”
“We were safe,” I offered. “Besides, there’s not an official lock-down order yet—” I cut myself off. Was that even true? I couldn’t think of any explanation that would not sound absurd. Luckily, he was only offended that no one had asked him to come.
“You can’t live forever, neighbor” he said. “And I’m starting to lose it in there. Oh, I was having fun at first. A lot of fun. But even putting aside the hammering and smoke and squealing metal from my downstairs neighbor, who must be running a foundry in the cellar—”
He began to pace the apartment. The heavy heels of his scuffed black Oxfords, which he wore without socks, thundered on the bare floorboards.
“—I thought to myself when it all started that this would be the best year of my life.”
He bent to my bookshelf and touched with a tapered forefinger each spine in succession, just as Louise had counted my pulses.
“Almost since I became humanly conscious—if I am in fact humanly conscious—I have been working in whatever way I could to undermine this country’s social order.”
He straightened, unimpressed with my library. I followed his booming steps into the tiny kitchen at the back of the apartment.
“When I was a little boy, my mother took me one Thanksgiving to serve dinner to what they used to call the needy. They call them something else now, to make their troubles seem less real to the educated middle classes. I call them the poor, the cursed, the wretched, the damned. The refuse of a society that, like every society at least since the institution of agriculture, requires that some starve while others eat.”
He wrenched opened the sticky refrigerator door and found only condiments inside. He opened the freezer, undefrosted, thick-furred with fuzzy snow, and pried a desiccated-looking ice cube from a tray I believe the tenant before me had left. He sucked it therapeutically in his hollow cheeks.
“Forgive me for descending to rhetoric just now, neighbor. It’s a useless habit. There is no one to move or persuade, no one to set things right. Just us, the ones who ruined everything in the first place.”
He stood at the window and stared over the sunken Blessed Mother, shawled in moss. The ice cube yawed and squealed before it shattered in his jaws.
“That Thanksgiving was the first time I had seen the poor—really seen them, not just considered them as some abstract ethical concept, the people who had no dinner for whose theoretical sake I was compelled to eat my peas and greens. What I saw: the ragged hair and mottled skin, the yellowed eyes, the untreated goiter bulging in the neck, the uncleansible fingernails, the clothes worn so often they came away in flakes, the gaping mouths and black teeth, the crusted toes coming out of broken shoes, the sickly mix of bloat and starvation, the smells of mold and urine and smoke and sweat and the grease of hair. Until that Thanksgiving, I had only seen my family and their friends: Polo shirts and lawn tennis and summers at the Vineyard. And because I didn’t know then about the reality of the needy, I hadn’t really seen my family and their friends—I hadn’t seen what made their lives possible, or what their lives made impossible. It still makes me sick to confess it. The needy looked like a different species: a realer species, the substance of which the Brands were only the shadow. We were lies projected on a wall to dazzle observers into believing the world was somehow justified despite its superabundance of agony. So instead of listening to my mother when she advised me to count my blessings and give thanks, I’m afraid I catechized her that night. Why were the needy needy? Why couldn’t we, who had so much, simply give them what they needed? Why did I sleep in a warm bed, between smooth sheets, and they on cement in alleyways? Don’t let the banality of the questions mask their urgency, please, not unless you have an answer. Well, what could my poor mother, society matron and hostess as she was, say to me?”
I stared at the side of Brand’s face, trying to decide his age. Was he 30? 60?
“She must have said some variation on it’s just the way things are, God made it like this, you can’t change human nature—you know the song, I’m sure. And I was child, anyway, incapable of understanding any real answer she might have given could she have provided one, an answer that would begin, as I said, with the invention of agriculture, the institution of currency, double-entry bookkeeping, the growth of resource-extractive empires, and so on. The point is, I had seen what I had seen, and I could not unsee it. The needy would shuffle across my closed eyelids, coughing and wheezing and asking me for a dollar, so that I couldn’t sleep for the racket. If I tried to eat, some image of their imposed decrepitude interposed itself between me and the food so that I could barely choke it down without retching. I resorted to prayer and superstition. Though reared in mild Protestantism, I independently evolved what my forebears, vomiting over the sides of the Arbella, would have regarded as popish barbarism, which just goes to show that all possible beliefs and practices are latent in every consciousness, just waiting to be summoned in an emergency of the soul. In secret, I tore at my flesh. With a ballpoint pen, I made a wound in my inner thigh, just below the groin, and kept it open for almost a year, a year of stealing towels from the laundry room to sleep on to stanch the blood. I offered the pain every night to God if only He would lift some equivalent agony from my needy brothers and sisters. My blood in return for a sufferer to have a hot meal or a sudden windfall. I had no way of knowing if God would provide; this was the mystery of faith.”
He put his fingers to his temples as if to keep the veins from bursting as they pulsed visibly under the skin. He touched his forehead to the glass of the window and shut his eyes.
“My self-mortification caused a hectic blood infection that almost killed me on Christmas Eve of my 10th year, an only half-inadvertent suicide attempt and not, alas, the last. I still lay feverish in my hospital bed when my poor mother and father—who had, as they several times reminded me, given me anything any child could ever want—summoned a professional. A child psychologist. Dr. Celeste—the combination of a professional title with a first name perfect for her syrupy coercions. She was my first real glimpse at the impersonal evil that sustains, by indifference and evasion, a society brutal in its automatic functioning rather than by anyone’s overtly, consciously vicious design, a society that says to its victims not I take pleasure in destroying you and not even that’s just the way it is but isn’t it better this way, all things considered? I saw her for a year as she tried to cure me of my excess care by an excavation of my deepest feelings. That the problem was out there, not in here, never seemed to have occurred to her. Dr. Celeste exhibited that style of cruel compassion, of cunning concern, in which women of a certain class seem to excel. Do you think you’re helping people by hurting yourself? she asked. Well, that is what I thought, and perhaps in point of empirical fact I was mistaken, but I had the right idea. Only the liquidation of the privileged—which I had tried to accomplish literally by stabbing at my flesh—could effect the salvation of the oppressed. She tried to refer my cares to reality so that reality could disconfirm them. But facts were not the point, and her idea of reality stopped short at the boundaries of her suburban neighborhood, her suburban consciousness. The point—how could I at 11 years old explain such a thing to this well-fed woman whose fat husband played golf with my father?—the point was that if certain things were wrong then everything was wrong. And if everything was wrong, then what did it matter if I hurt myself, or, rather, how could I decently refrain from taking my portion of the pain? To some people—most especially to suburban matrons—you can’t explain anything, so I simply started lying to Dr. Celeste, and she was in what must have been a rare instance happier to pronounce me cured than to continue collecting my parents’ money. In retrospect, I think she must have been afraid of me. I was relieved not to have to return ever again to her office, with its bright couch and its desk teeming with commercial dolls and stuffed animals and all sorts of meaningless toys—we used them to act out our precious little feelings, Dr. Celeste and I, like the Little Golden Book of Freud’s clinic.”
He lifted his head and turned around; he started to fall but caught himself dizzily on the table’s edge.
“It’s just that I haven’t eaten, neighbor” he said by way of apology.
I offered him one of my cans of tuna from the cabinet, but he waved me off.
“In pandemic times we must all tend to our own quarantine hoard. Sauve qui peut. That’s how it is in non-pandemic times, too, but the pandemic gives us a welcome opportunity not to lie to ourselves or one another about it.”
He smiled; the pale gums were coming away from his bright teeth. I followed him again as he marched out of the kitchen and stood again before my bookshelf.
“Let me abbreviate this tedious bildungsroman by hastening over the more hackneyed bits. I turned 12 and stopped talking to God. I began to seek the questions I had put to my benighted mother in books. I went to an elite private high school and to an Ivy League university. I read this”—he put his fingertip on the top corner of Plato’s Republic and flipped it off the shelf onto the floor—“and this and this and this and this and this and this and this.”
With each “this” he spun and flipped another book down—from Aristotle to Žižek—until he’d made a pile at his feet. Below, Louise must have wondered what was going on to create such thunder. All that remained on the shelf, all he’d left untouched, all he hadn’t read, were a few novels.
“And I found any number of facts, but no answers. And the theories were worse than the facts. Every philosopher worked some apology for oppression or poverty into his system. The best philosophers were your Platos or Nietzsches, who defended domination or brutality outright. The worst were your Rousseaus or Hegels, who simply renamed evil as good or cheerfully explained why you had it coming. History was to blame. Even Marx, with his scientific theories of exploitation and dialectical justification for all that had gone before—what was he but another boy bargaining with God in the night? So I developed my own theory.”
He sat down dizzily on the back of the couch; its wooden beams, beneath the threadbare upholstery, creaked a protest despite his thinness.
“If the social order generated evil out of itself because of its fundamental premise that some must have more than others, that some could get away with abusing others, then any increase in disorder prepared the way for the unimaginably just society on the other side of destruction. An unpleasant corollary to this theory was that any increase in happiness would only work to sustain the corrupt social order by making it appear better than it was. This led me to give up any dream I ever had of helping anyone, of reducing any other human being’s suffering. The only kindness was cruelty. I would never be kind again. I may have lapsed from this strict doctrine a time or two, and believe me, I regret it.”
He smiled and fell over the back of my couch; then he torsioned his skeletal frame on the sagging cushions till he was nearly sitting upright.
“So I led a life of outward respectability. I lied to you earlier when I said I didn’t know what the needy now were called by the middle-class engineers of language and custodians of inequality. I have worked since I graduated from the university as a grant-writer for non-profits—a job my mother, who had me destined for the law or a Senate seat, thinks is beneath me—and I can tell you every polite name we use to blunt our conscience and evade reality. We say vulnerable populations, we say income inequality, we say food insecure, we say unhoused—as if anything at all anyone could say would remove one gram of agony from this earth. And all that time I’ve been churning out documents to solicit meager aid from the rich and powerful, from men and women as banally self- satisfied as my mother and father. But I have also been diverting funds in secret to whoever might increase the world’s disorder. Not terrorists, you understand—that’s too literal. And terrorism, not unlike pandemic disease, only gives the forces of order an excuse to tighten their grip. But hackers and destroyers of property, troll brigades and agents provocateurs? Drunks in the street who will only spend what you give them on more booze and meth? All can count on my support. It’s small, but it adds up. Or rather, subtracts from the vast iron prison that sits on top of us, that crushes us under—subtracts as a stream wears down a mountain.”
He closed his eyes and pressed his tapered fingertips to them—just what the public health authorities warned us not to do in pandemic times. I contemplated the meagerness of his transgressions when weighed against the ferocity of his confession. When he didn’t say anything for a minute, I wondered if he’d fallen asleep. But he went on, without opening his eyes.
“When the novel virus emerged, I almost danced the old hornpipe, like the festive maypole cast-outs of my ancestors’ severe utopia. Here was nature to finish the job I was too squeamish to do. To cleanse the earth of our corrupt institutions and either force us to start again or wipe our failure from the universe’s memory. Do you know air pollution in Southern California has gone down to nothing? That water is running blue and clear in the canals of Venice? That coyotes are loping down the streets of Chicago? If the death toll mounts high enough, the city’s domestic dogs, abandoned by their deceased owners, will form packs and inherit it, parcel by jaw-reclaimed parcel. In the last week, though, my spirits have grown depressed. Doesn’t it feel as if we’ve turned a corner? The news is all social control—governments and corporations using this crisis as their excuse to bind us ever more tightly to the knot of injustice known as our civilization. Why go on living? Some days I think it might be more preferable to step outside and lick the viral sidewalk.”
He opened his eyes and found himself staring into the green light on the laptop camera and then at his own face on the screen.
“You’re filming me, neighbor? Are you a cinephile, like our upstairs neighbor? Or just a pervert?”
“I’m teaching an online class. Introduction to Modern Philosophy. I was recording a message for my students when you came in and must have forgotten to stop the video.”
“How educational,” he said.
He took the laptop in both hands and brought it so close to his face that it captured only an indistinct impression of his pale and ruddy eyes.
“Listen, class, I’m sure if you’ve been listening, you must have some questions. For example, you might ask, How can you know, Mr. Brand, that the world is unjust without some absolute standard to compare it to? In other words, doesn’t your critique of Marx redound on yourself? Aren’t you still just crying out to God after all these years? Well, class, if I could answer that one—”
“I have a question,” I said. I folded my arms across my chest; like the sudden onset of flu symptoms, a total and contemptuous boredom with his at-first-impressive performance settled on me. Denise, Appleton, Brand—all but Louise—I was sick of being the prey of these grand talkers. “Why did you come here to tell me all this?”
He set the laptop not back on the coffee table but at his feet and carelessly kicked it shut with the heavy heel of his Oxford. He smiled at me with only one side of his mouth.
“I was content to be alone,” he said. “But I had a visit yesterday from a nice old lady who lives upstairs, and we had a nice old chat about all of you citizens of St. Sebastian House—the projectionist, the sculptress, and you. We talked, indiscreetly I think, about where your money comes from. This made me think that you of all people might sympathize with my dilemma. More than sympathize. Two sons of privilege with a war to wage on the world.”
I opened the door of my apartment and stood against the jamb. Brand didn’t receive the message, or silently received it and just as silently refused it: he remained sitting and smiling.
“I’ve never been at war with anyone in my life,” I said.
[If you enjoyed this chapter, please consider purchasing The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House today.]