Celebrating the Unpopular Arts


She held the rock in her hand like a wounded animal. A voice in her head told her to throw it. It sang lively songs to her about victory over oppression, fierce courage in the face of overwhelming odds, no fear. It rattled through her brain. The rock fluttered gently in her hand like a dying bird.

She saw a plate glass window in front of her like Alice’s looking glass. Through it, another world. Here, now, nothing but hatred; then, there, a peaceful feeling, like sitting under a broad oak tree by a stream in the summer. In her hand, the rock.

Take one chance in your life, Sophia, the rock whispered. Just one. That’s all you need. One chance. Take it.

In the distance behind her, the night’s street traffic blended with lamppost hums and distant airplanes to form an unbroken band of sound. No one saw her. No one would have cared. It’s the city, the voice said. A city. Post-post-postmodern, post-punk, post-grunge, post-boomer, post-Gen X; a slum of stupidity, crankiness, ignorance, vague ideals; even here, even now, at the end of yet another tired century, the earth slogging reluctantly toward a dull apocalypse, check-out lines longer than ever, senior citizens driving Lincolns, clothes that don’t fit — Sophia, Sophia! Take.

And always, someone else’s ideas. It wasn’t her idea to be here, standing with a rock in a tightly clenched left fist. Not hers. Bakunin’s. Conrad’s. Ginsberg’s. Sayles’s. She had read books. Oh yes. The Insanity of Normality. Who Lies Sleeping? Cassandra’s Secret. Fucking V for Vendetta, for God’s sake. How clear. How clear. But not hers. Whose ideas were original these days? Whose pastiches were subtler than others’? Not hers.

“There’s no secret to getting in the shortest line,” her ex-boyfriend told her, in one of his more lucid moments. “Pick the one with the most men. Men are frightened by lines; they prefer the organized milling of a sports arena. Men will move quickly through a line, because they are scared of its precision. Women are more comfortable with that.” Was the world that simple for him? So it seemed.

“What do you read, generally?” he asked her when they first met. “I can’t have sex with someone who doesn’t read at least some kind of quality literature.” For some odd reason, this made Sophia want him more.

Not Bakunin then. Not Rousseau. Not Pushkin. Not Shelley. Then, Stephen King. He sniggered. She gave him the finger. They were in bed a week later.

Thomas was a boring lover. Not bad, just uninspired. They would have sex at night, in bed, missionary position, never changing. He preferred drugs as a way of going beyond himself. “There is a clarity in dementia,” he said. “A clarity of purpose which modern man does not possess. You do not possess it, Sophia. Nor do I. I only brush up against it occasionally. While I am high.”

Do it to spite Thomas, Sophia, if not for you. Do it to wipe that stupid self-assured smirk off his face. He would tell you to do it, not for any grand political statement, but for the sheer hell of it. And you would. For him. Once.

And the stone in her hand whispered naughty thoughts into her frontal lobe.

Why did Thomas always seem so … intelligent? Deep? Philosophical? Because he had a college degree in linguistics, of all things, and was working for the archives up in North Portland, and he hung out downtown in coffeehouses and drank espressos and smoked unfiltered cigarettes? Because he could never touch her gently, or angrily, or in any way that suggested she was more than a concept to him, something to be studied and pondered later, post-coitus, in dark rooms reeking of patchouli? Sophia hated his friends and his scene, and wondered how it had lasted almost a year. Maybe because he was her first.

The rock told her that was silly, a cliché even. ‘Her first.’ Like she hadn’t given head before, hadn’t let a man touch her everywhere, hadn’t gone almost all the way. What was it about Thomas, after all the boys in high school and the mathematicians in college and the insecure men at work — all of whom got far but never all the way — that made her let him fuck her?

It was nothing she could pinpoint. It was nothing she could articulate. But now it was over, and she felt dirty, and clean, at the same time. Thomas was washed out of her system, leaving her with her dead writer friends and a sense of something bigger. Some inarticulate dissatisfaction with the way America had evolved. Where had the dream gone? Where were the promises?

The rock told her the thoughts had always been with her, inside her, and Thomas did not create them, any more than she created Thomas. Thomas had just brought them out.

So if it’s yours, Sophia, why is it so hard to throw? To take that first step on the long road, the Via Oblivionis, the Way of the Future? You have been encumbered by your sex, by your ideals, by your disillusionment, and you feel anger at the way you, and millions like you, have been betrayed by politicians and generals, who fight wars to distract the people from the starving children on their doorstep. So why is it so hard? Is it hold on you, still?

No. It was more than that, it was twenty-four years of WASP-ish upbringing, moderate parents who indulged her, loved her, but never challenged her. How easy. How neat and wrapped up in pink velvet. “You and I are products of cultural malaise,” Thomas said, in a Jägermeister-induced trance. “The last vestiges of originality died in World War Two. Since then we’ve just been marking time, waiting for the end of the world.”

And she thought him intelligent. Yes, whispered her inanimate friend. Deep and wise and witty and thoughtful, never realizing that he was just like you. Unoriginal, spouting someone else’s thought — Nietzsche filtered through Kurt Cobain. Nothing special.

And what did she remember about the last day? Walking, always walking in a city filled with public transportation; the purity of traveling on foot calmed her when her emotions seethed. Thomas’s face, mocking her as he left. It wasn’t a break-up to him; it was another signpost on his long journey to intellectual awakening. She left him to his onanistic meanderings through the memory of their relationship. He was an armchair rebel — he was no Thomas Paine, no John Wilkes Booth, no Leon Czolgosz, no Gavrilo Princip, willing and comfortable with martydom. “Die for a cause?” he once said, surprised it was even an issue. “Kill for one? Whatever for? There is no need. Every rebellion becomes part of the mainstream, and what is the martyr worth then? Best to subjugate from within, babe.” She hated when he called her ‘babe.’

Walking. Through rain-slicked streets — it was Portland, after all, in February, a time not conducive to sunshine and good vibrations — she followed her own inertial destiny.

Walking. She gazed at the Mickey-Mouse shadows the double-headed parking meters threw in the soft orange haze of downtown streetlights. She looked down at the combination floss/toothpick contraptions scattered across the ground like miniature cutlasses. Everywhere pop culture assailed her, even in the tiniest part of the night, deep past midnight. Past the police barracks on Second Avenue (a target for another day! the rock said) and the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse (ditto) until she stood, trembling like a virgin (not so long ago, Sophia!) in front of her destination. The rock shook in anticipation.

Was it the fact that she had sex with Thomas that made his thoughts seem so awesome and noble? So ironic and tragic and insightful? Was she bedazzled by passionate splendor? No, thought Sophia. More banalities — the young girl swept away by an idealistic young thinker, adopting his strategies as her own, then discovering he’s just a cynical pragmatist all along. No, she knew Thomas wasn’t the ideologue she wanted him to be. Just as she knew her parents weren’t the anti-establishment peaceniks they claimed to be. They were normal. Depressingly so. As was Thomas.

And what’s wrong with that? the rock asked mockingly. A society of individuals that demands subtle compromises every day in order for the status quo to continue unchecked and unheeded is a friendly society, a society that faces the future united. And America, despite its apparent differences between young and old, rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative, was just that — a united society. United in its belief in the American Way of Life, whatever that version was. Sophia knew Thomas was as much a part of it as her parents. That would gall him.

What was it that her high school English teacher had said? “Better to be pissed off than pissed on.” Quaint. He was a legitimate ex-hippy, teaching them Ferlinghetti when he should have been teaching them Pound, John Stuart Mill instead of Wordsworth. So smug in his memories of social change, Vietnam-era protests, bed-ins. Sophia had been enraptured by him, and now considered him with scorn. He was pissed on and he didn’t even know it. He collected his salary from the government, and simply wanted tenure, not revolution. He had entered society, and was now “subverting” from the inside, just like Thomas. Never realizing the fight was over, and society had won again.

And you, Sophia? the rock asked. Setting me free would make such a difference? Thomas would mock along with it, “There’s nothing noble about being stupid. There’s nothing noble about tilting at windmills. Quixote was just swept aside by history, having achieved nothing. No romance, no imprint, nothing.” He was, as usual, high when he said this, but Sophia never put it all together to see he was babbling inanities until …

Such a small change. Just one thing he said. They were in bed, naked, watching news late into the night. For Thomas, keeping up with the world right after sex was his own way of feeling important. Yes, he deposited his sperm in her. But at least he would be educated the next day.

Some reporter was talking about some war in some strange-sounding country far away from America’s more silent battles. An enemy to smite, a racial hatred to nurture, a blood feud to perpetuate — this is what Thomas wanted, and what Sophia abhorred. But there was the reporter, talking about the “rebel” side and the “government” side and the atrocities and massacres and accusations of genocide, and Thomas said, “This is the fault of the anarchists.”

She asked him, incredulous, what he meant.

“Anarchists. Always throwing bombs, uncaring, committing crimes against humanity, against innocents. No way to bring down the system.”

“This is not anarchy. This is chaos. This is nothing like what true anarchists want. This is a prelude to true anarchy.”

He laughed. “Sophia. Always the idealist. Always naïve. Such a little fool. Still believing in floating towers and shining cities. I have taught you nothing.”

Before she knew him, she would have taken it. But not now. She stood, head full of buzzing bees of rage. “You have told me everything about your politics I care to know. I think you should leave.”

He chuckled again. “That’s your problem, Sophia –”


That had been two nights ago. Forty-eight hours of thought and decision-making. Changes in lifestyle. She had to start somewhere, and this was it. A genesis. A rock in her hand, outsde the office of the candidate for Multnomah County Commissioner. She wondered if it was important enough, to shatter this particular window. A minor official in the great machine of government, not anyone with whom she would have a problem if they met socially. But. She remembered something Tkachev had written. “The state is absolutely absurd and absurdly absolute.” A perfect target, this window. Such a small thing, leading to other, bigger things.

And wondering if she had what it took. What the great ones had. A desire to set things right, to spit in the face of society because they knew society was a great rotten fruit, ugly and pulpy on the inside. Sophia waited as the rock sang to her. The hour slowly changed to 4 a.m., and Sophia slowly changed into a woman of action.

She knew what the problem with her society was.

“Blessed are the rioters, for they shall inherit the kingdom of the earth,” she murmured through rebellious lips.

“Blessed are the young at heart and spirit, for they shall overturn the social order,” she spoke clearly into a frigid early morning, her hand quivering with anticipation.

“Blessed are the pissed off and pissed on, for they shall burn the world pure!” she shrieked.

“Yessssss,” the rock screamed as it flew. Sophia felt shards flick across her face like a baptism. There was nowhere to go now but up, and through, and into. The future, the past, the unimaginable present. Alarms clanged around her, but she didn’t hear them. She was on the other side of society, where she made the rules. She licked blood off her upper lip and went on her way.


[Ah, Sophia. Good Ol’ Anarchist Sophia. We’ll see her again. And hey, she was mad about mansplaining before I even knew what it was! I read a lot of Russian anarchists in college when I took a Russian history class, and I guess they were on my mind when I wrote this. Who doesn’t love Bakunin and Tkachev?]


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