Luke O’Neil | an excerpt from Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia | OR Books | forthcoming | 17 minutes (4,698 words)
Just outside the gates of the Hofburg Palace the massive baroque seat of power for the Habsburg kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and in the shadow of the 13th century cathedral the Michaelerskirche with its elaborate series of subterranean crypts there’s an open air museum in the center of the popular Michaelerplatz. Amidst the tourist bustle and high-end retail shopping and cafes with blankets strewn over chair backs and the omnipresent wall-mounted cigarette vending machines the excavation looks like a narrow scar carved into the earth that opens a window into Vindobona which is a Roman military outpost that is believed to be where Marcus Aurelius died in the year 180.
Aurelius’s Meditations were something like the first self-help book albeit one that set the course for Christianity and Western civilization. In short it was a set of guidelines for being a good man written by himself to himself. Everything happens for a reason he’d say. “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” Sorry but since I’ve been rewatching True Detective season one it’s almost impossible not to hear shit like that in Matthew McConaughey’s voice.
“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”
We build on top of ourselves burying the past I thought. We live on top of the dead I thought while staring down into the ruins there snapping photos of the ancient culture’s bones on my phone so I could remember them some day in the future. Eventually you accumulate too many memories on your phone so you have to decide which ones to delete. You have to go through and be like do I absolutely need to remember this hamburger?
The past is very easy for me to imagine because it has already happened. Either I was there for it or someone else was there for it and they wrote it down and so now we know. The present is also easy to imagine because well I don’t think I need to explain that one. I have never been very good about thinking about the future though and I don’t think any of us are. We make plans sure and if you were to ask us what we might be doing a year from now or five years from now or twenty years from now we could probably spackle together a plausible approximation of what it might look like but the future isn’t real because no one has written it down for us yet.
I saw a story where scientists said the pitch at which whales near the Antarctic sing has been getting progressively lower over the past couple decades. Blue whales sometimes sing at a pitch so low that it’s beyond the grasp of human ears which sounds magical doesn’t it that there are massive creatures communicating in a manner that we would never be able to hear if we didn’t amplify it with technology. Maybe they just don’t want us eavesdropping. Maybe they’re talking about us behind our backs.
One of the reasons they’ve had to change the way they sing is because they have to compete with the sound of icebergs cracking and falling apart.
I read another story which is the same story but this time in the Washington Post called “Everything is not going to be ok” and the writer spoke with a woman named Nikki Cooley who grew up on Diné Nation lands in Arizona and now manages a climate and tribes program there “acting as an emissary between her ancestral world and the modern one that upended it.”
“In Arizona, in the summer, the pinyon pines don’t smell like they used to,” she said, “and the wind sometimes feels in error, like it’s blowing the wrong way, at the wrong time of year.”
Everything we do today comes at the expense of the future. That can be little things like how last night I basically ate an entire loaf of bread. You know the kind that sticks out of your shopping bag and you go like haha look at me I’m a French guy over here ayy forgetaboutit. Or it can be taking pleasure or comfort in all the things you know you shouldn’t do but nonetheless feel good right now in this moment and tomorrow is not your problem. Someone else is going to have to deal with it and even if that person is actually you it’s still you tomorrow and you don’t know that guy so let him figure it out.
It was about two years ago and there was a sadness inside of me I had been hoping to run away from and by chance an alcohol company offered to send me to Europe to go drink their specific type of alcohol there so I went and did that. Turns out though that for better or worse and no matter what this dude Marcus Aurelius might have said to the contrary sadness travels well across borders. Unlike hand lotion you can smuggle grief onto the plane and no one will know it. Pain doesn’t show up on the x-ray scanner at all it’s the perfect crime.
“No difference between here and there: the city that you live in is the world,” Aurelius said. I don’t know what he meant by that exactly but I take it to mean it doesn’t matter where you are it’s still you that has to be there.
Unlike hand lotion you can smuggle grief onto the plane.
You can see all those old castles and cathedrals and shit from the rooftop bar of the circus-themed hotel I stayed in. It was appointed with retro pommel horses and medicine balls and gymnastics rings and what have you like they went into a haunted circus and gentrified it. “We are all mad here” the sign on the facade outside and on the walls inside say which makes it sound like getting hotel-nude in a room you can’t figure out how to charge your phone in is slipping through the looking glass and I guess it kind of is.
I went running along the Danube when I got there because I could still run at the time and I also could not sleep. I’d trudge down the streets ignoring the cute Viennese crosswalk signals that show a little green woman leading a man by the hand and bluster into traffic like a galumphing American dumbass because to be an American and specifically a white American man is to understand intuitively that you can do whatever you want.
I would have been reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara that trip so now I am going to go ahead and remember it in front of you. It’s a sprawling bildungsroman about loss, self-loathing, self-harm, suicide and . . . friendship(?)
We all have friends or people we love who exist in all three tenses: past present and future. And we all have friends and loved ones who exist only in the past. You can’t have a friend who exists exclusively in the past and the present however, it doesn’t work that way, although I guess you can now that I think of it you just can’t be aware of it at the time. Maybe they’re going to die or leave you in an hour or two and then the future them you had always assumed would be around is taken out of the equation for you. People can do that. They can disappear. They don’t even have to consult with you although it’s generally considered a courtesy to do so.
You probably have someone in your life who you have always worried there won’t be a future for regardless of if you’re involved in it or not. They’re still there until they are not and you spend a lot of time preparing yourself for their absence which is arriving any day now presently here it comes ah not yet ok here it comes.
Anyway that was the character of Jude in the book.
I had the sense that he was in a hot-air balloon, one that was staked to the earth with a long twisted rope, but each year the balloon strained and strained against its cords, tugging itself away, trying to drift into the skies. And down below, there was a knot of us trying to pull the balloon back to the ground, back to safety. And so I was always frightened for him, and I was always frightened of him, as well.
Can you have a real relationship with someone you are frightened of? Of course you can. But he still scared me, because he was the powerful one and I was not: if he killed himself, if he took himself away from me, I knew I would survive, but I knew as well that survival would be a chore; I knew that forever after I would be hunting for explanations, sifting through the past to examine my mistakes. And of course I knew how badly I would miss him, because although there had been trial runs for his eventual departure, I had never been able to get any better at dealing with them, and I was never able to get used to them.
One of the themes of A Little Life is how there are some people for whom the past is always the present and always the future. Some people have terrible things happen to them when they are young and it stays with them forever and they end up growing older but they aren’t really older they’re still who they were when it happened and that can be too much to overcome sometimes.
I haven’t read any J.D. Salinger in a long time. Someone said I write like him and man that would have been a big compliment back when I was younger during the time when not much terrible was happening to me. I guess we’re not supposed to like him anymore when we’re adults in part because whoops turns out he was a pervert or something I forget what that was about but also because the things we liked when we were younger are supposed to seem unserious now. Like imagine you met a guy now and he said his favorite writer was J.D. Salinger you’d be like what and then you’d look around to see if anyone else was hearing this shit.
I went back and read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” just now and I had forgotten almost all of it except for the end which is also how a lot of memories of friendships and romances go. Seymour Glass is on the beach with a young girl named Sybil who is jealous that he’d spent time with another young girl the night before.
“‘Ah, Sharon Lipschutz,’ said the young man. ‘How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire.’”
That last bit is a reference to the first part of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land “The Burial of the Dead.” I definitely remembered all of this by heart just to be clear. I only went to Wikipedia just now to see if anyone else remembered it as well and as good as I did.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Eliot also begins that part with a quote from the Satyricon which would’ve been written around one hundred years before our man Marcus Aurelius was born.
“For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumaean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered, ‘I want to die.’”
In Greek mythology Cumaean Sibyl was a prophet who among other things guided Aeneas through Hades. Getting in was very easy she told him but finding your way out was another thing altogether.
Trojan, Anchises’ son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labour indeed.
Welcome to Hell World in other words.
Sibyl was mortal but she lived for almost a thousand years according to the myths after she made a bargain with Apollo. In exchange for her virginity she asked to live for as many years as there were grains in the pile of sand in her hand and Apollo said whatever sure ok but then she later spurned his advances so he was like welp you didn’t look at the fine print bitch and she was cursed to live that long while growing older and more decrepit every year until she withered away smaller and smaller and smaller until she could fit inside a jar and then she got so small that all that was left was her voice.
I wonder if they’ll get to dig a hole into the earth and look through the wound at what we were.
I drank a lot those few days in Europe because that was what I was being paid to do. I went to a speakeasy in Vienna which was set up like a living room for example. You were supposed to take your shoes off when you came in and I was like uh I don’t know buddy. I forget if I did or not but that’s probably not germane to the vibe I’m going for here. You probably didn’t imagine what type of shoes anyone I mentioned so far was wearing. This isn’t the type of essay where you know about what shoes people have on.
The bartender there didn’t like listing what was in the drinks before he served them.
“If you know before what’s in the drink you taste it differently,” he said. “You focus on the spirit.”
Some people like that sort of thing and some people don’t. Most people do not want to change who they are and they do not want to change what they drink which is a part of who they are. You’ve got to surprise them by letting them surprise themselves.
Here’s a surprise. Did you know that the cream and chocolate filling ganache was actually a mistaken invention? A chocolatier’s assistant told me that the next day as she was spreading and chopping and spreading and chopping a mesmerizing blob of viscous green liquid on a steel table in a kitchen to cool it. I don’t remember what she looked like but I remember the big green blob on the table because I see a very high number of women on a regular basis but a comparatively smaller number of sugary green blobs.
Around 1850 a confectioner’s assistant in a Parisian pâtisserie accidentally spilled hot milk over chocolate making his boss furious as the story goes. Ganche! he yelled which apparently means donkey in French. But the dude’s fuck up paid off and who’s the donkey now hmmm? Then again they’re both dead so they probably aren’t worried about getting credit for the chocolate anymore unless ghosts are real which they aren’t because I just read a piece in Mother Jones about how airport workers threatening to strike didn’t have anything to do with the end of the government shutdown it was actually all Nancy Pelosi’s leadership and do we really want workers to have that sort of power anyway the guy wrote? The fact that Mother Jones herself isn’t currently haunting the offices of that magazine with a blood-curdling wail after a take that bad is proof that ghosts don’t exist.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to see a group of adults set free to have their way in a chocolate shop it’s pretty much exactly like the saying about kids in a candy shop only with a thicker undercurrent of shame. Imagine Willy Wonka but everyone already knew what their specific vice was.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
I don’t think this has anything to do with anything but I just took a break a minute ago and made some coffee and went out on my porch to smoke and the views from my porch aren’t quite as nice as any of the ones in Vienna I’m sorry to report. I usually sit there and see the young boy playing Wiffle ball or street hockey with his dad and he always hits the ball over the shrubs into our yard and has to sneak through a little hole in the fence to come and get it and I wonder if he thinks about the future. Probably not due to kids are generally too stupid to be melancholy.
“If you have an infant daughter, she is expected to live 81.1 years, and so she will be here for 2100, a year that is no longer mythical,” the Washington Post story I mentioned earlier where they talked about the wind being wrong said. “She may see the world’s largest naval base, in Norfolk, swamped by rising seas. If she lives in Phoenix, she may feel nearly double the number of 100-degree days. During her lifetime, the oceans will acidify at a rate not seen in 66 million years.”
I wonder if they’ll get to dig a hole into the earth and look through the wound at what we were someday and if someone will write a meandering essay about it that is supposed to be a metaphor about why he’s sad for mistakes and losses he’s had in his life. A society can live a thousand years and then some crying baby gets to make it about him.
The thing about the whales and the Roman shit reminded me just now to go back and read a poem I liked a lot when I was younger called “The Fall of Rome” by Auden which is about a lot of things but also about going about our petty business in the looming shadow of inevitable decay and societal collapse. It ends with some lines I think about a lot.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
The other people I look at on my porch weren’t there just now. There’s the old man with more past than future left who is always yelling at his tiny dog to get the fuck in the house and the old woman who yells at him about yelling at the dog. There’s a giant tree a little further back that Michelle said someone saw some kind of big hawk in recently. Must have been a pretty cool hawk for us to all know about it.
I asked the chocolatier what he thought about America and specifically what he thought about how much we love to go around shooting everyone all the time with our guns over here.
In Austria he said you have to have a license for hunting to own a rifle. To own a shotgun you have to have a good reason to apply for one like maybe you run a jewelry shop for example. No one is carrying guns out in the street. Even if you’re part of a shooting club you’re not allowed to carry a loaded weapon or even transport a gun and bullets together at the same time he told me. You have to make two separate trips.
“Nobody questions this rule,” he said. “You hear about the massacre in Las Vegas, everybody here says ‘Come on. Stop this.’ This guy had 30 weapons. It’s impossible here. There are a lot of weapons, but if you get caught, you go to jail.”
Then again in an election held that same week the far right nationalist strongly anti-immigration and anti-Islam Freedom Party landed its best results in Austria in decades. I’m not an expert in Austrian politics but that seems bad.
Not my problem in any case because after that I went and ate some pounded fried veal and then went to another bar where they presented me with a statue-like vessel with an angelic figure on top that pissed alcohol into my mouth out of its little tiny angel dick.
It seems crazy to name something that you’re not sure is going to be around that long.
If you ever get the chance to go you will take so many pictures in Prague. You’ll wander around in a stupor marveling at the dreamlike logic of the concentric centuries of gothic renaissance and baroque architecture piled on top of one another and try to smuggle the beauty of the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge and Old Town Square into the frame of your phone camera and it will not work. You will be disappointed because you want to share what you’re experiencing with your friends to make it seem real. I tried anyway climbing the steep steps toward the gardens around the castle with a panoramic view of the city. I climbed by the heavily armed guards and the tourists eating sugar and walnut pastries rolled around a stick and the busker singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in a thick accent. This will all look amazing on Instagram I thought but it did not it just looked like some roofs and a guy with a guitar.
People tell me it’s strange to spend what little time you have while traveling exercising but when I could still do it the solitude of a run through an unfamiliar place always allowed it to reveal itself to me in a way that a guided tour or merely walking around with a phone in your face never did. And so I ran while I was there dodging the surprisingly dangerous traffic exploding through the narrow streets up and down distressingly steep hills getting lost. I arrived at the Kafka Museum just too late in the evening to be permitted entry which seemed a little on the nose so instead I went down to the Vltava River to spend some time with the swans there due to they are very famous swans more famous than that hawk that was in a tree near my house that one time. Dozens of them tussled with one another over scraps of bread and their feathers were brown from the muck of the river bank making them appear a lot less less majestic than their reputation would lead you to believe. I thought of “The Hunger Artist” panther fat from its indulgence.
Later on in the bowels of a reconstructed twelfth century building I found a subterranean bar that once stood at ground level but like many of the structures around here it was covered over during an outbreak of the plague in the early 1700s. When people get that sick you have to pour mountains of dirt on top of it to make it all go away. Amid the lowlight I contemplated the now useless windows looking out over nothing. A window to dirt. Still later on that night I got into a shouting match with a Czech bartender about our differences over the niceties of hospitality at a Harley themed bar complete with a Jack Daniel’s Confederate flag on the wall while “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played and I thought I’m glad Kurt Cobain isn’t alive to see this all because he’d probably kill himself.
A couple days later I went to Berlin where I was awoken in the morning by the mournful howls of the monkey cage just below my window at a hotel overlooking the Zoological Garden. I took a tour of Kreuzberg which was formerly one of the poorest most migrant-heavy neighborhoods of West Berlin. Bordering the Spree River and Checkpoint Charlie it is now renowned as a center of iconoclastic counterculture. The wind blew heavily as we crossed from East to West Berlin as our guide pointed out some of the looming wall-sized pieces of street art that define the neighborhood’s aesthetic. Aside from this bridge she said your only hope of crossing at the time was to jump the wall and swim the river and pray that a sniper wouldn’t shoot you which is more or less what getting to school in America is like now.
Berlin as a city doesn’t have the resources to keep up with the Sisyphean task of removing the graffiti all over the place anymore so once one piece of street art is removed another takes its place. All along the river corporations and land speculators have been transforming the area with high-rises and luxury condos but Kreuzberg remains a redoubt for gentrification or at least it was trying to at the time who knows what has happened since then I bet the tides of capitalism have reversed somehow. Maybe if I don’t look it up I can maintain that fantasy.
Just kidding capitalism has a way of always winning out in the end and many of the buildings that have been painted by international street artists there have since been turned into points of attraction for the landlords hoping to raise rents. Rather than let their statement of defiance be turned into a marketing point some of the artists here will go and sabotage their own work painting over it as a way of saying fuck you.
You cannot escape the clouds of smoke in Berlin I have been meaning to mention which is sort of a blessing and a curse if you smoke like me. Being given too much of what you desire is never all its cracked up to be. There should be a parable about that.
I spoke with a bartender in the backroom of a restaurant called Schneeweiß which means Snow White I think and he asked me why it is we like what we like. Because someone told us to he said. Because that’s just how we’ve always done things. He gave me all manner of shit to try without explaining what it was and asked me to name what it was I thought I was experiencing. To name it specifically in order to know it better.
“Taste only happens when you find a word for it,” he said. “It’s like driving around lost without any street signs.”
“If you don’t find words for it it never happened,” he said.
Another person I see when I sit on my porch is a bunny and I think it’s always the same one because although my town is overrun with them this particular little one sits in the same spot under the hedge and stares up at me sometimes and sometimes even lays itself out on the dying winter grass in this languorous pose like it’s trying to seduce me. Is this rabbit trying to fuck me lol I think but it’s not because that would be weird.
Sometimes my bunny is not there for a while and I wonder what she’s doing and if she’s staying safe. Sometimes I throw vegetables out there into the yard because I worry she’s not eating well enough. She never says anything back to me when I say hello.
I never gave the bunny a name because it seems crazy to name something that you’re not sure is going to be around that long. When someone is gone you can hear their name once and it makes them exist all over again with their past and their future all coalescing right in your present. They won’t know it but you do and then it’s your problem to figure out what to do with the burden. Later on years from now if someone carved an opening into your chest they might be able to make out the faintest outlines of where a long forgotten people once lived but they would never really understand it from that vantage point because the only people who were there for it don’t exist anymore and the language they spoke can’t be translated.
* * *
Selected from Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia by Luke O’Neil. With permission of the publisher, OR Books. All rights reserved.
Luke O’Neil has written for Esquire, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Playboy, Slate, Vice, and many other publications. A longtime musician, he currently performs in the indie rock band no hope / no harm. A native of Massachusetts, he lives in that state with his wife Michelle.
Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky