Alex Sheremet’s “The Sum Of Others”

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Images of Greece from The Sum Of Others

[Note: This is a short story I first wrote when I was 22, and my first real attempt at prose. It was originally published to Cosmoetica and long forgotten. Over the last few years, however, I’ve received a surprising number of e-mails and comments about it, and think it’s best to re-post it here. Enjoy.]

The Sum Of Others

The bowl is rimmed with thickening smoke. The Maasai walk around it, dreaming in present tense. It’s what separates them from another world’s conception of things — feeble, static, and utterly dull, their stretched earlobes a kind of great corrective to the universe’s sameness. They are remarkably old, and yet they depend on the same tokens — mohawks, body piercing — so recent to other civilizations around them. Or rather, they are the tokens only now re-discovered, lost to the rules of Greek columns and symmetry, but emerging where all beginnings emerge. They have no symmetry here. One man undergoes this modification; another man does not. It is random and it is their way of paying respect to randomness, the real force of change, the only thing — an illness, a great epiphany that seems to come from nowhere — that stops most people from skimming the surface of things and living in an empty reverie. As the earlobe’s stretched, so is, they think, man’s instinct for pattern. But, none appears, at least not at first. They look at each other and see they have nothing in common save for this mutilation. One is old, his mouth a shrinking indentation against the tracery of his face, his eyes, at this point, quite arbitrary, and his fingers, stirring a lukewarm cup for the newest warrior among them, like inert strings that, after a great flowering of will and psychological exertion, finally move to the bidding of some external thing. The warrior, who’d drink the motoriki and drop in convulsions, is, for now, a healthy man, watching the yohimbe’s slender trunk rising to the sky. As soon as it can’t support itself any higher, an explosion of leaves forever caps its ascent. Months after he strips the bark into the bowl, drinks it, and loses his mind to demons, the warrior fears nothing, not even the encroaching whites. And then, almost imperceptibly, he returns to normal. A native intelligence runs through every wild thing in the village.

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They could tell the jump rope was heavy by the way it struck the terrace, foregoing the sharp woosh for an imprecise and duller sound. It was green and slick and mangled on the bottom from years of shaping shoulders, legs, and health, and although Plaka was very crowded, I felt, gripping the handles, calculating every tough, dramatic jump, like its solitary event — a good, dependable feeling, since, as an American in Greece, one never had to try too hard or talk too much. It was alright by me, since I can’t stand the thought of putting myself through inane conversation, complete with … Continue reading →

Ed Gein Becoming: Or, How To Write A Great Poem In An Hour

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Photograph of Ed GeinAlmost 20 years ago, Dan Schneider of Cosmoetica was filmed doing something novel: writing a great poem in just a bit over an hour, with a running commentary not only on the process, itself, but why certain choices are made over others, and how this might apply to writing as a whole. The poem, “Ed Gein Becoming”, and the video which engendered it, is something I could have used when first learning my own craft. I’d often read biographies, famous poets’ notebooks, and anything else, really, that might have offered a glimpse into the creative process, mostly due to ignorance over whether I was doing things right. Mature writers will realize that this is usually a dead end, since artists are so dissimilar, and because few have ever had any real insight into their own talents. Simply read, for instance, Shelley’s famous essay on writing, or observe the temperamental differences between a recluse Emily Dickinson and public campaigner Judith Wright to see how little such things really matter. Yet what if artists could, in fact, guide one through a thought process, a set of lines, or the use of a color in a way that’s tangible and replicable? That’d actually be a lot more valuable, and why this recording might help those who are still working through such self-definition.

Prior to getting any further, here is the video:

Notice Dan Schneider’s strategy: he looks through a few books for salient (that is, not necessarily known, nor even truly defining, but salient) elements of Ed Gein’s life that have the architecture for poetry. Too often, artists focus merely on what they care about, and while emotion is certainly a strong motivator, it can also be blinding, encouraging both artist and critic to be too charitable to what they might subjectively love, or unfair towards what they hate. By contrast, forcing oneself to deal with a topic one is merely neutral on is great practice for noticing patterns and seeing how art works in a purely mechanistic sense without discoloring the result with one’s own biases.

Note, too, the things Schneider refuses to consider. Ed Gein was a serial killer, and most writers will merely do the predictable: a portrait of Gein, say, mid-murder, or using obvious and violent imagery out of a fear of being accused of empathy, an inability to see further, or both. He sees Ed Gein’s possible Oedipal complex, but immediately rejects it as “overdone” artistically (even if it’s 100% apropos to Gein’s life), choosing, instead, to focus on an interesting insight: that while he was a psychopath when let loose into the world, he was a “model prisoner” and psychiatric patient “while under someone else’s strictures”. Is it the ‘right’ assessment of sociopathy? Can the idea be tested? Re-applied? Perhaps, but, as before, these would not be the right questions. The point is that, artistically, it’s a fresh angle to take, particularly since it is so far removed from the man’s most famous and … Continue reading →

Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” (2017) Is NOT Exploitation

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Hannah tries out for Casting JonBenetWatching Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is a frustrating experience, but not for the reasons a film might typically elicit such a response. Yes, it has its merits and demerits, but so do many other works of art. No, one doesn’t glean many new facts about an already supersaturated bit of Americana, but that is a poor standard by which to judge a film, particularly an idea-driven documentary such as this. Rather, it is that Green’s strategy is so often brilliant that any future creative work on the JonBenet murder will in some way need to reference and transcend her own. Unfortunately, this also means that the film’s primary conceit can never be used again, even though it might be the most logical approach to what has now become a collective superstition: that there is an answer for everything, and that every question is valid, every concern justifiable. If anything, Casting JonBenet suggests that this is not so, even as it fails to obey its own rules and follow its best avenues to something greater.

Prior to analyzing the film, however, let us briefly discuss the event on which it’s based. On December 26th, 1996, child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and sexually abused in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. A few hours earlier, a mysterious ransom note alerted the Ramseys to JonBenet’s disappearance, as they contacted friends, relatives, and the police despite the alleged kidnappers’ warnings. Although parents John and Patsy Ramsey were first suspected in the murder, a rather sloppy investigation turned up no evidence of their involvement, with DNA testing ultimately exonerating both. This didn’t stop speculation, however, fueled not only by their supposedly ‘odd’ behavior, but confounding variables like the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006, as well as revelations of a troubled home life and Burke’s – JonBenet’s brother – ‘smiling’ interview late last year. Today, theories range from the police’s intruder explanation, to Patsy’s alleged envy and murder of her daughter, and even suggestions that Burke struck and killed his sister with the ransom note forged by the parents as a cover.

A shot of chairs in Casting JonBenet.

The true story, of course, is irrelevant to the myth: the very thing Casting JonBenet tackles by way of its conceits. Thus, I will not give my own views on the case, but simply allow the work speak for itself, and let others’ biases reveal themselves. The film opens with a wonderful shot of some empty chairs soon filled by dolled-up girls. All are auditioning for the role of the murdered girl, as one of them (in a rather nice touch) awkwardly asks whether the viewer knows who killed JonBenet. In fact, the very lack of gravitas helps zero-in on something that’s already been long pontificated over, with a half-dozen or so kids implying they could have been victims, too, without Green quite fleshing out the ‘what’ nor exploiting the viewer’s empathy. It is all a touch too abaxial for such … Continue reading →

The Snowden Myth: A Retrospective

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The National Security Agency logo.Now that the Edward Snowden “controversy” is dying down, it is an appropriate time to finally put the man – and his leaks – into some kind of context. I put the word controversy into quotes because, try as I might, I can’t seem to find much issue either with the disclosure itself, or with the spirit (albeit not the reality) of the program Snowden’s disclosure revealed.

Let’s examine the two key issues here. The first is the “legality” of the leak, and where the first half of the Snowden myth began. Yes, Snowden could be charged with almost anything, but pure legalism is a rustic way to view an ethical dilemma. Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy. Just as morality is ensconced within religion, legality is under the auspices of another authority: government. Yet, neither have much to do with ethics, which has an objective reality outside of such institutions.

The fact is, few people are now wrangling about whether or not it was “legal” for Rome to have crucified 6,000 rebel slaves along the Appian Way. Clearly, it was. Yet such questions ultimately take a backseat to things people actually remember – namely, right and wrong, and the deeper, existential issues of personal meaning and survival. I guarantee that a decade from now, Snowden’s disclosure will have minimal impact on national security, even as the United States continues to do little about true long-term threats: climate change, corporate plunder, and silly wars that fuel terrorism the world over. Priorities are very slowly learned.

The second issue is government spying itself. Is it right? Is it wrong? In a way, it is neither. It just is. Government spying has been around forever, and it’ll continue to be around for as long as it’s deemed necessary. At some point, it will disappear, and be replaced with whatever other scheme that whatever other monopoly will devise, for the sake of – well, control. It’s wrong to assume, at the first crack of civilization, that we’ve either hit the apex or the nadir in these matters, for such problems and their legal implications are only beginning, if only because human flaws are so many, the desire to control them so strong, and the means for such so limitless and ever-changing. In Rome, it was mere appeal to The State. In America, it is merely a subtler hue of the same idea.

Thus, there’s a fatalism here, and one that Snowden’s well aware of. Governments set laws, and governments punish. Then, there are “troublemakers” who rush headlong into that reality. This makes Snowden little more than a cog within a process he’s merely on the wrong end of. Fifty years ago, the Pentagon Papers were deemed utterly destructive. Today, they’re hailed for having opened up the government to well-deserved scrutiny. Yet these are trivial “controversies” spanning mere decades. Ask yourself what, exactly, is fated to matter in this circuit, when such names grow distant, and … Continue reading →

Why Ben Shapiro Is A Total Fraud

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Image via Gage Skidmore.

[Update 5/8/2017: Given that there have been rumblings of a ‘debate’, Ben Shapiro is invited, below, to a Skype/phone debate with Dan Schneider as moderator. Alternatively, he is free to respond to this piece in writing as he sees fit, which would allow us to formulate our thoughts and cross-check each other’s references — Shapiro’s biggest foible and point of dishonesty. Note that I do not know whether Shapiro even knows of this article, nor will I reach out to him. I am leaving this message up due to the number of e-mails requesting some sort of ‘action’.]

A couple of weeks ago, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro delivered a Reddit AMA (‘Ask Me Anything’) on r/politics, a left-leaning subreddit which – to Shapiro’s credit – has never been a fan of his work. Yet as a liberal, myself, I’ve nonetheless found common ground with a number of Shapiro’s views, ranging from his critique of the Left’s attacks on free speech, to their over-use of emotion in what ought to be cold and detached argument, to the futility of identity politics, liberal intolerance, and – of course – a decades-old embrace of Third Wave feminism as a rational response to gender issues. No, r/politics isn’t THAT far left, but when I saw the AMA announcement, I nonetheless respected Ben Shapiro’s willingness to engage in what can be a notoriously unforgiving format with a group of people unsympathetic to his views. I expected, therefore, to see a little give-and-take, some dumb, bait-y questions, but also a few good ones, too, that he was perhaps not used to. Naturally, these would be questions that Shapiro – given his ‘attack-dog’ reputation – would of course answer. More, he would answer them in depth, after having time to think and formulate his responses, if only to prove once and for all that he is not the monster that so many claim he is, but might very well be the Right’s biggest intellectual star.

Well, I was wrong, to put it mildly. I was unfamiliar with much of Ben Shapiro’s work prior to his AMA, but, frankly, I am confused why he even agreed to the format in the first place, given how lazy and self-serving his answers are. He intentionally avoids the more difficult questions, goofs off on what he DOES choose to tackle, and refuses to meaningfully engage in any follow-ups despite others’ prodding. Not exactly the hallmark of a probing and far-ranging mind. Either Shapiro just doesn’t give a damn, and tried to use Reddit for publicity rather than genuine engagement, or he is as intellectually vapid as his worst critics suggest. More, despite a well-executed AMA serving as a kind of précis for one’s worldview, I cannot even use the bulk of Shapiro’s comments to string together anything coherent on that front, and must dig into his articles and videos in order to elaborate on the scant piffle he does provide. … Continue reading →