originally published in Rivet Journal, issue 19
Two fifteen-year-old boys in the room, one living and one dead. Edward—alive—considers the moment. He drags Albert—dead—away from the desk so he might sit comfortably and reflect. Nothing but a travesty that such a singular instant should be swept out into the whole of it, overwhelmed by the span of time entire, a drop in the ocean. One could say it happened just now—but any second of the past is equidistant to any other, as none of it can ever be reached. This body, still and stupid, rests as remote from its own murder as from Caesar’s. It’s unclear how to proceed. Edward produces a clean sheet of paper and writes for all that day with bare toes in blood, beginning a manuscript he would not complete for seven years.
Edward Booth is remanded by the authorities until his father arrives at the school. A variety of claims are made: Edward maintains self-defense; the authorities counter that Edward’s placidity implies a malice was satisfied, to which Albert Pittington’s family concurs; the elder Booth’s own claim is to fortune, as a man who can buy and sell the academy outright, and he holds an inscrutable philosophy on the matter at hand.
The interests compete, but the situation is managed. Edward is noted as prodigious, with a sterile behavioral record, while in contrast his classmates are induced to comment upon Albert’s mercurial temperament. The Pittington family is made secure for the current generation and fall silent. In the summer of 1917, Edward ships from London like cargo to the Hôpital de la Pitié, where his father—officially promoting the episode as a neurologic event rather than base wickedness—knows a man. It has been two weeks since the incident.
Edward sees the great physician but once or twice; instead, there is a student named André Breton who interacts with him for six months at La Pitié, at the end of which time he will be pronounced cured and discharged back to the world. This has been pre-determined.
(Paris, July 1917)
Breton shines light into eyes. He whispers into ears. He taps knees with mallets. He understands English but refuses to speak it.
Edward Booth writes in his notebook as he does without pause. “Go on then,” he says. Breton rubs index and thumb together, nearer and nearer to Booth’s ears, and asks Booth to nod when he first can hear it.
“I’m reminded,” says Booth, writing still, “of a game we played, once. The boys encircled, and our ringleader—Albert himself—asked me to begin. I whispered, just perceptible, into the ear of a mate: Breakfast was meagre and I’m quite hungry, aren’t you? I hope for biscuits at lunch. And my mate whispered into the ear next to him, and on and on into finally the ear of Albert. Who smiled and revealed what ultimately had been transmitted to him: The ground is eager, it’s true. Booth should die at once.” Breton takes down notes into a journal, at a pace less frantic than the boy beside him.
“Merely a lark,” continues Booth. “Still, I thought on it for years. The point being that transmission is degradation, at every step. But couldn’t it instead be purification?”
“Pourquoi as-tu fait ça?” asks Breton. Why did you do it?
Booth shrugs his shoulders. “A curious event, to be sure.”
“Men of science strive to answer riddles, yes? Or rather, elements of the singular riddle: what is the mind of God?”
In a moment Breton nods.
“The great puzzle,” says Booth, “to which living and dying are imaginary solutions.”
They sit together at the window. Auburn settles on a train station just across the yard while the Seine paints the background in lethargy. It is summer in Paris.
“Raconte l’histoire, s’il te plait,” he says.
“I’ve told you,” replies Booth.
He closes his eyes and begins again.
(Hill, Margaret, ed. Correspondence of André Breton. Vol. 1. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1992. Print.)
Dec 18, 1924
42 rue Fontaine
Congratulations on your nuptials. It goes to show: there is someone for everyone.
As you never sought catamnesis, I will volunteer it. There was a recent dream. A planet on the edge of the solar system, dark as you’d imagine. The core is full of ghosts. The crust is black dirt and rock. Two figures slowly traverse—just in sight of one another—with shovel and pick. They work trenches across the surface and never pause. They’ve been doing it forever.
Too much H.G. Wells before bed? Your name was on my tongue when I awoke. I may even have spoken it. This cannot be corroborated.
Out of vague curiosity I read Les Champs magnétiques and more lately your manifesto, both problematic to find in the better part of town.You are experimenting with my technique. To write from the soul, écriture automatique. Well it has made quite a stir in some circles. Small circles to be sure. They appear as dots from afar.
Indulge me: I have another experiment. My work—the basis of which you saw flow from me (if here I invoke an image of effluent, there is no mistake)—it is finished, seven years on. Or rather: I am done writing it.
I can take it only so far, being one man. What to do? Pass it around the wheel. Make it something else. I will ship you a taste of it, and then you will send back the name of an excellent but alien sensibility.
In the meanwhile, enclosed is a mundanity for sustenance. We still eat, after all.
Yours in health,
(New York City, May 1925)
“André and I harbor disagreement, deep and wide,” says LaRue. “I don’t know that he would reference me.”
Booth produces a postcard. On one side is a typewritten London address, on the other is text in Breton’s hand. Withers LaRue, New York City. And below that: il est ton homme. “The galleries and bookshops could not help in finding you,” says Booth. “But acquainting myself with the madams was advantageous.”
LaRue smiles and offers Booth some of what he’s having, whiskey neat. They sit and drink. A teenage boy is coming and going, stacking boxes about Booth’s feet.
“He calls himself a surrealist,” LaRue says. “Whatever that is supposed to mean—which I guess is the point? He writes a lot of nonsense. Not always artistic nonsense, sometimes just nonsense. Manifestos of noise.”
The boy, having deposited a fifth box from the auto, catches Booth’s attention and receives some coin.
“Nonsense disagrees with you,” Booth says, turning back to LaRue.
“Only insofar as it wastes time.”
“Poets tend to be quite profligate with time, in my estimation, but you are the exception?”
“Poetry is my job. It is my labor. André doesn’t labor. He produces as fast as his hand can move, the only limitation on his output being the limitations of muscle and tendon.”
“So what of André’s anecdote then, of Saint-Pol-Roux hanging the sign on his bedroom door every night before he slept: the poet is working.”
“Were it so,” LaRue laughs, “that we could move the world through napping. But that is André. The brevity of our lives doesn’t factor into his equations.”
“C’est vivre et cesser de vivre qui sont des solutions imaginaires,” says Booth.
LaRue snorts. “You read the whole thing.”
“But was that artistic nonsense, or just nonsense? To be fair, he gleaned it from a reputable source.”
“All this money you’re offering, is it to store these boxes? Because that would be a nonsense I would fully endorse.”
“No, Mr. LaRue,” Booth says. With a toe of his shoe he flips the lid off a box to reveal it is full of paper, the top sheet dense with handwritten text. “I have labor for you.”
(Blanks & Allen Literary Agency, New York City, February 1976)
“Sebastian, be realistic. You know what last year’s top grossing movie was? Jaws. Shark eats people. No motivation required. Just fucking eats ‘em. Blood swirling in the water, kids screaming. Couple years ago, what was the top movie? The Exorcist. That little girl barfs on priests and her head spins around. Books? Same thing. This Stephen King guy, he leads off with a magical, murdering high school girl. Hefty body count. Follows it up last year with vampires. Not metaphorical vampires. Stakes through the heart. People don’t want The Turn of the Screw anymore, buddy, they don’t want horror stories that aren’t scary. Ghost stories without ghosts.”
“I’m not a horror writer,” says Sebastian Warfield.
“Don’t I know it.” Leonard Allen digs through a pile of magazines on his desk. Flips to a dog-eared page. “’I’m dismayed to be categorized as a horror writer,’ says Warfield. ‘The inherent shock of existence is what perfuses all art.’”
“It was a good interview.”
“It’s interesting you should say that, because you’re wrong. Maybe it was informative. Educational. Okay, let’s call it artistic. But any interview that results in a drop in sales isn’t a good interview. Not according to any worldview that features you getting paid American dollars to write. Four pages in Rolling Stone, and this is what you say.”
Allen lights a cigarette, offers one to Warfield, and they smoke.
“Those plays you’ve written,” starts Allen.
“The ones you steered me away from.”
“Yeah, back when you were giving good interviews. Now I’m reconsidering. You want eyeballs on something you’ve created, more eyeballs than I’ve got in my own personal head? Theatre-goers are more … whatever. Cerebral. Maybe they don’t require blood on the stage.”
“Except, for example, most of Shakespeare.”
“And was he a horror writer? No? Well there you go. If blood was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for Sebastian fucking Warfield. No offense.”
(Fifth and Final Performance of Cotard Syndrome, Trellis Theatre, New York City, January 1979)
There are eight people in the audience, one couple and six individuals. Via natural law they have distributed themselves among the seats to maximize space between. In the back row is Warfield, the playwright. The director is currently in Florida—Sarasota, if Warfield remembers correctly—in a rehab facility that he has previously used and liked.
“I’m dead,” announces Greg Lennox from the stage, playing the lead. He is in a hospital bed surrounded by actors.
“Not at all,” says the doctor, his affect flat. “You suffered extensive injuries.” He goes on to list them in numbing exactitude. “All in all,” he concludes, “you’re…” He has forgotten his line again. “Here you are.”
“You’re lucky to be alive,” says a woman who is pretending to cry.
“Yes, you’re lucky to be alive,” says the doctor, remembering.
“I’m dead,” responds Lennox.
“Extremely, extremely rare,” says the doctor in a stage whisper to the woman pretending to cry. “Only isolated reports. I’ve never seen a case.”
Greg Lennox thoroughly captivates, went the review in the neighborhood daily. But a single great actor is insufficient to elevate this material from obscurity, to render sense from nonsense. Furthermore, I allow that his performance may only shine in stark contrast to the incompetence surrounding him, the other players presumably being unemployed relatives of the director.
Which wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter.
In Act II, Lennox turns a prosthetic leg over in his hands. “Wrench out the liver,” he says. “Tear out the stomach. Pull out the intestines hand-over-hand. Fill the cavity with soil and rusty nails and bullet casings. The body can be erected as a statue in town square to watch through eyes of painted glass, a pendulum clock in its chest tick-tocking, and nobody will confuse it for a man.”
Halfway through, a theatergoer in the front row leaves with a bit of display, spending a full minute donning and arranging their coat. Five others accept this as license to make their own escapes, so the final performance of Cotard Syndrome is carried out for the benefit of a sole patron, an elderly man who does not clap when the curtain falls and hopefully is just asleep.
“I wish I could have done better by you,” Warfield says to Lennox backstage.
“Sebastian, this was an honor,” Lennox replies, bringing in Warfield for an embrace. “I mean it. I can’t wait to see what you do next.”
“I’m taking a break.”
“Call me when it’s over.”
(Buckley Film Festival, New York City, June 1979)
Wallace Sterns owned a small chain of ice cream parlors, left to him by his father. Wally was lactose intolerant and uncomfortable in the company of children, so in 1977 he named his wife the general manager and—without education or training in the matter, but with deep love and enthusiasm—dedicated himself to making arthouse films.
He completed two films in 1979. One was about a man who felt his yard was haunted by the ghosts of leaves. The other was about a little girl who was the only member of her family unable to see ghosts. This one played at a few festivals and took the Audience Prize at Buckley, with Sebastian Warfield in attendance seeking inspiration.
“I thought about film school, but it didn’t happen,” Sterns says to Warfield in the lobby after his screening. “No reason why, no specific reason. Just didn’t happen.”
“I wanted to ask you about the ghost scene. The lack of special effects.”
“Right. No suspension of disbelief,” says Sterns. “So what if you just take it at face value?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well now, what is legitimately more off-putting? A ghost that bobs about, looks spooky, does nothing to you? Boogy boogy? Or rather: your estranged father, presumed dead, has snuck into your house, rigged up a pulley system in the bedroom, and is swinging around, yelling?”
Warfield takes him out for a drink.
“I want to show you something,” says Warfield. “I don’t mean to put you in an awkward place, but I have a script.”
“Ah, now I know I’ve made the big time!” proclaimed Sterns. “Fans pushing scripts into my hands.”
“It’s for a play, but it feels more cinematic than theatrical,” said Warfield. “I believe in it. It needs exposure.”
“You want it out there,” said Sterns.
“I want it out there.”
Sterns scribbles his address on a program. “Send it to me. I’m working on a commission right now. Vanity project for some rich old guy who really liked my last film. But after that, I’m open to ideas.”
Warfield mails the manuscript but doesn’t hear back.
(New York City, November 1979)
Warfield receives a postcard suggesting that he meet a man named Booth at the Buckley, which he does under the assumption this was sanctioned by Leonard Allen. Booth promptly disabuses him of this. They have an asymmetric conversation in an empty theater, at the conclusion of which Warfield, in a state of affable confusion, agrees to view a short film. Booth makes a gesture toward the projectionist. “I’ll meet you out front,” he says in departure as the lights go down.
Warfield was led to believe the film was under 30 minutes in length, but it feels interminable to one not accustomed to such things. On screen it happens again and again. It’s a butcher knife coming in from above. It’s a butter knife hooking in from the side. It’s a switchblade inserted and turned like a screw. A few seconds each. Most takes are adequately convincing, but there are also blatant errors, rubber blades flexing off hilts and ketchup packs falling from shirts.
It ends without dénouement. No credits, just the screen going dark and the lights coming on. Warfield emerges, queasy, into the lobby to rejoin his would-be patron. “I am not sure what to say.”
“I am not looking for you to say anything,” replies Booth. “I have not seen the film and do not want to know a solitary fact about it, apart from how to pass it along.”
“I am not your man,” says Warfield.
“You have read my work, I would imagine. I deal in a more restrained form, and I think there has been a misunderstanding based on where you found my books in the shop.”
“They still sell your books in the shop, Mr. Warfield? I must admit I didn’t see you there on the shelves, my last trip. I will look harder.”
Warfield makes to depart. “I’m afraid I don’t need this treatment.”
“Of course not, you receive quite enough of it from the world in general. You’re a failed novelist and an actively failing playwright, so I do have something you need specifically and presently. Or is that jalopy parked outside just your casual, around-town car?”
Warfield stops pretending to leave, and they are silent for a spell. Scenes from what he witnessed tumble through him. “It felt like a brainwashing exercise,” he says.
“Do you believe in such?”
“No. But if you flash lights into the eyes of epileptics, you sometimes cause seizures.”
“So these scenes flash into your mind, and what happens? When it hits your brain? This is merely what all artists are sorting out.”
“They didn’t try very hard with the effects,” murmurs Warfield, on the verge of a memory.
“It wasn’t for lack of funds, I assure you,” says Booth. “Likewise, don’t blame me if you run out of typewriter ribbon. I’m offering you ten thousand dollars. Please review the sum on your last royalty check, whenever that might have come in, and let me know what you think.”
(New York City, December 1979)
“I will need access to the film,” he tells Booth over the phone. “And I would like to speak with its creator.”
“Arrive at the theater on any evening and give them my name, though I suggest calling ahead.”
“And the director?”
“That is not necessary.”
Warfield feels otherwise. He returns to the theater without calling ahead. Between the ticket counter and the concession stands there are three doors marked Employees Only but only one has a likely orientation. Warfield waits until nobody is looking (one bored teenager at the ticket counter and one literally asleep teenager at the concession) then goes through the door and up a flight of stairs.
“Mr. Booth sent me,” he says to the surprised young projectionist, “about that project he houses here—he is curious about the film stock, if you recognize it.”
The boy reaches over to lay hands on a can of film. “It’s just standard 35mm. I don’t know.”
“The kind you get anywhere?”
“I suppose. Usually the cans have the studio labels. But this movie is homemade or whatever it is.” He points at the can, and Sebastian examines it. A large label reads, “EASTMAN 5254/7254.” Another smaller label laid haphazardly across the bottom reads, “ARCHON FILM, 1005 VALLEY RD.”
“I just show ‘em,” says the boy. “I don’t really know much.”
“I’ll borrow the film, bring it back tomorrow.”
“Sorry sir, can’t let it leave the room.”
Warfield shakes the boy’s hand and asks to be walked out. He hails a cab, gives the address.
“Sebastian Warfield,” he says to the man behind the counter at Archon. “Mr. Booth sent me. He is starting up another project.”
“Who?” replies the man, peering over his glasses.
“Don’t know him.”
“He sent an associate, about a year ago? To buy some 5254.”
The man laughs. “Wait, don’t tell me,” he said. “Wally Sterns is the only man buying 5254 anymore. How’s Wally these days?”
“I haven’t spoken to him in several years,” he replies. “Truth be told, I didn’t realize it was Sterns whom Booth had employed.”
Feeling the casual banter had concluded, the man then embarked upon the salesmanship of film. Warfield feigned a sudden headache and excused himself. A legitimate headache followed close behind.
(Danbury, Connecticut, January 1980)
“I’m sorry I never reached out,” Sterns says to Warfield. “I liked the script. I loved the script.”
“He wouldn’t shut up about it,” calls Anne Sterns from the living room.
They’re smoking on the back porch of Sterns’ house, a few minutes after Warfield arrives unannounced.
“But after the Booth project,” continues Sterns, “I figured to be done for a while. Need to get my head around things. Did you see it?”
“The film? I saw it.”
“I should have asked. He wanted the name of an artist who could take it on, somebody talented, a little different. And I’d just finished reading your script again—I do love it, I really do.”
Anne calls again from living room. “Tell him about the comic book.”
“Not a comic book,” says Sterns. “Something else.”
“What are we talking about?” asks Warfield.
“My source material for the film. Big book of cartoons. Well yes, like a comic book, Anne. Like that.”
“Do you have it?”
“He took it back. I was happy to be free of the job. Free but not finished, I wasn’t finished. I don’t think I’d even started. But he came one day and told me to put together what I had. Said I had done my part.”
Sterns offers Warfield another cigarette, which is declined, and then walks him to his car.
“Break a leg,” says Sterns. They shake hands.
Sterns goes into his study, unlocks a desk drawer, and retrieves a canister of film. He takes this into his basement, where a projector aims at a sheet on the wall. He loads the film. A bowie knife guts a man. A letter opener slices through a carotid artery. Sterns slows the projector. An ice pick. A corkscrew. He slows it further. The image stutters now. A syringe. He goes frame by frame. A black screen with white text: You’re worthless, it says. Fourteen of these frames sprinkled throughout the film.
(Gurtz, Paul, ed. Comic Transgressions. San Francisco: Bay Literary, 1988. Print.)
“… another striking example was found among the estate of Edie Hudson after she passed in 1979 after a productive thirty years of drawing Axley and Pete. While the daily strip was known for its playful subversion, Hudson might have preferred to draw even further outside the lines, so to speak, being vocally appreciative of surrealist art. Late in life she emerged as an important financial patron of experimental film, bankrolling the Buckley Festival in New York City, for example. While her public involvement in the avant garde was primarily monetary, in private she was exploring new ways to push boundaries.”
“The untitled comic discovered among her effects was just thirty-five pages, six panels per page, every one depicting a brutal murder. From above, from below, from close-up, from another room … a cruel repetition that strains the relative brevity of the document. There is sporadic nonsensical text, about a dozen scraps in all. ‘The ground wants it.’ ‘You’re worthless.’ ‘Do you hear, the earth?’
Only briefly on display, this unusual artifact went at auction for $87,000 to an anonymous gentleman with presumably eclectic taste, and so Edie Hudson posthumously reached at least one curious reader.”
(Exhibit F, “Edward Booth’s Untitled Manuscript,” entered into court’s evidence September 1980, State of New York v. Gregory Lennox. Excerpts from pages 2578-2579.)
Volume and timbre aside we now elucidate terms. Form arises from element.
Ground, frendere, rub away rub away rub away, rub away gone. In interest of concision will constrain to ground from grund, meaning “ground beneath your feet” but also “the reason for.” And also: Eager, eager, or: eagre, the tidal bore, the wave. Earth swelling over. Swallowing.
Ground from frendere, rub away gone. What are we saying? Misidentification of intent. Ground i.e. earth not eager, but rather the motive is eager, not to say the motive is an entity that can possess eagerness, enthusiasm, readiness, but that “being eager” is itself motive and thus the desire to act becomes action--the Lord provides gifts for Adam, who desires these because they are from the Lord. Why does the Lord provide? Because the Man desires it.
The ground is eager. Motive swells over. Rub away rub away rub away gone.
Ground from frendere …
(New York City, December 1980)
Booth arrives at Warfield’s apartment unannounced. It is just before dawn but Warfield is still awake, thinking about writing but not writing.
“Your project is done,” says Booth.
“I didn’t complete it.”
“Of course not,” says Booth. “You’re only one man.”
Warfield walks slowly to his desk, retrieves a single piece of paper.
“I don’t understand,” he says.
Booth nods. He looks, in the dim light of Warfield’s study, positively decrepit. “Recently a philosopher posed a fine question,” he says, “He announces that you are locked in a room with slots on all the walls. You speak only English—quite true, isn’t it Sebastian?—but a brief note in Chinese finds itself slipped in. You have a book of instructions, which inform that if a certain symbol in a certain position is found on the note, to replace it with a different sort of symbol, and then instructs you into what slot to now pass the modified note. Into the chamber of some other imprisoned English speaker with their own unique instruction book. You are billions. It passes around and around and slowly is transformed into coherence. Some great time later, the note finally slides back into your cell. A faultless response to the initial query. But where in this did comprehension reside?”
Warfield hands over the paper. “It’s all I have.”
“The original manuscript was just over eighteen thousand handwritten pages,” says Booth. “Written across the span of seven years, with occasional sleep. The narrative poem trimmed this down to a few thousand while I waited for a decade and change. There was an eight-hundred-page novelization. The operatic cycle—had it ever been performed—would have spanned two full days. There was a second novelization, a brief five-hundred pages. The cartoonist produced merely two-hundred-and-ten panels. The film clocks seventeen minutes, but you felt it could have been shorter.” He pauses here to hold up the single page. “We’re getting very close.”
He tucks the paper into his coat pocket and drops a check on the desk as he exits. “I’ll hear from you,” he says.
Warfield examines the check. It is for five-hundred-thousand dollars. In the memo space, Booth had written: you know how this works.
SETTING: We are in a dormitory. It is evening. There are two beds flanking a wooden school desk. There is a single lamp on the desk providing illumination.
AT RISE: EDWARD BOOTH, a wizened old man, is sitting at the desk, hunched over his work.
(EDWARD scribbles at his desk.
ALBERT PENNINGTON, a teenage boy, enters.)
And there he is. You know, Booth, we’ve all been discussing, the boys have. About you.
(A pause. EDWARD does not look up.)
You’re worthless, Booth. And you know what we say? All the boys? The ground is eager, it’s true.
(EDWARD continues writing but does not look up.)
And you know what else we say? Booth should die. At once.
(EDWARD puts down his pen and stands to face ALBERT. He produces a blade from his pocket and stabs ALBERT in the gut, a multiple of times. ALBERT falls to the ground in silence.)
(END OF SCENE)
We are at the Buckley Theater. The doors close, the curtain rises. Now focus on the stage. It has been five seconds.
Greg Lennox sits at a desk. He has two objects in his hands. One is a piece of paper. Booth enters, stage right. He shuffles with a cane toward Lennox. It has been ten seconds.
“And there he is,” wheezes Booth. “You know, Booth, we’ve all been discussing, the boys have. About you.” It has been fifteen seconds.
Lennox sets down the paper, picks it up again, examines it, sets it down. It is a check for three million dollars, the last of Booth’s estate. In his other hand is a knife.
“Be quiet,” Lennox whispers inaudibly.
“You’re worthless, Booth. And you know what we say? All the boys?” Booth now breathless, trembling, electric. “The ground is eager, it’s true.” It has been twenty seconds. He stops his procession, a body-length from the desk. There is silence. It has been twenty-five seconds. Lennox stares at his hands. It has been thirty seconds. It has been thirty-five seconds.
“Booth should die,”says Booth. “At once.”
Lennox rises. He takes two steps toward Booth, sinks the knife into his gut. There are several repetitions, how many I don’t know. Booth sees the ground come toward him. It has been forty-four seconds. Slowly now, he thinks. Slowly. A green spot of paint on the floor, cracked and peeling. Stop. It has been forty-six seconds. I’m here. There is a rush and whisper, a creek builds to a river, a waterfall, louder, now louder. It’s applause. I’m here. When it fades out, nothing takes its place. It has been forty-six seconds. It has been forty-six seconds. It has been forty-six seconds. Encore.