TO STOP THE CLOCK
A mild, muggy day in late May, with the sky hanging within touch over the house. The fields are all puffed up with new grass, and the creeks are glutted with rainwater and muddy sediments dark as cocoa. It makes the soul yearn for some miracle of piercing sunlight, but we are attending to nature’s chores at the moment. For some reason, cars that used to mosey by the house now race with terrifying noise. You wonder what the anxiety is all about. On the hill leading into town, there is a long jag of melted tire tracks where someone was showing his pals how he could shake out the rivets of his engine if he could rev up the engine to Mach 1. I slide over the hieroglyphs he left behind riding a shadow the car cast ahead of me.
We are at some fever pitch of helpless frustration at this moment, in the wake of the Uvalde massacre. I learned from all the interviews that if a perpetrator is in the act of killing, nothing can stop him but a greater force, a posse of cops armed to the teeth and swathed in armor, with shields held up and powerful automatic pistols at the ready. Rifles will end the murderer’s life once they get into the building, the room, the corridor, wherever he is hiding. How strange it seems that someone could be so resolved to kill his quarry that nothing within him can make him lay down his weapon. He must go on killing as long as he has ammo and the rest of society is held at bay. Nothing. Not the voice of his better angels, or the whimpers of his soul, or the echo of his mother, or sister, or minister. He hears no voices. They are all dead inside. He is alone in his empty skull, a raging, inconsolable fury burning the edges of his brain like some California forest fire.
Maybe it was Carl Gustav Jung who said reality will always out-riddle the imagination. What we make up in our literature and other arts is always at bottom a conventionalized world, subject to logic and its pillars of cause and effect. We may try to get past the boundaries of fiction to properly grasp the nature of reality, but in the end, we are held to the earth by Newton’s laws of gravity. That is how we try to parse the madness of someone like Salvador Ramos or Payton Gentry, the Buffalo mass killer. Their madness cannot be pulled free of the outer space they floated to, the place where meaning and consequence have no influence. A journalist wrote that Ramos was bullied at his high school, that he was teased and roughed up and called vicious names until he was driven out of the grammar of this world. He entered a terrain of wilderness not even Gertrude Stein could parallel or approximate. Her puns and repetitions belonged to the realm of our limited understanding, even if she scrambled syntax to liberate her words from patriarchal tyranny.
But Ramos shot his grandmother with his new rifle, an AR15 designed to kill as many huyman beings as the murderer could aim at and pull its trigger. He shot her in the face, drove her truck to the Robb Elementary school, found a door propped open and barricaded himself in a crowded classroom where he could systematically aim and kill as many children and teachers as he could. To his surprise, I must imagine, no one came to stop him for seventy-eight long minutes. Both his dying victims and those hiding in far corners and Ramos himself could hear the nineteen cops crowded into the hallway outside the classroom, but no one made the effort to force open the door to get him. He just sat there among the dead and dying, at a strange impasse in his motivation. He didn’t pull the trigger again. He sat there, paralyzed by his own amazement, as the Uvalde police, trained to intervene in such “active shooter” situations the moment they arrived at the scene, hesitated and awaited a mysterious final order to break down the door. It didn’t come. Instead, a group of Border Patrol cops burst in, shot the crumpled figure looking on, and began the grizzly task of getting the dead into gurneys and out to the ambulances. Parents had begged the cops to save the rest of the children, but no one moved. A mother was handcuffed to prevent her from breaking down the door herself to save her child. What sinister force had made action impossible? Whose hand held them back from acting out their role as protector of the citizens? Someone or something had stopped the pendulum of the clock so that the worst imaginable evil could complete its devastating task.
I just read in the Washington Post that there are numerous reports of Ramos taunting and threatening girls and young women on the chat group Yupo, a favorite hangout of adolescent users. One teen took offense at how often he erupted into vitriol and threatened to rape and kidnap his correspondents. “Everyone in the world should be raped,” he yelled out at one point, and the teen complained to the editors at Yupo, but nothing happened. Ramos had ridden the Cuckoo over the nest of the ordinary world and was out there in the dark, in the homeless frontiers of pure madness. He was in league with Hades and the three-headed dog, Cerberus, at the mouth of the underworld. He was arm in arm with Adam Lanza, the killer at Sandy Hook, and the two breathed deep the mephitic vapors of the underworld as they stepped through the smoking ruins of hell. Nothing could call this young man back to the living world to provide him with the rudiments of a conscience. The day he turned 18, he made his way to a gun store in Texas and bought two AR15s, twenty-three hundred rounds of ammo, and whatever else he could lay his hands on to assure him he could carry out his mission. Behind him walked Lady Macbeth, the senators who plunged their daggers into Caesar, the twisted soul of Ivan the Impaler, the long list of sadists and dictators who preyed upon ordinary human life for the thrill of wallowing in their blood. Gertrude Stein would have beheld the real thing, a complete flight from reason and order in this man, someone who had destroyed language with his rages and descents into oblivion. She would have denounced him on the spot, of course, as marking the outposts of savagery and cannibalism. But she would have realized there are limits to one’s anger and resentment at how language imprisons the soul. Within the cage we live in are certain amenities, a companion like Alice B. Toklas, good food, good company on those evening salons she hosted at the Rue de Fleurus in Paris. Those are the rewards of preserving the sinews of culture no matter how urgent the need to shake up the doddering regimes that encrust the arts.
As long as America has been under European settlers’ control, it has imposed a draconian order on the lives of its citizens. We grew up out of our colonial origins used to the notion of slavery, of genocide of native Americans, of the felling of our pine forests that once ranged along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Mexico, the killing off of the bison herds and the decimation of many species of birds. The effort to turn wilderness into European civilization required vast amounts of slaughter and repression before our cities grew up and prospered under the iron-fisted authority of the banks and the investment houses, under one repressive regime after another, until we were domesticated and, as Paul Goodman might say, sagged under the weight of our yokes. The only way out was to “grow up absurd,” as he wrote back in the middle of the last century, to throw off the shackles of conformity and illogic and strike out for some new and as yet unimagined new era of freedom. But the Beats came and went, and Woodstock merely reminded us of our pastoral ideals but not the way to achieve real reform. America went to war, In Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq and Afghanistan, each time looking for a way to prove that its faith in capitalism and white hegemony could prevail over any other race and philosophy in the world. Each time the effort to win grew weaker, and our resolves faltered like those cops waiting in the hall to enter a classroom where a slaughter was being conducted.
No one could put forward a real idea, it seems, without the Republicans defeating it by parliamentary maneuvering and the injunctions pouring out of the pulpits of the Deep South. No one could show the way forward. Even though the 400 million guns and rifles now crammed into the closets of most Americans has proved the need for legislation and courageous reform. No one can stop the Congress from flooding the Pentagon and the weapons makers with the tax revenues that were meant for education, social medicine, a stronger Social Security and childcare. No one can do anything that would actually solve our crushing problems. We are like the sky overhead, with its thick blankets of stagnant rain, the drab light that is allowed to seep through the cracks in heaven. On the ground, we weep, we smite our brows, we suffer like Job under the slings of an angry creator. And bide our time, as if seventy-eight minutes were now 400 years of hesitation and paralysis.