The Oasis is Burning

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4.4 - Intelligentsia

Theo Jagunjagun’s house looked like it had been beaten two-thirds of the way to hell - perhaps at the hands of people surged into anger by Goldie’s and Augustus’ rhetoric, perhaps by the packs of belligerent youths you’d expect to see in a place where binge drinking is a common pastime. The shame of it was that the place would have been magnificent had it been properly upkept. I could bullshit you with architectural terms, but really I just like a house that has a big elegant meeting space displayed to the world with a wall-sized window. I call it a “show-off room” and I love the class and potential of it, even if I’d never have anything to show off other than an extensive collection of liquor bottles from every nation’s cheapest distiller.

My Pardner was squawking as Darius and I drew to the front door. “You gonna answer that?”

“That would be rude.”

Darius hit the buzzer. “Didn’t figure you for a man to respect social graces.”

“I’m full of surprises.”

“You’re full of funk. Take a goddamn shower once in a while.”

Annelise answered the door. “Darius? I see you found our other special guest. Wonderful!”

That was a bit of a headscratcher. “Other special guest?”

“Oh, come in quickly, best not to give the stormtroopers an excuse.” Annelise took me by the arm. “Oh, yes. Darius, your father wanted a word with you in private. He’s being a bit of a hermit tonight, not that I blame him in the least.”

The Prof’s new house was larger than his old one but the appointments were similar. Well-worn furniture that was nevertheless more expensive than any I’d ever owned, artistic renderings of a variety of substance-induced delusions, shelves packed with arcane tomes that perhaps two hundred people in the world had reason to own - it was all there, slightly older but no less stuffy and academic. But the people milling about were an eclectic bunch compared to the procession of old white men I’d met at his previous salon. This group was younger and, judging by the accents, they represented more than few nations. The only thing that united the group was their stately, conservative attire. I’ve never been one to blend in at a party but my grimy floral print cabana wear made that an outright impossibility here.

“Everyone, I’d like to you meet Atticus Gainsborough.” Annelise spoke with little flourishes like she was addressing one of her classes. “I’m sure you’re all familiar with his work, but what not many people know is that he wrote his very first piece on Professor Jagunjagun during that dreadful controversy over his sexology courses.” She handed me a wine glass. “Help yourself. We’ve got gravlax out, and I have to go check on the stuffed mushrooms.”

One of the other professors, a rakish Mediterranean type in an unseasonable turtleneck, hefted a bottle of white wine. “The pinot blanc’s a good pairing, though it might be a little light for your palette.”

“It’s a start.” I poured myself a glass and took some of the raw salmon presented to me.

“Don’t be shy, Mr. Gainsborough,” added an elegant woman in a white ensemble and a stirringly trendy set of narrow frames. “Theo’s stock is impressive, but he hardly drinks at all, it’s for guests. He’s got authentic mescal, some absinthe assuming we didn’t kill the last bottle...there’s ouzo, a wide variety of blended whiskies, just about anything you might care to sample.”

“Good, I’ll take it,” I said. “I wouldn’t try the mushrooms when they come out, though. Learn from my mistake.”

“So the story was true?” This was from a stout man with an accent I couldn’t quite place. “Archie mentioned that little gag Theo’s friends played on you, but I didn’t buy it at first.”

“You don’t mean...oh good goddamn.”

I don’t know what kind of bad medicine I took that day that would have caused me to overlook the living legend sitting right in front. Archibald Harrow, goddamn. Pushing ninety and still making the rounds, still blowing minds decades after pioneering the chaos style of writing. I can still remember reading Veins Full of the Good Shit on hash oil and it was truly a life-changing experience. Granted it’s a vague memory, I can’t really remember what the book was about, but maybe the specific contents aren’t as important as the fact that it turned my brain inside out and took a technicolor dump right between the hemispheres.

Fuck me, Archibald Harrow. This guy was being transgressive back before every prick with a laptop was cramming four-ways and coke binges into his manuscript, back when that kind of thing could get you into legit trouble. The life this asshole has lived, I expected to find him in some hospital with machines to do everything but blink for him, but maybe all that South American junk is preserving him somehow.

Annelise entered the room bearing a tray of giant overstuffed mushroom caps. “Mr. Harrow was a last-minute arrival, Atticus, otherwise I would have mentioned him. Quite a meeting of the minds we have, don’t we?”

“That reminds me,” chimed in the Mediterranean fellow. “What were we discussing when Atticus came in?”

“What do we ever discuss?” The voice belonged to a spritely woman of South Asian extraction whose resonant voice betrayed her stature. “The encroachment of fascism, the death of civil rights, the fires of madness that have engulfed the city.”

“It’s a travesty,” said the stout man. “Cheap thugs like Brigg and Secretary Augustus give iron rule a bad name. All these imbeciles think that control is about beating right thought into someone’s head. It tarnishes the whole philosophy in the public sphere.”

Annelise set the tray on a low table. “Oh my, yes. There’s no more concept of a benevolent dictatorship because everyone associates the term with brutishness. And yet when things turn even the slightest bit ugly, everyone is more than happy to let any old despot take the reins.”

“That’s the problem with democratic rule,” said the Mediterranean fellow. “It’s a perfect system for a perfect world. But in our world, in this nation especially, we wield far too much power to leave its destiny to an uninformed electorate who can be easily swayed by rhetoric and the passion of the moment.”

“A dictatorship of the intelligent, a wonderful idea,” said Annelise. “Of course, we would have to take care to select a representative cross-section of geniuses from all philosophies and backgrounds. Why, anything less would be to invite darker forms of despotism.”

“So we are to narrow our circle of genius to accommodate the whim of the fools?” This time the speaker was an older man who would have looked exactly like Sigmund Freud were it not for the rings through each ear. “This situation would call for a very careful campaign of social engineering, for both the rabble and the brilliant minds we select to rule. The latter must be trained to pursue only justice and prosperity and to turn a deaf ear to the howling of the crowd, who must in turn learn to acknowledge the wisdom of the new government. This is how we achieve lasting stability.”

“Foolishness!” The stout man threw back his glass of wine. “No man can be trusted with such power! Just rule must surely be mathematical. There must be a formula for ideal governance, one that can be fed into the computer along with the relevant data and then interpreted. Only rule by machine, not by man, can be truly just.”

“And what of the programmers? Won’t their passions wind up in the machine?” The Mediterranean fellow poured himself another glass of wine. “No, we have ancient problems, and that calls for an ancient solution. We need a great man - or great woman, all the better - who can jar us out of complacency. We owe it to future generations to find and train this person, whomever he or she might be, wherever he or she might be.”

“We seem to be at an impasse,” said Annelise. “Perhaps our guest can help us settle this debate?”

All conversation in the ivory tower went dead as each set of eyes locked on to the smelly pillhead in tourist chic. I drained my glass in the most uncouth way possible as I pondered what I could possibly say to this conglomeration of well-credentialed nitwits. “Well, the way I see it, the system is fucked. The people are even more fucked, and when they try to tinker haphazardly, then everything goes right to shit. So I say everyone gets drunk and if Goldie hasn’t burned the city down by morning, then we can worry about what to fix.”

It was a sizable line of content-devoid bullshit, but it seems that my linguistic trickery was enough to fool the crowd into thinking that I knew what I was talking about. The subject faded out and they returned to more mundane discussions about their jobs and sex lives and family squabbles and all those other topics people discuss around the four drink mark. I snuck over to the bar to pour myself a neat glass of aged mescal and then worked my way over to Archibald Harrow who was comfortably ensconced in his chair. Goddamn, you’d think that after all this time I’d be over getting star-struck, but this was different.

I knelt next to the chair, resisting the urge to smack my head against the ground. “Mr. Harrow, I’m gonna try not to gush here, but I have been following your work for twenty years. It’s a real honor to meet you.”

Mr. Harrow smiled and dabbed out a crooked little laugh, then gestured for me to come closer. “There was a hole in his heart, the emperor of that city forged in the fires of war; the teller of tales saw it with his baby eyes, those minions of the just-minded psychopath and the tyrant king with the power of air who seized his own share with both claws. It was the game of rich twits, the mouthpieces who called the speaker of God to walk those shitty streets now captive to a buffoon and today’s Mussolini. We watched it all from the mount of our dragon-horse.” There was a manic quality in his grin.

I had to ponder the meaning for a bit. “Are you...do you mean smack? Sorry, don’t have a connection for the stuff. I have a bunch of uppers, you want some of those?”

Mr. Harrow held up a hand to cut me off. “The fires of madness swallowed everything and all the old assholes died on the pyre that was fed by rum and crank. There were the mad baboons with no cause but lots of guns, and honey and shit and blood on their tongues. Then came the thunder and all men became infants, servants to a dealer in the bad shit. Then came the war and the bitch songs of the guns, but the great liar lived to fight another day.”

“Wow. That’s deep.”

There was a presence over my shoulder. “Yo, Atticus. The Professor wants a word with you in private.” It was Darius, back from the Prof’s lair.

“Does he want to confess something? I’m not really trained for it.”

“Don’t be a wise-ass.”

“I can only be me. All right, let’s go.”

The bright lights and the nattering were behind me, and hallelujah for that.

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