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Blow Up: body or no body?

It’s a typical dour Saturday morning in London. A troupe of gaudily dressed mime artists/students, faces painted, run raucously through the city streets like a bunch of merry pranksters, soliciting donations from sober-minded citizens on the sidewalk and in passing cars. Meanwhile in another part of town, shabbily dressed men looking downcast and beaten quietly file out of the gates of a homeless shelter. Privileged frivolity versus destined indigence; never the Twain shall meet. Standing out among them is a younger, slovenly looking man whose tattered attire is more Dickensian theatrical costume than his only clothes, and his constantly glancing warily about him suggests he’s not of them. Whatever his story, he’s managed to convince his fellow down-and-outs otherwise, as they pause to talk briefly before going their separate ways. As he rounds the corner and hastens up the street in this run down part of London, furtively looking behind him, the young man’s deception is confirmed when he hops into his Rolls Royce convertible parked out of view and drives off. He is in fact a photographer gone undercover for the night to record the plight of homeless men in a DOSS house, ostensibly for a coffee-table book he’s compiling. But his cockney accent as he radios his studio to tell them he’s on his way, suggests these surroundings are not entirely alien. Whatever his degree of familiarity, it gives him the needed insight and credibility to gain the confidence of his fellow down-and-outs and photograph them in candid detail.

Back a the studio Thomas  goes straight into a photo-shoot of a chicly dressed model (Veroushka) without changing. She’s been patiently waiting, underscoring his busy schedule and workaholic nature as an in-demand fashion photographer, but one with an eye to fame as a serious exponent of his profession, in the tradition of Ray, Arbus and other famous photojournalists, juxtaposing photographer as independent artist/social critic versus  paid esthete/promoter of fashion trends; one who interprets reality, as opposed to the other who idealizes it, alluding, perhaps to the duality of purpose, and the unity of opposites, and the contradictions inherent in the whole. In fact, the concept of juxtaposed opposites informing meaning forms a backdrop to the entire film, down to Thomas’ eponymous black and white photographs, which when blown up to their elemental exposed and unexposed grains lose context and meaning. This concept applies to the realm of perception, on a conscious versus subconscious plane, driving thought and action through the mutual contrast and interplay between reality and fantasy, in the sense that something is in as much as what it isn’t, which when analysed to the infinite degree, as in the case of film images, also loses context and meaning, becoming ungraspable.

Thomas’ attitude towards the high-class model suggests sadistic tendencies, just short of consummateness. But it’s what’s needed to bring out the required sensuality for the target audience, and knowing it’s to their mutual benefit she obliges. She symbolizes what he aspires to, but can never truly attain, and rather than resenting her, he keeps her at a respectful distance. His total immersion in his craft comes across by his immense satisfaction when shown the just printed contacts of the men in the homeless shelter, alluding to a detached coldness and disdain for his subjects whom he regards as mere objects, expressive of an underlying misanthropy. This attitude is also reflected by the contrast of the fresh clothes he’s changed into after shaving and cleaning himself up from his night in the DOSS house, and his contemptuously discarding his dirty vagrant’s costume on the trash pile, too close a reminder for comfort. No doubt his exuberance is also connected with the prospect this finishing touch to his book will win him the praise and recognition he’s been seeking among the cognoscenti, as a serious exponent of his craft, to complement his commercial success, chronicling the changing times and the social dislocation wreaked among the lower classes.

His obsession with work/money is underscored as he goes from shooting the chicly dressed model to a group of others, ‘the birds’, sporting off-the rack attire for the wider mass market. They’re more his level, but his disdain is obvious. They’re a reminder of the crassness of the mass culture and his role and that of his industry in perpetuating and reproducing it, transferring his underlying self-loathing onto them. But he also knows on which side his bread is buttered and must take full advantage of the comforts and lifestyle it continues to offer. The ‘production line’ nature of the business, and its ephemerality and need for constant renewal, symptomatic/reflective of the voraciousness and rapaciousness of capitalism,  is alluded to in the form of the two young would-be models who gate crash his studio, hoping to be discovered. They are the raw product, industry fodder, willing to pay in kind to get their foot in the door, and later, when they return and he has his way with them, he discards them like they were a dime a piece.

Off to meet his publisher and show him these latest photographs for the book, he passes a row of blood red buildings (signifying boldness, self-assurance, sanguinity), before coming to one painted sky blue at the end of the street (calm, even-temperedness, a return to reality), beyond which some drab, brown-coloured residential blocks are going up (character-filled tradition versus bland modernity). On the way he stops at an antique shop to enquire about its selling price (always on the make, doubling as ‘finder’ for his agent). But the owner is out and to kill time he goes for a stroll, camera in hand, in the nearby park, Maryon Park in south London.

He’s taking random pictures of nothing in particular, and as the screen pans up to follow the flight of some pigeons he’s photographing we get a brief glimpse in the corner of the frame of a couple embracing near the tennis courts. They catch Thomas’ attention and he watches them from afar ascend the side of a mound through the tall grass, before he takes the steps to the top on the other side, leaping up several at a time, underscoring his buoyant mood. As he lines up a shot of some trees to the side, he spots the couple again strolling on the grassy field at the top, with the woman amorously leading the be-suited gentleman by the hand out into the open.

She seems underdressed for the weather, somewhat provocatively in a light open-necked shirt and a skirt. Piqued by the portent of capturing something tantalizing, he begins photographing them from behind some trees, then from some bushes behind the picket fence where they can’t see him. In the midst of their embracing, the woman appears to resist her lover and begins to draw away from him. She looks around and she notices the photographer walking away, heading towards the steps, having taken his photographs. She rushes after him and anxiously demands the photographs, pleading her right to be left in peace (in a public park?). She  continues past the photographer down the steps, as if trying to draw him away from what may be going on on the grassy field at the top. But he walks back up the steps and she follows, again demanding the photographs, then tries to wrest his camera from his grip by biting his hand. He angrily shakes her off, promising to send her the negatives. Piqued by a faint noise, they both glance back across the field to the top, but her lover seems to have disappeared. Thomas begins photographing the lightly dressed woman as she runs off back towards the top, pausing briefly near the tree she left her perplexed lover, to look down at an object on the grass before hurriedly running off again, down the path on the other side of the mound. Having got his pictures of this strange encounter, Thomas heads back to the antique shop.

The owner, a girl in her twenties, says she’s ‘sick of antiques’ and wants ‘to go to Nepal to try something different’ (juxtaposition of obliging young female proprietor selling old wares, and a cantankerous old man as her assistant – role reversal?). She seems lost for thought when Thomas tells her that ‘Nepal is full of antiques,’ then changes plans and wants to go to Morocco instead. Does she symbolize the blithely indifferent aristocracy vainly holding on to anachronistic traditions in the face of modernity? On a whim Thomas decides to buy a large wooden aircraft propeller for his studio. But the girl protests when he tries unsuccessfully to put it into the back of his Rolls Royce convertible, treating it ‘like a delivery van’, showing his disdain for traditional symbols of power and privilege, but at the same time content to take advantage of them as surface ostentations of his self-made wealth in these ‘swinging Sixties’, with the apparent sweeping away of class barriers and the prospect of upward mobility for those previously shut out with an entrepreneurial bent. He radio’s his agent to tell him the young proprietress is a pushover and he should buy up quickly because the area is rife for development, with ‘queers and their poodles’ starting to move in.

Over lunch in the restaurant, in contrast to Thomas’ cold indifference towards his subjects, his publisher, Ron, appears a little more sympathetic while poring over Thomas’ photographs inside the homeless shelter. Noblesse oblige? He seems of higher social rank, but their relationship is symbiotic. Ron likes them, but Thomas tells him he wants to end the book with some others he just took in the park,as a contrast to the violence and destitution of the slums. His publisher concurs, saying it will make the book ‘ring truer.’ Thomas’ lack of firm social grounding and impetuousness comes across when he peevishly confesses to Ron he’s ‘gone off London this week’, changing with the fashion, before musing that he wants ‘to have lots of money to be free,’ at which Ron asks, ‘Free to do what?’, throwing him a philosophical conundrum as he turns to a photograph of a desperately poor vagrant in a run down housing estate : ‘Free like him?’, as Thomas cracks a wry grin. Perhaps, he knows deep down true freedom means relinquishing all his material possessions and the trappings of a comfortable life he’s worked so hard to achieve, driven by the belief that money can buy happiness, with the possibility of ending up like this vagrant; in contrast, Ron’s inherited wealth affords him the luxury to whimsically contemplate life without it, not having experienced true poverty, and safe in the knowledge never will, but also knowing that money alone cannot buy happiness.

Above all Thomas is sick of ‘all the bitches.’ But is he really a misogynist, or has his loss of place in a society undergoing rapid change and his shifting with it, priced him out of relationships? And unable to connect with women, either from his own station, as his fractious relationship with his ‘wife’ attests, or those above him, and risk exposing his insecurities and humble origins, he opts to remain unattached, a social butterfly, pretending to be married with kids so as to conform with the social stereotype for someone his age and background, and be accepted as ‘normal’.

While looking over the photographs, Ron notices a man looking at Thomas through the window behind them. As the man rushes off, Thomas darts out after him and catches him trying to open the trunk of his convertible, shouting after him as the perpetrator scrams. He checks that his trunk hasn’t been opened and nothing is missing before driving off, unbeknownst to him that the woman at the park and her accomplice are on his tail. We get a clear shot of them in their car following Thomas as he rounds a corner at a busy intersection in the city before stopping to allow a bunch of anti-war protesters to cross. He doesn’t appear to be aware of them, but piqued by the attempted theft from his car, and conscious that someone might be after him (perhaps the woman in the park who demanded the film in the camera?), he parks a few doors from his house and sounds his horn when he gets out, one assumes to alert his neighbours for added security. He also calls his ersatz wife from the street phone, asking her to call him in his studio in a few minutes, presumably so she can call the police if he fails to answer. As he is about to unlock his front door the woman from the park runs up to him all out of breath demanding the photographs. He asks how she knew he lived here, but she doesn’t say. He tells her he will give her the pictures and invites her in. After she explains her situation, they get friendly and he tells her she’d make a good model. She alludes to her ‘profession’ when she admits that the same can be said about men when Thomas confesses to tiring of women too easily, even beautiful ones, having to photograph (fuck?) them all day.

She seems more his type, adrift from her station, with an appreciation of interior design. But their mutual distrust is evident when she attempts to take off with his camera while he goes to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of water, and then blocks her escape at the door. Promising to give her the negatives, he goes into the darkroom to cut them out of the reel, but then changes his mind and gives her a blank roll instead, returning her distrust, alluding to the untrustworthiness of people over thirty, for she looks to be in that age bracket (is the street number of Thomas’ studio, 39, an allusion to his approaching middle age, crisis years when one begins to think about one’s mortality?). Handing her what she believes to be the negatives, she’s about the leave, albeit without consummating their meeting, when he asks for her telephone number.

He decides to print some of the pictures he took of her and her lover in the park, but as he studies them from the sofa pinned up on the wall, over a glass of wine and a Herbie Hancock jazz number playing on his stereo, his suspicions are aroused by the direction of woman’s gaze in one of them, as she and her lover are embracing. Over her lover’s back she appears to have spotted something or someone in the bushes behind the picket fence, and looks very concerned, But Thomas can’t make out what it is and to see more detail he blows up this part of the negative. He still can’t make out what she’s looking at and eager to have his curiosity satisfied, he calls the number she left, but it turns out to be bogus. Perhaps it’s just as well, because this would have exposed his treachery in keeping the negatives. Examining the other prints more closely, he notices the perfidious look on the woman’s face in one of them, as she draws away from her perplexed lover who seems to be imploring her to come back. Suddenly, what appeared to be a mildly titillating romantic encounter on a Saturday morning in the park has assumed a sinister tone. Keen to work out what’s going on, he prints some more shots to construct a rough time-line, and to his shock he realizes he inadvertently captured the lead-up to a murder, and which he happened to foil.

The photographs show that, in fact, the lightly dressed woman is looking at a man hiding in the bushes, not far from where he himself took some of the shots. But is the intercut blow-up shown in the film of the would-be killer holding a gun with a silencer pointed at her lover’s back, ‘real’? The resolution seems much too high for a blow-up of a small area of the photograph in question. In the intercut image the gun with a silencer in the gunman’s hand is clearly visible, whereas in the original, full scale photograph this region is already quite grainy and a gun is hard to make out; or is the high-resolution intercut blow-up what’s conjured up in Thomas’ mind, seeing in the blurred image what he ‘wants’ to see to fit his mind’s ‘story’, a kind of closure, as expounded in gestalt theory? Moreover, the intercut image doesn’t appear to be among those pinned up on the wall, suggesting it is, in fact, a figment of Thomas’ imagination, a reconstructed logical ‘reality’ through the retrieval of associated engrams buried in his subconscious to fill in the blanks, a kind of ‘psychic deconvolution’ of the blurred image as captured on the film, to bring out the likely (desired) object that produced it, pointing to the primacy of experiential determinism in arriving at ‘sense’ and ‘understanding.’ It’s like one of Bill’s abstract paintings from next door. At first, they mean nothing, but eventually you can find something ‘real’ in them ‘to hold on to’, after the mind filters out the extraneous ‘noise’ and pulls out what it wants to see. In the end ‘reality’ is a mental construct, and photographs as much as abstract paintings need interpreting by the brain which ‘forces’ the desired version of reality onto them. In other words, the brain is set up to see and hear what it expects to see and hear.

Thomas is convinced the woman was, in fact, trying to lure the man in the suit to his death (evil siren), and in demanding the film she wasn’t simply trying to cover up an affair, but to destroy the incriminating evidence. Suddenly he realizes he’s no longer the passive observer he thought he was behind the distancing lens of his camera. His actions have consequences, and in this case, by disturbing the couples ‘amorous’ tryst, he has saved a man’s life. Reality has come to bite him and he feels a sense of responsibility hitherto lacking in his life, enough to call Ron and tell him that the pictures he took in the park captured a likely murder. But does Thomas really feel his conscience gnawing at him; or is he merely trying to work up the ‘sensationalist’ angle of these photographs for his book? If he really does suspect an attempted murder plot, why doesn’t he report it to the police?

Ron, however, doesn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. Their phone conversation  is cut short by a ring at the door. Suspecting the woman and her accomplice may have come to silence him, having discovered the reel he gave her was blank, he’s in two minds about answering. Warily unlatching the door, it’s suddenly burst open by the two young would-be models who have returned to get him to photograph them. They have a poor taste in fashion, but are promiscuous enough to be taken advantage of, and after some horseplay they engage in a threesome in his studio. Afterwards, as they’re dressing Thomas on the floor, apotheosis-lie, post-crucifixion, a picture of supine divinity, he notices as he slowly resurrects himself something peculiar in one of the prints pinned up on the wall. Next to the large tree where the woman paused briefly before disappearing back down the other side of the mound, is what looks like a body lying flat on the grass. Is this ‘revelation’ triggered by his own ‘sacrificial death’ at the hands of the two girls, whereby his subconscious directs his conscious mind to ‘see’ the dead body in the blurry photograph, driven by the need to fill in that blanks and join the dots, and solve this niggling puzzle? Is it through a similar process of association that Thomas deduces the presence of gunman in the bushes? That is, in photographing the amorous couple from the bushes, he placed himself in the shoes of the gunman, as it were, enabling him to ‘see’ from the killer’s perspective, in a sense ‘becoming’ the killer, enabling to recognize himself among the bushes in the photograph holding a gun, alluding to experiential necessity for conscious meaning to be extracted from sensory inputs.

He examines the print more closely and realizes it’s the body of the man in the suit, and rather than saving his life, he has, in fact, facilitated his murder. He orders the girls to leave at once, like worthless riff-raff, and blows up this area of the print again, this time by re-photographing it with a larger format camera. But why do this? Presumably the highest resolution is contained in the grains of the negative and the large format prints already show maximum detail; so why re-photograph a region of a blown up print? Does it gives a different emphasis to light and shade, providing a slightly different perspective of the same image, allowing the brain to ‘confirm’ its (his) suspicions that the object is indeed the man’s body? Or is it simply out of desperation, going over the same ground, exhausting all possibilities, trying to confirm something that can’t possibly be incontrovertibly confirmed from the available evidence?

To convince himself the body is that of the man in the suit, he drives back to the park and makes his way up to the elevated field under the glow of the moon and the glare of a blue neon sign spelling out the acronym “FOA” on a nearby building, the logo of which resembles the handle and barrel of a gun. Although not in the film, did his possible seeing this sign and symbol in the daylight when he first went to the park unconsciously implant itself in his head, conspiring with the other subconscious inputs to enable him to ‘see’ the barrel of a gun with a silencer in the hands of the gunman when he examined the photograph pinned up on the wall?

To his utter shock the body is still there, and as he looks down, with his senses sharpened by fear, he’s momentarily startled by some rustling in the bushes and what sounds like the click of a camera. Is someone photographing him from the bushes; observer now becoming subject; hunter, hunted? The body is lying supine on the very spot he thought he would find it, ashen face, almost waxy in appearance in the dim light, with glassy eyes staring straight up at the dark sky. In fact, it looks ‘too dead’ and resembles a mannequin neatly dressed in a suit, without a hair out of place; not the body of a man shot dead and dragged there in his clothes. Is it real, or is he imagining it? Perhaps the shock of seeing a dead man for the first time causes him to project onto the incoming sense image what he believes a dead man ought to look like, that is, like a store dummy; stereotypically dead, just like the beautiful unblemished models he photographs all day, made up to look flawless. He leans down and touches the face. Convinced the body is real, he looks around to confirm there’s no-one watching before running off, back to his studio.

Objective knowledge exists only in a social context, and to confirm that what he’s discovered is real he goes next door to tell Bill and Patricia. He finds them in the midst of making love, as Patricia longingly looks up at Thomas from below, imploring him to keep watching. He seems cold to her strained entreaty, resentful of her pathetic attempt to provoke his jealously and validate of her own actions and feelings, and leaves to call his publisher. He’s attending a party and before leaving the studio, Thomas goes upstairs only to discover it’s been ransacked and all the prints up on the wall and the rolls of film in the darkroom have been taken or destroyed, except for a print hidden between two cupboards, the blurry blow-up of the body on the grass. As he ponders over this remaining piece of evidence, he must be wondering what this messy affair he got himself into has ‘sorted out’ in his own life? He hears someone coming up the steps and hides behind the partition. But it turns out to be Patricia. She’s wearing a red diaphanous dress, looking like she’s about to go out for the night. Has she come seeking validation again, now beaming with post-coital contentment, an object of desire, but still wishing to provoke Thomas’ interest, uncertain about her choice of lover in Bill, but not prepared to leave him either? Thomas’ lingering resentment shows. He pulls out the one remaining print and tells her it’s the body of the dead man. She seems unimpressed, saying it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, dismissing both. He says he witnessed his murder, but then admits that he didn’t actually see it happen. She leaves, disappointed, and he goes off to tell Ron about the body in the park.

He’s about to park his car across the street from some shops when his attention is drawn to a woman standing in front of a display window. It’s the woman in the park, with the same white handbag on her arm and dressed in the same light clothes, in contrast to the other passersby who are wearing more suitable attire for the evening. Is she real or an hallucination, the after-effects, perhaps, of the dope he shared with her earlier in the day, his mind filling in the blanks again, ‘seeing’ her as a model/mannequin, framed by the shop window? He turns to get out of the car, continuing to look at her, but she mysteriously vanishes behind a crowd that walks past the window. He runs to the spot and looks in the recess of the shop door, but she’s nowhere to be seen. Has she disappeared down the alley? Piqued by the sound of a rock concert coming from a night club, he follows the music. Inside, a band, ‘The Yardbirds’, are playing loudly to an outwardly impassive audience standing listening, some dancing by the side. There’s no sign of the girl, but he stays to listen anyway. After a malfunction with the amplifier the lead guitarist smashes up his instrument and throws the guitar neck into the audience with broken strings sticking out, and they all frenziedly lunge for it. Catching it first, the photographer runs off, chased by the others. But whatever value this relic of fame and greatness has, it’s rooted purely in fetishism, and not being a true aficionado, he discards it onto the sidewalk when he gets to the street.

He finds Ron at a party around the corner with others from their circle, including Veroushka  whom he photographed in the morning. Everyone seems relaxed, drinking and indulging, including Ron who is too stoned and drunk to care when Thomas tries to tell him of his macabre discovery at the park. In fact, by strong intimation he manages to convince him that he hasn’t seen anything at all, no body or murder. Unable to convince his seemingly only confidante (patron?) of his story, Thomas resigns himself to forgetting about the whole thing, as if it never happened. He wakes up next morning, now Sunday, alone on a bed, with everyone gone, somewhat hung over from the after effects of the party. But was there a party at all?

He dresses and goes back to the park with his camera, returning to the to grassy field at the top of the mound. But the body from the previous night is no longer there, with little or no trace on the grass of it having lain there. Have the police removed it, or whoever killed him? He’s beyond caring. He looks up at the tree branches overhead moving in the wind, signifying change. He stares down at the ground, pondering. What is he thinking? Was what he photographed simply a shadow pattern in the diffuse morning light? There was no actual body; he simply imagined it. His camera lied. In the absence of photographic evidence, does he now doubt his own his memory? Is his mind playing tricks on him?  Or does complacency take over, seeing there’s no  point in getting involved in something that he has nothing to gain from. Therefore, best remain an observer, and ‘not fall in love with heavy objects on a Saturday morning’, as the girl in the antique shop admonished. Best keep to what you know.

As he wanders around the park he comes upon a tennis match between two of the mime artists he ran into in the city the day before, whose companions are watching keenly from the other side of the fence. But the two players are only pretending. There is no tennis ball and they have no rackets in their hands. And yet the photographer is drawn to watch them along with the rest of the troupe, turning their heads in unison to follow the flight of the imaginary ball – the power of the collective (mob) to turn illusions into reality. It’s so real, in fact, that when one of the players lobs the imaginary ball over the fence and it lands just beyond Thomas, he is compelled by the imploring gaze of the other spectators to retrieve it and he dutifully throws it back over the fence; his gullibility confirmed. There is no ball, yet he goes and picks ‘it’ up to the approval of the crowd. In fact, he can now even hear the ball bouncing and being struck as the players resume the match; his senses totally subsumed and his residual incredulity dissolved. For all his solitude and alienation, he is one of the crowd; his very consciousness dictated by those around him. Reality fused into fantasy and vice versa. Or is perception really a spectrum between these two states of being? So, did Thomas actually witness a murder?


Today is Sunday the 7th of December, 1997. It’s been two weeks since I vacated my apartment in the turn-of-the-century brownstone at 21 Gibbs Street in Brookline and moved into this one bedroom unit in a modern nine-story residential tower on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Warren Street. To a snob this may look like I traded down, from fashionably up-market Brookline to affordably mid-market Brighton, but I had good reason. In any case, I am now a resident of the City of Boston, whereas before I belonged to Brookline, a municipality in its own right. I guess that says all you need to know about the snottiness of Brookliners, that they need their own city within a city to distinguish themselves from wider Boston, with its own peculiar by-laws and regulations, and a sheriff’s department to enforce them. But then again, since most belong to that most exclusionary of faiths you wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Although relieved to have finally gotten out of Gibbs Street, my new apartment has turned out to be not such a propitious find after all. The day I inspected it I was so impressed by the large living room and bedroom, the shiny parquet floors and solid walls and ceiling, and the near-new fixtures and appliances in the bathroom and kitchen, as well as the generous balcony that looks out across the car park to Commonwealth Avenue, that I made up my mind to take it, fearing that at $980 a month I would lose out. The only draw-back was having to park on Warren Street overnight, with all the parking spots on site already taken.

Soon after moving in, however, I came upon a more vexing issue which I fear casts serious doubt on my staying here in the long-term. The problem relates to the laundry situated in the basement, more or less directly below my apartment. It’s not that I was unaware of this, because the manager was keen to show it to me, and after descending a flight of switchback stairs through a door in the lobby, passing the boiler room down a long corridor, then making two or three sharp turns in rapid succession we came to the laundry room itself. Although somewhat disoriented, from my own internal bearings I figured the apartment had to be roughly above our heads, which the manager confirmed. But he was quick to assure me, in case I got cold feet, that the ten-inch thick concrete walls and the ceiling blocked out all the noise, and a ten o’clock curfew was strictly enforced.

With two banks of twenty odd brand new washing machines and dryers, he said there was no longer the need to queue up for a dirty washer at the neighborhood laundromat and wait around for dryer became available. I knew exactly what he was referring to. It was what I’d been used to, and oftentimes it would be well after midnight before I brought home my dried load; and then have to drop off my car at the back of Mrs Gerzon’s three blocks away in the dark of night, to avoid a $25 fine for violating the Brookline city ordnance prohibiting overnight street parking.

With my private qualms allayed, I agreed to take the apartment there and then, shaking the manager’s hand, to the delight of the hyperactive rental agent trailing closely behind, constantly urging me not to pass up this golden opportunity, and who then whisked me back to his office on Harvard Avenue in the warm comfort of his plush late model sedan for me to sign a year-long lease. Next day, eager to get out of Gibbs Street and not stay one more day in this hell-hole, I duly informed my landlord, a man by the name of Thomas Chan, I would be vacating at the end of the month, neither I giving nor he asking for a reason. And so, by the start of the following week I was installed in my new bright modern apartment in Brighton, along with all my furniture which barely filled half the removal van, namely a king-size bed bought new, a side-table, a 3-seat sofa and coffee table, all floor stock from Filene’s; a solid oak writing desk with drawers and matching armchair, and a four-foot high wooden bookcase, purchased from a musty used furniture shop in Alston; and several boxes packed with bed linen and blankets, books and cooking utensils, and pots and pans to fill the cupboards in the kitchen.

If the only niggling concern hanging over my head was the level of noise from the laundry, I would have nothing to complain about, because true to the manager’s word, I could barely hear the hum and whir of the washing machines and dryers in the evening; and as promised they stopped operating after ten. But a couple of days ago something quite unforeseen but connected announced itself, and at one fell swoop shattered my smug contentedness and plunged me into inconsolable despair over my grave error of judgment. The problem related to the irritating vapors and fumes arising from the laundry, the dryers in particular, coupled with my heightened chemical sensitivities which were triggered to debilitating effect that tragic evening.

I had just finished dinner consisting of a large bowl of al dente pasta smothered with marinara sauce and garnished with grated parmesan cheese, which, given my burgeoning weight, I must cut down on, and was sitting back on the sofar in the living room, feet up on the coffee table, sipping a beer while listening to the BBC World Service propaganda on my Sony short-wave radio; when plumes of what looked like white smoke began billowing up from beneath the balcony, obscuring my view of the night traffic passing by on Commonwealth Avenue. But it was of a different density and form, and looked suspiciously like steam. “But from what source?” I wondered.

I got up to have a closer look through the glass, curious to see exactly where it was coming from, and it was then that I sensed the sickly sweet aroma of laundry perfumes which, despite having the door to the balcony firmly shut and locked, had made their way into my living room. With my worst fears realized, I can’t quite describe the sinking feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach I felt that moment. More distressing than the actual fumes was the fact that I had been comprehensively had, as it suddenly dawned on me why the jumpy rental agent and the polite and obliging manager were so keen for me to take the apartment; and like a naive idiot I foolishly fell for their double-act.

As I collapsed back on the sofa, my despair quickly turned to anger, firstly at myself for ignoring my gut instinct that told me the deal was too good to true and there had to be a catch. It was then directed at the rental agent himself, the sinewy, fast-talking Italian shit, who was obviously in league with the manager, an Italian himself, to off-load this lemon. It explained why it looked so ‘not lived-in’, without a scratch on the walls or parquetry. That’s because no-one was stupid enough to live here, and quickly left for the sake of their health when they discovered this fatal flaw, forgoing the security deposit.

As I sat on the sofa thoroughly crestfallen at my wretched luck, I tried to reassure myself that perhaps I was over-reacting and that the problem wasn’t as bad as it appeared; a freaky gust of wind must have blown the baneful steam back towards the apartment, and most other times it evaporated harmlessly into the air well away from the building. But as I waited for the sickly sweet aroma to dissipate, more plumes of steam began to issue from below the balcony, this time with greater fury, completely blocking my view of Commonwealth Avenue, as if an angry monster had been stirred from its sleep in the basement and was about to break out. As more of the nauseating scent filled my living room, I had no choice than to concede I had a serious problem on my hands which no amount of placatory hopeful reasoning would make go away. The fact was that the external laundry vents were situated right beneath my balcony and were spewing out irritating fumes and vapors from fabric softeners, and God knows what other horrible chemicals Americans liked to impregnate their clothes with to smell fresh and fragrant and not crease; and they were seeping into my apartment around the door frame.

Collecting my thoughts, I needed to come up with a quick solution. My eyes were starting to itch and I was feeling light-headed, and I feared any moment my heart would start on its spasmodic highland fling, exacerbating my giddiness and possibly causing me to pass out. I figured if I opened the bedroom windows which also faced the front this would only allow more fumes to get in and make the situation worse. In desperation, I flung open the doors of the bathroom and kitchen and switched on the ceiling fans in the hope they would suck out the sweetly sick smell. And as they went to work, I anxiously paced back and forth between the living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, sniffing the air like a dog to see if my plan was working.

Ten minutes later I had to concede the fans had done nothing; in fact, they had made the situation worse by drawing in more of the noxious fumes. I was on the verge of an emotional meltdown for stupidly signing a year-long lease so hastily, which if I broke I would have to forfeit my entire security deposit of $1200; and look for another place all over again, a daunting and exhausting proposition, physically and mentally. I might as well just pack up and leave the country.

To my relief, whoever had been drying their clothes had finished, because the steam ceased issuing. I slumped back on the couch and took in a deep breath, hoping they were the last for the eveing, as I recalled the terrible health issues I had to live with in that rat hole in Gibbs Street which had precipitated my leaving, but which to my chagrin, some appeared to have followed me here. They started soon after I moved in, on New Years Day, 1996. Problems like insomnia, night after night, and the constant headaches and recurrent episodes of cardiac arrhythmia in the middle of night, keeping me awake and anxious, brought on by the fumes from the furnace and the smell of heating oil rising up from the basement; as well as the foul stench of rotting garbage stored there by the other tenants until collection day; not to mention the vermin it attracted and the poisons left out by the landlord. And then there were the narcotizing vapors from the fresh polyurethane floor polish that saturated the air in the living room and bedroom for months. With my memory totally shot, I was turning into a brain-dead zombie, functioning purely out of instinct, sometimes unable to remember what I had to do to after waking up in the morning to prepare for work, or concentrate on the simplest of tasks during the day.

With sunken eyes encircled by dark swollen rings, and face haggard and drawn, and breath stinking of decay, with a morose countenance I just couldn’t shake off no matter what I did to try and cheer myself up, I’m sure Mrs. Gerzon and my colleagues at work all thought I had turned to drugs, or gone insane, unable to adjust to life in a big city, alone and friendless. In fact, the situation got so dire that one day, gulping down several cups of black coffee to overcome the incapacitating inertia and lethargy that had set in, I got up the necessary energy to go and report the problem to the health and safety department at Brookline municipal offices.

I was met at the desk by a woman of advanced years but well preserved, with hair dyed platinum-blond and an expensive looking pearl string necklace draped around her saggy neck. She seemed a little aloof and not quite fully aware of her surroundings, or my presence, and greeted me in a frail voice with a faint smile, after which I introduced myself as a resident at 21 Gibbs Street and went straight to the point, telling her that I wished to have my apartment for carbon monoxide fumes. “I suspect the levels are dangerously high,” I said. And drawing on information from Moshe, a work colleague who also lived in Brookline to whom I related my problems, I continued with, “I was told the municipality carried out tests free of charge.”

Her smile turned somewhat wry, cracking the thick coating of powder on one side of her face, and in a slow measured delivery she asked how I knew it was carbon monoxide, looking up at me mockingly with her droopy eyes. I then proceeded to describe the symptoms, including light-headedness and and bouts of irregular heart beating, which I said were consistent with the effects of carbon monoxide toxicity, and added that they were worse at night when the oil furnace came on in the basement to heat the radiators. Seemingly convinced I was genuine, she said it would take at least four weeks to line up a visit by an inspector, which required the landlord’s approval. I said I wasn’t sure I could get it because he was difficult to contact, and being winter, I could well be dead by the time the inspector came round, at which she cracked a wider smile, wincing a little, as she looked up at me again with her semi-comatose eyes. I think I was starting to get on whatever nerves she had left. She probably thought I was a hypochondriacal ass-hole pushing his luck, or else I had hit upon a common complaint among residents living in the century-old apartment buildings in the area which should rightfully have burned down long ago and taken their mould and germs with them, and she was trying to figure out a way to fob me off. She then said if it was urgent, I could hire a private contractor to come check out the problem, but I would have to pay for it myself.

Somewhat disappointed, I thanked her for her time and left to consider my options, recalleing something else Moshe had told me, that the Brookline municipal authorities were in cahoots with landlords and rarely if ever addressed complaints by tenants. And given Chan’s miserliness, I doubt he would do anything to rectify the problem if I reported it, and might see it as an opportunity to order me to vacate; and any litigation on my part for unfair eviction didn’t bear thinking. Thus, after some long and hard consideration, I figured my best option was simply to move elsewhere. And if the deadly carbon monoxide fumes weren’t enough of a reason, there was also the dust and mould which rained down from the false ceiling whenever the Transylvanian couple upstairs trudged around in their living room and kitchen, irritating my nose and bronchial passages and infecting my sinuses and making me feel sick and miserable; and the flakes of lead paint peeling off the walls in the living room and bedroom, additing to the toxic mix of indoor pollution, and all grounds for litigation; not to mention the ineradicable stink of diapers and newborns that had infiltrated the walls, the floor and ceiling of the rundown bathroom.

I was sure I would have little problem finding another apartment nearby, even if I had to pay a little more, and I set about looking for one in earnest. I inspected several over the next few weeks, including a few in Allston, behind the supermarket. Although newly renovated and well presented, and considerably more expensive, they were smaller and situated in run-down neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, with signs all around they were on the turf of Brazilian and Central-American drug gangs. I was quickly running out of patience and energy, unable to find anything I liked, and in my desperation I called a number in a three-line advertisement in the classifieds section of the Globe for a one bedroom unit in Brighton, which seemed rather cheap for the area. The fast-talking rental agent who answered said it was still available, but I had to act fast because there’d been a lot of interest. So that same day, I drove to his office on Harvard Avenue in Brighton during my lunch hour, and in the comfort of his late model sedan, he drove me out to inspect Apartment #216 at 1455 Commonwealth Avenue, telling me on the way all about his Greek wife’s family and how they alternated celebrating Christmas and Easter, Orthodox one year and Catholic the next, and how much he wanted to visit Australia. It was all part of his sale’s pitch. Nevertheless, I obliged with a dissimulating nod of the head and a polite smile, concurring that Australia was indeed a beautiful country and that I dearly missed it.

A short time later we pulled up at the front entrance of the tall apartment bulding on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Warren Street and inside the agent introduced me to the manager and his wife in the office who took care of the administrative duties. Without further ado, the agent and I followed him up the short flight of stairs, then down the hallway to the apartment itself which, because of the upward slope of the land was actually on the second floor, there being with no first floor at this end of the building. As he opened the door and we walked inside, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was exactly what I was looking for: parquet floors throughout, no carpets to trap allergy-inducing dust and mites, thick solid walls and ceilings freshly painted, a modern bathroom with shower, and a kitchen with new stove and refrigerator, a balcony at the front with a sunny aspect and a view of Commonwealth Avenue; and all this for $980 per month – a steal! In case I wasn’t won over, the manager was eager to show me the gym and a sauna on the top floor, and the on-site laundry in the basement. I said the gym and sauna weren’t that important, so we made straight for the laundry in the bowels, waiting expectantly to charm me with its spotless condition and hassle-saving convenience, and clinch the deal.

To my horror, more puffs of steam resumed issuing, and once more the sickly sweet scent of laundry perfumes filled the air. In a last ditch attempt to reconcile my fears and anxiety, I tried reassuring myself there was really nothing to worry about, because if those chemicals were toxic, the FDA would have banned them. Besides, they were only a problem for a few hours in the evenings, until my olfactory system habituated to them,

Presently, however, I needed to stem the inflow because the fumes had begun to seriously irritate my eyes and nose, and I could feel the odd premature heartbeat in my chest. Figuring they were most likely getting in through the gaps between the door and the metal frame, I got out a roll of packing tape and proceeded to seal the edges all around. By the time I finished, the smell had already begun to diminish, and satisfied I had successfully solved the problem, I slumped back on the couch, relieved and pleased at my quick thinking and ingenuity.

My thoughts now turned to the design of the building itself, and what dumb and sadistic architect would put the steam vents from the laundry right under people’s noses. No doubt he too was Italian, seeing how they had a stranglehold on construction in Boston. “How much extra would it have cost them to divert the vents to an out of the way corner of the building?” I thought about dropping the manager a note to point out this design flaw, and how it could be rectified to improve the habitability of the apartments on the lower floors at the front, which otherwise were very clean and comfortable. But I doubted he would take any notice, and might see it as an excuse to kick out this troublemaker. Seeing I had largely solved the issue for the time being, I sat back and drank the rest of my beer listening to the radio.

Anyway, since this somewhat chastening and deflating revelation during the week, I’ve kept the front sliding door and windows firmly shut and gone over the edges again to seal up gaps I had missed, feeling for tiny drafts with the top of my lips against the frame. For now it seems to be working, with barely a whiff of that sickly sweet aroma getting in when the dryers are breathing out their toxic exhalations. But I’m a little worried that when summer comes round I will have to find another solution. That’s because I’ve also had to seal off the air-conditioner in the living room with a couple of plastic garbage bags taped together to form a large sheet which I draped over the internal console and taped to the wall and the floor, the reason being that I discovered fumes were also getting in through the holes in the wall for the tubes from the external unit on the balcony. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Last night, being Saturday, the laundry downstairs wasn’t so busy and I could hardly hear or smell a thing. That’s not to say I had a quiet and relaxing evening at home. My neighbors next door, a couple in their thirties whom I have yet to meet, were celebrating a birthday or special occasion with friends. And since I have no clear view of the entrance to the building from my window, and the peep-hole in my front door doesn’t allow me to see down the hallway, I could only guess at the number of guests from the times their door opened and banged shut, and the different voices, male and female. But there weren’t many; perhaps four; light company more than a party.

It started off quietly enough, but as the evening progressed, the guests and hosts began singing to the music so loudly I had trouble concentrating on my manuscript – so much for the sound-proof walls! Periodically, they would burst out into excited shouting followed by loud ‘whooping’, and it wasn’t long before they reached that point of intoxication where the slightest suggestion of humor triggers raucous and explosive cathartic laughter. To satisfy my curiosity, I couldn’t resist planting an ear to the wall to hear what all the excitement was about. From the few words and phrases I could make out, and the accompanying clapping and laughter, I gathered they were applauding physical feats of dexterity performed by one of the men, probably related to drinking, like sculling down several shots of tequila in quick succession while standing on his head, or something equally as talented and daring.

My curiosity sated, I sank back on the couch and tried to resume editing my manuscript. But the music started to grow even louder, with the drumbeats and low bass notes reverberating through the walls and the floor, up the sofa and armrest to my head, completely disrupting my ability to concentrate. And midnight wasn’t for another two hours, when the curfew against playing loud music on weekends kicked in. I put down my work and let my mind wonder, trying not to imagine what could be going on next door. It’s not that I resented their having an enjoyable time while I in my apartment trying to do work on a Saturday night, like a hopeless loner with no social life; it’s just that I have a long-standing aversion to social gatherings. large or small, going back to my high school days. To me they’re nothing more than battle zones for all kinds of sublimated aggression and hostility that bring out the worst in people, fought behind façades of mirth and merriment, imparting an ugly underlying belligerency to the proceedings which often spill over into physical conflict. In fact, that same fear and loathing resurfaced a few weeks ago, while still at Gibbs Street, thankfully saving me from a potentially sticky situation.

I had just arrived home from my laboratory in West Roxbury, having worked late, and was fumbling with the keys in the lobby, when the door of the adjacent apartment flung open and out stepped a girl whom I recognized but had never actually met, even though she and her three roommates, girls in their late twenties, had been living there for the past year. She seemed quite merry, holding up a glass of wine in her hand, and invited me to join them. Over her shoulder, I could see a sizeable crowd in their living room, standing around, drinking and talking, with music playing in the background, when suddenly I was seized by a not unfamiliar fear and tension. As much as I didn’t wish to offend her by coming across as unfriendly on this first, rather belated face-to-face encounter, I politely declined, saying I had to finish an urgent report, at which she dropped her face before inviting me to join them should I change my mind. I felt relieved as I closed the door behind me, while wandering at the same time whether I hadn’t squandered a perfectly good opportunity to banish my isolation and finally make some friends in this cold and indifferent city. But I felt vindicated when I ran into this nameless girl a few days later at the front steps, as she was going out while I was coming in, because she looked quite the distempered type, not saying a word, head bent down, and from her looks and lack of charm, there was little to recommend her.

Having abandoned all work on my manuscript I opted for some light reading and began flipping through the latest issue of “The Crimson.” It wasn’t de rigueur reading, but through it I could indulge my puerile vanity that I was now among the ranks of the privileged few who could claim a bona fide connection to Harvard, albeit as a non-tenured research academic; and partake of that blithe and detached style of literary expression exclusive to Ivy League intelligentsia. The articles covered a range of subjects; some intended for undergraduate consumption, others for wider readership, catering to the large and diverse population of graduate students and researchers in the affiliated institutes and hospitals, from countries all over. It was also a source of information on the history of the college and the wider university from the personal perspective of famous alumni, and for news on notable achievements by students and academics who had made the headlines, and whose stories were likely to come up in conversation; like one in a recent issue about a foreign student who arrived in the U.S. on his own with little money, and in four years managed to graduate summa cum laude in a combined MD/PhD degree from Harvard Medical School.

He was a little older than your average graduate student, and apparently had won a prestigious scholarship to Harvard, but still had to work odd jobs in the evenings to make ends meet while balancing his studies. And there he was pictured on the cover in his mortar and gown, replete with red sash draped around his neck, grinning contentedly alongside his proud parents, with a bright future assured. But the deep grooves lining his forehead and brows, and his wrinkled face and leathery complexion betrayed something unusual: the fact that he looked much older than the thirty years he claimed to be; unless he had so worked himself into the ground that he had aged inordinately fast; or inherited a condition that accelerated the ageing process.

Moshe thought as much when he barged into my office one morning, straight from the cafeteria, polystyrene cup of hot coffee in hand, looking visibly flustered and needing to get something off his chest. He took a seat and with an expression conveying unambiguous contempt and resentment he asked me what I knew about this particular student, referring to him by his surname, as if his notoriety preceded him. I don’t know why he presumed I knew of him, since I had zero contacts outside work, whereas Moshe seemed to know all the major players around the traps in Boston, and what they were up to. I said all I knew was what I read about him in “The Crimson,” to which he screwed up his nose and face even tighter, and narrowing his eyes, he leaned forward and accused him of being a liar. He said people who worked in the same laboratory down on the Quad told him he lied about his age to get the scholarship, and Harvard turned a blind eye because he could do the work of two post-docs at half the price. Venting more his rage, he said, “It’s dirty little Communists like him who are destroying our careers, cutting our salaries, and making us technicians”; all this because Harvard needed ‘cheap pipetters’ who could work all day on a bowl of rice, and even let them sleep in the laboratories at night.

I sympathized, saying I too had my doubts about his stated age, judging by the photograph on the cover, before commiserating with him that science was no longer the noble pursuit of pure knowledge it once was. “It’s now part of the scientific-industrial complex,” I lamented, “and is always looking for ways to reduce costs, which unfortunately means bringing in cheaper and cheaper labor from wherever it can find it.”

Moshe didn’t seem to like what he was hearing and looked at me a little puzzled, as if suspecting I was secretly on ‘their’ side. Perhaps subconsciously I was, because, if truth be told, ever since arriving in the States, I’ve had to wrestle with the guilt that I was taking a job away from an equally well qualified American post-doc, at a lower salary, and thereby contributing to the cheapening of science, as indeed was Moshe. My guilt, however, was ameliorated somewhat by the counter thought that I had brought my own set of knowledge and skills to exchange with my fellow scientists here, which in the end was for the benefit of science in general which knows no borders, but which unfortunately wasn’t immune from the laws of supply and demand. But I kept this to myself.

As for Moshe, I suspect the real reason he despised this high-achieving over-aged medical graduate as much as he did was not because he had cheated his way into Harvard, or devalued the price of ‘Western’ scientists; it was because with a double degree from the world’s top university he stood to gain huge, much more than Moshe could ever dream of, with his plain doctorate in immunology from a lesser-known foreign university. And his envy and jealousy were eating away at him.

Scanning down the index page of the current issue my attention was drawn to an article about homosexuality on campus. Curious to see how this perennially vexing issue in the academic sphere was viewed at Harvard, I turned to the relevant pages and started reading. Unsurprisingly, the article took a defensive stance, somewhat polemical in its support of the rights of homosexual students and staff, pointing out the fact that, although no longer taboo, homosexuality still aroused widespread hostility and hatred among students and faculty alike. It then went on to describe how gays and lesbians on campus were systematically discriminated against and subject to harassment, both overt and hidden, citing examples; and was calling on the university administrators for something to be done urgently to bring about needed change in attitudes and behavior.

It was obvious from the tone the author himself was proudly gay, as were his interviewees. But after reading a few more paragraphs, I could no longer stomach the heavily affected style and the superficial treatment of the subject, portraying gays and lesbians as innocent victims of irrational fears and organized hatred from students and faculty, which was largely condoned by the university, implying some kind of conspiracy at the highest level. Moreover, I couldn’t empathize with his trying to bring people’s attention to the plight of a minority whose exaggerated affectations on the whole become boring quite quickly, and who would otherwise be ignored and left alone if they didn’t find some excuse to loudly flaunt their differentness and protest their supposed persecution, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Having said that, I’m tempted to believe that the persistence of the homosexual archetype in society may serve a hidden purpose; what quite that is, I don’t know for sure; perhaps they provide a necessary element of reflective piquancy and context to human relations; and in a society founded on clear-cut distinctions and unequivocal catergorization in all spheres of life, they define what’s normal and what isn’t in the realm of gender identity, so as to maximize the efficiency of the production process.

I went on to another article, one more in the biographical vein, on a famous alumnus, namely Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was either to mark the anniversary of his birth, or commemorate his death – I can’t recall; and chronicled his life as a member of the New England ruling elite, and a descendant of famous forebears who like him were all Harvard alumni. It went on to describe his commitment and service to public life and his humanitarianism, as well as his attempt in his early years to rebel against his privileged upbringing by trying to defy his parents’ expectations that he follow tradition and go on to Harvard, believing his wealth and privilege were an obstacle to his calling as a social reformer. Apparently he was on the verge of defecting when his father sat him down one evening and impressed on him that if he did not attend Harvard, like his own father and his great-grandfather had done before him, he would not only have to bear the odium of being the first Roosevelt to break with that proud family tradition; but worst of all, he would bring shame on himself and his family by betraying his class!

In the end, FDR did follow in the tradition of his forebears and attended Harvard, and became the reformer he always wanted to be, on the grandest scale. I guess the implied moral of the story was that there’s no contradiction between privilege and elitism on the one hand, and fighting for social justice and equality on the other; class and privilege can coexist with social progress. In fact, the privileged elite have a moral duty to use their social standing and wealth and knowledge to advance society as a whole in a civilized manner, and thereby improve the conditions and prospects of the lower orders by providing them with opportunities to prosper. But this didn’t necessarily mean helping the disadvantaged overthrow the capitalist system as a whole and abolish class divisions altogether, because, were this to happen, there’d be no-one to help lift themselves out of poverty – or so was my cynical take on this specious between-the-lines argument. Thus, there would always be a role for institutions like Harvard to instill in people like FDR a sense of privilege and power they can put to use to advance the cause of fairness and good in the world. With this thought, in a sudden turn of elitist self-absorption, I felt a little jolt of smug pride for sharing an historic connection, and wondered if there was a modern day young FDR coming up through the student ranks of his alma mater, not necessarily related. Would they too be tempted to lay aside their obligations to their class and use their privilege for the greater good of humanity?

Meanwhile the mini-party next door at #215, 1455 Commonwealth Avenue was heating up and midnight was not for another hour. Amidst the throbbing rhythm of dance music, the tapping of shoes back and forth on the parquet floor, and the sound of doors opening and shutting, and glasses clinking, it appeared the men had gotten into a shouting contest, goading one another on, in that unrestrained manner of machismic drunks, fueling my suspicion that they were now indulging in more than just alcohol. Then suddenly the noise and shouting stopped, prompting a sigh of relief that thankfully the party had come to an early end and I could think about going to bed. But my joy was short-lived because the music and shouting abruptly started up again, just as loud. Resigned to have to endure the muffled cacophony for another hour, my imagination began to wander as I tried to picture what could possibly be taking place on the other side of the wall.

The tone and volume of people’s voices kept changing, with everyone talking over one another and yelling. Something told me the charged atmosphere had reached, or would soon reach a critical point where something had to give, as invariably happens when people’s rational faculties are obliterated by alcohol and mood-altering substances, and stray comments are apt to be taken out of context. To hear more clearly what they were arguing over I got up and pressed my ear against the wall, upon which a disturbing thought entered my head. And that was, “What if someone had a gun and fired off some shots?” But I reassured myself the ten-inch prefabricated concrete wall between us would stop any stray bullets should the arguing descend to that level.

I thought the party had finally come to the end without incident when there was another lull in proceedings. But the shouting started up again, and this time a fight actually did break out because I could hear objects being thrown against the wall and the smashing of glasses, and people falling about, knocking over furniture. I thought my worst fears were realized and someone had pulled a gun or a knife when the women started screaming at the top of their voices. I scrambled into the kitchen and jumped up onto the sink, placing my ear over the grille of the common ventilation duct through which I could hear their voices a bit more clearly. They were swearing and threatening one another amidst the shrill, terrified cries of the women trying to intervene. But I still couldn’t work out what exactly they were fighting about.

I thought, “Surely the manager who lives somewhere on the premises would have heard the commotion by now and either come down to warn them to stop, or called the police, because I certainly wasn’t going to knock on their door and ask them to pipe down.” I returned to the living room and slumped back on the sofa, as I recalled a party back in Reno where a fight broke out between two colleagues. It was over something most people regarded as too abstruse an historical issue and largely irrelevant in present circumstances to merit interest beyond bemused curiosity, but which to one of them at least went to the core of his identity. That’s the thing about alcohol; it affects people differently. In my case, an excess makes me laugh at th drop of a hat and talk loud, but most embarrassingly, it disrupts my ability to articulate my thoughts. Believing I have something insightful to say, I get so frustrated by my inability to express myself that I end my sentences mid-stream, leaving me to ponder confusedly over my own unintelligible articulations while staring blankly at the perplexed looks on people’s faces who haven’t the faintest idea what I’m talking about.

In others, however, the disinhibitory effect of alcohol brings out their violent side, as in the case of Liam, a colleague in Reno who would go from mild-mannered and polite, to belligerent and downright threatening. What’s more, it took only a couple of beers, even though he could out-drink the rest of us put together. In his case, it seemed alcohol unleashed all his suppressed anxieties and demons, most of which were invariably connected with his growing up in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles.’ And God help anyone who happened to inadvertently look into his eyes when so affected, as he threatened to kill them by brutal means with frightening conviction, as happened at this particular party.

The funny thing was that his switch was tripped by a fellow Irishman, David, who had come on a sabbatical to work in Liam’s laboratory. The two seemed to get on like best of friends from old, but Liam took offense at how David kept glancing at him furtively in the eyes on this particular night, as they discussed something with others; and having already drunk quite a bit, he launched himself at his countryman, spitting venom with his fierce bloodshot eyes as he swung his fists while slurring accusations that he was a Protestant agent sent to spy on him here in America, and threatening to knee-cap him and leave him for dead in the gutter, that a bunch of us had to jump in and physically separate them. Things eventually quieted down, but for the rest of the evening they were kept well apart. The strangest thing of all, however, was that the following day, they were back working side by side, assisting each other, as if nothing had happened; the bitter sectarian divide back in their homeland all but forgotten.

So much for parties; and that’s why I avoid them. Whether it’s the alcohol, or the close proximity of people gathered in a confined space, or the pheromones and animal odors, and the loud noise that precludes reasoned thought, fueling impulsive behavior; people feel compelled to assert their foolishness against their better judgment and make complete idiots of themselves. Then, as the party progresses, their expectations for ‘something to happen’ are raised higher and higher until a palpable tension fills the air; and when it looks like nothing will, they start clamoring to make something happen, while drinking themselves stupid to see who can be the most obnoxious when relieved of their normal inhibitions and rational thinking.

I recall the same atmosphere of pretence and expectation, and pent up angst and contest awaiting release at the first ever real party I went to back in high school. Although nothing as violent transpired in this case, it was the scene of an unexpected encounter, made memorable by the fact that it summarily dashed my fantasies of idealized romance which had thus far sustained me in this tumultuous period; and the deep sense of failure and embarrassment I felt at my misguided preoccupation as a result, went some way to implant in my head an abiding aversion for social gatherings of this nature.

It was the week before the end-of-the-year matriculation exams in our final year, and to mark the occasion, a student in my class, older than the rest of us, having repeated the year, and a bit of a renegade, organized a party at the house he shared with friends who weren’t students, and invited everyone from sixth form and some from fifth form to come along. I didn’t really want to go, but not wishing to offend Martin, who for some reason had been trying to befriend me, ever since he invited a bunch of us to his tent on the mid-year school camp at Tidal River on Wilsons Prom smoke hash and listen to Carole sing folk songs and play her guitar; I felt obliged to go and repay his generosity, as it were, even though I didn’t enjoy the experience. And so I turned up on the night, by myself, with a bottle of red wine.

The house was full by the time I arrived, with the music playing loud on the stereo and everyone dancing away. But as much as I tried to fit in, I just couldn’t find anyone to talk to and felt totally out of place. Part of the reason was that, while everyone was drinking beer, I quietly sipped my red wine, which although I was happy to share, no-one else seemed keen on. It’s not that I didn’t like beer; I occasionally had a glass with dinner at home. My distaste was founded on a rather convoluted principle which in retrospect probably reflected both my innate stubbornness and as well as an underlying elitist disposition, even though I didn’t consciously set out to come across as arrogant. It had to do with the fact that in popular culture, beer was regarded as the ‘drink of workers’, that is, the laboring classes; whereas wine was the preserve of the ‘upper class.’ And since both my parents worked in factories, the thought of partaking of this iconic beverage out of specious pride and solidarity with them, when I myself wasn’t a worker, somehow seemed patronizing and false, especially now that I was on the verge of entering the exclusive realm of university.

I tried explaining my iconoclastic reasoning to a friend who came up to chat. But he walked away sipping his beer, apparently unconvinced, and his belief that I was a conceited snob ashamed of his roots, confirmed, leaving me to sit on the corner drinking my wine, slowly sinking into myself, desperately trying to think of an excuse to leave early without offending Martin and my fellow pre-matriculants, whose outward display of ‘adultness’ frankly shocked me.

I was witnessing a side of them I had never seen before, even among the normally meek and demure ones who in class sat at the back and said little. But here they were transformed into totally different people, singing and dancing, drinking and smoking, their inhibitions lifted, with arms around each other. Everyone exuded an unnerving confidence and self-assuredness which in me was totally lacking. It was as if they knew they were on the threshold of adulthood and were signaling to one another their willingness and readiness to assume the full duties and responsibilities that went with it, like proud torch-bearers of the ‘next generation.’ This came across not only in their demeanor, but in the way they talked, employing ‘adult’ words and phrases, and expressing ‘grown-up’ sentiments and opinions about ‘serious’ social issues and other ‘grown up’ subjects, like marriage and families and sex.

At the same time, I sensed there was something contrived about their outward maturity. It was like they were aping adults, either from careful study, or having unconsciously picked up on their ways and manners by close association. “But who?” I wondered. All the adults I knew, namely my parents and my uncles and aunts, none of them shared their views and beliefs, nor did they behave like them at parties or social functions. I was both captivated and repulsed by what I seeing and hearing, while feeling completely alienated, unable to find within me either the resolve or the resource to be like them. And so, while they skulled down beers, and smoked cigarettes and joints, and snuck off to the bedrooms, I retreated to the kitchen and sank further into my shell, quietly sipping my glass of wine, while desperately trying to get up the courage to quietly make my exit.

My uneasiness was noticed by a girl whom I knew only by sight, and who to my surprise walked up to me. Her name was Ruth, and although in a lower form, she held a distant fascination, and so I felt somewhat nervous alone with her in the kitchen. I had first become aware of her some years earlier, in the midst of pubertal change, when the female form and its mysterious erotic allure, as represented in some of the more shapely female teachers, begins to find expression in girls my own age, and they become objects of desire in their own right. But in the past year she had begun to transcended her nubile appeal to the point where in my imagination she had become the incarnation of the various heroines in the Zola novels I read avidly in my room at night, even though they weren’t prescribed reading, ‘Thérèse Raquin’ being the eponymous doomed heroine to whom she imparted a particularly vivifying presence.

But since we had never actually met, the sole inspiration for my romantic musings over Ruth were the few occasions I happened to brush past her in the crush of students in the corridor between classes, and overheard her talking with her girlfriends, half-convinced it wasn’t accidental; and watching her from a distance walking home from school with them, laughing and gesturing, occasionally glancing back towards me and my friends following. It was enough to pick up on a certain coyness and vulnerability she projected which set her apart and turned her into an object of fascination and a strange attraction that was neither carnal nor reverential, but a feeling that through her I could escape and become someone else, but with no idea of exactly how.

Thus, I was a little taken aback when she approached me in the kitchen wanting to talk, wondering whether this was coincidence or fate. In a voice that sounded a little too girlish for a Zola heroine, with a hint of an English accent, she asked me straight out what kind of music I liked, believing perhaps that I had retreated to the kitchen to avoid the loud rock music playing in the living room. My nervousness caused me to hesitate and I stumbled, but once I got a few words out, my unease fell away. I said I liked “The Rolling Stones”, but also classical music, like Mozart and Tchaikovsky, “although I’m not musically trained,” I added, in case she took me for a snob. I noticed she had poured herself some of my wine, and with that same coy smile I had seen for afar, she said that she too liked classical music, and after a slight pause added that her ambition was to become a ballet dancer. Betraying surprise, I confessed that I thought all ballerinas were Russian, to which she smiled and lowered her eyes. But as I quickly thought it over in my head, I could just about picture her in one of Degas’s paintings, the one depicting young ballerinas practicing their exercises at the bar.

She said her favorite ballet was Swan Lake and asked me if I’d heard of Margot Fonteyn. I nodded and said I had seen her perform on variety shows on television, and that’s when I was struck by her remarkable likeness to her idol in her prime. She had the same long raven black hair and alabaster skin, slightly oval face with rounded features, big, dark-colored eyes, pearly white teeth with ruby red lips, dimpled cheeks when she smiled, a neat, slightly retroussé nose, and not too thin or petite a figure. She lamented that it was difficult to break into the ballet field in Australia, and there weren’t many opportunities here, and her wish was to go overseas for a number of years and attend a dance academy in England. But she was passionate about all types of dance and her favorite contemporary performer was Kate Bush, whom I said I had also seen perform in music videos on television, keeping to myself the fact that I didn’t much admire her. She was also eager to tell me that her favorite band was “XTC,” an English pop-group which had some ‘hits’ on the music charts back then, in the late 1970s, whom I also didn’t much like, or their songs, but kept to myself, politely nodding to acknowledge her taste in popular music.

To break the silence that ensued, I made some trite observations about objects in the kitchen that caught my eye. But she seemed quite relaxed, if not a little smug at having put me on the spot, and pressing her advantage she confessed to having a ‘crush’ on Andy Partridge, the lead singer of “XTC”, as a wicked grin came over her face while staring unflinchingly into my eyes, prompting me to give a few acknowledgeing nods and look away. Up until this point my unrequited fascination with Ruth was largely undiminished. But her present admission revealed that, despite her high cultural aspirations, her taste in music and preoccupations were just as banal as the other girls’. Suddenly my estimation of her as a muse-like figure on whom I projected my fantasies and romantic visions of female charm and beauty, collapsed. I could see she was nothing more than a conceited twat who thought she could exploit my shyness and diffidence to provoke my discomfort and jealousy for her own puerile amusement. I said nothing more and sensing my irritation she went and joined the others in the living room; and soon thereafter, on some excuse I left the party.

As it happened, I met up with her two years later at university. Martin happened to be in my second year chemistry class and I occasionally ran into her with him on campus, unbeknownst to me they had been going out together since high school. Ruth herself was enrolled in an Arts degree part-time, while pursuing studies in dance at another college. She seemed rather shy and coy, head bowed and not talking a lot, which I sensed was her way of trying to flirt, inviting me to compete with Martin for her affections. But whatever fascination she once held, it had now all but ceased, and to put a move on her just to flatter her puerile vanity and provoke Martin’s protective insticnt, was a waste of my time and energy. Moreover, there was something discomfiting I sensed about her and Martin. They were trying to come across as ingenuous and level-headed with a little too much openness.

You see, I had since figured out why Ruth kept harping on about the band “XTC” at the end-of-year party in high school. The name was homophonous with the ‘party drug’ ‘ecstasy’, a methamphetamine derivative, which was popular in dance clubs where music by bands like “XTC” was played. It probably also explained her smug forwardness that night, and why she kept referring to the name with a supercilious air, as if to prod my ignorance for her own amusement, and show me up as a proud idiot who knew little of the world outside his sheltered existence, confirming my conclusion on the night that she was a twat after all. What’s more, Martin had an unusually keen interest in organic chemistry and said he wanted to major in it, whereas my own interests lay in the biological sciences.

Nevertheless, we continued to hang out together, on and off campus, I tagging along, like part of some kind of platonic ménage-à-trois. Through all this, however, I couldn’t let go of my suspicion they had an ulterior motive in trying to cultivate a friendship, most likely related to Martin’s hidden ambitions to carve a niche in the lucrative recreational drug market, having learned enough organic chemistry to synthesize ‘stuff’ himself. All in all, my shit-detector was telling me to be wary of them. But as our academic paths diverged, my interaction with Martin fell off and consequently I saw less and less of Ruth.

After third year we lost touch altogether, but then one day, now pursuing a doctorate in physiology, I bumped into Ruth again on campus in the student Union at lunch time. I don’t know what she doing here, because she wasn’t enrolled in any course at the university and seemed lost. She hadn’t changed much, put on a few pounds perhaps, which, although not too becoming of a would-be ballerina, seemed to enhance her voluptuousness in her black stockings and skirt just above the knees, with lips painted a glossy plum. She was keen to tell me that she had split up with Martin, unable to put up with his mood swings after he started behaving strangely. She effused a decided air of solicitousness, trying to advertize the fact that she was now free and available. For a moment I thought about asking her out, to a film or something, seeing I had nothing to lose, and thereby fill that gap that had opened up in my life and was starting to increasingly preoccupy me. But my suspicions and reservations resurfaced, and so I simply commiserated with her and bade her goodbye until next time.

I had all but forgotten about her when I ran into her again, this time at the bus stop, about a year later. She called out to me from behind and I remembered the voice. But when I turned around I could barely recognize her. She had a frighteningly over-zealous smile on her face, brimming with glee from cheek to cheek, as she gushed out all kinds of flattering compliments about how wonderful I looked and how pleased she was to see me. Suffice it to say I felt a little embarrassed at the attention and returned her compliments, saying how great she looked too, and how good it was to see her after such a long absence, which brought an even bigger smile to her face, as if she had chanced upon a miracle.

In truth, however, I was quite shocked by her appearance. She looked nothing like the ethereal, nymph-like muse in high school who had inspired a mysterious fascination, nor the coy coquette I came to know later, flirting with my attentions, seeking validation for her uncertain choice of partner. She now looked gaunt and thin, and her face looked ravaged by unnatural causes, and her teeth behind her seemingly fixed smile were stained brown from cigarettes, and looked worn and decayed. It was obvious her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer or a lecturer in modern dance had dried up. Moreover there was a manic edge to her exaggerated joy, as if she was desperate for someone to latch onto and be rescued from her miserable predicament; and in me, she must have truly believed she’d found him.

She made no reference to Martin at all, and I didn’t bother asking. But when I mentioned I was heading overseas to the States in a month’s time, having accepted a post in Reno, after submitting my PhD dissertation, her face lit up again, as if her prayers were truly answered. Seeing how eager she was for friendship, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps we were destined for each other all along, and this was the chance I had been waiting for to finally requite that mysterious attraction I still harbored for her deep down, through all my reservations and suspicions. It had arrived via a circuitous route, but true love often does. She seemed all to prepared to acknowledge her errors and now wished to redeem herself and put her life in order. She was just the partner I needed to accompany me to the States, and help me settle in and be accepted by my peers, all of whom most likely had partners, some with a young kid or two. All I had to do was pop the question; I knew she wouldn’t refuse. Moreover, I felt strangely comfortable sitting beside her on the bus, as if I’d known her all my life. But again her dubious past intruded. “Is she truly free of Martin’s influence?” I wondered. And can I really trust someone whose judgment is likely to have been permanently impaired by past and perhaps present indiscretions and dalliances, and the psychological damage they wreak? When my stop came up, I bade her goodbye, hoping to see her again before I left. But that was the last time I ever saw Ruth, and I have no idea what became of her.

Fortunately, with midnight approaching, the mayhem next door started to die down, and soon I heard the front door opening and closing as guests began to depart. After a short lull, the door on the adjoining balcony slid open and I heard the shuffling of outdoor chairs. This was followed by loud belching. It sounded like one of the men was vomiting over the railing, probably straight onto the dormant laundry vents. I got up to peer through the vertical blinds, but the head-high frosted glass partition prevented me from seeing. A second man then stepped out to console the one throwing up. He had the annoying habit of ending every sentence or phrase with ‘man’, as in “Don’t worry about it, man. Shit happens, man. It’ll be alright, man.” It sounded so soppy and schmalzy, like something out of a mid-day soap opera on television, and just as stomach-turning. A short time later they both went back inside, out of the cold.

This morning, the couple next-door were unusually quiet. I could barely hear anything through the wall. I suspect they were sleeping off their hangovers, or regrets about how the party ended; perhaps they had an argument and are not talking. As for me, I had trouble falling asleep from bouts of dysrhythmia throughout the night which kept jolting me out of my sleep. It’s a strange sensation; just as I descend into pleasant sleep, suddenly my heart give a series of forceful ectopic contractions, causing me to spring open my eyes and lay there in the dark wondering when it’s going to stop so I can get some sleep. But these episodes aren’t confined to nighttime; they also strike during the day. And when they do, I become very light headed, and if I rise too quickly my brain goes blank and I feel like collapsing. I’ve noticed they tend to occur when my heart rate slows right down, below 50 beats per minute, although this is no allusion to my level of fitness, which is terribly wanting.

It’s something I had never experienced before coming to Boston. I now suspect there are multiple triggers which include laundry perfumes and chemicals, and various air-borne particulates and pollutants from car exhausts and other domestic sources in winter, even windshield wiper fluid. Come to think of it, this was what first triggered my irregular heart rhythm.

It was the week I had driven in from Reno, just before Christmas, 1995. I was staying in a motel out in Sharon, and after snowing overnight, as I drove out to buy some groceries from the local supermarket, I stopped at a gas station to fill up the reservoir under the hood with blue colored windshield wiper fluid. It was something I had never had to resort to in Reno, since the bright winter sunshine ensured the snow didn’t stick around, and usually the car defroster and plain water sufficed to melt any ice and clear the gunk from the windscreen. But as I drove away from the gas station in Sharon and switched on the wipers, squirting some of the blue fluid onto the windscreen, I sensed the aroma of sweetly-scented ethanol seeping into my car, and almost immediately I felt a peculiar beating in my chest which brought on a funny dazed sensation. It happened again the following day, and that’s when I made the connection, prompting me to ask my new colleagues at the hospital, some of whom are MDs, whether they had experienced anything similar. They all looked at me with feigned incredulity, as if I was hypochondriacal lunatic. But I could tell they were hiding something, like I had hit upon a secret and they were sworn to silence.

One particularly perplexing observation is that when I’m having one of these episodes at night and I get up and go lie down on the sofa in the living room, my heart’s normal rhythm is restored almost instantly and I can get some sleep, albeit a little uncomfortable on the split, narrow cushions. It suggests there’s something about the mattress itself or the materials its made from to which I’m sensitive, even though it’s practically brand new and I’ve taken the added precaution of encasing it in a zip-up anti-mold cover which has been treated to kill bedbugs and mites. The sofa, however, which was floor stock, and probably sat upon by hundreds of people, elicits no such adverse response. Hmm, very strange!

In any case, I’ve made an appointment to visit an allergist. He’s going to conduct some skin tests on the inside of arm to an array of common allergens, mainly pollen but also animal dander. It may not definitively answer the question of what’s triggering my irregular heart rhythm, but it should identify whether or not I’m atopic. That way I can take practical measures to minimize my general exposure to allergens, and hopefully reduce the frequency and severity of the attacks and associated symptoms. I certainly don’t want to take any medications, like my boss advised me to, after I described to him my symptoms. I could tell from the wry, condescending grin on his face he thinks it’s all in my head, an ‘affective disorder,’ as they say. But I can also tell he doesn’t really know himself what’s really causing it, and has probably come across patients with similar symptoms, if he hasn’t experienced them himself. And being the conformist shit that he is, he simply spouts the medical party line, so to speak. He also suggested I get my heart checked after I mentioned that my father died of a coronary infarct in his sixties. He said it will reveal whether there were any conduction abnormalities to account for my dysrhythmia, in which case all it requires is a simple non-invasive procedure to fix the problem, and he offered to set me up to see a friend of his in the cardiology department at the VA hospital who he says is very experienced in such matters.

His cardiologist friend, however, strikes me as a rather brusque and imperious type, and there’s something inscrutably and uncomfortably odd about him. He’s somewhere in his fifties, Anglo-American, standing well over six feet tall, balding with a moustache, and walks with a very stiff back, rarely smiling, with a rather creepy glint in his eyes; every bit the archetypal senior Army medic. Moreover, I get the impression the only reason my boss wants me to go see him is because he’s trying to work his way up the Veterans’ Administration medical hierarchy by ingratiating himself with this highly placed senior officer, by sending him patients. In any case, I’ve decided against visiting him for now, and also declined my boss’s offer to write me a script for ‘happy pills’, to stop me worrying about the problem, which he seems to think exacerbates it, even though I explained to him that my own observations point to a real, organic cause, which is environmental in nature. But like the condescending shit that he is, he dismissed them with a  polite smile, even though he knows I’m right.




After breakfast, I decided to take the “T” to downtown and walked around for a couple of hours, so by the time I headed home I was dead tired, ready for some badly needed ‘natural medicine’, as my mother calls it. On the way back I stopped at the supermarket to buy some groceries, including a bag of coffee beans from Colombia. The first thing I did when I got home was brew myself a strong cup, which paradoxically made me feel very sleepy before I finished it. Thus, seizing the opportunity, I covered myself with a warm blanket and dozed off on the couch. It was a heavy kind of sleep, dreamless, like I’d been heavily drugged. I woke up an hour and a half later feeling completely refreshed, having slobbered all over the pillow and not moved an inch, with my heart beating out a perfectly regular rhythm. I looked out the balcony door sealed air-tight with packing tape around the edges and noticed the sky was very clear and blue, and the branches of trees were swaying in the light breeze.

I’m convinced the only way to cure my condition is to get out of Boston altogether and go live on an island surrounded by water, well away from modern civilization and all the pollution. My bradycardia induced dysrhythmia has nothing to do with hidden stress, as my dentist seems to think, which can be meditated away with the correct relaxation techniques. Apparently, he swears by it, having had similar heart issues of his own in the past. But I’m not convinced he’s cured. He’s got that ‘fed up’ look about him which he’s trying to mask with false contentedness and positive thinking bordering on denial, so as to reconcile himself with living in Boston, and Brookline in particular, where he has a successful practice, tending to the dental needs of his co-religionists and various resident gentiles.



Bee Queensland Spear Lily CropAustralia is a strange place. It’s the least populated country in the world and yet it’s where human in vitro fertilization, or IVF for short, was developed. These two facts are related even if they appear contradictory. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a scientific breakthrough of this nature to take place in China, or India. In these countries there’s no need to artificially conceive human beings, since there are more than enough produced by natural means to meet the demand. In fact, in China couples are restricted to one child, and the practice of infanticide of healthy female babies is widespread in the provinces where girls are deemed a burden on the family. But in Australia it’s another story. It’s as if the very sparseness of the population inspired a scientific discovery that has the potential to supply the deficiency. Thus, couples who would otherwise have gone childless can now contribute to solving the nation’s ‘population or perish’ quandary by producing their very own biological heirs.
An interesting and somewhat paradoxical side fact about IVF is that the technology was actually developed in sheep of which Australia has the highest population of any country in the world, not just per capita. I recall this from my days as a graduate student at Monash University, and one day in particular. That day, my department was abuzz with talk of the upcoming seminar by the scientist credited with a key discovery that made IVF possible, an alumnus of both the university and the department. Therefore you were apt to be looked upon as a heretic if you weren’t suitably seized with anticipation, and not to attend his presentation would be tantamount to treason. Therefore, since I was already on the margins of that artificial community reeking of forced collegiality for failing to be properly overjoyed at Australia’s win in the Americas Cup, and I had at least two more years to spend in their midst before I graduated with my doctorate, I thought it in my best interests to comply with their expectations and go along.
On that momentous occasion the entire Department of Physiology went almost ape-shit, prompted by the declaration of the then Prime Minister on morning television, a Labor man and ‘friend of the workers’, appropriately sloshed and joking with reporters egging him on like a mischievous scallywag that any boss who sacked a worker for failing to turn up to work on time that day “was a bum!” The celebrations began at the front entrance draped in yellow and green crêpe streamers, and inside the two story rectangular building with its wrap-around black mirrored windows there were Australian flags everywhere, in the main office and in the corridors, with people walking around tipsy holding a glass of champagne in one hand and waving a little flag in the other. To say the least, I felt a little uneasy confronted by this spontaneous show of unashamed nationalism first thing in the morning. But not wishing to spoil the mood, I put on a wide grin and happily accepted a glass of champagne from one of the secretaries and joined the raucous din in the common room on the ground floor where they were replaying the finish of the race on television. But my feigned glee couldn’t hide my inner revulsion, not least because I could see no direct connection between the science discipline of physiology and the bourgeois leisure sport of yachting, vulgarized somewhat in this case by the fact that the Australian challenge was bankrolled by a deluded Scottish immigrant from Western Australia, a ship welder by trade turned multi-millionaire property developer and a thorough fraudster with a misplaced Gatsby complex.
But unbeknownst to me the skipper of the victorious Australian yacht was a Monash alumnus and had a past connection with the department as a student. And this apparently was reason enough for everyone to put off work for the morning and, as per the Prime Minister’s decree, celebrate with the departmental chairman’s blessing and his marking the occasion with an impromptu speech about underdogs punching above their weight and winning against expectations on foreign shores, or something like that. Had I known this, it still wouldn’t have altered my attitude, because there was something repugnant about people’s collective exultation that morning. It was like blind volk pride, but one devoid of any mythistorical foundations, except for a crass and confused maudlin nationalism that was perfectly encapsulated by the “Men at Work” song they kept playing and singing over and over in the common room on the ground floor, with its ambiguously boastful refrain, “I come from the land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder.” It captured the larrikinism and irreverence at the heart of the mythical Australian character, while acknowledging its unenlightened inspiration in the form of alcoholic excess and the mindless and the arrogant bravado it engendered, symbolized by the emblem of a boxing kangaroo on the specially commissioned flag on the victorious Australian yacht flying below the national standard. But they took it all to heart, singing along with unbridled gusto, daring anyone to criticize them for beating ‘the Yanks’ in their own back yard, thereby vindicating in their own minds their loyal albeit insolent subservience to the British crown, while mollifying their inner pusillanimity for lacking the gumption of their enviable recalcitrant cousins to rise up and break free from their colonial fetters.
The IVF seminar was held in the main medical building, and when lunch-time came round off I went to hear this now world-famous reproductive biologist who had put Monash on the map, and in the process get one over on its stodgy establishment rival in the city center. I assumed it would be well attended by the medical faculty, but when I got there to my surprise the auditorium was literally packed to the rafters, with people crowding the front entrances in the foyer trying to get a look inside where there was only standing room along the walls. Instead I went round the back and managed to get in via the late entrance up the stairs and found a spot to stand at the very top row from where I had a good view of the podium and could just make out the back and the side of Prof. Alex Tounton. He was sitting alone in the first row and seemed relaxed, unperturbed that he was the center of attention of this large audience who had come from all over the campus and beyond to hear of his groundbreaking discovery first hand.
Although seated he looked on the short side, a bit stocky and swarthy with thickish lips and with an extra chin, and his face seemed a little flushed in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the over-crowded auditorium. He was of definite European extraction, but didn’t strike one as ‘ethnic’. Perhaps it was his Gallic-sounding surname, but there was enough of a rustic aspect about him that he could well have passed for a peasant in a Zola novel I read in my teens when I had aspirations of quitting high school and running off to join the railways. But in his silver-framed glasses and in the enlightened surrounds of academia, it appeared in his present incarnation he had transcended the lowly origins of his forbears. He was somewhere in his late thirties or early forties, young for a professor, and gave one the impression he wanted people to think he had little interest in his personal appearance. Thus, he wore a plain crumpled open-necked shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, as if dragged away from his laboratory where he was up to his arms in work, to give this impromtu presentation, and his mop of curly, grizzled hair which covered his ears was in bad need of a trim, with the odd stray lock falling down over his forehead to meet his silver frame glasses. His maverick mien was completed by a definite shadow around his jaw and sides.
Seeing the time had arrived, the dean sitting a few empty seats away signaled to him and then got up to the podium to introduce the esteemed speaker. As he did so, the noisy din turned to a polite hush and then an attentive silence. As Prof. Tounton listened with studied indifference, the dean began by going through the speaker’s biographical details, explaining that his breakthrough contribution to the IVF revolution was to develop the methodology for a critical step in the process that enabled the safe freezing and thawing of human eggs. He said Prof. Tounton had developed this particular trick in sheep with others in the Department of Physiology in the medical faculty at Monash, and then in collaboration with endocrinologists in Cambridge and in Edinburgh, they were able to tweak it and apply it to human ova which enabled their safe storage after extraction from donors. Adopting a more sober tone, the dean, a medical doctor by training, then went on to say that this invaluable discovery made it possible for infertile couples to experience the joy of parenting their very own children, something undreamt of until now.
As he sat listening with head bowed at this long-winded introduction, Prof. Tounton could not have failed to pick up on the note of condescension in the dean’s praise. As such, he not only resented this pompous ass trying to pass himself off as some kind of latter-day, antipodean Medici; he was also thinking of some unflattering cryptic remark with which to return the compliment and convey his disdain for his host and what he represented, something his fellow scientists in the audience could pick up on and be reassured he hadn’t compromised on his principles and ‘sold out’ to these mockers of their oath.
Perhaps I was reading too much in the self-assured equanimity he projected to channel my own unflattering views of the people in dark suits seated in the front row alongside him. Invariably they were all educated in expensive and proud imitations of English public schools that turned out these staunch defenders of British values and culture to fill the higher levels of administration in educational institutions and government bureaucracies alike, in this colonial outpost. In any case, I sensed a definite antipathy, but being the consummate, dispassionate scientist that he was, as the dean made way for him, Prof. Tounton rose from his seat, flashed a perfunctory smile at his host and distinguished guests and to rising applause he assumed the podium with the affected nonchalance of one who was the master of his domain, albeit a slightly roguish one.
As I stood there listening to the history and development of IVF in Prof. Tounton’s measured and rather monotone delivery that conveyed neither excitement nor apathy, but a fatalistic honesty, I was struck by a sense of futility. It got me thinking about what could have possibly attracted him to study human reproduction and failings thereof. What was there a history of infertility among close friends and relatives that inspired him to want to discover a cure growing up, and once at university this led him to take an interest in IVF research, fascinated by the possibility of making babies in test-tube, once the stuff of science fiction? Or was it a case where, such was the depth of his sexual awakening at university, that he underwent an epiphany of sorts, and being something more tractable than trying to understand the mystery of sexuality itself, he turned his intellectual curiosity to demystifying the fertilization process instead, which led him to the nascent field of IVF? Or did he simply stumble into it while looking for a project for his Honours year, and realizing he had a knack for this type of hands-on research, and being himself among like-minded people, he decided to pursue it as far as it took him, with an eye to forging a career for himself in science?
From my own perspective, however, although I was mildly engaged by the science, deep down I had no real interest in knowing how eggs taken from a woman’s ovary could be frozen for later use, thawed and fertilized in a dish with donor sperm under a microscope, and then inserted back into her own womb, or that of another woman for implantation, gestation and ultimately the birth of the fetus; or in the psychosexual subtext of his talk, that the climactic paroxysms of ecstasy that informed human sexual relations which had evolved over tens of thousands of years so human beings could procreate by following their instinct for periodic sexual gratification, this was now redundant, superfluous to the need.
Nor could I empathize with childless couples now given the opportunity to become biological parents. Their children would still had no say in their creation, and there was no logical reason to expect they would grow up to be any happier than those conceived naturally; unless their ever grateful parents lavished them with so much more love and affection for the ‘miraculous’ nature of their coming into existence, that they developed more advanced emotional and intellectual faculties to enable them to adjust more readily to the vicissitudes of life. and grow up to become model law-abiding citizens; unlike ‘crack’ babies, for example, who are born unwanted to drug addled whores and start life already disadvantaged with severe brain damage, unable to adjust to the world and end up criminals themselves and a burden to society. No, the main reason I was there was because I’d been caught up in the hysteria of wanting to witness this historic event and say that I was there in person when Prof. Tounton gave the Dean’s Lecture on his world-famous co-discovery at his alma mater, and be inspired to build on the Monash legend.
In retrospect, my cynical view of Prof. Tounton’s discovery and the wild excitement it generated in the department reflected not just a disinterest in the nature of his work, since I could see no direct relation with my own field of research, which pertained to the connection between electrical signaling and mechanical activity in gastrointestinal muscle, which probably reflected an inner psychic conflict of my own, which is another story; but a general cynicism and skepticism I had developed about science in general. This set in after the initial excitement of finding myself at university wore off, and the freedom to explore other interests and meet new people didn’t quite pan out as I expected. I mean, from a young age I was always of a questioning mindset, starting at elementary school, through high school especially, where my avid interest to learn about how things worked, whether it was in physics, biology or chemistry, to the annoyance of some of my teachers who had to come up with other ways to explain things to help me and others grasp concepts so that all the connected elements fitted together and everything as a whole made sense. But this all changed when I entered university. Here I realized it wasn’t enough to be wide-eyed and curious, and I had to adopt a more serious approach and regard science with awe rather than fascination, and treat it with somber respect as opposed to homely familiarity. Moreover, unlike my teachers in high school whom I could talk to openly and ask them silly questions, and who had simple titles like Mr or Mrs, Miss, or Ms for the female teachers who preferred not to reference their marital status, my lecturers at university had PhDs or Masters degrees, went by with titles like Doctor or Associate Professor, or Professor, whom you couldn’t address by their first name. It was like they were above ordinary people and exuded an intimidating presence, as if they were sole custodians of truth and knowledge and to them you were nothing more than an annoying ignoramus.
Moreover, their arrogance and unapproachable aspect made them come across as uncaring and uninterested in whether you understood anything. It was like they came to give their daily sermon in the lecture theater, and it was then up to you to figure out what they were trying to say by consulting the prescribed texts. Their aim was not so much to impart knowledge, but to make you feel inferior and dumb, thereby maintaining their intellectual distance and sense of superiority, while propounding the prevailing scientific dogma and giving scant consideration to competing ideas and theories. Thus, their standoffish attitude instilled in me not only a deep antipathy towards self-centered and arrogant academics, but also a stubborn cynicism and a skepticism about science in general, which in my mind became inextricably linked with these nasty, obnoxious people I couldn’t relate to. As a result, my desire to learn suffered, and even the word ‘science’ took on an unpleasant and forbidding tone. Instead of being an invitation to enter the doors of knowledge and explore nature, this innocuous word now engendered hostility and exclusion.
Given that academia is often likened to a church, and academic and scientists to a monastic order, in all its corrupted exaltedness, I wonder whether my antipathy towards them didn’t have something to do with the fact that I was brought up in a largely anti-religious household. Something tells me that had I been instructed in the teachings and morality of Christianity with more rigor, and had greater faith in its supernatural aspects, for my childhood wasn’t entirely bereft of religious influence, seeing my semi-literate grandmother would take me along to church with her when my communist aunt wasn’t around to stop her, I expect my mind would have been conditioned to receive concepts from above with less questioning, and I would’ve had an easier time accepting as received truths the dogmatic principles underlying scientific theories as promulgated by my self-centered university lecturers. But the fallow field that was my adolescent brain, crossing over into the tumult of early adulthood was so overrun by weeds and wild flowers that any cultivated species of thought had to overcome this dense undergrowth of skepticism before it could find a suitable niche and take root.
In retrospect, I could have spent my years at university more profitably had I studied languages or literature. Even though I enjoyed learning about natural phenomena and how living organisms worked, largely through my own efforts, some of the most petty and superfluous excuses for human beings could be found among academics in science departments at Australian universities. With the exception of one or two who had an internationalist outlook and were themselves immigrants, and made no assumptions about the ‘background’ of their students, most lacked the basic capacity to enthuse let alone inspire. And rather than enlighten they were content to mystify even further and thereby maintain their exalted, distancing aura, which in reality was nothing more than a façade for their intellectual insipidness.
As I stood listening at the back of the auditorium on the top row, I didn’t know what was more annoying: the smug arrogance of Prof. Tounton, who despite his anti-establishment airs, was no doubt conscious his discovery could one day secure him a Nobel Prize if he played his cards right and ingratiated himself with the right people; or the university administrators and the clinicians who stood to gain financially in one way or another from the IVF technology and its commercialization. Then there were the scientists in the audience, keen to line up for collaborations with Prof. Tounton and his laboratory, like the cheap little whores they all were, and have some of his glory and success rub off on them. In the end, none gave a fuck about infertile couples. It was all about self-interest they tried to conceal behind a crass nationalism derived from the fact that this was a proud ‘Australian’ discovery. But they also knew that to cringe at such puerile provincialism would mark them as ‘un-Australian’, and so they milked it for all it was worth, and the others followed suit. So much for IVF and Prof. Tounton. The seminar ended and I quietly went back to my desk in the PhD room to pore over some data.
As I mentioned, disabused of my innocent wide-eyed curiosity by my standoffish lecturers whose self-professed authority that didn’t extend beyond the lecture theater and their own heads, my contrariness towards science set in early as an undergraduate. From here, it gradually gained a firmer foothold the higher I progressed through university, culminating in an obsessive cynicism and a deep skepticism about the validity of science in the wider realm by the time I was enrolled in a PhD degree in the Department of Physiology. In fact, such was the depth of my discontent that to counter the pompous arrogance of my supervisors and other academics in the department I developed the habit of instinctively taking up the cause of the underdog, or anyone whose theories or ideas they dismissed as irrelevant or wrong. Invariably, these ‘crackpots’ they derived pleasure from putting down were people from outside their own kind, so to speak, from other cultures and countries where English wasn’t spoken, and whose technical sophistication wasn’t up to par with that of Australia’s and other ‘First World’ countries. But as far as I was concerned, their criticisms smacked of ingrained prejudices based on national stereotypes they’d been fed all their lives, and on broad generalizations pertaining to the veracity of the scientific findings of their targets, with thinly veiled accusations of scientific fraud. Strangely enough, even Americans, fellow members of the world Anglo-Saxon alliance and ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance network, and ‘brothers in arms’ in World Wars and lesser conflicts, were not above suspicion. But Canadians, fellow colonialists, however, were given the benefit of the doubt, I guess because Canada belonged to the British Commonwealth of Nations which automatically lent its educational, scientific and political institutions instant credibility . But America had broken away from this sacred covenant and therefore could no longer be implicitly trusted.
At times, my vigilance against signs of blatant discrimination would become so all-consuming that I would overlook key arguments disproving the validity of the work I was trying to valiantly defend for the sake of distancing myself from my chauvinistic colleagues, who I could sense from their sneering looks regarded me as a stubborn defender of lost causes and a fool. I, however, I drew satisfaction from the fact that my stance riled them, because in my view they all lacked the basic requirement for intellectual enquiry, and this was an open mind. They didn’t seem to understand that before arriving at a final understanding, one needed to explore all alternative possibilities, however ridiculous they may seem at first, by a process of elimination, that is, reductio ad absurdum, which in the end could only go to strengthen one’s theory. Moreover, the role of scientists was to question everything, including their own observations and interpretations; and by failing to do so they were all guilty of tunnel vision and the most heinous form of narrow-mindedness.
Although my contrariness manifested itself as largely an emotive albeit quasi-reasoned antagonism towards academics and my peers, what really lay beneath was something much deeper than mere disagreement over scientific process and objections against national and racial steretotyping. And this was a deep and abiding resentment I felt towards a society and a culture that I felt had transformed me into an object stripped of identity on a deeply personal level, and of all sense of belonging. And as loyal subjects and complict agents of that insidiously soul-destroying society, I saw my senior laboratory colleagues and anyone else I suspected who vaguely shared their values and views as fair targets of my scorn and disdain. That subterranean anger and rage threatened to break through one day in an incident I remember quite vividly, sparked by something which to an outsider would seem not only trivial, but just plain silly. The issue centered round the definition of a simple word which to a normal person held little or no significance outside its express meaning, but which to me was like a red rag to a bull, especially when spoken. That word was ‘migration’, and variants thereof, especially when applied to people.
The occasion where my irrational fixation with this this seemingly innocuous term threatened to explode into full blown outrage was an informal seminar given to our research group by an invited speaker (I had then just started on my doctoral studies and was attached to a laboratory in the department). The subject of his talk was the process by which nerve cells in the intestine of newborn mice spread distally from the vagal crest region after birth, until they covered the entire gut wall, and he was presenting findings from studies in his own laboratory to show how this process progressed. As I sat listening mildly enthused, my attention, however, would be momentarily disrupted whenever he mentioned the word migration to describe this process, or variants thereof, and with each successive utterance I could feel the tension gradually building up inside me. Eventually it got to the point where I could no longer concentrate on what he was saying and I kept shifting in my seat and swallowing to hide my growing discontent. What’s more, I had now taken a personal dislike to the speaker for thinking that, just because he was a general surgeon and a scientist to boot, this gave him the license to bandy about words like this one so flippantly, without regard to their derogatory connotation that people in the audience might take offense to.
Having ceased listening altogether, I began to formulate a rational objection to his use of that particular term that I could put to him at the end of his talk and set him straight. After running through several versions in my head, I came up with what I thought was a watertight argument as to why the term migration was inappropriate and misleading in the context. This was because what he was describing didn’t actually entail ‘migration’ per se, because once the nerve cells made their way from their source in the vagal crest to more distal regions of the gut, they did not return. Their movement was essentially in one direction, and once they got to their destination, so to speak, there they remained for the rest of their existence. By definition, however, migration implied that the subject was not fixed to one location and is free to go back to where they came from, and exercises this ability in a periodic or seasonal manner, as in the case of birds whereby in winter they migrate to warmer climes, and then with the arrival of spring return to their habitats to nest. By way of conciliation, so as not to come across as an over-sensitive lunatic from too much introspection and lack of human contact outside my immediate surroundings, I was even prepared to offer a few suggestions as alternative descriptors of the process he was describing, like ‘translocation,’ or ‘colonization’, or even ‘invasion,’ despite the unpalatable militaristic tone.
But in the end, I was so stricken by nerves when he finished his talk to our research group, with my heart pounding so loudly inside my chest I could hear every beat reverberating over my entire body, preparing me for fight or flight, and the blood vessels in my head threatening to burst, and my fingers trembling and body shaking, thatI kept my hand well down as I listened to him fielding questions from others in the room, none of which touched upon his misuse of the term migration. In fact, I was still shaking in my legs when the meeting finished and I made my way back to the PhD room, realizing just how close I had come to making a complete fool of myself over such a trivial issue. As I sat quietly at my desk with my back to the others, lamenting my stubborn tendency to always ‘see the red line’, as one of my supervisors accused me of one day, fed up with my petty contrariness, I was on the verge of tears, or some kind of internal meltdown, wondering why I just couldn’t rid myself of my foolish obsession and not read hostile intentions into everything people said. But at the same time, I well knew why. It was because my reaction was a manifestation of a deep-seated emotional conflict which this simple word had stirred up with particular efficacy.
This was because it was pregnant with deprecation and hostility towards people very close to me, as close as they come. They were people who had sacrificed their dignity and identity in order to transplant themselves to a far off country to work as wage-slaves in factories. They were people who believed the shortest route to happiness was to amass lots of money by debasing themselves this way, and when they had made enough, they could return to their own country and like vulgar boors, parade their hard-earned wealth to the envy of their still poor fellow provincials. But most never got the chance, or bothered to, because in the process they turned into imbecilic dullards from the constant grind in their cloistered existence, and left to die alone in a foreign land, surrounded by their petty possessions and no-one ???. Among them were my very own parents, and as such, I couldn’t bear the shame of being a child of people who had forsaken their home and their dignity for the triteness of ‘a better life.’ In short, I hated being reminded that I too was a common migrant, without a true home and unable to feel any loyalty to anyone or anything.
As for the surgeon, he came to work in our laboratory on a short sabbatical and I actually got to like him. In fact, I relented and began using the word migration freely in our conversations in the hope that by repeated use I could inure myself to its negative connotation. I guess the fact that he was a Jew and married to a Korean, herself a doctor, took the edge off its harshness. As one with knowledge of the ‘migrant experience,’ perhaps not first hand, for he seemed to have had a comfortable upbringing and had been educated in expensive schools, he probably understood what it was like to grow up in Australia as an outsider. Therefore I couldn’t imagine him intentionally using the term to spite me; after all, his very own wife was a migrant. Having said that, this didn’t entirely absolve him, because for someone of his standing I assumed he would be more perspicacious and show some sensitivity, and I had in mind to one day explain to him my ‘problem.’ But thankfully I never got round to it, because in retrospect, I’m sure it would have made me look like a paranoid idiot in need of treatment. Nevertheless, by the time he left I think he picked up on the fact that I didn’t like the term from the way I couldn’t help but flinch whenever it struck my ears, and in deference he tried to avoid it.
In some way, my reaction to the word migrant was akin to the reaction of African-Americans to word nigger from someone wishing to humiliate them for their obvious blackness. But migrant is a more nuanced and complex pejorative because it hides behind its literal meaning which gives it acceptable currency and imbues it with a mitigating ambiguity, an acceptable façade, if you like, with a heavy note of derision on the inside. Thus anyone using it with the intention to offend can invoke its literal meaning so as not to come across as an overt racist or chauvinist.
Actually, the word nigger is more akin to the word wog in Australian usage, in the sense that it refers ostensibly to the appearance and outward behavior of a person, whereas migrant has a deeper meaning, alluding to socio-political aspects of one’s identity. But just like nigger which is fairly benign when used among African-Americans to refer to themselves in a jocular manner, and which automatically takes on a seriously racist tone when uttered by a ‘white’ mouth; it is similarly highly insulting for a Greek to be referred to as a wog by an Anglo-Australian, but much less so coming from a fellow Greek, although personally I find the word equally grating under all circumstances. Thus, if a fellow Greek calls me a wog, I feel insulted not because I’m belittled for personifying the negative qualities Anglo-Australians attribute to wogs; but because I’m accused of trying to deny myself those very qualities, which as a wog I should not be ashamed of, because to wogs, a wog who denies his wogness is a sign of a wog of the worst kind. The word ‘migrant’ has similar socio-linguistic implications, but is more universally applicable across wider sections of the population. Its purpose is to label anyone suspect of divided national loyalties as an ‘outsider’ who doesn’t belong to the social formation in question, in this case, Australia. And because they feel no compunction about leaving and going back to their own country when they feel like it, to their accusers they deserve all the wrath and disdain the word is pregnant with.
Another mentally draining aspect of my obsessive cynicism and my reflexive contrarianism around this period in my life was the difficulty I had in accepting the received notion among my peers that science was a noble pursuit which was above politics and religion and at appealed to people’s highest intellectual faculties. But to me, this view smacked too much of anti-religious zealotry, which was a form of religion itself, with the spiritual realm replaced by a staunch rationalism, and God substituted with ‘nature’ and ‘science’ in the abstract. Thus, whenever I heard them refer to anyone as a scientist a little explosion would go off in my head. The title sounded so pompous and pretentious, as if scientists were special people who stood so far above mere mortals and their mundane concerns, that nothing interested them other than the quest for pure truth and knowledge, without any expectation of pecuniary rewards, this when the very notion of truth and knowledge was relative. And from my own observations, scientists were vain and venal hypocrites, eager to sell themselves to the highest bidder, just like Prof. Tounton; and while they affected an outward selflessness and pretended to be uncorrupted by wealth and power, the entire scientific establishment that supported them, from academia to large research institutes, was dependent on the systematic economic exploitation of the mass of people in society who slaved for a living and were regarded with contempt and kept in the dark.
I was now well into my first year of my doctorate and already my obsession with the ‘personal’ aspects of science was beginning to interfere with my ability to focus on my studies. I began to question whether my involvement was as futile as it seemed, and whether it was at all worth my while to continue. But at the same time, I felt I had to stay the course in the hope that the discontent and disconsolateness I felt weighing down on me was a product of my specific circumstances; and that once I had graduated, I would be able to leave Australia and see life from a completely new perspective, free from all the negativity of being a wog and a migrant constantly reverberating in my head. In addition, I couldn’t ignore the fact that, for all my disparaging views and my cynicism over its phony intellectual sanctity, I could see that science could provide me a means of earning a comfortable living in the immediate future, and may well turn out to be a feasible career option in the long term. With this in mind, I resolved to stay the course and finish my degree.
Now that I was committed to seeing it through, to try and put my cynicism and my muddled skepticism into some sort of rational perspective, I was increasingly drawn towards the socio-political aspects of science and the nature of science itself. After all, the degree I was aiming towards stipulated that I was to be a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, a ‘lover of knowledge’, which implied that I should have a broader appreciation of ‘knowledge’ in the wider and pure sense, not just in my own narrow field of study. But outside some basic tenets regarding positing and testing scientific hypotheses, and conducting the appropriate experiments to eliminate those not tenable with the experimental data, I understood very little about the ‘philosophical’ aspects of science, not that it stopped me from engaging in informal discussions on the subject with my fellow doctoral candidates and some of the academics in the department, including my direct supervisors. But since I was unversed on the subject and nowhere near as articulate as I needed to be, I ended up becoming more confused and frustrated at my inability to express my thoughts. And since there was no actual course offered on this subject, since my degree was focused largely on experimental research, I took it upon myself to educate myself on ‘the philosophy of science.’ To this end I read various books by Kuhn, Popper and Feyerabend that I came across in the bookshop, or in the main library; and whilst they made some sense in regard to the process of scientific discovery and ‘paradigm shifts’ there in, and the role of politics and personality in the promotion of certain theories over others, having no-one close with whom to discuss the more abstract aspects of science, it was difficult to assimilate them in a structured manner and understand them. ??
In the course of my extra-curricular readings, I also came across various references to the philosophy of Hegel and Marx in regard to the underlying causes of revolutionary change in nature as well as in people’s thinking as it pertained to society and scientific discovery, and the conflict between competing forces and the contradictions therein, all of which immediately piqued my interest. This was because for many years now, in fact, since my later years in high school, I had been dallying with the ideas of Marx to try and come to grips with the meaning of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ from an economic as well as a political perspective, and thereby give my half-assed leftist views, a legacy from my communist aunt in Greece, a firmer theoretical foundation. To that end I had read various works including “The Communist Manifesto” and other historical texts by Marx, Engels, Trotsky and others. But to be honest, although I understood the basic premise that ‘communism’ was a system of organizing society on the basis of equality and fairness, where workers owned the means of production and ran society cooperatively, according to human need not greed, my understanding of the theoretical foundations was largely confined to the immorality of wealth imbalances inherent in capitalist society. But now that I discovered there was a philosophical convergence between science, politics and economics in the writings of Marx, Lenin and other leftist intellectuals, I was keen to explore this area with renewed enthusiasm, and try and get to the bottom of socialism and communism and how it pertained not only to society, but to the role of science therein.
After my first year in my assigned laboratory, working alongside people I once regarded as distant and unapproachable, but with whom I was now on more equal terms, my opinion of them softened somewhat. In fact, I felt I knew them well enough to express my views openly on various topics without fear of being ridiculed or dismissed. Invariably the topics of conversation in our lunch room touched upon items in the news, and more often than not I found myself taking the opposing view to the conservative line of my laboratory colleagues, that is, when they actually expressed an opinion at all, because on the whole they remained very guarded. This was most evident whenever the subject broached politics, that is, beyond the mundane talk of political parties and elections, which didn’t really interest me, since I wasn’t naturalized Australian citizen, and didn’t hide it, something I could tell which riled them.
As I discovered the more I got to know them, they were extremely reluctant to explore politics from the philosophical angle, as it related to the nature of political conflict between opposing interests, especially in the sphere of economics and social issues. It was as if these topics were off-limits or taboo. But their niggling obduracy only increased my determination to bring them up for discussion, especially after I decided to join a socialist organization on campus with the aim of gaining a more structured understanding of Marxist philosophy. I didn’t hide this from my colleagues, but after they saw me selling the organization’s newspaper in front of the Union building one lunchtime, their stance hardened somewhat, having already labeled me a ‘communist’ for sticking up for the U.S.S.R. and Cuba. I think the trigger for this was the shooting down around this time of a Korean airliner by the Russian air force after it flew into Russian air-space over Sakhalin Island. And while they decried the barbarity of Russians and the ‘communist system’ for killing so many innocent people in cold blood, I raised the possibility that the plane was deliberately flown into Russian airspace on the order of the Americans to test Russia’s air defenses, knowing it could provoke an attack that could be used for propaganda purposes by the Americans toportray the U.S.S.R. as an evil state, and precipitate its downfall. Not that my explanation convinced anyone, because I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist and an apologist for murderers, which immediately put me in their black book.
Although I grew used to their conservative mindset, the vigor of their reaction to my joining this organization and selling the newspaper on campus, and talking to other interested students, and their silent treatment surprised me somewhat, since ‘Marxism’ was a legitimate subject taught in the Politics department in the Arts faculty, and therefore had the full approval of the university administration. Moreover, as academics, or pre-academics in my case, I assumed that the much lauded privilege of ‘academic freedom’ accorded to us the freedom to express of our views without fear of retribution or disfavor. But I could see that in practice that’s not quite how it worked.
As for the socialist group, it wasn’t exactly with boundless enthusiasm that I joined. I had bought some of their literature in the past, and copies of their newspaper from their stall inside the main entrance of the Union building, but from impromptu discussions with some of them, I discovered to my surprise they were strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and its allies in every respect. Moreover, the slogans on their banners and posters had a sophomoric if not moronic ring to them. Nevertheless, putting aside their position on the U.S.S.R. which seemed odd for an avowedly ‘socialist’ organization, I decided to take up and offer from Judy, a women somewhere in her mid-thirties who seemed to enjoy talking to me, and go along to one of their evening meetings in the city and learn more. These were held in a large room on the fourth floor of Curtin House, a mock-Victorian building on Swanston Street, and in case the landlord got cold feet about renting it out to socialists, they told all newcomers to tell anyone who asked that they were a ‘history club.’
At that first evening I got to talk to quite a number of people and discovered that, with the exception of their anomalous position on the U.S.S.R., their views were generally aligned with mine. They seemed friendly and welcoming enough for me to go back the following week, and soon I was a regular weekly attendee, borrowing my father’s Ford Fairmont to drive to the city every Tuesday evening to listen to the various speakers and engage in political discussions with established members and other newcomers like me. After a while, with my increasing involvement and interaction, I discovered that not only was my ability to articulate my views more coherently greatly enhanced, but this enabled me to comprehend more clearly theoretical texts whose meaning had thus far largely eluded me. Moreover, it seemed the more I understood about the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, the more I realized just how relevant it was to explaining my own circumstances, both as regards my life as a child of ‘migrants’, as well as a student of science, and giving my cynicism and skepticism a legitimacy. I realized that my ambivalent and somewhat problematic relationship with science wasn’t simply a product of a demented contrarian mindset; there was a rational basis to my seemingly backward opposition which could be explained by the fact that ‘bourgeois science’ was largely subordinated to the exigencies of capitalist exploitation and the market. Thus, armed with this new way of looking at the world, I felt there was no argument from my laboratory colleagues or fellow doctoral students I couldn’t shoot down dialectically, and in the process subvert their conservative views and at times blatant hypocrisy.
Although the majority of members on campus were students, the meetings in the city were attended by people from other walks of life. A fair few had office jobs, some in government departments. But there were also professionals among them including medical residents, teachers, a metallurgist, and at least one accountant who would turn up in his suit and loosened tie, in contrast to the more casual attire of others. He was always accompanied by his wife who seemed to act as his minder and rarely said a word, standing beside him with a blank expression. He didn’t appear ill with any anything serious, but his breath always reeked of alcohol, and despite being slightly unsteady on his feet, I was struck by his effortless articulateness in his cockney accent, and by his clear insight into various national and international events and conflicts from a Marxist perspective. Thus I was a little surprised to learn that he wasn’t among the higher echelon of the organization, and didn’t even serve on the executive committee. Perhaps his alcoholism had precluded his taking a more active role, because he seemed to have a much wider and deeper knowledge of politics and economics than most of the senior members, many of whom were journalists who had studied at the School of Journalism at the Australian National University in Canberra, oddly enough, and wrote articles for the organization’s newspaper and magazine, were supported financially in part by the monthly dues of regular members.
I continued attending meetings in the city on regular basis in my second year of my doctorate, increasing my knowledge of history and politics as I went along, and learning to interpret the world from a Marxist-Leninist perspective as regards to the role of the workers’ party in the revolutionary movement, and of science and its subordination to capitalism, which nevertheless paved the way for socialism. But although I enjoyed listening to the talks and taking part in discussions, I was hesitant to formally join up. It wasn’t just the fact that I would have to hand over ten percent of my monthly stipend; something still niggled about the organization’s uncompromisingly critical stance towards the U.S.S.R. and its allies which I just couldn’t fully go along with. In addition, I couldn’t countenance having to endorse their imbecilic and somewhat delusional mission, as it were, ‘to change the world.’ In fact, this formed the basis of the first question they put to potential recruits who weren’t sure whether or not to join, as in, “Do you want to change the world?” to which they invariably answered, “Yes,” with a baffled smile and an uncertain shrug of the shoulders, after which they were invited to come along to a meeting in the city and find out more.
But with the pressure mounting to either join or leave, in the end, after months of vacillating and dodging the question, I decided to take the plunge and become a member, but only a provisional one, and handing over ten percent of my monthly stipend. I never enquired why I wasn’t immediately accepted as a full member. But as I discovered, everyone had to serve a probationary period initially to determine whether they complied with the rules of the organization and espoused their brand of socialism, and they weren’t impostors sent to sabotage the workings of the organization. Nevertheless, even though I was contributing financially, this condition of membership introduced an early note of distrust as regards my relationship with the organization, and I felt myself in the spotlight.
I received a very enthusiastic round of applause when my name was read out among the new crop of provisional members, but not everyone was happy about my being there. One such person who seemed to take an instant dislike to me from the very first day was a girl about my own age (I was then in my mid-twenties). She spoke with an annoying halting and quavering nasal voice while affecting the look of a junkie, dressed like a Led Zeppelin groupie in skin-tight jeans and slim-fitting jacket over her thin frame, with hair like Janis Joplin, curly and messy, parted down the middle and falling over her face, and which she constantly brushed aside a little too affectedly for my liking, because there was nothing attractive about her at all. She also had the annoying habit of sneering down her nose at people she was talking to, even if they were taller, and always contradicted whatever I said, however minor and of no importance. She said she worked part-time cleaning mansions in Toorak where she helped herself to the liquor cabinets. But she said this with too much of a boastful air, as if to get across her unqualified disdain of the upper classes, and that I sensed something fishy. I determined she was probably a rebellious spoilt brat from a rich household herself, a Jewess for sure, with some kind of hate-complex, given her toxic aspect and abrasive manner, and her glued-on sour countenance, despising who she was and others who suspected it. And thus I avoided her.
Then there was the former student activist now approaching middle-age who boasted of dropping acid before exams at Monash University in the ‘70s, to protest the fact that testing and examinations were merely a way of selecting faithful servants of capitalism; and how a number of his friends had leapt to their deaths from the top of the ten storey Menzies Building, simply because ‘they thought life was shit.’ There was something fundamentally phony about him as well, and his casual nihilism. I suspect he could tell I didn’t appreciate his forwardness, but he would always come up to me at meetings to ask what I thought about the talk and the organization and its politics. Not that I liked being looked at in the eyes, he also had the annoying habit of avoiding eye contact when he spoke. And when he did look me in the eyes, he did so fixedly, as if trying to stare me down, or work out whether or not I was genuine. I don’t know what his actual preferences were, but he seemed to affect a kind of gender fluidity, coming across as effeminate on some occasions, while projecting a domineering machismo on others, to see which I responded to. It was amusing and irritating at the same time. Then there were others who for no apparent reason would surround me at meetings and start patting me on the back smiling, as if to try and cheer me up when I was feeling just fine, and show how friendly they really were and that I had nothing to fear. It was all a little creepy, to be honest, since as far as I was concerned I was there to learn about Marxism and not necessarily to be loved.
Nevertheless, with each passing week, and my becoming more familiar with the group, these niggling issues became less of a concern and I settled into being a provisional member of the International Socialists. I figured that once I served my probationary period, however long that was, since it was at the discretion of the executive committee, I would be invited to become a full member and feel more comfortable. In the meantime, for my part, seeing I was among fellow socialists and largely agreed with their politics, I felt I had nothing to hide and openly talked about my family’s history and how we got to Australia, and my early political influences and views. Deep down, however, I still thought their slogans were hyperbolic and somewhat absurd which only an imbecile would actually believe in. But there I was uttering the same trite phrases when called upon to approach the unenlightened punters at rallies in the Bourke Street mall on Friday evenings, or convince confused and naive undergraduates at the bookstall in the Union building at university to come along to a meeting in the city. Empowered by my newly gained ability to articulate the tenets of Marxism with confidence, it felt like I was stepping into a different character, another me who fully believed in all the prophecies about the imminent fall of capitalism and the need to prepare for the revolutionary moment by building a worker’s party right NOW!, before the world descended into barbarism.
I even indulged myself in the delusion of progressing up through the ranks of the organization and becoming a fully-fledged revolutionary socialist serving on the executive committee; one who could front a large crowd of workers outside the factory gates, or a general strike, and expound at length with persuasive oratory on the inherent contradictions of capitalism, and exhort the masses to prepare to rise up and seize power by building a true workers’ party independent of the trade unions. But when I got back home, in the solitude of my own thoughts, my suspicions about the group would resurface, reminding me that there was still a lot I didn’t know about them and needed to be cautious. For one thing, who in their right mind could be stupid enough to believe that this small organization made up of students and former student activists and sundry sympathizers, and some pensioners and unemployed people, actually had the ability ‘to change the world’? It sounded more like a cathartic dare, akin to the evangelical entreaties of street preachers for sinners to give themselves over to Jesus and thus be saved from eternal damnation in the afterlife. Moreover from the passionate exhortations and bombast of some of the more dramatically trained members, calling on others to ‘smash the State’ and ‘eat the rich’, like bad case of over-acting, the firmness of their convictions couldn’t hide a palpable underlying disingenuousness. One evening the ridiculousness of the seriousness with which they took themselves was made plain by an unlikely source, and I couldn’t help but stand back and be amused.
That particular evening, a shop steward from South Africa who was involved in the leftist movement back home was attending the meeting as a guest of a senior member who was also a shop steward. With the main talk over, the topic of which I can’t recall, during the break the invited guest was having a discussion with some of the senior cadres, sharing his views on the state of the labor movement in South Africa and the involvement of the Left, and comparing it to the situation in Australia, and I happened to be standing nearby with a bunch of new members and listening with keen interest. The guest seemed in a jovial mood, sipping on his beer, but to the chagrin of the senior members, he had the habit of referring to our organization as a ‘tendency’ with a polite and slightly condescending chuckle. As I continued listening in, I couldn’t help but crack a knowing smile myself, because his views more or less echoed my own private thoughts. And if this visitor who sounded much more knowledgeable than anyone in the group about Marxism and grass roots leftist movements, thought it was nothing more than a ‘tendency’, then that’s all it was. Moreover, he wasn’t someone who spent his time around shitty students plastering posters on campus buildings or city laneways to publicize lectures on the Kornilov coup in pre-Revolutionary Russia, or the role of the Leninist party during an economic downturn. He was a ‘real’ practicing socialist who dealt with actual workers and knew what it was like to face the full force of the state’s repressive apparatus and be jailed for laying his political beliefs on the line. But after a while, seeing that some of us new members were listening in with a little too much interest, he was politely led away to the other side of the room, lest our faith in the organization be further undermined.
That was another aspect about the group I had trouble accepting; and that was the rigid hierarchy and the separation of the executive committee from the regular members who were subdivided into ranks known only to the senior cadres. I had always equated socialism with egalitarianism and transparency, but from what I could see there was very little direct communication between the established members and newcomers. They must have been aware of this because periodically they would justify the apparent secrecy of the executive committee by saying this was needed to maintain focus and clarity of purpose, and would then remind everyone that a degree of separation was unavoidable given the uneven level of political consciousness in the organization in this building period. It didn’t fully placate my concerns, but since I wasn’t yet fully acquainted with the concept of ‘democratic centralism’ in the context of a Leninist party, and all which that entailed at the organizational level, I grudgingly deferred to their authority. But still, I had to contend with an inner moral dilemma because on the one hand, although I felt indebted to them for allowing me into their midst to learn about Marxism in a much more structured manner than I would ever have achieved on my own, I couldn’t overlook this proto-totalitarian aspect at the core of the organization. Moreover, deep down, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that my involvement smacked of ‘bad faith’, theirs as well as mine.
My suspicions about the nature of the organization were also fed by the fact that those higher up invariably came from wealthy middle-class families, largely of Anglo stock, and liked to boast of their privileged bourgeois upbringing, and that their parents were managers or company directors, and how they were disowned by them when they found out they joined a socialist organization. One such person was Martin, a few years my junior. He was studying history or sociology at university and had been a member for several years, having joined fresh out of high school. I guess because he was of Dutch heritage and his parents had immigrated to Australia in the ‘60s, he didn’t quite conform to the strict Anglo middle-class pedigree of his rebellious comrades, even though he was born in Australia, and betrayed a noticeable hint of humility in their presence, if not deference. Nevertheless he too was keen to hold up his capitalist landlord father as his own personal reason for becoming a socialist, telling people how he owned two dozen rental properties all over Melbourne and kept a mistress in every second one. Such was the depth of capitalist depravity in his family, he would have you believe, that he had no choice than to cut his ties and become a revolutionary socialist. At times it seemed these conscientious spurners of privilege were competing to see who had lost the most, as proof of their unequivocal commitment to the organization and its mission of radical social change. There was even a daughter of a Governor-General who was a member, although she seemed rather shy and kept in the background.
After almost a year with the group, regularly attending meetings and participating in various activities, but still a provisional member, it got to the point where I could barely tolerate their imbecilic rhetoric and amateurish urban activism, and I was looking for an excuse to get out. As far as Marxism was concerned, I felt I had nothing more to learn from them, since they eschewed any discussion of Marxist economic theory to which I was increasingly drawn, and generally steered interested newcomers away from such airy distractions. From here on in, to prove my commitment, I knew that my involvement would require me to undertake more propagandist duties, to which I wasn’t all that agreeable. Then there was their crypto-Australian nationalism I just couldn’t put up with either. As much as I tried to ignore it, it seemed to creep into all political discussion, and being already sensitized to the more chauvinistic aspects of Australian popular culture and sport, I found it particularly grating. Secretly, I had grown to dislike almost everyone in the group and rued the day I ever got involved, recalling how I stupidly consented to want to ‘change the world’, like a lame-brained idiot loner, eager to join and belong. At times it felt like I was trapped among a bunch of angry adolescents playing a game of grown-up in which I was obliged to play my assigned role for fear of being ostracized and beaten up, just like at school.
Other times I felt embarrassed at myself for failing to heed my father’s admonitions when I came home from that first meeting, all charged up, glowingly explaining to him and my mother how as workers they were at the forefront of the class struggle and the only true agents of change. In fact, I recalled being shocked at my own zealousness and how easily the rhetoric flowed from my mouth as I told them of the need to build workers’ committees in their respective factories, independent of the trade unions which were in collusion with their bosses and did not have their true interests at heart. That way they could develop the necessary class consciousness to seize control of the means of production and overthrow capitalism when the time came.
So fired up was I that I couldn’t see the seething anger under my father’s taciturn, thin-lipped countenance as I explained to him that as workers, he and my mother were the source of all profits, because their employers failed to pay them the equivalent of what they produced, and they profited on the difference. When I declared how grateful I was to the socialist organization for opening my eyes to the exploitative workings of capitalism and the need to overthrow it and build socialism as a prerequisite for a truly communist society, that was the cue for him to rise up from his armchair and burst out accusing me of being a complete fool for getting sucked in by the empty words of those pampered idiots who were using me for their own ends. He said they would one day betray me and think nothing of spitting me out, and I would be left alone with no-one to turn to. I retorted with my own angry outburst, accusing him of never talking to me about anything and now trying to sabotage my political education because he was envious I’d found like-minded people with whom I could exchange informed views on the world based on a Marxist analysis, which he didn’t really understand, because if he did, he’d know I was right, and he didn’t want to acknowledge it. As I stormed out of the house, his comments reverberating in my head, little did I know they would come back to haunt me.
It would be many years later that I would learn of the reason for my father’s stern rebuke that evening. The explanation of sorts came from my mother. She said my ‘communist’ rant had rekindled bitter memories of his own involvement with the Communists in the Civil War in Greece, specifically the actions of the intellectual cadres who recruited under-educated, discontented provincials like him into the guerrilla movement. And as I discovered from my own reading, in the end, the political wing betrayed the movement by capitulating to the Americans and the British and laying down their arms, just as the Communists were on the brink of seizing power in the north. Subsequently, many of the guerrillas were executed or imprisoned, or they fled to the Eastern bloc to work in factories until they could return to Greece after the fall of the junta when a general amnesty was declared. My mother said my father had seen the writing on the wall and quit the guerrillas before they sold him out, and in disgust he joined the National Army of Greece and went off to fight the ‘Communists’ in Korea as part of the U.N. Expeditionary Forces. Coming from my mother, this account of my father’s brush with the Left and disillusionment sounded a little confusing. My father new what really happened, but he took it with him to his grave, not that there was any guarantee he would have told me anyway, having avoided the subject the few times I broached it with him, before I gave up altogether.
But just like he warned me that evening, I could now see that my so-called comrades weren’t the altruistic idealists I initially took them for. In fact, they had ulterior motives in opening their doors to someone like me. I was to be their ‘poster member’, as it were, who could gain the organization badly needed credibility within the wider ‘multicultural’ society of Australia. It was all too obvious, when I thought about it; and since I wasn’t prepared to be their ethnic puppet, I had to get the fuck out of there, and fast. Whatever gratitude I felt towards them for enlightening me on the teachings of Marx and Lenin and other revolutionary luminaries, this had now all but vanished, and I had nothing to thank them for; it was the guilt trip they’d laid on me that made me believe I did. All of which got me seriously thinking about just who they actually were as an organization, and where they got the money to pay for all their running costs. At most they sold only a few dozen copies of the newspaper each week, and most members, being students or unemployed, weren’t in a financial position to pay dues, with my own paltry contribution coming out of my meager scholarship.
With each passing week, the rhetoric at meetings and rallies began to sound more and more absurd and desperate, and I became increasingly self-conscious that my querulous attitude had aroused suspicion, especially after I declined to go away with them on a group-bonding camp, citing a prior family commitment I purely invented. It was about this time that a faction within the group suddenly began to make clamors. It was led by a handful of disaffected senior members who were threatening to split off over differences in strategy and political orientation, and form their own organization, one that was independent of the ‘mother party’ in Britain, to which they would no longer be required to ‘automatically genuflect’, as one of the more articulate splitters put it. But I sensed there was something else behind their actions. The splitters had an air of superiority about them, and it was then that I realized they were mostly of Anglo-Protestant stock, with David, their nominal leader, sounding like a radical Methodist minister agitating for revolt against the King’s rule in Cromwellian England, whereas the majority of members were brought up Catholic and seemed content to receive instructions and precepts from the executive. It all culminated one evening in a heated debate, very orchestrated and highly theatrical, and evocative, or perhaps imitative, of a pre-revolutionary meeting of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks about how to seize power. The stakes here, however, were nowhere near as high, but you could have been mistaken they were, with speakers channeling Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and lesser known revolutionaries whose personalities they had assumed from too close a reading of their biographies.
As I sat there taking it in, somewhat amused and unsure which side to support, if either, I wondered whether others in the audience shared my misgivings; or were they so stupid as to lap up the rousing rhetoric of the ‘splitters’ and their fanciful vision of a new ‘independent’ revolutionary socialist organization that could better represent the interests of Australian workers and act of its own accord? Or were they forcing themselves to swallow the salving assurances of the majority ‘lumpers’ and keep the faith in order to maintain needed unity, fearing losing the tenuous connection they had forged and the sense of belonging they drew from it, lest they find themselves adrift with nothing to hold on to. There was something tragic-comic about the proceedings and the delusional airs of the speakers who truly believed power was within their grasp, but for the correct strategy and tactics. The splitters eventually did branch off and formed their own organization, but in the meantime a truce was declared and an uneasy coexistence ensued.
At times it felt like I was part of a religious sect that exercised a binding group psychology over its proselytes to instill guilt and mutual suspicion so as to keep everyone in line and stop them questioning the dictates of the leadership. The denouement as far as my own involvement was concerned came when I was asked to give a 15-minute talk on socialism in the Eastern bloc countries, this being the late-1980s when the Soviet bloc was in the process of disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions. They must have thought I’d been a provisional member long enough to have absorbed the core concepts of their particular brand of socialism, with its emphasis on the state-capitalist nature of the bureaucracies in the Eastern bloc economies, and the unfeasibility of ‘socialism in one country’; and through my presentation they could review my progress and see whether I was ready for admission to full membership of the International Socialists. Moreover, I suspected the subject I was asked to present on was chosen to assess my residual ‘Stalinism’, since I hadn’t openly condemned the Soviet Union to their satisfaction at meetings, and I got the impression they still considered me a ‘doubter.’
Nevertheless, I took up the challenge and went and researched the history of East Germany and how it was established as a “People’s Democracy” after the Second World War along collectivist economic principles. The organization had their own sources they expected members to use as reference material. But I found these texts blatantly propagandist and too simplistic for my liking. Instead I went to the main university library and picked out a book on the subject written by an American academic which laid out the circumstances and the events that led to the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and the economic and political influence of the Soviet Union, and I took it home and promptly read it from first page to the last.
Immediately I could see it was something the executive committee would not approve of. It presented the topic from a realpolitik perspective and too ‘academic’ for their liking, juxtaposing the geopolitical and economic interests of the West versus those of the U.S.S.R. and its allies, but without taking sides. Nevertheless, I dutifully summarized the relevant points and events, citing the protagonists involved and their motivations in a chronological order and logical manner, and then practiced my talk at home so that it didn’t run over fifteen minutes. Generally, I was pleased with my effort, concluding that both the Americans and West Germany on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany on the other, were responsible for the political stalemate that came to be known as the Cold War, and how the respective ‘ruling classes,’ the capitalists in the West and the bureaucratic elites in the East, benefited from the situation economically and politically.
A few days before my presentation, a member about my own age and had been in the group for a number of years called me to ask if he could look over my talk. Since I had no objections I gave him a copy the next day I saw him on campus and the following day he returned it and said it was fine. But he didn’t sound very enthusiastic and suggested some changes to improve it. I agreed to incorporate some of his suggestions, to reinforce the notion that the Soviet bloc countries were not truly ‘socialist,’ but I said that was as far as I was prepared to go because the other changes were too pedantic and would alter the tone of my presentation too much and it wouldn’t reflect my own thoughts. He agreed, although he looked somewhat disappointed.
On the evening of my presentation, or my audition more like it, I was a quite nervous to say the least, having drunk several cups of coffee beforehand at home and one there to rouse my confidence, so that when my turn came after the main talk, I spoke so fast that I finished well under fifteen minutes. During my talk, as I scanned the audience, I couldn’t help but notice that while most people seemed engaged, some of the senior members appeared disinterested, looking up at the ceiling or down at their notes, and I sensed hostility on their faces. I knew I wasn’t the most exciting orator, but fifteen minutes wasn’t long enough for anyone to start spacing out. Nevertheless, I was pleased and relieved when at the end I received mild applause. Richard, who reviewed my talk, and Michael, the ‘leader’ of the executive committee, came up to congratulate me. But I knew from the tone of what little they had to say they didn’t like it at all. They said it could have been more ‘polemical’ to emphasize the ‘state capitalist’ nature of the Soviet bloc economies because as it was, my presentation was too ‘dry.’ I humbly nodded in acknowledgement of their critique, but inside I was fuming that I should be so stupid as to do what they were suggesting.
When I got home that night, I was still angry that my talk wasn’t good enough for them, because it wasn’t sufficiently scathing of the Soviet Union. That’s why the applause was muted; no one wanted to be seen endorsing my dissenting view, which was more in line with that of the Spartacists, their arch enemies, who held that the Soviet Union was a degenerated worker’s state that could be salvaged politically into a revolutionary force and be a beacon of for revolutionary movements around the world; whereas to the International Socialists there was nothing redeeming about the Soviet Union which offered nothing other than false hope to workers around the world, being a thoroughly corrupted model of socialism, and its imminent collapse couldn’t come soon enough. As I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, it finally dawned on me that I was never going to fit into this organization; I simply wasn’t prepared to be told how I should think. I drew some comfort from the fact that it was only a ‘tendency’ anyway, not even a proper party, with little or no credibility among the proletariat whom it purported to represent. Thus, I resolved I simply had to leave this ‘cartoon show.’ But something told me it wasn’t going to be as easy as walking away.
In the meanwhile I continued attending meetings and rallies, still as a provisional member, plastering posters on the sides of buildings and selling newspapers to the one’s and two’s on campus and in the Bourke Street mall in the city, while carefully being steered away from new recruits at meeting, in case I infected them with my doubts and suspicions, and less than whole-hearted support of the organization. These increasingly turned towards the main personalities to try and figure out just who they were and what the organization actually represented; like Michael, the leader and chairman of the executive committee. He was a man in his late thirties or early forties, unmarried as far as I could tell, on the short side and quite thin, perhaps anorexic, which probably explained his lethargic aspect and blithe aloofness, although he was very knowledgeable about history and Marxist politics and economics, and quite sharp of mind. He seemed to have most people’s respect, except perhaps among the ‘splitters.’ But there was something deceptive about the way he too avoided eye contact, as if afraid of revealing too much about himself. Then there was Marcus, the acid-dropping drop-out from Monash whose impassioned visions of world revolution and the end of capitalism were as uninspiring as they were plainly imbecilic. He said he worked as a supervisor in a government unemployment office by day, which first struck me as a little odd. But as I learned, there were several other senior members who were public servants and held managerial positions within the government bureaucracy. They always came to meetings prepared and made well-rehearsed contributions after the main talk, each running into several minutes, about the need to build a workers’ party with a clear political position and vision. They effused the nonchalance of people who enjoyed secure employment and had no real faith in their convictions, which nevertheless had to be stated because proper party procedure demanded it.
It got me thinking just how serious a threat they were in their desire to ‘smash the state’ and ‘overthrow capitalism’, with violence if necessary, that the government which served the interests of capitalism would tolerate them in their midst, as managers, no less. Perhaps it knew their ideas were so ‘loony’ and far-fetched that they presented no real threat. Or perhaps their purpose was more sinister, to gain the confidence of die-hard committed leftists and weed them out by betraying them, before they could sabotage the system from within, But as far as Marcus was concerned, judging from the unbridled manner by which he exhorted members to run amok at demonstrations with his megaphone from atop the wrought iron gate of the Melbourne Club in the city, as if he enjoyed immunity from prosecution and had nothing to fear, there was a strong reek of the agent provocateur about him. Then there were the overly passionate and literary types inspired by “Ten Days that Shook the World” to follow in the footsteps of John Reed and write their own bestselling account of a worker’s socialist uprising from behind the barricades. In the meantime they had to be content with building a worker’s party led by superannuated students and their followers in far-off Melbourne, in the Commonwealth of Australia. Like a bad case of hives, they were all equally irritating.
But there were also those who actually ‘believed’ in socialism. To them the group was their ‘church,’ affording a much needed sense of belonging. They had long ago accepted that they may never get to participate in the actual revolution, or witness the coming of socialism in their own lifetime, and were content to put their faith in the organization to lead the coming generations to victory. In the meantime, just like the Christians in ancient times in their fight against Roman rule, ‘the struggle’ for socialism at present gave their own lives meaning. And like those persecuted Enthusiasts before them, their struggle too was ordained from up high, not by God, but by their steadfast belief that eternal virtue and justice will one day come through the advent of socialism, and then communism, the pinnacle of human existence on earth, all of which required an organization to receive and spread ‘the word’ among the masses in preparation. Thus, it was no coincidence that many of these members had been raised Catholic, including Michael, and one couldn’t help but think that the guilt and unquestioning belief in a central authority that had been instilled into them by their religious upbringing had stood them in good stead in their new godless eschatology. In many respects, these self-pitying victims were just as obnoxious as their dissembling and conniving comrades.
One evening my shit detector began to ring especially loud. Michael, the ‘leader’, was giving a talk on the role of the workers’ party in instilling the necessary class consciousness in the working masses.In the middle of it, he broke off to remind everyone that during a period of economic downturn, as was then the case, when morale and self-belief among workers is low, and membership of the organization declines, it was necessary for the sake of survival to throw open its doors. His words naturally tripped my paranoia, and I couldn’t help but think that he was referring to people like me who might otherwise not have measured up, but because of the downturn were admitted to help prop up the organization. He then lamented that unavoidably, among those allowed in there were bound to be spies and informers whose aim was to bring down the organization by sowing discord and doubt. He said the best way to combat these destructive elements was simply to ignore them, because when they saw they couldn’t make any headway, they quickly became discouraged and left of their own accord. Instead, he said, members should focus on the task at hand which was to develop a clear, uncompromising strategy and build up the party so it would be ready to lead when the economic upturn arrived and workers went on the offensive and naturally flocked to it wanting to learn more about socialism.
But as I sat listening, I couldn’t quite understand the logic behind his argument. If spies and police informers had indeed infiltrated the organization, posing as willing converts and sympathizers, and they eventually dropped out on their own, why raise the issue at all? Or was he attempting to divert suspicion away from himself and the organization, and its exact role and purpose, by pointing the finger at certain unnamed individuals present who weren’t whole-heartedly behind its strategy and politics? He was inviting members to take action against such ‘traitors’ in their midst, by ignoring them so that they’d leave and not spread their misgiving to others. It was all starting to get very weird, fueling my burgeoning paranoia no end, and I needed to seriously find an exit and get out.
As strange as it sounds, in deciding to quit I had to overcome my own deep feelings of disappointment and inadequacy for lacking the necessary self-delusion to believe that a just and egalitarian society was actually possible and worth fighting for, led by this ‘loony left’ organization. This was countered, however, by an anger I felt towards the group as whole for their deceit and subterfuge, and at certain members in particular, for having strung me along for their own purposes. In the end, I took solace in the fact that my shit-detector had come to my rescue once again and I got out before they drove me completely insane with their imbecilic politics and immature rhetoric and guilt trips. Had I stayed I’m sure I would have been rewarded with further favors from the likes of Lucy and Judith. It was their way of showing commitment to the group. Judith, for one, had no idea what she was really doing there, judging from her nonsensical answers when I asked her in the midst of feeling her up in the front seat of my father’s Fairmont one evening; or else she did a good job of concealing it in her tumescent wetness.
As for Leslie, I don’t really know what it was about her. It was something akin to the distant attraction you felt for that girl in high school you passed in the corridor so many times, and whom you one day suddenly see in a brand new light and become deeply infatuated with. She was older than me and had been a student at Monash in the mid 1970s. But it was hard to tell her exact age because she had a deep, mellifluous voice, yet she was quite youthful in appearance with a short Pixie-style cut and keen, dark, round eyes. What attracted me to her initially was her ability to articulate her views at meetings so clearly and succinctly, free of the usual ridiculous hyperbole others resorted to. But the more I saw of her, the more I could also detect an endearing vulnerability beneath her self-confident exterior. It was as if she was conscious of the falseness of the façade she projected and was trying to suppress her own uncertainty about what she was really doing there, even though she was one of the founding members.
That self-doubt was evident one Christmas. We were gathered at the club room in the city one Saturday afternoon after a rally in the mall and discussing our plans for the holidays, to see who would be in town to help out with the house-keeping chores. Since I was going to spend Christmas at home with my parents, I volunteered to come in. This prompted Leslie to add that she too was going to spend Christmas at her parents’ place. But since they lived interstate, she wouldn’t be able to lend a hand. She seemed a little embarrassed by her admission and quickly explained that it was the only time of the year they ever got together as a family, adding by way of clarification that it had nothing to do with observing Christmas as a religious event, because they were all atheists.
Some of the others then began talking about their own families whom they were also obliged to visit over Christmas out of tradition, and then all concurred that after the revolution, the first thing to be decreed will be to revoke Christmas and replace it with a holiday that celebrated the ‘smashing of the state.’ A more general discussion ensued which verged on the boringly nostalgic as they recalled their childhoods and the places they used to go for their Christmas holidays, to which I listened with feigned interest. Anyhow, Leslie, who was half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, being the only senior member present, then shared with us how she became interested in Marxist politics at university, in the manner of a wise elder dispensing inspiring parables with her acolytes, as we all listened with interest.
She said it wall started in the 1970s during the student protest movement against government funding cuts to education, and the push to abolish exams which are nothing more than a way of selecting students most suited to the requirements of capitalism, and a bunch of them including Michael and Marcus got together and formed the nucleus of the group, which later joined forces with others in Sydney and Brisbane and they affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, becoming the International Socialists. She said her parents didn’t get in the way; they thought she was merely going through a rebellious phase, and once she graduated and got a job, she’d get married and have a family and leave politics behind. But how wrong they were, she said with a slight air of reverse paternalism and sympathy for her parents’ understandable misexpectation, because twelve years out of university she was as committed to Marxism as ever, “which just proves that it’s not a fad, because the Marxist way of looking at the world is the only way to realistically analyze it.” Despite her candor, her confession sounded rehearsed and slightly contrived. It was as if she was trying to shore up our morale during the inactive holiday season, in case we began to waver in our commitment; while at the same time exorcising her own niggling doubts over her continued involvement. I got the impression she was too self-conscious to make as effective a cheer-leader as Marcus, the acid-dropping drop-out, and that despite her unwavering devotion to Marxism, this was nothing more than an intellectual accoutrement to her persona, and the organization itself was merely a poor substitute for family.
My suspicions about her cosmetic commitment to Marxism were confirmed one Friday evening after a rally in the Burke Street mall when I spotted her in the cosmetics section of Myer’s department store through which I was taking a short cut to the central train station on my way home. From the angle she was seated high up on a swivel chair at one of the glass counters, I don’t think she saw me thoroughly transfixed by the alluring sight of an unattached female indulging her feminine vanity under the bright lights, admiring herself in the mirrors while applying different shades of lipstick to her mouth, pouting her lips and smacking them together, as the white-cloaked assistant looked on approvingly. In and of itself, it didn’t contradict the received precepts of Marxism; but there was something fetishistic and decadent in what she was doing, and I couldn’t help but feel a deep though strangely illicit desire to know her on an intimate level.
It was then that I realized how much she physically resembled my communist aunt in Thessaloniki, being about the same height with a similar physique, although I suspected Leslie’s temperament wasn’t quite as volatile, or her addiction to cigarettes nowhere near as strong. And just like her, Leslie also taught high school during the day. I remembered my aunt also used to wear her hair short, Pixie-style, as was the vouge in the mid ‘60s. She was the first woman I ever saw naked when I peeked through the half-open door one day as she was trying on a dress, slipping it over her naked body and admiring herself in the full-length mirror while my grandmother pinned up the hem and adjusted the sides, before taking it off again. I must have been about five or six at the time and so thoroughly transfixed by the sight of the unclothed body of a fully grown woman that I couldn’t take my eyes off her, mesmerized by the captivating patch of hair down between her thighs, until my grandmother told me to scram and slammed the door shut.
As I discreetly stole more glances of Leslie from afar slowly making my way across the floor, past the displays of sunglasses while breathing in the heady aromas of perfumes and lotions seeping into my brain, I felt the same guilty pleasure. In fact, all the way home on the train all I could think of was caressing her waif-like figure and gazing into her dark brown-black eyes and glossy red lips, and what it would be like to taste and feel her naked body next to mine. I imagined escaping with her to a remote island to live out the rest of our lives together, away from all the shit and the assholes. But alas, she was in too deep and I wasn’t prepared to stay, no matter how many times she called to convince me, raising questions in my supervisor’s mind just who this mysterious woman was with a sultry voice that kept ringing and asking for me.
I was now approaching the end of my degree and my scholarship had only months to run. I was in the process of putting the finishing touches to my thesis before submitting it for examination, but I had already accepted an offer to go work in the U.S. which I was keen to take up as soon as possible. My imminent move overseas dovetailed nicely with my decision to formally quit the International Socialists which I no longer saw as a political organization of relevance, but more as a weird cult that wielded mysterious power over its members in the form of a guilt-infusing Marxist-inspired morality, and benefited financially from them in the form of monthly dues. I expected they would simply accept my written resignation and the reasons for my leaving, stating that I had accepted a job offer overseas to further pursue my career. And seeing I still harbored Stalinist sympathies, I thought they would be only too glad to see the back of me. But in the weeks leading up to my departure in March of 1987, after I had nervously stood up at a meeting and formally announced my resignation in front of everyone, they began calling me up at home and at my supervisor’s office at university, one after the other, including Leslie, to discuss the reasons for my resigning, apparently unconvinced I was heading overseas.
They were desperately trying to persuade me to change my mind and stay in Australia. They said the place I was going to, in Reno, Nevada, had no leftist organizations, and the only labor union of note was the one representing casino workers and others like them in the hospitality trade, who were too removed from the production process to lead. They warned me that in this vacuum I would drift to the right and eventually lose all interest in Marxism and socialism, and turn into a right-wing reactionary. I knew what they were doing. They were playing their last cards, laying the ultimate guilt trip on me, hoping to make me crack under the emotional strain and confess the real reasons for my quitting. But all they achieved in doing was to incense me even further and increase my determination to remove these duplicitous, manipulative bastards from my consciousness, except for Leslie, who I was convinced I could turn and get to come away with me, if only she would drop her guard.
The final straw came when Richard called me up one evening at home, the guy who reviewed my talk on the Germany Democratic Republic. I guess they thought he had my confidence and gave him the task to try and dissuade me from quitting. He began by consoling me, saying it was normal for new members to feel disillusioned after their first year, and that he thought I had acted too rashly in resigning. He wanted to know whether my leaving had anything to do with the politics of the organization, and whether I had any fundamental disagreements with their strategy for winning over ‘the one’s and two’s’. As he was telling me this, I realized it was the first time I’d actually been asked my thoughts on the issue and felt something click inside my head. I thought, “What a strange question to be asking me at this stage, when I have already left the group?” I realized immediately what he was actually getting at. He was trying to get me to tell him what made me see through their act. I paused for a moment before answering that there was absolutely nothing wrong with their politics, and that I was fully behind their strategy and tactics in this period of economic downturn.
He didn’t immediately respond, waiting for me to keep talking in the hope I would say something revealing. Then in my most contrite tone, I confessed that, “I just don’t have what it takes to be a reliable member of a Leninist party,” and that “if it wasn’t already obvious, you asshole,” I thought to myself, “I’m a fucking Stalinist. And if it was up to me I’d have all of you two-faced bastards, with the exception of Leslie, lined up against the wall and shot, and your bodies cut into pieces and fed to geese.” What I actually said, however, was that I had no truck with anyone in the group or their politics, and I would do my best to remain a loyal sympathizer while I was away, and that when I returned to Melbourne in a few years’ time I would like to rejoin. Before I hung up, in my meekest voice I apologized that I couldn’t be of any real use to them after all they had done for me, and further humbled myself by saying how little I understood about Marxism before I joined, and that if it weren’t for them I would still be walking around in the dark confused and ignorant about Marxism and the role of the workers’ party in the fight for socialism. I felt relieved to be rid of them at long last after I hung up, and I could now put the whole thing behind me. Or so I thought.
In the weeks leading up to my departure for the States, I occasionally bumped into them on campus. But they seemed to have forgotten about me already and more or less ignored me, which suited me just fine. But I could tell they were pissed off for having failed in their attempts to recruit a literate, university educated son of migrants they could use to attract people from this neglected demographic into their ranks, and gain some badly needed credibility outside their narrow middle-class Anglo audience. And for these same reasons I despised them. But just like dog shit that sticks to one’s sole, it was difficult to get rid of their lingering stink and I had to contend with recurring nightmares of meeting these horrible people under strange and frightening circumstances, accusing me of treachery and crimes against socialism in show trials with members looking on accusingly, and my father staring down at me angrily from above with tight lips and his admonishing words ringing in my head.
Thankfully it all stopped when I finally left and settled down in Reno. It seemed I had come full circle, having gone from being a skeptical idiotic contrarian, to a semi-subscribed Fourth Internationalist revolutionary socialist, and then back to an angry, somewhat disillusioned realist contrarian who still idolized Stalin for the way he put his own spin on Marxism and made the U.S.S.R. into a superpower by implementing the most ambitious program for the primitive accumulation of capital in modern history in an industrially backward country, sacrificing the lives of millions of people in the process.
In Reno I maintained an interest in the various intellectual currents within Marxism, having discovered a wide cross-section of Marxist literature in the university library. I even managed to contact a branch of the American counterpart of the International Socialists in San Francisco. But when I saw that their politics were just as sophomoric as those of the organization in Australia, and they both received their instructions from the ‘mother party’ in Britain, I decided it wasn’t worth my while driving all that way every few weeks to hear those familiar refrains so as to stop me drifting to the right, and get to know Laura better, the young and vivacious leader of the cell, who I was certain I had met in an earlier life. Nevertheless, I still considered myself a Marxist, because, just like Leslie said, the Marxist analysis of history and capitalist society cannot be faulted, because it’s based on a scientific understanding of the nature of money and value, and doesn’t invoke such inanities as Adam Smith’s ‘hand of God.’ The only problem with Marxism as I see it, is that, while it may lay bare the workings of capitalism, the power relations inherent in money and the brutality and injustices that lie beneath ‘the market,’ that’s about as far as one can take it. Its value lies more in the diagnostic realm than in the prescriptive or curative. In the end, when faced with life and death decisions for survival, human beings will resort to their base instincts regardless of how much they understand about Marxism.
“But,” I hear them countering, “real socialism can only be achieved when the means of production are sufficiently developed in all the countries of the world to ensure there is plenty for all, so that there are no material disparities between peoples, and so there’s no need for conflict over resources. We are very close to achieving that level of development. That’s why we must start to organize or else society will descend into barbarism when capitalism finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions!”
“Whatever you say! Yes, yes, I know all about the premise that the creation of a new society free from hunger and war is predicated on there being sufficient material wealth, and will be organized on socialist principles at first, whereby the state serves purely a transitional organizational role before communism establishes itself, and money and property become things of the past, and everything will be planned and nothing go to waste.” Who said that? “But the question is: what exactly are people’s needs? Can you tell me?” “Well, that we cannot know until socialism is established and people’s fetishism for commodities comes to an end, when cooperation replaces competition. No-one can predict what ‘real’ socialism will look like, because it’s never existed on the basis of material plenty. The so-called socialism of the former Eastern bloc was based on material scarcity, and that’s why it collapsed.” “No, I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Socialism is what you make of it.”
When I returned to Melbourne in the early 1990s my bitter hatred for the International Socialists would immediately resurface whenever I came across a flyer advertising a meeting or a rally in the city, aiming to draw in the ‘one’s and two’s’. Such was the strange hold they still wielded over me that I would feel this tightening in my gut and the nightmares would return and continue for several nights thereafter. I could recognize a few, now somewhat older, but Leslie was nowhere to be seen among them. It made me wonder whatever happened to those who had joined the organization with me. I suspected some got disillusioned and left of their own accord; others turned to liquor and drugs when they couldn’t face the fact they’d been duped and hung out to dry, and lost all trust in people, especially those without a family safety net to cushion their fall. The more connected ones with a propensity for deceit and treachery rose up through the ranks, internalized the rhetoric so it became second nature, and learned to regurgitate it without so much as a hint of self-doubt to new recruits, hypnotizing them into doing their bidding. Others took their ‘people skills’ elsewhere and now enjoyed comfortable positions in upper-management in advertising companies or employment agencies, or in government departments; or they got cushy tenured posts in academia, having transcended the ‘Marxism for masses’ of their student days, which offered too simplistic an analysis of capitalism and its countervailing tendencies. The question, however, still remained. Just who were they, this ostensibly Marxist ‘tendency’ which predominantly targeted students and was given such free rein over university campuses to spread their message, when other ‘radical’ leftist groups were more or less banned?
Officially they belonged to the Fourth International which distinguished itself from other leftist movements by their steadfast denial of the possibility of any form of ‘socialism in one country’, and that so-called socialism in the U.S.S.R. and China was merely a form of state-capitalism where the profit motive still ruled, but where profits were reaped by the bureaucratic elite, as opposed to the bourgeoisie in openly capitalist Western countries. While their clarity of vision and action was admirable for avoiding the slippery slope of compromise and corruption which had tainted so much of the Left in the past, their petty obsession with strategic correctness smacked of ‘academic analism’, and in the end their political Puritanism served only to alienate them from those whose interests they purported to represent, and further divide the workers’ movement, assuming they could manage to establish a meaningful foothold. Perhaps that was their raison d’etre all along: to sow confusion and disunity, and that’s why they were tolerated by the state and its institutions. And I blew my chance at becoming a respected member of the bureaucracy. I’ll leave it at that.

(Sunday in spring, on the eve of my thirty-sixth birthday, in Boston, 1997)

courtesy of Wake In Fright (dir. T. Kotcheff)

Having left the field a while ago, for reasons that I won’t go into, suffice it to say I no longer have access to the relevant literature, I’ve been drawn quite by accident to consider the recent proposal that the inhibitory junction potential (IJP) recorded in the gastrointestinal smooth muscle has its origin in cells that are not smooth muscle in nature. This challenges the accepted wisdom that IJPs, or more specifically, “fast” IJPs, result from an increase in potassium conductance in smooth muscle cells bearing receptors for ATP released at en passant synapses with enteric inhibitory motor nerves coursing through the muscle layer, and that the attendant hyperpolarization of the membrane potential of the affected smooth muscle cells spreads electrotonically to other coupled smooth muscle cells in the bundle, opposing any concomitant depolarizing inputs and force generation. The new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. posits that non-smooth cells (PDGFα positive) in fact are the transducers of the ATP induced hyperpolarization which is transmitted electrotonically to coupled smooth muscle cells via gap junctions.

The attractiveness of this proposal is that it compartmentalizes the response and obviates the apparent paradox that an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces muscle relaxation by stimulating the release of stored calcium inside smooth muscle cells to activate a potassium conductance, does so without simultaneously activating contractile proteins. Although this mechanism can be accommodated within the existing framework involving only smooth muscle cells and enteric inhibitory neurons by invoking localized calcium domains affecting membrane channels and not contractile proteins, and different calcium release mechanisms and coupling to calcium entry, the compartmentalization of the electrical component of the inhibitory response effectively insulates the smooth muscle cells from any possible contrary effects of calcium spill over onto the contractile apparatus.

One caveat that comes to mind, however, that may argue against an intermediary cell relay between the inhibitory nerves and smooth muscle cells is the fact that in many types of cells, notably cardiac cells that are also coupled electrically via gap junctions, the increase in intracellular calcium that precedes contraction has the effect of drastically reducing the conductance of gap junction channels (connexins). Therefore, if in the new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. the transducing element for the IJP is the PDGFa positive cell which is electrically coupled to smooth muscle cells, then any increase in intracellular calcium in the former upon activation of P2 purinoreceptors by nerve-released ATP or related molecules, to induce a robust hyperpolarization by activating SK channels; this raises the question of what fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells is transmitted to the smooth muscle if the conductance of gap junction channels is blocked or substantially diminished by the rise in intracellular calcium?

In the defence of this new proposal, however, the gap junctional conductance between the PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle may not be entirely blocked during the rise in intracellular calcium, and although the intercellular resistance may be increased, it may still be sufficiently low for a significant fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells to spread to the smooth muscle and hyperpolarize it. In this regard, it has been shown by me that in electrically coupled supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium that when neighboring cells are stimulated with ATP to activate BK channels via intracellular release of calcium, a transjunctional current can be still be recorded from the patch-clamped supporting cell, although the latter needs to be dialyzed internally with an unnaturally high concentration of calcium buffer to prevent a rise in calcium, and has multiple inputs as far as electrotonically conducted events are concerned from the many surrounding supporting cells to which it’s coupled. Thus it remains to be seen whether in the case of PDGFα positive cells coupled to smooth muscle cells, to what extent a rise in intracellular calcium in the former decreases trans-junctional resistance at a time when current flow needs to be uncompromised for the hyperpolarization to spread with minimal decrement to the smooth muscle cells.

So much for electrical coupling between PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle cells and the role of the former as the effector cell for the IJP response recorded in the smooth muscle. But another issue raised by this new proposal is the role of purinoceptors and SK channels in smooth muscle cells themselves, and the extent of their contribution to the generation of the IJP. Both P2 purinoceptors and apamin-sensitive SK channels are found in smooth muscle cells of the circular muscle layer in a smooth muscle tissue known to generate IJPs, that is, the mouse ileum. But the question is, are they expressed in sufficient abundance, if not to generate the IJP, then to contribute to it? If they were expressed at a sufficient density in smooth muscle cells to generate the IJP then it would seem that the hyperpolarization generated by PDGFα positive cells may not be necessary and could simply be an epiphenomenon that occurs at the same time and has a similar timecourse to the IJP following nerve stimulation, and subserves and entirely different function. This could be to mediate in the release of other substances, given that SK channels are expressed at high densities in many types of secretory cell. Could it be that the large sustained hyperpolarization induced by ATP in PDGFα positive cells underlies capacitative calcium entry to support slow vesicular release of whatever substance(s) these cells secrete?

In circular smooth muscle cells isolated from the mouse ileum, if one extrapolates the magnitude of the ATP-evoked apamin-sensitive current recorded from cell-attached patches to its size over the entire cell membrane, based on rough estimates of patch area and cell surface area from cell capacitance, then there are grounds to believe that a current of sufficient magnitude can indeed be generated to hyperpolarize smooth muscle cells without invoking the mediation of other cells types. But the question is, is the concentration of ATP used experimentally to induce this current a fair mimic of that released from nerves in the IJP response, and is the timecourse of activation of the SK potassium conductance on the timescale of the IJP? Without knowing the answer to these questions, it would be reasonable to conclude that smooth muscle cells, or at least a fraction of circular smooth muscle cells of the mouse ileum that survive enzymatic treatment during the cell isolation, are capable of hyperpolarizing in response to ATP through the opening of SK channels. If these cells do not contribute directly or significantly to the generation of the IJP itself, then they may participate in the overall inhibitory response in a “volume transmission” manner as a result of spill-over of ATP released from enteric inhibitory nerves diffusing to circular smooth muscle cells in the vicinity. This scenario invokes the concept of junctional and extrajunctional receptors as in vascular smooth muscle and elsewhere. In this regard, it was noted in my experiments that a prominent effect of stimulation of the circular smooth muscle cells by exogenous ATP was to enhance the transient outward current component that was activated by calcium current-dependent calcium entry/release and which was sensitive to apamin. Enhancement of this current by extrajunctional ATP alone would suppress the excitability of the circular smooth muscle cells by increasing the interval between bursts of action potentials and contractions in situ. Moreover, the sustained rise in intracellular calcium occasioned by release of stored calcium by extrajunctional ATP would be expected to inactivate voltage-gated calcium channels in smooth muscle cells, thereby adding to a refractoriness of the muscle to further excitation and contraction.

In any case, here’s something to remind us of the physiological relevance of the IJP and its role in gastrointestinal motility broadly speaking.

Fivos Vogalis PhD

Slide 1






Tsootsoo lay dozing by the orange glow of the electric fan heater, the one my mother says brings sleep (φέρνει ύπνο), soaking up its warming rays through her big fat pink belly. From the angle of the sun piercing through the curtains onto my eyes, I figured it had to be well after four. My wristwatch said quarter to five, which meant I had slept for close to two solid hours. It was a deep, incapacitating kind of sleep, free of dreams, what my mother calls φυσικό φάρμακο, and now I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. 
    It was also that time in the afternoon when Tsootsoo usually had her dinner, and in case I forgot, she had twisted her head up off the floor and was looking directly at me with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. In anticipation of my getting up, or perhaps to prompt me into action, she propped herself up onto her backside, but sensing I was in no hurry to get up off the couch, she forlornly slumped back down onto the carpet with an audible thump, letting out a deep sigh, before rolling back on her side, while I continued to bask under the blanket in the sweet languorous after-glow of nature’s best medicine.

    With my sister out of the house and not likely to be back for another hour, I knew at some point I would have to get up and make her dinner, because to deny her at her accustomed hour would be sheer cruelty. Why couldn’t she open the refrigerator, I wondered, dice up a portion of dog loaf into her bowl, mix in some dry pellets, and feed herself? Then again, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t eat the entire loaf at once and make herself thoroughly sick. Dogs are like that; they will eat whatever is placed in front of them, to maximize their chances of survival in case of sudden scarcity. And Tsootsoo is no different. She has such a voracious appetite, she eats everything she’s given, to the point of regurgitating what her stomach cannot accommodate.

    She wasn’t always like that, but after she was neutered following the birth of her first and only litter of seven pups, sired by a beady-eyed red heeler-cross from the gas station across the highway in Five Ways where my parents used to have a small farm growing flowers, her gluttonous tendency gradually took hold, and in the ensuing years she gained so much weight that she now has to be lifted onto the couch and the back seat of the car whenever she goes for a ride. But she didn’t attain that portly state all on her own, and some of the blame must lie with my father. With her big, brown, beckoning eyes, she had little trouble seducing him into surrendering to her every nuanced demand, and with a simple bat of her eyes at dinner, he would shove half his plate into her bowl and slip it to her under the table, to the chagrin of my mother who had to watch her fine cooking on which she’d slaved hours in the kitchen preparing, being fed to a dog. But now that he’s gone, she’s turned her beguiling ways to the next available sucker who happens to be me.

    In fact, it was he who came up with the name Tsootsoo. I think it came from a female character in one of those black-and-white film comedies set in Athens in the 1960s, a “κορίτσι του εξήντα,” as they say. That was before the military junta seized power and brought the frivolity and exuberance of the times to an abrupt end. And within a year, my father and mother had immigrated to a strange new country on the other side of the world, and dragged me and my sister off with them. But that’s another story.

    It must be said my father had a particular knack for assigning apt nick-names not only to pets and people, but also to cars and various other inanimate objects. These included our utility bills for electricity and gas, which he named “Βασίλη”, as in “μικρός Βασίλης” and “μεγάλος Βασίλης” depending which was larger, a cross-lingual play on words for the name Bill in Greek, and the English word for the payment owing. But I always thought his choice of name for Tsootsoo was particularly fitting, because it had that coquettish ring to it which perfectly captured her flirtatious disposition, from her dreamy, Greta Garbo eyes, down to her overgrown toenails, and the way she liked to toy with his emotions.

    With her hunger mounting, Tsootso lifted her head up off the floor again, and stared directly into my eyes, this time with added purpose. In that primal mode of communication mutually comprehensible to higher mammals, she was telling me her hunger was becoming insufferable, and she would not stop staring into my eyes until I was so stricken with guilt, I would have no choice than to get up and make her dinner, or else risk falling ill. Now there’s a thought: can guilt actually make one physically sick? What about the pernicious curse of “the evil eye”? There must some truth in it, seeing it’s so deeply embedded in the folklore of so many cultures.

    I guess it’s possible, by suppressing the immune system through the hypophyseal-adrenal axis which mediates the body’s responses to stress, both physical as well as psychological. In fact, there’s quite a large body of literature on the subject, which comes under the general head of “psychosomatic illness”, although serious-minded scientists are still loath to acknowledge its legitimacy. Apparently, a particularly debilitating form of psychological stress whose effects have been well documented in mammals is “subjugation stress.” This results in the suppression of the subservient animal’s immunity, causing it to fall victim to various opportunistic infections, as well as driving it to self-harm. And in terms of psychological impact, it would fair to assume that stress occasioned by guilt and shame would not be all that dissimilar in it’s sequelae, depending, of course, on the degree to which the subject actually “feels” guilt or shame, or any other deeply conscience-troubling emotion. Therefore, in response to Tsootsoo’s imploring, guilt-inducing stare, my own immunological defenses could well be knocked out, and I too fall victim to some opportunistic disease. That’s on top of the neurophysiological effects on my brain to make me more pliant and submissive to her demands in the future, and avoid sickening guilt.

    I guess from an evolutionary perspective, guilt-induced stress may have arisen among social animals to ensure the group’s survival as a self-perpetuating unit. It may do this by acting as a disciplinary mechanism to enforce docility and cooperation among compliant members so they don’t stray from their assigned rôles in the division of labor, thus helping maintain the group’s functional cohesiveness. The present case, however, involved not an extended kin group, but two individuals from different species, albeit sharing a common ancestor in their distant past; that is, a neutered female canine using her wiles to induce an unattached and somewhat weak-willed human male in her eyes, into acting in her favor. This relationship was more akin to parasitism, or perhaps some kind of symbiotic codependence, than anything directed towards hierarchy enforcement, and alludes to advanced cognitive functions in dogs. Or does it?

    Maybe their brains are just wired to respond to sensory cues from humans with behaviors that appear perceptive, but which are nothing more than an elaboration of their in-born instincts for self-preservation within their social group. And conversely, our own brains are wired to recognize behavioral cues in them, as surrogates for human companions in our lives, and to respond accordingly, without any high level cognitive exchange. Nevertheless, perhaps my getting up to feed Tsootsoo had some hidden benefit(s) for me as well, apart from warding off any potential guilt-induced suppression of my immune system, although in her present physical condition, with her refractory obesity and signs of senility setting in, her ability to keep watch on the house and alert me of unwelcome visitors, is not what it once was.

    As I lay there pondering over the behavioral strategies of dogs vis á vis humans, suddenly, something a fellow student once said in my zoology class, came to mind, back when I was an undergraduate at Monash. We were having an informal discussion on the ethics of using animals in scientific research, when girl, I think her name was Cath, declaimed with the unshakeable confidence of a confirmed scientist-in-the-making, that the only reason people felt any empathy towards animals, especially mammals, was simply because they were “anthropomorphic.” She followed this by saying that no-one ever cried over a snake or toad left for dead on the road, and that was because they weren’t soft and cuddly like cats and dogs or guinea-pigs, and then smugly sat back for the rest of us to digest her succinct summary of the central delusion at the core of the animal liberation movement, which was starting to make waves on campus.

    Like the others present, I thought her argument made perfectly logical sense, not least because I couldn’t stand animal liberationists either, with their holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, and their persecuted herd mentality. Moreover, we were rational scientists, or on the way to becoming ones, and we couldn’t allow such puerile sentimentality to get in the way of our search for knowledge and enlightenment. It was our duty to study nature objectively and dispassionately for what it was, a vast interplay of forces, actions and reactions, governed by immanent laws and relationships which it was our task to identify in the biological context. Purely subjective factors like emotions and feelings for animals had no place in our noble quest, because in the end, as human beings, we were distinguished from them by being uniquely conscious of our own consciousness, whereas they were incapable of reflection, let alone higher concepts like morality and ethics.

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this to the class, as my contribution to the discussion, but I recall the issue had brought to mind my uncle in Greece, whom I had just visited the previous year, and how he put down tens of cows each day at the abattoirs with a single shot of his stun gun between their eyes, and yet he was the most even-tempered person in the world who would never intentionally harm another human being, or animal for that matter. But there he was slaughtering tens of cows each day, because to him they were just another source food that had to be harvested and processed to supply the people’s needs. Therefore, it was ludicrous to think that scientists who sacrificed animals in the course of their experiments were inherently evil, because it was all done for the greater good of humanity.

    On reflection, however, as I lay there in my cozy post-nap inertia, savoring the attendant clarity of mind, I now wasn’t so sure about this girl’s reasoned defense of animal experimentation. It wasn’t because I had since forsaken meat, with the exception of some fish and poultry, not for any ethical reasons, but simply because I developed a distaste for meat in general. I remembered there was something about her comment that had piqued my sensibilities that day, but because I was so taken by her apparent maturity and her succinct eloquence, like everyone else, I put my reservations aside and voiced my agreement. But some ten years later, I now recognized why I felt that twinge of resentment. It was because her argument was too glib. It was something a naive undergraduate would say, having heard it from others, without fully understanding its philosophical subtleties. It betrayed a firmness of mind in one who had yet to experience the vicissitudes of life’s fortunes, and in the absence of any vitiating self-doubt, she was fully convinced of its surface logic, and content to espouse it for her own self-aggrandizement.

    As for the logic of her argument, that purely emotive factors were at play in people’s objection to animal experimentation, and one could dismiss them as peevish, and their reasoning as false; well, I now questioned that as well, because the term anthropomorphism merely described the condition by which animals and humans shared recognizable physical similarities, and it was wrong and presumptuous to conclude that those similarities were to blame for the distorted views of animal liberationists and their like, simply because they could read in those anthropomorphic features signals that had the power to move. Her dogmatic belief in the truth of her own convictions had prevented her from contemplating the possibility that those signals may be a harbinger or warning of imminent calamity for society on its present course, even if the nature of the threat was not immediately clear. In other words, she had no appreciation of the absurd.

    As to why I might have recalled her comments that afternoon, while musing over my relationship with Tsootsoo, and the extent to which I was her slave, and she mine; I suspect it had to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier, I was looking for the telephone number of someone in the Department of Zoology at Melbourne University to discuss something they’d published, and I came across her name on the list of faculty, not knowing she worked there. And when I saw it, the first thing that came into my head were her comments in our zoology class, which were still floating around in my head just below the surface, on the off-chance they might inform some relevant thought.

    In any case, it appeared she’d found a comfortable niche for herself among fellow mockers of the psychic connectedness between humans and anthropomorphic animals. I say this in all facetiousness, because I’ve always regarded zoologists as these strong-willed, staunchly atheistic dogmatists who eschew mystical contemplation like it was the plague. And like the over-zealous, godless crusaders for nature they like to play, never having outgrown their penchant for cutting up dead animals and pulling the wings off flies and the legs off insects, they seem perpetually obsessed with classifying them down to their minutest details, to discover where they came from, and why they are what they are, and why they live where they live. And something told me she was not different and her views hadn’t changed in the intervening years, not that I knew her that well.

     What I did know, because she had told everyone, as is the wont of proud products of middle-classes everywhere, who draw self-affirming inspiration from their parents’ achievements, and those of their parents’ parents, including heroic exploits in World Wars, was that her father was a retired commercial airline pilot and her mother a teacher of some sort, and that she grew up on a large rural property, surrounded by farm animals and those native to the surrounding bush. Given that background, I assumed she had had a good, thorough education which had instilled in her at an early age a deep fascination for the natural sciences, so that the mere mention of the words “science” and “nature” conjured up a warm and welcoming place, in contrast to the cold “other worldliness” these same words evoked in my own mind.

    And true to her academic calling, and the implicit desideratum in its disciples for ideological constancy and resolute defense of one’s convictions, personal and professional, in all likelihood she still firmly believed that humans and animals could never have true intellectual intercourse. Ergo, like any other natural resource, they were at man’s disposal to be studied and exploited for the greater good of society, regardless of what some bleeding heart animal liberationists believed.

     With my memory jogged, something else she said on another occasion now came to mind, reinforcing my suspicion that her views had fundamentally not changed, given that people’s views in general rarely change, especially if there’s no reason.

    Anyhow, a few years later, we were reunited as graduate students in the Department of Physiology. And one morning she burst into the common room we all shared looking very excited and full of energy, and began to relate with manic glee how on the way back from a field trip with her colleagues to the koala sanctuary on Phillip Island the night before, they struck and killed a particularly plumb rabbit in their Landrover. She said they stopped and picked up the dead animal, still in one piece, put it in a box, and when they got home, they skinned and cleaned it, and cooked it for dinner, and it was the best free meal they’d ever had. Her story, however, left me annoyed, because I sensed she was using it to assert her superiority by implying that her research was much more important than ours and had wider significance, because it entailed going on extended field trips and studying animals in their natural habitat, whereas the rest of us were largely confined to our laboratories, slaving away on esoteric topics that no-one care about. Moreover I found her vain machismo somewhat repellent in someone who was ostensibly female. It was as if she was still out to prove her imperviousness to puerile anthropomorphic sentimentality, and debunk the perceived mental softness and emotional lability in her gender.

    By now, the animal liberation movement had become more vocal on campus, holding rallies and demonstrations, demanding an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments, especially primates. And as was her wont, Kath didn’t hide her visceral dislike of them, deriding their tactics and threats to sabotage laboratories with plans of her own to derail their efforts; whereas for me, I had grown indifferent to the whole issue. In fact, secretly I wished they would succeed in shutting down all the animal facilities, because I had begun to lose faith in science, and was struggling to maintain an interest in my own research project which entailed recording electrical signals from tissue samples dissected from the intestines of rodents, humanely sacrificed, of course, in accordance with the guidelines set out by the University Animal Ethics Committee. Moreover, with my increasing politicization in regard to the rôle of science in society, and exactly where I fitted in as a product of the immigrant working class, seeking to transcend my station, I figured there were bigger issues on the intellectual horizon to concern myself with, and the ethics of using animals in scientific research didn’t figure prominently.

    In retrospect, perhaps she was just trying to express in the only way she knew, the fact that the anthropomorphic lagomorph they had accidently struck and killed on the highway that night belonged to an introduced species that had done enormous damage to the environment, and had displaced many native animals in the process. Therefore, she or anyone else for that matter need not feel guilty about killing such an animal, when it would likely have been killed by foxes anyway. But as I thought over her story again, I remembered that what had annoyed me more than her dogmatic stance against the animal liberationists and her machismic bravado was what I perceived as her hypocrisy in regard to her views on anthropomorphism and the sentimentality it inspired.

    This had to do with the fact that her research project was concerned with finding a cure for a chlamydia-like infection that was rendering female koalas infertile. As such, it threatened to wipe out the colony on Phillip Island which was a popular tourist attraction, especially among big-spending Japanese tourists who flocked there to see these lovable, furry creatures unique to Australia. Thus, while she could belittle others and arrogantly accuse them of being irrational in their opposition to the exploitation of animals in scientific research, and in whatever other legitimate use sanctioned by society, duped by their anthropomorphic features, she herself, through her research project, had a vested interest in their continued anthropomorphic appeal to gullible tourists.

    I suppose in her mind curing koalas of a devastating disease was fully consistent with her views, because in doing so she wasn’t motivated by any particular anthropomorphic sentimentality inspired by these furry creatures, although she wouldn’t have objected if it came across that way. Her actions were fully in line with her beliefs that animals existed for man to exploit for his own benefit, humanly of course, even in the wild, and in the end, her work was intended for greater economic good of Australia, by ensuring the commercial viability of a key tourist attraction, which benefited everyone, including herself, through the research funds her laboratory received from the government through the taxes it collected from tourists and associated business activity they stimulated.

    Although, seen from this angle there was no contradiction between her beliefs and her actions, I wondered whether in working to save those koalas from dying off didn’t unwittingly betray her own anthropomorphic feelings towards them, given that the diseased animals were females, and as a woman and a future mother, one thinks, her faculty for empathy had driven her to reify that psychic connection between humans and animals, as loath as she would be to admit. Still it bugged me that I never once heard her express any skepticism or doubt about what she was doing, nor did she evince any interest in topics outside the realm of science, like politics, except in a strictly polemic sense, as it pertained to her own field, as per her views on anthropomorphic sentimentality and animal liberationists.

    It was if she was incapable of or didn’t allow herself any degree of deep thought outside her narrow field, lest it might undermine her beliefs and shatter her view of the world, and where she fitted into it. Moreover, since to me she represented the dominant class that underpinned the power structure in Australian society, her seeming arrogance had succeeded in provoking my burgeoning antipathy towards the wider social formation in which I found myself, concerning its historical foundations and the sociopolitical forces that had shaped it. Thus, it followed that I should project onto her my increasing rejection of that society.

    In her I could see glimpses of the conquerious mindset of those who had come before her to take possession of this ungoverned land inhabited by backward savages, and proceed to “improve” it unhindered, and install on it a society created in their own exalted image, based on strict property relations and the pursuit of profit. In her, that plundering spirit of her forebears had been transformed and refined into a desire to take possession of its heart and soul by extracting from it as much knowledge as she and others like her could, about all the resident life-forms, its flora and fauna, its geographical features, and everything else on which the sun shone within its shores, in the name of scientific progress, and thereby make the conquest complete. As such, she and her kind were anathema, and I saw in her proud exaltation of nature and science a sign of the inherited psychopathology and intellectual shallowness of a people too afraid to contemplate their own insignificance.

    If I had to say, in the end, I didn’t much like Cath. Not because she was completely bereft of any endearing qualities, because there was a certain tom-boyish charm about her, and at times she displayed a raw honesty, free of pretension, that was refreshing. But she seemed devoid of any engaging metaphysical bent, which I guess had served her well in her chosen academic field, helping her conform to the accepted archetype of a zoologist. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical, because Rosa Luxenburg was also a materialist and a devoted student of nature, and it didn’t affect her commitment to the revolutionary struggle. But she was a naturalist, as opposed to a zoologist. Her view of nature was informed by the material interconnectedness of everything in the physical realm, humans, animals, plants, and everything else, where countries and national boundaries had no place; whereas zoologists, to my mind, are hyper-vigilant narrow-minded philistines who, fearing loss of their fragile identity, under the threat of shame and ostracism by their peers, dare not question or transgress the defining principles of their discipline, whatever they are. Moreover, as academics, they are beholden to the whims and dictates of the state educational apparatus, and their views are necessarily informed by crass nationalism that stifles intellectual exploration and revolutionary thinking.

    On a more personal level, perhaps my dislike of Cath betrays my envy of her success, having secured for herself a tenured academic position, whereas I’m a mere research scientist on a soft-money, back at Monash, I’m embarrassed to admit. Moreover, if I were to be honest, I would also have to admit that at the root of my dislike was my jealousy of her outgoing, self-confident, and apparent freedom from self-doubt, while I was, and still am, constantly tormented by deep skepticism, and crippled by the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, trapped among people I couldn’t relate to.

    It was different, however, when I first entered university. I was so relieved to be finally rid of the hellish trauma of high school, and took to my classes with enthusiasm to learn as much as I could. Despite not knowing anyone, except for one or two students from high school with whom I was never really friends, I felt I was now part of a privileged group of like-minded young adults who would one day assume the reins of power in society and guide it according to our own collective vision. In retrospect, my optimism was driven by a mixture of naive, post-adolescent pride in my modest scholastic achievements, and oddly enough, in Australia itself, the nation and the society, to which I felt a sense of belonging like never before.

    But after a few months, even though I had made a couple of new friends, I was beset by debilitating alienation and I began to question what I was doing here, not just at university, but in Australia itself. I sensed there was something fundamentally false about my eagerness to assume for myself an identity to which I believed I had a just claim, when the undeniable fact was that I really didn’t belong among these people, and had only fooled myself into believing I did. And once that idea firmly established itself in my mind I became increasingly preoccupied with finding a way of extricating myself from that horribly stifling environment.

    I ended up deferring the year and went to work in a refrigerator factory. I did that for about six months during which time I earned enough money to buy a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and zoom lenses, and pay for a trip back to Greece with the aim of discovering my true identity to fill the gaping void. There I stayed for about two months, hosted by my relatives, before returning to Australia, thoroughly dejected and disillusioned by the experience, and the following year I re-enrolled at university to continue my studies. To overcome the conflicting emotions and confused cultural loyalties, I threw myself into my work, determined to finish my degree, and not think about such intractable questions like where I belonged, until I had graduated.

    It paid off because I quickly settled into the routine of university life and started doing fairly well academically. And so long as I continued to mimic my fellow students and conformed to what was expected of me, it was easy to believe that I was expanding my intellectual horizons by participating in such discussions as the ethics of using anthropomorphic animals in scientific experiments, and that everything would turn out well, and I would do my parents proud. But that niggling feeling of being an outsider was always there, lurking below the surface.

    It was starting to get a little nippy and Tsootsoo needed to be fed. A hot cup of coffee would wake me up and warm my insides quite nicely. Pulling the cover aside, I put on my slippers and made my way to the kitchen, with Tsootsoo following, tapping out a pitter patter rhythm on the kitchen floor with her overgrown toenails. As she watched me preparing to grind some coffee, she slumped against the sliding door. Temporarily distracted by a flea on her hind leg, she began grunting and gnawing at it with her front teeth, but stopped and moved when I prodded her so she wouldn’t break the glass panel with the jerky movements of her fat rump. Turning to her, I reassured her in my dog pidgin, a mixture of Greek and English, spoken in a childish tone, in deference to her less advanced intellect, that as soon as I had set up the coffee maker, I would start on her dinner. She seemed to understand and lay down to wait patiently.

    While the coffee brewed, I diced up some dog loaf into her bowl, as Tsootsoo gave out a few plaintive yelps for me to hurry up. To remind her just who was boss, I teased her by lowering the bowl just above her nose and then pretended to take it away, at which she became agitated and let out a low disapproving growl. Then, as if scared into submission, I immediately put down the bowl and she leapt at it, covering it with her head and shoulders, in case I changed my mind. I filled her water bowl and then poured myself a hot cup of black coffee.

    It had to be regular dark roasted “Columbo Supreme.” I liked it straight black, drunk from my white porcelain mug, stained brown, because I rarely washed it, except to rinse out the grounds, since soap residue, even trace amounts, affected the flavor, not to mention my brain. I emphasize regular because of a rather nasty experience I had one time in Reno, where I went to work after I got my doctorate in 1987.

     Unbeknownst to me, I had bought a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans. The packaging on the regular and the hazelnut flavored varieties was almost identical, except for the flavor printed at the bottom, which I never bothered to read, having assumed from the label on the shelf that all the bags in that particular row were of the regular, unflavored variety. But when I got home and unpacked the groceries, I could smell a weird but vaguely familiar aroma coming from the coffee beans which I recognized as hazelnut. I assumed the bag must have been stored next to hazelnut flavored coffee somewhere along the way, and the packaging had absorbed some of that aroma.

    As I prepared to make coffee, I noticed the smell of hazelnut got stronger when I snipped open the bag. Ignoring it, I scooped some beans into the grinder and ground them up. But after taking off the lid, realizing the source of that abominable smell was the coffee itself and not the packaging, my heart sank in my chest. And picking up the bag, sure enough, right there at the bottom, the label confirmed its contents: two pounds of hazelnut flavored dark-roasted coffee beans.

    It appeared that someone at the supermarket had deliberately placed it among bags of the regular, unflavored coffee beans so that unsuspecting customers would buy it, since the stock wasn’t moving and they had to sell it somehow; it was the only explanation. I tried to calm down by telling myself that hazelnut flavored coffee wasn’t all that different from regular coffee, and my senses would soon become desensitized to it, and after a few days I won’t be able to tell the difference. So I went ahead and brewed some coffee and reluctantly drank it down.

    Next morning I ground up some more beans and brewed up a fresh pot, and sat down to have breakfast. However, with each sip, that nauseous aroma of sweaty socks was becoming increasingly intolerable. It was nothing like the invigorating coprous stink of regular dark-roasted Colombian coffee beans I was accustomed to. But I persisted, in the expectation that my senses would soon get used to it in the coming days, and in the meantime I just had to endure this minor irritation. But after I had drunk about half the cup, I promptly got up, went straight to the kitchen and poured the remainder down the sink and then emptied the entire pot after it, before thoroughly rinsing out both under hot running water to get rid of that ghastly aroma. In fact, I could only relax after I had taken the bag from the pantry cupboard, sealed it up, and disposed of it in the dumpster outside, so that no hint of that dastardly smell would remain in my apartment, forfeiting the $10 refund had I returned it to the supermarket. I took some solace in the fact that at least it wasn’t vanilla flavored, an even worse abomination I once drank out of curiosity at an airport and spat out all over myself.

    I’m sure there are others like me who abhor flavored coffee. Perhaps with the increasing penetration of chemical additives and flavorings in our food to trick us into eating more than necessary, and help the big food manufacturers increase their profits, we will eventually become extinct, there being nothing for us to eat. Or perhaps, under the mysterious guidance of an evolutionarily stable strategy encoded in our genes, we will organize ourselves into small sequestered communities up in the hills, growing our own food, eschewing all unnatural and chemically modified food products, and breeding among ourselves to preserve our recessive taste and smell alleles, so that when everyone else is dead from all the nice tasting artificial poisons accumulated in their bodies, which they happily consumed thinking they were harmless, we can re-populate the earth with a new breed of human beings, living in harmony with nature, and thus, the meek will finally reap their just rewards.

    I took a few aniseed biscuits from the cupboard and went back to the living room with my coffee. Tsootsoo, having cleaned her bowl had come and planted herself between me and the heater, oblivious of her fat backside sizzling away, as she stared at me imploringly with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. To tease her again would be too patronizing and lead her to question my fidelity and reassess her loyalty. So I promptly broke off half a biscuit finger, dipped it into the coffee, checked it wasn’t scalding and presented it to her supplicating eyes. Delicately, she picked it out of my outstretched fingertips with her front teeth, and in one quick gulp made it disappear.

    After I finished my coffee, it would be time for her constitutional, pausing at her leisure at every tree and telegraph pole on the way to the park to sniff for scent left by others. Somewhere along the way, she would drop her load which I would be obliged to collect into a black plastic bag, in case anyone was watching and reported me to the municipal authorities if I failed to do so. There would be no forgetting it, because she would sit by the door and stare at me until I was so racked with guilt, I had no choice than to get up, fetch her collar and allow her majesty to lead the way.

    Drawing the curtain aside, I could see the shadows getting longer in the low sun. In less than an hour it would be dark. I thought how easy it would be to leave if it weren’t for Tsootsoo. To take her with me at her age would be much too cruel.         

(Melbourne, 1992.  I had just returned from my father’s funeral in Thessaloniki. I was staying at my sister’s house in Chadstone, while my mother remained in Greece. Tsootsoo was now nine years old. But within a few months she’d be dead, from complications of surgery to remove a tumorous growth in her pancreas)