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Friday, February 15, 2013

The Talkative Corpse: A Love Letter. Introductory Chapter.

As promised.

The Talkative Corpse: A Love Letter
By Ann Sterzinger c/o Hopeless Books

“When you write about the people you hate,
Make sure you do it with love.”
—Hubert Selby, Jr.

Translator’s note:
It’s not what the layman would expect, yet the thing has been common to culture after culture throughout the eons of the human experience: A society’s most popular art appears to dignify types of people whom the society itself fails to value. No, that’s an understatement; pardon me: in fact, popular works of art, particularly those which reach mythological or historical status, often glorify classes of people whom the myth-generating society tortures, banishes, or enslaves.
Take the classical-era Ancient Greeks: to hear the myths, songs, and legends of Atalanta, of Artemis, of Hera and her wrath, one would expect to find evidence of an egalitarian, or even a shrilly matriarchal, social fabric.
Not so! In daily life, under the banner of the virago Athena, even the wealthiest Athenian housewife lived hidden indoors, kept from the vote, shut out from the joys of the symposium, and, it is presumed, generally illiterate.
In their turn, the clever men of classical Greece would later be idolized by the rising Romans for their culture and learning—so much so that after the Roman legions captured the Greek cities and played dice upon their polished paintings, every great Roman house wanted to its own learnèd Greek captive slave, that he might meekly tutor its heirs.
By contrast, types who are officially reviled may often be secretly desired. When the Ancient French lost their colonial empire in the 20th century, their former subject lands officially reviled the haughty Gauls, yet  flocked to their cities in a great, uneasy wave.
We had myriad such examples, backed by reasonable amounts of evidence.
Imagine the archarological community’s embarrassment, then, when the findings from the recent unearthing of Ancient Chicago were produced.
In our defense, the radiation levels near the major American sites have only recently dropped to levels that allow us to safely perform extensive digs; till now, all evidence has come from remote sites far removed from the great population centers.
The surprise engendered by the John Jaggo Manuscript, nonetheless, remains a major blemish on my profession.
Before the excavation of the Chicago site the evidence of Ancient America’s tendencies in the arts was scant. Assuming a few motion pictures of which we found many copies: Edward Scissorhands, Dirty Dancing (of which we found two versions), Batman, Spider-Man (mythological pieces; we found several variants of each)*—scholars could, or did, only guess that this society must have been particularly enlightened regarding the rights and value to society of two classes of people: the common-born and the psychological freak.
Based on outlying areas’ extensive kitchen-midden evidence of near-universal consumerism as well as films such as these, we extrapolated that, after said films’ release, equal rights must have been enforced for those not born to relative economic privilege as well as to those who failed to conform to neurotypical standards of their day. This seemed to have been particularly likely to hold for such individuals who were, as our discipline’s jargon has it, “of clever and/or worthy status based on a loosely defined mix of intelligence, talents, moral qualities, and quirky good looks”— for short, “clever-worthies.”
In our further defense, the narrative arts did not provide the only evidence for this hypothesis. Corroborating guesses were supplied by worship and burial sites, which more often than not contained religious objects devoted to one of three apparently inter-related prophet-gods: the first a leader of rebellious slaves, the second a manual laborer who was literally nailed to a tree for being strange (!), and the third a merchant who became a land pirate who nonetheless continued to preach that the devout should give 2.5 percent of their extra income to the poor. Clever men all, and all, by even 21st-century standards, not just freakish but clinically insane.
But the John Jaggo manuscript has revealed these “theories” for what most anthropological “theories,” of necessity, are: mere hypotheses, based on what evidence we had at the time. Faith in such ideas has often been shaken throughout archaeological history by later discoveries of additional artifacts. Such is the conscious way of all sciences: ashes to ashes. So we must accept it. The image of the pre-Great-Blast society of the North Americas at which we have chiseled for so long must now be faced with a slightly heavier instrument.  
The author of the John Jaggo manuscript is self-described (although not in quite so few words) as an ordinary member of the educated laboring caste except for his psychological non-standardness. Nonetheless he records his experience in the years 2011-2012 CE as the life of one who could still, despite any enlightenment depicted in this fascinating people’s art and religion, be thoughtlessly cast aside precisely because he was an obscure and economically embarrassed freak—apparently without anyone else’s being ethically bothered. He also seems to have been, at least in his own tacit estimation—since why else would he have bothered to create such a deliberate artifact out of his own story?—a clever-worthy.
What caused the discrepancy in what is now being called the “clever-worthy freak-commoner status rift continuum”? Why did certain forms of culture show the freak and the drone as consensus-view heroes during the late 20th century—only to have these character types reappear in an apparently self-produced time capsule as angry, displaced, and confused creatures of a society which continued to, as it were, throw boiling oil at them down the castle walls? The fact that the writer of the John Jaggo manuscript is that rare combination of both lowborn and freak appears at first glance to make our task easier. But in fact it merely renders the variables far more difficult to isolate.
Of course, this manuscript has opened up far more questions than it has answered, and new theses spring up like grass after a rain.
A small majority of my colleagues have rushed to get behind the suggestion that the heroic popular depictions of the commoner and/or freak clever-worthy were designed manipulations: that the heroic images shown in the classic “loser-made-god” films were druglike fantasies, sold by the highborn and the socially adept to the real-world versions of the putative heroes, in order to infuse their lives with a false meaning that they might more gamely trudge through education, toil, and death.
This camp of theorists is not, however, dominant, because it is subdivided. Half its adherents believe these fictions to have been designed out of charity—the others, malice.
But both subcamps now agree that the less fantastical portions of the “John Jaggo” manuscript were most likely related to the actual experience of the lowborn and the freak, whereas Edward Scissorhands, Dirty Dancing, and The Outsiders—heretofore our best evidence for the patterns of “real” Ancient American lives—were mere fantasy.
The reason the latter were mechanically reproduced estimated millions of times and the former apparently existed in a lone manuscript (despite the fact that commoners alone must have, by definition, formed a majority of the population) has not been satisfactorily explained by either subcamp.
Thus colleagues from other camps have jumped upon this mystery; many indeed have made it the sole basis of their own pet hypotheses. Some posit economic factors, others the overall preference of human beings for fantasy over reality.
Yet others guess that the John Jaggo manuscript’s author was either lying, or that the narrator/”author”  was in fact the fictional creation of a separate, flesh-and-blood author, whose annotations to the text were lost in the Great Blast. This latter theory is undermined somewhat by the narrator’s habit of annotating his own remarks with footnotes. (These footnotes were not particularly satisfying; if the narrator, assuming he existed, truly was, as he claimed, concerned with making his era comprehensible to our millennium, he was, obviously, not entirely successful.)
The “Fictitious Jaggo” is bolstered, however, by some of the more fantastical events described herein—those very elements which in my opinion render both subcamps of the “John Jaggo as quasi-realist” school rather suspect.
There are other camps still. Those of my colleagues who find themselves most concerned with the difficulties of isolating the variables in this case posit that being just a freak or just a commoner added to a citizen’s status, but being both at once may have actually somehow detracted from it—that wealth and success could somehow transform freakishness into beauty, or that perfect adherence to normalcy could elevate the commoner to a higher caste.
Still other guesses emanate from the literary historians, who compare the “clever and worthy commoner” of the ancient American filmic arts to the “clever slave” who figured so dependably and heroically in the popular comedies of the Ancient Romans despite the generally despicable conditions of actual slaves. Like the clever slave, the worthy outsider of the Americans may have been a mere stock character whose relation to reality was inverse—i.e. satirical.
Certain of my retro-Jungian colleagues have, as usual, used this case as “yet another example” —as Dr. Kayabiff Flugelhoffer-Chang preeningly put it at a recent conference—for their pet thesis of civilization: that below every nation’s articulated set of values there lurks a set of opposite and more powerful values, its “shadow” values, “which creep through the rot that’s under the vine like the death that’s implicit in all life,” to quote one of Flugelhoffer-Chang’s more torrential passages. These not-disinterested scholars include our own society under this “grand theorem of dismissal of the nation-claim,” an idea which I find only very slightly offensive, much to their probable disappointment, not that I care.
More socio-medically minded colleagues guess that it was lead poisoning.
I myself remain torn, too shocked and embarrassed by the contents of the manuscript to take an immediate firm stance, as so many of my hubristic colleagues have rushed to do even in the wake of our humiliation. Is it a hoax? Is it a subtle piece of political propaganda? Was it meant as a religious text? Or was it the true cri de coeur of a maddened man wrestling his demons?
  I do have my hunches. But before I proclaim, I await the results of ongoing digs in the hope that more illuminating manuscripts will be discovered. In the meantime I am content to present you, the general public, with the contents of the Jaggo manuscript, translated from the Ancient American dialect of the Germanic tongues as best myself and my apprentices could do; I await your feedback. I may be reached for comment at the usual address, though replies to comments, depending on volume, could require various amounts of time.
—B. Crominy Cornfeffer
A note on notes: “Jaggo’s” footnotes are numbered, mine denoted by asterisks.

* Fragments of a novel have also been found, tellingly titled (or so we thought) The Outsiders.


  1. Pretty intense, Ann.
    Remember 'A Brave New World'? With the 'freakish low-born Natural Man' that they elevated to god-status? Elsehow, seems like there's 50 years between the James Deans of 1963, and the James Deans of today. Are the rebels still the good-guys?

  2. Depends on whether they got a clue, son...

  3. I recall David Brin arguing something similar on his website.

    It took me a while to get the "merchant who became a pirate". I'm not sure if Muhammad ever sailed a ship, but maybe the future historians have a distorted view of the past?

  4. He was a land pirate. Er... is there a separate word for land pirate? Besides thief. But that sounds so dull. Anyway, I read that at a certain point the new religion was starving, so they had to steal food from the locals. But maybe I should re-check my facts.

  5. (gasps) I read that in a book, and I just found myself thinking, well, gee, maybe the Internet knows better. Ten years ago, would ANYONE have considered the Internet a higher authority than a history book? Why do I even bother anymore...

  6. OK, the text has been amended to "land pirate" for clarity. I realize the likelihood of far-distant historians referencing "land shark" jokes intentionally is remote (SNL kind of undermined their legacy in the mid-80s and late 90s), but unintentionally? Hells yeah.

  7. One historian is pleased to hear a 'land shark' reference. Would but that he 'doesnta' drink beer since Ash Wednesday...

  8. I mean, would but that he did drink it

  9. Well, Lent isn't forever. Have some sparkling water.

  10. red wine, sparkling water...potato, tomato

  11. I think "bandit" would be the word you're looking for.

  12. That makes me think of Fritos, which are disgusting. (Stupid advertising "creatives"; they also ruined Fur Eloise.) I think I'm sticking with "land pirate."


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