Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

The Loser Within: On Bukowski’s Ham on Rye (1982)

[![][2]][2] *
*

*“I didn’t have any friends at school, didn’t want any. I felt better being alone. I sat on a bench and watched the others play and they looked foolish to me. During lunch one day I was approached by a new boy. He wore knickers, was cross-eyed and pigeon-toed. I didn’t like him, he didn’t look good. He sat on the bench next to me.
‘Hello, my name’s David.’
I didn’t answer.
He opened his lunch bag. ‘I’ve got peanut-butter sandwiches,’ he said. ‘What do you have?’
‘Peanut-butter sandwiches.’
‘I’ve got a banana too. And some potato chips. Want some potato chips?’
I took some. He had plenty, they were crisp and salty, the sun shone right through them. They were good.
‘Can I have some more?’
‘All right.’
I took some more. He even had jelly on his peanut-butter sandwiches. It dripped out and ran on his fingers. David didn’t seem to notice. *

What are we to make of these words, these feelings, and this perspective on the world, which I took randomly from the beginning of chapter 6 of Bukowski’s Ham of Rye? A boy, who wants more than anything to be alone and to be left alone, sits, watches and hates the world about him. His dialogued silence is his own. And even the simplest exchange with a new boy of his age bring an initial silence opened up by the pleasure of what he can’t have, chips.

Where do these expressions so lonely, so noir, so echoing, so totally out beyond there, fit-in, in the grand scheme of things? What is to be done with this raw feeling of a man, in truthfulness and honesty, rejecting the world, our world, any world? We, the intellectually pure, the too educated, the not educated enough, we must answer up to the shattering cry of the insane, the drunken, the loner, the alien, the rejecting…en bref, the loser. The loser who is out there on the margins rejecting everything that holds up the ground, the foundation.

As Westerners, we are raised on justice, truth, and rights. We learn the value of working hard and of a job well-done. We believe in the prosperity of today and the progress of all things to come. We believe today was good and tomorrow can be better. As we are brought-up, we are as a society and as individuals optimists. Today was okay, difficult, trying and only rarely dejecting. Tomorrow might be cloudy, but there’s surely always a sun behind those raindrops. But why believe this? Why live this dream of the naïve optimist or even the realist optimist? Why shouldn’t we reject this conformist ideal? I would say that this type of question puts me in the extremist of political, moral, psychological and sociological situations, on the same level as the meta-ethical question asked by Camus. While Camus’ doubly negative question was Why shouldn’t I commit suicide?, with Burkowski the darkest of questions becomes Why shouldn’t I not be a cynic pessimist?

Burkowski writes through his semi-autobiographical character named Henry Chinaski who retells how his teacher asked the class to write about the then president’s visit to his town. He couldn’t go, because every Saturday his father makes him meticulously mow, trim, and edge the lawn. For this same reason, he can no longer play baseball or football with the other kids in his neighborhood. The young Chinaski, in spite of not really seeing the president, imagines the event and writes about the event all the same:

“That Sunday I took some paper and sat down to write about how I had seen the president. His open car, trailing flowing streamers…the crowd rose as the Presidents car entered the arena. There had never been anything like it before. It was the president. It was him. He waved. We cheered. A band played. Seagulls circled over head as if they knew too it was the President…”

He turns the essay into his teacher the next day and the day after that the teacher talks about their essays. She comments on the fact that some of them had not been able to attend. Then says, “For those of you who couldn’t attend, I could like to read this essay by Henry Chinaski.” She then reads his essay and dismisses the class “upon this grand note.” Young Chinaski cuts to the heart of his personal view on things at that moment and for the rest of his life it would seem:

*“I got up and walked out. I began my walk home. So, that’s what they wanted: Lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me. I looked around…Things were looking up.” *

Even on this note of optimism, the bitterness of his critique singes with acid cynicism. Charles Bukowski opens us to what we reject in our society and ultimately in ourselves. The loser. The creep. The outcast. The non-progressive, dreary self-loathing drunk. The guy that see no reason to get up in the morning. Burkowski’s “conscious raising” is told across a constant and general sadness and apathy which is slashed and butchered by his sharp irony and humor. What to make of this laugh, in us the readers looking in on this delirium? C’est le rire du fou. It’s the crazyman’s laugh, fool’s chuckle.

For example, Henry tells about one day at school when a so-called friend of his gets up in class and presents an essay entitled “The Value of Friendship.” He writes,

“and while he was reading it kept glancing at me. It was a stupid essay, soft and standard, but the class applauded when he finished, and I thought, well that’s what people thing and what can you do about it? I wrote a counter-essay called, ‘The Value of No Friendship At All.’ The teacher didn’t let me read it to the class. She gave me a ‘D.’”

Even this moment, we laugh at his irony towards his personal friend reading the essay and nodding at him and towards friendship as such. It’s funny. It’s crude. But still it’s kind sad. We would almost say that this rejection and this self-isolation borders on the limit of being not human. To be human is to cooperate and be with others, isn’t it? But it’s exactly that seemingly rhetorical question which bothers us in reading Bukowski. He’s proposing and living the willing rejection of the company of others. It’s ironic and funny while at the same time biting. This isn’t Rousseau out in the forest proposing an idyllic state of nature before society where individualism is just how we are at the origin. This is Bukowski’s willing rejection of the society of men and women as persons.

This is Bukowski’s denial of what is so commonly accepted: learning, work, family, and the values that go with building, respecting, and maintaining these institutions, like responsibility, cleanliness, justice, duty, honor, good/evil, etc. He foresees his future in none of the things so widely-spread and considered as good and as right:

“I could see the road before me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I didn’t particularly want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything. The thought of being something didn’t only appall me, it sickened me. The thought of being a lawyer or a councilman or an engineer, anything like that, seemed impossible to me. To get married, to have children, to get trapped in the family structure. To go somewhere to work every day and to return. It was impossible. To do things, simple things, to be part of family picnics, Christmas, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Mother’s day…was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep.”

This human rejects a life and death bearing any trace of society’s conformity (wife, family, job, communal holidays, and even his own mother as the rejection of Mother’s Day must surely imply.).

Is this the Nietzsche who understood the critique of mass, herd morality and as such attempts to live beyond these rules? The Nietzsche who find himself in the necessary societal condition of herd mentality, yet who tries to live on…?

Even in his atheism carries the extreme of his rejection. He writes, “I had decided against religion a couple of years back. If it was true, it made fools out of people or it drew fools. And if it weren’t true, the fools were all the more foolish.” And on the next page, his grandmother and mother attempt to cure his acne by essentially stabbing him bloodily and repeatedly with a crucifix. After throwing them out of his room, he writes in detail:

“I went into the bathroom, wadded up some toilet paper and tried to stop the bleeding. I pulled the toilet paper away and looked at it. It was soaked. I got a new batch of toilet paper and held it to my back awhile. Then I got the iodine. I made passes at my back, trying to reach the wound with iodine. It was difficult. I finally gave up. Who ever heard of an infected back, anyhow? You either lived or died. The back was something the assholes had never figured out how to amputate.
I walked into the bedroom and got into bed and pulled the covers to my throat. I looked up at the ceiling as I talked to myself.”

Just at that moment of before sleep calm, some of Baudelaire’s spleen spews out his cynic and emasculating challenge to God:

*“All right, God, say that You are really there. You have put me in this fix. You want to test me. Suppose I test You? Suppose I say that You are not there? You’ve given me a supreme test with my parents and these boils. I think that I have passed Your test. I am tougher than You. If You will come down here right now, I will spit in Your face, if You have a face. And do You shit? The priest never answered that question. He told us not to doubt. Doubt what? I think that You have been picking on me too much so I am asking You to come down here so I can put You to the test!
I waited. Nothing. I waited for God. I waited and waited. I believe I slept.” *

He had waited for God. He had waited for God’s response. Nothing. Like all our calls to God, all we get back is silent nothing. We can imagine something there listening and responding to us, but that’s a personal delusion or a well-crafted hallucination. God doesn’t work that way, says the priest, believe in the hope and trust in the mysterious. God’s metaphysical reality and being does not relate or touch our own, say the theologian. Or we see the mark of the creator, like Nike’s swoosh, upon God’s creation and God’s evolutionary processes, says the creationist of Intelligent Design. But even they cannot answer personally why God never responses, never meets our challenges.

The very essence of Bukowski follows from the simply question, Does God shit? The world that Bukowski embraces and the one we often forget, avoid, and reject is a world that shits, pukes, drinks, smokes, farts, fucks, and smells. To our eyes, he’s the loser. And we are winners. But Bukowski’s critique isn’t really about embracing the role of being a loser or a loner, like we see in many of society’s re-marketed form of the “cool loser” or the “sexy, rock, poet-loner.” The loser-image in the winner mentality. Bukowski violently critiques the code of conduct prescribed by our fathers and forefathers and, as such, attempts to live what follows from this rejection: being the rejection.

Even as one of his (close) friends and an entire country go off to fight the brave war, stop the evil Hitler, and restore the order of what is right and good, his dark cynicism remains ever-present:

*“The war. Here I was a virgin. Could you imagine getting your ass blown off for the sake of history before you even know what a woman was? Or owned a car? What wold I be protecting? Somebody else. Somebody else who didn’t give a shit about me. Dying in a war never stopped wars from happening.” *

He accepts his place in the world:

“I made practice runs down to skid row to get ready for my future. I didn’t like what I saw down there. Those men and women had no special daring or brilliance. They wanted what everybody else wanted. There was also some obvious mental cases down there who were allowed to walk the streets undisturbed. I had noticed that both in the very poor and the very rich extremes of society the mad were often allowed to mingle freely. I know that I wasn’t entirely sane. I still knew, as I had as a child, that there was something strange about myself. I felt as if I were destined to me a murderer, a bank robber, a saint, a rapist, a monk, a hermit. I needed an isolated place to hide. Skid row was disgusting. The life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death. There seemed to be no possible alternative. Education also seemed to be a trap. The little education I had allowed myself had made me more suspicious. What were doctors, lawyers, scientists? They were just men who allowed themselves to be deprived of their freedom to think and act as individuals. I went back to my shake and drank…”

Bukowski’s personal philosophy centers on a life unobstructed by others and their rules for doing things. He wants to be alone. And in rejecting the general “good things and values” in normal life, he must be insane. If normal things are impossible for him, he must be crazy. He writes a beautiful and sad horror story, which is the rejection of the common human life. On the other hand, he doesn’t try to be winner either, in the sense that he will rise about, because for him, there is no rising above, no getting around the nastiness of life and foolishness of the way society and people are. He even admits himself about not being entirely sane. But he’s not crazy in the sense of being without logically-justified behavior. He presents all the markings of a well-thought out philosophy of life. He’s logical, but according to a different kind of logic. While his philosophy of life and way of living isn’t what we commonly see or easily understand, his critique cannot simply be swept away.

There must be a place in our societal logic for this logically rational, non-conformist madman. But where does this loser fit in? We often try to write in defense of justice, the good, the beautiful, the happy, and the noble, when in reality we are writing in praise of these ideals. Bukowski the skeptic never lets us forget this distinction.

Where do we put this line of thinking and behavior? Kant, Hegel, Descartes, Locke, Husserl, Heidegger, Rawls, Sartre…philosophic forefathers, singing silhouettes to what must be so ideal, so right, so righteous, so pure, so intrinsically true. As so the cynic, the pessimist, the loser, the loner, the drinker, the drunk coughs and a whiskey-voice chatters out like radio static, reminding us in their way of being and live of our shit, our puke, our snot, our body’s forgotten and rejected. These are the losers, who never wanted to win, who don’t believe in the winning anymore, who don’t believe in just or in truth. They believe just in being left alone. They point out to us the lie and especially the uneasiness we have at holding on to that lie. How can this cynic philosophy of life fit in with our own, so optimistic philosophy of life?

As such, I could only repeat the dreaded question, why shouldn’t I just be a snide cynic, rejecting everything except the small pleasure in drink and the happiness of being alone?

“Sitting there drinking, I considered suicide, but I felt a strange fondness for my body, my life. Scarred as they were mine. I would look into the dresser mirror and grin: if you’re going to go, you might as well take eight, or ten or twenty of them with you…
It was Saturday night in December. I was in my room and I drank much more than usual, lighting cigarette after cigarette, thinking of girls and the city and jobs, and of the years ahead. Looking ahead I liked very little what I saw. I wasn’t a misanthrope and I wasn’t a misogynist but I liked being alone. It felt good to sit alone in a small space and smoke a drink. I had always been good company with myself.”