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The Existential Leap
A Crime Story
By Dolan Cummings
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Dolan Cummings
All rights reserved.
Siegfried: an existential crime story, by KK Koshka
Part one: dissatisfaction
A man's thoughts are vanity, sir.
They come unasked and gang away withoot a dismissal and he canna help them.
Siegfried sat on the top deck of a bus somewhere in Glasgow, Paradise Lost open in his hand. The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. But he was distracted, thinking about something stupid he had said at the office, when it occurred to him that he could embezzle money from work and not have to work anymore. He could be a criminal. Still, the thought merely nestled in a corner of his mind, while he went on worrying about his faux pas; needlessly torturing himself, in fact, over something his colleagues had surely forgotten. He did this sort of thing all the time. It was an article of faith for Siegfried at that time that the constant sense of embarrassment he felt was a condition of his youth, and not of life in general. At his better moments, he felt as though he were looking back on himself from the future, from a time when his blundering thoughts and actions would make sense as part of the development of his character. What he didn't know then was that his impending resolution would come not in spite of his distraction, but as a function of it.
People used to say that Siegfried wasn't quite human, whatever that means. He often seemed to be sleepwalking, and people would snap their fingers at him in an effort to wake him up. But he was driven by something inside, and he regarded external reality, that is immediate reality, as a distraction, a series of obstacles. In common parlance he was aloof, distant, a dreamer with his head in the clouds. Away with the fairies. Otherwise he might have been diagnosed as an overintellectualizer, a pathological narcissist or a dangerously schizoid personality. Naturally, he didn't much care. Nonetheless, he couldn't stop thinking about himself. He had to justify every word and every gesture for himself after the fact: it was unbearable. And it was the realization that he must not allow himself to be contained by reality that kept tearing him away from self-examination. Simply analyzing himself made him part of the external world looking in, rather than the subject of his own world, whatever that might mean.
'You can't be yourself on your own,' Siegfried liked to say. It was this conviction that had driven him against his own nature to seek company during his final months in Glasgow, not just by opening his stupid mouth at work, but even by spending time with childhood friends who somehow had never really gone away. It didn't work. He didn't like himself in company. Which is to say that he didn't like what other people saw of him. O, wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us! Siegfried saw too much. The problem was that in cold, objective terms, Siegfried was not great. He wanted to be judged on his future greatness, and not on his present mediocrity. How could he fail to be mediocre in the suffocating present?
Siegfried had nobody to talk to. It was not a simple problem: lots of people would have been happy to 'listen,' even sympathetically. But Siegfried's thoughts weren't addressed to anybody he knew. Occasionally he did think of something he wanted to say to John Paul or Tommy or whoever, and he would happily carry a phrase or two in his head until he saw them again. Usually these were thoughts about soccer, an interest he had developed only recently, and which therefore had an artificial quality that was of course not lost on him. To his own surprise, he had in fact persuaded his equally unsporty friends to join him in supporting Glasgow Rangers, despite the fact that two of them were from a long line of supporters of the rival team. But the thoughts that really bothered him were at once too personal and too abstract for his friends. Only Jamsie might understand, and he had recently gone off to teach English in Japan. Siegfried often imagined talking to Jamsie.
In the real world, he made do with John Paul, who was in fact well qualified to be Siegfried's partner in crime should he have wanted one. He was intelligent, almost naturally deviant, and unusually confident in his rejection of respectable society. He came from an Italian family that owned a string of chip shops, and he liked on occasion to affect the manners of a young mafioso. In fact, he worked part-time for a community arts project. He was less thoughtful than Siegfried, which he considered to be a virtue. Somehow the two young men got on very well. In fact, John Paul and Siegfried were the joint masterminds of an unconvincing universe. John Paul didn't know that, of course. But it was a constant source of anxiety for Siegfried.
More than once – before his realisation that his job offered a more practical possibility – Siegfried had tried to suggest collaborating on an audacious robbery. This usually happened when he became exasperated by his friends' lottery fantasies, which seemed far more ridiculous to him, but however serious he felt himself to be, it always came out sounding like a joke. He was sure it was not. They wanted large sums of money, and the most direct way to acquire such sums was theft. They were intelligent, resourceful, fit young men, more than capable of planning and executing a bank job or something similar. Why not?
If it had ever occurred to one of Siegfried's friends to insist that robbery is wrong, that might have been interesting. But their conversations never got on to such lofty territory. Instead, on those few occasions when they thought Siegfried might not be joking, his friends – usually it was Tommy – would wearily explain that such ideas were silly, unrealistic. That was just Siegfried's point, though: he refused to accept 'realistic,' a crassly self-justifying adjective as far as he was concerned. It meant only, 'this is not the sort of thing people like us, people in our situation, do.' To think like that was to condemn oneself to being the same sort of person, in the same situation, in perpetuity. Siegfried wanted to create his own reality, and in order to do that he had to disregard what appeared to be realistic. Or as he often ended up putting it in frustration: 'Fuck reality. Fuck it!'
Fuck it indeed, but until Siegfried acted on his conviction he was left having stupid arguments. As long as Siegfried had no credible programme of action, his ideas were just embarrassing. And the more he talked about it, the worse he felt: it was like carrying around a stinking lump of bullshit. So for a while he learned to keep it to himself, a private dream. But Siegfried could still smell the stench even if no-one else could, so these occasional arguments were inevitable. Siegfried had to justify himself to himself, and the only way to do it convincingly was to expose himself to others. To expose himself and then to struggle to maintain credibility. It wasn't easy, but Siegfried was never completely humiliated. Hard as his position was, Siegfried could not lose the argument. He could not lose the argument because he was right.
There are so many things that one doesn't do in life simply because they are not done. The narrow and predictable biography of the average human being is really quite disturbing. What is more disturbing perhaps is that this is no secret. Everybody who has ever bothered to think about it can see that there are infinite possibilities in life, and yet still they plow that same furrow, or at least choose their furrows from the same field, so to speak. Siegfried wouldn't have objected if they were talking about a good field, but really it isn't a good field at all. The deliberate choice of a dull and miserable life seemed to Siegfried to be inexcusable, and yet it was the norm, the reality.
Of course there is such a thing as reality. But it was always obvious to Siegfried that reality imposes itself on the individual at more than one level. There are the laws of physics and there are the laws of social engagement. The latter are no less 'real,' but they are considerably more open to negotiation. Moreover, this aspect of reality in turn presents itself on different levels. It's easy enough to break the petty conventions, and that's not unusual. There are plenty of wacky eccentrics around to prove that. Then there is the law, enforcing what you might call moral reality, and of course those unnatural rules are generally there for good reason. Siegfried was not opposed to civilization, by any means. Nonetheless, as long as one's purpose is civilized, breaking the odd law can give an individual a lot of space. And not just bad laws, but even perfectly good laws. (One may choose to murder a particular person for a particular reason, but that in no way diminishes one's belief that, generally speaking, people should not kill one another.) Moreover, it is easier to commit murder than to steal a large sum of money without at least threatening to kill, because there are physical measures to prevent the latter. The law itself, however morally compelling, has more in common with a lock on a bathroom door than a lock on a safe: it's a reminder not to cross an imaginary line, rather than a physical barrier. A gentle kick is enough to break it. Which is to say you can break these rules, as long as you're able to negotiate the consequences. This was why Siegfried was so fascinated by crime.
On one occasion before Jamsie had left for Japan, John Paul, perhaps in an indulgent mood, had suggested drugs smuggling would be a better bet than armed robbery. John Paul knew about drugs; it was part of his job. In fact he had been into heroin himself before that. It was something he kept quiet, but not because his employers would have objected: former addicts were prized in the field for their moral authority. The problem was that John Paul had never got addicted. Like anything else, in fact, he had not been able to stick at the heroin for more than a few months. His 'works' now lay in a shoebox under his bed along with his old Tae Kwon Do kit and a collection of broken art materials, the forlorn detritus of six-week enthusiasms. So for half an hour, the friends had discussed drugs smuggling – weighing up the most promising types of drugs, sources, routes and channels of distribution – none of them, not even Siegfried, taking it remotely seriously.
Even in jest, though, Siegfried had found something exhilarating in the fact that they were talking this way. After all there was no reason why they should not have been serious. Only Tommy refused to join in: he was terrified that their pretended criminality would shatter the masquerade of reality. For his own part, Siegfried revelled in the illusion of free conspiracy, while deep down he knew that John Paul and Jamsie were not with him at all. They were less uptight versions of Tommy, playing along with Siegfried just to annoy him, and never taking it remotely seriously. If anything, their sense of what was realistic was even stronger than Tommy's, and that was what gave them the confidence to joke about it. In stubborn reality, Siegfried was on his own.
Then on the bus, this little thought.CHAPTER 2
Part two: quickening
Freedom and power, and above all, power! Over all trembling creation and all the ant-heap!
The very evening following the one when Siegfried's first real, and very private, criminal plan had come to him, he reluctantly went along to a party with his friends. One secret reason – semisecret even to himself at the time, but perhaps indeed the only reason – he had agreed to go was that he expected Nicole would be there. Nicole was a girl who had apparently told someone who told someone that she wanted to go out with Siegfried. Or maybe it was just 'get off with' rather than go out. 'Whatever,' he had told whoever it was at the time: the difference was academic because Siegfried had no intention of doing anything about it. Had he felt otherwise, however, he was unsure what doing something about it might have involved. Siegfried was too self-conscious to go with the flow even in everyday conversation. He felt that he would have been surrendering himself. When someone asked 'how are you?' Siegfried could never just say 'fine,' like everyone else. Instead he would say 'swell' or 'super,' something stupid just to avoid saying 'fine.' Dating was always going to be a problem.
As he approached the party, Siegfried was stunned to see Jamsie, who was supposed to be in Japan, loitering on the corner. 'What the fuck are you doing here?!'
Having established that Jamsie had been deported from Japan for bureaucratic reasons, they exchanged peasantries – 'Splendid.' 'Smashing.' – and Jamsie announced that he'd been waiting on the corner for Siegfried's 'girlfriend,' but now guessed she was probably at the party already. So the two young men proceeded together without Siegfried's girlfriend.
'What girlfriend?' Siegfried asked on the way up the stairs; this response was supposed to be wearily nonchalant, but it came just a second too late to avoid revealing intrigue. Jamsie winked, and Siegfried told him to fuck off.
Once inside the party, Jamsie was joined by Tommy in the ritual teasing of Siegfried on this subject. He was 'on a promise,' they said, and yet they knew he was so sad he would run away. It bothered him that 'sad' is considered an insult. Is 'happy' a compliment? It transpired that the girl in question was not Nicole but Chantal, whom Siegfried dimly knew and tried not to notice standing across the room in a dress that made her hard not to notice. He had no idea whether there was any basis to this new rumour, but actually, he was a bit disturbed by the casual way in which the last contender had been swept aside. Jamsie revealed that Nicole had given up on Siegfried and was going out or getting off with someone else. ('The faithless bitch!') Siegfried had had enough of being the centre of the wrong kind of attention, so he wandered off, leaving Jamsie and Tommy to talk about whatever they talked about when he wasn't there.
Siegfried looked around the room. He didn't like the people and the way they were dressed, or the music, or anything about the party. Before he could leave, John Paul appeared with his girlfriend, and insisted Siegfried tell her about a fight they'd been involved in a few weeks earlier. Of course Siegfried had his reservations about the whole 'semi-articulate sidekick sings the praises of (brazenly self-conscious) vain hard-man' thing, but the incident had been weighing on his mind anyway. So he mumbled a series of incomprehensible phrases punctuated by gratuitous obscenities and occasional approving glances at John Paul while he went over the thing in his head.
It had been, as John Paul said, a classic bar brawl; too classic, in fact, to avoid an aura of inauthenticity. Fights don't need a reason. Everybody knows that. But doesn't that assume something else? A kind of implicit, ambient alienation perhaps. One that ordinarily requires no explanation. But ordinarily refers to other people. Siegfried did nothing without explanation. Nothing without justification. There was nothing ambient about his alienation.
John Paul seemed pleased with Siegfried's rendering of the tale, but his girlfriend got bored and wandered off. Just the two of them then. John Paul moved closer. 'Have you talked to Chantal yet?' he asked, like a father checking his son has done his homework. Siegfried shrugged. John Paul shook his head. Siegfried had tried to explain things to John Paul before, how men who sleep with lots of women are really poofs. 'That's an interesting theory,' John Paul had said, both indulgingly and dismissively, like he did. It worried Siegfried that his words of wisdom often failed to ring true. On this subject he had given up trying, indefinitely suspended the argument. But within that argument lay the germ of Siegfried's greatness.
He left the party alone then, with the feeling of dissatisfaction weighing on him heavier than ever. He hated everyone he knew. It occurred to him that if he could somehow have met himself he would have hated him too. There was nothing of Siegfried in him, in the person experienced by other people, or at least nothing of substance. And yet if this person had died there and then, the real Siegfried would have died with him. The thought terrified Siegfried. He resolved then to be his own man at all costs. Fuck 'em all, he said out loud as he reached the foot of the stairs.
Siegfried never saw himself in other people. He never even took anybody to be his contemporary; everyone seemed either older or younger than himself, even people he knew to be his own age. He had disliked the way the people at the party had been dressed, the music they listened to, but there was no other style with which he identified. His own cheap business suits and his preference for classical music had been an attempt to affect a default, but this would have struck him as absurdly pretentious if anyone else had done it. Anything that could be pinned down, labelled, used for advertising purposes, was beneath contempt. The otherness of others was their particularity. The point of being a self is that one is nobody in particular. One's self is the default, the universal norm; it is for others to have character, distinction, amusing quirks of personality. Such were Siegfried's thoughts as he walked home.
Excerpted from The Existential Leap by Dolan Cummings. Copyright © 2016 Dolan Cummings. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Presentiments of greatness,
The lad never meant it,
Staring into space,
Siegfried: an existential crime story, by KK Koshka,
Part one: dissatisfaction,
Part two: quickening,
Destiny and distraction,
Interlude: the comedy of Eros,
The dancing queen and the Devil,
Siegfried: an existential crime story, by KK Koshka,
Part three: the trouble with New York,
Unbecoming a woman,
Jimmy the Chink is a dead man,
Young man Ernest,
The Devil made me do it,
What with might mean,
Some developments, revelations et cetera,
Queer snakes, queer ladders,
Andante: life and work go on,
Why does anyone do anything?,