There are times that encourage conspiracy theories — times of our lives (or rather, I suspect, psychological developmental stages) as well as points in history.
College kids, or perhaps people in their early twenties or so generally, love conspiracies — perhaps because the brain, having newly turned its attention to the confusing kaleidoscope of world events, is especially eager to spot connections among those events. Or perhaps because that’s the age when people start to become more likely to develop conditions like paranoid schizophrenia. Of course, the college environment — knowing that you are part of an institution much larger than yourself that ties you, like a Celestial Order of Water Buffalo member or what have you, to both the pranks and the philosophy treatises of students long dead — is a great incubator of conspiracist thinking in itself. The idea of being part of the Secret Society of Something or Other is very tantalizing at that age. No surprise, then, that it was sometime around senior year that I started reading things like Robert Anton Wilson’s conspiracy theory-parodying (and anarchist) sci-fi work, Illuminatus and saw a performance by the obscure Church of the Sub-Genius-inspired band Slack Hammer (on top of that, as noted in my prior Retro-Journal entry, we were all watching the conspiracy-filled Twin Peaks in 1990, and some of us kept watching even after Joan Chen got turned into a doorknob; with Twin Peaks, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld all in their first seasons, it wasn’t a bad year for TV).
Then, too, my college clique, full of libertarians and comedy writers (halfway to being a real subversive cabal anyway), was living at a point in history when an Old Order of Things — the Cold War — was suddenly absent and a flurry of new possibilities apparent. Such times have always been inspirational for conspiracy theorists — as during the eighteenth century, when the aristocracy was waning and rationalist theorists were waxing.
And speaking of waxing and waning, senior year was also when, by my count, at least four comedy writers from the Brown Film Bulletin had crushes on its editrix, Christine Caldwell, who also wrote the (libertarian) Brown Daily Herald column “Wax and Wane” (she later cleverly called her column “Light, Sweet, and Crude,” around the time of the first Gulf War and much oil talk). Inspired by a joke conspiracy theory chart I drew for the Bulletin explaining how all of pop culture can be traced back to Prince (Kevin Bacon not at that time having become so dominant as the traditional hub in such games), Christine at one point constructed a “happiness theory” chart, meant to indicate where all the amorous attentions of various members of our extended circle should be directed so as to harmonize all desires — an eminently utilitarian project. And she went out with fellow Bulletineer Dave Whitney for most of the next three years, despite graduation, geographic separation, and other difficulties.
Dave (who plays the guitar and has been in a few amateur rock bands), for his part, was inspired to create a chart of the rock n’ roll conspiracy, showing how various bands were connected to each other. I helped provide a link between classic rock and alternative rock bands by pointing out that Tina Turner had done a song with the Fixx — “Better Be Good to Me.” (It’s obvious if you listen — really listen for a change.) Dave and I had Martha Nussbaum’s “Philosophy of the Novel” class that semester and agreed that art sometimes captures the complexity of emotions and psychology in ways that dry philosophical and scientific explanations sometimes can’t. (I’d heard that Nussbaum converted to Judaism for a guy who she later broke up with, which, it seemed to me, ought to be an even more embarrassing experience for a philosophy professor, whose beliefs are ostensibly rational and well thought-out, than it would be for the rest of us.)
In any case, alcohol (the profane) and a secret, un-p.c. allegiance to God (the sacred) helped Christine through those emotionally turbulent times, which makes it fitting that now, seventeen years later, as a history professor with an interest in things theological, she is working on a book about the history of wine as an element of religion. The wine part I might have predicted. Given that Christine is not exactly the same kind of nerd I am (she finds They Might Be Giants annoying, as she first revealed that year, and she would claim a few years later that sci-fi by definition cannot be great canonical literature), I think her lowest ebb emotionally, when it was not yet clear if she and Dave would connect, may have come when she said that joining the campus’s nerd-filled Fantasy Gaming Society was “lookin’ better all the time.” It never came to that.
Beer — a beverage containing alcohol — also helped the atheist Caldwell, Holly, summon the courage to flirt with a handsome freshman alternative rock aficionado in her dorm named Jake Harrison, and from this shameful, cradle-robbing beginning arose a relationship that has led to marriage and two children, so while the empirical evidence provided by the two Caldwells cannot answer the question of whether belief in God or atheism is a more successful formula for life, the evidence does suggest that alcohol helps everyone. According to my journal, which is sketchy on details around this time, Dave was a road for Halloween that year, while Holly, inspired by the third and final semester of Gluck’s European Intellectual History class, went to the same party as “a profound sense of cultural crisis.”
Dave was the practical one, obviously — prone to simple, direct pronouncements then and now such as, to take examples from just one night that semester, “I’m psyched for the future…I want to have really big bookshelves…Man!! My shoes are so comfortable!” He exuded happiness, warmth, and confidence (and still does), yet during the tumultuous period when it was unclear if he and Christine would bond, the Caldwells briefly came to refer to Dave’s house as “the epicenter of evil.” (I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible.)
That semester saw me cast as “Phil” on the Brown campus TV soap opera Sob Story, though I have no recollection whatsoever of whether any of my scenes aired.
In the fall 1990 semester of the aforementioned Gluck class, we briefly touched on what I still think is the most vexing philosophical question and perhaps the only one that humanity may well never answer, raised by Heidegger: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And no, calling part of the something “God” doesn’t really eliminate the quandary, though for many people, that dodge seems to be satisfying.
Even Heidegger longed for easy answers sometimes, which is probably why he was a Nazi, like a few of the campus deconstructionists’ other heroes (there’s a thin line, perhaps, between the decon desire to peel away layers of civilization and the dark desire to wear black and learn how to harness occult forces the normals can’t grasp, using some form of Gnostic mumbo-jumbo — or maybe that’s just another conspiracy theory). The next (and final) semester, I’d throw a Heidegger-mocking scene into the terrible film I made when I finally got into a film production class, for which I’d taken that deconstructionist theory class as a prerequisite three years earlier. The scene just showed Scott Nybakken’s face, his mouth agape, as I intoned the narration “And now, a direct confrontation with Authentic Being.” I’ll bet Germans would find it funny.
Speaking of metaphysical questions, I somehow found time along with my homework to do some leisure reading that semester that included skeptical pro-science materialist Paul Kurtz’s The Transcendental Temptation and rationalist libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises’ Socialism (mainly because it turned out to be shorter than Human Action — the most important text, which I still haven’t read, of the “Austrian school” of economics — when I looked them both up in the library). The Kurtz and Mises books are still a good summary of my philosophy (toss in a David Bowie CD and a tape of Star Wars and you pretty much have the whole story). I probably should have been giving thought to the slightly more practical economic question “What will I do for a living after graduation?” I figured it’d be publishing or writing or, you know, some sort of, like, media type thing. But there was still one more semester to go before having to endure a direct, authentic confrontation with that particular problem.
In the meantime, there was that weird, distinctively senior-year sense of biding one’s time and thus being slightly bored even while anxiously seeking out things you knew you’d never get the chance to do again. Bulletineer Jay Burkholder was probably giving voice to that strange mixture of apathy and frustration when, just prior to his own graduation the previous semester, he said, “Do you realize everything is mediocre?” He was also the first person I knew to predict that pop music would all someday blend into rap-metal, which back then was as bizarre as saying that hippies and punks would someday get along or that the two Germanies would reunite.