David Laskowski

Anatomy of a Lost Cause

It began, inno­cent­ly enough, like most things, as an incli­na­tion, a desire, or a need, per­haps, how­ev­er imme­di­ate, to do what the doc­tors call “some­thing.” However, it soon grew into a full-fledged com­mit­ment to “mak­ing a dif­fer­ence,” the unsight­ly scene, they said, respon­si­ble for, among oth­er things, his sense of futil­i­ty, his exas­per­a­tion, his feel­ing, he told me, of worth­less­ness. And even though it could have man­i­fest­ed in a vari­ety of ways, in his case it man­i­fest­ed as an attribute, a char­ac­ter­is­tic, a qual­i­ty sim­i­lar to an air of supe­ri­or­i­ty, a sense of invin­ci­bil­i­ty, a ten­den­cy, as defined by Dr. Jester Guffaw of the Institute for Laughs at Coleman College in Chicago, to act irra­tional­ly. It made him act, Dr. Guffaw writes in his book on laugh­ter, The Chicken Never Actually Crossed the Road, “hilar­i­ous­ly, depend­ing on the audi­ence, of course.” And although, in most cas­es, act­ing like this proves rel­a­tive­ly innocuous—leading to feel­ings of embar­rass­ment or to a fear of look­ing into the mirror—in David’s case, it led, sad­ly, to writ­ing wild­ly imag­i­na­tive tales about peo­ple that did not exist.

The doc­tors in the depart­ment of English at Coleman treat­ed David with aver­sion and elec­troshock ther­a­py, iso­la­tion, and vol­un­teer work, among oth­er things. The idea, accord­ing to the Americanist and ama­teur ven­tril­o­quist, Oral Aphasia, was to “replace the gap­ing hole that was David’s life with an emo­tion­al core whose growth could be spurred by a gar­gan­tu­an nor­mal­cy, a bot­tom­less well of career ambi­tion, or a degree in busi­ness.” Suffice it to say, it did not work. According to Mortimer, Dr. Aphasia’s “dum­my,” although Mortimer despis­es the term, it did not work because the treat­ments only treat­ed David’s symp­toms and not the cause of the con­di­tion. “David, like many believ­ers in lost caus­es, turned to the rit­u­al­is­tic devo­tion to com­po­si­tion because,” he writes in his study of David, The Anatomy of a Lost Cause, “it makes the believ­er feel as if they are doing some­thing with­out real­ly doing any­thing at all and thus avoid­ing the truth that noth­ing can ever real­ly be done.” In oth­er words, Mortimer believes David’s con­di­tion was, like a snake eat­ing its own tail, like a snake eat­ing its own tale.

Yet, Mortimer could not offer any­thing to David beyond the the­o­ret­i­cal expla­na­tion of why the treat­ments admin­is­tered by the pro­fes­sors at Coleman did not work, most like­ly because Mortimer had a sink­ing feel­ing, deep in his hol­low cav­i­ty, that there was no iden­ti­fi­able under­ly­ing cause for David’s symp­toms. In oth­er words, Mortimer’s the­o­ry, vaude­vil­lians believe, grew out of on Mortimer’s attach­ment to what doc­tors called his oral apha­sia, so that what he thought was an under­ly­ing cause was real­ly just the obnox­ious­ly irri­ta­ble chasm-at-the-cen­ter-of-all-lives, the organ respon­si­ble for the influx of the inspi­ra­tional waste doc­tors believe reg­u­lates the flow of me, myself, and, sur­pris­ing­ly, I. In oth­er words, hav­ing an excess of the world-at-large, the chasm leads not only to pathet­ic ratio­nal­iza­tion about the nature of me, myself, and I, but also to pathet­ic ratio­nal­iza­tions about he, she, and they.

However, even if Mortimer’s wood­en obser­va­tions are incor­rect, it does lit­tle to change the impor­tance of exam­in­ing what Mortimer defined as the “lit­er­ary ambi­tion,” or what he thought was caus­ing David’s whirl­wind of mis­ery, what weath­er­man Rainy Today of chan­nel 6 believes has a fifty per­cent chance of caus­ing great suf­fer­ing. In oth­er words, what remains true, despite Mortimer’s igno­rance, is that David, or any believ­er in the lost cause, despite how they do it, will act out in a man­ner spe­cif­ic to over­com­ing such hur­dle, be it real or imag­i­nary.

Still, the ques­tion as to why David end­ed up like this remains. According to Dr. Rebel Yell of The Center for Angry Youth, David, and believ­ers like him, became sick because of the once-over, or what Canadians call the going-over–the exter­nal influ­ence most often man­i­fest­ed as a “par­ent,” or that which prompts the believ­er to con­tin­ue to believe despite evi­dence, truth, or con­jec­ture, whichev­er comes first. It is the once-over, or the one pay­ing the bills, accord­ing to Dr. Yell, that forces the believ­er to insert their emo­tion­al wealth into a series of pal­try fic­tions, all of which are about the believer’s failed roman­tic rela­tion­ships. Although many doc­tors believe the I-push, or the nar­cis­sis­tic plush, is respon­si­ble for these fic­tions, they are wrong because I am right, and I am right because even though they went to bet­ter col­leges I am smarter than they are. In oth­er words, what caus­es the believ­er to become a believ­er is how much he or she enjoys “putting their once-overs through the ringer,” since, accord­ing to Dr. Yell, “noth­ing else caus­es the once-over to gasp, sigh, and cry his or her­self to sleep as much as a child’s com­mit­ment to the human­i­ties.”

Dr. Yell’s work on the lost cause led sev­er­al doc­tors to take the lost cause syn­drome seri­ous­ly, espe­cial­ly since they real­ized it was hap­pen­ing in their own homes. In fact, after David, sev­er­al doc­tors sug­gest­ed there was a need to con­quer the “lit­er­ary ambi­tion,” if not for “our sons and daugh­ters, then for the unsus­pect­ing pub­lic and their twen­ty-five dol­lars.” However, unlike Mortimer, these doc­tors sug­gest­ed approach­ing the prob­lem phys­i­cal­ly, and not psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, even though they real­ized there were “great risks” in treat­ing the patient phys­i­cal­ly, risks that include loss of motor func­tion or full amne­sia. However, Dr. Klaus Brandauer, Chief of Psychological Services at Mefisto Hospital in Berlin, believes these risks are exag­ger­at­ed. “You see,” he says in an inter­view with David’s par­ents, “dam­age is min­i­mized by enter­ing into the sub­con­scious where we believe the motives of lit­er­ary ambi­tion exist. We essen­tial­ly shame the oper­a­tive motives into admit­ting they are doing noth­ing real­ly but harm­ing the patient by pre­tend­ing that what the patient is doing is worth­while. We assault the sub­con­scious by assault­ing the patient, call­ing the patient names, mak­ing the patient get undressed and walk around in pub­lic, or mak­ing them write in front of an assem­bled board of cit­i­zens with real jobs. It’s a very inter­est­ing process to say the least.” Hans Gruber, of the Saxony Grubers, who had been respon­si­ble for sev­er­al mid-list titles before his par­ents brought him to see Dr. Gruber, believes Dr. Brandauer’s process, “although dif­fi­cult to take at first, can even­tu­al­ly be absorbed.”

Gruber is an inter­est­ing case. Despite his par­ents’ com­mit­ment to serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty, Gruber majored in English at Kohlmann Kollege in Berlin where he even­tu­al­ly received his M.A. and his PhD in lit­er­ary stud­ies, focus­ing on the work of the obscure Martian poet Zed Factor 12. It was in study­ing ZF12 that Gruber dis­cov­ered what he called the inner-trans­fer­ence sub­ju­ga­tion respon­si­ble for the estab­lish­ment of all par­al­lel para­me­ters regard­ing the pro­duc­tion of lit­er­ary schema­ta. In oth­er words, Gruber began to write poems. Gruber’s ini­tial poems were, like the poems of almost all oth­er poets, a response to the molesta­tion of the lit­er­ary ambi­tion, a molesta­tion made pos­si­ble the pres­ence of the ambi­tion in poets under twen­ty-five. It was only after Gruber had been writ­ing for a num­ber of years did he dis­cov­er the empti­ness of what he called “the gut munch,” a con­di­tion only recent­ly rec­og­nized by doc­tors as an actu­al con­di­tion. It was after the diag­no­sis of the “gut munch” that Gruber switched to prose, although not equal­ly as worth­less as poet­ry, still rel­a­tive­ly worth­less nonethe­less. Doctors believe Gruber’s symp­toms were the result of a “sick ego,” a con­di­tion caused by the tight­en­ing of the short hairs and result­ing in the enlarge­ment of the Epiphany, a small bulb in the brain that con­trols pro­duc­tion of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. To com­bat this enlarge­ment, Brandauer insert­ed a pin into the Epiphany to reduce its size (not that size mat­ters, although, in this case, it did).

Interestingly enough, Gruber had con­trolled his Epiphanies through nico­tine inges­tion, binge drink­ing, and errat­ic behav­ior, the same ways the American poet Steiner Nudge was able to manip­u­late his lit­er­ary ambi­tion, although Nudge also relied on the potent com­bi­na­tion of weed, acid, and a strict veg­e­tar­i­an diet that includ­ed, among oth­er things, steak, pork, and chick­en.  However, even though poets like Nudge man­aged to con­trol his ambi­tion, it even­tu­al­ly became unwieldy, lead­ing to the death of his girl­friend. Apparently dis­tract­ed as she pre­pared to go out with her friends since her “bor­ing turd” of a boyfriend “was work­ing again,” she acci­den­tal­ly stabbed her­self in the back with a par­tic­u­lar sharp metaphor Nudge had left lying about. When ques­tioned by police, Nudge said he was too busy work­ing and to come back after he fin­ished “this damn stan­za.”

It was because of Gruber and Nudge that David first came to me since he was afraid that he was becom­ing like Gruber and Nudge, obsessed with a dis­ci­pline, he said, that had no future. Although I told him that he was over­re­act­ing, that cre­at­ing fan­tas­ti­cal­ly real­is­tic tales about what he called char­ac­ters was fine if it was what he want­ed to do, he protest­ed, cer­tain that he, too, would end up like Gruber or Nudge. And Dr. Brandauer was out of the ques­tion since his meth­ods were, like Brandauer, annoy­ing­ly European and had, like St. John’s Wort, yet to be accept­ed by the States. Besides, David was con­vinced his prob­lem was psy­cho­log­i­cal. He was con­vinced that the prob­lem had start­ed in his child­hood, a child­hood he described as youth­ful, young, and child­like, descrip­tions that although I agreed with, I felt were too lit­er­al, too spe­cif­ic, too syn­ony­mous to be of much use.

David had grown up in Chicago, between the tight reigns of the city’s Daley fam­i­ly dynasty, when the city, because it was sim­ply bid­ing its time until the younger Daley was old enough to run for may­or, was, David’s father would say, a city of big balls, and not, as Carl Sandburg had once remarked, of big shoul­ders. “They’re all try­ing to do what no one else, includ­ing Daley or even Big Bill Thompson could do,” which was, accord­ing to David’s father, act like a may­or. And even though David did not direct­ly blame his trou­bles on the city’s pol­i­tics, he could not help but think that the atmos­phere, or lack of, that these can­di­dates cre­at­ed with their back step­ping, their back­stab­bing, and their back­slid­ing ways had some effect, or some unal­ter­able, invid­i­ous influ­ence upon him. Yet, if that were true, then the hun­dred of thou­sands of girls and boys who had grown up, like David, dur­ing this time would be writ­ing their nov­el­is­tic ways, as one of David’s girl­friends, who was odd­ly old-fash­ioned, put it, to the poor­house. No, instead, David was com­mit­ted to the idea that where he was from was why he was who he was. It was, he told me, “because of what they did that I’m so ded­i­cat­ed to cre­at­ing peo­ple I can believe in, peo­ple that should exist in the world, but don’t.”

And maybe David was right, maybe what he saw as the real world essen­tial­ly shocked him into imag­i­na­tion. It is at least what Prof. Malicious Graft, a pio­neer­ing, accord­ing to the pub­lic rela­tions firm Yes You, would believe. Prof. Graft, who teach­es polit­i­cal chi­canery at Coalman College in Chicago, has writ­ten sev­er­al books on the sub­ject of what he calls “post-dra­mat­ic shock genre,” a genre, he claims—most cogent­ly in Grief Notes, an abbre­vi­at­ed guide to the larg­er work, Shock Treatment—that affects sev­er­al aspir­ing writ­ers, “just not me,” he writes, “thank God.” According to Graft, writ­ers like David, grew up dur­ing “a time of momen­tous change that was rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent than the sev­er­al mil­lion oth­er peri­ods of momen­tous change. Specifically,” he writes in his third book, Shock Treatment 3: The Revenge of the Electrodes, “where those oth­er peri­ods were mere­ly momen­tous, the peri­od in which the writ­ers I am writ­ing about grew up was sim­ply momen­tous.” Even though there is lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the peri­ods at the end of each of Graft’s sen­tence, his books have helped David great­ly.

Perhaps, what is most sad is that we may nev­er know why David does what he does, espe­cial­ly since no doc­tor, lawyer, shaman, or priest has suc­ceed­ed in dis­cov­er­ing the ori­gin of what I believe is an ill­ness that has and is affect­ing so many lives. Yet, David seems hap­py. He writes. He has a sand­wich. He writes some more. He sends out these “sto­ries” to oth­er peo­ple who, like David, write sto­ries too. And they send them to him. True, he does not make much mon­ey, and he is paler than any human being should be, but he is hap­py, at least for as long as it takes him to get to what he calls “the end of the sto­ry.”