I had just returned to New York. I had been living for about a week in a hotel on the Upper West Side, which I booked at half-price, about $125, on priceline.com, and was now staying in the Upper West Side youth hostel. I was walking on the Upper West Side when I heard a voice calling my name. I turned around to see who it was. It was Sam, the magazine editor who had published my review of a Czech film from the 60s three years earlier, shortly before I left for France to study philosophy. Sam had liked my piece and had followed up with requests for me to write more. I at first had promised to write a couple of things, which I started, but then I got absorbed in my coursework at the Sorbonne. I had not spoken to Sam in almost three years. I greeted him warmly and asked if he was still extending me an offer to write film reviews. He said, “Sure.” He then asked me what I was doing and I told him I just come back to New York and was looking for a place to stay. He then offered to rent me a room, which he said was available for two months. We discussed this for a few minutes and agreed and we said that I would call him in the afternoon of the next day in order to arrange a time to come by and see the place.
I got up the next morning about 10. That is fairly normal for me. I went to the café to get some coffee, and checked my phone and found that there were 4 messages from Sam, left at hourly intervals beginning at 6 AM. The first, from 6, sounded extremely urgent and said to call him immediately. By 8 he was saying, “Bill, where are you? I’m giving up on you!” He sounded very intense. I called him and he was a bit softer when he answered after I explained that I had just gotten up and was having my coffee. He said, “You can have coffee here. Come over now.” I said, alright, since you are obviously in a hurry, I’ll take a taxi. He said, “Don’t take a taxi, take a bus! The money you would spend on a taxi could be sent on the apartment.” We argued briefly; he was extremely adamant that I not take a taxi. Evidently I did not have the right to do anything that he knew for certain was not in my best interest. Later I would realize this man, who claims to like Martin Buber, has no concept of the “you” but only of the “I” and the “we”; he is collectivistic, like so many Americans. And so he would do for me putative favors, but could not recognize my existence. Finally I gave in, since he obviously doesn’t solve differences by negotiating but by demanding capitulation. He was very unpleasant and very determined about this; my taking a taxi was simply not allowable. He did not seem to appreciate that my only reason was out of courtesy to him, since he had been demanding my immediate appearance for the previous four hours.
Anyway, I went. I don’t even remember if I took the bus or not; I suppose I must have since he had obviated my only reason for taking a cab. Was he doing this out of courtesy? Does he demand that people obey him because he knows what they need and should do? Heaven only knows why I didn’t think, this man is a maniac, stay away from him, he’ll hurt you. I must have thought I could control the situation. When I arrived we talked for a couple of hours and it was reasonably amicable. At the end of our conversation when it was time to give him a check, he said the only problem he had with me is I was too obsequious. Well, it was true; I was terrified of this man, frightened of annoying him by contradicting him and then being on the receiving end of his fury; I had already concluded that I would have to treat him with kid gloves. But his remark suggested that he is in fact a very competitive man who asserts himself in order to get what he wants but expects other people, or perhaps just other men, to be assertive in reply. I think many New Yorkers are like this; the rule is every man for himself, but people expect other people to be assertive and feisty themselves. And if not, they don’t respect you and they will walk all over you. You can see this in male prison culture: a man will challenge you and if you stand up to him you will get the shit beaten out of you, but if you don’t, he will think you are a pussy and you will be raped. Only later I would discover that Sam also does not take kindly to being contradicted, so to win his respect I would have to be self-assertive but in a way that never involves challenging any of his assertions, and of course that is impossible. In fact, men like him either respect you and fight you or they don’t respect you but are happy to order you about, pleased that you accept their domination, and perhaps generous towards you in the manner of a Christian slave owner who loves his slaves, which is in part what I wound up concluding he is.
I let Sam know that I had a number of boxes of possessions that had been shipped from Chicago and were waiting for me at FedEx. I did not know Sam would offer to help me with them only as an investment, but I was grateful for his help and thanked him. It did in fact take some time, and he was quite civil and helpful during the whole endeavor.
Two days later Sam told me he needed my help with something; in fact, it was unloading his own boxes from storage. I was happy to help him and agreed to what he asked. He did not actually ask but demanded, and he informed me that I would be awakened early in the morning and would be expected to wait around until he got back, so that I could help unload the boxes. Sam gets up every morning at 5, and when he does he is ON. As soon as I came out from my room, either to get up or to go to the bathroom, he would assail me with multiple demands. In this case I must have tried to negotiate to be able to sleep in till 8 or so, which is much earlier than I usually get up. Sam left for his storage facility in the Bronx, and told me he would be back in an hour and expected me to wait until then. I said ok. Something evidently happened to Sam while he was up there, I never found out what, but he did not return at 9 when expected; I waited until 10 and then began to wonder what I should do, particularly as my cell phone battery was dying, I could not find the charger, and we did not yet have internet in the house; Sam had a contraption providing internet on his computer, so I had to order internet for him in order to have it in the apartment. All of this meant that I had no way of contacting Sam, or would not, as soon as my phone died. How long should I wait? What is the best thing to do? What if he tries to contact me and cannot? I waited a little while and then decided to go to Starbuck’s and email him. I told him I would wait at Starbuck’s for a while and then go about my day. He did not reply. By this time it was after 11. I left, because I had things to do.
I heard from Sam that evening. He called me and said, “I need you to come back right now. There is a pile of boxes that has to be stacked by you. And thanks for fucking me over this morning.” I email him to say that I was working on an editing project which had to be completed that evening, and I had internet where I was but of course not at the house, and so I could not leave. When I returned, after midnight, Sam, who goes to sleep early, was laid out on the sofa where he sleeps, with the television blaring as he always has it. There was a stack of 10 or 12 boxes in front of my door. I woke him to ask what he wanted down with these boxes. He said they had to be moved and place in front of a different door. He had himself carefully piled these boxes in front of my door so that I would be forced to move them, instead of in the location where he wanted them, which obviously would have involved more or less exactly the same amount of effort on his part, and would achieved the purpose of having the boxes where he wanted them much more efficiently. I asked him what this was about. He said the boxes had to be moved by me because this was the consequence of my not being there for him when he needed me. It was a ritual of penance that he required me to go through, in order to prove that I am his obedient slave. I told him what had happened in the morning and tried to explain to him that I did what I thought made the most sense. He refused to credit or pay any attention to my explanation and insisted that it was obvious that I had not acted rightly. Later on I shifted to a less placating approach, but in this case and others I tried to reason with him in a manner that I like to think of as somewhat Talmudic. He in turn took the approach of trying to reason with me in a condescending and patronizing manner by trying patiently to get me to see how I was in the wrong. At one point he became very angry and went on for ten minutes saying all kinds of extreme and horrible things. I got to see why the Talmud says that anger puts a man out of this world. I have never seen a person that angry who did not also appear to be threatening violence. I listened to his tirade patiently and in disbelief, which is how I always treat people who do this kind of thing (especially if I cannot get away), since of course getting angry back would just feed their wrath. When a person is that angry, other people don’t exist except as objects; people who are full of rage cannot listen and cannot learn. I could wonder whether he has the sort of personality disorder of the person who because of his arrogance cannot learn. Anyway, when he had finished, he paused for a minute and said, calmly, “I’m not usually like that.” He didn’t apologize or admit that his demands were unreasonable; he just isn’t always hostile but sometimes gentle with his slaves when they do his bidding. I stacked his boxes for him – of course there are some things I will not do, but this was not that big a deal to me – and went into my room. Later I found that he would often harass me for an hour or more at a time about something I had failed to do that he expected. It would become clear that he not only would not listen to reason but that nothing I could say or do would satisfy him, except to do yesterday what he now wanted me to have done then. Since it was no longer possible to perform an action yesterday, yesterday no longer being available for this purpose, he could never be satisfied, the argument would not really end, he would remain angry, which may be what he most needed, to be angry and have a reason to be, and so these conversations, which usually started out with some pretense of rationality, would be interminable. I suppose it also has to be said that many men have a need to have relationships with other men that are full of anger, hostility, and negative feelings. We have all known negative people. They often get upset with you about what you say. They have a chip on their shoulder and so in conversation, for instance, they are always afraid that they are being interrupted—since they invariably want to talk and be listened to without any desire to listen in turn, and when they do formulate such a desire they think of it as fairness, since each person just wants to talk, it is only fair to let me talk to and I will listen to you out of consideration, not because I am genuinely interested in what you have to say. In fact, it occurred to me when Sam did this that he needed while talking to think out loud and carefully develop an idea as a kind of artifact, and so of course if I responded to a statement of his when he said it he would say I had interpreted him, though I could not always know that the statement was only the premise in a deduction, and then I would be preventing him from finishing the development of his product, which he then wanted to display for my admiration, rather than making statements designed to elicit a response.—People like this are quick to anger and slow to appease. Men who are like this are usually incapable of real friendships with other men because they are too busy competing with them. I think they may also be incapable of loving or being friends to a woman because they will want to use her, as a remark of his later revealed.
Over the next couple of weeks Sam would frequently offer some piece of clothing which he thought I ought to wear. He thought I was a destitute person lacking any nice clothing, although the things he offered me were hand me downs I would not have worn without shame and they did not interest me, nor did I need them. Was he genuinely offering to help me? If that was his intention, he made no effort to find out what if anything I might want or need. He never said, “Is there anything I can do for you?” He offered me things he wanted me to have. Later I would call him a Christian slave owner who loves his slaves. One morning he burst into my room and said, “I’ve given you all these gifts, but you still haven’t done what I asked you to do! If you don’t, I’m going to give up on you and stop giving you things.” I said, “Won’t you please?”
One day he told me about a woman he had gone out with. They had been seeing each other for six months. They had still not made love. Finally, he said to her, “You’ve been taking advantage of me, using me for your purposes, leading me on. I want to fuck you and if you don’t want to fuck, get out of my life!” I wondered if perhaps he views love as exchange. You pleasure me and I’ll pleasure you. That will be fair, won’t it? I’ll let you use me for your satisfaction if I can use you for mine. That’s what I want. I asked Sam if he believe in love and he said no, he just wants to get fucked. I began to understand why it is impossible for him to be friends with anyone; he also cannot love anyone.
I began to think he had basically positioned himself as a friend so that he could exploit me. I was paying half of his rent, which is the legally allowable maximum. He was paying $1400 on a 5 bedroom apartment. I was occupying a corner of one bedroom. It had a bunk bed in the center occupying much of the room, and against the wall there was a shelf that was part of a bookcase that I was able to use as a desk. There was a wooden chair, and there was shelf space for some of my books. There was no comfortable chair to read in. I had a few feet in which to maneuver. For this I paid $700. He pretended he was doing me a favor because rooms in apartments on the Upper East Side are much more expensive. Indeed, that may be true, and that is why I stayed, though as you will see I did so to my great harm. When I moved in he refused to give me a receipt or an agreement, on the grounds that by law if I were there more than 30 days I could claim I was a tenant and he would have difficulty evicting me, and he needed to be sure that I would not be able to exercise this legal right. Or any other rights, it turned out. Because when I left he owed me money and of course he refused to return it; he made up a story about how I caused him some expense, and although this was not in our verbal agreement, I had nothing in writing that I could show, and that is what he wanted.
Sam had a number of things he needed me to understand about how to do things in the apartment. For instance, there was a complicated routine involved in making coffee. I never succeeded in figuring it out because I could not quite follow his explanation. He also tended to expect that I would read his mind and know what he wanted me to do and how to do it. One day I went into the bathroom and saw a towel stuck in the toilet, wedged into the hole at the bottom. I thought, I wonder why this is there. Sam must have some sort of reason. So I left it. Later he noticed it and blamed me for having put it there. He said the towel must have fell off the stack of towels on top of the toilet and I must have knocked it off. I told him I had seen the towel and assumed that he wanted it there. He said that was stupid, and I said, maybe, but you are inscrutable to me, I know that I must be terrified of upsetting you by doing something the wrong way, but there seems to be no rationality that would explain what the right way is or what you want, and since I have to do what you want and expect but have no way of knowing what that is, when I saw the towel in the toilet I figured you must have some reason, so I had better leave it there. He repeated his claim that was stupid and I said well, maybe, and laughed. I mean, it was funny that I was trying to placate someone who is both irascible and inscrutable and I had no way of knowing how to do so. This time, curiously, he did not get insulted by my saying this, but he did not believe this was a comment on him but only on me. Once or twice I did laugh at something I had done and he appreciated this, saying something about Jewish humor, and I gathered this was because it enabled him to feel he was in charge. His idea of humor is laughing at one’s own folly, not at the irony of the way other people are behaving. Kafka’s humor, which I would like to think qualifies as Jewish, would be lost on Sam.
Sam lives on an inheritance of $20,000/year. His apartment is cramped and he is fighting a constant war against cockroaches, which seems to consume a good part of his energy. His manner of cooking, cleaning, etc. are also warlike in this sense and it is clearly a war in which he is the underdog and the world around him has to be subdued with great skill and effort. He steals toilet paper from hotels, thus saving himself two dollars a week. One morning I dropped something in the kitchen and he became it afraid that it had broken or would break. He overreacted in a very pronounced manner, and I was puzzled that this man, many of whose people were annihilated some three generations ago, thinks that a broken dish is the apocalypse. Once we were arguing about something, and to make a point, I picked up a piece of foil that was sitting on a table in the kitchen and in a very pointed gesture displaced it (not damaging it) to another location a few inches away. Sam exclaimed, “You’re being violent!” And I gathered that he considered that because we were in his apartment and this space is his property, that every time I touch any object, no matter how trivial in its value, and perhaps anytime I say anything that diverges from his expectations, that is “violence.” Americans have peculiar ideas about “violence,” the term is usually used to name a transgression, perhaps an act of disobedience or one that challenges authority, and often the person using the term is invoking this symbolic violence so as to legitimate the very real violence they are about to engage in, and which they will pretend is not crime but punishment. I have encountered similar abuses of the term “violence” in official contexts. Sam was not responding to my touching the piece of paper but using that as an excuse. He did not feel prepared to dispute the claim I was making so he labeled its utterance a crime. I think the use of the concept of property right by reactionaries to defeat anyone desiring to engage in an honest discussion about anything is far-reaching. The opinions of the boss must be true because he has a property right. Why was it so hard for me to understand that this is a bully who needs to be right, who has managed to become a small businessman for that reason, and who needs to dominate any person living with him as his paying guest? I fault myself for the most stubborn naivete of assuming that people have good sense when clearly they have very little. Maybe it was because there were in fact long stretches of conversation during which Sam was quite genial. This would happen when I would start talking about something and he would indulge me. But when he would say something, he would not tolerate my replying. I am the son of a college professor who also has a law degree. Professors and lawyers are people prone to argue. I grew up believing that a spirited disagreement is a friendly, not unfriendly, form of social intercourse, and that there is a world of difference between disagreement and hostility. In fact, you don’t really argue with your enemy, unless you’re a fool; it is your friends you argue with. (Though clearly, I was a fool with Sam; but then the enemies who defeat us are most often the ones who seem like friends or who started out as friends; isn’t the story of the betrayal of the working class by the various Communist Parties of Europe?). How much grief I could have spared myself had I simply formed in my youth the understanding that most people are not like this and will hurt you or punish you if you disagree with them. Maybe I have always known that and would not have wanted to have discussions of this nature with Sam if he had given the impression of being, like many Jews, a person who is interested in the world of ideas.
He has an extensive record collection, and all the walls of his apartment are filled with books, records, and art objects. He is proud of his book and record collection, essentially because some of his books are autographed. In this way as in others he is not an artistic worker but an artistic capitalist, proud of his collection of artworks, and proud not because they are signifying, meaningful, and interesting, but because they have value, both monetary and auratic. Indeed, while he showed me a number of records he has collected (he has thousands) he had no wish to play any of them, and appears not to even have a record player; he played no music during the two months I was with him. Several times he showed me an autographed book or record in an effort to solicit my appreciation. He runs an online magazine, “Film Festival Masturbator.” He seems to go to films only to meet stars. On Facebook he has photographs of himself with various film stars, and his own Facebook posts are all short chatty gossipy comments about some star. He interviews some of these stars. He seems to live for the stars and to feel that their light shines on him when he basks in their glory. He thinks that the most important way to learn about anything is to meet famous people and spend 15 minutes talking to them. One day he mentioned the German-American Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who was such an influence on the radicals of the 1960s, and I said, “I like Marcuse very much. I’ve read several books and essays of his. What have you read and what do you like about his thought?” “Oh, I haven’t read anything by him; instead, I met him; that’s what’s important about an intellectual, not reading his writings but meeting him and seeing what he is like.”
Sam seemed to think he was one of the stars, or at least of their family. He has an idea of New York society that resembles what the narrator in Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” calls “all of New York”: all of the elite. Sam’s raison d’être in life is to hob-nob with the rich and famous so that he will feel important. He once told me he had thought of writing a memoir about all the people he has met; I urged him to do it, thinking he might learn something if he did so. He showed me one narrative essay that I thought wasn’t bad; it was basically an objectivistic description of certain people, drawing conclusions about their personalities from their appearance and behavior, not presenting any thoughts attributable to them. He spends his day at his computer, but it is not spent writing a memoir. He writes interviews, and on Facebook he writes one-line comments about some celebrity doing this or that, commenting on what they are doing, and using a writing style that is full of colloquialisms designed no doubt to display his intimacy both with the starts and with his audience. Anyway, he pointed out to me one day that in the summer, “everyone” goes to the Hamptons. Of course, he himself, as he lives on $20,000 a year and steals toilet paper to make ends meet, does not yet have a house in the Hamptons. But this is a detail that can be overlooked by a man who lives in a fantasy world and manages to convince himself that he is important, one of the elect, since of course to be important he only requires himself to appear on some stage in front of some flashbulb, his hand around some movie star. He spends a great deal of energy maintaining this image for himself. It is as if someone had his picture taken with the Queen and then not only showed the picture to all his friends but put it on the wall above his desk so he could look at it constantly in reassurance. Sam was thus happy to point out to me that everyone who is anyone does this or that, eats this way, dresses this way, summers in the Hamptons, etc., and if you don’t, and obviously I don’t, then you just don’t count.
Most of our interactions were conversations about ideas. These usually happened in the morning while I was having my coffee. Sam would be working on his laptop at a table in the kitchen, making it hard to avoid him when I got up to make coffee. One day he told me that he liked Sartre and Camus, because they both believed that life is absurd. As I know a little bit about both Sartre and Camus, having one studied French literature and maintain a fairly serious interest in twentieth-century French philosophy, I corrected him: Camus says this, Sartre does not. Sartre thought that life had no given meaning but that it could be meaningful and that it is up to us to give meaning to our lives. Indeed, I think the fact that he started with this idea when he wrote Being and Nothingness helps explain the interest in Judaism he discovered at the end of his life. Did Sam want to believe that life is absurd because the things he expected me to do were absurd, and I must not seek the reason, but just understand that he is the boss? In any case, he replied by saying that I was “splitting hairs.” It turns out he thinks all kinds of ideas can be connected and then it can be seen that they are really saying the same thing. Sort of the opposite of Aby Warburg’s idea that “God is in the details,” and that inquiry, understanding things, means examining them carefully and making distinctions. Instead, a sort of philosophia perennalis, where all philosophers or sages say the same thing, and the important thing is to put this wisdom into practice. Of course, American culture is essentially practical and not theoretical, because it is a business society. One could also see that by accusing me of splitting hairs he was defending himself against my ideas, against the threat posed by a divergent point of view. For Sam was always very defensive about anything I said. Once, I pointed this out to him, saying, “You don’t have to be defensive!” “I’m not being defensive!” he protested. I think this is an instance of a larger tendency of people exercising power. They want you to understand what they are saying in the way they want you to understand it, which is always so that you will obey, and if possible, obey willingly. If you offer a critical interpretation of the statement of someone trying to exercise power over you, by saying, “You seem to be saying X,” he or she will say “It’s not X,” and insist that the meaning of their statement is what they say it is, or that it has no interpretation but means what it says, and that you had better act accordingly. One day we got into a discussion during which Sam mentioned the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He said Levi-Strauss showed that there are universal structures of the mind that are rooted in the body. I said, I know a bit about Levi-Strauss and I know that structure is not rooted in the body, and I also wonder what you mean by that. What body, whose body? (The obvious suggestion that he was a closet gay did not occur to me then, and anyway, I am too uncertain as to whether anyone really understands sexuality and desire, amorous or otherwise, including their own, to want to hastily draw those kinds of conclusions, which I think is often done based on certain assumptions about what all of us want – today it seems to be marriages and fuckings. What some guys will say, something to the effect of, “Look, it’s simple, I just want to fuck you, don’t you understand?” is both a double-entendre and for most people something of a non-starter. I prefer to think that what he wanted was to be both friend and boss, and that apart from the preferability of separating the two enough to be able to actually raises questions of justice and do so calmly and sans entitled adolescent rage, so that the question of what is fair could be discussed, — rather, he simply was clueless as to what a friendship could involve as to those more lofty and corporeal entanglements that for most men are objects of discussion or, like his record collection, trophy showpieces to share in a virtual potlatch of material objects serving signifiers as a way of making a bid for recognizable pride). As for “the body”: Does it have a sex? Is there a single body that is the body, analogous to a world soul? This is as fascist as the idea that there are laws of the mind and they are rooted in nature. Of course he indignantly insisted he was right. In fact, he think he thought me superior on a certain ground, which would be that of the “French theory” that in my generation and a bit after is became so big in college lit departments, and that he of course knew was also a field I had studied and worked in. So he had to show me that he was equally competent on this terrain, too. And then again, maybe he assumed he had to be right because we were in his apartment, and there is an unwritten rule that the gift exchange side of the guest/tenant divide within which I was ambivalently inscribed meant that I cannot disagree with him about anything. Even matters that had no direct relationship to anything falling within his property right as legal tenant renting to me as (in New York this is a legal status) a “roommate.” Clearly as with his appropriation of Camus, this was ideological. This is how it is, it is rooted in nature, it is absurd, so you had better just accept it and not question it, and it cannot be understood, so why we are even having this conversation? Truth is action, not thought; and it is obvious and impervious to inquiry, so shut up do what you are told. I concluded that Sam is an ideologue, which was further confirmed when we had some more directly political discussions. When I suggested that the Iranian Revolution whatever its ambiguities was a real revolution, he chose to get very angry at the Ayatollahs and talk about how they are assholes. Very convenient that you think this, I thought, since Iran has been an enemy of the United States since the revolution. It turned out Napoleon was an asshole too; he was a dictator who wanted to impose his will because he thought he was important. I began to think I was getting some insight into the mind of American liberalism, at least in its more unthinking forms. I have heard this from other people, including very educated people who unlike Sam really are curious about things. Sam’s view of Napoleon is part of the American idea of equality: all too often, equality is just bringing everyone down from the pedestal we wrongly think they are standing on and making them eat as much shit as anyone else, perhaps with the incredulous and indignant declaration, “Who do you think you are?” Curiously, though, Sam both believed on the one hand that anyone, or at least anyone else, who thinks he is important is an asshole, and on the other hand that there is a world of famous people that he has somehow joined by becoming adept at interviewing some of them. No one hates an aristocrat but an aristocrat. No one hates someone who appears to have aristocratic pretensions but someone who has managed by hard work to succeed in maintaining such pretensions, however absurdly.
One morning I got up and an idea came to me mind for something I might write, and then I went out into the kitchen to make coffee. I was pouring hot water when I spilled some of it on my foot. As I had on a shoe and a thick sock, I didn’t actually burn my foot, but I was startled enough to say, “Ouch!” Sam, who as always was sitting right there at his computer, turned and, with great alarm, said, “What?” “Oh nothing, I just spilled hot water on my foot.” “Well if you spill hot water on your foot, I’m going to have to take you to the hospital.” I considered that a threat. He would take me to the hospital whether I liked it or not. That is because in America today your body is not your property but the state’s, and your health is its concern and that of every good citizen, and they have a right to protect this health not only against threats to it by other people but against threats to it by you yourself. Indeed, this would shortly be made clear to me when the police arrived. In any case, he was threatening to punish me for spilling water on my foot. So I said, “What business is it of yours?” Of course, this started a fight. Many people when they are arguing try to win the argument by shifting from the manner at hand to your style of arguing, and the most common way of doing this is no doubt to claim that you are committing some implicit crime. He began telling me to lower my voice and stop yelling. I find it difficult when someone is relentlessly shouting at me to stop shouting at them to comply with their order. I actually find it difficult in situations like this to know how to do so. Soon he was confronting me face to face, our faces inches apart, full of a rage more intense than any I have ever seen, except maybe when he had that outburst about the boxes. My mistake was to get caught up in his game in what really does seem like a perfect illustration of the Lacanian idea of the mirror stage in its aggressive variant. Because we were face to face and both expressing intense hostility. He was demanding that I stop yelling at him and I simply said no, both of his with warlike expressions and emotion. I stood up to him, or at least this was one way of doing so, perhaps the reductio absurdum of standing up to someone. Many years earlier I had stood up to my stepfather. He had said, in effect, “My will is your law,” and I had replied, “Over my dead body.” This was my introduction to war. But my stepfather had the good sense at some point to back down, because I would never have given in, and when he retaliated against me for calling the police I decided that it was war and that one of us had to back down and it would not be me. He did, at the price of urging my mother to send me to live with my father, which was her one great act of kindness. Anyway, Sam had no such sense of decency or moderation. We were both determined to win. But he proved stronger. He said he was reaching for his iphone for the purpose of recording my speech in order to show that I was being violent. Talking loud was “violent,” like touching a piece of paper earlier had been. In fact, why not say disobedience is “violent”. I was incensed, thinking, this man is threatening to have me raped and murdered, since that is what would happen to me if I were actually convicted of some imaginary crime. Of course, I should have just inwardly laughed and let him call the police, and show them his recording, and explain to them that my yelling is violence, since they would almost certainly have laughed at him. In New York people do not usually go to prison for yelling. And very likely he was just saying that to provoke me. But I decided to stand up to him and not take this. I told him so. He then threw me the ground and started pummeling me with his fists, hitting me again, and gain, and again, while I was pinned to the ground and had no way of defending myslf. He was a one-man IDF gone beserk, a Biblical Lamech who avenges himself seventy-fold. Then he started stomping around, walking back and forth, yelling that he was going to call the police. I said, “Fine, motherfucker, call the police.” For a long time after this I referred to Sam as a Jewish Nazi. A rabbi that I mentioned this to seemed to be unappreciative.
What explains a person like this? A manic narcissist, a person who undoubtedly once suffered some narcissistic injury, and has compensated for that pain or loss by maintaining a posture of self-importance and domination. Clearly both unlikely to achieve much and unable to love or be a true friend to anyone. Probably someone could be a friend to him if they are very patient and let him always be right. There are wives like that, and indeed, it seems to me Sam provides some insight into the narcissistic origins of patriarchy and to forms of domination in contemporary capitalism that are continuations of it. People like this have a kind of inertial persistence because they satisfy themselves with profiting off of the labor of others rather than creating something themselves, and today a narcissist who cannot love and does not want to can look for sex instead and may believe that that is what he really wants. Of course, the women he fucks must ideally be very beautiful; the traditional idea of sex as possession is narcissistic. What Sam wanted to do to that one woman is what he does in a different way to his movie stars, although the irony is he only gets to possess their photograph or signature, and doesn’t get into their pants but only gets his arm around their shoulder. And if he comes away with a singer’s record he doesn’t even bother listening to it. Who knows what kind of song it is, all that matters is it was #1 on the charts, and I’ve got a share of stock in the band.
It would be more than two more years before it would occur to me that the harassment I experienced at the hands of this man, a friend of some mutual friends, one of whom also arranged the storage of my books while abroad and the retrieval of them two years later, within days of return to New York from France, that it might have been (I will probably never know) somehow arranged. For what purpose? The purposes of anyone who would find it useful and worth their while to (a) try to provoke me into saying or doing something that could be used against me, and/or (b) create a pretext for having me involuntarily incarcerated in a hospital ward on the grounds of “mental illness,” if possible linked to some vague attribution of some kind of criminal disposition, which Sam certainly did reveal himself anxious to claim. The supposition I would eventually form is this: Perhaps (impossible to know for sure unless or until they show their hand more explicitly and fully) the NYPD (as suggested by things that several officers said to me a few months back) decided to build a file on me of putative facts and potential witnesses corroborating damaging accusations that could be made against me. I did notice that there was a temporary let-up in the intensity and frequency of acquaintances of mine, or persons who appeared to want somehow to be, following both of my recent hospital incarcerations. The hospital is, and this is recognized by many psychotherapeutic professionals, theoretically a place of intense working over of the person. For this, they deprive the person on entry of all of his possessions, including not only cell phone (you cannot be allowed any unregulated contact with the outside) but also clothing, to deprive you of the comforting feeling of being still in your own life, now that it is time for them to make you a naked person in a zero hour who has no resources (friends, reading matter, computer to write on, etc.) and so in this position of extreme vulnerability you will be highly susceptible to their influence.
My own part in this was just to be naïve. After living with another male roommate who was in many ways like Sam, I finally realized I must be much, more careful. And indeed, the police revealed enough of their hand while this man, Carl, was here that I now know that I had been targeted. Just like Sam, Carl acted to provoke embittered and angry confrontations in what would with a more mature person just been the kind of argument that is enough of a negotiation between adults that it can be settled. And then to do whatever he could to escalate the situation. Ultimately, he would not only threaten but actually use violence. What do you think would have happened if I had fought back? This actor would have told the police a story, made himself seem perfectly calm, normal, and middle class, and either they would have arrested us both or just believed him. And if he was a (low-level, to be sure) operative in their pay, then they would have done what Sam was nearly able to arrange: To move directly to arrest me and charge me with some crime, or simply to deliver me to the hospital with the accusation, which would then be treated as fact, without bothering at all about the possibility that he was in the wrong. The fact that Carl repeatedly refused to sit down with a conflict mediation service confirmed for me the likelihood that he did not really want anything except to provoke a fight. That would explain why he chose to say for almost a year after deciding he hated my guts and did not like living with me. After he got me into the hospital again, he was more readily willing to move out, perhaps because his mission was accomplished.
I am now building, and hope to patent, a Narcissist detector. What do you do when you encounter one of these types? They are very sociable, especially when they first meet you, when they are Charm Inc. Then the moment there is some problem, don’t expect to solve it by discussing it with them and working something out. They will be ready waiting for you then, and it will not be pretty. They “think” only strategically (like more and more people in this country, certainly in the managerial apparatus), and everything they say or do will be part of a game of manipulation. One of the things they typically will want to do is provoke. Narcissists, especially if they are men (who act like overgrown adolescent boys). They want to start a fight, and are very skilled at doing so, and then making it look like you are the guilty one. They are very into blaming. Carl, whose behavior I have discussed more fully elsewhere, decided that he hated my guts and wanted only to prove to me that I am a total asshole who deserved his hatred. He also was totally hypocritical, accusing me of the same things that were true of himself. He had no friends, but thought I did not. When once he lectured me on all eight of my deadly sins, I said, “You are rather intolerant, aren’t you?” “How dare you call me intolerant!” he replied. He would escalate his rage both during each confrontation and over time. People like this so want to be loved, and for them that partly means being admired, or else sharing some object of idealistic admiration, and they have no tolerance for ambiguity, so their idealism will quickly enough turn to hatred. This man said many things that put him for me in the same category as the campus identity politics liberals with their speech codes and safe zones. It seems the frightened children of our middle classes are working hard to make America safe for authoritarian narcissists. What else is the politics of identities and respect? Tell an ordinary person that their shoelace is untied or that you disagree with him about some matter that most would approach with indifference. In the first instance, he will thank you; in the second, will either want to discuss it in a civil manner or tell you if he is busy at the moment. But tell a narcissist either of these things and he will be personally offended and outraged. Everything anyone says is ad hominem. There are no real issues, and no true and false statements, just flattery and insult. Welcome to America.