A Slap in the Face of Public Taste
"Is this on? Yes? Excellent...Ladies and gentlemen, your attention for a moment, please. I know you're all very excited, but I must insist you settle down...there, that's better, thank you. Now, my name is Dr. Jacoby, and it is my humble pleasure this evening to welcome you all to the first public demonstration of Dr. Alex Murgatroyd's latest invention in the field of Applied Aesthetics. I'm sure you've heard the rumors, and are more than eager to get on with the proceedings. But first, a word of caution, if I may. For those weak-willed persons among you, what you are about to witness may seem, well, profoundly disturbing. But I assure you, although Dr. Murgatroyd's device is indeed a prototype, and although the implications of such a device are far-reaching—even perhaps beyond the scope of our current knowledge—the man is my trusted colleague. In spite of our intellectual differences. I have personally overseen his rigorous testing procedures. His device is quite safe, and its effects reversible. Therefore I urge to you to remain seated, to carefully and quietly evaluate everything you see. We'll get down to the bidding later on. And now, without further ado, please join me in welcoming Dr. Murgatroyd to the stage."
"Yes, Jacoby. Thank you. 'In spite of our intellectual differences,' as you so obtusely put it, I'll go ahead and apologize to the audience on your behalf—you see, unlike Jacoby here, I'm no sophist. I'm a scientist. I do hope he hasn't given you all the wrong impression. Yes, my invention will have unforeseen ramifications. Obviously. Such is the nature of technological progress. You think Babbage foresaw the Internet? Call me an idealist or call me idolatrous, I couldn't care less. But you're not here for a sermon; you're here to see my device in action, for yourselves. You're here as patrons of science, as potential investors...
"Because in order to survive, the human race will require a shared vision of the future. But we've hardly the time now, nor the money for that matter, to direct the world towards that vision by conventional means. Through education and so on. That's where my device comes in.
"I'll wager you're all expecting something roughly the size of a bull elephant. Surely, you assumed, a machine with the capacity to reproduce the finest human sentiments in perfect detail must require rooms' worth of equipment. I'm afraid you overestimate the breadth of human sentiment. My device is less than half the size of a human brain. (A terribly inefficient organ, by the way; just ask Jacoby). I've got it right here in my breast pocket. See? What does it do, you ask? It compresses years and years of 'taste-acquisition' into the space of an instant. How does it work? Time for a bit of show-and-tell. Can I have a volunteer from the audience?...nobody?"
"I believe I see a hand in the back, Dr. Mugratroyd."
"I'm not blind, Jacoby. You there, try not to dawdle."
"Security, please escort our volunteer up to the stage."
"Yes, and in the meantime, I'm relieved that one of you, at least, is man enough to risk something for scientific advancement. Step right up. Good, now, I want you to imagine yourself inside an art museum. The Tate, say. And visualize a painting you feel you ought to appreciate, but simply can't. One of those pretentious wall-scribbles you always felt a child might have made. Or think about a poem. It doesn't really matter. Got something in mind?"
"I think so, Doctor."
"Good, you can follow simple commands. That will make things easier on you. What you'll do now is tell me the name of the painting, or what have you, and I'll set my device to recalibrate your taste-matrix in order to match the object. At which point, I'll fasten the device around your head and switch on the power. You may feel a slight tingling at first. That's normal. A sting or a burn at the most. They say you have to be a bit of a masochist to appreciate the finer things. But trust me, you'll feel only a fraction of that pain with my device, for a fraction of the time. Now, what are you thinking of?"
"I'd like to understand, to really deeply appreciate, the pattern of my bathroom wallpaper."
"Seriously? I'm giving you the opportunity, for free, to understand the significance of, oh I don't know, Pablo Picasso, down to the width and direction of his every brushstroke—and you're going to choose grubby wallpaper instead?"
"Yes. That's my decision."
"...Would anyone else from the audience, someone with less pedestrian ambitions, care to replace this man?"
"Not just a moment, Dr. Murgatroyd. You've given lab rats a zest for Boccioni, but you've never given an art-critic a zest for the maze. This could be interesting. Let's give it a try and see what happens. You've got a willing test-subject."
"Fine, Jacoby, fine. You're the theorist, after all. Let's see just how exciting boredom can get. Alright, volunteer. Stand still for a moment while I attach the device to your skull. That should do it. Bathroom wallpaper you say? Let me just crank this down a few notches...there. Should only take a minute or two. Ready?"
"I'm switching it on now. (Don't concern yourself over that buzzing sound, and remember, ladies and gentlemen, in this field a stray spark or two is well within expectations.) As our volunteer undergoes aesthetic recalibration, I invite the rest of you to consider the changes taking place inside his brain. His mental palate or, in vulgar parlance, his 'gut-feeling,' is rapidly diminishing in complexity. Second by second my device blunts the blades of his former sentiment. Assuming he had any sentiment to begin with. He is becoming like the sulky child who pushes his food around his plate at expensive restaurants while his parents look on with disappointment. 'I suppose you'd prefer a hamburger and french fries to your very expensive dish of saffron carrageenan.' You get the idea. Such are the practical, commonplace problems my device could just as easily solve, with the aid of mass-production and marketplace distribution...
"Ah, but it looks as if the recalibration cycle is already complete. Let's see what our volunteer has to say. Have you anything to say?"
"I don't feel any different, Doctor."
"Give it a moment to set in. Imagine you're sitting on the toilet staring at your wall."
"Yes, yes, I can see it before me. Little flamingos and palm-trees alternating across a placid blue background."
"The flamingos, each with an identical s-curve of the neck, stand with their left legs cocked beneath their bodies just so; the palm-trees lean slightly with their own weight, each invested beneath its fronds with a pair of tiny coconuts. Simple representations: figural as opposed to realistic. The flat turquoise color surrounding them evokes the primordial soup, or a field of gems, or even the boundless sky. Strange patterns emerge from the design, depending on where I place my focus. Diamonds and stars and fractals. It is more than a formation. It is a powerful accretion, as if flamingos and palm-trees made up two opposing yet complementary crowds, light and dark, yin and yang, multiplying to infinity. The walls of my bathroom artificially truncate the design, and yet the design itself implies further expansion; it lives toward this infinity inside the mind of the machine which produced it: a simple mind, yet singular in its purpose: to stamp every available surface with flamingos and palm-trees. More flamingos and more palm-trees. Thousands, millions, billions...a beautiful sight...sublime!"
"I must admit, Jacoby, it's not at all what I expected. Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, the device transforms even the most mundane forms into manifestations of the supramundane. Imagine, if you can, the applications for propaganda and urban pacification."
"...But there are too many, far too many now to count...it is hopeless: they will fill our minds to bursting, they will replace us altogether. Soon the entire planet will be covered with them..."
"Dr. Mugratroyd, maybe now is good time to demonstrate the reversibility feature."
"Keep your voice down, Jacoby. It's only reversible in theory. The prototype is a one-way-ticket, so speak. I only meant to imply the possibility of re-recalibration when I brought it up to you this morning. But you had to go and tell the audience it actually was reversible. I went along with it so as not to scare off potential investors but—"
"....Nothing can stop the pattern from expanding! Our universe itself is far too small; it could never expand rapidly enough match the expansion of flamingos and palms. It can never contain so many! But how can we ever hope to appease them, they who are without feeling, who exist only to increase themselves?"
"Maybe we should end the demonstration now, Dr. Murgatroyd, before this gets out of hand."
"It's completely out of hand already, Jacoby. But all the same, its fascinating, no? I'm happy you suggested this, after all. Can I borrow your pencil to take down some notes?"
"No. I'm ending this—We now request that the audience quietly and carefully leave their seats and evacuate the building. Please do not be alarmed. Security will assist you out the doors."
"Be careful, Jacoby. You mustn't remove the device from a test-subject so forcefully. You could damage it."
"...Flamingos and palms and flamingos and palms and flamingos and palms, everywhere and everywhere..."
"It's all over, Murgatroyd. And just between the two of us, I knew perfectly well it wasn't reversible."
"What are you doing, Jacoby, you fool?"
"Now stay still while I attach this to your skull, Mugratroyd. You may feel a slight tingling..."
"You've never shown me due respect, Murgatroyd. It's high time you acquired a taste for humility, before the authorities arrive to destroy your wretched little appliance, and before I break into your lab and burn all your files."
"You said it yourself, Murgatroyd. I'm not a scientist like you. But as a member of the humanities faculty, it is my duty to make sure your research never survives."
"You planned this all along, didn't you, you bastard?"
"'I'm not blind, Jacoby.' That's what you said. I could always trust you never to take me seriously. Feeling a little short-sighted now, I'd wager."
"No...you're a genius, Dr. Jacoby, a real genius."
is an MFA student at Hollins University and 'Writer in the Field' for Film International Magazine
. He's published in Gone Lawn once before, in addition to Berkeley Poetry Review
, Counterexample Poetics
, Futures Trading
, The Light Ekphrastic