by Shya Scanlon
Paul couldn’t remember whether The Idea had come to him as a result of reading The Suffering of Young Werther, or whether he’d been driven back to that book because of The Idea. In the end, he thought, it wouldn’t really matter. Once The Idea had settled in, everything else seemed to bend toward it, not so much causally as aesthetically, like a flame bends toward a finger. Anyway, Paul wasn’t alone. Death was trending, death of any kind, as was talk of the so-called fourth wave whose symptoms would not be physical. The Twitter account @normalade had made The Idea its whole brand by keeping alive a running question: would the posts suddenly stop? But this sad person’s frank openness made Paul doubt normalade’s family had much to worry about. If you were serious you shut the fuck up.
It was growing dark earlier every day, now well shy of 5pm, and Paul marked the gloaming while his girlfriend got ready for work. Carol volunteered at a community center home to one of the oldest hotlines in the country. After months of training, she’d only spent six weeks there before quarantine had closed the whole operation. The food pantry part was a no-brainer, but since they had a strict policy about how volunteers took care of each other while offering succor to the disturbed, disillusioned or dispossessed, the call center couldn’t be done remotely and had to close too. This meant the lines had been down during one of the most desperate times in recent history. It was an irony Carol wore lightly.
“Whelp,” she said. “Gotta go lie to people.”
“What’s the lie?”
“That everything will be fine.”
They embraced. “I’d believe you,” Paul said. Paul was proud of Carol in a way he couldn’t articulate without sounding like an asshole.
“I just wish the food pantry was open. It feels good to give someone a loaf of bread who needs a loaf of bread. These people who call the hotline don’t know what the hell they need.” Carol winked on her way out the door.
As usual, the song Hotline Bling was stuck in Paul’s head. He made for the fridge. The afternoon of Carol’s first shift back in February he’d played Drake’s beguiling megahit to boost the mood of what both knew would be an emotional evening. But the song proved too good. Now, eight months later, he still heard Drake’s anodyne voice plodding through the spare, repetitive chords every time Carol left. Through the window, he watched as she backed onto the street. Her headlights swerved across his face. He knew when that hotline bling, it could only mean one thing: he’d be home alone for the next four hours.
Well, alone with The Idea.
The Sufferings of Young Werther was an epistolary novel broken into two “Books,” the first about meeting and falling in love with a woman named Lotte, the second Werther’s reckoning of a life without her. Spoiler alert: He can’t; he kills himself. The end. Most of the letters in Book One were written in Wahlheim to Werther’s friend Wilhem, but in Book Two Werther had fled the town he’d shared with Lotte on account of his inability to stand being around her fiancé Albert, and not far into the second Book there was a letter addressed to Lotte herself, dated January 20. This was deep winter, in other words the dark night of the soul, Sturm-und-Drang-wise, and in it Werther wrote, “I do not know why I get up and why I go to bed.” Honestly, same. This question “why”—normally one of those questions reserved for longform journalism, arcane philosophy or children—had gradually become inescapable, haunting every action, however minor. Paul opened a beer and started clicking through YouTube. The why of minor actions had been getting to him especially. What was worthy of consideration? What was worth doing? Against a backdrop of outsized news, everything in his own life seemed inexcusably small.
There was a video Paul kept returning to called “Best-Selling Music Artists 1969 – 2019.” It was a simple animation in which horizontal bars representing the top eleven best-selling musicians changed position as new artists broke onto the scene or older artists obsolesced. The changes were fun to watch, but so were the periods of stasis. Elvis, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles firmly held the top three positions from Q1 of 1972 all the way through Q1 of 1975. In fact the whole list was pretty consistent through these years. What did it say about a culture to have such static tastes in music? Perhaps this conformity spoke to a kind of whiplash after the tumult of the previous decade. But in 1975 the fat, nostalgic late Elvis, the heavy, orgiastic Led Zeppelin and the soon-to-be-doomed Beatles were smashed out of position by a newcomer combining glam sex with sappy stories about love, change, hope and other clichés. And Elton John held that top spot for a year and a half, when the Eagles came along.
Paul opened another beer and checked the news. He’d expected Biden’s win that month to give him some relief, to pull him out of whatever he’d fallen into, but that hope had been misplaced. Sickeningly, now that Trump wasn’t gobbling up every single headline Paul had begun to scan the Times for mentions of him in smaller stories down the page, hungry for the abuse. He hate-read an op-ed about how Trump wasn’t even interested in being president, then got distracted by a siren. Someone was being pulled over on the street outside his house, and he looked out to see the berries spin on the cop car’s roof, their thrilling splash of twisting color shocking the nighttime trees.
Werther was a best seller in its day. The way Goethe breathed such idiosyncratic high emotion into his protagonist simply hadn’t been done before, and it proved hypnotic. This was the thing Paul remembered most from the time he’d read the book in college. People had formed a death cult around the book—a dozen or so had actually committed suicide “like Werther.” They claimed to be setting themselves free. This would sound weird to people who hadn’t read the book, but to Werther, thought Paul, suicide was all wrapped up in ideas about freedom. Even in Book One, when he was in good spirits, the seeds of this association were being sown. The line between life and dreams was perpetually shifting in Werther’s world, and this lack of clarity was often at the expense of man’s will. But however much was lost to the base instinct for survival that drove man’s actions, “he still always keeps in his heart the sweet sense of freedom, knowing that he can leave this prison whenever he chooses.” This inherently made sense to Paul. How could you prove your own free will if all your actions were essentially self-serving? The police lights finally turned off and the two cars went slowly on their minor way.
When had authors stopped writing about extraordinary people? Paul scanned the bookshelf in his living room where he and Carol had amassed a small army of new releases published during quarantine. He’d read a few of them. Except for the genre titles, they took place largely in normal households peopled by ordinary characters with recognizable flaws. There was abuse. There was neglect. There was despair. Had a character like Werther with his exaggerated highs and lows been written today, he’d be in treatment for bipolar disorder and the book would be about his search for the right SSRI. Paul opened another beer. If the meek, he thought, had inherited the earth, it was a planet already scorched and discarded by bolder men.
A new tweet from @normalade said, “It’s not even that I ask for happiness. I just ask for some sign that tomorrow won’t be worse.” Paul typed “plus one,” then deleted it. Was normalade a portmanteau? When life makes you normal, make normalade. Or was it a play on malady? Maybe it was a knock on marmalade. He didn’t want to be an enabler but couldn’t resist. He Liked the post and quickly closed out of Twitter as though covering his tracks.
Somewhere toward the end of the aughts something different started happening to the charts. Or maybe it was more accurate to say: something more. There was suddenly more action, at least according to “Best-Selling Music Artists,” with new acts elbowing in and old ones more frequently getting kicked-off, bands shifting position more than once within a quarter, sometimes many simultaneous movements back and forth so that the whole series of horizontal bars looked like guitar strings roughly strummed. The Internet probably had something to do with this, because the Internet had something to do with everything, but it felt chaotic, like nobody was in charge or knew what they wanted. And yet, even with all that volatility, there was always an act or two that charted out way above the rest. They even seemed to increase the sales of everyone else along with them, a halo effect of their greatness. Ever since Q2 of 2013, that act had been Drake.
Thomas Carlyle had it that “the history of the world was but the biography of great men.” This was considered his “Great Man” theory. He’d also coined the phrase “hero worship” to describe how societies treated these historical actors. In his lectures on hero worship he said that we “cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him.” Carlyle was considered the progenitor of modern fascism, but he’d also translated The Sufferings of Young Werther. Was Werther a great man? Goethe certainly had been, with his contributions to literature, philosophy, science… he’d written a book about color theory claiming it had something to do with turbidity. Later in life Goethe would later try to disown Werther, but it was a highly autobiographical character and, if not Great, certainly exceptional. To an outside observer he might seem like just another feckless, bourgeois dilettante, but his inner life was on fire. He was constantly being moved near to tears by the transcendent power of the quotidian world around him. On May 12 a water well held him “spellbound” for basically the whole entry.
The thing about The Idea, thought Paul, was that it seemed to come in through a kind of psychological back door. It wasn’t like most thoughts, which proceed along fairly routine timelines, one moment being unthought and then, at some point later being, in fact, thought. The Idea seemed to have always been there. It was somehow part of its own precondition, that “always already” state of Derrida’s that Paul had never understood. And the oddest thing was that it felt divorced in some fundamental way from the spectrum of unhappiness—always already present as well—that one might expect it to exist on the extreme end of. The Idea was not emotional, or rather, not only, not always, which was part of its genius. By avoiding emotion it failed to trigger those mechanisms which might normally mount protest, like a stealthy virus avoiding immune response.
Sometime during peak summer, Carol had asked how he was doing. They were out pretending their yard was a park.
“Why do you ask?”
Carol had produced an exasperated sigh and gone back inside.
Carlyle’s translation actually used the word “sorrows” in the title, instead of sufferings. Paul wondered about the difference. Sorrow more specifically indicated emotion, he decided, which was certainly the book’s terrain. It also seemed to locate the problem inside the character, doing less to victimize Werther than to indicate a fatal flaw.
Carol returned with an armful of pillows. “I’m not sure you know how you’re coming across to people.”
Paul was dimly aware that his mood had been cast into high relief by the ambient positivity emerging from deep quarantine into the superficiality of social distance, but in general this was probably true.
“Your mom said you go through these things every few years,” she added.
“You talked to my mom?”
“Well, you won’t talk to me.”
“I thought being taciturn made me mysteriously attractive.”
In that moment Carol had looked at him with sincere pity. “I just want to help. You know that right?”
Paul looked at his phone. It was only halfway through Carol’s shift. What people didn’t tell you was that Werther would have been an absolute nightmare to be around. That went for when he was morose, sure, everyone’s unbearable when they’re unhappy—but also and maybe even more so when he was happy. Werther couldn’t be simply upbeat, he had to be fucking ebullient. There were more exclamation points in The Sufferings of Young Werther than there were in a high school yearbook. Sometimes, because of unconventional punctuation—Complete sentences were inserted into the middle of others using em-dashes!—readers were treated to more than one exclamation mark per sentence! Paul checked the time again. He knew when that hotline bling, it could only mean one thing: another opportunity to be well beyond help.
The week after they’d reopened the hotline, Carol had come home from her shift obviously shaken. She’d asked for space, which Paul had given, but after a few glasses of wine she’d been ready to talk. A woman had called from another county. She was on the street with her three-year-old daughter somewhere down the road from their house. Her drunk husband had smashed her head against the wall, then threatened them both at gunpoint. Apparently this had not been the first time he’d pointed a gun at them, but it had been the first time she’d left, and she didn’t know what to do or where to go. She’d gotten the number from her hairdresser the year before but had never used it. Carol’s job had been to keep her talking while her coworker got in touch with the nearest women’s shelter. She had nothing but what she was wearing. She didn’t even have her purse. Her husband had momentarily passed out and she’d simply grabbed her daughter and run out the door. She’d been lucky to have her phone.
“Sometimes he takes it away,” Carol had said, repeating the woman’s words. “Sometimes he takes it away.”
Nobody was handling this very well. Every morning, Paul checked both the New York Times and the Washington Post to see their slightly different expressions of the COVID infection and death counts. It had simultaneously happened so gradually and become the norm so quickly that it rarely occurred to him how utterly strange it was to have newspapers run an official death count. At one hundred thousand they’d made a big deal about it, with interactive features and analysis. At two hundred thousand it was just another day because by then everyone understood that it was simply the year of death. It was no longer something that happened to individual people, to families in their private lives. It happened to our country. It happened to the world. Each death was meaningless but also a metonym for death in general. Death was omnipresent. Death was a running joke. Come on, Paul, everyone’s doing it.
As Werther began to unravel in Book Two, his melancholy turned to panic. He started fantasizing about the death of Lotte’s fiancé. He left his job. He visited his childhood home. He wrote things like, “Alas, this void!” What Goethe got wrong about The Idea, it seemed to Paul, was that it wasn’t the product of an overactive inner life. It wasn’t an extreme. It wasn’t a box broken open by some sudden bump in the road; it was a peaceful center, a cool, smooth low place for water to find. It wasn’t an exclamation point at the end of a sentence; it was a space between words. Carol said that the scariest calls weren’t from people in hysterics, screaming into the phone about how bad things were. The scariest callers were calm. They were matter of fact. They were resigned. They often had simple instructions to relay, like where to find a key, or when to feed a cat.
Paul poured himself a whiskey. The brilliant thing was that, without the high emotional pitch, it was impossible to tell precisely where the idea-ness of The Idea stood relative to the possibility of its consummation. He skimmed an article about how lucky he was. The first vaccine had received FDA approval and would begin distribution the following week. Paul was way down the list of priority because he was way down the list of risk. His race, his gender, his sexual orientation and his age all pointed to making it through this alive, yet The Idea swirled around his body like shit around the bowl of a flushing toilet. It was not a symptom. It was not an effect. It was a purpose. What Goethe got wrong was that The Idea didn’t cause distress, it caused relief. It felt good to consider—it was a companion offering consolation and support. It made you feel wanted. It made you feel exceptional. Elton John. The Eagles. Michael Jackson. Drake. In the essay “What is An Emotion,” William James claimed emotions weren’t caused by external stimuli, but by a consciousness of one’s nervous response. We are not trembling because we’re afraid, he argued, we’re “afraid because we tremble.” Key to managing emotion was thus a matter of managing the associated physical states, managing their cause. This felt a little technocratic, but so what? James himself admitted that in achieving mastery over a subject, you sacrifice the emotional component to the relationship between it and the self, the soul. James always accused himself of a deficit of the spirit, but not many would deny that his sacrifice was ultimately worth it. Goethe obviously had a whole lot of Werther in him as a young man, but he transcended those states to become not a little Jamesian in the end. The question was whether or not that transcendence was a product of free will, the self being a machine for self-preservation, a virus. Paul thought not.
In the final sections of The Sufferings of Young Werther, Goethe made some unusual formal decisions. Like he broke from the epistolary structure with something called “The Editor to the Reader,” in which someone whose job it was to present Werther’s story interjects with commentary and narrative that wouldn’t work within a letter written by the protagonist. This was how the reader learned about private moments between Lotte and her husband, about the feelings and perspectives of people other than Werther himself. It was ultimately how the reader saw the moment Lotte’s own hand played a role in Werther’s suicide, how she’d pulled the pistols down from a shelf, dusted them off, and given them to Werther’s servant at his request. But it was also how Goethe had been able to insert some lengthy translations of work by one of his contemporaries, James Macphereson, who’d published a cycle of epic poems he’d claimed were translations from the Scottish Gaelic. The reader saw Werther read these passages to Lotte, and for them both to be emotionally shattered by the parallels between their own lives and those on the page, who killed one another by mistake, who were always overcome with emotion, grief, passion, joy. It seemed to Paul that Goethe’s intention in breaking from the book’s pattern was to show how all things, from the people closest to him to the great art he embraced, conspired to drive Werther to his tragic end. The point was to show how The Idea travelled in unexpected ways, through vectors of other intent, how once it was loosed upon the world it was beyond control. What Goethe couldn’t have known at the time was that Macphereson made the whole thing up. He hadn’t translated his work from the Gaelic. He’d taken a few snatches of folklore and woven elaborate myths around them. These had been translated by Goethe into German, and had in Paul’s volume been translated back to English. How far removed from the truth did something have to get before it ceased to draw on reality for power and assumed its own aura of inevitability? Did any of this matter? If so, why? A new tweet from normalade said, simply, “Help.” Paul stared at it for a long time. There were no comments, no Likes. He could easily give this person the number for Family, but he felt weird about it. Injecting real information into this person’s persona, their fiction, had the power to make that fiction real. By just typing (845) 679-2485 into the comments—even in a DM—Paul would become irrevocably bound to normalade’s fate, an actor in their personal drama. Say they called and spoke with Carol. Say the conversation didn’t go well. He imagined Carol coming home carrying the weight of that call, carrying grief that he’d sent her way. He imagined having to confess his role in the transaction, and more, his shared experience that had led him to normalade’s post. The important thing, thought Paul, was to secrete it so deeply that it could no longer be distinguished from an anticipation of the need to forget. He Unfollowed normalade. He was wasted. He knew when that hotline bling, it could only mean one thing. He typed the song’s title into Spotify, and soon the room filled with the casual clucking trot of the tune’s unwavering loop, and Paul turned it up. He turned it as loud as it would go. He stood in the center of the room, swaying from the whiskey but otherwise motionless, and because his back was to the door he did not see Carol come home from her shift. And because the music was so loud he did not hear her approach. And because he felt nothing at all he did not feel her hand on his arm.
Shya Scanlon the author of The Guild of Saint Cooper. Hotline Bling is from a collection called Creative Nonfiction, another story from which was recently published in The Rupture. He tweets at @shyascanlon.
Photo: Scott Major/Unsplash