June 7, 2020

Style and Whim


Here is a course of action: harden, worsen, accelerate decadence. Adopt the perspective of active nihilism, exceed the mere recognition-be it depressive or admiring–of the destruction of all values. Become more and more incredulous. Push decadence further still and accept, for instance, to destroy the belief in truth under all its forms.

—Jean-Francois Lyotard, Driftworks

The above quote was, in a nutshell, the core philosophical tenet that motivated most if not pretty much everything Grinch and I did back in Madison and in the years that followed. Re/Search Publications’ Industrial Culture Handbook was another primary inspirational text, but Lyotard summed up the goals of both The Nihilist Workers Party and The Pain Amplifiers quite concisely.

            I think it was the summer before I headed off to grad school in Minneapolis. I was in Green Bay for a couple of weeks, staying at my parents’ house as I made whatever last minute preparations needed making before the move. A little bored one night, I hatched a plan which, in retrospect, had been a long time coming. After my parents went to bed, I headed into the garage and scrounged around for a few basic items. It was about ten or eleven. I changed clothes, headed outside, walked about half a mile due south from the house, and did a very bad thing. A very, VERY bad thing. There was some gasoline and Styrofoam involved, as well as an eyesore that had been offending my sensibilities as long as I could remember. I was never caught, and knew I wouldn’t be. This was the mid-Eighties, long before security cameras became ubiquitous.

            The next day, feeling proud of myself for having done that very bad thing, I knew I had to tell Grinch. He was the only one I could tell, as well as the only one who would recognize the inherent beauty of the act. Grinch was still living in Madison at the time. I picked up the phone and gave him a jingle, wondering if he’d be home. He was, and so I read him the account in that morning’s paper without telling him anything more.

            “So,” he said after his cackles had subsided. “Did you do it in proper James Bond fashion?”

            “How else could I have done it? Anything less would’ve just been banal.”

            It was an unspoken distinction we made between those acts of creative destruction undertaken on a whim and those requiring, just for our own sense of satisfaction, a bit more style and forethought.

            Most of what we did in those blurry and bloody days fell into the former category. The Situationist concept of “drift” comes close, the idea of wandering about aimlessly just to see what happens. In the case of the French Situationists of the mid to late Sixties, this mostly meant going to see some arty movie, then going to a cafe to discuss it at length. In our case it meant meeting up in the morning and setting out through the streets of the city without goal or purpose, ready at a moment’s notice to take full advantage of whatever might present itself. If we found a large ax in the middle of an empty parking lot, well, let’s see what happens when we board a bus carrying said ax. Should we encounter a peaceful protest of any kind, well, let’s figure out what we can do to ensure it devolves into violent chaos. If we happen into a large cache of tubes of liquid steel, well, let’s see how much of this we can squeeze into the locks of every bank in Madison’s banking district. And should we find ourselves on an empty floor in an office building, standing before one of those wall-mounted fire hose boxes, and should there be a small notice stenciled beneath the hose reading “Do Not Turn On,” well . . .

            It was that kind of nihilistic drifting that made up most days. Even the notorious “puppy burning” hoax was really just an off-the-cuff whim inspired by a small foil packet of cheap, bad, but extremely powerful crystal meth.

            Every once in awhile, however, we had bigger ideas, and that’s when “proper James Bond fashion” came into play.

            The phrase indicated a combination of style, of panache, chutzpah, daring, stealth and smarts. While those acts of creative destruction undertaken on a whim were usually things for which we were more than happy to take credit, those requiring the Bond approach, we knew, were things that should never be connected to us in any way. At least not until the statute of limitations ran out.

            The day Grinch learned, for instance, that the two-credit graduate level course he’d taken the previous semester would not count toward the minimum credits needed for graduation, meaning he’d have to stay an extra semester in Madison, he decided the only necessary course of action required that the administration building—the oldest building on campus, perched at the very top of Bascom Hill—be burned to the ground.

            What began as an angry whim quickly evolved into a Bond project when we realized that not only was Bascom Hill packed with people that night, but it was snowing as well, meaning we’d be leaving footprints wherever we went. Over the next few hours we worked out all the details to ensure we would never be caught. We then set about searching the building where he was living for the needed equipment (hammer, ten-penny nail, kerosene, two pairs of shoes that were not our own etc.). In the end the plan was foolproof, and it went off without a hitch, save for one small detail. At some point the university had replaced the glass windows of the front door with plexiglass, meaning our means of entry was thwarted. So we just set the front door ablaze and called it a day. In the end the fact the building still stood was irrelevant. As much as possible we did what we set out to do in the way we set out to do it, and were never charged. It was more about process than results in that case.

            Likewise, when news broke that notorious murderer, grave robber, presumed cannibal and amateur taxidermist Ed Gein had not only died while being held at the nearby Mendota Mental Health Institute, but had been buried in the facility’s small cemetery, our course of action was obvious. Someone had to go dig him up, right? And that someone should be us.

            Back in 1978, filmmaker Werner Herzog was filming Stroszek in Gein’s hometown, Plainfield, Wisconsin. It occurred to him that for all the stories about the Gein case, no one seemed to know whether or not Gein had dug up his own mother. Someone should find out, right? So Herzog called his friend Errol Morris, who was working on another film not that far away, telling Morris to meet him at the Plainfield cemetery with some shovels.

            We figured it would be poetic justice if someone dug up Gein’s body, and we were just the team to make sure it got done, and done right. Along with a couple of shovels and a crowbar, maybe a tarp and a pickup, we’d need a means to either scale or cut through the fence surrounding Mendota, and a way to ensure we could do all this and get away without being detected. A detailed layout of the facility and the surrounding grounds would also be helpful, so we didn’t end up just wandering around, hoping we might stumble onto the graveyard at some point. Also, the sooner we did this the better, while the dirt atop the grave was still fairly loose.

            It all took some time. But eventually we had everything we needed. Then, on the night before we planned to head over to Mendota to steal Ed Gein’s corpse, I saw a small notice in the paper reporting the facility had moved Gein’s remains to Plainfield, where he was formally buried next to his mother. So that was that.

            We didn’t feel too bad about the diabolical scheme falling through. All the careful work we had put into the plan to snatch Gein’s body had been fun enough, and we knew we could’ve pulled it off.

            (For the record, Herzog’s own plan to disinter Gein’s mom fell through as well, when Morris failed to meet him at the cemetery on the appointed night.)

            Although we had no regrets, and although we knew what would have been had we not run into a couple of unforeseen glitches, after going zero for two, I think we both realized that unpredictable spasms of improvisational whimsy just seemed to work better.

            Still, though, when my own Bondian misadventure that summer in Green Bay went off without a hitch, it left me feeling mighty pleased with myself. Unfortunately, though the statute of limitations expired twenty-six years ago, it’s a story I can’t tell in full until a few more people are dead.


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