|THE BOOK OF JOE|
By Chris Wright I think it would be wise to write a short preface to the following little piece I wrote approximately ten years ago. This literary experiment, basically a satire, is so odd that it’s clear to me most readers won’t know what to make of it unless it’s at least partly explained.
The Book of Joe, the title of what follows, has to be read in the light of the Bible’s book of Job. I still remember the day in the summer of 2003 when I conceived it while sitting in a cabin in a summer camp where I was a counselor. For some reason I was suddenly struck by the satirical possibilities of the book of Job, if it were transplanted in time and space—to modern-day America. A powerful satire of the modern world could be written in the form and style of Job, if the entire spirit of the work were reversed. The initial flash of inspiration came, I think, when I realized that Job expresses the exact opposite spirit of capitalist modernity: where Job was naïve, un-self-conscious, righteous, self-certain, wholeheartedly pious, the modern world is cynical, self-conscious, self-doubting, secular, money-grubbing. I was fascinated by the contrast between the culture of Job and the culture of the present.
Soon the satire took shape in my mind. All the characters had to be opposites of the original ones. The noble Job had to become Joe, a debased, miserly capitalist, who is the truest representative of our age and its ideals (just as Job was of his own age). The God who treated poor Job so badly, and who in the end spoke to him “out of the whirlwind,” had to be not Yahweh, the personification of majesty and power, but Mammon, the god of our own world, the personification of the vulgar spirit of financial gain and market transactions. God’s antagonist/interlocutor had to be not Satan (as in the Bible) but Justitia, the goddess of justice, who in our world is indeed seen—at least by the dominating institutions, namely corporations and the state (i.e., the spirit of Mammon)—as the Devil, the great antagonist of capitalism. And the characters whom Joe would talk to throughout the work (as Job did in the original) would be representative types of capitalist society, including Jim the Politician, Bob the Academic, Jon the Preacher, Dan the Lawyer, Abd the Terrorist, Jen the shallow young girl, Rob her besotted young lover, Dud the video-gamer, Meg the Activist, and Rod the Soldier. Joe’s encounters with these people would give me opportunities to satirize all these types. (Even their dull names indicate their mediocrity, and highlight the contrast between the epic, mysterious culture of the early Bible and the mundane, monotonous, predictable culture of the capitalist present.)
I decided the satire would proceed as follows. Justitia, who wants to punish Joe for his many moral and legal crimes but finds that the justice system (being run by capitalists) won’t get the job done, contrives to trick Mammon, who loves Joe as the perfect embodiment of greed, into letting her take away all his possessions and accomplishments. She makes a bet with Mammon that Joe will “curse him to his face” when this happens, whereas Mammon is convinced he won’t, that even when he is deprived of everything Joe will continue to worship money. This, of course, mirrors the bet between God and Satan in the Bible—except that in my version it turns out differently at the end. While Job never really cursed God, as Satan said he would, in the end Joe does, finally, curse Mammon, having learned through all his experiences that greed, money, and the urge for power are indeed evil. He thus redeems himself and vindicates humanity against its basest impulses. –But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the calamities befall Joe, his three friends (Jim, Bob, and Jon) come to comfort him. They’re parodies of themselves: Jim is a lying, flattering, faux-righteous, nationalistic politician who will help Joe only if he’ll get some money and power out of it; Bob is a characteristically superficial, language-obsessed, caviling intellectual who misses the point; Jim is a stupid, fanatical, sinning, money-hungry priest/pastor/preacher/whatever. None of them is of help to someone in need. When Joe talks, however, we already begin to see one of the main, non-satirical themes of the piece, namely that suffering can ennoble. Through suffering we can achieve greater insight, can grow as individuals and become wiser. Compared to his shallow interlocutors, Joe starts to seem deeper and more profound, because of his suffering. As the story continues, Joe slowly rises to greater heights of wisdom as everyone he interacts with remains one-dimensional and idiotic.
Thus, one of the purposes of the work is to answer Job’s original question—Why do good people suffer?—by illustrating the value of suffering (at least some suffering, not all). This theme is inspired, in part, by Nietzsche, who insisted on the importance of suffering—as have many other poets, artists, and philosophers.
At this point a Muslim suicide-bomber, recognizing the powerful capitalist Joe, comes over to kill him and his friends. He succeeds only in killing himself, though. Attracted by the bomb’s explosion, Dan the lawyer approaches and offers his services in case they’re needed, speaking in hideous legalese. After a silly but characteristic conversation between Dan and Joe’s three “friends,” Joe gives a long, despairing speech that articulates the “All is vanity!” viewpoint of Ecclesiastes. That is to say, Joe’s consciousness has by now risen to the level of existentialism—which is on a relatively high plane, but is still far from true wisdom.
Next we see Joe’s moronic daughter Jen, who selfishly wants him to give her money despite his obvious poverty; and then comes her boyfriend, who is blinded by his love for her. He symbolizes the Poet, the idealist, the lover lost in dreams of romance and such. Because of my fondness for this “type,” I make him the most sympathetic character we’ve come across so far; nevertheless, he too is, in his own way, ridiculous. And yet he is important to Joe’s further development, serving as the catalyst for Joe’s decisive advance to an affirmative stance toward existence, which is on a higher plane than his previous negative stances. (Again, shades of Nietzsche.) Before that happens, though, we encounter Dud, whom I had to include in this satire because of his ubiquity in our society, and then Meg the activist, who denounces Joe—to a crowd that has congregated around the site—for his crimes and his greed. While I sympathize completely with left-wing activists, I can’t help satirizing some of their excesses in the character of Meg. She whips the mob into a state of bloodthirsty rage, and they approach Joe menacingly.
It is at this point that we finally see a genuinely transformed Joe, who speaks to the crowd in a spirit of compassion, repentance, and love. I have to admit that this transformation gave me a lot of trouble. I couldn’t figure out how to motivate his change from despair and negativity to love and positivity. Finally, as I said, I decided that the only way was to use Rob the poet/lover as the catalyst. The point is that Rob’s pure, idealistic love for someone whom Joe well knows is very flawed, namely his daughter Jen, shames Joe out of his self-pity and his navel-gazing. Rob inspires him; and since his consciousness has already risen to a relatively universal (rather than particular and selfish) stance in its former existentialism, it is not impossible for Joe to make the leap to a universal love/compassion.
I don’t know if this explanation really works. But it must be remembered that this satire is like the original on which it’s based in being allegorical, not realistic. Much of the plot and dialogue is, of course, artificial and not character-driven; actually, if anything, the characters are more clearly defined and three-dimensional in the satire than in the book of Job. But it remains the case that at a couple of points, Joe’s development is insufficiently motivated.
The philosophy that Joe espouses now is an ancient idealism, basically the philosophy of Buddhism and Taoism. It is, in a sense, a deeper wisdom than existentialism. But it’s still not the pinnacle of wisdom or of social understanding; there is one final step Joe has to make: he has to curse Mammon, who is the cause of so much senseless suffering in the world. How does he reach this point? By the entrance of Rod the soldier. Rod denounces Joe’s compassion-preaching, complaining that it’s unpatriotic and un-American, declaring instead that war is glorious, nationalism and imperialism are glorious. After hearing Rod talk, Joe realizes his mistake: it’s necessary to fight the social causes of such ignorance, the causes of misery and oppression, not merely take solace in an exalted idealism. Struggle, struggle against oppression and exploitation, is the highest form of love, the highest affirmation. In essence, he embraces and elaborates on the Marxian point of view, which is the peak of wisdom; and at last he explicitly curses the worship of money, thus completing his transition from capitalist to fully human being. Mammon has lost the bet; Justitia has won.
But now comes the climax of the story: Mammon thunders to Joe from out of the whirlwind that he is nothing, a puny human, a grain of sand, while Mammon himself—the love of money and power—is everything. And he continues thundering, depicting his omnipotence and the correlative worthlessness of humanity (which, of course, is a (half-sincere) moral judgment that the author is making—precisely because of the widespread worship of money), until Joe cowers and retracts his curse. He foreswears all the wisdom he has acquired and submits to the truth that humans are contemptible, that the will to own and possess is ubiquitous and all-powerful. This mollifies Mammon, who consequently restores all of Joe’s former possessions and power. And so the story ends on the same note as the book of Job, but with a very different message.
You can make of the ending what you will. It had to end that way if it was to end, as it began, on a satirical note. Maybe I do think the human species is rather pathetic; but it is also a grand and splendid species that has the moral awareness to denounce selfishness and greed. The choice is ours.
The piece is full of little references, wordplays, hidden meanings, etc., some of which are more successful than others. For instance, in the first sentence I say that Joe lives in the “land of Uzi,” a reference both to the biblical “Uz” where Job is from and to the submachine gun, which is supposed to be symbolic of America’s (and Israel’s—where the Uzi originated) violence and gun-worship. Maybe such word-games, with which the satire is replete, are in some cases over-subtle or overly “clever.” That’s for the reader to decide. And maybe I went overboard with the random literary references too. I thought that making such references might help give the work a broadly “synthetic” quality, as if it’s summing up a whole culture or drawing lots of threads together.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy this odd little literary experiment… The Book of Joe
A Satire of Capitalist SocietyBy Chris WrightI
There was a man in the land of Uzi, whose name was Joe; and in his own eyes this man was perfect and upright, and one that held Mammon in awe, and eschewed Justitia.And there were born unto him seventeen sons and thirteen daughters, for his ex-wives and ex-concubines had been fruitful and multiplied copiously.His substance also was ten billion dollars, and three mansions, and a thousand employees, and a sprawling search-engine website, and great political clout; so that this man was among the greatest of the children of the West.And though he was unable to attend his children’s birthdays or to remember their names, being a pious lover of work whose mind was uncluttered with soft sentiments, he sent them greeting cards on occasion.But when they invited him to feasts, Joe would do his fatherly duty and gorge himself on food and wine, and personify his epicurean ideal; for he had a taste for debauchery and gluttony and other refined pleasures.And it was so, in the midst of such revels, his mind made selfless through drink, that Joe sank to the ground and prostrated himself before Almighty Mammon, and offered prayers unto Him according to the number of his children;For Joe said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and renounced Mammon in their hearts, and embraced charity or socialism, or become spendthrifts scornful of the Protestant ethic.Thus thought Joe continually, when not contemplating the stock market and price-fluctuations and hostile takeovers and the prospects of his wealth.Now there was a day when the sons of God (whose name is Mammon) came to present themselves before him, and Justitia came also among them.And Mammon said, Whence comest thou? And Justitia answered, From walking to and fro in the earth, amongst men and their follies.And Mammon said unto Justitia, Hast thou considered my servant Joe, a perfect and upright man, who feareth God and escheweth inefficiency?And Justitia answered, It is not for nought that he feareth God: thou hast blessed him with wealth and power and whores galore. Withdraw thy favor from him and he will curse thee to thy face.And Mammon said, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power. Only upon himself put not forth thy hand. So Justitia went forth from the presence of God.Now Justitia, unbeknownst to Mammon, had her own reason for heaping misfortune on Joe’s unsuspecting head, to wit, her duty to punish iniquity and avenge injury.For Joe was guilty not merely of gluttony, greed, lust, vanity, pride, and hypocrisy, but also of theft from company funds, insider trading, bribery, and callousness to human suffering.Often had he beheld with an unseeing eye the travails of the wretched of the earth; he had not stretched forth his opulent hand bedecked with diamond rings to give so much as a nickel to a beggar; neither had he scrupled to destroy his hirelings’ lives by depriving them of their livelihood.True it is that Mammon knew of this; but he saw not the need for vengeance, as Joe’s sins, named such by Justitia, were named rather virtues by Mammon, consistent with his teachings.Thus he had surpassing love for Joe, exceeding that for all his other creatures, and would not harm him, unless it were to appease his own vanity (as in this case).And so it was that Justitia gathered the reins of retribution in her own hands and whipped them upon the crown of Joe’s bald head.Ordinarily, when her wrath was not inflamed, she would conjure a whirlwind of legal wrangling and due process of law;And she would place her victim in its navel, and he would bow down his head as his fate was decided by pettifoggers and sophists.Well knew Justitia that justice was often aborted in such cases; but Mammon bound her not to tamper with the law, its current state being friendly to his world dominion;and when she assayed to defy him, the wrath of Heaven was upon her.Thus, had she set in motion the gears of legal machinery to grind Joe into poverty and disrepute, her designs would have been frustrated by involute legal machinations.Wherefore Justitia chose to deceive God, the better to know victory over injustice.II
It fell on a day when he was eating and drinking wine in his favorite harlot’s house,That there came a messenger unto Joe, and said, Thine employees were managing thy business for thee, as thou frolicked with yonder maiden (yea, I applaud thy taste);And the fire of heaven fell upon them, and consumed them in a blast that shook the foundations and collapsed the pillars of thy corporation’s home;And I bethought me to have seen Arabs across the street, gazing with sinister mirth on the wreckage of thy life and thine employees’; peradventure they were Al Qaeda terrorists; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The price of thy company’s shares hath plummeted, and thy wealth hath dissolved like the fabric of a vision, and thy days as a prosperous plutocrat are numbered.While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, Thy sons, informed of thy calamity, have judged thou hast incurred the displeasure of Justitia;And to expiate their own sins they have forsworn Mammon, and deemed him a foul pollutant of civilization;And, repentant, they have set forth on a life of charity and devotion to the principles of compassion and lovingkindness.Then Joe arose, and rent the robes of his messengers, and flailed his fists on the oaken table before him, and fell down upon the ground, unsteady from the wine:And he said, Naked came I out of my lover’s loins, and naked shall I return thither: God loveth not him whose knees buckle beneath adversity, who embraceth an insincere apostasy or letteth hardship slay his spirit;Fortune smileth not on him who forsaketh his principles under the burden of appalling vicissitudes;Therefore shall I not renounce mine avarice or dissolute ways, nor my work ethic; neither shall I follow my sons’ treachery by disavowing Mammon, though He abandon me who have ever served Him faithfully.Thus Joe bade his messengers depart and returned to the pleasures from whence they had distracted him; for he needed in-spiration to plot the resurrection of his corporate empire.III
Now it came to pass that the sons of God were again summoned to his presence, as his almighty lust for power would brook no secrecy amongst his subalterns; for that they might conspire to cast off his yoke and usurp his throne.And Justitia came also among them to present herself before Mammon.And Mammon said unto Justitia, Behold, my servant Joe hath shunned the path of perfidy to which thou temptedst him by the example of his sons, fearful lest he be blighted by mine ire;Neither hath he weakened in resolve, though thou assayed to destroy his will;And in all things hath he not wavered from the ranks of the holy.And Justitia answered God, and said, Joe’s faith is indeed mighty; but let him taste the bitterness of penury, and feel the pains of plague, and he shall renounce thee to thy face.And Mammon said unto Justitia, Do with him as thou list; only spare his life.So Justitia went forth from the presence of Mammon, and smote Joe’s mansions with fire from the vaults of Al Qaeda, and smote his bank accounts with the malign deeds of computer hackers, and smote his body with venereal diseases;and his privy member she smote with prolonged flaccidity.Her fell designs prospered: Joe’s hopes were slain, his spirit crippled; he bewailed shrilly his loss of manly prowess.And his wife took offense at the noise, and said, Thou hast never had integrity; thou hast thyself reaped this evil, polluting the land with thy whoredoms;wherefore cease thy ululations.Whereupon Joe answered, Thou sayest what thou knowest not. The market is a fickle god: today it doles out privation, tomorrow prosperity.And the market is a vengeful god: if treated not with respect, it will repudiate erstwhile bonds.I must have offended it; only that can explain my present ills.Yet Joe’s acts belied his feigned equanimity, for his wailings persisted through the night: and he supplicated to Mammon, that He might restore the vigor to his privy member.His myriad wenches forsook him; the media thronged about him; and his friends scorned him.Three alone remained loyal, whom he had known from childhood. When they heard of all the evil that was come upon him, they came from their homes to mourn with him: Jim the Politician, and Bob the Academic, and Jon the Preacher.They sat down among the ashes with Joe as he wept.IV
After seven days and seven nights, wherein each friend feared to speak lest he be blasted by Joe’s anger, Jim the Politician spake, and said,Lo, Joe, we friends of thine have sat upon the cinders of this hearth these seven days and seven nights;Not a word have we spoken, respecting thy grief and thy right to enjoy it in silence, despite the discomfort engendered by our sitting upon cinders for a week.Yea, we have respected thy rights, as befitteth good citizens of this our great republic, the mightiest in the earth, which quelleth dissent as the lion’s roaring quelleth the whelp’s yelpings;As the sun’s rays drain the desert of its rivers; as the demagogue casteth a spear through the heart of the free thinker;—Verily, said Bob the Academic, thine analogies are not to thy purpose: for in comparing our nation to a star which reduceth rivers to their beds, thou dost not honor our nation;And in drawing a parallel between our republic and a demagogue, thou impugnst the good intentions of our government;—Jim! said Joe, Say thou thy point; and Bob, hold thy peace.Joe, said Jim, we have sat with thee for seven days, and our minds wax restless; our stomachs rumble with hunger’s void; and we weary of thine interminable sobs.Wherefore, tell us thy complaints, that we might comfort thee, and thou mightst take pity on us.So Joe recited the litany of his griefs.V
Let the fool perish in whom the thought is born, I shall devote my life to the glory of Capital.Let that man’s rash faith in the cash-nexus blind him; let it fuse scales to his eyes, so that his vision is clouded, his mind murky, his life’s aspect overcast.Let his hopes be dashed against the rock of misfortune and shivered to pieces;Let them be broken and shattered upon collision with the iron dictates of the market.Let not his lust for lucre be slaked; neither let his greed for power suffer consum-mation; but let his demon consume him.Let his obdurate will guide him to the brink of destruction;Let his petty wants strip him of foresight, that he not see the abyss in his way.Let not his commerce with men prosper; neither let his assays of women thrive.Let him know the depths of stygian woe as he cowereth in his den of shame.For I was that man: I was that fool; and for that have I been punished: and for that I curse myself.And lo, if I must suffer, then must all men! It were unjust otherwise. Wherefore I say, Let calamities befall the wealth-mongerer, equal in number and greater in intensity than mine own!Let his children be fetters unto him; let his wife persecute him hourly, and give him no peace;Let his creditors hound him, as the lamb is hounded by the wolf;Let my troubles be trebled on him, that I may look upon his disasters and laugh, and thereby have relief from mine own.Oh, why died I not from mine embrace with my concubine? Why did I not give up the ghost when I gave up my seed?Why were the loins that I enjoyed full of crabs? Why the breasts that I kissed not full at all?(For then might I have had ample memories to succor me in my wretchedness.)Howbeit, my lot then outdid my lot now; for I am denied the touch of woman, who despiseth me.Alas, that fruit was sweet! its nectar nourishing, its scent ambrosial! Dearly I miss it. My days are as years without it.As dearly miss I the cold metallic feel of specie in mine hand, coursing through my fingers, like to a waterfall cascading through a crevasse.In bygone days I might have bought that waterfall, wherewith to seduce a woman;In bygone days I might have bought the river that is its source, wherewith to charm a woman,Or perchance to gaze at my wavering likeness on the waters, smitten with the beauty thereof.In bygone days, life was an oyster and I a fisherman, and my dreams were so many pearls stuck in the flesh of life.Whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them;I withheld not mine avarice from any object;Ambition was my idol,and I was a god among men.Alas, it is all come to nought! Ashes only remain of my former radiant glory.Curse the fool that I was, not to cherish what I had! Curse my callousness to the feelings of the market (verily, a sensitive God)!Curse all men who yet are happy as I despair!VI
Then Bob the Academic answered and said,I have assayed to understand thee; but thou speakest as the Sphinx.Thou indictest the rapacity of the “big Bourse wolves,” as Karl Marx called them (vide The Class Struggles in France, 1850, Part IV), though thou art thyself such a one.Thou decriest faith in the “cash-nexus,” though it hath ever been thine own (and, I think, still is).Moreover, thou prayest that such faith may blind the believer; yet surely thy denunciation were of greater pith hadst thou said that such faith doth blind the believer, and not that thou wouldst like it to.Lo, what meanest thou by “fool”? That word hath manifold connotations. E.g., Erasmus of Rotterdam praised it. (Vide In Praise of Folly.) It would strengthen thine argument wert thou to be more precise.Again, what meanest thou by “assays of women”? Denoteth that phrase sexual endeavors? Or merely romantic ones, or friendly ones?“Commerce with men” is, likewise, ambiguous. Intendest thou business, or only social interaction?Thine entire speech was plagued with obscurity. It is my contention that thou wouldst be well-advised to revise it; yea, to make it more precise.Howbeit, I was impressed with thy quoting of Ecclesiastes (vide Ecclesiastes, chap. 2).And I noticed that thou borrowedst a phrase of Byron’s (vide Don Juan) and of Milton’s (vide Paradise Lost), wherefore I congratulate thee.The import of thy speech was suitable to the occasion: poignant, possessing enough pathos to pluck the heart-strings but not so much that it sank to bathos;Somewhat malicious, as was appropriate, yet duly self-condemnatory;Full of the anguish to be expected from one whose life is in ruins: yea, whose sole remaining task is but to lament his lost greatness.Thus, on the whole, with the afore-mentioned qualifications, thy threnody excelled in virtue, and I approved of it.CONTINUE READING
|About the Author:Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and Notes of an Underground Humanist. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.|