Excerpt: ‘The Theorist’, by Ben Merriman


Photograph by See-ming Lee. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.


I was browsing a rack of literary magazines, idling away a few moments between doing one thing and another. As I browsed, the theorist, whose friendship had been an inconstant feature of my life since I met her, walked up behind me and said over my shoulder, “It’s a cargo cult. They clear out a rectilinear space that looks very much like a magazine, and make this space available for words to appear, and they think that a poem, a real live modernist poem, will come in for a landing simply because they’ve made something that looks like an airstrip. You are standing in a human world thrumming with life, staring at the blank white space you’ve built for yourself, trying to convince yourself that it is real.” I stared at my airstrip a moment longer. She added, “You need to go to the ATM, I am going to get extra drunk tonight.”


The theorist abandoned her apartment and moved into mine.

The theorist lived in a studio apartment, in a different time would have lived in a garret. Inside: a pallet, not even a mattress, and towers of paper everywhere threatening to smother the theorist in the night. I wished to know what the theorist did while she theorised, but she could work only in absolute solitude, which she jokingly called her Waldeinsamkeit. She would, from time to time, call me over to drink, and when I was lulled with drink she would produce her newest phrase or strophe, a little caustic thing that, written on a piece of paper, would burn a hole through a heap of printed matter all the way down to the floorboards. In this way the theorist confronted what is problematically called the Western canon of literary and philosophical thought, as well as that poetry of the post-war period with vanguardist pretensions, and by the slow production of caustic phrases gradually dissolved all of the canon and all of the vanguardist pretenders, as well as her sorry pallet. All that remained was the miniskirted outfit she often wore and a scrap of paper bearing her phrase “two times a day you water the daffodils…” We were afraid that this piece of paper would burn us through to the bone if we touched it, so afraid that the theorist abandoned her apartment and moved into mine.

Security Measures

The two of us were diffident housekeepers. Sensitive financial documents would pile up on various flat surfaces, just as cartons of dairy products and pots of strange sauces occupied most of the refrigerator. In order to protect our sensitive financial documents I would discard them only in bags containing expired dairy products, in the hope that aspirant identity thieves would be deterred by the smell.


Somehow, thinking about dialectics while doing housework made me feel that that the housework was not so heavy after all.

At the time I did more of the housework and the theorist, by various means, earned more of the money, though this was not deliberate but simply the way things went. On Fridays I rarely had to attend to my work, and so each Friday I would do laundry and dishes, take out trash, and see to whatever other small tasks I had neglected during the week. While doing these tasks, I would sometimes remember that Lenin had called housework the most unrewarding and alienated of all kinds of human labour, because it was dedicated exclusively to the reproduction of the conditions of production and therefore never had any final result. Somehow, thinking about dialectics while doing housework made me feel that the housework was not so heavy after all, and I wondered how difficult it must be to do housework if one did not think dialectically. I shared this thought with the theorist, who told me that I was more alienated after thinking this thought than I had been before.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #25: The Relaunch Issue. Get your copy now.

Ben Merriman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. Read more at benmerriman.tumblr.com.