Essay on Collective Paranoia

Charlotte Pence

Metaphors, like epitaphs, must be fitting.
—Bion Theophilus

I. The Incident: A New Method for Death and Metaphori

Waiter carries a tray across the hotel
lobby to three men clustered in fat arm chairs.
Litvinenkoii dunks in his tea bag. Brown-red
hovers then spreads like blood from a cut. L. sips,
nods Yes, yes, to men

he calls comrades. Someone has laced the water
or cup with Isotrope Polonium 210.
“The want of harmony between two things
is emphasized by their being placed side by side.”
This is rhetoric,

according to Aristotle, and relates
to love, maybe marriage, and assassination.
Poison only effective if presented
harmoniously: old friends; damp, chilly day;
suggestion of tea.

Later, L. walks in through the hospital door.
Doctors do not understand his sickness, so
the hospital charts resort to metaphor:
His face is the color of the room’s white wall;”
Stomach a ping-pong ball

hit by a missile.”iii Metaphor is the mind
catching itself in a mistake, which means we
learn the new through the known, such as this first hit
of the 21st century.iv We know death,
but not like this death.

Tests come back clean. Still, L. insists: They are
killing me
. Doctors think: Metaphor; The pains
and tests must be difficult
. Then, he is dead.
We loathe passive construction, demand subjects,
clear relationships.

So, next come questions: Whom did he meet? Unknown.
Tea? Darjeeling. Maybe they killed him when he said,
Please pardon me and left unaccompanied
his cup. L. had always feared walking
through crowded lobbies

under those recessed and shadowed ceilings. Air
cooler at his face than feet. Death and duty
merging in that air, the two terms indicating
“what is fair or what is foul.”v In the end,
his fears accurate.vi

II. The Cause and Effect: Paranoia

Let us return to the lobby where L. sipped
his last tea and watched guests rush through the doors.
He suspected these moments as people came
and went were significant. Lobby a place
to execute plans,

remake the self. Briefcases with proposals,
purses with passports, valises with garters.
Lobby carpet also loaded with design:
burgundy stars inside navy squares over
toast-yellow diamonds.

It is necessary, psychiatrists say,
to function by responding to fragments: “bits
of conversation, beginnings of actions. . . .”vii
We live on pieces. And attempt to piece all
into place. Someone

should be snapping photos while hiding behind
an indoor palm, eating a slice of folded
pizza. We know the wrongs we’ve done, the meanness
we’ve thought. Who knows what others might do? This is
not paranoia.

P.viii is akin to feeling loved. An attempt
at completeness.ix Intimate Friend, we tell it
all. Who slighted us. How we deserved it. Fears.
And P. responds with: Yes, worry! Yes, you’re doomed;
Then, we feel understood.

III. Conclusion: Security—All False

Concern for L. is not why we detail his death.
It’s self-survival. P. can’t protect if P.
can’t imagine the threat.x The world churns and purrs
by forecasting our demise and devising
grand pre-emptive strikes.

All loss can be avoided: right liquid ounce,
right sexual mount, right hedge shape, right help mate,
right gruel, right bio-fuel, right SPF,
right laws against meth, right sugar substitute,
right Buddhist attitude,

and right polonium antidote will save us.
Reports assure that L.’s poisoning is not
possible for mass killings. But look here, P.
whispers, tapping a story on page D7,
USA Today.

Men in hazmat suits carrying twelve-liter
oxygen tanks, radiation meters, screw
drills, deem a doorknob lethal, the door itself
a threat, and two hotel rooms unsafe for use.
They must remove bits

of the rooms, too: outlet plaques, curtain hooks,
the Gideon. Would have been covert except
for a snitch. Who took that picture of our charons
carrying a door through the lobby? A door walking
sideways through a door.


* * *

i Metaphor, from the Greek, meaning to carry across. Or a moving van that blocked the view of the Parthenon while Stephen Jay Gould lunched alfresco: “I was annoyed at first, but later wonderfully amused as I watched the moving men deliver some furniture to the neighboring house. The van said Metaphora. Of course, I realized. Phor is the verb for carrying and meta is a prefix meaning “change of place, order, condition, or nature. . . . A metaphor carries you from one object . . . to another.”

ii Alexander Litvinenko served in the Soviet KGB and publicly accused his superiors of assassinating Boris Berezovksy and bombing apartments to blame on terrorists. On November 1st, 2006, he walked into a London hospital and shortly died thereafter from radioactive polonium-210 poisoning, the first death of this kind.

iii Direct quotes from the doctor’s charts as reported by James Geary in “The First Assassination of the Twenty-first Century.”

iv More is needed on this idea of learning the new through the known. Example: a child learns to dive by someone using simile and metaphor. “You are like a spring coiled up tight. Bend your knees and then release.” The child knows how a spring moves. The child does not know diving. Therefore figurative associations are made to the known—however inaccurate. The inaccuracy is the mistake, but part of the learning process.

v More of Rhetoric by Aristotle: “Both terms will indicate what is fair, or what is foul, but not simply their fairness or foulness.” Shakespeare later stole this line.

vi “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” Richard Nixon said. Kurt Cobain later stole this line.

vii Taken from Daniel Freeman and Phillipa A. Garety’s The Psychology of Persecutory Delusions.

viii P. is another abbreviation, this time for Paranoia.

xi That idea from Plato that we were once joined as one, then we were split into two. And love is a process of seeking that other to complete oneself. Trying to complete fragments, however, can also lead to wrong conclusions. Hence divorce, paranoia, and/or both.

xA.k.a. the “clinical relevance of persecutory delusions.”

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