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Panoptic Surrealism


by Inbar Haft





The following short story describes the experiences of a character by the name of Max Well, also referred to as M.Well. M.Well does not seem to be well at all. That is, at least not from the mental perspective of the average onlooker that is engaged in reading the story. One may discover that the severity of M.Well’s condition is perceived as progressively worse, as the events unfold.

The distress that M.Well experiences, as a result of certain occurrences that have transpired during the initial scene of the story, produces a most peculiar chain of events, during which time an unknown ‘articulated thing’ – referred to as the "automata" – emerges from the top of M.Well’s head, bursting the skin. Despite the presence of this grotesque anomaly, M.Well seems to retain an air of relative equanimity; this begins to make more sense once it is later conveyed that this is not M.Well’s first journey into the realm of the Grand Guignol vis-a-vis the automata.

The concept of the automata (rather than the automaton) is similar to that of Jeremy Bentham’s "panopticon", but with a slight difference. Instead of alien entities conspiring against the privacy of the individual, it is the individual’s fragmented selves conspiring against each other. The result is even more disturbing than the original panopticon, because there is never any hope of the possibility of eventually disengaging from this sense of paranoia. The enemy is no longer an outside force to be reckoned with as such, but rather a disease that has permeated itself into the innermost fibers of our construction.

To further complicate matters, the reliability of the story’s so-called omniscient narrator is shrouded in a cloud of ambiguity, thus making it difficult for the reader to fully grasp which elements of the story are grounded in reality and which are a by-product of M.Well’s disturbed imagination.



"The Defiled Sink"



M.Well looked down into the sink and concentrated on the vague outline of his face that was reflected in it. The sink was of a heavy Italian marble, very linear in its conception, with noble faucet knobs made of pewter and a shallow basin that exuded respect.

Maxwell leaned over to turn on the water and listen to the message it would give, but truthfully, at the forefront of his mind, the thought that had been there from the moment that he stepped in front of the sink and had since steadfastly embedded itself into the far reaches of his brain, the one thing that he couldn’t seem to get away from, was the coarse, unruly, black pubic hair that was obtrusively juxtaposed against the upper left corner of the sink. It was the sole perpetrator of chaos, the instigator of dissent, subverting an otherwise perfectly, beautifully, serene sink. It defiled it.

The automata wasted no time. He could never be sure of when it would emerge in all of its magnanimous glory from the crown of his oblong head, but once it reached that destination there was no doubting its presence. But not because it hurt in any physical sense of the word, that had been taken care of. The skin was injected with a hormone that fermented in the blood and when exposed to air outside of the body it secreted an enzyme that numbed the senses while the automata was ‘visiting’ as M.Well liked to think of it. When the automata would retreat back to where it came from (the exact time of which he could never be sure) the enzyme would heal the skin that had been ripped apart at the point where the automata had erupted and restored it back to it’s original state, hair included. But now was not the time to think of when it would be going away, because now it was here, and the one thing that Maxwell did seem to be able to infer intuitively with regards to the automata was that the longer he focused on when it would be leaving the longer it stayed.

He tried to get back to his normal, stream-of-consciousness thinking, but his mind betrayed him. It seemed that he had temporarily lost the capacity to remember what normal was.

He went about his daily routine, preparing breakfast; smoked cow’s tongue on a slice of toasted rye, with a dollop of mayonnaise and sauerkraut. He then proceeded to nuke a cup of chocolate milk for precisely 33 seconds, and opened the microwave door just before it had a chance to voice its cantankerous wailing, signaling that the heating process had been completed. Just thinking about that "beep, beep, beeeeeep" made him want to vomit.

He sat down at the breakfast counter and began to eat, but this time he opted to skip the newspaper reading that was usually part of his morning routine. He was afraid that perhaps its contents would upset him, as they did the time he had read an article on the statistics of global warming. The article claimed that in another ten years, global temperatures would increase by an average of two degrees. Maxwell had read the article only three days after having specially ordered seven Merino wool v-neck sweaters in assorted colors from the J.Crew catalogue. In ten years time that purchase would be rendered obsolete. The three-degree increase in temperature would throw off his entire thermostatic equilibrium and the sweaters would be practically worthless. Had he access to this information sooner, he could have bypassed the entire ordeal and simply ordered the cashmere tunic sweaters which would have been perfectly suited to the forthcoming elevated temperatures.

The trauma that resulted from this most odious finding left M.Well in a state of catatonic shock, and when he emerged from the condition some hours later, the automata was waiting with him. Could another automata erupt concurrently with the visit of the first one if he experienced two distinct disturbing thought processes simultaneously? Perhaps the question was redundant because the issue of identity always tended to slide between the One and the many and parts and wholes. He had never really given the matter much thought, but he felt that it was best not to find out.

When three quarter’s of an hour had past and the automata still had shown no signs of departing, M.Well began to grow impatient. He had to be at work in half an hour’s time and he still hadn’t taken a shower. Trying to eat breakfast with this cumbersome contraption was one thing, but taking a shower with it seemed too formidable a task to engage in at such an early hour of the morning.

So he did the only logical thing that he could do. Taking a pair of sterile tweezers from the medicine cabinet above the defiled sink, he proceeded to seize the perpetrator from its present location and immersed it in a solution of two parts hydrogen peroxide to one part rubbing alcohol. After letting it soak for a few seconds he doused it with distilled water and placed it in the middle of a strip of surgical tape that had been neatly cut into a 1 x 1 inch square, and folded it up equally on all sides. He then made a small incision in his right forearm, peeled back the skin and carefully placed the sterilized deviant onto the exposed inner flesh. After neatly stitching it up and covering it with a bandage he grabbed a fresh towel from the master linen closet and headed for the shower.



The following is a list of comments/questions, which expound upon the implications of the story.

1. Strange things happen when we let our own personal world of idiosyncrasies go off on it’s own tangent. This is represented by Max’s reaction to the pubic hair and the commotion that ensues as result of that reaction.

2. He ‘never could be sure of when it would emerge’ (the automata), but yet it seems to be a part of him, foreign yet familiar in an uncanny sort of way. How is this explained?

3. ‘Once it reached that destination there was no doubting its presence’. As the reader, we are left unsure as to what is really going on in this story. There is the possibility that M.Well is psychotic and delusional, in which case the events are indeed real enough for him, but not founded in reality. After all, he’s looking for messages from running water and personifying a sink to the point to where it can be defiled and exude respect. This seems to be abnormal, but because we are given no description of what M.Well’s surrounding environment is like, we don’t know how to judge his actions and thought processes. We can’t really know him until we know his surroundings.

4. When the automata erupts, the narrator tells us that it "doesn’t hurt in any physical sense of the word, that had been taken care of", but in what sense does it hurt then, if at all? There does seem to be something negative about this machine, but we’re not exactly able to place our finger on it. We are also left wondering by whom ‘this had been taken care of’, was it some big brother type of force or was it Max himself?

5. In reference to when exactly the automata would go back into hibernation, the narrator tells us that M.Well could never be sure of the exact time. Again, ambiguity of who is in control, or if there is anybody at all in control, maybe no one is in control and it’s actually Max that is instigating everything.

6. ‘The one thing that Max Well did seem to be able to infer intuitively with regard to the automata was that the longer he focused on when it would be leaving the longer it stayed.’ There seems to be some kind of meeting ground between man and machine; Max is having intuitions regarding the machine’s mood swings.

7. Could another automata erupt concurrently with the visit of the first one if he experienced two distinct disturbing thought processes simultaneously…’. If Max’s thoughts are indeed creating his objective reality, then maybe this is a possibility, now that he has conceived of it. Subjective dictates objective, but we can’t really know for sure what is actually happening.

8. ‘He had to be at work in half an hour’s time and he still hadn’t taken a shower’— he doesn’t seem to be concerned with the outside world seeing him in this state, is this because he’s a) demented b) this is a normal occurrence that other people experience as well (this is purposely not answered) c) he’s lost the sense of ‘shame’ and ‘other’ that Sartre speaks of, because he’s so consumed with the ‘other’ that is himself in the form of the automata.

9. ‘He did the only logical thing he could’ – logical for whom? What is logical in this type of scenario?

10. The significance of what he does with the hair, bringing it into his body, is that he feels that if he incorporates this thing into his body, making it a part of himself, then he will not have another adverse reaction to it the next time. He will not be disgusted or disturbed and therefore the automata will not be triggered. The logic behind this is that he is reducing the number of things that might possibly trigger the automata in him. The ramifications of this are insane, because what if we incorporate all of the negative things that exist out there into ourselves so that they would not be foreign or disturbing? Or do we, in this postmodern world, actually already do that to a certain degree?