Into the Vortex [excerpt] – Brian Eckert
May 15, 2019
Ren McFarlan shifted the papers on his desk. He sat back in his chair and, unsatisfied, moved the papers back to their original position. He did this two more times before taking the papers and throwing them in the rubbish bin. Still unhappy, he called his secretary, Gina.
“Gina, I’d like you to shred these,” he said.
She left his office with the papers. McFarlan heard the sound of paper shredding in the next room. When it was finished, he opened a document on his 15” MacBook, selected “print,” and watched the pages cascade out of his laserjet printer, recreating the pile of papers he’d just destroyed.
He collected the papers, sat down on a small leather couch, and began to read. Really, it wasn’t that bad, he told himself. He’d done a good job of outlining the Transfalgarians’ philosophical moorings, tracing back a line of thinkers to Rousseau. Out of personal bias, he spent too many pages talking about Fourier, his favorite socialist philosopher. The section on American utopian communities that were based on Fourier’s teachings could definitely be cut down, although not eliminated entirely, because it was a necessary backdrop to his discussion about intentional living. He crossed out lines and made notes in the margin.
McFarlan was certain that Transfalgarianism was the way forward for humanity, and he intended to prove it through a communitarian experiment.
What doomed most intellectual movements of the past is that they did not find their expression in action. Ideas that are not put into practice ring hollow and fail to capture the public imagination. Men of action—not men of ideas—change history.
Many of the book’s issues could be corrected with the usual rounds of edits. But McFarlan felt there was an overall incoherency leading into the present. The final section read like a political science text with its detached policy prescriptions. A proper book on Transfalgarianism could not be written until the commune was operational, but the publishers were up his ass to get the book out by Christmas, and the editor they’d assigned to him was a moron who cared nothing about ideas. He assured McFarlan that the pieces were in place and that they just had to smooth out the rough edges.
McFarlan tossed the papers down in disgust and sat back, sighing deeply. His phone vibrated. The message was from Gina. Zayne Moxley was here to see him.
McFarlan took a moment to straighten himself out before opening the door.
“Mr. Moxley, I’m so glad you could make it. Please, come in.”
Zayne Moxley wore a light blue suit with a yellow tie and white dress shirt. His brown shoes were impeccably shined. He had thick, handsome hair that upset balding men such as McFarlan. McFarlan had the urge to run his fingers through Moxley’s hair.
“Would you care for something to drink?”
“Cappuccino, if you’ve got it.”
“We’ve got a new machine. Gina, bring two cappuccinos, please,” said McFarlan through the open door.
Moxley looked around the office. There were no pictures on the wall, no wall hangings of any kind. A MacBook Pro sat on an otherwise empty oak desk. On the floor next to the desk was a laser jet printer flashing a “low ink” light. Books were piled up against the back wall. In the middle of the room was a small black leather couch and coffee table with a stack of papers on it. A large window overlooking the city street was covered by heavy shades.
Gina came in with the cappuccinos and set them on the table.
“Could you also bring a chair?” said McFarlan. “I just realized there’s no place for Mr. Moxley to sit.”
Gina wheeled in a chair. Moxley thanked her and sat down. McFarlan sat on the small leather couch.
“How is everything at GQ?” said McFarlan.
“Busy,” said Moxley. “We’re expanding internationally, which means I’ve got to draw up editorial standards for each new country we’ll be in—China, Russia, India, Korea. It’s a lot of work but the markets are ripe. These rags to riches countries have no compunctions about conspicuous consumption. Not that the West does, but here one must maintain an appearance of setting aside ego. Not so in the developing world. In many ways, it makes our job easier. I’m flying into China next week for a meeting.”
“Have you been before?”
“Yes. I spent a couple of months there as a young journalist covering the country’s environmental crisis.”
“You were an environmental journalist?”
“That’s how I started out.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Why would you?”
“I’m quite interested in you, Mr. Moxley. I have to say, I was surprised to receive your call. I’ve been trying to get you in for an interview since your Sedona article. How long ago was that now?”
“Nearly a year.”
“Time sure does fly, doesn’t it?”
“Not really,” said Moxley. “Often it moves much too slowly. Look, McFarlan, I’ll be straight with you. I’m only doing this because corporate thinks it’d be good to get my name back in the news cycle. We’re running an anniversary edition of the Sedona piece, a sort of ‘director’s cut’ with deleted anecdotes, handwritten notes, etc.”
“The story that changed modern journalism,” said McFarlan.
“I’m not a writer anymore,” said Moxley.
“We are often slow to accept our true selves,” said McFarlan. He sipped his cappuccino loudly and his round-framed tortoise shell glasses slid down his nose.
“People live very secret lives, do you know that?” said Moxley. “What others see ends up defining you. It’s strange. We don’t have much—or any—control over what we are remembered for. Like that article. Nobody cares about Zayne Moxley, editor-in-chief of GQ. I wonder how many men are remembered for things they care nothing about.”
“This is off the record but…was it real? I mean, the vision, the UFO.”
“It’s completely true. Everything happened exactly as I described.”
“Astounding,” said McFarlan. “Do you realize that what happened to you—many committed spiritual practitioners wait a lifetime for, without ever having a breakthrough like that? The Gods chose you, for some reason.”
“You think they wasted their time,” said Moxley flatly. “Or you think I’m a liar. That’s fine. I’ve gotten piles of mail, hateful and adoring. I stopped reading after a while. I don’t give a shit whether you believe me or not.”
“I do!” said McFarlan. “What I don’t get is how you can experience something like that and just go on your merry way like nothing happened.”
“There are a lot of things that don’t make sense,” said Moxley. “Life doesn’t make sense. If you start navel-gazing at every little oddity you’ll never get out of bed in the morning. Things happen. You feel one way in the moment, and the next moment, those feelings are gone. There was a resonance from my experience, but it passed. To be honest, when I think about those events, it’s like they happened to someone else.”
“They happened to you for a reason,” said McFarlan. “Nothing in the universe happens by chance.”
“Did it ever occur to you that the universe is a joke?” said Moxley. “That God is a prankster who does things to us for his own amusement? The fact that we don’t know whether life is serious or a joke—a trial or a comedy—is the biggest joke of all.”
Moxley began to laugh hysterically, making McFarlan uncomfortable.
“Personally, your article was a major influence on my work,” said McFarlan. “Using the Hopi myths as a starting point I’ve created a cosmology that fuses ancient and modern. I—and the Transfalgarians—owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“Sure,” said Moxley, shrugging. He licked the foam on his cappuccino.
“In fact,” said McFarlan, “I would like to invite you to stay at our commune when it’s completed in a couple of months. The Transfalgarians will put our beliefs into practice by means of communal living. I think it’s important to, as Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’”
“Gandhi was a little weasel fuck,” said Moxley.
“I know you don’t think much of our ideas, but your appearance, even briefly, would mean a lot to us.”
“Where is this commune?” said Moxley.
“The Idaho panhandle. I purchased an old ranch that I’m modifying for the community’s purposes. I leave in one month to oversee the final stages of construction.”
“You don’t strike me as a live off the land type of guy,” said Moxley.
“I’ve never so much as mowed a lawn,” said McFarlan. “But I want to change. The seed of something new is inside of me. I will flower into my final form. This is the destiny of each person. We can be whatever we want to be. It is imperative that we shed our false skins. The future of the human race depends on it.”
“I’m aware of your philosophy,” said Moxley, putting the word ‘philosophy’ in air quotations. “You believe that a man can be a beluga whale, if that’s what he chooses.”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” said McFarlan. “I—we—believe there is a cosmic consciousness that works through each one of us. We all have a higher calling, beyond the station in life that the circumstances of birth have determined for us. By embracing this higher calling, no matter how unusual it might seem, we achieve balance with the universe, first individually, and eventually, as a species. In so doing we gain access to a higher form of existence.”
“So you’re saying I can be a beluga whale,” said Moxley.
“If that’s your calling, then yes. But I suspect you have a different calling. I believe that you are denying this calling in favor of worldly fame and riches. Our motto is, ‘A self-generated lie is worth more than a received truth.’”
“What you’re saying would be profound if it wasn’t so contrived,” said Moxley, sucking the last of the foam off his cappuccino.
“I think you were given a great gift. I don’t want you to waste it.”
“Look, if you want to grow potatoes in Idaho and prance around in overalls, be my fucking guest. I’m not going to tell you why you should or shouldn’t. The problem with you is you think you know what’s best for others. You throw around words like ‘identity’ and ‘destiny’ but if someone does something you don’t agree with, you look down on them. You talk about freedom, but it’s freedom on your terms. Freedom means not only the good, but also the bad, the ugly, the brutal, the contemptible. You’re free to do exactly what I think you should do—that’s what you’re saying.”
“Mr. Moxley, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You didn’t. You’re not important enough to offend me.”
“Why don’t we start the interview?” said McFarlan. He opened the recording app on his smartphone and placed the device on the table between them.
“Can we go somewhere else?” said Moxley. “I feel like we’re in a fucking tomb.”
“I find a sparse office helps me to concentrate,” said McFarlan.
“Yeah, well, the whole minimalist thing never blew my hair back,” said Moxley.
Ren McFarlan: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Zayne Moxley: I guess the usual little boy stuff. You know, fireman, baseball player, policeman. For a brief time I was infatuated with being a park ranger. We took a family vacation to Glacier National Park and I received one of those “junior ranger” badges. I didn’t know it was for show. I thought I was an actual ranger. I prowled around, hiding behind trees trying to spot crimes. My parents thought it was adorable, but I would have busted my own father if he so much as dropped a granola bar wrapper.
Ren McFarlan: Children often have fantasies of being in positions of authority. I suppose this reflects their dependence on adults.
Zayne Moxley: We want nothing more than to grow up. We sense our own incompleteness. We imagine a human fullness that awaits us. Of course, we are dead wrong. Most people would choose to be children again, if they could. I would. We crave structure and authority imposed from without. Freedom and autonomy are too great of a burden for most people to bear. So we give in. We conform. We get married, get jobs, and have children. We grow up to be chewers of Extra gum, drinkers of Folgers coffee, drivers of Toyotas, subscribers to Time magazine. All of our hopes and dreams shunted into corporate board rooms. And we wonder, ‘How did I get here? Things weren’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to be a fireman, a park ranger, a race car driver. Instead I’m an investor in Mongolian coal, a watcher of America’s Got Talent, a voter for the Democratic party. Where did things go wrong?’
Ren McFarlan: What did your parents do for work?
Zayne Moxley: My father was an auditor and my mother was a school teacher. Fourth grade.
Ren McFarlan: Describe your fondest childhood memory.
Zayne Moxley: I remember looking out a window from the top floor of our old farmhouse on a spring afternoon, drinking juice from a green plastic cup. The cottonwood fluff was blowing on the breeze and I thought it was snowing. It delighted me that it was snowing on a warm spring day. There was an overcoming of opposites that, looking back, signified the possibility of all things to my young self. This is another illusion that dies with age. Less seems possible until finally, almost nothing seems possible.
Ren McFarlan: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Zayne Moxley: I wouldn’t say I ever wanted to be a writer, exactly. I wrote a story for my high school literary magazine. I was trying to impress a girl I had a crush on. I published the story under the name “Anonymous.” It was about a dog that had a drunk, surly owner who kicked it around when he got loaded. The story was told from the dog’s point of view. One night the dog receives a particularly vicious kicking. He waits until the owner falls asleep on the couch and rips his throat out.
People liked the story. It created a bit of a buzz around school. They wanted to know who wrote it. There was wild speculation. Nobody guessed that it was me. I wasn’t a particularly good student.
Ren McFarlan: Did they ever find out it was you?
Zayne Moxley: I told the girl I had a crush on, but she didn’t believe me. Many people were trying to take credit for the story. The leading theory was that it was written by one of the trench coat kids, Crazy Joe, and that it represented his hatred for the students who bullied him. Bullying wasn’t as bad back then, I don’t think. At some level, the outsider was respected, or at least tolerated. At any rate, there was recognition of their right to exist. People are much more vicious these days. They want to destroy those that are different than themselves. Society has never been more conformist, in my opinion.
Ren McFarlan: You said you didn’t want to be a writer. What were your career ambitions?
Zayne Moxley: I couldn’t tell you. Nothing, as far as I can remember. I enjoyed woodshop. I liked the feeling of having made something real. I probably could have been a carpenter or a furniture maker.
Ren McFarlan: Yet you became a journalist.
Zayne Moxley: I chose journalism because I needed to declare a major to study abroad in Paris. I might as well have picked biology. Journalism stuck. I found it easy to present both sides of an issue. I never was into politics or religion. I had no dog in the fight, so to speak. Most of my colleagues were idealistic in one way or the other. Many seemed to want to change the world, to save it.
Ren McFarlan: You began in environmental journalism. Did you not want to “save the world” too?
Zayne Moxley: No. That’s where I found work. Environmentalism was a burgeoning field when I graduated. Issues such as the ozone hole and global warming were galvanizing the environmental movement. What I found was that people liked the negative articles far more than the positive ones. Writing about the revival of a species, for example, provided far less reaction than a story about a species’ demise.
Ren McFarlan: To what do you attribute that?
Zayne Moxley: Nihilism, I suppose, which was also in vogue at the time. Basically, I wrote for popular tastes.
Ren McFarlan: The point of journalism is objectivity. To report the facts.
Zayne Moxley: [Laughs] When people say they want to save the world, you have to ask, “Save it from what?” From ourselves, obviously. The logical outcome of environmentalism is suicide. About the only honest environmental group is the Church of Euthanasia. Save the Planet, Kill Yourself. Obviously, that message isn’t going to win you many readers. Soft facts are fine. But there is no market, no appetite, for hard facts.
Ren McFarlan: You don’t think mankind can get its collective act together?
Zayne Moxley: No. Unless we can control human desire. We have a system based on unlimited human desire and limited resources. It’s not hard to see where that leads.
Ren McFarlan: Why did you get out of environmental journalism?
Zayne Moxley: Capitalism is an unstoppable force because it is based on human desire, which is limitless. We’re fucked. I figured I might as well join the winning team.
Ren McFarlan: That sounds a bit defeatist. A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.
Zayne Moxley: You see, you tell people the truth and they push back on it. They don’t want to hear it.
Ren McFarlan: The truth as you see it.
Zayne Moxley: The truth as they want to see it.
Ren McFarlan: Are you saying people want to see the world destroyed?
Zayne Moxley: That sounds about right. If it’s not one end of the world scenario, it’s another, religious and secular alike. People seem to intuitively know that mankind is fallen and that we will destroy ourselves.
Ren McFarlan: You left environmental journalism and began to write for commercial enterprises. Some people might call that selling out.
Zayne Moxley: Such people have never been made a serious offer.
Ren McFarlan: How did you end up with GQ?
Zayne Moxley: Again, almost by accident. I stopped writing altogether for a couple of years. I thought about a change in careers. I considered becoming a plumber. I took a job selling sunglasses at the mall. There was a newspaper shop next to where I worked. I read GQ sometimes on my lunch break. They’d published one of my articles, about the deaths of a rare island bird from ingesting plastic, so I had contacts there. I decided to stick with writing because I wanted to be the one people were reading for entertainment and information—which are really the same thing—rather than the one consuming the content. Marx was not far off when he pitted the owners against the workers. The real divide in society is between the creators and the consumers, between those who live their lives and those who live vicariously through others. Anyway, I attended a fashion show in the city and did a write-up on it that GQ ran. Things grew from there.
Ren McFarlan: Let’s back up for a moment. You said that you considered becoming a plumber.
Zayne Moxley: Yes. I like the idea of doing different things. The system pushes us down certain paths because it maximizes productivity if everyone has a specialty and gets very good at doing the same repetitive task over and over. We’ll always need plumbers. I’m not so sure about writers.
Ren McFarlan: Storytelling is deeply embedded in the human experience.
Zayne Moxley: I don’t disagree, but I think one day we’ll look back on writing the way we do today on silent films. They are mediums created in the presence of technological limitations.
Ren McFarlan: So we go from oral to written culture to—what? What comes next?
Zayne Moxley: Whatever it is, it will eliminate ambiguity. Human communication is largely miscommunication. A story, a life, an event, history, can be interpreted countless ways. Things seem to be moving in the direction of pure psychic communication, which digital and internet culture are a prelude to. The process of disembodiment signified by cyberspace will continue unabated.
Ren McFarlan: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Zayne Moxley: Yeah, become a plumber.
Ren McFarlan: Obviously, you did not become a plumber. And GQ is very grateful for that. Under your editorial direction GQ has become the number one men’s magazine in the country. How has success changed you?
Zayne Moxley: I have a much nicer apartment now. I wait in fewer lines. Money and success don’t so much change people as they do reveal them. Money is an abstraction of human desire. I think one needs to have enough money to pursue desire as far as it takes them, so that they are then free to go beyond. One must take pleasure and comfort to its extremes before they are able to ascend to more rarefied air. One must exhaust all existing forms before they are free to create new ones.
Ren McFarlan: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Your article for GQ, “Into the Vortex,” is credited with bringing spirituality to an audience that many were surprised to find was very receptive to it. What was the metaphysical message of “Into the Vortex”?
Zayne Moxley: I think you’ve already said that it’s whatever you want it to be.
Ren McFarlan: I don’t recall saying that.
Zayne Moxley: That was the gist. You wrote it in the Sunday Times, right after the story came out. You’re not wrong, by the way.
Ren McFarlan: Okay, then let me ask you this: what does it mean to you?
Zayne Moxley: I’m not sure yet. I feel like it’s the beginning of something and not a thing in itself. If there is a message I take out of the experience, it’s that you need to follow the story wherever it goes. The story has a life of its own. Things have a life of their own. We need to let them develop. But we don’t. We kill them when they are in their infancy. Our preconceptions arrest their development. They are stillborn.
Things unfold the way they always have precisely because we expect them to. We force the story to fit an existing narrative, rather than allowing the story to write itself. They say there are only a handful of stories in the world. That’s absolute bullshit. There are millions of stories—infinite stories—but nobody has told them yet.
Ren McFarlan: What’s next in the story of Zayne Moxley?
Zayne Moxley: I’m going to drink a fucking beer.