Steffi Rostenkowski Names the Devil

For there were no such things as they desired.
Yet the nameless lusts obsessed their senses no less fiercely for being phantoms: the quick young men were driven by phantoms as furiously as by any real and namable desire. … To Steffi, the terror of them lay in this: that they went to work and joked and lived sensibly with their mothers and saved their money and married and grew conservative and cared for their health by day, while practicing, all their lives by night, the madnesses of the streets as though their madnesses were the reward of being virtuous by day. … She heard them speaking innocently of innocent things; yet heard always, behind their voices, the tone of men locked in for life. They too were doing time on a bum rap: not one would be paroled.

When she wakened, she held a picture in her mind of another place: A great stone penitentiary with all the exits barred, and no sign of smoke or disorder without, no sound of crackling flame; but only the steady murmur of the machine shops within. Guards paced the wall steadily and regularly so that no one in the whole outside world could guess that the tiers within were blazing, tier upon tier within the very stone, that the smoke was in the lungs of a thousand chained men. That the very bars they grasped were melting within the stone.

There was no horror in the quick young men, no named or nameless horror. And in this lay the girl’s own dread. In this, to Steffi, lay their greatest unnaturalness: that they spoke of the unnatural, and acted unnaturally, as though it were all so natural. For in this they became alien to her own humanness. She did not fear their depravities, she could protect herself against those; but against a lack of humanness she had no defense. It was something beyond her feeling and understanding, and when she sensed such a lack she feared the man as she would fear a monster.

-Nelson Algren, “Never Come Morning”, Four Walls Eight Windows 1987, pp. 216-217

Steffi R., downtrodden female protagonist of Nelson Algren’s 2nd Novel, Never Come Morning, names for Algren the forced and then repressed break between the human and the inhuman in American manhood first, and through its effects the rest of American life. She sees and recoils, consciously and in dream, from the cycle of public morality and practice that pits a man against himself in the public space, so that all frustration with privation and the constant need to competitively fend it off is mislaid and addressed instead to the construct of vice. Steffi is a new whore who discovers that there is no bottom to the limits of depravity of men, nor any hindrance to the natural stride it will be taken in. Like the do-right daddies in New Orleans described in Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, rich captains of political office and public decency and the common schlemiels like those moving in and out of the house Steffi R. works in alike need the ban on vice in order to violate it. Rich or poor, no one finds pleasure except in the construct of vice, violation of imagined rules, committing of “sins”. In the end no one finds pleasure at all, for it’s back to work for the working stiff in the morning to recoup the losses and gain ground. It’s back into the straitjacket of keeping up appearances for the moneyed gentry.

Sin and want are the twin dynamos of society, and Algren was able to voice this by giving us the human, circuitously reflective inner lives of the irredeemable poor. Sin and want demand more of the same. To sin, you must have lines to transgress. You must have full prisons of subjects to scapegoat, subjects who want, unreflectingly, what the city fathers appear to have and want never to sit behind bars again. People who will come out of those prisons and, in their hunger, make real the divide. People with nothing to lose and not enough sense to not use violence to take what they want, people who will necessitate the cycle.

And it continues so today, playing out in the bizarre case of the senator from Idaho. Publicly you must decry that which you take most pleasure in privately. The problem here being that, as Algren’s friend Vonnegut said, you become what you pretend to be. You really do lose your job if you’re caught trespassing against made-up convictions.

Does anyone remember the scandal that broke out momentarily over the fake reporter planted in the president’s press conferences, the fellow under an assumed name who could also be found online featured in pornography that violated the avowed party line on a certain form of sexual deviance?

If we had Algren with us today, such a load of grist we’d have for his mill, what?

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2 thoughts on “Steffi Rostenkowski Names the Devil”

  1. i’d say control of resources is what drives society. directly derived from the drive to procreate is the drive to provide resources for onesself and family. no resources threatens survival. agriculture rises from a drve to make resource acquisition and maintenance predictable and enforcable. from there we devise the notion of property and ownership to protect what we have cultivated. from there comes the modern social compact: that laws and codes must be enacted to make ownership (or non-) reinforcable.

    even pre-agricultural societies are ultimately organised by the principle of shared resources offering more of us a opportunity to survive. by combing efforts, resources can distributed among small groups and increase the prospects of survival of the members of those groups.

    want as a concept would fit into the resource paradigm, but sin…sin can only exist once society is mature and the laws, codes, and mores are established. sin can be a secondary drive, but not primary.

  2. I suppose I wasn’t being clear. Once the whole basic resource thing has been accounted for, set in motion, reified and made invisible to the people who live their lives in pursuit of continued survival, there must come a point when these don’t have to be the only things that people guide themselves by. It’s the continued urge to obfuscate and confuse needs and wants embodied in the men that Steffi sees that is the “devil” of modernity, the failing point of people who should be able to learn to know better.

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