Je T’aime, Je T’aime (film still), directed by Alain Resnais, Mag Bodard / Film Desk and Bleeding Light Film Group, 1968.
Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross: Napping Against Capitalism
Presented as part of The Pandemic is a Portal
Things used to be simple. Before, before any of this happened, we used to doze off sweetly in little piles all over at lunch hour, and think, half-dreaming, “There’s a clogged drain over there, at the far end of the pond, and the moment someone gets around to unclogging it, I haven’t the slightest idea how I’ll make ends meet!”
We were resolved, at least, in our collective response to uncertainty.
“It must be lonely over there at the far end of the pond,” we thought glibly, upon waking. “It must be very cold…” We sipped dryly from the water glasses left over on our desks from the day before, the floating lint and mischievous hairs collecting around the corners of our mouths.
We tried to ready ourselves for the inevitable by picturing ourselves being sucked towards the dirty base of the drain, submitting to the downward current. We tried to picture ourselves swirling around inside the pipes, slowing our breathing like the daredevil Houdini in order to conserve our energy for what may just prove an impossible escape. (Each time, our imaginings were more heroic and farfetched than the last: we always escaped just in time.)
In those days, we went to sleep without anyone telling us to. We fell asleep instantly out of genuine exhaustion from the sheer force of a day, from all those things both in and out of our control. We went to sleep without the idea of protest.
They gather us together around a circle of pillows. Tell us to lie down on our stomachs and picture the future flush with alternatives. Around us: melted-down credit cards poured into the moulds of equity-sharing divinities; half-eaten bowls of rice sprinkled with the ashes of colonial fifty-dollar bills; power suits torn to rags and used to mop up the messes of our weeping.
We originally came here, most of us, because we either had time but no jobs and were hungry, or had jobs but no time and were unhappy. All of us, disillusioned. All of us, following a recent break with belief. Though unpaid like all the others, this internship at least presented a different kind of opportunity. A chance to join a cause. To be part of something bigger.
A man in blue coveralls raises his hand and asks whether we’ll still have weekends where we’re going.
“Shhhhh!” the collective hisses.
“But will we still be paid time-and-a-half for holidays?” he wants to know.
There will be no need to distinguish between weekdays and weekends, the glowing drain at the bottom of the pond replies. We let out a sigh of relief, returning our cheeks diligently to the imprints in our pillows.
In my ideal world, my bed is full of magazines and my head is full of sleep. I want nothing more than to spend week after week in the comfort of my sheets; to sleep deeply and without disturbance; to grow up on the education of dreams.
But now my mother is calling me, my father banging on the wall. Now, a child is crying. Now a child is needing to be fed.
I rummage around inside the cavity of my dreaming brain for crackers or a milk bottle as the crying gets louder and louder and the cavity fills up with garbage.
I visualize the kinds of people that other people told me I could be when I grew up — all of them are in uniform. Light blue scrubs or dark blue polo shirts, pointy sailors’ hats and hair nets, coveralls with pockets and loops… Pyjama-like, but not quite pyjamas.
As usual, I don the uniform that is clean and pays the most. Then I run for the bus and miss it.
The leaders encourage us, in our off-time, to continue the cause. So all night long we build maze-like barricades in the street, obstructing the evening flow of consumers to restaurants, theatres, nightclubs, and airports with the heaps of our tidily rolled sleeping bags, cushioning charging vehicles and obscuring their sense of direction. Taxi drivers look confused as they are sent bouncing back in the direction from which they came. They’ve already been driving for days, and now this. Will they still be paid for the trip?
We gather up our sleeping bags and hurry back to the pond in our striped satin uniforms and slippers in the early hours of the morning, excited about the progress we have made but increasingly unsure about whose side we are on. The shift-worker? The sleeper? The activist? The capitalist?
The clogged drain shudders but does not let up.
The water in the pond is the colour of bird shit: green with streaks of white, or white with streaks of green, and when I think of all the things that could be trapped in it, my head screams with fear.
Ming wants to take drugs and dive to the bottom of the pond to investigate, but I’m frightened and quite possibly still dreaming so I refuse. Eli is sleeping soundly with the others, and I’m afraid of leaving him behind.
They tell us that the punishment for refusing to sleep from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, is a litre of pond water down the throat. Likewise, if you are found to be donning any other uniform but the satin one you are given. The leaders in our group, it turns out, have already drunk their share of pond water — mostly during their time as CEOs and COOs and CFOs of powerful multinational corporations. We try to ask them what led them to join the revolution, but they are evasive. Instead, they show us the callouses on the insides of their cheeks as a warning, making sure to do this right before bedtime.
“Drink gunk in your dream-life and you’ll never have to drink it in real life,” they tell us confidently. This, they say, is what gives them their edge.
I used to deliver pizzas, first by bike, and then by car. I used to lift elderly people on and off toilet seats, and children on and off slides. I worked for a while in a warehouse putting CDs into CD sleeves, and then at another warehouse putting boxes of shoes on shelves. I worked as a waiter at a karaoke bar, and then just long enough as a dishwasher for a wedding caterer to develop eczema up to my elbows. The last place I worked was at a customer service call centre, answering questions about vitamin supplements. All of them I quit with less zeal than the last.
I used to lie down on the floor beneath my call centre cubicle, curled up on a bed of carpet so tight and grey I developed psychosomatic asthma. When my coworkers would trip over my legs and ask what I was doing, I’d tell them I was taking a quick power nap, and that I would be twice as productive in 20 minutes when I awoke. “Trust me,” I assured them. “The science says—”
Repeat after us:
I’ve been asleep for years, and it is a privilege!
I haven’t the slightest idea how to make ends meet!
I am brought up like a horse, and receive just enough to enable me to work:
Flat black shoes for gripping the earth.
Oatmeal for energy and water for high-functioning organs.
A sliver of sunlight for skin.
A single bed the height of a trough.
An expensive phone with which to call my lover.
An expensive phone with which to call my mother.
A dark, secluded place to shit.
In one recurring dream, I can be found scouring the shelves of some labyrinthine library looking for clues as to the sleep habits of Karl Marx. I want to know about the man’s personal relationship to work and sleep and leisure. I want to get a sense of the consistency of his days.
Did he sleep well, or hardly at all? Did he stay up all day doing his important work, then continue at it diligently into the night? Or did he in fact sleep lazily until noon and rise foggy-headed, writing his treatises in short inspired bursts and only when he felt like it?
Each time, the biographies are so thick, and my own dreamscape so impossibly psychedelic, that I am forced to leave without having found the answers.
They summon us just after 9pm and ask us to gather round the grassy side of the pond. Tonight, the moon is full and bright and is asking to be read to, they tell us.
Samantha goes first, reading from a second-hand textbook on neoliberalism. She reads from a random page in the chapter called “The New Modern Economics” then rips it from the book and throws it into the reeds. “Fuck the gig economy!” she yells shrilly. “Fuck deregulation! Fuck lezee fair! Fuck supply and demand!”
The crowd roars up in whistles and hoots.
Next comes Eva in her robotic tone, reading a long list of dental ailments that pain her but that she cannot afford to fix. “Abscess in 3, 13, 16. Gingivitis on 4, 29, 7, 9. Periodontitis, cracked crown, withering alveolar bone…” Her descriptions rattle across the cold surface of the pond. When she’s done, she rips the list clean in half and sets the two halves floating along the water’s edge. The paper floats, then eventually sinks, while the rest of us stand around solemnly, bowing our heads in reverence.
Marc details the going price for canvas and tubes of oil paint and all the other things preventing him from being an artist. “The only thing left,” he says, “is to make art about the very condition that prevents true art from blossoming. It’s the only remaining relevant thing…” You’re the lucky one among us, some of us think but don’t say. He’s right about the only remaining relevant thing.
When it gets to be my turn, I realize that I have not prepared — I haven’t brought anything to read. I look up at the moon for inspiration, and, luckily for me, the moon growls back.
Only so long as you are working. And you are healthy. And you are normal…
I get down on my hands and knees and claw at the dirt, beginning in a melodramatic whisper and crescendoing into a screech:
“Only so long as I am working — and not unemployed — am I worthy!”
“Only so long as I am healthy — and not sickly — am I sound!”
I throw pond water down my throat and smear my face with mud, just to show myself most desperate and incredulous.
“Only so long as I am normal — and not sleeping, not eating, not loving, not making—”
“Only so long as I am not making a fuss—”
“Only so long as I don’t blame the system, but only blame myself—”
“Only so long as I’m okay with working hard and doing more with less—”
“Only so long as I am not lying at the bottom of the ladder, but not exactly climbing the ladder either—”
I rip off my clothes as the group screams in ecstasy. I dive into the pond and the group follows after me, all of us swishing around ravenously in the twisted reeds. I gather the dirty pond water in my mouth and rise up like a wild yeast, my arms outstretched, before releasing the water slowly over the shelf of my lips, my head swirling with the adrenaline of lifelong betrayal.
I dream that I am running away from the library of failed research on Marx and out into an empty street. Nobody around. It is raining gently, and the wet satin sticks to my thighs. My feet pad limply at the pavement, my slippers becoming ever more waterlogged as I go.
I’m groggy from sleep, but alert on another plane. My fingertips extend in all directions and become the pin-pricked flesh of the city, busy cataloguing its phantom limbs. This public lamp post, this public street sign, this public toilet, this public garbage bin. That private lobby, that private car park, that private elevator, that private topiary hedge. To whom do you belong?
O haunted skyscraper that could house ten thousand but prefers to house no one!
O silver skyline! O vacant public square!
In the city that is clogged with ambition, that is blue with sleep and collared with workers, the sun is rising and it is raining gently.
Lately sleeping has become increasingly tiring. I emerge from my sleep-shift with a bad headache and the limpness of an over-napped body. My stomach sags from the spine, the doughy muscles in my legs having reverse-engineered into those of an infant just learning to walk. We adhere to a strict sleep regimen. Eight hours a day — no more, no less — lest one should become overtired and unable to perform.
“Perform, but in what way?” we ask our leaders, yawning.
“Shhhhh!” the executives reply in unison.
Even sleeping now feels like working! Even napping feels like gig-ing!
Karla points to the new convertible they have parked on the street, cleverly covered up with reeds, and asks them what convertibles have to do with the revolution.
“Shhhhh!” the executives reply once more, this time indignant.
Bobby, increasingly suspicious, decides to press further.
“What is it that you get up to all day anyways, while we’re so busy sleeping?” The clogged drain gurgles, releasing tiny bubbles to the surface. “How do we know, for instance, that you’re really sleeping when we’re sleeping, and that you’re not secretly running a double shift?”
The rest of us voice our support, but the executives remain evasive.
Little by little, unrest brews by the pond.
I awake one night and find myself alone, the others having left me behind for the barricades. Somewhere by my body, a friendly animal is breathing; I find myself drifting pleasantly in and out of sleep with its breath as a metronome.
I dream about the stress of a working day.
I dream about the stress of precarious pay.
I dream that I have been relegated forever to the night shift.
I dream about reading a magazine in bed on a Saturday.
I dream about drinking coffee in convertibles with reclining seats.
I dream about what it would be like to change the world through a series of small but repetitive turns.
I dream about collective action, and organizing, and possibility.
I dream about buying property so that I can lie down on it.
I dream about receiving an unadvertised honorarium at the end of my internship.
I dream about going to bed at exactly the same time as everybody else — what feels like practically an erotic fantasy, these days — until I wake up sweating and even more alone than I began.
There’s a story in these parts about the people who are sleeping. That we sleep all day because we are privileged. That we are anxious and entitled. Oh, and that we are making a moot point. Perhaps all are true. But to our detractors, we ask you this: Would you really prefer to do nothing? Would you really prefer that we take what little we are given and say, “Okay Capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you”?
The revolution may be imperfect, but we remain foolishly committed. We fail, we fall back, we regroup, we adapt. We try again. We will repeat this for as long as the clogged drain holds.
As it so happens, the latest advice is not to take long sleeps at all, but rather to take short naps, and to space them out over the course of the day. One must be careful, it turns out, not to lie down too long.
 Paraphrased from Karl Marx, “Wages of Labour,” The Economic And Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), accessed via marxists.org: “Political Economy regards the proletarian… the same as any horse, [he] must get as much as will enable him to work. It does not consider him when he is not working, as a human being.”
 Inspired by “An American Poem,” by Eileen Myles: “And my art can’t / be supported until it is / gigantic, bigger than / everyone else’s, confirming / the audience’s feeling that they are / alone. That they alone / are good, deserved / to buy the tickets / to see this Art. / Are working, / are healthy, should / survive, and are / normal.” From Not Me (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 13.
 From an interview with George Saunders: “Having felt that abyss, I basically said, ‘O.K., capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you’ ... I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything ... It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonoured ... It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort—and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.” From Joel Lovell, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.
Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross is a writer based in Vancouver, the unceded, ancestral territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh and Səl̓ílwətaɬ peoples. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and art criticism have appeared in BOMB, Mousse, Fence, C Magazine, Kijiji, and elsewhere, and her chapbooks include Mayonnaise (2016) and Drawings on Yellow Paper (2016). She publishes books by emerging artists and writers under the small press Blank Cheque, and is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.
[Image description: A still image from the 1968 French science fiction film Je T’aime, Je T’aime shows a man in a pale blue dress shirt and dark trousers lying on his back, eyes closed. He lies within a mottled, light brown chamber with plush velour surfaces. The environment is enclosed with rolling curves, hinting at the organic shapes of the inner organs of a human body. He is dreaming alone, vulnerable on a yielding, pillowy surface.]
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