Inside the Iron Cage

“No one knows who will live in this [iron] cage in the future….”
– Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

I would prefer not to relay the following very strange story given to me by a fellow sociologist, but he had done me a number of favors, and since he asked me to do him a favor in return, I feel obligated.  I don’t know what to make of the whole thing.  Following this brief introduction, you will find the manuscript he handed me. I realize you are getting this third hand, but there’s nothing I can do about that.  I don’t know his friend.  When he asked me to print it for him, I told him I would prefer not to, but then guilt got the best of me, so here it is.

This is one of those stories hard to believe.  When I first heard it, I thought it was a joke, some sort of parable, and my friend who was telling it to me had had too much to drink or was just pulling my leg.  I’m not sure.  Like so much in today’s world, the difference between fiction and fact has become very blurry.

Let me call him Sean, since these days holding a strong dissenting opinion can cost you your job.  He is a professor who, like the character David in John Fowles’ story, “The Ebony Tower,” teaches art history.  And like Fowles’ character he is a very frustrated academic.  In Sean’s case, he has had to contend with the transformation of his college from a place of learning to a place where “Woke” ideology stifles dissent.  Perhaps more importantly, he has suffered from extreme writer’s block.  He had just been telling me how, after years of writing copiously in his private journals, he had grown nauseated by it because it seemed so self-involved, concerning self and family stuff he was sick of.  He wanted to write articles and books, yet when he tried, he couldn’t.  All his energy had been going into his futile daily journals, where he felt trapped by family matters.  Until one recent day at the bar where we regularly meet, he heard this strange story.  It jolted him.

Here is what he told me over beer at the tavern.  I am paraphrasing, but because his tale was so startling, I know I have the essentials right.  He said:

“It was late in the afternoon last Wednesday when I came in here for a beer.  I was feeling very tired that day, though depressed would be more accurate.  The teaching routine seemed absurd to me.  I wasn’t writing.  I felt at a dead end.  I guess I was.  Anyway, you know that guy Tom whom we’ve talked to here before?  Well, he was here and we got talking.  The place was empty.  It turns out his last name is Finn – Tom Finn.  His father was Russell Finn, the famous painter, you know, the one the mainstream media gush over.  A realistic sentimentalist is the way I’ve heard him described, although I would say he was a sick fabulist trying to repaint history for Hallmark Cards.  Anyway, so this Tom Finn had had a few beers, and as he got talking, the both of us had a few more.  It became obvious that he was obsessed with his father.  He didn’t say that exactly, but I could guess it from the snide remarks about him he’d laugh out of the side of his mouth.  I asked him about a big traveling exhibit of his father’s paintings which I had recently read about in the newspapers; had he seen it?  ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t go to that kind of crap.  That’s his bag of marbles.’  Things like that.

“It turns out the son is also a painter, but he said nothing about his own work, just that he painted.  He talked all about his father’s work, how his father stole ideas, wasn’t very good, etc.  I told him I agreed that his father’s work was overhyped and mediocre, but that my experience studying art taught me that was true for every era.  I was trying to be nice, something I tend to overdo.  I got the impression he turned to painting by default, it being some kind of knee-jerk reaction to his father, some kind of Oedipal contest.

“It turns out his real obsession is toys, no shit, and he got very animated as he talked about them.  He wanted me to come over to his house to see his vast toy collection.  The invitation was so weird, and with the beer’s effects, I couldn’t refuse.  It was nearly dinner time, so I called Sara and told her I’d be late.  I was actually interested in what made him tick.  I mean, why would a grown man – I’d say he is in his mid-forties – collect fucking toys?  And weirder still, he said his specialty was tiny plastic figures of all sorts.  Of these he had more than 25,000 – for some reason he emphasized that number – that he’d periodically put on display at local libraries.

“So I followed him over to his house which is on that street adjoining the university where a number of art history professors live.  Oak Terrace, I think it is.  I couldn’t help laughing when I saw all those abstract sculptures decorating their lawns.  It was getting dark and they were spotlighted.  What a juxtaposition – so perfect – so-called realism and cerebral abstraction side-by-side.  And both utter bullshit.  I was reminded of a description of Russell Finn’s paintings that I once read: Cute wallpaper for readers of Reader’s Digest.

“Actually, Finn’s house is quite cute itself.  When we were going in, I had to restrain myself from saying to him, ‘Life’s cute, isn’t it?’  I don’t think he would have appreciated that, although it’s very possible that he wouldn’t have known what the hell I was getting at.  He’s a toy collector after all and what’s cuter than that.

“I’ll tell you this.  I wasn’t prepared for what he showed me.  He took me down to his finished basement, which he called ‘the laboratory.’  When he switched on the lights the room was empty except for the walls.  They were covered with shelves about six inches apart that ran from wall to wall and ceiling to floor.  It gave the large room this incredibly bizarre look as though it were a prison cell.  There were even spotlights that illuminated the shelves, upon which, right along the outer edges looking out, he had lined up his collection of little figures.  As we stood in the middle of the room, it was as though thousands of little people were staring at us, the giants. I felt as though I was hallucinating. Finn just chuckled when I said, ‘Pretty fucking amazing!”  Then he said, ‘I like the perspective, don’t you?’   I knew he didn’t expect an answer and I could only chuckle in response, even as I felt a chill on the back of my neck.  It was so eerie that I had to contain a shudder.  For a brief moment I had the feeling that the door we had entered was going to shut and be bolted and that something terrifying was about to unfold.

“But at that moment he gestured to me to follow him to another door, over which a sign read, ‘The Family Fun Room.’  ‘This is my favorite,’ he said with a smile.

“In the middle of this pink painted room there was a cage that extended from floor to ceiling, and in the cage, sitting on stools, were two life-sized and very realistic figures of a man and a woman.  They were both dressed in those black and white stripped prison uniforms you’ve seen in old movies.  The woman was facing away from the man.  I couldn’t tell who the woman was, but I immediately recognized the man.  It was Finn’s father, down to the most realistic detail.  He was holding a small toy figurine and was looking into its face.  The door to the cell was padlocked shut.  ‘That’s to make sure they can’t escape,’ Finn said with a straight face.  ‘Now that I got them where I want them, I can’t take any chances.  They’re dangerous and can cause me a lot of grief.’

“He then closed the door and we went upstairs.  Neither of us said a word.  He offered me a beer, but I declined.  I felt spooked, some dreadful feeling in my gut.  I told him I had to be leaving, which I did.  On the way out I noticed a framed photograph in the foyer.  It was a picture of Finn at about the age of nine or ten with his parents and sister.  They are sitting together on a couch, the two kids caught between the parents.  No one is smiling.  Behind them on the wall is the father’s famous painting of a family of four sitting on a couch.  In that one, everyone is smiling and the father in the painting is Finn’s father.  As you probably know, that was one of his father’s favorite techniques – to put himself in his paintings.  Such a cute double-message: I did it, of course, but how could I have done it when I’m in it.  You’re left wondering: who really did it?  Who executed the painting of these happy people. But since it’s all supposed to be so amusing, you’re left to chuckle, to think, how cute, how tricky.  You’re supposed to smile.  But no one was smiling in the picture on the wall.  It seemed like a house of smoke and mirrors and I was damn glad to leave.

“As I drove home, I sure as hell wasn’t smiling.  There was something terribly disturbing about it all.  I felt nauseated, disgusted, really disturbed.  Maybe it seems obvious, but I felt there was a connection between this weird experience and myself.  A double connection, actually.  I won’t go into all the details now, and you know about my writer’s block, but this bizarre experience has left me with a new sense of freedom, some kind of opening to a new way to write that at the time I couldn’t put my finger on.  I’ve come to think of it as writing beyond a cage of categories.

“I thought about all the stuff we talk about, the political propaganda about everything, the loss of a sense of reality, the illusions and delusions with the digital technology, the warmongering by the U.S against Russian, the covid bullshit, all of it, all the stuff we share over beers.  Especially the disconnect between the private and the public and the two-faced nature of a way of living that is so fucking phony.  I realized why I had been hiding in my notebooks, how they had become my cage.

“To top it all off, when I got home and told Sara about my experiences with Tom Finn, the cage and all, she didn’t believe me.  She accused me of having drunk too much, which I had to admit I did.  She said I was scaring her with such a ridiculous tale and that I was sounding like a deluded conspiracy nut.

“Anyway, I’ve told no one else about Finn.  I’m afraid they wouldn’t believe me either.   You’re a sociologist and know all about Max Weber’s prediction of a coming disenchanted world with its iron cage.  Shit, I feel like I had a small glimpse of it.  Do you think anyone would believe me if I told this story?

“Do you?”

8 thoughts on “Inside the Iron Cage”

  1. I’m glad you shared that Ed. It strikes me as one extreme end-point in what is a more common phenomenon I think, than many of us would imagine. Men in that “40’s” age range “collecting toys” that encompass everything from Legos constructions, to Star Wars spacecraft and “personalities,” too toy “transformers,” and the like. A sort of adult clinging to the fantasy world of childhood where the distinctions between “good vs evil” were more clear, secure, more identifiable. It seems many are lost in not so much a “delayed adolescence,” as a societal netherworld in which transitioning to “manhood” is impossible, because we now live in a world in which it is controversial and “cancelable” and even an “termination-worthy” offense in the job setting to even publicly state that one believes biological sex “exists” and might be a meaningful marker of our shared “material reality.”

    I think of the post-9/11 world as involving an ever more rapidly unfolding “controlled-demolition” of “reality” itself, that is the destruction of any sense of the existence of what we might think of as even an objective “material reality” that might be open to “interpretation.” It has become ever more meaningless in MSM and mass culture to discriminate and differentiate between “events” that occur in the actual physical world we all inhabit, as opposed to events (or interpretations of events) simply being “manufactured” at Langley or the Rand Corporation, and disseminated to MSM to be mass broadcast for consumption.

    I just got home from a visit with older family members in Michigan all in their late 80’s and early 90’s who with appropriate conviction explained to me that I should go get the Pfizer vaccine, and that Putin is literally a new “Hitler” attempting to conquer all of Europe and, wait for it, that “Fauci is the greatest scientist in America!” This is how tethered one becomes to “material reality” when one listens multiple times per day to NPR, and watches PBS, MSNBC, and the like.

    As I double back to the story you shared Ed, I find myself wondering if the man with 25,000 toy figurines is “any more” deluded and out of touch with “material reality” than the vast majority of Americans who’s “hobby” consists of listening to daily “news” broadcast which create the dream-world cocoon they live within – completely oblivious to the fact that another world even exists, a world of “material-reality” that is actually tethered to the physical world we all share. The “controlled-demolition” of that world seems complete and total at this point. “Reality” as I understand it – has been reduced to a pile of smoking rubble, twisted metal and the stench of dead bodies no one will ever find a reason to bother to identify.

    “Wait! Wait! Look! Up in the sky! Is that a balloon?!” – Yeah, my older relatives were all sure the Chinese were attacking us with weather balloons even as we spoke. My heart breaks as I attempt to take in and absorb this complete madness.

    Thanks for sharing that one Ed.

  2. Almost didn’t read this given the bolded introduction, I thought why bother.

    But I thought again, and found it all a bit of an allegory, with a sense of Borges and his many precursors, including Edgar Allan Poe. Nice piece of writing Ed.

    To repeat it, one would must simply be a “deluded conspiracy nut”.

  3. Had to return with Vonnegutian Spirits, since reading your article Icame across Finn as a dog belonging to David Brooks friend Peter Marks and more so in an address ck for the author of PACKING INFERNO(Jesuit /Jarhead) author, Tyler Boudreau. It’s in the Air:)

  4. Alienation and the Substance of Faith

    Anyone talking with Massachusetts K-12 teachers knows and lives this in sense their experience, too, now: beyond words.

    Weber also made explicit in social science research methods essays how ideologies, and partisan narratives, and so on and so forth: have no place in any education environment; now, this filth rules in them, not everywhere, totally. . . but is growing.

    University of Massachusetts Amherst, a generation or more ago, became infiltrated by the spook-element, it seem to me. And all that this implies.

    And now the town, waving Ukraine Flag over town hall. . . . “suffers” from fragmentation Nietzsche describe when he stated: “I have forgotten why I even began.”

    IDK if this is a tale or authentic experience based on concrete reality. Main thing making me suggest it could be tale, is artists are trained to be so open minded that what was described would not really seem to be all that horrifying to this man.

    Ongoing struggle to perceive reality in face of current circumstances perhaps is getting more and more difficult, given fact operation-corono-411-911 had as its signal goal to make it socially unacceptable for anyone to challenge government perfidy viz all things cov-id. Operation-911, similar function . . . most crudely expressed by “you’re either with us or against us.” A generation later. . . of being beaten down with, as Edward calls them, houses of mirrors and deceptions. . . among other things.

    Perhaps if this man’s wife had acted interested instead of judgmental, there would have been no need for him to share this tale, or this actual experience. . . .and that is the moral of the story: making it socially unacceptable for us to communicate with our nearest and dearest?

    In this setting/environment, of catastrophe, Katherine Ann Porter talks about the arts as true reality for human beings.

    “For myself, and I was not alone, all the conscious and recollected years of my life have been lived to this day under the heavy threat of world catastrophe, and most of the energies of my mind and spirit have been spent in the effort to grasp the meaning of those threats, to trace them to their sources and to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world.

    “In the face of such shape and weight of present misfortune, the voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass; but the arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilizations that produced them.

    “They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away. And even the smallest and most incomplete offering at this time can be a proud act in defense of that faith.”

    June 21, 1940

    Instead of LeaderShip at institutions, including educational — and especially those, we have Ship of Fools.

    What this man describe/felt — from seeing his friend’s basement: is how most teachers in this state feel all day every day. . . .Save for the children they’re trying to teach, they are being abused, tortured mentally and spiritually. . . .by “leadership.”

  5. “coming disenchanted world with its iron cage.” Coming? It’s HERE! And getting worse daily. But so it goes in the final stages of a civilization’s collapse.

    Edward, you are an amazing writer. Thank you for you work!

    Side note: timely piece for me in another sense as I know someone who it seems to me overprocesses their life in constant journal writing – and it doesn’t seem to be helping.

  6. What one has been doing feels meaningless and most likely is very meaningless…the unfamiliar is frightening…everything feels insane….the unpredictability of various events intensifies the feeling of being insane…all supported by the ‘life’ (non-life) we have accepted !
    Drinking alcohol is not helpful…the process of introspection must begin or become for frequent. Get the hell away from academia !

Comments are closed.