By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

The Monster Discloses Himself

On the allurements of conspiracy theory.

Phil Christman

THR illustration; Shutterstock photos.

It’s all wrong. The wrongness is pervasive; you could not, if asked, identify the it or the its that went wrong. Wrongness leaches into everything, like the microplastics you read about, which may or may not be reducing sperm count in men, which may or may not be good, in the long run—it’s something to do with the environment. Someone wanted you to feel one way or the other about it, but you can’t remember who or why or whether you agreed with him. Everyone speaks so authoritatively, whether it’s on the evening news or a podcast, in an Internet video or a book, or even in one of those Twitter threads that begins (irksomely, you once felt, but now you don’t notice) with the little picture of a spool. Authority makes them all sound the same; it crosses all their faces and leaves many of the same furrows. Only afterward, trying to add it all up, do you half-remember that none of them agreed with each other. But the wrongness you can be sure of. It is like God, undergirding all things.

One day, you stumble across something—a long video, an article, a conversation (How rare those are! You must make more time for them…) with a learned friend. The same self-righteousness of authority crosses his face, the tinniness of certainty issued from his mouth too, but this time what he says sticks. It seems to explain the wrongness. Or not even explain it, really—just make it stand still. It was this thing that was wrong. The monster disclosed himself. He was something small and definable—a vaccine, a chemical—that spreads until it can’t be isolated, or he was something large and indefinable—“wokeness,” “CRT”—that terminates in many small, sharp wrongnesses. Or maybe it was the second sort of thing, but epitomized in a single image, so that it sounds like the first: The Cathedral. The cabal. But for a second, you could see the wrongness. How clarifying, simply to see it. You felt something like desire.

As you read on, as you watch more videos, as you continue to talk with your learned friend, you experience, for perhaps the first time in your life, the joy of scholarship. What was school, anyway? A punishment for being awake, a reminder that for every minute of playground, life will exact an hour of sitting still in a hot room that stinks of others’ lunches digesting. How can one doubt the existence of malign conspiracies in a world that answers the miraculous sharpening of adolescent senses with the sense-insulting colors, shapes, smells, of school? School never gave you this feeling, the feeling that “there is a world inside the world,” as Don DeLillo writes in Libra (1988), his great novel of the John F. Kennedy assassination. You start to become, as DeLillo depicts Oswald becoming, a sort of secular monk:

He spent serious time at the library. First he used the branch across the street from Warren Easton High School. It was a two-story building with a library for the blind downstairs, the regular room above. He sat cross-legged on the floor scanning titles for hours. He wanted books more advanced than the school texts, books that put him at a distance from his classmates, closed the world around him. They had their civics and home economics. He wanted subjects and ideas of historic scope, ideas that touched his life, his true life, the whirl of time inside him. He’d read pamphlets, he’d seen photographs in Life. Men in caps and worn jackets. Thick-bodied women with scarves on their heads. People of Russia, the other world, the secret that covers one-sixth of the land surface of the earth.11xDon DeLillo, Libra (New York, NY: Viking, 1988), 13.

You read like Oswald, obsessively. You marshal for yourself the rough narrative of history that education should already have given you. You become that precious and imperiled thing, an autodidact.

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