Towards the end of the 1960s, Luke Rhinehart was practicing psychoanalysis in New York, and was sick and tired of it. He lived in a nice apartment, with windows facing his neighbours, through which everyone had nice views of each other. He did yoga, read books on Zen Buddhism, and toyed with the idea of joining a hippie commune, but didn’t dare. Failing that, he wore bell-bottoms and a beard, which made him look less like a depressed bourgeois than an out-of-work actor. As a therapist, he was resolutely nondirective. If an obese, virginal and compulsively sadistic patient told him whilst on the couch that he’d like to rape and murder a little girl, his professional ethics compelled him to repeat in a calm voice, ‘You’d like to rape and murder a little girl?’ An elusive question mark disappearing into ellipses. Long silence. The absence of judgement. But, in reality, how he really wanted to reply was: ‘Go on, then! If what really turns you on is to rape and murder a little girl, stop boring me with your fantasy: do it!’ He held himself back, obviously, from saying such terrible things, but they obsessed him more and more. Like everyone else, he forbade himself from living out his fantasies even though they were more or less harmless – not the sort of thing that got you sent to prison, like his sadistic patient would be if he ever let himself go. What he would have liked, for example, was to sleep with Arlene, his colleague Jake Epstein’s wife with the sumptuous breasts, who lived on the same floor in his apartment building. He had the feeling she wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but as a faithful, married man, a responsible adult, he left the thought to bubble away in the backwater of his daydreams.
So his life passed, calm and dull, until the day when, after a particularly boozy evening, Luke spotted a die, a boring old die for playing games, lying on the carpet and suddenly the idea came to him to roll it, and to do what it told him to. ‘If it lands on a number between two and six, I’ll do what I would have done anyway: take the dirty glasses to the kitchen, brush my teeth, take a double aspirin so I’m not too hungover in the morning, go to bed next to my sleeping wife and maybe knock one out, furtively, thinking of Arlene. On the other hand, if I throw a one, I’ll do what I really want to do: I’ll cross the hallway, knock on the door of Arlene’s apartment, behind which I know she’s home alone, and sleep with her.’
The die lands on one.
Luke hesitates, feeling vaguely like he’s on the brink of something: if he crosses over, his life may change dramatically. But it’s not his decision; it’s up to the die. And so he obeys. Arlene, who opens the door to him in a transparent nightie, is surprised, but not completely put out. When Luke gets home after two very agreeable hours, he’s aware of having well and truly changed. It’s not a massive change, but it’s more than happens during psychotherapy – as he is well paid to know. He has done something that the normal Luke would never do. A more audacious, more expansive, less limited Luke breaks through the cautious and conformist Luke, and perhaps other Lukes whose existence he had never suspected are waiting behind the door the die might well open for them.
In every circumstance that life presents now, Luke consults the die and, since it has six sides, gives it six options to choose from. The first is to do as he has always done. The other five are more or less departures from routine. Let’s say that Luke and his wife are planning on going to the cinema. The new Antonioni film, Blow-Up, has just come out, and that’s exactly the sort of thing a couple of New York intellectuals like them have to see. But they could also see something even more intellectual, an even more boring Hungarian or Czech thing. Or, in the opposite direction, they could see a big generic Hollywood film that a priori they despise completely, or a porno film in a cinema on the Bowery full of tramps, where people like them would never normally set foot. Once under the spell of the die, the most banal decisions, such as which film to see, restaurant to go to, or dish to order, open up if one takes notice of the vast range of possibilities and opportunities to break with routine. Luke, at the start, takes things slowly. He chooses safe options, not too far removed from his typical choices. Little sidesteps, which spice up life without completely turning it on its head, like swapping sides in the bed or trying new sexual positions during intercourse with his wife. But soon his options become more audacious. He begins to see everything he’s never done before as a challenge to be taken up.
Going to the kind of place he would never normally go, entering into relationships with people he would normally have nothing to do with. Attempting to seduce a woman whose name he found at random in the phonebook. Borrowing ten dollars from a total stranger. Giving ten dollars to a total stranger. Venturing into a gay bar, getting chatted up, doing a little flirting himself, and – why not? despite being totally straight – going to bed with a man. With his patients, being direct, impatient, despotic.To someone with low self-esteem, who thought of himself as worthless, exclaiming suddenly: ‘And what if the truth is that you actually are a piece of shit?’ To the failed writer: ‘Instead of slaving away on your shitty book, why not go to the Congo and join a revolutionary movement? Why bother looking back over your shoulder? Sex, hunger, danger?’ And to the extreme introvert: ‘Why not have it off with my secretary? She’s ugly but she’s up for it. On your way out of my office, make a move, jump her bones, the worst she’ll do is give you a slap – what do you have to lose?’ He pushes his patients to abandon their families or their jobs, to change political or sexual orientation. The results are disastrous and his reputation suffers, but he couldn’t care less. What turns him on, right at this moment, is to do the exact opposite of what he would normally do: salting his coffee, jogging in a tuxedo, going to his office in shorts, pissing in flower pots, walking backwards, sleeping under the bed instead of on it… His wife thinks he’s weird, obviously, but he says he’s conducting a psychological experiment, and she lets herself be convinced. Until the day he gets the idea to initiate the children.
Oh yes, he knows very well that it’s dangerous, very dangerous, but it’s a fact that all conceivable options, even the terrifying ones, must eventually be submitted to the die and, sooner or later, come to pass. And so, one weekend, when their mother is away, Luke has his little boy and girl play a seemingly innocent game: they write down on a piece of paper six things that they would like to do, and let the die choose one of them. At the start, everything goes nicely (it always goes nicely at the start); they eat ice cream and they go to the zoo, but then the boy gets his courage up and says that what he’d like to do is smash in the face of a friend at school who annoyed him. ‘OK,’ says Luke, ‘write it down,’ and that’s what ends up being rolled. The boy expects that his dad, with his back to the wall, won’t follow through, but no, Dad says, ‘Go for it.’ The boy goes to find his classmate, punches him in the face, comes home, and, eyes glowing, asks, ‘Where’s the die?’
This makes Luke stop to think: if his son adapted so easily to this way of being, it’s probably because he hasn’t yet been completely alienated by the absurd assumption of parents, and society in general, that it’s good for children to develop a coherent personality. What if, for a change, we raised them otherwise, valuing contradiction and perpetual change? Lie all you want, little darlings, be disobedient and unreliable, stop this pernicious habit of brushing your teeth before bed. We tell ourselves that children need order and points of reference – what if the opposite is true? Luke seriously considers making his son into the first man entirely subject to chance and, in so doing, releasing him from the tedious tyranny of the ego: a child according to Laozi’s philosophy.
At that point, the mother comes home, discovers what has happened while she was away, and, not finding it the least bit funny, leaves Luke, taking the children with her.
There’s our hero relieved of his family. It saddens him, because he loves them, but the die is a master as demanding as Jesus Christ: he too asks us to give everything away in order to follow him.
ERRATUM: On page 67 of the White Review No. 14 the last line, beginning ‘When I got this email… ‘, should appear at the top of page 70 (after the email to which it refers). We apologise for any confusion, and to the author and translator of the piece.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Will Heyward is a book editor in New York. He has written for The Millions, Music & Literature, BOMB Magazine, VICE, Stonecutter, The Australian, and other publications.