One Word: Bonkers


One Word

photo courtesy Harry Dodge


1. I want now to investigate bonkers (a word that strikes me as germane to our times), but the word busted (also a fine word) keeps popping into my head. Not at all interchangeable, busted suggests mechanicity and palpability while bonkers seems to indicate something mental and systemic. But they inhabit the same register; both words are punchy (is that a register or a tone?) and both words suggest mitigatability—they’re carrying little hope suitcases. Do you feel that? I wrote the word busted the other day to describe birds I saw in a book of photographs, impossibly bent-up birds captured during liftoff, during landing—weird contorted flight surfaces, tangled wings like flat hands, ruddering volte-face, cartoony dustups apparently necessary to occasion real-life avian landings. I like the word busted—not shattered, not completely demolished. BUSTED!, as in currently unusable: an ugly leg thrown out of the tub too wounded even to soak. But you know what? I’m a repairman. I’m a research assistant! Give me what is busted and I’ll take a look. Here. See how in the break or the torn area, let’s call it the rupture, something truly bent or baffling is sometimes lined with an undeniably fecund matrix, raw lamina where new stuff is now compelled to grow?

2. The word bonkers entered the dictionary in 1945, accompanied by other newly minted words, such as: A-bomb, allomorph, antibias, blip, chugalug, extraliterary, fissionable, gadzookery, honcho, koan, Medal of Freedom, mom-and-pop, radiomimetic, squawk box, superorgasm, unfazed, up-front, whing-ding, and zingy. I know, what a year, right? What a year for crazy words. (That last sentence is absolutely a viable segue to poetics.) Poetics is a word I tend to use as synonymous with anything unquantifiable: objects (things, ideas) that defy translation or any kind of re-rendering. Unquantifiable bosh=poetics: a license to glittering specificity, something uncategorizable that nonetheless exists. The poetics of bonkers is a tautology. Bonkers is berserk but in weirdly large hunks, big pixels. Bonkers is video noise like hail. Bonkers sounds British. Bonkers is a word used wholly positively only in the context of discussing art. Bonkers has amplitude, gleam—it is not like a puddle, it is not evidentiary of despair, but its use rather indicates (bravado through grim humor?) a reserve of defiance (think: the mouse flipping off the swooping homicidal eagle in the seventies cartoon). As it turns out, bonkers is a refusal of despair! When something is “bonkers” it is unacceptable but somehow not lethal to l’esprit de corps and thus connotes afterness: life on the other side. An online news-rag the other day published the headline, “Five of the Most BONKERS Arguments from the White House.” Or, maybe it was, “Bonkers White House Post-Impeachment Speech Explained.” (I’m doing this from memory, believe it or not.) These rotten logics distend our psyches with an unwelcome pandemonium and now our heads seem strained, about to pop! We’re trying to track it all, we’re making notes! (“we” as in hobbyist political scientists), which distracts from the gathering and crashing wave of criminality and corruption. (Tyranny is built on a manipulation of the fear of uncertainty, aka fear of death.) Bonkers is outside, as a rule or at least frequently; which is to say that when the word bonkers shows up on the tip of your tongue, from the literary alluvium, chances are you’re referring to the “not-me.” Something quixotic and vertiginous—and also vaguely humorous—taking place outside your skin. When you say bonkers you’re pointing your finger.

3. In conceiving his philosophically minded taxonomy of games Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois coined several terms, including alea, which appertains to games of chance; agon, relevant to games of skill; and ilinx, which, in Caillois’s cosmology of play, refers to a state of transport: pure vertigo and its related ecstasies. Caillois does not define ilinx as an apex state of disarray but—rather simply—happening lostness, a temporary disintegration of perception. He writes that games based on the pursuit of vertigo, such as roller coasters, whirling and spinning games, inebriation, et cetera, generate from a common human urge to seek disorientation for its own sake. Players (and who’s not?) attempt to “momentarily destroy the stability of perception” in order to “inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind.” As I see it, and building off Caillois, the pleasure here lies not only in the fleeting (but thorough) deliverance from a perhaps lusterless chronicity but also in the erotics of “wow-this-is-totally-crazy-but-I-got-this”—which is to say: challenge followed by triumph. (Here, stolidly, I’ll interrupt myself in order to point out that I’ve had three people read this brief discursion and exactly none of them agreed that the pleasure of self-induced vertigo is always and necessarily wrapped in the pleasure of finally righting the ship. This series of responses taken en bloc suggests that the strong correlation is peculiar to me alone.) Caillois’s term ludus denotes the primitive desire to gather one’s organismic resources in order to settle problems sought for just such a purpose: the joy of solving them. (Though this relationship, ilinx to ludus, seems at first glance to be inversely proportionate, it is infinitely, open-endedly lush.) By setting obstacles into motion, we (gentle bedlamites) create opportunities to deploy the full or partial set of (too often occulted) skills we already possess (or immediately develop or suddenly expose). The practice of wrestling chaos into order is a kind of amusement: the pleasure of the gusty puzzle (my term)—because according to Caillois, not just any puzzle qualifies as ilinx (though this seems to me debatable), just the most conceptually or physically turbulent of them. (Video game developers have, by virtue of a surge in resolution, recently developed better ways of producing an experience of vertigo by generating the sensation of high-speed movement—often enhanced by creative effects that are called, um, speed haze. The Millennium Falcon’s hyperspace is an old version of this.) Ilinx is bonkers come indoors: inoculation, familiarization, a way to safely entertain chaos.

4. Bonkers is a mad answer, too—obliquus interruptus: a clown honking a horn riding a unicycle that caroms through a standoff between protesters and cops (makes laughter happen), or you abruptly put on a wig while hotly debating curfew with your adolescent son. As action or objection, bonkers (different again and suggested here suffused with a mote of gravitas) might be deployed oppositionally—shock and awe response to madness all around. (Or emotional pain.) A battering ram of surreality hauled out for a critical self-defense; you’re busted, say: Crazy? Meet crazy. Bonkers is meritorious every now and then, when it answers obliquely those questions asked with hammers, with nails.

5. I appreciated today that I thrill to a challenge (shocker); if I stay in the ring I get to flex (my son says, Weird flex, bro). Thrill is the wrong word. I thought just now, “Bonkers Life.” And for a split second, I was [sad-face emoji] that I have FORM and FLOW tattooed on my fingers instead of BONKERS LIFE tattooed over my knuckles, thumb, palm, and fingernails.


Harry Dodge is the author, most recently, of My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing.