Jeffrey Epstein had a collection of eyeballs on his wall. They were originally “made for injured soldiers,” we’re told, which presumably means they were artificial. Each was individually framed and mounted in his entranceway. We’re not told whether any soldiers had the chance to use them first.
The eyeballs make sense, because Epstein was a watcher. He watched the young girls whose lives he shattered. His depravity was of a deeply visual nature. His young victims tended to be thin, athletic, and blonde, white in skin and easily imagined in white tennis outfits. That fits with to our dominant culture’s visual vocabulary of innocence and purity, a vision Epstein methodically defiled, over and over. For no reason, except that’s how he got off.
Epstein’s sexual practices have been described in detail elsewhere, and so won’t be here. But it’s safe to say that he put himself in a passive role. He was more observer than participant, at least at first, forcing the girls to perform for him – in more ways than one – the ritual enactment of their own degradation.
Epstein was a watcher, but he wasn’t the only one.
Epstein was a collector, too. He collected images, with a carefully curated library of CD-ROMs showing the girls in various states of submission to male desire. There were “hundreds, if not thousands” of such images, we are told.
Did other men appear in those pictures? Nobody seems to know. We do know he collected names, but we’re not sure whose. There are reports of notebooks with lists of powerful men and their sexual preferences. Sometimes people spoke of Epstein’s “little black book,” an archaic phrase with overtones of conquest, dominance, and capture. Such books were said to contain the names of a man’s past assignations. Women were pinioned in their like butterflies, preserved in ink and memory with an entomologist’s precision.
(A meaningless coincidence, I know, that paper notebooks are said to be “bound.”)
Nor is this an unusual practice, apparently. Rhonda Garelick writes of an early career experience working for another wealthy man whose “file of women” included not only pertinent information about them (“Lives with mother, have a woman phone her home to avoid suspicion”), but also catalogued the men they knew, as well as the informal agreements between them. (“Mr. X. agrees to do Ms. Y’s boobs.”)
Epstein collected other curios, too, living ones, drawn to his wealth and fame. Some of the scientists and intellectuals around him flattered his ego, engaging in faux-profound conversations that reek of intellectual masturbation. Maybe Epstein got the same thrill from a massage to his ego as he did from the other kind.
The business press gave Epstein its clichéd origin story. He was a plucky guy, we were told, who got ahead by being smarter than the people around him. He was protected by editors who wanted to portray him solely as a “business story,” and by associates eager to praise his “great mind.” Vicky Ward’s piece on that subject is gripping, and important. (It was Ward who first wrote about the eyeballs in his hallway.)
The Washington Post’s Helaine Olen writes that Epstein’s story could become a defining one for our time, like Marie Antoinette play-acting poverty or the antic whisperings of Rasputin in court. It’s an optimistic vision. It presupposes that our civilization will last, and that it will become wise enough to understand the meaning behind Epstein’s story. Neither of those things can be assumed.
We turn our business leaders into heroes. For a while, Jeffrey Epstein was one such hero. The word “hero,” we’re told, comes from the Greek word for “protector” and the Latin word for “safeguarder.” We know Epstein was a safeguarder of secrets. He was a patron and protector to scientists, the secular priests of our times. He was such an extreme protector, in fact, that he procured his own island, with a mysterious cubic temple as an ark to hold his dark mysteries.
Epstein, we’re told, sought the “transhumanist” power to impregnate twenty women in a laboratory. That seems like a bum rap for transhumanism. What he was, mostly, was a creepy businessman on the make. His story was a weird mashup of Horace Greeley-like American boosterism and child pornography, with a touch of sci-fi thrown in for good measure.
Go Westworld, young man.
Yet he died childless, at least as far as we know, having neither conceived nor raised another human being within the bonds of intimacy and affection.
Is it a coincidence that we all live in a watch-and-collect digital economy? Maybe. But we feast upon each other in the 21st century. They want us – the men, especially – to desire the young, the thin, the white. Pornography is the currency of success, and it buys men like Jeffrey Epstein the innocence of wispy, willowy long-haired children. Then they want us to watch.
But then, Facebook and Instagram make us all voyeurs. They train us to peep into other people’s lives, to stalk friends and strangers, the desirable ones who don’t know we’re watching. There’s a reason Facebook never created a “See who’s looked at your profile” feature, despite the many fraudulent apps claiming to do that. They want us to stalk each other, furtively and longingly, knowing we won’t be seen.
Then they want us to feed on each other’s fear, and anger.
They, in turn, feed on the offal that remains. They turn our fear into servitude and debt, into taking jobs we don’t want, into the surrender of political control and the unwillingness to see the world as it is. They are the watchers and collectors who gather the data churned out by our desire and anger and turn them into assets. They turn our attention into currency, a currency they call “eyeballs.”
Epstein was a liar, a phony, a fraud. So is pretty much every other rich business person you’ll see profiled in the business magazine. We don’t shame them; we exalt them, as Epstein was once exalted.
The press made a lot out of the story of “Neom,” the high-tech pseudo-city Saudi Arabia’s new ruler reportedly wants to build out in the desert. The plan is to lure the world’s greatest scientists, as Epstein once lured them, but with fine restaurants, robot maids, flying cars, and an artificial moon. The Neom story was a great opportunity to mock Muhammad bin Salman, that nation’s unelected leader, for his impractical fantasies.
But Neom isn’t the fever dream of a desert chieftain. The dreams of MBS and his henchmen are of the more traditional gore-soaked, bullets-and-handsaw variety, with journalists and feminists as their prey. The Ozymandian freakshow that is Neom was a Western work product, produced by a very Western breed of bullshitter: the professional consultant. Their kind has given us corporation upon corporation, corruption upon corruption, war upon bloodsoaked and sand-strewn war.
This kingdom of sultans and consultants will not last forever. One way or another, it will fall. It will collapse back into the silicate sands from which it came, although by then those sands may be glassy and green. It will fall because it lacks ecological, economic, and moral balance. And it will fall because empires built on bullshit fall even harder than those built on sand.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
The bullshitter who pitched MBS on the Neom project was undoubtedly cut from the Epstein mold. Such people are charming and persuasive, always good for some entertaining dinner conversation. They’ll make you think, but not so much it gives you a headache. They’ll pitch you an artificial moon, and maybe even throw some young girls in for good measure. That’s Epstein’s kind of transhumanism.
A Spy in the House of Depravity
Most rumors are false. Some are true. Spies are figures of myth and legend. They also exist.
I thought of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a song the 66-year-old Epstein almost certainly heard in his youth, when I heard about Epstein’s death. Ms. Carroll’s death, caused by a blow from a cane while serving food at a society event, was presumably “lonesome” because she was surrounded by unsympathetic eyes. The white society patrons didn’t see her. She was alone in that crowded room, because she was black and poor and the others were neither of those things.
Jeffrey Epstein, on the other hand, was never alone. He had the politicians, the scientists, the assistants, the procurers. They looked at him when he wanted attention, and looked away when he wanted to hide. They were paying attention to him still, even in that cell. Many of them will now breathe a little easier.
Calling him a monster is too easy. Epstein was human, a node in the social system we all share, a thin vibrating antenna picking up stray signals on the American frequency. They were the signals of lust, of greed, of the desire to own and manipulate and break other humans.
There are other signals around us, of course, but the ones Epstein caught overwhelm all the others. They’re like border radio stations in the 20th-century, those megawatt bandit broadcasts that poured out the gospel-inflected sound of salvation turned to sin. Once they had your attention they sold you phony medicines that were supposed to cure you, but left you as sick as before. Maybe sicker.
There were always been Jeffrey Epsteins, of course, each a bespoke creature tailored for his place and time. In ancient Egypt, medieval Venice, the California mining camps of 1849, the back alleys of Mumbai … these creatures have always been among us, in every moment. But this creature was made for ours.
What was Epstein thinking and feeling in his last moments? Did he weep? If so, for whom? What went through his mind before it was finally extinguished, like a cigarette crushed in a china cup? Did he picture himself having a drink on his veranda? Did he have a “Rosebud” moment, like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane? For some reason, I picture a silly song from his childhood – something like “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” by Roger Miller – popping into his head in those final moments.
(“But you can be happy,” the song continues, “if you’ve a mind to.”)
Was Epstein murdered, or did he die by neglect? We know that his prison was a hellhole, but it would be foolish not to wonder. We may never know. There are many ways to kill someone, from the black-gloved stranger with a garrote to the corrupt guard who takes a few hundred bucks and is told to take a long break. A lot of sane people might want to die after a few nights in the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Or maybe they just screwed up. That happens, too. Whatever took place that night, Epstein’s gone and we’re still here, feasting on each other. And they’re still reaping what remains. From the silica sands to the Silicon Valley, eyeballs are captured. Day and night, the reaping goes on.
One thing we know for sure: Epstein died because procedures weren’t followed. He should have been checked every 30 minutes by guards, we’re told, and wasn’t. He was, in the words of the New York Times, “not closely monitored.” Jeffrey Epstein was a spy, in a society of spies. He was a collector, in a collector’s economy. He was a watcher, and he died while nobody was watching.