Poetry from Christopher Bernard

The Choice

By Christopher Bernard

 

 

Man shaking hands with the devil, both in suits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Choice

By Christopher Bernard

The modern world, that devil’s bargain …
—E.M. Cioran

The devil came to a man one day
and told him: “I will grant to you
undreamed of knowledge, wealth and power;
every hope mankind has known
will real become, or seem to be
on the verge of reality
tomorrow or, at the very most,
the next day, marvelously.
You will dominate the earth,
take your first steps toward the stars,
walk on the mountains of the moon,
touch the sands on the plains of Mars,
weigh the ice on Saturn’s moons,
on your fingers wear her rings,
weigh the universe itself
in the scales of your great mind,
measure its length, its breadth, its age,
its time to come, death and old age,
you will be so sage.

You’ll count the smallest elements
that make it up – the quarks, the strings,
the genes, the chromosomes of all things –
and play with them
to make new worlds, new life, new minds –
you’ll learn
the origin of space and time,
the source of life, the cause of thought,
everything that can be known
you, and you alone, will know.

With your opposable thumb and brain
that Nature in her infinite
munificence gave unto you,
with your gift at math and word,
with your cunning skill of hand,
you will rule the mighty earth –
throw your chains across its seas,
dominate all air and space,
spin the world into a thread
to bind in one great continents,
throw your voice and images
in a mesh of thoughts and cries
until you fill the seas and skies
with nothing but humanity.

You will need no god but you.
You will be the bright, new god.
You will control reality.
And this will be because of me:
the prince of matter, energy,
reason, cunning, power, will –
le prince de ce monde, in a word;
the world of reason that’s perfectly absurd.

Of course, I ask a little price,
almost nothing compared to what
you’ll get in return. You might even say
that what I ask for hardly exists.
I’m almost embarrassed to name it – it
sounds so old fashioned, pre-internet,
so last century, lame, unhip,
for sexless weaklings, ungrown-up,
boring, slow, Neanderthal
as a Republican and as dull
as a Midwestern prayer breakfast:
let’s face it: only losers have a soul.
‘He’ll be talking about God next!’
sneers, in disgust,
those noble virtues of our time,
Selfishness, Arrogance, Gluttony, Greed and Lust.

Perhaps. But that is what I ask
in return for a world controlled by you,
a world that shows your … interesting face
where’er you look:
a world of pure reflection,
a world pure mirror, a palace that is
half lunatic asylum, half private prison.
Yet all of the things you long for most –
life, youth, love sans end,
a meaning in the swirl of chaos
of energy and matter – you’ll
discover are the only things
you’re not allowed to have: alone,
mortal, with all your cash and weapons,
the ingenious devices that every week
tickle you with novelty,
flattering your infinite vanity –
iPod, iPhone, iPad, iLife –
games of virtual reality
and chemicals beyond ecstasy,
that cut across your existence like a knife –
are nothing but a substitute
for what you cannot have:
something real.

There will be
no meaning, importance, central
role in the universe
for you,
you’ll just be
what you’ve always been:
an ant, anxious, angry,
with an odd
wish there might be
a hell, heaven, eternity,
and a dusty, musty old ghost in the machine called God.

I will make more billionaires
than the world has ever seen before:
a billion bubbles of hot air
that burst till there is nothing there.
And you will see the world you made
is worthless, empty, gaudy, dead:
a corpse dressed in Polo,
Chanel, Versace, svelte brocade
in Italy designed, in Vietnam made,
shipped to San Francisco’s malls,
to mobs of cool Young Adults sold,
looking forward to a long cruel death, sick, old.

But I have more: the final end
of my great gift is what your power
will do to the world you’ve taken over,
wrecking, pillaging, plundering it
under oceans of waste and air
most foul, deserts of famine, unbounded
drought, dead waters rising in
oceanic vomitaria,
with a holocaust of species
that do not serve or entertain you,
then even those you will wipe out,
the net that held you up you’ll cut
beneath you, till you’ve made the globe
a fetid stinking tropic, pole to pole.
The earth you will have eaten like an apple.

That is what I offer you:
oblivion and a ransacked world
drifting in space forever
after a few centuries of wealth and power
unimaginably sublime,
based on understanding of the truth,
the terrible truth of reality.

That’s the bargain.”

The devil fell silent, his hands on the table
next to a paper ready to be signed.
And the man smiled and shook his head
and leaned toward the woman next to him.

“There’s no devil and God is dead,”
he whispered to her.
“We are the cleverest things alive.
We’ll outwit him whatever he says.
And anyway, it’s only a piece of paper.
What do you say?” The woman, concerned,
frowned and asked, “You’re sure about this?
It sounds terribly dangerous.”
“I’m positive. Whenever did the devil
speak the truth? We already
know most, if not all, of his secrets.
He’s trying to scare us. He wants to keep us
weak, ignorant, under his control.
He’s full of hot air, most of it
noxious enough. Whatever happens,
we’ll be all right.” “Hm. Well! But, before we
sign our lives away, I have
one little question to ask Mr. Devil.”

She turned to Him. “Mr. Devil,
what will happen if we don’t sign?”

The devil shrugged. “Nothing at all.
You’ll live as you have for millennia:
most of you will be illiterate
peasants, a few will serve your lords,
that tiny number
who walk the earth in exalted splendor –
in badly heated palaces, damp
castles warding barbarians off
in pathless forests among impassable mountains
and living in fear of every person
near them, with nightmares of dagger and poison.
Most of your children will die before six,
your food will be wretched, cost most of your income,
you’ll die of diseases before you’re forty,
and smell most seasons – especially in summer.
You’ll be ruled by idiot kings, gangster nobles
and lecherous priests. Crime will kill
those among you who survive the diseases.
Your mind will be
a mire of superstitions, crass
stupidity and prejudice, madness, and fear.
You’ll be living in the Middle Ages pretty much forever.”

“It sounds awful.” “But that’s how people
have lived since the dawn of time. It does have
one clear advantage, though.” “And that is?”
“Surviving indefinitely, more or less.
It’s what one calls a ‘sustainable
way of life.’ It still kills off
too many other living things
just to keep itself fed and amused.
But it could actually last. And there’s
one more thing, I almost forgot,
the most important of all of this:
human life – your brief, dim flight
a few feet over the soil of earth
between the sun and the moon’s light,
for all its misery, stupidity, shame,
brutality with and without a name,
will be the most important thing
in the entire universe:

God or gods and angels and even
devils like me will center our minds
on how you live and act and die
and everything we think or do
will try to lead you to heaven or hell:
your fate will be the meaning of the world.”

The woman thought for a moment, and looked
at the man, who looked back, thoroughly appalled.
“Don’t listen to him,” he whispered hastily
to his skeptical mate. “We can have
everything – immortality, bliss,
meaning, importance, significance –
we’ll even have angels and God, because
we’ll be god, if we play our cards right –
we just have to be smart about this.”
Then remembering the devil’s promises,
she held her breath, then said, “All right,
go ahead. Do it. I love you.” “It’s
a deal,” the man said aloud and signed.
His lady added her name too, nicely aligned.

The man grinned, the lady laughed, the devil smiled.
The ink they signed with filled the air
with darkness. “They call me the prince of lies,”
the devil said. “It’s not so. I am
the prince of truth. Unhappily for you,
the truth will not set you free –
it will only reveal more perfectly
the length and strength of the chains that bind you
and the hopelessness of any escape.”

The man looked grimly up at him.
“We’ll see about that. You’ve got your bargain.
But don’t underestimate us, or me.
Full of surprise is humanity.
Here’s my bet: we’ll make the world
a garden stronger than paradise,
a kingdom of love and hope, a home
where happiness and peace will reign
between man and man, and man and beast,
and man and woman, his love, his friend.
We won’t conquer the earth, we will
marry it, wed it, husband it
with care and tenderness. Love will win
because it must or we all die:
we will conquer the heart of man
and share the earth with all that lives,
life will be a glorious dance,
infinite music will fill all space.
Love shall prevail …”

The devil laughed.
“Hopeless idealist! Blind romantic!
You haven’t read much history
or looked at Facebook recently.
Good luck with that!” “Good luck indeed,”
the man said coolly. “We all need that.”
“You certainly will.” “Yes, we will.”

They stared at each other over the table.
The ink had not yet dried on the paper.
Suddenly a thought crossed the woman’s mind:
“What if I grab it and tear it up
right now?” Her heart beat hard and fast …
But the moment passed.

“And so it begins?” the devil asked.
“And so it begins,” the man returned.
“We’ll see which one’s the cleverest,”
the devil smiled as he pocketed the paper.
“It would be a shame to be outwitted
by something that does not even exist!”
And he vanished away in a cloud of smoke and laughter.

The man and the woman turned to each other.
“What have we done?” the woman said.
“Whatever we’ve done,” the man replied,
“we’ll beat him, because we must.” The woman
shook her head doubtfully. Then they kissed.

_____

Christopher Bernard’s books include the novel A Spy in the Ruins; a book of stories, In the American Night; and The Rose Shipwreck: Poems and Photographs. He is co-editor of Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org).

Illustration: from “The Devil’s Guide to Modern Medicine.”

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