Christopher Bernard’s “AMOR i KAOS”: Sixth Installment
Love had nothing to do with it, as the song said. It was all about something in her eyes. They never let you in, and yet they didn’t shut you out completely either. Like the prayers that were her hands. No one knew who knew her, because no one really did. Yet everyone was drawn to her. She became for many of us a craving, like a drug. Her beauty was the heroic kind that turned strong men into bumbling adolescents, whimpering children, and just confused everyone else. She resented her own beauty (he could feel it). It kept lying to other people: it said I love you when she felt no love for them and I hate you when she felt no hatred. It crowded her, turned the silence she craved into a long shouting match, the darkness she loved into a display of fireworks that wore her out with their continual, compulsive brilliance.
—I know you love me but leave me alone for a while, a year, a lifetime.
She learned the hard way that beauty comes at a penalty: stares like a constant punishment.
—Everyone loves me, she said once in despair.
—No, he said, everyone wants you. I love you. And so I shall go away. Even though losing your company breaks my heart and makes me moan in the night. You will probably not believe this, but I’m going to say it anyway. You were the one who introduced me to happiness. You taught me the meaning of joy. I thought I had known before. But I hadn’t, not the ghost of it. Happiness comes with loving you and knowing I am loved by you. Joy is being in the same room with you, in your arms, in the air that surrounds you. But I can give up joy. I don’t really need to see you. Seeing you is a joy that almost intimidates me. I never need to see you, if that is what you want. Loving you is all the happiness I need. I can go on living if I have that – that is what I mean. I will have a reason to live. I can give up that joy if I can keep that happiness.
But she had already gratefully closed the door. And, for safe measure, locked it.
—And I thought you said love had nothing to do with it! Liar, she smiled, hidden in the silence and the dark.
—That’s exactly what I mean. When I mean anything at all.
He was speaking between drags on a prominent cigarette. (He was still smoking then.)
—Ineffable, oracular, mildly ridiculous. Like an old world European installed in his corner at the café, burbling charming lunacies to gullible students, mostly female, whose minds had been tamed by a childhood spent between ministers, matriarchs and classroom martinets. Until their brains were well and completely cooked. In a manner of speaking.
He exhaled elaborately and let the smoke sign the air with his meaning.
—Underneath his sweetness he was an arrogant so-and-so, I always knew it. Self-centered to a fault.
—What else could you expect from someone who signed his letters with his blood?
The sunset raised an immense pink curtain above the view over the park, between the closing day’s eye and the evening star, Venus trembling in the twilight.
—You can almost count them as they appear. One … two … It’s curious. Anything rather than nothing. The Higgs boson answers nothing. Why the Higgs boson? And why the thing that caused the Higgs boson? And why the thing that caused that? And on and on and on, infinitely. No, there’s no more explanation in that than in the Old Testament or the bleariest shaman’s rants. It comes down to faith, whether in the guts of an owl or equations on a white board and simulations on a YouTube video. There is no “universally persuasive reason,” O Socrates; just prejudice and rhetoric, acquiescence and browbeating, and the liberation of eternal questioning.
—I wouldn’t be so sure. We may just not have discovered the right method yet. We have gotten to the moon, to Mars, to Saturn. We’re sailing beyond Neptune. One day we may even get to a universally persuasive reason. There. You can see Orion lift his leg over the horizon, his sword raised bravely among the stars.
That abrasion of the mind. The spontaneity that prose is supposed to exhibit. Even a poem however rigidly constructed. I mean, rigorously. Unavailable, now, of course, that he’s beyond anything like that. The cart before the horse was always his weakness. Especially concerning women. But enough of that.
Elect even among the stars scintillating against a dusty blue background. The flats stuck at the sides half way into the wings. The cables hanging like swags and lianas tangled and tarry above the stage planks. The crew racing around to replace them with flimsy props, garish decorations, tawdry machinery and painted actors to make up for the disappointments of reality. Which is after all shabby, empty, humiliating and fatal. The intensity of that gaze across two centuries. Holding you rapt in its dream. It’s a kind of perfection precisely because it does not pretend to mirror reality, no, it’s all artifice, that is its reality, truth – integrity, if you will, or even if you don’t. It sails on without us, we wave to it as it moves toward the horizon, a diminishing spread of dark sails against the gathering offshore fog. Into which it vanishes with a turn and a glance back at us, like a young, first-time ballerina, a tremulous and unbelieving smile on her stage-frightened, hopeful, childlike face.
Sound typical? Whatever it was he never understood about women, or the saner ones he had known. Though picking them out from the crazy was not always easy. None were innocent, though some were, in the deepest sense, good, loving, true – far nicer than us, heaven knows! Women are generous when they love, whereas men, when we love, take.
—But never the sexy ones.
—Well, yes, to be sure. What was it about those?
—Many are too beautiful in their own eyes (she said, putting on her lecture cap), they despise anyone who falls for them. As though falling for them were a sign of weakness, and there is nothing we more despise. Because we know our beauty is a deception and a trap. Beauty is a pledge of joy, of love, but all a woman’s beauty promises is a kind of tiger trap above which a smile hovers, like bait.
—Vagina dendata! Con de Narcisse!
—We are, all of us, predators, we can’t help yourselves. Predators of virtue. Programmed to find a mate to provide for us and our offspring. Though I don’t intend either to marry or have children, she said coolly.
He laughed in the dim café. (What is café philosophy without a café?)
—You think our genes care what “we” have decided? Our glands are programmed in DNA code, switches going off and on due to circumstances, chance, things over which we have no control – do you have the gene for Alzheimer’s, for Grave’s? do you want to know you are almost certain to become a bug-eyed gaga drooling clot of human tissue living in an eternal present and bankrupting family, society, country? But do we have any say in the matter? Biochemistry is fate. It frames everything we are. Just as everything men do is framed to penetrate the female’s defenses and drop your seed inside us. We can’t help ourselves, you can’t help yourselves. If you can’t break through the female’s defenses, you start breaking everything else. And so you guys enjoy blowing things up. We pilot our drives between massacres of hormones, between the slaughter of mortality and the nets of generation, until the ocean swallows us.
—That’s what our epoch taught us (he said, after a pause). It was considered hard, inescapable fact, the bedrock reality of us and the world – harsh and brutal, even cruel, but real. The Truth. Anyone who disagreed was a liar, a criminal, possibly a Nazi. We are ruled by a god, and that god is the selfish gene. Beauty, love, the ideal, faith and goodness and truth – all of them are no more than masks to lure us into the pit of reproduction. Reproduce, no matter what, is the iron law. The theory was elegant, simple, profound; it answered every question, solved every problem. The only difficulty was that it left clenched, like a gauntlet on a coffee table, absolute despair.
He stared at the rain beginning on the sidewalk outside the window.
—Then (he continued) we realized maybe that “the hard truth” had no more “truth” in it than the libraries it had so ingloriously stripped, humiliated and jettisoned; that it was, from the ground up, in fact a smug, self-serving and ignominious mistake, just one more of humanity’s elaborate, ponderous and inconceivably ridiculous ideas about the cosmos, no more worth taking seriously than Aristotle’s mechanics or medieval cosmology or the latest papal bull. A theoretical house of cards, a barrage of weak logic, falsified evidence, intellectual intimidation, threats against dissidence, political oppression and petty revenge: the usual stuff of humanity. Ptolemy’s epicycles grown like kudzu under the arrogant pens of Darwin, Marx, Freud, Hawkins, at al.
They discovered dark matter. Then dark energy. Then they proved entanglement and “spooky action at a distance” became not a theoretical oddity but a certainty. Then the numbers didn’t work anymore, and they had to face the likelihood this isn’t even the only universe – nature never did “unique,” it did everything in classes – quarks, wombats, noses, galaxies – so why should there be only one universe?
So the idea of an infinite number of universes, in a hyper space-time, in multiple dimensions you couldn’t even detect except through theory, and so could never check experimentally, became rational, inevitable, and all of physics suddenly became a huge, aimless bullshit session in a frat house for math nerds. And all the questions – the big philosophical questions – every single one (he looked wonderingly into Sasha’s eyes) were suddenly open again. Nothing was certain. And amid the proliferating doubts, a strange light stood blinking on the horizon. Unpredicted. A shock.
You don’t know anything. Anything at all.
And who would have thought that doubt’s most unexpected gift would be, of all things (he said, in a childlike voice), hope?
She looked at him with mocking tenderness.
—You’ve no choice, after all (she said), but to believe.
—My mother gave me ice for teething in the Pennsylvania woods, she said. We lived in a shack without windows or heat, the owls blew in on October nights and stayed till the long spring rains. My closest friend was a corn husk doll. I never saw the inside of a school till I was ten. I’ve always envied the Amish their buggies. Sasha spoke calmly within earshot of her elder sister.
—You did not, they did not, owls, we did not, you little liar! her sister fairly exploding. You’d think she was on Facebook, she’s such a liar, a mocking liar, a brazen liar! Give your avatar a rest, I never heard such cruddy crap!
—Don’t I have a right to lie, Sasha snapped back. What’s the Bill of Rights for, anyway?
—What I have to put up with! We grew up in California where the effortlessly lunatic grow on apricot trees between Salinas and Monterey and get shipped east in corroded Greyhounds, where Nixon was king and Reagan was God, and people live on pot and acid when they run out of meth and ecstasy, they forget their future and invent their past out of IT shares and suspended websites, and memory is an abandoned coastal bunker taking potshots at private drones, and liars and serial murderers and fat people march in regiments demanding their rights down the bay-washed streets of Santa Cruz, atheist college town of the sacred cross.
Her sister’s shocked silence had lasted less than the time it took to lose his eye’s twinkle. They had at it. Ah well. The sisters were as sisters were. He knew enough to take no side in their spats. Speaking officially. He never knew how they would conclude, stiletto stares, torrents of tears, curtains of silence, love feasts. They eventually fell unconscious even after the longest, bitterest day, waking up the next morning as if nothing whatever had happened.
—Malarkey, he said under his breath and repeated it several times. He liked how it felt in his mouth. And the sisters were shrieking too loudly to hear him.
But they are. As earnest as a trapeze act unfolding tiger-like in the upper glooms of the great tent. Where even the loudest searchlight was never known to reach, Then down in great low-sweeping arcs they soar. As though there were no safety nets in the world. But only each other’s arms.
—That’s the way it’s supposed to be; right, children? I thought so! So, who among you will play the parents? Temporarily, of course, you can be children later, we’ll rotate for a few generations, then collapse, dizzy and laughing, over the living room floor. Well, that was fun, let’s do it again! They call it a journey, I call it a trip. Let’s get high, then down and dirty, and whirl whirl whirl! Shoot me out of a barrel toward a bald, blue sky! I’ll land on a pile of peach blossoms, I will, and sleep buried in petals till the autumn and the last oak leaves have sunk into Ellen’s River. My mouth will be sealed with a coin made of ice, and a doe will lick it, the tears making it salty, till it startles us both with the quick, snuffy abrasion of its nose. As it snuffles through the soft wet matt of moss and snails and dewy weeds, rotting leaves and tangled little roots in the mud. Like a little wet kiss, the faintest little wet kiss I can remember. Then it will flee.
And your hands will be covered with worms, pink and white, as the evening gathers the ornaments in the old forgotten library and the windowpanes turn pale with gossip. The moon walking back and forth in the garden.
—“Don’t fool yourself!” the old duffer said. And why not? There’s nothing you can do about it. Say you’ve got the Alzheimer’s gene, for which there is still no cure, no treatment really except drinking a gallon of coffee every day for the rest of your life, and good luck with the heeby-jeebies, thus warding off total dementia for one or two hyper-caffeinated decades. Why be told? Who wants to know? The newest television program: “Who Wants To Be A Vegetable?” What’s the point of gaping at such a truth? Why not spend the rest of your life in a fairyland of your own making? A breezy, flattering, baldly self-serving dream might be your only chance at contentment in this life or the next. The hell with virtue that’s its own reward! The hell with love nobody returns! Unless you get your rocks off from the rush of conceit you feel when contemplating the horror of life and feeling so much superior to the rest of humanity who can’t take the bitter truth. Human life is like the Alzheimer’s gene: the only thing we know for sure is we won’t get out alive. All of our scientific discoveries, technological marvels, medical miracles, our spectacular wealth, billionaires, trillionaires (“capitalism is the greatest wealth generator the world has ever known”), all of our godlike power—well, I can’t say it seems to have had much effect on what is sometimes rather grandly called “the human condition.” Even the attack of the postmodernists (remember them?) on the concept of truth has had only one definite effect: to make a narcissistic autocrat our leader. (Whom you failed to eradicate in your late fever dream.) How inconsiderate! What manners! What a bunch of pretentious punks! (To be both a punk and pretentious: now that took talent!) One by one, even the postmodernists are dying. Sad but true, if you’ll forgive the four-letter word. Even if it is a racist, sexist, Western, patriarchal, phalllogocentric means of exploitation and excuse for oppression invented by Dead White Males (ahem! Yes, you – the one who’s reading this. Don’t look away, now. By “dead white men,” you mean me?). Logos is death, and death is life’s king. Not its president – it has no term limits. So let’s live on dreams, let’s live in a big, soft windblown bubble of enchantment, a fantasy of what life might have been if our gods had been kind and wise and not what they are: rocks and wind and exploding suns and galaxies driving across space like hurricanes.
—Will you please shut up? Sasha suddenly shouted. I can’t stand this!
—What? he asked. He was alarmed, perplexed. She’d never reacted like this before. Am I boring you?
—Yes, no, I wish you would!
—All right then, I’ll change my tune.
—No tune! No singing! No mansplaining! Just stop!
All right, he thought, feeling slightly huffy, though he saw she had a point.
It was really wonderful to see.
The two of them stared at the strange little thing that had dropped between them as if from the sky. Like a child that belonged to neither of them.
—The world is too peopled, it’s sinking under the human horde, in a century the human adventure might be over as we heat the planet to drought, famine, summer temperatures unbearable for birds, reptiles, higher mammals, us, all because we’ve been so catastrophically successful, like locusts, he babbled in his armchair environmentalist way, I’m an amateur at this, what else can I do?
—Yes, we’re awful enough, she said amiably. The scourge of the earth.
—What’s so terrible is losing the beautiful creatures that will go down with us. Up to now Auschwitz was humanity’s greatest offense, its deepest sin against God and man. But we are preparing an even greater one, and one not resulting from hatred and fear but from childishness, greed, selfishness, an assumption the world, the universe itself, owes us everything it has and we owe it nothing in return. What is so terrible is there is nothing to stop us until the whole thing collapses. There is nothing to stop us. Nothing but us. Is that enough?
—It is. It must be, she said simply. Otherwise we’re lost. Maybe we are lost. No, she said pensively. I have no reason to be optimistic, but I have noticed one thing. People are sometimes terrified into doing the right thing.
—Yes! he laughed. He addressed the night through the window above her shoulder. The powerful are crazy, indecent, cruel – they think they’ll survive. They always have. They survive, succeed; they win, that is what they do. The earth is their Titanic, they’re sailing it at full speed across a dark ocean, trying to beat a record that exists only in their own minds, and ignoring every rule of prudence and concern for others or themselves, drunk on power and money and pride. That curious shape on the horizon toward which we seem to be headed, straight as an arrow and fast as a bullet? Nothing but fog. A mirage. Anyway, even if it is something more substantial—an iceberg, say—we are such clever monkeys that we’ll have invented some hitherto inconceivable device—the iBergBreaker app, even now being programmed on a smartphone in a garage in Menlo Park—to save our sorry butts between now and the time we reach it. We’ve always survived disasters before, always stared down Armageddon, people have been predicting the end of the world since Jesus and, look, we are, remarkably, still here. Carry on, captain, full speed ahead, I want to make New York harbor by tomorrow noon.
That’s why you never wanted to have a child. Why give to a world that is courting doom with a suicidal mixture of hyper-cleverness and moral dementia, carbon emissions, the hysteria of social media, the delirium of the internet, fratricidal hatred, the rage of the robots as they clearcut most people’s means of making a living, and the ever-present nuclear bomb (how quaint the age seems that only had to worry about that!)—why give such a world a hostage of your blood? Your crazy, possibly genetically programmed hope is that we will save ourselves at the last minute, but your hopefulness goes only so far when it is in such bitter combat with the cynical number cruncher in your frontal cortex.
In any case, your child is likely to grow up to more or less despise everything you have lived for, your obsolete “values,” God help you, it will have new technologies, new arts, new species invented by the score in our psychotic neighbor’s closet lab, the NSA disappearing the disgruntled at the first sign of rebellion, a smirk at the president, a shrug at a rally, they will have a new culture, new language, scientific discoveries, a universe you never dreamed of, and your child will hate, or pretend to, which is quite as bad, the outdated totality of everything you represent, that is what the next generation inevitably does, that is its law, their function in the Darwin-cum-Hegelian chain, the ball and chain cum whirlpool that is modern “reality.” Every child is its parents’ stranger when it isn’t their murderer. It is the iron rule of the modern world. The one rule every new generation honors. Much as it pretends to despise rules.
—Yes, she said with a sigh. I was waiting for you to bring that up.
They looked down again at the thing between them, and he bent down and touched it lightly with his fingertips. It looked up at him with a puzzled, unfocussed look, as if not sure just what to make of the gigantic presence towering above it.
—Even so, our executioner is beautiful.
It might be a bit much to ask. Beggars can’t be choosers and dogs will be chasers, on the third rail where the sparks fly and the flustered pigeons flutter and the moochers stare homelessly amidst the shellfire and the ruins. And all kinds of mayhem makes itself felt, you understand. Having shaken off the parka, the snow notwithstanding.
It was time for the grass on the hill to turn red under the falling sun. The clouds were pink as icing, they look like an enormous plain of pink sand edged by a deep cold blue, smeared and shaped by wind and ocean, but a plain that is upside down.
He caught his breath when he first saw it. And realized that his cynical mornings had been nonsense, a crash course in the delusions of pessimism. What is it about words? They’re so gullible when under the spell of their own logic. His logic is impeccable so his eyes must be wrong. There are sad word-addicts who worship a fur ball of syllables called a “text” written by another lingua-drunk, in the teeth of all evidence shouting from every side that this mare’s nest of vocables cannot possibly be true, no matter how often they are repeated. “It looks wrong, it sounds wrong, it should be wrong, but, because It Is Written, it must be right!” To paraphrase a certain English composer about one of his own symphonies. Religion has much to answer for. It turned at least one great mind. Augustine of Hippo! The very type! And then he looks up at the sky . . .
The pages blow away across the beach. And he feels a wild hope. Perhaps just as delusive, but sweeter.
My home is elsewhere.
—I am in love with my phantoms, we have an exclusive romantic relationship, we are faithful, monogamous, I want to marry them.
—But that’s ludicrous, said Sasha, almost falling from her chair with laughter. You can’t marry a phantom, even a harem of them!
—And why not? he asked. That the law doesn’t say I can, or may—to say nothing of that manual of absurdity, cruelty and dictatorship, the Bible—means nothing. I’m unlikely to have any followers. Good! I want to do as I like. And be taken by others on my terms as I accept them on theirs . . .
—(That’ll be the day! she murmured.)
- … no more, no less. I consider myself married to my phantom ladies.
—Analog pornography unto virtual polygamy! she laughed.
—I like that! It beats the real thing any day – far less legal fuss and no jealousy. I visit them regularly and we have long conversations about everything on our minds, in our hearts, under the stars. Our relationship is as close to perfect as any I have ever dreamed – and far closer than any I have enjoyed in that world presumptuously called “real.”
She was silent at this typical instance of his tactlessness. After all, she was right there – in the so-called “real world,” no phantom, and putting up with his pontifications for years, actually listening to this stuff and trying, if not always succeeding, to understand, to sympathize, to care about and love this fool. . . .
—To find my loves, all I need do is close my eyes, and there they are, a dream that is real, reality that’s a dream – what more could one want? An orgasm is just a click away on my computer. And I am in no danger of overbreeding the earth. I feel downright virtuous. Who am I hurting? On the contrary, I am adding a happy, contented being to the cosmos—my humble self. That sounds asinine, I know. But it’s true, all the same—and it has some, if tiny, value. “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet, / Though to itself if only live and die . . .”
—It’s beyond asinine! she said, almost fainting with laughter. Beyond absurd! It’s the perfection of fatuousness, as Lytton Strachey might have put it. I always wondered why you didn’t touch me. I thought you found me repulsive, physically. You are the only man who never said I was beautiful. It intrigued me.
—But you are beautiful, he said. I thought you knew that and were bored with being told.
—Well … maybe not. But then I’m not being told all the time how beautiful I am.
—Nobody, male or female, ever tires of being told how good looking they are.
—Except when that is all they’re being told – when they have a brain that is being ignored. Ask Heddy Lamarr, the radar whizz who was saddled with having the most beautiful face in Hollywood. See, got you there. And I thought you were the feminist in this racket. Anyway, I only say such things to homely women – to be nice to them, to give them courage. Telling a beautiful woman she’s beautiful is like telling the sun it is awfully bright and terribly hot. I hate being told the obvious, so I expect a beautiful woman to reply with something scathing like, “I know that, you idiot” or “Tell me something I don’t know.”
She shook her head sadly at him.
—Every woman likes to be told she is beautiful because even the most beautiful woman believes she isn’t, or that she might have been at one time but is losing it, has lost it. When she looks in a mirror, all she sees are flaws. She feels like a fraud, with her make-up, her clothes, her jewelry—she thinks, without all the added fluff, would they still think me beautiful? And she suspects, often correctly, that they would not. And why does she want to be beautiful? Because she wants to be desired and loved, by someone she loves, naturally – and she knows that, in this world, beauty is the only guarantor of desire, of love. Beauty of the body: people respect a beautiful mind, they like a beautiful spirit, they feel even a certain tenderness for a beautiful soul – but only a beautiful body makes them desire, makes them adore, makes them love, beyond all reason, beyond madness. No woman will hate you for calling her beautiful, as long as you say it with respect, no, with reverence. If she seems to, it may be because you were tactless, though it’s more likely because she is afraid to show you her joy. Because her joy would reveal to you your power. And your power frightens her. As it should, since even the best man can’t resist abusing it.
You turned away from the bar. The portly man sat in a brown study a few stools away.
—It was, indeed, a delicious sensation. Her beauty, that is. None more so. Though, like all beauty, something of a mirage: it didn’t always say what it seemed to. Or maybe a better word is enigma. This was the tragic flaw in all sexuality. I saw her beauty, and I said, I love you, I want you, and I heard her beauty whisper, I love you, I want you, but it was an illusion. Unintended, of course: the woman couldn’t help it. It’s not her fault if she is beautiful or if her beauty affects you as it does: it makes her suffer as much as you. It draws people to her like flies, wasps, moths, cockroaches. She is forever under attack by appalling inamorati. But we can’t help ourselves! Woman’s beauty is nature’s most exquisite trap. And what is nature but our genes, using their endless cunning to dupe us into regenerating? Which may be one of the reasons the spiritual masters of the past have always counseled celibacy. And their more foolish epigones have feared women. Poor creatures, who have no way of knowing how their beauty destroys men’s lives, and through no fault of their own – nor of ours. And why some men are driven to destroy them in order to be able to live at all. Though it were better in that case such men perished.
You stared at the ice in your glass.
—Always prefer ugly women, the portly man suddenly said. When an ugly woman’s face says I love you, it’s speaking the truth quite helplessly. Pass a beautiful woman as you would a painting in a gallery, a statue in a museum, a tree in the woods. Enjoy her with your eyes, then pass on. If you find a single spark of desire inside you, stamp it out.
—I never meant it, it was a road accident, the air was thick with fog, I was in a hurry, I’m terribly sorry but you misread the signs, you were exceeding the speed limit, your brakes hadn’t been checked since puberty, you were an accident waiting to happen, I am as innocent as the rain on the mountain road where we so unfortunately met.
—You were both of you as innocent as the rain. There was no fault, there was only the calamity.
(to be continued)