Christopher Bernard’s Amor i Kaos (part 3)
It was almost too demeaning, she thought. To be hampered in that way despite all the options at the time. The seeming options, anyway. Because once you’ve done something, it seems as though it had always been meant to be, and so maybe the options were illusory after all. Amor fati…
—No, really. Plus the beauty of matter, in Joubert’s lovely phrase. Because he was right, that Frenchman with the shy ambition and the small, beautiful notebook. So beautiful in its humble bravado, its bold modesty. All that clean, beautiful white space surrounding the few lovely words. No overwrought romantic windbaggery for him. But I’m drifting from the subject. Though what indeed was the subject? She looked at him with her usual skepticism. Did she love him? Maybe she did, in her peculiar way.
—My life is my hell, he told her one day. Matter-of-factly. I wish I could say I love it. I wish I could say I love you.
Then they parted for three days. Three weeks. Three months. Years. Decades. But not forever. They were adults. You would have thought they had learned never to be entirely sincere, that was what got young people always into so much trouble, the infatuation with “honesty,” no relationship will last five minutes of complete that.
—And so they tormented one another with their precious truth. You are my hell. A Sartrean proverb! And no one can leave hell. You see the problem.
But that meant nothing. Never even turned a hair. Minimally extant as it was. The withers unwrung, the moist appeal in the gathered vats, the wayward affront. The absolute right to one’s own life—to one’s own will. The boy who lived on the hill came to that conclusion one afternoon in the fall, as he was walking through the tall, yellowed hay at the edge of the field that bordered his family’s property. It was startlingly true. Nobody, but nobody, had a right to deprive him of his will. Nobody had a right to force him to sacrifice his will to anyone else, to a group, country, class, religion. They might have the power, the legal right, but they had no moral right. In that discovery lay his strength. His right to his will was absolute; this would become his moral compass.
—It should have turned him into a monster, acknowledged the portly man.
But no: just as no one had the right to deprive him of his will, so he had no right to deprive any other person of theirs. In his will lay his meaning, his joy. That seemed logical, right. Furthermore, the joy of other people increased his joy as long as it did not clash with it, and as long as he was happy in his will; if he wasn’t, nothing was surer to enrage him. The biggest threat to his will was, in fact, other people’s suffering, their pain, and their envy (ditto, in reversion, above). And this, which struck him like a hammer blow: the greatest source of the will’s joy, even at the core of its often deep and savage pain, was the perpetually deferred desire that is love, and not only for one but for all. The will is launched in pursuit. Life begins as desire and continues as love.
—Or was it the other way around? No matter. Pain is an alarm bell, one if the prices of love, the portly man continued, waxing philosophical; but suffering—pain beyond reason, point, lesson, hope—is our purest evil. Not only are happiness, contentment, joy good, they are the only good. The good life is a happy life. A life spent in perpetual pursuit. Our job is to turn the world’s evil into joy.
—Some might consider that immoral (Adorno, anyone?); but maybe being immoral in that particular way is the point of human life.
—And what is the point of human life, Herr Professor? What is its meaning?
—Learn, create, enjoy, desire, pursue, love. It makes no difference what. Subdue the human condition to your will and bend your will to the divine. This is spiritual medicine and discipline; your tool against suffering, your salvation is in your hands; the gods come to your aid when you act. Your actions please them, they descend and raise hymns of mourning and honor at your death. Your artist knows this: he’s the soul’s surgeon: he cuts to the heart to save it; the blood on his hands is salvation. These ideas frighten people . . .
This he heard with a furious thought, and he took it to his love with a tender sweetness. Knowing this, he said, makes even death joy, the much-wanted sleep at the end of an exhausting, harrowing, thrilling, rich and profoundly gratifying life. But it is up to us to make the thrill, he told her excitedly. She listened to him with sweetly skeptical eyes.
—So life began as joy?
—Or is it the other way around?
—Ah yes, an instrumentality unrecognized in its time. Well begun being half done. And other hopeful folklorisms.
The smell of paint and turpentine lingered in the house for days. The smell of the new – so many novelties they were granted. It opened the porch to the sweet-briny tartness of a late spring morning in farm country. There, just like that; it brought it all back. The sunny rooster’s cockcrow and the odor of the chicken coop, it made all your senses quicken, keen with the morning freshness. The distant chuff and groan of a tractor in a field still all mud and thick, overturned clay. The fluttery opening of the snapdragons and the tiny bluebells and the unfurling dogwood and the flickering of robins and swallows and red-winged blackbirds through the trees’ sun-woven leaves. The smell of the future was in the air. All promise, all hope. you felt glad, intensely glad, to be alive. At times you felt so happy you almost cried. Your parents seemed to be so much in love, and their love filled our household with cheerfulness and laughter, and you so looked forward to growing up if that meant being like them.
—What happened, he cried out in despair, when did I lose it, the hope, when did I learn to believe it had all been a lie?
—But it wasn’t a lie, she said patiently. Then angrily. It was never a lie. It changed. The earth rolled over in its bed of night, and the world heaved a long sigh under the moon, and woke under another sun. But do not shame your young self, your memories. Whatever was forever is. Whatever was forever will be. Whatever was is forever.
His silence wanted to believe.
—Yes, the smell of the future was in the air. Then it was he learned that there was no greater happiness than hope. Fulfillments always disappointed. Love, fame, wealth, all hope and nothing fulfilled, every one of them had been, whether denied or, even more bitterly, fulfilled, a disappointment, tawdry, mocking. As though he were being punished. Though for what crime he had not been told. Perhaps hope itself, with all its happiness, was the curse.
He worked hard, burnt the midnight oil, rose with the cows, kept himself informed, humbly memorized what his masters bludgeoned into his skull. What hobbled him was his scorn for the society in which he lived. As he grew older, he came to suspect the flaw was not in his society, it was in society itself, in humankind, humanity, himself, in existence, a crack in the heart of being. Men and women were shabby, flawed, shameless, in their essence. In their genes. Darwinian selection had winnowed out certain forms of goodness as maladaptive, and winnowed in certain forms of evil, as helpful for survival, that most necessary, if at times most morally questionable, of values. Though, for the most part, people were not even evil, they were merely bad, like half-rotten fruit, with a kind of foulness, a mephitic nothing, an unpleasant smell one could not get out of one’s nostrils, that hated anything not itself, that it could not share, because it made them ashamed, and this they could not bear once they had escaped childhood, though in a sense no one ever escapes childhood, adulthood being a kind of mutual agreement not to call each other’s bluff, :”adults” forming a kind of society for the preservation of mutual self-deception. Often lazy or brutal or stupid, they sought to destroy, or at least dismiss, what they did not understand. And so one day you decided to turn your back on society and cultivate your own happiness by creating beautiful objects and telling yourself bitter and bracing truths. And collecting a few agreeable, supportive if not uncritical, mutually appreciative allies, thus creating your own minority who would keep each other laughing and warm, exhilarated and encouraged, against the coldness of the Real and the indifference and brutality of so many of your fellow human beings.
Eventually he ceased despising humanity and learned to pity them. He looked at people as people look at animals in a zoo. Tend to look, because some people look at such animals they way they look at people in society. With a kind of appalled pity. A pity that became an odd source of contentment. He even learned to love them again, once he stopped expecting anything from them. He recognized their weaknesses in himself. And he pulled himself down from the pedestal he had unwittingly placed himself upon. This discovery was at first humiliating, then he realized that even his sense of humiliation was only another expression of his unwitting arrogance.
And he burned with shame.
Sometime later he became a little more forgiving, grudgingly, of his fellows, of himself.
In the fullness of time, he became a small saint or wise man whom the locals visited with their problems, admired, even loved him. And this came as the greatest surprise of all. Men and women are indeed not entirely worthless, he thought. Pace Sigmund, who notoriously claimed they were. And he turned to a woman he loved in secret, who loved him also in secret (they were both too afraid to tell their love to each other and so suffered and joyed entirely in their imaginations and were never disappointed by reality), and said, Maybe humanity is not absolutely awful, if they can love someone as worthless as myself, then maybe there is hope for us all. —Maybe there is, she said with an ironic look. But then you haven’t been crucified. Yet. —No, he said, laughing lightly.
Then he looked as though he had just remembered something. —Loving them is very hard. —Yes, she said. I know.
Pity became an odd source of contentment. Perhaps it was inevitable. Many had thought it might lead eventually to a really grand gesture, though others were not terribly disappointed when it didn’t. Because they knew where grand gestures can take you. Gulags. Buchenwalds. Computer factories in Xanshi. Something aching at the back of the mind. The tang and foretaste of a really grand failure. Though you were always allowed to try again. That is the essence of the attempt. If not of the inescapable follow-through. For that one may pay a distinctly heavy price. As long as a student loan and deep as the Mariana Trench. To the molten core. Where they burned.
—The foretaste. At the bottom of the sky, he looked up to see the newest of cloud formations. Undulatus aspiratus. It was like standing at the bottom of a lake and looking up to see frozen swells like a pod of great whales caught in a vast amber made of azure.
—There is no catastrophe that doesn’t create its peculiar beauty. This may be its justification, something to give the watching gods a thrill. Look how wars bear stories like trophies, and despised love songs and poems like so much sun-warmed fruit.
—The gods make us suffer to hear our music, he said. The more they whisper, the more they’ll sing. Listen to the stories, read the poems, bask in the music, look at the magnificent pictures.
—Make them suffer so they’ll make us laugh, clap, cry.
—There is nothing like a bed of fire to make them dance like gods.
—Don’t spare the lash, brothers, sisters, don’t be afraid of shame’s deep sting. They’ll thank us with grateful hosannas when they see what comes out. Hell is the price of admission to paradise, he said.
She shook her head in a kind of baffled assent. You’re really a nut, she said.
—What else can I do? To be sane in this world is to be a lunatic indeed. The gods make us suffer so we’ll make better music.
Incantation at the back of a small chapel. Where nuns lie, their arms spread cross-like, like dry leaves on the ground. Or wounded crows. The cantus firmus can be followed easily as each voice enters, an alto here, a bass there, a tenor there, then the sopranos again, until the entire chorus is singing in an aural brocade. The voices pause to allow other voices to sound, then, with cheerful wit, overlay and seem to try to hide the other voices, but never for long, and never successfully, as the voices underneath and behind make a brave showing, slowing down, speeding up, getting louder or softer, drawing attention to themselves, and the mind is both sharpened and dazzled by the layered, sweet complexity of sounds, the seemingly endless play of echoes. And you are surrounded and swept up in the rich yet strangely wistful beauty. A short spell of heaven. Or scratching the floor of paradise. From below, naturally. Then one at a time, the voices cease until only one is left, a high solo soprano softly fading away on a cadence, the last statement of the cantus firmus. And you are returned to the dusty light in the poorly maintained chapel. To the smell of boiling cabbage beneath that of dissipating incense. The dripping candle wax on the altar. The priest’s nasal voice. The sore on your lip. Your foot, which is full of pins and needles from not moving for the last half hour. It was like a spell. And now you wake up. Or go back to sleep.
A spell of heaven. Inevitably short. For, after all, humanity cannot bear too much joy.
—I guess not, she replied. Though I wouldn’t exactly mind being tested.
—As though they were not being tested. Did they even know how happy they were?
—Who does? We only know for sure the happiness we’ve lost, and only believe in the happiness we hope for. Silly human psychology: we’re blind to the joy at our feet.
—The point of it? I’ll give that up to the philosophers and poets, the theologians and priests of the new religions. The purpose of mine? To build a house for my joy so, if I ever find it, it has a place to sleep out of the night and the rain. What about you?
—Could I have a corner there to curl up in out of the weather? I’ll be very quiet, you’ll never even know I’m there, I’ll just breathe the air of your little paradise.
He looked at her gravely.
—You’re asking too little for yourself. It’s not right.
—But it’s all I want.
—It’s not right. My home will not be paradise. You give me too much credit. And power. I’m cold, and silent, and selfish. I only care about myself. I can’t possibly . . .
—I can’t . . .
—Please! I’m kneeling here praying to you. . . .
—Get up, get up, pray to your God, not me, I’m weak, harsh, I’m small . . .
—You are my heart’s god.
He stared at her, appalled.
—This conversation never happened . . .
But it burned its flaming letters into their minds. Words never forgotten were sometimes words never spoken.
—What about you? You left a photograph in the bathroom. It shows three cows and a separation, cyan, crimson, yellow, on the back of an old Pontiac a really gruesome dirty aquarium green. Not that he owes us anything, but there will be other birthdays.
—In other hovels!
—I thought I told you I really did believe in it. I just don’t like parading things. But you can be as famous and rich as you like. I like successful people if they make their own breakfast. It shows they haven’t forgotten where they come from. Eggs, bacon, grits and coffee. And the soil of Alabama. Wring it wet like seaweed over her forehead. Small curls, vivacious and cute. Always smiling. Except when not.
—Why are you being so literal-minded? Don’t you know there is no such thing as exactly what I mean? And then there’s all that poppycock about the void. And memes. And dissolving nanotechnology, left over from the ’90s. That ancient time when the internet was just a toy. And not the web in which we are all caught like flies. And everyone is vying for the role of top spider. They’re playing with fire, mark my words. The captains are gathering their drones in the abandoned Moffett field. Yemen was just a practice shoot. I think China will be a far more interesting target.
—But let’s not ruin the party with talk of politics. The news is just too depressing. The ice caps are melting. North Korea has launched another rocket that could just reach California, bless it. Al-Qaeda is expanding across Africa. A wave of tornadoes struck the Midwest in the autumn for the first time in memory. And the new president . . . ! Etc. But I’m dating myself: by the time you read this you’ll have disasters that make ours look tame. After all, if you’re reading this, we survived whatever awfulness we went through; it’s as stale as last year’s newspaper.
—Except when not. When push comes to shove, you’ll know it when you see it. The grail that came with the Meissen breakfast set. The little spear aligned with the crystal fork. The tiny robe folded like a napkin. The little bones the Roman soldiers were playing with. The tongs in the sugar bowl. When we were on a quest for the one certainty we ever knew. A bit of phenomenon from the old country placed tastefully in the living room and the remarkable turn at the bottom of the stairs. Into what can only be described as darkness.
—Hey! Hello down there! Is anybody home?
—This was in the early years before technology became so smart it was scary. When it guessed what you wanted before you even thought of it. When the servant, with a smile, became the master. And we groveled before this new king, god, mother, father.
—And I thought it wouldn’t be so terrible. After all, how many doomsday prophets have been wrong over the last three millennia?
—One of them may get it right. Someday. It stands to reason. Though reason be damned.
—I was an idiot.
He looked at her wryly.
—You weren’t supposed to agree.
—But I don’t. I didn’t. I can’t.
The key turned with a thunk.
—Like a bit of phenomenon. From the old country. As opposed to the thing-in-itself, don’t you know, forever unattainable, or just thing, the unattainable thing.
—Did you ever realize how divorce destroys in a particularly cruel way even the happiest memories of a marriage? How every memory of some joy you may have had is poisoned by the knowledge of what followed? How it makes you feel like a fool, humiliated, publicly mocked? As if the original harm had not been enough, but you must be made to pay for your hopeful faith, your stupidity, until the full term has been met? And you do not know what the full term will be until it has been met? It could be a lifetime. It is like the day you lost your faith in God, only now does it come home to you, you have lost your faith in pretty much everyone and everything. And for a time you fluctuate between despair and desperation until you learn that being terrified all the time will not save you, neither will obsessing, renewing the trauma over and over, save, even protect you, and at some point you grow a numbness like a callus over the stump of your mind, and learn to sleepwalk through much of the day, anything to avoid the scorching spasms that even now sometimes without warning shoot through you like electric fire. And even learn again, like the victim of a stroke relearning how to walk or speak, how to enjoy a fleeting moment of, yes, they used to call it pleasure. And finally open again the clenched white fist of your heart.
—You seem to be speaking from personal experience, she said.
He said nothing but turned toward the window where the dawn light was just beginning to outline the lazily flapping blind.
—Yes, it could be a lifetime.
—If love must be mutual to be real, then maybe he had never been in love, he said. Let’s call him Joe. Joe had been on the receiving end of crushes, had suffered from infatuations, etc., etc., but never had it been mutual, at the same time and place. Though, given how love can wreck one’s life, it may have been just as well he had missed it. Slowly—very slowly—it dawned on the never-too-quick-on-the-uptake Joe that he may have been happier this way after all. He had also never been struck by lightning, had never won the lottery or become famous or rich or powerful, all things much desired by some people that nevertheless often led to catastrophe. Like being struck by lightning. Or like winning the lottery. Maybe being protected from love was a blessing. Instead of falling in love with one person, Joe could love, in a less hyperventilating way, the entire world.
It had its own luxury. For example, Joe could live entirely for himself, his pleasure, his “interests.”. He would never have to share, never have to negotiate, bicker and fight over his time, attention, possessions, Joe would have a liberty, both internal and external, that (so long as he was prudent) no one would be able to take from him (anyway, in this life) and that many might envy, he could travel, stay at home, visit, keep to himself, rent an hour of physical love or go solo with his favorite porn stars without guilt or need for secrecy, he could be free in a way that a lover, and, a fortiori, a spouse, can never be. Joe could choose his virtue. And no one could stop him.
This was a delicious sensation.
Without love, Joe would have, in compensation, freedom, above all from other human beings. Love was a prison—or rather, love was the enticement, the bait, to enter the trap of human relations, the web of generation. And when Joe realized this, which is one of the deepest, most scandalous, most liberating truths about the human condition, his heart danced with joy.
—I can’t honestly say I approve of that story, she said.
—That’s because you’re a woman, he said.
—That’s sexist, she said sharply.
—Yes, he grinned. Well—I am a chauvinist, yes I be! Men should run our fair count-ree . . . But no (he said thoughtfully, pausing), I think the country should be run not by men and not by women and certainly not by me . . . just by those who stay out of my way, please, thank you, nice to have met you, now will you please run along and mind your own business, good-bye!
—She never did return my heart, you know, someone else seemed to be saying, close to his shoulder, leaning forward conspiratorially, as if into his ear, so I walk around with a hole in the middle of my chest. Like the messy end of a shotgun blast. I can hear the wind whistling through me as I walk the city streets past midnight.
One might have lived a virgin for all that, Pascal thought.
It was part of the ordeal of civility. That may have been sex’s strange secret.
The unpleasant odor. Its paradoxical combination of predictability and undependability. To say nothing of the complications that monotonously ensued. For there was never sex without betrayal. So the only honorable thing was to have sex with no one. Or oneself alone.
—Sex is a job, the portly man sighed, as if reading his thoughts. Like eating the same dessert nightly for the rest of your life. You end by hating it. Attempts to make it new and thrilling are futile. The promisers of the sexual millennium were charlatans. He took a deep swig of his boot of ale before saying, with a walrusy groan, Though how one wanted to believe them!
—There was the truly odd experience that the only time Joe had a bad sex life was when he was in a “relationship,” suspending his solo activities in deference to his girlfriend, who, after the first careless rapture, never had sex with him as often as he was used to having sex with himself, which, in his youth, was once or twice a day at the very least. No sane girlfriend let that happen past the “honeymoon,” and if she did, it was because she was a lunatic. Only crazy ladies and neophyte females enjoyed sex. Sane women, once their curiosity was satisfied, put up with it to please their men or to have a kid.
—The inevitable breakup was usually a relief, no female ambiguities, ambivalences, mood swings and clashing emotional claims, and Joe could have as much sex as he wanted on his own terms on his own schedule. Free at last!
—I had a friend who, said the portly man, with a burp, liked women well enough, but he told me, in an earnest voice late one Saturday night, that he would rather face a prison term than be married to one. So the decision to make all of his relationships platonic was easy, especially when he discovered internet porn, where he found his very own private sexual paradise: six different girls a day, if he wanted, and no whining, arguments, bad moods, ego-destroying remarks. It was part of my friend’s secret recipe for being content with life in a world mindless, soulless, and heartless. He built an iron wall around his psyche, and only regretted it when the fantasy, the hope, of a deep and abiding love for a woman of his own choosing (an important condition: all that feminist nonsense about letting women do the choosing was going to get them nowhere with him), overcame, as strong fantasies will, his better judgment. Sorry, ladies, for this renunciation of romance by a man who was born for it, a man created for love and loyalty and gentleness and passion, but, being content in this life, which, let’s face it, is not particularly built for contentment, was, he felt, more urgent than either righteousness or love.
—Sad, I suppose, the portly man burped again, but I believe I see his point.
—I admire virgins. They have avoided falling into the sexual trap. They have beautiful daydreams about love. They long for it. The wiser of them suspect that longing is the most intense happiness they will ever know, and so they are careful not to test the dream against reality and its disillusionments. They suspect that reality will destroy their contentment; it cannot fulfill it. It might bring them bliss, but only at the price of making them addicted to bliss, and once you seek bliss, you are condemned to misery, because, though bliss can find you, you can never find it. Their virginity keeps them innocent and happy in their frustration: they never cease to believe.
—Ah yes, the portly man went on. Innocence and hope are the most beautiful things in the world. Sometimes my friend missed the excitement of having sex with a woman, but it passed when he reminded himself of the suffering that always resulted, the price no man can ever pay that a woman exacts from a man she has sex with. The perpetual slavery it implies. It was waking up with an awful hangover after a splendid, all-night drunken spree. In jail, with killer bail.
—To be free at last.
—But it might require a more radical solution. A leap into more or perhaps less than a void. A rope. A razor. A pill. A pistol. A bridge, a belt, a plastic bag. A car in a garage. A gas oven. A mad dash for the exit.
—The idea came to him more and more often. A comfort.
—His life had become such an awful affair. The great compensations of love, art, had proven hollow. Neither men nor women were for him. Nor was he for them. His self-indulgent screeds were most useful for stuffing his mattress during winter. His artistic pretensions had earned him more contempt than respect. He had failed almost completely.
—Not quite completely. He had one or two admirers.
—Two brain-damaged young men who kept calling him a genius in shell-shocked tones and an ugly fat old woman who drooled whenever she saw him and propositioned him once a year, usually around Christmas; these were the result of several decades of pursuit of love and fame.
—A pretentious fool.
—His self-contempt sometimes almost strangled him, for he really had no one else to blame. Suicide would have been a blessing. But he lacked the character for that. And so he lived, poisoning the air around him, hating himself and God for creating then tossing him on the compost heap, hating life, that fraud of matter. And humanity and its accomplishments, the fraud’s most fragrant flowering, as Joe suspected in his darker moments.
—Curiously, this discovery, that life is a deception down to its tiniest mirco-organisms, down to the tiny prisons of its cells, gave him a little warm feeling of victory in the gloom of his otherwise universal defeat, a sweet calm in the ache he called his life.
—You’re a liar, Joe said to the day. You’re a liar, he said to the sun. You’re all liars, he said to stars, flowers, garden, women, streets. You tempted me to hope, but there’s nothing to hope for beyond the air in my lungs, the bread in my mouth, the sounds in my ears, the darkness in my eyes. And they aren’t enough. And so I curse all of you, he said.
—But, said the portly man, alas, he lacked the character for that.
—She didn’t leave Pascal, of course, because, in spite of everything, she loved the fellow and was convinced that, by her example, she would one day change him. His mind. His heart. His DNA. Whatever. For he didn’t realize, not for a long time to come, that renouncing love doesn’t mean you escape it. Love had created him. Love owned him and might do with him what it would.
—And this was a delicious sensation too. What I shall now describe. All that time and sometime later. The feeling of …
— … of doing absolutely nothing whatsoever.
—Well, as close to it as not actually dying. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling as the shadows from the curtain moved across it, at the behest of the great turning earth under the magnificence of a hot, distant sun, watching without thinking or feeling or, for heavens’ sake, willing, not reading or listening to music or watching television or surfing the internet or talking on the cellphone or planning or remembering. Vegetating. Sensing. Enjoying the blood as it moved through his veins. A curious peacefulness, a refusal of unease and worry. The world could go on without him for an hour, a day, a year, it could do quite well, thank you very much, and he could do what he had always wanted to do: live in pure contemplation, treating his life as a tourist treats a country he is just visiting, gaping at the marvels, absorbing the atmosphere, observing the quaint customs of the colorful inhabitants, enjoying the bizarre fashions, the ingenious garments, the striking cuisine, the curious traditions, the beautiful architecture, the exquisite artworks, the marvelous music, the dramatic history, the fascinating stories, the sublime poetry, the majestic films, the thought-provoking drama, the profound philosophy, the delightful sense of humor, the mysterious beauty of the women, the audacity and cleverness of the men, the power of the religion, the messy but oddly effective economy, the messy but oddly ineffective politics, the astonishing balance of all the parts despite the inevitable conflicts, the murderous wars, the internecine strife, the ubiquitous crimes, the blood on the sidewalks, the shots in the dark, the laughter of the lunatics, the suicides of the druggies, the prostitution of body, mind and soul in the name of unrelenting greed, power hunger, sensuality, self-righteousness, self-absorption and self-importance inflating like a balloon to blank out a whole night of stars, and an absolute hatred of the weak, the old, the failures, the poor, but never to take part in it, this celestial festival and carnival of the gods, except as a well-disposed visitor, a kind and gentle fellow, a genuinely nice guy who wishes everybody well and nobody any harm whatsoever, on the contrary he loves to see people smile and so he wants everyone to be happy and nobody to suffer, but refusing to commit himself to a world that, after all, is not his own, that ultimately has nothing to do with him, no, they must iron out their differences, settle their disputes, clean the blood from their knives, destroy their weapons, abandon their bank accounts, their stock portfolios, their insurance policies, forget their belief in salvation, die or kill each other off from their mutual hatreds or not, and solve the dilemmas of their destiny on their own, as everyone must, as he must. Or perish in the attempt. Or rather, and perish in the attempt.
—I’m just passing through this world, he would often say. I’m in it, not of it.
—Ah yes, said she. You are like a cereal box toy moving its stately way through the bowels of life.
—My world is elsewhere.
—In a cavernous cavity, gleaming pale and serene, swept with clean water and drained at its center to nether regions below of tunnels and caves out to the frolicsome, sunlit world above, after labyrinthine journeys through sewerland, cesspool and city chemical treatment plant.
— That’s not quite it. The world is like a set of clothes you wear and change and ultimately discard. I enjoy it, then I pass it along to someone else. I even love much of it, as I love an old T-shirt. But it isn’t mine, I don’t own it, it doesn’t belong to me, I don’t belong to it. It is a castoff, pretty as a young woman’s skin. It is something to use and love, then toss, as the world generates new shapes, forms, energies, things, beyond anything I can possibly dream up or possibly use. Maybe more than any of us can.
—He lived in the quaint faith that, in the baffling race of the human species, of all life, to self-destruction, the ineffable it would win.
—You mean, she said, that they would fail?
—Exactly. That they would survive—their genes, their memes—despite themselves.
—As I said, it was an ineffable faith. Which does not meant it was necessarily untrue, of course.
—After all, I have an ineffable faith in you. Don’t tell that means I’m wrong!
—Of course, she smiled, not.
—It just isn’t my home. My home is elsewhere.
—Fine, great lost one, where is your home then? She often chided him on this idea of his. I always suspected that you, above all, were an alien.
—How could I know? But this place feels as far away from being a home as a place can possibly be. It reeks of hostility and cruelty under its benign but deceptive sun.
—You read that somewhere.
—No, I just made it up.
—Well, I wouldn’t be so proud of it.
—Why not? he said. In this world I feel grudgingly tolerated at best. Sometimes I feel I’m on probation for a crime I can’t remember committing. Have you ever had that feeling?
—Yes, she said thoughtfully, but I always felt it was because I was a woman.
—Don’t fool yourself.
—Ah! That’s what I always say! Male, female, hermaphrodite, transgendered, nongendered, sexuality unknown or nonexistent: none of that is relevant anyway. The crime is being born. If not crime, the extreme inconvenience, for all concerned: mother, father, family, government, universe, God. I, for example, was not extremely wanted. How could I have been? No one could have predicted who I would become. But that’s not the point: the presence of anything leaping in the womb at that moment was disastrous for the couple in question. Anyway, I fit nothing here, and nothing here fits me. Natural selection! It’s perverse. A psychopath, or sociopath, as they like to call it now, who knows why, they’re always changing the words in the desperate hope they might thereby change the world. Heartless and mindless and soulless. Do you think the universe (he turned to her suddenly) might be fundamentally insane? —It managed to create us, she said. Clever psycho!
—And yet might it have had something like a heart, mind, soul from the very beginning, if it was ever to be able to create them? In principle, so to speak. As “ideas,” in a sense.
—At the beginning of the universe there was only energy, quarks, gas—there was no such thing as “liquid,” it was too hot for anything to have “liquefied”—and yet today we are free to swim and surf in it, bathe and bubble in it, dash under a roof to escape its showers, get drunk from it and drown in it.. So: did “liquidness” exist in principle from the very beginning of time, even before time? Would it exist in principle even if the universe had remained forever too hot or too cold to allow for “liquidness” of any kind? In principle, it must exist, must have always existed, must always exist in future, even when hell freezes over. Nothing comes from nothing, she concluded, primly.
—Maybe everything comes from nothing, he said. A warp in spacetime. A blip in the quantum vacuum. Or a breakout spore of antimatter from a neighboring, or the extra dimension of an overlaying, universe. Physicists these days are having crazy ideas. Maybe we’re a piece of graffiti being signed on a brane by some druggy punk in a slum in a forgotten Third World city at the backend of a tenth-rate universe already half-decayed to nonbeing between entropy and its own version of dark energy.
—That’s a cheerful thought, she said. In that case since our situation would seem to be entirely hopeless, we can relax and let the thing go to perdition in its own shabby-spectacular, peculiarly universal way.
—Ancient, exploded hypotheses, he said. But don’t fool yourself, I tell myself, stupidly, because how can I even know? There’s plenty of time. Or there’s no time at all. There’s always enough time. Or there’s never enough time. If you start on time, will you end on time? If you start on time I’ll be surprised. If you end on time I’ll be shocked. One thing about them: they never arrive on time. They have no respect for time. Do you have the right time? Do you know what time it is? I just have no time at all. Why are they always late? Who are always late? Why, women, of course. But they aren’t. But they are. Have you ever once known a woman to show up early for anything? (Pause for pondering.) They spend time as they spend money, as though there were no tomorrow.
—It’s the wrong question, said Sasha.
Gazing out the third-floor window waiting for the cruise ship to reach its berth against the dank, sour pier, you almost felt like throwing yourself overboard with the galley scraps and tempting the angels to save you. That might have been a loveliness if only you had been spared the rough passage. The tall waves and the swelling sea. A long and bitter night. Alive with thunder and strafing lightning and the howling of the drowning. All imagined in camera. In a thimble on an old teak dresser once upon a time a long time ago before you had even dreamed of time.
(to be continued)