Christopher Bernard’s “AMOR i KAOS”: Seventh Installment
It could be a lifetime. Between the screed and the admonition, the command and the oath. Your followers lined up like soldiers on a ridge gazing down at the ignorant city. The horses neighing as they slip on rocks wet with dew. The dawn treacherously beautiful and cool, as if carrying, clutched in its hand, the message that will never reach them. Stop. Do not attack. We have surrendered, the war is over. And they descend, silent, to a pointless destruction. It could be like that. Or it might be briefer, a sojourn over a weekend or no longer than a summer of one’s youth. Remember that? It feels like yesterday. But it was a lifetime ago. It might be a gentler doom, more quiet, discreet, causing damage to only two people, bruised and aching and left for dead on the indifferent battlefield of love, cruelest of tyrants, your gauntlets bloody, your banners torn and fluttering in the dust-filled wind.
He closed the book and gazed at her gravely.
—I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, she said. You hopeless romantic!
His mouth smiled. Which looked strange since his eyes were so bleak.
A bit of a phenomenon. From the old country. A metaphysical fairy tale, hopes unfulfilled, death between potshots at the closing barn door, a kiss against the air. A cuddle in a freshly made haystack, dry and tawny and smelling of autumn. Where you never thought the two of you would end up. And now you woke with dew on your lips. And of course you both didn’t, since she never liked him “that way.” None of the girls did. Correction: none of the girls you wanted. So you had to make do with the plain ones, the ones who are said to have “a good heart,” gentle ugly ducklings waiting sweetly forever to become swans. Then it was too late. You settled. It was either that or face a very lonely future. You never told her this because, after all, you didn’t want to hurt her feelings. You never “loved” her, in the romantic sense, though you had always felt a certain affection. And you have been loyal, in your way. Your impatience with women, which has increased over the years, has protected the two of you. You pursued, in your predictably inept fashion, a number of women, but as usual they were not attracted to you. Or they were, at first, and you put them off through the barely conscious hostility, resentment and distrust that you radiated. Anyway, you have been, by default, faithful. It is part of your general ridiculousness. She will never read this so you can say whatever you want. You can express the bittersweet truth of your life: that, though you have long sought it and sometimes thought you had found it, you have never found love. This no doubt reflects more on you than on the general condition. You have found a certain superficial pleasure in a person’s company, you have found liking, quite sincere, you have found obsession, addiction, even lust, but you have not found love, in the sense of valuing someone more than thy weasely self, that’s a rather high standard but it’s what you mean by the word, maybe a mother for her child, but you’ve never been a mother so you can’t say, you have found it to be a fantasy, a dream, dearest hope, sweetest of desires, but you have found it neither in yourself nor in any other human being: to love and to be loved. You have not found it anywhere. You are alone, and no one knows you and no one loves you. Or so it has seemed. You always remind yourself that you could always be wrong, of course, about this as well as many other things. But you haven’t had much evidence for it, in this particular case. What you can do, what you do do, is pretend to love and to be loved. And can, without loving anyone, be kind to your fellow shadows temporarily detached from the wall of darkness the surrounds you.
After whispering this in the darkness, you remember turning over on your side, and you must have gone to sleep, for your dreams were of an extraordinary peacefulness and peopled by young, smiling women who seemed to rejoice in you and seek to please you and to love you. “Of course there is love, you silly fool,” they seemed to say. “It is everywhere. All you need do is open your eyes. Your mind. Your stubborn heart. You sad, foolish man. We have always loved you. It was you who turned us away. We have our pride, you know. We were just waiting for you to tell us the truth of your heart – the truth we saw so clearly, but that we needed to hear you admit. But you were always afraid…”
He woke, startled and wondering, his face streaming with tears. But the dream had already vanished in the morning light. As dreams will. Those spectres.
—And what about you?
She turned from the doorway to the summerhouse and presented him with a frank yet as always opaque pair of eyes. It was hard to believe there was really nothing there. Yet that is what he often felt when staring into another person’s, a woman’s, eyes: the glossy sheen of moisture, the vein-flecked white, the complex network of radiations of the iris, the dark, flexing pupil, and around the eye the lip-like opening, with its little pouty pinhole for tears to spill from, traced by eyelashes, dark and long. With the soft, smooth skin around the eye, pink and white and delicately shadowy, and the noble arch of eyebrow above, like a portal to love. And inside the eye, the sensation of endless depths, of borderless continents to explore, of a past rich with drama and promise, of a future full of longing, of seas extending beyond the infinite, and infinitely receding, horizons, worlds on worlds, the alternate universe that is every woman. And yet seeing, in a terrible, cruel, indubitable flash of insight, that there was in fact nothing there at all. And once he had seen that he could never shake the thought that there was nothing inside human beings but vacancy, and he could not take love, women, himself, life, the world, seriously again. It was all a monstrous hoax, a joke, and a very bad one at that: a joke without either humor or wit, yet one that succeeded in making a fool of him over and over again, until his life seemed nothing more than a long exercise in humiliation.
He never told her that. But he did not move closer to her where they both stood in the summerhouse. He did not take her in his arms. He did not kiss her. He did not touch her. He simply looked at her.
—What is it? she asked.
—Nothing, he replied. He felt a sudden spasm of disgust. I’m sorry, I have to go. And he left the summerhouse, walked across the garden and left by the broken gate, without looking back or promising to contact her again.
A short spell of heaven. (Though that is worse than never knowing heaven at all. Better never to have known it than have it snatched from you in the act of taking it. Like knocking a canteen full of cold water from the lips of a man dying of thirst.)
A spell of heaven, nevertheless. Even then, it could come over him almost too quick to catch. Like a flying fish, sparkling and wet between the swimmer and the sun. Almost grazing him. A pleasant little shock. A reminder, just in case. So he never despaired on those days on which he witnessed the rising of the sun. Or moved across a landscape in the early morning. Whatever the weather. By train, bus, car, plane, bike, or his skinny, shapeless legs. The comfort he always felt when moving across the world with its vast, chaotic yet curiously ordered array—each unique yet not entirely so, in a strange yet homey, grotesque yet comforting, clutter and tangle of infinitely individual yet ever familiar, like human faces, natural and manmade things, jumbled and scattered, excitable yet placid, small and big, heavy and light, reassuringly sane and thrillingly excitable, boxy, round, ovaline, multifaceted, like great toys tossed across the land, with mountains lying like great sleeping hounds, their breath rising like steam in the chilly morning, the sea in the distance like an enormous fallen mirror reflecting the moon and stars staring down, as fascinated as Narcissus and longing for the beauty they see there, not knowing it is their own, the clouds in the sky like a carefully painted ceiling meant to represent the sky—but it is the sky, and this, around us, is the world.
It was the portly man again.
—The gods make us suffer to hear our music. To make us sing the more sweetly, like castrated choir boys. It’s a reward of some kind, I suppose. I just wish they paid better wages.
It’s so still outside today, you can almost hear the grass growing. Though there is no grass for miles. On the bottom landing there’s a broken rocking horse. Its legs are stiff against the blades. Its face is a surprised smile, its mane is a leaping fire. It is racing, racing in a panic across time. No one knows why it is broken, but no child touches it. The only child to ever ride it was thrown off, and broke his neck. He’s paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak, though his eyes are startlingly alive. We should burn it, his parents keep saying. It’s jinxed. But they can’t bring themselves to do it. So it stands on the bottom landing among other junk and castoffs: a pair of red snow boots, a column of broken china, three delicate blue cups without saucers, a pile of half-decayed planks studded with nails, a crystal vase from the Gilded Age, a Raggedy Ann doll, a miniature zoo, a dried jellyfish, a cake made of angel wings, an ax made of iron and roses, a jade kiss, a goddess’s eye, an ivory cornet, a golden drum, and hidden in a corner under a veil of spider webs, an ancient glass violin. And there it races in silence and darkness toward a goal it never reaches, dreaming of horses. . . .
The tang. A sweetness half sour, half bitter. As of the past, that promise of the future. Because the present does not exist. It flees even its naming.
—History, my boy, is the only immortality. It keeps the small, low flame alive, even as the barbarous present invades the city with its shrill cries and burns it to the ground in its festivals of brutality, its dance of joy among the ruins, not knowing that it itself only exists in a moment of immense polyphony and an eternity of memory as it flames through the needle’s hot eye of the now. Gone! See? Sometimes I think the world is no more than an archive of the moments imprinting it, like the tiny feet of hordes of children. It hears everything and understands nothing. But it never forgets. It’s a great elephant, quiet and calm, walking through the darkness past the night’s torches, its tusks gleaming; occasionally its huge ears flap somnolently, and it raises its trunk and trumpets out of sheer, irresistible high spirits. “Hey, I’m alive!” it shouts out. “I see the light of the sun, I hear the wind in the trees, I taste sweet fruit, I smell the odors of narcissi and lilacs, I feel the air around my ears, I feel the earth under my feet, I carry everything on my back, and I forget nothing, not the smallest fly that ever lived, not the smallest worm lost in the mud—the world glows forever in my mind. I carry you all, the living and the dead, you are safe with me.”
The portly man sighed and took a quaff from his mug.
—It has no fear, for what has an elephant to fear? Aside from us, of course. It ambles along on its great haunches, grand and gray, wrinkled with age, old as time. Older—hell, it made time! It walks through the halls of time and space like a king.
Pity had been a rich source of contentment for him. If it didn’t come at too high a price.
—But how can you say that? Her voice was mildly scolding.
She rarely spoke to him now, and never saw him. It took him an absurdly long time to take the hint. He was forever making excuses for her. He couldn’t help himself. He insisted on loving her; it was his form of pity. He was proving it was possible to love without needing to be loved back. It was his form of heroism. Sometimes he felt like a fool. And then he had no pity for himself. He even hated her for humiliating him. But then he realized she wasn’t in fact “humiliating” him, that no one could humiliate him; his feeling of humiliation was something he did to himself. Coldness of heart is the norm; if she owed his love anything, it was respect and pity, no more. She didn’t have to love him back; that was a miracle one can hope for but not demand. The lover, even unloved, knows certain hallucinatory joys, even in that lonely idolatry of another human being, that the one who doesn’t love does not, will never know, a drunkenness of the spirit and celebrations in the temples of being that make of existence a continual marvel, painful as that marvel may be. The lover, if he will only allow himself to love, learns a wisdom barred from the loveless; the ecstatic mystics, the Sufis, the charismatics, the lunatics of God were absolutely right. Even if there is no deity, those who love God are the lucky ones, the wise ones. The moon opens her arms to you, before you the sun dances his glory. The lover is the world’s secret hero, her hidden saint, her bewildered and intoxicated angel, a small god in the universal kingdom.
So she thought she heard him say one day in the backyard as the twilight silently fell around then. The sky turned deep indigo, darker than ink, and a single star broke through the west.
—You don’t need to love me. Really, he said, gently. Just let me love you.
She stared at him as he disappeared into the darkness.
—But that’s just what I can’t do. Her voice quivered as she spoke. I won’t be able to stand pitying you, I’ll have to kill your love if I want to live at all. Don’t you understand? Your love will strangle me. Pitying you will kill me. So I have to kill you.
But he had already vanished in the night.
The smell of the future was in the air. It had the scent of jasmine and orange blossoms, it filled his mind with dreams and hopes and solemn promises he made to himself with all the sweet seriousness of his eighteen years.
Uncanny, how the spiders spun down from the sky one afternoon, caught on threads of spider silk. Like long strings of snow falling from the summer sky. There was brightness everywhere at the time. The dawn of his setting out on life. Certain of one thing only: that life would not be in any way like the life he had led at home. The sun seemed to welcome him every day that summer, every morning was like being born all over again. He sometimes felt half drunk on light and air, his heart would lift up for no reason into a confused song of gratitude for . . . what? Breathing. He fairly worshipped the sun (The Bible? You must be kidding me. But sun worship, now, that made sense!), and the clouds, and the sky, ocean and its garrulous surf, an ever-roaring benevolent storm, and then the countryside, fields and hills and pastures, woods, fragrant in spring, green-shadowy in summer, yellow copper maroon in the fall, white and steely azure, gray, ice glassy, in winter. Nature was a temple, concert hall, museum, school, church, palace, garden of infinity sequestering nameless spirits.
And he was (as everything was) a junior member of the divine hierarchy. When he walked across a field or through a wood, he felt curiously welcome. Not that the human world he knew was particularly rejecting or harsh, as demanding as it could be—so he often felt like a failure. There were, or at least seemed to be, no such auditions in the surrounding natural world in which human life was, willy-nilly, embedded: even death, in the natural world, was unemphatic, the inevitable, expected silence after the singing. Nature was immortal, all powerful, cold, and true. It was certainly not true that nature was always beautiful. It had its naggingly, exhaustingly dull spots, it could be tawdry, shabby, flat, dangerous, treacherous, malevolent. Then he would turn a corner or look up at the sky or glance at the earth at his feet, and a vision of grandeur or mystery or delicacy or beauty—there with no reference to him or to any human being, but freely offered to anyone to partake of if they were so inclined—would take his breath away.
The thereness of nature was absolutely dependable. It was one thing he could trust.
Then one day he turned his back, out of curiosity or the fear of missing something, or the irresistible command of his genes, and entered the enigma of history. And he discovered the bottomless abyss of the human: its cleverness, stupidity, cruelty, love, anger, dreams, loyalty, treachery, its fathomless violence, its compulsive contradictions, its fascinating, vicious ugliness, its frail and suspect beauty. He sought in the human the grandeur, beauty and wisdom he saw in nature, and found it in art, music, poetry, philosophy, knowledge, in architecture and the building of cities, the creation of culture, of civilization: civilization was humanity’s forest, its woodlands. And then he discovered—or rather, became, for the first time, fully aware of—his own will, mind, individuality, his “I,” and he celebrated the self he had discovered and was helping to shape, and vowed to himself to bring whatever of beauty and goodness and truth into the world that he could, as he understood them and as his understanding deepened: this he would press insistently on the world, these would be the terms of his conquest. And he felt himself to be a conqueror, he would mold his world into his vision of the these things.
—But what if the world has its own ideas? What if it resists? she asked him, all smiling skepticism toward his unwitting (she really did believe it was, rather touchingly, unconscious) egomania.
—Exactly, he said, with a deep sigh..
For he had forgotten: a woman might be a resistance to his great plans. He had forgotten to include that in his calculations.
He didn’t know then that he had been peaking with happiness, as the scientists would discover several decades later; the years to come would be a relentless decline in his ability to feel joy, until he reached, in his middle years, a hole of despair, like a pit at the center of his life, after which he would again ascend, slowly, to a second peak of contentment with life in his late old age, should he live long enough to reach it.
All he knew at the time was that he was being regularly assailed by waves of a kind of dizzy hope and half-drunken joyfulness, for reasons he couldn’t fathom and at the same time couldn’t deny; they seemed as shoutingly obvious as they were inexpressible; they must seem evident and clear and unanswerable with all the logic of spring after a hard, bleak winter to anyone who shut up the chattering cerebellum for an hour and opened those dim pennies his eyes, and those flaps he calls ears, drank down the sunlight in great gulps, took a draft of the day’s fragrance or just tasted the air on his skin—he was, he felt himself, immediately, overwhelmingly, himself, to be, and to be surrounded by, immersed and drowning, in the loveliest way possible, in the sublime and beautiful and dark and terrible and luminous and brilliant and sultry and ambiguous and demanding and death-haunted and glorious and perilous, the terrible wonder and miracle of being alive.
And when that December he heard of the murder of twenty children in a New England town by a young man close to his own age, he sat alone in his room and suddenly broke down, crying.
The world was beautiful, terrible—brutal, generous, cruel, enchanting, filthy, sublime, ingenious, insane, heartless, wise. A horrible knot of contradictions, senseless. And his joy vanished. It seemed based on a mistake, a delusion of the moment, naïve, immature.
But, being eighteen still, he soon forgot the horrors of the day and was once again struck, again and again, as by a hammer, with unasked for joy, little ecstatic fever storms that came at unexpected moments (a view of a forest glade from a car window, a slant of light on an alley wall, a motion in the clouds of a winter sky, a thread of birdsong in the morning, a whiff of flowers in spring, of over-ripe tropical fruit—mangoes, papayas—in late summer, in a city street), and swells of gratitude swelled across him like waves of a restless sea. And his days were once again a long hallelujah just waiting to break through the matte tedium of dailiness, high school, chores.
—My best friend’s sister once even accused me of being on drugs, but I wasn’t. My body sang out at times like an angel choir of the faith. The voix mystères des Bulgars have nothing on me!
—Faith in what? she asked, coolly, not unkindly.
—In life, he shrugged. The world. Everything. It doesn’t matter what. He paused and thought for a moment. I couldn’t choose not to believe. Yes, that’s it. I really had no choice. And I didn’t really want one. I was a bone in the mouth of a very happy puppy.
Because life was joy before becoming pain. Before the egrets settled on the bountiful nests of the south and flexed their wings above the crowd. There was such a stillness then, such a sigh. The male nodded his beak with elegant reserve, and the female shyly tucked her head under her wing; it was so sweet, and you crept away silently so as not to disturb them in their delicate task.
Three weeks later a clutch of egretlings shrieked tinily in the nest under the protective, blank-eyed mother, and the great male went proudly hunting up food for the little family.
Not so painful after all, then, just part of the necessary wheel turning, turning on the world’s axle. It creaks as it turns, squeals, sometimes screams, please, stop, I’ll tell you everything, but nothing stops it because nothing started it, it goes on and on, unrelenting. Like a handful of water raised to a pair of beautiful lips.
And you never even knew you were being kissed.
Though that means nothing. The world has the golden heart of a whore, and being good liberals and nice, tolerant people, you celebrate it. Though what if you were wrong. What if the Catholics have been right all along? What if the Republicans have been right? That’s enough to curl your toes. But we won’t go there, shall we.
And yet, why not? What kind of cowardice is that? What are you afraid of? Being ostracized by your so-called friends? If they drop you for a principle, they were poison and snake. A friend never lets a mere idea, however moral or noble, however right, wall you between, like an ox skin mangy with fleas and sparkling with caviar and stolen pearls, those frozen oyster’s tears. A friend will wrap himself in its pelt and hug you ever closer to his heart because of the feral distance between your minds.
The cries of the hunter volley across the plateau when he seizes the deer’s rack of mud-smeared antlers and twists its neck down to the snow. His victory is a bitterness to the earth. His success is the tolling of a bell for the world, where his feet lay waste cities and his shoulders cut through continents of cloudbanks and his eye challenges the sun. Terrible is his birth out of the earth’s loins. His howls echo down the halls of the world and not a sound responds. His teeth crush mountains and the globe shakes in his hand like a rattle. Paul Bunyan redux.
No, an idea will never separate you. The vaults of your ambition can’t contain your pride. There’s nobody out there to love you. You lurch toward endless consummations. Your paradise is an endless fall.
But he lacked the courage and character for quite such a purple patch. To say nothing of the energy. And his intelligence had long been a kind of dubious glue holding together the warring provinces of his mind, which, even at that time, were barely on speaking terms with one another. He had often felt like a dyspeptic parliament, of factions ever quarrelling, often at the point of civil war. Internecine strife was a favorite phrase during those years. Dealing with the rest of the world was just not going to happen. Let it go to perdition in its own way, he had a hard enough time keeping food on his table.
The squabbling youngsters at the bottom of the wall lit fires that lasted far into the night. Their smartphones chattered at each other and sent salvoes of texts and compromising pictures across a fiber-optic-veined globe that would long outlast the death of the analog, sailing across the stillness of space in great walls of agitated waves, cruel revelations and bad jokes, hate speech and death threats, pompous screeds and silly ringtones, that would keep the stars company and bewilder the civilizations of the future. How could such a clever species be such crazy fools? And they would look at each other, shake their heads and rumble their bellies with laughter.
As the stars shone down on the barrel of the rifle and the prayer rug’s crimson stain.
Free at last. At last . . .
That was the echo he heard before setting out on his next quest. The last illusion, pleasant as it was. Though who could say, perhaps it wasn’t an illusion at all. Perhaps it was the real thing. Finally.
Or, on the other hand, and more likely, not even the last illusion.
A certain poignancy was in the air, a sad-sweet, bitter-tart flavor that made all things slightly dim, like a memory at the edge of the last forgetting. It would have been almost pleasant if he’d been able to indulge it, but his hectic schedule and the ludicrous demands of job and relationships gave him no peace; responsibility killed his tranquility with its thousand tiny cuts. How he loathed it! Yet he hated above everything else to disappoint people—a foolish weakness, but there it was. Any fool held the ax over his head, any weakling held his pity in his hand like a lash. He couldn’t say no to even the threat of another’s pain. And they had no pity for him. So the lash sang in the morning air with the dependability of sunrise and the exquisite pain of a rooster crowing obsessively in his ear, “Be nice! Be good!”
—I can hear them shouting still, he said. Goodness is an exquisite little tyrant.
—Do you mean me? she asked, with an innocent raising of her two magnificent eyes.
—Women burn with virtue, he said, they would heave their lover like a log onto the pyre of goodness without hesitating if it would increase by the width of a hair their sense of self-righteousness, their monstrous moral pride—what, after all, is a lover for, he said, with a resigned grin. Why are you looking so shocked?
—I never realized how much you hated us. —But I don’t hate you, he said. Why do you think I’m here?
—Because you pity us. You hate us and you pity us.
He gave that some thought.
—You’re forgetting something. I hate you, and I pity you, and I desire you.
—And that, she said in triumph, is a glue you’ll never dissolve. Called adulthood, if I remember correctly, that curious fraud, that Gordian knot. Though not to be cut through so easily.
Quondam. Where did that come from? The love affair that never was. Except in his perpetually adolescent mind.
Dewpoint. Tears. Sickness of the eye. Cottonwool spots and the ora serrata. The zonules of Zinn. No relation to the radical historian fashionable among the young at the time. Apparitions along the wire past the trench near Hamel. A corporal hung out to dry in the searing August sun. The flies doing their job. The stench of a dead horse among the marigolds. The hallucination of a whistle shrilling down the line, another, then another, fading into the distance like fleeing birds. What are they fleeing? The smell of battle, mud, shit, piss, decaying bodies. It wakes you up in the morning better than coffee. A sign from the masters that the war is still going on and no one will let the dead be dishonored by any thoughts of peace, I mean, surrender. And so the war must last forever, logically considered, since peace is surrender, and surrender is dishonor, not for the living, but for the dead, and no one has the gall to fail them. The balls to fail them. To admit you were defeated the moment you began. The long war of your time. The endless war.
—Are you listening? he asked.
But she must have fallen asleep. The sunlight crept up her arm toward the tangled hair over her face.
So: be careless and free. Not quite! By being careless, one will soon be the opposite of free. But be free, for all that. A book of wise sayings half hidden in flowery digressions. Don’t give a rhino’s rump for fame, power, wealth, love, authority, status, reputation, family, friends; give a damn for freedom and the dream of the senses, the smell of the morning, the slant of light in the late afternoon, the cool wind off the sea, the gathering of shadows in the woods in the evening, the silent twilight and the first star, the bone-white moon in the black sky. A feeling light as a breath. An idea dissipating like a wisp of cigarette smoke.
Keep those ideas open—they have a bad habit of flinging shut like a gate in a storm. Locking you in. But that is a spiritual crime, a philosophical sin: caging the mind with an idea. For every lock of an idea, seek the key of a sensation. Trust only a word you can smell, the winters of its past hang on it like the rags of a favorite glove, the smell of wood burning in the fireplace, or of your mother’s perfume when she kissed you before leaving for the evening. Hold it in your hand like a pebble, a talisman. Breathe it deep, secretly. Look for it again among the trees. Then hide it. It is our secret.
He watched her sleeping. She slept on
Her glorious, coal-black hair. That perfect, sculpted profile. Her heart cold as a pocketful of ice. You’d think he did hate her, so hard and unblinking was her love. If love is the word for it. The obsession of a survivor with its image. In whose depths a hand may fall, all the way down to the riverbed of decaying leaves. That flying carpet that teems with life. The smell of rot is the smell of life. Its eternal churn. If not technically eternal, as close as one is likely to see. I am. We are. You are. Ocean crashing along the writhing, whiplash coasts, a labyrinth coiled into Ariadne’s thread. Like the path from her lips to her heart. Never to be seen again. How in love we are with romantic superlatives! You have taken everything else away from me, at least leave me that. A certain melodramatic extravagance, a sentimental tenderness, a naïve tear and forlorn smile. Weakness itself (as the great Dane put it) become a force.
He said, but she was no longer listening. You should have realized all along that this would be the plot.
Yes, let the fellow levitate at will. The psychologists had criticized him for his flying dreams, but they gave him such pleasure, a crazy joy, that he despised their reasons, nothing that gave such pleasure and that hurt no one (how could a dream hurt anyone, even the dreamer?), such a feeling could not possibly be wrong. And even if it were: tant pis! No one should spurn any taste of paradise offered on this earth, it may be the only taste of it you’ll ever have; it’s one of the handful of good reasons for being alive, to be caught up and caressed for a moment in bliss, it’s enough to make you fall in love, head over heels, with life all over again and forget every lie and false promise (we’ve had enough of those) that it ever made you. No words can capture it, did you ever notice that? Not mine, not yours, not the words of Shakespeare or God. Maybe nothing can, not even art at its most hypnotic or music at its most time-destroying. At best they capture the shadow of bliss, but never its intoxicating body. It has no shadow, it has no illusion (words are the illusions, not what they strive, falteringly, to mean: being tyrants, they try to convince us that, if they are not entirely real (and there’s the trap: even words know that words are not, and cannot be, completely real: they are centaurs of reality and illusion), that nothing else is allowed to be either, because words taint everything. Put words in their place: they are your servants, you are not theirs—except when you forget yourselves, out of laziness or ignorance or cowardice, and let them become your masters).
A Nietzschean capable of love. That is what he wanted to become. Not a hydra of egotism, but a lover of the world. And of its creator, its god. (Or, if he must become a hydra, he wanted it to be: a loving hydra.)
—Have I gone over the top again? he asked in a whisper.
But Sasha was still sleeping.
Pascal was suddenly frightened. She hadn’t moved in so long—maybe she was dead?
Alarmed, he pressed his fingers against the side of her throat (it was soft and still warm) and felt the quiet pulsing of her blood. He gasped (he had been holding his breath) and tears came to his eyes: he had for a moment been afraid she had died, lying near him, in the summer afternoon.
He curled up next to her and soon drifted back to sleep, hoping to dream again of flying.
If only you could be good. That always seems to be beyond you. Rubbernecking the violent end of many a grand hope or noisy folly. Because you could, for no other reason, it seemed at the time. What sometimes seemed the nullity of the human, the vastness of the ignorance built in to the smooth-skinned simian one was. The trick was to have an intelligent back. Something out of Watteau. Too many backs were simply blank. Women were good at the pretense—the off-shoulder T was subtle as a wink seen from the back row of a bus, though it fooled no one, not even themselves, in the end.
Nothing like a good illusion to set one up in the morning. Good as a toad before breakfast. Even though you always said it was better to believe something, we never said it was necessary to believe somebody. It would have embarrassed the cynics among us.
Better to say nothing in front of them. One mustn’t betray them. They’ll get the bad news soon enough. What bad news, you say? Why, the unwelcome discovery that the darkness of their thoughts is even more foolish than their previous innocence. There is more wisdom in a spoonful of innocence than in all of the cynic’s hard-win wisdom—which, after all, is little more than an excuse for cowardice after getting hurt a few times while trying, and failing, to break a stallion.
Have a bit of courage, hope, faith. The gods are strangely fond of you even when you neither love yourself nor believe in them. Their laughter is full of tenderness. It echoes through the palace and flies out the casements like doves carrying messages into the night; every galaxy, every gravity wave in space-time, is an echo, fading as long as the sound of the big bang, of the gods’ affectionate laughter.
He said, and she smiled, sleeping. (Oh, he thought, are you really listening, then, even in your sleep?)
Here there is a gap in the manuscript, somewhere between the lost coast of Mauretania and the slot canyons of Utah.
It lacked, let’s say, a certain heroism. The lab spoon resting on the dusty lab table, the retorts lined up in short rows between the microscopes, the pipeds arranged like little cigars. The chemical of Amberley and the rank mud of Catrina, Biloxie, Transmarin, in the late fall, just before the frosts locked the ground. An atom of doubt and maybe we will not even notice. The trail of slime on the windowsill. The coil of shell on the wet cement. The ceaseless wind off the lake. Even in summer it’s cold where you come from. Attributes, characteristics, and other ailments that result from combining flesh with time. Though only ideas were real; dirt hid the roots. Nature was the face of God; you couldn’t bear to look it in the eye. It was like a mirror molded inside the dome of the Pantheon, the sun piercing the center. Being human, you had a lot to learn. And even the “much that you learned” turned out, in the end, to be wrong. And you never even found it out. There’s injustice for you. Could it be said you’ve really learned anything at all? Do you understand? No, it’s all right, I didn’t think so. Well, we’ll have to start again from the beginning.
—Are you still there? he asked.
But she didn’t answer. Perhaps she had run away, as they all did in the end. Sensible girls.
He felt his forehead for the lines. I’m really too intense, it upsets people. Ah, but it’s my poor shadow of being, my little crumb of joy. The god appears, like the aura before an epileptic’s fit. What if the divine appears only in the chinks of what we like to call “reality” (a mid-afternoon café, dusty sunlight against the chipped tiles, last decade’s pop hits in the background, the smell of coffee, sliced cold cuts), the slippages between the plates, fevers, flaws, the spaces and silences carved out, thumbed and shaped, like clay and pastry dough, between those delicate hazards called words, hapless children of the human brain? The lightning cracks the darkness between thunderheads, and through the crack, violent, brief as a blink, a blink, paradoxically, not of darkness but of brilliance, the divine seeps into the world, like a drop of wine, tears, blood. And you drink, your thirst assuaged for half an hour.
—Look into the eyes of your neighbor and you will see the world. Listen to the voice of your neighbor and you will hear the sea. Hold the hand of your neighbor and you will touch the sun. Are you listening yet? he asked
—Of course, I may be wrong, but in this case I think I may be right. Who knows, in the end? We have nothing to go on but belief. As in: I believe you are listening to me.
Still no answer.
The sound of a dripping faucet. Or is it a clock?
She felt so much better afterward. Leaving him, that is. He had been a burden, with his emotional outbursts, his clinginess, his manipulative sweetness, his “love.” There’s no burden like another person’s love. This they don’t always tell you. It’s bad enough to love without having it returned, though that’s the most common form it takes. But to be loved without returning it is also intolerable, ultimately, if not immediately as painful: no one ever committed suicide because they were loved by someone they didn’t love back. Or had they? (Item for internet research.) But she almost hated him, even though she had to admit her ego was flattered. After all, he wasn’t all that bad a catch: he had a certain reputation, and the idea that this small-town celebrity had fallen for her gratified her vanity. Her heart was left cold. And she felt no physical attraction. In fact, she disliked his smell. That was what most repulsed her. He was not aggressively ugly, kind of like a chow; he was intelligent, kind, generous, playful, sometimes even witty. He was dependable, loyal, and he seemed to love her truly, for herself: he admired her accomplishments without resentment or jealousy, he liked her intelligence, she didn’t have to play dumb around him, and he would always be on her side; she felt that, and she felt actual guilt that she couldn’t return his affection. He deserved better. But he stank. And not that pungent, sweaty, sexy-foul smell of men’s locker rooms she got a whiff of whenever she passed one with the door open. She could not stand sitting next to him for any length of time. The odor diffusing from him was just too disgusting, like a barrel of bad oysters. And when he opened his mouth to tell her how much he loved her—well, she thought she might faint. And she could see in his eyes he thought she was nearly fainting from love, desire, longing—he looked positively stupid with gratitude. She almost laughed in his face. Had nobody ever told him? What were mothers for but to deal in unpleasant truths to protect their precious male offspring from the opposite sex’s unforgiving contempt? What a curse it was for him, and he didn’t even know! She almost felt sorry for him. But she wouldn’t sleep with him for the world. They had finally broken off, and she felt the monkey, with his puzzled, hurt eyes and his mangy stench rise away from her, like a shadow against the sun.
—So they tell me. He wept for days, every twilight, because he had lost her. Of course, he had never had her, but that was no comfort. The driveway was littered with maple leaves, like small crimson hands. They glistened in the rain. Somewhere east of here it was snowing. It’s clear from the photographs they have no idea where they are headed. Yet not a single face is without interest, even a kind of beauty. He lingered over them late into the evening. Where have they all gone, these people? They have gone into the photographs. Into his eyes, brain . . .
How he detested the philosophical materialism of his age, though he saw no way out of it. Something so detestable, that offends him at almost every level, cannot be true. Yet what if it were? Why must reality respect anyone’s feelings? Why not despise reality as much as it despises him? If this rank materialism (which drove behind every impotent gesture toward any kind of ideal, philosophical or religious) were true, human life seemed little more than a mutually agreed upon deception, a practical joke human beings played on each other (on themselves) with the help of a random universe, without any meaning or point but to keep the game going for as long as possible, a test of heroism without reward, in a dingy little hellhole called planet Earth. Romantic love was the joke’s nasty little punch line.
But in the end he couldn’t call them lies, life and love, despite all the evidence: his romantic heart cried out against the roar of atoms and quanta: “There is nothing more precious than life, however painful, and the most precious thing in life is love, however betrayed. The lover is more holy than the beloved. The broken heart is exalted, a relict in the chapels of paradise, worshipped by spirits, specters, angels.”
Yet what were these “spirits, specters, angels” his heart spoke of? Or was he just being driven back to childhood, blind hope, blissful ignorance and Sunday school? His society’s noisy “golden lie”?
Must the divine exist, to complete a clearly broken world, though the only evidence for its existence was the ache of the soul and the heart’s longing? That was the only sign you had. Your hunger proves the existence of food, your thirst the existence of water: if you had not known them, you could hardly desire them now. You have known them because you needed them. You cannot exist without them, therefore, in principle (though perhaps not right here and now, where you are crawling through the middle of a desert, where you woke after your plane crashed and you were almost violently born) they exist. Your existence proves their existence.
Does your longing for a universal sense of meaning and love thus prove their existence? Even if such things do not in fact exist, does that mean one must not choose the illusion that they do? Why not, if they make you happier and more content? Just because it offends someone who thinks he is wiser? But why should you respect such people? They do not respect you. You crush them between two thoughts and choose the way that pleases you. Because their contentment is nothing to you—and yours, let’s face it, is everything.
If the truth destroys the spirit, why not reject it for an illusion that sustains the spirit, feeds it, makes it sing to its rhythms, dance across the empty ballroom of the night; an illusion that makes you fall in love with it, and thus with life, that makes you kinder toward your fellow men and women, that makes you forgive them for making you suffer?
Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin claimed that, if he had to choose between the truth and Christ, he would choose Christ.
—And look what happened to him, said Sasha. He raped a child and hanged himself. Not my favorite role model.
—The truth has its place for practical purposes, he said, raving. In the operating room you do not want happy illusions; you’ll be wanting dry-eyed fact, diabolical skill, and a complete respect for reality.
And when your pride gets a little hungry, and your ego a little impatient with these childish ways, you can snack on a bitter truth now and again and feel superior, sneering at your fate.
Such hope in such despair being its own reward.
(to be continued)