7-2 eulogy

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

7.2 (Spring 2007)

 

A Valediction

Requiescat Oriana Fallaci: A Poem, A Prayer

Peter Singleton

     When Italian journalist and novelist Oriana Fallaci finally lost a long battle with cancer last autumn, many of us who collaborate in or merely read Praesidium had lately come to admire her for her defense of the West against an overpowering onslaught of Islamic mass-culture whose crowning achievement was the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Few of us knew much more of her, however, than the small polemic, The Rage and the Pride, which made her over night persona non grata to the European ruling elite.  I have since come to read more about her—and even a little more by her (not an easy thing to do: her books are now as rare on the open market as a celebrated impressionist’s canvases a month after his funeral).  I have grown steadily more intrigued.  One or two of Praesidium’s contributors have shared similar feelings with me: I believe that the journal’s current issue, in fact, contains several references to Fallaci somewhere.

     Of course, to be intrigued, or even poignantly moved, is not to be fitted for composing a eulogy.  For reasons that I cannot quite explain, I do not particularly want to lament a departed dignitary while assessing her life’s achievement in a few hundred words.  I asked instead if I might tender something in a more creative vein—something between a poem in prose and, just maybe, a prayer.  A prayer for a gifted and sensitive soul who reluctantly reached the conclusion that she could not believe in God… that would be an odd sort of a prayer, now.  But Oriana, I have a feeling, was an odd sort of a saint or sinner; and God the Redeemer, I have it on the very best authority, is a very odd sort of a judge, as judges go in this world.

 

     Philosophers explain that an idea may be real yet have no concept, while a concept may have no reality yet represent a clear object.  Of the latter kind is my image of a fan-belt or chain which rolls sinuously up and down a succession of sprocket wheels.  One wheel turns clockwise: down the chain goes, diving from three to six o’clock and then rising to nine before freeing itself of the rotating teeth to ascend the next disk.  This one turns counter-clockwise, drawing the chain from three to high non and then back in time to nine… and so it goes on, endlessly.  The belt or chain is forever being snared by new sprockets to orbit a new axis for half a circle—then, just as inexorably, forever freeing its vertebrae of those iron fingers to explore a new axis.  A handyman could well construct such an intriguing toy from the odds and ends of his garage, most likely (except that the cycle would have to come to an end, and sooner rather than later).  What I cannot imagine is why he should wish to do so, for orbits perpetually broken halfway through are of no conceivable use in the mechanistic world of most direct means to ends.  Perhaps as an endurance test of belts or chains….

But perhaps, from the vantage of “pure science”, this concept of the forever not-quite-captured orbit describes a real phenomenon.  Would it be possible for an interstellar object to be a one-time-visiting comet to s series of suns, bending its way around each like a skier down an ion-spluttering slalom course?  Not all comets are repeat performances.  How could we possibly know if any of these first-and-last wonders, having been catapulted out of its new orbit as it shoots wide past our Sun, proceeds to work the same gymnastic act around Barnard’s Star?  Maybe there are a great many such objects skiing from end to end of our galaxy—or, since a whirlpool really has no beginning and no end, maybe they “s” feverishly in mere eons through one galaxy before taking off after another?

It is time for me to confess, however, that this possibly imaginary concept came to me in metaphor for an undeniable moral reality beyond the abilities of human conception.  (For that matter, how many scientific “truths” have been “discovered” because man’s moral universe suggested them in metaphor?)  What I mean is this.  There is a kind of human being who passes most of his life (or sometimes her life) responding to the warm gravity of tight nuclei, yet unable ever to shoulder his way for a closer look through the tight mass thronging the center.  This traveler absorbs experiences and ponders conclusions at a rate three or four or ten or fifty times the mass’s, streaking around the wall of shoulders in an effort to see more, to understand better, to find a way in.  Ironically, acceleration is always fatal to the intended meltdown of belonging, for the crush around the pinwheel’s axis has turned the laws of vibrant existence inside-out into a syrupy, retrograde anti-matter.  Finding at last that his earnest energy, like a magnetic repulsion, takes him farther from rather than nearer to his objective, the seeker moves on to the next well-lit cluster, hoping here to find the fulfillment of that restlessness which has set his heart in motion.

There is a distinct cynicism around the edges (or, more accurately, around the core) of this metaphor, and it has not compromised my crude poetic inspiration by (as it were) mistake.  No, the sour implications are intended.  The ever denser mass which at last comes to a standstill around the galactic focal point’s great black hole is a human phenomenon.  I have seen it, not once but over and over.  I do not know that I have ever not seen it whenever I have been close to the epicenter of any human organization.  Things gel, and then they petrify.  The populist crusader who was once borne upon the shoulders of the people becomes the Chief Executive or Grand Commissary who demands that all requests for an interview be submitted in quintuplicate.  The raving prophet dressed in animal hides and withered by desert sun gathers such a following that he at last sits erotically caressing the gold armrests of the High Priest’s cathedra.  The firebrand novelist alternately threatened with prison and styled the nagging conscience of his decadent age at last grows so distracted by his laurels that he cannot compose a word without peeking at the Academy for a clue.  Though prolonged neglect by the world may starve the weak soul, brilliant success invariably anesthetizes even the strongest souls.  Energy draws people toward the center, where their light flares and their heat touches thousands—but this flourish of glory may as well be a tombstone.  Where not to find love of the people: in the Capitol.  Where not to find love of God: in the Cathedral.  Where not to find love of beauty, truth, and visionary hope: at the banquets of bards, and especially in the seats of honor.  Seeker, pass thou on.

If my metaphorical physics is too harsh, perhaps I should yield to the metaphor’s deepest recesses.  Perhaps the black hole riveting all this congealed luminosity like eternity’s nail truly has some inside-out power of transformation.  If the last shall be the first and the exalted shall be humbled, perhaps it is through this unpromising core of stellar pomp that Presidents are upended by their coattails and Bishops set upon their miters.  Perhaps the ceremony at long last—at an eschatos beyond the humanly comprehensible kind—turns out to work better even than its privileged servitors would ever have imagined.  To love a stale ceremony because staleness—one may take it on faith—is the first phase of new and perpetual invigoration… to kiss the arrogant Bishop’s hems because the spiritual force one kisses will soon shake the Bishop out of his mantle like a flea out of a rug… I can understand such devotion.  But I am not at all sure that it is less cynical than my mistrust of lighting effects.  Where it is thoughtful, I think it may be more cynical by a factor of two or three.

So I am convinced that I am in fact naïve compared to some of those who pride themselves on their innocence.  Yet more child-like than both of us—than I, the Skeptic, and than those Topsy-Turvyists, the Orthodox—is the Seeker who continues to comet around my chilly stardust and their white giants.  He questions me, and he questions them.  He wants to know more—he wants to see from closer in.  Always he is rebuffed in the final chapter or, of his own nature, recoils.  Sometimes his energy can carry him quite near to the Sun of Suns, hardly rotating at all over the Inversion Vortex.  Sometimes his childishly naïve ways actually wend him a passage under tall shoulders: sometimes his questions fall so simple-mindedly that one of the Magniloquent, reassured that no trap could be laid in such sophomorism, roars out a rather detailed answer while adjusting his corona.  Soon afterward, the Seeker is sent packing with the back of a foot and without resistance, for the answers have not satisfied him at all.  Such a person in such a position, he broods, should not have delivered such an utterance.  Too intensely settled in dismay to notice the grip of the palace guards, the Seeker adds his native restlessness to the impetus of the last guard’s boot.  The two forces together accelerate him into another orbit around a different grandee, still looking for answers.  Who will be the first to answer honestly—or to confess honestly, at least, that he lies?  Even the Grand Inquisitor of Ivan Karamazov would represent progress in this pageantry of dark brilliance.

They say that children love the truth, and I suppose it must be so.  Or I would say, instead, that children hate falsehood.  It mortally frightens them, for they are aware of how little they understand, and the prospect of someone’s exploiting this patent weakness sends them into a panic.  To lie to a child (a child would say, if he knew how) is to cheat at a game without any possibility of being detected.  It is the most unfair of all those many, many behaviors about which a child will cry, “No fair!”  For we should say, as well, that children often cheat.  They seldom do so effectively, and my own belief is that they do so not even with intent to succeed.  They have not yet learned about success: they are far more eager to bend the rule a bit and see how it snaps back.  Bending the rule is a way of admiring its rigor: playing with the truth is a way of being sure that it remains after a jostle.  Taboos are always attended by behavior which dashes half a step across their line and then scurries headlong back to safety.  In the way that children lie, we see how much they require truth to survive.

The Seeker, then, is no saint (though his curving path of broken orbits may eventually carry him into that vicinity).  Having given the angels a chance to explain heaven’s gravity, he is willing to hear out the devils as they explain hell’s.  No doubt, he is altogether too inquisitive in this regard; no doubt, it can lead to nightmares, at the very least (as can showing a child the truth about his dead and now corrupted pet).  One does not catapult from galaxy to galaxy without absorbing certain internal injuries from the contradictory forces reigning hither and yon.  I persist in believing, however, that the greatest wound of all must be that incurred wherever energy is compressed into the bright core’s deep freeze.  Here is no “bent truth” sort of falsehood, but multiple and essential truths tortured collectively into an arabesque, a horrid beauty declaring its own culture ex nihilo.  Outside, in neutral space, promises must be kept: here they must be broken to certain people at certain times, and to certain people all the time—to keep faith always is to be a traitor.  Outside, in neutral space, the powerful must not apply irresistible force to the feeble: here the powerful not only rule unchecked—they consolidate their power and crush healthy, principled resistance to feeble splinters.  The distinction between “outside” and “inside”, furthermore, can be as repellently arbitrary as standing in the wrong place—or perhaps wearing the wrong clothes or singing the wrong song.

Does it all sound like children on a playground?  But do not, for the love of God, lay the onus of these outrages upon children.  Say, rather, that the gangs and mobs which trample a bystander into green playground grass because he did not join in trampling another are the hideous flowering of adulthood.  Like the boy required by “men” to slaughter a victim and bathe in its blood or to kneel before a whore and bathe in her sweat, the child in such groups witnesses truth having its face slapped outright, over and over—and must then deal out a ritual number of slaps himself.  He is required to cast off the energy of the shooting star which has distinguished his life until that moment, and to become, instead, a lump of white-hot slag oozing its way toward the cold crush around the Leadership.  This is the instant of lost innocence—the central revelation of the Mysteries: that truth henceforth is What We Say, hence inaccessible to Those Not Ourselves.  The wailing of angels sounds like a Halleluiah chorus here, the distortion of gravity being so severe that harmonies morph and jackals sing on key.

Somehow, the Seeker shoots away from yet another paralyzed cluster, shivering this time, perhaps, as never before.  Perhaps a few more clothes, a little more epidermis, came away this time than usual in the jaws of the initiate; or perhaps the Seeker’s tender skin is simply aging, and no longer regenerates quickly or completely.  For even a celestial momentum must decline: even the Seeker must die.  The days of an aging seeker… what are they, I wonder?  Can they even be?  Forward thrust gradually diminished, wouldn’t the Seeker at last, of necessity, fall into orbit around a certain outlying lump, glowing in decay?  Or would he be likely to know the grace of a silent death in intergalactic night, like a wounded animal offering its bones to the underbrush rather than be taken home for devouring or domesticating?

If the latter… if we allow the case of one who always questioned (sometimes foolishly, always sincerely) but never actually joined… then would her soul really remain in outer darkness?  Could anything so ghastly really be true as that Truth only saves those who squeeze into the orgy of bludgeoning the questioner?  But the black hole at the orgy’s epicenter, the incalculable coil at the heart of each galaxy’s funneled spring… perhaps it spews into this very darkness all those waves of fanfare and pageantry which had their reward in their own glory.  And the reverse motion would be a plucking of lonely, crumpled carcasses from the darkness to light eternity’s true corridors.  If inversion truly happens, then… then out would go in as in goes out.

A man lately prayed a prayer over the new year—another new year that was already merging with the indistinguishable crowd of old years.  In fact, his was not at all a prayer for the future: it was a calling of God to account for that futile wreck of past disappointments.  At some juncture, one demands to speak to the boss, the manager, the guy-in-charge, even though one not only expects no satisfaction but has every reason to anticipate a working over followed by violent ejection from the premises.  In the name of honesty, one demands an explanation.  And so the man who lately prayed demanded to know what it had all been for… his life, and so forth?  He had kept the faith.  He had never lived for the flesh, despite ample opportunities to do so with impunity and constant immersion in an ethos which derided him for missing his chances.  He had never lied or fawned to secure placement or promotion, despite having fallen from what little ascendancy in the world he had ever earned thanks to a stiff neck and an unlubricated tongue.  He had embraced relative poverty: wealth, to be sure, had never offered a rival embrace with arms wide open… but to be denied the latter’s love seldom induces one to love the former in these times.  He had done his part.  He had held up his end of the deal.  Now he was aging, his body more an embarrassing nuisance than a miracle of pleasuring neurons—and whatever faint chance had once existed to claim a laureate or find a pot of gold had long, long faded into the dreams of young men, those dreams both wicked and naïve in the most intricate fashion.  To be cast upon so lonely a shore was not unanticipated, by any means.  It had been predicted: God had predicted it.  “Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the persecuted….”  No, that was not why he was demanding to speak to the manager, this man of the shouted prayer.

What made him indignant, rather, was that no gift of faith had come.  His part of the bargain, done: and all he needed now was… was the stomach to cast a pale eye daily over the luminous pageantry which he had spent his life declining.  All he needed was the conviction that nothing glisters like tinsel trash.  But in the absence, the postponed presence, of any truly perceptible light, tinsel warms the soul more than the black abyss from which one awaits miracles.  Why such stinginess?  The love, the money, the prestige… it had all been shoved to the other side of the table.  And what did he get in return?  Not even enough real faith to take him through the anguish of aging alone, in rags, and unknown.  What’s worse, surrounded by those who claimed to have the faith, and who glibly shattered and danced upon all the rules he had ever kept… must he live with their taunt, as well?  To ponder all of this all-for-nothingness daily, hourly, and not have sufficient inner strength to keep from gnashing one’s teeth.  Not even to have the comfort of going insane—just the added tease of knowing that only a lunatic could find any comfort here.  Not so much as a sign.  Not even an inner sign—a flicker of courage?  Of calm beyond despair?

Soon after, the man had his sign.  He fell as sick as the proverbial dog, the creature that sticks its nose in its own vomit, admired by Diogenes for an uninterest in controlling its bowels.

Life: gone over night, perhaps, upon the whim of a microbe.  The body: a sack of guts whose idle electric shocks can either hum or screech, like an idiot’s violin.  Wait a while.  If this is the medium in which you expect to receive fragments of harmony, why would you not expect the whole sonata?  Or if the sonata cannot be performed in this medium, how do you expect to hear a few notes?  There’s nothing here.  There’s the beginning of something here—but the code is too jumbled even to trace its contours.  If you could trace a beginning, you could project a middle and hypothesize an end, and then… but this is only the beginning’s beginning.

It is hard to pray, and even harder not to pray.  Hard not to be answered, and even harder to bear the answer.  To live steadily in the inversion would be to have one’s guts turned inside-out daily, like Prometheus.  Yet they have the gall to say, the “faithful”, that a sleek paunch is the sure sign of God’s favor.  Well, leave them to their martyrdom.  Their suffering has not yet begun.  The truth which they have tortured into elegant arabesques is roaring away at their heels, in the black hole along whose rim they wassail.

     And, Seeker, for your requiem receive an aging man’s prayer of shouts.  He shouted for the manager, and you wept and brooded that no one was in charge.  It’s not so very different: he believed in order but couldn’t find it, you had to find it before you could believe in it.  The Manager understands all that.  Would you rather, before such an understanding, be among those who created and sustained an arbitrary order—who passed their lives slowing down to admire themselves in the mirror?  No, neither would I.