The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.2 (Spring 2007)
J. S. Moseby
Επι πολυ επειρώμην λσνθαάνειν φιλοσοφων. πάντα εμαυτω και θεω.
For a long time, I strove to escape general notice in my practice of philosophy. All was between me and God.
~ Euphrates (quoted by Epictetus)
I had never actually seen this part of the city. I had been born in one area and brought up in another. I had gone away briefly as a young man, and more than once: I had been aware, even, that I was trying to break away. Perhaps I had disliked my birthplace. Or perhaps, as a young man but also a thoughtful one whom life had already humbled, I had merely wanted to find out how many of my youthful miseries were the city’s fault, and how many life’s.
No one would ever have called it a beautiful city—not even me, in my most youthful stage. Even before I had entered the world of people (or of the children of people, for “people” take years to approach)—even before I had embarked upon a series of very harsh demonstrations that only your flesh-and-blood relations ever feel disposed to smile at you—I had already sensed the impermeability of things, such that none ever really mingled with another. So long ago, so close to my first memories of sunlight on flowers and night shadows around doorways, I was already dimly aware that life in my birthplace had a distinct hardness. It was mineral-hard, this city: I would learn that kind of hardness first, and then I would have it in waiting metaphor to express the other kind. White rocks, turquoise lakes, and skies that either turned slate by winter or bronze by summer… the city’s buildings and asphalt simply extended the rock faces and shallow, glass-flat waters all around them.
When I began to read the words of Jesus on my own, as an early adolescent, it made sense to me that John the Baptist would eat locusts and honey, that Jesus himself could walk on water, and that his body should be sealed up in the side of a cliff. Their world was my world. I knew all about sputtering insects, about flat water, and about dry stones bearing the imprint of the planet’s first skeletons.
But there were enough flowers for sunlight to fall upon, as well, that I grew up hungry for lands of more green than white. Then, too, it occurs to me that I must never really have known the city so very well; for how else could I have been so surprised by one of its older parts? An ant raised in the crease between earth and bolder does not, I suppose, know much of the boulder forming half of its horizon. I had spent my childhood on this outskirt or that one, shuttled back and forth between this destination and that one. And in the meantime, the city changed. Outskirts became sub-cities, their names more and more spoken to designate something like a township or borough. It seemed natural enough. The white rock and bronze sky with a sliver of silver liquid between were more like a primal bag of elements than a stable locus with a distinct identity. Men with telescopes long ago gave romantic names to the features of the Moon. I don’t suppose, however, that you would think “sea” or “valley” as you trudged along the lunar surface looking for a place to sink your insulated igloo. Dust and rock, rock and dust… and more stars overhead than bluebonnets in a prairie at April. We had those stars, too. Before the city’s glass-and-steel cliffs grew too high and numerous, and before its glass-and-steel traffic churned up an abiding haze of fumes, we could probably count about as many stars as the Man in the Moon. But they weren’t our stars. I learned to love stars, all right, by growing up in that city, but I didn’t feel any fonder of the city for yielding a vast gap to stars in its barrenness.
Yet I came back. I always seemed to come back, as a homesick astronaut, maddened by the Moon’s light gravity into thinking the Earth within one big jump of him, would keep falling back into the dust. I left my mineral landscape and found my wife in a land of trees—where she, too, seemed to be oddly lost. Then back I came, dragging her into such an exile as only an astronaut might have imagined. Yet she stayed with me, much as she missed her trees; for she had been as out of place in her home as I was in mine. I think she must have understood me better then, seeing how I looked into empty spaces for something not there. She must have understood that I missed the trees, if possible, even more than she; because she had passed her childhood among trees, and then been banished from them—whereas I had only ever been able to dream of green, and thereafter only found it at last to have it taken from me. She had had to board a spaceship to reach a white-rock asteroid like mine: I was the lunar colonist trying to jump back to the Earth. The wilderness (as the Bible calls it) was her adventure, though an unwelcome one. It was my home, my destiny, my damnation. My destiny was to be damned—to have such a place as a home.
But I fought that destiny—we fought it. Back to the trees. This time, we had a child. Like Joseph and Mary. He was the sweetest child a man could ever have hoped for, and I was as proud as Joseph. But then, Joseph was coming home after attempting to run away when Jesus was born. I was running away… and, all too soon, I had to come home again. I couldn’t sustain the leap, with a baby in one arm and a wife in the other, even though the gravity behind me was negligible. It was as though the tree people were frightened by my long stares, by my silences. I didn’t do well among them. I made them uneasy, and they gave the work I needed to others. My skin was their color, my language was theirs; I worked my hours, checked my work. I was a good man. In the evening, I entered my house justified. But I was a man of the wilderness. If I had worn a beard to my waist, or if I had toasted a plate of locusts before their eyes, I couldn’t have been more abhorrent. I felt that in them, in how they looked at me. And I felt mortified—for I felt a horror of myself.
Yet the horror I felt was a horror of my city, of my mineral asteroid. So to return there was to be immersed in horror rather than to be relieved of it. For now I had both a wife and a son; and my son, who was dearer to me than all the world’s trees and sunlight with a red bow on top, would have to bear the damnation that I had borne. He would grow up a prophet, as well. He would suffer that terrible blessing.
For I knew now that I was blessed—that such lonely agony was too dry and pure for damnation, and could only be prophecy. I could see clearly, having passed my life between sun and shade, between white and green, that people who had never left the city did not share my curse. They went about an orderly existence, from day to day, year to year, like ants burrowing new tunnels to match shifting seasons, never measuring the boulder that filled half their horizon. They built more asphalt avenues, more glass-and-steel cliffs, more glass-and-steel carapaces. They guarded or stole treasure, switched on or ran from strobe lights and sirens, thumped oaken gavels or slept against iron bars. They carved up the carcasses of livestock, loaded and set off fireworks, raised busy rhythms from mineral detritus, set themselves afire in drunken collisions, leapt from towers in suicidal ecstasy, drowned while sunbathing in silver lakes, buried each other’s mortal remains, and celebrated the good life in rare moments of leisure. They understood nothing. And to them, too, I was a stranger.
If I were to write that I began to know joy, it would be a shocking incongruity. If I were to write, more accurately, that I often surprised myself in such dry, bleak contemplation that I could scarcely restrain a fullness of tears, it would surely seem entirely insane. I had not suffered great miseries, really, whatever I wrote earlier about my lessons in human hardness—only one misery, and it not great, but always renewed: the loneliness, the emptiness. I had thought to fill my loneliness with a wife, and then a child; but in this flesh and blood of mine, I now saw only two people condemned to my loneliness, perhaps forever more, and without my strange understanding of it. Without my bizarre, insane love of it. In the same way, I discovered that I loved this city, so devoid of everything, so inside-outed on every possible surface toward the something-else. And my love left me numb.
My wife, who had perhaps shortened her life by interlacing it with mine, grew concerned about my health. I slept fitfully, as the word “sleep” is commonly intended; yet there were times when, wide awake, I couldn’t seem to rouse whatever it is within us that we call “lively”. I would answer questions and go about my business, yet feel as though a great hard stone sat right beneath my ribs. At other times, that paradoxical sensation of the stone’s being so hard, so dry, that it must at last erupt into a burst of sobs… I had such moments in equal number, though nobody would have guessed. I did not restrain tears, for that suggests a kind of grief fighting to break the gate down. It was more as if I could see at a glimpse the entire lifespan, the utter and pitiful futility, of every being who passed before my eyes, but was also—in the same instant of study—missing some soft, redemptive comedy about or within these tales. And so I never sobbed, because… because, intellectually, I grasped that such a response would be a misunderstanding of the flowers opening before me. Yet my increased attention did not increase my understanding, and the stone beneath my ribs balanced like a might-be Humpty-Dumpty. In fact, I felt more and more that childhood held the key to it all—my childhood, everyone’s childhood. I felt that we were all really trying to get out of our childhood or get back to our childhood, or doing one as a means of doing the other… but I couldn’t define this mystical dynamism any better than I have just written it, try as I might. And so I, a Humpty-Dumpty in waiting, would read children’s stories to my little son at the end of the day while stroking his hair, and think about how the Greeks had used the word “head”—kara—as a term of endearment for their little ones, and marvel that thought could open so many vistas at once without ever bringing any of them fully into focus.
Talk of my seeing a specialist began to stir, though I always met it with silence. Yet at some day of what was now a second or third year “back home”, I began to understand that the visit would possibly heal my wife. I was surprised that her own health might be suffering out of her concern for mine. It was not the sort of emotion I had ever known in my lunar land of white noons and bright midnights . I who could read entire lives at a glance… I was surprised that someone would willingly martyr herself to ease a prophet’s fate. Perhaps nothing had ever moved me so much.
That was how we came to travel to the new part of town—an older part of the town, it must have been, but one that was new to me. We drove along the arrow-straight road, all three of us, which declared one rim of the silver lake: the man-made silver lake which was among the first things men had scooped from the rock. A man-made city of glass and steel ran high into the west on our other side, the mellowing bronze west of an aging day. Somewhere beyond those vying steel cliffs that grew, almost, before the eye—pressing its shoulder on each individual one of them, it seemed, so that they bent low over us—was the insistent sun.
A silver rail along the silver lake, and our car’s shadow smoothly walking water just beyond, where the rail’s shadow also fell in a line parallel to our movement, like a track…I recall those images now as a kind of magical key. A lock was turning in a door—a door whose existence I had never expected, never heard of, not in all my years of skirting this city, trying to escape it, and tumbling back into its dust. But then I began to doubt that this was true; I began to wonder, in fact, if this door was among the first things I had ever learned. I saw my son gaze out the rear window, indifferent to the concrete boxes and steel staircases on his other hand. And I recall that I recalled, or thought I could recall, being five years old myself and driving along this avenue. How puny must the titanic steel playground on the shoreline have been, so long ago, though even then not puny to a boy of five… yet I, too, must have paid no notice to anything but the water, for I couldn’t even find an artificial memory of a skyline. More hypnotic than the city’s growing-before-the-eye dynamism, the lake’s flat, placid mirror stood still as we ran along our track. Perhaps something in its shallow alkaline sheet—something more mineral than vegetable, something neither soluble nor able to be vaporized—was the very same now beneath my son’s fixed gaze as it had been beneath mine, two decades before I ever saw a forest.
My wife, who claimed to know the way, drove the two of us, thus mesmerized, to a part of town which we, perhaps, could not have relocated on a map—neither man nor boy. How strangely it pains me to think that I could not this instant start up a car and recover those tranquil streets within an hour… strangely, because I should be pained even more, perhaps, to know that the borough was really on the map. I prefer to think of it as a vision—even though, to do so, I must accept that I shall never see it again.
The buildings were great bookcases, each at least four or five stories tall. One shelf of books per story, a glass lid lowered over each full row of spines, the spines figuring at seven or eight feet high where they were shortest… these were the sights I saw at a glance.
My wife parked the car along one of the many empty curbs, and either of us grabbed a hand of the child as we emerged upon a cool sidewalk. I moved slowest, for it seemed that I was even more amazed than the child. I tried to read the lettering of the spines across the street, since the ones towering behind me, at my neck, flattened any letters to gilt streaks as a straight highway flattens sunlight to mirages… and real sunlight there was, too, far above where wooden cornices shelved a blue zenith: the highest of the glass lids caught the crouching sun and turned it to white fire. So I shook off the sting of fire in my eyes and the buzz of vertigo in my head, making the other two wait, and sought the other side of the street. A “P” or an “R” for a second-story window, a “V. 32” where a modest balcony might have been… but the words would not come together. Their perpendicular rise above me was still too steep; and the vast glass sheets which covered them, though transparent, threw a ghostly film between us.
We settled in, at last, to a slow walk toward a quiet intersection, where a band of late sunlight smiled beyond our cool ocean bottom. For I thought of crawling like clawed crustacean along an ocean bottom, whose great forests of kelp the filtered sun stroked all along the shoulders, whispering, “Grow… grow.” And then I thought of a forest. “This is what a forest is like,” I said to my little boy. “This is more like a forest than most forests you will ever see.”
A car passed somewhere like a sigh in a dream, not mindful of itself, not dangerous to anyone. The intersection was strung with a streetlight of three precious stones: ruby, amber, and emerald. We had admired their luster for half a blcok, varying like the different settings of a sunken treasure’s necklace rolled now here, now there by the ocean’s current. None of us, however, observed the color as we walked the deep shadows beneath the light’s long cable. We would have heard another car sighing a great way off, if one had turned toward us.
Beyond this central avenue, things thinned out and drew back. The sunlight drove freely down the lane which we now paralleled, though it seldom grazed our hair or shoulders. I watched it making for the distant east, flat and white and heavened, far away, by a deeper blue. I could feel the vast, flat company of the lake beyond the lean buildings to my right: their very leanness, squatness, sameness, told me that they were balancing on the lip of a void. The facades beside us must have been much the same, though I never turned to study them. They were flat and shadowed, now quite without glass or books. Yet I could feel the continued presence of great height just behind them, just beyond them. I could hear an indescribably rich silence of huge volumes—pages and pages in leather binding which soaked up sound as they had already soaked up the maturest thoughts of the age’s intensest lives. I wondered if the letters inside would be each one the size of my hand… or if, instead, my hand would have covered fifty lines, so that a second story’s occupants alone might have contained a full age in all earthly languages. “Is it far?” my little boy asked.
We entered a door to our left at once, as if his question had been a signal. I could see nothing now. I followed the tug of the small hand in mine, its own cues received from the determined soul who led the other hand—who had long researched, apparently, the details of the specialist’s lair. A kind of halo down a dark corridor became the phosphorescent semicircle of numbers tracking an elevator’s progress. People were gathered here—the first human group we had seen since leaving the car. Almost a dozen forms, perhaps, shifted uneasily in the dusk, silent of voice yet audible in their rustling clothes and shoes dragged through the carpet. Our approach had disturbed them, as if we represented competition for the magical ascent which, yet, never seemed to throw open its arms.
We passed them by without a word, and a panel opened where the corridor ended. A nurse all in white appeared as from the wall (only her appearance, in fact, alerted me to the entrance). “The doctor is ready,” she said to me; and then, to my wife and child, “Please wait here.” I watched them over my shoulder until the closing panel erased their faces. Beyond their gentle glow, I noticed that the people in the hallway stood agape as if I were slamming an eternal prison’s gate upon them.
The nurse led me through a long space which might have been another broad, carpeted corridor but for the bookshelves on both walls, ascending from floor to wherever a high, dark ceiling finally settled. I could not see well. There were no windows, and light appeared to mist uniformly, but very faintly, from somewhere near the carpet, or perhaps from some of the lower shelves. Yet I was put at ease by the renewed prospect of so many books. The room or corridor had no furnishings but for these, yet seemed, through their mere presence, densely packed by more than a typical crowd. These were disembodied minds and souls, politely silent, their two covers folded in upon their life’s most considered observations as owls in discreet legion might tuck in their wings to perch fraternally side by side. I longed to pause and stray just enough to read some of the titles. The nurse’s advancing white figure, however, appeared so confident of being followed that I kept meekly to its heels.
I was ushered through one more opening. The scene scarcely changed in the specialist’s “office”. All I noticed instantly was that the light increased and the number of book-lined walls was doubled. The very door through which I entered briefly, forgettably disrupted the running of wrap-around shelves, as did an identical door in the opposite wall. The light appeared to flow now from the ceiling, though still a soft, pallid dust without a trace of glare. There was a chair or two, besides—perhaps a desk or two. In the company of so many books whose gilt-lettered spines were now almost legible, I paid little attention to furniture.
The nurse would not permit me to range closer, but had me, instead, to mount upon the kind of chaise-longue—full of hinges and levers, its cushions clothed in antiseptic paper—which I recalled seeing in other medical settings. She swiveled a heavy but well-oiled device before me face without a sound. It seemed a sort of helmet for travel to another planet. I noticed at once that there were eye-holes.
“Please look in and read the sentence.”
I examined the holes close up, leaning into them like the oculars of two telescopes. A milky field occupied their joined oval once I had focused, and letters began to swim from left to right without offering any particular challenge in size, shape, or speed.
“’I do not know’…” I read aloud, “’what it is that I must do.’”
She removed the mask and collected something from its well-oiled nerve center—some print-out or photographic negative or computer disk. Then she added, as if herself reading, “Most people laugh. You may be the first who hasn’t.”
“Perhaps… perhaps it surprises them to hear such a thing stated simply out of their own mouths….” I failed to finish, or perhaps barely finished. She had already disappeared through the far door.
Alone now, I might have scrutinized the books to my heart’s content. It was not a false sense of propriety which held me back. The truth is that my heart was already fully content. Perhaps I had never known such contentment. For I could tell from where I sat that these were all books to be read—not consulted or referenced, but read from cover to cover, though frequently put down so that one might think upon their words. They were not thin and fragile like learned journals, nor fat and demanding like encyclopedias. None of them needed an oversized shelf, and none was swallowed in the shadows of its neighbors. Leather-bound, they seemed, and gilt-lettered, like publications intended to last, to become legacies—like oracles at once recognized as such by editors, publishers, and binders—deposits of ideas that would not go out of style or grow laughably dated by later research. Novels, perhaps, and poetry… and plays, dialogues, philosophy… letters and biographies, too—but only those whose authors knew that universal, eternal truth required specific, custom-fettered example to come clear to the general eye. They were human, so human: the most human gathering to which I had ever been admitted. For a gathering of flesh-and-blood humans is inevitably prowled by the inhuman, as well.
“What do you think of it all?”
The specialist’s voice was my first perception of him, yet it did not startle me. Far from it: the voice, rather, belonged in this square, carpeted room padded in fine, rare books up to the ceiling. If the books had spoken—if one of them, at least, had spoken up—such would have been its gentleness, humor, and modesty.
“I think… that it is all here,” I said simply, after much thought.
“Yes. What it means, you know. Not hours of the day or years of the century… not numbers pulled out of a hat. One is born, and one dies. This day is as good as that to live or to die, and every day has many births and deaths. But… but the truth. Or the struggle toward the truth…yes. I think here—here, in this room, and also out there where I entered, and then beyond in the streets, under those magnificent stacks… I think I understand. I think this is the place where all the human struggle has been set down. On the ridge of the continent’s watershed, so far from fertile lands where grass grows and animals graze that the rain must be imprisoned after it falls… so near the sun that the rocks blanch like bones… high and dry. Of course. It is the perfect place to file away the story of the human race. Or the record of the human struggle. For this is evidence of a sort, isn’t it?”
“Do you think so? How?”
“Evidence… that we truly lived. That we did not just exist, but that some of us struggled to understand. And we cried out to others… or whispered, as we figured ourselves more likely to be heard. We wrote it down. Not many listened… very few. And of the few, perhaps not many understood… though, I think, to want to understand is already—largely—to understand. Or to understand enough. Or to be forgiven… perhaps that’s what I mean. To be forgiven for not understanding. For that is… that’s why the evidence. The testimony… it is a running testimony. No one, no man in any age, will be able to say that he didn’t hear. He may not have listened, but he must have heard. For here is the testimony—walls and walls of it, building upon building.”
“And they sit here, then—these books—waiting for a day of reckoning… is that what you believe?”
“Yes. Yes, that is what I believe. Oh, the reckoning—it will not be overly harsh. Perhaps it will even be wonderfully gentle, as quiet as this room. Full of the silence of completed understanding, at last, absorbing all the noise of eons—all the shouts and howls and screams and jeers and wails—absorbing all, assembling all. For the authors, you know—they who have borne witness—they would not have set it all down so painfully if they did not intend for others to read. Their neighbors, their enemies, the strangers who were their neighbors… but also the unborn, those who would come later. The words set down were tears for later, hands for later, that the later-arrived might begin to understand. For an author, of all people, would know that most people cannot bear to understand, especially in their own time—that many may try, but will lack the courage. And the author speaks for them as well as against them—he testifies in their behalf even as he denounces their treachery. For they have made him, after all, in some strange way. Without them, banishing him and heaping anguish on his head, he should have had nothing to say. It is pain that gives a voice… in this world, at least, it is so. These books, they understand that. All of them, I should say, understand that much.”
We paused for a very great while. Then the specialist shook his head. “Still, though… it’s a pity. Nobody ever reads them any more. All these books… books upon books upon books… and nobody ever reads a single one. Some of their languages have been forgotten. And some of them use an idiom no longer understood in its own language, or speak of extinct customs which are as strange to people now as the bones of an ancient behemoth.”
“I was thinking about that,” I admitted. “I was thinking that I saw myself, up there on a top shelf somewhere. You come to tell me how my life progresses, how many days remain to me…perhaps it is set down there on your clipboard. But your room has already prophesied to me. To die, and then to live on as if dead—dead, at least, to this world. A book on the top shelf… yes, that will be me. All my life, I’ve tried to utter something that I desperately needed to phrase just right, that I desperately wanted others to hear. I made a book of my life… a book that no one read. It was a beautiful book, like these—and perhaps it reads like some of these. Or many. Perhaps like most. But on a given day, or year, or even century, it will rest between its neighbor books untouched, unsought by any fingers. Only dust will feel its pages, and only where no print appears. And to think, doctor, that every book from wall to wall to wall—from top to bottom—is a life like mine… not the same life, not the same words, but an urgent testimony on whose behalf life was sacrificed—or some of those things, you know, that others call living, the ones who do not really live, who have no book. We who wrote… there was such agony, such intensity in our days. And here is where we end. Somehow a full shelf makes a little more space each time one of us needs a place, each time the covers are stitched up around our days and our testimony set to rest until eyes that understand may read it. In my mind’s eye, I can see the view from the top shelf right now. No one will ever find me… no one will even come looking for me. Not until the judge reads the testimony. If some lost nomad were to wander into this sanctuary looking for wine or gold, the ignorance in his mind—were he to rip down my volume by chance—would not be darker than that in the laughter of my generation. He would not be able to change a single letter into a sound: they would not be able to construct a single thought from the sounds they seemed to recognize.. Yes… it’s decidedly sad. A pity.”
“But… which is sad, do you mean? The book or the barbarian—the life of a dead soul or the life after death?”
“Why, all of it. All of it is sad. But there is a great beauty to it—a sublime beauty. Not for the barbarian, or for the butterflies in their day of life… but to be able to see it all, even forgotten and untouched, on the top shelf…. To be able, perhaps, to see the whole city from the highest bookcase’s cornice—and so the whole continent in both directions, and all the life that has ever walked it… I suppose that’s bound to seem sad. If it were not, would it be true? Would it give peace? For it strikes me that I have never been at peace unless I was sad, because only then did I feel myself near the truth.”
“And is there no joy, then, in truth?”
“Of course… of course! That is what I mean, what I’ve just been describing. The joy!”
“Ah!” The specialist nodded long, his eyes fixing at every bow of the head more intently on his clipboard. “And your wife… does not understand?”
“I am afraid it may be killing her not to understand better,” I confirmed.
“Life is killing us, young man—killing us all!” Then the specialist drew himself up with a sigh. “Do you wish to know the results of your examination?”
“Everything is in the eyes, if one only knows what to look for. The ophthalmometer reads you as you read—reads you like a book, following your eye movements, peering at your brain through the eyeball: it knows things instantly that conventional methods would require weeks to diagnose, or would perhaps mis-diagnose. The eyes are windows upon the soul—but also, it turns out, upon our body’s destiny.”
“Tell my wife… that the results are fine.”
“If this is your wish…”
“Perfectly fine. And tell the ophthalmometer that everything has always been fine, all of it. Even destiny has always been fine.”
“The ophthalmometer,” smiled the specialist, “will not understand.”
When we three left the specialist’s office, hand in hand in hand, the late day seemed never to have aged a single moment—or perhaps one single moment. The sunlight gently played in our hair, yet a faint breeze somehow waved it from our eyes. We walked westward, but into a warm west. I could already see, high up, a congealed splash of white where the tallest shelves of oldest books rested patiently under glass.
J. S. Moseby has been a steady contributor to Praesidium for years now. His short stories frequently have a “magic realism” touch, as this one certainly does. Mr. Moseby currently resides with his family in the Atlanta area, where he works at freelance writing.