A Thoroughly Modern Novel

That Hideous Strength is not without its virtues. There are good ideas: power hungry modernism is bad. Men and women are different. Places are important. Surrealism is dangerous. There are also good elements: a boss who practices astral projection. Lunar sex bots. Merlin in the modern day. A bloody banquet overrun by beasts.

However, I shouldn’t have had to read 400 pages of people talking about these things in order to experience them. It’s really that simple. For all he rails about the danger of grand ideas eclipsing nature, the nature of the book conveys the story dead on arrival and pickled in Lewis’s own conceptual juices. He himself fails to fully convey the rich abundance of the nature that he praises. There are shadows of brilliant moments, such as the banquet. But that should have been when all the characters and movements converged, though they don’t. There was not much movement to begin with, just talking. There wasn’t much character to begin with, either, just talk-pieces. The enemies are dealt with anti-climatically and impersonally, although that one scene with all the naked men covered in blood was surprising.

I think that people who enjoy That Hideous Strength are understandable but misguided. They are the sort of people who agree with C.S. Lewis and are dazzled by his ideas. I, too, appreciate his ideas. But Lewis in so many ways fails his own standard. He spouts so many good, thoughtful ideas about life and nature, but never makes those ideas come to life. He never tells a story.

It’s hard to appreciate some of the ideas because I am seventy years downstream of them, and have either indirectly gotten them from people influenced by Lewis or just stumbled upon them myself. However, there were some personally challenging insights. For example, at one point a main character is placed in a room full of alienating, surreal, and quite funny pictures. They depict such vagaries as a woman with a mouth full of hair, a mantis eating another mantis playing the fiddle, beetles crawling under the table at the Lord’s Supper, fun stuff like that.

These are normally things that I would be greatly amused by, things that I would be pleased to create or propagate. But in context, the paintings are being used by the evil scientists to brainwash the character, to alienate him from the idea that art can be meaningful. This was contrasted with the growing conviction that the main character had of a reality which was Normal and Good and Straight. Without analyzing 20th century art movements, which I still think are valuable to contemplate and simply don’t know enough about to judge, this moment in the book struck a chord with me. I find in myself a growing distaste for the bizarre, one that runs contrary with the custom of my teenage years. Am I slowly becoming normcore? Hm. Maybe I’m just realizing how boring I really am, after all.

Or, maybe I’m bored by the perverse and how long I’ve been occupied by it. By pursuing the interesting (that which delights the eyes) for so long, I’ve become a very boring, slippery person. Hard to talk to. I think there’s something unpleasant about the nonsensical in the way that it can be so easily manufactured and presented delightfully in a given story, and then put on t-shirts at Hot Topic. What does the quirky have to do with pursuing The Ultimate Good? I don’t want to spend my whole life collecting interesting tidbits and images to adorn my head. I’ve already spent my whole life doing that, and I’m tired.

And yet, I am still delighted by a film like a Mood Indigo. Absurdity is not bad. The deep silliness of something like Mood Indigo, though, is still meaningful. Though often nonsensical in the particulars, it is always very relatable to the very straightforward romance taking place, unhindered by the fantastical amusements taking place around it. Though perhaps that is a problem in of itself: if all these odd elements are being depicted onscreen, why do they have zero effect on the characters? Hm.

In the past I wrote a theological defense of the weird. Reading it over, I see that I anticipated a lot of what I’m feeling now and responded to it. But I don’t know if I responded to it well enough. Quirkiness is (much of the time) very shallow, and it’s a way for clever guys to get away with being lazy or effeminate. But, when it goes beyond just signals, it can be the means for something new and healthy and creative coming about. I don’t want to be just a quirky, effeminate man. But I do want to offer something new, healthy, and creative. I refuse to go down the aesthetic road of middle-aged, midwestern bankers that so many say is Normal and Good and Straight.

I suppose I don’t see any way for me NOT to be quirky and effeminate in my day to day life. Where are the trees for me to chop down? Where are the seas for me to sail? Where are the women for me to court? Ah, anyway, if I saw a real tree, sea, or woman, I’d run and hide. I have, and I did.

One thing that immediately rises to the mind is a defense of the mysterious and the arcane, something that is naturally disliked by the mainstream world, secular and evangelical. This would also be opposed to the shallowly surreal or absurd; the mysterious is deeply meaningful and personal and intimate, just not fully understood. The absurd (or attempted absurdity, let’s say), I find to my great disappointment, can often be understood quite well, and divvied up and sold too easily. What can’t be sold? That would be a rare and precious thing, and far from here, and if I did see such a thing I’d run and hide.

To be true to your sex, that is, to be a manly man or womanly woman, you really just have to be faithful in any given garden you’ve been placed in. You have to know your body and what ought to be done with it–to it! Faithfulness and open eyes, I think, will lead one past the quirky and past the boring and quite suddenly into the mysterious, arcane, and beautiful.

With That Hideous Strength, Lewis may not have been faithful to the nature of storytelling. But I think he was faithful to his calling as a man of letters. He thought great thoughts and shared them, and I am grateful to have read them.

Playthings are good. Weird conceptual chimeras can be very fun. I don’t think I need to force myself to stop enjoying the bizarre; it’s worth playing with and contemplating! It can lead to beautiful visions and new insights about natures. But I have played and played and played for so long. I want something Real. I want something Good. Do I need to work for that? I don’t need to work for my salvation, after all. Maybe I am being offered a work that I am unwilling to receive.

On Solitude

4.29.2026

Ah, here is the final affliction I must bear. Greetings, solitude.

Dear solitude, what have you come here to teach me? Before in my life, I have always chosen you. Now you have chosen me, you have singled me out, and the lessons seem too hard to learn. My first flirt with you was in high school, when I isolated myself from my mother and my father and my little sister. I lived in the basement of that house on 1st Street in Geneva, Illinois, and I took you into my arms like a woman I have lived with for a decade and have come to rely on for warmth.

Now you stare at me and it is you who have chosen me. I don’t think I want to welcome you back, but there you are, standing out in the street, and I hasten to welcome you in. I’ve found that I’ve become lonely. I didn’t know it could be like this, I didn’t know I would ever be able to understand the ache of wanting to hold so badly my nephew’s hand. I didn’t know it could be this cold, I didn’t know I would hold onto that discordant note of a Jackson Browne song for so boldly long.

I have hoped to discover who I am when I have been given all the time alone in the world and I find that I am someone stripped of his friends. They are here and there, in their own lonely states, all very many phone calls or weeks away, all very many emails that we are both failing at replying to, all very dead, all very changed, all very someone else, all very very much in Europe.

In July, I turn thirty. I would like to reflect on a journal entry I wrote ten years ago this night to shed light on how I am feeling now. It was the first time I turned to books as friends. That night, I invited a friend over to my apartment to write papers together. The window was open and a great noise was coming from far away. None of us agreed about where it might be coming from and we tried ignoring it, but failed. We were two weeks out from graduation—no, twelve days—and we were both having a hard time of focusing on the papers at hand. I was writing a paper on Greek exegesis of the young man who sheds his cloak in the Garden of Gethsemane. The main point I wanted to make was that he shed his cloak, because he did not want to embrace the Passion of Jesus with him. He shed the same death cloak that Jesus’ dead corpse would be covered with. I see now how I have very much been that young man these past ten years. Maybe this young man, whoever he was, shed his cloak in such an emotional rush, because he realized the disparity between what he had planned for his life and the life that did not present itself to whoever might follow Jesus. I know I have felt this disparity in my bones many times. I break out in a cold sweat. Lord, let it not be me! I will be the first to shed my jacket, at the tug of fate on my sleeve. At the first tug of time on my sleeve.

I have been shed of the jacket of my friends, the outer garment of my friends. And I have run away naked, I know, and here I am standing on the edge of Gethsemane, looking into the darkness, the flickering torches disappearing down the hill and towards Jerusalem, but my toes are on the edge of the outer city limits. And I look on at that entourage of fate that passed me by and I find myself, naked, covering myself, and the disciples of Jesus—here is Peter, James, and John—coming towards me with my jacket.

“Here,” Peter says to me, “You left this.”

I see in Peter’s eyes that he knows he is just like me. He knows that he is guilty of not understanding the way. We have our own ways of going about misunderstanding. And there we find one another, both having shed our closest friends.

But that night, ten years ago, my friend and my two roommates (what a strange time in my life!) went out to go find the great noise coming from outside. I chose not to go with, thinking that maybe I could find some other friends to spend my time with, or else devote myself to finishing that paper. I called a few people, I roamed about, I poked into my neighbor’s apartment. No one was anywhere. It was just me, I realized. My brother, who I thought surely might be in town, was in Seattle. And my other friend, Evan, turned out being in Indiana of all places. You see, someone was dying.

Now as I realized my plight, that tingling feeling began emanating in the core of my being. It was that feeling of solitude that so rarely creeps up on me. It is usually a feeling that I go out and get and reject, leave behind, shed my friends and all others. But here I was, having been torn away from my outer garment. And what did I do? Well, what could I do? All the sudden, I wanted to do and feel everything I possibly could. I was full of the desire to get married, but just as much was I filled with a desire to go out and drive very fast in a car, but also cry—no, weep—and call my mother, or my dad, speak to someone who knows me intimately, take hallucinogenic drugs, sympathize with the dying, reach out and grasp on for something, whether it be a cigar or many drinks, get drunk, read the Bible, pray, be taken back in time, go forward, write a journal entry about myself ten years in the future, write my book finally, avoid my paper—but also write it—read as much as I could, fall asleep, steal flowers, work out, learn how to bake bread, prophesy and dream dreams and go to church and then to a bar and dance, roam the streets at night, knock on the doors of strangers, watch a movie, play video games, listen to all the music I have ever loved, stare at myself for hours in the mirror, strike a pose, burn all my clothes and start over, cook a great soup, despise myself for not having accomplished enough, fix a friend’s life, not die, die, become all men at the all times, understand…but the one thing I desperately did not want was to have solitude choose me.

This is what happens every time that solitude chooses you. Solitude is that force that pushes you everywhere where it does not dig in. Solitude breeds in us every desire, no matter how divorced those directions might be from one another. You refuse to accept it and you will accept anything else, as long as it is not solitude. Solitude bares all its teeth, and each tooth is a different canine desire. And you refuse to enter into that empty, hollow silence inside the stomach of its heart.

I am so surprised that I have made it this far in life. At twenty, I did not believe I would ever make it to twenty-one. And now, I just might make it out of my twenties. Who am I? Am I all that I have done? If that’s the case, I haven’t done enough. Why did I choose to be alone? I sacrificed everything on the altar of projects, on books, on visions and ambition, but no one has ever given me any money. And heck, why should they? No one has ever read any of my books.

But this journal entry, looking back at the past thirty years of my life, could be a pessimistic one. Instead, I have no reason to be pessimistic about what God has done with me. Or, I should say, how he has held me. At sixteen, I was overcome with imagination. At seventeen, image. At eighteen, ambition. At nineteen, death. At twenty, fear. And that was the year that God broke me, the year I submitted. My life has not been the same ever since and I am still learning what it means to be holy, but I know that there is no other way I would rather live my life. Yes, people do not know about my books—but did God ever want that? God has blessed me immeasurably, he has rescued me from every pit and false machination I could ever have devised for myself. And now when the old devils come roaring back, I point at them and say, “I know who you are, I know who you are! You are the one who tried destroying me!” And he points at me and says, “What were you going to do with me, Caleb of Illinois?” And I say to him, “Be silent. I will not let you speak.” And he is quiet and God takes the demon out of me. The past decade has been the decade of exorcisms. Praise the Lord. I have not died yet.

Perelandra Imperiled

Or not, because nothing much happens.

There are a few wonderful images in this book. First, the main character spends the entirety of the story naked, which is great. I wish more books went like that. Secondly, the ever-shifting floating islands of Perelandra have to be one of the most interesting world mechanics I’ve encountered in a long time. I love the planet itself, its islands and golden dome of a sky. The third image that sticks out is the moment when Ransom is forced to mercy kill an alien crab. Not only is that a disturbing moment, but it is effective foreshadowing for an even more disturbing and powerful scene. To what ends would you go to protect Eve from being tempted and plunging the entire world into sin?

However, with that paragraph, I’ve just about summed up everything worthwhile about the story. The rest is either a lot of needless bloviating or a lot of cosmic/spiritual speculation that would be interesting if it was anything more than speculation. The book could have easily been a hundred pages shorter, and I could have saved an hour or more. I’d love to make an abridged version some time.

Apparently an opera was written based off this book. I would love to see it. You can listen to some audio clips here: http://www.transpositions.co.uk/cslewis-science-fiction/

One thing that’s worth noting is the high density of double entendre. I’d love to see a Freudian analysis of the work. I won’t name any specific lines, but I’m sure you could find a few suggestive moments yourself if you just flip through a few chapters. I know that some of the innuendo had to be intentional, it being the planet Venus and all, but with a lot of it I’m just not sure…

(pillars of burning blood)
As funny as I find all of it, there’s a sort of perversity that I don’t want to be encouraging, that sort of salacious pleasure that some people get out of obsessive homoerotic readings of such texts. So I’m sorry if I’ve crossed a line by suggesting anything close to that and offended anyone’s conscience.

All in all, the book gives me hope. For one, it shows that someone can start off as a highly conceptual and pompous writer but then end up writing works as well plotted and exciting as the Chronicles of Narnia. Secondly, it shows that with just a few cool images and a lot of philosophy, you can convince someone to write an opera for you. I don’t claim to be as smart as C.S. Lewis, but being in my own writing similarly conceptual, pompous, and bad at having story elements actually interact with each other, I come away from his work with hope.

an essay that will most surely disappoint you, on the fear of death and sleeping masks and my total, abject failure to reference the GREAT SIGNIFICANCE that surely resides in the symbol of the sleeping mask and its relation to my fear of death, OR: an excoriation, a vituperation if you will, of a certain form of Caleb who needs to get smashed to bits.

The idea of a sleeping mask became pretty appealing to me after I tore the shades out of my bedroom window. I made this rash decision, because they were very dusty, chipped, and looked bad. I couldn’t stand looking at them—and they were all lopsided and spiders loved to make their little pasty homes in the corners of the window behind the shades. And the shades reminded me of the terrible shades in a house I once grew up in, shades that always housed a buzzing wasp. I’ve been using a sleeping mask to sleep for the past few nights. This has been the biggest decision in my life. Joking! The biggest decision in my life was not to plan too much for the future. Now, all I have to do is decide this every day for the rest of my life. I will not consider the end specifically. I will consider my end each day, as it presents in the day. There is nothing tragic about my life, because every time I renounce myself and give myself freely, I have learned that the rewards always far outweigh the rewards I get when I hoard, plan, am careful, try to write out the foundations of the world in my essays and fiction. Ha! What a joke! Haha! Trying to make sense of things, trying to say the words most fittest placed, most fittest than all the other fit words, is about as futile as going to McDonald’s at midnight and expecting to wake up feeling satisfied at 6am the next day. Thanks, Hans von Ur Balthasar—you’ve reminded me of this eternal truth. Establishing myself=futility of McDonald’s.

Ah yes, but this is an essay about my fear of death, right. And my solution to it! But I cannot really bear on how, exactly, I fear death and how, exactly, I have just been moved not more than forty-six minutes ago after reading a chapter from a book I borrowed from an acquaintance. I don’t want to tell you what the name of the book is, because I feel like keeping you wondering about it, craving it, might put me in a position of superiority. And the higher ground is, after all, what I have taken here with you. Thanks for coming.

Ah, maybe I’m too emotional, or sentimental. Actually, I know this for certain. The overly sentimental person is the one who thinks the unique texture of his memories are deliverable without them first being translated into a different set of textures unique to the receiver (check out <<that<< thought I just had that I won’t understand tomorrow). I can drone on and on with such sincerity about the self-inflicted burden of nostalgia. I can color the picture with flowery language about time and how it’s a heavy burden, but it’s all been done before—and besides, if you really want to know how I should feel, you might as well just pick up the book of Ecclesiastes. Anyway, I cannot really write an essay about my fear of death without first apologizing to all my friends who might be reading. They are painfully aware of this in me, especially recently. But a few months ago, back in October, it manifested itself as a strange tightness in the throat, an intense nausea that sometimes drove me to the violent solitude of emeticism, and a fear of driving in the car. I also could not stand, for months, being in a hot room. What brought the feeling on, it seemed, was coffee! No, wait, it was milk! Yes, milk, surely, milk it must have been, yes. No, wait, here we go…migraines in my abdomen. But…what is this throbbing in my right knee? Does my right knee feel hot to you? It does? Oh, good God, it’s not just in my head!

Friends, forgive me! I promise that if you have come here to enjoy a good one-sided conversation with me (like usual), about me (like usual), I can guarantee you that I also hate what I have let myself become. I have become reduced to a small size, like all the aging in my life has chosen to concentrate itself in this year of Our Sluggard, 20. The only things I am capable of talking about these days is my fiction and my fear of death. The secret is out, though; I talk more about my fiction than I live it and my fiction I have been using as the medicine to my resistance of being in the flow of time and love within me. Instead, I ought to be profligate.

I want to ensure you all, that I am writing here so that I can demonstrate to everyone watching what it is I would like to leave behind and what, it is, that I would like to take up again. I want to leave behind that fear of all death, suffering, and disease. It’s quite simple, really! Now that I know what has been causing my physical ailments (whether *actually* or not), I am now free to set it aside. Gentlemen, it’s been anxiety. Anxiety, gentleman—and behold, the box I’ll put it in. I will put the address of your home on the top of this box, tape it right *here*, and I will not provide a return address. Thanks for taking it off my hands, suckers!

The entire thing that I have overlooked in this fixation on death, this constant awareness of the end (“A Biblical principle!” you cry!) is that Time and my dwelling in it is exactly as it should be. My body, Brother Ass, usually discovers truth before me. My body, though I refused to let it be known, made it quite plain to me that I was suffering from the constant impulse of hoarding, trying desperately to clear out the brush, to establish myself in time, to write my book (If I can just write this book, I will establish myself!), to always be compelled not to make the most immediate movement, but constantly the best one. I am a harsh taskmaster and I am his eagerly lazy slave. What does this produce? This produces guilt with a religious pallor. It comes up to me in the form of the Giant Get-Some-Writing-Done-You-Slug, and says, “God says you’re nothing if you don’t write! If you don’t make headway into the production of that Great Statue of Your Future Self! That glorious idol, you are not who you believe yourself to be! O, beautiful persona of Caleb, let it be known that I have always been a fan, that I have been so in awe of your work, that I am extremely compelled to usher you into the court of kings, Great, Beautiful Future Caleb, you are so good at saving money, you are so good at writing when you need to—and how is your writing oh-so insightful? And you live with such confidence and courage. You, when someone asks you why you believe what you believe, you, you are the one that blows their mind with understatements! Your face never gets red! You are so good at not believing people when they compliment you, you have amazing powers of avoiding your image in the mirror, you dress such causally—oh, but you’re such smartly clothes! And, dearest Caleb, tell me how you conquered death? How did you overcome that final enemy? Oh, to hell with it! Enough of this revelation! It’s a revelation of a point of yourself in time and none of it is always true—just give me your autograph!”

I kind of lost track of where I was going.

And that’s—the point! Don’t you see? Because I don’t really. Uh, let’s see here. *Shifts hands through papers* *cough*

So, the point of this essay is something about death and how I’ve learned to deal with it. Let’s just get some general-profound-sounding conclusions out of the way here, because I want to go and hang out with people—when I am afraid of losing something, whether it is an idea I get before bed, or an insight, or a word fitly placed, or a possibly good story not yet written, or good health, or a mental space, or a memory, I can rest assured that it has all already been lost. So, whenever you fear losing something, know that you have lost it already. You live in time, don’t you? The assurance in this is not how true it is, how brutally true it is, but that whenever you have lost something before, or given it away, you cannot easily say that the loss was without any gains. Some people are capable of seeing no gains, but others who see the world as it ought to be seen, see in all losses eternal gains. These gains don’t just happen afterwards, after life. Death is, of course, the greatest loss—but our bodies know before us, know intuitively, that there are gains in loss. But before death, we are prepared for it, because to be in time is to lose, to always be slipping from one place to the next. And we cannot rebel against this, because it is us. We go from one moment to the next and if we are in love, we delight in it. So, I will lose all that I have ever gained, I will lean into it, and happily I will die.

I have never been more alive. It is the greatest decision I have ever made.

Greetings From Thulcandra

After I came to Moscow, Idaho, it quickly became apparent that I would have to spend some more time with C.S. Lewis. I have managed to push it off until now due to having read through the Chronicles half a dozen times, as well as the Screwtape Letters once. But over the past two years I’ve gotten so tired of references to the Space Trilogy and Til We Have Faces piling up all around without me being able to appreciate them. And so this May, all will change!

The Space Trilogy has sat on my father’s shelf for longer than I have been alive, and I remember many times as a child picking the books off the shelf and examining the covers. While interested, for some reason I never felt compelled to actually turn to the front page and start reading. As of this morning, though, I have completed the first installment for the first time.

It was pretty good. The criticism of modernity, while needful, got heavy-handed at the very end. It started out very funny, with the arch-physicist Weston being forced to speak like in pidgin while insisting he was the superior being. From my privileged position I can say that Lewis is beating a dead horse, but the horse was very much alive in his day, so I shouldn’t judge.  What I wasn’t expecting was a recurring and piercing critique of English imperialism, and I feel like that only sharpened the criticism of modernity.

The criticism of modernity is at its best when it is manifest, and it is best manifest in the book as the idea that the heavens are not just empty space. This is presented in t wonderful mythology of ancient cosmic warfare, specifically, the spectacular idea that our world’s guardian angel, Satan (the prince of the power of the air), has demonically enshrouded us from other worlds. But I felt Oyarsa was given too much dialogue and that took some of the angelic mystery away. Who would have thought that a world-guiding spirit would have the diction of C.S. Lewis?

This is a book of ideas, and the ideas are good. But, I do want the world building to go deeper. The fictional names are excellent, and this is a very noteworthy accomplishment for science fiction at that time. I love the word ‘Thulcandra.’ The prose is okay. I wish the descriptions of the landscape were clearer and more detailed. I feel like Lewis could have done a better job on the prose throughout, as is shown in the book itself with the occasional hilarious line or revelatory gems such as: ‘the pale earthlight behind him.’ I wish there was more of that, and I think Lewis was capable of such.

What is evidently absent from the book is vigorous plotting and conflict. By the end, while it is a book about many things, the only thing that actually happens is that a man walks around. This is sad, because it begins with a delightful premise: the main character, a philologist, is kidnapped and launched to another planet against his will. That’s great! But he then proceeds to spend most of the book away from the antagonists or really any danger at all. When the antagonists reappear at the end, they are feeble and impotent. This lack of conflict perhaps could be excusable if Lewis went even deeper into the world-building, but the three species on Malacandra remain for the most part caricatures. They are interesting beings and you do feel an emotional connection with Hyoi and Augray, but we just don’t see them do very much at all.

Worth the read.

The Theatre of the Hollowed Heart

I read an essay about a year ago by someone I can’t remember, but I remember the title. It was called On the Marionette Theatre and it captured a feeling I am having now, and have had, for a long time. Since I cannot remember the author and I cannot remember anymore details about the essay, I will simply paraphrase a general summary about the essay as an introduction to this one.

In ancient Greece, there was a boy who went to the bathhouses with his father. His father spent the entire time talking to his friends about business and the boy would listen. This went on for years, until the boy started becoming a man and found himself going through the very unguided few years of puberty (for me, at least).

Anyway, one time at the bathhouse, the boy put his leg up on a chair and, as the men spoke, he rested his fist under his chin—for the first time in his life, the boy realized that he understood perfectly well all the business that most concerned his father’s friends. And so he listened intently. At that moment, the boy unconsciously achieved a look of youthful grace in his face and posture. At that very instance, one of his father’s friends interrupted the business talk, the kind of talk uncoated from classical rhetoric, and exclaimed, “You look exactly like the sculpture of Theseus as a boy!” He pointed at his friend’s son and all of the men agreed. The boy was proud of this. He had never been proud of anything before. The praise filled him with such enthusiasm for his own worth, imbued him with such a sense of nobility and youthful refinement, that the next day he tried to consciously achieve the pose again. He worked on it over the course of the many hours while at the bathhouse and no one paid him any attention. The men carried on in their business talk. After lifting themselves out of the hot water, the faint figures–stretching like phantoms in the humid fog–shook their heads as they passed him. Walking home, the boy’s father told him that he was ashamed of his display at the bathhouse that day. The boy felt his shame was a private one he bore and it confused him that his father felt it, too. Ever since that moment, the boy lost all sense of physical grace. He tried many times, in private before a mirror, to return to that fleeting grace. But he could never return. The boy became well known in the bath house for tripping and stumbling. In fact, he died young when he slipped in the bathhouse and cracked his skull on the stone edge of a pool.   

This story was meant to illustrate the three different stages of an artist. There is the stage before his knowledge, a state of innocence, where the artist feels he possesses some natural talent that works itself out in eloquence and fluidity. He does not know what it is that is so good about his presentation or what he is doing right and he is praised for something that remains a mystery to him. As soon as he is praised, he loses the innocence that furnished him with natural talent. Where before the posture came easily, after the loss he tries even harder and cannot achieve grace: he does not know what grace is. He never has. The third, and final stage, is the stage of either tracing back the way of innocence or ebbing into the dark and endless grounds of knowledge that bear the dark fruits of exhaustion, pride, and death.

I feel that I am in this third stage and I am struggling my way back to some renewed innocence. I know that I can never return there completely—and that is the point of the story. But along the way, I know that with a lot of work I can experience small moments of innocence, which are moments of grace, tastes of forgetting. I long to forget. I would love to forget myself, but these days it is harder. Because it is harder to forget myself, it is harder to capture anything, whether inside or outside. Yet as I get older, there is only more to capture. This is one of the many afflictions I wanted to talk about in this essay, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get to that. I don’t know these days what I want to get at, but I know that I want to get at more and in conversation, in passing thoughts, in dreams, in moments before bed, I feel there is too much I have to get at. Then why am I less capable? Why am I only getting worse?

Getting worse at what, you ask? You want some kind of specification for this outburst. Well, let me tell you. I want to get better at grace and this is impossible.

When I was younger, five years ago, I felt blandly, but I felt strongly—and much to my despair now, I captured those internal feelings with such grace. It terrifies me. I look back at things I wrote five years ago, when I was younger than I am now, and I see how I captured all my misplaced feels. Now when I write, I feel like I am taking someone else’s thoughts, taking someone else’s words, and taking someone else’s desire. I feel like a conduit for all of humanity. As I sit down to write, I imagine all the audience of man waiting for me to speak, wrapped in attention, and all I can say is, “I am feeling very tired.”

I want to think that the reason it is more difficult to write these days is because I have gone through a particularly strong bout of contemplative melancholy. It’s quite different than what I have felt in the past. It is distinct from the melancholy of memory, where I used to remember things and became overwhelmed with the feeling that memory is a form of torture. That is nostalgia and I now know its place. It ranks among the other afflictions I have come across and wrestled to the ground, like death, fantasy, inspiration, and friends.

I have defined what I mean by affliction precisely: a recurring present feeling made deep (leading to a rational longing for the eternal, infinite, and felt physiologically in a falling sensation and occasional tingles) by the overlaying of an emotional texture (i.e. the distillation of a past moment over time) that fills you with a guilt for mankind’s condition, an awareness that the sensation has recurred not only in your lifetime, but in past ones belonging to others, and distinguished from all moods, because it happens quickly and is impossible to maintain and is lost as soon as it is received. All momentary afflictions are interconnected, so that nostalgia easily leads to an awareness of death, which most humanely leads to worries about universal suffering, which brings you back to the curiosity of artistic inspiration and that enigmatic process, which circles around and finally lands on fond feelings for those closest to you and a desire to be near them. This last one is usually exasperated by distance, because these days it is essential to move away from people you care about. It is the only rite of passage left to humans stuck in the world of airplanes and the world wide web. We are just one of the many flies stuck on it.

There is no need to wonder about who the spider is: exhaustion. This very instance, everything inside me is threatening to crumble before the eternal force of exhaustion. I am very tired, I say, I think, but something keeps me from leaving this place in my time right here, in this chair, because for the first time in months, I feel relatively close once again to overcoming myself, to forgetting, and thereby being made free to enter into that amphitheater of the human soul, some beating stone heart. Inside me, I possess a great theatre of You, Other, that retains every echo in the world. Every time some bit of consciousness flickers up somewhere, a cry is let out like the last moment of birth when You, Other are told to push! And you push! And inside my arteries, inside my veins, I feel the waves of that shriek.

I come home at the end of some fog-consciousness day, and am looking around the house desperately for some clarity or light to shine into the theatre of my breast, but all I find are scraps of words here and there, tired words, someone else’s words, and I say to the opportunity of Travel, “I need to eat. I need to go to bed. I need to take a shower.” Everything in me that longs for the angelic above the human falls, bowing at the feet of the animal inside me. And I look on the sticky trail left behind me over the course of a day slowly hiked. I labor and chisel at my skin to break through the wall of my ribs, but my hands fall weakly like my knees in a dream. Someone is chasing me, yelling at me (“I want to drown you!”), and over and over again in that dream, my useless legs fail me. Part of me is delighted. I give up the fear. I wake up.   

I cannot find my own way. Who can find it for me?

I step into an unlit cave one moment, burdened with all the good reasons for turning back, but I walk into it anyway. I tell myself it’s good for me. When, finally, I turn back to see what I have left behind and I cannot see the sun outside anymore, part of me is delighted. I feel like going back now is impossible. The only way out is to go forward. I am happy and light. I feel like I am discovering new ground. My footing slips, my hands tremble across the cold, rough stones. I walk on carefully, somehow convinced that I will have to walk in between a crevice made by stalactites and stalagmites, though no one has ever told me this. “No one has ever been in here before” I whisper to myself, “maybe I will find treasure.” I feel I have taken deliberate steps for hours in the dark. I realize that at some point I closed my eyes. I am asleep, I am walking. Just as soon as I am aware of my eyes being shut, I open them. And far ahead of me, down a dark hallway, I see all of my friends laughing around a fire. I am hurt by seeing them. I don’t want them to see me.

Why didn’t they tell me this was happening? Why have I been left out? I creep across the hall, careful not to creak the floorboards underneath my clumsy feet (I don’t want them to know that I am watching them without me), and I feel like I felt when I first entered the cave. I gaze at the pictures hung on the wall, but I cannot see them, because the fire is reflected in the glass of each of them, and the image behind the glass is obscured. The fire bends slowly over the surfaces of the pictures, as if Time goes slower in a reflection than it does when it is sat around. I hear a voice.

“Who’s there?” my friend asks. He is afraid. I shut my eyes. My heart is pounding.

“It’s…it’s me,” I say.

“Who is You?” another asks.

“I can’t say,” I say.

I hear them getting up, unbinding themselves from their folded legs. I feel the warmth of them crowding around me, but a different warmth than the fire. Their bodies are blocking the warmth of the fire, but they have brought some of that warmth with them, glowing out from their clothes and baked faces.

“It’s you!”

“Open your eyes!”

“We’d say we were waiting for you, but you not being here made us all feel different. The oddities we felt made a hollow space where you weren’t. That space did all the waiting for us.”

I cry, stupidly, I hate myself for crying, but they put their hands on my shoulders and tell me to sit down, sit down like they had been sitting.

“I think the reason it took me so long to get here,” I say, “was because I forgot what you were all like. I wasn’t sure if any of you existed anymore.”

They laugh.

“Well, these past hundred years, we’ve been laughing and we’ve been laughing about the same things. We know everything that is worth bringing up to each other so well at this point, we wish we could forget what we’ve been together so we can find it again.

“There is pleasure in seeking,” one of my friends says, a well-placed prosaic phrase among my prosaic friends.

“I don’t agree,” I say. And all of my others friends affirm this with me. The one that spoke relents—he knows our pains too well.

Seeking hurts. Seeking hurts, because we don’t know what it looks like. All we are working with is some old, dim, worn-out hope. We seek because we have to move when we are not in its presence. When we are in its presence, we are content to sit around and laugh—that is enough. Seekers seek hard, because they fight exhaustion and the fear that comes with it. I have been a seeker too long. I have hurt. I have seen all the afflictions of the world and I have felt all that there is to feel. I have been a dog, I have been a woman dying of cancer, I have been a man hopelessly fighting against age, I have been sick with fear of being sick, I have been the worms in between the concrete pavement, I have been the air traffic control pilot hearing the first news of the downed plane, I have been a canary stolen from its branch, I have been a boy happy to join his dead mother, I have been my mother and my father, I have been my friends—but the one person I cannot figure out how to be is myself. All this time, I have sought myself and no one I have ever met has learned to play the part.

This is not an issue of identity, no. This is not an issue of insecurity, no. Those are the afflictions for the tempted. Who are we after we have sought the kingdom first? We are the exhausted, but the undying. We are the boys of grace and no one can tell us that it is wrong to seek and keep on seeking for innocence. But someday, we have to rest. Exhaustion catches up with us and we let him drown us. It delights us. And when at the bottom of the ocean we find ourselves in a cave lit by a bonfire, the echoes of our laughter reverberate in the hollowed out amphitheater of God’s heart.

Home and Enclave

There are two ways of establishing a household with others: a home and an enclave. The latter is gender exclusive. The ideal form of this would be a monastery, and the perversion of this would be bad monasteries, such as the many college dormitories you see in America today in both secular and Christian colleges. These housing situations are founded on a lie: that it is good (or at least neutral) for men with different purposes and virtues, men from wildly different walks of life, to be arbitrarily thrown together in small, condensed spaces with no means of order, authority, or recourse. An RA is hardly an abbot. Dorm life is organized much more by profanity, squalor, doritos, and late night video game seshes than it is organized by prayer, fasting, and psalm-sing. The ability for home-making is reduced to the small artifacts with which a given man decorates his living space, all the way from pin-ups to branches decorated with Christmas lights. They are unable to provide any hospitality because they have no dominion or freedom. The ideal model for unmarried men, then, is to come together in enclaves built around shared vocation and ideals, so that they can help develop each other’s skills and minds. They can create a space of welcome for travelers. The perverse form of this is a fraternity, where the shared ideal is, once again, base sensuality.

The other way of living with another person is by home. This is not gender exclusive because you are able to bound to someone of the opposite sex by blood or by covenant. The bodies of men and women are not designed to live and work together day to day according to ideal purposes, at least in the same way that women and women can and that men and men can. Rather, they are designed to be joined bodily, either in the marital sense or the filial sense. But we know that it is perverse and pathetic for adult men to live only with their mothers and perhaps even for men to live only with their adult sisters. It is not that there need be any immoral relations between them; incest happens but it happens because of sin, not because of living arrangement.

An arrangement in such a fashion is not perverse because of incestuous paranoia but because it denies the reality of what men, women, and homes are suppose to be. The nature of a home is to be a place where a man has left his father and mother and is joined bodily with a woman. Their body together forms the living space for new life. The parents’ body in the broad sense (that is, everywhere they have authority, within their house and on their land), nurtures the child after it has left the literal body. Then that child in turn comes of age and leaves to join an enclave or form a new home. Adult men who do not do this are often seen as infantile, for good reason: they have not left the ‘body’ of their mothers. Let us remember that mothers are not just home makers; they are a world and world makers: out of and around their body they bring abundant life. But this only comes about from the union of a husband and a wife: seed and field together make a farm. For a man to leave his father and mother is to leave an entire world, like leaving the earth itself, but it is necessary if he is going to make his own world. Groups of men or women caught in the In-Between Seasons of Being should form enclaves together with their kind; way-stations.

Some would say that an unmarried adult man and an unmarried adult woman can live together without immorality, without touching one another. Let us say they are great friends, have no sexual interest in each other, and need a roommate for a season. Now it is very possible that they could go through that season without any sexual interaction. Their life together would still be unhealthy, because they have denied what it means to live in a home and habit with another person. A group of men or a group of women may be organized in daily living by a shared code or ideal. A man and a woman may be organized in daily living by their shared bodies and shared covenant. But a man and a woman who live together who do not share blood, body, covenant, or code really cannot live healthfully at all. They are essentially both hermits, with the added challenge of living very close to an actual physical body by which to become tempted or at the very least confused. Their home will be a confused and impoverished one, because they have denied themselves the ability to be joined in any meaningful sense beyond friendship, and friendship is very different than a home.

Now, why can’t a man and a woman share a code? Why can’t we have co-ed monasteries? Besides the obvious practical impossibilities (that is to say, non-stop hanky-panky), from a purely theoretical level: could it happen? I would say not. A code of life has to be intentionally designed to the vocation of the people sharing that code. A man and a woman, on account of their separate bodily realities, have inherently different vocations. Even within a shared occupation, a man and a woman naturally express their vocation differently because of physical necessity.

Men and women are supposed to be joined bodily, either through shared blood or through the intimacy of marriage. I believe well enough that men and women can be good friends without any sexual immorality, because I have seen it. This is only natural: after all, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. But the ways of friendship are distinct from the ways of daily home life. Even setting aside the temptation for immorality, I cannot imagine that living in closeness unbound day and night could be in any way healthy for one’s friendship in any season. So there may or may not be sin in the end. But I do believe there will be a denial of nature and thus impoverishment.

Still, perhaps someone could offer a concrete example of a man and a woman living together in total virtue, perfect love, and a passionate engagement with the world, all without any of the bonds I believe are necessary for daily home life: vision, body, blood, covenant, code. If so, I would have to revise my understanding. But I can’t imagine that ever being offered.