Adultery in Literary Fiction

reni potiphar and joseph

Michael Thomas Jones

The primary concern of canonical literary fiction is adultery, or, more loosely, abandonment and broken sexual bonds. This first came to my attention during my attempts to explore well regarded 20th century fiction. To my great frustration, I came to novel after novel that primarily involved the main character whoring around and/or their wife leaving them. Incidentally, this plotline was often paired with a sort of post-colonial fantasy of the main character traveling to some third world country (Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Malcolm Lowry, the list goes on) to continue having adultery there. In any case, I began to compare these books to works of classical literature, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized classical literature revolved around adultery as well.

Gilgamesh – Story begins with the creation of Enkidu because of the people protesting Gilgamesh’s enforcement of primae noctis.
Iliad – Paris running off with a king’s wife sends the world into war.
Odyssey – This story is all about Odysseus and everyone, Penelope and no one.
Greek Myths – almost entirely populated by Zeus’ adulterous sexcapades, and if not Zeus, then others.
Alexander Romance – Alexander is born when an Egyptian sorceror in the likeness of a god sleeps with Philip’s wife.
Aeneid – Aeneas bewitching and ditching Dido.
One Thousand and One Nights – the frame story begins with the king marrying virgins and then killing them because he thinks all women to be adulterous, and the stories come out of Scheherazade’s ability to keep him strung along.
Parzival – Gahmuret’s two sons from his two different marriages reunite at the end; Parzival himself marries and then abandons his wife.
Troilus and Cressida – Cressida pledges her love to Troilus but then ditches him.
Canterbury Tales & The Decameron – just generally sexed up story anthologies.
Arthurian Romance – Lancelot and Guinevere.
Dante’s Divine Comedy – the arc is Dante’s platonic love for Beatrice, a woman who is not his wife.
Hamlet – Hamlet’s mother & Claudius.
The Faerie Queene – plot revolves around all kinds of suspected unchastity and sexual temptations.
Gulliver’s Travels – Gulliver leaves his wife to be at sea.
Moby Dick – Ahab abandons his family to search for the whale.

Anything you’d like to add to the list? Feel free to comment. Sacred scripture, while not fiction, fulfills these narrative requirements as well, often on a down to earth level – so many of the old testament narratives feature adultery and polygamy – but especially on the cosmic level, where Israel’s repeated adulteries are finally resolved by the faithfulness of Christ, the bridegroom.

Now, I won’t bother listing all of the modern fiction that meets these requirements. But I will to try to list the major historical works of fiction that I feel do not involve their premise in adultery (or more broadly abandonment), but I feel like I’m going to have a tough time of it. Children’s fiction doesn’t count, of course, because it seems what makes something children’s fiction is that it isn’t about ‘adult’ literary subject matter, where ‘adult’ is just code for ‘adultery’. My question is whether it’s possible to create proper adult literary work without it just being about the same subject matter.

Don Quixote
Paradise Lost
Pilgrim’s Progress
Robinson Crusoe

I have no doubt there’s other major works I’m not thinking of (certainly in other non-anglophone canons), but still, you get my point. I really do think throughout history fictional narratives without adultery in some form are the exception. So, does this make me want to read more 20th century literary fiction? Hmm…

We Labor In Vain and Yet The House Get Built

beware of luxury

MICHAEL THOMAS JONES

Name one man in the Bible who had a normal monogamous relationship and a healthy family.

Adam – Son murdered the other son
Noah – Son saw his father’s nakedness, cursed
Abraham – Pharaoh situation, Hagar & Ishmael Situation
Isaac – Tricked by rivalrous sons
Jacob – And behold! It was Leah (also, his sons sell one of their brothers into slavery)
Moses – Maybe is polygamous?
Samson – Ha!
Samuel – Evil sons
David – Many wives, many kids, much rebellion
Elijah – Maybe no family?
Esther – Chosen by her husband in a beauty contest (bring me the hottest babes in the kingdom, the king declared, and it was so) to replace the old sour one
The Prophets – all the performative marriages (Ezekiel loved his wife apparently, but then God took her in a sort of performative death)
Paul – Celibate
Christ – Celibate; symbolically and mystically wed to his Bride the Church (a woman generally to be regarded as a crazed harlot apart from his influence)

So maybe it’s just that the men and women who did have healthy relationships and functional families didn’t do anything crazy enough to end up in Scripture. Anyway, you get my point.

With this history, the words of Malachi bear a lot more weight: truly what we need more than anything else is for the hearts of the fathers turned to the children, and the children turned to their fathers. If you look about in the world, there’s a lot of unturned hearts. But Christ, as the Bridegroom: what is his goal if not to build his people into a holy household for God? We are all one family, of course, but we are also a lot of little families.

Is it too late in history to start a new tribe? (re: The Michaelites)

Eschatology and economics seem a lot more entwined than people let on. If economics is the ordering of one’s household, well, how is Christ going to order his household? In a postmillenial or an amillenial sense, or neither? How are we going to order our families and our societies in accordance with this?

So many Christians that I know advise investment and interest as a means of securing one’s household. And certainly that has worked well for many. But is this kind of capitalism a double-edged sword? Undoubtedly Christ is using it as a tool to extend his reign, as he uses all things. But when will it be discarded, if ever? Perhaps interest and capital are just slavery in another form, weakened and reshuffled and distributed more efficiently. Maybe slavery can never be abolished but only shared more evenly across the nations.

Riches are good. Riches allow for leisure, and leisure allows for education. Education is necessary for wise civic action in this world. Education is necessary for good craft and liberty. Good craft and liberty bring riches, and so on. The question is: how does Christ want us to educate the household? On the smallest level, we have our families, but on the largest, the nations. Does a capitalist social structure educate us in all the wrong ways? It has certainly given us much leisure. But how are we taught to use that leisure? To what end are we being educated towards? If we give power to those with capital, power can be distributed much more evenly. I think that is helpful for peace, as a bulwark against tyranny. But happiness and virtue are greater kinds of wealth than cryptocurrencies and stocks.

So are we really wealthy? Are we encouraged in this system towards natural happiness and virtue, or are we encouraged to do whatever we want? I don’t think we can have the former with the latter. So we need someone to guide us away from our weird desires and towards that which is universally good – or, at the very least, clearly good for all in a specific geographical and historical context.

Would we be a more happy and virtuous people if we had a monarch, a father of our nation who could bring us up in the way we should go and educate us? Of course we would, but maybe such a man cannot be found. And no doubt however well he educated us, his own heirs would betray him in the end, as we have seen in all the patriarchs. Why are the good kings such bad dads?

Let us say that, by securing your household by investment and modern financial practices and overall participation in the current system, the numbers in the bank computers allow you and your family to be safe and strong and well educated. Good citizens and generous to all. That is without doubt a good thing as far as we can see. But beyond what we can see: are you absolutely sure that you are participating in a healthy system? What if, by trying to secure your own wealth this way, you have made it much harder for others to build good homes — either directly through material exploitation or, more nebulously, through the promotion of a world system that educates us to be foolish? Where does the profit come from? How do you know that all those companies and projects are virtuous, building good things for all the world, helping everyone become truly wealthy?

I would want to build my household in such a way that does not hinder others from building their households. And building a good household is not just a material concern but also an educational concern. Even if capitalism provided mongo wealth for everyone, it wouldn’t be wealth if we had been taught by the structure to act foolishly and sinfully. Our hopes would be weak and frail, our labor alienated from our hands, our faces hidden from others, our bodies hidden from the sun and the wind and the woods, our spirits only supported by mass produced pharmakeia: sorcerous pills that chemically induce a facsimile of eudaimonia. Can you encapsulate good spirits, or only unclean ones? How many in this system (in any earthly system?) are able to have strong marriages and abundant households? Without a strong marriage and good kids, what is a household for? How much will we see in this life of a father’s heart turning to his child and a child’s heart to his father? If I could make it so with a word, I would have a good wife and good kids, whose descendents would be wealthy and Christian forever. Forever virtuous and blessed on this earth.

Perhaps it is not possible to judge wisely a global process that consists of billions of different people and their desires, actions, decisions, circumstances, abilities. Nor can you cleverly arrange through infant baptism and parenting techniques that all of your descendents be both wealthy and Christian. The ways our social and economic structures are built and then build us in turn are mysterious. The nature of this planet-sized trellis on which we grow and bear our fruit – maybe it is all too complicated for us to ever make a reasonable decision, to declare reasonable visions. So in this respect, or at a certain scale, we must surrender our intentions to God and trust that he will build our houses as his own.

The Sacred Microbiota

MICHAEL THOMAS JONES

What was the status of the microbes that lived in, with, and under Jesus’ body? Were they divine microbes in the same way that Jesus was a divine person? Where is the boundary between human flesh and the non human organisms that it hosts?

On our body, there is anywhere from three to ten times the amount of non-human cells as human cells. What is a human? Is a human a human without all of these cells? What kind of bacteria did Jesus receive  from Mary, and did the nature of these bacteria change when they became a part of Jesus? Are bacteria are part of us? When does something stop being a part of us? Did Jesus clip his toenails; did he ever cut his hair? What was the design of his chromosomes; his genetic code?

When Jesus offered the bread and the cup to his disciples, saying ‘this is my body and blood, did the disciples receive any of the sacred germs?’ Perhaps this is why they were able to perform so many miracles in the beginning. I’m not a fully committed cessationist, but maybe once the germs of Christ died off, so did the intense miraculous activity of the early church. From then on we have the spirit, and thus the miracles of Christ in history become less explicitly physical and more spiritual in nature.

Or maybe the descendents of these germs are carried on into the descendents of the church for thousands of years, and it is our duty to spread the bacteria of Christ to all the nations through common cup communion. Apostolic succession and laying on of hands becomes so much more important when you think of church history this way.

Maybe the flesh and fleshlings of Jesus were all just very ordinary throughout the course of his life.

But the disciples and Jesus in his resurrected body ate together as well. Did Jesus have a resurrected microbiome? Does the resurrected human body need a microbiome at all? When Timothy pressed his finger into the side of the Lord, did anything go out – or go in?

At the right hand of the father, has Jesus been eating this whole time? Have any humble earth born bacteria been helping him digest it?

 

These Bodies High On A Stage

MICHAEL THOMAS JONES

O blessed Letters, that combine in one,
All Ages past, and make one live with all:
By you, we do confer with who are gone,
And the dead-living unto Counsel call:
By you, th’unborn shall have communion
Of what we feele, and what doth us befall.
-Musophilus, Samuel Daniel

Let us haste to hear it
And call the noblest to the audience.
-Fortinbras, Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Critics love Hamlet not just because it is a masterpiece, but because it is also a play which reveals the purpose of stagecraft and the power of all literature. Critics find so much satisfaction in it because, besides its many other virtues, it reminds them that their job is meaningful. Hamlet impresses upon us the fact that the stories we tell, the letters we write, and the plays we stage are actually important. Books and plays are the ghosts and voices of our fathers: they are the dead teaching the living. To know the truth and to be virtuous, even the king must listen. The plot of Hamlet revolves around literature and play-acting as a means of power, of revealing truth, and of instilling virtue in royalty. The play reminds us why we must treasure the tragedies of the past.
In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is almost entirely powerless—or so he thinks. His feigned madness—a sort of one-man play, if you will—is the beginning of his break from the accepted order of the court, which is in many ways the most deceptive theatre in the whole story. It is, however, his growing power as an actor and writer that allows him to fulfill his destiny as a prince. The major turning points in Hamlet’s personal journey are marked by writing and talk of literature. When Hamlet first meets with the ghost of his father, he comes to the conclusion: ‘Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat in this distracted globe. Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter.’ (1.5.103-111) He then writes down his determination to execute his duty as a prince listening to his father’s instruction.

Everything in the court is fake, and so the only way to reveal the truth is to write a play. Hamlet tells us: ‘The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ (3.2.21-26) Thus, through Hamlet’s writing, the king’s guilt is unmasked.

But Hamlet does not go on to execute justice as he should, because of his self-absorption and fear. Hamlet should be trusting in God, obeying his father, and acting righteously on behalf of the state, but instead he waffles about between hatred and fear. He is afraid that his calling to act like a king will lead to his death—and he is right. But this indecision is what draws him closer to the audience, because we too pass our lives wrestling with indecision over the smallest matters. We feel pity at his struggles, but also relief, knowing that we will likely never have to put our life on the line for the sake of the kingdom. Contemplating his own death fills Hamlet with indecision, most evidently in the play’s most famous soliloquy. But the contemplation of others who are dead fills him with the determination to fulfill his duty: the ghost of his father, the body of Polonius, the skull of Yorick, the legacy of Alexander, and finally the sight of Ophelia’s body all move him towards his end. This brings to mind the medieval practice of memento mori, that is, contemplating death in order to die well. Hamlet’s personal journey is very much an arc where he slowly learns to accept that, as the prince, his noble death is required to remove a murderous king and heal Denmark’s rot.

The final scene of the play begins with talk of one play and ends with talk of another. For the first, Hamlet is explaining to Horatio how he escaped Rosencrantz and Guildernstern: ‘They had begun the play. I sat me down, devised a new commission, wrote it fair—I once did hold it, as our statists do, a baseness to write fair, and labored much how to forget that learning; but, sir, now it did me yeoman’s service.’ (5.2.35-40) The ability to write, though he once abhorred it, is what allowed him to rewrite the message to the English and turn the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In other words, Hamlet is rewriting the very course of the play so that he can return to Denmark and fulfill his duty.

The final metaphorical play lies in the very conclusion of the story. After Hamlet’s death, Horatio says, ‘Give order that these bodies high on a stage be placed to the view, and let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world how these things came about.’ (5.2.419-422) Fortinbras, soon to be king, replies: ‘Let us haste to hear it and call the noblest to the audience.’ (429-430) Horatio continues: ‘But let this same be presently performed even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance on plots and errors happen.’ (437-440) And in the final word of the play, Fortinbras declares: ‘Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal.’ (441-444) Thus Hamlet’s life and death is turned into an example story for the nobility.

Why is the tragic hero always a noble? In tragedy, there is always something wrong with the royal family, whether incest or murder or a bit of both. The only solution is that most people will end up dead or banished. Tragedies show how any evil within the royalty will be rooted out; otherwise, it would trickle down and poison the whole body politic. Often that scouring requires great sacrifice. Plays, then, within the real world, as well as the fictional world of Hamlet, hold a mirror to nature. They convict the conscience of evil, they remind the ruler of their calling towards virtuous action, and they tell the story of horrible things that happen to royalty when a ruler goes awry.

In the ancient world all the way up to Shakespeare’s day, wisdom literature was often gathered in books called mirrors for princes. These treatises and textbooks were designed to instruct and train the prince in virtuous action and the requirements of leadership, although the range of content can be demonstrated in the gulf between the Book of Proverbs and Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Throughout Hamlet, the audience of each play (literal and figurative) is the nobility. The audience of Hamlet’s literal play is Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet rewrites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s metaphorical play to save himself, and his audience then is the English king. Finally, the language of theatre at the conclusion is so strong that one is tempted to think that Horatio will be staging a play to reenact what just took place. His audience is the new king, Fortinbras, and other nobles: ‘Call the noblest to the audience.’ (5.2.430) This retelling of the story will reveal the truth, first to the prince but in the end to all, ‘lest more mischance on plots and errors happen.’ (440) Thus the kingdom is unified.

Tragedy becomes a way in which even the common people can participate with the nobility in a shared spectacle, with commoners acting as nobles on stage and likewise receiving as the audience an example of virtuous action. For the common audience, tragedy evokes relief because it depicts wicked or inappropriate rulers chastised at the cost of noble sacrifice. The royal family is that which dies on behalf of the people, on behalf of preserving the social order—this is true for the ancient Greek tragedy as well as Shakespeare’s plays. There is something rotten in Denmark or incestuous in Thebes, and the only way for the balance to be restored is for a lot of the important people to die. And if it weren’t for the stubbornness of some, or the indecision of others, or the sheer malice of yet others, the cost would not be as great to purify the royal family. It comforts the commoners to see a depiction of justice and deadly fate reaching even the most powerful of the ruling class, who in the real world always seem so cruelly insulated from the struggles that the lower folk face.

There is in tragedy a comfort given: that wickedness will not entrench itself, that the good princes will suffer on our behalf because of the evil, and that though many will die, the system as a whole will survive and the unnamed of society will carry on unharmed. We never see much of those who Oedipus or Macbeth or Hamlet rule over because they are in the audience with us. The players on the stage are the rulers, and we are the subjects. They are the teachers out of the past, the voices from the dead, and we the humble hearers. But there is a further power of the stage which the written word lacks: theatre allows us to contemplate the thoughts and deeds of the dead in living words and moving bodies. Tragedy is wisdom given flesh, and the ghosts of our fathers given voice.

The Librarians and the Poets, the Artists and the Archivists

MICHAEL THOMAS JONES

I. The Librarians and the Archivists

Why is everything so ugly today, even though we all hold instant access to the truly beautiful?

I propose an alternative aesthetic spectacle. It’s pretty simple: instead of social media, let’s use history. Specifically, let’s use online archives to explore art history as an inspiration for contemporary design and broader entertainment: visual and even narrative artwork. If social media is what men and women now use to dress and decorate their bodies, their homes, their daydreams, their senses of humor – then we ought to weep for the aesthetic impoverishment of the current generation. I’ve been keeping a fairly steady weep quota, and I’d invite you to join me on that too.

It’s not that the men and women previous centuries were really that more imaginative than us; they were just imaginative in different ways from us. And certainly there is a long tradition of especially heroic dreamers whom we must not forget, and if we have forgotten, we must find them once again. Now that so much visual and literary historical treasure is instantly accessible online, it seems ridiculous to spend time looking at cheap consumer images when you can stroll through virtual galleries of the most beautiful images ever created throughout time.

The only thing is that most people like cheap things if they are made by their friends, who are living right now, and so they gladly participate in the cheap spectacle shared online by their friends. There is this excitement in being alive that only normal people and the poets feel; the nerds and the depressed, the archivists of entertainment, have a harder time with this because they are ashamed of their bodies, they are ashamed of all of their failures communicating with others, of judging others, of not being kind or having not received kindness, etc. So they retreat to libraries of leisure and archives of delight that are always giving beautiful things. (Well, depending on one’s standards.) The voices of the dead only ever judge as much as you let them, but real people… well, let’s just say that many introverted for various reasons can’t enjoy the present, nor do look towards the future.

If a nerd likes ugly things, then they will use their free time to pleasure themselves with garbage, instead of exploring the world or enjoying the soul sparks of other living beings next to them. The art historian is really doing this same process with better subject matter which, one hopes, will be more beneficial to society. But what society? The art historian or man of letters labors in vain to research and share great works of the past if the public will never appreciate it, I think. Mass culture is garbage, but elite art appreciation will be pretty much worthless if it never extends beyond a small, inbred circle of minds. My desire would be for the appreciation of the beautiful to spill out until it reaches all the way through society and orders it. But that appreciation does take a lot of time and mental work to cultivate, and so it’s understandable to see banal spectacle everywhere in demographics with less resources, virtue, intelligence, leisure time, and most of all a lack of connections to wise voices, especially when those demographics more than ever have been given the tools to vividly display their inane inner lives. (I confess to having at one time been addicted to cringe threads and glorying in the ever more spectacular examples of idiocy which the faithful archivists of the internet diligently cultivate for the pleasure of cynical folk.)

You’ll forgive me for being tone-deaf here. I myself can be found in a weird solitary coracle that floats between a typical middle class suburban evangelical aesthetic upbringing and an interest in better spectacles that I have not yet had the chance to fully integrate into my life. I am a juvenile archivist and so in a tender position; I am especially to be mocked and derided, lest others be tempted to find themselves in my position. But I can’t help it. This is what I was thinking about and I wanted to tell others, to see if anyone would respond in a kindred spirit.

Obviously the masses will always be fools, but with instant communication, is it really that hard to find a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand other people who enjoy Dutch early modern art? Is it really that hard to teach people to love things that are so evidently wonderful? Maybe it is not so evident. For some reason, it seems hard to find people who care enough about it to really ever mention it on social media. Perhaps it is not so evident anymore that such things are beautiful. But again, that is why we need teachers.

You see this communal sharing of historical art already happening, but mostly just in memes. And it’s very funny! I’m encouraged by the memes, because as we all know, the line between a jester and a prophet is very hard to determine. But seeing as these aesthetically prophetic memes have yet to bear fruit, all I see is that no one wants to spend the time to really make historical art a part of their life. That’s understandable: it’s hard to do alone. It would require communal effort, and it’s hard to gather a community together to focus on exploring one part of the Archives, because the Archives are very, very big. And most of your friends probably don’t care.

So this really has to be a (if I can write this without some bile spilling onto the keyboard) intentional communal effort. Wake up, sheeple! The resources are readily accessible but there is so much to dig into that it requires research, discussion, and sharing amidst friends with mildly differing goals to reach images and imaginative loci that are really pleasant and valuable to the individual. Enjoyment is all well and good, but anyone can enjoy themselves. It’s diving into the archives to serve others that is the really tricky part, not just to find memes to entertain and draw click-clacking attention but to find images and words that will inspire love of the good and order in the hearts of others.

I find myself having an easier time reading the thoughts of dead people than I do talking with living people. Living people are very valuable but also very demanding. So while I retreat to my island of literature (not being able to decide what book I would bring with me, I brought them all), I would still want to be reading for the sake of those who can’t or aren’t willing. I could crawl through 10,000 mountains of pages and a thousand rivers of ink so that others don’t have to. This means I need to be a teacher in some capacity. Not everybody needs to be a teacher of everything, but everyone needs to be a student of something.

What’s the point of me spending time with books all day if I’m the only one who is happy with that? Living to make yourself happy will result in no one being happy. But at the same time, you can’t force yourself into the lives of others. If this deflection away from normal discourse, if being barred from adventure with physical folk is a necessary part of one’s story, than we have to cut with the grain of this warped table brain, if you get what I’m saying. Whether you like it or not you are trapped alone on your book island, and so you might as well get as much reading done until someone responds to your distress signal and picks you up. They may quickly maroon you, socially speaking, but usually each time you get marooned it is on an island with wi-fi, or at least a public library.

With the contemporary technology and historical resources, the question and the quest becomes whether or not we have human resources, that is, enough teachers to help show people how to love better and to love better things. But no one wants to put time into what they share or take in, they only want to consume quickly and cheaply. So maybe this kind of thing is impossible on the internet, or at least most social media platforms as they stand today, where quickness and cheapness are in the founding company’s best interest to promote. (This gets to the weird problem of seeing as social media as a free service offered by a private company vs. a weird kind of public society, but that conversation gets dicey pretty fast.)

We need to advocate examples of ancient, medieval, variously historical works of art that ought to contemplated and accepted as influences on our contemporary mainstream spectacle – at the very least, on an aesthetic spectacle that stands alternative to the mainstream and will hopefully be synthesized into it at some point for the benefit of all. Is it too sloppy of a hope to think that the more that people are taught to love beautiful things, the better society will be? I don’t know where the hole in that proposal is, if there is one.

When alternating between painting and literature here, I suppose a lot of what I say applies to both, but it might be fair to distinguish between the two by saying that: visual art of history can guide us how to design our real life sights (our bodies, homes, and gardens), while the verbal art of history can guide us how to speak and think and so, ultimately, act.

There should be hierarchies of mentorship, but where are the teachers? Where are the apprentices? Who has time or humility these days for anything like that? We need to invite others into the usually solitary quest of art appreciation, archive diving, online museum gallery meandering, wikipedia wandering. It ought to be something undertaken by a fellowship, not a single pilgrim. But it’s hard to imagine a twitch stream of some guy just reading wikipedia articles at random… actually, that’s a fantastic idea. All we need is someone with a good sense of curiosity and humor, who can be curious and funny on our behalf.

II. The Artists and the Poets

While I know myself well enough at this point to focus on training as an aesthetic archivist, the dream has always been to be an artist and poet, of course. The archivist here is the one who searches, finds, researches, refinds, refines, systematizes, critiques – it’s really just a fancy way of being a computer bound, unproductive troll. Perhaps the only good way, if you are going to be computer bound, ever entangled in the fishy webbing of the internet. The perks are a nice set of headphones and no one bothering you. But there’s a reason that the musicians get all the girls: the girls want a guy who can prove in real time that he’s smart, disciplined, and dexterous. There is something much more human and glorious about being this kind of performer or creator: if the archivist or philosopher is systematizing and dividing up the world in order to understand it, the poet is weaving moments together and using his poetic power to make manifest in the presence of others some mystical reality that was there all along (in the room, in the heart) but unseen until now. Thing is, great poets have been doing this for thousands of years, and no one will remember this unless the archivists do their job.

I think the young artist is deeply dependent on the archivists, to be honest, because the young artist usually has very little experience in the world. (Artists with tragedy in their youth can be exceptions to this.) In the beginning, during their songs of innocence or whatever, they have to build off the work of past generations and display their art using the tools given to them by their chosen aesthetic ancestors. (Chosen, yes, but sometimes it’s uncertain who is choosing whom.) All juvenilia is mimicry wanting to be more, the beginning of a transition from the passive state of appreciation into something more fresh and glorious, the human soul in activity, in bared flesh.

Everyone is both a maker and an organizer in some respect, as these are just two sides of one task of being human, but some people are simply more weighted throughout their life for one or the other (or neither, but here we are considered with human living inside the spectacle). Throughout your life, whether through your genes, family culture, or whatever you got interested in as a teenager, you find yourself leaning towards tasks within the spectacle. Honestly, I look back on my life and find myself to be so dissolute and noncommittal that I don’t feel equipped to do any human task well, but since at this point I cannot deny a conviction to work within the spectacle, or at least contribute in some avocational capacity, it’s not even a question of what I would like to do: both. But, while I would love to make art and be an artist,until a miracle happens I’m going to go after the option that keeps me more clothed in the eyes of others. Why? Well… whether you’re making a poem or a child, you need to be naked. So it’s probably best to let the attractive, well-formed people go about reproducing and exposing their lovely hearts, being the most human on our behalf.

Meanwhile, the archivists are more like angels – invisible mediators of truth and goodness. I think it’s probably good for me to remain as invisible as possible for a good stretch yet, and I’d invite you to consider that possibility for yourself as well.

Talking to people is a kind of nakedness, so only the beautiful should speak. But they will only speak foolishness if they have no way of hearing the voices of the past. So the artists need help. Not help from archivists directly, but help through them, from the teachings of the most virtuous of the past, and this angelic transmission can only take place through the work of quiet, clothed humans.

The deformed are welcome to join me. It gets lonely out here on these library islands.

We Are the Waters

Psalm 44: Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

At one point in City of God Augustine describes the ark as a symbol for the church. The animals inside were not preserved out of necessity, in order to restore any species, as distant islands or angels could have done the job just a well. But the pairs of animals were preserved to represent how the nations would be preserved by the church from the destruction of the world, the church being the ark floating on top of the deluge.

It’s a compelling model, but I’m not convinced because we, the gentiles, are not just the animals. We are the waters. We are the floods slowly seeping into all regions of the world, according to the carefully timed sluice gates of the Lord. The church is swallowing the sea and Christ is plucking the false believers out of her mouth. Augustine’s picture is one of the church wandering within the dissolving world, but I’m more inclined to think of whole worlds being preserved within the church. It is an eschatological riddle and, when it comes down to it, my position is taken on the basis of intuition. People are more than themselves. They aren’t just a community of wanderers, they are parents with homes with basements that always flood and children who grow up exploring the woods of their homeland.

Do humans belong here or do they not? Are they a community of wanderers or a kingdom of lords with dominion over certain appointed places? Are we to be planted or are we always going to be mixed about in the raging heart of the world? Maybe both.

Jesus whispered into the wind storm, into our heart sea:

Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth.

Brief Thoughts on the ‘Empire State Tribune’ Hit Piece

The article from the King’s College student newspaper strikes me as pure classist insult. NSA and its students are essentially being criticized on our institution’s resources, and so ultimately on our individual means and how we use them. How dare we not have the resources or even desire to place our college in the center of New York City? But our so-called insularity is actually the opposite of monastic, if one takes note of how many marriages (and subsequent children) are produced in the context of this institution. The point is that here in Moscow a different kind of wealth has been prioritized: the wealth of strong families.

I’d love to see that sort of thing happening in downtown New York, too, but the living costs are obviously too prohibitive. How many young couples do you see starting large families in downtown New York? That would only be possible at a highly selective class status. This doesn’t invalidate the whole project of King’s College; in the abstract, I think it’s admirable to try to move a classical college into the very heart of the modern world. But NSA students and other Muscovites shouldn’t be insulted for having a different level of means or a different vision of what ends their wealth and labor should be directed towards, and we certainly should not be equated with full-on LARPing “knighthood” and “ladyship” colleges.

You’ll notice that the author is happy to bring that up while ignoring the fact that King’s College puts its students into Hogwarts Houses literally named after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

(pictured: the new york yacht club)

Our Constant Cameras

We are always stealing our own souls because we are always making meaningless images of ourselves. Every day the online tribe (several billion souls strong) practices casual visual cannibalism. Remember that cannibalism is a communal practice. We will stop bearing children because the machines can bear images for us.

“Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.” He called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day.” (2 Samuel 18:18)

“In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved.” (Aristotle’s Politics, 1.2)

The Ghost of My Twelve Year Old Self

One muggy night this summer I stayed up late on my computer, sifting through old files I had made as a twelve year old. It was fun: I found old journal entries, story ideas, drawings. I caught a glimpse into a world I had left behind years ago. It was like cutting my own trunk open and seeing a whole tree ring of being, a year of my life that had long been overgrown by the many burnt bark years of puberty.

Among the stories were a small set of tales I had told about the Tails Doll. Now, the Tails Doll was this one-off asset from an obscure Sonic the Hedgehog game, a fairly unsettling puppet version of one of the main characters, Tails, who was your average young talking fox. But memes will be memes and people started telling scary stories about the Tails Doll appearing to gamers and cursing them or killing them or whatever. I don’t remember a single one of those stories, but I must have been excited enough by the idea to write out a few of my own.

So, what was there to say about the literary aspirations of my pubescent self? Each story in its own way reminded one of an archipelago; that is, each story had about a paragraph or two (the big islands) where the real ‘meat’ of the story happened, with some solitary lines (the little islands) scattered throughout to make the transitions very dramatic.

The transitions were very dramatic.

We’ll be kind to my younger self and say that I just hadn’t figured out how to get a story going. The plot of each story more or less involved a young boy, usually in his bedroom, who accidentally invoked the feared beast by humming its cursed theme song, or playing its cursed video game. In a few of the stories, the narration was in first person. In a few others, the main character had names like ‘Zach’ or ‘Mark’ or ‘Jared Anderson.’  Hm.

Interestingly enough, when I was the protagonist, the Tails Doll would never successfully kill me, but he did manage to kill all of the third-person protagonists. At the end of one episode, I was being hunted down in the suburbs by the creature but then rescued by a mysterious young man who banished it with stabs and then recruited me into his organization dedicated to fighting the menace. After that point, I began to record interviews of other young boys who were brought into the organization after having harrowing experiences with the dreaded Tails Doll.

The style was interesting. There were moments when I took a stab at humor and it didn’t work. There were also moments when I used words like ‘bilge’, ‘baffled’, and ‘patu paraoa’, which one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a young person. But most of all, it was just very boring. My young self had not understand the necessity of pacing, or detailed description, or interesting character interactions. It’s more like I had been listing what happened than truly telling a story. Again, we have to be kind to my younger self and realize that I had just started to make those awkward wing flaps that are the beginning of flight. Indeed, reading those stories was about as uncomfortable an experience as it would have been to watch myself, naked and fresh from the egg, wildly flailing my stubby arms at the keyboard and expecting to somehow get a good story out of it.

It all made me paranoid, though. Not that I might suddenly bring the wrath of an old creepypasta upon me, but rather paranoid that I hadn’t grown as a writer in the past seven or more years. Had I learned to pace well? To give detailed description? Did I have interesting character interactions?

Hm.

Now, it’s important you understand the layout of my room. My desk is in my closet, and at the top of the closet is a small portal into the attic, covered with some cheap semiwooden board that, though duct taped to the portal, does a terrible job of keeping the warmth in my bedroom in winter. This, I swear, is the unadulterated architectural truth. In the summer I can feel the roiling black heat of the attic trying to leak onto my head as I sit in various hunched and contorted positions over my softly whistling laptop. I will probably have tremendous back problems when I am older. I only wish I could get a job in the circus: give me a laptop and I would be able to sprawl in such ungainly and unnatural fashions that Aunt Fanny’d lose the stuffing in her parlor seat, that’s for sure.

All in all, with such a spooky set-up, I can’t believe I thought I was going to get away with reading all of those old cursed stories. Sure enough, after reading all of them, I heard a screeching sound above my head. The attic board was being removed. Then, in the muggy darkness above appeared the little fox face of the Tails Doll.

I waved to it awkwardly, not sure of what I should say. It descended as if it were a spider on a silken string. I rolled my chair away across the room and let the Tails Doll rest itself on my laptop keyboard. I hoped that it wouldn’t try to mess with my hard drive in anyway. I’ve got a lot of important stuff on there, after all. It would suck if all my journal entries got cursed and turned to virtual mush.

The Tails Doll sat limply for a while, so I decided to man up and break the ice.

‘Hey man, it’s been a long time.’

‘Too long, Mike, too long.’

‘You’re not here to collect my soul or anything, right? I mean, I don’t remember selling it or anything and it would kind of suck if I arbitrarily had to be damned forever because I wrote some crappy stories about you in middle school.’

‘Don’t worry about it, man. Water under the bridge.’ Tails Doll was being reticent, I could tell. It had meant to confront me about something, but was now freezing up. I didn’t blame it; I’m pretty bad at thinking on the spot myself.

‘Well, welcome back to my bedroom. As you can see I’ve got, uh, a Pikachu doll on top of my bookshelf, I don’t know if you’re into that or whatever, and there’s a Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt right next to you in the closet there. You know Sonic, right? I’m pretty sure I just read in the journal that I wrote as a 12 year old about getting that very t-shirt at Wal-Mart.’

‘You wrote a whole entry in your journal about getting a Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt at Wal-Mart?’

‘I… yeah. I had a boring childhood! Or youth, or whatever.’

‘Tell me about it!’ I misunderstood this a first. I thought Tails Doll was just expressing casual sympathy, but then realized that he was curious: he genuinely wanted me to tell him about my childhood.

‘Gee, I don’t know. I stayed inside a lot. I was homeschooled. I mostly met all my friends online until I got to high school.’

‘Go on.’ Tails Doll’s jewel was bouncing back and forth in the air like bait in the lake. I felt like I was the one being fished for.

‘I played a lot of video games and read a lot of books. I wasn’t very curious and didn’t want to learn or go to school or go outside. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer for a long time, and I kept a journal of my story ideas. I wrote about ideas all the time, but I never actually wrote stories. Honestly, I think the most I ever wrote when I was young… was about you. Yikes, that hurts to say. I mean, sorry, it’s nothing against you, it’s just…’

‘You wish you’d written more than bad creepypastas and one page fanfics that never went anywhere. I get it.’

‘Yeah, exactly. When I look through my old journals or my old stories… on the one hand, I’m really grateful. I’m glad I was earnest and had friends online that I talked with. Without all those ideas, silly and immature as they might be, I wouldn’t be who I am today and I wouldn’t have had some of the ideas that I really love, the ones that I’m really proud to bear and hope to share with others someday. Okay, so, I still love all those internet friends that I had and I wish them well. But I can’t help but think that there’s something wrong with me because I spent so much of my time growing up interacting with people in a really shallow way. Internet friendship is great but it’s so cold and disembodied. You can tell when you read my journals. On the one hand, my vocabulary and awareness of narrative concepts might have been higher than the average twelve year old. But the way that I connect those ideas and talk about them is so immature. I’m just not interested in good things or writing good things: I just want to consume interesting entertainment and then replicate it in the pages of my journal. And part of that is excusable because I was young and hadn’t fully developed: that’s the earnest, childlike side of things that I appreciate. But part of that isn’t excusable: part of that was just wrong and has always been wrong, and has always been dragging my soul down. I was a fat, vapid child who only wanted to please himself and didn’t want to work for it. I hated learning. I hated poetry. I hated both my English composition class and my Latin language class. And most of all, I hated talking with real humans. As many as I can name of the subjects and activities that would make one a better writer, these were the things that I reviled–except for reading, and thinking, and sitting on my ass.’

‘Do you feel like any of that has changed?’

‘Oh, for sure. I love having the chance to study English, Latin, and poetry. And I treasure getting to talk to people. But those moments seem to be so rare, and when they come upon me like a sudden wave I’m knocked off my feet. I don’t know what to do. I keep telling myself that each time I talk with someone I am talking with an immortal being, full of experiences and learning and words and powers that I will never grasp but can always admire… but then I don’t know what to do in a conversation besides strive to be the least awkward I can be. That always becomes the number one priority. I want to be as kind and as encouraging as I can, not to mention funny or imaginative or even wisely opening myself up to be inspired by others’ words. But talking happens so fast. I can’t control the pacing the same way that I can online, in a chat or messaging or texting. I can’t stop and think about it like I can with a book. Not without making the other person really uncomfortable.’

‘Do you feel like talking with people is a large influence on your writing?’

‘That’s what writing is! It’s just a different way of talking with people. That’s why I love reading books. It’s a way of having a conversation with a great man, preferably one who’s dead. And so I want to write stories, so that I can enter into that centuries long form of the conversation, and have people in their own century respond to me. But I feel like my imagination, my words, my tongue of fire is still in bondage because of the pride I had as a twelve year old. I will speak and I will write because that is just the burning of one end of the fire of the soul to the other. But I want my words to be a sacred fire on the altar, ready to deliver sacrifices to God, not some wildfire that sets the state alight and fills all the eyes of the fall season with smoke.’

‘I wish I could help, Mike. But I’m just a bad creepypasta.’

‘Me too, dude. Me too.’