The Librarians and the Poets, the Artists and the Archivists

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.

Why Surrealism is What We Need, Esp. in Novel Forms

Allegory and surreality are linked by symbols

I think what is called allegorical painting in one era is surrealism in the next.

Compare Jacopo Ligozzi’s “Fortune” to Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Song of Love” or maybe René Magritte’s “Homesickness” or “Personal Values.”

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Jacopo Ligozzi, Fortune

What we see are a lot of objects placed together.

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Rene Magritte, Personal Values

These objects are re-discovered after being put in a context we’re not used to seeing them in (“Someone, get this man a copy-editor!”). Thanks to Andre Breton for helping me define surrealism. As soon as we see one of these paintings, we know what we’re looking at: the world behind the painting and the world inside ourselves.

For Christians who just-can’t-handle-that, it’s basically the same evocation as fairy stories, according to the claims of J.R.R. Tolkien. The progression of Fantasy-Escape-Recovery-Consolation is a similar progression as the surrealist progression. The difference is that the fantasy is generated, not by new forms, but by old forms put together to form new ones. I guess he kind of claims that about adjectives and the power of language to reinvent (in his essay, On Fairy-Stories). We know grass is green, but we can do fantasy simply by calling the grass red. And we can imagine it, because the language has imagined it for us.

Similarly, there is a sort of fantasy when we see a huge apple wearing a bowler hat falling from the sky, or whatever. The difference, I think, is that surrealism or maybe the surreal is the re-use of the familiar instead of the familiar-turned-strange. The outcome is the same, nevertheless. When we see something we have seen before, transmogrified before our eyes, we know that we are really seeing something true about our world that we have not seen before, or have so far failed to see. That is where the consolation comes in.
As for the mid-portions of Tolkien’s claims—escape and recovery—all I can say is that there is a sort of terror or disturbing quality about surrealist art. Or symbolism.

Bad example/don’t have time: “That skeleton looks alive! Oh no! Oh, wait, it’s okay. He’s just a symbol. Whew. But crap, it’s me. Omgsh, I’m going to die.”

The avant-garde is pretty typical

The connecting bridge for both allegory and surreality is the use of symbols to refer to the unseen. If you don’t know what the signifiers refer to, it just appears absurd to you. Powerful SECRET KNOWLEDGE.

We met a guy named I Forget, but he claimed to be really famous. He had a big white beard and smelled of cheese and he said he is the “Van Gogh of the modern age.” He said “only Siena would accept my art, because America never could.”

Fool! America accepts this giant tissue box! You can make money anywhere, doing anything! I’m sure you’re a nice man, but you have lived in America longer than I have and you’re so willing to judge it wholesale like that? Maybe it’s because you’re not good at the whole-knowing-what-unseen-realities-to-show-people biz.
But alas, America is too big and too free and too strange and too metamorphosing for your trash not to find some market.

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untitled—and I don’t want to know who made it.

And we looked you up afterwards. On google! You’re not famous. The Avant-garde movement you claim to have been a part of in the 60s is dead, my friend. Because it mostly sucked, so get over it.

The inheritors of this symbolic tradition are people like him, unfortunately. I for one prefer performance art (in general) over conceptual/installation artwork. Installation artwork almost always fails. Maybe I need more exposure to better examples of it, but anyway.

DIVERSION ALERT: Performance art, on the other hand, can at least be extremely stimulating (Trisha Brown’s “Walking on the Wall” which reminds me of the kind of theatrics done at Peter Gabriel concerts. Give me theatrics any day and I’ll be happy!). Like Laurie Anderson telling a story with big lit-up goggles. I could honestly listen to her tell a story any day. Not sure how that fits into the symbolic tradition, but to most people’s far-off view, it’s at least part of what layman call “the avant-garde.”

But if the “avant-garde” are the movers and inventors of new, previously unaccepted forms, then any good novel writer is “avant-garde.” I like to think of novels as being long, protracted essays. If an essay is the attempt at attaining something, which it is, through reason and contemplation, the novel SHOULD be (should be) the attempt to attain some previously unattained thing. Whether it be some new world, atmosphere, or form. But in either case, what is being sought after is previously unseen and the only way to see it is to bring into existence this new form.

Many of the structural novels that came out around the same time that garbage like that old guy likes are also garbage. And very sad.

Literature needs love

Why are they sad?

Because they have not love. That’s my takeaway. There has to be a deep, abiding love and earnest desire to reach out more, to push farther, to know better.

In literature, this happens by exploring the power and force of language and the acknowledgment that characters are merely the composite symbols and vessels for what we have seen or wish to see. Maybe this all sounds like trash talk to you. But I don’t think it is.

What I am trying to get at is that most of these novels-worth-hating (let’s name some names: William Gaddis, Guy Davenport. Okay, we named some. Or freaking J. M. Coetzee, ugh) are built off the belief that we cannot know, we cannot know more, we cannot love more, we cannot reach out, because language is a barrier. Language to them is preventative (I know very little about this, but in the back of my mind are discussions of Symbolic Logic and Ludwig Wittgenstein: thanks guys (Isn’t like ANY literature person worth their salt going to also hate symbolic logic? Answer: yes)). So instead of loving language and words, they abuse their powers, they chastise their tools, and they call what is natural (the ability to understand the basic sense of words) unnatural and blase.

And instead of revealing to us more about the unseen world and the material world that sustains it and presents it to us before our eyes (the world we must get to know once more by means of the prophets of surrealism or the prophets of fairy stories or whatever the garbage you want to call those who actually believe in the depths), those who fundamentally believe we cannot know also fundamentally believe we cannot show. They believe we cannot love characters, that it isn’t real, that we cannot spread the same ideas from mind to mind through the sublime encounter of words fitly spoken, that we cannot invent new forms for the unpossessed territory within our hearts, the hearts that are hardly big enough to hold the entire world that presses on us, like a hand pressed to a bleeding nose, the world that presses on us like the moon swollen with dust, like the warm side of a lover under the sheets, like other crap and more ridiculous similes that I won’t share. Make your own.

There is an unseen world. And this is no direct evidence, but why do we feel so desperately to reach out and touch it? What is the sublime encounter? Why do we constantly invent symbols to remind us of them, in painting and in literature?
And why does this damn tissue box not make us feel sublimely?
Because it’s not based off constructing something worth loving, it’s deconstructing what we have a lot of difficulty loving, but should. We don’t love enough, or care enough. So why is this art telling us to care less?
[Insert Pink Floyd quotation here]
Maybe the sublime does not present us with anything unseen. But it is the most damnedest satisfying boon for any soul. And I, along with anyone else that cares, is going to try to bring into the world new forms to possess the worlds we feel pressing on us desperately for attention, like a pack of screaming children. We are meant to love what this world shows us.
We are meant to be heartbroken when the world is broken, because our hearts are meant to hold the world, not hate it. And we, with our frail tools of language and love and symbols, are trying to hold the world.

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Hieronymous Bosch, The Vision of Tondal

 

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.

Excerpt: Come Whip the Earth!

The Heretic stood at the shore as he had before, only now with his arms raised. His arms gathered to themselves fresh food of all kinds from the endless storehouse of the lake. First the water hid the movement of what came towards him, but then faint currents dragged themselves on the surface with the pull of something just barely underneath. Red apples jumped out of the water from the end of these lines. They ascended to his arms and bunched together in bundles around his hands. So did two wrapped rotisserie chickens, three bags of potato chips, cans of corn and peas, a bottle of hot sauce, a fresh watermelon, packets of instant coffee, water bottles, a box of orange juice, a bottle of champagne, a sealed loaf of white bread, butter, precooked bacon, and many other things you would come to expect from the submerged old world. These were the rations of the new world. With his arms still raised, covered with the breakfast provisions that floated around them, the Heretic went back to the house.

Back at the house, the woman was wishing they had a better chair for the Heretic besides a pile of leaves. She could see the uncovered dead grass where she had previously dug up the carpet. The dormant rocks all around the house heard this groan of her spirit and picked themselves up by their bootstraps. The rocks moved like potato bugs, as if they had grown many little scuttling protuberances underneath them for even movement across the ground. When the first living stone came to the door, the rest behind him formed a line. They marched like a menagerie on display. The Heretic had to wait for them all to enter. The house he entered was not the one he had left: strange and unessential stone cupboards had their backs against the wall, stone undetailed tapestries hung precariously from the ceiling, and stone chairs encircled the stone table with its stoneware cups and plates. Even a stone hearth, empty without wood or fire, fitted itself opposite the table. Stone pots and pans hung above it.

The couple had already found their seats at the table. There was an uncomfortable look on the woman’s face. She looked coy about getting furniture—stone furniture. Her belly pressed against the rounded side of the cold table.

“It’s starting to look lived in,” the Heretic said, taking his place. The whole room stirred with inhuman motions seeking to please human emotions. The provisions left the Heretic’s arms and flung themselves to the right places on the table. The packs of instant coffee peeled open and poured themselves into the cups. The cork from the champagne whizzed straight through the leafy ceiling and fizzed foam towards the Extra. The packet of precooked bacon pulled open—and apparently a bag of cereal had found its way to the table, tearing open excitedly (without asking) to pour its contents into their bowls. A jug of milk flew into the house uninvited. Meanwhile, the Heretic had summoned a box of matches he now struck across the table. He threw the wad of flame into the starter log that sat in the hearth. A warm fire, some light.

“While they’re getting settled,” he said, “I would love to answer any questions you might have.”

“You’re making it sound like we signed up for this.”

Firenze, One

Oh how it looks just like the pictures!

Now I think when I walk past Brunelleschi’s Dome every day
and night—the Asian tourists with pink polka-dotted umbrellas, the wads of phlegm under my feet, the Libyan selling things, the human rabbits of all ethnicities jumping around asking for lighters, the 2013 yellow crane with an arm taller than the tall cathedral, the dog poop in the street, the Americans with their bulging money pouches under their flashy shirts, the Germans with their black dresses (black scarves (black boots)), the lingerie stores (translation of one chain: ‘Very Intimate’), the man who grabbed his crotch and laughed, the takeaway coffees and wine and beer and everything—of the failure of man’s greatest achievements and his most pious pieties. The golden cross of Jesus on the top of the Dome could be mistaken for this failure.

But held in place of this failure is the presence of the eternal victory of Jesus. God happily witnesses the ubiquity of religious symbols that now form the composite of what is the church’s largely disinherited value.

Let that value be forgotten, I say. God does not dwell in temples made by human hands—tourists do. The unspoken spirit of this cathedral is the Lord’s testimony to man’s rejection of salvation in favor of cream horns and cheap Chinese leatherwork [purchased en masse for crowded markets]. The knowledge of God is ubiquitous—so is the knowledge that man always fails at reverting Jesus into temples, money, intellectual aspirants. Jesus cannot be reduced or reused, Jesus cannot be made one portion or subsumed under a reasoned and imagined vision for humanity’s highest heights. Jesus tears down the highest heights and what heights we offer up to him he has no need of; he lets our motivations be forgotten with time, our buildings and our greatest ambitions {IN HISS HOLY NAME} drown under the cacophony of Mister Pizza, Intimissimi, and people looking at the deceased’s lasting impressions on this world muttering to themselves, not, “What a God!” but instead, “I didn’t know they had windows back then!”

The cathedral is man’s glory, not god’s. And like man’s glory, it is surrounded by people making money from it—inside, outside, around, throughout, by means of. And it is quite a glory. It is way taller and way bigger than it is in the pictures.

There is the pagan impulse to be careful around a God, to not make a God angry, to hedge your bets. There is the religious impulse to multiply indivisible grace. And in the city Dante Alighieri fled and the Medici mafia stamped their lasting fingerprints on, Caleb Warner as the sole representative of the evangelical impulse listened to Sara Groves. I don’t think this city knows about that impulse and it still doesn’t. I had my earphones in, I felt moved, and no one who saw me even knew what was going on inside me. Am I somehow failing, the evangelical thinks? By the way,

I think God loves wine, allows men their lingerie, and doesn’t mind the smell of cigarettes.

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)

Come Whip the Earth!

Now as the world outside was flooding, there inside that house once called the Old Manor slept The Extra with his wife. She slept with her mouth open. Into her mouth and past her teeth, down her trachea, entering her left lung, as she took a breath, through the membrane of her alveoli, her bloodstream, a small arteriole, a sliver-of-a-river, down through the chambers of her heart until coming to the arteries that lead down to the placenta, that bright red leaf with its bulging latticework, past a layer of stratum spongiosum and into the hollow of the intervillous spaces that are filled continually like the basins of the deep with blood, diffusing through the sprigged fingers of the chorionic villi containing the umbilical vein entwined together with the umbilical arteries which carry off what has been received, flowing to the branch of the vein embedded inside the white gummy rubber, the Wharton’s jelly, of the umbilical cord near instantly traversing inch after inch until reaching the navel of his abdomen, bypassing other routes by poking up through the transverse fissure of his liver, entering the branch of the Arantius’ Duct, flowing into the vena cava, the right atrium of his heart, through the shunt that is called the foramen ovale into the left atrium, pumping into the aorta, up the carotid arteries until forking into the ophthalmic artery forking still to the central retinal artery that pierces near the optic nerve and spreads offshoots all across the surface of his retina, there is the organ through which the child, unable to sleep like his parents, senses his dark world for any light. There is no light inside that swollen cave he can tell in the fog of the fluid that wraps around his kicking limbs. He must content himself with his world as it is, the world swelled just so he could be inside it, just so he might have some place to grow. There is no picking and choosing for him now, there is no way for him to shape what has been already shaped out of the walls of his mother’s uterus. He is the one who has been shaped, he is the one who has only to rest. If he cannot rest, he is the one who must find some way to bide the time. Let them him jump on the pliant walls of the amniotic sac until he gets his mother’s attention. Then she could say, “See! He’s in there, he’s energetic and happy to be alive.” That would be a comfort.

But at that very moment, his mother’s dreams were dark. She dreamed of the life that she could have lived with her husband had the world not been destroyed. The extra and his girlfriend, Rachel, were in the same position that the child of the cave found himself in. The Old Manor is dark inside, wet. The only difference between her womb and the womb of that house is warmth. There is no comfort for them there in the cold, but sleep. They will throw off the questions they have about their new world until they wake up. They hear unconsciously the echo of the outer world’s sounds drift like dead shadows on the watery floors of the living room. These sounds influence what it is they dream of. It’s good they sleep. When they wake up they will call dreams dreams and life, life. For now, they dream about waves crunching light poles as they roll down city streets, shattering windows and lifting neat lawns. They dream about men out on oceans or lakes or ponds meeting towers that fall to devour their boats, bending bows to splinters and sides to hulks. The couple has no happy dreams that night, but they wake to the lie that their unhappy dreams were untrue.

If only they knew what price they buy the comfort of unhappy dreams at! It was not just in their dreams that the world met its end by water. Their sleeping hearts pieced together the truth long before their waking thirsts and worries could. Their sleeping hearts presented the truth inside their minds without any help from the two organs that assemble the fragments of the fractured world by the hands of a thousand saccades. The organ of our dreams is buried deep inside our guts. Like the eyes, it works only with fragments: scraps from our lives and rumors of our worst worries. Like the eyes, the organ of our dreams passes over these pieces, again and again, until it has come upon a settled picture. This is the picture it shows us. Many people, according to this narrator, give too much credence to the ability of the eyes to perform this task of grasping—and too little credence to our dreams. Why do we do this, when both give us the same service? It is because one organ works while we are awake to pass our own judgment upon its judgment, while the other works best when our hands are tied, our mouths shut, eyes bound. So we never see horrors with our eyes and take them as comforts, because we judge them as horrors. When we see horrors in our dreams, however, we wake and judge that it was only a dream. It was designed this way, so that we do not get a double portion of the horrors contained in this world. Instead, we get a half portion of mourning and a half portion of comfort, even though we saw more horrors than our eyes themselves revealed. Wise men take all the mourning and no comfort, because they know how it is.

Although the child could not see anything in his world, he could hear the muffled groans of his parents as they woke up to discover their own wombed world. They spoke to each other. It was the voice of his mother that he heard best. He felt it in his bird bones; it reverberated inside the amphitheater of his soft skull. His parents woke up and the child shifted his weight as she rose from the chair. His mother cried—but his father hugged her, pressing his stomach against hers, compressing the walls of his home. The child kicked back against him. They said something to each other and he felt his father’s hand on the wall. He kicked his father’s hand away and held fast with his fingers loosely around the cord that had him bound to his mother. He could not see a thing, but neither could his parents. All they could see was what they felt with their hands, like the blind. And like a blind old woman, his mother walked with her hands outstretched in the darkness of that night while her husband put his arm around her waist. Water slushed against their pants. They wished they could be as safe as their child, as care free. They heard sounds on the walls of the house, distant howls, screeching. None of these noises came to their waking attention.

“I’m hungry,” the extra said, “are you hungry?”

“I’m always hungry,” she said.

“You let me go into the kitchen, then. Stay here. I’ll see if I can find a flashlight and some food.”

She leaned against the railing of the stairs and said nothing, because she was going to be sick. She heaved and heaved until she vomited on the water. The image of three corpses floating on the water in the other room, bumping against her legs, came into her mind. As the extra was making noise inside the kitchen, opening and closing kitchen cabinets, another sound came from inside the house. The stairs creaked behind her, but not like someone was coming down them. They creaked as if they were being twisted. A light flashed on the water in the doorway of the kitchen. Two lines of shadow from the doorway scanned across the dancing diamonds of grey and dark blue, fitted like an ornament on the surface of the floorboards. He came to her and shed light on her. She turned to see what was happening, and behold, the stairs looked as if they were melting in heat. They were like metal that had just recently been plunged into the burning embers of a furnace, only to be pulled out and struck into shape on the anvil. The stairs of wood hammered together once sawn long ago gained the youthful looks of the trees that bore them. They had the look of white flesh once the bark has been peeled off a fresh, living stick. The stairs could bear no further delay and, as the soft flesh rose around them, plunged their finished edges into it and were swallowed. And those were now twigs that used to be called spindles in the railing. Neither of them could believe the miracle they witnessed and reached out their hands in disbelief to feel the surface. Where stairs used to be was now at the touch the soft inside of a tree. The extra stood at the bottom of the long-gone stairs. He directed the light up them. The stairwell grew rapidly upwards—as the hollow of a giant root. Those spindles, once twigs, had all too soon grown together and formed the sides of this root, on one side limpid, a hard bark on the other. This giant root pushed against the roof of the house, in order to puncture it, and the extra saw in a sudden moment what he thought would be the immediate death of his whole family. But instead of piercing the outer membrane of their safety, the root only carried on, high, higher up. The root was now racing off into the heights so far that the light could not find its end. The extra and his wife did not know why this happened, but they knew what it was: an offer. So they came to the bottom of that strange ascending well, and began scrambling up it. They found that the scrambling came easy, for the tissued walls of the root was kind on the feet and hands, nor was the incline too steep.

As they climbed, they came to a spot that they knew was well beyond the Old Manor down below, still sunken. They took a break here and heard the creaking of the root still expanding upwards, going before them to the world they had not yet met or seen. The hope overshadowed their hunger and thirst, but their exercise in hope only grew their desperation. There was no immediate answer to their appetites, which made it worse. They discussed whether or not to return to the Old Manor for the night, or to continue on until they came to the end. Neither seemed like a good idea. The extra shut off his flashlight.

He prayed in the darkness, his hands with her hands, “Please, if you can flood the world and give us a way out, bring us some food and water or show us what we are supposed to do to eat.”

[…]