Socrates said, “know thyself,” and in his inquisitive dialogues sought meaning toward his culture’s biggest questions.Continue reading “The Debate- A Socratic Look at American Piety”
By Patrick Hurley
Some men are born posthumously, and only when the world has altered to their superior wisdom can it accommodate their genius. Such a man am I. And such a wisdom I now impart unto you. For I hold the greatest truth of life. I have lived in solitude for several lifetimes and have learned all I can. I have summited the mountain of wisdom, I have defeated the relic who lay claim to it, and I have extricated meaning from every drop of color in every aspect of all of life. And I have done so completely alone. What realizations, you may well ask, fuel the soul of the man who has defied nature? Who has lived in perfect condition for hundreds and hundreds of years? I had not thought to write anything down until this very day. And with lifetimes of knowledge, which can only be translated as truth, so says Socrates, I impart the truth unto you. What proceeds from this precedent recountal is an ending. As all stories must, so too will mine come to a sudden and permanent stop. That which I have learned is a detailed list that if enumerated would be long enough to prove unreadable. So, truths, unprovable by any living science, in order of their importance, I will lay out before you now.
I do not sleep, but each morning I open the faded curtains of the windows of my small cabin to greet the sunrise. I equally greet the sunset on its departure at the close of each day, and gently pull the curtains back across the glass, keeping the darkness safely indiscernible. For I am the daybreak, but also the dusk. We are, all of us, either day or night, dark or light, wise or ignorant, but it is only the truest of us that can be both, to exist in the magic twilight of immaculate dawn. This is the first truth.
How startled and solemn the sunset seems, when night, enamored with day, rises up to greet her, only to just brush against her cheek. Rejected day after day, he will not relent, for surely, after so many millennia, he must accept the cyclical inevitability of his own fate. The deep sadness that accompanies some knowing, makes the knowing gray. And so, it can be stated that sometimes not knowing is the better of the two worlds. If light is knowing, then surely, darkness is ignorance, and so it is when these two forces briefly touch that the universe reveals its secrets. At the moment of birth and the moment of death. We must pay most attention to these. Sunrise is the antithetical life to the melancholy death of sunset. For when else is nature furnished with such potential? When blackness is lost to the pastels of a new day. But this morning, the world slowly awoke not to the blush nor violet, but rather to a stone gray. Spoken with softer words, the subconscious is a sneaky devil. And when I peered through the sleet blackness, the chalkboard sky of new dawn, it was then that I first saw him.
A man, the first of his kind I have seen in longer than I can remember. I have been found. He is too far to have any real discernible features. In fact all I could tell, from my liminal view was that he was a man of some medium build and undetermined but clearly middle-age. He was wearing thick clothing, dark and heavy. Standing in the clearing of trees directly in front of me, facing me. Was he challenging me? This is the answer that must be so. For if greater truth lives in those of us who experience more, and I have lived eternally, I have the higher ground of truth between us. Who are you, man creature of the forest? Weatherworn and haggard. The first other I have seen in so long I cannot recall. Locked in an ocular showdown, a spiritual stare-off, a current of electricity touching both, moving neither. Am I exposed? If this stirring is danger within me, it must be so. But which of us is predator and which is prey? I am reminded of how I came to this repose. Images of my former self appear in the glass before me. Faceless propagators of basest need, of hunger, and fear and lust, of retraction and reproach. So much of being human is being unsure. So much of certainty is not knowing. The images flood past, burnt out flashbulbs snapping one after another after another. So many eyes, and none of them seeing. But now, on this ashen morning, the inconceivable has happened, for there is little doubt that he sees me. Dark nights of my former life spew forth like the overflow of shook champagne, and with as much unreliable, however intoxicating belief. And words that I have read, not created, rush to greet the informal feeling of something like nostalgia. False lights that on men’s faces play, distorts them gruesomely. And they always say “I”, “I,” but to whom they are referring, they know not. This is why I sought the emptiness of this new world. The “I” I was could only be I alone. And yet there is us. The wondrous, impossible penetrability of the Unum. A paradox: “I” can only fully exist as the middle letter of unity. I sought refuge away from the bosom of my mother, the fists of my father, the madding crowd that seeks to recruit and reform you, and into the arms of my mirror self. But now I see all of what I once thought to be true, staring at me in the blurry face of this stranger.
We, the us that is born of subjugation, must see the world as misanthropes. Where deeds are aimed at our Achilles heels, and intent is as black as slavery. Now, in the gray light of midmorning, I stand strong against the stare of the intruder of my forest atop the mountain I claimed so long ago. I am overwhelmed by his enmity, though no such betrayal can be glimpsed from this distance, I cannot see his face, I know why he has come. We are caught together, an invisible thread from there to here, from him to me, from dark to light. An inversion is taking place, a reduction of my eternity, my deepest solitude laid threadbare in the vulnerability of his evanescent gaze. I will not relent. He has climbed this mountain to lay his claim to it. I recognize the insistence in his stance. But I will not relent.
Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know. Faith is a kind of blind prophet perched in our souls. But who is leading who? Imperatives echo conviction, and imprison knowledge, save for when the conviction is righteous. Such demands for certainty will impede true knowledge. Another paradox. I strain to elucidate my inchoate imperative: I am truth. For it must be true that he who is true is clothed in the garments of authenticity of this claim. Knowing this, one must trust that the blind prophet of their soul will guide them without fail. When one is correct, as I am, one will instinctively surrender. Keats said beauty is truth, and vice versa, which is technically a tautology, but Keats died at twenty-five of tuberculosis so we should probably disregard his attraction to the aesthetic for what it was, youthful ideology. Still, if language was the sea of life, the allure of his verse I could swim laps in for all eternity. Oh, to be young again. But this is inauthentic. It is in the presence of another, of this stranger, that I have begun to long for thoughts that are not mine. I am falling backwards. I have come too far to relent. The book of my life is not complete, nor is it written by any hand but my own. But this is false. It is not my thought. Others ideas like poison is seeping back into the cracks between my thoughts. Our lives are only like books when the last sentence is written. And I have learned in my immortal solitude, that alas, our lives are not books. We are not so grand. They are mere sentences. And the punctuation at the end of the sentence that is your life, however labyrinthine, if you were able read ahead of time, could only be a question mark. Ink is permanent. The soul must not be. Time is not moving. It is fixed forever in one spot. This is the truth of my immortality. Have I lost my way in the dark? Has gray morning and this stranger’s sudden appearance taken wisdom away from me? What am I? I must remember.
I’m not young. I am eternal, a lapidary construction, I am the chrysoprase moss of the ancient coral reef. I cling to something greater. I have survived time. No, not survived. I have discovered time is not real, and the passing of it is only imperative if you refuse to see the truth. The herd will only watch the clock. Tick-tick, tick-tock, tick-tock. I have no herd. Having become immortal, I feel it my duty, nay, my obligation, from the reflection of my deepest solitude, to maintain my hold on this mountain, lest my truth is stolen. I see this intruder as all who wish to diminish my glory. I will hold the justice of history and of wisdom, an order taller than Hyperion, older than Methuselah, as true as anything in nature. And I will not let him pass. Histories contain wisdom, so said one of the Brontë sisters, and sometimes the kernel of wisdom that emerges from the husk of history is scarcely worth the effort of cracking it open in the first place. I find that the very center of my thesis, protecting the greatest truths of life from the enemies who seek to challenge it, makes the nutcracking well worth the centuries-long effort of revealing the meat.
How did I get here? It is only natural that you would ask. It started with a question. As things do. What am I? A conglomeration of others, of ancestors, of history, parents, grandparents, friends, lovers, strangers who have fueled feelings of animosity and lust and pity? Am I made of the city I was born in? The first sounds I heard? The first taste I swallowed? Of all the sunrises, and sunsets? The music I’ve heard that has enlightened, shaken, and unnerved me? The art that speaks a secret language that sometimes I also speak? Like an archeologist of words, of symbols, and of the sublime. The indescribable. Am I the ocean? The rivers? The lake I peed in when I was a boy? The fireflies on a muggy midwestern night, the smell of wet pavement, the creaking of a porch swing? The sound of my grandfather stirring his morning coffee? Fresh cut grass, bug repellent, and a campfire? My nose twitches when I smell wood burning. Is that happening now? Nostalgia is cradled gently in the smell of warm cinnamon bread and banana pancakes, and mom’s chocolate chip cookies. I am instantly displaced by the smell of burnt butter, and teary-eyed from onions and smoke and jasmine. The solace of bacon frying, of whole day roasts and turkeys on holidays blurred together as one long grievance. And sage, and pine, and bleach each hold their own sedimentary sentiment in the catalogue of my history. Whole days of rain and snow and that feeling of summer, of freedom. The smell of books, the library of my middle school years, of synapses whirling into the first idea of what is possible. The gravelly ground by the railroad tracks of my teenage years. The smell of diesel from the trucks on the highway near my youth. And coffee brewing. And the ink on the page of a notebook meant to contain instruction but instead rambles of my subconscious. An overpass under a scorching sun, barefoot and bleeding. Of the ten stitches I had in the bottom of my foot after jumping off a fence and landing on a broken Coke bottle. The feel of ice-cold dog shit squishing between my toes on the neighbor’s grass. And sliding down a snowy hill, sledding with my father. The stolen glance, the arousal inside of me. The need to feel with my hands the urge that starts a fire just south of my stomach, a region that I hadn’t considered before, an unexplored continent. The release of my first orgasm. The fantasy of all firsts. The shape of adolescence, and the desire, the deep, deep desire, like a foreign language I would learn whether I wanted to or not. The first time I saw the ocean, sparking my need to always return to that scent, that sound. The spectacle of vast symmetry, of blue and green and of everywhere. The first time I tasted saltwater when a wave crashed over me like an animal tackling me to the ground. The first time I cried because I had to go home. The first time I didn’t have a home to go to. All the places I’ve called home. Teachers who told me my answers were wrong. Teachers who changed the chemical conversations inside my brain, whose ideas electrified my synapses. And books and words and images that spoke greater truths than the invisible faith demanded by the invisible hand of an invisible ruling force. The first time I tasted crème brûlée. Secret kisses in darkened rooms. Of icy dread, and frozen terror. When death was something that didn’t just happen to other people, but lurked on every stoop, around every corner, haunting the dreams of every man that has ever lived. Prophetic loss carries tokens of future converts, manifests of emotion, striations, like ribbons of dread torn in bloody patches, entwined in the mephitic fingers of death himself. But these thoughts are not mine. My search for meaning dies always in the colloquium of the collective. I’m straying from the kernel, lost in the casing, the thickness of the shell, and I come up with nothing but the universal. So what am I? I recognize that I am too consumed with the false idea of universal truths. I must reject how others see the world and trust that my soul is the truest of all truths.
When I was a boy, I swam in the sea, fully clothed, beneath a graying canopy of protracted autumn. In even intervals of the rising tide, up and down, the horizon would extend and the shore disappear. For slight instances when I would ride over the backside of a wave, I was completely alone, an anomaly of earth-bound particles struggling to stay afloat a liquid galaxy. I can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if that sea still holds a piece of me. Did I leave something behind? Did the salt water exfoliate microscopic DNA that could somehow still prove to some scientist in some lab somewhere that once upon a time a small boy swam a little too far off shore in the October Atlantic? Surely, they must, for the sea on that day existed for no other purpose. Is that what I am?
When I was a schoolboy I learned nothing so much as the necessity of suppression. A knee-jerk reaction to the objective truth of obedience. I didn’t speak the right words, I didn’t assert the right versions of things, of myself, and how to survive became an act of mimicry. I was certain of my superiority, and of what ought to be, but I cloaked my veracity veraciously inside the cult of the herd. But I was immutable in my virtue. I acquiesced and even rescinded the high ground to the puppets of opined dogma whose versions of the truth, like a termite-infested dwelling could only, one day, eventually and totally collapse on itself. I just had to wait. So I sat alone, and I chastised my thoughts, and I moralized my desires. Friendless and without faith, I altered the path only I could wander, to better match the paths I so desperately wished were mine instead. I heard the nicknames, I felt the fists, I stayed on the ground feigning the position of beta, like the prey of some vicious dominant master. I ran, I didn’t walk. I laughed, I didn’t cry. I covered scars with lies, and learned how to speak in a voice I didn’t possess. I dropped the act of me until I was the me that could survive them. The very existence of those who oppose the righteous is only alive as proof of something false. When they rise in greater and greater numbers, they strike out only to prove their iniquity. They serve no other purpose. I knew this is what I wasn’t.
When I first became an adult, I dared to speak out against the voices of unreason that had filled my head with their poison. Knowledge was rooted in the fertile ground where truth should prosper. Had I begun to believe the lies of the everyman? In the darkest of nights, in the coldest of winters, between two isolated streets, tucked between towering brick walls, where every sound heightened the possibility of danger, I first used the fist of reproach. Animosity from an inherent place, from years of silent abuse, of violence against piety, a primal instinct unleashed, and tore into the flesh of a man who dared to tread the ground of virtue alongside me and raise an accusation of hate against me. Was I wrong? No. For it can only be the impious who may wrong their superior opposites. Which is what I am. Piety, like oxygen, goes into our bodies as one thing and comes out another. Both necessary to the continuation of beauty and truth, or as Keats might say, the interchangeable sameness of virtue. There is only one truth, and it is only knowable to the observer of injustice. So, I lashed out, at long last against the inhuman instinct of a group I will only refer to as “them.” The darkness deepens the memory, cloisters it in a kind of protective bubble that lives just outside myself.
It was a cold night. Tucked in the safety of easy street, a place I called home away from home. Lowly lit and patronized, the air filled with sweat and gin infused whispers, and suggestive bodies, and the faint drone of a Victrola turned too low. Illicitly providing a service that some deemed immoral, it was a place for us. The us that had been rejected by them. The them that had made the rules for themselves, as if we, the we that is us, didn’t even exist, or existed as something beneath the law. A quiet rebellion was brewing, and with it the resolve that in our victimization, we were just in our calls to resist. Resistance is the same as violence to someone on the other side of it. But is it not justified to burn the forewarned heretic? Self-defense is not the same as hate. On this night, this cold January night, I had lost the ability to overlook the indefensible affront to my kind any longer. He and his friends were drunk, as tourists tend to be, and though by the very nature of their appearance, I did not want to serve them, I did my duty. I tried to ignore the comments, I closed my eyes, grit my teeth and disengaged, until I could last no longer. A wayward hand, a threatening smirk, his inimical instincts overthrew my reason, and the last thing I remember, before feeling the contact with his skin was the dragging of him out into the cold unforgiving night.
I remember the squishiness of flesh, my hand moving with the momentum of my entire body. I remember the hardness of bone. The pain jolting through my hand. The sounds of shifting feet on asphalt, and a hollow crack like a firework. I felt the wetness of him, it sprayed like mist onto my face and neck. A spewing of his original sin, an excavation of spiritual cancer ridding itself from his crooked tongue, because I had exorcised it. I heard a crashing thud, the weight of him all at once. Though it was dark, and I couldn’t see them, I could sense the spectators were growing in numbers. They were baying for my blood. So, I ran. and I ran. And I ran. And ran.
I ran back to the mountain of my youth, where truth first revealed itself to me. And I summited the hidden trail I had taken years before, to the edge of the tree line, near the edge of the world. And it was in this place, in the mountain forest, deeply darkened by nature, above the mortal world, where my spiritual ancestors first laid their roots, that I came to find the beauty of stasis and immobility. It took me I know not how long to traverse the wild country to find the small cabin that my ancestors had built, in the deep green forest of time, verdant and permanent, the needle-sharp Kelly of an evergreen, a fortuitous glimpse of my imminent future. I closed in one moonlit midnight, with an angry mob in tow, unseen but very close behind. But I alone knew the path, and so they could not catch me. I clambered up the steps of the porch, pushed open the heavy oak door, and in the first of several certainties that would follow the decades and decades of my insistent youth, I closed the door to the world outside, and began to finally live truth.
At first, I slept for days and days, and the dreams that accompanied my slumber sometimes seeped into the in-between world. I saw the faces of those that wished me harm, of the bellicose flock I knew to be circling just below my sanctuary. The path to the where I am is hidden, and so try as they might, they will always be too far down the mountain to ever find me. Or so I thought. Days turned to weeks with very little effort, and day and night could sometimes seem indiscernible as the thickness of the natural world shielded me. When I finally woke, I didn’t need to sleep again.
I midnight foraged, so as to not be seen. The blueberries I gathered, I placed in a small bowl and set in a cupboard to keep them cool and dry. When I was satisfied with a handful of them, I didn’t need to eat again. And as days proceeded, I forgot about the surplus berries in the cupboard. It would be at least a year before I opened the cupboard and, to my astonishment, found the perfectly preserved spheres waiting for me. Impossible, I thought. They were existing beyond what was physically possible. Physics being the basis of nearly all of the beliefs of the herd, perhaps was not immutable, I suddenly realized. What I see is truth, not what a mass of group minded drones sees. The facts were incrementally beginning to stack against logic. Since my arrival here, I have defied at least two rules of existence; I have not slept, and I have not eaten. And then the nature of eternal existence stared me in the face in the perfectly taut azure skins of a bowl of year-old blueberries. I cannot certify in any certitude as to the exact duration of time the berries were, in fact, locked in the cupboard, but it was longer than science can give reason to. The magic of the four walls that now encased me, began to reveal itself on that day. But it is not magic when it is reality. It is a greater truth than any man is willing to seek. After long hours of contemplative analysis, I opened the small kitchen window, and I scooped the berries from the bowl into the midmorning air. As gravity pulled them into her arms, so too did time, and in all his unforgiving sine qua non, drained at once the life from the small orbs, shriveling and contaminating them in the blink of an eye. By the time they touched the Earth, they were gray and rotted. It was when the breeze tickled my cheeks, that I felt the breath of time whispering into my ear that I was next. I shut the window, and have not considered returning to the outside again. At least not until now.
Time has passed outside these walls, but inside, I am untouched, unburdened, as fresh as the day I found my salvation. All remnants of mortal vassalage evaporated long ago. I need not sleep, nor eat, nor lust after the cheap pleasures of distraction, and above all, I needn’t seek god. I am a god unto myself. As all man was created to be. Man invented God as a means of worshipping himself. I have simply cut out the middle man. What else should anyone need but the wisdom of his own truth? What seemed impossible in my first youth, now the very foundation on which my beliefs are built. If I see it, it must be so. This is the truest truth of all. And in truth, I do not see as much as you might expect. There is a divine simplicity in the absence of time. Though the day and night repeat in cycle, as nature dictates, there is no succession, no accumulation, only euphony, the melody of fealty. Faith is truth and truth a kind of faith, syllogisms have to go both ways, hence, the dialectic that what I believe is what is true must also be true because I believe it. When the galaxy of what you would call time encircles you, as it has for me these past centuries, it is impossible not to create a self-philosophy. And in the absence of scientific time, there can be no subjective ought, only cold hard is. It is true, however, that, for the most part, I have found myself lost in a crevice of stillness. I have seen dust form on the edges of sills, a painted wall slowly suppurates, like an infected wound forming scabs and blisters, and only from enduring its own existence. This is the cruelty of all of life. White lace curtains yellow with antiquity, and the spines of books turn brittle and abraded. My sanctuary takes on the burden of time, but I am exempt. Where the world decays, my certainty prospers, the rose of my faith effloresces in my senescent soul. I am a butterfly that has lost its quiescent tribe, and so has come to immortality without fanfare, without the crucial ingredient of being seen. But doesn’t this explain my seclusion? Much like the butterfly, who are solitary in their daylit flights, yet sleep in groups of hundreds. They may fly solo, but when the world is most dangerous they acquiesce to the tribe. This I do not want to do. This stranger has appeared to challenge all of my truths. I will face this challenge and act to substantiate my greater wisdom. Thus, in my final act, I shall prove myself deific in an Empedoclean leap of faith. As a martyr of real truth.
Though he is not encroaching nor relenting, the stranger is, nevertheless, still there with the breath of a new day. We have been staring for at least twenty-four hours. I try to see past the distance between us. His posture is that of a victim. He is hunched, he is belittled in his corporeal presentiment. A picture is worth some set amount of words, but a still life is more than just a picture. Representation is more than the totality of one life or two, it is the hand of reason reaching out to cradle, to shelter an entire people from a blurry archetype, from a poisoned version of the truth. Is that who this man is? Not a man at all, but a whole group of men? I stammer through the fog of my own charity only to discover the small kernel of what feels like pity. I daren’t avert my eyes, lest he will seize the virtuous high ground. And the comparison to my own discovery of truth is suddenly brought back to my conscious mind.
I was eighteen, freshly matured, with a sense of the world I had neatly folded up and put into my back pocket. It was the morning after my eighteenth year began. I woke before the sun. I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed only what I would need for the climb, I slipped into my boots, and headed for the mountain. At first, it was all trees and rocks, with the icy waters of winter melted into the rushing river dividing the terrain. The incline began almost immediately, and did not relent. The trailhead twisted and turned in an epically Homeric fashion. Birds of prey perched just above the rocky path that wound razor-blade thin alongside the edge of the world. Halfway up the thinnest of paths, the trail turned toward the outer edge of the mountain and I was left face to face with the wide-open vista of the outstretched Earth below. Patches of land demarcated like squares on a telluric quilt, and seemingly random bursts of color, of reds, of greens and browns scattered like fallen autumnal foliage. I ascended a little farther toward a stretch of clouds that were hanging down, touching the trail. The feel of mist tickled my face, and my eyes cast down to the ground to keep sight of the terrain beneath my feet, and of the impossible dropping off of the world only inches away. Something in the calm air changed, a moisture rose up from some eternal place, and from this height, clouds enshrined the whole side of the mountain.
The world suddenly wrapped in gauze, a cloud seemed to land right on the trail, like a vaporous marshmallow befogging the world. I stopped midstride, heavy in breath, and heavier still in apprehension. I could hear the rustling of tree branches, the gentlest of breezes, the whirring of the massive cotton billows that muted the universe. I reached my hand toward the mountainside, and felt the cold permanence of the rock. I felt my way along the face of the mountain, until I saw the shape of a man only a few feet in front of me. I stopped, and to his silhouette I spoke.
“Good morning,” I said affably.
“Why have you come up this mountain?” his voice gravelly and soft at once, “did you not know of the dangers?” The white swirled around me, and I saw the impending dark gray of the clouds just on the horizon of my vision.
“You must turn around,” he said, “for I cannot let you pass.” This to me was preposterous, for, by the sound of his aged voice, I would most assuredly be the stronger of the two. I say with no small amount of arrogance that he cannot stop me.
“What you will find on this mountain,” he says slowly, “will make all of the rest of your life completely unbearable.” Had I not been so indignant, I may have been intrigued. I said something like, “I don’t really care.” Still shrouded in a diaphanous haze, as the voice of some kind of god, he continued, “It is a paradox. Shall I tell it?” We stood in the silence of the imposing blur. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me a question, or playing a trick on me. Either way, I was completely stuck.
“You have been instructed,” he began, “by the creation of a perception handed down to you by those you claim as your own.” He inched a bit closer, I could hear the gravel beneath him crackle with his subtle steps. I stayed immobile. He continued, “And now what you see is determined by the creation of how others told you to see it.” He inches even closer. “And so now you have to decide, how much of what is true is actually false.” I can almost make out his face, but it is a blur, like a picture out of focus. “Above this nebula of obscure homogeneity, this clouded abyss lies the clearest view of the world, there is more to be seen at once than your mind can invent in a lifetime.”
“That is what I came looking for,” I say determined to match his ominously wizened tone. His chuckle is at once condescending and genuine, and he says, “It is not as simple as a desire. That which you seek, being so great a vantage point must come with a heavy, heavy, price.” Again, he inches closer, this time, I take a step back. I’m suddenly filled with the sensation of falling, and the whiteness disorients and dizzies me.
“I can’t just let you go up there,” his menacing tone wreaking havoc on my newly discovered awareness of vertigo. I grip the solid wall of rock next to me, and turn slightly away from him. I can hear his footing as he steps again closer to me, and says, “herein lies a dilemma: only one of us may reach the top of this mountain, and I am already there. You have a choice, submit to my greater will, or turn around.” Leaning back on the cold rock, I felt a flush of heat across my face. Why should I think myself less than any other? Why should I be obsequious to one who claims to have a greater knowledge of this mountain? The latter question seemed to answer itself, but my indignation was anything but stifled.
“I will find my own way,” I said, and then, “I need no help from you.” After a moment of stillness, amid the cawing of a distant bird, he said, “I, and I alone, know the path to the summit. Would you fall to your death to satisfy your pride?
“Will you not give me directions?” it was then his stride increased, and I saw his face. I recognized the philosopher as soon as I saw him. I would know his face anywhere, and even here in some other worldly realm, the madness of his legend still lives in his wild glare. His fixated stare haunts me to this day. He moved close to my face to tell me that there are no directions to the top of this mountain. He told me that if I were authentic, I wouldn’t have traversed the treacherous trail, but would have instead gone the gentle way. He then told me that he would lead me to the top, but that I would only be able to see the view he created for me. That anyone who does not climb alone, can only share what someone else already sees. I told him this was impossible. I told him he was a crazy old man. He began to seethe with rage, foaming at the corners of his mouth, his eyes ignited by a fire of unreason. He told me that to think myself as one was the earthliest of all sins. “You are not one!” he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward the edge of the mountain. Scrambling to grab hold of the rock behind me, I could feel my feet sliding as if the gravel were as slick as ice. Again, he stops moving and pushes his face close to mine, “You will try to change my view?” My face trembles with fear, my hands are gripping his hands gripping me. “You must go back down! You cannot seek to claim what you cannot understand! Leave me to my mountaintop or I will throw you from it!” It was then he jerked me forward, and I lost hold of the mountain. A whip of wind across my face as he spins me with my back to the edge of the world. He is gripping my shirt, I fear, not tightly enough as he pushes me back toward the void. When he stops, I can feel the vacant space just behind me, I am dangling at the edge of the path, over the edge of the world.
“Vainglory,” he spits his words, “Vainglorious bastard!” He begins to shake from the distress of keeping our collective balance. He tells me that I am not special, that I am no different than a grain of sand on a shore that stretches on for eternity. “The smallest speck that makes up the cells that make up you, is larger to your being than all of your being is to the universe.” He keeps screaming that I am nothing. That he has seen the end of my kind, and it is in our collective delusion of some inflated self he keeps calling “The Vanished People.” I hold onto his arms, in what I am sure is a futile attempt to keep from letting gravity seize us both. Before I gain enough strength to overpower his ancient grasp, he tells me that he has seen the end of me.
“Villain,” he bellows at extended length, as if he’s throwing the word into the valley beneath our feet. It was then, I was able to find my footing, and twist in such a way as to reverse our positioning and with all of the weight of my body I shove the old philosopher off the mountain. He falls backward and grasps hold of the edge, barely suspended by the tips of his fingers, so that his eyes just jut above the ground. Out of breath, and lying on the trail facing him, we are still eye to eye. Before he falls to his oblivion, he says, “You cannot see.” He strains, he pulls himself just high enough for his lips to reach above the rock, “you will never see.” He smiled, and with a deep kind of satisfaction he let go of the mountain, and disappeared. Vanished into the soft white nothing. Relinquishing his place on my mountain.
I will never see. I say this out loud, but I know the man in the woods cannot hear me. But something in the vulnerable expression of my entire being must be communicating to him through the empty space that distances us, past the glass that separates us, for just as I say these words, he nods. And at once the glass, the distance, the antipathy vanishes like the old philosopher off the side of the ancient cliff. Is there a more perfect moment two human beings have ever shared? It is not apathy, nor is it its opposite, for there are no stakes that fuel our coexistence, only just this. A moment where neither is anything but the thing he is. He cannot see what I see. He will never see it. And with that, he raises a hand, a gentlest of greetings, but also a kind of surrender. He nods again, turns his back to me and disappears into the thick green ever after.
Now it is my turn. I will explain to you, as it happens, and in doing so, will reveal the meaning of all of life. I have no business left to attend. No goals to accomplish. Every nuance of every daily chore has been wrung as dry as a desert stone. I could stay, I think, I could stay and learn more. I could make the duty of menial tasks as beautiful as any work of art. But I no longer know how. In these my last moments, I am suddenly overwhelmed with sadness of all I have not seen, nor will ever see. It is true that this stranger will never see what I see, but what of the things, the infinite number of things I will never see? Winged Victory blanched by time, by her very survival still seemingly mid-stride against a faceless enemy. The goliaths of Giza, monuments of time touching history to the modern world. The ceilings of Rome, and all the tearstained floors beneath them, wrung from the eyes of all who have gazed upward at them, like the invented deities of a bygone people. What monoliths humans have rendered. How much I do not know. What does it smell like on the mouth of the Dead Sea? What textures in a handful of the Amazon? The chimes of Notre Dame? The caw of some exotic island bird. The tick of Big Ben. The cacophony of a street bizarre. And the touch of rare silk. And the taste of foreign fruit. The buzz of the watery ascent of the Hungarian mayfly. My mind is greater than any one of these, and yet the totality of their absence outweighs any idea I might hold. The shelter of my certainty has collapsed. I will seek the man that had sought me, and I will tell him the certainty that was once imparted unto me and you and all who come hereafter. I was truth. I was certain. I was alone. I was able to see what you could not. But unwilling to believe the same.
I place my ageless hand upon the door, and with so gentle a pull, no more than a nudge, I open it. How easy a titanic decision can be. I smell the dawn- it is new, damp and green. Oxygen overflows into my nostrils, my eyes water, my knees quake. I step my foot outside, and it is with great hope that my other foot will follow. And it is with even greater hope, and maybe something bigger that I shut the door behind me, and I leave the place I never dreamed I could leave. And in my first external breath in so long a time I do not remember, taking in the world I thought I’d lost, the thought fills my head, covers the morning…
I do not know which way to go.