Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Nightfall in Winter that Comes Without a Star"

Near the end of last week I wrote “The Air Loom Gang,” and yesterday morning I completed “The Bower of Delights.” Today I go forth to attempt Chapter 10. I believe it will be primarily engaged with the emotions I was feeling during Christmas in anticipation of the dreaded year to come. In writing the first half of the chapter on Corey’s collapse and Booth’s return to reason at the end of January, I eventually reached a dead end because I realized that I hadn’t yet explained what I was fighting for, nor why the circumstances seemed so dire. They were truly dire. Thus when I wrote “The Bower of Delights” I strove to explain, with logic and clarity and a certain amount of emotional force, how I had come to believe that [[ Meredith ]] and I would be sexually tempted during third trimester, and why it was necessary to prevent this fearful fate. In order to do so, I had to accomplish two things: I had to convey the emotional stakes in a manner that would be understood, and perhaps even deeply felt, by a general audience (thus my assertion that in averting the immediate temptation, I would be preventing the untimely death of my beloved in the distant future), and I had to explain why having sex with [[Meredith]] was a Bad Idea. This last I attempted to tackle in two different ways: by explaining why having sex at all, with anyone, was a Bad Idea for me; and why, in particular, it was wrong to engage in amours with [[Meredith]]—because I knew her motivations for providing those delights would be primarily self-centered, rooted in her insecurities. So even people who disagreed with my understanding of chastity (although I feel I explained it in a fairly presentable, pleasing, and logical manner, I’m aware that many will disdain it from the hardness of their hearts), even those who have qualms about my Christian sense of honor should at least understand and respect that I wished not to prey on the emotional vulnerabilities of someone whom I deeply cared about. And I can feel the momentum of the narrative flowing towards the question of, “Will he be able to do it? Will he be able to show [[Meredith]] her value as a person, and prevent her from encouraging something that would hurt them both?” That momentum will flow into the chapter following, the final “Christmas” chapter, and by the time we return to the time of Booth’s return, I’m hoping it will have formed an avalanche of sorts. (My understanding of what makes a novel powerful is shifting from a focus on its “literary,” and in particular stylistic merit, to its intellectual, spiritual, and emotional force. In all the reviews I read of Inception over the summer, what seemed to move the critics the most was Christopher Nolan’s brilliance at simply explaining difficult, trippy ideas, and his ability to continuously raise the emotional stakes until your whole heart was gripped by the direful spectacle).

In which case, I need to determine what remains to be explained before we reach that point. December 2003 was the point where my life became truly mythological at last, although the act had been in process for a space of several months; where I found myself living in some surreal, epic wasteland where the whole world was in peril and I was responsible for holding back the rising tide of darkness which threatened to devour me, my closest friends, my school, and then, beyond even that, the earth itself. How did it come to this?

In the previous chapters I established that, however it might have been happening, and for whatever purpose, I was living in a story with supernatural dimensions. All my predictions about the beginning of the second trimester, about [[Meredith]], about Priscilla, had now come true. For the moment, I wrote, it was safe to assume that I had been given some kind of prophetic understanding. Near the end of Chapter 8 I elaborated on the reasons why I chose to view these circumstances from within a Christian framework—any other explanation would have been too crazy; would, indeed, have MADE me crazy. It wasn’t entirely unreasonable, considering that I appeared to be dealing with prophecy and demons, to determine that religious explanations must have lain behind the riddles.

But to this point I’ve been holding off that portion of the puzzle which was added (most surreally) by the situation with [[Mortimer]] and [[Petunia]]. Their emergence was the central plotline of the sixth and seventh chapters. When I called [[Mortimer]] to tell him what was happening in Alvin, he reported that the same things were happening to him in [[Toronto]] (several hundred miles north). Indeed, they had been happening for the same length of time. He said that on more than one occasion demons had assaulted his body with the evident intention of possessing it. He said he had been tempted (as I was) to dabble in Finnish magic. He was just as surprised as I was to discover that this was going on elsewhere, with someone he knew very well. When I asked him what it meant, and why this was happening to us, he told me it appeared that the forces of heaven and hell were gathering up their forces for a major battle—possibly the final battle—and that we were being summoned to fight in the conflict ahead.

I did find it odd that [[Mortimer]] and I were both experiencing the same apparent supernatural phenomena, but found his reasoning fallacious. Granted, it only made sense that if we were being singled out for attack with such severity, and at the same time manifesting the power of God to a parallel degree, then something was in preparation. But to deduce from thence that we would be figures of import in a major spiritual conflict, let alone the end-times conflict, was a step too far. At least that was my feeling until [[Petunia]] wrote her letter explaining that she had been having these experiences as well, and that her visions had revealed that she was destined to marry, and then murder, the Antichrist himself.

So what was I supposed to think? That we were entering a time of global tribulation, that the people close to me would be among its chief participants, had been affirmed now by my own unusual experiences and those of two other people, none of whom at first had known about the others. Yet, at the same time, it just couldn’t be true… it was absurd, unthinkable… it was an age-old deception adapting itself with insidious force to the circumstances of our times. There are few more susceptible temptations for a radical, eschatologically-minded young Christian than to believe that he’s being called to participate, to fight, in the events of Revelation. It’s inconceivable to us that we would have to live and die and fade away from history into the all-devouring oblivion of time like the great mass of common men. There is a potent exhilaration in believing that we stand on the wheel of the world at the end of time; that ours it is to break the seals and bring about the end. Yet if that was all we were experiencing now, then why was there such a prevalent sense that this was happening, and why it had been affirmed with so many miracles and oracles and visions? What was all this madness? What did it portend?

That was my central dilemma, abetted and bolstered, as we have before proven, by the inexorable iron of a single irresistible idea. It’s likely that I shall attempt to tackle that dynamic again on some level. Yet what I really want to do with this chapter, above and beyond all other considerations attendant on it, is to create metaphor on the level of myth. It ought to be fundamentally focused on my tumultuous emotional state during the weeks immediately prior to the beginning of 2004, and it ought to convey those emotions through clear, vivid images. And it seems to me that in order to do this, I need to speak simultaneously from two contrasting points of view: one, that I see myself being pulled with potent, ineradicable force towards something I can scarce comprehend, still less resist; two, that the end of the world is coming, but that before the dusk falls on the earth, it will fall on my school, and my personal sense of a battle awaiting me when I return in January—a battle to prevent [[Meredith]] from destroying herself and me, a battle to save Corey, a battle to keep the whole school from edging downward into darkness. In all my previous assaults on this chapter it seems to me that I’ve written primarily from the first place, when the second is the strongest, and most entertaining, but even the second is incomplete without the other, and the tension created between them is what lends this section of the story weight and depth and substance.

As a consequence, the reality that lies around this chapter ought to be something akin to the sense you feel in the middle of The Two Towers, at around the point where Elrond and Galadriel have given their expository speeches, and the two hobbits (Pippin and Merry) witness the march of the Ents to Helm’s Deep. (It certainly helps, of course, that [[Mortimer]] and [[Petunia]] both speak like Tolkien, now and through the rest of our adventures).

* * *

"If Aragorn survives this war, you will still be parted. If Sauron is defeated and Aragorn made king and all that you hope for comes true, he will still have to taste the bitterness of mortality. Whether by the sword or by the slow decay of time, Aragorn will die. And there will be no comfort for you, no comfort to ease the pain of his passing. He will come to death, an image of the splendor of the kings of men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.

"But you, my daughter… you will linger on, in darkness and in doubt. As nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Here you will dwell, bound to your grief, beneath the fading trees, until all the world is changed and all the long years of your life are utterly spent."

"The power of the enemy is growing. Sauron will use his puppet Saruman to launch an assault on the peoples of Middle Earth. Isengard has been unleashed. His eye now turns to Gondor, the last free kingdom of men. His war on this country will come swiftly. He senses the Ring is close.

"The strength of the Ring-bearer is fading. In his heart, Frodo begins to understand—the quest will claim his life. You know this; you have foreseen it. It is the risk we all took.

"In the gathering dark, the will of the Ring grows strong. It works hard now to find its way back into the hands of Men—Men, who are so easily seduced by its power. The young captain of Gondor has but to extend his hand, take the Ring for his own, and the world will fall. It is close now, so close to achieving its goals. For Sauron will have dominion over all life on this earth, even unto the ending of the world.

"The time of the Elves is over. Do we leave Middle Earth to its fate? Do we let them stand alone?"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"The Bower of Delights"

I finished the first draft of Chapter 9! It treats of chastity and honor.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chapter 8: The Air Loom Gang (Complete)

“The intense concentration of self in the middle of such an immensity, my God! Who can tell it?”
– Melville, Moby-Dick
(Ch. 93, “The Castaway”)

In my study of abnormal psychology I had encountered the strange case of a man named James Tilley Mathews, the first schizophrenic on record and a resident of the Bedlam asylum in London in the early part of the nineteenth century. Such was the clarity of his mind and strength of his belief in the delusions he espoused that a team of medical practitioners examined him and found no evidence of insanity (a diagnosis apparently bolstered by the fact that the stories which could be verified one way or the other—for example, his claim that he had been involved in the drafting of a secret peace treaty between Britain and France and thrown in jail to die by the prime minister—were invariably proven true).

Mathews believed he was privy to the machinations of a vast criminal conspiracy, centered in London but with tentacles spread throughout the British Isles, that was actively working to arrange a war between the major European powers with the ultimate goal of destroying the West. At the heart of this ruthless organization stood a small but nefarious band of Dickensian villains, four men and three women, who were stationed for many years in an apartment hard by London Wall. Among them were Bill, or “the King,” the leader of the band and foremost operator of the Air Loom Machine; Jack the Schoolmaster, so-called because he continuously recorded the gang’s doings in shorthand (merrier than the King, he was fond of remarking, “I’m here to see fair play!”); the Middle Man, an engineer and manufacturer of air looms; Augusta, a small, reedy woman with sharp features, who, though sunny and amiable to outward view, was savagely and incontestably temperamental when she failed to get her way; and Charlotte, a ruddy brunette, a “steady, persevering sort of person” who sometimes felt herself to be a prisoner, and lived in a state of perpetual remorse .

Mathews was determined to expose the secrets of this dastardly assembly to the world at large. However, he was prevented from doing so by means of the extraordinary machine that they operated. This machine was an air loom, a convoluted series of tubes and valves which could “assail” its victims with a warping fluid from a thousand feet away. The assailments were varied, but invariably effective. “Fluid-locking” held the tongue in check, preventing speech; “cutting soul from sense,” a chemical means of severing the mind and heart, dissociated memory and intellect; “kite-ing” lifted an irrelevant, ridiculous idea into the brain and made it hang there, like a kite borne high on the wind, to the exclusion of thoughts more purposeful and sane; “lengthening the brain” distorted any normal thoughts the brain might have and warped them into primal, agonizing forms; and “lobster-cracking” was a sudden, spontaneous assault on the entire nervous system, likely to result in death.

For years the “Air Loom Gang” had forestalled Mr. Mathews’ diligent attempts at exposure by “assailing” him with gruesome acts malign and shiny metal wands, which, being waved, would instantly transport them out of sight.

In my attempts to unravel what was happening at Alvin High School, and what had now grown, apparently, to incorporate at least one other person elsewhere (that I knew of), I had asked myself, “What if the religious explanation for this is the wrong one?” In other words, “What if there’s an explanation lying somewhere between ‘whacky coincidence’ and ‘cosmic warfare’ that I haven’t even thought of?” This, at least, was Booth’s initial opinion. While he found it odd, as I did, that events were stacking up in such a linear, literary manner, and for that reason thought it unlikely that this was all but a fevered coinage of my brain—especially not now that others were involved who could attest to having undergone experiences similar to mine—he was hesitant to frame the unexplainable in terms of my Judeo-Christian understanding.

“The universe is really vast,” he told me, in his probing, forthright manner. “And it has a lot of dimensions. I’m not saying that ‘weird’ things can’t happen, I just don’t think that we should confine our interpretations to something written by a small group of people living in the first century. Do you see how narrow that is?”

I conceded his point—it was certainly narrow. The problem was, if not coincidence, if not a case of mass psychosis, what other explanation was there but religious? I could lower the barriers of my epistemology only so far—then, after a certain point, I was living in Rapture Ready world, a perverse, illimitable, unguarded universe with no constraints, no rules, reasonless and void, where the explanation was as likely to be a wolf in a granny costume, or a group of baton-waving British conspirators, as anything else. It could be the Leviathan! It could be Zarathustra. It could be anything at all. I preferred not to live in that world. I would rather my novels remained my novels, not my whole existence. In short, the limitations on my reason, undergirded by religious (and specifically Christian) understanding, were what kept me sane. If I should lose that—if I drifted out into the boundless waste of all-permitting chaos—if I lost my sense of possibility and finitude—then I was utterly, completely lost.

Thus in a sense, I agreed with Booth, but not in the way that he intended. He was right, the universe is vast—too vast, I felt, to wander through it wantonly unguided, all alone. The narrowness of my worldview was among its chief attractions—as who should suggest to a shepherd that he “broaden” the borders of his sheepfold by removing its gates? There was a certain kind of safety in restriction. I tried to look at it as Booth suggested, but I simply couldn’t do it—it was frightening—and, after earnestly attempting for a time, eventually gave up in despair.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

History and the Jews (an Excerpt from Chapter 2)

What effect those classes might have had on others, I do not know; what effect on me, can scarcely tell. Most notably, it bred in my heart an undying fascination with the Jewish people, and a deep reserve of sorrow for the sufferings that they have undergone. As I studied the founding of the state of Israel for a class project at the end of the spring trimester, I was struck by the absurdity and injustice of the fact that the Jews had been maligned, mistreated, and murdered unceasingly in nearly every place they dwelt—ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, northern Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Russia—by Romans, Christians, Europeans ancient, medieval, and modern, the present-day Arabs (who had launched a war to exterminate them on the day of Israel’s founding, but with no more success than the others)—a line of persecution stretching back almost 4,000 years to the time of their fathers. I was perplexed by their ability, not only to survive, but even to thrive in such conditions, hated, tormented, bereft of a home, and made to wander to and fro in the earth. “Athens, Sparta, and Rome have perished,” wrote the French philosopher Rousseau, “and their people have vanished from the earth; Zion, though destroyed, has not lost her children. They mingle with all nations but are not lost among them.” Yet now, after 2,000 years, they were living once again in their ancestral homeland, had revived, and were speaking, their ancestral language (Hebrew), and were practicing their ancestral religion, the very scriptures of which had promised their return a full five hundred years before the Romans even drove them out! What was the parting of the sea compared to this?

Any overarching philosophy of history is incomplete which fails sufficiently to answer these two questions: Why are the Jews so hated? and, how do they survive? Mr. Blankenship may have felt forbidden by the code of his profession to assert his own opinions, but he vaguely gestured us from time to time in the direction of an answer. He told us the story of how Frederick the Great, the emperor of Prussia (and perhaps one of his favorite historical figures), challenged his physician to cite one clear, definitive, incontrovertible proof of the existence of God. “The Jews,” his physician replied, with no hesitation. “The Jews.”

And I, for my own part, averred; yet even my faith in this hypothesis was shaken when we reached our study of the Nazi holocaust. The danger inherent in a religious understanding of the continued existence of the Jewish race is that it threatens to ignore, or lightly brush over, the question of why they are hated—and, more than this, what madness must dwell in the minds of their adversaries that makes them so determined, so efficient, and so inconceivably cruel that, given the choice between merely killing them outright (say with guns or gas), or leading them the long way to slaughter through tortures and torments, so many have sacrificed simplicity for sadism. It is a form of evil so targeted, so pervasive, and so malicious as to seem supernatural. Many millions of men have been slain throughout history; but few have been slain like the Jews. We learned of a young Jewish couple that was murdered attempting to escape Auschwitz in the uniforms of SS officers; the man was hung, yet the woman, sentenced to be burned alive in the crematoria, slit her own wrists on the way to execution rather than submit to such a grisly fate. We analyzed the fate of the Jews of Jedawbne, Poland, seven hundred of whom were hunted down and executed by their neighbors before the Germans arrived. The Jews were rounded up and forced into a barn; the barn was burned while, just outside the door, the townsfolk made merry on instruments to drown the accusation of their screams. Jews were experimentally frozen, blinded, injected with all manner of diseases, whipped, starved, and amputated without the benefit of anesthesia. Children were murdered by the thousands. And, as it became increasingly evident that Germany would lose the war, the administrators in charge of the death camps redoubled their efforts—in Auschwitz on a single day in the summer of 1944, 9,000 were slain, and the graves eventually proved too small to hold the growing piles of the dead.

For a single supreme, interminable moment, it appeared that Satan was triumphant. Never had the world’s Jewish population been in greater danger. If the war had gone the other way, if Britain had been lost, or Hitler not repulsed in northern Africa and on the eastern steppes, it would have been their end. Over time, it came to seem that this had been the point, and all the military carnage but a sideshow to distract the major powers from his true intent—the systemic annihilation of every living Jew. We learned that the Grand Mufti of Palestine had conspired with the Nazis for the elimination of all those living in the Middle east and Northern Africa, and would undoubtedly have done so had the Deutches Reich prevailed there. “Arabs!” he declared in a radio broadcast on March 1, 1944, “rise as one and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them.”

Yet the menace of those days had been obscured by the glazing over of time. It is difficult to explain to a person wholly unacquainted with the subject the nature of the evil which once confronted, and at one point threatened to destroy, the human race; it is too shocking, too monstrous to believe—like something in a fairy-tale or myth. Carl Jung wrote that in the twentieth century, for the first time in history, evil became a tangibly-existing force, an individual, distinct entity—“darker than death or night” —whose titanic, tyrannical power and malignity satanic threatened the fundamentally-modern belief that progress was inevitable, and good would always triumph . “We have discovered that evil too is a progressive force,” wrote the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, “and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” There had been evils aplenty in history, but few so starkly hellish, so infernal, as the evils of the century past. To put it more simply, we were living in the days of myth and miracle, and, for the most part, knew it not.

Then again, seen in another light, perhaps we had always been.

For, above all else, it was Mr. Blankenship’s contention—a contention that, in time, had become the shared conviction of the most devoted of his students—that history cannot be understood at all without some comprehension of its abnormality. Day by day, and hour by hour, he fought to combat the exhaustless, almost universally pervasive idea that history is nothing but a tedious and unbroken record of financial exchanges and meaningless, bloody disputes over bits of barren land. No, in Mr. Blankenship’s classes, history was grand, surreal, vivid, violent, and shocking—but the one thing it had never been, would never be, was dull. History for Mr. Blankenship was neither Marxist nor mundane. It was only this way of seeing that could begin to make sense of the inconceivable atrocities and evident miracles of history. We learned how, in an event later known as “the Defenestration of Prague,” two Catholic regents (and a “pleading secretary”) were thrown out a window in Bohemia, plummeting fifty feet and landing, soiled but otherwise unharmed, in a bed of manure. It was this event which inaugurated the Thirty Years’ War. We studied the improbable military career of Frederick the Great, who warred against the might of all Europe, won a long series of apparently providential victories in battle, though all the while heavily outnumbered and under-supplied, and whose capital was only spared humiliating desolation when, as the continental forces closed in on the city, his arch-rival, the empress of Russia, suddenly died, and her successor, Czar Peter III, immediately declared his undying allegiance to the Prussian emperor. Thus, against all reason, at the very moment of destruction, Frederick won the war.

Of these and other inexplicable, unfathomable turns is history composed.

Mr. Blankenship had a lecture on time that he liked to deliver whenever he discerned apathy gaining a foothold in the classroom. He stood up at the lectern in the center of the room and said the one word, “Now.” When the echo of the word had finished sounding in our ears, he noted that even before he had finished uttering the “ow” part of the word, the “n” had fled into the past.

There are two lessons to be gleaned from this. The first is that the past and present aren’t as separate as we sometimes like to think. The present is already seeping away into memory, but history is ongoing, and it happens all around us.

The second lesson is this: Given the limitless absurdities we’ve catalogued in history, and life’s near-infinite capacity to surprise us, the one thing we should never, ever do is to declare something too unbelievable to be true.