Neither mood nor biology shifts according to a calendar. This body runs on its own time. The mind operates in several time zones at once. Electricity powers the heart. I eat almost nothing, fueled by liquids and books and nerves. Love, too.
I try to read the dictionary every day—at least a page. I wish I had the dedication of Malcolm X, who copied the dictionary repeatedly by hand to teach himself to read. He was in jail at the time, a petty criminal whose initial way to the light was religion. He learned that Allah’s message was a necessary truth that had somehow eluded him, had been stolen from his youth. This knowledge became an impetus to act, requiring more study. He became a teacher. His internal truth continued to evolve, much like the reader and the writer of these words.
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. — Emerson
There’s a case, there’s a man and a case, and that man and his case penetrate time and space. Reader beware, keen reader beware, what you’re reading is rare and took care to prepare.
Turns out the election of 2016 was a declaration of war. America is at war with itself and it’s not clear who is winning. We Americans didn’t recognize it for war at the time, but it’s clear now and clearer every day—with each childish act, each transgression by the populist president and the blind allegiance to him by those who turn the cheek to his lies, indecency, and hypocrisy. They’d rather not see the truth. It doesn’t conform to the reality they’ve invented.
Instead, they make excuses. They claim that journalism is their enemy; and in a way, they are right. Journalism is a purveyor of news—news is the running narrative of the current state of the world. Most news organizations rely on facts and truth to inform the public, to check authority and keep it from running wild with abandon. But these people are not concerned with facts and truth. Perhaps they never were.
They converse in small circles of their own, unable to communicate beyond their self-imposed borders. Their ideas are small; their speech hateful. To them, the mind is not a tool or weapon, but a liability. Their weapons of warfare: guns and faith in a god that would not recognize their warped idea of that god’s intended purpose or morality. Somewhere along the way, they decided their god had a white face and carried an assault rifle.
The religious right got the president they think is a crusader for their religion. But he’s not—he’s lying about being a practicing Christian just as he lies about everything else. The Christians think they have god on their side. I am a reformed Christian, so I know their sad story well. It’s a story in which they have owned the last two thousand years. Yet history is not on their side.
God and guns are their hallmarks, despite their lord and savior’s abhorrence to violence. If their Jesus were alive today they would not recognize him. They would ridicule him, persecute him, expel him, torture him, imprison him, murder him. Those on the Christian Right have deluded themselves. They look out at the world through veiled eyes and do everything possible to avoid seeing what’s really, truly there. They have the vision of a bat—their eyes do not work, and noise guides their focus. But whereas bats were cursed by nature with lack of eyesight, the blindness of the Christian Right is self-imposed.
The two sides prepare for battle in opposite ways. I prepare by improving my eyesight—by reading the sages, by keeping myself informed through reliable, proven news sources (not commentary). Most importantly, I prepare by thinking. As a journalist, I feel the declaration of war more intimately or personally than most. This is a war on truth and decency. The president and his blind followers bring their guns, their anger, their certainty that they are right to the battlefield. Where I come from, only people who couldn’t fight carried guns.
I bring the lessons of history and the sages who have lived through such battles and emerged victorious. Wisdom and open mindedness will always prevail against lies, intolerance, false patriotism, hypocrisy, violence, and indecency. I study the lessons of the past and sharpen my sword by lamplight every night. I urge you to do the same, and above all to participate in the civic discussion by spreading the truth you see all around you.
democracy: a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
post-democracy: a society or state that possesses democratic systems but does not fully practice them
theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
The election of 2016 marked the fifth time in U.S. history that a president was elected without receiving the people’s vote. Some trying to understand what the election results mean in the context of history have turned to Colin Crouch’s idea of post-democracy from his 2004 book of the same name. Crouch argues that Western democracy is in a post-democratic state due to several causes, including globalism, post-industrialism, and the failure of electoral systems, among others. But what does it mean if the U.S. and much of the West is currently post-democratic? Can we define what we are in hopes of seeing where we are going?
The reality is that America is several different “things” at once that lack a cohesive identity. In part one of this series in which I search for a post-democratic American identity in 2017, I argue that the United States has always been part theocracy, and the inequality wrought of our government’s romance with religion has alienated much of its populace, creating distaste, distrust, and dissent.
A Long Romance
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedoms but also ensures that religion has no place in government. Religion is exclusive by definition—believers set themselves apart in their beliefs from those who believe alternately or do not believe at all. Conversely, democratic government must be inclusive of its citizenry. It must uphold the rights of all citizens, regardless of belief or social stature. Everyone participates in a democracy. Only some are religious.
But the First Amendment couldn’t completely protect the infrastructure from religious infiltration. America has flirted with theocracy since before the Union was legitimized. The word GOD is printed on currency, purposefully placed to penetrate the daily vernacular. John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2 before the Constitution was ratified: “Providence has given this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”
The founders were all religious. Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson were Deists, but most were Christians. Quakerism was rampant. The men who drafted the Constitution believed in free practice of religion without fear of persecution, but they also understood the necessity of a divided church and state for a healthy democratic system. Madison wrote to Congress in 1789: “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” Nevertheless, almost every president has been Christian.
Presidents Obama and Trump are Christian. Ninety-eight percent of the Members of the 114th Congress (2016) were reported to be affiliated with a religion. Of the 98%, the vast majority (92%) were Christian.
Equality is at the forefront of the ideals of liberal democracy. But equality is a vague and broad term, and those who wield it must respect its power. Ask five men what equality means to them and each will describe something different. But if those same men were to compare the main tenets of theocracy to the tenets of liberal democracy they would undoubtedly notice the gaping abyss between the two.
Since god was always present in American language, was it necessary for him to be? Theocracy is government by god and for god—god is the primary concern in structuring laws and social institutions. Conversely, the people are the primary concern in a liberal democracy. The people are the sole weapon in the system.
But America in 2017 is not a true liberal democracy. Perhaps it never was. There is proof enough in its flawed electoral college, which has failed the American people again. But there is further proof in its disproportionately Christian-American government. Are Americans as Christian as their government representatives? Are they as religious in general? Can citizens be represented fairly and equally when they subscribe to another religion or to no religion at all, and can this be proven in theory and in practice?
The answer to all of these questions is no. As stated before, Americans have always been religious. The pilgrims of the Mayflower were Protestant Christians from the Old World who sought the New World as a place for peaceful worship without persecution. I point again to the founders and the words they deliberately set in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them …” At its inception, America’s greatest architects placed equal value on man’s natural abilities and those abilities provided to him by god. But do Americans still feel that way?
A 2014 Pew study found that 89% of Americans believed in god, with 70.6% of those identifying as Christians. Pew identified at least nine other active religions in America, illustrating a more diverse populace than its representatives. Further, many Americans do not practice a religion. Religiously unaffiliated Americans—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans (22 percent) today. The populace is not as Christian as it once was, and its government fails to reflect this. A lynchpin in liberal democracy is equal and proportionate representation, and the American system must either verify equal representation for all citizens and amend itself to account for them, or the people will need to “dissolve the political bands” as their founders did 241 years ago.
Belief and Equality
Life after death is a common theme in religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western civilization. “In the Judeo-Christian conception, death is real and fearful. [Death is not] thought to be like walking from one room to another. Only through the sovereign creative love of god can there be a new existence beyond the grave.”
Though Jewish people have diverging views on the afterlife, the Talmud—a sacred religious text in Judaism—describes a life after this world in which believers must prepare their souls. Likewise in Islam, the souls of believers in this world are resurrected by Allah, or god, to be judged for assignation to heaven or hell, with either eternal punishment or reward for their actions and beliefs in this world.
Christians also believe in an afterlife. As with the resurrection of Christ in Christian lore, so too are believers resurrected to an everlasting paradise of emotions and sensations upon their earthly demise. The Christian’s struggle in this world is rewarded in the next. Just as with Jews, Muslims, and many other religions, Christians believe that true reality—true salvation—lies in a reality beyond that in which you read these words.
Conversely, the non-believer places no credence in any reality other than the reality in which she lives each day, the reality in which she routinely participates in civic life. It is her right to vote for equal government representation in a fair and just electoral system. She lives in the here and now and values her immediate world and its reality over any other. She would rather choose for herself than place trust in elected officials with alternative views of reality. She does not need her Christian neighbor to decide the legality or legitimacy of her actions because her Christian neighbor is living for another time, another place. She is burdened by the weight of a government that does not value her reality, but a potential future reality in which she plays no part. Just as the Muslim and Jew, the non-believer is alienated—disconnected and distrustful of those chosen to represent her.
Conclusion – Disarmament
Post-democratic America has no identity, but several sub-identities that make up the whole. Its religiose government has forged theocratic ideals into daily reality, sweeping the legs from democratic principles and alienating (and often persecuting) a growing number of citizens with alternate views. America is a diverse populace and the people’s worldly religions are supposedly welcome, free to practice, but always under the eye of Christian scrutiny.
Further undermining the democratic system is the broken electoral structure, which has failed (for the fifth time) to appoint the people’s choice for president. Sabotage of the election by rival states and the impotency of the people’s vote begs for a dramatic overhaul of the electoral infrastructure. Until then Americans float in post-democratic limbo, without a central identity. The time is ripe for faction, which Madison warned about in Federalist No. 10:
Complaints are heard everywhere […] that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are often decided not according to the rules of justice and the rights of minor parties, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
The post-democratic reality now facing many Americans has led them to look not within the system to repair it, but elsewhere to disarm it.
I parked the van in the alley behind the building and went in the back door. The bar smelled like hickory and smoke, rich autumn sunlight flooding the place. There was no one there, or at least that’s what I thought. I walked around the bar and poured myself a glass of orange juice and stood there drinking in the morning silence, languid dust particles shoaling in the sunbeams.
“Where’s the stuff?” I heard someone say. I looked toward the end of the room on the right and saw Sal leaning forward on the bar, smiling, his bald head gleaming and slick and tracked by veins.
“The place looks good, Sally,” I said, and drained the juice. “You ought to lock it.”
Sal came back behind the bar and we shook hands and hugged. We stood there for a while holding each other at the elbow, two old friends frozen in the aging light of morning and studying one another’s age spots, the wrinkles and other flaws fashioned by gravity and time. He was much older and he didn’t look well. I tried to put his appearance into context, weigh it against my memories of him as a young man, flamboyant and indestructible. To stare into his eyes long bereft of their luster and see the irrefutable residue of his strain, the effects of life’s bitter charm, his youthful gloss wiped clear away and replaced with irony, it made me wonder how bad I looked.
“How long you been here?”
“You’re the first person I come to see, Sally.”
“They’re listening now, I guarantee.”
Sal grunted and picked up the bar phone and dialed a number. He muttered a few words into the receiver and hung up and said, “Let’s go.”
We walked out to the alley awash in fluid morning hues and I swung open the back doors of the van. Sal looked up and down the alley and shuffled his feet and neither of us said anything. I climbed in and pulled the two suitcases toward the rear of the van and got back out, stealing a cigarette from my jacket pocket and lighting it and then snapping open the suitcases one after the other, the objects inside coming to life as if illumined from within, deep reds and browns and stark blacks of exotic hides with the names of men and women stamped in glittering gold and silver upon the handcrafted spines. Sal inhaled audibly and climbed in the van, leaning over the suitcases.
“I can’t tell you how beautiful,” he said, one hand reaching and hovering over the titles. “They’ll torture us, they catch us with these.”
“First editions,” I said, and sucked on the cigarette. “Each and every one.”
“Reminds me of the old days,” he said, and climbed back out of the van, his eyes wet and large and rendered frozen upon the books. Another van peeled into the alley and I had a brief moment of panic, my hand at my hip and the steel waiting there. Sal waved for the driver to park behind my van and a young man of maybe twenty got out and walked quickly towards me, his hand stretched out before him.
“Mr. Guy, holy shit, it’s an honor,” he said, and I took his hand. “How long it’s been, I’ve followed your career.”
“What’s your name?”
“His name is Billy,” Sal said. “And he’d better get on.”
“Good to meet you Billy,” I said, and loaded the suitcases into his van. “But Sal’s right.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “I’d better get on.” He reached out for my hand again and I shook it, feeling the coarse strength and energy in his skin, thinking back to when I was his age and wondering where the virtue had died between the people of my generation and our own shadow-leaders. None of us are safe, I thought. Not then, certainly not now.
I watched Billy drive out of the alley into the radiant unknown and I could have worried about our precious delivery but I pacified myself in knowing that some day in the future there will be large hallowed libraries again and there will be books lining their shelves protected from the destructive clutch of tyranny and those books will forever provide testimony to man’s most sacred ideas so long as courageous young minds like Billy and his peers continued our honored struggle of liberating them to the grueling end.
The young man dismounted his horse in the mad clatter of battle and forgot about his life, the unwritten codes and reverence of the land and deep honored traditions. He forgot about his young wife and the lump in her belly and he moved swiftly through the fog of rifle smoke trailed by his own long braids and the mad shrieks of wounded men. He approached the white man with red hair lying supine and staring at him from the mud. There were men upon wild horses weaving incoherently through the smoke with their guns or war clubs raised and there were fleeting visions of other men riding boldly and bareback but long ago killed on the battlefield and a small white sun directly overhead trembled each time the white men in blue coats fired their wagon-gun.
The young man stepped over the men strewn across the sodden prairie field and unsheathed his bowie and crouched down next to the white man. He took a handful of the man’s red hair and looked into his eyes. A bullet whistled over the young man’s head and another screamed by his left ear and he sliced the white man’s forehead from temple to temple and said to him quietly in Lakota, “The wind does not cry for you.”
Then he stood and tore the scalp from the white man’s skull and held it up to the sky and screamed while the white man in his final moments of life watched his own blood drip down the young man’s arm, his torso, lean and brown and heaving muscle in the gray light.
That night the young man sat alone in his tipi and thought about the mystery of battle, the subtle violent leanings of men and the power to forget one’s self amid the jolts of heightened awareness. Outside, the red fire glowed bestial and the hypnotic throb of victory drums brought to life the dancing ghosts of many dead men both white and red and the young man agreed with the ageless wisdom of his ancestors that warfare was indeed more spiritual than physical, that courage was an extension of the self but that acting upon that courage according to honor and principle was integrally selfless.
The young man reclined onto his blankets and listened to the chanting of his people and breathed deeply to remove the walls of his mind. He remembered what he had said to the white man with red hair and he reminded himself that the wind cried for no man, especially not the man who honored and defended it with his own life.
Sitting there in the truck, liquid daylight leaking into the city, he couldn’t breathe unless he thought about it. Counting backwards from thirty. He reached forward to the radio and turned the station. He turned again, and then again, trying to find a balance, something to soothe him.
“Hey asshole. Stop with the radio.”
“I’m a little on edge, is all.”
“Yeah, me too. Before I break it.”
“All right, jesus.” He reached forward and turned the radio off. “That better?”
The driver didn’t say anything. He leaned his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes.
The guy in the passenger seat looked out the window. He didn’t care to watch the dark monotony of night slip away to another day’s luminous truth. He didn’t notice the ravens swirling stark in the rectangle of sky above the alley. He could have rolled down his window and focused his attention on the sound of morning, the crisp regeneration and cool yawning concrete. That might have calmed him. He picked up his Walther instead, slipped out the magazine and then clicked it back in. Out and in. Down and up. Click, click. Click, click. The smell of the city never changes overnight and for some men the sound and feel of a loaded gun is worth a thousand dawns.
“You know what I was thinking?” the driver said.
“You were thinking.”
“We’re isolating ourselves.”
The guy in the passenger seat stopped playing with the Walther.
“I mean, not like, you and me. I mean all of us. The world. Americans.”
“How’s that?” Click, click.
“The technologically advanced.”
“There is movement toward isolation in the wake of technological advancement. This happens on a personal level, but also culturally. People shrinking from each other. Less face-to-face contact. The more technologically advanced a culture becomes, the more its parameters of communication shift. The modes change shape with each new wave of progress. Think about it.”
“Think about the language. Dialects. Think about means of expression. The invention of words and terms.”
“You’re thinking about the Internet. People shop for anything from home. They don’t need to go out, spend hours in the bookstore or trying on a pair of pants.” Click, click. “They don’t have to go to the bar or to church to find a date, to sample the talent.”
“Notice how almost everyone has a mobile phone now,” the driver said, lifting his up and looking at it. “We use these phones to communicate in a myriad of ways.”
“Less standing in line. The Internet has made standing in line an endangered species.”
“Text and e-mail. Voice. Video, photo. Imagine if we could see the streams of communication going on all around us. Even right now, at this hour. Imagine all the invisible voices and coded language, all the hidden data. Slender rhythm of radio and television waves. Digital binary information, little ones and zeros dictating the pulse and flow of all the world’s knowledge.”
“The prayers.” Click, click. “Imagine if we could see all the prayers.”
“I wonder what it would look like, if each mode of communication was a different color.”
They looked through the windows to the alley set in cool morning shadow, the chinked and stained concrete, old brick facades of buildings left to derelicts and huddled runaways. Dumpsters ahead and behind them filled with waste matter. The driver looked up through the windshield to the sky, a snatch of cloudless pale blue emerging stridently to claim another awed human rumination.
“The change is so gradual that we can hardly scrutinize it,” the driver said. “I mean, we go from a megabyte of technology to a gigabyte. We go from cordless phones to cellular phones.”
“From Playstation 2 to Playstation 3.”
“We don’t graduate straight to high-def television from shortwave radio.”
“Self-deification takes patience.” Click, click.
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the transformation is dense and tangible enough to observe and study, maybe even to manipulate. Maybe this is what the guys in lab coats and power suits are thinking of next. Clustered in places called Washington. New York. Los Angeles. Cairo.”
“Sitting around a table, men wearing gleaming white ghoutras and women dressed in paramilitary fatigues, guerrilla-clad luminaries with mysterious backgrounds and red smiling faces.”
“Calculating the science of communication in order to control it.”
The guy in the passenger seat clicked the magazine free of the gun and clicked it back into place and he looked down to it black and reassuring in his hands and he imagined how he would react if the people in the bank mutinied or if the cops came in with their guns aloft and he tried to imagine pointing the Walther at one of them and pulling the trigger and he told himself he could do it if he had to but he wasn’t convinced. He pictured his wife of twenty-four and in his mind he saw their son with his mother’s curly blond hair and his father’s stone gray eyes and he tried to imagine how his family would survive if the action this morning went south.
“Do they even have record stores anymore?” he said. “Are there such establishments as record stores, and are they operational? Quite frankly I haven’t seen one in at least a year.”
“People on the subway. Most of them plugged into a music player. The others with their heads buried in a shiny magazine. Maybe there are books. I think people still read books.”
“Nobody burns books anymore.” Click, click.
“Nobody talks about how the ball team is doing. Nobody asks about the wife and kids.”
“The discussion board is the new subway.”
“People assume the wife and kids are fine. The wife and kids are healthy and plentifully drugged.”
The driver reached forward and flipped the radio back on. He changed the station to a news program and the two of them sat listening to the hurried headlines until the sweeping brand of day lit its distinct mark upon the world and the cellular phone buzzed in the driver’s pocket.
Deep in the gut of the earth a man and woman moved together through the cold darkness, wandering without diagram or any semblance of light to guide them. They staggered panting through the endless tunnel of mud and rock scratched and badly bruised and with nothing for the eye to uphold nor nourish the want of the godlike human mind.
“Whatever you do,” the man said. “Never let go of this hand.”
They walked and walked and there was nothing in that dark narrow world but their invisible breaths and their movement and their delicate thoughts and the understanding that they had nothing but each other, colorless and blind and hungry and frightened. The world continued to revolve about them and the hardened planet shifted in deep turbulent scars high above and the smell of earth was like cordite in that enclosed cavernous place. There was silence and there was blackness and they trudged on continuous through the tunnel, their hearts like two small bellies of fire or signals of life in an alien world reduced to its rudiments.
The man was terrified and he often thought of stopping and holding the woman in his arms and surrendering to the giant void because he foresaw one of them dying in that dark place and the other alone and cold and hopeless. He imagined the two of them webbed together by their arms as the darkness unfolded its timeless maxim upon them and they would not speak but only sleep and dream of a consciousness with light and sight and the promise of tomorrow. The eyes make their own vision, he thought. For I am seeing things that I cannot possibly see. There are walls about me and a flat muddy ground and there are small beings with round gray eyes shrinking away from my probing hands. I can see the future in its rote black agony and I can see the errors of my past and their influence on my conscience like a nimbus of heavy gray fog hanging about my head. I can see deeply into the dark and smell my own fear and I can feel the woman’s hand though I want nothing more than to look into her eyes for I’ve long forgotten their color and shape.
They walked clutching tiredly at the hand of the other and feeling their breath in the dampened air and they knew their world was one of cold and lightless uncertainty and that somewhere ahead the tunnel would have to end and the sudden seepage of light would overwhelm and embolden them. Somewhere behind them they heard an echoed scream neither human nor living and they froze in the darkness, clinging to each other and shivering. After a while they moved on again and they could smell flowers growing in the tunnel and they could hear water somewhere about them, a steady rushing flow like the open vein of the very earth and each of them thought in private how they could be dreaming the whole thing but which one was dreaming neither knew nor cared.
The woman thought to speak and then refrained, for under what domain does the decree of language have in such a place? All we have is the tangible communication between us, the communion of flesh and heat, our bodies tied together by the noblest of bonds and axioms of trust. Dirt frozen still in the deep leathery ridges of our fingers. Nails and ashen skin and thin jutting hairs. This is our language, this is our life. These are our words. This link of flesh could fail us at any moment. She pictured the myriad of ways they would die, a gaping hole up ahead in the darkness swallowing them one after the other, their hands broken apart by the force of one body falling, stumbling down weightless and alone to that other unknown darkness of similar breath and sound. She imagined a creature looming up ahead in the darkness, human in proportion but lacking the probity which distinguishes humanity from other mundane life. A six-legged likeness of nightmarish wonder, viscous body mass and thin spine-like legs and throbbing cold heart and they would see it in that last flashing moment before it struck them totally blind, glimmering eyes of diamond light in the only thing they’d seen in so very long, the last light of the world known to them, and there would be a knowing in those eyes and also a familiar form of understanding for the creature had lived in the darkness all of her life and was accustomed to surviving on the flawed wanderings of others. The woman imagined the creature devouring them and slinking silently onward through the tunnel of mud with her former body in that creature’s jellied womb until the next stumbling and condemned soul strolled blind and unknowing into the nest of a frightened somnambulist’s reckoning.
“Wait,” the woman said. “I need to catch my breath.”
“Are you all right.”
“Yes. I just need to stop. For a moment, is all.”
The man was quiet. He thought he could see the woman bent at the waist, her head down and blonde hair dirty and matted and clinging to her temples. He saw her there in the dark, a shadow of light, body heaving with warm breath, angel of soft white incandescence drawn in the framework of a beating human heart. There is a light within her. There is a light within us both.
“I can see you,” he said, and smiled. “You’re magnificent.”
And so they walked into the library, towering cathedral of light. Devotees in tandem surrounded on all sides by mankind’s greatest gifts to the universe. Dyed cloth and leather-bound truths stacked in neat proportion, titles and subtitles stamped and translated upon the spines of those immortal wardens of knowledge. The books filled the shelves and climbed to a rectangle skylight high above.
“There was a time when our lives connected, you and me,” he said. “A symbol, a thread. Symbol of a thread. Two people mirroring each other, hundreds of miles apart. Shadowed beings in complicit multi-dimensional transit.”
“It wasn’t like that, really.”
“My actions as demands upon your actions. You, urging me onward, my movements and decisions like subconscious pullings from another realm. A voice in the night. It was like having a twin, a shared consciousness, our destinies converging at a precise gridline somewhere in the margins.”
“I never felt that,” she said.
They walked slowly past the As, their eyes darting upward into the soft light, registering those sacred forgotten names, a recollection of something intimate experienced long ago, some message renewed, a respect paid in rapid fire as another name crossed their periphery. Achebe, Allende, Andrzejewski, Augustine.
“One and two, two and one,” he said. “One and the same. The same. An error in code, the single miscalculation of the universe. Me reincarnated as you but living in the same fluid scale of time, sharing the era. Past and future in mystical collision. Two autonomous minds subjected to the frailty of oneness.”
“What does that even mean?”
“But then love confronted us, showed us who we were. It was like a mirror set before our eyes, yours and mine, in our different places. Love convinced us we were two separate souls pointing in opposite directions. It broke our bond, broke us down, built us into distinct forces. Love is the reason we are alone.”
“Who are you?” she said.
The simple curve of the C, with serifs and without. Camus, Cervantes, Chekhov. The slender shape of primitive weaponry mutated and frozen into meaning by the men and women who have wielded the letters most deftly. Coetzee, Conrad, Cummings. To learn about a place and a people, they must be experienced directly, firsthand. Our next best option is to absorb their literature.
“Disclosure has stricken us with solitude. We no longer share the same course of thought, driven into our shared plane of existence. I’m only half alive because the other part of me died when I met you. Before, you guided me. Now you aren’t even there. The voice is gone. I hear only my own voice,” he said.
They walked past the Es, the Fs. They didn’t see each other, half-listening, vision stretched to the limits of stimulation. The books contain, among other things, concentrated thought, the stories of generations and caste struggle, individuality at its strongest, its most raw and vulnerable. The beauty of the mundane, the horror and magnitude of the sublime. Comedy and tragedy, Faulkner, France, Frost. The most important minds of their culture, the disdained, the persecuted, the exalted, the romanticized and peculiarly burdened.
“I used to lie in bed at night and listen to my heartbeat, pretend it was footsteps,” she said. “The rhythm of my heart at rest was the pulse of a faceless man walking around the world. Black dress shoes shined to a luminous knife’s edge. He was walking around the world and when he finally got to his destination, I would die.”
“What was his destination?”
“It was me. He was walking to me. He still is. He’s somewhere on this planet, walking. And when he finally gets to me I’ll see his face, eyes dark and replete with revelation, calm assurance from pale nomadic death, and I’ll know that I was always right to trust my veins.”
“We are a species that fears death more than anything,” he said. “We have created astounding myths to subvert death, to appease our fear. Death has no legs. It has no concept of time. When we die there is no big reveal, no fabricated deus ex machina. It cannot fool us. Death is a positive experience, it strips away all the negatives. It is the truest of truths, because, can you possibly think of anything more real?”
Their voices bounced off the stacks around them and returned mostly the same but aged, withered at the edges, wiser and hardened. Their voices carried facsimiles of the stamped names on the shelves, Joyce, Kobayashi, Lawrence, the titles unfurling as they strolled, symbolic and fragmented histories, Ulysses, Tabishui, The Rainbow, horizontal and vertical, a tapestry of letters and colors emblazoned everlasting. Language as pure force. The skylight darkened high above, restless clouds stalking about. The library fell into shadow.
“All these books,” she said, breaking the spell, uttering the heretofore unmentioned, slightly desecrating, or at least, de-mystifying the moment. “The names, the stories. Many of these books were written at such heavy consequence. People died for these words, these billion, trillion words.”
“No,” he said. “They died for the ideas the words represent. These are history’s truest martyrs. Timeless spiritual reminders of ourselves in retrospect. We have a duty to them to uphold our own reflections, our own struggles, and relate them to progeny. We must do this not only in honor of their sacrifice but also to satisfy our own artistic impetus. Nothing is more valuable to a culture than its art. Art is the fight of the people, the revolving paradigm, the mirror of culture, idealizing human life in its confrontation with the divine.”
They walked the entire perimeter and then turned to face the center of the room. Drowned in silent awe, an ardor for mankind and its potential, proud sentiments for the simplest of objects in concealment of the most complex ideas. In this way, literature is like humanity itself. They felt the books looking directly back at them.
“We are still connected, you and me,” she said. “But instead of a shared drive, we strive to forge our own paths. This is the way it is supposed to be, the way it was always supposed to be. A human being is an inherently independent creature. The other people of his culture may serve a particular purpose, but a man or a woman must fundamentally feed his or her own will. This is the most basic necessity. All these books, this room full of books. It’s like a vault enshrining the battle cry of the individual.”
“Love is the reason we are alone,” he said again, and they turned to leave.