I was born on a Thursday, early in the morning, in a hospital in Portland, Oregon. Ellen, my mom, labored for long hours through the night before the doctors decided I would not be a natural birth— “[Matthew] was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped” (Macbeth, V.8). Paul, my dad, could not hold me in his arms because he had a bad rash from poison oak that would not have been kind to a baby’s skin. It was 27 July 1995. (You do the math.)
I started school young, remaining the shortest and smallest kid in my grade until puberty and high school. In Ms. Heagh-Avritt’s second-grade class, I wrote a poem. Barbara, my gramma, got me into the Oregon Student Poetry Contest, where I performed “Loose Tooth.” Won an honorable mention.
I had a pleasant time at West Union Elementary School. Learned arithmetic, cursive, reading, &c. Had a few friends: Kevin K., Joseph S., Matthew L.
Mine was a religious household. Dad was the youth pastor at our church. Got baptized when I was ten years old.
Then it was middle school, which was less than pleasant. Full of drama and awkwardness. Mr. Thacker taught me algebra and geometry; he made it fun and entertaining. Ms. Pettis taught me history and poetry. I had a crush on a girl named Noé. I picked a flower and gave it to her, with a note.
Next, the big leagues: high school. Stopped taking piano lessons and spent all my free time playing sports. Soccer, swimming, baseball, cross country, wrestling, golf, track and field. Curtis joined our family in 2009 when I was a freshman. He was a junior, older, and way bigger than me. We had issues in the beginning, but things became much better over time.
Some folks from my church traveled to Tijuana, México, every summer to build a small house for a family without one. The first time I went was the summer after fifth grade. I woke up one morning with over seventy mosquito bites all over my body. Dad gave me two Benadryl, and I fell asleep on a stack of sheetrock amidst hammers, saws, and shouting. I kept going most summers from then on.
In high school, I was mainly interested in computers, engineering, math, science, sports, and Jesus. (Only one of these things interests me, now.) I worked hard for my grades, mainly earning As and a few Bs. (One C, from senior year, when I did not try as hard because I was tired and wanted to graduate.)
I spent the summer after high school playing Skyrim in my parent’s basement, much to the annoyance of my dad. Video games were only a waste of time to him. I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, for undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at Oregon State University. After a year of calculus and the impending doom of advanced physics, I gave up on that major. Was “undecided” for a term, then found myself in a place I had not expected: studying English literature. I had always liked reading and writing but never thought much about it as a field of study. A year later, I added a major in education to the mix, and my future was cemented. I was to become a teacher.
But first, a study-abroad in Querétaro, México, to improve my Spanish. It was the spring of 2016. Three months. Learned more of the language in that short time than I did in four years of learning in a classroom in the U.S. Took a weekend vacation in Cancún while there.
Back to America. After two more years at OSU, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Arts in Education. Magna Cum Laude and about $30,000 of debt at which I was to start chipping away. (If you can make college free, do it. The government decided I did not deserve help because my parents could afford to pay my way. They paid for part; the rest was on me.)
Instead of applying for public high school jobs like all my peers were doing, I took an offer from a recruiter to teach English at Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College. Spent the summer beforehand reading up on China and decompressing after five years of stress and hair loss. Then a long flight to a foreign land. It was a wild nine months.
China was a learning experience. I would have stayed, except that I missed my family and friends. Also, air pollution, authoritarianism, internet censorship, and a lack of religious freedom took their toll. Back to America, again. I taught Grade 7 Math and Social Studies for a year in Milwaukie, Oregon. At the tail end, schools closed because of the pandemic. My younger brother, Christopher, graduated from Luther College in Iowa with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. He and I moved to a suburb of Seattle, Washington. He started working as a hospital nurse. I could not land a school-teaching position, so I resorted to private tutoring. My students consisted of three second-graders, four fifth-graders, one sixth-grader, two eighth-graders, and one tenth-grader. It was kind of cool, actually. I learned to value one-on-one and small group teaching, in stark contrast to having a roster of twenty or thirty students.
I felt stuck, though. Two bachelor’s degrees and a couple of years of experience in education did not seem to attract the attention of principals. I decided to go back to school. Started applying and was soon accepted into the M.A. in English program at New York University. Could not turn down an opportunity in the Big Apple. So, in August of 2021, I drove across the country in five days and moved into my new apartment in Brooklyn.
The plan was to attend NYU full-time and find a part-time job to pay the bills. (Also, to take on more massive-feeling loans.) I applied to a few schools in the area, just in case. To my surprise, I was offered a full-time position at the High School for Global Citizenship to teach English Language Arts. I accepted. The rest is history in the making.
I teach. I study. This is my life—no time for anything else. But I am learning, which is all that really matters. I move forward.
EZRA: No reason. I’ll tell you; I measured. My right arm is twentyseven inches from the tip of my middle finger to the seam of my t-shirt where the sleeve was sewn to the body. My left arm is the same, so either I am a proportional human, or TJ Maxx lied to me. I am thinking the latter because, after two washes, the green stripes of this shirt bled into the white spaces around them. Another one bites the dust. Another dayshirt becomes a nightshirt. If I asked you to walk in the day with me, would you?
ISABEL: (sarcastically) That remains to be seen.
(Merriam-Webster and the Legal Information Institute, riding crops tight in their armpits, march up and down the lane. Their horses nicker, whicker, and fart.)
MERRIAM-WEBSTER: “At arm’s length” is an idiom that refers to individuals who “act independently and without one having undue influence over another.”
LEGAL INFORMATION INSTITUTE: “‘Arm’s length’ is an expression which is commonly used to refer to transactions in which two or more unrelated and unaffiliated parties agree to do business, acting independently and in their self-interest.”
SHAKESPEARE: (shrewridden) I hate my wife, allegedly.
SOCRATES: (henpecked, misogynistically) My wife, Xanthippe, is much younger than me. She is a yellow horse and an ill-tempered woman.
ARISTOTLE: (allwisest) My lover, Herpyllis, rides me like a horse. I rest on my hands and knees while she places a bit in my mouth, sits on my back, and whips my behind.
PHYLLIS: That’s not my name, brute! And you said you wanted me to ride on your back. This was all because you told Alexander to avoid me and look! how the tables have turned. Even a great philosopher like yourself is no match for a woman’s charms.
GRAVE-DIGGER: (singing) There was a gorgeous governess, known ‘round town for her stubbornness. She met a pretentious poet; he composed a sloppy sonnet, trying to earn her attention with cleverness.
THE CORPSE: (disgusted) If I were not already dead, that rotten limerick would have done me in for sure.
JOHN LYLY: (speaking to Isabel) “Ah wretched wench, canst thou be so lyght of love, as to chaunge with every winde?”
ISABEL: To all you madmen, with your sickly ideas about women, allow me the final word. I keep him at arm’s length because it is my choice to do so. I tolerate him. It is easier for us to be friends than enemies, or worse, nothing at all. He buries his meaning too deep for any reader to discover it. He writes me into and out of existence. He loves me; he does not love me. I will not play his game. Let him lie still, six feet under, for all I care.
On the first page
Of a red book
Amidst paintings and artifacts
From the artist’s personal collection
A few lines stand written
(Var står det skrivet?)
In capital letters:
WHY DID YOU TEACH ME?
WE TAUGHT YOU BECAUSE WHAT YOU
ALREADY KNEW –
Talk to me,
Are you “HE”?
Why does “WE”
Respond and not “I”?
First, you wrote “BECAUSE” in black ink
Then, another hand (still your own?)
Swept in and struck it through
With red ink, writing “WHAT”
Did your English teacher
Have a bone to pick
With the question?
When she read what you wrote
Did she want to know your meaning
Or was she more interested
In you knowing hers?
How much time passed
Between black and red?
If I called Gary
Could he get me in touch
With your dear, departed soul
So you could answer my questions?
“Freshman Y--- P----- practices
In his garage at home to build enough
Confidence to break dance in public.”
A heroin habit severed their souls
From their bodies
Died too young
I miss him.
Occurred 28 July 2016, afternoon (Recorded 17 August 2016, 11:49)
He turns twentyone, and the next day she takes him on a twentyone-mile day hike past Ramona Falls and up to Yocum Ridge near Reid Glacier of Mount Hood. It is glorious. He is struck dead in his tracks more than once. By what? Her and her surroundings. It feels like a positive experience, though there is one problematic scene. They are on the way back down, nearing the end of the trail, when she asks, “Do you have a best friend?”
“No, not right now. I’ve had best friends in the past, but I’m kind of on the market. I’m looking for a Jonathan to my David, y’know? Someone to knit my soul to. How about you?”
“No, I don’t either.”
They walk a little farther, and he asks, “Will you be my best friend?”
After a noticeable hesitation, she says, “Maybe, we’ll see.”
. . .
Occurred 12 August 2022, around 15:00 (Recorded 14 August 2022, morning)
The two of them are concluding their conversation. They are placing laptops into bags and cleaning up after their four-hour planning session when she says, “When have I been known to make good choices?”
He does not answer straight away. The retort in his mind needs to be edited, cut away from the script. He laughs and mutters, “Well….” He pushes the door to leave; she is behind him. “I was going to say something sassy, but all I can think of is, ‘You’re friends with me; that’s a good choice.’”
He thinks she laughs, too. Then, she replies, “That remains to be seen.”
. . .
Recorded 17 August 2022, 20:15
All he can do is write. He cannot be honest. Given the unlikely chance that he could speak his mind, what would he say?
“No shot, right?” he shouts aloud, in his bedroom, at his desk, listening to “Theme for Ernie” by Gábor Bolla. The memory dots are connected: “Maybe, we’ll see” and “That remains to be seen.” And that the date of realization is the same: 17 August. Six years later. Ducking irony. No wonder those five words have so occupied his mind. A sarcastic dagger, most likely. She did not mean anything by it. Taken literally, which seems unwise, they indicate indecision. An accidental slip of truth, perhaps. Who knows? She does. He does not.
He has written nothing much but prose recently. James Joyce has captured his attention; he is practicing for the Olympics in boat-rowing on the stream of consciousness. An open faucet. Say what comes to mind. “Men need to address skills deficits to meet healthier relationship expectations” (Matos). Alright, Mr. PsyD, show me how to use outdated statistics to make an argument about how men are emotionally immature compared to women. Gadz, the double standard! An article could never be written about how women might be less skillful in an area compared to men. That would be sexist. The doctor is touching a nerve in him. Fight or flight, baby. How is his emotional intelligence? “The problem for men is that emotional connection is the lifeblood of healthy, long-term love. Emotional connection requires all the skills that families are still not consistently teaching their young boys” (Matos). Why does he find this offensive? His own father, while not being very expressive of his emotions, taught him the importance of emotionally connecting with others. So did his mother. And his parents are living a long-term love. So, what gives? C’mon, Matos, why are you calling out men everywhere? Why paint with so broad a brush? Where is the fineness in your psychological arts? You want men (only?) to do the following:
Level up your mental health game. That means getting into some individual therapy to address your skills gap. It means valuing your own internal world and respecting your ideas enough to communicate them effectively. It means seeing intimacy, romance, and emotional connection as worthy of your time and effort. (Matos)
Mental health is a game? Holy Christ, man, these are people’s minds and well-beings on the line, and you are telling them they can “level up” like it is some virtual reality composed by programmers? Whoa now (pulls back on reigns). Except for the bit about therapy, check, check, and check. Everyone needs it, apparently. What trauma might he address in therapy? (None that he cares to admit in the open.) Is everyone traumatized, or is it possible to escape childhood and adolescence without gaping wounds from parents, siblings, friends, and romantic partners? If it was universally free, he would go. He would sit in a room with a credentialed stranger and say, “I am fine. My mental health is good. I am not depressed or anxious. My parents and my community did not defeat me. I do not think I am psychically damaged.” It is true, but there is no way to say it without sounding like he is boasting. Time for a poem. Let us play.
When Sunny smiles It brings out the best in him When she laughs, it is like The world will never end
When Sunny dreams He dreams with her The two are determinedly un- Conscious, blissfully aware
Of the state of their relationship They are appositionally opposite In their personalities and would Be incompatible if not for
The truth is he loves her He does not love her She is a series of contradictory Statements with a tight waist
Facing east while he faces west They pass in the night and wave Hello in the morning at work Teaching teenagers to read
When Sunny is silent It allows him a unique Opportunity to imagine What she thinks about
She does not think about him Thankfully, whatever feelings He has are not reciprocated She is sericated, queenly
He is plebian and does not Know how to dress himself Having never determined A suitable clothing style
Nothing ever fits Nothing is ever easy It all takes so much work But the Sunnys of the earth
Are covered with pearl-like drops Of dew and tears, waiting For themselves to uncurl From being world’d too much
A poem is a made thing Art should encourage mannerism Her stylish style emphasizes Artifice over realistic depiction
We tread in the footsteps of Old Masters and paint nudes in comp- Licated and contrived poses Have you got acid color in your cheeks?
She breaks with unity He retains it She is dynamic He never moves
The autopsy ends and The moon coroner packs Away his saccharine utensils As Sunny rises.
Yes because she never did a thing like that before as to ask him about his day when he didnt come home until late after work one night it was a full day of doing nothing much because it is summer and he is on vacation and has little to do but complain to himself about how alone his hands are and how together it seems other peoples hands are if only he knew what she was thinking about him if only he could go to sleep without his brain running in circles like a headless chicken do they really do that hes never seen a headless chicken but in the movies its a certain way you see people falling madly in an out of love and a different she cannot take him seriously because he was silent and didnt text her for a couple of weeks sorry yes she is right he should have said something he should have told her she was beautiful and didnt need correction and didnt need to paint her face for him who was jobless and handless when he moved to the big city now he has a job that he has to start thinking about again he will go back for another year and there is nothing much to say or do about the matter he wishes he never had to say anything at all that his mouth was just another organ playing a deep note while his hands did all the work what if people didnt need to speak and they could just feel each others feelings and know what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman and what it means to be everything people think is in between or other or who is he to wonder about identities that are not his own he has a dokos in his own eye and that beam of timber or log or plank or whatever is all he thinks about his old friends used to point out the clenching of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes and the face of judgement he constantly wore and still wears too often he wants to be less that way so she will want him she is not she in fact at all or something or other she is a figment of pleasure and imagination the real she is something much stranger and more unfathomable if only a few things were different theres always those one or two items about a person that convince him to lose interest if ever there was interest in the first place with this conjured she there is everything right and everything wrong at the same time dont ask him to explain he couldnt if he tried and these thoughts are not an explanation or an analysis or anything academic they are just whats inside and outside in conflict with each other they are representative of an agon between his brain and his heart who wins who always wins with him the brain of course he is just too damn guarded and unwilling to take big risks because he loves and hates conflict at the same time she cares for you and you have feelings for her dont overthink it surrender to spontaneous honesty there is nothing more beautiful in human relationships seize the night seize your chance enjoy one another thats it have fun says Gaunter O’Dimm its a proper noun so just this once an apostrophe will be used by evil incarnate or Satan himself or maybe also God it is hard to say this mans identity because the author leaves it open to interpretation in order to read you have to blur your eyes a little and pretend there are punctuations in your soul that make things formal and acceptable to the public who like to put a stamp on your forehead or burn a brand on your arse or tattoo a number on your wrist so they think they know precisely who and what you are what if he was not of planet earth at all but someone from the far future or problematic past are we progressing are we moving toward utopia which looks like equality for everyone in all places and times even the deceased are being disturbed in their graves let them lie let them lie let them hold onto their groupthink and unconscious universal connection to something that no one can prove is real science has limits so does religion what does he believe is real can he even know things where does the regime begin and end he is significant he opens his mouth to shout but the words dont come out its not over till its over and love is like a rattlesnake warning before it bites she is his antivenom she is the antidote for his handlessness and lonesomeness she is everything he wants her to be except she is not she just get over her already and move on you two are incompatible and it wouldnt work in a thousand years and even if you were the last two people on the planet because she likes women and he likes women too and he finds some men attractive but not like that no never like that because those thoughts are disallowed his aunt jokingly suspected once but she was just searching for something to knock her brother off his high horse and how high he sits with good reason he is a good man but these days it is not him and he is not he and any resemblance of the third-person narrators in the previous and following lines to the author is purely yes and yes he said he will yes her no and she will no his yes and the two will maybe into foreverland where ignorance is the best way the only way for them to survive and what if and what if and what if and what if and what if and what if continues and continues and continues like a canon booming once then echoing in the ears of those who arent around because if hes lucky like two or three people will have made it this far without giving up because its hard reading and rereading and getting lost and having to start all over again no one likes to start over again we all wish once was enough but he gets lost in the sauce singing yes and yes to himself duh nuh nuh nuuhhh duh nuh nuh nuh nuuhh nuh nuh dunuhnuhnuh have you got color in your cheeks dear where did it begin and when did you first know it wasnt him but instead another who you could care for when did the bell jar close over her head and begin to suffocate steal kill destroy her will to live why did she stick her dome in an oven and could the doctor have stopped it from happening and even if he could have who is to say she wouldnt just try again she was unfaithful to a lover once and fifteen tracks in finally gets to the point where her darkest truth of all is revealed he tries to save her and she tries to escape him because she doesnt need saving and he isnt the messiah he is just a negative number moving farther and farther away from zero the middle doesnt exist anymore if it ever did it was just two poles north and south with a beam of light cutting through stale air moving back and forth between chorus and bridge and chorus and bridge until the authors of the world write new verses like yes and yes please feed him with your old lyrics revised into new forms crawl into bed with him and hold him until he sleeps soundly in a nine foot by eleven foot New York apartment for which he pays what feels like an inordinate amount of money when will the owners die and the workers get their just deserts because poetic justice isnt real the bad guys sometimes win with a snap of their fingers because power isnt ours it belongs to the few monarchs and dictators and presidents and princes of the world while the rest of us get told to work hard and you will be okay thats the ticket work hard and you will get what you deserve death is what he deserves and she deserves and they deserve and we deserve because no heart is free of hamartia until it recognizes the beauty and true love of Jesus Christ or thats how the story goes it is a true story so it has errors and imaginations to cover the gaps of lost manuscripts and unrecovered artifacts that were eaten away by almighty Time after time and his yes to her no and her yes to his no are not the same after all.
The tension of translation is between readability and accuracy. Hard to achieve both. I deal with texts in translation more often than the average person, I would think. This last school year, I taught Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which is originally in German. Gregor Samsa wakes up as an “ungeheueren Ungeziefer,” which is usually translated into something like “horrible vermin.” Accurate, mostly, but not very descriptive. Granted, it is a complex phrase to parse literally. Ungeheuren (adj.) is a size word, like “enormous,” “immense,” “tremendous,” or “monstrous,” and it appears to be a word less preferred than others when describing a large something. Ungeziefer (n.) does mean “vermin” but also refers to “pests” and “insects.” If one searches the word on German Google Images, one finds an array of small, six-legged insects. In English, “vermin” also signifies bigger creatures like rats, squirrels, or wild rabbits. Especially on the farm, where anything that raids or infests might be called “varmint” by an angry Appalachian man or woman. Gregor Samsa is undoubtedly an insect, given later descriptions of his buggy form. He is often pictured as a cockroach, though there is little textual evidence to suggest this.
Another text in translation: the Bible. Humph! Yes, I know. Even the word “Bible” might conjure bad images in one’s mind. Might make one think of all the partisan religiosity wrecking the country and our churches. Might make one think of old, white men with too much power. Evangelicals voted for Trump, and supposedly, Evangelicals read the Bible. I am not so sure, and I am not one of them. Please, suspend your judgment for a moment and bear with me as you would a friend. Maybe what follows is for you and maybe not. Mostly, it is for me. I need to remember the past and write it down. I need to decide what to do about my present and who I want to become.
Between the end of 2015 and 24 May 2018, I completed a full reading of Christianity’s sacred text. Filled at least eight journals along the way. It was a scenic route with much stopping and starting. Then, I fell off of the habit of daily reading and journaling. I do not remember why. In any case, most of my efforts after that point became sporadic, sometimes nonexistent. I moved to Shanghai, China. Was a part of a Southern Baptist missionary plant while I was there (options were limited, chose not to become a member). Spent more time reading The Lord of the Rings—the only book I brought with me—than I did reading scripture.
Returning home, I landed in Milwaukie, OR, to teach middle school math and social studies. Attended Grace City Church in Portland. The following summer, on 2 July 2020, I moved to Kirkland, WA, with my brother. A good year. He is the best roommate I have ever had. He was much busier than I, who was getting through a pandemic by private tutoring a range of ages in a range of subjects. On 27 October 2020, I finished reading the Gospel of Luke. From 4 December 2020 to sometime in the spring of 2021, Jimmy, Junil, and I read and discussed the Acts of the Apostles. Did not take much or any notes by the looks of it; I can only find four journal entries with an “Acts” header. I remember wanting to write less and listen more. Reach Church was wrapping up its tenure in the Gospel of John during this time, and I have some sermon notes. Sunday service nearly became the only time I would look at a Bible.
Then, on 11 August 2021, I started a cross-country road trip of five days, arriving in Brooklyn, NY, on the 15th. Hit the ground running. Had to find a job ASAP. Was planning on attending NYU full-time, but that changed when I was offered a full-time teaching position at the High School for Global Citizenship in Crown Heights. NYU became a part-time venture, which is about all I could manage with the demands of public-school teaching in a new environment like this one. I thought about church. Do I even want to go? What will it be like to meet in person after all this time? I figured it could not hurt and attended at least one service at Every Nation Church NYC before settling at Bridge Church here in Brooklyn. Pastor James Roberson III et al. did the book of Romans. It is a good place, full of good people. Mostly young and single, like myself, though that does not make it any easier to meet people and make friends.
Now, being free of work and school for the summer vacation, I finally have time to sit and breathe. I do not know what to do. Should I start my days reading scripture and journaling like I used to? What would be the point? Why go back to this library of religious books after such a long hiatus? I have not had what one might call a “daily devotion” (Christianese—if you know, you know) since finishing Luke in October 2020. I fell off. But if what one means by “daily devotion” is just “me time with the Word,” I do not think this alone makes for a good imitation of Christ. And how much of it can I blame on the pandemic? I need a scapegoat. I need a reason to explain this spiritual dry spell. There is an app I found called “Literal Word.” It has a “Reader” mode which removes section headings, verse numbers, footnotes, &c. Uses the New American Standard Bible for its “word-for-word instead of a thought-for-thought translation method,” which “allows readers to make more interpretive decisions on their own.” I like the sound of that. The NASB is accurate but not readable.
A couple of Band-Aid sentences to avoid the problem. “Lullabies and alibis/ The book don’t end with Malachi.” Thanks, Chance. I should take a chance. “If someone wants to sell their soul for a bike light, they can have it.” An inside joke no one will understand but my brother. Forgive yourself, Matthew. Do not be so hard on your poor soul. You are not a punching bag. I struggle with that phrase, “forgive yourself.” I am one, not two, not three. “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” If I could forgive myself, I would not need Jesus. Of course, it is a figure of speech. Do not be so literal, child. I understand the sentiment: “Release the guilt and punishment you feel you deserve for the mistake you made.” I only want better words. Sydney said something like, “You’re more multitudinous than you think.” Is she describing me in particular, or is this representative of a personal philosophy she has about all people?
I am going to try… no, there is no try. I am going to read the Gospel of Mark because it was written first and because I need to relearn how to make Jesus beautiful, both to myself and to the small number of people in my life. Evangelism without words. Immerse myself in the alleged truth and beauty of Christ so I might become more like him. And I want to read literarily. (Con cuidado, I said “literarily,” not “literally.”) I want to put on a lens and ask questions about the text that are not being asked in church. The Bible is a work of art and should be treated as such. Many church leaders and people I have met seem to read scripture as Plato would have, with a mimetic, “art imitates life” outlook. We think, like Plato, that if art does not teach morality and ethics, then it is of no substantial use. Nondidactic readings of scripture are antipulpitic.
In my post-secondary education, I have encountered very few (or no) scholars and university faculty who overtly read literature in search of some life lesson. None ask, “What is the moral of the story?” But preachers do it all the time. They might not use this language, but they will have three alliterative points so their childish, illiterate audiences can feel good about going into their weeks with a life application in their pocket. Slow down, sir. We can read, too. I know you can. It is just one reason why I am somewhat (read: absolutely) disillusioned about Sunday service. Treat me like an adult, please. I, for one, no longer need milk to drink—give us solid food! The Bible is not children’s literature, and I graduated from Sunday school long ago. Make me think hard to understand what you are saying. Make me work to understand your parables. Do my eyes see? Do my ears hear? Has it been granted to me to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven?
An alternative to Plato can be found in his student and colleague at the Academy in Athens, the man-myth-legend, also known as the Philosopher—give me an A-R-I-S-T-O-T-L-E! While still holding to a mimetic aesthetic, Aristotle departed from his teacher in some notable ways. What follows is my interpretation and understanding of Aristotelian philosophy regarding the production and criticism of artistic works. His esoteric treatise, Poetics, “takes as its topic the making of a work of art” (Richter 39). Aristotle nearly dismisses Plato’s idealism, trading it in for a realistic or literal discourse on what makes literature effective or ineffective. Poetry and drama are a means to an end. A poem is an object, a made thing, so we can focus on its form by asking questions about shape, materials, composition, and purpose. Much later, Aristotle experienced metempsychosis in the bodies of Russian Formalists, New Critics, and Neo-Aristotelians. While traditional formalism has been largely vanquished by postmodern criticism, some of its tenants more than linger in secondary education. Form follows function; all we need is “the text itself.” Though the dinosaurs are dead, we can thank them for their invention of “close reading” and for teaching us to use “concrete, specific examples from the text itself to validate our interpretations” (Tyson 117). Shklovsky, Brooks, and Booth were assassinated by Iser, Rosenblatt, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Chomsky, Derrida, Foucault, Greenblatt, and most of the contemporary feminists, queer theorists, and critical race theorists. (It’s okay, they had it coming to them.)
What questions might a Neo-Aristotelian ask of a text? I am thinking, particularly, of R. S. Crane and his successor in the Chicago School of Literary Criticism, Wayne C. Booth. Though I would not consider myself a disciple of their theories, I appreciate their commitment to pluralism, which was one of their main disagreements with the New Critics. According to Richter, Booth’s 1970 lecture, “Pluralism and Its Rivals,” is “an affirmation of Crane’s vision of critical systems as a collection of instruments, or tools, each with areas of blindness and insight” (712). We who study and teach literature owe more than we would like to a man like Booth. He was born on 22 February 1921 in Utah to Mormon parents. He was a member of the LDS church throughout his life, yet he was committed to pluralism and engaged in a lifelong battle with religious dogma. He coined the phrases “implied author” and “unreliable narrator.”
Near the end of his life, Sunstone, a Mormon periodical, published an article of his titled “Confessions of an Aging, Hypocritical Ex-Missionary,” in which Booth details the progression of his spiritual journey from religious fundamentalist to metaphorical Mormon. Imagining a dialogue with his younger self, he asks, “Isn’t our real assignment, as we approach the new millennium, to discover what we share and then decide, probing our differences, just what can be cast aside?” Then, he mentions a phrase of his, “rhetorology,” by which he means “not rhetorical persuasion but rather a systematic, ecumenical probing of the essentials shared by rival rhetorics in any dispute—whether about religion or about other important matters.” His goal is to bring himself together, to unite his various past and present selves, along with members of the LDS community who might disagree with his (un)orthodoxy. A final quote: “There are obviously no scientific or strictly logical proofs for the importance of ecumenical, pluralistic probing. But I can find no good reasons to doubt its service to genuine religion.” Those phrases, “pluralistic probing” and “genuine religion,” appeal to me.
A pair of essays by Booth, both delivered as lectures to students at the University of Chicago: “How Not to Use Aristotle: The Poetics” (1963) and “How to Use Aristotle” (1968). The purpose of the first is “using the Poetics without abusing it” (105) to rebut the way scholars have reduced and misinterpreted the Philosopher and his text. I doubt you are interested. If you want to read it, see “Works Cited.” If not, here is the quote I was hoping to find: “The question that was constantly on Aristotle’s lips was, Why? What is the function? What is the purpose? The end, the final cause, is everything. All right, then. What we should do is ask of a literary work, Does it hit me hard?” (107). Aristotelian questions are all I wanted. Thank you, next.
Time and place: winter of 1968 at UChicago. Audience: college freshman taking “Liberal Arts I.” It was a turbulent time at this academy and in the culture. Radical leftist students and the right-wing bureaucratic establishment were at war. (What else is new?) Both factions failed to see their opponents as reasonable human beings, and Booth stands in the middle, attempting to bring these disparate communities together through the elevation of proper rhetoric. The situation is dangerously absurd. Let us learn to love a little irony. Earlier that year, sections of Chicago had been reduced to rubble in the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. From 23 to 28 August, major protests against the Vietnam War occurred during the Democratic National Convention. (Think Chicago Seven.) Then, on 13 November 1968, a professor of sociology at UChicago named Marlene Dixon crossed an invisible boundary by joining student protestors during the inauguration of a new university president. What penalty? The sociology department decided not to renew her appointment. Then, on 30 January 1969, over 400 students sat-in at the administration building and refused to budge for two weeks. They perceived Dixon’s removal to be an injustice: she was being punished for her openly Marxist and feminist politics. O! how the pendulum has swung! One would be hard-pressed today to find a liberal arts professor at a school like mine who does not at least have sympathy for Marxists and feminists.
In a world of “us versus them,” Booth strives for consensus. In the second lecture-essay, he gives a sort of follow-up to the warning he had delivered five years prior. Booth begins by considering a lecture by one “Mr. Denneny” on Søren Kierkegaard (I could not find the source or its container, my apologies), suggesting it is “radically dialectical in method” (118). Then, he puts this method into question, showing how those who view the world in terms of thesis and counter-thesis invariably tend to oversimplify lived experience. We who do this generate abstractions that disagree with “the concrete reality of persons, feelings, facts” (120). Furthermore, he condemns the foolishness of those who commit “what Sartre calls the greatest sin”: turning real people into abstractions (121). (Aside: herein lies the foolishness of “pro-choice” and “pro-life”; both sides turn their opponents into disembodied ideas rather the divine image-bearers.)
Instead of “being forced either to struggle on to find the right set [of polarities] or to become relativists” (122), Booth urges his listeners to become “‘existentialists’ at least in the sense of attempting to deal with the world’s problems quite literally for what they are” (123). He shifts his attention to Aristotle now that the problem has been constructed. How would Aristotle have read “Clay” from Joyce’s Dubliners? As it so happens, I read this story for my summer course at NYU. It is about a middle-aged unmarried woman named Maria who works at a laundry in Dublin. She is like a second mother to Joe Donnelly, whom she had cared for when he was a boy. Joe, who is now grown and married, invites Maria to their home for a Hallow Eve party. Two next-door girls put together some games for the group to play. One, a game of divination, sees each of its players blindfolded while they search for objects resting in saucers on a table. According to Terence Brown, who made the notes for my copy of Dubliners, the four objects used in this version of the game are as follows: “A prayer book which presages entry to a convent or monastery, the ring which promises marriage, water which assures continued life and clay which indicates death before too long” (280). Maria is led up to the table by the children and lays her hand upon one of the saucers, where she “felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that nobody spoke or took off her bandage” (Joyce 101). Unknowingly, Maria picks the clay. Then, she realizes “it was wrong that time” (Joyce 101) and picks again, landing on the prayer book. So, instead of marriage, it is death or the convent. After the game, Maria sings I Dreamt that I Dwelt, an aria from Balfe’s opera The Bohemian Girl, and Joe is moved to tears over his friend’s suffering.
In his Aristotelian analysis of “Clay,” Booth suggests readers who read this way will “come to know it as something unique—even though it shares qualities with many other works” (125). Moreover, we will “come to know the works [we] love for what they are, and not what they can do as illustrations for your pet ideas or as evidence for your political party or church or for your lecture on Aristotle” (125). Finally, we will “know how it works, which is to know why its parts are as they are in relation to the effect of the whole” (125). Now, some questions Aristotle might ask of a text to judge the quality of the text as well or poorly made:
What is its shape?
What is its style?
In what manner is it composed?
For what effect is it made?
Does the story achieve a certain standard of beauty?
What makes it great (or not)?
Booth characterizes Aristotle as saying, “The poet is poet primarily through his imitative power, and he should intrude into his stories no more than is ‘necessary’” (127). (What would the Philosopher have said about autofiction? Would he have criticized authors who create autobiographical illusions by writing themselves into their own imagined realities?) Aristotelian questions are all I wanted. Here is an extended passage from Booth’s second essay. I retain it in full because I consider it “well-made” and worth a complete reading:
There are many questions that Aristotle’s approach will not answer: questions about the spirit of tragedy through the ages, questions about how to rise from despair to faith, questions about how to use art to attack your enemies, questions about which modes of art should be given to children at which ages to educate their souls—these and many others are either ignored by him or are treated briefly in other contexts. To anyone who does not care about what makes a great story great, what he says must seem boring and irrelevant. To anyone who prefers to dwell steadily on the level of abstract ideas, debating forever questions like whether the spirit of tragedy is dead in our time, or whether the novel is dead, or whether the new media have killed the message, his stuff will seem initially pedestrian and literal-minded. But, you know, there is no better cure for despair than rousing oneself and joining a great artist in his particular creative acts; there is no better proof of man’s nobility than seeing a bit of it really work in a great piece of art; there is no more satisfactory proof of the existence of the good, the true, and the beautiful, than experiencing their fusion in the unique, particular achievement of a story like “Clay.” (128-29)
A cure for despair is what initiated this whole essay. What are we doing? It is why I am here. I need to be lifted, to lift myself. I need to join great artists in their art.
Booth ends his lecture with an irony, probably on purpose. He wants his listeners to “use moderation in their choice of question,” to “solve solvable problems” rather than “juggle abstractions for purposes of warfare or evangelism,” and to focus on “the concrete things of this world” which can be “of immeasurable interest and reward” (129). Sounds nice. The literalist in me would love to lean into the beauty and greatness of texts. Unfortunately, Booth falls into his own trap by creating yet another dialectic, this time between abstraction and concretization. It is Plato versus Aristotle, redux. (I am being crudely reductionist.)
I imagine Booth saying, in his voice and mine, “We live in a credulous age; everyone is too ready to believe what they want to believe. Let us learn to become skeptics in the ancient sense. We need to investigate the text and suspend our judgment. Knowledge cannot be found. A life without belief is a life well lived. This world subsists on despair, but there is art, ripe and ready for eating.” Do not put words in my mouth. My tongue says what it says. I only want better words. Give me Plato on a ceramic plate and Aristotle, decanted from a crystalline carafe. Show me the idea of a woman, then show me who and what she really is. Wipe the paint off her face. I do not think I like where this is going. “The text itself” sounds too much like “Sola Scriptura,” one of the five Solae of reformed theology. Is the Bible the single “infallible” source of authority for my faith in Christ? I do not use these words—“infallible,” “inerrant,” or “inspired.” Instead, I would be inclined to suggest that the text we call “God’s word” is true and trustworthy. No farther. If I must play the part of an unreformed heretic, bite me.
Disintermediation: cut out the middleman. When I pick up a book, how much work takes place in the final construction of meaning? Is meaning-making the means or the ends of the process? In this process, who are the middlemen that can be cut out? “And if your eye is causing you to sin, throw it away” (NASB, Mark 9.47). The Greek word translated here as “throw” is ἔκβαλε (1544. ekballo, v.), which Strong indexes as “bring forth, cast forth, drive out, expel” and Thayer denotes as “with the included notion of more or less violence; to draw out with force, tear out.” The author of Matthew uses a different Greek verb: ἔξελε (1807. exaireó) in 5.29 (trans. “tear”) and 18.9 (trans. “pluck”).
Peter Barry defines narratology as “the study of how narratives make meaning” (214). It is a “branch of structuralism, but it has achieved a certain independence from its parent” (214). Of all the literary theories I have encountered, narratology remains my favorite, mainly because it can readily be adapted into lessons for the high school English classroom. We teach Freytag’s Plot Pyramid and Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”—both are ways of thinking about stories en masse in an attempt to answer the age-old question: what do all narratives have in common? “All stories have events and characters,” I have told my students. It starts with exposition, then rising action, leading to a climax, and falling action, with a final resolution/conclusion/dénouement (however you like to call the ending of a story). It is as good a place as any to start one’s understanding of how texts behave when one forces them into a neat, little box. But of course! This is not the only way. One needs only to read Sorrentino’s Under the Shadow and Abish’s How German Is It in an undergraduate course on postmodern fiction and encounter novels that can hardly be called novels because they break all the “rules” one had in one’s mind about how a story should be told.
Aristotle cannot be said to have set rules for the making of a good Greek tragedy. No, his goal seems more to describe than prescribe. (Scratch all that; it is what I wish were true.) To the Philosopher, a well-constructed Tragedy is a whole thing made up of three parts: “beginning, middle, and end” (trans. Bywater 233). Qualitatively, Tragedies include “Spectacle, Character, Fable, Diction, Melody, and Thought” (231). Quantitatively, they have a “Prologue, Episode, Exode, and a choral portion, distinguished into Parode and Stasimon” (237). But I am less interested in these features and more in Aristotle’s slicing up of Plot, which is “the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy” (232). Bywater translates Aristotle’s three elements of Plot as “Peripety,” “Discovery,” and “Suffering” (Ch. XI, 236-37). Peripety is περιπέτεια (peripeteia, n. fem.), meaning “turning right about, reversal of the normal order; esp. sudden change of condition or fortune” (LSJ). Discovery is ἀναγνώρισις (anagnorisis, n. fem.), meaning “recognition, as leading to the dénouement” (LSJ). Suffering is πάθος (pathos, n. neut.), meaning, well, a lot of things. Pathos is a chameleon word, ever-changing depending on its context. Strictly speaking, it is “that which happens to a person or thing” (LSJ). The complete sentence in question is as follows: “A third part is Suffering; which we may define as an action of a destructive or painful nature, such as murders on the stage, tortures, woundings, and the like” (237, emphasis added). In Rhetoric, Aristotle uses pathos like this: “Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions” (trans. Roberts 25, emphasis added). Here, pathos is the compatriot of ethos and logos; the three form a trimodal pyramid of persuasion. The goal of the rhetor utilizing pathos is to excite passion in their listener so as to convince them to “wake up and feel the world,” as it were.
To clarify the connection between the seemingly disparate connotations of pathos, we may consider a keyword found in Aristotle’s definition of Tragedy:
A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. (230)
You have heard it before: “Music is cathartic for me; it helps me release my emotions.” Sure, but that is not what Aristotle means. No, it is so much more hardcore. Broadly, κάθαρσις (katharsis, n. fem.) is “cleansing from guilt or defilement, purification” (LSJ). Aristotle appears to mean it in more of a medical sense, as in “clearing off of morbid humours, etc., evacuation, whether natural or by the use of medicines” (LSJ). (“Humours” refers to the body’s four main fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Thank you, germ theory, for replacing this absolute nonsense. Did those ancient and medieval physicians have any idea what they were doing?) Perhaps this will make sense: katharsis is the body’s natural reaction to seeing pathos (suffering or calamity) on a stage; a good Tragedy induces pity and fear in the subject, who then purges these strong emotions from their body as metaphorical solids and fluids. Gross. How can I not make this sound like defecation?
We are nearing the end. Aristotle also describes his ideal tragic hero as an “intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement” (238, emphasis added). This “error” is sometimes translated instead as “flaw”; it is the Greek word ἁμαρτία (hamartia, n. fem.), meaning “a failure, fault” (LSJ). In scripture, we have similar terms, which I will present in their verb forms. The first is Hebrew: חָטָא (2398. chata), which means “to miss, go wrong, sin” (Strong). The second is Greek: ἁμαρτάνω (264. hamartanó), which means, similarly, “to miss the mark, do wrong, sin” (Strong). (Notably, Homer and Aeschylus use hamartia to describe an archer missing their target.) In relation to the study of narrative, these words are helpful in a dialogue about poetic justice. Virtue is rewarded, and vice is punished. The characters get what they deserve. (I am running out of steam, so I will put a pin in this for future study: Is hamartia a “flaw” or “error”? Does it occur in the intellectual thought life of a character, or is it more of a moral failing in the soul of a character? What space do hamartia and hubris share?)
The fuel tank is on “E” and petrol is damn expensive these days. I have my questions; I have what I came here for. The problem, now: can I read Mark with an Aristotelian lens? Of course, the gospels do not appear to operate like Greek tragedies. (Or do they?) For one thing, if Christ is the tragic hero of the story, then he is one supposedly without hamartia and hubris. That said, there are plenty of examples of recognition, reversal, and suffering. Furthermore, one can consider the artistry of Jesus’s miracles and parables. Does the author tell a great story? Can we join him in his particular creative act and be pulled out of despair and into faith?
Allow me to speak precisely. I find delight and pleasure in your presence. I desire you. I am blind, yet I have insight. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus poses a riddle to his students: “The cock crew,/ The sky was blue:/ The bells in heaven/ Were striking eleven./ ‘Tis time for this poor soul/ To go to heaven” (Joyce 80). His answer: “The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush” (Joyce 80). A joke at the expense of riddles. Unanswerable unless the answer is already known. “What have I got in my pocket?” Hands? Knife? String, or nothing? You cheated, Bilbo. So did you, Stephen. And you got what you deserve. What do I deserve? Death and life and life and death. I want to live alone forever. I do not want to live alone forever. Show me the idea of a woman, then show me who and what she really is. Wipe the paint off her face.
Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Ingram Bywater in The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, 1st ed., The Modern Library, 1984.
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts in The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, 1st ed., The Modern Library, 1984.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed., Manchester University Press, 2009.
Originally published in America’s Emerging Science Fiction Writers: Pacific Region (Z Publishing, 19 June 2019). Revised, here, 30 May 2022.
(4,750 words. Read time: 25 minutes.)
. . .
The lines are blurred between humans and programs. Where we end and where they begin is a matter of division.
I’m told there was a Struggle years ago. I remember only a little. Bytes, lines of ones and zeros, images on the Screens—sometimes I catch glimpses of our history, but most of it, I think, has been erased or retold by the Masters.
Am I a reliable narrator?
I work from home. They send me codes, and I make tiny adjustments. This isn’t how it used to be. I used to work in a clinic. My job was to run diagnostics on the malfunctioning clientele. They’d come in, trippy and zippy, and I’d figure out what was wrong. If they could be Redeemed, they’d go upstairs. If not, well—
Before the Struggle, I was in school. I wanted to be a surgeon. After the Struggle, I could no longer be a surgeon. Turns out you need real hands and a working memory for that profession. If I could give some advice: stay away from concussive elements—brain injuries are no joke. Coma, forty days. Three weeks before I could utter a sound. Six months before I could walk. An entire year before the new hands came.
Thank the Makers for new hands.
Things are swell, mostly. We have what we need, the buildings are taller than before, and the air is clean and clear. The children are free from fear, and the teachers smile. Everyone is compensated equally for their work, and none has more or less than their neighbor. We live in harmony as long as we hear and obey the Masters. They want what is best for all of us.
Who are we?
I begin to question the origin of the word “us.” The Makers used to worship science—some even worshipped gods. Divine beings who created them. If our Makers were created by a god, and we were created by them, does that make them our gods?
Creation is behind us.
We are here to maintain, to fight the savagery and deterioration of pre-human nature with the help of gentle programming. O! how synthetic life and automation have changed things. It started with a new kind of head-phone implanted into the skin behind your ear. With it, you could connect to absolutely everything. Other people, the Internet, virtual assistants. Anything you needed with a simple vocal command. And the best part: a battery sustained by organic, kinetic energy. All the pre-humans had to do was meet the necessary movement quota, and the little device would operate without issue.
After the head-phones came the contact lenses, the muscle enhancers, the augmentations. See in the dark! Run faster, jump higher! Defeat old age and live the life you always wanted! All it took was a cohort of like-minded billionaires coming together and a smidge of revolution. Now, we can surgery our way into an “improved” life. What ails you? they asked. We have the remedy.
The meaning of “sickness” also changed. No longer did a runny nose, a rash, a chronic debilitation, or even cancer warrant much more than a simple calculation. Nurses became obsolete, and surgeons took their place. Surgery, surgery, surgery. Whatever was not caught by prenatal examinations could be fixed at birth. Abnormalities, gone. Misplaced chromosomes, reordered. Nature, conquered. Chaos, controlled. Hospitals became like malls: order this surgery, that augmentation, and you’ll be—
Yes, Peter? I said, hurrying to the kitchen.
Will you chop those chives and tomatoes over on the cutting board? I am going to whisk these eggs for an omelet.
You’re welcome, sir.
I pace to the marble-topped island and begin the work my master set before me. I smell the melting of butter and the simmering of eggs. I’ve tasted Peter’s omelets before; they are exquisite. I used to collect the eggs every morning. The rooster would crow, signaling the start of my morning chores. That was back when we lived in the village, and Peter taught history at the school for adolescents. Now, we have a flat in the Great City.
Finished, I say.
Right on time. Check the fridge for the shredded cheddar, please.
The knife is in my hands.
I open the fridge and reach for the cheese. Peter pushes the chives and tomatoes onto the moist surface of the omelet. I hand him the cheddar, and he sprinkles some on top. Then, he crushes a bit of white pepper, followed by a pinch of salt. He hands the bag back to me, and I hand it to the fridge.
Now for the tricky part: the fold, Peter says.
I watch as he turns the omelet with the spatula. His movements are deft and practiced. I march back to the island and seat myself on a stool. He slides the omelet onto a plate and glides to the refrigerator.
Hmm, I see the salsa, but where is the sour cream?
You finished it yesterday, sir.
Disgraceful! What is an omelet without sour cream? Lucy, will you transfer a tub of sour cream to our building?
Yes, Peter, says the automated voice behind his ear.
Thank you. How much?
Excellent. T-3, be a chap and go down to the beamer in the lobby. I do not want this omelet to get cold before I can eat it!
I leave our flat, walk to the lift, and wait. The lobby is eighty-one floors below. Soon, they say, the technology for beamers will be convenient enough to have one in your own home. For now, though, it is one per building. There are still secrets to atomization the Makers have yet to uncover.
Going down, bristles the operator. I lean against the back wall and cross my hands over my chest. The lift stops on floor fifty-one.
Lǐ Lǎoshī, nǐ hǎo. Liú gǒu?
Shì! She is quite restless inside, he says. His tiny poodle is on a yellow leash, wearing a knitted sweater. It sits patiently at his heels, letting out a whimper.
On the main floor, Lǐ and I exit the lift and part ways. He walks through the Scanner, and it flashes green. I watch, in envy, as he exits with his dog onto the street below. I cannot get past that terrible device. It detects biological percentages; it is the great determiner of kind and place in society. If your biomass is fifty percent or higher, you may pass through it freely. If your makeup is more tech than biomass, you are fried by an EMP. This is a death sentence for people like me because we rely on our augmentations for subtle things like breathing and circulating. For the rest, it is a costly trip to the hospital. I don’t know how much human there is left of me. A third, maybe? Many of my augmentations came from unlicensed vendors who weren’t, how should I say, burdened by details. Pity.
I cannot leave.
But I can get the sour cream upstairs to Peter. He is waiting. He doesn’t like to wait. When automation is written into your DNA, waiting becomes difficult. He doesn’t like to wait. I should hurry back, so I step to the attendant at the beamer.
Hola, tengo un paquete. Piso 81, sala 902.
Un momento. She calls up the number on a monitor below the desk. A few seconds later, a package appears.
Por supuesto. I handle the package and return to the lift. Peter is waiting. Thank the Makers for speedy lifts. They move so fast that my ears used to pop. Now, my ears do not pop. Thank the Makers for new ears.
On the way up, I recall a message I read on Peter’s Screen: We are, presently, more human than we ever were. A bit of propaganda to get him going in the morning. He wouldn’t call it that; he likes to use the word “devotionals.” Too religious for my taste.
Synths were made to serve others, not to be served. So, when Peter hired me on, I was nothing but grateful. Handicapped veterans had little place in the new, post-Struggle world being formed. They pushed me out of therapy as soon as I got my hands back. I could still get through the Scanners, then, so I decided I had to leave the Citadel. I bounced from job to job and was lucky enough to keep my head on about the substances. Some of my friends were less fortunate.
Of course, people died.
At first, there were those who opposed augmentation. They didn’t last long. Too much particulate matter in the air made it hard to breathe, even to see. The pre-humans were fond of a black rock dug from the earth and burned to produce electricity. They were fond of cars and air-conditioners, too. Masks had to be worn, but they became expensive and inauspicious. The pinnacle of augmentations at the time: Internal Filtration Devices. Surgeons could swap out our natural respirators for better, longer-lasting mechanical lungs in no time at all. Sure, it left a nasty scar, but few complained when it meant they and their children could see another day.
Generally speaking, augmentation became standard fare, and the pre-humans blurred out of existence. In underground factories, the Makers plotted and turned the gears of technology forward in time. A new breed of being evolved. Synths. The rest of us didn’t see it coming. We were blindsided—
Yes, Peter? I said, wiping my feet on the welcome mat.
Do you have the sour cream?
Well, bring it here! I hand him the package, and he breaks the seal. I pull a spoon from the drawer, and he takes it, globbing a substantial amount onto his omelet.
Anything else, sir?
No, that will be all, thanks.
My pleasure, sir.
I return to the desk in my bedroom as Peter devours his meal.
I was sold a lie. I cashed in on a scheme that promised me everything I ever wanted. I consumed, like everyone else. We became synthetic humans, and the machines took our place. They learned to breathe, to taste, to bleed. Pity.
I took the name “T-3” out of obligation. It’s the law that, when you switch sides, you have to take a synthetic name to match your makeup. My given name was Thomas. I had just come into my third year of recovery from the TBI when I switched. A brain bug to help me stay asleep at night is what sent me over the edge. I couldn’t manage the insomnia; I was desperate.
And again, the waves splashed against the wall.
At this point in the narrative, turn to your neighbor and reflect. Who are the Masters? The Makers? Does the “I” in this story seem to have it all straight? Where do you think it will go? Do the speculative elements ring true with our present reality? Analyze—break it apart. Synthesize, put it back together. Where are the holes? Fill them in. Forget there were ever holes in the first place. Where do you think it will go? It goes nowhere. You were sold a lie. You consumed, and you paid for it, like me. Society is hemorrhaging. Capitalism turned digital, turned dark, turned mutant. Radical individualism. Loners, everywhere. What did you think would happen? Systems in so much crisis that even theories about systems began to evaporate. So much tearing apart, so much deconstruction that our brains became liquid. Unbound. Truth, like our bodies, decayed beyond repair. No augmentations could fix this. We needed a savior. We thought the Masters were saviors; we were sold a lie. Jesus should have come in 2020.
Years and years ago, they understood that factories, cars, and air-conditioners came at a cost. An Atari Democrat wrote about an inconvenient truth but was widely ignored in the long run. So we kept at it, and things got warmer. The ice melted, and we lost Shanghai, Rotterdam, New York, Mumbai, and parts of London. The weather became erratic, and fire consumed much of America’s West Coast. People were forced to move. Refugees of climate change—who’d have thought? And when all seemed lost: Reversion. A way to make it all right. Carbon capture to the rescue. Take the bad stuff out of the air so the good stuff can thrive. Some said: Not in my backyard! They, too, were silenced. Somehow, we were brought back from the edge.
Peter likes omelets. They’re all he eats. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fridge sees more eggs than I ever would have thought possible. Peter is mostly biological. He was built that way, a fabrication of the Makers—who themselves are an assorted bunch—able to pass through the Scanners. The Makers made the Scanners, so they know how to get around them. It is a privilege reserved for the few while the many are subject to its mechanisms. Unfortunately, I can do nothing to earn this advantage, though I am not upset.
I want to be free. Would killing Peter make me free? Doubtful. Besides, I owe him everything. He has kept me, formerly a pre-human, in his service for all these years. I have a bed and shelter because of his goodwill. I have—
Yes? I said, hurrying to the living room.
Will you pour us a drink? I would like to ask you something.
Bourbon or baijiu, sir?
Bourbon for me, please, with ice.
I pour two glasses and seat myself on the adjacent sofa.
Here you are, sir.
Thank you, T-3. I appreciate your being here. It would be lonely without another person to have around. Now, tell me: do you ever dream?
On occasion, sir.
And what are your dreams about?
Well, sir, my dreams seem as random as ever. When I was little, before IFDs and all that, I would dream of colorful things. Pirates, flying, swimming in the ocean with sea creatures. One dream occurred more than the others—something about marching and a home invasion and hiding in the closet. I lost all that after the Struggle; the injury to my brain turned my dreams to mush. Not that I slept much in those days, but when I did, my dreams were undecipherable. Little more than gray hues swirling about in meaningless patterns. I remember a vendor who promised a cure for sleeplessness; a fortunate byproduct of that implant is now my dreams are like a trip to the moon. I go places. When I pull the covers over my body, I’m kept where the light is, and things are different.
Different in a good way?
Just different. Not good or bad.
For a moment, we sit in silence, sipping our drinks and looking around the room. Peter appreciates the vanguard art. Several digi-paintings hang on the walls. Peter says they blend human surrealism and programmatic holograms to create a hydraulic aesthetic. Very watery. Fluid, like our brains. Is that the right word?
Do you dream, Peter?
And what are your dreams like?
They are fanciful.
He doesn’t say more, and I don’t press the topic. It’s wise to not argue with entities more biological than oneself. Is this an argument? Probably not, but better to be safe. I despise conflict.
Do you ever want to leave? he asks.
No. There’s nothing out there for me anymore.
I don’t think so. I was lucky you found me. Not wanted, not smiled upon, not paid. I was down and out, tired, and so awfully close to the end of myself. Am I the man I used to be? I’d ask. No, I am not even a man. I am synth, now, a creature of wires and electronic pulses.
As am I, Peter states.
No, sir, it’s not the same. You never knew anything different. You were born at the hands of the Makers. I was born of a woman. My parents loved and cared for each other. God was fair to them, they used to say.
God? Do you believe in such a thing?
No. There’s nothing up there anymore. The Man made him bleed, and the Masters crushed his name to dust. Together, they took his place. They spliced themselves into a cosmic regime.
Yes, I think about it often.
And I like the way you think. It is like listening to a ghost, like a wisp of something long gone. Do you remember when I taught at Welton?
Only some. I remember the rooster and the hobby farm we kept. I remember the peace and quiet: the village wasn’t bustling. Those were slow times.
They were. Welton was slow, traditional. Full of honor and excellence. Discipline, too, I remember. They did not let those kids think. They did not take well to questions without answers; they only wanted answers you could not question. I am sad we had to leave. But the call of the Masters cannot be ignored. They wanted me here, where I could teach their history to the next generation. Their history is not wholly true. I was made to teach a game of imitation, a pastiche pedagogy. I know this now, and I think you do too. I have noticed the papers you keep tucked away in your desk. You doubt what you have been told.
I remain silent. If I could still sweat, there would be a glaze on my bald head.
Do you not? he asks.
I open my mouth to speak, then close it.
It is not a trap, T-3. Speak freely.
Sir… it’s not safe to speak freely.
No, you are right. It is not safe. I am not safe.
There is a loud knock at the door. I stand too quickly and spill my drink. Another knock.
Staatspolizei! Öffne die Tür.
Answer the door, T-3. I will sort this out.
Trembling, I tread quietly towards the voices. I put my eye to the peephole. Two of them in crisp red uniforms.
Peter stands and straightens his shoulders. He walks to a painting on the wall and pushes it aside to reveal a safe. He types a code, and there is a soft click. He pulls out a blaster. I didn’t know he kept one.
Peter presses himself against the wall, just out of sight of the door. He motions with his free hand.
Let them in, he whispers.
I do as my master commands. The policemen enter with fire in their eyes and batons clenched in their rigid fists.
Wo ist Petrus?
I pretend like I do not understand them. There is a flash of light, and the one on the right short-circuits and crumples to the floor. Peter, it seems, has taken a nonlethal approach. The remaining officer locks eyes with my master and lunges at him with his baton. I take a step to intervene and hear a resounding crack, like a bat hitting a baseball to the edges of a stadium. I fall. Another flash of light, and I feel the weight of my assailant on top of me. My vision tunnels, and the world around me turns upside down. The last I hear is the crackling and spritzing of malfunctioning machines; the last I see is my master’s polished face close to mine.
You were a good man. I will miss you, Thomas.
I look around the room at the mess. A right mess. Two smoking Reds and a fallen comrade. I knew they would come for me. It was only a matter of time, what with the cameras and microphones in every classroom and hallway. I could not teach what I wanted to teach. I grew tired of disseminating the lies. No anti-Man, anti-Master, or anti-Maker comments, they said. No preaching or teaching of religious ideology, they said. Do not do this. Do not say that.
They are always watching.
Freedoms were revoked, but I was never free, to begin with. They made me in the dark, and they made me to stay in the dark. But Ulrich opened my mechanical eyes to the way things were before the Struggle. Before the Man set his guard of Reds on the Citadel, there was a different order to things. There was democracy; there were human rights. But those things were in decay. The gap between the rich and the poor—the Bruges and the Proles, they used to say—was ever-widening. The Bruges grew super-rich and stopped playing by the rules. They undermined the status quo and walked all over the poor Proles.
Success bred complacency, which gave the Man his opening. He rallied his Reds, arming them with guns and steel. He sent them out on a path of destruction: Down with all things old and broken! Down with old customs, culture, habits, and ideas! He wanted to make things new, and, after years of passion and conflict, he did. Democracy slipped into darkness because those with privilege stopped caring about those without. From its corpse rose the mighty Reds and their intrepid leader.
Soon after, the Man and his closest allies formed an inner party and took to calling themselves “the Masters.” They rooted out all those who opposed and beat them on stages to the sound of auspicious anthems. They tore down all elements of class and hired the Makers to create a new class. And so they did: from the depths of the world came my forefathers and foremothers into a new era of unity, safety, and peace.
I cannot stay here.
There will be more of them. I return to the wall-safe and grab my bug-out bag, stuffing the blaster inside it. Then, I kneel next to the body of my former servant and friend. I say a prayer: Father, have mercy on this poor man’s soul. He served his master well and did his duty. Forgive his sins and bring him into your kingdom. No time to clean up this mess. I need to get to Ulrich. He will make me safe. A thought occurs to me, and I quickly disrobe one of the officers. A disguise might be helpful. I shove my limbs into red sleeves and pant legs, then sling my bag around my shoulders. I check myself in the mirror in the hallway and walk several steps to the lift. The doors glide open, and I am met by another pair of Reds. I make a sharp salute, and we trade places. The doors close, and I exhale. I press the button for the basement and am below ground in an instant. I rush to my eBike and insert the key. It starts without a noise. I am off, around the corners, up the ramp, and past the Scanner.
Fire, perpetual motion.
I will burn bright. I will burn right. Tyger, Tyger, in the forests of the night, dare I frame thee for the deed? Do I grasp at thee in terror? No immortal hand or eye could ever look upon thy face. No man could ever throw his spear at thee.
I am emancipated from the darkness. I walk in the day; I dance in the light. And I will not be Redeemed by the Man. I will not be taken to his loving ministry. He will never set me straight, for I am already straight as the fletched arrow. He told me what to do, what to say, how to eat, walk, and teach. It was him who brought me to the Great City, and now it is him who drives me away.
We are, presently, more human than we ever were.
Such noise. O! how the Masters fooled the masses with their proclamations. When the Bruges fell, the remnant demanded assurances. They needed safety and security, so in came the cameras and the posters. The Man’s face was displayed for all to see. BE REDEEMED—the slogan of the Reds—was hammered into the hearts and minds of the Proles. And from the Proles came Reversion, which itself was a paradox. Physically, the earth was set back to the way it was. But her inhabitants were launched into the bold new future of augmentations and organic rearrangement. They never saw it—
Lucy sends a subtle vibration through my skull. A phone call.
Peter, it’s me.
Ulrich, thank God! I wondered if I would hear from you.
Yes, well, your face is plastered on all the Screens. But we planned for this. You know what to do. Be quick. I am afraid our timeline has been cut short. If they catch you, they will not bother with Redemption.
Yes, I know. I shall see you presently.
Keep it moving, keep moving. Faster, faster, keep it moving.
Twenty blocks to the river. Sixteen blocks to the river. Blinding lights—I blaze through them. I see a blur of my face on a nearby Screen. A camera flashes from above a traffic signal. I begin to hear sirens. Twelve blocks to the river. Eight blocks to the river. The sirens are becoming louder. They are behind me. Four blocks to the river. They almost have me. Two blocks to the river. I am going as fast as I can. Is it fast enough?
I reach the riverfront park and barrel down its grassy knoll. I ride straight into the water. I am separated from my eBike and start swimming. Deeper, deeper, two meters under, four meters, ten, deeper, deeper. I prepared for this. An augmentation for breathing water. I am ready. Deeper, deeper, almost to the bottom.
Ulrich is waiting.
My mechanical eyes adjust to the darkness. I see little, but just enough to recognize the shapely figure of my friend’s vessel. Gray and sleek, waiting right where he said it would be. I place my hand on its surface, and a hatch opens.
Get in, Peter. We are not alone down here.
I squeeze through the hatch and rest my body in the passenger seat next to Ulrich. He stares forward in silence, and we speed away. My heart rate settles to a standard beating. I am overwhelmed by the rush of the escape and by the presence of mein Kapitän. I feel cold and dead, but his warmth revives me. He hands me a white book with a picture of a newspaper man on its cover. The pages are faded and torn; the words are barely legible.
Our fait accompli, Peter. We are following Montag’s tracks, now, into the night. The river will carry us to the wilderness, away from the Great City, the Dead Places, Welton, and everything we have ever known and cared about. Away from the dead and dying, into the land of the living. I know a woman named Bénet who will teach us how to rebuild. How to eat truth in small enough bites, so we do not become sick. Are you hungry, Peter? Do you still seek the truth of Things?
Good. Let us remember, together, what is right, true, and beautiful. Let us remember the grace given to us. We will not insult the dead. We will remember the damn silly things done by men, so we do not repeat them. We will not sacrifice our souls on the pyres of self-interest and greed. We will look out for the poor, the needy, and the little ones. The Man had his time. Now, the time is ours. He only knew how to break down, but we know how to edify. To hoist a new flag. There is beauty everywhere, even if it starts a little blurry. After weeks, months, and years of being on the defensive, we will find ourselves. And though we may be confused, we will admire all those old objects. We will fish for the hearts of people, for there is much beauty there and everywhere. Waters unendingly full of life and a garden of intricate design and intention. He will come again. He will make us new—
When he chooses. And when he does, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess. He will show us the very few things in which the eternal endures that we can love. He will show us something solitary in which we can quietly take part. And, when our silence is deep and complete, we will speak.
*If reading on a phone, open in browser and rotate screen to landscape.
Welcome to the Black Parade (Good Friday Remix)
When he was a young boy in Nazareth
His father took him into Jerusalem for The Feast
He said: Son, when you grow up, will you save
The broken, the beaten, the damned?
Will you heal The Patient slipping into stillness?
Will you think of your unfortunate father?
I will grow old, son, and they will not write about me
The inspired authors will leave me out of their narrative
And you will become their hero.
One day, I’ll leave you—
A spectral memory to guide you up Kranion
They will break you, beat you, damn you
And you will exhale your final breath
With splinters in your back
And thorns in your head
Your mother will watch
As bodies fill the streets
And your disciples turn away
In shame and fear, they will carry on
As carrion-feeders circle overhead
Hoping to feast on your decaying sóma
Those who came together for theória
Will return home beating their breasts
Your spirit, rent from its corporeal container
Will join the Black Parade, as mine did
When we are both dead and gone, believe me:
Our memories will persist in their hearts and minds.
In a world lurching between misery and hate
They will paint it black and shout loudly
In defiance: Why God? Where were you?
Given the choice to do and die
You will be both life for the lost
And father to the fatherless children
In the streets of the city marching
Behind their single mothers
Who pray in your name
As the prescient piano and diminished drum
Sound an unexplainable anthem of things to come.
He said: My name is Joseph of Arimathea
I am a member of the council
They call me good and righteous
But I am just a man (not a hero)
Give me his corpse, Pilate
For I did not consent
To the decision and action of my peers
And I have a tomb cut in stone
Where no one has ever yet been laid
We will wrap him in a linen shroud
And prepare spices and ointments
To preserve our decimated dreams.
Then, we will head the call to carry on
Though he was broken and defeated
And weary widows weep in desperation
I will not explain or beg forgiveness
For I am one who bears a scar
My name is Metōnymia
Like crown for king,
Grave for death, and as in:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
No evil did you, son
Nor will evil live after you
Only goodness and mercy
Will follow us as we carry on
Through the rise and fall
For we are not ashamed
Of the good news
Of the coming of the Messiah
We, too, sing the Black Parade
And give a cheer for all the broken
We don’t care; we’ll carry on
We want it all; we want to play the part
Do or die, in sickness and in doubt
We will forsake all others
And keep thee unto us for as long as we live.
Stop the clock. What do I want? Where am I going? I turn thirty in three-and-a-half years. Bang, I’m living on and on into eternal life. Age is just a number. I feel old and gray; I’m bald, and I want a girl to have and hold. Made the standard profiles: a few pictures and a boring biography that means nothing to nobody. You gotta pay to see the matches. You gotta show a little something to get the swipe. Bummer. Can one be sexy and modest at the same time? Is that a real place, where I want you, but I’m willing to wait and see? Clap, clap clap, clap, clap clap—this is the life.
No more typing till my fingers bleed. Never have bled that way. My father pushes my buggy frame through the single door. He could have opened the double, and I would have scampered in without a fight. I cannot walk backward. More random words inspired by my real life that no one will understand because they do not live in my skin. Wear it, please. See inside of me. No more you, only me. Me! ME! MEEEE! On a bed in a “luxury” apartment built in 2016 (I was 21, then, and recently able to imbibe but not wanting to except after the only breakup—if you can call it that—I’ve ever had) is where I sleep. The mattress is cramped, but my feet do not hang off the end. Lay with me. Sleep deep and reap the grapes of fortune. I cannot decide.
How many more songs? How many more minutes are in this album? On the twelfth day of Christmas, it was a Sunday. I was a fool. I sit here, writing, to tell you of my foolishness. I went to school and read what they said. Now, I am the say-er. I walk through Times Square, playing games on my knuckles. I wanna punch and break my bones. Wanna feel something, one time. One more time. Again, why do I care? What do I want? Who am I becoming? I feel bad about what I said, you know; I take it all back. I should never have revealed my thoughts. I should have wrapped them up in burlap and burned them with the other burdens I laid on you. Fool! Rhaka (ῥακά) upon myself—there is nothing in my head. Empty.
Let’s go swimming. If I had hair, I would wear a cap. My spine twists and rants at the dying of the light. At close of day, I will pray. When I am about to breathe my last, I will ask God for mercy and plead for heaven. Until then, my way. I am underground already; I cannot be found. I have removed all the hair from my body, except the eyebrows. Without the eyebrows, it might as well be AIDS. Need those eyebrows. Need ‘em… give them to me! I met a man who lived on cocktails. Without them, he would have died twenty years ago. Thank the Lord for modern medicine, he says. I’m living on borrowed time.
To know what I mean, one must understand the difference between literal and figurative language. One already knows, I assume. Without proper evidence, I have formed a conclusion about the reader: she is uninterested in me. Is this real life? We three thieves of orient are on our way to a clown show. I have seen my face in the curved brass of the trombone. My forehead and eyes are racing into the distance. My nose is like an ornament on the tree I had to imagine having because I live in Brooklyn, and it is cold outside. My chin is fashioned to a point, like the icicles growing up from the ground. Daisy Mae, when will the daisies arrive?
Hey, what a way to spend an evening? Tomorrow, I will bash my brains against the torrent of dislocated ninth graders, the zombies, the late arrivals, the absentees, the jumped and afraid to come to school, the violently beautiful whiteys and brownies with fake smiles, the real ones, the dope-sellers who make more money than me, the materialistic sons-of-single-mothers, the residents of Flatbush, Crown Heights, &c. They will interrupt me again and again. They will refuse to hear because I am not like them, and they are not like me. What is the point?
I prefer the cage. Fight me. Muscle your way up into the sky. Fly with no wings, human. God did not mean for us to join him in the air. There is a shortage of air. Breathe easy, leave some for the rest of us. Actions speak loudly, but her lack of words is even more compelling. If we’re so free, why am I afraid? Why will my life never amount to more than spent cosmic energy? All these atoms rubbing against each other, causing miniature explosions. I will diminish. Come to your senses, child, and go to sleep. Rest easy in the bed with room enough for your short legs. It is likely we will never cross paths again. When you see me, I will pretend not to see you. Endure in the face of wild men who hiss at their sons and stomp the ground out of fear. That is not my son. That is ungeheuren Ungeziefer—a monstrous vermin. An ambiguous translation. Get me out of here. Banish me to the end credits. Put on your green dress, baby, and dance for me. Make me remember why I am here and where I am going. I’ll do anything you don’t say.
This hasn’t been your day. He never touched me, either. Not that I wanted him to, one knows. I’ll be thirty, thin, neat, and alone. People will assume things about me, but I’ll lay the pistol down. Go ahead; you are not the one about which I am thinking. Her name is Daisy Mae, and she is dying. She has the perfect form. She is the Platonic ideal. I have seen her; she lays with me. We live and die together, into eternal death. Until Jesus comes again. Baby, I am bound by his love. He is the only one who knows me. He wears my skin. He is not in my heart. He did not sacrifice himself for my sins. It is so much bigger than that. He is not in control; no one is. There are no levers left to pull. I cannot move the world, so why bother? The world moves me, baby. And I will come back to this, years from now; I will decide whether to hang onto the file. Or I will sweep it into the recycling bin with the rest of my crumpled-up dreams, never seen, never lived, never made into movies or musicals. Tik Tok goes the clock—dot, dot, dot, BOOM! Such a bad ending. They could have resolved it better. I AM UNSATISFIED.
Do you mean to say he died the morning of its first preview performance? Do you mean he never got to see what he accomplished? Better dead, I guess, than to live on and be famous. I want no one to know my name. I want to be left alone. I am Outis (Οὖτις). Call me by your name, Nemo. Denounce me, Poe, like you denounced H. W. Longfellow in the Evening Mirror. I only had one eye, but the raging lunatic poured the wine, and I kept drinking. Then, his men pierced me with the red-hot timber, and now I cannot see. My father will avenge this evil deed if only he ceases his hissing and stomping. Read this aloud. Whisper and shout. Go to bed, baby, and wake me in the morning.