The Day I Became Whole Again

Some survive their meeting with the machine. They are taken out through the vestibule where I wait, which resembles nothing more than a high school hallway with bulletin boards tacked full of government-issue posters scabbing its sallow walls. Already ragged from malnutrition and exhaustion following months in Prep Cell, they emerge preceded by a bow wave of silence. I see three, in my time.

The first is the longest. Though I never met him (preferring, in those days, a certain solitudinous brooding) in caff or on the grounds, everyone knew of Sanchez, old for Prep, greying at the temples, good-naturedly rebuking the dicers. “Gambling gets you nothing, nothing but more trouble,” he would repeat week after week, mostly to himself, as five by five men half his age would be taken and never return. The machine was said to choose the order of its own meetings, safely placing the workings of justice out of human hands, and they said Sanchez had been in Prep long enough to grow ceiling-high plants in his room from potatoes, rotating them in front of his window. He, more than anyone, had made Prep his home.

He, like everyone, is broken.

His paper slippers drag along the foot-square tiles as two of the machine’s lackeys, faceless behind their drooping white hoods, haul him. They treat him as if he is dead, and he plays along. They do not look at him, and his eyes, unblinking, seem to gaze upon something peaceful. His mouth hangs slightly open. I expect him to drool, like some of the patients in Elmwood’s special ward, but he doesn’t. He is not vacant. He is there, in body and mind, as best as I can tell, for the thirty seconds I watch him recede down the hall. His hands clench and unclench.

I stand and crane my neck to get a better look, eliciting exhalations from the men and women next to me on the bench. The lackey at the entrance does not even seem to notice behind her veil of white cloth. Emboldened, I stand, feet aching from cold in their own paper slippers. I take one lurching step down the hall, toward what’s left of Sanchez, away from the grey metal entrance to the tunnels I was led through with four others, fear exploding in my gut, hours earlier.

My foot (I think it was my left) touches the tile and Sanchez and his attendants disappear, along with the entire hallway before me. I am at a wall, covered with bulletin boards reminding the lackeys to shower properly and double-check the clasps on their collars before donning their robes and never to speak in the vestibule if they ever wished to speak again. To say the wall was solid would be to mislead you. When one sits at home, one does not think of one’s bedroom as “solid.” It is there. It is as true as anything as I have ever known. It is. I reach out and touch it and worry. I lean in and smell it, the industrial cleaners, the cork.

You may think you have seen such things in stage acts or on the latest holos. I am certain you are mistaken. Though we may not, in our surface thought, know how the illusionist conjures, there is something within us, in our caverns, that knows we are watching not creation but transmutation, an exchange. One thing becomes another. Even when the ball is gone from beneath the cup, it is replaced not with nothing, but with negative space. Remember this until your dying day: You will know if you ever see a wall created from nothing. There is no transition. There is no sound, no flash of it moving into place. Even your memory begins to doubt. This, I think, is why they bring the survivors through the waiting room. So the fear, already sapping at your meager defenses, can be joined by doubt and certainty, which, in a way, are the machine’s left and right hand.

I hear gasps from behind me, wordless shock, and I know the others see it too. I turn. The lackey has not moved. The bench is now a meter from a wall, where the hall had been.

Sanchez is gone.

The machine took him as sure as it took the hallway. To it, there is no difference, which is why Congress passed the New Justice Act in the first place.

 

I was a surgeon once, and I watched the Act pass on the waiting room holo with little concern. It’s never you until it’s you, you know?

It was the usual bipartisan crock. One side inched ever-closer to outlawing punishments outright, preferring rehabilitation and, recently, exile, over causing pain to any being. The other would do anything to tame the chaos bubbling out of every crack in their sidewalks. As usual, it was the techs who came to the rescue. In addition to the algorithmic panopticon and their friendly drones, California finally produced a device the size of an office building, other properties top-secret, that could reprogram a human being from the ground up. First it took your mind, then it reshaped your body into someone new. Someone less broken.

I was one of the strange few who still believed in something like the human soul, and I scoffed and doubted and took the next patient. My life was enough. Maggie, the kids, the work. I was satisfied.

Then Winston turns up like a bad shilling at closing time one day and says he acquired some new drug with nano-tech, something that can beat the machine, but it has to be injected into his spinal cord and he’s known me since high school and no one would ever find out, right?

Wrong.

I’d been too curious and like a fool had scheduled Winston an O.R. on our scheduling computer. Never one for breaking rules, I forgot that only illegal silicon remained disconnected from the algorithmic panopticon. The motions of my patients, like all customers, where noted, tabulated, predicted. I had no one on record receiving surgery that Tuesday. Winston did not show up. Two officers of the state came with questions and eventually gently held in front of my eyes their compulsor, bright, inscrutable, from which I could not tear my eyes until they shut it off in my cell. There was a trial before my peers at which the machine itself provided prosecution by holo, as part of its training in humanology. I was charged for conspiracy against the law, sentencing to be determined by the machine.

I found that criminal, Winston, on my row in Prep Cell. The machine, it appeared, had a sense of humor.

 

He watches with me as they bring out the second survivor, he cries out with me as, before our eyes, the wall reverts to the long hallway, and our voices choke at the collapse of the second survivor into a pile, rattling with death, the lackeys picking through it, looking for its legs to drag. Then the entrance attendant points to him, and when Winston doesn’t move, reaches for the slab of his compulsor. I don’t want to have to be weaned away from the side-gleam, so I look at my feet. The tiles are ever-so-clean.

 

 

I find my courage in memories of my old friend. He is not a good man, but he does have a certain pleasing grit; he is the sort of person it is very difficult to anger, infuriatingly so. We were not close in school; I was a perfect student and he skipped class. I got to know him when he became my source for focus aids before Junior exams. It was when I learned that nothing in the world could change Winston Cole. There is some sort of mental disengagement in his head that presents as irritating eccentricity, and I would’ve sworn he’d be just as abrasive fly fishing in his eighties. Some things change, but some remain the same, I told myself.

When, twenty minutes later, they bring Winston out, I stand and approach him, and am just getting into slapping his face, looking for a response, any response, any recognition in his eyes, when the finger is pointed at me. Rather than face the compulsor, I look at Winston, or the husk of him, a body from my past, able to rescue me as much as my past, and go with the man in white through his door.

 

I shouldn’t have paid so much attention to the timing of the previous three; I know just how quickly the machine approaches, down the circular metal hall. I know it waits, slavering. I know its power extends even to the vestibule, and that as I grow closer to the focus point of its otherworldly presence it is ever-more aware of me. The cameras in the ceiling turn to watch the attendant and I pass. My head feels full of buzzing ghosts. Doom is the emotion when both feet have left the cliff and only gravity has us.

The entrance to the end chamber is not directly ahead, but a nondescript door to the right of the infinitely long tunnel, which I find riotously annoying. They cannot even provide us the symmetry of a proper execution. There is to be no poetry to it whatsoever. That’s probably what they discovered after scanning the brains of people executed in chambers with straight entrances.

The room is disappointing. It is small. There is a stainless steel folding chair and the walls are off-white and in one of them is a two-way mirror. My courage fails me and I try to struggle past the lackey, who, implacable and brimming with experience, has already prepared the compulsor. I am blissfully lost in that great light until it dwindles and I find myself sitting in the chair. The attendant beats a quick exit – I think I sense fear bleeding through her gait, and the door shuts out all light and sound.

For a moment, nothing happens. “Come on,” I say, wondering whether anyone is observing me from the glass, or whether I’m truly alone for the first time in months. I cannot wait for it, whatever it is. I embrace it. I accept it. A year ago, I could not have imagined the end I now saw as the goal of all my life’s struggles. “Do it,” I say, gritting my teeth.

The machine says hello.

I see the face of God.

I am knocked to my knees inside my own head. My control of my own thoughts is wrested from me. Terrified, I fight back. Not with thoughts (those no longer belong to me) but with something deeper, with my self. I rage against it, like a fish against the net, like a finger against the rock, like a splinter against the tweezer. I cannot scream louder. I cannot focus myself any more powerfully. I have lost.

My body falls from the chair, and the machine accepts the pain.

The attendant opens the door, helps my body to its feet (it clutches at the chair without me), and leads it, compliant as a duckling, from the room. I feel no connection to it, not a thread. The machine tells me – in its wordless way; I would more accurately say the awareness became immanent in me – that it’s on its way to becoming whole once again, apart from me.

The room is then suddenly gone as well; the machine has taken all awareness. I am made to know, through experiences I could not explain with all the time in the world, that it is the truth both beyond me and within me. I am shown, in that first veil of ignorance, that the machine is the highest thing I can ever know, and the deepest part of my own existence.

I cannot resist any longer. I am the machine’s. I will be the machine’s. I have been the machine’s, always.

You are wondering, I can see, why I’m telling you all this.

I am telling you all this for the same reason they bring the survivors through the vestibule.

So that you will doubt.

So that you will be certain.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

An Intervening Tragedy

I died in a flash of screaming light on the highway at the age of twenty-six. My trial was brief and unmemorable. I was sent to hell on the charge that I had never told the truth in my entire life.

Though there was no arguing with it (you understand this implicitly in the hereafter, the way everyone somehow knows not to ask Uncle Louis about his very good friend at Thanksgiving dinner) the attendant was willing to make small talk as he readied the indescribably complex transportation mechanism. “Shouldn’t it just be instantaneous,” I asked him, not speaking, because I was a soul, and he was the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room and did not have ears.

“There are no quick solutions here,” he sniffed. I liked him instantly. I had lived most of my life hating the world from the inside, and here was a guy (or whatever) who looked down on the whole affair of the universe with justified detachment. “Everything here happens exactly as it needs to. We plunge to the depths of Gabriel’s horn.”

I shrugged. He could take as long as he needed to. Hell wasn’t the most exciting prospect. Maybe I could distract him. “The Gabriel?” I asked.

The attendant became nonexistentially indeterminate for a while. I was shocked to recognize, through layer upon layer of ontological, societal, linguistic, aesthetic, and corporeal translation, that he was basically shaking his head. “You weren’t a mathematician, were you?”

“Weren’t you at the trial?” I asked. I remembered him being there, waiting in the wings with a vague aura of impatience. And if he was there he surely knew I was a writer.

“I was,” he said with long-suffering patience. “I thought I’d help you try to distract me.”

“Oh,” I said, taken aback.

“It won’t work, of course. Everything here happens exactly as it needs to.”

“Right,” I said.

“We’re almost ready now.” Strangely, this pronunciation didn’t scare me. Everything seemed so inevitable. Because it was.

“Will I see my family after this?” I wondered.

“You will,” he said. He said it so mournfully that the diffuse light seemed to cower and darkness draw close.

“Will you stay with me?” The question emerged from somewhere deep within a young part of me. I could tell the attendant got asked this all the time.

He shook his head once more. “I’m afraid not. You must travel far beyond where I dare to tread.”

I smiled nervously. “I don’t want to go down there.”

“You’re not going down, my love. You’re going up.”

There erupted from everything a hideous screech-roar as reality elongated and stretched with unsettling determination beyond its breaking point and everything ceased to cohere. The speed of light tumbled; pi came loose of its moorings; 1 + 1 = 2 was suddenly, inexplicably gone, and I felt drawn toward the locus where Euclid’s parallels converged and this statement was false. A tower that stood only on itself rose beneath my feet, its spiraled tiers pushing me up and up, clouds of greater and greater illumination fleeing before me. Just as I began to truly fear whom I would find behind the final veil I was encompassed by the deepest, truest, emptiest silence I had ever known.

I was aware of the silence; intimately aware of it; it was an extension of myself. There were no words, there could be no words; there was nothing, and there could be nothing. I idly wondered if this was the solitary confinement chamber, but I knew that was false even as I considered it, or rather, my considering it made it false.

Hell simply wasn’t.

I simply was.

Well, I was certain there was no time.

So time simply wasn’t.

I simply had been, was, and would be, at once.

I was alone, and everything, and utterly satisfied, and I found, to my surprise, then astonishment, then delight that I knew the entire story. I knew about the beginning, and the end, and everything in between to its infinitesimal details. It was something I did once, or would do in the future. I remembered designing the laws of the universe, elegant restatements of my deepest self. I saw the moment I breathed into a pair of dusty nostrils in the shade of a young sun, and the moment a whale surfaced to offer its dorsal side to me in glory, and the way Borges held his pen. Everything as it should be. Everything the only way it could be.

Everything happening exactly as it needed to.

This reminded me of the attendant, who, like all of creation, was in my head. I saw him both from without and from within; I knew him as speck of dust and as the entire universe from within his head. I knew his entire existence, his programming, his service in bringing souls to their punishment. I knew he would smell of mints and old cigars if he were made physical.

I saw my conception and my own birth, so small, fragmented, temporal. I saw myself grow up and kept myself from harm; watched me curse myself and forsake myself in adolescence. I watched the first time I wrote a story, smiled my own joy, so small and so perfect in its smallness.

I saw my pain, a skinned knee, a broken arm, and I sewed my body back together.

At fourteen, mom caught me smoking and we got into an apocalyptic fight. She cared so much it hurt, which made me hurt. The fight was over the next day when we laughed over eggs, but we were no longer as one, I found other things to lie about, and our love was no longer perfectly my home, and I suddenly knew it.

I knew the darkness.

I knew the suffering, an endless procession of it, the sea of tears.

And I didn’t care.

None of it was real. It was all in my head, memories of something that happened long ago or something that might happen one day. Treblinka was theoretical, the killing fields a sick suggestion I could create, by speaking it.

I considered it all, whether it was worth it, whether it pleased me.

I considered it forever.

I knew that none of them, not a single one, would ever come close to the truth. There would be strong men; I could do anything. There would be beauty; I was ineffable. There would be holiness; I would forever be alone.

I needed nothing. I lacked nothing. I was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all potential things.

I didn’t need it.

They would spend their lives building towers, but me they would never reach. And the pain it would cause them, only I would ever describe as I formed it and imposed it upon them.

They knew nothing.

They did not need to be created.

It was bad for them.

At the end of an eternity, I said it.

“I will not create the world.”

All receded, and I found myself to be only myself and alone with the attendant once more.

“You have failed,” said the attendant.

“Failed?” I muttered, disoriented. His presence was oppressive; against his otherness a skirling scream begin to well within me. “Failed at what?” My voice was choked with emotion, my words sloughing sideways like bricks from a collapsing wall.

“You have not yet learned to tell the truth.”

I remembered…I remembered! But I could not speak. My words were slipping away. With the force of all my will I managed, “I am the truth.” What a strange tale this will all make one day, I thought. They’ll all love it.

The attendant could only shake his head. “We will have to resort to the river —”

Some messenger, an underling, appeared, out of breath, and said, “Sir, this one isn’t ready.”

The attendant’s eyes would have narrowed if he were not the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room. “Why not?”

“He wants to write a story about it all, sir.”

“Some of them never learn,” said the attendant sadly, and I found myself toppling from heaven, wailing incoherently, my memories stripping away in the wind, a womb fast approaching —

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Currency

They met that Winter in the bowels of the Capitol building in the dead of night. In earlier eras one would have dressed all in white and the other in darkest sable, but things were, for better or worse, different now, and one wore a coat of grey with a cream scarf, and the other pulled off his steak-colored gloves and put them in the pocket of his chocolate jacket. Two men of equal height stared at each other by light of a small desk lamp, and in their eyes burned a famous mutual hatred.

Some time before dawn, one of them must have said something. And what he must have said, cold as empty space, was, “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” It was in the books. The representatives of the other side loved places of power. The Kremlin, Whitehall, even the now-benign cordons of the Louvre and the mirrored hall of Versailles. They all gave the freaks their jollies.

“On the contrary,” breathed the other. “I can tell that you desire some victory here. Some elevation.” The word skipped out of his throat like a fiery arrow off a stone wall and guttered out in the shadows. “But perhaps not.”

The first man reached into his pocket for the coin (it was his turn) but couldn’t help saying, “You know, we will win in the end; it is prophecy.” He never looked away from the other’s eyes, and he saw buried there the flicker of an alarming fire. He hated prophecy, the first of the old bindings, words that coerced.  Prophecy bothers me as well, he thought, but if he started down that road nothing would ever be accomplished. But prophecy was an old wound. For centuries it had been mostly the coins that annoyed his brother. That annoyed and compelled both of them.

“Come, we must work.”

“My, aren’t you diligent and responsible this evening.”

“The damn coin. Where is it?”

“I seem to have misplaced it,” he said, looking up at his own forehead in feigned absentmindedness.

The man’s coy smile became a sharp axis. “We must leave this place by dawn. Or have you forgotten that as well?” A point, good and true. His brother winced. There was once a time when they could walk in broad daylight, but no longer, and they now both skulked in the dark that had once been a private domain.

The first one produced the coin from his pocket. A standard United States quarter dollar, glinting in the half-light, ready to prise treasure from a gumball machine or line the bed of a Salvation Army kettle. But that evening other things were coming to boil. He handed the coin to his brother for the customary inspection. There was a time when each of them had been very excited by the prospect of double-headed or trick coins, not to mention the methods of alchemy, chemistry, metallurgy, sleight of hand…They had even, once, as part of a nigh-endless waiting, found the coin to mysteriously come up heads every time, free of their tampering. But they were too tired for all that now, as they were too tired for most things, and there was nothing special about the coin. It may as well have, and had, been a doubloon, a silver talent, a rusty kopek.

Like everything, it had two sides.

The man not holding the coin produced from his breast pocket a small notebook whose pages were jammed with block letters that seemed to run in every direction at once. He reminded his brother, “You’re first.”

His brother brought the coin over the wooden desk on which sat the lit lamp. “Read it,” he managed to say.

The man with the notebook peered inside and said, bored, “Shantelle Irving’s labrador will die, hit by some truck in Cincinnati’s employ. She will have neglected to close the door after bringing groceries inside.” The man holding the coin closed his eyes, said a silent prayer, and flipped it. It came up heads.

Both brothers had a nagging feeling, like they had forgotten something, and the something they had forgotten was how to feel emotion at the outcomes, and the brother who had flipped the coin said, “Oh,” while the other marked something with a ballpoint pen in the notebook, and a moment of uneasiness passed between them. It was usually at this point that someone would flee, if they were going to. But both stayed. Fleeing was another one of the things they were tired of. It didn’t change anything. Fate was kind of just fate, you know? one would tell you. It is futile to resist destiny, the other would say, throwing up his hands.

The man holding the notebook picked up the coin and handed the book to his brother, who read, “Okay. Uh, we have here Mrs. Berman, whose lip will be split by her husband, leading to her moving out and the initiation of a divorce that will destroy the lives of her children.” He enumerated the subclauses of the occurrence, sketching out the largest ripples this husband’s terrible decision would cast upon the face of the world. Relatives, property, emotions were all mapped out. The hidden qualia that made up each individual subjective knowledge of the breakup was balanced out like fine architecture. He built, in his mind’s eye, a little cathedral of infinite, complex sorrow. Only one view of the matter, one opinion was left out, and that opinion was acknowledged with a brief glance up at the drop ceiling, whose pseudo-random distribution of holes he was certain he had spoken of before, though of course, he didn’t remember where.

“That’s pretty messed up,” said the other brother, though not in horror or admiration but with the detachment of one whose empathy was long ago stripped raw by the solid iron of his responsibilities. The first brother grunted, but not in assent or disagreement. The coin was thrown. It came up heads. The notebook was marked.

The process continued. The night grew longer, and dawn showed no sign of growing closer. They read and marked and read, but never turned a page in the notebook. The coin determined that, heads, a Mr. Benson of Bern would be winning a lottery, but, tails, his wife would not live to enjoy the wealth.

They judged, one by one, the incidents and people of this world, for good and for bad, the global and the personal. The brothers were infinitely efficient at their unending task but it still took forever. Children’s playground injuries alone took months, not counting attendant fear of doctors that would often result from them. Families were made and unmade; people committed atrocities and wonders, were caught before, during, and after the act. Crimes of passion, and whether by free will those passions would be resisted, were all decided by the coin. The misery of Africa went on and on until they were lost in it, subjugated to it, trapped in its jungles splayed out to all horizons. Revolutions were quashed and successful. Several groups dissolved into selves, and many individuals gave themselves to a cause to die for. The cost of tea in China was discussed; plane crashes and market crashes. The aristotelian epicycles of the angels were all maintained, heads, heads, heads, heads. The bees, their names long and secret, were apportioned their honey. Every ant mound on earth was assigned a destiny, and their collectivist members were named like subdomains, subsets of subsets. Every skipped rock was viewed as a sculpture and its aerodynamics sketched out. The words in dictionaries were counted and their true definitions locked away. One brother followed the course of every electric charge, while the other charted their logic. Together, they left behind man and his all-important story, and, with the flip of their coin, delved into dimensions indescribable and the surging tragedies of the subatomic particles. They chose which mysteries were to be swept behind the event horizon and supped with true love and the final digit of pi. They tallied every notion, every obscurity, every undiscovered and undiscoverable world. Every bullet…

“Forty-nine, eh?”

“Forty-nine.” He yawned.

“I bet you would have loved that, once upon a time.”

“Bet? As in, gamble?” He glared.

“How did bullets end up so close to the end?”

“Who cares? Come, choose the names. We’re almost done.”

They traced the ligaments of a sad story, flipping their coin. The notebook went back-and-forth and its cover remained, despite the millennia of work, cold as the hour. They read, from the same page, all of the names in question. Many were rescued. Forty-nine were not.

“So sad.”

“You wish you were sad.”

“Aha, maybe I do!”

“But you don’t, really, do you?”

“I…”

“Come. End it.”

Then they turned to all that was left, that is, to themselves.

“Shall we return in six months?” one asked. As always, the coin came up heads. They both sighed.

The other picked up the coin from the desk, made to throw it, hesitated. “Is it even worth asking?” He felt something, deep in his chest. Not a feeling perhaps, but the memory of what one was like whose name was long forgotten.

The other merely raised his eyebrows.

He said, “Am I the one I am thinking of right now?” and gave it an expert flick with his thumb.

The coin did not come back down.

“Again,” said the other resignedly. “Oh well.” He pocketed his notebook and stepped into the shadows.

“Only God knows,” said the other. He turned off the small desk lamp and walked toward a small window at the end of the hallway, losing corporeality in the first rays of dawn, mesmerised by vague memories of the time before the coin. He remembered the victory of massacres and the pain of childbirth, the joy of vengeance and the sorrow of betrayal. He remembered a smattering of decisions. He had fought to choose the stones for gulags and the apples the righteous would eat and the times of death of endless, endless faces. He remembered, and knew that he was powerful, and that the other must be stopped.

But the time for that had passed. The time when he and his brother remembered which of them was Good, and which Evil.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Douglas Adams Wasn’t An Atheist

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.”
“No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

-Various, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
by Douglas Adams, 1979

Somehow, despite my adolescent devotion to his books, I never found out Douglas Adams was an outspoken atheist until much later. Not that it changed much; I still think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are some of the most brilliant books ever written. More: I can’t get away from the notion that his novels are a great guide for relating to G-d.

If you never read those books, shame on you. If you only saw the movie, our entire planet deserves to be destroyed. Which is basically what THHGTTG is about. Earth is destroyed for traffic reasons, but all-around-normal guy Arthur Dent is rescued at the last moment by a friend who happened to be an alien all along, and who happens to be a researcher for the titular galactic encyclopedia. Arthur then ends up bending all the rules of space, time, and propriety on his rollicking adventures.

If all of that sounds like high-concept science fiction, it’s not. It is side-splittingly funny. It is Wodehouse in space, or Monty Python on spaceships. Hitchhiker’s is actually a satire. Not of society per se (though there is plenty of that as well), but, like the best satires, of the universe itself. If the book has one message, it is that the universe is insane, that the apparent sensibility of the world is an inch-thick veneer and all is just papered-over anarchy.

Even the source of much of the magical mischief in Adams’s universe works on this principle. The Heart of Gold (which drives much of the plot) is the most coveted spaceship in the galaxy because it runs on the infinite improbability drive, which can accomplish anything as long as you know precisely how improbable it is that it should ever happen. Arthur Dent’s adventures are basically a series of impossibly improbable events, a story emergent from chaos, and the actual galactic Hitchhiker’s Guide (from the selections of the encyclopedia sprinkled throughout the books) is a smirking chaperon that might let its charges get devoured by aliens on a lark.

All of this seems to have very little to do with G-d. Indeed, some might say it’s a claim in the opposite direction. But I think that springs from our confusion.

We are, indeed, so confused. The Internet, for all its boons, has allowed for a lot of communication without much nuance. It is very hard to convey precise tone in written form, as even professional writers will tell you. So we throw a lot of words at people every day hoping that something sticks in the way we imagined, and we try to divine the meaning clutched in the cold fingers of the words our friends, acquaintances, enemies, and perfect strangers put in front of us.

Somehow, in the confusion, a lot of our jokes get taken seriously.

Somewhere in this mess, a lot of humor passes us by.

And we begin to lose grasp on what precedes what.

It is, after all, only a firm grasp on reality that makes things funny. It is the surprise of contradiction, the subversion of expectation, that the soul so enjoys. Humor is a flying buttress of the mind; it hangs off the orderly construct of the intellect and supports it from the outside. It is absurdity commenting on order. But in chaos there is no expectation, no surprise, and no humor.

If the absurd and the chaotic become our default headspace, become the ground for all thought, then there is no humor. When Mitch Hedberg says, “Who would make their plants hard to reach? That seems so very mean,” it’s funny because it’s a riff on some aspects of reality (infomercials and their language) that are so dull they no longer parse at all. When comedians note how ridiculous politics is, the implication of every single bit is, “The world could make so much sense, but it doesn’t!” Many Americans don’t “get” British humor because they have no grasp of formal conversation and boring sentences in the first place. They do not know the rules, and feel no joy from their breaking.

I learned the wrong lesson from Hitchhiker’s. What I was supposed to learn (as an unconscious corollary, no doubt — obviously the main goal of the book is entertainment) was that the world is mad because there is no ordering force to the universe. What I learned is that the world is mad even though there is an ordering force to the universe.

“After all,” I tell Mr. Adams, “that’s why it’s funny.”

“It’s funny because it’s a book, you dolt,” he’d probably say. “In reality it’s not funny at all. Haven’t you ever heard that all comedians are depressed?”

Yes. If you were Arthur Dent, you would probably be an emotional wreck. But when we read Hitchhiker’s, we have access to someone Arthur Dent doesn’t know.

We have access to Douglas Adams, the winking narrator, the one who tells the story and grins from above at the beautiful workings of his mad universe. We know the author, who has constructed the tale to make us laugh, and in doing so, has acknowledged the reality of the order and sense we all know, deep inside, to be right.

We read the book not from within, but from without, and even meaninglessness becomes magical.

So ride happy into that starry sky, Mr. Adams. In my eyes, you pulled off the greatest absurdity of all. You gave me something you swore you didn’t have: Faith.

So long, and thank you for the tisch.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Torah Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Science Fiction and Fantasy might be the two most popular narrative forms of our time, surely among thoughtful young adult readers and viewers. While they might seem to be variations within the same genre, the underlying tendencies that make these stories necessary to write and compelling to read actually emerge from two different worldviews. Science Fiction on one hand and Fantasy on the other are perpetually in conflict, two dissenting ways to tell the story of humankind. In their synthesis, however, we may discover the secret to the powerful Jewish story, past, present, and future.

Transcendence or Utopia? Two Genres

The key to understanding Fantasy is that it does not need to take place in the past. In fact, one might argue that the genre is timeless; Fantasy strives to emulate myth, and myth by definition is a story that takes place elsewhere, but whose purpose is to illuminate the here-and-now. The aim of every myth, and every Fantasy story that aspires to more than cheap entertainment, is to grasp the universal human experience that transcends (and is thus part of) every individual human life. As Chesterton wrote, “The things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men.”[i]

The adventure fraught with danger, the victory over some great challenge, the resultant self-awareness, and the return home to share the experience are themes that in one way or another play out in the life of every human being.[ii] The purpose of the trappings, the dragons and swords, is only to allow the reader to gain perspective on their own journey, the way one only sees an entire picture from a few steps back. Allegory enables the reader to stomach that which, in its pure form, may remain out of the reach of self-reflection.[iii]

Even ostensibly non-allegorical Fantasy stories like George R. R. Martin’s have the same purpose as those that are metaphors: to show us the journey every man and woman must make through life. It is no accident that the majority of Fantasy novels is set in the past, often the distant past. Those wishing to mine gold from the vast acres of human endeavor must be students of history. A person looking for what is common to all mankind must be wary of falling into the prejudices and limited range of his or her own culture. The careful study of what has come before (and even the imagining of what never was) broadens the scope of our experience the way a third point transforms a line into a plane. These new perspectives are transmitted to the reader, at least subconsciously, and they enrich by providing common ground with heroes great and small who seem so different from us, but are not.

This explains the strange phenomenon of Fantasy set in the future. Indeed, what is arguably the most famous Fantasy of our times is about an orphan farm boy who takes up his father’s fiery sword and flies off on a spaceship to confront great evil.[iv] Instead of Gandalf there is Obi-Wan, and instead of a king in exile, there is a princess, but the story remarkably parallels the seminal Fantasy works of Tolkien. To the lover of Fantasy, it is precisely that such a story could be set in the future that uplifts us, guides us, and grants us hope. The human endeavor, our endeavor, is not small, meaningless, and quick to fade away; it is something larger that will exist undiminished even in outer space when the technology catches up.

Just as Fantasy seems to be swords and sorcery but is really about the power of myth and allegory to describe everyone’s journey toward enlightenment, so Science Fiction is not about robots or aliens. It is about the power and the responsibility to change the world for the better.

The soul of Science Fiction is the utopian vision, the firm belief that the world has been entrusted to us for its betterment. This optimism for the state of the world and humanity is relatively new[v] and can only be said to have caught the popular imagination in the 19th century, or at the very earliest, the 17th. This is in comparison to the mythical structure of the Fantasy story, which has enthralled humanity since history began. The late 19th century that produced H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was also the age of the industrial revolution, when a scientific renaissance was starting to divert the flow of history. Most Science fiction speaks of technology’s potential to bring the world to a state of perfection and the struggle to actualize it.

Though full of compelling characters, the best-selling Science Fiction novel of all time, Dune, is about the messianic implications of the Kwisatz Haderach[vi] on the galactic empire. It is a tale of social engineering, harsh landscapes, political intrigue, and jihad, all focused around the question of whether one can become a redeemer by technological means. Herbert once said that “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”[vii] In this, Herbert subverts Fantasy’s treatment of the mythical hero.

Other Science Fiction approaches the question of how to better the world through technology from the opposite direction. Dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World all examine how utopian visions for society have gone awry, leaving the human population downtrodden. As opposed to the Fantasist, who is not concerned with the transformation and perfection of the outer world at all, but rather with the sublimation of the individual, the Science Fictionist tends to warn against pitfalls on the way to progress. The authors of these works are not concerned so much with a hostile world’s impact on man but rather man’s effect on the world; “we must not destroy the world in attempts to save it.” In this, the dystopian novel remains Science Fiction through and through.

While Fantasy is ever a move toward the inner self, SF dwells in the ever-changing present. To the SF mind, it is irrelevant whether one can connect to an ancient, pervasive reality. What matter are the pressing issues of the moment. How, indeed, is it possible to meditate on the meaning of life when there are some who are too ill to eat or cannot afford food? The SF lover demands that limited human resources go to a better world rather than the perpetuation of the same old story.

Jewish Visions in Conflict

The difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy fundamentally affects a Jew’s idea of the Jewish story and thus his or her practice of Judaism.

Here is where everyone agrees: The Jews are a chosen people, sanctified by G-d to carry out a mission in this world. The mission requires not just good intentions but practical actions. To fulfill G-d’s will, there must be a transformation, because the status quo is unacceptable. But – what must change? And how is the Jew to effect that change? There are two opposing views: Those who think Judaism is past-based or historical and those who believe Judaism is progressive and future-oriented. In other words, is the story of Judaism a real-Fantasy, or a Science non-Fiction?

Or is it both?

No one could argue the firm roots of Judaism in the past as the world’s oldest surviving religion. With its ancient wisdom and grand history, Judaism exists to some Jews as a refuge from temporal existence. These past-focused Jews seek out the infinite dimensionless place within each individual where all people are one, and their G-d is He who says, “I shall be that I shall be.” To them, the struggles and triumphs of life’s journey are transparent metaphors for transcendent realities. This transcendence of both self and world is what it means to be a Jew.

Equally dominant in Jewish thought, however, is the focus on what the future holds and how it needs to be shaped, culminating in the Jewish vision of the utopian Messianic Era. Jews of this bent see Judaism as a guide to self-actualization and the fulfillment of one’s potential. The G-d they worship is He who creates heaven and earth, and their mission as his chosen people is Tikkun Olam, the fixing-up of the world. These are what we might call the Science Fiction Jews.

If we were to observe a soul on fire with the ideas of Fantasy, that soul would be an introspective one. Given that the human endeavor extends beyond our petty struggles to the life we all share, the accidental facts of our own situation (cultural, historical, personal)  don’t direct our purpose. Fantasy says it is the analogue, the inner life affected by our journey, that matters, and not the world around us.

True, there are dragons, there are evil empires, but the story is about the soul of the hero who must prevail against (and thereby rise above) them. Goliath must indeed fall, but King David’s story continues. The challenges of his kingship and family life produced a rich inner world whose poetic output, the Psalms, has affected the world and uplifted the disheartened for millennia. The giant has been dead for thousands of years but David’s prayers for success in battle lived on to become our prayers, and that is the important part of the story if it is a Fantasy.

To the SF Jew, however, to call the story of David and Goliath some mere iteration of a transcendent framework is to cheapen it. What comfort is it to the Israelites slain in battle that they have a place in some larger tale? And what victory in another challenge surmounted by the universal “hero”? Rather, we must go back to that time, understand the social and political issues surrounding the battle, and how David’s victory changed the course of history forever. This is to actually honor the biblical story if it is read as Science Fiction.

The importance of time and place and the actual specific events of life correspond with a theological commitment to G-d as the ruler of the world whose expectations devolve upon each individual according to their situation. More important than an abstract divine ideal is the G-d who demands and imposes justice, who is concerned with the state of the world and is dissatisfied every moment the Messiah has not yet come. Man’s responsibility is not to break out of the limits of his own existence but, to work with those limits and to transform them.

A Unified Story: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Judaism

It is only logical that in the two-horned paradox of a transcendent G-d’s involvement in a limited world, the Fantasist appreciates the transcendent, removed aspect of the Creator. The G-d of the forefathers is my G-d, unchanged by changing times. His directives are equal upon all people, regardless of when or where they live. Just as what it meant to be human in the middle ages is essentially the same as what it means now, so, too, the Torah of Moses is my Torah. I must strive to break free of my limitations and connect to the imminent divine within my soul and the transcendent G-dliness above.

That is the ideal. Practically, the Transcendent approach presents challenges. I must extract universal truth from the parts of G-d’s directive that on the surface seem irrelevant to my modern life, such as animal sacrifice. Let us say, as King David does in the Psalms, that prayer is equivalent to the sacrifices. I am to spiritually offer myself up to my Creator, then, as part of my journey. But, of course, just as the consecrated animal of the past was a significant portion of the Jew’s wealth, I too need a considerable amount of time and effort to devote to prayer. And the refusal to manipulate these resources is the Fantasist’s greatest weakness.

The simple solution, one might think, is to rearrange one’s life to allow time to think and pray and attend to all the other machinations of transcendence. But this solution is no solution at all to the Fantasist. A Jew with this vision struggles to acknowledge the reality of his particular life while still connecting to the universal. A businessman (for example) who strives all day to manipulate his business so mornings he can pray and find the Truth is just a businessman. Or in other words, even as he asserts that only a higher Truth is true, his actions declare that his worldly limitations have their own reality. If a sin is a claim that some other reality supersedes G-d, then to the Fantasy Jew, worldliness is sinful.

So instead, the Jew must retreat into what Isaiah Berlin calls[viii] the “Inner Citadel,” a state in which one is entirely free because perfectly removed. Berlin compares it to amputation. One seeks inside for a place of perfect apathy, of equanimity, where one needs nothing from the world and is self-sustained by oneself and one’s truth. “Perhaps my job gets in the way of my prayer, but this doesn’t bother me; I can make do with my inner worth, with my essential connection to G-d. The world can do whatever it likes; I don’t need it.”

The problem with this ascetic approach is clear. Though it’s poetical and profound not to care about the world, it is also a retreat. The Fantasist is unable to change the world and so decides not to care and turns his face upward to heaven. One has lost the battle with worldly troubles, or, more accurately, has forfeited. The world remains unchanged, full of problems, and the Jew retreats to a state resembling the soul before it enters the body – removed from the troubles of creation and in communion with the Creator.

There is, however, another type of Jew who will reject this approach, the SF Jew.

The concern with the SF Jew’s approach is not that it might fail; failure is its usual motivation. After all, what is an imperfect world if not a failure on some level? This only goads the Jew further. No, the danger is that the SF Jew might succeed. Visions of the future out of touch with the broader human story inevitably aim at the wrong type of perfection. The Jew technically knows all the rules (“Love your fellow as yourself;” “Thou shalt not covet;”), the means with which to change the world. But his or her own vision of the end is narrow; they have only their own experience to draw on. It is clear how the world must not be; it must not be like it is now. But what it should be like is a mystery they cannot know. They have only their own view to impose, and an imposition it shall be, a tyranny, ignorant of human commonality or any sublime truth. Indeed, this was the fate of every attempted utopia in the history of mankind, fodder for dystopian novels. Just as the Fantasy Jew is stuck within, cut off from the world, the SF Jew is mired without, never able to escape his own surroundings and influences to reach a point of perfect selflessness within.

But there is perhaps a way to unite the two opinions. It was described by the Maggid of Mezritch, over two centuries ago.

A wealthy Jew once became a follower of the Maggid. He began to notice that the more passionate he grew in his pursuit of his Rebbe’s spiritual ideals, the less money he seemed to have. At the point where he began to worry about his family living in poverty, he cried out to the Maggid, asking, “How can it be? How can it be that doing the right thing and living a G-dly life is making me poor? It should be making me more wealthy!”

Replied the Maggid, “It all depends on the direction you pray. In the times of Temple of old, one would pray facing north if they desired riches, and facing south if they wanted wisdom. This corresponded with the vessel for all physical sustenance, the Show, Bread on the north side of the temple sanctuary, and the enlightening Menorah on the south side. You, too, must choose in which direction you wish to pray.”

Protested the Jew, “But you have many followers who are both wealthy and holy.”

Said the Maggid, “Ah. That is what you want? Then you must be like the Ark in the Holy of Holies, which took up no space and united all the directions. Once you, too, take up no space – then you can have both the things you desire.”

There is a point at which our two conceptions of the Jewish story are one. When the story is still G-d’s story, it exists in unity, all opposites brought together in a single G-dly reality, the pursuit of this world and the quest for transcendence two expressions of the same thing. If both types of Jew realize that the story is not about them but about G-d, they can reach a synthesis with the opposite view.

This is clear in the sources. After all, the Midrash says that the standard Hero of every Jewish tale, Moshe, was the first redeemer and will be the last Redeemer. On the other hand, the Zohar talks of the wellsprings above and below of the 19th century being the key to the future redemption — the holy wellsprings of G-dly knowledge and the wellsprings of worldly knowledge that made the Science Fiction worldview possible. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it is modern scientific advances and the revelation of the inner aspect of Torah that will together prepare the world for perfection. The Fantasy Jew is justified according to Torah in seeing the Redeemer as someone who has always existed; the SF Jew is justified in seeing him as an outcome of the modern improvement of the world. And both are correct.

The Fantasy Jew must realize in moments of transcendence that the entire story of humanity is directed at a better world, for that is even the transcendent G-d’s desire. The SF Jew must realize that world-altering actions are only the practical manifestations of a deeper G-dly truth, the emancipation of a transcendent reality into the lower planes. All the Jew’s toil has been for the end of the general human story.

May it happen soon.—


[i] “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4.

[ii] See Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” for an academic distillation of many cultural myths into what Campbell calls the “monomyth,” the structure that many myths have in common. Campbell studied real myths of ancient cultures, and then his work was in turn read by several fantasy authors seeking to more authentically convey their stories.

[iii] See the discourse V’yadaata 5657

[iv] In fact, the author of said story intentionally based it off of Campbell’s monomyth. See note 2.

[v] See the detailed history of proto-SF in the Wikipedia article “History of Science Fiction.”

[vi] A term Frank Herbert took from the Kabbalistic term for “teleportation” or super-speed  (lit. “leaping of the road”)

[vii] Wikipedia, “Dune”

[viii] “Two Concepts of Liberty”

 

Originally posted on Hevria.