Departments

The Twentieth Century

[Not an essay.]

What was that? What just happened?

I appeal to the oldest and most common kind of understanding.

Let us imagine an idol, which shall be called the Twentieth Century. Let it be made of steel. Let it be vast, too vast to be seen all at once. Above all, let it have been built quickly—quickly, and unasked. It would be best if the dwellers wherever it was to be built, had no warning that it would or could be. They only woke one morning, and found it over them, and the sun rising behind it.

Let it have no face: no mouth to explain, no ears to heed, no nostrils to stink in, and no eyes to witness.

And let it have two hands: a hand of bright steel, and a hand of dull steel.

In the bright hand of the idol is a key. And all around the bright hand are the tokens of pilgrims who leave what the power of the idol has opened at their prayers: which are locks, fetters, chains, bars, doors, and gates.

In the dull hand of the idol—what is in the dull hand of the idol? For the dull hand of the idol is tight shut. Around the dull hand and closed fist are the tokens of penitents willing and unwilling: which are empty things (for the dull hand only takes): bottles, boxes, chairs, beds, shoes.

And let the worshipers of the idol tell stories of it.

Let them say how the idol came from afar. Everywhere, it came from afar. It came from afar with two hands. It came loudly, without fear and without shame, and it touched everything.

What it touched with its bright hand that holds a key, was opened. The bright hand opened the bonds older gods left as they fled before the steel god. The bright hand opened the cell of night; opened the house of sickness; opened the prison of birth; opened the pit of ignorance; opened the veil of lies.

What it touched with its dull hand that is closed, was taken away. It touched the cleanness of the height and the quiet of the deep; it touched the peace of the valley and the pride of the peak; it touched the hope of the beggar and the pity of the rich man. It touched the dreams of dreamers, and the pride of makers. And lastly it touched cities, and countries, and peoples.

Then it sat where it now sits, and touched only what was brought to it.

This god has two hands—a bright hand that opens and a dull hand that takes away; but this god, who is blind, deaf, and dumb, does not know which hand is which.

Of what shall become of the steel idol, stories do not agree. Some say that it is already dead; that it is already rusting within, and someday it will fall in on itself, and its shadow will no longer fall; that the power that draws pilgrims and penitents is but an ember in ash. Some say that it is resting; that someday it will rise to blunder and touch and end the world—but they do not agree whether it will end the world with the opening touch of its bright hand, or the taking touch of its dull hand. Some say that it has already sown the end of the world, and awaits a harvest. Some say that it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and restore all it has taken; and some say that it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and close all it has opened. Some say that it is lonely, and awaits another of its kind.

And some few even whisper that it shall not die: that beneath it, it is driving roots; that behind the stains on its steel skin, the vines are working.