Departments

Three Horror Stories

I.

"Hello? I'm still down here. Open the door. Can you hear me—hey! Put the lights back on! This is a joke, right? Very funny! Open the door! Wait—I know you're down here somewhere. I can here you moving around. That is you, right?"

II.

"Well, yes, we have received the test results. There's really nothing to worry about, sir. The guard? Oh, he's always here. Hospital policy. Let's get this over with. Have you experienced an increase in appetite recently? Have you experienced hardening or discoloration of the fingernails? How about any strange shapes or colors that recur in your dreams? Hmm. Well, no, the problem isn't your eyes exactly. Have you recently been to Africa? South America? Oh, the specialist's on his way, there's nothing to worry about. One more question, and this one may sound a little strange, but I need you to answer it honestly. Sir, when was the last time you defiled something?"

III.

"It's great to meet somebody else who's not afraid of heights. Do you come up here often?"

"Every once in a while. I love the view. It gives me a sense of freedom. Like I could do anything up here. Like I can see the world but it can't see me."

"It's a great view. It's great until you look down, yeah? I mean I'm not afraid of heights, but that a helluva drop."

"Close your eyes for a second. I want to show you something."

Lead

The history of technology is the history of human weakness. The rest of history is only the surface: what happens once human weakness has been compensated for, or at least accepted. But most things that happen, happen below the surface. There is another history, a deep history that only technology records.

Consider glasses. Every person you see wearing glasses is another person rescued who, a hundred years ago or less, would simply have lived with bad eyesight. And bad eyesight doesn’t feel like not being able to see; it feels like headaches, tiredness, irritability, helplessness. How many billions of us have lived out uneasy lives in desperation and doubt, all for a trick of the light?

The most significant freedom which artists acquired in the 20th century was not freedom from patronage, but the freedom to assume a public with good eyesight.

For the diffusion of political authority, the gradual rise in test scores, and other trends of the last century which suggest the human race is becoming smarter, the most parsimonious explanation is simply that the human race is seeing better.

But consider something less conspicuous: consider bread and water.

Billions of us having pure water on tap means more than victory over worm and germ. Before pure water the only safe drink was drink. Since civilization began ours is perhaps the first generation to live sober.

And bread. Enriched bread means more than the eclipse of diseases like rickets or scurvy. Consider pregnancy – consider the dietetic demands of scientifically managed pregnancy. Number the nutritional concerns to which a conscientious mother is expected to attend. We are overly cautious, of course, but not in every precept. To be born as a peasant – and most people who have ever been born, were born peasants – was to be born maimed in advance by the neglect of every one of these precepts.

Aristocracy, perhaps, is simply the social order that results when only a small proportion of people can be kept well-fed enough to think clearly. Democracy, perhaps, is simply the social order that results when the majority of human beings are not born a little brain-damaged.

Somewhere in his Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton, in the early 17th century, writes that if lead were indeed poisonous – as some recognized even then – then all the nobility would be poisoned with it, for they all brought their water in by lead pipe. (Hand-worked pipes, mind, not machined.) Centuries later, his fellow apprentices in printing thought young Ben Franklin laughably fastidious for wearing gloves to set lead type. Suppose he had not.

Then consider our recent century of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline.

This is what it means to be human. Small things, things we can do nothing about, things we do not even recognize as dangerous, undo us before we know we have been harmed. The pipes in our houses, the paint on our cradles, the gas in our parents’ cars, leave us ruined before we are built, and lead stands the silent ruler of a stupefied world.

This weakness is something we work to forget. We cannot always be on guard. We cannot live our lives as though they were fragile and uncertain. We must build and plan. So we imagine that if life was tougher then, it just meant more rigorous selection. When we look backward we do not see weakness. Our forebears stand as straight as we do. Surely, the average human being then was as healthy as the average human being now, when technology coddles our softer stuff.

But look to the mountains. The mountains, their soil washed sterile with rain, have always subjected their residents to malnutrition. Yet there, even as they lived, worked, built, sang, and bred, their thyroids swelled and poked goiters out of their necks.

Human beings are very tough. What doesn't kill us, we get used to.

“Human weakness” is something real; but it is not in sin and not in absurdity. We are not bad; we are not silly. We won, after all. We came into this world as food for the animals we now keep in zoos and preserves and kennels. But we are still weak. We are weak because we are fragile. We can do everything except save ourselves. Our abilities – our wonderful abilities – are so easily prevented, so easily unseated, that it may be done without our noticing. Being born and being fed are enough to destroy us.

A diamond is as hard as anything; edge to edge, it can always wins. Yet a single well-placed tap can shatter a diamond. Just because a diamond is hard, the slightest flaw affords the leverage to cleave it through and through. We are all such diamonds. It is because we are strong that we are fragile. We are the houses built on sand: and when the house falls down, it is the house, not the sand, that makes the pity.

Yet though we break, though we break so easily and in so many ways, we remain ourselves. Diamond dust is still diamond. The things our blind, starved, poisoned, crippled forebears made in their darkness and desperation transcend their particular frailties and reach us clear and full of strength. When they wrote, we can read. What they sang, we can hear. What they pictured, we can see. What they made, we can use. What they learned, we can know.

Technology is what repairs weakness, and in doing so lets us see it for the first time for what it always was – weakness. History is the record of what we do despite that weakness. And the third thing – call it culture – is what, as it passes from one generation to the next, combines our strengths, omits our weakness, and represents us to ourselves whole: whole as we should be, whole as we can never be.

Solitude

The appeal of solitude may be as simple as the dislike of repetition. To be gregarious implies infinite patience for retelling the same anecdote, confessing the same weakness, counting over the same favorites, relating the same background. Identity becomes a matter of performance and habit, not expressed in but being the routine of self-introduction. Just to avoid this explains why people may chose to be solitary; just the time won from having avoided it explains how people can find pleasure in something apparently so unnatural.

But is there a positive definition of solitude—is there something that solitude is? Certainly if one ventures a bracketed solitude, and another commits to a prolonged solitude; if one is solitary by choice, and another is driven to it—each gives a different thing the name of solitude.

And surely what solitude is has changed and is changing? Surely technology is banishing solitude as it banishes loneliness?

Distinguish two measures of solitude: quantity of social interactions, and quantity of people interacted with. Eliminate repetitions. By the first measure the most gregarious of our ancestors was more solitary than the most solitary of us. The lines of communication were so few, so thin, and so uncertain that to pursue them itself required solitude—to write a letter is a solitary act. But by the second measure we are freakishly solitary. So many people once had to be dealt with to do the things we do by mail, message, and machine—so many butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, so many drivers, porters, draysmen, all to do what takes us no more than a few words with a cashier! (And the cashier is sometimes dispensable.) The two measures of solitude do not vary together—to be solitary in both senses is possible and perhaps defines loneliness—but to lessen solitude by one measure is to increase it by the other. Thus we are all solitary.

This sounds like a curse; but in truth it is a homeostasis. Life adjusts to provide us a minimum of solitude as the body adjusts to provide us a minimum of warmth. Solitude is a thing, not a state; it answers an appetite, not a purpose. Something vital, something necessary, something catalytic, some nutriment or vitamin of the mind, something as ambient and replenishing to human beings as light is to plants—this something is found, it falls, everywhere, except where other people obstruct it.

Yet the dullness and rigidity of repetition can be avoided, and the vigor and fecundity of solitude can be protected, without isolation. All it takes is to be all things to all men, which is the same skill as getting along with all sorts of people; an easy thing if you are willing to be lead and not to lead in talk, to let people think of you what they want to, and to lie to give simple answers to simple questions when the truth would be obstructively complicated. In this way people can be read almost like books—like old books that fall open to certain pages.

This approach is too habitual with me. Why I write the Ruricolist is uncertain—my reasons change every week—but surely one reason is to take cross-sections of myself without any particular sense of audience. The Ruricolist does not represent me in full; many of my interests go unrepresented here; but here I set the topics, pursue their complications, and claim the right to confuse. In writing about solitude I abandon it. But that is the kind of contradiction that essays live on.

Mirrors

There were mirrors of natural reflections before there were eyes to see; there were signs and similitudes before there were minds to see them. Eyes themelves are but incomplete mirrors, keeping the images that mirrors return. The world before us was full of mirrors, as the world beside us is full of mirrors; but perhaps eyes had never seen something endless until a human being faced mirror to mirror; until a human being adjured into matter that same substantial recess of mirrors in mirrors reflecting inside his own skull; until mind represented mind. We are made of mirrors; perhaps this is why we are so easily trapped by them. It is easier to turn the eyes from glaring in hate or staring in lust than from preening in mirrors. The ancients gazed on clear water and black glass in search of mere shadows of themselves; but we have opened the secret of the silvered mirror. Our backhanded images follow us everywhere. Before we can even speak we are entangled with mirrors. First they show us our selves, then they show us our self-awareness, then our self-awareness of our self-awareness, on and on, back and forth until we are wound up in our selves yet we have no selves without the mirror, until self and mirror are foci of an elliptical orbit around the fact of reflection, until mind and mirror combine into mind—one mind whose parts are all men and all mirrors. Mirrors are our masters; but who minds serving masters who look at us with our own eyes?

Selfishness

Foolish love of self is still more mysterious than foolish love of others. Loving others is patently an adaptive trait. Self-love is neither necessary nor helpful to survival. Our species that must raise its young for a decade or more must set strong social bonds, but the conditions of individual survival are the same for human beings as for other animals. The snake, the squid, the scorpion, fight as hard to live as we do, but they do not love at all.

This assumes that loving at all serves some purpose. With questions of behavior such judgments should hesitate. In animals so complex and complexifying as we, the most that can be proved of a behavior is that it is not maladaptive. The capacity to love does not harm the survival of the race. Beyond that, the fact that the brain supports love may be no more significant than the fact that the brain supports solving crossword puzzles.

But the brain does not perform crosswords the way it falls in love. Love lights up the pith of the brain, while crosswords only stir the bark. But this only moves the question from human beings to mammals generally. And if the outcome of a crossword puzzle decided your success in life, if you had bitter rivals in it, if it promised to bring you loyalty and attention, if it could console you and reconcile you to life, if entailed ecstasy – then a crossword puzzle, too, would illuminate everywhere. But all these things are possible to a human being without love. And as for social cohesion, insects exhibit forms as strong or stronger than ours without any need to love at all.

If love is so mysterious, then why should one object be more mysterious than another? But the symmetry by which you could love yourself is a mystery of its own. How can the self present itself to itself as an object of love? The introspective mind can think about itself only as a sort of mirror image that corresponds to it at every point yet is not it. Of course self-love as narcissism works this way. But selfishness is cognate to narcissism, not collateral: a self-image of sainthood may produce narcissism with selflessness.

Selfish people are not self-centered. They do not pride themselves on their selfishness – they do not even see it. Indeed their most repellent trait is that they resent the selfishness of others without seeing their own, even when it is a double to their own.

The poets are wrong. Foolish love is not blind – love is blind only as the eye is blind, with a blind spot. The beloved may be ugly or stupid or cruel, but the lover who overlooks all these things in one person does not fail to see them in others. Lovers of ugly people do not surround themselves with ugliness; of stupid people, do not surround themselves with stupidity; of cruel people, do not surround themselves with cruelty. But their judgment is not intact. It is always disappointing to meet someone whom you know only through their lover’s description. In these cases, it is shocking.

The impairment of the selfish is the same, another blind spot, only self-directed. But this is only another mystery. How does the blind spot happen? In following the parallels of selfishness and foolish love we avoid the easy and wrong explanations of each. Chemistry, charisma, propinquity, neediness, passive aggression, codependency, pity – these cannot come between you and yourself. They cannot explain the blind spot. Conversely we learn how incurable selfishness is when we compare it to foolish love. You can no more convince someone of the absurdity of their self-regard than you can convince someone of the unworthiness of their beloved. No logic will dispel it, no shock will unseat it, and the more absurd it is, the more intervention will be resented.

This long analogy is the preparation for a brief and severe conclusion: there is no way to prevent selfishness and no way to cure it. Perhaps in refusing to tolerate selfish behavior, in avoiding selfish people, you may nudge some cases away from the brink. But the pit is bottomless and those who fall in cannot be rescued. Their very sin is its own contrapasso, its own poetic justice. They lie in darkness where they eat their own hearts. Leave them there. May it not be one you love.

Crowd verbs

Nothing is harder to describe in writing than the behavior of a crowd. Something so everyday as how people act when ten of us appear in the same place with the same object of attention, something so affordant for performers, preachers, and politicians, should be accompanied by a large, refined, and subtle vocabulary. Instead we are stuck with a scale of behaviors graduated so coarsely that it is almost useless. A crowd can go wild, roar, applaud, get caught up, be intent, hush, be restless, be tough, be hostile, boo, hiss, jeer, and riot. There are more words, but on investigation they prove to be empty variations.

Crowd—the name itself is almost an abstraction. Its few synonyms only distinguish different venues: a gathering, an assembly, an audience, a congregation, an attendance. Among animals we can distinguish flocks, herds, swarms, pods, colonies, hives, schools, and packs, but among human beings we can only say crowds, crowds, crowds, though the human differences are greater.

(At this point in the essay I consulted a thesaurus, which yielded throng, a contraction for "crowd I don't like", and mob, a contraction for "crowd that doesn't like me." Later I thought of the crush and had to be there, which are promising but undeveloped.)

Language fails, and image fails too: film's cantaloupe-murmuring crowds, its paid extras and vain camera-forward onlookers, are a convention as familiar and as absurd as sound technicians scoring heel clicks to sneakers.

Withal when you hear or think or are tempted to say that language and literature are perfected, that there is nothing left for writers, poets, and translators to do but footnote and allude, remember that there is a hole in language big enough for everything from a picnic to a revolution to fall through. I doubt it is the only one.