‘I’ve been tinkering with this book on and off since way back in June 2017. I’m putting it on the shelf, for now. Overall, the problem was that I was approaching its subject too directly. I always got stuck somewhere in the middle, with all my cards laid out on the table too soon, forestalling any dramatic tension. I still like the opening chapter, though. Tagline reads: What is a world if not a description of one’s faith?’
Consider that the best way to describe the kind of life we lead is as an on-going work in self-effacement, our existence, increasingly, becoming a sort of ‘Apologetics for Being’, as we learn more and more all that we have gotten wrong in this life, and learn, too, how to admit it. We write, we paint, we exhaust all that we can say, hoping to find our truth, some truth, at the limit. Thus I begin with an apology in advance for, in the writing of this story, making substantial all that I do not know. I only hope that, perhaps, if I write enough, and write well, what will linger, longest and loudest of all, is what I have not said, and that this at least will be worthwhile. It has always been the case that with every word I lay down I hear the pounding unrest of all the others I have discarded: these, you could say, comprising the story behind my choices, and my actions; a story of untold paths, of branching hypotheticals, which immobilize the finite, mortal being out of sheer awe, whenever dwelt upon. Do they exist, if never voiced? So I wonder. You and I, we can look only to one thing at a time—down one path—in one direction—so stubbornly I have chosen to explore the path alluded to in these pages so deeply, so deeply that my shadow, once cast by the sun, has since risen all around me, has swallowed me whole; I cannot see the sun anymore, in this sub-terrain where all is dark. For this path has taken me downward.
To the next word I rush on, it sounding something like the cut of a shovel, and me I’ve become blind to the movement of the world above. I still pick up on its vibrations, though, and in a general sense I have a better understanding of its scope than I could ever have garnered by sight—the perception’s too specific, I find. Dreaming as I work, I put images to these impressions which I can now only guess at, and what else I do, too, is pay close attention to how they make me feel: whether agitated and anxious, or comforted by their reliable presence. Way down the strata of shadow—layers of my own, and others—I have opportunity to dwell in my emotions until I perceive the subtle differences in their formation, if I’m able, and for example I sometimes worry that I’ve become something of a baby mole blind to the bigger picture up above, fearful of it as instinctively I burrow down, word by word, layer by layer, valuing only the solace of my peculiar drive. Other times, in my dreams, I wonder about the fear which moves you; you who continue grinding above, as if what you fear most is to grind to a halt, and maybe face the silence which would result. Let me assure you that, far down as I am and amidst whole epochs decomposed into cool earth, I have never had to deal with the terror of absolute silence: distant from where I started, yet there is sound coming to me from below, too, and under my feet I’ve felt the rumblings of still other forces which have shaped all that we have known.
‘Remarkable fact, that all we’ve known is of this Earth.’ I scribble this in my pocket notebook under torchlight. The violence of constant collisions continues to cast off vibrations in all directions, as I listen closely, pen in hand; for a fleeting moment I think I hear something of a truth in it, a striving after something intelligible which yet cannot be put into words—which is to say, t’is sounding something like music. Oh! What have I stumbled upon in my ramshackle digging but a voice which belongs to no one person, but rather to everyone and all things at once, rising up to enshroud, engulf, nay devour entirely, any individual who would attempt to match it?
But I know some have tried, or at least, I think this might be what philosophers have called the Will, and at the mention of the word I can tell that you begin to guess at what this may be all about, and at what I have written in my notebook: yes, I confess I’ve cut so far down in sheer spite of it, this Will; for I had no other choice. Do you wonder if I found what I was looking for?
As I’ve been disclosing to you, I’ve found a vague, distant disturbance which, pressing into me, won’t let me rest even though I am exhausted.
So, if sleep wouldst insist to slip beyond mine grasp, let me at least get on to this story of legend, this story of myth of the fabled treasure uncovered, paying no mind to the fact that such a story describes my personal demise if told aright.
Haven’t I been clear in my allusion to the Will and what sounds to me a relentless force?
I mean to say that the discovery and use of this Will, and the achievement of greatness which would result, is the motivation behind the present myth, and that any individual who would speak of it must have it gradually arise within them the realization that the subject relates to that thing indescribable deep down, that something formative to which I believe I am currently digging, from which the finite being emerges and to which it must return, swallowed whole, consumed by something which was long before they came to be, and which will be long after they have gone. I’ve decided to speak, so my time is up—consider this a warning to those who would listen, for I suspect it is the same for them. I dig, and with this sound rising around me I can barely hear the next cut of the shovel, the next utterance of a word. If I flatter myself, whilst contemplating the telling of this treasure hunt and its prime movers, with the faintest vision of success—that I could lay down the story in its entirety, and have all who listened understand the purpose behind my having done so, its relevance to the modern world—then it is only because of a certain conviction I had at the start—still do have, in fact—that any individual has what it takes to achieve something great.
From whence comes the great works which echo through the centuries, anyway?
What forces are they which give rise to the glory of the world?
Not vanity nor pride leads to my asking these things, either, for where pride, if, as I suggested at the start, our best work is of our successful erasure? How do you propose we combine that idea, with your concept of greatness, because I bet so far you have assumed ‘greatness’ to be a good thing? Only allow me to point out how in the greatest achievements of our race there is no trace of the individual at all, but rather of something far more terrible and universal. Oh, I go down, I go down, down, and as I do I’ll venture to say, now, in the humblest of tones, that whatever or whoever you think you are, presently it cannot fathom greatness. Nowhere in the great work is the individual reflected; not you; not me. You look, and you are turned to stone. Me, seeking greatness for the sake of self-glory? Ha! You forget what the rest of us do, to those who have become truly great.
But let me climb out of here and dust myself off, because I feel like we’re just now getting somewhere interesting. Don’t ask me how I managed to travel so far down beneath the surface of things, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you, except that it’s a surprise even to me; maybe it’s because others before me have reached so far that I knew it could be done—where do you think I even got the idea that there might be something going on below? Excuse me as I shake off these clumps of dirt clinging to the cuffs of my pants. That’s better.
Personally, between you and me, and this sun I have not seen for many days, I’ve sometimes worried that I’d reached a dead end—that we all had, collectively, we who ventured to dig a little. For too long it seemed to me that there were no answers to be found, but that was before I heard what I told you about, that sound which strikes a chord way down within me, feeling something like a revelation, the fact that I can’t escape it. At least not while I’m on this Earth, I mean; at least not with these ears which have evolved to pick up the sounds of this Earth. I’m tied to it, I suspect. It gave shape to my ears, and to my very bones which too can feel its vibrations.
What is the sound’s origin?
You remember the question about the tree falling with no one there to hear it? You know, I’m sure, that it doesn’t make a sound—not if there’s no ear there to register those vibrations as a sound, when eventually those vibrations fade away, unperceived. Well, consider that the sound of a certain tree falling has been echoing throughout the universe since its beginning, and that it was only recently that we’ve been able to hear it—by turning our ears upward; our satellites, I mean.
To return to the subject of greatness, for a moment, and to put my own twist on that age-old question as we prepare to contemplate another great act of human ingenuity coming perhaps at the perfect time at the end of many centuries fraught with contention, let me ask you if you think we can call greatness then a perceiving—and thus revealing—of what was already always there? Could greatness be described as an expansion of how far we can reach, as an enriched appreciation of what is possible for us to understand, and accomplish? But here’s the kicker: was what was always possible—there but unseen, and unheard—actually there, and actually possible, before some one of us—a great one indeed—heard or saw it?
Awaken your faculties, dear friend, so we may see and hear and feel all, as there one of these individuals who has seen and travelled farther than most approaches: with him, this force of nature, our tale begins, almost as if with a big bang. Observe how this great man walks, with his hands clasped behind him and his countenance unblemished by thought—something of a grey eminence, he is. So you might say if you wished to reduce him to his form. Something curious indeed, as you can see upon his countenance the unmistakable sign that even now as he walks through this world, he is no longer a part of it.
He wishes that he could be, but it would not encourage any further development on his part. Rather, the individuals of this world have to develop, to catch up to him, so in his work the man has offered a map as to how they might do this. Every great artist before him has done the same, and has at the very least amended some characteristic way-point with the wisdom of their experience traversing this path which all walk but which a rare few finish: a path which leads to a mountaintop on which—it is rumoured—an eternal light shines. A mountaintop formed by the subterranean forces I’ve been describing, paradoxically enough.
Has the man we now follow reached this mountaintop?
We can only arrive at a tentative answer as we regard his actions, his presence, and the conviction of the voice which imbues the words he speaks. I would advise you not to be so quick to say that he has, as you come to learn more about him and observe how untouched he is by common concerns, as if he had his ear out for something more subtle; however, don’t be so quick to say that he hasn’t, either. It is a subtle art we require even to perceive this. He may not be able to confirm your suspicion directly—no one can speak of such a thing—but you can trust that however far he has gotten, at the very least he would want to help you get to that same point. Even now, he’s come so far from the rarefied plane in which he resides for no other reason than because he’s on his way to see a spot of land which a friend of mine by the name of Joseph Laurence has claimed within the world and is now—so the word is among my fellow artists and scholars—so busy cultivating. This Joseph—the hero of our tale, I would hope—is nervously preparing to show the fruits of his labour to this man, and we are about to witness a master survey his work. Let us not be so surprised by the great artist’s ignorance of Joseph’s promise up to this point, because even though Joseph has been working steadily for many years, he—like all those who have yet to make a name for themselves—has been concerned with comparatively subtler, stylistic or aesthetic, details, and these of course do not garner much attention; finally, after what seemed to Joseph and to all the rest of us like eons, a few men and women of the artist’s circle have taken note, and it was from them he first heard Joseph’s name.
So the old artist meandered down neglected country back roads where I and other disciples and enthusiasts pay our dues, where the evidence of our—often abandoned—labours litter the grassy landscape found along the outer edges of an honest living—by which I mean, only, that there are no families out here in this realm populated by those devoted to some vision beyond blood ties and territorial allegiance, where half-finished sculptures, never finding the support they need to reach their completion, are here and there cast aside, disappearing under weeds and other growth. Walking through this sad realm one is able to make out words carved into the occasional stone or brick, or scratched into wooden fence posts, or benches: declarations which allude to greatness, but have no additional context. Who knows, perhaps the day will come when I make my final cut into this field and walk away, my shovel standing next to a strange hole and the weathered remains of a notebook trying to explain it. A graveyard, a wasteland, a desert void of all but nature’s indifference: call it what you want, the great artist knew the realm intimately, and he gravely acknowledged the potential, unrealized, and walked on, hoping that the young man whom he was on his way to see had something more to show him.
If the figure we follow still has about him an air of mystery, bear with me—it is only for the fact that there is much about him that I do not know. May he forgive me, if, in making these observations about him in the pages to come, I should get anything wrong as to the nuances of his thought; I have tried to understand his work, hostile as it is, but I tell you it only ever looms over me with an austere hint at the ineffable, emitting whispers of the intricate silence the man has breached like it has a secret code embedded within its structure, decipherable only to those with proper determination. Once upon a time I was convinced that I had that kind of determination, much as we all would like to believe, I’m sure, but as much as I’ve tried to understand, I’ve come near enough to admitting that it is all beyond me, and I mean all of it—nowadays it’s all I can do to just sit down, buckle up, and hold on, one of millions happy enough just to be along for the ride. So though the great artist’s name won’t be mentioned in this tale, out of respect for his privacy, trust me when I tell you that he might as well be the ancient poet, Homer, and in fact that is what I’ll call him, as the story unfolds, and we continue to walk, matching the pace of a man who knows that his journey is what prepares him for his arrival, his eyes relaxed to allow his less definite senses to lead the way and wander off where they like, knowing that his body and mind need plenty of time to acclimate to the exotic locales he anticipates passing through on this odyssey.
If only we had such patience, but I think we’ve reached a point where it’s best to skip ahead to Homer and Joseph’s first meeting, and I’m sure any background details I’ve missed will be filled in as the story unfolds. Allow me just to add that for a long time Homer believed that his life’s work was finished, and that it’s been years since anyone has heard from him. Stories tracing his movements have of course been traded and refined, all of them extraordinary and far-fetched, all sketching portraits far away from common activity and all no doubt tinged with a hint of truth—but who can say which part? To these stories the great artist never paid any mind, and we can only guess that all this time his attention was rather drawn to that pull which souls who realize their capacity to achieve great things constantly feel, and which pulls, and pulls again, never silenced by the artist’s personal satisfaction, soon impossible to ignore: letting a man like Homer know that something else needs be done, and what else could that entail for him, the poet and thinker, but that old words once more needed to be invoked?
A rather personal reason was also, partly, the cause for his concern which has him out among us, now: namely that the great man’s still human, still made of flesh and blood, and as he’s been approaching the end of his days an anxious feeling that all will be lost has crept up inside of him; he can’t shake the thought that the words he has spent his life transcribing will not find another to breathe life into them, after he’s gone. I’ve heard this is common. The eternal patterns and symbolic orders which he has dutifully outlined and given form to in his work need a new voice which would illustrate to the modern psyche that such patterns never fade, but only reassemble into new structures. So, call it fate if you’d like, but Homer’s now become something of the fabled old master seeking a young aspirant to keep the momentum of our understanding going—perhaps you too have noticed that it’s stalled? It is because of this that Homer seeks someone who not only understands the transmutation through time of what some have called the Will, others the human spirit, but also someone who can embody and attest to it with confidence, in the tone and cadence of the modern world, which already has trouble speaking his own work of forty years ago. Homer was under no illusion that he was still the eternal spirit’s champion, for he was so far removed from the spirit of the time, and so weary already. However, he wondered perhaps if this young man, this Joseph Laurence, might have the strength required for the task?
Thus it was with hope in his heart that Homer arrived at the step of Joseph’s apartment building, already a long way from where he had begun the day’s venture; the address he held in his memory was confirmed as he recognized the face of the young man waiting on the stoop.
“I’d invite you up, but I don’t have proper furniture for a guest.” Joseph said, somewhat bashfully.
“Let’s walk then.” Homer said. “You can show me what you’ve been working with.” Joseph offered his hand, which Homer looked at for only a second before taking up with a step forward, but in that second Joseph felt like every part of his soul which could be apprehended by the lines of his palm, the state of his nails, and the way in which he had held his hand out, with a certain tension, had been obtained by this master before him, staring at him with eyes as clear and inviting as a pond tucked away in a grove he was ready to lead Joseph to. In turn, as Homer stepped lightly and grasped Joseph’s hand, whatever part of himself he wished to reveal in that moment, he gracefully offered to Joseph, as if it were a gift. Joseph met this man’s gaze and believed he could almost see straight through to the bottom of the pond’s depths, if only he leaned in a little farther, and looked a little closer; but the cascading sun rays parted to reveal still more because, really, what thoughts were going through the master’s mind Joseph could only guess at, no matter how practised an observer of human nature he might be. He accepted this and made himself comfortable along the shore, and they began to walk.
“The great conflicts have been met in full,” Homer began pensively, “both in the physical world and in our world of understanding. That they continue to happen is not reason to fault the great movers of history, nor their advisors. The repetitions are, like all patterns, significant—they are all we have, so far as we care to define things.” He looked to Joseph with a sidelong glance and asked, “Would you agree?”
Joseph nodded. “I would.”
“Then where does that place you? Your mind and body have become so entwined that you cannot write from a place of simple passion; I can see in your work how every word moves you. Through these words you have no doubt become aware of the history you’re a part of, and you see now, don’t you, that, whatever your choice to proceed, the world attached to those words will inevitably be stirred by your action, and quite possibly swept along.”
“Will it? To be honest I don’t know where to begin. I see and describe the world rather well, but its movement does not inspire me, and I see no conflict to ignite my passion. I am a man alone whom no one in this world counts on, so the world has no need for me; though, this does not stop me from finding personal satisfaction in the small pleasures of my day-to-day. And why shouldn’t I? The horrible truth is that I might even be okay with this, leading this passionless life. I’ve secured myself against the chill of isolation by surrounding myself with the warmest words—my own, and others—and when I write, my words are still informed by the most potent thoughts. Only, without conflict, they only ever amount to so many scratches on a page.”
This was not at all what Homer had expected to hear. He threw out an arm to stop Joseph, and turned to him. “Have I wasted my time, coming here?”
Joseph was at a loss—maybe Homer had.
Homer continued. “Do you not have faith in a future beyond the narrow reality you describe? Not a place for such small thoughts as you have spoken, but one truly limitless, as your exceptional mind no doubt suggests?”
Joseph found himself nodding. He did so without hesitating, and Homer saw truth in his apparent resolve. He turned and continued walking. Joseph moved quickly to keep up, and said, “I feel like I have been ascending slowly to a higher plane, but quietly. It is a personal ascension, is it not? It need not involve the rest of the world.”
“Ah, but that is where you are wrong.” Homer said gently.
“How so?” Joseph asked.
“Because you are human, and you belong to our story.” Homer said. “If you have gained possession of something extraordinary, you cannot hide it: we will see through any charade, and we will see the thing of value glowing behind the veil, and you may then choose either to bring it out for all to see, and teach us by its example, or else earn our despise—for we will hate you if you do not share it, and we will not hesitate to call you selfish, or even inhuman. Indeed, you may end up a sacrifice, when all is said and done.”
“That’s not fair.” Joseph said.
“But that is how the story always unfolds. Whatever it is that’s behind the veil shines through us. Some of us pledge our lives to its revelation, because our mortality is the only thing that is ours to give. Thus we see the great man ready to die, waiting to die, even again and again, while the ordinary man dies but once, and fears that. Consider that as the heroes of old died for greater glory, so you too must be willing to sacrifice your life.” Homer looked to Joseph, who realized then that he was looking back into eyes that had seen death many times over, and that this was the anchor to be found at the bottom of their unfathomable clarity. “Have you understood that?”
“As much as one can understand something without having lived it.” Joseph answered.
“But you must, if you intend to continue on this path.” Homer said. “And so I wonder: is there really nothing you have found left worth fighting and dying for?”
Increasingly, Joseph felt like he was on the defence, and his response was a desperate bid for a bit of breathing room. “Perhaps it is as you said: the repetition is significant. For I am attached to our stories.”
Homer nodded. “But the repetition must be handled right. You do not want your actions to ring hollow.”
“To be honest, knowing and seeing all that I have, for a while now I’ve worried that mine do.” Joseph murmured, more to himself than to Homer. “And this suspicion I harbour is paralyzing. But maybe,” he began, slowly, his eyes down-turned as his mind dissolved into the ether of unsettled thought, “maybe I’ve been halted in any attempt by the feeling that the individual has become too insignificant, and that one shall never be the hero—that their offering goes unnoticed by some force which cares little about the human, but which holds sway over all.” He looked to Homer, his expression as hopeless as his words. “There are days I feel I am walking around as a hollow man, and that something long ago, without my knowing it, has taken up my soul and spirit.”
“If that is so then you must get it back.” Homer said, and suddenly he moved to pull urgently at the front of Joseph’s shirt. He did not hesitate to consider the possibility of this, and he saw the ramifications. He breathed their reality in, his eyes closed, and when he opened them he said, “Or else sever your ties from it completely.” Homer let go of Joseph’s collar and a silence settled between them: the kind of silence in which words are allowed to sit quietly waiting like an empty vessel, until those in the conversation see fit what to fill them with. Joseph suddenly felt weak and claustrophobic: there was not a response within him that could match the magnitude of their scale.
“All I can do is let the world know how I see it, and then let it consume me.” Joseph whispered. There was a lucidity in these words that surprised him, and they gave him strength enough to meet Homer’s gaze once more.
“If you can do that, you will be reborn enthroned by a higher truth.” Homer put a heavy hand on Joseph’s shoulder, and offered an unexpected smile. Joseph saw that this man had already somehow been exalted above all this: he was speaking objectively, from a distance, like a god. Homer continued. “Like Jonah and the whale.” A pause, and then he asked, “But is this really what you want?”
Joseph was silent, his mind reeling as he looked inward, desperate for something within him which could answer this riddle Homer put to him. He was surprised that he did not have to contemplate long, and Homer witnessed the moment when his position was realized. He nodded, quietly satisfied, but did not let Joseph speak. “I look forward to your work.” he said. He took up Joseph’s hand with both of his in a firm grip, as if he wished to impart all the strength he could give to Joseph in that grasp.
The conversation, understood in its entirety by only one of the two, was not yet a matter to smile over, or joke about, so Homer did not end on a note of levity with his departure. He left the young poet in the street, and made his exit from the city to a scene much different, to a dark auditorium with a single light suspended above its centre, the illumination it provided just enough to trace the edge of a pit, beyond which were tiers of artists and scholars sitting assembled in repose. A figure was speaking from the pit.
When Homer stepped into the room light was let in momentarily, and he was greeted by those near the entrance with much good will and diplomacy. He did not look for an available seat, though a few were pointed out to him, but rather strode down to the lowest tier and stood waiting for the current speaker to finish. When his time came he took position under the light, his head bowed as his eyes adjusted to the glare, so blinding in contrast to the darkness which lay over the rest of the auditorium. All eyes and ears were now directed upon him—a disconcerting feeling, given the degree of their penetration. Then again, he could not remember a time when he had felt comfortable in this room, neither speaking in the light, nor listening in the shadows, where at least he was anonymous among the crowd. He had experienced certain revolutions in thought here too numerous to count, and such growth was always painful. So were the associations he had of this place, the common domicile of so many formidable minds.
He said, “To those of you now present, whether by happenstance or because you are of the few who so persistently linger, with your nose forever to the grindstone and your ear likewise to the ground, I bring news of an approaching event, and I assure you I live in a state of constant preparedness for moments such as the one which I now discern on the horizon. It promises to be a great movement indeed, and, like all great movements of history, your participation will be as intertwined with the act as any future recording of it, and as unavoidable as your final judgment. As such, I have a request to make of you. An axiom of particular gravity states: ‘In the beginning there was the Word; and from chaos, order.’ Allow me mine, so that I may illustrate for you what I intend to happen next. Listen, for in these initial moments when the atmosphere is crackling with that electricity which marks the approaching storm, every syllable uttered impinges upon the mounting tension with such force it can in fact shape the course of its progression, and it is my hope that, as I speak, so the event may be set into motion.
“In the days to come some of you will be meeting the young man who will be standing within the eye of this storm. Know that he may just be what we so cautiously deem an artist, for it is apparent when speaking to him that his discernment is as clear as his word. Because of this, he may have promise indeed, and in his written work there is a hint of something he has perceived which I personally have not heard referred to in quite some time: notions he talks about so naturally he is almost casual about it. His words land in such a way so pleasing to the modern ear, which means the spirit of the day will let its guard down, and his ideas could in fact find their way in to that sacred place which houses the fire sustaining our action. When you introduce yourself to him, I ask only that you are forthright in revealing that which moves you, for the young artist is having trouble finding fuel for his next work and, as you know, our production is only ever as good as the raw material we are given. Whatever ails you, whatever inspires your imagination and your hope: this is what I ask you to lend him, with faith. Let us see what he comes back with, by the end of this trial—for, it is a trial, no doubt: though my words are borne high upon my excitement, you must understand that what I am really asking you to do is to test him, relentlessly, until he proves himself able to reach the elevated standard my words have set.” Homer, looking up from the pit, finished speaking to members of the shadowed audience. He left the auditorium feeling like he always did whenever he spoke: like there had been nowhere to hide in the light, and like he were addressing a higher power, made to feel vulnerable and stripped of everything except his word’s naked faith.
But he had said what he meant to, and now it was time to get to work. He sent a messenger to Joseph’s apartment requesting his immediate presence.