Tuesday, November 05, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 5

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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This morning, didn't I hear the goddess singing of Achilles' rage that he will never, ever be able to catch the damn tortoise? He gets closer to the goal, as we all do, but the goal is always moving one step further away and therefore (penultimately) unattainable. Oh, Zeno, you sly old dogsbody, I must logically infer what an ingenious paradox you are! Natural speed aside, someone might argue Achilles, a hero having a longer stride than your average turtle, should quickly overtake the tortoise, being a mere tortoise, thus winning handily if even by no more than the hare's bad breath.

As applied to the real world, isn't this what happens when you replace experience with the driest generic abstractions? Ideas, such as they are, are sterile, incapable of accounting for the potential of the particular. In this, all things, ineluctably speaking, are both equal and unequal.

I hear the cry spinning outward over the wind, singing through the trees (oh, we shall come rejoicing), spinning like an ever-extending umbilical cord that weaves its way past swerve of shore to riverrun, past the present and onwards into the future, Omphale's spinning wheel forever spilling out the threads of fate woven by norns and sisters three, woven into the time on which we must learn to tread not so lightly.

Omphalos, centered, Delphic in our midst, this cry I hear, the wolf's cry, the baby's cry, the long umbilicatory chord resonating in the very belly of the world, this rage set in a silver sea.

Achilles' petulance (despite Apollo's pestilence) is a sorry state of an affair as Agamemnon and he, the great warrior-turned-heel, fought like spoiled brats over the possession of their slave girls, spoils of war, in these jeux d'enfants terribles before the walls of Troy. In the end, I half expected Briseis to run off with the tortoise or be led to safety far away on its back.

And yet Achilles could not catch him despite his speed. No wonder he was enraged.

The gods, appealed to by Thetis, Achilles' nymphic mother, acted no better than their mortal counterparts. We think the leaders in the Greeks' camp are petty, but what of the domestic spat between Zeus and Hera that find their ramifications in the tragical outcome of the war with Troy?

Was all this merely because some proud and horny boy needed to be avenged his stolen slave? (Or Menelaus, his wife?)

To Achilles, revenge for his humiliation at Agamemnon's hands, having the slave-girl prize taken from him, is more important than their political responsibility, their honor as Greeks united against a foe, the personal interests placed before their obligations to their people and their soldiers. Such childishness. Om, phalos, in favilla.

Yet these are the models by whom we mortals are supposed to guide ourselves, these gods and their heroes. The Iliad is not, as I always thought as a shallow youth, a great and epic tale of war: it is about a nation's shame and the decay that leads from it.

It is, by law, Election Day across the land, this first Tuesday of November, but in the course of human events it is not a very exciting year for elections. I had assumed we had elected a President as a result of last year's election but you would hardly notice it following another of those infamous stalemates that cost us $24 billion so the Tea Party could prove they did not have the clout to "de-fund Obamacare" despite the fact a majority of people had elected a President as if Health Care had been a referendum on the ballot.

It was also disappointing to see this President fail to lead in this instance whether out of the bitter intransigence of the opposition or his own incapacity beyond waiting for the conservatives to cave in under public pressure. Since the Tea Party hadn't learned a lesson from past events, let's hope the electorate doesn't forget the lesson they taught Newt Gingrich and similar-minded Republicans in the mid-1990s.

A friend of mine argued that people on both sides of the political spectacle should not be called "idiots" – morons was the word I think I used – because in reality they are evil and should be called out as such. Stupidity, she thought, was too kind and forgiving a word to describe them adequately and more or less made excuses for their behavior that she found unacceptable.

To me, the real evil is in the power behind the elected officials, the corporations and the Svengali Brothers, for instance, who are buying the candidates for their own personal political and economic gain. The idiots, our legislators, are out in front, dancing before the temple to the tune the Men behind the Curtain play for them. (You put your right foot in...)

History is the story told by the victors, boiled down into lists of kings and wars upon which many young students waste hours of memorization. History gives us only a summation of the headlines, if we remember that much: we miss, our eyes closed by whatever means we close them, the details, the causes, the connections, the possibilities of alternatives, the thread umbilical that ties us all together.

But as Patrick Lagrange wrote, quoted (fictionally) in Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." The thoughts and inspirations we attribute to the backdrop of historical development are perhaps no more fictional than those reminiscences by people who claimed to have been witnesses, having heard, through their third cousin's barber's uncle's neighbor down the street, what in fact had been said behind closed doors.

It is how we find our voice, define our culture, explain our past, ignore our shame. It is how we close our eyes to hear the unspoken words that speak to us of who we have become regardless of who we were. It is the visible made invisible, forgotten, covered up with layers of loyalty and the silence of the ages.

It is how a man's virtu became a woman's virtue which men, now well-sported bullies and great spoiled boys, defend with what they call their honor and which modern medicine explains as perhaps abnormally high levels of testosterone.

We are told it is our sacred right and duty to vote on Election Day though not every election will yield the stuff of history. This is, everyone says, a "slow" year, one of those uneventful years in which no president, no governor in our state, not even a mayor in our town or other elected official will be called upon to be judged by the community for the quality of the mud that has been slung in his opponent's direction. They are estimating a turn-out of perhaps 15% of the registered voters today and I yawn to think I will expend the energy to go and cast my vote.

There are five statewide bond issues that need to be decided – whether to approve (or not) fixed amounts of money to maintain or repair or perhaps expand our schools, our roads, our preparedness in emergencies for the National Guard.

Who would say no to that but yet who will tell us where that money will be coming from? Our elected officials who will dance to the tune from behind the curtain?

The solitude of an afternoon: having done my civic duty, I was with one exception the only person in the high school gym not working the polling place. Aside from giving my name, signing the roster and marking my ballot, it was nearly a silent pantomime aside from the gentle undercurrent of conversation between the poll-workers amusing themselves during a slow hour, wondering if they had any more chowder left in the kitchen, I assumed, not really paying attention. Nothing momentous on our ballot, unlike Portland which got to decide whether or not to permit the recreational use of marijuana. (I wonder how that will fly? As Maine goes, so goes the nation, and all that.)

I looked down the row of tables, scanned across the gym to where they'd set up what passed for booths, saw no one I knew, no one I felt I needed to talk to, say hello to. I was here to vote, not socialize, and others seemed to respect that. It might have been different had I recognized any of my neighbors but then most of them think I'm an odd bird and would probably do no more than nod in my direction.

A quiet few minutes, then I was back on the road, stopping at the store near The Corners for a fresh onion I'd forgotten when I was out yesterday. Soon I would be among the hibernians on the hillside, holed up for the winter, at least for the worst of it. I went out as little as possible once it got too cold. A matter of choice. I let the beard grow – it seemed to make sense, fitting my mood – but one of these days, I would probably choose not to shave it off, come springtime. Then what would I do to symbolize the defeat of the sun?

The phases of nature rolled on inevitably, as one election day followed another. Something about history and the imperfections of memory made me smile as I drove up my road, trying to remember what it was like last year, going home after voting for President Obama and feeling quite proud, if frustrated, to do so.

I tried recalling other presidential elections I had voted in, how far back I might have gone. 1972 was the first one, feeling afterward I'd thrown my vote away against the Nixon Juggernaut but the collective memory forgets that though Nixon won almost all the states and districts, it had not been a landslide everywhere. And besides, a few years later, he made a different kind of history, didn't he?

Bond issues always bring out the image of money growing on trees and that we, as the Richest Nation on the Earth, must come to terms such trees now are becoming endangered. I wish I had a few in my backyard.

Had I harvested enough before the wind blew everything off down the mountainside, enough to get me and the cats through another winter?

A mild day, again, but not so summer-like I couldn't believe it was already cold-hearted November. And it hasn't gotten that cold yet – a few chilly nights, enough wind to make me realize how many pine trees there are in these woods I know. Transitions happen sometimes overnight – the melting of the gingko's leaves – but normally it was a slow process that suddenly one realized had happened: there it was.

This is a time of subtraction, when Nature eliminates what has long been visible to reveal what we hadn't noticed before, the overlooked beneath the obvious. Rather than the colors of the leaves, now, we noticed the shape of bare branches, the shading of the bark.

It is the silent companion to my solitude that walks with me along the road, leaves crunching underfoot and twigs breaking, one who doesn't mind my long silences. I look ahead and scan around me, noticing little things anew.

Thoreau, I believe it was, wrote somewhere how most people overlook the lichen which, to them, means little except to the lichenist. It depends on our perspectives, I guess.

People who look at the sky – not like the one today, momentarily overcast and grim – and who think of clouds as a constantly changing exhibition, miss seeing the sky when they think that cloud – that one, there – looks like a cow (this, Magritte tells us, is not a pipe).

But who has seen a cow looking at the sky? They have other things to think about (if think is the right word, there). Do they tell each other the tale of Achilles the Bull when we are not looking?

It is a nice day and I am feeling energetic after exercising my civic right. Rather than head home, I consider walking further up the hill toward Mount Agamemnon.

Perhaps I can see the sea this afternoon and think of sounds far off that echo from the days of Troy.

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...to be continued...

Dick Strawser

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