Existentialism, Nihilophobia, Ontology

The Sweetness of Honey

A Novel of Vengeance, Honor, and Bobbleheads

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Available in 2018 from Chandelier Press

One: Requiem for Gorillas

“He will be remembered for his sense of humor, his smile, how he loved to fish,” says the priest, as if citing an obscure beatitude. Blessed are they who cast their line from crowded piers. Memory of their deeds shall endure. Bonus points for smiling.

A hulking police officer walks across the altar and whispers in his ear. They confer, a pantomime of confusion and urgency. The officer takes the microphone like a reluctant karaoke singer. “I regret to inform you that we need to vacate the church. Starting with the back row, everyone please head to the parking lot across the street.”

A man scrambles from the first pew and stands before them. His suit leaves few details of his physique to the imagination, a reasonable goal for bodybuilders, which he is not. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve received a bomb threat,” says the officer.

“Is it real?”

“The people who call them in never say they’re fake. Wouldn’t be much of a threat.”

“This is Duncan Brandle,” says the priest. “It’s his father’s funeral.”

“No offense, but our concern is the rest of the gathering.”

Clouds of incense swirl above the departing bereaved, tie-dyed by a stained glass window where Michael the Archangel tramples Satan. If victory is assured, the game is rigged. What’s the point in playing? Two representatives of Schroeder & Sons push the casket toward the door.

“He’s not at any risk,” says Duncan.

“That depends on the blast,” says Schroeder Jr.

“Only the Althea Deluxe is designed to withstand explosions,” says Schroeder Sr.

“It would be disrespectful to leave him,” says the priest, putting a hand on Duncan’s arm. Center stage to all acts in the burlesque of life, a classic venue almost giving them respectability, the church is soon empty, no different than it would be after a baptism or wedding. The show must go on.

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Beneath a Taco Hut sign across the street, a dark veil of mourners shrouds the hearse. Duncan stands on the curb watching cars drive past. To everyone else this is just another day. Blaring rap and dragging its muffler, a rusty Honda parks in the lot. A man with the body of a chicken emerges like some mythic creature the ancients neglected to chronicle, its deeds eclipsed by centaurs and gryphons. It attaches a chicken head and retrieves balloons from the trunk and skips toward the gathering honking an air horn.

A cloud absorbs the sun. Gasps from the crowd could be mistaken for the hissing of its extinguishment. The Schroeders study this unusual expression of grief. Is it a form of denial, anger, bargaining, or an eccentric cousin from New Orleans? Hard to say. The path of life offers no guidance for the impending cliff, only distractions.

“Is there a Duncan Brandle here? I’m Chirp the chicken.”

Some cultures acknowledge the shame of misfortune. Some pretend not to. Duncan sees the others watching, feels the third-degree burn of their judgment. “Who sent you?”

“Are you Duncan? Turn that frown upside down.” The balloons it releases expand and diminish like Jellybeans thrown into a pool. It blasts the horn and hops around on scrawny legs wrapped in yellow spandex.

When it squats and shits a silver egg two officers run across the lot and tackle it. “This might be the bomb,” shouts one. “Everyone get down!”

An armored man from the bomb squad waddles toward the egg. His partner circles it on a Segway scooter. Splayed bodies surround the hearse like linemen after a botched play. An ant crawls across a sliver of sun on the concrete beneath Duncan’s arms, from darkness into a patch of light back into darkness. Sound like anyone you know? Others follow, their paths labyrinthine, their obscurity abrupt.

Navigating a gully between Taco Hut’s parking lot and Walgreens, five adolescents peer over stacks of boxes. “Who ordered the pizzas?”

Duncan stands and removes his jacket. Sweat stains have transformed his shirt into the globe of another world. Drops trickle down his sunglasses, leaving crystal footprints. “Where are you supposed to deliver them?”

“The party outside Taco Hut. We had to park a block away. The cops got half the street closed off. Double anchovies and pineapple, right? They’re paid for but you can’t get them until you say hurray for Peppy’s.”

Duncan removes his shades. Red capillaries surround black holes with blue halos. He rubs his eyes as if massaging a sprain. What’s the right thing to do, or is this a singularity where social norms no longer apply? “I’m not saying it.”

“You have to. The guy who paid used the promotional coupon.”

“Did he leave a name?”

The boy puts his boxes on the ground and rips a label off the topmost. “It reeks like something died,” says one of his fellow deliverers.

“Anchovies are foul,” says another.

An elfin woman with white hair puts a vein-mapped hand on Duncan’s shoulder and apologizes for leaving. He apologizes for her need to apologize. Schroeder Jr. says he’ll take care of the pizza misunderstanding, says that’s what he’s here for, says, “Hurray for Peppy’s.”

“I don’t want the damn things,” says Duncan. “Who’s going to eat them?”

“Some people like anchovies.”

“But not pineapple.”

Like a tortoise trained to walk on its hind legs, the armored man places the suspicious egg in a metal drum on a trailer with a long hitch. He goes across the street where the police are interrogating Cluck. One officer speaks to the priest. The arched entrance of the church dwarfs the two watchmen, sentinels of different territories. Through a bullhorn the officer calls everyone back.

Duncan walks behind the others, alone with his thoughts like a blind man in a stampede. Some wonder why his father is dead, why now rather than in ten years, why this type of cancer instead of another. No one asks why he was alive. Perhaps the ceremony quells the anarchy of Reason, the way coronations prevented revolutions.

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The priest extends a hand to Duncan. “Come on inside,” he says, mouth agape, his eyes captive to a hijacker demanding an impossible ransom from his senses. Duncan turns to the source but the discreet elements fail to congeal.

Some things are not the sum of their parts but only the parts and cannot be melded by our minds or caged by our concepts: a gorilla, a pink tutu, a safari hat, handfuls of glitter. “Sorry I’m late. Is there a Duncan Brandle here?”

“That would be me,” says Duncan, looking over the ape’s shoulder at a Walgreens employee smoking a cigarette and playing with her phone. The day Icarus fell from the sky was just another day too.

“I’m going to do a little dance, then I want you to try.” Several mourners form a semicircle. The gorilla does the Boogaloo, the Swim, and the Mashed Potato. Duncan watches as though mesmerized by the shaman of some primeval tribe.

Far above, illuming ants and primates alike, contingent and transitory as both and cursed with the fragility this entails, the cluster of gasses recently nicknamed the sun seeps across the boneyard of Time toward its own demise.

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Petronius Who?!

 

 

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Canes pugnaces, Existentialism, Literature, Ontology, Quietude, Truth

One-Millionth Visitor, And He Never Knew

Most Visited Posts

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Who Is Maestoso the Dachshund and Why Is He Following You?

The rueful admission echoes down serpentine catacombs deep in your mind, waving a torch through long-buried chambers inscribed with crayon hieroglyphics: you’re staring up at the diving board with dread during a swimming lesson; you’re playing hide and seek in your grandparent’s musty basement; you’re debating whether to shoplift and you know the clerk knows what you’re thinking; you’re kissing and you’re sure you’re doing it wrong and wondering if she knows you know she knows.

You’ve been robbed. Those times, where did they go? Once so alive but now hidden in a mass grave. And that’s where the future ones are headed. Remember that. All the days to come will vanish thus. What value or meaning can they contain? We are hoarders of dust.

Maestoso floats toward you like a submarine by Louis Wain, the thin black lips on his alligator jaws pressed together in a sardonic smile, whiskers twitching, his eyes not the perceptual organs of a unique being but portholes to the world of imperishable abstractions where modus ponens and the prime nature of three and five will survive the heat death of the universe and you’ve never been so grateful to have a cat.

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Temple of 11,111,117 Holes

In the Temple of 11,111,117 Holes a novice lights a torch and enters the gaping mouth of the cave and the holes consume him. Each step requires great effort as though against a strong wind or into a place of great danger, its nature unknown and perhaps unknowable. In the center he stands and takes deep breaths before looking up into the millions of black eyes watching him, dissolving him.

This is when the greatest fortitude is required. Many before him lost their nerve, never to return, not free of emptiness but haunted by it. He regards the thin membrane separating one hole from another, its nebulous and transitory nature, as if existence is less substantial than nothingness. Paradoxes and riddles overwhelm the feeble abacus behind his eyes.

Some monks use a walking stick to steady trembling knees and accommodate greater depths of thought. Others criticize the practice, saying the holes would never give a monk more than he could tolerate, that to artificially enhance indulgences is a crime against nature. Brethren of the Stick say it is more unnatural to ascribe intentions to the holes. A third group dismisses both on the grounds that naturalness has never been established as a criterion of contemplation.

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In Search of Proust’s Bassett Hound in the Library of Babel

Why Proust? It’s the sorcerous powers of description. You don’t need to keep a flow chart of the characters or study the Dreyfus affair. You want to read how the moon in the afternoon sky is like a beautiful actress who sneaks into the audience to watch a portion in which she does not have to appear. Virginia Wolfe said the best thing about life is reading Proust. That ignores some conspicuous contenders, but he’s the only writer who cracks the top five. There’s only one way it could be improved and you don’t have to feel like a Philistine for saying this.

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Mount Silenus: A Vertical Odyssey of Extraordinary Peril

Some say Fate cannot be fought, that it is entrapping as quicksand, omnipresent as the ether. Notice how the cleverest excuses and slipperiest arguments are used in defense of cowardice. Through capitulation to routine man dies an ignoble death long before his mortal coil makes it official. He forgets he is living. Combat is the supreme reminder. What is that putrid stench? Is it not the rot of man’s spirit, the smell of lies told to assuage the failure of those too craven to fight, smoke wafting from the languid den of routine addicts? To wage war against Fate one must locate the most auspicious outpost and launch an attack. That fortress is Mount Silenus. A battle calls. Warrior, arise.

Towering over you, a geological Rorschach absorbing the frustrations and dreams of a new species of ant chasing the wind up its sides, the 50,000,000-year-old distention of rock recently nicknamed Mount Silenus endures, aroused from the sleep of nothing by the same Source that concocted man, remaining at the orgy of existence on the same invitation. And when man is gone, regardless of how many crept across its sides, it will endure just the same, until it doesn’t.

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Lay with Cudahy?

The gloomy, taciturn Dr. Harris, glaring at us through bifocals and removing them to intensify his sulphurous gaze, stroked his unkempt beard and shook his head when we proposed a joint independent study titled, A History of the Cudahy Taverns: Packard Avenue. We returned the following day to plead our case, wielding the deadly argument that his dismissive reference to Cudahy as “some small, blue-collar abutment of Milwaukee” was no less contemptuous than describing the Temiar of Malaysia (his dissertation subject) as a group of uninteresting savages with absurd religious beliefs. A twenty-minute session of furious beard stroking ensued, probably infested by the realization that we had actually perused his dreadful, meandering doorstop.

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Estimations

Purple People, seated under the purple lights in the Phil Zone like surfers of an eruption, we envy you on 12-31-80, the first Estimated Prophet of 81 and last of 80, the metaphysical glue of their connection. Focus on Phil during the Jam until some Helen Keller awakening shatters the shell of your mind and reveals to the stunned hatching within a world beyond all wonder. The intrinsic peculiarity of the song is never covered by the gray blanket of familiarity wrapping most things. It’s as different and mysterious and off-the-wall and triumphant and creepy as the first time you heard it.

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Serial Killers Who Worked Security

Why are there no paralegals moonlighting as Grim Reapers, no librarians driven to carnage by inquiries about Dan Brown? Security fields a disproportionate number of the empathy challenged. Practitioners of this noble calling succumb to dark nights of the soul, wondering if the property they defend requires blood to sustain its existence. Why is it always the loners? What happens in the cold vacuum of solitude, time spent with the ultimate stranger? Consider ten instances of this cruel occupational hazard and wonder why “going rent-a-cop” never joined the lexicon.

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Petronius Who!?

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Existentialism, Literature, Ontology, Truth

The Book Party

A room without books is like a body without a soul.   Cicero

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“It’s the purple building with the domed roof, a few blocks down on the right side,” the attendant said before I could open my mouth. Oil stains covered his uniform like continents on a globe and his rolled up sleeves revealed huge but flabby biceps.

“It?” I said, not used to mediums plying their trade in this line of work.

“The book party,” he sighed. “I must have had fifty people stop in here and ask me about it since noon.”

“Book party?”

“Yeah, look at your invitation.” He retrieved a green three-by-five card from beside the register and tapped an elegant sketch of the structure with a greasy finger. “Some guy left his here.”

“Utterly fascinating,” I said, trying to decipher the black enamel calligraphy. “But could you tell me how to return to the interstate?”

“It figures,” he said, shaking his head in defeat. He gave me directions and I asked if the party was invite only.

“You can have this one. The guy who left it hasn’t been back in hours. With all the people that come and go it can’t be too hard to get in.”

“Who is the perpetrator?”

“The what?”

“The featured author.”

He blinked.

“When did it begin?”

“I’ve been working here over six months and it’s been going on since then.”

“What manner of book party lasts that long? Few merit six seconds of celebration. Most should be inaugurated by a requiem. This one must feature a different work each night.”

“You got me. But it’s a strange crowd. You should see some of the people who stop in here for directions. Most of them are pretty flaky. But some of the women — You wouldn’t believe it.”

“They are drawn to exhibitionists like peahens to peacocks. Whether it is a hirsute guitarist, a steroid-addled gamesman, or a pulp-excreting word-processor jockey makes no difference.” He crinkled up his nose as though blinded from the light of my analysis. “You have been most helpful,” I said before returning to my car.

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“Lost indeed.” I handed Sandy the invitation. “I wanted it to be a surprise. We have found the literary nexus of the world, a fête without end.”

“What book is it for? The invitation doesn’t mention the book or the author.”

“This is a top-secret affair,” I said, heading for the domed building.

“I’ve never seen a great novelist.”

“Nor shall you, absent a time machine.”

“I meant famous.”

“I will catch you if you faint.”

Upon entering we walked through a long limestone passage. Smooth slabs gleamed from Chinese lanterns. We emerged in the humbling vastness of a dark marble lobby. A huge window looked out on a pond at the foot of a hill covered in dandelions. Dwarfed by a statue of a zebra perched upon one leg, two men in white suits and matching visors circumnavigated the pond with the speed of a minute hand, staring intently at it. After a prelude to eternity, one pointed to the surface. His comrade ran to his side. They took turns framing it from different angles with their hands, looked at one another, and nodded. One picked up a metal pole with wire mesh on the end and scooped something out and gingerly laid it on a tray. He put the pole down and they resumed their encirclement.

Sandy tapped my shoulder. Opposite the window, seated in a folding chair, the lobby attendant faced the wall. I shrugged and walked to the door across from us, its existence only discernible from a silver knob. Like a man poised to tour Bedlam, I paused before opening it, bracing myself for encounters with MFA students, free-verse poets, English “majors” unfamiliar with Shakespeare, and worse. Sandy watched the aloof attendant. Above her, the ceiling spread to uncertain dimensions, as though something was leaking out, or, more ominously, Nothing was trickling in. She looked to me, puzzled, then to him, concerned. I jerked my head, imploring her to follow.

The smell of strawberries overwhelmed us. Lavishly attired literati crowded around three tables disappearing into the abyssal depths of a narrow room. Their whispers accrued to the hiss of a deflating tire. Unable to sneak a glimpse of what digested their attention, I assumed that a plague of novelists were diligently signing their latest exudations. We choreographed an elaborate dance through the gathering to arrive at a tiny bar in the corner. The bartender hunched over to avoid scraping his head on the ceiling. Thin brown hair plastered to one side matched his leathery complexion. Eyes dead like a shark’s stared into the crowd. In the distance between his shoulders stood three patrons. Sandy gasped at the sight of a zebra pelt mounted behind him. The green clock in its center had blue Roman numerals but no hands to mark the minutes or hours.

“Excuse me,” I said. “What book is this for?”

As though a hand inside it tensed to catch a ball, the bartender’s face contorted. “That book,” he hissed like a serpent provoked, pointing to the tables.

Revelation: the people crowded around the tables were reading the book. The pages must have been spread sequentially across them. “So much for fruitful miracles in the midst of solitude,” I said. “Are you selling hot dogs? Are there any cheerleaders?”

“Are you trying to make a joke, sir?” a pudgy little man beside me asked. Like most of the male literati, a Fu Man Chu beard garnished his face. Flaunting rubicund cheeks, his ponytail constrained long dark hair. A baggy paisley shirt tucked into tight jeans tucked into cowboy boots. He and the bartender vivisected me with their eyes.

“Who is the author?” I said.

The bartender shook his head in disbelief, perhaps disgust. The little man squinted at me like he had discovered a precious jewel. “Sir, the book is not finished. And it has no author. How could you not know this?”

“I am acquainted with the noxious trend of denying that books have any fixed meaning, but this must be something new. How exciting.”

He stood on his tiptoes and put his mouth to my ear. “You came here thinking the book has an author?” His hand covered his mouth and his eyes extruded. “He’s only joking,” he told the bartender. “Drunk as a skunk. Fix me another. I’ll take him outside for some air.” Sandy and I followed him to the lobby. “My name is Cletus Empiricus,” he announced, vigorously shaking my hand while engaged in a staring contest with Sandy’s chest. I could scarcely begrudge him this enchantment. Those sweet, ripened, succulent, luscious fruits of the Orient had brought me more bliss than a fête of real writers could describe with a million sonnets. “You weren’t joking about thinking the book has an author,” he said, diverting his gaze. I shook my head. “Mr. Jablonski, the book comes from the pond.”

“You mean that pond?”

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“Correct. Do you see those men? The pond is filled with tiny letters. They search for words or phrases. Sometimes they find complete sentences. They scoop out the words and put them on a tray. When it’s full they bring it inside and put it on the table. This isn’t like other book parties. It celebrates the book as it’s written.”

“What’s it about?” said Sandy.

“That depends on who you ask.”

“That depends on whom she asks,” I corrected, following the wise principle that it is never too early to establish dominion in a conversation.

“Some people are quite taken with it,” he said with a shrug.

“How do you like it?” I asked.

“I was ambivalent, but I’ve grown to hate it,” he said, as though delighted to answer the question, perhaps hoping to influence our opinions. “Can’t deny it’s technically well-written, teeming with interesting characters, lots of action, complex themes.” He sniffed his drink and stared at the pond. One man pointed to the surface while his partner brandished the pole.

“But?” I said, severing his trance.

“But all the surface activity can’t hide the hollow ground underneath it.”

“Could you phrase that so someone who has not spent his life chasing the wind after an advanced English degree can comprehend it?”

“At least he declared a major,” said Sandy.

“I will declare it as soon as they remove symbolic logic from the requirements. Did Socrates torture himself with those absurd squiggles?”

Cletus smiled, drank, rubbed his chin, and said, “There are so many tiny pictures you hardly notice the lack of a big one. But once you do, the tiny pictures don’t interest you.”

“Sandy, go fetch an English undergrad to translate.”

“I know what he means, and there’s something sad about it: interesting small things trapped in a meaningless, authorless giant thing.”

“Exactly. That’s exactly why I don’t like it.”

That they were on the same wavelength fascinated me. In my demarcation of the circles of benighted academic pursuits, communications occupied the lowly fifth circle, four full circles below English. Exchanges between them should have been impossible.

“The underlying hollowness compels a lot of people to either force the story into some interpretation they’ve cooked up, which is like trying to get an elephant into a straightjacket, or they say the pond has mysterious powers that guide the writing. That way it’s always possible the meaning is hidden or not fully revealed.”

“Why is that so hard to believe?” said Sandy.

“Look at it. It’s a scummy little pond with millions of letters floating around in it.”

“But it’s writing a book,” she said.

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“You have to judge an author by what he, or it, writes, not by what you think they could.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Aptitude is obviously irrelevant to literary matters, if not all matters. How long is the work?”

“Too long. It might be repeating itself thematically, but it’s so long this is hard to verify. It just rambles on and on and on and on,” he said, bobbing his head to accentuate his aversion. “One damn thing after another.”

“When will it be finished?” I said.

“No one knows. Those men out there just scoop out words. They aren’t proofreaders or editors. There are no editors. There’s no one to say when the whole silly mess is over.”

“But the fact that it’s all being created by a pond is incredible,” said Sandy.

“The regular use of alliteration, anadiplosis, and anaphora has been convincingly explained in terms of the consistent breezes stirring the water. Patterns arise.”

“But the structure, the complexity of –”

“If it were my book I’d be ashamed of myself,” Cletus said, throwing his head back. “I would only publish it with a pen name to make a quick buck.”

“Then why do you come here?” said Sandy.

“One, the drinks are cheap. Two, the chicks.” Cletus winked at me. “Don’t get me wrong. Once in a while the book has its moments. Hell, once in a while it’s great. It’s just that overall it’s nothing I’d put my name on.”

“Have you ever written anything?” said Sandy.

“No. But he has,” Cletus whispered, pointing at the lobby attendant.

“Why is he facing the wall?” I said.

“He’s jealous.”

“Who’s he jealous of?” said Sandy.

“Of whom is he jealous,” I corrected.

“He’s jealous of the pond. He’s the most frustrated writer who ever lived, at least that’s what he’d like you to think. As the story goes, the books he’s written have an underlying significance that ties everything together in the end. But his novels fall stillborn from his printer while people stand in line to read a foofaraw written by a scummy pond. That’s why he sits facing the wall. He can’t bare to look at it.”

“A foofaraw? May the gods deliver me from all English majors.”

“At least they don’t think they’re smarter than everyone,” said Sandy. “Philosophy students are the worst.

“Why doesn’t he pursue employment elsewhere?” I said.

“The money’s probably good, and of course, the perks.”

“Such as?”

“Mr. Jablonski, you’ve been inside the other room. They come through here, see him all despondent, ask him what’s wrong. That’s when it starts getting deep in here — if you know what I mean. They bring him drinks, ask if there’s anything they can do, and one thing leads to another. You know, I’ve thought about pulling up a chair next to him. In a sense he’s one of the most successful writers of all time.”

Sandy gave him a quizzical look.

“Forget all that junk you’ve heard about literary ambitions. It’s a veneer. The brooding genius routine is an act they go through to appear mysterious and sensitive. The tormented writer shtick wreaks havoc on a woman’s compassion.”

“That’s not true of all writers,” Sandy said.

Her literary judgment devastated by a diet of “commercial fiction” (a euphemism for graceless drivel about the basest instincts unfolding in clichéd situations), she thought highly of both the perpetrators and their motives. Having had several of her favorite novels inflicted on me, I conceived a hypothesis concerning their origin: those authors must have secret ponds of their own. Such work is not the product of intelligent design, but mere randomness. The prose itself is what one would expect from letters drifting aimlessly in a pond. The numbing regularity of the themes (coming of age, the indomitable nature of the human spirit, who killed whom, a journey filled with conflicts, etc.) are explicable in terms of the same natural forces that create regularities like tides, eddies, and whirlpools in larger bodies of water.

“Don’t be fooled,” said Cletus. “The difference between what he’s doing and slipping your date a knockout pill is a difference of degree. Some writers are craftier than others, but deep down they’re all the same.”

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“Don’t listen to him,” said the attendant. The wall muffled any inflections his voice contained. “He doesn’t understand. To write a book is to pour your soul into a canyon.”

“Here he goes,” said Cletus. “He’s practicing one of his pickup lines. I need a drink. Come to the bar when it gets too deep in here for you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Take a good, long look at the book. Decide for yourself.” The hissing of the crowd filled the lobby before he closed the door.

The camouflage of the attendant’s dark hair and jacket fostered the illusion that the wall was speaking. “An echo may ring through the canyon and the people below will look up and see who shouted. But even the clearest voice can only echo for so long. Soon it will fade, absorbed by the rocks, and the canyon will be as quiet as it was before. This is true of the greatest shouts. For most, they are lucky if their voice echoes at all or if anyone looks up.”

I cleared my throat, reflected on the greatness of Pericles, and began an oration that would change his life. “Cletus and yourself may think otherwise, but over the course of conquests innumerable I have found that an air of supreme self-assuredness is the most powerful aphrodisiac. Whining about your failures may occasionally net a stray mongrel, but if you wish to mount the prize bitches you need to project confidence. Your very being must radiate strength and –”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” said Sandy.

“Disregard this conversation. I am speaking as a man to one aspiring to that status. May the gods strike me dead if my father did not say the same words to me. Perhaps the fiery rhetoric offends you, but it is necessary for inspirational purposes.”

“Just stop it or I’ll call Dave to come and pick me up.”

“Your ex. Speaking of aspiring to a manly status. Very well. Cletus told us you are an accomplished author.”  

“I wrote several books,” the wall said. “Their shouts were great and clear, but none of them echoed.”

“Why does every shout not echo?” I asked, which seemed like the proper question. Even if his detestable strategy proved successful in practice, it was grievously wrong in principle: a man must never forge inroads to a woman’s maternal instincts, only her carnal ones.

“Clarity does not entail volume,” the attendant said, coming back into focus and sounding perturbed. “And a great shout does not connote a loud shout.”

“Why is writing a book the saddest thing in the world?” said Sandy.

Because the foredoomed paths of solipsism, megalomania, and self-abasement intersect in the depths of Abaddon, I thought. And the injudicious use of metaphors and similes leaves the writer with irreparable brain damage.

“Where do all books end up?” the wall said as the lobby attendant faded from view. “Moldering on a shelf, packed in a box, abandoned and forgotten on a hard drive.”

This routine indubitably cast him as mysterious and sensitive. But to what abysmal depths has civilization plunged when sensitivity is a trait willfully sought by a man?

“So you don’t write anymore?” said Sandy, falling prey to the loathsome vice of pity, in accordance with the attendant’s strategy.  

“I do. But my books will not be subjected to burial on shelves or in boxes. They end up underground.”

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“And underground is a metaphor of what?” I said. Ask a writer for the time of day and you need an Enigma machine to decrypt the answer.

“It’s no metaphor. I literally bury them. Six feet deep.”

“No one ever reads them?” said Sandy.

“If there are no echoes you never have to adjust to the awful silence that comes when they stop.”

“That’s so sad,” she said.

“No, it is natural.”

“The Kafka gambit,” I laughed. “You are aware, I hope, that he did not bury his books; he asked a friend to burn them. Clearly you are unaware that his proficiency with the ladies was not exactly –”

Sandy turned to me, only the whites of her eyes visible. An arctic breeze blew through the room. “I won’t tell you again.”

Piqued, I looked out the window and watched the peculiar fishermen.

“But perhaps it is only outrage that leads me to this.”

“But it can take years for a writer to get recognized,” Sandy said. “You should be proud that –”

“Not that kind of outrage. I’m outraged that where a book ends up is a far better place than where other things do, that even the worst book has the potential to exist longer.”  

“What other things?”

Go and sit on his lap, I thought. How much further can he debase himself? What final act has he planned for this play of helplessness, this self-degradation, this sensitivity? Will he now curl into the fetal position and weep?

After scooping several words from the pond, the men lifted a silver tray at least six feet long and four feet wide. Their cautious handling would have sufficed for an atomic bomb. The man in front held it from behind and they marched with synchronized steps. I flirted with the idea of pounding on the window to measure the depth of their concentration, but I suspected the book’s fans might not view my behavior as a lighthearted prank. Cheers erupted from the next room. The attendant began to sob. Sandy pressed her lips to my ear. “Let’s go read some of it.”

“Of course. I’m going to fetch my notebook. Save me a place in line.”

Excerpted from Jablonski’s Magnum Opus

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Petronius Who?

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Existentialism, Fatalism, Ontology, Truth

An Odyssey of Historic Proportions and Priceless Treasure of Philosophy

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Jablonski’s writing “employs secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force. … [He] is able to inject a sense of immediacy and intensity in the story by using sparse description that suggests more than it tells. An engaging narrative.”  Publishers Weekly

When his classic Pontiac is abducted by a deity who lives in the depths of Lake Michigan, Petronius Jablonski is offered Enlightenment in compensation. To obtain it he must decipher the coded features of an odyssey. He neglects to share these minor details with his longsuffering girlfriend, Sandy, who accompanies him. Home-schooled by an eccentric father, Petronius holds the modern world in contempt, the demise of polytheism and eighteenth century English in general, the plague of democracy and “internets” in particular.

Despairing of his ability to understand the journey and rarely paying attention, he engages the Reader’s assistance. His propensity for digressions complicates the search for a solution while making a mockery of first person narration. He anticipates absurd questions and adds chapters in response, he accuses the Reader of being smitten with Sandy and makes her less attractive, and he revolutionizes Philosophy by superseding Occam’s overrated Razor and Plato’s much-ballyhooed Cave with the paradigm-shattering contributions of Petronius’ Shovel, Petronius’ Blender, Schadenfreude Before-the-Fact, Petronius’ Garage, and Petronius’ Wheelbarrow.

As he subjects the Reader to increasingly demanding prerequisites it becomes clear he is wandering the remorseless hinterland between genius and madness, which raises questions about the accuracy of his chronicle. Sandy’s terrified warning that he’s behaving like his tragic father elicits rage: “What Cato did, and Addison approved, cannot be wrong.” But is Petronius a victim of ancestral fate or wisdom? What if Truth is poison? Perhaps a big sedan is more precious than “enlightenment.”

Face-Melting Excerpt

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The history of this novel would bring comfort to John Kennedy Toole, Job, and Sophocles. Three agents tried to sell it. One lost his mind sparring with illiterate editors and depraved accounting departments. Then the Sentinels of the Chandelier blocked a Kindle deal. Further hardships will be interpreted as Divine intervention, deserved.

Petronius Who?

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Climbing, Existentialism, Fatalism

Mount Silenus

A Vertical Odyssey of Extraordinary Peril

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Jablonski’s writing “employs secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force. … [He] is able to inject a sense of immediacy and intensity in the story by using sparse description that suggests more than it tells.” Publishers Weekly

When novice climbers Trevor and Gaspar attempt Mount Silenus they discover that inspiration from a famous book makes a poor substitute for experience. Accuracy is important on mountains, especially one darkened by legends of a prehistoric sloth — the Abominable Unau — and the indigenous people who make sacrifices to it. As the text bears less and less resemblance to the terrain, squabbles over its interpretation become a battle of faith vs. reason. Those are best fought on flat surfaces.

Why does a man climb a mountain? To taste the distilled essence of life, to glimpse the clandestine maneuvers of his soul, and because he believes everything he reads. For two high school teachers who skipped their climbing classes, a masterpiece advocating spontaneity over skill proves irresistible. Unknown to them, the reclusive author honed his technique scaling barstools and brooding over the unjust fame of Nietzsche. He ignored eyewitness accounts of the Abominable Unau for stylistic reasons. Stories about wrathful apparitions infesting a labyrinth of caves didn’t make the cut either.

During a quixotic journey in the general direction of the summit,  Trevor and Gaspar join a scientist investigating paranormal activity on one of the plateaus. The book fails to warn about traps set by the mountain people to protect the sacred site from desecration. When they fall into icy catacombs they must confront the source of the legends to survive.

“Like a surreal existentialist crisis” PW

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Chapter One

They squeeze between amber stalagmites and squat beside a man whose patience abandoned him before his spirit. An ice axe remains frozen in his hands, its tip slathered with the red lacquer coating his face. The holes in his forehead could be mistaken for spider eyes.

“What was the hurry?” says Trevor. “I heard death by hypothermia is painless.”

“How does anyone know that?” says Gaspar. “Were volunteers assigned different ways to die and asked to rate them?”

Their breath expands and dissipates in the cave, joining frenzied thoughts long ago freed from the ice man’s skull. The flashlight summons forms from the void like a wand brandished by sorcerers. A mushroom of ice towers over them, its oak-thick stem withering below a luminescent rotunda. The shapes on the ground are not rock formations. Not yet.

“Look what some of them are wearing,” says Trevor. “I’ve only seen gear like this in old pictures.”

“They didn’t fall in at the same time. Look what else they have. Does that book look familiar?”

“What an interesting coincidence.”

“I see the beginning of a pattern,” says Gaspar. “I’d say this warrants skepticism of the remaining chapters.”

“What else would they have been reading, a book on beekeeping?”

“They should have. It’s an interesting hobby with few casualties.”

“How could waiting to die be the lesser evil?”

“No accounting for taste. Maybe they came back after going down there.”

The passage descends toward a purple light surging beneath chandeliers of fused crystals and aborted supernovas. Calcite nubs protrude from the path like hands reaching for their ankles.

“Let’s wait for help,” says Trevor.

“My survival instinct says we should be a bit more proactive. Patience hasn’t been an effective strategy here. I’ve heard of waiting rooms but this is ridiculous.”

“Dr. Zardeen was next to us when the crevasse opened. There’s no sign of him.”

“What’s the bad news?” says Gaspar.

“Gentlemen,” calls a distant voice.

“Doctor, did you notice a group of climbers in the passage back here?” shouts Trevor.

“They might need first aid,” says Gaspar, “but take your time.”

“They are quite dead. They were probably too frightened by what’s over here. Hurry, gentlemen. This is what I have been looking for.”

Strange light caricatures Gaspar’s and Trevor’s silhouettes as they approach, as if in mockery, making them appear no less fantastic and alien as the indigenous formations. In darkness the ice men continue their vigil, rebels holed up against the army of time, saved by an intercessor no less ruthless.

“An engaging narrative” PW

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Petronius Who?

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Canes pugnaces, Existentialism

In Search of Proust’s Basset Hound in the Library of Babel

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The Library of Babel contains all possible books — every combination of letters and punctuation marks. You can check out only one. The choice is obvious. Hurry. It’s a big place and there’s no catalog. The chances of finding it are astronomical. Most books contain nothing but gibberish; trillions more involve vampires. But you’re feeling lucky.

“The unicorn impaled the elf on its horn, thereby expunging him from the memory of elves.”

It’s a children’s book by Cormac McCarthy. Your niece would love this, and it would prepare her for life better than most of its condescending ilk. Keep looking. Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas as written by Dostoyevsky? Meh. You want something sublime, the greatest story never told. Put The Decline and Fall of the American Empire by Gibbon back. Slow down at a car wreck instead.

There will be many alternate versions of In Search of Lost Time, some the same as the familiar one except for a single punctuation difference, others with unusual variations where Marcel doesn’t go to bed early. (No, you’re not looking for the one where he falls in love with cannabis instead of hawthorns. Think big.)

Why Proust? It’s the sorcerous powers of description. You don’t need to keep a flow chart of the characters or study the Dreyfus affair. You want to read how the moon in the afternoon sky is like a beautiful actress who sneaks into the audience to watch a portion in which she does not have to appear. Virginia Wolfe said the best thing about life is reading Proust. That ignores some conspicuous contenders, but he’s the only writer who cracks the top five. There’s only one way it could be improved and you don’t have to feel like a Philistine for saying this.

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Other patrons rush past you, some deranged. They’re not homeless; they live here. Most have never seen a book containing a coherent word and you’re holding The Bridges of Madison County as written by Faulkner. Who knew Robert and Francesca had such rich inner lives? Don’t wave it around. Some of the residents believe there’s a Man of the Book who knows where everything is. Being mistaken for him will only slow you down.

One patron stops and tells you he’s read the completed versions of Dead Souls and The Castle and a readable one of Atlas Shrugged and Animal Farm by Peter Singer. He obviously hasn’t spoken to anyone in ages. Is anything worse than listening to someone blather about his favorite fiction? He says Douglas Adams’ version of “The Library of Babel” is an improvement, but The Hitchhikers Guide as written by Borges is too short, little more than an outline. He starts to summarize the true account of what caused the Big Bang but his phone chimes and he has to take it.

It’s been a long day. You heft a few safeties in case you can’t find The One: your biography as written by Plutarch, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Henry James, Newton’s response to Einstein, War and Peace by Laurence Sterne.

Stop. Back up. On the top shelf of the previous hexagon. Open the book. Marcel’s potty training a puppy with copies of Le Figaro all over the floor. Read how it galumphs through Combray and Balbec, growing into its tree stump feet, not quite keeping up with the growth of its ears:

“Basset Hounds, followers of the scent from a golden age, keepers of the promise that reality is not what we can see, companions to our children, guardians of our homes, prodigal sons of Saint Hubert, beloved ones of Napoleon III, their consummate loyalty and stoic tolerance a beacon, do they not speak with the voice heard by Augustine: ‘We are not God, but He made us’?”

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If that sentence has a verb it’s wearing camouflage. Score! You found the alternate version where Proust dumps Albertine and adopts a dog. Credit where it’s due: the original is beyond praise until The Captive and The Fugitive, when empathy fatigue sets in. Obsessive jealousy over your girlfriend’s girlfriends? Death, where is thy sting?

Skip ahead a few pages. Make sure this isn’t a version that turns to gibberish. “Children of wolves, abandoning their family to join the children of apes, shifting their shape to guide and protect them, enabling the transcendence of the apes, as though both blueprints were left out in a storm, smearing the designs as if some careless chronicler neglected to fix the boundaries, the ink of which was not indelible and remains wet, our relationship becoming one of mutual dependence, yin and yang, synergistic, not that of gods and pliant subjects, our paths crossing then merging in the manner of two themes converging in a symphony.”

No writer had more aptitude for canine phenomenology, a talent never realized in the original, two volumes of which were devoted to cursing the daughters of Gomorrah and fearing the conspiracies of their evil coven. It’s more than a stretch for anyone who grew up reading Penthouse. In the Babel version he turns his attention to seeing the world through his dog’s nose. Watching the dog nap, he wonders if its dreams are governed by scents the way its waking life is. There is an entire universe humans cannot access. We are illiterates surrounded by the classics. Delusions of our central importance are no compensation for the inability to smell rain before a storm, to read the history of a trail, to smell the spiced opiate of an excited mate.

Who but Proust can show the elasticity of Time, how it travels faster for dogs. In the span of a decade he changes little but his dog grows old. The difference between our concept of mortality and a dog’s awareness of its increasing feebleness is a difference of degree. They know something’s happening. Death approaches with a drunken swagger. We all hear it.

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Basset Hound Copyright Sharon Cummings

Remember the part in the original when you had to put the book down? After his grandmother dies he returns to the seaside resort they visited and the immensity of the loss hits him like some agoraphobic horror of empty space and all the grief you ever felt in your entire life returned. In the same way, only Proust could do justice to the heart-gouging agony of losing a dog, how it hurts worse than losing a person. (Shhhhh. You’re not supposed to say that.) Maybe he could tell us why. Hopefully your answer is wrong, that the worst dog is better than all but a few humans. Don’t bet that he disagrees.

Perhaps their time together gave him vicarious access to a world of joy unmitigated by anxiety, a paradise free from regrets of the past and fear of the future, a place outside Time. The madcap ecstasy a dog feels upon greeting its master, which human joy approaches it? The pleasures of the mind that allegedly make us superior are the ones that spoil the intensity and appreciation of bliss. How many systems of meditation are concerned with focusing on the all-encompassing nature of Now, the default state of mind for dogs, the one humans are programmed to avoid? Good luck attaining it by non-vicarious means.

Proust eventually came to a dim view of friendship, wondering how a man of Nietzsche’s intellect could have held it in high regard. This was only because he didn’t have the ideal friend. In the version you’re carrying, he does. Instead of slouching through a lull, this draft hits its stride, galumphing like a Basset Hound.

The first volume just turned one-hundred. Read all of them, even though he’s not accompanied by a faithful pooch. Some people have shattering religious experiences from Proust. Join them. This six pack version remains the gold standard, though the new Penguin one is not bad. This online version is great for work (if not the best thing about work).

Read Hitchens’ article: “We know from Proust’s haggard original editors, as we do from the memoirs of his naive and devoted housekeeper, that the first manuscript might have come from someone more than half insane, including as it did interpolations, marginal additions, excisions, scrawls, and—the worst sign of all—strips of fresh paper stuck at odd angles onto exhausted pages.”

The average page contains sentences like these:

And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Sweet Sunday afternoons beneath the chestnut-tree in our Combray garden, from which I was careful to eliminate every commonplace incident of my actual life, replacing them by a career of strange adventures and ambitions in a land watered by living streams, you still recall those adventures and ambitions to my mind when I think of you, and you embody and preserve them by virtue of having little by little drawn round and enclosed them (while I went on with my book and the heat of the day declined) in the gradual crystallization, slowly altering in form and dappled with a pattern of chestnut-leaves, of your silent, sonorous, fragrant, limpid hours.

The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

***

Jablonski is the author of An Odyssey of Historic Proportions & Priceless Treasure of Philosophy.

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Face-Melting Excerpt

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Existentialism, Nihilophobia, trypophobia

Temple of 11,111,117 Holes

Hidden among the caves stands a temple whose ice-white walls and ceiling are pocked by 11,111,117 holes.* By the light of torches blooming orange blossoms of light its monks contemplate the packets of emptiness. Paper-thin rock demarcates one from another, slivers of geometric perfection. One circle is a miracle; millions are a conspiracy. If the monks wonder who made them they do not ask it aloud. Questions are not conducive to enlightenment. Petronius Jablonski asked too many when studying here. He wishes he could un-ask them. Read his expose, analysis, and harrowing saga of deprogramming.

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Like any tradition, the commandment of silence evolved for the purpose of survival, perfected by the architect of trial and error over a span of centuries. Like all commandments, few obey it. A zealous monk once asked would it change the nature of emptiness if the holes were smaller, larger, shaped differently, or if the dividers were removed altogether.

His master refused to answer. The monk persisted until the master said you cannot alter the nature of emptiness. Disputation is irrelevant. The very question is a distortion. To address it is to dignify ignorance. There are no good questions. Ask and you fail.

Other monks stirred, wrested from their silent vigils. The uncanny appearance of the tiny holes made them uneasy. If the truth is to be found here is it worth having? Perhaps they wondered what would become of them if the creator of the ancient hollows returned. The zealous monk proclaimed that a lack of borders would mean a lack of holes, ensuring the presence of True Emptiness unmediated by illusory boundaries.

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The master said the borders were neither illusory nor arbitrary nor did this mean they existed of necessity, but it was too late. It is easier to prevent heresies than to suppress them. The master banished the inquisitive ones and they formed a rival sect and searched the mountains and found a cave with no holes and consecrated it in the name of true emptiness and began their own meditations.

Soon a monk among them asked if contemplation in darkness was superior. Surely the light of torches desecrated the emptiness. And how could they disagree? By rejecting the teachings of their predecessors had they not dissolved the protectorate of tradition itself, making all boundaries deserving of disregard? They expelled the heretic and his followers on utilitarian grounds, if those can be described as “grounds.”

No sooner had the apostates found a cave when one of their own asked why there needs to be a temple at all. Could they not contemplate the emptiness of space? And he and those similarly persuaded roamed the countryside by night. And like all sects they were soon divided hydra-style by more inquiries.

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In the Temple of 11,111,117 Holes a novice lights a torch and enters the gaping mouth of the cave and the holes consume him. Each step requires great effort as though against a strong wind or into a place of great danger, its nature unknown and perhaps unknowable. In the center he stands and takes deep breaths before looking up into the millions of black eyes watching him, dissolving him.**

This is when the greatest fortitude is required. Many before him lost their nerve, never to return, not free of emptiness but haunted by it. He regards the thin membrane separating one hole from another, its nebulous and transitory nature, as if existence is less substantial than nothingness. Paradoxes and riddles overwhelm the feeble abacus behind his eyes.

Some monks use a walking stick to steady trembling knees and accommodate greater depths of thought. Others criticize the practice, saying the holes would never give a monk more than he could tolerate, that to artificially enhance indulgences is a crime against nature. Brethren of the Stick say it is more unnatural to ascribe intentions to the holes. A third group dismisses both on the grounds that naturalness has never been established as a criterion of contemplation.

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The novice’s teachings may not be sufficient for the attainment of enlightenment but they are all he has. They seemed profound when the master spoke them. In the center of the temple they are dreams of shadows compared to the holes in themselves.

By what measure is Something preferable to Nothing? Which is more fundamental? How could the first Maker have pronounced his concoction of Something “good”? Compared to what? If the proclamation entailed its own truth, the pre-existent void could have been affirmed instead. Unless His very essence is good and all manifestations share this intrinsic nature. Or is it the gratuitous nature of primary causation: that which is ontologically self-sufficient has nothing to gain from anything contingent.

Does the novice understand the teachings? Are they meant literally or as detonations to destroy the rigid tracks of his thinking? How are you supposed to know enlightenment when you find it? We’ve all been wrong before.***

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The monks were stunned when the author told them that perception of many holes, when accompanied by dismay, is considered a form of derangement in the West. They said, contrariwise, to respond with anything other than awe and terror is proof of spiritual poverty. Even animals who have wandered into the temple have been overwhelmed, incapable of leaving on their own.

One monk suggested that meditating on less than 11,111,117 holes was the problem. Others chastised him, saying it was not the exact number but what it manifested. The monk stood firm on the ground that the number of holes in the temple could not be irrelevant and a new order was christened. Removed from the temple they meditate upon the number in the abstract, to the extent that it’s possible, for no tooth is sweeter than idolatry.

One novice confided to the author that you cannot find God in a temple cluttered with icons. He said the emptiness acted as a conduit or channel but would not discuss it further. He feared, not only the origin of new heresies, which this Western idea surely is, but being forced to leave the Presence.

Parallels between these monks and the Sentinels of the Chandelier defy coincidence, a theme of Schrodinger’s Dachshund, where security guard Alex Jitney solves the twin prime conjecture in a life guided by abstract constellations.

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Wisdom should come with a list of debilitating side-effects. Jablonski revolutionized Western thought via tangents and asides during the greatest road trip since Homer, unveiling the paradigm-shattering contributions of Petronius’ Shovel©, Petronius’ Blender©, Schadenfreude Before-the-Fact©, Quietude©, and Petronius’ Garage©. They take their rightful place in the pantheon above Occam’s dull Razor, Plato’s much-ballyhooed Cave, Aristotle’s overrated Golden Mean, and Russel’s leaky Teapot. What price did he pay for these discoveries, to bring you Enlightenment? His Faustian bargain is chronicled here.

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* The location has been redacted as a condition of spending time with the monks. The precise number of holes is disputed. It is said there are 11,111,119. A rival sect keeps a respectful silence on this question since both numbers are joined by an imperishable and mysterious bond, separated by an insubstantial divider.

** Another schism arose from the suggestion that each hole divided the conscious essence of the observer. To stand in the center is to recognize how one’s soul is composed of 11,111,117 lesser parts. Consequently, the unity of consciousness is an illusion. When the author studied with the monks the controversial teaching had yet to be extinguished. Another subdivision has subsequently branched off. It treats the number 11,111,117 as symbolic of infinity, not the exact number of soul-parts. They do for the soul what Zeno did for motion.

*** The author was scolded for asking these questions, though other novices admitted being dumbfounded by them. The master said they bespoke arrogance and narrow-mindedness, ignoring why emptiness is contemplated: the Void “existed” prior to creation and will survive it for all eternity. These holes, a sacred number of partitions of the void, do not render it comprehensible but more manifest. Your “understanding” of it is irrelevant. It is not here to entertain or be comprehended. Your enlightenment has less importance than grains of dust on the moon. Forming a new sect to accommodate every question isn’t the answer. There are no answers. There is only silent contemplation of the holes.

Petronius Who?

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The Visitors List

After a night of Observance, a monk and I watched crimson guts spill from the belly of the night. “If you write that Ramanujan was here we won’t confirm or deny it,” he said.

“His name was in the guest book. Did it facilitate his mathematical insights or inhibit them?”

“Fireworks of equations filled the holes, but he had trouble focusing on one at a time. He denied fainting. Said he tripped.”

“So which is foundational, numbers or Nothing?”

Nothing is an illusion. The persistence of numberly existence — regardless of what happens to the physical universe — proves there’s no such thing as Nothing.”

“You mean even if there had been no Big Bang or even a quantum vacuum, 11,111,117 and 11,111,119 would still be twin primes.”

“Even in that ontological darkness the mysterious truths of math and logic and geometry would glow with life like bio-luminous creatures of the deep, keeping Nothing forever at bay.”

“Rumors persist that the Pentagon is developing weapons and interrogation methods in Operation Temple. These pictures were allegedly taken by an an agent and shared with his girlfriend shortly before his untimely death in a motorcycle accident.”

“The Holes are neither good nor evil in themselves. Evil men can make evil out of anything.”

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