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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Schrodinger's Dachshund

Lay with Cudahy?

Petronius Jablonski grew up in this fine city. The defamation of a man’s hometown is no better than slandering his mother. This meme is an atrocity, spawn of ancient prejudice.

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STAND with Cudahy, give the finger to snobbery. The Annals of Petronius Jablonski: An Odyssey of Historic Proportions and Priceless Treasure of Philosophy includes a magisterial History of Cudahy’s taverns, Proustian woolgathering, Tristram Shandy-like digressions, and the revolution of Western thought. Cudahy has a rich Life of the Mind. We just don’t wear it on our jammies. Let the real Cudahy arise.

A Mesmerizing Excerpt

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“Driving, page-turning force” Publishers Weekly

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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Sheridan Park 1984

“Alright boys,” he whispered. “Three credits. Due at the end of the fall semester. I will not give you an incomplete. I will not extend the due date.” After a brief but intense session of beard stroking, he removed his bifocals and fixed us with his legendary disintegrating stare. “Don’t disappoint me.”

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Packard Avenue in the Olden Times

I emerged from his office like Trajan returning from Dacia, but Buzzcut expressed reservations. Though in possession of an uncharacteristically athletic mind for a member of our generation, a congenital diffidence often restrained him from ambitions of heroic proportions. “Petronius, what if there aren’t any records at city hall or the historical society?”

“Records? We are starting ex nihilo. The historian who relies on books is no more than a glorified plagiarist. We are poised to become the primary source to which posterity, in humble gratitude, shall turn. For this we must go to the primordial, oracular sources themselves.”

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Where Does Time Go?

The vintage Schlitz globe above the entrance to Otto’s tavern, was it not an atlas of dreams, radiant with the light from a better world? “Bottle of Pabst,” I commanded, my voice a crash of thunder. Though billions of nights had preceded this one, and billions would follow, I detected a singularity, a hand-woven weave in the strands of Fate. I beheld the label on my bottle as Edmund Hilary must have looked upon the flag he planted atop Everest.

“I think we’ll need to present this thing as a horizontal tree, the trunk being the first tavern established,” said Buzzcut. “Branches multiply over the course of the century.”

“Will we wear cute matching dresses when we present our little chart? Will we invite our mommies? Will we serve cookies?”

“We have too much data to put in a simple paper,” he said, squeezing a slice of lemon over a gin and tonic.

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Second car belonged to the Cudahy Kid

“No doubt Boswell warned Johnson not to put too many words in his dictionary.”

“Different old-timers are giving us different names and dates. We at least need a thesis.”

“Please remind me, what was Suetonius’ thesis? Did he use a mulberry or chestnut tree to coalesce the staggering volume of data he worked with? A great historian does not theorize; he installs a window where none existed, he provides a clear view of what has been obscured.”

“Gibbon theorized.”

“I am aware of that great man’s shortcomings,” I snapped, “all of which are more than redeemed by his pinnacling prose. Now, while we gather data unrelentingly, tonight we must address the question of whether to begin with a prologue, a prolegomenon, or a preamble. I contend that a prolegomenon is the proper choice, prologues being the filthy denizens of science fiction and fantasy novels. And given Harris’ modest scholarship we can safely assume he has never before encountered a prolegomenon. The very word will strike terror into his black heart, an overture of the awe that will send him to his knees long before our addendum to our prolegomenon.”

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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

Schrödinger’s Dachshund

A Novel of Espionage, Astounding Science, and Wiener Dogs

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“Jablonski’s first novel reads like a surreal existentialist crisis, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that employs secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force. We follow blogger Zelda Alpizar, who occupies her time decoding and researching the latest cultural memes and viral sensations. She becomes embroiled in a scheme to turn humans into storage devices for code. Also wrapped up in the plot are two test subjects: security guards Alex Jitney, whose ‘milky pallor and nondescript features might instigate regrets that humans aren’t reptilian,’ and ‘too nice for his own good’ Travis Olkeshevski. And then there’s Maestoso, the titular Dachshund, who moves ‘like some sausage hovercraft.’ These characters go through private trials and tribulations, discussing matters of sex, memes, and science, as they move inexorably toward the endgame. … Jablonski 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

“The unusual style packs a wallop, pulls you into its rhythms and edgy approach. There is some bold imagery throughout. The prose is a rich cream. … No words are wasted. … It’s the strong writing that pulls you along. Brief jabs of sentences impart lots of information with a unique sentence and paragraph style. The prose is one-of-a-kind. … You feel interested and curious, and also a bit unwelcome — as if you need to expend lots of energy to decode the secret to unlock the gates. … The pleasure is in the writing.” ABNA 

Jablonski’s writing has been described as “poking fun at literary fiction, science, and Philosophy, in the way Douglas Adams spoofed sci-fi.” He is not convinced this was his intent.

The paperback is preferred. When you position it upright Maestoso’s eyes follow you around the room, anticipating your actions with some canine analogue of foreknowledge, disarming at first then strangely serene. Purchase several as guardians or talismans.

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Who is Maestoso and Why is He Following You?

Spy by night, blogger by day, Zelda Alpizar becomes infected by a contagion known to civilians as guilt, forcing her to choose between following orders or intervening to save two watchmen. Their trance-like lethargy makes them the ideal storage drives for a detonation code. Decrypting it could have lethal side-effects. Though the most important thing Zelda will ever find, the boundary between good and evil is of little value in a place where the only legend reads Here There Be Monsters. 

Security guards, harbingers of dawn, are they not warriors? Beneath the polyester Travis and Alex consist of flesh and blood. A predator stalks them, more implacable than skateboarders. Putting your tax dollars to work, the NSA discovers that human storage devices offer greater security than digital ones. Dead drives tell no tales. Like all their secrets it’s soon available to the highest bidder. When Zelda infiltrates a secret society lending this service to terrorists, she sees how the private sector can be almost as wicked and incompetent as the government. 

They should have chosen a more secure password. “Mary Weatherworth” is also an adult actress beloved by security guards, and an urban legend reputed to appear in mirrors when summoned thrice. Busy lady. This ambiguity entwines discrepant parties in strange ways. Connected to them all by one degree of separation, the sausage link in a karmic chain, Maestoso the Dachshund waddles across this remorseless battlefield, observing the chaos, perhaps resolving it. Avoid eye contact. You don’t want him inside your head.

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Chapter 1: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Park Here

The equation proves what is about to happen is impossible. George checks it again: New Lexus + first one here = VIP. At a locked door in underground parking he turns his back to a security camera and picks up a phone mounted above an ashtray. Ten rings. Twenty. Fifty. Seventy. He stares at his watch. Is the minute hand speeding up or are its measurements askew in this concrete cave?  

“Lodestar securitah,” says a voice in mock Southern drawl.

“Good morning. Could you please unlock the lower level?”

“Kindly turn and face the camera, sir.”

Window to an infernal soul, evil orb of black acrylic, the all-seeing eye examines George. If only he could clarify the matter by pointing to his car, the way a teacher knocks on the board for emphasis.

“I am not supposed to open it this early, sir.”

“I have work to do.”

“Very well, but I must request a slight favor in return. I could never permit another man to remain beholden to me.”

George leans against the door. His distorted reflection on the dark globe looks back like some doomed foretoken bidding him to take any path but this. “What kind of favor?”

“On third shift a man starts to think he’s wandering this vale of tears all by his lonesome. That is a heavy burden to bear. This cruel isolation has robbed me of life’s simplest pleasures. A vicarious taste of your joy would nourish my soul. If you could be so kind, a festive dance will raise my spirits and reconcile me to my duties.”

The parking lot grows hazy. An evil wizard appears and demonstrates to George how two drops of mercury plus two more equals one. But he’s only warming up. Another fundamental truth is questioned: “VIP? Are you sure?”

“I am particularly fond of that Travolta gentleman in Saturday Night Fever.”

“I don’t have to put up with this.”

“Kind sir,” says the voice in perfect semblance of wounded hospitality, “I offer to do you a favor and you insult me. Where I come from one kind deed begets another. Yours will be the pappy to mine, which makes us cousins. Do you see how we are all connected? Your dance will serve a greater good.”

“Travis, unlock this door.”

“Do I have to come down there again?” says a voice devoid of Southern gentility, posing an issue not covered in Dealing with Difficult People seminars. George braves an inner storm. A smokestack of lightning reveals distant shapes on the horizon of Time. Long ago mankind began a game by filling the roles of king of the jungle, beast of burden, and everything in between. Now a lowly watchdog refuses to play make-believe. Unlike the strength of a wild animal, George’s power is dependent on the acquiescence of others. Their consent creates it. And in its absence …

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He points to the ceiling with his left hand and brings it down to his right pocket while performing squats. Endorphins percolate. Explanations vie for dominion. Maybe his car resembles a Toyota on the monitors. Maybe these cruel rites are endured by VIPs everywhere. Maybe this world is the discarded draft of one that eventually turned out better or at least no worse.

“Sir, I regret to inform you that my spirit remains earthbound. I feel forsaken as ever, orphaned from the human family.”

To the routine George adds a move from the Hokey Pokey, incorporating his calfskin briefcase. As though awaiting judgment from the cyclopean ruler of this underworld, he stops and looks up at the globe.

The click of the parking door, is it not the whispered yes of a reluctant lover? He drops the phone and seizes the knob before Travis can lock it, avoiding a scenario that could involve something even less desirable than a festive dance — assuming the predictive veracity of events from last week.

In the elevator, the tireless optimist perched on his left shoulder puts everything into perspective. “Be grateful he’s just a guard. A simple twist of history could have made him an emperor, or a conquering general, or a gym teacher.” The pessimist who once mounted the other shoulder but jumped to his death during the dance offers no counterpoint.

George peels a sweaty strand of hair off his forehead and enters the throne room of Travis the Terrible. A massive boom box broadcasts the roar of demons and the grinding of machines. Clown-sized sneakers tower over the sign-in log atop the desk. George scribbles his name and ID number like some vanquished statesman signing a treaty of unconditional surrender. A ring of cigar smoke halos his head. And another. And another. He coughs and waves them away and looks at four monitors inside the desk. Three are split-screen. One provides a full view of the parking door, his Gethsemane.

On a leather throne suspiciously similar to the CEO’s sits Travis Olkeshevski. Behind Ben Franklin glasses, ravenous green eyes devour all assumptions about the corporate pecking order. “Good morning Mr. Merkel,” he says, stretching. The seams of his shirt threaten to burst in protest. A layer of baby fat rests on a foundation of bone and muscle that makes the Neanderthal appear ectomorphic. “Have a nice day, sir.”

George enters one of the elevators behind the desk and inspects his reflection on the shiny panel above the buttons. His eyes watch his eyes watching his eyes. The regress spirals through a brier maze where gargoyles shield their faces from territory they guard but cannot bear to glimpse. With a world-weary disgust most men need sixty years to develop he kicks the faux gold paneling. “Life doesn’t change after grade school,” he says, as though past, present, and future aren’t descriptions of the same stinking beast from blind men. When the doors open he shuffles down a long bright corridor, immersed in the very important thoughts of a VIP.

Paperback

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About Petronius Jablonski

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Detritus, Many-Worlds Interpretation, quantum mechanics, Schrodinger's Dachshund

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

“As crazy as it sounds, many working physicists buy into the many-worlds theory …” Sean Carroll

They literally believe, “Everything in our universe — including you and me, every atom and every galaxy — has counterparts in these other universes.” David Deutsch

But they never speak of the Dachshund-related implications. Until now.

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“Driving, page-turning force” Publishers Weekly

Set amid the entropy of the mortgage meltdown, Schrödinger’s Dachshund prowls the shades of gray separating science from the paranormal, internet memes from philosophy, NSA agents from bumbling security guards, and unpleasant necessity from Evil.

Meet Maestoso. Avoid eye contact. You don’t want him inside your head. He’ll play with your mind like a squeaky toy and chuck it away when he’s bored. Should it be a source of relief or despair that the purpose of Creation is them, not us?

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The Yellow Warbler can’t hide forever. Surrounded by a sweet-scented auburn cloud, you perch on a branch above a blacktopped road, basking in the heavens of this idyllic season. Summer is a lowly transitional phase, an impetuous adolescent, a brutish prototype from which evolves the exemplar of fall. Remove the caps from your binoculars. For once Time is an ally.

A raucous guitar grows louder as an SUV approaches and flashes past below. From the shadows across the street, a man and dog appear. He tilts his head back for a mouthful of Fiddle Faddle and throws the box beneath the tree. “Listen to the guitar’s pitch decrease as the sound waves are stretched further apart. This is how we know the universe is expanding, the Doppler Effect.”

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“I didn’t climb up here to have a conversation. You’ll scare the damn birds away.”

“If it’s getting bigger, you’re smaller today than yesterday, less meaningful now than a moment ago. What happens when something keeps shrinking?”

“I’ll disappear?”

Long and slender like a Doberman by Dali, the dog howls and wags its tail as if delighted by the news. Brown spots over his eyes conspire with lips upturned at the corners of his gator snout to cast a countenance of cruel mirth. A tie-dyed bandana does nothing to mitigate this impression. Vertigo compels you to look skyward, as though man can only find comfort from his essence, which is not the substance of earth but the nothingness of space.

“Don’t forget there are countless universes, all part of the multiverse,” says the man. “There will be a billion more by the time you take another breath. They have the fecundity of aphids. It’s funny how modern physics adds new dimensions to the vanity of life lamented by the ancients. Solomon didn’t know the half of it.”

Let go of the branch. What difference does it make? You were already falling.

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Basking in the sun while resting its posterior in a shadow, his dog could be mistaken for a Tiktaalik emerging from the sea to explore the land, or the missing link between Being and Nothingness. Though initially deterred by your moans and writhing, two crows land under the tree and peck at the remaining nuggets of Fiddle Faddle. Stretched like a rolling pin, the dog points at them.

These magnificent birds,” says the man, “so intelligent they place walnuts on the road to be opened by traffic, can there be any doubt they’re acknowledging this as a blessing from their crow god, a deity characterized not only by darkness, but wisdom?”

“Maybe they’re hungry.”

“To think is to think about causes. They’re not postulating some grand unified theory involving caramel popcorn, gravity, and probability.” A scowl kneads a tragic mask across his features. “This is the dawn of a new horizon of study, the uncharted territory beyond the intersection of metaphysics and ornithology.”

“It was a stupid accident. The box just plopped there. This universe isn’t about them. It isn’t about any of us.”

The man towers over you. “Incorrect. It is about my Dachshund. Come along Maestoso.” They depart, the dog gliding away like some salami hovercraft.

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A squished fly covers the Sub in Sub Gum Wanton. Contemplate how this creature’s only entry in the tablet of Existence is a bloody smear. But how many people, how many civilizations, amount to more?

The waitress, messenger from an olfactory heaven, weaver of the golden thread connecting prayers made to prayers answered, herald of things hoped for, is she not divine? If your ribs are fractured you need calcium.

“I’ll have the Happy Family with lobster instead of chicken.”

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“Buffet,” she points.

Examine egg rolls beneath the pitiless rays of a heat lamp. If rearranged they could be used for a museum exhibit depicting the stages of decomposition. Were it not for spray patterns on the sneeze guard, quests for the lesser evil among three pans of swampy broth would be a fool’s errand. As always, hunger is the best sauce, but you can’t help grieving the loss of what could have been.

Take another mouthful of the orange puree with green swirls. Like a reptilian Mona Lisa it’s familiar but grotesque. If General Tso were here he’d behead the chef who did this to his recipe. A sharp fragment in the heretofore slimy globs wedges between two teeth and pierces your gum. Ironic how Greek cuisine would have provided better shelter from the first noble truth.

Outside Maestoso watches you with feigned serenity. His human companion kneels behind him, strokes his head and speaks to him and waves the other hand as though exhorting a disciple, or, more likely, pleading for wisdom from a sage.

“What the heck. Why are you guys following me?”

“I take it your knowledge of quantum mechanics is rather modest. Condolences. Causes do not necessarily precede their effects.” He looks both ways down the street and wiggles his fingers as though casting a spell. “Could I interest you in some doses?” A bead of sweat trickles down a lens of his shades, leaving a trail of crystalline stepping stones. “You’ll trip the light fantastic. You’ll see the canvas of reality when the gallery opens.”

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“Will it make me throw up? I may have been poisoned.”

“You’re thinking of peyote. This will cleanse you at a deeper level.”

It’s time to examine the Big Picture and act accordingly. Consider the Battle of the Somme. Over thirty-thousand men died the first day. Name one. How many of your peers could name the war? Who will remember your glorious skirmishes? There’s only one practical conclusion. Carpe diem. Defy the cruel hand of Fate or whichever cosmic sadist preoccupies itself with the frustration of your desires. “Let’s go to my car.”

“You should definitely tear it in quarters,” he says. “You’ve become so accustomed to the painting you no longer know it is a painting. The realization will be momentous.”

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“General Douglas Haig wouldn’t have dropped a quarter hit,” you tell him, taking three. “Here’s to old heroes and new friends.”

“Goodness gracious. You didn’t have any plans for today and tomorrow, did you? A direct confrontation with the ultimate artist will be a point of divergence in your life.” He tunes in the classical station and curses. Maestoso emits a sorrowful bay, reminding you he’s a hound dog. “There’s a conspiracy against Anton Bruckner. They played the adagio from the Seventh Symphony when Hitler died. How was that Bruckner’s fault? Did he travel forward in time and compose it on behalf of the fuehrer?”

“A Jewish conspiracy?”

“Don’t be obtuse. This is Chopin.”

“But the Nazis liked Beethoven and you hear him constantly.”

“Featherweight. Do you mind if we drive around until the gallery opens? Then we can go to my place and listen to Bruckner. The mystical gravitas of the situation cries out to the heavens for him. I majored in physics and music. Only one composer uncovered the design of reality. If it were destroyed it could be reconstructed from the blueprints of his symphonies. In layman’s terms, that’s the finest tripping music there is.”

“Better than Captain Beefheart?”

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“Better than Buddy Rich,” he says.

“I call shenanigans.”

“It’s all about contrapuntal structures.”

The car descends a steep road toward Grant Park like it’s soaring down a rabbit hole. Streaks of silvery blue from Lake Michigan gleam between gold and crimson trees. On the golf course, colorful reapers swing their scythes as if practicing for appointments in Venice and Arcadia and everywhere.

“I don’t care where we go as long as I put that nasty lunch behind me.”

“Impossible. Your lunch splintered the universe.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“You don’t understand. Every possibility branches off hydra-style into another universe. The belief that there’s only one is more benighted than thinking the earth is the center of the cosmos. Every choice you make creates a you who took the other option.”

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“It’ll be cool to talk about that when we’re tripping.”

“To the contrary. It’s a testament to mankind’s pig-ignorance of science and philosophy that no one before me has plumbed the consequences. You have a trillion clones. How does that impact the meaning of your existence? Should you extend to them the love you reserve for your self, or the hatred of Cain for an army of Abels?”

“Can we swap girlfriends?”

“The value of your life is deflated like U.S. currency. If everything that can happen does happen, free will is an obscene illusion. Good and evil are noises we make with our mouths. Life, with all its seemingly weighty choices, is a rigged lottery where all the numbers are picked in each drawing. We’re not dignified beings struggling through some great epic; we’re pitiful amoebas splitting every time the stimulus of an alternative is encountered.”

“At least I’m the original.”

“How do you know? Each new you is created with the memories of the one it split from, sustaining the illusion of personal identity. You might be ten seconds old. Worst of all, I’m trapped in a universe where Bruckner has only nine mature symphonies. In some he makes Haydn seem stingy.”

“And I’m trapped in one where Mary Weatherworth doesn’t answer my emails.”

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Maestoso regards you with a chilling canine analogue of final judgment. His primate companion gasps, “The malevolent sorceress, sentry of the threshold between realms?”

“That’s one way to describe her. She’s quite the actress. I’m a big fan of her realms. Two in particular. It doesn’t feel like anything splits off.”

“It doesn’t feel like the earth is traveling around the sun at eighteen miles a second either.”

“What happens to all the clone universes?”

“They continue branching and splitting. You’re getting smaller, riding a roller coaster to nothingness down an asymptotic hill. How are we supposed to live knowing this is true? Many-worlds scenarios make doctrines of predestination a Spongebob episode by comparison. Try not to think about it. No one else does. I’m carrying this burden all by myself.”

“So if I play Russian roulette I can’t lose?”

“In a manner of speaking. One of you is bound to survive, but it’s Moloch’s immortality, sustained by the bloody sacrifices of all those who don’t. These maddening complications make me long for the blessed peace of oblivion. I’d love to visit a universe where I don’t exist.”

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“But then you’d be there.”

“I’d wear a disguise.”

“So these doses are strong?”

“I can’t believe you dropped three.”

“Remember the Somme.”

“What’s dropped is dropped. You cannot un-drop what has been dropped.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Perched on the man’s knees like some surfing Anubis, Maestoso growls at a squirrel. “There’s a universe where he didn’t do that. Who knows how his silence changed the course of history there. It might not amount to much over the course of days or weeks, but in a thousand years it could be the difference between the Amish and the Ik tribe.”

“He should be more careful. Is there any way these universes connect?”

Hugh Everett maintained that they’re decoherent from each other.”

“Was he a physicist?”

“He was the Messiah, surrounded by pygmies like Bohr. They persecuted him like a witch, dismissed him as a theologian. Can you imagine, those arrogant thugs considered theology beneath them.”

“So he said they can’t connect?”

Maestoso turns to you and growls like some conduit of thunder. The man leans down and puts his mouth next to one of the floppy ears. “Shhhhhh. He’s just asking.”

“It’s alright. There’s a universe where he didn’t do that.”

“Incorrect. He growled at you in all of them.”

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Glittering slabs of sound enter the world through Bang & Olufsen speakers propping two windows open. Like a slender manatee suffering tonic-clonic seizures, Maestoso’s friend improvises a water ballet routine. During a quiet passage he leans over the side. “There’s another pool in the attic I could inflate for you. It’s safer than a chair. The swirling brass makes you feel like you’re flying.”

“I’m good.”

“How did you get blood on your clothes?”

“There was a bone in my tofu. I could have sworn they were invertebrates.”

“I’ll put those in the wash. You shouldn’t eat at Dong’s Wok. Their infractions of the health code are legion. Dong’s concept of hygiene is a child of the Shang Dynasty. You should have waited seventy-two hours before dosing.”

“That’s great advice. I’ll go back and do that.”

“Listen to the colors of the oboe. It’s like a tentacle covered with eyes reaching down from heaven.”

He’s right. And the clouds exhibit more evidence of intelligent design than anything below. Like globs of concrete hurled by graffiti artists, the messages drip down the sky, becoming chariots of mutant divinities scrambling for parking. Maestoso circles the pool, looking less like a sausage satellite and more like a kite tail. His human friend squeezes submerged fists to create pulsating jets that intersect in a crystal aurora. “I wonder how the universe where he went clockwise will turn out.”

“This many worlds stuff is Greek to me.”

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“Some days I despair of understanding all the moral and existential consequences. Physicists who know it’s true won’t speak of how it impacts the meaning of our lives. They’re like a Roman mystery cult hiding evil secrets. Don’t be fooled by slick documentaries with breathless nerds babbling about how interesting it is. The only appropriate response is dismay. I don’t consent to exist in a universe this strange.”

“How does it work?”

“I’ll give you an example in laymen’s terms. Once upon a time Maestoso had to choose between defecating or taking a nap. Man’s deceptive instincts fool him into thinking only one of these options can exist. In fact, each occurred simultaneously in separate dimensions.”

“Which one are we in?”

“Probably the former, but it’s only a theory.”

Reading about this in Scientific American after nothing stronger than a cup of coffee would have its advantages. “How do we know when there’s a split?”

“The feeling of free will is often cited as proof of our ability to determine our choices and destinies. It’s nothing more than a dim awareness of the split. Which is more incredible, some magical property that allows us to be the uncaused cause of everything we do, or that alternate dimensions exist in the way the earth is not the center of the solar system? Luther and Calvin would have gratefully reconciled this with their theology. Wise men know free will is a sham.”

“So there’s a universe where I had the Chinese Happy Family?”

“There’s one where Dong washes his hands.”

“Why did I get stuck here?”

“There’s also one where he’s even less concerned with cleanliness. You’re writhing in agony there. Some gratitude is in order.”

“Wait a minute. A wiener dog created the universe? Is that good news or bad news?”

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“Welcome to my world. Enter if you dare. Figuring out the ramifications is the greatest intellectual challenge of all time. Make no mistake, Maestoso didn’t wave his paws and exclaim, ‘Let there be a preposterous mess.’ It wasn’t intentional and it’s only one example, perfectly consistent with everything we know about quantum mechanics. If you want to deny it feel free to come up with a new scientific paradigm.”

“It’s probably best that no one knows we had such humble origins.”

“Compared to what? By their nature all creation stories are weird. Look how humans come into existence. It’s bizarre beyond words. Why should cosmic geneses be any different?”

Change the subject. This is a bad buzz. “I like those mirror balls in the garden.”

“Don’t stare at them. The ancients believed mirrors opened a passageway to hostile worlds, the wicked and cunning denizens of which insisted they were real and we were the reflections.”

“So they believed in a multiverse too?”

“Wise men saw the threat of mirrors firsthand. Detritus wrote that having a mirror was the same as leaving your window open during a pestilence. What happened when these bans were rescinded? What became of Egypt, Rome, the Zapotecs? Do you for so much as one second believe the collapse of these mighty empires was due to bad luck? Modern physicists willfully ignore how parallel universes aren’t completely cut off from each other.”

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Maestoso drops a squeaky toy and howls and rubs his fangs on a corner of the pool.

“What I meant to say is that the inclination to squeeze the Weltanschauung of a prior age into our paradigm is best resisted. Who knows what they were thinking. Listen to this movement. The adagio of the Eighth Symphony will be the greatest half-hour of your life. This recording is sublime. Too many conductors race through it.”

“Wouldn’t there be a universe where it’s longer, where it lasts for hours?”

He looks at you like an infant gazing at its mother. “Where it lasts forever. That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said. The eternal adagio is what we mean when we speak of paradise, and it is a paradise lost.”

A luminous glacier emerges from the speakers and drifts through the garden. Trailing a sapphire stream, it crosses the alley and slides over the edge of the world. Like a periscope come to life, Maestoso stands against the pool and watches his friend’s amphibious ritual. Silence beckons him back to the side. “Is this what you thought he’d be like?”

“He’s cute, like a skinny downsized Basset Hound.”

“No, not him. God. Say it. Speak the name.”

God.”

“Say it again.”

“God.”

“Again.”

“God.”

“Look behind the word. What’s there? Why have you never thought about this? Are you afraid? Keep repeating it. Watch what happens. The sounds we attach to things do not explain them. Now that you know you’ll never forget. From now on the world will appear in all its outrageous strangeness.”

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“Thanks. Can I pet your dog?”

“He does not exist for your amusement. Nor does the world. And God does not exist to be cursed when you get a flat tire, or to be flattered with obsequious nonsense if you’re diagnosed with cancer.”

“I like your tie-dyed speaker covers.”

“The subject will persist whether we discuss it or not.”

“Maybe we could get back to it. I’m free next week.”

“You’re freaked out because the reclusive creator disappears in the familiarity of things. You’ve become inured to the primordial strangeness of everything: dirt, the stars in the sky, the thoughts in your head. A dose reveals the masterful canvas of reality as though you just walked into a gallery and saw it for the first time. Up until now you’ve been a bat fluttering around in the Sistine Chapel, thinking your perceptions are accurate. Reality was designed to hide all signs of the artist. Why do you think the shaman’s stock in trade was the vision quest?”

“Why is he hiding?”

“Most great creators are reclusive. He wants his work to speak for itself.”

“Like Buckethead?”

“They both have some gnarly shards.”

“Why does everyone who looks for him come back with something different?”

“Describe Michelangelo, little bat. Don’t forget that artists love ambiguity. And you’ve been stultified. You’re like a feral child raised in the Louvre, taking it all for granted. Those paintings aren’t wallpaper. Smell the air. It’s a masterpiece. Feel this water. It’s a work of absolute genius.”

“Watch your dog eat a rabbit.”

His hyena laugh gives you goose bumps. “Indeed, we are not the endpoint of things. though the belief propels us in useful ways. We were, at best, a necessary evil. The purpose of man was to breed Dachshunds into existence.”

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Your sensitive condition makes this an ideal time for discussions about whether you possess the telekinetic power to mold cloudscapes or simply the modest psychic ability to anticipate their changes — anything but this.

“My conceptions are no less probable than any others,” he says. “How can you ascribe probability to such things? Their rarity is owing to a lack of efficient promulgation. If only I had been an advisor to Constantine. The West would be dotted with Dachshund temples.”

Apocalyptic horns summon him back into the two-foot depths, possessing him to gyre in the waves. Maestoso soars past like some landing Boeing. When he plops down and stretches you question whether the sphinx was modeled on a cat. These Teutonic steeds, scourges of the underworld, defilers of burrows, symbol of Germany during the Great War, did they serve the Pharaohs? No, the Pharaohs served them.

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“Listen to this next movement.” He jumps out of the pool. “Bruckner didn’t compose symphonies. He created of a kingdom of aural phyla. Can you imagine if this was a tree? It would be bigger than the Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life.”

The music stops. You could swear it’s the Pillsbury Doughboy running around the yard with a spade and a CD, followed by an elegant hybrid between a stallion and a caterpillar. It’s enthralling until menacing inquiries descend: How many times have you tripped? Will you know when you’re headed around that rainbow bend? How will your personality weather those changes? He was a physics student. You barely made it through algebra.

“Maybe I should fertilize it with a dose,” he says, patting the top of a mound next to a divot of sod. “How long do you think it’ll take to grow?” He wipes sweat from his face with dirty hands, leaving skid marks, and galumphs back inside. He returns with a handful of CDs. “We’ll grow a tree from each one,” he says, pacing to select the best patches to plant his crop.

You should talk him out of this, but many hands of bright fingers wave from your peripheral field and disappear when you turn to look. Wait, those are swarms of flying Gummi Worms. What if they crawl in your ears?

“Except the Ninth Symphony. That tree would grab us up in its branches and never let us go.” His herky-jerky motion, reminiscent of an amateur cartoon, temps you to break the First Commandment of Trippers: thou shalt not regret the dose thou dropped.

“I shouldn’t have taken three hits.”

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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. Feel the liquid drip from your eyes. Is it the inseparable gloss of a magnificent canvas or an arbitrarily applied sheen splotched over a bungled hobby model?

Maestoso’s friend appears to be wearing blackface. The yard could be mistaken for a pet cemetery with an indolent caretaker. “I also planted symphonies zero and double zero. Bruckner’s symphonies didn’t start with one.”

When he pumps his fists incandescent smoke drifts off his arms, causing another lapse. Should’ve taken a quarter hit. He warned me. Darkness chases the light west, peeling the callus of familiarity until the presence of its absence and the absence of its presence become one. The word-shields are gone and Reality glows bright and strange under a thick hide of normalcy.

“Whether it’s more absurd than contemptible to have a badger as the state animal is open to debate,” he says, riding a train of thought free from the tyranny of tracks. “The noble Dachshund rid Germany of those insipid vermin, just like Saint Patrick chased the snakes from Ireland.”

Which is worse, Maestoso reading your mind like Shakespeare paging through a comic book, or that the proud but evasive Homunculus defending the fortress within, the last holdout against such insidious ideas, is mortally wounded by your lackadaisical pursuit of a cheap buzz? When he abandons his post “you” will be the sum of these garish sensations and nothing else. Contra Buddha, contra Hume, there was a self in there all along only you had to obliterate him to prove it. How paradoxical. Happy now?

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To whom it may concern: please make this stop. I promise I’ll never even drink again. I’ll spend the rest of my life doing good stuff.

“You’ve noticed Maestoso’s slender torso, yes? That was for excavating the cowardly badger. Wisconsin may as well have a tapeworm on its flag. Have you ever written to our imbecilic governor demanding the Dachshund be made the state animal? I’ll give you the address. I used to call his office every day until the FBI asked me to stop.”

Car doors slam. Voices echo on the side of the house, their pitch and speed commensurate with the breeze. They slow to demonic moans and accelerate to chirps. Maestoso watches you, giggling. His swan neck corkscrews like a lasso. He knows you know that some ancient king summoned his forbears from the sea, enticing them to adapt to land, waiting for their stubby legs to sprout. What pact was made with these primal serpents of the deep? And how long before they devoured the foolish monarch and established their kingdom on earth?

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“Goodness gracious. My parents are home. I didn’t expect them for two days.”

“Your parents? Dealing acid must be a labor of love.”

“I resent that characterization. I’m the curator of a forbidden gallery.”

“I don’t know where she gets her recipes,” says a chipmunk voice. “That peach cobbler was — Goodness gracious.

“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” growls a voice.

With the effort it takes to squat 10,000 pounds you turn your head and swear that senior and junior are twins. Can sexual reproduction be bypassed? you wonder with eyes at half-mast. A mushroom sprouts on his father’s forearm and grows to a cauliflower with junior’s features. “Could I interest you in some doses?” the fetal bud inquires. “You’ll trip the light fantastic.”

You pry your eyes open and promise to never again question the wisdom of Nature or God or whatever runs this vile burlesque. A vortex of translucent black and white squares surrounds his parents, depriving them of the green light emanating from the Bruckner mounds.

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.

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“What happened to my lawn?” says senior, emitting gobs of spittle like a venom-spewing toad. He turns to you. The rotation frames dozens of holographic images, each of which tries to catch up to the original but overshoots the mark to create a corkscrew, then a cyclone. A sausage-link finger appears from the whirlwind. “Did you do this to my lawn?”

Most of the power lines between your brain and mouth are down. “We’re growing an Ewok village … or something.”

“He’s high on some drug, isn’t he?” Apparently his son’s muddy face is par for the course but your consciousness expansion is a crime against humanity.

“The problem of other minds has never been satisfactorily resolved,” says Maestoso’s friend, “which makes the ascription of specific brain-states tenuous. We’re comparing Bruckner trees to the Yggdrasil.”

“Why is he in his underwear?”

“I’m helping him remove the blood from his clothing.” In spite of its accuracy the explanation feels askew like a wheel off its axle.

“You need to get a job. You’re not gonna spend the rest of your life wandering around with a wiener dog.”

“If it was good enough for Detritus it’s good enough for me.”

“They did not have wiener dogs in ancient Greece.”

“And how would you know? Did you learn that at Briggs and Stratton? His teachings about mirror worlds defended by Dachshunds were stolen by the Sentinels of the Chandelier.”

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The portion of your mind that once gracefully orchestrated social interactions attempts to defuse this awkward situation. “That wiener dog can read my mind. He created the universe. He evolved from sea serpents.”

As his father drops you on the curb, you notice the resemblance between your car and a Portuguese man-of-war. “I don’t think I should drive,” you say, hoping he can understand you in the echo chamber, wishing that “you” were in the parallel world where Maestoso took a nap, or, better still, the one where Mary Weatherworth answers your emails.

Like ingredients in a magic potion, the combination of his words smash your head and baseball bat sends your faltering limbs down the sidewalk, which unwinds toward the horizon like a roll of toilet paper.

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The stars, are they not confetti? There is a direct relation between the number of them and the triviality of you. Squint your eyes. The constellation of a long slender hound appears, marking the heavens more objectively than dippers or crabs or bowmen. Trace it with your finger. The dog glares as if perturbed by your discovery. Heaven is not a Rorschach after all.

Perhaps the ancients didn’t name him for a reason, or only spoke the name during ceremonies where his guidance was sought, his wrath placated. They looked to the stars and the stars looked back. What became of them? Survival was not among the blessings from this deity. His ferocity makes him more humanlike than one of love. Close your eyes and seize the earth. So solid. So flat and stationary. Your senses are liars and fools.

“What about those other universes he was talking about?” you whisper, assuming the fetal position. It worked once. “Screw it. All politics is local. As long as they aren’t connected they don’t dilute the significance of this one.”

The hound in the sky continues to scowl, as he did before you were born, before all men were born.

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Canes pugnaces, Existentialism

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

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.

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“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. Novices before him have 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 all non-primary causes that makes the Source benevolent: that which is self-sufficient and self-sustaining 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.

Petronius Jablonski’s tragic encounter with Enlightenment is chronicled here. Wisdom should come with a list of its lethal side-effects.

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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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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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