I, Petronius Jablonski, here set forth a chronicle of a perilous and momentous journey. Though conclusive understanding of it eludes my grasp, by withholding all judgments I shall furnish my narrative with the goal of historians throughout the ages: a clear and spacious window overlooking great events, free from the blemishes deposited by careless scholars who forget their proper role is to describe, not decipher.
As a consequence, I vouchsafe the Reader no small responsibility. The purity of this vantage confers upon his shoulders a noble yoke: interpreting the meaning of this wondrous quest by his own lights. It is possible that one who has not witnessed the marvels that bedazzled me will be in a superior position to untangle and assess their significance, as my heart and mind remain too inflamed for temperate discernment.
In Defense of My Preamble
Eager to begin the fantastic voyage, the Reader finds himself restive, the hesitant vessel of dissenting inquiries. He is to be commended on his scrutinous nature. The surest gauge of a student’s health is inquisitiveness; the first symptom of illness, apathy. Neither presumption nor the antennae of prudence attune me to his enviable perplexities, but an extrasensory third ear pressed against the wall separating present and future, permitting me to anticipate his questions and respond before he needs to raise them. Be not jealous, for this prescience, the gift of foreknowledge, is more often a curse than a blessing.
“Scholar,” he says, “no doubt it was an intoxicating side-effect of your divine prose, but it is all one can do to desist the impression that you promise pure objectivity. While the symphonic splendor of your preamble is above all praise, it induces the vision of a mythic creature. Such declarations are as mislaid in serious scholarship as the story of a unicorn. Furthermore, given the authority you convey it is easy to ignore the implied denigration of past historians, but should you not at least explain yourself?”
I avow nothing short of Objectivity and with this question I am more than a little concerned with the caliber of the man bumbling through my annals. Dear Reader, I mean no offense. Each man is, to no small degree, raised by his culture. After suckling at the withered teats of folly and nihilism, a child’s preconceptions are skewed, his worldview a jagged montage. Do not despair, for great is he who pulls himself from this sewer. In the melancholy dusk of civilization we forget that Truth is not a harlot whose favors can be purchased by every Johnny-come-lately waving a degree. Rather, she is a chaste maiden who must be wooed. Come, let us woo her together.
The Reader needs to differentiate metaphorical promises from actual ones. A “threesome with a chaste maiden” is not what I had in mind. And his comparison of Objectivity to unicorns cries out to the gods for reproof. What does it insinuate about my intentions? Does he suggest that my preamble is a sonorous formality, that since I could not clash cymbals when he opened the book I had to settle for one? Make no mistake: out of the 250,000 words in common usage, and the additional 50,000 I use, I painstakingly selected those. In the same key, out of the innumerable combinations I could have formed with my lovingly selected words, I chose the precise order presented, not even tempted by others.
Regarding the belittlement of my peers: despite their innumerable shortcomings, Herodotus, Plutarch, Tacitus, Gibbon, Spengler, Wells, and Ferguson represent stages in the perfection of a science. I had hoped to avoid the threadbare expression, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” but it seems the Reader has forced my hand. (If it gratifies his vanity, he may highlight the following sentence.)
While composing my annals, I, Petronius Jablonski, stood atop the shoulders of giants.
Now, with these disagreeable accounts settled we can proceed. Ever solicitous of his welfare, I fear the Reader’s approach lacks the requisite gravitas. His informality is scarcely appropriate for the task at hand. A suit and tie would attune his attention far better than a mustard-splattered undershirt. Likewise, a seated posture in a sturdy chair is preferable to sprawling across a soiled and dilapidated mattress. I beseech him to close the book now and not reopen it until he has enjoyed a full night of rest (the contents of Part I are rather heady). He may wish to read my preamble again, reverently, before proceeding.
I: The Commencement of My Odyssey, a Commentary on the Point of Life, and the Attainment of Quietude
An authentic voodoo doll prowled the dashboard, glaring at me with bulbous eyes as I took the helm. Ferocious claws ensured his adhesion and an ear-to-ear grin revealed shark-like teeth. I summoned the engine, its silent presence conspicuous like a warm body in a dark room, and drove into the fog.
Out of necessity, the designers had positioned tiny lights on the far corners of the hood. Without them, most occupants would be powerless to determine where the car ended and the world began. Simple notes became a melody for the eyes. Between the twinkling stars on the horizon stood the surrogate hood ornament, Shiva, god with a thousand-and-four names, guardian of the threshold separating the great orange plane from the emptiness beyond.
In the parking lot at Sandy’s dormitory my thoughts assailed me like wasps. I closed my eyes and embraced the certainty that my future would suffer from a dearth of precedents. After she threw her bags in back, the tons on my back felt a few ounces lighter and I entered the wet lint that had settled over everything. Our paths first crossed in an algebra class two semesters earlier. Thirsting only for Truth, not the chicanery of juggling abstractions, I abstained from the odious sessions and spent the time in the student union discussing eternal questions with like-minded men of intellect. During the final exam, a beguiling vixen permitted my eyes to meander across her paper. After class I offered to buy her dinner, quid pro quo. From this simple meal all manner of carnal delights soon blossomed.
The intersection we crept through before vanishing into the labyrinth of the highway, was it not a silver passage connecting the fabled kingdom of eternity past to the prophesied land of eternity yet to come? A sign for the on-ramp materialized out of the static. Having defied time’s attrition, my car handled the severe curve with ease. Out of the turn I tapped the gas, burying us in the depths of Corinthian leather.
My view consisted of nothing save the little stars on the hood and Shiva charging through a curtain of gauze. Though initially troubled by this, I bested the urge to decelerate and the fear of a collision evolved into exhilaration. My spirits ascended, freeing me from the servitude of my apprehensions, exorcising the specters of what lay ahead. But soon the boarders in the rooming house of my mind returned. Second, third, and fourth guesses came and went, slamming doors and stomping their feet, their discourteous tumult the only motion in the misty stillness of the night.
After we stopped for gas, adversity beset our path. Crossing a bridge over the highway, I felt like a mountain climber gazing at a layer of clouds from a summit, or Dante before his descent. I followed the taillights of a semi down the ramp until they disappeared. When the location of the road became subject to interpretation I hit the brakes. The speedometer said zero. I knew better. In our cherished time together, my car and I had traveled tens of thousands of miles, down each and every highway, in good times and bad. The bond between us, forged in the crucible of danger, sealed by the stamp of luxury, was deep and strong and true.
I pumped the brakes and spun the steering wheel. Neither measure subdued my withdrawal symptoms from the opiate of normalcy. I buzzed the window down, plunged my head into the gray vortex, and saw only the uppermost portion of the tires. I sat back as though nothing were wrong and hypothesized a lack of contact with the road, tentatively conceding the validity of inferences to the best explanation. Feeling uncommonly visible, I prayed that Sandy had not noticed our difficulties. Her closed eyes and open mouth bespoke the oblivion of sleep.
Perhaps this idiosyncrasy will abate, I hoped, and spare her from jumping to any hasty conclusions. Although wistful, this reflection was not bereft of rational elements. With the exception of a mild rising sensation, no differences earmarked our surroundings. My car normally drove with remarkable surreption and the wool fog abided. The only thing that will disclose our quandary, I thought, is my vexations becoming manifest, the dissolution of my calm demeanor. There could be only one priority: the attainment of Quietude. To fill the car with an atmosphere of normalcy and congeniality, the way one would pump oxygen into a strange and uninhabitable environment to make it safe for living creatures, I placed a CD in the deck, lit an English Oval, and reflected on the greatness of my fellow Stoic, Epictetus.
“This is no tragedy,” said the voice of Reason. “Leaning back in this heavenly seat and listening to Sinatra while my Cadillac glides through the fog: as with all things misconstrued as hardships, it is simply a matter of becoming inured to it.”
The Rat Pack always served as a potent tonic, infused with the ability to bandage my exposed nerves from even the most corrosive stimuli. My sanguine bearing, due in no small part to their curative styling, enabled the impeccable analysis to proceed.
“In time this will seem no stranger than driving down the street in the fog. The only reason no one questions the latter is due to its attainment of the humdrum status of familiarity, which hardly renders it comprehensible. According to Zeno of Elea motion is not even possible. (To travel from X to Y, one must first arrive at a point halfway between them; to reach that point one must first reach a halfway point, ad infinitum.) Unless I am prepared to refute him and provide a full discourse explicating the nature of motion I have no reason to disparage our present state.”
From the starry dome of Reason I gazed into the valley of Quietude, basking in my soothing meditations. I assessed the prudence of putting the car in park, but rejected the idea. If it returned to the ground while moving (assuming the existence, comprehensibility, and occurrence of “motion”), the transmission could be injured. Though my faithful mechanic had informed me that my Fleetwood contained the finest one ever made, risks without recompense are foolish.
I flicked my cigarette out the window, lit another, raised the volume a notch, and sat back so my eyes were level with the dash. Midway through the fourth song, Sandy awoke. I turned to her with the guileless conviction that my unperturbed state would prove contagious.
“How can you possibly drive in this?” she said, jerking her head like a rotary sprinkler. Quizzical furrows scarred her soft Asian features.
“After a while you become inured to it.”
“How fast are we going?” After checking the speedometer, she disemboweled me with her eyes, rupturing my precious Quietude and initiating an investigation I had to terminate posthaste. It was crucial that she remain sequestered from the Gordian theory regarding my tires and their relationship to the road. A few trifling details about our journey were not shared with her. Preoccupied during the elaborate preparations, I awaited a more sedate period for briefing.
Before I could respond, she put on her seatbelt: a resounding vote of no confidence, a damning indictment. Something inside me died. I turned the music down and fortified myself against the indignities that might charge. “The sheer density of the fog poses unique challenges to even the greatest driver,” I said. “Are you familiar with the teachings of Zeno?”
“What’s happening?” she said, digging her fingers into the armrest and clutching the door.
“I am waiting for it to clear.”
“Why does it feel like we’re moving?” Her words tore into me like harpoons.
“As the fog whisks past it departs an unsettling illusion, and you should not forget that a real car feels different in repose. This is not a Honda.”
I buzzed the window down and dipped my head in the mothball soup. Assuming a disengagement between my tires and the road, the extent of the rift foiled visual estimates. I conceived an experiment to resolve this question. By dropping Sandy’s CDs out of the window I would not only escape the agony of listening to them, the clarity of their union with the road would allow me to gauge the distance. The possibility of hearing nothing, which would block all paths to Quietude, hindered my research.
The density of the fog seemed greater at this altitude. Only Shiva’s outline could be discerned in the ethereal haze. While smoky tentacles floated over the windshield, I distracted myself by discerning shapes in them, the way one might amuse himself on a cloudy day. Soon it was no diversion. The Rorschach looked back. Faces formed, existed for an instant, and returned to a blur. Their expressions bespoke unbearable sorrow, as though grieving the oblivion stolen from them.
Centipedes of panic crawled up and down my back. “This is serious,” I said, my voice not rising above a marvelous duet between Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. I prayed that Sandy had not witnessed this dreadful procession and turned to her. She continued to brace herself, eyes closed. Seeking fortitude, I focused on the sublime crest of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (1658-1730) and imagined brandishing the steering wheel as a talisman, running out on the hood to smite the ghastly faces.
“Like all things, they will eventually be buried by the sands of time,” said Reason, healing my wounded spirit with the inimitable balm of wisdom.
I studied the merlettes on the shield beneath the crown and Sinatra started “My Way,” a Stoic hymn to the virtue of constancy in the face of adversity. When the brilliant star of Quietude shone its gracious face upon me, I renounced my cowering posture and looked up: nothing but fuzz, amorphous and inert. As I exhaled, a mammoth face appeared and emitted a moan that shook the car.
“What was that?”
“What was what?” I said, awaiting salvation from my steadfast muse. “Oh, that? The bass on this stereo reverberates. The woofers cannot handle the lower end of equivocal frequencies.”
Another of the doomed beings groaned before returning to vapor. While a fleeting but ominous cloud separated me from the golden rays of Quietude, I reminded myself that it was not the faces that disturbed me but the opinions I formed of them.
“Can’t you do something about that noise?” said Sandy, more irritated than scared. “It ruins the song.”
I increased the volume and gave it some bass as well, hoping this would prove sufficient to muffle the next horrible wail. I disliked hiding things from her, but justified it through a quick series of calculations revealing how a greater good would be achieved. Lacking my forbearance and analytic detachment, she would have experienced considerable hardship while becoming accustomed to this novel aspect of our surroundings. If one of them infiltrates the car, I vowed, then I will brief her. Paternalism is not bad per se.
Just as another of the frightful apparitions appeared, the heavens discarded us. The dolesome ghost appeared to shoot up like a rocket as we fell.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“We are merging. Having assessed the visibility, I think it is safe to join the traffic,” I said, gripping the wheel. Our gradient lessened, but hypotheses other than our continued plunge were not forthcoming. It felt like the descent on a Ferris wheel. Relieved as I was to be away from the meteorological monsters and grateful Sandy had not seen them, the prospect of landing a car for the first time concerned me.
“A natural driver, one born — nay, destined to drive — can always triumph,” Reason assured me. “The uncompromising union of instinct and courage trumps all misfortune. It is a matter of driving conformably to nature.”
Despite the gallant assurance derived from doing what you were created to, I felt as though I were parallel parking before an audience. The discomfiture peaked with hideous thoughts of potential injuries to my car’s magnificent suspension.
I closed my eyes and listened in awe to the perspective described in “September of My Years”: a meditation on the ephemeral nature of life, a celebration of the moment, and a forthright recognition of the inevitability of death — sans gloom or doom. Truly it is rare for a single piece of music to express such a laudable outlook, and unheard of today. The solipsistic haze of ignorance, rage, and lust inflicted on us by the purveyors of contemporary noise may constitute a common vision of life, but it is scarcely a commendable one. Can today’s “music” do no more than howl and grunt about how its hapless victims misconstrue the world? Could it not set the bar a millimeter higher with some expectation of how they ought to?
Even in my deplorable state, the inherent Stoicism of the song could not fail to edify me. In life I seek contentment through an enlightened indifference to the vicissitudes of Fate. But not when driving. There my very soul rebels against all tyrants and I will not suffer shackles of any kind. From the harshest of teachers, Experience and Reason, I learned there are pitifully few things worth seeking.
Fame, a function of the opinions of other men, is obviously worth less than nothing. A skillful concubine can bring joy to a man, but they are as plentiful as the stars and essentially as different from each other as Tuesdays from Wednesdays. The best that can be said for the pursuit of riches is that it serves to distract a man from the grievous uncertainties of his existence, assuming, as you should, that most would crumble if confronted with the ultimate puzzle. Posthumous glory, dependent on the beliefs of those yet to be born, is the most senseless of all. If the imbecilic estimations of the herd currently wandering the earth are to be ignored, how much more so the ravings of the brutes who will follow? Indeed, a wise man will shun renown like death itself. In this world of flux and woe, does anything warrant pursuit? Is anything intrinsically good?
Quietude, of course: a state of mind tranquil and serene, yet confident and affirmative of life despite its precarious nature. The courtship of Truth is long and austere, but it spares one from countless delusional allurements. Despite a paucity of honorable men, the pursuit of honor may seem a fool’s errand, but aren’t ideals unattainable by definition? Are they not the stairway from the swamp of our beastly nature? Dignity and heroism certainly merit striving, but intertwined with them, inseparable from them, is a man’s car. But not any car will suffice.
If a wise man were asked to demarcate the epoch when the automobiles were most magnificent, he would name the golden age between the decession of Johnson and the inauguration of Carter. The cars were colossal and solid, forged from the purest sheet metal. Powered by the blast furnaces of the gods — the grandest V-8 engines — they had no peers in strength. In homage to Euclid, all the great four-doored ones exemplified rectangularity: the Cadillac Fleetwood and Sedan DeVille, the Lincoln Continental, the Pontiac Bonneville and Catalina, the Buick Electra and Chrysler New Yorker. These glorious bricks blessed the concrete seas with their majestic bearing. And in 1977, darkness fell. The Great Ones were desecrated (“downsized” was the coarse euphemism) with puny bodies and feeble engines. What is there for a man to do but cover his eyes and weep as he beholds the degradation of what was once mighty and proud?
Few mourn their passage. Few know what has been lost. Perhaps the Truth swims too deep and fast to be caught in the flimsy nets of most men. What ennobled this period in history was neither our knowledge nor the opulence some enjoyed. When the next great historian writes of the decline and fall of our empire, I will have no difficulty in pinpointing the zenith. What bestowed upon this epoch its only grandeur and greatness were the sedans of the late sixties and early seventies. And when a man possesses one and something afflicts it he is scarcely unjustified in thinking the world is coming to an end, for it is.
“What the hell was going on?” said Sandy with a nasty tone of exasperation, perched on the edge of her seat with the frazzled comportment of someone awakened from a deep sleep by a fire alarm. “What was that?”
I adjusted to the obedient gas, brake, and steering, casually switching from the emergency grip to the natural stance with one hand dangling over the wheel and eyes level with the dash. “That you can drive at all is nothing short of miraculous, given your hypersensitive nerves. A little fog whisks you straight to bedlam. No doubt that malformed dwarf of a car you drive is equipped with cyanide capsules for such an event.”
Her exasperation begot irritation, which begot pestiferous curiosity, which begot accusatory insolence, the first four generations of an affective lineage that would endure throughout our journey and could fill its own Book of Chronicles. Her vacant blue eyes probed me. “No Petronius, there was something weird about that.”
“Any experienced driver will tell you how dense fog has a bewitching, pixie dust nature. Consign this to your little book of lessons. Title: Dense Fog. Entry: do not drive in. Filed next to entry titled: Second-guess the Driver. Entry: do not.”
Although my car drove splendidly, our discussions could not break free from the gravity of the troubles experienced earlier. My dignity befouled, I would tolerate no further ignominies and banished the baneful topic from all conversation. When we needed gas, I departed from the highway and drove down a narrow road drowning in wild grass. A shining cloud appeared and I entered it cautiously, discovering a little station entombed by the fog. I filled the tank while Sandy stretched.
The light inside hurt my eyes and I had to squint. The floor, either freshly waxed or treated with a mysterious coating, gave off a disorienting glare. Behind the counter, adorned in an immaculate white uniform, stood a young man with dark curly hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His confident smile gave his face a gentle intensity. I felt the warmth from his eyes as I approached. Even in the brightness of the station they seemed to shine.
The Anticipation of Questions Pertaining to Part I with Answers and Analysis
A historical document can in one respect be likened to a building. A poor foundation bodes ill for its intended height. To embed my base so what follows may touch the stars, some clarification is essential. I adjure the student to go no further until he masters the material presented here, for it is his safety I have in mind whilst I secure the bedrock of this tower to the empyrean.
However enthralled by the mellifluous grandeur of the prose, the vigilant student must nonetheless be pleasantly agitated with questions. Dear Reader, do not consider yourself the prisoner of your inquisitive nature, but rather the house guest of a noble and restless spirit. As Detritus of Ileum observed, “Truth cannot be found in the shadows of silent acceptance, but only on the open plains of philosophic discourse.”
“Scholar,” the Reader whispers into my third ear, my link between his present and my own, “after hitting the ground running, one is unable to look away for the duration, but doesn’t Objectivity command you to begin in the beginning, not the midst of things?”
This adroit query vouches for the Reader’s potential, but he fails to recognize that a “beginning” in the temporal sense is but one of many. It is the philosopher’s task to determine which type is most important. I stand by my decision just as Galileo stood by his discovery of the planets orbiting the sun.
“Scholar, given the breakneck pace and dizzying assemblage of events it is understandable that no more than a glimpse of Sandy is provided. But in the name of Objectivity, is your heroine not worthy of more than a one-dimensional sketch?”
Mired in the squalor of contemporary “literature,” the Reader is possessed by the delusion that I am condemned to pace my annals with the discordant velocity of the latest thriller he has read. Infuriating as it is to have inferior standards inflicted on me, I empathize with his plight. By this point in most of the books he whores around with he is already cognizant of the precise shade of the heroine’s pubic hair. Her height, eye color, “heart-shaped face,” and a whole constellation of minutiae have been carelessly tossed into a paragraph early in the first chapter. Note well: an FBI profile is not character development. This is one of the least pardonable crimes of lazy and ignorant scribblers and full proof of their disregard for Objectivity. In life one learns about another a little at a time. He is not blasted in the face with extrinsic details concerning her “small hometown,” her “characteristic spunk,” her “petite but perky bosom,” her “stern but doting father,” and so on. Axiomatically, the introduction of characters in my text will not occur via literary gimcracks. The Reader will make their acquaintance as he would in actuality.
Besides, where did I write that Sandy is the heroine? If a female is mentioned in Part I she must, of absolute necessity, on pain of twenty years hard labor, be The Heroine? On what tablet is this carved? What lawgiver decrees this? To what obdurate judge will the Reader turn if I transgress this sacred maxim? As a matter of fact, Sandy’s role is peripheral — at best. I only mention her at all because she accompanied me and to omit her would be a crime against Objectivity. And I serve no higher master.
“Scholar, your descriptions of Quietude and the solace it brought you are fascinating. Is it an Eastern or Western conception?”
Just as Aristotle gave philosophy his Golden Mean, I hereby contribute my Blender, by means of which the profoundest ideas can be mixed and pureed to produce original and superior recipes. This watershed, which the steely eyes of history may very well deem superior to Aristotle’s much-ballyhooed scale, will be elucidated in graspable increments. Regarding Quietude: while the precise recipe shall remain a secret, it contains ingredients from Buddhism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Monadology. The name is from the ancient Skeptics (who should have chosen a more accurate description of their uncertain comforts). Through the use of my ingenious, innovatory Blender, these constituents have been combined to create a bold new flavor. Quietude, as I am using the term, is both an original and significant contribution to philosophy.
“Scholar, is Quietude a trance-like state?”
My Cadillac is not an opium den. I was neither “nodding off,” nor “grooving,” nor “getting down,” nor succumbing to whichever degenerate state is sought by beatniks, hippies, slackers, and generations X, Y, and Z. It is indicative of our age that any pursuit of an enlightened conditioned is associated with intoxication. The sublime nature of Quietude will be presented in a manner befitting an otherworldly phenomenon. Meanwhile, I caution the Reader not to form base preconceptions.
“Scholar, is the description of Quietude in Part I exhaustive?”
A messenger with joyous tidings, I unveiled a concept onion-like in its manifold layers, yet sweet in its succor. Quietude is not akin to a two-by-four. I cannot pummel the Reader into understanding it. A good philosopher relies on the time-tested methods of gradual exposure and the use of context clues. My approach shall be as halcyon as Quietude herself.
“Scholar, a question regarding the interior of your Cadillac as it relates to the essence of Objectivity: Was it essential that you described, in no small detail, the voodoo doll on your dashboard? How are such details more relevant than a detailed introduction to the human companion who will be accompanying you on your journey?”
The Reader is clearly smitten by Sandy, delivered from the divine captivity of my annals by the mercenary of lust. But how can he be infatuated by a woman whose existence is scarcely hinted at? Will his jealousy not blind him to the countless virtues of my scholarship? I deliberately refrained from providing an abundance of details to forfend this very possibility. Now he has left the gravity of my odyssey and drifts through space, an intellectual vagrant, a philosophic hobo. I ask him: Is she worth it? How does he know her shortcomings do not outweigh whatever charms have ensnared him? On my honor, the fleeting thrills of her company do not compare to the abiding joy he will find in my annals. Come to your senses, man. If not, I am left with no choice.
To ensure that the Reader remains spellbound throughout the following section, I must posit a hypothetical feature: Sandy suffers from an advanced stage of leprosy. Patches of jade moss cover her “soft Asian features” and a putrefying stench emanates from her. This condition shall remain in effect until the closing pages of Part II. (This temporary contravention of Objectivity is necessitated on pragmatic grounds.)
Is the Reader pleased with what his heedless appetence has wrought, with what he has scourged Sandy? In Stoic magnanimity, I harbor no enmity toward him. He is, after all, a man like myself, a hapless rider on the wild horse of passion. But we must continue. I insist he cosset himself with a good night of sleep before proceeding. Then, during an ice-cold bath he should contemplate the gruesome condition of poor, wretched Sandy: mossy and fetid. This should etiolate his childish infatuation. He should then fortify himself with a substantial breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes, hash browns, toast, milk, and orange juice. Requisite then is a brisk walk. Finally, he is advised to sip a caffeinated drink while he braces himself for a rapid ascent into the supernal regions of Part II.