The Author is drawn up to the Floating Island of Babel
I spent a day and a night in a ditch, alternately shivering in the cold and scorched by the sun, which suddenly was eclipsed by a dark mass a hundred meters directly above my head. A grappling hook was lowered and I, too confused to fathom the event, was drawn up, rail, tar and feathers.
After several days I can report that I was again myself in body but my mind, having gone through a humiliating assault at the hands of the Trickle Down barbarians, was not as it had been on the day I had set out on my voyage. But as my own self-esteem was grounded as the blind Bard says on the just and right, I did not allow the injustices and lack of charity of others to abide with me for long.
I did not therefore attribute my present difficulties on this floating island of Babel — for this is where I was told I was — to the miseries from which I had been rescued. In brief, I was not able to understand the talk of this island, though everyone spoke the Queen’s English, but acknowledgments to whatever was said were askew.
Image, dear reader, a speaker directing his talk one way and a respondent directing his talk the opposite way, as when you move a rudder one way only to go the other. At first believing this was a lack of coincidence apparent only to my much tousled mind, I kept my peace. Upon perceiving that this discord had not abated and was indeed not a projection of my own but a real state in which the inhabitants of this island dwelled, I set myself to bring the matter before his Majesty when I was duly summoned to his chambers.
His Majesty listened to my account with great attentiveness and then, not to my great surprise, proceeded to talk about matters which, I confess, were more than opaque to me. It seemed, however, his Majesty was satisfied with my failure of comprehension for he smiled benevolently upon me as if I were a benign idiot and I was led from his presence.
That evening while I was dining upon a delicious bit of Irish beef though I had asked for mutton shank, I was visited by an Emissary of my own age and of a startling likeness to myself, who, in response to my invitation to join me, readily accepted. I was delighted to be understood and said so. The Emissary attested that his Majesty had assessed that our talk would be compatible. It seems the Emissary and I talked within what he called the same “worlding,” that the floating island was filled with a variety of “worldings,” and that the inhabitants remained as long as they wished but his Majesty hoped long enough to desire to see what they had not be enabled to see before and long enough to desire to hear what they had not be enabled to hear before.
Not readily comprehending this last comment, I did not despair but merely noted that the “worlding” between the Emissary and I was perhaps not as perfect as his Majesty had hoped. My sense, dear Reader, of the whole of what the man had to say was that through the miraculous mobility of his floating island kingdom, his Majesty was rounding up souls, as he had myself, in the hope of gaining their allegiance and loyalty by means of some sort of deep re-cultivation of their senses.
When in due time, and after more than one bottle of good wine, the Emissary invited me to join in a tutorial, my response was prepared. Certainly, I replied and we saluted each other in that spirit of largeness and fellowship that only complete strangers drinking together can display. You may wonder as to why I acquiesced to what I saw as an effort to erase my own perceptions and put in their stead those of his Majesty. Firstly, though not bound, I saw myself as a prisoner until I could sort out my escape route. We were, please note, floating at least a Rugby field distance from the ground. Secondly, and most pertinently, I am an intrepid explorer into whatever and how many realms of talk I encounter and I will not stand back in fear when challenged by any talk which presumes to dismiss my own.
I may be tarred and feathered and run out of a village on a rail, but my nature is protean: I rise up with renewed vigor.
The next day I was given a children’s book to read and make what sense I could of it. It didn’t surprise me that any redirection of mind would begin with an imaginary tale directed to the young. What could be the intent here but to rebuild me from the bottom up?
Two days later I joined a group of about a hundred people in a large amphitheatre where our tutorial began. I cannot describe the tutor as he…or she…was non-descript, not so large as to be large, not so small as to be small, not so dark as to be dark, not so light as to be light, with a voice that went in and out, like so and SO in a bad dream. My Emissary informed me that Sydney was Intersex, being neither male nor female. I was working this over in my imagination when Sydney began:
“In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time,” an exploration of otherness and their worlds, the young Meg is cared for by a creature she calls Aunt Beast, a creature first referred to as a Thing:
“They had four arms and far more than five fingers to each hand, and the fingers were not fingers, but long waving tentacles. They had heads, and they had faces. …Where the features would normally be there were several indentations, and in place of ears and hair were more tentacles. They were tall, Meg realized as they came closer, far taller than any man. They had no eyes. Just soft indentations.”
Aunt Beast is not happy with Meg’s way of identifying here and asks Meg not to use words:
“First, try not to say any words for just a moment. Think within your own mind. Think of all the things you call people, different kinds of people.”
While Meg thought, the beast murmured to her gently: “No, mother is a special, a one-name; and a father you have here. Not just friend, nor teacher, nor brother, nor sister. What is acquaintance? What a funny, hard word. Aunt. Maybe. Yes, perhaps that will do. And you think of such odd words about me. Thing, and monster! Monster, what a horrid sort of word. I really do not think I am a monster. Beast. That will do. Aunt Beast.”
Aunt Beast and her brethren know without words and this way of knowing doesn’t comprehend seeing:
“We do not understand what this means, to see.“
“Well, it’s what things look like,” Meg said helplessly.
“We do not know what things look like, as you say,” the beast said. “We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.”
It’s clear here that when you see the world words are needed to relate what you see. Words link us to the world because our seeing is detached and distanced. To forego the use of words is to first forgo seeing.
The world, however, is there to be known in a different way and L’Engle tries to construe this. We are faced with not just a Houyhnhnm seeing as organizing a different existence but no seeing as yet a way of being, a way in fact that Meg eventually recognizes as superior to her own.
Meg’s seeing at first is indeed limiting for Meg because she sees these creatures without eyes living in dull, oppressive dark/gray world without color and assumes, for awhile, that Aunt Beast lives in the same world. But Aunt Beast doesn’t and Meg’s realization of this comes suddenly. She gets a glimpse of a different way of knowing, talking, and being:
“But she realized now that here on this planet there was no need for color, that the grays and browns merging into each other were not what the beasts knew, and that what she, herself, saw was only the smallest fraction of what the planet was really like. It was she who was limited by her senses, not the blind beast, for they must have senses of which she could not even dream.”
Are we in an alien world when our seeing changes? And what if our seeing is premised on not seeing? If we expand the notion of seeing to a change in knowing and being in the world – and thusly subsume and neutralize seeing and not seeing — can we safely say that for us the world has changed, that whatever it was before, it is not now?
L’Engle seems to believe this for Aunt Beast’s planet is oppressive dark within Meg’s way of knowing and she cannot “even dream” what the same planet is for Aunt Beast.”
At this, Sydney came to a close and thanking us for our attendance, walked from the podium. I found myself observing whether she – I mean Sydney – had rather more of a masculine way of walking than a feminine way but could come to no conclusion.
As a result of the comments I submitted after this presentation (which can be summed up as “If my Aunt looked like a beast, I’d shoot her”) it was determined that I would be more responsive to a deep tutorial, and so I attended such the very next day.
A man with a great mass of uncombed hair perched atop his head like an orange crown bearing the abstruse credentials of some sort of scientist addressed us in a bold and direct fashion and this was encouraging because I had concluded that my failure to fully apprehend what Sydney had said had much to do with the ambiguity of the speaker. I soon observed that Microft, for such was his name, was wasting his time in a ludicrous pursuit.
“A wise man tells a tale of a mouse,” Microft began, “or more precisely, our search for a mouse among old clothes in a closet. The premise is that mice are created out of old clothes lying in dark, hidden corners of our closets.”
I was about to mumble something to myself when a sharp and very peculiar voice – I mean peculiar in the enunciation of words as if the speaker were foreign but not of country but planet – cried out: “Crambe repetita! Crambe repetita!” My Latin being workable I translated this as an outcry of “Warmed-over cabbage! Warmed-over cabbage!”
Microft continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“So we find the closet, search out its dark corners and begin to inspect every bit of clothing we might find there. We’re not sure of the biology here —old clothes into mice – so we examine everything very closely. We break down our evidence into the smallest possible components. Bring in the electron microscope. The magic of creation can be empirically discovered if we are careful and perseverant. All the science of exploration is solid.
The question, however, concerns the thought: mice arise out of old clothes. Eventually, you say, science will prove the thought false and we’ll move on.”
“Frisch auf! the same peculiar voice shot out from somewhere in the rear of the auditorium. I turned to eye the speaker but to no avail. I remarked sotto voce to the Emissary that no God fearing man would move on from the Genesis view of the world’s creation. The Emissary did not respond and I assumed he was an atheist. I held my tongue for The Lord forbid that I would interrupt the insane pursuit of mice in dark closets.
But the heckler in the rear did not desist.
“Moved on from racism! Moved on from specie-ism!”
This time when I turned my head to get a glimpse of who was speaking I targeted a large parrot perched on the back of an empty seat in the very last row. I was, dear Reader, quite amazed.
“What we talk about,” Microft went on, “provides the focus of our science, our technology, our politics, our moral sense, our lives. Our research does not drive our talk; our talk drives our research. We talk within locales, like chat rooms, shaped by the times we live in. None of that surround escapes a power and authority which enable our talk . That order gives order to our talk. You could say there would be no talk without this.
Perhaps this is why some advise silence, some seek to defamiliarize the order of talk, and others questions the good will urging the talk.
The mouse story, however, addresses a meta-talk level that is made use of by power and authority but is not its origin. Once we humans are fixed on the “Mice Come From Old Clothes” story, we proceed to talk and act within that story. But the belief itself arises from pre-meaning and pre-valuing situations. We are into something before the controlling agents – permeating, characterizing, constituting the social body — are in play. We are into the fantastically primitive and magical mindset of old clothes/mice transformation before the empirical science kicks in.”
“Heu prisca fides!” the parrot screeched and this time I had my eye on him. A parrot who quoted Virgil: “Alas for the ancient faith!” Remarkable!
Whether Microft was disconcerted by this or not he did at this point bow to us and straightway leave the room. I was up from my seat, stretching my limbs, fully confident that I had not been “un-worlded” or whatever was to occur.
My mood, my dear Reader, was not good and the Emissary took note of it and before I could announce my desire to leave this confounding floating isle, he asked me to join him at dinner that evening. He promised I would not be disappointed in the conversation. I accepted, not because I wished to go but because I was as yet not sure whether the invitation was a command and indeed whether I was a prisoner or not.
I arrived at the Emissary’s home promptly at eight and found that the other guests had already arrived.
I shook hands with Sydney whose hand I report would not have seemed conspicuous at the end of a man’s wrist nor a woman’s. Sydney’s eyes swept over me, top to bottom, and she said, “The Traveller” and then asked me whether I abided by Horace’s notion that a traveller oft found a change in clime but seldom experienced a change of mind to which I responded that I hoped my own travels would be an exception, although I was seeking to augment my own awareness rather than replace it for I was not in any way hostile to it. She greeted this with a smile that possessed all the enigma of the Mona Lisa.
Microft was also present and I was tempted to ask him how his search for mice went but refrained. The parrot was also present, perched on the shoulder of an ill dressed man with a black patch over one eye. This pirate gave me a hearty slap on the shoulder and said “Captain Noble.” The only other dinner guest of what I would call distinct character dimensions was a huge man wearing a bowling shirt with the name “Walter” in cursive above the shirt pocket. One’s expectations would be that such a man would be loud and indeed he was.
We had already dipped spoon into soup when one other guest arrived, a thin, pale man who took the vacant seat to my left, nodding to me and whispering, “They let me out late.” I assumed he meant his place of employment but soon discovered that he was a prisoner of the Isle of Babel Correctional Institute and had, among other privileges, dinner privileges at the Emissary’s. He introduced himself to me as Brother Frank.
We had not yet finished our soup when the table conversation, which had thus far been restricted to the qualities of the soup itself, Captain Noble announced that though he was seated astern of us all he’d be keelhauled if he didn’t avow his extreme pleasure at seeing a seafarer such as myself at table. I said I was obliged to him and acknowledged, somewhat disingenuously, my pleasure at being in their company on this breathtaking floating isle. I was then asked by Sydney what my interest in travel was to which I responded in a manner and substance my dear Reader is already familiar with. The entire table proceeded to mull this over as the fish course was served.
“My interest,” Microft said, as he probed his trout’s head with a knife, “is in exploring the headwaters of the Nile, by which I mean the magical mindset out of which any sort of unified or competing ways of dealing with things emerge. I am thinking of the dreams we live in. All strategies are hewn from such dreams.”
“I’d say we’re all in a box-like prison,” Brother Frank said, shaking his head, not on the whole surprising me with his imagery. “Dreaming’s just what a prisoner’s got left. It ain’t freedom.”
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the parrot, who had settled himself on the back of the Captain’s chair, shouted.
“Belay that talk, Harry,” the Captain ordered.
“I was speaking metaphorically, Brother Frank,” Microft went on, quite used to the parrot’s manner as did all except myself. “Of the mind. One can be outside a prison cell and yet the mind can be locked up. One can be inside a prison and yet the mind can be free. Witness Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Giordano Bruno or Frank Costello.”
“I’m locked up in guilt,” Brother Frank replied. “And everybody else looks at me and I know that they’re locked up in seeing me guilty.”
“I agree with Brother Frank,” Sydney said. “Everyone, from salesman to preacher talks about getting out of their box and at least rebelling against the one they’re in. They miss the point. When you’re inside you’re not also outside.”
“Jeez, Sydney,” Walter exclaimed, mouth full of bread. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means Walter that if you’re inside a male/female mindset, you’re not outside it. You can’t be. And I take that personally because that’s where I am.”
“I did not know that,” Walter affirmed, nodding.
“The way we imagine,” Microft said after a long silence in which all attention was being paid to extracting fish bones, “and then think within the way we imagine can change. Consider, for example, what enchantments incite the medieval magician to catalog resemblances between animate and inanimate Nature in order to … turn old clothes into living mice. This is the quest to turn base metals into gold, sullied human nature into deity. Before the rigorous studies of the magicians go on there is this imaginary at work, humans think about the world within this imaginary.”
“I’m ready to swear on it!” Captain Noble said, jumping up from his seat so quickly that the parrot fluttered off his shoulder and swooped down the length of the table finally landing on the back of my chair. I was about to make some comment concerning the health issues of this situation when Captain Noble banged the table so hard glasses moved.
“Why sacrifice to the sun?,” he shouted.
“Youth must be served!” the parrot announced clear as a bell in my ear.
“Or believe that base metals could be magically turned into gold?”
“And why did peasants believe that kings were divine?”
“King of birds, king of beasts, king or Kaiser, king charles’ head.”
“Why believe the stars chart our future?
“Why believe looking out for Number One does any of your ship mates any good?
“He’s our son of a bitch,” the parrot screeched.
“Belay that Harry,” the Captain ordered. “Why believe that the purpose of every other species on the planet is to be driven to extinction in the name of plunder?
“Why believe someone else is a threat when you are the one with the weapon ready to board any vessel?
“Any port in a storm.”
“Why say corporate business is better than pirating be?”
“Why think that if you surgically move your chin closer to your nose and your hairline closer to your cheeks, you will be loved?
“Sit on your arse for fifty years,” the Parrot sang out.
“Belay that talk, Harry. Now mates, none of this talk will stand, mates, without a challenge, but it stands nonetheless and provides the work orders for our chores, our rummaging in sea chests for proof of our convictions.”
Captain Noble took his seat again. “I’ve said my piece. We’re all sailing on the same vessel, mates, and heading for the same dark port.”
The parrot had his head cocked to one side and one large eye fixed me in a prosecutorial way as if I had failed to answer the Captain’s questions correctly.
“Chump change,” the parrot told me craning his head close to mine.
“Very true, Captain,” Microft said and I was not sure to whom he was responding. “Consider also how Eastern thought is not suffused with an empirical or rational discovery of truth but rather in a reality awareness that frees us from the suffering and bondage tied to false insight. To be released from the bondage of a distorted picture of reality is the goal of enlightenment.”
“Talk,” Brother Frank said. “All your fancy talk is just saying once we’ve got our heads up our own arse what we say ain’t worth hearing. And we’ve all got our…”
“Unless,” Sydney said in a loud voice, interrupting Brother Frank’s version of dinner time chat. “Unless you jump into your time machine and rush forward or backward, arriving at a different locale and a different time, you can’t stop talking within the story book of your own day. You know, the one where there’s a Prince rescuing a Princess and I can’t be found.”
That brought silence. But perhaps the silence attended the meat course for a brace of gamecock and a glistening roast pig with an apple in its mouth were brought to the table. Such fare had never been laid out on Mrs. Bombers’ table and I must testify, my dear Reader, to my partiality to good Spirits: wine at table and good Irish whiskey at the pub. The Emissary had put before us the good burgundy of Beaune, the fine Barolo of Tuscany, as well as bottles of Pomerol and Pommard, Rioja, Corvo and Rousillon. I do not hold the saying that when the wine is in, the truth is out but hold the view of Mr. Goldsmith that good liquor gives genius a better discerning.
After several minutes and several mouthfuls of the tasty fare and deep inroads into the bottles, everyone was revitalized and the talk resumed.
“You know, Syd,” Walter said, pointing his fork at Sydney, “you and I are talking now. We’re talking within the Floating Isle talk show of the day. There’s no sense wishing for a time machine. We’re talking here. We’ve drawn lines in the sand here. Some talk and walk one way and others talk and walk other ways.”
“But I’m saying,” Sydney responded, her face flushed, “what if we change the whole choreography so that the whole idea of what walking is and what talking is changes?”
“Let me tell you a story, Syd,” Walter replied. “Let’s say we go to Iraq. We volunteer.”
At that the parrot yelled “Shut your trap! in my ear.
“I believe he’s taken a fondness to you,” the Captain said to me. “Harry don’t take to many.”
I wondered why he called him Harry and the Captain told me the parrot named himself and he did it quite habitually.
“What’s your name, matey?” the Captain asked the parrot who screamed out “Pidgeon!” and then “Pigtail!” “Napoo!”
“Aye, but what do you want our mate Gulliver to call you?”
The parrot’s head went to one side and one frozen eye fixed me.
“Tom, Dick and Harry,” the parrot yelled and so I assumed he like the Devil contained legions.
The Captain informed me that Harry sang and did it well and would I like to hear a sea chanty but before I could respond the parrot broke into song:
“What is your twelve O.
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for a whoop and a holler
Nine for milk in the cocoanut
Eight says Tweed to Till
Different as chalk and cheese
O stinking cod
Five all clothed in green O
Green O free grow the rushes O.”
I inquired as to what song was that and the Captain said it was called The Dilly Song but not as any one had ever sung it truth be told.
“Rara avis, indeed,” I said, quite captivated by the bird’s talk, nonsense though it was though amazed as the good Dr. Johnson proclaimed that it was done at all.
“Begging this bird’s pardon,” Walter said gruffly, “but here’s my story. We’re soldiers. How to picture this? Bubbles and balloons don’t work. Can’t puncture them to let in the new talk. We’re in boxes with doors and windows. We can go into an Iraqi box and they can come into ours. The problem is that when they step into our box, they’re foreign. In fact, like almost every Babel soldier, we can’t talk their language. And they can’t be comfortable in our box because, hey, we’re in a box that says we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. Truth is, we’re not letting them in and they’re pissed because we let ourselves into their country. But we’re reasonable in our box. In fact this box shows us what reason is. But all this looks alien to an Iraqi, especially because they can’t see themselves in it. When we go into their box, we go with the thought that this is not as good a box. The reasoning in their box isn’t as good as ours. In fact, it’s not reason but irrational faith. So when they talk and walk in their box, we haven’t a clue as to what they’re all about but we also are not too interested in following any clues.”
“I found Jesus in a cellblock,” Brother Frank said, his head down and his eyes closed. “You may mock that but the Almighty government has a whole mess of power moves but nothing changes the gut feeling that heavenly power alone guides us. And that guidance is true and we all feel it deep down. When folks turn to themselves as judge and jury, that’s not just a new way of talking. That is a walking away from Jesus. We don’t hear God’s voice anymore. It’s not God talking but just old Slim or Tex or Bob down the road.”
My customary courtesy failed to keep me from asking Brother Frank why he had been sent to jail.
“My soul was bad,” Brother Frank mumbled.
“Brother Frank’s a suspected terrorist,” the Emissary, who had been silent up until now, informed me.
“There’s my point right there,” Walter exploded. “You talking with Jesus. Or you talking with the Government. Or you talking with a scientist like Microft over here. Who holds the trump card? If the power deal is unequal then the talk is automatically unequal and if you’re on the bottom your job is to shut and listen. Your points, as good as they might be, have only the persuasiveness power wants to give them. Then you find out that the better your points are the less power is ready to put a stamp of approval on them. It’s not just language skills that doom talk between our Babel soldier and an Iraqi. There is also – and much more catastrophic — not equal respect for each other’s moral sense or practical reasoning or personal values. We can’t see where all this comes from. And they can’t see us.”
“Perhaps you would consider,” Microft began, looking at Walter, “that power itself, whether supernatural or natural, can bend like the reed to other forces, which are not forces but out of which come all our notions of what power is.”
“And that’s not a power?” Sydney asked.
“Consider,” Microft continued, “how the Zen Buddhist blends consciousness into the material world within a universal, unifying spirit but not in the studied way of magic, rationalism, or empiricism. The foundational figure here is a basho – an emptiness – in which world and self are not divided, in which there are no-things and no words are possible or useful. Within this imaginary we move beyond difference between old clothes and mice and unite them within a oneness.”
“Basho!” Harry yelled out.
“Did you ever think, Microft,” Sydney said, somewhat angrily, “that there’s no sign of….I mean not one bloody sign of what you’re talking about anyplace on this planet. Every goddamn thing is divided. Maybe if we had emptiness, nothing would be divided. But you know what? You also would have nothing. And the world is not nothing and neither is it empty.”
I was curious to see that Sydney was angry in the way women rather than men get angry though it would be difficult for me to give evidence as to this. I must say, dear Reader, that I found this new combative Sydney quite interesting, a thought I draw back from immediately upon thinking she might be a man.
Meanwhile, Microft was muttering that he himself did not ascribe to the basho view but had merely presented it as a counter to Walter’s power contesting views. He was, I could see, anxious to regain the table’s approbation, especially I think Sydney’s, for now he launched yet another “Consider” request.
“Consider, from our perspective, negative imaginaries by which I mean ways of seeing and believing that never arise. Native Americans notoriously fail to imagine the wheel. Once that imaginary begins technology will take us all the way to the SUV and the Hummer2. But it doesn’t begin. The imaginary wellsprings of an extinct people are only to be conjectured but they seem not to be innovative but responsive. Their worldly interactions do not involve engineering or instrumentalizing or compartmentalizing or appropriating. I would use the words merging and mending, interacting and cooperative to describe the mindset here. Awe emerges and from that empathy and respect. What is in Nature is what is to be resembled. The closer you come to resembling the naturalness of Nature the closer to the awesomeness of Nature will you come. There is no wheel in Nature and therefore with these people there is no place for it — I refer to the wheel — to be imagined.”
“If you find me in Nature, then I’m okay,” Sydney said. “Is that it?”
“My dear, once again. . .” Microft began but Sydney cut him off.
“Well, what I am is not natural to Nature. You have to imagine negatively to come up with me.”
“I suggest,” I said, hoping to introduce a necessary distinction, “that all that is in Nature is by definition nature, although not all that is in Nature can be explained. That failure, however, does not make the unexplained unnatural.”
Those words, however, did not seem to soothe Sydney who seemed for some reason to have lost all patience with me.
“Except in the real world,” she told me curtly, “which it seems your own travels have not taken you into, perhaps because you travel within your own ego.”
Before I could adjust to that remark Microft said something about the propagation of the species and thus delivered the fatal straw.
“Your precious species,” Sydney said, standing up. “I’m a dead end. I do nothing for the continuation of our precious species.”
At those words, Harry flew upward and settled on the back of Sydney’s chair. He proceeded to do an odd little back and forth dance with his head, hopping from one foot to another and then with his beak almost on Sydney’s cheek screeched “I like your body. I like what it does. It like its hows.”
“Now that’s somewhat apropos,” I exclaimed, ignoring the tears I now saw in Sydney’s eyes.
“Don’t take it on yourself, mate,” Captain Noble roared out. “We’re all just doing a fine job of sinking our ship.”
At that moment a servant went up to the Emissary and handed him a note. The Emissary read it and then looked up at me.
“We’ve taken up a young gentleman by the name of Ned Parsall…”
“Ned!” I shouted, getting up from my chair, surprised when Harry flew to my shoulder.
“He’s quartered near you and recognized your name,” the Emissary said.
“Can he join us or is…” I was about to say tarred and feathered temporarily and therefore indisposed.
“His anguish is I would say of the mind and not the body,” the Emissary replied, a faint smile lurking as if he had apprehended my own thought.
In a matter of minutes I was greeting Ned who was indeed physically sound but had the look about him of one who had met some great tragedy. I introduced him to those at table and when he was seated and had eaten, with a hearty appetite for all his downcast demeanor for a bad turn in youth does not quell the appetite for long. I queried as to what had befallen him in Trickle Downs. That very name made him cringe and I at once suspected that the comely lass who had abducted him had broken his heart. Or, perhaps, his purse.
“All I am prepared to say at this point is,” Ned said, clearing his throat, “that what is supposed to stay in Trickle Downs cannot possibly stay in Trickle Downs because. . . because you take it with you.”
Ah! I surmised at once that Ned’s genetic predisposition to jump back and review all words and actions had had disturbing effect on his libertine adventures. Most of what we do, my dear Reader, cannot bear too close an inspection by ourselves and as we are loathe to hear the results of the same made by others, we may fail to change and grow but we do succeed in holding onto what I consider to be the sine qua non of human existence: remaining on good terms with oneself.
Some time later we all adjourned to a very capacious parlor where Brother Frank, Captain Noble and Walter ensconced themselves at a bar at the far end of the room and worked studiously into a bottle of twelve year old Jameson. I noted that the parrot also dipped his beak and thus became quite animated singing one or two ribald songs that I supposed all parrots pick up during their pirate days.
I lingered for a glass or two but was disinclined to go further down that path wherein good whiskey oils the tongue, relieves the watch, and finds a friend behind every pair of eyes. And so thanking the Emissary for his hospitality I departed. Ned was in animated conversation with Sydney when I left and I much admired his ease in doing what I had, in all truth, avoided.
I lay in my bed reading my stalwart Sir Walter Scott as was my bedtime habit and then extinguishing my candle, intent on drifting off into a dream residue of that brilliant novel, found that my stomach was intent on keeping me awake. I have no idea how long it took me to fall asleep or how long I had been asleep when a loud knocking at my door awoke me.
It was Ned. And Sydney. They had come to tell me that whenever I decided to continue my travels they wished to join me. I could detect no liquor on their breaths, but shivering as I was in my night garb and anxious to return myself to Morbius’s arms, I promised to carry on the conversation the very next day. Such a response wouldn’t do and Ned pushed his way into my chamber, apologizing as he did so, but he definitely – for the sake of his own soul—needed to know how to live in the world without jumping back on everything, letting things go as it were, and yet avoiding the disasters, recently suffered by himself, which attend a letting things go attitude.
I must confess that I in no way believed that Sydney shared his view of me and, bringing the issue into the open, wondered why an egoist such as myself would be considered any sort of reliable or desirable companion? Ned’s expression displayed his total bafflement as to my meaning but Sydney at once offered an apology for her prior estimate as to my nature, aware now from what Ned had told her of my very real experiences in Trickle Downs. She believed I had been harshly treated for speaking the truth and considered those who spoke truth to power heroic. I told her I found nothing heroic in tar and feathers, being more victim than hero and had I more acutely observed my surroundings, I would have avoided my ignominious treatment. Ned shook his head and told me that he did not believe that was the case, that I was a man who could observe closely but not allow excessive scrutinizing to preempt action. I was also, Ned told me, not prone to launching into action without circumspection.
I, it seems, was a perfect trapeze artist when it came to avoiding the pitfalls of both extremes. I begged to differ, pleading that I had no particular gift in navigating a safe course through the vagaries of human nature and event. I attempted to remind Ned once again of my less than enviable exit from Trickle Downs but could not quite dwell on that humiliation standing as I was, albeit in nightshirt, before these youthful admirers. I had not, dear Reader, been much subject in my life to such respect nor do I in any way rely upon it, being as it were an inner fortified soul, though one intrigued with the outer world.
We would talk now, or, more exact, after I dressed. When I came out of my toilet, Ned and Sydney – Sydney legs crossed on the floor and Ned, long legs stretched out seated on the sofa – informed me that we three would be a veritable Trois Mousequetaires of the open road. I saw then that Ned’s ease with Sydney was not the result of his having dealt with her gametic ambiguity but quite the opposite. He had identified her as a male, which was not surprising I realized now as he had not been present to hear Sydney’s talk. Had she not brought the matter up, a matter that seemed to possess her? My continued interior reference to Sydney as a female was troublesome in a way that I felt no amount of contemplation could remedy.
I brought myself to wonder – purely for Ned’s sake — out loud as to why she – you — wished to leave the Isle of Babel? Ned blurted out that Sydney had been born on the floating Isle of Babel and had spent his whole life floating above the real world and why then wouldn’t he want to leave it and see what it was like to be in the world and not just floating above it? In that desire, he and Sydney were joined. I was about to say something when Sydney announced that she was tired and couldn’t we continue this talk next day? I refrained from pointing out that I had expressed that same thought while I was yet in nightshirt and returnable to sleep. But I didn’t. When they had gone, I took my pipe and tobacco and went up on deck, hoping that the night air would urge me back to my warm bed.
I found Walter, Brother Frank and Captain Noble on what I called the quarter deck but was in truth a hammock from which one could survey the whole mass of this miraculous hectare of floating earth. They were passing the Jameson and upon seeing me, held it out. Drink is yet another passage to sleep and perhaps the only one left to me so I swigged the bottle and passed it on.
“We’re calming the seas with hearty talk is what we’re doing,” Captain Noble informed me. “And giving Brother Frank here a good launch he’ll be remembering until next time.”
I noticed at once that Harry the parrot seemed drunk for he was shifting somewhat unsteadily from foot to foot on the railing while singing something so low that I couldn’t make it out. I said I thought the parrot was going to fall overboard but Captain Noble looked over at Harry and then shook his head. Harry had stopped his movement and had his head turned and one eye reflecting moonlight fixed on me.
“Don’t harsh my mellow,” he squawked.
“Dawn,” Brother Frank said, dourly, looking up from his cordovans and at me. “I go back at dawn.”
“It’s a bloody shame is what it is,” Captain Noble said. “Every man in his youth’s wild and wildness terrorizes the hearts and minds of them that’s tame. You can’t punish a man his whole life for a wildness that Nature put there. It’s like punishing the great whale for being what it is.”
Brother Frank then told me that in his youth he had rebelled against the monarchy of the floating Isle, bombs being his particular expression, and would have brought the Isle to ground but for a miracle, which he described as the coming of Jesus into his heart. Of course, he had at first interpreted that divine intercession as the work of an informer but after hearing the words of Preacher Joel had made the right attribution. Preacher Joel, I was told, had been an itinerant evangelist brought up to the Isle in similar circumstances as myself. The Captain winked at me as he said this.
“I accept the condemnation of others,” Brother Frank told me. “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed. Save me, and I shall be saved. Jeremiah17.”
“That he does,” Captain Noble said, nodding. “Brother Frank wears it proudly. He’s got his privileged prisoner status cause he’s a model of a terrorist who’s found Jesus.”
“Amen, brother,” Brother Frank said.
“Dudes,” Walter said, swinging the Jameson over his head, “it’s all name calling. The way a world we don’t know talks to us is through what we call `terrorism.’ The way we talk to them is through `war on terror.’ Diplomacy has a chance of working if we were in the same boat. But what we have in the `War on Terror’ that’s being conducted down there is folks in different boats. Why, some ain’t even in boats. It’s not a matter of boats. Different worlds is what I’m saying. What they see, we don’t really know and that’s our problem. Then you get a sudden wake up call that elsewhere we are not being imaged as we image ourselves.”
“Aye,” Captain Noble conceded, accepting the bottle from Walter, “there be strange ways of seeing what’s at the end of a spyglass. Some back in the day say there’s a god in charge of everything that crawls on land and swims in the sea and it’s your task to keep’em all happy. Them ancient folk were throwing bones for guidance or looking to the stars. Back then you were thinking that regardless of what you did your Fate was sealed. Now we think on this here floating isle that that you can be sailing on one sea lane and knowing the others. We can chart’em in. I for one have me doubts. I’ve been to ports down below where folks think whatever they wish for will come to pass. And places too where the thinking is that peace is blowing bombs, if you’ll pardon me, Brother Frank.”
“`Am I not free?’” Brother Frank intoned, “`Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord.’ Corinthians 9.”
“Right you are, Brother Frank,” Captain Nobel continued. “And then there be some ports where the whole sea locker of this here wide world is no more than`Winners’ and `Losers.’ Mates, we swim in the powerful seas of our own imaginations where reason is ruled and words fit a ship’s heading or they’re keelhauled and who puts out the most sail here in other waters stand becalmed.”
I must admit that the good Captain’s words, like much I had heard on this floating isle appropriately named Babel, floated like albatross on waves before my eyes but try as I might I could not reach out to hold them. When I realized that the Irish had soaked through and I was more asleep than awake., I bid my good nights and returned to my quarters.
I have been on this floating isle for over a month now and must report to you, dear Reader, that I am not prepared to abandon my own rational nature and accept the premise that a Grand Magus behind an invisible curtain is the prime mover of my own reason.
I have neither identified this hidden Illusionist entrancing my world, which I continue to see as what my reason directs me to see, nor have been able to extend my circle of acquaintances, by which I mean I continue to hear only babble beyond that circle. I am in no way prepared to believe that the conduct of my own life may be as nonsensically pursued, or compelled by as nonsensical a directive as to seek Genesis in a clothes closet. I can in no way discern what a fool’s belief in mice evolving from old clothes in a closet has to do with me, or for that matter, any rational Englishman? I do not believe that the structure of my own deeply held beliefs may rest on absurdity. I find that every interrogation thrown at me — in hope I suspect of inciting some doubt — has been met with my customary capacity to reason firmly on the side of acceptance or denial.
My dear Reader, in short, I stand with Francis Bacon who would rather believe in the Talmud and the Alcoran than believe this world is without a mind which guides our own toward an understanding that subdues Babel.
I have shown especial forbearance under these circumstances regarding his Majesty’s conviction that a worldly surround can be created within which our human natures may be perfected. I am convinced that those locked into the absurd mission of this floating island of Babel fail to comprehend the natural limits of our human nature in altering a world around us of quite definite dimensions and properties.
All of this aside, I must avow that I am enjoying the good company of Captain Noble and his feathered companion, Pistol, who sees fit to change his name on every occasion.
Brother Frank seems to ferry back and forth between prison and release, his faith in Jesus never waning if one were to measure by line of Scripture quoted.
Microft continues to beg us to consider his newest thought.
Walter, I have observed, becomes more deeply enmeshed in his multiple realities view the more twelve year old Jameson he drinks.
Ned and Sydney each day are more anxious to begin their travels on solid ground, urging me to announce a day of departure. I fail to do so because, for all my reservations regarding Babel, I yet wonder why I can communicate with so few of its citizens. As much as I have launched my own defense against the madness of this place, I cannot in all honesty and justice dismiss what I find here as inferior in understanding, limited in speech, obsessed by mental chimaeras, or disciplines of discord.
His Majesty, whose counsel I have sought as if the mystery of this floating isle would be more likely to be revealed at the heart of power than elsewhere, points to the blind man who either talks differently in our language about the world than we who see it, or one day is able to see but who yet reports more than what we see. The visitor to our Isle sees what we see but at once transforms it to what he is shaped to see. You have a reason or a cause to see and thus you see, his Majesty tells me.
I have more fascination for this talk than understanding.
I cannot disengage myself from thinking that aberrations and credos, nervous impairments and barbarities do much to explain deviant views of the world. And yet, as I say, excepting for the fact that I cannot communicate with most of these Babel inhabitants, whose words I hear but can make no sense of, I must report that they show no sign of deviance of any kind. Someone’s perceptions are impaired here and though I am candid in allowing that the obscuration may lie in reception and not transmission, my critical reason provides no justification for this.
His Majesty has done me the honor of speaking in private conference with me each evening after supper. I find that he is truly the sort of ruler that most rational of Greeks described.
“There is only a mere shadow on the ground below us,” his Majesty began solemnly this evening “of the Divine-saturated world before the Reformation in present day embattled `fundamentalism.’”
I nodded, though I was not as yet very acquainted with this notion of “fundamentalism.” His Majesty had been pursuing for the past several evenings the subject of how ways of living in this world had wielded authority and then vanished.
“History shows us,” his Majesty went on, “from our present vantage point — many battles – whether Galileo’s or Copernicus’s science battles, or Luther’s and Bruno’s religious battles, or Descartes’ and Erasmus’s philosophical battles – that explain a segue from an `age of belief’ to the Enlightenment. However, entrenched belief in a foundational Logos is not a defender behind a wall besieged by `new thought.’ Entrenchment means that it is instilled within perception and thought itself. One is reasonable within this regime of reason; one responds to the revolutionary within that same province of reason. And when the sands upon which all of this is built shift, no amount of former `reasoning’ seems reasonable. The old paradigm, in short, doesn’t get a chance to defend itself. One day Dante’s depiction of Hell has a grip on us and the next day it’s boring and the day after that it’s inconceivable and then, shortly, only a whatever matter.”
I went away that evening mulling over his Majesty’s words, as was my wont, and as usual joined my companions at a favorite pub of Captain Noble. They had all, including Brother Frank, just returned from bowling, a favorite vocation of Walter’s.
Walter’s query brought me awake, for I had been staring into the creamy whiteness of my pint.
“I asked you whether you figured out why his Majesty can talk to anyone on the Isle,” Walter said. I told him I didn’t know.
“It’s because of power,” Brother Frank said. “He’s got the power to make his voice understood all over. It’s all set up so it fits his understanding. Not ours. ‘I have the power to harm you” saith the Lord. Genesis 31:29.”
“He’s a shape changer,” Captain Noble said. “Is what he is. His mind adapts.”
“Lorenzo!” the parrot screeched.
“He wants you to call him Lorenzo this evening,” the Captain told me.
“So if God is the ultimate power, Brother Frank,” Walter said, “then we’re all set up to fit his understanding?”
“Earthly power contaminates,” Brother Frank said in a surly tone. “`Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the isle like fine dust.’ Isaiah 40.
At this Brother Frank clenched one fist and shook it as if he were grinding in that fist this isle of Babel into fine dust. I found the look on his face alarming.
I then wondered what linked me to Brother Frank’s world? I was a man of faith but my faith did not bury my reason nor did I find need to affirm it on every occasion as Brother Frank did. He was also a man capable of blowing up his fellows in the name of a political cause. I was, my dear Reader, as far from understanding that state of mind as one could get.
And yet Brother Frank was in my communicative circle. As was Captain Noble who had spent his life steering this Isle along what he called the sea lanes of the open sky. Walter’s emotions over ran his reason and was much distant from my own equanimity of temperament and cool deliberation.
I was pondering this when Ned and Sydney joined us. I thought at once how strange it was that I could comprehend Sydney’s words and Sydney could comprehend mine. But perhaps that was not the case? Perhaps it was the case if we spoke of the weather or the beer but what if more were attempted? Sydney and Ned had become bosom friends in spite of the fact that Ned continued to assume Sydney was a man. Does anything endure if there is such bedrock misunderstanding? I began to see that I had little idea of what mattered and what didn’t matter when it came to my fellow creatures. I believed now more than ever what the poet Chapman says of us: `Man is a torch borne in the wind, a dream but of a shadow.”
I have great cause to remember my last talk with his Majesty before that most sagacious of rulers was blown to bits in his own chambers and I was put under arrest by a man, Don Rodrigo, Captain of his Majesty’s Guard, who would become the nemesis of my travels.
“No one knows how new paradigms float in and replace the old but they suddenly do,” his Majesty began on that fateful evening. “After a varying period of inconceivability suddenly it’s all conceivable in a totally new way. The old sloughs off like the skin of the snake. Note, my dear Gulliver, that no snake talks about the new skin being better than the old. We can say that the Goddess Fortuna has wrought terrific and sudden changes on the meta-talk level. Think of the disaster referred to on the ground below as 9/11. Perhaps too, long lasting conflicts, like festering wounds, destroy what is, while nothing is yet there to replace it. Think of the Roman Empire. Or quite by surprise the old order of seeing dries up like a dying leaf and fades away and it is as if it never existed. Think of your English poet Shelley’s `Ozymandias.’ Or there is a persistent challenge, at first almost unrecognized, which overthrows the resident order. Think of cancer. Or a mild mannered reporter turns into a superhero: Think steroids. When we look back we can see no bridge from one to the other, from the old to the new. Perhaps we change into whatever technology makes us of. This I think is the saddest state of affairs.”
At that moment, Don Rodrigo was ushered in, which was not unusual as he often appeared with some urgent business or other. On this evening he reported that Brother Frank, a privileged prisoner of his Majesty’s Correctional Facility, had been apprehended in the garden below. He had been awaiting my departure, as had been pre-arranged. I had no memory of this and realize now that I should have attested to this but I did not for fear of jeopardizing Brother Frank’s already limited freedom. I therefore said – and this proved fateful – that Brother Frank and I were to meet and then go on to meet mutual friends. Don Rodrigo, perhaps finely tuned over the years to detecting lies, gave me a puzzled look for if he could tell I was lying, he could not fathom a reason as to why I was lying. As it turned out, they had laid hold of Brother Frank too late for he had already set his bomb. I was in fact seated not too far from it.
“The canopy within which our talk rises,” his Majesty went on when Don Rodrigo had left us. “is a nebulous, not quite graspable kind of enclosure, a framing within which we talk or not about things, decide to do or not do things. If we look closely enough we can see that the structure of power is there but it’s no more than opportunistic. I am king, my dear Gulliver, but I am under this canopy within which all talk arises. Or not. Here on the floating isle we have sought and found many such canopies and have drawn them up. All power works itself into new and sudden arrangements of things. But the power of church or king does not rule these changes. Medieval Church power did not grow into the Enlightenment’s different way of seeing the world. Nor did that Enlightenment way win its debate with Church power. Feudal power did not create the bourgeosie. The workings of power transferred after minds and perceptions shifted. Power, like a skillful operator, disseminates itself within the new arrangement, not pausing to question or contest origin. Causal chains were forged after the fact but the point remains: the relations of power are like a parasite that has worked hard to obtain its place. The new, unknown body demands that all the work of power be done over again. But ways of seeing and knowing change regardless of the approval or disapproval of present context and temporal power.”
At that his majesty cleared his throat, eyed me in particular and said the last words I was to ever hear from his lips, “Including the approval or disapproval of a king.”
I was awoken first by the sound of the explosion, jumped from my bed and hastily dressed. I had a hand out reaching for the door when there was a loud knocking and then the door was battered open and I was seized by both arms and Don Rodrigo walked into the room. His expression was like none I had ever seen. He slapped me hard across the face and told me that I would pay dearly for what I had done. I professed that I knew not what had been done and he grabbed me with a gloved hand by the throat. “When one kills a king, one kills a world.” Before I could respond a halter rope was placed around my neck, squeezed till my eyes popped and I was pulled out of the room.
I counted the days in my dark prison cell by my hunger. A tin plate of unknowable and unspeakable food slid under my cell door when my hunger pangs were at their worst. Every tin plate was a day. After ten days, I was brought out and put on trial. Everything about that courtroom was unbearable: the faces, angry to ferociously angry faces, and the blinding sunlight which I had not seen for days, and the sheer volume of noise that arose when I was led in – all this defeated me, my dear Reader, before my trial had begun.
“Courage sans peur!” a voice I knew screamed out and I saw then Captain Noble and the parrot in a far off row of seats with Ned, Walter, Microft next to them.
I was brought up to the Defense’s table where Sydney was standing. I didn’t understand.
“I can make them see your innocence,” Sydney said. “And, besides, I’m a good barrister.”
I listened as the case against me was presented.
I had assisted the prisoner Brother Frank in gaining entrance to his Majesty’s quarters where he had planted the deadly bomb. Captain Rodrigo, whose testimony was so detailed and certain that I myself became suspicious of myself, stated that had I not given an alibi for Brother Frank’s presence in his Majesty’s garden, Brother Frank would have been apprehended and a thorough search ordered of his Majesty’s quarters.
“Conjecture and mere speculation,” Sydney objected. “The man was on privileged release. He was so because there was no fear that he would be leaving bombs about the place. No bomb search would have been conducted whether the Defendant gave a reason for Brother Franks’ presence in the garden or not.”
I was encouraged by this counter and hoped it scored well with the jury.
Upon further questioning Don Rodrigo said that had I not sanctioned the bomber’s presence, he would have been brought immediately back to prison where he now would be. But Brother Frank had timed the bomb so that he could make his escape. The assumption was that he had gotten off the floating Isle.
In the closing, Sydney asked the jury to consider why if I were an accomplice had I just gone to bed rather than escaped with Brother Frank? Sydney asked what reasons I could have for regicide when my own history had no connection with the floating Isle of Babel except as one who had arrived by accident, a comment which provoked the Prosecution to afterward point out that I arrived feathered and tied to a rail and so had clearly been punished for some previous crime.
While Sydney was speaking a court attendant brought me a note which I unfolded and read “He takes up our Isle like fine dust.” Cryptic indeed.
The closing on the other side presented me as one whose words, no need to speak of reasons and actions, were comprehensible to very few on the Isle and therefore it was fruitless to consider motivation. Don Rodrigo had testified that I had on more than one occasion admitted to wanting to leave the Isle but feared expressing that desire. A man who thinks he is a prisoner may strike out at those he feels are imprisoning him, in this case, his Majesty.
The jury went into a deliberation — a deliberation whose outcome I was never to know — I was placed in a holding cell in the courtroom and then all the lights went out, the Isle stopped moving, began to shutter and rattle, tremble and convulse, windows shattered, everything went upside down and then like an elevator sprung from its supporting cable, plunged downward. The ceiling of my cell vanished and I found myself flying through the air, along with all manner of worldly goods that so instantaneously become debris in such catastrophes.
The Isle was no more than five meters from the ground when I took flight and had it been any higher my traveling days would have abruptly come to an end. As I lay in a field of high grass, eyes glazed, close to passing out, I saw the Isle above me jerk to a stop and spring upward as if some invisible elasticity had come into play. I then saw the Isle disappear far above and to the west of me. And perhaps, too, it was only my eyelids that had closed and thus I had made the world disappear.
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