The Sage

“FORLORN!” he often drunken said, “Forlorn are they that roam the chasms of the mind!  Forlorn are they that stand in pause without!” and then a tipsy grin would trip across his face, “and between them,” he’d interrupt his wandering speech and laugh a luxurious and drunken laugh—a laugh of indifferent wisdom, the breed of scoff as often fills a vasty space of silence with the intoxic foam of apathy, “between them stands a chasm,” he’d try once more: “indeed, there is a chasmic chasm between the roamer and the stander standing—a chasm as great and as profound as the stander’s pause and the roamer’s roaming mind.  So that he that roams is lost and he that stands knows not where he’s standing.  Forlorn,” he’d raise his bottle again, “forlorn are they.”  And then he’d drink.

They called him the philosopher, or the sage.  And often he was hated and often too drunk to know he was hated so.  I’ve heard him called ‘malignant’ and ‘a corruption to the youth’, and many would spin a sumptuous length of impressive, lengthy adjectives to hang derisively before his title, but regardless, regardless of if they called him a “profane, disgraceful, distasteful, despicable, detestable, deplorable, malevolent, misanthropic, abominable, insufferable, insubordinate…” and many seemed reluctant to finish their impressive thread, perhaps being unsure of what noun to attach to the end of it, and so regardless of with what profoundly expressive words that lengthy list was comprised, at the end was always attached—whether out of a want for creativity or an abhorred veneration for the man held darkly in the deep chasm of the heart—attached to the end was always the four-letter word ‘sage’.

And venerate him they did.  Though they were disgusted by him beyond the measure of words, they listened.  And when they listened, he spoke.

I went to hear the man speak once.  Far off in his study I found him, laying atop a crooked mountain of books.  Indeed the whole room was filled with books and other strange objects.  The books were all laying out carelessly, opened or closed, with multiple volumes scattered throughout the small, dark room and pages missing, which could be found here and there intermixed with the rest, and sometimes even covers were torn from their places, again laying among the rest, which would have led one to question whether the poor condition of these books was the consequence of mere carelessness or deliberate destruction and disdain.  Other strange members of the gallimaufry included a golden pocket watch; a very nice, victorian-styled smoking-pipe; a beautiful, ceramic, full-body sculpture of Athena—missing only its nose and laying sideways; a gel model of a human hand; fine china and silverware—all of which was broken if it could be; a fine romantic portrait of a noble lady—the frame of which lay in pieces mingled about the portrait, and one of which pieces was stabbed directly through one of the pearls that made up her necklace; and among all of this mess were of course a number of corks and many shards of smashed liquor bottles scattered between everything else and ready to pierce the foot of the first man foolish enough to walk around in that room without exceptionally precautious footwear.  All in all it was a shamelessly gaudy mess that displayed an equally careless monetary extravagance as treatment of valuables.

As we have already mentioned, the room was dark.  Indeed, it was quite dark, and musty.  This was because on that night that I went to visit the man, as on all other nights, the exclusive sources of light in the room were a crooked chandelier of candles, made of gold, with garishly ornamented arms, and hanging almost just above the sage’s head, and a plethora of other small candles on silver or golden candlesticks, all of which were sitting among the rest of the mess, with no particular care being taken to avoid setting fire to the many highly flammable paper items—and indeed, it smelled as if such an occurrence was not uncommon.  These luminaries but scarcely lit the creaky wooden floors and pealing yellowing wall paper, making it hard to see and dangerous to step.

That night, as on all other nights, the philosopher lay on his back on the top of a mountain of books in the centre of the room, drinking his liquor and babbling to himself.  We must be careful when we use the word ‘drinking’, as this does not seem to fully describe what it was the drunken man did—he was indeed drinking, but only a small quantity of the liquor that he poured directly out of his bottle; the rest dribbled back out of his mouth, as he murmured on with a soft droning voice, and trickled over his ugly face and ugly grey beard.  That liquor which escaped seeped its way deep into the philosophical pages of the books upon which he lay and accounted for the overwhelming aroma of alcohol that filled the room and seemed to inebriate everything in it, so that from the noble woman in the painting, to the sculpture of Athena, to the very walls and candlesticks, everyone, and everything, seemed drunk.

When I came upon this scene, for a long time I merely stood in silent awe, observing it all.  Then, approaching the man in the centre, I began to slowly make my way into the large mess, which reached so far out from the mountain of books in the middle that it filled the entire room and made it impossible to speak to the man from a comfortable range of distance without being dragged into the heart of it.

As I advanced, I began to hear the man’s musty murmuring only slightly better, and focusing too much on trying to make out what he was saying and too little on where I was stepping, I inadvertently kicked something over—I’m not sure what it was—and it made a hearty crashing sound.  At that, some intelligible words began to just scarcely emerge out of the drunk’s babbling, much like the pile of books in the centre that gradually erected out of the confused mess that surrounded them:

“Is that you, Samuel?” he groaned, “You’re such a rat, you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I remained silent.

“Well, you rat?  What do you want?”

Still silence.  He lifted his head and looked at me.

“Oh.  It’s you.  You’re not Samuel.  You’re … who are you?” I stared at him blankly, “Pah!” he waved me away with his hand, “I don’t care who in the god-forsaken physical universe you are.  Go away.”

I still didn’t know what to say.  He started babbling again, and went on for a good moment or so before he turned and looked at me once more.

“You’re still here?  Well, what in the name of existential idiocy do you want!”

“I—” I didn’t know what I wanted.

“You what?” he looked at me impatiently, “You are who?”

“I’m—” I furrowed my brow.  What right had he to ask me who I was?  “Who are you?”

“Ah,” he laughed a brassy laugh, “so that’s what you want, whoever you are.”  he turned away and lay on his back again.  Taking another drink in the same manner already described, he began to speak, making a grand, narcissistic show of the first few words: “I am one who knows.  Not one who thinks, but merely one who knows.” he laughed, “I am a man who, as Isaac Newton once said, ‘sits on the shoulders of giant idiots’.  Every kind of work and every kind of thought of every kind of man of every kind of mankind sits below me, all worthless and gargled about,” he spit out some liquor and waved his bottle, spilling much of its contents about, “and I,” he went on, “I lie on top.  Before me were men of honour,” he said this with a sarcastic emphasis on its triteness, “hard-working men, with all sorts of ridiculous virtues and passions.  By all the laboursome labouring and such mores as are congenial to progress, they’ve heaped together a massive pile of—of what?  Wisdom?” he laughed again, as if this notion itself were exceedingly humorous and even entertaining, “What man has constructed is a pile of words.  It isn’t worth much, and it doesn’t mean anything, but it makes for a comfortable throne on which to stretch out and lie.  And that is exactly my purpose here; I have every intention of stretching out and lying so much that credulous men will think my lies are true.  But what is this to you?  What’s your business in coming here?” as he spoke these last questions, he rolled over onto his belly and turn to look at me, supporting his head with a tripod formed by his two arms, each holding up either cheek, and swinging his feet back and forth behind him, so that he very nearly resembled a school-girl at a sleep over, eager to hear the latest gossip.

“I have no business.  I just wanted to hear you speak—to know if what they say about you is true.”

“And what do they say about me?” he asked this as if he had never been told before and was excessively eager to hear me say it.  We can only assume that this eagerness was the result of a strange pride that he took in his deplorable reputation, causing him to delight in hearing about it, for there is no doubt that others had told him of it countless times before.

“That you’re a cynic,” I replied stiffly, “and an ignoramus.”

At this, he laughed hideously, “Ah, yes, well I must admit I am.  Some people have their heads in the sand, others in the clouds, and still others haven’t heads at all.  I confess to you with barbaric shamelessness that I belong to this third category.  So let them call me an ignoramus, for I am one who knows, not one who cares.”  He rolled onto his back again and began preaching, raising his bottle to the ceiling as if he were addressing the chandelier, “A wise man,” he said, “is a man who cares.  Indeed, the substance of wisdom is passion, not knowledge.  I am not a wise man; I am an ignoramus—an omniscient ignoramus.  That outside these decaying walls there are men, women, and children, suffering, anguishing, starving to death, is of no significance to me.  This is simply because I don’t care.  I know it very well—I know everything very well—but I am not wise in it because it signifies nothing.  Knowledge without perspective is not wisdom but a mere mess of words.  And this I know very well.”

“But why?  Why doesn’t it mean anything to you?”

“Why?  Why should it mean anything to me?  Indeed, why should it mean anything to anyone?  A man is a peculiar arrangement of dust.  From all other things he is only peculiar—not extraordinary, mind you—but peculiar.  He will exist in his particular form for a time, and perhaps even cause another arrangement of dust so strange as he to arise, but very soon he will begin to grow old, and as he grows old, his form will start to change, and as it changes, it will gradually become evident that it was nothing so extraordinary after all.  For soon, it will lie in the earth once more, where its form will continue to change, and change, until, one day not far off from the man’s birth, his form resembles nothing less peculiar to himself than to anything else.  Then, all that’s left of him may be a couple of peculiar words, which we might set down in a book—if they should be so peculiar as to merit such an exercise—and then, we may throw that book somewhere among the rest of the meaningless heap, where it will slowly, at its own rate, decay into the forgetfulness of other men.”

“But what of his soul?”

“His soul?  Now come, my charming idiot, even to you it should be obvious that the soul is something wise men made up to entertain themselves.  There is no soul.  This I know well.  If a man had a soul, why would he have a body?  Everyone acknowledges this simple fact in ordinary life, but when they turn to philosophy, they suddenly invent this ridiculous conception of a ‘soul’ in order to give themselves something to talk about.  If I bump into you, and you say, ‘excuse me’, and I scoff at you in reply (as I am most apt to do), this is because my body has exerted force on your body.  Not even the most unknowing of wise men would think that ‘bumping into a person’ refers to some abstract collision of normative concepts.  A man is his body, or else he is nothing.”

“So is there then no god?”

“Ha!  My boy, now have you ever asked the question!” he became quite excited at this, and in his frenzy, he flung liquor everywhere, so that an unsettling quantity fell even on me and began to seep into the fabric of my attire.  “You’ll want to sit yourself down for this one!  Grab yourself that monkey’s butt and use it as a stand for yours!”  I looked around and realised he must have been referring to a large, taxidermal figure of an ape, bending over to reach out as if for a banana on a lower branch, making its bottom an excellent place for sitting.  This I used as a stool, according to the sage’s advice, and listened as he began to degrade the fundamental principle of all mankind to utter dust.

“Gods,” he began, “are the inventions of dissatisfied minds.  A mind that wanders and a mind that sits idle is a mind without a reason to exist.  There is nothing of substance that the human mind may observe, so it resorts to making things up.  If there were a soul, then why would there be a body?  And if there were a perfect god, then why would there be an imperfect man?”

“So man is imperfect?”  Sitting in the hunched position which seemed most conducive of the ape-seat, I began to stroke my chin with one hand, looking, I suppose, rather like an ape myself.

“Of course.  Why, do you suppose he is perfect?”

“Well, no.  I just wonder—if you have some definition of imperfection, then you must have a concept of perfection, in which case, you have perspective, and in which case, you are wiser than you give yourself credit, for everything around you must have significance, and—”

“—Woah woah woah woah woah!  I see what you’re doing.  Don’t try that stuff with me.  I’m the Odysseus of philosophers—I’m well traveled, and I can cheat my way out of anything.  Perfection and imperfection are merely physical properties.  Like colours.  Colours exist relative to other colours.  We know that red is red because it is not blue, but this doesn’t signify anything, it’s just a part of the meaningless nature of the universe.  It’s the wise men, like you,”—at this point, it was clear that ‘wise’ was to be considered a derogatory term—”who assign these properties meaning, with your gods and such.  But simply because I acknowledge that the properties exist, I am not therefore obligated to care about them.”

“I must say, you are quite a postmodern philosopher.”

“Most philosophers are so postmodern that they deny the existence of postmodernism as a philosophy; others are so pre-modern that they don’t even believe in it.  I am neither.  Postmodernism is simply a quality of philosophy, you may assign it to me or not as you please, but it signifies nothing.”

There was a pause, and I used the time to think.  It was growing late, and the candles were growing short—something that I suppose only candles can do.  A few had even burnt out.  But the aroma of alcohol didn’t cease to fill the air, and all the splendour of mankind still sat below the disbelieving sage.

“Then let me ask you this, my cynical sir,” I restarted our dialogue, “How do you know these things?”

“What do you mean?  Through observation of course!”

“So you observe other men and have found them to be meaningless?  Then, I take it meaninglessness is a quality assigned just like imperfection?”

“Indeed.  Maybe you’re not so stupid after all.”

“Then what is so meaningless about meaninglessness?  You are a self-aware being in a world full of other self-aware beings, all of whom are making observations about the world around them and holding those observations against certain normative conceptions in order to assign them qualities.  Isn’t that the very definition of meaningfulness?  Perfection, imperfection, meaninglessness, meaningfulness, these are all perspectives held on the normative and empirical world, giving it significance.”

“I take back what I said about your intelligence.  That ape was smarter than you; at least he has become a subject of taxidermy, extending the existence of his peculiar form for a number of years after his death.  Your words, on the other hand, are so ordinary and unpeculiar, that they shan’t even find their way to the memory of mankind.  The normative qualities of things are just another realm of things—normative things, mind you, but things nonetheless.  If I have decided that physical things are meaningless, what makes you think I should find normative things meaningful?”

I took no head of his argumentum ad hominem, “Precisely because they are universal.  All men find things to have the same qualities.  The concepts of perfection and imperfection are transcendent of the things they describe and necessarily exist in the minds of all rational creatures.  But such concepts are transcendent even of the minds in which they exist.”

“There you go—you wise man—making up dogma about gods and significance!—”

“—And what of love?  The ability for a rational creature to substitute his own existence and well-being with that of another?”

“What of that?  It’s rubbish!  It happens, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything.  The ‘well-being’ of a man is really of no significance, so how can sacrificing it or saving it mean anything?”

“It has to mean something.  We call it well-being because, according to the transcendental principles of the normative world, it is good for things to exist.”

At this the man hesitated.  He had in fact submitted that there is such a thing as well-being.  So the Odysseus of philosophers, the man of ‘poluntroppos‘, took the discussion for a turn,  “Well I must say, you have me there.  I do in fact find love quite entertaining.”  He took a drink casually, and another few candles in the room quietly flickered out.  “Love,” he began again, “love is perhaps the most interesting part of this meaningless universe.  At least the universe is interesting.”  He wavered around from one idea to another like a drunk man wandering the streets.  “Of course, the only true love is unrequited.”  Now he spoke with more purpose, “Any old lethargic narcissist can love when it feels good, but only the man stupid enough to choose to love even when it causes him agony, only he can be called a true romantic.  Romeo and Juliet was only a good love story for the first two scenes—the rest is ridiculous rubbish.”  He took another drink and looked off into the distance, suddenly quite placidly, peering through a skylight in the ceiling, as if into his memory, and he tried to recall an ancient adage, “A wise man once said,” Suddenly his look of ponderance left, and he frowned, as if he had forgotten himself, “What am I saying?  Quoting a wise man?  What I meant to say is this bit of foolish knowledge: If you love something, let it go; it won’t come back, but do it anyway—it’s mildly entertaining.”  At this he chuckled, but only softly, and mildly.  “I did that once,” he began again, “I—I wrote a poem about it.  Would you like to hear?”  He turned and looked at me.

I was quite simply enraptured as I marvelled at this man and the profound range of forms he could take on.  Once he was as a drunk, then as a mad man, and he was now as an innocent dreamer.  I nodded gently, as if in a trance, to encourage him to continue.  At which he began to recite his poem, droning in his drunken way, but gently:

How she was sweet as zephyrs in the autumn

In cool caress the arboretum’s dead

And raise, those careless currants, dancing dead

Among the hesitating arboretum boughs.

“How she was pretty as hesitating branches

Will bend and blush embarrassed, ashamed to smile

At dancing dead who rise to raise that blush

As handsome roses in the sun at evening’s end.

“How she was beautiful as autumn’s romantic, flaming gloaming

Habitually robes the desolate scape in celestial rays,

And hesitating rays of sweetest, golden evanescence,

In passion, they die among the leafs to rise no more—

And all is lost.

There was a long silence during which the lovely guiltlessness of this man’s melancholy dissipated through that dark, inebriated room.  Suddenly the misanthropic smirk had turned to a romantic frown.  But darkness yet lurked in the far corners of the room, and many more candles had gone out while I was entranced with this man’s charm.  They were now extinguishing with greater and greater frequency.

“Then isn’t the sheer beauty of that experience worth living for?” I asked softly, “It has begotten such exquisite art.”

“Worth living for?  Living?  The only difference between art and ‘real life’ is that we live life for the mere fun of it.  Sure, love is entertaining, but it isn’t even real.  It dies.”

“But isn’t that part of its beauty?  As you said in the poem… what did you say?  ‘How she was beautiful as … hesitating rays … they die’ … didn’t you say that she was beautiful because of her evanescence?”

“I don’t know.”  Said the man who knows everything, “I can never know what she was; there was no way for me to peer into her mind.  What is love if it can’t even know of its object?  What is love if one can never truly know what the other feels, suffers, and thinks?

“My dear idiot, I am not a wise man, but I know this:” he took a drink before continuing.  Then, drunken, he abruptly shattered the tranquil atmosphere that had so become the room, “Forlorn!” he cried, and more candles went out, “Forlorn are they that roam the chasms of the mind!  Forlorn are they that stand in pause without!” the candles died, all but one, “and between them,” this last candle flickered.  He laughed, as one who knows, “between them stands a chasm–indeed, a chasm as great and as profound as the stander’s pause and the roamer’s roaming mind.  So that he that roams is lost and he that stands knows not where he’s standing.  Forlorn,” the last candle died, “forlorn are they.”

The room was very dark, lit only by the ominous glow of the moon, which gazed down through a skylight from high above, in the heavens, casting a long shadow of the sage across the floor as he preached and spat, laying atop his glorious mountain of knowledge.  The portrait of the noble lady and the statue of Athena looked sinister and menacing, lit there in the silver darkness of knowledge.  The man went on preaching and seemed to forget me as he spoke.  I too seemed to forget him.  Little by little he seemed darker and darker to me, till he was only a silhouette, and then a mere shadow.  His speech likewise faded from intelligible words to murmuring, so that he seemed as a wretched demon, imprecating a horrible curse on all mankind from atop his throne.

I started for the door, and hearing me leave, he shouted out after me, “Is that you Samuel?  You rat!”

As I rushed out of that place, dawn approached from the East.  The horizon slowly faded from black to purple to grey to red, according to each contrasting quality of its ascension.  The cold, wandering zephyrs crispened the morning dew and carried with them the sweetest sounds of church bells ringing far off in the distance.  And the perfect, broken harmony of all of nature cried in steady solemn tones, “Behold, there is a God in Heaven, forlorn among the fallen men of earth!”

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