The Pursuit of Happy Meals

“And what to drink?”

“A Diet Coke.”

“Will that be all, sir?”

“That’ll do it.”

“Okay, sir, let me repeat the order: two large cheese-burger, a side of freedom fries, a Diet Coke, and a medium ice cream cone.”

“Not freedom fries, just freedom.”

“A side of freedom, sir?”

“Right.”  There was a brief pause as the man without a face presumably entered the order into the register.  In theories of rhetoric, it is widely believed that a detailed description of a particular scene will generally facilitate vivid mental imagery.  This in turn will cause a greater impact on the reader or audience.  So while the man without a face is entering the order, allow me, like a good writer, to take this moment to describe the scene for you—before the story gets ahead of itself and has to wait for itself to catch up.

The sky was like an ocean that a giant, who prefers particularly creamy tea, had filled with the proportionate amount of milk for a brew that size.  That is to say that the sky was, as it usually is, a light shade of blue.  Can you picture that?  Under the blue sky, there was a horrifying, ceramic clown head—certainly no excuse for a face—held up by two purple metal poles, with a bright shiny speaker like a bad root canal in its mouth.  The man without a face was speaking through this speaker.  He had a young, innocent voice, almost childish.  Beside this head and speaker was our gentleman’s red convertible.  The gentleman’s convertible had converted itself so that the top was down, since, as we have noted, the sky was blue.

“Okay, sir, and would you like to oversize© that today?”  The man without a face interrupted our description.

“Do I not sound American to you?”

“Very good, sir.  Do you want the toy that comes with the meal?”

“The toy?  What is it?”

“It’s a car, sir.”

“Oh, gee, um, I would, you see, but I’m a busy man.”  He was hesitant at first, but then he gravely added, “I don’t have time to play with toys.”

“Sir, I really think you should take the toy.”  He spoke sincerely.

“I’m telling you I don’t have time!”  The gentleman was a bit annoyed.

“Sir, do you have any young ones, sir?”

“One.”

“A boy or a girl?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Maybe your little boy or girl would like the car.”

“Hm…I suppose that’s a valid point.  Hold on.  He’s right here, let me ask him.”  The gentleman turned to ask his son whether he would like the toy that comes with the meal.  “He says he wants it.  Throw it in I guess.”

“Throw what in where?”

“The toy!  Throw the toy in with the meal!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t throw things sir.” The gentleman didn’t even respond.  “It’s a matter of policy.  A Cadillac or a Corolla?”

“What makes you think an eight-year-old boy is gonna know the difference between a Cadillac and a Corolla?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but if you’re only eight years old, then by law I am prohibited from serving you in the drive-through.  It’s a matter of policy.”

“My son, you idiot!  Not me, my son!  I’m a forty-year-old proletarian breadwinner, past his prime, and suffocating in my bleached-perfectly-white collar of choler, which grows tighter every day!  I only have half an hour to take little Jimmy out to lunch before I have to drop him back at his enriching grade school and return to my tiny, sweaty little office.  I don’t have time for—”

“—would you like that for here or to go?”

“To go, you idiot!”

“Sir, I really think you should eat it here.”

“You what!”

“It’s just, people usually tend to enjoy it better here.  Especially—”

“Enjoy!  People usually enjoy!”  The gentleman was hysterical.

“—Especially when they order a side of freedom.”

“Did you not hear a word I said?  I don’t have any free time at all.  The most I can afford to do is take the freedom to go.”

“But sir it doesn’t work that way.  It’s a matter of–“

“–Give me one, clear, practical reason why I should stay here.”

“Sir, there is a play land out back.”  He nearly pleaded.

“I’m too old for play lands.”

“No sir, it’s not that kind of play land.  I really think you would enjoy it.”

“The nerve you have!  It wasn’t long ago that your average, decent man would be ashamed even  at the thought of a play land for adults.  Now, thanks to the clever Freudian intellectuals and what have you, they’re proud to shout about the sort of thing freely from loudspeakers in front of children!”

“Sir you misunderstood me.  It’s not a play land just for adults either.  It’s a play land for everyone.  All ages, all kinds.  It’s something that Freud could never have dreamed of—and that man certainly knew how to dream.  But this has nothing to do with dreams.  It’s real.”

“Oh, I’ll bet!  I know exactly what this has to do with!  I’m taking my freedom to go—thank you very much—and when I get home from work, I’m yelping about you for false advertising!”

“Do you have time for that sort of thing?”

“You better believe I do!  I have time for whatever I want.  It’s a free country, isn’t it?”  The question was clearly rhetorical, but the gentleman seemed almost unsure.

“I don’t know.  Do you feel free?  I thought you came here looking for freedom.”

“Here?  Here is the last place I’d look for freedom!  That’s why you’re advertising is false.  You tell the public that you can offer them life, freedom, and the pursuit of happy meals, but then when someone asks you to deliver, all you can talk about is some imaginary play land.”

“I told you it’s not imaginary.”  He pouted.  “They serve apple pie.  Part of the healthy-eating act.  You can probably smell it from there.”

“A fantastical play land, floating in the sky, where they serve healthy-eating apple pie.  I’d sooner die.”

“Sir, it’s no such thing.  If you would come in, I could show you it, and you’d understand.  Or really…I can’t say if you’d understand, but you’d definitely believe what I’m telling you.”

“No thanks.  Nothing could be so spectacular that it’s worth the time it would take me to park the car in this sketchy part of town, climb every last one of those brown-tile steps” (of which there were two) “and creek open that slimy smiley-face-door to come in.  That’s not to mention the danger of leaving my car unattended around here.”

“I assure you, there is no need to worry about your car.  There is a car that comes with the meal if you need one.  But what I want to show you is a lot better than that.”

“You’re full of lies.  If I leave my car here someone will hot-wire it and drive off.  Don’t think the internet wouldn’t here about that!  I’ll write everything.  I’ve also heard you’re culinary methods are unethical.  I’m reporting animal abuse and auto-theft.”

“It’s true that our products use a lot of resources.  But I assure you nothing is wasted.”

“I knew it!  You’re killing perfectly innocent cows, aren’t you?  You ought to be ashamed!”

“No, sir, not cows.”

“What then?”

“Men.  Actually, just one man. One perfectly innocent man.”  He was entirely frank.  “That’s all it took, but many others followed him on their own.  All volunteers of course.”

“Look, don’t mess with me.”  The gentleman’s tone changed drastically.  “I have a gun.”

“Sir, it’s the freedom.” Both parties were dead serious.  “You see, it’s hard to come by.  You can’t just get it to go.  It’s a matter of policy.”  By this point, the gentleman had realized that this was no ordinary drive-through.  He and his son had gotten a little lost on the way over, when they came to this place instead of another.  He had assumed the whole ‘freedom’ thing was just some kind of joke.  A funny name for a menu item, exaggerating just how wonderful the potato squares must be, or something like that.  Now, however, it clearly must have been more literal.  Frighteningly so.  He would have left right then and there, were he not overwhelmed with a morbid kind of curiosity.

“You’re killing men?”

“For freedom sir.  That’s why it doesn’t cost anything.  It comes with the meal.”  This was indeed how it was listed on the menu.  “But as a courtesy, if you do order the freedom, we ask that you be willing to go next.”

“To go next?  What do you mean?”  He was afraid to ask.

“To follow the man.”

“But I want to get away from The Man!  That’s why I’m asking for freedom in the first place.”

“No, I mean, you must be willing to die, just like the innocent man was.  You won’t have to die, not really.  Certainly no one will force you to die if you don’t want to.  You just need to be willing to die if you order the freedom.”  This was the most ridiculous thing that Jimmy or his father had ever heard.  There was something eerie too about the way it was said.  The gentleman could have sworn that the man speaking had suddenly become possessed.  Or perhaps it was the ceramic clown head itself that was possessed.  Perhaps he, his son, and that horrific, haunted head were really the only ones there, and this mysterious acousmata, this dire, disembodied voice was insinuating something much more dreadful than anything he could imagine.

“I’ll take my meal now.  How much do I owe?”

“Nothing sir.  But would you like the freedom?”

“Yes, but to go please.”

“You can’t have freedom to go.”  Was that the man talking or the ceramic clown head?

“What on earth could be in this ‘freedom’ that makes it worth all that?”  He laughed uncomfortably.

“Well, I’ve known many people to get a lot out of it.”  The cashier’s innocent, childish tone resumed.  “One fellow, much like yourself, sir, was in a bad marriage, a bad job, and a bad mountain of debts, and this changed everything.”

“So it’s a loop-hole?”  The gentleman had been meaning to get a divorce, quit his job, and file for bankruptcy, but who has the time?  If this ‘freedom’ could take care of all that without any rigmarole…

“—Sir, I didn’t finish.  In that fellow’s case, the marriage, the job, and the mountain of debts still went on just the same.  This only took the bad out of them.”  The gentleman was confused, but he didn’t know what to ask.

“But why do I need to die?”

“You don’t.  Like I said, someone else already volunteered for that position.”

“That’s right.  I forgot.  I only need to be willing to die.  Well then, what if I—how about this: if you give me this freedom…to go…then I’ll be willing to die for now, but then, since no one will force me, I’ll just—if anyone asks, I’ll say—”

“—Sir, that’s not how it works.  Don’t you get it?  That’s what the Freedom is.  It’s complementary—a down right gift, really.  Someone perfect died for you—he died to fix your whole situation—and if you accept that he was willing to die for you, then you’ll be willing to die for him as well.  It’s only natural.  And that right there is the gift, that’s the freedom.  This fellow with the bad marriage, he didn’t suddenly escape from a civic bond imposed on him by the law.  He was liberated from a self-imposed kind of bondage.  For years, he’d been protecting himself from his wife’s attacks.  She was spending all their money, taking advantage of him, robbing banks, and chewing with her mouth open just to annoy him.  A wicked woman, there’s no doubt.  He had nearly lost his mind to paranoia over the next thing she might do to injure his precious self.  But when he accepted Freedom, his perspective slowly changed.  Little by little, he began to realize that he wouldn’t be worried if she came at him with a knife (much less if she spoke with food in her mouth) since he was willing to die.  That’s the gift.  It’s not a loop-hole.”

“But that doesn’t sound like a gift at all.  It sounds like a malady.  Depression or maybe Gothism.”  The gentleman hardly cared to realize how late this all was making him and Jimmy.  Maybe he wasn’t in such a hurry after all.  People often act like their in a hurry only to make themselves seem important.  However, this sort of pretense always betrays itself as soon as something more interesting comes along.  At the moment, this prospective death seemed more interesting than affectations of business.

“The Goths certainly did have something about them, but it wasn’t depression.  An honest monk in a monastery, what do you think he has to live for?  Just this bizarre, mysterious gift.  A gift that consists in being taken from rather than being given to.  An anti-gift, if you will.”

“But freedom is a commodity, not a liability (excuse me, but I’m a business man).  A market is only really free when it has a surplus.  If people don’t have any disposable income, then competitive marketing doesn’t exist, since everything must be sold for essentially no profit.  What I mean to say is that if you take away my car, my time, and my life, I won’t be a freeman—I’ll be a slave, a sucker, and a specter.”

“Not at all—”

“—Let me take it a step further.  Freud suggests that the ultimate legal tender for the economy of human affairs is…something you alluded to earlier.  What I mean is…to be blunt…the man with the most mates is the freest.  In that light, I’m almost tempted to think it a shame…about the play land and all…”

“Let me tell you something.  (I’m speaking to you now not only as your personal cashier—however honorable a title that in itself might be—but also as your fellow human being.)  I once thought exactly the way you just described.  I tried having a surplus of everything.  The modern world insists, after all, that these sorts of lower appetites must be satisfied, if we are ever to be free from pain.  But for some reason I found that the more I possessed, the more I was in turn possessed.  Each commodity was also a liability, and at that, a debt twice as great as its own worth.  The lower pleasures I satisfied, the impulses I acted on—these began to control me.  I believed that pleasure was the way to happiness, and so I was compelled to pursue pleasure, and I could be happy doing nothing else.  In short, I believed in Freudian psychology, and that belief was precisely what made it a reality for me.”  The man without a face had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.  This job of cashier, as some readers may be aware, is one of the most highly sought after vocations of people in that field.  One can understand why.  The faceless philosopher went on:

“But it was one day while eating a happy meal that it suddenly hit me.  It was a fly swatter slightly misguided by an old man without his glasses.  He apologized right away and explained that he had been aiming for a fly that he had heard buzzing in my general direction.  For my own part, I didn’t hear a thing.  But after that happened, I got to thinking about my life, and I realized that I had been calculating my net worth all wrong.  A surplus was exactly what I needed, but not of money or luxury or sex.  I needed a surplus of something else.  I couldn’t really say what it was, but I knew at that moment that whatever it was must be inversely proportional to the kind of worth I’d been pursuing in the past.  Maybe it was a surplus of hope, or something like that.  A surplus perhaps of reason to act.  When we have no such surplus, we can only act to maximize our own pleasure.  But if we have extra reason to act and to exist, we can do both freely.”

“But Freud suggests reasons to act—”

“—Not reasons so much as causes.  Neo-Freudian and popular psychology assumes that human behavior is caused by external events.  That may be true of any individual who believes it, but I have found reason to act in spite of those events.  I have reason to relinquish every pleasure and still be satisfied.”

“And what reason is that?  A dead man?  Is that your reason?”

“It is now, but when I first accepted freedom, I didn’t really understand—”

“—I’m sorry to say that this sounds like the most morbid bit of hogwash I’ve ever heard.  Which reminds me, I forgot to order a drink for Jimmy.  But as to your philosophy, I must say that I will never follow any ideology related to death.”

“Then you are an ignoramus.  Every ideology is related to death.  But let me tell you, when I first came upon this whole philosophy, it had nothing to do with—”

“—Buddhism doesn’t have to do with death.  It’s about inner peace, rebirth if anything.  Come to think of it, Buddhism is about freedom too.  The freedom found through meditation.”  The happy meal seemed a long ways off.

“That’s still related to death.  Call it rebirth if you like, call it anything really, death is still death.  But when I found Freedom, or rather, when Freedom found me, it had nothing to do with death.  It was the farthest thing from death.  Some sentimental people like to suppose that the opposite of death isn’t life but love.  I can’t say I know whether that’s true, but I do know that love his how I found freedom.  These days I feel like I kind of have a surplus of reasons for living.  I’m free to do things that don’t satisfy me at all, and even then, to be completely satisfied.  I used to be a helpless romantic, but now I’m ashamed to admit I’m a helpless altruist, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be.  I wish I could say I figured this out on my own, but really it was all a big, embarrassing mistake.  You see there was this one girl, well…you don’t really want to hear this, do you?”

“Not really.  I’d actually just like my meal now.  You can leave out the freedom.  It’s honestly more than I bargained for.  I’ll take just the happy meal, just the happiness to go, please.”

“Very good, sir.”  He spoke with a cold civility.  “I hope your son is a licensed driver.  It’s a matter of policy.”

Advertisements

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!”

Shakespeare is Dead

The professor was a strange man; indeed, there is little else about him upon which it can be agreed.  We might hesitate to submit that he was strange in any conventional sense—it wasn’t that his voice was too high or his stature too short or anything of the like—no, it was rather something peculiarly unrelated to any identifiable quality of himself. He was strange in a strange sense. Though upon it, it most certainly may not be agreed, this author might be so bold as to assign him the label of pedantic; for he was dreadfully preoccupied with the ‘rules of proper English’ and had an unchecked phobia of sentences that ended in prepositions bordering on the psychotic, which caused him to go to great lengths to avoid such sentences, and in turn, to produce such clausal absurdities as ‘upon which it can be agreed’ and ‘upon it, it may not be agreed’ and other such cacophonic phrases as cause a terrible illness—much like the psychological illness of the pedant from whom they come forth—to trickle down the aural cavity and bounce around the nerves and guts like the metal object of a pinball game before settling in the stomach, an organ which is left most unsettled.

As to his appearance: he was tall and thin with grey hair. He tended to walk as if the soles of his shoes were covered with sharp pins into which he was perpetually jamming his feet with all his strength, delighting in the sheer misery of it. This unique stride was complemented by a grim visage with a frustrated brow and frowning lips that seemed only to further evidence the supposed nature of his footwear. Today, for whatever reason, he seemed particularly himself as he made his excruciating way down the hallway and into his lecture hall.  By his right side he carried a worn out, leather brief-case that smelled like the remnants of ancient Babylon.  This he jerked backward and forward with each step he made, paralleling the equally rigid choreography of his empty left hand which moved sternly as he walked.  On his chest he wore the plainest tie that has ever come out of a clothing-factory on purpose, and this was covered in a grey, conservative suit that matched the colour of his hair (though we can only assume that this was a happy coincidence, as it is doubtless that the match was not present when he bought the suit almost three decades ago now).  What must be said as to his footwear, we have already mentioned.  In short, he might be said to have borne a countenance very similar to that of a statue predating the classical period but strangely wanting in its archaic smile.

Such was the form that greeted the fifty-some students breathing the air on the other side of the door to forum room 201. But perhaps upon the use of the word greeted in this context it cannot be agreed, for so warm a sentiment seems remote from the manner in which the lifeless artefact, lacking even the animation of classical contrapposto, indifferently slammed open the door and trudged his way to the desk in the centre of the forum upon which he flung his brief-case and jerked it open in a magnificent cloud of dust.

“Welcome to ‘A Neo-Archaic, Contemporary, Historical, and Revolutionary Observation of Nature, Ideas, Society, and Mankind’, abbreviated ‘ANACHRONISM’, course number 217.  In this class, we will be exploring nature, ideas, society, and mankind through some of the most cutting-edge scholarship available on the subject.  I trust you have all downloaded the syllabus on your mac-an-apple i-gadget inter-web machine tablets and will read along with me as I read out loud.”

The professor then spent the next half hour reading a painfully intricate document that would have very much resembled a document of law had it not been for all the ugly linguistic idiosyncrasies previously alluded to.  When both he and his students realised, much to the surprise and disappointment of both parties, that he had reached the end of the document, there was an awkward silence filled only by the sound of the breathing previously mentioned.  This persisted much longer than almost anyone could bear who wasn’t already accustomed to such exercises of self-inflicted pedagogic, podiatric, and pedantic torture as pressing pins into one’s foot. During this silence, the professor stared grimly and unrelentingly at each of the faces in the class.  Finally, he spoke again:

“Who among you knows who Shakespeare was?”

Everyone raised their hands, and one impudent soul shouted, “Isn’t he the idiot responsible for English class?”

“Wrong!” the professor exclaimed, “He is not responsible for English class.  He is dead, so you must use the past tense: He was the idiot responsible for English class.”

With this said, the professor let his brilliant knowledge of grammar fill the room in a moment of silence before beginning again.

“What was Shakespeare famous for?”

This sentence was followed by a silence of equal length, creating a nice little silence sandwich.  Finally, some pedant spoke up.

“Shakespeare has been noted for his revolutionary innovations in English theatre and poetry, which thrust the Anglo-Saxon world into the literary renaissance and the future of the English language itself.  These innovations drew on the works of ancient classical writers, most notably Terence and Plautus, through the use of natural sounding speech in the form of verse, especially iambic pentameter, and similar classical themes.”

The rest of the class was much relieved to hear this, both because it ended the silence, supplying the professor with a satisfactory answer, and because it meant that they didn’t have to make any such innovations, seeing as Shakespeare had already finished innovating the English language for them.

“No! That is not for what Shakespeare has been noted!”  The professor exclaimed, “Don’t listen to her!” (he was referring to the pedant) “Now take this down in your notes:  Recent scholarship has proven that Shakespeare was most famous for three things: (1) being dead, (2) never existing, and (3) being gay. The first of these is probably the most important.  Shakespeare is dead! So don’t talk about him like he’s alive. Shakespeare does not ‘have an influence on poetry’; he has ‘had an influence on poetry’, but now he’s dead.  The second of these is also important.  Recent scholarship has proven that Shakespeare was not a real person.  His plays were composed by a handful of clever men from Oxford and then misattributed to some made up character called ‘Shakespeare’, who doesn’t even know how to spell his own name.  Finally, the third thing is probably that for which he is most famous.  Shakespeare was gay.  Recent scholarship has proven that the most interesting thing about Shakespeare’s writing is it’s gayness.”

The students all furiously took this down verbatim in their notes.

“So one of your essay prompts is going to be as follows:  Was Shakespeare straight?  Explain your reasoning in exactly five paragraphs. Be sure to use concrete examples and cite all sources properly.”

The students all took this down.

“So how will you answer this question?”

One student raised his hand and was called on: “I will write that by the Strawson Presupposition principle—which states that A is neither true nor false if it depends on B when B is false—I cannot answer that question.  For Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is dependent on his existence, but because he did not exist, he was neither gay nor straight.”

“Was dependent.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You said, ‘Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is dependent.’  But you should have said, ‘was dependent’.  SHAKESPEARE IS DEAD!  Don’t you kids ever listen?!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Anyway, that’s not the right answer.  The right answer is: ‘No.'”

The students all wrote in their notebooks: ‘The answer to the essay question is ‘No.”

“Okay. Who here knows who Homer was?”

There was a pause, and an impudent soul, perhaps the same one who had made the earlier outbursting, made another: “He’s a yellow guy that eats donuts!”

“Wrong!  He was a yellow guy that ate donuts.”

At this the pedant spoke up once again: “Homer was a poet from antiquity and one of the most influential poets ever to use an Indo-European language.  His two major extant works are The Iliad and The Odyssey, epic poems of the classical oral tradition from which Virgil derived the poetic and thematic groundwork of his Aeneid, perpetuating the spread of the ancient poetic style in the works of later poets such as Dante and other poets of the dolce stil novo as well as John Milton in his Paradise Lost and even, arguably, the poetics of the entire western world.”

“No!  Stop that!  That is not for what Homer has been noted!”  The professor was clearly getting quite frustrated.  “Homer was most famous for three things: (1) being dead, (2) not existing, and (3) um … actually, I guess there are only two things; Homer was not necessarily gay, but he was an ancient Greek.”

The professor then went on to explicate each of these three things (one of which did not exist).  After doing so, he moved on to several other discussions, each going the same way: a rude interruption from some impudent soul, a ‘correction’ of grammar, some silence and breathing, a pedantic comment, and finally, an explanation of the most cutting-edge scholarship on the subject, with a heavy emphasis on the fact that the subject of the discussion is dead.  In this manner, the professor made his way across the western world in all its history and splendour, conquering it like Alexander the Great.  In only a matter of minutes, he had managed to deface very nearly the whole of western culture, and indeed, of humanity itself.  Dante, as it turns out, is best remembered for his political failure; Mozart for his promiscuity; C. S. Lewis for his atheism; Milton for his blindness; Beethoven for his deafness; Cicero for his demise; Albert Einstein for his bad grades; and Leonardo da Vinci for the very same thing which Shakespeare holds as his most prized contribution to western poetry.  And when he had boiled these men into a stew of plainness, the world suddenly seemed as grim and as grey as the professor’s suit or hair. No man is great, no thing is beautiful, and most importantly, all of these men are dead.

But then, as the class sat contemplating the cutting-edge scholarship before them, observing these disgraceful men of western history, as they considered the abomination that is mankind, suddenly someone in the class had a paroxysm of poetry.  It happens sometimes.  He began an uncontrollable outbursting of unmetered speech: “I have of late,” he began tentatively at first, “but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth,” he paused patiently and gently at each punctuation mark, and one by one, the members of the class began to turn and listen to him, “forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory;” he spoke honestly, with a strange sense of emotion that seemed to entreat the audience to cry, but begged them to laugh at it’s awkward context.  He went on: “this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” His performance was, in itself, overwhelmingly moving, but in the context of a spontaneous outbursting, it seemed merely absurd.  So the dominant reaction was muffled laughter.

The professor interrupted him: “Wait—what is that?  What are you doing?  Stop that!”

But he went on: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  Man delights not me.”  Here he stopped of his own accord.  And the room was silent, filled only with muddled laughter and breathing.  As such, it became a peculiar atmosphere of disgraceful beauty—the hideous mockery of humanity that the professor had made mixed with the shameful laughter of the students and the quintessential eccentricity and seriousness of the performing student.

“What is that!”  The professor demanded.

The pedant spoke up:  “That was Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second scene of the second act of Hamlet, lines 318 through 332.”

At this, the professor was furious: “No!  That’s not right!  Shakespeare is most famous for being dead!”  The man insisted.  And now, it seemed the pins in his shoes must have finally pierced the last layer of his skin.  He began to weep uncontrollably.  He tried to restrain himself, and even tried to begin teaching again, “Shakespeare is dead!” he said.  But he couldn’t stop weeping, so he packed his briefcase and headed for the exit, weeping and repeating that sentence over, “Shakespeare is dead!”

Just before the door shut behind him, some impudent soul shouted out after him, to correct his grammar, “No, Shakespeare was dead!”

The door shut, and the room grew still and silent again.  The students sat in amusement and awe, wondering at the surreal passage of events to which they had just bore witness.  Some students were entertained to no end, others were perplexed, and still others were simply tired of sitting through such pointless classes.  It seems the only thing upon which it could be agreed regarding the professor is that he was a strange man.

The Venture

Mr. Bowden was short and stout.  He had thick, dark hair that reached awkwardly all the way across the top of his disproportionately large head and would have very nearly lavished his eyes in a dense forest of itself were it not for the two dry and bristly black eyebrows that sat just above them, looking rather like a pair of bushes restraining a sea of vines from his line of vision.  Below this he wore a jungle of facial hair that was fastidiously combed in at least eighteen different directions, and below this was a short neck and a broad pair of shoulders from which hung a shamelessly gaudy suit that was equipped with almost every sort of ornamentation imaginable.

He walked confidently—as if he owned the place—making his way from a considerably large hall or building into a small, dusty room, labeled with a sign tentatively resting above the threshold which read “office”.  There he found, whether to his surprise or expectation, two skinny gentlemen, one of whom sat with his hands decorously folded on the only desk in the room, and the other of whom sat in a chair, furiously writing away on a small pad of legal paper—which was a curious sight considering the normal lack of lifelessness with which chairs are characteristically portrayed.  The man at the desk bore a specious, physiognomical quizzicality, and the man in the laboriously vital chair appeared confused (perhaps because he didn’t understand specious, physiognomical quizzicality, or even the words used to describe it).  The man at the desk was probably wondering why he wasn’t also described as a man in a chair, for he seemed to be sitting as well, but perhaps this was merely due to his exceptionally average height.  Both men stood upon Mr. Bowden’s entrance, which was difficult to do considering how short that was.

“Good noon to you,” the quizzical one said, extending his hand.

“Good noon,” said the confused one.

“Good noon?” Mr. Bowden asked, confused.

“Good noon,” the confused ones said again.

“What on earth do you mean,” Mr. Bowden exclaimed, “by saying good noon?”

“The same thing as that which is by it meant by you.” Replied the man in his quizzical manner.

“And what is that?” the stalky man of the one in quizzicality inquired, confused as he was.

“Only that it is noon, and this is good.”

“That’s ridiculous!  You are never to greet me in this way again!”

“But what, then, are we to say to each other if we should come upon you another day at noon?” asked the other.

“Wait until twelve o’ one, and then greet me like a normal human being—good afternoon.”

Upon this commandment, the room grew oddly silent, making the short man, Mr. Bowden, feel even more uncomfortable.  After a formidable passage of idle time, the room had grown so unbearably silent that it was quite sure to lose its balance very soon and come tumbling down in a loud crash had it not been for the quizzical man’s sudden breaking of that silence:

“Good afternoon sir.”  Everyone in the room assumed that the minute must have struck.  Mr. Bowden rolled his eyes.  The quizzical man continued, “Allow me to introduce this man.”  He made a gesture to the man.

“Please do.” Mr. Bowden said.

“I’d love to; simply allow me to do so and I shall.”  At this, Mr. Bowden realised that he had accidentally been prohibiting the quizzical man from introducing the other man and so he immediately withdrew his prohibition.  That done, the quizzical man pulled out a bottle of scotch and some glasses that had been hiding in the desk.  “I’ll pour us some drinks before we get started.”  He said, putting the glasses on and squinting very intently at the cups as he poured, trying unsuccessfully not to spill.

“I’m Sir. Dr. Pro. Rev. Mr. Its. My. Cat. Master Ellsworth Hal Wilhelm Junior the Third PhD.,” said the man who had not yet been introduced, “but please feel free to call me Duncan.”

“Very well Ellsworth,” Mr. Bowden said, “I’ll feel free to do so.”  Upon this exchange the quizzical man ran out of scotch to pour and consequentially decided he must have filled the cups high enough—though they hardly had anything in them.

“Here sirs,” he said, handing the other two gentlemen each a cup, “how about a tall glass of scotch.”  Mr. Bowden, somewhat insulted by the obvious slight that the man had made to his height, accepted the offering concessively, small as it was; Duncan did the same, mindful of Mr. Bowden’s shortage.

“Of course you both must know me,” Mr. Bowden said.

“Indeed, we must.” replied the quizzical one.

“And you’ve clearly been expecting me.”

“Oh, have we ever.”

“Oh yes, have we ever?” Duncan added emphatically.

“So since we all know why I’m here,” Mr. Bowden went on, “I suggest we get started right away.”  At this he casually sipped from the drop of alcohol in his cup, “Macbeth,” he said, looking at the quizzical one, “—do you mind me calling you Macbeth?”

“I don’t mind.” said the quizzical one, “I’m not mindful of much anything at all, but I’d much prefer you called me by my name.”

“I’m glad to hear it.  I’ll just call you Macbeth then, for simplicity sake.  You may call me Mr. Bowden,” he took another sip from that drop. “So Macbeth, I propose that you start us off.”

“Very well.  I’ll just start us off by asking Duncan here to give the opening words.”

“Certainly.” said Duncan, “The opening words are these: ‘Mr. Bowden, please begin when you feel ready.'”

“Thank you very much, gentlemen,” the gentlemen did as he told them to and thanked themselves.  Mr. Bowden continued, “I see you have done a considerable amount already, so why don’t we begin by taking a look at what you have so far.  Is that it right there?”  He pointed at the legal pad that Duncan, the confused one, had been scribbling on earlier.

“That?” said Macbeth, quizzically, “Oh yes, of course.  That’s it!”

“Oh, is it?” said Ellsworth, confused, “Oh is it ever!”

“Very good.  Might I read it?” Mr. Bowden asked.

“So be it.” said the confused one, and it did as he told it to and was.

Mr. Bowden looked over the legal pad.  The confused man and the quizzical man exchanged looks.  “Do you like it?” asked the quizzical man, looking rather confused thanks to the recent exchange.

“Oh do I ever.”  Mr. Bowden muttered, browsing the yellow pages intently.  Putting away the phone book, he turned to the legal pad and pointed at a particular line, “What does this mean?” he asked Duncan.  Duncan stared at the marking quizzically.  He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and that laboriously vital and confused chair was a notoriously bad hand writer.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Are you able to read this Charles?”

“Of course I am able to read!” said ‘Macbeth’—the confusedly appearing quizzical one—realising that Duncan must be referring to him, “Don’t be absurd!  Let me just see here.”  He took the legal pad in hand and, after squinting at it for a moment, turned it up side down and said, “Oh, this is simple.  It means that we must turn the page for more information.”

“Oh, that’s simple,” said Duncan.  “Why couldn’t I think of that!”  The two looked at each other quizzically and confusedly for a moment, hoping that Mr. Bowden would buy their little charade.

Charles turned to Mr. Bowden, “Is there anything you would like to add to the discussion before we turn the page?”

“Well,” Mr. Bowden began, “Let me just say that this whole venture is off to exactly the kind of start we should have expected.  I am passionately indifferent to the kind of work you two have done so far, and I think that, together, we are going to do an extraordinarily ordinary job on this thing.”  Mr. Bowden sold his charade for much cheeper than did Charles and the talking chair.

“So what do you suggest we do next?” Duncan asked.

“Hm,” Mr. Bowden stroked his sharp beard, and then looked at his injured hand in terror as he realised what he had done.  Quickly, he produced a comb and brushed the beard back in the nineteen different directions which it had originally been flowing.  “Why don’t we begin by getting to know each other a little bit.”

“That sounds like a great idea!” Charles said.

“Indeed, a marvellous example of euphony!” Duncan added.

“Very good.” Mr. Bowden took another sip of his drop of alcohol. “Let’s begin with you, Charles.  Um, tell us about yourself.”  They all looked at each other awkwardly.  Charles couldn’t think of anything to say.  To be completely honest, he didn’t actually know anything about himself.  “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Well…” Charles could feel himself sweating.  The salt drops beaded up on the back of his neck and in the deep, dark crevices of his armpits, rolling down his body like little ants crawling back into the ground after a long day of work, drenching him in more description than he had yet been allotted in these pages.

Seeing that Charles was having something of a hard time with this question, Mr. Bowden decided to get a little more specific, “How are you doing today?”

“Oh, I’m pretty good.”

“You’re pretty good?  You most certainly are not if that’s the kind of English you use!”

“It’s okay,” Duncan attempted to placate Mr. Bowden’s grammatical pique, “He meant it adverbially.”

“Adverbially?” Charles asked, “How do you mean that?”

“Adverbially.” Duncan replied.  “I mean ‘adverbially’ adverbially.”

“He is doing adverbially good?” Mr. Bowden asked.

“No, he is doing ‘good’ in an adverbial sense.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It made perfect sense—and I meant that in a perfect tense.”

“There is no such thing as ‘perfect sense’; it used to be common sense that all language was imperfect.”

“Yes, but Common Sense was responsible for the American revolution.  Having learned from our past mistakes, society now ensures that sense is, among people at any rate, quite entirely uncommon.”

This bantering took place rather quickly, so that Charles could scarcely get in a word.  Finally, he managed to wedge his way into a slight brake in the conversation:

“Well,” he said, “I’m doing well.”

“Very good.”  Mr. Bowden tried to think of another question to ask—something that would help them on their project.  Unable to think of anything exceptionally relevant, he asked something of equal relevance to everything else, “Do you have any children?”

“Oh yes.”  Replied Charles, panicked and thinking quickly, “Duncan here is my son.”

“I am?” Duncan asked.  “I am.  Of course I am.  I’m his sun, I mean son.  I’m his son.”

“Really?”  Mr. Bowden marvelled, looking at Duncan, “You’re rather young for your age.  How old are you?”

“I’m a year younger than I should be older than I am.”

“Wow.  That’s a terribly wonderful age.”  They all sipped their drops of alcohol.  Mr. Bowden looked around the room.  There was a massive painting of a man hanging from the left wall, which led Mr. Bowden to believe that the room must have formerly been a prison where sick-minded artists would come on execution days in order to paint paintings of the convicts which were hanged from the left wall.  “Well, if I can’t be of any further assistance, then I think I’ll just get going.”  He stood up.

“No, you mustn’t!” Charles pleaded zealously.

“Why not?”

“Why not?  Um … Why not not?”

“What?”

“Why not stay?”

“Oh I don’t know.  Why should I, why should I not?  I might as well leave as stay, but I think I’ll leave because I can.”

“No, you must stay!”

“Why?”

“Because we’re having such a grand time.  Aren’t we Duncan?”

“Oh yes, a marvellous time.”  Duncan hesitated as he spoke, but seeing Charles’ pleading, he said it nonetheless.

“But we aren’t getting very much work done.”  Mr. Bowden stood half way between the door and his chair.

“Oh, we’ll get plenty of work done.  Here, I’ll turn the page.”  Charles turned the page, “You sit down now—have yourself another drink.”

Mr. Bowden sat and took another sip of his drop.  The three of them all sat there a while as Charles scoured the second page of the legal pad.  Mr. Bowden noticed the clock ticking.

“Well?”  Duncan asked, “Does it have anything written on it or not?”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Here, give it to me.  I’ll write something.” With Duncan writing something, Mr. Bowden turned to Charles.

“Charles, was this place ever a prison?”

“No, not that I recall.  Or if it was, it wasn’t often so.  Duncan, do you know of the last time this place was a prison?”

“The last time is yet to come if it never was.”

“But was it?”  Mr. Bowden appeared to be growing a bit nervous (a form of growth that only occurs horizontally).  He raised his eyebrows, allowing the dense forest of hair to come tumbling down over his eyes like water tearing through a floodgate.

“I think it was.”  Duncan began, “or maybe it still is.  I’m not sure.  Let us say that it is sometimes, but other times it is not.”  Mr. Bowden was slightly relieved by this.

“I must say,” he said, “I am slightly relieved by this.  But tell me Charles, how far back does your knowledge of the history of this room stretch?”

“To be reasonably honest in my affectation,” Charles began, slightly offended by the slight that Mr. Bowden had obviously made to his lack of flexibility, “I have quite an extensive record associated with this room.  Indeed, it is almost criminal how long my record is.”

“But do you remember when this room was constructed?”

“Well—”

“—what about this building, do you remember when it was built?”

“Well—”

“—and how about the plot, do you remember when the rocks that make it up were first formed?”

“Well—”

“—well what?  Do you remember it or not?”

“Obviously he does;” Duncan chimed in, “clearly, one cannot remember something ‘well’ without remembering it at all.”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant by ‘well’.”

“Then what did he well mean?”

“I believe he meant well.  The ‘well’ was serving as an absolute clause, prefacing an answer to my question.”

“Or, perhaps the ‘well’ was serving as a metaphysical absolute, prefacing the existence of this room.”

“What do you mean that he would have meant by that?”

“I mean simply, that he would have meant that before this room or building or plot existed, there was a well to draw water from—or rather, from which to draw water—which must have existed in order that the builders of the building were able to survive.”

“But is that actually what you think he meant?”

“I certainly can’t be certain, but given that our only evidence is the manner in which the ‘well’ was pronounced and the context in which it was said, I suppose the matter is one of great ambiguity, which creates much room for a wide range of views and inquiries, and that is only further obfuscated by the additional weight of each perspective that our inquiry bestows on it, and which must be rhetorically analysed and thoroughly debated in order to arrive at a sufficiently satisfactory conclusion about the well in question.  Now, I suggest that we begin this undertaking by producing a number of hypotheses and performing a series of hypothetical tests in order to merit or demerit each theory.  My hypotheses are as follows:—”

“—What I was going to say is: Well,” Charles cut him off, “I suppose this room has been here for much longer than I’ve been alive,” (at this, Duncan was mildly insulted by the obvious mild insult that Charles had made to his age), “but I can at least speak for its prisonhood or lack there of from my birth date onward.”

“That’s very well,” Mr. Bowden sipped his drop, “in all senses of the word.”  Duncan was confused by this comment, as it seemed strange to him that Mr. Bowden should say anything relating to a place from which water is drawn at this point in the conversation, but he chose to let it go on the grounds that he was too tired to initiate another experiment.

Mr. Bowden began again, “I suppose I might just as well be going now.  I think we all have a clear picture as to what needs to be done before the next time we meet.”

“But you can’t leave now,” Charles pleaded.

“Why not?”

“Because we’re making so much progress on the thing.”

“Are we?  How do you know?  What if there’s way more left to do than you think?”

“Then we could never know that until we’ve done it.  So we might as well just keep working in order to find out how much work there is to do.”

“That sounds reasonable to me,” Duncan commented.

Charles turned to him, “Indeed, Duncan, why don’t you read to us what you’ve written so far.”

“Certainly,” he cleared his throat, “‘The twenty giraffes wearing bow ties must be stored immediately in the nearest gas station.  For details, see the large moose.'”

“Wow,” Charles marvelled, “you’re quite a prolific writer, you’ve entirely filled that other page with strange symbols and obscure words, and now you’ve written an entire coherent, or very nearly coherent, sentence.  How do you have so much to write?”

“He’s probably just making stuff up.”  Mr. Bowden snuffed.

“You don’t know that, perhaps he’s plagiarising.”  Charles spoke excitedly.

“Is that better?”

“Well it’s better than if everything he wrote were random and meaningless.”

“But how can it be meaningful if the words were already planned out by someone else in advance?”

“I would suppose that if the plagiarised authors knew what they were doing, it should be quite full of meaning indeed.”

“But then there’s nothing in it that’s purely Duncanian.  What’s the point of copying shakespeare onto a legal pad?”  This left Charles pondering a moment.  He looked at the legal pad.  No where on it did he see the sentence Duncan had read to them.  This was probably due to Duncan’s helplessly illegible handwriting.  The pad appeared, to Charles, to contain only a considerably large, and very poorly crafted, portrait of a young chicken.

“Perhaps the writers from whom Duncan copies are Duncanian enough.  Goodness knows I could have never plagiarised such an obscure sentence as the one Duncan read to us, let alone find it in the endless repertoire of literature that the English language has accumulated throughout the ages.”

“Enough with the age comments!”  Duncan finally spoke, “I’ve already told you my age!”  It grew awkwardly silent—much to Mr. Bowden’s offence—and everyone seized the opportunity to take a sip of their scotch droplets.

“In any case,” Mr. Bowden began, “I see we’ve made a sensible amount of progress on this thing after all.  Maybe we should just stop and call it finished.  It seems good enough to me, what with the philosophical rambling and all.”  At this point, Charles was beginning to feel a bit confused (even for the quizzical sort of person that he usually is), for he didn’t understand what was particularly philosophical about a young chicken.

“Don’t be absurd!” Duncan objected, “We can’t stop now!”

“Why?”

“Because it’s unethical.  We would be passing off as complete something that is clearly incomplete.  Just think of the consequences!”

“But perhaps this thing could actually be categorised as completed; how are we to know?”

“It’s quite a dilemma;” Duncan produced a pipe—in much the same manner that Mr. Bowden had produced a comb earlier—and began smoking it (which is a rather odd way to use a musical instrument), “it seems we don’t have enough information to even know which action is most ethical.  Ergo, I believe we have arrived, gentlemen, at an opportunity for serious philosophical discourse.”  At this, Charles considered consulting the young philosophical chicken, but decided against it after a brief and in-depth philosophical deliberation about the matter.

“We must begin this decision process,” Duncan continued, “by developing a metaphysics of morals.  So we must consider a plausible alternative situation to the one we are in now and, in that alternative situation, determine what would be the best course of action and why.”  They all thought for a while, sipping their drinks and smoking their pipes.

“Eureka!  I’ve got it!” Charles exclaimed, thinking of a hypothetical but plausible situation, “Suppose there are thirteen people standing on the back of a wild kangaroo as it jumps over the summit of Mount Everest in a magnificent acrobatic stunt.  While they are in mid air, you remember that earlier that morning, you had received notice from an impatient inpatient that unless he was strapped to a violinist very soon in order to use the instrumentalist’s kid knees (tragically, the patient’s own were broken and he never grew into his adult knees) to clean his bodily fluids and survive his terminal illness for another few days, he would go to the nearest airplane terminal and fly a plane to Kansas, where he would throw a hysterical fit over the matter.  The problem is that the path that such a plane would need to take would go directly through the path of this acrobatic performance, and the results could be fatal.  You also remember that there is a violinist who said he was up for the task under the condition that he be compensated with the tooth neckless of Mr. Smith, a rather curious gentleman who takes great pleasure in turning his body parts into pieces of jewellery.  You know that you can obtain the neckless from Mr. Smith by beating Mr. Jones (a con-artist) in a game of poker and having him do the dirty work as a form of compensation, but you are hesitant to engage in gambling.  Is it ethical for you to gamble under these circumstances?”

“I object!” Duncan objected.

“On what grounds?”

“Your situation is absurd.”

“How so?”

“It’s not realistic.  You couldn’t beat Mr. Smith in a poker match to save your life, let alone the lives of thirteen perfectly innocent, however unfortunate, acrobats and their kangaroo friend!”

“Very well.  You raise a good point.  Let us suppose then, for the sake of argument, that I have you there with me to do the gambling part and beat Mr. Jones.”

“I say the answer is no.”  Mr. Bowden said, “It is morally impermissible for you to use Duncan to gamble for the tooth neckless.  Besides, its unethical to beat Mr. Jones in the first place, or to beat anyone for that matter.”

“I disagree,” Duncan disagreed, “A wise man once said that ethics are a metaphysical construct of the human mind as a normative instance of the incalculable conception of the human experience—”

“—What on earth does that mean?” Charles asked.

“I don’t really know, but it sounds cool.  Anyway, acting under that maxim I suppose that it is morally and rationally permissible for you to proceed and use me to gamble for the tooth neckless.”

“But what about the other people waiting for the plane to arrive in Kansas.”

“Oh, I didn’t realise—is it a passenger plane?”

“Of course it is.  And there are three children waiting to take it to Kansas to be reunited with their mother; a lady in labor needs to take it to the hospital that is attached to the Kansasian airport; and a pair of philosophers intend to ride it there in order to meet a man for a poker match as a part of a strikingly similar situation to our own.”

“So that’s thirteen acrobats, three children, two philosophers, a mother, a pregnant woman, Mr. Smith, an impatient patient, Mr. Jones, a violinist, and a kangaroo?”

“That’s right.”

“Hm, this is more difficult than I thought.”  They all thought silently for a time.  Mr. Bowden noticed a deck of normal playing cards and two jokers that had been sitting in the corner inconspicuously hitherto.  This was a somewhat mortifying realisation for him—no one wants to suddenly notice a pair of hideously pallid jokers sitting in the corner smiling and listening in on one’s conversation.

“I’ve got it!” Mr. Bowden broke the silence, “Why don’t you explain the situation to Duncan, since he is the only competent gambler on the premise, and then let him decide what to do.”

“But I already know the situation, why would he explain it to me?  Besides, that would just be a way of passing the dilemma off to another moral agent.”

“You have a moral agent?”  Mr. Bowden was clearly happy to hear this.  “Why don’t we just call him then and ask him what to do?”

“I agree,” Charles agreed, “Let’s just call your agent.”

“No, I don’t have an agent.  That’s not what—I don’t think that’s what that means.”  Needless to say, they were all rather disappointed to hear this.  Everyone sipped their drinking droplets.

“Well anyway, I think I’ll get going now.”  Mr. Bowden said.

“But what are we to do about the moral dilemma?”  Charles asked.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something.  Why don’t you just approach it mathematically.”

“What do you mean by that.”

“I mean use math to solve it.”

“Oh, I see what he means,” Duncan interjected, “Let’s assign each person’s interests in the case a quantitative value of importance and then act proportionately to the greatest values.”

“But what are these values based on?”  Charles asked.

“Utility.”

At this everyone was silent.  The discussion had reached a dead halt, as no one in the room, including Duncan, had any idea what ‘utility’ meant or how it had anything to do with morality.  Everyone sipped their droplets.

“Well there you go.” Mr. Bowden began speaking again, “Just do the biggest utility or whatever.  And do the same with the thing we’re working on; let’s just make the biggest utility bill we can.  And I must say, at least on the part of my own moral agent, he and I have agreed that it is the most utilitious to consider the work here completed.  I really must get going.”

“But shouldn’t there be some kind of truth to the matter?”  Charles pleaded ingenuously.

“How so?”

“You can’t just decide that a particular course of action is most ethical because you like it the most.  And I do not feel that we could any more so decide by vote what is most ethical, because then we would just be doing what the group likes, which cannot objectively be called moral.  There must be a difference between acting as one pleases, or even as a group as big as the entire world pleases, and acting morally.  Perhaps sitting out in the universe somewhere, watching us, there is a massive, completely objective chicken, like the one Duncan drew there, a philosophical fowl, bigger than this room, this building, or even the plot upon which the building rests.”

“But how could we ever know anything about that?  We don’t even remember when this room was built.  In fact, I’m having a difficult time even remembering what happened this past noon.”

This brought out the philosopher in Duncan.  “Then maybe there’s just no such thing as morals.”

“But if that is so,” Charles asked, “how could we know if it is permissible to say we are finished with our project.  Is it true to say we are?”

“There is no truth.”

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know, but it’s fun to say.”  They all sipped their droplets.  Mr. Bowden peered deep into his glass.  He realised that he had been drinking about half of the droplet every time he took a sip.

“I really must be going.”  Mr. Bowden said.

“But you haven’t even finished you’re drink.” Charles very nearly taunted him, “It would be rude to leave without finishing your drink.  Besides, we haven’t finished what you came here to do.”

At this Mr. Bowden removed his wig.  “If I may be perfectly candid with you gentlemen,” he looked them in the eyes, “I can’t say I’m entirely sure what we are trying to do here.”

“What do you mean?  We’re working on the project.”

“But what is the project?”  They were all silent.  Everyone sipped their drops of liquor, once again dividing the quantity of alcohol left in half, but no one was able to finish his drink.  Mr. Bowden looked from face to puzzled face; they were all just a group of quizzical and confused men (and jokers and talking chairs).  Finally Duncan spoke up.

“I can’t say I really know either.”  At this, the charade had ended, and all proceeds were returned.  “I suppose that’s the problem with beginning a short story in medias res, or for that matter, walking into an office or some sort of room in the same manner.  No one knows what on earth is going on.”

Charles replied, “So what is going on; you know, on earth and all?  What are we supposed to do?  If there is no big chicken, and all we’re doing is whatever a bunch of people feel like, then that’s just silly.  If that’s the case, I think I’ll be leaving; I want no part in such a venture.”