“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Sleep of Reason: He Borara: Chapter 3.1

(2,433 words. Or start from the beginning.)

No sooner does he close his eyes than he’s back in his father’s house in Port Austin. “Annn-thhrro-pollogee”—the word seeps out through Malcolm Shackley’s beard-entangled lips as he recoils his chin, signaling that the emanation reeks of dubiety. “What, pray tell, is ann-thro-pology? I suppose it will put you in a higher wage grade than your physics and engineering degree at Sault Ste. Marie.”

“My professors seem to be doing okay,” Lac retorts. “Not that any of them has twelve mouths to feed,” he adds, fearing the unintended barb will only further provoke his father. Lac already regrets the blunt, offhand manner with which he delivered the news about his transfer to U of M. And his new major. Everyone in Port Austin has these ideas about college. You send off your perfectly normal kids—the ones you slaved away on a road crew or in a factory to feed and clothe as you worked dutifully to raise them and get them to school—and they come home with highfalutin ideas they toss at you with big fancy words. Like anthropology. Worse, they talk to you like they know something. They know things you’ve never even thought to ask about. What they don’t know, even though you did everything in your power to teach them, to show them—what they don’t know is how to work, how to get up every day and build or fix or do something of real value, with your hands, with your sweat and toil, the type of work that goes into being a man. Kids come back from college wanting to sit around getting paid for all their knowing.

Lac watches these thoughts simmer behind his father’s imposing eyes. He tries to maintain a placid demeanor, respectfully withstanding Malcolm’s contemptuous disappointment in his second-born child’s latest decision. Steeling himself to face down his impending denunciation as a smart-ass ingrate, he rushes to explain, “Anthropology is the science of culture, Dad. They go out to—”

His father interrupts him. “What sort of work will studying anthropology prepare you for? Are you planning to teach grownup kids old enough to be working, like these professors of yours?” In his father’s eyes, Lac is making a childish blunder, and now the elder Shackley is set to walk his ne’er-do-well son through the logic that ought to have helped him avoid it. Lac expected this. So far it’s not getting to him as he feared it might.

Lac’s older brother Connor, the firstborn of Malcolm’s outsized brood, is already moving up the ranks of the automobile factory in Detroit. Last year, when Lac was still an engineering major, Connor brought him to the city, showed him around the plant, and told him to say the word if he wanted to start doing “some honest work.” What is it, he wonders, with these people and their obsession with work? Don’t they ever get curious? Don’t they ever wonder what the point of all that work could possibly be? Don’t they ever wish the work they’re doing day-in and day-out could have some meaning—some purpose beyond fixing or assembling things a thousand other men could be fixing or assembling? Actually, a thousand other men already are working to fix and assemble those things right alongside them. How can they stand being so inconsequential, so interchangeable, so stuck in the same never-ending routines?

“I may have to do some teaching,” Lac answers his father. “But I’ll be a scientist. I’ll be doing research. I’ll be traveling and studying people’s cultures. I’ll be writing articles and books.”

“A scientist, huh? And who will be funding all this scientific research into other people’s cultures?”

Had his father’s tone really been that sneering? 

As the dream unfolds, his memory of the encounter blends with a dark fantasy of his father lecturing him on the endless ways professors lead their naïve students astray, filling their heads with silliness that could never survive beyond ivory tower walls, sending them headlong into peril—and even on occasion getting them killed—all for the sake of some crazy agenda no more enlightened than the mission of those lunatic Christians who wander into the jungle and wind up getting speared to death by the very natives whose souls they came to save. That’s if they don’t die of malaria first.

            Lac going on to become an atheist during his first year at U of M wouldn’t exactly advance his cause of appeasing Malcolm. After learning about so many different religions—every society, from states down to bands of hunter-gatherers, has its own—it just starts to seem like something humans do. Whichever particular faith among the multitude you end up being raised with is determined by pure happenstance. Sure, it could be that all religions tap into some general underlying truth, but there’s really too much variability, too much contradiction, for the theory of reconcilability to be at all plausible, however desperately some of his classmates clung to that position for its promise to preserve their beliefs intact within the crucible of science. The two traits common to all religions—or most of them at least—are the dualism of matter and spirit and the presumption of human-like agency driving natural events, neither of which holds up under skeptical scrutiny. What you start to see is that every supernatural belief system is a reflection of the society from which it emerges. That’s why whatever generous impulses are embodied in Christian doctrines become overlaid with pettiness and corruption once the faithful get tangled up in politics—or once the faithful get lost and gnat-bitten deep in the godforsaken jungle.

            Lac feels the swaying of his body in the hammock and realizes he’s no longer dreaming. His troubled thoughts have bulldozed him through the wall separating his sleep visions from his late-night lucubrations. For a moment, as he hugs his arms against the chill, he finds himself wondering if it was a minor tremor that so disturbed the gentle rocking of his hammock, but he knows the only displacement of the ground supporting his weight, however catastrophic, is merely figurative. Clemens’s snoring has ceased. Lac looks toward where he saw the missionary hanging his hammock but fails to pick out his shape from the dark space within the hut. At the outset of his journey down the Orinoco, Lac had already been fantasizing about the contents of his second book—after the one he’d write for an academic audience—based on a later return trip to the village at the confluence with the Mavaca. In this future book, he would reflect on the sad degradation, over the span of less than a decade, of the once proud Yanomamö, owing to increasing interference from the “outside world,” the world for which he continues to serve as a peaceful, signally respectful, even slightly traitorous emissary. He quietly chuckles at how sure of himself he was—and only a few days ago.

            Determined to calm himself, Lac stretches his legs, poking them out into the mosquito netting, and takes several deliberate breaths. Small pockets of the jungle surrounding the hut murmur to each other, an alien though somehow quaint breed of intimate late-night banter. After briefly nudging up against some frustration at being held captive to his fully alert state, with a humming mass of nervous tension behind his sternum, he feels his present predicament fading as his mind slides, not toward oblivion but back to what seems another lifetime, back to Port Austin. His walks. He hasn’t thought back to them in years, but he no sooner skims the surface than he feels himself plunging bodily into the joys and struggles of that time. He could step back into his life then and be right at home, as if the countless decisions and events filling the space between then and now were no more than the futile play of sails and rigging on a ship at the mercy of the currents. His walks, hours-long, used to simultaneously calm his mind and set fire to his imagination, though they also embarrassed him. In what was still basically a small fishing village, you couldn’t fart without everyone knowing which direction your ass was facing, as Malcolm liked to say.

So Lac, from his early teenage years, about the time most people begin experiencing some form of disquiet they need to tame, tried never to be noticed. People would think he was touched, or that he was being artsy-fartsy. Or worse, that he was being a snoop. A lot of times it began with one of the adventure stories he read. He’d close the book, sit back, and suddenly it was like his parents’ house wasn’t big enough anymore. He needed empty sky overhead, he needed to be moving, he needed to be actively fussing and tinkering and progressing along some journey if he was to have any chance of working out these big thoughts and fully embodying these gargantuan, heart-swelling sentiments.

When they got Josephine, it was easier to pass for pragmatic, but the routes he took weren’t exactly the most obvious dog-walking tracks, and the time he devoted was excessive. A neighbor once asked him if he dreamed of one day breeding German shepherds. Lac wasn’t sure about breeding them, but he was—still is—intensely fascinated with what goes into training them. Mostly, Lac liked to think about God, and the future. His visions of what all he might one day accomplish always had an otherworldly air to them. Maybe it was the proximity of so many distinct mediums, the big sky, the big body of water, the woods, the cold, the warmth. Maybe it was that, the derisive rumors notwithstanding, he succeeded in stepping away from the humdrum world of his brothers and sisters, mornings spent getting ready for school, the constant threat of fights on the playground, Malcolm’s chronic disapproval, people accusing him of putting on airs.

“Well, if you ever said anything interesting—if you ever did anything that wasn’t just like what everybody else does all the time,” he remembers saying to his sister.

“And what do you do that’s so spectacular, Mr. Dog Walker? What’s so special about your dog-walking adventures?”   

Sauntering past the scattered clusters of houses in old Port Austin, he would imagine fantastic stories for the inhabitants of nearly every one. Some of them were monsters, pulling the skin from children strip by strip to appease dark demonic deities. (He’d quicken his step past these, suspecting like all children do that some part of their imaginings are rooted in true intuitions.) Some of his neighbors were sad cases to be sure—especially the ones he was acquainted with in reality—but a few of them, the ones he always had the opportunity to meet over the course of some wild adventure whenever he hooked the leash to Josephine’s collar to take her along on one of his nightly expeditions, a few of them were potential mentors, poised to introduce him to the secret facets of the world, the facets none of his boring siblings, and certainly not his parents, had ever guessed at. This mentor would one day reveal himself, having borne witness to Lac standing transfixed by the blazing light of the stars and immediately recognized in him to capacity to understand his teachings, recognized him as someone he could pass along his secrets to, someone he could train to become a fellow spirit warrior, a member of the elite tribe of men who travel between worlds.

            Years later in Ann Arbor, he had no dog to accompany him on his walks, but the city made it easier to take on the purposeful demeanor of a man on his way somewhere, likely somewhere important. Now, as a young man, Lac saw the taller-fronted houses built with barely any space between them as symbols of family life, a species of comfortable captivity. Maybe someday, when he was old, when the scars he’d accumulated on his myriad adventures had healed, he’d settle into one of these huddled dwellings with an unimaginably pretty girl, a girl who radiated charm and warmth like one of the celestial spheres burning so far off in the sky to guide his way along the narrow streets, past the crowded houses. Everything for him then was future-directed, weighed in his mind according to its promise to initiate him into the magical hinterlands of existence. The sense of otherworldliness pervading his thoughts of the future didn’t so much fade as he grew up as simply grow vaguer and more distant, layered over with his airs of sophistication and tough-minded, hard-nosed worldliness.

Each of the houses he passed, he was aware, had a true history of its own, but history for Lac then was just another sort of mythology, just another storied, ambiguously supernatural realm. The touch and tone and sense of sacred passage attaching to each night’s walk—it never completely evaporated, even as his religious skepticism intensified over the course of his education, until one night he stopped on the sidewalk along one of his frequented routes through the neighborhood adjoining campus and, looking up at the sky, declared, “It’s just something people do, all these religious beliefs and rituals. It’s just part of our nature.” The end of his own religiousness, the demise of his Catholicism, the epiphany that transformed him in that instant into an atheist marked a sacred occasion in its own right, following as it did an undercurrent, not so much of divinity, but nonetheless of essences and resonances not moored to his beloved world of things discoverable by science—at least not moored in a way he could then see.

Once again awake in his hammock, Lac turns his head to see the contours of the mosquito net and the hammock bearing his guide and fellow traveler in the dim blue light of the looming dawn. He thinks back to how his mind turned the fronts of all those houses into something akin to the swinging facades of his sisters’ doll houses—the same way he looked through the wall of trees on the banks of the Orinoco and felt the presence of the people living beyond, carrying on through history a way of life implicating every human being alive today, his abiding intuition of mythical happenings on the other side of some divide, on the drabber side of which he suffers the misfortune of living. Gazing uncomfortably at the underside of the thatched roofing, he whispers, “What was I really expecting to find out here?”

Continue reading: Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

Earlier Chapters:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium