Chapter VIII

Infiny was right. I had lost my way. My painting no longer captured the person beyond fleshly representation–the aura of life inseparable from shell–and the new poetry I was writing fell short of articulating the human experience under the assumption that the mundane is a theatre for the engrossing drama of spirit. At one time, this was my main presupposition and the driving force of my artistic energy.

Of course she was right: every individual’s essence transcends social definition and contributes nuance to the Spirit of the Age. It’s almost like I had forgotten why I felt this need to create in the first place.

My question is whether history is a rational process with a designed end, and if so, whether the petty concerns of an individual such as myself are applicable to those around me, or am I just an anomaly destined to go to my grave uninterpreted?

“God . . . please let me be interpreted like a semiologically rich text and be embraced or abandoned.”

It’s the vastness of the “theatre” around me that I find frightening. Sometimes I go out walking around dusk, and when I do I usually look for a clear night so I can watch the fading pastels wither to black and feel the cold stare of stars in their indifferent surveillance on my head illumined by moon, and consider only process; that the sun and moon have risen and set since the dawn of time, have existed to sustain giant lizards and provide witness to epic battles, while the ground I trod on . . . preexisted the formation of a living planet . . . and it all makes me scared as hell to know that the world spins round and round with nobody–not the brightest people in the world– knowing anything really.

I stand before myself accused, accused of having no propensity to digest the sensation of realizing myself in the vastness of an abstract universe. I’m no writer.

So what can I do? I analyze my own history, and stew and brew over a damned single moment in my life that I can’t get back.

It’s a strange realization, really, to come to the conclusion that existence can come down to an incident–a single point in time in a seventy-five year span–that outplods the plodding of a pilgrimage set on a time-line.

This incident . . . this experience . . . in a way, assumes a certain autonomous existence of its own, knits flesh around itself so to speak, so everywhere you turn or look it’s there; it’s there in the market, or while you’re having coffee with a wonderful woman, or when you’re at the beach lying back on your towel and everything seems so hazy and sedate that you swear you’re in a tropical paradise; it’s there while you drive amongst other people driving, or when you’re at the theatre watching a captivating film; it’s always there to ensure that your vision remains misty and confusing, between reality and otherness.

It’s so “there” that one cannot cease to reflect on the chimeric new self–because, believe me, it’s part of you . . . it is you–except in the “moment” where one’s personal context gets lost in the image.

For as long as I can remember I’ve longed to be lost in the surreal timelessness of the moment, where there is no past or future, where images are formed concretely and people can run their hands over their responsiveness like alacritous female bodies. Some would say that God is to be found in the moment, that the eternal is inseparable from the moment and that we can gain glimpses to the greater truth of things by living to exist in the moment.

Maybe that is why the beauty of the world sometimes seemed to mock me and make me feel scorned.

That the world only has to offer little glimpses of the overall beauty of things in contrast to the wretchedness of situational living just seemed so ass-backwards to me that I couldn’t put my mind around it. And it bothers me that some people can totally bask in the moment of a gorgeous sunset, and I cannot–even in the company of a wonderful girl–nor can my friends.

It bothers me that anxiety is the moment’s nemesis in the realm of the individual.

All I wanted was that sleepy consciousness to return for a few hours, where I could see all angles of the “image” without the pressure of the clock. In a world without time all I had to do was observe, even when it came to me and all of my idiosyncrasies.

These were the thoughts I entertained as I sat back on my couch blankly glaring at a fading October sky, contemplating Infiny’s poignant observation earlier that day.

When the phone rang, I was initially disturbed that my meditation had been interrupted, but my equanimity was restored when I realized it was the voice of the long absent Charsmith on the other end of the line.

In monotones, he told me that we had to get together, preferably in the privacy of his condo.

Personally, I didn’t want to be alone with the fellow again, so I insisted that we meet in the bar, and the rich gentleman reluctantly–I guess resignedly would be the better word–agreed to my stipulations.

Two hours later I arrived at the bar and decided to wait outside for him, enamoured by my breath now visible in the cooling White Sands’ evening. Half the reason I smoke is my fascination with smoke itself: I can’t get over the formlessness of my exhalation rising and dispersing. It wasn’t long before I saw Charsmith’s vehicle pull in, and shortly after a figure appear from the darkness aglow with the sedate phosphorescence of an orangish-pink streetlamp.

And as he drew closer, I saw that his face had assumed a haggard appearance, aging him probably ten years, and that he was wearing an ink black sports jacket and equally black tie to match the blackness of his slacks. Only a crisp white collared shirt separated him from the darkness of an autumn night, or what some would consider full mourning attire.

“Let’s get in,” he said, moving by me as though I was a stranger.

The club was quiet since it was a weekday night, and I found myself across from Charsmith in a booth, working on the savorless duty of beginning that long trek to numbness, noting that Charsmith wasn’t along for the ride; I guess if he took his candidacy for mayor seriously at all, he couldn’t expose himself as a man fettered to beverage. Just the same, I offered to buy him a drink.

“Just a Coke,” said Charsmith. “I’m not drinking any alcohol while I’m on this new medication I’m taking.”

What was disconcerting to me was the fact that Charsmith was still so distant and didn’t hide that he’d rather be elsewhere. When I got up to get another beer, I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he preferred another Coke, being extra attentive to his needs in the face of his serious demeanor.

He declined.

When I got back, the uncomfortable silence between us continued. I sipped my beer, trying to think of a conversation piece, and was curious why Charsmith contacted me if it wasn’t his intention to communicate.

Just when I was about to drag some information out of him, he slowly lifted his sullen face to meet mine and said in a voice of resignation: “Shannon, it’s . . . ah . . .” He let his voice trail off, and then tried again: “It’s important that I tell you something now, because if I don’t it’ll be discovered on your own . . . and I don’t want that.”

“So we’ve reached that point, eh?” I said.

“Look, I’m trying to find a way to fill you in on what’s been going on. Just cut me some slack, would you?”

“It’s fine, Charsmith, I know you can’t be real social with the election and all coming up.”

“Not about that . . .” he said petulantly.

“Oh . . . you mean about being in business with McRose, don’t you?”

“No . . . will you listen, I have something to tell you . . . and you’re going to find out about it anyway . . . so it may as well be from me.”

“It doesn’t concern me if you sold your birthright to McRose, you know that, right?”

Charsmith smiled that smile that said his patience was being stretched.

“You have no clue what I’ve been through,” he said pathetically, raising his glass to his mouth for perhaps his second sip of the night. He looked so tired and soulless, drained of all energy.

“All I know is that the remaining Charsmith has damaged the holiest of pedigrees by making his emergence in this town as perhaps its most ridiculous figure. People are laughing at you, you know?”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“Well, you should, jackass, because you’ve sabotaged your reputation and made a mockery of everyone whoever supported you.”

“Look, I’m not here to justify myself to you.”

“Then why are we here?”

Just when he was about to reply–I swear there were tears in his olive eyes–I felt the grip of a hand on my shoulder and looked up to find Father Chapman hovering over us with books in his hands. I recall the smell of must and strong drink.

“Gentlemen, you’ve been well?” inquired the old priest.

Feeling awkward, I told him we were managing.

Chapman gave us a serious, concerned look.

“We’re fine,” I insisted, “really . . .”

“Alright, if you say so. I’m on my way back to my place and I’d appreciate it if you’d stop by later. Do you hear me?”

Charsmith explained to the priest that we had some business to resolve and that we’d drop by if all went well.

“So what’s this about?” I asked Charsmith after the priest had dismissed himself from our company.

“It’s hard for me to say out loud.”

“I know what you’re going through now . . .”

Charsmith just started shaking his head.

” . . . And that you’ve been a real prick lately because . . . uh . . . you’re bereaved and all, and how you’ve repressed it for so long.”

“I’m not talking about it with you.” he replied.

“Well, the philosophers have been talking about it, concluding that’s why structured religion has made an impression on you right now.”

“So then you’re all decided. Well, if you all agree it must be so.”

“Charsmith–”

“I’m not here to discuss that either. Will you listen to me, you inexorable mugwump?”

“Look it . . . that God stuff . . . you have to explain it,” I demanded. “How am I supposed to help you if I don’t know what’s going on?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Charsmith replied, feeling around in his pocket for matches he didn’t have. He motioned for my mine.

“Try me,” I told him.

He paused to contemplate. “Let me ask you a question?”

“Go ahead.”

“What constitutes the essence of God to you?” he asked, lighting up.

I thought about it for a second. “The essence of God . . . it’s a good question.”

“Well, give me an honest answer.”

“Hmmm . . . the essence of God–in order for me to cope with things, you know–has to be . . .”

“Love, right?”

” . . . And pity. The essence of God has to be pure love and pity.”

“Love and pity?” he repeated.

“The way things are, I have no alternative but to conjure this image of God as a loving, compassionate transparency. Is transparency anthropomorphism?”

Charsmith shrugged and brought his cigarette to his lips: “I’ve been thinking about God all my life, and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.”

“Wait, make up your mind. First you chastise me for prying into your affairs, and now you’re ready to offer some explanations?”

“Yeah, I was going to explain things, but I think I’ve reconsidered.”

“No, don’t . . . it’s just that I thought you had other things-”

“They’re related, I assure you.”

“You know I’m interested,” I pleaded.

Charsmith stared at me hard, looking indecisive, and then proceeded as though uninterrupted: “One conclusion I’ve reached is that it seems apparent to me that God has planted in humanity a natural attraction to divine probability. It seems to me that God fascinates people using the attractiveness of living, for the beauty of the world corresponds to a romantic, inner compulsion.”

“I know you’ve attended Knox Church all your life, but I never considered you to be a . . . a religious person.”

“I doubt you’ve taken the time to understand me, Shannon. We’re talking about my experiences here, not a fabrication.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, totally confused. I didn’t understand why he got so defensive.

“Listen, I’m referring to the time in my life that the aesthetic experience of God meant everything to me.”

“Aesthetic?”

“If you’ll just listen, I’ll explain myself.”

“Please do . . .”

“It seems to me that I fell into sensuality as a result of my upbringing. As you know, my father was a great debater and had majored in rhetoric in university (since his family already enjoyed great wealth, the area of his discipline was inconsequential), so by the time I was in high school I had been exposed to enough language skills that I was quite the golden-tongue myself. With the mind I was blessed with, there was no doubt I’d go to Queens.

“In defiance of my strict childhood–you know how religiously conservative my parents were, even though my father was, you know, a portrait of tasteful infidelity–I became a fixture in the university night life and quickly became notorious for my quick wit, ability to withstand strong beverage, and likelihood to pick up the loveliest woman in the bar.

“I gained a reputation, so to speak, of an alcoholic whose scholastic prowess was the only thing that kept him from completely losing control.”

“That’s true, as far as women go you’ve always excelled.”

“You’re aware that I left high school with a certain innocence I guess you could call it, right?”

“Yeah right . . .” I scoffed.

“Any guy would have survived the free-love dogma of The Refinement if he had a father like mine, swimming in a sea of formaldehyde filled with social climbing women.”

“You always said you never wanted to be like him,” I admitted.

“Anyway,” continued Charsmith, trying to wipe the cynicism from his expression, “when I went to university I thought I was avidly pursuing a spirituality of a sort, and in this dark celebration of sensual living I thought I was gaining a grasp of spiritual otherness, no lie.

“I read poetry, I visited museums and examined sculptures and paintings when I traveled; I washed this all down with copious amounts of beverage, with woman after woman, experimented with various drugs here and there, and thought myself a connoisseur of life, living totally in the moment, unable to reflect and unable to consider the future.

“But I noticed something: after a point, I realized that everything I did was focused outward. There was no progression. I wasn’t learning anything more about myself in this lifestyle, other than my tastes and appetites. I came to the conclusion that sensuality was only the first step toward acquiring divine knowledge, but I’d only succeeded in reaching the outermost circle.”

“I can see that,” I agreed.

“The problem I discovered was the lack of fulfilment I experienced in trying to just live a sensually enjoyable life, looking for meaning in art and social pleasures, and worst of all, defining this alone as spirituality. I found myself separating myself from this type of living feeling totally disenchanted. I no longer could see myself as part of this beauty . . . and then the waves of despair crashed over me with the all the temptation, you know, to just give up, to just stop giving a crap. At that time I was tempted to cease caring about my physical maintenance, to just stop eating, to stop shaving or bathing, and to give into the sickness. You know what I mean?”

“Sure I do,” I admitted, “I’ve been accused of being an addict by my very own parents because at one time in my life I could hardly drag myself out of bed.”

“I never got to that point. I started reading philosophy and stuff, and gradually came under the conviction that I had to do something to avoid feeling bad about myself anymore. There was a transition in my life from sensual living to ethical living as a result of this despair. For some reason moral philosophy made sense to me–that one could gain a greater understanding of God by concentrating on moral living.

“I remember this time in life. I became very legalistic, and weighed each action like the fate of my salvation was based on a weighted scale, that no matter how perfect I became, I could never be perfect enough to meet God’s criteria and achieve any balance. It’s no surprise, then, that my education culminated with the study of jurisprudence. God was to be found in justice.

“I never took a sip of alcoholic beverage, nor did I celebrate life in any capacity, even shunning my predilection for film. Everything was serious and void of spirit. Get this, I even stayed away from the pleasure of interacting with the fairer sex. But I lived by my belief that I could one day remove the scars of my past by being my own negation, and that if I kept on the straight and narrow my life would be better for it.”

“But that’s what you’re doing now, Charsmith,” I interrupted. “You haven’t been out with us for weeks.”

“I’d say it’s different now.”

“How’s that?”

“Now I know that there’s nothing wrong with the straight and narrow, which we all should strive for; it’s just that the straight and narrow is wider than one thinks.”

“Hmmm,” I murmured quizzically, “I’m not sure I understand you. I mean, as a religious figure–that’s what you are to me now–you’ve assumed a certain symbolism in my life, and I’m not sure that includes a widening of the path less traveled.”

“What we’re discussing is the latitude within a structure, and don’t think I don’t recognize your sarcasm. May I continue?”

“By all means,” I said with a gesture of my hand, fighting the temptation to grin.

“I think it’s fair to say that it was my upbringing that caught up with me, like the prodigal son, and likewise, I responded by resigning myself to servitude. But I couldn’t atone for myself, so I went back to the church and immersed myself in its activities. Still, I was very legalistic and eventually conjured this image in my mind of myself as a martyr for the faith–a person who took up his cross every day as self-inflicted retribution (it was the only way I could manage, you have to understand). I was miserable in my imperfection, and refused to celebrate any part of God’s provision for humanity’s comfort.

“But, at least, at this point, I had a girlfriend. I came into possession of a sardonic humor, I guess, and was disposed toward examples of my wit, and could dispatch any person in the church who challenged my theology, clergy included. I used this ability to make myself into quite the catch in our small ecclesiastical world, and in all seriousness I was the envy of every girl in the Presbyterian denomination.

“I certainly wasn’t satisfied, though, and too often I encountered failure. It was quickly becoming evident to me that God revealed through the pursuit of a moral life alone was destroying my hope. I actually entertained the notion of adopting my former life in pleasure–I was that disgusted with things–for at least in my old routine I had a sense of something.

“And I did to a degree, for I fell back to the pursuit of pleasure; only I did so through the lens of ethical living, and lived in the pleasure of contemplating a higher morality while living a contradictory life.

“It was an interesting state to be in, for one recognizes the connection between beauty and moral living, but derives a certain pleasure in living one way and having knowledge of the other, and describes the impending despondency to be a sweet nectar from the gods, the juices pressed right from Eden’s forbidden bounty.”

“In my experience, at least when you’re in a state of disharmony you feel something other than numbness,” I said.

“As you know,” Charsmith continued, “this period in my life began shortly after Law School and continued up to that night in my condo when you guys found me.”

“You’re saying this period had nothing to do with your family’s death?”

“No, I was already tormented before they died and you know it.”

I lit a smoke. “Actually, I’ve always had you labeled as a jovial fellow who always celebrated life on his own terms.”

Congenital jubilance–it couldn’t be plugged in the leaks of his eyes or his mouth . . .

“We all wear our masks,” he said sharply.

“Don’t let me interrupt you.”

“It was during this time that I experienced a sleazy, artistic experience of life and fancied myself liberated. Maybe I felt the misery I so enjoyed was the aftertaste of my liberation, and I quickly adjusted my palate.

“As you know, I drank heavily, did a lot of drugs and womanized, but during the day, like we all did, I would occupy myself with moral philosophers such as Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant believing that I truly grasped their ideas, even though I failed to apply them to my life (Symposium has been worthless experience, hasn’t it?).

“My liberation was based on the fact that I knew right from wrong–that my very happiness was at stake in my decisions–and still consciously chose to live an exploitative existence. Yes, my liberation was in the fact that I lived as a predator in the knowledge of God–knowing the whole time the predator in me was being stalked by the same God who stalked Israel.”

“I think I know what you’re saying,” I said. “You were in control: intrinsic stratification.”

“Then it dawned on me that the purely moral approach to life fell short in that it tried to intellectualize the deity, rather than contemplate the deity. There is a difference. The former denies the deity access into the human world, while the latter implies dependence. Therefore, where the sensual has the potential to bind the physical with the spiritual in a sense of the beautiful, the ethical serves as a stage to enact this sense of the beautiful in life with the essence of the God we know as the example.”

“You mean love?” I asked.

“Right, because true morality requires a complete abandonment of reason–the laws of the state certainly fall short of morality–in the conviction of a loftier morality, one that proceeds from the heart.”

I nodded in agreement.

“To come under the conviction that there is a moral lining to morality, a hope beyond the visible hope, is to experience the despair of ethical living. This is the despair of all despair, that moral conduct alone does not yield a satisfactory spiritual life, for one to become truly “moral” requires a reversal of the entropy of experience on human life by God’s own touch. You know where we are now, right?”

I wasn’t certain.

“I’m now talking about what philosophers and theologians term the leap of faith, where we move from the prose of ethical living to the ballad of the trans-ethical religious community. Being religious implies that we take all of our despair, all of our anxiety–you know what I’m talking about–and offer them up to God in exchange for a new dream, one that is lined with faith in the perseverance of goodness over the worst the world has to offer. When I reached this point myself, I heard an audible voice and even began to have visions.”

It was at this point in our discussion that Craven Ridley walked in, and even provided retrospect neither of us were able to account for his materialization out of darkness.

Craven approached us with a laugh void of humor and said in that ironic tone he gets: “Yes, but we must beware of the pitfalls of bad faith . . .

“Yes, the pitfalls . . .” he scoffed, leaning against the table. “Meaning, instead of coming to grips with your anxiety, you mark yourselves as fodder of denial; then you exist in your own anxious ecosystem, sealed up from the rest of the world–an aquarium existence–which in your terms, Shannon, would be spiritual decadence.”

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