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THIS UNKNOWABLE WORLD


The nausea I felt is coming back. I thought I had conquered it by taking long walks in the country, among the sloping hills and grassy velour that has taken over the winter deserts. I relished the trembling uncertainty of the pond just below the house, where I once saw an otter splashing around. The air was pure, and crisp as a stalk of celery. I felt the moon's breath on my shoulders. I had a very good sense that I was not walking at all, but floating over the little dandelions that had just opened their bright yellow umbrellas during the last rain. What could be wrong with this world? Buds everywhere, fierce new shoots of flowers I could hardly identify in this newness. What on earth could I be worried about, or frustrated with? This is the season of angels, the moment when myth descends from the diaphanous clouds and becomes gods and nymphs and sylphs, and birds sleek as syllables.

But my nausea is back, and I am slumped in my chair unable to turn on the news. I can't handle the grief, the pessimism, the fatalistic turn of journalism. No one can write a headline without putting in the yet, or the but, or the though to counter the possible relief one might feel at the promise of relief. The virus is withdrawing from some cities, but the rural parts of the South are beginning to see ominous spikes in the infection rates. And so it goes, on and on, the daylight turning into tarnished silver, then peeling paint, the base metal of reality beginning to show through the cracked veneer of some earlier optimism.

I don't even like to put my shoes on in the morning; it means I intend to go somewhere, but my mood is so stale I hardly know what to do with my hours. I mope around in the kitchen for a while, pour out some museli and drown it in orange juice, and sit there in an uncomfortable straight-back chair chewing idly. I seem to have lost an inner voice that used to console me. It feels like someone removed the telephone from the hall, and failed to tell me my cell phone was no longer active. I am cut off, and all I have are these lurid images of a round-faced orange-complected man barking his illusions into a microphone and holding up his hands in mock frustration. I look through lidded, disbelieving eyes and turn away, my finger feeling around for the red button to cut off the TV.

A robin seems like an orator from a small country, one without any trace of Covid-19 in its news. It hops around the gravel road I am walking on and gives me a long stare before lifting its tiny hollow bones to a branch above me. It has a sweet voice, and whatever it is saying to me feels like wisdom. I keep walking. A dead tree looms large and is an exotic hotel for larvae and termites; the halls in that rotting wood are lit by shafts of late afternoon light. Someone has put out a pair of shoes to be polished; a large grub has hung his "Do not disturb" sign on the doorknob. You can smell the soup cooking in a kitchen far below, near where the roots begin. There is no idle talk about the future; no one mentions climate change or viruses or unemployment. Everyone knows where to find food, and brings it in to share with others. I hear music, and smell the dry warm cotton smell of clean sheets being spread. I hear a child singing to itself. I am longing for company, but I can settle for this fleeting impression that I am an insect about to come home to this tree. I have a reservation, a suitcase, a rumpled hat and overcoat, and I'm hungry.

And then I'm back under the flat light of a cloudless sky. I am not welcome into these other worlds I pass -- a realm of chattering birds, the quiet hum of crickets in a clump of field grass, a chevron of Canadian geese lowering down toward the marsh. I have no excuse for knocking on anyone's door, and it is best if I keep walking with my head down. Judy Woodruff's long face is gazing into the camera trying not to sob as she reports that migrant children are being sent to countries south of here where their parents and relatives no longer live. What will they do when they arrive? Her mouth moves carefully through the words of the script she wrote that morning, and her sentences rise up into the void above the teleprompter where they become butterflies and gnats. I can't watch. My nausea won't let me. I have to remain calm, and not let these jagged shards of darkness open more wounds. I have to realize that I will try to eat dinner later on, and will not taste my food if I take into my soul one more child's face staring in terror at the military bus waiting for him.

Back in my chair, the words of my book keep sliding off the page and turning into dust at my feet. I must not let myself think that language is the parched garden of our dreams, the place of wilted thoughts and aspirations. What would Plato say if he could see me trying to concentrate over a medium in which nature is fading away? What would his teacher, Parmenides, say if he found me blank-stared and addled by my alienation in this moment? The cataracts in Western belief have opened under us, and we each are perched precariously on their edges, trying not to look down. What lies far below us is the blankness of creation, the unmade world that was first given to us. A poet once remarked that the Book of Genesis depicts the moment in which man decided not to worship nature but to demand knowledge, instead. Consciousness was born in the mouth of a snake, and the firstborn discovered exile when they had tasted of it. Surely Plato understood this terrible paradox, that our awareness was limited to our own selfish needs, and that we had turned our backs against the innocence of the greater world?

The only prayer I hear these days is human laughter; it comes up out of the throat at the oddest moments. It is not tinged with bitterness, but delights in the absurdity of our plight in this moment. There is a kind of muted joy to be found in suffering, in fear. It is part of the resilience of the human spirit, even if we cannot harness this strength and make it guide us to some greater understanding. It is the body laughing at our folly, the body still joined in some obscure way to the primal urge of other animals. It doesn't seem to wince at the awful pain of ignorance and stupidity; it merely vents what is surely a cry of inane exuberance that has no words or means of explanation. I accept that sound and smile when I hear it. It could leap out of the silence almost anywhere, from a storefront or an alley, from a parent holding the tiny hand of a child while crossing the street.

I can see Plato bending over his manuscripts in the yard behind his house, setting fire to his poems. They did not capture the living nerve of the actual; they merely copied a few flimsy impressions of what the day looked like, what truth was when it passed like a tiny filament of tungsten through the nerves. It was a lattice of symbols and hesitations, a speculative ladder of thoughts that didn't rise much above the limit of human sight. Even if it sang some reductive message the soul was eager to communicate. He burned the pages and watched them be consumed by fire. He walked away resolved never to write such language again. Instead, he would celebrate the skepticism of his student Socrates, and watch as the youth of Athens would be trapped in their own contradictions as they struggled to believe in a world of human conceptions. The shadow of their worries falls across my knees as I sit here, trying to read a page or two before pouring a glass of wine and following the ineluctable course of dying light as it ebbed from the floor.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen