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August 28, 2005

Development, Chapter 13 (p. 234-241)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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When Sybil dashed onto the north tower, breathless less from exertion than from excitement at having found Nathaniel, she realized that she hadn't a thing to say. Compliments are often thus, most difficult to give to strangers — more so when they are honest. When the beneficiary of a compliment, or affection for that matter, stands shadow-like in the distance, even if only the distance from the Pequod's eastern stairs to its sunset-profiled northern tower, the compliment's giver is free to imagine scenarios of warm reception, but in the face of the actual giving, rejection rears its head along with an impersonal reality against which the imaginary connection of an admirer seems but a specter.

So, when Sybil had risen to Nathaniel's position, she found herself unable to do otherwise than delay by feigning an interest in the spectacle of the setting sun. As the last rays of daylight slipped across the land, Nathaniel spoke: "I don't know how many times I've watched the sunset from this house, but it's never dulled."

Once Sybil realized that Nathaniel had initiated a conversation, she asked, "But do you ever see any change?"

"Only in me," Nathaniel responded, a strange, sad look coming over his face with a reflective smile. He looked magnificent. Then he began to talk to Sybil — to explain, though at first she thought she understood already. "The sunset is a quick change as far as the Earth is concerned. In the time it takes most people to commute from work to home or to take a bath, the sky can change from day to night. But still, if you stand here and watch the sun slip behind the mountains, the change is hard to notice. You have to look away for a while to see any change. In a way, it's like watching a child grow: the only way to appreciate the difference is to give up a fair claim to a gradual miracle in order that you may return to it having already happened. A man released from prison after a long sentence must feel the same about the changes of history. But then even history is nothing when compared to nature. The change about which I think you were asking. We have no way to watch that incrementally, so we feel that it doesn't change.

"But we do see changes. Otherwise we wouldn't have the word, change, a word that only makes sense when we add perspective. No, I haven't seen these hills change, even if only because the city hasn't reached here yet, but I've seen me change. Back when I preferred the other tower, I used to see faces in every mountainside. I don't see those anymore. Even with just the slight change from there to here, images that stood out so clearly that I thought they must be real, even intentional, just disappeared. But even if I could see them, I don't think they'd be the same. Instead of monsters or women, they'd be animals or children. What about you? Do you see any change?"

"Yes," Sybil told him. "In everything."

They both looked out at the mountains, only sprawling shapes against the darkening sky, with sporadic shadows where the moon had begun to delineate what the sun had left obscure. Then, with no forethought or intention, Sybil blurted out, "Why haven't you published that book?"

"What book?"

"That Value of Breathing book. Any publisher who you could get to read even the first few pages would probably jump at the chance to attach her name to it."

Again that sadly pensive look crossed Nathaniel's face. "What makes you think so?"

"It's fantastic," said Sybil, blushing a bit at her forthrightness. "I mean it's amazing what you've managed to do with it."

Laughing a bit sardonically, Nathaniel explained, "A long time ago, I wrote an essay of the same name and with basically the same ideas, but as masterfully put as I had language to manage. But I might as well have burned it for all the change that it effected. I have a feeling the first few lines may have been read by some editor, somewhere, but the edges never creased, and it was never accepted. At the time, I fancied that I had tried to do too much and had left the door open for misunderstandings, so I decided to make it a challenge, mostly for my own amusement, to refine it until it was so simple that it could not be misunderstood, even by the greatest fool."

"I think you've done it!" Sybil assured him. "You should get it out there."

Nathaniel hesitated. "I guess I feel that whatever is good about it now was good about it then, and that, no matter what tricks I may have imparted accidentally to make it passable literature, if the intelligent version wasn't good enough to be published, then this one isn't either."

"Well that's just silly." She wasn't sure why she was suddenly so agitated.

Seeming a little ashamed at his first answer, Nathaniel made another excuse, "I guess what I'm really afraid of is that they'll still misunderstand it. I can't do any more than I have. What if they still don't get it?" Then under his breath, "Or what if they do?"

At this last, puerile comment, Sybil felt her admiration for Nathaniel slipping away; how could his neuroses coincide with the altruistic, open beauty of his writing? It couldn't. But it was not long until Sybil changed her mind yet again.

Nathaniel continued, "I've written the thing, and I know for myself that it is brilliant! Why should I seek or avoid confirmation from people who would never take the time to really understand it — who have system upon system of logic by which to pervert its meaning into whatever their preference might be? They will make of it what they want, even if it is the exact opposite of that which I meant to say. And what I wanted was to give an answer, a simple answer, as it must be — an incontrovertible truth, as all answers should be. As a society, today, we want answers, but we don't want them to be unarguable. We want ambiguous truths."

"So we don't want answers at all, then."

"Exactly. Don't you agree?"

"I don't know. I certainly don't want to agree."

"I don't either. But it's true that we don't really want answers. We just want to think that we're getting them. If answers are never impregnable, then any will do. We can decide what we want to be true before we think about it. It becomes a faith. Therefore, we layer complications on our answers after we've decided what is to be true, adding infinite rules and variables to force anomalies to fit. From here we observe that only that which is complex can be true and that the simple answers are too obvious or attractive to be right. Maybe we go through all this because we don't want to admit that somebody who seems simple to us can know better than we do. But if this is our reason, it is mistaken. The answer must be simple, but the work to find it, difficult. It is the work that reveals the answer, and it is also the work that keeps it hidden. Furthermore, believing that a complicated or difficult-to-accept answer must, intrinsically, be more true is easier than realizing that your question never had to be asked. So when it comes down to it, I think the limited segment of the world who would read the book will make a conscious effort to not understand me. Just as they make a conscious effort to misunderstand each other."

Sybil tried to take it all in but felt something pulling her away from the conclusion to which Nathaniel was headed. "So how have we managed to keep it together for so long."

"But we really haven't. Humanity, maybe, but there's always been somewhere to which it could spread."

"Like America."

"Yes. But now there's nowhere left on Earth, and we haven't found anywhere else to go. America itself is but the blink of an eye in the life of history. But our country is starting to have a past, and a hectic, frantic one, at that, and we haven't a clue how to accept it."

"I think you do, so I still don't understand why you don't want to clue the world in. It wouldn't cost you anything. In fact, it'd probably pay you dividends."

Nathaniel laughed, but cordially. "No, that's where you're wrong. It would cost me everything and benefit the world nothing. Suppose the world understands every word. By my own argument, the world can only be saved by some change that is contrary to that on which we've come to build our very definitions of self, which are exactly the center of our new philosophies. So again, I would be contradicting the basic subject of 'the faith' and would be dismissed.

"But, purely for the sake of argument, suppose that I'm believed. Imagine that great masses of humanity break their recent pattern of narcissism, suddenly, on the basis of my ideas. Then imagine the despair and hopelessness when they find they've left themselves nowhere to go from that shift! I almost didn't live through it, and I had the relief of having made the discovery. I've been down that road: thoughts of suicide, a need to lay blame on somebody. What if I was only saved because I had nobody to blame but the whole of society? What if they blamed me?

"No, I can't help enough to make up for the risk. Humanity must change, voluntarily, at its core, and if it does so, it will be with or without me... it will be a natural inclination, though I've little faith in that. Or, rather, I've too much faith in the potential with not enough faith left in me to handle watching myself proved wrong. I really do care and feel too much for humanity. I vastly overestimate them. I couldn't bear to admit that I've been wrong to do so because, to me, that would mean that all the horrors of society are voluntary."

Sybil felt as if there was some hole, some missing explanation. "If it's true that the horrors of society bring with them a reason for personal growth, then maybe it shouldn't matter why they exist."

"Of course! But I think the rules have changed. I can't say for sure whether it happened for money or if it's been marketed for some other reason, but the horrors have become all the rage. They sell, whatever it is that they sell. What I'm saying is that sin and sorrow can teach us nothing if we revel in them... without repentance or, at least, a struggle to overcome them. Sin and sorrow have become the too simple and too attractive truths. They please quickly and come as easily as the ability to slip from a high wall.

"Paradoxically, we allow this to be by believing that a harsh reality must be more real. Once we accept the unacceptable or, more likely, drive it from our minds, we are free to do anything; the two conflicting pulls of this paradox, the excuse for simple sin and the faith in the more-realness of a harsh world, begin to tumble over each other, making transgression the easy pleasure that makes life harsher, making it more real and excusing more vices. Eventually, we'll corrode the foundation of belief that allowed us to consider options at all and not go mad."

Trying to push the conversation from abstract philosophy to the real book that she had discovered, Sybil asked, "But you don't even want to try warning them? Are you so sure that you're right in some beliefs that you'd have to be wrong in others?"

"Well," said Nathaniel, apparently drawing the conversation to a close for the time being, "wherever I'm right and wrong, I have come to value those things that are now deemed antiquated. I feel, in my heart, that if we do not have to turn back from the path that we've taken we at least have to tread more carefully, meaning slowly, and I am too young yet to be falsely accused of unthinking conservatism. Besides, I am no longer the only person to consider while designing my future. I really have enjoyed our conversation, but it's getting late, and I'm very tired. Good night."

He smiled in such a way as to assure her that the reason that he had given for excusing himself was an honest one and began climbing down the spiral stairs.

There's something that doesn't fit, Sybil thought. She wrinkled her forehead and looked toward the western mountains then called after Nathaniel.

"Yes?" he asked, his head rising above the floor.

"What happened to you after you left Sal?"


"On the road. When you hopped out of the old man's pickup truck and started walking east."

A look of inapprehension sunk into his face, "I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about. I've never gone anywhere with Sal."

"Oh," said Sybil, and when he saw that she had nothing else to say, Nathaniel continued down the stairs.

The following morning was bright and cheerful, with the birds chiming in their chirps and an airy mist slipping between the trees and pouring into the dells. The mist would, on occasion, spill onto the portico of the Pequod and swirl around, but for the most part, it splashed up the stairs only to dribble down. Sybil watched from behind the French doors of the north hall as the grass became visible from obscurity and then dimmed again. After-breakfast kitchen sounds penetrated into the corridor along with the occasional murmur of masculine voices, not yet entirely awake.

She had strolled idly into the hall after she had eaten to compare her impression of Jake's paintings with that which she'd had after her first viewing, and now Sybil strolled away from the scene of nature across the porch to look at the rest. It occurred to her that she had not yet looked at the one in the decorative frame, so she skipped the others, perhaps with the vain hope that she could view this last once, step away for just a few minutes, and then return to it as if for a second time.

The painting disturbed her. It was dark and eerie, yes, but it was also the spitting image of Nathaniel, perhaps looking more like him than a photograph would. Even so, it seemed to Sybil that this picture bespoke a time past. The gauntness and despair were more dull in the actual man, like lingering phantoms of a person who once was or could be. But the bumps by the ears were grotesque and out of place. If anything, she thought, there should be pointed ears or a wreath of twigs around his head.

She reached out to touch one of the bumps but stopped when the spiral staircase in the ballroom began to clang. Nathaniel descended and said, "They're not real; I've tested them myself."

"I didn't think..." Sybil began, as if covering for an indecorous act, but let her words spill away. Nathaniel crossed to her side and, with his hands behind his back, looked judiciously at his portrait.

"Now that I've met you, I see Jake has done a marvelous job capturing your resemblance," Sybil told him.

"Yes, a greater likeness I have never seen of a man who is not me," he replied.

The pair stood, inspecting the painting as if it might change before their very eyes. The wind whistled through a crack somewhere, and Sybil felt herself shiver despite the warming season.

Seeming to have noticed the shiver, though he was immersed in the image, Nathaniel quoted, "We hear not the airy footsteps of the strange things that almost happen."

"And what almost happened?"

Nathaniel thought for a breath then switched his gaze to Sybil. "I don't know," he confessed, then walked to the French doors and threw them open. "Come with me; I want to show you something."

Pausing irresolutely, for her feet had already begun to move, Sybil asked, "What is it?"

Nathaniel didn't answer at first but cast his hearing off into the distance. He shushed her, though she hadn't been so much as breathing heavily, and told her to listen. Sybil humored him but didn't hear anything. When it became apparent that Nathaniel was not going to tell her what she was listening for, Sybil asked him.

"There is a moral whispering through the branches," he told her, "but I can never quite make it out. What do you suppose it's saying?"

Sybil tried to listen but heard only the wind, tranquil and calming. "I don't know that it's saying anything."

With a short, amused laugh, Nathaniel bade her follow him.

"Where are you taking me?"

"To show you why I don't want to publish The Value of Breathing."

Posted by Justin Katz at August 28, 2005 8:47 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches