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October 15, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 20 (p. 329-331)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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"It's a dreadful smell, this one of smoldering leather and parchment, though at first it is just a blasphemous curl, seeping through the books and entangling itself in the disembodied thought of smoke betwixt the arms of the willow as if in mocking emulation of the leaves that have long been missing. Then, as if the books are being taken up one by one from their pile around the willow's trunk and their pages crumpled by an invisible hand, the crackling of paper is frightful, like the rattling of old bones in a playground of quiet fantasies. A binding makes an audible pop like a firecracker in a distant barrel, and a single sheet of paper floats into the air, scraping against the bark and sending forth its words in tiny spurts of sparks.

"The crackle begins to churn upon itself until it is a grumble, as if the spirits of the authors of the books are taking up their arguments with strained civility. One must have been stricken with an incendiary rhetorical tool, for his entire volume bursts into flames and brands the works around it. It seems that all of our questions will be answered after millennia of debate and consecrated in a baptism of fire!

"And now it is as if the great minds of all time have come to an agreement and taken up the same enlightened idea in unison, for the grumble has become a roar, and the flames lap at the bottom arms of the tree, covering the illusion of dead nature with the weight of real death in soot. The tree gives the impression of undulation, and the theories of humanity branch out, making the short leap from literature to music, and the strings of the grand piano begin to twang discordantly as they break when strained by this hot earliest of discoveries.

"And the dead flowers and the browned grassy hair of Nature seem compelled to take up the cry, for they carry the conflagration across the ground to the chair and to the shelves. The fire begins to climb the walls, as it is even now making its way up the middle part of the tree. It curls between branches and banisters alike, and all char and burn and fall to black pieces.

"The conflagration, for it is a conflagration now, scrapes across the roof, sucking air into the courtyard, though the air there is no longer breathable. The flames search the house, tearing down doors if they are closed, for any evidence that has yet to be converted. It finds the beds and the counterpanes and lavishes especially in the silky awning of Nathaniel's bed. It claims a shirt that has been carelessly flung across the arm of a chair, and then it claims the chair itself.

"Seeping through the walls, the blaze finds the front hall and pounces on the old, dry floorboards. It frees the old guardian beneath the boards, only to crush his bones into fine powder. It slips beneath the swinging door of the kitchen and rattles about among the pots and pans. It finds little support in the meager stock of firewood, but the kitchen itself is fuel enough to melt the silverware around the edges. The kitchen flames rush into the northern hall, perhaps to lay claim to paintings that hang unexpectantly upon the walls, only to find that others of the fire's tendrils have found them out already and used up what sport there was in tearing the canvases from the frames.

"The whole Pequod fills with smoke and temporary black stains rush along the walls and the floors. Nothing, it seems, will be left after this malignant philosophy has consummated its inevitable conclusion, lest it be the cold marble of the ballroom or the antiquated plumbing. And for this, it seems the fire tells the truth of the dead authors' theory, and all is really one, in the end. And for this reason, I say, nay I cackle, that it is beautiful. See the majesty of my end! Hear the roar of my undoing!

"My God how I burn!"

When the windows of the dining room imploded over his shoulder, forcing him to keep his seat by will rather than impulse, and his beard was ruffled and singed by a burst of heat, John knew that he had done what he had set out to do. No others would convert the Pequod to their own needs at the expense, each time, of a memory. No more of Nathaniel's manuscripts would be subjected to a worse destruction than the flames that were tearing the words from the pages at that moment.

Still, a tear cut its way down John's face, and he sucked it into his mouth with a swig of rum. He turned his head to look at the wooden sign that somebody had hung above the entrance. The message of that, too, would burn away. He looked at the eastern lawn and watched the flow of shadows. A breeze seemed to skitter across it toward the house then change its mind and dissipate in all directions. John watched the trees sway in the distance. He looked toward the hills, his eyes lingering for a moment on one in particular. He laughed.

"The Nonesuch Inn," he said and laughed again. He took a long drink of rum and leaned back on the porch swing.

Coda (p. 332-333)

Let us away. It is disgusting what men will do. We were wrong to tarry our rest. The pomp! Come now, we must admit it. We must own it. The ostentation of our hopes. To have put off a much needed departure from all these things only for the sake of learning that we were right all along. I am sick with them, and I am sick with us.

We've always been right; we've always known.

But should we not continue our vigil and watch what comes as the smoke is cleared and listen for the resolution? No, for we have seen every epoch and every symphony end thus: with calamity and crescendo in a final blaze. And the masses and the audiences stand to applaud the end of an era crashing down until the players are revealed in all their homogeneity and the clapping smolders and peters out until all but one or two have left the hall. We must resolve to sleep, for we may expect no more pleasing show than what dreams provide in the silence.

So to the brook. It is winter now, and the birds will not disturb us, nor will humanity. Nor, truly, will the brook itself, for it lies before us in frozen turmoil. There is nothing to keep us now from our sleep. Indeed, we've the soothing crackle in the distance of the cleansing fire to lull us.

True that spring sadly will come again and bring with it the false hope of a renewed world, though it will still, as always, be buried beneath the autumnal waste and the dust of time. But if the world might find a new constructed hope, then let us have hope that we will be long gone when it comes. And hope for a better place to go, too.

I fear, though, for all our hopes, false or otherwise, too many of us have little faith. So let us hope, and let those who cannot believe in divine Meaning in the least have faith in grand Nothing, simply for the boon of a difference. No more of the turbulent monotony of faith in faithlessness!

So let us to sleep. We were right all along: this world is not one in which to be awake. To sleep, then, sleep. If Meaning seems too vague and Nothing seems too bleak for faith, have faith then that, at the very least, you will have missed nothing for having slept, for it will all be exactly as it is today if you open your eyes again to this world. Different shades, perhaps a different landscape of images, but the underlying foundation will be the same. The rough shape of the mountains. Nothing will ever truly change.

Were this art, we would be able to resign ourselves to it as such and sleep the eternal night in peace, dreaming sweet dreams of forevermores and never-ending lines of progeny, for it would all have been a reverie. Were this art, doctrine would demand that the ending be ambiguous, and we could find, for comfort, our own opinions buried and ratified by their interment. But this is life! In life we may end trite and not be concerned with platitudes. This is life, and we may not sleep easy until we have interred the concern itself. And because this is life, we may leave it all with no hope, yet no true despair: with no doubt, yet no surety.

So, finally, I will have done my chatter and let us sleep to the crackle of the fire, and the whisper of the wind through the branches, and the soft plea of the owl asking, "Who?"

And in answer to all we will snore, as if to say, "Nobody," for a cadence can only be followed by silence.

Postscript (p. 337)

Perhaps I am no genius, after all.

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A Whispering Through the Branches

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