Saturday, October 18, 2014
The Earth Remains Forever: A Start
At the dawn of a new millennium, their prophets foresaw the end of history. Justice would triumph over ambition and the good of the many would coincide with the good of the few. Fear and honor would become relics of a tribal past, known only in libraries where paper copies of the great epic poems sat gathering dust.
Perhaps the new prophets’ visions angered the ancient gods. What else could explain the apple of discord that fell heavily from the sky? This evil deed done under the bright sun threw a vast pall of gray smoke into thin air, casting the darkness of night over the land. Fear clawed at the people and the prophets once again cried out for the defense of honor and interest.
These were a people descended from the Achaeans and the Trojans, the Athenians and the Spartans, the Romans and the Carthaginians. They were no longer a singularly war-like people, but the spirits of the old warriors still lived among them. Those with the hearts of Peleus and Achilles, Priam and Hector, Laertes and Odysseus, they eagerly boarded swift vessels that deposited them on desolate, foreign shores. They found that the riches of the peoples of these lands had been plundered or squandered. Their once-high walls had been laid low and left in disrepair. The gods had forsaken these lands long ago.
The warriors, arriving on their sleek vessels, knew these lands were troubled, but they were not there for empire or booty. They went to remake new cities of men, ones forged after their image in which justice and the common good would triumph. They ignored the admonitions, as had their forbears, that he who undertakes to found a city among strangers and enemies, “must be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing in this to find everything hostile to him.”
They did not become masters of the country. They built ramparts, high and strong, to protect themselves, but only the few went beyond the ramparts and traveled among the people and they indeed found everything hostile to them.
The ramparts were built of fear, shored up by indecisiveness, and topped with facile certitudes. The ramparts set off two starkly different realities that could never be reconciled. Within the ramparts sat the old kings who refused all advice, believing steadfastly that they could control the world. Those who traveled beyond saw the evil deeds that are done under the sun. They learned from bitter experience that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Fate strikes on its own terms. The only certainty is that it will strike all some day.
In the end, they left their ramparts behind and set sail for home, but the way back was different. Many found themselves tossed on the seas; sailing, searching, lost. They fought to save their own lives and to bring their comrades home. But some could not be saved. Recklessness, grand recklessness, destroyed them.
In the end of the matter, when all was heard, they left little more than their ramparts.
The earth patiently endures man’s vain toils, then unleashes its tireless forces to wash away the remains and make all smooth once again. The timeless work of sun, wind, and water has smashed all man’s ramparts, swept away his implements of war, and tumbled the bodies of warriors into the seas to be buried forever in the cool silt of time. The earth sets all things physical to rights once more.
The world of man is far more than the physical, however. The world of man is a construct of the mind, in which even the physical is only an image, a snapshot limited in time and depth – filtered, bent, deconstructed, reconstructed, obscured, and focused by uncounted, unknown lenses passed down over generations.
These lenses shape and order each individual’s collection of memories and ideas held in a wilderness of billions of neurons that course with ever-changing chemical currents as they encounter an unending stream of new, often incomprehensible experiences. From this material, each mind creates its own, private world. These worlds drift on tempestuous seas, held together by the most tenuous threads of meaning.
Over the ages, seers, storytellers, prophets, and philosophers have spun these threads, tying communities together and giving them an outsized belief in their ability to understand and control the world. The ancients trusted their success to the intercession of the gods. They saw the fates as fickle, however. Their wisdom was set down in the words of a great teacher. “What has been is what will be; and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.”
Generations have come and generations have gone and wise cautions have never been a match for the indomitable hopefulness of the human spirit. When the power of divine intervention to fuel this hopefulness waned, humanity turned to new prophets, who stoked their enthusiasm anew, foretelling that science and logic would lay the old order low. They divined in the annals of history not repetition, nor rhyme, but the self-similarity of fractal patterns that could be mathematically determined. They promised to unlock the secrets of Chaos, the primordial void.
Computers produced great crystalline swirls that represented the elegance of the fractal, like the growth of frost on a windowpane, or a large and perfect snowflake in the second that it remains solid on a small, cold hand in the night. This enthusiasm proved that there is but one fractal pattern in humanity. From the one, to the few, to the many, they cannot abide a world that lacks order. They will spend their lives seeking, weaving, and protecting a thread of meaning. This thread of meaning, of belief that there is an order in things and that they will always be a part of that order, is what keeps the individual worlds from careening off into the terrifying space of utter loneliness. When this thread snaps, they fall weightless, unique, and separate, like a snowflake.
Water is patiently irreversible in its work. Snow is immediate and transitory. It paints the sky in its dancing patterns and remakes the world in hours, not months or years. But the fresh canvas is fragile and impermanent. There is only a brief window to wonder at the unblemished blanket of perfect white before it begins to tarnish and fade.
For that, it is all the more magical and captivating. So, when James Eacus finally came to rest on the bench in Paris and the weight of the journey slipped from his shoulders, he breathed a sigh of relief, closed his eyes, and thought of snow.
He thought of the warm, dark bedroom in his boyhood home – a space of his own, comfortable and safe. He remembered the cherished moments, watching the first flakes begin to float down, testing the night. More and more followed until they were dancing together in great, sweeping swirls around the lights lining his street.
The earth resisted at first, the warmth of the fleeing sun still clinging to the soil. Before long, it accepted the first dusting of white. As the squall built, flake upon tiny flake painted a new scene. James could think of nothing more peaceful or hopeful. He remembered how his small hands strained to open the old window a crack and how the polar wind mixed in eddies and whirls with the heat of the furnace at that border between his room and the rest of the world.
Just before closing the window for the night and crawling under the warm covers, James reached out and swept his fingers through the damp accumulation on the sill and believed. The new day would bring a fresh start – each footfall a fresh conquest. Then, if he was quiet and patient and willed his body to be deathly still, he could collect the silences of a million unique crystals slipping through the night into a hush that beckoned dreams of wonder and possibility untarnished by the disappointments he’d eventually come to know.
Some thirty years later, James let the memory of those disappointments slip off into the dark. He opened his eyes with childlike wonder, unsurprised to see the snow starting to float and dance down from above. The facets of each flake glistened in their unique way as they fell to the ground, melting away at first, then beginning to accumulate into something tangible and recognizable, no matter how transitory. This was what James needed. He needed a blank canvas – a fresh start to put his mind at rest. He smiled the first smile in a long time as the City of Light shone against the blanket of white.