Nobody knew how it got its shape. Some said it was designed to look like the leaf of a lost tree. Others compared it to a spread vulva, the maternal bosom, the mons pubis, a little box or the wound of a knight. In one ancient text, it has been described as a disembodied body without essence or substance, a discarded oar, a red gate and the emptiness of the other shore.
It is sometimes called the blackbox. It is not black at all, but perhaps it should be. It is the hybrid of a radio and a refrigerator, a camera obscura, a labyrinth, a code matrix, and a battery. The wiring is intricate–one is tempted to think of bombs. Though they can explode and implode, this is actually quite rare. What is not rare is the amount of destruction it can unleash. In the last century alone, this machine was responsible for at least 160,000,000 wartime slaughters, 100,000,000 suicides, 87 million garden variety homicides, and one and half billion abortions, all totalling about a quarter of the world’s population today. Only about 20% is used or known to work, according to the ancient proverb, which means that 80% sleeps in darkness, just as 80% of the universe sleeps in darkness. On the thin shores between twin unknowns, the black box crackles with signals and commands. It breathes. The black box is the most haunted place in the universe. It might even be its own universe. Its ghosts are imperceptible from the outside. They travel in whispers and mute screams no electricity can detect. Their long, steely fingers scratch at the coffin-black spaces between signals and circuitry. They make a pilgrimage for a surface they cannot find. It is an inverted pandora’s box, an insane asylum in a bag of raging winds, an aegis that consumes itself, the lone eye of the gray ones orbiting itself in sheer emptiness, the magnesium flashing head of the gorgon that turns all things to stone, a saturn eating its own offspring. And yet, it is only a small football of fat sizzling with electricity in a fragile cowl of bone.
The mound of sand rose pale and smoky in the blue night of great stars as a light breeze constantly added and subtracted grains of sand to and from its mass. The lost assassin thus perceived the merciless impossibility of death, the momentous eternity, the shattering and reassembling of numbers and words, and the distance of distance.
The assassin climbed a bell tower to better survey the topography of his mission, but just when he had figured out the way to stalk his prey, the bells rang, and to his great horror he slipped and fell, splattering on the ancient stones below. They buried his body in an unmarked grave.
When an assassin sharpens his blade, he contemplates the possibility that he is a living parable, or a living conspiracy; he is in fact not much more than a blade. Whether sharpened or not, blades are ambiguous, and someone else can always wield what you imagine to hold in your hand.
One of the assassins was entrusted with leading an armed caravan into the deserts. Perhaps it was to stalk and kill an escaped conspirator, perhaps it was to escape a conspiracy or a trial, or perhaps it was a secret mission to better determine the way of the sands and clouds, the history of his nation, the possibilities of empire and the nature of trade routes. The caravan took up its arms, tools, merchandise and machines and departed for the dry oblivion. As they drifted deeper into the soft dunes and burning blue sky, the assassin felt that they were transforming into a song. The caravan was a strong and strange piece of music. Lost in ecstasy, he did not notice the approach of the sandstorm. All of the warriors and camels, except for the assassin, were buried alive. The assassin made his way to a desolate oasis and survived for many years on water, wild grains, and non-integers of birds. One day, a caravan stopped at the oasis and found the bewildered survivor. The travelers decided to take him along. As they crossed the wastes, the assassin spoke of all that he had learned of clouds, sands, and little creatures. When the caravan arrived back in civilization, the assassin learned that his language, nation and cities were no more. Other caravans were departing for newer cities and different times and places, with stronger and stranger music. Lost, the assassin made haste to join their sand-blasted journeys into oblivion.
One manuscript turned up in a desert well. Although the language was scriptural, and could have been classified as philosophy or wisdom literature, the text was a long vulgate poem of lectures about harvests and departures, addressing all of the great questions of the soul. The second manuscript was found buried along the great highway. It was clear that the second manuscript was an imitation of the first. It suffered from poor grammar and pointless meditations, but the fictional framework of this second text was just as intriguing and appealing: the discourse of a stranger in a city on the verge of destruction. Ashes are more appetizing than grain, as the ancient proverb says. The man who found the manuscripts read both again and again over the course of the day, in the empty fields of scattered trees. The man came to know the texts well, the sources of their genius, the unrealized heights of expression possible, the unreached horizons of thought and dream that had been left behind. It were as though the very minimal and mediocre seeds of these texts suggested an invisible and imaginary harvest somewhere else, in some other unwritten text. It was clear that both texts were imitations of earlier works, in a tradition that saw the fading of form and depth with each successive edition, but perhaps they were not. Perhaps every text is the same as another, a futile attempt of one person to become an author, to become a text, in a time when all authors are already dead, when all souls are as readable or as burnable as texts, when all texts are as stable as the papyrus that turns to dust in fresh air and bright sun. To write is to die, and to live. Returning to his home, the man began to pen his own manuscript, to stretch for the landscapes missing from the other texts. It occured to him that he was a mere copyist, but it became unclear as to who or what he would be copying–the first manuscript, the second manuscript, their unknown sources, or the imaginary texts they had failed to write? The man wrote his own manuscript anyway. It was a text of winters, departures, and long abandoned cities. An assassin was the main speaker. There was almost nobody worthwhile there to listen. The assassin’s discourse would be the itinerary of a soul addressed to stray cats, thieves, and the thirty-two winds. They would ask and he would answer. Or perhaps he would ask and they would answer. Someone would say, Speak of confession, of contagion, of deterioration, of migration, of depression, of contemplation, of ingression, of resurrection, of origination, of convolution, of radiation.
A logician spent years testing word problems, striving with paradoxes and studying all the arcana of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Through various tests and formulas, he came to the conclusion that there were many logics—some which worked together well, some which contradicted others, and even some which contradicted themselves while remaining valid. There seemed to be no way to unify and map all the logics into one great logic.There were days when logic seemed to darken his mind like the desert sun; there were nights when logic lifted him on the wings of white birds to sail off to the stars. The poor man grew tired and ill. At last, he traveled one day and one night over the desert to an old weathered church, and confessed to his priest: I believe in the faith, I do not believe in logic, but I do not believe in an illogical faith. Worried for his health, the priest blessed him and sent him on a pilgrimage, giving him a map of the exact route to take. On the first segment of the journey, he encounteed the smallest oasis he had ever seen. On the second segment of the journey, he passed through the mountains and watched racing clouds and falling rain. On the third segment of the journey, he arrived at the shore and beheld the sand dunes and the immeasurable sea beyond. As an apostle once said, perhaps mystically or symbolically, everything was made of water and by water. There on the beautiful shore the logician wept, for a saint who weeps is analogous to a saint who walks on water.
[credit to Simone Weil for the last analogy]
The time traveler was bursting with excitement as he traveled to the land and time of the pyramids and the great inundations. A cloudless blue sky stretched eternally over the endless white sands. After visiting the site of the pyramids, he made his way to the city, in search of a renowned scholar who had written treatises on trigonometry and suicide. Although he admired the scholar’s genius and foresight, he also could not wait to demonstrate the advances of mathematics, science and astronomy. The city was desolate. After searching various streets he knew from archaeology, and finding nobody, he began to panic. A dead horse gathered flies by the roadside. The cloudless sky burned. At last, he came upon an engineer, working with some complicated irrigation machinery by the river. The engineer spoke through sign language and writing in the sand. The time traveler said that he was looking for the man who posed the following word problem: when the pyramid is 250 cubits high, and the base is 360 cubits long, what is the measurement of the slope? You are too late, the engineer laughed and gestured, for he died centuries ago. He wrote a chronology in the sand for emphasis. What time is this? the traveler asked. It is the time of plagues. Which plague is this? the traveler asked. It is the apparent end to the plague of silence, said the engineer. Are you the one who wrote the treatise on plagues? The very same, said the engineer, playing with various, unidentifiable machine parts. Nobody has written of your plague of silence; it is mentioned nowhere, and at any rate, we know now that such plagues were mere proverbs and parables, not events! Besides, your chronology is wrong, and it is you who are too late–you were supposed to be alive ages ago! The engineer set down his tools again and asked the time traveler to speak of the future. The traveler spoke of flying machines, pandemics, bombs that wasted cities, raising pillars of cloud and fire, of machines that produced visions of love and suspense, and of machines that could think and speak. Those are not events, the engineer laughed, those are parables, too! Do not be afraid, though, this whole world and the universe is a word problem or a parable. Where can I find the bloody trigonometrist? the engineer demanded. I don’t know, the engineer sighed. I’m not a time traveler and my land is in ruins, as you see. There are real events, the traveler screamed, kicking at the dust to erase the chronology in the sand. It is not one giant parable or word problem! The engineer pondered the sand and the cloudless sky. It was in the days of the plague of silence. The lost traveler sat down and wept.
The bonesetter worked in a shop not far from the radiant blue sea. The shop consisted of four rectangular chambers surrounding a courtyard lined with porticos and a pluvium at its center. The walls bore mosaics of animal and human skeletons in pale blue paint and square spirals at the tops and bottoms. The bonesetter had painted them himself. One chamber was dedicated to receiving visitors, the second to display various skeletons he had collected, the third to healing, and the fourth to his library and sleeping quarters. Whenever his assistants posed questions, he would remind them to read the bones first. In the evenings, the bonesetter sat down with his wife to a simple meal of bread, wine, and other things. They were happy, and the people loved them for the healing they brought. One day, a great earthquake killed his wife, destroyed his shop, burned his books, and crushed his collection of skeletons into rubble and dust. Most of the island and its towns lay in ruins. The bonesetter managed to dig up his savings and collect whatever else he had deposited at a local shrine. With a handful of other refugees, the bonesetter embarked on a longship for other islands and lands. He came to a small city on a remote shore. The politarchs, pleased that a healer and philosopher had come to their distant land, invited him to lecture in their court on the acropolis. When the bonesetter began to speak of anatomy, bone structures, and skeletons, the court laughed. They did not believe in bones. Confused, the bonesetter asked them to explain. Bones were just the fossils of old medicine, they said. Nobody believed in them anymore. The bonesetter suggested that they feel their own skulls, bodies and limbs. They instructed him that while indeed there were hardened portions of flesh in their bodies, these were not to be consideres bones. The bonesetter requested that a cadaver be brought. No cadavers were available, since the barbarians threw all dead bodies, weighted with stones, into the sea. The bonesetter asked that a convicted assassin, adulteress, or traitor be brought forward. They brought one who fit all three requirements. The bonesetter asked which arm she had used to strike down her victim. The right, she replied. Then bonesetter severed her left arm, and proceeded to strip it, cut it open and to reveal the humerus, radius, ulna, carpus and phalanges as the poor adulteress bled out on the ground. Straightaway, the court condemned him as a heretic, magician, and murderer. They chained him to the dead woman, weighted them with stones, and threw their bodies into the sea. One headsman secretly said to another that one day the sea would give up all of its dead and their skeletons. The other remarked that in the meantime the dead would have someone to set their bones.