Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
At long last, the pilgrim reached the edge of the west. For years he had walked, wooden staff in hand, dreaming of the alabaster pagodas, rainfalls of flowers, delicious morning dew and utter peace. At the edge there was a gate, made of wooden scaffolding, a twisted, fragile affair that vaguely resembled the script of a language he might once have known. On a bedroll spread upon the red sand, the lame gatekeeper lay, looking at the pilgrim. The bald gatekeeper resembled an emaciated stone statue. I have come, said the pilgrim. I have not strayed, and I have not turned back. No, said the gatekeeper, you have not. The road was long, said the pilgrim, but I was able, and it was a road of peace and illumination. And sickness and death, said the lame one. What do you mean? the pilgrim cried. The gatekeeper was silent, but then finally spoke. The woman you begged alms from ten years ago lost her infants, for she had nothing left to feed them. The man who hid you in his cart and secretly transported you over several borders was captured and nailed to the wheels of his cart. The old man who cut himself while trying to mend your sandals suffered from a horrific infection that lasted for years before he died in agony. These are only a handful of cases. There were many such events along the way. The pilgrim shuddered and looked at the naked gate which had no doors or locks. Clouds of dust rose and blew through the frame. Where is the garden? asked the pilgrim. Is this not the west? It was not a reasonable question—straight ahead beyond the gate the sinking sun burned his eyes with its melancholy radiance of brass and orange light. The sun sets in the desert, said the gatekeeper. It always sets in a desert.
The western desert sank into darkness. The long twilights made his eyelids heavy. The man had forgotten his fatal, colorful coat and the dust of the well, the golden grain and the great monuments. Alone by the river each night, he remembered the darker and longer evenings of the prison, its solitude, its fragrance of death, its myriad mirrors in diamond dreams—dreams softer than beds of papyrus or petals, dreams deeper and clearer than artesian springs—architectonic, arcane, and aeonian—an underground astronomy of argentum and agate. In those depths rose unknown planets and stars into the limitless labyrinth of one world and one word.
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.
A giraffe met a dromedary on the border where the sahra meets the sahel, a land of ones and zeroes. They sat down to make a campfire and have a conversation. The dromedary spoke of his upcoming journey to the southeast, to meet the great sea, its merchants and mariners, to voyage into the sunrise and to trade in silk and surprises. The giraffe spoke of her desire to travel north and west, to the legendary lost tree, the loneliest tree, the loneliest object in the world, which was cut off from everything else by thousands of miles of sand and stone in every direction. The dromedary was curious and wondered how such a journey could be profitable. The giraffe said that she had often been lonely, and it hurt her too much to think of the lonely tree. It was vital that the tree have a friend. The dromedary cautioned against this. First, the tree might not even exist, and even if it did exist, it had survived this long without a friend–to visit it now would be to tamper with its environment and ruin its chance at happiness. Secondly, the possibility that the giraffe would not overcome the temptation to eat of its leaves and shave the tree’s head were too great. In the end, this story would conclude with a corrupted giraffe carcass and a dead tree. The giraffe looked sad, and kicked at the ashes of the campfire with her hoof. It is an axiological problem, the giraffe said, and your neck cannot stretch high enough for this axis. The dromedary was offended, and rose to his full height, setting off at once into the rosy light of the dawn, to cross golden dunes and green savannahs until he encountered the richness of the sea with its pearls, goldfish, trinkets, amphorae, silk, alabaster, spices and shellfish. It is well known that the dromedary became a great merchant selling paper and kindling to the lands beyond the sea. The giraffe set off into the emptiness of the desert, to seek the lonesome tree that might be nothing more than a mirage. One of them remarked: better a dead giraffe than a dead dromedary.