Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Student's Tale

Just seven miles away from Harvard, the renown home of American academic thought, there was a large auditorium. It was in a hall made of marble—white, flawless marble. At the front of the building—which was built to resemble the Parthenon—there were gigantic columns, a large set of stone steps, and, at the top of the building, reliefs of scholars from throughout the ages. Walking up the steps and into the building, there was a horde of men and women—largely from their late 30s to their 60s—dressed in dark clothes, like a religious cult going to make their sacrifices in the temple.
They congregated within a great room, a vestibule of white marble, ferns and even trees potted in large, brown, earthen urns. The mass conversed, though one could not pick out individual conversations. Language was lost in this place; its high marble ceilings and walls created the perfect anonymity for those who should want it. Lights hung in chandeliers, bulbs incandescent and burning with electricity—for the owner of this construction could not stand the thought of wax dripping on to the carefully preserved marble, bought and shipped from all over the world and, supposedly, only coming from ancient pagan temples.
The lights dimmed. Conversation stopped. A few seconds later, the lights went back to their normal volume. Conversation remained halted as a dark-skinned man walked from a door on the second floor balcony holding a gong. The mass turned to the man. The man, holding a percussion hammer, bowed to the mass and then struck the gong. Once. Twice. Thrice. The low tones cascaded around the antechamber. The great doors towards which all of the people in black faced swung open. The great oak creaked against the giant brass hinges as the doors took their journey. Slowly, calmly, the mass filed through the doors.
The next room was an auditorium. The carpeting, seats, and walls were all of a deep, rich crimson. The seat-backs and the stage up front were all of the same dark oak of the now closing doors. As the mass took their seats in the auditorium—tonight, the boxes were left empty save for a group of five people sitting in one—as the great crimson curtains drew back, revealing a podium made of black-finished wood, thin, with a top positioned at just the slightest angle, and a microphone coming out from the surface. A man in a well-tailored black suit walked from stage right and stood behind the podium.
Silence fell across the auditorium as the man began to speak in a deep, sonorous voice. He greeted the audience, told them that he was very pleased to be speaking in front of a group of such distinguished peers such as they. He told them that he was to be discussing the use of the obscene in James Joyce’s ouvre (and yes, he used that word; and yes, the throng lapped it up). He outlined his forty-five minute speech, his own meager attempt to probe the mind of a genius—as he put it—and then began.
It seemed a very well-worked thesis, that idea of his. He spoke to the silent, watching audience, looking on as if they were children around a campfire listening to a ghost story right before bedtime. Such a display of oratory on such a mundane subject they had not seen before. The man, it seemed, legitimately cared about what he was saying, believed that what he had written was, if not the Gospel on the obscene of Joyce, something that came close to getting at the Truth of the Matter.
After the forty-five minutes was up, and the man closed on his topic with a sentence that, honestly, only half of the audience understood (and only a quarter of the remaining half even thought about), he folded the stack of papers from which he had been reading and placed them in his jacket. He gazed out at the crowd, gave them a minute to think about all that he had said, left them wondering if, since he wasn’t saying anything, he had a final thought, a final joke, a final something to take the edge off of the unbearable silence. After a minute, he asked, “Are there any questions?”
A bearded man stood up towards the back of the auditorium. He wore a black sweater, a black beret, black glasses that had frames in the Golden Ratio, and wore a black goatee that came down to a point. He cleared his throat and asked, “Do you expect the erudite among us—and I trust that we are in fact present tonight—”
The crowd laughed for a moment.
“Do you expect us to accept this load of tripe you have said? Do you believe that we are so na├»ve to accept everything, especially your tenuous position?”
The speaker fidgeted. In his practice runs, no one had said that he was being trite, or that he was expounding doggerel, which, it seemed, was what this man was saying. “I think,” he started.
The interjector cut him off with a howl of rage that bordered on the inhuman. It cut through the air and caused all those in the auditorium to blanche. “You think?” he shouted. “Boy, you do not think a conclusion! You do not think a defense! You take a stance! When you think something, or posit something, or—or—or…” Language failed him. He was reduced to a primitive state, some ancestral memory from the primeval past swept through his mind, and he knew what he had to do. He unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, stuck his hand down the back of his pants, and, judging from what happened immediately afterwards, shat in his hands. Screaming like a mad ape, the man flung his feces through the air with such force and such accuracy that the speaker was hit full-on by the load of dung, directly in his face. He had no reaction.
The audience did nothing for a full three minutes, until another man stood up and faced the man who had flung feces at the speaker. “You call that a criticism?” the new man shouted. “Why, throwing fecal matter at someone is not what we do at this University! That is the sort of behavior one would expect from a college in the SEC, or the Mid-West, but not this place. This is—this is a place of—of…” words failed him. Primordial visions of long-dead ancestors evolved just beyond apes passed before his eyes. In the jungle, there was a dispute over a banana. The new man saw what he had to do. He unbuttoned his trousers, defecated into his hands, and flung his dung at the first interjector.
This set off a tidal wave of fresh bodily waste. All of those in attendance at the symposium stood as one, defecated, and threw feces at each other. The people in the sole-occupied box took advantage of their leverage and, screaming about the proper methods of deconstruction—which, they claimed, the speaker had clearly and wisely utilized in his defense of his thesis—began urinating on the crowd below them. After five minutes, the pretense of language was mutually abandoned by all those in attendance, and the crowd began screaming and howling like animals at a zoo. They scratched, they leapt, and, above all, they continued flinging crap.
When all was said and done, the only thing the janitorial staff could agree upon, the only bit of good news they all shared, was that at least none of the academics had a case of diarrhea that night.

While this happened, across the street, in a dimly lit bar called The Pen and Paper, there was a small group of about twenty men and women reclining in leather chairs, clutching glasses of scotch, beer, and other tipples. In the corner of the bar, mounted on the wall, there was a television showing baseball scores. The Red Sox had lost to the Yankees in the final game of the ALCS—again. “Damn Yankees,” said a man sporting a large, fluffy brown beard.
The entirety of the bar’s custom raised their glasses and echoed the man’s toast.
“I’m not sure about my eighth chapter,” said one man, sitting across from an older woman with her gray hair pulled back into a pony tale, “in which Richard leaves the nursing home. I feel there should be a stand-off with one of the orderlies. Instead, he—”
A younger woman, curvaceous and attractive, sitting at the bar tapped her glass on the countertop and said, “Please, Don, don’t talk about work at night.”
“Agreed,” said another man sitting a few stools down from her, who, until then, had been glaring at his reflection in the mirror over six consecutive whiskeys. “We spend so much time in the morning and afternoon thinking about our false realities, putting them into computers, or notebooks, or whatever. So much time confined to the same spot every day, the same time every day, all so that we can continue writing word, after word, after word, just so the stories won’t play themselves over and over again in our heads and drive us mad. In the evening, let it drop. Dull the mind a little bit. Watch some baseball.”
A highlight of the game showed Stephen King sitting in a seat on the first base line, wearing a Boston Red Sox slicker and clutching a notebook and pencil in his hands. “Stephen King works at night,” said the man at the table.
The door opened and Stephen King walked into the bar. “What about Stephen King?” he asked. He walked to the bar and ordered a juice—after all, he hadn’t been drinking in years. (Good for him.)
The bar grumbled in response.
“The squares,” said a woman by one of the windows facing the street, “are throwing their shit around, again.”
“How can you tell?” asked the woman at the bar.
“Spilled out onto the street.” A splatter hit the window. “They need to work on their aim some more.”
The door swung open and an apparition entered. It closed the door behind it and spoke in a British accent, “Evening, all.”
A man sitting alone at a table reading by candlelight looked up, saw the ghost, and stood. He threw the book at the specter—the book, of course, passed right through it and hit the door—and shouted, “Get the fuck out of here, Dickens! No one wants you here! Go back to London and haunt your own God-damned people, you windbag fuck!”
The ghost of Charles Dickens looked at the man and said, “Vulgar language—”
“Is absolutely necessary! We don’t want you here, with your Chuzzlewits, and Cratchets, and motherfucking Twists. Go back to that racist shitbag, Kipling! I spit on you, and put a black year on your head!”
Dickens disappeared, and the man apologized to the bar, then sat back down. A good portion of the rest of the night was spent with a few of the bar-goers playing darts or pool. Occasionally, someone would make a comment about how evil and corruption was destined to take over the world, and King would retort that that was unnecessarily bleak and that maybe they should count their blessings (after all, they weren’t having their spines sucked out by aliens, or being turned into mindless zombies by aliens, or didn’t live in a haunted hotel, or etc. etc.), prompting a grumble from the more morose writers in the bar.
Outside, in the street, the academics kicked each other into the dirt and called each other imbeciles who had received their PhDs from diploma mills. By this time, thankfully, most of them had run out of shit to throw, and resorted to simple, old-fashioned name-calling.

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