An Epitaph for the Damned

Yo pelearía a todo el mundo para ti. Si pudieras estar mi compañero, mi amante, ¿harías lo mismo para mi? ¿Por que no sonríes? ¿Estas recordando? Rememorar los tiempos en los que todos parecían mejores, en los que eras un caballero y un aventurero… Era preparado para luchar a todos. Me dijo sobre sus desafíos, sus sufrimientos, que al principio fue preparado para amar a todo el mundo. El mundo no te comprendía, y tú supiste odiar. Pensabas que eras mejor; ellos te catalogaban peor. Aprendiste la envidia. Te convirtiste en un tullido moral.

The thinker was called Antonio, or, as the Benevolent Judge had called him when they had met by chance at a function—some function, Devil take its name, and the name that the Benevolent Judge had called him, for Antonio had a prevision that names did not mean what they signified, though he could not explain why. He had been told that all languages were identical, that inflections and dialects were like rays of light oscillating in vain attempts to escape the event horizon, but he felt with an unspeakable conviction that thinking in Spanish helped him to curb his grief. I have not mentioned the time at which the story takes place, or the place, as a good storyteller would, but I do not know where this city is or when the story takes place. Moreover, this ambiguity of setting allows the intelligent reader to ascribe any degree of freedom or teleology to the actions of the characters. I allow my readers to fashion their own interpretations, to make what they will of time and space, and if those interpretations yield bad outcomes, the strong, white hand within the Universe will set things to rights.

Antonio stood and stretched his strong, wiry body. The joints cracked, and he thought of the crackling of fried plantains on a stove. This thought gave him pause. While he pondered it further, the creases on his forehead increased in prominence, such that Antonio’s face looked as if he were emulating the dunes of a desert. Where had that come from? He could not remember having seen a stove or a desert, but these thoughts lingered in his head.

Now Antonio was a dreamer, he thought of sentiments rather than causalities and laws.

The doorbell rang. He thought of Tomas’s white hands and unsmiling eyes.

Antonio had met Tomas some time before, he could not say when, nor could he say if any time had passed, for the Benevolent Judge had ordered to be collected the clock of every household in the city, citing fears that an awareness of time would lead men to speculate about their consciousness of freedom and foment a revolution that would leave the city crippled and ripe for some passing Asiatic warlord’s plucking.

Antonio’s caretaker, before her death, had enlisted Tomas to come to Antonio’s home and help him with his studies of Astrology and Cosmo-philosopho-theo-dramato-nigology. Antonio was too much of a dreamer, it was said, and a tutor would help him to realize that the best dreams are to be found in what Antonio himself thought to be banalities.

Tomas wore a yellow “jumpsuit,” as it was called. Antonio had heard somewhere that yellow signified leadership, exceptionality, power, and that the person who wore yellow had to have a boisterous and stormy intellectual and martial presence. In truth, Tomas was precisely what the color indicated. Being the president of his school’s studentry, he had the privilege of often leading the school to a new understanding of the unlimited virtues of the illustrious Judge; he sat apart from everyone else in his school’s mess and ignored all those who spoke to him, certain in his superiority because he had convinced himself that all of the others were flaunting with words and unsubtle gestures their own superiority; he often was the first to recognize the problems in this attempt at a mathematical proof and that aspect of the strategy of Napoleon I to crush the Russian General Kutuzov in the War of 1812. Tomas was thin where Antonio was wiry, Tomas’s eyes never seemed to smile when his mouth did, and Tomas’s hands were so white and aristocratic that Antonio had once feared that his friend would be indicted for seditious plots and executed on his hands’ account alone.

Aristocratic hands was the refrain. Antonio knew by intuition that there could be no aristocratic or plebeian hands, for there were no aristocrats or plebeians, and the deriv­ative of a thing must have an integral in that very thing. Antonio had once read about the “calculus of history,” but the phrase seemed to him an absurdity. He knew in his heart that such a thing could not exist, just as aristocrats and plebeians could not exist in this place, but he could not express the reasoning for either conclusion, and he resigned himself to repeating, “That’s just how it is” and tugging the collar of his purple jumpsuit. When Antonio awoke, he saw what he imagined to be the Archangel Gabriel. He had not read the Bible, for the same reason that he did not accept the phrase “Calculus of History”: his exuberant consciousness of freedom and inviolable faith in that freedom. As such, he knew not the monstrous, indescribable forms of the Seraphim, and he still imagined all angels as men with extraordinary and womanish beauty clothed in golden lights, silver helmets, and eagle’s feathers.

The presence of the angel said to him, “You are an apostate. You deal in sophistries and false dreams, the apparitions to be found beyond the ivory gate of Pluto’s kingdom. I am. I am more than sophistry, and your dreams are little more than the desperate throes of a dying man. You think, you speak, you dream, but you are not. You are the fool who preaches freedom and vivacity when you are little more than a corpse yourself. Why do you seek problems and complexities? ‘Hitch together, hitch together,’ I have heard it said, though a more appropriate phrase would be ‘band together…’”

Antonio did not hear these words, but the airy and evocative sentiment behind them roused him from his stupor. He had the impression that he had missed something important, and he wished that whoever or whatever was interfering with his vision would leave him be. The angel’s garb resolved itself into a jumpsuit, the crown became a bed of hair, and the foggy film that obscured his vision vanished, and there was only Tomas.

Tomas gave Antonio one of his unsmiling smiles and said, “I spoke with Andrei. He told me about your problem. Why did you not tell us? Did you think that we are sirens, waiting for Ulysses to come around so that we can lull him into the sea? Did you see within us Scylla and Charybdis, those repetitious monsters cursed to impel and expel for all time? Think you that we can draw the Leviathan out of the sea with a fishhook? Defeat pious Aeneas with Cupid’s arrows? Words, words, words—I fear that I am bor­ing you. You say that I should be more self-indulgent, and though I am indulging others, I am indulging myself, and when I sup upon the Classics, I sup also upon myself.

“I see that I am boring you. Have you suffered this gross indignity for your entire life?”

Antonio said that he had.

“Well, I have read of ‘totalitarian states’ and their inflictions of violence upon man and language. If I knew better, I would say that we live in one. The stomach empties, the head fills with air, and behold!—one becomes the Madman of Sevilla. Things cannot be so easy though. I must fight, complain, suffer, become trapped in the moment, allow myself to be deceived and cheated, deceive and cheat others, read Tocqueville and, like a tragic hero, see nothing of myself in his depiction of the democratic man. I must delay. Why? Because that is what people do in totalitarian states. When one is an ironist, he can speak of things with levity that would be weighed down with the most ponderous and miserable words in other contexts. I don’t need to be Tacitus, deploring the atrocities of Tiberius and Nero and the seemingly endless potential for degradation and injustice of the Roman Empire, the moral and martial ruin that oily Augustus Caesar brought to Rome; I need not be Amos or Hosea, spewing invectives and muttering honeyed absurdities in the stopped-up ears of the Israelites… The worms are going at it”—

Antonio said, “You told me that purple is often the color of royals. I think it is contemptible and vile.” 

“But fitting. In truth, the greater the power of the aristocrat, the less his freedom. He is subject to numberless constraints of the external world, the pressures of space, time, and the need to have the appearance of a coherent casuistry. What did Prince Genji gain from all his power except the need to satisfy his longings in secrecy and one of the most extraordinary courts of flatterers, sycophants, rogues, hypocrites, wastrels, bad poets, and scurrilous moralists ever seen in fiction? No, sir, aristocrats are terribly unfree, because the public gaze is upon them. It’s the same as you being unable to cross the street. You are fortunate, in truth—what if it had been not the color of your jumpsuit but the color of your skin that disallowed your crossing… I see that I am witless and boring you, but you brought this torture on yourself.”

“My jumpsuit does not disallow me from anything; yon cloudy sky does not disallow the sun from rising tomorrow.”

“A poet, and a pedant too? You are set to surpass me, mi querido.”

“What will you do? His Beneficence the Judge has seen it fit not to add a purple light to the streetlights. Would you preempt or defy his Eminence?”

Antonio did not like the Benevolent Judge, and Antonio had convinced himself that calling Him “His Beneficence” instead would reveal to everyone that His legal power had been a conditional grant from the people—that He should be grateful, or beneficent, rather than thinking that He had risen to power because of His endless stocks of moral and intellectual virtue.

Tomas sat on Antonio’s couch and winced. Did this couch have teeth? He stood, fetched a watermelon from a cupboard in Antonio’s kitchen, cut it with magnificent aplomb into pieces that he could swallow, returned to the couch and began to eat. He had not eaten a watermelon in his life that he could remember with pleasure, but this one he liked very much. It smacked of rustic beauty. He thought of a young woman with galoshes covering her bare feet, a smile as sweet as cherries, and a white dress light and fitted well enough that she could glide like a fairy without having to worry about tripping on the dress or catching it on a door’s handle. When he remembered himself, he catalogued the instances in which he had read of such simple delight: Virgil in his Fourth Eclogue imagined that Octavian Caesar would bring about a time of plenty and splendor; Ben Jonson had the venerable country estate Penshurst; Ariosto, too many beguiling mystical pleasure palaces to count; Tolstoy, the paradisiacal homes of Nikolai Rostov’s uncle and Konstantin Levin; the Thousand and One Nights was a parade of extraordinary pleasures, rustic and cultivated… Had Antonio laced the fruit with hashish? Tomas did not know why he had imagined such foolishness, and he told himself that he loathed this sudden digressiveness.

At least forty-five minutes after he had started eating the watermelon, he turned to Antonio and shook his head.

Tomas replied, “I do not know. Festina lente, and ‘Man proposes, God disposes,’ and all that. Fixing the light would make for an absurd spectacle. You have been patient for many years, not suffering any of your friends to know of this ignominy. Now any attempt to help you would stand out as a fat civilian holding a scepter and wearing a silk diadem would have stood out at Actium…”

Tomas did not continue. Antonio’s gaze seemed (in Tomas’s view) to say, “You know what has happened to me. Do not disgrace Andrei by making a fool of us. If you will help me, tell me so, and we will sup and laugh together; if you will not help me, do not mock me.”

Tomas sighed. The two men looked at each other’s eyes, and something, an understanding and camaraderie, passed between them. No doubt remained that Tomas would do as he said.

The silence was mellifluous. Antonio was always musical, not an incongruous and disjunctive figure like Tomas. Though he had often heard people say that nothing would come of nothing, it was the nothingness and emptiness of the moment that wafted him into the immeasurable pleasures of an Elysium, the world of the Platonic lover, of the Aristotelian Eudaemon, of the Christian fool. He saw the vitality of all things; all that had been dead, waxen, yellow, and rigid for Antonio was now alive, fluid, white, elegant… It was as if he had witnessed his own funeral and interment and now had awakened and seen the reanimation of his corpse at a distance…—