‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Fifteen

I look around at all of the water that surrounds me and is me, and just as I expected, some of it is concentrating, congealing, coagulating, swirling into the shape of my body so that I’m returning to my human form.

In fact, instead of seeing nothing but endless water in all directions, I’m beginning to see the front yard of my apartment building again. I look up and down, and I see the tree above me, the tree I saw that wise old man meditating under so peacefully, and I see myself seated under it, having finished peacefully meditating myself.

I look ahead and, just as I predicted!…my five followers have returned. Surely, they want to hear me tell them my new insights. Along with my enlightenment, I seem to have acquired clairvoyance into the future!

I’ve become a saint!

I see the five of them crouching before me in a semicircle. eager to learn the Way. They’re looking at me with loving, attentive, concerned eyes.

I hear an explosion from up in the sky, with a flashing light. Then I hear some machine gun fire.

Meh. I’ll ignore it. I have much more important things to do than worry about that right now.

“I will now teach you the Three Unities,” I begin in a slurred voice. (My ketamine high is still strong; I hope it won’t impair my ability to impart my message.) “These are the Unities of Space, Time, and Action.”

I see confusion on all five faces. Surely what I’m saying isn’t so abstract, is it? And my speech, as slurred as it is, isn’t so unclear that my words are unintelligible, is it?

Oh, wait: yeah, I’m in East Asia. These five people are Asians, and in all likelihood, none of them understands a word of English, or certainly not well enough to follow what I’m trying to say.

I’ll repeat what I just said, but in Mandarin. Surely I’m not too drunk and stoned to be able to speak intelligibly in Chinese, am I? I’ve lived on this island for many years, having achieved a reasonable level of fluency in the local language, so I’ll try again…

…After having said in Chinese what I said before in English, I see them still sneering at me, not seeming to understand a word I’m saying.

I close my eyes, open them, and try again.

Now I see myself in ancient Asian robes, as are all five of my followers, who look at me with smiles of love. We’re inside what seems to be a palace, all ornately designed like one of the old Chinese emperors’, with gold on the walls. Rapt, my five followers eagerly await to hear what I have to say.

In broken Chinese, I say again, “I teach you of the Three Unities, those of Space, Time, and Action. Mastering these ideas in meditation, you’ll gain wisdom, end all of your suffering, and lead the world in a quest for peace and justice.”

The five of them are looking at me with glowing eyes and toothy grins, hungrily digesting my message.

I continue, in the best Chinese my wasted ass can muster: “Everywhere within us and around us, up above, down below, behind us, in front of us, and to our left and right, is all one. The ego is an illusion. When we fully understand this, selfishness vanishes, replaced by selflessness and compassion for everyone and every living thing.”

I look in their eyes and listen to their responses. In my continuing drug trip, I can’t make out their every word, but can hear only distinct fragments of what they’re saying–words like “crazy,” “love,” and “talk.”

I think for a minute, trying to put these pieces together. I know! They said, “I’m crazy about his message! I love to hear him talk!” That’s it!

“All of time is in cycles of beginning, middle, and end,” I continue, looking in the eyes of my captive quintet of an audience. “But the only time that matters is NOW, for NOW is the only time that is real. The past and future are just mental constructs with no real meaning.”

I listen for their responses. “What’s he talking about?” I think one of them has said with a sneer. Did one of them just call me “crazy”? I think I just heard the words “on drugs.” Well, they’re right about that.

BOOM! Wow, I just heard another loud explosion, with a blinding flash of light. The machine gun fire is louder, too.

The golden palace walls just disappeared, and we’re all outside again, in front of my apartment, in our modern clothes.

I’ll just have to keep on trying to explain, and maybe my five listeners will understand. I must be as clear as I can with my ungrammatical Mandarin.

“All action, all phenomena in the world,” I resume, “are examples of yin and yang, of unified opposites.” I’m trying my best to get these ideas across with the limitations of my Chinese vocabulary. Maybe they can relate to what I’m saying by my comparing it to Taoist concepts. We’ll see.

I’m straining my ears, with all the noise of war around us, to make out their comments. I’m hearing only fragments. I hear “loves,” “hear,” “himself,” and “talk.” I need a moment to put it all together…”I love…to hear…him talk”…that’s it! How encouraging! I’m getting through to them! The golden palace walls have returned, as have our ancient clothes.

“We must see people…and the world,” I carry on, “in a way…that’s not too far to one extreme…or the other. Don’t over-idealize people and things, and don’t hate or be too rejecting…of them.”

Are they smiling at me…or sneering? It’s hard to see in the dark, when you’re high on K. The golden walls are gone.

“We must be open with each other,” I tell them. “To heal, we must express ourselves, in speech, writing, and art. We must also help others…to express themselves…by giving them our ears.”

They’re giving me their ears, but their sneering must mean I still haven’t made myself clear. It sure is hard to communicate when you’re stoned. We’re in our modern clothes again.

BOOM! Another, even louder, explosion has lit up the sky with an even brighter flash of light. I know! It must be the light of understanding coming to my followers, for I see we’re all flying in the air, about to spread the word of the Way.

Yes, we’ve flown out the windows of the golden palace, our flowing Asian robes fluttering in the night sky, as we travel long distances to spread the word.

What’s that noise? No, it can’t be more machine gun fire, not with the light of liberation glowing all around. That must have been fireworks and firecrackers: my followers and I are celebrating the coming of enlightenment to the world!

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Fourteen

I see a tiny, glowing white dot in the middle of the endless black all around me. I’m floating toward that dot of light, which is getting bigger.

Now that I’m close enough to it, I can see that the dot of white light is actually an exit from this void of infinite darkness. I’m approaching it, and instead of glowing light, I see those waves of the endless, universal sea.

I’ve re-entered that sea, and I’m swimming in it, breathing the water as if I had gills instead of nostrils. I feel a soothing peace vibrating all around me and in me.

I’m coming to understand the full extent of how all is one. Everything within and outside of me is one. Everywhere is an eternal here. I am connected to all around me.

All of time is one. The past, the present, and the future are merged in endless cycles. Only now is real: the past and future are just human constructs.

Everything that happens is unified. Opposites flow into and out of each other in dialectical waves. All people, and all of their actions, are a yin and yang mixture of good and evil, wisdom and folly, beauty and ugliness. My own nature and behaviour are equally such mixtures.

With this understanding of oneness also comes an understanding of the universal, eternal fluidity of everything within and without. This is why I see the waves of an ocean everywhere, undulating without end.

I can feel the feelings of other people flowing into me, and my feelings are flowing out to all of them, like water, to be felt by all the other people. As we all share each other’s feelings, I sense my alert, conscious awareness of every second, every wave flowing up and down all around me, soothing me, massaging my skin.

The dialectical relationship between all opposites, their essential unity, feels not only like the up-and-down movement of waves, but also like a continuum coiled into a circle, the extreme opposites meeting and flowing into each other.

I see a large serpent in the water; it’s coiled in a circle, biting its tail. Darker and lighter shades of green are moving along the body of the serpent, either darkening its scales or making them sparkle. These tints and shades of green are moving from the bitten tail, along the length of its coiled body, around to its biting head, then through to the bitten tail again. Those moving tints and shades are all the opposites of the world, eternally flowing into each other.

Seeing these flowing movements instills in my mind the truth that all things shift from good to bad, to good and to bad, and back to good again, around and around in cycles, forever and ever. This is why I should be patient when the bad times come, but I should also keep from being too attached to the evanescent good times.

So the world, just like all the people in it, including myself, should be seen in a middling way: neither too exciting, nor too rejecting. We must see everything and everyone as they truly are, not as we conceive of them in our fantasies and nightmares. We must refrain from exaggerating, seeing all as either too good or too bad.

Pain is healed by feeling it, by confronting it, as I did in that black hole. Pain must also be expressed, in the spoken or written word, in order to heal it. Another way to heal pain is to consider it not only through the Unity of Space, which includes the unity of Self and Other, but also through the Unity of Action, which reveals, through the dialectical relationship between opposites that I saw in that serpent biting its tail, how going overboard with extremes of pain, we can go past the extremes and achieve soothing. By contemplating not only our own suffering, but adding to it the suffering of others, others felt as ourselves, we achieve compassion and empathy, growing thus into better people.

In this way, by listening to others instead of just preaching to them, we self-soothe as well as soothe others. We self-soothe by contemplating not only our own ups and downs, but also those of other people; and in seeing the unity between up and down, good and bad, we know that the bad is never permanent.

In contemplating the Unity of Time, knowing that now is the only real time, and that endless cycles bring good and bad back again and again, we focus on the present instead of worrying about the future and ruminating over past failures. The endless cycles of good and bad phasing in and out of each other mean neither is permanent: don’t be attached to the good, and patiently wait for the bad to drift away.

Wait! Am I melting? Yes! My body is being absorbed into the infinite ocean! Atman is fusing with Brahman. My body is becoming one with the waters I’ve been swimming in! Oh, bliss! Oh, sweet nirvana! I have attained enlightenment, and as soon as my watery form concentrates, bringing me back to human form, I’ll be ready to teach the Way to any with ears to hear. Those five followers will come back, for sure!

Of course, this melting feeling of mine could just be part of my ketamine high.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Thirteen

I look up above my head and see the overhanging leaves of a tree. I look down and see I’m sitting on a bench; yes, those five people must have put me in the same place where that meditating man was.

Maybe they left me here, not out of disappointment in my potential, but rather because of that potential. By leaving me in the seat of the meditating wise man, they’re trying to inspire me to emulate him, to search for enlightenment as he had. Yes, that’s it!

I won’t disappoint those five people! I won’t move from here until I’ve attained enlightenment! (Actually, because of my ketamine high, I can’t move at all, but anyway…)

Ooh! Sudden gunfire from further off. A few explosions, flashes of light. That startled me.

Anyway, let’s see: to be a wise leader who will bring liberation, justice, and an end to the war, I must acquire knowledge of the true nature of the world. I must close my eyes, focus, and go beyond the limitations of my ego. I must also transcend feelings of desire and hate…

Beyond all the surface differences, there is oneness, but the differences must also be acknowledged–in the form of wavelike movements from one state to its opposite, and back and forth, and back and forth, over and over again…

I feel myself vibrating all over. My ketamine high has erased my sense of the boundary between me and not-me. Meditation is heightening my sense of unity with my surroundings…

Everything inside and outside feels…oceanic, all waves flowing into me, within me, and flowing out of me. The whole world, the whole universe, feels like an ocean with no boundaries or shores anywhere out there–just water. It’s a peaceful, soothing experience.

I’m making progress.

Along with this unity of all within and without, the unity of crests and troughs flowing into and out of each other, I feel my sense of relationships with others becoming more unified, too. As well as everything becoming more unified, everything feels more real, too.

Up until now, my perception of other people has been, on the one hand, an idealizing of others, a lusting and yearning for perfection in others, imaginary others; on the other hand, though, there’s been a perception of others as lowly and contemptible, a hating and rejecting of others, these also being imaginary people. I’ve felt my perception of others as being split in two, a hallucinatory halving into black and white.

Now, however, everyone seems more realistic, a grey in between the black and white, a sense that all people are a mix of good and bad. I feel I’m understanding humanity as it actually is, not as figments of my imagination.

As I watch the slowly-moving waves of that universal ocean, flowing gently before my mind’s eye, I also see a black hole growing there. First, it appeared as a tiny black dot, then it began growing and growing until now, it’s big enough for me to be sucked into it.

I’m scared.

Still, I know that I must confront this huge void. Its shape has changed from that of a large circle into that of a human silhouette about my size. I should talk to it. Will it answer my questions?

“Hello,” I say out loud.

I feel, instead of hear, its answer. Hello.

“Who are you?” I ask.

I’m every pain you have ever felt, I feel it say.

“What are those pains?”

You know what they are. You just don’t want to face them.

“Very well: how do I face them?”

Come inside me, it says, then it changes back into the giant hole, welcoming me in.

I float forward and enter the hole. Instead of seeing dark oceanic waves, I now see endless black.

“OK, I’m inside,” I say with impatience and fear. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

Talk to me, the voice says in my imagination. Talk.

“Talk about what?”

About any and every pain you’ve ever had in your whole life.

“Very well. I’ll start at the very beginning. Mother?”

Emerging from the centre of the void is an older woman in regal, Oriental clothes. I can’t quite make out her face. She must be my long-lost mother, the queen who died about a week after I was born.

I never knew her, but I saw plenty of pictures of her, so I’ll recognize her face when she comes close enough to me.

“Mother? Is that you? It’s your son, Sidney. Please come here and let me see you. Come and talk to me.”

She is coming closer, but I still can’t see her face clearly.

I grow anxious and impatient as she continues approaching.

Finally, she’s close enough for me to see her face.

“Queen Maya! My mother!” I shout in sobs.

I see her face, but she isn’t smiling, as my mother did in her pictures. This queen is scowling a familiar scowl.

My stepmother?

No, my mother!

There never was a stepmother.

There never was an ideal mother from which my stepmother represented a sad decline.

There never was an ideal world, a garden where she gave birth to me, an Eden from which our present world was a sad decline.

There are no ideal people, contrasted with contemptible people. There are only real people, a grey in between the imagined black and white. My ‘stepmother’ wasn’t all bad; my actual mother was far from all-good.

There is no heaven, no hell. Just life here on Earth, a mix of good and bad.

It hurts to know there’s no paradise to aspire to, yet it’s good to know the truth, not to be deceived by illusions. Knowing the truth is like an abrasion on the skin, but one can rub the hurt surface and soothe oneself.

I hear some more gunfire and explosions from further off, but they aren’t as loud or startling, so I can bear them better.

I’m making progress.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Twelve

As I’m flying up high, I see myself passing by clouds that grey up the otherwise starry night sky. I must be flying sideways, because the ground so far down below me can be seen only through the far right corner of my right eye, and my left eye sees only the stars lighting up the black background. It’s if I were still lying on my side on the ground in front of my apartment.

Am I still?

No, that couldn’t be. My ketamine high is pushing me upwards.

I look to my right, which is down to the ground, and I see five Asians looking up at me: three young men and two young women who are obviously admiring my superhuman abilities as a great spiritual leader. I’ll go down and talk with them.

In front of them now, I see their five heads sideways, the tops of their heads to my left, and their bodies are seen through my right eye. I don’t think I’m reclining on the ground again; I think I’m hovering in the air in this sideways position, at eye-level with them.

I hear the five of them chatting about me. At first, I feel I’m not sure what they’re saying because I can make out only fragments of Chinese expressions.

I hear, “Poor man…sick…no doctors available…this terrible war…will die…” How can I put all of these fragments together to build meaning from them?

Oh, wait: this must be it: “We must come together to help the pitiful, poor man of the world. Everyone is sick, with no doctors available to help. Then there’s this terrible war, and everyone will die if we don’t do anything.”

That’s it! These five people want to help me organize and form an association of activists to transform society and help the world. They would help me end poverty, stop the wars, and heal the sick.

I can hear more chatting among them, more tiny fragments of Chinese phrases…did I just hear one of the two women say, “meditate”?…Yes! She wants our organization to practice meditation as a way to heal the emotional wounds of our alienating society!

Perhaps I can set an example, lead the way, by doing a little meditating myself, then these five can follow my lead. Just before I close my eyes to focus, I see the face of one of the three men. With my eyes closed, I see the silhouette of his head and shoulders…sideways, of course.

That sideways silhouette, with his head to my left and his shoulders to my right, turns clockwise until I see it properly right-side up. When the silhouette changes from a black shadow to a distinctive face again, though, I no longer see the face of that man.

I see the face of a demon, what looks like a Buddhist demon. I suddenly feel itchy all over. Am I scratching myself? I feel my itches appear, then disappear, but I can’t feel my fingers scratching myself.

I know: this is the demon, Itch. He doesn’t just cause literal, physical itches, but also the itches, the temptations, to do wrong: to lust after promiscuous women, to be selfish and fear death or pain rather than sacrifice oneself for the good of others.

I see Itch’s face more clearly now: apart from his horns, fangs, and red skin, he looks a lot like me.

He is flashing images of beautiful naked women dancing before me. What troubles me about this tempting sight is not some prudish attitude in me, but rather that images of idealized feminine beauty are a way I can escape from the real world that I must confront.

The king, my father, used to tempt me with nude, dancing women. He didn’t want me to see the real world, with its real, imperfect, suffering people, and now that I’ve renounced the privileges of the royal family, I shouldn’t be allowing myself to be tempted by fantasies here.

I hear more machine gun fire from not too far away. A few fireballs just exploded high in the air. A few fiery mushroom clouds, or so they look from here, are lighting up from the ground, too. I see a long line of fire, from my far left to my far right (I no longer seem to be floating sideways; I still seem to be right-side up), lighting up the horizon.

Itch is laughing the laugh of a maniacal villain as he looks at me, as if taunting me, challenging me to do something about the violence that is plaguing this island we’re living on.

A funny thing, though: I’m feeling no fear of pain or death, since firstly, I’m still peaking on my ketamine high and am therefore still dissociated from my body; and secondly, I still welcome death, since the hell of war that I see all around me seems to sum up life in general.

And now, Itch is trying to trouble me with guilt feelings over my having left the palace and renounced the family. The demon is flashing images of my wife, Jessie, and our son, Raoul, whom she’s holding in her arms. I hear her weeping, saying, “Sid, my husband, we miss you.”

I also see the king and my stepmother queen, both looking at me and frowning.

“What kind of a prince are you?” she hisses at me.

God, I hate her.

Since I know that this war has been caused to a great extent by my parents’ machinations–that is, their investments in weapons manufacturers and their war profiteering–I know that my abandoning of them is far from my conscience. My wife and son are living in luxury; they have little to complain about. The poor out here have much more to complain about.

I bring my hand down to the ground and touch it…at least, I see myself doing that, though I can’t feel either of my hands or the ground.

Itch is frowning; he and his temptations suddenly vanish.

I open my eyes and see, right-side up, those five people. (Did they sit me up on a chair or something?) They’re walking away from me, chattering away in Chinese. Again, I can make out only fragments of what they’re saying. I hear, “Give up…no hope…filthy man.”

Speaking of filth, the smell of vomit is gone. Someone must have cleaned it all up. I’m trying to make sense of what they just said.

Oh, I know! Those three men and two women, who at first thought I’d make a great spiritual and revolutionary leader, have given up on me because they think that I am not committed to our cause. After all, in opening my eyes, I showed my lack of concentration while meditating. A great spiritual leader would never show such a lack of concentration or discipline.

I must try harder to prove my worthiness to lead our movement. I’ll close my eyes again, keep them closed, and not stray from this place where I’m sitting (under the tree where I saw the meditating wise old man? It looks that way.); nor will I stray from my commitment to achieve spiritual enlightenment. With that enlightenment, I can lead a movement to end the war and help the poor!

I just hope my K-high won’t be too much of an obstacle to my efforts.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Eleven

Wait a minute…no. I cannot have attained enlightenment. That would be far too easy, especially for a dope fiend like me.

I haven’t attained nirvana…I’m just really fucking high.

No, I’ll just have to work hard to attain it like everyone else, with discipline, like that old man meditating under the tree. That man I see over there…wait a minute. He’s gone! Oh, I wanted to ask him for guidance!

Oh, well. I’ll just have to look for him, or someone like him, to teach me how to gain that peace of mind I saw on his grinning face, that impressive grin I saw while hearing the bombs and gunfire all around me. I’ll float up and fly in the air in search of him, airborne by ketamine.

I’m flying as if lying on my side, as if reclining on the ground. Am I? I’m traveling high in the air, but I feel as if I’m not at all moving.

I see all these Asian faces looking at me in wonder and awe, amazed at my superhuman flying ability. I see a mix of wonder and worry, as if they think I’m having health problems. Am I? All I know is that I need to find that wise old man, or any wise old man, to guide me to enlightenment.

I see Asian gurus in robes advising me to use extreme discipline and self-denial. They tell me that I must learn to endure extreme pain and discomfort, including fasting.

One of them says to me, “The evil is inside of you, Sid! You must expel it! Vomit it out of your body!”

So I do.

My puke smells as awful as it looks, a pink ooze pouring out of my mouth and onto the stony ground that my head is using as a pillow. I hear voices in Chinese saying, “How disgusting! This foreigner needs a doctor.”

My stomach is empty…so empty. I need food…No! I must be disciplined and resist the urge for material comforts.

I’m getting dizzy. Everything around me is spinning. Apart from that, I feel nothing, as if I have no body.

I hear someone say in Chinese, “Is he dying?”

I’m scared.

Am I dying?

Hey! Was that an explosion in the sky? I thought I saw a huge fireball.

I hear machine gun fire. Since I don’t know where my body begins and ends, and I feel an ache in my…stomach?…I wonder if the bullets have hit me.

I feel a black hole growing in my centre. Is it a bullet hole? Is it my growing hunger? It hurts.

Am I going to throw up again? That puke stink is still all around me.

Wait…now I see only black all around me.

Am I dead? Have I become a huge black void? Is that what the black hole in my centre has grown into? A black everything?

Oh, my God…help me! Wait, I don’t believe in God.

I smell…food. Some kind of…rice pudding? Milk? I still see only black.

Something soft and mushy is going in my mouth…I think. Am I eating the rice pudding? I taste milk.

Hey, that feels better. Still, I’m really wasted. That smell of vomit is still nearby. I wish someone would clean it up.

The black void around me is gone. I’m floating in the air again, still on my side, as if I were lying on the ground.

I see groups of men in army uniforms. Some speak of liberation, some of revolution, others of “restoring order.” All of them are speaking in Chinese. Many are arguing.

Still floating in the air above, I look down and see all of these soldiers from a bird’s eye view. Some are anarchists, dressed all in black and carrying Molotov cocktails. They would overthrow the government immediately and replace it with the ideal world they want, or so I hear them shouting.

Some are wearing PLA uniforms, demanding loyalty to the Beijing government, their rifles pointed at the anarchists and the soldiers of the third group, who are in camouflage, their rifles also pointing at the anarchists and PLA men. This third group is shouting about wanting to restore order to the island.

Shots are fired. Molotov cocktails are thrown, breaking some windows in the neighbourhood buildings. I see a few more fireballs bursting in the night sky, breaking up the darkness.

Several of the men, one or two from each of the three groups, are lying on the streets and sidewalks by my apartment, bleeding. Those that aren’t dead are wailing and moaning in pain from their injuries.

I agree that revolutionary change must happen, to eliminate poverty and end this war; and I agree that some kind of restoration of order must come, so our lives can at least go back to normal. I don’t, however, want to see needless infighting among the revolutionaries, and I don’t want the restoration of order to be so repressive and violent.

These agitators, therefore, are not my kind of people. I’ll float away to some other part of town, one where I can hope to find either that wise old man, or some other guru, one not so extreme in his quest for nirvana, or some other revolutionaries to help me bring down this oppressive power structure we’re all forced to live under.

Buoyed by my ketamine high, I’m flying away from my home.

‘Tenebrous Trinity,’ a Supernatural Horror Short Story

[This short story is inspired by The Three Mothers trilogy of horror films by Dario Argento, Inferno in particular.]

I

Mary kept reading the book with fascination. She had already read three pages, and she couldn’t take her eyes away from the text. 

She had come to this passage: “Thomas De Quincey surely had insight when he wrote of Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, though he wasn’t entirely accurate about the identities of the three goddesses. To know of their true nature, it is helpful to compare and contrast them with the Christian Trinity.

“Just as there is a masculine Trinity in Christianity, so is there a feminine, tenebrous Trinity. There is God the Father, who said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is the Mother-Goddess of Darkness. There is God the Son, who gave Christians the joy of hope in His resurrection, and whose suffering caused the tears of his mother, Mary; then there is the Daughter-Goddess of Tears. Finally, there is God the Holy Spirit, the ruach, or wind that went over the face of the waters at the beginning of the Creation; and there’s the Spirit-Goddess of Sighs, those sighs of sadness that blow through the leaves of the trees.

“Everything has its opposite: god and goddess, light and darkness; also, the goddesses take the four elements and pair them into opposites for their purposes—fire with water, and air with earth. Fire is passion, and water quenches and calms passion. Air is movement and restlessness, while earth is stasis and restfulness. These contraries, when pressed against each other, create greater power for the goddesses, and so they are fond of intermingling them.

“I, Verne Edgars, author of this book you are reading, built the three houses of the goddesses in our city of Hamilton; I built them in their honour. These buildings are their churches, where we commune with the goddesses in ritual and grow in blessedness with them. Just as the Christian Church teaches salvation by sharing in Christ’s suffering, so do the goddesses’ three churches help us achieve absolute blessedness through suffering. When we are spiritually ready, we may descend to the lower room and become one with the goddess of the house we are in, just as Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples in the Upper Room, where in eating his flesh and drinking his blood, they became one with Him.”

Descend to the lower room,’ Mary thought after raising her eyes from the book. In my search for my missing kid sister, Penny, I found this ‘House of the Daughter-Goddess of Tears’  a month ago. I didn’t find her here; perhaps she’s in one of the other two houses…or perhaps they’re hiding her here…in the ‘lower room’? The basement? No one ever goes in there, no one except the priestesses, who are the only ones allowed down there. The door is locked, though I managed to pick a priestess’s pocket and get one. I’ve been meaning to go down there, to see if that’s where Penny is, though I’m scared of what I may find. Do I dare?

She took out her phone and typed an email to her brother, Elliot. This is what her message said: “I’ve found the address of one of the three houses of the religious cult of the ‘Tenebrous Trinity’ that Penny ran off to join. I’m not sure if she’s in this house—probably not—or in one of the other two, whose addresses I don’t know. I’ll be looking around here some more; if I don’t contact you in the next one or two days, you can come here to find me. The address is 246 Kent St., here in Hamilton. The other two houses are in our city, too, though as I said, I don’t know their addresses yet. I hope to contact you soon with news of finding her. Love, Mary.”

She put her phone in her purse and took out a notebook from it. She opened it to the page with the latest poem she’d been working on. This is some of the best work I’ve ever done, she thought as she looked at her verses. Another reason I’m still in this house, despite not having found Penny, is that I find life here charming and inspiring. I really do believe these goddesses exist, and they have become my Muses…at least the Daughter-Goddess of Tears has been. No wonder Penny got caught up in this religious cult: they really do seem to have a way of achieving absolute blessedness. It surely feels that way when we do the rituals with the priestesses. Elliot would never accept the way of the goddesses; he’s too attached to the Catholic faith we were all raised on, with our old priest, Father Rosario, his father-figure, in St. Andrew’s Church. He’d never open his mind to our new faith. He wants me to find Penny to get her out of here; I want to find her to tell her I’ve seen the light here. He would never accept that.

She put her notebook in her purse and got up from her chair. She put the book back on the shelf where she’d gotten it, then walked out of the library. Nobody else was around; everyone, including the priestesses, had left the house for the day to run errands. She was left here all alone.

She walked down the hall, which glowed with spots of red, blue, and purple among the shadows, towards the door to the basement. She took the stolen key from her purse and fit it in the lock. She took a deep breath and opened the door. She swung it all the way open and looked down the stairs into the darkness. She gulped and took a few steps down.

She reached for a light switch; there was none. Though she was too scared to go down into the pitch-black, she felt a warm, vibrating feeling that encouraged her to explore. It was the same vibration she felt during the rituals, the same feeling that charmed her so, that inspired her poetry. The vibrations made her feel safe, protected. She continued down the stairs, feeling as if she could see what was down there. 

When she got to the foot of the stairs, the door slammed shut, startling her. Now, she didn’t even have that glowing blue light upstairs. She stood in absolute black. The warm vibrations soothed her fears somewhat, though, and she walked ahead, as if she knew her way.

She heard a faint sobbing.

“Penny?” she said. “Is that you?” She took a few steps forward.

The sobbing continued, a bit louder now.

“Penny? It’s me, your sister, Mary. Are you there?”

As she stepped forward in the blind darkness, walking as if she could see, the sobbing got louder. Then she felt a few drops of water on her shoulders and hair.

“What? Dripping from pipes above?” She stopped walking. The sobbing got louder, and the drops of water were now as numerous as rain. “It’s raining inside?

A puddle was growing around her feet. That water was rising fast into what felt like a pond. In a minute, it had gone up to her waist. It felt like being in a lake on a starless night in the woods.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “I gotta get out of here.”

She turned around and tried to go back to the stairs; of course she had no idea where they were, and the water was so thick to walk through that she could barely even move in it. It was now chest high on her. 

I’m gonna drown in here, she thought, shaking. 

Don’t be afraid, a voice whispered. You’re about to join the Goddess of Tears.

“W-wait…no!” she said in a trembling voice. The water was now up to her chin. “I’m n-not ready yet!”

Don’t be afraid, the voice said again. You are ready. All will be well. Trust the goddess. You suffer a little now, then you gain absolute blessedness.

Her head was now completely underwater. She held her breath for as long as she could. 

Remember the ritual, the voice whispered in her mind’s ear. Move your arms and legs. Swim in the goddess’s tears.

Mary did just that. She swam around freely, but couldn’t hold her breath much longer. She tried to swim up to the surface, but couldn’t find it. It seemed as though the entire basement was filled with water, right up to the ceiling!

Breathe in Her tears, Mary, the voice advised. Don’t be afraid. Have faith in Her grace. Breathe in Her tears, and be one with Her. You won’t die; you’ll have eternal life.

Mary breathed in, desperately trying to believe the voice. Instead of passing out and drowning, she found herself breathing the water like a fish! 

But another alarming thing happened: she felt her body beginning to…melt?

Indeed, her arms and legs were gone, at one with the water. She felt her torso and head melting now. Her heart, though fading fast, was pounding in terror. Her clothes floated away.

Her face melted off. Her breasts melted off. Her stomach, intestines, and heart were now gone. Her hair was one with the watery waves. Her brain was merging with her surroundings…

II

Elliot looked away from his notes when he saw the new message on his phone. It was from Mary. The title of the message said, “Penny.”

“Hey,” he said as he went to pick up his phone. “Has Mary found her?”

He read the message, disappointed at his kid sister not being found. Still, he’d make time to find the house. He put the phone down and resumed listening to the lecturer talking about the scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni when the libertine is taken away to Hell by demons.

“Note that Don Giovanni is unrepentant to the end,” the professor said while a recording of the music was playing. “Only when the demons come to take him does he realize his mistake.”

Elliot felt a warm vibrating all over his body at that moment. He felt an urge, he couldn’t explain why, to look over to his left, where a beautiful young woman was sitting at a seat across the aisle from him, at the row of seats in front of his row. She was staring at him with hypnotic green eyes. Her lips were bright red, her hair a long, wavy blond, and her curvy figure was in a tight, black dress.

Is this my lucky day? he wondered. 

No sooner did class end than she walked over to him. 

“Hello,” he said with a smile. “How can I help you?”

“It’s I who can help you,” she said, with a serious face. “Your family is still searching for Penny, and you’ll be searching for Mary, too.”

His eyes and jaw opened all the way. “How did you know about that? Do you have Penny with you?”

“No,” the woman said. “But I can take you to where they are. My name is Sibyl.”

“Elliot,” he said, shaking her hand.

“I already knew your name. Come with me.”

They left the music school together. On the street and walking in the direction of the house of the Daughter-Goddess of Tears, they exchanged furtive glances at each other.

“How do you know so much about my family?” he asked.

“You won’t believe me, but I’ll tell you, then I’ll make you believe,” she said. “I have magical powers.”

“Oh, really?” he said with a chuckle. “Good luck convincing me of that.”

She put her hand on his forehead, and instead of seeing the street before him, he saw a dark area in a house…a hallway next to an opened basement door. What little light there was came in through the windows behind. The light was a dark, glowing blue. Penny was standing at the doorway. She looked as if she were in a trance. Someone in the dark seemed to be behind her.

“What the hell?” he said, his eyes and mouth agape again. “What is this place? Is it where we’re going?”

“No,” she said. “It’s the house of the Spirit-Goddess of Sighs. Just watch, and see what became of your sister Penny.”

He felt a chill go through his body as he saw Penny slowly descending the stairs into the basement. Glowing red and blue light among the shadows gave her face enough illumination for him to see a frown of fear, yet also determination, on her face. Walking behind her on the steps was, as Elliot could barely make out, some mysterious, older man.

When she reached the foot of the stairs, she heard a sighing voice. She jumped at the sound and froze where she was. Then she continued walking in the dark.

The door upstairs slammed shut, startling her again. All around her was pitch black, except for a slight, glowing blue coming from a wide-open window further off. Trembling, she began walking toward it.

More sighs.

Wailing, too.

After several slow, careful steps, she was standing by the window, a powerful wind blowing against her and making her long, wavy hair flutter about. The wailing, sighing sound was heard even louder now; she stood there, transfixed and mesmerized. 

Don’t be afraid, the loudly sighing wind told her. Let the goddess take you, and you’ll achieve absolute blessedness.

“I’m not afraid,” Penny said, trying hard to believe her words. Her eyes shut and her mouth curled up in a smile. “Take me!” Her heart was pounding.

The mysterious man was watching the whole thing from further back, still only barely visible to Elliot.

Now the winds were sucking at her, pulling her towards the window. Her heart was pounding even harder, she was shaking all over, but she held onto her faith in the goddess.

The wind pulled her out through the window. She screamed. Now Elliot saw his sister flying in the night sky.

“Oh, God, No!” Elliot shouted. People on the street were shocked at Elliot’s reaction to what only he and Sibyl saw. Sibyl just watched his horrified reaction in all stoicism, as if testing his attitude towards what he was seeing.

As Penny kept flying in the air, pulled in the wind as if caught in a cyclone, she felt her body evaporating. Her eyes and mouth were wide open in horror at the sight of her disappearing arms and legs, but she held onto her faith as best she could. 

Don’t be afraid, she thought. Have faith in the goddess!

Her hair vanished. Her clothes blew away without enough of a body to keep them on. Her breasts, belly, pubic hair, and buttocks became one with the wind. Then her face disappeared, along with her ears, her skin, and her bald scalp. Soon, her sighs were one with the goddess.

The vision ended. 

Elliot saw the street again. Some people were looking at him as if he were a madman.

“She…vanished into…thin air…literally,” he said in a tremulous voice. “Who was that man in the basement with her?”

“That would have been Verne Edgars, the architect who designed the three houses,” Sibyl said.

“We should find him,” he said. “Was he responsible for leading Penny to her death?”

“No, and she didn’t die,” Sibyl said. “She’s one with the goddesses.”

He grabbed her by the arms. “You have to help me get her back!” he shouted. “I lost my father when we were all kids, and my dear mother died a year ago. My sisters are all I have left of a family. You’ve gotta help me find Penny and Mary, and save them from this sick religious cult!”

Sibyl looked in Elliot’s eyes with a frown, thinking for a moment what to say to him. “To get your sisters back, you would have…to defeat the goddesses.”

“Yes!” he said. “I want them to pay for what they did to Penny, for what I fear they’ll do to Mary. You’ve got to help me! Those goddesses are demons! With God’s help and yours, we’ll destroy them.”

“I see,” she said, looking away from him for the moment. “To defeat the goddesses, you must…cultivate the power of fire, the energy of desire, then use it to burn down the houses. It’s the houses that hold the power of the goddesses; in destroying the houses, you’ll deprive the goddesses of their power, and your sisters will be freed from the goddesses’ spells on them.”

“How will I get this ‘power of fire,’ Sibyl?” he asked.

“Come with me to my apartment,” she said, taking him by the arm. “It’s very close.”

III

Verne Edgars, 61, was watching Elliot and Sibyl a half a block away from them, hiding among the pedestrians. 

I know what she wants to do with him, he thought as he followed them. I love the goddesses, but Elliot will never accept our way, and he’ll be enslaved, if not just plain killed, for rejecting it. I don’t want him to suffer. I have to figure out a way to stop him from going along with her.

Suddenly, he heard a sighing, and felt the wind blow against him.

“Wait,” he said, feeling the wind take more and more control of his body. “O Great Goddess, by Your grace, allow me to help E—“

Go home, Verne, the voice in the winds sighed in his mind’s ear. We will help you understand. Come with us.

A wind, which only he felt blowing against his body and through his hair, escorted him, as it were, back to the house of the Spirit-Goddess of Sighs. He tried to resist as best he could, pressing his feet against the ground to stop him from walking there, but his shoes kept moving, scraping against the pavement.

“Please, O Great Goddess,” he pleaded in a strained voice. “By your leave, allow me to warn Elliot. He’s a good man, just misguided. Penny, surely you don’t want your own brother to be–”

We will guide him, the sighing wind told him. Stop resisting. You know what will happen to you if you continue to resist, which is futile.

Finally, his scraping shoes took him back to the goddess’s house. In he went in all reluctance, and now his shoes were scraping on the wood of the hall leading to the basement. Vivid red glowed among the shadows.

Take out your key and unlock the door, the voice sighed in his ear. The wind forced him to put his hand in his coat pocket and take out the key. Put it in the lock.

“But, Great Goddess, I—“

His arm was sore from resisting putting the key in the lock. In it went, the lock clicked, and the door swung all the way open. He looked down the stairs into the all-enveloping black.

Down he went, his shoes scraping against the wooden stairs. He almost tripped a few times.

When he reached the foot of the stairs, he no longer felt wood or any hard surface under his shoes. He felt clumps of dirt there. The door slammed shut, startling him.

“What?” he said, feeling the dirt rising and covering his shoes.

You resisted the movement of the air, the wind sighed, therefore you will feel the stasis of the earth, holding you in position as you tried to hold yourself out there on the street.

“Wait, Goddess, I’m not ready,” he said in a hoarse voice as the dirt had now come up to his knees.

Yes, you are, the wind sighed. You have done the rituals. Remember what to do. Don’t be afraid, Verne. Don’t resist. All will be for the best in the end.

“But, Elliot—“ The dirt was up to his waist now.

He is no longer your concern. Be at one with us.

“Yes, Goddess,” he said as the dirt rose up to his chin. There is no denying the will of the goddesses, he thought, the dirt just under his lips now. I tried my best to help you, Elliot. You’re on your own now. Good luck.

He was completely buried under the earth now. His heart was pounding, more from his fear of angering the goddesses than from knowing he was going to be one with the earth. Would they deny him the absolute blessedness he’d been hoping for as punishment for going against their will? He hoped they’d forgive him as he continued holding his breath.

Finally, he could hold it no longer, and soil flooded his nostrils. He was breathing it like air, and his body was crumbling into tiny pieces that intermixed with the dirt. His consciousness was fading, as was his individual ego, which merged with the eternal spirit of the goddesses…

IV

In Sibyl’s apartment now, Elliot was led by her into her bedroom. They stood at the foot of her bed. She looked up at him.

“To gain the power of fire, we must arouse your passion to the greatest intensity,” she said, reaching back and unzipping her dress. “Therefore, I must indulge your lust.” She let her dress drop to her feet, and she kicked off her high heels. Wearing no bra or panties, she stood there completely naked before his delighted eyes. “Put me on the bed and make love to me.”

Am I having a lucky day, or what? he thought as his eyes poured over her flawless body: large breasts that hung naturally without sagging, creamy skin, hourglass curves, and even a full Brazilian wax. “You’re a bold one, Sibyl,” he panted. “You don’t even know me. Aren’t you afraid I might hurt you?”

“I’m a witch, remember?” she said, turning around so he could see her round, creamy buttocks, then turning again so he could see her full frontal again. “You couldn’t hurt me if you tried. Do you like my body? Only a witch’s magic can make her body this flawlessly beautiful.”

“It’s better than any I’ve ever had the pleasure to see,” he said. “How shall we do it?”

“Any way you like. The object is to get you as excited and passionate as possible, so do to my body whatever is most pleasing to you. My magic will protect me from any pain you could possibly cause me, so I’m not at all afraid.”

“I see.”

Still amazed, he hesitated in disbelief at his good luck…and in his doubt as to whether he could trust her.

“Well? Are you a man, or not? Take me, and enjoy yourself to the fullest.”

“If you insist.”

As he was having her, he felt himself glowing brighter and brighter with the fire of his passion. He was getting hotter, literally hotter, but not burning in any pain—nor was she; after all, it was she who was passing her power over to him for use against the goddesses. His eyes widened in amazement at the changes to his body.

As they were approaching climax, his body was all aflame. “Holy shit!” he gasped.

Finally, they came, the flames flickering all over him from head to toe subsided, and he cooled off. He lay beside her on the bed.

“I can’t believe what just happened,” he panted.

“You are a wicked lover,” she sighed with a lewd smirk. “Most women would be too timid to do the things I allowed you to do to my body. You’re lucky I had the power to endure it.”

“Forgive me my sinful passions,” he said, though glad he had the chance to indulge them. 

“No need to apologize,” she said. “As I said, you didn’t and couldn’t hurt me. Now you should have all the power of fire needed to defeat the goddesses.”

“I’m just curious: why are you helping me? Aren’t you one of them? Why should I trust you not to betray me in the end?”

“I’ve seen the evil the goddesses are capable of. They are demonesses. I saw them kill a Father Rosario just the other day, and—“

“Father Rosario?” Elliot shouted. “Father Robert Rosario, of St. Andrew’s Church on Fleet St.?”

“Yes, him,” she said with a sigh and a frown.

“He was my spiritual mentor as a kid. After my father died, Rosario was like a second father to me! And your goddesses killed him? Why?”

“For opposing them, of course.”

“How can I know for sure that they really killed him?”

“I’ll show you another vision. Brace yourself.” She touched his forehead.

V

Elliot saw Father Rosario, 65, standing on Fleet St. in front of the House of the Mother-Goddess of Darkness and, beside it, the dilapidated remains of what once had been St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, where Elliot’s mother took him and his sisters when they were kids…years before Penny went astray and followed the goddess cult. The church had been struck by lightning a week after the House of the Mother-Goddess of Darkness was finished construction and open for use by her priestesses, and a pervading sense of evil surrounding the area made the parishioners wish no longer to attend their church, so no attempt was ever made to repair the damages.

That pervading sense of evil was only a vague feeling, most of the parishioners not attributing it to the goddess’s house; but the priest was convinced that that house was Satanic in nature, and he blamed it for destroying his livelihood and place of service to God for so many decades. He was determined to confront that Satanic presence, and if he couldn’t rid the neighbourhood of it, he’d die trying.

He looked up at the damaged steeple of the church, where the lightning bolt struck the crucifix, shattering it and leaving the top of it with a jagged edge. The ugly new shape of it looked blasphemous to Rosario.

He looked over at the black house next to the church, and walked over to it. Standing on the front porch and facing the front door, he took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, held his hands in fists, and pushed the door open.

He walked down the hall, where spots of green, red, and blue glowed among the black shadows. He passed by the door to the basement; unlocked, it swung open for him.

“No, she-devils,” he hissed. “I won’t descend into your Hell.”

You have no love for the darkness, Father? a female voice asked him.

“Of course not,” he said. “I believe in the light.”

Very well, the voice said. Come upstairs to the roof, and we’ll discuss whatever is bothering you.

He went up four flights of stairs, which were shrouded in absolute black. No glowing colours here to illumine his way.

The wooden steps creaked. The only way he didn’t trip or bump into walls in the absolute darkness is that the power of the goddess guided his steps so well, it was as if he could see.

Rather than reassured with this guidance, he could only feel profoundly disturbed at being led the way by devils. After all, it wasn’t so much that he was being guided as he was being compelled to go up these stairs.

By the time he reached the roof, the ascent had caused his aging legs to be sore and tired. He bumped into a door leading outside to the roof.

Still no glowing colours accompanied the pitch black of the area in front of the door. He’d might as well have been blind standing there. He held the crucifix hanging from his neck tightly.

You abide by the light of the Lord, don’t you? the voice asked him tauntingly.

“Of course,” he said defiantly. “Jesus is the light of the world. Whoever follows Him will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Very well. Open the door, and have your light.

He opened the door, and the light was like a white fire–it shone in so brightly that it burned his eyes. He staggered forward and out onto the roof. He was slipping along the slope of the side of the roof. He opened his eyes, but saw only black.

“What? What the…I’m blind!”

He kept sliding down the side of the roof, then fell off the right side of the house, screaming.

If you want your Christ and your crucifix, you may have them, the voice said.

He landed, facing upwards, on the jagged edge of the steeple’s crucifix, impaled through his back, with the jagged edge coming out of his belly.

VI

“Father Rosario!” Elliot screamed as he saw his priest’s lifeless body, with copious amounts of blood pouring out of the wound. “I will avenge you.” Tears ran down his face.

He and Sibyl put their clothes on and left her apartment. He felt the fire inside him. In his rage, he even let himself flame up all over; he was so amazed to see the fire not burning his clothes off that he took no notice of the shock on the faces of the people who saw his fiery self on the streets.

He smiled at the sight of his new power. “I feel like a comic book superhero,” he said with pride. “So, am I a god now, like you?”

“Well, something like that,” she said as they walked down the street in the direction of the House of the Daughter-Goddess of Tears. 

They reached the house within ten minutes. They stopped by the front door.

She looked at him. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes,” he said. “They took everything from me. I want to take everything from them.”

“Well then, follow me down into the basement. There is the best place to start the fire; burn the foundation, and the fire will rise up to the rest of the house.”

“OK.” They went inside and down the hall. He saw glowing spots of red, purple, blue, and orange among the shadows. He saw the door to the basement swing open, welcoming him. “I’m not afraid of you, bitch-goddesses! I have the power to destroy you. I’ll go down into your Hell, and make of it an even greater inferno.” He went down the stairs, lighting up his fire so he could see the way. He reached the foot of the stairs, noting the wet floor.

He stretched his arms out, using them like flamethrowers to hit the walls and wooden stairs with his fire. Everywhere he saw flames engulfing the basement. He smiled. 

Suddenly, he heard loud sobbing, hurting his ears. He shot more fire from his hands.

“Yes, go ahead and weep, goddesses,” he said. “You’re about to be destroyed!”

It started raining tears from the ceiling of the basement. Within ten seconds, he was up to his ankles in water. 

He fired his flames onto the watery floor, as much fire as he could muster in an attempt to vaporize it. It wasn’t enough, though. 

“Why isn’t this working, Sibyl?” he shouted, feeling himself becoming at one with the flames in his consuming rage. “Sibyl? Where are you?”

The water, now at waist level on him, displayed three female faces on its surface, the faces of Penny, Mary, and Sibyl. His eyes and mouth widened.

You wanted to find us, Elliot, his sisters said with grins, and you’ve found us.

“But you’re my sisters!” he shouted. “I came here to save you! And now, you’re trying to kill me?”

We don’t need saving, his sisters said. The goddesses saved us. They have given us absolute blessedness. You should embrace their power, too.

“Never! Sibyl, you bitch! I thought you said you wanted to stop the goddesses’ evil!”

I am one of the goddesses, you fool, she said from her face among the wavy surface of water, which was now at Elliot’s neck level. I’m the Daughter-Goddess of Tears, using your fire to increase my power. But why should you complain? Today was your lucky day. You got to have sex with a goddess.

He strained to increase the power of his fire, desperate to vaporize the water that was now at the level where his lips had been. The glowing fire pushed back the water to be separated from his body, which was now almost completely transformed into a pillar of fire, by about a foot all around. He was getting tired.

Give in, his sisters said. Let go of your passion. It only leads to suffering. Embrace sorrow and tears. When you accept pain as inevitable, you can join us and be blessed forever.

“No! Never!” he—a talking pillar of flame—shouted, and fired more flames out. “God is…my…salvation…”

He could sustain it for only a few more seconds, though. Finally, he shrank from exhaustion, and the water extinguished him.

Poor Elliot, his sisters said. He never could adapt to new beliefs.

It is no matter, the daughter-goddess said. We have his power now, and can benefit from it. His soul will serve us for all eternity. We’ll feel him near us always. After all, family should always be close.

Yes, Great Goddess, the sisters said, grinning. It was our plan to have Elliot serve us. The wisdom of the plan came clearer and clearer the more we became acquainted with your divine ways. His God won’t save him from the flames.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Ten

Having just snorted my second line of K, I’m feeling an urge to go outside, as foolish an idea as that is. I felt no numbness from the last line; maybe I won’t feel numb from this one. We’ll find out.

I get up and stagger to the door.

My sparkling, dazzling ecstasy high is so powerful that I want to share my love with the world.

I walk out of my apartment. Did I close and lock the door? Who cares? It’s the world I must take care of, not myself!

I plod my way down the stairs, almost stumbling and falling a few times. It’s a good thing I’m holding onto the hand rail. I get to the ground floor, then begin staggering towards the front door.

I’m outside.

Not just outside my apartment building.

I’m…outside…my…body…

Am I floating?

Am I up in the air?

Am I one with my surroundings?

It sure feels that way.

I see that old man sitting under the tree with his eyes closed and his toothy grin. He looks so peaceful, with the sound of bombs and gunfire all around us.

I want to be him so badly.

A fuzzy, wave-like feeling is permeating my whole body, or this whole, vague presence where I am, be it in or outside of my body. There’s no sense of where I physically begin and end. Is there a boundary between that old man and me? There doesn’t seem to be.

I see him sideways, as if I’m lying on my side on the ground. Am I? I didn’t feel myself fall.

Everything…everything…feels fuzzy, wavy, vibrating…

I am that old man!

I am the great, wise one! Or at least, I’m going to be him.

I am Sid Arthur Gordimer, spiritual leader of the people! I will lead us all to enlightenment! Follow me, my disciples!

I am prince of the realm of Sakia, and I renounce my throne-to-be!

No, Father, I will not be the next king! You and that horrible stepmother of mine, the queen, can argue with me and yell at me all you want! I won’t continue the regal family line! I am leaving home, in search of enlightenment, and salvation for my impoverished people, those you have impoverished, Father, through your neglect!

I don’t want my inheritance, not one gold coin of it. Give it all to my wife, Jessie, and to our son, Raoul. When he comes of age, he can inherit your throne, if he wishes to have it!

As for me, I am leaving the palace! I am seeking liberation for myself and for all of our starving, oppressed people! When I attain my goal, I aim to be reclining on my side on the ground (as I am now?), in a state of perfect bliss and peace, with all of my followers standing and sitting around me, gazing on me in love.

Perhaps I’m already there, floating up to heaven, at the gates of nirvana-like perfection. It looks that way, with all these Asian faces looking at me (Indeed, I hear Chinese whispers of…is it…”Crazy foreigner”?…”On drugs”?…”needs a doctor”? I’m not sure; the voices aren’t clear.)

Nirvana isn’t to be actively sought out, anyway…is it? We already are there…we just need to wake up and recognize it, don’t we?…the Buddha-nature already within, the Atman that is already at one with Brahman. I feel no dividing line between my body and all that’s around me. I must have already attained enlightenment.

Haven’t I?

Analysis of ‘A Passion Play’

A Passion Play is a 1973 concept album by Jethro Tull, their sixth album. This album moved the band further in the direction of progressive rock, a move started with their previous album, Thick as a Brick.

Both albums have the format of continuous music spread over two sides of the original vinyl releases; but with A Passion Play, the music became much more elaborate and complex. Also, while Thick as a Brick has been largely well received critically, A Passion Play was panned by the critics, who soundly thrashed bandleader Ian Anderson for his perceived self-indulgence (i.e., the over-the-top “Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”) and pretentiousness.

Nevertheless, the album sold well, reaching No. 1 on the charts in the US and Canada. It also sold well in Germany, Norway, and the UK. Though I agree that the “Story of the Hare” is little more than outright silly, I feel it’s unfortunate that the album has such a bad rap, for musically it’s among Tull’s most accomplished, with Anderson expanding on his already considerable multi-instrumentalist abilities to include soprano and sopranino saxophones. He does some fine acoustic guitar playing here, too; and John Evan‘s keyboards and Barriemore Barlow‘s virtuosic drumming and percussion add lots of musical colour.

Here are links to the lyrics, and here is a link to the album.

When I bought my copy of the LP as a teen in the 1980s, it didn’t have the gatefold inner sleeve with the lyrics and the drama masks (let alone the six-page programme included in the original album to tell us the characters, etc.). All I had was the outer cover, with the pictures of the ballerinas. As gleaned from just the lyrics, the story is quite unclear.

Indeed, what do they mean by “a passion play”? The story of the album isn’t a dramatization of the suffering and death of Christ, so the title is obviously a metaphor…but of what? Here’s where everything is open to interpretation–so here’s mine.

A “passion play” is a metaphor for life. Instead of Christ, our protagonist, as indicated in the programme, is “Ronnie Pilgrim,” an everyman whose death at the beginning of the story, and whose progress through the judgement of his life, then through heaven and hell, and back to corporeal existence (rebirth), is an ironic cross between passion plays and a variation on John Bunyan‘s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Now, the story is full of Christian imagery, though Jesus is only briefly and occasionally referred to. On the other hand, since passion here has its original meaning of “suffering,” rather than “ardent emotion,” and play refers to life, as in “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players,” then “a passion play” as a metaphor for life means a life full of suffering, which sounds more like the Buddhist concept of dukkha. After all, the first of the Four Noble Truths is that all life is suffering. Furthermore, Pilgrim ends his progress by being reincarnated.

Whether Anderson consciously or unconsciously intended A Passion Play to have a Buddhist subtext hidden under Christian concepts is ultimately irrelevant; my point is that such a subtext can be found in the story.

Another irony is how a story about the suffering of life is mostly presented in the afterlife, causing one to wonder if this “afterlife” is literal or metaphorical. Indeed, how does one go from being accepted into heaven, then opting for hell, and finally coming back to physical life if this is all understood to be literally happening? After all, when entering hell, aren’t we all supposed to “abandon all hope” (i.e., of leaving hell)?

I’d say the Pilgrim’s “death” is really either a coma in which he, dreaming, mistakenly believes he’s dead, and from which he eventually wakes; or, the death, heaven, and hell experiences are just temporary psychological states between incarnations. Whatever the answer may be, let’s dive into the music.

Side One begins with a fade-in during which we hear Evan’s synth imitating a heartbeat. This is mixed with various other instruments, including the organ and Anderson’s sax; it has a trippy, psychedelic quality, suggesting a dream-like state, as if Ronnie Pilgrim is merely imagining the whole story.

Barlow’s drums kick in with the rest of the band, and we hear them playing a brief instrumental fittingly called “Lifebeats.” It has an almost march-like rhythm in triple time, until there’s an interruption in 9/8 (subdivided 2+2+2+3), first played only on organ, then with added acoustic guitar, whistling, and tritones on Martin Barre‘s guitar and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s bass.

This brief 9/8 passage ends with a ritardando of the synth-heartbeat, which also lowers in pitch, indicating that Pilgrim is dying. A crashing sound then indicates that he is now dead, as Anderson sings, beginning the narration of the predicament of our protagonist. “The Silver Cord,” which ties mortal flesh to the spirit, now “lies on the ground”…and so Pilgrim is dead. Evan’s soft and pretty piano accompanies Anderson’s singing.

Pilgrim sees his friends all attending his funeral, though they’ve arrived too late by taxi. “A hush in the Passion Play” means that death is the silence when life ends.

Pilgrim meditates on the good and bad moments in his life, though the “rich attainments” are “all imagined,” and “sad misdeeds in disarray” seem more prominent. Such is the essence of life as an experience of sorrow, or a “passion play” that we all must go through. To compare the suffering of life (e.g., aging) to music, we could speak of “melodies decaying in sweet dissonance.”

“The Ever-Passion Play,” or eternal life of suffering, with death conceived as an integral part of this eternal experience, suggests the cyclical suffering of samsāra. Since the Passion of Jesus ends with His harrowing of hell (as Pilgrim will do on Side Two) and resurrection, Pilgrim’s ‘resurrection’ could be seen as symbolic of reincarnation.

An instrumental section interrupts the narration, starting with a reprise of that 9/8 tune, now played slower on the organ and with Barlow’s marimba and the tritones on the guitar and bass. After this, a jazzy passage is heard in 11/8 time, featuring a sax solo by Anderson. Then there’s a return to the narration, with Evan’s dainty piano playing.

An angel descends to meet Pilgrim, and “a band of gentlemen” escort him out of Limbo. An instrumental “Re-Assuring Tune” comes next, including an acoustic guitar solo displaying Anderson’s skill on the instrument. This leads to “Memory Bank,” in which we find Pilgrim in “the viewing room,” where he’ll watch video of his entire life. They have him taped; he’s “in the play” of life, which will now be judged.

We’re coming into what is perhaps the most musically tense part of the album, and fittingly so, since this is the moment that determines whether Ronnie Pilgrim will go to heaven or to hell. Still, this issue is resolved with him going to heaven by the end of Side One. Pilgrim’s real issue isn’t whether or not he’ll be saved, but rather if he even likes it in heaven, or if he likes the afterlife in general.

In contrast, the pilgrim of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (the protagonist fittingly named “Christian,” for the purposes of Bunyan’s allegory) has to go through an ordeal of temptations and dangers of being led astray, and therefore he’s in danger of not being saved. Of course, Christian passes all the tests and makes it to the “Celestial City,” or heaven. Ronnie Pilgrim’s “progress” is about contemplating the vey nature of the afterlife, and making up his mind whether it’s worth venturing into at all…or would one rather just stay in this material world.

An instrumental passage in 11/8 leads to a reprise of that jazzy section originally with the sax solo, but this time instead of the sax, we hear the album’s major showcasing of Anderson’s trademark breathy flute soloing. Though there is, of course, lots of flute heard on this album before and after this particular passage (on which Anderson overdubs two solos), since Jethro Tull in general is more or less synonymous with the flute, by Tull standards, A Passion Play has far less of the instrument highlighted.

“Memory Bank” ends with the judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life and noting some of those ‘rich attainments’ of his (“Captain of the cricket team,/Public speaking…” and “a knighthood…”), I must wonder if he really did attain these honours, or were these attainments “all imagined,” as stated above. In any case, this section segues into “Best Friends.”

Apparently, Pilgrim never stopped chatting on the phone with his best friends. Rain coming through a tear in his old umbrella, rain like tears, seems to represent old sorrows of his; still, “the rain only gets in sometimes,” and the sun, which seems to represent his fiery passions, never left him alone, as we’ll judge soon enough.

The next section is the particularly dark, heavy, and tense “Critique Oblique,” which opens with an ostinato of six notes (G, A, B-flat, D, D-flat, and C, each with an inverted parallel fifth below these tonic notes) that starts slowly on the organ and is repeated accelerando. These six notes (and their inverted fifths) will form the basis of the riff for this whole section, backed by Barlow’s pounding drums.

The judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life seem to be judging him here for a sexual indiscretion of his, which has resulted in an illegitimate child. As a comment on this sin, we hear comically melodramatic voices singing an example of the album’s fatuous infatuation with puns: “The examining body examined her body.”

After a judgement of Pilgrim’s moral imperfections, we have one on the limitations of his intelligence. Since life is a passion play, we who live life are the actors, and Pilgrim is one “of the low IQ.” Not only was his sexual indiscretion sinful, but it was also foolish, leaving the illegitimate child’s mother “faded,” that is, her life ruined.

Still, in spite of his errant ways, the judges “won’t cross [him] out.” Pilgrim is loved like a son, or like the Son (John 3:16). Indeed, the only way Pilgrim could be saved is through Christ’s blood on the Cross, because of “how absolutely awful [he] really [is],” awful the way Lucifer is awful, as we’ll learn on Side Two, the way the state of unredeemed sin makes us awful.

In any case, Pilgrim is admitted into heaven, and the blissful state of the celestial paradise is reflected in “Forest Dance No. 1,” which leads to “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” ending Side One and beginning Side Two.

It’s curious how “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” is sandwiched in between the two ‘Forest Dances’ of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven. As we will discover on Side Two of the album, he becomes disenchanted with heaven when he finds its inhabitants all reminiscing about their lives on Earth rather than simply enjoying eternal life (indeed, at the beginning of “Forest Dance No. 1,” we hear that synth heartbeat of life again).

The story, narrated by Hammond-Hammond in an over-the-top, affected Lancashire accent, seems a mixture of Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf (i.e., the music), Peter Rabbit (i.e., the hare), Winnie-the-Pooh (i.e., the kangaroo and rabbit), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (i.e., not only the rabbit but also the extensive use of puns). As pretentious, self-indulgent, and generally annoying as this story is as an interruption of Pilgrim’s story (I used to skip this part when listening to my LP, and when I taped it, I omitted the story), in a sense it could be considered a fitting inclusion, in that, as a children’s story placed in the middle of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven, it represents how one must be a child to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:17).

The hare losing his spectacles sounds like someone who has lost his vision, lost his way. This is an odd experience to have when in heaven…unless the whole point is that heaven was an illusion from the beginning. We all fantasize about a perfect world that can never be, and in that fantasizing we grow myopic, if not outright blind.

Or perhaps the point is that in heaven, our troubles are only slight. The hare loses his spectacles, yet has a spare pair, so his problem is quickly solved. Heaven is thus perceived as a charming children’s world, with the cute hare, a kangaroo, an owl, a newt, and a bee. (Here is a link to a video dramatizing the story.)

During the course of the story, we hear a number of puns on the animals’ names: “Bee…began,” “Owl…scowling,” “Kangaroo…hopping mad…” and “…can guru,” “Newt knew too…”, and Hare did have a spare pair/A-pair.”

After this nonsense we hear the heavenly “Forest Dance No. 2.”

In “The Foot of Our Stairs,” Pilgrim expresses his astonishment, incredulity, and surprise at how disappointing he finds heaven to be. Instead of enjoying eternal bliss, the saved just remember their old lives on Earth. Apparently, our life here in the physical world, in spite of all its suffering (“a passion play”), is the only life worth having. Indeed, dukkha as the Buddhists understand includes even the mildest of unpleasant feelings, like disillusionment, or the foreknowledge that even the best of parties have to come to an end sooner or later.

Pilgrim, in fact, is so disappointed with heaven that he’s decided, as AC/DC would observe years later, that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” (though he’ll regret his decision soon enough). He tells God that his “is the right to be wrong,” and requests to be sent to the Other Place; for the reward of heaven is just “Pie in the sky.”

Could “Jack rabbit mister” be a link to the hare who lost his spectacles? In any case, “The last hymn is sung, and the Devil cries, ‘More’,” suggesting that the Devil has all the best tunes. What we note in this qualifying of heavenly bliss vs. hellish torment is that the two places aren’t as black and white as we’ve been told; that as in life, there’s a considerable grey area in both heaven and hell, and that ultimately we never really escape suffering as long as we keep existing.

After an instrumental passage with a sax solo, Pilgrim carries on in his qualifying and relativizing of heaven and hell by singing of “that forsaken paradise that calls itself ‘hell’.” Pilgrim’s decision to leave heaven for hell is made all the more ironic with his allusion to Christ’s healing of a paralytic (Mark 2:9) by singing “Pick up thy bed and rise up from your gloom smiling,” since Christ spoke of how much easier it is to forgive sins (i.e., deliver a sinner from hell and admit him into heaven) than it is to cure paralysis.

Anyway, Pilgrim has left heaven and gone to hell, where in “Overseer Overture,” we are given Satan’s perspective, him being “the overseer.” One would expect music depicting the hellish experience to be of the gloomiest, most hopeless and evil sort; oddly, what we get instead is music of a mostly merry sort, with a bouncy rhythm in triplets. There’s even a joining “round the maypole in dance.”

The only exception to this merry tune are two brief, dissonant moments with synthesizer arpeggios and groaning. These appear before the lyrics “Colours I’ve none…” and “Legends were born…” These are the only truly musically infernal moments in this part of the story. These brief moanings put among larger passages of musical merriment reinforce the sense that heaven and hell are not meant to be understood here in the classical, Christian sense of being absolute opposites. Again, I suspect that Pilgrim either hasn’t really died, but is merely mulling over the idea of the afterlife in his mind, or he’s experiencing a temporary, relative heaven and hell before being reincarnated.

So his dissatisfaction with hell is really just like his dissatisfaction with heaven and everything else–all is dukkha.

In “Flight From Lucifer,” the Devil being “an awful fellow” sounds like extreme understatement for describing Satan, once again reinforcing the relativity of hellish torments as felt in Pilgrim’s experience of the place. Though the Devil is “icy,” a reference to Dante‘s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, in which Lucifer is trapped waist-deep in ice, he is called by his original name, Lucifer (“Light-Bringer”), back when he was once held by God to be fairest of the angels before his pride became his infernal undoing.

The musical structure of the louder, more rhythmically pounding verses of this section is interesting in its trickiness. (I refer to the verses beginning with “Flee the icy Lucifer,” “Here’s the everlasting rub” [an allusion to Hamlet, perhaps?], “Twist my right arm in the dark,” “I would gladly be a dog…”, “Pick me up at half past none,”and “Station master rings his bell.”) In the first, third, and fifth of these verses, we have 4/4, 2/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/8, and three bars of 4/4. This pattern happens again in the second, fourth, and sixth of these verses, but instead of the bar in 5/4, it’s one in 6/4, with a pounding of Barlow’s tympani providing the added beat.

In Pilgrim’s regret over coming to hell, he realizes he’s “neither…good nor bad.” He wants to come back to physical existence; it’s “Time for awaking,” or coming back from the sleep of death. He politely says he’d like to stay, but his (angel’s, or devil’s?) “wings have just dropped off.”

Another pounding of the tympani, as well as some organ, fades out and segues into the next section, an instrumental passage called “To Paddington,” on which we hear overdubs of sweet acoustic guitar playing by Anderson in 5/4.

Next comes “Magus Perdé,” with a scratchy, angular electric guitar riff by Barre, including quickly strummed harmonics, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs. Anderson’s flute joins in, along with shaken tambourine from Barlow and Evan’s synth.

Pilgrim, “voyager into life,” wants to come back to the material world. He’s with “The passengers upon the ferry crossing, waiting to be born”; normally, Charon would be taking them in the opposite direction, to Hades. There is an instrumental section in 7/8, then a tricky passage with jumps, starts, and interruptions before a restating of the main guitar riff, and the final verse.

Here, reincarnation is given the metaphor of resurrection. Christ’s in particular is alluded to in “son of man” and “Roll the stone away.” Note that in the Old Testament, “son of man” (ben-‘adam), lacking the definite article, refers to humanity in general; whereas in the New Testament, Christ tends to refer to Himself as “the son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου, or ho huios tou anthropou). So this last verse, while linking reincarnation metaphorically with resurrection, is also linking man in general (and Pilgrim in particular) with Christ.

In the “Epilogue,” we hear a brief reprise of the soft piano melody from Side One and Anderson singing about “the ever-passion play.” The word ever was heard repeatedly in the verses of “Magus Perdé,” namely “ever-dying,” “ever-burning fire,” “ever-door,” “ever-life,” and “ever-day.” In all of these “evers,” we have the eternal sense of recurrent death, pain, and movement through the (as it were) doorway of changing states of life experience, as well as the eternality of existence in the light of day. In this sense, we move away from Christian symbolism to the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth…samsara.

So Pilgrim returns to physical life, and we hear that synth heartbeat again, as well as what would seem, at first, a reprise of the Forest Dance of heaven as heard at the end of Side One, just before “The Story of the Hare.” Both of these sections begin with the “passion play” reprise of the soft piano and Anderson singing “play,” ending the word in falsetto, suggesting a conceptual link between the reprises.

So, coming back into the physical world, despite its suffering, is the closest we’ll ever come to anything like heaven.

Why do people believe in an afterlife? A simple fear of death, which is of course unavoidable, but we feel a yearning for at least some kind of existence afterwards. Belief in hell satisfies our wish for justice against the evildoers of the world, but that belief also carries with it the negative trade-off of a fear that we ourselves may be included among the wrong-doers. The afterlife, as a solace against the fear of death, becomes a cause for an even greater fear of death.

The conclusion of A Passion Play is that we should focus on this material life here, with all of its pain and contradictions (as symbolized in the fadeout of Side Two, with its dissonant, startling organ chords, etc.). Instead of fantasizing about a utopian heaven for our narcissistic selves (as parodied in the absurd “Story of the Hare”) to enjoy, and an infernal concentration camp for those we hate, we should do what we can to improve our material conditions here as best we can.

Instead of admiring and imitating a resurrected Christ who has suffered a passion for us, we should be like the bodhisattvas, who swear off entering into the blissful state of nirvana to return to the physical world and help all of humanity to end suffering. Instead of emulating the passion play of life, one should end the passion of it (i.e., life’s suffering), liberating us all to enjoy the play.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Seven

In my mind’s eye, I see a grassy field and a nearby forest. I look up and see a cloudless blue sky.

I open my eyes and see, on a shelf of DVDs by my TV, a photo of my smiling cousin, David, back when he was in his mid-twenties.

I close my eyes and see that field of grass and those nearby trees again. I’m riding a horse, feeling the bumps as it walks. I look behind me and see my father’s palace. I see him and my stepmother out there in the yard.

I also see David, about his age as in the photo (meaning I’m about that age, too, since our births were within weeks of each other). He’s behind me, riding his own horse and smiling at me, again, the same way he did in that photo.

He’s taking me hunting; I’ve never done it before, so he’s teaching me how.

An odd thing about our weapons: sometimes, they’re bows and arrows; sometimes, they’re rifles.

I look back at our home. Instead of seeing a palace this time, I see a rich man’s estate. I continue with David towards the forest…this time, not on horses, but in a car.

We reach the edge of the forest and get out of the car. I look back at our home and see the palace. Instead of rifles, we have bows and arrows again. Instead of a car, I see our horses, tied to a tree.

We look up at that beautiful blue sky and see two birds flying overhead.

“Now’s our chance, Sid,” David says, pointing his rifle up at them. “Shoot! Let’s see who hits one first.”

I raise my rifle up and shoot, as does he. We see two arrows flying up at the birds; we have bows in our hands again.

His arrow misses the bird he was aiming for; my arrow goes right through the chest of my bird. It falls to the ground, a few feet in front of me. We run over to it.

“Good shooting,” David says coolly, with what I suspect is a hint of envy. “Beginner’s luck.”

I look down at the dead bird, and instead of seeing an arrow through it, I see a bloody hole where a bullet pierced it. My shaking hands are holding a rifle, not a bow.

I see the beauty of the bird and remember its pretty singing before I shot it. I frown and feel a tear running down my cheek.

“My goodness, you’re a sensitive one, aren’t you, Sid?” David asks with a sneer. “Quite an emotional guy.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” I tell him, almost sobbing, and now holding the dead bird in my hands. “Let’s go back inside. I don’t want to kill anything anymore.”

“I didn’t come out here for nothing, Sid,” he says, now pointing a bow and arrow up in the air. I see him aiming again at that bird he missed.

“No, David!” I shout, grabbing at his arms, so when he shoots, the arrow misses.

“Hey, Sid!” he shouts, scowling at me. “What’s the matter with you! If you don’t wanna hunt, go home. I don’t care. But let me target what I wanna hit, OK?” He has a rifle now.

“No,” I insist with teary eyes. “One should be a targeter of enlightenment, of bliss, of happiness, not a targeter of animals.”

David laughs at my softheartedness, aims, and shoots at the bird.

(I hear a loud shot, open my eyes, and remember the civil war outside my window. The fighting must be getting closer to my home. I close my eyes in fear, in spite of my drugs’ numbing of it.)

David has hit the bird, and we see it fall to the grass just before our feet. It has an arrow through its chest.

I pick up the bird. With two dead birds in my hands, I feel even more tears flowing from my eyes.

“What a saint you must be, Sid,” David says with another sneer.

I open my eyes and look at his photo on my shelf. Then I look down at my coffee table, with the marijuana, my glass of bourbon, the ecstasy pills, and lines of ketamine all over it.

The shooting and bombs dropping outside, which indeed seem louder and closer, continue.

“The last thing I am is a saint,” I muse in slurred words.

Analysis of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’

I: Introduction

Charles Ives‘s Two Contemplations (1908) are his Central Park in the Dark (1906) and The Unanswered Question (1908), though Central Park in the Dark has also been grouped with his Hallowe’en and The Pond in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question embody many of the avant-garde musical ideas that Ives famously toyed with, independently of the European experimentation that took place often in the years following the completion of these two compositions.

In fact, Ives’s own innovations had precedent in the curious musical experimentation of his father, George Ives, who was fascinated with the clash of harmony heard in, for example, the polytonal effect of two marching bands playing completely different pieces while passing each other on the street. Young Charles picked up on his father’s then-highly-unusual open-mindedness about the different possibilities of musical expression, and he incorporated these ideas in his own compositions.

Indeed, independently of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, Ives made use of polytonality and polyrhythms. Before Bartók, Ives composed agonizing dissonances. Before Henry Cowell, Ives used tone clusters. Without any cognizance of such pieces as, say, Schoenberg‘s 1906-7 Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ives used quartal and quintal harmony (in Central Park in the Dark, as we’ll see). Independently of Alois Hába, Ives composed music with quarter tones. And before Stockhausen, Ives experimented with spatial effects.

The first of these two pieces I’ll be looking at was originally called A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”. In contrast, the second of these was originally called A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question. Ives wrote detailed notes explaining the programmatic meaning of these pieces. As to whether either of these pieces deal with matters that are or aren’t serious, I’ll give my opinion on that later.

Both pieces are scored for chamber orchestra, allowing for at least some degree of variation in the instrumentation: for example, the two pianos in Central Park in the Dark can be a player piano and a grand piano; while in The Unanswered Question, the woodwind quartet can be all flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet. Both pieces have string sections, each playing a repeated progression representing “silence,” a kind of static music that hovers in the background, while the other instruments (in The Unanswered Question, the four woodwinds and a solo trumpet; in Central Park in the Dark, piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat (B-flat) clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and the two pianos) play independently of the strings, and to a great extent at least, independently of each other, culminating in a huge chaos of dissonance.

So, though the two pieces are understood to be programmatically opposed to each other, there is actually much that is paralleled between them, suggesting (in my opinion, at least) that the opposition of “Serious” and “Nothing Serious” is a dialectical opposition.

Here is a link (with the score) to Central Park in the Dark, here is a link (also with the score) to The Unanswered Question, and here is a link to Samuel Andreyev‘s analysis of The Unanswered Question.

II: Central Park in the Dark

Ives’s programmatic notes for the piece are as follows:

“This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

and

“The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.”

As much as Ives’s notes insist that the story, if you will, of this piece is of something trifling and even pleasantly amusing, I can’t help hearing in that string arrangement, “the night sounds and silent darkness,” an eerie, foreboding quality, as if dangers are lurking in the dark. Indeed, that string arrangement is a brilliantly experimental progression using dissonant, non-triadic harmony.

The string progression is, for the most part, in parallel motion, with a number of notable exceptions, some of which I’ll point out. Both the cellos and contrabasses are playing a sustained A-flat for two bars before going up to a B-flat, then the cellos tend to follow the intervallic structures of the upper strings, often moving in parallel motion with them, while the contrabasses stick to B-flat for three bars, then go down to F-sharp for three bars, then to E-flat for the final two bars of the cycle before going back to A-flat.

The first and second violins and the violas play, for the first two bars, stacks of pairs of augmented triads, starting at the bottom with a stack of D and F-sharp and B-flat, and on top of it, E, G-sharp, and C. All of these notes together, along with the A-flats in the cellos and contrabasses (enharmonic with the G-sharp), make up the whole-tone scale.

These violins and violas move up and down by minor thirds in parallel motion over the course of these first two bars, thus returning to the notes I mentioned in the previous paragraph before switching from augmented triads to stacks of perfect fourths, going from the third measure to the end of the fifth measure.

The cellos join the violins and violas in making these stacks of perfect fourths, going mostly in parallel motion until the sixth measure, when the intervals change to eerily dissonant stacks of tritones, starting with a stack of G-flat and C-natural (cellos), G and C-sharp (violas), and G-sharp and D-natural (second violins), with the first violins playing a high A. Each pair of tritones is also a minor ninth apart from the one above or below it, creating especially sharp discords.

These tritones of second violins, violas, and cellos move mostly in parallel motion, culminating in a chromatic ascension topped with the first violins of F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and A-natural that resolves to stacks of perfect fifths in the ninth bar, starting with a stack of E-flat (contrabasses), B-flat (cellos), F (violas), C-natural and G-natural (second violins), and D-natural and that A in the first violins that was tied over from the previous bar.

The perfect fifth stacks continue for the ninth and tenth bars, in mostly parallel motion without the contrabasses, which sustain the E-flat. The very last high note of the first violin pairing, a D-flat, isn’t a perfect fifth from the note under it, a B, because this D-flat must flow comfortably by a half-step to the C of the first high note of the first violins, to return us to the beginning of the cycle, with the augmented triad stacks.

So what we get in this progression in the strings is generally an expansion of intervals from augmented triads (i.e., major thirds), to perfect fourths, to tritones, and to perfect fifths, then back to the augmented triads to begin the cycle all over again. These strings–which, recall, “represent the night sounds and silent darkness,” notated ppp–in their cyclical expansion of intervals and mostly parallel motion, represent a sense of sameness underneath all the surface changes about to be heard in the woodwinds, pianos, brass, and percussion.

Just as with the stasis of the strings in The Unanswered Question, these strings would seem to represent a spiritual mystery incomprehensible to the senses, or to the noisy, dissonant winds and other instruments that fight for dominance at repeated points in the rest of the piece.

The first of these other instruments is a B-flat clarinet playing a piano melody that seems to be in G-flat major, though if that’s true, we never hear the tonic, and an A-natural, heard when the clarinet decrescendos to pianissimo, would be outside of the G-flat major scale. Therefore, if this clarinet tune is understood to be tonal, its tonality is unclear.

The same uncertainty of tonality is heard in the tune that the next woodwind, a flute, plays–coming after a second tune on the clarinet that is almost the same as the first tune, though it ends differently. As the second clarinet tune ends, the flute begins with quarter notes in C, then B, A, and B again in a quintuplet. The flute tune would seem to be in C major, but again, accidentals make its tonality unsure. The same is true of the next woodwind melody, one played pianissimo on the oboe.

What is sure about all three woodwinds, as well as the lyrical solo violin and bouncy piano parts to appear after a statement of the string progression alone (from the last bar of the perfect fourth stacks onward), is that these added parts are, for the most part, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent of the strings. As we know, Ives liked having clashing, independent instrumental parts heard simultaneously.

In traditional music, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reconciliation of all the different instrumental parts is meant to give coherence and unity to a composition, a sense that all of the parts are conforming to and ‘obeying,’ as it were, the rules to give a piece a single direction to be followed, a collective of tones moving to the beat and tonality of, so to speak, one master. The music of Ives, however, defies this insistence on musical conformity and uniformity, preferring to allow each part to go its own way.

In this ‘going one’s own way,’ we can perceive a kind of individualist philosophy underlying the musical experimentation of Ives. If we understand the woodwinds, brass, pianos, and percussion of Central Park in the Dark (as well as the trumpet and woodwind quartet of The Unanswered Question) to be representative of people, then their clashing independence can be heard to be telling us that we should welcome differences of opinion and habit, rather than frown on them.

Vive la différence! Ives seems to be saying.

On the other hand, the soft string parts of both pieces seem to represent that mystical, subatomic unity underneath all the differences that our senses perceive. To use Hindu concepts as metaphors for my purpose, the string progressions are Brahman, while the clashing, independent woodwind, brass, piano, and percussion parts represent the sensory illusion of Māyā.

To attain spiritual peace, Ives seems to be saying through his music, we must stop trying to force everything around us to follow any one, dominant way of doing things. We must just let things be as they are and tolerate them, like the man sitting in Central Park that summer night, listening to all those clashing, conflicting sounds, accepting the fact that contradiction is a universal reality.

[Now, speaking of contradiction, in case any of the readers of my political posts thinks I’m contradicting myself here, realize that the dominant way of doing things that we today are being forced to follow is that of capitalism/imperialism, which when completely wiped off the face of the Earth will result in the withering away of the state, because the class differences that necessitate the existence of a state (to protect the dominant class’s interests) will be eliminated. The slavish obeying of bosses, worker alienation, and addiction to wealth, social status, and material things are far more destructive to individual freedom than socialism could ever be.]

As with The Unanswered Question, in Central Park in the Dark the independent parts pop up and disappear on and off throughout the work. In both works, the instrumental groups are also to be separated spatially (in the case of The Unanswered Question, the strings are to be “off stage,” if possible, away from the trumpet and woodwinds). These spatial separations reinforce the idea that the music each group plays is to be understood as coming from different worlds (i.e., Brahman vs. illusory Māyā, nirvana vs. samsāra).

Approaching the climax of Central Park in the Dark, we hear ragtime piano tunes, flute, and oboe. We also hear the B-flat clarinet quoting Hello! Ma Baby, which will be heard again on the trumpet (One may recall that old Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing and dancing frog). Apparently, the Washington Post March is also played by the marching band group, though I can’t locate it, buried in the chaos and cacophony of everyone playing together. The climax ends with a huge, dissonant swell in the brass and woodwinds, all playing trills in fff.

We return to hearing just the soft string progression. The clarinet comes in softly soon after (piano), then the flute, both of them playing pianissimo together, then we hear the lyrical solo violin part. The winds and solo violin stop, allowing the string progression to play alone again, from the chromatic ascension at the end of the tritone-stack section to that of the perfect fifths stacks.

The piece ends with just the beginning augmented triad stack of (top to bottom) C, G-sharp, E, and B-flat, F-sharp, D. These whole notes decrescendo from pppp to silence.

III: The Unanswered Question

Now, Central Park in the Dark is supposed to be “a contemplation of nothing serious”; whereas The Unanswered Question is supposed to be “a contemplation of a serious matter.” Recall above, though, how I treated that ‘non-serious’ contemplation as actually being the one that is truly edifying in a spiritual, philosophical sense: we should welcome differences of opinion, and note that these contradictory elements are just the illusion of Māyā, deceptions of the senses that cloak the mystical, unifying reality that the strings represent.

I would argue, on the other hand, that the futility of answering “the perennial question of existence” proves how absurd the very pondering of that question is, let alone trying to answer it. Therefore, such a futile pondering is a truly trivial matter. If the question can’t be answered, why waste one’s time asking it? Put away such distractions, and as Camus would later teach us, accept the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Like Sisyphus, be happy while rolling the stone uphill, as pointless and fruitless as the labour is. Be like the fellow in Central Park at night, hearing the conflicting musical parts: don’t try to make sense of the senseless, and just sit there, receive it all, and be.

Such an understanding is the dialectical unity of the serious vs. non-serious in these two Ives works. Instead of seeing them as opposites of each other, we should see them as paradoxical parallels of each other. Hence, both have ‘silent’ strings looming in the background (or offstage), with conflicting, independent parts clashing with each other and with the strings, these independent parts appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout both pieces.

The musical parallels thus reflect the philosophical parallels I described above.

The strings, which open The Unanswered Question playing a G-major chord, ppp and con sordino, represent “the silence of the Druids–who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” according to the text Ives wrote to explain the meaning of the work. The Druids never recorded their knowledge in written form; we know of it only through the writings of others. I can’t say for sure what Ives meant by the Druids ‘knowing, seeing, and hearing nothing,’ but perhaps the point is that even the Druids, for all their wisdom, had the humility to admit to themselves that in that wisdom, “all is vanity,” hence their refusal to write it down.

So the ever-so-softly played, muted strings represent the ‘silent’ Druids’ reticence, their wise reluctance to describe the ineffable reality of life, a reality too fluid to be captured in the ossification of words, words that would distort our perception of that reality too much to be effective. Each string part is also spaced widely apart from the others, giving them all a hovering, ethereal effect. As Ives further describes the strings, they are “like the eternal music of the spheres“; or as I described them (and those of Central Park in the Dark) above, they represent Brahman, nirvana.

The string progression, to simplify, goes from a G-major chord to a B-minor chord, then to a C-major chord (at first, with a suspension second [D] before the second violins do a retardation to the third [E]). Then we have an A-minor chord, which ultimately resolves back to G-major. This, essentially, is the string progression for the whole piece (with some variations later): I, III, VI (a six-four chord), IV, I (with an added 6th), II, I. Note the conspicuous lack of a dominant (V) chord–e.g., no D-dominant seventh chord. The lack of a V chord reinforces the progression’s sense of stasis, which is fitting, since the strings represent that sense of the eternal–unchanging, unaffected by impermanence of the material world.

Still, there are fools among us who aspire to wisdom, to intellectual preeminence, and must ask the question: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is God’s plan for us?” This question is represented by the trumpet (or English horn, or oboe, or clarinet, according to the score). The tune it plays is without a discernible tonal centre: B-flat, C-sharp, E-natural, E-flat, and C-natural (this last note alternating with B-natural in each reiteration of the tune). Actually, they’re (pretty much) all notes from the octatonic scale.

This lack of a tonal centre is fitting, given the absurdity of trying to receive an understanding of the infinite complexity of life through a straightforward answer, given presumably in the form of a brief sentence. The question itself is pointless, since it can’t be answered.

There are folks out there who aspire to such a stratospheric level of wisdom. Yet as it says in the Tao Te Ching, 56, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” And as Touchstone observed in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (V, i)

Speaking of such talkative fools, the woodwinds (as I said above, either four flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet) attempt an answer to the perennial question. We shouldn’t be surprised to hear how dissonant and atonal their answer is, for after all, which two people will have the same, or even harmonious, answers to such an absurd question? They can only fight with each other for dominance, as religions have done throughout history.

The first of these woodwind answers, marked adagio and piano, is a tentative, cautious, timid attempt, yet ultimately failing. We have mostly tied, held notes, rather than a flurry of them. With each successive attempt, though, the notes are played a bit faster, a bit louder, and with slightly shorter rhythmic values.

Indeed, as the piece carries on, these woodwind answers get more and more frustrated and desperate to get it right, though of course always getting it wrong. By the time of the final attempt at an answer, the woodwinds are frantic, marked molto agitato, con fuoco–a flurry of frenetic notes that botch the answer so badly, they end in a piercing tone cluster.

In the end, the woodwinds give up. The trumpet asks the question one last time, without getting another attempt at an answer. The piece concludes with just the strings holding the G-major chord in whole notes tied over several bars, in a decrescendo to ppp, then to pppp.

IV: Conclusion

So, as we can see, which contemplation is “a serious matter,” and which is “nothing serious,” is at the least a matter of opinion, and at the most the dialectical reverse of each other. Is sitting in a park listening to conflicting tunes “nothing serious,” and is wanting an answer to the meaning of life “a serious matter,” or is it the other way around?

You know my answer; and just for the sake of clarity, my articles on The Three Unities aren’t an attempt to answer “the perennial question,” or to provide life with meaning. Rather, they’re an attempt to provide a sense of organization to the cosmos. Nonetheless, these attempts of mine, too, are more than likely horribly wrong–just more flatulent flutes being dissonant windbags, blowing out fetid, intellectual nonsense.

In sum: don’t take life too seriously. We aren’t getting out of it alive, anyway.