Books I Didn't Write - 1
The kingdom of God is spread out upon the world and men do not see it.
- The Gospel of Thomas
The idea for this story was given to me on a warm December morning by a miniature schnauzer of my acquaintance named Paloma. She was, I believe, about two years old at the time. I was forty-eight. We were getting to know each other, sitting on the back stoop of a bungalow on the West Side of Los Angeles, the house where I now live and where I sit writing these words.
Paloma was looking me in the eye. It was a deep, sustained, searching look – intense, but without the tension and anxiety that normally vex such looks between humans. It was a look without restlessness, a comfortable look – an exchange of some sort, but not of information. It was a look that sought without need or expectation. It was both receptive and giving. Patient. Open. Eager but at ease.
At first, it felt as though Paloma was trying to communicate across the abyss of mutual incomprehension, but gradually I realized – felt – that this mutual gaze was not about communication so much as communion. Not a transaction, but simply a being together. The communion was the point. That’s what Paloma seemed to want. That is what she seemed to be guiding me to want too.
It probably lasted no more than a couple of minutes according to the clock, but in another sense – a weird-sounding but true sense – it’s still going on. In any event, not long afterwards I had the fanciful idea that maybe Paloma was a Bodhisattva sent into the world to guide an anxious and distracted human spirit towards an experience of the present moment, a baby step or at least a turn in the direction of enlightenment. It was an interior joke, a jesting thought. And yet…
Why not? It became possible to see not just Paloma but all dogs, all pets in this way. And, then, why just pets? Why not all animals? Perhaps, I thought, abandoning myself fully to this fantasy, all animals who live in the moment, who are “present”, who live in direct and unambivalent reconciliation to reality as it comes to them, are the more enlightened creatures? Perhaps it is we humans, we restless, perpetually dissatisfied, inconsolable humans that are laggards on the road to enlightenment. The less-evolved species.
Amused with these thoughts, I wrote them down. By the time I stopped, I had the seed of a story about how human beings are actually the least evolved species on Earth.
Here is my original note, from 5 December 2015:
Los Angeles (Marina Del Rey) c. 8:45 am.
I had a thought yesterday – write a story in which elements of a previously unknown ancient civilization are discovered somewhere on planet Earth. These artifacts (or whatever they are – maybe large-scale manipulations of the landscape, fosses and mounds and whatnot…) do not accord with any known civilization. There is something strange – one might even say “alien” – about them. Once the initial discoveries are revealed (presentations, papers…) and the signs of this (these?) ancient civilizations is/are made recognizable, more and more discoveries are made. Indeed, there is a veritable spate of discoveries. Owing to the great age (many tens of thousands of years, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before human civilization is known or thought to have emerged) and strangeness, there is much speculation that these are the elements of an alien civilization that once colonized the Earth and then vanished, whether by perishing or departing. There is a theory that the race was native to Earth – non-human, but intelligent; perhaps another type of hominid – but developed the technology to travel into space and then departed for the stars, perhaps in anticipation of or in the aftermath of some disaster. Numerous other theories abound, from the cautious and plausible to the reckless and cockamamie.
Perhaps all the remains are discovered under the oceans (in which case we might call the story “Atlantis”). Perhaps the ancient race is thought to be amphibian – perhaps some actual living antecedent of the legendary mermaid or siren. Perhaps. But here is the thing: this civilization was created by animals, by the ancient ancestors of species that survive among us today. How did they fall so? What great disaster “wiped out” this civilization (these civilizations)? Was it a cataclysm that blasted them back beyond their own ancient stone age to some even more primitive state, obliterating not just the traces and trappings of civilization but even the memory of it? Or was it some drawn out dwindling over eons?
The truth is this: these ancient civilizations evolved beyond what we humans recognize as civilization. They left it behind because they outgrew it. They achieved a greater general level of enlightenment and reconciliation. They have, ever since, been living in Eden.
Civilization is not and advanced stage/phase but a primitive one. But it is only in its most developed stages – the stage of information and cybernetics and the ability to exert almost total control over the physical environment – that it becomes apparent that “civilization” is in itself futile and pointless, distracting us, as it does, from being, simply being, which is the point. The animals that surround us are enlightened beings – they have long since achieved Satori. We are the brutes, the fools, the sufferers. They are the bodhisattvas and ministering angels who, in their gentle, indirect, endlessly patient way, are ministering to us and guiding us towards reconciliation and peace. Over the eons on Earth, they have performed this service for one another as they now still do for us. We humans are the last.
All other species have passed through and evolved beyond the phase of “civilization”, which is actually a primitive stage in the development of a species – a stage in which the species has attained to consciousness but still labors under a variety of delusions, not just about how the world works, and about the species’ own place in the larger order of things, but also about how to thrive [in the world. Creatures in the stage of civilization are consigned to ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety. They experience the world as a problem to be solved. They strive. They torment themselves with ever ramifying thoughts and ideas, which breed only confusion and discord. They continually devise new desires, piling desire upon desire, in perpetual flight from satisfaction, reconciliation, and peace.
Camus wrote that “human beings are the only creatures that refuse to be what they are.” [the striving and continual progress that characterizes human civilization is an effect of dissatisfaction, restlessness, which is to say discontent with the present state of things - refusal or inability to accept, or even recognize, “the sublime adequacy of nature”.] Animals, and for that matter trees and other plants, have no desire to be other than what they are. They live in paradise, in bliss.
Here is my second note, from 20 December 2015:
Brooklyn Heights, NY.
… Just as civilization is, paradoxically, primitive and prior to enlightenment, so Eden is an end-point rather than a point of origin. The Fall precedes Paradise – our fallen state precedes paradise [i.e. our enlightened, liberated state]. We have it all backwards. Our nostalgia for Eden or Paradise or the Golden Age is absurd precisely because it is nostalgic rather than hopeful.
Babel. This too. Language, which distinguishes us from the animals, actually separates and alienates – i.e. distinguishes; makes distinct – us from one another. The language of animals – whale song; the chirping of birds [bird song] – is in a sense perfect, perfect in a way that human language can never be. In our parable, the animals once had language too, in all its infinite varieties and elaboratenesses, its concatenations and implications and ambiguities and endlessly ramifying, shivered and shuffled meanings. This predicament too they have transcended.
So, I used the word “parable”. Yes. This is how I’m thinking of this. As a kind of parable. As we discussed earlier, one does not need to come up with a “story”, with its attendant protagonist(s) and plot mechanics in order to bring the idea fully to life, and to examine and consider it. Indeed, making a story of it may be irrelevant and even trivializing.
But all these thoughts and fancies didn’t amount to a story. I struggled to come up with an adequate narrative framework in which to explore and express these thoughts. I imagined I might come up with some kind of Borgesian folly, or maybe a book of short stories each of which played with some aspect or implication of the essential idea. Maybe something a bit like a Calvino book, narrated by some eons-old figure – perhaps the last man, the last human being who hasn’t yet experienced the epiphany that will reconcile him to the actual nature of existence.
I began. I filled up one and a half notebooks.
My favorite part was a rumination about how whales abandoned their hands. Whale skeletons preserve the bones of two hands, each with five fingers, encased within their fins. Hands mediate our relationship with the material world – they turn the world into something we can manipulate and adjust to human purposes. Our dexterity opens the way to new skills and arts, previously inconceivable, which themselves suggest and make possible further skills and arts. The idea of human potential expands, deepening our sense of present imperfection and inadequacy, deepening our dissatisfaction, restlessness, impatience, discontent… Every stage of civilization takes us a step further from paradise – walking on our hands, as it were, away from Eden.
The physiology of whales tells us that they once had hands. They could at one time build ships in bottles, play elaborate toccatas on keyboards with dozens of keys, perform surgery on the eye… In time, they chose to abandon their hands along with all the skills and boons they made possible. Or, no – that’s not quite right. The whales didn’t abandon their hands – as they outgrew the phase of civilization, they ceased to need them and mislaid them, as one mislays and forgets about a thing one no longer has any use for.
It was an interesting flow of thoughts, but formless. After about about forty pages no narrative had emerged. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it into a story. Then I got married, went on a honeymoon, got busy with other things… The project flagged. I still love the idea. I still hope to make something of it someday.