There it is: just past that line of trees. The perfect blend of nostalgic idyll fantasia and nature red in tooth and claw. A rotting shack.
Not just any shack. The shack. The famous mountain retreat of Nelson Gamely.
I didn’t expect it to be quite so remote, barely even a trail in all this thick white, and then, half-buried in the landscape, this disintegrating saltbox. He must have felt like he was the first man alive out here, an Arctic Adam, loping agog through the snowy underbrush.
This is where Gamely would come to write, furiously, for stretches of a month at a time, eating marijuana cookies from dawn until dusk and churning out in esoteric language a brilliant metaphysics of the written word. Eventually he came to live here and was not seen for years, and then, out over the airwaves came Language, Technology, Reality, the magnum opus. This is the place in which Gamely first fought with his emerging theory.
You’ve finally found it, Sal. You’re here. The thing you’ve been looking for, the thing that’s been looking for you: this cabin. This cabin is your answer to everything. A small, rustic place, made of honed trees, sitting in the small snowy bowl of a vast universe.
All mine for the taking.
But what would I do here? Besides freeze and starve. Where does one shit in a place like this? Gamely’s seven-years’-worth of feces must be somewhere in the underbrush in a frozen pile. I wouldn’t last a second in such ascetic conditions. Was he really so elemental, so wild?
You know what? Yes. I’ll do it. I’ll take my sabbatical right here, the whole semester. No: the whole year. I’ll propose a grant for the Collected Nelson Gamely. Brilliant, Little-Known Thinker, a Guru for the Twenty-First Century. I’ll wrangle a paper out of this.
First I will read him. Everything. Every word he ever wrote, every tome and monograph and school commencement address and personal letter. Then, I will read everything he read, all his influences, all his forebears, his intellectual ancestors; after that, all his contemporaries, all his champions, and all his critics; and then all his descendants, anybody who ever wrote about his work, all his interpreters, detractors, revisionists, and reviewers. And that is only the first step.
The second step: write about him. Write about his work, his thoughts, his processes, the implications and consequences of his conclusions, the resemblance of his conclusions to other extant interpretations of the subject.
Sit down with him as with an old friend. Imagine his very details, the cut and drape of his coat, the lines of his forehead as it frowns or smiles, the tone of his voice and the small particularities of his movement, his gestures. Reconstruct him in words.
Having written about him: read your own writing. Write about yourself. Make a scaffold of his thoughts and form a skin on it.
Edit it, work it through, puzzle it out. Until you die of starvation.
I mean, look at this place. You die of starvation because you haven’t yet gotten up to chop firewood, make a fire, cook some food—you’ve been living on nuts and dried fruit that you hauled here in gallon tubs to sustain you, knowing you could put out no greater effort toward material sustenance than to unscrew the cap on a plastic jumbo tub of nuts. All your energy will be going into this one intense and, frankly, life-or-death process of replicative self-construction.
What will you be at the end of it? You won’t be Nelson Gamely. But then, not even Nelson Gamely was himself. As Borges observed of his own famous image: “He shares my preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.” We are all playing the part of someone else.
So who will you be? What will your work accomplish? Because let’s not be so naïve or arrogant as to think that Gamely did his work to contribute to some larger conversation, to give the next generation a more accurate account of the situation out of which it had grown or into which it might stumble. Gamely’s work was too purely for himself, for itself, a need that pushed him through its own paces, end results be damned. Gamely could not see the trees for his loving and detailed portrait of the forest.
Me? We’ll see. All I have is this space. And really: how many years has it been since Gamely sat in that one icy room and over eight long years honed himself to a sharp point?
That was more than half a century ago. Which in this day and age is a vaster gulf than it used to be. So: here we go again. Let’s reinvent the wheel, whose contours were lost to time and must now be reframed, rephrased, reinterpreted, in light of current contexts.
No. Don’t fall into that trap, Sal. Don’t let them goad you on by making you believe you are Nelson Gamely reincarnate, the Word made Flesh yet a-fucking-gain. Just because he sat here, doing what he did, and because you have come to this spot, not without much effort on your part, to see if this place is some kind of mystic portal to Gamely’s deep insight into the universe, or at the very least to touch the hem of his garment, see if he himself might be hanging around, in some disembodied way, the energy of his effort still crackling gently like static electricity on the drapes and linens.
Of course, there are no drapes and linens here. Just a pallet on the floor and a small wooden desk, I imagine. Just the barest of bare necessities: just a resounding emptiness.
In fact, the truth, the hard reality, is that if you go into that little building, that cave, that square of silence, you will die there. That’s right: you’ll die. You might sit there for twenty-five years, shitting peanuts into a chamber pot delicately placed under your writing chair so that you need never get up. But if you go in, you shall not ever re-emerge. The place will swallow you. Make no mistake about it, Salvatore Geronimo Bainbridge the Third, that primitive box right there is your coffin.
That house is your coffin and this valley is your grave. If you go in there you will not come out. You might ascend to higher levels of consciousness in there, but when they finally find you, that lofty height you struggled so hard to reach will be disintegrating in the bellies of countless worms. If worms exist in such a cold, cold climate.
What’s more—let’s not fool ourselves here, shall we, Sal? Let’s speak honestly about this because this is an important point, a real point, a point you must pin to your brain: if you go in there to die, your work dies with you. When they find your stiff, frozen body (assuming the hypothesis about the worms is correct), they will also find, just beneath the rigid horrible sticks of your dead fingers, the antiquated writing machine on which you have typed your soul. And do you know what? I think you do. I think you know full well. Its ancient contents will be inaccessible to whatever new technology will have sprung up in the outside world during the onerous course of your self-imposed labors. It will be like a black box to them, and they will throw it out, and all your work, everything you are, will disappear once and for all from the face of this godforsaken earth in the careless hands of a hungry realtor. And then, finally, it will all be over.
But this is, of course, the point, staring you right in the face, even daring you, daring you, to take seriously the very thesis, the brilliant and enduring extrapolation, made first by Gamely, that words are a biological entity. Like the humans who pronounce them, polish them, worship them. Languages, like species, arise, evolve, and go extinct. Like the beautiful double helix, they record our mental morphologies, get erased or miscopied or embellished, move down through the ages, changing us and being changed by us, and then, like a species, like an animal, like DNA, they eventually turn back to dust. Their mortal houses—first stone, skin, papyrus, parchment; then paper; now bits—will continue in the age-old manner to be replaced, and even what is transferred is not saved. Like the first hopeful Christians, who saw in the Word an image of Immortality, we believe our words will outlive us and be heard, but they will not: they, too, will be succeeded until the end of succession itself in the fiery apocalypse of our solar collapse, so few millions of years hence.
And what then? And what of it? Is this why you ponder and poke at the universe with your lowly pen, scratching out a sublime and desperate description, to have someone, now or sometime in the future, near or far, hear you? All you want is an audience, a little applause, a reward for your hard-won insight, your insistent and unheeded truth-telling. All you want is a little recognition, trapped as you are in this lonely human moment.
Ah, Sal. Gamely would never have thought like this. Gamely would never even have considered himself, his legacy. Gamely did not have such pathetically vain thoughts, such lowly self-concern. His only concern was for the ideas that coursed through his neural networks like the blood through his body, keeping him alive as a medium for the necessity of their self-revelation.
But you’re not Gamely, now are you, Sal? No such spirit of truth possesses you. You are lowly, pathetic, vain, even unscrupulous. You are not above begging the University to pay you to spend a year in this horrific little hobbit-hole. To what? To write your own magnum opus, that’s what. Only, you’ve got nothing special to say. You’re a fraud and a sycophant.
Your work is derivative (obviously). Your work is pure sophistry, pure pretentious puerility. You think that by going into that hovel, by shutting yourself up against the real world, you can achieve something great? Achieve anything at all? That you can read Gamely and improve upon him? What gall! What bombast! What utter blathering bullshit!
Salvatore! Stop. Just stop. Deep breath. Arms overhead, touch your toes, there you go. Breathe in, breathe out. Remember what Fran says: it does no good to hate yourself for your failure. We are all primitive creatures, without reliable legs.
Hell if it doesn’t hurt just to breathe out here. Failure is guaranteed for those who can’t even breathe. Let alone find food, wash things, learn how to build a latrine.
I mean, really: how the hell did he do it? Seven years! How did he survive? Did the good, honest folks of Wilburville hike up here to leave bread offerings on his doorstep like the faithful feeding a holy hermit? Did he talk to the walls? Was Gamely not a man; did he not get lonely, feel pain, run in circles, ravaged and insane, through the one frigid room like a lab rat on a wheel of his own devising? Did he not turn the cabin inside out searching for some small soft hole to fuck in lieu of human flesh?
Stop fooling yourself with all this talk. There’s nothing in there but mold and cobwebs. There’s nothing left of Gamely, and nothing left to say about him either. Don’t believe that there is any kind of magic in that disintegrating hut.
Still. He must have had moments, right? Moments of genuine knowledge, moments of pure ecstatic communion with the relentless energy of universal action? Euphoria. That’s what you want, just a hard-won high, a brief communion with a higher consciousness. You want to feel your own heart-truth coursing through the whole universe. Gamely is your high priest and this frozen valley is your Paradise; so what if you do die here? Where better to die? Why else to live?
Another painful lungful of iced breath. You’re just a mystic, that’s all. It’s constitutional, characterological, partly genetic, though god knows Grandmother did not concern herself with matters so impractical as the nature of reality. This kind of thinking was foreign to her and all the rest of them. How then did I come to be?
Of course, I know full well how. I was fourteen, fifteen: a lonely summer Saturday. The green sweltering severity of Grandmother’s loping estate, the frog ponds and crawfish, victims of my heartless sense of human power, my budding violent self-assertions, and every monotonous lonely day a trip into the heart of this pubescent darkness, and then: that book, Language, Technology, Reality, left on the side table by someone who had come to call. Who could have visited us who would have left such a thing?
However it happened, the book appeared, and the restless youth picked it up. He might even have taken it to a garden, beneath a pear tree or a bodhi tree for that matter, where he could properly re-enact the enlightenment scenarios of a host of former prophets and religious seekers. I can’t say, at that age, that I understood a damn word of it. It was, rather, like a new language, like sparks of uninterpretable light flashing out from the inert pages. Like the youth I was, I wanted to press my whole being into the lifelong service of interpreting those mysterious marks, that ineffable revelation.
All of which brings me to this very spot, none the wiser. Still a human being, with my creaking knees and stained shirtfront and the ringing in my ears from the weary years of loud machinery. Here I stand, longing for just a taste of that mystical ecstasy Gamely's so good at. I've got nothing to lose but this vast chattering store of words I've built up inside of me.
Yet this remote cabin, this empty space: maybe it is here that the words can finally stop relentlessly speaking themselves. Here they can return to the dust from whence they came, and I can finally have a moment of quiet, out here among the mouthless trees; the peanuts, the chamber pot, the black box; the remaining electricity.