T he setting was old Tbilisi, a strange destination, fable-like. The rough brown bricks of the ancient baths, the second-story verandas, enclosed in the vernacular architectural style. The dry cliff faces and banks rising in random juts around the city. Scrub vegetation. In truth, except for the myth-feeling, it didn’t have much to recommend it.
Nevertheless, tourists came from the clandestine North in search of stimulating heat, the weird half-desert, half-mountain conditions that revved you up if you let them. If you drank the strong local chacha, the hundred-proof brandy, and ate raw green figs. Pomegranates. It was, allegedly, a sensual city.
Fruit was not the topic, however. Nor liquor. The topic was philosophy, of a kind, the argument of the day between old friends: Mo Kaplan and Chrissy Halsted.
“Listen, let’s discuss this.” Mo speaking. “There’s myth and then there’s enlightenment,” he said. “But the end is the same for both modes: to banish the unknown. Myth assigns it to categories of either local or universal mystery. Enlightenment makes it the object of science. Thus, myth is rigid with classifications, while enlightenment admits no hypotheses unless they can be tested. Both are weighed down by the tendency toward dogma. Face it. They operate under the same human headings of error and limitation.”
Mo (Morris) was much the senior of the two, genially bald and dressed sensibly in the cotton pants and soft-soled shoes of American old age. His knees turned in slightly when he walked. He carried a canvas tote bag full of notebooks and pens, lip balm, sunscreen, an incomprehensible bus schedule. His one eccentricity was to turn up the collar of his polo shirt. Identifiable as a professor at fifty paces.
Chrissy was harder to pin down. Her age indeterminate. She had the authority of long experience about her, but this had to do with her movements: precise, definitive. She was an empiricist. Her straight and delicate nose invited admiration. Her smooth, tan skin expressed a great firmness of character, and there was virtue as well in her blond hair, pulled into a youthful ponytail, as she’d worn it in high school, playing basketball, volleyball. Only the skin around her eyes (and the aforementioned sure movement) betrayed her age. There, in the crenellated corners and the brownish under-eyes, she looked over forty.
“And so what,” Chrissy asked. “Is there a function to this insight? Is salvation in play here?”
“Salvation from what?” Mo asked. He acted skeptical, but secretly he was deeply stirred. He didn’t see his friend often enough, he forgot the stakes she always played for. Salvation! My God, what a question!
“You said it yourself: from the unknown."
In truth, they were amateurs in this, or at least outsiders. Mo was a poet of some standing in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a professor of literature. Chrissy was an expert in human and animal behavior, a psychology PhD, an occasional dog trainer.
They were drinking their breakfast coffee in the hotel before attending the seminar they’d come to the city for -- a literature retreat, a kind of vacation for writers. They would each give a lecture. He on Seamus Heaney, she on the writer and animal trainer Vicki Hearne’s philosophy of cognition.
“Or maybe,” Mo ventured, improvising, excited by the next steps of his thinking, “salvation lies in the synthesis. It is a dialectic after all. Hegelian, maybe. Myth is the thesis, enlightenment the antithesis, Salvation the synthesis.” Mo had a much-thumbed copy of the book in his tote bag, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. He was adumbrating Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument. Or trying to.
“Interesting,” Chrissy admitted. “But you started out trying to convince me that my Enlightenment values were bunk. That strict observation was put to bed by Heisenberg, and we were back into some non-Newtonian mythos.”
“True.” Mo had large, dark, hard-thinking eyes, a twentieth-century Jewish physiognomy. He put an age-mottled hand to his bald, brown head, a gesture of acquiescence. “Well,” he said, “theory is for suckers anyway. It’s mostly chaos out there.”
Chrissy nodded. “Amen to that,” she said. “Ask any mutt in the street. He’ll tell you.”
Chrissy was bonded to Mo in large part by admiration. A deep envy even. She wished for his temperament. Sometimes she tried to muster it, the warmth, the generosity, the optimistic views. But it was useless. She was like cement: it was hard to come away from her without skinned knees.
Or. Was that really true? Was she so rough? More likely this was just her inner experience, the barbed self she couldn’t show anybody. On the outside, she conformed to the usual ideas of polite interaction. She tried to listen and not be dismissive. When she had angry thoughts, she kept them down, knowing they’d be nothing but destructive. She came across as nice.
So why the spiritual defenses? As far as she could tell, they’d always been there. In all respects, Chrissy was a head case, she knew. She’d always counted her steps across intersections and bridges, and she had to take deep breaths all the time in order to stabilize her uncomfortable heart. Her nervous, repetitive mind. Tuned senses.
Hard as it may have been to believe, dogs were what kept these eccentricities of hers in check. Dogs don’t conform to human projections. Animals generally, in fact. We get all the stories wrong.
The answer, which Chrissy realized as a girl, before it became an academic topic for her, was to eliminate language. Dogs didn’t use it. They built their cosmos instead out of their bodies and the world. Their medium of communication was space. Much more reliable, and with more immediate feedback—the feedback of teeth. Chrissy was once asked if a particular German Shepherd was dangerous; she said, yes, dogs are dangerous. Just like cars and airplanes and staphylococcus. It’s like Mo said. Chaos out there.
Chrissy mused on these things in her hotel room that night, after the seminar, jet-lagged, failing to sleep. The air conditioner cycling.
What she realized was that there were indeed, concretely, two versions of herself. One was the professional Chrissy, the PhD, the world lecturer and expert. The adept who flew business class to Washington and Geneva for meetings with NIH and the World Health Organization. Who edited landmark psychology textbooks, gave TED talks, testified before Congress.
But this was a brittle and superficial role. Not genuine. This Chrissy operated as a processing unit, an automaton, nearly, a fluent alien or robot that was pleased to use Chrissy’s faculties for its own purposes. This Chrissy was a candy shell around the gooey nougat of another, more primal Chrissy.
That Chrissy, the first and apparently permanent one, was nothing but a sensitive girl from the sticks, rooted to the landscape of central South Dakota. That Chrissy was a groping, naïve child roughed up by the indelicate universe, told she was too tall and gangly, too dreamy, impractical, but also too masculine. Never mind that these were incoherent tropes. They were formative.
As a result, Chrissy’s existence was under strain. The two versions of her worked against each other. Professional Chrissy made all the right moves and hummed along in her uninterruptable way. But the primary Chrissy, South Dakota Chrissy, buzzed with alarm: who was this juggernaut? It was no version of herself she could recognize. She couldn’t advise presidential candidates and Olympic medalists. She couldn’t charge appearance fees and live in Westchester. That was what other people did.
Other people like Mo. Mo, who had been the U.S. Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer and yet experienced no dissonance or rift in his identity. And not because he was to the manor born. He’d had the usual Jewish middle-class experience. A life among grocers and dry-cleaners and the occasional well-to-do dentist. Owners of light manufacturing ventures. Textile lives.
Instead of roping them off, these chaotic people, he’d thrown his arms around them, made them his great subject. He wrote them into full being. Much as they had written him. And despite finding the high places of American society, he never left them. Mo was one-hundred percent integrated.
Interesting, for Chrissy at least, that the city of Tbilisi had a dog problem. Feral, docile, garbagey animals trotted and lollygagged all over the center of town. They all had the same bored, imperturbable look. City dogs. There was nothing they hadn’t seen. Most had yellow tags in their ears, indicating they’d been captured, spayed or neutered, then released, part of the city’s program to bring their numbers down.
For some reason Chrissy began to think of them in the terms of her debate with Mo the previous day, the one over myth and enlightenment. The goal of enlightenment is to establish mastery. And you established mastery by advancing on the unknown—gradually, successively reducing its acreage.
But this framework raised epistemological concerns. What was it to know? What counted? For dogs, after all, there was no such thing as the unknown. The existence of the unknown required speculation, forecasting. Dogs didn’t ruminate. Everything existed for them in the present, fully factual. They could be confused, or just wrong. Did that mean they didn’t know? No. It meant they knew one thing until they got new information, and then they knew something else, and that was all there was. Sense data, the end. They were wholly enlightened at all times.
This quirky, useless argument amused her. She sat at her café table and swizzled the wine in her glass, waited for Mo to come back from the bathroom. They’d had a long day of enduring seminar presentations. The young people were obsessed with memoir. One grad student had been a hooker in Vegas, using heroin. She thought this made for a kind of automatic literature. She described her tattoos.
When Mo did come back he seemed to move a little gingerly. Chrissy didn’t ask what was wrong, and Mo didn’t want to give her the grizzly details. He told her it was nothing. Something he ate.
What he didn’t say was that he’d been troubled by nerves recently. For instance, the flight to Tbilisi from Munich had been as bouncy as he’d been on in a while, and it had knocked his spirit around. As a young man he’d been terrified of flying. He was sure every rattle and mechanical whine indicated catastrophe, every wiggle in the plane’s steel frame would wrench it apart in mid-air, leaving him to plunge tens of thousands of feet down to a crushing, unimaginable end. Even then, Mo had looked at death with real seriousness. He didn’t indulge the fiction that certain great, striding men were beyond mortal concerns. Might, intellectual or physical, wouldn’t save you. You had to be humble before big forces. This went for the force of human comprehension as much as the force of death and accounted for Mo’s earnestness in his talks with Chrissy, he thought. He wanted so badly to get it right! In life and in ideas! Remember the young man riding on airplanes with his guts in a crunch!
Eventually though, age did perform some useful operations on him. The anxieties of his youth dissipated a bit. His writing improved and he experienced a day-to-day satisfaction that had to do with the long view he was now able to take: history would choose him or not for its inscrutable purposes, as it did every man, every woman. There was no agency in life.
And what a relief that was! In your blindness, while you waited for your destiny, you were free to putz around! Life was a comedy! Anything was possible.
Ok, sure, when this line of thinking went soft, it justified an annoying relativism, even nihilism. No authority, no standards. An ugly free-for-all in both the material and spiritual arenas. But Mo didn’t advance it as a mode of analysis. He’d never been big on the utility of the various -isms on offer. Rather, he found it to be a kind of emotional key to the lock of good judgement and moral equilibrium. It let him breathe and got rid of his fear of flying.
Until this damned flight from Munich. He’d been in a window seat and had seen the rough, high clouds slamming into the plane. Bunched and roiled, demonic vapors, particulates lifted by convection currents over the serrated Caucuses below. It was then that he felt the old perturbation in his stomach, and the old extension of useless vigilance over every stimulus. The kid behind him hiccupped, and Mo’s intestines cramped.
Worse than this, though, was a seemingly profound and dispiriting realization. Can it be, he thought. Can it truly be that our demons own us for so long? Mo Kaplan, seventy-four years old, and still not clear of the shadows?
Mo blew out a long breath. “What were we talking about?” he asked.
“Right. You should get one. It could say, enlightenment.”
Chrissy snorted. “Yeah,” she said. “On my ass.”
This was good for a laugh. They were at an outdoor table, but in the shade—the air was hot but not altogether unpleasant. There was a breeze that smelled of construction dust and something vaguely grapey. An easiness prevailed, generally, and in particular between these two American friends.
Then without prelude, a chaos of dogs in the street. A half dozen mutts snapping and spinning, they heaved out from an unobservable alley. They didn’t seem to be fighting. They barked—at nothing, or each other—but made no effort to communicate.
People stopped their conversations and turned. Chrissy turned. This was highly unusual behavior.
Just as suddenly, from up the street, came another three, four of them, racing, full of purpose. These took the lead and the whole pack, nearly a dozen, tore off, digging up the sidewalk weeds with their nails. An eerie silence in their wake.
Mo kept at it with the theory. He admitted it. He was one of those suckers.
“Listen, the more I think about it, I realize I was wrong. Banishment of the unknown isn’t the end. It’s just the mode. The end is domination of nature. Myth has the shamans to make it rain. Enlightenment devises cloud-seeding.”
“Does it? Well, fine. The point is that the domination of nature allays fear. The bear can’t eat us if we eat him first. It’s fear. It’s always fear.”
Chrissy took this in, and Mo worked it over silently in his mind as well. She was thinking of rejection, interpersonal fuck-ups. Love-pains.
He was thinking of physical distress. They each expressed their suffering in long breaths.
At that moment, as if in judgement, or explication, the earth lurched. Chrissy had never experienced a quake before, but the instinct for self-preservation made her leap up anyway, and vault the now-twisted railing around the restaurant’s patio. She got out in the open street.
Mo, being older, couldn’t move so decisively. He had to try to pick his way over the rail. But brick and glass rained from above and struck him. He was buried and died in front of her.
That night people wandered the streets. There was very little going inside to sleep. How could anybody do it?
Still, there were quiet alleys, and Chrissy sought these out. They smelled of blown ash. They were unevenly lit. Crones hobbled about in the dust and their presence burdened her.
They were shell-backed beetles, rolling dung. Such creatures! Did they have hearts, souls, the human systems?
Eventually Chrissy came into a small, deserted square, an ornate fountain, dry, at the center. At the base of the fountain, outside its chipped marble rim, lay a black dog in blissful or at least indifferent repose, its side rising and falling in a lazy sine of breath.
Chrissy stared momentarily. Had that been what riled those mutts up earlier, after all, that animal-type pre-perception of doom? There’d been a pack of them, which was unusual in itself—mostly you saw these strays keeping their own counsel, finding solitary patches of shade. Like this one in front of her now, peaceful, content after that terrible release of the earth’s interior tension.
She could probably walk up to him—city dogs didn’t startle. But they also didn’t much care for human interference. He’d probably move away.
Instead, watching him as she walked, she went around to the far side of the fountain and sat. And there wept for the unattainable end of everything.