Fiction. Jacob Smullyan's ERRATA, a series of thirty tiny, enigmatic stories and essays by the author of DRIBBLE, is a text, or so it itself claims in its opening lines, that consists solely of errors. Towards its end, after we have experienced the existential agonies, both climactic and quotidian, of several apparently overlapping characters ("S.", "Z.", "Sanders", "Zander"), and drunk innumerable cups (or are they cupolas?) of coffee, it comes to assert that error may be a mode either of revelation or delusion. Which process is at play here? Can we decide? And if, as the text elsewhere states, we can neither seek truth nor illusion, can we seek anything at all—even to exit this maze? Or can we, like another character, only patiently mediate their interminable dispute as a form of prayer, with no purpose, perhaps, other than obedience to fate, or a certain subterranean satisfaction in behaving according to a deep intuition, an inner voice, "the only peace we have"—or is that another of the book's deliberate errors? Tantalizing, allusive, and harrowing, ERRATA is a meditation on the psychology of scepticism and on the role of art in addressing the essential paradox of suffering and joy.
|Publisher:||Sagging Meniscus Press|
|Product dimensions:||4.30(w) x 5.80(h) x 0.30(d)|
About the Author
Jacob Smullyan (born 1964) is a pianist and the founding editor of Sagging Meniscus Press. His poem cycle about surging muck, DRIBBLE, was written in 1983 and published in 2015; his collection of stories and essays, ERRATA, was published in 2017; his forthcoming novel, The Sultan of Brisbane, is concerned with annoying persons. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.
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By Jacob Smullyan
Sagging Meniscus PressCopyright © 2016 Jacob Smullyan
All rights reserved.
The world is that which remains when all that is not the case has been subtracted.
The canonical text is the complete account of all that is not the case.
This text is the canonical text.
The previous remark, however, may be erroneous.
There is an esoteric truth re cupolas. All cupolas are subtly linked. Not that you can go, in one story, suddenly from one to another, but in that any story involving a cupola is itself linked to any other, so that one can create a story from the first half of the first, leading up to the cupola, and the second half of the second, leading away from it, and that story is just as real as the first two. Where cupolas are concerned, any rights to individual existence we posit in ourselves melt away.
Zander came into P. as the sun tested its paths, verifying their glitter. Whether P. should be described as busy or deserted was difficult to tell. The clear marks of emptiness were not apparent; there were the vehicles, the sounds of people walking somewhere, heads in the crowds. Yet they did not seem to be the people of P., or even people in P.; they were conjoined with it in an ephemeral and unsatisfying mode. Zander doubted whether the man at the counter from whom he asked a coffee would persist long enough to give it to him. That the man did was not reassuring; it seemed merely to confirm a kind of existential prejudice, a dogmatic habit with no ontological foundation.
Zander's coffee, by contrast, offered a familiar impermanence — it evaporated, diminished in volume by being sipped, and grew cold. Zander did not bother to notice that the barista had written "Zander" on the disposable cup.
He had come to the café, not for the beverage, but for what it promised: a moment by himself with the world. Here he could sit, apart from things, and yet in intimacy with them, and think thoughts without having to chase them. Time would be itself for once. And yet he knew that as soon as he tasted the sweetness of Time resting with him, embracing him with its warmth, its promise of infinity, that vessel of plenitude would break and he would return to the pursuit of a retreating reality.
And, as he sipped his coffee and watched the arm of another, apparently perfectly happy, assured, and relaxed customer return another cup to the table after a blissful sip, in perfect synchrony with his own, he realized that it was only in misery, not in bliss, that he was in contact with the world and was, therefore, himself. For when he enacted the ritual of bliss he was no-one, he vanished into a paradigm. The experience was pure simulacrum. When the illusion dissipated and a complete, physical and psychical anxiety took over, filling the space of mind, he was again present even as he agonizingly scrambled after a presence constantly retreating before him.
This is called pleasure.
Whatever it was that Zander watched from the window of the café as he suffered bliss to come and go was not really P.
Whoever it was who watched that which was not really P. through the windows of the café, suffering bliss to be revealed as agony, and vice versa, was not really Zander.
The coffee, perhaps, was really coffee. But only if you mean by that the coffee you don't really mean when you say "coffee." When you say, "I'd like some coffee," you don't mean the coffee Zander was drinking. Names adhere to objects with promise, not to things of the world whose promise has been whored already into nothingness. No, there is no name that would settle for an object of this world. Even when his coffee was fresh, it was no longer the coffee to which his desire had given existence and a name.
I'm not entirely sure that I would know a cupola. It is an object I recognize, if at all, in a shadowy way, without surety. I expect it to be an architectural prominence, with a quasi-spherical aspect. But when a candidate appears, I am never certain whether it is a typical example, whether it really deserves the name. And this means that somehow my story is decoupled from all the others. That special unity that others feel, their stories all linked, their beings grounded in each other, I do not have. Because I am cupola-blind.
By the purest chance, I see my cupola-blindness, which only reveals the possibilities of infinitely many other blindnesses. These blindnesses, should they be, could be taken to mean that there are infinite riches hidden to my sight. But another interpretation rings truer: the train of my continuous story trusts in the foundation of bridge after bridge. But that foundation is less than a dream. With a dream, at least, there is a dreamer. With reality, the nexus that holds it together is nowhere. We are trapped in a prison of nothingness.
When no-one is paying attention, I lift the tablecloth and consider the table leg to my left. I am fairly certain none of the people I fear or respect would agree with me if I asserted — boldly? cheerfully? with deference? with defiance? — that it was a cupola. Yet, in my heart, can I rule out that it might be one? Is there a Senator in my heart's parliament who will stand up and give a rousing speech, explaining why not? And even if there were, what then? What difference would it make?
They removed the blindfold only after the long trek on circuitous, mountain roads had given way to miles of flatter highway. For several hours, the cool air had provided evidence that it was night, and when the rag over his eyes was roughly torn away, Z. at first saw nothing. The brigands would not answer his questions — not why he had been taken, so long ago, nor why he was released so suddenly and so in the present. At least, he assumed that this, whatever it was, was what he used to call "present," long ago, before the Night fell, when (he had thought) there was something to present. In his confusion he cried out, "Is this the present?" He could not be sure whether, in the strange mixture of sounds that followed, the laughter of his captors was the predominant ingredient, or the cackling of animals — chickens? hyenas? — or the wind, or the noises of demonic machines. And he heard, or imagined, words buried like fossils in the mingled sounds, like faces in clouds, or like faces. "Where is he, he asks?" he heard, and he thought, "they think I asked — where I was present." Another voice, deep and guttural, or was it a loud engine rushing by? rasped out something: "Papa," or "Pisa," or even: "Piss off." The sounds grew faint; only a twittering hiss, the aural equivalent of starlight, surrounded him. Finally his eyes, so unused to discriminating light and dark, or even right and left and up and down, showed him that his world again consisted of regions, distinguished from one another by shades of light, or its absence, which was the same thing.
When this happened, a memory, not of a time or an event, but of a state, like a trace in the body, or a child's first smell of coffee, came to Z. — a memory of "standing." This concept was not one he could define, but he knew it was a feature of the past, like Mama and Papa and like Light, that he felt with his whole being. Light had returned; could it be ... could he stand?
As Z. lay stretched in the dirt and rubbish behind the truck stop outside (perhaps) Pisa, his eyes neither closed nor open, not knowing whether he lay facing the sky or the ground, he fought to stand, although he did not know what it was to stand. The stump of his left arm shot out and a foot tensed at the end of his leg. It began to rain, and his open mouth filled with mud.
The old man's glasses glinted with reflections of things true and untrue. The magic lamp of reality flashed and two voices whispered to him, in vehement disagreement, yet in partnership. Years ago he had rebelled against being brought in to mediate their dispute. The passage of decades brought a painfully won détente and the peace of surrender to torment; he realized finally that the only purpose of the dispute was that he mediate it.
Day after day, he lay stretched in the hay as the noises of the world went unheeded. Night after night he sat before his lamp, sifting through the images which flashed before him in the darkness, images of the substrata of the world, deep truths and deep lies. And patiently he coped with the tiresome debate, his fingers at his beads.
Bright, colorful days! When the terminus would open up to a high, painted ceiling, and the stones be warm. When children, if there were any, would rush in excitedly, their hearts completely taken with some fond nonsense. When the choice of red shirt and red socks would have no sense of irony or compensation.
Z. smiles at the old folk as they hobble by; he is rushing, but amiably, with no anxiety. There is no line at the ticket counter. The train (bright! red!) is ready, and not too full.
Z. feels himself sliding forwards into the inevitability of the future. The smiling children were all about him; now they are behind in the dark and their high voices are growing faint.
There is a pain in his chest, just a little one, as the train begins to move. Oh God, he cries to himself — Where have I been? Where am I going?
It had been many years that S. had lived in a muddle of noise that was also a silence. It was a silence because something was lacking, something for which a space was always provided. A voice was missing, a voice — or was it a noise — no-one seemed to be expecting, yet the space for it was there, and in its absence everyone felt a compulsion to fill it with desultory talk. The truth was, we were all waiting, those of us with S., waiting for something to begin. There was a curtain, but long ago we forgot to face it.
In fact, how do we know the curtain was even drawn? The absence of the voice, the closure of the curtain, these perhaps were merely traditions. Behind us, or next to us, the voice might have been audible all the while, and the curtain, the stage — why, perhaps we were on the stage.
S. was recalling the deal he had made, many years before, with the CIA. A necessary compromise, justifiable because [redacted]. Had he not done so, the outcome could have been far worse. He had told himself this for years. But he was never satisfied.
From the airplane he looked at the great water below, and traced his ancient dissatisfaction to its source. And he heard the voice at last, and knew that his ancient compromise had been quite wrong after all. And that to be at peace with that voice was the only true peace.
The captain saw him looking out at the water. He put out his cigarette and took a breath of the sea air, and made an eloquent gesture to someone in the belly of the plane, like the motion of a conductor, tracing a hook or a question mark. The rough burlap sack that came over S.'s head was drawn down and tied. It was time. The hatch opened and the wind came in, and S. felt the rushing air fill the silence and hold his spirit up.
Samuels was the sort who seemed to have been born wearing a cravat. It was an impenetrable shield erected between his "self" and the "world," and as such it participated in the unending creation and destruction of both. Kept from embracing one another at every moment, Samuels and his world died lonely, miserable deaths on the colorful noose of his purported dignity and self-assertion.
Samuels knew this very well, yet persisted in his style with a deliberate self-laceration. What little he felt from the world outside was the mellow light of a certain forgiveness — not unmixed with suspicion, ridicule, and pity, but not without a residual radiance of kindness either. Perhaps this was enough for him; perhaps he could not have withstood more.
Every conversation he overheard, as he sipped his latté at the counter, reminded him of capacities for human interaction he did not possess and would probably repudiate if he did; he felt mystification and even pity observing them in others, and some envy mixed with pathos. He would melt and dissolve in the acid of his own pain, were he not protected by the cravat, wrapped tight around him.
Z. was seeking the infinitesimal, on the theory that the smaller, the richer, the more essential. Every complex, he somehow felt, was an illusion, a source of impurity, or more correctly, a distraction. He wanted to hone his attention to the point that the Given lay there forever under the tree, never to be unwrapped. Yet as soon as he became conscious of the Given, he could not but feel something else that intruded itself into his sensorium — a kind of pleasure that came between himself and the world like a fine mist. And in the mist, he swooned and his mind became dull, if only for an instant, but that instant was enough for his mind to be unmoored, and once again without end he drifted in the sea of images.
From his café chair, Z. could observe, with some admiration, the crafty and effective trade in self-satisfaction performed by T., a wily beggar who appeared once or twice a week outside the market. His followers gave him astounding sums of money in exchange for embraces and protestations of love and undying friendship. T.'s face, though, as he turned away from his clients, said something else; if not quite hard, not quite calculating, at least it betrayed a weariness from holding the mask required by his business affairs. How could it not?
This morning, Z. saw one businessman in an unfashionable suit, with a cravat and red socks, a man clearly out of his element and past his prime, deliver over to T. twenty crowns. Was he an imbecile? A fool? Or a saint? No, none of these; Z. saw, looking into the yellow eyes of the old businessman, staggering away, that he was a realist — and that a realist is one who knows that all human life is founded on illusion. The old man knew that T.'s love was an empty fraud, and yet he handed over money which he could ill afford, and publicly embraced him, knowing all that fully and precisely in the very moment of the embrace.
What is a philosopher, thought Z., what is a seeker after truth, when truth is precisely that which does not need to be sought, and indeed, cannot be? He is a seeker after illusion. The philosopher is one who resists the truth with every fiber and rejects it totally. This is never more true than of the philosopher whose illusion is that he accepts the truth.
And yet, illusion cannot be sought either; it is never elsewhere, where seeking seeks to take us. The philosopher seeks illusion, claiming to seek truth, in the fruitless hope that he will escape from both into the blessedness of a child's dear hope — like a tree wishing to become an acorn.
The movement of becoming, the submission to the abject convenience of identity, would have characterized Zander's daily mug of joe. But this morning, roused by some emergency and stranded waiting in an alien environment, there was no mug and no joe. What occupied the space of that which was absent?
A smart party. Pranks played on and on. The furnace of Z's wit withered eyebrows, razed carefully wrought constructions of all sorts: personal loyalties, rivalries, convictions, best wishes.
Without a furnace, Z. cannot be.
With a furnace, Z. cannot be Z.
S. tolerates a celebration whose diligence is the true sign of its lack of conviction. In fact, no-one truly prefers that he was born, certainly not S. himself. Some are afraid of the potential world without S., just as they are afraid of the world with him. Or rather, as they would be afraid; for there has never been an S., as S. knows very well.
For S., the loathsome day honors his crucifixion, his impalement on the pretense of being. Every gesture made towards him means, exactly: Slave! you must remain where you are.
Excerpted from Errata by Jacob Smullyan. Copyright © 2016 Jacob Smullyan. Excerpted by permission of Sagging Meniscus Press.
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