Monday, October 29, 2012

"And the Dead Shall Rise?": Part II: A Priest Walks into a Bar

28 October 1899

To the Ecclesiast and the Magus,

You will be glad to know that I have discovered I am not mad.  But the other side of this claim is that the ghastly vision of Mount Hope Hill was no hallucination or fiction.  Shortly after I sent my last correspondence, which in all likelihood has yet to reach your eyes, I found myself inundated by a throng of souls - these ones, very much alive, and quite frightened, from within my flock and without - whose hearts are full of dread and of questions.  For they too, it seems, have seen, not just my solider, but others as well. 

God be praised, none of the people had had as close a brush with the creatures as had I.  Most had glimpsed them, almost by accident, and at quite a distance.  Or, had created said distance as quickly as could be afforded.  However, they almost unanimously agreed upon a most disturbing crimson thread to this strange affair: all had witnessed the presence of the dead outside of the very church, my church, in which we sat during the daylight hours.  And, as if this were not enough to freeze the blood, those who were able to discern visages - on those that had any visage to speak of - recognized them as being, like my solider, past members of the congregation.

What is this, that my person and my parish should be the nexus of this series of unholy resurrections?  I must confess, after the first encounter, the thrill of adventure readily distilled theories and ideas from my imagination.  But on this day, and at this writing, I am simply overwhelmed.  And, in spite of the exhortations of angels, more than just a bit afraid.  

Up the street from our church is Dicky’s Public House, where, after an exhausting day of having my ignorance largely on public display, I went avail myself of a lager brewed along the Genesee River to clear my head and still my heart.  The patrons there are accustomed to my presence, and after a century of Methodism, seem grateful for the implication of the Lord’s love of beer, and by extension, themselves, as evidenced by His providential creation of Lutherans.   

And there, too, the spectre of the past persisted in the rumors and whispers of immigrant Irishmen who seemed as shocked as any rationalist to discover "living" proof of their deepest superstitions.  Not wishing to continue on the subject, but wishing less to shirk my priestly office, I listened intently as frightened papists forgot their Catholicism and offered me their confessions of what they had seen.

Apparently, those of the Celtic regions of Britain have long believed, from the misty past before the Empires of the Romans and the Christians transmogrified their faith into instruments of propaganda, that at the very time we remember the feasts of All Souls and All Saints, the barrier between the realm of the living and of the dead is stretched particularly thin.  That is to say, this season is a kind of vortex, almost a gateway, in which mingle the realm of spirit and the realm of matter.  

You will recognize, perhaps, the origins of the vogueish celebration of Halloween, which has recently taken our towns and villages by storm, at least, here in New England.  It was to the stirrings of the ancient creatures of the Old World, in times when the eyes of mens' hearts beheld more and doubted less, a time before even Faerie and mythology, that these men appealed.  Not unaided, I might add, by the spirits of this age which they imbibed liberally in their terror and nostalgia.  The past is prelude, perhaps - or perhaps, has never really past at all.  

Lost in brew-induced reveries of the shadowy times of druid and warrior and pagans baking soul cakes donning costumes of animal skins with which to maintain commerce with things unfit for modern "enlightened" sensibilities, we were startled suddenly when the door of the tavern swung violently open.  Every man there leaped up in anticipation of the incarnation of their nightmares, but what they beheld was perhaps far more imposing.  

I knew immediately from my travels, and from the goggles that held back her locks, that she was an airship captain.  After a penetrating glance around the room so confident that it deigned not even to challenge so sordid a lot as offended her dignity, she strode to the bar took the stool to my right.  Noticing my clerical garb, she introduced herself as Captain Cherie Priest, relishing the irony with self-satisfied sarcasm.  But she was not haughty.  I know the type gentlemen; she was above us, not only because she sailed the skies, but because she was also above that which held us captive.  She was free from fear.  

Captain Priest informed me she was newly landed on what she called a trading run (though I knew beyond a doubt hers were darker purposes; a smuggler, most likely) from the port of Seattle, in Washington, far beyond even my beloved mountains in the West.  I brought her into our talk of things undead, and at the mention, she became more gravely serious than I thought possible for someone so strong.  Evidently, this was no marvel to her.    

She was evidently a kind of expert on the creatures, having come run across them in her own dealings, and also claiming the distinction of having written several dispatches and reports for assorted newspapers across the country (some, she told me later, had even been made into three-penny novels, though at present, she was short on copies to lend me).  

Apparently, for decades there had been talk of such apparitions - “walkers” she called them - torn from the ranks of both the living and the dead.  Some believed they began with benighted ex-soldiers of the great wars of this past century who, driven by despair, began to imbibe a certain opium-like substance known in the back alleys as “Blight.”  Some speculated that prolonged abuse of the drug led to a kind of suspended animation of life, of the sort Dante describes of certain souls in Hell whose bodies continue to walk in daylight, while their souls already languish in the darkness. 

But, I countered, what of the obviously dead former parishioner in the cemetery?  Surely this drug’s effects could not linger for nigh half a century?  And could it be merely coincidence that the locus of this paranormal activity, this refusal of the past to remain past, should haunt my parish, my people, in particular?    

She told me she was not sure, that she held to the materialist explanation, that she had no time for other peoples' gods, other peoples' superstitions, other peoples' histories.  But, she went on, regardless of their origins, you must heed their present danger.  She said she would not be surprised if some of the walkers  we witnessed were not so long dead.  You see, she informed us, if one were to bite, or even scratch one of the fully alive, they would not remain long among the living.  To be touched too deeply by the walker is to become a walker oneself.  

We remained there long after the Irishmen returned to their homes or left for their evening shifts along the docks of the Erie Canal.  I cannot relate all of the things she shared with me, though I subsequently procured one of her novellas, Bonecrusher by name, and if you are able to purchase one yourself, it does much to deepen her theories on the origins of the creatures - not to mention, would, I imagine, provide a great deal of delight were one not seemingly caught in the midst of the reality of its antagonists.  

I longed to join Captain Priest and her crew, wherever they were flying off to, to ascend above the yellow fog of this haunted city and reclaim lost freedom.  But such is not the vocation which heralds me at present.  I will keep you informed as I am able, and if you chance to receive this soon and have discovered anything that may help, do please wire it to me - I will pay you back when we meet again.

And above all, pray for us brothers.  And for my people.  And, dare I ask, for those who the walkers were once, and may still be, and those who very well might join them, and for God knows what happens to their souls, and to all of ours as well.  

Grace and peace, and may God have mercy upon us,

The Alpinist 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"And the Dead Shall Rise?": Part I - Monstrosity on Mount Hope Hill

                                           24 October 1899
To the Ecclesiast and Magus,

Please forgive the lack of the customary formalities, my friends.  But I write to you with utmost haste, longing for the day when our inventors discover the means by which my words might somehow appear to you in the same instance as I write them.  

I have not been long at my post here in Rochester, and already, I have the most fantastical tale of the supernatural to report.  The rub is, of course, that I am not quite sure, that these are the variety of tellings as would please pious ears.  But let me attempt to paint a backdrop for the phantasmagoria to follow.

Bordering upon the ward of this burgeoning city where the bishop has seen fit to establish an advance missional outpost out of the Lutheran Church of Peace, there is a cemetery.  It rests upon Mount Hope Hill, bearing the same name, and in the seventy some years of its existence, has come to boast of architectural beauties in the Gothic, Florentine, and even the Egyptian styles.  Our recently departed brother Frederick Douglass, one of my spiritual ancestors here in Rochester, lies awaiting the sound of the trumpet.  An exquisite place it is, and often the choice of fellow citizens of the Flour City for strolls following Sunday morning services.  

It was just this past Sunday that I found myself on such a stroll with a charming young lady from the outlying village of Penfield.  Escaping the clamor of parishioners intent on my romancing their memories of the parish’s glory days of yore rather than said young lady, we ascended to a vantage point known as The Fandango in the hopes of observing what locals call “the Rochester Mirage” - that is, a rare glimpse of the northern shore of Lake Ontario, over 60 miles away, with supposedly staggering clarity.  Hardly an effort for an Alpinist, naturally, but a welcome climb all the same.  And, of course, as is wont with this gloomy place, the sun was shackled in the grey irons of rain clouds.  Dejected, we turned back.  And beheld what I hoped, surely, must be yet another mirage.  But it was not.

 What I beheld, dear brothers, was what appeared to be none other than a Union soldier, in the remains of full military dress!   Or, at least, the ghastly visage of one who was once a soldier.  For this - shall I call it a man? - this creature could not have been more than twenty years of age, at least, when he was alive several decades back.  I must confess, with All Hallows Eve and the Feast of All Saints just days away, my first instinct was to imagine that one of the young men of our newly formed chapter of the Lutheran Communist Youth Groups had decided to play a prank in order to spoil my stroll with the aforementioned lady.  If only this were the case.

As if in some perverse aping of the very promise we are to celebrate on the first of November, this was a resuscitated body.  But let me be clear, it was only a body, for there was no evidence or glow of soul within the hollowed rotten eyes that greedily locked upon mine.  I grabbed my lady’s hand and as quickly as possible, I turned and fled, fearing her safety.  The poor devil was not much of a sprinter, and soon the infernal strains of its gasping and wheezing trailed off like a nightmare dissolving in the dawn.

I dared not speak of this strange encounter with any of my fellow clergymen, and as she borded the air-cab home, urged my traumatized lady to remain silent on the matter until I could consult with you both.  I have not seen that soldier again.  But believe me when I tell you, friends: this was no coincidence.  For not wishing to be known as a coward, I returned to Mount Hope to investigate the grave stones of veterans, and, I swear by the cross, I found one empty tomb among their ranks.  And would you not believe it, the very one belonged to the grandfather of one of the youth in my parish - of this I am certain, for I asked this young man to tell me again his old family stories, and verified the name.

Now, it is well known that communities facing change have a tendency to cling to an idealized past.  And churches are certainly no exception to the rule.  But the past clinging to us, the past refusing to remain the past, clawing itself out of the very grave when we thought it rested until the Day of Judgement - as if to turn its undead eye of condemnation upon the efforts of our present, casting its long shadow across the the bright if uncertain horizons of the future?  

Undoubtedly, naturalistic and materialist solutions will be proposed.  Perhaps the Ecclesiast will imagine this to be one of his steam-induced visions, though in all fairness, a good pipe and cask of ale suit me better, and neither is known to bend one towards hallucination.  Nor does it account for corroboration of the youth.  All Souls, All Saints, and of course, that mischievous festival of All Hallows Eve, loom on the horizon.  In but a few months, this wondrous, chaotic century will wind down like a doomsday clock, unleashing God knows what marvels and what horrors as a new era dawns.

And so, brothers, I turn to you for advice.  What do you make of this phenomenon?  Could it be the work of the Evil One, long consigned to the strategic obscurity of mythology and skepticism, stirring up the Powers that Be to combat the work of the Gospel, as our dear Dr. Luther warned would happen on the eve of his own revolution, which we also celebrate in the coming week?  What is the connection between the victim of warfare, the buried, persistent history of my parish, and the present age?  What should I do? 

This much is certain: the rising of the dead is for me no longer a question of speculation, theory or theology; it is a mystery bordering on monstrosity.  Like a second Horatio, this horror confronts me like a maddened Hamlet, warning me that "there are more things in heaven and earth...then are dreamt of in your philosophy."  

I am used to ascending the heights - I knew my return home would mean a descent.  But a descent into the valley of the shadow of death?  The irony, of course, is that the hill of my recent climb bears the name of Hope.  The very thing my hero Dante was commanded to abandon by the gates of Hell.       

Thank you good sirs.  Pray for us in a manner you see fit. And may God have mercy on us all,

The Alpinist

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Dear Magus (and if he sends it on, Alpinist),

I have for the past few weeks been unimaginably ill. I wish I could exchange my lungs for new ones. A few nights I have filled my reading room with steam, and falling asleep, experienced a liminal space of incredible richness. I had no idea, honestly, that darkness, combined with steam, combined with the tired haze of feverish mind, could simulate the instability of passage over ley lines.

One night in particular, having just finished reading a particularly fine essay in temporal philosophy, I fell asleep. Or thought I did. The next moment, I was in a reading at a library.

But a library that had no books. Well, each attendee had one book, their own. I was alone in my poverty, no book in hand. I asked to borrow a book from the gentlemen next to me, only to be re-buffed, strongly.

"That simply is not done! Who are you, sir? Where are you from?"

I quickly begged off, pointing out my ill health, but need for intellectual stimulation in spite of my fever. My neighbor seemed mollified, but gave me a few more looks. Then the reading began.

Imagine, that you could only experience a book by going to a reading, or by reading the text off a screen that displayed it only briefly before disappearing. This is what is what I experienced that night. Each reader came forward and read their work to us. Then they sat down, their book firmly in hand. If I wished to retain what they had read, it was completely dependent on my memory. I did not even have a notebook.

I understand that this reading was also simultaneously broadcast via some strange device to several libraries around the city. Readers in these libraries drew close to the screens, attempting to discern the expression of each reader and vocal inflection as they read.

It was then that I awoke (or traveled) back to my steamy library. I still am not quite sure. What I know for certain is that my entire theological sense of the presence of Christ as the living Word was shaken, to the core. Christ is not in this or that or any book, not even the individual books we keep in our little churches. He is ever and always only spoken. Let us be attentive. This was my theological awakening.

The other was more practical. I suspect that if that were the way we received our literature, then writers (and readers) would work harder to hold our attention. They would avoid getting too complicated, and they would strive mightily to create a memorable experience. Or perhaps they would not need to strive at all, because all of us would work hard to remain attentive, knowing that was the only moment in which we might hear it.


The Ecclesiast

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Enter Walter Benjamin: The Strange Case of the Visage-Libre. Part Two

Read Part One of the Strange Case of the Visage-Livre.

[From the personal notebook of Sub-Inspector M. Horkheimer, assigned to Inspector T. A. Weisengrund]

Because the Inspector and I needed to go to Paris to investigate the Visage-Libre, Weisengrund decided to visit his older friend Benjamin Walter.  I did not know him though I knew of his reputation.  A man tuned to all that is new:  radio, steam-based communication, and the cinema.  His pioneering writing on pre-steam theology was of decisive importance; even though our present age has moved beyond that nonsense, despite the mumbling of the Alpinist, the Ecclesiast, and the Lutheran Communist Youth Groups.   That latter group’s existence reminds us of the Christian and antiquarian commitments of Karl Marx.  The Inspector, Benjamin, and I, along with some of the residents of the Hungaro-Austrian Empire like Georg Luk√°cs, have  long been devoted to overcoming  the backward theology of the Lutheran Communist Youth Groups to extract the true picture of the world in steam and matter.  In this we are heartened by the work on steam undertaken by the Magus.
Inspector T. A. Weisengrund
Meeting Walter Benjamin was an odd affair.  He lived in a vast library, filled with books, postcards, trash, and old knick-knacks.  A wizened man who still was only a few years older than the Inspector, it was always clear to me that such a meeting would be very hard for the Inspector to take. 
“The Visage-Livre is dangerous.  It asks a person to act, write, and communicate with others through their portrait, drawn by the Visage-Livre itself.  This takes away any breath of freedom that a person might have.  Those people in London died not because of having their portrait drawn, not for the amusement of the Visage-Livre, but for having invested all of themselves into this other place where they are not."

Inspector Weisengrund was mad -- he spouted this out.  He and Walter Benjamin had been arguing all day.  I still did not understand why we were in this strange library, and I still do not. 

Benjamin had been stating that something else, other than the Visage-Livre was to blame for the deaths we investigated.  He pointed to the Ecclesiast’s theory of a self-consuming book.  That the Visage-Livre does not create a space for escape since it is constantly destroying itself, pulling the ladder up from the ground and closing the doors to all who come.  Benjamin saw this new device as a welcome way to stir people to action, to connect them throughout the Empire to find new ways of living together.  He took a view that the Inspector could only deny.

“You are insufficiently dialectial and cannot detect the true danger of this technology.  Just as it seems to increase democracy, it actually undermines it.  It makes the participant a mere recipient and consumer, it makes him or her out to merely rest and accept.  This Visage-Livre trains its participants to accept authority.  It readies them for a strong leader.  This is not the beginning of freedom.  It is the beginning of barbarism."
We left this library and its occupant.  Benjamin still pledged friendship to the both of us.  But we still had to discover those who began this strange book of face.  It seemed that we needed to investigate the German company whose Paris branch had started it.  We needed to visit the offices of the Kulturindustrie.

[Continue to Part Three]

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Self-consuming artifacts

All books rot. They rot more slowly than many other artifacts, especially if preserved properly in rare book rooms of prestigious libraries. But they still rot. 

Some books rot as an accident of the property of their being a book. Other books rot by design. The visage-livre is of this second variety, consuming that which it depicts precisely in order to transcend it.

A close friend of the inspector (Ludig Weisenstein) makes this point most compellingly. As the concluding sentence of his philosophical tractate on the logic of critical detection, he writes: 

"Whether books such as the visage-livre succeed at transcendence is an altogether other matter. But the point, the goal, is worthy and proper. My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)        He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright."

I have attempted, in this painting, to give some sense of this logic as it pertains to the visage-livre. If a self-consuming artifact is to perform its proper function (and I have in mind here such a book, such a face, precisely in this season of hallowing saints), it signifies most successfully when it fails, when it points away from itself to something its forms cannot capture. If you see death and only death in what I have drawn, then just there precisely you will see life in it, and nothing else. 

All books rot. They are the only kinds of books we read.