“I used to fight the idea that there are gods. I figured they were fallacious fantasies, less than real. I now see that my opinion was only half correct. They are fantasies, as what isn’t, but they are not false. Gods are as real as anything. They’re real because some people believe them to be real. People pray to them, contemplate them, visualize them, listen to them, talk with them, idolize them, take inspiration and guidance from them. In those regards, they exist.
“There’s more to that, though. Gods are real to us, and potent, only because we create them for our purposes. We employ our language, art, music, and so on to make them in our own images, to suit our understanding and to fulfill our needs. We dream them up and think them up, envision them and depict them, tell stories about them and believe stories about them. We think that we communicate with them, and we imagine that they respond. We do all of that in our own ways, human ways, which are the only ways available to us. As far as we can know, our gods are human and only human. They exist only to us and for us. Aside from that, as far as we can tell, they don’t exist.
“They’re valid for whoever they’re valid for, for whatever purposes we apply them to. They help some of us deal with anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and other difficulties. They help some of us acquire self-respect and confidence. And so on, on and on, generation after generation. They’re like black magic, voodoo, luck, karma, feng shui, astrology, oracles, palm reading, tarot, the I Ching, four-leafed clovers, good luck charms, and other phenomena that comfort us, that we find helpful, and that we may think predict, influence, or determine our fortunes. If some people believe in them, so be it. Right you are if you think you are. I have no problem with that, even though I’m not a believer. My objections to what people believe, and how they believe, and why, and the fact that they believe at all, ended long ago.”
* * *
As his postadolescent years passed, Vassal remained a skeptic, but his outlook became more welcoming and good-humored—humor as “common sense dancing,” in William James’s words. He became no longer bitter, angry, or annoyed. He retained only echoes of his old animosities; they became little more than memory, less than inclination.
Soon, his skepticism was no longer an ideologue’s. He no longer railed, resented, or accused. He remained as interested as ever in everything, but his interest became thoughtfully dispassionate. His mind poised near neutrality, with all options open.
Not that he lacked conviction. When he wished to advocate something, when he amassed enough evidence and saw enough need, he did not hesitate to take a position. But he did so flexibly, ready to think along different lines.
He says, “Like many other young people in the late 60s and early 70s, I was antigovernment, antibusiness, antimilitary, and anti-authority. I mistrusted organizations, disliked their power and how they used it. I mistrusted people who worked for them or supported them, too. I blamed those people for things it turned out they weren’t doing, at least not deliberately and on the scale that self-styled rebels like me believed.
“I saw corruption and conspiracy where I now know there was nothing so simple. There’s a saying that ‘conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant.’ Back then that was me. I was a tall, skinny crusader, a cynical party of one, angry at everything. I was uncomfortable with the world. The world was a mess. I hated that. Because people who were older than I was, adults, had arrived on the planet before me, I felt they were somewhat responsible for that. I also believed they possessed the power and the duty to make it better. That was silly, but didn’t seem silly to me at the time. I was so-o-o serious about it.
“Those days are gone. I outgrew that. We live, learn, and change, sort of. Now I see things as I now think they are. That’s no better or worse than before. Any understanding of ours—whether it comes of our faith, reason, intuition, or any other ability—is as much sophistication of the ignorant as conspiracy theories and other paranoid fantasies are. What each of us understands is no more right, true, or correct than what anyone else understands. We’re all ignorant and proud of it, and we should be, we have to be. That’s us.
“I don’t fuss like I did about how things are and how they ought to be. I’m glad I don’t. It’s a relief. But, as I’ve said, I don’t regard that as a virtue. It’s just me; it’s where I am these days. I sometimes think I’m how I am now simply because I’m older and have less life ahead of me. I’ve seen how a fatal accident, stroke, heart attack, embolism, and so on can happen to any of us. I’ve seen how a disease or other infirmity can grow inside us, bringing a loss of abilities, followed by the rest of our decline and fall. Dying is mysterious, and the fact that we live and die is humbling. That’s more evident to me now than it was. Which doesn’t mean I’m wiser than I was, or wiser than anyone else. I’m not. I’m just older.”
the question of death
its lean and drift
a need not yet explicit
* * *
Vassal’s release of his invention will have consequences that people will consider important. Each of us will see them differently and respond to them differently. That is why he is enabling us to use his invention however we wish; letting us be who we are with it, however that turns out. As we use it, we will apply whatever free will we think is ours, and strike whatever balances we can. We will use it passively, too, and contemplatively, as a lens through which to assess ourselves, our fellows, our world.
As I have begun to describe, Vassal believes that however we use it, we will face our nature squarely, and find nothing new. A few days ago, on the verge of tonight’s release, he said to me, “For all the difference it might make, and all the difference it will make, I could just as well have left it where it was inside me and done nothing with it. But I decided to release it. The time is right, I figured, or might as well be.”
* * *
Vassal has not talked to me much lately about his early years. We covered them decades ago. One afternoon a few weeks back, however, during the run-up to tonight, he took a break from our preparations and spent a half hour shooting baskets at the hoop over the barn door. When he returned to the house, he told me more about those years.
“Even at my age I love going down there and taking a few shots. There’s no higher experience in any sporting career than whatever shot you’re taking at the moment. I’d be no better off now if some team that I could’ve joined had won a room full of trophies, or if I’d gone on to the pros, which I doubt I could’ve, and been some kind of star and won championships. I’d have been no better off back then, either, exciting though that might have been. What I was doing was fine by me. Not that I still think that teaming up and trying to win corrupts the sport. That’s as good a way to play as any. It keeps the ball bouncing.
“I no longer think joining other kinds of organizations is wrong, either, even aggressive and violent ones. Armies, police forces, terrorist groups, hate groups, mobs—there’s a place for them all, obviously. As you know, I feel that way about a lot of things I used to think people should get rid of. I’m not as superior now as I thought I was. As happens to all of us, life and I have cut each other down to size. None of us is all that important. The world can get by just as well without me, same as it can without anyone, even the so-called greatest among us. Precious though each of us is, we’re that expendable.
“That’s no excuse to be lazy, irresponsible, or immoral, of course, and no reason not to have opinions and act upon them. We may be expendable, but we’re here for now, so we’ve got to do our best, whatever ‘best’ is to us. The unimportance I’m talking about is real, though, and I like it. To the extent we feel too full of ourselves, it can be a relief, and funny, to see how unimportant we are.”
These days, as ever, he does what he does with energy and devotion, but he almost never feels hassled or inclined to pressure people. As he says, he does not believe that he is better than anyone else, or that he is any better person than he used to be. He is just who he is. Like anyone, he possesses capabilities and he does things with them. He feels connected with all people and things, and feels a sense of obligation to them. He gives as good as he gets, and tries to do what is decent. That takes him in certain directions, including what he is doing these days with his invention.
* * *
In sporting terms, Vassal is delivering everyone a new kind of ball. Most of us will find playing with it irresistible. We will create uses for it—games of one kind or another. We will establish rules to play by, which, like all rules, we will bend. Katherine Hepburn said that if you obey all the rules you miss all the fun. We all know that, and do what we can to have our fun.
As we bend and break the rules, they evolve and our games develop. Who knows what will come of our playing with Vassal’s invention. No improvement, he and I expect. But not some plague that sickens us, either, and not some universal, negative condition: some bad news, black-hole, bottomless pit of pain and despond. Nothing is that uniformly bad, not even the Hell of believers. Usually, that is. As a saying goes, nothing is always ever anything, usually. Almost certainly—almost—we will find ways to be happy enough with his invention.
* * *
Paul Valéry wrote, “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.” Or, as John Cage put it, “Every something is an echo of nothing.” In Vassal’s view, the nothingness not only shows through, and not only echoes, but what it shows through and how and where it echoes are also nothing. The nothing that everything is made of remains the nothing it was to begin with. It comprises everything that can exist for us, everything that we can perceive or imagine. Nothing is all that we can know; it includes every subject and object, every moment and place. It comprises the one and only thing; the one and only idea; the one and only point of any kind, including every starting point, endpoint, and point in between, including this one and this one and—.
There is no limit to it. It is everywhere and nowhere, at once fixed and unfixable, nothing certain. Only nothing can take its measure, represent it, describe and define it.
How much can
nothing be, Valéry,
singing in its Cage?
* * *
“Did you hear that rabbit die last night, outside? The poor thing got the life torn out of it by some fox or coyote. It sounded terrified. You hear that sometimes around here. This time was loud, maybe fifty feet from the house, in the underbrush. It was two A.M. I thought you might be awake, writing.”
This was years ago, in the summertime, soon after I began spending nights at Vassal’s cottage. As he supposed, I had been awake, sitting in my bed with pen in hand, immersed in a page. My window was open. The sound came clear and loud, as he said. When I realized what was happening, I could no longer write. I sat bearing blind witness to the creature’s suffering. My heart raced.
I have heard that happen a number of times since then, always much the same. Sensitive soul that I am, I envision the event. Somewhere near the house, a fox or coyote pokes its snout into the rabbit’s burrow, which is warm and damp, fragrant with the rabbit’s fur and flesh. It bites into the cringing animal, drags it into the night air, and pins it to the ground.
The rabbit issues an electrifying tumble of sound: screaming, chattering, whimpering. Over and over, the sound surges and fades as the wretched animal does everything it can to escape. Its every muscle strains as it tries to tear itself from the jaws that hold it. It flails and flutters in the beast’s mouth. Its legs race in the air. Its eyes bulge. I hear its shock and terror, and I feel its will to live.
The killing lasts five minutes or more—an eternity. The beast holds on. The rabbit tires and loses strength. Its frenzy subsides. Its sounds become whispers, no more edge to them, no more passion.
The sounds cease. Silence. The beast has hooked its incisors into the rabbit’s soft belly and ripped through the skin, to get at the flesh beneath. The rabbit’s eyes close. I imagine a last feeble extension of one leg. The foot trembles as the beast snorts and digs in: dinnertime.
Each time I hear that, I, too, die a death. I lie awake afterward feeling barely alive.
These days, when people encounter Vassal when we are in town or on the beach, or out in the boat if they are close enough, they often say something friendly. They tell him something about themselves, or ask a polite question or two, or say something consoling about the long ago death of Victory. People feel that they know him, as I felt before I met him. Almost always, they are considerate about it. Relatively few cross a street, store, café, parking lot, or beach to intercept him, or cruise up to us in their boats. Few follow him, stare at him, take his picture, or ask for his autograph.
They recognize him, of course. Tall as he is, he is about as unobtrusive as a telephone pole. The three burly protectors the feds have assigned to follow behind us in public draw further attention. They are Navy noncoms in civilian clothes, great guys, well trained in lethal matters. We are glad to have them with us. But people know who they are and why they are there. That increases his visibility. Add to that his prior stature in the public eye, his lingering notoriety, the loss he suffered, and the fact that most people know he lives in the area. When people see him, they do not stare, but they do look.
To the extent people come up to him, it no longer bothers him. He interacts with them graciously and does not feel forbearing, patient, or otherwise virtuous about it. He no longer quarrels with his own nature. And recently, the approaching release of his invention has given him further reason for equanimity. He has been anticipating how people will respond to it. He knows how challenging it will be for some of them to deal with. He has been feeling—and expressing—preemptive sympathy.
* * *
His way of observing is mystic, suited to the self and world he observes. I have described how he experiences things’ subjectivity—what he calls their consciousness. Most of us consider most things to be external to us. We do not believe they are within us, part of us. Vassal perceives things that way, too. But to him they also exhibit complete commonality. To him, again, the objects of consciousness, material and not, comprise a singularity that is everywhere, common to everything, evident to everyone. He does not need to look for it or to conceive or imagine it. It is just there, and here, now and always.
Conscious as we are, we objectify what we perceive. We imagine that they are apart from us. We name them, know about them, talk about them, depict them to ourselves and others as if from a distance, however slight. In the same moment, unconscious as we are, we subjectify things. We have a sense of their inner nature. We feel that we share their reality, that they are part of us, that in some ways all things are us and we are they. We are simultaneously the observer and everything that we observe; we are both the delineating and the boundless. As Vassal would say, that is what we are and that is what we do.
Rumi’s remark that our enemies are our medicine bears on this. To Vassal, our enemies are not just our medicine; they are us. To him, of course, all people are us, including any we disagree with, dislike, hate, or otherwise perceive as our enemies. I have described how he sees nonhuman things that way, too. To him, they are both part of us and all of us. They are as alive to us as anything can be, as alive as we are to ourselves. He considers all otherness, all difference, to be our medicine acting upon us, and also to be us acting upon ourselves. To him, such is good health.
* * *
Vassal has been a major celebrity. He is about to become one again. Last time, he was uncomfortable with that status. He sometimes felt violated, consumed by the attention people paid to him. He would have agreed with John Updike’s description of celebrity as “a mask that eats into the face.”
He will not feel that way this time. To the extent celebrity eats into him, he will consider its hunger and metabolism to be his own as well as other people’s. He will consider worshippers of his celebrity, no matter how addled they are, to be part of him, and he will accept them as such. Nowadays, that is how he experiences self and other.
Recently, he said to me, “You recall how I regarded my fame when you and I started working together. I wasn’t used to it and I didn’t like it. I felt that it was outside me, attached to me, sucking at me like a leech. Then, as the years went by and my fame diminished, that feeling diminished. Now, to the extent any of that remains, I don’t feel victimized. I’m no longer bothered by people’s attention. I won’t be bothered by the next wave of attention, either. I’ll enjoy watching it work, seeing what it does for people. No matter how hungry it gets, no matter how people come at me with it, or what they do with it, I’ll see it as something that they and I share, a bond between us.”
* * *
I have discussed how celebrity of the kind Vassal used to have and will have again is a show that many of us like to watch. It entertains and inspires us, delivers us insights, understanding, and emotional engagement. It is big business, fodder for everything from tabloids, slick magazines, and paperback biographies to gossipy TV and radio programs, websites, and blogs. We, the public, thrive on it, pay well for it, and come back for more: more stories, fantasy, theatrics, hokum.
We regard the celebrated as standards by which to measure ourselves. We share their qualities and experiences, imagine that they could be ours and are ours. We render everything about them as big as life or bigger. Thereby, we acquire a vivid sense of our own possibilities. For many of us, celebrities play important roles in our personal theaters. And yet, at the same time, as Vassal says, we never get much sense of who they really are.
Recently, he said to me, “Our understandings are always incomplete, and they keep changing. The differences can be stark between what we think something is on one occasion and what we think on another, even a moment later. The same is true between how one person and another perceive anything. For example, there can be striking differences between how we see ourselves and how other people see us. Even people who know us best, even we ourselves, get us wrong, maybe as wrong as anyone else does.
“None of us is only who we think we are. Nor are we only who other people think we are. Our perspectives may feel complete to us, but they are partial. We misread and misrepresent anything and everything. We can’t help it. That continues no matter what we feel or do. And it won’t change when my invention arrives.”
Long live the gaps, then—the “infinite vacuities,” to apply Samuel Johnson’s phrase. Incomprehensible and uncontrollable though they are, they serve us well. To our lives of illimitable relationship, they bring necessary uncertainty and mystery. They confront and challenge us. They prompt our urges and they fuel our desires, and yield to us every pleasure and satisfaction—emotional, intellectual, physical, erotic, and spiritual.
Things, phenomena, attract us. From Vassal’s standpoint, we connect with them and not, and make sense of them and not. We use them to create more and more story, always including more gaps, more incoherence. That will continue as we all experiment with his invention. We will serve simultaneously as experimenters and as our own lab rats. As we do, we may wonder how he has dared to initiate something so bold. How could he presume? But the question will mistake him and mistake us all. We will all dare. We will all presume. He has released his invention without cause or intent. To his way of thinking, any cause or intent people ascribe to him will be theirs, and he its reflection.
* * *
When he ventures to town, he has a funny habit. When he gets out of the car, he tugs the brim of his cap so low, so near to his nose, that I wonder how he can see out from under it. He does not do that around the house, or outside where our guards can see him. Nor does he do it when we are out in the boat, exposed to the view of other people. That may be because those places feel like home to him. Also, in the boat, we watch for birds, seals, signs of fish, changes in the weather, and other things of interest to us. He likes to keep his view unobstructed.
These days, when he is in town among strangers, he no longer minds people recognizing him. But he steps quietly, as he does when he and I walk up the road, along the beach, or through the woods. He hopes people will not speak to him. He feels that he does not have much to say to them. Also, he knows that for the most part they perceive his public persona, not him. That persona is not one he cultivates.
Not that he dislikes when people come up to him. He feels at ease with them.
“I haven’t felt uncomfortable around people for years. I don’t feel trespassed upon or in danger, even though somebody out there once murdered the person I cared about most in the world.”
Having our guards with us helps him feel safe in public, but his peace of mind is real with or without them.
* * *
Regarding pulling his cap down, he now says, “It feels comfortable. Habit, I guess. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I started during grade school, one of those weird things kids do. Also, starting in third grade, maybe before, I was a self-conscious tall guy. That could be a reason, too. Except with my friends, I stayed out of people’s ways. I sat or stood in the backs of rooms and in corners, against walls, or beside posts—anywhere people wouldn’t notice me. I didn’t talk much. And like a lot of tall people, I walked around hunched down, as if I was trying to become shorter, to appear more normal than I thought I was.
“I wore nondescript clothes then, as I still do. That included a cap, which I pulled down in front as you’ve seen. I wore it like that even at home—in my room, since my parents wouldn’t let me do it in the rest of the house. I would’ve worn it like that in school, too. I tried, but my teachers made me take it off.
“I kept wearing it like that. In high school, my girlfriend said something to me about it. She thought our relationship was a counseling project, an opportunity for her to develop her emotional intelligence. She wanted to grow up to be a social worker or a shrink. I was her guinea pig. Around me she became highly perceptive and articulate, or so she thought. She scolded me, told me I pulled the brim of my cap down because I wanted to hide from the world and hide the world from me. She said it narrowed my view in every way. ‘You just want to stay in your shell,’ she said. ‘You should come out of it.’
“When the coach came to me that time and tried to get me to join the basketball team, and I turned him down, she went crazy. She thought I’d blown a big chance. She said I was ruining my life, same as the coach had said. Also, I’m sure she would rather have been dating a sports hero than a tall weirdo.
“She was right, up to a point. I could’ve joined the team and broadened my horizons. But that wasn’t who I was. I knew that at my age my behavior wasn’t unusual. Anyway, there was no sense in anyone trying to talk me out of it. They wouldn’t succeed—even someone like her, who I wanted to please, mostly so I could get into her pants, at least with my fingers.
“I didn’t change. When she made that remark about me wanting to stay in my shell, I told her that no one can talk a turtle into crawling out of its shell and speeding up. I actually said that. I told her that I had to develop at my own pace, slow as that might seem to her.
“I respected her good intentions, sort of, but I resented her picking on me. I thought she got that from watching too many soap operas on TV, and from reading too many personal advice columns in newspapers and magazines, from paying too much attention to people who act as if they can manage their lives and other people’s lives more than reality allows. If she were a teenager now, she’d probably watch the afternoon talk shows after school, to fuel up on all that narcissistic touchy-feeliness. Then, as now, that kind of thing was a popular form of entertainment.”
* * *
I should interject that Vassal and I do not watch much TV, but sometimes we encounter those shows. Years ago he used to disapprove of them. He called their hosts “. . . queens and kings of skin-deep compassion.” He admired their skill, but he also scorned them.
He said to me, “Their good-heartedness and sincerity are superficial. That makes better TV than real compassion and decency do. Audiences love it. They buy into it the same as they do into professional wrestling, big-time sports, slam-bang politics, popular religion, and other entertainment for the masses.”
He said that people watched those TV shows to undergo vicarious “salvation by chat.” As he put it, every day a parade of the unhappy came to the couches of the holy hosts in order to acquire doses of feel-good, pop-psych truthiness. The hosts subjected their gullible victims to talk therapy, for all to see. They raised their ministrations to the level of sacrament, sanctified by their messianic passion and washed by the sympathetic tears of their audiences.
“It can be heartwarming to watch,” he said, “balm for the battered spirit, which people need. For a minute or two it can even be moving and seem meaningful. But even at that it reminds me of what Oscar Wilde said about the melodramatic death of Little Nell in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: ‘You have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.’ The audiences are empathetic, but in a maudlin way. They think they’re witnessing authentic healing, but are actually getting sob stories fed to them. It’s show biz, selling them what they’re willing to buy.”
* * *
Back to what he told me about his girlfriend: “She hoped her criticism would do me good. She wanted what she thought would be a deeper relationship with me. I was equally frustrated with her, but as I say it was at a more animal level. The hell with the two of us interacting the way we’d been doing. I wanted to get my hard-ons involved. But we never got started with anything sexual.
“As a substitute from her standpoint, I suppose, she kept up her stream of abuse. Sometimes I thought I deserved it; I was horny, but I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of myself. I couldn’t take her bitching, though. It was a turn-off. I felt put upon, a teenaged ego under assault. I got tired of that, and she got tired of her part in it. After a while, our relationship petered out, as it were.
“In college, I relaxed enough to stop the business with my hat. I was six-foot-six by then, same as now. I still experienced some of my old self-consciousness, and didn’t want people to notice me. Also, sometimes, I felt like my mind was floating around me like a balloon, observing me from outside. That was strange. I thought maybe it was some hormonal and developmental change I was going through, or caused by stress. Maybe that’s why I became a science student who spent so much time alone in the library and the lab. In those places, my balloon and I could float around in peace.
“I became a geek, and I remained one through college and grad school. After that, I got the job in Boston with the defense firm, where I holed up in a lab, again working mostly on my own. On weekends and vacations, I came up here to Maine, mostly to go fishing. I hung out some with the Indians. That’s also when I met the Bigheads. There was no further foolishness with my hats.
“A few years into that, as you know, everything started to happen. I invented my invention. The government came to me to get it. I felt put upon again, and resumed pulling down my brim. I wanted out. I went to Europe, where I met Victory. That turned me around, as I’ve told you. I felt a lot better. Once again, I stopped the cap routine. My life became sane, and fun, despite the continuing commotion. It stayed that way for several years, throughout my time with her.”
* * *
A gemlike component of Vassal’s past notoriety, and perhaps of his notoriety to come, lurks beneath the brim of his cap. I am referring to his famous turquoise eyes. Like anyone’s, they are windows to a soul without boundary. They look both inward and outward, to horizons beyond horizons.
Years ago, when his invention first became known, images of them circulated to people everywhere. Because of their beautiful color, and in light of what he had invented, some people supposed he possessed visionary powers. Mass media exploited and amplified that impression, spreading the images via photographs and editorial cartoons. They became entrenched in people’s minds, emblematic of the invention.
Starting today, some of that will recur. As people’s obsession with him returns, images of his eyes will again appear. Journalists and others will hasten to archives and libraries to retrieve the old photos, drawings, and stories. By midday today, I expect, those will start showing up on television and internet news, and people will be sending them to each other.
They will spread to posters, flyers, and electronic billboards. They will gaze from front pages of newspapers and covers of magazines. People will scrawl them into sketchpads, doodle them into notebooks, and carve them onto tree trunks. Children will chalk them onto sidewalks and blackboards, and trace them with their fingers onto fogged windows and dusty surfaces. Graffiti artists will depict them on walls, bridges, subway cars, dumpsters, traffic signs, roadside outcroppings, and other public canvases. They will appear in people’s dreams.
People near and far will study them. Some people will think that they can discern in them his thoughts and purpose. Others will suppose that they can divine through them their fates and everyone else’s. Online and in newspapers and magazines, headlines will stand bold above them and shout: “LOOK OUT!”, “WHO IS WATCHING YOU?”, and “WHO ISN’T A SPY?” And soon, I expect: “SEEN ANYTHING INTERESTING?” and “WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO REPORT?”
The news that images of Vassal’s eyes will represent will be much more consequential than last time, and to many more people. His notoriety will scale new heights. For a while, I expect, he and I will not venture from our compound, not even onto the river. Doing so could be dangerous for us. To him, as I have reported, everything is alive, including dead Vassal Squeezeshots. Nonetheless, what we all call death is as real to him as to anyone. Like most of us, he is in no hurry to stop being a living human. Unlike many people, he does not fear death and is not motivated by it, but he does not have a death wish. What happened last time, to Victory, was a horror that he does not want to see repeated. For a while, at least, he will stay where he is safest.
Tonight, as he and I drift, we are miles away from anyone except our guards. I find it hard to believe that everything I have described is about to transpire, but it is. What he is delivering will change everyone more than mind can measure and more than passing of time can undo. And it will do so in a flash, flash after flash, as each of us realizes what he has given to us.
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