It has been argued that, of all human deeds, only the act of conception is selfless, since, for the briefest of instants that consummate it, neither the man nor the woman ever thinks of himself or herself, but always of the other. And it can further be said that this is precisely where our lifelong thirst for otherness comes from—our apparently perverse, though very real and often crushing, desire to have, or to be, something other than that which we own or are—literally, from the moment of conception.
Any metaphysics of roulette must take account of such strengths and frailties of the human psyche, and, at his leisure, when his mind is not magnetized by the hypnotic green of the baize, the poet player—my hero—is fond of worrybeading them through his fingers. “Man is limitless,” wrote the 20th-century feoffee of Dostoyevsky’s subterranean benefice of the spirit, Vasily Rozanov, “and limitlessness is man’s whole essence. Hence metaphysics.” Rozanov went on:
“Everything’s clear as day.” Then man says:
“I want something that is
To the contrary, everything is
rather obscure. Then he says:
“Light, give me light.”
Man ever longs for the other.
This is the birth of metaphysics.
“I want to see beyond the edge.”
“I want to get to the end.” “I shall die, but I want to know
what happens after death. I cannot
know it? In that case, I’m going to
dream it, imagine it, divine it, de-
scribe it in a poem.”
“Why are you playing, why are you wasting money, why are you killing time? Why are you ruining yourself and others?” These questions, so often put to the poet player by men of somewhat more practical outlook, are, in his own system of values, as subversive as “Why are you so curious about what’s going to happen to you after death? What does it matter?” or “Why do you care so much that these two lines should have the exact same number of syllables? Why not just say what you mean, and be done with it?” or, in a lighter vein, “Why sigh and swoon about that bit of hot crumpet? Just show her you’ve got a black American Express card, and off you go.”
“Well, ultimately, it’s because I’m naturally curious, even unto death,” answers the poet player. “More than anything, I have the wish to transcend. I desire the other thing, and I’m prepared to bring suffering upon myself and misfortune to those around me for the sake of it. Not only do I want these lines of mine to scan, I want them to rhyme, and, rarely found the pursuit of knowledge to be so painful.
My first step in the process was to obtain a copy of the 20-page application, complete with criminal-background survey and the requirement of a physical if I had not had one in the last 90 days. I thought I was in fine health, but, since I had not had a physical since the tenth grade and had never, in my recollection, had a tuberculosis test, I had to comply. I could have made an appointment with my family doctor, but I opted for the immediate-care clinic, which, presumably would be faster. Luckily, I?had a book during my three-hour wait, which the receptionist had assured me would not exceed 45 minutes. Perhaps sensing that I was about to leave and throw out the whole plan, the nurse called me to the back and locked me in an office where I waited for about half an hour, without seeing another person. The doctor finally came in and had me breathe deeply and touch my toes and declared me to be in perfect health, if a little dazed from the waiting-room experience.
Armed with my proof of good health, my application, and a $5.00 copy of my college transcripts, I drove again to the Regional Office of Education where I paid $50.00 (bringing my total with the physical close to $100.00) and walked out with my temporary substitute-teaching certificate, with a promise that the permanent copy would be in the mail. I took my collection of paperwork to the staffing service that District 205 used and asked to have my name added to the list of substitute teachers. Then I waited.
About three weeks later, I had nearly forgotten about the whole thing, when the phone rang one morning around 7:30. Awake, but still in bed, I got up to answer it and heard myself say “sure” when asked if I could be at Kennedy Middle School at 9:45 to teach social studies (formerly known as “history”). I arrived at the main office and, after being mistaken for a student by a gentleman in a sweatshirt at the front desk, was sent back to speak to the lady who coordinated these things. She was about the same age as I and seemed very nice as she handed me the classroom key, explained the schedule, and pointed me in the direction of my classroom. As I was walking out of the office, a policeman entered, leading a little boy. I must have been staring, as I had never seen such a thing in a school before, and the man in the sweatshirt asked me, “Are you ready for this?” I said “Yes,” but perhaps I wasn’t being entirely honest.
I found my classroom easily and walked in to find a woman of about 30 who was quite pregnant, wearing two flashing jack-o’-lanterns bobbing from a headband. She introduced herself as Mrs. Price, and I, as Mrs. Weber, and she explained that she was the long-term substitute for the normal teacher who was out with an injury. Mrs. Price was to be with me for three of the five classes I was to teach, which made me wonder how necessary it was for me to be there. I quickly banished those thoughts, however, when I considered my forthcoming paycheck. Mrs. Price was arranging worksheets and copies of a scholastic magazine for middle-school children. She explained the assignment, which consisted of reading a few articles and then filling out a worksheet—seemingly, a simple task.
Mrs. Price explained that the worksheets were difficult for the students, although they looked like assignments I might have had in third grade, and that I would have to “hold their hands” through the duration of the assignment. As an alternative, I could continue playing a film, The Mummy Returns, that they had been watching for the previous few class periods. I asked Mrs. Price which assignment needed to be completed first, and she replied, “You might as well watch the movie . . . you don’t actually want to teach, do you?”
While teaching was presumably what I had come there to do, this comment, and the one about “just keeping them from killing each other,” indicated that I was really just a college-educated babysitter. The first class, consisting of about 27 students, came in around 9:45, and Mrs. Price had to fill in for the absent music teacher during that hour, so I was on my own. Before she left, she divulged her plan to show the kids The Nightmare Before Christmas, “because it’s a musical.”
Having my own schoolwork to do, I gladly inserted the video, turned out the lights, and sat down to read Keats. At a few points during the movie, loud noises startled me, and I looked up to see monsters chasing people, pushing them into pits of hot lava, and beating them with chains—very educational. The movie ended before the class period, and so I benevolently told the children they could talk quietly in their seats (as they had been doing throughout the entire movie—minus the quietly part). At least during the movie, they had stayed in their seats. Now, the little monsters were running around the room, hitting one another with the dog-tag chains from the student I.D. cards that they wore around their necks. It seems they had learned something from the movie after all.
Mrs. Price came back from music class elated that the students had sung along throughout her movie. We showed The Mummy Returns to the second class as well. Mrs. Price promised them that, if they were good, she would give them treats, in honor of Halloween. By my estimation, the seventh graders were not being very good, but Mrs. Price went around with the candy bucket anyway.
The third class on which I sat in while Mrs. Price “taught” had one bright girl, who immediately got herself a pass to the nurse’s office, a trick I often used in high-school algebra. I was sorry to see her go, and, as I sat in the dark, with the strains of The Nightmare Before Christmas echoing in the background and a migraine beginning to rear its ugly head, I started to feel sick and that I could not stay there another moment. I began to think of excuses. I could tell Mrs. Price, in front of the children, just how I felt and walk out (there was an outside door in the classroom). I could say that I was sick and excuse myself to the nurse’s office. I began to feel as trapped as the students must, but angered because I had already done my penance in junior high school. I decided to wait until the class let out, followed by an hour break for me, and then leave without telling Mrs. Price.
I have never experienced a longer 30 minutes. After the class was over, Mrs. Price told me that I had the classroom all to myself and warned me about the afternoon’s activities, then left me in peace. I gathered up my map, keys, and books, donned my coat, and walked quickly to the main office, where I told the nice young lady from earlier that morning furthermore, until they do, I won’t think my life is worth a plugged nickel. Because, to you, the things you own and think and say are good and plain and sensible, but, to me, they have the abject meaning of ugly prose and the zinc-tub sound of even uglier doggerel. To me, they are against nature, if only because, at the moment of my conception, my parents thought of each other and not of themselves. And I, too, dream of the other in this rational world of your construction.”
Chesterton famously asserted that he who does not believe in God will believe anything, and, to this day, our experience bears out the truth of that assertion; have we not met enough atheists who passionately believe in diets, reincarnation, equal rights, colonic irrigation, university degrees, and cryonic immortality? The problem is that, in his usual smooth-talking way, Chesterton was answering the simpler of two posed questions; for it is far more difficult to explain what it is that he who does believe in God also believes or may believe.
For the poet player, there is no third way, because either you bet or you stay put. Thus, even if the vast question—what other beliefs he who believes in God may also embrace—is left forever darkling, it is nonetheless pellucidly clear to him that the worship of matter can never be on the list of possible answers, and that, mercurial as the very Devil, materialism, in all its larval incarnations (under the deceptive names of civilization, progress, evolution, democracy, reason, science, not to mention “modern,” “responsible” or “relevant” Christianity), is, indeed, of the Devil. Therefore, yearning for the other is a good thing. Killing money is a good thing. Getting the lines of verse to rhyme is a good thing. Thinking about life after death is a good thing. Observing the play of chance is a good thing. Despising the world is a good thing.
Here he is on a midsummer’s day, in the long queue to board from Gate 22 at Heathrow Airport, watching sullenly as his fellow passengers swarm and sweat all around him. There goes the Oriental woman with carmine-red fingernails and an enormous boil on her left cheek, accompanied by a Mexican-American dwarf in a pair of black polyester pajamas. There goes the young English girl, from somewhere up north apparently, with a pasty-white face and skin like rancid butter. There goes a blue-faced man shaped like a beanstalk. There goes another, in denim shorts and a shirt that says SONY. A third waddles by, pushing on his legs with all his might, oddly reminiscent in his triumphalism of a combine harvester from old Soviet newsreels. The poet player takes it all in, remarking to himself that what lies before him is the product of genetic lucklessness.
Why should it be otherwise? he muses. Why is carbon so common in the universe? Or iron, or nitrogen? Why are gold, radium, and ozone less common? Is it right? Is it fair? Is it fair that Bianca Sforza should possess both a beautiful face and a pearl necklace, while others make do with carbuncles on their faces and Nike trainers on their feet? Is it just that Dostoyevsky should have both immortality and the woman he loves, while writers published by Random House have only the collective certainty of a favorable review in the New York Times? Is it reasonable that Shakespeare, Dante, and Gogol should all have distinctive and memorable noses in portraits, but the matinee idol Brad Pitt does not? No, chance answers for everything, and believing in this is no trammel whatever to believing in God.
Genus and genius spring from the same etymological source. While that which falls outside the gens, or family, is, by definition, degenerate, the lucky birth of one man or woman of genius per one billion genetic permutations within the human clan is the miracle that justifies the whole gamble. And, by the way, no less than Shakespeare, physical beauty is a valid payout for this streak of genetic luck, if only because it draws attention to itself so dramatically; as the genius, even when he tries his hardest to lie low, invariably does; as the opera diva, arriving at the high note of her career, compels the audience to their feet; and as the gambler, when he suddenly raises the stakes a hundredfold, thrills and terrifies the house.
Hence the risk inherent in the notion of genius, in its chance conception as well as in its hazardous expression, a view fully supported by the parable of the talents in the Scripture. To bury one’s talent, to stay put, to desist from playing roulette—genetic, or creative, or of the casino kind—is the mark of the wicked and slothful servant, of one who, never seeking the other, prefers what is to what might be and chooses platitude over paradox. Is he not the very philistine who chides the player for being a poet? Is he not the Pharisee who tells off the poet for wasting his own and other people’s money on dangerous dreams? Is he not the American taxpayer, obedient in everything, who, without a murmur of dissent, will end up sending his brothers to the death camps? Is he not the good Christian, the good Jew, and possibly even the good Muslim, of our rational modern world?
So thinks the poet player, as he boards the plane, mindful all the while that the gate number, a treacherous neighbor of 9 on the wheel, has never been lucky for him.