I found the strangest book in the library today. I was browsing in the stacks, just trying to avoid going back to my apartment. It’s a cold day, and I like being out in the world when it’s cold. You don’t have to see too many people, and those you do see are miserable and downcast. It pleases me to watch them move angrily through the frozen city. I like seeing the agonized bend of dog owners as they scoop down to pick up the already icy but still steaming load of hot excrement from the snowy pavement. And I like watching the commuters on the El platform swaying in the hostile lake breeze, cursing their inadequate coats, whatever got them out of their apartments, the harsh prairie wind, fate

But eventually even I have to go back inside. And so I go into libraries—whichever one happens to be closest to me when I get the urge. Today I had wandered in an enormous loop, getting nearly all the way back to my building without realizing it, before finally feeling tired and in need of a rest. I rarely go into my home library, preferring instead to get lost in the enormous sprawling city and then see which branch is nearby. Today it was my own.

In any case, I was browsing the philosophy stacks when I saw an unprofessionally bound manuscript. It wasn’t new, but neither was it particularly old. The paper was still basically white, the print wasn’t much faded, and the binding was still holding everything together, more or less. It piqued my interest, so I took it out, found a spot near the window, unbuttoned, and removed my coat (for they had overheated the place something awful) and made myself comfortable for what I guessed from the first page would be a long and pleasant afternoon read.

It began like this:

We found him in a Wendy’s parking lot, masturbating furiously. A few were so disgusted they turned away immediately and took a public bus back downtown. Two approached him with apparent interest, but he snarled and spit at them and they too disappeared. Only three of us persisted, telling him we would wait until he had concluded his business, at which he jumped up, let go his member and exclaimed: “for this have you been chosen.”

And he took us inside and taught us new uses for mayonnaise packets, praising us in turn, as we found the knack. And we filled our pockets with packets for the foundation of our School.

It was the story of a prophet-philosopher. An ancient type of sage transplanted absurdly into our modern soil (which absurdity was conveyed deftly, I thought, by opening the whole mess in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant). Yes, and he went on in this vein:

He had been walking the highways in a threadbare overcoat, sockless in a Midwestern January. Sockless and unwashed, mumbling to himself on the highways and byways. Some said he came from downstate Illinois; others said Indiana. A few claimed he had simply materialized one day, fully grown (having sprung, perhaps, from the head of a cattle on its way to industrial slaughter). But all agreed that his first confirmed sighting had been in Chicago a few summers previous.

Having taken some of the finest youths of Oak and Lincoln Park as it were under his wing, he had proceeded to spoil them in the eyes of the city fathers—“he spoiled them for work,” they said, and they meant it when they spit on the ground for punctuation.

He lectured them and cajoled them and made them companions until their very thoughts were his own—until they twitched their legs in imitation of his leg’s twitchings. But it was just this that estranged them from him.

“Imitation,” he said to them one day, “might be a form of flattery; but you will never move beyond it. Your twitchings will be caused by mine, whereas mine are caused by something else altogether, something that you will never know or understand. And it is not—or not only—my fleas…”

And the great satire went in like measure:

He had chosen to become the philosopher of the strip-mall century, believing earnestly that there could be no poet of the same. “For consider the dregs of this society: is there anything left of them that might spill over the sides? O’Neil and Algren could station their bums in dark cellar bars and violate the mean with a perspective still human and particular—the Polack walking punch drunk and inebriate through the vast emptiness of the West Side night, vomiting on hydrants and being thrown from street cars. O’Neil’s failures retained something noble, articulating the death of a final dream in the early morning of a barroom, their audience asleep or dying at the tables surrounding them, as if seated in a Greek amphitheater…But what have we to contend with? Even the romance of addiction is turned maudlin by this new generation of Christians. These stunted apes of Christ. And the surroundings refuse to be articulated.

The particular gone, we are forced to face general questions…”

These were his preoccupations: the failure of the country, the inhuman plastic landscape, and the “stunted apes of Christ” who moralized about everything insignificant in order to avoid these topics of genuine importance.

And he taught a way of life: a sort of vicious quietism.

“Surrender to the degradation,” he counselled his followers. “There is no escape but in the mind. There is no relief except in apathy. As everything comes apart, we take refuge in our laughter. In our laughter.”

There was something spirited and mesmerizing at the beginning of the end—a particularity after all that was almost a substitute for beauty, a fraying that created patterns nearly mythic in their tone and texture.

But nearing the end of all things, nearing the final capitulation, there was, increasingly, a mere sense of loss, a mere emptiness… “No way to beautify the emptiness,” he would repeat. “Because we are falling into it, no matter what we say. No matter how we try to redefine it, the end is crashing around us, like a hurricane. Like a catastrophic storm, everything is blown away.”

And he taught that the lesson most fitting for the end was the lesson of the beginning. It was indescribable, except as fate. “We say the word, admitting its inadequacy,” he would say. “It is a summary of what cannot be known but is felt to be true.

“Penelope, weaving and unweaving, and we are alive during one of the nights of the world, in which she tears apart what she has stitched together with such painstaking labor. We live in one of many nights of the world, and we will die before the morning.”

“And before Ulysses can return?” asked an eager disciple once.

“Consider the possibility,” he responded with perfect calm, “that Ulysses died in battle or at sea. That he has become merely a dream.”

And he looked around at us thoughtfully, and added: “consider even the possibility that his very existence was a myth.”

The strangeness of the book could not be considered without wondering who or what (or at least what sort of person) had written it. Thus, I began to imagine possible authors, filling out in my mind elaborate details of hypothetical personalities, living situations and personal histories of the enigmatic author (or authors) of this strange and wonderful book.

I wondered if it could have been written by an educated nomad, an underachiever who drifted aimlessly around the country, observing our declining culture and laughing to himself as he roamed. Or maybe it was a disaffected academic, hiding his true thoughts from his colleagues, maybe even playing the part of the politically correct academic in his tweeds and tie, while scribbling his secret but fruitful maliciousness alone in his office, long after the day’s classes had ended.

In cany case, the author seemed well-educated. He had absorbed and mastered the styles of the ancient and early modern satirists, working his strange innovations into a standard picaresque tale, and blending the sayings of the prophet genre with a strange modulation of the Greek philosophic dialogue.

I imagined a young scholar, training at the University of Chicago or at Northwestern, disgusted by the nattering scolds polluting his program, moralizing day and night, and otherwise turning a formerly excellent great books program into a kind of retarded supper club for unconscious Christians and other tedious killjoys. And it pleased me to consider his superiority and sense of humor, even as it pained me to remember the situation he’d been forced into. Dragged down by our low time, limited by the declining standards and expectations of an inept and self-satisfied age, he rebelled in the only way he could: through an anonymous satire which he would print out, bind amateurishly but adequately, and slip into the stacks at various public library branches throughout the city.

So, by way of a break from the manuscript (it was barely past 2PM, and the library wouldn’t close for hours) I let myself slip into a long and involved daydream about such a one, deliriously happy (in spite of the overheated room) curled up in my corner, near a window sheltered by a frozen and dying old oak tree, whose roots had, in rebellion for the suffocating prison of the sidewalk, pushed aggressively against and rearranged the pattern of concrete blocks along North Clark Street. Yes, and in so doing, they had created a series of obstacles for anyone walking down the street, over which—especially in these slick winter conditions—they were almost bound to lose their footing and skid painfully into an uneven and shin-splitting accident just in my field of vision. I prepared myself to laugh at these unfortunate souls, victims of my tree—this tree that was like my writer: rooted deeply but with a sense of humor, and unwilling to be imprisoned entirely by pieties or progress.

I imagined him this way: a star pupil, he nonetheless fell in and out of university and graduate school, ultimately being awarded his credentials more because of absolute brilliance than attentiveness. He breezed through Greek and finished off his high school Latin in a few semesters. But mornings were spent as often getting sick in his trashcan as in class. Still, it didn’t matter much—his professors never considered marking him down over attendance, assuming, for the most part, that he was home working diligently, rather than vomiting emphatically and treating his hangover with cheap beer and oxycodone.

The irony that pleased me most was the fact that he was recognized as utterly brilliant by men and women who assumed him diligent and conscientious. Had they known that he worked little and in fact fit his studies in between prolonged drinking bouts, they would have failed to believe the quality of his mind possible. I took this to be a lesson: one can only embroider upon already existing fabric.

He was the most promising student the University of Chicago’s Classics department had seen in years and would have fit in perfectly in the days of Strauss and Bloom. But he came too late.

And because he knew that the University’s best days were behind it, he played around as the mood struck him, auditing classes that had nothing to do with his graduate work, and putting more effort into Modern Poetry classes or self-directed analyses of the extant sayings of Diogenes than he could be bothered to invest in more appropriate work.

Anyway, that’s how we would have met: in a course on Restoration literature. While the maudlin children who filled half the class exchanged polite titterings of horror over John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, we would have quoted him merrily after class, each to the other.

“But we poor slaves to hope and fear
Are never of our joys secure;
They lessen still as they draw near,
And none but dull delights endure.”


“Dead, we become the lumber of the world.”

And he spoke mythically, or as it were, with express longing to reclaim what had been lost or destroyed by the half-fanged Christians, the “wafer eaters,” as he called them. Their soft destruction coupled with the dull onslaught of Time had been enough to consume nearly all of what he loved: the overwhelming majority of ancient literature and art. His entire way of seeing the world was a rejection of two thousand years of mawkishness, he said. His very speech patterns bore witness to this.

“The gods have been at my hiney again,” he would say to me, coming across the quad, or at the Greek diner on 57th Street.

Yes, the gods were inordinately fond of his rump. Though sometimes they would let him be for weeks at a time, and then he would become exuberant. Not weighed down by the density of their affections, he seemed to soar across the sky, from the Midway Plaisance clear across to the fountains at Jackson Park.

And he said things then, both when soaring and when suffering the agonies of his Parnassian violations (though, was there perhaps a difference worth marking?)—he said things even then which predicted the honeyed words of his only literary work, his great satire…things like: “What is man except a long feeding tube, overgrown with pretensions and vanity…” And: “Like an impacted bowel, these do-gooders press and press against the body politic, not realizing that their idiocy admits of no honest mode of egress…”

He would come out with all kinds of similarly amusing and perfectly phrased observations of this kind. He spoke, as it were, in aphorisms, or maxims, and he was nauseated by sentimentality of all kinds. Sometimes he hymned exuberantly the madness and chaos of life, noting the absurdity of all that was taken for granted, but noting it with a forgiving air—he spoke, as it were, from the heights then. Other times he found everything amusing, and could hardly get out the insight that he was eager to share through a mouthful of honest and ebullient laughter.

But whenever he began with “the gods have been at my hiney again,” I knew that at the very least his perceptions had shifted in the direction of what our science-bowdlerizing time would call “depression.” Though, to be sure, it was not typically with a hangdog expression or with anything truly approaching melancholy that he spoke then either. It was simply that he found it necessary to acknowledge the difficulties of life without quite being able to laugh them off.

And he would announce these affections of the gods in a mode befitting a classicist: it wasn’t that accident or decision had been unkind to him; it was that Fate herself had stepped in swinging…or that the Gods had seen and gone after his precious hindquarters, Priapean and engorged with the joy of their privilege.

And he was consistent, too: there wasn’t a moralistic word assigned in judgment to such statements. It was their right, as gods, to take whatever joys from whatever orifices they deemed fit. Indeed, in some sense it was also a mark of honor to be chosen. But never was the language of Gnosticism invoked. There was no “evil” demigod pushing into his back hole, lubeless and cruel; instead, the gods, for their pleasure, or perhaps for inscrutable motives, had simply taken what they longed for while away from Olympus. The traveler must be comforted; hospitality is a must.

And so he accepted their affections with something like resignation and enjoyed his own privilege as poet—to speak the thing they had done in a manner befitting both them and his own private muse. Therefore, I can remember him referring to his “ruined asshole” or “the tatters of my once fine anus” with something like pride in his voice—they were the words that come before the words of inspiration: the torrent that cleanses and allows new beauty to flow.

Yes, he said things even then which predicted the honeyed words of his great satire. Indeed, he had dreamed of the book as an undergraduate. “A kind of Don Quixote story for our low time,” he called it. “With of course more distance—because I would put an ancient philosopher into our vulgar context; a Socrates or better still a Heraclitus would be found musing among the strip malls and the fast-food restaurants on the interstates…an Empedocles upon the heights of some yuppie high rise in the Loop…or a Parmenides fooling with harmonies overheard in a supermarket aisle, pumped through the static of wholesale speakers wedged incongruently into styrofoam drop-ceilings…”

But he did not begin the book then. Between his studies and his periodic collapses (and his periodic manias, in which sitting still or sleeping became as impossible as concentration, and he would hop a train to Indiana to try some out-of-the way barbecue joint, or take a bus to Kansas to count the population of a declining farm town for himself, unable to believe the report he had read in the Times)—between studying and coming to the end of what we might reasonably call his “tether,” the man had all he could endure.

But in speech the book was already gathering, and in thought I believe it had lived inside of him for some time. I think that he carried it with him as long as he could before he felt compelled to write it down. When he no longer had the hours accounted for in scrupulous and difficult study (Greek vocabulary and Latin declensions); when instead the utter barbarity of teaching an Intro to Philosophy course at a Chicago City College became his only responsibility (and when, having alienated or simply terrified half his students, he found himself with precious few papers to grade) then, with ample time and energy (indeed a frightening, mounting surplus of energy) then and only then did he finally set it all down.


For all installments of “The Sayings of Cinesias: A Manuscript,” click here.