And so, in the shady corner by the window, under the naked branches of a dying but still enormous old oak tree, I fabricated an author for the book. And I passed the afternoon in this way: a dialogue of sorts between his mind and my own, with me imagining the type of man that might be fit to produce a book like the one I had before me.

Still, in the end, however pleasant, I had to admit that my own story seemed inadequate. The book was too strange, contained too much to be explained with such a biography. In fact, it was likely that even if I had gotten the biography right, down to the last detail, such a framing of these sayings would have missed the point entirely.

“What was scattered, gathers again,” he began, channeling Heraclitus. “As the styrofoam and the leaves blow in the wind, and settle again onto the curbstone; as the plastic bags and the newspapers circle the dustbin and land again on its rim…

“So too the dealers on the corner scatter when the sirens sound, and form as one body again in the alley behind the abandoned KFC. Yes, and you too will assemble and separate, and in fits of pique scream yourselves hoarse until weak, and then again until the weakness burns off and strength returns to the empty vessel – and again you reassemble, having proven yourselves in anger, each to the other.”

And he paused and observed his flock. And to one who was scratching himself too freely: “the flea is wise enough to seek out only living flesh; but you neglect the living word that strokes your chin, heeding instead a silence that will remain when the sound of truth has gone.”

It was a warning, and we recognized it as such. We sat in silence out by the dumpster until long after the darkness had fallen. Eventually he beckoned us to stand, saying: “Come, let us go in to dinner. A meal taken together, after long discussion, is an unmixed good.” And we entered the Arby’s, washed in the restroom, and sat down to table.

“People become dull, though born able to think,” he began one day, after a long and delicate silence. We were sitting in Washington Square Park, across from the Newberry Library. Tourists and students were eating nearby; a few grubby teenagers threw a tennis ball for a gray mutt; an elderly homeless man urinated on the bark of a hobbled birch trunk…

“Having begun with the knack, they abdicate for simplicity’s sake. They seek comfort in the silence of stupidity.” And again he paused—and again we waited.

But, impatient, and perhaps unlucky, a newcomer named Steven spoke up: “But they are wrong to do this—for they turn their backs on what makes them truly human.”

“Is that what they do?” he returned, calmly, but with an unmistakable edge that went beyond mere inquisitiveness.

“Do they not?”

And again there was silence. He frowned and replied: “Is anything so simple?”

Poor Steven! In that moment, he became beet red, and he lowered his head and seemed on the verge of weeping. I tried to take the focus from my friend, asking “Can anyone actually choose stupidity?” At which he smiled and pointed at the urinating bum, his bottle and his apparent oblivion.

“Perhaps not without certain tradeoffs,” he replied. “But it might be argued that they are worthwhile. Try sometime to maintain the opposing position and you will see how difficult it is to prove.”

“You mean,” began Steven, trying bravely to earn back some of his confidence, “do you mean that the shame and degradation, along with the ill health… that they might be worth accepting, given the horror of knowledge?”

“Given the horror of true knowledge, this might be the case.”

And there came a day when his lessons could not be conveyed verbally. And on that day he took us hand in hand into a Pizza Hut and began urinating on the salad bar. “You must choose,” was all he said. At which point some of us followed suit, while others settled into a nearby booth, the better to observe. And because we wore no uniforms, the security guards were able to expel only the most egregious offenders, while the rest of us stuffed ourselves to the gills, talking over the day’s lesson—and then skipped out, merrily, on the check.

“The lettuce is wilted,” he bellowed at an employee of a ghetto McDonald’s one day. And when she looked back at him with something approaching horror, but which maintained certain definite elements of shock as well, he cried out more loudly still, with a kind of deathly scream that recalled the keening of certain Romanian shepherdesses “THE LETTUCE IS WILTED.”

But then, to assuage her fears, he took her head between his hands and kissed her forehead, saying: “But you are neither farmer nor proprietor. For you, too, this lettuce is wilted.” And he ate the rest of his overcooked hamburger with sincere joy, never mentioning the lettuce again.

Was he a lover of his fellow man?

“Derive your strength from your hatred,” he advised, “though keep anger within its proper bounds. Hate, that is, energetically, but without concern for outcomes.”

Or another time he put it this way: “My hatred gives me strength, but it might be just as correct to say that the exercise of hatred is strengthening, regardless of its target.”

Dark sayings, it might seem. But then…well…these are dark times.

I loved the book and was set on extending the experience of reading it as long as possible. And so I went on with my biography, even after admitting that it was unlikely even to approximate an adequate explanation of the text before me—I went on for the simple enjoyment of the exercise:

“This entire idea of writing for an income is a modern aberration,” he began one day, apropos of nothing. “In the ancient and even in the Christian world, a man wrote serious books for small audiences. They were passed around and discussed. He didn’t whore himself out, flattering the tastes and pretensions of the age.” He spat and went on: “And taste is a particularly absurd word for it. It’s a matter of the shape of their reactive idiocy—the form their groundless assumptions and impulses take. Can you mirror back the excessive stupidity of the age? Can you shit the bed in a manner befitting its limitations?”

“Then again, perhaps you say this because you fear you are unable to write the great book you dream of.”

“It’s worse than that—it might be that my entire ‘love’ of scholarship is a disguised excuse for my lack of creative genius.”

“You are, at least, self-aware.”

We spoke in this vein constantly throughout our graduate school days. There was almost no button that could not be pushed…no disturbing insight that wasn’t fit for utterance. We prided ourselves on our detachment.

And I pushed him as I did because I wanted to spur him on to write the great satire he talked about. If for no other reasons than I wanted to read it.

He lived like a monk—except when he didn’t. He would go months without so much as flirting with anyone. Girls in his classes practically threw themselves at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. Or at least he did a very good job ignoring them utterly. Father Sergius, but with two working hands.

But then a switch would flip, and he would seek out the company of whatever low women he could find—the lower the better. And then periodic bouts of hypochondria, waiting for a variety of tests and diagnoses. Regret, repentance, self-disgust.

For a time, he lived with a bus driver at the edge of Grand Crossing. Eschewing intellectuals, as he put it, “because of their preposterous self-importance and obliviousness to the real questions of life,” he seemed thoroughly to enjoy her milieu: petty thieves, a few mechanics, corrupt city employees, and a couple of women somewhere between escorts and entrepreneurs (one of whom was also nearing the completion of nursing school).

“I won’t pretend that they pay any attention to the important questions either,” he explained eagerly, in a manic fit early on in this romance, “but at least they have the decency to refrain from pontificating on adjacent topics.”

Later he tried a brief but intense romance with an aging academic from the Comparative Lit faculty—she hopped off the wagon for him and the two spent hours slugging back cheap brandy and reading poetry to one another in half of the languages of Europe. But eventually her grown up children intervened, getting her back into recovery, and convincing her to sign an order of protection against him—after he had stolen her dead mother’s jewelry to finance a month-long bender from which she was mostly excluded…

It was a somewhat ugly scandal which the school nevertheless got a hold of and managed to sweep almost entirely under the rug. But the fallout was severe enough that he had to take a semester off and dry out as well. Which, admittedly, he did, and came back with a finished dissertation and a manuscript of bizarre French poetry. Some of it was very good, despite its strangeness, though the one he said he was most proud of was a truly odd couplet which for the rest of his days he liked to recite out of the blue, typically at the most inappropriate or at least unexpected moments. I, of course, still like to say it from time to time, in order the better to remember my friend:

La chat tousse dans le brouillard,
Mais je m’en fiche, les chats sont des connards.

“I love the cold gray of early Spring. Mild enough to walk as long as you like, but cold enough to keep most others inside. The light is soft and subtle—not presumptuous and nauseating like it is in summer. And the branches are still black and naked—no gaudiness, no summer baubles.”

Sometimes these sudden ejaculations of his were like poetry. Because he loved poetry—all kinds and styles, and from every corner of the earth. Which is what gave him the idea to resurrect an obscure, all but unknown Greek poet for his book, saying “if he was good enough to make an enemy of Aristophanes, he is good enough for this.”

“I thought you loved Aristophanes?” I replied.

“Indeed, but in order to make an enemy of a great man, another great man is required…”

And so it was called The Sayings of Cinesias. What else could it be called?

Later, in his City College days, he would tell me that he was “stuck teaching these introductory classes because they cannot stand or understand my viewpoint. They want statements of purity—they want me to whore myself out for their causes. Which I cannot do.”

And it was true enough—they did hate him for his generally amoral point of view, for his lack of concern with “world saving” as he called it. But then again, it was also true that his behavior had grown noticeably erratic and off-putting. That he would disappear for days at a time without any attempt to explain himself, and that, indeed, he would occasionally fail students for reasons none of his colleagues could begin to understand (“men cannot study philosophy if they insist on wearing short pants in Autumn” was perhaps the paradigmatic example—and granted I agreed with him in spirit, but felt that he might have chalked that up to a highly imperfect world, and let it go at that).

But worse still, toward the end it was undeniable that he had begun coming to class still drunk from the night before. It was also suspected that he had begun using hard drugs and seducing some of his mangier students—but no one could ever prove anything one way or the other. All of this increasingly strange behavior was set off, as far as I could tell, by his father’s rapid mental decline (they found him eating paint in the middle of the night, naked and covered in his own excrement, and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was quickly proffered) and by his mother’s cancer having come back and stubbornly begun its final and deliberate conquest of her flesh and bones. That these two cruel ends had come together was again, in his mind, a matter of Fate, but perhaps even his cool amoralism was no match for the feeling of utter persecution and destruction that could not but seem intentional and targeted. And so he began to talk not just of the gods bending him over, but also of their persecuting him. And he began to mention the furies, which had not always been a part of his repertoire. He went from lighthearted riffs on the joy of Zeus upon seeing his boyish rear end to deadly, flat-toned elegies on everything that was now irrevocably lost.

And eventually his job, too, was lost. At which point he turned toward the only thing he had left, which was his satire. I didn’t know how seriously he had worked at it. A few mentions on late-night phone calls were all I had to go on. Then suddenly he was spending hours every day on nothing but this work. It became his whole world, when everything else had been cut away. It even sobered him up to a remarkable degree. And I can only feel grateful that he had already begun it before the pruning came in good earnest.

But still, however horrific these days had actually been for him, his book remained buoyant and serene.


But then we lost touch. He just disappeared. And there was nothing else to say, and eventually I began to think of him less and less…

Here my fantasy trailed off, as all fantasies must finally do. But once it was finished, I was more satisfied with it than I had been at the beginning. It might not be right – perhaps this was not the kind of man who wrote the excellent satire I had on my lap as the light finally began to fade from the late winter sky. Still, it was a man worthy of such a book. And that was something.

“What, then, is life?” he was asked one day, and responded only: “it is a toilet that will not flush.”

“Let us have silence,” he said. “For what ought to be said can be understood by very few, so that a bleak probability urges us against it, while what can be understood generally is not worth saying. And we either drag ourselves down into the gutter in speaking it, or we find that we are already there.

I speak to you, but it is a form of silence.  For I hear what I cannot convey.”

“Why then, speak to us?” asked an intrepid new follower.

“For that one in a thousand who might be among you, able to hear my silence.”

Then he farted with some joy and urged us away.

And while his cynicism ran quietly abreast of what might well be termed a pessimistic outlook, he would often remind us that such a viewpoint needn’t be despairing. But as he was a fabulist, he liked to put it this way: “Life is a vicious bitch. And some days she bites.”

“Can she be kicked when occasion demands?” I asked, feeling that this was indeed my subject.

“You can try,” came the response, after a moment’s deep consideration. “But aim for her backside, lest your foot become stuck and odiferous on top of life’s other myriad disadvantages.”

“She would drag you, then, as she moved—would she not?”

“You are already at her heel. For life itself is an inversion of every metaphor.”

In the end, I passed a pleasant enough afternoon, there at the edge of the ghetto, in the heart of Rogers Park, reading and watching the slanting snow resume over the blackened branches. I read and watched the night come on, deepen, and be taken over by streetlights. I read and concocted vicious absurdities, no longer to explain what I read, but merely for the sake of an analogous joy. I read in the bad fluorescent light at the edge of the miniscule philosophy section in the rundown, aging library, sandwiched between bodegas and empty storefronts, under the low opaque sky where the prairie meets the lake, and where the human anthill peters out and fades into irregular suburban encampments—at the edge of the ghetto, in the heart of Rogers Park.

And in the end, having gotten what I wanted of the experience, I stopped wondering about the strange book and its unknowable author. I barely even wondered now why someone had left this unpublished manuscript here, of all places; and even when it occurred to me to wonder, as I was already buttoning up my coat and preparing to walk back out into the frigid winter evening, whether or not the erudite scoundrel behind this fortuitous jest had repeated the game elsewhere, in other libraries or bookshops, or magazine stands…even, I say, though it occurred to me that this might not be suis generis, I saw too at the same moment that the contents of the book itself were – and, as rare a thing as that was enough for one day in a series of days, each needing their own diversions.

Be satisfied with the diversions of the day, for boredom is the rule from which you have temporarily escaped. I spoke this new maxim to myself, as if building on the sayings of Cinesias, as I planned the night’s debauch. I felt in my coat pocket for the flask of bourbon, palmed it and was happily surprised by its weight. And I imagined the wad of twenties in my wallet and calculated how many shots and how many beers I could buy for just a fraction of that bundle. I hadn’t bathed in a few days, but that didn’t matter; most of the girls at the dive bar down the street hadn’t either, and would be so drunk by closing time that they wouldn’t be able to differentiate my odors from their own. And there was something almost metaphysical in that bounteous comingling of filth—a kind of Falstaffian benediction, between harlot and hound, a brittle but profound harmony which would last as long as the spirits did.

And now for the diversions of the night, I laughed to myself as I went out, well-fortified, into the blustery cold darkness. And I heard the beating of wings from a winter bird, feathery and obscure, as it leaped from the icy bare branches of the dying oak tree under which my window had been sheltered as I sat through the long afternoon, reading and dreaming.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1