–after E.T.A. Hoffmann
What follows is a story of contagion, and it begins, as all such stories must, with a message both obscure and appalling.
The city in which this message was passed was the city of N— in the geographic center of Illinois, and, as the saying goes, in the middle of nowhere. N— was notable as a place that had succeeded in achieving the destiny American cities had sought for centuries: complete abstraction. As the German mystic Jacob Boehme once observed, “It is not philosophers who are abstract, it is the man in the street.” Actually, this story with its embedded message happened at least three times, in various places, but on the same spring date, as if this world were only a quarrelsome device like one of those old brightly painted tin toys that you’d wind up and watch as a dog jumped on a wagon and back, on a wagon and back, in that false infinity provided by winding a spring tightly.
The first time it happened was in 1810, in Dresden, as later attested to in a most remarkably vivid account by the gnomish writer of realist fantasy E.T.A. Hoffmann, in his story “Mademoiselle de Scuderi.” Then it all fell out again in 1910, in Paris, on the edge of the first modern war. Picasso and Braques were hanging out, drinking yellow-green absinthe, and then enjoying hallucinations at that new sensation, the Bijou, the florid cinema. While they enjoyed such bohemian pleasures, the second coming of these remarkable events lit the air around their heads, the most brilliant heads of a most brilliant time, but, sadly, not even they noticed. They were painters, after all, and perhaps not open to the “unfolding” of things across vast stretches of time. at I know of, there is no record of the events happening elsewhere either (although I once imagined, wrongly as it turned out, that there were cryptic allusions to them in Franz Kafka’s story “The Warden of the Tomb”). The third time that this story unfolded itself, as if the very air could open up like a Chinese paper box, was in 2010. Then, the residents of one house in N— were awakened from that self-satisfied sleep of the Midwest by a mad pounding at the door.
“N— was notable as a place that had succeeded in achieving the destiny American cities had sought for centuries: complete abstraction.”
As it happened, all the women of the house were away sex-touring and ganja-smoking in Jamaica. The men had been left behind with strict instructions to lock the doors and ignore the baying of hounds. The men wondered if this pounding at the door was what the women meant by “the baying of hounds,” so they went cautiously to an upstairs window.
“Open the door, for God’s sake, open the door,” a man’s voice said, rising up above the sublime pounding he was giving to the door.
“Who is down there?” the men asked. “We know better than that, Mister. We were warned not to open the door to strangers.”
“I must speak to the Marquis!”
“The Marquis? I think you have the wrong house. Try that big one at the end of the block.”
“For God’s sake, it’s a matter of life and death. I stand falsely accused . . . of an atrocity.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?!”
And down they went and unbolted the great oak portal.
No sooner had they opened the door than a figure wrapped in a flowing black cloak burst through violently, eyes wild, a man with the intensity of a demon!
“It’s no wonder that you’ve been accused of an atrocity. Just look at yourself!”
The men now thoroughly regretted opening the door. One of them said, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow at a decent hour?”
“Does destiny care for the time of day?” the man in the black garb asked.
They had no opinion on the matter.
“Why, then, if you won’t take me, take this, and give it to the Marquis.”
And he held an envelope aloft.
“Childe Harold bask’d him in the noon-tide sun, Disporting there like any other y . . . ”
When I try to picture him, the caped stranger looks a lot like Guy Williams in the old TV show “The Lives of Zorro,” minus the mask. Oh, hell, let’s give him a mask then. They’re not expensive. You can get a bag of ten for a dollar-fifty at the Penury Factory Outlet down in Heyworth. So, if he wants a mask, vamos!, for God’s sake. So, he’s wearing a mask and one of those sexy flattop fedoras that I thought were simply the coolest thing in the world circa 1959. It even had a brightly wrought sterling silver band around it, if I’m not mistaken, although I might be thinking of Richard Boone’s Paladin.
At any rate, this masked character at last got around to taking out an envelope in which was the note with the famous message he’d been promising.
“Take this letter to the Marquis. It is a matter of life and death—my death!”
One of them, let’s call him Rory, stepped forward to say what all the others were thinking. “Sir,” he said, “no offense, but this is not making a whole lot of sense to us. We have no idea who you are, there is no Marquis here—and, to tell you the truth, we’re not collectively clear on just what a Marquis is—and you’ve frightened us a lot with your bizarre aspect. So, you might as well tell us what’s in the envelope because we’re just going to open it as soon as you leave.”
The stranger looked perplexed, angry, frustrated. Perhaps he was a man with black belts in various martial arts, or a mob enforcer, perhaps he was Special Forces, a Navy SEAL, or someone with a lot of PTSD issues including the habit of savage resolution to situations that are not quite going his way. He waved the letter dramatically over his head—he was wearing really gorgeous black gloves, the softest calfskin, that went down his arm nearly to the elbow.
“I can tell you this: my letter comes from a woman of great power and influence living in a villa in the Hebrides. Have you never heard of the famous Queen of Spells? Surely, even in this depraved outpost of humanity, you have! I believe her letter touches on issues related to the owing light of the Godhead. In this letter there is a vision of a great marble slab that lies at the base of a mighty mountain. There is a doorway in it like the doorway to a great city. A radiance as bright as that of the sun overflows the marble.”
“Are you making this shit up?” asked one ruffian.
“Well, if that is not convincing to you, consider this,” he said, and he turned and swung open the door.
The men looked out and saw that in the courtyard before their house hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Zorro-like guys were riding on small black horses—no more than two feet tall—rearing often and dramatically on their hind legs, as if the movie they were in was almost over and they were thinking about riding into the sunset. The men also waved envelopes—not Stetsons—high over their heads, messages galore. There they were in their pitchy vestments, as if the computer-graphics geeks had gotten carried away, gone a little haywire, in this scene. The men and horses roiled—anxious, trapped—and looked upon one another as if they were as terrified by this vision as were those who looked upon them. Stranger yet, they were crying great confused tears that owed down their faces and seeped out beneath their little masks. But for what reason? That was what was so hard to say.
“This, this, is the reality that you scorn, on which you dare to look with your doubt and cynicism. Now, forthwith, to the Marquis!”
The men were overwhelmed by what they’d seen. They dropped their pretense and took the man directly to the Marquis.
From Lacking Character. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2018 by Curtis White.