Sunday, July 20, 2008


Due to some quirk in his character, the venerable Oxford geologist Prof. Wllm. Buckland resolved to eat his way straight through the entire animal kingdom. It was his fortune that the mephitic cane toad and the baneful blowfish were not indigenous to his longitude -- all trauma would have been limited to the nausea of crunching through the chitinous exoskeletons of pus-filled insects. There ought to have been one species however of which even he, Victorian academician that he was, had not partaken -- his own kind. Or so we might have supposed. Our expectations are dashed, alas.

Upon seeing the dessicated heart of the ill-fated Louis XVI, preserved at Nuneham in a silver reliquary box, Buckland exclaimed, "I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before!" With that, he remedied the deficit by snatching up the organ and devouring it in an instant. Perhaps it turned to powder in his mouth and then to paste, which he tongued off his teeth and swallowed in short dry gulps. Perhaps it cracked and crunched like burnt cake, blackening his teeth and filling his breath with dust. Posterity does not preserve such details.

In this you will find the moral of a parable: Thus do dirt and time consume greatness.

The sentiment is given further expression by Shelley, who speaks of meeting a traveler from an antique land. "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone," related the wayfarer, "stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, half sunk, a shattered visage lies whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor well those passions read, which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things.... And on the pedestal these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, king of kings -- look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away."

Mortality is a proper subject for old men to speculate upon. When we are younger, we are faced eventually with the deaths of parents and aged relatives, but when such things progress in their proper order, we are not undone by them. The loss of loved ones who are young is more troubling, but such pain turns our minds more to grief and other consuming emotions, than to philosophical musings on the nature of mortality. Even selfless love, though, has an element of ego to it -- we love because that is who we are, and how we have to be to remain so. Old age has a way of simplifying things. The sudden or predicted death of someone else is an entirely different matter, than the slow decline and loss of function and faculties that comes to us with age.

It may come as news to you, bucko, but the world is an uncertain place. You've spent so much time carving out your cave of security, and forgot about landslides, earthquakes and flashfloods. Well, hardly anything bad ever happens. But even then, what you think is a vast fastness is just an umbrella in the storm. You mistake your dryness, such as it is, for comfort. How dry can you be, under an umbrella in a storm?

In your own mind you think you're something great. Even when you're wracked with self-loathing, you love your flesh -- this from no lesser authority than Jesus Christ. You think there beats within you the heart of a king. You think you have raised great edifices that will endure through all the ages. Sometimes you think such things. Only the earth remains, though, covering the works of your hands in endless layers of dust until no trace of them remains except by implication: something must be buried here. And your heart, so filled with promise in your youth, slows its rhythm year after year until it loses count and stops entirely. Like a thrumming of raindrops, and then dryness. The cave of security you dug for yourself goes six feet deep, and pus-filled insects will eat the dust or the sodden paste of your heart.

Lucky for me, I'm not like that.



chuck e. boy said...

Must be some quirk in MY character, but the phrase "devoured it in an instant" just made me chuckle.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Jack H said...

I confess to having made that part up. History does not preserve the duration of his repast.

Moved up from June 8, 07


chuck said...

Similiarly, "repast" has the same effect.

I must be a strange duck.

Will C. said...

Yes and now all we need is the other Chuck yelling "Soylent-Green is people!"