With the resounding vigor of an apoplectic horse, the portly priest blew his nose and tossed the soggy ball of tissue paper towards a handwoven rattan wastebasket. He missed, though this escaped his notice and, wiping the tip of his nose with the back of a pudgy hand, he said:
“You will please excuse my cold. Even we physicians of the soul are not exempt from viruses, ha ha!” The laugh came from his throat and his face was still red from the effort. “Ah… what was the question again?”
“I asked what your conception was of the Universe, Father.”
“Yes, yes… but, my son, I have no conception. I am merely God’s instrument. I serve no purpose but that which He has determined for me. If you ask me for a conception of the Universe, I can only tell you that which I have learned from reading God’s Word.”
“And what is that?”
The priest carefully pressed the tips of his fat fingers together: “The Universe is God’s masterpiece in harmony. Everything that exists is purposed by its Creator. It is the sum-total of His infinite wisdom.”
“That’s most lucid, Father.”
“Good. And may I add, my son, since God is perfect, the Universe is perfect, too.”
“Perfect? But, Father, I don’t quite see how.”
“Ah, but you are young, my son, and only a mortal. For the day you can understand God’s mysterious ways you will be more exalted than the angels.”
“Do you mean to say, Father, even flies and bacteria that cause disease have a purpose; that even an asteroid traveling endlessly in the void of deep space has a purpose?”
“You have an eager young mind, my son. That is good. But as I told you, God is omniscient! Nothing He creates is without purpose; only you might not see that purpose in this earthbound plane of existence.”
“Then even death has a purpose, Father?”
“Death, and the process that follows it, is the initial step towards the ultimate understanding of God’s Perfect Plan.”
“Are you saying there can be no purpose in life but only in death?”
“No, my son, no, no… One can always try to lead a good, Godfearing life in order that death may be accepted as an occasion for rejoicing rather than mourning. Life, my son, is part of the terrible test God our Father has set for us, and the only way you can show your love and devotion is to do well in that… at… at… atchoo!” A deafening sneeze drowned his last words.
The priest dried his bloodshot eyes on the sleeve of his satin surplice, sniffing noisily. “I am sorry, my son, um, where was I?”
“Oh, it’s quite all right, Father. I want to thank you for answering my questions. I was very impressed.”
"Of course, my son. I enjoyed chatting with you. By the way, I don’t recall seeing your face in my church. Are you by chance a Presbyterian, perhaps?”
“No, I’m a student.”
“Good, good, very good.” He sighed and stopped a sneeze by inhaling violently. “Well, my son, go with God.”
“The Universe, dear boy, can exist only when all the cosmic forces are in equilibrium.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite comprehend, sir.”
“Ah, I see.” The wizened metaphysician curled his silver goatee around a thin, graceful finger. “Ah, I see, I see.”
There was an uneasy silence as the student waited for the great scholar to continue. The metaphysician was preoccupied with trying to tie a knot in his goatee.
“Er… what I mean is, sir, well, I don’t exactly see what you mean.”
“Let me put it this way, my dear boy.” A sudden spark appeared in the old scholar’s eyes. “The entire Universe functions on a very fundamental basis of balance. In everything you can detect the same pattern, from the ultra-microscopic to the super-telescopic.”
“Yes. Definitely. Existence is possible as a consequence of the equilibrium produced by conflicting forces: Life and Death, Light and Dark, Black and White, Abundance and Scarcity, Good and Evil, Truth and Falsehood, Happiness and Misery, Male and Female, Mountain and Valley, High and Low, Large and Small, Hot and Cold, Yin and Yang… can you perceive the pattern?”
“Well, yes… vaguely.”
“Can’t you see? It is the constant conflict of all those Forces that result in the balance essential to the very existence of the Universe. The ultimate aim of every single existence is to attain that perfect state of equilibrium – inertia! Yes, inertia! The very basis of being is a ceaseless struggle to attain inertia. Continuity, perpetuity, coiling and uncoiling. The completion of the circle. Inertia.”
The metaphysician broke off in a spasm of dry, convulsive coughs. When the attack was over he took a long sip from the glass of sherry on his desk, muttering an excuse that it was good for his cough. Clearing his throat, he continued:
“Can you not grasp the inexorable pattern that governs the Cosmos? Does it not overwhelm you to merely think about it?” He broke off, coughing again.
“Forgive me, dear boy, I am at a loss for words. I cannot help choking with fulfilment each time I see the vast intricacies of the Universe fall so effortlessly into one immense, awesome, sublime pattern…”
“This is certainly most fascinating, sir. But what exactly do you mean by inertia? Isn’t it a continual state of being?”
“You may call it that if you wish. You see, an object that is immobile wishes to remain so; one that is in motion is reluctant to change its course or to stop. Similarly, a person who is alive desires to remain so, but once death puts an end to his life, he has entered a new state of being – or non-being – and will desire to remain dead. And since death is, to all intents and purposes, continual, death is inertia.”
“You said that everything in the Universe strives for inertia. Do you mean that everything desires death?”
The metaphysician uncurled his goatee and allowed it to spring back to its original position. He scratched his chin, and a thin smile crept across his ascetic face. He coughed goodnaturedly.
“That, my dear boy, is a good question… however, I’m afraid I don’t feel at all my usual self and shall have to interrupt this absorbing dialogue, much to my regret, and get some badly needed rest.”
“When we speak of the Universe, we are of course referring to the lifeforms that occupy it, no?”
“The Universe is nothing without Life. So don’t you agree that in considering the Universe as a Whole…”
“As a hole? I don’t really follow you there, doctor.”
“Jcchk, I mean to say… instead of considering the Universe as an abstract concept, we might be better off discussing LIFE, per se, ja?”
“But how about the billions of lifeless stars and other celestial bodies that comprise the Universe? Don’t they matter?”
“Definitely. You are assuming, no doubt, that there is no life outside of the planet Earth. In the study of biology that could be a most misleading assumption. We must think of life in other forms besides those familiar to us, you see.”
“Yes, I see what you’re getting at.”
“So you understand what I mean when I say we should think of the Universe in terms of the lifeforms that inhabit it, am I correct? Okay, good. Now, everyone knows that survival is the greatest aim of all living things, no? Nothing exists if Life does not exist. Therefore, Life is the most important urge in the Universe. You will further observe that in order to preserve Life by perpetuating their species, all living things undergo reproduction of some sort; and then, to ensure the survival of their offspring, these living things die, so that there will be no lack of space and the cyclical regeneration of nutritive matter can occur. It is a neverending process which has gone on, and will go on and on infinitely. Life… then death… and life again as a result of death. Astounding, no?”
Clucking affectionately, the biologist focused his microscope on a glass slide where an amoeba was wobbling along determinedly, trapped within a drop of fluid. “Ah, my little Mabel – she is a veritable miracle of unicellulation, ja?”
The student bent over the microscope to take a look.
“And yet,” the biologist went on, “she is the unique epitome of Life itself! She need never fear age nor senility, for she merely splits in two, then four, then eight. She knows no death… unless, of course, the water bubble she is swimming in evaporates without warning.”
He reached for a glass of drinking salts which had ceased effervescing; a powdery white precipitate lined its bottom. “I have the acid in my system,” he remarked. Then he licked his lips, made a face, and carried on:
“Alas! With multicellulation, complexity, and what we call evolutionary sophistication, death has entered the picture. No complex lifeform can expect to live indefinitely; and, the fact is, its struggle for survival benefits not itself but its offspring. And the same goes for its offspring: they fight to exist for the sake of their offspring, and so on. Sad but true, Life cannot be without Death. This is the Universal Paradox.”
The biologist seemed pleased with this statement, and gulped down the rest of his drinking salts without a grimace.
“I’m sorry, doctor, but I don’t believe I understood that last bit. What you said about life being an offshoot of death. Is that what you mean?”
“Life springs from death. Death springs from life. Ach, but who cares, after all, ja? We limit our consideration to Life only. That is a much brighter prospect, no?”
“Yes, I agree, but I’m still puzzled by what you said about there being no life without death…”
“Or no death without life, put it anyway you like. It is the same, I think.”
“Let us talk about your conception of death, then, doctor.”
“Ach, ach, no, no, no! Remember, biology is the study of living things. If you wish to know about death, consult a mortician, ha ha ha!”
The Professor’s face was crimson. He wasn’t angry. He had high blood pressure, and everyone kept saying he ought to take a rest. But he was an obstinate old coot. “My work is more important,” he insisted. He was fond of defining and measuring the importance of things.
“Oh, good morning, Professor.”
“Yes, yes, good morning, if you say so. It’s much too humid for pleasantries.”
“Er, Professor, I’ve done the research. Here’s the paper I’ve written.”
“Ahhh. Your thesis. Let’s have a look… Hmmmmm, a little on the short side, I’m afraid." He shook the paper in the student's face and continued: “Short indeed! A long way from what one might classify as verbose, hmmm. Extraordinarily compact, in fact. Hmmmmm, let’s see…”
The student self-consciously lit a cigarette and tried not to notice the strange expression on the Professor’s face as he read the essay. But he couldn’t help observing that the old man’s face had reddened even more. He half expected the Professor to explode with something like: “This puerile jest fails to amuse me!”
However, the Professor was quite restrained, knowing how important it was to keep calm. His white, brittle hair stood out in stark contrast with his flushed face.
“Aha! Aha! What’s this? Quote: There is no Universe without Life. Life is a glass of wine and death the dregs that await at the bottom. The Universe is the wine, the dregs, the glass, the drinker, and the Thirsty Soul that oscillates between ecstasy and despondency, replenishing her vessel in perpetuity. Unquote…”
The Professor’s wry smile was almost humorous. “Which reminds me, “ he said, looking up from the essay and reaching for a bottle of port from the tray beside him. “May I offer you a tipple?”
The student politely declined, clearing his throat somewhat neurasthenically. He had a maniacal urge to leap out the window and get away from the Professor and his stuffy office.
“Life is a glass of wine, eh?” said the Professor, lifting the glass of port to his lips with a raised pinkie. He let out a weary sigh. “Rather interesting, I must admit. Even poetic, but I’m afraid rather inconclusive and vague, to say the least. Hmmmmm…”
The Professor turned the glass round in his heavily veined hand, absently studying the ruby liquid. “You have omitted a very important thing no essay should ever be without. You have not specified the essence of your concepts relative to your allegorical argument, and this seriously weakens your thesis.”
The Professor sighed again, as though in pain, and said, more softly now: “Body… and substance… that is what’s lacking. Rather inconclusive, I’m afraid.”
Then he gulped down the port, which ostensibly cheered him, for he looked up at the student and smiled his usual sanguine smile.
Text & Illustrations © Antares, 1967 & 2015
|Joseph F. Martino, Jr in 1968|
As a 17-year-old exchange student I happened to enrol in Joe's class in the fall of 1967 and this was my first attempt at a short story. It now comes across as a naïve and pretentious foray into the nebulous domains of epistemology and ontology, but since Joe very generously gave me an 'A' for it, I'll be brazen and publish it here for archival interest - and as a tribute to a truly dedicated mentor I shall never forget.