Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Scribbler

Jacob stepped to the urinal and lifted his tunic. His fellow monk Johannes stood beside him. A separator between them preserved their privacy. Jacob exhaled with a deep sense of pleasure. Ten straight hours spent transcripting, without rest, without sustenance, with only water to drink, had given him a tremendous pent-up urge to urinate.

“Oh yeah,” he moaned.

“A good one?” Johannes laughed.

“The best,” said Jacob.

Johannes zipped up. Without looking over to Jacob, he said, “I’ve heard about what you’ve been doing.”

“I don’t know what your talking about,” said Jacob.

“Look,” Johannes said, “Don’t make me spell this out. I’ve heard about it and I think it’s wrong.”

Jacob folded up his tunic and turned to face his friend. For a moment they locked eyes.

“Just stop,” said Johannes. “For your own sake.”

“It’s my life,” said Jacob.

“Yeah, I know it is,” said Johannes. “And you can stand on your head to prove your freedom, but you’re still standing on your head because of your need to prove your freedom.”

“Blah blah blah,” said Jacob. He’d heard that hackneyed argument a thousand times over during his years of theological studies.

Johannes shook his head and crossed in front of Jacob to the sink. He washed his hands in silence, enjoying the feeling of the warm water on his cold fingers. He thought to himself, the study is particularly chilly today. He shivered at the thought of returning to his carrel.

Jacob picked up the hand towel and handed it to Johannes.

“Thank you,” said Johannes, adding, “very kind of you.”

Jacob bowed in a show of respect. Before exiting, Johannes gave Jacob one last meaningful stare, as if to say: Stop, for the love of the Word, for the love of the Brotherhood, please stop. Jacob stepped to the still flowing water in the sink and placed his hands under its warmth.

Back at his desk, Jacob found his confidence flagging. He worked in the I.I.W. — It Is Written — wing of the Brotherhood. Their slogan was: We uphold the Noble Paradox — It Is Written, So We Must Write It. His official title was Senior Transcriptor. Jacob knew that to toil in the I.I.W. was a blessing and a noble calling. He understood intuitively that his Book had been discovered because his personality was well suited to this kind of pious work. His constitution had been designed to uphold the Order’s one thousand and twenty five precepts, including no entertainment, no games, no large beds, etc. His sole task in life was to transcript the text of his life. After all, his Book had been discovered — and its very physical existence was a miracle. (Chances were, the revisionists argued now, these Books had been written by the great prophet Jeremiah Johnson in 2041, but that was besides the point.) His Book existed. His life was leather-bound. The story of his time on earth had been foretold, forewritten, and fated, as were the lives of all human beings, if not in actual ink, then in metaphysical ink. The difference was a flesh-and-blood, paper-and-binding copy of Jacob’s Book had been discovered. So when he turned two years old, his intensive training began. In short, he was instructed in the art of transcription: how to trace over with his own human hand the predestined text of his life as it was written in his Book. Now a fully ordained monk in the Brotherhood of the Word, Jacob spent his every waking moment transcripting. And with each stroke of his pen, he felt closer to God.

Over the years, Jacob proved himself an exceptionally skilled transcriptor, the keenest and most rigorous in his class. He pioneered the time-loop method, a wickedly clever device in which a transcriptor could trace a page or two ahead of real-time, so that he might earn himself a brief respite. He was also quick to catch up in time, if necessary. So, after returning from the mandatory bathroom break, he was the first to write out the scene that had transpired in the bathroom with Johannes. Word for word, gesture for gesture, vital detail for vital detail, the drama of that conversation had been long-ago recorded in the Book, and then transcripted by Jacob. Within minutes of resuming his work, Jacob had brought his text back to the usual refrain: I am writing I am writing I am writing...

Of course, there was cause for the occasional hilarious variation: I am writing now or I am writing this now or I am writing I am writing I am writing with my favorite quill. The monks knew how to have a good time. I am writing all blessed day long. Jacob was the first to write that line. How heartily the other monks had laughed at the insertion of the word blessed into the already comical variation all day long. The other monks considered Jacob a humorist, a natural, a master transcriptor.

When he started cheating, rumors of his corruption spread fast. The other monks were genuinely worried about him, about his emotion well-being, and of course, about his salvation.

“What is he doing?” they asked each other.

“Does he think he’s being funny?”

“Does he want to go to hell? Cause if he does, that’s the way to go. He can write himself right into the seventh ring.”

The other monks were befuddled and their worried whispers filled the corridors of the monastery. Once, during lunch in the great hall, they shared a laugh over Jacob’s transgressions after someone made the wisecrack, “Does he think he’s the Word?”

Meanwhile, Jacob persisted in his private subversions. First, his hands shaking, he experimented with handwriting. With ten years of transcripting his text behind him, Jacob knew the exact flow of the original. He knew the i’s were dotted ever so slightly off-left of center. The l’s dipped just below the line. And the j’s were slanted, twelve degrees right of the vertical. One afternoon, with no warning, no sign, no revelation whatsoever, Jacob simply started correcting these minor imperfections in the handwriting of the original. For the first time ever, his transcriptions, his tracings, did not precisely overlay the original. In his heart’s core, he felt the thrill of the sinner.

Then one day he scribbled in the margin. He said to himself, I am the scribbler. He recorded this thought in his text. I am the scribbler. Looking at the very words in the text proper — I am the scribbler — Jacob thought to himself, It has been recorded that I would be the scribbler. Now I am become the scribbler. I am merely writing the text of my life, transcripting my every thought and action. I am scribbling I am scribbling I am scribbling.
This was what he wrote in the margin:
Look here! I am the scribbler. I am scribbling.
A rush of originality filled his chest and his heart beat madly. He quickly returned to the text proper, but then, an hour later, he again ventured to the margins, this time, writing, What a beautiful day! Outside my window, the birds make wondrous music. He didn’t know why he did it (and of course he recorded his transgression in the text proper), but he did do it. He’d written in the margins, twice now. That much was clear. He’d written in the margins of his Book, and the action baffled him. What does it even mean to write in the margins of the text of one’s life? Am I commenting on the text itself, merely making a few harmless observations? Or have I deviously and devastatingly departed from the path? The movement of the birds outside my window was gorgeous, stirring, aesthetically pleasing, and I felt I had to record this beauty. Pay witness, precisely as my vocation pays witness to the noble paradox. There is such beauty in the world, he said to himself, and then he continued on with the usual: I am writing I am writing I am writing in my study...

“Yes,” said the Order’s severe and chaste Mahamonk, later that evening, as they sat in his office, “yes, of course, Jacob, there is tremendous joy and beauty in this world, but this is not our calling, is it, to record this beauty?”

“No, sir,” answered Jacob.

“You must return to your given task,” said the Mahamonk. “You must continue to purify. Return to your transcriptions, without further wandering. As I see it, your situation is critical.”

Jacob briefly thought of a reading from his days in the seminary. The class was called “In the Margins: The Temptations of Interpretation.” The piece had been written by a master monk of the 22th century. It began, “The text is the text is the text is the text is the text is the text. There is no margin. Do not be fooled by the illusion of the margin. Open space is found only within the words themselves. Do not look elsewhere for your liberation. Be free within the infinity of that which is written.” Suddenly the entire essay came back to Jacob now. Only this time, his mind registered disagreement, discord. Cognitive dissonance. The texture of this thought was new to Jacob. He blushed.

“Do not fear,” said the Mahamonk. “This too shall pass.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob, almost mindlessly.

“Focus,” said the master, “Be intent.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob.

“You are excused,” said the Mahamonk, “but be warned: the waters in which you swim are deep and full of dangerous creatures of ambiguous origins. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir, my Maha.”

“Very well, then,” said the master, “Return to your work. May the Word be with you.”

“And also with you, my Maha,” said Jacob, with a hint of half-heartedness. Sensing the fissure in his student’s resolve, his master frowned. They bowed to one another in a show of mutual respect, and Jacob left the room. The Mahamonk cast out a desperate prayer — Bring him back, back to the path and back to the Word. All praise and glory be to the Word, Amen — then he pulled from his desk his own Book. He himself had not transcripted in ten years, but suddenly was called to do so. He dipped his quill in the holy ink and began. The first words he wrote were: Sorrow is a lonely bird...

“They say he is raving mad,” said one monk to another in the great hall. He lifted a spoon of porridge to his lips. “They say he began doodling. Can you believe it? Jacob, a doodler?”

“So unfortunate,” said another.

“A sad case,” chimed in another.

“But a fool or a king?” said the first monk. “Which do you think he is? From which sin does he suffer: ignorance or pride?”

The other monks shook their heads side to side or shrugged their shoulders, and returned to their gruel.

Jacob had been excommunicated from the Order of the Brotherhood of the Word that morning. The Mahamonk had no choice; Jacob had turned his Book into a travesty. With doodles in the side margins, great sweeps of poetry running along the bottoms of the pages, bold X’s and strikeouts scattered throughout, the Book itself was the proof of Jacob’s fall from grace.

“I heard he drew a picture of a naked woman over what was supposed to be the text of his morning meditations,” said one monk incredulously.

Nobody believed that salacious claim, but the rumors were enough to spoil their appetites. Their finest contemporary, their master, had fallen. He’d become a heretic.

“I heard” said another, “that he told the Mahamonk that he considered himself a poet.”

“Yes,” said another, “I heard that too. He claimed to be taken by inspiration.”

Finally, Johannes, the most reticent of the Order, and forever second in class to Jacob’s first, entered the fray. “Jacob told me it was a matter of perception. It was his eyes, he said. Not his mind, nor his heart.”

“What do you mean?” asked a young novice.

“He claimed to see a different text than the one the Mahamonk saw when he looked it over,” explained Johannes. “You see, Jacob said that his transgressions were all foretold, forewritten in the text. He said that he was merely playing out his part, that all along he was transcripting honestly. He said when he first drew a great X through an entire page of text, he only did this because the X was already there, in other words, It Was Written.”

“So He Must Write It,” echoed the young monk.

“Exactly,” said Johannes. “Jacob confessed to me that his eyes hurt. That they ached horribly. That he could hardly make out his text any longer. He told me that the whole exercise of transcripting was pandemonium every time he opened his Book in the morning. But he swore to me that his transgressions were forewritten. He told me he felt like Judas and that in his heart he was very sad, but that, at the same time, he’d never felt such a thrill, such exhilaration.”

The other monks briefly conferred with one another, murmuring excitedly. Then they looked back to Johannes and the young one asked, “What do you think, Johannes?”

Johannes exhaled deeply and set down his wooden spoon.

“I think he’s a liar,” he said gravely. “Perhaps he lost his eyesight, but the doctors said his vision was fine. I think he went mad. Mostly I believe we have the Mahamonk to thank for his wisdom and prudence in this matter. All praise and glory to the Word!”

“All praise and glory to the Word!” said the others.

They finished their meal in an uneasy silence, each of them guessing at the heart of Johannes and at the mind of Jacob.

Jacob wandered the desert outside the monastery for three years. He suffered from hallucinations, starvation, demons, disease, loneliness, and despair. He suffered the unutterable humiliations of the vagrant. Through it all, he transcripted. That which he saw in his Book, he traced over with his human hand. As he understood it, all of his life, even his transgressions, his wanderings, his excommunication, had been written. Every detail was in his Book and his vocation was to transcript every word. As well as every scribble in the margin, every doodle, every great X, and every poetic utterance. Whatever he saw in his Book, he transcripted. He feared that his vision was slowly leaving him, but he transcripted on. He feared that his mind was failing him, but he transcripted on. He feared that his body was dying, but onward, ever onward, he honored his calling.

On some days, Jacob could not be sure if what he saw was an illusion, a pale and sorry figment of his imagination, or the text proper, but he learned to forge ahead regardless. This lack of clarity caused him the most subtle and excruciating pains. Out loud, to the heavens, he wished that this same trial never be suffered again by another soul, that he, Jacob, right here and now, would undergo and purge this brand of suffering for all humankind. Ultimately, he could not afford to worry about possible discrepancies between what was written and what wasn’t, what was real and what was imagined. What was important was that he continued to transcript as best he saw fit. So he continued to run his hand along the page and trace the outlines of whatever his ailing senses presented to him as the world.

He grew a ghastly beard. He communed with the scavenging birds. He ate weeds and seeds and the occasional offering from a passing faithful who recognized his habiliment as that of the Order.

Three years passed in this manner, Jacob holding on tenuously to his sanity, to his vocation, to his dignity, and to his inspiration.

“I am inspired,” he recalled he had told his former Mahamonk. “I have come to depend upon my inspiration. It follows me daily and I obey it. I write what I see in my Book, and nothing more, my Maha. You must believe me.”

That was the case that he had made for himself, but the Mahamonk had not believed him. The Maha believed Jacob had fallen from the grace of the Word, that he had been possessed by demons.

“You are lying, Jacob,” he had said during that final meeting. “You are no better than the common street poet, proclaiming his inspiration to the ignorant masses. You have abandoned your calling, your Order, your Word and your Book. You are a disgrace to the Brotherhood, and you are hereby banished. Speak no more to me with your forked tongue. Leave immediately and sing your cursed poems to the other fools of the desert, for they will be your neighbors now.”

On some days, Jacob would find himself returning to the familiar refrain of I am writing I am writing I am writing or I am writing all blessed day long and he would long for the company of his fellow monks. At the same time, he would curse the simplicity of their lives, their cowardly escapism and false purity. I am the only one truly in and of this world, and thereby the world beyond, he said to himself, in self-justification, in self-consolation, and perhaps also in truth, for Jacob had become the true ascetic, the genuine seeker. Oh how they take even their porridge and warm water for granted, he cried to himself. What a tower of mortal pleasures they live in! Nevertheless, despite his moral indignation, at times, Jacob longed for the simple comforts of his former life.

On the fourth anniversary of his exile, having set up camp at the far end of the desert, three thousand miles from the monastery, Jacob ceremoniously threw his Book into the river. He wept as he watched it float away on the gentle current. He fell to the ground and repented. With this act, he let go of his past, of his desire, of his self — and he was profoundly transformed. Nevertheless, he still identified himself as a transcriptor at heart, and he still felt it was his calling to uphold the noble paradox: It Is Written, So We Must Write It. So he sat crosslegged by the river and opened a journal. Blank pages stared back at him, taunted him. But slowly, with trained concentration, his eyes, ever so slowly, began to make out words written on the pages, and so he passed his hands over the words that he saw take form before him, however ghostly they may have first appeared. He gave real ink to what had already been inked by the invisible hand of the Word. Such was his conviction as he wrote. Three more years passed in this way, Jacob filling book after book after book with witness, testimony, scripture and poetry.

“How come he no longer writes?” one of Jacob’s students asked another.

“He writes with his body,” said the older student.

“What does that even mean?” said the younger student.

“It means exactly what it says,” said the older, “it means he writes with his body. The world is the text and the body is the pen. You’ve read Book Twenty-Seven of the Works of the Glorious Body, yes?”

“Yes,” said the younger, “I think so.”

“Well, read it again.”

The two young monks continued their transcriptions. Jacob had eleven students now. That was enough, more than enough. He was eighty-seven years old, and he spent most of his days tracing forms in the air with his fingers. Beautiful, vanishing forms. He also sat in his study and conducted interviews with his disciples, a few of whom had fled the Brotherhood of the Word on the far side of the desert. One student of Jacob’s had been exiled exactly as Jacob himself had been exiled as a young man. This young novice John often barraged old Jacob with questions about the subtle distinctions between the world, the body, and the text. Naturally, John would become Jacob’s successor. And so Jacob’s nearly every thought concerned the proper training of this single, most promising student.

“I have fear,” said John. “Great fear.”

“About what?” asked Jacob.

“I don’t know exactly,” said John. “Mostly about the steadiness of my hand as I transcript.”

“Fear not,” said Jacob. “The Word shall keep your hand steady.”

“But sometimes,” the novice continued, “sometimes it shakes and I mistranscript a letter.”

A cry escaped Jacob. His outburst was pathetic, but brief, and he accepted that his old heart was so tired that perhaps he must allow himself a few tears.

“It’s all right, my boy,” said Jacob. “Your hand may shake.”

“But what then?” said John. “What happens when I can no longer hold steady to the form of the letters? What then?”

Jacob paused, and listened to the sounds of the birds outside his window.

“’What then?’?” Jacob echoed the young man’s question.

“Yes,” said John, “what then? What happens when I slip from the form of the letters?”

“Then you learn,” said Jacob, “that there are no letters, there are no words, there is no text, there is no body, and there is no world.”

“But what does that even mean?” said John.

“Indeed, what does that even mean?” said Jacob. He knocked his cane on the hardwood floor of his study, and the sound traveled to the ears of his assistant sitting outside the door, who promptly brought in a pitcher of water and filled their glasses.

“Will that be all, sir?” asked the assistant.

“Yes,” answered Jacob, with a modest bow. “That will be all.”