Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Chronicle of a Demise
Greetings. It’s been quiet on the Madonna of the Toast front. It would be better for all of us if the media stuck with trying to sensationalize the latest Jesus image, as opposed to how it is attempting to sensationalize more pressing issues, issues that deserve serious and sober reporting and consideration: the election, economy, health care, war(s).
And then, as if some apocalyptic convergence of all the big, scary, impossible ideas that propel those issues – election, economy, health care, war(s) – writer extraordinaire David Foster Wallace hanged himself. You’ve probably heard. If you’ve never read him, you should, a short story or an article. Worthwhile memorials at The Millions and McSweeney’s.
So, I’ve been thinking about writing and writers, America, not that different from normal I suppose, but over the last few days tinged by melancholy. But is has yielded something, after returning to a seldom-read collection of Tennessee Williams stories. There are some true gems, but the story I felt drawn to the other day was “Chronicle of a Demise,” the title an ode to my mood. Guess what? It’s a short story that could have been reported here, a perfect accompaniment to these random, and questionable, eBay objects: Jesus (or an ogre) on a wood panel, Mary on a candle. (Where’s the wick?)
The story’s first person narrator belongs to an Order, which has a Saint who spends her days on a cot, up on the roof of an apartment building. Her charge: she tends to the Order’s articles of faith. They are cataloged in an old Valentine’s Day heart-shaped candy box. The items “were collected at random, in subway stations and under the seats of trains, in gutters and alleys of many different towns, even by theft.” After inspection by the Saint, a new item was either put in the candy box or a “Possible” box. As any regular reader knows, articles of faith can be subjective.
The demise in question is that of the Saint’s and her growing misgivings about the Order’s behavior. The “purple tinfoil” and the “wad of peppermint gum that Hannibal Weems had picked up on the steps of an escalator in Gimbel’s department store” revealed the truth to the Saint: “Matter is not what matters!”
With five simple words, the Saint's epiphany conjoins the two poles of belief – religious devotion and agnosticism – as they come around from opposite directions and become the same. The deeply religious can say it, and believe it, knowing that the divine is all that matters, that this physical, temporal world is but a corridor, a threshold, to something greater, something that is part of the Master Plan. But the overly-educated post-modern cynic can say it, committed to just how unnecessary the day-to-day can be, and view it as the proof of an ontological truth: the impossibility of ultimate or complete knowledge.
I bet it would have been fun to sit with DFW, discussing Tennessee Williams, Jesus stains and the media.