Once there was a young man named Otalp who did not like the world very much. The source of his discontent was simple: the world kept failing to live up to his desires and expectations about how it ought to behave.
For example, he would take a paper and compass and draw a circle, and sit back in admiration of its seeming perfect roundness. But when he looked closer, when he put his nose right up against the paper, he could see the imperfection of the line, the little variations and smudges that the pencil left on the page, the slight deviations as the center of the compass failed to be perfectly still, the roughness of the grain of the paper. Every single round thing that he looked at failed to exhibit the perfect roundness that his geometry textbooks had promised him.
And of course it only got worse when he left his study and went out in the natural world. Each tree had the unmitigated gall to be different from every other. He couldn’t even find two tress of the same species, two oaks or two pines, that were the same. The disorder of nature always seemed to be on the verge of overwhelming his nice, neat, clean, simple, ordered, perfect ideas.
And people? Don’t even start! To go out into the marketplace, where the simple rules of supply and demand were supposed to be carried out by rational actors along lines of enlightened self-interest, and instead be faced with flagrant appeals to emotion, with passing fads and irrational decisions of all types — it was maddening. And that was to say nothing of the chaos of politics, religion, and family life.
And then there was that greatest disappointment of all: death. The ideas that he loved, the roundness of the geometer’s circle, the inarguable perfection of a syllogism, the well-ordered words of a poem or the perfectly timed and ideally harmonious notes of a musical composition — these were eternal and unchanging. Death and decay and renewal and change, the ceaseless churn of the physical world, all seemed…unseemly, somehow déclassé, to young Otalp.
As disappointing as Otalp found nature, it was sometimes easier on his brain to go out into the wilds than to remain in town among irrational humans. And there was one barren, rocky area that he preferred; while the rocks were still disordered, they were less riotous than the trees of the forest.
It was in this barren region that Otalp found his cave.
The sun was low when Otalp first found it, slanting light some ways down into the opening. So even without a torch or lantern he felt confident in entering. And when he did he beheld a glorious sight.
The small opening widened out into a large cavern, lost in blackness to the left and right and above and below where he stood. Some hundred yards in front of him, light from the opening behind him made a circle on the far wall of the cave.
A perfect circle! His eyes could find no deviation in its roundness. His heart lept in his chest.
Now, the skeptical reader may well wonder at the perfection of this circle. How well could Otalp determine this from hundreds of yards away? Just what is the resolving power of the human eye for the edge of a bright spot in darkness? Had he been able to approach closer to the far wall of the cave, would he not have found this circle to be at least as disappointing as any other?
And the answer is that, yes, had he been able to look more closely, he would have been disappointed. But he could not. The gulf of the cave kept his from closer inquiry. And so thanks to the restriction of circumstance Otalp saw for the first time what he had wanted to see for so long: an unsullied manifestation of a perfect idea.
Otalp stood there lost in rapture, as the sun got lower and lower in the sky, until it passed behind the hills and his vision was lost. His heart sank. How cruel the Fates could be, to give him such a glimpse and then take it away! It was yet another example of the unreliability of the natural world.
As, dejected, he turned to leave, he saw on the side of one of those hills a wisp of smoke, and then a flicker of orange light. Some shepherd’s campfire, no doubt.
Of course! Inspiration struck him and he marched quickly up the hill. “Pardon me, good sir shepherd, but you seem to have some skill with fire. Is that right?”
“Well, I can build a fire, if that’s what you mean.”
“Wonderful! I would like to hire you to build a fire for me and keep it gong through the night. I can pay you handsomely.”
The shepherd considered for a moment. “Well, I don’t see any reason not to take your money.” Arrangements were made, and before the twilight was gone from the sky Otalp was back in the cave, while the shepherd build a fire just outside. And the firelight fell on the wall of the cave, and Otalp again beheld his circle.
And more! A bit of smoke from the fire found its away into the cave and made his eyes water. The circle that he beheld was now refracted and split by the tears on his eyelashes into a beautiful, perfectly geometric pattern. (At least, perfect as far as he was able to determine.)
After a while Otalp’s body began to tire (again, the flesh failed him!), and he started to slump, taking the circle out of his vision. But he found that he could take his belt and tie his head to a boulder to keep it steady.
And thus, bound in one place so that he could behold nothing except the play of light and shadow on the wall of the cave, Otalp found at least the perfect ideal realm that he had sought. He could ignore the messy, complex, disordered, contingent world outside and live here. He had found his truth and his beauty. He was never going back.
(I have heard that, centuries ago in Greece, someone told this story backwards. I can only presume that was a joke of some sort.)
Saturday, September 12, I will be performing in the Gathering for Everything that’s Left, the Jay Houston Marx Memorial Peace Demonstration in DC.