About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Chapter Three of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here and Chapter Two here

Chapter Three
“A Once-In-A-Lifetime Kind of Chance”

These are the Four that are never content,
that have never been filled since the Dews began–
Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the Kite,
and the hands of the Ape, and the Eyes of Man.
-Rudyard Kipling, The King’s Ankus

            A steerage passage to London was the most that their scanty resources could command. Perseus was reluctant to return to the capital and had argued against the idea, but Martin had quite rightly pointed out that it was the only likely place within their reach where they could put their new plans into motion. They could not afford to the passage to New York, and no one in the Parisian scientific community would dream of helping them after that expedition to the Congo.

And so it was that, two days after the death of Old Joe on the streets of Istanbul, Perseus Corbett was en route to his home country for the first time in nearly a decade.

            To avoid thinking of the fact, he spent most of the passage pouring over Cooper’s notebook, and especially the opening words:

            I have undertaken to write a faithful account of the events of the ill-fated journey that I undertook alongside the late Professor Applegate. The events described in these pages will differ considerably from the narrative which I and the others of our party presented to the world regarding the deaths of Professor Applegate, John Miller, and the comaradas, Simplicio and Gomez, but I hope the reason for our deception will become clear over the course of my narrative. It was agreed between ourselves (that is to say, between Professor Arnold Prosser and myself) that, in the light of the fantastic things we witnessed, that the truth simply would not be acceptable, all the more so in that we did not and do not understand just what it is we have discovered. I hope that my narrative shall make this clear. 

As for why I have determined, with the concurrence of my friend, to write the true account these four years later, that is far simpler. I shall be going to the Front soon. If I do not return, as seems all too likely, then the truth risks being lost forever. Prosser is in poor health; he never quite recovered from the experience. As I feel that some whom we have deceived, particularly Mrs. Applegate and her children, have a right to know the truth, I am now committing these memories to paper while I am still able to. If they ever read this, I can only beg their forgiveness for the deception we have played upon them.

            At the same time, I must beg them, if they ever do read these pages, to never allow them to become public. I hope, when they have read my account of what we found, they shall feel the same. The Treasure House of the Gods, the man called it. That was enough to tempt us to that damn valley, and it sure would be enough to tempt others.

            What followed was a strange and rather rambling narrative, written in an often difficult hand. Cooper had been a big game hunter and British Army Officer who was commissioned by Professor Applegate, an eminent zoologist, to take him and some companions up a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon, called “Rio Noite,” or the River of Night on account of its black coloring.

            The first part of the narrative was merely a summary of his own life and how he had become involved in the expedition on recommendation of a friend of his named John Miller, who would become one of the expedition’s casualties. Several more were taken up with an account of their journey to and up the Noite.

            Then came the interesting part.

            One evening, when it came time to make camp, they spotted a large black stone idol beside the river and, against Cooper’s advice, had decided to make camp there, as they had already been some time looking for a landing place. One of the comaradas, or native bearers, a man named Gomez, then said that he had seen this same idol before. His tale was that he had been part of a surveying expedition with a Brazilian army officer some years before, which had followed the Noite to a little beyond this point until fever and lack of supplies forced them to turn back. It was, he said, on their return journey that they found the idol, and what was far stranger, there was a man sitting beneath it. An ancient man, almost like a mummy. Thinking he might be lost and in need of help, they stopped and approached him. When they spoke to him, the man began to chant in fluent Portuguese:

            “Forbidden. Forbidden. Forbidden. Three days to the rising sun is the place forbidden.

            However they addressed him, he never said anything else. He died that very hour, and they buried him beside the Amazon. But he, Gomez, said that when he had asked his father about it after returning, he said that the ‘place forbidden’ was a place in many of their legends; the Treasure House of the Gods.

            Once the man had shared his story, Professors Applegate and Prosser had become immensely curious to know what this ‘place forbidden’ might be. Cooper himself was intrigued by the name ‘Treasure House of the Gods.’ After some more consultation, it was decided that part of the expedition should attempt the three-day journey into the jungle, just to see what, if anything, was out there. Cooper, Miller, Applegate, and Prosser, along with two comaradas (including Gomez) went off into the jungle, leaving the rest of the party behind.

            After three days’ journey, they indeed found the place; a great valley or pit in the middle of the jungle, with walls so steep that it would be impossible for anything to climb out of it.

            “What struck the eye the most, however, was that at the exact center…”

            But here the manuscript broke off in mid-sentence.

            It was intensely frustrating to have so tantalizing and yet so incomplete a narrative. If it were not for that introduction, there would be little to interest him.

            Yet, throughout there was something; a sense that it was not only fear of not being believed that compelled the two men to hold their tongues. Whatever they had found there, it had astonished them, frightened them even, though wonder as much as horror was likewise stamped on every page. 

            Perseus bitterly wished that he had the whole thing, particularly the account of what they actually found in the valley that had been so fantastic or so terrible as to make it impossible to render a true account to the world. But even these faint hints were enough to awaken the very feelings that Cooper had hoped to avoid. Perseus was now dead set on finding the valley for himself and discovering what it contained.

            Other than his burning curiosity and frustration over the incomplete narrative, and his anxiety at the thought of returning home, it was a perfectly comfortable voyage. When he wasn’t studying the book, Perseus and Martin walked about on deck, exchanging greetings with the other passengers and forming plans.

            They had already decided that it would require professional support to fund and equip an expedition to the valley. The two of them could not practically travel into the depths of the Amazon and carry out whatever was to be found there, even if they had money for passage and equipment. The account in Cooper’s book was unfortunately spare, but Perseus thought there was enough to convince someone of the location’s being of archeological or zoological significance, if they could be convinced of the book’s veracity.

            Martin was more skeptical. He thought the book as likely to put off any potential backers as otherwise, and in any case two vagabonds such as themselves showing up with a wild tale of lost worlds in the Amazon was not likely to get much of a hearing.

            “Of course,” he said as they walked about the deck one afternoon. “We may have better success if we had a contact; someone well-known in society and of good reputation.”

            “Naturally,” said Corbett. “But what good is that? We don’t. At least, not in English society. Perhaps if we work our way across to America…”

            “Pardon me, but I believe we do,” said Martin.

            “Do you? Then it must be one of your governor’s cronies; remember, I haven’t been in the country since the end of the war.”

            “Yes, but before that, as I recall…”

            Perseus saw what he was getting at and felt his stomach clench. He looked around, saw a thin, spectacled man reading a newspaper nearby and pulled Martin away.

            “If you mean Lady Elizabeth Darrow,” he said sharply, lowering his voice. “That is out of the question.”

            “And why if I may ask?”

            “In the first place, it is odds on against her remembering me at all. In the second, I do not intend to show up after all this time to beg her for money. And in the third…well, those two will do.”

            Martin’s well-trained eyebrows rose a little, but he only said, “As you wish,” and let the subject drop.

            They discussed other plans for a time, but they all shipwrecked on the same problem; that they needed money, and this journey was taking most of what they had.

            “If I may,” said Martin at last. “Perhaps the simplest solution would be best. This valley is not going anywhere. If we were to once more ply a trade for a time, save our wages, we may be able to arrange something within a few months.”

            Perseus hated this solution. It was, he knew, very sensible, but it meant delay, and the recent allusion to Elizabeth had made him all the more impatient. He could almost see her now, ensconced at Sangral with her husband, whom he pictured as a fat, old man rolling in money and who didn’t care tuppence for her. The thought of it was like burning venom in his veins, though it was not nearly so painful as another possibility, which Perseus never allowed himself to imagine; that of her married to a good man who loved her dearly, and whom she cared for more than she had ever cared for him…

            But though he didn’t like the plan, he accepted it, at least for the present. They went to dinner and Martin retired to their cabin, while Perseus, restless and irritable after their conversation of the afternoon, paced the deck for several hours more, fingering the silver medal about his throat.

            Though she was constantly in his thoughts, it had been some time since Elizabeth’s name had been mentioned between them, and Perseus was surprised by the vehemence of the emotions that had been aroused by it. It made him feel old; old and tired. The years behind him seemed to blend together into a haze of wasted time and opportunity. If only he had done this, or that, or not done the other, then he might have been rich long ago and things might have been different. If only…

            “Of all the words of tongue and pen,” he quoted aloud to himself. “The saddest are these; it might have been.”

            He leaned over the rail, watching the dark Atlantic pass by beneath him. Whatever happened, he promised himself, he would not miss this one. There would be no more delay. If he had to lie or cheat or steal, he would do whatever it took.

            “Nice night,” said a voice behind him.

            Perseus, shaken out of his reverie, turned around. The thin, spectacled man was standing behind him, leaning against the wall and gazing up at the clear sky.    

            “Yes, very,” said Perseus, glancing up. His instincts were telling him that there was something not quite right here. He looked closer at the man; thin, young, with a pronounced Adam’s apple and slicked, straw-colored hair. American, to judge by his voice.

“Had you been in Istanbul long?” the man asked.

            “Not very,” said Perseus.

            “You don’t mind my talking to you, do you?” the man asked. “It’s a bit of a habit of mine, talking to strangers on ship.”

            “No, not at all; glad for the company,” said Perseus.

            “You see, I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation this afternoon. You are an archeologist, I think you said?”

            “Something of that sort.”

            “Fascinating subject. Is that what brought you to Istanbul?”

            “No, that was a matter of fetching a package for a friend.”

            “Ah. Well, you see, I represent the Museum of Natural History in New York, and what I heard you mention intrigued me. You say you have found the record of an expedition that discovered an unknown region of the Amazon?”

            “My goodness; you overheard quite a lot.”

            The man laughed a little.

            “I’m afraid so. I was so interested I couldn’t help it. But I heard you say you were looking for backers, now I can vouch for it that if the book is verified, my organization would be more than happy to arrange for an expedition.”

            Perseus’s eyes lit up. It was tempting; almost, it seemed, too tempting. Yet something was off…

            “That is extremely generous,” he said.

            “I can understand your surprise,” said the other. “But see, it isn’t a matter of charity. See, I’m looking for a opportunity to get ahead in my profession; get away from just running errands for the stuffed shirts who run the show. As soon as I heard what you had, I knew that this was my chance: a once-a-lifetime kind of chance!” 

            “I feel much the same way,” Perseus answered. 

            “You have the book, of course?”

            “Oh, yes,” he said, patting his jacket pocket.

            “If I might take a look at it tonight, I could verify it and I could wire from London tomorrow,” said the man.

             Yes, definitely too tempting.

            “What is your name, sir?”

            “Dang it if I didn’t forget to even mention it!” the man laughed. “It’s Byron.”

            “And what brought you to Istanbul?”

            “Work. As I say, I work with the Natural History Museum.”

            “Is there a great deal of natural history in Constantinople?”

            Byron’s Adam’s apple twitched a little.

            “Well, see, it was like this; we were arranging with the Istanbul University to have an exhibit on Turkish wildlife, and I was trying to convince them to lend us some excellent specimens they have. That fell through, I’m afraid.”

            “And so you are going to London?”

            “Yes, I have family there.”

            Perseus nodded.

            “And, excuse me, but if our conversation this afternoon was so fascinating to you, why did you wait until now to mention all of this? Seems an odd approach to a once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance.”

            There was a pause.

            “My offer is perfectly genuine,” said Byron. “But if you don’t like that, I can make another one. How much do you want for that book?”

            Perseus’s eyebrows rose.

            “That is a bit of a shift in tone,” he said. “But I suppose I could consider letting it go for…ten-thousand pounds?”

            “Done,” said Byron. “I’ll wire for the money as soon as we reach London.”

            “Pardon me, it is not done,” said Perseus. “I said I could consider the possibility. Now that it has been confirmed as a possibility, I might reconsider at fifty thousand.”

            “That could be arranged,” said Byron.

            Perseus smiled and shook his head. The American was not very good at this game.

            “Exactly how high are you willing to go, Mr. Byron?” he asked.

            The American scowled. One hand had been resting in his coat pocket the whole conversation, and now it emerged, holding a revolver.

            “Not a penny,” he said. “Hand it over.”

            The hand holding the gun was steady. Evidently, though Byron was not a very good negotiator, he knew his way around firearms and as Perseus knew that the man couldn’t bluff, he evidently was serious.

            Perseus, who had been leaning against the rail this whole time, now shifted his weight and sat atop it. He folded his arms and once more shook his head.

            “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “And I don’t think you’re going to shoot me either.”

            “What makes you so sure?”

            “In the first place, if you had intended to, you might have done so while we were talking and spared yourself a good deal of self-inflicted humiliation. In the second, you have already given away just how important this book is to you, which means you cannot afford to have it go tumbling into the bosom of the wine-dark sea along with my corpse. As that almost certainly will happen if you shoot me now, I’m reasonably sure you will not try it.”

            He reached into his coat pocket.

            “Don’t move!” Byron barked.

            Perseus ignored him and produced his cigarette case. He drew one out and offered one to Byron, who shook his head irritably. Perseus lit his cigarette with a perfectly steady hand and tossed the match over the side before returning the case to his pocket.

            “Are you willing to get shot just to keep that book out of my hands?” Byron demanded.

            “Not at all, but as I say, you are not going to shoot me as long as there is a chance you will lose the book in the process,” said Perseus. “Now, if you have any sense at all – which I am willing to assume for the sake of argument – you will see that we are at an impasse. If you shoot me, I take the book to the bottom of the Atlantic. If you attempt to approach and take the book from me, you risk being thrown into the briny deep along with me. Or even just by yourself.”

            Byron swallowed. Perseus could almost see him trying to figure out a way around the dilemma.

            “So, it seems to me,” Perseus went on. “That at present your only options are to clear off and try again some other time, or to simply wait there with that gun in your hands until someone comes along and sees what a bloody great fool you look.”

            Byron’s face twitched and his Adam’s apple jerked with anger. But Perseus’s sketch of the situation was far too clear to admit of any argument, and besides which he was, as Perseus guessed, an amateur at this game. He was clever and had the stomach to kill, but he lacked experience. He looked up and down the deck, then returned the gun to this pocket.

            “Wise move,” said Perseus.

            “This isn’t over,” Byron growled.

            “It never occurred to me that it was.”

            Byron slouched off into the night. Perseus let him get a fair distance away before setting off in the opposite direction.

            His first move was to report the matter to the crew. He suspected Byron would be clever enough to get off the ship before he was caught, but it would at least keep the fellow busy for a while.

He made his report, truthfully as far as it went, that the man calling himself Mr. Byron had approached him regarding certain private papers he had and first attempted to buy them, then demanded them at gunpoint. Just what made them so important, he could not say, but evidently the man was a crook and a gangster.

            “I must say, sir, you handle the matter very coolly,” said Third Officer Otterborn, a cherubic little man with an enormous black handlebar mustache. He looked like less like a naval officer than like an opera singer, but he acted decisively upon hearing Perseus’s storing, and ordered a thorough search of the ship at once. “Sitting there and bluffing him like that; that took some nerve.”

            “Yes, I got that from the Royal Navy during the war,” said Perseus. “Suspect I’m not the only one present.”

            Otterborn smiled and nodded; two veterans of the same war and the same service acknowledging each other.

            “What ship did you serve on?” he asked

            “The Dauntless. Destroyer”

            “I was on the Intrepid myself,” said Otterborn. “Cruiser. Now, Mr. Corbett, I hope you will not think any less of the Cunard Steamship Company due to this regrettable incident.”

            “Not at all! One can’t watch one’s passengers all the time; wouldn’t want you to. Hardly the worst thing that could happen at sea, what?”

            Otterborn laughed.

            “I am delighted by your attitude, Mr. Corbett. But is there anything at all we can do to, ah, compensate for the incident?”

            “I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Perseus. “Good night, sir.”

            He made his way back to the cabin, confident that Byron would be kept safe one way or another, at least for the rest of the voyage.

            But in the meantime, this changed things. In the first place, it dispelled any idea of the book being some kind of gigantic hoax or delusion on the part of the old man. It also removed any doubts he may have had whether its secrets included any kind of treasure. Someone evidently thought it both real and valuable enough to kill for.

And that same someone knew he had it.

That once-in-a-lifetime chance of his was looking chancier by the minute. That meant that, even apart from his own fears, time was no longer something they could count on.

The rest of the voyage passed quietly, as expected. Byron was not discovered, making them suspect he had somehow found a way off the ship. This at least, as Perseus said, would give them some breathing space once they arrived.

            London. Perseus had not been back to his home city for ten years, had not lived there for almost fourteen, and had carefully avoided any news from England all that time. The old city was much as it had been; there were more motorcars and buses these days, and the smog was perhaps a trifle thicker, but it was still the same vast sea of people churning over the remains of age piled upon age, like ants swarming on a cathedral floor. 

            Having now been all over the world and having lived in tropical places, where the colors were stark and the people alive, Perseus was struck by how drab and pale the English were. They went about in browns and greys and muted colors, muttering familiar platitudes to one another in reluctant voices, as though the great ambition of each Englishman was to pass unnoticed in the world.

            Men, he reflected, had their wild and tamed breeds. He had lived among wild men; men conscious of their own power and exulting in its use. Here were domesticated men; men who, to the extent they knew their own strength were terrified of it. They were like a Mastiff who starts at the advances of a small cat, not because he fears the cat, but because he fears his own enormous strength and what it may do to the cat.

            There was something to be said for either side. At least in London the odds of being murdered in your sleep was rather lower than in, say, Senegal. But then, it was always depressing to see a magnificent animal reduced to pulling carts.  

            The first move in London, as they had settled, would be to find a way into the kind of scientific circles that could arrange for an expedition to the Amazon. Perseus left this in Martin’s hands. There was another, equally important matter that he alone could see to. For their financial situation was nearly desperate. Money would be necessary to approach those with money; they could hardly show up in the stained, battered clothing they had worn in Istanbul. And if, as seemed likely, their efforts took time, they would have to be able to live. Martin’s idea of simply working a trade for a time was no longer practical; they needed to get under way as soon as possible if they were to stay ahead of Byron and his people.  

            This left Perseus with a painful choice to make, for he had only one possession of any value, and he had never parted with it before.

            But this is the one, he told himself. The one that will make me. It is not forever.

            So it was that, not without a great effort of will, he entered an upscale pawn shop, slipped the Charles I medal from his neck, and asked for a price.

            “Hm,” said the pawnbroker, squinting at it through his glass. “Difficult to say…”

            “Perhaps I should save us both some time,” said Perseus, whose patience was already a little strained. “I know for a fact that it is real silver and that the object is of considerable antiquity. If you suggest a price under three hundred pounds, I will take it elsewhere.”

            The pawnbroker took the glass from his eye and glared at him.

            “Is that a fact?”

            “It is. I could take it to the British Museum and they would give me ten times that amount. The only reason I’ve brought it here is that I should like to be able to redeem it at some point.”

            “But look here,” said the pawnbroker. “I run a business; the question is not how special this is to you, but how valuable it is to me…”

            “And you cannot tell me that rich collectors don’t stop by here like clockwork,” said Perseus. “You could name your own price for this with any such man who has the least amount of brains. Look here,” he pointed to the back of the medallion. “You see that? Do you know what it is? Seal of Charles the First of unhappy memory. This was given by him to a certain lord who provided service to him during the civil war. Any collector with even an iota of historical knowledge would recognize that. Why, it’s as if I’m handing you a thousand-pound check!”

            Perseus didn’t like the words coming out of his own mouth. How often had he looked over that medal, tracing the ancient markings and thinking of all they meant; of cavaliers and knights, of horses and guns and swords raised in loyal and religious fervor. Thinking also of the hand that had given it to him. Now he was speaking of it as a mere bit of coin; a thing to be sold and made a profit off of. He hated it, but it was necessary for the moment. 

            The pawnbroker hemmed and hawed a while longer, evidently trying to find a way to dispute the indisputable, but in the end he gave in and paid out three-hundred and fifty pounds.

            “Look here, though,” said Perseus after pocketing the money. “I want to make a deal with you. I am soon to leave England, but I mean to redeem that object. How much, honestly, do you intend to sell it for?”

            “As you say,” said the pawnbroker. “It is a unique and very valuable object. I wouldn’t part from it for under nine hundred pounds.”

            “Well,” said Perseus. “If you will be so good as to promise to hold it for one year, then I will pledge to pay two thousand for it within that time.”

            The pawnbroker’s heavy brows lifted.

            “You’re rather sure of yourself,” he said.

            “I am,” said Perseus. “But think of that; it’s like money in the bank. Either you’re assured of two-thousand pounds within the next year or you’re assured of at least nine hundred afterwards. Rather a good deal that.”

            The pawnbroker ran a long finger down his chin. Perseus could tell that he was searching for a catch.

            “Very well,” he said. “I shall put this in the safe until this day next year. Until then, I shall eagerly await your return.”

            He bowed and Perseus, his conscience somewhat mollified by the arrangement, left the shop.

            This is the only way; the last chance, he told himself. It will be worth it.

Friday Flotsam: The Best Animals

I love dogs. I miss having one, and I hope (once I have a life again) to be able to get one of my own. That’s one of the many things I’m looking forward to.

Most people like dogs, and I think it’s fair to say that people in general like dogs (with a few exceptions). We like them because they’re loyal, trainable, and affectionate.

People like horses too. I haven’t spent enough time around horses to say that I like them, but I would like to like them (see above re: having a life again). There’s a great bond between a good man and his good horse; someone once said that “A good man on a good horse is the noblest creature to be seen.” We like horses, well, much the same reason we like dogs; they’re trainable, loyal, affectionate, strong, and useful.

It’s interesting: the animals that people in general love the best are not what we would ordinarily call the best animals. Chimps are the most intelligent animals, to the point they seem almost human. But almost no one has chimps in their houses or trains them up as pets. Chimps were never domesticated. Apes and monkeys in general are novelties. Same thing with the big cats. Elephants are domesticated, but only Asian elephants.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the animals that humans love the best and have done the most for are the dog and the horse, along with perhaps the cat. It isn’t exclusive, of course; you will find people who are particularly attached to just about any animal. But these two are the ‘elect’ among the beasts.

I rather think it’s something similar with God. The people He loves best are generally not those whom we would think are the best people. Love and loyalty and trainability (to put it in a somewhat flippant tone) seem to be what He values most, just as we do.

God, of course, is higher above us than we are above the beasts, but there is a parallel there, I think. Man is the summit of earthly nature, being both animal and spirit. The animals, therefore, are his responsibility and under his authority (“let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” Gen. 1:26). As man is to God, so, in a sense, are the animals to man, being his servants, over whom he has the power of life and death, for whom we are to care and nurture, partly for their sake, but primarily for our own. The highest thing we can do for the animals is to make them, as it were, a member of the family.

And the somewhat eerie thing about it is that when we do this, the animals rise to be something almost human. Stories abound of dogs saving people’s lives, displaying uncanny intuition, mourning by their master’s graves, and so on. They seem to sort of take a bit of our nature into themselves by being exposed to us and loved by us.

There are a few consequences I want to draw out here. First, I had never thought of it before, but I wonder whether the switch from animal power to mechanical power was quite the morally neutral thing that it appears to be. It might be that man was meant to have animals rather than machines as his chief servants, and that in turning away from them, we’ve lost a part of ourselves. The switch after came at the same time as, and indeed was a direct cause of, the dissolution of community. I won’t go so far as to say I think it was certainly a bad thing (much less that there’s anything to be done about it now), I’m only noting it.

More important, I want to draw out that point of the best not being the best loved. Qualities like intelligence or strength or beauty, while they are valued and admired, are not, in the end, what people look for in animals. In the same way, they aren’t what God primarily values, though good in themselves. I rather think that God sees our squabbles over who has more money or status or authority as if a dog were to try to impersonate a chimp. It’s not only doomed to fail, but it’s a matter of trying to trade more desirable qualities for less. Because even if a dog could become a chimp, he would simply find himself sitting in the monkey house at the zoo with strangers staring in at him, rather than curled up comfortable at home with his family.

Or to put it another way, animals that do very well and grow high in the wild are usually not well suited to domestic life. A lion does very well on the Savannah, probably much better than a domesticated dog would, but it would be a very rare lion indeed that anyone would bring into his house. In the same way, someone may do very well in this world, but what does that matter? The important thing is whether we are welcomed into the King’s house.

Keystone Truths: The Transcendent Manifests in the Concrete

One of the keystones for understanding the world, as I see it, is this: men desire the transcendent, but only experience the concrete.

I say we desire the transcendent. Freedom, love, justice, happiness, and so on. There are indeed people who seem to desire nothing but pleasure or material things, but in the first place these are the people who are, frankly, the least human, in the second, their general misery and the disgust with which they are held by the rest of the world shows that even they don’t really want these things in themselves. If all we wanted were safety, security, pleasure, and so on, then we would be happy and content once we got them. But we find (thanks to the experience of the past few generations) that the people who have these things in abundance are precisely the ones who are most likely to blow their own brains out.  

Yet we only experience the concrete. When we say we want ‘love,’ for instance, what do we mean? Well, we want a particular kind of relationship with another person, but what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis? It’s hugs and kisses and making breakfast and affectionate nicknames and jokes and touches and backrubs and so on and so forth. No one would say these things are love, but they are the way we experience it. A husband who cut them all out (and all other expressions) would have a hard time credibly convincing his wife, or anyone else, that he still loved her. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t very long, nor she him.

The transcendent must be embodied in the concrete for us to experience it at all. We see this even in the fundamental experience of language, in which ideas are embodied in combinations of sounds or symbols. And on the other hand, when we try to examine pure thought or pure belief or pure emotion, absent anything concrete, we find only a mass of uncertainty, assumption, and question-begging. Our interior life, the farthest removed from the concrete of our experience, is also our most uncertain. That is where our self-deception, our confirmation biases, the fleeting influences of the moment are strongest.

In short, we do not encounter ‘pure spiritual experiences’ in this life. As St. James put it, “shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.” (James 2: 18).  

This, as I say, is a keystone concept: man desires the transcendent and only experiences the concrete, therefore the transcendent must be incarnated in the concrete for us to experience it. That is, in fact, the particularly human experience. Once get this straight, and many other things follow.

Obviously, the supreme example of this is God manifesting Himself to men in the person of Jesus, and Christ offering Grace to mankind through the Sacraments. But other things follow as well.

One I want to point out especially is this; authority is a transcendent concept. As I’ve pointed out, authority is the power to create moral obligation in those subject to us (and I’m still working this out, so bear with me here). Now, this is incarnated in the power to enforce one’s authority (“For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” Romans 13:4). Authority is not dependent upon that power, but that power is how authority is normally manifested. This is due to the nature of our being; no one, not even God Himself, can compel a person to do good, we can only punish them for doing evil (which is a curious thing when you think about it; it is absolutely impossible for us to force someone to do good. We can inflict punishment on someone regardless of his will, but we cannot never ‘inflict’ goodness). Therefore, authority, which is directed to a certain good of the subject, manifests itself most clearly in chastisement.

It is, of course, right and indeed best if the commands of legitimate authority are obeyed regardless and chastisement never has to be inflicted. We ought to obey out of love and respect rather than fear. But if we will not obey, then the best thing the authority can do, what he is, in fact, obligated to do, is to establish his authority through chastisement. The father’s duty to his children requires that he punish them when they do wrong. The ruler’s duty to his subjects requires the same.

Nor is this contrary to mercy. Remember, mercy is a function of authority. Therefore, before anyone can show mercy, he must first establish his authority through chastisement (or at least the subject must be brought to understand that such chastisement is both possible and just). “Thou art great, O Lord, for ever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages: For thou scourgest, and thou savest: thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape thy hand”  (Tobit 13:1-2).

Violence, you see, is not contrary to mercy. In fact, it is often an essential part of what we could call the ‘merciful system.’ In order to show mercy, authority must be established, which often means chastisements must be inflicted and the rebellious subject made to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the authority of the one over him. Even if it gets no farther than “you acknowledge that I could grind you under my heel like a bug right now, correct?” that still creates sufficient authority to show mercy. It is only then that mercy becomes even possible.

Because as long as the other side refuses to acknowledge your authority, and as long as he thinks he doesn’t have to, then refusal to enforce it is not mercy but abdication: the refusal to act according to one’s responsibilities.

The historian Victor Davis Hansen put it very well (though I can’t now find where he said it) that “mercy means beating your enemy to the ground, putting your foot on his neck, and then saying ‘I am not going to destroy you this time.’” The code of chivalry was that vanquished enemies were to be spared: after the knights had done their best to kill one another, and one was finally beaten down to the point where he knows he will either ask for quarter or die, the victor was morally obligated to spare his enemy if he asked for it. Even if, as is the case most of the time, violent chastisement is not necessary, the very idea of mercy requires that it is a moral possibility.

You see what I mean by the idea of the transcendent manifesting in the concrete is a keystone idea? At once we see how things like war, the death penalty, soldiery, and so on are compatible with Christianity, even to the point of being necessary elements, at least in potential. “Blessed are the merciful,” requires that it be possible to show mercy, which means it must be permissible to establish authority.

This also pretty much defangs every clever deconstruction that we moderns employ to try to escape from inconvenient realities. To say something like “marriage is just a piece of paper,” for instance, is simply flat out wrong; it isn’t, but the ‘piece of paper’ (or at least the vows it records) is what the fact of getting married and bound to one another for life looks like in this world. You are not being clever when you point that out; I may as well say that your witty essay arguing the point is nothing but a lot of black marks on paper. Deconstructions, fixing your gaze on the material manifestation of something, is nothing but an irrelevant smokescreen.

Sunday Thoughts – Corpus Christi

I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.

Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.

And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.

The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.

JLJHIK HTH T MIM JLJLHIK

Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.

Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.

Chapter Two of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here

Chapter Two
Dead Man’s Gift

“I was first mate, I was, old Flint’s first mate, and I’m the on’y one as knows the place.”
-Billy Bones, Treasure Island

            Fourteen years later, Perseus Corbett was still a thousand miles from his heart’s desire.

            He was standing on a pier in Istanbul, before the gangplank of the steamer Aeneas, bound for New York, on a warm, clear night, and was just wondering whether he had forgotten anything. The visas were alright; perfectly genuine. He’d gotten them blank, but pre-approved from a friend in the American State Department a few years before, following a job in that country which hadn’t quite worked out. He was sure they had shaken off all pursuit, and in any case he doubted the Soviets would follow them all the way to Istanbul for the sake of retrieving their property.

            Said property took the very pleasing form of a young lady with shiny, jet-black hair and deep grey eyes, accompanied by her young son. Dressed in the rude garb of a peasant woman and clutching her shawl tight about her head with one white hand, the Countess Nadezhda Vladimirovich looked very little like the great lady she had once been, save for the distinction in her face and carriage, which all her fear and suffering had not yet erased. And though Perseus had assured her again and again that the danger was passed, her eyes nevertheless darted fearfully about and she clutched her son’s hand tight in her own.

            “I believe that is all, your highness,” Perseus said at last. “If you have any trouble in New York, asked for Daniel Kirby of the State Department and tell him that I sent you. Can you think of anything else, Martin?”

            He turned to his partner. Martin Halritter was a tall, straight-backed man with faded gold hair and a severely lined face that almost never betrayed his emotions.

            “I think not,” he said in a voice flavored with the air of Vienna. “I have spoken with one of the crew: Pierre Gustav. He is sympathetic to her highness’s plight and has promised to attend to her during the voyage.”

            “Then I think there is nothing more to say,” said Perseus. “Have a wonderful trip, your highness, and best of luck to you.”

            “Good monsieurs!” she said in her rich, husky voice. “I can never, never thank you enough! You have saved our lives! Still I cannot believe that you should run such risks, show such gallantry on our behalf, and to ask nothing in return!”

            “Oh, think nothing of it,” said Perseus, though inwardly he flinched a little. “No more than what a gentleman ought to do. Particularly these days.”

            “And to send us on to America,” she continued. “I almost fear to accept such kindness!”

            “Please,” said Perseus. “It is clear enough that Istanbul is no place for you. You had much better go to America, where you can be far away from all of this. You will have a new life ahead of you; a chance to start over.”

            He smiled down at little Foma as he said this. The boy had still not spoken a word since they met. But now that the moment of parting had arrived, he stole a furtive look at Perseus before turning away once more. Perhaps once in America, far from the horrors he had been forced to witness, he would begin to heal. 

            “I shall pray for you every day,” the countess promised.

            “That shall be most appreciated,” said Perseus with a bow.

            It felt odd to be saying goodbye. The had spent the better part of the past two weeks in company with the Countess and her son and had been through some very stiff times together. Smuggling them out of Soviet Russia had been no easy task, and it had cost most of what Perseus and Martin had been able to save. In such circumstances, twelve days are the equivalent of a lifetime, and the two men had almost come to feel that the countess were family. But they would not be going to America. There was, at present, nothing there for them.

            The whistle of the steamer blew to signal it was time for all to be aboard. The countess kissed Martin and then went to do the same to Perseus. But when she approached him, he held up a gently declining hand and settled for a simple embrace. Then they bid farewell to little Foma, and with a final, grateful smile the countess picked up her small bundle of baggage and ascended the gangplank.

            “So ends our attempt to retrieve the jewels of Russia,” Perseus sighed.

            “I should say we succeeded quite admirably,” said Martin.

            “Oh, I agree,” Perseus replied. “Don’t regret it for a moment. Rather have that lovely creature and that sweet little boy in the world than all the jewels the Tsars ever had in my pocket. I’m only noting that it seems a bit of a pattern with us, what?”

            He fingered the Charles I medal that lay concealed under his clothing. In the years since he left England, Perseus had grown considerably. He was tall and broad of shoulder, tanned from long days under tropical suns, and muscular from constant exertion. He carried himself much differently than he had as well. Long, careful study and practice had given decision and grace to his movements and eloquence to his manners, belying his shabby clothes. His brown hair had faded a little from his time in the sun, and there was a new thoughtfulness and cunning in his dark eyes.

            The two men sat down upon a set of crates. Perseus produced a battered cigarette case and they smoked in silence while they watched the Aeneas get underway. The countess, a small, dark figure on the stern, waved to them, and they waved back. Little Foma, they were pleased to see, waved alongside his mother.

            “It occurs to me,” said Perseus after the ship had begun its trip down the Bosporus. “That the problem with becoming a gentleman is that gentlemanlike behavior is not at all conducive to making sufficient wealth for a gentleman’s lifestyle.”

            “Indeed,” said Martin. “That is why most try to be born into wealth.”

            “Bit late in the day for that,” Perseus said morosely, fingering his cigarette and glaring at it in some disgust. “How much money have we got left?”

            Martine drew out their purse and counted.

            “About thirty pounds,” he said.

            “I suppose that’s just enough to start over, if we have an idea of where to start,” said Perseus.”

“I am quite certain you will think of something,” said Martin.

            Perseus glanced at him. He wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but the Austrian was too well-trained to give anything away by his face.

Martin had been valet to a count in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war. After having his leg shot off by the Italians and his Empire dissolved by the Americans, the count had retired in disgust to the West Indies, where he soon died and Martin had been left to ply his trade for tourists at a hotel. Perseus had taken him on to help dig up some pirate treasure, but yet another inconvenient revolution had left them with little to show for it beyond a fast friendship.  

            Ever since leaving England, Perseus had hunted treasure around the world. He’d gone to sea just before the Great War, did his part in the conflict from the deck of the destroyer Dauntless, and then scoured the globe for the chance to strike it rich, rich enough to make himself a gentleman. A mere business enterprise wouldn’t satisfy him; not only would that take longer than he wished, but the idea of working day after day in trade, trying to grow money like a farmer grew crops repelled him. He recalled the tales of the Darrow ancestors he had heard, of the knights and kings and cavaliers he’d read about in books, and the spirit of commerce seemed as far removed from them as could be imagined.

            No, a real gentleman, he thought, earned his place by deeds, adventure, and daring. It was not something that could simply be bought by accumulating enough in a bank account. At least, not as he saw it. Wealth, of course, he needed, but wealth with a history, wealth earned by action and daring, not by plodding.

            It had seemed straightforward enough when he began, and so it seemed with each new endeavor. He had dug for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, chased lost gold mines in the Rocky Mountains, sought hidden kingdoms in the jungles of Africa and India, dredged for shipwrecks in the East Indies, and dug for tombs in the Egyptian desert. Yet, somehow, each had left him as poor as ever, if not poorer. Many was the time he had stood at the brink of success, had handled ancient gold and hidden treasures, yet each time they had slipped through his fingers like sand.

            And something else had slipped away as well; time. Years ago, the thought had formed in his mind that Elizabeth was not likely to remain unmarried for long. In fact, it was likely as not that she had already moved on and forgotten about him. There was no particular reason she should remember him, let alone wait for him. This thought had grown like a cancer with every delay and failure he had experienced and was now like a permanent cramp in his brain. Since the end of the war, he had carefully avoided returning to England, or even reading English newspapers, lest he find his worst fears confirmed. As long as he didn’t know, he could still hope.

            Perseus threw his cigarette away in frustration and stood up. The Aeneas was almost out of sight down the Bosporus.

            “Come on,” he grunted. “I need a drink.”

            They left the docks and made for one of the numerous taverns that clustered like barnacles around the port. As they approached it, however, a large man in a black felt hat, with a closely trimmed beard stepped forward out of the shadows.

            “Excuse,” he said in a husky Slavic accent. “But I am waiting for some friends of mine. Have you seen them, perhaps? Two men, a dark-haired and very pretty woman, and her little child? They were supposed to arrive in Istanbul today, but I have not seen them.”

            Perseus carefully concealed the alarm that this question had raised. They had arrived at the port of Istanbul that afternoon and had immediately booked the Countess passage on the Aeneas, not leaving the docks the entire time. He was now immensely thankful they hadn’t.

            “I can’t say I have,” he answered. “Didn’t notice any particularly pretty women on our ship coming in, and I generally do notice that sort of thing.”

            The man smiled.

            “Most unfortunate; perhaps they have been delayed.”

            “Perhaps.”

            “Where have you come from, might I ask?”

            “Naples,” said Martin. “And you?”

            The man looked hard at him, which nearly made Perseus smile. He doubted there was a man alive who could read Martin’s face, if he didn’t want it read.

            “Oh, I have been here many years,” the man answered. “I have much business in this city. I am most apologetic to have troubled you. Might I buy you a drink?”

            “No thank you,” said Perseus. “We have business of our own to deal with. Good evening.”

            The man bowed and they walked on down the winding streets of Constantinople.

            “Well,” Perseus sighed once he was sure they were out of sight and that the man had not followed them. “It is damn good thing we sent her off when we did. I never would have thought the Russians would be so keen on getting her back.”

            “Nor I,” said Martin. “It is puzzling, that.”

            “What made you say Naples, by the way?”

            “I happened to recall that the Karnak was the most recent arrival, so it seemed to me the most plausible.”

            “Good lord, what a head for detail you have,” said Perseus. “Well, let’s find ourselves another tavern; preferably one without any Bolsheviks, if there is such a place.”

            They turned down a narrow street and saw what they were looking for up ahead; a hole-in-the-wall tavern, the sort no doubt frequented by sailors and local working-class. As they approached it, a thin old man came stumbling out and nearly walked right into them.

            “’Scuse me, gentlemen,” he muttered, though not in Turkish, but, English. “Much pardon,” he added in broken Turkish.

            “After you, father,” said Perseus in the former language.

            The drunk’s eyes lit up.

            “By God, is that a man of my own country I hear?” he said. “What are you doing in this forsaken place, my fine fellow?”

            “Seeking my fortune, as are we all,” Perseus answered.

            “Not I!” said the man with some dignity, drawing himself up straight and swaying as he did so. “Not I! I have found mine! Found it long ago. But I will say no more…no. Not another word. It is mine. Mine only.”

            “As you say, father,” said Perseus kindly.

            “Don’t you tell a soul,” he said, pressing a finger to his withered lip. “Not a soul. Mine alone. I shall go collect it one of these days. But tonight, I think I must go rest.”

            “Quite,” said Perseus. “Do you need any help, father?”

            “I need no one!” said the old man, pushing he way past them. “Mine alone. I need only time…yes. Time alone…”

            He stumbled on to the end of the street. Perseus and Martin watched him go, Perseus giving his friend a bemused look.

            “Poor old fellow,” he said. “Wonder what his story is.”

            “A sad one, I should say,” said Martin. “But common enough…”

            But then, just as the old man reached the end of the street, three figures jumped out and set upon him. The old man cried out, and struck one of them a solid blow, but was knocked down in an instant.

            “Here!” Perseus shouted, running to his aid. “You leave him alone!”

            The three attackers turned in evident surprise as the two men charged them. The nearest brandished a blood-stained knife at Perseus, who checked himself and raised his hands in defense. The assassin thrust at him, and Perseus dodged the stab and caught him by the wrist, pulling the man between himself and the second attacker while driving his fist into the man’s stomach. He grunted and dropped the knife, and Perseus pushed him into the second man.

            Martin, meanwhile, engaged the third attacker. This man was just bending over the fallen drunk, and Martin kicked him hard in the ribs, knocking him over. The assassin grunted, and tried to roll to his feet, but Martin caught him on the way up and struck him back to the ground.

            The toughs had evidently not been expecting anything like this kind of resistance. They had jumped a defenseless, drunken old man, but now they suddenly found themselves facing two young, fit, and experienced fighters. They stumbled to their feet and scattered as soon as they were able.

            “Bastards,” Perseus grumbled as he knelt over the fallen drunk. “Here, father; are you all right?”

            The old man was clutching his side, right under his heart. A dark stain was spreading over his ragged clothing and onto his withered old hand.

            “Thank you, friends,” he breathed. “Thank you very much. No one has done so much for me these many, many long years. Oh, but I have deserved no more! May God have mercy on my soul…”

            “Here now, it isn’t so bad,” said Perseus, looking significantly at Martin. “We’ll get you a doctor and you’ll be right as rain.”

            Martin nodded and set off at a run.

            “No, no,” said the old man. “It is over; I feel it. I have wasted my life; lost my chance.”

            His face suddenly became anxious and he felt inside his shirt. Then relief spilled over it.

            “It is there,” he gasped. “It is safe.”

            He drew out a small, square bundle wrapped in dirty leather rags and pressed it on Perseus.

            “I give it to you,” he said. “My treasure! My fortune! All I have in the world.”

            At these words, Perseus’s eyes lit up and his heart leapt in spite of himself.

            “What do you mean?” he asked.

            “Read it,” the man said. He was fading fast. “Follow it. And when you are rich beyond mortals, remember old Joe.”

             Perseus took the bundle, the old man’s warm blood staining his hands, and mechanically put it into his pocket.

            “Treasure house of the gods,” the man breathed. “Forbidden…valley…”

            His hand dropped and he breathed no more.

            A moment later, Martin appeared, a constable in tow. He paused upon seeing the huddled, shrunken old body and silently made the Sign of the Cross.

            Perseus and Martin explained what had happened to the policeman, and the body of Old Joe was given up to the state. The Turkish authorities, who had many such bodies, disposed of it in their own fashion, and probably no one in that city thought of or remembered the old man ever again. He slipped below the surface of history as a tiny pebble, even as the ripples he had set in motion began to spread.

            Perseus did not mention the bundle to the police, and it remained tucked away in his pocket. They went on their way in search of a place to spend the night and soon found themselves at a small camp of Tsarist refugees near a part of the city still scarred by the war. With a few quick words of Russian to explain that they were just fled from there, they were welcomed and permitted to take a small corner of the camp, under the walls of a half-ruined house. There, under the glow of a borrowed lantern, Perseus told Martin what had happened after he left and showed him the bundle.

            “Why did you not mention it to the police?” the Austrian asked.

            “I was worried they might take it in evidence,” Perseus answered. “Anyway, I don’t suppose they care, and the old boy gave it to me expressly.”

            “Hm,” said Martin, a faint crease appearing between his well-trained eyebrows. “What is it, then?”

            “No idea, but he said it was the way to treasure beyond the lot of mortals. Let’s have a look, shall we?”

            He carefully unwrapped the dirty bundle and found that it was a small notebook. Or rather, part of a notebook; the second half or more of the book had been torn away, leaving only the cover and the first few pages. Perseus opened it and read the following on the front leaf:

            “True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper

Friday Flotsam – Holy Irresponsibility

— I am determined not to comment on the news. I despise mobs, mass movements, and those who enable them, and my great desire is to be able to move to a nice little corner of the country where there aren’t enough people to form moving blobs of collective stupidity and then shut out as much of the insanity as I can.

— This has been a pretty unproductive week for me. I find myself ‘drifting’ quite often. This is where I’m trying to focus on one thing (such as a story or essay), but I somehow get reminded of something quite different and my mind chases after it like a dog after a squirrel. Usually I don’t notice what’s happening until a little later, by which point I have usually lost my train of thought on the original subject. I actually think it’s related to my anxiety issues; my mind’s kind of trained itself to think that if I don’t follow up on some point, I’ll miss something important. Of course, what actually happens is that I don’t get things done, which only makes me more anxious. Feeding the beast again.

The trick, as I see it, is to cultivate a degree of irresponsibility; allowing oneself to say “yeah, I might miss something important, but I can live with that” or “some people might not like this bit of the story; it might not be perfect, or it might offend someone, but oh well; such is life.”

This is, of course, a matter of letting go and trusting God. Trusting God doesn’t mean that we tell ourselves things will work it; it means trusting that He will bring us through it and accept us despite our mistakes and failures, and, consequently, that our failures aren’t really as important as we make them out to be. And if they’re not that important, then of course we shouldn’t worry overmuch about risking them. It’s rather like having a cheat code or a save state in a video game.

Faith allows us this holy irresponsibility. Perfectionism and with it a degree of Phariseeism is, it seems to me, built into a materialistic worldview. For those who must have material success, social acceptance, and generally the good things of this world there is an urgent need to do things right; to be the right kind of person doing the right kind of job and saying the right kind of things. This, it seems to me, is why so many people today are downright terrified of social opprobrium.

For (to depart from my determination for a moment) that is what I see in virtue signaling; in all those corporate behemoths and public figures crying their support of angry mobs, in the politicians who cower and grovel before the barbarians celebrating within their gates, trying vainly to pretend they don’t see what is happening (headline from the BBC: “27 police injured during largely peaceful protests.” In a sane world, that would be a joke). I see fear. Not fear of the mobs, fear of being thought the wrong kind of person. All I see in this and other such things is people on their knees begging and crying and willing to accept any kind of self-abasement not to be cast out, not to be hated, not to be considered “one of those people”.

Well, if you don’t trust in God, anxious perfectionism seems the only option. It’s hard enough to avoid with faith; we shouldn’t be surprised to see it without it. Holy irresponsibility; to be willing and able to shrug at the possibility that you might be doing wrong or that you might be imperfect, is one of the great gifts of Christianity.

Thoughts on ‘King Kong’

Chatting a little while ago with a friend (whose site you should definitely check out and whose work you should buy), we touched on the subject of the original King Kong and its relation to later versions of the story. It got me thinking about the film, and different aspects about it, and so I thought I’d give a rundown of my thoughts on it.

This is one of those films that everyone knows about, and knows the basic story to, even if they haven’t seen it, and Kong is arguably one of the great original creations of cinema. It occurs to me as I write this that it’s actually rather rare to have a genuinely classic story come out of the movies themselves; usually the truly great, pervasive works have their origins in some earlier work outside the movie screen. Even It’s a Wonderful Life started out as a short story, and Casablanca began life as an unproduced play. I’m certainly not going to say that Kong is the only such story, but it’s certainly one of the foremost examples (Star Wars would be another).

The story starts with Carl Denham, a motion picture director (heavily based on writer-producer-director Merian C. Cooper himself) who “makes motion pictures in jungles and places.” He has a unique idea for a new film and is under intense pressure to get started, as he is in a somewhat dicey legal position regarding the explosives he’s bringing. Trouble is, his agent can’t (or won’t) find him a leading lady, so he goes out to find one himself (“even if I have to marry one!”) and happens to run across Ann Darrow, a hungry, out of work actress as she considers stealing an apple. Struck by her looks and feeling for her plight, he offers her the job.

On the long voyage out (Denham doesn’t say where they’re going until well toward the end), Jack Driscall, the tough first mate finds himself reluctantly falling in love with Ann, who meanwhile easily befriends the rest of the crew. When they arrive on the island (“way west of Sumatra”), they find the natives in the midst of a ceremony to sacrifice a girl to ‘Kong.’ The visitors’ presence spoils the ceremony, but the chief spies Ann and decides she must be the new sacrifice (“Blondes are scarce around here”). The native sneak aboard the ship that night, kidnap her, and offer her to Kong, who carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscall, and a good part of the crew pursue him, encountering various dinosaurs and other dangers. Kong defends Ann from the other monsters and appears to be, in his own way, falling in love with her.

Driscall and Denham are soon the only survivors of the rescue operation and are separated. Driscall rescues Ann from Kong’s lair, while Denham regroups with the others. Kong pursues them to the village, breaks through the wall protecting it, and goes on a rampage until Denham stops him with a gas bomb. They take him back to New York and put him on display, but he’s enraged by the photographers’ flashbulbs and breaks free, pursuing Ann across the city and finally carrying her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is killed in combat with airplanes.

I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this film, but rewatching it for this review I was struck anew by how good it really is. Sure, there are a lot of things you could pick apart, such as Kong’s deliberately inconsistent size, the question of just how they got him back to New York, and Denham’s laughably understaffed film (which consists of himself as director and cameraman and a single leading lady). The old-fashioned acting is another aspect that some might have trouble with (this was made only a few years into the sound era and the acting style hadn’t quite adjusted yet. Fay Wray in particular never stops moving whenever she’s on camera), though if you’re going to watch old films at all you have to take them in their own style.

But the interesting thing about those plot holes is that they all exist for a definite purpose; they aren’t things that the filmmakers forgot about or didn’t care enough to bother with, they are clearly conscious choices meant to streamline the story. Denham having a more realistically sized crew would have added a lot of extraneous characters (as it did in the Peter Jackson remake). Showing how they got Kong to New York would have stopped the story just as it was reaching its climax, assuming it could have been accounted for at all. And Kong’s size, of course, is just a matter of making him as impactful as possible in each scene. The filmmakers slur over these bits in order to have the story they want, but these don’t detract from the story the way that say a major internal inconsistency would be.

Call it special pleading if you like, but I think there is a difference. Partly because what the film does leave in all pretty much works and works well. Denham’s reason for needing a girl, and why he can’t just stay in New York until he finds one, Ann’s motivations for accepting a dangerous and unclear job from Denham (it’s the Depression and she needs work, not to mention he’s already shown her kindness by sticking up for her before he even saw her face), her interactions with Driscall and the crew, even things like Denham’s reason for bringing her along on their first landing on the island (he wants to be sure to have her on hand in case he can get some filming done). There’s a reason for everything the characters do, and a reason that makes sense and fits with the characters they’ve established. Crazy as the film gets, the plot works and the characters behave like human beings.

That’s really something that needs to be drawn attention to. This is a simple, straightforward adventure fantasy, yet the characters are all quite well drawn. With one exception they’re not super well developed, but they’re clearly people, with all that implies. Driscall’s character’s established right away with his sharp questioning of Denham’s theater agent, and his first interaction with Ann involves him accidentally hitting her on the chin (they laugh about it a moment later, establishing an emotional connection in spite of his gruffness). He’s a tough sailor who doesn’t like having a woman onboard, claiming they’re “a nuisance”. By the middle of the first act, it’s clear that Ann’s a nuisance to him because he’s falling for her (his way of talking to Ann without looking at her says as much as pages of dialogue might have).

Ann herself is a sweet, unaffected girl who seems to enjoy teasing Driscall and gets along well with the whole crew, chatting easily with anyone from the captain to the Chinese cook. I like how she starts off somewhat shy and uneasy (shown by her being bundled up in a jacket while they’re leaving port), but is visibly more relaxed once the journey reaches its end, signaling to the audience how much time has passed, as well as letting us see how the trip is doing her good. Their romance is very lightly sketched, but charming; like a kitten with a big guard dog (another great little detail is how he’s visibly uncomfortable in his tuxedo in the final act).  

Captain Englehorn’s a rather interesting departure from what one might expect, being a dapper elderly gentleman (Ann calls him a “sweet old lamb,” much to Jack’s amusement), but also a thoroughly in-control and experienced captain who knows how to approach native peoples and speaks their languages. That’s the kind of character you really don’t see much these days, but was quite common back then: what might be called the blue-collar gentleman, a sailor or soldier who looks and acts more like he’d be at home in an office or school, but who nevertheless knows his job and can command his men with ease.

 I also really like Charlie the cook, who is amusingly dour (“someday me go back China; never see no more potatoes”), but good-natured and plays a vital role in discovering that Ann’s been kidnapped (how simple is that: he finds native beads on the deck, a very little bit of thought tells him what this must mean and so he takes immediate action by arousing the ship, just like a sailor ought to do in this situation). I’m sure some people would call him a racist caricature because he speaks the way a recent Chinese immigrant working on a merchant ship in the 1930s might be expected to speak, but he’s a very likable character, able to banter with the rest of the crew and being eager to join in the rescue operation (he’s also one of the few characters who returned for the sequel, Son of Kong, which is a whole other story, but at least shows that the writers liked him as much as I do).

Denham’s the standout among the human cast. He’s an enthusiastic high-concept filmmaker who makes movies in remote corners of the world at great personal risk, who takes big chances for big gains, and who has a tendency to shoot off without considering how his actions will affect others (as shown in his first conversation with Ann where he starts talking about how she’s in for “money and adventure and fame…and a long sea voyage that starts tomorrow!” before he’s even told her his name or what kind of job he’s offering her). But the thing is, he’s reckless, slightly myopic, and a little crazy, but he’s not a bad man at all. He places people in dangerous situations without telling them all he knows, but he puts himself on the line to keep them safe and he’s honest as far as he goes; he’ll hold back information, but he won’t lie. After Ann’s kidnapped, he drops all talk of the movie until she’s safe and only then hits on the idea of catching Kong alive. He’s also well-portrayed enough that we can see money isn’t really his object; it’s the achievement that interests him, which is why we don’t doubt him when he promises to share the profits with the whole crew. There’s a good moment toward the end when they’re talking to the reporters. Denham starts by directing their attention to Driscall, who gives credit to Denham, who gives all the credit to Ann. Note the basic, easy decency involved; each character tries to draw attention what the others have done rather than trying to elevate themselves. Again, it fits with what we know of them and reminds us that, for all Denham is making a terrible mistake, he’s still a decent man. Note that he also tries to warn off the photographers when he realizes that Kong’s becoming enraged by their flashbulbs (and I like that he realizes why Kong’s so angry: “he thinks you’re attacking the girl!”).

Most people come away from the film rooting for Kong and hating Denham, but it’s not so simple as that. Denham’s not the villain by any stretch, he’s a basically good man with big ideas who let his ambition outstrip his common sense and created a tragic situation.

I also want to say a word about the natives. They’re what such characters usually were in those days of cinema; which is to say, they’re Black people in grass skirts and coconut bras, who are primitive and superstitious, able to be scared off by gunfire. At first glance, many would probably prefer the terrifying, Uruk-Hai-like natives of the Peter Jackson version, or the unsmiling utopian natives of Kong: Skull Island.

Me, I don’t like the natives in either of those films because I think they’re too simplistic and one-note. The ones in this film might be unlike any real native peoples, but they are people. They can be reasoned with, they have clear motivations, and they react to the things going on around them in an understandable way. There are little human details, like how when the chief marches down the steps to confront the visitors, a small child doesn’t get that he’s supposed to move until his parents yank him out of the chief’s way, or the behavior of the girl who was to be the original sacrifice; she isn’t struggling like Ann does, but she certainly doesn’t look happy and she kind of flinches whenever someone touches her. Contrast this with the Jackson film, where they natives are just movie monsters, or Skull Island, where they’re just colonial penance figures (oddly, the only other ‘Kong’ film I’ve seen that achieves something like this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, where the natives have a similar blend of primitive simplicity and frank humanity: “The chief says you can stay, but he will not be responsible if the monster comes down from the mountains and eats you up”).

Of course, the big story here is Kong himself, and my goodness; what an achievement he is! In reality an eighteen-inch, articular model covered in latex and rabbit fur, the genius of Willis O’Brien brings him to startling life, one frame at a time. This is less due to the seamlessness of the stop-motion (it isn’t seamless) than to the personality and expression captured in the character. Kong not only moves but acts. He conveys genuine emotions in his face and actions, showing everything from savage rage to innocent curiosity and playfulness to sadness and confusion (his final moments on the Empire State Building are heartbreaking). This emotive power and personality is a large reason why he remains essentially sympathetic, despite some of the frankly shocking things he does.

Which brings us to the effects in this film, which are truly amazing, not only in their skill, but their scope. Once the characters arrive on the island, the effects are deployed almost non-stop with a prodigality that rivals modern CG extravaganzas. There are scenes that are jaw dropping in their complexity, such as Kong’s lair, which features matte-paintings, two stop-motion characters, separate inserts for two live-action actors, super-imposed smoke, and more, all moving at the same time, and all presented so seamlessly that most viewers won’t even recognize the scene for the masterpiece it is. Or just look at the scene when they’re landing on the island, in a wide beach shot with the wall in the distance and animated birds flying by; quick, almost incidental, until you realize it required two or three different kinds of special effects to pull it off.

Also keep in mind that it took about fifteen hours of work to get a single minute of screen time from Kong, and they essentially had only one take per scene. That this film is so free with its effects, and that they are so intricate, and yet so effective, is nothing short of amazing, especially when you remember that this was made only a few years into the sound era. Every special effects driven film made since has been following in its footsteps, and in a way none of them have topped it since.

But technical skill only takes you so far. It’s the artistry, even more than the talent that makes this film. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and absolutely dripping with atmosphere and imagination. Consider the main setting; an isolated, uncharted island shrouded in fog. An island where the people live on a narrow strip of beach protected by a giant wall so ancient that the natives have “slipped back; forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” On the other side of the island is a mist-shrouded, primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, under the shadow of a mountain shaped like a skull. Once the expedition arrives at the island, practically every frame looks as though it could have been the cover of an adventure novel or a fantasy magazine. The film is truly a visual feast.

Most importantly, it’s quite simply a strikingly good story; one of those rare ones that feels like it could have come from mythology, except that its subject and ideas are so thoroughly steeped in the modern era. The whole thing is centered on the clash of nature and civilization, and it could only have come from a time when man had achieved sufficient and seemingly growing dominance over the natural world. Take the most spectacular creation of nature (a giant gorilla), shown to be able to master any other beast from a T-Rex on down and pit it against modern civilization, the world of movies, airplanes, and New York City.  At the same time, there’s the idea that beauty is the thing that masters both man and beast; all the strength and power of either side is directed for the sake of a woman.

These are universal ideas, appealing to the very nature of man and woman, and of man and nature, and they’re realized with skill and a surprising degree of nuance. Unlike the remake, the film doesn’t really take sides in the conflict; we sympathize with Kong and feel for his plight and even like him as a character, but he’s also a horrifying monster who brutally kills any number of innocent people. Right there is the ambiguity of nature captured with the subtlety and accuracy of those who actually knows her. Cooper, along his co-writer/director Earnest B. Schoedstack had travelled all around the world and had lived in worked in wild places, filming live tigers and elephants in the jungle. Nature was not merely a political cause to them, to be advocated for from the comfort of a news studio as it is for most modern filmmakers; they knew her intimately and had no illusions about her.

Thus they portray the conflict between nature and civilization with a fairness so rarely to be found today that some might not even recognize it. New York is established to be a dangerous and unpleasant place in its own right, as illustrated by Denham’s comments about there probably plenty of girls in more danger then they’d ever see in the jungle, the view of the women lining up for a boarding house, and Ann herself being nearly reduced to theft. The crowds flowing in to seen Kong are likewise portrayed with an amusingly cynical touch (“Gorillas? Ain’t we got enough of them in New York?”), and of course it’s the reporters, acting against Denham’s warnings, that cause Kong to go berserk and break free.

But then, Skull Island is a pure nightmare; no fit place for human habitation. Even the savage natives who have “slipped back” from their own civilization can only survive by huddling behind a massive wall, one that they couldn’t have built and can only maintain. That is to say, even the natives are dependent upon such scraps of civilization as they have to keep nature at bay. There is no sentimental idea of ‘living in harmony with nature’ here. Kong may be capable of benevolence, and he’s a magnificent and even likable creature, but he is still a monster who could never possibly co-exist with people. Appealing as his pseudo-romance with Ann is, he’s incapable of considering her wishes or needs or comfort, and while his love for her makes him sympathetic, it can’t make him human. Once Kong has encountered civilization, his very nature means that sooner or later he will have to be destroyed.

That is precisely the tragedy. Kong’s fate isn’t the result of one or two bad actors, which might have been avoided had they been removed; it’s how things must play out due to his nature and that of civilized man (even if Denham had left him on the island after knocking him out, it would have been only a matter of time before someone else came along). If we’re to ask what would have been best, it would have been best if Kong had never been discovered. But then, we can only know that after he’s already been found. We see and admire the majesty and wonder of Kong, but only for a moment as our very meeting with him heralds his doom. Civilization, in its very admiration of nature, cannot help but destroy the thing it admires (note also the arrogance of Denham’s assumption that they can ‘teach him fear’ and so control Kong).

In the end, though, tragic as it is, there’s not really an alternative, because of the key figure of Ann. She’s both the most thoroughly civilized of the main cast (being a New York actress in a crew of sailors and explorers) and Kong’s first and chief link with civilization. The conflict with Kong is precipitated by the fact that he wants her, and obviously no one’s about to let him keep her if they can stop it.

So, what draws Kong into the conflict is his desire for beauty, and for that particular kind of beauty that only civilization produces. And of course, as a woman, Ann also conveys ideas of domesticity, home, stability, future generations, and so on: the things civilization is meant to guard and provide for.

While modern audiences may find it irritating, it was thematically necessary for Ann to be an extremely feminine, gentle type, in contrast with the strong masculinity of Driscall, the sailors, Denham, and of course, Kong himself. The former direct their strength and skill to her safety and comfort, while the later protects, but also grasps at her. She is ultimately the thing everyone wants and what they’re fighting over, and if we could sum up the point of the film in one sentence, it would be that men are strong and build civilizations all for the sake of keeping women safe from the wild dangers of the natural world.  

But of course, that same beauty is also the great weakness of pure masculine strength, precisely because it commands and directs it. However strong a man or a monster may be, his desire determines how he will use that strength. Thus is the great and startling balance of the world; lover and beloved, man and woman. The lover, the active principle, is in a sense dominant as he initializes the action, but the beloved, the receptive principle, is what draws that strength and so could equally be said to be dominant because she commands his power to the extent that he loves and desires her. The very act of desiring something means that the things desired rules over you to the extent that you desire it. This motive power of loving and being loved was how the Medievals understood God to move the universe, Himself unmoved. Hence, “it was beauty killed the beast.”  

There is a narrative going around that films of the past were simplistic affairs, black-and-white in more ways than one, and that modern stories have a more sophisticated, nuanced view of the world. I find myself that it’s often (not always of course) the opposite: modern stories tend to have a sheen of cynicism or complexity that makes them appear nuanced, but on closer inspection turn out to be rather crudely simplistic bluntly pushing a few ill-considered ideas and claiming sophistication on the grounds of they’re not being what you’d expect to find in an earlier film. There’s no ambiguity at all in, say, Avatar: natives are good, humans are bad, live in harmony with nature. Meanwhile John Ford was showing the ugliness and ambiguity of conflicts with American Indians back in the 1950s (see Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers, all of which, incidentally, were produced by Merian C. Cooper).

The 2005 remake of Kong is another good example (I don’t hate that film, by the way, but it is a massively inferior work), where the whole point basically amounted to feeling bad for Kong and disgusted with civilization. There’s a surface level verisimilitude in the dialogue and characters, but there’s none of the mythic grandeur or sophisticated storytelling or richness of the original. The characters themselves make far less sense (I don’t believe that Denham ever had the clout to film in wild, dangerous places or to have men follow him) and there is no ambiguity to it. The film practically hits us over the head with what we’re supposed to think about the whole thing.

As I’ve tried to show above, the original Kong, for all its gleeful silliness, is a very mature piece of work. It presents its story fairly without giving any easy or comforting answers to how we ought to feel about what happens, touching upon rich, deep themes in the process; ideas that, one way or another, have been with mankind from the beginning. And it’s just plain a really good story told in a very entertaining manner, not to mention being a technical masterpiece.  

There is a reason why the film sticks with you afterwards, and why it’s become such a classic.

I’m going to introduce a new feature with this review, what I call ‘canon status.’ A film or book or game receives this when I think it is not only a great work in itself, but also deservedly part of our culture’s storytelling lexicon. Canon status means that the work ought to be seen and understood and passed on to the next generation as a worthy contribution to the stream of human culture.

King Kong is undoubtedly a Canon film.  

Catholic Match – What Do I Have to Offer

My latest piece at Catholic Match went up today:

One of the ideas that comes up in job hunting is “distinct value add.” Basically, what do you bring to this company that no one else does?

The problem for many of us, of course, is that in most cases a truthful answer would be something along the lines of, “probably not much; anyone applying for this job has much the same skills I do, and unless you have a pulp fiction or Catholic theology division that I don’t know about, my unique skills probably aren’t going to be very relevant.”

Cynical sarcasm aside, I think this is a bit of a stumbling block for most of us in online dating as well, probably even more so; the question of “what, exactly, do I have to offer this person?”

Dating, obviously, is a different matter from job applications. But the trouble is, many of us end up approaching it with a similar mindset. We pull up someone’s profile, and she’s beautiful and has a lovely description of all the cool things she’s into, and pictures of herself doing amazing things, and then we look at the mirror and wonder why someone like that would be interested in someone like us.

We know our flaws, we know our failures, we know how, well, uninteresting we are. So, what do we have to offer? What is our “distinct value add” to this person’s life? And all too often, if we don’t have a good answer, we let the opportunity pass by.

There are a few things to be said about this.

Find out those few things are by reading the whole thing.

Stop Feeding the Beast

I struggle with what is called Depression, though recently I’ve had better success in dealing with it by stumbling onto a very important insight, which I call ‘Don’t Feed the Beast.’

See, Depression takes the form of extreme negative thoughts, sometimes explicit, more often present as a kind of underlying assumption. E.g. “I am never going to amount to anything.” That these are, objectively, often untrue isn’t really relevant; they seem plausible enough, and you can always point to something that you do or don’t do, to habits and facets of your personality that seem to lend credence to them (every lie has some degree of positive evidence in its favor; just ask Herr vom Rath. It is usually the existence of counter evidence that shows it to be a lie).

A lot of the time it works something like this: we sit down to work and hear the thought “You’ll never amount to anything, so why bother putting in the time? You’ll only humiliate yourself”. For fear of humiliation, or because we just want the painful thoughts to go away, we comply, hoping that, perhaps later, we’ll feel better. But then an hour or a day later, with nothing much to show for our time, it becomes, “See? You just wasted all that time doing nothing instead of working. That’s why you’ll never amount to anything.”

But if once we realize that our depression is based on the fear that we’ll never amount to anything, we ought to see that a reluctance to work is exactly what would make that fear come true, and thus in giving into that fear, we only make it stronger. We are feeding the very beast that we’re trying to escape.

So, per the advice of the great therapist Bob Newhart, stop it.

A lie becomes stronger the more it is believed or acted upon. The more you treat as if it were true, the greater the hold it will have over you. It may even become true in the end.

I bring it up both because I hope it’ll help anyone reading who has a similar problem and because I think we’ve been living this pattern on a societal level, especially in the Church, for quite some time now: acting on lies that we know are lies in the hopes of sparing ourselves pain. The attitude of “Yes, this isn’t true, but…” But we don’t want to be thought intolerant. But there are people like that out there (remember Herr vom Rath). But people might turn away if we make a fuss about it.

And in so doing, we confirm the lie and lend our own credence to it. By saying something like, “this is true, but we can’t put it like that because people will think we’re bigots,” we only vindicate that interpretation. We are, in effect, agreeing that this particular truth is bigotry and thus cannot be spoken, when what we ought to be doing is challenging that interpretation: not “that’s intolerant; we don’t believe that. We believe (same thing in weaker words),” but rather “we believe that and it isn’t intolerant because….” In trying to be charitable, we in fact surrender.

As with depression, we really need to stop it; to stop admitting to lies or trying to make accommodations because we’re afraid of what others will think about us. By so doing, we only, in fact, confirm their worst ideas by acting as if they were true. Then we wonder why we keep losing ground.

Stop Feeding the Beast.

Friday Flotsam: On Not Getting What We Want

On Monday I had a job interview, the final such one before the decision. It was for a job I dearly wanted, a company I have actual interest in, and in a location I wanted to move to. I was well-qualified, and the job promised excellent opportunity for growth. The interview seemed to go really well, with a lot of positive comments, good humor, and talk about what made the company great to work for.

This morning I found that I didn’t get the job.

Such is often the pattern, I find; a great opportunity comes along, one replete with every advantage. We pray hard, do all we can to make the most of the chance…and nothing.

The worst part is not just the disappointment itself, but the fact that we now have to go through the exact same tedious, Sisyphean process all over again, likely in pursuit of a far less desirable opportunity, if there is an opportunity at all. The question can’t help but come up ‘how many such companies / jobs / chances are there?’ To put it another way, “there’s plenty of fish in the sea” may be helpful advice if I’m a fisherman and all I am after is any old fish to have for supper; it really doesn’t help if I’m a collector and just lost a rare, beautiful, one-in-a-million fish that I’ve spent hours trying to reel in.

Times like these, it’s very easy to get angry with God; to feel like we’ve done everything we can and yet He still jerks us around. Even now I can’t help wanting to ask ‘just what do you want from me here?’

Hard as it is to believe, though, there is a reason for it. Don’t ask me what it is, but God’s will for us is always for our own benefit. This does not mean that I’m assured of an even better job down the line; having a good job might not really be the best thing for me, or at least might be an impediment to something better (obviously, I sincerely hope it isn’t, and it disturbs me to even write that). God’s idea of our good has very little to do with the things we are concerned about in this life, or even our earthly happiness: it has everything to do with our eternal happiness.

That isn’t to say God is indifferent to present happiness. This life is a part of our everlasting life, after all; the foyer of Heaven. I suspect that He is delighted when the chance comes to give someone as thoroughly happy a life on earth as could be and welcome him into Heaven afterwards. But unfortunately, that is not how things usually work, and if it is a choice between happiness now or happiness forever, He’s going to pick the latter every time, as should we. And if that means that this life is thoroughly and unremittingly miserable for us, He thinks that a small price to pay to have us with Him forever in Heaven.

Or perhaps as a price to pay to have other people in Heaven. Remember, He did not spare Himself or His nearest and dearest from the miseries of life, if it meant saving the souls of the human race. It may be that you could get to Heaven on very easy terms, but that if you did, this other person might not get there at all. If so, and if God thinks you can take it, then He’ll strip away your happy life for the sake of saving both you and the person you will never meet.

Hence, “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

This sort of thing is alarming to write, given that I feel I’m bucking for God to say “Glad you understand; now here’s a tedious, pointless job in downtown Detroit for you to work for the next three years…” But so it is. It doesn’t make it hurt any the less, and I don’t know that I would say this to someone in the midst of mourning, but it does at least help maintain hope and makes it easier to soldier on. God knows what is best for us, and He has a far better perspective than we do.

I find being a writer helps to grasp this point. Often times the fun part is taking a character and giving them something that they initially hate or which makes them thoroughly miserable for a while, and then turning that into the source of their ultimate happiness. This is one reason, for instance, I really like the romance between Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter books (spoilers, I guess, though you probably already knew that). They start our thoroughly disliking each other, and Ron even groans when he finds out she’s going to be in the same house with them. Then, by the end, she’s become the thing he wants most in the whole world. That transition and the final result is a large part of what makes that relationship (and consequently those characters) so enjoyable.

God is the great author, and He sees our stories whole and complete, while we only get it a page at a time. So, even when we don’t like His decisions, even when they’re the opposite of what we have been praying for, and we see not prospect of anything half as good, we may rest assured that He knows what He’s doing. “Just keep reading…”