the stinkbug and the imagist

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

–William Shakespeare, King Lear

(Warning: this post contains a graphic image.)

If you grow up in a redwood forest, as I did, you live with the daily knowledge that your home is under attack. Some of these attacks take relatively acceptable forms, such as the dissolved acids that eat away at the water pipes, or the skunk that gets trapped in the garbage can. But the house is also invaded daily by large black creatures that look like this:
and they are out for blood
Faced with a threat of this nature, you might, if you were seven years old, suddenly hit upon the idea of picking up the stinkbug, pulling off one of its legs, and then setting it down facing the open door. From there, presumably, the bug could wander back outside, telling all the other stinkbugs a cautionary tale about what horrible experiences await them in “The House.”

That is not what happened. What happened, first, is that the stinkbug — very slowly and carefully — lifted its abdomen temporarily off the ground, apparently to see if such a thing was still possible. It stayed upright on its remaining legs for about half a second before collapsing. Then, again very slowly, it started turning itself around 180 degrees. Its abdomen dragged on the ground, and the wound oozed a white paste. Then, once the stinkbug was again facing the fathomless interiors of The House, it began to crawl again, in precisely the same direction as before. Its body would rise and crash, rise and crash again, as though it was galloping in slow motion. Eventually I had to just pick it up and carry it outside, myself.

What strikes me now about this incident, other than what a terrible little dude I was that day, is how self-evident its course of action was to the stinkbug. It had never read Camus. It was not filled with a sense of existential purpose. Yet if I had pulled off another leg, it would still have kept going. Leg or no leg, something wonderful was awaiting it deeper in The House, and it was going to get there or die trying. Even if you have never seen this yourself, I am sure you have seen the dry carcasses of flies and bees beside a windowpane, against which they charged senselessly, fully expecting open air, until the last calories stored in their small bodies were exhausted.

People are not so terribly different. We do not live in a world inhabited by billions of existentialists, all of whom actively refuse, every day, the consolations of suicide. In fact, Camus was wrong. Suicide is not the “only” philosophical problem. Yes, seeking death is a radical act, but many decisions lead us into uncharted territory. Like any human project, you may not even succeed, in which case you are right back where you started: a part of the world. The only philosophical problem is still the question, “What is the good?” Whatever you think the answer is, that is where you will tend, even if you must hobble there, or feel your way forward in darkness. You can decide to embrace new ideals, but having an ethos of some kind is not a choice. (Yes, Walter overestimated those nihilists.)

In essence, this is how I’d begin to respond to Nicholas Bourbaki’s fantastic travesty of The Book of Job, which I posted here on Saturday. The wager with Satan isn’t really a wager God can lose. No matter how many detours present themselves, we still make our way, however slowly, toward our own idea of paradise.

But most of what Bourbaki says about the story is true. Some of it, such as his disgust with Job’s friends, is important in the original narrative. Not only is Bourbaki disgusted with the friends, but so is God, who forces them at the end to make sacrifices in Job’s name.

When the friends talk to Job, they are of course interested in getting him to confess to something. From their point of view, if Job’s bad luck can’t be connected to Job’s sins, then the same fate could befall anyone: Job might be contagious. To ward off the threat of blasphemy, each of the men gives a speech on divine justice, and each of them uses metaphor as a way of enlisting the world on behalf of God’s morality.

So, for example, good ol’ Eliphaz (you remember, the Termanite) calls forth oceans of justice:

You cheated your dearest friends, stripped your debtors naked, stole food from the hungry, let the destitute starve, spat on widow and orphan, laughed in the beggar’s face. That is why pain surrounds you and sudden terror has struck you. Light is turned to darkness, and the waves close over your head. Since God is far up in heaven, higher than the highest stars, you thought, “What does he know? Can he see through the thicket of clouds? How can he judge my actions, as he walks on the rim of the sky?” Why do you keep on sinning, as the wicked have always done? They were cut off before their time; they were swept away in a flood.

This does nothing for Job, and it’s a bore. It’s pointless to remind Job of the Flood, since Job read that story the same way everyone does, as a story about how great Noah was, and how nicely God treated Noah in return.

On the other hand, here’s what God says to Job (here I’m using the Robert Alter rather than the Stephen Mitchell translation, since Mitchell screws this part up royally):

Look, pray: Behemoth, whom I made with you, grass like cattle he eats. Look, pray: the power in his loins, the virile strength in his belly’s muscles […] Look, he swallows a river at his ease, untroubled while Jordan pours into his mouth. Could one take him with one’s eyes, with barbs pierce his nose? Could you draw Leviathan with a hook, and with a cord press down his tongue?

The word that keeps recurring here is “look.” These are not merely a bunch of rhetorical questions; they are an invitation to look at something incredible. For the reader, after the suffocating didacticism of the Termanite and his cronies, this blows open the text’s dusty shutters and lets all manner of Spring rush in. Not only is Job confronted by a talking whirlwind, which would be pretty exciting all by itself, but there’s a plunge immediately afterward into the trackless, unreckoned depths of the sea, where monsters hold court in the indigo.

When I was younger, a friend of mine became deeply and severely depressed, so much so that he was forced to stay at home. He was not Job; the only thing he’d really lost was peace of mind. However, to a depressed person, everything turns to sand. He was unable to work, and felt incapable of socializing. Friends and family seemed to be making fun of him. He couldn’t focus on anything intellectual, and considered himself permanently mentally debilitated. Arguing with him about any of this was pointless.

The only thing he could stand was watching nature documentaries. He was insatiable; he could watch an entire Richard Attenborough series in a single day. Sometimes I would join him in watching them, although I hated to do it, because I already knew the factoids included in the narration. I wish now, recalling how much peace it brought him, that I had been more patient. I remember very clearly an afternoon we spent watching a special about whales, with which he was totally obsessed.

You have to see this! he yelled from the living room, when we were coming up on a particularly rare piece of footage, showing an entire pod of whales protecting its calves.

His eyes were all alight. Look!