“The Riddle of the Sphincter”
By H.Alan Tansson
When you encounter a title as silly and presumptuous as “The Riddle of the Sphincter,” you expect something crude from an undergraduate Lampoon, perhaps. How else would you follow up on such a stupid pun?
Well, I will show you how.
Despite its suggestion of filth, for we all know about sphincters, the “Riddle” is quite cautious and serious. In it, I have proposed A General and Special Theory of Riddletivity, which might also have been its title. I chose otherwise, with the more salubrious and wittier pun winning out.
To read this book, you must have a high tolerance for word-play. I am not a comedian, but a philosopher who sculpts ideas in peanut-butter, chicken livers, and hot pepper paste. My mental associations are meant to sound absurd and provoke a silent giggle, but I am unfortunately quite serious, knowing that some people eat bugs.
An author’s fore-word is usually the last thing written, as both an appetizer and explanation to the piece. In it the author often lists those who played a role in the book. I must therefore take a moment to introduce my co-author, Lector. He is a voice stolen from an old travelogue entitled The Path to Rome. In this book he interjects himself at moments which he, not the author, considers appropriate – making for a more interesting narrative journey. He has agreed to do the same for The Riddle of the Sphincter as well as several books written in conjunction with it under the title of “Squeezeplay:” Squeezing More Life into Life without Squeezing the Life out of It, Lemonade Lessons, and The Middle-Aged Strategic Self-Indulgence Initiative.
If you don’t like imaginary conventions of this sort, you may simply think of the Lector as my cat.
“The Riddle of the Sphincter” is not a joke to confuse the ancient and famous “Riddle of the Sphinx” with the musculature above our asshole. If it were a joke, it might be considered cute and a bit crude, but it would not hold itself up all that long. Whereas this story will last forever, and I’d lay bets you’ll forget you once thought of the title as a joke. I certainly have.
The sphincter is a type of muscle which squeezes, and only lets things go one way. We have several of them in our bodies. One is actually in the throat, to make sure food goes down and not back up. Unfortunately, this muscle only works with food and lets many words come out which we'd do better having swallowed. The other sphincter muscles are part of our excretory system to help many of us speak.
Here is the story. It was discovered in Iraq in a broken old pot with the number #1002 etched into it in Arabic numerals. Along with it were three other pots, etched with #1003 to #1005. In the discoverer’s zeal, they were first reported to authorities as canisters containing WMD, but on breaking the seals it turned out they contained scrolls. We believe the numbers refer to the sequence of tales in Burton’s translation of “The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights.” You will remember them as including the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. Apparently, the last four stories about an entrepreneurial merchant were never discovered, or else they were rejected by the earliest editors. It is our belief that #1002, presented here, is truly a literary weapon of mass destruction. Better that it was sealed all these years.
One bright day, a merchant and his ass were on their way to a famous market town. They had taken a small path through the bogs, since bandits rarely camped there to wait on travelers who came in ones and twos.
Approaching a crossroads, the merchant stopped and got down off his donkey. On the path was something the size of a cow. It was glistening in the sun, and appeared to be every hue of blue and azure.
Suddenly, a mud-smeared skull came bouncing towards them.
His donkey bolted into the bogs.
At this, the merchant winced, for he now realized he had accidentally chosen one of the many paths to the Crossroads of Truth, guarded by the Giant Beastly Sphincter.
In those days the word “Sphincter” only related to a fabulous snake. The merchant knew he was now looking at it. It was this snake that gave its name to the muscle, which you already know about. It is the one you use to squeeze, which only lets things pass one-way.
The merchant stood paralyzed, trying to decide what to do. Meanwhile the creature began to uncoil. Paralyzed or not, he was mightily glad he had gotten off the donkey, for the bogs around the crossroads were inhabited by the Sphincter’s children, who devoured anything that came their way. The Sphincter was more generous and gave every traveler a chance – first asking them a riddle first, before deciding whether they might pass unharmed.
Many adventurers had been to the crossroads and lived, so the merchant had a good chance at answering correctly. In any case, without even half an ass to carry him back, he stood paralyzed.
Now you need to know that the Sphincter’s tail ended in a squat little man, which was like a rattle to give the beast’s victims warning. It was this tail which had rolled the skull down the road. If you had been standing in the merchant’s shoes at that moment, not only would the points have curled up in fear as the giant snake slid towards you, you’d see its tail hopping in front of it, like a frog on a leash, dancing with a skull on its shoulders where its head should have been.
For you also need to know that the man-rattle had only arms, legs, and belly, as well as a tool. For the tip of the giant snake’s tail stuck out between his legs, and it was the size of a horse’s – nearly twice as big as the man-rattle. He appeared quite ludicrous without a head, dragging and pointing this giant thang, and when he became particularly excited, waving it about.
To picture this is rather funny, and even the merchant would have laughed if he weren’t worried about becoming a skull himself. Besides, if you were the merchant at this point, you would notice the man-tail put down his headbone on the ground, squat on it like a toad, covering the cranium with a steamy creamed black filth like a cow’s. Grabbing his tool, he swings it like a bat and swats the hot bone at you!
The merchant ducked, but not before the giant snake had arrived. For as he watched the tail’s antics, the Sphincter slid silently closer, and when he looked up, the Sphincter’s head was swaying above him, looking down.
And it is said that whether you are man, woman or beast, the Sphincter’s face is so beautiful you can’t take your eyes from it.
Indeed, the merchant was engulfed by soft bright eyes and the most attractive face he could ever imagine. The Sphincter had the head of a goddess, with a glowing hood of soft copper hair flowing to the ground all around him.
To meet the Sphincter was a most tempting trial. It was said her strange snake eyes could reach inside of you and draw you into her. With its victim transfixed, the Sphincter’s tongue would slip out and tickle your ear with its riddle, with its soft hair brushing gently over your forehead, cheeks and neck, you were enraptured and mesmerized. Even worse – as you stood there dazed and immobile, the tail would try to mount you from behind.
And so, with the tail bothering you from below and the tongue from above, no one could ever be expected to concentrate on the riddle.
But the merchant was quite clever when it came to riddles – which had been his pastime since childhood. Having the chance to pit his greatest skill for his life was one of his fondest dreams. So in this particular case, the Sphincter’s intended victim was quite focused on the task at hand, and each word of the riddle was like a clarion call, bracing his nerves like a shot of arak whiskey.
The riddle was this:
"What has NO shape and ALL shapes and none can bear to live with?"
It should also be said, that merchants know how to hold onto their wits as they bargain and bluff over the most seductive business deals. They are accustomed to having their skin tempted with soft silks during negotiations. And, in this part of the world merchants are also used to the roving hands of barbarian guides and camel drivers.
So without thinking at all, the merchant pushed the hair from his forehead and kicked the man-tail unconsciously away while he pondered the question.
"The snake's question is difficult, yet all in all there are perhaps three dozen skulls which it kicks about. A dozen travelers pass this way each month! Over the years there must have been thousands who’ve gotten by safely!!”
“This,” he thought,"is the REAL riddle!!”
“So I believe those who guess the riddle CORRECTLY are the ones who are killed!!”
He then repeated the Sphincter’s riddle to himself.
"What has no shape and all shapes and none can bear to live with?
Then he asked, “What truth kills those who guess the truth?”
As he thought over this thought, and contemplated the question, he saw the creature’s man-tail squatting on another skull. The three thoughts merged, and with a triumphant yell he exclaimed: “What evil shit! Such truth kills!!”
Drawing his sword with one hand the merchant leapt at the Sphincter's tail and impaled it to the dirt screaming:
Truth and crap
have no shape and all shapes
and none can bear to live with!"
In the same motion he pulled out his skinning knife with his other hand, and slit the snake from stern to gullet yelling:
“Those who say they cannot live with shit
can't bear the truth - that they live with it.
But those who know the truth and live it
fight with it to the end!!
With one last swipe of his knife he sliced off the Sphincter’s beautiful head, and rolled it and its entrails into the bog.
Not wanting to leave such a mess in the middle of the path, he dragged what was left of the remains to the cross-roads and dug a grave for it, and another for its crude tail. Over them he left markers with the following riddles:
Guess wrong, Live Long!
A head with no head on a tail on tails no longer.
After saying prayers of thanks for his presence of mind, the merchant gathered up one remaining bag which his donkey had been carrying, and walked on his way to the famous market town.
This ends the story of the Sphincter, which I know you have never heard before, since it is the first of four previously undisciphered “Tales of the Arabian Nights” (numbers 1002 through 1004, respectively).
I am sure you thought it was simply a bad pun on the Riddle of the Sphinx. But it’s not. It’s a secret story that will be hated by the self-proclaimed guardians of every pious truth that has ever been taught. For you see, one of the Sphincter’s children took over the job of guarding the crossroads, and people still go there, claiming it is the Crossroads of Truth, claiming they have solved the riddle. But the merchant found out its real name, and you know it, too, and nobody wants this secret out.
However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out the crossroads yourself. If you do, then this story will be a warning to approach it and its seducation with more care than those who have come before you. It could be a terriblifying experience, in which you will be seducated yourself, charmed and tickled by the head and violated by its tail.
For in those exciting moments of existential bliss, as EUREKA overwhelms our souls - most of us simply get the riddle wrong and afterwards think we gnow quite a lot. As you see, I have written an entire book about the great driddle– and being as I discovered the merchant’s story in a broken old pot in the desert – something so clever could not be a brulesque full of nonsense.
I was sitting in my local truckers' bar, a rather dark wooden place up a little incline from the old highway. You know these places by their parking lots which are mostly potholes and gravel so you can announce your arrival and departure with a quick burst to the gas pedal.
Some guy in a tank-top and a ten-gallon hat had come in for a six-pack, and a minor altercation took place over his right to wear a particular rodeo buckle on the hat. The altercation almost got taken out onto the gravel in the parking lot, but someone held back the man who knew his rodeo gear from the man who just liked to show off. Polite words were exchanged and everybody sat back as Mr. Cowboy Hat left with his six-pack.
"That guy's an ass-hole. It isn't worth wasting your time on him !" were the calming words of one of the two friends holding back the real rodeo man.
"He has NO RIGHT to wear that buckle in front of ME !! I'd like to tear his ass all the way up to that pretty hat o' his !!
Well, all that wasn't much of a surprise. The surprise came after everyone settled down. Because some burly guy with a beard in a leather jacket in the corner said with a big grin loud enough for the rodeo man to hear -
"Every one of us is an ass hole some time or other."
The barmaid was putting an upside-down jello cup (free drink) on the bar in front of the rodeo man, and nodded towards the bearded guy.
"it's on him."
The burly guy was looking at the rodeo man... who caught his drift and shook his head.
A couple people around the bar threw in their consensus, and then all these guys start throwing around stories about times they'd been the ass-holes.
And that's when I started looking for a reason behind the ass-hole-in-us-all. A few weeks later it hit me when I really felt good behind the wheel on the interstate, quite completely in control, and cut someone off just a wheeh beet close. Not close for me of course, since I was in control. But I knew it was close for him because his horn was saying "YOU ASS-HOLE!!" for several minutes and several miles behind me.
It hit me as I saw just when and where I was often the ass-hole. When I acted like (not necessarily felt like) a world revolved around me. When, indeed, I was self-confident and basically pretty comfortable with things. As if I am often faced with the Sphincter's question, hypnotized, squeezed, and then let go, happily thinking I gnow quite a bit.
LECTOR: Do you remember the old story about the limp-necked goose and the butcher? Or even better, haha, the one about the German housewife and the butcher!!
AUCTOR: Why are you interrupting at this most important point? This axiom is the unfortunate flipside to happiness and fulfillment!!. It is the most destructive weapon in my philosophic arsenal. It is the oddest odd against us!
LECTOR: "Odd" is not correct here. "Odds" are always plural. It is fundamental to statistics. There are no odds with a sample size of ONE.
AUCTOR: I love a helpful editor. You realize you have completely derailed my train of thought, jumped the engine from the tracks, spilled my load prematurely and killed many a passenger that was sitting happily reading my book and enjoying the ride?
LECTOR: And do you realize you have mixed your metaphors? Please stop, and return to the philosophic agenda. I only want a 10% cut for waking up your readers before the most important sections. Are you sure you don't want to hear the one about the butcher and the limp-necked goose?
The core to the problem of why there are so many ass-holes walking the streets is the simple universal fact that: "within you lies the answer to life." (the axiom)
It would be fine if this little statement was limited to a small crowd of patricians in white cloaks who went about sniffing myrtle all day. Unfortunately, this deep and disturbing truth resides in us all, including motorcycle gangs, the German housewife, the butcher, the limp-necked goose and the one-legged deer that just hopped by my window.
The one-legged deer unfortunately has other more precarious things on her mind and is in little danger of becoming an ass-hole like the guys I described at the bar. She is, as one might expect, "stressed out" much of the time, except when she is asleep and dreaming she has two legs and can simply walk like the rest of us.
When she is happy, however – when:
· all the leaves are within reach,
· the path doesn't have too many rocks for hopping, and
· the breeze is cool –
when everything is hunky-dory - that's when, for several instants, the deer feels like nature was made for her.
It feels wonderful, and she knows instinctively that "within her lies the answer to life." If one could get inside anything walking around on two feet like we do, like trees and buttercups, you would still find the maxim "within you lies the answer to life."
LECTOR: You would have done better with the limp-necked goose. You realize, of course, the derivation of the phrase ‘to be goosed”?
AUCTOR: (ignoring Lector like mold on cheese) THIS is the problem. Because, once such a deep and universal fact is squeezed through our emotional circuitry, our minds interpret it as a local fact. AN authentication check of the statement “within you lies the answer to life” produces the following verification, re-interpreted globally: "You have the answers."
Several different outputs are possible depending on make, model, version and time-stamp of our emotional processor. On some models, for instance, a double-check of the happiness emotion tends to amplify the result:
"You are the answer to life."
How well do I remember my youth, when the chemistry of my body was so inebriated with growing itself that I got to be an ass-hole all the time. Boy, those were exhiliarating years! What I didn't realize was how intoxicated I was with the sweet smell of unstoppable, ineluctable life squeezing through me. Physical metamorphosis, causing very natural, 100 Proof, emotional and mental shots of the very same opinion: "Joshua, my boy, you have all the answers. In fact, you are the answer to life! Go blow your horn and all the walls will tumble down!"
The budding chemistry of a teenager --- that feeling of invincibility, virtue and unlimited credit ... a smugness and conceit which is not their fault. There is no way to talk the chemistry out of them, whether they are about to perform some audacious act of daring-do, or are holding you at arms length with a pistol attached to their wrist.
I have decided, just this once (but once and for all), that this is the source of quite a bit of the world's shit. It is undeniably simple. It is a flip-flop of grotesque consequence, a paradox with far-reaching impacts, it is...
LECTOR: Please desist. I've had it 'up to here' with philosophy.
AUCTOR: You realize you're pointing below the waist? If you allow me to continue, I will exercise my creative verbosity...
There seems to be an instinctual characteristic to feel some answers within us before we can ever check them out. I know a number of kids over the age of 8 who trust that feeling and say - "I already know that!" before you are finished telling them anything. In fact, for every kid over the age of 8 you'd better give them a couple chances to hear you out so you don't bust a few bubbles and damage their pride. In fact I am well over fifty and you must still give me several chances to listen to you. My pride is full of bubbles to bust.
“Within you lies the answer to life,” is fundamental to the Happiness Equation. This is, in fact, the Axiom, that there is an inherent feeling in all of us which finds representation in this statement. And when the world outside coincidentally helps us connect to that feeling we find happiness.
If, however, we are on a particular quest, with a destination in mind – we carry this feeling to the crossroads with us. Now the term “crossroads” is a metaphor of some point in our travels when we must make a decision – whether it be a fork in the road with two options, an intersection with three, or a round-about with as many sources of confusion as there are gas stations and auto dealerships. At this point we must act.
The Riddle of the Sphincter describes the axiom at the crossroads.
It alludes to the fact that there are an inscrutable number of well-meaning charlatans wandering about this world, peddling their truths to the rest of us. Apply the Axiom, and it would appear that they have made it past the Sphincter, you can call them what you like.
But I would not be so hasty. Truly wise men and women have existed over the centuries. All of them have known doubt. Whether they be from the oral traditions of the Mediterranean, Tigris-Euphrates, Africa, the Vedas, China, the Americas or the Sub-Arctic- they have generally told us that
"The world is the answer, to which you must continually pose challenges… asking questions. The closer your questions are, the better you will see the answer.”
This is fine.
The world is the answer.
You are the question.
But if you are on a quest for understanding it does not compute well. You are left with something like the following aphorism:
“Strive to see, ask questions, and become wise."
But Nature has bestowed on every creature the answer as well. “Within you lies the answer to life.” Everyone has the answer through their own eyes, and each creature is led to explore the answer by letting the world challenge them.
The purpose closest to "instinct" is to confirm that our individual life meets the challenge, and that what we know and who we are is good enough.
LECTOR: I can guess what the mullah up the block will say to you.
AUCTOR: He is not a mullah, but one of just a few Zoroastrian priests, recently retired. He will say nothing. His religion has been around long enough to not worry about literary sneezes such as mine.
LECTOR: Well, there is a mullah down the block, then.
AUCTOR: Yes, and a minister on the radio, too. You are free to accept a protocol for your decisions at the crossroads. It is more difficult to dispense with the circuitry for your happiness. But defending your happiness with THE TRUTH is something yet again.
This is where those fellows around the bar had plenty of stories. For every one of us has acted like a know-it-all in one moment, only to realize we were full of crap the next morning....looking right out through our ass-hole.
LECTOR: …or right at it, on our knees before the proverbial throne.
Even when we know we are probably wrong, we will often fight the change every step of the way. Then, after we are changed, everything returns to normal... and we won't admit that a change ever occurred in us. Because that is in our nature. We seem to have been created to know it all.
When we are happy and content we have this odd feeling inside of being wise as well. A little dose of that wonderful teenage chemistry. And we want to give other people advice. Even worse, when we are bitter and morose, we feel we must give people advice as well. Because it fulfills our natural instinct to have the answers: to be acting out the answer. It's natural as hell.
The very same ideal is found in science and all types of learning. The scholar's instinct is the flip-side of the very same instinct which is found in every child and which does such great damage:
"I will look for the questions that confirm the answer I believe in... "
I would not wish to challenge all scholarship and learning, but only the instinct underlying it. The instinct to prove something. And when you blend the instincts of the child with that of the scientist/scholar you can breed righteous monsters. But no one usually says it that way. It's one of the things we seem to tolerate as a given.
Thus it happens that what is instinctual in all of us as the source of wisdom is also the source of the grossest stupidity, and perhaps all stupidity and insolence there ever was.
It also comes down to a fact that we are built to rarely get along - since we all are born with all the answers. We change only when we must - when we are forced to.
Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, brother against brother can be expected forever. “Speak softly but carry a big stick” is not without cause. The use of force is the simplest disconnect to defend a good answer, that is, a good argument... Except in a red-neck bar - where a couple truckers can hold back a rodeo man from ripping up a suburban cowboy because they know there is an ass-hole in us all.
LECTOR: You are awfully fond of these riddles, aren’t you? Have you taken notice that this ain’t the way it’s been done for a couple of centuries or so?
AUCTOR: Riddles are more than a way of speaking. But today we believe mostly in the riddle of science.
We are, as I suggest, the continual question, and some of us are at the crossroads more frequently than others. Especially those people who are growing more quickly than anyone can keep up with, with technologies that no one can keep up with– except those who are absorbing the new gadgets simultaneously with their own growth – easily identifying one with the other and confusing the two.
LECTOR: I can think of more interesting intersections.
AUCTOR: Intersection vs. Union, I learned all about that in geometry class. They are quite different, aren’t they?
LECTOR: It is a riddle, truly. You have found in your previous marriage, surely, that a true and perfect union is impossible, and yet you are trying it again? Wouldn’t a couple of intersections do as well?
Riddles are very interesting phenomena. They are true enough when taken one way, but come to mean something quite different when turned upside down. That is, when you take the question and call it the answer, and proceed from there.
For example, the axiom of the ass’ole could be stated:
uss'all / ass'ull = 1
With the slight inconsistency in spelling, we are all ass-holes – or potentially so. Reversed, [ ass’ull / uss’all ], it no longer holds as an equivalence. Or it comes to mean something else.
LECTOR: You are mixing words with numbers, and equivalences only work with numbers.
AUCTOR: Thank you for the point. You can’t say a video game equals a video game, or a bushel of apples equals a bushel of apples. They ‘correspond’ to each other in some other way. A nickel doesn’t even ‘equal’ the next nickel, except in the way that 5 cents equals 5 cents. There are more classes of equivalence than we can point to…
LECTOR: Enough of this, thank you.
AUCTOR: This is covered in the General Theory of Riddletivity, for the general theory deals exclusively with equivalences, and why…
LECTOR: Ah, I remember you when you were a youngster. Bright-spirited, and with all of your teeth! When you tumbled on the realization that the entire universe had to be connected you thought you were really special, didn’t you?
AUCTOR: What a happy moment! What exhilaration pulsed through my mind when I saw that I, too, was connected to that purpose!
But the riddle that saved me was when I turned the question upside down.
For the riddle was not about that single purpose that made it all one – this was an answer I was sure as sure could be. There was nothing at all to call it into question – no options whatsoever except my own belligerence at being separate and different from it, the universe, that is.
LECTOR: Now I need to tell you about a gadget I invented once – greatest thing since the pencil!
AUCTOR: Again, you are breaking in at the point of my most critical point.
LECTOR: Pointedly speaking, the greatest thing since the pencil – a finger sharpener …
AUCTOR: This is important! You are stripping down my deepest thoughts to idiocy!
LECTOR: Thank me again. Readers sleep in the deep – I’m buoying this thing up.
At the time – being a gullible semi-observant religious youth – the question was clothed in terms of my religious beliefs. “How could it be that everything was one with God, and yet so inescapably separate?” The real riddle was about how different and separate and muddled everything was at the very same time. What was it that made me feel so unique and special? This was the greatest riddle of all.
Believe in God or not, the Special Theory of Riddletivity is simply about anything being different and distinct. This, for me, became the central mystery – not to question how everything was connected, but how everything was separated.
LECTOR: I got a riddle for you. It is the story of the riddle of all riddles – the greatest riddle of all. Even bigger than that one!
AUCTOR: I’ve heard it already. It is from the WMD CPM 3 AN1003. However, I don’t understand its relevance to what I was just telling you, but you are welcome to...
LECTOR: Here it is. It is just a story. There is almost no depth to it at all, just take it as it is.
After walking for a week the merchant arrived at his destination. It was a town famous for its thieves’ market. Everything there was sold by bandits in tradesmen’s clothing – all of them robbers and conniving cut-throats.
You may wonder why the merchant came here, so I’ll explain.
The merchant who slew the Sphincter dealt in goods that very few others considered valuable. He collected shells for several wealthy princes who employed the finest artists to carve these shells into cameos.
In the thieves’ market the merchant believed he would find many old articles made of large shells, broken oil lamps and fancy camel buckles, which he could have at low prices and carry safely away. For thieves generally do not value anything but gold, silks, and the latest weaponry.
When the merchant arrived at the market he was overjoyed to see a riddle above it’s entrance. “My kind of market,” he thought.
“Bury your quarrels or you will bury your quarrels,” he was reading when he noticed another riddle just below it.
An old beggar was sitting next to a box, “End my life!” was his cry. “Put an end to my misery, and inherit my treasures!”
“This is a riddle,” he thought, “for in a marketplace full of cut-throats and bandits, one would think it an easy thing to trade a treasure for your life.”
“Peace be with you!” said the merchant to a passing ruffian, “Tell me how it is that no one has killed that fellow over there?”
The bandit laughed, drew his scimitar and pointed it at the sign above him.
“Whoever you kill here you must dispose of. It is the only law we keep. To watch your head fly it is worth burying you. But no one wants to take the trouble to bury him.”
At this the bandit’s blade flickered above the merchant’s shoulder, who parried the blow easily, for only fine swordsmen dared enter a thieve’s market.
“I should have guessed,” he smiled at the robber, “But what about that treasure of his?”
The robber laughed again.
“Twice I’ve watched someone rip his belly open. They buried him in the dung heap and took his box of treasure. Inside the box were oily rags. In a couple weeks he’s back with a new box.“
“Darnedest dung heap..” exclaimed the merchant, “must have some pretty strong shit!”
“You want to try it out??” laughed the robber, his blade dancing at the merchant’s shoulder once more.
The merchant averted the blow by stepping nimbly aside. He then bowed, giving the bandit his leave. Being from a culture in which respect for custom and ritual outweighs respect for life, the robber bowed back and left.
Having heard the particulars about the old beggar, however, the merchant knew he had discovered something nearly as strange as the Sphincter, and was both curious and anxious to see how he might fare with the old man.
He immediately walked up to him and reached for the box.
“Can I look at your treasure before I take the trouble to kill you?”
The beggar grabbed his little old chest to his little old chest, “I would kill you first, young man!” he clucked. But obliging the merchant, he took the lid from the box and our turbaned traveler had to turn away, for so many gems reflected the sun’s glare a thousand-fold, saying “Put me out of my misery this treasure is yours!”
The merchant bowed low and walked silently away.
In several days he returned disguised as an old witch with a basket of poisoned figs.
“Here old man,” the old witch cackled, “Have some of my figs to take the pain of your belly away!”
The old man took the basket and sucked it down whole.
“We shall see if my magic can do the trick!” chuckled the witch.
The beggar threw open his robes to show a mass of scars and festering wounds. “See how I suffer!” he exclaimed, “and I hope your magic works!”
Then the merchant threw off his own disguise.
“You are a great sorcerer, and I will dispose of you and your riddle as I once did the Sphincter and her rowdy tail!”
“My riddle?” the wrinkled face squeaked.
The merchant sat himself down on the ground beside the sorcerer.
“You have discovered the secret of immortality! You fashioned your spell believing that the greatest riddle in life was conquering death. Your reverence for power and knowledge of life has left you longing for powerlessness and death. This is a riddle you cannot accept.”
“When you discover there is riddle beyond these, old man, the curse of your spell will be broken.”
“Wonderfully put!” sighed the sorcerer, “I have been sitting here for centuries and can think of no greater riddle than myself.”
“You will hear The Riddle of All Riddles” replied the merchant, who held up his hands to the sky. Making a long and theatrical face he spoke the following:
It has many fingers to point with, but can only grasp a paradox.
The old sorcerer was in too much pain to laugh,
“… that is the silliest riddle I’ve ever heard!! I’m a wizard. It’s too simple. The answer is ‘a riddle.’”
Then his eyes opened wide.
“But I see!” he wheezed, “you have outwitted me! It is not a harder riddle but the riddle about all riddles!!”
Then he held up his hands, with fingers opened wide. “Yes, yes – it is even these many fingers I use to cast a spell!”
“My hands themselves, in the image of the riddle of all riddles!”
“….there is indeed a great hand over me, with fingers pointing in so many directions at once. THE HAND of Death ! …. You have proved my riddle liddle … “
With his last bit of wit taking on cosmic proportions, the sorcerer chuckled, then expired with a broad smile on his face.
The merchant tenderly wrapped him up in the witch’s cloak. He purchased someone else’s donkey from the attendant nearby, and carried the old sorcerer and his box to a small oasis garden beyond the town, where he dug the final resting place for the oldest man on earth.
After this, he opened the box, which was full of jewels and gem-stones, and not oily rags. The old sorcerer had kept his promise and more, for at the bottom of the box was a little book, with his most important spells written out quite legibly in long-hand.
AUCTOR: Very nicely told, but I would like to know what relevance it had to the important points I was making about my version of the greatest riddle of existence.
AUCTOR: I want to express my thanks to Lector for all the help he has given me in presenting this book so far. Especially for his assistance in supplying the previous translation from the original 13th century Arabic. He has been amply remunerated for his services, and will not be needed again.
LECTOR: Wait a second! You can’t get rid of me that easily.
AUCTOR: I am the author and can do as I please. I am typing this book.
LECTOR: Yes, but I am the cat on your lap with a pad full of notes. I am the tiger in your tank, I am the…
AUCTOR: I disliked the suggestion that the riddle of all riddles was the hand of death. Therefore, I am terminating your assignment.
LECTOR: That was your conclusion, and I am not responsible. WMD CP2 AN1003 suggests that the sorcerer was hallucinating. The riddle of all riddles is about the structure of riddles themselves. As the merchant said, it is not a tougher or bigger, or more important riddle than any other. Besides, I am fully aware that you don’t know any Arabic – and that you must rely entirely on me for the remainder of the merchant’s stories.
Comparing a riddle to a hand thus, ‘It has many fingers to point with, but can only grasp a paradox’ is a classic structure for a verbal or written riddle, or wriddle, where the words of wriddles are used as pointers to objects or events.
AUCTOR: There was once a limp-necked goose who lived …
LECTOR: Hey, that’s my story!
AUCTOR: … well, you seem to be getting confused here, with who gives the philosophical explanations of things.
LECTOR: Look. Just be out with it. You and I are the same person, using each other as literary foils. This was a simple demonstration of the fact that you could never do without me!
AUCTOR: Give me a break. I need to demonstrate that the structure of riddles, ‘wriddles’ as you call them, can be found in Nature as well. I must tell about the moebius strip.
LECTOR: Be my guest.
Many years ago when I was a salesman, I was sitting at a North Jersey bar, watching a girl who attacked her go-go job with zest and humor. I suddenly saw life as an un-knotting, a denouement of paths, goals and complex energies.
For the same way that science studies pores, twists, knots, and complex surfaces for better fabrics, and more durable materials for engineering - us artists study the topology of society, and the strange routes we create to navigate through it.
Which explains why artists like me, who were down-and-out salesmen, might find themselves in go‑go bars. It was a matter of pursuing our studies in social topology.
LECTOR: You are a salesman, then?
AUCTOR: I was an insect then. Now I am an exterminator.
Here I was, nursing a beer and watching a girl who I readily saw as a person - a little girl grown up, with uncles and brothers who were little different than myself, for I was old enough to be her dad. She was probably supporting a 2-yr old, going to community college for an Associates Degree, and dancing as a way to assert her individual free will against mediocre and listless circumstances of life in North Jersey.
At the same time I was thinking this, however, I was aware of the ineluctable fact that I was also toying with her definition as an object, a fact which I felt I should be ashamed of. This point taken, I suggested to myself that I was not the same person with especially moral human feelings to be ashamed of, but a salesman trying to objectify frustrations with many worthless weary roads in a go-go economy coming to an end. Tired and frazzled, I badly needed to forget a wasted day of sales calls and rejections and turn it into something I could handle. And with this point taken, I forgave myself for sitting there. She had become my frustration now, this kitten smiling and strumming my senses til they were as taut and vibrating as her.
To parallel my shift in mental and psychological positions, I thought that a change in physical position was called for, but found that I was unable to budge from my seat. The muscles of my legs were not responding according to plan, a fact made more serious because, upon sending signals to my joints to shift positions I couldn’t distinguish between legs, nor feel anything at all below the left knee, which was indistinguishable from my right knee. This was a position I hadn’t been in since being onstage at the assembly in 5th grade, and my mind was instantly flooded with childhood memories, resolving the dilemma.
For, ever since taking my seat at the bar, I had been sitting on my foot.
LECTOR: How long could you have sat on your foot without realizing it?
AUCTOR: I had obviously gotten very absorbed in this new vision of topology. Come on, I really was thinking this at the time. You think I’d just go into a place like this to lust?
This did not solve my physical dilemma. Taking stock of the position, I noticed – apparently for the first time – that this foot was housed in a wing-tip shoe, sticking out sideways from my stool, as if someone had recently sewn the shoe to my thigh. When I touched the toe, it hurt with a dull thud – which I couldn’t feel of course, because I couldn’t feel the foot. The foot had become a rubbery cordovan appendage with a black heel which I couldn’t move, nor dared to move.
But it had to be taken out from under my leg. Otherwise I might lose a left foot, at which point I couldn’t use the clutch on my car – for I drove a stick-shift at the time. And how should I explain the loss of my foot to my wife? The situation was getting complicated.
I lifted my thigh with the shoe attached, and painfully manipulated the lifeless wooden weight off of the chair. As I did this, I felt something like a crossbow being cranked slowly tighter and tighter. Apparently, the shoe and my foot were being stretched apart. There was suddenly a twang of heat and yes, yes, no, no, yesssss noNOnoNO-NO! A thousand little pins had been shot into me, and as they came out if felt wonderful. I was breaking apart and getting re-attached at the same time! It was unbearable and fabulous.
Now a wingtip shoe derives its name from all those little holes which curve out in ornamental spirals from the tip, and each had a pin sticking into it. And each was moving in and out at different intervals like programmed Christmas lights. The sudden tickling and an indescribable pain made me senseless to anything else. Blind to the go-go, I had begun to pant in fits and starts. My eyes became glazed. Frozen, with my mouth open, my tongue began writhing furiously, betraying intense inner altercations between pain and rapture.
The dancer noticed my condition, and I dully sensed her coming over to dance directly in front of me; then, realizing that I was looking through her, past her bumping buttocks and boobs, I garbled an indecipherable explanation, and pointed down at my foot, which she couldn’t see over the bar. Thinking I was pointing at my groin, a well-dressed lunatic having an orgasm, she turned red with embarrassment and disgust and moved quickly to the other side of the stage.
This feeling of pins and needles - the high and empty feeling in your limb as the numbness slowly recedes - overtakes you quite inescapably, and is quite like nothing else. Except, of course, the orgasm she thought I was having. Unfortunately, there's no way you can make pins and needles erotic - even with the desire for eroticism staring you in the face.
There is something about pins and needles which doesn’t feel like Nature intended, and so we don’t experience them as intensely pleasurable. Or should I say, we are not feeling like Nature intended, except in that we can feel the deepest pleasure in Nature putting fresh blood in all of the capillaries of our foot – after which the feeling of being a foot becomes simply ‘natural,’ and we can forget all about it.
LECTOR: This is fine. A good story with an interesting twist. It is with difficulty, however that I follow you. In fact, I’ve completely forgotten what it was we were talking about!
AUCTOR: I was just referring back to the “Axiom of the Asshole in us All.” For this chance to introduce the riddle of orgasms into the conversation seemed too delightful to miss. Besides, I like alluding to sex, it’s spicy, and you can make dull stuff much more flavorful.
The real issue of the moment was my purpose in being there. At the go-go bar, specifically.
Indeed this gaudy place with its blinking lights and loud music, emblazoned with signage that spoke of arousing the feelings of human sexuality at the price of a beer, provided both myself and the dancer with an agreed-upon frame of reference. Both of us were trying to be somewhere else, but using an unacceptable cultural loop to get there. It was a handy tacit agreement to set aside both of our other self-definitions. There was a problem, however. And my purpose that evening had been to discover that problem.
Now I remembered! That was my reason for coming in tonite! I had to work out the inherent problems of self-definition switching!
LECTOR: You mean, that was your excuse.
AUCTOR: Call it what you will, that was the contract I had made with myself upon turning around and driving back to this club. I was earnestly contemplating all of this while temporarily lusting after this chick, which caused me to not realize until it was too late, that I was sitting on my foot, causing me to make another great discovery in the annals of Psychotopology – that pins and needles are not orgasms but very close.
And what I did also discover on that fateful evening – for there is nothing that you can’t accidentally stumble on one thing while looking for another – is that to play with this aspect of human nature this way – that is, by making tacit agreements between two people’s temporary self-definitions – that life can get quite knotty, and you may not be able to untangle yourself from the complex and worthless dynamics which can take over. These are exactly the kind of knots which stop natural circulation, and end in pins and needles of empty and unpleasurable pleasures.
I was at this time in the midst of such a dynamic in my own life, my career having been tied up in such a way as to see no easy way of either escape or success. As I said, I was sitting there watching a girl who attacked her go-go job with zest and humor, and I suddenly saw life as an un-knotting, a denouement of paths, goals and complex energies. Life’s path had brought me over such twisting and turnings as I could hardly make sense of it any more – for I had begun by studying human behavior and the evolution of cultural meaning and had ended up selling electronic widgidoodjits. I preferred considering myself an artist, studying the topological wrinkles of society, and I spent the rest of the night thinking about the relevance of knot-theory, which lies within a branch of mathematics called ‘topology.’
This took me back to the time I took a trip to Boston for an AAAS convention, a trip which indirectly led me this very barstool in life.
AAAS does not stand for Anonymous Alcoholic and Sexual Addicts as you may think, considering my situation as you know it, because that would be the AASA convention, which was not in Boston that year, but in Minneapolis. The AAAS convention in Boston was the American Association for Advancement of Science, and I was going there to hear talks on field data collection in agriculture, as well as discussions relating to educational reform in the coming century. You see, my current occupation was as a salesman of field data collection devices, but at the time I am describing, I was in the adult education business but could not find my way from the subway stop to the convention center. I had to ask a bearded young student, who was limping on crutches from the fact that he had a broken leg and a cast the size of a golf bag attached to his hip.
He graciously pointed the way, and indicated that he was on his way to the convention himself, and should I have time at 9:30 and want to see a real show, that a student friend of was going to give a talk which shouldn’t be missed. I need only look on my day’s program for the seminar on Knots.
I asked him for some elucidation, and he explained that the student in question was an 18 year old girl genius who had studied under her father at Oxford, and graduated at age 13 or thereabouts, coming to Boston only to complete her dissertation. She had just completed it, and was about to overturn this little corner of the academic world.
I bid him farewell on his crutches, and hurried off to my 8am session, promising to meet him at 9:30.
As I remember it, the room was not very full. A group of twenty or so professors sat at the front of the room. Six or eight of us were scattered in the middle chairs, and a gaggle of students – including my acquaintance with the golf bag cast – sat in the rear.
The first speaker outlined the current work with knot-theory, and its various applications in math and applied science, with possible impacts on future technologies. He explained several famous theorems which currently governed the field, their differences and potential areas of disagreement. The second speaker was, in fact, named for one of the famous theorems, which had, apparently been named for him. I did not understand a bit of what he said, for he insisted on writing equations with his erasable marker on the whiteboard at the front of the room. The third speaker was a loquatious and argumentative young professor, who derived his own name from another of the major theorems – and he proceeded to scribble more equations for our benefit, trying quite ungenerously I thought, to evoke a sense of hatred for the equations which had previously been written. I was not into this sort of academic hatred, which is why I refused to even try to understand this professor’s equations.
When he was through, a fourth speaker was announced. A thin girl who looked no more than 16 or 17 stood up in the third or fourth row. An older man stood up with her and gave her a fatherly hug and kiss. As she worked her way through the aisle, the students in the back gave her a congratulatory clap. The young professor who had been holding forth looked grudgingly from his seat.
She strode to the front of the room, looking like a schoolgirl with two blond braids hanging down over her shoulders. In a crisp English schoolgirl accent she turned to us, and explained that in fact, there was a very simple way to overcome the inconsistencies which speaker #3 had noted in speaker #2’s theorem, quickly refreshing our memories with the various equations by pointing out a number of allowable alterations to his own notation. She erased a few lines and substituted a line or two and then turned to the small audience.
“But it makes little difference, you see,” she went on, as she reached up to her shoulders, “for all this argument over knots can be put aside if you consider them simply as different classes of BRAIDS.”
It was a long-dreamed of moment, and probably rehearsed for years previous, as she grabbed her long braids of hair and began tying them into a knotted bun atop her head, making her look properly professorial. She took an eraser, and completely wiped the previous equations off the board, writing down a simple set of figures which I naturally failed to understand, except the fact that their apparent simplicity was quite elegant. This was a fact which she went on to impress upon her astounded audience for the remainder of her talk. Apparently they had not been for-warned as I had been, that she was about to topple their entire worlds of accumulated pride and mathematical genius with a single stroke. Simply by tying up her hair, as it were.
Indeed, I thought, this had been a moment I would not have wanted to miss for anything – except for the fact that most of us miss these little incremental moments in the history of science all the time. At least I had been witness to one of them, and probably one of the more theatrical ones, at that.
As I considered my recent semi-academic past, and this very historic occasion in which two distinct and slightly conflicting theories were given a new coherence as special cases of a more coherent view of things, I took distinct pleasure in returning to the present, ruminating over another philosophical figure gyrating upside down from a chrome pole to my right. So the sale of the latest high-tech data collection devices had brought me to this, eh? What an extremely hot figure it is with all that skin showing, and what an odd and unexpected shift in one’s way of life!
LECTOR: And so, with such a roundabout detour have you returned us to Moebius Strips! I am impressed. Your talk of topology was apparently getting waylaid until this last story.
AUCTOR: You will see in a moment that almost anything can bring you to the existential tease of a moebius strip.
LECTOR: You assume I know what a moebius strip is.
AUCTOR: I’m busy with the strip-tease. I’ll get to the Moebius part of the strip in a moment. The very fact of the matter is, that existence is a tease – and gives us our emotions. For emotions are the way we feel perceptual and sensory riddles. What doesn’t fit in a simple explanatory stream is sorted out emotionally, it can grump and switch in a moment’s notice. I have chosen to introduce the subject through the allusion to sexuality.
LECTOR: It is more than an allusion. You are discussing sexuality, I believe.
AUCTOR: So I am!
The sexual climax is frequently alluded to, but rarely described carefully and objectively. Pins and needles give us an approachable handle on the feeling. Which reminds me, there should be prayers to say when you have pins and needles, and blessings when they are through!
The connection between the sexual climax and pins and needles is obvious enough – for one rarely otherwise feels the capillaries becoming filled with blood, and yet, apparently, one can feel something of the sort. Being tickled is similar, in that someone is stimulating nerve ends that don’t get much stimulation, and the blood has gotten to pulsing through.
Only the sexual climax is a purposeful end; it defines the whole with a conclusion of simultaneity – the body and the mind suddenly coming together in an inglorious coincidence of terms. The conclusion is, of course, very natural – as nature planned it for both horse and man, as well as horse-shoe crabs and giraffes, wolverines and walrusses. It is a feeling of being at one with Nature, and the movement up to that moment is like grasping for eternity – for indeed, being at one with Nature is like being at One with Eternity. And the feelings aroused by the movement to that moment are like, well, “I want to love you forever,” kind of feelings – which confuse themselves with thoughts of wanting to say something like “I want to be with you forever!” This of course means nothing more than, “I want to be here forever,” for the journey to this kind of eternity is a very pleasant place to be. It is not eternity, of course, it is at the other side of eternity – the absolute NOW.
Now (I say again, NOW), if one were to think of our emotions as designed with the six colors of a Rubik's cube, and with each new change of our situation, the cube was twisted along one of its axes to uncover another set of colors, we might conceive of how quickly and easily our attention shifts and our intentions change. And while the structure of our emotions is not particularly like a Rubik’s cube, our perception of events and the changes we sense going on around us alters our perception of ourselves quite as easily.
I am too lame-brained to come up with a good Rubik’s cube analogy for emotional perception, but when it comes to the way we subtly confuse things, switching from one perspective to another with ease, from joyful titters to moaning, from unbounded faith in the future to a broken heart, I prefer the analogy of the Moebius Strip. It is very simply, topological.
There are still people who don't know what a moebius strip is, and it is probably because of the "oe" in the name of the man who invented them. Foreign names are not worth pronouncing unless they are the name of a goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the announcer can get you past the phonics.
I don't know if he ever played ice hockey, but Mr. Moebius did bring us a long strip of paper with a half twist scotch-taped into a loop. By doing this the outside and inside of the loop are connected. There is now only one side: the-inside-that-is-connected-to-the-outside.
What this means to me, is that "globally" (taking the whole loop together) there is only ONE side, while "Locally," (taken at any single point) there are ALWAYS TWO sides. Wherever you squeeze the strip, there are always two sides opposing one another – but if you run your finger down its surface or along its edge, you will be surprised to see your finger suddenly appear on the other side, or the opposite edge.
This is like a lot of people and countries I know.... even though with a little extended demonstration you can prove they're on the same side.
Smart kids and science teachers like to bet their friends or students that they cannot cut the strip lengthwise in half. If one tries, the strip stays in one piece and gets twice as large and half as thick –or thinner, if you prefer. There are other such conundrums (‘conundrum’ is another word for riddle), but I have decided that it is the coexistence of local and global definition that is at the root of the Riddle of the Sphincter, and the real importance of the Moebius Strip. For the coexistence of two truths simultaneously would put a lot of riddles away, and allow lots of arguments at the bar to come together with a joint in the parking lot instead of a bloody fist and some teeth on the paving. It is also quite close to the Merchant’s “Riddle of All Riddles,” which he said was like a hand, pointing with its fingers to many different things at once.
Mr. Moebius should be very important for his strip, but he is not, except among schoolboys and topologists. He might have done better playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I often thought that if someone opened up a string of old-time burlesque houses called "Moebius Strip Clubs" we would get the name around to the male segment of the population, insinuating that moebius strips are really conceptually fundamental to our social sanity.
These could not be ordinary 'titty bars' but honest burlesque houses with real comedians who sell popcorn on the side and a live two-piece band plus a trombone player. The trombone player does not have to actually play the trombone, but would just slide his slide after jokes and other appropriate times, making the sound of a very sad goose. He could also be the house comedian and the fellow who sold popcorn on the side, allowing the house to staff on the cheap. In the old burlesque houses this is how it was done, for everyone played every part; the stripper would flip-flop between kitchen banter with the popcorn salesman and her sexuality, starting out un-presumptuous then switching gears to be suddenly sumptuous. She could be dressed frumpy and work the ticket booth when you came in… and of course you had no idea she would soon be exciting you.
The tease was a quick flip between states of normalcy and arousal, leaving you in a single heightened state of thinking she was just great people that you wanted to know better and better and better. It was a good illusion, that is, theatre.
And in doing my research for the betterment of society I have found few titty bars maintaining this healthy old cabaret tradition – which was the essence of real ‘burly-que.’
To handle a moebius strip is a tease, no matter – and whether or not we will ever see the rebirth of my kind of vaudevillian burlesque houses – we can all learn to appreciate the moebius strip-tease. And in the next chapter I will take it one step further – to the Moebius Cone.
LECTOR: One question.
AUCTOR: Alright, one.
LECTOR: Why must you take a very simple story, like that found in WMD CP2 AN1003, and insist on its sexual significance?
AUCTOR: Thank you. I was hoping you’d ask this, since everyone I’ve shown the manuscript to has, and it was bound to come up.
LECTOR: I imagine it is for the same reason that you insisted on crude potty humor for the Riddle of the Sphincter.
AUCTOR: That was not my choice. It was simply the way WMD CP1 AN1002 was found. You seem to forget that such subjects were not appropriate for public consumption until “Beavis and Butthead,” “South Park,” and “Family Guy” brought crude allusions back into our literature.
LECTOR: ‘Back into our literature, eh?”
AUCTOR: Absolutely! Chaucer spiced his stories up with exploding farts, and Rabelais tells of attacking an impenetrable castle whose walls were made of twats. People have laughed at this stuff since before they were in caves.
LECTOR: But you haven’t answered my question about changing the subject from “The Riddle of All Riddles” to that of sex. I could see sex being conceived by a frustrated teen-ager to be the riddle of all riddles, but even worse - you seem to be one yourself, and insist on taking the teenager to a go-go joint.
AUCTOR: And what better place to see how our world interprets sexuality? I mean, human sexuality is the source of continuation of the species, the creation of new souls, of the mixing and breeding of new peoples, the source of family life – of brothers and sisters who tear each other apart, of literature in general. Then you ask me why I should degrade it to one of its lowest commercial levels, one step removed from prostitution?
LECTOR: That’s it.
AUCTOR: Well, I will tell you. But only after I tell you about the Moebius Cone, which is – like the theory of braids I mentioned before – an elegant picture of things, one which explains the difference between the ancient ethical philosophies of China, and is preferable to the Yin/Yang symbol for picturing our existential plight.
Isaac Asimov was one of those amazing people who knew everything and wrote about even more. This was before the Internet existed, and even before reverse encyclopedias were the rage. One day when Asimov came traveling to a local community college to lecture on just about everything, I popped up after the lecture and asked him if there was a real and proper name for a "Moebius Cone" in topology.
"Topology" (as mentioned before) is the study of surfaces and knots that may or may not exist in the world we touch, but which can be defined in mathematics. These surfaces may come in very handy in studying the behavior of molecules which tie themselves into curves of energy which seem to flip predictably (and in the case of subatomic particles iunpredictably) from one behavior to another.
A Moebius Cone is a projection (drawn on paper, mind you) of the edge of a Moebius strip as the bottom edge of a cone. It is quite possible to picture one of these things if you draw badly.
I had never yet read about moebius cones and figured there must be a name for such a thing, since I had thought of one and couldn't have been the first to do so. Asimov said the idea was nonsense, and that there was NO SUCH THING!!! His answer was in capitals with the three exclamation points, so I knew he was serious about something.
However, it really meant "I am too tired doing a long lecture circuit at dinky community colleges to have to think," as well as "why does every lecture end with some student asshole trying to act intelligent by asking me something obscure?"
But I was not trying to do that, and even if I was an asshole, I had not been a student for 10 years. His unbridled vehemence seemed strange, and encouraged me to think more about Moebius Cones - for he could only have gotten that angry if he was angry at himself for being caught off-guard. He knew as well as I that such a thing could be defined in the abstract, topologically speaking.
One day, several months later at the beach, as I took a break from staring at bathing suits with girls in them, I noticed that several conical seashells bore a great resemblance to what I pictured a moebius cone to look like. And after making this conceptual leap, it was simple to see that even most of the flat seashells had that subtle twist which connects one side to the other. From here, it was nothing to guess that these strange twists were possibly very fundamental to nature.
The importance of this discovery was second only to the simultaneous realization that just such a conceptual leap led Sir Isaac Newton to discover gravity.
He was sitting there, watching the girls walk by. Then, he was suddenly distracted from these pleasant thoughts... for an apple had just fallen on his head. Anyone would be vexed at the interruption, but it led Sir Isaac to wonder why some things come down when others go up, and why the up things can go down so quickly. He called it "gravity" because it had disturbed his levity and leisure. Gravity is when someone spoils a good thing and makes that which is up go down. History just leaves off the psychological aspect to ‘hard’ science and confuses everything with physics.
And so it was with me, too. But I couldn't call my discovery gravity - though the ensuing phenomenon was the same (for I, too, forgot all about the girls walking by) and knew I had better come up with a good name for Moebius cones if I were ever to publish in a famous topology journal or science fiction magazine.
One evening a famous topologist stopped by for dinner. He was my mom's cousin and my mom was serving cantaloupe. He told me that the Moebius Cone was a well-known surface called a projective plane.
“A Plane?!” I asked.
“Yeh,” he said, “ just picture your ‘Moebius Cone’ sitting on the table, and now suck the point down to the tabletop, and voila ! there you have it! ….a two-dimensional surface!”
Many years later, like when I started writing this book, I looked it up on the internet and found that my ‘moebius cone’ is also called a “cross-cap” or an Euler surface. It is probably one of many different Euler surfaces, since Euler is famous for so many other things in mathematics, or it stands for a class of surfaces, which, as I had seen on the beach, seem to be all around us.
I decided that no old-time 3-dimensional surfaces existed at all. Wherever I looked I saw Euler surfaces,.. - porous outlines of shapes betraying subtle, beautiful twists and unexpected inversions. Like a seashell, an orchid, or a bejeweled belt and bellybutton gyrating 30 inches off the ground.
Yes, by simply considering topology, I have learned to picture a topless-bottomless dancer!
But of course, simple solid surfaces may be your thing – but I must warn you – they are more idealistic than you realize. Geometry class is one thing that tells us how shapes and lines and angles and spaces relate to one another if they conform to some strict baseline rules… and Physics class is another that tells us how measured masses and speeds and spaces interact in the real world under certain measurement conditions utilizing particular descriptive frameworks. But if you want to glimpse the truth under all your physical existence, to see the molecules and inter-atomic spaces and vortices of energy holding all of you together with the rest of the cosmos --- and ask “how?” and “why?” and saying all the while “imagine that!!” you must go to the Crossroads, and listen to the Sphincter’s riddle, and tell it that Euler Surfaces have all shapes and no shapes and none can bear to live with.
LECTOR: Maybe that is the answer?
AUCTOR: I think you’ll get a hug from the creature and be told that you are so smart and so sweet that your life will be spared.
LECTOR: I think I can do without any more explanations.
AUCTOR: Isn’t it easier to reduce our problems to sex?
LECTOR: There’s a point to it, I’ll admit.
AUCTOR: Our emotional life is complicated enough, without adding the incongruity of our physical existence. Sexuality just happens to be a good key into the door of that complexity. It touches us at the sensory level and the emotional level. It sees us as creatures of our fantasies, and lets us analyze the functionality and futility of dreams, the drive of hungers, the problem of satiation, and the perplexity of boredom We can use it to describe how many levels of thoughts can be guiding our actions at one time. But more than that, sexuality is the key example of what drives us to being social beings…the insistence of the body to procreate and create a family, generations upon generations of them – civil and uncivil-izations of them.
LECTOR: I begrudge you the fact.
AUCTOR: And it is just here that the picture of the Moebius Cone is interesting. Forget its connections to our physical world. Forget the shit about living in Euler surfaces. The Moebius Strip lets you picture a constant alternation between the global and local perspective. Our sexual activities – and the constellation of personal and cultural activities orbiting around them, involves every level of human existence – more than anything else we do.
For example, it is the simplest example of our ability to focus on work. Not that making love or having sex is a job, but the very fact that the excitement driving the sexual act comes and goes over time to one or another of the participants. It can be a blundering experimental affair, an athletic event, a work of art, a syncopated dance number, or a boring routine or all of the above at any time, makes it a metaphor for doing a job well. For our minds may wander when making love, and the inner mutuality of the moment is not always what it seems to be from the outside – that is, if you were on the outside, watching it to the accompaniment of great inner palpitations.
Rather like the fact that we rarely put qualifiers on different types of orgasms, and different parts of the orgasm – though the concept of the orgasm is such an important part of our intimate thoughts and inner life – the story of our mental life during the sexual act is only alluded to in a literature which is otherwise, so overtly sex-oriented. The inability of our thoughts to stay concentrated can happen in the midst of the sexual act – and for long-time partners, can become a source of pain, seeming to rob the love-making of its original freshness and truth. Indeed, to long for eternity in someone’s embrace is quite different than enduring it. All of this, and much more, can become a source of pain rather than a happy confirmation of Nature’s will.
LECTOR: Do you mean to tell me that you see all of this when contemplating a Moebius Cone?
AUCTOR: Of course not. I am still trying to tell you why every one of my examples keeps returning to sex.
Sex has built-in the primacy of the problem of levels, that distinctions made on one level are irrelevant from a different perspective. That we must live our lives touching many different levels of awareness at once – we are a palm connecting fingers pointing in many directions – and the lines of fate on our palms are merely the extensions of spirals on our fingers, touching the spirals of others.
Forget sex for a moment. The last thing I said about it was that it represents the problem of levels. We are talking about our ability to live in multiple perspectives at once. ‘Multiple’ means many. However, to take ‘many’ to its simplest feature, we simply mean ‘more than one,’ and not necessarily two. We already have a problem, since ‘two’ takes on a very special feature. It starts to represent ‘multiple’ – and we begin reducing ‘multiplicity’ to dualisms. The Moebius Strip is simply one of these reductions. It provides us a crude conceptual bridge between many-sidedness and connectedness.
It does not represent the alternation between good and evil, or male and female – it does not represent the traditional dualities of existence, but – if we were to try to give it some palpable meaning in our life - the juxtaposition of the individual facing the universe alone versus the individual facing the universe as a social being.
For us, there seems to be a duality to all our activities and decision-making in real life. It is continually present in one form or another: do you act for yourself or for the business, the family, the community, the school, the nation, the world? You choose differently based on where you place the priorities – but which comes first, and when?
One might take it as a symbol of the self as it is faced in Confucianism, where the individual escapes the unreality of local appearances, and finds reality by embracing the global self, defined through the family and the community in the past and over the future.
The tease of the Moebius strip is that its opposite edges turn out to be connected, and its opposite faces are the same surface – a fact which Confucianism would allow, making this famous Chinese tradition rather difficult for Westerners to absorb. It presents a curious picture of the unity of all those dualities in life – as if male and female, fire and water, earth and sky, good and bad were one and the same and yet different nevertheless. And traditionally, the westerner has hugged absolutes with a fervor – which is the only reason I decided to expose the contents of the WMD Clay Pots, and have them published here. The “Riddle of the Sphincter” could well be a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to absolutist traditions – but modern western culture is already pushing at its boundaries. The pop interpretations of eastern thought seems to provide an open-ended of reconstruction of everything, under the auspices of some ancient moral creeds. But how to relate them to daily life, and traditional western absolutes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – in the face of ‘being natural’ is wanting. The “Axiom of the Asshole in us All” exposes the lie to our desire for finding ‘natural feelings,’ since it says we are doing this all the time anyway.
LECTOR: You’ve lost me again. We were talking about topology. Then you had me thinking about sex. Suddenly you are deep in the middle of something about modern culture.
AUCTOR: The book is about us all, - that is those people who would read this book, it is about them. After all, the reader wants to know about herself or himself, and couldn’t give a shit about you or me.
The traditional Taoist picture of Yin and Yang shows the symbolic movement of universal dualities, with a dot of each in the middle of the other. It still suggests that there is a great binary principle underlying all of creation – but this is a suggestion which that old Moebius Strip, as lowly as it may seem, avoids. For the solution of the moebius strip conundrum is achieved through the act of holding it between two opposing fingers, an outside human act representing the ability of the human to distinguish a clear-cut duality within the immediate perspective of the here and now, and the disappearance of opposites when taken in its entirety.
Of course, it is generally a human failing to take such pride in our ability to distinguish opposites that we can never appreciate the unity of the whole. A point which the Western religions make quite a lot of. Confucius seems to have called the lie to our presumptions of knowledge and said that these are all unreal distinctions. I would call the lie back, agreeing with him, but saying that indeed, through our actions, we affirm the reality of our distinctions.
I take this suggestion a step further, however. For the picture of Yin/yang is merely a symbolic representation which is nowhere found in nature except, perhaps on the wing of a mutant butterfly. The moebius strip – while it can be constructed by a child with a scissors and paper and glue, and can be felt with one’s hands – it is drawn on paper as a sideways figure-eight, the symbol for infinity. Even better, if you allow it to be projected to a point, creating a Moebius Cone, and then squashed into the 2-dimentional (flat) “cross-cap” of topology – we have a perfect representation of the three-dimensional reality of two dimensional surfaces. That is, every solid surface we face in this world is actually porous, rarely betraying its millions of dynamic molecular arrangements. This, of course, is an unreality, or hyper-reality, of reality which we continually ignore. The claims of Ancient Chinese Logic and Eastern mysticism appear more appropriate to the stresses of unreality on our day-to-day struggle than the traditional simplifications of western absolutisms – but I think you will see that they both are ideal representations of experiences we face continuously.
LECTOR: I am impressed. If I was not simply a literary convention, but turned out to be someone real, like your cat or your cock I would still be impressed.
In fact, I believe you have led yourself right into WMD CP3 AN1004, which appears to be a story about that continual day-to-day struggle. That is, it is about suffering. I suggest you let me tell it.
AUCTOR: Suffering? Did I say something about suffering?
LECTOR: Yeh. You were talking about the experiences we face continuously, which means ‘suffering’ to me.
AUCTOR: and most of your supposed Buddhist friends, right?
LECTOR: You got it.
After helping the poor sorcerer die, the merchant sat down, lit a pipe, and thought. The sorcerer had discovered the secret of immortality and regretted it afterwards – for it is one thing to long for eternity and another to endure it. He had inherited a book of spells from the old wizard written quite legibly in long-hand, and the merchant thought over his circumstances and amazing good luck, for he had heard tales of nations fighting battles over just such a book of spells, only to find them written in code and scribbled illegibly at that. All those wasted young men, who died over scribble. Most wizards probably scribble, he thought. But now that he had such a book, what should he do? It seemed rather meaningless to continue in the merchant business, and so – given a book of spells to protect him from catastrophes, he decided it was time to become an adventurer.
For years he had heard of a fabled place called “The Quarry of Suffering,“ which dug itself, leaving gems strewn across its floor. There was nothing in the wizard’s book about such a place, nor any way to conjure up an all-knowing genie. So he set out to the northeast, and asked every muleteer and caravan man he met if they knew of such a place. One day the answer was:
“Anxious to air-out your bones, mister? Every trip we leave several fools there, but we’ve never picked anyone up. That should tell you something, eh?”
And so it was, that several weeks later the merchant and three other adventurers found themselves on the path to the Quarry of Suffering. They all kept well-apart and walked until evening, when they reached the quarry’s edge. A vast emptiness spread to each horizon. The sky was a dull grey-blue, there were vultures in front of them, soaring many hundreds of feet above the ground below.
The adventurers each found a place, a little back from the precipice to set down their bags, keeping well away from one another, and each lit a fire to wait for morning.
Suddenly they saw a beautiful orange crescent moon, rise above the horizon, glowing brightly in the dusk. It became larger and larger but rose no higher, and one of the adventurers became afraid and tried running away. As he did, the edge below him gave way, and his screams were lost in the thunder of the landslide, but whether he was crushed in the darkness, no one could say – for the rocks never reached the bottom.
The orange moon became a globe of silk as large as the dome of the great mosque. Torches below it made it glow, as it floated in the air above the Quarry of Suffering. Standing with the torches was a man in an orange caftan. He addressed the travelers:
“You are invited by The Perfect to attend your trial. This is the Quarry of Suffering. When a living thing is made to suffer, emptiness consumes a bit of this quarry. The earth and clay that was someone’s footing is no longer there, only a gem or a nugget remains to pay for the suffering. You have come for these jewels – but your trial is to find but one – the Jewel of Perfect Justice, and bring it to The Perfect to adorn its throne. If you do not find it, you will simply end your life of suffering.”
The merchant nodded. “I did not come to find precious stones, for I have enough of them. I came to solve the riddle of the quarry, which you have now explained. So tell me – if we find this jewel, what do we gain?
“Pure and Perfect Justice, of course,” replied the orange caftan with a sly wink. “Whoever wishes to take on this quest, must come along now.”
And so the merchant and one other adventurer joined the orange caftan, floating to the giant castle of The Perfect. As they left, they heard the roar of a landslide and a stifled yell from where they had stood, and knew the one who did not come along had ended his suffering.
They were shown their quarters in the castle, in a beautiful hall of rooms built for hundreds of men and women to serve The Perfect. The merchant asked one of them about their host.
The Perfect was no more than thirty years old. It was called “The Perfect” because it was everything anyone could ask for in human beauty – and those who beheld it could only want to look at it the more, filling their blood with a warm excitement, and feeding their heart with energies and longing.
I remember my family. I was a mother of four. But now I want nothing more than to be near The Perfect, to gaze on it when it is allowed” the servant said. “ “Even the wisest men and witches who have come here have lost interest in study after discovering how very smart The Perfect already is.”
The castle was called “The Castle of Perfection.” It was part of the quarry itself, created by those made to suffer for the sake of perfection. As a child, The Perfect had guessed of its existence, and invented the dome of hot air to find it and supply it with enough necessities for a town.
The merchant was not worried. Since leaving the thieve’s market, he had committed the sorcerer’s spells to memory, and could turn himself into a bird, and fly away whenever he wished. But he was intrigued by the nature of the quest, and wanted to try his wit at it.
He took to flying through the castle, inspecting most everything. As a bird he believed that looking at The Perfect could do no harm. However, when a person sees a beautiful orchid, or a wonderful specimen of a horse, they become entranced and wish to keep looking. To behold a gorgeous sunset, or a rippling brook with the scent of water hyacinths can captivate one with the perfection of the scene. It was so for the bird, who took to sitting on The Perfect’s window, taking in this new kind of perfection, becoming filled with song from morning to night.
After many weeks of singing, the merchant wished to see The Perfect as a man would see it – making it even more perfect. He flew to the porch at The Perfect’s window and changed to a man. The Perfect missed the bird’s song, and came to the porch window.
“You would do well changing back to a bird, young man, But I am afraid you won’t want to see me again as a bird sees me, and the power of your spell won’t be with you anymore. A shame, for I enjoyed your singing.”
Indeed, with The Perfect looking down at him, the merchant was filled with an incredible warmth and longing, and understood everything about the story. His greatest wish was to give The Perfect what it desired, to fulfill its every wish and whim,
“Have mercy on me, m’Lord,” he addressed it, “Let me go and find you The Jewel of Perfect Justice, for I would be happy to end my suffering at your behest, if this quest is beyond my power!”
And so the merchant set out into the Quarry of Suffering. In minutes he was bleary-eyed, walking over thousands of precious stones, and with each step he took his only thought was of The Perfect.
“Oh my,” he thought, “what has become of me? I may not have the wits for this task anymore.”
He picked up a giant ruby and beheld a vision. Women and children were hiding in a church, set ablaze by an enemy who killed all who fled.
The merchant picked up a garnet, and saw a town of fear and death from Plague; in an opal he saw men huddled and dying in a boat frozen solid in the ice; reflected in a gold nugget he beheld a leper colony, and in a tiny diamond he saw a family waiting for a father who would never return. He picked up one after another. There was an old soldier maimed in war who wished for every day of forty years that he had been killed with his comrades. A child with fear in her eyes was pulling her hair out in a frenzy, then started on her eyebrows, her fingernails and teeth. A boy or was it a young man becoming an old man, sat paralyzed in a corner of his parents’ room, shaking in horror and fear of going out.
“Ah, but this is enough. My wit has returned to me. For these gems do not pay for suffering but simply remember it. There is no suffering which can be paid for, nor can there ever be one single Gem of Pure Justice to adorn the throne of The Perfect. It is like that child I have seen cowering in the corner. Pure Justice is a delusion, an illusion of childishness which cannot be reasoned with!”
His spirit came back to him for that instant, complete with a plan.
“In every quarry,” he reasoned, “one comes upon seashells that laid at the bottom of forgotten seas. These shells will also remember suffering.”
Turning himself into a vulture, he flew high over the quarry floor until he spied a giant conch.
He looked into it as a man and saw fish flapping on a dried-up lake bed, and animals lying beyond them with their tongues out.
“This will do well,” the merchant mused as he carved it into a beautiful cameo with an image of The Perfect on its face. When it was done, he sent it to the castle, saying he had found The Jewel of Perfect Justice.
The Perfect beheld the suffering in the cameo and understood. Indeed, there is no such thing as pure justice, and when we try to fashion justice ourselves, it is only in our own image.
The Perfect sent for the merchant: “You have answered my question, and I shall not end your suffering. You may do as you wish –which I know only too well. For you wish to become my faithful servant forever.”
And so each day after feeding, the merchant became a bird, wishing only to sing on the The Perfect’s window.
AUCTOR: You said this story was about suffering. I always thought it was about justice. To my mind, it is rather confusing if it is really about suffering.
LECTOR: I’m sorry. I forgot how that story ended.
AUCTOR: I know. That ending makes me feel very ugly; but if feeling ugly is natural, then I guess the story was about suffering….
The story about the Perfect’s task of finding justice ends with the merchant happily putting an end to himself, that is, to his autonomy as an individual. He was seduced into becoming a part of the Perfect’s little world, and too easily, at that. But it is pretty difficult to see the connection between the business of ‘justice’ and ‘suffering.’ What do you say?
LECTOR: OK. First, it would seem to be about “perfection” – and I would admit that some of the suffering in this world is caused by different people’s impression of what a perfect world should be, and their attempts to make it that way. But that leaves out too much.
And then, the story talks about ‘justice’ – which I will admit is a riddle for anyone who suffers, and a problem they constantly worry themselves over. After all, what is justice when you think of it in terms of suffering? As the merchant said in the story, there is no equitable justice when it comes to suffering. And so I would say that this is one way to think about suffering, but one which leaves out just as much as the other. I frankly can’t say why I thought this story was about suffering, other than the name of the quarry of suffering and its gems.
AUCTOR: Well, I see a connection….and the connection to the previous stories, and while the name of the quarry suggests this is about suffering, the rest of the story suggest that suffering may in fact be something else than what we believe. Rather like the Axiom of the Asshole suggests that happiness is what it is for an entirely different reason than we might have expected, bringing with it a host of separate issues.
To understand why the ‘Quarry of Suffering’ appears in this story is to consider a different perspective on suffering. The story of the Sphincter is about many ‘truths’ coexisting, and the story of the sorcerer’s riddle is about two palms holding together fingers pointing in ten different directions. The story of the Quarry of Suffering is couched inside a story about the quest for justice, but this was inside the other stories of the merchant. The most perplexing thing about the story, however, is its ending. There, the merchant becomes someone or something else, which I will take as our clue.
My guess is that there is a perspective on suffering which considers it as a conflict between different frameworks. Fingers which point in different directions, and may bring about suffering in the palm. But what may seem to be conflicting frameworks – such as those between a bird and a man – we may find them mutually supportive. We are actually all accustomed living in a multiplicity of frameworks – which may coexist and cause no suffering whatsoever.
The many frameworks of living are always “at war” with one another – but instead of war, one might call it “competitive play.” Just as the balances which make up an ecology become fine-tuned (after an extremely large number of attempts to get the thing balanced in the first place), in a state of balance they will not produce suffering. When the balancing game between frameworks asserting their independent claims on reality becomes a struggle – someone suffers. Suffering is the way we usually become conscious of it. Like happiness, it can be thought of as one of the simple forms of consciousness. Like happiness, it is heavily charged with intentions – that is, emotions which direct our activities; which merely says that neither happiness or suffering are intrinsically “good” or “bad,” they are simply signs that Nature gives us to tell us what is going on between us and our surroundings.
Just as happiness can produce arrogance which can cause suffering, suffering can produce the thoughts and desire to not only end the suffering, but the conditions which caused the suffering. The dreams of justice and the energies to create balances around us are ideals which Nature has endowed us with. The struggle for justice is fueled by nature, and can fill us with elevated feelings of nearly ethereal qualities. These feelings too, while they are not the traditional home-bread ‘happiness’ we are used to talking about, are an exhilaration of being in tune with Nature which can, themselves, be a source of arrogance.
The struggle for balances may be mistaken as a search for the Holy Grail of Pure Justice – but as the merchant saw in the quarry, it cannot put an end to suffering. There will always be physical and psychological suffering. There will always be balancing games that get out of control – between the forces that hold together our bodies and our societies, between forces of the economies that keep us fed and clothed and alive, and between the many worlds of our minds. Neither retributive justice nor distributive justice can be had – ever. However, they are built upon ideals which are deeply entrenched in our minds, which we can have faith in or simply reject as ephemeral ideals. I would think, however, that to reject the dream of justice because it cannot be had, is done at our peril.
I say this because of the Riddle of the Sphincter – truth and shit have all shapes and no shape and none can bear to live with either. And I would guess it also, because of the complexity and inter-relationship of so many levels – which touch each other and are potentially continuous in ways which only an Euler surface could explain away. And I just so happen to see Euler surfaces everywhere I look, as I told you previously.
Talking of minds, I am reminded of an old friend … and several acquaintances as well, whom I should tell you about. For I believe they tell us something about our own struggle, and will help to explain that rather strange ending to WMD CP3 AN1004.
I knew a fellow named Snorre from Iceland. We called him "Snoring" for short. Icelanders are famous drinkers. Even before they became Catholics in 1000 AD they were famous this way. Anyway, Snoring worked in the Icelandic merchant navy for a while, and would drink quite heavily on the ship and even more heavily when he got to shore. Sometimes he missed his ship, having blacked out and forgotten who exactly he was and that he was an Icelandic merchant mariner in the first place. When he woke up he would try to remember that he was a rock musician on tour, but it never worked. He’d get himself onstage at some club only to find he’d forgotten how to play bass, if he’d ever known, of course. Eventually he'd come to, and find another ship that was just about as good as the first. When he came back to live in Iceland, he stayed in Reykjavik instead of his own little fishing village.
Now Reykjavik is not such a big city but more of a town the size of Wheeling, West Virginia, and he soon became very surprised when people he didn't know rushed across the street and shook him vigorously by the hand and knew his name. He was even more surprised that they never came up and knocked his teeth out. That is, he was happy to realize that when he blacked out during a heavy drunk he was still a very nice fellow and never insulted anyone or tried to steal their wife. And if he did steal their wife he had gotten their permission first, because Iceland is a Skandinavian country where they are said to be very permissive about things of this sort.
And I tell this story because I know many people who have black-outs when they drink and you would never know when their memory shuts off because they are acting like the very same people they were when their memory was turned on. They don't think they are anyone any different, and nor would you or I. Only they don't remember a bit of what happened last night -- where they were, or what you all did, or what great tango dancers they were. And this is a shame.
The story of Snorre’s blackouts is about a particular type of loss of memory – for Snorre was never aware of when he began to be Snoring. He was the same person becoming a new person – and yet one whom the first person didn’t know a thing about. It is not exactly the same as the merchant becoming a bird, but you will see, it is closely intertwined with it.
I know someone else who knows someone else who has a multiple personality. Forty-seven of them at last count, in fact. At work this person can accomplish in 3 hours the analysis and bookwork it takes anyone else 3 days to accomplish. Their hands don't move faster, just their brains – which go at tiptop human speed all the time. They've got to, to fit 46 other people in during the rest of the week. Meanwhile, their output is phenomenal; even if they act a bit strange every once in a while, like by reading witchcraft books in Portuguese and eating bugs. The bosses can tolerate it because of the extra productivity, of course. I won't say much more about this multiple person, or the horrible childhood experience my friend began to learn about as the clinical work began to try to integrate the memories of all forty-seven personalities. I will leave it for him to write about.
But when my friend and I began talking about his friend, my secretary overheard our conversations and chimed in with stories about someone she knew very well. For her best friend was a multiple personality, and she related bizarre and interesting experiences which had happened to her and her best friend over their 60-plus years together. She told me how her best friend had a multiple personality disorder after suffocating her own baby in a fit of frustration and claiming it was crib death. She told me every detail of the infanticide, her friend's distress and psychological unbalance - and she was full of emotion and loathing for her best friend. Then, without losing a breath, went on to tell how, without ever realizing it, her best friend had stolen her own song lyrics and sold them to a Country Western label, and how she blew all the money on a trip to New Orleans. She told how her best friend miraculously showed up and pulled her out of an auto accident and got her to the hospital. And with all this, I knew that she, too, had cut off memories of herself and her very own actions, and that "best friend" had been created to explain those memories away, putting them in the 3rd person. So she could pick and choose the memories she wanted, when she wanted them... as easily obliterated as the memories of a murder in a movie.
I know of a convicted scam-artist who believed in every swindle he tried pulling off. One of his selves would think them up, and then he would conveniently forget that they were scams. Because he believed in them himself, he could make others believe – and he was often successful. Too often. And as soon as he pulled off a swindle, however and made his ‘’killing,’ he became a high-roller at the casinos – free with his money, and everybody’s friend – until there was nothing left. Then he came back - having to not only start it all over again, but make a mad dash and scramble to escape the victims of his latest scam. He and his family were constantly on the lam, and he never understood why. He blamed it on his wife’s depression, which he conceded was caused by his own depression, which he knowingly blamed on the fact that at age eight he had witnessed his father murder his mother, an act for which his father was imprisoned. So this fellow had to grow up by his wits alone, and had good right to be depressed. Only his wits had been skewed, and his brain had taught itself to split off and forget whatever it chose to believe was a dream.
Now this fellow caused incredible amounts of suffering – swindling the retirement monies from old couples under the pretenses of an investment counselor, swindling church after church of their collection plates under the pretense of some tragedy his family had endured – when in fact his family constantly endured the tragedy of one of his more happy personalities blowing all their food and clothing and rent on extravagances with a constant stream of new acquaintances at the racetracks.
But doesn’t this fellow remind you of someone you know as well?
LECTOR: For some reason these last stories don’t seem too fun. This isn’t philosophy, it’s getting serious.
AUCTOR: You want to talk about sinful sex again?
LECTOR: It might do, except you never called it ‘sinful’ before.
AUCTOR: Maybe that’s because it’s too much like the story of Snorre and Snoring – sex is a framework that changes people’s priorities rather quickly and unaccountably. It represents a real struggle for many people, and is the source of quite a bit of suffering.
A priest once told me that the story of Job was really about forgetfulness, and is meant as a reminder of the nature of sin. This is all well and good if we are simply talking about the traditional sins of the flesh. Does it apply to Snorre? Or to the little boy who simply witnessed something so horrible and wrenching that he had no option but to separate it from his consciousness? Or to my old secretary, who – in a fit of physical exhaustion did something which she didn’t realize was beyond her comprehension? I myself cannot comprehend what my friend’s friend experienced – and yet we should expect a child to hold their life together without the ‘sin’ of forgetfulness? What would life have meant to them if they had kept their memories intact? Snorre caused no one else’s suffering in his apparently pleasant drunken condition. Of the four people I described for whom the continuity of memory was broken, only the swindler created a continual path of suffering in his travels through life.
AUCTOR: Be patient.
There would seem to be a very strong something at work inside us allowing us to negotiate conflicts between levels by introducing formal ‘trade barriers’ between frameworks of our experience. Severing memories is usually a partial thing… like when Snorre unconsciously slips into the world of Snoring. Snoring can remember Snorre if he chooses, but because he is drunk, he chooses to forget all of Snorre’s worries and responsibilities. In return, when he finally wakes up from a few days’ drunk, he has no recollection of Snoring’s adventures. The ‘sin’ of forgetfulness is the sin of prioritization. It is the local self severing itself from its global definition – forgetting responsibilities to one’s family or one’s future in an unconscious drive to find confirmation in the present. Sexuality is the basis of so much social intercourse; it represents personal competition for the growing animal as they search for a suitable mate and sort themselves out into groups. It is the source of families, then tribes, and finally communities. It is also the framework of the physical body – and produces extremely strong social hungers, and with the hungers come a whole potpourri of suffering, which can show themselves at nearly any level of experienced life. Not only our bodies, but under the pressures of finding mental balances, we are very prone to use those built-in techniques for severing memories to feed our hungers.
And the first of these built-in techniques we call “going to sleep.”
LECTOR: WHAT !?!
AUCTOR: You heard me – S L E E P.
LECTOR: No, you won’t ! I won’t buy it! Sleep doesn’t fit in here. It is so different from your other examples, I can’t see how you plan on lumping them together.
AUCTOR: Alright. I agree it is not the same, but if we were to call the examples something else, like “continuity of consciousness breaks,” then sleep fits in quite nicely, eh?
LECTOR: ( !@^##!! )
AUCTOR: But what, then, is the ‘sinfulness’ of letting one’s consciousness lapse, if we do it every time we go to sleep ?
LECTOR: I’m sure if you were to consider that global and local business you were pushing on us earlier, forgetting one’s promises and obligations and responsibilities, and whatever, you could come up with something sinful.
AUCTOR: Well, remember that the hypnotist usually relies on inducing sleep as a way to break off a person’s consciousness, and replace it with their own. And just think of how odd our memory of dreams is – how we can forget them ten minutes into breakfast, but drift back into them months or years later, as if no time had elapsed. All this is very strange stuff, that keeps kids and teen-agers contemplating surrealities for many hours into the night. And remember what it is like when you can’t fall asleep, and then define “hunger” for me.
LECTOR: There is ‘hunger’ and there is ‘h u n g e r,’ and there are crying needs and obsessive needs. I know there is more, too, so don’t try to force the issue.
AUCTOR: The only issue is our built-in techniques for dealing with these feelings, when our current self-definition will not allow us to. If my self-definition says I am awake and busily writing this book, and my body definition says it does not have enough stored energy, it slowly moves over the boundary between who is controlling me, and my eyes close despite the orders I’m giving them to read what I am typing. It us an ubwous pisha midckslll ssh. Seeiis ?
LECTOR: You’ve finally run out of steam. It’s time we opened up WMD CP4 AN1005, which you have appropriately entitled “The Untying.”
AUCTOR: skjthm mm aw wer.
Years went by, and the merchant grew much older – as did The Perfect – for this was not a magical land where everyone stays young their whole life.
The Perfect was a wizard as well. Its throne-room was filled with cats and dogs, faithful servants it used to play with as it wished. But the bird saw that as it petted them, it contemplated the cameo on its throne. And when it looked into jewels from the quarry, The Perfect would cry.
“So much suffering is caused by those obsessed with justice!” it exclaimed one day.
The Perfect suddenly called to the bird, “You, who sing to me all day – You, who fashioned the Cameo of my Throne – Come down and give me a plan for the end of my days!”
The merchant flew down from the window to become a man.
“I have been thinking about the end of my days, too,” he said, “as I sit singing odes to an image of human perfection.”
“I am old, it is not that image anymore” said The Perfect.
“My memory does the singing” replied the merchant.
“My memory cries,” said The Perfect. “I had a twin sister who was deformed and sickly. She would not lose faith in living, even to her last childhood breath.”
“I came here, to seek out the meaning of that injustice. But I believe I have taken a very wrong turn.”
“I was created the perfect human specimen of play – with a beautiful body and a powerful mind. I have created an army of playthings in the midst of the world’s suffering. I make it everyone’s duty to play and forget, at the center of every sad story since this earth began.”
The merchant was silent, then said. “Each evening when I am a man in my room, I vow that I will find a way to leave this place and become who I once was. I think of my mother – who has died crying for her son. But in the morning I awake hungry again to see you and sing.”
“Nature is hungry. It wishes to be a single thought - the source of all things and all time, even while it is growing and changing and churning in so many directions. Each part of Nature struggles like its parent in and against itself. But as a bird, I am briefly one with everything around.”
The Perfect looked at the cameo on its throne.
“You avoided death by creating this cameo. I believe you can discover a strategy to free me, yourself, and everyone else of this place.”
“Many years ago,” the merchant went on, “I defeated a strange creature known as The Sphincter. It’s riddle was that those who did not guess the truth would live on – while those who discovered the truth would not live to tell it.”
“I thought I was the first to guess the truth and live – but I was no different than the rest. My truth is manure in my hands, growing nothing in the earth. This life of perpetual hunger, play and feasting is all that is left of me.”
“I once helped a sorcerer embrace death. I thought he was unique in making his own life’s riddle the greatest on earth. I was wrong. Each of us is a riddle -- two palms and fingers pointing in all directions at once, a paradox for each hand. A riddle for the space around us, a riddle for our time here. The fingers on one hand point to the people and things around us, those on the other point to our dreams - our memories, fantasies, and hopes. We spend our days trying to grab what is un-grabbable. All we can truly grasp are these two paradoxes.”
“Every night I remember, and each day I wish to play and forget. To be free of all thoughts that bind me.”
“To be one with Nature is a paradox – it feels so very right. Yet Nature leads us all to hunger - to disintegrate, to re-integrate, to finally coincide on the one and only oneness of it all.”
“A bird can be just one thing at a time. But a bird is thrown into many different places, one after another, and cannot find itself any better than a man. Better to be a worm.”
“As a man, I let passing thoughts of this or that come without announcing themselves, and go to make room for new memories. This collection of daydreams I call ‘myself.’ To be a bird is so very different than a man. To be a worm is so very different than a bird.”
The Perfect began pacing the room now. It seemed the merchant was getting nowhere.
“You are impatient,” the merchant laughed, “but the strategy must be woven one string at a time. I hardly see the pattern myself.”
“Go on,” smiled The Perfect, “We can digest bread easily when the ingredients are properly mixed and baked.”
The merchant continued.
“I was once a merchant. I created riches by searching for things which one person valued that others saw no value in. I bought cheap and sold high. I see now that what everyone wants is to find the riddle which frees them of their own riddles – to become their nature as they chase the riddle of Nature.”
“On each hand there is a riddle to guide us, to drive us. Through other people and things, through ourselves and our dreams. And it is on this that we can make our strategy – for the quarry is filled with things that others take to be valuable – but each gem is bought at the price of memories and lost dreams.”
“Each of these jewels speaks of stories ended, and hopes gone…. Ripped away to become part of the earth. These people too, are the fingers on your hand – the hand that is your riddle. We can find ourselves and our nature through them, as well.”
“Our strategy to free ourselves from this place is by remembering suffering - pondering one’s own future by extending the dreams of those who are long gone and forgotten.”
“The riddle of one’s palm is answered not in the lines upon it, but on the fingers pointing out – to other fingers of everyone around us, to the fingers of those who have disintegrated in the mist of the past.”
“We will become merchants – distributing these many jewels. There is no true and perfect justice – for there can be no end to suffering in Nature itself. But each of these separate memories can live, and help create new lives and new futures. And in so doing, even those who have suffered will find new life through us, and others. And we will be connectors – merchants connecting people to people and the past to the future. This is a different kind of justice, and the strategy I suggest.”
Which is what they did.
Back and forth the floating dome traveled until the castle was emptied of all its occupants. Each of them had been given jewels enough to start life over. The gems they carried with them made them wealthy, and whether or not they believed what The Perfect had told them, they became devoted to distributing a new kind of justice in this world. Released of the castle, released from their hunger, those who had emptied themselves of all thoughts soon found themselves with memories and dreams once again.
The Perfect, with the help of the merchant, found master craftsmen to create jewelry which spread the memory of others on this earth. Jewels which caused their owners to contemplate life anew, to recognize the dreams of others that could well be their own. Carrying these memories released them from their own fears of disintegration - for they soon found themselves with reaffirmed hopes and a renewed spirit of Nature – a riddle if there ever was one - to do what they would to become what they could.
The Riddle of All Riddles is about paradoxes, of course – and suggests that there are many things in life that point to more than one thing at a time. It is primarily about the riddles generated through language and concepts – written and spoken riddles rather than experienced ones. Riddles of science – about the behavior of certain animals, subatomic particles, or nebulae do not generally fit into the merchant’s answer. Questions about justice and God and life after death are also considered riddles, but these are the riddles of philosophy and religion. The answers we are taught are the stuff of belief and good faith – and it is here that the allegory of The Riddle of the Sphincter might be useful.
The Sphincter lies at the crossroads of truth in each one of us – and was not slain by the merchant once and for all. We meet up with it on our own, alone, and many times throughout our lives.
Now you might think it is just another version of the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge. But the riddle of the Sphincter is actually a special case of the Axiom of the Asshole - together, they are about happiness as well as knowledge. The Riddle is about defining moments – those existential epiphanies at the crossroads of truth; the Axiom, on the other hand, can be applied to regular run-of-the-mill happiness as well as existential epiphanies.
Finally, the projective plane is a physical example which helps one visualize the constantly changing dualisms in life, like where the cusp of good and evil disappears beneath our noses. It allows me to describe the paradox of the answer to the Riddle of the Sphincter as resolved in a “twist” which allows opposites to be felt and yet connected.
The merchant’s answer to the riddle expressed those opposites in two words: “truth” and “shit.” In my own run-in with the Sphincter, I found that it was like putting one’s finger on the cusp of the sublime and the empty. It probably doesn’t matter which opposites of this sort you choose – you will run into many of them in your travels.
For example, if you are searching for answers to life and you are lucky enough to find that subtle twist to it all, you have stumbled on the sublime, and in this, you have discovered the source of true justice. This is what The Perfect was looking for, and indeed, generally what we are all looking for.
It is most important to remember at this juncture that you have just touched Nature’s Answer within us all. This is the Axiom. If you fail to keep this in mind, your truth will be squeezed by the Sphincter, and will end up quite the opposite. … that is, what a sphincter usually squeezes.
Storytelling and Connectedness.
The merchant spoke of Humbition.
At the time I am writing this, I actually make my living as a “pest management professional” in the first decade of the 21st century in the capital of New Jersey, USA. I recently went to exterminate some roaches and mice in a row home in the city. The second floor apartment was bare….. (tell how the kids’ life was… [was it a ‘house of ill-repute?]….. talking philosophy…. And, if so, sitting together communicating might just have been on my account).
New generations find their self-identity through creating their culture anew, like the prodigal son who had to wander and make all his mistakes himself before he can come home, each of us must find our self-definition at our own crossroads of truth, through testing and crossing boundaries, by being squeezed sometimes to death. Meanwhile, as almost-grown-ups, we are pulled to find our global definition – to identify with group - as strongly as we push ourselves to be unique and distinct. This is why fads will persist as long as there is a bit of personal freedom of expression and choice.
At the time I am writing this, however, we are faced with an interesting and difficult dilemma. The unfortunate thing for my generation, however, was that coincidental with our prodigal return to our roots – and our acceptance of our limitations and responsibilities as parents, that we were also seeding the earth with personal computing, which made us the mentors of word-processing the word, and then we remade the representation and control of just about everything. With the powers of computing at our side, our arrogance knew few limits. We remade the workplace in the image of our fantasies, and the rules of social interaction in the image of our fantasies. At this point, the discontinuities of cultural memory can appear rather severe. I would think that this level of arrogance can happen only when fundamental changes in the technology of the social economy take place in the space of a single new generation – that is, in the space of time it takes for an infant to grow up and raise infants of their own, or between fourteen and twenty-five years.
I felt there was a crying need for philosophy of this sort…..
 As opposed to a Forward, a ‘Fore-word’ is like a fore-skin which can be cut out immediately, even before you get started. Since the spelling suggests a subtle symbolic relation to the male sexual organ, however, the reader is subconsciously motivated to read it, carefully attending to all possible semantic connotations.
 I wouldn’t want you to eat either the fore-word or the bigger piece – but if you were to try to imagine eating them, imagine eating peanut butter, chicken livers, and hot pepper paste separately. As you get into it, you will be reminded of Thai cooking, and they will combine quite peaceably.
 Proof of my having been to the Crossroads myself proceeds as follows. Notice that a number of slight discrepancies in the above paragraph indicate a clear cleavage between the author’s head and body. Fingers on a keyboard often find much better words than any which the mind is crapable of.
· A "driddle" is clearly a riddle which leaves you babbling nonsense.
· A "brulesque" is either a very serious farce or a strip act performed with candles.
· 'Seducation' is quite naturally the temptation of books - which Ecclesiastes warns us of, and Faust sold himself to the devil for.
· "To gnow" must eventually make it into our vocabulary as a belief grown out of natural inclinations and a series of instantaneous revelations.
It was the mind which realized it would be a shame to backspace these accidental gems into oblivion.
Both the author’s body and head are working simultaneously – and that even after meeting the Sphincter I am relatively intact.
All of the above “witty typos” were the work of my fingers only. They were readily understandable to my ears, but needed an exact interpretation by my head. I let them stand as is, for there can be no better mots apropos than these.
Mr. Roget, who invented the idea for his thesaurus while Napoleon was sitting for the Eroica symphony, is very adamant about lazy authors who make up words instead of looking for ones which already exist and would do just as well. So I have been diligent in checking Mr. Roget's classic for these wittitypos committed by my fingers, and in no cases have found anything to serve better. As far as I’m concerned, you can add them to your spell-check.
 Weapons of Mass Destruction Clay Pot Manuscript #2, Arabic Numeral ‘1003’ – the expurgated thousand and third night of Scheherazade’s stories.
 Mr. Roget would perhaps approve of this orthographic variant, clearly being used to distinguish written or spoken riddles from Riddles of Nature or perceptual riddles.
 I am basically describing the man’s orgasm here, which is often something of a sneeze. A woman can enjoy the continual simultaneity of mind and body more frequently, and less often needs the lowly sneeze. You win some and you lose some.
 The reverse encyclopedia was invented for use on gameshows to generate questions that fall in categories which the contestants choose, like "Literary Sweetbreads" or "Lubrication History." Mr. Asimov was as close to a reverse encyclopedia as ever existed. Yet you might be led to believe by the sequential associative significance of my title that Isaac Asimov had contempt for titty bars. If I eventually join him in that great Moebius Strip in the sky I may just ask him how he felt about burlesque houses, but my guess is that he will have even more contempt for this question than he did when I asked him something vaguely mathematical.
 We, of course, know it was simply a hot-air balloon – but at the time that WMD CP2 AN1003 was written, nothing like this had ever been seen.