Posse Commentatus

2007.06.28
By

IN THE BEGINNING was the Text. But not for long.

The Text – definer and exemplar, authority and comfort, platform and trampoline – was no ordinary collection of words. It spoke of history and possibility, treated miracles as though they were commonplace and elevated the commonplace above the miraculous. Its basic gist was that humanity matters, even if humanity couldn’t always understand why.

Yet while the Text was finite (after all, its Author had to stop writing somewhere) it did contain the seeds of an infinite perpetuation, though not in the most obvious of ways.

Topically all-encompassing, the Text also seemed contradictory or vague – at least on first reading. But its devotees were so in love with the Text and its ideas that they couldn’t help amplifying and illuminating these apparent inconsistencies, often at great and obscure length. Some of these clarifications were laughed out of the circles which bore them; others took hold to become part of the Text’s official lore, in turn spawning their own hyper- and meta-comments. Some of this secondary lore was so treasured and logical that many who had never read the Text first-hand (but who couldn’t help soaking up its concepts and practices through occasionally distorted dissemination) assumed that the expositions were actually primary documents.

After enough time had passed for the Text to inextricably intertwine itself into the culture which carried it, three main schools of thought began to develop. One held that no intelligent person could understand the Text without its body of subsidiary lore. Another proclaimed that the Text was inherently perfect and no intelligent person would gussy it up with a lot of commentary-come-lately. The third was composed of a grumpy few who insisted that any intelligent person could see the Text was “just a story,” and devoted as much time and energy to disproving the Text and its importance as the Text’s devotees did in celebrating it.

These three schools also invested much time and energy in attacking each other’s opinion and occasionally each other as well. So when a fourth school emerged, holding that the Text was just a set of clothing for an Idea, you may imagine the rage and blather which ensued from – and, ironically, united – the first three.

This fourth school, however, knew that the test of intelligent persons wasn’t in which school they followed but whether or not they believed Text’s basic Idea – that humanity matters. (Some members of the other three schools believed this also, but they tended to be more uptight about it.) With what seemed annoying smugness, but was actually ecstatic enthusiasm, the fourth-schoolers acknowledged that the Text was just a story, but an extremely important one – both inherently perfect and valid fodder for exposition – and that only a damn fool wearing either-or blinders could possibly disagree at this late date in the Text’s history.

Such views, of course, were heresy; thus, it’s no wonder that the fourth-schoolers tended to feel a bit lonely and picked-on.

But their heresies did not end there. Some bold souls, who had observed that story-telling (especially story-telling about story-telling) was one of humanity’s oldest and deepest traits, began to notice that what made the Text unique wasn’t the Text itself but the way in which people related to it: whether the Text was Torah, Gospel, Quran, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Roddenberry or Lucas (some would add Beethoven and Jefferson, and occasionally Capra or Huston). What’s more, its devotees displayed the same compulsive can’t-leave-it-aloneness: whether the question was one of authorship (man or God? Will or Francis?), psychology (why was Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac? Was Hamlet mad, or simply adolescent?), intent (was Sauron a metaphor for Hitler? Did Paul corrupt or clarify Jesus’ teachings?), consistency (how did Klingons go from smooth to bumpy foreheads? How can God simultaneously command us to submit and to question?) or common sense (how could the Jedi not see that Palpatine was Darth Sidious? If Moses transcribed the entire Torah, how could he write about his own death?).

In short, the heretics had discovered a Great Truth: You don’t have to take the Text literally in order to take it seriously — and if you take it seriously, there’s no end to the fun.

Of course, the fourth-schoolers couldn’t share this cross-Textual speculation with anyone but other heretics. They realized that most Text devotees believed that only one Text (i.e., theirs) could be emulated and embraced, and all others were “just different, that’s all.” This made them sad; partly because they weren’t terribly keen on eyeless-among-the-blind pariahood, but mostly because they wanted everyone else to enjoy themselves, and the Text in all its manifestations, as much as they did. As they could neither understand nor overcome their neighbors’ stolidity, these unhappy souls resigned themselves to a life of furtive isolation.

But not, they hoped, for long.

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7 Responses to Posse Commentatus

  1. Daniel Flanagan on 2010.05.14 at 1643

    Hear! Hear!

  2. Neal Ross Attinson on 2010.05.14 at 1544

    Not at all! In fact it validates my point: Books don’t live on the shelf — they live in /us/. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a turned-on Orthodox scholar, says that’s the hardest thing to grok about Torah study, which Joyce (or Einstein) might put this way: Bloom takes more than one walk through Dublin; he walks through Dubllin every time we read him. He’s walking right now, through this sentence, pausing for commas, and by the time you reach the period you’ll have something else for your next read.

  3. Daniel Flanagan on 2010.05.14 at 1332

    Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, you know, what with all the post-modern, deconstructed sub-text and all that rot.

  4. Daniel Flanagan on 2010.05.14 at 1248

    Yeah, more people have gotten degrees studying the studies about Mr. Joyce than have gotten degrees actually reading Joyce.

  5. Neal Ross Attinson on 2010.05.14 at 1207

    THANK you. I was hoping it would pass the Flanagan Test. (Seriously.) And James Joyce! oh my goddinpotty! how could I miss that? That’s perfect.

  6. Daniel Flanagan on 2010.05.14 at 0527

    Excellent. this could be about Finnegans Wake as well, otr any number of beloved yet densely packed writings. You are on to something here. I love to see the forest in spite of the trees.

  7. Reb Neal on 2010.02.15 at 1601

    If you’ve read this far, you must know what I’m talking about. What did you think?

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