It was one of those days when nothing seems clear and you look in the mirror and you see nothing. It was a decision I made to make something of myself and it was rapid, almost instinctual. It seemed thoroughly amusing at the time. (To make something out of nothing is an occupation of the godly. The idea just tickled.) Still, I did it.
I was filled with thoughts and I wanted to write. So, I took out a pen and paper, prepared to sit for hours on end. But I was slumped for words and ideas escaped me.
Do you know the feeling when everything is muddled up and you're never too sure of anything? You're not sure, for example, whether you're awake or drifting into that state where dreams are continually shifting and images look so real you actually begin to believe they are. And when you reach up to touch them, they don't vanish into thin air. They linger instead, changing into something extremely radical. The great tragedian that was Hitler, for instance, will turn into something awfully comedic, like the grinning, malevolent face of the Joker, forever scheming over Batman's destruction.
And such was my state when, after the sun has long set and has already risen in some other part of the world, impulse dictated me to just up and leave. To take a walk. To clear up my mind. I cited reasons like they were righteous justifications of the abnormal exercise. But the mocker in me kept saying that my purpose was none of those and I was really walking to get away. From what, I cannot hope to know just yet.
And so I walked down the streets of the city of my birth, studiously avoiding the places that night people frequent. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, you see, but I never quite realized how scary that can be.
I walked listlessly, tirelessly, turning round dark alleyways where the smell of decay and the scurrying of little feet assaulted the senses and warned wanderers like me not to venture any further. I did though. It was a proverbial night.
In one of these turns that I stubbornly made, I found him. He was sitting in a rank-odored corner near the backdoor of a seedy, old restaurant. Among plastic cups and plastic bags and plastic cans and plastic paper, he reigned supreme, appearing sharply real in this world of plastic. He was covered in shadows and dirt but when he looked at me, I saw the smile beneath the grime and I smiled back.
On any other day, I would have turned about then and run away, scared shitless. Then again, on any other day, I would not have been crazy enough to take a walk in the city this time of night. And yet, madness has to rule some time as I soon learned.
"Good evening," he greeted me.
"Good evening," I returned but he seemed to find this violently amusing for he suddenly laughed, that eerie kind of laugh that belonged to no sane man. It was guttural though not unpleasant and it created goosebumps across my skin.
When his laughter subsided: "Good evening," he said once more.
This time, I chose not to respond. I was annoyed at being laughed at by a mad man such as he. For he was a mad man. At least, the kind that we see everyday in street corners mumbling to themselves or just staring deep into space as though trying to decipher the essence of life through the listless, fluid motions of the populous world.
He took into account my lack of reaction and this seemed to put me in his better judgment. I realized I was interrupting a meeting he was having with invisible entities. Surreal creatures, they seemed to stand just next to the wall. I couldn't see them of course. Ah, these damned mortal eyes. But he did and he spoke with them in a language I didn't recognize.
As I listened in rapt attention and mad frustration, my curiosity was terribly peaked (The only true human flaw, curiosity, and the only true human gift.) Suddenly, I began to see not quite distinct (but distinct still) figures that emerged from the shadows in the wall. And my madman was talking with these entities!
I gasped in frightened surprise. I was absolutely certain then that I have, for all intents and purposes, gone mad and completely over the edge. The sound I made drew their attention and the mad and the surreal all looked at me. And in their eyes, I saw a creature reflected in the dark, translucent irises. A creature so ridiculous and pitiable, infused in its own personal tragedy and yet gaily wrapped up in bright orange and yellow-striped socks. I had the strongest urge to laugh.
"Go ahead," my madman encouraged, accurately reading my thoughts. "We all have to laugh some time. Even at ourselves."
Dumbfounded, I asked, "Why?"
And he reacted with such vehemence, eyes shooting up and filling up with fury and untamed emotions. "Why?! Why! Never ask that of me!" He exclaimed, his breath coming out in angry gasps. Then, just as suddenly as his anger appeared, it left, leaving nothing in its trace. When he spoke again, his voice was mellow, almost contemplative and patient.
"The question to ask is never 'why'," he told me later. "That question dispels all the humor from life. Life and laughter. They are the same. When you begin to laugh, you begin to live.
"But do not be naive and mistake laughter for happiness. There is no real happiness in this life. What we have is the fleeting kind. If you want what's real, look for laughter. It is the only thing Life can offer us but we are too blind and too full of ourselves to see that.
"Thus, we are constantly striving for the ethereal, for happiness, for freedom, never quite realizing that true happiness can only be achieved when the struggle is complete." Here, he paused, eyes transfixed at some distant point on the wall above my head.
I was, by then, sitting quite comfortably cross-legged on top a circular metal platter and feeling in control enough to snort derisively at his melodrama. I said as such, "To struggle is to live. You're suggesting that we all kill ourselves to get to nirvana?"
The madman shook his head. "On the contrary, we must live. We cannot conquer Life so it must conquer us. It is by far nobler. But if we must live, then we must laugh and must feel pain for laughter is pain, too, of a milder form."
"You mean 'itch.'" At his questioning glance, I explained, "My biology teacher said once that itch is a mild form of pain." Then, I smiled a condescending smile.
But my madman seemed to find this piece of information suspect for he decided to ignore it. He went on as though I never interrupted.
"'Why' is actually a statement and not a question. It is a statement that is a culmination of all our baser instincts. We are animals still. We pride ourselves in being rational creatures. We pride ourselves in our reason, which puts us above all animals that act only from pure instinct. But I ask you, is not reason just another more sublime form of instinct? For instinct is what we call 'doing what comes naturally.' And does not reason come naturally to humans?
"'Why' is a sadistic question. When bad things befall us or when tragedy strikes, we always ask that question as if analyzing the whole thing or finding out its meaning could make us feel any less worse. In truth, we are only subjecting ourselves to more pain.
"And even when we experience joy, we can't resist to ask why this is so." He frowned at this, as though he couldn't quite believe it although he knew it for truth. Then he added, musingly, "Perhaps, it is just the result of a guilty conscience, an innermost dread of feeling good about ourselves when there's nothing to feel good about. Are you responsible for your life? Are you captain of your ship, master of your soul? Who really holds all the strings?" He looked at me as he waited for my answer.
I said meekly, "But there's something to be feel good about."
He smiled. "I didn't know you were an optimist," he commented, a hint of mockery in his tone.
I shut up then, more from embarassment and humiliation than from anything else. I saw the creature in his eyes again, a child playing at being an adult. I felt nothing but contempt for that child.
"But optimism is good," my mad man said after a while. "It's all relative anyway. If anything, it will teach you how to laugh."
I glared at him and lashed out, "Don't patronize me."
This, too, he found amusing but he decided to forego it at that. He continued, "And what is freedom? The birds are free but it doesn't mean that they need no trees on which to rest. So freedom is not the state of being free but the state of being free to admit that you are not.
"When God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, how many times do you think they asked why? How many times before they finally and irrevocably did what was forbidden them? Our version of freedom is twisted in the extreme. Forsake Law in the spirit of freedom?" He shook his head at this, clearly disappointed. "What is freedom? Do we really know? Is that why we crave it so much because we don't know? Is that why we crave the apple because we don't know?"
He looked at me, saying, "A most accomplished seducer, Knowledge is. And from the beginning, we have always been susceptible to her wiles. Have you not noticed that the only true great men were those who have tasted Knowledge to the dregs and have forsaken it? They realized a harsh lesson. Remember Jesus. Remember Buddha. Once you realize the emptiness of mere Knowledge, you are on the road to Wisdom.
"'Why' is a pompous question. Only the pretentious learned ask it. For example, they ask why good music is good and they take down the musician's notes, dissecting it, separating the parts from the whole until they destroy the music's very soul. Did they find the answer? No, but they found that the musician has the key and they take him, too, doing to him the same thing they did to his music.
"The snob and the arrogant are the worst. They ask this question for the sake of asking, not for a genuine desire to learn. They ask for meaning in the meaningless lives they lead. I tell you now, that quest is useless," he told me in a deadpan voice. "Life is meaningless in itself. If you look at it from an unaffected view, it is just that - chaos. It has meaning only if you make it so or when it is made so by others like you. And then, it is beautiful.
"'Why are we here?' Is that not the question we, humans, are wont to ask? The eternal human question," he mused. "Why, indeed. What do you think is the answer?" When I didn't respond right away, he continued, "If you have to think about it, then you don't deserve to know just yet.
"But it is human to ask that question, I suppose. Even though the answer is beyond our scope to understand. There might be times when we come close. There certainly is a hint of it in Van Gogh's works or in Rodin's. And Dante, that great philosopher, he knew above all how we're all just the butt of some cosmic joke.
"We are essentially a fearful race. We are afraid of the unknown. Thus, fear is what drives us to ask this question. We are between plateaus of knowing and not knowing and we are afraid to slip in either or both. Fear, have you noticed, is the real opposite of life? Not death, but fear. Death is transitory though like Life, it carries its subtext too. Human is not just a being. He is becoming. But Fear keeps us from being and we are trapped...."
I was wordless during the remainder of his discourse. And when it was over, I slowly made my way back home and sat at my desk. I thought about what the madman said. He was really quite sane, my madman. He was probably the sanest mad man I have ever met. But a doctor of psychiatry would probably say that it's a classic case of folie a deux. The madness of one infecting the other. Maybe. But maybe, my madman was right.
For is not madness just another relative matter? What is perfectly sane to some people may just be pure vagrancy to others. Reality is how we see it. And maybe, just maybe, our reality is the real madness.
Is it not a mad society we live in where we substitute majority for reason, reason for justice, and justice for murder? Is it not madness to clamor for peace and at the same time, make war on those who oppose? Is it not madness to make a promise and fail to keep it? Is it not madness to continue to believe in that promise?
...And as these thoughts whirl past me, ink began to appear on the stark white paper.
I began to write.
NOTES: I've been reading Herman Hesse's The Steppenwolf and I think the mood of that book helped me create the mood for this. This should really qualify as 3:00 a.m. rambling because well, I got an idea for it at 3:00 a.m. I just edited it to readable piece just now. *yawn* Now, I'm sleepy.