Nietzsche, Supermen & the Death of God
The next day, Gilly and I were sitting in The Gold Rail Tavern when the front door swung open admitting the figure of a slender man blown in like a leaf by a bolt of cold air. He stepped into the dimness of the tavern limping in pain, clothes hanging on his bones like a coat rack. His hair was longer, the shafts standing out with the effect of a halo as sunlight, flooding through the storefront’s plate glass, catching him from behind.
“Bloom!” Mick shouted from behind the bar, turning heads.
“Mick,” said the man.
“What’ll it be?”
I waved to Bloom who came straight to our booth and sat next to Gilly, across from me.
“Gilly,” I said, “This is Mr. Bloom.”
Bloom winced. “Bloom,” he corrected. “Save the Mr. for important men.”
He turned to Gilly. “So damned polite. Not sure I can trust a man with such silky manners.”
“We Southern boys, Mr. Bloom,” said Gilly, smiling. “Polite is what our mommas teach us.”
Bloom grunted. “Looks like you’ve been overseas. Indochina?”
“That’s right,” said Gilly. “How’d you know?”
“Crew cut. Military boots. The look in your eye. I can spot it; I’ve a gift for seeing things about people.”
“Right,” I said. “When we first met, your ‘gift’ couldn’t tell me apart from the back of Aunt Viola’s barn.”
“You mean when you wandered in here during my altercation with the pipsqueaks?”
“There’s that,” I said, “but it took a while for you to warm. You were slow. I had to creep up to you in tiny increments to get some conversation.”
“Tiny increments? Very fine talk.”
“Oh,” said Gilly, “J-Bee is known for his fine talk. Silky tongue. But watch out when he’s riled; he can strike you with that tongue. He bites. With words, that is—though he can get physical.”
“No,” said Bloom, turning back to me. “It wasn’t like that. I pegged you real fast. I’m a frosty man. I’m gruff. At my age, it’s impossible for me not to know what I am. So I didn’t want to scare you off. I gave you small incremental doses of my personality to reel you in without spooking you. Inch by inch. I knew you were a sensitive man—I had to bide my time, right?”
“A sensitive man!” snorted Gilly with delight, slapping the table. “Oh my, that’s rich! That’s what he is, all right! But he’ll rip your guts out if he’s cornered. He’ll come at you, that one.”
He tipped his pointy-topped beer at me.
“I saw that too,” said Bloom.
They were snickering in their beers.
“Like sport fishing,” said Bloom, “I had to reel him in like a bone-headed tarpon off the Keys. In-cre-mental. Wear him down. Landed him good and proper. Now, many burgers and a bunch of beers later, we’re friends.”
“What a pain in the ass,” I said, but my smile betrayed me.
Bloom and Gilly got on well. They had something between them that I didn’t share; they were warriors with a mutual bond, and they knew it. I could see them together in some dim beerhall in the future with horned hats on their heads, sitting on benches with a host of their dead comrades, singing and drinking themselves to oblivion. Coming from a military family, I had the sad revelation that I was never to have such a bond even though I had been born and conditioned all my life to inherit that very thing.
“So,” said Bloom turning to Gilly. “Tell us how they’re treating you over there—in Nam.”
“Brutal.” Gilly lost his smile. “Have you been to war?”
“I have,” said Bloom.
“Then you know how brutal.”
“You killed people?” asked Gilly.
“I’m not talking about shooting someone thirty yards away. I mean up close. I saw their teeth; I saw the pores on their faces.”
“I know what you mean. The killing gets personal. Intimate.”
Gilly looked at Bloom carefully. “Sounds like you’ve thought about it.”
“That’s exactly how it is. I’m possessed when I kill people. They’ve trained me to be a killer, and then I wake up at night in a cold sweat. I can’t stop seeing the faces.”
“I feel for you,” said Bloom. “After you come home, you’ll find yourself again. I promise.”
“You can’t say that.”
“Yes, I can. I’m not saying you won’t change—you’ll change. But you will find yourself, and then you’ll decide what to do with it, and that decision will reflect the kind of man you’ve become.”
We ate. Bloom lamented the lack of parades for the heroes coming home from Nam, news which surprised Gilly who said he expected appreciation from an America who had sent her sons to put their bodies in harm’s way. By six o’clock, dusk seeped in grain by grain through The Rail’s front windows. Bloom left saying he had an appointment, and then we split. The Serpent was going to speak at seven, and I needed a coffee, so we trudged off to The Apocalypse Café.
The basement of St Paul’s chapel spoke to Gilly like it had spoken to me. The damp stone steps leading down to the café and the sconces shimmering with orangey light recreated a dungeon with quivering shadows along the walls that ignited the imagination. Gilly said he saw the dark hooded figures of the Sisters lurking in every corner. He said he smelled the dank and moldy corpses of boys, those who had been lost in the labyrinthine cellars of St Eustace, left there chained and naked to die and then decompose, so many years before.
“The distance in time and space between here and the dungeons of St Eustace is closer than the thickness of the skin off a batwing,” he said. “Wherever or whatever those boys are now, they’re always with me because Hell is everywhere— it has no respect for time or space. Just the idea that those boys were there, dead in the cellars of St Eustace, was terrifying. Once you’ve been there, it’s always with you—or just a step behind you.”
I knew what he meant; I couldn’t have said it better. I also felt those boys somewhere near, perhaps only feet away behind some dodge in the crypts, seemingly on the other side of the walls which enclosed the café itself. It was as if there were some eerie connection, like a wormhole between this place and the subterranean world under the little school where boys had been tortured and then had perished, long ago, beyond the protective gaze of civilized society.
We sat down amongst the longhairs who nodded at us, restraining themselves from staring too hard at Gilly’s pink, shaven skull. Then, amidst the hushed voices, which were themselves damped by the surrounding stones, the profile and whispering utterance of The Serpent emerged as if from a soupy fog, a primeval being rising from a primordial ooze, hidden behind the veil of his diaphanous screen.
“I have a message for you, O My Brothers. I hear a voice, and it’s the Voice of the Revolution, whispering in my ear, burning in front of me like a shrub at the top of a mountain. It is a voice which must be heard, and you, Sons and Daughters of the Revolution, must hearken.
“A conflict is upon us. I see students betrayed and enraged by the hypocrisy of government. I see their anger flowing forth. I see them taking buildings, marching and protesting against the mining of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the widening war, now spilling into Cambodia and onto television, into living rooms across our great land. Helicopters are flying, dropping men, while planes are dropping bombs to destroy the VC infestation that’s proliferating along the Trail. It’s an aerial ballet, filled with the music of diesel engines and jet turbines, played out in a dance of flying war machines and a smell of gasoline, the drama supplied by the lives and deaths of the troops and villagers on the ground as thousands of tons of bombs explode, willy-nilly. And there above, God is pulling the strings in a lottery, choosing which boys will live and which die.
“I’ve been in Nam, but it had a different name. In 1944, it was Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Solomon Islands. I know the terrain, and it’s all the same. I know the smell. I know the price that has to be paid, and I know the outcome. We young and fresh-faced boys must always foot the bill.
“But I also know the difference between Nam and the Solomons. World War II was a moral fight. The lines of good and evil were clearly drawn. We were fighting monsters, and they had to be defeated. These evil agents were fighting to take over the world, committing genocide as if they were slaughtering cattle. They espoused their racial superiority and gave themselves the right to destroy and rule others. It was our enemies who justified that war and gave us the moral impetus. It propelled us, the Americans, to the status of world-saviors.
“But what of this current war in Vietnam? We are told it’s a fight to stop the onslaught of ‘Communism,’ a mantra spooned to us like dog food out of a can. The Voice on the mountain has spoken to me and has bid me to implore you, My Brothers— do not die for someone else’s mantra. Do not die face down in the rice paddies or up to your thighs in jungle mud and rain in order to protect the tin mines owned by the capitalist elite. Do not die for any of them, the dog tag numbers dangling from your necks. Die on your own, and die for your own sakes, and let the Vietnamese rule their own lives and die in their beds of old age.”
“You know,” said Gilly, “that’s where I’m headed. Dying for someone else’s morality. ‘Cause it just ain’t mine no more. The only thing I can’t tell you is when I’m gonna die. Or where—jungles, paddies or digging a Goddamn latrine.”
We left St Paul’s Chapel and headed back to the dorms where another of Milo’s parties would be cranking up. As the elevator doors banged open, we were hit with billowing smoke and the din of a boozy and dope-happy crowd. Gilly was standing there squinting, taking it in. But before he could join the party, Julie sidled up out of nowhere, having noticed my good-looking friend, and hooked her arm lazily over his shoulder.
“Gilly,” I said, “this is Julie.”
“Hi,” she gurgled.
Julie was stoned already, but even with her glassy eyes, her high beams went up and down Gilly in a flash.
“You call this partying being a student?” he said. “Nice life!”
“Well,” squeaked Julie, “I study hard to play hard. Know what I mean?” She winked at Gilly and, leaning forward with a softish belch, lurched a bit, her breasts juggling against her tee. She grabbed his bicep to steady herself and then looked up at him, a rock of masculinity, sipping his beer calmly.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling.
“Don’t mention it.”
“Uh,” I said. “Later.”
Gilly tipped his beer at me, and Julie giggled. She turned to Gilly and put her fingers through his hair, her female mind and motivation undraped.
I had no worries for Julie. I knew she would get what she wanted. And Gilly would get the exercise, discharge and catharsis which has been the balm of soldiers throughout human history. For me, however, it was back to the crucible of learning, back to the library where I’d hope to see Margo but would end up amidst the words of dead philosophers. I threw down my armload of books and began my grind. I waded into the pool of deepest human thought: Kant spewed pomposity and self-righteousness while small, anemic, near-blind Nietzsche sat in an attic room with a candle, dreaming of supermen and the death of God. After a while, their words blended together. I was reading words, but I was unable to comprehend their content. I read and reread the words to try and grasp their meaning until the screen of my overworked brain was envisioning something else: the Serpent sat back, lounging in a poufy armchair, feet up on a table in front of him, his big green head thrust through the collar of his white shirt and smoking jacket. His elbow rested on the arm of his chair while his fingers held a cigar to his green, puckered lips. He inhaled smoke and then blew out one ring after another.
“I have something to tell you,” he said. “You must choose, or I choose for you.”
I stared at the creature, and he stared back. I realized I was looking at an image of myself, and it was me who was holding the cigar and blowing smoke through a leathery, toothless mouth. Membranous reptilian lids closed over my eyes. I succumbed to the power of sleep and did not try to understand.
“J-Bee— you’re sleeping again!”
It was a giggling voice, and I felt her buzz of energy next to me, rousing me from my twilight state. I felt her touch my head. Gently.
I cracked an eyelid without raising my head.
She was smiling. I felt sun where there was no sun, beaming down upon me.
“I was hoping to catch you here,” she said.
She sat down. There were a few others studying, sprinkled lightly among the tables under the cathedral ceilings and rarefied air of Butler Library.
“It was Kant. He’s a dead man who always wants to make me sleep. I don’t know how he wrote it— I would fall asleep writing that stuff.”
In the short time we had been apart, I had missed her. Now that she was next to me again, I felt a sudden boost and sat up with a jolt of energy. I wanted us to talk and never stop, but then I restrained myself, deciding to be calm and measured in order to avoid seeming rash or foolish.
“I took Gilly to The Apocalypse Café,” I said.
“Your soldier friend. Did he like it?”
“He felt the same way I did. It’s a spooky place, like the dungeons of St Eustace.”
“That Catholic School you went to—they had dungeons?”
“Probably not? What does that mean?”
“When I think of that place, I remember it through the lens of the mind of a little kid, like I was then. We were always hearing about dungeons under the school. There was a basement. It scared the hell out of me, and kids seemed to disappear down there. The Sisters would take them down, and they’d never come back. Everyone said the Sisters chained them to the walls, but who knew? Maybe their parents just took them out of school. Maybe they just moved away. But they were gone, and everyone whispered about it. Some kids said they heard them screaming down there. Or they heard the chains.”
“And you believed it?”
“We were kids. It was Catholic school, and we all knew that strange things happened in Catholic schools. They beat us, and everything was about ‘The Devil’ and ‘Satan’ and how we had to be punished in order to dislodge the evil spirits from our bodies. We believed that stuff. It was plausible, considering the world we lived in. At the time.”
Margo leaned towards me, examining my face for distress. Her forehead was furrowed and her brows arched. She kissed my cheek. Maybe this was love, but it felt like pity.
“I don’t want pity,” I said. “Not from anyone. What I need is a solution. I need to crack this problem.” I didn’t want to whine, but I was bleating like a sheep. “I guess I can’t escape my emotional attachment to the Church; its ideas are so deeply sewn into me. It’s like I have an addiction— I just can’t imagine a world without the framework of Catholicism. I can’t shake my mind loose. If I lose this anchor, I’m terrified that I’ll be set adrift on a meaningless sea, out of sight of any land and too deep for mooring. It frightens me.”
Margo leaned back in her chair. Her face hardened, and her eyes narrowed, indications that thoughts were crystallizing somewhere in her head. She was my guru, and I awaited her proclamation.
“So what’s the answer?”
“Catholicism,” she said, “is successful because for Catholics, morality in this world can get you to heaven in the next. They might have nothing in this world, not even the shirts on their backs as they scratch their lives in the dust. But Catholics get something later that those who exploit them and those who are rich can never have. Therein lies a powerful inducement— you can get the better of your oppressors in the next world if only you do what the Church tells you. To throw away heaven, even if the chances are very slim that heaven exists, is very risky. It’s a system that’s hard to reject. There is an analogy to this in the Vietnam War. We have a moral responsibility to fight in order to avert the takeover of the world by Communism which threatens to take over America. It’s a terrifying thought. It’s also a convenient moral imperative for those who want us to fight.”
She was my oracle; she had answers. Then, just for a moment, she reminded me of something. I asked, “Do you know who The Serpent is? The one who speaks in the basement of St Paul’s Chapel?”
“Well, you remind me of him.”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t really know, but I thought maybe you did. Your ability to unravel things in order to analyze them is like his, and your views are similar.”
I was jealous, and I was showing it. I was jealous to think that another man had shared his thoughts with her and formed her mind on the subject. Who was this man who pretended to be The Serpent?
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I was wondering how it is that you’re so fluent with The Serpent’s ideas. At times you almost seem to parrot his views. Is he someone you know?”
“I don’t parrot anyone’s views. What’s this about?”
She was angry that I might be accusing her of being an intellectual acolyte. I felt a sinking at the bottom of my belly as if she had pulled the plug, such was the power of her disapproval. Where the ship of my soul had been skipping along on a placid sea, she would now unleash a storm, and I was to be sucked into the loveless void where all uncompassed ships are destroyed.
Then her expression changed as she read the emotions on my guileless face.
“Oh, don’t tell me!” she said squeaked with innocent delight. “You’re jealous! Come on, J-Bee, tell me! Are you jealous?”
I felt as green as the hills of Erin, land of my forefathers, but also red hot with the anger of one whose secrets were betrayed. In short, I was confused over emotions that only Margo could incite. To make it worse, I reminded myself that she had broken off with me—I was jealous and had no right to be.
“Am I jealous? Why should I be jealous? Do you know him, or don’t you?”
“Of course not. I didn’t know about him until you told me about him.”
“Do I believe you? Or did you sit down with me just to taunt me.”
“Should I swear to God and hope to die? Would you believe me then?”
She leaned over and gave me a hug, which had the effect it always had. The steam blowing out my ears turned off like a valve, and the lion that was me was suddenly bleating ineffectively like a lamb.