e pluribus unum: the new Parmenides
We drove straight through from Wyoming, Minnesota to New Orleans on Highway 61 – not to avoid the Interstate but because we had it in our heads that one turn after another on a slow road pausing for every signal in every small town was the only way to get to Mardi Gras.
We made our way the way the river does, rising through blue, leaving some (not all) of our shit behind. Right through the middle of the crossroad where Robert Johnson sold his soul. If that doesn’t get you ready for Lent nothing will.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Must have been around Louisiana, Missouri, before we got to Troy – six hours or so from Memphis – that we picked up a hitchhiker, scruffy kid with a guitar. He said his name was Bob. Later, after the Irish whiskey he was sipping from a flask kicked in like Pentecost, he said he was Plato’s little brother and took to speaking in tongues, mumbling about some guy named Abe and running the other way when you see god coming.
(Yes. That Plato.)
The timeline was impossible, but anyone who’s ever driven straight through from Minnesota to Mardi Gras knows what it means to be out of time, surprised by nothing, even if the odds are against knowing what it means to get happy.
He could spin a tale. And that kept us awake, a better reason to pick up a hitchhiker on a dark road than some vague idea you have that something you can do with a machine you own or a machine you think you own on loan from a bank that owns you can get a lost soul closer to wherever it is they think they’re going.
I’m telling you now, it’s hard enough to know where you’re going without worrying about some stranger, especially when you find yourself in a dark place where two roads cross in the middle of nowhere on the map with no sign you can see, wondering if Ike had the right idea after all.
The best you can do is keep on keeping on, keep your eyes on the road, and do whatever comes to mind to keep yourself awake.
Bob strummed his guitar off and on all the way to New Orleans. He’d break into a little Woody we knew now and again and then we’d sing along. It rained hard – hard rain – for a while, and while the windshield wipers were keeping time, I thought of Janis and her Mercedes, of nothing left to lose.
But she never came up, and no one was holding Bobby’s hand this time.
Bob spit out names again and again, like they left a bad taste in his mouth that the whiskey couldn’t hide:
Glaucon, Adeimantus, Potone. Glaucon, Adeimantus, Potone. Not a word about little Bertie.
Nearing Memphis, he grew suddenly lucid:
That’s why I left, you know. Tired of being Nobody. Headed west. I ran into this old cat who said he used to be in politics. He said he got fed up with the bullshit and headed west, like me. Turns out he was tired of not being Nobody, not like me.
He comes to a border crossing and while he’s fumbling for his passport, guard says I know who you are. Old cat says you and everybody else. Get in line. Guard says I’ll make you a deal. Write down everything you know about politics, and I’ll let you be on your way. Old cat says You’re putting me on. But he pulls out a notebook and jots down poems he’s been making in his head to pass time on his long march west. Nothing to do with politics. But no doubt the guard will find the politics he’s looking for written in ink and nothing to do with politics between the lines on the pages torn from that notebook.
Sure enough. Guard says that’ll do and waves the old cat through. Right then and there, that old cat decides to keep walking until he comes to a place where he can pass without a word about nothing he’s learned in politics.
I met him in Chicago, many crossings later, in a bar. Sign said Woodlawn Tap, but the locals call it Jimmy’s.
In Chicago, nothing says politics like nobody nobody knows. Coming out of nowhere as the old cat did, he found a disciple waiting where he never would have thought to look, a smart grad student who’d visited every crossing and gathered all the poems the old cat made into a system soon to be a dissertation. He was waiting for us at a table in the middle with a pitcher of Guinness. The old cat did his best to get us to do the talking. But, true to form, the disciple and the gathering crowd insisted.
Another border, another crossing – solitary, singing in the west…
There was an assistant professor at the next table (I’d know one anywhere and so would you) who’d read all the poems and been alerted that this old cat was passing through Chicago.
He was part of the crowd.
He had published a treatise on the poems, a little masterpiece of erudition, in a respected academic journal nobody read, and he laid it out for the circle of drinkers, who raised their glasses and cheered. The grad student, who had not found time to read it, made a note to cite it.
But, dazzled though they were, they still wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. We all did.
Someone brought two more pitchers of Guinness while the crowd pulled the tables together.
Another border, another crossing – solitary, singing in the west…
If there were a one, the one would not be
many. Not many, the one
would not have parts.
Not having parts, the one
would not be whole.
A part is
a part of a whole, one
missing no part.
One whole having parts would be
many. One that is one is not
whole. One that is one
has no parts. No
parts no beginning
no middle no end no
limit no shape
another nor in
contained would be one
contained and one containing: two.
Move and you are you
here and you there, not one.
Be in the same place and the place is
another: two, you and the place you are in.
One cannot be in the same place. Not
being in the same place, one cannot be still.
Not still not in motion not other than any other. One
cannot be other than itself or another, cannot be
the same as itself, as another. Neither
here nor there, never here now then there. Not
younger than itself not older not the same never in time.
Nothing doing nothing to do. This
one can not be can not not be.
That cannot be.
If a one is, it cannot be and not have being.
So there will be one and the being that one has.
One is, not one is one. Being, one has being. If one
has being, the whole is one and the being one has: two.
Each of the two is one that has being. No part is
one. One being is a multitude, unlimited. Say
one, say being, one being, a pair –
then there are two of us –
do tell. Each is
together another: three.
If there are two, two times
must be, two times three
and three times
three and on
if there is one
there must be number.
If there is number
there must be many.
If there are many,
every one of the many
must be one. And not
being one, the one is many.
The parts of the one
are parts of a whole, Being
a whole, the one takes shape.
A whole cannot be
without beginning and
middle and end and the middle
can be nothing but what is the same
distance from beginning and end and so
the one having shape will be
in itself and in another.
If the whole were nowhere,
it would not be. Because it is
not in itself, it must be in
something else. As a whole,
the one is in something else. As
all the parts, it is in itself.
It is in itself and in another. Being
in itself and in another, it is
at rest and in motion.
Itself not itself,
others not others.
If there is no one,
there is nothing.
Chicago was not the place.
I continued west with the old cat until we parted company somewhere in Iowa. When I left him, he was in deep discussion with a farmer who’d gone to Oxford thinking he’d pursue an academic career. But now all he really cared about was horses.
The last thing I heard the old cat say was a white horse is not a horse. It is a white horse.
Laissez les bons temps rouler.
from mind the gaps: fragments. Chicago, 2014.