Bud and Gerald entered another room in which four people were seated around a wooden table.
“According to Eddington there are two tables,” asserted the physicist. “The first table is the one at which we are seated – a piece of furniture made of hardwood, its patina darkened by the layers of polish that have accumulated over the years. It is oval in shape, with claw feet and intricate swirls carved just here, where the legs meet the tabletop. An antique perhaps, possibly a bit too delicate for the hard labor to which we put it here at the Scriptorium. But there is also a second table, beneath this one so to speak yet invisible to us. It consists primarily of empty space, sparsely populated by elemental particles swirling through charged space at incredible speed, indistinguishable from tiny quanta of electromagnetic energy, moving from one point to another without ever being anywhere in between.”
“Superb,” the politician commended the physicist, “but is there not also a third table? It is a diplomatic table. Your words carry more force than mine, are weightier, have more gravity, because you sit in a position of authority, at one end of the diplomatic table. Whereas I, seated at your left hand along one of the longer sides of the table, am in a subordinate position to you. In comparison to yours my pronouncements ring indistinct and hollow. Now if we were to trade places at this third table…”
“There is a fourth table,” said the painter, seated across from the politician. “It is made not of electrons, nor of power differentials, but of shapes and colors and angles. If I were to describe this table I would use not words but images. My description would depend on whether oils or pastels were made available to me, and whether the surface on which I present my image is canvas or paper or the wall behind me. It would depend too on whether the light fixture above the table could be dimmed just a bit, whether our conversation around the table as I paint is convivial or combative, whether someone proves kind enough to fill my wine glass again.”
“But none of these is the real table,” the fourth member of the conclave averred. “The spinning particles and energy fields? That’s what the table is made of. So too are the walls of this room, the floor, each one of us. Are we all part of the table? Certainly not. The table is made of wood while we are flesh. But again, we speak only of building materials and not of the finished artifact. The diplomatic table, the painterly table – these aren’t the table either. You” – turning to his left to address the politician – “are describing ways in which people interact around the table, ways in which the table contributes to these interactions, lending and withholding its architectonic power to your rhetorical power. Whereas you” – turning to his right now, where the artist was seated – “would depict the ways in which the table interacts with your senses, your sensibilities, your sensitivities. Presently the table serves all of us as a flat surface on which we can place our drinks without spilling them. It serves as a locus around which the four of us can gather to engage in conversation, while also providing a physical and visual barrier, making it more difficult to engage in a brawl if our disagreements become too heated. Again, these are interactive properties of the table. But what of the real table, the essential table? It cannot be reduced to elements and materials, it cannot be expanded to utilities. What is it, this essence of the table? Even if we could know it, we would not know it, for knowledge too is a utilitarian function, an interaction of our minds with the table. Knowledge of a thing can never be the thing itself. The graven image is not the same as that which it represents. And where is it located, the table’s essence, if it is neither in the materials nor in the interfaces? It must be somewhere that cannot be touched by interactions with other material bodies and forces, or even with minds. It floats in deep space perhaps, or it crouches at the bottom of the sea. Or is Sheol the place where essences reside, each stored in its own vacuum-packed sarcophagus, all essences stacked in the infinite tunnels extending deep beneath the earth awaiting some post-apocryphal resurrection when the essences of all things converge and diverge, creating new heavens and new earths, not just in appearances but in reality? Is it not toward Sheol that we Pilgrims strive in search of the essences of all things, including the essences of ourselves?”
“I bought it for thirty-five dollars.” The four Pilgrims seated around the table, Bud and Gerald standing inside the doorway: all turned toward the figure slumped in a well-worn burgundy sofa on the other side of the room, notebook and pen in hand. “I bought it from a neighbor at a yard sale just after I’d returned from France, maybe five years before I moved here to the Scriptorium. It was her mother’s table, I presume she came into possession of it when her mother died. The table wasn’t even on display out in the driveway. It was wedged against the inside wall of her garage, covered with boxes, not easily accessible because of all the other junk packed in around it. Was she glad for me to get the table out of her way so she could park her car more easily? Had she been feeling guilty in not using her mother’s table, perhaps not liking it as much as the newer table that she had selected herself, according to her own tastes? By giving her mother’s table a new opportunity to serve its function did I help assuage my neighbor’s guilt? Or does she now worry daily about whether I’m taking good care of the table, always her mother’s table of course in her mind, honoring the table as I would her mother herself, even though she may have harbored, as most of us do, ambivalent feelings about her mother? Would my neighbor have suspected that I don’t much like the table because the legs along the sides are positioned so closely together that it’s hard to avoid barking your shins when you pull up to it? Through the walls could she hear my shouts the day my knee bumped one of those legs, toppling over my glass of wine onto the newly-cleaned carpet?”
In Sheol the writer’s essence was seated much like his material self – as above so below – on the mutable and increasingly threadbare essence of the sofa he had bought at some other yard sale, the essence of notebook and of pen in hand. He looked across the room toward the essential table, understanding fully that his visitors had essentially left. Is what I write about the table here and now, he wrote in his essential notebook, different from what I might have written were all of you seated across from me at this table, engaging me in further conversation about tables? Did you leave because you were offended by certain remarks I might have made, because they left you tongue-tied and embarrassed about your inability to respond fluently? Did you wish to encourage my engagement in the sort of one-sided dialogue I had been commending earlier in the week? Or were you just bored? And me: am I still going on and on because my interest in the tables is not yet exhausted, because like so many self-absorbed hosts I am essentially indifferent to my guests’ presence and can’t take a hint that it’s time for me too to put away my pen and notebook and take a walk in the open air? Do I write out of spite, in an effort to force you to return and respond to what I have written? Or is it a simple matter of horror vacui? Tomorrow when I take my customary seat at one end of the fictional table, facing out the back window onto the eruption of dusty greens and pollen-saturated yellows and purples that are the sure result of the rare midsummer rain that even now is coming down up above, will I incorporate into my novel (or is it nonfiction after all?) these speculations about the motivations of people who evaporate as quickly as rain in the desert (or were they mirages after all?), a host talking to the empty chairs of guests who are elsewhere – a text that is likely to remain unread and unremarked, forever positioned at one end of the table speaking silently but insistently into the void, sinking through the floor, through soil and sand and stone, into the profundity of its insular essence?
[…adapted from Sunday’s thread on the Agent Swarm blog. I like my original ramblings better — more spontaneous, nicely contextualized — but this version works too I hope for the novel.]