A grey-haired plastic-bag-carrying intellectual wanderer invites himself to stay in a faded country mansion where bohemians Bartholomew and Bella live in elegant dilapidation. They dine on fish and on a diet of homemade dandelion derivatives and talk about philosophy. “I bring you Descartes” says the interloper. And apparently he is not speaking figuratively.
This is a wry story where nothing much happens: and yet, the whole of history and philosophy is encompassed within in. Michael J Farrell’s unassumingly intellectual flair coupled with his spiritual credentials enable him to entice the reader skillfully into his humorous reflexion about the soul and destiny as seen from the eyes of his eccentric narrator. A story to be savoured.
Director of the Irish Writers Centre
À la Descartes
Picture, if you will, a tree-lined avenue curving gracefully for half a mile, its destination a mustard-coloured mansion crumbling under the weight of lost elegance. It was the hazy hour before dusk, when the day had given its all and was relaxing. The one looking out at the water lilies and beyond at the hills was myself, Bartholomew.
A man came into view all attitude—I’m above average in the insight department and enjoy premonitions and other epistemological irregularities. The man was on foot. He was carrying a plastic shopping bag held cautiously clear off his body the way one might carry eggs.
An author, I have tried in my own small way to add lustre to the human condition. I started ambitiously with a tome called God Knows written in the first person. No one who read it ever admitted it. Then came the brainwave and I wrote Here Below. With sensational, if I may say so, results. People everywhere, getting the picture, wanted to save us from ourselves. Rot, a lot of it, but the rest had merit: do good, avoid evil, get back on the bicycle.
Having provoked the populace into divulging, I felt a responsibility. Writers can’t walk away from the mess they make. The resulting correspondence was stupefying as crackpots and others shone new light on the planet. From Plato’s cave to the Bermuda Triangle they tortured me. Neighbours described neighbours breaking all ten commandments. Old curses were invoked, druidic spells paraded, rugby football and Wall Street derivatives brought to bear. Then popped up that man with the shopping bag, one Mossy O’Toole, who wrote a fabulous letter about the late René Descartes, who, as everyone knows, was invited by Queen Christina to emigrate to Sweden from his native France where he was already an exceptional philosopher. You may have seen his picture: a bony face with the hint of a snarl and the shifty look of a fellow who trusted no one and with good reason.
The pope was on his case for what might be heresy at a time when heresy could provoke an unhappy death. A stay in Sweden seemed what the doctor ordered. But the Stockholm winter could be atrocious. Queen Christina, furthermore, was a fanatic and made him get up at five in the morning to talk philosophy. Descartes hated early mornings. In no time at all he caught pneumonia and died. That was in 1650. The Swedes, embarrassed, gave him a quick, quiet burial. The plot would thicken with the years.
One could argue ad nauseam whether it’s cool for a man with tangled grey hairs growing out his ears to wear diamond earrings in the same ears. Mossy O’Toole, in short, was not a conventional man.
«We’re the Anglo-Saxon O’Tooles»,he said at a certain stage. «We’re to be found near Blue Ball not far from Tullamore. I myself am the black sheep of the family», he added with a hint of pride.
I, Bart, when not saving the world, am a confirmed bohemian. I’m not sure what this means but it seems to include a wide-ranging neglect of the social order. The mansion is a mess. Several Irish wolfhounds spread fleas from room to room. Rusty kettles, heaps of unwashed laundry and a yellow canoe are scattered across the drawing room. They have not been disturbed for a generation or more. The philosophy behind this inertia is to the effect that life is short and should be wasted only on essentials. I am tall and gaunt, by the way. If you wish to envisage me, envisage me as a cricket player dressed to play, something I have never actually done. I have cohabited for years with a willowy companion named Bella, an exotic person dressed in long draperies to the ground. Salt of the earth, apple of the eye, one soon exhausts the superlatives when she comes up for discussion. Like myself, she is bohemian. Thus, when a loud commotion came to the front door that evening, neither of us—although we had both seen the spectre approach—was in a hurry to respond. Bang, bang, the knocker went, while Bella doggedly read a book and I doggedly looked out at the lilies. On the other hand, we are all fascinated by interlopers and pining for surprises. While we are, for example, afraid of the grim reaper, we are equally afraid, when the occasion arises, to refuse to let the bastard in. So I let the bastard in.
«Mon vieux», he said, something he would say a lot. «Mon vieux, where has traditional hospitality gone?». He didn’t look at me, as if he took me for a hired servant, brushing past with the plastic bag ahead of him until he deposited it on a table. «You must be?»
«Oh, well, that’s different. I bring you Descartes». He looked eccentric enough to butt heads with Descartes, something few do: in our day only a minority wrestles with the dreadful questions. He wore a bluish plaid suit, too big for him now, as if he had reached and then moved beyond that moment when human flesh begins to shrivel and disappear. Then the freckles across his face came into focus, miniscule blotches, each a separate imperfection. Those freckles were, furthermore, unevenly distributed, seventy percent, give or take, on one side and the remainder on the other.
Bella made broth. Dandelion broth, she claimed, added iron to the soul. I kindled a roaring fire while Mossy enjoyed a bath. There was a sense of occasion. As our guest talked, those freckles would move about his face, a universe of miniature moons and planets in their orbits.
«Cogito, ergo sum», he intoned. «You don’t need Latin to know Descartes said a mouthful». An evening breeze was blowing past the double doors from the orchard. The broth was laced with spices and the dregs of several tall bottles. The result was a mystical twilight reminiscent of the evening the ancient Greek discovered Eureka.
Descartes, so the story goes, found himself lapsing into the worst of all possible frames of mind: universal doubt. This had not been a problem since God knows when. Previously, when incredulity raised its head, litanies of saints joined forces with ancient pagans to make blind belief a sine qua non. Yet Descartes’ demons demurred. Show us, they insisted. A whole world teetered, the only world we had at the time. And the trouble with doubts: when you give in to one, another pops up until they’re everywhere. Soon the philosopher was wading in a cesspool of misgivings.
Still, he thought, if I’m thinking about it, whatever it is, I must at least be here.
«It was brilliant, mon vieux. Everything else fell into place».
«How?» Bella wanted to know.
«How did everything fall into place?» This is the kind of poky question no one wants to be asked, but Bella had a poky mind. A wolf howled in the distance, adding atmosphere, probably the neighbours’ dog.
«If I’m thinking, I must be here», Mossy tried to explain. «And if I’m here, so is everyone else.’ Philosophically it was a limp old sausage, not one you could sink your teeth into. But the wily vagabond forged ahead. «When a dead man leaves ideas like that festering all over Europe, mon ami, there will always be someone to drag his memory over the coals—or am I mixing too many metaphors? And is that mead, by the way, in the bottle?»
«Wine, mon ami».
«I have nothing against wine».
«It’s made from the same dandelions as the broth», she explained. «Earth is winding down, old man, and the dandelion is your best bet. That and the roach are the obvious survivors in their respective categories. After humans have succumbed, it will be the cockroach drinking dandelion wine. Or vice versa». This aging girl, a nun in her youth, had spent life wandering from ashram to kibbutz to Amazonian jungle collecting nonsense. She had a great capacity for hope. She could see, down the road, a better life than life with myself, though she was vague about the details. This, by the way, was not such a startling discovery: I, too, could see ahead a better life than life with myself.
As the long twilight headed for midnight, Mossy asked if he could pitch his tent somewhere. This was a metaphorical tent and we pitched it on a section of terracotta flooring in the scullery. His only impedimenta, he explained, were a toothbrush and a pair of jockey shorts.
There was, though, one other impediment. Few relics create as much curiosity as a human head. Even the average skull: what a life it had, from the yowls of childhood to the hullabaloo, year after year, of facilitating what eye saw and ear heard, coordinating our days. I had been led to believe that one of the great skulls was in a box in the bag now looking conspicuous on the scullery floor. I nudged it with my toe. Whatever was in there was inert. It was mysterious. The world was always waiting for one Holy Grail or another. And like the lottery, I always thought I had as good a shot at it as the next one.
«I’m a troubadour», O’Toole said the following morning, ‘with no place left to go.’ Thus began further days and nights of claptrap as the three of us circled the skull.
«Here’s what I’m telling you», Mossy was drinking tea made from a tea bag from his trouser pocket, a well-used tea bag, he said, that never made weaker tea than the week before. The followers of Descartes, in any case, asked the Swedes for his body back. When they dug him up, the French ambassador asked for the great man’s finger as a relic—on account of the part the finger played penning the Descartes opus. «There is embedded in the human condition a hankering for relics,’ Mossy went on, «from Marilyn Monroe’s underwear to Moroccan jugs. But body parts are priceless. Locks of hair or a tooth but especially foreskins. Western civilization contains a vast treasury of foreskins. You’ll find them in bottles and boxes, couched in velvet or in leather purses or ornamental reliquaries».
«Descartes?» I steered him back to the topic.
«Oh that. An attendant, seeing the ambassador take the finger, took the liberty of taking the skull. There was dancing in the streets, mon vieux, when Descartes returned to Paris. It was around the time of the French Revolution, so no one paid much attention to a missing head».
Yet a head is a risky factor to overlook. A skull is not merely a skull. No one would suggest, for example, that John the Baptist’s was just a head sitting on a platter; or, later, just a skull. Once one got beyond the anatomy one suspected another dimension. Such as being godfather, in Descartes’ case, of the mind-body break-up.
Descartes’ remains, it seems, rattled indiscriminately around Europe. Then a Swedish scientist, Berzelius by name, read in a newspaper that the philosopher’s skull was for sale at a Stockholm auction. He bought it for thirty-seven French francs.
«That skull», O’Toole declared, «has been sitting for ages in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris». The freckles were going berserk as he piled one je ne sais quoi on top of the next. There was a notorious highwayman in that basement, also long dead. There was the odour of death, he said. He described the bewildered and ugly, the hairy and bald, the royalty and mountebanks—it was, after all, the museum of man, with an occasional nod to women. They were all dead. All except Descartes, whose cogito kept him from resting in peace.
«There’s only one problem», O’Toole said, after a week. He and the companion and I were sitting on the veranda overlooking what was once the family valley, trees of every pedigree basking below us, a fox looking for something to kill, a tractor groaning up a hill. I was growing sick and tired of Mossy, sick and tired of Descartes. Everyone said the latter’s Discourse on Method was a powerful piece of writing, but I had never met anyone who actually read it, including O’Toole. Adding insult to injury, Mossy had taken over the scullery. A gaudy carpet appeared first. Then came items of antique furniture. A birdcage with no bird. A microwave oven. Only when I saw paintings of my ancestors on the scullery walls did I realise he was stealing from me.
The problem, according to Mossy: Descartes had been lost and found so frequently, there were now, in addition to the Paris skull, four others.
«All of them Descartes?»
«Who’s to say otherwise?»
It took a shameless rogue to insist the others were spurious and the genuine article lying on my table. But one further clue kept popping up: the philosopher’s name was said anecdotally to be etched on the true skull. «Is anything etched on your skull?» Bella asked.
This would seem the obvious moment for Mossy to pull his prize out of the bag. But that was not the kind of man he was. «Think about it», he stared at us confrontationally. «Descartes is the one who first announced the separation of soul and body. Don’t you see?»
There followed a pregnant pause. Late in that pregnant pause Bella eventually nodded, yes, that she saw. And so did I. Nodded, I mean. I don’t know why. Embarrassed, probably, not to know what the hell he was talking about. This embarrassment is surely the reason slipshod scholarship thrives in the world: no one speaks up during the pregnant pause.
Consider. One couldn’t travel far in the arena of ideas without running into the soul. It got credit for most of our little victories in the past. How it achieved all this was seldom spelled out in detail because history was full of pregnant pauses during which doubters failed to speak up. At a certain point, therefore, it was assumed we all knew what we were talking about.
That was only half the catastrophe. While the soul was spiritual and flighty, the body, a heap of gradually disintegrating molecules, was easier to nail down. It had, for example, hairs in its ears. How such a body and such a soul, apples and oranges if you will, could ever conjoin and get along together—that was one conundrum. How they could now drift apart, as Descartes suggested—that was a bigger conundrum.
I myself—don’t forget—was on a mission, metaphorically speaking, to rearrange the furniture, to comb our collective hair, cover the embarrassing pimple, set the sun back straight in the sky. People now wanted safer cigarettes, cuter children, less dirt under the fingernails, more snow at the North Pole.
In such a climate of misgiving, all those skulls had a disconcerting effect. Second-hand heads, if you like, already the worse for wear. Sometimes there were a few teeth left. Often there was an opening where none was expected. No two were alike. And that was just on the outside. Each of the misplaced craniums was on a shelf somewhere, probably in a fancy box, brooding and waiting. With or without teeth. Definitely without the tongue, the eyeballs, the old familiars. No more hair. No more wax in the ears. No more ears. A finger once picked the nose. Spare a thought for the finger. Those bones once spat and winked, somewhere back along the road we came.
And another thing. Killing, once practised only by a few, was becoming the rage. One worried that a higher power, if there were still one, might grow tired of us. The intelligentsia was befuddled. Writers hovered in vain over their computers. Until my own Here Below, which had been translated into everything, reminded people that nearly everyone, given the opportunity, disapproves of killing and prefers instead to talk things over. For talking things over, though, one needs pros and cons. And, as my book pointed out, the great proponents of pros and cons were philosophers. Of whom there were, I added tartly, precious few nowadays. This caused an outcry. Until, amid all the shouting, someone mentioned Descartes, and before I knew it I was locking horns with the ineffable Mossy O’Toole.
«We’ll be having trout for supper», I said soon after, «with asparagus and the devil knows what. While we still have the long twilights, we might as well take a look at whatever you have in the bag». This little speech had a galvanising effect. He went for a long walk in the rain. I could see him far down in the valley making up his mind. The modern world, he was surely thinking, was an old horse, tired, walking through abandoned meadows in search of a quiet place to die.
Supper: imagine three old wrecks like us gathered around a plastic table in the solarium. Small talk seemed superfluous. «We could try uplifting music on the machine», Bella suggested, dressed top to bottom in Carrickmacross lace. «Sibelius, anyone?»
O’Toole countered with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Since he still had the skull, the trump card, Tommy Makem sang about the wild colonial boy and the jug of punch while we washed down the fish with dandelion wine. A moment came when none of us could think of anything further to delay the proceedings.
A robin was singing a warbly song outside as O’Toole opened the bag, a mere grocery bag once, now the focus of almost supernatural interest. The box, I could see, was made of ebony, black and shiny. The opening ceremony was surprisingly banal, no golden key or electronic whatnot. He just lifted the lid.
One would like to think, if the Grail is ever found, that it will be a sensational find creating fireworks on earth if not actually in heaven, orgy and ecstasy and bands playing. O’Toole’s package was less demonstrative. «Go ahead», the breathless companion encouraged. Even the Clancy brothers had fallen silent. There were no celestial phenomena. The skull, as skulls go, looked reassuring, typical. A mild, patient skull. Mossy picked it up without fanfare, without even the customary rubber gloves, and set it on the table.
We raised our eyes from the head and looked at each other. What could Queen Christina have seen in him? What could she have wanted to know at five in the morning?
«Doesn’t look a bit like him», Bella said.
The mouth was gone. Gone all the things it ever said. Even if it never was Descartes’, it was surely once a talking mouth. The philosopher used to have an aquiline nose. Gone now the way of all noses. The brow was furrowed right down to the bone. All that doubting must have done it.
His name was etched above the eye: Descartes.
That seemed to settle it.
This story is published with kind permission of The Stinging Fly and appears in Issue 24 Volume Two/Spring 2013.
The Stinging Fly was established in Dublin in 1997 and aims to publish and promote the very best new Irish and international writing.