Cum Grano [A Short Story]

for Julio Cortazar

“By a monstrosity I presume is meant

some considerable deviation of structure,

generally injurious, or not useful to the species.”

—-Charles Darwin


He looks left. He looks right. He looks forward. He looks about the subway car to the advertisements. He looks once more to the people around him, what kind of people are they, he wonders without words, person after person, no irony there, he has said a hundred times and again, person is mask, everyone, a mask, personality is maskality he remembers having read in a poem; the mask he wears today, every day the weathered masks worn, everyone wearing masks, masks are everywhere, he wears another mask, the mask he will wear later, off the train, out of the subway, the walk, the street, the people passing him and those he passes; and yet another after that, masks her wears in the world, the masks he wears in his apartment, the masks at work, the ones with friends with family with neighbors, another mask with the guy he buys beer from at the gas station; masks by time and masks by place, masks now and masks here, a mask there and a mask then, masks by person which is kind of like wearing a mask for another mask, a new way to have face-to-face time or is it face-to-face place. He places another mask on his face, how many faces we used to ask? You were supposed to have only one face, the proverbial face is one.

Space and time are one, and how they keep on together, one for the other, measuring each other; how long, the length of the matter considered, the manners by which we measure objects, how long is how far and how far how long. This wall, how long is this movie, length, time is distance, his couch, his class, this day, this winter longer than last? And after that and so on, one or another mask worn, he wore how many when he was who is no longer, how much of who we are not, remains?  Who are they, these people around him here and those inside him? He asks on the pages of his journal, listening to himself as he writes. He listens carefully to himself. Who among you is the same person today he was last week or even this morning, certainly you could not be the same person you were when you were a boy as I have before and will again say. What is it that I see when I look at them, them here and them there in the mirror today and yesterday or tomorrow and tomorrow, just as all my yesterdays, every today after today on the march through the long and winding tunnel, time; you should know this from me, every day creeping along, we know all about bells, tolling bells, every syllable he weighs when he writes, spontaneously, he can, when he speaks. When he sees their eyes it seems as if there is someone or something wanting to get out, he says . . . trying to? Is that what he sees, he wonders; or, is it what he put into their eyes. There are some who he sees who he would like to put out their eyes . . . Everyone the same, everyone not nearly alike enough to be the same, nevertheless, all the same in their isolation; everyone is an island; that’s a fact. How so then, and what do I say about what I think I see outside of me, inside of me reciprocates what I look at?

Monsters from the ID, he recalls having heard in a movie on TV when he was a boy. The problem with everyone’s ID is that this It-monster makes everything that it perceives, considers, responds to, reacts with, into another It like itself, even persons; other humans, the ID is incapable of dealing with as humans, only things; that is, without humanity, for humanity, by humanity, mutually and reciprocally humane . . . is there anything humane about the subway; how we act and react in the subway, the trains, he says he has never seen discourtesy in the way he has seen it there, troglodytes. No, really . . . what measure of reality is there in these musings of mine, he says; musings about what it is to be or to become a monster, have monsters hiding inside of you; of course he says we, has said we, will say we, should only say we to avoid they, them, those people–we people, us people, me, he says. Everything about us.

Monster me, monster me, when is it that he is this monster me? He asks this question. To be a monster or not to be a monster, that would be every human’s question. Victor Frankenstein faces the consequences of this dilemma in the conflicts of being, wth his being, his monster . . . dare we say doppelgaenger-self? How much of God is in Adam? How do we wear the mask of God? What kind of mask would we have to make? How would we make it? He asks and asks and asks. What is it that God breathes into Adam? A-Dam, or is it adama, the ground, the clay, the earth, the molded man, Adam, opposed by the angel Truth, who God then throws down and requires to rise again as the Prophets have said that Truth must grow from the ground, must rise from the lowly, why Jesus, the Incarnation of the Son of God begotten not made before Time and Creation, is born among the lowly, born among the beasts of burden in the manger.

Yes, when, not how, is he this monster himself? We must understand that Adam had to be a monstrosity to some of the Angels, he said, particularly Lucifer, he said, yes, the angel of Light. In comparison to their angelic nature, he has said, how is it that Adam is not a monstrosity, he says, how is it that he is not like Victor Frankenstein’s “being”is to the villagers below Frankenstein’s Castle–one to another in the pecking order of creation? He asks.

“Man has also been called the Ape of God. Do we not remember Milton’s Adam, and his quiet admonishment of God, ‘Did I request thee maker from my clay to mold me man, did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?’ How was Adam not a monster in the eyes of the angels, if the any-angel should be jealous. Leviathan–yes, that leviathan from the Tanakh–Aquinas ascribed to Envy, the demon of Envy. Every sin has its demonic overlord?” He asked.

“The how of my monster is easily determined,” he thought. “There is duality in my nature; it is easy for me to understand this dualism that is my humanity and my animality. As a Christian I am taught to accept the dual nature of Jesus Christ; a duality that is one hundred per cent human and one hundred per cent divine. You do not need to be Christian to understand this; however, Jesus for Christians is not like Apollo or Dionysus for ancient Greeks no matter how many reductions the traditions have been forced to fit. (You do not really imagine that you know me or could know me by me telling you about me, do you?) One-hundred per cent human, one-hundred per cent divine; Jesus. I am one-hundred per cent homo-spaiens, one-hundred per cent human, in potential, no?” He writes in his memoirs he has written, has been writing, really, not having been finished by him yet, the memoirs kept in a box, a hard copy of on-going memoirs–it is not autobiography.

“You and I–together les grotesques, yes, I have become grotesque, grotesque in my desires, grotesque in my perceptions of others and what they need or do not need from me . . . free-will wins out over determinism in my conceptions of the human; how could it not? If it did not, we would be in jeopardy of never living freely, never being able to manage a democracy–as if it is democracy I am saving or destroying when I do or do not respond to another human humanely . . . no, that is exactly what is happening. You believe otherwise, I have concluded. Or maybe you do not. What could I know about what you think?  Does it now matter if you know my name, if I tell you my ethnicity, if you know my faith, if I tell you my political affiliations, if you know my profession or level of education or my financial status, or what I look like, that is, if I am tall or short, stout or thin, blue-eyed or green-eyed, perhaps jealous, you might think? Another printed set of pages to put in the box?

To think or not to think, he would say. “I know we think we know that the Cartesian I think is precedent for being, I think, therefore, I am; however, I am, therefore, I think is more likely. I know none of the above about you and I am fine with that, or so I say to keep this going without side-stepping the issue of my monstrousness by following yet another tangent to nowhere,” he has written, has printed, has kept in the box, accumulating, again, the twleve thousand pages of memoirs and journals and essays and drafts of essays and drafts of stories and revisions of the drafts and final copies et cetera, et cetera.

“Jesus had free-will to reject his divinity, I presume. I am not certain of the theology here, what the official word is on this in my Church. I wish I were more sure, that I knew more than I do on this. Nonetheless, it seems to me that his divinity would have had to have been an option for him. The significance of free-will in the three great monotheistic religions is impossible to overlook and demands inclusion in any assessment. The whole point of the Son of God who had been begotten not made before time and creation to incarnate in the person of Yehuda ben Miriam was so he could experience life as a man, live as a man, choose as a man, suffer as a man. This is integral to the entire schema of Christianity whether there is Truth or nothing true in the whole of it. Jesus had to choose to be engaged with the divinity of his nature; even Jesus at the start had only divine potential. The actuality was distinct. Christ contends with his humanity and his divinity, a duality, not a dichotomy. Likewise, I contend with my humanity and my animality. I am not human by simply having been born. Humanity is a choice. Humanity is not then an inherited nature except in potential. I am animal; I am human. I am both, each one-hundred per cent worth. I am also neither human nor animal in that by being both simultaneously I become yet something else–someone else, all within one body. Another monster me to be? Questions follow yet other questions–questions are themselves grotesque, no?”

One flesh I am but am many persons, yes, I am many yet one–I am we, I am I; I am he sometimes the subject of my own interior dialogues I have with myself, I am I,I am you, I am he. In the Orthodox Jewish marriage ceremony, two persons become one flesh, not metaphorically, but in a true and real mystical union . . . there is nothing in Jewish theology that disallows them from understanding the Trinity . . . the actuality of my humanity is a process, a nurture within the animal who chooses this, an election. I am capable of Reason, this related to knowledge, thus the Sapiens of my species. This choice to be human, that is, humane, is by comparison, a monster me coexisting with the animal me. My animal nature would reject the humane; it despises the human potential in me; it resents the pull of humanity. A species of animal is a species of animal–here I separate animal from human; here I make distinctions between what is human and what is simply animal. Human nature coexists with the animal nature that precedes it, if you will. Thus, our humanity is exceptional; it is not a given,” he has written, these words; he has said, these and other words, fragmented, fractured, pieces taken off or apart . . . “the Homo sapiens is a species of animal with an animal’s nature, of course. We must not, though, confuse this animal nature for our human nature, no matter how many Venn Diagrams may show us how the human and the animal overlap. If being human in the way we mean when being human is to be humane–and this here is key–is what it means to have humanity as a quality and not a category to belong to, then having been born an infant homo-sapiens is not enough, although in potential, I can be human. If being this human is different from being the co-existing homo-sapiens as another species of animal, one among many in Nature, then it might qualify as a monstrosity, as Darwin defines monstrosity in Chapter II, right early in his civilization changing On the Origin of Species. (I love hyperbole.) Is that what I see us wearing, the mask of a purer homo-sapiens to ward off intrusion–is that what we do in the subway.”

Writing, writing, writing; pen to page, the paper he keeps in a box to use with the nib pens he keeps in a jar on his desk next to the bottles of ink, the cotton rag paper he uses because it is more absorbent for the ink that runs wetter from nibs dipped into ink wells than ball points or even fountain pens with ink cartridges.

“By monstrosity is meant ‘some considerable deviation of structure, generally injurious, or not useful to the species.’ What we call humane is something other than what we call animal, when what we mean by animal is brutal, nasty and dripping red in tooth and claw, if I might borrow from Darwin’s great contemporary, Tennyson, in the latter’s reference to Nature, the Naturalists nature, not the nature of the Romantics. Humanity is a deviation in the structure of the homo-sapiens, when it is the sapiens part of the species that distinguishes it as a species among others. The fact that being humane is in itself, when it is itself, non-utilitarian; that is, there is no part of our humanity, when we mean acting and being humane, that is useful to the homo-sapiens.”

“For a Christians, the primary nature of Jesus is divine; he grows into his humanity and through choices, perhaps fostered by his conscious or preconscious or unconscious knowledge of his divinity, develops that humanity into the living human Jesus. Humanity, as an exception, is thereby a monstrosity in the development of the Homo sapiens; thus, to be human is to be a monster. When I am humane I am, in contrast to the homo-sapiens nature I am born with, the monster me. Yes, in contrast with the nature of the Homo-sapiens, human, as we mean when human is humane, is a monster, a monstrosity. This sense of monster is reserved for Victor Frankenstein’s monster, at one time called his being, that which in his “living’ context, is Victor’s creation–but it is this sense of monstrosity he bears into the world, a monstrousness framed by his otherness among other humans–for it is a human Victor Frankenstein tries to create–that the being succumbs to, is destroyed by. He forgets, though, that humans are not created but nurtured and chosen; Victor and his being both ignore the native monstrosity that is a human being.”You read what he says, what he has written.

“Victor’s being was desperate to have this human modifier placed in front of his reference as a being. He did not recognize that his overt and exteriorized monstrousness was native to all of humanity in each and every member, perhaps only interiorized, the alienation each of us suffers in our selves within the Self, the many selves Self suffering monstrous alienation from each other, in some, so severe as to crack the veneer of singularity and break out in a multiplicity of warring selves too the destruction of any sane personality–what we also forget is our maskality. His creation is on the lines of the homo-sapiens, but is it really his disfigurement at the hands of his patchwork making? His true monstrosity arrives from Victor abdicating his responsibility to his creation. The being calls him on this by saying that he could have been Victor’s Adam. But the crime of hubris has already overcome Victor and he recoils, as I recoil from this monster me, a monstrosity of my nature, this human I choose. To be me is to be many, to be one, to be someone never having been, to be who I have always been, to be someone I might have been once, someone I could yet be, someone I might be if. I am another self and another self and another . . . I am other too. What other I do not know yet; this other is chosen, embraced by necessity otherwise it becomes another monster set to destroy me.” You read what he has written. “There are many monsters within me. To be many might seem confusing, but it is not. I am who I am whenever I am anyone I am, wherever I might be, with whomever I am, the many me[s] I am that could be when and where if, if, if . . . What if I were Hamlet, how would I order a hamburger and a milk shake? Humanity is a monstrosity, how could mine not be?” He asks in the pages he’s typed and printed from his computer.


The Thread. I’ve lost the thread . . . she always asks me to thread her needles. I wish it were different for me with her, but it is not. I wish the story were different, but it is not. She would disagree if she read this, what I am going to say has been–everyone is the has-been of his own life. No exclusions. The fact that she would disagree with whatever I say would say have said, disagreeing now and then, past and future, in perpetuity, she disagrees–whatever it is that I say, she’s against it. That she disagrees is typical–to this, she vehemently disagrees. Now this is part of the problem–no! It is the problem. It is a problem I wish were not. The extent she does not listen–and she does not listen, only hears what I say, sometimes not even that. I have for a long, long time now considered that she actively dis-listens, actively makes herself deaf when I speak . . . and this is far, is deep, broad if you need it to be broad, if it will help you better understand what I am trying to say about how far she goes in not listening. I have not yet determined if she is aware of this or not, intermittent suspicions aside. I do not know for sure if she makes an initial conscious choice to tune out, to stop, to avoid, or is it that she has a fundamental defect in her ability to listen–maybe she is just stupid, something I have not yet wanted to conclude.

I love her, so concluding that she is stupid is difficult for me. She might just confuse the act of hearing with the act of listening, the former, as we used to say, as I used to say (who are these we I keep referring to . . .), hearing is a passive act and listening is an active act; actions passive and actions active. You understand, don’t you? I’m sure you do. We are always talking about passive aggression and aggressive acts, the latter far from passive. How do we understand what others intend when they themselves have little clue about what they intend most of the time? This includes me, of course. How could it not?

Awake, alert, alive; what have we in words for the opposite of these. Zombies and vampires fill our popular fiction; what then are these sleepwalkers I see every day riding the mass transit here in New York? Day in and day in again we walk up and down streets, in and out of buildings, to and from meetings with friends and family, doing all manner of things that make up what we call living, all together, though, in nothing other than a great somnambulism. We are not awake, but sleepwalking our way from one thing to another, through one conversation to another.I ride the buses and the subways here in New York City, and there is no greater illustration of the sleepwalking the Buddha inferred than with those of us peopling subway car after subway car, eyes ahead blankly, mouths open in some stereotype of imbecility, always something less than awake, something closer to undead. You only have to look around you to see how asleep so many of us are. How much like vampires others have become–we do fear the light of day. Shadow worlds for us are preferable.

There is no amount of energy she will not spend to avoid thinking. We must remember that thinking is not randomly passing images in the mind; no. It is not some game of hop-scotch played by jumping in and our of squares drawn around words, presumably standing for ideas we have thought, but more likely ideas we have received, when at best we pay attention to the messages sent through the media. Thinking is only done by those who are awake. Sleepwalkers do not think. How many of us are walking with eyes wide opened? How many of us can say, even with our eyes opened, we are awake? How many more of us are sleepwalking our way through our lives? Look at the faces of the people on the subway to and from work. Being tired does not give us the entirety of what is going on there, blank, expressionless faces, mouths opened or fixed on the inanity of their smart phone, yet another irony lost on us. We close our eyes how many times? Self-imposed cave dwelling, all of us characters in Plato’s famous allegory. We do trust our shadows. The light of day is harsh. We imagine a safer vision in the shadows with less light. Ah! How we love our caves. Cave dwellers, all.

There’s an anecdote about a man on a road who sees the Buddha but does not know it is Buddha. The man sees the Buddha approach and even from a distance down the road can see that the Buddha is greatly illuminated, that he is surrounded by a special aura, something more than charisma allows. When the man and the Buddha are parallel, the man excuses himself and asks the Buddha who he is, what he is, wondering aloud to the Buddha, Are you a God? To this the Buddha says, No. Are you a spirit or some other supernatural being? Questions begetting questions following others with short answer after short answe –but if you do not like yes or no in response to your questions, ask other than yes/no questions. In response to the most recent question the man asked, asking the Buddha what he was, Are you supernatural, the Buddha said, or says, as sometimes the present tense is appropriate for stories or anecdotes . . . No.

The Buddha is not a spirit. The Buddha is not a God. The Buddha is obviously different. The Buddha is not an angel or some daemon–could he be a demon? No. The Buddha said no to all the questions the man asked. The man then in frustration formed the question, If you are not a God or a spirit or another kind of supernatural being, what are you then? Whether the pause was long or brief is inconsequential; length of time to answer might mean something to someone, but it does not mean anything here, cannot mean much to you, means nothing to me.

So, after all of this, all of the man’s questions, to this final question, the most important question, perhaps the first question the man should have asked–but if he did the Buddha might have avoided a direct answer, instead opting for an instructional Socratic method (and the Buddha is often Socratic as Socrates is often very buddhist . . .), yes, of course, to all of this, after all of this, with the man paused or poised in frustration, or maybe some other emotion, but on tenter hooks he stood, the Buddha said or says, as I have already pointed out he might say, using the present tense, I could, yes, after everything, the Buddha says, Awake.

Awake. He is awake. The rest of us . . . more questions. I never understood people who confuse narrators for authors or authors for the person who authors. A writer is a writer if he does not publish, but then is he an author? I have always understood this to be the opposite–it is authority that a writer always have over his texts–I understand that a writer is one who writes and an author is one who authors, but to author is to maintain authority, no? The way one is an author is different for one who publishes and another who does not. What then am I saying? I’ve list the thread. The eye of the needle is empty.

She is sleep walking, every day sleep walking, to and fro everywhere she goes, asleep, walking around in a deep sleep–is it deep, the sleep of the sleep walker? I do not know. I do know that what I see when she is allegedly awake is a woman sleep walking, much the way I see sleepwalkers everywhere all the time I am anywhere.

She’s made soup–she likes making soup. She always offers me a bowl when I am over. I always have a bowl or two when I am there with her at her table, soup and brown bread and a glass of white burgundy from the bottle I have brought with me.

Her soup needs a pinch more of salt.


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