by Matt Cardin
From Dark Awakenings (Mythos Books, 2010)
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth
knowledge increaseth sorrow.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:18
Consciousness is a disease.
-- Miguel de Unamuno
My first and decisive glimpse into the horror at the center of existence came unexpectedly during my second year of graduate school. I was earning a doctorate in philosophy and had stopped by the library between classes for some extracurricular research—or rather to pursue what I had long considered to be my true curriculum, regardless of whatever official degree program I might be enrolled in at the time. The object of my quest was a copy of Plotinus’ Enneads. I had only heard of the man and his book an hour earlier while browsing the Internet in my rented house. A fortuitous combination of search terms had yielded an excerpt from his treatise on beauty, and I had experienced a flashing moment of metaphysical vertigo as I read his description of “the spirit that Beauty must ever induce, wonderment and a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight.” These words and their effect upon me had made it instantly clear that a printed copy of this book was definitely in order.
So there I was, winding my way silently through the second floor stacks and savoring the library’s familiar aura of wondrous knowledge awaiting my discovery of it in hushed anticipation. But instead of finding Plotinus’s book, I instead turned a corner and stumbled upon my friend Marco seated at a reading kiosk in the middle of the south wall. The tall window above him spilled a shaft of dusty afternoon sunlight onto the burnished tile floor, imparting a muted glow to the kiosk and its occupant.
“Marco!” I said with genuine pleasure.
“Hello, Jason,” he murmured, and went right on reading and writing without glancing up from his books. He was surrounded by piles of them, all impressive tomes of various sizes and ages and thicknesses, so numerous they were literally spilling off the table. Three were propped open on the desktop, and he appeared to be copying passages from all of them into a lined notebook. When he did not pause in his work, I lapsed back into an uncertain silence.
Marco was a visiting student from Guatemala with an exquisite command of English and an accent so slight that it left some listeners unable to discern his origin. His auburn skin, coal-black hair, and muscular physique gave him the air of a revolutionary from some Third World country. He was, without a doubt, the most brilliant and widely read person I had ever met, a genuine savant who was simultaneously pursuing separate graduate degrees in physics, philosophy, and history. We had met at the beginning of the fall semester, and I had quickly learned that his chic-terrorist look concealed a fierce intelligence. Now, at the end of the spring term, I was still amazed at his vast capabilities. He could discourse at length on almost any subject, displaying a verbal and intellectual virtuosity that put others to shame. Adding to his mystique was the fact that he was only twenty-six years old. I found it impossible to reconcile his relatively young age with his positively fearsome erudition. The books arrayed on desktop before him now were a perfect example; I scanned their titles and found them to be of sufficiently diverse and advanced character to dizzy the average mind.
It was as I stood there watching and waiting in vain for our ongoing intellectual sparring match to resume that I felt the first prickling of unease. Our interactions had always centered on a perennial philosophical conversation that never failed to exhilarate me even as it exhausted and humbled me. But on that day, in my beloved university library, with me standing there primed for a dialogue and brimful of a craving for neoplatonic expressions of transcendent beauty, Marco apparently had nothing to say to me. I used the uncomfortable interlude to study his appearance more closely. His mouth and jaw were tight. His eyes appeared slightly sunken into dark sockets. His shoulders were tense, his motions taut and meticulous as he continued his scribal work. He fairly exuded an air of intensity mingled with exhaustion. The word “haunted” sprang involuntarily to mind as an appropriate one-word description.
Then he said, “How are your classes?” Only his mouth moved. The rest of him maintained an unbroken focus on his work.
“Um, some good, some not.” I groped for a suitable entry point into this strange conversational exigency. “Teaching philosophy to disinterested freshmen is a bit like asking your cat to come to you. They really don’t give a shit.” I winced at my own ridiculous words.
But somehow they were enough to reach him. He paused in his writing, pen lifted above page, and appeared to reflect. “Ah, yes. Philosophy. We do love it, you and I. How was it that Will Durant once defined it? ‘Total perspective, mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity.’” His tone implied something like a rueful smile, but as I watched him speak the words, his face remained fixed in that expression of hollow intensity.
At length he set his pen down and straightened from the hunched posture he had been holding. “Do you have a few minutes before your next class?”
I was still fumbling to pick up the obscure thread of this weirdly stilted interaction. “Uh, sure, a few. What’s up?”
He hesitated, then said, “I want to show you something. Something that I’m confident you will find quite interesting. Perhaps even fascinating, given what I know of your intellectual proclivities.”
“How utterly mysterious,” I said, attempting with a resounding thunderclap of failure to add a little levity to the scene. Marco showed no reaction other than to close and stack his books neatly, one by one, on the desktop to await collection by a library aide. Then he slid his notebook into his ever-present satchel and stood up. Without even looking at me, he headed for the stairs, and without my even hesitating, I fell in tow and forgot all about Plotinus and his promise to employ mere words to describe the impossible, delightful, delicious apotheosis of Beauty itself.
We stood facing each other in Marco’s cramped dorm room, walled in by bland cinderblocks and beige paint. Marco held out a spiral notebook toward me. I looked at him curiously and, in light of out meeting’s odd beginning, a bit cautiously.
“Take it,” he said. “Look on the forty-sixth page.”
I took the notebook and examined it while my mind whispered the word “anticlimax.” This was nothing special, just an ordinary seventy-two-page, college-ruled spiral notebook with a red cover. It was, in fact, the same notebook that Marco had been writing in earlier at the library, and I couldn’t help feeling a flash of irritation at what now seemed his rather theatrical refusal to show it to me in public.
But there was no use complaining now. I perched on the edge of one of the room’s twin beds and flipped open the notebook’s cover to find the first page crammed with Marco’s small and scrupulous handwriting. My eyes began scanning the text while my brain registered that the notebook appeared to be a combination of commonplace book and personal journal filled with Marco’s thoughts on quantum physics, history, philosophy, and a few other subjects I could not immediately identify. Instantly, my curiosity kicked in at the thought that I was being allowed a glimpse into my friend’s private mind.
I began to flip slowly through the notebook in search of page forty-six, which was made easy by the fact that Marco had hand numbered the pages in the upper right corner. Naturally, I stole as many glimpses as I could of the material on the intervening pages, and what I saw quickly sharpened my curiosity into a craving. Although the notebook’s primary subject was not readily apparent, I discerned that Marco was conducting a serious enquiry into a certain matter, an enquiry that encompassed ideas from fantastically diverse fields of knowledge. He made great use of quotations from other writers, and I caught snatches of a theoretical treatise on quantum physics by Neils Bohr, a monograph by an obscure astronomer, a book of Hermetic occultism, the Hindu philosopher Sankara’s commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, and the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. These last three were familiar to me; as a student of philosophy I had encountered them more than once in my own studies. The net effect of seeing all of these quotes together was to generate a sense that the comforting constellation of my familiar authors, books, and philosophies opened out into a vastly wider universe of unknown properties.
I lingered for a moment on page forty-five to examine the two quotes that appeared there. One came from a book with a strange name that was vaguely reminiscent of Hindu deities. The other was from a story by H.P. Lovecraft. I had heard of the latter but the former was completely unfamiliar to me.
My curiosity finally got the better of me, and I blurted out, “What is all this? What in the world are you getting at?”
“It will help,” Marco said, “if you will turn to the next page.” The tightness of his voice drew my eyes away from the notebook and up to his face. His sat opposite me on the other bed, mirroring my posture of perched attentiveness. His hands gripped the edge of the mattress. A bead of sweat slid down his temple. The expression in his dark-ringed eyes was unreadable. I stared at him for a long moment before finally looking back down and turning the page.
Of all the things I might or might not have expected to find, an elaborate sacred drawing was surely among the last. And yet that was exactly what I found. Rendered in the same blue ink that Marco had used to record his thoughts and quotes was an incredibly intricate visual pattern composed of abstract shapes, shadings, and forms. Its design was dense and complex, but what made it truly striking was its lushness and vividness, which made it seem three-dimensional. At the same time, it was reminiscent of a Zen painting with its distinct dependence on space and absence to contextualize and comment on form and presence. Most amazingly, its elements were arranged according to some alternative philosophy of design that flouted and exploded common artistic principles of harmony, emphasis, opposition, and so on. Each line led the eye to one or more angles that refracted attention like a prism dividing light. Each shape held its position and significance in relation to a hundred different elements, each of which was in turn embedded in its own peculiar nest of visual meanings and unstated implications. The overall effect was of a bold, bristling infinity.
In a word, I was dazzled. I knew the creation of mandalas to serve as objects of sacred contemplation had been developed into an exquisite art form in religious traditions both Eastern and Western, but the one I was seeing now was even more breathtaking than the ones I had encountered in my studies of Buddhism, Hinduism, and medieval Christianity. I had not known that in addition to his other prodigious gifts, Marco was an artist of genius. But there was no mistaking it. The mandala had been rendered by his pen, in his notebook.
I went to raise my head so that I could rave to him about the wonderfulness of the drawing and my awe at his secret talent. But then, with a sudden, startling sense of the impossible, I found that I could not do it. My neck was locked in place and my eyes were magnetized to the center of the picture. I blinked, or rather tried to, and found that I was likewise prevented from doing that. I was still aware of the room, still aware of the floor and bed beneath me and the walls around me, and of Marco seated across from me. But I could only attend to them with my peripheral vision. It was as if an invisible anchor had been hurled out from the page and lodged in my eyeballs, fastening them to the image and throwing me into an increasingly panicked state of immobility. I simply could not look away from the mandala, which filled my vision and began to horrify me with what I now perceived as its obscene infinitude.
And then it started moving. Right before my disbelieving eyes, the shapes began to stir on the page with a creeping motion like the slow boiling of liquids in an alchemist’s laboratory. Every hidden implication and mini-universe of meaning in the individual elements took on countless additional connotations as the whole structure shuddered to life. The picture’s three-dimensional appearance became literal as the page’s center dropped away into a recess of infinite depth. I no longer sat in a room beholding a picture; the picture had become the whole of my consciousness, and it encompassed me, and I stared through it into a chasm of measureless meaning whose very vastness was a horror.
Then, in an instant, all motion stopped. A dark spot no bigger than a pinhead formed at the mandala’s center and began to grow, as if approaching from an impossible distance. Ringed layers of shape and form fell away as this darkness accelerated its all-consuming approach. It resolved and clarified, and now wicked barbs and slivers were visible in its fabric, needled in endless rows of concentric rings like ivory spikes planted in rotten flesh. They churned and fluttered and twitched with a spasmodic motion, and in the tiny corner of my mind that I could still claim as my own, I realized I was staring into a nightmare abyss of endless teeth, a fanged and insatiable cosmic gullet that endlessly devoured, devoured, devoured all things in an eternal feast of annihilation.
All had been a prelude to this. My whole life, my very conception and progress through the stages of human existence, had been preordained to lead me to this dreadful moment. I felt the attention of a massive and malevolent intelligence turned upon me, and as I began to pitch forward into the pit, and as the first of trillions of teeth began to sink into my mind, I knew with absolute, horrified certainty that this nightmare abyss was also staring into me.