Durham News: Opinion

Robert Wallace: Adventures in chaos

In a wood, along a path, a dump of trash.

A lone chimney stands not at attention but like the leaning Tower of Pisa, a forest of twigs sticking out of its crumbling mortar. Among the debris ceramics and glass, some of it ornate and fine, even the handles still intact. Magazines and books, eating utensils, children’s dolls with clumps of bright orange hair rooted out of the skulls, the finely dotted holes filled with red earth. Boards of fine-grained oak attached to long, tapered legs, rotted on the ends. A desk? A cabinet? A cluster of cold half-burned nuggets which, once stepped upon, disintegrates under a well-placed boot.

I search among the ruins of this destroyed house, remnants of which yield no clues to who used to live there. The foundation remains in places, a square wall of blackened rock. In the southern corner a narrow hole leads not to a buried basement, but more likely a rabbit’s den. I peer inside, imagine where it leads, and jokingly holler for Alice.

Alice might have jumped down the hole, but I do not.

One-hundred and fifty years ago, as the American Civil War was coming to a brutal end, Lewis Carroll’s Alice jumped down a rabbit-hole, sending her onto an adventure that can only be explained as nonsense, primarily, if for no other reason, because of its lack of logic. Carroll, like many writers, was an inveterate letter writer. He had this to say of one of his writings when asked about its meaning:

“I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m glad to accept as the meaning of the book.”

Alice’s adventures can certainly be seen as chaotic. But is there more to them than a wild, hypnotic experience than they appear to be? It would be easy, in today’s world, just as in mid-century England, to say “Yes.” Just as Alice’s adventures appear to be without rules, or the rules appear to be splayed, or otherwise twisted and misshaped, and Alice herself physically changed in accordance to no known valid reasoning, events over the last few weeks, all across the globe, point to a world that seems lawless and without order. Individuals and groups kill, for reasons that justify their own theories of survival, however wrongly mistaken. The Queen, for example, in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” decries, without the slightest provocation, “Off with their heads!” She repeats the phrase often, and it is her answer for resolving all differences.

Everywhere violence appears to be the answer to disputes and contrived threats.

When I was a boy, nor more than 8 years old, I listened to my parents talk once about a man who had killed his wife, leaving the young daughter without a mother. I was listening in on the secret world of adults, and their banter that can be so mystifying to a child. I stood behind the door to my parents’ bedroom, secretly listening. My mother was crying softly.

“He just shot her,” I heard my father say.

“How awful,” my mother said.

I didn’t know who they were talking about. I assumed it was someone they knew, but it could have been a story they read in the newspaper.

I have often turned to literature to help make sense of the world. The world can be a very frightening place, but literature, according to Mia Cuota, “is not only a way to affirm our existence. It is a permission to disappear and to allow the presence of those who seem to be absent.”

Reading the stories of other cultures helps us to bridge the gap between the self and others. It humanizes us all. Even Raskolnikov, in “Crime and Punishment,” is made more human, despite Dostoevsky’s portrayal of his murderous deed, by the psychological depiction of his actions and the slow, irrevocable understanding of his guilty conscience.

Still, when I go back in my mind to the rubbish that was left by the people that once inhabited the burned-down house I observed in the woods so many years ago now, I’m reminded that the names of things have meaning, and that the names of people have meaning. That behind every child is a toy; behind every home is a world; behind every person is a life, behind every young man shot is a mother and a father.

In a way everything is a mystery. How does all of this start? Someone believes in something. Someone else doesn’t. God(s) are called upon in defense. Then there are the theories of environmental conditioning. How we are brought up is what matters. There are the secrets of the brain, the psychological traumas.

Now these are some of the things I have learned. The brain is composed of three main parts: cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. Tucked into each hemisphere of the cerebrum is the temporal lobe. It is here where our memories are stored. Sometimes I wonder what we will all take from here. How a ball flung in the air carries with it the anticipation of sudden return? How a mound of snow once fallen upon can cause an angel to appear with the simple movement of one’s limbs? How the heavens can be viewed with a simple telescope or the naked eye? The gentleness of a caring hand upon a cold stomach. The scent of citrus in warm water. Other random or nonsense things.

The kindness of a stranger. Or the hatefulness of a stranger.

Robert always enjoys hearing your comments. Please contact him at bwallace@nc.rr.com