from the postmodern novel, arc d’x, by steve erickson. one of the books i have to (re-) read annually & apparently now’s the time. parts of this book find their way into everything i turn out, which always reminds me of his line: “i am haunted by associations that aren’t even my own.” i read this the first time back when it came out in 1993 when i was 17 & still know some of it by heart from writing scraps of it on everything from notebooks & jeans to my walls. parts of it informed my thesis proposal in:re what redemption means in non-christian terms and how the individual’s failure of the idea is the birthplace of malice. it is a surreal book which takes the relationship between thomas jefferson and one of his slavegirls and uses it to illustrate the impossibility of reconciling passion and conscience, and reincarnates this relationship in several other parallels spanning place and time, to wrestle with notions of love, freedom, religion, accountability, revolution, betrayal, violence, chaos, power. it got under my skin and the only way to make peace with it is to revisit and relay. excerpt below:
“what finally loses a man’s soul,” thomas says,”the betrayal of his conscience or the betrayal of his heart?” he looks up at georgie as if the boy with tattooed wings will actually have an answer to this question; the old man’s beatific smile struggles to surface against the pain in his head. he raises an old finger, “both, you’re thinking. aren’t you? you’re thinking both.” he nods. “but what if you have to choose? what if your life is forced to one or the other and there’s no avoiding having to choose? what if your life chooses for you, or she does,” and georgie is startled, because thomas is indicating the woman in the bed. the old man tries to unbend himself from his chair but doesn’t have the energy; he collapses from the effort. he glares around him at the affront of the room’s light. he mutters, “virginia runs with blood, like my dreams of paris,” and he smells of smoke.
“you’re a disgrace,” georgie charges. but his voice cracks. trying again he manages, “you’re drunken scum and it isn’t right you call yourself that name.” america is the name he means.
thomas knows it’s the name georgie means. “of course,” he nods, “the flesh,” and he pulls at the old weathered skin on his face, “is too pale to be american flesh. isn’t it?” and he keeps pulling at his face for the momentary hot rush of blood to his fingertips. he massages his wrists and georgie sees how raw they’re rubbed, as though they’ve only recently been released from chains. thomas looks at the bed and says, “and what if she had answered yes? when i asked her to go back to america with me, what if she had promised different? what if, there in the square of the bastille among the glass and blood and gunpowder, she had said yes i’ll return with you to america as the slave of your pleasure, instead of turning as she did and disappearing from my life forever into paris’ roiling core, while i stood at the top of the street screaming her name? what if my life had chosen my heart rather than my conscience? what if i’d put a price on her head and shackled her naked in the cabin of my ship like the property she was? what if i’d smuggled her back to virginia pleasing my heart every day for the rest of my life and left my conscience to god or the hypocrites who claim to serve him? let them try to stop me from taking her back, paris and its revolution. let it shrivel and petrify like a small black fossil, my tyrannic conscience. happiness is a dark thing to pursue,” the old man hisses at georgie, his eyes glimmering brighter and madder at the bald boy, “and the pursuit itself is a dark thing as well. even god knows that. above everything else, god especially knows that.” thomas seizes his racked head. when the pain subsides just enough he whispers, “what if i’d loved her my whole life.” his old eyes are wet. “would the conscience be as shriveled and petrified as the heart is now? where’s the frontier of the first irrevocable corruption? where’s the first moment in the negotiation of the heart and conscience when one so betrays the other that the soul’s rotting begins? god’s hypocrites will say there’s no difference between one corruption and another, that the smallest is as damnable as the biggest: but i made a country once. it was the country of redemption, somewhere this side of god’s. it was the frontier of the first irrevocable compromise between the heart’s freedom and the conscience’s justice, past which the soul can still redeem itself.” he clutches his head again and moans, “the blood.”