Saturday 30 October 2010

The Book of the Body: a theological horror story

I was meant to be writing my conference paper on the flight to Atlanta, but I was (still) procrastinating – so I wrote a story instead:

In the summer of 2104, Susan Crimmins stares gloomily into the surface of her iDesk, grudgingly slumped amid silent busy rows of grad students who are, unlike her, already hard at work on their dissertations. The new library of Princeton Seminary is one of the finest examples of post-war subterranean minimalism, an octagonal concrete chamber one hundred feet below ground, lined with widening spirals of glass desks, information terminals, and holographic display cabinets. For two years now, Susan Crimmins has compiled, read, annotated unending lists of monographs and journal articles on the work of Jean-Pierre Lafont. But she has written nothing, has no research question, no clue of how to contribute to the general mass of learning, how to set sail across the vast black sea of human knowledge. For of all the great figures of world history, none has been investigated more extensively (or, as it sometimes seems to Susan Crimmins, more exhaustively) than Jean-Pierre Lafont.

Earlier today Susan Crimmins went to lunch with Catherine, her friend. They entered the same doctoral program at the same seminary at the same time, and today they celebrated Catherine’s successful defence of her dissertation: an inferential statistical analysis of one thousand recent geometric proofs of the existence of God, warmly commended by the examiners as a "competent and methodical contribution to tertiary literature". Catherine laughed and talked excitedly about her success, her examiners’ reports, her career plans, her glittering prospects. Susan Crimmins bought her friend a gift, paid for their lunch, said how much she admired her hard work and scholarly discipline, said her own dissertation was not far from completion, oh yes, any month now. Catherine has been her closest friend since their first day in seminary. She smiles at Catherine from across the table, and hates her.

When Susan Crimmins had announced her intention to write a dissertation on Jean-Pierre Lafont, her doctoral advisor Professor Arnold Meyer had urged her to consider a less formidable dissertation topic, something on the recent emergence of slum theology perhaps, or a summary of secondary literature on the doctrine of asphyxia. But Susan Crimmins was determined to study the work of Lafont, and, after his suicide last winter, Professor Meyer was replaced by a new advisor who seems generally more supportive, though Susan Crimmins has not yet met him in person. Who else is worth writing about, except Lafont? But how does one find a fresh angle on a writer like Lafont, after half a century of scholarly commentary, scrutiny, and dissection? If only a new manuscript were to surface, now that would really be something. Like Lafont’s dry-cleaning receipts, which were unearthed in an old archive box in the early 80s, producing a furious storm of scholarly reassessment and controversy, material for dozens of new books, special journal issues, feverish important dissertations.

But of course there is little hope of any further archival miracle of that order. Jean-Pierre Lafont wrote only three works in his lifetime, works whose secondary and tertiary literature now fill entire libraries. When his first work, The Book of Pathology, was published in 2032, Lafont was largely unknown, a young scholar from the south of France who spent twelve years quietly writing the book that would revolutionise Continental philosophy, initiate the Neo-Metaphysical movement, and dominate scholarly discourse for the next two decades.

After The Book of Pathology, Lafont was appointed to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, but nothing further appeared from his pen until the publication of the colossal second volume, The Book of Technology, in 2054. With this work, Lafont was hailed as the most important thinker of his century. His name was spoken in the universities and in political speeches and in student protests and at dinner parties and religious services and cafés and brothels and airport lounges and movie theatres. For the second time, his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

But it was the third volume of the trilogy, written shortly before his death just two years later, that would secure Jean-Pierre Lafont’s reputation as the most important philosopher since Kant, or, as many scholars believe, since Plato himself.

In the library of Princeton Seminary, Susan Crimmins rubs her eyes. She stands and stretches. She is hungry again, though she got back from lunch only an hour ago. She swipes her card at the vending machine, gets a chocolate bar, a couple of stimulants, a caramel latte. She goes back to her desk.

It happened like this. On 28 September 2056, the great philosopher Jean-Pierre Lafont took a train to the village of Romage, near Grenoble, to make arrangements following the death of an uncle whom Lafont had known as a child but had not seen in many years. On 29 September he visited the village funeral home to select the Coffin, to plan the service, to choose the flowers (one small bouquet), to make the necessary payments, to sign what needed to be signed. There were no other living relations, and the service was to be a brief dignified affair with closed Coffin, followed by burial in the cemetery of Romage. On 30 September the funeral took place, though Jean-Pierre Lafont was not in attendance: he had inexplicably disappeared.

The mysterious and tragic accident (or malicious homicide, or heroic suicide: scholarly opinion remains divided) was discovered two days later, and the Coffin was promptly disinterred. Too late, of course, to save Jean-Pierre Lafont from his fate, his mort célèbre.

The incident was a philosophical and cultural sensation of unprecedented proportions. Not only because the century’s greatest philosopher had somehow inadvertently been buried alive, but because beneath the earth's dark surface he had written his third and final philosophical treatise, the epoch-making Book of the Body. For Jean-Pierre Lafont’s ballpoint pen had been buried along with him, and in that confined intolerable darkness he had torn the clothes from his skin (even his underwear was shredded as though by wild beasts) and had inscribed his timeless thoughts on to the writer’s last available medium. Tiny meticulous lines of text covered every square inch of the neck down to the hips of Jean-Pierre Lafont. Excurses and revisions and questions for further research covered the left arm, slender footnotes adorned the fingers of the left hand, the thumb, the phallus.

The publication of The Book of the Body was one of the greatest editorial achievements of all time. Lafont’s ink handwriting was tattooed on to the skin to prevent fading and the body was preserved by the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg, allowing the text to be carefully studied and transcribed over many years. A second edition appeared in 2063, a slim volume of 42 pages, supported by nearly a thousand pages of textual notes and scholarly apparatus.

The Book of the Body was hailed in France and North America, and then throughout the world, as the most important philosophical work since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It performed a sweeping revision of all Western thought since Plato, diagnosing philosophy as an enormous cultural and political claustrophobia, a Closing, a suffocating spiritual and intellectual confinement. Pre-Lafontian scholars had, curiously, described their epoch as one of "Enlightenment", but Lafont testified to the absolute Darkness of the Closing of the philosophical mind. The Book of the Body euthanised the decrepit philosophical traditions of the past and inaugurated a new era in human thought. Lafont called this new epoch the Lifting of the Lid, or, as it is more commonly known today, the Opening.

As a student of Princeton Seminary, Susan Crimmins is naturally interested in the theological dimensions of Lafont’s work, though the library of theological interpretation is of course discouragingly vast. For a time she had hoped to write a history of the theological reception of The Book of the Body, but a three-volume study of its religious reception was published in German last year by Günter Hoffmann: a work of encyclopaedic scope that left little prospect for further study. After the appearance of Hoffmann’s work, Susan Crimmins had briefly considered suicide, which in many universities is still accepted in lieu of a dissertation. Some of the most distinguished theologians have submitted themselves to burial, and it was a great fad among religious writers and students, especially in the 60s. But in spite of everything, and in spite of her commitment to Openist theology, Susan Crimmins finds that she does not have the stomach for ritual burial. She reveres the Coffin as much as anybody, to be sure, but feels (though might never admit it) an embarrassing residual attachment to her two cats, her red wool sweater, her indoor Chinese evergreen, her G-spot, her collection of antique soda bottles.

As fate would have it, The Book of the Body was left unfinished when the ballpoint pen ran out of ink halfway down the right thigh of Jean-Pierre Lafont, though one school of interpreters claims that the pen was already empty at the time of Lafont’s burial, that he had been composing the work on his body in the days and months leading up to the burial, that the commonsense interpretation of those events is a devious intrusion of the Closed metaphysics of cause and effect, that the burial and The Book of the Body are random events, unrelated by causation or necessity or logic. Susan Crimmins, beleaguered doctoral student of Princeton Theological Seminary, used to favour this latter view herself, though now, on further reflection, and after studying the First Edition where it is exhibited in the Musée du Louvre, laid out staring and naked and open-mouthed in its original black wood Coffin, she remains uncertain, undecided, Open.


Jonathan Robinson said...

"After the appearance of Hoffmann’s work, Susan Crimmins had briefly considered suicide, which in many universities is still accepted in lieu of a dissertation."

Lovely, a deep insight into the soul of a nascent academic. Reminded me a little of Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game.

Paul Tyson said...

Very disturbing. The metaphors leer at me Ben. Is the construction of thoughts about reality and meaning the writing from within the coffin that is the experience of being a contemporary scholar? Perhaps yes. Perhaps so. I’ve given so many years to study and the academic game, and life, often sacrificed to thought and career, is not in that box. Life always eludes the box. But can one live and be a scholar? Can one be a living scholar who lives outside the box? Can thought have the breath of life in it?

Fat said...

Most thinking is done outside the box - and this is a great example.

Jean-Pierre Lafont seems one of the few thinking within the box.

Ben - Well done.

I think you could have a whole movie script deal coming - next Halloween would be a suitable release date.

byron smith said...

Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You'd have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking, "Well. At least I'm not dead."
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead

Ben, you should procrastinate more often.

roger flyer said...

"Let me out!" he screamed.

in said...

It reminds me of those concerts one sees in Church, everyone applauds and says how talented they all are, but they're quickly booted off the X factor.

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