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THOM SMIT AND THE BIBLE

Do any of you now remember Thom Smit? I quoted him several times in The Clay Testament. He was a good friend and comrade of mine when I was working at the cafe in Madison. I have no idea where he is today.

"That useless fucking bastard calls himself a fucking lieutenant major, but he's just a fucking high school dropout drug addict who couldn't tell his ass from a hole in the ground if his life depended on it." These are some words I wrote down in the early Nineties about Smit. I was recently looking through an old notebook when I found this sentence. It evidently comes from my friend and mentor Cosmo di Madison. In the notebook I followed the quoted sentence with three questions:

But can you tell your ass from a hole in the ground? Do you know the works and days of man, and the seasons and times? Can you read the flights of birds, and see the fate of nations in a gopher's guts?

These three questions were evidently to be addressed to Cosmo di Madison himself. It's possible they were meant to be Smit's reply to Cosmo's criticism, a possible reply I was voicing for him. But I'm not sure. I can't quite figure out the import of a lot of the entries in that journal. It must have been 1991 or 1992. The three questions are followed by the following lines in Latin:

Sed sub verborum tegmine vera latent.
Vera latent rerum variarum tecta figuris,
Nam sacra vulgari publica iura vetant.

I no longer remember where these lines come from, and have not idea why they appear on this page with Thom Smit. Sometimes my old notebooks confound me. The following paragraph, written after the Latin, obviously makes reference to Smit's recent employment at the cafe and Cosmo di Madison's disapproval.

Cosmo di Madison now recognizes in Thom Smit a nemesis worthy of the swiftest action. That I am responsible for his being hired at the cafe is generally known, and I confess it openly. I should have seen the man's character for what it was. Needless to say, Cosmo di Madison has forgiven this lapse on my part, pointing out that Pseudo-Sergeant Major Smit is obviously a professional and had been trained by Kissinger's people specifically to pull the wool over my eyes. Cosmo di Madison himself was almost taken in. "At first I thought he was just a loser like all the other losers. But it's worse than that. He's a fucking imposter--ya hear me?"

This is all quite familiar. I remember Cosmo di Madison fulminating regularly against Smit all during Smit's tenure at the espresso machine. He would never accept a drink made by Smit's hands.

Following these texts, and in a different ink, come the several paragraphs of a response I wrote to Smit after he had given me the cosmological text now found at III.115 in The Clay Testament. They were to be a humorous continuation of that text:

And Thom Smit went forth into the world, and built his house on sandy ground, and sowed his seed upon the rocky wayside, and combed his hair with a goblet.

And he took a fox for a mango, and made of it a hairy puree.

And many did laugh at him, and said: "Thom Smit does not know his ass from a hole in the ground."

And they said: "Thom Smit could not find his ass with both hands."

But verily it was said unto them--and it was said by Thom Smit--: "A day shall come to pass when none shall be able to tell their ass from a hole in the ground. And then shall a great wailing be heard."

And he said: "Only those who from the very beginning could not tell their asses from holes in the ground--only such as these shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. All others shall be cast out, and their asses shall be grass, and they will know not if they have been turned into a golf course, or what. Boy, will there be wailing then."

And he said: "Those who mistake their asses for a wheelbarrow shall inherit the earth."

And he said: "Blessed are they who try to catch flies in their mouth. Blessed are they who would rather hang out in a juice bar than flay the fox with the big boys."

And he said: "My father is a colonel and I am a sergeant major. My father could thrash all your male relatives with his left hand if he wanted. My father has forty-seven Cadillacs."

But the people heard him not, and they sent him packing from their dinner parties; and their daughters did tend to throw garbage at the back of his head.

But verily, Reader, can you tell your ass from a hole in the ground even now?

I know that in those days Smit was reading the Pentateuch at my behest, and I was always reading the Bible and rereading Rabelais. Our written cafe exchanges came to take on a peculiarly biblical-parodic character. Cosmo di Madison's manner of speaking about Smit (and about so many others besides) infected my writing about him, and I remember handing Smit a few more pages of this "Testament of Thom Smit" every couple of days. His only lengthy entry in this collaboration was the cosmological text mentioned above, the text with which he started the exchange, and the one which came to take on the place of Genesis in this slowly growing tradition. That was Smit's only lengthy entry, but I remember him adding paragraphs here and there. I have lost most of the pages of that Pseudo-Scripture, something which saddens me now, as I almost feel like taking it up again, so warmly do I remember the conjunction between Rabelais, the self-proclaimed Nietzschaen Smit, myself, and heavy doses of caffeine; so warmly do I remember those days of exchange.

It strikes me now that those months were some of the best I've ever gotten out of literature, that such an exchange with a coworker in a State Street caffeine dump may really be the warmest I will ever have. What does this say about my dream--the dream of finding consonance with a few others who would take up their pens in a like mode with me? Every day I write, and every day I feel it is less and less likely that there is even one other in the world who would feel compelled upon reading what I wrote to write to me in response, to write in the margins of my text, to begin the kind of mutual game that is Literature. I am uncertain whether this loneliness indicates a problem with my writing (I am a lousy writer) or a problem with my dream (it is and has always been a chimera: impossible) or a problem with the state of readers and writers in the world (literature is nearly dead). Whichever of these best explains my isolation is not as important as the fact of this isolation: namely the fact that I feel it goes on and on.

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Note: I had provoked the "Nietzschaen" Thom Smit into studying the Pentateuch by showing him a page from Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster, a page on which Blanchot considers Nietzsche's reading of the Bible:

Nietzsche: "In the Jewish 'Old Testament,' that book of God's justice, we encounter men, events and utterances of such great vitality that neither Greek nor Hindu literature offers anything comparable. One is seized with fear and respect before these prodigious vestiges of what man once was, and one entertains sad reflections about ancient Asia and her advanced peninsula, Europe, which claims to incarnate vis-a-vis Asia 'the progress of man.'..." --"To have stuck onto the Old, this New Testament--this monument in every respect to a rococo taste--in order to join the two in a single book, the Bible, the Book par excellence: this is perhaps the greatest imprudence, the greatest 'sin against the spirit' that modern literature has on its conscience." What does Nietzsche mean here? He is speaking of style and taste, of literature, but his use of these words elevates what they convey. And I take not of this: he mocks Greek civilization no less than Christian. Elsewhere, Christianity is praised for having been able to maintain respect for the Bible, even if it did so by forbidding that the Bible be read: "The way in which respect for the Bible has been maintained on the whole up until our own time, constitutes perhaps the best example of the discipline and cultural refinement that Europe owes to Christianity: books of this profundity--receptacles of an ultimate significance [my emphasis]--need to be protected by a tyrannical exterior authority in order to be sure of that duration of several thousands of years which is necessary for exhausting their meaning and comprehending it fully."... Likewise, in another book, but in practically the same terms: "The Old Testament is really something! Hats off to the Old Testament! Here I find great men, a heroic landscape and one of the rarest things in the world, the incomparable naivete of the robust heart; and furthermore, I find a people."

There are many things in this passage I hold dear. One of them is the definition of Europe as an advanced peninsula of ancient Asia. That suggests a notion of Europe that I have long held to. Another is the valuation of the Jewish literature over that of the Greeks. A third is Nietzsche's recognition of the importance of the Church's authoritarian role in maintaining a respect for the Bible, even, as Blanchot paraphrases, if that meant forbidding that the Bible be read.

Nietzsche's taste in letters has always been oddly in harmony with my own. Some of the texts that sent the German philosopher into transports of admiration: Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the novels of Dostoyevsky, the Old Testament. Here are the texts that have most sent me into transports.

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Note: Cosmo di Madison also made the following remark about Smit: "How many customers do you think that fucking punk is gonna short change before Mark [the owner] wises up and fires him?"

And: "You know he's got his finger in the till and he's supplying all the barbiturates to Craig and Monkey Butt. Kissinger's got him working the joint to make sure they do their job and try to drug me every fucking chance they get. I wasn't born yesterday what do you think! Pssh! That fucking Craig has been selling the barbiturates on the side too.... Oh, don't act so surprised! You know it goes on."

And: "Mark needs to spend more time in his shop. I got enough stuff to do keeping the customers clean. If Kissinger buys out your staff, this place is finished, ya hear me? I won't come back. Ya hear me? You just see what'll go down then. Mark will wish he never even heard of this town. Ya hear me?"

But these latter remarks--and in fact Cosmo di Madison himself--can make no sense to readers who haven't read volume II of The Clay Testament.

October 1998,
Taipei

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