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Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Peripatetic Philosopher shares a final piece of his new book:


DEVLIN


DOWNTOWN CHICAGO LOOP – Friday, June 13, 1969

The tall blond young American walked with the cocky self-assurance of an athlete.  Dressed in a deep blue Hickey Freeman vested pinstripe suit, white shirt with monogram cufflinks, burgundy tie with a Phi Beta Kappa clasp, his highly polished Florsheim shoes clicking like happy feet as he strolled down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.  

His head moved like a periscope with flat eyes above the early evening crowd.  Everyone was in a hurry going nowhere.  The crowd was unaware of him but he was conscious of it.  He ran his hand through his short military clipped hair and over his chiseled features.  He could pass for a Nordic European except for the scornful assurance of an American.  
The wind off Lake Michigan forced his head down into his chest.  He cut his way through the midtown shoppers as he once did through the line for Crescent High as a fullback.  He avoided eye contact, as if someone might recognize him.  Why?  He didn’t know.  Was it because people believed he could see through them?  It was nonsense, but it worked for him.  His long quick strides were a force of habit as he had no special place to go.   
Earlier in the day, he was standing by the door of the El waiting to step off at the loop, when two young toughs came down the aisle rolling their shoulders menacingly.  He felt his body tense, a delicious sensation coursed through him, his steel blue eyes taking measure of the lads like bionic lasers.  

“You got a problem, pretty boy?” one asked.  He waited for the slightest hint of aggression.  The tough’s accent was from the projects on the lower south side, where his da had been born in the Irish ghetto.  They were dressed like clones of some wannabe gang, baseball caps on backward, Chicago Cubs’ jackets, cigarettes dangling from thin lips, baggy jeans, US Army surplus boots, acne complexions, bad teeth, soldiers without a cause.  They passed giving him a wide berth. 

If that was intimidation, he smiled, it beat putting them in the hospital.  They were too young to understand rage.  You have to suffer real pain, real loss to have a fire in your belly.  Theirs was an imitation brand.

His intensity inward, his amused expression masking his outward malevolence.  Why should he be surprised?  He lived an accidental life, here today gone tomorrow.  The young toughs hadn’t a clue.  The fact they act tough to control their fear differed little with his dressing up to control his.  He doubted seriously if they had ever been east of Evanston. 

He had worked everywhere, seen everything, but was he not equally anxious?  They hid their angst in bravado; he hid his in a well-tailored suit.  Life is up for grabs and nothing works out as you expect.  Most people stay close to home, do nothing, go nowhere, just fester like boils, then explode and die.  Others like him, do everything, go everywhere, and die just the same.  You would think doers would be happier, but they aren’t.  He’s proof.  We’re here a little while to fool around and then die.  Happiness is a myth.  The toughs seem to sense this.  Perhaps that is their real beef.    
*     *     *
Life was a puzzle to Seamus “Dirk” Devlin.  Its perplexities found him wandering the streets wherever he was. Tonight it found him at the door of old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church off Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street.  He pushed open the large wooden door of the vestibule immediately smelling the incense and age of the place.  His hope was to find some quiet to placate his demons who had been riled up earlier in the day by the company brass.  Like spiteful children, they took pleasure in firing colleagues unable to fathom a colleague firing the company as he had done.   

The Friday Novena was just ending with people lining up to go to confession.  He made his way to the center aisle genuflected making the Sign of the Cross.   Except for those going to confession the church quickly emptied.  He moved down the aisle looking at the bas-relief statues of the Stations of the Cross on the side walls of the clerestory with secondary altars framing the main nave with the Blessed Virgin Mary’s on the left and St. Joseph’s on the right flanking the main altar.  He glanced back at the line of confessors at the confessional, wondering if any were as lost as he was.  

Devlin lit a candle at the foot of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, knelt down at the white marble altar rail and made a wish instead of saying a prayer, as this was his first visit to the church, then remained there until the last person left the confessional.  

Before the priest could leave the confessional, he rushed to the confessor’s door, inhaling the scented rosemary wood, knelt on the cushioned kneeler, breathing hard waiting for the priest to slide the lattice window open, separating the priest from the confessor, feeling a bit frantic and winded after escaping the world that controlled him only to enter the world that owned him.  

The priest mumbled his greeting in a few automatic Latin words, then paused for the confessor to fill the void.  Devlin cleared his throat, then in a distinct stentorian voice said, “Bless me Father for I am bored.  I am sorry for this and all my past boredom.  It has been about a week since my last Confession.”

“Pardon me, my son?  What did you say?”

“I said, ‘I am bored’, Father,” his voice rising to a shrill.

“You don’t need to shout, my son.  Do you understand this is a confessional and that I’m a Catholic priest?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Are you a Catholic?"

“Yes, Father, of the worst kind, Irish Roman Catholic.”

Silence.

“It has been a week since my last Confession.”

“You’ve already said that, my son, but I don’t understand.”

“Father, you mean you’ve never heard a person confess to being bored to death; that life is meaningless, empty; and that that person feels utterly useless, robotic, disengaged?”

“Well, yes, I suppose I have.  But what are your sins, my son?”

“What are my sins?” Devlin laughed nervously.  “Pardon me for that, Father, but first of all, I am not your son, and secondly, you are not my father; you are my confessor, my priest.”

“Yes.  I hear anger in your voice.”

“It is not anger, Father, it is boredom!  My sins, Father, are that of being bored.  I feel powerless to go forward or to be able to do anything about it.”

“Why are you bored?”

Devlin sighed.  “Why am I bored?  Well, now that is a story.”

“Well, this is not the place to tell stories, my son, you should know that.  This is the place to expiate your guilt, confess your sins, and ask for absolution.”

“Those are good but meaningless words, Father, especially expiation and absolution.  You’re going to expiate my boredom and grant me absolution?” 

Before the priest could answer, he continued.  “May I be candid?”  Devlin didn’t wait for a reply.  

“I’m weary, just turned 31, what you might call an educated man with a degree in chemical engineering, a master’s in industrial chemistry, earning $60,000 this past year not counting perks and privileges and paying no American income taxes.”  He took a deep breath surprised at his candor but muddled on.  “I have everything and nothing at all.  I am reduced to a dichotomy.”

“You earn what?”

“$60,000, and as I said, and paid no taxes.  I am what you call an ex-patriot doing my bidding for an American company abroad.”

“Are you speaking in American dollars?”

“Indeed I am.  If it were in Kruger Rand, it would be R84,000.”

 “You must be very successful.”

  “Not anymore. I’ve retired.”

“You’ve retired?  But you said you were only 31.”

 “Yes.”

Silence.  “What is your explanation for this?”

“Absolute, unequivocal, unmitigated boredom.”
 
Silence.

Devlin filled the void.  “That is why I’m here, Father.”

Pause.  “You mentioned the Kruger Rand.  You work in South Africa?”

“Worked, Father, past tense.  I no longer work there.  Yes, the Rand is the monetary currency equivalent to 1.4 American dollars.”  

“I see.  I still do not see what sins are troubling you, my son.”

“Cannot boredom be a sin, Father?  I am drowning in boredom.  I am unable to shake it, I have no idea what the next chapter of my life will be.”

Father Anthony Dressler sighed deeply.  It had been a long day: two masses in the morning, light breakfast, off to Cook County Hospital for sick call, no lunch, quick drink at O’Hara’s on Halsted with a priest friend from St. Mark’s, back to St. Patrick’s for dinner with Monsignor Donovan, Novena at 7 p.m., then confessions, knowing he still had to say his Office.  He craved a cigarette and three-fingers of scotch.  How to get rid of this impertinent young man?  The seven deadly sins came to mind.  He took a deep breath, and asked, “Have you committed adultery, my son?”  

“Have I committed adultery?”  Devlin laughed heartily causing his confessor to involuntarily wince.  

“Oh, yes, Father, adultery and I are old friends.”

“But that’s a mortal sin, my son.”

“Yes, indeed, it is.”

“Have you committed adultery recently?”

“Indeed, I have.”

 “Are you sorry for that sin?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“You cannot be ambivalent about mortal sin, my son, surely you know that.”

“I’m ambivalent about everything, Father, which is the reason I’m here if that is at all helpful.”

The priest crossed himself to hide his exasperation.  “Do you have a family?”

“Yes, Father, a wife and four children.”

 “Can’t you see where you’ve compromised them?”

 “Yes.”

 “Are you sorry?”

“Yes and no.”
 
“I don’t understand, my son.”

“Yes, Father, I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused my children.  They are innocent in this affair, but no, I’m not sorry for the pain I’ve caused my wife.  You see I have no sense of guilt or remorse, only anxiety and boredom.”  

“This is a most unusual Confession.”

“Well, it’s a most unusual situation.  I just came back from South Africa and . . .”

“You’ve already told me that.”

Devlin ignored the interruption. “I was imagining while I was waiting for you, what if apartheid was practiced here in Chicago; what if Mayor Richard Daley was its architect.  What would the policy of Cardinal John Cody of the Archdiocese of Chicago be towards this racial betrayal?  Would the good Cardinal fight it?  Or would the diocese collapse to the whim of the mayor’s authority and be a puppet to the government?  That is the case of the Roman Catholic Church of South Africa: blind, deaf and dumb to the basic freedoms denied the Bantu peoples.”

“That is a libelous view, my son, I think on reflection you would see that.  The church is puppet to no one except the Mystical Body of Christ and Holy Mother Church.”

The silence was like a heavy syrup suffocating the breathing on both sides of the confessional.  After nearly a minute, the priest said, “Well?”

“Father, it may sound dubious,” Devlin uttered in a somewhat more conciliatory voice, not wanting the priest to bolt, “but my pastor in South Africa, a missionary from Ireland, was as much a tool of the Afrikaner Government’s apartheid policy as any man could be.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?”

“I only wish that it were. I kept a notebook of the number of times I attempted to have a conversation with my pastor about this practice without success.  I was rebuked, ignored, cut off at the pass by an assistant priest, and finally threatened with deportation.”

“Perhaps that could be traced to your ill-mannered hostility.”  

“Not at first, Father, but yes, that is a fair assumption.  I became increasingly angry the more I witnessed abuses to the Bantu peoples.  I needed to talk to someone; attempted the subject in confession only to have my pastor shut the window on me without granting me absolution, can you believe that?  

“Corporate people such as myself have a vested interest in apartheid.  I thought my pastor the exception.  I was wrong.  I think it hostile when people are murdered and nothing is done about it; when land is taken without redress to its owners; when families are split up as a matter of State and not of the will of the people; when people are forced to live in the most deplorable conditions; when the 20 percent white minority have the vote, and the 80 percent black majority do not; when the rule of law and order stops at color. Yes, I think hostility is an accurate assessment of my angst.”

“This is all very interesting, my son, but of course subjective, possibly irrational.  It is what you assume to be the case, am I correct?”

“Father, my gardener was murdered on my estate.  When I attempted to find out why and by whom, the police treated the matter as if a dog had been killed.  He was my friend, a good man, an honorable man, and he was twenty-seven-years-old.  That is concrete, not speculative.  When events keep crashing against your values, your frustration blunted by disgust, what other purchase can there be?

“Was the murder the cause of your depression?”

“Father, now you’re being patronizing.”

“I don’t mean to be but I sense you’re feeling helpless.”

Devlin gave a deep sigh, “You have no idea.”  

“I’m listening.”  Father saw fire in the eyes of the young man through the lattice curtain that separated them.  He had seen it before.  He forgot about his cigarette and drink.  

“My anchors” Devlin made a sweep of the confessional with his hands in its narrow confines, “have been my company, country, government and church, and they now are all gone.  They have been swept out to sea.  I have been treading water, Father, in a foreign land buttressed by disturbing news about the United States from secondary sources, and I’m drowning.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  America is coming apart at the seams.  Not just me.  Meanwhile, South Africa is lock stepping to apartheid that I see every day.  It leaves me disconnected.  I have had no other option than to sink into boredom.”

“You’re a most disturbed young man.”

“I think that is an accurate if patronizing assessment.  Yes, I am disturbed, but from my perspective, with reason. But words hide resolve, Father.  I know.  I am good with words.  

“If I’m disturbed, Father, and I think I am, what does that make of my rational ordering society to which I have returned?   If I’m disturbed, what does that say about Roman Catholicism and Christian morality?  No one is more Christian than Afrikaners.  If I’m disturbed, what does that say about my country, which appears at war with itself?  Am I to take it I’m disturbed and everything else is under control?  I find that ironic. Pathetic.”

“If you insist.”

“Father, I’m not trying to win debating points.  Can’t you see the bases of my boredom?”

“Again, if you insist.”

“I do, Father, for everything has lapsed into contradiction: everything real is not acknowledged as such, while everything that is not real is celebrated as real.”

The priest smiled, but not unkindly.  “So, now you’re a psychologist.”  

“No.  Nor am I a philosopher, Father.  This has been my experience in a pivotal year for me, but it seems a pivotal year for my country as well.  If I live a long life I’m certain I will look back on this as a defining moment.” 

He laughed self-consciously wondering if the priest was still listening.  He could feel him breathing.  

“If I’m having a nervous breakdown, Father, it seems so is my country.  1968 was a traumatic year for us both.  Our country’s leadership is in shambles; our infrastructure is in chaos; our institutions a mockery of ineptitude; our value systems as porous as a sieve.  I have no anchor, Father, nor apparently does my country.  We are both seemingly detached from reality.  We wander off into space or explore the ocean’s depths; we make fancy new things, but our crumbling spirit is ignored which is the engine of everything.  

“You mentioned psychology and philosophy.  We have them both in spades, but what good are they?  
These disciplines play word games only to blight our spirits.  Obviously, I’m disturbed.  Why wouldn’t I be, having seen what I’ve seen, done what I’ve done?  Am I wearing the mask of sanity in an insane world, or insanity’s mask in a sane one?  Father, which is it?”

The priest furrowed his brow cupped his hands under his chin and bowed his head in prayer.  Was this why I became a priest, or was it to escape this?  This young man is disturbed, quite so, but what he says, had I not thought it as well?  For the first time, the priest felt some empathy for the young man.  Confused?  Angry?  Yes, but what to do? 

The priest said finally, “It is clear you are in pain, my son, however, I wonder if this is the place to continue this.”

“Father, I am the last one in this church.  I am the last one having my confession heard.  I have traveled more than 12,000 miles in the last 36 hours.  I’ve been drilled all day by a bunch of pompous asses who sit on mahogany row mesmerized by numbers oblivious to the real world.  They have no idea what I am about.  Each time I see them, I marvel.  They never change; they stay the same; they miss the changes; and wonder why the future is always such a surprise to them.  I would like you to indulge me a bit longer.  I’d like to tell you a story.  Then perhaps you can advise me whether it is I or my world that is mad.”

“A story?”

“Yes, it is a story about sins of omission and commission; about the multinational corporation and how it views indigenous peoples as disposable symbols of profit and loss; about a church more interested in its survival than its mission; about a time obsessed with the products of the mind at the expense of those of the heart; about not being able to truly love a woman or hate a man.  It’s about the present panic of now; about the greatest sin of all, which is waste; and about not being able to live a useful life.  In the absence of love in a universe of hate and betrayal, everything is reduced to the common denominator of boredom.”

“Is it a true story?”
 
“I only wish it wasn’t.”

 “Then, my son, please continue.”  Devlin does.


Note
This is the introduction to Devlin, A Psychological Novel, available at Amazon.com, Kindle Library