Monday, July 06, 2009

Outer Darkness

When, in Matthew, I encounter the phrase outer darkness I am transported, in my imagination, to an imaginary street in an imaginary town: the Boulevard Noir of Jean-Paul Sartre's Bouville.

I didn't remember until tonight, revisiting the book and the street, that it was so aptly named: Black Boulevard.

Our existential hero, Roquentin, is killing time on a cold night. He heads for the outskirts,

I cross the Rue Paradis he says. I put my right foot in a puddle of water, my sock is soaked through; my walk begins.

Roquentin, an historian, has been afflicted with nausea -- the world has come to disgust him, the world of objects, the world of people and their bourgeois preoccupations, dramas and deceptions. The world overwhelms him with its sheer pre-verbal is-ness. The utter facticity of being makes him vertginous. He has bouts of visceral dislocation and disorientation that paralyze him. He walks the uninhabited Boulevard Noir, between the windowless backsides of buildings, where one gaslight barely illuminates the utter dilapidation. Torn posters on a fence offer inscrutable fragments of words; sounds barely penetrate the bleakness. He walks until

...I no longer feel myself; I am won over by the purity surrounding me; nothing is alive, the wind whistles, the straight lines flee in the night. The Boulevard Noir does not have the indecent look of bourgeois streets, offering their regrets to passersby...No one even commits any murders there; want of assassins and victims. The Boulevard Noir is inhuman. Like a mineral. Like a triangle...The Nausea has stayed down there, in the yellow light. I am happy: this cold is so pure, this night is so pure: am I not myself a wave of icy air ?

It's probably my decades-long identification with Roquentin that lies behind my affinity with the biblical phrase "outer darkness." It appears in one of the odder parables. A prominent man throws a wedding feast, and sends out servants with special invitations. The recipients decline the invitations AND kill the servants: they have much better things to do, thank you. Outraged, the prominant man invites everyone -- "good and bad" -- to the feast. And they all oblige, showing up, partying down. The host notes one guest, however, that has not dressed for the occasion. He confronts the guest -- How did you get in without a wedding garment ? --

then has his servants bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. The parable concludes: For many are called and few are chosen.

That's a harsh trajectory: what begins as a generous universalism ends up as a Calvinist manifesto.

But lets back up a little. Let's wander a bit from the canon. Many were indeed called. The banquet hall was filled with guests indiscriminately collected from "the thoroughfares," streets undoubtedly like the well-lit bourgeois streets of downtown Bouville. Guests both good and bad: no works righteousness afoot here, no siree ! Who can resist the call of free food ? So, yes: many were called. But who -- what few -- was "chosen," and for what ?

You can see where I'm headed with this. It was the one ill-clad, unprepared guest who was "chosen." And for what ?

The outer darkness. The Boulevard Noir.

Many guests, some good, some bad, were invited to the feast. Everyone ate, and ate free. Gratis. It's grace, then, for one and all, for good and bad. If what we call "God" is infinite, more-immense-than-can-be-conceived, wholly Other and the Ground-of-All, it seems ill-advised to issue Him an eyeshade and a ledger and assign Him the mean task of a neo-Scroogian book-keeping. If there is grace, it's for everyone -- like air to humans, like water to fish. Otherwise, God is reduced to Santa, keeping his list, checking it twice, doling out hellish coal lumps to the naughty, heavenly bicycles to the nice.

So what about that chosen guest -- surprised by grace, unprepared, incredulous, not dressed for the occasion -- who finds himself out the back door of the banquet hall and in the icy mud and darkness of the Boulevard Noir ?

There is, I propose, a special grace in the Boulevard Noir. It's not for everyone; it may just be for those unlucky few born with the neurological substrate gives a tendency to nausea. They are neither better nor worse than the banquet-goers, simply different.

To enter Black Boulevard, one crosses -- and most deliberately avoids -- the happy throngs of Paradise Street. If anything will bring on an attack of nausea, it's a happy throng. The first step of the walk is a painful baptism: a foot immersed in icewater that soaks clear to the skin. The path continues through a darkness that is inhuman, cold and pure -- pure as a "mineral" or a "triangle," pure as being Itself; pure, even, as being's Ground. The endpoint is spirit: one becomes "a wave of icy air." It is a weirdly trinitarian grace; it is a grace that meets the nauseated where they are, in the throes of it, in the narrow, haunted solitudes of facticity and thrown-ness.

There, Roquentin can say, and we can say with him I am happy.

Who knows what manner of gift will flow from that initial grace, the grace whose song is --

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day:
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.

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