Readings — From the November 2014 issue

The Great Exception

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By Rachel Kushner, from The Strange Case of Rachel K, out in February 2015 from New Directions. Kushner is the author of the novels Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.

I

I don’t care that the Earth’s shadow eclipses the moon, said the Admiral. I have seen terrific irregularity with mine own eyes, and have been forced to the sensible conclusion that this Earth is not round as some wrongly insist, but the shape of a pear, or violin.

A thousand years before the Admiral made his daring proclamation and charted his course on this violin-shaped Earth, people thought it was flat like a discus. Until the Greek Cartographer spoke out, claiming it was round like an orange. He’d drawn standard aesthetic divisions on his planisphere, a flattened version of his round Earth. The first set of lines he called “latitude.” And the second set, trickier than the first, “longitude.” But his finest moment, his greatest act of self-control, had been to leave parts of his map blank. The Cartographer was later forgotten, his maps lost like dreams that are lost upon waking, lingering only as faint unglimpsable residues. Seafarers, with no reliable guide by which to brave the open Ocean, paddled and were wind-scooted along in landlocked, salted waters. For navigation, they dead-reckoned and used wind roses — radiating lines of sixteen focal points, ornate foliations that indicated air currents but varied according to the size and dimensions of the map, so that no two maps, even of one place, were ever alike. The Cartographer was eventually remembered, but by then the forgetting had been sustained so long that no one could read Greek. The epic after the Cartographer’s planisphere reigned and before it reigned again — forgotten and then discovered but unreadable — was known as the Great Interruption. It lasted one thousand years.

Exploring is an undertaking of the brain. The pioneering Portuguese Navigator was one lonely man, thinking. His name was Henry. He wore a hair shirt. He died a virgin. The Portuguese, not waylaid like the “rest” of Europe by bloody wars, by the Hundred Years one and the other called Roses, were free to daydream. Their country faced the ocean, not the Sea-in-the-Midst-of-the-Land. This orientation gave them a taste for the formless and unfathomable, and Portuguese sailors went south toward Africa, the massive continent with friendly and also unfriendly inhabitants. But their polestar sank as they went, and so they rigged up a kind of crude latitude. They wagered on uncharted courses, and flung themselves into the Watery Unknown.

With Henry’s sacrifices and his intuition there were advances. With each advance, the locating and charting of Places, the Pure Unknown was molested, and the mental bravery in revering Nothingness leaked away. Charting courses in the mind came before charting courses in the sea. The Great Exception (shortly after the Great Interruption) was the finding of the Americas, which happened on the Earth before it happened in men’s minds.

When the Admiral went to Her Highness to explain his astounding “insight” that the Earth was shaped like a pear or violin, and to request the gold for his expedition, he was accidentally drunk from too much wine, and drunk as well on the heady vapors of hubris and conviction. Flushed and inspired, he got on his knee and spirited the story with more zing. He impromptu scrapped the violin thing and told Her Highness that the Earth was the shape of a woman’s breast. He said the Breast has a protrusion at the Orient, where he wanted to sail, where the water grew warm and tumultuous. The nipple, he said, locking his onyx eyes to her green ones, tracing a breast in the air with his slim-fingered, Portuguese hands. Slim fingers he couldn’t resist adorning with the ring the Cardinal had given him for luck, with a cross so large and yellow diamonds so sharply cut that he’d scratched himself with it more than once.

“Pious excess” would be one way to classify the jewels the Cardinal preferred to wear and to give to explorers before they set sail. It might have been that the Cardinal had hoped the Admiral would think of him, as he wore the enormous and pointy ring. But the Admiral had thought only of the Queen, or more specifically the Queen’s breast, which he’d all but touched, tracing its curve and pretending to trace the Earth’s curve. But that had been only a moment. An instrumental moment. The Admiral did not think in the manner that either the Queen or the Cardinal or most people did, of bodies and of desire. He was driven by entirely different impulses, which is why he was an explorer.

With Royal approval, the Admiral set sail toward the Breast’s dark and uncharted areola, where the waters grew warm and tumultuous. Never mind the astrolabe, the sextant, the compass, or the precious lodestone the Admiral guarded to remagnetize the compass, should it weaken. He navigated most faithfully by a special form of reasoning, by which the world — possibly unmappable — conformed to the Admiral’s mental map of a well-shaped Breast. The places he encountered turned out to have been just the places he meant to have encountered. Such as the absurdly large slab of land that appeared at the Breast’s protrusion, before he reached the Orient. A crenulated green continent with volcanic lakes and snow-capped mountains. En route to the green crenulated slab, he floated toward a smallish and exquisite island the shape of a sardine or eyebrow, with riotous colors and flowering trees, humid and fresh. He anchored in one of its eastern harbors, whose shore was paved with pulverized white diamonds. Beyond the white diamond shore was a thick curtain of monochrome green vines. The Admiral parted the vines and called out, “Hello?”

He named the place Kuba, which is what the natives — who appeared to greet him from beyond the green jungle drapery — said it was called. And what the Germans, fond of the letter K, still call it. The Admiral napped in a hammock strung between a palm and a pawpaw, tired after such a long journey, lulled by the syncopated crash of waves and the sultry and healthful air, happy in his own genius and exactly where he wanted to be. True beauty and the unknown are alike, in having no precedents. You recognize them when you see them, if you have such a gift of seeing. Numeric calculations are no match for life’s unrest. Far superior is knowing the world is a pear, a violin, a breast. By such poetic and razor precision, the Admiral mapped an unmappable world.

II

They cooked his toes separate from the rest of the stew. With the toes severed from the feet, the Admiral could not tromp inland and subjugate the island. He couldn’t tromp inland anyhow, because they’d punctured his body with arrows dipped in deadly manchineel sap. When the natives attacked, the Admiral had instinctively pulled out his shaving mirror and reflected sunlight at them. But the natives were not as crude as the Admiral had suspected. They’d known how to make mirrors since the Neolithic age, with self-polishing obsidian. The Admiral was wading through a sulfuric bog, trying to run away, when they ambushed him. Soon after, his body simmered over a fire of mangrove charcoal, in a soup that bubbled and steamed. They weren’t driven to eat him out of hunger — this was the Tropics, so bountiful with sea animals and wild fruits, and the living was easy. When the meat was tender, the Tribe Taster had a bite. He said, in a language now lost, that the Admiral tasted like rubber bands. Two men and a boy dumped the enormous pot on its side, and bones and meat and broth sluiced onto the red clay earth. They carefully extinguished the fire and vacated their cooksite. What was dumped from the pot, leftovers spoiling and reheating in the sunlight, was eaten by wild pigs. The French Poet, who came later in this history, believed that noxious animals were the embodiment of man’s evil thoughts. This man’s evil thoughts lapped him up, flesh, femur, and marinade.

The Queen was anxious for the Admiral’s return. Not only for the feedback, which meant bounty from the exploration, in a time when this imperialist meaning was the only meaning the term “feedback” had, but to satisfy her desire. The pomp and expense of the Admiral’s voyage to the Orient had seemed a kind of elaborate foreplay between the two of them. In circling the Earth the Admiral was circling her breast with his slim, Portuguese fingers. And the circling of the Breast was only a prologue to other, more irreversible acts. Meanwhile, the Cardinal had forgotten all about the Admiral, preoccupied with other jewelry, sharper and more elaborate, for other dandies, braver and more attentive than the Admiral had been, who never even thanked the Cardinal for his yellow diamond ring.

The Queen was washed over with desire, remembering the Admiral’s shining black eyes, his broom-heavy lashes sweeping down and then up again as he’d requested the gold. The Admiral had put his head in her lap after he told her, passionately, of the Earth’s true shape. She’d resisted the urge to push his face into the bunting and toile of her skirt. She thought of him and squeezed her legs together. The King asked her what she was doing and she said nothing. For days on end she crossed her legs and squeezed them tight, thinking of that moment, the Admiral’s face resting in her lap, wishing she’d pushed him toward her, into the layers of toile and gauze and bunting. He would have capitulated, she knew. Anything for the voyage.

But all that was left of the Admiral was the yellow diamond ring. Like most gifts in the history of gift giving, objects whose meanings are lost on recipients, the ring had gone straight to the Symbolic Junkyard of Forsaken Gifts. The Cardinal had looked at the Admiral and the Admiral had looked at his map. Now the ring’s yellow diamonds coruscated in the thick tropical light, tied to a string dangling from the end of a pole.

Her Highness received his first letter from the island weeks after the Admiral died, his toes cooked separate from the rest of the meal the natives discarded. The Admiral, having understood that all elements of discovery had a price tag, would save his reputation and ensure the financing of future expeditions by marketing the place like a twenty-dollar whore. Everything was usable, salable, smeltable, shippable, eatable, drinkable, smokeable, wearable. He even claimed that the flocks of cantankerous parrots blotting out the blue of the sky were the tastiest flesh he’d ever sunk his teeth into. He yanked out their iridescent feathers and sawed off their emerald-green wings, and cooked them unseasoned over a smoky fire just to prove his point. There wasn’t much meat on a parrot, and the flesh was slightly bitter. “Armpit acidic” is how the Tribe Taster would have described its flavor, before he and his tribe were annihilated. Nonetheless, parrot eating was later considered the utmost in sophistication among the Spanish who built their colonial courts on the hills above the white lagoons. The aristocrats trained the parrots to hurl insults at them, and thereby a grand pantomime of insult and injury was played out, a kind of dinner theater. Parricide is murdering someone to whom you owe reverence. This was not parricide. The birds, to whom the Spanish owed nothing, spoke profanely and deserved to be punished, and their death elevated the vulgar ceremony of eating to the noble proceedings of justice.

The purest of maps is the treasure map — the essence of cartography, its ethanol. With the riches of this unexpected island mapped out, the Queen sent expedition after expedition, consoling herself by neutralizing the Admiral’s memory as one name lost in a long list of explorers who curried her favor and went East. Or West, as it turned out. But the riches that scended over the waves of the Dark Ocean arrived on the Dark Continent with an unintended gift from beyond the green jungle drapery: syphilis. The Queen was its first mainland victim, but she spread it amply before expiring. In Second Empire Paris, where it was rampant, they called this disease “flaneur’s curiosity.” But it wasn’t simply a disease, a tropical so-called malady. It was phantom testimony of the Europeans’ taste for suffering, infection, and luxury. The Second Empire Poet, in his rose gloves and bloody cravat, said the man unthirsty for the consolations of pockmarked, disease-ridden women was a harp with no bass string. This was a later era, when the taste for luxury, suffering, and infection was better understood. The poet himself loved pockmarked women. “I feel sorry,” he said, “for the man who does not.”

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