Variations on Meno’s Paradox

April 23, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

What follows is an excerpt from Henry Miller’s book, “Smile at the Foot of the Ladder.” I’ve transcribed my favorite part. The main character is a clown of world-repute, and the scene takes place after he has fled the circus.

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from The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder

For an enless time, it seemed, Auguste struggled to recreate a semblance of the mood which usually served as a prelude to the nightly performance at the foot of the ladder. Unfortunately the light was harsh: a scorching sun seared his eyeballs. “I shall just sit here,” he thought to himself, “until night falls. When the moon comes out everything will fall into place.” In a few moments he dozed off. It was a heavy sleep in which he dreamed that he was back again in the ring. Everything was as it had always been, except that it was no longer a circus in which things were going on. The roof had disappeared, the walls had fallen away. Above him was the real moon high in the heavens, a moon that seems to race through stationary clouds. Instead of the usual circular tiers of benches there rose at a gentle incline and straight to the sky, literally walls of people. Not a laugh could be heard, not a murmur. They hung there, these vast multitudes of spectres, suspended in fathomless space, each and every one of them crucified. Paralyzed with fear, August forgot what it was he was supposed to do. After an intolerable period of suspense, during which it seemed to him that he was more cruelly deserted and abandoned that the Savior himself had ever been, Auguste made a frantic dash to escape the arena. But in whichever direction he ran the exits were blocked. In desperation he took to the ladder, started climbing feverishly, and climbed and climbed until his breath gave out. After due pause he ventured to open his eyes wide and look about him. First he looked downward. The foot of the ladder was almost invisible, so far below lay the earth. THen he looked upward; rung after rung stretched above him, endlessly piercing the clouds, piercing the very blue in which the stars were cushioned. Straight to the moon rose the ladder. It was a moon which lay beyond the stars, a moon infinitely remote, glued like a frozen disk to the vault above. Auguste began to weep and then to sob. Like an echo, faint, restrained at first, but gradually swelling into an oceanic wail, there came to his ears the groans and sobs of the countless multitude walled him about. “Horrible,” muttered Auguste. “It is like birth and deat at once. I am a prisoner in Purgatory,” With this he swooned, falling backwards into nothingness. He regained consciousness just as he realized that the earth was presing forward to recieve him. That, he knew, would be the end of August, the real end, the death of deaths. And then, like a gleam, there came a flash of memory. Not another second was left him; a half second, perhaps, and he would be no more. What was it that had stirred in the depths of his being, flashed like a blade, only to precede him into oblivion? He thought with such rapidity that in the fleeting fraction of a second which was left him he was able to summon up the whole pageant of his life. But the most important moment in his life, the jewel about which all the meaningful events clustered, he could not revive. It was revelation itself which was foundering with him. For he knew now that at some moment in time all had been made clear to him. And not that he was about to die, this, the supreme gift, was being snatched from him. LIke a miser, with a cunning ingenuity beyond all reckoning, Auguste succeeded in doing the impossible: seizing this last fraction of a second which had been allotted him, be began dividing it into infinitesimal moments of duration. Nothing he had experienced during the forty years of his life, not all the moments of joy put together, could begin to compare with the sensual delight he now experienced in husbanding these splintered fragments of an exploded fraction of a second. But when he had chopped this last moment of time into infinitesmal bits, so that it spread about him like a vast web of duration, he made the alarming discovery that he had lost the power to remember. He had blanked himself out.

The following day, emotionally exhausted by the ravages of this dream, Auguste decided to remain in his room.

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