So, after recieving some feedback yesterday, which still has me in a very good mood, I have decided to throw an extract from my next novella, Idiomatic Metaphor, out into the ravaging jaws of the internet. Whilst this extract may be a poor one to expose to criticism, taking place as it does almost halfway through the narrative (along with occuring in a church and dicussing topics which are equally as likely to encourage extremist bombs to be hurled through my window, as it is to encourage your agreement) I feel that it is a section which may polarise the reader. Once again, any feedback you have, (positive or negative) would be greatly appreciated.
‘What is a selfless act?’ I asked him, my forehead cool on the smooth bench, my hands slack around the wood.
There was a silence from my right, that emptiness approaching a reflective process, one indicating that an answer of great moment would soon arrive in the world, changing it for the better, until the last recollection of its utterance is burnt from existence. The silence, pregnant with possibility, forced my eyelids open, though all I could see was the long, black formlessness of the seat’s back suddenly giving way to the flattened, threadbare rug upon which it was set.
‘A selfless act, my son,’ the voice said, after its momentous pause, ‘is simply an act of good, from which you receive no profit.’ There was no doubt, no hint of disbelief, in those words. In fact, there was little of anything. It sounded rehearsed, as though he had read it a long time ago and had it memorised for just such a supposed crisis of faithlessness as I was enduring.
‘So, there is no such thing as selflessness?’ I spoke bitterly, though I couldn’t help it, desperate as I was for the argument to begin, for this pointless debate in an echoing, empty place. The voice was silent again, for a few moments, but it was a different silence. A silence of hesitation, replacing one which had emerged from some sense of planned dramatisation.
‘Did you not hear me?’
‘Oh, I heard you. However, this selflessness you prescribe is nothing but another contradiction, one which places like this have become adept at providing to those even more gullible than I am.’ I leant back in my seat, folding my arms across my stomach to warm myself in the cold pressure. ‘You say that it is an act of good, lacking in profit? Then does the profit have to be physical or, as religions such as yours have muttered through finery since time immemorial, can a reward be mental?’
‘Of course,’ it said, the tone ringing with forced calm, ‘mental rewards are worth more than physical ones.’
‘Then surely, performing an act of selflessness is ultimately selfish, for it is done for personal reasons? To achieve some warm feeling in the depths of a barely living heart, to stop yourself having to think about the other person’s plight, to act as some indication to the God you worship, one that says ‘Look at me!’’ Here, I raise my arms in supplication, as though beseeching some invisible creature so high above me. ‘Look at me, Lord! Am I not worthy of your love?’
The chapel rings with silence and my embarrassment, the familiar combination weighing heavily on my limbs. I shrug to avoid the reddening of my cheeks, like some child caught leafing through one of his father’s magazines.
‘Everything which can be done can be traced back to a selfish desire. There is nothing, nothing, done purely out of the goodness of a heart, as increasingly rare as that metaphorical organ is.’
‘In fact, one could say that only the atheist is capable of selflessness. Someone who believes in nothing save the physical, who believes that life is all we have, that there is no possibility of spirituality, that there is no rebirth, that there is no reward or punishment, or even a simple reckoning waiting at the end of our lives. Even then, our atheist must have no emotion; he must be unable to feel anything following his act. It cannot harm him, lest he begins to feel pride in his sacrifice, it cannot help him, lest he enjoy the fruits of his labour. He must be one of the walking dead, he must be unfeeling.’
‘You speak of selflessness.’ I could almost hear the flash of anger in the voice’s eyes. ‘But what of self-sacrifice, of self-immolation?’ The voice demanded, passion suddenly replacing the falsity and the neutrality which he had, up until this point, allowed to rule his utterances. ‘What of those Buddhist monks, allowing themselves to die for their cause? What of Titch Qung Dac?’
‘I can only assume you mean Thich Quang Duc? The burnt man of Saigon?’ I made to spit, instead, mindful of the voice’s watchful gaze, hawking back the fluid into my dry, guilt-ridden mouth. ‘What of him? His act was, if we do intend to give it this description of selflessness, designed to help create equality of the worst kind, that of the delusional mind. That of religion, that of the terrible force it can bring to bear over the minds and hearts of idiots.’
‘Ignoring all those following narratives, many of which can easily be seen as simple political manoeuvring by a terrified, failing government, it was the Buddhists themselves who destroyed any possibility of the selflessness in the act. Whilst his bones crackled, whilst his flesh bubbled and his muscles shrank like a child’s, another monk repeated, ‘A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.’’
I shook my head. ‘I cannot pretend to know what went through his mind, but I can tell you that he did not act from selflessness. He became, as his priestly friend was so quick to point out, even before his body finally sagged to the floor, a Martyr. He became a hero, synonymous across the world with sacrifice and, indeed, selflessness. People know the image of him, if they know not what he struggled for, even if they don’t know his name. At the very moment that gasoline, poured over him by one of his ‘brothers’, ignited, the cause did not matter. It was all about him.’
My hands began to tremble, and so I ran them through my increasingly greasy hair, the realisation that I had not showered in almost three days adding little more than self-loathing to my already malignant mood. They stank, I realised, though of some meaty, acidic scent which I cannot pretend to know the origin of.
‘Even after that fire failed to consume his entire body, his heart was torn from that charred mess. Even after the remnants were cremated, his heart was made into a symbol, an object of holy power, resembling those fragmented pieces of a person that your religion’s Saints would indulge in.’ I could sense the horror, the rejection of my meaningless noise, emerging from those lips I had yet to see. The silence stretched on and on and on, before sharply fading away, leaving me with nothing but the absence of human sound and the crackling of the flames by the altar.
* * *
‘What? No, no, no!’ God swings both hands, those fine, unmarked fingers curled into fists, down onto the table. He winces at the brief stab of pain, the agony soon forgotten amongst the rage. ‘You need to be liked now! You need to be appealing! Please, for my sake if not for your own!’
He sags back into the chair, the chains allowing him a momentary respite, as though they shared his shock. He lowers his head to his hands and he sobs. Once, two, three, four times the sobs wrack his wasting body, leaving him gasping for air between those two sweat-smelling appendages.
‘Stop this. This is not who you are, this is not whom I command that you be! This is not the mould I forged for your creation! This will not be the memory you leave of you, these will not be the words which you are remembered for!’
Determination spasmed across his face, any sorrow and rage replaced with the simplicity of cold, well-meaning desire. His fingers, given the gift of life, scuttle across the desk like arachnids, climbing onto the keyboard and dancing across it in some rough manner, deliberate and blatant in its lack of choreography.