The Lost 2016 Christmas Oration
Found by accident, fate, or the direction of providence on the 17th day of the third month of 2017 at the bottom of a drawer as dark as oblivion and published forthwith, or soon afterward, in unaltered form, save for a few small additions unworthy of mention, upon discovery.
I deliver this Christmas oration six days late from a densely populated city on the northern tip of a subtropical island located on the border of two tectonic plates, where, trusted confidante of tremors that uproot and cause displacement without remorse and intimate friend of typhoons that enter and depart in rapid succession as if swept by the agency of some unknown power through an unseen revolving door, I have lived for the last two quarters of this fast evaporating year, improvidently lodged with fatal inquisitiveness at the foot of an active volcano.
Seeing as I have failed to record for your edification or diversion so many harrowing adventures pursued in various latitudes at the risk of life and limb while wheeling around the globe like a precopernican sun it is understandable you should wonder if I have been ensorcelled by some wizard’s spell that out of the blue I should break a silence so assiduously maintained in order to address you once again on this day no one could predict, at this hour unforeseen, resuming the use of a language rumor claims I have forgotten or renounced, so long have I allowed it to languish in desuetude.
The disenchanted medium of daily communication for you, this language seems, to me, who have wandered in exile for so many years outside the lands where it circulates and holds sway, with neither home, nor refuge, nor place to rest my head, and who have seldom encountered it during that long tract of time save on the tattered pages of a few quasi-decomposed volumes scarcely distinguishable from ancient artifacts, a sphynxine system of alien sounds wrapped in the superrefined aura of a purely literary significance which confers on it a character as remote from the practical intercourse of ordinary life as the Latin of Ennius, the Greek of Homer, or the Sanskrit of the Vedic hymns.
And yet: although I am neither a time traveler, nor a necromancer, nor a revenant, I now wield this language which I have assured you is extinct for me with the fluency of a contemporary: a fact as prodigious—and as difficult to accept—as that a blade of grass should pierce a bronze shield, or a mountain hang by a thread of lace in midair.
But even if I really am addressing you now and you are not merely dreaming it or hallucinating it in the same way as you have dreamt or hallucinated most of what you thought to be real at the time it happened including perhaps the whole of your life so far the much more baffling question emerges of why I would open my mouth to speak at all in any language alive or dead when as a direct consequence of doing so I must cruelly betray those three paragons of speechless perfection whom I have always claimed to admire and whom at this juncture I pause to name:
The first, Pythagoras, so esteemed impenetrable reticence, and considered it such an indispensable virtue, that those who wished to be his disciples, before they could be introduced to the master in person, were required to stop speaking for five years. Furthermore, since he wrote nothing and wished his ideas to remain the secret nourishment of a small circle of initiates, his teachings have come down to us encrusted in false conjecture, adulterated by doubtful later additions, and shrouded in the impenetrable fog of what flees renown and recoils in terror from the degrading influence of fame.
The second, Agatho, transcended the presumptuous lunacy of positive assertion, freed himself from the entanglements of so-called rational argument, and struck a mortal blow to the shameless chatterbox he might have been by carrying a stone in his mouth for the athletically long span of thirty-six months. How this Egyptian monk managed to deny himself gossip, criticism, and willful misrepresentation, those three great pleasures of human speech, deprived of which most of us could not survive a day, for three whole years it is difficult to conceive, but it is certain that in doing so he greatly advanced the ascetic cause.
And then there is the man from Elis, a most skilled diagnostician of the mind’s tricks, who, exasperated by the flights, phantasies, mistakes, and prevarications to which even the most judicious and restrained use of the tongue by the most thoughtful and considerate soul is invariably bound to lead, and prepared to adhere with disciplined patience to a rigorous program of absolute reserve, had the boldness to renounce speech in toto. You think I exaggerate? No. From the hour of his ultimate realization till that of his death by an exemplary feat of self-asphyxiation this hero of withholding communicated with the world only by wagging his finger.
Time was when I flattered myself I nourished a conviction of the necessity of silence as impregnable as the one which animated these three men. But if I nourished so strong a conviction then, should I not still nourish it now, and should I not therefore remain complicit with the noble project of these heroic haters of useless loquacity to break the springs of human expression one and for all? And yet, here I am, addressing you. Unscrupulously encouraging words to proliferate. When, instead, I should be unleashing myself against them like a wind so powerful it carries steel buildings before it as if they were paper lanterns. The great and forceful gusts I produce should shake all of the words out of all of the dictionaries of all of the libraries in the world, blowing these carefully alphabetized accomplices of delusion out from between the covers of the books that shelter them until they lie scattered on the ground in a disordered heap, paralyzed, irreparably damaged, rendered useless for the racket of communication.
But no, I continue to speak. One might be forgiven for thinking I preened myself on my infidelity, that I was proud to be a traitor to a noble cause. Or do I have an excuse? What pretext can I advance to make my trespass appear justified?
I cannot claim to speak under the inspiration of discovery. Nor can I claim to speak under the prompting of a god. Nor can I claim to speak because some secret truth has been revealed to me, which, like a sun hidden in the abyss, I now drag into the sky, so that its warm and wholesome light may heal the dark heart and mutilated soul of contemporary man, who has fed the monster in his closet so well that the angel on his shoulder has starved to death. No, I cannot claim to speak for any of these reasons: not because I feel I must, nor because a divine power directs I must, nor because magnanimity compels me. I speak only to make a brief announcement of interest to none but a small number of discerning readers who live, comfortless and disconsolate, on the fringes of the literary world. It is on the peaks of mountains that I imagine they dwell, lodged in caves but few paths reach, and those rarely found.
But I have delayed long enough. Let me say what I have to say and fall silent again, as if I had said nothing at all. As if I had never forsaken the silence in which I swore to remain.
There is a book whose appearance you have almost depleted your last reserves of hope anticipating. You have long despaired of hearing news of its arrival. But that news has come. It is complete.
The Book of Tasks is complete!
And this only one year later than I originally promised. At least assuming you ignore a thousand previous delays which in consolidated form constitute a measure of time exceeding a decade.
It cannot be, you will say. But it is.
And it is the only manual of conduct—the only collection of spiritual exercises—the only list of work assignments—you will ever need.