THE TREE OF LIFE
Alexander the Great learned of a garden in the east. In the middle of this garden was the Tree of Life, and anyone who ate its fruit would always be young and innocent. To own such a tree, Alexander said, he would conquer the world. Crossing the Hellespont, he destroyed the Persian army, cut the head of Xerxes from his shoulders, and set it on a pike.
Moving ever eastward, he rode over the mountains into India. The people who lived there sent an emissary, an ancient wise man, followed by a hundred servants riding elephants. In saffron robes, they stood on the road leading to an alabaster city, waiting for Alexander, and when he arrived, they offered him spices, silver, and emeralds. Alexander said nothing, however. He never left his saddle, but only leaned toward the old man, and in a whisper, asked him about the garden, the earthly Paradise where the Tree of Life grows. The old man bowed, whispered back that yes he had heard of this place, but unhappily, it could not be found in his country, but in a country far to the east, over the mountains, near the Palace of the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom.
Alexander thanked the old man for his gifts, but then left them lying in the road, for what were emeralds and silver compared to the Tree of Life? As his army disappeared over the foothills of the Himalayas, the emissary returned to his home. That afternoon, he laughed as he tended the pear tree in his garden, pruned the branches to let more fruit grow in the Spring. "How foolish these westerners are," he said. "There are thousands of magic gardens, ten thousand trees of life, a hundred thousand wonders in the world, but there is only one pear tree like this, with fruit so sweet."
Anton the Baker
Anton the Baker mixed crumbs of The Sublime into his bread.
After their first bite,some customers fainted
and lay on the floor as if dead,
while some ran screaming from the shop,
and others stood transfixed, their eyes wide,
their fingers touching a trembling lip,
and said “Oh, Oh! Oh!”
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”
― W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems
Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason
The Chapel of All Truth is burrowed away in a hidden corner of Central Park, down a path where there is a gate, which is closed, and a sign to one side, with an arrow painted on it, telling everyone to go around and not come through. The gate is nearly overgrown, almost invisible from the asphalt path, a hole really in the thick shrubbery. How long the gate has remained hidden and abandoned has never been discussed to my knowledge, because, it is my belief, that even though there are a hundred thousand feet on the path every day, few have ever gone inside, and the existence of the Chapel has likely been forgotten.
From where I stand inside the gate, I can barely see the buildings outside the park above the trees, the balconies, the tile rooves, and I wonder if someone may be watching me from up there as I steal down the path.
The Chapel is made of stone, pink granite, with a high gothic roof, slanted steeply for snow. It has no belltower, though it has a dome where the crossbeams jut out from the nave. The door is oak, carved with a bas relief of the last judgement. God is seated on a throne, surrounded by angels. God's hands lie serenely in the divine lap. A single soul, a woman, is before the throne, her head bowed, her hair covering her face. She is a sinner. The face of God is flat, unreadable, but there is still no doubt about the outcome.
The door opens outward, without a sound. I step into the Chapel, the must, the shadows, the weight of silence. I try not to shuffle my feet as I move--this is no place for feet shufflers. The inside of the Chapel is painted, a single fresco starting behind the altar, where God without a face observes the room. Once again, God is surrounded by angels, each one holding his right hand up, his fingers pointed in a mystic sign.
From there, a thousand smaller frescoes are woven, making a single pattern like antique wallpaper, swirls within swirls. And each swirl is a scene, so that every act, every thought of every human who has lived or will live is buried in the pattern. Here is Mary Magdalen, there Attila the Hun. More still: a concentration camp with a million skeletons. Beside it the Black Death.
Wandering around the chapel, I see the sense in it. To the right of the throne of God, facing the open door, I follow the wall to the edge of the sanctuary, are all the things that have been done, and beyond that, down the right side of the nave, all those being done even as I stand in the Chapel of All Truth. Here the swirls move in an endless dance, like atoms in deep space. In the back, around the entrance, are the things to be done in the future.
The left wall of the nave is the wall of lost chances--all those things that could have been done had the world been a different place. From there on to the sanctuary, and up to the left hand of God, there are depicted those things that were impossible to do, and yet ought to have been done nevertheless, all of which the human race must account for.
Who can say what genius built the chapel, or why it was done? I am forced to agree there is nothing but truth here, and no lies. Who can say why the chapel has been closed, except perhaps that the species can accept only so much truth in one swallow? For there are no illusions on the walls, only possiblities. There are cities here, and armies. Cruelty, tyrants, barbarians and saints. All of these painted in great strokes, as if the artist had been in a rush to capture each event before it could fade. But what is more marvelous still, in between all the big events, the battles and kings, there are thoughts, ideas drawn mournfully with brushstrokes no wider than a few atoms.
Here is a moment of love. Oh, not a great love, mind you, nothing far away or grand, just an ordinary couple setting up house in a brownstone section of Queens. Beside it a death--cancer?--a neighbor perhaps. The man's mouth is open, his head on a pillow, his eyes focused on some point too distant to follow. Perhaps it is the God without a face. I search longer and feel a chill as I find myself on the wall, a moment yesterday eating at a bistro with a potential lover. She had been angry because I could not share my true self with her. In the picture, I am sitting at the table, eyes on my lap, and she is looking away across the room, her hands bent into fists. Her hair is blonde, and I think that she is extraordinarily beautiful. Beside it is this morning. I am awaking from sleep. Perhaps I could change that moment of humiliation, to write my real self onto the wall, but I don’t know who my real self is, so even if I could change it and find true love, it would be a lie. Or would it, for is this not the Chapel of All Truth?
But there in the back is that man, the man who took her from me. I will not mention his name, because that would make him real. I will call him Barnaby, so that I can have a name to hate. There he is, that smirk on his face. Like Montressor, I have hated him all my life, and if I had a wall in which to bury him alive, I would do so. Instead, I took my thumb and crushed his face, brushing the paint away from the wall. I blew on it, and the crumbs of color wafted into the air like powder. Look. I have changed it, changed the Mind of God. I have told the first Lie in the Chapel of All Truth. I feel like the Serpent in the Garden.
James A. Connor