THE PHILOSOPHER AND THE IMP

Gold light came in through the philosopher’s window, the day reaching in one last time, lighting what it could, beauty calling out to the dust turning in the air. The philosopher was in his chair, half asleep, half watching the world outside, his daughter playing with his wife. His desk, the kind of wood that only exists after being touched for a lifetime, held his papers more or less neatly stacked, those papers the later works that added no more but are of comfort to those who have followed a great mind. Though summer, there was an odd chill there, the fingers of a strange winter brushing the surfaces with its fingertips. A set of stairs reached down to the more lavish lower quarters, and a set up towards a rooftop long since forgotten.

A sound startled him out of thought.

 

Philosopher — Wait, who’s there? It’s been so cold, please close the door down there, if you are a friend. Are you a friend?
Imp — Of course, your dearest servant.
Philosopher — Oh, genie, you had me scared! I am so glad you are here to share the evening light. Are you here for a while?
Imp — Yes. I was busy but I felt your voice calling. You did call, didn’t you?
Philosopher — Yes, Yes. It’s just that I was reflecting on, well everything, and I wanted to thank you for all that you have done. There is a strange feeling in the air, a kind of urgency of… I am not sure of what. But let’s not rush kinship in the door, forced into bloom. Let’s let the glow of companionship grow in its time. Tea? I can go downstairs and make some.
Imp — Don’t worry, I already made some. I put it on the table beside you.
Philosopher — So you have. It warms my heart, as does your company. Tea is the water of true conversation, water given life. Do you remember when we met? We had tea then as well, though not as fine as this.
Imp — I do remember, but I love stories. Please!
Philosopher — I remember when you first came to my door so long ago. It had been a horrible night, rain to freeze tombstones as they say. I had just received a letter, my father had passed away and my mother told me to stay away from the funeral. How cruel she could be. Remember your first words to me?

I’ll lie to you once,
I’ll give you your dreams,
So take my right hand,
I’ll give you your wishes

I barely listened at the time. This home was a hovel then, oh the changes you made, but of course you know, you don’t need to hear it.
Imp — Please tell it all, again!
Philosopher — We’ll get there but I need to readjust my mind. I am preoccupied, pondering tragedy and comedy again.
Imp — Oh, that sounds interesting! Please tell!
Philosopher — Well, this old friend of mine came to visit once a long time ago and had been going on about tragedy and comedy and the virtues of tragedy. I don’t think he had had much experience with tragedy so I was a little put off from the start. He told me that tragedy was a way of navigating the world, it gave us truths to follow, and that comedy was unfair, its rewards went to those that did not deserve them. His contention was that tragedy was superior to comedy because in a tragedy those who face a sore end have a point in their stories where they have made a mistake. The fortunes of comedy fall randomly to whomever is in the right place at the right time.

But his world of the virtuous tragedy is not virtuous to begin with; its failure is baked in. His view is one in which we are subject to the world without recourse but to obey. There is no ear for appeals in tragedy. His tragedy is a slavery to which comedy is the liberation. Comedy is the world as it should be, with fortune coming to all, given a long enough timeline. Comedy recognizes our condition, half blind, half mad, and almost completely unaware of what is happening around us. Comedy eventually sorts everyone out to the good.

But then that bothered me, that delay of justice. I started arguing with myself. I started arguing with myself that this waiting for the timeline to bring good fortune was only a slightly more virtuous prison than the tragic prison of my friend. Unjust torture now is still unjust torture and slightly more virtuous than wrong is not virtuous at all. Justice must be a different kind of accounting. It was then that the seed for all of my work, with of course your help, came to bud and became ready to flower.
Imp — I like this part!
Philosopher — Yes, me too, dear friend. This was when you came into the story. I had been working on this, day after lonely day here in this place, back when it was merely a one floor hovel. Hunger, hunger, hunger, my constant condition. It was then I began to find the threads of my work, The Great Happiness, but just the threads. There must be a way to this ‘should be’ world, the just world without suffering; the whole cloth, as it were, must be there. If my mind, which exists in and of this world, can think of such a thing, it must be possible to manifest. If I was wrong, we were lost anyways. I had to find a way to the ‘should be’ or perish in the trying.
Imp — And you did! You did!
Philosopher — Yours is a pleasant interruption! Yes I did, but let’s find our way there properly. I was in that darkest place, where I wasn’t able to thread the needle, couldn’t sew it all together. I knew there was some way to solve this problem of proper justice, some way to bring it to everyone, no strings attached, no necessity for tragedy. I could feel it like a missing tooth in my mouth.

There was that terrible storm, like someone up there was testing me, chastising me while I wrote. The roof of this house was barely enough to keep the rain out. Indeed, water was leaking from a few points in the ceiling. But I had enough wood for the fire and there must have been enough light for you to see genie. You knocked three times, I couldn’t barely hear it for the wind. I opened the door and there you were, the picture of misery, and maybe yes, tragedy. Or at least almost tragedy. So skinny you were. And that’s when you said it, sang it really,

I’ll lie to you once,
I’ll give you your dreams,
So take my right hand,
I’ll give you your wishes

Such a strange little song, it doesn’t even rhyme.
Imp — I tell you it does!
Philosopher — You always say that and I always explain. Maybe today, because I am in a different mood, I will agree that it rhymes. Yes, it rhymes.

Anyway, when you first sang that song, I thought nothing of it. If I had all I could wish, one little lie couldn’t hurt. Everyone else lies without even the benefit of a warning. But back to the story. Raining, cold, miserable, wretched.
Imp — Come in, come in you said!
Philosopher — I did, yes indeed I did. I sat you down next to the fire and it was quite a while before you could speak. I wrapped you in the warmest, really the only, blanket I had and gave you some hot water with the most meager of tea leaves, they barely tinged the water. And then the color started to come back into your face. You smiled and told me you could help me. I didn’t think about it, because I didn’t believe it! Imagine that now! You looked even worse off than me!
Imp — I did and that’s true!
Philosopher — Well, time has improved your looks considerably. At that time, you were a figure of wretchedness. It had been at that exact moment that I had been working on my now famous treatise on the possible beauty of wretchedness, a beauty from the wretchedness, a piece which I was struggling to write. If I hadn’t recognized in you that special quality, I might have ignored you completely. But I saw a glimmer of my pages in the room that day.
Imp — Oh, all you told me that night!
Philosopher — If you hadn’t hung on every word, I might not have. It was that very word, wretchedness, that I began explaining to you. It all came tumbling out so fast, so beautiful. No other words would have sufficed but at the end could remember none of how I put it all together. Finally I had my piece of whole cloth. I forgot it all immediately. After soaring in the sky my wings melted and down I crashed. I had grasped the key and lost it in the same motion.

That’s when you told me you could remember everything I said, word for word. I didn’t believe you but you began, right from where I started, to repeat perfectly the entire treatise. For that is what it became, apart from a few edits to make it palatable to the scholarly bent of the era – a treatise. And with the exception of some dour and small minds, it was greeted with applause by not only the thinking class, but by the great minds of poetry and politics. Sorry, I am again running ahead, that came later.

That night you helped me write down everything, my pen faster than possible, but that is not just a colorful description. I could see as you were dictating back to me my words that time wasn’t the same while we were working. It was then I realized you were a genie.
Imp — You asked if that was one of your three wishes!
Philosopher — Yes, quite silly of me! You of course informed me that you weren’t limited by numbers in what you could do for me. It was at that moment you moved your hand over the table and there appeared a dinner the likes of which I had only read about. Wine and meat, things I hadn’t seen since I had left my father’s home. And a candle just like the one beside me now. My mouth agape, I truly couldn’t believe it, until, of course, I did. There was something happening in the world, in the web of things moving to lift me. I had struck a chord on the threads of possibility, and music echoed back to me in kind.
Imp — You let me in, I had to repay you.
Philosopher — I am not equipped as I am in my old age to get everything in order in terms of importance or timeline, but let me try. It was the next day that I took my manuscript to my old teacher. His eyes revealed the magnitude of the story I would soon live through. There were offers for positions, patrons lining up to court me, admiration from my peers, and parties. So many parties, where they tried to spin me around. I kept my head but of course I was particularly spun when I met my now wife, Evelyn. As you know, I could stay above all of it, knowing I didn’t need any of it, except for Evelyn. Forgive me, friend, but she is the one thing beyond your help to procure. I give it to some small value in myself that I was able to grasp her. And of course my sweet Clara, gift beyond gifts.

Everything else, I acknowledge with great thanks your help in materializing. This home itself, let’s admit, it has become much more grand than the word grand. This is now an estate, grown out of your gifts a piece at a time. Keeping this hovel as a part of its great tower, we planner together and you grew out of the air all the walls and rafters, depths and heights of this great place. To avoid suspicion, you worked your magic at night, first erecting the great wall around us, behind which it was easy enough to add this and that wing, realize this and that garden. But this hovel is the heart still of all that came after and we have kept it in the center.

You can look out that window down to the courtyard and see what the fruits of a true heart are. Today, as the sun was going down, I was watching Clara playing with Evelyn, challenging the beauty of the sun itself. I dare say, the darkness swallows up the sun’s light while my Clara and Evelyn are still beautiful through the dark. I have got the better of the world there, you would quite agree.
Imp — You have, you have!
Philosopher — Let’s bring it back to the work though, the true jewel of all that we have accomplished. I was able to write. And write and write and write. And how glorious those days and nights were. With just a seed, and you sitting there to listen, it all came together as I spoke. I became free to move through words, sentences, paragraphs, books, like a great fish cutting through the ocean. You freed me up to let my imagination make shape out of the formless and bring together what had been so vague in my mind. We were spinning maps, connecting missing townships of dreams with metropolises of thought. It all came out of the air and onto the page, no mistakes, no faltering. Like crystals the ideas mounted upon each other, reaching up and up to the summit.
Imp — The Great Happiness!
Philosopher — Yes, yes, the Great Happiness. I regret the name, it lacks art, but then how can I regret it? It was what came out, my masterpiece. It was the form hiding in the air, clothed now in text. The path through tragedy into comedy and into what is now reality, plain for everyone to not only see, but to live, words brought into material functional being. Its simplicity at its core being so clear was testament to what it was, what it is, of how to be.
Imp — Everyone can do it!
Philosopher — In fact, everyone was a part of it already. It required nothing but a change of thought, but that change of thought brought about what action was required. The book was the catalyst that set the pattern into motion. It started with the small groups that read it, but quickly ran through the culture. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t express it, art, music, sport, drama. After that it grew into politics, business, agriculture, and so on. But most of all it penetrated homes and into hearts. I brought out the true generosity possible from the wreckage of the past. It was the end of war and suffering; the final nail in tragedy. What started as a category of miracle here, became the commonplace reality. We redefined miracle.

There were some misguided hold outs – there still may be somewhere, I don’t know – but we were able to bathe the world in the philosophy. There is now nothing substantial that hasn’t been improved. I can watch from this window now and let it grow on its own, the new life coursing through the world.
Imp — What a wonderful story, I never tire of it! I could have never imagined such a thing. Tell me more about the wretchedness, once more please!
Philosopher — Of course. It came to me watching you shivering there, your perseverance in the face of tragedy. I thought, wait now, why should I even think of it as tragedy. I didn’t know you at all, had no special view into your life to see that your condition had resulted from some mistake. I began to assume you had made no mistake, because even if I were wrong, there would have been someone in your condition who had not deserved it; it was inevitable. So even if you were a guilty tragic figure with some mistake in the past, I would regard you as an innocent. I would regard all wretchedness as a sign of innocence, a sign against the punishment you were levied. This regard became a reality, erasing all guilt. The injustice of your plight being resisted by your existence was the door into recreating innocence into the world. Your shivering against the cold was a seed from which could grow magnificence proper. The resistance within wretchedness held the key to magnificence.
Imp — I am all chills!
Philosopher — I shiver as well! We just had to turn the world around on this axis and all would come out correct. Tragedy would get its punishment.

You see the tragic figure knows they are doing wrong, but they don’t know how far in the wrong they are. They understand their transgressions, and they do transgress, at the same time that the prison door slams down. What I mean to say, is they learn the extent of their crime too late. That is the tragic flaw of tragedy, what keeps it from virtue.

The glorious comedy, the redemption of plain comedy, love brought down out from the heavens to every point on the earth. We could teach heaven, finally, what was happening down here. Heaven sat at our feet, learned the truth about injustice, and we raised up together with it. This echoing song, the restoring melody, recreated existence, sounded everywhere. From then on, all was comedy, all the wretched got their freedom, all was turned to right. Ah!

But the dark is not waiting for the end of our conversation and working the memory like this is a joy but even joy has requirements. This joy of mine requires tea. Let me go get some more. You have served me so well in so many ways, let me serve you now. Just wait a moment while I fetch it.

The philosopher got up slowly and shuffled through the chilly room. The imp smiled at him as the philosopher made his way down the stairs. The imp’s expression did not change but was left frozen in its smile even after the philosopher was out of sight. The last stretch of warmth from the sun was now exhausted as the cold lights of the stars tried to hold up the room. The shuffling sounds downstairs swished around the floor.

Then, there was a scream from below with the crash of what must have been a tea pot and two tea cups. A very struck philosopher, out of breath and tossed, appeared from the stairs to meet the imp’s smile.

Philosopher — Dear friend, help me! She, she said, ‘Who are you? Out out out!’ She said that to me! Shouted it! My Evelyn, my dear Evelyn! I tried to speak and she screamed even more! She ran and locked the door behind her! What madness? She didn’t recognize me! What madness has her? Tell me old friend! Help me one last time!
Imp — She didn’t recognize you.
Philosopher — What?
Imp — She didn’t recognize you.

At the top of the stairs the philosopher could not let go of the rail. He slunk down along the upright of the stair’s bannister. From there he crawled over to his seat by the window and slumped himself into it. The imp hopped off of his stool, walked over, and lit the large candle by the window. The philosopher’s eyes tracked the imp like a mouse tracking a cat. The imp then took from the philosopher’s desk a small brass mirror and gave it to him, face down. The imp happily sat himself back down on his stool and waited for the philosopher to speak.

Philosopher — She didn’t recognize me. Why didn’t she recognize me?
Imp — You look different since you last met.
Philosopher — I met her this morning, what kind of change could have taken place since this morning?
Imp — That is not the last time you met her.
Philosopher — What?
Imp — That is not the last time you met her.
Philosopher — You make as much sense as you rhyme. Speak plain.
Imp — That is not the last time you met her. The last time you met her was years ago. Shortly after your Clara was born, just after the first time she opened her eyes and could recognize you. Yes, yes, that was the last time, I am sure of it.
Philosopher — I don’t like this joke you have cooked up, for it must be you who cooked it up. What did you offer to Evelyn though to play in this cruel game?
Imp — No game. And that wasn’t Evelyn. That was Clara. Evelyn is long dead. Clara, though, was truly frightened of you. It isn’t surprising really. She thinks you are dead.

The light of the candle played in the silence.

Imp — How to explain this. I have been you. I took your face and body and went into the world. I changed my appearance and became you. I lived everything you asked for. Everything you remember, it happened, more or less the way you have described it. In reality it was a bit brighter some ways, but a bit darker in other ways. I lived out your stories. I can see I will have to explain this a bit more slowly.

In the beginning, you told me what you wanted to happen and we made it come true. You really did go out into the world and spread your message, with a bit of help from me. You saw directly the building of this place, the meeting of Evelyn, and the birth of Clara. You saw the beginning of your work taking root in the world.

But at some point, I took over. I came back here to hear you tell me what should happen, and then I made it happen, more or less. You waited in a kind of sleep until I could come back and wake you up. I took what you told me should happen and saw to it that it was put in place. Watching those things happen, I was able to see their essence and give them back to you like dreams. I functioned like a great servant to you, making your will come to life and bringing back to you the rewards.

What you see when you look out that window, those are things that happened long ago. You are much much older now, older than you should have been, older than most anyone has ever been, actually truly older than anyone has ever been. You look good for your age though. There are younger people who look much worse. You should be grateful.

The philosopher looked down at the mirror in his hand, its face still towards the ground. He lifted it like a great weight, face out so that the imp could see himself smiling. Like doors on impossibly old hinges, he turned the mirror around to see himself. The mirror dropped and his face was a grave.

Philosopher — How?
Imp — You invited me in.
Philosopher — Just letting you into my home, that was my crime? That is a crime?
Imp — Not that, that was pretty basic hospitality. You invited me into your life. Thank you.
Philosopher — But why? Why throw me on this rack? Why not just give yourself your own life without wearing mine?
Imp — I cannot think of what is good, I can only think of what is bad. It’s in my creation. I am fated to think only wrong. But I wanted to taste the good, to find out. I needed you to tell me what to do to be good.

At first, I thought that I would take your ideas and give them to both you and I. I could live your life on the other side of the world while you lived the same life here. But that did not sound right to me. What is the value of something if it is also happening somewhere else? Is it not a mockery for the same love to live in two places? Is it not a kind of cheating of love? Love must be unique, unrepeatable. It must be held away from imitation.

It would have been wrong for us both to live your life, but one of us must, and the way you described it to me was entrapping. It is really you who have trapped me. I could see how this is what must be. I took on the burden while letting you breathe in the perfume. You have had your life, but even better. You have had the story of your life, without the fear of the barbs of the world. More or less.
Philosopher — Less, less, much less! More of less than anything else! I have had only that part of my life that was wretched and all joy is locked on the other side of a infinitely thick window. I can see all that I can’t taste.
Imp — You did taste it, you did. You should be happy. All the things you wanted to happen, have happened. Your name has become famous and you have made the world happy. This estate truly does exist. Your wife and daughter are truly happy and in love. It’s just that I lived the bulk of it.
Philosopher — I tasted lie after lie. What’s worse is that the taste of goodness is now itself badness. Memory digs me deeper and worse off than ever. The height of the glory is now the depths of my misery.

And your heart isn’t in any of it! Look at you! You haven’t felt any of it! How could you? Evil cannot taste the good, good is your bad.
Imp — True, it doesn’t move me much, one way or another. But it all happened, more or less.
Philosopher — Less, less, less! You’ve mocked my entire endeavor, all of my struggle! I am the one left behind! I am the tragedy! A moment of tragedy spoils all. From the pit, all above is a mockery.
Imp — There was no other way. I will tell you this and you will see that it’s true. That my evil is really to your good. That night I came to you, that was your last night to live. Already your eyes agree with me, even if your mind still resists. I saw what was going to happen, you were going to take your own life that very night. Yes. You were on the edge of the cliff. I am your saving wind.
Philosopher — Who is to blame for your damned creation then, your evil? You rogue – ah, I have no words of weight for you! You owe me an explanation, you owe justice itself an explanation!
Imp — I don’t know what created me, and why should I care? A plant doesn’t grow to become a seed, but the other way around. I was created and that is enough for me. If it is not enough for you, perhaps you shouldn’t ask the question. You get to choose your questions, don’t you know? You get to choose your reveries, your dreams, your hopes. Me, I can only choose towards what isn’t. You get to make what is. You are a much better creation, this I know. And I have expanded you out into the world. From death into vast life.

The philosopher went silent and there was a long space in that flickering light. He tried to see in the imp’s face and story some kind of crack or fissure, some point from which he could reverse his fate. The imp sat there, smiling as he had always done since the beginning.

Philosopher — But wait now, wait. Look at your face. This is a face I know, almost as well as I know my own. And I am forgetting our history.

You said you would lie once. I put that thought to the side so long ago it had become invisible. For this deception you claim to have pulled, this would require a great many lie. Yes, yes.

This, this play tonight – this is that lie, isn’t it? I can see that yes, this is true. It doesn’t line up any other way. I never knew you could be so clever, never pinned guile to you!

That mirror, let me look at it again. Look! I see that smile, my old friend’s smile and I know that you have played your one trick on me as you promised so long ago. Hand me that mirror. Yes, thank you.

Now that I look again, all horror flows out from my heart. Look there, the age that had soaked into my face is all gone. Youth and health, full of chance. Time is once again given to me.

Oh, truly wonderful! My anger is now love! You have played a trick on me but one that makes me realize how much you have given me. Your one lie has also been to my good, friend. You have given me the happiness of my life twice. The understanding of a wasted life has added glory onto the life that I have led. This last test is one I have passed, the fire that has proven the metal, my mettle. Thank you, dear friend, thank you!

But I am so weary after this wrestling. Perhaps you will let me sleep just a little and I will head down to Evelyn and Clara. Tomorrow is another day and it is summer after all. We picnic tomorrow, down by the stream. Please join us, you and I should bask in the joy of the day.

His eyes closed slowly. The imp sat there smiling, waiting for the philosopher’s hand to drop the mirror. The stars twinkled too far away to intervene. The imp padded across to the candle and pinched out its flame. In the pitch, there was silence, except for two sets of breath, one shallow and shaky the other hoary and sharp. The dark expanded out past the window now and formed into one body, all darkness finally being related. The walls disappeared and the shadow passed over the land like a river through a broken levy, a webway of shadows pulsing through every dark place. Through this roadway an infinite hunger sounded, the ‘not’ hungering for the ‘is’. And then the soft voice of the imp began to sing a song:

I’ll lie to you once
I enter your house,
And never will I
Falter

I’ll give you your dreams,
You know not what they mean,
As they stay as they are
As nothing

So take my right hand
While my left takes your land,
Your hopes, your pride, and
Your daughter

I’ll give you your wishes
And I’ll forgo the dishes
As I rip into old flesh
Devouring

In the dark there was a wide cold smile, a tear in its eye. The dark inhaled. And then, the gnashing of teeth and wailing.

More work by Tom Magee can be found here:

To read the other literary reimaginations of Rembrandt’s painting, click here:

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