Storyglossia Issue 22, August 2007.

The Impossible Ethic of Oglethorpe Bigby

by David Herman


One night, while he was still in college, Oglethorpe Bigby decided to stay up all night in order to complete a difficult writing assignment for his philosophy class. It happened to be the night before Bigby was scheduled to be inducted into the local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, in a ceremony to which he had been looking forward with a characteristic mixture of dread, impatience, mortification, and wry stolidity. He labored under a vague apprehension that the convergence of ceremony and assignment was not simply coincidental, but rather a syzygy of sorts—a superimposition of spheres that had been careening through time and space until this moment of cosmic alignment. For surely there was a structure to things?

At the time Bigby was co-renting a large house near campus, and he had chosen the room from which protruded a sort of rectangular cubbyhole, which he used as a study nook as well as a launchpad for metaphysical masochism. This glorified storage closet was thinly insulated and exposed to the thundering noise of the trains that went by on the tracks just behind the house; the whole structure rattled when the trains lumbered past. Yet the cramped nook was ideal for the interminable solitary hours Bigby spent hunched over his books and notes, writing out, in spidery longhand, his semi-comprehensible essays. The cubbyhole had a door which could be pulled to whenever Bigby wished to sequester himself from his housemates. It also had a spaceheater, a desk, and several ceramic mugs into which were crammed multiple writing instruments in various states of inutility.

On the night in question, Bigby had trudged home from the library around midnight, entering the house through the back entrance that led directly to his room and its attached cubbyhole. He had been charged with the task of writing his own "personal ethic" for his philosophy course, and the assignment had him stumped. Pre-Socratic philosophy, philosophy of mind, Leibniz's arguments concerning the identity of indiscernibles—these were domains of inquiry to which Bigby felt nominally suited and in which he had demonstrated at least a tincture of competence. But a personal ethic? Such a thing seemed impossible to conceptualize and express.

After all, Bigby knew that he lacked self-knowledge, especially about his core beliefs, his values, and his goals and priorities. Furthermore, even if he had managed to acquire knowledge about these matters, Bigby was not of a mind to disclose such facts to others—even in the context of a class assignment. For he suffered, at this stage in his life, from wild pendulum swings between paranoia and grandiosity, catatonic self-doubt and frenzied self-assurance, despondent secretiveness and ebullient openness—in short, despair and hope. He was currently mortified by the thought of any personal revelation whatsoever. Thus, even as he maintained a rigorous, unwavering avoidance of introspection, Bigby had been transfixed (one might say vivisected) by his own paralyzing self-consciousness. Other problems and indispositions, requiring fuller elaboration below, made the statement of a personal ethic seem an even more Sissyphean task.

Hence Bigby had deferred working on his assignment until the last possible moment. He looked for a while at the surface above his desk, his eyes skittering across the array of unsent and unreceived postcards, faded pictures, and reproductions of famous portraits thumbtacked haphazardly across his wall. In his belabored scrawl, Bigby muddled through the semblance of an opening paragraph on his legal pad: The trees had donned their crimson garb, some of it fluttering to earth in the dry crackle of death. The sun, its energy dispersed by the cool, Autumn air, hovered above the horizon; and shrinking toward amber obliteration, the orb assumed its compressed winter mass. The wind whipped about, swirling leaves and paper and bits of faded plastic across the sidewalk and into the street. Always—the dry crackle of death.

Was this any way to begin an "ethic"? Were these indeed elements of the setting and atmosphere in which Bigby daily subsisted, struggling toward some basis of choice, some framework in which the descriptors good and bad, beneficial and noxious, might find purchase? No answers were forthcoming. Bigby scrawled onward.

I wasn't in the mood for thinking. Deep inside, far deeper down than the region of my heart, lurked a cold and ugly feeling. What was it? A sense that the Parade of Seasons was led by the Specter of Death? Spring, Summer, Fall: What were they but prolegomena to the dismal metaphysics of Winter? But, as I said, I wasn't in the mood for thinking.

A suspect, quasi-medieval iconography is at work here, to be sure, and one which the writer's own habits of mind no doubt tended to ironize. Indeed, no system of metaphors had remained wholly intact within the Bigbyean conceptual apparatus. This made it hard for him to gain even the most tentative linguistic foothold as he sought to verbalize his experiences—or, for that matter, complete his assignments. He had come to realize, with Nietzsche, that to speak or write is to fall irredeemably into metaphors, into telling lies in an "ultra-moral" sense. In other words, Bigby knew that to say chair is to categorize irreducibly different entities as members a set. Yet he also knew that to refuse all such categorizations was to refuse thought itself, or rather to negate the power to generalize that informs and enables thought.

Relatedly, but even more problematically, the acid of intellection had eaten through Bigby's storytelling faculty, his capacity to arrange his experiences such that they formed coherent, causal- chronological wholes. Though the struggling student wouldn't have put it this way, his growing inability or refusal to categorize had attacked, on the one hand, his lexicon for narration, the names for the things that Bigby would need to tell a story about in his personal ethic. On the other hand, Bigby was also losing what might be termed the grammar of narrative.

Fundamental to this narrative grammar is a certain ability to filter out excess information—an ability slipping away from the bleary-eyed Bigby now hunched over in his cubbyhole. At issue is the capacity to survey the stream of experience and extract from it a delimited series of events and participants, a bounded structure of happenings and doings differentiated into a beginning, a middle, and an end. Fundamental, too, is the capacity to discern causal links between elements within any such structure.

Thus, those fully competent in narrative are able to detach from the ongoing experiential flow (A, B, C, D, E, F, G . . . N) a sub-sequence of situations and events (A, B, C). They are also able to use such locutions as: "First, situation A; then, because of event B, situation C"; or, "C, because A was altered via B"; or, "B, hence no longer A, but rather C." Less algebraically: "Bigby was young; then he aged; therefore, he was older." Or, "Bigby was at the library, then he trudged home. In consequence he was in his cubbyhole." The naming and hence categorization of items in the world; the establishment of beginnings, middles, and ends; the identification of participants engaged in discrete doings; the imputation of causal relations between events and those involved in them—these were the areas in which, increasingly, Bigby was having trouble making his way. How, then, could he be expected to formulate any ethic whatsoever, let alone his own?

Indeed, the world for Bigby, as well as his ex post facto accounts of that world, had begun to take on the appearance of a sheaf or cluster of isolated data. Events refused to submit to any narrative patterning of their own accord; they insisted on remaining random assemblages of apparently unrelated items. The result was that Bigby was compelled to draw blatantly and egregiously on pre-existent patterns (plot-types, character roles, devices for creating setting and atmosphere, etc.) in order to impose form on experiences ferociously recalcitrant to being recounted, or even comprehended. Hence Bigby's melodramatic opening. Hence the fumbling, stilted personification of the seasons in Bigby's second paragraph. The story of himself and his values could not be his own story, but a narrative co-opted from sources more or less painfully out of joint with Bigby's life and times.

Bigby's loss of the storytelling faculty, and his conscription of narratives manifestly at odds with existence as he knew and lived it, help explain why his ethic was taking the form it had begun to assume. Undermined by an unrelievedly morbid tone, a strangely archaic idiolect, and an implicit self-heroization, Bigby's fledgling ethic was hatched in bad faith. The question, though, is whether it ever could have been otherwise. Could Bigby, or someone such as Bigby, have told a story that was not stolen, willfully imposed on events to which it remained alien?

In any case, Bigby sought to elaborate further:

It soon became apparent that my steps were leading me nowhwere in particular. With my hands shoved into my pockets, my shoulders hunched, and my collar turned up, I walked through the streets, where the wind moaned its doleful dirge, the sky turning the oldest and deepest shade of grey. A man alone. A world in the clutches of autumnal night.

I was Atlas, struggling beneath the global burden of the darkness, and straining inward against the equal and opposite weight of my soul. In the blackest mood I cursed my thoughts.

I beheld the history of humankind's intellect, catching a glimpse of a strange and ghastly Specter simultaneously creating and destroying the panoply of human thought. The ancients now stood before me. Minds as powerful and as compelling as were ever to brave the abrasive tides of existence called to me from across the brink of time and death. Definitions and analyses, vibrant with the energy of truth, flitted in and out of the cold breeze buffeting my ears: the Good, Evil, the City of God, the deduction of the self, the eternal and infinite substance, the cosmos as the conjunction of maximum perfection and order. But then twenty-five hundred years reared up before me, dashing these definitions and analyses into the cold and jagged realm of the tomb, shredding systems and gods alike, their remains frozen forever beneath the howling winds of time. Texts, treatises, tracts, abstractions, inductions, deductions: inscriptions on tombstones; the work of lonely, dying mortals; the thoughts of decaying minds, ultimately ripped to shreds by the gales of change.

Some commentators, less prone to effusion than the would-be ethicist composing these sentences on his legal pad, might be inclined to characterize the Bigbyean style as "laying it on rather thickly." To Bigby, however, this was a legitimate way of putting the matter. Lost in a galaxy of signs, an infinitude of meanings, Bigby was like an ancient astronomer mapping the tales he knew onto a far-flung universe—a universe that happened to include the minute fragment of spacetime in which his own existence was lurching along, in fits and starts. But alas, he lacked the authority of tradition, the confidence of a communal vision, enjoyed by the ancient stargazers. The patterns he "found" in his environment—those islands of meaning in which he played the part of Atlas, surveyed a particular History of Ideas, felt the "gales of change," etc.—from the very start exposed themselves as arbitrary and adventitious constructs. With his peculiarly stereoscopic vision, Bigby both saw and did not see the made-up-ness of the stories finding their way into his sentences and paragraphs. More generally, he lived as the protagonist of narratives in which he only half believed.

Be that as it may, Bigby felt that once a given story-line had been chosen, the teller was committed to a certain way of framing things and should carry through accordingly. Thus he continued: The winds howled around me now, rushing with increased intensity and import; and the songs of Truth, Beauty, and the Good were altered hideously—I know not how—becoming the rattle in dead men's throats. Where was there to turn?

The question mark might as well have been a full stop, for Bigby had reached the limit of his current powers of expression. He felt that he had adequately diagnosed the quandary—essentially, that of a pervasive skepticism that had at last slouched over into debilitating solipsism. This mindset was as poorly described on Bigby's notepad as it was acutely sensed by the writer himself. But he was unable to sketch even the rudiments of an ethical system that might be premised on this transvaluation of his earlier, less skeptical values. Besides, it was 6:30 a.m. and dawn was about to break. Bigby stumbled out of his cubbyhole and fell in a death-like stupor onto his bed.

The next thing he knew, it was 3:30 p.m.—just an hour before he was supposed to be at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony. Showering quickly and shaving uncarefully, Bigby emerged from the rear door of the house, garbed in the closest thing he had to a respectable shirt. He made his way toward Thales Hall, where the ceremony would take place. It was late Autumn and the damp, raw air seemed a harbinger of winter snows. Trees thrust their bare branches upward into the sky like capillary veins. There was a hushed quality to the voices of the students and professors who passed by, alone and in groups. It would be dark again in an hour or two.

Bigby's face no doubt twitched and grimaced from the strain of his philosophical preoccupations. Perhaps this was why people lowered their voices when he approached. In any event, he found himself falling into a rhythm as he walked toward the ceremony. To the beat of his steps he began to compose verses that he envisioned incorporating, at some juncture, into his incipient ethic. He wanted the lines to capture the feeling that sometimes came over him when a train passed his cubbyhole in the midnight darkness.


The ebb of soul, and sighs of darksome breath,
Where, hurtling, steel clatters at the tracks;
Thus dull and cold—as cold as rumbling death—
The night descends, lurking always at our backs.


As he arranged and re-arranged these lines in his head, his lips shaping themselves to the words, Bigby was brought up short by the cheerful voice of one his philosophy professors greeting him at the entrance to the Hall. The professor, Dr. Sternwald, handed his pupil a program for the evening; on it were listed the names of Bigby's fellow inductees. Most of the students had already made their way to the tables that had been set up around the room. Bigby counted 5 circular tables, each with 6 place settings. Two of the tables farthest from the dais and podium still had vacant seats, and Bigby shambled toward the one on his right. He kept his eyes turned downward as he settled into his seat, looking up only after he had unfolded his napkin and, as custom dictated, placed it prudently in his lap. Bigby didn't know any of the other students at his table, but he managed to produce a feeble smile and mumble a "hello" to those who returned his glance.

Just then, Dr. Hubert Sternwald took the stage and readied himself for the delivery of some opening remarks. He adjusted the microphone attached to the podium, beginning thus: "Dean Chisholm, my esteemed colleagues, and especially you students, you who are to be inducted tonight—welcome! It is indeed an honor and a privilege for me to be here tonight, as we pay tribute to our finest students. We pay them tribute not only for the academic accomplishments that they have already amassed, but also for their future promise, as alumni of this institution, as intellectuals in the making, as citizens of a rapidly changing society and world. No matter what your field of endeavor, you, the inductees, have a tremendous opportunity, but also a weighty responsibility. For you must now take your place among the leaders of our society."

Sternwald paused for a moment, collecting himself. "Your induction tonight, though it comes after a hard stretch of the road that leads to personal excellence, represents just the beginning of a much longer journey—a journey whose destination is the lifelong role you will play within your family, your community, your country, and History itself. We celebrate your completion of the first leg of this journey, and we wish you well as you embark on the next, even more arduous segment. We remain behind here, fulfilling our own important obligations, but we will follow your progress with much eagerness and appreciation, like anxious parents tracing the first steps, then the childhood, then the years at school, and then the adulthood of our own cherished offspring. The words always on our lips are: 'Go forth, and Godspeed!'"

These last words were met with hearty applause, as Sternwald broke into a smile. He continued: "Now, I'll read out the names of inductees, in alphabetical order. When you hear your name called, please come forward and pick up your certificate and your golden Phi Beta Kappa key. And then you can get down to business and do what you really came here to do—eat and drink!"

More applause, mixed with polite laughter, could be heard here and there in the room. Sternwald began reading out the names of the students in attendance. "Abel, Stuart. Anderson, Trevor. Apland, Erika. Baker, Cynthia." Even though Sternwald had had every intention of pausing after each name, so that every inductee could be given his or her proper due, his excitement got the better of him and he began rushing through the list. Hence a new name had been called before the previously named student could reach the podium and receive an earnest and energetic handshake from Professor Kratich, who was helping Sternwald hand out the certificates and keys. Moderate applause thus continued throughout the ceremony, with the result that it became diffuse and depersonalized—directed not at any particular inductee but, apparently, at the whole group. Of this Bigby, at least, was extremely glad. For he had been horrified, utterly horrified, by Sternwald's speech, and he now sought to recover his equilibrium, somehow. Thanks to Sternwald's exhortations, Bigby was beginning to realize that his preferred "journey" was a journey into oblivion—however difficult it would be to square this epiphany with the personal ethic on which he had been laboring.

Especially repellant was the idea that his life course was fated to bear him toward a particular destination, willy-nilly. Intolerable, too, was the notion that he would be required to play the role of "leader" in any domain whatsoever. And Bigby also chafed at the assumption that human existence unfolded along a path that could be subdivided into incremental stages. Didn't progression from one increment to the next then become as impossible as the flight of the arrow in Zeno's Paradox? Isn't any given increment analyzable into smaller ones, with even our smallest gestures, the "atoms" of our behavior (a handshake, a stumble, a cough), decomposable into an infinite series of constituent micro-actions?

To be sure, Bigby had lost the power to mold his experiences and memories into a coherent life-story. His older conceptions of who and what he was had given way to a matrix of more or less indiscriminate potentialities, a nimbus of seemingly nascent situations and events. Bigby might turn out to be anyone and anything, for all he knew; therefore he was apparently nothing and no one in particular. But this realization, though profoundly disquieting, also gave him a distinct advantage when it came to judging the aptness of the life-stories—in effect, biographies before the fact—that others might attempt to foist upon him. Specifically, because Bigby now wandered aimlessly in a morass of his own making, Sternwald's suggestion that "life is a journey" struck the inductee as a palpable absurdity. More precisely, it was a fictional paradigm trying to pass itself off as platitudinous common sense.

By the time Sternwald reached Bigby's name on his list and hurriedly called it out through the microphone, there was a clot of three students stuck in the narrow aisle leading between the tables to the front of the room. Head down, filled with a vague but growing uneasiness, Bigby took his place at the end of the line, drifting toward the podium along with the others. Finally, as yet more students lined up behind Bigby, he blundered onto the dais, clasped the outstretched hand of Dr. Kratich, and then bore his induction paraphernelia shamefacedly back to his table. A more powerful wave of anxiety mixed with disgust had come over him, and as the caterers began pouring water and wine and offering salads to the student diners, Bigby knew that he must escape.

He murmured an "Excuse me" and made an awkward exit from the table. Feigning a visit to the restroom, Bigby veered off suddenly and found the service door at the back of the building. Emerging into the chilly October air, he oriented himself within the darkness and headed homeward, carrying his rolled-up certificate like a relay runner's baton.

A few minutes later, Bigby was re-established in his cubbyhole. He hunched over his legal pad. If life was not a journey, what was it? What was his story, exactly, and how might he make sense of experiences like the one he had just endured? Bigby wrote: I had wandered far and wide. Yet the slinkings down hallways, the down-turned eyes, the bitter suppression of a bitter inner rage: these things had not been unfruitful. These dark and fitful moods and actions had been translated into an altered perception of the world—into ways of seeing attuned to the fundamental character of reality, as it manifested itself to me. I was born with a pre-existent proclivity toward the melancholic, and events now forced this propensity to new and darker depths of soul, where it gained a strange new effectuality.

Bigby faltered, lifting his pen. A familiar rumbling shook his cubbyhole. It was just past midnight, and a train, on its way out of town, was gathering speed toward an unknown destination.

Copyright©2007 David Herman