All Along the Watchtower
WHY ARE WE ON EARTH?
The dome of heaven. Merely quaint though this phrase may now as a rule be, occasionally it becomes possible to recover the force it must once have commanded. Tonight, on this Pacific rim, the stars are ablaze. Space itself has height and depth and breadth. One can see, effortlessly, right off the edge of the world into the heart of the Andromeda galaxy some two million light-years distant, and the certainty of the fact causes my head to swim. Stop, a voice inside me says. See how that cabin rests on the face of this softly revolving planet. Look. It is right on the edge; there is nothing but wet grass to hold to. Listen. Across the globe and all across time it is and was and will be the same: fire at the center of the earth, heavens so empty and clear the stars look scrubbed with snow, and we here on this surface in our nomadic tents, our neon-lit cities, our death camps and fishing trawlers, our villages bright with icons and snow bells. It is night, we know not why we are here, and we are utterly, perilously, free. And that is all, the whole story, except that — more than watchmen for the morning — we are sometimes woken to our exile.
But I must be careful, for I am beginning to make things up. Somewhere along the way of these lines I stopped weighing myself along and began to levitate, and I don’t have or want wings.
Consider, instead, an outline for an Agatha Christie story. Characters from all stations and walks of life are invited to a rich estate for no discernible reason except “the pleasure of their company.” They arrive to find their host absent. Still, tables have been laid for a banquet, the guest quarters are handsomely appointed, servants are present to attend to everyone’s smallest need. And so the guests, engrossed for the moment in the unexpectedness of each other’s company, sit down to lunch. Later they exercise, talk, explore the grounds. It’s amusing, but as time goes by the guests begin to be uneasy about the identity of their host and the significance of his absence. That there is or at least was once a master there can be no doubt; someone, after all, had to have designed the estate and summoned them there. But whoever that person may be, he or she remains mysteriously absent. Then, just as it is discovered that phone lines are down and that the road by which everyone came is now unpassable, some of the guests begin to meet with fatal accidents. At this point everybody decides to search the house and grounds in earnest for clues to their predicament. They find false cupboards, hidden gardens, secret stairs, even a device with which to blow the whole estate sky high — but not a single definitive lead as to the identity of their master or his whereabouts. Meanwhile, guests continue to meet their end.
Are we these characters? Certainly our predicament is no less strange. Why are we on earth? Why, because we are summoned, that’s why. This seems to beg the question, yet the people who claim to know the answer — Jews and Christians, for example — are people who, incredibly, go around saying just that. Abraham, Paul, Kierkegaard: all stand up either to confess that they are here (Hineni! Here am I!) or to call on others to wake up and be here too. Evidently to be “called” simply means to be called to attention. What, the fellow guest might wonder, could possibly be saving about that?
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