No Exit: A Gallery Of Existential Horrors

Matthew Burnside

Smooth and smiling faces everywhere, but ruin in their eyes.
Everything has been figured out, except how to live.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

[Roll D20]


The numinous zero, as we know it today, wasn’t invented until 628 CE. Medieval Christians feared it for what it represented—The Void, and so forbade it from use, only daring to use it in secret. It stands alone as both a number and non-number, containing both thereness and not-thereness. The ability to conceive of this abstraction is one of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Even bees, quite intelligent, cannot fathom the symbolic import of the numeral that both is and is not. A misbehaving anomaly as ridiculous as a nautilus swimming through the eye of a needle, the zero insists on persisting despite its inherent implausibility, in all its glorious itness.


            A committee of your former lovers sits gathered downstairs in your living room. You can’t quite understand what they’re deliberating with such vigor—the shape of your demise, fate of your soul, future love lives and beyond? Only one of them seems sympathetic, despite all the things you once put them through. “It is time,” says the chairperson, most brokenhearted of the bunch. “Bring them down.”


            You slip out of a work party to be alone. Sneak a smoke on the curb, flick your lighter at the moon. But there are people gathered there so you move further down the block into an alley where another party has gathered formed of people who have escaped their own respective parties. To escape this party, you slip into a partially opened garage, try to duck out only to find more people, an escape party of escapees from the party away from the original party. Everywhere you go: the scaffolding of a house under construction, dank sewers, atop the old water tower, even a cave festooned with drippy stalactites at the edge of the woods, you encounter only more faces with the same pair of unblinking, sparkless eyes. (People, people, everywhere, And all the crowds did slink People, people, everywhere, Nor any place to think.)


            Futurity is a flower bracing to be torn apart, petals shattered by the storm. It is not the storm that wilts it but the knowledge that a storm is coming, and because of this its beautiful thorns grow dull. Because of this, it learns to hate the sun.


            Apeirophobia—terror of eternity. Healthy fear of foreverness and the unbroken ∞, also known as a lemniscate. Most are haunted by the inevitably of death but for many the opposite scenario is equally haunting. Conceptually impossible to hold in one’s head, the idea of infinity has been known to drive many a man mad . . .


            In The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a blacksmith obsessed with perpetual motion builds a clockwork butterfly, his masterpiece, only to find it ironically crushed in the palm of his hand by story’s end. So many nights spent toiling in his shop by dim lamplight, how many times he must have glimpsed out the window at the passersby laughing at the futility of his craft’s end. I wonder, did he ever see behind them to the blooming cherries and night-birds and swaying boughs. Did he ever ask, is it the tree moving or is it the wind or is it my mind moving them both?

            Let it go, Owen Warland, I want to yell at him.
There is no catching the fucking butterfly.
All is bejeweled wreckage.
But I can’t yell at him because he’s just a character in a story and I am just a reader. I will never touch or know him just as he will never touch or know the butterfly.

            It is all a mercy.


            The production is on fire. The curtains are on fire. The set, painted backdrop, cut-out moon, stenciled stars: all on fire. The actors, saying their lines through on-fire throats, enunciate on fire because the dialogue is on fire and the script is on fire. The director, backstage building a birdhouse because the sky is on fire, is on fire. The writer at home on opening night because no one bothered to invite him is sleeping in his bed on fire. His dreams are on fire. If he had been invited, his tickets would have arrived in an envelope on fire. The audience sitting in their fiery chairs applaud through fiery digits. eyes on fire. They witness art that is on fire, because the continuous dream is on fire. The smoke, the fumes, atoms and molecules, all on fire. The fire on fire. Life is on fire, so you might as well burn brightly.


            Some other déjàs and vus

            Jamais vu = feeling of experiencing something anew even after that experience has occurred multiple times.

            Presque vu = feeling of being on the verge of a realization that never arrives.
Déjà rêvé = feeling of having previously dreamed something you are currently experiencing. Déjà entendu = feeling of having heard something that may only have been imagined.


            As 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water and considering the ocean’s average depth is 12,400 feet and light can only carry through about 330 feet, it stands to reason that a majority of our planet is constantly covered in darkness all the time.


            Repeat after me: Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. (Repeat now 30 more times.) Eventually that word will begin to lapse into nonsense and even more, it will begin to lose all essence. This is what’s known as Semantic Satiation, an apt demonstration of the human brain’s ability to get bored with something and forget to attribute meaning to it. A similar phenomenon occurs with smells—if you’ve ever found yourself in a smelly place but unable to detect odors after a while, that’s because your brain has stopped receiving messages from your olfactory receptors. Your tongue has stopped tasting itself. Your brain has essentially edited out your nose. If it can do all that, just imagine what other tricks it might be pulling.


            A song you heard exactly once in a crowded bar, its drunken melody slightly out of sync, is fated to remain irrecoverable. Infinity’s jukebox has no coin slots. All you will ever know is it is a song that is unknowable to you, as is the person you were when you heard it, as are the ears with which you never quite heard it and the hands though which that moment slipped. Little sand of the hours. They are not the same hands as your hands now. Your heart then is not the same timebomb ticking toward its extinction within your chest now. Gone, long gone are the moments! This one as well, gone now too, and this sentence, which will never be read by quite the same you again.

            Is it knowing these moments and all these yous are lost forever that makes the sadness come, or is it How can you remember what was never forgotten?


            To further compound the phantasmagorical problems of #4 and #10, there are different kinds of infinities, according to Georg Cantor: Infinities that can be counted and infinities that can’t be counted. Paradoxes and meta-paradoxes. The sphericalness of the color blue, for example, or the circumference of a tunnel dreaming in July.


            Wittgenstein preferred language games, but he might have delighted in board games too. No doubt he would agree that no board game could truly epitomize the game of consciousness, however, with all its subliminal subterfuge. Only, perhaps, a sawed-apart-and-hot-glued-back-together-again Frankenstein version of several board games might could come even close—part Chess, part Monopoly, part Clue, part Twister, part Mouse Trap.

            Snakes and Ladders, however, would not be included as it comes too close to reality.


            A partial list of impossible geographies: the 10,000-year cuckoo clock inside the Sierra Diablo mountains in Texas whose cuckoo only emerges once in a millennium; The Uncanny Valley, which isn’t a place at all but rather the feeling of unease or repulsion elicited by an artificial intelligence exhibiting remarkable human-like qualities. (While the scientific cause of this phenomenon isn’t known, a few theories have been proposed: 1) we automatically differentiate such automatons as poor mates; 2) they trigger in us an innate fear of death or reduction; 3) as ‘soulless beings’ they represent a direct threat to human concepts of individuality, identity, and specialness); The Fairy Castle, an 8- foot dollhouse commissioned by silent film actress Colleen Moore for around seven million dollars with diamond, emerald, and pearl chandeliers, over 2,000 miniatures, the smallest bible ever created, and hand-painted murals by Walt Disney; The Gates of Horn & Ivory, which represent entrances to two different dimensions, one a realm of the real and the other a realm of falsehoods, shadow, and superficiality. (“For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them” —Spoken by Penelope, The Odyssey)…it remains debatable, however, which realm encompasses the truer reality; Mojave Phone Booth, an isolated phone booth which stood in the middle of Mojave National Preserve in California from 1948 to 2000. This graffiti-laden unsuspecting landmark became something of a phenomenon in 1997, garnering internet fame and the attention of a man who camped at the booth for 32 days, claiming the Holy Spirit had guided him there to answer phone calls. He did as he was instructed, answering over 500 of them, many of them from an individual identifying himself as ‘Sergeant Zeno from the Pentagon’; The Red Brick Road, whose spiral path is clearly visible in The Wizard of Oz winding outward alongside its more famous cousin, The Yellow Brick Road, leaving Munchkin Land; The Penrose Staircase; Ouroboros; Bach’s endless Musical Offering; pretty much all works of M.C. Escher; Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors; Isamu Noghuchi’s Play Mountain; The interconnected pipe network of rabbit holes from Super Mario Bros; Umberto Eco’s concept of Hyperreality; Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons; Kafka’s bureaucratic labyrinths; finally, Anechoic Chambers—rooms so devoid of reverberation that one can hear their own blood flowing and the bones within their skin scraping, which goes to show: True silence screeches. Satellites tumble into oblivion and elsewheres abound. There are angels in outer space right now lopping each other in half, pantomiming eternities.


            There is a rather distressing Kierkegaardian theory that posits we can never know whether we are or are not secretly doing the work of the devil. This applies to the highest saint down to the lowest sinner. That is, we can never truly know the rightness of our actions, the purity of our moral rectitude, even if we believe deep down these instincts come from a pure place.

            We can only do as we do. Play as we play.


            Another night glazed with boredom – swirling in this velvet snowglobe of Am, confetti of consciousness churning – so you try hopping online, a smaller box within the small box of a room, but it only serves to elongate your loneliness. Is there anything left you haven’t done? You set out to try something new: Saw a shadow in half. Put a match to a mirror, just to see if it will dance. Hold a piece of ice in your fist under hot water. Something about phase changes. Something about an equal but opposite action for every reaction. Something about all pain deriving from something else’s pleasure, or vice versa. Something about bodies, too: this strange meat machine endowed with jiggling appendages, ligaments, belly buttons, kneecaps, necks, napes, and an alien mouth filled with teeth (what even ARE teeth?) and a tongue (what a concept!). Then, finally, something about why, if it’s yours, you always feel like a tourist here?


            One day you begin substituting the word Void into your favorite songs. Slipping it in for no particular reason.

            Let’s Hear it for the Void . . . Paranoid Void . . . Everybody Wants to Rule the Void . . .

            Somewhere a secret song cartwheels through your subconscious, fluttering just behind your eyelids.

            Sympathy for the Void . . . Happiness is a Warm Void . . . Enjoy the Void . . .


            Memory begins under a tinkling piano. You are in the first grade with a classmate, she with her moo- cow skirt and pigtails, you with your overalls and perpetual cowlick. You are kissing, acting as if you both understand the act, behind a wall of neatly stacked salmon-colored bricks. Chapped lips smacking. Out of the window you spy a speckled chime made of soda bottles clanking impetuously and a power line you can just catch the corner of. Though it will be many years before you understand the meaning of voltage, you fathom for the first time how light and heat could come from the same exact source. How all eyes contain doors but only a few we get to walk through. You will coddle this memory many times, turning it over like a lucky coin in your pocket again and again, but nothing you do will ever put a name to the girl. Perhaps she remembers you similarly, but only the mere idea of you. You as a concept, a figment. Placeholder for memory’s strange & cyclical loops.

            Are we the things we remember or the things that remember us?

            What about the things we choose not to remember?

            All the things dearly misremembered?

            Are we lost or found in our translations?


            I don’t know how else to say it: I don’t know how to escape the artifice of art anymore. Another fatal existential quirk to be reckoned with. Call it fear of endings, like how instead of finishing a book sometimes I’ll bury it so I never have to say goodbye. Never have to untether myself from imaginary people made of ink, somehow more real to me than some made of flesh that I’ve known.

            Put another way, say I tell you a story? Say it is the story of how Buster Keaton, temporarily committed to an asylum for alcoholism, once escaped a straitjacket using a trick he had been taught by a childhood friend of the family named Harry Houdini.

            Say it sounds too good to be true, so you refuse to research it further. To confirm nor deny its veracity by searching Wikipedia. Say you leave it there untouched so it will be true in the imagination. Say this is the truth that matters most.


            Hope creeps in like a mushroom after the rain.


            You were born to fall.

            Maybe you have been falling all your life.

            Diving down the page like avalanche. Like shimmering text, snowcrashing. Some chasms are collected only by falling through them.

            One day an author speaks to you through the page, through vessels of words, which are an empty container. They arrive uninvited. They arrive disconnectingly, maybe even disharmoniously. But maybe these words carry a weight nonetheless, with just enough force to pierce the distance, the illusion of distance, to prove their earnestness?

            Perhaps they propel you, the reader, toward a somethingness?

            There is no winning or losing this game, speaks the author through the artifice, willing you to listen before it’s too late, which it always and never is. There is only playing the game. So play.

Matthew Burnside is the author of Wiki of Infinite Sorrows, Meditations of the Nameless Infinite, Rules to Win the Game, and Dear Wolfmother. His next project, a double collection, is entitled Centrifugal: Unstories and Centripetal: Counterstories.

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