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DWINELLE HALL
LECTURE ONE: CUMANUS AND THE POLITICS OF PAIN

UCBerkeley

There's a sensation that sometimes comes over me which feels like I have near-perfect objectivity. I’ll be ‘involved in a situation’ when suddenly a second awareness pops up, calling my attention to the fact that I’m ‘involved in a situation,’ a completely different track, yet it functions simultaneously. I’m myself and not myself. Or rather, I’m one self watching a second self, with both selves being mindful. Yet neither appears discommoded by the split, in the least. Which is to say, if I’m doing something like I’m doing now—I’m teaching, standing at the front of a lecture hall full of students—the thoughts I’m having, independent of said teaching, don’t seem to interfere. I’m gesticulating, making facial expressionsmy professorial lips mouth wholesale sagacityI’m even monitoring faces—in the hope that they all aren't blank—while undergoing this spell of cognitive detachment.

Of course I’ve given this particular lecture, to date, at least a dozen times, and though I wouldn’t say it or I lack luster, these freshmen sure look dim—nary a flicker anywhere—so maybe the repetition is what allows my mind to take certain... tangents. Except... well, lately, this has been happening more and more.

 

Whoops; spoke too soon; I see a light. I detect a definite bright spot, way up top near the exit. Clever lad; that’s where I used to sit, as a noncommittal coed.

 

Hm. Was I ever a noncommittal coed? I feel ancient. My own college days seem as distant as do those I spent in kindergarten. Forty; I’m forty! More than half dead—unless I outlive Granny... who is ninety-two, and crazy as a coot, with her off-the-wall obsessions, childlike speech mannerisms, and aggravating habit of referring to me as “Jimmy.” “Don’t Jimmy wants come see him’s Granny?” No, Granny; James does not. To every other living soul, except Granny, I’m James not Jimmy, no diminutive. I suppose it’s quaint, in a way—though it seldom fails to gall me.

James not Jimmy. James and Jennifer—Jimmy and Jenny; I was born a fraternal twin. Maybe it’s remembering ‘Sis’ that makes me cringe at hearing my nickname. We two weren’t close. Which is atypical for twins; they are normally inseparable. But Jennifer was “a problem child,” whereas I was “a goody-two-shoes.” Is it vain to protest ones innocence? Compared to Jenny, Jimmy, I assure you, was an apostolic saint. The maxim “girls are good and boys are bad” my sibling turned ass-backwards. A genuine ‘Marquise’ de Sade was my sociopathic twin. Yet, no matter how damning the evidence, it was I who got the blame... hence my lingering animosity. I spent the better part of my childhood—and nearly all of my adolescence—‘assimilating’  bum raps for Jennifer’s high crimes and misdemeanors.

In spite of which, I loved her. In direct proportion to despising her—caught on that blood-knot seesaw common to families wherein interpersonal relationships are a series of ups and downs, with the option of getting off that psychic teeter-totter practically nil. So, no matter how tempting it was to disassociate myself from Jenny’s evil antics, I realized we were inextricably bound. Still and all Jennifer, make no mistake, was a rare piece of work.

For example—“always reinforce one’s arguments with tangible illustrations”—the day we two turned six our father presented us with a cocker spaniel pup: big brown eyes, oversized paws, fur as soft as eiderdown, occasioning Jenny to embark upon an extracurricular course in canine obedience training. Hours on end, she would drag that hapless pooch through every room in the house, yanking on its leash like some diabolic angler...

 

Where’s Brightboy? Did I lose him? I just introduced Cumanus. Inquisition. Usually makes the drowsiest of students shake off their lethargy.

 

…Anyway, drawn by the most pathetic yelps any dog-lover hates to hear, Mother came on the run to our throttled puppy’s rescue, just as I had been handed the incriminating leash. “James, what are you doing to this defenseless little animal?” James was doing nothing, nada, diddlysquat; the guilty party was Jennifer, who could scarcely hide her grin, and who had lined the pooch’s collar with inward-facing thumbtacks. Soon thereafter—in protective custody at our local SPCA—the pup succumbed to distemper and was mercifully put to sleep. That’s my sister. Had we been hatched as eaglets, rest assured, she’d have shoved me from our nest—or pecked me into mincemeat and dined on my remains.

 

No; he’s still in attendance. Moved down, is all. Come for a closer look at my ultra-graphic slideshow? Handsome lad. Dark as pine tar. Older than the average. Perhaps he’s merely auditing.

 

So back to this feeling I have of standing aloof from sundry situations. Both of my minds are engaged, but from opposite viewpoints. ‘Professor’ Mortimer, the Puritan (despite UC Berkeley’s permissiveness) evaluates moralistically, while ‘Mister’ Mortimer, the Pragmatist, sees truth in terms of consequences.

 

“Consider Cumanus, who burned witches. Forty-one of them, to be precise. And who—because it was believed, at the time, that demonic power resided in the hair—shaved his victims, head to toe, before conducting them to the flames. Now what sort of moral asbestos might Cumanus have used to shield his conscience from the overheated shrieks of those he incinerated?”

As Professor Mortimer pauses, students fidget—nervous lest his question prove non-rhetorical.

“Faith, of course. Torture is not fueled by sadism alone; it needs a higher octane.”

Three students smirk.

“Torture, from a pleasure motive, is merely ‘capriciously’ sustainable; whereas torture, spurred by righteousness, can forever stay the course—religious fervor (or jingoism) being crucial to the Politics of Pain. Our friend Cumanus had the Roman Catholic Church to sanctify his infamy, to quell his inhibitions—if he had any—sequestering tiresome scruples and inconvenient qualms. Add to this the comfort of his exacting signed confessions—the validity of which we shall analyze anon—and hanging hysterical women by their thumbs, denuding their every follicle, while scourging them for good measure before ultimately burning them at the stake could be carried out with guilt-free, devil-may-care impunity. Chances are Cumanus loved his wife, doted upon his children, and, after every hallowed barbeque, slept like a baby.”

A few more students smirk—Willis Rutherford (“Brightboy”) not among them. His blue-black face is stony, his general demeanor glum.

“I’ll even wager he was dispassionate while executing his office. Purging evil was his end; inflicting pain was his consecrated means. Only a Romantic would describe such noble work as ‘sexual sublimation,’ wolves in priestly clothing slaughtering naked lambs for kicks, getting their holy rocks off. Those who understand torture recognize power as its raison d’être. To choose whether someone lives or dies is to confront the Riddle of Mortality. And thereby fathom Death’s secret?”

Hold that proposition. We’ll reconvene on Friday to discuss your gathered thoughts.”

With a flurry of rustled papers and zippered book bags the undergraduates file out... followed by their instructor, who flicks off the lights.

Left in the semi-darkness, Willis Rutherford broods.

 

Willis RutherfordWindowless, the lecture hall is devoid of natural light, exit signs providing its sole illumination “subterranean”; red, they cast incarnadine shadows down the aisles, among the seats, upon the stage—imbuing its screen with an incidental flush “subterranean”; what? The word persists like a squawking mynah inside Willis Rutherford’s skull, a senseless fragment, out-of-context, therefore unconvincing ‘proof,’ unless it triggers “subterranean”; stop! The nagging clue holds forth, connoting nothing past sheer hope that the coed is not dead. Disappeared, is plain. But Tamara is alive; of that, and only that, Willis maintains certainty.

Yet the screen on which he focuses psychic energy stays blank unaccountably; at The Institute he was told his ‘gift’ was keen. So why now, when he needs it most to recover his missing friend, has telepathy all but failed him, projected a disconnected term sans any useful setting? Perhaps he had squandered his so-called ‘special talent’ on frivolous flirtation.

 

“You have a tiny mole.”

“I don’t. Where?”

“On your left breast.”

“I do not!”

“Do, too.”

“Left or right of the nipple?”

“Right.”

“Easy guess. Besides, I don’t.”

“Okay, I see another attribute.”

“So? I’d rather you not mention it.”

“Fine... You’ll go out with me anyway?”

“Not a chance.”

“Tonight?”

“No way!”

“What if I’m right?”

“‘Right’? Right about what?”

“About the attribute I envision. If I am, may I please take you out to dinner?”

“No. Well... if it’s really hard to guess, I’ll think it over.”

“Sorry; that won’t do. You have to promise.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Willis Rutherford.”

“Big friggin’ deal.”

“Your name is... Mara.”

“Wrong. Your crystal ball needs polishing, Willis Rutherford. My name is Tamara.”

“I got half.”

“‘Half’ won’t wrangle you a date. So, are you going to tell me what you ‘envision’? I promise we’ll have dinner, if, and only if, your lucky guess proves right.”

“You have the initials WR tattooed above your heart.”

 

The screen onstage reflects a subtly darker tone, as though it blushes with the warmth of Willis’s reminiscence.

Theirs had been an impulsive, passionate affair. He was virile and imaginative. She (still a virgin at age nineteen) was curious and coquettish. She, a Polynesian born on Maui, he, a Haitian from the Bronx, were beautiful seen apart, but glamorous together—her exotic tropical tan 'set off' by his Caribbean coal-black sheen, his aggressive East-Coast drive 'offset' by her Pacific-Island casualness...

...gone now, vanished. Not a note, a phone call, or any explanation whatsoever. And, irony of ironies, it was Willis who the authorities seemed predisposed to blame.

 

“Did you two have a fight...?”

“... or something?”

“Was she seeing someone else?”

“Who got jealous first?”

“Ever hit her?”

“Pregnant, wasn’t she?”

No, no, no, neither, no, and absolutely not (though both had been remiss in the area of contraceptives).

 

“Careful.”

“You on the pill?”

“No.”

“Diaphragm?”

“No; nothing; you’re my first.”

“I’m clean. No STDs, I swear; I swear on a stack of Bibles.”

“Okay, Willis; do me.”

After the blood from Tamara’s ruptured hymen dried on Willis’s cock, he whispered:

“Were I an oak and you my leaves, come autumn, I’d refuse to let you fall.”

 

Still seated in the empty hall, Willis tries to concentrate.

 

KIRLIAN VISION: COLORS, LAYERED, IRREGULAR, PATTERNED LIKE A CONTOUR MAP APPEAR: WOUNDED BLUES SURROUNDING A HARROWED SILHOUETTE—BETRAYED BY CEASELESS TREMBLING... JUXTAPOSED TO A SECOND SILHOUETTE, ITS AURA STREAKED WITH OMINOUS UMBER AND AN INTIMIDATING BLACK, DOMINEERING IN SIZE, ENMITY OVERARCHING. THE MISMATCHED OUTLINES FILL, INJECTED AS WITH DYES OF MUDDLED FLESH TONES; HIS—THE OPPRESSOR’S—CHALKY WHITE; HERS—THE OPPRESED—CREAMY BEIGE; OTHER FEATURES INDISTINCT... EXCEPT FOR ONE MINUTE, IF SIGNIFYING DETAIL ON THE SLIGHTER FIGURE’S BREAST; DISCERNIBLE NEAR ITS LEFT NIPPLE IS A TINY PINHEAD MOLE.

 

His wince aggrieved, Willis mourns this all-too-fleeting glimpse as gruesome confirmation that his lover still clings to life, but at a cost extremely dear. Wrenching from his trance, he lurches headlong toward the stage; its screen of prophesying imagery suddenly goes blank.