Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why?

One of the most moving chapters in THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR is the "Why?" chapter, on page 153 of the original Pocket Books paperback.

Benny Benedict, depressed about violence, walks out onto a balcony during the party and encounters Cagliostro the Great (i.e., Hagbard Celine under another name, i.e. a stand-in for Wilson himself). Cagliostro shows him how to perform an exercise in which a "primitive Terran" questions an extraterrestrial from an advanced civilization. The alien explains that violence in endemic to primitive, undeveloped planets, and then Benny, taking the role of the alien after the two exchange roles, suggests that a man's duty is to learn as much as he can about how the world works and how to fight injustice and pain: "The next question is: What do I do about it? How ever many minutes or hours or years or decades I have left, what do I do to make sense out of it all?"

It seems to me that this brief chapter (less than four pages) summarizes much of Wilson's work: Opposition to violence and cruelty, determination to become more enlightened, and how the two concerns relate to each other. The role playing is described twice as a "gimmick," but it seems to me that this is meant to be ironic, that Wilson saw his novels as, however absurd, as a way for the reader "to make sense out of it all." Cagliostro is described as a "magician," a term which in Wilson's work seems interchangeable with "shaman" or "novelist" or "artist."

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