Chicago Cryptogram

“It is death for souls to become wet.”

That’s Harry, skunk drunk, pontificating. It’s the middle of the century and we’re down on State Street, Dee, Anna, Harry, Empty and me. Xenophanes. Casino, for short. My name for the boozy night, a game we wayward students play. The university’s fallen away behind us, the library has. Good riddance, we’re out on the town on this desolate blind-eyed night, searching out the elusive Logos in our beer.

“If God had not created beer,” I say, paraphrasing my Presocratic of the night, “they would say that piss was drinkable.”

Whereupon Anna observes that the beer she’s drinking is the material cause for an effect that is overtaking her: She goes off to pee.

Longhaired Empty in his furlined cape gazes down disdainfully on Harry, ogling Annie Axe’s butt as she wags it johnward. “Alas, wretched mortal!” he says. Empty, alias Empedocles, flamboyant charlatan, lofty romantic, gay vegetarian, is the brightest and the maddest of us all. For Empty, ardent but gloomy democrat, the Red Scare is real, the Bomb is. “It’s a time of increasing Strife,” he oft laments.

True, we’re mired in evil brawls in which no adventure is, though our student deferments shield us from the worst.

“The present is worse than the past and the future will be worse yet,” Empty says, and Dee, our atomist, lifts her glass and laughs. “The goal of life is cheerfulness, so bottoms up!”

Prolific Dee, who began the night as DeMockery, is the atomist among us, her subject much on our minds. Annihilation. The philosopher’s nightmare.

“The cosmos as we know it is doomed.”

Harry, hand on returned Anaxagoras’s behind, is more sanguine. “All things are beautiful and good,” he says, “including death and war.”

“Fuck you,” says Empty.

“Come on, fellow philosophasters, forget the war,” complains Anna, and Empty says, “You’re not draftbait, kiddo.”

“Enough of this malakies,” laughs well-traveled Dee, showing off her street Greek. “Stinnyashoo!”

We raise our glasses to toast the fucked-up gods, down drinks, and Harry raises his middle digit like a gnomon to order up another round. Harry’s an arrogant antidemocratic asshole, but we love him.

“Harry,” I say, “you authored the most poetically enigmatic line of all Presocratic thought.”

“I wish to know it,” exclaims Anna.

“It lies hidden.”

“We can know nothing about anything,” Dee declares.

“Is this another bloody cryptogram?” That’s disdainful Empty. “Am I a mere emanation of a thinking god?” he groans.

“That’s my line,” I say.

“As usual, Casino you barbarian, you have probably mistranslated my wisdom for your own nefarious purposes,” complains Harry.

“Cease strife,” declaims Empty, “and in this joyless place let’s resolve enigma and celebrate the bonding force of love!”


Q: What is the line and who is its author?

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