Suburban Soliloquy #62

The Only Sin

Some years ago, Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I went into Manhattan to meet folks with whom I have been communicating via the Internet. For the first time I would meet face-to-face people I only knew from their words appearing in pixels on monitors. Now some of us from that virtual café would meet in a real bar.

It was our first visit to the Dublin House, an old resident of the upper West Side, a narrow bar wedged between shops and stretching back away from the street. It was not a bad place. It wasn't the sci-fi fantasy décor of yuppie watering holes where mixed drinks are served in exotic glassware. A bit dingy, the Dublin House had the familiar greeting of stale beer and cigarette smoke absorbed into the wainscoting. It felt familiar. I had many times philosophized and drank in similar places during my young adulthood. The Guinness and Bass were good and decency was shown in the way they priced the drinks.

We made our way to the backroom, through the narrow passage between tables and a long bar, squeezing by a jukebox and an outcrop of wall. We entered the backroom and saw for the first time a particular group of faces which might have been the people we were looking for. When I detected that they were talking enthusiastically about literature and not sports, I knew it to be them. And there was Nick among them, the only participant with whom I have had the pleasure of spending time prior to this gathering. Introductions to the rest were quick. Ms Keogh and I were instantly sucked into two or three ongoing debates and sharing their cigarettes.

The evening raced along with fascinating conversations. It was, however, years ago and while I remember the conversations being fascinating, I don't remember all the conversations well. With Steve I argued economic philosophy. He was seeing American consumerism as all bad, too much greed and gluttony dressing up a hollow spiritual core. (I disagreed, but only to the extent of the problem. Consumerism can also be a means for redistributing the wealth and defusing potential revolution.) Jennifer described the hardships of being married to a successful chef at a prominent hotel; he is never home on weekends and is expected to work all the important holidays. Jordanne discussed her research into eyesight, how the loss of the ozone layer was allowing more harmful rays to reach the planet's surface and damaging our vision. Any conversation with Nick might entail music, history, Latin, politics, beer, aesthetics, and the weather all within the first bursting paragraph.

Among the different conversations, there is one in particular I intend to relate here, and mostly recalling my end of it. It was on this occasion that I met Stanley, the young pastor of a Presbyterian church, its congregation having a very long pedigree. I introduced myself as an Atheist, a Peripatetic Minister of Secular Humanism, and we hit it off, plumbing each other's spiritual depths, discussing the influences on our spiritual beliefs. Being an Atheist does not mean I don't take religious matters seriously. It remains heartwarming when I can find moral and ethical affinity between me and someone who is a member of the clergy.

I mentioned Kierkegaard and he thumped his chest to indicate how fond he was of the Danish philosopher. Kierkegaard had had a profound affect on him. I thought I had read Kierkegaard, but as Stanley talked about him I became lost. Later I would realize I had read "about" Kierkegaard and that a particular book I thought was written by Kierkegaard was in fact written by Paul Tillich.

Stanley was very curious as to how I resolved problems of good and evil, right and wrong. He asked me if I believed in sin. I went into my spiel. I had rehearsed this subject with plenty of others before and was not afraid to advance my opinion to an authority. I told Stanley that I believed there is only one sin. I was calling it "egocentrism", yet the word falls short of the whole. What is needed is a new word that would include egocentrism and chauvinism. I believe all other sins are a variation of this one, egocentrism. Stanley was struck by my conclusions and confessed he was inclined to the very same belief. Indeed by the evening's end we would discover we had much in common, share the same morality, and differ only in a belief in God.

I told Stanley that night that I did not propose we deny the ego. The ego is good in that it contributes to the individual's self-preservation and survival. Where is falters is when we inappropriately put ourselves before others. When we put ourselves, our family, our sex or race, our nationality, our religion, our species first because we belong to them, and think ourselves divinely appointed to belong to them, this is chauvinism that causes antagonistic divides. It is wrong to believe ourselves so much more significant or more divine than anything else, that all else can be disregarded to promote our own agenda. I would never suggest we shouldn't make decisions as to what is significant, only that we bear in mind that we create significance and not discover it.

An inability to feel compassion diminishes us. Compassion for someone or something that stands outside our in-group is the nobler human capacity. Love, which I still cannot define, but is maybe a high form of compassion, is manifested by sacrifice.

I told Stanley of my intentions to write a thin book on conduct. I had conceived the title: Manhattan Matrix, and I planned to publish it anonymously. By design it was to be a very small book, one that could easily be toted about everywhere in a pocket, along the lines of the "Little Red Book", Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, only I thought I would make my book olive green. The title would not appear on the book, only the simple miniscule letter "e" in red. So vividly did I imagine it that I can describe that "e". Its hairline cross stoke would be diagonal, as in a class of types known as Venetian Old Style, established by the printer Nicolas Jenson. It had to be a short book, convenient, portable, the rules of behavior restricted to the fewest and made very simple. I wanted it to be an easy book. And I wouldn't copyright it, so that maybe it would spread more readily.

Stanley asked me if I really thought I could write such a book. I told him no. It was an exercise in futility, yet I thought I could better myself if I made the effort regardless of the promise of failure.

"You shall know me as E. E is the commonest letter in English. M says it could stand for Everyman, or Everywoman. You shall not know my name. I do not wish you to know my sex, the color of my eyes, the shade of my skin, because I record these lessons for everybody, and I don't wish anybody with vain pride to regard wisdom as the exclusive property of their ethnicity."

So begins the Manhattan Matrix. The book is a dialogue with E asking questions and M answering them. I never reveal M's name, nor M's gender. It is established that M is old and cannot be expected to live much longer. Because I love to make stories sound real, I invented a personal history for the character of M, just so I could drop clues throughout Manhattan Matrix that M was a retired printer. As to why did I choose the particular title I did:

"Still, when I asked M what should I title the book, M said Manhattan Matrix. This was a very strange name. When I asked why, M said, 'because Gutenberg did not invent moveable type; he invented the matrix by which type could be made uniform, and in so doing, he made books more available. Here you have recorded a system of conduct that does not reveal the truth of divinities or afterlives, but is a matrix in which a uniformed morality can be forged, a conduct that can then be used to write any religion.'"

"'But why Manhattan, and did you not say you would not want the reader to think any one place is special?'"

"'… I should like it to honor the name of Manhattan. For I tell you, E, if this morality is to work, it must work in Manhattan, and if it can work in Manhattan, then there is hope for our world. Manhattan is the touchstone.'"

I have quoted passages from a small book I will always be writing, yet never expect to finish. I would like to believe I lack the arrogance to finish it.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the sixty-second in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"