POETRY: Atlas And The Fatman, by Thomas Merton

Atlas And The Fatman, by Thomas Merton

On the last day of a rough but fortunate voyage, near the farthest end of the known world, I found my way to the shores of a sentient mountain.

There stood the high African rock in the shadow of lucky rain: a serious black crag, at the tip of the land mass, with a cloud balanced on its shoulder.

O high silent man of lava, with feet in the green surf, watching the stream of days and years!

We saw the clouds drift by the face of that tame god, and held our peace.  We placed our feet on the hot sands as the ship ran aground on the edge of night and of summer.

This was Atlas at his lonely work!  I never thought I would have seen his face!

His head was hidden in cloud and night.  His eyes were staring darkness.  His thoughts were full of inscrutable waters.  His heart was safe at the bottom of the green ocean.  His spirit stood silent and awake in massive silence.  In one deep thought.

He held everything in massive silence.  In one deep thought without words he kept the continents from drifting apart.  The seas obeyed not his eyes, not his words, but the beating of his heart.

His only utterance was one weak light in a lighthouse.  Small sharp words, no commentary on the pure mystery of night, they left the mystery alone: touched it and left it alone.

From time to time he spoke (but only to the distance) with the short bass clangor of a bell.  The neutral note was uttered, and said nothing.

Yet it was this dim bell in the heavens that moved the weather and changed the seasons.  A new summer grew upon the ocean, before our eyes, closely followed by autumn, then winter.

The waves moved by with white hair.  Time rode the secret waves, commanded only by Atlas and by his bell.  There were ages passing by as we watched.  Birds skimmed the white-haired ages.  Young birds kept the morning young.  The silence of this unvisited shore embraced the beginning of history and its end.

We made believe that it was five o’clock.  We made believe that it was six o’clock.  We made believe that it was midnight.  Atlas must have deigned to smile on our efforts, since it was now dark.  His eyes gave hope to the tumbling ocean.  Once again, rain began to fall.

When it is evening, when night begins to darken, when rain is warm in the summer darkness and rumors come up from the woods and from the banks of rivers, then shores and forests sound around you with a wordless solicitude of mothers.  It is then that flowering palms enchant the night with their sweet smell.  Flowers sleep.  Thoughts become simple.  Words cease.  The hollows of the mind fill with dreams as with water.

In the sacred moment between sleep and staying awake, Atlas speaks to the night as to a woman.  He speaks freely to the night he loves, thinking no one is at hand.

He speaks of his heart at the bottom of the ocean.  He speaks of his spirit at the center of the world.  He speaks of fires that night and woman do not understand.  Green fires that are extinguished by intelligence, that night and woman possess.  Golden fires of spirit that are in the damp warm rocky roots of the earth.  White fires that are clear outside of earth and sky which night and woman cannot reach.  And waters that are common to night and to woman and to Atlas, ruled by a bell in the moon and by a bell in the sun.

Atlas puts out all those fires with his one bell, and looks at nothing.  This is the work that supports the activity of seasons: Atlas looking at nothing.

“How lonely is my life as a mountain on the shore of ocean with my heart at the bottom of the sea and my spirit at the center of the earth where no one can speak to me.  I ring my bell and nobody listens.  All I do is look at nothing and change the seasons and hold up the sky and save the world.

“No one will come near to one so tall, no one will befriend one so strong as I, and I am forgotten forever.  It is right that I be forgotten, for if I were not forgotten where would be my vigilance, and if I were not vigilant where would be the world?  And if night and woman could understand my thoughts, where would be my strength?  My thoughts would draw up my spirit from the center of the earth and the whole world would fall into emptiness.

“My stability is without fault because I have no connections.  I have not viewed mankind for ages.  Yet I have not slept, thinking of man and his troubles, which are not alleviated by the change of seasons.  I wish well to mankind.  I give man more seasons and pray that he be not left to himself.  I want him not to see my far lights upon the ocean (this is impossible) or hear my dim bell in the heavens (this is not expedient).  But I want him to rest at peace under a safe sky knowing that I am here with my lights and my bell and that the ends of the world are watched by an overseer and the seas taken care of.

“I do not tire easily, for this is the work I am used to.  Though it is child’s play, sometimes I hate it.  I bear with loneliness for the sake of man.  Yet to be constantly forgotten is more than I can abide.

“Thus I intend not only to watch, but to move watching, and I shall begin by moving the theaters.”

At this there was a stir in all the distant cities of the world and the continents heaved up and down like the trays of a scale, as all the great countries were suddenly weighed by Atlas in the middle of the night: the lands of Europe and the lands of Asia were weighed in the hands of a tall hidden power, and knew nothing of it.  The shores of America waited in the mist to be weighed in the same balance.  It was Atlas, the guardian of nights and seas moving and watching.

We expected movement only after it had already begun and we looked for power when the strong were already overthrown.  We saw the dance begin secretly in genteel houses, under the kitchen oilcloth, and leap to the tops of the most public monuments.  Some buildings woke and walked downhill and would not stop until they came to water.  Churches and banks begged pardon as they slipped and fell.  People in the unsafe doors set out for earth that escaped them, and trod too late on streets that hurried away.  It was more than most men could afford but far more than they could avoid.  It was a lame evening.  No taxi would take any man to the right place.

This was what happened everywhere when the movement began.  The title of the earthquake was “Atlas watches every evening.”

Then up jumped a great Fatman in one of the stadiums.  He thought that he was god and that he could stop everything from moving.  He thought that since he could, he had to.  He cried out loud.  He swore at the top of his voice.  He fired off a gun and made the people listen.  He roared and he boasted and made himself known.  He blew back into the wind and stamped on the rolling earth and swore up and down he could make it all stop with his invention.  He got up in the teeth of the storm and made a loud speech which everybody heard.  And the first thing he said was this:

“If anything moves, I am the one to move it: and if anything stops, I am the one to stop it.  If anything shakes, I am the one to shake it, and not one being is going to budge unless pushed.”

At that moment everything stopped.  No one had heard the dim bell at the edge of the sea (which Atlas had struck, in his dream, at this very moment).  No one saw the lights in the dark at the edge of the ocean (which had gone on and off with a passing memory in that far place).  No one thought of anything, the Fatman had all their attention.

Now this Fatman had been brought up on oats and meat and his name was secret.  His father was a grocer and his mother was a butcher.  His father was a tailor and his mother ran a train.  His father was a brewer and his mother was a general in the army.  He had been born with leather hands and a clockwork mind in order to make a lot of money.  He hated the country and loved stadiums: a perfect, civilized man!  His number was six hundred and sixty-six and he worked hard building up the stadium Atlas had destroyed.

All the people brought him money and played music to him because he was rich.  And the music was so loud no one heard the bell ring again.  Once again the houses began to tremble.

No one lo0ked at anything, but fixed their eyes only on the Fatman in his rage.  No one heard Atlas far off thinking in the smoke.  All they knew was that the city began to fall again and the Fatman roared in the tumbledown theaters: “If I had my way there would be RAIN.”  He held up his hands and had his way.  Rain came down as sudden as a black mountain.  The clock struck ten.  The world stopped moving.  Everyone attributed this to the Fatman whose name was secret.

Then in the holes of the broken city the sergeants smiled safe and guns became a thing of the present.  Gas was mercy then to many a Jew mother and a quick end came to more than a few as a gift of the popular state.  “Here comes a chemical death, with the smile of the public Father.  You shall be cheaply made extinct as a present from economy, and we will save your hair and teeth. Cyanide hopes are the face of a popular tomorrow, with ever more fun in the underwears.  Everybody has dollars in the home of well-run Demos, and more for cars than for Sunday.  But Sunday is public also where Fatman has his office.  Only a different name, that’s all.

“Here comes chemical Sunday, with a smile of the Fatman’s ghost father.  They take the girth of the Fat Father’s own gas, on top of the ancient marsh, in the name of a new culture.  Toy thugs jump out of every cradle with weapons in their hands.  They swing by hard and mean in the name of popularity and boy, that popularity is going to make you jump.  It is already famous what they can do with guns, and more so with a piece of small invented pipe, all for the fame and benefit of the new police.  Fatman, Fatman, blow us a gassy kiss from the four chimneys of your new heaven!”

From the four sides of the wind there came together in trolleys a set of delegations in the name of Dad.  “Not forgetting Mom,” they blowed, “we come to hail the Fatman in the name of Dad.”  And old Dad sat up high in the memories of the police, a nineteenth-century legend, a corncob angel measuring the west.  A piece of true-blue old-gold faked-up fortune.  True Dad is all fixed up in the mind like a piece of Real Estate, but Mom (cries the Fatman) Mom is real heart and all soft in the easies.  Mom is fat from toe to toe, and slimmer than an ankle.  Good old American Maw is Father’s boast on wedding-cake afternoon, in the days of Coca-Cola.  Maw is safe in the new car and Paw cares for corners.  The eyes of the innocent sergeant salute Maw with pride as they draw Negro blood.  And we will have a clean America for our boys, clean as the toy toughs punished in rugged Lux.  Tomboy Mom is the magic of Fatman’s perpetual boast. 

Then the Fatman, moved by intuition, placed his feet in the water and established contact with the spirit of night, and the waves thrashed about his knees.  All at once he began to grow.  He gave up meat to become an ascetic.  He drank only the most inexpensive mouthwash.  He dealt with woman only by mail.  He tried out his hands on the sky and began to hold up the firmament.  He would hold up the sky and preach at the same time, for he was suddenly religious.  He began to list all the dates of history and to tell men another word for love and another word for death.  He said he himself was the eldest child of love and death, but principally of death.  At this he returned to his meat and dropped his letters and dealt with woman once again directly.  He said he could also tell them another name for woman.  The people took down notes of what he said next, and he told them his own real name was god.

We who stood far off amid the tears of the African night, we who stood with our feet on a hot land, we knew who had rung the bell and changed the weather.  We knew who had sent rain.  We knew which was power and which was image, which was light and which was legend.  And we knew, which of the two had his heart at the bottom of the ocean.  We knew who watched and who moved under the theaters every time the bell rang.  We listened intently to the cloud and the darkness.  We lived upon distance, and leaned upon emptiness until we heard our mountain think plain in his own cloud.

“Smoke is not measured by clocks,” said Atlas.  “Time is not told by disasters.  Years are not numbered by the wars that are in them, days are not marked on the calendar for the murders that take place on them.  What is it that you are measuring, Fatman?  What is it that you are interpreting with your machine, meatman?  What is it that you are counting, you square, serious stepson of death?

“I take my own time,” said Atlas, “which is the time of the sea.  The sea tells its own long time, not by the moon or by the sun or by any clock.  The time of the sea is infinitely various, and out of it comes all life: but only when the time of the sea is the time of the sun.  Not the time of rising and setting, but the time of light itself, which has no hours.

“The sea’s time is the time of long life.  The jungle’s time is the time of many rains.  The spirit of the trees takes up time out of the slow earth and the leaves are made of this earthtime turning into light.  Longer life still undersea, for invisible Tritons.  The long life of the earth.  The life of spinning suns.

“The gods of the sea tell no time.  They are busy with their own music.  I, Atlas, improve the world with mists, evenings and colors.  I have my own music of clouds, skies and centuries.  I strike music from far continents.  Others do not hear.  They have heard nothing of this for a long time.  They have heard clock and cannon, not my music.  They have eaten smoke and gone down by train to the last mute home of welfare, which is the end.

“Sad is the city of the Fatman, for all his industry.  Snow cannot make softer the city of the Fatman, which is always black in its own breath.  Rain cannot wash clean the city of the mercenary, which is always gray with his own despair.  Light cannot make fair their houses or wine their faces, though they swim in millions they have won.  The Fatman with his inventions is propping up a fallen heaven.”

Shall we forget the periods of his earthly mischief, not with regret?  Shall we forget the Fatman and his false rain?  The people in that city shuddered and the rain ran down their necks and the Fatman struggled with his stadium.

“Fatman,” said Atlas, “you are a faithless mad son of clocks and buzzers.  I do not know what apparatus was your sire, you bastard of two machines, born with another million.  Your mother is not the ocean, your father has not the sun in his heart, you do not know the smell of the earth, your blood is not your own; it is taken from armies.  A red flash goes on and off for every thought in your head and a buzzer announces your latest word.  I abhor the traffic that comes from such a mad, convulsive mouth.  It is the mouth of a horde, the mouth of a system, the mouth of a garage, the mouth of a commission.”

Atlas stopped speaking and the rain ended.  The Fatman raged in his place and all the people sweated under attack.  Crowds expected the Fatman to stand up for his honor and for the first time to move the world with his invention.  Instead he only argued with himself and though he bragged he instantly called himself a liar.  But in the same breath he accused Atlas of the most shameful infamies.  “Atlas is responsible,” he said, “for doors and windows, stairs, chimneys, and every other form of evil.”  In attacking Atlas he ended by moving no one but himself, and this was the burden of his display:

“Thirteen is an unlucky number and there are thirteen in this theater.”  (This was his first bravery and very nearly his last, the heart of his argument.  For though he said much more, he barely moved beyond this point: oh lucky thirteen!)

“Do you see,” he cried, “do you see around me the thirteen beards of Victor Hugo and Karl Marx?  Do you see around me the spectacles of Edison, Rockefeller, and behind me the comforting poker-faces of Stakhanov and Patton?  Do you see above my head the thirteen mustaches of Hitler and of Stalin?  You who see these thirteen see me and my fathers. . . .

“Now I have fought the elements for thirteen days and nights with my invention.  The elements will never be the same again.  There were thirteen floods when the world was destroyed for the first time and thirteen sat together at supper in one room when very big business was done by my cousin Judas.  (My cousins all prosper in business.  We are not lucky in love.)

“Now that the fates are measuring more fires for the cities of men, and I myself am inventing more of them, and walls begin to shake at the work of the atheist Atlas, I stand here to defy walls, fires, earthquake and enemy.  I stand here to defy Atlas.  Yes, I stand here in the name of clean government to defy this upsquirt downpush four-five-six confusion of aliens.  Yes, I maintain this Atlas is no longer public, and never was mechanical.  Is he insured?  Has he a license?  Ask him for his card, his thumbprint, and his serial number.  Has he been registered?  Has he been certified?  I have been all these things not once but thirteen times, which is fourteen stars on my best stripe.  I am the auspicious beginning and the prosperous end, the lucky winner and the marvelous defeat.  I am alone in the public eye on thirteen counts.  Mine is the middle of the stadium.

“I alone shall shake walls in the future.  I alone shall light thirteen fires.  I alone shall determine right and wrong; establish time and season; plan day and night as I please, and the sex and the future of children.  I alone shall spite or command sea, wind, and element.  And now by God I hear thirteen allegedly just men walking under the oilcloth and if they don’t stop I’LL FIRE!”

Well, as you might expect, the citizens came out with bands to hail the Fatman, since this had been arranged.  But the Fatman by now was lost in his own smoke.  The strength ebbed out of his invention, and his hands fell slack; his eyes popped out and his fat began to get away from him in all the heat he had caused with his speech.  The men in the bands continued to perspire and blow.  Their horns would shiver till the drums fell in.  There was no rain and the Fatman was smaller than a baby.  Winds were still as death; buildings swayed for the last fall.  Everyone knew the Fatman as they left by all windows, telling him to jump, but nobody heard his answer.

Then Atlas stood over the world holding up the sky like a great wall of clear ice and the Fatman saw Atlas was not his friend.  The Fatman was blinded by the glare of the ice and closed his eyes upon a world that had been made hateful by his own folly.

So winter comes to the ocean and the quiet city wears plumes of smoke upon helmets of ice.  It is a time of golden windows and of a steel sun, a time of more bitter cruelty than before, though the Fatman is gone.  For even the just man now kills without compunction, because it is duty to be hard and to destroy is mercy.  Justice is a myth made of numbers.  Mercy is love of system.  Christmas goes by without a sound because there are no sinners any more, everyone is just.

No need of feast days when everyone is just: no one needs to be saved.  No one needs to think.  No one need to confess.

The cold saints of the new age count with their machine the bitter, methodical sacrifices they are making in the Fatman’s memory, and stand in line before his tomb.  Sacrifice is counted in drops of blood (where blood is still left, for many can do without it).

Minutes are counted like Aztecs walking a man to his death with his heart out on top of a bad pyramid: such is order and justice.  Such is the beauty of system.

So the children of scandal sit all day in the icy windows and try in vain to shed one tear: but in a time of justice tears are of no avail.

For the just man there is no consolation.

For the good there is no pardon.

For the holy there is no absolution.

Let no man speak of anything but Law, and let no work support anyone but the police.

These are the saints the Fatman has left us in the kingdom of his order. . . .

Yet Tritons under the sea must once again move.  When the warmth comes again to the sea the Tritons of spring shall wake.  Life shall wake underground and under sea.  The fields will laugh, the woods will be drunk with flowers of rebellion, the night will make every fool sing in his sleep, and the morning will make him stand up in the sun and cover himself with water and with light.

There is another kind of justice than the justice of number, which can neither forgive nor be forgiven.  There is another kind of mercy than the mercy of Law which knows no absolution.  There is a justice of newborn worlds which cannot be counted.  There is a mercy of individual things that spring into being without reason.  They are just without reason, and their mercy is without explanation.  They have received rewards beyond description because they themselves refuse to be described.  They are virtuous in the sight of God because their names do not identify them.  Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw.  Every tree that brings forth blossoms without the command of man is powerful in the sight of God.  Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection.  Every blade of grass is an angel singing in a shower of glory.

These are worlds of themselves.  No man can use or destroy them.  Theirs is the life that moves without being seen and cannot be understood.  It is useless to look for what is everywhere.  It is hopeless to hope for what cannot be gained because you already have it.  The fire of a wild white sun has eaten up the distance between hope and despair.  Dance in this sun, you tepid idiot.  Wake up and dance in the clarity of perfect contradiction.

You fool, it is life that makes you dance: have you forgotten?  Come out of the smoke, the world is tossing in its sleep, the sun is up, the land is bursting in the silence of dawn.  The clear bell of Atlas rings once again over the sea and the animals come to the shore at his feet.  The gentle earth relaxes and spreads out to embrace the strong sun.  The grasses and flowers speak their own secret names.  With his great gentle hands, Atlas opens the clouds and birds spill back onto the land out of Paradise.

You fool, the prisons are open.  The Fatman is forgotten.  The Fatman was only his own nightmare.  Atlas never knew him.  Atlas never knew anything but the ways of the stars, of the earth, and of the ocean.  Atlas is a friendly mountain, with a cloud on his shoulder, watching the African sun.


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