Mike Cornelison

Letters from the Lunar Outpost

Category: Books

The Last Town on Earth

The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen, 2006

Written fourteen years before this current global pandemic, Thomas Mullen’s debut novel, The Last Town on Earth, is set during the height of the Spanish Influenza in 1918.

As you travel back in time with this book, you have to marvel at how often we hear the phrase “unprecedented times” used to describe our current pandemic. Globally, the Spanish Flu took the lives of 50 million while another 40 million were dying as The Great War raged in Europe.

Those times make our current crisis look like a walk in the park.

With an interesting technique, the first two pages of the book are completely detached from the story that fills the rest of the book, but it paints the horrors of those times in stark detail.

The sun poked out briefly, evidence of a universe above them, of watchful things—planets and stars and vast galaxies of infinite knowledge—and just as suddenly it retreated behind the clouds.

The doctor passed only two other autos during the fifteen-minute drive, saw but a lone pedestrian even though it was noon on Sunday, a time when people normally would be returning home from church, visiting with friends and family. The flu had been in Timber Falls for three weeks now, by the doctor’s best estimation, and nearly all traffic on the streets had vanished. The sick were condemned to their homes, and the healthy weren’t venturing outside.

“No one’s been down this street yet?” he asked the two nurses he was traveling with, both of whom had husbands fighting in France. He was a thin, older man with spectacles that had been dirtied by the wet coughs of countless patients.

“No,” one of the nurses said, shaking her head. Amid the swelling volume of the sick and dying, they hadn’t yet reached those this far outside of town, a lonely street where the poorest derelicts and most recent immigrants lived.

Neighbors had reported unnerving sounds coming from within one of the houses, but no one had been willing to go inside and check on the family.

The doctor parked beside the house, a two-story structure at the base of a slowly rolling hill. The ground was all mud, the wheels sinking a few inches. It even looked as if the house were sinking into the earth, its roof sloping to the right. The house was the last of five narrow buildings that seemed to lean against each other in their grief.

Before leaving the car, the visitors fastened gauze masks to their faces, covering their noses and mouths, and pulled on thin rubber gloves.

The doctor knocked on the door. There was no reply so he knocked again, harder this time, and identified himself.

“Look,” one of the nurses said. In the window to the left of the door they saw a face peering through the sheer curtain, a child no more than four years old. Her eyes were large and she appeared ghostlike, neither frightened of the masked strangers nor particularly interested in them. The nurse lifted a hand to wave but the child made no reply. The doctor knocked again, motioning to the door, but the child just stood there.

Finally the doctor turned the knob and walked inside. All the windows were shut, and the door clearly had not been opened in days. He noticed the smell immediately.

The little girl at the window turned to watch them. She was wearing an adult’s flannel shirt over her dirty nightgown, and her thick blond hair was uncombed. She was frighteningly thin.

The parlor was a disaster, clothes and toys and books strewn everywhere. A rocking chair was lying on its side, and a lamp had shattered on the floor. As the visitors stepped into the room two other girls emerged from the chaos, one younger and one slightly older than the girl in the window. They, too, were oddly dressed, dirty, wraithlike.

The doctor was about to ask where their parents were when he heard coughing, dry and hoarse. He and one of the nurses followed the sound down a short hallway and into a bedroom.

The other nurse stayed in the parlor with the children. She knelt on the floor and took some slices of rye bread from her bag. The girls raced toward her, hands extended, fingernails ripping into the food. In seconds there was nothing left, and all six eyes were again gazing at her expectantly.

In the bedroom, dark curtains were pulled over the window. The doctor could see the two beds, both occupied. Intermittent coughs came from the figure on the right, whose head rested on a pillow stained a dark red. The earlobes, nostrils, and upper lip were blackened with dried blood; the eyes were shut and the lids were a dark blue, as was the skin around them. The doctor saw a hand lying on top of the sheets, the fingers the color of wet ink. The small table beside the bed was streaked with blood, as was the Bible resting upon it.

The man coughed again and his eyes opened, unfocused, for no more than a second. The nurse knelt beside him to perform the meager duties her training dictated, even though she knew they were worthless now. It was better than looking at the figure in the other bed.

The woman lay on her side, facing her husband, her lips frozen in a rictus of pain. Her thin blond hair spilled across the pillow, some falling over the side of the bed and some caked in the dried blood on her face. It was impossible to tell how long she had been dead, as the Spanish flu’s corpses looked unlike any the doctor had seen. The blueness that darkened her husband had fully consumed her, making it impossible to guess her age or even her race. She resembled the burn victims the doctor had seen after a horrific mill fire years ago.

She was probably about the age of the nurses, the doctor wagered, for the flu seemed to be taking only those who were in the prime of their lives. The children may already have been recovering, but the flu had smothered their parents. This was entirely the opposite pattern of most influenzas.

They heard more coughing, from another room. The doctor and nurse looked at each other, surprised, then followed the sound into a bedroom on the opposite side of the hall. Here the window was curtainless, and as soon as they entered they saw two bodies lying on a large bed, both of them coughing. They were young adults, the sheets bloody near their heads. They sounded exactly like what they were: two people slowly suffocating to death.

There was a sudden movement between the bodies, tiny hands. A raven-haired child no more than three years old had been napping between her dying parents. She appeared tranquil for a moment, but the instant the girl opened her brown eyes, she started to scream. Whether terrified by the strangers in the masks or her nearly motionless parents, the nurse wasn’t sure. The girl kept screaming. It was as though the three silent children in the other room had found a voice in this one girl’s horror.

Mere Christianity

When Christians seek to share the message of Christ, most of their appeals are made by attempting to speak to people’s hearts. From my experience however, most non-believers take great pride in thinking of themselves as guided by reason. A more effective way of reaching these people then, would be to make the case for Christianity not from an emotional standpoint, but from a logical standpoint.

That’s where you enter the realm of Christian apologetics. To our modern sense of the language, the word “apologetics” lends itself to being interpreted as saying you’re sorry for being a Christian. In this case however, the word “apologetics” is derived directly from the Greek, “apologia”, meaning a rebuttal or verbal defense.

In having just finished C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, I want to tell you that it lays out the strongest, most rational case for Christianity I’ve ever encountered.

Again, we have a title subject to misinterpretation. Lewis doesn’t speak of “mere Christianity” the way a “mere child” refers to someone who is “no better then” or “no more then” a child. Instead, Lewis borrows the phrase from the 17th century writer Richard Baxter, who wrote of “mere Christianity” as being the essentials of Christianity, the core beliefs shared by Catholics and Protestants alike. Lewis goes on to define it as “an agreed, or common, or central, or ‘mere’ Christianity, which omits the disputed points.” Doesn’t it make sense to start the non-believer from the point where all the denominations agree, instead of getting lost in the details of dispute?

At the age of 30 as a non-believer attending Oxford, Lewis says he finally gave in and admitted that “God was God”, describing himself as “perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” It is from that perspective as a former non-believer that Lewis uses great talents as a writer to document his own evolution from the non-believer to the true believer. In doing so, he makes a compelling case for Christianity.

At 229 pages, Mere Christianity has more thought-provoking passages per page than just about anything I’ve ever read. Allow me to share just seven samples in hopes it may inspire you to pickup a copy of the book yourself:

On being an atheist:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

On the devil:

Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil – hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’ I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person, “Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.”

On free will:

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: ‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’ The better stuff a creature is made of the cleverer and stronger and freer it is – then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best – or worst – of all.

On the oft-repeated “respect” the non-believer gives in saying Jesus was a great teacher:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

On why we need Jesus to properly repent of our sins:

Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it.

. . .

You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.

On propriety, or decency:

The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). Some of the language which chaste women used in Shakespeare’s time would have been used in the nineteenth century only by a woman completely abandoned. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable.

On morality:

There is a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could make out, God was ‘the sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it’. And I am afraid that is the sort of idea that the word Morality raises in a good many people’s minds: something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time. In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine. That is why these rules at first seem to be constantly interfering with our natural inclinations. When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, ‘No, don’t do it like that,’ because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work.

. . .

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

I’ve headed in the one direction and I’ve headed in the other. More often, I need ask myself in which direction I’m heading today.

We’re just scratching the surface here, but imagine an entire book of kernels of wisdom like the seven shared here, and for every kernel, even more to ponder as he expands on every thought.

Mere Christianity is full of inspiration and full of ammunition for discussing God with the atheist who prides themselves in logical thinking.

Mere Christianity at amazon.com

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman??? You had me at hello. If ever a book grabbed me right from the title, this is it.

“The Professor and the Madman” centers on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, almost undoubtedly the greatest undertaking ever made in the English language. The scope of the project was staggering: over a span of 70 years, volunteers submitted an estimated 5 million quotations. From these submissions, the book used 1.8 million quotes from 4,500 literary works written by 2,700 authors. The finished version listed 252,200 entries and 414,800 word forms, weighing in at 15,490 pages.

The “Professor”, in this case, is Sir James Murray (pictured above). Murray presided over the greater portion of the 70 years of the OED’s formation. Spoiler alert, because here comes the bombshell in the story – after many years of correspondence and collaboration with Dr. William Chester Minor, the dictionary’s most prolific contributor, Murray finds out that Minor has submitted his thousands of quotations *from a cell in an insane asylum*.

A passage that really had resonance for me:

One in a hundred people today suffer from schizophrenia: Nearly all of them, if treated with compassion and good chemistry, can have some kind of dignified life, of a kind that was denied, for much of his time to Doctor Minor.

Except, of course, that Minor had his dictionary work. And there’s a cruel irony in this – that if he had been so treated, he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. By offering him mood-altering sedatives, as they would have done in Edwardian times, or treating him as today with such antipsychotic drugs as quetiapine or risperidone, many of his symptoms of madness might have gone away – but he might well have felt disinclined or unable to perform his work for Doctor Murray.

In a sense doing all those dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy. The routine of his quiet and cellbound intellectual stimulus, month upon month, year upon year, appears to have provided him with at least a measure of release from his paranoia. His sad situation only worsened when that stimulus was gone: when the great book ceased to function as his lodestone, when the one fixed point on which his remarkable but tortured brain was able to concentrate became detached, so then he began to spiral downward, and his life began to ebb.

One must feel a strange gratitude, then, that his treatment was never good enough to divert him from his work. The agonies that he must have suffered in those terrible asylum nights have granted us all a benefit, for all time. He was mad, and for that, we have reason to be glad. A truly savage irony, on which it is discomfiting to dwell.

There were times in the book where I had to wonder if perhaps William Minor was faking it when he constantly complained to his caretakers that he was tormented by people who would come from under the floor and down from the ceiling to perform heinous molestations on him while he slept in his cell, but any wonder of whether this guy was faking it fell to the wayside when we learn he subjected himself to an autopeotomy. If you’re wondering what an autopeotomy is, the word was new to me as well. Turns out it means the dude cut off his own penis.

Thankfully, I’ve never been anywhere near that level of crazy but I can very much identify with the wonderful, meditative properties found in working obsessively and compulsively. When your entire consciousness is absorbed in the task at hand, the work becomes a medicine. It is at that point that all troubles of mind and spirit cease to exist.

Link: More from Simon Winchester on the entry of “autopeotomy” into the language and English officially hitting 1,000,000 words.

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