Aaron in the Desert: the Signature in the Wilderness

To come of age in a dry place… – The Doors, “To Come of Age”

As you drive through the Mojave Desert at night, the first thing you notice is the glow. A mirage almost, a vision in light playing across the sky. But no mirage, in truth, save The Mirage Resort Hotel & Casino. Las Vegas, the meadow, where I came of age, attended high school and spent somewhere between 7 and 11 years.

Aaron wandered through the desert of the Levant with the Israelites for forty years. Prophet, persuasive speaker, prototypical priest, bringer of the first plague, crafter of bovine idols. He was a man of contradiction, played off against his brother. He sides with Moses, then the people. He rebels, he ends rebellion. He stands as the barrier between the plagued rebels and the healthy obedient. Replaced by Joshua (the name of the man who generations later would claim to be the Messiah), he never made it to the Promised Land, dying on a mountain in the desert.

Las Vegas, postmodern dream writ large. Glittering promise never delivered. Bells and whistles, no clocks, hazy drunken empires, memories lost to the chasms with mortgage payments and alimony chasing that inevitable something. An endless chain of neon signifiers. But I remember the carpets. The same monotonous patterns in bright colors faded to nothing by a million footsteps. If Las Vegas is anything, it is those terrible casino carpets.

“‘Desert’ is the name of a problematic because the distinction between inside and outside (the issue of chora) is a founding distinction. It is cultural or institutional, political in a profound sense, involving the choral zone between fate and freedom, and irreducible zone of luck, chance, risk, and timing”(Ulmer 239-40).

“‘The sons of Protestant ministers and school teachers may be recognized by their naïve certainty when, as scholars, they consider their cause proved when they have merely stated it with vigor and warmth; they are used to being believed as that was part of their fathers’ job’”(Nietzsche in Ulmer 144).

I lived in the desert for seven years, son of two schoolteachers, grandson of a Protestant (Lutheran) missionary. Seven is a lucky number in America. Luck would get me out of the desert. Into the academy. From Joshua Trees (that name again, the replacement at the right hand of Moses, as another Aaron recedes into the landscape) to the Ivy. Following Ulmer, “American stories do not so much disguise a social cause as individual initiative, as many critics insist, as they openly declare a primary value of the culture – luck”(234). I spent four years away (four – 四, the number of death in Japan, the country in which I was born) in a new wilderness, a school bearing the Biblical motto Vox clamantis in deserto. Was I then to be like the spokesman for Moses (the man who’s rod was the biggest snake) or perhaps John the Baptist (“with wild staring eyes and a strong urge to fly”)? Was I to be a voice crying out in the wilderness? And what would I cry? Make straight the way? Let my people go? Tear down this wall? In total, I maintained a residence in the desert, in that “meadow” for 11 years. 11: another lucky number, on the craps table at least.

As a scholar, it would seem, I was pushed in a certain direction: leaving the desert as I did, for The City, for the Academy, for the torch that marks the seal of that next university. Moving towards scholarship, towards being believed as a matter of course, as a matter of the “vigor and warmth of my arguments,” or towards desiring as much, a voice crying out in ever new wildernesses. Am I then to be a prophet for and against the people, lead them from slavery but into the desert? Towards that passage that is chora, that slippage between the bound and the unknown, lost between an inside and an outside, never reaching the Promised Land. Upon leaving New York, I did seem to find myself again in the wilderness, this time a swamp, named for flowers but formerly bearing the motto Plus Ultra – Further Beyond.

In the desert you can remember your name cause their ain’t no one for to give you no pain. – America, “Horse with No Name”

Ulmer, Gregory L. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Print.