The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.

Vladimir Nabokov


JUNE 7, 2011. Frank C. Voyle was sent to the stars, and when he came home, he said he had encountered a man who sat behind a desk in a bed of clouds.


The man had begun talking. He made no sense, even though he was speaking English. The way he threw words together added up to complete gibberish. But gradually, Voyle claimed, he began to pick up a phrase here and there.


They were like objects falling from a tree. There were periods when I blacked out, and when I came to, he was still talking. It didn’t bother him that I’d checked out.


It was like listening to strange music. Changes of tempo, instruments arriving and going away, interludes. I learned to go along with it.


It was almost as if I was receiving a treatment for a disease. I realized I’d been suffering from internal inflammation, because I had been subjected, somewhere along the line, to a form of indoctrination—and now this man was curing it.


The programming…you see, it wasn’t a matter of content. Not at all. It was the basic nature of the method, which was reduction. That was the secret. In order to achieve clarity, and I needed clarity in my work, I had to eliminate vast amounts of potential meaning. And with reduction, I entered into a territory of sickness. Slowly. One step at a time.


Everyone is suffering from this. We don’t see it because our only standard of reference is each other. We’re mirrors. And when someone doesn’t operate according to our rules, we can’t make sense out of it.


Well, here was this man. He was talking on for what seemed like days, in the most outrageous way. He didn’t care. To look at his face, his expressions, the way he moved his hands, you would swear he knew exactly what he was saying. He didn’t have to think about things.


As I caught on, I felt better. Coils and dead-ends left me. Tensions drained out of my body. But I wasn’t falling into a state of greater relaxation, I was more alert.


I have thought about this a great deal. I don’t think he was trying to cure me. He knew it was happening, but he was merely talking. He knew that, for a long period of time, I didn’t understand anything he was saying, but it didn’t bother him. It didn’t bother him at all.


He had arrived at a plateau that was entirely unfamiliar to me. He was comfortable there. He saw no reason to climb down. He wasn’t trying to make things simple for me.


Of course, I’ve been trained in many techniques that hopefully bridge the gap when we encounter new species of intelligent life. But this was unprecedented. This was a man who was human and spoke English.


I eventually reached a point where I understood a great deal of what he was saying. For long stretches of time, I was comprehending things without effort.


So now I believe I need to learn how to talk like this. For many reasons. Of course, there is no way I can begin to explain to you what actually happened unless I can speak as he did. But beyond that, I want to talk in this way, so I can reach those places and those heights.


Part of this man’s genius, if we want to call it that, was that he felt absolutely no suspicion about me.”



Q: Mr. Voyle, couldn’t you at least repeat some of this person’s statements for us?


A: I could, sir. But it wouldn’t do any good. You see, for him it was all spontaneous utterance. And that made the difference. It wasn’t only the words and combinations of words, it was the way in which they were being delivered. You could take a song and have two singers perform it, and of course there would be all the difference in the world between the two renditions.


Q: Well, we’ll have to decide on that later. But for now, we’ll continue to run tests. It’s apparent your brain patterns have been altered, to a degree.


A: But again, you’re not going to gain anything from that information—even if you reproduce those patterns in another brain.


Q: That’s quite an extraordinary statement. Would you care to explain it?


A: What might have happened to my brain is an effect. Of a cause. If you remove the original cause, you’ll at best replicate a series of electrical impulses without my accompanying perception. I was there. I saw him. I heard him. I perceived. It was the essence of the experience.


Q: Well, yes. But this is not the way science works. Most of the time, we aren’t “there.” But we nevertheless can infer.


A: In this case, science would bring you up short.


Q: Suppose what you’re reporting never happened to you. Suppose it was an extended hallucination.


A: Like a dream? Even if that’s true, I was there.


Q: Or you were tricked into thinking you were.


A: This is the crux, isn’t it? Do we take out our box of labels and impose one? Or do we treat my experience as genuine?


Q: Mr. Voyle, we really will need a number of examples from you. Things that…this person said.


A: I’ll be happy to provide them. But again, it won’t make sense to you, and nothing will happen.


Q: We can decide that. We’ll also present you with computer-generated examples of English spoken in random ways. You can determine which of these is closest to what you heard. You know, Frank, we have a whole file full of extraordinary astronaut experiences. They come back with stories. One astronaut stated he could see people walking around down on Earth from a hundred thousand miles out. Another one spoke to a dead aunt.


A: But in the end, there was nothing you could do with those events, because you couldn’t replicate them.


Q: That’s right.


A: You see, this is my point. I already know what happened to me was unique. I’m not asking for anything from the Agency.


Q: Was there practical value in the “messages” you received?


A: In the content?


Q: Yes.


A: It wasn’t about the content. And for quite awhile, I assumed he was speaking nonsense, gibberish.


Q: So perhaps you inserted your own interpretation of what was essentially meaningless.


A: That would be you placing a label on what happened.


Q: What else can we do?


A: The official position will be that I had a dream or suffered from an hallucination.


Q: You spoke to a man who was sitting at a desk in a cloud.


A: I was outside the ship doing repairs, and I saw him. I made my way to him. I was still tethered.


Q: Did he introduce himself?


A: He just started talking.


Q: Did he look like anyone you know?


A: No.


Q: But he was human and he spoke English.


A: That’s right.


Q: What was he wearing?


A: A pair of pants and a shirt.


Q: Do you have a sense of how long the event lasted?


A: The log indicates it was six hours.


Q: This was a one-man flitter. According to the main ship’s records, you took it to track down a transmission no one else was picking up. And there was nothing on ship’s instruments, either.


A: That’s right.


Q: You seem to have some mystical notions about language.


A: I’m just recalling what happened to me.


Q: Placebo effect. Dream. Hallucination.


A: From your point of view.


Q: This idea of “being cured.”


A: You go to a concert. The orchestra plays a composition that comes across as noise. It’s absurd. You wish you’d never come. You doze off, wake up. But after a while, the music begins to make sense to you, against your better judgment. You resist that. But as you keep listening, the whole thing falls into place. Only it’s a place you’ve never been. You can’t describe it to anyone else. You feel as if you’re flying. Your sense of well-being is extraordinary. You realize you’ve been perceiving reality inside a severely limited context. All your life.


Q: I see what you’re driving at. But then the person sitting next to you has a completely different experience.


A: That’s my point. We don’t know what would have happened if another crew member had been outside the ship with me.


Q: Actually, Frank, we wanted to get your impressions before we told you that we do, in fact, have a recording of what happened during those six hours. You were unaware your Cave-3 was on. We have the whole thing.


A: Really? That’s…amazing.


Q: And as you report, there was a monologue. An extended monologue. It doesn’t sound like you talking. But we have to infer that you were. Who else could it have been?


A: What do you make of it?


Q: We’ve had people listening. It’s gibberish. Words randomly thrown together. So far, we’re not finding any pattern.


A: Pattern? Of course there isn’t. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.


Q: We’d really like to avoid getting into a confrontational psych eval on this.


A: Oh, you mean you don’t want me going around like a religious convert? Don’t worry about that. You know, I could have kept silent. But I felt an obligation to report what happened.


Q: And we appreciate that. You’re paying a price for coming forward.


A: Doesn’t matter how high I test out on my annual anymore. Doesn’t matter how high my performance quotients come in. You won’t be sending me out again. I understand that. But I don’t need to go out anymore. I found what I was looking for, even though I didn’t know I was looking for it.


Q: Here’s the thing, Frank. On all the physical tests so far, your numbers are good. Things are checking out fine. If that continues to be the case during the whole debrief process, we’re prepared to make you an offer.


A: A pay-off?


Absolutely not. You’ll leave the service. Which you’d want to do anyway, because you won’t be going out on future space missions. Aside from your pension, we’ll see to it, through a cut-out, that a small stipend handles your “extra expenses.” You can set up a non-profit research foundation. Whatever you want. Continue to pursue this “avenue.” It would be completely unofficial, of course. No ties to the Agency. Once a year, you’ll meet with one of us, and you’ll report. We’re not demanding performance quotas. Nothing like that. We just want to be kept in the loop.


A: This has happened before.


Q: Several times. Not the way it happened to you. But we’ve got a few men out there in the world who are “following their instincts.” It’s our way of keeping an open mind.


A: You’ll give me their names?


Q: No. We don’t want to taint the experiment. But you’ll find them anyway. You’ll nose around and figure it out. Or somebody will contact you. We’re not in the business of Weird, Frank. Nevertheless, we’re not completely stupid…


A: And if at some point I go public? Not about our arrangement. But about what I discover?


Q: Up to you. Obviously, we don’t want a big splash that’ll make us look crazy for having had you in the program.


A: I’m not interested in making the tabloids.


Q: Not much chance of that. You’d be going up against some celebrity who had sex with a sheep in a hotel room…


A: So the Agency’s official position, if pressed, is that you don’t understand a word of what I reported happened to me while I was out there.


Q: If it comes to that, yes.


A: Which was exactly my position when the man began talking to me outside my ship. Until it wasn’t my position anymore.











The object of travel is to get lost.

Lin Yutang


…the universe is infinite; beyond the visible world there is an infinity of other worlds, each of which is inhabited…”

Catholic Encyclopedia, describing the philosophy of Giordano Bruno, the Church’s greatest heretic.


I confess, I do not believe in time.

Vladimir Nabokov


JUNE 5, 2011. My ongoing book, THE MAGICIAN AWAKES, is not only about multiple and simultaneous dimensions, it is itself taking place in such dimensions—paintings, poems, audio, text, lost text (computer crash some months back), dialogue, articles, and so on. It’s not a novel anymore, although that’s how it started out. It’s a hybrid. Right now, I don’t bother to keep track of it all. I just know I’m inventing it.


This is a non-form that works and satisfies me.


The word magic has been used in so many ridiculous ways. In fact, as I go along, I discover more and more ridiculousities.


As I’ve said and written many times by now, magic occurs as a side effect of wide open and proliferating imagination in action. The direct and straight-line approach is at best, a very minor pocket in an infinite coat.


Beginning, middle, and end is an addiction.




In an email, an old friend, a college professor, described his philosophy of life: “A golf ball is a golf ball and a steak is a steak.”


So,” I said, “you know what you’re eating and you know what you’re hitting.”


He asked me what I’d been up to. It had been a long time since we’d been in touch. I sent him the following story, which I wrote in an airport, waiting out a surreal flight delay:


In Florence six years ago, I walked into a dim church and sat down. Next to me on the bench was a round gray stone. I picked it up and held it.


I dozed off. A voice came to me and explained matters that had long been puzzling:


Peter, John, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Andrew, et al, lived in Judea, followed Jesus, and were his apostles.


Philip’s father worked at the British embassy in Jerusalem. Bartholomew was a stock trader who’d flown from London to hear the Sermon on the Mount. James and Andrew were setting up a string of men’s shops along the West Bank.


The apostles’ names were part of the culture of miracles, because other people in that neck of the woods were Moishe, Sol, Marty, Jake, Al, Dov, Ish, and Zaide.


The Brit apostles could say shalom, but otherwise they knew no Hebrew. They learned to shrug, and made do with that.


Peter, Paul, and Mary formed a singing group in Tel Aviv.


When Jesus turned five loaves and two fish into food for 5000, Andrew asked if he could have a small jar of Marmite, and a Cadbury’s, but they were not available that day.


As illustrated in the painting of Piero Della Francesca, Jesus was actually flagellated in the courtyard of an upscale Roman villa.


I woke up.


I found the grim interior geometry of the Duomo again…a soul in here would decide he needed saving, even if that hadn’t been on his mind when he entered from the street. I thought about what a few De Koonings and Picassos would accomplish.


A short fat man in a gray suit walked up to me.


Go to another universe?” he said.


I was still holding the stone.


How much?” I said.


Fifty Euros for the basic ticket. Insurance, mandatory. Ten dollars a day. But they have the best corned beef this side of the Carnegie.”


You a priest?”


A travel agent.”


He evaporated in the gloom.


A light snow began falling from the high dome.


It formed a shroud around my shoulders.


Give me your happiest hours,


We will make a template for the rest of your nights.


Who said that?


A man dragging his seared leg hobbled out of the shadows and smiled at me. What a face of pain and joy! It was the astronomer and poet, Giordano Bruno, who, in the winter of 1600, had died in flames in the garden of flowers, in Rome, after his seven-year trial. The apogee of heresy in Church history.


He whispered, “Infinite souls of infinite extension, overlapping, and yet not merged…”


He took my hand in his and sent a bolt of electricity through my brain.


I was suddenly hovering above the dome, in the late afternoon, and looking down at the plaza, I saw my wife walking among the stalls of merchandise. She glanced up at me, nodded, and smiled—enveloping the world map.


…Later that night, eating supper in a small restaurant facing an alley, we toasted Bruno, warrior of deep space. His telescope, his heraldic cosmos, his poems about immortality.


Trip the light fantastic, my friend, they built as far as they could go and hit the wall.



Gaspara Seigos was dying in his cabin in the Andes. His last book, Salvaje Silvestre, half-finished, lay on a sagging table next to the sink.


People from nearby settlements brought him light meals, and local healers arrived with their brews. A young doctor from Burma carried medicines in his bag.


Seigos told them, “Don’t bother.” To the doctor, he said, “I’m in touch with a nothing that is something, and if it can, it will heal me. The situation is cutting it close. We’ll see. I relax as far as I can, and then natural functioning takes over.”


Once, the doctor thought Seigos was dead. He could detect no pulse, no heartbeat. But then the writer’s eyes opened. He looked at the hazy light coming through the window by the door, nodded, and went to sleep.


A month later, he was up and walking around the cabin. He went outside and a dog ran up to him and smelled his hand.


At the little stream, he bent down and picked up a handful of pebbles and took them back to the cabin and threw them on the floor.


Every day he went out and found stones and brought them home. Eventually, he returned from his walks with large rocks.


A few months later, the cabin was piled high with boulders. Most of the space was gone. Seigos slept at night among the rocks. At that point, the villagers, the healers, and the doctor left him alone.


Seigos lived this way for almost a year. He passed into stone and stayed in that state for weeks. Then he returned, and walked out of his cabin and went into the mountain passes and disappeared.


In Lima, Salvaje Silvestre appeared on the shelves of bookstores. Some copies were missing pages. Not all copies were identical.


One night, along the Higuerta Roundabout, a parade of children walked silently. Above them, bicycles and urns and lamps and stoves catapulted and burned on the ground. At dawn, feral dogs gathered there and chewed the ashes.


That day, naked figures were seen walking on low clouds. A group of them clutched at the blue sky and tore it open at a seam. Behind the sky—the prow of a sailing ship. The sky continued to tear on its own, until the whole ship was visible. The crew took down the large and small sails and then stood silently on the deck as the ship passed across out of view.


The entire sky over the city fell away, exposing terraces of wild gardens and roving patrols of soldiers.


It rained heavily for the next month: extraviado. The terraces were still there, but extraviado. Snow fell, and in it people heard intricate music from the mouths of dead relatives. The soldier patrols fell back and staggered and crawled into a bruised cloud.



I brought the stone home with me from Florence. I placed it in a bowl of water for a few days. It gradually dissolved. The water turned blue.


…There was a scratching at our front door. I opened it, and a sleek brown dog trotted past me and went into the kitchen. I took the bowl off the counter and put it on the floor. The dog glanced at me and then drank the water. He ran out of the kitchen into the living room and through the back wall into the yard. He sat down, looked up at the sky, and barked. I looked at the sky.


When I looked back at the dog, only his head remained, floating above the grass. Then it faded out. My cell phone rang.


This is the Pope’s appointment secretary, “ a voice said. “We’re defecting. Can you put us up for a few days? Ha-ha, just kidding. But we do have a question. Security cameras caught you in the Duomo with a man who looked very much like Giordono Bruno. Anything you can tell us about that?”


Well,” I said, “did cameras also catch me hovering above the dome?”




I’m afraid we missed that one,” he said.


Can’t help you locate him,” I said.


He comes back now and then.”


Good luck.”


We try to maintain our seal on things,” he said. “But after fifteen hundred years or so, it develops cracks.”


No big surprise there.”