For the next few weeks my blog will feature a fictional work in seven “chapters” that I call The Ministry Series. It’s both a Kafkaesque “Grail Quest” and a social satire, set in Centre City. I wrote it while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica which, being the capital city, is rife with Ministries, Bureaus, Secretariats and such. Among my literary influences were Franz Kafka (content), J. P. Donleavy (style), and Terry Gilliam’s movies, “Brazil” and “The Fisher King.”
Call me K. I live in Centre City, the capital of Homeland, and always have. I have lived alone for as long as I can remember. I suppose I once had a family, but I’ve lost touch. The city, you see, is vast; and the desperate press and bustle of commerce and government regulation, the mass of faces that I pass in the streets, in the hallways, have somehow eroded my memory. I had friends once, I’m sure of that. And I must have had a job, although I haven’t gone to work for as long as I can remember. I forget how long I can remember.
But for as long as that is, I’ve been occupied – preoccupied you might say – with but one thing: finding the Great Secret, thereby recovering the Meaning that my life once surely had. I know there is a Great Secret, I feel it. There is a Hidden Tradition, and I know I’m not the first to seek it. I even found a book titled The Great Secret. It was blank.
So every day, a dog on the trail of Truth, I haunt the huge hives that house the bureaus, the directorates, the secretariats and the ministries that are the skeleton of our civilization. How do I live? Through some bureaucratic error I get a check every month, issued by the Ministry of Mystery; so maybe I used to work there. Only . . . I can find no evidence that there is, or ever has been, a Ministry of Mystery.
When I first realized that I had lost my Meaning, and set out on my solitary search through the labyrinth of government agencies to find it, the Ministry of Meaning was a logical first stop. I found the address in the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats, and got there an hour before closing time. There were few ahead of me in the waiting area, and it wasn’t long before one of the several clerks at the long, partitioned service counter said “Next,” meaning me. I stepped up to the counter and looked the young clerk in his empty eyes.
“Good afternoon,” I said. “I’ve, um, sort of lost the Meaning in my life, or maybe forgotten it, more like. It’s really rather discouraging, and I . . . I wondered if you could, ah, help me. Please?”
“Life,” the clerk said lifelessly. “L. Volume 12.” So saying, he turned in his swivel chair and ran a finger down the spines of a row of numbered books on a shelf behind the counter, then swiveled back, Volume 12 of the Meaning Manual in hand. He opened it, riffled through the pages, then ran his finger down a column of headings. Every fourth or fifth heading he read aloud, “da-dum, da-dum” ing his way through the interim items.
“Labels. . . labor . . . lachrymation. . . lamentation. . . literalism. . . laughter. . . laxity. . . leadership. . . learning. . . legendry. . . lemming migration. . . levity. . . liability. . . libel. . . liberalism. . . lies. . . (da-dum, da-dum, etc.) limitations.” He looked up. “I’m sorry, sir. There’s no meaning listed for ‘life’.”
“But. . . surely life has to mean something!”
“Not necessarily; not according to the manual.” He smiled blankly and tried not to sound condescending. “Look. Surely you wouldn’t suggest that everything has to mean something. We here at the Ministry take it as a given that some things just are. I mean, does every stone or star have to mean something?”
“But. . . how about you? Doesn’t life mean anything to you?”
“Nothing comes to mind, sir.”
“But, I mean, um, hasn’t anyone else ever come here and asked about the Meaning of life?”
“Not that I recall, sir.”
I was desperate. “Ah, now you must know a lot about Meaning, since you work here. Just speculation, now – if life did have a meaning, what do you think it might be?”
“That would just be meaningless speculation, sir. If life had meaning, it would be in the manual, now wouldn’t it. And I’m not a Licensed Philosopher. We do, however, have one on the staff. In the Consumer Relations Department.”
“No, thank you. One more question, then I won’t trouble you any longer. Have you ever heard of the Great Secret?”
“No, I’m sure I’ve never. I suggest that you consult the Secretariat of Secrecy.”
I thanked him and left, musing over mankind’s manifest meaninglessness, alone as a soul-less stone.