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‘Savannah-La-Mar’ by Thomas De Quincey

Introduction by Jesi Bender

In trying to choose one favorite short story for this project, I found that I was surrounded by horror stories. Horror, an evergreen genre, is rooted in experiencing something new (i.e. unknown). I settled on De Quincey's Savannah-la-Mar because, despite its length, it perfectly encapsulates the heart of fear. It is a threnody to a sunken city that is smote by God and stands as an example of ‘His’ capricious anger. Instead of hiding it from view like other relics, God puts it on display as a testament to our powerlessness. The narrator and his "Dark Interpreter" explore the ruin and debate infinity, rationalizing that the finite lives within an infinite. Horror is a person in a dialogue with themself who realizes that, God or no god, there is no human ability to exert control. Whole cities can fall; human life is tenuous. The precarity of existence is summed up so beautifully and in such a deeply personal-cum-universal way that it seems to me the human condition was perfectly defined by De Quincey over 175 years ago with this story.


God smote Savannah-la-mar, and in one night, by earthquake, removed her, with all her towers standing and population sleeping, from the steadfast foundations of the shore to the coral floors of ocean. And God said, “Pompeii did I bury and conceal from men through seventeen centuries: this city I will bury, but not conceal. She shall be a monument to men of my mysterious anger, set in azure light through generations to come; for I will enshrine her in a crystal dome of my tropic seas.” This city, therefore, like a mighty galleon with all her apparel mounted, streamers flying, and tackling perfect, seems floating along the noiseless depths of ocean; and oftentimes in glassy calms, through the translucid atmosphere of water that now stretches like an air-woven awning above the silent encampment, mariners from every clime look down into her courts and terraces, count her gates, and number the spires of her churches. She is one ample cemetery, and has been for many a year; but in the mighty calms that brood for weeks over tropic latitudes, she fascinates the eye with a Fata-Morgana revelation, as of human life still subsisting in submarine asylums sacred from the storms that torment our upper air.

Thither, lured by the loveliness of cerulean depths, by the peace of human dwellings privileged from molestation, by the gleam of marble altars sleeping in everlasting sanctity, oftentimes in dreams did I and the Dark Interpreter cleave the watery veil that divided us from her streets. We looked into the belfries, where the pendulous bells were waiting in vain for the summons which should awaken their marriage peals; together we touched the mighty organ-keys, that sang no jubilates for the ear of Heaven, that sang no requiems for the ear of human sorrow; together we searched the silent nurseries, where the children were all asleep, and had been asleep through five generations. “They are waiting for the heavenly dawn,” whispered the Interpreter to himself: “and, when that comes, the bells and the organs will utter a jubilate repeated by the echoes of Paradise.” Then, turning to me, he said,—“This is sad, this is piteous; but less would not have sufficed for the purpose of God. Look here. Put into a Roman clepsydra one hundred drops of water; let these run out as the sands in an hour-glass; every drop measuring the hundredth part of a second, so that each shall represent but the three-hundred-and-sixty-thousandth part of an hour. Now, count the drops as they race along; and, when the fiftieth of the hundred is passing, behold! forty-nine are not, because already they have perished; and fifty are not, because they are yet to come. You see, therefore, how narrow, how incalculably narrow, is the true and actual present. Of that time which we call the present, hardly a hundredth part but belongs either to a past which has fled, or to a future which is still on the wing. It has perished, or it is not born. It was, or it is not. Yet even this approximation to the truth is infinitely false. For again subdivide that solitary drop, which only was found to represent the present, into a lower series of similar fractions, and the actual present which you arrest measures now but the thirty-sixth-millionth of an hour; and so by infinite declensions the true and very present, in which only we live and enjoy, will vanish into a mote of a mote, distinguishable only by a heavenly vision. Therefore the present, which only man possesses, offers less capacity for his footing than the slenderest film that ever spider twisted from her womb. Therefore, also, even this incalculable shadow from the narrowest pencil of moonlight is more transitory than geometry can measure, or thought of angel can overtake. The time which is contracts into a mathematic point; and even that point perishes a thousand times before we can utter its birth. All is finite in the present; and even that finite is infinite in its velocity of flight towards death. But in God there is nothing finite; but in God there is nothing transitory; but in God there can be nothing that tends to death. Therefore, it follows, that for God there can be no present. The future is the present of God, and to the future it is that he sacrifices the human present. Therefore it is that he works by earthquake. Therefore it is that he works by grief. O, deep is the ploughing of earthquake! O, deep”—[and his voice swelled like a sanctus rising from the choir of a cathedral]—“O, deep is the ploughing of grief! But oftentimes less would not suffice for the agriculture of God. Upon a night of earthquake he builds a thousand years of pleasant habitations for man. Upon the sorrow of an infant he raises oftentimes from human intellects glorious vintages that could not else have been. Less than these fierce ploughshares would not have stirred the stubborn soil. The one is needed for earth, our planet,—for earth itself as the dwelling-place of man; but the other is needed yet oftener for God’s mightiest instrument,—yes” [and he looked solemnly at myself], “is needed for the mysterious children of the earth!”

Jesi Bender is an artist from Upstate New York. She is the author of the play Kinderkrankenhaus (Sagging Meniscus), the chapbook Dangerous Women (dancing girl press), and the novel The Book of the Last Word (Whiskey Tit). Her shorter work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, FENCE, The Adirondack Review, and others. In her spare time, she helms KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental writing.

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