The Last Inquisition by Liam Agius Camilleri
Inquisitor Burnes looked out from his carriage window at the liminal space where the dunes met the sky, mused on the minimal grace with which men get to die, and stopped himself. He was thinking poetically, and that would not do at all, as that went against everything that he had bound himself to when he first wore the robes of the Rationalistic Fraternity.
His mind, paying absolutely no heed to his reluctance to wax poetic, decided to improvise an ode to his adoptive brothers, none of whom he viewed with any particular fondness. He thought of old Brother Perry locked up in his orrery and the clockwork monks who had built it. The High Logician and the sly Rhetorician giving tuition on their Holy Mission, with logic illuminating those who lacked vision. And the Philosopher-Priests in their gossamer sheets, ever disputing definitions of nothing in the vast labyrinthine libraries of their alabastrine monasteries, with their elephantine galleries and lofty spires of –
The tall monasterial towers toppled down tactlessly as his train of thought was stopped by a sudden jolt, and the train was brought unpropped to a sudden halt. Something must have got stuck in the gears, as usual. He remained calm. The engine boy would see to it presently.
He thought of the delicate clockwork mechanism of the gears, perpetuating power with perfect precision till a perfidious hitch perturbed the pattern. The idea displeased him. He thought of the railway system, and how easily the carriage itself could become a hitch in its precise clockwork if the delay was left unchecked for too long.
As above, so below.
He stiffened and was just about to open the carriage door to shower the boy with abusive language when the reassuring roar of the engine returned to relax his strained muscles once more. He looked out at the vast stretches of desert surrounding him on both sides, pictured his rail-bound caravan chugging obstinately past the barren dunes, like a school of seals skimming successively through a sable sea of sand. He retched at the sickening musicality of his own singsong simile, and looked back on the day’s events, and how that strange woman had cursed him with the spirit of poetry.
She had inexplicably been both fulsomely foul and fantastically fair, both vigorously old and immemorially young, and all that she spoke was in verse and riddle. When the Inquisitor had inquired as to how she could so blatantly contradict the Law of Non-Contradiction, she had replied that there was no reasoning behind it; it was merely God’s will. This statement constituted the highest blasphemy for Burnes, who was of the firm belief that everything which existed did so in accordance with the God-given Divine Principles of Logic.
The hag did not exist in accordance with the Divine Principles of Logic.
Ergo, she could not exist.
Hours later as she was burning at the stake, she had fixed her ancient, youthful eyes on his and cackled over the roar of the flames:
“Listen ye now to my lyric prophetic:
Haunted ye’ll be by the spirit poetic,
And your determined attempt to move what is static
Shall shortly unwind the divine arithmetic!”
The first half of the prophecy, if prophecy it was indeed, had already been fulfilled, a fact he was still fruitlessly attempting to rationalise as the train finally pulled to a stop at the terminal right outside his abbey. How could the woman know the effect of a cause which had not yet occurred? Or perhaps her chant was itself the cause. He caught himself staring at his communal home with fresh eyes, and he appreciated for the first time in his life the restrained splendour of the architecture in a building he had always viewed in purely functional terms. He had difficulty grounding his newfound aesthetic sensibilities in reason, and this made him restless.
Immediately upon arriving in his cell, he rushed into the cylindrical Prayer Pod in the upper-left corner and sat himself down in a lotus position. His weight on the pressure plate brought the clockwork-powered pod doors to a close as the sacred prayer-fumes were sent up on their spiralling skybound sway from vents in the ground.
He tried to enter the space in his mind reserved for moments of meditation. The realm of pure reason, free from the distractions of ego and instinct. But try as he might, he could not clear his mind from the implications of the day’s irrational incidents. He screamed a silent scream in the soundproofed security of his pod, and demanded that God answer his questions.
It was then that God appeared to him.
“WHAT AILS YOU, INQUISITOR?”
“You know well what ails me, my Lord. I was presented with a test of reason today. A woman whose very existence was a mockery of Your inexorable Laws. A hitch in Your celestial clockwork. Of course, I took it upon myself to make things right again. However, the existence of such an impossible creature baffles me, and her paltry poetry possesses my brain.”
“MY DEAR INQUISITOR, YOUR PURSUIT OF PERFECTION IS ADMIRABLE, BUT YOU FAIL TO SEE THAT IT IS ONLY THROUGH ITS IMPERFECTIONS THAT THE WORLD CAN EXPERIENCE CHANGE. THAT WHICH IS PERFECT IS SELF-CONTAINED AND HAS NO ROOM FOR GROWTH.”
“And are You, my Lord, perfect and self-contained?”
There was a long pause as the Inquisitor processed this new knowledge and considered his current position.
“But how can an unchanging entity be the source of an ever-changing world? Would the bringing forth of such a world not constitute a change in and of itself?”
“DO YOU QUESTION MY COMPLETENESS?”
“I would never dare suggest – I am merely asking if there is some simple explanation that I have failed to consider.”
“I NEED NOT GIVE EXPLANATIONS. I WAS WHEN NOTHING ELSE WAS, AND EVERYTHING THAT IS, IS SO ONLY THROUGH THE EXPRESSION OF MY WILL.”
“But is not everything that exists bound strictly by Your Divine Laws?”
“Then how could one possibly justify this violation of them, my Lord?”
“FOOLISH MORTAL. YOU DO NOT YET UNDERSTAND THE FULL EXTENT OF MY OMNIPOTENCE. I AM NOT BOUND BY THE LAW, FOR I AM THE LAW.”
“Does that mean that the Laws of Logic do not apply to You?”
“YOU’RE CATCHING ON AT LAST.”
“But Sire, if everything that exists is bound to the Laws, but You are not, would it not follow, with absolute certainty, that You do not exist?”
“THAT ARGUMENT WOULD BE PERFECTLY SOUND IF THE LAWS WERE APPLICABLE TO ME, BUT ONCE AGAIN, THEY ARE NOT.”
“It seems to me, Almighty, that the very Laws which flow from You both contradict and, by negation, define You, for You are all that is not logical, and all that is not logical is no-thing at all. Your essence, therefore, is nothingness.”
“COULD IT NOT ALSO BE ARGUED, WITH JUST AS MUCH CERTAINTY, THAT THE LAWS ARE NEGATED BY MY EXISTENCE?”
“It could indeed, Sire. As far as I can tell, Your existence and that of the Logical Laws from which the world’s fabric is woven are mutually exclusive. Either You exist, or the world does.”
What followed was the longest split second in the history of time, as God thought deeply on his options.
“SO BE IT.”
And God turned His back on the world…
… Inquisitor Burnes was once again alone in the darkness of his Prayer Pod. Choking on the thick vapours that enveloped him, he stretched a hand out towards the ceiling and pulled at the chain which hung over his head, letting a slowly expanding ray of light into the pod as the doors slid away from each other.
He rushed out of his cell with his heart in his throat, confused by what had just happened but filled with an unyielding sense of dread. He heard roaring laughter refract and reverberate through the monastery’s rambling residential region, and ran towards the refectory where the ruckus was being produced.
What he found there stopped him dead in his tracks. His brothers were all gathered around the long banqueting table, and in the middle of it, with a look of utter confusion frozen onto his visage, lay the dead body of the High Logician. The other priests, frothing at the mouth, dug in ravenously, tearing off whatever bits of the raw syllogist they could get their hands on.
He turned away and ran as fast as he could through the abbey’s double doors, leaving the frenzied feasters far behind. As soon as he was out, the abbey began to crumble rapidly, and he had time to take one last look at the proud ivory towers before they came crashing down in a clanking cacophony. Reality started tearing apart at the seams as the spaces between atoms let out blood-curdling screams and the crimson sky opened its jaws angrily, letting the sun fall down from its lofty throne.
Before he knew it, there was fire everywhere.
As the blaze threatened to engulf him completely, he realised that this was to be his last inquisition, and the world was to be his last victim. Through the infernal crackling he could make out the maternal cackling of the witch he had burnt, and he knew what he had to do.
He gave himself up to the purging fires of hell, and as the flames consumed his body, he started singing the seminal song of the new world…