Strange Gifts

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication.

 Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

DNA is the great cosmic irony. It is a catalogue of existence, containing all requisites for life. And, yet, in it lies something sinister. The same code that writes life’s beginning also writes its conclusion. It creates, and in its creation lurks its own end. Irony is often subtle, but sometimes, under the gaze of the microscope, DNA cannot hide it;occasionally announcing itself right from the beginning in some gene over-expressed or conspicuously absent, toppling the ornate equations of life, as if DNA hopes for, pushes for, the End, willing itself to life in order to bring about Death — Freud’s todestrieb incarnate.

More often, however, DNA’s duplicity is less overt. The things the code writes into being, the physical manifestations of the code, succumb to the weight of time and space despite no apparent defect in the instructions. The code, in the end, is simply insufficient to the task of maintaining itself for longer than a time. Whichever form it takes, from the very beginning, the end hides in the shadows.

From the discovery of the library that is the human genome there has been hope for vindication. Somewhere in the library there must be understanding of, even absolution from, the shortcomings of famine and excess of DNA. We have explored with some success, but like the inhabitants of Borges’s library, our search and hope for vindication has mostly been met with the weight and expanse of the library. The small part we do know may not save us from the immense part we do not. What diseases hide inside of me? What skulks in my dark corners? What part of me will commit the treachery?

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine,
Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business.

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

To accuse inert molecules of desire or even treachery is, of course, foolishness. Assigning blame satisfies, perhaps, some desire for a culprit, some desire for accountability for an apparent wrongdoing. DNA, however, only plays its part. It is neither heroine nor villain. It simply moves the plot along, without malice or kindness; malevolence or beneficence.

Still, lack of intent or culpability does not remove the code’s inadequacy. Death waits at the end despite the promise of life. The dénouement is final and inevitable. It is both variable and identical for everyone. Death takes many forms — expected, tragic, sad, welcomed, horrendous, peaceful, insignificant, significant. Death is the same, however, despite the adjectives used to describe and vary it. It is what it is — true somehow notwithstanding the tautology. Perhaps, though, it is impossible to define Fifth Business without tautology. What, then, to make of the inevitability? What adjectives will be used to modify it? What end awaits me?

To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is immortal.

Jaromir Hladik

Referring to a man who, into adulthood, went by the nickname Boy, Padre Blazon, a Jesuit bollandist, remarked that “Whom the gods hate they keep forever young.” Blazon certainly was ignorant to the workings of DNA and, being an old man himself, potentially biased. Though despite his ignorance and age, his wisdom may apply. Somehow his training in the mysticism of the saints prepared him to speak indirectly on the science of genetics.

Stories need endings. Endings allow for completion. A story without ending lacks completeness, even comprehensibility. The stories we tell one another, the stories made popular in literature, television, film, resolve themselves. It says something about us that, generally, these stories reach a satisfactory resolution. Sure, we enjoy reading, listening, and watching stories that end hanging in ambiguity, in medias res. We enjoy them, however, not because of the lack of a clear ending, but rather because of the plethora of inferable endings that could complete the tale. Whether the end is gratifying or not, what we want is completeness. Something in our DNA seems to yearn for it.

We might desire this from our stories because we cannot ignore the innumerable, ceaseless endings in our own lives — the ultimate one most of all. We are, from the beginning, aware of our insufficiency, our mortality. The knowledge of an ending is what drives us to seek completeness. Does time complete, rather than destroy? Is death a gift?

Whereas to Men he gave strange gifts . . . he willed that the
hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest . . . It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not . . . the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Zeke Egan is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He studied English as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. He is interested in the intersection between medicine, myth, and literature.

Rubor Participation:
2019 Prose
2018 Staff