The premise of Spectacle is that a comet is headed for Earth. The general populous believes it's going to wipe out life as we know it - because the truth about it's harmlessness has been kept from people. Fearful people are easy to control, and that kind of thing.
Anyway, the book was never about the comet. It's about the panic that ensues after a glut of bad information is perpetuated by people we trust to tell us the truth. This scene shows one example of the mindset of people faced with their own destruction.
Without further ado, I give you...
In a bright and airy house on Postcard Row in San Francisco existed a cheerful, plant-filled living room where a small group of acquaintances gathered to discuss their plans for the future. Unlike previous discussions they’d had while they were still college students, discussions when they talked about how they were going to change the world, they now talked how their world would end.
In one corner of the room, perched in an overstuffed easy chair, was a skinny, pinch-faced woman of thirty-four. Her hair was drawn back in a tight ponytail she’d hoped would give her a youthful air but instead gave one the impression of a sour old spinster. When in public, she often expounded on the evils of technology and then went home to thoroughly enjoy her luxury apartment with its genuine imitation fireplace and its air conditioning—often at the same time.
On the couch lounged a vibrant, trendy couple in their late twenties. The couch was upholstered in a quaint pattern meant to imitate the art of patchwork quilts; the couple was upholstered in a fashionable statement meant to indicate how little they cared about their appearance, but which made it glaringly obvious that they cared a great deal about their looks and how they were perceived by others. This couple spent their days shaking their heads in disgust at the world around them, dreaming of going back to the old ways—to the ways of those nice Mennonites they’d met on a vacation the summer before—although the man had never done a hard day’s labor in his life and the woman couldn’t envision ever doing her own laundry.
Slouching in a chair by the window was a willowy girl who was easily mistaken for a precocious teen, but who was, in reality. twenty-three. She had always wanted to be a dancer, but had never bothered to apply to the better dance academies. She made it clear she thought ballet was boring and refused to learn it, preferring instead modern dance which allowed her to interpret what the music meant to her.
Sprawled on the floor was a handsome man whose flawless features and chiseled physique made one think of Greek sculptures until one discovered he was painted from shoulder to crotch with tattoos, and then one could only imagine how graffiti would look on Michelangelo’s David. He had been taught the human body was somehow ugly and disgusting, and so had thrown himself into the task of changing it in an effort to fight against that image.
Each of the guests in the house had designed themselves to be very different from some aspect of the norm, and thus each of them succeeded in becoming a caricature of someone else’s ideas. It was the only thing they had in common, other than the bond that brought them to the house each week. The bond was only their dogged worship of the house’s owner.
The owner of that palatial home stood leaning casually against the wall listening to their conversation and smiling softly to himself. He was a tall thin man with a shaved head and black Van Dyke. Normally a man of his age and standing would have been considered both handsome and distinguished, but this man had adopted a sardonic look and sarcastic attitude that made him neither.
He had been teaching for nearly twenty years when the news of the comet broke. Seeing his end-of-the-world philosophy finally coming to pass, he felt there was no more he could do in the classroom. He preferred instead to open his house to those of his students who needed him, and he found that after years of his teaching, most of them did. Over the years, there had been many such gatherings in his house, where he’d listened to and encouraged groups of people such as this to express their opinions. More often than not, the opinions they espoused weren’t their own but were, in fact, ideas he had carefully planted in their heads. It filled him with great satisfaction to know these people would come to him now—seeking reassurance from his home and his presence, seeking sanction for the ideas they thought were their own but which still held a tinge of his work, seeking an escape from the world he’d made sure they would never belong to and would never understand. The man had been a professor of Philosophy at Berkeley and each of his guests had, at one time or another, been one of his students. The day before there had been a different group of former students. Every day the individuals units changed, but the whole remained basically the same.
This night, the professor said little and watched the interplay of his guests from his chosen place, slouched against the doorframe as if he could casually walk away at any moment, but giving the impression he was glued to the spot. He was guarding the room against something, although his guests would have said otherwise, and the something he had appointed himself to guard against was any glimmer of independent thought.
Looking up from his post, the professor noted the would-be dancer was crying again, but the others were paying her little attention. She cried every time she came, and most of the others were beyond caring. The spinster was saying mankind was at fault for the comet and if man had only been a little kinder to his fellow beasts, nature would not be so cruel as to take its benevolence away. The couple was nodding in agreement. The young man on the floor was looking at them all in an odd way, as if he couldn’t understand the language they were speaking.
“Benjamin?” their host inquired. “Is something wrong?”
“No, sir. Just laying here and minding my own business like I always do,” the man replied.
Thinking back, the professor noted Benjamin was never one to lie quietly and mind his own business, but he let it drop. The professor reflected on how Benjamin hadn’t been acting like himself the entire evening but why should Benjamin be any different than anyone else? “It’s the comet. It has everyone acting out of character these days,” he thought. Benjamin had not graced them with his presence for a few weeks now and, adding to the sum total of the boy’s behavior, he had chosen to dress heavily despite the balmy temperature outside. Not a tattoo was in sight, and Benjamin usually liked to show them off. The professor dismissed Benjamin’s strangeness as just another quirk in the boy’s psychology and resumed a watchful gaze over his disciples.
It was late into the evening when the conversation began to wind down, and the guests hesitantly took their leave. Playing the gracious host, the professor saw them all to the door and turned to begin the task of tidying his house for the next night’s gathering. It was then he noticed Benjamin still lying on the floor, hands behind his head and legs crossed at the ankles. For the first time all evening, Benjamin was smiling.
“Why, Benjamin, I would have thought you would join the crowd. I heard them say they were going for espresso. If you hurry, you can still catch them.”
The guest smiled wider from his position on the floor. “But sir, I thought we might have a few words alone together tonight. There is something important I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
Never before had the professor felt like his storybook home was closing in on him, but tonight, with that odd smile on his face, Benjamin was making him very uncomfortable. “Not tonight, son. It’s late and I have people coming for breakfast in the morning. You understand, I’m sure.” The professor motioned toward the door, but his guest made no move to leave.
“Professor,” the student proceeded as if he wasn’t being ushered away, “let me at least ask you this. Did you understand what it was you were doing all those years?”
Confused, the man shook his head. “I don’t know what it is you’re talking about, Benjamin. I really don’t have time for games this evening. If you’d like to come back tomorrow night, perhaps you can ask your questions with the rest of the group.”
Shaking his head, the former student just smiled. “I don’t think I’ll be coming back tomorrow night, sir. So, please just answer the question.”
“I don’t understand what you mean by your question.”
Benjamin had always been a bright student, brighter than any of his professors had ever imagined. Since the news of the coming Armageddon, he had thought very carefully over the premises he held and the actions he had taken in his life based on those premises. He had put two-and-two together and didn’t like the answers he came up with. Looking back over his life, there were many of his teachers—both in school and out—who had been responsible for the ideas that had overwhelmed his mind, but when he tried to pinpoint the worst of those, his mind kept coming back to the same person.
“I think you do, professor,” he countered. “How many students have you taught in the past two decades? You’ve been teaching the same dogma all those years, haven’t you? Of course you have. It was working perfectly for you, so you had no reason to change. How many minds did you touch during all those classes where you taught your version of the truth? You had the perfect podium for your own agenda—hundreds and thousands of young men and women coming to you for guidance. Oh, God, and we paid you for the pleasure!” Benjamin choked out angrily, his calm demeanor fading beneath painful memories.
Gathering himself once more, he proceeded more calmly, although a muscle along his jaw twitched from the strain. “And we paid for it dearly,” he said, his voice no more than a whisper. “How many minds, like mine, were clean and healthy, but all too trusting, when they stepped into your classroom? How many minds, like mine, were dirty and twisted when they stepped out?” Gazing at his surroundings he hissed, “If tonight was any example, I’d venture to say almost all of the naïve fools who walked into your classroom walked out programmed with the filth you peddled.”
The professor was shaking his head as if confronted with a truth he had never allowed himself to consider. “You’re mistaken, son. I never… Those minds you saw tonight were healthy and normal. I didn’t do anything to them. If they’re a bit off-kilter now it is because of the fear of death. I am not to blame for their own frailties. Look at yourself, Benjamin. You’re a bit off-kilter yourself tonight. You should take a walk and think about all this. You’ll feel better when you’ve had some air.”
It was then Benjamin noticed the professor had begun a slow retreat toward the door. Still, he continued to lie in the center of the living room, willing his calm to return so he could finish what he had come there to do. “Not leaving are you, sir? But I have so much more to say to you before we part.”
“Why no, Benjamin. I was just thinking we could step outside and chat in the fresh air.” A bead of sweat trickled slowly down the professor’s forehead and he wiped at it angrily, knowing it betrayed his anxiety.
“I would rather talk inside. Fresh air isn’t the proper atmosphere for this discussion, sir. I prefer the closeness of your home, don’t you?” Not waiting for the professor the reply, Benjamin began once more. “Do you remember Alise, professor? She was my girlfriend.” The professor was hastily shaking his head, either to indicate he did not remember or to remove all traces of the memories creeping into his consciousness. “Oh, professor. How soon we forget. It wasn’t that long ago. You remember, surely. You suggested I encourage her to attend one of your classes. It was only her sophomore year. She was bright and glowing and alive, and I loved that about her. She sparkled when she entered the room, and I sparkled when I was with her. I followed your suggestion and encouraged her to sign up for your Philosophy 101 course because I believed you would help her to understand how she could use that spark of life within her to help the world.”
“Oh, yes, I believe I do faintly remember her,” the professor lied. He could remember every awful detail of that year. “I certainly hope I was able to help her.”
Benjamin’s smile changed to a sneer. “Oh, you helped her, sir. She began to see the world for the first time through your eyes. In a matter of weeks, she became as cynical and bitter as you are. She began to see your view of the world, you see, and it twisted something inside her. Mid-semester that something in her took one final twist and then…” the young man motioned in the air, “…snapped.” The professor flinched and shrunk away from the thought of a horrible night all those years ago. Lost in memories of his own, Benjamin paid little attention to the professor as he continued. “She hung herself from the window in her dorm room. I should have been there with her but I was here… listening to one of your inane discussion groups. The note… the note said, ‘If this is the way the world is, then I can’t live in it any more.’ Surely you must remember it, sir. It was in the papers. I think I even saw you at her memorial service.”
The professor had frozen in place, his lips moving without sound as if he were silently praying. Benjamin continued. “I believed then that the joy and the life in her was just a façade to cover the overwhelming pain she must have been feeling all along. I know now she didn’t feel any kind of overwhelming pain until you showed her your version of the world. I never noticed because it was the way I had come to see the world, and it never occurred to me the horror to which I had come to be numbed would have any effect on her. I was young and foolish then; I was easily misled. I’m only sorry it took me this long to see you for what you really are, and I’m sorry I don’t have enough time to make it right again. At least… I don’t have enough time to make it right for anyone but myself. It will be made right tonight, sir. Every inch of it will be made right tonight.”
Benjamin began to grin as if remembering the punch line to a joke told long ago. Shivering in place, the former teacher could only stare at what he perceived as mental deterioration, but Benjamin was feeling more mentally alive than he ever had in his life. To Benjamin, this was the final irony, and the humor of the situation was becoming more poignant with each passing second. As he lay there in the center of the Persian rug, in the middle of the professor’s meticulously decorated living room, Benjamin found this entire thing too funny for words, and his twinkling eyes locked onto the shining, frightened eyes of the man he once thought of as a mentor.
If the professor had been able to find the strength of will to move from the steely gaze of his student, it would not have been strength enough. By the time the pretty painted house on Postcard Row exploded, Benjamin was laughing.