The Life and Purported Death of the Hole Man
by Teddy Jefferson
When the hole man first appeared you thought he was a curiosity, or a freak, and nothing more. But after recent events you see him differently. In fact, you feel that you need him now because you realize that he must have seen what you are only now beginning to see: that something is very wrong.
The hole man appeared at the beginning of a new period of turbulence and confusion. That may be why he caused such a stir, why he lit such a fire in people's heads. He was the lens that brought things into a focus.
That also may be why they killed him.
A "new period": we're still in it. They say the darkest hour is before the dawn. Not now. Dawn is darker.
Everything we know about the hole man is from his works. There are no records of his comments or letters or statements. He appeared, he dug, and he disappeared.
Though there are theories about what made him dig. The idea of the earth as womb. A primordial impulse still intact in any child. Or a fever caught from squirrels.
Curled up on the packed dirt bottom, some speculate, he felt a detachment from the world that seethed just a few feet above. The sound there at the bottom was different, muted, and soothed, and the curved dirt walls gave him a feeling of protection. He dug deeper and deeper holes until when he climbed down and pressed himself into the soil, the sky, framed by the circumference of the hole, seemed transformed, more vivid, the colors more saturated.
Lying on his back in the fourth even deeper hole, the man had the disorienting sensation that he was looking down into the sky, which appeared as a perfect sphere crisscrossed by the frail bare tree limbs, like tentacles of ice forming in a pail of water. He felt the sky was closer, not farther, close enough to the spiralling of hawks and the traffic of geese to hear the flap of their wings. His ultimate goal, he thought, would be to dig down until the mouth of the hole would exactly fit the sun at noon.
"The true sky is beneath us."
One thing certain about the hole man is his persistence. He works with the relentless instinctual drive of a beaver in his pond. It seems that he is performing an obscure but urgent ritual. Compulsion and religion together.
Is it a ritual for the purging and the healing of the earth? It could be. There is something surgical about what he is doing, like the opening up of a wound, or abscess, or like the cupping and bleeding of centuries ago.
And the cure? Is it produced when he enters the hole he dug and lies down still against the soil? Is he, then, a leech for the disease? A valve? A suppository?
The hole man simply appeared on the avenue one day, carrying a spade and walking north. He held it gingerly in his right hand like you might a clarinet or an ancient femur. His sense of purpose, combined with the riddle of his appearance, drew a stream of followers. He made his way down to a park by the river where after circling like a dog to find the right spot, he began to dig. When the hole was waist deep, he climbed in, curled up and lay still. Half an hour later he exited, filled it in, and left.
Are the hole man's holes like the holes the Mayans cut in stone so the wind would play them during hurricanes? Are you making our island into a flute? And when will we be able to hear it played, Mr. Hole Man?
"The suturing of the earth."
The hole man appeared during a time of wild extremes. First came what some called the period of unknowability, when the reasons behind events were obscure, when people doubted everything they were told, when we lived with foreboding and uncertainty and saw deceit and illusion everywhere. Then, almost overnight, this changed. We were in a new age when knowing was effortless and everything was accessible and the people who had lived by only questions now exulted in wall-to-wall answers. Fanatical knowability. Data like a lotion rubbed over every ill. Everything overlit and over explained. And unlike before, the young were the most zealous in this new certainty and simply had, and have, no patience or aptitude for doubt or questioning.
Or was it the other way around, all-knowability first and then obscurity and doubt?
The hole man himself was proof that there was a limit to knowability. Better yet, he was that limit. None of the new devices had any traction on him. This thing he did, his form, his art, his crime, drew you in, captivated large numbers, but refused to submit to explanation.
People asked him of course. "Hey, what are you doing?" But he felt no need to answer or say even a word. He was, and he did what he did, and that was that, and if that isn't enough for you then so be it.
At a certain point the hole man stopped filling in his holes. Until then, each dig had ended with the meditative smoothing over of the fill. It was this that gave many the sense that what he was doing was a kind of restoration or healing.
The first hole left unfilled was on a beach where a wildlife camera caught in time lapse both the digging and the caving in of a hole as the tide rose and the sides slumped and fell. A second unfilled hole was found by an apple farmer just outside the perimeter of his orchard. With these new works, the hole man would leave a single hill of soil at one end of the hole and flatten the top with a blow or two of the spade.
Now he was leaving something that extended his act past his departure. Before, he was the focus. Now he was leaving an object, a kind of marker, a trace. Or a monument?
"Digging was the hole man's ink."
Everywhere is a grave. Is that the hole man's game? That after digging and lying, time after time, one day he will remain and let the hole close over him?
The resemblance of the new holes to graves was impossible to overlook. Visitors would inevitably walk to the edge to see what, or who, was inside. And what you would often see was the imprint of the hole man's body in the dirt where he had lain after the digging was complete. He no longer curled into the fetal position as he had in the first, round holes but now lay on his back, fully extended.
Some found the new holes macabre. Others read the imprint as a sign of resurrection. Others would use the holes for defecation, fornication, or simply to throw in bones and gristle from their picnics.
If the hole is the hole man's ink, then is emptiness his alphabet?
It was the hole man's final known hole that gave the most vivid suggestion of what he was trying to do and culminated his activity in this country. Of the few photographs we have of the hole man, there are three from this late period in which it is impossible to tell whether he was reclining in a hole or upright in a niche. He appears both dead and alive. His hands are at his sides, not crossed. In one, his eyes are open; in another, closed. Is he lying in state or standing at attention? We would assume the former, that he was photographed in the hole from directly above, but perhaps with these works he took his game one move further and was in fact standing in a rectangular niche. All is possible with him. The photograph achieves something the hole man may or may not have been intended: the verticalization of the ground, or more accurately, and importantly, a reconceptualization of the hole as a door or portal. The earth before you, not beneath you.
Did the hole man aspire to something like the inverse glory and apotheistic end of James Hampton, the obscure tin-foil shrine masterbuilder of Washington, D.C. Hampton, said to have created with his hyper rococo gum wrapper opus an 'effect of overwhelming density' [LyndaRoscoeHartigan]; Hampton, who came from the town of Elloree S.C., population of 700 (15 years ago); Hampton, a janitor by profession, who rented as his atelier from 1950 on, at the corner of N and 7th Street, a little garage from a man named Meyer Wertleib, described as a "merchant" or "pawnbroker"; Hampton, who called himself "Director Special Projects for the State of Eternity" and wrote a holy book in his own language and alphabet that included this proverb: "Where there is no vision people perish"; Hampton whose invented language was analyzed using "Markov models" by computer scientist Mark Stamp and found to have "entropy levels" like English, meaning it seemed non-nonsense; Hampton, whose blazing monument -soon to be a mecca for artists- was discovered only after his death, poor and unknown.
The hole man digs for all of us. He is making the great sacrifice. He asks for no thanks. He seeks no recognition. He leaves his mark the way a storm leaves debris scattered across the flattened grasses.
Many think that given the number of holes dug, there must be an army of hole men, identically dressed, lanky and taciturn, fanning out across the island, a brotherhood of spadehawks going at it night and day. Though that was not the case.
There is only one indication of the existence of another hole man, passed along by one of his followers. A day in late fall the hole man came to a stretch of land at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island up by the lighthouse. Between there and Queens is a channel named Hell Gate for the speed and treacherousness of its current. Here the hole man had heard there was another digger at work, very active and very dedicated. There is no way of knowing what the hole man was thinking, whether he believed an alliance might be possible, or feared competition, or danger. As soon as he arrived, though, the situation changed, and perhaps for the first time ever people saw a smile cross the hole man's lips, and even detected a chuff of laughter, when he saw that the other digger was digging square holes. Perfect cubes, in fact. The hole man circled this spectacle and stopped to study the effect, so different from his own creations. A number of times he even raised his spade, inspired perhaps, to begin to dig himself, but then stopped, as if concluding "That wouldn't be seemly." Then he left.
Had the cube digger heard of the hole digger? It was possible. One witness thought there was even an exchange of words. Perhaps they already knew one another. Either way, the sight of the negative cube, so sharply carved, must have impressed him.
Is the hole man just a human riddle? Is he an itch?
People crave meaning (whatever that is) and if it isn't provided, the mind produces its own.
What if the hole man, rather than working in total silence, had answered people's questions? What if, looking up from his hole, with sweat cutting stripes in the dirt on his face, with his trademark combination of exhaustion and play, the childlike and the ancient together, he had explained his act? No one would have thought about him again. The "why" would have obliterated the "what."
The reason we still talk about the hole man is that he never talked to us.
But there's a fury that builds at things that aren't explained. Did this play a part in the hole man's behavior?
Did he stoke that fury on purpose?
He learned a lesson from the Garden of Eden and that tree. Once the apple was bit clean through, neither Adam nor Eve had eyes for the wonders of their garden. It wasn't that they were banished by God for disobedience. No, now that they had all the answers, the garden had no more allure for them. Knowing had wicked out the color and the pith. All was mere specimen. Names had replaced the things. That was it for the singing and laughing of the two first humans. They just walked away.
This may be what the hole man wanted to avoid.
No doubt, the Garden of Eden would have been a prime spot for the hole man to dig. Imagine if he came across human bones beneath that soil, what that might mean? Or what if Adam and Eve did? Think about that!
The hole man was the fool. That is why he was tolerated (until he wasn't). Only the fool is allowed to point at certain off-limit subjects because scorched across his forehead the fool bears a brand certifying his unreliability and utter mental chaos. The fool is the sacred non-witness. That index finger erases any object it points at. What he sees he disappears. The fool is a seal of release and secrecy.
But what did he witness? What did he point his finger at? This is the mystery of the hole man: that though he said nothing, and was oil and water with explanation, nonetheless a time came when he was accused of all the blasphemies. The process was so simple: the less he said, the more he was accused of saying. Of revealing secrets.
The wave that crashes where you doze on the beach is pinked by the beheading across the globe. Everything is instantaneous and universal now. Separation is impossible; ignorance of harm elsewhere is impossible. There is not enough sand to bury your head in.
Alas, the fate of the hole man was not to be a happy one. And will not be a happy one. Look at the landscape that awaits him: the no man's land, the DMZ, rubble, ash, meltdown, killing fields. These are the places he is drawn to dispense his cure.
The hole man will pass into a world electrified by tensions and contagious ideas.
He will wander into countries where the sight of an unknown man digging will elicit an immediate and violent response. After all, what is dirt but the lid on last night's horrors; the flesh of oblivion. The earth just a sarcophagus of atrocity. In these places (and here too, no?) the earth is patrolled to control not trespassing but unearthing- the unearthing of our secrets.
Unearth. That's our planet too.
"The soil is the skin of the apple."
As the proverb goes, The digger is always digging his own grave.
Does the hole man know that "spade" comes from the Latin word for sword? (Does it?)
The hole man would probably be repulsed by all this attention paid to him.
The human mole, digging and digging? And when he is done, will he play it?
"Flute the earth."
They found the hole man revolving slowly in this cylinder he'd just dug, staring spellbound into the hieroglyphics of the earth.
Face to face with the hole wall he saw that it was alive, swarming with networks of insects. He had not noticed this before. There was not a part that wasn't dense with interlocking roots and trails, tiny fibers, hollows, pebbles. In each tiny patch the variations in the color of the soil, striations, veins of sand and pitch, the explosive traffic of creatures, processes of decay, transformation, and the smells, pungent, rank, but completely foreign to him.
The cylinder wall became a second sky, one beside which even the whirl of constellations on a clear night seemed flat and plain.
The hole man had realized the earth was a single organism, perhaps even a mind. The earth had been for billions of years exactly what technology was trying to build today above the ground: a continuous universal nervous system, an earth cortex -which it literally was. And these insects then shared in this single vast consciousness, and knew everything, and worked constantly together with a coordination and enlightenment inconceivable among humans. This is what the hole man wanted to be a part of.
So is it true he is dead, murdered, because he dug a hole in the wrong place, and was buried in it?
The hole man is always being killed.
This too may be the end:
One day, the hole man realized what the solution was: "Fill it in, all the way to the top."
Only one figure seemed willing to take the hole man up on his offer, a spindly boy with a large crooked nose and a slight speech impediment. He'd followed the hole man for months. He'd made the round of holes like the stations of the cross. Many had done the same. These were mysteries. These were mysteries indeed. The cylindrical plugs of earth that stood alongside the holes looked like sacred structures from some resurfacing civilization.
The hole man lay down in the hole with his arms and legs spread like the Da Vinci man in his hoop. He gestured for the boy to begin filling, and the boy, obedient to this mysterious and charismatic force, began.
A crowd converged around the hole and watched riveted by what seemed like an act of suicide and murder combined. The hole man didn't move as clump after clump of dirt landed on him. The bas relief of the body slowly faded into a uniform disk of soil. The crowd dispersed. The boy kept shoveling. His arms ached. It was dark by the time he was done. He smoothed the top of the hole until it was perfectly level with the ground, a perfect circle. Then he lay the spade down and walked home.
All of this seemed plausible but the truth.
The hole man is digging your grave. You didn't notice yet.
"Is that true?"
There's no one to ask: that alone may be the truth.
Laugh laugh laugh.
In the warm water the wounds are washed.
Civilization, wasn't that enough?
I'm putting on my shoes and walking now.
How thin the high wire is!
"Hello hole man."
I hug the hole man for his labors.
"Go now, before the monsoon, before the blackouts, before the Boko Harams."
On those sweet lips a hint of humor, hilarity in the eyes.
The ultimate in misdirection.
Were we asking him all the wrong questions?