by Daniel David Froid
1. From the Introduction
At the same time that Ingeborg Nilsen labored over her magnum opus, A Metaphysics of the Unreal, she occupied herself, in secret, with two other projects: the construction of a secret language and a text composed in that artificial tongue.
Loturian is the name of the language as well as the fictional culture that speaks it. It is difficult to say where Loturia is located: east of nowhere? south of the back of beyond? Of course, Loturia is itself unreal, and Nilsen seemed to regard it not so much as a literal place but as something else; her notebooks suggest that she viewed it as a distinct perspective, a way of thinking, or perhaps a kind of state of mind, which lurks under shadows and undergirds dreams. Though as far as anyone can tell she did invent the language—perhaps in collaboration with her sister Solveig, on whom there is more to say, below—she likewise seemed to regard it not as an invention she developed but a study she undertook. As for the single work she composed entirely in Loturian—the book you now hold in your hands—her notebooks do not indicate her conception of it. Instead they capture her transmission of it, as though it were composed by someone else—a native Loturian—and discovered, transcribed, by her.
Whatever she actually thought about this nation and its language, however she approached it, what does seem undeniable is that she invented all of it, an immense creative endeavor whose fruits have been shared with nobody—until now, years after her death.
What follows is a translation of the sole piece of literature ever composed in Loturian. I have translated it using the hodge-podge Rosetta stone that her notebooks represent. For, again, she treated the language as something external to her—something she studied. Pages and pages full of crude, childish sentences suggest her practicing it (rather, developing it on a rudimentary level); these pages were a boon for me and, now, for you, the reader.
Her notebooks and diaries in general are a linguistic mixture. She wrote at length in both Norwegian and English, seeming on the whole to prefer the former for more personal, daily reflection and the latter for philosophical rumination. She composed A Metaphysics of the Unreal in English from the beginning. It is true, after all, that she undertook her education in English (at Oxford), and so it served as the most suitable option for her academic work.
By contrast, Loturian offered a route for her literary efforts. And such efforts from the pen of Ingeborg Nilsen are an exciting prospect, given her infamous injunctions against fiction in Metaphysics, to wit:
As will be seen, secondhand imaginings, as instantiated in endless iterations of the categorically and epistemologically vacuous genre—an appellation here only reluctantly deployed—of the novel, bewilder, deceive, persuade, and cajole (and more) the passive lector, inculcating and, en masse, enculturating nonnative encounters with the unreal. Our collective unreality is not only shaped by but held hostage to, for it insists on persistently reifying, the banal-unreal.
In essence, she understood fiction as hostile to the individual imagination. She highly valued the unreal and the individual’s access to it, seeing it as a moral imperative to cultivate that access; novels cut it off in favor of another’s. Of course numerous philosophers and critics following in her wake have unleashed many words on her conceptions of the unreal and the uses (or misuses, or abuses) of fiction.
And so where does that leave us, not to mention In the Silver Light of a Star That Is No Star? The answer is simple enough: This is the purest expression of the unreal, that which Ingeborg Nilsen held as nearly sacred, that she ever produced, not to mention a monumental contradiction. To read this text is, then, to gain a glimpse into her mind as well as her craft. It is a boon for philosophy as much as for the literary arts.
2. In Silver Light
The writing of it was altogether easy, because it was already complete. Long ago, I had a vision. Vision or visitation, oneiric or onanistic, I cannot say. It took place one night when I lay in bed, drifting to sleep. I remained in a half-alert state as certain sights and sounds and sensations that seemed neither fully real nor entirely hazy and phantasmagoric emerged. I felt myself washed in a strange silver light, and these strange experiences overtook me, even if it seemed as though they remained at some distance from me. The vision—of global ruination, a bodily transformation, a voyage through darkness, and at last an encounter, in the silver purity, with something that might well be termed the divine—overwhelmed me to the point that I could scarcely go on living. Everything in my life came to a halt. For days, I remained in bed and dwelled on the vision, the encounter, and wondered what it meant. No sleep could rescue me from this state. It felt as though I had been plunged into the unreal, unmediated and inescapable..
The better to understand it, I consulted my books. Philosophy, it seemed to me, could offer some guidance, some scrap of wisdom. I dragged myself to the tall shelves that lined the wall near my bed and inspected them. Ingeborg Nilsen, whom I had read some years ago, compelled me; I dragged A Metaphyics of the Unreal down from its place on the shelf. Dour and difficult, her notorious tome offers an essay into all that which does not appear to exist, including dreams, lies, delusions, and fiction. It occurred to me, since what happened to me certainly bewildered my comprehension of the real and may not be considered to have happened at all, that her stern handling of the subject would somehow aid or bolster me. And would you believe that it did? It soothed me; it eased my grasp of an encounter whose ontological status I will likely never ascertain. And then, at last, I wrote it all down, capturing—in that crazed Nilsenian state—every detail of the vision as it remained in my mind. I described my encounter with a certain invasive and shimmering light, as emitted by a body that may have been celestial, as well as my dialogue with an unidentified supernal being. I called it: In the Silver Light of a Star That Is No Star.
I recognized it at once as too wild and unruly, too strange, to be shared with anyone. It found its quiet home within my personal files, and there it stayed, languishing for years, for I could not face it. The memory of the entire experience—from the initial vision to my composition of the text itself—rooted deep in mind and soul, never to leave, yet to pull the text from the bottom drawer where I had safely stowed it seemed too much, too onerous, too overwhelming. And so there it stayed until the occasion arose to retrieve it.
Because I had composed the text under the aegis of, under the sign of, Ingeborg Nilsen, it seemed to me not wholly inconceivable, not completely ludicrous—only a little, deliciously so—to yoke it to her—to establish it as hers. Anyway, what did anybody know about her? Her sparse Wikipedia page could hardly satisfy even the weakest curiosity. She was a philosopher, born in Norway, who remained there until, hying herself to England, she indifferently took up greats at Oxford. She did not teach; she held no university positions. She had no career at all, at least none about which anyone can say a word. But she remained in England until she completed A Metaphysics of the Unreal, which a small and undistinguished press brought out in 1994 and which accrued a slow infamy. After that, little is known, except that she lived for some time with her sister, Solveig, in America, where she died.
Who cares about Ingeborg Nilsen? I do, for she saved my life. Certainly, this is true of nobody else on the planet. And so I will admit that my efforts came from some peculiar wish to honor her; I believed I could do her honor. And I believed that she would respect and perhaps even admire the perversity of my ambition.
An obscure and roundabout plot of little importance to the generality of the world but to which I remained keenly devoted—most fitting for a devotee of Nilsen’s.
3. A Hoax
I wondered how easy it would be to do—how easy and how much fun—and whether the reward—a private and perverse feeling of pleasure, the kind achieved, I imagine, by those who masturbate in movie theaters—would be worth or would even surpass the risk. And what were the risks? Exposure; public condemnation, castigation, alienation, not unlike what is offered, I imagine, to those found masturbating in movie theaters. Was that all? All that I could very well risk. And anyway I had a contingency plan.
I had for my entire life long wished to perpetrate a hoax. Nothing grand, nothing major—just some mild to moderate deception that would succeed in transfixing and fooling a small number of innocents until their folly exposed their pretensions. A natural humility drove me to develop modest and highly reasonable aims. It is wise, always, to strive for the modest and the reasonable; one may surpass one’s goals and rarely end up disappointed. It was likewise true that a keen sense of desiring revenge on what I increasingly saw as a benighted and insular community of savages had lately settled on my soul and would not relinquish its throttling hold. I was helpless but to give in. Just as helpless as I became later when the envelopes began to arrive. To vengeful urges as well as to enigmatic transmissions, it turns out, I am susceptible.
And so: I would perpetrate a hoax. I would claim to have discovered a marvelous text, in translation, and make it available for readers’ delectation and examination. Its extraordinary backstory and purported significance would ensnare those whom I wished to fool until I revealed it all to be fake all of them to be idiots. As I said: a minor hoax, of value to nobody, perhaps, but myself. My aims, wisely chosen, were modest and reasonable, and I would see where my hoax took me, for some small part of me—which most of the time I managed to restrain—wished to see the whole thing grow to something grand and dizzying, even if its ultimate purpose was admittedly futile. But I promised myself to value the journey over and above the destination.
I chose to work in a language that was not real, to use my own forgery. Loturian was already known to a very small number of readers—devotees of Solveig Nilsen’s The Goosewife and Other Stories. This was a real oddity, apparently, the author’s singular effort. Yet, per the book’s back-cover copy, Nilsen was author also of An Introduction to Loturian History, presumably having coined the word herself for the title of a nonexistent book that describes a people who never lived. A book I imagined to be forever forthcoming, which, for whatever reason, never did come forth—unless it itself was a hoax, though hers remains a minor one, lacking further evidence, paraphernalia, lore, etc., as well as sufficient victims. In the first place, few have read the one book she did write. I suppose I could number myself among the victims, but what is there to dupe me? Still, I would tip my hat in deference to my favorite literary obscurity-cum-possible-deception.
Here was my plan: My heteronymous self would offer a translation from Loturian, the supposed auto-language of its creator, Ingeborg Nilsen, notorious philosopher and somewhat better-known sister of Solveig, developed and used for the work she produced in secret—her major work, A Metaphysics of the Unreal, being composed more conventionally in her adopted English. In this way In the Silver Light of a Star That Is No Star would appear.
At a galloping pace, I drafted the introduction, fabricating all that I did not know for certain. Only such scant biographical details as are available I knew for certain, and so my knowledge—I admit—reached its hard limit rather quickly. Still, the introduction seemed to me a remarkably coherent and effective piece, suitable for the literary text to follow. This was a happy, a galvanizing, moment, the last before it all began to happen—before my thrill twisted and became something stranger.
4. A Parcel
One afternoon, after drafting the introduction, I left my desk, pacing throughout my small rooms with a light step. Shortly thereafter, daily habit asserted itself, directing me to walk outside and check the mail.
The narrow metal slit of the lockbox, one of rows of dozens, habitually offered empty promises: to improve my credit, body, teeth, or quality of life. That day, however, one object alone rested within it: a key. Always the presence within that slight slot of a lone key, tagged with a hard plastic token instructing me in its use, felt quaintly thrilling, an invitation to mystery. Two fingers extracted the key and, some seconds later, pushed it into the nearby keyhole of a much larger box, where sat an oversized envelope, fully stuffed.
Upstairs, I took scissors in hand and snipped off a narrow strip of envelope, revealing a trio of dingy and worn-looking books, small and saddle-stitched and bearing no markings on their plain brown covers. No return address on the envelope explained their provenance. Thus I opened the first book, finding a signature inscribed on the inside cover in a shaky hand:
Naturally, I was bewildered. Who could have sent them my way? How could any soul know of my endeavors or even that I existed at all? I make few marks upon the world, and when I do I do so pseudonymously or otherwise in secret. Thus to have these books now in my possession thrilled and baffled me in equal parts. No, not equal; the latter persisted in greater proportion, and some anxiety lay in there too.
That I may have become the victim of a hoax myself might have struck me as funny if the situation seemed more comprehensible, if its constituent parts fit more neatly within the bounds of the likely and feasible. I will not say the bounds of the possible—forestalling that surely inevitable border-crossing for now. For now, I stayed afloat in the interminable present, uncertain and dismayed.
But I did not stay for long; the moment lurched forth, and the peculiar became familiar, losing its prickly texture, smoothening out; and so I seized the notebooks to study them in earnest.
Each of the three notebooks covered a separate subject. One, composed in Norwegian, appeared to be no more than a daily record of Ingeborg Nilsen’s mundanely observed life. Though I could neither speak nor read Norwegian, a random sampling, typed into an online translation tool, provided such nuggets of insight as the following: “April 20. Rainy and cold. High of 15°C. Dinner with sister and early to bed.” Every entry I tried read just the same, suggesting a dismayingly bleak and monotonous existence, a thick smear of gray lightened, if it was lightened, by nondescript dinners with her sister or with such distinguished personages as I. and Q., whoever they were.
The second, in English, contained undeniable historical and philosophical value, for it comprised notes and drafts related to A Metaphysics of the Unreal. Reading it enabled me to learn about her process, about which I previously had little knowledge. Sentences that in the book read as harshly assertive—with the confidence of Moses bearing the tablets on Mount Sinai—revealed themselves the result of the strictest discipline, many iterations, and painstaking revision. Reading the English notebook elicited an effect of watching something being carved in slow motion, by cramped and clumsy hands, from a hard and resistant block of wood.
The third notebook proved the most mystifying. It contained dense blocks of symbols, which looked like neither the ravings of a madwoman nor utter gibberish. It looked like random scribbling, the result of handing a fountain pen to a child and allowing her to let rip. Yet immediately a suspicion thrummed within my head: This notebook contained Nilsen’s writings in Loturian, the artificial language that, so far as I knew, I had made up in my attempt to bestow on her a backstory.
Thus, it turns out that the books conformed precisely to the suppositions I had laid out in the document I wrote. The possibility of their being some sort of hoax plagued me, though it seemed to me that they possessed an aura of the authentic—for instance, the tiny pained handwriting through which emerged the sculpted sentences of Metaphysics—even if it was only my own desire that conjured the aura, made me embrace it where it did not exist.
From the Norwegian notebook I learned little. Having gleaned nothing that seemed worthwhile from my scattershot perusal and hasty traduction, I swiftly abandoned it. Nilsen’s recounting of the daily weather held no interest for me. The value of the English notebook I have already established, and this one I read with care.
But it was the Loturian notebook that most enthralled me. Page after page of inscrutable hieroglyphs—a new system of language for a new system of thought. Here I had physical evidence of precisely that which I had imagined to be true.
Then again, the difficulty of determining how to translate those squiggles confronted me. To stare at a set of apparently meaningless squiggles and decide that this one corresponds to an E or that one to an H—I did not feel up to it. At least, I did not feel up to it until my mind registered a sickening and irresistible suspicion: that I could use the text I had composed in the thrall of whatever god or spirit or delusion as a Rosetta stone—just as I had explained in my counterfeit introduction—to bring all those meaningless symbols to order.
I took a stab at the first block of symbols, working for a couple of hours until I had before me one sentence, as follows:
The human race comprises a pack of scoundrels: we who are taken in and given shelter, who eat and drink as much as we can and pay for nothing, and in gratitude play mean tricks.
This meager offering corresponded word for word with my own text. As I worked, I found that the Loturian notebook replaced precisely the first few sections of my manuscript. Or my manuscript replicated it. In bewilderment I painstakingly worked on my decoding, and in the end three questions rose up to face me: 1) What was the precise nature of my vision, such that I ended up transcribing a text that already existed? 2) Where were the other notebooks? and 3) Given that In the Silver Light of a Star That Is No Star is not a terribly long document, and that I imagined two or, at most, three notebooks could contain the entirety of what I wrote, albeit in the original Loturian, then were there further notebooks that either a) contained other secret works that captured further numinous visions or b) extended this narrative, so that my own vision amounted to no more than a trifling excerpt from a vast and formidable epic? I was getting caught up in it all, struck—dazzled—by the possibility that I could know more than what I knew already, that what I had seen was a story somehow plucked from Ingeborg Nilsen’s mad dreams, and that there was far more to it that dangled beyond my reach.
For guidance, I perused the other journals. The English one, already sufficiently familiar, seemed to contain little of relevance to my soul’s most pressing questions. Thus it seemed that the Norwegian one would have to be tackled.
One corner of the inside back cover indicated a year: 1991, three years prior to her book’s publication. I chose more entries at random, plugging them into the online translator to see what koans might be found:
June 1. Good weather. High of 20°. Did the shopping. Dinner alone.
August 17. Far too hot. High of 28°. Dinner with I & P.
October 1. Good weather. Strange dream last night. S. says [illegible].
Though this last entry featured little of interest, it could not help but grab my attention. Fortune had found me, and I had in turn found Nilsen, with her usual taciturn approach she took in the Norwegian diary, as she recorded a Happening—a strange dream. It made me wonder. And so I perused subsequent entries:
October 2. Good weather. Far colder in Loturia. Dream came again last night. S says [illegible].
October 3. Weather tolerable. Already 0° in Loturia. Very dark this time of year, here as well as there.
October 4. Cold today. Still 0° in Loturia. The star can be seen tonight.
From October 1 onward, Nilsen assiduously recorded minutiae relating to Loturia. All of a sudden—it seemed to me, as her voyeuristic reader—Loturia had sprung up in her mind and took up lodging there.
It was impossible to track her composition of the Loturian notebook alongside the other ones, for only her personal diary contained dates. I found it difficult, too, to track her conception of it. Suddenly, it was there, and she recorded pointless data about it such as I have recorded above. Only very occasionally—twice, to be more specific, at least in those notebooks I had in my possession—did she offer more substantive comments. To wit:
Nov. 16. First snow of the year, rather late. But still v. cold in Loturia where winter never ends. The center of Loturia darts like a pinball, back and forth. So hard to trace.
Dec. 5. Mild weather today. Some snow. So easy to lose oneself in Loturia. At the edges of sight, on the furthest fringe of consciousness.
An uncharacteristically verbose pair of passages, to be sure, at least where this notebook is concerned. So far as I can tell, Ingeborg dwelled on Loturia incessantly, attempting only occasionally to capture it in words. As for her other work, when she reached the end of A Metaphysics of the Unreal, she never did embark on further philosophical inquiry. Yet to frame it in that way would suggest her failure in that realm, and it has become clear to me that A Metaphysics of the Unreal represents an offshoot of her primary work, that is, her study of Loturia. She spent a lifetime, it seems, immersing herself within the metaphysics of the unreal, and in that one volume she captured her theory; otherwise she occupied herself with praxis. Or perhaps separating theory from praxis is not only impracticable and unwise but impossible; and her published book represents the most accessible (harrowing though even that journey may be) entrée into her world. It is not the most direct: that would be In the Silver Light of a Star That Is No Star, which, I hoped, would soon be accessible and thus ready to crack open susceptible heads. At the same time, my attitude was rapidly changing. My efforts had demonstrated that I was lost in a story that had swallowed me up wholeheartedly. My plan for a hoax had turned out to be an act of precognition—evidently—and my intentions likewise changed: I could not count on my plan to expose the fools for what they were, buying into a falsified framework designed to entice them, for the framework was real. And so? Perhaps my mission had greater merit, not the exposure of folly but the delivery of ideas so powerful I am tempted to designate them as sacred.
Devoted so assiduously to my work, body strained, eyes bleary, soul burdened, heart troubled, and mind perplexed by Loturian mystery, I worked, paying no heed to the outside world. It did the same for me. Our mutual relationship is typically marked by a gracious disregard and a policy of noninterference. Both of us doubled down in the interval in which Nilsen’s notebooks held me in their thrall.
When I resurfaced, fully enmeshed in unreality, and unconvinced of the value of my project—though convinced, by contrast, of the value of Nilsen’s—I felt as though I had emerged into some other world entirely. I lurched about. I muttered to myself.
At last I decided to venture outside.
First I checked my mailbox, eager to ascertain whether further missives from the unknown awaited me—rather, had been sent to me by that unknown interlocutor or benefactor or assailant. With such glee and such trepidation—heart beating, eyes lit by a madness that flourished within and without—I crept toward the box, key in hand, and eagerly shoved it in the narrow crevice that embraced it. But the box proved empty.
I moved past the rows of loathsome boxes and outside, inhaling the fresh air that I had not breathed for many days. A sidewalk in the middle of a city in the middle of a desert, where I live, offers little respite for isolated pedestrians. Not for such as me, nor for canines, such as an elderly one I then spied, walking slowly, her tiny black body making little impression on the pavement. I watched her and watched the tall nondescript man whom she led, struck as though seeing another human for the first time—as though I had never before set foot in society.
On the sidewalk in the city in the desert, it was dark. The cold dry air of night had fallen, and it appeared that the city was empty save for us three, at least so far as I could see. It was a pleasure to stroll in the calm nocturnal air. I watched again as the dog raised her nose and sniffed and likewise relished the time, the night, the walk, the air—luxury.
Then I turned, hugging the building. I began to hear a soft sound issue from the direction in which I perambulated, now alone. A sound, not soft but harsh, grating: deep creak or croak. My first thought was that the sound of a film issued from someone’s window to my ears: a horror film. For I also saw, I thought, a soft glow just ahead—a glow of silver light.
But I knew what lay ahead: a set of glass doors that led to a pool that was closed for the night, available to us residents despite that I had never used it, and, besides, closed to all save the residents of the building in which I lived.
The croaking continued. It sounded like it could be a voice, could even be a voice contorted to the dictates of language, though who could say which language. It rose and fell, as in a recitation. It came from just ahead, and, as in a horror film, I felt helpless but to continue to move, a faint fear bubbling up in me as much as a desire to know that sound’s source.
I moved, briefly looking around me for the dog and her tall owner, but they had moved beyond my sight.
As I proceeded, I saw, standing before the glass doors, a woman. A brief glance told me that she was very old, brown hair leaking out of a scarf—perhaps—wrapped around her head. She wore a very long coat or a skirt. When I passed, she turned to look at me, and I understood it was she who was croaking.
It sounded like language, a tongue unknown to me. She stared at me and continued her solemn recitation, which was impossible to decipher, impossible even to transcribe, miscellaneous syllables jumbled together, with nothing such as syntax or meaning to bring them to order.
I did not know what I had encountered. Was she addled by drink or drug, clawing at the door to be let in? Was she touched by the void, its immaculate malice enwrapping her mind entirely, speaking in her voice to deliver a message about—what? The darkness that had then overtaken the desert? An occulted menace lodged deep within the sands, which now and then saw fit to claim a vessel and which now and then maneuvered to claim more? Was she an ancient witch, her life extended far beyond nature’s petty confines, who spoke in devil’s tongue? For a few seconds, within that peculiar light, all seemed possible, though it is true that what was happening seemed distinctly unreal. It was as though I had taken a wrong turn on the sidewalk and stumbled into a different realm.
I moved, and so did she, though it was easy to overtake her.
Eventually, the sound died down. Had the woman turned away? Back to the glass or toward some other unlucky desert denizen? I would not turn back to look. Having, I thought, placed some distance between us, I glanced back and saw her, at the other end of the long city block, and she might have been staring at me.
Dread-curdled, wary, I picked up the pace. I went inside and locked the door. And when I woke in the night to a sound that might have been a croak—that might have been, must have been, the remnant of a dream, not a sound that bored its way to me from out the window—I thought about the world’s many nameless things, its innumerable and recalcitrant secrets, and whoever she was downstairs who knew a few, and I peered into the darkness and felt that I, too, knew at least a few of them.
About the Author
Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in Lightspeed, Weird Horror, Black Warrior Review, Post Road, and elsewhere.