Contest: The Day’s Foremost Hour

Sweaty fingers worked away at a wiry beard, the man’s nose defying powder and shining under the studio lights. He was flushed, a psoriatic redness beginning at the temples had worked its way down his neck. More than nervous, he proved excited and excitable—a combination that tends to look, functionally, like camera-shyness—talking away behind a water-filled coffee mug. This sort of agitation is to be considered central given our contemporary concern, which is one of agitation. The whole effect came off as very warm, that special sort of sauna/Eastern Seaboard heat that is at once foggy and feverish. At 11:55 PM March 21, 1989, the man who discovered Heaven addressed America’s late-night audience from The Tonight Show couch.

“Though Swedenborg’s eschatological account makes problematic even the possibility of a conception of Heaven as situated in space and time, I do believe that a general topography should prove useful—even ‘necessary’—for our purposes. I ‘believed’, rather, that such a mapping would prove useful for my purposes. Which purposes include-slash-included but were and are not limited to: confirmation of the discipline’s object of study as proper object, empirical verification of an afterlife conceived as such, and other reasons of no small ontological and personal consequence that I found-slash-find hard to ‘articulate.’ Consider any word occurring in scare-quotes—air-quotes, rather—as being placed under a great deal of theoretical ‘stress.’ Well: I’m sure I needn’t tell you or your viewers that such a cartography proved difficult. Extremely so.”

Addressed is probably the wrong word— the show having been pre-taped for broadcast during the late-night slot since 1959 when it was under Jack Paar. His address, rather, was televised at 11:55 PM, given in front of Carson and his live audience sometime in the early afternoon. Loren Asher had arrived punctually that morning on the Burbank, California lot— NBC Studio One, 3000 West Alameda Avenue— landing in Bob Hope Airport the previous day after a cross-country flight and renting a car on arrival. Asher’s being featured as guest was in keeping with the longstanding tradition of Vidal/Mailer/Sagan public-intellectual types’ occasionally gracing the program’s upholstered couch with their corduroyed presence, this tradition again a holdover from Paar-era broadcasts. Show producer Fred de Cordova had lobbied hard for Asher, despite Johnny’s concern about the academic’s camera-readiness. Moreover, the interview had necessitated bumping a well-regarded commercial actress and retooling that particular episode’s Carnac sketch. De Cordova had insisted, using the phrase “return to form.”

“Heaven has no brighter star than our next stellar guest, that omnipotent master
of the East and former pedicurist to Howard Hughes, Carnac the Magnificent! I hold in my hand three envelopes. As anyone can plainly tell, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed…”

NBC had put Asher up in the Safari Inn—1911 West Olive Avenue—a small Burbank hotel that’d been built in 1955 and still retained its distinctive Eisenhower-era geometries. On arrival he’d discovered the hotel operated an airport shuttle service, which oversight he neutrally recorded and made note to file that afternoon’s rental away as work expense. Check-in had been uneventful, the porter friendly. The sun, the porter had said on being asked, could be counted on to hit the Safari Inn’s deco contours hard from the hours of 9:00am-5:00pm all year, shining off pristine concrete surfaces and pool furniture—lukewarm chlorine mixing with cigarette smoke and highway smells. By night the Inn’s neon sign invariably attracted a veritable cloud of moths, gnats, and water-bugs. Loren Asher would later find this estimation fair. On unpacking, he called his contact at NBC, an executive intern, to let the Broadcasting Company know that he’d gotten in fine, that his flight had been uneventful, that he knew how to get along, that his room was painted a fluorescent salmon, and that he planned to spend the night away doing work by correspondence on a small religious review that he ran alongside several other thinkers operating out of the Five College Consortium (of which Asher’s Mount Holyoke was and is a constitutive member). The television, mini-bar, drinking glasses, and telephone all went unused. The desk, bed, and shower situations left nothing to be desired.

“I’m struck at once by how horizontal your West is. Your highways, your beaches. The palm frond is horizontally oriented. This as opposed to the East’s deciduous forests and church-spires. In answer to your question, I find California very earth-obsessed—and very welcoming, thank you.”

Asher and Carson met briefly in the green room before their on-air conversation, the one accidentally cutting off the other’s handshake—making for a limp and awkward grappling of digits. Notable here is the fact that the host so rarely spoke with guests either before or after taping. Their meeting was otherwise friendly and forgettable. Johnny told Loren that he did not understand some of the finer points of his (Loren’s) discovery (“is that what you’re calling it?”), that he hoped that he (Loren) could explain himself in a plain English, that—more importantly—he hoped that he (Loren) could make himself known to what NBC could only assume was a lay-audience in a plain (“simple”) English, that he (Johnny) was more than pleased—delighted, even—to have Loren on the show tonight, a show that he knew (“just knew”) was going to go over swimmingly. Loren told Johnny that he was grateful to be had on, really delighted. Johnny flashed several winning smiles in the course of the exchange. Loren nodded and bobbed. Both maintained his fair share of eye contact and each left the discussion knowing that he had made himself known. On Carson’s stepping out, Asher proceeded to sit in silence on the room’s couch—which couch had once been on-set and was indeed a near perfect facsimile of the one now sitting opposite Johnny’s desk, retired after several seasons of use—taking to his notebook with abandon. He refused food but drank down a glass of ice water on being offered, politely declining further craft service and conversation in equal turn. The room, he was heard at one point to say out loud, was not in fact green.

“I guess you could say what I’m interested in is ecstatic experience. You see, what I’ve always found is—”

“That’s great. Save it for the show.”

By the late 1980’s, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson enjoyed a position of timeslot dominance—though at this point the program’s last half hour was long lost to Late Night with David Letterman, which move was stipulated in the result of 1980’s contract battle. Even still, competing programming at American Broadcasting Company, the ocular CBS Broadcasting Inc., and Murdoch’s recent upstart Fox Network held no candle to the American institution. Unbeknownst to either anyone on his writing or production staffs or at the NBC Network, Carson had been taping his nightly appearances from the television set in his Malibu home—22240 Pacific Coast Highway—since the advent of Videocassette recording, choosing the winning side (by happy accident) in the VHS/Betamax format war from the very beginning. Johnny kept his cassette collection in a series of unmarked cardboard boxes, themselves stacked towards the back of the man’s walk-in closet. This despite the fact that he had access to canisters full of stock detailing the entirety of his broadcasting history and any number of screening rooms in which he could be virtually guaranteed privacy on-lot at Studio One. Those who knew (read: the person who knew) of his habit assumed that the instinct must have been curatorial, seeing that he never once watched a single tape. This estimation is not too far wrong. The comfort, rather, was in the fact that an entire career was to be found within the cassettes’ geometrizing vinyl and magnetic tape, that this career could be said to be his in more sense than one, that he could take it as matter of faith that archival evidence of himself as broadcasting behemoth was to be found within the confines of the very same room in which he kept his cardigans and coats.

“—of course I’m pleased with the ratings. Just how excited about the numbers do you need me to be?”

The audience erupted into dutiful applause as Asher appeared from the wing and made his way across stage. It was the acoustics more than anything that served to unsettle. The stage-picture and set-up were familiar enough, snuggly framed diptych of host and guest. By contrast, live participation’s sonic texture versus that of at-home-viewing was alien, tinny, the entire effect two parts underwater to one part tunneled. An inhalation and he gathered himself, walking across the way and finding his place. Asher sank into the set’s couch immediately on sitting, appeared to be melting into it, looking now more overly-comfortable than stage-frightened.   Thank you so much: it was great to be here tonight. Moving entirely from the shoulders, he tried simultaneously to right his posture, orient himself towards Johnny, and cheat out towards the camera, the unfortunate fact being that both flesh and fabric gave far too much. This look would read to most viewers as “deflated.” He flashed a smile before beginning his pitch.

“Our next guest is the author of Super-Cosmology and the Material. Please join me in welcoming—”

The particulars of Loren Asher’s super-cosmological discovery were well-detailed in discipline literature, attracting the collective eye of both the most and least materially-minded of Religious Studies scholars. Published in his own, co-edited Five Colleges Religious Revue, the original essay outlining Asher’s matter and method proved to be a pan-academic coup, commanding the attention of any thinkers at all professionally or personally invested in the psycho-spiritual. His argumentation was flawless, or at least had tendencies toward flawlessness, airtight reasoning followed through to logical extremity—concession of any one first principle making cogent refutation of conclusion impossible. The Celestial as mappable— in fact, mapped. The After-Life spatially realized and understood. Heaven outlined in beautifully rendered, to-scale detail. Which is to say that Loren Asher’s incumbent status as public intellectual was and went uncontested: Asher a name to which people now desperately wanted to put a face, now one of that rarefied group of people that lives to see his name employed as adjective in his own lifetime. From the original polemic followed a series of addendums and responses, lending further nuance to the near-fully realized—these works forming the structural backbone of what would be Super-Cosmology and the Material, which saw five printings on a university press and was currently pushing a sixth. Implication and impact quickly became interdisciplinary, Asher’s original paper and later book becoming footnote staples and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the general-interest imprint of umbrella brand Random House, expressing interest in concentrating and consolidating some of the earlier essays—most of which were prohibitively dense—into a pop-theology paperback for mass market sale. Talks of all variety were ongoing.

“Heaven is a geography.”

“Could you say that a little slower for the folks at home?”

Their talk was formally rote and palatable enough, certainly no problems on that front. Johnny and Loren exchanged their hellos. So: what is it that we had here? Eye-contact would prove to be Asher’s most immediately apparent and salient failure of stage-business—Loren, coached to speak with Johnny as if in conversation (because they were, after all, in conversation) still unsure at the level of instinct precisely how much to engage camera and crowd. Though he knew intellectually the answer to this was “not at all”, that both were categorically absent insofar as he was concerned, this fact must have failed to register on some level. Between every third sentence his gaze would follow the inevitable peripheral tug and he found himself face-to-face with one slack-jawed audience member or another or, worse, the unblinking lens—behind which, magnetic tape neutrally and forever preserved his acknowledgment of the camera as such. These encounters were relatively minor and contained. In such instances Johnny, consummate professional, would pull Loren back into dialogue with another question, whether or not the book was hard to write, whether or not there was in fact a Pearly Gates. Which there was and is, but you’d be surprised what they use it for. Asher also experienced a minor crisis in minute three wherein he forgot what it was that he normally did with his hands, whether it looked more natural to hold or to fold, though this was quickly resolved by employment of the abovementioned water mug. All of this by way of saying that Asher wasn’t at all nervous, or, not so much nervous as made uncomfortably aware of himself and his movement.

“To ask whether or not God is positively existent is to be formulating the wrong question. Or type of question, anyway. But— but for our purposes: yes. Otherwise there’d be no book.”

Asher’s method of access to the Sublime was an idiosyncratic Transcendental Meditation of an altogether different, less mantra-centric blend from that of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi combined with a vast array of neural imaging technologies—CT Scan and MRI combining to create detailed tomography of Asher’s brain-state as his psyche explored extra-planarly. Through method of digital geometry processing, a three dimensional model was created by analysis of Asher’s response to Paradise’s sensory stimuli, these proofs double-checked by Asher on his return to Earth’s logic—though the axiomatic fact that the Super-Cosmological proceeds as emanation presented many cartographical problems, not the least of which included establishing a True versus Magnetic North and the question of whether or not a fourth geographic coordinate bore introducing. The actual experience of being there—situated in Heaven, if we can speak of such things in the vocabulary of presence and absence— Asher described to Carson as super-saturated, everything lent a dream-scale importance. Space moves temporally and shape is a question of formal causation. A few notes: The angels have wings but are flightless, the concept of flight being largely contingent upon spatial orientation. The Judeo-Christian eschatological concept of the World to Come is an invention, a sort of anti-creation myth. Our Christ is not the messianic carpenter as surely as our cross is not His, this formation of the Son of God arising from an imposition upon event that is neither historically nor theologically supported. Which is to say that previous readings of the Swedenborgian and Scholastic variety were and are decidedly anthropocentric in their analysis, probably cause for a great deal of ethnographic concern, this conflating God as Man for God is Man. Oh—Heaven is also a heat, as much or more than it is a location. It is a white heat and light that serves to tunnel the vision. It also involves a fair share of nakedness before the unblinking eye of the Creator, Himself forever and vengefully recording. To be there (again the question of being there) is more exciting than nerve-wracking, though super-planar excitation tends to look, functionally, a lot like nerves. As to the question of whether or not Heaven is an end, Asher had to concede that we don’t know just yet—but the best minds were working on just that, their nearest answer so far being that Heaven exists as either diachronic cross-section or synchronic series depending on which way you care to slice it.

“Thanks for being here tonight.”

“Thank you.”


Drew Dickerson is a writer living in Chicago. He has written previously at The Onion and ClickHole. His fiction has appeared at Queen Mob's Tea House and The Fanzine. He tweets here: @DrewLDickerson

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