OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.
A number of possible responses to this announcement have crossed my mind. Since I’ve always regarded Sir Toby’s as occupying that indistinct space between reality and fantasy, that’s what I offer here. I imagine that Peter, in the process of compiling this book, had asked me to write a Preface: what might I have said?
Though I’ve not researched the matter, I suspect that Sir Toby’s had been mentioned on OST before I first started commenting on this site two and a half years ago (can it really have been that long?). I’m referring now to the “real” Sir Toby’s, which is a hostel in Prague owned and operated by paulchen, a friend of Peter’s whom I believe was once a regular contributor to OST discussions. I had just overcome my initial hesitancy to make a fool of myself in the online threads here when Peter put up a post entitled “OST in Prague.” Dated 12 October 2006, the post begins thusly:
“OST conversations continued in Prague last weekend, where Annelise and I enjoyed a very pleasant meal with paulchen, his wife and sister. The chicken roulade accompanied by a light red wine was in all respects a good choice. Emerging theology is shy of definitions and conclusions, averse to systems and summaries, but the mixture of postmodern and neomodern discussion proved entertaining. The backpackers’ hostel The Czech Inn is thoroughly to be recommended to any wishing to try it. Sir Toby’s also held out attractions, and no doubt Miss Sophie’s also - each overseen by paulchen.”
In the two paragraphs that follow, Peter offers abbreviated observations about Prague, noting especially the contrast between the city’s medieval architecture and the structural reminders of Kafka’s uncanny modern presence. “An extraordinary city,” Peter concludes, “a wonderful weekend.” On the subject of OST theological conversation, however, Peter elaborated not at all. For nearly a week this brief and enigmatic post remained uncommented-upon. Finally my curiosity could be quelled no longer. In the comment box I asked Peter two brief questions: “What theological events took you to this place? Is there anything to report discourse-wise?” “Yes, tantalizingly vague, Sam Carr added later that day; …just too tantalizing!” On the following day Virgil chipped in with a personal memoir concerning an unpleasant encounter with the Prague police. Peter maintained his silence, and so I wrote another comment:
“I begin to suspect gnostic messages embedded in Peter’s brief verbal sketch, alluding perhaps to some mysterious cabal of theologians converging on this picturesque yet corrupt outpost of the medieval. The allusion to Kafka is the key to the riddle, alerting the, er, alert reader that everything isn’t quite what it seems. Coded phrases can be detected in the text: “best kept secrets,” “hovering between east and west,” “astonishingly complete and perfectly preserved,” “religious conflicts,” “light red wine.” And Sir Toby and Miss Sophie — just who are these two mysterious personages, and how did they come under the dominion of the eminence grise in this affair, this “paulchen.” We await further enlightenment from our reticent guide…”
This one seemed to have done the trick: a day later Peter responded. After issuing the standard demurrals – “It was actually just a weekend break,” etc. – Peter acknowledged something significant about himself: “I do tend to fantasise; a social event can very easily become a conference of international significance in my mind, with a bit of linguistic tweaking.”
Immediately afterward paulchen arrived on the thread: “we did talk about OST though… we did talk about theology a bit.” At this point paulchen introduced the theological topic he and Peter had discussed, which over the subsequent two days unleashed a string of comments on the thread involving several participants, including paulchen, Peter, Sam, and one Stacy Barton, a fiction writer and playwright extending a plea for a more narrative-based theological discourse.
I, however, had gotten captivated by the fictionalized Sir Toby’s which we had begun to sketch out before the serious theologizing commenced. I should note that, while as a younger man I had spent a decade of my life as an evangelical, it had been some twenty years since I had engaged in theological discussions of the sort that unfold themselves regularly on OST. To me OST itself seemed like some sort of dizzying confluence poised between the medieval and the postmodern. I was still new to the blog world, and the near-anonymity of the theological discussants contributed to my already-heightened sense of the unreality of the online conversations and debates. I suppose that’s why I veered far off-topic with a new comment that began like this:
“Stepping in from the weak cold rain that had been falling for as long as anyone could remember, John hung his cloak on the peg by the door and slumped into an empty chair by the fire. The wench brought him a beaker and, raising it in good cheer to the assembled theologians, he quaffed deeply and spoke.”God knows I’m not an emotional man, nor a kindly one. Some might deem me cautious; others, arrogant.” John waived his hand dismissively. He filled his pipe and, plucking a glowing twig from the edge of the fire, slowly coaxed the dried leaves to smoldering life. Not without irritation did the others wait for the emissary to continue. “Wouldn’t this be more…,” John hesitantly began. “Imagine if all this were imaginary? The cabal, the inn, even the endless rain, each one of us – all conjured by the imagination.”…”
First to reply was Stacy the storyteller and narrative theologian: “see? stories. they dont explain; they tell what we wonder.” Then came Peter with a longer reply, of which I reprint only the opening:
“By now the weak rain had hardened into a persistent drizzle. Obscure breeds of dogs were nipping at the feet of the inn’s increasingly numerous clientele, all seeking refuge from the inclement weather outside. An occasional yelp arose above the steady murmur of conversation as the dogs were kicked unceremoniously aside. The theologians pondered at the profundity of the remark that had just been offered by the wise elderly man with the flowing grey beard, who now quaffed contentedly at his Daicka. At that moment, a sharp rap at the door interrupted the reverie. P. looked up. Someone must have been telling lies about P, for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested that murky evening…”
And so it was that Sir Toby’s first opened its doors onto an alternative reality within OST, a homely and congenial place for any visitor who wished to participate in ongoing interactive storytelling as a respite from, or perhaps an extension of, the serious theological discourses and disputes for which the site has achieved its well-deserved reputation. As I look back on these earliest manifestations of what would become the Sir Toby Chronicles, I see again with clarity not only the promise extended by this strange portal, but also the forces that would — in my view anyway, if not in Peter’s; of course neither of us can speak for the other occasional contributors and readers — preclude the full realization of that promise…
(Further installments in this imaginary Preface to Peter’s book may or may not follow.)