After Charley’s death in the wake of Bill’s, Dos Passos’ politicians, businessmen, socialists, and PR men seem more insidious than ever, and they highlight Geismar’s observation that "we live in the revolutionary age which Jack London, before Dos Passos himself, had prophesied in The Iron Heel, an age of terrorism, disguise, shifting personalities, and anonymous men." And that’s exactly where we’re left at the end of U.S.A., with a nameless "vag" thumbing a ride somewhere in America, while a DC-3 glistens overhead, Charley Anderson’s dream of commercial flight come to life, and he’s not there to live it.
No "Middle" in Middle America,
No Aristotle in the Academy
Kelly Ann Hampton
Kelly Hampton recently completed a multi-year indoctrination program at the University of Oregon (also known as graduate study in English literature). Having been persuaded that that discipline would not currently welcome the kind of contribution she had hoped to make, she is applying herself to what has become the more mannerly and inquisitive field of print journalism.
Something about native ground draws even the most committed wanderer back to the place he or she was born. Perhaps that’s why after slightly over a year of daring to wade through the insanity of Eugene’s claim to fame, the University of Oregon, I finally returned to the more familiar insanity of the Bible Belt. Camden, Tennessee, may be an insignificant speck on the map where the big topics are the football game with close neighbor Bruceton, and the KKK presence in neighbor Big Sandy. (The joke in Camden is the cliché that all Big Sandy residents are inbred. Makes the folks in Camden feel a bit less red neck themselves.) But, by golly, it’s home to this Southern gal.
Don’t get me wrong. Oregon is beautiful. I loved the mountains, and the ocean was breathtaking to someone like me who’d never seen it. Someday I may go back. Still, after a while of hanging with those whose ideas and politics are frankly as alien as a planet in Star Trek, one longs for the devil one knows. After over a year of pink or rainbow triangles, National Coming Out Week, Anti-Columbus Day, and protests of everything from police brutality and genetically engineered food to sweatshops, I found the typical unashamed narrow-minded bigotry back home almost comforting. Of course, I know it won’t last. Familiarity is often a deceptive lull. Leave a mouse in a cage with a snake recently fed, and the mouse may live happily for a month or so. He may even learn to like the snake. Then one day, the snake decides he’s hungry and, snap, it’s curtains for little Fuzzy Ears.
I suppose the honeymoon of being home started to wear off when I found myself shaking my head at two people debating whether to tag members of the homosexual community and use them for game hunting on reserves, or simply put them on trial for their sin and execute them. Of course, I don’t believe they meant it. Yet the fact that they said it troubles me. One thing was certain, Dorothy was not in Eugene anymore, land of the "No on 9" campaign (the inevitable resistance to a measure that prohibited promoting homosexuality in public schools). Where I am now, those desperate to defend some ground on behalf of much-butchered morality have no need for this measure. If it were presented, very few would oppose it.
Upon overhearing the tasteless mock-debate about homosexuals, I couldn’t help but recall my experiences with the liberal politics of Eugene and wonder, are there any moderates left? Is there any space between the people chanting (pardon me here) "Kill the fag!", beating up boys like Matthew Shepherd, and leaving them to die, and the other extreme of GLAAD’s ridiculous persecution of Dr. Laura for daring to call homosexuality wrong? What’s happened to people today? Have they all gone so far right or left that they’ve taken leave of their senses, or is it just me?
If these experiences have taught me anything, it is that I sincerely dislike extremes. Something about them offends my dedication to good common sense. Gay rights is just one such issue that polarizes people. I could cite many others. Is anyone else sick of both the Left’s staunch refusal to be content with anything short of abortion on demand and the extreme Right’s blowing up clinics and shooting doctors professedly in the name of God? Frankly, as a woman, I find abortion somewhat less than liberating, and as a Christian I find shooting a person in the name of unborn life hypocritical.
Of course, I realize that most people do not subscribe to these extremes. It just seems that way because the extremists are more vocal and get more media attention. This is why I feel perhaps the best solution is the creation of more forums for reasonably-minded people to express themselves, the defense of polite discussion, and the actual thinking about issues rather than the spouting of one-sided dogma.
God bless Aristotle, he knew this between 384 and 322 B.C. After all, what is his Golden Mean but a call to weigh extremes and look for the sensible compromise between both? As society produces more and more polarized political lunatics, I further appreciate this idea and cling to it as a bastion of reason. Sometimes ancient philosophy and wisdom isn’t about keeping your head in the clouds and thinking deep thoughts. Sometimes it’s just good common sense.
Take the new collection of what I (and others) call "isms". Beginning with racism and sexism, the list has gotten so skewed it has become difficult to tell the valid complaints from the pure absurdity. I recently got accused of "age-ism" for the obviously biased suggestion that parents be permitted to have some input in their children’s moral education. My views on record-labeling apparently are not considered politically correct: some even deem them to be an oppressive form of censoring children. Gee, and in my narrow mind I was arrogantly and patronizingly thinking I was protecting children all the time that I was really supporting patriarchal values. How unenlightened of me!
Of course, casting off the sarcasm here and shaking my head, I have to acknowledge that children are abused. Sometimes so violently that they die. We cannot cut off avenues of social service that are necessary for dealing with actual harm. However, anyone with an iota of sense can see that telling a child he or she cannot purchase a CD full of violence and obscenity and beating a child to death are miles apart. Frankly, I adore children, even if I don’t believe them born innocent. They have some of the best simple insights, and are almost always quick with a sincere smile and hug when someone who shows them a little affection from time to time is present. I suppose that’s why, in my opinion, equating refusal to purchase a child-inappropriate entertainment with child abuse mocks the seriousness of real child abuse when it occurs. The first is done in tough love. The second is a monstrosity I cannot even comprehend.
Sensible people have to learn to make similar distinctions in other cases, as well. I had a roommate at U of O who, bless her, believed every sob story the animal rights activists at the university told. I tried to encourage her to consider the source of her information, but with no luck. She reacted as if I must absolutely hate animals. I can tell you I don’t. Around two years ago, I even broke down for two days over the death of my cat. I certainly believe animals, especially pets, ought to be treated humanely. As for the bandwagon protest against hunting and fishing that equates them with murder, forget it. This doesn’t mean I support poaching and trophy-hunting—but hey, railing against honest sportsmanship which procures food to eat? The same logic would condemn everyone of murder who isn’t a vegetarian.
It gets bad on the other side, too. I know a man whose "good ole boy" roots have left him with attitudes the Neanderthals would consider primitive. One of his favorite phrases was "stupid woman", uttered as if it were a redundancy. His taste in jokes ranged from the crude and perverse to racial humor that was more than offensive. His epithets for women (myself included) and non-Caucasians would be classic for academia’s worst redneck stereotype. I don’t find any of it worth repeating, but I don’t want our frustration with the absurdity of the Left to make us forget that brutes like this exist just because the Left has been in control of our culture for a while.
I also don’t want the fact that some lunatics have tied themselves to trees and even committed acts of domestic terrorism to make us all forget that some environmental safeguards are needed, and that the ones we have should be enforced. Of course, these ultra-green fanatics have gone off the deep end with regard to the issue, but our planet does need responsible stewards. The best means of stewardship at the moment is not more legislation, but finding better ways of enforcing the rules in place. There are so many cases of squeezing around, and even blatantly defying, existing laws that the system needs to patch those holes first.
I see hate crimes from a similar perspective. If we can’t reach people’s hearts and enforce the full extent of the law for actual cases of murder and brutality, further legislation will not help. Other approaches are needed. Yes, these things occur; but when one incident in Oregon of a gay rights supporter’s locker being vandalized was referred to as a hate crime, the concept starts to lack validity. At this point, it starts to look like an attempt at thought-control. The same goes for lumping the Oregon Citizens Alliance in with a list of Hate Groups because they submitted Measure 9. The people who make such inflammatory accusations are showing that they don’t differentiate between non-hateful people with moral concerns about teaching homosexuality to children and Neo-Nazi skinheads.
At the end of this long tirade and catalogue of crazies, my point is simple. We have to start giving a voice to those reasonable enough to avoid extremes. It is time to start realizing the folly of being so far Left that a person who eats a hamburger is a murderer in your eyes, and the equal folly of being so far Right that you believe a hunting season should be created for certain groups of people. The former person trivializes a real offense, and the latter makes the former right by committing the offense. Of course, my stance on many of these issues is likely to offend people at either extreme: moderates like me are finding it more and more difficult to fit into an increasingly polarized culture. However, I remain dedicated to my belief that some people will understand what I am saying, and that the Golden Mean can indeed be located. I also believe that some people are still willing to think instead of react emotionally. Call me a crazy optimist, but in the end I believe that you just can’t fight good sense. It lurks too deep down in our gut to go away. back to top
Semper Inutile: In Praise of the Useless
John R. Harris
Yet here we are in a modern world which had promised everything to the artist but soon will leave him no more than a means of meager subsistence, if that much. Founded upon the two counter-natural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful, multiplying without any possible limit its needs and its burden of servitude, destroying the soul’s leisure, withdrawing the material factibile from a regulation which scaled it to the ends of the human being, and imposing upon man the machine’s pantng and matter’s accelerated motion, the nothing not of this earth system has stamped upon human activity a truly inhuman character—and a diabolical direction, as well. For the final end of all this delirium is to prevent man from remembering God: "while he ponders nothing eternal, he implicates himself in sins."
Accordingly, man must logically treat all that carries the mark of the spirit by any title whatever as useless, and hence rebuked.
It may even be necessary that heroism, truth, virtue, and beauty become useful—the best, the most faithful instruments of propaganda for temporal powers.
It seems to me that the sentiments of Maritain which I have translated above might very well (if compressed to one line) be our collective epitaph. Useful! What a word! As I grow older (and something within me is aging at an accelerated rate these days), I appear to be developing a downright passion for that which we never use. Old books that no one wants… old office machines and garden tools that elicit vigorous manual labor… toys without batteries or controls, boxed up these forty years, that I introduce to my son as a lump rises in my throat. Things that don’t quite fit: procedures that demand constant adjustment. Water boiled rather than microwaved, leaves raked rather than blown, shoes fastened by laces rather than Velcro.
The hard way—yes, that’s part of it. The useless is the inconvenient, and the inconvenient is the hard. When you do hard things, you suffer—and nothing could be more anti-contemporary, more un-American, than suffering. The life we are trained to crave, and apparently do crave, is one which our hi-tech gadgetry practically lives for us. Having pushed the button or clicked the icon which sets all in motion, we might as well be paraplegics: nothing remains of us but a gut to digest the food. And since pushing a button or clicking an icon is a mere nervous twitch for our marvelous machines, why should they continue to need us for that initiating twitch? They might as well turn themselves on and off—or count the stars rather than surf the Net for a shoe sale. We’re wasting their time. Our gut is inconvenient. We are loathsome little parasites employing the key to the universe as a back-scratcher. I suspect that those who fear the supplanting of humanity by its created race of robots have good cause for alarm. After all, if robots are supremely useful to us, we are becoming ever more useless to them.
A recent issue of The U.S. News and World Report reviewed the "best" graduate programs in the country. Not surprisingly, the association of "best" with "most likely to inaugurate a lucrative career" was never contested: there is a kind of self-evidence to the general public about the goodness of marketability. Indeed, any other definition of the good requires some very adroit explaining in our culture, and would probably convince few even with the aid of an angelic eloquence. The good is the useful. The useless is not sought after, hence there is no market for it or profit in it, hence one will starve preaching its gospel, hence it is attended by ruin and death. Be useful or die. Of course, the magazine offered a sunny forecast for those with advanced degrees in such benign fields as medical technology and education: building websites and freeways isn’t the only way to bring home the bacon. But the more philanthropic endeavors were presented in the same old utilitarian terms. The disease business is booming in our pain-averse, overfed society, and the anti-authoritarian barbarity of our children has placed the shrunken ranks of teachers in an enviable bargaining position. I couldn’t read much philanthropy between the lines.
Allow me to argue for the moment, however (and without the scare tactic of a robotic insurrection), that the useful, and not the useless, promises an existence of suspended animation—of lifelessness. Be useful and die. Get an advanced degree in technology and vegetate. You certainly don’t need it to survive: you can survive by mowing lawns, painting houses, or collecting garbage. These latter means of support are distinguished by inconvenience, to be sure. They all involve quite enough manual labor to work up a sweat. Hence they pay little, though enough to get by: for in a society which prizes convenience, necessary bother is well remunerated only if most people truly dread it. Garbage-collecting is not dreadful, merely irksome. And what else but irksome bother separates, say, the painter’s job from the bureaucrat’s? Not servility of toil, surely: both laborers work a full day. If anything, the painter is the one who walks away free after washing out his brushes. The bureaucrat may very well carry drudgery home in a satchel, and a beeper will be riveted to him over weekends and vacations. His chains are numerous and thick. Why, then, the presumed superiority of his work—why the usefulness of an advanced degree? Is it so useful, then, to enslave oneself for higher wages?
Useful to others, no doubt: a slave who has learned rare, recondite techniques. We assume that the slump-shouldered figure chained to briefcase and beeper deserves a fatter salary because he has studied longer than the painter to reach a state of mastery. Maybe so. It depends on the painter, doesn’t it… and on what you mean by painting. One could easily devote twenty years to studying under a great portraitist; and, in fact, people used to do so regularly before the bottom dropped out of the market for beauty (whose objectives are always poorly specified and, in that respect, highly inefficient). Leave the painter to one side, however. The slaving bureaucrat of tomorrow will by no means necessarily hold an advanced degree, or even a basic one, courtesy of our most convenient system of computer-guided instruction. A cab driver can get rich juggling stocks over the Net, and a high school kid can learn AutoCad more readily than a fifty-something engineer. Such "success stories" occur largely because encumbrances like core courses (a little history, less literature, a dash of Spanish) are already being bypassed. You will notice ever more in the future that graduate programs are actually chasing after rather than preparing "useful" people. The higher education scam itself grows more transparently redundant and expendable each day.
So maybe we pay the bureaucrat better because he thinks rather than sweats. That’s a sure sign of his enrollment into the ranks of the convenient, is it not? But this educated professional’s brain is chained to thinking about convenience, wherein lies all financial profit; and a truly intelligent person can sacrifice only so many years to refining the abortion pill in pursuit of fully convenient sex or developing a dashboard microwave in pursuit of a fully convenient pizza. A good brain, finally, will rebel… or maybe not. After all, the useful person is so generously paid that diversions are accessible to him which painters can only admire through the window while rolling an eave. He can afford extravagant home entertainment systems, exotic intoxicants (legal or otherwise), adult toys which race the wind, heated indoor swimming pools, vacations to virgin beaches and crystalline seas… surely a steady diet of such amusements would suffice to make all but the keenest minds forget the inanity of their high-priced daily labor. Naturally, these plug-in drugs and artificial paradises are themselves the source of new wealth, new graduate degrees, among the "useful class": one useful person supports another as Citizen X’s flight from the prison of usefulness creates opportunities for Citizen Y to enhance the flight’s convenience. Somebody designed your new DVD-player or cell phone with Internet hook-up while you were designing a quicker popcorn or a simpler credit card.
And thus you live, ever more by proxy and surrogate, ever more in snatches and excerpts, ever remoter from painters and gardeners, ever faster, ever easier, until at last your feet no longer skim the encumbering earth. In your geometrically progressive usefulness, you approach the frozen motion which unites relativistic speed with death. If you do not exactly die, you cease from the pain and annoyance of living. The ultimate luxury—the ultimate utility, since saving labor is definitively useful—must surely be the life support system. This is what you studied, prepared, toiled, invested, and prospered for: to rest in peace. To this wired, hermetically sealed sarcophagus points all the teleology of your life. Your degrees aimed at hi-tech employment, your employment aimed at high income, your income aimed at expensive luxuries, your luxuries aimed at elimination of effort—at life on a disk, in a head-set, within a waking dream where even the exertion of debauchery would be sublimated into the convenience of voyeurism…. What an efficient, useful existence you have come to lead, after all! You have tuned out the static of things undone and unfeasible, pared away gestures half-made or badly traced, and neutralized the very fear of time and death. For the stupor of an always and utterly convenient way of life blurs so subtly into death that the threshold finally vanishes.
It isn’t that pain is necessarily good for the soul. The motives which started Western civilization on this idolatry of the useful were honorable enough. Persistent hard labor can shorten the human lifespan quite literally, and anyone who has ever performed such labor even for a full day knows that it shuts down the mind into a brutal nullity. (Though I have no medical references at my fingertips, I sincerely believe that thinking consumes calories, and that the strained physique automatically restrains mental activity in a salutary stinginess.)2 There is nothing romantic about the life of a mule.
I do not even propose that we should leave a dash of inefficiency in things to give life some spice, just as we might give a novice a headstart or a handicap in a game at which we are masters. This would be supremely cynical. If there really is nothing much to life but reaching its end, then bring on the end. As well to face oblivion honestly: and what wit, in any case, would be shrewd enough to see the futility of everything yet dull enough, having seen so much, to get caught up in an illusion of complexity? If the useful were also the true, and if a series of shortcuts were to reveal our destination to be a great void, then the duty of all thoughtful people would be to face the void steadfastly.
My own conviction, however, is that all this useful shortcutting takes us far away from the truth. What we can never quite see, never quite grasp, is an integral part of what we see and grasp. If you mistrust mysticism, simply consider the logical antinomies that rest at the base of all physical science. Every event must have a cause, for nothing can spring from nothing in self-willed assertion; yet an infinitely regressive series of causes without any First Cause is also nonsense. Every object must be supported by elementary particles, for if any particle could always be further divided, there would be no originary resistance anywhere—just an onion whose infinite layers cave in upon themselves under pressure. Yet an elementary particle, by definition, would have to cohere inwardly and resist outwardly, which would give it a complex nature, which would make it into them. And some theoretical physicists still flatter themselves that the Big Bang, the truly atomic atom, is about to swim into their ken? What folly—only in the Age of Utility!
The truth must always have its inconveniences, its irrelevancies to favorite theories; and if this is true of physical science, how much more so must it be of affective reality! What we want is never quite what we want. Indeed, the more seriously we take our wants and the more earnestly we expect to fulfill them, the more we dislike what we get. We do not believe in the "missing piece", so we revile our possessions and conquests for betraying the promise of fulfillment they extended. We divorce our spouses for being less than perfect, we sue the manufacturer for a crack or scratch, we demand that the government force doctors to give us all one hundred good years… one hundred good years of what, I wonder? Of freedom from pain? Of sedated conscience? Of utter convenience—of suspended life?
If we are ever to live in truth, then we must live among missing pieces. We must, indeed, cultivate strategic abysses: poems with unclear symbols, feasts with empty chairs, altars shrouded in shadow. Labors with no very efficient mechanism. I’m sure that a leaf-blower can clear a yard much faster and with far less sweat than a rake… yet I am equally sure that our world is the poorer for lacking the muffled, distant rasp of rakes in autumn. A culture which has no rakes or buckets or latched gates—only blowers and taps and remote openers—is on its way to losing a stock of physical efforts from which the mind has always coined its guiding metaphors. Baudelaire once wrote (in "Chant d’automne") that the firewood being dumped on cobbled courtyards in preparation for winter sounded to him like nails driven into summer’s coffin. What would he write now: that the roofers’ nail-guns sounded like… like guns, you know—like the real guns they shoot on TV? Thanks to being starved of physical activity—not brutalizing toil, but simple manual tasks—our minds are suffering from a dearth of things which may be juxtaposed with other things. We loll back and await titillation, usually of the visual sort (and that usually of an electronic sort). We are not sensually drawn into our world, hence we have a deeply impoverished awareness of sensations which go together, which contrast, which are mysteriously similar though superficially distinct… in short, our intelligence has been shortchanged of images to process. Much has been written by others about how ignorant we are growing. Could we also be on the verge of a decline in basic mental capacity—is usefulness making us stupid?
Now that I am well into this subject, I find myself recalling (along with Maritain) Jacques Barzun’s just-published study of Western degeneracy, From Dawn to Decadence. I was grateful to Barzun for stressing at various points (e.g., his comments on Pascal) that the body/soul dichotomy so beloved of Western thought is indefensible.3 Socrates insists upon the division in works like Plato’s Phaedrus, and it obviously settled rather comfortably into Christianity once its extreme expression in Manichaeism was put down. Come on, now! A soul without hands and feet is like a body without breath! When did an imagination ever pursue a fantasy without objects and associations learned from experience? Or of what moral good is philosophic contemplation if a thug may silence your sage counsel by sticking a fist in your face? We must do widely in order to think richly, and we must do with determination in order to love righteousness. Down the path of convenience lies a fatal atrophy both our creative powers and of our moral temper. After too many shortcuts, a person begins to believe in the substantial value of earthly destinations—of the useful as a means to fulfillment. Once we no longer enter our gardens by a digressive stroll to the side gate, we forget the labor from which a garden is a repose, and we must settle for a quick glimpse at the variety from which gardens combine their harmony. Except as the hiding place for a pot of gold, the garden holds no further purpose for us.
If we do not recover our taste for inefficiency, inconvenience, and uselessness—that is, our respect for the spiritual cultivation available in activities with no rigid, exclusive material purpose—then we will lose our humanity. It’s that simple. We will become machines that create and sustain yet more efficient machines; and they, I must repeat, will eventually reach such high levels of efficiency that we will be discarded as inconveniences. (Professor Barzun misses the point when he calls absurd "the belief that ultimately computers would think—it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer."4 The point is that we are forgetting how to think in accepting the computer’s definition of convenience, and that we will eventually end up as incapable of irony as is our toy.) By the time our technology declares us obsolete, what case may we possibly make for our superiority? What reason will we ourselves have to covet life other than an animal instinct for survival?
Capitalism usually takes the rap for bringing us to this pass: the whole meretricious cycle of pandering to people’s lower nature (lust, laziness, frivolity), making them dependent upon their various "suppliers", debasing the manna’s quality while ratcheting up its market cost, spawning entire industries whose mission is ancillary to these coarse drugs and joys. The prospect of an entire society racing to work in poisonous, missile-like automobiles to hawk carcinogenic weight-loss pills and cardially ruinous fast foods would move the most resilient satirist to despair. Barzun portrays our misery well:
Hence advertising with its peculiar status of approved deceit and temptation. Since techne kept driving production, new appetites as well as old must be kept at a high level, and in effect rich and poor must be made to live with the sense of continual deprivation; there were always new necessities. Seeing this endless prodding and spending, often entailing perpetual indebtedness, thoughtful people inveighed against "the consumer society". It seemed animal-like in its concentration on filling physical wants. The consumer could have retorted that he was helpless; the standard of living was an official agent of oppression.5
Why couldn’t we have stayed down on the farm? Contemporary liberalism sounds this Arcadian lament in formulaic refrain—and I admit to being rather an Arcadian myself. Eat simple, work hard, remember that you must die in body, make your soul profit from its time within the body… why, what else have I just been writing! The trouble with liberalism is that is lacks the essential conservatism of any true Arcadian. Liberals do not eat simple—safely and "naturally", yes, but not simply; they do not forego exotic vacations to stay home and manure the fields—they expect to peek into Etna and trek across Alaska before they die; they do not accept death’s approach—they board up every tangible fissure in their mortality as if the thief were not already within; and they do not believe in the soul—only, occasionally, in some mystical gyration which will restore them to a renovated body. They are not Arcadians, but Utopians. Their war against the "usefulness" of capitalism is waged on the presumption of a superior usefulness all their own. They intend to put the garden to use, all right. Once they have saved it from unscrupulous developers, they will require us all to report at the charming old gate on our group’s appointed day and be indoctrinated into the proper enjoyment of trees by certified "guides". (On that day, an advanced degree in "garden guiding" will render one highly employable—by the state, of course.)
The utopian strain within liberalism accounts for its once having been the standard-bearer in technology’s march of progress. In the nineteenth century, arguing for better farm equipment or indoor plumbing or wider roads and faster means of transport was a liberal commonplace. Through technology, we were to make the world into a paradise for working-class families. It wasn’t until the fifties of our tormented twentieth century that having a station wagon to cruise the USA or a dish machine to free Mom from a sudsy basin took on a mawkishly bourgeois cast. By then, technological convenience and efficiency dwelt in the shadow of death camps and mushrooms clouds. A counter-trend of vilifying scientific progress as the harlot of greedy, wealthy interests behind the scenes has been going strong in liberalism now for half a century, at least.
The charge, unfortunately, only garbles the broader issue, even when it has specific merit. The liberal wants to make power plants stop polluting the air while prohibiting their owners from raising rates or laying off workers as a means of recouping "lost productivity". The filthy-rich dastards who run such operations (goes the charge) can well afford the few millions needed to filter pollutants if they will dig into their own whopping salaries. What we have here are two opposing versions of convenience: cheap, abundant energy for the masses versus full-throttle exploitation of every resource and technology available. Virtually nobody questions whether we actually need all the power we consume—I don’t mean whether we waste it, but whether, having made use more efficient, we still, in fact, need efficient convenience on such a scale. Nobody is arguing for our beleaguered humanity.
This argument should have fallen to the philosophic conservative—i.e., the person who is inclined intellectually and morally to conserve things. Such a person realizes that cultures rely upon a common heritage to think collectively just as individuals rely upon the scent of rain and sawdust or the sound of cicadas and bluebirds to invigorate their thought. A culture cut off from its traditions is as inept at defending its borders or policing its cites as a child reared before a TV is at building friendships or planning a summer vacation. The philosophic conservative joins Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in asking, not how many people we are feeding, but what kind of people.6 He or she recognizes that a technology which eases humanity’s passage into an inhuman state is the ultimate inconvenience; for one must first consult the human good, and only then set about trying to make its accomplishment more general. Naturally, this enlightened traditionalist also grasps that to be human is to be dissatisfied with natural limitation, and that human good hence consists of honoring the metaphysical thrust of our common dissatisfaction rather than offering it the material idols of utopia. In short, the philosophic conservative understands that the apparently useless is a vital human necessity.
Where are such conservatives now? I certainly can’t find them on the political scene. In that arena, conservatism indeed largely conforms to the caricature which political liberalism has drawn of it. In other words, today’s most visible conservatives are economic. They want to conserve market-driven capitalism from the ravages of safety regulations, price controls, and restrictions upon opportunities abroad. I do not necessarily disagree with all of their objectives: the source of my criticism is simply their narrowness of vision. They would "conserve" economic devil-take-the-hindmost competition even in the teeth of clear evidence that the devil waits before us all with open arms. I mean the real devil, the principle of moral evil—not slow-downs or lay-offs, but submission to anti-social motives and celebration of disorder for the sake of novelty. Las Vegas, not Salem, is the paradigm of such a "conservative republic" (as the cover story of another U.S. News recently suggested). Love for sale on every street corner, the arms of slot machines hailing jackpot-hunters, the role of dice chanting luck’s litany, the sarcasm of stand-up comics highlighting the scandal du jour… a great, grinding slaughter-house of culture. There are lessons here about our common humanity, to be sure. The economic conservative has cracked all the dense, unpalatable secrets of human depravity. Like the philosophic conservative, he has measured our dissatisfaction with natural limits—our irrepressible longing for something more and other; but unlike the philosophic conservative, he most prizes this endearing yet dangerous susceptibility as the key to fat profits.
So while conservatives seek to grow fat and liberals seek to divide the loot, humanity dies. I don’t see how we shall resist the suction of the drain’s spiral as a culture: I don’t really see how we still constitute enough of a "culture" to mount a resistance. The philosophic conservative once had a certain currency in the intellectual world—but those days have been gone since the fading of the Enlightenment, if not the Middle Ages. Since the end of the nineteenth century, most definitely, saving only the remotest pockets of regard for the classical heritage and Christian metaphysics, the intellectual world has become wholly smitten with positivism and progressive ideologies founded upon science. Our supposed revival of enthusiasm for humane tradition is deeply hampered by having been severed from that tradition for so many years, and by harboring to this day a suspicion of diffuse reading and undirected learning: the utilitarian mentality again! Religious appeals, far from recovering the design of human nature according to a higher purpose, heap abuse upon "natural theology" and insist upon hysterical ecstasy; far from reviving both Catholic and Protestant strains which once valorized the active struggle after virtue, they parade narcissistic testimonies of "what God has done for me" or, at best, mobilize peer pressure to make virtue painlessly trendy; and far from resurrecting interest in the fine arts on hundreds of private college campuses, the new "chosen people" have relegated Greco-Roman civilization to a few weeks in World Civ and, at most, offer revamped programs in the performing arts (always an easy sell in our "leisure economy").
No, I can’t discern any hope in that quarter. Barzun concludes his book by championing a very curious optimism in a very curious style. He imagines himself looking back upon the present century—that’s right, the twenty-first century—and chronicles the resurgence of intellectual curiosity and taste. The retrospective soliloquy engineered by his Muse accounts for the quotation marks:
"After a time, estimated at a little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom. The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed it in the usual way, by repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and philosophic texts and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works of art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that nobody went near them. They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence—in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present."7
As Sir Kenneth Clark would have said, what a hope! The "upper orders" of people chanting on election day with Catonian single-mindedness, Suscitandae sunt litterae? And from where may we expect to see this body of Mandarins arise? The Ivy League? Barzun knows the academy’s detestation of classical and Christian virtues like self-discipline and humility too well to suppose that one century will regenerate spirits there! Is this aristocracy in exile being hidden by the Church, perhaps, or is it holed up in some survivalist compound west of the Rockies? And with respect to what particular program of legislation is the chant for more literature to be raised? School textbooks? FCC licensure? It’s all too… efficient, too useful. Even in the best (i.e., most morally responsible) of times, people launch themselves as a phalanx into political action only for specific ends, as Barzun indeed underscores. Will the disdain of specific ends, then, become a specific end?
We have written in these pages of a few such projects: most persistently, perhaps, of surviving our inhuman "car culture". I certainly think it within the realm of possibility that just a handful of literate spirits might have a major impact upon urban design. They shall have to navigate between the voracious conservative Scylla of idle profiteering and the voraginous liberal Charybdis of social engineering. I personally have never accepted that a radically new layout for communities founded on radically new concepts of transportation would cripple our economy. It is the liberal passion for regulating which would ruin us, cutting off our arms and legs and then bidding us to arise and carry our pallet. If left free enough to innovate, we could rebuild our surroundings to a human scale within one generation—but we should also, in the beginning, require a certain patronage to win that freedom of innovation away from the conservative establishment. What bank would lend money to a venture in competition with its existing investments? How many construction companies would enter serious bids for the roadwork of a futuristic community aimed at vastly reducing roads? Such perks as tax incentives would be needed to overcome the oppressive inertia of systems which yesterday were last-man-standing in a marketplace battle royal, but today lord it imperially over all that they survey.
Take trains. I recently learned that we have nothing in the United States to match European or Japanese commuter trains because Congress gave the interstate highway system and the developing airline industry all the breaks back in the fifties. The passenger lines went bust. Perhaps this was "old boy" politics at its worst, with conservative lawmakers doing the masses out of an attractive option for campaign contributions: I doubt that it’s nearly so simple, but say so for argument’s sake. At any rate, the liberal response was to christen Amtrak with government blessings and keep it on life support as it operated the slowest, costliest, shoddiest passenger service of the twentieth century. With a mere particle of the encouragement lavished upon Amtrak, why could not local companies build fast, clean, safe trains to serve small towns as well as major cities? The distance from front door to station would pose a formidable problem only because all of our residential areas—including small towns—are now scaled to car rather than pedestrian traffic. We could find self-indulgent solutions for our softer brethren until new communities sprang up. Self-indulgence… think of the jobs, and the profits!
The Arcadian, you see, does not depend upon people behaving at their best or legislate that they do so. On the contrary, he depends upon their worse nature expressing itself willy-nilly (haec mea sunt, veteres migrate colones, broods one of Virgil’s shepherds, reciting his eviction notice: "This is my property: clear off, you ancient tenants!").8 His grudging legislation, which peeks nervously over the shoulder rather than gazing at the far horizon, arranges for such expressions to be fairly benign. The liberal must be content to allow the new entrepreneurs of transport their robust earnings as long as they release our common humanity from its cage. Is it obscene to take a chance and cash in on success if, in the process, our culture wins big—our air, our sidewalks, our conversation? Personally, I can well imagine (I refuse to say dream) of work-bound commuters reading, dozing, and debating in air-conditioned comfort on a given morning as a steward serves coffee, tea, and English muffins. Naturally, the scene would be a decorous one. A discreet notice will warn, "No shirt, no shoes… no shuttle." People will stick to their cars if they cannot be wooed with peace and comfort. So let the conductor "bounce" any miscreants right off at the first sign of trouble—no unlimited freedom of expression here! For a profit, our ingenious fellow Americans may just create something civilized, keep it in trim, and sweep up behind it. Why wouldn’t they, for a profit?
I realize that I am now speaking the language of usefulness. That’s the point. Let utility lead, and humanity is dragged to death: let humanity lead, and utility must bow and fetch. Demand reasonable quiet for the neighborhood—banish the leaf-blower—and the rake will again become highly efficient. Demand communities planned around the length of a footstep, and corner groceries will mingle among residences (especially if minimum wage laws do not require stockboys to be paid as CEO’s). Demand a certain standard of civility in public places, and free enterprise will find an efficient, convenient means of enforcement. It may be as "élitist" as elevating the cost of tickets on the "breakfast train" so high that you and I can’t afford one. So what? Every car off the road benefits us all; and if enough of us paupers want our own train, that, too, will be supplied at whatever level of incivility fails to chase us off.
It lies within our right as a social order to require a certain level of manners. We’ve all been raised to the jingle of the idiotic aphorism, "You can’t legislate morality." Actually, you can and you must: what other kind of legislation will people tolerate? To the extent that the old saw has any validity, it must be interpreted as saying that you can’t force people to resist the evil in their hearts, effectively and permanently, by decree. What we end up legislating, therefore, is that portion of the moral law which enjoys the consensus of custom. All but unanimous agreement exists that motorists shouldn’t be allowed to run down dogs for sport, even though the crime in this case may be far less (in my opinion) than a professor’s egging on a class of adolescents to practice promiscuous sex. In our highly convenient society, to be sure, the authority of custom can sometimes take a sinister turn. It is inconvenient, apparently, on many of our college campuses to hear opposing points of view about certain political issues: ergo opposition is proscribed by "speech codes". What we need along with the authority of custom is a test of inconvenience to keep us from stroking our own feathers. After all, if particular behaviors are overwhelmingly endorsed by the community, why even bother with a law? (To savor the power, I imagine, in the case of speech codes.) The behaviors concerning which civilized people legislate are at once broadly endorsed by them and often betrayed by them because of inconvenience. The racket of the leaf-blower is diabolical—but the job gets done so effortlessly! Speeding through a residential neighborhood threatens the lives of children—but it also gets you to work on time. Only the champions of inconvenience can codify for our formal approval behaviors of which we already approve, yet tend to ease around. They are the healthy state’s conscience.
I indulge in this mild digression because Barzun’s "hope" for our common salvation leaves me no alternative. To suppose that we can reinstate literate habits and standards by congressional fiat is ludicrous; but we can legislate a certain quality of silence, a certain relation between sidewalks and shopping for staples, a certain minimal politeness in places where we must take our kids. Literate values, of course, have a major impact upon where we set such parameters. The literate person tends to be reflective, somewhat introspective, and hence more respectful of silence and individual "space" than the illiterate (or, to be exact, the post-literate). To read intently is to think deeply, and from such thinking has evolved our Western regard for the separate worlds of other people drifting about us. Perhaps that’s what Professor Barzun means: perhaps he foresees the kind of groundswell on behalf of civility which has been grotesquely anticipated by the PC movement. It could happen.
If so, he should state more clearly that literacy can nourish specific habits and manners but must not be seen as dictating them in a deterministic way. Regarding other people as subjects—as moral agents equal in worth to ourselves—is an absolute good, not a conditional one dependent upon having been raised with books. It is the very basis, this regard, of all morality. Literacy is good instrumentally (i.e., it is useful) for favoring the Golden Rule, not terminally for being the pastime of aristocrats. Indeed, I must say that a great deal of what has been written over the past three or four decades isn’t worth the trouble of reading—and this because it is demoralizing in every respect. It is useful for undermining all belief in anything immaterial and disinterested, but useless in imparting to us the uselessness of strictly terrestrial ends. (We commonly call that propaganda, by the way.) Anoint the merely literate to lead us out of the wilderness, and you shall find among the prophets some of the knaves who brought us there.
We want, not merely literate people, but good people. And since none of us can see another’s soul (we have enough trouble bringing our own into focus), and since the hope at issue is not for eternal salvation but for social health, we are obligated to ask where such usefully good people may be found. Having ruled out erudition as a sufficient cause of such goodness, we should surely consider (perhaps in tandem with erudition) a taste for "the hard way"—or better, a sincere devotion to it. As we attempt to fill the ranks of our groundswell with such stalwarts, we could do worse than to practice their devotion ourselves. Walk down the street to see your friend rather than driving half a block. Read a book—or write one—rather than suffering through another night of primetime pabulum. Take up the piccolo or learn Old Norse rather than wandering off to the mall or the movies. Patently useless endeavors, all… except that they will certainly help to cure our ailing society, and they can scarcely help but dispose the ailing soul toward cure. If you must, remind yourself, as well, that you are supporting new industries in the reparation of sidewalks, the publication of good books, and the instruction of eager novices in piccolo-playing and Old Norse.
These pastimes are extravagances, I have noticed, which retirees, in particular, tend to allow themselves. Having led a long life of usefulness, our elderly seem to awake one morning and discover that they haven’t lived much of a life at all. Some of them surrender: it’s really quite staggering how many people die within a year or two of retirement, having been pitched into the insipid nullity of "leisure". Others of them enroll in courses—especially useless courses like Creative Writing or Oil Painting—at the local university, their madness unredeemed by any concern for a degree. Not a few take up gardening. The elder Cato (in Cicero’s account of his discourse) emphasizes the affinity between the silver years and nature’s green abundance:
As I said before, it isn’t only the utility of the vine which delights me, but also its cultivating and its very nature. The rows of little stakes, the junctures of the top pieces, the binding up and propagating of the runners, the pruning of some branches and the lenient indulging of others…9
The way Cato’s remarks trail off here is a feature of the original text. He seems to offer this idyll of natural and man-made order harmoniously fused—yet one coyly evading the other—as if its salutary properties were self-evident. And so they are. Concentrated in this semi-rural picture is all that I have written about the humanizing powers (the higher powers, for there are also bestializing ones) latent in things without clear, distinct purpose. How many of us now have such a place to which we may retreat? Must we await our final years to find it?
Perhaps so—perhaps it will take that long for most of us to "get it". As a society, we seem to be converging upon our last lap, we baby-boomers, in a great mass. There will be more and more of us looking for something to do, having spent our busy professional lives slaving to reach this point in style. Perhaps we will turn out to be Barzun’s "upper order": perhaps, as we tick off our remnant days, we will grow up, we who did so little growing up (and were so seldom encouraged to do it) for half a century. Perhaps we are our civilization’s best hope. Countless commencement addresses notwithstanding, the young are no hope at all: they are, on the contrary, a solemn obligation which we have so far largely shirked. It has to come down to us. Withered and jaundiced by the crass trophies we have chased and won, we must declare, if anyone will, just what is truly useful for a human being.
1 From Art et Scolastique (Bruges: Desclée De Brouwer, 1963), 63-64. The translation from French is mine.
2 Immanual Kant once advanced what he considered sound medical reasons for why "narrowly focused [angestrengte] reflection while walking quickly makes one feel exhausted": see p. 109 note of Der Streit der Facultäten in Kants Werke, vol. 7 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 1-116. We may chuckle over eighteenth-century physiology now, but people of that time knew first-hand about the effects of walking—and of thinking!
3 See From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 214-216. I must add that Barzun gives me pause with his remark, "the body and its feelings are primary, not mind and reason" (215)—a view which he also attributes to Pascal. Might this observation reinforce the cleft between body and soul? If goodness is served freely, then reason arbitrates the chosen service; but moral reason requires some kind of extension in material reality to act. Hence the marriage of body and soul. The body which leaps through flames to rescue a baby is the cumbersome but adequate tool of a noble will, whereas to refuse the leap because the heat sears is moral cowardice. Barzun dislikes any fusion of morality and spirit, of course (cf. 55), whence his rabelaisation of Pascal. I suppose he must carry the day if, when calling bodily sensation "primary", he means that a headache (or Pascal’s fly) can shatter a great thinker’s train of thought. Yet headache and all, some men have been known, in a wondrous synthesis of energies, to rescue babies.
4 Ibid., 797.
5 Ibid., 778.
6 Cf. "The question which I pose myself is not whether man will be happy, prosperous, and comfortably sheltered—yes or no. I ask first and foremost what man will be happy, prosperous, and sheltered" (Citadelle in Oeuvres Complètes [Paris: Gallimard, 1959], 571). Worth citing here, as well, is a text written early in WW II: "In place of affirming the rights of mankind through those of individuals, we have begun to speak of the collective’s rights. We have seen a morality of the collective which neglects mankind introducing itself insensibly. This morality will clearly explain why an individual should sacrifice himself for the community. It will not explain, without linguistic artifice, why the community should sacrifice itself for a single man—why it is equitable that a thousand should die to deliver one from unjust imprisonment. We still remember the reason, but we’re forgetting it little by little. And yet, after all, it is in this principle, which distinguishes us so clearly from an anthill, that all our greatness resides." My translation from Pilote de Guerre, Oeuvres Complètes, 378.
7Op. cit., 801.
8 Eclogue 9, verse 4.
9 See Cicero’s De Senectute 15.53; my translation.
Three Poems Under Clear Skies
Lt. Col. Lythgoe (USAF, Rtd.) has often contributed poetry to our endeavor, and is an avid student of poets who write from the experience of faith. His review of Susan McCaslin’s collection appears in a recent Christianity & Literature (50.1). John Harris is no intimate of any reigning poetic movement: he confesses a fondness for Dylan Thomas and the transferred epithet.
Pantoum for Gardeners
Michael H. Lythgoe
The Garden of Eden had weeds.
Genesis should feature some yellows.
Now is the seeding time of May.
So let us go a-Maying.
The Bible is missing yellow.
Genesis needs some lemons; red
Apples grew in Eden, a-Maying
Among the crimson azaleas.
Gardens show yellow before red,
Butter cups spread into the field.
Eden blushed as bees buzzed azaleas.
Lemon flowers rinsed from hedgerows.
Wildfire of wild mustard burns fields,
Maryland’s meadows near the Potomac
South of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Monet, going blind, wears glasses
Of green north of the Potomac
In a Baltimore gallery.
Painting visions through green lens,
Visions of a garden: Giverney.
Monet’s Eden is a gallery
Where a Japanese footbridge spans
French reflections in Giverney.
Over and over in his oils
He frizzles willows near the bridge;
Drips of oil shimmer in water;
Iris and wisteria, oils,
Perennials in renewal,
Rise around puddles of water,
Roots strengthened by El Nino’s rains.
Beavers impede the renewal
Of the slow flow flooding the creek.
They engineer El Nino’s rains
Into a wading pool for birds.
Turquoise heron wades Eden’s creek
Where weedy herbs grow wild, untamed.
Did beavers build the first bird bath,
The first fishing pond for herons
In Eden? Who found first the herbs
Among the grasses of Eden?
We wait for Edens, for herons;
We dream and dig to plant perfection,
Weeding soil to regrow Eden.
The wild flower is also a weed.
Some weed out all imperfections.
Some keep beauty inside boundaries.
Is wild mustard flowering not a weed?
Call out the Maying tribes by name.
Yellow beauties flee the boundaries:
Wild pansy and Scented Mayweed;
Say the names: Oxlip and Fennel,
Good as yellow Daffodil,
Yellow-faced panda-eyed Pansy.
See weeds a-Maying St. John’s Wort.
Annuals and arroz amarrillo,
Marigolds—and slugs eating leaves.
Faithful monks learned of St. John’s Wort.
If Eden was more than orchard,
Other healing roots, weeds, and leaves
Were cultivated as the flowers.
Creation’s story needs yellow
Tones in the Book of Genesis.
Believe your sown seeds banish
Dandelions, but Eden, too, had weeds.
Michael H. Lythgoe
Endless unrepentant rain,
Rusty mold, fertile pollen scums
Broad Run, petals clogging drains,
A vole in a golden retriever’s jowls.
A gilded finch’s fires go out. Intone
A requiem for the Swiss Guard, also cold,
A suicide. Vatican purple and stained-gold
Scandal suited for Michelangelo’s Rome.
A bald eagle preys on blue herons.
Azaleas bud red, and lilac scent reigns.
A trio of beavers in the Tidal Basin
Swim to dam, to redeem the spring.
Intimations of Spirality
John R. Harris
Binn guth iolair Easa Ruaidh
Os cionn Cuain Mhic Morna mhór.
Binn an cuach os barraibh dos.
Álainn an tosd do-ní an chorr.
"Sweet the eagle of Red Falls’ call
Above the harbor of great Mac Morna.
Sweet the cuckoo from the copse’s treetops.
Beautiful the silence made by the heron."
Medieval Irish lay, author unknown
Spirit, fly free.
Sunlight spackling high jay chatter,
High jay racket speckling quiet
Lime-green shouts of sprouting April,
Feathering skies with patient silence.
Silence of a far sky’s chatters
Nesting where the woven years
Bend around a climbing ankle
Burned against a dogwood bough.
A child once plumed a cardinal
Singing lurid interruptions
In the Aprils thatching quiet
High above the quickening light.
Footsteps, play by.
Mine the eye above my body
Spying rooflines through the sky,
Overhearing children squealing
In the lime-green whir of years—
Rising wind approaching silence,
Gathering stillness over wings.
Crushed retreats, stuck words, scorched chances
Limn in crimson opening buds.
Hear the children play at living,
Spellbound if a towhee sings.
Old blood, throb slow.
Reticent the bluebird puzzles
Over sun-flushed years of chatter—
Tries what ancient indiscretions
May my marble brow decipher.
Mine the eye that watches, smiling.
Chase around the dogwood bough.
As my spirit warms the treetops,
April blows a child’s warm frown.
It’s Been Said Before
"But the principle that university heads have not been willing to adopt is the one by which in 1772 Samuel Johnson defended the expulsion of six Methodist students from Oxford. The merits of the case are not in point, only the statement: ‘What have they to do at an university who are not willing to be taught, but will presume to teach?… I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be at the University of Oxford.’
"These are three ideas with which modern culture takes issue, and the divergence explains our plight. We believe in a teaching magic that does not require the student to be ‘willing to be taught’; with us, after failure, the burden of proof is on the teacher. Consequently, in riots the institution must lean over backwards to salvage the individual dish of education that was proferred and has been kicked aside. In other words—and this runs through the whole philosophy of permissive rearing—reciprocity is not called for, education is a right, and it is to be administered to the passive like vaccination.
"In the second place, we have dimmed our wits with the exactly opposite idea that there is no difference between teacher and taught: they are ‘both students, exploring together, each learning from the other’. The metaphor cliché about the teaching relationship has done immense harm to both parties. The teacher has relaxed his efforts while the student has unleashed his conceit. Whatever faint meaning is in the cliché tells us nothing about the hard work of teaching and the folly of ‘presuming to teach’. Any example at random makes this clear: a professor of American history teaching a class the background of the American Revolution keeps removing their ignorance, correcting their mistakes, propping up their judgments. Only rarely does he hear from a student a fact he does not know or a thought that is original and true. That instructor and instructed are both still learning does not mean that they do so hand in hand and from the same starting point. A good teacher will tolerate a certain overconfidence in undergraduates—that is part of pedagogy—but to make believe that their knowledge and his are equal is an abdication and a lie.
"Finally, Johnson’s dictum makes a distinction between ‘a good being’ and the fitness of that being for a place at Oxford. Distinctions are hard for us, especially where education is concerned. If everyone has a right to it, surely a good being deserves it more than most. To every good being, a B.A. But what if he does not want it, or wants [it] but cannot meet its demands? We then deceive ourselves and him, at the cost of truth and fairness to others, and in the name of kindness. Laxity is not kindness, but cowardice, and it causes pain and humiliation long drawn out to the very persons being ‘helped’. The rest are victimized, disgruntled, and not one sinner is saved. To put it in a generality: with human beings total facilitation had never facilitated anything. Much of our collective misery and most of our educational discomfiture come from a false premise, coupled with the national vice of charitable cheating."
The American University: How It Runs,
Where It Is Going (Harper and Row, 1968),
pp. 90-91 back to top
Baseball Strikes Out
Cal Ripkin, Jr., is a fine man, to all appearances. His gangly frame was not gifted with great agility, and his impressive performance both in the field and at the plate resulted from hours and hours of arduous training. When you look up the number of at-bats required to produce Cal’s surpassing of the glorious 3000-hit mark and 400-homerun plateau, it all seems somewhat less scintillant (if not exactly pedestrian). Yet his almost 1700 runs-batted-in remain formidable by any standard, and they offer, besides, the single best indicator of a character trait that lurks behind any baseball statistic: determined commitment to making necessary sacrifices. Cal did what he had to do for the advancement of the team’s cause. He did not strike out, unlike so many power hitters, when a mere ground-ball out would have brought another run home. He played as a man of principle plays—and lives: he subordinated his ego to the service of a higher cause.
There, now. That didn’t hurt, did it? And it took far less long than the reiterative mawkish accolades forced upon Ripkin by FOX sportscasters during his final All Star Game about a month ago. If ever a man of acknowledged, transparent virtue could be rendered tiresome by hyperbolic praise, FOX provided the blueprint in its shameless inflation of Cal’s victory lap. One listened in vain, by the way, for the kind of substance which we compressed into the previous paragraph. At most, the audience was reminded of Ripkin’s staggering consecutive-game streak which eventually exceeded iron man Lou Gehrig’s—a monument to the all-American work ethic, no doubt, and worthy of celebration. Even this feat, however, could be readily lost in the attempts to jerk tears: flashbacks of a rookie Cal, close-ups of his family, testimonials from other players ("I’m just so honored") who shared the dugout with their boyhood idol, baited questions from gut-raking interviewers ("Think this will really hit you in September?") which Cal—with miraculous restraint—allowed to dangle. Only a true hero could have resisted such bids to elicit a blubbering "media moment" and also have kept his temper.
Of course, it didn’t stop with Ripkin. Tony Gwynn (who is also a man of highest character, and was a far better hitter than Cal on his best day) watched mikes swarm about his face like moths before a floodlight. Gwynn, too, will retire at the end of this season to await early induction into the Hall of Fame. Though also possessed of 3000 hits, he has, in a significant sense, traveled a road opposite to Cal’s while scaling Olympus. Face it: to appear in thousands of games without a single sick day, you have to enjoy a certain amount of luck along with all that conditioning and hard work. Gwynn has had very little of the former. As if his chronically ailing knee were not torment enough, he also fought off cancer to continue playing. There’s more than one kind of work, and more than one kind of hero. FOX’s talking heads might have moralized intelligently and perceptively over this. They didn’t.
Why not? There was plenty of baseball lore here for the devoted fan, and plenty of genuine human drama and triumph for the more casual viewer. Instead, the cameras preferred panning about for so-and-so’s kids, for such-and-such a film star; and when the squadron of wired goons managed to corner somebody in a uniform, they immediately wormed into his off-the-field life—most often his relationship with fans or press or manager. Ripkin and Gwynn were incessantly queried about what they thought of all the cheers. What were they supposed to say—what could they say? How many clichés and superlatives will satisfy a reporter’s appetite? An ESPN announcer grilled Seattle expatriate Alex Rodriguez over the loudspeaker system during the previous day’s homerun derby about coming back home to boo’s. National League Manager Bobby Valentine was interrogated for most of a half-inning about ugly rumors that he had almost reneged on Cliff Floyd’s alternate selection. You would have thought a bunch of paperazzi had nailed Gary Condit on his morning jog. The best line of the night belonged to the manager on the diamond’s other side. Joe Torre, when asked by master of irrelevancy Tim McCarver (whose mental competence after catching a great many Bob Gibson fastballs must be considered an open issue) whether he was aware that he had never managed a loss at an All Star Game, rolled his dark Italian eyes and groaned, "I can count to three, Tim."
On the other hand, the night’s most disturbing moments belonged to the young All Stars who couldn’t get enough of describing how much they had hugged and wept since arriving in Seattle. The journalists were hardly coaxing them, and Major League Baseball rarely employs tutors to place the idiom of maudlin sentiment in these wad-chomping maws. (Maybe for a bad boy like John Rocker.) The most muscled-up, overgrown generation of males in the nation’s history, every one of them built like a brass cannon hefted onto its breach… and if you had suggested that they work on an All Star Quilt between innings, chances are they would have given you a forearm bash and joined right in.
This is highly significant. PC culture increasingly excites derision when fascistic campus speech codes come before judicial review, but in some respects it has been heartily embraced by the general population. The All Star Game showcased how seamlessly it has merged with the old soap-opera culture of gushy sentiment long nourished by TV. And therein lies the point: the touchy-feely mood of our tasteless, witless, effusion-hungry talk-show society has not necessarily been inspired by campus incendiaries. Perhaps, indeed, evolution has moved in the other direction. From television-fed narcissism to no-fault divorce… from divorce to homes without fathers… from fatherless homes to two-dimensional male "heroes" rising above a sea of male predators? Perhaps. Is PC extremism not in some real sense the ultimate consequence of sappy melodrama? Could there be a more plausible pedigree for our enthrall-ment to overplayed emotion, our courtship of confrontation, and our passion for Ideal Citizen figures who will lead us from the wilderness? Carol Gilligan’s feminism, an episode of The West Wing, or the Major League All Star Game… take your pick.
Of course, when you make a quilt, someone’s finger always gets pricked; and to have lots of tearful hugs, you have to stir up lots of quarrels. Hence the agent provocateur thrusting a mike at A-Rod as the crowd howled or at Bobby V as Cliff Floyd is said to have simmered. Donahue and Oprah pioneered the technique when the Pirates were wearing pajamas for uniforms. Taken in its entirety, the 2001 All Star Game was one big brawling, sobbing, reconciling hymn to frozen and/or reprised adolescence in the able fingers of a Jerry or a Jenny. As the "golden moment" sublimity of strings paeaned in the background, assisting proper digestion, the event’s media-makeover buried the last put-out deeper and deeper in anticlimax. Visually packaged "memories" paraded (like Lasorda careering from the third base coaching box to avoid a shattered bat: this had been instantly culled for the nostalgic gravure of replay). Experience anticipated, experience provoked, experience haply reinforced (Alex foundered in the homerun derby, but Cal hit a long one—the announcers couldn’t get over how well scripted it was), experience replayed, experience set to music along with similarly marvelous experiences, experience consumed and softly deposited in the gut like a ballpark hot dog and a tall Coke. Burp.
Ce n’est pas la guerre, et ce n’est pas même magnifique. Whether or not you’re a baseball fan, you have to be worried. back to top
De omnibus pauca, de nullo omnia.
My e-mail was recently infiltrated by an ad for something called the Spaminator (the arrival of which ad, I suppose, was meant to demonstrate that I am indeed vulnerable to SPAM). I had the usual rueful meditation over how miserably the promises of new technology are fulfilled: first the Net was to liberate us to a brave new world of instant information… then we find ourselves messing about with filters to block out junk mail because, it turns out, the universe has a lot more "information" to pass along to us than we have time or desire to read it. For that matter, I’m darned if I can understand what all these people with cell phones affixed to their ears could have to say of such importance and urgency at such length. The one phone I own is likely to be torn out of the wall just any day now when it starts ringing during supper to provide me with the latest "information" about how Sprint or AT&T can give me a half-lifetime’s cheap long distance while I ought to be sleeping.
Anyway, I then turned my sad eye upon the word (or pseudologos) Spaminator. Wasn’t that a movie with some Hollywood strong man in the lead—The Terminator? So now, I assume, anything which is being marketed for effectiveness in eradicating or annihilating something else will be christened with a name ending in –inator? But the key component of the word "terminate" is the first syllable, or at most the first two: terminus/terminare are the noun-verb pair in Latin with the meaning related to "end, limit". The suffix –ator simply means "one who does…".
My point is that new words today clearly draw their meanings from popular culture (pardon the oxymoron) rather than from etymology. If our current "mindset" had prevailed half a century ago, a new brontosaur-like skeleton would no doubt have been dubbed the "Gonzillasaur". I find this interesting because my students (mostly college freshmen) swear to me that they do not watch much TV or go to movies often. Whom are they kidding? Practically everything they utter is heavily conditioned by the claptrap which Hollywood has canned and sold for quick consumption. In what other environment would a bunch of "techno-geeks" imagine that a word like Spaminator could forge instant connections with their audience?
A Stupidinator Wannabe
Dear Enemy of Sick Compassion,
What you overlook is that one does not have to consume electronic culture heavily to be held thrall to such imbecility as its coinage of words. Malodorous novelties rise belly-first to the surface all the time without our knowing just where they came from—most of us, or the surviving students of etymology like you and me, at any rate. Yet we are forced to use the accepted parlance in the same way that we must learn unpleasant-sounding words like Schnupftuch to speak German. Your students may actually be telling the truth. Though only a minority of their generation may tune in to Baywatch or… well, as they say, whatever—that 20% or so may nonetheless constitute a large enough group with a shared set of referents that it can successfully float new barbarisms. Others quickly catch on without knowing the source of what they echo. In fact, I’ll bet that very few of your freshman have seen The Terminator (a delightful condition in which they resemble you and me, after all). You are nonetheless correct to designate the idiot box and the big screen as major sources for new terms, because 20% is a lot, in our postcultural chaos.
I seem to have embroiled myself in PC troubles by remarking that modern Spanish has little regard for spelling or precise definition. What I should have said is that it’s a language of the people: more power to them. But I dared to use the word "vulgar", instead—which simply means "popular", of course, but you can’t expect "the people" to comprehend fine nuances in a word. In fact, that uneducated response to the word "vulgar" is exactly the tendency toward gross approximation which I see in Spanish. At least "niggardly" didn’t come up in the discussion.
Do I strike you as an anti-Latino racist?
Dear Masked Avenger,
Racist? By whose definition? Popularly, you are surely so: the "vulgar" meaning of the word is, "the author of any remark which may in any wise be construed as unflattering to a recognized and protected minority." Now, it seems unfair to get nailed for charging none other than that popular usage has dominated Spanish linguistic decorum, especially in the New World. As you say, why should "the people" object to the observation that they are not a coddled élite of the ivory tower, and that they have won the game? But to say that they haven’t read or studied is to imply dullness of mind… hey! Wha’d you call me?
I sympathize, truly. You certainly have all the factual evidence in your arsenal, for what it’s worth (which is not much, in political power struggles: I don’t know the context of this "discussion"). The very word from which my column’s name is drawn—palaver—is a slight English mutilation of a major Spanish mutilation of the Latin (Greek-loaned) word "syllable". The English were apparently mocking the ornate chatter of Spanish diplomats whom they could scarcely follow; but already in Spanish, palabra means "word" rather than "syllable"—for which rarely signified item Spanish scholars must retreat entirely to the Greek: silaba. "The people" haven’t much interest in dictionaries and versification, so this latter (and proper) meaning for palabra has vanished.
Or take liviano, a patent reference to Augustus’s unsavory wife which was long used in Spanish Spanish to evoke sexual levity: i.e., loose morals. In most Spanish-speaking countries today, it has supplanted leve as the routine word for "light-weight" (with no metaphor implicit).
My favorites are equivocar and cavilar, which do not mean "equivocate" and "cavil". Would you believe… "deceive" and "think deeply"? Even the reflexive equivocarse (the former verb’s usual form) scarcely means "deceive oneself" like the French se tromper. "Equivocate oneself"? Equivocation is a very deliberate attempt to avoid saying the truth without actually telling lies. Deception is an intended result, to be sure… but isn’t the line between such anemic veracity and overt falsehood worth drawing?
Or is it just a cavil? It requires deep thinking, no doubt: so do a prayer and a new dinner recipe. The caviler is called a sofista in Spanish (another retreat to the relatively unplundered Greek tradition); but, come now, sophistry is more than mere caviling. It is a general to the cavil’s particular: it is a systematic kidnapping of logic to advance one’s selfish ends.
Understandably, these distinctions do not much concern a roofer, a trucker, or a sales clerk. They should concern the scholar—but today’s scholar is busily courting the favor of the masses in jargon which makes you want to go mow the lawn and chat with the mailman. It’s a lonely fight. back to top
Mr. Moseby’s "magic realist" fictions have become a welcome fixture in these pages.
I decided to park my car along the curving residential boulevard. Even though a narrow road—presumably the driveway—splayed off into the brush, I feared losing my bearings if I took it. With a nervous sigh, I grabbed my notebook, straightened my tie, and stepped off the street into the greenery. Reuter, of course, was the greatest man who had ever granted me an interview. Abandoning my car had nothing to do with my rising anxiety, whatever I told myself at the time. After all, who would molest such a humble relic in these affluent surroundings? I was in far more danger of being ticketed for besmirching the landscape.
The tension miraculously lifted from my shoulders, however, as I proceeded through the low, thin brush toward the muted lime hill which (I had been advised) was actually a house. The plants played to my fantasy of the Cretaceous in a benign daydream, for I could not imagine some extinct Komodo-dragon thing (such as the toothy plastic replicas I used to muse over as a child) breaking this perfect peace with a thrashing intrusion. A dinosaur garden without the dinosaurs… yes, I can’t better that description of the grounds. Evergreen groundcover which seemed rather to polish my creased shoes than to soil them, ferns growing to shoulder-height but not blocking the way with any persistence, huge fronds in which I might almost have wrapped myself bodily (as, for some outlandish reason, I had the urge to do)… I felt, to be candid, as though I were reentering my preschool years.
In this pleasant state of reverie, I very nearly forgot to check my course. The vegetation was not so thick at any point that I couldn’t have re-oriented myself upon the great green mound with a little craning of the neck… but a mound is a funny thing. It looks the same from any angle, and as you approach it, even the summit becomes difficult to identify. I had aimed to bisect it upon leaving the curb (some hundred meters behind me now), but suddenly realized that I was hard up against it. The mist-mottled sky (perhaps the overcast had contributed to the prehistoric illusion) which had posed a neutral background to the elegant branches had been imperceptibly replaced by the dull lime of the construction’s plastic. I waded through a few more feet of ferns and ran my hand across the marvelous plastic surface. Close up, the tincture was much darker, almost blue. It seemed, indeed, to interact with levels of lighting and proximity of observation like some sort of living vegetable substance. Plants were clearly not averse to it: they grew abundantly here and there in indentations haphazardly spaced (as far as I could make out), their trailers of glossy, delicate leaves spilling down the enormous convexity. No doubt, this artfully integrated plant matter helped to explain the mysterious color changes; for in a shaft of sunlight which fell upon me just then, the tendrils’ innumerable leaflets brandished blade-like edges of silver. The pock-marked surface itself retained the cool, impersonal firmness of a golf ball or, perhaps, a sturdy portable swimming pool which had been overturned. (I suppose that odd image got into my head because I knew such a pool from my childhood: as I have said, I kept revisiting my earliest years for some reason.)
"Come right! Come along! Yes, to your right. Just another dozen steps. That’s it."
I have no idea where the voice came from—Reuter’s, obviously, with its thick German accent and brusque geniality. It sounded much clearer than it had over the phone, and I could detect no sign of a speaker on the dome above me (nor, for that matter, of a surveillance camera: how had he spotted me?). I had the oddest impression that the structure must be penetrable to its creator’s voice and sight, as if it were indeed part of himself, a projection of his being. And I suppose every sincere creation is just that, after all. Reuter was certainly an artist whose medium was high technology, if ever such a person existed.
"There now… you see? You see the entrance, ja? What is the matter with you, Dummkopf!"
I had naturally noticed the rounded recess which opened up in the smooth surface like a shallow cave. It was an idyllic space, chirping with the delicate splatter of rivulets which trailed from its ceiling and finally gathered at my feet in a basin, the whole freshly laced with ivy-like festoons… but an entrance? I couldn’t even see where the Lilliputian cataract began.
"Oh, up here! Raise your head!"
And when I did so—and continued to do so, forcing my head ever farther back on my shoulders—I at last discovered a deep hollow in the tendrils above. Where the shadows of this vertical tunnel were thickest, something like a pair of spectacles glinted at me.
"Hah!" laughed Reuter the instant he saw my eyes widen. The spectacles receded for a moment, a golden-green glow suddenly emanated from within the cavern, and then the man reappeared in much greater clarity, though his head and shoulders were now darkly silhouetted against the luminous interior. "I’ll let you up, shall I? Paß auf !"
My German is rudimentary, at best—but there was no mistaking the vigor of his cry and the rustle of some bulky object behind him. I stepped back just in time. A rope ladder unfurled before more eyes, so close that the keen, clean scent of new hemp invaded my nostrils. I had also heard two weights plunk heavily upon the sod, but I required a few seconds to associate the sound with its cause.
"Come on, du großer Kerl! Up with you!"
It was not a difficult ascent, especially with the ladder held taut from below… but it scarcely seemed an appropriate means of entry into the home of the future. I dared to say as much to the great man himself as he helped me slide away from the hatch and onto the floor. I wasn’t angry, or even a little vexed. I don’t really know where I acquired the impertinence to pose this question. Yet Reuter, flip- ping on an automatic winch to retract the ladder (the first bit of technical sophistication I had objectively identified), took it all with another hearty laugh.
"So you don’t think this is the future, eh? Well, young man, let me tell you, if we have a future as a civilization, it must be far more like our past. We are killing ourselves from the inside and the outside—guns, automobiles, letter bombs… heart attack, stroke, psychosis—and the reason is because our world has no more tolerance of the primitive in us. Especially our home world. In this home we are cavemen, as you see." And he waved with a huge hand at the half-dozen circular openings debouching upon our present location: they did indeed have a speluncular, if not chaotic, irregularity about them. "When future men and women leave for work in the morning, they will be leaving behind not a castle, but a cave. They will smile and laugh and love the brotherhood of man with the sincerest good will all the day long, because all the night long their psyche is quite purged of the lies and restraints which make civilized politeness."
"So your experimental architecture," I ventured, warming to the idea, "is nothing less than a theory for transforming society."
"Ah!" smiled Reuter beatifically upon me. "I did not say this… but it could happen. And besides, you know," he added in mock meditation, limberly rising despite his sixty-odd years and lending me a hand, "a front door which is a hatch ten feet off the ground… this presents appealing possibilities for ways to deal with unwelcome callers."
He brushed past me in his reflective hunch, and we proceeded down one of the corridors. All the questions I was going to pose about his overhearing or overseeing my approach were long gone already; in fact, as I look at the notepad before me now, I find that I made not a single scribble throughout the tour. A million questions remain circling in my mind. At the time, however, every instant brought a new marvel.
Even as I was admiring the hallway’s highly irregular formation—its gently dipping floor, its sinuous lateral advance, its ceiling indented with alarmingly deep and apparently quite meaningless pocks and whorls and shafts—I found myself blundering straight into Reuter, who had abruptly turned on me.
"I should have let you pick the way we go! This is your tour, you know. Is this all right with you?"
Of course, I was amenable to any path. To cover my childish amazement, I babbled some question about the light green radiance that seemed to shimmer from every square inch of floor and wall and ceiling, as in the "foyer" (pardon my quotations—conventional terms are useless in a Reuter house) or from selected areas, as in the hallway we were presently traversing. Here the lighting held with relative constancy to thigh- or knee-level, very seldom descending as low as the ankles. It wrapped itself around the fluid excrescences and declivities in the cavern-like surfaces as smoothly as if it betokened a stratum of phosphorescent stone.
"It would take long to explain with precision," sighed Reuter. "Suffice it to say that the electrodes have been inserted, not into bulbs, but into the very fabric of the plastic compound, which is specially blended to effuse heat and not to melt… ah, what you want to know all this for? Use your eyes, you man!"
I had already noticed two portals leading to brighter spaces during our short walk. Since one opened up at shoulder height, however (though protuberances in the wall made a kind of natural stone ladder for reaching it), and one was formed by a long crack never rising more than two feet from the floor, I passed them by without thinking. I was still not fully "Reutered". Should I ever have the joy of entering The Mound again, these out-of-the-way pockets would be my first choice to investigate.
As always in late Reuter construction, too, there were dozens of cubbyholes everywhere. Some were probably deep enough to crawl into for a good cat nap, others large enough merely to supply a foothold or a shelf or… well, one may pretty much do what one wants with such holes.
The entrance I chose was the first we came to whose arch had faintly conventional proportions. It was particularly well lit, its lime-green cast spilling over into our dim corridor, so I paused and cleared my throat. Reuter looked back with a gaze which at first seemed disappointed and, perhaps, pitying, then brightened up and motioned me in ahead of him without a word.
I can only say that if this were the structure’s most "ordinary" chamber, the ones I bypassed must have been stolen from a mystic’s dream. To be sure, the room preserved the crude pattern of floor, ceiling and walls suggestive (faintly) of squaring. One measure of Reuter’s genius, it seems to me, is that he never allowed into his spaces the sort of wholly unusable, unreachable terrain which one would have found abundantly in a real cave. A wall could often double as a floor, or a floor could double as a sofa (which is saying the same thing). That is, I observed how the luminous plastic beneath me rose very gradually at several points near the walls into ramps which one might either have climbed or reclined upon very comfortably. The building matter, by the way, was remarkably springy, so even if one had stumbled clumsily over a slight inequity (genuine hazards to ankles and legs were another feature of natural caves which Reuter had banished from his houses), one would land upon a cushion scarcely harder than a firm bedroom mattress. Of course, for the more enterprising, there were the ubiquitous clefts and cubbyholes accessible only by a bit of mountaineering. A nap in one of these would have been delicious… or perhaps a conversation between the supine occupants of several such recesses. My imagination was running away with me again.
"Well?" coaxed Reuter after a polite interval, calling me back..
"Um… where… do you put furniture?" I babbled obtusely.
"Furniture, young man? You think we need furniture here?"
"Well… books, surely. A man such as you… what would a life be without books?"
"For that answer, you should step back outside! But look, the person who wishes books will bring them in along with his underwear and his tennis racket, ja? There are thousands of bookcases around you, if you so choose. But for those who must advertise the vast personal library which they never touch, I should say that this is not the house."
"Nor for TV-lovers, either—"
"Please, young man!"
"But that reminds me, Professor—I mean… may I call you Professor? I don’t know why, but I can’t resist. How do you control the lighting? Because despite appearances, there must be a great deal of electricity pulsing through these corridors. Not just for the lights, either, but the temperature—it’s ideal, even though the weather outside is quite muggy today."
"Here I thought you were an art critic, and you turn out to be some kind of technophile," sighed Reuter, the last word spat from his lips as if he were rebuking an aggressive dog. "Look, there are panels embedded on either side of every entrance which control these things."
"How do you see them, if they’re embedded?"
"You don’t have to. They are heat-sensitive. You pass your hand over the panel until you obtain the desired value. Right hand for lights, left for room temperature."
And he performed a slightly impatient demonstration.
I was beginning to divine that I should show more initiative about exploring the many opportunities around me—the unusual apertures, the recesses which turned out to hide new tunnels, the spaces which could be reached only by a climb or a slide. Yet I dared to linger over just one more point of "technique", for its enigma had steadily grown in the back of my mind since the moment of my arrival in The Mound.
"Are all the lights, then, shades of green?"
Here Reuter perked up. I had grazed some matter of theoretical interest to him. "At first, no. I included the whole spectrum. But let me tell you, there is a certain morality attached to creating the living spaces of other people. You can affect their mood in a thousand different ways, and not all ways are good. Some, in fact, are quite dangerous. So soon I deleted the purples and the blues. The reds and oranges at once followed—they elicited too much frontal lobe activity, which can translate into open hostility. Green is quite sufficient. You select a Lincoln green when you prepare for sleep, you select a nice lime green when you relax or play… perhaps a touch of gold if you wish to compose a Magnificat. Safe living is all a matter of staying in the greens. Nature, of course, knows this, but we have taken to ignoring her."
We had wandered pensively about the chamber during this disquisition. Perhaps, indeed, it was the sedatively liberating effect of green upon me which gave me the "initiative" at last (as Reuter would say) to explore. I had just passed by a body-sized swelling in the wall whose backward crease seemed suspiciously shadowy. Without a word to Reuter, I backtracked and poked my head into the depression. Sure enough, it yawned into a new corridor, narrow but quite high enough to allow admittance without uncomfortable stooping. I sensed that my guide was at my shoulders. There was something about his sudden lapse into silence, even, which telegraphed to me a conspiratorial joy. Finally I was starting to play the game!
The passage’s light had been deliberately muted (I presume) so as not to give it away readily from the other chamber. It glowed a little more indulgently as we proceeded, though mostly at waist-level. I was advancing to a more robust radiance which was somewhat reflected in the crook of a sharp bend, when, again abruptly, I halted in my tracks to re-examine a series of rung-like projections leading off into a long, dark fissure where wall met ceiling.
"What a fearful prospect!" I whispered over my shoulder without averting my eyes from the great black crack. "Let’s see if we can get in!"
Reuter could not entirely suppress a giggle as he started up on my heels, yet he continued to hold his tongue. The ascent upon the marvelous plastic (I can scarcely resist calling it limestone, for that word has acquired a new meaning for me) was so gentle and refreshing, thanks to the surface’s coolness and pliancy, that I could have stopped midway and lain on my belly dreaming. With a companion spelunker right behind me, however, I persisted into the dusky gap until I saw the Venusian daylight which I knew would be awaiting me. In fact, the new room’s illumination was kept from the fissure largely by a gentle downward fold which made of the whole entrance a kind of inverted "u". Once I fully realized this, the blood rushing into my head as I crested the summit, I simply released my hold and went coasting the rest of the way in on my ribs.
Immediately, I flipped over on my back and laced my hands behind my head. Reuter rolled up beside me in a flop which became, with stunning agility, a sitting position, arms folded around knees. Of course, he had enjoyed the benefit of more practice.
"This is like a… a turrit," I exclaimed, admiring the slender space which lifted in a smooth spiral. "Can you actually walk that ramp all the way to the ceiling’s top? I suppose that dark arch way up there is another exit... but what if someone falls?"
"Now the questions come like a waterfall!" chuckled Reuter. "Yes, the ascent to the ceiling is easy, yes, you may exit at the top—or at three other points along the way—and no, the fall would do little harm. We have run tests to see at what heights the plastic would be unable to absorb most of a falling body’s shock. No space of a greater height is to be found in this entire structure, except…"
He had turned reticent again.
"Ach, if we come to it, I show you," he shrugged, as coy as an elf about his pot of gold.
"Come now, Professor! At least point me in the right direction."
"Mmm… the right direction, as you say—ganz richtig! When in doubt, always turn right."
Tucked away behind the slope down which we had entered (rather like a moat under a drawbridge) was a deep "gully". I’m not sure when I would ever have noticed it without the tip. As we proceeded through another tall, narrow tunnel, I was amazed at how much space could be hidden in so unlikely a quarter. Once more, a sharp bend led us into a corridor that was much better lit with soft green radiance. (I did not reveal to Reuter that I had solved one of his tricks: I had too much respect for his noble science of play… or maybe, just maybe, too much sympathy for the child-like delight which he obviously took in creating wonder.) Yet if I believed that I was beginning to crack the mysteries of this seemingly haphazard labyrinth, the tunnel quickly disabused me. One more bend, and I found myself on the lip of a glowing chute whose green sides were smoother than anything I had seen so far. The glow emanating from this pit was so warm and rich that it almost dispelled the alarm of an imminent plunge. I looked back at Reuter, uncertain.
"After you," he demurred with a rise of his grandly bristled brow. "Or, if you prefer… step around and go on."
"Not on your life!" I shouted, and went through feet first.
The drop was not sheer, by any means, though the brilliance somewhat masked its moderation. After a slight turn, however (nothing ever went straight in this place—that much, at least, was predictable), I began to accelerate. I could always have slowed myself, or even stopped, merely by stiffening my legs against the walls. I actually thought of doing so as an inviting hatch came and went overhead: I got as far as making a lunge at the olive shimmer of the tempting aperture. The tardy reaction produced an awkward delay in my descent, a movement so sudden that Reuter could not stop his body from careening into my outstretched spine and exposed ribs. The two of us continued gently downward, one riding this time in the other’s lap.
When the passage finally disgorged us into another chamber, I was laughing so hard that I could scarcely hear his cackle at my ear tips. I rolled on the foamy plastic cushion which constituted the new floor, snorting and squealing as though I were drunk as a skunk.
I found Reuter rather more composed when I was able to open my eyes steadily again. No doubt, the old fox had sprung similar surprises before upon other intruders into his domain. Brimming with enthusiasm, however, he jumped up and exclaimed, "Was ist für ein Treppenhaus, ja?"
"Do you know what?" I blurted, rolling over on my elbows, suddenly as serious as if a technique for nuclear fusion had occurred to me. "Do you know what that reminded me of? Isn’t there some passage in the Inferno where Virgil holds Dante as they go sliding down the escarpment between one bolgia and the next?"
"Ja, sure! When the flying devils are after them… Canto Twenty-Three, Twenty-Four… I forget."
"’Sblood, Professor, but you’re a Renaissance man! I had you pegged for a book-lover, all along… but I’ll bet your own library is much easier to find than it could ever be in this place. Is one allowed to have a map, or must one simply memorize everything?"
"Such questions you journalists ask! Because books have corners, you think the rooms that contain them must do so? Why not just read what you find in the room where you end up?"
I was less than persuaded that this recommendation came in earnest, but I let my protests slip away. In any case, I could well imagine writing a Divine Comedy in a setting like this, even if reading one seemed wholly improbable: and wouldn’t the former be preferable to the latter, if one could possibly be given the choice?
I hugged my knees as I had seen Reuter do moments earlier, and self-indulgently craned my neck back. When my eyes reached the ceiling’s far slope, I’m sure my mouth must have popped open with the rude exaggeration which the place mysteriously inspired. Only ten feet ahead of me, the faintly luminous concavity overhead all at once exploded through a generous exit into the proportions of a cathedral. The frail but irrepressible lighting kept the space beyond from intimidating me, and instead allowed my spirit to soar naively after my gaze, as if the great vault were truly a cathedral’s rather than a cavern’s. Gauzy shafts spun drowsily down from invisible points of entry or production in the vault’s uppermost creases and folds. Were they generated by true sunlight or, once more, by Reuter’s clever counterfeiting? I shall never know: my queries drew only delighted laughter punctuated by tight-lipped smiles. The phosphorescent cones thinned in splendor as their size widened. At last they dissolved into cool shadows before actually touching bottom—which was not at our feet, I found (looking downward as if I had just recognized a great arrow pointing my study that way).
I required a few seconds to recover from my rapturous wonder at the world above. Then I became fully aware that the surface upon which we presently sat also yielded to the void about eight or ten feet away. Proceeding in a playful crouch electrically tinged with fear, I discovered a gloomy vastness beyond the exit’s ledge. Its dimensions somehow impressed me (if only through the all but inaudible echo of whispers which hangs over chasms) as equal to a small gymnasium’s. I could discern shoulders, ridges, and hillocks of lesser grayness rising here and there through the murk, but their totality left no sense of array or spiral or order of any other sort. They seemed classic Reuter constructs in their utter haphazardness.
"Isn’t this… rather dangerous?" I nervously smirked, not lifting my gaze from the dusky valley, as I heard the man himself sigh at my elbow.
"Ach! What—you think I would build a little labyrinth with an oubliette in the middle?"
The teasing words could not entirely conceal a trace of sincere indignation. At the same time, with the flourish of a slandered victim unveiling evidence of his complete innocence, Reuter reached across my face (the glow behind us lit his arm’s grand arch) and stroked the portal wall’s cathedral-side surface. The gilt-dusted cones which spiraled from the great ceiling remained muted, but a new radiance, its source apparently more lateral, was suddenly intersecting them in a green-yellow shimmer. I felt irresistibly that I was beholding sunrise from beneath a dense, lush tropical canopy. The ingeniously selected origins of the beams somehow created a rotating effect, as if their brushes past one another had set their columns into the steady spin of so many gyroscopes. Below, the bottom’s silver-gray ripples, now suffused with a rich lime cast, flexed in infinitely finer detail. The little mounds and ridges betrayed the pock marks of half-hidden grottoes, the sleek smoothness of slopes, and the furrowed frowns of boulder-studded summits. Around and through it all flowed a silent stream of crystalline water; and precisely beneath us, some twenty or thirty feet below (the last place I thought to look), opened a limpid pool, its depths straining out the haze’s yellows to achieve a shade very nearly emerald. Of course, the pool may also have possessed its own light source, secreted coyly underwater and tuned to a more somber tint.
"There… you see? The Garden, als nenne es ich. The pond to break your fall, water heated to room temperature, carefully measured for width and depth to prevent any possible mishap… as though I would allow some terrible accident in my creation!"
The indignation had fully evaporated in Reuter’s purr of contentment. I was so struck by the tones of satisfaction which he exhaled that, riveted as I was by the synthetic idyll before me, I had to steal a glance at him. His broad, bald forehead beamed with an inner light like that which pervaded his plastic tunnels and cubicles, but whose self-sustaining energy was genuine.
"Quiet bowers, secret nooks, bathing pools… all you need here, my friend, is an Eve! Think of the bliss, to retire here with your lady for a weekend! And when you must leave… the cavern in the far wall there, see? You may go through that, and down is to your car park. Another tunnel leads you on a climb back into the central chambers. For we must, after all, leave The Garden at last, yes? But for the time you are in here, you are in Paradise!"
may go through that, and down is to your car park. Another tunnel leads you on a climb back into the central chambers. For we must, after all, leave The Garden at last, yes? But for the time you are in here, you are in Paradise!"
Schmutzlich, by comparison, was an evil genius. In fact, there was little of the genius in him at all, architecturally. His paleolithic traps and cul-de-sacs were copied from Reuter’s early work, as I readily perceived—though one does not utter such opinions within any orbit dominated by the man’s sinister gravity. I inferred as much when I was scarcely an hour into my interview, as I must call it. I never had Schumtzlich alone, quite frankly: nobody did. He seemed to attract (or perhaps to require) an entourage the way the dark star of my metaphor above attracts comets, asteroids, and other clods of slag. We were being treated to tea in the Control Room, at any rate, when I distilled into the ear of an amicable conferee (most kept their distance from me) that I had seen all this at Reuter’s show, and much more. The little chap’s smiles immediately vanished. He drew back in horror and compelled me to silence with eyes that darted fearfully over our shoulders. I almost asked in a fit of pique, "What does he do with heretics, ring a bell for two thugs in trenchcoats?" I’m glad I held my tongue, in retrospect. I have a feeling now that I know just about what would have happened. A bullet in the back of the head would have been relatively benign.
So far we had not only seen spaces which wouldn’t have rivaled the earliest work of Reuter, but had seen them, besides, only through a lens. The Control Room featured a wide screen which we guests could comfortably view from our couches and armchairs, and whose "channel" and quality of image Schmutzlich himself determined with the aid of a hand-held remote. I had counted some two dozen or so chambers during the initial demonstration. I couldn’t see any point to them. Individually, they were unexceptional but for having very high ceilings, most of them. The corners appeared to be almost universally right-angled; and the internal lighting, though controlled by Schmutzlich (through another remote stick), was not shaded or tinted or artistically placed à la Reuter. Was there some ritual encoded in the sequence—a small room, a larger one, a room with a pool, a room with a high window? I could divine no hidden story unfolding for the life of me… but I thought, perhaps, the others could. At several junctures, a certain chamber would pop up on the screen and stir a round of smirks, leers, fidgets, and voyeuristic ah’s from the crowd. Some of them, at such moments, were sure to intersect my confused gaze as they sought a wink from a companion; and these were just as sure, having rediscovered the uninitiated intruder, to let their mirth overcome their suspicion and point at me in hilarity.
So when we had consumed our tea and settled down for what was clearly the main event, my curiosity was seasoned with a mild vexation, and my vexation (as I will now admit) with a vague fear. The Control Room’s own lights were dimmed as the screen revealed the two basins and matched mirrors of a lavatory. Schmutzlich had been muttering discreetly into a cell phone just an instant before. Now he threw his tall, lean figure into the central armchair and took his remote sticks in hand. Such an intense stillness fell upon our room that, ravenous as was my own curiosity, I had to cast a glance about me. The faces I saw could not have held their breath with more concentration if they had belonged to so many snipers drawing a bead upon a president—or a pope.
Then I heard footsteps over the speaker, and I looked back to the screen. I knew that the figure would be female—and a light, probably youthful female—before its close-cropped blonde hair and smartly square shoulders actually lifted into view. The tap-tap-tap of the heels betrayed a practiced, springing gait. A rush of air around me telegraphed that my fellow viewers had anticipated just this moment, but my eyes now remained as riveted as theirs. The back alone was visible at first. I traced the leather strap of a purse down the smart "v" of her ribs to where the bag bulged at her slender waist. Had my study not lingered there, perhaps expecting the intrusion of more into the camera’s ken, I should have noticed sooner the face reflected in the mirror. Its eyes may have been admiring their own faint slant, their own sculpted brow: nobody could have reproached their vanity if it were so, for few faces on the screen were more pleasant to look at—not on this screen, not on the screens of the five hundred thousand TVs in our local market. Eve Alsinger. I knew her mostly from those other screens, from my own screen at home, even though I had also met her twice (at press club receptions: nothing even slightly intimate). She didn’t see our hidden lens, naturally; and, deceived as she was, I could have sworn that her cleft lips pouted in a seductive rehearsal. Had they simply smiled to behold such ravishing femininity, I would have been less scandalized. The predatory pose, coming at a moment when the femme fatale was herself an unwitting prey, lent a new drama to the scene.
Yet there were no catcalls or howls in our sound-proofed command post. I remember being ever so subtly aware of that, and startled by it—not sufficiently, once again, to divert my look to my partners-in-voyeurism. Their voiceless adherence to the unfolding of events, however, made the occasion more eerily like a ritual than ever. I remember reflecting that we were not here to catch a peek down the front of someone’s low neckline—that there had to be much more. And I remember that a noble but weak resolve to rise and leave at once died within me as I made that reflection.
"Now you know why I singled you out to join us," Schmutzlich droned at my elbow. Though his tone was almost a whisper, I well knew that everyone in the room heard every word. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate are not usually welcomed into our élite circle. But I know with what distaste you regard the work of Miss Alsinger—the phenomenon of Miss Alsinger, I should say. Work falls to the rest of you, but her kind lifts its dress and bares its shoulder to penetrate the inner sancta of power, then charges sexual harassment when denied admittance through the final door, then emerges with more information than its small brain can retain or its indecipherable notes record while the rest of you have only scraps. And there need really be no information at all, no true information. A doting public wants only to see those languid eyes, those petulant lips. She could as well be reading the dictionary off her cue cards as analyzing the scandal at City Hall. And the height of her arrogance is that she believes in her own superiority. She isn’t even particularly grateful to her public—she sincerely believes that they are simply acknowledging her extraordinary merits. Well… those who climb high fall far."
I might add here parenthetically that Schmutzlich could not possibly have known anything of my feelings about Miss Alsinger. She was a subject of some soreness to me, in fact; for in the year since her first appearance on the scene, I had never been able to muster the courage for so much as asking a luncheon date. She was New School, I was Old; she was broadcast, I was print; she had recently graced the cover of Penthesileia (a glossy whose title was as much a mystery to her, no doubt, as to all its readers), and I… I had just taken a second job. Of course, had she not been a primetime starlet, I should probably never have seen her to begin with… but all of this, I repeat, was so tightly locked away that I positively clammed up whenever her name was casually mentioned. No, Schmutzlich had really invited me because of my piece on Reuter. I see that clearly now, even if I did not suspect it at the time. What followed was intended either as a dark parody of the Reuter idyll or, for twisted minds like Schmutzlich’s, a maximal fulfillment of it.
The camera’s focus and direction shifted slightly as Eve drifted from the sink. The reflection of her face was lost instantly, but the mincing, unmeasured progress of her footfalls said just as eloquently that she was perplexed. Schmutzlich was reading her mind, apparently. He steered the lens to a chasm-like opening in the wall topped by a red-neon "Keep Out" sign, and he emphatically zoomed in, nudging Eve from the frame. Then, irresistibly, she materialized (tap… rasp… tap)—hair, shoulders, waist—with the perfect timing of an actress following direction. Was this whole thing, then, being staged?
Something like an empty bookcase was drawn across the forbidden opening. No blockade could have been more homely or less effectual. Even without moving the shelves, a figure of Eve’s slender proportions could have slipped between the obstacle and the tiled wall with just a slight squeeze. She paused momentarily.
"Take a look over your shoulder, my dear…" purred Schmutzlich.
She did, as if she had heard his whisper.
"Now give a shrug—you know the kind! 'Well, if they won’t seat me, I’ll just seat myself!’"
May the power of goodness help us all! She did indeed look exactly like a self-conscious diner who had decided that choosing her own table would involve less indignity than waiting to be noticed. She even made a little unnecessary noise in pressing through the aperture, as if to underscore that she was not a common sneak or had some sacred right to ignore the warning. Her compact hips slid past the bookcase so insistently that it emitted a hoarse cough against the floor tile.
Blackness. Where on earth had she gone? What did Schmutzlich think he was doing with those sticks? I darted a hot glance at his armchair.
The screen quickly brought into focus a most unusual game of lighting amid heavy shadows. I knew that the focus wasn’t off because I could discern the word "press" (also in luminous red letters) above some blunt handle-like projection. What baffled me was the arrangement boxed before, and somewhat beneath, this handle. It might have been the casement of some rare museum display, perhaps a Moon rock or a phosphorescent jewel which required dim lighting to be appreciated. For the box or casement released a blurry white glow… but from our camera’s angle, we could make out nothing about the contents. Apparently, the nearer observer was intended to suffer a similar frustration, stimulating him or her to peer through the binocular eyepiece outlined against the glow and situated somewhat above the handle. Before I could infer anything further about the set-up, I saw Eve’s silhouette weave over it with a ghostly uncertainty. Her thoughts had no doubt followed precisely the same course as mine, and at about the same pace. The only difference was that, being in the display’s presence, she nosed around it before approaching the eyepiece—as well she might! After all, the dark room seemed to contain nothing else, and a "keep out" sign had been wired to warn off the curious.
"She’s suspicious," droned Schmutzlich richly through a few sniggers around the Control Room, "but she’ll take the bait. She can’t possibly not do so—she’s a journalist, or a snoop who fancies herself a journalist. Each of her reactions in this little rat-run has been accurately calculated. I tell you, sir, she’s as good as standing here naked before us this very second."
I was so stunned by these remarks, especially the last one, that I’m not entirely sure what happened next to Eve. I must have been gaping at Schmutzlich or groping about in my mind for… not even for words, but for the right register: a smile at a bad joke, a growl at an indecent proposal, a mere question at an utter marvel. It was her shrill scream which brought my attention back to the screen; and by then, I had already missed all but a glimpse of her pale curls disappearing into the floor—literally into it, for a trap door had opened up. I assume that she had finally applied herself to the eyepiece (centering her right over the trap) and activated the "press" button with her thumb (which would have loosed the door beneath her). I can’t imagine why else the charade would have been so arranged. If I am correct, it was certainly an ingenious snare.
A blank screen again as Schmutzlich worked his control sticks. Was it only my imagination, or could I actually hear a muffled scream for the instant when we were between microphones? Just how near was this awful oubliette to our present position?
The recovery of full sound, in fact, was all that clued me in to the successful switch of surveillance cameras, for the black remained impenetrable. Yet one could fill its neutrality with the most vivid sort of struggle, thanks to the deep, boisterous splash which seemed to splatter my socks, my knees, my face. I was quivering all over now. For several tense seconds—surely just one or two, in reality—the smacking return of watery sheets to the flat surface which had swallowed a human-sized load drowned every other sound. Then I heard screaming again, or rather a chaotic series of shrill squeals interrupted by heavy coughing and gasping. I myself began to choke—I had forgotten to breathe.
"Relax, young Vitruvius! Miss Alsinger is an excellent swimmer. My designs are not homicidal."
I was scarcely reassured by Schmutzlich’s confidential chuckles, but the squeals were indeed beginning to change from outbursts of panic to something distinctly like shouts of fury. Eve was plenty smart enough (whatever Schmutzlich thought of her) to figure out quickly that she had been set up. There were now such husky cries accompanying the wet strokes and splutters, in fact, that I expected to hear a volley of obscenities at any moment.
"She’s too cold to surrender to her anger," explained Schmutzlich (how in the world could this man read my thoughts?—and it seemed, as well, that he had counted on Eve’s seeing that she had been played for a dupe). "The water is quite chilly. Listen carefully and you will soon hear her teeth chatter."
But, for the moment, I was more curious about him than her. "Now that she knows that someone’s manipulating her, you won’t get her to jump through any more hoops. You know that, don’t you? So all of this masquerade was just to dunk her in cold water?"
"No more hoops, eh? You just watch! I could make her balance a ball on her nose if I wished. I assure you, she’s figured out far less than you think. The pool room, for instance, has been left completely unlit so that she will not realize she’s being led further. The next step is a particularly long one, and she’ll have to make it herself: feeling her way to the poolside, hauling herself out, finding the wall, tracking down the light switch. A yet longer step is shortly to come, as well. But she’ll make them both. It may take her a while, for her degree of intelligence is a minor factor. What will most surely reel her in, though, is her shrewish aggression—her pushiness. Since the only choice is really between breaking down in tears and pushing ahead, she’ll push ahead. At least until I reel her into this room, approximately where you have your feet."
Naturally, these answers only brought more questions to mind; but as I struggled once more for a posture as well as for words, I was distracted by an occasional variance in Eve’s guttural shrieks. The temptation to imagine some physical progress or evolution of awareness in them was invincible. Now I felt sure that anger was dominating terror, now I pictured her running a palm along the pool’s edge. A brief, strange silence (had she gone under? had some new stimulus frightened her?) was ended by the unmistakable slap-slap-slap of bare, wet feet upon dry, solid tile.
"She climbed out on her hands and knees," assisted Schmutzlich. (My awe at his mind-reading capacities was beginning to yield to the realization that he had entertained many before me with this same kind of show.) "She was apprehensive about rearing up at first, but now she’s confident that the floor beneath her is steady. Give her another two minutes to find the light switch."
Yet the screen before us suddenly exploded in color—the swimming pool’s turquoise liner flecked with the silver water’s quick pulse of fragmented reflections.
"You underestimated her," I said vindictively in Eve’s behalf.
"Not at all. I underestimated her luck. She is, of course, extremely lucky. Luck has indeed been the prime motive force of her existence."
With the stick which governed the hidden camera, Schmutzlich panned across the pool to its edge, followed the line of the wall, at last found a miserable figure huddled in the corner, and zoomed in. Eve had been transformed, and was virtually unrecognizable. Her soaked hair looked five shades darker, her eyes were pinched, her lips appeared blue and pencil-thin where they quivered around her painfully bared teeth, and her figure was so contorted as to suggest an old grandmother suffering from osteoporosis. At the same time, certain aspects of that figure were not at all grandmotherly to a second look. The hips pasted to her dress rounded out in stunning contrast to the narrow bend just above them, there was also a graceful ventral protuberance well below the waist’s flat surface, and the amplitude of those clothed swells which leaked steadily over her crossed, quaking, pitifully white arms created such a contradiction that I found my pity arrested by something else.
"If you hadn’t cooled the water down so low," I tried to drawl wryly (perhaps to suppress something in myself more than to scoff at Schmutzlich), "this part of the show would be much more… enjoyable."
"Tut, tut, my boy—now who’s pining for a peep show! This isn’t a game of mud wrestling. She’s absolutely frozen in those clothes. When she finds the towels, she’ll shuck off every stitch."
"And you don’t call that a peep show?"
"No. I call it the beginning of the endgame."
"Which is? What, precisely, is the end?"
Our eyes lifted from the screen at just the same instant as Schmutzlich articulated with particular clarity, "Why, her utter humiliation, of course!"
The anemic neon light which shed its sickly cast from perhaps twenty feet above (room enough to allow a diving board at one end of the pool) revealed little worthy of record. Naturally, the space had no window, being wholly subterranean. We seemed, indeed, to be overlooking the typical cellar pool, though rather larger, perhaps, than most of its genre. It goes without saying that Eve immediately tried the door beside the light switch, and that this failed to budge. What she saw of her surroundings after that, training a long gaze over the scene whose steadiness surmounted her shudders and chattering teeth, must have reassured her, in a way. No setting could have been more homespun. The concrete blocks of the walls had been given one coat of white paint, and no decoration or luxury (such as posters or monitors or even a radio speaker) had been lavished upon them. There was a glassed-in space at the far corner, appointed as an office would be: a desk, a chair, a few lockers. A wealthy man who wished his daughter to prepare for the Olympics in Spartan rigor might have built this very scene beneath the luxury of his drawing room.
Indeed, I will intrude here so far as to say (since Eve seemed to spend forever in her study) that Schmutzlich’s real genius, if he has any at all, lies in reducing scenes which might normally be thought extravagant or bizarre to a sedative, even humdrum familiarity. If Reuter could take a mere hole and transform it into a corridor of the eternal subconscious, Schmutzlich could take a ballroom and blunt it down to a barn. I understand, of course, that his greater objective was precisely to blunt the mind’s acuity so as better to manipulate his "guests". The art work, for him, lay in the drama of the guinea pig, not in the cage. But having conceded the man this much, I feel licensed to insist that he was no true architect—certainly not in any artistic sense. He was a would-be story-teller who had mistaken himself for something else. If you had a taste for his sort of stories, then you would be well within your rights to take your hat off to him… but no serious intelligence could praise him for accomplishment in that area where he seemed to think he deserved it.
Eve took the bait finally, as Schmutzlich would say. What choice did she have? She must have been freezing to death, and the office was obviously the only point in the vast room which might have concealed some sort of dry, pliable material. What else would lockers in a gymnasium’s office contain, if not towels? If finding them was that most difficult step of all to which Schmutzlich had referred a moment ago, he must have rated her abilities very low. One of my co-conspirators (for I no longer flattered myself about it: I should have stood up and left a long time ago) went so far as to hiss something like, "Come one, stupid—find the towels and take it all off!" I prefer to think that Eve sensed the presence of another lure, another trap, and fought against the irresistible as long as she could. Even after she had dug out three or four plush white towels, she visibly clung to her drenched blouse as if guarding herself from an assailant, briefly burying only her face in the fresh terrycloth pile. She had the stamina, furthermore, to try the phone on the desk before disrobing. Of course, the line was spliced into our speakers. We heard the convincing buzz of an in camera system, with nobody (need I say) picking up at the other end. She hung up and then dialed 9, then 0, then one or two other likely codes in an effort to secure an outside connection. At last her resources were exhausted.
Once she had surrendered to necessity, she did so with great relish—a self-indulgence which, I hope, nobody would begrudge her. It must have been a delightful relief just to have the wet things off: to be able to wallow in an almost unlimited supply of fluffy white towels was a compensation for her ordeal which she richly deserved. Had she reflected that she might be offering free cabaret to wickedly hidden eyes, she probably would have done no different. Such vermin as we, after all, scarcely merited a second thought. Maybe she even calculated that, as long as we had her snared, she might as well snare us, in return. There was no dearth of bait on her own hook.
I cannot entirely explain my personal reactions during these few minutes. I was as glued to the screen as the others, yet I wanted constantly to look away. Still more, I wanted to kill every other man in the Control Room with my bare hands, and not necessarily starting with Schmutzlich. Perhaps ending with him. Two or three of the participants seemed to have swallowed their tongues, or else were choking on their saliva. I’m sure I would have resented them less if they had simply stood up on their cushions and spouted wolf whistles. Yet there was no such display as that from any quarter of our observation post, whether because the group had been well trained by Schmutzlich to savor in silence or because their social status forbade such extroversion. I am actually inclined to the latter view; for, with the exception of three or four minions and underlings, the group was composed of "highly respectable people". I knew most of them by sight—and by sight only, since my humble circle of acquaintance had never before thrust me among them. Their faces belonged to the Sunday morning society pages at the helm of some fundraiser for muscular dystrophy research.
So Eve undressed, dried off, and wrapped herself in a particularly long towel (no robe being available). Schmutzlich had naturally switched to another camera when she entered the office. We could see from the new vantage (not that anyone was studying the background) a kind of cot with a thin mattress such as one might lie upon to receive a massage. At the foot of the mattress sat a small TV, raised by a footlocker to the level of the bed. A reclining gymnast need only have parted his feet to see the picture comfortably. This posture Eve proceeded to assume after pacing the glassed-in space fruitlessly for a minute. She must have concluded that she would soon be missed, that wheels would be set in motion to find her, and that she might as well take it easy in the meantime. Had she hoped for the diversion of normal programming, however, she was instantly disappointed. With her own remote stick in hand (what a delicious irony—viewing the viewer! it was at this point that some wag spoke of "Eves-dropping"), she dialed through all the channels to find only static. There was but a single exception: an oppressively fixed blue screen with white lettering of no apparent import. "Port 1: 672… Port 2: 709…" and so forth; this encrypted list included a total of twenty-seven ports. Ports?
I opened my mouth, but caught the question and simply shifted my eyes to Schmutzlich, instead. Sure enough, he was leering at me with that self-possession which sometimes made him insufferable.
"Now this, my friend, is the most difficult transition of all. Let us see how long she requires to make it. When she turned on the TV, she activated a stopwatch whose small digits you see in the lower right corner of our screen. The record is about five and a half minutes—but that, of course, belongs to Dr. Sayers, the eminent criminal psychologist who has managed to reach the zenith of her career, if I may so put it, while her estrogen levels are also peaking."
Again I swallowed my questions. I felt especially sullen this time because I sensed that I, too, was being put on trial. So the peculiarities of the TV’s reception were a puzzle of sorts… what if Eve found the solution before me? I already knew where Schmutzlich pegged her intelligence. Was he now placing me in one of his Skinner boxes, on one of his aptitude-measuring treadmills? I grew positively sullen.
"Obviously," I brooded at last (my vanity made me do so aloud, lest the man think that my mind was blank), "the blue screen, like the phone on the desk, is intended to be perceived as part of an in-house network."
"And obviously, the ports must refer to some feature or obstacle which is typically and generally encountered by those who work throughout your estate—or so they are meant to appear. Hence the need to post a key on the in-house network."
I gripped the arms of my chair and turned deliberately to Schmutzlich. "Are they the ‘com’ ports of some central computer? But twenty-seven of them… the hardware would have to be immensely involved…."
Just that moment, we heard a triumphant cry upon the screen. Eve sat up so abruptly that the long towel fell to her waist, and for that instant we all gaped stupidly once more (except, no doubt, Schmutlich). Then she gathered her covering about her shoulders more securely and darted out the office door.
"How extraordinary! Not a new record, but very nearly—within twelve seconds of the wonderfully symmetrical Hildebrand! Had to be luck. No doubt, the little chit does have good eyes. After all, she never reads anything but cue cards."
And as Eve examined the staunchly locked door beside the light switch, Schmutzlich cajoled me further. "There, there, my boy! You could scarcely have seen the three-digit code box on the door from the camera’s high angle—and you probably weren’t examining the door, in any case. Likewise, the number ‘eight’ on the door would have been dangling right beside the TV in Eve’s field of vision, just begging her to make the connection, as she lay nursing her hurt pride… whereas the office camera shows nothing of the door, and you no doubt forgot that it was numbered. If, indeed, you ever noticed… you young men! One would think all your pornography would have sated you on the various poses of the female body!"
So this had been the longest step of all… and Eve had just made it. As she punched the correct digits into the pad and the lock clicked itself smartly open in salute to its master, she uttered a new kind of squeal—a victory yell from a heart which is not easily vanquished and finds itself again on top of the situation. The same click had sealed her doom somehow: the rest, apparently, was supposed to happen quickly and smoothly. I felt crushed, almost overwhelmed with pity. I had no doubt whatever that her surge of triumph had been fully counted on—that it would be a major component of her will’s final annihilation. I didn’t even bat an eye toward Schmutzlich—yet the devil needed no cues.
"Any reservations she had are now gone," he pretended to murmur to himself, like a bombadier going over his calculations. "The little enigma I posed her was sufficiently challenging that, having solved it, she cannot so much as entertain the fantasy that she was meant to solve it. Give the vain food for their vanity, and you may lead them off any cliff you choose."
"There she goes—she’s going through!" panted one of our celebrants. "She’s about to meet Ivan!"
"Ivan the Terrible," smiled Schmutzlich confidentially at me, with a slight sigh that said, "You see what idiots surround me." But he remained uncharacteristically reticent.
And so I simply watched as he switched us to a new chamber. If the previous space had been drab and homespun, this one was positively the cave of despair. Though extremely ill lit, it appeared not even to enjoy the touch of rational order imposed by the outlines of concrete blocks. Instead, its walls looked like mere masses of cement, crudely squared up but not finished in any perceptible manner. Eve immediately noticed the only object (other than the miserably bare low-wattage bulb lost in the ceiling) to relieve the megalithic gray surfaces: a cast-iron ladder bolted to the cement and leading into an utter darkness overhead. (Though our camera’s angle was high, as usual, the room’s lighting was so poor that the gloomy hole in the ceiling could scarcely have revealed more to Eve than to us.) She paused for a moment, since the crude black rungs were right beside her entrance, and distractedly ran her fingertips over them without any appearance of eagerness to climb. Schmutzlich panned the rest of the chamber as she was thus occupied, and we could see that, whatever her reluctance for the ascent, it represented her one likely hope for further progress. Only in the corner diagonal to that she occupied, where the shadows were darkest, was the possibility of an exit suggested: for the heavy night of that corner seemed denser than mere shadow.
Indeed, as the lens recovered her, she must have been reaching nearly the same conclusion, for she was toying with the edges of her towel as if preparing to tie them over her breasts. She must have thought the better of that unpromising Jacob’s Ladder, though. After all, surely help was already on the way, and the pitchy hole which loomed over her… she abruptly drew back a step, and then continued to sidestep toward the entrance to the pool room.
Except that that entrance was now sealed. I noticed as much only seconds before she did. Schmutzlich had engineered its return to the locked position with such perfect silence and stealth that she showed almost as much surprise as when she had plunged into the icy water. Her shriek was so shrill that I thought she must have seen some additional horror, and I squirmed. Momentarily, the towel slide off her right side and completely bared one half of her body as she pushed the door and felt along its seal. I could hear her jabbering something like "four-three-six… four—no, four-six-three" between slightly vocalized little hiccups of trauma (I can offer no better description). No doubt, she was trying to recall the formula which had just unlocked the door from the other side… but there was no key pad, nor even any handle.
It may be that her terrified cries had stirred to life the presence which awaited in what did indeed turn out to be an adjoining chamber; or it may be that Schmutzlich had trained this creature—along with everything else, animate and inanimate, under his sway—to respond to some cue activated by his remote control. Upon reflection, I incline to the latter opinion. Such animals have not only a keen sense of smell, but the sixth and seventh senses which allow them to hunt at night: the creature must surely have detected Eve’s presence before she cried out. Besides, Schmutzlich had clearly presided over this ritual many times: Ivan the Terrible must have been well rehearsed in his part.
I shall never forget the sound of that ill-tempered moan, which every school child knows can only belong to a lion, rolling through those cement vaults and filthily clinging shadows. It is mingled in my nightmares, not with Eve’s harrowing whines and dry sobs, but with my own. I see the beast slouching from the far corner’s chasm in its casual homicidal plod, an enormous, tangled mane not so much emerging from the dark as snaring and dragging the darkness behind it like a mass of tendrils. I can see it all now without so much as closing my eyes, even though I never saw it the first time—not even on the screen. For Schmutzlich kept his camera focused upon Eve.
Naturally, the towel slid from her fingers instantly, without a second thought. There it lay at the foot of the ladder, which was already transporting her flexile buttocks out of our frame. Then and only then did the mammoth male lion fill the screen, its snout smelling over the rungs where nimble primate feet had just passed. The lighting was so poor that I could not tell if the mane was truly of the rare jet-black species or if the penumbra simply clung to its thousands of tangles.
"Tame as a kitty," smiled Schmutzlich, lolling back. "He has almost no teeth left. If she’d stayed to pet him, she would have won him completely over."
"Oh, yes—now why didn’t she think of that?" I countered testily. "And all this just to get her to climb the ladder without her towel?"
"No, not just for that. Not even primarily. A moment ago, I elevated her to the peak of worldly vanity. Now I have made of her a sweaty little ape in a tree. To follow the one so closely with the other has a kind of punitive effect, don’t you see? Negative reinforcement."
"Yes. Humiliation. Only the final stroke remains to be applied."
"And that would be…"
"Bringing her into a room where her betters sit around her comfortably with sherry and cigars, and ask her just what in hell she thinks she’s doing here."
As if cued by this acidly sardonic murmur, the lackey beside Schmutzlich nimbly sprang from his chair and retreated to the dumb waiter, where our tea things had been deposited before and whence he now began to return with sherry glasses. Though no one else stood up or even so much as spoke, a general unrest had invaded the gathering—a festive unrest, nervous but merrily expectant. I surprised several furtive smiles passed between those who had obviously participated in the ritual before. They accepted their glasses, and soon afterward their wine and cigars, without acknowledging the service lavished upon them; but I had the impression that this reserve was less the result of smugness than of a sacred obligation to keep the silence and to concentrate attention upon that panicked soul who had disappeared up the ladder.
In fact, those pathetic, scurrying ankles and soles had receded dimly from the screen amid a mindless whimpering some many moments earlier, and Schmutzlich had accordingly switched cameras yet again. If I took the leisure to observe some of the preparations around me, it was because the screen had been once more plunged into unrelieved shadow. Or rather, I was able to make out upon closer inspection (after being distracted by the Control Room’s buzz) the faintest pallid line in mid-screen, extending less than one-tenth of the image’s width. Something wrong with the reception, no doubt. I was more intent, frankly, upon Eve’s wordless utterances in the dark, from which I believed I might guess something of her mood. Was there not almost a note of hope in the determination with which she sniffed back her tears, in the nascent hail that seemed to lurk in her struggling "oh… oh"? Could she be saying door? Probably just babbling. A desert castaway might have sought to clear his head of mirages with the same tentative cries upon seeing a caravan that didn’t vanish.
The hushed shifting about in the Control Room grew extremely distracting at this point. Two or three men actually rushed to the aid of the servant in order to see everyone settled in with sherry and lit cigar, staging the picture of a group which had lounged about for an hour. My shock at hearing a fist pound on our door as the "oh… oh" on the screen reached maximum volume was therefore complete.
"Who’s there?" grumbled Schmutzlich rudely, suppressing his obscene smile.
"Who’s there, I said? Come on in, if you must!"
"The door… please let me in! I need—"
"It’s not locked. Come on, put your shoulder into it. Sometimes it sticks."
I had only time to hurl myself behind my chair, consigning my glass of sherry to the carpet as I went, before the door burst open under an assault which must have carried Eve into the center of the room. I heard it shut behind her with a force which left no doubt that it had sealed its prey in tightly. What else I heard from my crouch over the next half-hour, I would not reveal under torture. All I could think of was that my chances with Eve would be forever ruined if I happened to appear from hiding, even with the best of intentions.
I did not at first understand that I was speaking to O’Toole himself. No man in the news has ever been less photographed, and the voice I had heard yesterday over the phone had communicated largely in monosyllables. I was already feeling quite awkward enough. If Reuter’s Mound had risen like some sacred earthen pyramid from a lush primitive forest, The Tank reminded me from a distance of the round towers I had seen in Ireland—massive stone structures constructed without doors or windows below the third floor, from whose safety medieval monks would toss down a rope ladder once they had ascertained that the visitor was not a Viking. Of course, Reuter knew the ladder trick, too. Perhaps I was leaping to conclusions. After my round with Schmutzlich, my self-confidence had been severely shaken. If reporting on the art world for an obscure bimonthly magazine was routinely to plunge me into such closets of skeletons, I would be better off as a homicide detective.
The surrounding landscape was as barren as tundra, as blasted as the scene of a nuclear test. A rope ladder at this point would have been most reassuring—or even a round tower. The cement minaret which glowered over my impertinent little car (no other vehicles were anywhere to be seen) was disturbingly seamless, quite without evidence of toiling monkish hands or clinging lichens or the claw marks of aspirant Vikings. It might as well have been an alien craft which had chosen an unpopulated desert to land in. As absurd as it sounds, I felt my miserable little sedan in far greater danger of being vaporized here than it had ever stood of being rifled in Reuter’s exclusive subdivision.
I leaned hard upon a large red button when my first efforts failed to draw any response. If there were going to be a ladder, now was when it should drop upon my head. I actually peaked above my hairline nervously, half-expecting to see something much heavier and more belligerent descend upon me. Instead, the rounded walls parted to reveal an elevator, and a voice commanded curtly, "Enter. Now."
How such a fixture could exist behind a surface which appeared (as I have said) seamless, I cannot even guess. Obviously, what I had first taken to be cement was something far more durable… but I was not given the grace of a moment to examine and reflect.
It was the tiniest of elevators, though it purred like a state-of-the-art toy. Impecunity could hardly have accounted for its size. More likely, the designer simply didn’t want large numbers of people (say, more than two Vikings) squeezing in for an invasion. I must add that I observed no floor-number indicators, emergency-stop options, or other controls within the module. Its sides were flush, wiped spick and span, and plainly owed their allegiance to no will which might be confined within them.
I was beginning to make a note of these peculiarities (for my failure to jot down such observations while in The Mound was an embarrassing torment to me now) when a voice brusquely ordered, "No notes. If I see the pad again, I take it away."
My mind was subconsciously preparing itself to confront yet another invisible camera of some sort… but upon looking up, I found with a start a warm live body (though not a very demonstrative one). The elevator had ceased its ascent with such subtlety and the doors had opened with such silent discretion that my senses had never registered a clue. I must have gaped in surprise, not at the voice (which was hushed, despite its gruffness) or the man (who kept his eyes lowered, despite his imperious manner), but at the threshold which I now traversed; for my host explained, "People come to us in all stages of emotional breakdown. Fear of elevators is common even among the healthy, so we have taken pains to make the ride gentle."
"Is an elevator, then, so necessary?" I pursued, obediently pocketing my notepad.
I could not have drawn a longer sigh from my host (or should I say my guard) if I had asked him to recount his mother’s last words. This great sad jump-suited churl (who was really a hair less tall than I, but whose frame was broad and muscular) leaned upon the parapet of his tower looking not a wit less tragic than Macbeth after his lady’s death. The window which ran more or less the entire circumference of the structure (interrupted, obviously, by the elevator shaft) made this one central room appear to be the control tower of an airstrip. Certainly the wastes which I glimpsed beyond the fellow’s broad frame more resembled an enormous landing strip than the Wood of Dunsinane.
"Necessary?" he repeated bitterly. "For most of our patrons, very little is necessary. Nothing much at all. ‘Two paces of the vilest earth is room enough.’ But I try to supply them with rather more—enough to absorb the shock of living which has set them a-quiver like a sword. I cool them in the sheath, polish them, and send them back into the fray, the eternal fray. No, not eternal… only as long as life…."
I was somewhat aghast at such lyricism on the part of a custodian. When the meditation showed no sign of ending, however—showed, indeed, every sign of feeding off itself—I must have fidgeted. The man noticed my impatience, I suppose. He drew himself up abruptly and searched the room’s floor (or thin air) with a "let’s see, now" which renewed his gruffness. I followed his darting eyes, but could discern only wiped and vacant surfaces.
"Let’s go! You’ll want to see the interior—perhaps a sample chamber."
"Yes, but… shouldn’t we wait for Mr. O’Toole? I thought my interview was with him."
The man scowled at my belt buckle. "Come along, now. Don’t be silly."
It was at this point when I finally realized that I was in the presence of O’Toole himself.
The elevator in which I had ascended apparently serviced only the visible tower. The subterranean depths to which The Tank owed its unprepossessing name could only be reached by a second shaft, this one cutting through the great cylinder’s focal line. I gave one last look out the observation window as O’Toole entered a code (or perhaps pressed a button—he was surreptitious about procedure throughout my visit) upon the small box at his belt and secured us a passage downward.
"Have you no clients at present?" I queried inoffensively, stepping through the sliding door where he beckoned. "I can’t see a trace of a car anywhere… or a parking lot, for that matter."
The door sealed itself silently, and our descent began. O’Toole stood frowning at one of the blank walls (the "down" command was also issued from his belt), and I concluded that he had either not heard my question in his distraction or had decided to feign inattention.
"You must understand," he finally delivered very solemnly (and I was at first doubtful that this was my answer rather than another philosophical reflection), "nothing will be revealed to you in the course of the tour about any guest."
Having digested this, I persisted just a bit. "Even if I merely ask whether any guests are present?"
"But the absence of cars…" I smiled, supposing a touch of good-natured prodding would do the situation no harm. "I mean, the question answers itself, doesn’t it?"
"By no means. Some guests are in an unfit state to drive, and are escorted here by concerned intimates. Others drive themselves because they want no one—absolutely no one—to know where they have gone. Their vehicles are secreted in an underground lot. An automobile might advertise its owner’s presence to stalkers, private detectives, and—forgive me—reporters, all of whom frequently belong to the class of person our clients wish to evade."
"May I at least ask why the guest chambers are placed underground as well as the garage—or have I heard wrong? It seems to me that your round tower, if I may use its Irish name, is quite capacious."
Another sigh: nothing O’Toole confided to me appeared to come easily. "Several reasons… several. The physical plant is substantial: heating and air-conditioning, the elevator apparatus… my own quarters, of course. And I have a… a rather voluminous library."
"Ah!" I nodded sympathetically.
"Then there is the matter of quiet, which is the overriding factor in all design decisions. Our visitors come for the silence of the crypt. Some have been without a full night’s sleep for months, or even years. They come to sleep."
"Do you feed them?" I asked obtusely. "I mean… unless they check in just for a few hours, which hardly seems worth the effort…"
"Oh, yes, yes," amended O’Toole (strange how that question, of all I had asked, should have been the one to draw him into something like informality. "I had forgotten to mention our food stores. They, of course, consume considerable space. I had originally constructed small pipes to convey refreshment where it was requested—pneumatic dumbwaiters, you might say… but the effect of even so modest an intrusion from the outside was ruinously disruptive to my charges. So I had the conduits filled in, and I sealed their ports thoroughly enough that no new guest might ever find a trace. Some look, you know. They look everywhere, check every stitch of the bed sheets and every recess of the cubicle."
"It would seem," I said with a grave sympathy which, I promise you, was not manufactured, "that your guests’ peace has been disrupted by far more than noise."
For the first time, O’Toole looked directly into my eyes. Though I may flatter myself, I would say that his sobriety had recognized in mine something worthy of respect.
At that instant, the lift’s door slid silently away. "Proceed," whispered my host, this time not with a rude jerk of the chin but a polite, solemn bow.
We disembarked in what appeared to be a perfectly circular corridor of not more than twenty feet in circumference (the elevator’s shaft occupying the central six feet of that). The lighting was dim but not obscure, and it was shed steadily by a single great neon bulb (as far as I could tell) which circled the corridor’s ceiling. Like everything else in The Tank which I had so far observed, all structures had pure, polished, seamless surfaces. The only exception was the series of hatches built into the outer wall at a regularity of about one every ten feet. These were about four feet tall and two feet wide, with a wheel in the center which apparently sealed them through compression. In fact, if you have ever been aboard a modern ship or at least seen footage taken aboard one, you know the sort of door I mean.
If some of the chambers were occupied (as O’Toole had certainly implied), then the man either possessed the most extraordinary memory—I had been told that there were ten decks of these vaults—or else profited from some secret system of telling which room was which. He infallibly led me straight to a particular hatch with no markings to distinguish it from the others, then proceeded to work the wheel until the entry became unsealed. We had not so much as whispered a syllable since leaving the elevator. With a finger, he bade me follow him in.
"Surely our voices cannot be heard through such armature," I cajoled quietly as he sealed the hatch behind him.
"Forgive me," he murmured, proceeding to yet another hatch. "Silence has become habitual to me. I had forgotten that there are those to whom it seems strange."
While mulling over this remark, I was taken aback to see him simply push the next hatch open after touching a button at his belt. The light was extremely dim in the short, narrow passage between the two doors (I think again of those films chronicling life on a submarine secured for a silent running). Nevertheless, I had seen his gesture, and there was no mistaking the utter absence of any wheel, knob, or latch on the outer surface of the next door.
So I paused obstinately in the doorway, determined at least to ferret out an answer to this mystery before being drawn into what appeared a very dark space, indeed. "Mr. O’Toole, why… how…."
His silhouette seemed to stare at me for several moments, then flung up its arms in a shrug. A heavy sigh (another heavy sigh, for I had heard many this morning) was also audible. "Come now… it… there is a certain subterfuge which is indispensable. When I bring a client down, I take care that the inner door has been unsealed in advance. I then assure her that she must seal it from the inside, because it is quite inoperable from without. However, there are many obvious reasons—obvious, that is, to people of sense and principle—why such a person cannot be allowed, despite her fondest wishes, to shut herself entirely off from possible intrusion. She may be suicidal. I am wholly convinced, in fact, that many of them are saved from suicide only by having recourse to us. These cells, after all, are as close to entering the grave’s peace as a human being can come and still walk out. But while the client must have absolute confidence that he or she has left the world inviolably outside…"
"You yourself must be equally assured that you can intrude in a crisis," I nodded.
O’Toole dealt me a look of profound gratitude in the light which he had just increased (from a switch in the wall beside me this time, and not from the box at his belt). "It is a grave responsibility. Most of these people have been so harried by constant betrayal and imposture that seeing the very stronghold where they thought to find refuge also rigged to deceive them… I fear that a few would be pushed irretrievably over the edge. In more ways than one, their lives are in my hands." And as he turned away, he added in a low growl, "Even the world of domestic architecture is now rife with fraud. That swine…."
I would swear that he then uttered the name "Schmutzlich" under his breath! It started several wheels turning in the back of my mind which had only quivered on their axes until now. Eve, I thought to myself. Could she be down here somewhere? No one had seen a trace of her since… since an event known only to me among the journalistic fraternity. It was widely assumed that her sudden vacation was an elaborate cover-up.
"In answer to your question…" O’Toole continued (again I had to grope for just which question he meant: I decided he was referring to my comment on the elevator as I kept listening). "People do not come here primarily for quiet, no. They come to retreat to the grave—to die something short of a permanent death."
His dour words made the deeper an impression in that the space he had faintly illuminated might as well have been a vault in some state-of-the-art network of catacombs. Our heads very nearly scraped the low ceiling, which was narrowly arched to enhance the sense of burial. The chamber’s end was a mere eight feet away, where I glimpsed a basin, toilet, and shower stall through a glass door. To my left and right (that is, into either oblong wall) was sunk a kind of alcove supplied with mattress, sheets, and pillows—and reminding me irresistibly of a sarcophagus whose one-half had been precisely shorn away.
"As you may well imagine," droned O’Toole, nearly resuming his whisper, "we have never entertained more than one guest in a chamber. The second bed pacifies them, for some reason. If they cannot find repose on one side, they can slip across to the other. Perhaps, too, there is the subconscious security of knowing that if any wicked trespasser might manage to infiltrate our defenses, he would still need blind luck to find the occupant’s place of hiding in the dark. Such fears are irrational, of course… but this entire edifice is a monument to the triumph of the irrational."
"You keep making certain… certain presumptions about gender in your choice of pronouns. The trespasser is a ‘he’, but the occupant—I noticed it in something you said a moment ago—is a ‘she’. May I ask… would it be indiscreet of me to wonder if most of those who come to you are female?"
The question had already been in my mind, but not prominently so. Was I asking it now in a bid to prompt some careless revelation about Eve?
O’Toole gave me a long, rather puzzled look in which the new respect I had won from him seemed to be draining away. The ghost of a sad sneer played about one corner of his mouth—a sort of wearied Et tu, Brute? sobering up.
"I really can’t see why the percentage of women among our patrons should interest you in the least," he murmured at last.
"I… it was just a question. For the story, you know… to give it a little more human interest."
"It was my understanding that you were composing a piece about architecture, not manners and gossip."
"I am. I…."
Another heavy sigh. "I should never have told you about the second door. What a fool I was—I have already said twice too much." And he rubbed the fingers of a hand over his wincing eyes as if he intended, perhaps, to blind himself in penitence.
"Please, Mr. O’Toole! I have absolutely no intention of—"
"Yes, yes. Well, come along, now. You’ve seen enough."
"Is that tiny keyboard beside the light switch meant to… I mean, I presume… are there messages…." I floundered about for another question stupidly, trying to re-establish the academic purity of my visit.
"A means of one-way communication," muttered O’Toole, this time preceding me through the doorway. "It is with the small keyboard that occupants may request food or drink or, if they wish, an early release. Food orders are deposited in this small passage between the doors so that no human contact is made."
As my guide issued from the outer door and stood waiting for me, his voice returned to a complete whisper. I decided not even to venture that much while he sealed the hatch and we boarded the elevator. As I dealt one last look along the circular corridor, I felt myself being studied, though all I could surprise upon O’Toole’s face was a tight pursing of the lips.
The elevator shut without a peep. I sensed the floor pressing into my soles gently, but (as earlier) heard no whir or clank to indicate the conveyance’s mechanics at work.
"And… do many clients request an early release?" I finally said.
O’Toole patiently eyed the ceiling. "It is far more common that they request a longer stay—which is not always possible, since we have a waiting list. However, I try to oblige when I can. The floor which you just visited is never formally booked so that emergency cases may be lodged there without delay."
"Early release," I repeatedly to myself. "Doesn’t that sound rather like prison jargon to you?"
"Well, say that it is. Why deny it? This place is a prison, a collection of cells arranged for solitary confinement which people from the outside world—from your world—desperately want to occupy. Yes… it has come to that. In the future, our species will be so traumatized by the pleasures which it has invented to beguile away its boredom that its members will line up for prison as the ultimate refuge. Or perhaps I should say, the next-to-ultimate refuge."
I was somewhat taken aback by this new spate of philosophizing; and when the seamless door soundlessly opened, O’Toole had to look back over his shoulder at me quizzically before I could quite rouse myself.
We had re-emerged into the great round observation room. Now that I had seen a small sampling of the inner sanctum and witnessed its elaborate sequestration, I felt more than ever that I bestrode the parapet of some kind of impregnable defensive structure. I had half-expected to be ejected with little ceremony for my prying. Instead, O’Toole strayed away from me toward the running window, its thick plexiglass apparently not made to yield any admittance to the outside universe’s breath, and leaned heavily upon the ledge. I was more impressed than ever by the broadness of his shoulders. I could well imagine his having supervised the building with a crowbar in hand.
"You should see them, some of them," he mumbled into the glass—but loud enough for me to hear every word. "If ever you have had a daughter, or a sister, or anyone you greatly cared about… their state is truly pitiable, these inmates of mine. They see stalkers everywhere. They have been turning on so many lights at night that, even were their nerves less raw, they should be unable to sleep for the brilliance. They hear a vent crack as their air-conditioning cuts on, and they sit up screaming at what they take for a rapist at the window. Doctors have given them tranquilizers whose efficacy wears off after two or three days, causing them to increase the dosage or turn to other drugs. Their inhibited alertness during the day hampers their performance on the job, which only heightens the tension in which they live daily. Some have survived terrible traffic wrecks which were probably caused by falling asleep behind the wheel—or perhaps, in some cases, by seeking death with a sharp turn of the wheel. They have prayed their souls bare to God, offering eternal devotion in exchange for one night’s peace… but God has set them to live among other souls, less vulnerable than theirs, less alive, more predatory. So they must face the timeless problem of how long to keep fighting before seizing upon some unconditional surrender, and they do so in a society which has no understanding of or patience for monasticism—a society driven by pleasure as a slave is driven by a whip. Sous le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci…."
Abruptly, O’Toole turned upon me and stiffened his back against the ledge. "Don’t write about the inner door. That must remain our secret. It might dramatize your piece, but it would also destroy forever the slight solace which I am able to offer these tormented souls."
"You have my word," I said, deeply moved.
He seemed reassured, for he nodded and drew one of his characteristic sighs. "A place like this," he resumed with more composure, "ought to teach one governance over one’s tongue. You would think so… but sometimes the effect is quite the opposite. I speak to so few in the course of a year who are capable of sustaining a conversation, who actually want to talk… sometimes I say far too much."
"You need a vacation," I blurted out genially, not at all sure where my sudden compassion was leading me. "You should allow another to spell you for a while. I, for instance, have often longed for a quiet retreat where I could read and catch up on my writing—real writing, you know. This would be ideal for me."
Down what corridors of my own mind was I creeping? Into which hidden chamber did they finally release me? In a vault where Eve Alsinger slumbered alone, having renounced the world for a few days or weeks? What words formed on my tongue as I knelt at her bedside? After my fingers had caressed her smooth brow, her cheek swollen by deep slumber, where did they proceed on their mission of comfort?
My eyes had been fixed so intently on this imaginary scene for a moment that I must have stared right through O’Toole. When I blinked and roused myself, as if it were I who had slept heavily rather than my dream-lover, I found him measuring me up and down with his frown of sad resignation.
"I think it’s time for you to leave," he said.
CRITERIA FOR SUBMISSIONS
Our criteria are refreshingly indulgent, in terms both of length and of content. We have never turned away a good essay or story because it was too long. In extreme cases, we might run the entire work serially for several issues. Material may be submitted electronically to the editor at [email protected]. Conventional mailings, of course, must be accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope if their return is desired. Note address in left column.
Regarding content, we are very interested in the following kinds of matter: any original short stories or poems which do not court tastelessness for mere shock effect; translations into English of stories, poems, or even novels; essays which critically examine the contemporary academy, especially its politically correct zealotry, its contempt for Western tradition, and its Byzantine inner workings as a system; reassessments of our literary or cultural past where it has been deemed "unusable" by the imperious arbiters of such things; and comparisons of literary works not usually viewed together because they belong to different times or cultures.
Naturally, this "wish list" is not all-inclusive. We are eager to consider any kind of submission which reflects honest and profound thought. Footnotes should be minimal: citation should be used to clarify rather than to overwhelm.
back to top Archive Directory The Center for Literate Values
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
1.3 (Summer 2001)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Moral Reason
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (President)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Rtd.), Smithsonian Associates
A Few Words from the Editor
Praesidium in print or online—take your pick.
Breaking Line at Payback Time: Victim-Ideology’s Culture of Rage
Everybody’s stewing away about something. Feminism, while not the sole cause of ruffled feathers since the 60s, ensures that bad feelings will flourish now that gentlemanly decorum has been annihilated.
Long before the Beat Generation was pronouncing a prosperous America DOA, John Dos Passos had failed to detect a pulse.
No "Middle" in Middle America, No Aristotle in the Academy
A survivor of the cultural Death Camps also known as grad programs in English literature is glad to have escaped… but to what?
Kelly Ann Hampton
Semper Inutile: In Praise of the Useless
Reason not the need! By the time we reduce life to the "useful" and "efficient", we have nailed our own coffin shut.
John R. Harris
Three Poems Under Clear Skies
Pantoum for Gardeners (Michael H. Lythgoe) Intimations of Spirality (John R. Harris)
Global warming or not, flowers continue to grow between cracks in the sidewalk.
Scholarly colossus Jacques Barzun had the professoriate’s number more than three decades ago.
Zoom out, Cam 3: you’re getting his chewing gum.
The Académie Française would never catch on where Spanish is spoken.
In this three-part short story, the architecture of the future catches up with our caveman mentality.
"Do you think when it really, really hits you in late September that you’ll never again put on the spikes before some toddler who will one day tell his grandchildren with the far-off gaze of gilded reminiscence, ‘I saw Cal Ripkin play!"… do you think we’ll see a tear in your eye then?"
A Few Words from the Editor
A few of you will be reading these words in the old format—that is, on the printed page. Others, however, will have received a letter inviting them to view the issue on the Internet. (Since I am not at this instant entirely sure of what our address will be, I cannot include it here; and in any case, we will simply be "hosted" by a donor site until we can find funds to afford our own.) I have mixed feelings about the strategy, as do most of the Board. On the bright side, I save a lot of postage, as well as all the time spent in trivial pursuits like affixing labels and sealing envelopes. Most appealing of all is the prospect of having our pieces read by thousands of eyes rather than dozens or hundreds. On the dark side (notice that I conclude with the bad news… is that terribly revealing?), the global Net audience is indeed a mere prospect. Many who have struggled to build a "Web presence" have discovered that you’re better off sticking fliers under windshield wipers. Oh, you can deceive yourself that thousands are visiting (at least until you actually pay someone to track activity at the site for you); but the mounting evidence suggests that people who surf the Net are in haste, if not positively giddy. A person who takes just slightly more time to assess your home page than Ted Williams would to decipher an incoming change-up is probably not in a mood to wrestle with knotty issues. I try to find grounds for optimism on the screen… but the only sure thing is eye strain.
Well, you can always print out the issue, or those pages of it which intrigue you. Then you will indeed be paying precisely for what you consume, no more and no less. Let me underscore, however, that anyone who wishes to receive a printed, bound copy of Praesidium has only to tell me so. Since there is little demand for such gratuities, I see no great obstacle to bestowing them. We still have a few pennies in the till—and, frankly, I am eager to encourage bibliophilia where it is sincere.
Have you noticed that the same people who once carried placards demanding the elimination of our nuclear arsenal are now chaining themselves to missile silos lest we switch to a "Star Wars" defense? Many of them also told us that the computer was the dawn of a Golden Age in education, nor have most of these sacrificed their progressivism in matters cybernetic… except for shooting down missiles, which is fraught with insoluble problems. Let’s see, now: stem cell research, good… Star Wars, bad… computers in classroom, good… nuclear power plants, bad… expensive jetliner to Paris, good… oil rigs and tankers, bad… does this tally up to anything comprehensible? All I can see is that we continue to be accelerated into major "lifestyle" decisions for whose careful arbitrating we have insufficient information and time. Of course, Praesidium is dedicated to resisting this rush of the lemmings toward the precipice… and here it is online. I don’t suppose anyone will rally before Starbuck’s in protest of the inconsistency, nor am I convinced that the Net is necessarily an agency of dumbing down. (Books can be that, you know: drop by the chain-store at your local mall.) Nevertheless, I assure you all that I have transformed the journal into an "e-zine" with hesitation and, I confess, distaste. We’ll see.
Steve Kogan’s much-delayed essay on John Dos Passos has primed me for some of these sardonic reflections. As the summer rounded another Fourth of July’s meta (I allude to chariot racing, which seems appropriately wild and headlong), a couple of malignant reporters hereabouts decided to interrogate passers-by on such arcane matters as the year of the Declaration’s signing and the adversary of the Colonies in their struggle for independence. Though TV audiences apparently get a hoot out of such streetcorner profiles in vacuity, I find them very unsettling. Professor Kogan reminds us that Dos Passos sensed some vital spark to be slipping out of our culture more than half a century ago. I have my own pet theory about our cultural hemophilia, which I share in a piece about the glories of the "useless"; and it just so happens that Peter Singleton also chose this season to ruminate upon the degeneracy of the Western male. So we appear to have for this quarter various assessments of a maelstrom made from various levels of descent into its unsavory vortex. Mr. Moseby’s short story has traveled well down the funnel—and its claustrophobic revelations, as is art’s way, somehow lighten up the whole landscape.
I might add that Steve Kogan’s essay should have appeared much sooner—and would have, but for (of all things) a software problem! I’m not making this stuff up, just reporting it as it occurred. Seems that Microsoft has effectively squeezed the Apple off the market, and that Steve (who prefers manuscription, in any case) is one of the last patrons of the latter. Only after weeks of combing the city did I find an outfit that could make the conversion from his disk to my version of Windows.
I ended up (for those few of you who are reading hard copy) inserting the cartoon on the page where the Dos Passos essay concludes. The levity was intended to follow a short piece about the All Star Game before the blunt realities of layout intervened. When all is said, however, I think Dos Passos might pull a wry smile to see his work "footnoted" with a jab at the media feeding frenzy around Cal Ripkin. No doubt, Dos Passos didn’t quite foresee the Age of the Organization morphing into the Age of Hype, Spin, Web, and Net—or only toward the end of his life. The question now is, what next? How long can we graze on "Cal" nostalgia, or how long can a Cal-clone scanned into a video game amuse us?
I suggest we start at home, all of us. Close your windows and your Windows, and think. ~J.H.
Breaking Line at Payback Time:
Victim-Ideology’s Culture of Rage
Peter Singleton 1
Road rage, air rage, restaurant rage, waiting room rage. Frayed nerves, flaring tempers. "Get outa my face! Get outa my life!" The computers are down, or else your browser won’t access this site. Your e-mail came back marked "User Unknown", or else you can’t collect the e-mail because your server is flooded. Or else you’re bombarded in SPAM (we use acronyms because even short phrases take too long to pronounce) and you hardly have time to find the one message you were waiting for. Now you have to rush off and pick up the kids, get to the bank, hit Quickstop for a gallon of milk. Why is that idiot in your lane? Either hang up the phone or get off the road, you jerk!
There’s nothing very new about the idea that the pace of life has picked up, and that our manners have eroded in the process. Electronic technology has been especially deadly to our patience. It has shortened the time we must wait, all right: but it has also destroyed our patience, so that any wait is too long. How many of us who marveled at our first computer’s ability to scroll through an entire book manuscript now grind out teeth because our state-of-the-art model needs ten seconds to boot up?
On the other hand, we really can’t keep up with any of this. A new software program is always mildly terrifying: make a single careless or uninformed move, and you find yourself, not one step down the path you didn’t want, but two counties down the wrong highway. And speaking of highways, automobile traffic now decimates our "peaceful" era’s population about as steadily as reconnaissance patrols ever did during a major war. At 70 m.p.h., your car really isn’t entirely under your control. You just missed your exit while catapulting through a busy city: now how do you get back? You don’t know these streets—time to panic! A different kind of panic can overtake you when your monthly credit-card bill arrives, but speed, again, is the culprit. At a click of your computer’s mouse or the touch of a few buttons on your cell phone, you’ve bought a gem or food processor or set of golden-oldie CD’s before you had time to think the transaction through. Now you have to pay up, at least on some of the interest. How did you manage to spend so much… where are you going to find all that money?
It’s enough to make anyone sullen. Always waiting, but always too late. You’re in a hurry because this brave new world is too fast for you, and you have to catch up; but since you’re always catching up, the traffic is always moving at a crawl, it seems, and the Internet connection always runs like cold molasses.
And because there’s no time to stop and examine your own feelings, let alone to re-shuffle your priorities, each new frustration is painted against a backdrop of brooding blues with occasional red flecks. Your own system is overloaded, and you won’t even know it until you explode over some trivial provocation. Then you’ll be left with the task of trying to explain to any friends you wish to keep just how bad you’ve been feeling today, for several days… you’ve been thinking of getting help. But first you’ll have to slow your friends down, and they may prefer simply to chalk up your hysteria to a "bad morning" without breaking stride. What are friends for? Catch you later!
The analysis above, itself rather staccato, is usually offered in some form to explain the collapse of "civil society". And it certainly isn’t without merit, even though it never leads to a remedy when one sees it squeezed into twelve minutes on Dateline or 20/20. What are we all supposed to do—take a deep breath and say "omm"? Find our soul’s center of gravity and let our psychic energy swirl around it? "This isn’t really happening… all these people, all this noise, it’s not really where I’m at." Solipsism, we call it: the belief that reality stops where one’s senses end. That should solve our crisis in manners!
Such "fixes" of pop psychology also overlook (or perhaps reflect) an essential aspect of the problem. Our ruthless, cutthroat approach to life is not just the madness of haste: some of it has been thoroughly, even voluminously worked into a system. Since the late sixties, the party line in our universities has been that all etiquette, all tradition, all morality is ultimately a machine designed by those in power to keep the underclass quiet. The "party" which purveyed this line was often Marxist; but with the discrediting of the Soviet Union and Red China by voices from within that could not be silenced, the dogma shifted and grew more "refined". Marxism at least had an overall sense of history and—admit it—a latent sense of decency. Though it "empowered" people to stick up their rich neighbors, the proceeds were supposed to be applied to giving Tiny Tim medical coverage. That all historical versions of Robin Hood have failed to measure up to the legend was a hard fact to impress upon socialists. It still is. Their sense of decency depends on the suppression of their sense of history.
But even this highly flawed system is positively Newtonian compared to what comes out of the academy nowadays. Pick a group—any group: racial minority, women, homosexuals, certain designated non-Western religious faiths… okay, so I didn’t mean just any group. It has to comprise non-whites, non-males, or people of non-European descent. Within these parameters, you argue that the chosen group has suffered centuries of oppression. Now the time has come for its masses to rise up, strap the saddle on the master’s back, and ride him with spurs and whip. Usually these arguments are advanced in arrogant defiance of the historical evidence—far more even than designer-brand Marxism. Assuming that you can stomach their "do unto to others what their remote ancestors sometimes did unto yours" kind of morality, you still have to confront an unscrupulous exaggeration of just what was done. To be sure, history may be accepted as an ally—and warmly embraced—for the short distance that it seems to walk beside systematic paranoia. A couple of documented incidents or a period of a few weeks may well sit constantly in the spotlight. Otherwise, the pseudo-histories of Hollywood and the talk-show rant of its darlings are called upon to bear witness as if they constituted an "oral record" passed down by field hands and washerwomen. "Everybody knows that they chopped a slave’s foot off when he attempted to escape"… well, it must be true, then. Everybody saw Roots, so everybody knows.
I’m talking about college professors, though. Sometimes they can’t get away with this kind of populist grandstanding among their colleagues, a few of whom still read original source materials. So the New Historicists (as they style themselves), when faced with facts, simply rule all the hard evidence out of bounds. If something was written down, the person who composed it must have been literate: that is, a member of the ruling élite. If that something was preserved, or even published, it must have met with the approval of the ruling élite generally. Hence you can’t trust it. You’d be safer assuming that at least every other word is a lie.
Let’s stick with the Africans imported to be slaves for a moment, since their reason for collective rage is probably stronger than anyone’s. (I would except the Native Americans; but then, not enough of them are left to voice much rage.) A movement is afoot for the descendants of slaves to be indemnified for their ancestors’ labor. Back wages with interest—a nice fat cash settlement for those concerned. Several obvious questions at once occur to me (or to anyone who dares to think openly and honestly). Who would pay—only whites, and all whites? All all-whites? That is, would a Chinese-Caucasian be excluded, or would he pay half the levy? What about whites descended from immigrants who didn’t even arrive here before Emancipation? What about whites whose forefathers fought for the North? I suppose I should pay something: some of my ancestors were definitely slaveholders. But then, some of them also took up arms against their cousins and sided with the Union. That strikes me as pretty commendable: to enter mortal combat against your own flesh and blood for the rights of people not even of your race. Would I get any discount for those of my forebears who risked their lives to free the slaves?
What about people who are half-black, half-white? Would they make out a check to themselves? What about blacks whose slave ancestors were freed within years of arrival—within far less time than the whites shipped over in indentured servitude? What about full-fledged African-Americans—émigrés from Biafra or Rwanda who were only too glad to make landfall on these shores in recent decades?
Would England and France chip in something for having operated a lucrative slave shuttle across the Atlantic? Would Arab Muslims pay something for having financed slave raids on the African continent, where (in the Sudan) they continue the practice as you read?
If the case depends upon the assumption that Southern plantations made fabulous profits, would the revelation that most were in deep financial trouble have any bearing in determining payments? What about the disclosure that room and board would have been considered adequate compensation, more or less, for field laborers at the time? Is the collective fine for back wages or for the outrage of having been forcibly transported to the New World? If the latter, then are the descendants of white debtors shuffled off to Georgia or Catholic political refugees hounded out of Scotland and Ireland eligible for a few bucks?
And speaking of the Irish… if an onslaught of lawsuits is permitted (as trial lawyers pray it will be: they, of course, are the guiding light behind this vast act of penance), shouldn’t something be done for the descendants of tenant farmers who were squeezed out of Sligo and Mayo and Cork during the Famine by greedy landlords? I have some Irish forefathers, too, as I recall—I should be able to recoup some of my "penance" money through them. The Potato Famine was really a series of famines during a time when every sort of staple but potatoes was thriving. The government could easily have stepped in and alleviated the suffering. Instead, the landlords pulled strings in Whitehall (where there was actually some sentiment in favor of relief) and secured inaction so that they might sweep their cumbersome tenantry away and employ new methods of mass cultivation. The potato blight was a godsend for their cause. Many of them even put up the money for the destitute farmers to book passage to New York or Boston or Quebec. The only problem for the latter was that since the shipping company had made all the profit it could off them before they ever came aboard, they were packed like sardines, and little space or cash was wasted on food and water for them. A slave who reached America dead was an investment gone down the drain: hence the number of slaves that could be boarded safely was calculated on those model ships where you see dark figures sketched in lying down. The swarms of Irish were another matter. When cholera made its rounds (as it almost invariably did: the city of Quebec was plunged into a major health crisis), the sick were sometimes tossed overboard with the dead. Ships’ captains didn’t want "the fever" to spread above-deck, so they took precautions, some quite extreme. There is a documented case of an ailing woman who clung to a wooden post lest she be jettisoned while still alive: "with that, one of the sailors struck the blow of an axe upon her wrists," and she put up no more resistance.
Pretty awful story, isn’t it? It ought to be worth something. I get made just writing about it. I’m mad right now. I feel a rage coming over me.
But then, I’m also part English: so if I ever did win a cash settlement, I’d be among those required to make a check out to themselves (minus an attorney’s fee and new taxes to fund the Federal Restitution Commission, which would well nigh clean out my account). Furthermore, I have a hunch that the Irish Gaels did some terribly inhumane things to one another before the Normans ever divided and conquered them. History is not very clear on the details, but the Irish heroic sagas are full of foul betrayals, ruthless beheadings, and mass carnage. If I were 100% Hibernian, research would surely suggest that I should be making checks out to myself until my pen runs dry.
You see the problem that keeps surfacing. People are despicable to one another, yes, and if you select any particular period, you’re certain to find one group dishing it out with special relish to another group. Yet the more you back away and look at context, the more you realize that inhumanity is an essentially human condition. The Serbs whom our government succeeded in vilifying recently before an ignorant public had in fact fought with the Allies against Nazism, while the Islamic minorities in their midst had so fully collaborated with the fascists in places that they themselves were grinding the tyrant’s boot upon innocent victims. Follow history back a few decades, and the ball of brutality is back in the Serbian court, and so on. As I write, the freedom fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army with whom we officially sympathized are fanning the flames of new conflict in Macedonia. This part of the world has seethed with ethnic hatred since before the Macedonia of King Philip (Alexander’s father) started flexing its muscle—since before the invasion of Darius’s Persians (Alexander’s pretext for conquest). The only periods of peace during recorded history have been stand-offs.
On this side of the Atlantic, the Native American nations were certainly not all co-existing in sweetness and light before the white man’s arrival. The relatively peaceful Caddo, for instance, had been all but exterminated by their more bellicose neighbors, the horse-borne Comanche; for once tribal groups like the Comanche and the Sioux had acquired the progeny of the conquistadors’ chargers, they became a terror to those around them. To the extent that they didn’t resolve all their age-old rivalries permanently, it was because other tribes (e.g., the Shoshone) had also mastered horseback-riding, and also because their self-interest really didn’t require wiping out the other side. It was scarcely out of charity. The land which was later "stolen" from them included vast tracts of prairie over which any given group migrated perhaps once a year. Had they lived in fixed villages like the ancient Anasazi of the southwest (who mysteriously disappeared, perhaps bullied by an Aztecan people which sacrificed humans), they would have settled their disputes less like Tamerlane and more like Milosevic. Indeed, the comparatively sedentary Huron and Iroquois were ferocious beyond anything within European memory (though just beyond the intruders’ polite memories, many parallels lurked in the shadows). They slaughtered their adversaries and mutilated their prisoners. And they took slaves.
Usually the slaves were women and children. This is the rule in traditional cultures which have no need of raw man-power in large amounts: the men are butchered, while the women get to live. When the Greeks sacked Troy, legend has it that they went so far as to slaughter male children like Hector’s son Astyanax lest the boys grow up to avenge their fathers. This is a legend, of course: even those ancients like the Roman playwright Seneca who wrote it down viewed it as some kind of allegory. ("Civilized" memory was already sending the bad boys off into the shadows.) Yet such legends often reflect what was once standard practice much more faithfully than we care to believe. It makes a brutal kind of sense, after all: kill the potential warriors and breed a new underclass from the serving girls.
So the women got to live. You may say that they would have been better off dead, and you may well be right. Homer and Aeschylus don’t paint a very happy picture of the female slave’s existence. But then, such value judgments further vex the issue, don’t they? If it were you, would you really rather die? Can you confidently speak for your sister, your neighbor, everyone you know? All females everywhere?
When certain feminists complain that they have suffered a history of oppression, they seem to me to err on all three counts above. That is, they first ignore that we are all oppressors, generically as a species and potentially as individuals. Secondly, they simply aren’t correct with any respectable degree of detail. The most prosperous male peasant farmer in the Middle Ages had a far more arduous life than the most cloistered female aristocrat, and men have always been expected to volunteer as cannon fodder for an unending succession of wars while the women stay home and wring their hands.5 Well, maybe you’d rather starve than be cloistered, or maybe you’d rather be vaporized than left to wait in anguish. That’s Point Number Three. Just because you personally might not be daunted by the miseries of the working class or of male social obligations doesn’t give you objective cause to rate the miseries of conventional womanhood above all others. Some people, I truly believe, find getting shot at quite exhilarating. It is willful blindness bordering on insanity, however, to insist upon this "right" for all women (in the form of frontline military service) because you really hate housework and shopping.
I’m not saying that I personally enjoy housework, on the other hand—and if I were, it would be just as irrelevant as another’s rare love of whistling bullets. Personal preferences are not in competition here. My point is precisely that labeling one gender’s habits of life better or worse than the other’s is mere shooting of the breeze and blarney. The irreproachable Gertrude Himmelfarb cites the reluctant work of one feminist scholar who, having scrutinized long and hard the "miseries" of less affluent Victorian matrons, had to conclude that the picture wasn’t so very bleak: "In the working-class family, the women were far more dominant [than in the middle class]. There, in their separate sphere, they constituted something very like a matriarchy."6 This sort of conclusion just won’t do if you aspire to the feminist "ideal" of dictatorial power confirmed by propaganda. On the other hand, if you are interested in truth, it is inescapable.
The Marxists at least had such objective measurements as health and nutrition on their side when they designated the poor as oppressed. What similarly objective standard do today’s feminists have? Before the twentieth century, women often died young in childbirth… yes, but men often died young in battle. Women were often kept close to home and not allowed to participate in politics… yes, but the travel undertaken by most men was toilsome and dangerous, and access to politics was extended only to a privileged few. If you make a scorecard, you can go on like this all day. Every time you think of a way in which women were shortchanged, you need only think a little longer to balance it with a way in which men were shortchanged. No, the two sexes didn’t live the same lives in yesteryear’s world—only in degree of labor and grief. And that is another human constant, rarely fluctuating from person to person. We all have pretty hard lives.
What about the person who’s ugly rather than beautiful? Regardless of gender, those who are pleasant to look at enjoy a lot of coddling and preferential treatment. What about the overweight, especially overweight women? What about the undersized, especially short men? These groups have drawn a certain fashionable sympathy lately, but nothing approaching the legally sanctioned preferential treatment lavished upon some minorities whose victimization is more "classical". What about the shy? They have no lobby whatever—how could they? They’re shy! Or what about the most persecuted, execrated, crucified minority of all: the minority of honest people? They get passed over for promotions, they get squeezed out of work if not openly fired, they get transferred to Siberia, and in some societies they are literally imprisoned or executed. Should we protect honest people under the Fourteenth Amendment? Should their descendants be eligible to collect damages from descendants of the persecutors? Should Solzhenitsyn’s grandchildren have their day in court against Stalin’s grandchildren?
But a truly honest person is probably also a good person; and a good person would tell you that honesty is its own reward—that the person who lives in lies is as pitiable as the damned in hell. Those who tell lies have bad consciences, don’t sleep well, poison their personal relationships, send up their blood pressure, and otherwise self-destruct. Maybe they should seek indemnity—from God, for making the human heart so weak at the prospect of its own evil. Why, even the handsome and the beautiful often share a corner of this hell; for to be celebrated for something so shallow as your looks is itself a lie, and eventually pretty posterboys and beauty queens begin to choke on the very laurels meant to please them. What real happiness did Elvis or Marilyn ever know? Or to retreat to ancient literature again, what woman ever ended up more miserable than Helen of Troy, who beauty rivaled the goddesses in beauty? If you prefer Celtic legend, the Irish Deirdre, the Welsh Branwen, and Arthur’s lovely Guinevere all died deaths of utter despair after causing the destruction of everyone dear to them. Who would pray for beauty in the light of such examples?
The feminists I have known around the campus would have agreed enthusiastically that beauty is a curse—a male curse, they would have added. Just look at the sacrifices women are forced to make to appearance! Brow-beaten by their fathers, bullied by their lovers, and admonished by their poor brainwashed mothers, girls grow up thinking that they have to starve themselves, spend hours in front of the mirror, and wrap themselves like Christmas packages to be pleasing. Then men deride them for their dread of smeared make-up and their closets full of clothes! Setting aside the fact that this portrait of the slavemaster matches few males I personally have ever known, I would pose feminists the one question which their raves invariably leave me pondering: what is the feminist alternative? If only they would answer, "Freedom from frivolity and shallowness; clean, well-groomed people of both genders who do not waste time and money on coarse, gaudy allure"... now that I would cheer three times! Simply, tastefully dressed women have always had an attraction for me, precisely because their appearance advertises intelligence and character rather than subjection to fad and eagerness to elicit the lowest sort of interest.
Yet how few such women one sees! For my vision of gender equality is altogether too puritanical for feminists of every stripe: they groan at my New Jerusalem of browns and grays, just as their imaginary slavemasters are supposed to do. Their alternative is a world where women get to "hook up" with men at will, without wasting time on flirtation or money or perfume. I envision a meeting of minds, of souls: they envision good sex on demand. No wonder that their ideological descendants, the carnivorous neo-feminists of Naomi Wolf’s species, have returned to their mirrors and walk-in closets—not to adorn themselves for the master, but to bait the hook for passing sharks! The name of the game is consume and be consumed, with an emphasis on the former. Always strive to get more pleasure than you give. That’s how you know that you’re not being exploited.
This discussion may seem to have wandered off track: one minute, an argument that oppression and victimization are basic to all human relations… the next, a straight-laced gripe against feminism. Actually, the fusion of these two efforts is the very heart of my present purpose. Feminism is a specific example of victim-theory. As such, it has all the liabilities and fallacies of other examples. People always suffer, and they always inflict suffering. The best people choose individually to take more than they dish out; but even in them, the potential to hurt always abides. Particular patterns of abuse flowing from one group to another are inevitably reversed over time (or perhaps an undercurrent is secretly returning the abuse at the same time). In the matter of women having to primp and preen for domineering males, I would briefly protest (from bitter experience) that men are often held to standards just as shallow and demeaning by women. A letterjacket is the key to hot dates in high school. A new sportscar draws a girl’s longing gaze from the first Barbie Doll until about thirty (because, I suppose, cars represent escape from parents for the young, and for the slightly older a ticket to high-rolling evenings and weekends). Licentious male buffoonery seems "wild" and "fun" to the fair sex well into their fourth decade of life, by my reckoning. The standards may be different in a Comparative Literature graduate program, but they are just as shallow and impersonal: wild hair and tattered jeans were cool in my grad days, along with anything else which signaled utter contempt for bourgeois decorum.
My generalities, of course, are sweeping—just as those which feminists make about male expectations. There is plenty of just cause for either gender to complain about the other. My question remains: what’s the alternative? Where does all this complaining get us?
At present, it’s driving both sides into an ever more unsightly rage. The more feminists lead women in a kind of inside-out pep rally, the more ordinary female citizens with no academic connection begin to attribute all their bad days and hard times to men. If your boss is a man or the person promoted in your stead is a man, then the "old boy" network must be involved. If the guy you’re dating is a jerk or your husband is having an affair, it’s not because you sadly misjudged his character—it’s because he’s a man, and he’s running true to form. Why are there wars in the world? Why so much poverty and abuse of power? It’s a "guy thing": men are violent, aggressive, competitive, pitiless, and selfish. It’s all their fault.
Of course, this outrageously "bum" rap creates a smoldering indignation in men which is coming ever closer to full-scale ignition. Women want their share of executive positions, yet the same women often won’t date a guy whose position and power are not at least equal to theirs. Women gripe about a Playboy magazine on some guy’s desk at the office, yet they spend thousands of dollars a year sculpting their bodies at the gym or on the plastic surgeon’s table so that they can make a man’s jaw drop. They don’t want to be brushed against at the water cooler, but they won’t refuse a promotion or a contract if showing a little leg helped to get it. They’re working both sides of the street at once. "Don’t treat me like a carnal object unless I want you to," they seem to say—or to avoid saying (since that would be too honest). "Even then, you’d better make independent calculations to be sure that I’m not in error, that I’m fully sober, and that I’m really going to come out ahead in the deal."
Unfortunately, I believe the enraged male response is already well under way. In manly style, the guys bury their resentment so deeply that they themselves don’t know it for what it truly is; but I believe that the way men have "yielded" to women and agreed to treat them as equals conceals an immense amount of hostility. I’m waiting for the day when men say, "You want to join the marines and be on the front lines? Sure, go ahead! In fact, let’s have an all-woman army to make up for the years when it was all-man. Affirmative Action in action!" I haven’t yet heard any male seriously advance this proposal. Most men are still too chivalrous—for some reason—to tolerate the thought of women in a battlefield slaughterhouse, or else they love their sisters and wives and daughters too much.
But in other ways, I can see that attitude shaping male conduct: "You want to play rough? Okay, we’ll play rough!" Dating customs are the most obviously impacted form of behavior. Men have entirely stopped caring whether or not the lady shares their diseases or conceives their children, let alone whether or not she forms some strong emotional attachment. The dating game is now definitely hardball. You go out in the evening hoping to "score". You assume that the girls all want what you want (and that you want what the feminists insist all guys want). Everything is "foreplay": it’s all a matter of figuring out how much this particular chick expects to be finessed. If you’re not carnally elated by the evening’s climax, you have a right to be disappointed, to go elsewhere. If you are elated thus—if things went "well"—you may wish to see the lady again. She’d just better not get any ideas, okay? This is all about sex. She’s good at sex. No more to say.
I do indeed see a lot of violence and aggression in such behavior—but I don’t see anything fundamentally male in it. Or maybe I should put it this way: such behavior is fundamentally human insofar as it expresses contempt and suppressed rage. It’s about half a step above administering physical beatings. Of course, many of these relationships stray across the line and become assault cases. You grab them, you force kisses on them, you get their clothes off or out of the way, you attack… you pull hair, you squeeze wrists, you pin down elbows, you gnaw and bite… you tie up, you chain down, you whip and slap and burn… a distinct progression from mere lustful passion to brutal rape to sadistic torture. Are we to believe that the man at the far end of this scale is expressing love? Or even that he is just in hot pursuit of great sex?
Well, maybe the latter. For the problem is that the progression can never be very distinct, after all: sex is always potentially violent. Without tenderness, it can quickly become criminal assault. I haven’t mentioned the volley of rape accusations discharged at men by the New Woman as part of what we guys have to "put up with" because, frankly, I find a lot of truth in these charges. Like Wendy Shalit in her splendid book, A Return to Modesty, I see very, very little to distinguish the contemporary practice of "hooking up" from a kind of low-key, institutionalized rape. In case you haven’t encountered that elegant term, allow me to let Ms. Shalit explain it:
Consensual rape, if you like oxymorons. Make no mistake: the men who engage in such practices have no true respect for women as human beings—and little enough for themselves. I’m sure that they admire a beautiful girl as they would a pizza with all the toppings or a sportscar with a V-8 engine… but to esteem a person on that level is to feel contempt for her as a person. You don’t devour people you love—or even people you like.
In my opinion, this is male rage at the death of love. When feminists no longer allowed men to love women, they took something essential away from the healthy, responsible male. I shall discuss just what I believe that thing to be in the next section. Being deprived of it was also a kind of assault—was, indeed, the initial assault, with the male at the receiving end and the female dishing out lethal punches. Love died, and something in men died with it. In response—in revenge—men started giving women just the de-romanticized version of love that feminists demanded. They started clamoring for sex, lots of it, and in varieties as exotic as anything the Marquis de Sade ever dreamed of. They counter-punched, and these punches, too, were lethal. Most young women were caught in the middle, spouting feminist cant without which they would not be thought intelligent, then absorbing the libidinous punishment of their "boyfriends". Today we are told by researchers that oral sex among teenagers is about as routine as kissing: girls who have had dozens or hundreds of such encounters may even consider themselves still virgins. Could we need any further proof that young men are in a spiteful, vengeful mood—that they are in the throes of rage? All that’s left now is for them to behead each girl after they soil her.
And however much neo-feminists may fantasize about it—however deep Naomi Wolf may dig to find her ultimate "shadow slut"—women will never be able to soil men in the same way. Not remotely. Male biology dictates when the event is over, male biology dictates the character of the event (details spared), and male biology requires that the event be an "invasion" of sorts with the male entering the stronghold. Feminism can juggle words and feminists can flirt with lesbianism, but nothing can truly change these basic facts. The New Woman, therefore, will continue to feel more rage as the Degenerate Man takes out ever more of his rage upon her. What’s next? Female serial killers targeting males? That unheard-of phenomenon has already begun. Look for it to become a criminal trend.
Unless, of course, we can work our way back from the abyss. Somebody somewhere has to stand up and cry "enough". Several people, no doubt, have to do so. Wendy Shalit and her spiritual sisters (Maggie Gallagher, Danielle Crittenden, and a few others) have already done so. Now, who on the male side will stand up, accept derision, keep silent under repeated insult, and do the right thing? Why, isn’t every "real man" supposed to be ready for that moment?
I know that a certain type of man is probably guffawing to himself after my first chapter, "What a pansy this guy is! Since when did a real man ever put all this heavy-duty stuff into sex?" (I’m trying to imagine what monosyllables this complacent hairy ape might use: frankly, I doubt that he would have struggled past the book’s front cover.) This is the sort of man which feminists have caricatured: and it is the caricature which young males think they must live up to if they are to become "real men". Gloria Steinem once remarked (with that urbane irony of hers which conceals so much contempt for the human race) that every woman is entitled to a parking lot attendant once in a while. Here we find the "real man" image in a nutshell. His dark hair is slicked back, his sinuous lips work around a stick of chewing gum, his broad shoulders swell a leather jacket open at the collar, his Elvis buttocks are poured into a pair of blue jeans… he stares at women as if they were meat on the butcher’s counter, he squeals tires around dangerous curves with an indifference to annihilation bordering on idiocy, and he listens to music which must evoke in his etiolated brain either an engine in need of tune-up or a primeval thrash through the treetops. Yeah, real man. Bon appétit, Gloria.
In fact, this debased stereotype strikes me as thoroughly effeminate in many ways. I think of a man as someone who is strong. Well, so does Gloria, I daresay: but what I mean by strength has nothing directly to do with sexual stamina. Imagine a clichéed Hollywood survival story where a passenger plane crash-lands in the Sahara or the Indians steal all the pioneers’ horses in the wastes of Utah. Who will make it back to civilization? Actually, women fare rather well in these situations, because nature has given their bodies more fat to draw upon; but among the men, who will be able to stare hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and death itself in the face? Will it be the kind who has spent his life appeasing his senses, or the kind who has always kept his senses in subjection to his reason? If a man’s primary ambition in life has always been to get a woman in bed, then how will he handle not only doing without that pleasure, but doing without food and water? If he has been unable to deny his body the joys of love-making, how will he force that same body to walk thirty miles a day in blistering heat? I don’t see him getting very far. His stamina is in the pursuit of carnal thrills, not in the mastery of physical pain.
Speaking of Hollywood Indians, they were my greatest heroes when I was a boy. I often rooted for them even when I wasn’t supposed to. The White Eye soldiers had cannons and repeating rifles, leather saddles, warm clothing, and fireplaces back at the fort: the Apaches who slipped off the reservation had a few arrows, no saddles, loin cloth with moccasins, and a bed of blowing sand. The Captain’s daughter wasn’t cozying up to any of them, yet they were the true men. That was pretty obvious, even to a kid. The closest thing to a man in the fort was often the scout who had been raised by the Sioux. Maybe he got the Captain’s daughter, and maybe he didn’t: he refused to let her perfume cloud his mission.
Then James Bond came along. Before the sixties, I can’t remember a single instance on TV or at the movies when the toughest guy in a fight was also an insatiable, wholly unprincipled Don Juan: desired by women, yes—very much so—but not inclined to exploit every woman’s desire for one night. One of the reasons I tried to be "manly" as a boy, in fact, was so that girls would find me attractive. I wanted to be strong and silent, impervious to pain and devoted to duty, like Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood. Or maybe not quite like them… I was too young to know Gary except from The Late Show, and Clint was always tough without any cause deserving of such toughness. (More on that later.) My real hero was probably Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent), the agile, handsome, cerebral British actor who was first approached to play James Bond, and who refused precisely because the part’s cold-blooded killing and cold-hearted sex-for-sex repelled him. He was too much of a man. McGoohan’s last great role was as Number Six on the highly creative (and controversial) experiment in futurism, The Prisoner. No kisses or cuddles, no tears or whining, not even a lot of fistfights where he prevailed over his jailers’ far greater numbers: but moral determination flowing over the brim—the ability to define himself through will power rather than through visceral impulse. I vaguely classed Number Six with a man who has remained my real-life hero, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Yes, those were men.
I doubt that I ever succeeded remotely in emulating such figures. What I do know is that the girls wouldn’t have been impressed even if my emulation had been picture-perfect. I used to dream of moments when I could display my raw courage, yet I never observed any fair classmate clasping her hands and sidling up to a proud, straight sapling of a lad the way she might to a trembling, anemic "bad boy". I used to imagine a bomb scare at school where everyone else would dash for the doors screaming: I, of course, would impassively, even nonchalantly raise the doomsday parcel in one hand and walk it to the football field. Boys still have those dreams of a beautiful death—only now they plant the bombs instead of defusing them. The bad boys plant them: the wholesome churls are busy shoving their victims against lockers. As I said in the last chapter… rage, smoldering rage.
I distinctly recall that the heart-throbs of my female classmates were the Man from U.N.C.L.E. duo rather than McGoohan, Redford and Newman rather than Eastwood and Bronson. Well, I admit that I can understand the latter: the Eastwood man of marble, having already degenerated from McGoohan into the icy rage of nihilism, was a potential bomb-maker himself. Had I seen that as a boy, I might have diagnosed my own rising rage… but still, I couldn’t and cannot to this day comprehend the attraction of the sybaritic smart-aleck. I tried and tried at the time. I even watched some of the girls’ favorite shows all the way to the end. It didn’t help: I remained mystified. How could they idolize such soft, smirking, self-coddling twits? How could they be swept off their feet by men who were so… so feminine?
Most of the guys came around to the girls’ way of thinking, or pretended to. Sex is one of human existence’s great motive forces, along with thirst and hunger, and few can cross the desert of enduring abstinence any more than that Hollywood Sahara where the airplane goes down. So the boys grew their hair out, modeled their hips, openly whined about not wanting to die and needing somebody to love… and the seventies happened. Far more than the sixties, which were pretty tied-down until halfway through, the seventies were the decade of our cultural degradation.
Certainly no decade was ever more forgettable. After withdrawal from Vietnam, death became an illusion for young America, or at most a Third World plague. Love was everywhere, but without conflict: a woman’s world, to be sure. Or up to a point. It was a world without consequence or commitment, which didn’t leave most girls very happy. It was… free. God was fun, Jesus was a superstar, and you could buy the whole world a Coke to dissolve any persisting bad vibes.
This spectacle taught me something very, very important about being a man: that the real man cannot be defined through female desire. Women tend to pine sexually for a man who is more like them. (I’ll never forget one beautiful blonde telling me that all the handsomest guys are gay… which, of course, left me wondering just which side of the hand I was being slapped with.) The Gary Coopers and John Waynes—and later, the Eastwoods and Schwarzeneggers—were probably always more admired by males than females, but certainly were so by 1980. Feminism was in the ascendancy. Men who "had it all under control" were male chauvinists and enemies of freedom. Men who "let it all hang out" were cute and sexy. None of these bell-bottomed swingers would have accompanied Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag: none of them could even have understood how or why he got himself into such a mess. But they were just what the New Woman had ordered, so the party began without any hint of the rage stirring behind its strobe lights.
For men don’t really like not being men: it eats away at them, and sooner or later it rises to their surface. When Queen Dido manages to detain Aeneas for a year in Virgil’s Aeneid, her riches, her power, and her sweet self suffice to distract him somewhat from his sacred mission; but finally he can stand his life of impotent luxury no more, and he resumes his voyage amid Dido’s shrieks and curses. To Dido, his conduct would be insane if it were less brutal. The season for smooth sailing has not even arrived—is he trying to commit suicide? Homer’s Calypso contains herself rather better upon the departure of her beloved Odysseus, but she, too, is surely bewildered. Why would a man turn down immortality, a beautiful goddess’s bed, and a life of idle beach-combing just to fight the seas and his mortal enemies on a far shore?
The real man, the man of will power whose body breaks before his resolve bends, is after all something of an insult to a woman, I suppose. To a certain kind of woman, anyway. Life has a higher vocation than her charms, be they ever so numerous and seductive: that is what his devotion to duty announces. She must watch him leave her and all she may represent—perhaps home and security and family as well as mere torrid romancing—for the sake of some idea that no one can see or touch. Grace Kelly’s character is furious with Gary Cooper’s in High Noon for jeopardizing their life together, and probably sacrificing his own life literally, just to prove that he isn’t a coward. A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do… how crude, barbaric, stupid, pointless, insensitive, egotistical, belligerent, and homicidal! Why not enjoy what few perishable fruits this vale of tears offers? Eat, drink, and party, for nothing lasts. Why hasten to your grave? Gather ye rosebuds while ye may….
Andrew Marvel’s verse, of course, is a favorite "line" among men in their efforts to seduce women: if you refuse sexual offers for too long, the wrinkles will come and the offers will disappear. I do not mean to suggest for an instant that women may not live for a higher purpose, too, from which certain men struggle diabolically to distract them. Devotion to principle is not an exclusively male characteristic.
Yet it is an utterly necessary characteristic for anyone who would be a true man—and perhaps the motive for this devotion also differs somewhat from men to women. The man serves principle in the abstract as duty, whereas the woman tends to embrace it as the best means, over the long haul, of achieving social harmony. Carolyn Graglia seems to me to model such practicality in arguing for the truly feminine woman’s need of reserve.8 I for one find her argument fully convincing. The woman who can say, "No rosebuds today, please: you can either be permanent caretaker of the whole garden, or you can stay at the gate," will eventually have far deeper, richer experiences with the man she marries than the woman who frolics with every lithe lad. I see no reason to deny that the same common sense applies to the male’s experiences (though men are less likely to appreciate it). If a man lives for something higher than sensual gratification, and if he happens to meet a woman who shares that higher calling, then he and his mate will very likely find that their inattention to sensuality as an important end in life actually enhances the physical magnetism of their union. There are some things you destroy through analysis: a butterfly under a magnifying glass can’t fly. In the same way, when you deliberately separate sex from love and brood about how to spice up your "sex life", you are well on your way to sabotaging both experiences—or both sides, I should say, of a single experience.
I have much more to write about the "higher calling". For now, let me return to the man who hearkens to it: the real man. In the last decades of the tormented twentieth century, this kind of man has no longer been able to count on the understanding and support of a woman with that same calling. Instead, he has had to deal with Didos and Calypsos—with Glorias and Naomis. I repeat that all those femmes fatales and bad girls are right, in a way, about the attempt to dominate them. What they cannot or will not see is that the dominant force comes not from the man, but from the idea he serves. Since feminism has joined the academic trend to reduce all value systems and hierarchies to selfish bids for power, it is ideologically blind to the notion of service. A man who is abstinent in his focus upon an ideal can be only one of two things: a slavemaster trying to cow women into submission or a fool who has sincerely enslaved himself to a non-existent god. (I am assuming a world, of course, where everyone who was once "in the closet" of dark aberration has come out: surely that world is ours.) The very wellspring of this chaste male’s manliness repels feminism’s votaries. He must serve their god of unreferenced freedom—of Self and the dizzy thrill of self-serving Power—to win a smile from them. And in the shackles of their freedom dies whatever strength of will he ever had.
Does this mean that the degeneration of the "real man" began with that of Wendy Shalit’s "modest woman"—of the lady, if I may so call her? Ms. Shalit seems to think so, and many are of her opinion. Certainly the percentage of real men in the population is higher when ladies will not tolerate the degenerate, effeminate kind. (I’ve avoided discussing sexual deviance here: but it’s worth noting that if the New Woman’s handsomest man is likely to be gay, she tends to caricature the strong-willed man slanderously as a pedophile, or whatever could be worse.)9 Yet I have been working toward an argument that the fluctuating devices and desires of women should not be allowed to determine what makes a real man... so I would contradict myself if I fully concurred that the vanishing of that man resulted from the lowered standards of women. What I am about to say, on the other hand, may appear to contradict my insistence that both men and women can hearken to a higher calling, so I must express myself, very, very carefully.
Women, as I have implied already, are more pragmatic than men. Forget about the scatterbrained fifties wife buying a new dress that bankrupts her petty-executive husband: that, indeed, is a sexual stereotype based entirely on passing custom. (Or to the extent that it wasn’t, the cause may well have been the sudden deluge of labor-saving household appliances—dishwashers, clothes-washers, electric mixers—which left men wondering just what women did with all their new time.) In a far more profound sense, women tend to reason with reference to specific circumstances. Authors like Wendy Shalit, Carolyn Graglia, and Christina Hoff Sommers are a case in point: they counsel a return to more conventional behavior because they see it as the best way to enhance the contemporary woman’s pleasure, happiness, and material prosperity.10 They make a good pitch (especially Graglia, as noted), and I hold their work in great esteem. Yet what I have been calling a real man would scoff at all these motives for doing the right thing—so much so that he might consider doing the wrong thing just to affirm his will’s independence of circumstances. (Why else do men tempt fate with dangerous hobbies and needless risks?) Women are more Aristotelian: pleasure, for them, must number among the natural, healthy "goods" of life along with a clean conscience. Men are more Stoical, and in a sense more Platonic: unless they have been as feminized as today’s man, they are more likely to be scandalized by those who straddle the boundary between self-interested and "pure" goodness.
Well, then… am I saying, after all, that women are less principled, less equipped somehow for abstract philosophizing? I suppose that depends on what you think of Aristotle! History has clearly judged his principles very favorably. I would state the distinction differently. I would say that men need a purity of purpose, a mathematically abstract perfection of ideas, which can become highly unrealistic and which, indeed, haunts them with a sense of emptiness, of loneliness. That image of the Saharan desert to be traversed is very powerful for a man. Women, on the other hand, recognize better that no distinctions are clear and pure in reality, that everything is tied to everything else. They make better literary critics for that reason (or used to, before ideology trumped taste). They understand how a woman might be passionately attracted to another man yet not want to betray her husband; but they also understand that a man, if passionately attracted to another woman, will often make the stupid blunder in his male simplicity of leaving his wife to pursue a mirage!
Why the difference? Hormones? Left brain/right brain? The genetic code? I leave such explanations for the scientists to quibble over—and I confess that I am not really very fond of deriving human behavior from biological determinism. If such a thing as morality is possible, then it must be equally applicable to men and to women; but if men and women are fully controlled at different points by different biological mechanisms, then they can’t fairly be held to similar standards. (Actually, this "men and women are the same" case was once made by feminists, and still is when they want a crack at trying out for the football team; but the evils of testosterone are decried far more often on campuses today. If the reader will pardon my parenthetic cynicism, "research" seems to come stumbling along after such trends in hope of funding rather than blazing new trails with hard facts.) A man with no ear for music can chime in passably when a hymn is sung at church; a woman with acrophobia will forget all about heights if her child is stuck on a ladder; a boy who hates asparagus will wolf it down if he can’t go play before his plate is clean. People of both genders do things all the time which they’re not naturally disposed to do. What conditioning could be so rigorous and uniform that it draws a clear line between the male response and the female response?
I propose child-bearing: this is one thing which most females may do in their youth if they wish (or so they think) and which no man can possibly do at any time. It isn’t a deterministic effect: women aren’t forced to think about child-bearing the way geese are forced to think about flying south in the autumn. With instinct, no true thought goes on at all—and I am not hypothesizing some cuddly, heart-warming maternal instinct which leaves men out in the cold. I simply say that any woman with a functional brain is seriously reflecting by early adolescence upon the possibility that she might one day carry another life inside her. Her reflections may be grim. For some reason, she may want very much for that day never to come. If so, she will have to take certain precautions.11
But grim or expectant, fearful or joyful, such thoughts twine a woman’s sense of reality intricately into her sense of others, of community. I am convinced that this ever-looming presence of community alarms some female intellectuals, especially, who do not want to see their meditative existence compromised by extroverted obligations of a strong and lasting nature. No wonder they envy the man his freedom—no wonder they become feminists in search of a formal, contractual liberation from pregnancy and family! It is the dark shadow wherein they pass their days, this biological mechanism of theirs which could so easily steal away their autonomy forever. If only they could run wild and free on the male savanna, under the male sun….
"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," wrote Yeats in his nightmare of the Second Coming. What a male vision! The ancient prophets, in both the Greco-Roman and the Hebrew worlds, were almost all men (though a male god might possess a female to be his mouthpiece in classical lore, as Apollo does the Sibyl). The man’s gaze sweeps from horizon to horizon, from beginning to end, like a wind in the desert that bloweth where it listeth. The mood is sublime, but also, as Yeats said, blank and pitiless: empty, lonely, infinitely puny and infinitely vast. Inhuman, in a way. Whence this great grand emptiness in men, this free fall through the void? Isn’t it because they can never bear a child? Sire children, yes—dozens or hundreds. But every one of them, upon conception, would be physically tied to the woman until the umbilical cord was cut, and then again tied to her until her breast milk was no longer sought. A man can say, "That’s my child!" all he wants, but no bond is ever formed which could not be as easily formed with a stranger’s baby.
Furthermore, and more importantly, a man in any society with even the most primitive degree of order must win over a woman and satisfy certain customs before he may beget children. Only an outlaw or a mortal enemy of the tribe would do otherwise, and his punishment, if he were caught, could well be capital.12 A woman, in contrast, may simply invite a man into her tent, send him on his way in an hour, and have the fruit of their union entirely to herself nine months later. The penalties for that behavior, too, could be severe, but would not be life-threatening for either mother or child in any culture I have ever heard of (excepting the burlesque legend in Ariosto’s fourth canto, Rome’s no-nonsense attitude about its Vestal Virgins, and the exotic savagery of certain Islamic fundamentalists). Today, of course, out-of-wedlock childbirth is routine; and today, more than ever, the father is considered wholly redundant to the arrangement.
So the man is cut loose, set free. Yes, there is a kind of exhilaration to it—a kind which has been excessively documented and absurdly exaggerated, in my opinion. Nobody has wasted any ink trying to describe the frightful isolation of being so adrift, of knowing that all of your relationships with others must be painfully negotiated and maintained if they are to last—that no other person is or ever will be, by nature, yours or of you. I speak not genetically (for, by that nature, every child is one-half a man’s), but emotionally, psychologically, viscerally. A genetic bond cannot be seen the way anyone can see a cord being cut.
Perhaps men even tend to form their odd-ball fraternities for this reason: that is, to share the burden of being cut loose. Women get together and drink tea, quilt, or discuss books and relatives. Men get together and drink beer, rough-house, or discuss how to overthrow the government. Their groups are often tinged with the anomalous and unruly, if not the sociopathic. They find a comfort, perhaps, in briefly sharing the anguish of their desert crossing, and perhaps even in showing it off. Soldiers on the front line sometimes diffuse the tension by betting on where the next shell will fall or how long the new lieutenant will last.
I do not contend that these dissimilar effects of child-bearing have a truly major impact on the two genders, or one which allows of no variation from case to case. Personally, I don’t like beer or quilting. I’m not saying, either, that most men are sooner or later plunged into grief because they don’t have a womb. Mr. Freud tried that one on women in reverse, and they rightly resent his presumption. I say simply that there is an obvious and valid reason why men should feel less tied to the community than women—a reason based in biology and as well supported by observing social groups of higher mammals as by reflecting upon the human maturing process. As a result of this detached perspective, men tend to see things more abstractly than women and to be more suspicious than women of mixed motives and combined purposes. They tend to think in Platonic ideals, and to act in Stoical defiance of compromise. The "real man", at least, is like that, and in being so he is closer to his male nature.
Which is good, as well as bad. The worldly disappointments of Platonic idealism are compensated by high hopes in a purer existence: the loneliness of crossing the desert is softened by getting to see all the stars blaze forth at night. For the real man, that’s a fair trade. He isn’t crippled by some neo-Freudian lack. He doesn’t seek some "victim" status to rival that of those who claim to be offended by his severity.
At the same time, though, he is grateful for a link back to the community. Indeed, he yearns agonizingly for it, though he will not sell out his principles to purchase it. There is a lack in him, after all—but not a crippling lack, not an absence where certain others have presence. He is not lacking a leg while others around him have two. He lacks the ability to sit still, rather, and he needs someone to slow him down and to represent him among the settled. He is already a whole man, or as whole as a prophet can be in a world separated from God; but his perfectly square corners could be perfectly fitted into a coupling where they would not scar all the furniture.
In short, the real man longs for a woman. Maybe she will bear his children, yes, and thereby make him part of his people’s history and of their future. Yet his childlessness and woman’s child-potential only symbolize the true source of his anguish: distance from the community. A woman in and of herself is quite enough to make him feel redeemed for the activities of civil society. If I may hearken back to Hollywood Westerns for a moment, the lone man who rides in from the desert is a terror to every citizen on the streets. Let him appear the next day with a respected lady on his arm, however, and the town is prepared to elect him sheriff.
Real men need women, yet they are not necessarily the kind of man most pleasing to a woman. There lies the rub. The real man often, perhaps even constantly feels the tension between his Stoical, unbending nature and the approval he seeks from women who find that nature somewhat repellent. Were he more "flexible", he would be less tortured by the need for a complementary partner subtle enough to negotiate his place in the community; but because women are more compromising, they find the prospect of living with his severe nature unattractive. They prefer the company of "softer" men ("more vulnerable", we would say now in our soft age)—who, however, don’t particularly need them, and certainly not for the long haul.
The ill-starred romance of Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace classically illustrates this tension. Natasha regards her engagement to Andrei as too good to be true: he is so strong, so valiant, so high-minded—so manly! Eventually, the burden of being admired by such a perfectionist becomes suffocating. The cad with whom she plans an elopement (which is fortunately thwarted by her parents) is infinitely inferior to Andrei; but, for that very reason, he seems to love her "as she is".
The history of philosophy tells us that Platonists and Aristotelians, as well, caused each other to fidget. Yet how vastly richer is our tradition because we have both schools of thought, and not just one! Surely the ultimate truth is more closely approached by taking both together than by choosing between them: so it is with men and women. They are forever trying to draw the other across the center line. Or, to put it more accurately (since this equilibrium of straining alternatives is harmonious, but not quite true), women are forever trying to draw the real man back from the edge of his precipice—to get Marshall Kane out of town before high noon, to convince Sitting Bull that today is not a good day to die. The men, in their turn, are forever trying to keep this moderate influence, welcome and civilizing though it is, from corrupting their bedrock of belief. Something must be worth dying for, if not today, then tomorrow.
Which reveals, if you look closely, a deep disequilibrium in gender relations: the real man actually prefers a gentle, feminine lady to bring him back within the pale of culture, while that lady will always be uneasy with her man’s severity as a potential threat to their love, their home, their family, their offspring’s future. Feminists have identified this disequilibrium as male condescension. David gazes at cute little Dora, croons "She’s so cute!", pats her on the head, puts her on a pedestal, and then continues to brood over the destiny of the cosmos. It is a correct assessment, but its condemnation isn’t fair. Were David to wear his hair in curls as little Dora would have him and otherwise adjust all his tastes, he would become a frivolous fop, anemic and impotent in the world of ideas. He needs and craves her mitigation, but he also needs (and feels honor-bound) to resist it at some point.
I have observed that many men fight this battle over recreational dancing. The waltz allowed the man to stand erect and square-shouldered as he glided across the floor: it was the perfect expression of manly grace in motion. (Sergei Bondarchuk’s cinematic version of War and Peace generates the most memorable images of Prince Andrei from the grand ball where he meets Natasha.) Contemporary dancing, however, feminizes men. It requires male and female alike to melt into sensuous curves and to display themselves in extremely "vulnerable" positions. As one woman remarked to me, "Conservative guys are never good dancers." I don’t know that her political distinction adequately isolates the group I have in mind (it was a Reagan-era remark, in any case: words have changed their meanings since then); but a real man would indeed be horribly uncomfortable on today’s dance floor. Can you picture the Duke "getting down"?
Of course, the feminists would counter that they don’t want to turn David into Dora: they want Dora to become David. The "masculinized woman", however, is no more a success than the feminized man. Granted, no intelligent human being would want to spend life as a simpering, feckless Barbie Doll—but that’s not what I mean by femininity. (Dickens’s ball of fluff was not being offered above as a paradigm: I would much sooner volunteer Natasha for that role.) Femininity in this discussion is the complement to man’s abstract idealism and existential aloneness: it is integration, compromise, optimism, and social harmony. Women who find this immersion in community suffocating and strive to attain a male liberation from it have one of two effects upon men. In the straight-laced days when liberation was forbidden from touching sexual conduct, these women chilled their men at the heart. The Victorian woman typically expected her man to return with his shield or on it, in Spartan style, from his empire-building ventures. Her severity rivaled his, or surpassed it. Her dominant personality has been comically immortalized in Lady Bracknell (The Importance of Being Earnest). Purged of Wilde’s exquisite humor—which in nowise belonged to her true character—she would have been a dynamo of overpowering will. Kurtz’s mysterious fiancée in Heart of Darkness is an extraordinarily spiritual example of the type. Nevertheless, one must still wonder if a more sensible woman, less resonant with "high ideals", might have pulled Kurtz back from the bloody excesses of his crusade.13
Many of the late nineteenth century’s most respectable men ended up in the arms of chorus girls. A plague of syphilis struck down more than a few (such as Guy de Maupassant and Winston Churchill’s father) as this most prim and proper of ages wound to a close. No doubt, the chill of a domestic tranquillity feigned by "decent people" and of abstract utopias drafted by a reform-crazed middle class had much to do with the schizoid motif which haunts the period’s literature. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were born in these years, as was Dorian Grey.
Then you have today’s liberated women, whose masculinized nature is less defined by their inflexible ideals than by their highly elastic sexual morals. Obviously, they are unlikely to drive a man into the arms of "a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair" (in Kipling’s phrase) with expecting their knight to die at the head of the Light Brigade. Their effect upon men is intimidating and feminizing for another reason. I remarked toward the first chapter’s conclusion that they represent the death of love: I can explain that more clearly now. As well as requiring that a man become ruled by anti-social lusts to court them, they provide him no access to the community from which his maleness distances him. They, too, would be male: liberated of child-bearing and family, as free of commitment as a rolling stone is of moss. The devoted sensuality into which they invite their temporarily chosen man, while it feminizes him by corroding his will power, masculinizes their own nature in the same motion, since it threatens the stability of the community’s attachments. We may note, by the way, that the sensuality which has caused the death of love is neither a distinctly masculine nor feminine contribution. Just as Platonists and Aristotelians are both highly principled in different ways, so the worship of the senses, though it assumes different forms in men and women, transcends their differences to spell ruin in either idiom.
The specific poison which ultra-feminists have injected into love—the contribution which is indeed all theirs—is a deliberate, often eloquent contempt for the bourgeois family. ("Bourgeois"—burgische in German—is simply an adjective formed from bourg or burg, a settlement, a place where people live together by rules.) What man in his right mind would select a feminist ideologue as his best hope of having and raising children, or would even ask her to Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’? Her contempt for such investments and ties, the most permanent things this world has to offer, is withering. He’d be better off with a sweet Mexican girl or a Chinese émigrée—"Yes," the feminists taunt, "to wash your laundry and to call you master!" "No," the real man responds, "to raise a family and make tomorrow worth living. Too many days are good days to die. Will someone not help me make them good days to live?"
Is this, then, the sad lot of today’s real man, as I have called him: to seek out some unspoiled girl from a foreign culture, probably far below his educational level and perhaps unable to speak his language, just because she doesn’t resist her female genius for participating and renewing? Is there no possibility that we might reawaken the femininity of women in Western culture? Or is it precisely femininity—even in the new, "masculinized" woman—which is most repelled by manliness? Isn’t the Internet bride from the Ukraine or Cambodia really running away from political chaos and economic misery rather than shopping for the strong silent type? Don’t all women, whether professors or seamstresses, dread that impervious, introverted frown?
The strain between the sexes has only been exploited—not invented—by feminists. It turns out to be very basic, as I shall explain in the next chapter.
Professor Singleton’s next chapter, "Perpetual Disequilibrium", pursues the notion that the socializing tendencies of women are inevitably somewhat repelled by the go-it-alone tendencies of men. From this timeless friction has emerged male etiquette or "chivalry", the practice of mollifying severe habits without sacrificing principle. Of course, chivalry is dead today—but the true cause is less feminism than technological "progress" which has made displays of manly courage invisible.
NOTES1 Dr. Singleton describes himself as a "hired gun in the culture wars who finally got dry-gulched" —an allusion to his years of mopping up around various campuses by teaching moribund Europeanist courses before they were finally jettisoned from the curriculum. The present essay (an extract from a book ms.) is so politically incorrect that he confesses he would not have submitted it even to Praesidium were it not for the encouragement of seeing similar heresies in these pages. It is possible that that sentiment conceals a compliment.
2 In his famous short story about a slave ship, "Tamango", Prosper Mérimée inserted the following detail which bears repeating here: "In order that his human cargo should suffer as little as possible from the strains of the crossing, he [the captain] was careful to have the slaves brought up on the bridge every day. In turns, a third of these wretches would have an hour to imbibe its daily provision of fresh air." What frivolous mind imagines that any captain ever granted the same privilege to Irish émigrés?
3 I translate directly: "Le sin, tharraing fear de na mairnéalaigh buille de thua i gcaol na láimhe uirthi." See Pádraig Ua Cnáimhsí, Idir an Dá Ghaoth (Baile Átha Cliatha: Sáirséal, 1997), 191.
4 Cf. these sad reflections of the Caddo chieftain José Maria, recorded in 1859: "Heretofore we have had our enemies, the whites on one side, the Camanches [sic] on the other; and of the two evils, we prefer the former, as they allow us to eat what we raise, whilst the Camanches take everything, and if we are to be killed, we should much rather die with full bellies; we would therefore prefer taking our chances on the Brazos, where we can be near the whites." Quoted in Cecile Elkins Carter, Caddo Indians: Where We Come From (Norman and London: U of Oklahoma P, 1995), 322.
5 Jacques Barzun, having reviewed the contributions of middle- and upper-class women to letters and politics since the Renaissance, concludes, "The notion that talent and personality in women were suppressed at all times during our half millennium [1500-2000] except the last fifty years is an illusion" (From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life [New York: HarperCollins, 2000], 88). I myself shall never forget my ostracism in a college English department for having advanced the simple proposition: "If women’s writing has been suppressed since antiquity in the West, then requiring that at least 50% of a survey course’s contents be authored by women is absurd; but if our literary past contains both male and female authors in equal abundance, then women’s writing must not have been suppressed in the past." The reader must pardon me if, on occasion in this book, I cannot suppress my contempt for the slogan-ridden stupidity propagated by our intellectuals.
6 See The De-Moralization of Society (New York: Knopf, 1995), 83-84.
7 Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (New York: Free Press, 1999), 28-29.
8 See F. Carolyn Graglia, Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism (Dallas: Spence, 1998).
9 Cf. the passage cited by Gianna DiRoberti in Arcturus 3.4 (p. 40) from Jacques Brenner’s Une Femme d’Aujourd’hui (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1966). This "portrait novel" is dedicated to proto-feminist and Beauvoir votary Agnes Duran. At one point, when a virile young man rejects Agnes’s efforts to sleep with him, she concludes that he is a "disgusting pederast". In Brenner’s own words, "Since Patrice Verchon was a good-looking guy, if he repressed his desires, it had to be because they were inadmissible."
10 In an extreme case, Christina Hoff Sommers defends the "rape" scene of Gone with the Wind (as certain feminists have preposterously called it) on fully hedonistic grounds, insisting that the sisterhood should distinguish between rape and ravishment (Who Stole Feminism? [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994], 264). She seems never to suspect that this torrid romance must fail precisely because it is so dominated by passion. In the same passage, she also vaguely applauds Camille Paglia for exhorting women to enjoy male strippers.
11 This seems a patently obvious distinction to me, even though my contacts in academia flee it like the plague (the Ivory Tower is far too deeply mired in "PC" politics and careerism to produce an objective judgment on these matters). On the other end of the scale, John Gray’s best-selling Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus offers no theoretical basis for its arbitrary distinctions, and often reads like the transcript of a talk show. I have tried to split the middle. One of the alarming qualities of mass-marketed "studies" about gender relations, whether the "sell" comes from the campus or Madison Avenue, is their indifference to common sense.
12 Herodotus [Histories 4.43] tells of one Sataspes whom the Persian King Xerxes determined to castrate for raping a noble maiden. The sentence was commuted: Sataspes was ordered to circumnavigate the African continent, instead. But upon realizing that the mission was intended to be fatal, Sataspes retraced his course and accepted the original punishment.
13 In his characteristically contrarian manner, Professor Barzun (see op. cit., n. 4 of ch. 1), having reviewed nineteenth-century authors from Hardy to Wells and Ibsen to Strindberg, declares, "After all this it should be clear that the sexual revolution… took place then and not now" (626). Yet the point isn’t that all Victorians honored their marriage vows or that a no author ever scoffed at monogamous convention; it is that ordinary people utterly dreaded the thought of being found out in adultery. The death of this hypocrisy is what signals the true revolution. All high principles become hypocritical when they turn conventional, but rejecting the convention, by the same token, shows a lapsed interest in the principle. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has aptly remarked of Victorian extramarital relationships, "Those caught up in such an ‘irregularity’ tried, as far as was humanly possible, to ‘regularize’ it, to contain it within conventional limits, to domesticate and normalize it" (The De-Moralization of Society [op. cit.], 24). Himmelfarb later cites the socialist Fabian Society’s Beatrice Webb on the evil of "equal opportunity [for women], a fair field and no favour", lest women "incapacitate themselves for child-bearing" (101)! Even her chapter on "The New Women and the New Men" late in Victoria’s reign (188-220) shows that sexual liberty was far more a matter of chic than practice. back to top
Express Train to 1929
Steve Kogan, a native of Brooklyn, did undergraduate and grad work at Columbia. He has taught English for more than thirty years in the Borough of Manhattan Community College. His publications range from Elizabethan masque and modern French and American literature to the poetics of aircraft display. He has written eloquently, as well, about the decline of undergraduate instruction.
in the whirl of sugarboom prices in the Augustblistering sun yours truly tours the town and the sugary nights with twenty smackers fifteen eightfifty dwindling in the jeans in search of lucrative
and how to get to Mexico
John Dos Passos, "The Camera Eye (48)", U.S.A. (1936)
The name of John Dos Passos has none of the two-fisted glamor of a Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway, yet the three novels that make up U.S.A. are as gritty and exotic as anything the latter pair ever wrote, and in Orient Express (1927) Dos Passos even talks of living in the moment as though he were writing "beat prose" thirty years before its time:
It is "on the road" 1920s style, when a generation of writers after World War I took off for the four corners of the earth, among them Dos Passos, D. H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Orwell, and the French writers Saint-Exupéry, Malraux, and Blaise Cendrars. Except for Lawrence, everyone in this group also experienced war between 1914 and 1945, and Cendrars had already caught a glimpse of things to come when he traveled on the Trans-Siberian during the Russo-Japanese War. Chapter 12 of Orient Express is a meditation on his journey.
Sitting in a hotel room in Marrakesh after a meal of "beef stewed in olives and sour oranges, couscous and cakes, seven glasses of tea and a pipe of kif," Dos Passos returns to his notes on Cendrars’ Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jean of France (1913). The work "fits somehow" in the room, "with its varnished pine furniture and its blue slopjar and its faded dusteaten windowcurtains." Outside it is raining. A deserted traintrack runs below his balcony, and a dirt road has been "churned by motortrucks". It might almost be a picture of a northern French or Belgian town left over from the Great War itself, a kind of semi-industrial wasteland soaked in mud. There is, in fact, something about the post-1918 world for Dos Passos that is all bound up with rain and gasoline engines and empty railroad tracks, and except for brief moments of joy and promise, there is not a scene in Orient Express and U.S.A. that does not vibrate with a feeling of disenchantment or desolation in some way. His trip to the middle east begins on a cold, wet night in Ostend, where the damp air coming off the train smells of "varnish and axlegrease", while "a lone waiter stands beside a table" in an empty railway restaurant, "teetering like a penguin" in "the arctic stillness" of the room. Everything along the way seems frozen in space. Venice is a lurid cutout from an opera set ("the Nile scene from Aida" with the "chilly hands of the Adriatic groping for your throat"), and the dining car is a nightmare fixed in stone. There is an "iron-grey Standard Oil man" who says "he can size up people at a glance," "an egg-shaped Armenian from New York" who hates "clergymen and Balkan cookery", sallow-faced Balkans with "dark rings under their eyes", "two scrawny colonial Englishwomen", and "another Armenian whose mother, father and three sisters were cut up into little pieces before his eyes by the Turks in Trebizond."
From its opening pages at the time of the Spanish-American War to the crash of ’29, U.S.A. reads like an extended ride on the Orient Express. Young men out to see the world huddle in icy freight trains and rusty merchant ships, midwestern girls go to New York and Paris and become embittered by twenty-five, and new types called "publicity experts" handle everything from real estate to the peace conference at Versailles. The glamor of the Orient Express is itself a fake, and all the ancient places are turning into commercial copies of the west. Baghdad has an American bar, the Lama of Tibet "listens in on Paul Whiteman ragging the Blue Danube," and "caterpillar Citroëns chug up and down the dusty streets of Timbuctoo." Dos Passos himself goes from Harvard to front-line ambulance service at Verdun, where his youthful letters and journals become sharp and bitter overnight. His first major novel, Three Soldiers (1921), portrays an entire generation ground "under the wheels" and turned to "rust", and like Cendrars’ earlier rite of passage in The Trans-Siberian, it is enveloped in an atmosphere of icy rains and battered towns, of midnight skies lit up "as if the horizon were on fire," and of endless lines of troop trains heading toward the front.
Dos Passos has seen the dogs of disaster for himself in Europe and along the Orient Express. Like Cendrars, he is addicted to travel and calls it a drug, his imagination fueled by worlds in collapse. He reads the classical historians and Hebrew prophets and has a first-rate eye for the whole swirling scene along his route, from the ruins of Babylon to the British drive for oil, the Russian civil war, refugees, typhus, cholera, and massacre. He seems to carry the whole history and geography of the region in his mind, and no writer of his time has described the postwar crackup more vividly than Dos Passos in the sketches of his journey through the Middle East (1921-22):
Sitting under the great dome of the old star gods and their vanished kingdom, Dos Passos meditates on the wreckage of the Russian and Ottoman empires and on the millions of soldiers who went up in smoke in "the great bloody derailment of the War". He has come to the Baghdad railway station by way of Turkey, Armenia, and Soviet Georgia, an eye-witness to whole masses of people "caught under the wheels of the juggernaut". He remembers the prophecies of Jeremiah, and in chapter 12 he calls Cendrars a modern-day prophet of our own "cruel and avenging gods. Turbines, triple-expansion engines, dynamite, high tension coils." Maxwell Geismar got it right in his introduction to The Big Money when he said that, of all the American writers of his time, Dos Passos "really knew what had happened to his society".
U.S.A. is the result of his conscious desire to learn:
Science and invention, corporate finance, mass journalism, Hollywood, the labor movement, and the rise of the radical left—these are the forces at work in the lives of Dos Passos’ fictional characters and in his capsule biographies. Charley Anderson belongs to the same world of mechanics as the Wright brothers, Ben Compton shares the trade unionism of Eugene Debs, and Margo Dowling ends up in the Hollywood of Rudolf Valentino. From The 42nd Parallel to 1919 and The Big Money, historical events and individual lives are so intertwined that each seems to be a creation of the other, and it is one of Dos Passos’ gifts as a writer to be able to convey a sense of history happening in the moment as a living thing. Even in the headlines of his "Newsreel" episodes ("MOB LYNCHES AFTER PRAYER," "LENIN FLEES TO FINLAND"), his power of suggestion can evoke whole histories in a single line.
As in Orient Express, U.S.A. takes us on a journey through an era, and in a classic opening that parallels chapter 1 of Moby Dick, Dos Passos’ traveler appears on page 1 of The 42nd Parallel as though he were another Ishmael, heading out upon "the flood-gates of the world":
In his introduction to Lonesome Traveler (1960), Kerouac will similarly list "Everything" under "Principal Occupations and/or Jobs":
Coupled with their longing for adventure is their love of common speech and the remembered voices of their childhood days. Kerouac recalls "long walks under old trees of New England at night with my mother and aunt," and Dos Passos’ traveler remembers similar voices
This living link to the past speaks directly to their shared nostalgia for Whitman, whose long poetic line Dos Passos brought into modern prose to embrace the sights and sounds of the new American scene:
Hundreds of similar scenes recur throughout the trilogy, and at the end of U.S.A. Dos Passos recapitulates his panoramic novel by taking us on an cross-country flight as seen through the window of a DC-3:
Together with H. G. Wells and Saint-Exupéry, Dos Passos helped to bring aviation itself into literature, having already taken readers into the air with him in "Mail Plane", the final chapter of Orient Express:
The flight takes place in almost the same year and along the same mail route that Saint-Exupéry flew between Dakar and Toulouse in 1926, and U.S.A. is a true child of its time as well. Three years after The Big Money appeared, millions of people took part in a simulated flight across America in the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.
It was a streamlined version of the old panoramic theater, in which audiences saw exotic scenes pass before their eyes, and readers of Moby Dick can still catch a glimpse of this attraction in Ishmael’s port city of New Bedford, where a nineteenth-century stage scroll of a whaling voyage remains on display. Toward the beginning of his essay on Cendrars, Dos Passos recalls a similar exhibit in a railway shed at the Paris Exposition of 1900:
The "immovable train" is a metaphor of the imagination itself, a place of stillness where "our souls" can sit quietly and watch whole panoramas of time and space "unroll". Everything Dos Passos says about Cendrars is conceived in the epic mode and points to his project in U.S.A. Both his essay and his trilogy begin with public celebrations of the new century, and many of the vistas at the end of The Big Money would soon appear in the Futurama exhibit of 1939.
Like the opium addict’s "bitter" return to reality in "The Fall of the House of Usher", the message of universal progress in both world’s fairs was followed by catastrophic wars. Orient Express and U.S.A. document the hysteria of the intervening years and confront us with the psychological impact of a world spinning out of control. THRONGS IN STREETS
LUNATIC BLOWS UP PITTSBURGH BANK
KRISHNAMURTI HERE SAYS HIS MESSAGE IS
WORLD HAPPINESS ...
"Newsreel LV", The Big Money
History for Dos Passos is in the very air we breathe, and it is the vision of people ground "under the wheels" that captures his attention most of all. Unlike the exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, which was dotted with model cities of the future, Dos Passos’ DC-3 flies over a nation of transient camps and wrecked lives in "the billiondollar speedup". The ancient "indiantrail" has become a part of modern history, as a vagrant follows "the silver Douglas" high above his head. He is a capsule image of the "vags" who walk like ghosts through Tom Korman’s forgotten masterpiece Waiting for Nothing (1935), which Dos Passos may well have had on his shelf while completing U.S.A.
In the vernacular of the book, a "stiff" is not a "working stiff" but a vagrant, a "vag", and his image at the end of U.S.A. completes the frame that began on the first page of the trilogy ("The young man walks fast by himself"). The wheel has come full circle, yet everything has changed:
Landscape and history—space and time—they are the dimensions in which all human experience takes place, and there is hardly a page of U.S.A. that does not make us conscious of both. Every action occurs against a background of historical events, and every chapter has its own distinctive settings, from "a bright metalcolored" day in lower Manhattan to a "snowswept freightyard" in St. Paul, "the gutted factory districts of Bayonne and Elizabeth, and the threat of a tornado high above a railway line running through the prairies, "the purple thunderheads building up in the northwest beyond the brightgreen wheat that stretched clear to the clouds." It is an epic picture of the nation not because it is literally complete but because it works on our imagination to create a compelling portrait of an age. Dos Passos had the best of precedents: the classical world evoked from several weeks of war in the Iliad, Renaissance Spain from the chivalric fantasies of Don Quixote, and nineteenth-century St. Petersburg from a few wretched apartments and a police inspector’s office in Crime and Punishment. In The Decline of the West (1923), Oswald Spengler remarks on the special power of great literature when he notes that "Old Leopold von Ranke is credited with the remark that, after all, Scott’s Quentin Durward was the true history-writing."
God only knows what lucky star guided me to U.S.A., for I don’t remember hearing anyone mention it in all my years at school. As early as 1940, George Orwell noted that Dos Passos and others of his generation were "not the writers who are in fashion at this moment", and even in a school as devoted to literature as Columbia was before the late 1960s, Dos Passos for me was just a name on a shelf. I have no idea how I came to own my three small paperbacks of U.S.A. (Washington Square Press, 1961), but my guess is that I bought them for the pictures, hundreds of rapid-fire pen drawings from the original edition by Reginald Marsh, each one as true to the text as Rockwell Kent’s celebrated woodcuts for Moby Dick and still fresh as ever with the spirit of American illustration of the 1930s.
The parallel between U.S.A. and Moby Dick holds good on the level of the writing itself, for Dos Passos’ trilogy still shines as one of the great works of American literature in throwing an entire epoch on our mental screen Beginning with The 42nd Parallel at the turn of the twentieth century, U.S.A. is a living encyclopedia of the scenes and physical sensations of its time, from factories that choked the air "with the smell of whale-oil soap" to a boy "dodging trolleycars", "Mrs. McCreary’s washboilers", and a linotype machine that filled Tim O'Hara’s printshop "with the hot smell of molten metal".
When The 42nd Parallel begins, there is still a feeling of late nineteenth-century America in the air, yet the great changes are already under way, and the period that Dos Passos covers is so much the same as ours that it takes a conscious effort to appreciate how much is happening for the first time in the world. America sends battleships across the Pacific, headlines scream wars and celebrity gossip, and people work in steel and glass office buildings, repair cars, and talk about air power as America’s "first line of defense". The trilogy only takes us through the first third of the twentieth century, yet it reflects the world we know and take for granted, even to its cinematic style of quick cutting and a hard-edged voice that reads like a soundtrack for a film noir of American history.
All the fictional characters come into their youth as the period unfolds, and all of them are ground up before 1929. Fainy McCreary (Mac) disappears from the novel after drifting through the I.W.W. labor movement and the Mexican revolution; Janey Williams and Eleanor Stoddard grow cold and brittle after attaching themselves to J. Ward Moorehouse and his up and coming world of public relations; Eleanor’s friend Eveline Hutchins commits suicide after a long tailspin through Paris and New York; Janey’s brother Joe knocks about in the merchant marine and is killed in a drunken brawl on Armistice night; Dick Savage echoes Dos Passos’ journey from Harvard to a front-line ambulance corps but ends up writing copy for Moorehouse in New York ("Shake hands, J. W., with the ruins of a minor poet"); Anne Elizabeth Trent ("Daughter") literally cracks up over Paris after a night of heavy drinking with a French aviator and doing "loop the loop" with him in a Blériot monoplane; Mary French and Ben Compton throw themselves into the labor movement and are swallowed up in the struggle; Margo Dowling ("America’s newest sweetheart") makes her way from a parasitical Cuban entertainer to a cheap silent film production in Hollywood; and Charley Anderson, a boy from Fargo, North Dakota with a knack for auto mechanics, becomes a flying ace during the war and is at the heart of Dos Passos’ tragic vision of the times.
History is Dos Passos’ theme, but his love of language is the creative force behind his thought. Everything about U.S.A., its patterns of construction, plot development, and historical material is carried on great rolling waves of speech, whole oratorios of sound, as though Dos Passos had orchestrated a symphonic tone poem in three movements, with the war as the turning point in 1919 and the burial of the unknown soldier as a requiem for the nation’s character itself:
There is a cold fury in Dos Passos’ voice, and like the mood of disenchantment that surrounds his bugler playing taps, the atmosphere of U.S.A. is filled with the music of his bitterness. There is even a musical component to the structure of the work, for U.S.A. is organized around a set of themes and variations, in which the tragic waste of a generation is the principal motif. Just as 1919 ends with the return of "the body of an American", so too The Big Money opens with Charley Anderson, a hero of the Lafayette Escadrille, returning to New York in 1919 half drunk and dying just before the Great Depression, two hundred pages before the conclusion of the book.
In the context of the era, Anderson’s death is an obvious omen of the crash of ’29, yet there is something about it that arouses an uncanny sense of loss. In a 1961 study of Dos Passos, John H. Wrenn remarks on the painful nature of the work, which leaves the reader with "a feeling of incompleteness" in "the unfulfilled potential" of every character in the book. Events and relationships have the same quality one finds in Hemingway of people caroming off each other like billiard balls, but Dos Passos deepens this feeling by giving us the full effect of human worlds in collision, in which we undergo an uprooting in ourselves (Wrenn speaks of the participatory nature of U.S.A. and notes that Dos Passos had a similar response to the satiric art of George Grosz, who "makes you identify yourself with the sordid and pitiful object"). Dos Passos prepares us for the inevitable through Anderson’s reckless disregard for his life (a nice touch is the unstated connection between his character and wartime record as a fighter pilot), yet one remains drawn to him until the very end, despite the crash one sees him heading for. In fact, it is not alcohol alone that kills Charley nor any other vice of his, for there is something about his death that implicates the whole climate of the age. As someone once said of the great jazz cornetist of the 1920s, Bix Beiderbecke, "He just died of everything." This feeling of complete and utter tragedy is illuminated by a key passage in Orient Express, for Charley cracks up at a railroad crossing while racing an express train that plows into his car, a scene that recapitulates Dos Passos’ picture of the world in the wake of World War I:
The aftermath of this crackup is Dos Passos’ central theme, and just as the war has "fattened" Moloch "with young men’s lives". Anderson’s death leaves U.S.A. in the grip of heartless men and women who must be endured for the remainder of the novel, as though a special quality of life had disappeared for good. That is what the crash of '29 finally represents for Dos Passos, not just the bread lines, the strikes, the moneymen and "labor fakers", but an America without Charley Anderson, a human "cosmos", as Whitman said of himself, but truly raw and innocent, who is at once hard-drinking, unselfconscious, suicidal, mechanically gifted, spontaneous in his urge to "get over an’ see the war", nostalgic for the old days of living in "bedbug alley" and traveling on Atlantic coastal boats, and at his best when he is working day and night in his machine shop on Long Island, where he designs an engine that he knows will help bring in the era of commercial aviation. He is a kind of later-day Ishmael—Ishmael plus sex, liquor, and machinery—and for all his glaring faults, he is more creative, more open to experience, and more far-sighted than any of the other fictional characters in U.S.A. Aviation has a similar luster for Dos Passos in "The Campers at Kitty Hawk", and it is a central fact of Charley’s tragedy that he cannot live up to the demands that he so clearly sees:
Anderson tries to keep up with the changes as best he can, and time and again we see him coming out of an alcoholic haze or one-night stand and using his intelligence and contacts to set himself up in work and "the big money", only to find himself lost again. His better nature is summed up in a remark to his mechanic that recalls the idealism of H. G. Wells in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), "You and me, Bill, the mechanics against the world," but in U.S.A. all beliefs and values turn to dust, and Charley himself abandons his wartime buddy Joe Askew and their small machine shop in order to get ahead in the power centers of Washington, Detroit, and New York. His act is typical of the whole atmosphere of betrayal that permeates the work, yet his character is such that, while others thrive on treachery, his one act of betraying his partner is enough to precipitate his downward slide. Every time he picks himself up and starts again, he’s just a little bit weaker than before—a little fatter, a little more boastful and insecure—and his own death is foreshadowed when he takes off with Bill Cermak to give "the Anderson Mosquito its trial spin" and a few moments into the air undergoes a sudden crash in which Cermak is killed. Something has gone wrong that Anderson cannot understand. His ship "was taking it fine, steady as one of those big old bombers," yet the knowledge and experience he gained in the war have suddenly abandoned him. In the dialogue before the flight, Dos Passos suggests that Anderson has betrayed his past by speeding up production in disregard of Bill’s concerns. It is the pursuit of "the big money" that seems to be at fault, but there is an underlying sense of doom about the accident that Dos Passos refuses to dilute with explanations. Wrenn’s point is a true perception of the book: there is an inescapable tragedy at the heart of U.S.A., some mysterious sense of waste that eats away at everything, and the vivid nature of the writing only serves to heighten this effect.
Dos Passos’ vision has something of the "glowing despair" that Orwell found in T. S. Eliot’s early poetry, and we experience it in process, as an emerging point of view. The proof is in the style itself. Like the montage effects of Dos Passos’ "Newsreels" and "Camera Eye" sequences, the prose of the fictional biographies is always in movement, always on the go, so that we continually feel ourselves caught up in the moment, as though the narrative were only being driven by whatever happens next. The argument between Bill and Charley simply disappears when the plane takes off, and Dos Passos deliberately leaves the crash a mystery in order to fill us with a sensation of the loss instead. It is the feel of things that he is after. The speedup in production is one of several possible reasons for the crash, but what we actually experience is a sense of tragic waste, and the final scene between Charley and Bill underscores just how much will soon be lost of character and friendship in the book:
Every moment has its own intrinsic weight. Charley’s attempt to buy off Bill is a projection of his own hunger for "the big money", yet it is balanced by a camaraderie that is absent from the real vultures in the novel. Bill’s apprehensions are similarly balanced by the beauty of the plane and the splendor of the field, while everything that Charley says is true. The old days are passing, and the factory will indeed have to "click like a machine", yet it is his boyish innocence and love of flying that rounds out the scene, "Gosh, she’s a honey."
Anderson himself dies soon after his crackup at the railroad crossing. His last words, "But this passin’ out’s not like sleep, it’s like a... somethin’ phony," will be recalled in the first line of "Vag" as "The young man... grips a rubbed suitcase of phony leather." The old crafts are disappearing, along with the old machine shops and men like Cermak and Anderson, who thrived on the pleasure of work.
Dos Passos announces these decisive changes in the first two capsule biographies in The Big Money, beginning with the story of Frederick Winslow Taylor in "The American Plan", whose unspoken presence can be felt in Charley’s words to Bill just before the crash, "If every department don’t click like a machine, we’re rooked."
Charley says as much to Bill about industrial efficiency, yet everything about Taylor seems like Charley wrong side out, for Anderson is sober precisely when he works in his machine shop and when he flies, while Taylor is drunk on "scientific management" itself, which "thrilled his sleepless nerves like liquor or women on Saturday night." In "Tin Lizzie", the second capsule portrait in the novel, Dos Passos paints a similar picture of Henry Ford, whose "mother had told him not to drink, smoke, gamble, or go into debt, and he never did."
Charley, by contrast, appears on the first page of the novel hungover from the night before and staggering to the porthole of his cabin, as fogged over as New York. Everything about his story will flow from the character of this moment, for he has returned to an America that has been forever changed by the war and war production, and the combination of his old habits and the changes in the nation will perpetuate the initial fog in other forms. In retrospect, the patterns of his life seem fixed from his first moment in the novel, yet Dos Passos tells his story as a complicated mixture of history, character, and chance, in which his life unfolds as though in passing, as a spontaneous event. The opening scene has all the basic elements of the "Camera Eye" episodes: fragmented sensations, snatches of memory, a young traveler knocking about the world:
As the scene shifts to the upper deck, Dos Passos gives us snapshot glimpses of some of the passengers who will figure in the novel, the first being Charley’s wartime pal Joe Askew, who tells him as the ship rounds the Battery, "Well, Charley, that’s where they keep all the money. We got to get some of it away from ’em," to which Anderson replies, "Wish I knew how to start in Joe," yet it is Joe himself whom Charley will betray in his quest. It is through such seemingly casual moments that Dos Passos builds his epic of betrayal, which ends in "Vag" with all the old promises blown away like smoke:
And this too is a subtle echo of something valuable that is lost in the downward slide to ’29, for the "platinum girls" are all that remain of Margo Dowling, the actress whose freewheeling life parallels Charley Anderson’s and who is the only other major figure who shares his openheartedness. With that special feeling of spontaneous inevitability that marks so many encounters in the novel, Charley and Margo run into each other in a Florida diner: the drunken aviator and the busted vaudeville girl, and it is Margo who tries to nurse him out of his drinking and to whom he opens his wallet, no questions asked.
Charley’s offer is one of the rare expressions of an uncorrupted feeling in the book, and his deathbed scene records some of the last heartfelt lines that any character will speak in U.S.A.
His body is pulverized and his life is hanging by a thread, yet his fears for Margo’s life run deep ("I was scared to ask"), just as his first concern after the crackup of his plane is for Bill: "What the devil happened? Is Bill all right?" Charley is in fact the only major character in 1919 whose last moments include a personal concern for others. The final scenes of Mary French, Dick Savage, and even Margo are sordid by comparison, and in the context of the novel Charley’s last words to his doctor read like a pronouncement on the age: