P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
3.3 (Summer 2003)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
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 (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Spring 2003) may be viewed by
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2003), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison
"The same old world looks entirely different when you’re brave; and, when the world suddenly looks as it has never looked before, it looks entirely the same, when you’re brave."
Seeing clouds on the horizon can be a form of optimism unless you like being caught out in the rain.
Professor Chaves laments the damage which ideological rigidity does to scholarship and protests the pose that heightened awareness is somehow served by such brutal shortcuts.
As we proceed through the twenty-first century, those liberal arts departments which still survive are doing their very best to dissolve in fatuity.
Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: The Twentieth Century’s Fatal Division into Ideological Camps
John R. Harris
The disingenuous courtship of newly enfranchised masses by unscrupulous demagogues gave us two ruinous world wars, and now harrows civilization around the globe.
Transgressive Technologies: Does a Posthuman Dystopia Await Us?
Contemporary education and modern economics invest heavily in the notion that hi-tech is the only way to go... yet every path in this direction must skirt the abyss.
Professor Carlson’s free-verse quartet finds sad poetry in the least likely of settings.
Four Poems by Michael H. Lythgoe
As always, Michael Lythgoe’s poems burst with colors, scents, tastes, and a keen alertness to the past.
Hommage à Baudelaire: Three Prose Poems
John R. Harris
Electric fans, streetlights, and house-hunting are three unlikely subjects for lyricism, but the splenetic prose poet may find entire hemispheres within them.
This short story nostalgically gropes after the late forties and the style of Everyman—yet its horrified vision of human nature offers little optimism.
More about the plight of contemporary Spanish, and a wince at academic writing’s "pseudo-abstractivity".
* * * * *
A Few Words from the Editor
First of all, it is my pleasure to announce that our non-profit educational organization is now legally and officially The Center for Literate Values. I continue to believe as firmly as ever that the rather vapid phrase "literate values" must include a tendency to seek privacy for meditation, an ability to employ meditative moments in intense self-scrutiny, a certain healthy suspicion of others’ motives and one’s own, and—in two words—a cultivation of that dutiful, confessional state of mind which might well be called moral reason. I shall probably remain a little bewildered to my dying day by the icy response which the "m" word and the "r" word draw from ostensibly educated people, and especially educators at the higher level. Nevertheless, some battles are better lost if winning them would require a tenacity sufficient to prevail, under other circumstances, in the whole war. I had reached the point where I was simply exhausted with having to explain so innocuous a pair of words to so malicious and retrograde a phalanx of intellects. Hence… farewell, moral reason: welcome aboard, literate values.
The Web site where many of you are no doubt reading these words has been overhauled from top to bottom (or whatever the operative image is for a mass of hyperlinks). I sincerely urge everyone who has access to the Net and is comfortable sitting glued to a screen for hours to meander through The Center’s new site at a leisurely pace. Please remember the magical "org" at the end of literatevalues.org.
Secondly, I must apologize for the appearance of self-promotion in this issue. I had anticipated that my own essay would be long. Its subject, frankly, deserves a book-length treatment: the surprising yet intimate collaboration of communism and fascism in rendering the twentieth-century West’s intellectual life suicidally simplistic. I recall being rather relieved, in fact, at the prospect of having little space left over to fill. I had forgotten that summer is an especially slow season for submissions. Naturally, I was delighted to have another piece from Professor Chaves, and journalist Mark Wegierski did me the great favor of contributing a review of the twenty-first century’s possible points of fatal collision with our "miracles" of technology. Neither of these excellent essays, however, required much space. I was therefore able to devote about half the issue to creative work; and I found myself compelled, in addition, to inflict upon the reader a few more of my prose poems (a stock of which I keep around for just such emergencies).
This even balance of the analytic and the aesthetic may have turned out to be a good thing. My essay, after all, scarcely plots a vector toward optimism (and the final essay of this series, which I plan to insert into the Fall 2003 issue, is indeed not looking rosy on the drawing board). Mr. Wegierski’s overview of our lunges into various technological abysses, furthermore, is downright frightening if one ponders the frivolity of the electorate in recent years. Under the circumstances, a heavy dose of artistic creativity is surely indicated.
Yet this quarter’s artists are themselves hardly ravished by the realities of modern life. My own rambles are probably the most airy, and in a sense the most irresponsible. Mr. Moseby’s short story, while it has much of the nostalgic and a little of the fantastic, remains on the whole pretty gloomy about human nature. Ralph Carlson’s verse chronicle of a young woman’s being hustled by an impersonal medical establishment from the first highly invasive treatments of her cancer to an anguishing death safely beyond the sterilized corridors moves us with the very absence of humanity it conveys. Michael Lythgoe’s work pulses with a sense of far greater reality—of comic relief, in the highest possible register—looming gloriously over our somber daily realities; yet even here, hope lies in following rivers and clouds and fragrances anagogically into metaphor and a love which passeth understanding. The best hope this world has to offer, one might say, is that which fractures the strict conditions of this world by finding in worldly matter the stuff of otherworldly images. Of course, such hope is not really in this world at all.
But when was it otherwise, I ask? If we lived in one of those golden eras when people believed implicitly that heaven was coming to earth, or if we who still think about things collectively decided to burn our books and join the fête servile of those who can content their heart with a day at the mall, how would we be better off? Both of those states—the cultural golden age and the consumerist artificial paradise—are merely alternative forms of delusion. Our hope can really not rest on anything we see, not even if we should invent an antidote to mortality. (For when has our joy with this life ever been so great that its sole vitiation was the ticking of our body’s clock?) I would go so far as to say that taking mortal existence’s full, sad measure— which is getting easier to do all the time as our technological wonders successively show their seams—makes us more capable of the one true happiness we may know as we are. We expect less, we demand less, we survive with less, and… and we begin to rediscover, for instance, the pleasures of a Carolina wren’s warble because we are strolling along a grass-besieged sidewalk rather than bulleting along a superhighway. We may yet slow down: we may yet choose to slow down (as opposed to being chased into the hills like Boccaccio’s crew by some terrorist-hatched plague). Thinking makes you want to slow down, and reading makes you want to think.
So read, and live!
Judges of the Past
Jonathan Chaves is Professor of Chinese Literature and Chairman of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at The George Washington University. He is co-author with J. Thomas Rimer of Japanese and Chinese Poems to Sing: The Wakan Rôei Shû (Columbia University Press, 1997).
Recently, the MLA has sent a survey form to chairmen of language and literature departments. When I received my copy, I simply threw it away. Sometime later, I received a second copy, with a cover letter in which the writer stated that he was "distressed" that I had not participated, and asking again that I do so. I responded to him that "distressed" would be an understatement to describe my feelings every time I open the program of an MLA meeting, and read once again the Modern Litany of Asininity. Should the MLA ever return to sanity, I said, I would be glad to cooperate with any survey they chose to conduct. But for now the study of literature—and therefore the MLA—along with all the humanities, has become the playground of those who profess a destructive approach to civilization known for the moment (a new term could be coined at any time) by the oxymoronic name of "Postmodernism."
At its base, this chameleon, this congeries of seemingly disparate "theories" of literature, is really a deadly combination of Utopianism and Nihilism, which, as Lee Congdon has pointed out, "both derive… from the same source—undying hatred of the world as it is." And not only the world as it is, but the world as it was. C.S. Lewis has written that "we are not so much the judges of the past, as we are judged by it." But a judgement upon the past, upon all traditional religion and philosophy—let alone the literature and art in which they are embodied—is precisely what our "postmodern" colleagues consider themselves competent to proclaim. They have done so by applying first "Deconstructionism", which seems to ignore all historical context, and then "New Historicism", which seems to reinstate historical context. But these are two sides of the same coin. In both cases, the subjective ego of the "scholar" is supreme.
In a recent piece in the Newsletter of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, E. Christian Kopff has called upon us "to teach our students to think like Dante and Homer," which is the correct approach, already called for by C.S. Lewis in his great book of 1961, An Experiment in Criticism.
But the "postmodernists", whether overtly and proudly subjectivist, as in their deconstructive mode, or seemingly historical, as in their "New Historicist" mode, are reading Dante and Homer while thinking like Marx, Nietzsche, and Lévi-Strauss. "Increasingly we meet only ourselves," writes Lewis, and indeed, for a modern to read these critics is like looking into a mirror, rather than through a window. Given the prominence of "New Historicism", calling for a "return to the sources" (as Kopff correctly does) will not be enough, so long as those sources are returned to by scholars with an agenda of superimposing trendy ideologies upon them.
This sad truth recently drove itself home as I plowed my way through a book which is in many respects emblematic (pun intended) of the problem. It is a study of the emblem books which played such an important role in sixteenth and seventeenth century Holland and England (and elsewhere in Europe), and which combined engraved pictures with poems or prose texts conveying moral messages of various kinds.* The author is described as being the Chairman of the Society for Emblem Studies, and is clearly extremely learned on the subject. The problem with this book is not an absence of scholarship—the bibliography of all emblem books published in England is thorough and dependable, and whenever the author limits himself to describing the books in a straightforward manner, he demonstrates his comprehensive knowledge of their imagery and rhetoric.
The problem lies, rather—as it so often does today—in the author’s ultimate concern, which is really not to study these books on their own terms, but rather to use them as fodder for the all-devouring "theory" to which he subscribes, which is New Historicism grounded in (Post-) Structuralism. This is the author’s (pseudo-) religion. And it blinds him precisely to the real religion, Christianity, which underpins the emblem books, such as Partheneia Sacra (1633) by Henry Hawkins, S.J. This presentation of various images, most notably the "Enclosed Garden" (hortus conclusus), as metaphors for the Virgin Mary, is clearly inspired by something the author just cannot sympathize with, namely real devotion. "We are required," he writes, as if it were a dreary obligation, "to visualise the Blessed Virgin as, variously, a garden, a rose, a lily, a violet, a sunflower, the dew, a bee, the heavens," etc. Our author knows that all of these "are sanctioned by established traditions of Christian iconography"—ignorance is not his problem. But this "does not diminish the sense one has… of a tension… which affects almost every level of its organization." In other words, for him, a Structuralist tension between equal but opposite polarities or among unassimilated fragments—a kind of absolutized relativism—subverts the (merely conventional) religious devotionalism of the book. Structuralism trumps Christianity. And in case we miss the message, the author repeats several times—indeed, rams down our throats—the caution that the benighted writers of the emblem books thought that the metaphors and images they used were "natural"—or possessed "facticity" (i.e., were true), while we today, in our greater wisdom, realize that they were all culturally conditioned, and therefore lack substance as truth claims. The writers of the seventeenth century believed what they believed, and our author believes what he believes (the ultimate in tautology!), and feels a kind of urgency to undermine the fallacies of the very writers he is studying. He has placed himself in the position not of scholar, but judge, of those writers, probably because he somehow feels that the errors of the past are obstacles on the path to Utopia, and must therefore be exploded.
Precisely because this is an ambitious book by a well-established "authority," written in dense prose heavy with jargon, and published by an important publisher, it is likely to establish itself as the "cutting edge" of emblem book studies. It is full of accurate detail pressed into the service of a subversive agenda. The book is all wrong, in tone and attitude.
Is this a unique problem of this particular book? Of course not; this is now the norm in the "leading" studies of virtually any topic in the humanities. Only Lewis’s call—and Kopff’s—for a return to "thinking like Dante and Homer" will save literary studies from this descent into decadence.
Lee Congdon. "The Aesthetics of Hate." Chronicles of Culture, Vol. 9, No. 4 (April 1985), pp. 14-15.
C.S. Lewis. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 1961.
Michael Bath. Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture. Longman, 1994.
* As the reader will soon understand, Professor Chaves is pursuing a generic point about contemporary scholarly writing, not tendering a book review. He has therefore suppressed this particular book’s title and author lest he appear to single out a certain scholar merely for uttering the gibberish exacted of the whole cult.~Ed.
Look Homeward, Angela
The following circular was marked, "Please distribute and post," when it arrived in our e-mail this past spring. Since our objective is not to deride any single individual or group, we have suppressed most of the names which appear in the announcement. We may confide without being accused of mean-spiritedness, perhaps, that the proposal originates in a certain Canadian institution’s Centre for Feminist Research.
Targets for the indignant grammarian sail past like clay pigeons from some skeet-shooting machine run amuck. One would have expected a Canadian, at least, to be able to quote a single word without enclosing a comma or period within the marks: this Canadian cannot even keep the question mark out of quotes consistently. Then there’s the merciless transformation of rare words like "diaspora" into plurals and adjectives. (Can "diasporize" be far away? "Narratize" reared its ugly head long ago, though it is not as reverend as this writer’s rather blasé "historicize".) And, by all means, let us not write anything so quaint and proper as "indigeny" when we might peel off some indigestible hunk of a word like "indigenousness". The quotation marks will get it past muster. What the heck, just quote everything: "home", "homeland"… and how about "centre"? Isn’t there gross presumption in suggesting that a particular place is somehow "home" to feminist studies? Better make that "studies".
What are the odds that the question, "Do women experience life in the Diaspora differently from men?" will be found to have an affirmative answer?
All gibes and quibbles aside, however, the document strikes us as a pathetic piece of self-indictment—pathetic on two counts. First, there is pathos in the assumption that the loss of home—of childhood, of innocence, of high hopes, of protective love—which we all experience as we grow up is somehow a geopolitical (and almost certainly patriarchal) plot. One must always wince when one sees adults in such denial. It’s like watching a forty-something woman weep because the teddy bear her grandma made her has been lost. Naturally, the display makes one feel sad. One thinks of one’s own past, of how much is now gone forever. Ní feicfaimid a leithéid arís, as many an old Irishman has said (some probably in Canada): "We won’t see their like again." But a grand gathering, not to commemorate the snows of yesteryear, but to indict the culprit responsible for melting them… aw, come on!
Secondly, there’s the self-contradiction so common in contemporary literary studies as to be typical (perhaps requisite?) of them. Follow along. IF national boundaries are a manipulative construct of dominant cultures—propaganda, in effect—THEN we should indeed make little of them. This is often precisely what an educated person is called to do: it is why Socrates labeled himself a cosmopolites. But our conferees are not-so-subtly invited to conclude that alienation from home makes recent immigrants especially sensitive to the common humanity of others not privileged to be part of the "Mayflower" set. (Heaven forbid, of course, that the phrase "common humanity" should appear even within quotation marks.) Now, such sensitivity is surely a good thing. THEREFORE, an enlightened project of liberating people far and wide from their silly regional allegiances would seem to undermine the creation of sensitive souls. EITHER the concept of home is a fraud whose victims are needlessly suffering, OR it has a certain moral usefulness in rendering the exiled more aware of what really counts. But the female protagonist of this script is at once a victim for having been gulled into loving one mountain more than another and a hero for lending her sympathetic ear to weeping slaves and refugees out on the steppe where she has been shanghaied. Wasn’t Meryl Streep in that one?
The honest, direct approach to this conference’s topic would be to observe that the colorful dialect in which our grandparents corrected us, the intricate way in which we grew up celebrating the new year’s arrival, and the songs and games laced through our childhood memories are all part of what makes us unique. To deplore such uniqueness and seek to give us all the same past—or seek to erase everyone’s past—is probably almost as idiotic in conception as it would be despotically overweening in execution. At the same time, the kaleidoscopic variety of our past years cannot conceal a common baggage of naive expectations and resurgent hopes—of faces and places lost forever in this world combined with intimations of immortality fed by the pain of such losses. We are human beings, one and all. The academy continues to turn the basic truths of our nature inside-out. As we approach the half-century mark since the first ravages of "relevance" upon the humanities curriculum, the professorial élite shows few signs of awakening to the most essential limits of life: childhood, adulthood, senility, death… male and female, this skin and not that one, this tongue and not that one, this height, that weight, those eyes and hair. What can never be made over must be made over, or at least incessantly lamented, while what is eternal and transcending must be denied to the last barricade.
Meanwhile, the human condition grows a little more opaque to self-anointed literary scholars, sympathy in this world of bulldozed homes and broken families becomes rarer than ever, and the Western academy draws closer to fatal overdose as it pops one anti-depressant after another.
Daggerpoints and Loggerheads, Part Two:
The Twentieth Century’s Fatal Division
into Ideological Camps
John R. Harris
Argumentum pessimi turba est~
"The crowd’s will embodies the worst conclusion."
Seneca, De Vita Beata 2.2
In the previous issue of Praesidium, I alleged that much of the twentieth century’s misery stemmed from its persistent submission of complex issues to yes-or-no litmus tests and, with complementary perversity, its obfuscation of very basic moral choices as insoluble conundrums. I further alleged that such topsy-turviness reflected the largely successful attempts of egotistical, unprincipled intellectuals to manipulate newly "empowered" throngs of constituents whose rudimentary education, quite frankly, left them pawns in any real power struggle. In the present essay, I wish to proceed from abstract argument to a limited review of certain historical facts of the past century--facts I have come to know best through novelists and essayists. Where all such primary sources have been cited, by the way, the translations are my own.~J.H.
My son has reached the stage where all that pertains to soldiers and soldiering fascinates him. He had crossed this threshold, probably, even before Operation Iraqi Freedom resuscitated patriotism and plastered images of troops and tanks all about us. My generation, of course, has a tendency to reticence in such matters—and I like to think that my own aversion to gung-ho enthusiasm isn’t so much the long shadow of the Vietnam War as it is a reasoned, perfectly manly distaste for modern warfare. A bullet in the brain from nowhere…shrapnel through the rib cage before you can get your face in the dirt… this doesn’t sound to me like the stuff of valor and moral will. As well to display your valor by flying a kite in a thunderstorm. What does survival prove, besides your good luck? What does victory in a firefight prove, besides the steadiness of your fingers and the dryness of your powder? What speed does the righteous wrath of a good cause add to your missile, or what punch the toughened sinew of Spartan training to your land mines? These are not scenes from a Homeric confrontation: they are turns in a game of craps. No wonder small-bodied women, having lived through boot camp, can do as good a job as a veritable Ajax. It’s all in the eyes and fingers: align the cross-hairs and then press the button.
Yet I allow my son his bloody combat missions through den and bedroom, and I even participate. I am happy to see that he desires to be brave. He will learn soon enough that bravery in the contemporary world must be measured less by resigning oneself to an invisible, lethal hail than by actively reasserting control over a culture of push-button annihilation. I keep thinking of all those African and Arabic adolescents one sees on TV wheeling their jeeps through harrowed villages and firing rounds into mid-air. How often is there someone sensible enough, and man enough, to say to them, "Stop wasting your ammo before one of you takes it in the back"?
War is complex, and modern war is immensely complex. It has become a commonplace to begin any explanation of the West in Rubble (also known as postmodernism) by gesturing toward two devastating world wars. I might as well go through the polite motions myself. The West’s preeminent powers—the nations which gave us the Enlightenment and scientific method and the glories of cathedrals and symphonies—could not have more willfully slaughtered their youth in the Great War, and with less regard for anything like fair play or humanity (let alone chivalry), if they had lined all their young men up along the Tarpeian Rock and dealt a push to every other one. The means of slaughter were ignoble, even cowardly, and spared the brave no more than the faint-hearted, the generous no more than the vile, the wise no more than the foolish. A millennium of classical heritage leavened with Celtic/Germanic fantasy and Arabic techniques of calculation had at last risen to produce… what? A fearsomely vainglorious and repugnant adventure in nation-building which exacted vast sacrifices of able men to meat-grinding machines.
The Second World War, of course, is somewhat more tolerable in retrospect. If its machines were more deadly, they were set into motion precisely to save innumerable droves of non-combatants from the slaughterhouse; and the fighting, besides, was highly mobile, so that no Maginot Line evolved wherein butchery could be concentrated with inconceivably hellish intensity. (The Pacific Theater, be it noted, was not so "clean" in this regard.) The cost of such mobility upon Europe’s artistic and architectural treasures, however, was proportionately greater. Cities far from the front were bombed into powder—great cities with structures which had stood, in some cases, for two thousand years. Civilians, naturally, were also implicated in "collateral damage" much more than they had been before. In fact, there was nothing collateral about Hitler’s bomb- and rocket-attacks on London. For the first time, women and children were tactical targets. An ancient or medieval city under siege would sometimes send its non-combatants under escort into the mountains. The city itself was the target, whether for its strategic position or its symbolic representation of authority. Now, the objective was to dishearten the other side by shredding sweethearts and infants. If the British had bundled off their families to one narrow, aerially identifiable site in the Cotswolds, Hitler would have pointed his U2’s there.
Is our nightmare, then, just a matter of technology? Could we still rest easy as long as combatants were hacking away each other’s limbs with blades or rather ineffectually depeditating horses with careering cannonballs? Was the Thirty Years War, with all its carnage, looting, and rapine, insufficient to "postdate" the seventeenth century’s modernism just because it produced no mushroom clouds? I can hardly imagine those who style themselves the conscience of our time being comfortable in a distant past when temples and cathedrals were not ransacked; for such salutary taboos were undergirded by rigorous belief systems (often implicated in the causes of war), by a social order which involved steep class hierarchy, and by a political order which held authority to be divinely predestined and sanctioned. Turn the clock back beyond the cataclysmic abilities of Western technology, and you inevitably land in a Shangri-La where poor farmers are turned out to starve in a ditch while His Lordship carries off their pubescent daughters.
Certainly the scope of our technology should alarm us. I have already expressed my own opinion (which was around long before Orlando tossed Cimosco’s blunderbuss into the Zuyder Zee) that gunpowder is more akin chemically to cowardice than bravery. Is it such a bad thing, though, that our technological culture is forcing us all toward a spiritual definition of courage? How few of us would have discovered that definition, otherwise! By all means, indict Western modernity for turning us into cowards, into uniform drones, into servants of the machines that were to serve us—but do not be so obtuse as to suggest that we were forced where our own perverse inclinations did not already lean. Our technology has merely clarified the cloudy image in the mirror. Now that we see it to be a rather ugly image, some of us want to blame the filter. The most brilliant, most appalling achievement of the West’s twentieth century is that it photographed our human soul with x-ray precision: not our culture, not itself—the West—in the camera’s springs and shutters, but the diseased soul of the human being supplied with all the toys and wings and thunderbolts he ever dreamed of.
To cringe from this portrait rather than facing it "like a man" is the posture which contemporary Europe has adopted. It is the "postmodern" posture: blame the springs and shutters for working as they were made to work, not the face for having warts. If my accusation is true, then the two world wars are really less causative of Europe’s befuddlement than symptomatic of it. Europe, that is, was already falling under an evil spell before Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The dark florition (if I may attempt a very fine distinction) of this evil seed was not a Flanders stream awash in human blood or a Pacific skyline pushing up mushrooms: it was not the destruction per se. In fact, much of the destruction, at least in World War Two, was incurred to resist the evil’s relatively orderly, undisruptive proliferation—the tidy discretion of mass graves and death camps. The evil was not what the technologically sophisticated trigger unleashed. The evil was in the finger which itself itched with a wrath and an ex nihilo creativity purloined from that old god of Western Christendom, that god pronounced dead. It was ideology. It was classical hybris liberated from classical condemnation—and armed, this time, with the Analytical Age’s bottled earthquakes, yet as divested of that age’s early moral philosophers now as mad Orlando of his clothes.
To assist me in diagnosing this dreadful disease, I shall turn throughout the rest of my essay, not to historians (for I’m afraid I haven’t much trust in recent history-writing, which itself too often drudges for ideology), but to an array of personal accounts by Europeans who lived through—or sometimes perished in—the last century’s miseries.1 I hasten to emphasize that I offer this brief review only tentatively. I don’t pretend to have uncovered definitive, incontrovertible answers, but only to have discovered that the true answers must be far more intricate than those I was taught as a youth or continue to hear as an adult. No doubt, my self-deprecation and my gathering clouds of witness bestow upon me a passing resemblance to those very postmodern analysts (or anti-analysts) I so disdain. The difference is that I produce my dissenting witnesses, not to fray the edges of orthodox explanations and uphold a kind of agnosticism, but to puncture holes in ideological explanations (which, yes, are sometimes also orthodox) as a way of letting the truth’s light sift through. I believe these questions have true answers. The truth does not dissolve beneath contrary points of view, it seems to me, but cries out, rather, for a remove which explains the close-up appearance of contrariness in all the testimony. I have often had occasion to recite to myself Saint-Exupéry’s most elegant, almost mystical formula: "From surmounted contradiction to surmounted contradiction, I make my way toward the silence of questions and hence to beatitude."2 What I came to appreciate only recently was how much this very man, who finally gave his life to free Europe from fascist terror, was reviled as he lived and vilified after he died by both communists and Gaullists for "fence-sitting"—i.e., for singing neither stale refrain. Postmodernism, too, for inflexible and programmatic ends, does not want us to achieve an enlightening remove from petty obstacles. Beneath its insinuation that ideologues cannot be rejected through right reason lurks a much-coveted license to hatch yet more ideology.
My son has been reading a book about D-Day called We Were There at the Normandy Invasion.3 Published in 1956, the story represents what I immediately recognized as the "party line" in my own education, and what continues to be far and away the most widely circulated assessment of France at that historical moment. Almost to a man (goes this view), the French detested the Nazi occupation forces. Pampered aristocrat and penurious farmer, worldly Parisian and naïve provincial, Catholic priest and communist factory worker—all applauded the arrival of Allied troops, all deplored the Vichy government and its collaborators, all passed a note or hid a fugitive occasionally for the French Underground (or maquis). Such is the image I imbibed as a child from TV shows like Combat and movies like The Longest Day and Is Paris Burning?; and such is the image, I remarked in watching a recent PBS documentary, that American journalists still purvey. The French hated their Nazi invaders, and they loved their Yankee liberators. For that fleeting moment, at least, in the middle of the century, the sons of Lafayette and the sons of Washington could toast their common love of mankind in a bottle of rich amber Sauterne.
Now, there’s no question that the French have never forgiven the Germans for the Franco-Prussian War—or certainly hadn’t, anyway, in 1938. Frenchmen would have detested a billeted force which spoke German even if it arrived with an olive branch and a promise to defer to local government (circumstances which roughly obtained in the euphemistic zone libre). That the French almost universally rejected Nazism’s social objectives, on the other hand, is simply not true. The Parti Populaire Français (or PPF) was little more than a Nazi Party without German baggage: the same national socialist agenda, the same loathing of American capitalism, the same suspicion of Jews and Freemasons. The PPF amassed quite a following throughout France. It taxed the Vichy government not only with sycophancy toward the Germans but also with an inadequately aggressive intervention into social and economic issues. Due to such sentiments among many of the rank and file, French authorities zealously rounded up tens of thousands of Jews for Nazi boxcars and gas chambers (as detailed in another kind of film, Mr. Klein). France was by most accounts more forthright in handing over her Jewish citizens than the Reich’s comrades in arms, Italy and Denmark. Our own troops were scarcely greeted in Paris with open arms: GI’s were not safe in the city immediately after the Liberation. My father-in-law once told me that he and his buddies were ordered never to stroll about the streets of Paris alone—that they could expect to be treated by certain inhabitants as enemies. After half a century, he retained a reticence about France which bordered on mistrust. Clearly, something besides wine was being spilled on those Parisian furloughs. Among other shady types, members of the Milice (Vichy’s secret police—a kind of French Gestapo) continued to lurk about.
If I appear now to be stoking the anti-Gallic sentiment so widespread among Americans these days, then my readers have falsely anticipated my purpose. I say only that France was far from universally rejecting the politics of Hitler and Mussolini—that the tribal antagonism between Gaul and Teuton did not readily overflow into the realm of ideas. But if France nourished substantial sympathy for fascism, is that not the most valid of reasons to denounce her? Well, then… denounce the Vatican, too, and Roman Catholicism. Denounce families with a de before their name whose land (often shrunken to just enough acreage for a dilapidated château) had been passed along for generations. Denounce "sons of the earth" who had risen from their humble state to become owners of tiny but prosperous local concerns—bottlers of mineral water or packagers of fertilizer. Denounce Protestants who led decent little lives around their small, proper families. Denounce bureaucrats and petty functionaries—gendarmes and railways conductors—who kept the status quo running smoothly. Denounce everyone who was not a card-carrying communist: for this array of "everyone else" constitutes the list of those whom Stalin’s emissaries had slated for execution when the time was right. The proscribed well knew that they were marked men.4 They had felt the tremors from Russia, they had read brochures, and they had listened to bearded firebrands spouting flames on street corners. However repellent they found the upstart Austrian Corporal, he had not publicly vowed to pillage their homes and stand their sons and daughters up against the wall.5
The exporting of Soviet communism, in short, gave fascism an appeal which it would otherwise never have enjoyed. Communism had trenchantly, obtusely, and—in a word—ideologically simplified a host of complex issues in what I have called elsewhere a "nullifying opposition".6 Either the passer-by was to embrace every tenet of the faith without equivocation, or he was to receive a bullet between the eyes. No modification was permissible: no compromises, no prisoners. The example of pilot-author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry splendidly illustrates the trials of a responsible Frenchman wanting no part of either extreme. During his self-imposed exile in the United States (a period which saw him dash off The Little Prince therapeutically), Saint-Exupéry voiced precisely the sentiments common to most Americans and largely responsible for their embracing of the war effort. France, wrote Saint-Ex in Pilote de Guerre, was part of Western culture, and the West was all about making sense of individual sacrifice in a metaphysical context. The collectivism of both Hitler and Stalin, by contrast, outraged Western tradition.
For his pains in reconciling America to the war’s costs, Saint-Exupéry was ostracized by de Gaulle’s circle (for which the annihilation of all collaborators was as important as the repelling of Nazism). The General himself, who constantly chafed at Eisenhauer’s prudent direction, would never hear of honoring his nation’s beloved aviator-poet during his long post-war term as France’s president. The Nazis, at whose barbarity Pilote was specifically aimed, were mild-mannered by comparison, at least to begin with. Since Saint-Ex’s pages never actually mentioned Hitler’s name, the work circulated widely in occupied France for months before fascist censors were able to read between the lines!
Under such circumstances, one can hardly marvel that well-meaning people (if less thoughtful than Saint-Exupéry) felt virtually coerced at gunpoint into loathsome alliances. There were some, inevitably, who played both ends against the middle with consummate cynicism. Jean Dutourd’s satirical novel, Au Bon Beurre, describes how a family of bourgeois shopkeepers manages to profiteer from the Occupation so successfully that it pulls off marriage into the aristocracy while also acquiring Gaullist sympathies at just the right time. Yet even quite principled people could find themselves on the wrong side of a jagged moral divide. Titled landowners who sincerely worried over the sharecropper’s plight but were not prepared to see their homes burned down… village priests who had devoted their lives to the poor but were not prepared to see their faith exterminated… such were many of fascism’s uneasy, deeply regretful allies.8 Unfortunately, the fascist agenda was often advanced as inflexibly as the communist. The troubled consciences of fascist "acquiescents" must have led more than one to pass secrets to the maquis—an organization run mostly by the Communist International’s FTP (Franc-Tireurs et Partisans) in central and southern France.
Nevertheless, the votaries of Bolshevism rather consistently managed to surpass those of fascism in hideous and wholesale brutality. Hitler gassed his millions—and Stalin machine-gunned and starved his dozen millions. In places like Spain, the lessons of the nightmarish comparison were clear to moderate minds like the fictitious speaker’s through whom Emilio Romero wrote his testimony (in terms, be it stressed, which often echo Saint-Exupéry’s):
To be sure, Spain and Russia of the early twentieth century seem to have been crucibles wherefrom the greatest horrors of war crawled forth readily. This was no doubt because such horrors are both multiplied and minimized (to those immediately involved, that is) in countries where life in normal times is cheap and death commonplace. Yet if one examines one of the countries where fascism quickly took the upper hand, one seeks in vain for mass graves of Stalinesque proportions. The slaughter of the Jews did not begin at once with Hitler’s rise to power, was scarcely prosecuted at all on German soil, and was either disbelieved or entirely unsuspected by the rank and file of the German nation as it happened (and long after it happened, in some especially thick-headed cases). As for citizens of a respectably Arrian stamp, many would allege later that they were afraid to protest or resist orders, and executions of "conscientious objectors" certainly took place. There was no wholesale annihilation of dissidents, however—a fact which would invalidate the said defense of fearing reprisal when it was advanced by several Nazi officers and collaborators.
Or consider Italy. All of the novels I have ever read about Italy under fascism were written by its enemies, yet even these do not paint a ghastly picture. Ugo Pirro’s L’Isola in Terraferma follows the travail of a destitute Sicilian family ostracized for the father’s refusal to renounce communism and embrace Mussolini. The son (who narrates the story) is expelled from school for not wearing fascist colors, and the father’s iron-working business almost founders. It survives a particularly lean stretch only because the village priest places a timely order—a priest who well knows, as does everyone in town, that Papà Santini is "a militant, mature, conscientious, renowned atheist".10 There are incidents of hazing and moments of lying low; but of brutal assault or executions over a ditch or patrol cars rolling through the streets with mounted machine guns, we find no trace. The clear implication throughout the book, rather, is that several of the Santini’s neighbors are far from infatuated with fascism and march to its drum only to avoid the same social and economic persecution which makes this family stand out. The father, for that matter (despite the author’s attempt to present him as otherwise), is more than a little ludicrous in his coffee-house harangues of fellow communists (there are a few), more than a little pathetic in his window-sill dreams of the revolution, and more than a little despicable in his forcibly detaining a wife and daughter from attending Mass. With enemies of authoritarian dictatorship like this, who needs Mussolini?
Carlo Bernari’s Le Radiose Gironate offers a much more detailed picture of mainland, urban Italy under Il Duce, and the novel’s tenor, if not exactly resonant with communism, is no less dissonant with fascism. The narrator has actually completed his required military service as the story opens (as did a great many young men who had no special enthusiasm for anything that the military was up to). Yet when his childhood friend Andrea comes skulking about in search of a place to hide, he quickly lends a helping hand. Eventually his bad company lands him in hot water with the notorious chief of police, Quattropani, who calls him in (not at gunpoint, by the way) for interrogation. When the young man replies that he has never heard of any Andrea Sacco, he realizes that he has stepped in a snare.
A hint of a physical assault clings to this scene—but the thumbscrews never materialize. In fact, Quattopani allows his young quarry a restroom break shortly hereafter, and upon his return declares coolly, "Freshened up? Well, we’ll stop here for this evening and resume our conversation tomorrow."12 For worse malefactors, the third degree under hot lights, hours without food or water, a slap or two, detention in a cold cell for a couple of days… this kind of harassment was by no means unknown in police stations around the United States at about the same time. The "torturing" of the young man with a fresh cigarette would indeed send anyone into fits of laughter who had read of what Solzhenitsyn endured.13 Significantly, I think, the book’s single instance of deliberate, deadly percussion occurs when the shadowy Andrea appears to have torched a gasoline depot, almost certainly maiming or killing a few guards. Yet Andrea is a man of ideas, and hence heroic. He is allowed a few murdered flunkies here and there, apparently, along the way to making over the world—or a few thousand.
I do not suggest that fascism is or ever was inherently more humane than communism. What I would emphasize, rather, is the accommodation of certain moderating influences under the dark fascist cloak. The Santinis escape starvation because a priest, who is wholly unsympathetic with the father’s politics and who himself would have been gunned down summarily in Red Square, manufactures enough employment to keep them alive. The villainous Master Inquisitor of Bernari’s book turns out to be restrained by something like decorum, if not manners, because he must know, surely, that several highly respected figures of the civilized world are propping up his cause. The likes of Sartre were able to write away molested in occupied Paris (especially when they praised the likes of Heidegger), a situation whose mirror-image in Moscow would have been inconceivable. In much of Western Europe beyond Germany, decent people sought to cut a deal with fascism because the alternative overtly demanded their complete extermination; and the result was that, outside of Germany, religious leaders and prosperous bourgeois and gentlemen of taste and breeding (like the marchese in Bernari’s story, or like the Graf von Metternich in Goering-looted Paris) made the finger on the trigger a little less heavy. No doubt, we view these people with loathing today—and, no doubt, we should. They temporized with rogues and thugs: they struck a bargain with the devil. But the other devil loose in Europe gave them little opportunity to reconsider and would have granted them little clemency if they had considered otherwise.
To be sure, the grass-roots support of communism and its cut-them-at-the-roots polemics are hard to understand in the continental European context. The rural poverty in places like Sicily and Spain was brutalizing. I recall a scene in Elio Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia (another anti-fascist classic) which—quite unconsciously, I’m sure—echoes one of Spanish journalist Antonio Azorín’s most poignant essays. In both cases, the authors are accompanying a caregiver (the mother of Vittorini’s narrator is represented as a nurse, and Azorín is curiously following his doctor friend Don Luís) on long rounds among the poor.14 Words of comfort, even of good cheer, are offered in abundance—but the observer soon realizes that he is witnessing a procession through a kind of Death Row. Confides Don Luís finally, "I don’t know… what solution will bring this problem to general attention. What’s certain, what’s undeniable, is that to live in this way is impossible. We’re not living: we’re dying." The doctor thereupon offers some dumbfounding statistics about the mortality rate in his rustic practice due to tuberculosis and other diseases attendant upon malnutrition.
Ruthless war, as I have said, is far more probable and sustainable in places where the peace is just as ruthless—where slow starvation is a way of life, and where the ailing waste away to the sound of powerful chariots bearing the rich from manor to city to neighboring manor. We can all comprehend how vengefulness would seep into the blood of someone who had watched his parents or children perish in this way. What most of us grasp less securely is that the omnipresence of death can simply create calluses of habit upon the human heart, and that the intolerance of needless suffering must sometimes be taught in such circumstances. The duty of teaching falls to bourgeois convention: it is part of that civilized routine which once separated the city from the country, the township from the wilderness, the human world from animal ferocity. It is a plain fact that the footsoldiers of Marxism drew a great many recruits in the twentieth century from the latter member of this contrast. Western Europe’s most destitute rural populations, living always on the edge, without a past or a future, were attracted to the Manichaean "us/them" oppositions of communism, and they were prepared to enforce those oppositions in the most Procrustean of manners.
Urban Marxism, by contrast, was often capable of compromise—at least as practiced by the urban poor. (The intellectuals I shall leave for the climax of this essay, and the lowest circle of hell.) Urban poverty was no less unsightly than rural, but it could not be indefinitely overlooked by a bourgeoisie concerned about safe streets and open businesses. Cutting deals was a necessity for everyone at such close quarters: the essential concepts of multicameral elective government were, indeed, concocted in ancient Rome’s seething urban cauldron. England, which had no dearth of Marxist hotspurs in its own pot, was never pushed to the brink of a Bolshevik-style revolution. Its urban politics were too successful at defusing tension for pressures to mount toward cataclysmic levels. (Of course, many of England’s most outspoken socialist crusaders arose from rural constituencies in Scotland and Ireland.) Only in those parts of Europe where rural destitution was utterly cut off from the life of the city—as Russia’s heartland was from St. Petersburg or Calabria was from Rome or Andulasia was from Madrid—did ferocious, take-no-prisoners communist insurgencies occur. The well-networked city—and, more generally, civilization—was Lenin’s worst enemy in exporting revolution. Far from growing naturally and inevitably from the self-annihilating progress of bourgeois capitalism, as Marx had predicted, communism never really had a chance to catch fire and burn all before it except on those sterile plains which the sun had just as mercilessly seared.
We have seen this same lesson repeated in southeast Asia, with a vengeance, throughout the second half of the twentieth century—but my essay aspires only to autopsy the West’s collapse in the century’s first half. I venture to propose at this point that the ruinous "us/them" split between fascism and communism which forced so many people of good will to select such unsavory allies was made possible, in the first place, by masses of destitute, uneducated poor. These masses fell easy prey to lettered and tutored demagogues in search of raw political power to reach their own vainglorious, often megalomaniac ends. A variant of this explanation is indeed the standard prologue to World War One: I mean, that unscrupulous, egotistical leadership lured France and Germany both into a slaughterhouse. I shall revisit the circumstances of that war shortly—for, of course, it holds the key to the second war. If I may keep backing up, however, like a detective trying to reconstruct a crime, I would observe here that the abusive rousing of impoverished masses is not just central to Russian, Italian, and Spanish communism, but to German fascism, as well. The fascism of France, Italy, and Spain was largely a reaction to the communist threat; and in Germany of the Weimar, without doubt, fears ran the higher in that the bulging Bolshevik dam sat just up the valley. Yet the German bourgeoisie of this moment was strangely like the northern Mediterranean’s abject peasantry in its extreme impoverishment. There was no German haute bourgeoisie, compared to the European nations which had successfully weathered the Great War. Here was an odd situation, perhaps unique in Europe at the time: a nation without a vast rural peasantry, jeweled with villages and cities of a substantial history, where shopkeepers and artisans were as destitute as day laborers.
To the civilized immersion in classic letters, besides, Germany had a dubious claim even before World War One. Certainly she produced some of the greatest scholars in the West: yet they were generally scholars of other traditions (Wilamowitz in Greek, Heinze in Latin, Kuno Meyer in Irish). There was no German equivalent of the Académie Française, there was no Colosseum or San Pietro on German soil, and Germans had nothing closer to Shakespeare than Goethe or to Chaucer than Wolfram von Eschenbach. Germany’s classics were the most "folk" of any Western European nation’s (which is why she gleamed among the romantics), and hence the least tied to anything like the abstract, eternal rights of man. I defy anyone to show that the level of moral sophistication in the Nibelungenlied approaches that in Vergil’s Aeneid. The latter echoes infinitely with conflicting duties, forcing the reader constantly to weigh the hero’s public responsibilities against his private ones; the former so stubbornly reveres prowess in battle that it glorifies a pair of jealous, lying, conniving murderers for their valiant exit while killing infidels. Wrote one votary of the old school to a German newspaper in 1929 (a blueblood—the Graf von Schlieffen, no less), "Beautiful and uplifting experiences are entirely absent [from All Quiet on the Western Front]. Could there really be so many soldiers who served on the front in whose minds only the horrid and the fearful remain, and not at least as many memories of heroic deeds and beautiful rapture?"15 In my own half-century of life, I can’t recall having seen this particular justification of war in any text since the days of the broadsword: i.e., not that it is a necessary evil, but that it is an aesthetic, even mystical experience of which no young man should be cheated.16
Such was the "buffer" provided by a liberal education to many Germans even before the twentieth century’s first great war. One can only wonder just which books Paul Bäumer is casting aside in one of All Quiet’s most symbolic scenes. The young man has briefly returned home on furlough. In his room, he idly begins to thumb through the works he read as a schoolboy. Imperceptibly, the search begins to take on something of the frantic. One book after another after another falls into the pile at his side: at a glance, he knows that each holds absolutely nothing whatever which bears upon his living nightmare.
Of course, these words could be emblazoned on the banner of postmodernism if they were not penned altogether too early. (Along with such worthies as John Ellis, Jonathan Chaves has recently unmasked—in the pages of Praesidium—the absurdity of postmodernism’s claim to historical validity.) As anguishing as Bäumer’s naïve plaint is, however, it also undermines itself. At a mere twenty years, and having spent the last two of those years in the army, Paul Bäumer can hardly assert much familiarity with his literary heritage, even if his exposure to it as an adolescent had been well supervised. The Maginot Line a failure of thousands of years of cultural evolution? Say, rather, a betrayal of a painfully evolved culture, mostly by the military élites of France and Germany after they had achieved a power far beyond their range of expertise through the skillful demagoguery of their political handlers. More about this momentarily.
Let me reemphasize that in the economic collapse following the Treaty of Versailles, the next generation of Germans had not even the advantage of Paul Bäumer’s heap of literary and philosophical "trivia".18 The grandfathers of these younger Germans continued to live in a world of Prussian glories bearing no resemblance to the present, their fathers lay in unmarked graves all along the Western front (or were keeping as silent as the living dead), and they themselves absorbed only bits and pieces of civilization haphazardly. Some of them, not surprisingly, absorbed no civilization at all. They constituted an uneducated mass. They were as well primed for the gross rhetorical excesses and rigid "us/them" oppositions of a rabble-rouser as was any swarm of poor farmers in the plaza on market day.
Even a Spanish peasant, for that matter, had some sense of the past and of culture, perhaps a sense far superior to the impoverished German bourgeoisie’s. Next to the universal humanity adumbrated in thriving townships, Marxism’s greatest enemy has always been the folk culture which it so shamelessly purloins and distorts to host its own doctrine; for in the traditionalist, pre-literate ritual are the seeds of universal duty and common goodness, too. Romero’s narrator has this to say about one such rural communist recruit:
One has to wonder how much more sophisticated than Teodoro and his cousins were the young Germans who believed implicitly in the glorious myths spun for them by Hitler’s propaganda machine. To hearken back to an ideal golden-haired hero looks rather like atavism, especially if one has been spoon-fed from the cradle on stories about Siegfried and Parzival. Frankly, such debased acculturation reminds me very much of our children’s flirtations today with time-traveling Highlanders and laser-armed paladins: hoary legends for orphans without a yesterday. Teodoro had yesterdays out of mind, but they were patently severed from today. The likes of Mao and Kim Il Sung are ever ready to secure the flapping legendary signifiers. The generation of young Germans after the war (like our children, for different reasons) had few stories, the most dubious of legends, and no past. Joseph Goebbels possessed all the sophistication and charm needed to step in and sing the forgotten lullaby.
In the inflammation both of southern and eastern Europe’s rural peasantry and of Germany’s disenfranchised bourgeoisie, the villain of the piece is not mainstream Western tradition, but severance from that tradition. To be sure, in both cases, Western technology was a material cause of misery: directly so for the Germans, who were eventually outgunned in the Great War, and indirectly so for the peasant throngs whom the industrial revolution had left behind.20 Yet the coin has another side. Western ethics and religion gravitated heavily against the atrocities which war had sprung upon horrified onlookers; the Geneva Convention was an early manifestation of the collective outrage. As for places like rural Spain and Sicily, technology merely needed more time to address the problem, and was indeed inhibited from doing so sometimes by local superstition. In another of his classic essays, Azorín writes of how the Spanish peasant refuses to irrigate lest the water dissolve his soil’s nutrients and refuses to plant anti-erosive trees lest seed-eating birds come to nest in them!21
The real villain of the piece, of course, is not one who poisons water, but who poisons minds. In both impoverished rural Europe and Germany, a starving mass of people was not turned into a murderous horde by machinery, but by an induced blindness to common humanity. And in both cases, those who induced the blindness were themselves capable of seeing quite clearly. They created myth and lore and music and philosophy almost ex nihilo with consummate cynicism in order to fashion a human wedge behind which they might thrust their own images deep into the world’s heart.
Was this, then, the inevitable outcome of Western culture, as postmodernism maintains? In a sense, the answer must be, "Yes." Without the Christian valorization of every individual soul as equally precious to God, and without the Hellenic tradition (with which Christianity fused early on) of prizing every citizen as a repository of talent and reason, there would have been no arduous ascent toward alleviating the misery of ordinary people and recognizing their right to self-governance. Western tradition cared for the underprivileged as no other culture has done in history. Yet transitions were not always smooth. Populations which had been relatively comfortable before changes settled in were sometimes nudged to the bottom of the pyramid. A preeminent example is the hearty yeoman farmer’s conversion into an uprooted vagabond, courtesy of the industrial revolution. By pressing for universal political enfranchisement even as it was creating restless droves of urban poor and sad provinces of starving sharecroppers, Western civilization produced one of the most dangerous weapons in human affairs: a huge block of political power whose members were without the resources necessary to practice political responsibility—without the sense of history necessary to distinguish truth from fiction, without the rhetorical ability necessary to challenge popular opinion openly, without the logical acuity necessary to reject a foolish opinion even privately. Such masses of people were not at all a finished product, of course, from the Western perspective. They were to be universally educated so that they might be universally responsible—not educated with indoctrination, but taught to read and write, primarily, so that their access to ideas might encounter no limits and that they ability to appropriate and modify ideas might be refined.
But the last chapter of this vision has never been written in the public forum and at the polls. Instead, ambitious men seized the opportunity to mobilize the mass’s strength long before its "mass" character wore off in a series of individual awakenings. I suggest that ideology, as a term possessed of meaningful rigor, was born in this historical moment of cynical, ruthless hijacking. An ideology is an experimental (i.e., unnatural) social design of such profound incoherence yet of such militant rigidity that it must resist honest, intelligent scrutiny with evasion, defamation, intimidation, and—in extreme cases—physical suppression.22 Now, how in the world could such a thing as this ever come to be: an untested, volatile mixture of ideas which proposes to validate itself by exterminating everything not it? At the very least, the conditions required for so monstrously arrogant an undertaking to gain a serious audience include the following: 1) an uncommonly gullible and manipulable mass of followers, 2) an uncommonly charismatic and unprincipled leader or clique of leaders, and 3) a widespread discontent with the status quo. Contrary to the wag’s wisdom, gullible masses have not stood ready throughout Western history. The peasantry of a medieval baron would have been little inclined to hear out some barb-tongued Thersites. Common folk, then and long thereafter, were convinced that God had intended them to be peasants, and almost as convinced that they needed looking out for and that their lord was doing a tolerable job of it. Indeed, discontent with the status quo is always largely a matter of perception in human affairs. Until the Enlightenment’s respect for the individual had percolated thoroughly through Europe, one would have to say that discontent among the lower classes was astonishingly rare. The poor had no reason to expect anything but poverty, nor the weak anything but weakness. An enormous amount of religion around the world—varieties of quietism hatched by Confucius, the Buddha, Zeno, Epicurus, and even certain Christian mystics—was truly that opiate which Marx deplored in it… and, for better or worse, the drug worked.
The twentieth century brought all three elements together. Large masses of rural poor and (after World War One) urban petite bourgeoisie were available for exploitation. Furthermore, these masses had become convinced by the nineteenth century’s brilliantly successful progressivism that their lot was genuinely miserable. Perhaps most importantly, a new kind of rogue was on the loose who excelled at exploiting just such wounded souls. But how could roguery have ever been in short supply among human beings, any more than poverty? Why now, at the turn of the century, were exponents of airy battlefield glories like Paul Bäumer’s elders—and, for that matter, like the French propagandist Maurice Barrès—acquiring such vast influence over the general populace, and this even before the Great War and a global depression had reduced elements of the European middle class to a vulnerable penury?
The example of Barrès is instructive. A littérateur of mediocre talents, he came into his own thanks to the newspaper, that mass-produced and consumed genre of the written word which was the only reading a great many people ever did. In the darkest days of the war, his saccharine, jingoistic exhortations diverted the French public from the obvious fact that their sons were being slaughtered without visible progress on the map. "Even before she has shed her rain of blood upon our nation, war had made us feel her regenerative powers—only by her approach!" Barrès effused upon the outbreak of hostilities. "It’s a resurrection!"23 His columns leaned heavily upon communications which he claimed to receive from young men at the front—among whom his own son was serving—and also upon letters which he surely received from parents solaced by his exhortations. No doubt, Barrès was not the least deceived of his readers: most fathers naturally wanted to believe that the living hell into which they had cast their children had redemptive qualities. All in all, the apologist for such endeavor, if he is also a parent, must be considered a figure more pitiful than execrable.
Two crucial components in Barrès’s case, however, account for why the crowd-harrying dog was now having his day. One is journalism. No writer of Barrès’s meager talent would have achieved celebrity a century earlier, when writing was still the province of a highly educated élite and reading the scarcely larger domain of a small social minority. Enormous audiences were occasionally reached in the early nineteenth century through the direct address of such fiery orators as Ireland’s Dan O’Connell; yet these stentorian vocalists were almost invariably undergirded by pamphleteering. (A source who claimed to have attended Dan’s grand event at Tara Hill, where a million people were said to have gathered, confessed that not one in fifty men heard a word of the speech.)24 The journalist, thanks to inexpensive printing techniques and mushrooming literacy rates, could reach millions upon millions. Even the incorrigibly illiterate could find a friend with a newspaper who was willing to read aloud to bystanders. The deficiencies of style in this cheap copy when compared, say, to Addison and Steele’s essays only enhanced the potency of the former, for the new reading public lacked the literary background necessary to support a fine between-the-line analysis. The better the editorialist used the idiom of the masses, the closer he was attended. The blunter his distinctions, the more effective their hammering. It was as a journalist that Mussolini began his self-promoting career in earnest.25
I do not mean to equate journalism with roguery. It is a sad fact, though, that good journalism, today as ever, must be championed by conscientious publishers and curmudgeonly editors against the raw economics of pleasing the masses. Most people do not have time for a lengthy investigation into the issues, and perhaps many do not have the learning or the keenness to understand the details of such an investigation. The journalist, therefore, is forever being tugged by the gravity of quick consumption and easy comprehension into short-cuts and shallowness. If he himself is seldom the rogue who would ride the mass’s swell to elective office or a lieutenancy of the revolution, he is nevertheless indispensable to such characters. Whether they have him in their pay or have enlisted his fervent allegiance to their movement, he is the pawn who has made kings throughout the past century.
To the journalist’s presence must be added the philosopher’s absence. Western culture before the nineteenth century abounded in artists, statesmen, clergymen, landowners, and even soldiers who could have spoken with tolerably current expertise about any subject under the sun: ancient epic poetry, the cause of earthquakes, the latest reports from India. With the growth of empirical science, however, came the Age of the Specialist. Diderot’s Encyclopaedia was a last valiant effort to encompass all human knowledge within a set of readable volumes. Soon the learned simply had to concede that they were learned in special areas only. One could not explore the intricacies of Greek lyric poetry and also those of the human digestive system or of the peculiar properties of mercury fulminate. The effect of such specialization upon social and political leadership, I think, has been grossly undervalued: I am not aware that it has even been widely acknowledged. For this effect was often negative, in the sense of "indemonstrable". It could only be calculated by considering imaginatively what was not on the scene. To the West’s mortal loss, common-sense pronouncements upon taste and propriety, delivered by astute, well-versed people, faded from the twentieth century. No major figure in the sciences would have cared to pass formal judgment on a Fauve or Cubist exhibit: he would merely say that he was a scientist and didn’t waste his time on such things. A priest or minister might very much want to express a formal judgment on some new scientific theory—but he could only do so as a priest or minister undisciplined by scientific rigor, and so his "judgment" would slip into the category of idle opinion. By the dawn of the twentieth century, human experience had so fragmented that philosophy itself—the study of "what it all means"—was disintegrating into psychology, neurology, biology, political theory, and a slew of other fiefdoms over which no one ruler held sway.
This unfortunate condition placed more power than ever into the lowly journalist’s hands, since to him fell the chore of representing—briefly and simply—all the modern world’s mind-boggling technological changes and political upheavals to the common man. The real experts tended to draw farther and farther away from public life into their safe cocoons. The novels of Georges Duhamel portray the consequences of this centrifugal motion with a clarity and justice beyond any other works that I know. Duhamel’s protagonists are typically men of science whose goal in life is to capture some strand of an objective, eternal truth in their antiseptic laboratories. Yet their selfless devotion (which, of course, is often tinged with egotism) is inevitably foiled by witless bureaucrats, sensation-seeking journalists, and ruthless politicos. If the truth is touched at all, its feel cannot be communicated to the masses by their cliché-heavy scribblers—and it can only be touched at all if the researcher’s probes receive the blessing of some suave Machiavellian who intends to twist the results to his advantage.
So the experts kept as low a profile as they could in this new era. Responds Duhamel’s most winsome scientific daydreamer, Laurent Pasquier, when warned of war’s imminence with the Kaiser, "War? What war? Oh, yes, I believe… it seems to me that people are talking about war. Why war?"26 At least Pasquier is no Niels Bohr plugging away in the crypts of a megalomaniac intent upon world dominion. Yet it was the objections and reservations of such as he which might have averted the first war.27 Instead, their élite circle retreated to truths visible only under the microscope. Politics, geography, morality… all of that was somebody else’s specialty. The certain outcome of the specialist’s unheard voice was the rising chorus of the throng, stirred by a motley crew which one traumatized survivor of the era describes thus: "a small minority of big-shots, politicians, financiers, economists, writers, and high priests of a nationalism which conferred all their lofty authority on them and whose paces they thought themselves capable of governing."28 Self-serving politicians and irrepressible exhibitionists like Charles Péguy led the chant for revenge on the Prussians, for glorious displays of French manhood on the battlefield.29 In the moment’s frenzy, pacifist Jean Jaurès was assassinated (on July 31—the very day when, thirty-one years later, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would be shot out of the sky, bookending France’s wartime glories in lost literary genius). A man of learning with profound rural attachments, Jaurès projected a socialist aura when doing so was not yet de rigueur among intellectuals. The "taint" of cross-cultural solidarity in his message contributed to the nationalists’ loathing of him even though no Bolshevik menace was yet discernable. Jaurès’s fate, as one may well imagine, bent the heads of other specialists closer to their microscopes than ever.
Even as the war grew bogged down in a mire of bodies and would clearly not be muscled to any conclusion within months, those who raised a protest were few and much reviled. Guéhenno writes with dark humor about trying to obtain a copy of Romain Rolland’s Au-dessus de la Mêlée in the winter of 1915. Alarmed by his lieutenant’s uniform, the bookstore’s employees seemed determined to spare him exposure to such a demoralizing influence. "Someone had finally dared to say ‘no’," reflects the lieutenant fifty years later—and adds in judicious afterthought, "publicly."30 For Rolland’s literary protest was, it turned out, widely read, at least beyond France and Germany (into which latter country’s tongue it was not allowed to be translated for decades). Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1916. Nevertheless, he passed the war years a virtual exile in Switzerland, enduring bitter isolation from his countrymen. He had spoken too bluntly—or without, perhaps, the simplistic bluntness of ideology, but with mere simplicity. Though a man of the Left in his own airy fashion, Rolland was less inclined to indict class villainy and invoke an epochal class struggle than to beg, prod, and cajole his audience (in the most ingenuous manner possible) to think again. He would probably have been spared Jaurès’s bullet had he returned home; for if thousands were smuggling about copies of his book, no one would have found therein the makings of a manifesto.
These, then, I believe, are the essential causes of the twentieth century’s disastrous reduction to thinking in facile oppositions, the one wholly and immovably dedicated to the other’s annihilation. Huge numbers of people were enfranchised to vote or otherwise participate in the political process without having been supplied with the literate skills needed to reach clear, independent judgments. Media of communication evolved which were adapted to addressing such vast audiences—and inevitably, these media were characterized by the speed and trenchancy of their presentation rather than by detailed accuracy. Shrewd, unscrupulous men seeking political advancement under these circumstances exploited the power of the popular press to cast issues in black and white and to insist that anything less than total capitulation to "the people’s will" was a defeat. Finally, the longer heads who might have cried foul publicly and commanded general respect in so doing chose, instead, to flee into their narrow areas of expertise. Even Erich Remarque (I might add by illustration) constantly reiterated in interviews that All Quiet on the Western Front was a modest chronicle devoid of moral or political message. While this was a fair enough response to pacifists, communists, and others who tried to annex the book to their propaganda, a more honest answer would have been to address the day’s major issues rather than to evade all tags. Remarque was so badgered by the fascists, in any case, that he at last left the country… so wouldn’t it have been just as well to speak out when a forum was offered?
Today, we are all very familiar with the intellectual’s retreat into specialty. The physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project apparently pursued their labor with an almost adolescent excitement, so divorced were they from the looming consequences of The Bomb.31 To his credit, Robert Oppenheimer would later be very candid about his group’s troubling insulation from moral reality. A sensitive and erudite man rather than a stereotypical "mad scientist", Oppenheimer serves as a cautionary tale to all of us who assume that no amount of experimental crescendo would nudge our conscience into the position of a casual onlooker. Of course, President Truman himself always maintained that he was appalled at the atom bomb’s destructive power and had been given no very clear idea of it in briefings. Among the victims of the reticent specialist, besides the general populace left to sort through the hyperbole of marketers and the reductive headlines of journalists, are certainly the policy-makers who genuinely seek after the right choice and are baffled by the puzzle’s many pieces.
When I mention marketing, I do not refer merely to the "public relations" antics of office-seekers—not even primarily to that, nowadays. The marketer is a rather disheartening blend of the journalist ("keep it simple, stupid") and the specialist (Ronald Reagan’s engineer of the better can-opener). He works so closely at present with the whiz kids of "research and development" that, in many respects, he defines their experiments. Another way of saying this is that the specialist increasingly specializes in marketing—in problems of satisfying very specific demands. As the unholy marriage between pure science and industry has matured, we see more and more well-paid, very bright technicians giving less and less thought to the broad moral consequences of their innovations. Now automobiles are designed on the computer with aerodynamic precision: it isn’t the designer’s job to lift his attention from alternative curves and seams to ponder the Greenhouse Effect or the safety of toddlers. The architect’s assignment is to build comfortable, attractive structures—and also, perhaps, fuel-efficient ones. Urban aesthetics or neighborhood traffic patterns, however, lie beyond his scope. General Mills and Kelloggs want to box cereals that provide most essential vitamins and "taste great", too. At the same time, all the heart-friendly bran and anti-carcinogenic fiber are neutralized by whopping doses of sugar… but staff nutritionists have apparently not yet been presented with that variable, and enough brown sugar glaze can sell shredded cardboard.
During my lifetime, the masses have been so titillated with sex by the media which serve (and rule) them that almost every toothpaste advertisement borders on pornography (that most spectacular beneficiary of the Internet); they have been so inebriated with speed that they accept casualty rates on their highways equivalent to those of a major war; and they have been so bereft of will power by sugary sweetness that obesity has reached epidemic levels. No skepticism, no moderation, no suspicion of bright images and oratory… the same kind of "handling" which brought the West to make a bloody trough of Flanders has bestialized its citizens, within a century, until they do indeed resemble animals bound for slaughter. Where are the voices of higher inspiration and better information which ought to have restrained us? Why is the only alternative to having our children witness strip-tease beer commercials between innings of the All-Star Game an iron-fisted boycott or crackdown? Why are we now warring over Sport Utility Vehicles when, forty years ago, we could have been zoning cities and planning railways so as to use internal combustion modestly? Why are our official handlers now contemplating a heavy tax on burgers and fries?
This essay’s final emphasis falls not on frivolity, I would plead, but on ignominy. From the Great War to the Fat War: in a significant sense, I believe the West’s decline to be very justly capsulated in the contrast. As our media of mass communication have grown, our societies—on both sides of the Atlantic—have become more and more wedded to trends, fads, and other lunges to the extreme. Critical reason has not kept pace with political freedom: the more rights we have acquired, the less sobriety and restraint we have learned. Now the actual literacy rates of societies throughout the Western world are plunging—willfully plunging, as people choose to be served up the pre-cooked, highly seasoned fare of the mass media rather than to feed their own intellectual hunger. The mob has long ago descended from whatever dubious nobility might be found in the clash of sabers. Today it is finessed, instead, by promises to liberate its "sex life" of all inhibition and pathological side-effect, to liberate its "road life" of all fuel shortage and physical risk, and to liberate its "food life" of all blandness and ill health. These promises are patently contradictory; but the unreflective mass which we have become cannot even perceive the contradictions—or cannot, perhaps, muster the will power, the intellectual honesty, to register the perception.
Yet experts and specialists (some will object) are hardly in short supply on soap box and bull horn as we swing from extreme to extreme like a loose boom. Ban all motor vehicles, say the "green" crusaders, many of whom have their doctorate. Ban all genetically altered crops, say the nutrition fanatics with an equal appearance of authority. In fact, the specialist brimming with advice has never been completely absent from the past century’s scene of decline. Particularly since World War Two, the Sartrean model of engagé intellectual has attracted heavy investment, with its stock spiking in the late sixties. Such "guidance", however, is by no means what I would designate as informed, mitigating judgment. On the contrary, it has inevitably been characterized by its provoking of the general public toward extreme conclusions—its instigation, sometimes, of riots and revolutions. Far from wise, responsible leadership, it represents the quintessence of incendiarism. If its mouthpieces are not the populist kings who ride to power on the mass’s assembled shoulders, neither are they such pawns as mud-slinging or spear-shaking journalists. I place them in a separate category, and I must discuss them in a separate essay.
For now, I say only that they are uniquely responsible for what is most virulent and irrational—most ideological—about our loggerhead culture in the "western West", the West of the Allies and of NATO. After all, I have admitted above that nations like the United States, Great Britain, and France were at far less risk of a cataclysmic Bolshevik-style uprising than European nations with a destitute peasantry. Yet our technology for manipulating mass opinion must surely have been the envy of the Soviet Union, the austere voice of the philosopher warning "Not so fast!" has been almost as inaudible here as in any totalitarian regime, and the intellectual palliation of ideology (as opposed to the brutal implementation of it) has never been attempted anywhere so persistently as in the United States, Great Britain, and France over the past fifty years. The academic romance with communism, especially, is a highly peculiar phenomenon of the "Free World" which really has nothing to do with the nineteenth century’s classical liberalism and, furthermore, shows no convincing signs of abatement.
In my next essay, I intend to suggest that the ideology of the West’s "academic specialists", or intellectuals, is a thoroughly ad hominem affair. That is, it has little patience with abstract ideas and little interest in objective reason (hence its open contempt for both) when one places in the balance’s other scale the sheer egotism of its exponents. It is an easy means for bright, learned people whose craving for admiration surpasses their devotion to principle to stoke their heart’s dark fire. I shall further suggest why the ascent of such an unwholesome influence is, once again, a distinctive feature of the twentieth century; and, finally, I shall try to identify what few doubtful antidotes to the West’s malaise have occurred to me.
1 If I might drop but a single name to defend my suspicion of history books, Claude Chambard’s Le Maquis (1970) was translated into English by Elaine Halperin and published as The Maquis (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976). Here we find the classic representation of the French Underground as a fraternal order of leftists and rightists all working to overthrow Nazism. Though the war had ended twenty-five years earlier, this naively uplifting book appeared in the year of General de Gaulle’s death and amid rising impatience with the Cold War. A coincidence?
2 From Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Citadelle in Oeuvres, ed. Roger Caillois (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 680.
3 Written and illustrated by Clayton Knight (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1956). Major General Ralph Royce, USAF (Rtd.), was Knight’s historical consultant—an impressive credential which reflects the book’s aspirations to veracity.
4 Timing is indeed everything—and ideology indeed bends principles at will. As long as Stalin believed Hitler malleable, "Muscovite elements among the Communists [in France] were the first and most wholehearted collaborators" (David Pryce-Jones, Paris in the Third Reich [New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981], 64). Of course, this honeymoon proved to be a one-night stand.
5 One may well counter with justified wryness, "Yes, Hitler had vowed to murder only the Jews—a fine case, this, of watching out for your own hide!" Yet the average French bourgeois often identified Judaism (like Freemasonry) with insurrection, if not with Marxism. The most eloquent and intellectual exponents of revolution were often Jewish, even though these had little or nothing to do with the masses of people whom the Nazis herded to slaughter. I do not defend the identification: I say only that it found traction among uninquisitive minds, whose surrender of the Jews could be explained thereby as crudely defensive rather than purely pusillanimous. Decades earlier, the Dreyfus Affair had involved the same identification: a military insider had sold state secrets, Captain Dreyfus was a Jew, therefore he was the traitor. Such thinking had much to do with the murder of Georges Mandel and Jean Zay as Allied forces approached Paris. By contrast, the anti-Semitism which seethed in Nazi Germany fed heavily off the high visibility of Jewish bankers at a time when the Gentile bourgeoisie was foundering.
6 "Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: A Sad Time’s Taste for Perverse Oppositions," Praesidium 3.2 (Spring 2003), 23-32.
7 Op. cit., 378. Pilote was in fact written deliberately to enlist American support for the war, and, to that end, was translated so quickly that the English version—Flight Over Arras—appeared before the French original!
8 France also possessed a substantial body of ex-military and "anti-decadent" types who foresaw a disgraceful drôle de guerre and would later embrace the Occupation with self-flagellating glee: cf. Lucien Rebatet’s Les Décombres. Here, indeed, was French fascism’s rank and file.
9 La Paz Empieza Nunca (Barcelona: Planeta, 1957), 139.
10 L’Isola in Terraferma (Venice and Padua: Marsilio, 1974), 32. Pirro wrote the original ms. in 1960 and revised it in 1973, when—or soon thereafter—my copy must have been published. Since the author was born in 1920, his little novel has every appearance of being autobiographical.
11 Le Radiose Giornate (Milan: Mondadori 1969), 216-17.
12 Ibid., 217.
13 I cannot resist noting that such uneven recording of "atrocities" by Marxist zealots seems typical in all situations, and may be taken, indeed, as a benchmark of ideology (i.e., the corruption of one’s own stated principles in the interest of defaming the other side). I have seen lists of General Pinochet’s crimes against humanity posted on the Web which include frightening children by sending in police to suppress a riot. Pinochet’s police, beyond question, executed some dozens or hundreds of people without due process, and one finds the names of these unfortunates posted, too. The throngs of Castro’s victims, however, could scarcely be read in a day… and for that reason among others, perhaps, they are considered unworthy of citation on the subject of atrocity.
14 See especially 233-48 of Elio Vittorini, Conversazione in Sicilia (Milan: Rizzoli, 1993); first published in 1953. Azorín’s essay, "Los Sostenes de la Patria", is fourth in a series titled "La Andulacía Trágica". See, for instance, Los Pueblos (Madrid: Clásicos Castalia, 1987), 254-58.
15 See Im Westen Nicht Neues (Köln: Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 2001), letter from Graf von Schlieffen to the Deutches Adelsblatt, p. 220 of the book’s generous post-novel Materialen.
16 I concede that this remark indicts my own lack of erudition on the subject more than the Graf’s Wagnerian Wut. For instance, Maurice Barrès (about whom more shortly) wrote ecstatically in the last days of World War One, "What letters our children are sending us from the front! It’s one long burst of laughter!" (See Chroniques de la Grande Guerre, v. 1 [Paris: Plon, 1924 ], 255.)
17 Erich Maria Remarque, ibid., 177-78. The original title of the novel, by the way, carries an irony which the English translation could not reproduce. The watch cry, "All quiet!" is equivalent to, "Nothing new!" in German: hence Im Westen Nicht Neues. Yet this absence of novelty on the German front line betokens anything but quiet—just the opposite! The slaughter continues: the troops continue to be decimated. "Everyone’s still dying… nothing new!" It is this indifference of the German commanders to their soldiers’ massacre and, indeed, of German fathers to their sons’ murder which composes one of the work’s most acid undercurrents.
18 Remarque’s own book, for instance, despite selling a quarter of a million copies in the first year, was banned from one German school after another (lest it undermine the courage of Germany’s budding manhood) until, to all intents, no German adolescent would have had access to a copy. The American film based on the book was also banned from Germany by Goebbels in 1931.
19 Emilio Romero, op. cit., 296-97.
20 The fascist Parti Populaire Français attracted much rural support precisely because French agriculture, too, was economically crippled by its failure to modernize.
21 "Los Árboles y el Agua," op. cit., 210-215.
22 Some will balk at my insistence that ideology is a social design. We hear respectable scholars saying that art, history, and even mathematics and science are ideologically tinged. The crux of this assertion, however, is precisely that all forms of human knowledge and endeavor reduce to power plays—not the power of a divine tug on the heartstrings, but that of a mass-manipulation for the benefit of the privileged (or, in pseudo-benign, "after the revolution" manner, for the benefit of the Party Chair’s Five Year Plan). Make no mistake: the word "ideology" has no meaning beyond the presumption that people are being and must be herded about.
23 Chroniques, v. 1 (op. cit.), 98.
24 See Ríonach Uí Ógáin, An Rí gan Choróin (Baile Átha Cliath [Dublin]: An Clóchomhar 1984), 36.
25 It might be added that all of the fascist governments displayed an interest in filmmaking which bordered on sincere affection. Mussolini was the founder of Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood (completed under his eager guidance in 1937). Goebbels drew playwrights and filmmakers like a magnet: he had the money and patronage to keep them in business, and such products as flowed from Jean Giraudoux, for instance, often evinced more artistic ambiguity than propagandistic heavy-handedness (though an outright challenge like the American film of All Quiet on the Western Front was met with outright suppression: Goebbels banned the movie in 1931). Indeed, the cinematic circle which collected around Jean Cocteau in occupied Paris enjoyed a golden age of activity. Much as the Hollywood of our own time likes to style itself ruggedly independent, then, the historical evidence that filmmaking and journalism both grease the wheels of demagoguery--whether to move left or right, whether to instill simplistic notions or merely to placate the masses--is overwhelming.
26 Georges Duhamel, Le Combat contre les Ombres (Paris: Mercure de France, 1939), 279-80.
27 Duhamel’s own weak protests against censorship have impressed few as redeeming his activity in occupied Paris.
28 Jean Guéhenno, La Mort des Autres (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1968), 37.
29 Writes Guéhenno very aptly of Péguy, "One was seized by a certain instinct for grandeur which he had in him, but disillusioned by degrees as one saw this very instinct turn sometimes into a sort of ambitious surliness which oriented everything around the man himself and his own destiny" (ibid., 51).
30 Op. cit., 109.
31 I am not necessarily implying that the bombs should not have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: I fully grasp the argument against invading Japan. What I never hear discussed, however, is the third option of accepting Japan’s conditional surrender. The ensuing half-century, which gave us Mao’s apocalyptic carnage in China, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot, and now a lunatic despotism in North Korea whose finger is poised on a nuclear trigger, would surely have enjoyed a far more peaceful denouement if the Japanese had been allowed to swagger about southeast Asia in some greatly reduced and de-fanged manner. Where were the specialists of international politics at that crucial moment—was the assumption that the vast American electorate would tolerate nothing less than the severest reprisals for Pearl Harbor and the Bataan?
Does a Posthuman Dystopia Await Us?
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.
The following essay paints a bleak picture, many of whose shades are not unfamiliar to steady readers of Praesidium yet whose overall gloominess is perhaps unique in our pages. I urge the reader, therefore, to remember that Mr. Wegierski is merely presenting an array of possible scenarios, not prophesying. It would be unwise to dismiss his call to high alert simply because just a handful of these catastrophes is likely befall us. His point, as I take it, is that one handful would quite suffice to destroy civilization—if not life itself—and that some such small dosage of calamity is in fact very likely. ~Ed.
There are a number of highly transgressive technologies on the horizon of development today which may prove to be the most fundamental challenges ever to the notion of a more stable human nature, and thereby, to what can seen to be "natural" to humankind. Such technologies can be a vehicle for the almost indefinite perpetuation of "the unnatural", never allowing today’s societies to "catch their breath" and possibly return to earlier, sounder bearings. For example, in the book, Posthuman Bodies (edited by Judith Halberstam, Indiana University Press, 1995), a group of ultra-radical, postmodern writers and scholars looks forward to the
deconstruction of actual physical gender which could occur as a result of advancing technology. They talk of such things as men literally being able to bear children, as well as a "transgendered" existence across a "spectrum" of variants. A "posthuman" artistic movement depicts gross interpenetrations of machine and man. In his recent book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002) the uber-pundit Francis Fukuyama has profoundly warned of some of the social dangers of genetic engineering.
The Internet is a primary focus for technological advance today. It is difficult to see what the longer-term intellectual impact of the Internet might be. While on the one hand, it could encourage the flourishing of varied philosophical debate, it could just as easily encourage varied kinds of depravity. One wonders if it simply won’t serve to perpetuate the current consumerist, materialist society.
Further in the future is the prospect of Virtual Reality (VR). The ultimate goal of today’s massive, frenzied attempts to develop VR is often semi-jokingly said to be the prospect of virtual sex with pop-icon Marilyn Monroe. VR (perhaps similar to the so-called "holodeck" which appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation) can be understood as highly addictive electronic stimulation. The incredible popularity of Nintendo and similar videogames, with what could be considered "primitive" technology—relative to what awaits in the future—is an obvious warning as to the spiritual disfigurement that could result. The recent hit-movie, The Matrix, darkly portrayed the combination of the ultimate extension of VR and Artificial Intelligence (AI), both now in embryonic form.
Another danger which awaits today is the pharmacopia—the continuing development of pharmacological narcotics and hallucinogens which create a state of addictive stimulation. This is often coupled with surreal rock music and sound and light effects at so-called "raves", semi-clandestine multi-hour dance-parties, where the taking of the drug called Ecstasy (MDMA) is virtually de rigueur. The "rave" experience, fairly common among some young people, is already quite close to VR. Large numbers of highly addictive, highly enrapturing, chemical and plant substances, are supposedly illegal, yet are pretty well available to young people who wish to find them. But a greater danger may become a generally available "feel-good" drug (such as the "soma" of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), which may kill the possibility of "the true spiritual" in human beings because of the constant feeling of satiated comfort it gives.
The third danger is the extension of the body piercing and body-transforming concept to ever-more transgressive levels. Some aspects of this visible today are the overindulgence in cosmetic operations; the grotesqueries of hyper-muscle-building (almost always enhanced by drugs, such as steroids); the phenomenon of "sex-change" surgery; and increasingly transgressive body-piercing. This may culminate, for example, in various types of extreme body-piercing, tattooing, and branding, by comparison to which a small nose-stud will seem tame.
The fourth main danger is genetic subversion, which some call by the trendy name "algeny" (from alchemy). What this might mean is increasing inter- as well as intraspecies genetic engineering, including the attempt to create new lifeforms. The advances in genetics will be initially powered by the promise of eliminating hereditary defects in the womb, which few people will probably object to (i.e., to produce a physically healthy rather than disabled child). They will also be powered by the desire to create replacement body parts for an increasingly aging population. Some of these trends can already be seen in the mice produced for scientific research, which have genetically human blood flowing through their little bodies, as well as "transgenic" pigs, whose organs are to be used as substitutes in humans. A possible extension of these concepts would be the production of brainless fetuses, who grow in a woman’s womb for the sake of the organs they would later supply. A similar concept is to clone a brainless twin from every normal baby born, where the former would be maintained only as supplier of fresh organs for the latter. We are already seeing the widespread use of various parts from the many aborted babies for the manufacture of so-called lifesaving medicines.
There has been an incredibly intense debate over stem-cell research, as human embryos are usually considered to be the main source of stem cells. Some researchers, however, have tried to identify and work with stem cells from adults, which neither harms the adult person, nor requires the destruction of embryos. In November 2001, there was the announcement of the cloning of a human embryo. It was said about the procedure that it would be used only for "therapeutic" purposes, i.e., to harvest stem-cells that could be later be grown into substitute organs—rather than to try to replicate a whole new person. Geneticists have also experimented with splicing the genes of mice and carrots, and creating "monstrous" flies, with eyes in places where they never naturally occur.
Genetic engineering could be seen to hold the peril of human extinction within itself. Suppose genetic engineers develop an oil-eating bacterium, to deal with oil slicks, which somehow mutates into having a preference for human blood! There is a fundamental genetic threat to humanity from ostensibly positive motives, and not only from such obvious things as biological warfare exercised by some rogue country’s or terrorist faction’s fanatical leaders. It has been noted that because of the increasing prevalence of estrogens and other chemicals in the environment, there are possibly occurring drastic declines in men’s virility, especially in the advanced, Western countries, as well as the far quicker onset of characteristics of puberty in young girls. At the same time, there is an explosion of obesity-related diseases, as the percentage of obese persons continues to grow. Cancer rates are also burgeoning, most likely because of the increasing poisons in the food, water, air, and earth. The increasing prevalence of prostate cancer in men, and breast cancer in women, is probably environmentally related. There has also been some correlation shown between breast cancer and abortion.
Food produced by modern industrial methods and involving genetic modification often appears to be carcigenous; yet a return to organic methods of farming (and avoidance of genetic modification techniques) is now difficult, since the food supply would likely drop so rapidly that hundreds of millions of people would probably be pushed to the edge of starvation. However, the extreme industrialization of food production, for example, by feeding cattle the ground-up remains of their own species—has resulted in mad-cow disease. These industrial methods are accompanied by massive use of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics, because the cattle no longer eat grass in the fields, but are continually penned up.
The story of modern medicine and technology is one of initial fantastic success which has somehow stalled in the last few decades of the Twentieth Century. Indeed, one can see a hypertrophy of advance, a law of diminishing returns, in the current-day fight for health. The health-consciousness of a few is magnified through the media’s highlighting of "beautiful people" and sport-stars, whereas the spectator public grows ever less healthy and overweight. As modern medicine carries out evermore advanced and seemingly miraculous procedures, the possibilities of dangerous manipulations also increase. What is not often noted is that many birth defects arise from the polluted environment, as well as sometimes from the manifestly unhealthy lifestyles of one or both parents; i.e., these extraordinary technological interventions are now required as a result of other forms of "progress". It can also be noted that because of over-use of antibiotics, fearsome new strains of disease are making a comeback.
The fifth main crisis is that of environmental degradation. Overpopulation, industrial pollution, drastic changes in weather patterns, and the reduction of biodiversity (sometimes through the introduction of certain non-native animal and plant species) are often interrelated phenomena. Various parts of the world are now increasingly threatened with extreme weather (such as floods and fires) as well as insect and plant plagues and pestilence. The arrival of the West Nile virus in North America has been well-documented. The planet’s biosphere is a complicated system, and late modern human actions may be putting inordinate stresses on it. By the time humanity realizes it has seriously damaged Earth’s climatological system, it may have passed the point of being fully reparable. The weather may well continue to become ever more extreme and unbalanced. Extreme weather, crop failure, and pestilence may cause vast increases in the number of people facing starvation. However, as conditions worsened, humanity could presumably still take the steps that would avoid truly disastrous outcomes—such as the so-called "planet Venus scenario"—where global warming would become open-ended and irreversible.
Another possible danger is nanotechnology, which, although today in its infancy, is now taken as standard in many science fiction futures. Nanotech is the notion of micro-machines taking on the role of keeping human beings, and possibly animals, plants, and the entire environment, in good health and shape. One way this might work is that when a baby is born,
he "gets introduced" to his own batch of "nanotech warders"—i.e., the micro-machines that will help him avoid disease and grow up stronger, healthier, and perhaps more intelligent than he would otherwise be. The possibilities of misuse of nanotech are obvious: nanotech programmed to torture or kill, or to massively alter one’s mental perceptions, or the possibility of a widespread nanotech "virus" or "plague" that could possibly extinguish humankind and even all natural life—the so-called "gray goo" scenario. This was one of the main concerns—along with the emergence of AI that would replace mankind, and the perils of genetic manipulation—raised in Bill Joy’s important article in the April 2000
issue of Wired. As Chief Software Architect of Sun Microsystems and co-inventor of both UNIX and JAVA Script, he cannot be so easily dismissed as a neo-Luddite. In November 2001, it was announced by an Israeli laboratory that it had created a "DNA-based computer"—a convergence of biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Moving beyond nanotech, one comes to the possible ultimate extension of the Internet—the ability for persons to upload their "consciousness" into an electronic virtual reality realm. This is perhaps similar to what the radical theologian Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. There have been a number of science fiction books written which suggested that only religious-minded people would resist the prospect of such an unprovidential quasi-immortality. However, it does appear that the very complexity of the human brain (with its hundreds of billions of synapses or "links") will prevent the possibility of the meaningful, physical "uploading" of consciousness into a mechanical construct.
What is often missing from many scenarios of transgressive technology in the future is the question of politics. If things go on as they are today, there can be expected a general strengthening of left-liberalism and "political correctness" in society, and a further marginalization of traditionalist opposition. Thus, such commonly-voiced ideas as the creation from cloning of a race of super-scientists, super-soldiers, or dimwitted servile workers (as, for example, the Epsilon Semi-Morons in Huxley’s Brave New World) are not especially likely scenarios. On the other hand, left-liberalism may be tempted to extend what Donald Atwell Zoll has called its "sub rosa social totalitarianism" into the pharmacological and genetic sphere. Already there has been some mention that "it would be nice" if genetic engineering could be "used to eliminate racism and sexism." Certainly, given the ferocity of left-liberal attitudes towards supposedly ever-present racism and sexism today, it would be rather likely that the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime would not renounce the deployment of electronic, pharmacological and genetic means on its behalf.
Electronically, this would probably consist of VR scenarios of mostly violence, graphic sex, and horror serving the same role as the Violent Passion Surrogate (VPS) in Brave New World. In Huxley’s novel, this is a chemical process, but in the otherwise uninspired television movie based on the novel, it was shown as a kind of Virtual Reality "theatre". Of course, Huxley’s "feelies"—the more common form of entertainment in Brave New World—are an obvious parallel to VR and our own society’s drive to create media impressions that are "realer than Real". Pharmacologically, the main control mechanism would be the "feel-good" drug. Genetically, there would probably be an attempt by "politically correct" psychologists and neuropsychologists serving the regime to identify the sources of "authoritarianism", "hierarchical-mindedness", and so-called "super-stition" (i.e., religion) in the human brain, in the desire to somehow eradicate it from birth. The current mapping or so-called sequencing of the human genome, the attempt to discover precisely which genes control what kind of physical and intellectual traits, could possibly put a very dangerous instrument in the hands of these kinds of would-be genetic controllers. Certainly the psychological regime, the monitoring of the upbringing of children in the family, would be very tightly attended to, far beyond what would be thought
acceptable today. And it may indeed be noted that the drive towards the provision of "universal daycare" outside the family home is one of the hallmarks of the most "advanced" societies today.
One dystopic idea that has been raised in science fiction is that everyone (apart from a small group of controllers) would be saddled with "disabling devices" (affecting both the physical body and the mind)—to create the effect "that everyone is equal to everyone else." A somewhat similar concept, which would almost certainly be supported by some radical
feminists, would be to flood female fetuses or infants with testosterone, as well as to supply them with steroids, so that the innate differences between male and female physical strength would be made to disappear. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the flooding of female fetuses with controlled dosages of testosterone results "only" in the sterility of the females, without outward physical changes, thus making them "ideal" as sexual playthings, the so-called "freemartins". However, the controllers are careful to subject only a third of female fetuses to this treatment. It does appear, however, that it will be a very long time before an artificial womb can be created that could carry a child to term from the moment of conception.
The human prospect may indeed look dire in the face of these deep-level technological manipulations, and their attendant ideologies. Given these transgressive technologies, the return of a more balanced society would appear to be realistically possible for only a few more decades. Beyond that period, we really cannot know what may await humanity.
Ralph Carlson (Azusa Pacific University) has given Praesidium something slightly different from his many past contributions this time. The following free verse quartet, he writes, "devolves from the journey of a young acquaintance of the family, who got her first diagnosis of breast cancer at age 16 and, through a series of remissions and ‘medical pick-apart games’, didn’t quite make it to her 21st birthday." The first poem of the series (as noted) has already been published, and we reprint it here with thanks to Poets On. Of course, it is the intent of no one on our staff nor of the poet to suggest that humane, devoted doctors do not exist… but somehow, in a culture dominated contradictorily by miracle cures and impenetrable bureaucracy, humanity is often filtered from every quarter of such situations, leaving one to stifle screams in a hellish maze of calendars, waiting rooms, and "preferred providers".
4.1) Please have a seat. Yes, the follow-up films
look clear, still. No, Dr. Jones won’t be seeing you.
He’s been reassigned. Yes, we realize he suggested
a bone marrow transplant, but the board disagrees.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.2) Have a seat, please. Yes, your attorney has contacted
the review board on the transplant issue. However, your
tests are clear now. Furthermore, the rare type of
malignancy you presented has never responded to transplant.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.3) Please take a seat. Let’s look at these latest scans.
We’ve noted these ambiguous features in the brain before.
Head injury when you were six years old, wasn’t it, and
a little residual scarring still showing? We’ll watch it, too.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.3) Have a seat please. Everything on these films looks the
same. The blood tests are fine. You should be feeling good.
The little shadows on the brain haven’t changed a bit. Still
nothing but that residual scarring we saw. No bad spots.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.4) Please have a seat. Again the scans show nothing new.
And you have no new symptoms to report, right? Since the Cedars
of Hope consult your attorney arranged concurs your type has never
responded to auto-transplant, it would be purely experimental.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.6) Have a seat, please. Again, the reports look good.
As long as you feel so well, why put more stress on the system?
Yes, your attorney is dealing with the board. If arbitration
goes your way, we’ll refer you to University Hospital.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.7) Please have a seat. It’s been a couple months, hasn’t it?
How was it at University? The post-transplant isolation can be
tough, I’m sure. Flu-like symptoms? No way to spend your holidays.
Seen psych, yet? Relax! We can do another set of scans and tests.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.8) Have a seat, please. From these scans, it looks like
we’d better go back to chemo again. That cranial tissue has more
shadowing this time. Spots show again in the lungs, the right
kidney, the liver, the pancreas. First chemo, then cobalt.
Please arrange for your next visit at the front desk.
4.9) Please have a seat. When you take her home, see that the
IV’s are changed every four hours. Give the morphine every two
to four hours as needed. I’d say get a hospital bed into the
apartment if you can. Your contract allows two weeks hospice care.
Ask for Discharge Planning at the front desk.
4.10) Back again? Is Demerol any better than the morphine?
We need to keep these IV’s going if you can’t hold your lunch.
This is a busy place. If they won’t answer the call bell,
then just do it in the bed. They’ll change the sheets eventually.
See you again on the next rounds.
4.11) Sorry, but we really need the bed space. You’ll just have
to take your questions up with Discharge Planning and your attorney.
I’m sorry, but these latter stages are unpredictable. It could be
three weeks or three months. The chance of remission is nil.
Now please, take your other questions to the front desk.
4.12) Look. I didn’t negotiate the contract—your employer’s
broker did. Hospice care is available for the final two weeks of
the terminal illness. I can’t involve myself in home care issues.
My duties are here in the wards and the clinics. I can’t say when.
Go back and ask for Discharge Planning at the front desk.
4.13) ... age twenty ...beloved daughter of... sister of...
graduate of Mountain High School, attended Crest College, active in
Girl Scouts, Amnesty International, Save The Whales... requested
no religious observance... cremation, ashes scattered at sea...
memorial gifts to Family Cancer Fund, Box 7344, Crest City....
In connection with Professor Carlson’s series, a discussion has arisen concerning whether or not the pages of Praesidium would be an appropriate venue for sorting through the complex, emotionally and politically charged issue of health care. Clearly, our charter does not allow us to espouse any certain political cause. In a broader context, however, the impersonal, pseudo- or hyper-empirical approach to such basic human problems as illness and aging lies fully within our proper ken. The journal has carried essays challenging the fitness of computer technology to express the human spirit: why not an essay on the inadequacy of medical protocol for addressing bodies animated by spiritual longings? Other essays have deplored the heartless machine-dominated structure of our neighborhoods, thanks to cars and car-obsessed zoning laws: why not an essay on health treatment centered around the hottest new technology rather than around the timeless facts of the human condition? Literature itself is replete with classic works about sickness and dying. Tolstoy, Conrad, Hemingway… what great author has not written on the body’s frail treachery to the soul? Georges Duhamel and Maxence van der Meersch were both medical doctors (not to mention Chekhov). A literately keen analysis might well be illustrated, in short, with literary examples.
So the answer is, yes, we would be happy to receive any paper about current medical care which is not narrowly focused on a volatile political controversy nor obscurely indexed to medical jargon. Whoever pays for the drugs, there remains a pale horse and a blind boatman in everyone’s future.
Four Poems by Michael H. Lythgoe
Lt. Col. Lythgoe (USAF, Retd.) evinces in these poems as in his many others known to Praesidium’s readers a keen sense of place and of history. A very fine observer will also notice here, however, the heightened note of mortality (or, perhaps we should say, the raised volume of eternity). As with Professor Carlson (see directly above), the nemesis which cancer has become to our culture recently cast its cold shadow across Mr. Lythgoe’s path—without lastingly malignant consequences, fortunately.
A History of Tea
Arabians ate figs, Indians first drank tea
Two thousand years ago, records ancient history.
Soon tea was sipped instead of wine by the Chinese.
A Buddhist priest brings tea seeds to the Japanese.
The shogun introduces the tea ceremony
With paintings, drama, and ritual suicide. Sympathy
Is cultural; tea increasingly is seen as medicinal,
Good for aches and pains, vertigo, or epilepsy.
Navigators and travelers told tales of Japanese
Rituals and London traders offering a drink Chinese
Favored and recommended by physicians: Chinese
Tcha, sold at the Sultan’s Head. The Portuguese
Taught London’s Court their love of tea
And the flavor of mandarin oranges.
The East India Company sold and smuggled;
Queen Anne engaged in royal ceremonies
Not unlike the Ancient Buddhist in temples Chinese—
Sometimes counsel takes… sometimes tea: see poetry:
"The Rape of the Lock." Little sympathy for duties
on the sales of tea. British consumers cut their tax;
the Colonies suffered heavy English taxes on tea,
so Boston sank the English chests in a Tea Party.
Japanese Teamaster, in seppuku ceremony,
Brushes tea with bamboo, parts kimono—a body
Disemboweled. No hara-kari blades for gypsies,
Who sharpen knives and read futures in tea leaves.
The Afghans sip their tea straight, sugar-free
Of English Raj tastes, but swallow tea
While sucking hard candy. Brits smuggled coolies
To open Ceylon’s tea plantations. Cadbury
Serves chocolates at Victorian teas, singing
Tea for Two. In the Fifties, the movies
Showed Americans in love with the Japanese:
Tea House of the August Moon ceremonies,
As A&P and Lipton bagged their green teas
To steam in porcelain with scones at High Tea.
The history of sugar is not sweet, yet ceremonies
Lump Japanese aesthetics with Chinese leaves.
Heaven Envisioned as the Cirque du Soleil
She is blessed with dreams of happiness.
The Blue Ridge Mountains shiver in the shadows
Of a summer storm. A traveling man pauses for Mass
With his wife, a dreamer, near the border. Parishioners
At Mass honor another couple married six decades.
A sculpture marks the parish of Saint Francis De Sales:
The shape of Christ Crucified passes through black iron
Revealing Cezanne’s blues—sky and trees seen
Through the Iron Cross’s wound.
The travelers eat at Candelarias, in the old Purcellville Inn.
Supper is a taste of Tuscany: whole garlic baked in olive oil
For crusty bread, homemade mozzarella with tomato
Slices seasoned with sweet fresh basil, veal scallopini
Served over pasta, with artichoke hearts, a local pinot grigio,
As husband and wife travel west, the sky clears;
The sun blinds, white clouds surround the sun.
The wife tells her husband one of her dreams:
I saw figures floating freely between several
Levels of clouds, happy trapeze artists,
Painted faces in silk turquoise tunics, lemon
Chiffons, mango orange hues, cherry Lifesaver-
Reds, sun-lit as the Cote d-Azure—aerial acrobats
In the Cirque du Soleil—street mimes, an alchemist
In a wizard’s hat—swinging suspended on a scarf. No one
On the ground seemed aware of the happening above:
Spellbinding costumes, laughter, tumbling performers.
Continuing their drive, the wife says a field—giving up its mist—
Is like a scene from Brigadoon. A quartet
Of horses plays follow the leader, leading darkening
Shadows back across field to barn. Going night night.
On the radio, jazz:
Oscar Peterson plays down the sun with Gershwin’s
Embraceable You; Winton Marsalis on horn. The wife’s eyes
Close again. She dreams of a hot air balloon—rising above
Albuquerque; slow motion ascension—a trampoline bounce,
Tumbling—reaching the heavenly swing,
Happily airborne among mysterious aerialists.
Every river is a passing hour, a crossing, an obstacle;
Dante’s river is darkness too deep to wade.
Frost tells us the way out is the way through a debacle.
Rivers. After Dante’s cantos. Lead to glades
Inside an Inferno, suffering ghosts.
In dark woods, imagine many shades.
We drive to find Kelly’s Ford, and pay the cost.
Safely cross the Rappahannock River;
Move through winter fog, avoid getting lost.
To be lost in the dark is to live fear.
Hum Hoagey Carmichael’s tune, Winter Moon;
March night is moonless; feel the winter.
Battle grounds: Cedar Mountain, mortal wounds,
Brandy Station, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness.
Ghost riders are cavalry, gray dragoons.
Hoagey Carmichael’s ballads anchor the past,
Transport me to Indiana, where he sings
Still for dead parents whose love songs last.
Charon lifts coins from the dead to bring
Damned souls over the River Acheron,
Haunting, poling, night shrouding.
Finally, the lights, the bridge, the Inn,
Comforting fireplace, musket over mantel,
Birthday drinks, meal before the summons.
Charon leaves the living, hearing no death-knell.
We cross a different way, by-pass ferry
To underworld, and literary hell.
Life is crossing rivers, however wary,
Aging on a moonless night, dangerously
Aware of little more time to love, not unwary
Of what I left upstream: cancer scare, happily,
News from our children, their children, a death—
An aunt. Downstream—rivers, vulnerability:
Tigris and Euphrates, war. On shore, your breath
Inhales dreams of Hades, voices, rivers;
Hear poetry and pain; warriors face death.
Sunrise melts dirty snow to mud, rivers.
Fog burns away. Let the ferryman
Row another day, other passengers.
A grim reaper is the aging boatman.
Some poor souls cross another way, Potomac,
White’s Ferry, miss the creaking oars of Charon.
Coast to Coast
My love and I traveled from coast to coast.
From Puget Sound to Vancouver and Kelso,
East along the Columbia, stopping at sunset.
A container ship curved its wake through
The channel making for Portland, leaving
Astoria, the mouth, distanced, Monrovia
Registry, carrying cargo on deck. We travelers
Look for a sign: a dream, a vision, an owl—
Like the Indians around Seattle or Spokane:
Wolf, Eagle, Bear, lessons from Raven. Listen
To the stones, the stories the river tells. Maybe
The sea otter should be our totem carved after
A dream, a white man’s dream in a sauna’s steam,
Pretending it is a sweat lodge. Drive the high desert,
Eastern Oregon—shoot the gap in the Cascades, Bend—
Three Sisters’ peaks marked like a skunk’s tail.
With snow in August, through juniper and shady
Douglas Fir. Queen Anne’s lace lined our parading
Route. Along the Deschutes River, geese honked
Loudly the last morning. Ducks quarreled
Over corn at the Woolen Mill in Salem, my love.
Remember returning from Newport Beach?
Were we sure of love’s pursuits, destiny Tucson,
Santa Fe? Leaving Boulder—you loved Las Cruces—
We view blue ridges on the horizon,
Aware, as the Navajo rug weavers,
We are in a weaving with an imperfection:
A landscape, a place we are and a place
We look to be, believing love is a journey;
But love is not motion. The Caribbean poet writes:
Love is stasis. Wings return us to flying sounds,
Geese in splash-downs on a pond near Chesapeake.
The ducks of Salem seem to have followed us home—
Welcomed by Queen Anne’s lace, stasis on our own land.
Hommage à Baudelaire:
Three Prose Poems
John R. Harris
I really don’t know why the prose poem fascinates me, at least in its Baudelairean form, ample and fluid and somewhat formal in register. (I’ve seen volumes of contemporary prose poems that don’t grab me at all: short-paragraph gestures at haiku which end up sounding—to me—more like bill boards or crime reports.) I confess that there’s a lot about life in the present which doesn’t please me. The prose poem offers a chance to stop the roller coaster and examine the weeds growing between the tracks, some of which turn out to display exquisite patterns or to exhibit morally admirable endurance. Of course, this very interruption of drunken diversion is itself anti-modern and, depending on whom you ask, anti-social or even un-American; and the highfalutin sermo gravis, whose bid for sublimity leaves today’s readers impressed only with its pomposity, makes one very nearly eligible for the FBI’s list of suspicious characters. Baudelaire… now there was a guy you’d want to keep an eye on. Maladjusted, discontented, élitist, contemptuous, perverse, perhaps malign (who could tell?)—how he would have autopsied the cultural corpse from whose fumes sprout Reality TV and fast-food lawsuits may only be divined by the liveliest of imaginations. I make no such pretentions. At the risk of trying the reader’s patience, I merely allow a few very private, very tame ghosts to stretch their immaterial limbs. And the reader, after all, may pass on after a glance.
Invitation to a Voyage
(Invitation à un voyage)
The electric fan… how did they live without it, those people of hooks and laces, of starched collars and high-topped boots, whose prim ghosts, frightened wide-eyed by the cameraman’s hand-held flash pan, haunt yellow and gray portraits in the basements of old buildings (the Old Courthouse, the Old Fairfax Mansion, the Old Tolliver Hotel) turned into small-town museums (open Sunday afternoons during summer)? Only those wide eyes know, those frightened eyes out of which the ghost escaped, or perhaps within which the ghost was finally, briefly (briefly and forever, as it turned out) permitted to declare its presence, otherwise so well laced up and hooked together, behind the tightly stitched lips and the fine, thin nostrils—only those eyes betray the justice of the portrait, that it was no yellow-and-gray accident of primitive photography, but the truth, the full and accurate record of yellow-and-gray lives in a yellow-and-gray time. Among other things, those eyes betray that the electric fan was sorely missed. Its artificial breeze, to be sure, would have been fiercely coveted: one could hardly move on the veranda or in the drawing room between morning and evening baths, if one was of a certain finely scented class. But the truth I mean is in the sound of whirling blades. How did those hooked and buttoned gentiles live their death without that sound to point them elsewhere? How did they manage to strangle in perfect silence?
Even as you move among such wall-eyed ghosts in the basement of the Old Confederate Inn (souvenirs and literature available at the counter upstairs), you are floated and carried through and past their agonies—their mute, silver-pupiled martyrdom—on a distant electric current. The box fan at the base of the stairs or the window unit beside the regimental flag is taking you places, rolling like a wheel, whirring like a propeller. You are passing through, a traveler bound for anywhere not of here or there, for any time not of now or then, and the ghosts frozen in an instant of time forever cannot see or even dream of such a one as you while they stare your way wide-eyed from their nooses of somebody somewhere. The engine runs, and your soul is transported onward, always onward, always onward. See all the little lives from your craft’s window, all the webbed somewheres and the riveted somethings, cities and states on a clear day under your fuselage, all turning with the planet as you stand still, all sewn into the present as you tear the future’s cirrus edge. And you could weep for pity of them, for love of them, so found and so lost, so shrunk in space and time, so dead in their tiny lives—but tears freeze instantly to cirrus at your altitude, and the engine’s steady hum absorbs a sob’s first inkling into the infinitely intersecting ripples running the length and breadth of your aluminum. You exchange shadows with your looming destination, and you can only smile.
My first clear memory, perhaps (or perhaps my first memory of something unclear) concerns an electric fan. Our living room was much the biggest space of a tiny house, though even its modest amplitude was pilfered by the dining room, a room in the same room, a relatively high and dry savanna whose climate alone, in the absence of any wall, drew the distinction. For the dining room was freely circulating shine-and-shadow, a glacier-smooth plateau of table paradoxically sitting upon sequoia-sized legs that loomed above my eyes. In fact, I could only take in that polished ice plateau together with its columnar underpinnings from the sofa, in the living room’s quite different climate and topography. The sofa was upholstered in an olive-and-gold pattern of tendrils, and contributed heavily—but not exclusively—to the region’s atmosphere of lush rainforest. Between plush armchairs forbidden to my digging heels, the evening sun always sifted densely through the tropical canopy of curtains and Venetian blinds and even, I believe, a kind of bamboo mat which my father would draw impressively over the front porch from a miraculous roller where it hid most of the day. Not that I could see the cane or bamboo from inside—not that the mat was even made of any such stuff, for all I know; but the climate, the living-room latitude of the planet, called for bamboo and high canopy and tendrils and lush grasses. My dinosaurs would live there with astonishing realism, their bright plastic reds and greens and blues and yellows as appropriate and convincing as parrot feathers or exotic flowers. At those moments, the dining room’s Tibetan sublimity, pure, sterile, almost asteroidal, suffered from the contrast. No brontosaur would graze that arid carpet, so dangerously open and vastly smooth; nor would any allosaur or tyrannosaur make the patently futile attempt to hide himself behind the bare sequoia trunks, where, despite their massive girth, his red or yellow tail would have been visible for miles. At most, a lonely pterodactyl might haunt the sheer cliffs of the buffet, as close to the border of a different planet as he was to the dawn of terrestrial time. Far more active were the gray carpet marshes between the radio cabinet-cum-television and the prize armchair, where big herbivores could feed luxuriously but with oh-what-a-perilous illusion of comfort; for toothed and taloned predators loved to loiter in the loose folds of the armchair’s floor-length flounce, which had shortened the bland lives of many a saurolophus—and even the relatively slender trunks of the sofa legs often concealed a white sprint and a horrendous red howl, for the sofa’s jungle shadow brooded over its short stumps ruinously. I would shudder on my cushion, just to think of what lurked beneath me.
And the window unit somehow brought it all to life, or did so, at least, most memorably on that one occasion. In those years, only the living room had a window unit; and in those days of summer evenings, when the year seemed three-fourths summer, its engine was always working, its propeller always spinning. My parents had taken my brother and sister and left me alone for some reason—a very extraordinary reason, it must have been, for I can never again remember their driving off without me at that age. Their trip must have been brief (a dash to the pharmacy, perhaps, or a retrieval of my brother from some playmate’s house), and I’m sure that I was given the choice of going or staying. The air-conditioner guided my choice. Alone on its wings as I had never been before, I piloted up the sifting sunlight as I had known I would, shuddering on my cushion at the immensity of time and space, from frond, festoon, and mire to cliff and mesa—from inconceivable brutality in full voice to a dry, voiceless neck and pair of moist black eyes circling and circling in currents on top of the world. I knew then that something was very wrong, and very right, with life: that it was not what I was being told, but infinitely more and other—and that I, too, was not what I seemed, but a constant traveler who was constantly being detained. I knew that my name was somehow in the propeller’s whir, always repeated, never completed, and that its whisper was my pulse. And I shivered where I sat above the most savage monstrosities ever to stain the shade, delighted, utterly spellbound, knowing that I would always sit above anything that had ever been or could ever be, shuddering with my engine’s murmur, moving on, leaning into time.
Perhaps that moment of knowing how much I did not know, of feeling how much older I was even than my parents and how much younger I was even than a newborn planet, still lingered in my grandmother’s upstairs bedroom. There, as an adolescent, I increasingly idled away summer mornings of waking up slowly and summer afternoons of siestas beside open books. The slanting, gyring sunlight still settled suggestively over my world, a breath of frost through the curtains in the morning, summer frost clinging to a Himalayan leopard; and in the afternoon, a full gold curtain of its own, a taste of those mesas in the West which I couldn’t quite see but knew to be an hour’s drive away, all angle and granite, the gorge of the sun, Arroyo del Sol. The sequoias of my childhood dreams survived in the fluted, archaic bedposts (a wild cousin was famed for having snapped one clean off in some hybristic climb to the heavens, but it had been glued back seamlessly); and even a certain pattern of tendrils remained on the wallpaper, though they were thinner and less sinister now, mere perches of discreet scissor-tails and dun-colored thrushes. To tell the truth, there was never much of the moist, dense, or luxurious in this high, quiet clime. My taste was already declaring itself for desert spaces and silent echoes, those vibrations that ring in the ear when absolutely nothing moves, whispering things you had long known and long forgotten. I was perhaps at my most meditative then, in those brief summers which seemed only one tenth or twentieth of the year, forming for me a tiny portal, the prisoner’s window at which I starved, out of which I longed, as the rest of the year fed and fumed and howled around me, a jungle become all too real, a morass of slashing and carnality kneaded into the pecking orders, mating dances, and nascent hypocrisies comfortably called adolescence by enemies of the sun. I was ruined for life at that time, perhaps. I should at least have learned some defensive slashing, or should at least have known that no maiden awaited patiently my escape to the Arroyo del Sol. I of all people should have known, with my grandmother’s slumbering window unit breathing rhythmically beside my pillow, that time is a sand that never settles—that one must catch grain after grain and make of them a hand-sized castle, humble enough to hold cupped from the wind. Instead, I developed the first skills for a habit of wasting precious years in waiting. A lean, dry throat without a voice and pair of moist black eyes, my arms crossed limp over the shoulders of the updraft, I watched the planet turn and watched the asteroids veer or fall upon it. An adolescent boy is not well advised to spend his mornings half-asleep, especially if his sleep is a strange wakefulness—an insomnia of the soul.
But dream I did, and dream I have, dreaming away a lifetime. I cannot praise or approve those enemies of the sun who urge the young to dream. What do such minds know of dreaming? For them, it is possession of the sun in something dug up from the mire, a diamond in the coal, a nugget on the river bottom. In the squalor of their dreams, they dig their graves. My dreams have a certain compensation, but I cannot lightly recommend them, either. At worst, they are thin air, a stirring in the curtain, a ringing in the ear; but even at that, they are at least nothing earthy, no suffocated ghosts of gray and yellow. If they should indeed turn out to be nothing, I shall at least have waited for something that never came, for something worth the waiting, the princess of the Arroyo del Sol—and I shall at least have tasted the nobility of the wait, not a taste that soothes dry throats but one that moistens eyes, the spectacle of pity and love as webbed cities and quilted counties roll into planetary dusk beneath one’s wing. What haunts me is not a gray and yellow Lily Langtry nor a tiny gable caught by the wheeling sunset like a needle in a curtain: I know that I would always have taken flight, if only to stand still as the earth takes flight. But might I not have swooped low here and there, gathering a grain, saving a victim, piecing together as much as my hands might hold in flight? Have I flown too straight a path past death, past life?
It is much too late to ask, perhaps. I am too near what is nothing, or my destination. The murmuring turns of time and space have almost carried me past all possibility of descent; and what is the terror of death to them below, to predator and prey alike, is to me the princess and her father, the planet in my palm, my flock of parent children, the toys of my pity, the tears of my smile. If I did not stop to live, I shall not stop to die. I am the traveler, passing through. I am the sunlight’s echo and the wind’s recoil.
A Hemisphere in Blonde Hair
(Une Hémisphère dans une chevelure)
Contrary to popular wisdom, a child is the strongest form of human being. Children can endure to the very brink of life. Even when they die, they die with a strength many times an adult’s. Largely lacking self-consciousness, they can drink pain to the lees without really taking its measure, and so without fearing its relentless increase or its pitiless duration. Certainly they do not ponder all the mysteries beyond the last shrill pain of heart and lungs suddenly ceasing to pump. They live for the moment, and the pain they feel is the moment’s. If they are starving, then they simply get on with starving.
So for other pains—pains of offended taste or of uprooted love: the child is largely a stranger to them. What a mineral world, what a heart-sickening slag heap, was the north Texas city where I grew up! Alkaline earth upon whose calcium a little gray grass somehow survived, wiring flat lawns to gray concrete curbs, shaded only by telephone poles and power lines (no need to bury the lines: winter freezes were still and dry, splitting wood in a clear dawn); turquoise sky with white-hot shavings of trans-continental jets always astir, the slingings of the sun’s lathe, writing their silent screams in chalk; streetlights at night that ran for twenty miles from the mild rise of our yard, the stars their image in some sand-blasted hangar’s sheet-steel roof—they the real stars, the hot rivets from heaven, the molten manna in beatitude’s foundry…. For, you see, I adored those night streets from my window. All the stinking petroleum fumes, the drunken-punk drag races, the oily dollar bills in blue jeans, the sordidly screened skin flicks, the unlighted railway crossings where shady figures converged on stalled cars like deepwater sharks on a lumbering raft—all this was nothing to me, no pain at all to my delicate taste. For what did I know of all those things, of slick oil and dirty silk bills, of carnality and urban crime? I always washed my hands before supper; and on Friday night, after supper, it was my secret delight to trace the streetlights into the night’s horizon. What did I know of real stars or real manna, or the distance of heaven? I ached, all right, before that squalid city—but the pain of a saint arrived at paradise was in me. I knew that it was there before me, the hem of my God’s robe, dragging at my feet in jewels. I knew that I could reach and have it all… but I knew not how to reach. I was in agony. It was delightful, the only agony of delight I would ever live. For I had found, and had only to reach.
What staggering immunity to tastelessness—what a stunning leap of poetic imagination, to have cobbled the court of heaven with those sore, swollen streets! For I was young, and I had not the least suspicion that I had built an image. As far as I knew, the agony I felt came of standing at God’s hem in a paralysis of delight.
For the reach, you see—even that was a very simple matter. It consisted of calling her on the phone. I shall not name her: what would be the point? She had a real name, of course, which attached to a real human being; but since I never knew one well enough to draw a greeting, why garble the issue with the other? She was the brightest jewel in God’s hem. She had a facility for smiling and blushing crimson, a readiness to register shame which was instantly my incarnate metaphor for innocence: only incarnate, and so no metaphor. It was her blush in the center of a playground crowd, one of whose members had snatched her purse, which instantly captured me back in seventh grade. Instantly for the next several years. The culprit was surely male, and he, too, probably just wanted to see that glorious blush. She was one year my senior and one race of angels my superior—for I belonged to a dark-eyed, dark-browed tribe whose skin could never betray a blush, whose eyes could only glow until they frightened or offended people. To this day, people ask me why I scowl, the fair-haired fair-eyed race of sky-dwellers whom I can only watch from my ravine, hating them all, abjectly adoring one from time to time….
… As I did her. For six years I adored her. The very thought of transferring my attention to someone closer by, someone truly accessible, was spewed out with contempt when, every year or so, my well-meaning intelligence saw the hopelessness of my delight. In all of that time, she spoke to me once—to ask after one of her many admirers, if I might have seen him, looking past me and through me all the while and musing, I suppose, that his sudden appearance would spare her a few words. I could write endlessly about my junior year of high school, about the sickening courage I finally found in those twenty miles of streetlights (thinking now, knowing now, that she was somewhere out there among and within them, laughing and not alone)—the courage to dial her number. And I do write endlessly about this very subject, in a way; for it was she who started me writing, and I have been chasing metaphors across pages ever since. It was even she who made me learn to drive a car, an exercise in which I took no masculine satisfaction and which bores and peeves me to this day… but the secret to those streetlights lay in driving. In a way, it is the driving about which I wish to write: an intimate passage between files of wan haloes regularly mapping the infinite night, God’s lost jewel at last found and sitting next to you, beside but infinitely far, and you with your hands neared over the wheel in thankful prayer that the winding avenue excuses your eyes from having to go blind on the jewel’s luster—from having to blink and weep.
I would return to that drive which never happened. (For, of course, it never happened: surely I have created no suspense! No suspense could live in these images—I have firmly turned our backs to the future). I would study that metaphor now, after all these years, now that I have seen so many metaphors for what they are. I should like to ask of that imaginary drive, of that forever-postponed rapture, just why I wasted time on blue eyes and fair hair and a blush, first with her, then with so many others. For it occurs to me that the questions are the same: why streetlights, why a blush… why a metaphor? Or perhaps why not a metaphor—why, at the time, a reality? Why was the reality of my youth stolen away in delusions? For a metaphor that fails to delude and make its own reality can scarcely be a metaphor at all—not a vibrant, successful metaphor. A metaphor cannot come alive as a metaphor except when it is mistaken for truth. Am I censuring my youth for its poetry, then? Am I sneering at it for not being oil, fumes, and feverish zippers?
Though I chased what was never there, would I have been better off where nothing deserved chasing? Do you see what I mean? Do you really not see?
I mean that she might really have had a self as caught in my metaphor as I might catch her name in a word. I mean that the drive might really have happened, even down those littered avenues where drunken Visigoths dragged and cruised and parked to claw at buttons and zippers. It might have happened as I had scripted it a thousand times from my window’s ledge, hoping she wasn’t at that very moment laughing easily with someone else. Uneasy laughter I could easily countenance. Indeed, I had scripted a whole history of incidents with other men into my great speech, my last words, my soul’s first confession and farewell to the safety of childhood—for death to my present state this speech would surely have been, the two of us in a car, streetlights filing past to solemnify my stammer in a kind of marriage procession or funeral march. "For six years," I would have said prayerfully over the wheel, "I have fought to find a way to tell you…." And then the script allowed for death; and then, miraculously (if but briefly), for resuscitation. "I know you have admirers. Who would not admire you? Beside most of them, I am nobody, nothing. I know that." I was counting, you see, on the uneasy laughter of all those somebodies before me who had all expected admiration in return. I was not so very ignorant, at that. I knew that cars and streetlights ran on carcasses in advanced decay, and I suspected that the games most men played with her were fueled by ego-energy. My notion of what passed under Friday night’s dark glow was clear enough, as clear as I wanted it.
I was counting on those tawdry scenes—they were essential to the metaphor. How on earth should I have found the courage to die beneath the stares of curbside haloes with my lost-and-found jewel, but that I believed in some transforming emanation from my stammer, from my black-hot eyes of tears? I was he with whom one might laugh easily; if I couldn’t blush, yet I was innocence. I was he who saw haloes in metaphor, before whom even harlot streetlights turned to jewels. I offered her worship without knowing her well enough to draw a greeting, after six years of knowing her as one might know a star or statue: adoring ignorance, aesthetic distance… but is such an offer so slight? Was my metaphor not ample in becoming—could she not have grown with me in my impersonal and misplaced reverence? Why, I wonder, do women so fear reverence—why do they fear comparison with what they can never be? It is in the spirit of reverence, precisely, that two people may collaborate, chiseling their metaphor, connecting stars to make a constellation which neither would ever have seen alone, discovering a god whom neither could ever have approached alone. Who in the world would ask you to be a goddess? My metaphor only asks that you wish to pretend to walk with God, you better than yourself and not yourself, I transformed and lifted from myself, both of us leaving old names behind. For in the pretense is the reality: only deluding metaphors are true. Calculus is only a guess, but to insist on pinpoint accuracy is to be surrounded with lifelessness.
I know this well, for there followed two decades of unpretending names, of reality as you see and touch and graph it. I tried to cling to my innocence: I boxed away one tarnished set of metaphors, of metaphors turned nakedly transparent, and started making new ones. My one great concession to adulthood, one which I have now learned to regret (having taken the full, pitiful measure of adulthood), was not to send that ridiculous billet doux to her—the only written version of my script—once she told me over the phone (once and for all) how busy her admirers kept her and how improbable was her ever having time for me. Having been so faithful to my childhood for so long, I might have been naïve a little longer, just one more time. I ought to have been: it would only have cost me a stamp. "I do not expect you to act upon this note in any way… merely wish to give reality to a feeling I have carried about for six years by declaring it to you… owe it to myself not to bottle up the most powerful emotion of my life… have already accomplished what I set out to do simply by sending this note." What incredible naiveté—and what immaculate nobility! A mere year later, I would be devouring Tolstoy’s pages about Natasha and Prince Bolkonsky (even as I was patiently waiting to be selected for slaughter in a Southeast Asian rice paddy). What an inscrutable time to have lived through—adolescence aggravated by the death agony of human culture!
By the splinters of my keel, I escaped the shoals of Selective Service. Instead, I spent much of those decades trying to study Tolstoy and Dante and Vergil in a world where they had grown invincibly strange. The women I met in that endeavor contemptuously pitied Natasha, knew nothing of Beatrice, and learned nothing from knowing Dido. Of metaphors, they would have no part. They had rightly figured out that a living metaphor is a delusion, an acceleration of raw clay into a comet whose future must be projected by a calculus of idealism. They rightly understood that motion is not real as clay is real. And they opted for the clay—the greater realness of clay plucked from all motion and isolated from hope’s infection. Metaphor lay dead in all their graduate dissection trays, like one of those pickled frogs I would slice open between opportunities to see her in the halls. Metaphor was a trick. It was something oppressors practiced upon oppressed—something men, especially, practiced on women. Hope, a future: marriage, children, higher things, transcendence. They could lift it deftly from the viscera of embalmed propaganda (as they considered Tolstoy, Dante, and Vergil) and show you just where the fatal enzymes were secreted into the smoothly running bio-unit. Feed, sleep, breed, breathe… feed, sleep, breed, breathe… one, two, three, four, just like a new swimming stroke at summer camp—and then, the infection leaked in. Feed, sleep, breed, breathe, hope… hope, love, long… pain, doubt, failure… no, no, no! Better to have it out!
And so they operated. They shriveled the organ of hope beneath intolerable doses of raw life. They accelerated all the basic vital rhythms—the real rhythms of standing still, of grinding up stimulants and lapping up stimuli. They imbibed liberally, "crashed" for days, copulated on a dime, and—above all—withdrew themselves most regularly to interlace their legs and breathe in, breathe out. Feel the blood carry the oxygen. Nothing else matters: nothing else exists.
Some of these women sacrificed themselves more mercilessly on that drunk and thirsty altar of reality than a martyr would have surrendered his flesh to the cross. Some of them murdered more real tears in a night than a deacon’s wife might artificially salt and distill in a lifetime. How the metaphor must have lived in them, to need so much killing! How they must have feared becoming, to commit so resolutely the suicide of merely being…. More than once, they made me think (in metaphor, of course) of a girl who devours a whole candy shop, then feverishly, nauseously counts her sugar-stained fingers and groans, "I told you so—it’s all a lie. There’s no happiness here. I ate every bite of all there was, and I feel worse than when I began." And even then, how often the bludgeoned head of hope stirred in the rubble, necessitating yet another blow. Almost always, the treatment ended in amputation.
But what defense can be made, all the same, for fair hair and fair eyes and a blush? In truth, I boxed away those metaphors many closets ago along with other childhood toys; or in truth (for the first truth out of the mouth always lies if taken too seriously), I quickly added to my stock of metaphors. If a blush was shamefast and modest, a spirit living on the bloom of the skin, then dark eyes like mine could run deep, a bound-and-gagged spirit touching fire to free itself or to raise a conflagration trying. But why dark eyes, at that? Why the pseudo-science of physiognomy—why the need of metaphor in a face? I may say in a truth which stays square from any angle that never in my life was I won by shapely curves of body: it was always a face, and especially eyes, for me. Perhaps a body like a fallen leaf would have drawn me the more, in fact, with a pair of sky or hot-coal eyes to suggest where all the body’s strength had withdrawn its vital sap. Given even so little as that, I could design a metaphor in which I hung suddenly snared. But why, I ask, must a metaphor so uplifting demand material so misleading and off-hand? Why did I require a face and eyes to begin to fall in love? Three or four of the best women I shall ever know inspired in me what I can only call a horror with their sparrow’s eyes and sparrow’s mouths, faces that might have passed for men’s or sufficed for mannequins. What horror in myself inspired me with horror—how could my soul refuse to fall in love just because it failed to see the makings of a metaphor? Why can the mind not be high-minded? Why must the delusion which brings becoming begin in a permanent, irredeemable delusion?
And so I ask, is metaphor worth it? Is being worth becoming when founded, not on uplifting delusions, but on slanderous lies? If a plain-faced girl must become of no account, then what is a man becoming but a fool? Is there not desecration in considering strumpet streetlights to be the hems of God—twenty miles of fallen haloes darkening the darkness, darkly glowing, as only fallen angels can—stars demoted to demons, staging such scenes of drunkenness and high-speed dismemberment and parking-lot rape and stalled-engine murder as never any race of spear-carrying men had known? Was the fair light in her hair and eyes and the glow upon her cheeks worth even one year’s wasted time—even one week’s, of that infinite time which adolescence has to waste (and which we find out, too late, to be life’s most precious moment)? For there were girls with straight, flat hair and dull gray eyes who would have spoken and would have listened, who would have exacted no praying or dying, whose lives had not been complicated by a demanding network of admirers… why does a man drop a pearl and chase a pebble, just for the sake of a face? If a comet must not be reduced to dead slag in a display case—if hope’s vector must not be factored out of the equation—yet of what hope is an energy born to chase its own tail? What’s the difference between a lump of raw clay and a twig forever circling in a backwater?
The wickedness of our deeds is in their metaphor—not in a metaphor which raises two deluded minds to collaborate in its becoming, but in a metaphor which wholly neglects the face unable to serve metaphorically. In that plain face I see my own mind’s ugliness, a poverty of spirit which needs lights to play with, boxes of toys—which is infinitely unfit to stand before God. For we can know God only through metaphor: yet a god known through metaphor is no god at all, but a star fallen to earth, the mirror image of a plain, dull face. The only true metaphor is the one mistaken for truth, but the only truth we know of God through metaphor comes when we discover the metaphor’s fraudulence. For God begins where the metaphor fails.
Curse of the New World, to follow metaphor into the wilderness… virgin forests, fertile plains, blue-eyed mountains and blushing progress: land of the bright and blond, where ugliness is a mortal sin and original sin the speck in an eye rinsed clean in an ocean… continent of streetlights and Friday nights, of cars and senior proms, of raided candy shops… I am still trapped at my window, mesmerized without rapture now, admiring without delight. Wondering if, two marriages and four children later, she would declare herself happy, or happier than she might have been with me… knowing that there is no way to pose the question, for she would recognize my face now less than ever. How I yet love, but how I have come to fear…. I have become, perhaps, as few around me have; but exactly what have I become?
The Salesman of Windows
(Le Mauvais Vitrier)
Nothing is quite as dismal as house-hunting: nothing is more dismal than a house on the market, the "house market", the sad brothel of real estate wherein aging and very lived-in faces are given a fresh coat of paint and smothered in nauseously sweet-scented candles to convince the customer that here—next in line—stands his dream. His "dream home". You don’t like this one—too full in the garage? Too down at the roof line? They have just the lady for you, just fifteen minutes from here, now that they understand… if they had only understood the discriminating finesse of your taste before, your rare appreciation for quiet, hidden charms… this one is very special. (Not special, but very special.) The vulgar, shallow herd has passed her by in her virginal (almost virginal—reminiscent of virginal) modesty… if they had only known before. Had they the pick of the lot, your realtor pimps and eunuchs, this would be among their hardship harem, the three or four special few. Very special.
And so you look her over, her teeth and fingers and under her skirts, lifting and opening upon intensely private places with a thoroughness that partakes of the obscene—of many varieties of the obscene, from the voyeur who inspects Mr. and Mrs. Mugwump’s king-sized bed and daughter Courtney’s cheerleading pompoms and teenager Jason’s auto-erotic pin-ups to the coroner at the post-mortem who notes the signs of wear—the bedpost’s permanent gouges in the carpet, the ill-fitting door frame where Jason once hung a chin-up bar—prior to and perhaps causative of death. For, after all, it is death which you attend. There will be no more little Mugwumps—Mr. and Mrs. M. will have separate beds, if not separate rooms, in their next abode; and Courtney is off to the University to study men and sell herself to the highest bidder, like some kind of pink dream home. For the home-buying game is, after all, no mere renting of a companion for the night, but much more serious—much more dismal—business, like purchasing a slave or arranging a suitable marriage. How much to buy out the soul which lingers here? What charge to make it die or find another body? This body will do nicely (you decide… well, almost decide) as a receptacle of your soul, an extension and part-time residence of your nature’s sedentary clutter: your women, slaves, and baggage will occupy its spaces roundly. (Well… maybe.) How much to evacuate the rigor mortis in the carpet and the pale ghost on the wallpaper? You make your offer (being 60/40 decided), and the dickering begins. The lady waits silently, shivering in her naked flesh.
Or perhaps you desire the real thing—a dream never yet ravished by another. Jason—excuse me, Mr. Jason Mugwump and his wife Yupley (he made good at last… and who would have thought it, to see him sprawled those adolescent afternoons before his posters with earphones embracing his narrow cranium? community college set him straight, and Yupley has done wonders)—they wish to make a statement to all the world. Only a new home in Riverside Manor Estates will serve notice to Jason’s wincing high school teachers and Yupley’s hyper-critical mother that… well, perhaps not Riverside Manor Estates. Perhaps not just yet… perhaps not for a long while. (After all, there’s the pea in the pod—Jason Manley if a son-and-heir, Slithely Eglington if a princess, pending the verdict of the ultra-sound; and both of the ecstatic lovebirds have already made excessively bold statements in the automotive idiom.) No, perhaps Pleasant Pastures or Cretaceous Caverns: the hyper-critical Mrs. Bovinski will still be impressed into silence. Homes for the Future, sayeth the sign. Dreams for Tomorrow. Available at today’s prices… as if the prices could be anything but today’s or a vision of a dream for a later date be anything but the first stage of a headache. But who reads signs? ’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.
In fact, your temples begin to throb as you follow all the signs, caught again behind Mugwump the Younger’s statement-making van. (It seems to precede you or closely trail you to every open house and new development, its driver constantly meeting you around some corner or beside some closet like a slanderous mirror: yet the two of you have never so much as exchanged grunts.) Why this Sunday afternoon migraine? Why does it always happen on these jaunts into dreams of the future’s discount-if-you-buy-yesterday tomorrow? Is it the sun? Naturally, no tree has been left standing in Whispering Willows Estates. They make a desert and call it peace (well-priced peace, at that). Should you opt to buy now (and go into bondage for thirty years), you would no doubt have the Mugwump clan in your lap for breakfast, peering from their bay window across five arm spans of manicured willow’s grave.
Of course, you can escape: escape figures prominently in dreams of tomorrow. You can at least escape from the bay window—and not just into the large walk-in closet (upon which your wife will have first dibs, anyway). Just follow the echoes (your echoes, your wife’s, Mugwump antecedent’s, Mugwump-at-your-back’s) and the fresh-paint new-wood smell till you come to the house’s heart, the hub of its holiness, the future altar of your household gods. Here the master architect has thoughtfully, tastefully provided (between voluted stucco columns of the Late Empire) a built-in entertainment center, with recesses for hundred-inch television screen and mega-decibel amplifiers. No Mugwump living would ever ferret you out in here… probably. Or if you fear gaps in the drapes, let your instinct be your guide. Flee unto that architectural heart of hearts, that inner sanctum, that holiest of holies, that roost for your armful of penates snatched from Troy’s smoking ruins: the salle de bain. In a kind of pearly-gate shimmer of white tile (damn him! here he comes again, squeezing out as your realtor squeezes you in), a voluptuous, decadent-looking tub lounges at your feet, wide enough for mating manatees, making you feel incongruous for not wearing sandals, basking in the slivered sheets of late afternoon admitted by a discreet skylight. Here you might make love, plot your boss’s demise, hatch a new philosophy, or slit your wrists like Lucan while reading your magnum opus in a steamy bath. Utter discretion… a discretion to which a full fifth of the dream’s square footage has been devoted, it seems, all impervious to Mugwumps everywhere. Should pimple-faced Jason Junior one day manage to ascend your roof in response to his race’s queerly congenital voyeurism, ostensibly to retrieve an errant frisby (but more plausibly to indulge those not-quite-vestigial branch-bending digits), you could most certainly sue… most certainly, that is, if you could affirm on oath that you had not merely seen yesterday’s reflection, a memory of your own ape-house eyes wanting into somebody else’s dream—wanting into a dream, anybody’s would do.
For the voyeur is forever peeping through your mirror, sneaking a look in as you sneak a look out; for you find yourself still outside the dream, even after you move in. It is that feeling which sometimes assaults you palpably where your lares energetically make known their cryptic will upon the television screen, the object of your rapt and reverent attention (though your supine semi-undress scarcely dignifies their oracle): that feeling which begins, "There he is again." Some greater ape of furrowed brow and restless disposition—an investigative reporter or saucy P.I.—thrusts his rude nose between your splayed legs where the recliner holds them in offering to the picture tube, and you see… not yourself, most definitely. But the self you should have been, intend to be, or have rented for the hour via satellite. Your alter ego. Is he spying on you, or are you spying on him? Just how many stations do you need (the cable package clearly wasn’t enough)—just how many bedrooms must you spy on in one evening? And to think you’ve only just moved in! The dish was just installed last Friday! Haven’t you just framed Mom and Dad on the dresser? Didn’t you just settle that desk you’ve had since high school into that dormer over the loft and discover the letter which broke your heart six years before you met your wife (and which, in fact, you’ve never shown to your wife… why bother—why invite painful prying?)…. Not a month, not a week in your new dream yet, and already your nose is pressed against a window. For the window—the television, the skylight—is escape from where you are, and life is only made tolerable by the prospect of escape.
And so another home, another dream, succeeds this one in a year or two. When you and Mugwump sell (his sign went up at almost the same time as yours), Withering Willows is still desirable property, somewhat improved in value even figuring inflation, and the last trees in the gully have only just been razed to milk the last possibly buildable plot of land. Good timing, says the realtor. What ghosts do Mugwump’s cousins and clones find in your bath and bedroom as their noses file through, sniffing for deals, sniffing for secrets, poking around a sunken galleon? No need to worry: your secrets are safe. For you have no secrets—you haven’t been here long enough. The bedposts have scarcely dented the carpet, and the den still smells of fresh paint more than of your unfurled socks. You leave behind nothing. Even the letter which broke your heart seems a little less poignant now, for the incarnation of you whose heart was broken has now been buried one grave deeper. In your next dream house, perhaps, you will throw the thing away. All the deeds, contracts, payment booklets, cancelled checks, and letters of credit are beginning to clamor for drawer space. Their family, at least, is growing. Yours is slimming down: a little less bag and baggage at every move, a few more unpacked boxes, more parcels for the Salvation Army—more old books lost, more photos gone missing, more of your past severed from your present.
Soon, perhaps, you will have liberated yourself from any past whatever in this rifling of dreams, this Zen of moving in and moving out, just as a steady diet of harlots might finally make a man ascetic. A monk’s cell would be nice—a high pueblo, a hole in a cliff, a tunnel that winds and winds through rock… or another dream home, if it must be so: even that will do. For in the final stage, the lowest and the highest phase, of your identity’s undoing, all dreams are blank and all homes are caves. You sit in the harlot’s lap and drink your tea as contemptuously, as emptily, as if you had found a bed of stone. And should Mugwump’s divorced-and-remarried wife observe you through your bay window, you drink another cup. For there is nothing left to observe.
John Moseby has contributed short stories quite regularly to Praesidium in recent years. His work is often a curious blend of the whimsical and the quotidian ("magic realism", as the style has been called). In this story, he reprises the flavor of the "film noir" forties murder mystery manifested in his earlier contribution, "Running on Empty". The actual events in the story, of course—and especially the lurid crime—are entirely fictional, and indeed exaggerated beyond the routine to the verge of nightmare. Given the sort of events which have grown routine in the twenty-first century, however, a critic might well wonder if the choice of a setting decades in the past was not designed precisely to vivify actions no longer very implausible in conception.
They want to say that I’m crazy, the ones that want what’s "best" for me. What if all of this really drives me crazy? Then I won’t be able to tell my story so that it makes any sense at all, and nobody will ever believe me. Nobody will ever believe that I was anything but crazy. I think that’s the thought that bothers me most—everybody holding out insanity to me, I mean, like a soft bed to a man who hasn’t slept in a week. I’d have a hard enough time resisting even if my friends weren’t pushing it off on me—the ones who keep telling me they’re my friends. That’s the hardest part of all. My attorney believes in me. Even the cops in this place are rooting for me. But my friends... my sister’s in-laws want her to get power of attorney over my estate as my sole living relative. They never cared for me, but we became friends after I signed for a bonus last spring. Makes you wonder which side of the bars you’d rather be on.
Let’s say I start with the war. I don’t really want to talk about the war, so I’ll just stick to what my attorney calls the relevant facts. He says to write as if I were talking to a jury. Well, who doesn’t know that I was captured and escaped? They say a jury’s not supposed to know all that, but how are they going to find twelve men that didn’t pick up a newspaper that year? Not that there’s really much to tell. If I hadn’t had three big years at the plate before I joined up, nobody would have made beans about the whole thing. They make you a hero because of what you were before it all happened, but the real heroes hardly get their names in the obituaries.
All I did was jump out of a troop carrier. They had us bouncing along in that thing over a mountain road. It was pretty slow going, because the road was bad and the bridges were iced. I don’t think anybody was altogether awake, German or GI. There was something unreal about it all, bouncing up and down, up and down, over this beautiful snow-covered mountain range that looked like something out of a Christmas catalogue. It was late afternoon, and the sun came out, really low and bright—you couldn’t even see where it was. But all the snow was suddenly like satin. And when the troop carrier hit a low branch, the flakes came down behind our truck like a gold dust. I don’t think anybody had said a word for hours. Like I said, we were all half-asleep. But for me, it was hard to believe that there was a war any place on earth. Not that I was what you’d call comfortable—I was cold and hungry like everybody else. But I was that kind of hungry that was beyond being hungry. I just wanted to sit still and daydream. It seemed like that satin snow and that low, golden sun were just perfect for my daydream.
I’ve always loved the snow. I always loved to play in it as a kid. It was almost like I just kind of fell into it, right out of the truck, like falling into a daydream. Honestly, it was so easy, and there was no big jolt, no pain or sudden shock. I just rolled and slid and rolled through the snow’s blanket, all the way down the mountainside. I guess I never will know if the Krauts thought I had made a brilliant, daring escape as the newspapers said, or had just fallen out in my sleep. I heard their shouts way above, but they didn’t even fire a shot. I guess they couldn’t see anything to shoot at. And they must have figured it wasn’t worthwhile to stop and chase after me. What’s one dogface, more or less? They must have figured the woods would finish me that night, and they must have been pretty tired and cold themselves.
The funny thing is, I really enjoyed tramping through the woods that night. I knew I had to keep going, that if I stopped I’d probably get frostbitten. But I don’t think that’s what made me go. It was like being a kid again after two years of the worst hell you can imagine. Of course, I didn’t tell that to the newspapers, and maybe I shouldn’t be writing it now. If I were saying this to a jury, they’d probably nod to each other and mumble, "He really is crazy." People always seem to think what they want to think. They have this picture in their minds, and they expect you to fit the picture. Like me being the next Lou Gehrig—what a laugh!—or me being the great war hero. And now it’s me the crazed mass-murderer, made over by the same people who had me as Gehrig and Teddy Roosevelt. And they still call themselves my friends. They’re sorry for me, but they won’t believe my story because it doesn’t fit their little picture. What a bunch of jerks! If I’m speaking to a jury, I’m saying to them right about now, "What a bunch of jerks you twelve guys are!"
I’m so sick of this all, even if I ever get out of it I don’t know what I’ll do with the rest of my life. I don’t ever want anything to do with people again.
So let’s say I’m home again, war hero, flashbulbs, ticker-tape parades, headlines. Then the war ends, and all the guys come back—and boy, do we have a season! I think it was because we had so much fun that year. After all we’d been through, you couldn’t take the game any way but just plain fun. It was just such a joy to be there again, playing that dumb game. As for me, I’d lost half a step of running speed, but I’d gotten a lot smarter. I didn’t take myself so seriously, and I didn’t bite when pitchers challenged me. I waited for my pitch, and if I didn’t get it, I did what I could with what I got. For the first time in my life, I turned into a really good hitter instead of just a slugger. And it was all just because I’d learned that life is short and seldom sweet, and that, for all the flashbulbs and headlines, I was just another guy, a guy who could have been dead—a guy who should have been, since the best, bravest guys I knew hadn’t made it. Why should guys like that be gone and not me? I was lucky just to be there. I had fun, all right. But I never had too much fun.
Okay, that brings us to Natty. This whole thing is about Natty, if only I could open a few eyes. I can’t talk about the guy without sounding crazy because he’s really, certifiably nuts, a Section Eight. Actually, I never knew exactly why Natty got his deferment. It would be interesting to know what those army doctors made of him, but I don’t suppose it ever got that far. I think it had a lot more to do with his Japanese ancestry, although I’m still guessing. You know how everybody talks. How would a little Japanese blood keep him from going to Europe? Some of the guys said he must have bribed somebody. Others said they were turning Japs away from Europe, too, on suspicion of being spies. So why didn’t they turn away guys named Schultz and Schmidt—and Eisenhower? What a bunch of crap! All I know is that he was a good ballplayer. He was the fastest guy on the bases I ever saw, and there weren’t many balls that got past him on the infield, either. Why he never got a chance to start, I couldn’t say. He was great off the bench to pinch-hit or pinch-run, or to come in late for his defense. But, heck, I would’ve started him, and I told him so more than once. That’s what I mean. I was the one guy on that team that really treated Natty like a human being. They joked about making us roommates, but I said it was okay with me. They wouldn’t really do it, of course, because I was the war hero and the next Lou Gehrig. They wanted me rooming with Kowalski. Me and Kowalski, the one-two punch. It sounded good in print, and it looked good in photos.
So Natty, it turned out, never roomed with anybody. I’d never heard of a team before where one guy had no roommate. It was strange, really strange. It was like he was unclean, or something. "Nasty", they called him sometimes, because his real name was something like Natsuma. Eliot Brinkman called him The Nasty Gnat on his radio broadcast. And then there was Ratty. And Nazi. All the rumors about why he didn’t join up or get drafted—all that talk about his mixed blood, maybe Chinese, maybe Indian or something. It all just seemed to follow him around like a cloud, and everything he did only made it worse. When he stole a base, he was sneaky and slick. When he made a great play, the sportswriters would talk about his "black magic". One stupid hack even charged him once with putting curses on the other team. Stuff like that—complete garbage. I never saw anybody take so much guff.
But that’s just it—Natty didn’t take it. If he had, maybe things would’ve gotten better. But he just stored it all up and never said anything. Or if he did say something, it was smooth and smiling, like a dog you just kicked that comes back and licks your shoe. That’s not what I call taking it—that’s helping them give it to you. Looking back, I wonder if he didn’t hate me most because I was nicest to him? I would certainly rather that he’d shot me dead than do what he’s done to me. Maybe in his sick mind, this is a way of paying back a debt of gratitude—letting me live instead of die, live the life of a dangerous, branded lunatic who can never be let loose on the streets again. Was that a special vengeance just for me, just for being nice to him? Or does he consider it being nice in return? What can you say about a guy like that? To this day, I don’t really hate Natty. How can you hate a guy who’s that far gone? But I think I could kill him—me who’s never killed anybody in his life, not even a German, as far as I know. That wasn’t the same thing. Who ever knew if he hit what he aimed at over there?
Did the guys make him worse by all those things they did to him, or was he already that way and really deserved every bit of it? I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe you should treat anyone that way, no matter what he’s done or how he is. One time, they poured a bottle of olive oil all over his shoes. When he took them out of the locker and slipped them on, the stuff just oozed out all over the floor. Everybody roared. Another time when we were on the road—I think it was Cleveland or Chicago—they phoned ahead and had the bathroom of Natty’s suite piled up to the ceiling with soap. Big joke. When we were all out together at a restaurant or some place, they were all the time telling Natty, "You got to use the back door," and, "You got to eat back in the kitchen." They made him miss trains, they stuck him with bills, they had his luggage get lost. Once or twice, a few of them went to the trouble to change a lock on him, I think. The skipper got mad at that one, so nobody ever said much about it. On the whole, O’Rourke just went along with them, as if there really wasn’t much he could have done about it, anyway. And maybe there wasn’t, but I can’t release him from all the blame. You don’t manage a ball club to be liked by everybody. You keep them as straight as you can, and make them do their jobs. Well, maybe O’Rourke thought it was good for morale to have one guy get picked on and bullied, or maybe he was just in awe of all our big names. He didn’t have to do anything but throw us a ball and a bat, and we’d go make him the manager of the year. So there was no help from that quarter.
I spoke up myself a few times. I remember once in the locker room they were talking about going out and getting a dog turd somebody had seen on the sidewalk. Another surprise for Natty’s locker. They were having a big time trying to decide where they should put it exactly. I finally couldn’t take it any more. I told them I thought they were all sick. Then Kowalski sneered something back like, The hero doesn’t lower himself, boys." "You’re damn right," I said. "I thought we just fought a war to stop this kind of crap." You should’ve seen Kowalski light up. He came right at me with his two fists hanging at his sides like a couple of hammers. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he said. "I fought in the war, too, hero, remember? So did a lot of us guys here. What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I said, "It means a man should have a right to live free without getting pushed around just because his name’s Greenberg or something funny like Natty’s, or maybe even Kowalski." He was right in my face by then. "Are you saying my race is no better than his?" "Now you got it," I said right back. "That’s just what I fought for, so nobody’s race would be better than anyone else’s."
He backed down after that. It was too big a hunk for his brain to swallow at once. But he wouldn’t speak to me for a week after—and Kowalski, as I’ve said, was my roommate. I guess he finally figured that I was crazy and he couldn’t stay mad at me. He did his best to make sure that the other guys thought I was strange, too—me, his roommate, his teammate, the guy who got on base so much that he became the RBI leader. What a jerk! I could see why Natty had it in for those guys.
But what I can’t see is why he took it. You could see him get as mad as a hornet, but then he’d hatch a big toothy grin and laugh right along with all the others. I said to him more than once, "Natty, why do you take it? You don’t have to take all this guff. Tell them you'll break a bat over the head of the next one that opens your locker." And he’d always give me the funniest look, as if he were mad at me—and then he’d finally flash that fake grin and say something like, "Oh, they don’t mean nothing, Johnny." I suppose maybe he was mad at me, mad because I saw what a coward he was. Maybe he hated me more than all the others put together. They only made fun of his skin color, but I could see inside him. I guess that’s why he’s done this to me. You never hate anyone like the guy who makes you see yourself for what you are.
You’ve got to understand that I’m really thinking about most of this for the first time. The way Natty built up his hatred, the way Kowalski bad-mouthed me behind my back—I usually didn’t give any of it a second thought. After all, we’d just lived through the worst war in history, and we were cruising toward the pennant and the championship. Every day you’d wake up in clean sheets, have room service bring you up a pot of hot coffee, and read about your heroic deeds yesterday afternoon in this morning’s paper. How could there be anything seriously wrong with the world? The sun would be up, you’d take a taxi to the park, little kids would be all over you for your autograph—there just wasn’t time to have an ugly thought. When we wrapped it all up and won the Series in the fifth game, we even hugged Natty. We were all on top of the world.
Maybe we were a little taken aback when Natty wanted us all to come up to his resort in Vermont the next month. A resort in Vermont—Natty Nokoro! I think the guys didn’t know whether to be more surprised that he had some going concern or that he’d want to invite them there. And it was smart of him to put it back till early December. With champagne dripping down your hair and flashbulbs going off all around you in the locker room, everybody’s your friend. But half the guys would have backed out if Natty had asked them to a steak dinner tomorrow night, and the other half would have forgotten by tomorrow afternoon. As it was, they had a chance to think. Natty Nokoro... a resort in Vermont. It made them all curious, I know. It sure made me curious. They must have figured, "Well, why not? Those oriental types are good at waiting on people, and they sure know how to pinch their pennies." Maybe there was a whole family of Nattys up there, bowing and scraping to money-bags on vacation. Maybe it was like a Chinese restaurant, all brothers and sisters and uncles. And maybe like a Chinese restaurant, there was a back room where some real money shifted hands. After all, whatever anybody ever said about Natty, they never called him dumb. Maybe he knew some people who knew some people. I think he must have let a few words drop to some of the real solid citizens like Kowalski about what you might call investment opportunities. They could believe that, all right. It was slick and sneaky, the kind of thing they’d spit on—and the kind of thing they’d want in on. I know he told at least one other guy, Jimmy Galley, that he wasn’t having the married men over if they had to bring their wives. That was all Jimmy needed to hear, the poor little squirt. He wouldn’t have known a shady deal if it crawled up his back. He just wanted a good time. I guess it was a good thing about the married men. Vince Vlietska and Conn Laraby stayed away because they wanted to be with their families. Now there were two decent human beings who never did Natty nor anybody else any harm. Thank God this business made no widows.
Anyway, when a bunch of us showed up at Natty’s rustic retreat a month later, it was a funny thing—there was a kind of respect in our faces and our voices. The inn had a really steep roof, like some I’d seen during the war in eastern France near the Swiss border. We looked up at it almost like we were in church, and instead of shouting we were nearly whispering. Natty soon put a stop to that. He had us inside and in front of the fireplace in no time. A heavy snow had just fallen, and it somehow seemed like Christmas to be in front of a big roaring fire with a hot drink in your hand—or like I used to think Christmas was supposed to be but never was, you know what I mean. Some of the guys probably hadn’t quit drinking since the night after the fifth game. But most of us were sober enough to be really impressed by the effect, and especially by Natty himself. He looked so different in a thick pullover sweater, more like a stockbroker on vacation than a guy who could steal second and then steal third.
And then there was Natty’s woman. He just called her Lena. He didn’t even say if she was sister or wife or something else. It wasn’t that she was such a knock-out or anything, such a great acquisition for our dirty, sneaky Natty. She had a nice smile, but she usually stayed in the wallpaper and never opened her mouth—the inscrutable Oriental, as Dick Osterman, our college boy, called her. I suppose maybe he was right about her race. Her hair was dark and straight. She wasn’t a bad-looking woman, but the main thing was that she was a woman. Our shifty Natty had himself a girl, and nobody really thought she was his sister, or even his cousin. There were a few of us who couldn’t say as much, myself included. I hadn’t gotten back into the habit of socializing since I’d come back home. I’m told my roommate Kowalski had a few things to say about that, too, behind my back.
After we got over being awed by the place and by Natty’s secret touch of class, we started playing the Series all over again—or at least the others did. There were fifteen of us there in all, including Natty. All the starting line-up was there except the two married guys I mentioned, and Laraby only started against right-handers. So I guess it was natural, especially as the glasses emptied and were refilled, that we all started talking about the one thing that really held us together. Myself, I found it kind of a bore. I spent a lot of time looking out a big picture window at the snow outside. I think I said before that I love the snow. It was hard for me to imagine playing on a sun-lit field in shirt sleeves with that beautiful snow all over the place, sitting in the pine trees and blanketing the grounds.
I must have been kind of drifting off, because I was taken completely by surprise when the shouting got louder than usual. It was Kowalski—no surprise—who was fighting over food—no surprise—while Natty refused to let him at a silver platter full of little white baseballs. They were about half the size of the real thing and made of white chocolate. I don’t know how he did it—maybe Lena made them—but everybody said they were delicious. And they were so true to life that they had stitching molded into them. A real class act, this secret Natty, even with his hors-d’oeuvres! But the strangest thing of all, the one real surprise, was that he was standing up to Kowalski. Natty, who never stood up to anyone, was beating back into his corner the biggest lout of them all. He told Kowalski that there were only enough of the things for everyone to have a couple, and that some hadn’t even had one yet. He mentioned my name. At that point I called out from the window that I would pass if it would help keep the peace. Then I had an even bigger shock: Natty refused my offer. He told us he’d gone to a lot of trouble to arrange things just right so that everyone would have a good time. He put Kowalski into his place with a little lecture on manners as if he were a father talking to his five-year-old. I hadn’t moved from where I stood, but I tossed in that I would eat one and give Kowalski my other. That was how it ended. I don’t think Natty wanted it to end there, though. He gave me the oddest look. It was like, "How dare you? Do you want to ruin everything?"
Things started to go downhill pretty soon after that. Jimmy kept asking Lena where all the girls were, and a few guys had started a game with somebody’s balled-up woolen socks and a fire poker. I eased myself out a door beside the picture window and stood on the back porch just looking at the snow. It wasn’t falling—it was just sitting there, as quiet as if there was nobody alive on earth. You could hear somebody scream inside once in a while, sure—but that was a different world, and I preferred this one. I had that silly candy baseball in my hand which Natty had forced on me. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t feel like eating. It made me a little colder to be hungry, a little more curled up inside myself, and I like that feeling. I liked it especially out there in the snow. It was like, even though nothing else was alive in the whole universe, there was enough space inside me to fill up the emptiness. I felt big, huge, kind of above it all. It was like that night in the Ardennes when I tramped for miles between two armies, given up for dead by both. The world is always so much bigger than people think.
I don’t know why, but I let the candy baseball slip out from between my fingers and fall over the railing into the snow. Maybe I just wanted to see what kind of a splash it would make. If you hadn’t been watching, you wouldn’t have heard it. It just disappeared without a whisper. I knew my footsteps would be whispers, too, if I could get away for a walk. I didn’t want to be rude, but that silence acted on me almost like the booze and food on the other guys. I could hardly keep my hands off it. I just wanted to jump into it.
Well, that was about when Natty appeared with the gun. I heard a flood of racket when the door opened and turned around. There he stood in his pullover with a Luger in his hand. I must have looked pretty shocked. "Take it easy, Johnny," he laughed. "Did you think I was going to shoot you?" He came over right beside me, his back to the window so that nobody could have seen him with the gun. "I want you to have this, if you will," he said. "I’m told that it’s quite a collector’s item, quite valuable. A non-combatant like me has no right to such a thing. But you—you are a hero."
He placed it in my hands. The first thing I did was to make sure it wasn’t loaded. Then I gave it back to him, handle first. I told him that I didn’t want it. I thanked him, but I told him I already had a lot more memories of the war than I could ever get rid of. He didn’t insist. In fact, he apologized and said he should have known better. Frankly, I thought he should have, too. The guys all knew I didn’t like to talk about the war. There were just a few of them that did, mostly the ones that didn’t see any action. It seemed like a real strange thing to do at the time, coming out there to stick a gun in my hands. Of course, now it all makes sense.
He cradled the pistol in his sweater as if it were a lost kitten and gave me this searching look. "You don’t seem to be having a very good time, Johnny. Do you want another drink? Do you want me to get you some refreshments? Did you eat your fortune cookie?"
I almost looked over my shoulder at the snow, but I caught myself in time. I told him sure, I’d eaten it. What else could I say? As for the "fortune cookie" business, I’d obviously missed that bit of the fun. There must have been a piece of paper in the middle of the baseball. I realized that if he asked me how my fortune read, my lie would be bound to come out, because I just didn’t have the energy to invent any mysterious Charlie Chan-sounding crap from scratch. And for some reason that thought scared me—I mean, that he should find out my lie. It wasn’t embarrassment. It was something to do with the way he kept searching me with his stare. So I decided then and there to beat him to the punch. I said something like, "I guess that’s what made me sad—reading my fortune."
"Didn’t you like it?" he said. "What did it say?"
I just continued making up garbage. "It’s not that," I said. "It’s real hard to explain to somebody. It’s just that no matter how hard I try to think of the future, it always seems so much smaller than the past. Like the snow out here. You could see two people walking from the edge of that clearing to the porch, and they might be all wrapped up in what they were saying, but around them is this big huge mat of snow. And after they’re gone, their tracks will all be filled in by the next flurry. That’s how the future seems to me. What’s the point of even talking about it? There’s something we’re all missing. There’s so much around us we’re just not getting."
"You’re a very strange man, Johnny," he said to me seriously, still giving me that deer-eyed, unblinking look. I said I was so strange I thought I’d go for a walk if it wouldn’t hurt his feelings. Boy, was I glad for that chance to slip away. I had the funniest feeling that he was about to corner me in something, more than just telling a couple of little lies. I felt like the longer I stood there with him staring at me, the closer a noose was getting to my neck. I didn’t even have my overcoat when I started off, but when he yelled after me to come back for it, I just yelled back that I needed a brisk walk, that it wasn’t cold and there was no wind. I just wanted to get away.
The truth is, I had already sensed that something was very wrong with this situation. As I walked along at double time, I tried to think what it could be. Maybe the candy was poisoned. I really knocked that one around a long time before deciding it was too far-fetched. Maybe Natty wanted us all in on something that was good and illegal, something he could blackmail us over, and he needed us stone-drunk to do it. That seemed a little more likely. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed.
I got to where I saw some square lights low through the trees. I kept on till I came to a little village, the snow crunching under my shoes and not making my feet a bit cold. It’s always amazed me how dry and fur-like a new snow is. It sounds more like a rug under your feet than like something made of water. I had this urgent desire for somebody to see me—sober, alone, and decent—at just this hour. Somebody in this village. I glanced at my watch. It was four o’clock. I went into a little store that sold souvenirs and knick-knacks and made a point of talking to the old guy behind the counter. We talked about the weather for a while, then he got out of me why I was here and who I was. He wanted my autograph, so I signed a baseball that he fished out from somewhere in my firmest, soberest hand. In the back of my mind was that stupid piece of candy again.
By the time I got back to the lodge, it was dark—or at least you couldn’t see any shimmer in the clouds low against the trees, for that was all the daylight there had ever been. The flip side was that it never really got dark with all that snow yawning at your feet and huddling at your elbows in the trees, and those low, still clouds sitting over the woods like a polished lid. You felt kind of like Hansel and Gretel in a fairy tale. It was like a dream with its own special light, like a Christmas tree full of tinsel and hidden candles.
If I make a point of the story-book feeling, it’s because maybe that feeling got ahold of me and made me more scared, more numb, than I would have been at what I was about to see. The snow on the back steps muffled my long climb up to the door, for the porch was a good five feet off the ground. But I’m sure there was enough racket and horse play inside that they wouldn’t have heard me, anyway. Horse play I was prepared to see. After all, they’d been playing Game Six of the World Series with a bundle of socks and a fire poker two hours ago when I walked out. But what I saw through that big picture window, as clear as if I’d been sitting in the front row of a movie theater, was two or three of the guys with automatic pistols like that Luger Natty had shown me. And I saw them shooting the other guys. I swear I even saw splats of blood. Nick DeStefano had on a white shirt, and there were little red spots all up and down it as he fell over the back of the sofa and sprawled over the floor. Al Malachy stood over him, one hand leaning on the sofa, and pumped a few more shots into his chest just for good measure. Of all people, Al Malachy. I once saw him turn as white as a girl when he spiked a second baseman and drew blood.
Well, I can’t really tell you what went through my mind then. As you can imagine, I was pretty shocked, but that doesn’t begin to describe it. I’m not sure anything went through my mind. I think I was just as empty as a snowman. I once saw a tank back over a guy who hadn’t seen it coming. And I once slid into a foxhole and found myself beside a body that had been dead for days, or maybe weeks. This was the same kind of thing in the way that it seemed to be happening in slow motion, and I seemed to be watching it happen over and over again while it was still going on. Only this time it was worse, because those other things were just accidents. You lift up the cover and see something you’re not supposed to sometimes—life is like that. It has a lot of little covered-up places that you’re just supposed to walk over. But this was unnatural. Something like this wouldn’t happen again in a million years. A bunch of teammates killing each other in cold blood just for fun.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but I do remember the first real thought I had. It was about Natty, and I remember the first words I said. "That son of a bitch."
It was about that time that I saw Nick leap up, along with all the other guys who’d been shot dead before my eyes. They laughed and laughed until they had to hold their sides. And the guys with the pistols laughed, too. One of the dead men grabbed a pistol and opened up on his murderer until the guy—I think it was Big George Pollock—threw up his hands and screamed, "You’re too close, damn it! That hurts!" When I heard those words, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard the gunshots—not real gunshots, but just little pops like a kid’s roll of caps. (Probably even less noisy than that, since the window didn’t seem to filter out much of the ruckus.) At the same time, two other guys with guns had turned on each other and were having a shoot-out at the OK Corral. Something pinged on the glass right in front of me like an angry insect, and I watched a big drop of red run down the window.
So it had all been a game. I guess I should have been relieved. I guess I was, but I was also mad as hell. I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever seen. It made me want to turn right on my heel and walk out of there for good. But I’d left my overcoat and my overnight bag inside, and I didn’t really have any other place to go or any way to get there. I just ground my teeth and clenched my fists for a while, waiting for things to die down inside. I wasn’t dumb enough to walk in on this until the air was out of their sails.
When they were all finally lounging over the furniture and crowding around the booze, I slipped silently through the back door. The heat almost suffocated me. That was how steamed up I’d gotten outside after being cold as ice. Jimmy was the first one to see me, his legs thrown over the arm of a chair and his head about to roll off his shoulders.
"God, Johnny, where’ve you been? Where’ve you been?" he said. "You missed all the fun!"
"Yeah," I said. "I saw."
I came down the couple of steps to the sunken area around the fireplace—I told you the place had class—and went to the bar to see if there was anything left. I thought a fingerful of Scotch might do me good. But most of the bottles were rolling around on the carpet. Where they should have been was a very realistic-looking pellet gun. I barely nudged it with my finger. "Some fun. Some game. I guess you guys got tired of replaying the season, so you thought you’d refight the war."
"Ah, don’t be a sourpuss, Johnny," said Nick, with more red than white showing on his chest.
"We were commemorating your immortal escape," said the college boy. There was a splotch of red right in the middle of his forehead. "We had three prison guards, and the rest of us had to make it from the kitchen to the hearth."
"You may have noticed I got back from my escape with two good eyes," I said. "If that pellet had been an inch lower and a little to the side, you’d be hawking peanuts in the stands next spring."
Well, that left them all quiet. Even Kowalski—who, I could tell, had been concentrating with all his brain on some contribution he was about to make—just stood there with his mouth open. I looked all around the room, not at them but around them and behind them, every one of them. "Where’s Natty?" I said.
Just then, as if he’d been listening in and waiting for his cue, Natty pushed open the swinging door of the kitchen and came strutting in grandly with another big silver tray of food. And what do you think was right in the middle of it? More of those damn white chocolate baseballs, this time as big as life. I was studying how they all seemed to have numbers written on them like billiard balls while Natty picked his way into the middle of things, chirping to everybody that he had more goodies. He came to a sudden halt right in front of me as if he hadn’t seen me, and cried something like, "Hey, Johnny, you’re back! Just in time to join us!"
I don’t know why I was so sure it was all fake—maybe because he’d been so deliberately looking away from me before then that he must have known I was there all along. And I don’t know why, at the time, it should have mattered to me, though I know why it matters now. But even then, at the time, I remember how much it bothered me.
"Look, guys!" he said. "You liked the other ones so much that I had some more made up, this time bigger and with your numbers on them. That way we’ll know that everybody gets one."
They all descended on the tray like vultures. I don’t know if they were that hungry or they just welcomed the excuse to break up the little conversation I was having with them. There were crackers and cheese and sausages and other morsels, as well. It all disappeared in about five seconds, and I heard some more bottles clinking somewhere. There were just three numbers left in the middle of the platter, nine, six, and seventeen—Al Malachy’s, Natty’s, and mine. Natty asked after Mal. Somebody said he’d gone off to find the little room. I wondered if all the blood-letting had sickened him, after all—but probably just too much booze. Then Natty turned to me with those fake fawn-eyes that never blinked. "Johnny," he said. "Don’t you want yours?"
I looked at the number seventeen. It was done ever so neatly in blue icing edged in red, like on our uniforms, and I guess it had been baked on so it wouldn’t run. "How about some real food, Natty?" I said. "I’ll admit that I'm hungry, but not for candy. How about a steak or something?"
"Lena’s gone for a few things to go with the roast and potatoes in the oven," said Natty smoothly.
"Yeah," piped Jimmy over his shoulder, "like a few blondes and a redhead or two." And some of the guys added a few things that I won’t bother to write down.
Natty smiled at me like a father indulging his naughty children. "I told her to pick up a few of her friends on her way back."
"Well," I said, "I guess I’ll wait, then."
Natty kept giving me that same big innocent stare, but his mouth narrowed and hardened underneath it. I could tell that I was really getting on his nerves, all because I wouldn’t take that dumb piece of candy. I was more determined than ever now that I wasn’t going to stuff the thing down my throat. What did he mean, anyway, about making up a new batch? In two hours, while Lena was out chasing after her friends and the guys were running all over the lodge shooting each other? Didn’t they just tell me that the kitchen had been the prison? And Natty was in there, I suppose, with all those drunken louts, stirring up this candied crap? I just looked him right back in the eye. We stood that way for a long time, staring at each other.
It seemed like a long time, at least. But about then, Kowalski belched something about my not caring for dames. "No wonder he’s Number Seventeen," he said. "You guys know what they call that in arithmetic, don’t you? It’s strange. Just like three times three is nine, that’s… well, and then—"
"Snap out of it, Sledge!" somebody laughed.
But Kowalski wouldn’t be put off. "But nothing times nothing is seventeen, except itself. Strange. All alone. Kind of… you know. Queer. A queer number."
"That’s prime number," the college boy corrected him as quickly as he could, but this time nobody was going to take the fuse out of the bomb. I grabbed the piece of candy and walked straight toward my big dumb jerk of a roommate. "Here," I said, tossing it up and down in the air in front of his nose. "You wanted another one of these a while back. You eat it."
He just looked at me and smirked, and before he could work his brain long enough to think up an answer, Natty was there between the two of us. "Johnny," he said, "he’s been drinking. Let it go. This is a party!"
I’ll tell you for sure that what stopped me wasn’t anything Natty had to say. It was the way he said it. His face was completely changed from a moment ago. His eyes were blinking sixty miles an hour. What was he so worried about? A good fight never spoiled any party like this, and it wouldn’t have lasted very long. He was right about one thing. Kowalski was so soused I could have knocked him over with my fingertip. I said so, too. "He’s right," I said. "You’re too drunk—but drunk or not, I swear to God, you say something like that again and I’ll kick your butt up your nose, and I’ll crisscross the sides halfway up your fat gut."
He raised his big hambone of a fist to let fly at me. But before he could even come forward with it, I gave him a push in the middle of his chest and sent him sprawling on the floor, right on his back. The guys just laughed, and he kicked and reached like a fish out of water. I stepped right over him and wandered back toward the door I’d just come in five minutes earlier. I don’t know why. I had no intention of going back out. I guess I would have gone looking for my bedroom in another minute. Imagine my surprise when Natty shows up at my side holding my overcoat, still wearing that twitchy look on his face. "Johnny," he whispered, "can you do me a big favor? The Scotch and Bourbon are almost gone. I told Lena to get some more, but at the rate these guys are drinking... well, there’s a little village just a mile or so through those trees where you went walking this afternoon. You may have seen it."
"Yeah, I saw it," I said.
"There’s a little store on the far edge of town—the far side from here. Cuddihy’s. Would you... I’ll slip twenty bucks into your pocket. Do you mind? You’re the only guy here who can walk a straight line."
And before I had time to think twice about it, he was helping me get my overcoat on with one hand, and turning the doorknob with the other. I couldn’t very well say no, especially since I’d told him I had already been to the village. As my right hand came through the sleeve in a big fist, we both saw that candy baseball pop up before us. Natty’s eyes sparkled for just a second, but he snuffed the fire out in a hurry. "There," he said with a weak, nervous grin. "Take it with you. You can eat it along the way if you get hungry."
I stuffed the thing in my coat pocket and let him hold the door open for me. On my way out, I heard somebody shout, "Hey! Time for one more round of Johnny-Comes-Marching-Home before the girls get here. This time I get to be a guard."
The door closed on those words, but through the picture window I could hear Nick DeStefano squeaking, "No shooting at the face this time. Johnny’s right." The poor schmuck—he never had much of an eye at the plate, anyway. But he wouldn’t be striking out any more after tonight.
And that’s my story, believe it or not. That’s all I know first-hand about the lodge and what went on there. I never saw the place again, and all I know about what followed is what the papers said when the police let me see them and what my attorney told me. In the whirlwind of the last two weeks, I had almost misplaced that second walk to the village, that walk through the snow at night. It seems to be floating adrift from everything else in my memory, like another walk I took through some mountains in northeast France—like a kid’s memory of his favorite Christmas. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything in this world. It was too good, too pure, too peaceful. Of course, I knew it was no mile to the village. It was at least two if it was an inch. Natty had just been trying to finesse me into going. But once I got started, I enjoyed this walk even more. The forest that had seemed so dead and still in the weak daylight began to move around me now, almost as if I were the one rooted to the ground. It was as silent as ever, but that was one of the things that made it seem alive in the dark. I mean, it’s not natural for things to be so quiet in the dark. You expect a cricket to chirp or a leaf to rustle. it was like all the trees were just holding their breath, watching me and tip-toeing behind me. But the nicest thing of all was the sky. It was lower than ever, and lighter than ever. I don’t know if the moonlight was showing through the thin clouds a bit, or if they could have been reflecting the snow all over the hills they practically sat on. I don’t know if either one is possible. All I know is that there was a streak through the clouds just overhead, like a road where wheels had rutted the snow and piled it up on the shoulders, and then more snow had fallen on top and you saw only these jaggedy furrows, all of it just over your head and leading into the treetops. That was the road I really wanted to take. it seemed so close. I felt like I could just about jump up to it.
I swear I almost missed the village. I didn’t want to go on this errand, and I didn’t want to think about all the things that were pressing in on my mind. Sure, I knew something was wrong—but I didn’t really know what. I thought maybe it was just me. Like they’re saying now, I thought maybe I was just a bit crazy. But no, not like they’re saying now. The truth is, I thought maybe I was the only sane guy left in the world. And I just wanted out. I wanted so much to follow that road just over my head.
Well, you can guess the rest. There was a Cuddihy’s, but not where Natty said it would be. I wasted a lot of time until I found it right in the middle of the village. And it wasn’t a store at all, but a bar where half that town must have gathered, so that when I walked in a bought two bottles of Scotch and two bottles of Bourbon, and then walked out again without even taking a sip in good sociable company, I must have looked pretty strange. I must have looked like somebody that intended to drink himself into his grave. I gather that’s the way the cops put it together, anyway. They picked me up when I’d gone only a couple of blocks on the way back. I don’t know if Natty had meant to paint that part of the picture for them, or if that was a little touch they added for themselves. Obviously, the main thing he’d wanted to do was get me out of there for at least the next thirty minutes. Good thing for him that I’m so strange, as Kowalski says—that I like to go for walks at night. But of course he knew that. He’d planned on it. That’s why he was able to paint the picture and put it in a nice frame.
So here I sit in a nice private cell, being treated with kid gloves because everyone remembers I’m a hero, trying to think of something to prove myself innocent of a crime I can’t even imagine. When I try to imagine it, it scares me. It sickens me. I think of what I saw through that picture window, only this time it’s real bullets and not pellets with dye. I see Natty playing Nazi prison guard, pointing his Luger at some poor soused giggling bastard, and squeezing off a couple of rounds through the guy’s heart. And most of all I see the look on the guy’s face, the surprise when he realizes that this is real—that his heart has just been splattered in his chest and he’s already dead—that this is his last thought and it’s going out like the afterglow of a flashbulb. And I think of Natty seeing that look, seeing it over and over again—setting the whole thing up just so he could see it over and over again. I think of what a sick swine he must have been all along. And then I think, "Wait a minute! It’s me that’s being charged with murder!" How do I defend myself when I can’t even stand to think about it? I wonder if Natty had counted on that, too?
He obviously didn’t count on one thing. He was in critical condition for three days with a gunshot wound through the back that barely missed his own rotten heart. Lena must not have meant to pop him quite so close to home. Maybe she just got nervous. Maybe her hand shook. Or maybe he got nervous. It’s hard to picture a sniveling coward like Natty gunning down thirteen men to their faces, even when they all thought the bullets were wax. And it’s even harder to imagine him turning his back so that Lena could plug him somewhere soft and give him the perfect alibi. Jesus, man, you must have hated us all an awful lot for your hatred to be that much greater than your fear.
My attorney told me Al Malachy was found next to the bathroom window, shot six times all over the chest, front and back. All the others were cleaner. Just a shot or two at point-blank range. First the prisoners, I suppose. And then a little Hopalong Cassidy action with the two or three guys that had the pellet guns. But Mal was different. In his hurry to mow them all down while I was out of the way, Natty had forgotten to count. He’d forgotten that Mal was in the bathroom. Somehow, Mal had seen what was happening. Maybe he’d come out a few minutes later and seen all the blood—not dye, but blood, made extra thin by pints and pints of alcohol, knee-deep all over the floor. Maybe he screamed and ran back into the bathroom. Anywhere else and he might have just thrown himself through a window. But the bathroom window was too small. Natty follows him in. This time he has to kill someone who knows he’s going to die. His hand shakes, and he doesn’t shoot so straight. He has to shoot over and over again. How did it feel, Natty? Did all the fun go out of it this time?
My attorney’s right about one thing. As I put all this stuff down on paper, certain things are becoming very clear. Obviously, Natty had a silencer when he finished. Otherwise, everyone would have scrambled at the first shot. But with a silencer, that Luger would have sounded about like a pellet gun, at least with all the screaming and all the booze in their brains. He had to take the silencer off, though, because the story was that I went bonkers when I saw them all playing with the pellet guns. It’s no secret that I don’t like to talk about the war. More than one reporter who tried to squeeze me for a story about Germany got a short answer. I even grabbed one hack by his yellow collar. Nice little puzzle just waiting for the other pieces—I see the play-shooting, go crazy, snatch the Luger, and think I’m in the middle of the Bulge. I shoot everyone in sight, including Natty—who, good little host and choir boy that he is, hadn’t wanted to play the game and almost managed to make it out the front door. Then I wander off into the dark night like a zombie, dropping the Luger in the snow just outside the lodge. Of course my fingerprints were all over it. Natty had seen to that. But I wouldn’t have put a silencer on it—not in my crazy, berserk state.
So where’s the silencer? That’s one thing the cops can look for. They haven’t found it yet because they haven’t been looking for it, but it’s there. If they go back and look for it, they’ll find it somewhere.
Another thing. If I flip my lid, would I have the presence of mind to reload the pistol? Would there be another clip handy? What was it doing loaded in the first place? By my count there were enough rounds fired that I would have needed to reload at least once. A small thing, and some police psychiatrist will probably get up and swear that crazies can do all the things I’m supposed to have done. But I don’t know. That’s something somebody should think about.
And there’s this, too. Either Natty tossed that Luger out into the snow, or Lena did. I think Natty did it. For one thing, he had arranged it all so carefully, he’d want to see to as many details as he could. Why trust Lena when he could see to it himself? And if he tossed it there’d only be two sets of prints on it—his, as the owner’s, and mine, as the murderer’s. If Lena touched it, my prints might get smeared, plus the fact that someone might begin to wonder why this gun got handled so much.
So that brings me to the clencher. Natty couldn’t toss the gun if he’d just been shot, okay? Then I ask myself, why should he let himself get shot with the Luger in the first place when a little peashooter would do the trick? As long as he got shot, nobody would look too close at the wound or try to recover the bullet, and it would sure be a lot less painful for him. So Natty tosses the Luger, and Lena shoots him with some little snub-nose job in her purse. Maybe it’s still there. Probably not. But the bullet’s still there, in the wall right before the front door. Lena would have stood so close that it would’ve passed right through. He’d make her, so she wouldn’t miss the sweet spot—which she might just have done on purpose, the sweetie—and maybe he’d even kneel down right before, so he wouldn’t break his mug falling. The bullet’s there, all right, in the floor if not the wall. If they dig it out, they’ll find out it’s not the same caliber as the others. They haven’t found it yet because they weren’t looking for it. If they go back, they’ll find it.
And where was supper? Natty told me Lena had a roast in the oven. There was no roast in the oven. Would you waste a good roast, knowing it would never be touched? Maybe he’ll call me a liar from his hospital bed, but then he’ll have to explain what he intended to feed so many big men. I’ll bet there’s not even anything in the pantry. They didn’t notice because they didn’t look. But they’ll go back and look, and they’ll see that I’m right.
Lena wasn’t cooking anything any more than she went out after friends. She was hiding in the lodge and waiting, just waiting. Or maybe she drove the car around the bend and stopped. But she came back immediately at Natty’s signal. She had to, because she phoned the police from there—they were on my tail minutes after it happened. They knew just where to find me. How did they know—how did she know? If she was collecting friends, how could she have known where I went? Or if she’s saying she saw the whole thing, then why did I leave her alive? Proof that I’m crazy, I guess.
They fixed the time of death to an ace, and they picked me up not half an hour later after Lena called, from what I understand. So why did she wait to call? A half hour to walk to the village, and I’m sure somebody must have seen me knocking around looking for Cuddihy’s. Call it almost an hour. That leaves about half an hour between the shootings and her call. Hasn’t anyone thought what a long time that is? They’ll think now, and the whole puzzle will start coming apart. Or say the time of death isn’t fixed so well. Say that I stagger around the house for a while like Frankenstein, looking for more victims, and finally walk out the door after half an hour, then the very next minute Lena rushes to the phone. So what did I do, sprint the two miles to the village through the snow? Did I look winded when I walked into Cuddihy’s? A lot of people will say otherwise. Either way, it all comes apart.
Poor Natty, your girl can’t even cook! And to make matters worse, maybe she’s a thinker. Maybe she imagined how she could have you out of the way completely instead of being tied to you for life as an accomplice, never able to refuse you anything, always wondering when you’d spring a leak. Or maybe she just flinched before pulling the trigger, or maybe you did. But I’ll bet you gave her everything you had, and she still liked the thought of you lying there dead.
Which one of you made the candy, Natty? Lena may have stirred the pot, but it was your recipe. I’ve figured that out, too, sitting here writing it all down. The first batch had something in it like pep pills. Not that you needed some witch’s brew to get that bunch of guys to act wild—but a little insurance couldn’t hurt, and the drug along with the booze would make their hearts pump faster, make their blood spill out like a fountain. That had to be why you didn’t want Kowalski stuffing four or five of the things down his throat. If he keeled over in a coma, the whole dance would have to be called off. Plus the fact that there would be none for Johnny.
But you knew that Johnny hadn’t taken his, anyway. Even though I lied to you out there on the back porch, you could tell that my nerves were too calm. It didn’t really matter the first time around, though, especially since I went for a walk. But the second time—that was another matter. I had to take my medicine then, because I was the patsy. I was the one guy that was going to be left alive, and you had to be sure that I’d just sit there like a dummy and watch you shoot the daylights out of everyone.
What exactly did you put in Number Seventeen, Natty? The others probably just had more of the same old joy juice. But mine was the one that was different. That was why they were all numbered—because Number Seventeen was different from all the others. And that’s why you almost passed out when I was going to stuff mine down Kowalski’s big mouth. I guess it would have put me into a crazed stupor. The police would have arrived, and I would have been sitting there foaming at the mouth and quivering all over like a lunatic—a lunatic with a gun in his hand who’d just shot thirteen people. They wouldn’t have tested my blood because they wouldn’t have seen any need to. The picture would be right there before them, and Lena would be standing by to frame it—she saw the whole thing, or she’d just got back and heard your last words before you fainted, or whatever. I can’t wait to hear how her part goes!
But now there had to be some last-minute adjustments, since you couldn’t just blindly hope that I’d pull the candy out and eat it on my way to the village. I’ll have to hand it to you—the new touches matched all the other colors. It was really beautiful, really daring—not what anyone would have expected of The Nasty Gnat. You hated us all so much that you took some awfully big chances to make everything fit. When I think of all those guys just stumbling around giggling, too boozy to make anything of the silencer that was leveled at their ribs—I wouldn’t slaughter a bunch of hungry rats the way you cut those guys down. And you engineered it, Natty. Shooting fish in a barrel—or out of a spilled barrel, flapping around on the floor with their mouths gaping and their eyes bugging. That was just the way you’d dreamed of it. You sick son of a bitch.
Of course, they probably won’t find Number Seventeen now. It was in my overcoat pocket, and some stupid desk sergeant probably carried it off to his coffee break. Then he had a world-champion headache and had to be taken home sick. He didn’t tell his superiors what he’d eaten because he didn’t want to be walking a beat again. Just my luck. And even if it happened the way I just wrote it, and someone got sick in such-and-such an office on such-and-such a day and he confesses what he ate, they won’t be able to prove what was in the candy. It would never hold up in court. I know that.
But the other piece, the one I dropped into the snow—that’s a different matter. That one’s still there, Natty, and it’s just waiting to be found. There’ve been no ants, and there’ve been no birds. The snow has kept falling, and it’s gotten colder and colder. Tomorrow’s Christmas Day, Natty. Maybe tonight they’ll find my little present in the snow. That’s all I need. Just one piece of candy with one little dose of something nasty. Then my whole story begins to hold up, Natty. Because otherwise, what would that something nasty be doing in even one piece of candy? It’s there under a foot of snow, Natty—your ticket to the electric chair. I’m a free man and you’re a dead one. It’s just a matter of time now.
Of course, there’ll still be some strong evidence on your side. It might be close to fifty-fifty. After all, you got shot and I didn’t. You’re lying in the hospital, not me. Lena did you a favor when she almost killed you. That’s your best defense.
But they’ll sweat her after they find the candy. And if they do, you know she won’t go down with you. They’ll cut her a little slack. My best buddy back in Basic was a cop. A whip and a carrot, he used to say—that’s how they question suspects. That’s how a couple of them questioned me yesterday. Some smart cop will offer Lena a nice fat carrot. She can say that she never knew you had killing in mind, that she thought you just wanted to get the boys drunk and make them look like idiots. She walks into the lodge, sees all the bodies, gets scared crazy as you come at her with the Luger, and shoots you with a gun in her purse. Then she tosses the Luger and fingers me because if they pin it on you, she’s afraid she’ll have an equal piece of whatever you get. But as it turns out—as a new picture takes shape between her and some detective—she was really just a victim, and all she ever did was defend herself. It’ll be an easy sell to everyone. The press already calls you "black magic". It’ll be a real good deal for her, Natty, maybe just a slap on the hand in return for her testimony. And then you won’t have a friend in the world. It’ll just be a race to see if they can strap you in the chair before the whole city drags you out to the nearest lamp post.
I don’t know why I’ve fallen into writing this to you of all people. I was supposed to be writing to the jury. I shouldn’t be writing at all now, but yelling at the guard to get my attorney. I’ve untied the bag you put me in and made a noose for your neck out of the string that held it shut. You know as well as anyone that they love me in this town as much as they hate you. Christmas Eve, and the detectives offered to work overtime if I came up with anything. Mr. Dotson says if they turn up something good, he’ll get me out of here tonight and take me home with him. He has a wife and three kids—that’s how much he believes I’m a crazed killer! He says the District Attorney has left orders to be called at any time before midnight at his house. They’re all ready to rubber-stamp me right out of here with a lot less evidence than I’m going to have soon, Natty. Why didn’t you think of that? You thought of everything else. Why didn’t you make Kowalski the villain of the piece? You hated his guts, he hated yours, and nobody would have that much trouble buying that he blew his stack and did something crazy. Why me? What did I ever do to you?
But it had to be me, didn’t it? It’s because I’m the American Dream come true—Lou Gehrig turned war hero—that it had to be me. My God, it wasn’t personal, after all. It was just because I was the perfect portrait of everything you weren’t, the masterpiece of that great dumb public that threw spitwads at your face. You figured that the best way to get even with them all was to make their golden boy grow fangs. I think I get it now. That was really the whole point, even more than murdering those thirteen other guys. You had to turn the headlines upside-down—it was vengeance on the whole country. I get it now. And to do that, you had the guts to match The Nasty Gnat against Clean John. My God, that took guts, after all.
Not that you don’t deserve to fry ten times over. I’m going to see that they do it to you. You deserve it, Natty, not because of me or the other thirteen guys so much as for the hundreds of thousands that died to stop the kind of thing you went through. When this hits the papers, the Kowalskis of the world are all going to say, "They ought to run all that scum right out of the country, or round them all up and lock them all away forever." It’ll be almost like I never went to war, like none of us ever went to war—like all the ones who went and died did it for nothing. You’re going to set everything back twenty years. There’s not a death in this world that’s ugly enough for what you deserve.
But you had guts, after all. Maybe if I had that kind of guts, I’d tear up this stack of papers. Maybe I’d confess and spend the rest of my life in jail, just so all the guys I fought beside wouldn’t have given up their youth and their sweet dreams and their lives for nothing. I want to do it—I’d like to do it. What I wouldn’t give to see your face, if I did do it! That would be the real way to snuff you out and turn you into nothing. The world would never catch fire from your hatred. No one would ever know.
But I can’t. I’m already climbing the walls in here, and it’s been less than two weeks. The rest of my life? Maybe if they were going to execute me, maybe then—but they’ll never execute Clean John. You saw to that, too. You want me festering in their side for the next fifty years, not buried tomorrow and forgotten next week. And I just can’t do it. I guess that’s why I bailed out of that German troop carrier. I figured they’d shoot me down or I’d break my neck, but neither held a candle to the thought of being cooped up for months and years. I needed out. I need out.
So I’ll raise my voice in just another minute. I’ll wake up Christmas Day on Mr. Dotson’s sofa. I’ll watch his three kids open their presents, and I’ll call Sis long-distance and tell her to stick this in her in-laws’ faces. I didn’t want to go to Philadelphia for Christmas, anyway—at least you saved me that trip. But I don’t want her to take on. If it all goes fast enough, maybe I’ll call tonight. Just like Santa Claus.
And then I’ll leave the Dotsons alone and take a walk down to the stadium. It’ll be cold but clear. The streets will be empty except for a few kids trying out their sleds. And around the stadium, there won’t be anyone. I’ll jump a fence and get out on the field. Stadiums, you know, are all haunted. By the Ruths and the Gehrigs, but also by the Hitlers and Mussolinis. All those cheers, all those boos. And tomorrow there’ll be nothing but a foot of snow. That would be a picture worth seeing.
De omnibus pauca, de nullo omnia.
I, too, am disturbed by the Spanish language’s apparently ungovernable affection for trend, slang, and popular parlance. Your editor has now written two pieces on foreign language which lament that Spanish-speakers, in particular, seem to have no regard for grammatical proprieties and no awareness of literary tradition. There are innumerable instances besides those mentioned in Praesidium of misused words which are now mainstream Spanish. Perjuicio can still mean "prejudice", but it is more often used by ordinary folks to mean "harm" or "damage". As far as I know, contestar has long ceased to mean "contest, take issue with", and now means only "answer, respond to". After watching a Spanish newscast in utter perplexity the other night, I finally learned that the word secuestro means "kidnapping" exclusively. I have no idea how a Spanish speaker would say "sequestration" these days. I suppose he just doesn’t say it.
I know that all languages subtly shift the meanings of their words as they grow; but the common thread in these cases is that a usefully precise meaning is being shoved aside in favor of a blunt, general meaning for which other words already exist. I can well imagine some untutored onlooker picking up words like perjuicio and contestar from the conversation of the village priest or of an intellectual stumping for political office and coming away with such misconceptions: "He said he contested their definition of prejudice. Let’s see, that means he came back with a different answer about what hurts people." That such dull interpretation should be allowed to decide the future of a language is very sad—and I would think that the friends of Spanish would be the first to see this.
The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure
Dear Wistful Paladin,
It will come as little comfort to you, no doubt, if I observe that all languages are now pursuing the same sort of "development" as Spanish. While frittering away some time the other day with a crossword puzzle, I found that "yield" was offered as a clue for the word "relent". Now, if surrendering is not a good 180 degrees from lightening up, it is at least 90. The word "disintegrate" is believed by most young people to be a synonym for "annihilate", probably thanks to sci-fi movies. I could go on. What angers me about the degeneration of English is how willingly the academy has presided over it. A Chilean peasant has every excuse in the world not to understand Octavio Paz… but what’s the excuse around campus for bristling at the word "niggardly"?
I was shocked the other day to hear it suggested that the word "croak", when used as slang to mean "kill", is actually very old and not (as I had thought) a coinage of the last fifty years. Is this true? At the time of being taken to task, I was criticizing a Western movie which otherwise had very authentic language for using the word to refer to a lynching. Maybe my learned co-viewer was just pulling my leg.
Stickler for Proper Slang
Dear Defender of Standards,
Three cheers for the Western—such authenticity is indeed rare, for "croak" in the sense of "snuff out" has specific reference (believe it or not) to hanging! The word was borrowed directly from the Celtic languages (crochadh in Irish and crogi in Welsh). Heaven only knows how it found its way into mainstream American slang—probably through the same urban populations of Irish immigrants which gave us "galore" (from go leor, "to the full, aplenty") and "shanty" (from sean tighe, "old house"). We all know that language conceals many lessons in sociology. The people who were getting themselves hanged in disproportionate numbers back in the nineteenth century were, not surprisingly, the ones who had the fewest resources and drew the least sympathy among the broader populace: people such as Irish day-laborers and Welsh coal miners.
I have long been puzzled and dismayed at how prolifically words ending in –al are producing their own nouns these days. I suppose "prolificality" could be coined at any minute, for that matter. Words like "practicality" and "modality" have been around for decades, if not centuries, even though the Romans had no practicalitas or modalitas; yet still other words—the kind that particularly offend me—just pop out of the ground like poisonous toadstools, usually in some scholarly journal that I read. Theatricality? Literality? When did "rascalry" become "rascality"? Is a tendency to imitate Pascal destined to be called, perhaps, "pascality"? It seems to me that some sort of line has clearly been crossed by such jaw-breakers and headache-harbingers.
The Romans, of course, had a very shallow pool of abstract nouns due to their "hands on" approach to life. Were it not for Cicero, all of the few philosophical opera of pagan Latin would have been heavily seasoned with Greek words. The early Christian church, once it had adopted Latin rather than Greek as its preferred means of broadcasting to the world, was forced to import or invent a great many more –tas words (castitas, fidelitas, caritas) since it was projecting ultimate reality as nothing less than a lofty abstraction from the deceptive minutiae of day-to-day living. You can thank Christianity for the most intense influx of these words before the twentieth century.
Then we have the words which really offend you—and rightly so. There’s no excuse for the super-abundance of abstract nouns in much academic writing. Indeed, such nouns are invariably founded upon false abstraction. An essay by our staff which appears in this issue ("Look Homeward, Angela": see p. 6) partially cites a call for scholarly papers. The version of this involuntarily amusing document which reached my desk contained further matter about the "physicality" of homeland boundaries. The example is classic. National boundaries, you will admit, cannot be other than physical: a wall, a fence, and river. Even a line of longitude running along a map serves to designate a physical line not reinforced by walls or fences or rivers, perhaps, but entirely determinable by a team of surveyors. The state of being physical is not an attribute of a nation which may be contemplated apart from the concept of nationhood: it is essential, rather, to that concept’s definition. Nothing physical, no nation. To contemplate the ethereality of air would make just as much sense.
Now, the question naturally arises, why is such falsely abstract asininity proliferating today? If early Christianity was injecting a salutary note spirituality into the Roman world, the current passion for abstraction surely has far more to do with the beloved obfuscations of pettifoggers and bureaucrats. Lawyers, professors, and government flunkeys all share a need to say little or nothing behind the artful appearance of having said a great deal. Of the professorial class (with which my familiarity is deepest), I must confess also that I observe an unflattering kind of honesty involved in this muddle-mindedness. Many young scholars quite frankly do not know how to think, because they have never been taught how. The conference referred to in my previous paragraph was probably not the product of a long sigh and the plaint, "Oh, God… what topic can we do this year?" No, I suspect a lot of good young minds are sincerely enthusiastic about exploring the physicality of boundaries. That’s what goes on at institutions of higher learning now: people sit around discussing the airiness of air.
Having strayed thus far into the subject (and committed Praesidium, already, to a second page of "hard copy" for my column), I shall anticipate the objection that surely some of the abstract nouns christened in academic writing are useful. No doubt; but the vast majority is indeed the fuzzy coalescence of ratiocinative lint. Take "theatricality". Does the state of being theatrical deserve elevation to an imperishable vice or virtue? Isn’t the vice in question vanity, and doesn’t the theatrical person simply display his vanity in public, highly visible places? Or return to "physicality". To assert the physical form of something would necessarily be to distinguish that same something from its non-physical form—and of what category of things are we compelled to do this? Boundaries, perhaps: that is, concepts for which a physical object condenses or concentrates an effect or import—cases of synecdoche, in a word. The Berlin Wall was both physical and symbolic. Yes, very well. But to designate the Wall’s concrete dimension as "physicality" is to blur rather than to clarify its complex truth. The material barrier did not "have physicality": it was the physical facet of a symbol. To divide the Wall up into physicality and spirituality (for instance) would be to dismantle its symbolic power rather than to achieve deeper understanding of it. Were one to undertake a purely physical operation upon the Wall’s purely physical dimension—pouring cement into a crack, say—one could not declare, "I am presently interested only in the Wall’s physicality," without being ridiculously bombastic. In such circumstances, The Wall would merely be a wall. Its symbolic nature would have vanished for the moment, and the assertion that a wall was a physical object would be a fatuous tautology of the sort that seldom passes a bricklayer’s lips.
The profusion of abstract nouns among our intelligentsia is in fact the flip side of hierarchical thinking’s obliteration among the same class. Our professional intellectuals no longer arrange things one beneath another: all is strewn laterally across the table, waiting to severed from the whole and admired in isolation at the individual thinker’s whimsy. It has been often and fairly said that the proto-literate Homer reduced every idea to a hard object. Now our post-literate, wired-and-woolly day-dreamers refine every solid object into a free-floating fantasy as they court a perverse, mildly insane mysticism.
As I type, I have noticed that my word-processing program has thrown a red line under your "rascalry" and has not red-lined my "physicality"; so, you see, the infection is already in our collective bloodstream.
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