P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
4.2 (Spring 2004)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
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 (Fall 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 (2004), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison:
Wir sollten aus unserer Geschichte wissen, daß der Gegensatz Verbrecher-Idealist keiner ist. "We ought to know from our own history that the criminal-idealist contrast is void." ~ Heinrich Böll
This issue is especially rich in "second takes" upon books and ideas which have enjoyed rather too much fanfare.
The Aesthetic Crisis of Post-Literacy: How Lack of Finesse Feeds Moral Collapse
John R. Harris
A recurrent theme of Praesidium is that post-literacy has visited an unbearable lightness of being upon Western culture. Could the fine arts offer us a means of recovering depth?
The ancient Greek myth involving the foolish Paris’s award of the golden apple to Aphrodite—a rash act which precipitated an entire culture’s extermination—can readily be viewed as a cautionary tale for our own troubled time.
A Young Person’s Guide to Postmodernism
four polemical book reviews by Paul Sonnino
A half-dozen works of critical theory were invariably taught with quasi-religious devotion to graduate students in the relativistic seventies and eighties. Professor Sonnino’s none-too nostalgic retrospective shows the emperor’s once-new clothes for what they were.
review-essay by Mark Wegierski
The late Sir James Goldsmith sought to adumbrate a kind of cultural conservatism in The Trap which would reject much of what passes for the conservative in the United States. Canadian Mark Wegierski considers his effort a mixed and very faintly theatrical success.
Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, by Don Watson.
reviewed by Margaret Turnbull
A distinguished Australian’s recent survey—wincing but sharp-sighted—of contemporary English usage is reassuring only inasmuch as Americans need not feel solely culpable in the murder of the King’s English.
Words in Spring’s Hour Glass: Three Poems
Ralph S. Carlson
Our title, Dr. Carlson’s poems: these works are not dedicated to springtime, yet they project a sense of words grappling with change which seems fully appropriate to the season.
Terminal Promotion (short story)
Four ambitious administrators think that they have died and gone to heaven, having underestimated their various talents for making everyone around them miserable.
Do two people hug one another or each other? Are lines toed or towed?
A Few Words from the Editor
Appearances notwithstanding, Praesidium is not altering its format to become primarily a journal of book reviews. The lengthy and spirited assessment of postmodern critical theory which Professor Sonnino most graciously sent to me over the winter is, of course, a reappraisal of works once held collectively as the Graduate School Bible (at least if one were unfortunate enough to enter grad school as an English or Comparative Literature major in the late seventies or eighties). I know that a great many of us have shared Dr. Sonnino’s discomfort with Derrida, Foucault, and company for quite some while. When I was still immersed in the academy myself and would attend my region’s annual meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, I clearly recall the odd mix of bright young things reading their papers about "discourse" and "signifiers" while the Old Guard milled about the coffee pot and muttered estimates of how long the trend in impenetrable jargon would last. It was altogether too easy to have a paper accepted for reading in those days if you only sprinkled the right formulas through it, and altogether too hard to understand what the paper could be saying beyond the transparently obvious. There was something de mauvaise foi about it all. To my mind, Dr. Sonnino has driven a stake straight through the dark heart of critical theory’s ambulant corpse. Though making such common-sensical remarks as his out in the open remains somewhat risky in many quarters, the thaw has definitely begun. May the days continue to grow warmer!
Likewise, the reviews which Mark Wegierski and Margaret Turnbull generously submitted to me are not just a couple of perfunctory salutes to new books by large presses. (Have you ever noticed, by the way, how carefully the hack reviewer confines his sharpest barbs for products of the least influential publishing houses?) Both of these scholarly commentators have written about works which happen to treat subjects of significant interest to them as educated observers of a troubled planet. Both also hail from points of the Anglophone world beyond the borders of the United States (Mark from Canada and Margaret from Australia). Since I have every reason to suspect that, even on the Internet, Praesidium’s readership remains mostly American, these perspectives achieved from slightly unfamiliar pinnacles will prove especially revealing, I trust. The experience of reading Blackwood’s Magazine as an adolescent permanently cured me of what is now (with a supercilious fatuity) called ethnocentrism. Mr. Wegierski’s review of Sir James Goldsmith’s book, in particular, recalls my youthful encounter to me, and is bound to surprise the younger or less traveled members of our audience with the vista it offers of a cultural conservatism quite unlike any known to us in the land of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s (where, frankly, we have little culture left to conserve). That Goldsmith’s approach to conserving delicate plants on the human landscape seems less than fully viable is very plausibly (and very charitably) presented in the essay—yet the problems implicit in holding on to the past’s riches are not removed simply by letting the dead bury the dead, as the essay also stresses. We may, indeed, die as a culture (as well as in some more individual, biological, and catastrophic sense) if we do not learn how to cling to vital elements of our human heritage. Dr. Turnbull’s case for the preservation of the English language from promotional double-talk is the perfect companion piece to such concerns. I doubt that I am alone in suspecting that civil society is breaking down—quite overtly dissolving into frustrated, alienated, isolated exiles convinced that they are constantly misled and lied to—because of our linguistic collapse.
My own essay volunteers a partial or preliminary cure to the disease which I have pondered for years: a revival of fine music and the visual arts. If literacy cannot resuscitate itself from frivolity and déraison (it may, in fact, have infected itself through such agencies as Dr. Sonnino’s gallery of rogues—but that’s another story), then might the other arts prove more potent? Would rap music really stand up against a steady onslaught of Bach and Vivaldi? If posters of movie and sports stars had to compete with reproductions of Titian and Turner, would not the adolescent bedroom be transformed? If the mind is currently too cluttered to be approached through images which it must itself manufacture from the printed word, what about a direct assault of good taste upon the eye and ear? The voluptuous Helen is always more appealing to the debased intelligence, as Mr. Inbinder thoughtfully shows; but Athena would certainly win the rest of the beauty pageant, if only we could get beyond the swimsuit segment.
The beauty of the written word, naturally, is in nowise meant to be disparaged by my remarks. Ralph Carlson’s poetry suffices to remind us that words, too, can paint a canvas. For that matter, they can be a lot more fun than hipping and hopping to a multi-decibel drumbeat (which is apparently great fun to some). In evidence of this proposition, I adduce Mr. Davies’ short story.
The Aesthetic Crisis of Post-Literacy: How Lack of Finesse Feeds Moral Collapse
John R. Harris
μονωδία γαρ εν άπασιν εστι πλήσμιον και πρόσαντες, η δε ποικιλία τερπνόν
"For monotony is cloying and tedious in all things, while variety is delightful."
Plutarch, Περι παίδων αγωγης
In my essay for last quarter’s issue of Praesidium, I argued that moral goodness is at once forever beyond satisfaction in this life and constantly exigent of particular actions in this life. We cannot fulfill the demands of goodness as we can the demands of a grocery list, yet the pursuit of goodness generates lists without end. Stop lying! Think of the children! Listen to the anger in your words! Fierce cherubs pop up on our shoulder at every turn, their brow knitted and their finger shaking, to remonstrate against our conduct in acutely specific terms. It isn’t that we can transform ourselves into the lordly All Good One who sends these messengers by acceding to each of their demands—but by refusing even one such demand, we become most painfully convicted in our own eyes of unworthiness to stand in that beatific presence.
In this essay’s context, I would like to emphasize about the earlier discussion what one might call its aesthetic. The "game" of morality—of classing a certain situation’s imperative option under a universal law, then recognizing in another situation that this law must yield right-of-way, then admitting to oneself that goodness’s essence can sometimes evade the finest legalese—is a tennis match between qualitative and quantitative thought. Every right action, as Immanuel Kant observed in terms much misunderstood, must be conceived of as law.1 That is, the subject must present it to his mind as a quantity, a clear reality with distinct limits: for nothing short of such a concept would be binding on other subjects—it would be a mere subjective whim without the compulsory quality of an objective duty. Yet quantitative objectivity does indeed characterize the moral imperative as a quality; for, as moral endeavor itself keeps teaching us in a most humbling pedagogy, no law ever foresees all of its proper exceptions or suspensions.
For this reason, by the way, civilized people do not legislate morality in the formal sense of punishing infractions by mulct or imprisonment: i.e., because moral law is subjectively objective—it is objectively compelling, but not incontestably so beyond the details of an immediate situation and a specific agent. To expand its reign in any given case would inevitably be to violate its decrees in other cases. Lying is always wrong, but we make it illegal only when it imminently impedes the practical functioning of society (as in tax fraud or commercial swindle). The person who lies about knowing a celebrity is not arrested or ticketed. If he were, then we should have to punish identically the person who tells his five-year-old that mommy’s cancer operation is just a routine procedure at the doctor’s office.2
I never cease to be astonished at the number of people whose eyes cannot follow the rational tennis ball in this match—or who refuse to sit and watch, perhaps, because the very suggestion of a game over such lofty matter strikes them as seditious. They insist that the boundary lines of moral law are immovable, do not overlap, and rest impervious to all late-coming legal claims. If one appeals to the imperfect, ever-approximating, asymptotic nature of human reason, as I have done, they lean over and give the rug a brisk heave. They protest, that is, that moral law is from God and not from man. They point to holy writ, delivered by some means to which all the strictures of human perception and reflection are irrelevant (yet what could such a revelation be to any human creature, other than a tree falling unheard in a Siberian thicket?), and they insist that no placement of commas or parsing of verb tenses could possibly be a source of controversy in the sacred text. The alternative, as they see it, is to slip and slide in relativism. In fact, they are always (in my experience) quite forthright about this motive for their kind of belief. Their "not one altered comma" intransigence about the holy document’s perfect authority is not a reverence for the document itself, such as one might expect of an unlettered medieval swineherd allowed a glimpse of an illuminated gospel’s first page… no; their high regard for the book’s authority, rather is an afterthought which steadies their dizzy brains as the society around them dances over a moral abyss. At all costs, relativism must be repudiated.
But not at all costs, surely. Not at the cost of goodness itself, in whose holy name moral relativism is less odious than nonsensical. I must not ramble too far from my stated thesis of the aesthetic, especially so early in the essay. Yet all of the misguided objections to moral reason which I have just summarized are indeed, at their foundation, the product of deficient aesthetic acuity. Moral laws are not relative: if they were, they should not be laws. They are incomplete, however—be their mundane entirety ever so grandly ponderous—and they do sometimes make conflicting claims. It is because they make conflicting claims that the human spirit is led up toward a metaphysical dimension where (and there alone) final harmony may be joyfully anticipated. Here on earth, our choice to do good for one party constantly renders us incapable of doing good for another party. Sometimes we must even harm one of the parties through neglect. A prosaic example would be helping Jill with her homework instead of Jack because Jack is fourteen years old and Jill is twelve, or because Jill has a test tomorrow. To insist that the laws sanctioned by God (and, after all, what other laws could be moral?) do not allow of these territorial disputes is to straitjacket oneself within one of two preposterous and, frankly, irreverent propositions. Either sacred duty includes so paltry a number of behaviors that no collision between duties can ever arise, or else the behavior which is "clearly spelled out" in holy writ takes precedence and the option less mentioned or less clearly supported is cut adrift without a qualm. The latter sort of determination is often conducted with a repugnant self-righteousness—that is, with a mistaken righteousness whose origins are egotistical rather than impartial. Jack ends up getting helped at his homework because this sacred passage elevates the household son and heir, or else Jill gets the help because that passage blesses little children.
Such falsely pious buffoonery lacks finesse. It is finesse—sensitivity to qualitative detail, to tone and nuance—which generates moral imperatives for innumerable circumstances. It is finesse which pulls twelve tables or ten commandments or seven cardinal virtues off a cold marble slab or a brittle yellow page and animates them to walk into our daily lives. True worship of the law requires a mind which ferrets out the quality of lawfulness in things. The law’s quantitative rigidity, far from being canceled out by sensitivity to qualification, is ennobled as its stiff line is bent infinitesimally into a heaven-bound hyperbola. Form is brought to life by shade, just as shade is rendered dramatic by the quest for form. The Pyrrhonist splits hairs for the egotistical joy of tearing forms apart. (Yes, the sensitive types—the esprits fins—have their egotistical monsters, too: academe is rotten with them.)3 The truly devout believer in goodness, however, relaxes the boundaries of excessively crude forms that he may find new forms within them. In a healthy, reverent, and tasteful mind, the cultivation of subtlety is nothing other than the invigorated cultivation of intricate structure.
I underscored the element of taste above, for it is here that I wish my essay’s emphasis to rest. I have argued often in other quarters that the moral squalor of Western culture today—Western post-culture, I am tempted to write—is in some significant measure due to our aesthetic crudity. Kant believed that contemplation of moral law was a "propaedeutic" (a "paving the way" type of instruction) for artistic appreciation. He seems to have had in mind that un-beautiful species of beauty known as the sublime which haunted the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: scenes of panoramic majesty which inspire the heart to divine God’s presence.4 Whatever the merits of that theory, I think it at least as likely that the study of artistic objects "playing" at the pursuit of new forms through finer shades prepares the mind to weigh moral questions maturely.
An example: there is much debate at this hour about whether American troops should or should not have entered Iraq a year ago. I do not propose to saunter into that particular mine field of exchange. Just about everyone will now agree, however, that our tactics greatly complicated a well-intentioned incursion by grossly miscalculating local sentiment in areas of fierce fighting. We did not exercise much subtlety in failing to recognize, for instance, that the last American "liberation" in that part of the world had left hundreds of thousands of Kurds exposed to subsequent slaughter, or that the religious factions most oppressed by Saddam were also closely linked by their beliefs to Iran. I hasten to add that I am not by any means condemning the invasion: I am suggesting that its conception would have profited from a certain qualitative maturity. Yet where was such finesse to be found in a culture which has disparaged and underfunded foreign language instruction for at least thirty years now (i.e., every since the Sputnik scare waned), and which suffers from a shocking deficiency of scholars who read even Arabic, let alone the dozens of other relevant languages in the Near East? Having devoted our resources to the satellite and the microchip (an obsession reflected on college campuses by the healthy budgets of engineering and computer science programs), how could we expect to understand people who lived closer to Homer than to Newton? Having determined long ago that the arts had no "use", what window did we expect to find upon the souls of people who listened to heroic poetry rather than "reality" shows?
Those who vocally opposed the invasion, furthermore, might helpfully have stressed our ignorance of popular sentiment among the tribes and sects we foresaw embracing the dubious prospect of shopping malls and superhighways. (The peddling of this same troubled dream has won us mixed reviews in the quondam Soviet Union, where doctors moonlight as call girls and free enterprise has transferred the throttle from the State’s hand to the Mob’s.) Instead, the loyal opposition sniped and crabbed fecklessly about absurd conspiracies hatched by oil companies and political dynasties with "OK Corral" vintage vendettas. The subtlety lacking on one side was rendered somewhat respectable by the formulaic villifying which proliferated on the other.
On both sides of the aisle, these arguments were more than rhetorical postures. They were moral decisions—or morally valent decisions. They affected the lives of millions, and have collectively precipitated the deaths of some thousands. (My "they" includes the invasion’s critics—for an opponent who cannot abstain from paranoid histrionics becomes complicit in the half-digested judgments he habilitates through his bungling of the resistance. This, too, must be deemed a decision, for all its show of insanity.) Information-gathering is a crucial part of moral conduct. One cannot be absolved of culpability for leaving a loaded gun on a table if one makes no effort first to discover who might be apt to wander through the house.
Yet our foreign policy is also a web of decisions, I reiterate, which might have been favorably influenced by an aesthetic regard for detail. I am inclined to believe that it is primarily this, insofar as it has proved a policy in error. Its stages were agreed upon by experts whose special competence far exceeds anything to which a literary scholar like me could ever lay claim. If such gifted people can nevertheless blunder badly in their reckoning of human motivation, maybe, in some way, they are too expert. Maybe they have forgotten how ordinary mortals live, or maybe they have never known what extraordinary misery does to normal sentiments.
Literature is actually a great corrective to absent-mindedness and under-education of these varieties (quite apart from the study of literature in its original language, with all the specific cultural insights thereby available). Take the classics, that body of texts which was once assumed to paint basic human nature and to express the highest human ambitions. Titus Livy shows us how implacable ethnic hatreds can be. Herodotus and Xenophon show us how bewilderingly soon local upheavals may be absorbed into the status quo within societies long bred to servility. Arrian at least implies (unwillingly, and perhaps unwittingly) that the definitive overthrow of such a tyrant in such a society can create an anarchy where the worst elements rise to the top. Every major oral tradition somewhat refined into recorded res gestae, from the Chanson de Roland to the Nibelungenlied to the Irish Táin Bó Cúalgne (not to mention the Iliad), shows us how ready—and often zealous—to die are young men for reasons little better than that most of their peers fear death.
The reading list for the invasion’s critics, of course, would look somewhat different, but it would run just as long. Tacitus on the self-desctructive lunacy of despots and the savage brutality of their henchmen… Thucydides on the libido dominandi—that lust for political power which can incinerate its votaries by the thousand in a determined self-immolation for a miserable cause… Ariosto on the uproarious bombast of egotism masquerading as idealism… Silvio Pellico and Dostoevsky on life in a narrow cell as punishment for thinking out loud… and, naturally, Solzhenitsyn. But why not, too, some of the very authors who owe many of their laurels to the academy’s reverence for Third World literature? How could someone read Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, I wonder, or García-Marquez’s El Coronel No Tiene Quien le Escriba and still remain comfortably indifferent to the plight of a destitute and bullied populace? Why does vigorous opposition to such outrages require the tawdry motive of plump oil profits to be supposed credible in the world’s wealthiest nation?
I am aware that pleading my case through a strictly literary aesthetic vexes the issue. Literature is the most "engaged" of all the arts, since its constituent elements are human beings and sequences of human events: hence it is also the most plainly, irresistibly moral of all the arts (an attribute which Chinua Achebe famously but obtusely misidentified as propagandistic). Assigning a bunch of policy-makers a list of novels can look very much like serving them with a summons to attend the next rally of one’s favored party. I should more properly say, therefore, that both sides should read both lists. More properly still, I should perhaps exclude all chronicles and memoirs, admitting to the list only creative fiction. In doing so, I would be shifting my emphasis from the literary work’s quantitative dimension—its programmatic convergence on insight, its plot, its "propaganda"—to its qualitative dimension. In literary narrative, that dimension may be called very simply human inner life, or psychology. Psychological depth provides most of the subtlety to be found in any story. Even a naïve fable peopled by stock characters manages to send tingles down the spine with its dark woods and darker caves only because these elements of the setting are really projections of human anxiety (cf. Hawthorne). Events are the story’s architecture: psychology is its play of shadows under the eaves and down the columns.
For our quibbling politicos of all stripes, the very blunt—yet apparently very needful—message of story-reading would be Heraclitus’s aphorism, ψυχή βαθυν λόγον έχει: "The soul’s order is abysmally obscure." Both major parties, it seems to me (and all minor ones, as far as I can tell), need to be reminded that people are not insects, and that their predicaments cannot be resolved by constructing a new kind of ant farm. In many cases, communities should be left to work out their own destiny. Yet for the same reason, one man should not be allowed to treat an entire community as his fish bowl: no destiny is fulfilled by hoping that an inveterate thug will "come round" to enlightened ways because they seem so perfectly obvious in New Haven or Worcester. The reader of stories will surely know that there’s no patented happily-ever-after ending for entire societies, since the very existence of stories—of crises churned from the daily grind of systems—argues otherwise; and he will also know that the suppression of crises by some author-turned-autocrat who writes with secret police instead of a keyboard is no boon to mankind, as if one system might commandeer happiness by capitally punishing all attempts at new chapters. Crisis is as essential as closure to human health and growth. The soul, in its eternal strain to think more deeply, to feel more deeply, is forever revealing the excessive rigidity of human structure. And that is as it should be.
But we of the West are no longer, on the whole, a culture of readers (and if not we, then who?). I shall abstain from taking aim at an easy target. I challenge anyone, rather, to advance the name of a single prominent political figure today who routinely reads creative works of more than… let us not say one hundred years old, but twenty. Bush the Younger was much derided as a candidate when, upon being asked his favorite book, he offered up the Bible. I do not recall, however, that any of the candidates responded to the same question with Anna Karenina or Leaves of Grass (a work much loved by Lincoln). Autobiographies of public servants, historical portraits of World War Two heroes, best-sellers in the mystery or perhaps sci-fi genre (but wander not too far down this curious path: fantasy can render a personage highly suspect to the electorate)… our leaders would probably like to read more excursively, more leisurely—but they haven’t the time. Their day is dedicated to the absorption of "facts", for their lives are dedicated to being "useful". Their stock in trade is to identify problems and urgently recommend solutions. They deal in quantities: any tremor of discontent is, to them, a possible theme of their agenda’s next symphonic movement.
Frankly, one can speak in no very different vein about the more "intellectual" progressives on the aisle’s left side whose seats are so far to the edge that they occupy the ivory tower rather than the senate house. Most contemporary academics in the Humanities do not read—not for aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps they once did so: perhaps a love of Coleridge or Goethe or Pushkin originally spurred them on to enroll in graduate studies. They, too, however, have become devotees of "the facts". They probably read a great many more literary journals (when they read at all) than other poems, plays, and novels of their special author’s period, for they are necessarily always on the prowl for a "publishable" topic and supporting citations. The most ingenious of them do indeed sniff out a useful commentary in the primary material sometimes, though that area of harvest has now been gleaned with many a fine-toothed rake; but even such genuine scholars seldom have the hours or the energy left to read from an epoch or tradition which can have nothing whatever to do with their specialization. Just look at that staple of undergraduate education, the literary anthology. Specialists have inserted authors whose work minutely reflects each era’s trends or—at strategic points—bristles with an era’s birth or decline. "Facts" arise from the brew and crystallize. The march of history acquires the look of destiny: so-and-so wrote such-and-such because he could not not have written it.5 In the meantime, some of the most beautiful works in literary history fall by the wayside. Lamotte-Fouqué’s Undine, Alain-Fourrier’s Grand Meaulnes, and Azorín’s Doña Inez are no more volumnious than Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice—but they will never find their way into Norton’s "must reads" for sophomores. They are too atmospheric, too open-ended: too severely warped toward a "universalist" quest for meaning.
I could not help but be amused recently when observing that Jorge Ruffinelli, editor of Augusto Monterroso’s Lo Demás es Silencio for Catedra, had determined this mainstay of "Latin American progressivist and revolutionary movements" to be "two different, yet perfectly compatible, Monterrosos."6 The quandary arises because Monterroso the activist ideologue conceals Monterroso the postmodern metafictionalist. The same man who could denounce Yankee imperialism without a pause to inhale could also write un-stories where nothing that seems to happen is unequivocally happening. The Rest Is Silence purports to be a biography of one Eduardo Torres, and obscure provincial literato in an obscure provincial town. Not only are Torres’s few scholarly opera littered with factual blunders, however, but he appends his own postscript to a work which includes the testimonial of his "widow". Of course, those of us who must move among such trends are familiar with the "Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes" phenomenon ad nauseam. One might as well call it the Tristram Shandy Phenomenon; for it is nothing new under the sun, despite its catalytic effect on the jargon industry, and it was rather funnier when it was only being done for the sixth or seventh time (Diderot, P.G. Wodehouse, Flann O’Brian…).
What I have found newly fascinating about Monterroso and his generation, rather than their not-so-rare humor, is precisely their fierce political activism. Naturally, I and many others have long noticed the paradox that an intelligentsia of voluminous agnosticism should be forever blaring non-negotiable political doctrine from campus soap boxes. For the paradox characterizes the species: Monterroso and Barthes are only two of the most eloquent specimens. How can such incurable perplexity be married to such irascible rigidity? Here we find no Swift or Thackeray shaking his head with a wry smile over mankind’s vanity while deducing therefrom a very circumscribed, chastened political hope… no: we find the most insistent utopianism in fine fettle. As I incubated this essay, I found myself no longer content to ascribe such glaring inconsistency to sheer folly, to careerist gamesmanship, to political opportunism, or to any of the other motives I have seen most thoughtfully alleged. 7 I believe that sane people must be coherent at some level, I do not believe the majority of our intelligentsia to be insane, and I do not even believe (not really—not on my better days) that most of them would sell their mother for a promotion. Señor Ruffinelli, at some level, must be right: the two Monterrosos must be compatible… but not for the reason he advances, which is no reason at all. "The preoccupation to maintain the literary work’s independence will not permit [Monterroso] to inflate its prestige through the author’s personal fame."8 Pen names are used to accomplish this end, not diametrically opposite styles.
I am beginning to suspect that the postmodern play of the reflexive (or "self-reflexive", if you’re on your third martini) metafictional self-deconstructing anti-narrative is itself a very surprising manifestation of finesse manquée. One would have thought just the opposite, at first glance. These burlesques without any stable reference seem like finesse run amuck—a mad debauch of finesse. They are too fine by half, like some highly urbane salamander at a soirée who turns everything into a pun or double-entendre. But one may as well say that they are not fine enough, for it amounts to the same thing. A truly discerning artist would know how to deploy the unraveling of finesse within the weave of structure so as to draw smiles at the most embarrassing or most suggestive moments. A "dead man’s" postscript to his own biography is quite amusing: his "widow’s" run-on sentences of three or four hundred words are infinitely less so, especially after the third or fourth ordeal. Their attempt to replicate bourgeois tedium is altogether too successful. The replica, indeed, has far excelled the original in its utter resistance of the faintest interest, and is now something like a defiance of the "rules" of good writing. Something like, but not like… because the send-up, if one may call it so, began in the mouth of a character with no literary pretensions whatever. Or, since all of Monterroso’s characters incline to the same excess, is writing itself the author of such interminable babble? But why, then, is the babble presented as a series of verbal interviews? Or is the literary pretense of the verbal interview being sent up?
The reader—this reader, anyway (who is neither Monterroso’s editor nor a tenure-questing academic)—is not left marveling at the vacuity of signifiers in literary texts, but at the ostentatious, somewhat arrogant pointlessness of these pages in this text. Would anyone read the same lines if they were not known, and very well known, to have been penned by Monterroso or one of his comrades in arms: i.e., by an intellectual deliberately writing folderol? If there is some "self-reflexive" joke engaging here in auto-arousal, might it not really be that the intellectual community has grown so analytically anemic that it titters just because one of its own has written something spectacularly illegible?
Ruffinelli (whose introduction belongs to that banner year of scholarly hermeticism, 1982) cannot resist passing an epic catalogue of critical warriors in review—all bowing, of course, to Monterroso:
Yes, and ninety ships came from sandy Pylos. There is something quite deflating about reading dozen-word summaries of theoreticians from whose massive tomes one struggled vainly as a graduate student to strain a remotely comprehensible paraphrase. One entertains the "so that’s what they were saying!" moment succeeded by the "was that all they had to say?" moment. The god’s holy vault is not only empty, but in need of fresh air. On top of that, such masters of perpetual evasion may apparently be piled on the plate one after another in a kind of smorgasbord, or the browser may pick here and pass there according to criteria to be explained later (or not, as the spirit listeth). It seems, further, that the gross distortion which such theoretical perspectives force upon certain texts and the utter oblivion into which they elbow others is no mark in their disfavor; for it seems that the texts must justify themselves before the throne of theory, and not the other way around.
I used to think that this upside-down hall-of-mirrors pageantry betrayed a generation of literary scholars who had misplaced the forest in its trees, just as I came to view the quickly tedious humor of metafiction as over-analysis of structure. And I suppose that those assessments remain valid, in a certain light. The treachery of such a diagnosis is that over-exposure equals under-exposure. Like certain strange diseases where having too much of a nutrient produces the effects of deficiency, too much finesse leaves a mind too blunt. That this should be so is further proof on behalf of my argument that form and nuance (quantity and quality), far from being adversarial, depend upon each other for their very existence. Without subtle degrees of shading, a mass of clouds would be one cloud: without an irrepressible drive to impose boundaries and isolate units, the great cloud itself would merely blur into the sky, which would blur into the horizon… and the human ability to operate upon the environment would vanish. Fine minds are not inimical to laws—they thirst after intricate laws. Law-abiding minds are not inimical to distinction—they thirst after objectively valid distinction.
The decline of aesthetic appreciation in the West has spread the disease of blunt-wittedness, we may say, to the very people whose calling is to produce or ponder aesthetic objects. The absence of purposeful structure within which the parodist’s explosive devices may stir a refined humor indicates that parodists are no longer very refined. The absence of any compulsion to describe the entire literary phenomenon—or at least to explain exceptions to the model—indicates that literary theorists are anything but theoretical in the word’s root sense of "finely observed". Our cultural wits have hardened like a fountain removed to a deep freeze. We do not read enough, and we do not know how to read deeply.
I cannot say what may have brought a man as wonderfully erudite as Monterroso to this state: perhaps his sporadic education or the class tensions which a far from pampered youth introduced to him. Considering the great long list of offenders, however, I suspect the presence of a vast cause. If even those who have immersed themselves in fine art can emerge from the pool as dry as a bone, then we must surely be seeing a dominant cultural influence at work: the influence of "post-culture". Assuming that you could read Shakespeare—that indeed you had read Shakespeare, and could recite hundreds of his lines—why should you defend his works to a class of apes? Assuming that you had to win your bread by feeding the appetites of these Yahoos, in what respect would you continue to find Shakespeare relevant to life? In the rubble of post-culture, how would twenty-five hundred years of Western tradition strike you as anything more than a sham, a hall of mirrors signifying nothing? It could strike you, of course, as more real than the dehumanized nightmare of petrified, petrifying "facts"—bills, taxes, wages, prices, deadlines, speed limits, life expectancies, mortality rates—through which we must all sleepwalk daily. To hold on to a greater reality, however, while a lesser one—a chaos of incoherent sensations—assaults our minds with the help of statistical lubricant requires a kind of faith; and faith is not only a gift, but quite possibly (and unfortunately) a very rare gift.
Personal observation leads me to believe that a "sympathy with the unsympathetic" is indeed astir in the stronghold of the arts, and that we cannot sensibly hope for university professors and novelists to lead us farther from aesthetic nullity rather than closer to it. I am no longer a very young man (the sure sign of which is that I light up when an old man calls me young). Already in my own undergraduate days, it was entirely unheard-of for someone in the dormitory to possess Wagner or Rimsky-Korsakov (let alone Bach or Vivaldi) in his record collection. I can recall but a single lad who loved listening over and over again to the cleverly orchestrated over-and-over-again of Ravel’s Bolero—and this exception hailed from England. By the time I was working my way through graduate school, the hostility to classical taste was, if anything, magnified. The comparatists among whom I moved uneasily advertised an enthusiasm (perhaps genuine, perhaps feigned… who could tell?) for any odd collaboration of sounds imported from any clearly non-Western culture. The classicists among whom my anomalous orbit often carried me (for I was something of an intellectual isotope, always warily on the edge of these groups that lived on the edge) seemed, paradoxically, to have no inkling either of any tradition beyond the West or of any Western tradition not covered by their degree program. They partied fiercely, those who socialized at all (and many classicists do not socialize at all). They were the heaviest consumers of pop culture I had seen since the undergraduate dorm.
There must have been other types on campus. When I once attended a live performance by James Galway, the house was packed. Yet I recall seeing none of the many faces I knew from the English, Classics, and Comparative Literature programs at that grand occasion. To this day, if I chance to meander through the offices of a college English department, I find posters or memorabilia enshrining the Beatles or Elvis or Bonnie and Clyde or Apocalypse Now, but almost never anything acknowledging a prior claim to musically or visually artistic fame. Victor Borge’s bust of Mozart, if it depended upon Humanities offices for its circulation, would be the missing referent in a failed punch-line. Even architectural classics, photogenic though they surely are, have been virtually exiled from these hermetically sealed corridors. At most, a professor who did a bit of summer research in Kent or Salisbury has brought back a poster of some fortress or cathedral to commemorate a delightful trip.
I recollect some of Tom Bertonneau’s remarks about his own undergraduate days at Berkeley from a pair of poignant memoirs which we published in this journal.10 Tom’s taste in music is far more broadly cultivated than mine, and it has happily brought him into contact with people who have not turned their back upon that part of our tradition as my exclusively literary peers had done. Yet the exception proves the rule: Tom’s friends were not exclusively literary. My perception is that they were not even primarily so, in a professional way. By the same token, he has observed to me (and argued in another essay11) that the twentieth century’s greatest science-fiction authors were not formally educated to study or produce literary texts—were not, in most instances, ever enrolled in any School of the Humanities. English Ph.D.s are apt to write metafiction, purchase Blues and "classic rock" for their CD collection, and litter whatever wall space their bookcases leave unclaimed with something between Andy Warhol and Zulu headgear. The rare author who can compose a novel in the magnificent vein of Patrick O’Brian has probably led an active life building bridges or training Third World aviators, the tinkle of Chopin is far more likely to illuminate his study as he does a little Spring cleaning, and his cautious dust cloth stands a far better chance of passing over a Renoir print under glass.
Why is that? I believe it is because, besides being surrounded by the tastelessness of post-literate life like everyone else, those who are educated in literature sometimes feel a kind of vindictive contempt for a proficiency which has marginalized them. Granted, a large percentage of this not-negligible percentage wants to be marginalized since it already is so for less respectable reasons. People who stumble into graduate studies because normal social intercourse paralyzes them (e.g., the anti-social classicist) and people who suffer the stigma of, say, homosexuality seem to relish being hanged for a sheep rather than a lamb. They ransack literary history for the precious, the exotic, the bizarre, and the macabre: the robust durability of a mainstream classic offers no veil behind which to hide their personal strangeness. (Evelyn Waugh’s Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited leaps to mind.) Likewise, I exclude the younger generation of literary scholars which has effectively been denied access to the classics by ideologue professors. If these young people display no finesse in their choice of music and deem visual art to be some Webmaster’s original juggling of icons, it is because we older students of culture have failed them.
I say again that I suspect we owe this failure (for we are the ones who puzzle me) to our having grown so piqued at waking up to find ourselves utterly irrelevant in post-literacy’s vile new world. We despair; and in our despair, we turn angry. Sven Birkerts has written of an odd adventure in his youthful days of buying up used books. A former college professor called in the bookstore’s lads to cart away an immense haul—apparently his entire library. This morose figure had made a very sudden exit from the ivory tower, and in his disillusion he was clearing his basement of all print relics while making room for a career revolution via computer.12 I could almost have been that man myself. I recently attempted to sell most of my critical-theory library (nobody would buy it)… but I certainly would never have put all my Livres de Poche or my Oxford Classical Texts on the auction block. I was never that angry, or angry in that direction. I was and am angry with the profession, but not with the tradition. Yet I have seen those whose ambitions ran higher than mine wax furious with the very books they loved—furious with that love for costing them any chance of success in life, at least of a success comparable to their lawyer and doctor and accountant and programmer siblings and classmates. These same angry people, who have in many cases often achieved success’s pinnacle by academic standards, now seem to be grinding out books about hypertexts and other forms of pop culture.13 They would perhaps have desecrated their Complete Works of Shakespeare less if they had simply sold it for a buck… but that would have been mere passive aggression. They must go on record, it appears, as having washed their hands of everything yesteryear’s stereotypical poet in tweeds held dear.
To hell with finesse, they seem to say: bring on robotic efficiency, robotic immunity to despair. And their misfit, self-marginalized colleagues do not cry foul, and their undereducated seminar students have never been introduced to the fair-foul distinction. No, they will not close ranks around the cause of fine things, rest assured—they whose most unkindest dagger ends up in Shakespeare’s back.
So what hope remains? The hope of the alternative’s poverty, perhaps. Human beings are not robots, after all, and one sees signs that the generation presently entering college is not entirely willing to worship amusement and ease at the expense of depth. I recall at least three instances within the past decade of young students positively clamoring for a Latin class (and being denied it, in two out of three cases, by administrators who figured that Latin would not prove cost-effective). Eventually, the careerist fund-raisers and bean-counters will settle into the mausoleum’s dust, and rare beams of light will be allowed to reach rare green shoots. The current cycle of toxic ambition—the feminist ambition to have one’s own letterhead rather than be so-and-so’s wife or mother, the not-very-manly ambition to bring on the deluge because the last satraps has already been appointed—is bound to work its way out of our system. Tenure is dying, temporary employment burgeons, health care will eventually be nationalized, fame and "notoriety" have merged in fact as well as in common parlance before the clear triumph of publicity… good grief, what scope remains open to ambition now? Why need we buy into the politicians’ "dare to dream" cant when Hollywood and the Internet (not to mention the psychiatric/pharmaceutical complex and the illegal drug trade) are peddling dare-free dreams with unlimited refills?
Not ambition, but a craving for basics, will motivate the next generation or two of students, I suspect. Communities have become so flexible—and indeed, so tenuous and implausible—that one scarcely knows where to find the grandstands to which one might play. The vertigo of divorce and remarriage, of termination and relocation, of retraining and Internet degree programs, has made and will increasingly make us a nauseous culture, sea-sick on sea changes from which no coral ever emerges. We will again become, by default, a land of individuals; or, to be exact, as the less intelligent and the more easily exploited continue down the chutes toward some electronic slaughterhouse of the soul, independent thinking in the great plangent mass will become more anguishing, and so more fertile. The anguished few will seek a solid foothold against the drain’s suction, and they will surely find it—whether through Latin, or Shakespeare, or the Beatitudes—in an abstract humanity, a principle of sacrifice whose ultimate objective is not much in evidence at the Mall or on the Net.
If such a "hope" sounds oddly desperate as I describe it, my reservations stem from the tremendous labor of reinvention which oppresses it. Those who might reveal basic human reference points refuse to assume the duty. Naturally, many such points will remain unfound, unrecovered, at least in the specific form which has enriched Western tradition. Great literature will be dusted off, and Hamlet will live to brood over Yorick’s skull another day—sales of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe have actually risen even as presses persist in grinding out extra-terrestrial adventures and Hollywood biographies. Yet how many young people, I wonder, will ever hear of Saltykov-Shchedrin or Jules Romains in this new century, let alone have any ever-so-slight opportunity of reading an offbeat marvel like Niall Ó Dónaill’s Seanchas na Féinne?14 Remember, these are the same young people whose exposure to music consists largely of Rap or Hip-Hop (whatever the difference is—don’t ask me) or lilting electronic syntheses accompanying—and helping to disguise—lyrics of maudlin sentimentality. Their awareness of visual art is concentrated upon the latest special effects at the movies: digitalization, Clay-mation, lavishly pricey crashes and explosions. While the keenest of this generation may not be content to feed at the trough, they may be reduced to cultivating keenness mostly on their own.
One is not born fine: finesse depends upon an immense inheritance of experiences which have been distilled—through culture—into a kind of ichor. This cultured heritage shows the young how to feel, and is infinitely more corruptible and perishable than the universal laws of logic which guide objective thought. It is aesthetic, to return to the essay’s opening terms. Virtually any human being can understand the objective moral logic which prohibits murder… but what about the wrongness of fracturing the neighborhood’s peace and quiet? What about the degradation of permanently tattooing one’s body with icons and shibboleths as if it were a car’s bumper in need of a sticker?
Many young people I meet are rigidly devoted to what they perceive as moral law. What they lack is precisely a finesse of application. Once again, they have not been taught the subtleties of moral teleology by those upon whom this obligation rested, and so they must assemble the puzzle with whatever few pieces are in sight. Their travail is most evident in their practice of religious faith. They seize upon certain obvious mainstays of moral discipline securely fastened in most religions yet continually ignored by their peers: abstinence from intoxicants, renunciation of sexual promiscuity, hope in the eventual purposefulness of life. One might call these the "classic" virtues—yet several others of that rank, such as courage and honesty, receive far less attention. Already at the cardinal level, moral law requires a bit of finesse. If the Stoics were right, then all virtues must indeed be teased from a single quality, Virtue: goodness in small things implies goodness in great ones, and a simple peccadillo is an indictment of deep pollution. Christianity abandons the absurd rigor of this formula, but it resonates from beginning to end of the New Testament with the notion that goodness mystically surmounts legalism. Perfect in all things, deeds of mercy and not burnt offerings, the two commandments which contain all others, perfect love driving out all fear (try dangling 1 John 4.18 before the vast "fear the Lord" crowd)… clearly the believer is intended not merely to follow a behavioral code, but to dwell in the spirit of goodness.
I will not tire the reader with a catalogue of ways in which our churches, ever more aware of the young (if not ever younger), favor the moral laundry list while discouraging profound reflection. The qualitative dimension, of course, survives in the contemporary religious service. In my opinion, it has taken the service over. Hand-shaking, hand-clapping, hand-wringing, hand-waving… Sunday morning in the sanctuary has almost become an aerobic event. But recall that too much is too little. Just as the postmodern anti-narrative is so analytical that it leaves nothing to analyze and turns obtuse, so these swaying, sniveling, shouting "hours of power" decant too much fluid emotion for the mind to come away knowing why it has felt, or even exactly what. The cathedral’s vaults struggling upward into shadow have been replaced by theatrical tiers of seats and a central stage. The fugue which chased after an elusive angel has become, first a guitarist on a stool, now a couple of electric guitars and a drumset. The emotions thus uncorked are visceral: a response to the close press of bodies, a response to the singer’s amplified plaints, a response to the prayer’s almost sobbing tones (enhanced by an electric organ, reserved for these occasions rather than for hymns). The aesthetic experience of the service has been grossly debased.
Need we wonder that the young mind thus tutored in feeling out the subtleties of experience should not be particularly uncomfortable with lies "if they help rather than harm"? Is it a surprise that a person raised to confuse the trembling of long exposure to high decibels with the Holy Spirit’s visitation should not be able to parse tortuous moral issues? Murderous tyrants are wicked, but one people should not criticize another people’s way of doing things… a volatile regime should not be allowed to stockpile biochemical weapons, but our troops should not be put in a position where more than one or two must die… The faithful and the agnostic among us seem to slip on the same stones when forced to cross these rivers, especially if they are young. Even if they read Shakespeare as well as the Bible, they have grave difficulty sorting out their feelings. They may feel deeply, but they struggle in vain to feel coherently. For finesse, in a way, is the enemy of feeling—of a certain kind of feeling, of sloppy sentiment. Finesse demands convergence upon form even as it relaxes the boundaries of forms too harsh. A lot of feelings or a great surge of feeling cannot redeem the sentimental failure of a feeling which renounces purposeful struggle.
I have ranged unusually far and wide in this essay as I myself have struggled after the sense of our cultural senselessness. That we are collectively wading through a moral quagmire surely needs no demonstration, and that our best and brightest have actually led us into the quicksand more often than pointing a way to safety needs but little further observation to come clear. I will also not have surprised many readers of this journal in saying that a deeper species of literacy than we now practice would be very salutary to us, nor in expressing my pessimism about our soon embracing the task of renewal. As I have revisited a great many propositions and concerns vented in these pages before, however, I have sought this time to emphasize the role of our aesthetic debasement. It has occurred to me lately that literacy itself can perhaps be helped out of its cultural sinkhole by a revival of musical and artistic taste—or that the three, perhaps, can help each other out. What effect would a vertically thrusting cathedral have on an insipid religious service? What effect would Freshman Oil Painting have on Freshman Composition? What effect would fifteen minutes per day playing a musical instrument have on our national policy-makers?15 If a tenured professor of Literary Theory were somehow induced to attend the symphony every month, would he or she be quite so rabidly nihilistic?
I propose to examine such possibilities in forthcoming issues of Praesidium. I shall attempt to contribute something to the discussion myself, but I must warn that there are those much better prepared to do so. Perhaps this open invitation—rambling, polemical, and as full of indemonstrable propositions as it is lean on footnotes—will induce some of our musically and artistically accomplished audience to come forward. By way of impressing a certain urgency upon the invitation, I again advance the claim that aesthetic discernment enhances moral discernment: i.e., that we not only may be interested in the beautiful, but ought to be. None of my propositions has been less testable, yet none seems to me more vindicated by common sense. Surely a person practiced in noticing fine detail as he picks a guitar or fills a canvas will be more apt to notice and include in his calculations the "collateral damage" of innocent bystanders attendant upon some just crusade or noble rescue mission. The good person’s objective is not to cripple his active will with a haunting prescience of incidental tragedy: it is to do what he must do without being surprised by necessary costs. We have in many respects "over-determined" our environment to the point that tragedy and misery are simply clichés or stage props in whatever genre we happen to be "playing" at. The reality underlying the "video arcade" obstacle appears to shock us when it pierces the formula in widow’s wails or child’s screams. The salvation of the oppressed by "smart missiles" is not supposed to leave toddlers without arms and legs. The purgation of DDT from the planet is not supposed to leave babies dying of malaria.
In other respects, however, we grow so drunk on debauches of unrefined emotion that we cannot hear the clichés dripping from our own mouths. The risk of several dozen young lives is not necessarily unconscionable if thousands more will certainly be lost through inaction. And though such calculations should never be a mere contrast of projected body counts—for dehumanized life is worse than death—the quality of survival is precisely what we now have greatest difficulty reckoning. We want no one hurt, either way—a kind of pipe-dreaming which can turn fatal for all involved.
When refinement sickens, command of basic arithmetic also takes ill. A person whose vision grows blurry cannot count the number of limbs on a tree, let alone the number of sparrows on a limb; and a person whose taste is coarse cannot understand why a tank in the plaza will not necessarily secure peace. Unless we learn how to distinguish better among the essential things of our world, we shall very soon lose our awareness of which things truly exist, and which belong to our troubled fantasies.
1 Cf. the opening remark from Part One of the Critique of Practical Reason: "Laws must completely determine the will as will, even before I ask whether I am capable of achieving a desired effect or what should be done to realize it. They must thus be categorical; otherwise they would not be laws, for they would lack the necessity which, in order to be practical, must be completely independent of pathological conditions, i.e., conditions only contingently related to the will" (Beck’s translation from p. 18 [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956]). I hasten to add that my employment of such Kantian terms as "quantitative" and "qualitative" is borrowed from the Critique of Pure Reason’s analysis of theoretical (i.e., empirical) reason. Kant leaves largely implicit moral law’s somewhat porous character in specific applications. He prefers to emphasize that a moral act chosen in response to a specific crisis treads down specific, or "pathological", pressures in favor of immutable truth. The emphasis is surely understandable—surely even laudable; yet later commentators have often decided to view it as a licensing of egocentric conduct which elevates subjective whimsy over objective duty, an obvious reversal of Kant’s intent.
2 It is a measure of Kant’s rigid devotion to formal law—and hence of his aversion to legislating personal whim—that he penned a formidable little essay asserting the wrongness of telling falsehoods under any circumstances (to wit: Über ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen, or, "Concerning a Supposed Right of Humane Love to Tell Lies".) Few of Kant’s "principled" detractors would sustain this position.
3 Or to recur to a locus classicus, Pyrrho himself and his followers, who were very much the equivalent of the contemporary deconstructionist, made a veritable system out of unraveling systems. In an earlier essay, I noted the bad faith with which Sextus Empricus welcomes suspension of judgment as a means for achieving the end of ataraxia, or utter indifference (see P.H. 1.29). This devious deception—and it is quite possibly a self-deception in most cases—is even better exemplified in Diogenes Laertius’s long, clearly admiring summary of the "ten Pyrrhonist perplexities" (see his life of Pyrrho, chs. 79-88). These include such compromising qualities of human judgment as its susceptibility to physiological variables (e.g., disease and age), to environmental variables (e.g., distance and lighting), and to cultural variables (e.g., taste in foods or dress). The list reads much like a canny adolescent’s battery of arguments for manipulating Mom and Dad—or perhaps like the Russian rake’s book of love letters guaranteed to get women into bed in Stendhal’s Rouge et le Noir. In all such cases, what is demonstrated is not the ludicrous sham of all forms, but rather the ingenuity with which unprincipled minds may puncture or exploit recognized forms in favor of an end allowed to pass unquestioned.
4 The opening sections of Part One, Book Two of the Critique of Judgment, especially sections 28-29, contain an extraordinarily (for Kant) eloquent account of the sublime experience. I might add that in the same work, Kant insists that taste should be consulted before genius in artistic creation because judgment "will more readily endure an abatement of the freedom and wealth of the imagination, than that the understanding should be compromised" (James Creed Meredith’s translation [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978], 183). This is hardly the pronouncement of a person who would countenance licensing whimsy as moral imperative—whimsy is to be given little enough rein even in art!
5 My youthful mind was lastingly impressed by the grandiose sophos who honored my first-ever scholarly publication by labeling it (or libeling it) as characteristic of "recent treatments follow[ing] Gomme’s lead in taking the fragment [Sappho 105a] out of its social context." (See R. Drew Griffith, "In Praise of the Bride: Sappho Fr. 105(a) L-P, Voigt," Transactions of the American Philological Association 119 , 55-61.) To this day, I know nothing of my self-effacing mentor, Monsieur Gomme; but I enjoyed a laugh shared probably by no one else on earth at the discovery that I had reached the same verdict about Sappho’s misunderstood imagery as Professor Griffith, and had done so precisely by imputing basic human responses to similar people in similar cultural settings (specifically, to Sappho and the seventeenth-century Gaelic poet Mary MacLeod). The degree to which classical studies have grown hostile to any hint of universal elements within human experience is stunning, and must surely reflect not just the materialist assumptions common throughout academe, but also a certain aspiration to keep the uninitiated out of the temple. I quite concur with Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath in Who Killed Homer? (New York: Free Press, 1998) that such snobbery has severely dampened general interest in the classics over the past several years. By denying the universal, a priori basis of human aesthetic encounters, it has played its part, as well, in brutalizing our entire culture. I recently found in the fourth chapter of Plutarch’s essay, "Concerning the Education of Children," an extended comparison of good and bad teaching to sowing seed in various soils. Had Plutarch, then, read an Aramaic gospel somehow—or had Seneca, before he wrote nam et sceleratis sol oritur ("for upon the wicked the sun also rises" [De Beneficiis 4.27.1])? Is the parallel evolution of elegant tropes and great ideas insufferably "unscholarly" in the dark light of the scholar’s preemptive need to suborn all human events to obscure historical causation?
6 See p. 9 of Ruffinelli’s introduction to Augusto Monterroso, Lo Demás es Silencio (Madrid: Catedra, 2003), 9-48. This and two subsequent citations (see notes 8 and 9) are my translations of the Spanish.
7 Cf. John Ellis’s accounting for radical chic nouveau as a reaction to the extreme disengagement of literary criticism: "Deconstruction’s initial focus on linguistic indeterminacy and the independence of language from reality had an aura of ivory-tower amusement for scholars which invited a sharp swing of the pendulum to the opposite end of the spectrum" (Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities [New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1997], 215). My discomfort with this assessment arises from the all-too-evident fact—in Monterroso’s case and others—that the same scholars often strike both postures at the same moment.
8 Op. cit., 9.
9 Ibid., 36.
10 To be precise, both essays hearken to the days before Arcturus had been resurrected as Praesidium. See Thomas F. Bertonneau, "A Blast-Proof Bunker: Memories of the Santa Monicas—Decade 80," Arcturus 2.3 (Summer 1999), 20-33; and "The Seer of Solstice Canyon: Herbert Stothart’s Mountain Vision," Arcturus 4.1 (Winter 2001), 9-31.
11 "Apocalypse Among the Ruins," Arcturus 3.1 (Winter 2000), 17-33.
12 Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 117-118.
13 My own research into just what a hypertext is in literary circles has often turned up the names of Jay David Bolter and George P. Landow. I would recommend a rather less rose-colored study, Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997). Birkerts (op. cit.) considers the medium "stylistically uninspired" (151), a verdict which I personally find charitable.
14 My edition of this extraordinary work (Baile Átha Cliath: An Gúm, 1998) is completely in Irish, and the general reader, of course, would find it unavailable in translation. That is part of my point: i.e., that we no longer translate great books as zealously as we once did. The academy, in its infinite vanity, has decided to reward pseudo-scientific quibbling over historical influence and mock-theoretical algarades of jargon while accounting a good translation as of virtually no value whatever in the promotion-and-tenure struggle. It is also true, however, that Ó Dónaill’s very colorful adaptation (originally made in 1942) of medieval Irish verse into relatively modern prose is simply untranslatable. The Fenian tales have naturally been translated into English very often in some form or other—but adaptation requires a special kind of apprenticeship. A century ago, educated people had access to such rare encounters thanks to having been taught two or three foreign languages. Now, when they do have any foreign language instruction at all, its emphasis is upon the spoken word, and upon words as they are spoken in government offices or on car lots.
15 In fact, Condoleezza Rice is an accomplished pianist; and, at the risk of being argumentative (an academic friend exclaimed to me the other day, "She’s as bloodthirsty as all the rest!"), I think the record shows her "feel" for delicate issues to be rather finer than the average. Skeptics not wedded to their skepticism may want to review Dr. Rice’s canny pronouncements upon the Soviet Union some years ago (e.g., in Uncertain Alliance [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984]).
The Judgment of Paris
Gary Inbinder is attorney specializing in healthcare law. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a J.D. from the University of La Verne (California). His essay, Jacob and Esau, has been published on-line by Quodlibet, and has also been accepted by Humanitas, the Journal of the National Humanities Institute. He resides in Woodland Hills, California.
I. The Judgment
The story of the Judgment of Paris is well known as a mythological explanation for the casus belli of the Trojan War. Rightly understood, I believe it is a profound cautionary tale of the disastrous consequences of human moral weakness. I believe the word "judgment" in the context of the myth is ironic, because if we think of judgment as well reasoned deliberation, then Paris’s choice is totally devoid of judgment according to our understanding.
To recapitulate briefly the events leading up to the "judgment", all the gods and goddesses—with the exception of Eris, goddess of discord—were invited to the wedding of King Peleus and the sea-goddess Thetis, the future parents of the Greek hero Achilles. Angry at the slight, Eris tossed a golden apple inscribed, "For the fairest one," among the guests. The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claimed the prize. Hera argued that she, as queen of the gods, in all her majesty and power, was most worthy of the golden apple. Aphrodite asked who could be fairer than she, the goddess of love and beauty. Athena declared that wisdom and knowledge were more beautiful than superficial and mundane charms.
The dispute became more heated, and the angry goddesses called upon the wedding guests to award the prize to the most deserving; but the wedding guests, fearing to award the prize to one goddess and thereby incur the wrath of the other two, wisely declined to judge. The final decision was therefore referred to Paris, a son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. In his infancy, Paris had been exposed on a mountain top and left to die because of a prophecy that he would cause the death of his family and the downfall of his native city. Paris was saved and adopted by a shepherd, and it was in the guise of a lowly shepherd that he was called upon to make his fateful judgment. Thus were sown the seeds of discord leading to fulfillment of the prophecy of the downfall of Troy.
Let us next examine the human qualities represented by the three competing goddesses. Athena "is derived…from the Sanskrit Dahana or Ahana (meaning the ‘light of daybreak’) and we are thus enabled to understand why the Greeks described her as sprung from the forehead of Zeus (the heavens)."1 She was the personification of the "knowledge giving light of the sky; for in Sanskrit the same word also means ’to wake’ and ’to know’. The Romans connected her name of Minerva with mens, the same as the Greek menos and the English mind."2 Therefore, I will identify Athena, goddess of wisdom, with the divine light and word of creative intellect and speech which corresponds to the human capacity for imagination, logic, and reasoned discourse. She therefore, in a Platonic sense, personifies the fixed and immutable world of the intelligible forms or things as they are; the source of refined judgment, philosophy and ideal beauty.
"Hera… the heavenly light, and therefore the complement and consort of the sky, is supposed to be derived from the Sanskrit soar, (‘the bright sky’) and surya (‘the sun’)". The personification of atmospheric change, Hera gave "the impression of the jealous, capricious, vengeful person…."3 Hera, consort of Zeus and queen of heaven, is light personified as that of the atmospheric or sensible, phenomenal world which is as mutable and diverse as the intelligible is fixed and unified. By her light we do not see the perfect universal forms of the intelligible world, but rather their shadows in the particulars of the phenomenal world. She therefore appeals to the irascible human characteristics of ambition, self-assertion, indignation, and honor seeking the goods of this world and the judgment of common opinion (or doxa) concerning those particular goods.
Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, is born of the sea-foam, which gives her an evanescent quality. In the context of this myth, she gives more the illusion of love and beauty than its reality. She is part of the mutable, diverse, and finite phenomenal world of shadow and illusion and appeals to the sensual appetitive nature of humankind. Her elusive and deceptive beauty gives rise to desires that can be destructive if not adequately controlled. She is the basest and most untrustworthy of the three competing goddesses and appeals neither to judgment of the higher intellect nor to common opinion, but rather to the usurpation of judgment by the passions.
Understanding what the three goddesses represent within the context of the myth, we can see how they relate to the philosophy of Plato referenced in "The Simile of the Sun", "The Divided Line", and "The Cave" in The Republic. Athena is the form of the good, or beauty itself that is apprehended by the intellect, or as Aristotle would say noesis noeseos, "thought thinking itself". She is therefore the most beautiful of the three, but only for those who can see her light reflected in the eye of their intellect. She is the Philosopher’s ideal, the source of Eudaemonia, or the end of a rational pursuit of happiness. I will discuss her offer of wisdom and victory in war in the following section.
Hera is the light of the "visible sun" of the sensible world. Her beauty can be seen in the twilight world of change apprehended by the eye of the body, and she appeals to the person of ambition and self-regard. Her offer of temporal power in kingship is discussed in the following section.
Aphrodite is the illusion of beauty that dwells in the shadow world of the Cave. She is a false light creating a false impression that deceives people through the "physical eye" and appeals to the impulsive sensual appetite. Her offer of Helen is discussed in the following section.
II. The Inducements
Much has been made of the "bribes" offered by the goddesses, but I think they are best understood as inducements either toward or away from right reason followed by right conduct and correct judgment.
Further, in a natural hierarchy those inducements range from the base and mundane (Aphrodite) to the noble and transcendent (Athena). As such, we may consider the operation of those impressions perceived through the senses upon the imagination wherein are formed ideas which may be good or bad. Once the idea is formed in the particular individual, that individual’s consequent acts may be judged by objective standards of practical reason. Memory also plays an important role in this process of rational judgment since the particular errors of the past, embodied within poetic documents of myth and legend which chronicle the lived experience of individuals in various ages and cultures, are stored in the universal trans-cultural, trans-generational treasury of human experience. We can then relate the particular act of the present to the vast treasury of precedent or remembered experience.
Tapping into this great memory bank proceeds in a fashion which suggests the Platonic concept of Anamnesis, or the doctrine of knowledge as recollection of ideas known to the soul in a previous existence.
Further, we may consider the operation of Synderesis, the "divine inner spark", upon the individual conscience which the Scholastic philosophers and theologians, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas, considered a habitual impetus of the First Principle of Practical Reason, to do good and avoid evil. Implicit in the Christian concept of Synderesis is something of the divine that remains in fallen man—an impulse that moves the human conscience to act in a way conducive to a transcendent or divinely ordained moral good. If one is habituated toward the good, one’s will in immediate action will incline to do that which is good in any given situation. However, one must be aware that Original Sin acts like a cataract, obscuring the vision of our inner "moral eye".
The operation of Synderesis upon conscience when oriented toward both the material and spiritual good of the individual should result in intuitive right conduct, according to what Edmund Burke described as "just prejudice". "Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature."4
Further, an individual with a moral imagination will judge the value of those ideas he or she conceives prior to acting upon them in word and deed. The deeds or words of the particular individual that enter into the greater world external to the self have a dialectic life of their own when they come into conflict with the words and deeds of others, playing out upon the great stage of history in the generalized life dramas that are recorded in the cultural and trans-cultural memory of things past.
The recorded practical wisdom embodied in the Myth is as follows, if we may start with the base inducement and ascend to the noble. Aphrodite appeals to the sensual and licentious. In this Myth she is the instigator of crime, for by enticing Paris with Helen, the object of an illicit desire, she invites disaster upon all if Paris should choose to fulfill that desire.
Hera offers kingship, which appeals to ambition and self-regard. It is a better choice than Helen, provided it, too, is not obtained at the price of crime, i.e. the usurpation of a lawful sovereign.
Athena offers wisdom and victory in war, the only moral choice in the context of the Myth. While much has changed since the age of pre-Classical Greece, we still live in a world of struggle and inevitable conflict, both internal and external—on the scale both of the self and of the self’s relation to others: its role among groups, communities, cultures, regimes, and civilizations. Therefore, wisdom and victory in war is the best choice among the inducements offered to Paris.
If Paris were a Eudaemon, a man, in the words of Aristophanes, of judgment "accurate, refined, and chaste", he would have the will to refrain from inherently evil actions. Further, he would possess both the wisdom to act as a mediator, attempting to reconcile differences when those differences were reasonably reconcilable, and also the wisdom that values victory in war, when war is the only viable solution. What Athena offered was the sort of victory Winston Churchill sought when, in confronting the forces of Hitler, he urged Britain to achieve "victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival."5
III. Why Paris?
Paris, a son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, is chosen to decide which goddess gets the apple. There has been much speculation as to why Paris was chosen for a task requiring the most judicious discernment. I believe the best explanation is to presume that he represents the commonality of humankind. As a callow, mediocre "everyman" rather than a hero like his elder brother Hector, he best illustrates the extent to which bad consequences occur when the lower passions, in both the individual and the group, are not controlled and balanced by right reason allied with self-regard.
In the Myth, Zeus decided that Troy must fall and Greece prevail. Placing the fate of a culture and civilization in the hands of Paris ensured a Greek victory. Perhaps this was propaganda for the advancement of Greek culture and civilization, but it also had a didactic purpose.
In the context of the story, Paris brings ruin not only to himself but to his family and all Troy, for Paris’s lack of judgment leads to crime. Whether we think of his action as consensual adultery (which at present is barely frowned upon in the West) or rape (which remains a crime), the moral of the story is that a nation which will not adhere to rules of natural justice and which permits such actions to go unpunished is doomed to destruction. In the Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle referred to adultery as follows:
What we see in the above is the philosophical intellect of Aristotle observing and universalizing the particular experience of life as it was lived within a culture and as embodied within the poetical expression of myth and legend. What Aristotle observed was the natural law that was embedded within the poetry and drama of his culture.
In Aristotle’s view, Aphrodite’s inducement is malum in se and should be rejected out of hand; there is no "mean" for adultery, and justifications fabricated to "depend on the circumstances" would be dismissed as sophistry. Of course, that is an ethical perspective arising from a pre-modern worldview and one that would be rejected by both the modern and so called postmodern worldviews, a conflict in ethical visions which I will address more fully below.
I next want to look at the moral issues of the ancient Myth that arose from a particular age and culture, were poetically embodied as an artifact in the myths and legends of that culture, and reemerged in Shakespeare’s The History of Troilus and Cressida. During those intervening millennia, Western history records the rise, spread, and subsequent decline of Greek civilization, the rise and fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity, schism between the Western and Eastern Churches, the conflict with Islam, Renaissance Humanism and neo-paganism, the wars of the Reformation, Copernicus and Galileo, the Counter-Reformation, and the beginnings of modernism, empiricism and a new materialism and naturalism (which were observed and analyzed by Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Bacon and carried forward in the political philosophy of Shakespeare’s late contemporary, Thomas Hobbes).
A broad historical overview of some 2,500 years of Western Civilization is beyond the scope of this essay. What remains within its scope is the fact that Shakespeare’s Paris is morally reprehensible, that an audience of Shakespeare’s time and place would generally agree with that determination, and further that Shakespeare makes this judgment upon the same traditional natural law basis as the ancient Greeks. Place good and evil on a stage and humans, regardless of time, place, race, gender, or culture will intuitively make the distinction. Whether they individually identify with the good or evil character is another matter. Shakespeare’s contemporaries Bacon and Hobbes were harbingers of the modern era that fostered anthropocentric naturalism, radical empiricism, and an unrealistic idealism that engendered Western civilization’s turn toward moral and cultural relativism. This great paradigm shift in Western man’s understanding of himself and his relationship to the world came about largely through a modern tendency to confuse newly discovered laws of nature relating to physics and biology with the moral law that relates only to humankind. The great early twentieth century American scholar, Paul Elmer More, traced this modern tendency to its roots in ancient materialist philosophies that were opposed to Socratic and Platonic spirituality:
As a result of this confusion concerning the distinction between physical "necessity" and spiritual law, modernism adopted an anthropocentric autonomous natural law, as opposed to a pre-modern understanding of natural law grounded in man’s participation in the divine order through the use of his God-given reason.
In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss referenced this radical change in worldview as follows: "According to the traditional view [of natural law] those [moral] sanctions are supplied by the judgment of the conscience, which is the judgment of God. Locke rejects this view. According to him, the judgment of the conscience ‘is nothing else but our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions.’ Or to quote Hobbes, whom Locke tacitly follows: ‘private consciences…are but private opinions.’"8 Add David Hume’s portentous declaration that "reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions" to the witch’s brew, and we have a foundation for the "feel good, do your own thing" psychobabble of postmodern popular culture, and a prescription for the deconstruction, decline, and fall of Western culture and civilization. By making our "private opinions" the source of moral legislation and reason the slave of the passions, the early modern philodoxers rendered God irrelevant in the sphere of human morality, legislation, and judgment. It then required but a little adjustment in one’s thinking, and a sufficient loosening of political and social restraints, to openly declare God dead and to affirm the nihilist’s creed, "God is dead, therefore everything is permitted."
Radical empiricism and naturalism spawned the secular ethics of utilitarianism, which can justify any evil as long as that evil is arguably conducive to the immediately perceived greatest material good of the greatest number at a particular time and place. I quote an observation on the operation of the modern utilitarian ethic attributed to Bertrand Russell: "… if it could be shown that humanity would live happily ever after if the Jews were exterminated, there could be no good reason not to proceed with their extermination."9 Alternatively, a vulgar pragmatism will argue for that which is good is that which works for "us" in any particular situation. Unrealistic, or Romantic, idealism will justify any evil as a means to achieving the "visionary" end of a utopian possibility that a self-proclaimed "vanguard elite", with little or no justification beyond its own "private opinion", confidently proclaims is "good".
In the context of this Myth, the "eye of the intellect" that could perceive the beauty of Athena in the eternal intelligible world of "things as they are" was, in modernism, made subordinate to the "eye of the body" that perceives the transitory mundane" things as they appear to be", i.e. Hera and Aphrodite. By declaring those baser goddesses of the mutable material phenomenal world more "real" and "true", modernism also declared them the "fairest" and therefore most worthy of the prize of the golden apple.
In Troilus and Cressida, Hector is portrayed as the noblest of three brothers. I would understand the three, in descending order, to reflect the qualities attributed to the three goddesses. Hector is a man who, given the chance, would have chosen the wisdom and victory in war offered by Athena. In The Republic, Hector would no doubt be assigned a place among the golden in Plato’s metallurgical moral hierarchy. Troilus, while a defender of Paris and the seducer of Cressida, is not so bad a man as his morally deficient brother. He is more a man of self-regard and doxa, or common opinion, and therefore would arguably have been more inclined to choose Hera as the fairest. He is perhaps a mixture of bronze and silver. The following lines from the play illustrate how the self-serving arguments of Paris and his supporter, Troilus, are countered by their nobler brother Hector. The argument is after the fact; Paris has abducted Helen and the Trojans must decide whether to appease the Greeks by her return and thus avoid war, or keep her and face the consequences:
Troilus: It was thought meet
Paris should do some vengeance on the Greeks.
Your breath with full consent bellied his sails….
And for an old aunt whom the Greeks held captive
He brought a Grecian queen….
Why keep her? The Grecians keep our aunt.
Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl,
Whose price has launched above a thousand ships….
O theft most base,
That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep!
Troilus appeals to Trojan honor and self-regard. He argues that the Greeks have "an old aunt" as a captive, whereas Paris has brought honor to Troy by taking the most beautiful woman in the world from the Greeks. The honorable thing to do is to fight to keep her. It is clear from the Myth, however, that Paris was not thinking of Trojan honor when he made his fateful judgment. Further, even if Helen were taken as a matter of honor, is that sufficient reason to excuse a crime and engage in war in defense of that crime—the foreseeable consequences of which war are the fall of a culture and civilization?
Troilus is interrupted in his defense of Paris by his sister, the doomed prophetess of the downfall of Troy, Cassandra. The gods have already decided that Cassandra’s prophecy will not be believed, and Troy’s fate is sealed; yet Shakespeare assigns his noblest character, Hector, to voice the following moral rebuke:
Now youthful Troilus, do not these
High strains of divination in our sister work
Some touches of remorse? Or is your blood
So madly hot that no discourse of reason,
Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,
Can qualify the same?
Troilus and, more disingenuously, Paris continue to argue against the return of Helen to avert war on the basis of the defense of Trojan honor, thus giving evidence of an irascible nature defending its "natural right"—an abstract right without a corresponding duty which is asserted by our lower nature to justify what our higher nature knows to be wrong. By defending Paris, the self-regarding Troilus has allied himself with the base rather than the noble. Hector responds to his brothers’ sophistry as follows:
Paris and Troilus, you have both said well;
And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially; not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy.
The reasons you allege do more conduce
To the hot passion of distemp’red blood
Than to make up a free determination
‘Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision. Nature craves
All dues rend’red to their owners. Now,
What nearer debt in all humanity
Than wife is to the husband? If this law
Of nature be corrupted through affection,
And that great minds, of partial indulgence
To their benumbed wills, resist the same,
There is a law in each well-ordered nation
To curb those raging appetites
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen, then, be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back returned. Thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy…
After pardoning Shakespeare for his anachronistic reference to Aristotle’s ethics, I think it is fair to say that the greatest thinkers of the Elizabethan era could no more justify the choice of Paris than could the ancient Greeks. What, after all, was "the face that launched a thousand ships" weighed against self-destruction, the downfall and death of one’s family, and the collapse of an entire culture and civilization? Given the circumstances, any defense of Paris’s actions would seem wrong-headed and downright absurd. Yet within two centuries after Shakespeare, the moderns would defend such actions, and much worse.
At the time of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke observed Romantic modernism’s tendency to abandon the collective wisdom of generations for a highly speculative vision of the future,
Two centuries after Burke, Pierre Manent made a similar observation about modernism’s moral predicament:
Modern man cannot be "modern" and still say, with Aristotle and Shakespeare, that an act of betrayal like adultery is "simply wrong". Rather, modern man, in his flight from God, nature, and his past, abrogated his responsibility for temporal judgment, saying, "Who am I to judge?"
What else can one say if one believes, consistent with Hobbes and Locke, that "private consciences… are but private opinions," and with Hume that "reason is and ought… to be the slave of the passions"?
The post-moderns are just the continuum of the moderns who rejected "conventional morals" and "common sense", so who is to say whether any behavior is foolish, vicious, or irrational? Moral and cultural relativism have been de rigueur among the elites of Western culture for generations, and the popular culture has told us, "If it feels good, do it"… so for the moment it would seem that Paris has won his argument with Hector.
This brings us back to Athena’s offer of wisdom and victory, a wisdom that respects the wisdom of generations past, and that knows the value of achieving victories necessary for the survival of a culture and civilization. In The West and the Rest, the British philosopher Roger Scruton writes about the "culture of repudiation" that has developed among the postmodern generation:
Thus we find "blame-America-first" post-moderns who repudiate the values of their own country while bending over backwards to find excuses for those of a violent, alien belief system who threaten their very society with extermination.
A "culture of repudiation" is one that eschews victory, right reason, and judgment while at the same time demanding abstract "natural rights" and equality without accepting any corresponding civic duty. Such a culture is already, in a sense, defeated. Each generation has its Cassandras who cry out to us in warning, but in every generation there are those who prefer the self-serving lie to the difficult truth. The fate of cultures and civilizations depends on whether the majority chooses to follow the moral and heroic Hector or the amoral and feckless Paris. It is incumbent on each generation to reject the "culture of repudiation" and renew the culture of victory, for as Churchill rightly said, "Without victory there is no survival."
1 Helene A. Guerber, The Myths of Greece and Rome (Mineola, New York: Dover 1993), 360.
2 Ibid., 360.
3 The Myths of Greece and Rome, 348.
4 Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches, ed. Peter J. Stanlis (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1963), 559.
5 Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, 13th Ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1955), 869.
6 Ethics, Aristotle, trans. J.A.K. Thomson (London: Penguin classics 1976), 102.
7 Paul Elmer More, Platonism, 3rd ed. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 238-239.
8 Leo Strauss: Natural Right and History, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1965), 222.
9 Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 6-7.
10 Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches, 559.
11 Pierre Manent, The City of Man, trans. Marc A. LePain (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1998),204
12 Roger Scruton, The West and The Rest, Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books 2002), 81.
A Young Person’s Guide to Postmodernism
four polemical book reviews
Paul Sonnino, though born in Naples, Italy, grew up in California and has passed much of his life there. He took his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1964, and has taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara since 1967, where he became a full professor of history in 1987. Among his many publications is Louis XIV and the Origins of the Dutch War, (Cambridge UP, 1988). He is currently finishing a book on Cardinal Mazarin and the Peace of Westphalia.
1. Consistency as a Capitalist Trick: Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment1
The authors of this book begin immediately by assuming an air of intellectual and moral superiority. They seem to know in the introduction what a " truly human condition" is and therefore complain that instead of entering into such a condition, mankind is sinking into a new kind of barbarism. The problem to them would seem to be that "the great discoveries of applied science are paid for with a diminution of theoretical awareness": i.e., not enough people are majoring in philosophy. They proclaim that bourgeois civilization has collapsed and that thought has "unavoidably" (they also know the causes of things) become a commodity. For the purpose of analyzing this sorry state of affairs, they claim they have to "deny any allegiance to current linguistic and conceptual conventions"—i.e.. don’t have to submit to any rules of logic or consistency, because these are, after all, part of the problem (5-6).
In spite, or perhaps because, of their declaration of independence from any criteria of truth, they do assert that they are going to investigate the "self destruction of the Enlightenment" (7). They believe that the Enlightenment, in its search for social freedom, contains the seed of its own destruction. It’s just too practical, too utilitarian, not sufficiently metaphysical, and, in the process, the Enlightenment turns practicality into a metaphysical absolute. The authors of this book take it upon themselves to show us the way out of this dilemma.
They expand on their idea in the first chapter, where Francis Bacon emerges as one of the principal villains. He it was who started this mania for facts, for technology, for the abandonment of metaphysics—in short, for the Enlightenment—and now "the latest logic denounces the spoken words of language, holding them to be false coins better replaced by neutral counters" (15). The authors are referring here to their philosophical enemies, the logical positivists, to whom they return repeatedly and specifically as the work proceeds. To the authors, "the Enlightenment is totalitarian" (16). Why? Because it banishes myths, it alienates men from nature and replaces it with an abstraction that it calls nature. It would seem at this point, therefore, as if the authors are condemning a movement which began in the seventeenth century and which they claim has continued to the present day. But as we read on, we discover that they are not merely talking about a recent historical period to which they assign that name, because they seem to identify the term Enlightenment with any sort of abstraction. "Language," they say, "expresses the contradiction that something is itself and at one and the same time something other than itself." This development was "already far advanced in the Homeric epic and extends into positive science " (26-27). In other words, the authors are trying to save us from everything that men did ever since the anthropoid in 2001: A Space Odyssey clobbered his enemy with a bone.
In their diatribe against this broadly conceived Enlightenment, the authors rail incessantly and interminably against what they perceive as the social injustice that proceeds from its worship of brute facts. In other words, they castigate the tendency of some societies to rationalize social injustices by principles of practical necessity. This, they feel, dehumanizes men and turns them into objects. That is, of course, pure Marxist analysis of the bourgeois ideology. But the authors of this book go way beyond Marx. It is not simply the ideological propaganda of a society that they denounce as reflections of a class structure. It is elementary logic itself, as we see when they revolt against "the principle that of two contradictory propositions only one can be true and the other false" (44), which confirms their claim that they don’t have to submit to any rules of logical consistency.
Writing this book as they did in Santa Monica, California, in 1944, the authors did not have the Stanley Kubrick Space Odyssey to cite as an example, so they found themselves obliged to go back to the original Homeric epic for their first digression and to the Marquis de Sade for their second. They need not have done so. The points they make in these two digressions are repetitive and trite. Odysseus is the "prototype of the first bourgeois individual" (58), and, at the other end of time, the Marquis de Sade systematized sex.
It is, of course, impossible to argue against individuals who will not submit themselves to any rule of consistency, and this work quite rightly inaugurates the postmodern movement, with all of its elitism, anti-intellectualism, and vicarious radicalism. Here are people who feel they can say or write anything, because anyone who accuses them of contradiction or factual error is just part of the oppressive self-deluded power structure of the Enlightenment and capitalism. Here are people who decry the logical positivists for trying to clean up language, themselves condemn language because it expresses the contradiction that something can be itself and something other than itself, and then have the gall to proclaim that Odysseus is not only Odysseus but also the prototype of the first bourgeois individual! When such people, or their disciples, manage to gain control of academic departments and presses, as they have done all over the world in recent years, they can pretty much banish all efforts at thinking from the university environment. They simply contribute to a double standard by which people over here use their intelligence to develop technology while people over there sit in an ivory tower decrying it, until such time as they wake up to find their department replaced by a CD Rom.
It is also extremely obvious that if one were to subject Horkheimer and Adorno to the most elementary principles of common logic, all their diatribes boil down to a tantrum.
To begin with, if indeed mankind went off on the wrong tangent from the moment that the first primitive man began employing technology, what is it that Horkheimer and Adorno suggest? That we go back to hunting and food gathering with our hands? How can we possibly manage to undo a million years of human development?
Secondly, it is not at all clear if, even before the first primitive man discovered technology, he was any more in touch with his humanity than any modern man is today. The myth that the primitive is closer to nature than the civilized man began with Rousseau, and it is curious that Horkheimer and Adorno give him no credit for it—although Deririda later does; but, in any event, there is no proof for it, and even Lévi-Strauss later admits that primitive men have the same thinking capacities as modern ones. The notion of primitive man constantly conscious of his relationship to the natural world is as much of an absurdity as that of modern man constantly thinking about the Hegelian dialectic. It is the figment of a philosophy professor’s imagination and a confirmation of the old maxim that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Oh, to be living in the Neanderthal instead of Silicon Valley! But it is no less possible, I would suggest, to have a mystical moment on a New York subway than on a tropical island.
Thirdly, there is this question: if just using language constitutes the false step which brought mankind to its present corruption, and if the myths of Homeric Greeks were already the prototypes of bourgeois propaganda, what could be more artificial than the abstraction by Horkheimer and Adorno of the term "Enlightenment"? The "Enlightenment" is not a thing. It is not a metaphysical unit with a dialectic attached. It is not some magical force of nature which requires a shaman to exorcise it (although this book is in many respects an attempt to exorcise the Enlightenment by heaping insults upon it). Of course, Horkheimer and Adorno would cry out, "How dare you ask us for consistency? When you use abstractions you use them in the service of bourgeois Enlightenment values, when we use abstractions we use them in the service of saving humanity!" Who can answer that?
If we want to find a dialectic of the Enlightenment, we would be much better served to look for it in Carl Becker’s wonderful book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, first published in 1932. Basing his study on specific individuals rather than on a wholesale condemnation of the Enlightenment, Becker showed how the philosophes were perfectly conscious of the limitations of their rationalism, how frustrated they were by the problem of evil, and how, in the face of these dilemmas, they sought to find further assurances by appealing to history, to sentiment, and to posterity. Becker has since been battered around by Peter Gay and a whole school of Neo-Whiggish historians who do not seem to be able to reconcile profundity with wit, but he is still the place to go for a dialectic of the Enlightenment.
Not to be unkind… but Horkheimer and Adorno betray all the symptoms of the expatriate syndrome. They began as enthusiastic supporters of a movement (Marxism) whose abstract dialectic simply did not pan out. On the contrary, it brought to life its worst nightmare, National Socialism. Horrified, Horkheimer and Adorno end up in Santa Monica, a haven of tranquillity (even in wartime), prosperity, and innocence, where the inhabitants stroll up and down the pier in infuriating oblivion to German idealistic philosophy. So what is wrong with the world? It doesn’t seem to work according to any of the paradigms envisaged by Horkheimer and Adorno. Who is to blame? Is it possible that Horkheimer and Adorno are a couple of over-ambitious philosophers who have, unlike the logical positivists, tried to go way beyond the capacities of the human mind and paid the price of their presumption? That can’t be. So they take out their frustration against the Enlightenment.
2. Writing as Masturbation: Derrida’s Of Grammatology2
Derrida introduces his book with three quotes, which he claims prove that all writing is ethnocentric. He immediately proceeds to the additional claim that, for reasons which are at the same time "enigmatic" and "essential" (2), this ethnocentrism is the most powerful thing on the planet. He further specifies that this is a historical phenomenon—part of a historical-metaphysical epoch—and provides the "structural possibility" for philosophy and science (12-14).
Derrida’s first proposition is questionable, because his three quotes in no way prove that their authors were ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism is the belief that a certain people are at the center of the universe. None of these quotes expresses such a belief, and even if it did, this still cannot make the case for all writing.
But if Derrida’s first proposition is questionable, his second proposition, to the effect that what he identifies with ethnocentrism is necessarily the most powerful thing on the planet, is preposterous. Gravity may be the most powerful thing on the planet, natural selection may be the most powerful thing on the planet, nuclear power may be the most powerful thing on the planet… but writing?
On the basis of these assertions, the author then presents himself as the discoverer of a new science called "grammatology" which is going to liberate us from this power—BUT he refuses to define this science, or to describe its method: he merely warns us that he is going to be outrageous.
Derrida is conscious of one problem, however, namely that people speak before they write. Thus he devotes his first chapter (in Pt. I, Ch. I) to trying to bridge this gap. He does this by trying to bludgeon the reader into accepting the notion that in the course of the last historical-metaphysical epoch—some twenty centuries—language has been necessarily overcome by writing. In the process, he agrees with Aristotle that words are signs and with Saussure (1857-1913) that signs contain both .a signifiant or "signifier" (i.e., a sound) and a signigfié Or "signified" (i.e., an idea); hence writing constitutes one more step in the direction of abstraction, being the "signified of the signified". But Derrida supplements these propositions with his own thesis that there is more to writing than signs, signifiers, signified, and signified of the signified. Writing, to Derrida, takes on a life of its own. It is a "game" (16), and Derrida promises that he is going to expose the "structure" (18) and "implicit metaphysics" (20) behind it. The goal of grammatology, therefore, is the "deconstruction" of all significations (21).
But if Derrida has promised the deconstruction of all significations, one might inquire of him how he deconstructs the signs "necessity", "structure", and "implicit metaphysics"? It is at this juncture and perhaps for this purpose that he begins to intone the name of Heidegger, a German existentialist philosopher and onetime Nazi sympathizer. Building upon foundations laid by Nietzsche, who proclaimed the death of God (and of all metaphysical or natural universal standards) in favor of the individual creative will, Heideigger, by a neat little trick of semantics, attributed to the will the creation of all metaphysical standards. The will creates its own metaphysics. All the Germans need to do is to proclaim themselves to be the master race, and if they succeed in exterminating all others, this establishes the essence of a master race. Derrida applies this fanatical principle to writing. Writing creates its own "necessity", "structure", and "implicit metaphysics". He then hits us with five more terms: "presence" (23), which seems to be when you simply pound your chest; "exteriority" (24), which is what you contact the moment you start speaking; "referent", which is the "thing" to which you are referring; "difference" (26), which is that all-powerful extra added je ne sais quoi between signifier and signified; and "text", which is a "tissue of signs". If one keeps these terms and their definitions in mind, one can begin to build up one’s own basic Derridian dictionary.
In his next chapter (Pt. I, Ch. II), Derrida is still embarrassed by the same problem, namely how to displace the "science" of linguistics, which is something of a competitor of his grammatology. Thus he continues his verbal barrage. Writing is the "original sin" (53) which has taken over language by a process of "violence" and "usurpation". He keeps calling upon the name of Saussure so much that he is obliged to point out that Saussure has not seen the full implications of his own "discourse" (64). For example, Saussure did not fully realize that the signifiers (i.e., the sounds of the words) also get lost in the shuffle. Thus "the signified face does not need the signifier to be what it is" (107). The implications of this statement are staggering. For if the sounds of words get lost in the shuffle, what happens to the person who is making the sounds or to the object that the sounds represent? With this statement, Derrida eliminates all intent and verification from the study of history, including even the possibility of a consensus over his beloved "difference"! The reader of any text is completely free to interpret it in any way he wishes. We might call this "Derrida’s revenge"! "Write if you want, " he taunts, "but you’ll be wasting your time!"
In the third chapter of Part One, Derrida shows his awareness of still another problem. If writing is a historical phenomenon, as all science, how can we have a science of grammatology without it, too, being relative to our time and metaphysics? Derrida tries to solve this problem in two ways. He describes the efforts of Descartes and Leibniz to invent a science of writing, and then claims that in the nineteenth century these efforts went off on the wrong tangent, but he feels that grammatology is getting us back on track. As an example, he cites the work of A. Leroy-Gourhan on the linearity of writing; which is the fact that we put words into lines. This habit is supposed to have an immense psychological effect upon the reader—to the exclusion, one need hardly add, of what the writer may be trying to say.
From the very beginning, however, Derrida engages in a corrosive practice which militates against the entire thesis of his book. For if indeed all writing creates an all-powerful and unwholesome "difference", how is it that Derrida, by means of their writings, can manage to come into such direct and wholesome contact with his intellectual forbears, Saussure, Heidegger, Descartes, Leibniz, and Leroy-Gourhan? Indeed, this corrosive element takes over the entire second part of the book, where Derrida concentrates on the life and times of Rousseau. He admits to a bit of embarrassment at having to "privilege" Rousseau as marking the beginning of the grammatological movement, but Derrida does not stop to explain how it is that, in a world of differentiating texts, Rousseau’s manages to come through unscathed. Why does Derrida go out on such a limb for Rousseau? In the answer to this question, I think, we have the key to Derrida’s character and ideas. Derrida admires Rousseau because he was the first defender of natural man against civilization, the first to argue that natural man is direct, noble, and simple, and that civilization corrupts him by, among other things, subverting his feelings through artificiality of writing. Derrida also finds in Rousseau a kindred spirit. He too reveled in contradiction. He too enjoyed being outrageous. He too laid out impossible missions for humanity. Derrida also admires Lévi-Strauss, because he, in pursuit of the natural man, went off to Brazil and concluded that the much maligned Nambikwara were far from devoid of human feelings. But before he elaborates on these themes, Derrida adds to our growing lexicon of his terminology by defining for us the term "discourse", which he defines as "the present living and conscious representation of a text in the experience of those who write it or read it" (149) .
By this point in the book, Derrida has become so captivated with the flow of his own rhetoric that he loses all consciousness of any contradictions in his thesis; for in the course of his most explicit denunciation of language, writing, and society—the whole kit and caboodle—as "violence", he comes out with an astonishing admission that "language is writing" (156). He seems to be blithely unaware that this admission makes a complete mockery out of himself and his book. For if indeed "language is writing," what is one to make of the historical-metaphysical epoch in which writing ostensibly takes over language? Shades of Horkheimer and Adorno! Or, for that matter, if "language is writing," what was the purpose of his entire debate with Saussure over the distinction between the two? It makes no sense.
Derrida is similarly carried away by Rousseau’s description, in his Confessions, of how he learned to masturbate. Rousseau refers to masturbation as "a dangerous supplement which fools nature," and in this statement Derrida discovers the original thesis of his Grammatology expressed in a nutshell. Writing is a form of intellectual masturbation. In this statement, moreover, we can identify Derrida as one more example of a recurring phenomenon in history, namely the individualist living in the midst of a civilization who achieves renown by hurling abuse upon it. Diogenes and Nietzsche, along with Rousseau, immediately to mind. But this kind of formulation also betrays the glaring difference between Derrida and his homologues. They expressed themselves with infinitely more panache.
Without batting an eyelash, Derrida then launches (Pt. II, Ch. III) into the analysis of one of Rousseau’s works, the Essay on the Origin of Languages, not as a "text", not in terms of its "discourse", but in the venerable manner of a nineteenth-century Sorbonne professor, complete with intention, meaning, and style. He even resorts to the counter-revolutionary device of trying to determine the date when Rousseau wrote it. All texts, therefore, may be equal, but some, apparently, are more equal than others; and, as I have suggested, Rousseau’s is the most equal of all. Of course, Derrida finds it necessary here and there to add his own glosses; and, on this occasion, he finally gives us his definition of the term "structure". "Structure" he defines as "the irreducible complexity at the interior of which one can only bend or displace the game of presence or absence" (238).
In other words, after promising us a science of grammatology which cannot exist because all science is part of a violent system of signs relative to a historical-metaphysical epoch, Derrida ends up by defending his ideas with an appeal to Rousseau. Derrida has certainly not proved that writing is violence, but, with his authoritarian, obscure, and inconclusive diatribes, he has certainly proved that his writing is about as artificial as one can get. He has certainly not proved that writing is masturbation, but he has certainly demonstrated that his writing is a form of sadism inflicted upon those who are masochistic enough to enjoy it. If he has proved that words are not the same thing as the thing they signify, he has only proved something that is obvious to any five-year-old. What is not obvious and totally implausible is that the "difference" between the thought and the word is some sort of "original sin" which we all bear when we speak or write, and that this sin lies in some sort of metaphysical never-never land which Derrida cannot define or identify in any comprehensible manner. There is no doubt that words carry implications, but as his own analysis of his intellectual precursors itself demonstrates, these implications may well produce a meeting of minds between the writer and the reader. Some words may threaten violence, some words may imply a lot of nasty things; but to introduce, as Derrida does, this mysterious canard of "difference" and claim that it is taking over the world is, in my opinion, a complete surrender of any credibility. It may or may not be desirable for mankind to go back to living like the Nambikwara, but it hardly strikes me as feasible. Rousseau’s and Derrida’s solution is to preach, like Calvinist ministers, against sins which people cannot help committing, with the exception that the Calvinist ministers preached in the name of a God who had issued some verbal commandments, whereas Derrida preaches in the name of the unfathomable God of discourse. Derrida concludes his book by admitting that he may be crazy, but takes comfort in the fact he knows he is crazy, whereas the rest of the world is just as crazy but believes it is sane. He is wrong in one respect. The rest of the world does not throw its babies out with the bath water.
3. Have Body, Will Discourse: Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish3
When I was a young man at UCLA, I learned a number of things about the history of crime and punishment. I learned about the lex talionis of Hammurabi’s code. I learned about the Wehrgeld, compurgation, and trial by ordeal. As my education went forward, l learned about how written procedures and torture marched hand in hand during the "Renaissance" in an effort to get the criminal to admit his crime. I became aware that the Old Regimes did not go in for long-term imprisonment, although, when it was convenient, they turned their warships into prisons. I found occasion to read Beccaria’s Treatise on Crimes and Punishments, that scathing humanitarian-utilitarian denunciation of all previous criminal jurisprudence. I even knew that the guillotine was introduced as a more "humane"` form of execution. But, in point of fact, I did not need the beneficence of the State of California nor the munificence of the G.I. Bill to learn that, in Western Civilization, the intention in criminal jurisprudence had gradually shifted from the idea of punishment and vengeance to the idea of deterrent and rehabilitation. Every C. B. de Mille epic, every remake of Les Misérables, and every progressive politician running for office or prison spokesman putting his best foot forward abundantly proclaims this same point to the public at large.
Now comes Mr. Foucault to tell us that when they poured molten lead into the open wounds of the criminal in front of a frenzied crowd, they were doing it to his body, with the intention of impressing the immensity of his crime upon the spectators. The novelty appears to be in his introduction of the term body; but what exactly the introduction of this term contributes to our understanding is a complete mystery to me, except that Foucault proceeds to use it in order to build up a number of distinctions which he cannot sustain. For example, he tells us that penal severity (in democratic countries, he should have added) has decreased over the last 200 years, and that this has been accompanied "by a displacement in the very object of the punitive operation". It is not at all clear whether he is asserting that we put less emphasis on punishing the body or that we no longer punish the body. He seems to be saying both, but he goes on immediately to claim that we are currently putting all our emphasis on punishing the soul. Later it turns out that it is not the soul but the mind; yet still later, it turns out that we are still punishing the body. In the process of this meandering, moreover, Foucault not too subtly shifts the subject from what we are punishing (is it the body or the soul-mind?) to for what purpose we are punishing, the implication being that modern punishment rejects the notion of vengeance in favor of the notion of deterrent. This well-known historical development becomes, in Foucault’s hands "the metamorphosis of punitive methods starting with a political technology of the body" (28).
Foucault is also a great legislator, telling us what it is legitimate and illegitimate for us to do. "It is legitimate," he allows, "to write a history of punishment on the basis of moral ideas or legal structures" (30). He insists on doing it, instead, against the background of the history of his beloved body. "Of course," he grants "this technology is diffuse, rarely formulated in continuous, systematic discourses" (31). It has to be diffuse, because Foucault, like Horkheimer and Adorno, rejects all notions of disinterested, independent knowledge. "Power and knowledge directly imply one another," writes Foucault, adding, "there is no power relation without the corresponding constitution of a field of knowledge, nor of knowledge that does not suppose and constitute power relations at the same time" (32).
Since Foucault, as in his earlier Madness and Civilization (1961) and Birth of the Clinic 1963), begins with a whole set of assumptions, it is hardly surprising that he does not put a great deal of emphasis on original research. If we examine his citations on matters relating to legal history, we find that he does not go far beyond the show trials and the standard legal commentators. Most of his examples are from the later eighteenth century. Digging deeply into the rich judicial archives of the French monarchy, studying any single case in depth for the full circumstances of its resolution—all such labors take a back seat to a constant reiteration of the theme of power. In place of research, we have an escape into ever more precious symbolism: e.g., "The execution anticipates the punishment of the after-life" (49), and, "The atrocity of the expiation organized the ritual reduction of infamy by omnipotence" (60). If you can just figure out how to describe one phenomenon by its hyperbolic similarity with another, you are writing history Foucaultian style; and, needless to say, this easy method has found no shortage of imitators. Likewise for its facile theories of causation. Somehow or other, by the end of the eighteenth century, "it was clearly seen that the great spectacle of punishment ran the risk of being rejected by the very people to whom it was addressed" (66). Thus, "in the wake of a ceremony that inadequately channeled the power relations that it sought to ritualize, a whole mass of discourses burst forth, pursuing the same confrontation" (71). We have here the three principal components of Foucaultian historical method: symbolic comparisons, sudden changes in perception by unspecified individuals, and last but not least, a shift in discourses, all based on a superficial sampling of the secondary literature.
There is a lot of anger in all this, a lot of discounting of good intentions. "It was not the more enlightened members of the public, nor the philosophers who instigated the reform, it was prepared for the most part from within, by a large number of magistrates on the basis of shared objectives and the power conflicts that divided them" (83). Unlike the Marxist ruling classes, which confuse their class interests with the general welfare, the Foucaultian establishment is consciously, albeit anonymously, villainous: "Their desire was not to punish less, but to punish better (84)". Still he names no names, and it soon becomes evident why. Lurking behind the all the symbolism, the shifts, and the discourses, the culprit is still capitalism, all the more vicious because it refuses to go away. Foucault even works up a little nostalgia for the thumbscrew as the rigidly disciplined prisons of the nineteenth century apply themselves to the art of rendering the body docile.
When we finally get a culprit, it is Jeremy Bentham. His Panopticon exemplifies not merely the new nineteenth-century effort to exert power over the bodies of criminals by constant, efficient, and moderate pressure, but also the new nineteenth-century effort to overturn the social contract and exert power over the working classes in the same manner. Once again, Foucault finds himself obliged to inform us, as if we had been under the impression that the bodies he is describing existed in a vacuum, that the power-wielders of the nineteenth century invented a new way to use space. But poor Jeremy Bentham, too, turns out to be a symbol. Power, says Foucault, "has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, of surfaces, of lights, of looks, in an apparatus whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are trapped" (203). Foucault concedes, "every system of power is faced with the same problem" (219), BUT he goes back to his original causative scheme in asserting that "the growth of the apparatus of production" necessitated the "development of the disciplinary methods". It is no surprise that we have a citation of Marx’s Das Kapital (vol. 1, ch. 13) AND an unacknowledged debt to Horkheimer and Adorno: "The ‘Enlightenment’, which has discovered liberties, also invented disciplines" (224).
What is amazing is that after having drawn such a bleak picture of the diabolical power of modern disciplinary methods, Foucault proceeds in the last part of his book to inform us that all these methods do not work, that they do not straighten out criminals, and that—by inference—they do not work on the rest of society, either. So Foucault raises the question, ‘If they do not work, why does society continue to employ them?" There is, of course, the obvious answer that might occur to anyone: what alternative does society have? The people of California spend millions of dollars every year on social programs in an effort to avoid putting their fellow citizens into jails. But that is not Foucault’s explanation. To him, the wielders of power need to maintain the disciplinary machinery, as badly functioning as it is, simply in order to isolate the criminal, to marginalize him—to prevent him, in other words, from going out to the barricades with his fellow proletarians and overthrowing the whole rotten system. Once more, the whole Marxist substructure of Foucault’s conceptualization emerges to the surface. And that is fine if it will produce, as Marx predicted, the overthrow of capitalist society and inaugurate the worker’s paradise. But without that promise, what is left of Foucault’s conceptualization?
For it is indeed a question of signs, of semiotics. When we use numbers and words as signs for things, most of us, with the exception of the postmodernists, do not make a production of the fact that the numbers and words are not the thing, and that this is simply a price we pay for the utility and flexibility of the symbols. The use of differential equations in calculus or the concept of gravity is certainly not the same thing as the physical universe, but we gain a tremendous advantage from these abstractions. We could just as well imagine the universe as a gigantic turtle: this might gratify our aesthetic sense, but it would not be able to predict for us at what altitude an object of any given weight and velocity could sustain an orbit around the earth. The same is true of Marx’s theory of class struggle. His concept of class, class struggle, ideology, etc., is certainly not the same thing as social reality, but we would gain a tremendous advantage from it if it were able to predict at what point the contradictions of capitalism would result in a successful and permanent proletarian revolution. If, on the other hand, the Marxist system cannot carry through its predictions, then its concepts of class, class struggle, ideology, etc., merely go back to being combinations of signs and evidence, without any predictive value. They may be more or less symbolically striking, they may have more or less empirical evidence to support them, but they cannot exclude other generalizations which may be supported by contrary evidence. Historians, especially since the demise of Marxism, are reduced to combining signs and evidence in the best way they can. To write history as a progressive class struggle would certainly be supported by some of the evidence. But it is also possible to write it as progressive class collaboration or, for that matter, as a progression to which class is irrelevant. To write history as a history of class struggle certainly does have some evidence to support it. But it is also possible to write it as a history of class collaboration or, for that matter, history in which class is irrelevant. To write history as a history of gender victimization has some evidence to support it, but it is also possible to write history as a history of mutual sexual gratification., or in which gender has nothing to do with the question. People of one race have committed unspeakable atrocities against people of another, and people of one race have adopted children of another.
Foucault’s concession that other approaches may be legitimate is belied by this universalizing of the power-knowledge principle, which would only be legitimate, to my way of thinking, if he employed it for purposes of prediction. Reduced to signs and evidence, therefore, his history is deficient on two grounds: first, because the constant repetition of the power-knowledge principle through ever more predictable symbolism becomes excruciatingly tiresome; second, because his capricious standards of evidence exclude both intention and outcome. All that remains is his subjective interpretation of such things as the "concerted distribution of bodies". It’s hard to imagine a more narcissistic application of historical method, and one that is more insulting to the reader’s common sense.
Of course, people use knowledge to exert power, and when they do, it is the duty of the historian to document it; but they also use knowledge for a thousand other purposes, and, in any event, more often than not they use ignorance rather than knowledge. The net result of Foucault’s historical method is to produce angry, indolent know-it-alls who don’t want to be confused with facts and who blame all of their discontentment on an anonymous and malevolent power-elite.
All this, of course, is heresy to the collectivist postmodern mentality, which requires belief in the power-knowledge Deity under threat of excommunication from the academic-literary community.
4. Why make it simple when you can make it complicated? Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures4
In his first lecture, Habermas provides us with two definitions of die Moderne:
In the process, Habermas also provides us with a definition of "postmodern":
One might expect that any author with some consideration for his readers might then proceed to elaborate, one after the other, the three definitions which he has proposed, but this is too much to expect from Habermas. He develops only one of his three definitions, and this in order to complicate it. For he complains that after a short dalliance with the implications of subjectivity, Hegel rushed right back into the arms of the absolute, i.e., an absolute standard of truth which somehow guides and transcends self-knowledge.
Since Hegel could not tear himself away from the illusion of absolute truth, he and his disciples run—in Habermas’ third lecture—right smack into Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, according to Habermas, observed that for all their claims to subjectivity, Hegel and his disciples, such as Karl Marx, were still functioning within the framework of "Occidental rationalism" (93). That is the subject of the fourth lecture, Nietzsche’s scathing critique of "subject centered reason", Nietzsche’s "exploding modernity’s husk of reason." (106-7). To Nietzsche, according to Habermas, Hegel’s modernity was simply "the last epoch in the far reaching history of a rationalization initiated by the dissolution of archaic life and the collapse of myth" (108). What humanity needed was to break through the bonds of reason, to return to its Dionysian instincts: "intoxication, madness, and incessant transformations" (113). There was no such thing as reason, there was only will to power, will to illusion. This puts a great premium on art, and makes Nietzsche, with his "unmasking critique of reason that places itself outside the horizon of reason" (119), the founder of postmodernism.
If, however, Hegel and Nietzsche had both invented clear concepts of subjectivity, the attentive reader might well wonder what the difference is between modernism and postmodernism. Yet the attentive reader can go to the devil, for Habermas now proceeds to establish a new classification, according to which Nietzsche’s critique of modernity has continued along two paths: 1) through Bataille, Lacan, and Foucault, who wish to unveil the "perversion of the will to power" by using "anthropological, psychological, and historical methods"; and 2) through Heidegger and Derrida, who act as "experienced critics of metaphysics with claims to special knowledge" (120).
One has to be patient, because Habermas interrupts this classification as well with a lecture on Horkheimer and Adorno, of whom he clearly disapproves. They made "an ambiguous try to give satisfaction to Nietzsche’s radical critique of reason" (129), and they did not succeed. Their attack upon the Enlightenment was unqualified, and he feels called upon to "prevent this confusion" (130). He also finds they have oversimplified their image of modernity. They do not "do justice to the rational [read good!] content of cultural modernity that was captured in bourgeois ideals" (137). They do not hold out any prospect of an "escape from the myth of purposive rationality that has turned into objective power" (138). Habermas quite correctly presents Horkheimer and Adorno as disillusioned Marxists who, after experiencing National Socialism, Stalinism, and Social Democratic capitalism, saw absolutely no hope at all for the Enlightenment idea of reason to work itself into anything better.
Habermas then jumps forward in his classification with a lecture on Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), of whom Habermas clearly approves. It was Heidegger who, according to Habermas, breathed new life into the Nietzschean tradition by reintroducing metaphysics and making it meaningful again. Metaphysics permits "a collectively binding preunderstanding of everything that can occur in the world " (158). It does not matter that Heidegger saw this "collectively binding preunderstanding" as being embodied by National Socialism. Heidegger’s great insight was that Nietzsche’s "will to power", by a process of collectivization, produces being. Men acting in unison create their own metaphysical universe. Habermas has most certainly understood Heidegger’s argument to the effect that what traditional metaphysics considered as immanent within things was actually immanent within collective wills, and Habermas, like Derrida, thrives on the connection. "Heidegger’s originality," exults Habermas, "consists in metaphysico-historical organization of the modern dominance of the subject: truth is transformed into subjective certitude"(160). "The modern understanding of being refracts all normative orientations into the power claims of a subjectivity possessed with self-aggrandizement" (161). And Heidegger has a view of modernity in keeping with Habermas’. "For him the beginning of modernity is marked by the epochal incision of the philosophy of consciousness started with [sic] Descartes; and Nietzsche’s radicalizing of this understanding of being marks the most recent time... The necessity of another beginning draws our sight into the grasp of the future" (ibid.). A comforting thought with which to stroll into the gas chamber! A further implication of this theory, according to the ecstatic Habermas, is that the "critique of modernity is made independent of scientific analysis" (167). In other words, the "collectively binding preunderstanding" does not have to bother itself with facts!
Derrida, to Habermas, is merely a wayward disciple of Heidegger, What Heidegger does for being, Habermas quite acutely points out, Derrida tries to transfer to language, and even more than language, to writing. Habermas does not consider this as much of a contribution. "This idea is simply a variation on the motif of the dependency of living discourse upon the self-sufficient structures of language" (196). So Habermas’ lecture on Derrida is more like an excuse for a lecture on Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), with whom Derrida disagreed. Husserl (1859-1938) was a Judaeo-Christian, Austro-German philosopher who tried to cope with the demise of metaphysics by getting around Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Husserl tried to make it superfluous by claiming that just by being conscious, we are already in contact with some kind of metaphysical reality. This is phenomenology. He has, as Habermas puts it, "recourse to an outlook in which these essences show themselves ‘by themselves’ and reach givenness as pure phenomena" (203-4). If we are directly in contact with phenomena, what is all this fuss about writing? Husserl may not be up to the metaphysical National Socialism of Heidegger, but he is still a useful instrument with which to bash Derrida.
Habermas devotes one supremely incom-prehensible lecture to Bataille, and two fairly lucid ones to Foucault. Habermas quite accurately describes Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, with its attempted analysis of how modern society has tried to isolate madness as a means of enforcing conformity. Habermas also quite faithfully identifies Foucault’s approach to history as a study of discourses, all of which are merely devices by which societies exert power. But Habermas is not entirely happy with Foucault either. In criticizing Discipline and Punish, Habermas makes the point that Foucault criticism "is based more on the postmodern rhetoric than on postmodern assumptions"(331), and that his presentation, which "lets out the threads of the juridical organization of the exercise of dominance", is "entirely distorted" (340). Clearly, Habermas is about to set us straight.
He does so in lecture eleven, where he reminds us that he had "marked the places where the young Hegel, the young Marx, and even the Heidegger of Being and Time and Derrida in his discussion with Husserl stood before alternative paths which they did not choose" (345). We moderns are faced, admits Habermas, with the "self–reference of the knowing and dealing subject." But we can direct this self-reference to "communicatively structured lifeworlds that reproduce themselves via the palpable medium of dealing oriented to mutual agreement" (ibid.). The problem with his postmodern predecessors is that they had gotten themselves into the predicament of "doubling", of having to keep reinventing themselves in such a way as to abandon both consistency and contradiction, which is inane. "This alternative no longer applies, as soon as linguistically generated intersubjectivity gains primacy. The ego then stands within an interpersonal relationship that allows it from the perspective of the other, to relate to itself as a participant in an interaction" (347). Or, as Lyndon Johnson used to put it, "Come, let us reason together!"
There are a number of serious problems with Habermas’ classifications, beginning with his very first appeals to Weber and Hegel.
As to Weber, his definition of "rational" as "the European economic system", which Habermas approves, is so ethnocentric as to be laughable; and the attempt by postmodernists to clean up the definition by internationalizing it, which Habermas also approves, simply makes it more ridiculous. Weber is presumptuous enough to believe that late nineteenth-century Europeans have figured out how to be rational. His successors are presumptuous enough to believe that twentieth-century men in general have universalized rationality, whether for good or evil. Both seem to assume that history has come to fullness in the specious present of their own modernity, as if new ideas of what is "rational" organization of human activity were not emerging with each passing day.
As to Hegel, his conception of the development of consciousness through time is completely perverted by Habermas for the purpose of turning Hegel into the prophet of modernity. It is true that Hegel expounded an idealistic philosophy which maintained that man’s consciousness developed through time by means of a dialectic of opposite ideas and was constantly progressing to new and better ones. It is true that Hegel believed that men did this subjectively. It is true that Hegel believed that his philosophy had made men conscious of this and that this consciousness characterized his own time. But Hegel did not preclude further spiritual progress. Whether or not the early Hegel is more subjective than the later Hegel is besides the point, because I would suggest that the term "subjectivity" to him never meant that we all think as we please. There was always some sort of Divine guidance lurking back there somewhere. Moreover, he himself did not use the term "die Moderne". As we have seen above, he referred to his own time as "die neue Zeit". Finally, whatever his ideas may have been, it does not necessarily follow that they were adopted by the bulk of European society. Indeed, their abstruseness would suggest the exact contrary.
Habermas, it is true, falls back upon such precedents as the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, the idea of progress, and the popularity of the term "modern", but these precedents only serve to weaken his argument, for they do not require Hegel’s abstruse philosophy for their dissemination. The quarrel of the ancients and the moderns began with an assertion by Charles Perrault in 1687 that modern artists had surpassed ancient ones. You did not need a professorship to understand that. The idea of progress was simply the assertion by the likes of Locke and Fontenelle that modern scientists and philosophers had discovered a key to improving the lot of mankind. The term "modern", which even in 1687 did not necessarily mean "better", only gradually assumed its positive connotation of representing an improvement. Philosophes like Voltaire, who were much more digestible than Hegel, managed to make the idea of progress very attractive in the course of the eighteenth century, and it is the growing power of this idea in modern ideology—NOT the cerebral speculations of Hegel—that makes modern men believe that they are smarter than their predecessors and that future men will be smarter still.
What Habermas is doing, therefore, is exemplifying the old pedantic dictum, "Don’t make it simple when you can make it complicated." He takes the very simple historical phenomenon, the idea of progress, whose manifestations are evident in a thousand ways from 1687 to the present day, complicates it by renaming it die Moderne, and sees it only through the minds of a small number of philosophers. The result is pure Geistesgeschichte, the kind of history perfected by Friedrick Meinecke, the study of disemboweled ideas flowing from the thoughts of one thinker to another—which, moreover, gives the impression that as these philosophers think, so also does mankind. The result, too, is that in the title of this book, the term "discourse" has absolutely nothing to do with the "discourse" of the deconstructionists. It is discourse in the sense of conscious debate between intellectuals. Compared to Meinecke’s, however, it is very poor Geistesgeschichte, making up in self-absorption, tendentious interpretation, and tortuous terminology what it lacks in organization and respect for the reader.
Habermas’ interpretation of the double Hegel creates a particular paradox for him, because if the youthful Hegel dabbled with postmodernity, then he or somebody before him must have previously invented modernity. On the other hand, if his invention of modernity is just a scam, then it is only the postmoderns who are really modern. But Habermas needs to have it both ways in order to make his thesis sufficiently complicated. By claiming that Hegel invented modernity, Habermas can present the postmodernists as a bunch of intellectuals who are opposed to modernity and who are trying to lead us into a new age. If Hegel were simply one more nineteenth-century contributor to the idea of progress, then Habermas would have no book. He thus has to create this new transitional age, neither fish nor foul, which he calls modernity, and, in the process, endow Hegel with the power of attorney to speak for mankind.
Since, moreover, Habermas identifies one of his Hegels with modernity, Habermas is forced into still another complication because he has to oppose Nietzsche, the supposed critic of modernity, to Hegel. I seriously doubt, however, that Nietzsche ever gave much thought to Hegel—or, for that matter, to modernity. Nietzsche’s bête noire, if I remember correctly, was Jesus Christ. He it was who initiated the slave morality that Nietszche saw all around him. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche never referred to himself as a postmodernist; and perhaps we come here to the reason that Habermas presents us with two origins of postmodernism in his lectures, one through intellectuals who never used the term "modernity", and the other through the intellectuals of the 1950’s who apparently came up with it.
Habermas’ essays on Horkheimer/Adorno, Heidegger, Derrida, Bataille, and Foucault make it all the more evident that history takes second place to advocacy in this work. Horkheimer and Adorno are bad. Heidegger is good. Derrida is a poor imitation of Heidegger. What are we to make, moreover, of this cavalier habit of setting up classifications and then ignoring them? Habermas identifies Lacan as one of his three "power" theorists and then scarcely says another word about him in the rest of the work. If Husserl is so important, why doesn’t Habermas include him in his original classification and devote a whole lecture to him? Why does Habermas classify Foucault as one of the three "power" theorists although he is almost as prolific on metaphysical questions? Why does Habermas classify Derrida as a metaphysician notwithstanding his all too historical analysis of Rousseau? Why does Habermas fail to note that Horkheimer/Adorno, Derrida, Foucault, and himself all have different time frames for modernity? For whose edification is Habermas writing?
It may be interesting at this point is to consider the most revealing thing that Habermas leaves out. For it should occur to almost anyone with a smattering of philosophy that in Habermas’ discourse of modernity, there are no logical positivists. The logical positivist movement, initiated by Wittgenstein, with its emphasis on the limitations of language, is not even mentioned by Habermas. Had the logical positivists absolutely nothing to say on the question of modernity? Or did the possibility that they considered it a fatuous bit of intellectual preciosity account for their exclusion from the club? Or is it possible that Habermas, after putting us through his torture chamber of philosophical verbiage, comes up with a solution not much different from theirs, except that is it much more subject to abuse because of its metaphysical mumbo jumbo?
For what are these "communicatively structured lifeworlds", after all? Are they not precisely what the logical positivists, seconded by Lyndon Johnson (who was anticipated by Ecclesiastes), have been maintaining all along: namely, that we should endeavor to make our positions clear to each other? If the inhabitants of a community want to build a school, do they not use communicatively structured lifewords in order to decide how and where? One senses here that Habermas is talking about a more speculative kind of reasoning, the kind that he assigned in another of his books to the "public sphere" of eighteenth-century England. He would also appear to be calling for the formation of groups that would, through the elevated quality of their communicatively structured lifeworlds, manage to rise above the practicalities and vulgarities of popular culture. Is he thinking of the PTA, the League of Women Voters, or the Sierra Club? But how would one distinguish the disinterested intellectuality of these groups from every other interest group in society, the Klu Klux Klan, the National Organization for Women, or the American Association of Retired Persons? And if the world’s greatest philosophers have not been able to agree on a normative standard for reality, how could any well meaning assemblies of public spirited citizens be able to do any better? In practice, we seem to be given a choice here between the establishment of a large number of philanthropic societies whose discussions will never get past the metaphysical and an infinity of pressure groups, all of which claim to fill in for the death of God. How different would this be from the shadow Communist, Fascist, and National Socialist organizations which watched over the Soviet, Italian, and German apparatus of government? How does one distinguish between "communicatively structured lifeworlds" and "democratic centralism"—until, that is, one finds oneself at the wrong end of a purge trial?
Which only confirms me in the conclusion that the fundamental problem with Habermas is that he simply cannot detach himself from the people he is studying. He insists on viewing them at face value in terms of their own ideas. Their conceptualizations are his conceptualizations. If Weber talks about "rationalization", Habermas does not stop to analyze what Weber means by that term. If Hegel talks about "self consciousness", Habermans buys into that concept, not as a concept to be examined skeptically for all of its flaws and obscurities, but as a concept that he can integrate into his own description. He is a company man trying to put his companions’ best foot forward and, in the process, imposing upon them many ideas which they never had. Yet Habermas makes it seem as if they were all having a meaningful dialogue, creating precise intellectual links between their ideas and making them spokesmen for humanity. It is much more likely, on the contrary, that the only place in which the philosophical discourse of modernity ever took place was in the mind of Habermas himself.
Habermas, as we can see, also presents himself as a great reconciler, as the intellectual who gets civilization moving again from the excesses of postmodernism into a renewed world in which subjectivity and rational discussion are combined into great progressive synthesis. His is another Guide for the Perplexed, another Summa Theologica, which tries to do for the twenty-first century what Maimonides and Aquinas succeeded in doing for the thirteenth. Don’t be worried by the crackpots, he seems to say to the CEO’s! Their ideas can be brought into the fold as long as you keep on subsidizing the think tanks which will maintain the intellectual smoke screen behind which you can do whatever you please.
Will he succeed? Certainly he has a lot of things going for him. With his public spheres, he has brought vast tracts of traditional history back into production. Historians can now go back to plowing their political and diplomatic fields as long as they do so under the protective panoply of the public sphere. Sociologists can now plant seeds for communicatively structured lifeworlds without being thereby accused of turning society into a huge Panopticon. Feminists can now spray pesticide on the victimization of women with full assurance that they are not simply fomenting new strains for the victimization of men. And there will never be any shortage in our society of bureaucratic organisms that live by the euphemism and profit from the passive sentence. On the other hand, there is the entire problem of the spatial limitations of this approach. It is doing very well in the humanities and social sciences departments of universities, and, as long as contemporary capitalism continues with more ups than downs and contemporary students continue sleeping through classes, no one will pay any attention. But there are, I would suggest, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the conundrums of the postmodernists, and if intellectual life continues to be stifled in universities, it may eventually find other outlets.
1 Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Philosophische Fragmente (Amsterdam, 1947): All citations and translations are from this edition.
2 Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris, 1967). All citations and translations are from this edition.
3 Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (Paris, 1975). All citations and translations are to this edition.
4 Jürgen Habermas, Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1985). All citations and translations are from this edition.
Goldsmith, Blue and Green
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian journalist (working out of Toronto) who has frequently contributed to Praesidium reviews of books on political subjects and thoughtful essays about the crisis of human freedom in a technopoly.
The Trap. By Sir James Goldsmith. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994. Pp. 207 hardcover. ISBN . US $20.
One might well speculate upon what are some of the characteristics that the very wealthiest persons on the planet today have in common. One often reads descriptions in the media of incredibly crotchety, cheap, and competely unprofound old men. In this extremely small field of billionaires (in US dollars), Sir James (Jimmy) Goldsmith (1933-1997) was certainly one of the most reflective, intelligent, and decent-minded. In a hostile but informative article on the newly emerging communitarian tendency in The Economist (December 24th 1994-January 6th 1995, 33-36), "The Politics of Restoration", Goldsmith was described as a "plutopundit, Euro-politician", and identified as a leading communitarian. What is particularly noteworthy is that Sir James did not try to brazenly buy public favour, but rather presented his arguments in a way which asked for informed and thoughtful consent. He withdrew from active business activity as of 1990 in order to devote himself to public endeavors. He was, along with the French aristocrat Philippe de Villiers, the co-founder of a new political movement, L'Autre Europe (which campaigned in France under the banner, "Struggle for Values"), and was a Member of the European Parliament and leader of the new parliamentary group, L'Europe des Nations. In the last year of his life, he led the Referendum Party in Britain in protest
against integration with what he saw as a too-bureaucratic and anti-national Europe.
The Trap, although a highly profound work, is quite accessible to the average intelligent reader. It is, for example, printed up in a comparatively large-sized font. Although there are notes, they are rather unobtrusive endnotes which do not disrupt the flow and tempo of the text. The back cover has a photo of Sir James smiling slightly and looking relaxed in a turquoise sportshirt and white fedora—a figure it would seem impossible to hate. The reviewer believes that this look of accessiblity is quite appropriate for the expression of a philosophical outlook that stresses the importance of genuine popular sentiment. Sir James does not want to wrap his work up in a ponderous image, but hopes that as many people as possible (including the common citizens of the Western countries) can actually read it. The book did indeed become a runaway bestseller when it was originally published in France in 1993. (However, it has not, as far as the reviewer is aware, done anywhere near as well in North America.)
The book is presented in the format of a interview of Goldsmith by Yves Messarovitch, Economics Editor of Le Figaro. Many of these ideas were first publicly spoken by Goldsmith in October 1992, when he delivered a major lecture in the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne University in Paris, speaking to over 2,000 people, most of whom were European graduate students—who will soon be taking their place in the European elites. What does Sir James Goldsmith actually say? The first section of the book, "Measuring or Understanding?" is a straightforward critique of looking at the world (and at the success of society) strictly in terms of the Gross National Product (or economics alone). Goldsmith points out, for example, that the very critical activity of a mother bringing up her own children is measured as worthless in terms of GNP. Although this certainly expresses a fuzzy, pro-family sentiment, some might argue that GNP is quite an accurate measure of the success of a given society. Some theorists contend that a high GNP cannot be maintained in the wake of massive family breakdown and social dysfunction. Some societies with the highest GNP growth ever measured have been manifestly socially-conservative, such as Singapore, South Korea, Spain in the later period of Franco’s rule, Japan, Taiwan, and now Mainland China. The economic performance of Chile in Pinochet’s later years has also been outstanding. So the disjunction between the upholding of more traditional family structures, which was presumably a feature of all these regimes, and strictly economic success may not be as great as Goldsmith thinks. Indeed, Francis Fukuyama has argued in his most recent book (Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity [New York: Free Press, 1995]) that some kind of minimum of social conservatism is necessary for continuing economic growth. On the other hand, the idea of the corrosive effects of excessive wealth is a truism of traditionalism, as well as of some strains of social democratic thinking, which are today partially converging in the so-called communitarian tendency. The America of Clinton’s presidency, which certainly did not lack a plethora of negative social and family trends, nevertheless managed to deliver a strong economic performance, which might indeed confirm that GNP cannot be the sole measure of a society’s success.
The second section, "The New Utopia: GATT and Global Free Trade", is a powerful attack on these two latter-day liberal/capitalist dogmas. Goldsmith states pointedly, "... forty-seven Vietnamese or forty-seven Filipinos can be employed for the cost of one person in a developed country such as France" (26). The adoption of global free trade, Goldsmith argues, would therefore be utterly disastrous for the middle- and working-classes of the West, as the transnational corporations would simply move their production operations offshore. But the poor of the less-developed world would not benefit much, either: "one of the characteristics of developing countries is that a small handful of people controls the overwhelming majority of the nation’s resources. It is these people who own most of their nation’s industrial, commercial and financial enterprises and who assemble the cheap labour which is used to manufacture products for the developed world. Thus, it is the poor in the rich countries who will subsidize the rich in the poor countries. This will have a serious impact on the social cohesion of nations" (37). The GATT's effect on agriculture in the Third World will be even more disastrous, according to Goldsmith: "It is estimated that there are still 3.1 billion people in the world who live from the land. If GATT manages to impose worldwide the sort of productivity achieved by the intensive agriculture of nations such as Australia, then it is easy to calculate that about 2 billion of these people will become redundant. Some of these GATT refugees will move to urban slums. But a large number of them will be forced into mass migration. Today, as we discuss these issues, there is great concern about the 2 million refugees who have been forced to flee the tragic events in Rwanda. GATT, if it ‘succeeds’, will create mass migrations of refugees on a scale a thousand times greater. We will have tragically destabilized the world’s population" (39)
The alternative Goldsmith proposes is regional free trade blocs between countries that are roughly equivalent in development. He also endorses a variant of the free movement of capital (but not of products), e.g. that Japanese firms that want to sell products to Europe would be required to establish their businesses in Europe, thus benefiting European workers. However, he also warns about the dangers of countries having excessive foreign debt-obligations, citing The Economist and a Washington Post editorial: "Now the American economy has begun to pay out more in earnings on foreign investments at home, and on the country’s huge accumulation of foreign debt, than it is earning on American investments abroad. It’s the cost of running those big trade deficits year after year. They are being financed by foreign capital, and like any debtor country, the United States has to pay for the use of the money…. Note that the American economy is now borrowing abroad to pay interest on its earlier foreign borrowings. That is no healthier for a country than it is for a business or a household. And how long can it go on? As long as foreigners are willing to lend. If and when their willingness diminishes, you will see it in higher interest rates. Should that happen, Americans would, as the economists say, have to adjust. That, as the Latin American debtor countries can testify, means a lower standard of living. The longer the foreign deficits pile up, the harder that adjustment will be" (48-49).
Goldsmith’s positions on global free trade could easily be subjected to criticism. Some might argue that we are already effectively living in an interlocked world of global trade and exchange. The "conventional development" schools argue that the development of the Third World can only occur through its assumption of the labour-intensive industries that are simply economically impossible to maintain in the West. The argument is basically that a rising tide raises all boats. Even if narrow native elites will control much of wealth, at some point, the society in general will become more affluent, and eventually more and more persons in those societies will benefit. The idea of less-developed countries—who have precious little to exchange between each other—forming regional trade blocs, to the exclusion of trade with other parts of the world, could be criticized as unviable. One also wonders if the predicted mass planetary migration will be caused by the GATT, or simply by the burgeoning overpopulation of many less-developed countries. Some might argue that it is precisely by increasing the over-all prosperity in Third World countries that such cataclysmic mass-migrations can be avoided.
One suspects that Goldsmith, in making his arguments, was seeking a more tactful phrasing of his desire to create a kind of protectionist Fortress Europe or Fortress North America or (now) Fortress East Asia, against LDC encroachments. While the reviewer sees these as legitimate positions to take, it is difficult to pretend (as Goldsmith does) that they will also be helpful to the vast masses of the lesser-developed countries of the Third World. The fastest route to rising prosperity in Third World countries appears to be their assumption of labour-intensive industries from more developed countries. This has certainly been the experience in Eastern Asia, where industries requiring cheap labour have progressively shifted from Japan to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and thence to Mainland China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Now the shift is reaching into Vietnam and Bangladesh, all the while improving the living standards in those countries. Unfortunately, some less-developed countries, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, seem to have greater difficulties than others.
In section 3, "Nations, Artificial States and Populated Spaces", Goldsmith discusses the worldwide issue of nationalism. He restates the often-made point that the nineteenth-century European partition of Africa along arbitrary geopolitical lines, unreflective of ethnic realities, has resulted in incredible post-colonial dislocations. Goldsmith defines a nation as "a land whose citizens, in their overwhelming majority, share a common culture, sense of identity, heritage and traditional roots" (55). He thus defines the issue more in terms of culture than ethnicity, but his definition of "nation" is probably still far too robust for many Left-liberals. Asked whether a nation can accept immigration, Goldsmith boldly answers that
These views, though apparently moderate and reasonable, will doubtless be unpopular among the many professional multiculturalists in both the Western European and North American political, social, and cultural elites. Honouring and respecting the customs of the host-nation is in fact furthest from the minds of many newly-arriving immigrants today, and of their multiculturalist mentors. In fact, it is the host-nation that is required to adapt itself to the customs of the newcomers. Thus, Goldsmith is tactfully expressing here what must be seen in the current-day context as a desire for near-zero immigration, and a curtailment of aggressive multiculturalism, in all Western societies.
He does, however, perspicaciously turn the argument of "diversity" against Western liberals, in terms of arguing for the preservation and enhancement of the rooted ways of life of non-Western societies:
This is a straightforward argument for the cherishing of all rooted particularities, amongst which, of course, the nations of Europe, as traditionally conceived, are also implicitly numbered. "Multiculturalism" (many cultures) at the international level is seen as natural; aggressive multiculturalism within a given national society is seen as an aberration.
Goldsmith expresses profound scepticism about latter-day America. First, he discusses James Madison’s surprisingly prophetic views of black-white relations. Madison had understood that such relations would invariably be very difficult. The attempted solution of re-migration to Africa (suggested by Madison) turned out be unrealistic. (The establishment of Liberia, Goldsmith points out, also coincidentally resulted in the displacement of the native population by a tiny immigrant elite, which although itself black, behaved in a colonial fashion.) The central problem was not only the physical abuse of slavery, but also the fact that blacks had been robbed of their preexistent cultural identities and histories—a point which Malcolm X himself made in the adoption of his famous name. At the same time, Goldsmith sees it as doubtful that African-Americans will ever want to identify with mainstream America, given their tortured experience. However, he also sees that recent Hispanic and Asian immigration has only exacerbated such problems. Goldsmith honestly
identifies 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments were passed, as a critical turning point. "They abolished the policy which, previously, had organized immigration in a manner that reflected the pattern of cultural origin already established in America" (64). The new immigration wave hit the country just as new civil rights initiatives were being enacted, as black militancy was on the rise, and as welfare-exacerbated social pathologies were beginning to devour the community. The fact that newly arriving non-European immigrants can now benefit from the affirmative action once designed to help exclusively African-Americans is certainly problematic. Goldsmith points to a Time magazine story that Americans of European descent will be in a minority shortly after 2020, and comments, "it will be impossible to avoid social torment. The destabilization and in some cases social breakdown of the cities, the multi-ethnic, multi-tongued population, the rapid geographic mobility which has resulted in uprooted nuclear or broken families, have all contributed to widespread disorientation" (66)
This is again a tactful call for near-zero immigration into America. The two main contrasting responses to this crisis are separatism—a search for historic routes outside America—and homogenization:
This passage is almost breathtaking in its social traditionalism, although somewhat softened by its anti-individualist, communitarian language. It is rather clear that Goldsmith believes in the traditional family and gender roles, but it would be inaccurate to think that certain strands of social democracy do not find that kind of stance relatively acceptable.
Turning to Europe, Goldsmith calls for a decentralization of the European Union structures and a greater emphasis on the nations and natural regions of Europe, as opposed to the centralized bureaucracy in Brussels. He is particularly against the single-currency model. This is entirely in accord with his stance in favour of rooted particularity, though some might wonder if he is more of a nationalist or a regionalist, if they see these tendencies as in some ways contradictory.
In section 4, "Rethinking the Welfare State", Goldsmith embraces the principle of "subsidiarity".
This positive-sounding communitarianism may have a sharper exclusivist edge than Goldsmith would be willing to admit. It is also fairly open-ended as to what functions can actually be transferred to families and local associations. While Goldsmith’s intent appears to be maximum devolution, state bureaucrats
would doubtless find arguments that hardly anything could, in practice, be decentralized, for fear of "abuses" of one sort or another, and could also contrive any number of legal and fiscal mechanisms for circumventing local authority. He goes on to make a number of proposals that would put his vision into practice—e.g., for education vouchers—some of which sound a little too rosy and unrealistic (presumably to display his "moderation").
Section 5, "Modern Agriculture and the Destruction of Society", is a relatively brief yet extremely cogent indictment of agribusiness. Goldsmith offers us a series of horrific images from the intensive farming industry. "In chicken, it has been demonstrated that since the end of the last century the carcass fat content has risen by nearly 1,000 per cent" (108). Even leaving aside the profound social dislocations engendered by agribusiness, industrialized food production has made many food products increasingly unhealthy for human consumption (meat is filled with increasing levels of saturated fat and artificial chemicals: fruits, vegetables, and grains are full of artificial chemicals and/or grossly over-processed). The same products, furthermore, are more prone to disease or blight (because of the lack of genetic diversity) and to new plagues of the worst possible type, which could easily be passed on to humans. (Fearsome new diseases such as "Mad Cow Disease" arise especially because of the common practice of feeding industrially produced animals on ground-up remains of their own species.) Goldsmith especially inveighs against biotechnology, though he perhaps even understates the horror of such developments as "transgenic pigs": i.e., pigs which are bio-engineered to be genetically similar to humans. (The "humanitarian" rationale for such developments is for organ transplants for humans.) The fact that genes of mice have been spliced into carrots, or that there are genetically engineered mice that have human-like blood coursing through their little bodies, is, to some persons, an abomination. There were also reports in the media recently about the creation in a Basel, Switzerland, laboratory of flies with fly eyes in fourteen places of their bodies where they never naturally occur. Finally, one reads about the "robo-roaches" and the cloning of a sheep. Goldsmith also rightly points out the dangers of proprietary ownership of entire, newly created life-forms.
In this section, Goldsmith has combined a defence of the traditional life in the countryside (especially as represented by Europe’s peasant cultures) with the seemingly cutting-edge insights of ecology, holistic medicine and nutrition, etc. Goldsmith is not the first to notice that peasant life often intuitively and viscerally embraces ecological precepts that city-dwellers and urban ecological theorists can only understand and practice with great intellectual and personal effort. The arguments about the unhealthiness of excessively processed food seem incontrovertible, but some might argue that there is perhaps no real alternative to agribusiness except mass-starvation, or at least a far, far skimpier diet for the vast majority of persons. Maybe it would be a healthier diet, but many persons would consider the satisfaction of their craving for large amounts of meat, milk, sugar, etc., as their democratic right. Some have also argued, for example, that the real threat of "Mad Cow Disease" is enormously overplayed in the media. As for biotechnology, a common argument is that all these trends are in fact greatly improving human life.
Section 6, "Nuclear Energy: The Big Lie", is an excoriation of the nuclear industry, ferociously attacking "the nucleocrats". What particularly frightens Goldsmith is that there has not yet been one
commercial nuclear plant that has been completely decommissioned—a process which Goldsmith believes will cost billions of dollars per facility (if it can even actually be done!) and which should be factored into the calculations of the actual cost of nuclear energy. He also points out that there are now about a 1,000 tonnes of plutonium in the world which simply did not exist forty-five years ago. Goldsmith’s views in this matter contrast sharply with those of James Lovelock, a very hard-headed ecologist, who thinks that deriving electric power from coal or oil might not be any better for the ecology than from nuclear sources. Indeed, Lovelock calls for a re-examination of "the nuclear taboo" common among Greens. (See James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth [New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995], 161-166.) The reviewer also believes that Goldsmith allows his enthusiasm to represent an "ultralight hybrid-electric supercar", over-optimistically, as something immediately possible. Unfortunately, even if a relatively functional electric car were possible, there would be incredible resistance to it because of the North American obsession with powerfully motored cars. Many North American males would equate driving an electric car with castration!
Again, the ecological argument against nuclear energy and massive petrochem consumption seems incontrovertible. What might surprise Goldsmith is that in the case of some countries, such as France, the massive nuclear industry is a mark of national pride; while the gas-guzzling car, and the concomitant belief in "the freedom of the road", is a virtual symbol of self-reliant American independence from "socialist" mass-transit and meddlesome government. Some might argue that Goldsmith is perhaps a little too sanguine about the environmental lobby-groups, who themselves are also interested power-seekers.
Section 7, "Why?" is the most theoretically dense part of the book. Goldsmith points to the looming apocalypse before us and seeks to explain its intellectual sources. Among these, according to Goldsmith, are the Judeo-Christian tradition (which called on man "to subdue the earth", placing him apart from nature and all the other animals), Enlightenment philosophy (which deified science and reason), and Marxism-Leninism (which Goldsmith simply sees as the Enlightenment philosophy in a particularly virulent form). "The principal beliefs of the Enlightenment were that human reason, freed from the impediments of tradition and prejudice, can and should emancipate man from the constraints of religion, history and the natural world" (170). Goldsmith reacts against the scientism, out-of-control
technological development, anthropocentrism, and universalism of the Enlightenment complex. He would perhaps like to reinterpret the Judeo-Christian outlook, rather than throw it out entirely:
Various non-Western religious traditions are also countervalent to Western anthropocentrism. Goldsmith cites, for example, the Buddhist story where a prince, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, during a severe drought, sacrifices himself as a meal to save the life of a magnificent tigress and her cubs. Goldsmith does admit the story appears incredible to most Western persons (though perhaps less so today, when many persons lean toward radical ecology).
Goldsmith’s attempt to search out the root cause of the current world-crisis in the history of ideas is highly commendable in its ambition. His outlook is strongly naturalist, and some would characterize it as a moderate neopaganism. It does not have, of course, the fanatical, murderous, and very artificial/contrived nature of Nazi neopaganism, but rather is highly restrained, reflective, and respectful of all rooted particularities. Goldsmith essentially interprets Christianity as a rival universalism to that of liberalism or Marxism, which would at best poorly serve as the basis for the reconstruction of a saner, greener, less-hurried world. Many Western traditionalists would find his semi-rejection of Christianity (and of the unique nature of the human being) troubling. Some would argue that traditional Christendom was virtually the tribal religion of Europe. And there was, until very recently, such a multiplicity of positions both Christian and traditionalist (expressed, for example, in the ideas of G. K. Chesterton, Charles Péguy, and many, many others) that this attack on Christianity might be seen as too outré for a professed traditionalist.
However, Goldsmith's "neopaganism" might seem more scientifically viable, as it has a degree of convergence with scientific ecology, resource-management and conservation ideas, as well as with "realist", modern theories for explaining the roles of ethnicity, family, and group-identities in a scientific manner, without reference to revealed religion—as, for example, in the thought of Konrad Lorenz.. Political theorist John Gray (formerly at Oxford, now at LSE), a close associate of Goldsmith’s, has expressed hopes for a convergence of paleo-conservatism, genuine social democracy, and Green ideas, in his "Agenda for Green Conservatism" essay (124-177) in Beyond the New Right (London and New York: Routledge, 1993). In America, this tendency is probably most typically represented by the so-called "right-wing Greens" grouping around the Michigan-based journal, The Social Contract. Goldsmith’s ideas also have a discernible congruity with those of the Nouvelle École phenomenon in Continental Europe, and his brother Édouard Goldsmith is himself a leading ecological theorist.
Sir James Goldsmith’s political activities—which have had the greatest success in France—were often seen as an attempt to promote a more moderate, more respectable version of Le Pen’s nationalist program. Some might indeed wonder about whether Goldsmith’s political activities did not objectively serve the French political establishment, as they were essentially drawing votes away from the more radical Le Pen. It would seem, however, that Goldsmith’s intellectual acuity significantly outweighed that of Le Pen; while Le Pen’s political skills gave him a more visceral appeal to the French than that made by Goldsmith’s party. In the British elections of May 1, 1997, any support given to Goldsmith only weakened the Tories, and the Referendum Party failed to win even a single seat. However, the newly elected Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had endorsed the concept of a referendum on the various stages of Britain’s fuller integration into the European structures, so Goldsmith may have won a victory of sorts.
On the high-theoretical plane, Sir James Goldsmith endeavors to move from the stewardship model of nature (which can fairly easily be read into Judeo-Christian tradition) to a wholly naturalistic vision, ending with the letter attributed to the American Indian Chief Seattle. This is a call for re-integrating the human and the natural. As far as Goldsmith is concerned, the final worldwide fight for Nature (for humankind to live attuned to her cycles, rhythms and imperatives) and for history (for the sense of genuine community and identity) is just beginning.
It should be finally noted that the concluding part of Goldsmith’s work in the original French edition has actually been excised from the American, English-language edition. Goldsmith apparently made some tough recommendations on immigration and other controversial areas in this section which the American editors saw fit to remove. (Labour MP Denis MacShane pointed out some of the discrepancies between the British, English-language edition and the French edition in The Guardian, July 4, 1996, as a way of attacking Goldsmith’s ideas.) What probably terrified the American editors was that Goldsmith had made more explicit the neo-traditionalist cutting-edge of his ideas. The question of whether there can be any society based on the communitarian sense of belonging (i.e., on what certain theorists would call "the Erotic") without some form of cultural, religious, or ethnic exclusion is a critical question which many so-called soft communitarians are afraid to discuss openly. If the "politics of meaning"—i.e., of something, ideally speaking, like a caring, sharing welfare-state—can only be effectively exercised in a society in which citizens have something manifestly in common—at least a minimum of civilized cultural norms, and perhaps of ethnic kindredness as well (implying today, among other things, near-zero immigration)—then the convergence between traditionalism and communitarianism can be seen as near-total. To attempt to build community on the basis of juridicalism, infinitely extended rights-doctrines, and aggressive multiculturalism, can only be seen as a chimerical exercise.
More precise definitions of community, more descriptions of the process of interaction of different types of community-identities in the society and the self, and forthright arguments for a rank-ordering of different types of communities (e.g., from the rooted nation approximating the Gemeinschaft to the hobby-group characterized by a rapport ludique) would make clearer the aims and goals of what might be termed hard communitarianism. Goldsmith is edging towards this.
Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. By Don Watson. Australia, 2003, Knopf Books, Random House, ISBN 1 74051 206 5. 198 pages, hard cover. $A 29.95.
Reviewed by Margaret Turnbull
Margaret Turnbull (if we may reproduce her delightful self-description) is a teacher by background—she has now taught every age from 5 to adult—who imprudently took herself back to university in midlife. She has found that the University Medal and a doctorate (from the University of Sydney [Australia]) have made her less employable than before, but does not regret the journey. Her thesis was irrelevant in triplicate, being literary, seventeenth-century, and theological. She has three bright and delightful children who are accepting of her non-provision of status symbols. She is now working on articles for learned journals, and occasionally as a casual tutor.
In this timely book Don Watson attacks the "witless and unfathomable dreck" (47) that passes for public communication. Public language of all types, from political rhetoric to institutional communications to corporate training ("achieve a user centric portal framework"), is criticized by analysis and by contrast. Watson’s own writing is lucid, humorous, and pungent, exemplifying all that today’s public language is not. Occasionally he quietly uses the language he despises in order to demolish it: "Relative to the potential of language, the new form approximates a parrot’s usage" (12). Wordsworth may be right that "we murder to dissect," but while Watson does plenty of dissecting, it is the speakers of "death sentences", the purveyors of "value-added", who are murdering the language.
His message is accessible, and appropriate, wherever English is spoken. The Australian context, even the short chapter on Australia’s "stubborn refusal to be articulate" (70), does not make it parochial. There are a few allusions which might be missed by non-Australian readers, such as the much-satirised Prime Ministerial "be alert but not alarmed," but on the whole, this book can be enjoyably useful anywhere.
This work is not an ivory-tower tut-tutting about the degradation of the English language, or a theoretical discussion of changes in "usage". Don Watson is mourning an illness, if not quite a death, which has a moral cause. "‘Non core scenario’, ‘systems implementations’, ‘enhanced prices oversight’—who writes this muck?" Watson’s implicit message is that we do, if not in fact, then by sitting on our hands while the language of management or of political manipulation is allowed to corrupt the writing and speaking of academia, government, the media, and even the churches. A corrupt language may imply corrupt systems. A language breaks down when a nation’s understanding of what constitutes the true dignity of its people breaks down. To my delight, Watson has seen the prophetic greatness of Orwell’s 1947 essay "Politics and the English Language": "The fight against bad language is not frivolous.… [Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" (15).
The new English is growing, "and yet… it is depleting. It struggles to express the human. Buzz words abound in it. Platitudes iron it flat. The language is hostile to communion.… It stifles reason, imagination, and the promise of truth" (12). It is the language of fog, of no agency, and sometimes of lies. Someone will close a bank branch, a school, a hospital, a library, a rural railway line, or raise fees, and will call it a "key strategic initiative", taken because "we" must "validate logical models for assigning accountabilities". It is the language of bread and circuses thrown to the deceived. Rhetoric has always had its dark side; the last hundred years have produced "grotesque euphemisms for outrageous death and mutilation… planted in perfectly constructed sentences" (88). But eloquence, if it does not speak truth, at least "gives truth a chance". Meaningless words do not allow argument.
Even the language of management is not morally neutral. Corporations "don’t have words like ‘generous’, ‘charitable’, ‘kind’, and ‘share’.… They would no more use words like these than they would use a word like ‘greed’.… They come up with terms that are all at once unctuous and pompous, impenetrable and threatening.… Meeting this kind of vaporing is like meeting… a psycho who sits on the end of your bed and says he is ‘committed’ to you and your family and your community and your country and to the whole world, but you wonder if he might soon go out and kill someone—or you, should you fall asleep" (49). Politicians have adopted this way of speaking. "This rose-coloured boasting", Watson says of a recent speech by the Prime Minister, "smells of some nightmare Ministry of Information" (103).
"Achieving implementation success", or "structural envisioning", that is, to "select a model to explore/develop process/output combination [and] develop notional hooks for key processes and outputs" (126), sounds like a good idea, if only we knew what it meant. Perhaps we like this stuff. Perhaps we no longer want the depth of meaning in the simple elegance of "we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." Watson uses the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, classical orations, and more recent words of inspiration, to make our present maltreatment of language inexcusable. "These enhanced systems are designed to deliver on that commitment" (38) sits close to: "As the sun sprang up, leaving the brilliant waters in its wake, climbing the bronze sky…" (41). It may be unfair to compare Telstra with Homer. But perhaps the chiaroscuro is necessary, to shock us into asking which set of words more "enhances" human happiness. Of course there is a difference of purpose and "genre", that dubious and politically correct word newly beloved of schoolteachers in Australia (my observation, not Watson’s). But the true purpose of the recent parrot-talk may be not "commitment", but obfuscation. "Commitment", incidentally, provokes one of his moral analyses: "why don’t they say, we will do the right thing… ‘I am committed to the future of Africa’: why don’t I just look in the general direction of Nairobi and wave? It would mean as much" (51). More amusingly, we now have football coaches whose teams are "committed" to the ball.
Watson possesses the sure-footedness, the impeccable balance, of the accomplished satirist. He denies that his interest in language is a "passion" or ("except in one or two points") an obsession. Yet he is serious enough to say that "every day we vandalise the language, which is the foundation… of the culture, if not its greatest glory," and that while there are severe penalties for damage to monuments or to the environment, there are none for damage to the language (8). He never sourly carps, but on the other hand, he never simply entertains. "All elegance and gravity has gone from public language, and all its light-footed potential to intrigue, delight and stimulate our hearts and minds.… This language is not capable of serious deliberation. It could no more carry a complex argument than it could describe the sound of a nightingale.… Great lumps of the new language are unrelated to anything ever spoken. It’s a kind of self-sealing grout that keeps its speakers—and meaning—unconnected and unexposed to ordinary thought and feeling… [but it has] ‘the vision to enable customers to transact low face value commoditised financial market instruments electronically and seamlessly’" (28-30).
It’s hard to find anything negative to say about this book. There is not a boring page. There is diagnosis, but it is subtle. My only criticism is small, and it is that at times the language is described as an agent in itself. For example, Watson gives language some of the blame for politicians’ "loss of moral judgment" (54), suggesting that the terms of big business are all they know; but many readers will suspect that language is only a secondary cause, or even a result.
But Watson more often puts the blame where it should be, on the humans who produce the language. He agrees with Primo Levi: people who speak like this cannot be happy (57). Reaching for happiness in the wrong place gives us the language of "you deserve it—now," rather than of gratitude, selfless kindness or generosity. "The universal narcissicism that is an inevitable by-product of a market-driven society and necessary to keep it running" (125) must infect the language with solipsism. A brochure from a bank, information from a public institution, a political speech, will refer constantly to the gratification of desire; action is justified "in terms of" my, or your, wish for power. At the same time these people pretend they are not appealing to such base motives. This conflict results in non-language like "enhancements of product, service and management nodes in a framework based upon pragmatic real world systems implementations", because the word "greed" would sell nothing and get no votes. The language of honour, of duty, of other-centredness is not used any more, because "people living in affluent free market economies have no need or desire for visionary or charismatic leaders, or for… ennobling, inspiring, binding rhetoric.… Who will respect power when everyone’s ‘empowered’? [In a world in which a speech can be turned off with the flick of a remote control] which ambitious leader is going to pass up style for substance, a cliché for a complex sentence, an image for an argument?" (136).
The book ends (apart from an amusing "Glossary" with "Exercises") with Czeslaw Milosz’s description of everyone’s "unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form". Watson appeals to writers and readers to "take some responsibility for the language" (179), just as he began by saying "we should resist" the language vandals (8). Reading this book provides weapons to do so.
Words in Spring’s Hour Glass:
As we noted on the "Contents" page, the title above is one which we constructed (at the risk of being slightly mawkish) to arch over these three wistful and delicately ironic pieces. It is indeed springtime now, when people rediscover nature as nature reasserts life. Yet even "hike" and "At the Zoo" seem to say that the life to which nature reawakens us also slips through out fingers—not just through our verbal attempts at description, but through our spiritual longing to seize and hold; for it is a part of life’s truth that the living moment changes as it is lived. The mere act of titling is at best a flawed success—and "Titles?", we hope, will extend Dr. Carlson’s mercy to our own clumsy effort!
Ralph S. Carlson teaches writing of all varieties at Azusa Pacific University in southern California.
The truth of it is . . .
the length of the polyester pile in the carpet
a new unifying theory
the reflection of the pedestrians passing the window
a new new atomizing theory
the lava flaring steam out of salt water
a recent relativizing theory
the cathedral arch breaking
a recycled personalizing theory
the cat sprawled asleep in the heat
a reconstructed rationalizing theory
the street guy boozing through war stories
an old romanticizing theory
the gardenias draping the air in the funeral parlor
a new old structuralist theory
neutrinos chasing quarks through subatomic particle physics
an amended phenomenological theory
the lipstick smudge on the crumpled napkin
a better redacted mythological theory
the dog on the back porch whimpering in the drizzle
an energized ethnicist/genderist theory
the grey-haired woman reading the paperback on the bus
a refined personalist/symbolist theory
O no, no, that’s all wrong—it’s not the truth of anything, really,
But now if you really want to know the way a word… well…
the art of it is….
At the Zoo
While the twenties-something father
bucks the stroller to negotiate the curb,
and the nursing mother pulls the canvas sling
so as not to pinch or ride up,
and the big sister calls the toddlers to stay within reach
and not lean so far into the alligator’s moat,
tourist photographers breathe relief in the shade,
yet worry the resting gorilla is too dark for details to show
in the blessing they share from the high canopy trees,
and the panther sleeps too far back in its tall grass
to offer more than a dim mound in the fronds
despite the fastest film speed.
The elephant pads for more wet straw at the edge of his pool,
trunk-pinching a few stalks to swipe in mud.
Heat-weary, it slogs its home-made sun-block onto its back,
then dangles the trunk-tip into the water again,
drawing up a tepid liter
to flush back into its throat.
Mothers cluster with their pre-schoolers
at the flamingo pond, Spanish and Mandarin
and Tagalog and Bengali admirations
pluming with extended arms toward the vivid pinks
and oranges that attract so many camera lenses
among the blockade of hats and braids and shoulder bags.
An amateur photographer puzzles the exposures
Of peach tones and sheer whites in full sunlight.
A grandmother calls a granddaughter
out of the field of view while the photographer
points the lens time and again at the peach-streaked birds
dipping curved beaks into the pool,
and, watching the thin, scaled legs bending
back instead of forward for each step—
so unlike their own—
as the flamingoes peck for pond life,
the seminarian and the theologian
forage for parables.
Mr. Davies has contributed to Praesidium a great many stories whose rare humor is hatched at the expense of the academy. This time he goes undercover, one might say—or at least into the Nether World, an exotic locale where he claims to have been led both by our previous issue’s interest in the afterlife and by his previous story’s bow to Don Quixote (a similar bow to Dante being only fair play). He apologizes (knowing full well that the gesture will be rejected in some quarters) for the present story’s exclusive aim at female bureaucrats and pedagogues; and he begs to point out that a) his earlier stories deride men almost entirely, b) that the profession and not the gender is his true target, and c) that lost male souls in fact throng this tale in a humiliatingly subordinate capacity. The olive branch has been offered: fig leaves are in less abundant supply.
As befitted her faintly more advanced years and clearly more exalted social status (clearly because… because, though you can’t take it with you, everyone clearly knew that she had had more money—everyone who was anyone, even in this place: even in the afterlife, people were not leveled like housetops under a high wind, as she had known they would not be [for she had known that the afterlife simply must be orderly—what, otherwise, could be its point?])… but as clearly, thoroughly befitted her credentials, Sugar Smack was installed in the Office of the President. She closed her door at first, though she need hardly have done so. The hustle and bustle of Registration and Admission was almost inaudible up here, at the far end of the second story. Yet it was important, she felt, that the title on her door be visible to all who passed. The right kind of person, naturally, would know without priming… but even the wrong kind of person must know. Everyone must know. She was, after all, a charitable soul. It would not very much harm the order of things if she chose to prime the wrong kind of person. After all, wrongs could be made right. Souls could be redeemed. That was what the Grand Order was all about. And she was here to serve that order: though President, she did not view herself as the end of all things. She was, after all, a humble soul.
With these thoughts (and others less clear—perhaps too unclear to be called thoughts, but pleasantly similar in their buzz and hum to the clearer ones, like bees and birdsong on a warm spring day), Sugar Smack settled herself in behind her bare steel desk and gazed out a great window upon what might have been a rising sun, or the center of the Milky Way. She decided that, perhaps, it was a Golden Arch or Throne. (She knew gold when she saw it.) "They must knock, too," she smiled to herself—and then looked around uncomfortably as she realized that someone had spoken. But no, it was just herself. And it had been a good comment, too—a commendable comment. A comment in defense of order. It was befitting of the President’s rank that those who wished to see her should knock. After all, she was God’s chosen lieutenant here on… here in this marvelous building.
At a right angle to the President’s Office—a sharp left turn along the steel catwalk, emphasized by the steel guard rail—the Office of the Vice-President balanced its door at an exact 45° from the steel frame. Baby Ruth had determined that the Vice-President must appear neither too remote nor too accessible. The door-ajar invited entrance yet required a respectful tap. Having satisfied herself of the angle’s perfection, Baby Ruth turned her concentration to the angle of the steel desk (which her hefty shape allowed her to winch about with mere nudges of the hip: a nagging disappointment, to be sure, to find that her newly spiritual state had not righted the wrongs done to her at birth by Mother Nature… that, perhaps, would come later). The desk of a Vice-President, she decided, must lie just so, neither too confrontational nor too informal. It wouldn’t do to have someone walk in (someone needing a command decision to settle urgent issues) upon the vice-presidential elbow. She therefore nudged the desk into a perfect (she decided) 45° angle with the front wall, so that the lines of both desk and door ran parallel. That way the entrant would have a clear view of the glorious golden landscape beyond the vice-presidential window—but would also, and immediately, be struck by the Vice-President’s profile against the golden shimmer, her head perhaps bent over an urgent document or lifted, perhaps, to pursue an abstract idea in thin air.
Baby Ruth eased herself into her steel chair (somewhat cold to her thick, bare thighs) and experimented with the two head postures, chin up, chin down. She compressed her golden curls gingerly, encouraging them to spring back out so that the regal glow from beyond would filter through them in a kind of halo. Those curls were the real thing (as to their color). She was amazed that the President’s false hue had been allowed to make the transit without correction. Or perhaps all hair was gilded when the soul was exalted—though that would be quite unfair, inasmuch as no reapportioning of body mass (even so slight a one as she would have required) had been granted in equal charity. Yet her eyes were sky blue, quite sky blue. No fakery could rival a real heavenly blue. She thought she could feel their blueness as she gazed in abstraction at the steel ceiling.
Baby Ruth would have been appeased that no general transformation of hair colors had washed over newly arrived souls if only she had visited Little Debbie downstairs. The freshly appointed Dean of Services shone blacker at her brows than at her scalp only because the latter had been reduced (long reduced, even in life) to the depth of a mouse’s fur. Little Debbie fully occupied the doorway of her office, content to be associated with its physical position rather than to interrupt her surveillance by going inside. With her bare arms crossed under her bare breasts, she resembled a tall sumo wrestler without his loin cloth. (For there was nothing exiguous about the new Dean except the space between her eyebrows: if the need arose, she could have seized the new Vice-President and transferred her natural cushioning to a steel filing cabinet.) Despite the furrowed brow (which, indeed, was largely an optical illusion of intense capillation about the eyes), Little Debbie was satisfied, well satisfied. This was the sort of role for which God had made her (to use her favorite kind of expression): a position of some authority, but not loftily removed from the trenches. She was effective in crowds, and she knew it. As the interminable queue of nondescript males filed in one great door of the building and out the other, a single shift of her barrel-like torso to set it resting over the left haunch rather than the right—a single lift of her chin, even, without any further glower from the unadjustable brow—was sufficient to send tremors up and down the line. When her impish nose rose just enough so that her button eyes both seemed to take aim over its roundly upturned point, no man in this new world could stand his ground any better than his forerunners had done in the other.
Little Debbie dealt out these wordless, terrifying rebukes with a virtually unconscious rhythm, and seldom even in response to any particular infraction. The heart within her ample bosom was indeed aglow, and not primarily from the joy of a job well done. Her black eyes were perhaps too small behind their vast cheeks for anyone who dared study them to have noticed where they most often alighted—but the magnetic point of focus was Red Hot. An agile, lanky, freckled hive of activity, was Red Hot’s shapely frame. Promoted by Little Debbie (in violation of the initial decree) to fulfill the offices both of Registration and Admission, she would direct each arrival (with a long, lean index) to sign in, then take her stamp and impress a number upon a forehead farther up the line after it had leaned into a padded forehead-rest. (The stamp was intended to be advanced a notch after every usage, but Red Hot had not quite got the knack of this. At one point, five 52,827’s in a row exited the building.) A pleasant embonpoint, far from stealing away her waist and figure, had nicely sculpted Red Hot’s thighs and shoulders; and when she would place her left palm behind an applicant’s head and apply the stamp with her right fist, a rather spectacular nipple would often tremble under the tormented man’s nose. Such occasions as these precipitated the only really unequivocal gestures of hostility from Little Debbie, who once went so far as to rear up from the doorway and take two steps forward.
Red Hot, too, savored her employment. She could not imagine a better (in the little bit that she could imagine). She was made for activity—a thoroughly hands-on person. No stuffed shirt locked away in an office, she! The picture of herself which had always sat lovingly framed before her watery mind’s eye showed a creative, dynamic, risk-taking individual who shattered old parameters (as she called paradigms) and defined new perimeters (as she called parameters). Upon the portrait, of course, was spread frozen in perpetual winsome cuteness that girlish smile of hers which bared a little gum over her broad front teeth, sent a little wrinkle into her freckled nose, and pinched her green eyes into an especially nymphish slant. More than one male supervisor who had called her to a private conference with every intention of upbraiding her slovenly planning, her indifference to protocol, her factual blunders, her technical incompetence, her insensitivity to other views, her imperviousness to criticism, her resistance to learning, and her general—apparently invincible—immunity to every form of astuteness or finesse or tact had been quite disarmed by that smile. And since the conferences seldom took place as intended, Red Hot, though dimly aware that smiling became her, was not remotely aware of how often it had saved her bacon. She was convinced that she smiled because of her brilliant, highly creative style: never had she suspected that her style would be a quick ticket to the dumpster without her smile. Thanks to this miscalculation, she often—very often—had not smiled when she should have, but had vituperated her opposition, instead (behind the back or to the face, depending less upon discretion than upon impulse), in the bluntest terms, with the most whimsical of charges, and using a voice whose very whispers were husky and hard as brass when moved to displeasure. But for the constant intercession of Little Debbie (whom her smiles had instantly melted into one huge buttery lump at a job interview), Red Hot’s terrestrial existence would surely have ended in Queer Street.
Indeed, it was at the great national conference to which Little Debbie had whisked her away (partially to avoid leaving her to savage her enemies suicidally, partially to import to her curriculum vitae some trace of intellectual pursuit) that Red Hot and six others had been blown to smithereens by the suitcase bomb of a lonely neurotic chased from his career by Baby Ruth’s slanders. (The sad man had been much encouraged—including some quick tutelage in bomb-making—by a detective in the employ of Sugar Smack’s husband. This enterprising private dick, who came highly recommended in such cases, had undertaken months in advance to research the upcoming event’s list of conferees for evidence of stars ascending with obnoxious rapidity—since, as he put it, "they always come trailing perfect patsies behind them." No such compromising details, of course, appeared in the police report of the tragedy. The neurotic was too proud of his life’s one great success to admit that he had received coaching; and the name by which he knew his coach, in any case, was entirely apocryphal.)
There were no crises of any proportion in the great bright building perched on the sunrise or throne or mountain of bullion until Red Hot’s stamp turned over 100,000. This, she reflected, could not be quite right: to go from so many nines to a row of zeroes must surely indicate a mechanical malfunction. As she stared at the stamp and then (unable to decipher its inverted numbering) proceeded to impress her own plump forearm again and again, the forward part of the queue vanished through the exit to leave a great empty space, while the latter part was squeezed until its yet numberless members began to fidget visibly. Little Debbie was compelled to saunter from her doorway so that her glower might be known far and wide. When the two fell into close colloquy, Red Hot displaying her forearm in evidence and Little Debbie peering over the rounded shoulder until her beady eyes swam intoxicated, the restless bustle, no longer chastened, grew and grew. Baby Ruth noticed it from behind her steel desk. She lovingly plumped her golden curls once more, anticipating that the Dean’s arrival from below for urgent consultation was imminent. She thought her most abstract thoughts for a while, studying every hue of the ceiling’s aureole except in the quadrant where the door lay somewhat ajar.
As the minutes succeeded each other and no respectful subordinate tap intruded above the indefinable rustle beyond, Baby Ruth found herself in the throes of an administrative crisis. Bestowing her attention downstairs unsought was quite out of the question. Yet there was clearly some evolving tension of which she should have been apprised. There was clearly some need of a command decision, and none had been sought. The chain of authority had not functioned properly.
Baby Ruth decided (with a firm decisiveness) that the President must be informed. It was an unpleasant duty, but it was her duty.
At about that very moment, Sugar Smack had arisen from her steel chair without quite knowing why. She didn’t like to meddle in affairs which were, after all, the concern of subordinates... but the afterlife was becoming, of all things, rather boring. She had once imagined that she would never tire of the color gold (whose most glorious tincture she had borrowed for her hair—just a touch-up, really). As it dawned upon her, therefore, that this golden dawn was a prospect of somniferous monotony, she felt vaguely disillusioned: vaguely, but cruelly. Not at all the sort of thing she had expected of this place, the sort of thing due her after so many years of... of.… With a puckering of her withered lips (the very expression her husband had held in his mind as he finalized arrangements with the private dick), she presented her somewhat less-than-straight spine and sagging buttocks to the haloed window. If this office were as tedious as her tanning bed, it might as well perform the same services.
At the sound of Baby Ruth’s knock, Sugar Smack hurled herself back into her chair. She groped feverishly after just the right register of distinguished désoeuvrement—feverishly, and a bit clumsily, for she ended up saying, "Come enter!"
"Good morning, Mme. President!"
"Good morning, Mme. Vice-President!" Poor girl, thought Sugar Smack, what a toothy grin she possessed, and what a whiney voice to go with it.
"I hope I find you well."
"Quite well, thank you."
"I hope I do not intrude. I could come back, if…"
"Not at all, not at all. Come right in, do. Please have a…."
It was at this moment that Sugar Smack noticed, for the very first time, that her office contained only one chair. A strange oversight. Baby Ruth noticed it, too, in the same instant. Together, they pondered, briefly and silently, the inexplicable space beyond Sugar Smack’s desk as if they had found a fresh rhino dropping.
"Er… how is your job… how is it coming? How do you find it here with us?"
"Very… very…." Baby Ruth struggled to recover from the blow to her dignity, her toothy grin lapsing into the wan. Though she blinked and blinked, nothing would come from her mouth but more grin.
"Excellent! Excellent. And I must tell you, you are doing a capital job. Capital."
"Thank you. Thank you, Mme. President."
"Yes, capital. And if ever there is anything I can do… you know, Mme. Vice-President, it occurs to me that our new quarters are the least bit… well, no doubt they are new. No doubt there are still certain items in certain storage facilities. One would not have expected such oversights in such a place as this, but… perhaps it is to test us, Mme. Vice-President!"
"Test us, Mme. President?"
"Yes! Yes, indeed! To test our initiative, our… our fervor. Perhaps we are to show our worthiness to be here by… by arranging things that need arranging. One would have thought that we had already demonstrated our worthiness. Indeed, one was always told so before—that one would not be admitted, I mean, without having first demonstrated one’s worthiness. But… well, ours not to reason why!"
Baby Ruth’s face had distinctly brightened. Her toothy grin was now distinctly toothier. "No, Mme. President!"
"So… let’s say that you hustle along now and look into the matter. That is, have the Dean look into the matter and report back to you. Then you can report back to me."
Baby Ruth’s grin was no less merrily skeletal, but a flurry of eye-blinking revived, and her whiney voice sounded positively juvenile. "The… the matter, Mme. President?"
"Yes, of course. The… the furniture situation. And the general decoration situation, as well. One doesn’t like to criticize—especially in such a place as this!—and the golden horizons are all very nice. But honestly! Just look at the walls! Everything is quite bare. We shall have to show some initiative. To be sure, that may be a matter for a committee to address, a matter requiring a certain degree of deliberation. The chair matter should come first, as being more fundamental."
"A committee on chairs!" nodded Baby Ruth eagerly. "Yes, I could chair it… that is, unless you…"
"You misunderstand me, my dear. The chair matter should be quite direct, really. Just one chair. I don’t imagine I should need another, do you?"
"I… no, Mme. President."
"If our Dean should come calling, she would be quite comfortable standing, don’t you think?"
"Oh… oh, yes, Mme. President!" Baby Ruth was entirely captivated by this image.
"Indeed, I should imagine it would require at least two chairs to seat the Dean—and I shouldn’t imagine that the result would be very comfortable at all! What do you think?"
"No, Mme. President!"
And Baby Ruth and Sugar Smack laughed and laughed, as perhaps they had never laughed before while on earth.
"Well, goodbye now, my dear!"
"Goodbye, Mme. President!"
Baby Ruth was still giggling as she bowed her way back out the door. Then she realized, even as the golden knob began to slip through her fingers, that she had failed to declare the initial purpose of her visit. She tapped again, and eased her plump curls back through the crack.
"Mme. President, I’m sorry to intrude again, but I almost forgot my… the reason why I…"
"You don’t need a reason to come calling, my dear. But speak on."
Baby Ruth slipped the rest of the way through the door and leaned against it with such consummate discretion that she almost pinched her ample, unprotected gluteus maximus.
"It’s about the Dean, Mme. President."
"Yes, Mme. President. There’s rather a ruckus going on downstairs, and—"
"A ruckus, did you say?"
"Yes, Mme. President. There is clearly something amiss in either the Registration or the Admission process. Perhaps both. It is quite a loud murmur. I could hear it through my door, which is opened just a crack. The Dean is clearly not handling the problem, and yet she has said not a word to me about it. I felt it my duty to inform you—"
"As well you should."
"At the very least, I believe the matter should be reviewed to ascertain if the Registration and Admission process—or processees, for they are two—may be handled more effectively, and if so, how, and if not, why not, and… and in any case, why the obvious complications which took place this morning in the processees were not reported through proper channels to the proper authority so that they could be addressed with… with full and effective authority. Because as things stand now, we are completely in the dark as to… as to why we are in the dark."
"I am in complete agreement, Mme. Vice-President. The present state of affairs is wholly unsatisfactory. And I may tell you, just between the two of us, that I was not wholly satisfied by the appointment of the new Dean. The decision was for some reason taken out of my hands, and one does not wish to complain , especially in a place like this…"
"Oh, no, Mme. President."
"But we owe it to… well. Quite simply, to him who… to he who… to the one who appointed us."
"Absolutely, Mme. President. It is our duty. Millions could suffer. If the Admission process were to derail…"
"Proceed in the matter at once, Mme. Vice-President. You have my full administrative authority behind you. I delegate you to pursue this matter wherever it may take you."
"Yes, Mme. President!"
Baby Ruth departed the presidential office in such a lather of dedication that the door banged loudly behind her. "Oh!" she squealed, and made as if to caress its afflicted structure. But her fingers merely harped thin air before recoiling to her large, now relatively dormant mouth, and she backed away in comparative silence until her buttocks bonged the catwalk’s steel rail.
Little Debbie had no inkling of Baby Ruth’s approach. The queue of would-be registrants, which had swollen into a mutinous S verging upon the amorphous, somewhat quietened at the sound of Baby Ruth’s not insubstantial mass upon the steel stairs, accompanied by her golden fleece’s descending mop. Little Debbie’s daydream, however, was immersed in chevelure of quite another cast. Her small eyes grazed and feasted upon the spiraling carrot-red locks which poured over Red Hot’s dappled shoulders, there to twain at a perfectly straight clavicle before continuing their cascade either into the freckled back’s smooth hollow or to the first firm risings of her breasts. In the Dean’s defense, as well, it must be said that her ears occupied much too great a propinquity to Red Hot’s tireless, hearty vocal chords to have distinguished a mere groan of stairs (however loud a groan) from a distance exceeding that over which she could have hurled Red Hot’s ex-boyfriend.
"This number dohickey is so stupid, I mean… who would ever design this to go this way? I noticed it right off. And if you just did the handle like that, you could get through the line twice as fast. It would be like doubling your output, almost. Or even if you did it while they registered… yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. You could put it in the headset, and they could lean forward while they signed in. You’d have to give ’em a little smack on the back of the head to make sure it took, like… boink! Ha-ha-ha! Boink! Next! Boink! Next! Hey, let’s try it! You want to try it? Why not? I’ll just put this doflunkey there, and…."
Little Debbie had not so much joined in Red Hot’s mirthful peal as allowed her puffy jaw to fall open. The tones that musically played through those bright teeth, those pink gums, those sparkling lips… she visibly wavered, as if about to fall on her knees.
"May I ask just exactly whaaaat is going on here?"
Baby Ruth’s namby-pamby trill sounded truly pitiable, in comparison, but her dramatic emphasis of a key word sufficed to command in nagging plangency an attention which it never could have claimed with sheer volume.
"I was just showing the Dean how we could save lots of time—"
"There was a problem—a temporary problem, Vice-President—with the functioning of the Admission stamp."
"And is it all sorted out now?"
"Yes, Vice-President. We’re ready to return to work, Vice-President."
"Then may I ask why you are not doing so? The line, as you can see—"
"Oh, don’t worry about the line, Vip! It’s just a bunch of men! Look at ’em all, they’re too busy covering their pathetic dead thingees with their hands to make any trouble. I’ll bet the things can’t even do anything, now that they’re dead. I mean, in a place like this, it wouldn’t even be allowed, would it? Evil men! How did they ever make it here? Makes you wonder just where we’re stamping them for. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I’ll bet I know where they go after they go out that door! I’ll bet there’s an elevator going down. Why should we even stamp them? I’ve been wondering about that, too. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. Hey, why don’t we just herd them all out the door, all at once? You know, to the elevator? You want to? Let’s do it!"
"Um… we’ll just be starting the line back up now, Vice-President. I apologize for the delay. I take full responsibility."
"As well you should," murmured Baby Ruth, her many teeth strangely veiled during the utterance.
"There was no need to say that that way!" protested Red Hot. "This is the best boss I ever had, and she doesn’t deserve a tone of voice."
"Next!" bellowed Little Debbie with such force that the results of stumped toes and burned shins could be heard to the far wall in a reminiscence of falling dominoes.
"Hey, no, I’ll do that! That’s my job. You’ve got enough to do. Next! Just sign your John Handcock right there, you man."
"Did you say that was your job?" whined Baby Ruth at the other freckled shoulder. "What are you doing with the stamp?"
"That’s my job, too!" sang Red Hot proudly. "I’m Registration and Admission—R and A. I’m the Registror and the Admittor. And, you know, I can tell you as someone who has done this job for thousands of registorees and admittorees that there would be a really good way to improve it. Why don’t we admit them first and then register them? Then they wouldn’t have to stand around in line shaking all over and covering their derringers and wondering of they were going to be admitted. Because if you’re not going to admit them, why register them? It just doesn’t make any sense."
"Mme. Dean," proclaimed Baby Ruth, whose teeth now betrayed their existence only by the length of time her words consumed in finding a way through them, "I hold you personally responsible for this… this fiasco! You will assume the duties of Registrar yourself and report to me immediately once you have… have devised a tentative plan for seeing that such fiascoes do not occur in the future."
As Baby Ruth turned her unmistakable back, Red Hot spun toward the Dean in a flurry of russet locks which left her eyes partially curtained. "What the? Was she saying that you did a bad job? Because I don’t want a promotion if it means that you get hurt!"
"No… no, love, you didn’t just get promoted."
"Oh. Well that’s okay, then. But her tone of voice sure did sound bitchy." And Red Hot lifted her own voice along with her chin, causing the plump loins on the staircase to quiver a moment as if skewered on a great olive fork.
"Never you mind, darling. Just keep doing the fine job you do. I’ll take care of Mme. Vice-President!"
"So I’m still Registror? I did get promoted, then! I’m going to try some of my new ideas, too. Have you not signed your name yet, you stupid man? Are you too stupid to have a name?"
As Red Hot joyously flung herself back into her vocation, Little Debbie padded toward her office in a brown, brown study. She could easily see the Vice-President’s haunches waddling along the guard rail on a bee-line (a laboriously gyrating bee-line) to the President’s sequestered nook. The plump blonde curls offered not the least flinch of hesitation or curiosity in the direction of ground-floor affairs, and Little Debbie silently shook her fists at their confident retreat. Then she smacked one great set of knuckles into a counterpoised hammy palm. "I’ll just take some notes," she murmured, and dashed in and out of her doorway with a wondrous fluidity of large object through small opening which recalled the birth of a cow.
Upon exiting, Little Debbie held in one hand a steel fountain pen of a highly professional look (made of the same steel as her unused desk and chair) and, in the other hand, a rather hapless doorknob. For upon this knob was applied the full weight—plus the momentum accruing to a lusty lunge—of her corporeal tonnage. The vast hall echoed her thunder as if she had been delegated to sound the Last Trump. Men who had only recently rubbed the tingle from their bruised toes and shins now leapt into each other’s arms—which acrobatic response, inasmuch as it overestimated the availability of secured feet, caused a great deal more bruising. Red Hot slapped an unsuspecting face with her succulent forearm as she wheeled about and screamed, "What the!" from her rufous tresses.
"Ah, silly me!" sighed the Dean aloud. "Now where did I leave my note pad?"
And she distractedly deposited the steel pen upon a steel stair as she proceeded to grope with both hands through the myriad ample folds of flesh up and down her torso. Only when the angry thumping of Baby Ruth’s pink feet was almost literally treading upon her close-cropped head did she think to recollect the pen so heedlessly, perilously cast aside; and only when she observed that a particular pink heel had thumped down just shy of the pen did she think to reach for the slender menace. Such was her zeal to retrieve the article, however, that her unpracticed hand overshot the mark and grabbed, instead, upon a bouquet of retreating pink toes.
"Oh! Watch out for the pen!" she called in high alarm. "Don’t trip! Oh, my goodness!"
Baby Ruth’s round white figure (with its golden topping) came lumping down the staircase like a wedding cake escaping through the church’s back door. The pile which she finally composed, as well, upon the ground floor was suggestive of some rich confectionery—sugary white, gelatinous, and in immobile expectation of a carving knife.
"This is just awful!" announced Red Hot volubly. "She’s dead! She has to be dead after a fall like that! Dead twice in one day—what are the odds?"
"Go up and tell the President what happened," ordered the Dean soberly. "Be sure to knock on her door, and wait for her to answer before you go in. Now, what are you going to say?"
"I knock on the door."
"Come in! Turn knob. Open door."
"Mizz President, the Vip is dead! She fell down the stairs over her fat feet—which the Dean tried to protect her, but she was already dead. Or good as."
It would have taken a keen eye to make out the small lips in Little Debbie’s enormous cheeks under any circumstances. Now no telescope would have found more than a pale slit in that location.
"Tell her… just tell her that the Vice-President has had an accident and must be excused indefinitely from her duties."
"Indefinantly. Got it."
And, with a graceful hop over the motionless mass that would have inspired Botticelli, Red Hot was off at once on her mission. The stairs which had so pitiably groaned and strained of late kissed the balls of her feet with happy smacks.
After a pause, Little Debbie sighed deeply, turned her glower upon the fleshy wreckage at the base of the stairs, and sauntered toward it until her broad toes almost touched its salamander-like transparency. With the biggest toe, she gave the mass a nudge. There was no perceptible response. She decided to use her heel for the next prod, and she applied it briskly in the ample tissue below where one would have supposed the lowest rib to lie hidden.
Answered only by inaction, Little Debbie repeated both the talonary thrust and the command, adding a new measure of vigor to both.
"I… I can’t!"
"Don’t be stupid, and don’t play me for stupid. We both know that you can’t break bones in this place. But I can sure make you feel pain."
"Don’t—please! What are you going to do with me?"
Little Debbie sighed yet again (for many of her arduous inhalations necessarily resembled sighs), looking over the shoulder which splayed at some indeterminable point from her stumpy neck. When she released her breath this time, she might have been the model for the north wind’s blustering cherub on some ancient Mercador map.
"Get up and go to my office. Now!"
"Okay, okay! But… what are you going to do?"
"I’m going to lie you back down and put my desk on top of you. It’s too heavy for you to lift."
"Please don’t do that! Oh, please!"
Instead of actually peditating her prisoner this time, Little Debbie simply stepped on her, heel first, the way one might crush a roach. Her bull’s eye was the same delectably flabby midriff.
The response which she elicited would be indescribable within quotation marks. Though huskily vocalized, it also possessed something of the punctured tire, and perhaps more of the mud slick receiving a runaway boulder.
"I’ll drag you if I have to. Or you can crawl. But one way or another…"
"Just listen to me, please! Just hear me out!" pleaded the Vice-President’s writhing mass in a rasp whose words were nearly unintelligible.
Little Debbie lifted her dreadful heel one more time.
"Please!" shrieked Baby Ruth, miraculously audible once more (and with a whining tinge of righteous indignation in her whining terror). "I’ll make it worth your while! And her, too! I’ll make it worth both your whiles."
The circus elephant with its foot raised over a beach ball would not be more admirably nimble than the Dean was at this moment, heel poised in mid-air.
"I… I… I can get you the presidency!"
"Don’t want it. God spared me an ambitious heart." The mighty heel loomed infinitesimally lower.
"Then I can get you my job!"
"By my calculations, I’m just about to get it, anyway." And the heel loomed significantly lower.
"But no, but… but then you’ll be up there. And your friend will be down here. The President would never hear of the Vice-President remaining downstairs. Besides, she doesn’t like you. The things she said about you just moments ago in her office… so unkind. So brutal. And there will be an investigation into my… my accident."
"I can control that," muttered Little Debbie—but her perpetual frown grew a shade blacker.
"Are you prepared to risk your future on that… and hers? After all, if you go down, what happens to her?"
"So what are you offering?"
"You and her together, down here as before. But both with promotions. We can discuss the titles later."
"She likes promotions."
"Of course she does! And you… you…." Baby Ruth had recovered her wind to the point that she now timidly perched on an elbow to give her ineffectually puling whine a touch of drama. "If you were promoted to… to Acting Vice-President, or… or to Vice-President of Registration and Admissions, she would look up to you more than ever."
Little Debbie’s eyes had lifted their black buttons to the misty distances of the great hall. A strange trembling seemed to overtake the middle of her face, but no words emerged.
"Obviously, someone would have to attend to the actual work of registration and admission. And obviously, that could no longer be her, because… because she would be sharing an office with you."
"Sharing… sharing an office…"
"Yes! And obviously, the one person left over would be the one best suited to slaving away all day long at some low-level, no-talent job. She gives herself such airs up there! You should see her! You should have heard those things she said about you! So unkind… so unfair! Why, beneath her fake hair and her fake tan and her fake accent and her fake manner, she’s nothing but a… a cleaning woman. A secretary—an old worn-out secretary. Or a beautician, maybe… or worse. After all, how do you suppose women like her meet wealthy businessmen and sucker them into marriage? Yet there she sits right now, way up there, saying those awful things. Your friend has just gone through her door—you could hear the knock from here. What do you suppose she’s going to tell your friend about you?"
Throughout this appeal, Baby Ruth’s crumpled form had resuscitated itself limb by limb. Raised on one elbow, then two, then on her knees (a long time on her knees), she now covered the last inches to Little Debbie’s shoulder. Together they peered round into the high, hazy depth of the great room’s nave, one face quivering with moist inspiration, the other hardening into something like a dark, dark brick.
Red Hot had indeed just been admitted to the President’s august presence, though with some small violation of standard procedure. (Irritated by the strength of the knock, which caused her to break a nail [not a real nail, fortunately… but still]), the President had granted entrance in too small a voice, only to see the door begin to rattle its hinges until she could make her shout heard above the din.)
Red Hot marched up to the desk (leaving the door wide open behind her) and thrust out her bosom over the presidential desk.
"Mizz President, sir! The Dean says to say that the Vip has definantly not died but has had an undefinable accident and left her duties unexcused."
In the moments that followed, it is possible that the President considered requesting a repetition of this embassy, for her withered mouth eventually made as if to speak. If so, however, she must have reconsidered. The protracted silence was interpreted by Red Hot as an open invitation.
"If you ask me, the Vip brought it all on herself. I mean, there we were, signing in those weirdo men one after another and stamping them like cans of tomatoes with their due dates, and… there was a little snag, but I got it all worked out. We were about to crank it all up again, when up walks this very bitchy person from the blue, Mr. President, and really begins to hurt our two feelings. We didn’t deserve getting spitted all over like that. I mean, we’d worked our two butts off. I’m sorry she’s dead, and all that… I mean, I’m sorry she’s in some undefinable state between death and death, or whatever… but it was her own bitchy ways that brought her face to face with her sad fate."
Without having taken her eyes from the spectacular arrival for a single instant, Sugar Smack had slowly begun to nod—slowly, but with gradually increasing sympathy.
"And… so the Vice-President is hors de commisson?"
"I just said she was a bitch, which I can prove. I never say anything I can’t prove. That’s just how I am. But I’ll bet she’s kind of trashy, too, like you said. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit."
"Ah… and she and the Dean are currently both downstairs—is that correct?"
"You want me to go check?" Red Hot’s eager query was stirred by her having noticed the fifth or sixth cut of the President’s eyes toward the yawning door.
"No, my dear. Just you close the door, is all—quietly, now. There, very good. I’m sorry I can’t offer you a chair. It was my initial request of the Vice-President that she look into the furniture situation, but she seems to have reshuffled my priorities to suit her own."
"I’ll bet she does that a lot. Based on my terminal acquaintance with her."
"Um… yes. Yes, she does that quite a lot. An annoyingly lot!"
"Annoyingly lot! That’s good, Missus President!"
Red Hot uncorked a hearty laugh which Sugar Smack very willingly, even luxuriously shared as she nestled less uncomfortably into her steel chair.
"Yes, indeed, my dear. I send her out to find a chair—the merest of simple errands—and she charges off and stirs up a hornet’s nest where all was peaceful before. And I still don’t have my chair. Now it looks as though I won’t be getting one any time soon, furthermore."
"Oh, don’t say that! I’ll get you one right now. The first chair I see, it’s yours—and to hell with Blondie!"
"Blondie! Oh, dear me, what a tease you are, my sweet! Blondie—oh, that’s good, as you say! But no, wait! Don’t go! You don’t quite have my drift. The chair is but a specific instance of a general problem. The problem is that we are top-heavy with… that is, what I need is a can-do, hands-on sort of person next to me, not another pass-the-buck bureaucrat who just fouls the lines."
"I’m very hands-on, Mr. President. Everyone says so. I always learn with my hands."
"Yes, I can tell that about you—and what lovely hands you have!"
"I see you got a broken nail there. I can fix that for you so it won’t happen all the time. Have you ever tried milk?"
"Er… no. Now listen, my dear. What I really have in mind by way of solving the general problem is a complete inversion of the subordinate chain of command."
"Oh." Red Hot thought very hard behind her rusty ringlets. "That sounds like something men would do."
"You know, like… like…." Red Hot’s lithe wrist bent to mimic the handle of some Grecian urn until the elegant fingers almost touched her forearm, while her opposite hip thrust out in a stunningly complementary fashion—the belly of a divine urn which could only have held ambrosia. "Like… inversion? Like, ‘Hi there, sailor boy!’"
Sugar Smack gaped at the display as if a rare Doric wonder of mottled marble had in fact just been unveiled before her. A slight drain of saliva caused her to cough.
"Uh… excuse me! Um, no. What I mean is… what I mean is just this. You up here with me, the other two down there. Let the Vice-President do something useful for once. Let her get her own hands dirty for a change."
"Yeah, instead of her mouth."
"And I’ll get her office?"
"Well… well, of course, if you should want an office, hers would be vacant. But a people-person like you would be wasted in an office. I see you in a far more active capacity. I see you as… as… as my little Ariel, running hither and yon for me and doing a thousand useful things to help which the Vice-President would only have buried in paperwork."
"So I’ll be hands-on still? Because I don’t want to get stuck in some dusty office—a people-person like me, like you say."
"I’ll have plenty for you to do, never fear."
For the first time, Red Hot’s sculpted hips could not seem to find poise, shifting restlessly from side to side. The gum began to show above her upper teeth, and her green eyes pinched into an enchanting slant.
"Gee! Wow, that sounds so… so me! This place just gets better and better! And will this be a… you know, like a… a promotion? What will be my new name? You know, my title?"
"Your title?" Sugar Smack suddenly launched herself forward over her great steel desk as if the document bearing Red Hot’s new title were right in front of her (though, in fact, there was not a shred of paper in her whole great golden office). "You will, of course, view this as a promotion. A major promotion. After all, you will constantly be standing at the right hand of the President—or sitting, once we get this business of the chair settled. Ha-ha! That was good, wasn’t it? Now, as for your title…"
"Presidential Right Hand! Presidential… Trouble-Shooter! No, no, I’ve got it: Presidential Top Gun!"
"Ah… um, yes, well, it means the same thing, really. But your formal job title will be… Presidential Ombudsman."
"Capital! And now, Presidential Ombudsman, please proceed to acquire a new chair—preferably from the Vice-President’s office—and join me with it so that we may discuss future plans."
And as Red Hot winsomely spun an about-face and marched for the door, she happily mused aloud, "I’m the new P.O.! The new P.O.! Omni… omnibudsman." Her fingers froze upon the door knob. "Mr. President?"
"Shouldn’t that be ‘omnibudsperson’?"
Sugar Smack smiled serenely and raised her hand in benediction. "Charming girl!" she murmured.
Little Debbie and Baby Ruth had meanwhile assumed a strategic position just within the Vice-President’s doorway, from which vantage they could occasionally hear laughter from the President’s office (but only a word or two of conversation launched by Red Hot’s lusty voice). Little Debbie had often very nearly crept out of their lair, especially at the moments of strangely enduring silence; but Baby Ruth had always succeeded in holding her back—just barely—by reiterating that surrender to impulse would spoil their long-range designs. Finally Red Hot had reappeared, tripping along the catwalk with a fingertip to her lips and repeating a word that sounded curiously like "cinnamon". Little Debbie’s beady eyes widened to their maximum possible orbit, and she clenched the steel door frame until it cracked. Baby Ruth held onto the massive shoulder for dear life with both hands. By the time Red Hot was within six feet of them, however (still wholly unaware of anyone else’s existence in the universe at just this instant, such was the joy of her promotion), the Dean could no longer be restrained.
"My darling, my poor baby! What has she done to you? What has she been saying to you?"
Baby Ruth was carried out of the doorway by the forward surge so quickly that she very nearly sailed over the guard rail. Oblivious to her blonde trajectory, Little Debbie had grabbed Red Hot by the elbows and shaken corkscrew locks all across her astonished face in a show of passionate solicitude that might have ended in mayhem. Yet Baby Ruth was able to retrieve herself from beyond the rail (thanks largely to two bloated thighs essential in lowering her center of gravity) and to resume her grip upon the Dean’s well-muscled left shoulder.
"Stop it! Keep it down! You’ll ruin everything!" (Even Baby Ruth’s whispers had an unaccountably whiney quality.) "Revenge is near! Vengeance is in sight! Don’t ruin it all now!"
"No. No, of course you’re right—My darling, are you sure you’re okay?—No, don’t ruin it. We’ve got her now—What did that evil woman say to you, my pet?"
Red Hot was only beginning to recover from the shock of ambush. "Oh, nothing all that bad. I’m okay. She’s pretty nice, really."
"Don’t say that! You’re so naïve! There are things about life you just don’t understand."
"Would you not hold my arms so tight, please? You’re hurting me."
"I’m sorry, I’m sorry, dear. It’s just that… I was so worried about you!"
"Well, she never hurt me the way you just did. Or frightened me, either. Jeez, you almost made me pee on the floor."
"I’m sorry, I’m sorry, darling, please forgive me, I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, I just…."
Baby Ruth had by now entirely relinquished her hold upon Little Debbie, and had even withdrawn far enough that the sobbing, writhing mass of corpulence might not some in incidental contact with her. She sighed so heavily that her large lips ballooned outward in an impressive inflation. Then, in a shift of deportment whose instantaneous genius must surely have been intuitive, she addressed the Dean imperatively from her full hauteur.
"Get below now and await further developments. Take up your station and remain ready. You know what to do. And for God’s sake, stop blubbering!"
The soot-capped, cannonball head continued to cringe before Red Hot, and the huge fingers, now quite empty, continued to feel the air before her charming bust. "I… we… we have a… a plan, darling…."
"Stop sniveling!" Baby Ruth backhanded the cannonball (and struggled to conceal a wince as she retrieved her red knuckles). "I’ll explain the plan. Just get below!"
As Little Debbie descended behind them like a full moon setting on Walpurgisnacht, Baby Ruth turned her complete attention to Red Hot. It was the first time they had ever been alone, and for once the freckled chit was not babbling like a hung toilet. Though her moist, shapely mouth was the opposite of shut, not a muscle about it betrayed any inclination to toy with a word. Baby Ruth would have liked to smack that mouth with her yet red backhand, over and over and over. She would have liked to pull the twists out of that hair, to kick and slap and punch up and down that curving body until it was a great pustule of welts and bruises. She doubted that she had ever despised anyone as much in her life (well, while she was still in her life), and she remained optimistic about the prospects of one day pinioning those dimpled elbows to the hall’s most steely of steel structures and beating the crap out of everything that faced her. First the Dean… but no, first things first. First she had to make herself President.
"Now listen to me. Listen carefully to everything I say." Baby Ruth’s eyes transfixed Red Hot’s like a hypnotist’s, and her namby-pamby whine made an incredibly close approach to intensity. "You will go back to the President’s office. You will tell her that something terrible has happened at the Registration desk."
Red Hot’s eyes and mouth rounded at the same rate. Baby Ruth was too late to cut her off, though she saw the signs. "Terrible? You mean besides you dying on the—"
"Shut up! Just shut up!" Oh, to be able to sock her just once… but Baby Ruth’s clenched teeth and clenched fists were relaxed by the dark subconscious afterglow of Little Debbie towering over her. "Just listen. Tell the President that something terrible has happened, and that she must come down at once. At once!"
"Right. At once. Go on, now."
"Okay, I’m gone. But… but what do I say if she asks me what? I mean, do I say that someone died, or something?"
This time Baby Ruth felt her open palm begin to itch—with an itch that could only be scratched upon Red Hot’s freckled cheek. Again she checked herself, however… and the question, after all, was not unjustified. It would be just like the President to solicit details, even from this moron.
At that instant, Baby Ruth had one of the famous inspirations so instrumental to her meteoric professional advance (an advance equally spectacular for the absence of talent or ability in its propellant).
"Gore. Blood and gore everywhere."
"Everywhere, I tell you! Everywhere! One of the men smuggled in a knife—"
"The men! God, I knew it when you said ‘knife’! Men and their knives that they’re always playing with! And in a place like this! We ought to have a metal detector—"
Baby Ruth could repress herself no longer, but at least she raised no loud smack from the ruddy flesh. Instead, she caught a fistful of red hair.
"Blood and guts! Everywhere!"
"Guts! Oh God! And they’re bloody, too, I’ll bet!"
"Yes! Everywhere! Great bloody gobs of entrails!"
"Intestines, kidneys… guts!"
"Oh! Oh God! I’m going! I’m going! This is an important assignment, isn’t it? I mean, with all those guts!"
And Red Hot did indeed go for about half a dozen steps, repeating dreadful words to herself all the way (and rehearsing dreadful registers). Then the energy suddenly drained from her comely stride, and she looked back around at Baby Ruth, her brow clearing ominously.
"Can I get your chair, too? I was supposed to get your chair."
The word "guts", though not verbally reiterated, acquired new meaning in Baby Ruth’s body language. She turned red (not a freckled ruddy-red, but deep pink) from the roots of her naturally blonde hair to the tips of her pudgy toes (which included substantial terrain) at the mention of her chair. She seemed to swell to twice her size.
"Okay, okay, don’t get all huffy," soothed Red Hot in retreat. "We’ll deal with the gut thing first."
Baby Ruth’s breaths were coming very heavily to her now, and making even more noise than the pulse which throbbed in her ears (for, as usual, her slightly bulbous nose was somewhat congested—another disappointing failure of The Transition). Nevertheless, she could easily hear every word that Red Hot hurled into the President’s office (though the first of them competed with the idiot’s resounding knocks after she had flung the door open). Not a syllable was anything less than resonant.
"The Vip says to come quick, Mr. President. She’s not really dead at all—which I appraised you of previously, if you may recall—and she says to come quick while the men are killing each other with knives and a great deal of gore that they smuggled past the metal detector. Or, no—the metal detector, that was my idea, at which she turned up her snooty schnozola at, big surprise. We really need one now after this major incident, as who would now dispute it? That’s something the Vip should have foreseen, if you ask me. But like you said, she has no foresight for someone of that position, considering her rank. And still bitchier than ever. She pulled my hair, which I don’t allow anyone to do, I mean anyone! But I guess guts will do that to you. She must be all shook up. She says there are a lot of ’em. Guts, I mean. She says they’re everywhere. If she said ‘everywhere’ once, she said it ten times, like… like, you know, the Titanic, or something. So I guess we’d better go see who’s still alive down there. Oh, and Mr. President? It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t bring the chair. I just want you to know that that’s all on the Vip. She completely inhabited me from getting it."
The range of conflicting emotions through which these few simple words sent Baby Ruth almost turned her hypnotic efforts right back upon her. She stood staring at blank space as the President and the Presidential Ombudsman emerged from the far doorway. Fortunately, they were immersed in confidential exchange, and she succeeded in rousing herself just in time to slither bulkily into her own office—whose door she shut almost all the way, but not quite. With one clammy palm pressed over the doorknob and the other over her racing heart, she listened intently to the vigorous, interlaced thump-thump of two pairs of feet. Her head faintly nodded with each footfall, as if she were tallying them all toward some fateful number. Just when the hollow plang of the staircase’s first step should have chimed in, however, her pricked pink ears harvested through the door’s crack… nothing. Her head froze upon an upward beat whose next tally refused to come, and her large mouth fell wide open.
"But… but I don’t see any blood!" protested the President’s voice intelligently, a mere arm’s length or two away. "I see no fighting among the registrants, though their line has grown sadly bedraggled. And I certainly don’t see the Vice-President or the Dean."
"Bummer! She was just lying to me the whole time! And in a place like this—can you believe that? I mean, can you believe that? I just don’t know what to say, Mr. President. This whole… bedraggled thing makes me feel like I’ve been struck dumb with shock and awe. Of all the… that lying bitch!"
"Will you go down and see if you can turn up either one of them, my dear? Send them straight up to my office. Immediately!"
"Aye-aye, Madam President, sir! Straight up! Er…"
"I’m not really afraid, you understand… but that dippy Vip of yours, you should have seen her eyes when she was going on about ‘guts here’ and ‘guts there’. Just like two coiled-up springs. Weird. I mean, we’re talking heavy-duty psycho."
"Quite right, my dear. I’ll come with you. She won’t dare resist my authority! Just wait till I find her!"
At last the steel staircase began to reverberate under a pair of descending feet. Yet Baby Ruth had scarcely released a long-held breath when she was once more placed on high alert by a shrill scream—a scream that came far too early, after only a couple of steps in the descent.
"Look out, look out, Mr. President! It’s the Dean—she’s under the stairs—I see her! She’ll trip you and kill you like she did the other one!"
In the command decision of a lifetime, Baby Ruth slipped out the door and lunged low for the guard rail. With wondrous agility, and hardly a thought for her personal safety, she caught the rail in one hand while planting the other square in the President’s excessively tanned and wrinkled buttock. She could barely restrain herself from trundling ruinously down the staircase after her target—she came to rest heavily against Red Hot, her blonde curls butting the speckled abdomen low and pinning it against the hand rail; but she smiled through her panting in the satisfaction of knowing that she had not been detected by her whom she had just dethroned.
Indeed, Sugar Smack lay quite low at the base of the staircase—and quite inert, an excessively tanned and withered sack of bones. Clinging to the rail, Baby Ruth panted a little less and giggled a little more with each passing instant. Slumped unresistingly over Baby Ruth, Red Hot moaned and lowed like a cow in need of milking. And finally, emerging as if from the very floor, the titanic frame of Little Debbie reeled briefly over the President’s mortal remains, then began the long, deliberate process of crushing the staircase under foot, step by step
"We… we did it!" gasped Baby Ruth with a wan smile as the gargantuan shadow started to cloud over the hall’s gilded light.
"Out of my way."
At the sound of the surly monotone, Red Hot showed signs of surmounting her anguish. Yet as she was placing a hand on Baby Ruth’s pallid curls to haul herself upright, her prop was stripped away. Baby Ruth was sent sprawling—without great energy, malice, or interest—back up on the catwalk, from which she contemplated the evolving scene from her well-padded rump; and Little Debbie, her swollen might now fully coalesced on the staircase’s highest rungs, stood riveted over the mop of red hair.
A pair of slanting green eyes charmingly peeked out from behind the hair—a winsome nymph behind a rustic waterfall—and smiled all the way to the gum.
"I’ll… I’ll be okay in a minute, Big D. Wow, did you see where that bitch hit me? Talk about below the belt! And look at what she did to the Pres! In a place like this, too! Man, she’s going down for this. There are bigger big-shots in this place than her!"
If Red Hot had further summary thoughts on the devastation which lay before them all, she had no leisure to utter them between the inarticulate screams and pleading "no’s" which quickly occupied her lungs. Taking her by her shapely ankles, Little Debbie proceeded to upend her over the railing, in which position she dangled her like a choice cut of meat before the proverbial slavering dogs.
"Judas!" murmured Little Debbie over and over through the screams in a gravel-rough death sentence. "Judas! You betrayed me!"
"After all I’ve done for you!"
"After all I’ve… I’ve loved you!"
"No! No! You’re hurting me! You’re scaring me!"
"I’m going to execute you!"
"First I’m going to pull you apart, right down the middle…"
"Then I’m going to…"
But Little Debbie abruptly fell mute. Her eyes that had once glowed like tiny coals began to glaze over. Her appallingly spherical tongue began to show in her round mouth like a slick pink ball. Her breathing began to grow labored, and her shoulders to slump with an effort which seemed unrelated to the writhing burden they suspended. All at once, she was hugging the slender shins tightly to her as she gaped at the paradisaic landscape beyond them.
"Forgive me, darling! Oh, forgive me! Forgive me!"
And as this went on, Baby Ruth, now balanced unsteadily on her hands and knees, discovered that she was unequal to yet another command decision—a still greater one, cruelly greater. For every time she approached Little Debbie’s voluminous buttocks and mentally measured their magnitude against her strongest thrust, she recoiled in brooding defeat.
My guide had long ago turned away. As I sought him on the far side of the parapet, I felt my face flush with shame for having thus spent so many precious moments.
"Maestro mio, how long will they go on that way?" I asked—and was instantly embarrassed still further by my folly.
"Long, you say? Why, not long at all, unless your measure is sublunary eons."
I hung my head. "But there will be, then, a point in time’s eternal march when buffoonery has an end?"
"It is the nature of mad spirits not to know their nature—yet madness is not natural. Even such as these must one day know themselves."
"They must know, you mean, that… that they are deep down here and not high up there?"
"Give it some few eons, I should say."
"And what happens then?"
My master puffed out his lips until they popped.
"Nothing back to nothing," he said. "Just like a bomb."
Dr. Palaver, Word Therapist
De omnibus pauca, de nullo omnia.
In a short story published in your last issue, "El Día de Hoy", the implication was made that this very phrase was somewhat anomalous in Spanish. May I point out that the familiar aujourd’hui in French is precisely the same phrase—i.e., "on the day of today"? It strikes me as highly unlikely that the Spanish phrase originated on TV newscasts, while the French phrase has been around for hundreds of years.
Dear Vieille Branche,
The short story in question only affirmed that the usage of this phrase has grown much more common through the zealous assistance of newscasters. The four little words clearly have a cadence which the monosyllabic hoy lacks. All the same, in Spanish literature of any period, the word hoy is vastly more common than el día de hoy. Do your own survey and get back to us.
The argument based upon French analogy proves little more than that French is not Spanish. You might as well have noted that the French word for "tomorrow", demain, is a contraction of de matin, whereas the Spaniards have entirely eschewed the former part of the expression "[the day] of the morning" and simply preserved "morning" to mean "tomorrow": mañana. (By the way, this can create a certain confusion when listening to Spanish weather-casters: is mañana "tomorrow morning" or only "tomorrow"—or perhaps a morning which is not tomorrow’s?) And lest we forget about your sire, "yesterday" occurs in both languages without any hint of an epexegetic genetive: ayer and hier are direct adaptations of the Latin heri.
Please help me understand the difference between "each other" and "one another". I am told that one is to be used only of two people or things, while the other is to be used only of more than two people or things. Which is which?
Neither Here Nor There
Dear Victim of Acute Aporia,
Good question. Ancient wisdom (as in "ancient school marm") has it that "one another" should be used of two parties and "each other" of more than two. I have always found it impossible to sign off on this distinction, retrograde atavist though I may be. In cases where custom is not so fixed as to preclude choice, surely logic should be allowed to arbitrate. The expression "one another", when used of two parties, strikes me as patently illogical. The word "another" indicates that there is more than a single "other" left after we set aside the original "one": otherwise, we ought to write "one the other". (Compare l’un l’autre in French.) The problem is not removed by substituting "each other", unfortunately, for "each" also implies the presence of more than two relevant parties. The proper word to refer to a mere pair of alternatives is "either". Alas, English does not possess the expression "either other" any more than it does "one the other". Both of our existing expressions should logically be used of groups containing more than two, while no accepted expression is logically equipped to handle sets of only two.
What to do? Declare one phrase fit for the pair and the other (not "another") fit for the mob? I can’t suffer the high-handedness of it, personally. Those who wish to honor the tradition for no better reason than that it exists shall not be condemned by me for doing so, but I decline to help them carry the banner.
I have seen the expression "tow the line" in your journal at least once, but I have also seen "toe the line". Could you research the history of this image and tell me which spelling of the first word is the more authentic?
Dear Nemesis of Pedal Digits,
I don’t know what phrase you may have seen in these pages, but I know that I myself have been guilty of writing "tow the line" in the past. My reasoning (in the absence of solid evidence) ran thus: "toe the line" seems the more modern image. It evokes a sprinter crouching in the blocks just before the gun. The expression we use today is actually quite old. Therefore the more modern image must be incorrect, and the genuine image must hearken back to the days when barges were towed along inland canals with the help of strong cables (or lines) and draft horses. To "tow the line" means, surely, to bend oneself to an arduous task without complaint or remission.
The problem is that my assumptions about the more modern image were entirely incorrect. Behind the phrase "toe the line" lies a historical curiosity perhaps not quite as old as barge and canal, but every bit as nautical. When common sailors were summoned for formal review in the Royal Navy during the gilded days of wooden ships, they were expected, naturally, to form a neat, straight row. A ship of war does not possess much free space, however—then or now—and officers were understandably reluctant to have the sailors peering to left and right in an effort to align themselves perfectly amid a labyrinth of ropes and blocks and lockers. The solution was simply to designate a certain seam in the deck’s planks and have the seamen place their toes squarely upon this. The "line" in question would run as straight and true as expert craftsmanship could make it, and the human line oriented to it would have the same pleasing geometrical rigor.
To "toe the line" is hence to stand at attention, to be meticulously conscious of one’s duties. The metaphor is probably of late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century provenance, when the great navies of Europe first became something significantly more systematic than a collection of daring seadogs. I can think of at least two other expressions which also hail from the lively decks of frigates and man-o-wars. To "go by the board" means to be jettisoned in very hasty fashion. The metaphor refers to cumbersome matter—usually spars, masts, and rigging—which trails from the ship due to damage incurred in combat or during a storm, and which threatens the ship’s maneuverability at a time when survival depends upon speed and buoyancy. The encumbering matter would be cut loose as quickly as possible and allowed to drift away irrecoverably to the lee.
I am less secure about "son of a gun", but I have seen at least one published account which insists that the phrase originates in the practice of having common seamen sling their hammocks between cannons in the man-o-war’s crowded lower decks. This, of course, was the least privileged berth afloat: the person who had a brass twenty-four-pounder for a pillow could not boast of any great status in life. Hence the sun of a gun is, in our parlance today, no better off than sons of other mothers whom we uncharitably designate.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Thank you for challenging us, and please do not hesitate to call us on the carpet (whatever that means) another time.
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