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P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
5.1-2 (Winter/Spring 2005)
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 2004) 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 (2005), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
This issue--really two issues--has no intended theme, but the matter of ethical behavior on a communal scale (once known as politics) keeps cropping up.
Razgon, once a prisoner in the Siberian gulags' living hell, pleads with us to hear his testimony in a recent book whose deeper messages have not dissolved with the former Soviet Union.
John R. Harris
Kant's essay on the moral duty to speak truth in all circumstances has been derided by the worldly as naive--but these same jaundiced eyes seem to see gold at the end of their own bent rainbows, like every social utopian before them.
Thomas F. Bertonneau
The classroom has become a scene of personal affront to students who are challenged to write objective analyses rather than subjective excursions--but the awakening to a sensus communis of thoughtful adults is worth a bruised ego.
The Jerry Bruckheimer/Antonie Fuqua film King Arthur is further evidence that Ivory Tower revisionism and pop-cultural ignorance continue to form grotesque marriages.
The common assumptions about a political Left and Right at loggerheads fail miserably to recognize several alarming ways in which both paths lead to the same abyss.
Reviews of Reuven Brenner, The Financial Century: From Turmoils to Triumphs; Richard P. Nielsen, The Politics of Ethics: Methods for Acting, Learning, and Sometimes; and Myron Magnet, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to theUnderclass.
Dry Thaw (short story)
In an issue devoted largely to political philosophy, this fictional futuristic look at a dystopia where technology is propelling a curious backward turn seems entirely appropriate.
A Few Words from the Editor
Since I have returned to teaching as an adjunct professor at the local branch of The University of Texas system, I have dispoed of a little more money and far less time. Hence the collapse of Praesidium’s Winter and Spring issues into one: I could not possibly have prepared separate issues of the journal over the past few hectic months. Whether this fusion of issues to inaugurate the new year is to become habitual, I cannot say at the moment. It may likely occur for at least another year. The good news is that my modestly improved financial circumstances may allow me to seek 501(c)3 status for The Center for Literate Values this summer. (The application fee is several hundred dollars, and our budget has always been meager.) Should the day ever dawn when I may court wealthy foundations for a few thousand dollars to expand our operation (many of you know that it is now run exclusively out of my makeshift office at home, and that I have no secretary or assistant or “gopher”), the journal might not fall prey to such petty vagaries as it has this spring. We may also be able to pay contributors a small but encouraging fee for their work—the rarity of which, from year to year, has surely supplied me with large-caliber ammunition for making a breach in the IRS bunker.
There was never any intended theme for this combined issue. I find in retrospect, however, that we have once again clustered our thoughts and inspiration around a particular concern. Several essays—and one short story, as well—have felicitously converged upon politics in the broadest sense: the science, that is, of regulating human activity in a manner both orderly and humane. Steve Kogan’s meditation stemming from the riveting testimony of Lev Razgon about the Soviet gulags will remind us of how disastrous was the Stalinist experiment in making things anew. Those who wish to create a perfect human order ex nihilo inevitably end up shooting and starving thousands or millions of human beings. The past’s memory is too persistent to eradicate in any other way; and if past habits also happened to follow from common sense or common decency, the executions must continue even after the last old history book has been burned and the final new one rewritten. Incredibly, the generation now coming of age seems to be far more aware of the Jewish holocaust engineered by fascism than of the vastly greater slaughter presided over by the twentieth century’s Marxist utopians. No doubt, the academy remains unmoved by the latter because its intentions were ideologically pure (as if such carnage could be pure in any sense short of the absurd). We therefore owe a debt of gratitude to those like Professor Kogan who insist that the lessons of such misery be learned.
My own essay about Kant, Machiavelli, and telling lies has led me to reflect upon what similar beasts of prey we had in Hitler and Stalin. In their distinct ways, both incarnated Machiavelli’s Cesare Borgia. Hitler (with Mussolini’s help) persuaded the Catholic Church, at least early on, that he was a bulwark against Bolshevism, thus draping his cloak à la Machiavel; and he most certainly seasoned his mad imperial visions with the artificial glories of a mythical past, as did Machiavelli in his so-called Roman dream. Yet what was Stalin’s ruthless exploitation of bourgeois convention and gullibility if not Machiavellian to the core? The great theorist of unprincipled political manipulation, after all, regards no promise as binding and no outrage as impermissible. His version of “virtue” is indeed, nothing less than the ability to consider any criminal act as a possible option in the pursuit of power. That neo-conservative scholars like Leo Strauss should adopt The Prince as their Bible ought therefore to disturb us deeply. Precisely what is conserved in Egotism’s rapacious, ultimately insane scramble to rule the world?
Mark Wegierski has been reviewing and discussing neo-conservative books for me long before I had lent a critical eye to the term. I hasten to stress (in support of our tax-exempt claim) that neither Mark nor I nor any of the journal’s contributors approaches these questions in the context of any party affiliation. Our discomfort both with the New Right and the New Lefdt (for things there are also entirely new: what would Gladstone or Wilson have thought of campus speech codes?) roots in the equal abandonment of Western culture by either vanguard. If it is now “political” to befriend the mind’s endeavors and the spirit’s creations, then we live in a desperate time, indeed.
Tom Bertonneau and Gary Inbinder remind us of just how desperate. The former’s delightful essay on the thought-patterns of contemporary undergraduates (complete with monstrous illustrations!) suggests that Freshman Composition has so far descended to the level of Middle School English as taught thirty years ago. The latter’s dissection of a self-proclaimed “authentic” film on King Arthur’s life and times proves that our intellectuals are as good at rewriting history as ever Stalin’s hack propagandists were—and also, not surprisingly, that mass ignorance is traveling along the same vector, consenting to its own bamboozlement as long as the folderol entertains and confirms shallow prejudices.
Mr. Mosby’s short story, as a science-fictional look into a dystopic future, is the perfect bookend to the contents of this edition.
True Stories, by Lev Razgon: Literature and the Soviet Genocide
It was the end of November, and a recent snowstorm had whipped up enormous drifts around the building. The sky was clearing, with the beginning of a severe frost, and the stars glittered as always in winter,
with a gloomy power and a remote indifference to all that is alive.
Lev Razgon, True Stor
After the revelations in The Gulag Archipelago, after the memoirs, the novels, and the unsealing of the Central Party archives, why read another book on the Soviet labor camps? There are even many Russians who say that they have heard it all before, and Razgon imagines that western readers “have already read so much about mass executions, terror, wrecked lives and decimated families that it will probably strike them as absurd to offer yet another book on the subject.”1 I understand his hesitation, for, even before I read his remarkable account of life and death in the Gulag, my own small library on the camps had already said enough.
The men were not shown the thermometer, but that wasn't necessary since they had to work in any weather. Besides, longtime residents of Kolyma could determine the weather precisely even without a thermometer: if there was frosty fog, that meant the temperature outside was forty degrees below zero; if you exhaled easily but in a rasping fashion, it was fifty degrees below; if there was a rasping and it was difficult to breath, it was sixty degrees below; after sixty degrees below zero, spit froze in midair. Spit had been freezing in midair for two weeks.2
The very sound of the word Gulag falls like a dead weight upon the ear, the two rigid syllables forming the Russian acronym for the dreaded “Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps”. Razgon reminds us in his preface that it had “no equal in history’ and “was distinguished, above all,” by its extent both in time and space.3 In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn follows the unities of classical Greek tragedy and concentrates the entire horror in a single day and place, leaving it to our imagination to fill in the remaining years of Ivan's captivity. “There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his sentence, from reveille to lights out. The three extra ones were because of the leap years....”4 It is the conclusion to one of many haunting books by former inmates of the Gulag, a prison system over which “the stars glittered as always in winter, with a gloomy power and a remote indifference to all that is alive.”5
It takes a zek, a convict of the Gulag, to see a reflection of Soviet rule in the icy brilliance of the northern stars. Razgon says that the terrors of the logging camps alone were such that “several years after my release I still could not look without hatred at the beauty and wonder that is a forest.6 In Razgon’s traumatized imagination, even a midnight sky could trigger frightening associations and become a hateful sight, for “almost like the universe, Stalin seemed to have no end and no beginning.”7 The whole oppressive weight of Stalin’s rule is captured in this image, which does not represent his power as a simple force of nature but as an almost infinite evil that threatens to engulf the world.
Razgon’s association of Stalin with the skies across the Gulag is indicative of the writing throughout the book, in which the physical dimensions of the suffering are always expressed in terms of what it felt like to undergo Stalin’s ruthlessness. Hence the value of True Stories does not lie in the documentary evidence alone, for if facts and figures were the only measure of the camps, then Razgon would indeed have written nothing more than just another book about ‘wrecked lives and decimated families”, and the first two chapters would have been enough to saturate and numb the mind. Although he does not use the term, Razgon understands the nature of “victim fatigue” all too well, in which a constant spectacle of horrors can become not only unendurable but also meaningless, like the repetition of a word until it becomes an empty sound. The beginning of his preface is organized around this very question of language and genocide, and he answers it by affirming his faith in the power of literature to restore our capacity for sympathy and wonder. Like Solzhenitsyn, who subtitles his study of the Gulag An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Razgon has a visceral connection to literature, and his very first sentence draws us in: “'What can my name mean to you?' This line from Pushkin comes to mind when I imagine my Western readers….”8 Razgon cannot help but feel separated from the west, yet in one quick stroke he creates a feeling of intimacy through Pushkin's mournful words. His opening is typical of Russian writers on the Gulag, whose voices seem to emerge from the Russian classics and are capable of arousing the same intense interest that a Dostoevsky or a Chekhov can generate. Razgon provides the underlying reason for this effect. Citing the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, he remarks that, just as “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” so too “the interest and value” of each story of the Gulag depends on the particularity of the suffering.
For Razgon, therefore, no book on the Gulag is “just another book”, since no one is “just another victim”. Arrests are made, families are torn apart, and the corpses pile up, yet we never lose sight of individuals, who are portrayed not simply as ends in themselves but as a world. If the despot who ruled the Gulag “seemed to have no end and no beginning,” so did his victims, but in an altogether different, inward sense. Thus, Solzhenitsyn states on the very first page of The Gulag Archipelago that “each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: ‘You are under arrest.’”9 Commenting on one of his guards, Razgon similarly observes that “all he had to do was pull the trigger and one small universe of thoughts, emotions, friends and acquaintances that existed quite independent of his will, would disappear.”10 Small universes had been disappearing by the millions from the very beginning of Soviet rule, and bullets were the least of its terrors:
The outpost Korabelnikov had been sent to organize was, I discovered, to be used for punishing disobedient prisoners…. To be sent to Korabelnikov’s outpost meant certain death. Each time someone was taken there, the departure was transformed into an incredible and barbarous spectacle. Some of the criminals, trying in any way to delay this transfer, used to resort to an old tactic and strip themselves naked: they would not be transported like that in winter, they thought. This had no effect on Korabelnikov, however. Like the angel of death, he himself came to collect the raw material for his punishment cell. The naked man was bound, carried from the barrack across the entire compound, taken out through the guard house and thrown on a sledge. Then he was slowly driven off. The howl of the man as he gradually froze would fade away into the distance.11
Time and again, we read of men and women who were turned into tortured animals, a fitting image for inmates of concentration camps that were hidden in the forests of Siberia . At the beginning of the 1930s, writes Solzhenitsyn, when Stalin introduced collective farming by terrorizing the countryside, peasants
were banished not to a center of population, a place made habitable, but to the haunt of wild beasts, into the wilderness, to man’s primitive condition. No, worse: even in their primeval state our forebears at least chose places near water for their settlements. For as long as mankind has existed no one has ever made his home elsewhere. But for the special settlements the Cheka… chose places on stony hillsides (100 meters up above the river Pinega, where it was impossible to dig down to water, and nothing would grow in the soil).12
Those who survived often acquired the characteristics of Arctic animals.” In the opening paragraph of "Carpenters”, Shalamov says that prisoners in Kolyma gradually developed an animal instinct to find their way through freezing fog, and, in his preface to The Gulag, Solzhenitsyn recounts a Soviet news report in which the writer unwittingly betrayed the sheer animalism of the camps:
In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences . It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which was actually a frozen stream—and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preserved in so fresh a state, the scientific correspondent reported, that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.
The magazine no doubt astonished its small audience with the news of how successfully the flesh of fish could be kept fresh in a frozen state. But few, indeed, among its readers were able to decipher the genuine and heroic meaning of this incautious report.
As for us, however—we understood instantly. We could picture the entire scene right down to the smallest details: how those present broke up the ice in frenzied haste; how, flouting the higher claims of ichthyology and elbowing each other to be first, they tore off chunks of the prehistoric flesh and hauled them over to the bonfire to thaw them out and bolt them down.
We understood because we ourselves were the same kind of people as those present at that event. We, too, were from that powerful tribe of zeks, unique on the face of the earth, the only people who could devour prehistoric salamander with relish.
And the Kolyma was the greatest and most famous island, the pole of ferocity of that amazing country of Gulag, which, though scattered in an Archipelago geographically, was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent—an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country inhabited by the zek people.13
Halfway through Razgon’s account, I began to wonder if I could even understand what he was saying, for suffering on this scale is often incomprehensible to survivors themselves. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Enemies, A Love Story, which draws on his personal contacts with victims of the Nazi genocide, one of his characters remarks, “What happened to me can never be fully told. The truth is, I don’t really know myself. So much happened that I sometimes imagine nothing happened.”14 Bewildered by a past she can barely comprehend, Tamara Broder has become a walking ghost come straight from hell. “I’m not dead, I’m not dead. I’m not alive and I’m not dead.”15 I do not exaggerate in my description of her lines. They are the same words that Dante speaks in the last canto of the Inferno when he and Virgil come upon the figure of Satan, who is locked in ice “at the bottom of the universe”:16
How chilled and faint I turned then, do not ask, reader, for I do not write it, since all words would fail. I did not die and I did not remain alive; think now for thyself, if thou hast any wit, what I became, denied both life and death.17
The parallels between the Inferno and True Stories are equally precise. In Canto XXXII, Dante’s first view of the frozen lake of Cocytus takes his mind eastward to the “frigid sky” over Russia’s “far-off Don,”18 while Razgon’s image of Stalin hovering over the Gulag, like the icy stars that “glittered… with a gloomy power,” has unmistakable associations with Dante’s “Emperor of the woeful kingdom”. Every literary allusion of Razgon’s is a perception of reality; hence the precision with which he condemns Stalin’s treatment of the children of prisoners, which he frames in view of the entire Inferno:
The tiniest infants were handed over to special nurseries where they died almost instantly; older children were sent to special children’s homes where they were first brutalized and then died, one after another. Those still older, were simply arrested and forced to pass through all the circles of hell.19
The reference works both ways, for Dante envisions the nature of evil so precisely that he himself could almost pass for a zek. In writing of the last circle, he speaks of men howling like animals and even suffers the same after-effects of a traumatized memory as Razgon: “I saw a thousand faces made dog-like with the cold, so that shuddering comes over me, and always will, at frozen pools.”20
Robert Frost once remarked that the Russians are an epic people. It is a quality that Razgon shares with other writers of the Gulag in his extraordinary capacity to confront psychic pain. The identification with Dante emerges once again. In his epilogue, Razgon writes that, fifty-two years after his arrest in 1938, when he was finally allowed to read his files, he was escorted through the Lubyanka Prison to an empty office of the KGB, having been guided by “my Virgil who led me through this quiet, almost uninhabited hell.”21 It is early evening by the time he leaves the building and makes his way through a light rain to the Solovki Stone, a “modest monument” to the victims of the Gulag, where “I take off my fur hat, and drops of rain or tears trickle down my face. I am eighty-two and here I stand, living through it all over again, by the grave of those millions.”22 He has in fact been “living through it all over again” ever since he first began to record the destruction of his friends and family:
I knew then that no one else would summon back to life or even remember these numerous individuals who disappeared in the Gulag. And if I left this life without recording things which only I remember then I would have in some sense committed a sin.23
In effect, the entire book is a spiritual journey through the camps, and the same is true of other Russian works on the Gulag, which share Razgon’s religious view of memory. Solzhenitsyn has often said that Russia cannot hope to save itself from further slides into darkness unless it repents for its crimes, and, in Hope Abandoned (1972), Nadezhda Mandelstam similarly writes that “a sense of guilt is man’s greatest asset. Sin is always concrete, and repentance commands unique and powerful words, an unequivocal language of its own. It may be the language of a specific moment of time, but it lasts forever.”24
To understand her faith in the language of repentance, one has to appreciate that Mandelstam is writing from a lifetime’s experience of Marxist rhetoric, in which the concept of the individual was suppressed through “a hodgepodge of positivist fodder” about “material” reality.25 The end result was a deadening of consciousness and a “loss of the self”, a dangerous vacuum that was replaced with party slogans, catch-phrases, and the whole range of communist thought-control. The first chapter of Hope Abandoned, like Orwell’s 1984, is devoted to a careful analysis of this process, which Mandelstam frames in characteristically Russian terms as a spiritual exercise:
One of the most brilliant men in the history of mankind once said that as soon as thought dries up, it is replaced by words. A word is too easily transformed from a meaningful sign into a mere signal, and a group of words into an empty formula, bereft even of the sense such things have in magic. We begin to exchange set phrases, not noticing that all living meaning has gone from them. Poor, trembling creatures—we don’t know what meaning is; it has vanished from a world in which there is no room any more for the Logos. It will return only if and when people come to their senses and recall that man must answer for everything, particularly for his own soul.26
For Razgon, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandelstam, the lessons of literature are written in the language of suffering and redemption: hence the recurring identifications with Dante and the special place of Dostoevsky in their thoughts. As the title itself indicates, Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle was explicitly written with Dante in mind, and it was during Stalin’s campaign of terror in the 1930s that Nadezhda Mandelstam’s husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, wrote his extraordinary Conversation About Dante, not long before he himself died in the camps.
It is Dostoevsky, however, who provides a direct religious perspective on Marxism and the Soviet genocide, for his critique of socialism, conceived in light of the Gospels, addresses the central doctrines of communist belief. Solzhenitsyn’s celebrated remark that the line between good and evil does not run through the state but through the human heart is a Dostoevskian observation through and through, and it is interesting to note that it is prefigured at the very birth of the Soviet state in Oswald Spengler’s analysis of Dostoevsky’s works. Speaking of his socialist “demons” in The Possessed, Spengler writes in The Decline of the West (1918-26) that they
were denounced by the Russian Intelligentsia as reactionaries. But he himself was quite unconscious of such conflicts—“conservative” and “revolutionary” were terms of the West that left him indifferent…. What has the agony of a soul to do with Communism? A religion that has got as far as taking social problems in hand has ceased to be a religion… and so we come back to the contrast of Tolstoi and Dostoevski. Tolstoi, the townsman and Westerner, saw in Jesus only a social reformer, and in his metaphysical impotence—like the whole civilized West, which can only think about distributing, never renouncing—elevated primitive Christianity to the rank of a social revolution. Dostoevski, who was poor, but in certain hours almost a saint, never thought about social ameliorations—of what profit would it have been to a man’s soul to abolish property ?27
Commenting on Dostoevsky’s prophecy that “without God, all is permitted,” Nadezhda Mandelstam observes in Hope Abandoned that the Gulag was the final destination of Marxist ideology:
The “license” explored by Dostoyevski not only destroys its adepts, but also spreads corruption all around, scorches the very earth, and lays everything waste. We all have read Dostoyevski and know the anguish with which he shows up license for what it is, trying to warn people of its consequences. We who have lived through the great era of license are well aware that his words fell on deaf ears. It is a feature of those who choose the path of license that they are completely deaf and hear nothing.28
During his youth, Razgon was also deaf to the true nature of Marxism until he too fell under the blows of “those gods whom (in full accordance with our materialist world view) we had ourselves created.”29 Petro Grigorenko similarly writes that, even with the failures in agriculture and transportation in 1930-31, “people like me continued to be hypnotized by the old ideals.”30 As Nadezhda Mandelstam and George Orwell have described at length, the rhetoric of Soviet ideology was designed to deaden thought, and it is significant in this regard that Grigorenko’s trance was shattered not only by his experiences but also by the enlightenment that came to him through literature, having “seen and lived in socialism as it is described in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and George Orwell,”31 whose 1984 is partly modeled on Zamyatin’s We.
Like Grigorenko, who remained “hypnotized” even though he had already seen “many negative things”, Razgon had once been blind to crimes that had taken place right before his eyes, and it was not until many years later that he began to be haunted by what he had written for the journal of the Young Communist League:
I was seventeen, and taking my first uncertain but determined steps as a journalist. Komsomolskaya Pravda commissioned me to write a piece about the Moscow children’s prison and I spent several days behind the massive brick walls of the former Danilov monastery. Then I wrote a sketch that borrowed the title of the prison wall-newspaper: “A Factory for Turning Out Well-trained Citizens”. Everything in that sketch was true and, at the same time, it was a lie from beginning to end. The children were certainly not cold and hungry and they did have a wall-newspaper, clubs, film shows and almost clean sheets on their metal cots. Yet I wrote not a word of how they shuddered when the guards shouted, how the older children mistreated the younger, and of the prison hierarchy in which the smaller and weaker you were, the worse it was for you… I didn’t mention that the little children became the hostages of their semi-criminal elders since the prison authorities could only keep control with the help of the latter. For the rest of my life I avoided writing about many things, but to this day I feel a particular responsibility for this piece of dishonesty. It is the most unforgivable of the many falsehoods I have written and uttered.32
Razgon’s act of contrition stood outside the entire framework of Soviet doctrine, for Marxist-Leninism had proclaimed that “material conditions govern consciousness,” when it was the ideology itself that blinded a generation of believers. There was nothing “historically inevitable” about Razgon’s enlightenment. He could have remained in prison for another twenty years and never seen the truth, for it took a special kind of person to experience the shock of disillusionment and understand its meaning. Solzhenitsyn records the standard denials of reality among prisoners in the camps: “Corrupt officials put me here,” “Stalin has been misled by his advisers,” “If only Stalin knew.” Thus, they projected their own blindness onto Stalin, forgetting that they also believed in his omniscience.
Soviet rule was based on contradictions of this kind, for, in the peculiar viciousness of the system, the faithful themselves were turned into victims, from thousands of socialists in Lenin’s time to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, when he exterminated the Bolshevik leaders and their followers practically down to the last man and woman. Not even the French Reign of Terror, which Lenin admired, could compare in sheer thirst for blood, not only in practice but also in a theory that proclaimed a “war to the death” against the “survivals of accursed capitalist society, these dregs of humanity, these hopelessly decayed and atrophied limbs, this contagion, this plague, this ulcer that socialism has inherited from capitalism.”33
Every Russian work on the Gulag that I have read testifies to the power of Marxist ideology to blind its believers and corrupt consciousness. Hence the opposing belief that bearing witness to the truth has a redemptive power through the process of confession, for repentance teaches that the seeds of rebirth lie in the dark, in the blindness itself. It is the theme of Dostoevsky’s epigraph to his final work, The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24 ). This principle of redemption through suffering is also announced in the first pages of Hope Abandoned, in which Nadezhda Mandelstam writes that
pain acts like a leaven for both word and thought, quickening your sense of reality and the true logic of this world. Without pain you cannot distinguish the creative element that builds and sustains life from its opposite—the forces of death and destruction which are always for some reason very seductive… 34
It is an extraordinary observation on the death-wish in human personality, which Mandelstam relates to the hysteria in which she herself was caught up by the signs and slogans of the revolution:
I am not proud of my early youth. The image that comes back to me is of a great herd of cattle stampeding over a field of ripe corn and trampling it underfoot in vast swaths. In those days I ran around as one of a small herd of painters. Some of them later became well known. We wielded rough house-painters’ brushes, dipping them in buckets of color wash to daub crude shapes on fantastic canvases which we stretched across the street for demonstrations to parade under.35
If one listens to the words of The Communist Manifesto with a clear and open mind, one has a glimpse into “the forces of death and destruction” that were crying to be unleashed: “abolition of private property”, “abolition of the family”, “The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education”, “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”. In a remarkable passage in The Decline, which parallels Dostoevsky’s portrait of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, Spengler remarks on the narcotic force of totalitarian beliefs, whose visions of utopia are only a pretext for unlimited destruction and surrender of the will. Both Raskolnikov and Smerdyakov see themselves as instruments of higher powers and, in the words of the police inspector in Crime and Punishment, “murdered… for a theory,”36 a theory whose very goal is death. As Spengler observes, “It is wholly immaterial what slogans scream to the wind while the gates and the skulls are being beaten in. Destruction is the true and only impulse, and Caesarism the only issue.” As for the Caesars themselves, their one genuine ambition is to “demolish every remnant of order” and ‘to see in the outer world the same chaos as reigns within their own selves.”37
Everything about Soviet rule was senseless and unbelievable. Lenin had promised “peace, bread, and land” and created civil war and concentration camps, communists were branded as enemies of communism, and Stalin’s glowing support meant almost certain death. In Razgon’s chilling words,
If he declared at the plenary session of the Central Committee, “We shall not give you the blood of our beloved Bukharin, the darling of the Party and one of its leaders,” then it was clear that Bukharin’s fate was sealed…. Once, his voice almost shaking with emotion, Stalin said that “children did not answer for their fathers” and straightway issued instructions that not only the children but all the relatives of executed Party and state officials should be arrested without delay and dispatched to the camps or sent into exile… 38
The very language of sentencing was irrational, to the point where the word “sentence” itself, like the whole Soviet system of “extra-judicial procedures”, became arbitrary and meaningless:
These “procedures” gave one or more individuals the right to sentence people in their absence and without a trial to any length of imprisonment (up to and including a 25-year term), to forced labor, exile for life, or to be shot…. The term “sentence” sounds barely appropriate. It is hard for me to find a better word, yet what kind of sentencing actually took place? Lists were simply drawn up and people were shot. Or people were shot, and then the lists were compiled. Or people were shot and no record was made or kept.39
And for seven decades, the entire apparatus of communist propaganda, both east and west, glorified the Soviet Union as the great defender of “scientific socialism” and the model of a “planned economy”.
In fact, the only change that had taken place since Czarist times was the almost complete destruction of what was best in the old order and the intensification of what was worst. In The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin proclaimed that “the essence of Leninism in Party and state work” was “revolutionary sweep” combined with “American efficiency”,40 although nothing could have been further from America’s great practical sense than the ideology of the Soviet state, which mirrored the Czarist monsters of its hatred and elevated the worst types of the old bureaucracy to new heights of power. In the second volume of The Decline, Spengler remarks on this phenomenon and states that Bolshevism “is not the contrary, but the final issue of Petrinism,”41 the historical term for Peter the Great’s programme to westernize Russia. Summing up its dangers in prophetic words, Alexander Herzen described it as an act that “drove civilisation into us with such a wedge that Russia could not stand it and split into two layers” that had “nothing in common”.42 His words could be applied without change to the Soviet masters of the Gulag: “There is no instance in history of a caste of the same race getting the upper hand so thoroughly and becoming so completely alien as our class of upper government servants.”43 A careful reader of Russian history and literature, Spengler observes that Bolshevism had deep roots in “the lowest stratum of this Petrine society, alien and western like the other strata… and consequently filled with the hate of the downtrodden.”44 Nineteenth-century Russian fiction is filled with alienated figures of this kind. It is a type that Herzen describes in My Past and Thoughts down to the last detail:
Tyufyayev [a governor of a province in Siberia ] was a true servant of the Tsar. He was highly thought of, but not highly enough. Byzantine servility was exceptionally well combined in him with official discipline. Obliteration of self, renunciation of will and thought before authority went inseparably with harsh oppression of subordinates…. Tyufyayev had an intense, secret hatred for everything aristocratic; he had kept this from his bitter experiences. The hard labour of Arakcheyev’s secretariat had been his first refuge, his first deliverance. Till then his superiors had never offered him a chair, but had employed him on menial errands. When he served in the commissariat, the officers had persecuted him, as is the custom in the army, and one colonel had horsewhipped him in the street at Vilna…. All this had entered into the copying clerk’s soul and rankled there; now he was governor and it was his turn to oppress…. 45
If Tyufyayev was typical of the Czar’s “civilian clergy”, as Herzen says he was, then “the hate of the downtrodden” in Petrine society might well have found a home among the Bolsheviks. Herzen remarks that, if Tyufyayev had lived during the Reign of Terror, he “would have been a ferocious Commissaire of the Convention in 1794, a Carrier,”46 referring to Jean-Baptiste Carrier, who, according to the translator, Constance Garnett, “was responsible for the noyades and massacre of hundreds of people at Nantes, while suppressing the counter-revolutionary rising of La Vendée.”47 The spirit of Tyufyayev was alive in Lenin just before the revolution when he wrote that “the example of the Jacobins is instructive,” although Tyufyayev could not have matched Lenin for sheer mendacity when the Bolshevik leader added that “the ‘Jacobins’ of the twentieth century would not guillotine the capitalists” but merely arrest fifty to a hundred bankers “for a few weeks to expose their frauds”48. Several weeks before the revolution, he proclaimed that state power would in fact be enforced through “the grain monopoly” and “bread rationing” (starvation): “These means of control and of compelling people to work will be more potent than the laws of the Convention and its guillotine. The guillotine only terrorised, only broke active resistance. For us, this is not enough.”49 This time, he did not lie. In March 1918, he instructed the Commissariat for Justice to be vigilant in “setting up a really revolutionary court that is rapid and mercilessly severe in dealing with counter-revolutionaries, hooligans,” etc.50 In defining “the essence of Leninism”, Stalin would have been closer to the truth if he had said that the new order was the old prison system plus firing squads and Marxist propaganda, or Tyufyayev modernized.
The continuities are remarkable. Substitute the word “Bolshevik” for “Petrine” in the following passage by Herzen and you might think you were reading a page out of Solzhenitsyn or Razgon:
One of the most melancholy results of the Petrine revolution was the development of the official class. An artificial, hungry, and uncultivated class, capable of doing nothing but ‘serving,’ knowing nothing but official forms, it constitutes a kind of civilian clergy, celebrating divine service in the courts and the police forces, and sucking the blood of the people with thousands of greedy, unclean mouths.51
So close is the parallel between Czarism and Soviet rule that Herzen’s words could be applied without change to the whole machinery of the Gulag, down to the vocabulary itself of the Czarist prison system. “How stable our prison vocabulary and terminology has remained!” exclaims Razgon:
Exactly the same words can be found in Dostoevsky [in The House of the Dead], Doroshevich and Solzhenitsyn. Naturally, cells, peepholes and slop buckets continue to perform the same functions. But even the verbs used remain distinctive: you are not “escorted” to an interrogation or on a new transport but “taken”, not “imprisoned” in the punishment block but “chucked” there. And so on. Almost nothing in this language has changed, testimony to the hellish stability of the system that gave it birth.52
What made these continuities particularly grotesque is that the old evils not only persisted but were deliberately intensified, all in the name of Marxist “emancipation” from the past. Had Melville been alive to read Lenin on “the example of the Jacobins”, he would not have been surprised by this demonic contradiction, for, as he observed in a manuscript passage in Billy Budd, when the French erected their guillotines, “Straightway the Revolution itself became a wrongdoer, one more oppressive than the kings.”53 Like other features of Soviet rule, Stalin’s campaign to collectivize farming followed this same principle and reintroduced serfdom on a scale that the old czars could have never conceived (it had in fact been abolished by Alexander II in 1861). This turning of the screws also applies to the Czarist prisons that Herzen and Dostoevsky describe, which were only a bad dream in light of what was to come. Solzhenitsyn even provides examples of humane treatment that Czarist prisoners received, including Bolsheviks themselves, many of whom were permitted to have books and writing supplies, whereas he would have been shot on the spot if his Soviet guards had found so much as a scrap of paper in his pocket.
Armed with an ideology that destroyed all the old restraints, the masters of the Gulag differed from Herzen’s Czarist officials chiefly in the intensity of their ruthlessness. Compared to Herzen’s Tuyfyayev, Razgon’s jailers seem unearthly in their cruelty, as if they were cut off not merely from “the people”, as Herzen says of the Petrine bureaucracy, but from the human race itself.
Yellow-eyes came to life and the strange expression disappeared from his face. Until now I had not understood its meaning: it came from his sense of superiority over all those in the barge. He wore this expression almost all the time. Only on those rare occasions when I saw Korabelnikov (that was his name) talking to his superiors, any superiors, did it disappear. His yellow eyes would light up with a canine intelligence—attentive, respectful and understanding. Then the light faded and, once again, he gazed on the rest of us indifferently and calmly. There was even no malice there. And this was surprising, because of all the many villains whom I met in that strange world it was Korabelnikov who made the most terrifying impression on me. After I was released from the camps the first time, and then, after a second term in prison and in the camps, Korabelnikov would continue to haunt my dreams, and I would groan in my sleep and wake up in a cold sweat.54
This is the same Korabelnikov who sent prisoners howling naked through the frozen wastes. At the deepest zone of Cocytus, Virgil points toward Satan and his kingdom, and, calling out the Latin name for the Greek god of the underworld, he exclaims to Dante, “Lo Dis, and the place where thou must arm thee with fortitude.”55 Here, in the circle of Dis, or Pluto, they are are now at the furthest extreme from the light of God. Razgon’s glimpses into Stalin’s Arctic camps recall these same associations, which place the Gulag at the furthest reaches from humanity, even from the Nazi factories of death, which, however hideous, are not beyond our sight. Razgon reminds us that the Soviet camps operated across “the hills of the Far East , in the Siberian forests, and in the glades of the Tambov woods or the Meshchera nature reserve. They existed everywhere, yet nothing remains of them now.”56 Lost in space, they are lost in time as well, for they swallowed up millions of lives and then disappeared themselves.
There are no terrible museums as there are today at Auschwitz , or at Mauthausen in Austria . There are no solemn and funereal memorials like those that testify to the Nazi atrocities at Khatyn, Salaspils or Lidice . Thousands of unnamed graves, in which there lie mingled the bones of hundreds of thousands of victims, have now been overgrown by bushes, thick luxuriant grass and young new forest.57
Archeologists continue to uncover sites, and land erosions sometimes raise the dead, but it is difficult to rebuild even a single camp as a memorial. In an article on Perm 36 labor camp, which “a few local academics are trying to reconstruct,” the New York Times notes that “there are virtually no films or photographs of the Soviet prison system,”58 and that, “unlike Germany, where the main concentration camps have been preserved as museums, Russia has few visible traces of its recent, harrowing past.”59 The one inaccuracy in the line is word “recent”, for people were disappearing as early as December, 1917, when Lenin ranted against “the lackeys of the money-bags, the lickspittles of the exploiters”60 and called for a “war to the death against the rich and their hangers-on, the bourgeois intellectuals”.61 Lenin’s cry for blood was truly apocalyptic, for he promised “the working people” a release from all social injustice through the triumph of “the proletarian state” and “the independent creation of a new life”.62 Thus, Lenin the atheist manipulated the religious sentiments of millions of Russians,63 whereby the Christian concept of rebirth, as in Dante’s La Vita Nuova, was transformed into an instrument of demagoguery and mass murder, and Russia itself was led “through all the circles of hell”.
Even when he is not speaking of arrests and executions, Razgon’s demonic pictures are exact. In one scene of a winter roll call at 6 a.m. , he describes prisoners standing in -30 C. weather and wearing face masks: “Made from random scraps of cloth—bright cottons, towels or other rags—these masks had holes cut for the eyes, nose and mouth. The crowd of zeks then looked like some grotesque and frightening carnival scene by Hieronymous Bosch.”64 Razgon’s associations of the Gulag with Dante and Bosch not only capture moments of horror but also convey the demonism that he sees at the heart of Soviet rule, a system so perverse that it could revive the most terrifying Gothic nightmares even as it proclaimed the coming of “the new Soviet man.”
Lenin’s assault on the past was so massive that he even tore away at his own precedents. Not even the Reign of Terror was allowed to serve as a model. “For us, this is not enough.” Hence Lenin’s viciousness toward the intellectual classes, whose entire prestige was bound up with their preservation and advancement of the human heritage. Solzhenitsyn cites a letter by Lenin to Maxim Gorky, in which the Bolshevik leader declares with singular venom that, “in actual fact, they are not [the nation’s] brains, but shit.”65 So complete was the onslaught that the very memory of the past, as in 1984, could be punished as a “thought crime” by the state. This was the message of power behind Stalin’s purges of the Bolshevik leaders, that the history of the Communist Party itself could be rewritten. If “our beloved Bukharin, the darling of the Party”, could be consigned to oblivion, then no one was safe. The consequences were senseless in the extreme, for if yesterday’s “vanguard of the working class” could be today’s “enemy of the people”, then the division of the world into “exploiters” and “proletarian” leaders was essentially meaningless. It is precisely this void that Nadezhda Mandelstam has in mind when she writes that “the ‘license’ explored by Dostoyevski not only destroys its adepts, but also spreads corruption all around, scorches the very earth, and lays everything waste.”
The destruction of the past, the very labelling of the past as the great symbol of oppression, was the key to this unrestrained ferocity. Hence the courage of Mandelstam in committing her husband’s verse to memory, of Solzhenitsyn in writing The Gulag under the constant threat of arrest, and of Razgon and countless others in keeping the intellectual heritage of Russia and western Europe alive within themselves. When Grigorenko remarks that he has lived under socialism as it is portrayed in Dostoevsky, Zamyatin, and Orwell, he speaks for a generation of writers for whom the classics not only helped to illuminate their own condition but also became a guide to their writing itself. It is as though each one had a Virgil of his own, for there is a deep equivalence between Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and Chekhov’s short stories, Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned and the works of Dostoevsky, and Razgon’s True Stories and the infernal scenes in Dante and Bosch. As for Solzhenitsyn, his entire career after One Day has something in it of the monk Pimen in Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov, the chronicler of Russia ’s “period of troubles”. A perfect example of these ties to the past is Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden (1988), which not only takes us on a double journey to Leningrad and Dostoevsky’s gambling days in Germany but almost reads like a newly discovered novel by the author of The Gambler. Tsypkin’s immersion in Dostoevsky’s middle years is so immediate and intense that his subject seems to have a living presence, as though Dostoevsky’s spirit were still moving through modern-day Russia , in the same way that Razgon reads the Inferno almost as though it had been written in view of the Gulag.
In coupling the name of Orwell with Dostoevsky and Zamyatin, Grigorenko reminds us of Orwell’s faith in literature as a vehicle of consciousness. This is true not only of his political and literary essays but also 1984, in which he describes Winston Smith’s diary and his memories of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton as a last hold on reality in an age of Newspeak and the daily sessions of “Two Minutes Hate”. It is difficult to think of another major western author who shares Orwell’s affinity with his Russian contemporaries, for whom the reading of literature became a discipline in bearing witness to the truth. In its analysis of the Soviet propaganda machine, its critique of the Soviet literary world, and its remembrance of her own husband and the poet Anna Akhmatova, Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned is the perfect embodiment of this principle. Almost every page intertwines the lessons of literature with incisive pictures of Soviet life, and one passage in particular sums up the perspective of the entire book, in which Mandelstam writes that “to lose one’s memory—provided it was an honest one—is to lose touch with reality,” although
Not everybody has the strength to say, with Pushkin: “And reading with abhorrence my life’s tale, / I quake and curse, / Complaining bitterly and shedding bitter tears, / But the sad lines I’ll not wash away.” For their own peace of mind my contemporaries will certainly “wash away” or embellish their “sad lines”—though they will most likely not even realize just how sad they are.66
Many western intellectuals have also been quick to “wash away” the bitter truths about the Soviet regime and, as a result, are completely in the dark about why their Russian counterparts have maintained their faith in the intrinsic value of literature. During a Soviet-American literary conference in 1988, just before the Soviet system came crashing down, J. Hillis Miller was surprised to find Russian academics still believing that literature has universal value and that certain works embody spiritual absolutes “with timeless validity for all humanity”.67 It is the surprise of a western academic who not only seems ignorant of the scope of Russian literature but also does not appreciate the enormity of the Soviet attempt to obliterate the past;68 hence his false sense of superiority toward his Russian colleagues, who have stubbornly held on to “a solid ground of religious and cultural assumptions… just about as it was before the Revolution.”69 On a deeper level, he has no intimate, or inner connection to literature and therefore cannot conceive that it could live beyond its own moment and have a present meaning. “Each week,” writes Razgon toward the end of his work,
the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva publishes rows of tiny photographs of people killed 50-60 years ago, for no reason at all, yet I am not aware that any of the thousands who serve in that vast building on the Lubyanka Square has gone insane, committed suicide, or publicly spoken out in tears of repentance, horror and mortal anguish…. In Chekhov’s story “A Fit” a student who goes to a brothel with his merry friends suddenly almost begins to lose his mind from the awareness that these unfortunate women are also people. Tormented, unfortunate people. Not one of his educated, clever and, probably, kind fellow students can understand what’s wrong with him.70
There are no “religious and cultural assumptions” in the passage. There is only a glimpse into the hard, cold facts of Soviet life and Razgon’s silent identification with Chekhov’s story, for Razgon himself had once been present at a scene of suffering in his youth and had also observed “tormented, unfortunate people” without taking them to heart.
Contrition is not a “religious assumption” but an experience, and those who have lived to tell the story of the Gulag bear witness to the truth of Mandelstam’s observation that “pain acts like a leaven for both word and thought, quickening your sense of reality and the true logic of this world.” This is the same animating power that informs the entire literature of the Gulag, which could almost take as its motto Chekhov’s single aim in writing, “just to depict life as it is, without taking one step further.”71
1 Lev Razgon, “Preface”, True Stories (1989), trans. John Crowfoot (Dana Point: Ardis Publishers, 1997), p. 7. The story of Razgon’s arrest echoes across the decades to this day. In a recent review of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (The New Yorker, April 14, 2003 ), David Remnick describes an interview he had with Dmitri Likhachev, a renowned scholar and former convict of Solovki, an infamous island prison camp near the Arctic Circle . Likhachev told Remnick of the celebrated visit in 1929 by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who arrived on the ship Gleb Boky and later wrote a glowing account of the camp. Remnick refers to Gleb Boky as the camp chief, but Razgon tells us that he had far broader powers as the former head of the Petrograd Cheka (the first Soviet secret police), and that he later served in the OGPU and NKVD. Boky was arrested and executed in 1937 during Stalin’s destruction of the revolutionaries of 1917. Razgon was swept up in the purge, having married Boky’s daughter in the early 1930s. Both were arrested one year after Boky’s “liquidation”. Razgon’s wife died in a transit camp. Other family members were arrested as well. In 1990, Razgon was permitted to read his original case file and the file of Gleb Boky’s arrest and interrogation. He recounts this painful visit to the archives of the KGB in his epilogue. A detailed discussion of Solovki, with extensive photographs that include the visit of Gorky and Boky, can be found in Tomasz Kizny, Goulag (Balland/Acropole, 2003). Photographs of Soviet camps are hard to come by. Kizny’s book is apparently the first of its kind.
2 Varlam Shalamov, “Carpenters”, Kolyma Tales (1950s), trans. John Glad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), p. 46.
3 Razgon, “Preface”, p. 8.
4 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), trans. Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), p. 203.
5 Razgon, “Jailers”, p. 229.
6 Razgon, “Boris and Gleb”, p. 126
7 Razgon, “Jailers”, p. 243.
8 Razgon, “Preface’, p. 7.
9 Solzhenitsyn, “Arrest”, The Gulag Archipelago, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973-78), vol. 1 (trans. Thomas P. Whitney), p. 3.
10 Razgon, “Jailers”, p. 194.
11 Razgon, “Jailers”, pp. 208-09.
12 Solzhenitsyn, “The Peasant Plagues”, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 3, trans. Harry Willets, p. 362.
13 Solzhenitsyn, ‘Preface”, The Gulag Archipelago, 1, ix-x.
14 Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (1966), trans. Aliza Shevrin and Elizabeth Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), p. 73.
15 Singer, Enemies, p.189.
16 Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXII, The Divine Comedy, 3 vols., trans. John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 1, 395.
17 Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 421.
18 Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXII, 395.
19 Razgon, “Epilogue”, p. 285.
20 Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXII, 399.
21 Razgon, “Epilogue”, p. 278.
22 Razgon, “Epilogue”, p. 291.
23 Razgon, “Preface”, p. 9.
24 Nadezhda Mandelstam, “29 Digression, 1 ‘Pernicious Freedom’”, Hope Abandoned, (1960s), trans. Max Hayward (New York: Atheneum, 1974), p. 266. This work is the second of two volumes of memoirs, the first originally titled “First Book” and in translation Hope Against Hope, grim plays on the name Nadezhda, which means “hope” in Russian.
25 Mandelstam, “1 The 'Self’”, p. 10.
27 Oswald Spengler, “Historic Pseudomorphoses”, The Decline of the West, 2 vols., trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926-28), vol.2, 195.
28 Mandelstam, 29 Digression, 1 ‘Pernicious Freedom’”, p. 267.
29 Razgon, “Military Men”, p. 59.
30 Petro G. Grigorenko, “A New Pot”, Memoirs, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1982), p. 40.
31 Grigorenko, “Far From Home”, p. 452.
32 Razgon, “Kostya Shulga”, p. 161.
33 Lenin, “How to Organise Competition?” ( December 24-27, 1917 ), Collected Works, Vol. 26, Lenin Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2999.
34 Mandelstam, “1 The ‘Self’”, p. 11.Ibid.
35 Mandelstam, “2 The Stampede”, p. 13.Ibid.
36 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866), trans. Jessie Coulson (1953, reprint. New York : W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 385.
37 Spengler, “State and History”, Vol. 2, 427 n.
38 Razgon, “Kostya Shulga”, p. 159.
40 J. V. Stalin, “IX. Style in Work”, The Foundations of Leninism (1924), Works, Vol. 6, Stalin Internet Library, www.marx2mao.org//stalin. There is something grotesque not only about the pronouncement but also Stalin’s pretense of wise counseling, in which he cautions that “American efficiency has every chance of degenerating into narrow and unprincipled practicalism if it is not combined with Russian revolutionary sweep” and, contrariwise, that “Russian revolutionary sweep has every chance of degenerating in practice into empty ‘revolutionary’ Manilovism if it is not combined with American efficiency in work.” This farce of reasoned argument verges on buffonery that is reminiscent both of Dostoevsky’s Fyodor Karamazov and one of Alexander Herzen’s uncles, who was apparently the model for Dostoevsky’s figure. Herzen remarks, “He was one of those grotesquely odd creatures who are only possible in Russia , where life is so odd as to be grotesque,” to which he adds that everyone who knew him was not only disturbed by his outlandishness but also frightened of his cruelty. In “Nursery and University”, My Past and Thoughts (1867), trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 15.
41 Spengler, “Historic Pseudomorphoses”, p. 195.
42 Herzen, “The Later Years”, p. 621..
44 Spengler, “Historic Pseudomorphoses”, p. 195.
45 Herzen, “Prison and Exile”, p. 184.
46 Herzen, “Prison and Exile”, p. 173.
47 Ibid. n.
48 V. I. Lenin, “The Enemies of the People” (June, 1917), Works. Vol. 25.
49 V. I. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” ( October 1, 1917 ), Works, Vol. 26.
50 V. I. Lenin, “Concerning the Decree on Revolutionary Tribunals” (March 30, 1918), Works, Vol. 27.
51 Herzen, “Prison and Exile”, p. 185.
52 Razgon, “Jailers”, pp. 216-17.
53 Herman Melville, Billy Budd (c. 1888), Billy Budd and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), p. 7. Melville’s reflections on “the Spirit of that Age” appear in three leaves that he apparently superceded, although they were long published as a preface to the work. On its deletion from subsequent editions, see “Editors’ Introduction”, Billy Budd, Sailor, ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 18-19.
54 Razgon, “Jailers”, pp. 202-03.
55 Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 421.
56 Razgon, “Niyazov”, p. 29.
57 Ibid. Razgon discusses a “special operation” at just one camp, which was “of a standard design, just like any transit camp”, and calculates that Bikin alone executed between “15,000 to 18,000 people during its existence” (p. 29).
58 Alessandra Stanley, “Lest Russians Forget, a Museum of the Gulag”, New York Times (October 29, 1997), p. A8.
59 Stanley, A1.
60 Lenin, “How to Organise Competition?”
63 On the Soviet exploitation of Russian religious practices, see, for example, Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (1937): “The great shaggy head of Karl Marx receded in the May Day decorations in 1929, leaving Lenin and Stalin dominant. Russia is a nation of icon-worshippers. Symbols have a potency beyond anything in the West. The prominence given to different saints and miracle-workers, living and dead, corresponds with mathematical exactitude to their current influence. This May Day saw Stalin lifted to a place of equality with Lenin in the outward symbolism of the faith.” (New York: Twin Circle Publishing Co., Inc., 1967), p. 80.
64 Razgon, “Boris and Gleb”, p. 124.
65 Letter of September 15, 1919 . In Solzhenitsyn, “The Law as a Child”, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1, 328. The date is a telling indication of how quickly Lenin moved against the educated classes after the revolution. Razgon describes the Solovki camp, which was one of the earliest prisons of the Gulag, as “a concentration camp for the intelligentsia” (p. 280).
66 Mandelstam, “18 Memory”, p. 160.
67 J. Hillis Miller, “Literature and Value: American and Soviet Views”, Profession 92, The Modern Language Association, p. 25. Miller betrays a snobbish contempt for these values when he remarks that the only Americans who still believe in them are “certain extremely conservative critics—for example, members of the National Association of Scholars or others who appeal to the ‘Western tradition’” (i.e., the so-called “Western tradition”), in contrast to the supposedly vibrant and up-to-date theories in “multicultural study, women’s studies, and the study of minority literatures”.
68 Pushkin alone drew from the Greek and Latin classics, Shakespeare, the Italian Renaissance poets, early nineteenth-century English and French poetry and prose, medieval Russian history and literature, the Koran, and peasant folk tales. His capacity to absorb the spirit of other cultures is one of the themes of Dostoevsky’s commemorative address on the poet in 1880.
69 Miller, p. 25.
70 Razgon, “Epilogue”, p. 290.
71 F. W. Dupee, “Thomas Mann 1. The Good European” (1959), ‘The King of the Cats’ and other remarks on writers and writing (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 97.
The False Conservatism of the Cynic’s Utopia:
Kant, Machiavelli, and Truthfulness
John R. Harris
"Well, then," I said, "no one willingly delivers himself to evil things or to what he knows to be evil. It is not in the nature of men, apparently, to desire what is known as evil over the good things."
Plato, Protagoras 358c
My first exposure to Immanuel Kant’s essay, Über ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen (lit., "Concerning a Supposed Right to Lie from Humane Compassion"), was not especially instructive to me, due entirely to my dilettante level of German at the time. (In my defense, Kant has ever been renowned for his impenetrable style: Germans are said to read English translations of him sometimes in pursuit of lucidity.) I dimly recall understanding the short essay well enough, at any rate, that I could conclude it to be naïve with all the smugness peculiar to youthful innocence. Why, who does not know that you must lie to your dear old mother if she should inquire in her final breath whether you have secured a job, or whether your brother Ralph has been found alive after the plane crash? People lie all the time with the noblest of motives and happiest of outcomes. We lie to our children ritually about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We lie to our spouses on a wedding anniversary that the years have brought no regrets.1 And then there are the lies of policy which our elected leaders must tell to keep us safe. What treaties would ever be signed if all parties were fully candid about their intent to reinforce the terms with a little sub rosa hoarding of forbidden weapons or a little discreet spying over forbidden areas? What responsible mayor would alert the citizens in his charge to the outbreak of some dreadful disease or the discovery of a time bomb in a crowded building? Utter and immediate disclosure in such circumstances might well produce more casualties in the ensuing panic than the threat itself, if realized, would harvest.
So I smiled patronizingly at Kant’s admirable gullibility, as my students do now when I present them with my translation of the essay. (I offer the full text below in just a few paragraphs.) The odd thing is that age has slowly but surely reversed my sense of the naïve. I now find the "grim realism" of young people in their curious willingness to water down principles (variously styled "compromise", "tolerance", "eclecticism", and a lot of other self-serving "principled" alternatives to principle) astonishingly short-sighted. Take the case which Kant himself advances. A lunatic pounds upon your door, looking for the fleeing innocent whom he wishes to throttle. The would-be victim has indeed just slipped down your hallway. Do you tell the lunatic as much? Kant, against all semblance of common sense, answers in the affirmative. I shall shortly allow him to offer his own reasons for this apparently inflexible stubbornness. For the moment, I shift to the real-life enactment of this hypothetical case which would have leapt to every mind a few decades ago: concealing Jews from Nazis in Fascist Europe. Obviously, you would say "no" to the unblinking S.S. officer at your door after secreting the Jewish refugee in a hidden compartment behind the wall’s paneling. My best student of the past semester wrote as much in her paper on the subject. Corrie ten Boom, she informed me, saved dozens or hundreds of Jews by lying to the Nazis. To have done "less" would have been to connive at mass murder.
Hannah Arendt had a great many enlightening things to say in rebuttal of such mitigated principle—all of them drawn from the soberest of experiences. In Tobin Siebers’ excellent Morals and Stories, one of her "ground zero" observations is handled so as to develop Kant’s position sympathetically.2 (It was Siebers, as I recall, who first moved me to rethink my own assumptions.) Arendt recounts one harrowing occasion when jackbooted Nazis thumped into a kitchen under whose well-draped table a Jewish neighbor crouched trembling. The soldiers asked the inevitable question: "Any Jews in your house?"—whereupon the family’s youngest daughter piped up in what must have been a child’s blessed ignorance of the situation, "Yes. There’s one under that table." The soldiers laughed, rolled their eyes, and exited, victims of their own sordid worldliness.
I permissively anticipate the counter-argument that most adherents to strict honesty would not have seen their friends slip off the hook so cleanly. Yet I would pose the question, in return: "How many Jews were in fact saved solely by a negative answer to the ruthless officer’s question?" It is absurdly naïve to believe that Corrie ten Boom, or anyone else, saved fugitives merely by an opportune lie, and not by having effective nooks and crannies on hand. Would the soldiers have searched any more thoroughly than they did if the householder had replied, "Of course I help Jews hide from you!" If one citizen had spoken up thus forthrightly (without actually divulging the place of hiding: Kant leaves open the option of silence), would not other citizens have made bold to do the same? Would not more Jews have been saved by a general resistance of the civil populace than by the rare subterfuge of a kindly soul here and there?3
I shall offer further defense of Kant’s position—and in the broader context of free societies and peaceful nations—after I allow the reader to peruse his essay. What I wish to emphasize as I finish these initial remarks is the practicality which may ultimately be seen to undergird honesty. Not that Kant’s case ever rests on pragmatism: but then, the right-in-principle is pragmatic if you once concede that human beings generally register an inner attraction to goodness. People are not happy, for the most part, being bad or living among wicked practices. I hearken to Socrates’s often and diversely expressed view that right action and pleasure are identical, since wrong-doing must eventually lead to misery. If you endorse the notion of a free society, then you may be presumed to believe that freedom does not invariably damage or destroy people—that in fact, on the balance, they profit from their freedom to opt for the right path. If, on the other hand, you believe that people will more often abuse freedom than grow through it toward goodness, then you would logically be compelled to espouse some kind of totalitarian system designed to relieve citizens of those decisions which corrode their quality of life. The latter point of view, however, has no foothold in Western tradition. It flies in the face, not just of classical wisdom, but of Christian orthodoxy and the literate awakening of the individual conscience. It also, by the way, runs head-on against the embarrassing question, "If humans in general do not know the good, then how comest thou to know it?"
In short, the Kantian defense of rigorous truthfulness, far from being naively liberal, as many have implied of it, strikes me as the only position conservative of mainstream Western values. On the other side of the great divide is Machiavelli. Thinkers and historians commonly associated with the more conservative side of the spectrum, such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield, seem to make allowances for his moral nihilism as the grizzled maturity of Realpolitik. I beg leave to say that is it nothing of the sort. On the contrary, Machiavelli’s insistence that the political leader must sometimes lie—and his exhortation to all "good" leaders to lie with cold, calculated ease—belong among the products of those perverted minds who consider reality a great blank slate, and wryly call "value" the writing of any hand strong enough to hold the slate aloof from other fingers. Such cynical relativism has always stood outside the mainstream of Western thought. In the twentieth century, it has characterized imperious ideologues who did not hesitate to award their champions a free pass for ghastly genocide Later in my argument, I shall propose that Machiavelli’s famous (or infamous) Roman Dream, far from being a trivial lapse into sentimentality, is nothing less than the vision of absolute autocracy which has stirred every blood-smeared tyrant of our time to play fast and loose with the truth.
First, the world according to Kant
"Concerning a Supposed Right to Lie from Humane Compassion"
by Immanuel Kant 4
In Benjamin Constant’s work, France in 1797 (Part 6, Chapter 1: "Political Counter-Movements", p. 123), one finds the following remark:
The French philosopher opposes this proposition (p.124) in the following manner: "It is a duty to tell the truth. The concept of duty is indivisible from the concept of right. A duty in regard to one person corresponds to another person’s right. Where there is no right, there is also no duty. To speak the truth is indeed a duty—but only to those who have a right to the truth. No person, however, has a right to the truth who is harming someone else."
The first error lies in this premise: "To speak the truth is a duty, but only to those who have a right to the truth."
In the first place, the expression, "have a right to the truth", is without meaning. One might as well say that people have a right to their own reality: that is, to a subjective truth which each carries about in himself. For to have a right objectively to a truth would be the same as saying that whether a certain assertion were true or false could be decided in this person’s will like a question of ownership. A very strange logic we would have then, indeed!
Now, the first question is whether a person in circumstances which will not allow him to evade a "yes" or "no" answer can have the authority (or right) to lie. The second question is whether he may not be bound to speak untruthfully in a certain statement extorted from him by wrongful force so that he may avert a misdeed threatened against himself or another.
Truthfulness in all declarations which cannot be qualified or postponed is a formal duty owed by every person to his fellows, be the damage thereby brought upon himself or another ever so great. Even if I did not do wrong by lying to someone who wrongfully forced me into speaking, I would nevertheless through this falsehood—which can fairly be called a lie, though not in a strictly legal sense—do an injustice to an essential component of duty. That is, I would act as far as was in my power to bring it about that what people say (declarative statements) is met with disbelief; and thus I would also be helping all rights grounded in contracted agreements to fall by the wayside and lose their strength—a wrong which would be inflicted upon all mankind.
Thus the lie, defined as a deliberately untruthful declaration before another person, does not require the additional qualification that it harms someone: only the legal profession insists upon this addition ("mendacity is false witness prejudicial to another"). For lying does indeed harm someone every time—though he or she may not be an identifiable individual—by harming humanity in general, since it renders the basis of good conduct unworkable.
Yet even the well-intentioned lie can become criminal according to the civil code through unfortunate mishap; and that which graduates to criminality purely through bad luck can certainly be judged as wrongdoing by another standard. For instance, if you prevent someone presently going about with murder in his heart from doing the deed by telling him a lie, you become responsible—and quite rightly so—for all consequences which may arise therefrom. If, however, you adhere strictly to the truth, public justice can find no fault with you, let the unforeseen consequences be what they will. It is possible, besides, that, once you had honestly answered "yes" to the murderer’s question about whether the object of his enmity had fled into your house, the fugitive might have slipped away: in other words, the victim would never have crossed the murderer’s path and the murder would never have happened! But you lied and said that he was not in the house, he had actually slipped away (though unknown to you), and the murderer thereupon encountered him after leaving your door and committed his crime: in this way, you could justly be called the author of the man’s death. For if you had told the truth insofar as you knew it, perhaps the murderer would have been apprehended by neighbors who ran over to assist you as he was ransacking the house for his enemy, and the murder would have been prevented. Anyone who lies, no matter how well-meaning his sentiments may have been thereby, must face the consequences and the cost of having done so, even sometimes in civil court, let those consequences be ever so unforeseeable. Truthfulness, on the other hand, is a moral duty which must be viewed as the basis of all obligations grounded in contracted agreement—obligations whose binding power, when one concedes but the slightest subtraction from it, turns weak and useless.
This is, therefore, a holy, unconditionally binding imperative of the rational mind which can be abridged by no exigency of circumstances: that in all clarifications of fact, one must be truthful (that is, honest).
Mr. Constant is both thoughtful and correct when he remarks the futility of propositions plagued by narrowness and transparent surrender to airy ideas.6 "Whenever a maxim proved to be true appears invalid in application," he writes (p. 123), "it must be the case that we have not acknowledged a mediating maxim which contains the means of application." He adduces the doctrine of common humanity (p. 121) as the first link in civil society’s chain. "In short, no person can be bound to another except by such laws as he has helped to construct. In a very tightly closed society, a rigid maxim may be applied in an unreflective manner and may need not mediating maxim for someone accustomed to local practices. But in a very extensive society, a new maxim must be added to the one being advanced. This second maxim is as follows: that individuals must accept the creation of laws either in person or through representatives. Whoever wishes to execute a basic proposal in an extensive society while ignoring this second step is infallibly sending it down the road to ruin. Such an outcome would of course bear witness far less against the proposal’s own merits than it would against the lawgiver’s ignorance or clumsiness" (122). He concludes on p. 125, "A maxim widely recognized as valid must never be abandoned to this fate, however great the danger it may encounter." And yet, the gentleman has himself abandoned the unqualified maxim of truthfulness to the danger which he would inflict upon society: for he has failed to unveil any mediating maxim which would serve to ward off this danger, and indeed none can be introduced.
Perhaps I should conform to the style of withholding people’s names (though most have already slipped out). Let me say, then, that "the French philosopher" is inverting the process whereby one person harms another, in that he labels "truth" (whose authority he can in nowise sidestep) as that by which an assailant is unjustly handled.7 It would be mere chance if the truthful declaration of our house-dweller gave pain, and not the result of a free choice (in a legal sense). From his "right" to demand of others that he be permitted to tell them advantageous lies, on the other hand, would follow a claim which contradicts all notions of lawfulness. Every person has not only a right, but the strictest obligation to be truthful in statements of fact. He cannot edge around this duty, even if it threatens pain to himself or others. In acting thus, he inflicts no pain upon the person who thereby suffers, though he may create an occasion for this to happen. For no one has a moral option to choose in such matters: truthfulness (when one absolutely must speak) is an unqualified duty.
The "German philosopher", therefore, refuses to adopt the maxim, "To tell the truth is a duty, but only to those who have a right to the truth" (p. 124). In the first place, the maxim’s formation is hopelessly confused: truth is not a property recognized by laws as belonging to one person while denied to another. More importantly, however, the duty of truthfulness (which alone is at issue here) makes no distinction among the persons concerning whom one owes this duty or might be released from performing it. The duty is unconditional. It applies in all circumstances.
Let us proceed from the metaphysics of right action (an area abstracted from specific cases) to a political maxim (where abstract concepts must be applied to real events) and, from here, to the resolution of a practical problem through a universal moral principle. The philosopher must do three things. 1) He must begin with an axiom—that is, a certain self-evident proposition which springs immediately from the definition of communal right (reflecting the integration of one person’s freedom with his neighbors’ in a universal law). 2) He must form a postulate (here, that external law governs the community, endorsed by the united will of everyone according to the principle of common humanity, without which no one would have any freedom). 3) He must consider the question of how it may be conjectured that in so large a mass of people unity may be achieved through the principles of freedom and common humanity (in this case, by a system of representatives). The solution will become a guiding political idea, or maxim, whose particular enactment and organization will contain decrees (based upon the wisdom of human experience) about how to enforce the law in an equitable manner. Such a pedigree stresses that the right must never adapt itself to the political: the political must adapt itself to the right.
"A maxim recognized as true," writes the author (and I would add, recognized a priori, self-evidently), "must never be abandoned, however great the danger it may encounter." I suggest only that here one must understand danger not circumstantially—i.e., as potential harm—but as the commission of widespread injustice. The latter is just what would happen if I transformed the duty of truthfulness, which is wholly unconditioned and indeed imposes the principal moral condition upon our utterances, into a conditional demand subordinated to other considerations. And although I might in fact do no injustice to any certain person in telling a certain lie, I would damage the principle of justice as it applies to all unavoidable, necessary declarations in general (that is, my injustice would be formal, if not material). This is truly worse than doing an unjust act to a certain individual, because such a deed reflects that the doer has not even located a moral principle in his internal deliberations.
When the question is submitted to someone, "Are you determined to speak the truth in the declaration which you have agreed to make now?" he should not only receive it with offense at the explicit suggestion that he might be a liar; he should also observe that anyone who would have us consider any other way of speaking as an option is already (potentially) a liar. For this questioner would demonstrate that he does not recognize truthfulness as a duty in itself, but rather foresees exceptions to a rule which, by its nature, allows of no exceptions—and herein he would outrightly contradict himself.
All maxims for moral conduct in living must contain strict truth. What have, in this case, been called "mediating maxims" may only invite closer scrutiny of specific circumstances (according to politically established rules): they cannot introduce exceptions to the original maxim. Such a procedure would nullify the universality in whose name alone a law of conduct may claim binding moral force.
I will not be so bold as to assert that I am fully convinced of Kant’s proposition (let alone so bold as to boast that I live by it). Surely, though, Kant reminds us most usefully that telling a falsehood is always wrong. There may be times when it is the least of those wrongs which constitute our only range of choices on this sad earth. To agree with Constant, however, that lying may actually be a moral duty sometimes is—as Kant says—to undermine the possibility of human society. It is to claim that individuals may not only live by an individually tailored notion of right, but that they may adjust that notion to particular circumstances. At a bare minimum, we must cling to the wrongness of falsehood, even—or, should I say, especially—when we feel compelled to be false. A transgressor who knows his sin may repent of it afterward, offering to his god all the mitigating evidence of an unsavory situation. A transgressor who has convinced himself that his sidestep was a sign of higher rectitude—of a straight line drawn through an invisible geometry known only to himself—is blazing a trail, not just to vice, but to lunacy.
Yet how many of our "white lies" are indeed the best of several bad options? How many of those clichéed "good lies" withstand scrutiny? The mother on her death bed may very well need to know of a child’s catastrophe in some sense which makes us uncomfortable. If a material disaster is part of reality’s fabric, and if a human being is poised to exit temporal reality for the eternal variety, he or she surely ought to cast a backward gaze over the terrain traversed in life as accurately as possible. Keen flames cauterize deep wounds. As for the "Santa Claus" species of lie, only a dull intelligence would insist upon transgression here. Children perceive reality in generalizing images far more than adults. A benign elf is a not-half-bad way of instilling into young hearts a sense of moral security—a conviction that goodness must ultimately triumph. (To be sure, our contemporary versions of Santa have been suborned to serve other ends—evidence of a profound lie in our culture having nothing to do with chimneys.) Likewise, no one but a disingenuous sophist or a fool would seriously approve of a leader’s lying to citizens about the imminent threat posed by a bomb or disease. The competent leader may well release his alarming information house-by-house or only after guards have been posted along avenues of egress: he will not sweep the menace under the nearest rug.
Which brings us to the broader context where I promised to address most of my comments: the "grim realist" is most convinced of deception’s necessity in the realm of public policy, and yet I find his case nowhere more shaky. The condition which Kant discusses largely by implication—that of a public trust deficient to lubricate society’s daily affairs—has been fulfilled in our time. Doctors refuse to do delicate surgeries lest they be sued over a less-than-perfect outcome, pharmaceutical companies to market life-saving drugs lest unfavorable side-effects in a small fraction of cases expose them to ruin. Attorneys have trained us well in the rhetoric of betrayed trust—but trial lawyers, of their very essence, excel at negating assumed or cursorily negotiated commitments and contracts which were once regarded as binding. I personally have known my share of agreements made in bad faith or improperly realized. I was most certainly lied to, with foresight and deliberation by the guilty parties, at every interview I ever attended which resulted in my being employed full-time as a professor. In one case, particularly, I collected a file of evidence with the intention of taking a grossly mendacious department chair to court. I never did—I never sought to bring any of these desperate characters before a judge. I did not, and do not, see how the cause of honesty is served in such actions. The perpetrators merely learn to lie a little better next time, or to anticipate their lies by issuing a disclaimer form in small print (as genuinely incompetent doctors do). The culture of lies is not diluted when we press a suit against someone who foils our expectations: it roots more deeply. It thrives upon the new expectation, always clinging to our rosier ones, that we will be lied to wherever possible, between the lines and within parentheses. Our excessive concern with nailing down every ramification of the agreement shows that we are confident only of deception’s ubiquity. As Kant says of the absurd bureaucratic swearing-in, the mere question, "Do you intend to tell the truth?" inescapably implies that falsehood is a common, even reasonable option in responding to searches after facts. No such search is performed nowadays until the respondent has been bound finger-and-toe to a kind of legal inquisitor’s rack.
And foreign policy? Is not deception at least required to keep our children safe from invasion or sabotage? On the contrary, I have the greatest difficulty conceiving of a situation in which falsehood in international relations does not exacerbate rather than neutralize crises. If we intend to spy upon the signators of a ballistics treaty, then we should tell them so—and we should be prepared to open our own air space to satellites. If we stipulate that examiners must be allowed within a hostile nation’s borders in order to confirm that it is not building weapons of mass destruction, then the examiners should not tolerate coyness in the interest of "conserving the peace"—for what else could such coyness indicate if not an abrogation of the treaty?
Perhaps a student of history will observe that we could not have ended World War Two, even after dropping two atomic bombs, if the Japanese had been informed of our having no more to drop. This is a compelling example… but I have never been very satisfied by how the debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is prosecuted. Did we honestly need Japan’s unconditional surrender? Did not the power vacuum created by that surrender open the door wide to forty years of communist authoritarianism which left tens of millions of slaughtered innocents where the ruthless Japanese had left only tens of thousands? Would it not have been possible to blockade the islands most effectively after we had destroyed the Japanese fleet? Such alternatives, it seems to me (in my little bit of knowledge, perhaps), were never thoroughly considered because, for the most part, the American public wanted a definitive conclusion in Asia as well as Europe, and because politicians judged their survival to be linked to that conclusion. Europe, of course, turned out to be a happy ending no more than Asia: Stalin’s massacres and gulags reduced Hitler’s to a poor second in sanguinary achievement.
Were we not lying to ourselves when we concluded this war—surely one of the most just ever fought—with such a flair for Manichaean distinctions? Has not the history of the twentieth century, in fact, been one horrendous chronicle of ideological lies—of pro-industrialists, on the one side, convincing themselves that abundant and rapid material alteration of the environment was human progress, and of social revolutionaries, on the other side, telling themselves that progress lay in annihilation of all opposing voices and inculcation of inflexible doctrine? Indeed, was not the century’s biggest lie perhaps that these two camps were ideological contraries rather than alternative versions of the Gospel of Self-Created Human Progress?
Of course, a moral lie is scarcely of the same category as a lie regarding observable fact. It is both better and worse. Contemporary political rhetoric has rendered charges of lying a rather tedious business. Every person who chooses to emphasize one shred of evidence over another is distorting the truth (according to those who see the de-emphasis of their own interests as ignoring evidence of equal worth). Simply mentioning Peter before Paul—or either one of them before Patricia—constitutes a "moral lie" in that it imposes a "false" value system (i.e., one that does not advance one’s personal agenda). When minorities do this sort of thing, it represents a fully admissible, even commendable turning of the tables to secure equity by brisk counter-stroke (in an exchange, apparently, where strokes and counter-strokes are foreseen to average out). When the majority asserts its priorities, on the other hand, we are witnessing imperialism.
All frivolity aside, we must recognize that two essential moral facts hover over all political intercourse like Furies poised to punish those who slight them. The first is that no group of people ever has all the right answers or is immune to morally flawed judgment. The second is that certain kinds of persistent moral miscalculation on the part of political leadership—even an alien state’s leadership—compel righteous action. Be not lordly in asserting thy virtue, and be not complacent in asserting thy humility.
At first glance, these maxims have something uncomfortably contradictory about them. Perhaps Kant would say that they compose an antinomy—a pair of laws, each possessing prima facie validity, of which one half subverts the other half. If we were not so inseparably wedded to ideology (by which I mean a belief system incapable of defending itself by appeal to universal principles), we might recognize that this is a good thing. As our petty human understanding nears the verge of ultimate truths which it is not designed to grasp completely, axioms look as though they cannot be reconciled. A constant effort of judgment is required to police the border—to keep any one axiom from being shanghaied and carried into our puny human habitations to serve as an idol. There is absolutely no practical reason why we should not remain ever on high alert that our moral determinations may be skewed—and that, likewise, our fellows may require assistance against some tyrant’s maniacally skewed Weltanschauung. These opposing duties, I repeat, activate moral facts. We must admit our mistakes, and we must prevent the victims of another’s persistent mistakes from being eradicated en masse.
As we review history, the perpetration of moral lies is seldom difficult to spot. Readers who are waiting for me to mention Afghanistan or Iraq will probably be disappointed (or relieved), because I doubt that enough time has passed for partisan dust to settle and material fact to be clearly visible. Certainly no moral person can be much upset over the demise of a regime which systematically beheaded women for (in effect) expressing an opinion, or over the ousting of a butcher who poisoned several hundred thousand of his own citizens, man, woman, and child. I will venture so far as to declare that it dismays me to hear such intervention condemned as "cultural snobbery" or "imperialism". Even if a state were freely, formally to opt for the extermination of a tenth or a third of its citizenry, the vote would be invalid. A state can no more choose suicide morally than can an individual.8 Morality is predicated on the presence of free will: annihilating that will is thus immoral in the most basic way. That an entire "culture" might somehow have imbibed from the milk of baby-hating mothers a taste for genocide is tantamount to supposing that suicide might be routine—let us say, universally mandatory—among a population of millions. People who can form such a view of alien cultures are indeed themselves guilty of considering other human beings as curious animals capable of embracing any absurdity or atrocity.
As for the specific strategies involved in liberating a portion of humanity from these evil people, I am not prepared to pass any summary judgment. Like most of us, I have no special knowledge of matters military or logistical; and like all of us, I cannot compare what has happened to what might have happened. I will content myself with saying that Islam does not strike me as a faith congenial to democracy. To impose a democratic form of government upon a culture which has always embraced theocracy (or, as I would much prefer to say, hierocracy—"rule by priests") seems high-handed. The attempt may well appear throughout the Muslim world to assault an entire system of beliefs requiring of its adherents that they surrender their personal will to the will of their spiritual advisors. Inasmuch as this abrogation of freedom is not necessarily terminal (like suicide) but rather renewable—and probably renewed every day in some manner—the non-Muslim world cannot very well intercede on the ground that millions are being morally suffocated. We allow, and must allow, our fellow beings to choose various kinds of shackles for their wrists and ankles: we step in only when they start lopping off their hands and feet. The freedom to err is an integral part of the freedom to seek after truth and goodness. For that matter, Western freedom has no very impressive track record to wave beside Islamic society’s general oppressiveness. Bawdy, gaudy, tasteless, and sometimes piratical, our no-holds-barred marketplace offers all too many infernal tableaux to the dispassionate onlooker.
Major political errors of moral judgment, in any case, do not require centuries to become clear before all eyes. If the promises of support made to the Kurds at the end of the Gulf War were not lies, they were something disturbingly close; and our bad faith on that occasion has motivated, in some measure, the difficulty which we have encountered in bringing gleeful partisans to our banner on this occasion. The proclamations of ignorance published far and wide by our State Department after the genocide in Rwanda, furthermore, have been revealed to be profoundly evasive.9 All who needed to know knew well enough what was happening in the capital city of Kigali. By comparison, the number of murders in Bosnia was trivial—not morally, but arithmetically. It was sufficiently small, at any rate, that the number of innocents maimed or killed by explosives (detonated on cue and also, too often, months later) and of civilian patients left to expire during power outages was probably of equal value. This was a morally dubious operation, particularly when we recall the domestic political morass which it was engineered to pave over.
Moral facts, slippery though they surely are, do not vanish or retreat to insignificance just because they lend themselves to manipulation. For truthfulness, I may now point out, always possesses a moral dimension. To lie about something as indifferent as the weather raises the question, Why lie?—and the answer will invariably expose the design of one party to profit unfairly from another party’s ignorance. All lies are immoral. What I have called the "moral lie"—or what I should have called, perhaps, a lie about morality—creates a diseased atmosphere favorable to other, more material lies. A person who finds no merit in restraining his every whimsy will end up lying about where he put the keys or whom he was addressing on the phone. A person who considers all acts of moral courage mere bursts of "imperialism" will lie about hearing a call for help or knowing that children were in a building as it burned. Moral lies fertilize the rotten soil of false observation.
We are now entering the domain of Niccolò Machiavelli (spelled in English, for some reason I have never fathomed, with only one "c"). I will stress in departing Kant’s crystalline rational world for this noxiously sweltering terrain that civil honesty remains a duty, not an expedient. Machiavelli must surely be correct sometimes: deception must surely have resulted in the annihilation of many a political adversary. In any event, Machiavelli recommends fraud only when it can be masked. We would never know if a true apostle of Cesare Borgia had actually lied or not, and so we would be unable to determine if the stratagem had paid off. Kant is therefore justified in ending his short treatise by emphasizing moral obligation. Truthfulness may or may not advance our cause on this earth: its ultimate purpose rests in eternity, where goodness rules triumphant. If one does not believe this, then one’s honesty is of no value. It is merely the best policy, enforced until such time as a better policy may come along. Indeed, to defend honesty with the utilitarian argument that it produces the most flattering material results is to be dishonest through "moral lie" (or "lie about morality"); for it is to imply that dishonesty would be permissible if it could be demonstrated to yield yet more flattering results. The Kantian not only lives by principle: he is prepared to die by principle. The Machiavellian, in contrast, lives by hook or by crook for as long as he can: and, when he dies in body, he dies in soul as well—or dies (as he would maintain) the only possible death after the only possible life.
For make no mistake: Machiavelli’s renunciation of the duty to speak truth is nothing less than a renunciation of the soul’s reality. Leo Strauss, whose classic study is disturbingly comfortable with the implications of this bland agnosticism, is acutely and eloquently aware of its gravity. Writing about both Machiavelli’s Prince and the Discourses on Livy, Strauss observes:
I shall return momentarily to Machiavelli’s handling of the metaphysical—for, as Strauss remarks later, the subversion of values here goes far beyond merely keeping quiet about eternity and the soul’s vital purpose; it extends deviously to a warping of metaphysical terms until they appear to undermine themselves in support of ruthless expedience. Lest I take too great a leap at once, however, let me first cite the passages of The Prince which generations have found abhorrent, audacious, brilliant, or (in the height of irony) honest.11 Machiavelli’s political manual is a rogue’s Bible from start to finish. Chapter Three advises the adventurer who wishes to usurp power in a foreign state that citizens will remain unruly unless "the blood line of their ancient prince be eliminated." This is an invitation to infanticide, as anyone of the period would have realized. Chapter Five warns would-be megalarchs that "whoever becomes patron of a city used to living free and does not destroy it should expect to be destroyed by it"—a death sentence whose proportions we pampered moderns can appreciate, perhaps, if we ponder the aftermath of unhoused hurricane victims in impoverished nations. Chapter Seven praises Duke Valentino (Cesare Borgia) for sufficiently winning the confidence and affection of the Orsini that he was able easily to assassinate them at the "right" moment; and its admiration further highlights the Duke’s neat trick of subduing an ungovernable populace first by appointing a harsh minister to punish recreants far and wide, then by bringing the minister himself to a sanguinary "justice" for overstepping his authority!
All of the brutally cold-blooded expedients recommended above, besides being murderously depraved, are duplicitous. Cesare Borgia’s assassinations and executions clearly betray trust; but the slaughter of entire ruling families and civilian populations for the sake of convenience deceives just as arrogantly, if less baldly. Grim as such carnage is in any circumstances, Machiavelli counsels it here, not because any kind of contract has been violated, but because its stupefying effect upon the common people will promote abject obedience. There is no semblance of a public decree, however high-handed, announcing, "If you resist, then these and those will be executed." The butchery is performed first—a sort of terrorist Blitzkrieg—and the body politic is left stunned and malleable in its red afterglow, precisely because no option to obey and pass unharmed was ever offered. One would have found considerably more equitable treatment at the hands of a Nazi.
The locus classicus for Machiavelli’s defense of mendacity, nevertheless, must surely be Chapter Fifteen. Many Renaissance scholars know the lines by heart: "For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good… for if one considers everything well, one will find that something appears to be virtue which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and that something appears to be vice which if pursued would result in one’s security and well-being." Much has been written, by the way, about the Machiavellian employment (or defacement) of the word virtù. In the previous quotation, it seems to carry the meaning which we commonly ascribe to it: goodness, a quality which has been carefully cultivated in the service of universal moral principles. Yet when we reflect upon how Machiavelli uses the word elsewhere, employments such as this must indubitably be tongue-in-cheek. Virtue, rather, is almost always what we find it to be in Chapter One, which treats of those who acquire principalities by fortune or by virtù. Now, denominating an inherited title as "rule by fortune" is already quite revealing, since many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries would still have maintained that certain families are divinely ordained to command the state. The only viable alternative to such ancestral privilege is, of course, violent accession to power: conquest or rebellion.
Chapter Eight perhaps throws the equation of virtue with aggressive initiative into some faint degree of doubt: it ponders those who have attainted power "through crimes". This chapter is ultimately no more than one of many exhibits, however, bearing witness to Machiavelli’s devotion to fraud. For it turns out that those who commit crimes differ from Cesare Borgia only in being too open: they lack virtue through having clumsily acquired a villainous reputation which ever after impedes their imperial ambitions. Concludes Machiavelli of Agathocles, "His savage cruelty and inhumanity, together with his infinite crimes, do not allow him to be celebrated among the most excellent men." That the transparent, repellent hypocrisy of this remark is mitigated by its blackguardly utility as a caution about dirty laundry merely argues for how much more deeply corrupted Machiavelli’s vision is than any pedestrian hooligan’s. Part of being a fox, after all, is knowing how to appear more closely related to a lion than a wolf. It is Chapter Eighteen which undertakes the famous animal metaphor, and which also compares the successful prince with a half-human centaur. The prince, while being bestially merciless at times, must understand how to cleanse himself of bestiality’s unwanted stench.
Surely there is no better perfume than a show of piety. By no accident, Machiavelli ends the "fox/lion" chapter by recommending that the ruler appear "all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, all religion. And nothing is more important to appear to have than this last." Yet we would once again do Machiavelli the "disservice" of thinking his villainy pedestrian if we believed his book to be seeded with religious references only to curry cheap favors. To be sure, his paronomasia in Chapter Eleven about ecclesiastical principalities seems to tip the hat and bend the knee: "I will omit speaking of them; for since they are exalted and maintained by God, it would be the office of a presumptuous and foolhardy man to discourse on them." Even here, though, we should not fail to detect a sardonic note. If Machiavelli really believed that ecclesiastical states were sustained by God, discoursing upon them would be the easiest thing in the world, since the ground and destiny of their authority would rest beyond question. He is obviously concerned, rather, about falling afoul of a formidable political machine—and he wishes the astute to note this concern. He does not seek favors: he seeks to alert his readers that favors must be sought.
That Machiavelli, all coyness aside, entertains this view of the Church—i.e., as a political megalith whose massive fixity in affairs cannot possibly be loosed under present conditions—shows clearly through several innuendos. The third chapter chides the French for having allowed the Church’s political power to eclipse their own: so much for divine will and destiny. Two other references link the tactics of rogues with God’s plan in a false naiveté which borders on effrontery. Chapter Five includes Moses, "who had so great a teacher," among a list of aggressive, dynamic leaders intent upon founding empires. For good measure, the Persian Cyrus is the only member of this list whose deeds were not transparent myth—a strong implication that Moses belongs with the tall-tale majority. Similarly, Chapter Eight concludes by extolling the cruelties of Agathocles, which were perpetrated all at once to secure his position rather than extended over his entire rule: such tyrants "can have some remedy for their state with God and men." Recall that Agathocles is cited as an example of a ruler whose crimes were too public and too lurid to receive the white-wash of "virtue". Yet the reign of such a one can make its peace with God—a pagan reign, at that. Under the circumstances, what can God stand for other than the principle of a minimally demanding decorum, its exigencies even less than those of virtù?
Strauss notices a passage of this sort in the Discourses on Livy, which he makes bold (very properly, in my opinion) to call blasphemous. In the passage, Machiavelli has dubiously characterized King David with Mary’s utterance about God, "He filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." What makes the characterization suspicious is less its aptitude at a certain level than Machiavelli’s overt denunciation of David for playing fast and loose with private property just before the citation. David is a tyrant such as Mary described when speaking of some other tyrant.
Strauss proceeds to explain that, by rendering the equivalency of God’s will and overweening abuse of power superficially reasonable, Machiavelli has eased open the door through which may now escape a great many conventional inhibitions. I fully concur. Indeed, I would urge that the insinuating passages about Moses and Agathocles are doing precisely the same thing.
By expressing my accord with the legendary Professor Strauss, I do not mean to imply that my level if familiarity with Machiavelli or with political science is remotely akin to his. Yet I will risk the opprobrium of arrant impudence by saying that Strauss—and countless other scholars—surprise me when they expend such labor upon unearthing Machiavelli’s irreverence. The greatest blasphemy in The Prince, after all, stands gleaming in the visionary daylight of the twenty-sixth chapter: the so-called Roman Dream. Here Machiavelli employs with earnest candor all those words resonant with idealism which have elsewhere in the book been the brunt of subtle irony or the victim of sinister inversion. I have italicized the most disarming examples.
I defy anyone to argue with conviction that Machiavelli is his former smug, wry self in this passage. With no little strain, one might contend that he plays the role of patriotic zealot to the hilt in order to the seduce the very prince whom he has coached in seduction: and, of course, such a case has been made. Even if Machiavelli were nowhere more calculating than in his zeal, however, we would still be compelled to account for the calculation: i.e., why the urgency of mobilizing Lorenzo de’ Medici? Would not the pretended zeal necessarily mask a genuine zeal?
For all his brilliance, Strauss does not account for this curious urgency in his own rumination over Chapter Twenty-Six. Somehow he fails to notice it as he reviews the possibilities, and so he fails to notice its blasphemy.
So the Roman Dream is just another Machiavellian subterfuge—a cosmetic exordium under whose wrapper are smuggled contraband explosives. But why the explosives? Worldliness has its own kind of naiveté. I suspect that Strauss finds Machiavelli’s resplendent vision inconsistent with his bituminous counsel because he—Strauss, that is (and other scholars, too)—cannot see the moral lie of it all, the lie about morality. Machiavelli must evidently believe in a perfected end insulated from his squalid means because only a utopian ever could believe such ends insulated from such means. If the Dream were not in earnest, Machiavelli would have known better than to litter the road leading up to its gilded pinnacle with foully murdered bodies. Because the Dream is in earnest, he cannot understand how its foundation upon a mountain of bodies might be indefensible. No one but a secular idealist can so rape one moral ideal after another.14
I wrote in the previous section that political morality demands both that one act energetically when transparent villainy is afoot and that one never admit personal or cultural inclination to the authority behind such moral imperatives. The person who believes only in things of this world—the person like Machiavelli, or Benjamin Constant, or Karl Marx—always puts the wrong emphasis in the wrong place. We should tend to let our moral energy carry us forward in specific circumstances rather than stand back and yield the day to injustice. We should step forward and declare before the slanderer what we have seen with our own eyes; we should step forward and stop the hand of the bully as it descends upon his victim. These are the acts of worthy intercession from which Machiavelli abstains. He tells us that others abstain, too, and that by being one of the few to come forward, we merely court our own destruction—for the world is a very wicked place! Yet where is its wickedness when Machiavelli contemplates a future created out of his counsels? Italians are now harmoniously united behind their secular redeemer, their native human envy miraculously put aside in a surge of patriotic fervor. If only the redeemer might borrow from his tutor the energy (a Nietzschean, nihilistic sort of energy, as it turns out) to violate silly bourgeois taboo! Yet it is precisely in the broader context—in our outlook upon the future rather than upon bustling corridors and sidewalks—that we should chasten our moral energy with self-doubt. If individual human beings can be redeemed, can entire human societies be spiritually transformed? When has a single society in human history ever been so elevated? We can stay a tyrant from slaughtering his people… but can we so tutor his people that none will ever again play the tyrant? The very aspiration is itself a kind of incipient tyranny, for souls can only be saved one by one—and none for this world, which at its very best offers a postponed death in a softer bed with sycophants singing one’s praises.
The grandson of a triumphant Prince Lorenzo would have sired a generation of Cesare Borgias. An Italy whose rule extended as far as Machiavelli’s (or Mussolini’s) fondest dreams would have produced a generation of megalomaniac assassins. There is no end to the downward spiral of betrayal and brutality created by Machiavelli’s secret weapons—nor any beginning, because Machiavelli, after all, did not invent betrayal and brutality. He was indeed, however, among the first who sought to make wholesale moral surrender respectable in the name of a "better world", a here-and-now shaped forcibly from the theorist-creator’s imagination. He was, heaven help us, among the first modern men.
I find it extremely revealing that Leo Strauss, the grandfather of what is now called neo-conservatism, should so have misjudged Machiavelli’s secular idealism—should have failed to recognize in him a prototype of the twentieth century’s ruthless social engineers. Strauss appears to be as enamored of the notion that all human beings always strive after their selfish interests as Machiavelli clearly is of the notion that moral short-cuts may be taken with considerable profit. If the latter’s murky landscape is dominated by a vision of res Italianae finally arranged, then perhaps the former’s equally dusky vista is presided over by an equally naïve summit. For some motive or other, I believe, is required to make people surrender all morally sound motives; we human beings are not so constructed as to accept unfettered selfishness without a bit of a fight (even if our perverse construction also drags us back toward selfishness at our best moments). Invariably, the grizzled veteran of life’s brutal campaigns, having lowered his expectations dramatically to embrace Realpolitik, will end up transferring all of his grand illusions to the terminus of the loathsome no-holds-barred struggle. So for Strauss. He chooses to massage Machiavelli’s intent (as he concludes what proves to be a very lengthy meditation) in the direction of the modern democratic republic à la Strauss.
Mansfield is quite right to observe that Machiavelli is no Hobbesian seeking after broad concepts.16 The Prince is written more for a nihilist Superman than for a plodding bourgeois huckster. Strauss has succeeded here in reducing an incipient Nietzsche to a mollified Hobbes—in fashioning from the Fox a Chicken With Teeth. The abstract nouns of desiderata at this passage’s beginning are already more his than Machiavelli’s, inasmuch as they appear to be used without any hint of irony. The fuming whited sepulcher which is honor and glory in The Prince now comes forward in an open poverty of attire. Esteem coaxed or beguiled from one’s fellows is as basic a need as food or shelter. Thus are we strange birds feathered. The republic is our happy hunting ground because it allows us all to be as foxy as we like—a veritable race of Cesare Borgias—in our hypocritical quest to be thought philanthropic or public-spirited or courageous. It may indeed be that civil society would collapse if a subversive group of truly self-sacrificing individuals emerged from some radical cult. How would we all survive in Strauss’s ameliorist garden if every one of us did not lust to advertise his donations, his contributions, his innovations, his risks, his wounds, his Calvary? In a land of stentorian narcissists, he who does not trumpet his personal merits menaces an economy built upon bullhorns.
"Merit", of course, has no objective meaning in such a context. Yet it is worth noting that Machiavelli’s scoundrels conceal their lack of merit that they may be found meritorious, whereas Strauss’s are meritorious in the only sense of the word he recognizes through their active success at feigning merit. They believe their own lies—perhaps more than anyone around them.. "It is impossible to preserve the perfect combination of being loved and being feared," Strauss continues of his ideal "real world" republic, "but deviations from the ‘middle course’ are unimportant if the governors are men of great virtue, i.e. of greatness and nobility of mind, and therefore revered as good at protecting the good and the friends, and at harming the bad and the enemies." I have suppressed no quotations or italics in this citation. Strauss has fully convinced himself that leaders who wield great power may be trusted if they are men of character, by which we are to understand that they will elevate their adherents and crush their adversaries. What a pretty trust for the ultimate misanthrope! Without dropping names, I may surely conjure before the reader precisely the sort of statesman sketched out in this last great hope, for we have seen him haunting our television screens and corridors of power several times over the half-century since Thoughts on Machiavelli was first published—and have seen him once lately in very fine detail. He craves the highest offices to satisfy an insatiable egotism. He lends himself to any public spectacle which will be widely broadcast, assuming any role or position therein which his pollsters foresee as favorably influencing the masses. (The word "dignity", we might note in passing, is absent from the vocabulary both of Machiavelli and of Strauss.) Once in power, he punishes those whom the public wishes him to punish while reprieving every Barabbas whom the public whimsically cheers. When an indispensable need for coherence demands that he risk unpopularity through some shockingly decisive act, he stifles any appearance of callousness however he can—delegating the dirty work to another, assassinating under cover of darkness, confessing with mock-remorse a complete ignorance of operations behind his back, and all the rest. Even when his lies and equivocations have grown so legion that they come spilling through the seams of the public-relations envelope, he has arrived at such a warm spot in the body politic’s heart—voters are so confident that his supple spine will bend to serve their own guilty passions in a crunch—that his knavery is forgiven as a blond playboy’s winsome prank.
This is not a portrait of Cesare Borgia, nor even of the Lorenzo de’ Medici envisioned by Machiavelli; but it does suit one of our recent presidents to the least wrinkle. Would Professor Strauss, I wonder, be happy with the incarnation of his American Dream?
I have taken pains to hold this essay aloof from partisan politics, and I shall make another effort in that direction now. The neo-conservative phalanx, some of whose mouthpieces boast of having themselves mastered the art of "triangulation" (a genuinely Machiavellian exercise), appear to desire the exportation of the strategy as a solution to Iraq’s post-Saddam upheaval.17 Were we to give Iraqis and other oppressed Muslim societies a taste of freedom, they contend, the globe would need far fewer terrorist-police. History, as I have already said, will pass the ultimate verdict on this enterprise. When I reflect, however, that its architects are in many cases the disciples of Leo Strauss, I am beset with doubt. If our objective is simply to allow a cruelly oppressed multitude a chance to shape its liberation from daily harrowing, then we deserve credit for a deed well done—i.e., a gesture of humanity whose selfish costs have plainly rivaled its selfish gains. Yet if the objective is to create in Iraq a Straussian republic where self-seeking is untethered and unbridled, then we are doing nothing less than subverting spirituality, as our worse detractors say of us. For make no mistake: Strauss’s political model is every bit as much a secular utopia as Machiavelli’s—to that extent, the scholar has faithfully interpreted the tutor. Self-interest betrays the higher interest in whose pursuit the religious mentality believes us created, and a state which promotes self-interest is an institutionalized blasphemy.
Ireland is a republic, but its state schools are operated substantially by the Catholic Church. Iraq may certainly become a republic which also condemns and prohibits the showing of Hollywood films or the importing of hip-hop music. Indeed, the exclusion of such culturally conservative forces from our own pandering, profit-driven capitalist culture frustrates millions of American voters, and may have more significantly determined our recent presidential election than the war in Iraq. Capitalism and religious faith are not irreconcilable, but a mediocre intellect can readily understand that, where both function actively, heated friction will result. Would a Straussian view as failure or setback an Iraq where, by decree of a religious elite, citizens may not exploit certain native human weaknesses? That is, are our policy-makers wedded to the notion that unencumbered economic activity is required to keep ambitious corsairs pleasing the crowd rather than building squadrons of stormtroopers? Do we, or do we not, believe that honoring metaphysical ends as the basis of reality is the only reliable source of social stability? A man cannot serve two masters. If we do not invest in denouncing self-interest, and in allowing other societies to so invest, then we serve self-interest; and if we serve self-interest, we do not believe that the self’s ultimate identity lies in repudiating its worldly trappings, amusements, and obsessions.
Has not history illuminated this moral lie on our own shores? Is not the very heart of our cultural self-contradiction that the "Religious Right" persistently sides with the theoretical forces which condone a titillating, licentious marketplace, while the politically correct "Liberal Elite" no less inscrutably fraternizes with a depraved entertainment industry?18 Our campaign cycles froth and seethe with venom precisely because the two polarities are promoting rival utopias, and hence are in fact competing for dominance of the same pole. Since utopia is itself a moral lie, prima facie—since no human society is ever significantly happier or healthier than another of comparable logistics—we are trying, blasphemously, to build heaven of materials which we can see, touch, and lift. Strauss’s vision is not radically different from Karl Marx’s in this regard. How can unfettered ambition advance the human cause any farther than ambition suppressed at gunpoint? We all know that the people, the demos, would have voted billions of dollars for tsunami flood victims if a popular referendum had been offered the next day; and the politician who had proposed and pushed the measure would have enjoyed immense popularity as a result of his "charity", having been generous in that sense which The Prince’s Chapter Sixteen heartily endorses (i.e., with other people’s money). Yet we also know—or ought to know—that money on such occasions is filtered through several hundred very sticky, very dirty fingers. Whose nephew will be commissioned to deliver the canned food? Which dictator will receive the check to mobilize relief efforts?19
The pandering of the ambitious to the masses inevitably creates a nightmare for the masses’ children: the invoice for such generosity is invariably sent to the next generation. It is purely utopian—or, as I have called it derisively elsewhere, an "idealism" of the secular world, where the underpinnings of true ideals cannot exist—to suppose that rapacious, egocentric motives can advance human society to a more stable condition. Wheels must turn slowly, constituents must badger, committees must wrangle, muckrakers must attack and counter-attack—not so that self-interest may rise up to the top, but precisely so that the grease of self-interest (which drips like cold molasses) may have time to evacuate the machine of state. Human affairs on a grand scale never work spectacularly well when they work their best. This is because things work best when seen in truth, because lies abound, and because sufficient time is required for the lies to wilt. The fast clocks of this world are not reliable in such cases, and this world’s fast-talkers are especially to be shunned.
That Machiavelli deserves to assume a permanent place among the Modern Rogue’s Gallery of ideological false counselors is hardly a daring proposition. Eric Voegelin’s exquisite phrase for Marxism—"intellectual swindle"—seems to me tailor-made for The Prince, though the juxtaposition of Marx and Machiavelli will shock the gallery’s superficial browsers. To enroll Leo Strauss in the same corridors of infamy may be far bolder. Neo-conservatism prides itself on facing the grim facts of human nature and building upon the same decades of lowered expectations which unmasked the Soviet "experiment" as a gory nightmare.
I conducted an unusual experiment to test the soundness of this classification: I decided to see what a feminist has to say about Machiavelli. Hanna Pipkin’s Fortune Is a Woman was the obvious choice, a work generally admired in the scholarly community and published in the heyday of rejected canons and awakened consciences. Feminism, I have long observed, is the quintessence of secular idealism. Its most vocal proponents begin by playing the universally circulated "cultural relativism" card (every campus deck has several, enough to ensure that each disciplinary hand will be empowered by the dark trump). All cultures, the dogma goes, are founded upon arbitrary myths introduced and reinforced by those in control. Culture is propaganda. The very notion of objective moral truth is at best laughably gullible—and at worst a gambit on the part of the beleaguered classes of privilege to trick us into accepting their ascendancy a little longer.
Yet within a secular cynicism every bit as corrosive as Machiavelli’s (or Strauss’s), the academic feminist is apt to launch without warning—like The Prince’s final chapter—into a stunning vision of a better life. Forsaking the obvious logical conclusion that we are all forever condemned in this life to exhausting power struggles uninformed by any genuine scruple, these luminaries unveil words like "fairness" and "rights" and "freedom". Their mid-air recovery of moral metaphysics is often quite as breath-taking as Machiavelli’s parting salute to "nobility" or Strauss’s to "honor". Never did such naïve idealism sprout so suddenly from such malodorous compost!
If Pipkin’s case against The Prince pursued similar lines, I reasoned, then the paradox of extremes warped around into strange union would be complete. We should have before us the trompe l’oeil arabesque of two bitterly adversarial political camps which both reject selfless moral duty as anachronistic folly, both consider human beings as scarcely more than well-clad apes, and both expect to knead of this soiled dough a terrestrial City of God.
Pipkin surprised me, however. Her relative comfort with Machiavelli’s assessment surprised me, and so did her recurrent sympathy with Strauss. Surely, I had thought, a work entitled Fortune Is a Woman must bristle at the phrase’s original author. The Prince advances this metaphor in Chapter Twenty-Five. The feminized abstraction in itself could offend only the most neurotic "victims" of sexism—but the rest of the chapter extends it in terms whose loathsome, undisguised criminality will not see its likeness again in Western literature until the Marquis de Sade. "Fortune is a woman," concludes Machiavelli, "and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down." Call it a trope, if you will. The offense—and it is a moral offense beyond equivocation, inspiring one to sneer at all those denunciations of the "barbarians" ruling Italy—lies precisely in the image. Homer speaks of shepherds defending their flock from a lion: Machiavelli speaks of holding a woman down and raping her. As well as an Iago who incites murder, he is a perfect swine.
As far as I can discern, Pipkin is unmoved by Machiavelli’s citing rape as an appropriate model for handling doubtful situations. She is, indeed, so faithful to the cultural relativism which she shares with her generation of scholars—so irreproachably logical—that she almost avoids the "trap" of abandoning the secular miasma and pointing to morality’s deus ex machina. She almost remains a thorough relativist from beginning to end. As such, she approves both of Machiavelli’s "exploit decorum" tactics and of Strauss’s "God is dead" insights into Machiavelli. The two of them, she concedes, have it about right.
Yet Pipkin is also awash in the post-structural hedging and shifting of her time. (One may argue, indeed, that only a post-structuralist can "feel" the utopian’s self-reversals—and may observe that the post-structuralist scholar writes only about the utopian text—because, whenever values are deprived of a metaphysical support, they are bound to pull out the cornice while filling in around the foundation.) In deconstructive thought, ultimate truth is an illusion. Truth claims take turns pushing off against each other in a dance of the pendulum which has no real focus. Meaning, rather, is the myth created by stating that the other is not meaning—although otherness must remain enticing, since its alternative will not withstand scrutiny. (Note the similarity with the political "triangulations" of the nineties.) Machiavelli’s Fox and Lion are such opposites, either of them both supplementing and contradicting the other. This serpentine struggle to advance in a world which, after all, has no objective sense finds Pipkin looking on sympathetically, but also shaking her head over its inescapable futility.
One can glimpse in this fencing match which Pipkin arranges between Machiavelli’s terms that self-betraying Sehnsucht—that presumption of a better answer not yet found—which deconstructionists cultivate so lovingly in their writing, since it convicts them, too, of contradiction, and thereby bolsters their thesis that all is contradiction. A vision of manhood as Citizenship? Would this not be a vision of moral duty, that naïve folly of the pre-modern, metaphysically benighted mind? Apparently not—or not to Pipkin. I remain unsure of just what alternative she proposes to the Lion and his Alternative… but it has something to do with femininity. Fortune is a woman. Fortune is what Machiavelli chose to denominate whatever his prize pupil, the new Cesare Borgia, would not quite be able to predict or control on his best days of being bad. It is a she. Pipkin seems to agree that rape is the wrong way to "enter" her—but she otherwise fulfills none of the outrage I had anticipated. The "rape" extension of the metaphor might almost be absent from Chapter Twenty-Five. It is interesting merely as male frustration.
But what, then, is the meaning through which female otherness would not just supplement, but terminally complete the Lion and the Fox? Pipkin is dreaming of idealism, like Machiavelli and Strauss, even though the terms of her meditation have relegated all ideals irrevocably to pipedreams. Pitying Machiavelli’s entrapment in his manhood, she concludes, "Machiavelli at his best summons us to heroism rightly understood: to public action for higher goals that nevertheless serve our natural and private needs, action that recognizes both our vulnerability and our capacity as creators and judges."21 In her last paragraph, she has, after all, embarked upon the good ship Hope to n’importe où hors du monde—to a pristine utopia. Heroism rightly understood? What can that mean, if not the old-fashioned, now annihilated variety of heroism which congenial readers will allow her to pull like a rabbit out of a hat? Higher goals that nevertheless serve our natural and private needs? "Nevertheless" proves the least bit inadequate to lubricate the insertion of "higher" when we have been left with nothing but Straussian self-interest—but egocentric ambition (such as academic feminism has long used to leverage women away from the family). Our capacity as creators and judges? Would that be, perhaps, our capacity to play God now that He is dead? To create our own truth on the spot, as Kant says Benjamin Constant’s elite who enjoy the "right to truth" must absurdly do?
My test, then, confirmed my suspicions more profoundly than I would have thought possible. Where I had expected to find the irony of a feminism more resonant with universal principle than neo-conservatism, I found the dull, irony-free convergence of the beguiled upon an impossible sanctuary for truth built of programmatic lying. Where I had expected to see bitterly competing political cabals taking no prisoners, I found the genuine moral outrage directed at women—the abuse of their physical weakness and the undermining of those promises upon which they, especially, must depend—brushed aside to assert the new sisterhood’s "right to lie as a man lies". What secular idealism—what a hell of a heaven!
I cannot do better now than to stress once again, as Kant does in all his moral treatises, that the ultimate ends of goodness must be metaphysical—that, in plain terms, good deeds are never good because we profit materially from them. Yet if human nature is magnetized to a truly higher goodness—to an ultimate end which no paycheck or judicial verdict or medal ceremony could ever come close to fulfilling—then we necessarily carry that magnetism into our daily adventures, and we must necessarily feel bereft at some level when those adventures pull us away from the attraction. In that sense, then—in a Socratic sense—good is indeed profitable, and the life in opposition to its currents is one of "insanity".
It would be a mistake, I think, to underestimate the real validity of this view. If we live long enough, we invariably meet people who have given their existence to one sort of lie or another—to hollow glories, to shallow trappings, to carnal thrills—and we notice them to be deeply disturbed As we have seen in this essay, even the most eloquent exponents of cultural relativism (or of biological determinism, in Strauss’s case—but relating value to genes and nerves still leaves it unrelated to principle) cannot bring themselves to stare a mendacious, egotistical society square in the face. There always has to be some redemptive transformation which the persistent, well-placed lies of the ideologue (or the self-chastened lies of Strauss’s Hobbesian herd) will concoct. An indefinite future of unrelieved fraud, envy, and betrayal is too much for anyone to ponder day after day with undamaged sanity.
Yet post-structuralists and various other post-moderns are correct, for their part, that believing in truth—in its necessary connection to reality and in our obligation to tell it—is something of a game. There may be no truth at all: there may be no "real reality", only what we construct of the "truths" upon which we sell ourselves. This is the case in all matters of the spirit. Belief that truth exists, and that speaking it is obligatory, requires faith. Such faith is self-serving, the cynic will observe. Rather than describing a noble act of self-surpassment, it coddles the believer by allowing him to proceed with his silly game and have no second thoughts, no suspicions. Yes… but we might as well say that it is self-serving to opt for sanity rather than to drive ourselves insane.
In any case, there is no great risk that the broader community (let alone an entire society) will join us in telling the truth tenaciously, so we will have the "satisfaction" of finding the game anything but a cakewalk. We may expect to be exploited to the hilt by all of Machiavelli’s heirs, by all of Strauss’s "virtuous" egotists, by all the power-hungry who cloak their ambition in the pieties of racial or sexual equality. Occasionally, one of those who has destroyed our own career or stolen our own nest egg or seduced our own children will come crawling to us with a vision of the grave deep in his eyes, and seek absolution. Then we may have the satisfaction (if we truly worship the truth) of saying those calm words, those true words, which will turn this king of the world—this prince of darkness—to a despiser of all the gods he lied for.
It is a small satisfaction—or not so small, depending on how you look at it.
1 I hope it will not seem uncharitable of me to observe that Benjamin Constant, whose ridicule of Kant’s strict adherence to truth-telling was the springboard for the latter’s short essay, made his artistic reputation with Adophe. This novel is devoted to a young man’s concealment from his mistress of the bitter truth that he does not love her. Since the affair, besides, is adulterous, one may surely ask if Constant was sentimentally qualified to be a persuasive apologist for "love’s necessary lies": his list of such, I mean, seems exorbitantly generous.
2 See especially the seventh chapter of Tobin Siebers, Morals and Stories (New York: Columbia UP, 1992).
3 In Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Viking, 1964), Hannah Arendt remarks that the story of the Danes’ overt resistance to the SS’s overtures should be “required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action…” (171). The German effort to deport Jews from Denmark to death camps was an utter flop.
4 I have translated the text of Immanuel Kant, Über ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen, as printed in Kants Werke, vol. 8 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 423-430. The essay was originally published in 1797.
5 Kant adds a footnote to this page in which he explains that he himself is said to be the "German philosopher" rebuked by Constant , although he cannot recall the occasion when he might have written the cited remark.
6 In this paragraph, Kant appears to wander off the subject—but he is in fact building to a point clarified in his third-to-last paragraph. Constant, he writes here, sensibly insists that people must consent to the laws which govern them. In doing so, they are usually forced to adopt a republican form of government, since modern states are too massively populated for everyone to stand up and be heard. The reader may well question what all this has to do with telling the truth. Kant’s answer is not just that representative government cannot function in an atmosphere of mistrust and dishonesty (though this objection, too, is implied in his closing remarks). The third-to-last paragraph will emphasize how government itself descends from abstract moral imperatives—or must do so if it is to have any authority. On other words, the basic principles from which human society grows cannot be shredded somewhere down the line because they seem inconvenient in specific cases.
7 Throughout this paragraph, Kant contrasts schaden with leiden, offering in the present sentence a parenthetic distinction between the Latin nocere and laedere. I have consistently translated the former verb as "give pain" and the latter as "suffer", since the contrast seems to be between immediate physical harm and more lasting, more internalized harm. Cf. the legal distinction between "pain" and "suffering".
8 A more apt metaphor might involve the individual who chooses to amputate one of his members, since the state is not opting for complete self-annihilation. A refinement of the comparison’s terms, however, does nothing to qualify the decision’s immorality. The fanatic who castrates himself to avoid lechery or who cuts out his tongue to preempt lapses into gossip and slander has removed the physical possibility of accomplishing a perversely willed act, not purified that will at its roots. On the contrary, by insulating himself within impossibility, he has both despaired of ever reforming his will to manageable levels and precluded himself from varieties of productive living which a whole-bodied person might explore to great moral profit. So for an entire society which exterminates a percentage of its more eccentric members: it thereby not only proclaims its inability to function as a society, but it also denies itself innumerable opportunities to improve for the benefit of all. A culture in which women who wore pants or went to market unveiled were summarily executed would be one in which common decency extended no farther than the will of the hierarchs. Such cultures, lacking an internalized sense of decorum, slide with astonishing speed into debauchery once official strictures are relaxed.
9 PBS Frontline aired a documentary in 1999, The Triumph of Evil: How the West Ignored Warnings of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide and Turned Its Back on the Victims, whose conclusions in this regard were irresistible and damning. Excerpts and related material are posted at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/evil/.
10 Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1978), 31; first published in 1958.
11 My citations throughout the rest of this essay are drawn from Harvey C. Mansfield’s translation of The Prince (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1985). I have not included page numbers from this text, however. Translations of the work are so numerous, and Machiavelli’s chapters are so brief, that I judged it more useful to mention the appropriate chapter by number.
12 Op. cit., 49.
13 Ibid., 79-80.
14 I do not intend the two words "secular idealist" in an entirely serious philosophical sense. As I explain later in the essay’s body, I find in the utopian a naïf who strives after objectives not possible in this world by clinging to "principles" which he has concocted without the benefit of metaphysical ends. All idealism is indeed nonsensical in a completely secular context.
15 Op. cit., 281.
16 See p. xi of Mansfield’s introduction to his translation of The Prince (op. cit.), vii-xxiv: "Machiavelli did not attempt (as did Hobbes) to formulate a new definition of justice based on self-preservation."
17 For instance, David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), speaks admiringly of President Clinton’s ability to reconcile interests by striking compromises, and suggests that this is indeed a distinguishing characteristic of the "bohemian bourgeoisie", or the "bobos". Compromise, of course, can reflect humility and self-sacrifice; but it also can—and, in these cases frequently does—signal a lubricious relationship to principles and a facility for having one’s cake and eating it, too, regardless of the broader consequences.
18 I have never observed a functional collaboration of filmmakers and academics. This odd union is more likely a marriage of convenience, with entertainers eager to contribute (in return for an approved "artist" status) at political rallies and to type-cast homosexuals as sympathetic, bourgeois white-collar males as despicable, etc. The leftist furor against the Sport-Utility Vehicle strikes me as similarly rhetorical when I consider how many of my academic friends hop jets to conferences in Barcelona—a means of conveyance whose consumption of energy leaves the SUV looking as virtuous as a donkey cart. The Right Wing collaboration with mega-business is less frivolous. Whatever true consonance of motives exists between Christian morality and capitalism must surely be confined to the small businessman trying to serve his neighbors honestly and efficiently in return for a very modest income. Such a spiritual connection is entirely effaced in cynical marketing tactics and faceless automated service departments whose product has often been assembled half a world away. The level at which this inconsistency is perceived in suburban America seldom surpasses a kind of nagging discomfort endured from day to day like aging and rising taxes.
19 I do not suggest that our national response to the Indonesian tsunami was excessively prompt or generous; I evoke the catastrophe, rather, as an example of what sorts of situation might be exploited readily by an unprincipled aspirant to high office. I should say of our specific response to this crisis that we showed laudable promptitude in responding in situ with helping hands: aircraft searching for survivors, ships landing medical teams and troops to clear rubbish, etc. As I wrote earlier, such an immediate and physically active response to a crisis is just what moral law demands. Our broader response, chided in quarters for being too stinting and too tardy, was also perhaps entirely appropriate. Observers at my remove cannot begin to address such a matter authoritatively. I will only note that forces in the Indonesian government are openly hostile to our anti-terrorist effort, as their chilling reserve in the midst of rescue endeavors has indeed demonstrated, and that a lavish donation running through the hands of such vocal antagonists might conceivably finance—some few or many dollars of it—the next terrorist assault on innocent civilians.
20 Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U California P, 1984), 102.
21 Ibid., 326-327.
Three Essays for Students:
On Topics Various and Sundry and Illustrative of Problems Faced by Beginning Writers
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Thomas F. Bertonneau is a founding member of The Center for Literate Values’ board and has contributed to Praesidium numerous essays on subjects related to our vanishing literacy. He presently teaches English at the State University of New York, Oswego.
I. Introduction. In my role as a teacher of reading and writing to undergraduates, I have sometimes found it useful to write essays for my students, to illustrate some point made, perhaps a bit abstrusely, by a writer whom I have assigned them to read, or to suggest how they might respond to instructions they have received about writing a formal theme of their own. A pronounced difficulty of novice writers is their egocentricity. I have written about this in Praesidium before: how, because their linguistic context is predominantly oral rather than literate, freshmen conceive of writing as a mere transcription of what one would say about something; and how—quite as Walter J. Ong predicates in his analysis of literacy in Orality and Literacy (1982)—they tend to confuse the subject and objective. Or rather, they lack an orientation to what adults recognize as the objective world, the realm of existence which remains adamantly uninfluenced by private opinions and wishes and is what it is, whether anyone prefers it that way or not. Student writing comes burdened, until it is weaned from the tendency, with many iterations of the first person, both singular and plural, as though the only thing that actually existed, or held any interest for awareness, was the writer himself. Hence the first of the three essays, where I have tried to illustrate the principle that it is entirely possible to draw on personal experience without using the pronouns of the ego.
II. The Abyss that No One Can Leap: An essay on education autobiographical yet objective. Walter J. Ong points out in Orality and Literacy (1982) that people without letters and bookishness think differently from those who have acquired them and that the gap between the lettered and unlettered is vast and daunting; it is the case moreover that by a peculiarity of their condition illiterates cannot imagine what it is like to be literate, whereas literates, for their part, can by an effort remember what it was like to be sans their ABCs. (Not that it is easy.) Given the unimaginable character of literacy from the viewpoint of illiteracy, the question arises, how do the unlettered—including all alphabetic people when they were children before the age of four or five and so did not yet possess their abecedary—become lettered? How does one leap an unleapable abyss?
Ong notes the contrasting traits and tendencies that distinguish literates from illiterates. Literates think analytically, in terms of discrete and stable categories, under such notions as cause-and-effect and part-and-whole, abstractly and at a distance from the ego; illiterates, by contrast, rarely use categories (being confined to concrete items in the immediate scene) and then only rudimentarily, show great discomfort with analysis, and seem to work with but the vaguest notion of cause and effect. Most dramatically, illiterates (Ong in fact uses the charitable description of people living in primary oral cultures) separate little or nothing from the ego; everything, in an oral society, is personal, and many things are not just personal but conflictual. "Orality" (the term that Ong puts in tension with "literacy" in his title) does not make logical arguments or marshal evidence—it merely asserts. Called on to explain or justify their judgments and preferences, the unlettered Uzbek collective farmers studied by Alexander Luria in the USSR in the late-1920s could not do so. Indeed, when confronted with judgments made by literates, they found them incomprehensible and contemptuously rejected them.
The pupils in Miss Barbara Rollins’ composition course in the Santa Monica High School Summer Session of 1969 were certainly literate in the sense that they had known their letters since Kindergarten and had graduated through the usual English curriculum in their grammar-school and junior-high-school years; they had read a little bit—a smattering of poems and stories, a Shakespeare play or two, and a sequence of dreary textbooks written in insipid "educationese" for classroom purposes. They had not, however, "internalized" literacy, to borrow a phrase from Ong. Reading and writing were techniques which they could pragmatically exercise, but their awareness had not yet been "restructured", as Ong says, by literacy. Their mental habits by and large remained those of speakers, not of writers, of a language; they were watchers of television rather than readers of books. As Miss Rollins could not in that moment have read a treatise that would only appear a dozen years later, she could not have understood these matters precisely as Ong would formulate them; but understand them in her own clear way she did. The assignment on the first day of class asked her pupils to respond in writing to a statement, it might have been by Burke or Coleridge (who was it?), that people ought to be humble about what they know; that the young especially needed to be modest in their professions and seek tutelage in the authorities as designated by tradition and consensus.
It was 1969, but one summer after the "Summer of Love". The "youth rebellion" had broken into full stride and only a few years earlier Abbie Hoffman influentially had warned undergraduates at Sather Gate in Berkeley not to trust anyone over thirty. Miss Rollins’ writing students swelled with indignation as they took pen in hand and began scribbling on the lined pages of their spiral notebooks. Who was this guy, the majority of respondents angrily demanded, to instruct us? How did he know what we knew or did not know? Times are always changing, so what could somebody a hundred years ago have to say about the kids of the present day? We should make our own mistakes and decide what knowledge we need to know on the basis of our own particular conditions. We need to be ourselves, to be individuals. And so it went (although the typical sixteen-year-old put it much less competently), a mighty torrent of rhetorically reactionary verbiage.
The second meeting began with Miss Rollins shuffling an unruly sheaf of lined manuscript on the lectern. The difficulty was that the edges of the pages were frayed. "It would be instructive," she said, "to go over in class some of the written responses from the day before." While she did so, she would make verbal comments on our formulations. At the announcement that what they had written twenty-four hours previously would become a public matter during the next forty-five minutes, Miss Rollins’ pupils ceased from restiveness and grew quiet. It was a glorious California mid-morning outside, with its fierce sun and dry air, and with the audible invitation of Santa Monica Beach—the combers backing on the sand sounded to us a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar—a mere but impossible three blocks away.
Miss Rollins began to read: "Who is this guy," she quoted aloud from a page, "to instruct us?" She histrionically underlined the "us". She added matter-of-factly that he was Burke or Coleridge (memory has made it vague), either of whom in youth had led a Bohemian life, challenged the institutions, derided the inherited tradition; both of whom after decades of life and meditation had altered the original untutored opinion. She suggested that the question, "who is this guy," represented an unwise rhetorical choice, since it betrayed an ignorance, on the writer’s part, of whose words he addressed. "It doesn’t look good," she said; "it opens you up to an immediate charge of uninformed hot-headedness." One could hardly disagree, although one bristled at the chastisement. Who was she, three quarters of the class was rhetorically posing to itself, to criticize us? They bubbled over with rebuke—they foamed like those pushy combers on the hot sand. But the rebuke, too, would obviously come under the same objection. Yet another thing pricked at more than one of the now quiet pupils: Was that my response that Miss Rollins had just read aloud? Am I under criticism? It was hard to say, especially after she had read five or six, since they all resembled one another with remarkable likeness. Then with a certain studied look of confusion and self-correction showing on her face, Miss Rollins begged a collective pardon. It seemed she had picked up a sheaf of papers from the previous semester by mistake. The current class’s responses were in another drawer of her desk. She retrieved them and began once more to read. "Who is this guy," she quoted aloud from a page, "to instruct us?" So much for the difference...
Of course, Miss Rollins had made no mistake at all. She had finely calculated the performance and had probably been carrying it off for years. "Writing," she told us a little later, before the class-period ended, "requires thinking, and thinking requires a conscious suppression of the ego." In order to become masters of prose over the course of the semester, aspiring writers would need to do a number of things: read a good deal more than they had; learn to use reference-sources so as to know what they were addressing; gain control of their grammar (some of them had not kept up with their lessons); and above all reign in their egocentric view of things. A certain type of humility might protect them from making rash statements and from exposing their own naiveté and lack of knowledge. Naiveté itself and the lack of knowledge would take some time to cure, as the only cure for them lay in education, on which we were only just embarked. But when her students did these things, Miss Rollins promised, their writing would start to be more individual and identifiable. "Untutored writers always seem alike," she said; "the truly individual writer is not born, he’s made—by grammar, vocabulary, and the accumulation of lore." And the point itself had been made in a fairly incontestable way.
At a talk given in Michigan in the early 1980s, as someone’s colleague once reported, the redoubtable Professor Ong spoke to the question, posed by a clever interrogator, of how one leaps the yawning abyss between the mental habits of spoken language and those of literate language. The questioner thought that he could dissolve differences and confound him whose argument depended thereon. "It requires a death," Ong said, and then made a poker face. The questioner, who had put his inquiry from a motive that now suffered defeat (the desire, precisely, of the Young Turk to "catch out" the esteemed doctor in some contradiction), arched an eyebrow in puzzlement and dejection. Ong arched an eyebrow, too; he waited in silence. (So the colleague described it.) Said hesitantly the examiner, "Well, uh, what do you mean?" "Have you ever wondered," Ong replied, "why students cry—why even football players cry—when we criticize their prose?" "Hmm?" The Turk felt stumped. "But they do, don’t they?" "Yes." (And it was true—anyone who had taught English at the secondary or first-year college level could verify it.) A pause intervened. Ong smiled. The smile told silently: I am grinning because I know in advance that what I shall presently say will fall on skeptical, even hostile, ears. No one wants to hear the truths about these things. Then the good doctor said: "Those are tears of mourning—for the oral person who must die in order that the literate person might be born. Of course, there’s a resurrection. The oral person is reborn in a new guise, altered by the onset of literacy." Ong was a Jesuit, a priest, the savvy among the audience remembered. He was Walter J. Ong., Jr., S. J.—Society of Jesus. But the same savvy portion of the audience also quickly saw that they could abstract from the specific religious implications of the statement. It had objective plausibility.
For indeed, writing entails and generates intellectual procedures that stand in diametrical opposition to those of people who only speak their language and who therefore never visualize words as something exterior to themselves that can be sorted and criticized and then recast to correspond with greater closeness than before to some element of the world. Oral people are story-tellers, for figures in action are one of the few things that they can remember—that and simple formulas preserved among literate people in the "old sayings" like "a stitch in time saves nine" or "a penny saved is a penny earned" with their childlike rhymes and short-term repetitive structures. Ask a first-grader, what did you learn in school today, and he will not answer, "the states of the Union" or "words that end in -ing," but, rather, that first we did this and then we did that and so on. And… and… and… a story. No piece of the story can be extracted from the narrative as a whole. Break it into pieces and the pieces vanish from memory. College-level English teachers constantly write in the margins of student papers the admonition, "Avoid summary." Don’t retell the story, but analyze it: show how the parts relate to the whole, which is an infinitely harder thing to do than telling it over. All summaries of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are necessarily alike. Only the deep-diving analyses differ. The literate person is an individuum in a way that his oral counterpart never can be because the literate is so thoroughly infused by the archive of written material. He is a compound of many other people besides himself. He is, in a real sense, a bit of Plato, a bit of Dante, a bit of Shakespeare, and a bit of Tolstoy. It was Miss Rollins’ unspoken theory independent of Ong’s.
The oral person must die so that the literate person might be born. The oral person senses this and recoils; he redoubles his resistance. "That witch!" said one of Miss Rollins’ charges to another in the school bus, on Pacific Coast Highway, during the ride home. "I hate her as much as you do," his interlocutor agreed. In this, too, as in their identical response to—Burke, was it, or maybe Coleridge?—the two lads resembled one another, were precisely not individuated or distinguishable. To hear any judgment that implicated the ego in any way save a pandering one stimulated both of them to a rage of personality-dissolving rebuke. A great chasm yawned and from the other side of it a half-apprehended voice could be heard beckoning: I dare you—I dare you—to leap! And the two addressees of what they heard as a taunt felt their feet grow cold. To make that leap required a training that neither could fully imagine even while they were aware, in a resentful way, of not possessing it. And yet... To feel one’s kidneys crawl, one’s stomach tighten, one’s ears redden, all because one had rashly instead of thoughtfully put down the words.… That itself constituted a chasm that threatened to swallow one into a darkling unpleasantness—the repellent Tartarus of the mental tyro. Care to dwell there forever?
One of the features of the old Greek and Roman writers is their profound serenity. A Plutarch or a Seneca or an Emperor Marcus might strike a modern reader, especially a non-classicist, as irritatingly remote, as detached in an uncharitable way from the immediacy of experience. (But writing does exercise a "distancing" effect, as Ong says, and does so positively.) Modern writers, the twentieth-century writers most of all, follow the penchant for primitiveness that began with Montaigne even before Rousseau; they invoke the "stream of consciousness" and other devices that imitate, without actually being, the oral person’s blustering negotiation with the world. The ancients, perhaps because literacy was still new, felt no desire to "free" themselves from it. Plutarch in his essay On How to Listen reminds readers that an uncritical youthful pride is the worst enemy of education; that calm receptivity and openness to correction are absolutely essential to intellectual (not to mention ethical) improvement. One should read the poets and philosophers, Plutarch says, and note their lessons and listen attentively even to the dreariest speaker. Plutarch draws, in all his essays, on a formidable learning, so that he is able to abstract significant patterns from a vast range of sources to fashion his arguments and to arrange evidence for his proofs. The same is true in Seneca and Marcus. The same is true of Simone Weil, who loved the Greco-Roman writers. In her essay on The Right Use of School Studies, she argues, as Plutarch does, that learning demands a suppression of the ego, a submission to external facts and indubitable logical structures. Such suppression resembles a death. The leap is in the deliberate suppression.
But when and how does anyone make the decision that springs loose the leap? To paraphrase Kierkegaard, we likely leap forward and become aware of it backward, the event adding itself to consciousness only as a memory, not as a direct apprehension. After a sufficiency of constructive chastisement, after the right measure of disciplined reading and absorption of real knowledge, one suddenly finds oneself standing on the other rim of the frightening chasm, having already vaulted it. Now another weird phenomenon manifests itself: it is the "resurrection" of which Ong speaks; but it is also a curious doubling of the personality such as Edgar Allan Poe writes about in his disturbing Doppelgänger stories. The newly born literate suddenly perceives just how limited the callow self was in the long recalcitrant time leading up to the leap. A thing so circumscribed by its own hypersensitivity, a thing because of its hypersensitivity so shuttered to the grand and wild world, had to be suppressed, "extinguished" even, to permit the emergence of something so much happier, so much more robust, so much sweeter with all the pungent flavors of mind, reality, and experience. Yet "extinguished" is not quite accurate, for the callow self is still there, but submerged and under a new control. The exercise of control is indeed a key element of the new personality. Strangest of all, it now dawns that this new self was the voice calling to the old self from across the abyss, the one saying leap! leap!
According to the gazetteers of Santa Monica High School, Barbara Rollins passed away sometime in the early 1990s after a long career (more than thirty years—closer to forty) and a few seasonal rounds of retirement, troubled by illness and loneliness and old age. Toward the end of her tenure, she had fierce arguments with "reformers" of the curriculum who wanted, in her judgment, to treat students with kid gloves by stroking their egos under the imperative of "self esteem". Esteem, Miss Rollins argued, accrued from accomplishment, accomplishment required discipline, and discipline demanded careful intellectual correction, beginning from Day One of a student’s matriculation. The "reformers" heaped scorn on Miss Rollins’ "traditional" view. ("Tradition" serves them for a word of reproach.) They prevailed, she retired, and not too long thereafter she died. For a few scattered individuals, each of them long since sent forth from his high school alma mater, a voice is still sounding, mixed with his doubled own, from far away in a remote and daunting but magically radiant distance across a deep gulf: Leap! Leap! Leap!
III. Interlude. Unlike most teachers of college-level composition, I cannot bring myself to separate reading from writing; I assign a good deal of serious reading in my composition courses, more than most of my colleagues. My syllabus differs in character from that of others even when they resemble me in asking their writing students to engage in considerable reading. The contemporary essays and bits of journalism that typify the usual made-for-the-classroom anthology strike me as being, generally speaking, poorly written, ideologically skewed, propagandistic, tendentious, and, as is often the case, simply trivial. Contemporary effusions are bad for writing students because they ensconce those students even more deeply than they already are in the cliché of the present. In the past, when I let students read contemporary writing or write about contemporary "issues", the results were always the same: they did no thinking at all, but fell into the hackneyed ruts of whatever side of the argument they endorsed a priori. Their papers resembled the stump-speeches of presidential or congressional candidates, for whom uttering a truly thoughtful or non-party-platform consideration would send their campaign-managers into wild fits and probably provoke the talking heads on television to declare that they had forfeited the election for the sake of a wild remark. For many years, I have asked students to read two authors of the period of the Roman Empire. Seneca, who wrote in Latin, served Nero at court and eventually died on Nero’s command; he was a stoic, but he was also philosophically eclectic, and his prose has the virtues of the old Republican simplicity. Plutarch, born about the time that Nero died, in 60 A.D., wrote in Greek, more ornately than Seneca did, and with a Platonic orientation. Plutarch’s essay On Listening is, in fact, a punctilious guide for perplexed college freshmen about how to profit by training the attention. When I ask students to write about Plutarch, I let them see my essay on Seneca, and vice versa. In the present semester, they wrote about Plutarch.
College students are supposed to be "computer savvy". I find, on the contrary, that they know almost nothing about the word processing programs that come "bundled" with all the other programs on their laptops and in their towers. One thing that I wanted to teach them when I presented Liberal Studies to them was, simply, how to use the footnote-function on the Microsoft Word program. Thus the footnotes…
IV. Liberal Studies, Vocational Studies, and Philosophy. Since the Classical Age of the Greeks in the fifth century BC, two large ideas about education–more particularly about higher education–have competed with one another. The first of these, and the one with the greatest immediate appeal, is that higher education should prepare the person to be effective in some professional way in the world: to be a physician, a lawyer, an engineer, or whatever the special application might be. The other idea is that the preparation for such endeavors is, precisely, special training, and should therefore be distinguished from the truly higher education without which the physician or lawyer or engineer is merely a technically proficient dullard. Higher education, in this the true view, seeks for the aspirant the wisdom and distance that together properly subordinate proficiency to decency, appetite to taste, and capacity to reason. While true this doctrine is, it is easy to lose sight of, as societies ancient and modern have regularly done.
Seneca, an influential Latin writer and thinker of the first century AD, provides an accessible discussion of the issue and helps us to see the limits of modern "higher" education in a clear light. There is some terminological confusion which ought to be sorted out first. Seneca, in his Moral Letters, uses the term "liberal studies". He means by it the additional curriculum that is supposed to round out a person’s technical preparation. The aspiring physician thus studies medicine, of course, but traditionally he also takes courses in a smattering of other subjects–geography, literature, and mathematics. Completing these courses, he presumes himself to be roundly–that is, liberally–educated. But this, says Seneca, is to confuse a fortuitous collection of facts, gleaned without a plan, with real knowledge or with wisdom. Facts are necessary for wisdom, but they are not sufficient for it. What is sufficient for wisdom?
Wisdom, as the ancients saw it, is a discipline. It concerns character. Wisdom requires the prolonged, serious contemplation of life, helped out by the close, sustained study of the best of the poets and philosophers. From these one learns "bravery… loyalty… self-control" (Letters 157). One learns humanity, which Seneca defines as "the quality which stops one being arrogant towards one’s fellows, or being acrimonious" (157). Seneca, a Stoic, read Zeno all his life, and Plato and Aristotle. He also knew Homer and Virgil. Now the term "liberal studies" is still in use in contemporary higher education. A student has his major area of study, but he must also fulfill the so-called breadth requirements in letters, arts, and sciences. The idea is, as it was in Seneca’s time, to create a well-rounded person. The scientist should have some exposure to the liberal arts and the English major should be familiar with the sciences.
The problem is that contemporary higher education presents the breadth requirements as just that–a glancing exposure to something outside the student’s stated interest in the hope of "widening" his sense of the world. The student usually sees them as a bother.1 This is because the existing academic culture has, in fact, lost sight of exactly the argument that Seneca makes in his Moralia: a miscellany of reputed facts has no meaning at all unless the pieces of it find unity under a larger view—a philosophical view. The philosophical view, moreover, is not something that can be picked up casually by a random tour of this science and that, keeping a souvenir from here and there. Nor is it something that can be acquired in close proximity to a purely technical training the goal of which, as the trainee sees it, is to fetch him the largesse of a salary once he graduates.
Colleges and universities in fact see it in the same way, as one can tell by the ways in which they advertise themselves. The brochures always boast about the hiring-rate for graduates. They rarely say anything about instilling the discipline of lifelong devotion to a distanced contemplation of life or about inculcating taste or decency. They boast, as does SUNY Oswego’s website, about "student-centered education."2 Indeed, how many students would be attracted to an institution that promised, say, that it would teach them, in four years, not to care about the number of zeros in a salary, but rather to take the maximum of interest in the beauty of manners and in the value of a cultivated taste in letters and arts? How many would be attracted by the promise that education would teach them not to be obsessed with a narrowly defined and selfish self? For that would be to advertise a curriculum the opposite of "student-centered". Few, one imagines, would be takers. Yet just these things, Seneca says, constitute wisdom.
The same problem has another dimension. Even where the stipulation of the breadth requirements–of the old "liberal arts" curriculum–still exists, much of it has been deformed by a fervent politicization. The old goal of the Shakespeare course was to foster in the student a permanent love of the Bard’s achievement–in the elevated language, in the psychological and moral insights, and in the tragic wisdom of Hamlet and Julius Caesar. The new goal of the Shakespeare course all too often is to convince the student that he is smarter than the Bard, whom he can identify as a wicked man who held that foreigners and women were inferior to patriots and to men. The real hero in the new version of the course is not the artist, but the teacher-critic, who haughtily reveals, not why one ought to love, but why one ought to despise, artistic achievement; the student, in imitating the teacher, becomes himself a similar hero. The whole approach is based on flattering ignorance by convincing it that it is superior to knowledge. Why then should those exposed to this type of "liberal studies" take any interest in the literary and philosophic tradition? If the teacher said that twenty centuries of esthetic and philosophic labor amount only to misogyny and xenophobia, one could hardly expect the student to pursue his nascent curiosity, supposing it to exist, in the subject. One would expect him to focus obsessively only on his "practical" courses. This is what happens.
It turns out that Seneca’s analysis of "liberal studies", once one has dealt with the terminological problem, remains as valid today as it was twenty centuries ago. Society needs well-trained, technically proficient specialists, to be sure. Society also needs those specialists to know the essential facts about disciplines outside their own applied ones. But these things are not, by themselves, enough to constitute a genuinely educated elite. This is so because the specialist, who is by definition a member of the elite, might well be uncouth. This in turn is so because facts have no meaning until an overarching view arranges them into their pattern.3 In this sense, Seneca rightly distinguishes even "liberal studies" from philosophy. For Seneca–as it should be for modern people, too, whether it is or not–philosophy constitutes the discipline which, once one has laboriously acquired it, puts all the other, lesser disciplines in their true light. In mentoring people in manners, taste, and reasoned judgment, philosophy performs the task without which no civilization can continue. Absent manners, taste, and reasoned judgment, there is no civilization at all, but merely a rabble of morally coarse and intellectually unformed experts swayed this way and that by animal appetite–swayed again by the approbation or disapproval of the crowd. Neither a smattering of facts nor special practical knowledge can rescue a person from the crowd. Only philosophy makes a real individual.
Writing to his younger friend Lucilius, a public official in Pompeii, Seneca says that an untrained hunger for mere facts violates the higher principle of prudentia. People who see "liberal studies" in this way, Seneca says—as mere cramming for some hypothetical exam—would employ them to transform students "into pedantic, irritating, tactless, self-satisfied bores, not learning what they need simply because they spend their time learning things they will never need" (159). Everyone has probably found himself, at least once in his life, frightfully annoyed by someone crammed full of facts–about baseball statistics or the equivalent. The "cramming" approach to the liberal arts would reduce essential knowledge to lists and tables. What students really need, Seneca argues, is the sagacity to tell, in the first place, what is worth knowing and what not. Such sagacity is identical with reason, on the one hand, and with character on the other. The word for it, once again, is philosophy.
V. Interlude. I like to argue to students that the discipline apposite to making sense, for example, of an essay by Plutarch or Seneca or to making ethical sense of subjective recollections is equally apposite to making the case for anything that a writer would like to recommend to someone else. To illustrate this argument, I wrote the piece about monster movie, which follows. I wanted as well to show students how they could use the Internet in their writing. All of the photo-stills in my essay were downloaded from various websites having to do with the dinosaur-genre of B-grade films.
VI. On Dinosaur Movies. Mention dinosaurs together with the cinema and everyone thinks of Steven Spielberg, whose multi-million dollar forays, beginning with Jurassic Park, appear to have cornered the market for this particular genre. The success of Spielberg’s films (however much deserved) has unfortunately obscured the long-standing tradition of featuring dinosaurs in cinematic fantasies designed to thrill audiences by the anachronism of placing extinct monstrosities in modern settings. Beginning with Willis O’Brien’s silent version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925), Brontosauri and Tyrannosauri Rex have frightened and delighted movie-goers by charging about on the silver screen and wreaking mayhem in miniature sets of London, New York, and Tokyo.
Doyle’s scientific romance concerns the adventures of Professor Challenger and his colleagues on a remote and isolated plateau deep in the Venezuelan interior. Reports have filtered out of weird zoology peculiar to the place. On the basis of these, Challenger mounts an expedition. Once having ascended the plateau, the explorers discover that its isolation from the rest of the world has removed it from the prevailing trends of evolution. A sample of Cretaceous species remains preserved there, the carnivorous varieties of which harass Challenger and his party until, after suitable tension, they make their escape through a system of caves. It happens just in time, since a volcanic eruption destroys the mountain. O’Brien saw the possibilities in Doyle’s story, but added an element that never occurred to Doyle and that "made" the film as far as audiences were concerned. O’Brien has Challenger rescue a Brontosaurus egg and return it to London as proof positive of his discoveries. The egg hatches; the creature grows. In the epilogue, a few years later, it has waxed into a full-sized thunder lizard, whereupon it slips confinement in the London Zoo and blunders its way both past and through the main architectural adornments of the city. It enters the Thames and is last seen swimming out to sea, its destination unknown. O’Brien later included a prolonged dinosaur sequence, with a wide variety of species, in his sound-film of King Kong (1933).
After World War Two, the notion of the dinosaurus redivivus–smashing against the works of man–entered into combination with the pervasive fear of atomic warfare and of the effects of lingering radiation. A young former assistant to O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, teamed up with director Eugene Lourie to make the best dinosaur movie ever—The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952). Scientists explode a plutonium bomb inside the Arctic Circle. Radiologist Tom Nesbitt, played by Paul Christian, goes into the blast area with his assistant to monitor the results. Unknown to them, the heat-flash has thawed a Rhedosaurus—frozen in suspended animation for many millions of years—from the ice. The monster’s throes cause an avalanche that kills Nesbitt’s partner and leaves Nesbitt himself semi-conscious in the cold. After a transition, the radiologist finds himself in a hospital bed in New York City, recuperating from his injuries. No one believes his story, of course; on the contrary, his supervising physician suspects him of delusions. When Nesbitt begins to be aware of news stories about "sea serpents" off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland, he insists even more vehemently on the reality of what he has seen. By persistent effort he persuades an elderly paleontologist (character actor Cecil Kellaway, in one of his last film appearances) that there might be something in his tale. Meanwhile, odd occurrences happen along a line stretching from the test-site down the Atlantic coast toward New York; they have been the sources of the journal items that convince Nesbitt of the empirical status of his own memory. In one of the truly uncanny sequences in cinema, the Beast emerges from the sea to attack a lonely lighthouse in Nova Scotia. The action takes place in silhouette and at night.
Thurgood Ellson, the paleontologist, now persuades the Navy to let him use a diving bell to search for the creature, which he believes he can find in a submarine canyon off Long Island. The film uses a good deal of stock-footage at this point, of sea-going salvage-vessels, deck-activity, the hoisting aloft of the mechanism, and so forth. As the bell descends, Ellson makes his reports. He speaks calmly about the discomfort of close quarters inside the bell and comments on the sights visible deep under water. Suddenly, the Beast hauls into view. "There’s no doubt about it," Ellson excitedly says; "it’s a genuine prehistoric survival." Aboard ship, Nesbitt and Ellson’s female assistant Miss Hunter (Paula Raymond) share the doctor’s excitement. "The dorsal ridge is singular, not double, as we suspected," Thurgood notes; "and the clavicle suspension appears to be cantilevric! But the most amazing thing about it is—." Suddenly, as the maw of the Beast yawns (we see it from Ellson’s viewpoint through the port of the diving bell), Lourie cuts to shipboard. The line goes dead. The sailors try to draw up the bell, but all they get is free cable. The Beast has claimed another victim, whose death has the consequence of heightening the budding emotional tie between Nesbitt and Hunter. The gentle Professor Ellson, having gone to meet his maker, now becomes the main attraction. Lourie gives us scenes of an ordinary workday on the Gotham docks. I can say that when the Beast emerges, it is near Henry Street, in Brooklyn, because when I showed the still image to my Brooklyn friend Steve Kogan, he recognized it as down the street from where he lived for forty years.
A saurian head now lifts out of the water (with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background) and the Rhedosaurus lurches ashore. For the next twenty minutes the evolutionary anomaly terrorizes "The Big Apple" until cornered inside the roller coaster at Coney Island and dispatched (by Lee van Cleef, no less) with a bazooka shell containing radioactive salts. The conflagration inside the amusement park is another brilliant touch. The creature’s death throes provoke real sympathy from most onlookers. Brought to life by atomic energy, the creature also dies by it. The message is clear: in nuclear weaponry humanity has unleashed a new kind of beast and has become its own predator. As Jeff Rovin writes in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (1975), "The film moves quickly, and the fact that there is a monster loose in New York is taken very matter-of-factly by all" (62). This straight-faced approach serves the film well.
After The Beast had made its success, a Japanese director, Inoshiro Hondo, saw the potential for a good imitation. The Japanese had made a number of military special effects films, for propaganda purposes, during World War Two; they became particularly adept at miniatures. The post-war release called I Bombed Pearl Harbor (1952) gives a sense of their accomplishments. At Toho Studios in 1954, Hondo, drawing on his expertise in miniature sets and their destruction, produced Godzilla, whose four-hundred-foot tall fire-breathing lizard, like Lourie and Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, owes its life to atomic testing. The film’s American release that same year splices scenes with actor Raymond Burr as reporter "Steve Martin", who provides a Yankee point-of-view character to make the story appeal to the export audience. In Godzilla, the allegory is cruder, but also more powerful, than in The Beast. Rather than employ Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation with models, Hondo put an actor in a rubber suit, which is, nevertheless, effective. The black-and-white photography, with the monster-sequences taking place at night, gives the film a quasi-documentary feeling. The monster rises out of Tokyo Bay, in nocturnal black-and-white, and he systematically destroys the metropolis.
All of the landmarks must have been instantly identifiable to a Japanese audience, and the annihilation of them is meticulous. Hondo also stages horrific scenes of panicked crowds being incinerated by the dragon’s fiery breath. In one, a mother clutches her infant before disappearing in the hellish vapor. Doctor Serizawa uses his "oxygen destroyer" to kill Godzilla while the creature sleeps in Tokyo Bay. Akira Takarada, who starred in the movie, explained in an interview with Stewart Galbraith how he "shed tears" at the Tokyo premiere:
Godzilla’s death did not prevent a host of sequels, none of which has ever matched the documentary-like starkness of the original.
The 1950s saw many minor dinosaur movies: Lourie’s The Giant Behemoth (1955) and his Gorgo (1957), both of which stage their destruction in London. There were productions from American International such as The Land Unknown (1956), set in a mysterious tropical valley at the South Pole, and King Dinosaur (1955), set on an unknown planet to which an expedition from earth travels. Of these, The Giant Behemoth is probably the best. It attempts, with qualified results, to be a sequel to The Beast. The setting is London, where the monster does to the Thames docks and Trafalgar Square what the Beast does to the Brooklyn waterfront and Wall Street in the earlier film.
The genre died out in the 1960s, but enjoyed a semi-revival with the advent of videotape. (No doubt the currency of The Beast and Godzilla in the VHS format suggested to Spielberg that the Cretaceous Era was still exploitable.) The giant-insect movies are an offshoot of the dinosaur films. The Deadly Mantis (1957) stars The Beast’s supporting lead, Kenneth Tobey, and runs with the same plot. The giant bug, thawed out of the polar ice by atomic testing, heads south to feed on tiny, scrambling people. The authorities trap it in the Holland Tunnel and gas it with cyanide. Them! (1954), with James Arness and James Whitmore, features oversized, aggressive, mutated ants from the New Mexico desert—near the original nuclear testing grounds.
In Them! another British character actor, Edmund Gwenn, plays the entomologist-counterpart of Kellaway’s paleontologist. Like Kellaway, Gwenn was a veteran screen presence working at the end of a long career. In the obligatory professorial lecture scene, Gwen explains that these mutated ants pose an evolutionary threat to human dominance of the planet and that the creatures must be exterminated before they can spread. He delivers this speech with the utmost apocalyptic certitude. There is much discussion of keeping things secret so as not to create a panic. Authorities destroy the original New Mexico nest, again with cyanide: the sequence where Arness, Whitmore, and Weldon enter the labyrinth in protective, gas-proof suits is one of the eeriest in the film. They have done a thorough job, but even so an escaping queen establishes a new brood in the storm drains of Los Angeles. Arness and Whitmore lead troops into the underground maze and dispatch the ants with flamethrowers. Gordon Douglas directs with careful development, accelerated pacing, and claustrophobic aplomb (Whitmore to Arness: "I get a strong brood smell") in the concluding storm drain sequence.
As in The Beast, the characters treat the situation matter-of-factly. The ants are large—about six feet long—but not so large as to appear implausible. Nor are they immune to ordinary weaponry, as bullets and grenades will kill them, even though napalm does a better job. All of this contributes to the verisimilitude of the cinematic narrative.
Dinosaurs have exercised fascination on the public since their discovery in the 1850s. Reptilian life strikes people as primitive, implacable, and frightening. An alligator or komodo is a lurking, pitiless jaw-cum-gullet. Nightmarishly big reptiles naturally generate a double dose of fright. As Takarada told Galbraith apropos of Godzilla, "ordinary audiences… wanted to see the film to be scared" (50). Yet in all three Lourie films—The Beast, The Giant Behemoth, and Gorgo—the director endows the creature with noble and sympathetic qualities. The Rhedosaurus is a lonely male, the last of its species, looking for a mate; his death inside the burning ruins of the roller coaster is full of pathos. The Behemoth is dying from the very radiation that has reanimated him. Exhibitors capture the baby Gorgo and keep him in London as a circus attraction until his mother, four times his size, comes to rescue him. Even in Godzilla, the afflicted survivors of Tokyo give evidence of sympathy for the creature, and wonder if it could not be preserved "for study" rather than killed. Sentiment does not prevail.
By comparison, Spielberg’s efforts seem slick. Tedious subplots involving the romance between paleontologists (one of them, a willowy blond, played by Laura Dern) weigh them heavily down. They tend to give disproportionate screen time to the adventures of children. Preachy lessons on ecology burden all three. Long live the Beast! Its clavicle suspension appears to be cantilevric!
Liberal Studies, Vocational Studies, and Philosophy
Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger). Translated by R. Campbell. Letters from a Stoic. New York: Penguin, 1969.
On Dinosaur Movies
Stewart Galbraith IV. Monsters are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. Feral House: Venice, California, 1998.
Jeff Rovin. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Citadel press: Secaucus, NJ, 1975.
The lines from The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms are quoted (with care) from the DVD version of the film.
The recently released “extended unrated director’s cut” DVD of the film King Arthur has been touted by the filmmakers as presenting an “authentic historical” look at the life and exploits of the legendary King of the Britons. When the powers that be in Hollywood take on the Canon of Western Culture and Civilization in the name of “authenticity”, their product should be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt”.
In bringing their “authentic” King Arthur to the screen, Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Director Antoine Fuqua, and writer David Franzoni may appear, to skeptical eyes, like tricksters relying upon their audience’s ignorance of, indifference to, or antipathy toward Western culture in order to successfully pull off their postmodern legerdemain. Skepticism is warranted, because the film plays fast and loose with the history of the period, relevant theology, and a wealth of Arthurian literature to give us a Pelagian Roman-Briton Arthur, Sarmatian Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin’s marginalized “Woads”.1
The filmmakers also provide us with a Grrl Power Guinevere who can hack, slash, and hurl spears and caustic epithets with the most bellicose of barbarians. She is introduced as one who has been severely “victimized”—i.e. imprisoned and tortured—by evil, sadistic, murderous mad monks, which gives one a hint of what the filmmakers think of traditional Christianity, not to mention the treatment of Guinevere in Arthurian legend.
This Hollywood mish-mash deconstruction of history and legend ought to raise some questions, not to mention eyebrows or even hackles, among thoughtful viewers. “Why is the only ‘good Christian’ in the film a follower of Pelagius?” one might well ask, and, “Who were the Sarmatians, and is Lancelot a Sarmatian name”?
The fact that Arthur, the only “good Christian” in the film, is identified with an ancient heresy speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ agenda. As for the Sarmatian knights, “authentic historical” Sarmatians came from the Black Sea region of southwest Russia and had names like Farzoy and Ininthimens, but the makers of this “authentic historical” film had no problem calling them Lancelot and Gawain.
The following is one viewer’s response to a cinematic King Arthur that is a farrago of falsification and politically correct postmodernism.
Arthur in history: There is very little contemporary scholarly consensus about the “real” King Arthur except that he was probably a Roman-Briton who may have led a British army against the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon.
The filmmakers take the first of many great liberties by placing their story in the period 450-465; according to most historians, the Battle of Mount Badon was fought ca. 500-520, and the location was probably in the vicinity of Bath in Southwest England; therefore ending the film with a battle in 465 at Hadrian’s Wall near the Scottish border is problematic. Further, the film conflates the Arthur of history and legend with two historical figures, Lucius Artorius Castus and Ambrosius Aurelianus, who were separated in time by more than two centuries.
The latter of the above-mentioned commanders, the Roman-Briton Ambrosius Aurelianus, might make sense as the “Arthur” of the film if the battle at the end of the movie were not Mount Badon, but an earlier battle with the Germanic tribes led by the Jute Hengist. The movie, however, doesn’t mention Ambrosius’s 465 overthrow of his predecessor Vortigern, also known as the “Proud Tyrant”, and doesn’t acknowledge that it was Vortigern, rather than Ambrosius, who was probably a Pelagian. Further, those associated with the film actually claim to have based their character on Lucius Artorius Castus, though why they place Artorius at the time of Ambrosius is puzzling, to say the least. 2
Lucius Artorius Castus was a Roman commander of Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry. Sarmatian cavalry served with the Roman Legions in ancient Britain, and there were Sarmatians who remained in Britain after the Legions pulled out (ca. 410); but how one conflates Slavic Sarmatians with Gallic Knights of the Round Table is another postmodern Hollywood mystery that “passeth all understanding”.
Historians, supported by epigraphic evidence, date Artorius to ca. 200, which is about 300 years prior to the Battle of Mount Badon, approximately 265 years before the suppression of the German alliance led by Hengist, over 200 years prior to the final withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain, and about 150 years before the birth of Pelagius, all of which precludes this Artorius from having been the Pelagian King Arthur of the film.
Ambrosius Aurelianus was at least active at the time in which the film is set, the mid-fifth century. Some scholars, based on the earliest chronicle, the sixth-century monk Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae, think that it may have been Ambrosius who defeated the Saxons at Mount Badon. However, if that were the case, Ambrosius would have been at least 70 years old at the time of battle, which is well above the average life expectancy in sub-Roman Britain. In addition, someone aged 70 or more is very old to have led an army in a Dark Ages battle: the King Arthur of the film appears to be about 30 and in his prime.
The fact that many historians believe Ambrosius was too old to have led the Britons at the Battle of Mount Badon has led them to posit that “King Arthur” was actually a warlord or general in the service of Ambrosius and may have ruled a territory as under-King; this is largely based on the eighth-century Welsh historian Nennius’s reference to Arthur as the leader during the battle (dux bellorum). Other historians believe there were two Kings, Ambrosius the elder and Ambrosius the younger, and that it was the second Ambrosius who overthrew Vortigern and ultimately defeated the Saxons at Mount Badon. However, many sources identify Uther, Arthur’s father, as Ambrosius’s brother and it is consistent with Merlin’s prophecy that Arthur would succeed his uncle and father and lead the Britons to victory over the Saxons.3
Considering the best literary, epigraphic, and archeological evidence, it appears that among the candidates for the “authentic historical” Arthur, the filmmakers’ Lucius Artorius Castus should be ruled out completely, having lived at least two centuries too early to be the Arthur of history or the film, and that Ambrosius, elder or younger, remains at best a dubious Arthur. If there was an “authentic historical” Arthur, Ambrosius’s nephew and Nennius’s dux bellorum “Arturus”, who defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, seems a far better choice.
The film’s reference to Arthur as a “Pelagian” runs up against more “inconvenient facts”. Pelagius died in Palestine ca. 420, yet in the film in 465 he has only recently died, having gone to Rome to argue for his doctrine. In fact, Pelagius left Rome after it was sacked in 410. At the instance of St. Augustine the doctrines of Pelagius were condemned as heresy by the Council of Carthage in 416, and Pelagianism was banned by Imperial edict in 418.
There are yet more relevant historical facts concerning Pelagianism in Britain that the film conveniently chooses to ignore. In the year 429 the French Bishop of Auxerre, Germanus, or St. Germain, was sent to Britain by the Pope, at the request of the British bishops, to combat the Pelagian heresy. A famous disputation between Germanus and the Pelagians is said to have taken place at St. Albans. After Germanus won the debate, the Britons called upon him to lead them in battle against the Saxons and the Picts. The Britons, led by Bishop Germanus, won a great victory, and it is possible that Germanus was chosen to lead the Britons in battle because their Overlord Vortigern was a Pelagian, and therefore a heretic not suitable to lead a Christian army fighting the pagan barbarians. Be that as it may, it is virtually certain that after Germanus’s suppression of the British Pelagians, and Ambrosius’s subsequent overthrow of the Pelagian Vortigern, a Pelagian would not have led the Britons in battle at Mount Badon.4
As for the dispute between Bishop Germanus and the Pelagians, there is plenty of reference in the movie to “freedom” and “free will” as “Pelagian” teaching, but nothing about the opposing traditional Augustinian teaching concerning original sin and prevenient grace. In fact, the film has little or nothing to say about Pelagian teaching or theological disputes, but rather argues for some postmodern political concept of “freedom” as a “natural right” to fight for one’s victimized identity group, or for an alliance of victimized identity groups, by any and all means necessary. The alleged “victimizers” may be Roman, Saxon, Jute, Christian, male, or any other “power group” that can be demonized as the source of one’s socio-economic and/or sexual oppression. This is a doctrine more associated with new-left politics than with Pelagius.
Arthur in legend: King Arthur is said to have held court at Caerleon on the Usk with his Queen Guinevere, formed the Knights of the Round Table, and been mortally wounded at the battle of Camlan ca. 537, after which he was transported to the mythical island of Avalon to heal his wounds. From here he was some day to return to rule in a golden age.5 This brings us to the Arthur of legend which the film so infelicitously, if not brutally, deconstructs.
Most of our knowledge of Arthurian legend comes from Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century compilation, Le Morte D’Arthur, Tennyson’s Idylls of a King, Mark Twain’s mildly subversive A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which were the sources of earlier Hollywood films such as Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur, the musical Camelot, the animated feature The Sword in the Stone, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and even the wildly subversive spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All the above referenced books and movies have in turn relied on earlier sources, most notably the works of the twelfth-century French trouvere Chrétien de Troyes. Other significant twelfth-century sources are the Norman poet Wace, who is generally credited with the introduction of the Round Table, and the Welsh scholar Walter Map, who linked the Arthur legend proper to the cycle of the Holy Grail, itself derived from Chrétien de Troyes’ Percival le Gallois.
The movie’s postmodern war of “liberation” against economic and class oppression, racism, sexism, and “imperialist aggression” is diametrically opposed to the fundamentally Christian message of the Arthurian Romances. The filmmakers have done something truly insidious: they falsify the substance of the religious debate between the Church and the Pelagians, which does a disservice to both the traditional and the Pelagian point of view. They also twist history and legend like a corkscrew to come up with a completely ahistorical, un-legendary Arthur whom they disingenuously tout—to a largely unknowing, and perhaps uninterested audience—as being “historically authentic”.
The Arthur of the film is a postmodern fabrication, resembling neither an historical nor a legendary character. The postmodern King Arthur has grunting, grunge, gore, and Grrl Power, but lacks an awareness of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. The film sets up an ahistorical conflict between its alliance of comic book “heroes” as “victims”. A “King Arthur” who is a Christian heretic, a Grrl Power Guinevere, Knights of the Round Table who are Sarmatian pagans, and Merlin and his “oppressed Woads” oppose “victimizer” villains: a venal Church in league with a corrupt Roman Empire, rapacious Roman nobles, and a menacing horde of comic book proto-Nazi “Saxons”. The filmmakers do this because it is easy and convenient for them to fabricate straw men and then knock them down for their audience’s amusement. They also apparently dislike the Western culture and civilization that produced the Arthurian tales; and they use deconstruction as a means of attacking the very traditional Christian—and thus “politically incorrect”—theme that underlies all the Arthurian legends. The theme is this: that human weakness and fallibility forever preclude the world’s “perfection” by human effort alone, and that an instinctive human need for redemption, represented by the search for the Grail, comes as a gift from a loving God.
Is there anything to recommend in this film? There is a fairly good battle on the ice, reminiscent (some would say overly derivative) of Sergei Eisenstein’s film classic Alexander Nevsky, although the battle plan of “Arthur”, his Sarmatian Knights of the Round Table, and “Wonder Woman” Guinevere relies less upon tactical brilliance and individual prowess than upon the comic-book stupidity of the “Saxon” foe. One’s money would be better spent on renting Excalibur and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which are far more entertaining, appeal to a wider contemporary audience, and remain true to the meaning and spirit of Arthurian legend and the culture which gave us the tales of Arthur, Merlin, Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail.
1 Picts are referred to as “Woads” in this film, presumably because they painted themselves blue with a dye made from Woad. The early chronicles and legends refer to Merlin as Welsh, and of noble birth; in other legends he’s identified with a figure in Celtic mythology. A discussion of the etymology of the name and changes in character is beyond the scope of this article; however the film’s portrayal of him as the leader of the Picts/Woads seems novel and bizarre. According to the early chronicles the Picts were Arthur’s enemies. Merlin first appears in early chronicles as the Welsh Emrys or the latinized Ambrosius. Suffice it to say that calling the leader of the Picts/“Woads” “Merlin” is like calling a Sarmatian knight “Lancelot”.
2 Artorius is a Roman family name, meaning “plowman”; Castus means “chaste” or “virtuous”. Some believe that the exploits of a second-century leader of Sarmatian cavalry are a source of Arthurian legends. However, the leader of the Britons at the Battle of Mount Badon (ca. 500-520) may have been “Arturus”, as the 8th century chronicles of Nennius indicate. The etymology of the name is complex, involving Latin, Celtic, and Welsh morphology. If the filmmakers wanted to claim the second-century Artorius as their “King Arthur”, why did they set the film in the mid-fifth century—and why did they make him a Pelagian; and why did they give his Sarmatian “knights” the names of medieval Gallic Romance? Some modern writers believe this Artorius to have been the source of some of the Arthur legends. This may be a reasonable position to take, so long as you place him in the second century where he belongs, don’t make him a Pelagian, and don’t call your Sarmatians Lancelot.
3 In some legends Merlin (also known as Emrys and Ambrosius) prophesies that Vortigern will be overthrown by Ambrosius Aurelianus, who would be succeeded by Uther Pendragon, who would in turn be succeeded by a greater leader, Uther’s son Arthur. It is Arthur who would unite the Britons and defeat the Saxons. The fact that Merlin is also sometimes referred to in early chronicles as Ambrosius (the latinization of his Welsh name, Emrys) has caused some to confuse him with Ambrosius Aurelianus. The primary sources ( sixth to twelfth century) for histories of this period are Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae, Nennius, Historia Britonum, Bede, Historia Ecclesistica Gentis Anglorum, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Britoniorum.
4 The primary sources (contemporaneous 5th century) are Prosper of Aquitaine, Epitoma Chronicon, and Constantius of Lyon, de Vita Germani. Constantius writes of a later visit by Germanus, ca. 447, in which he again won a disputation with the Pelagians. Thus, with the fall of Vortigern ca. 465 the Pelagians were suppressed in Britain , and the victor against the Saxons at Mount Badon ca. 500-520, whoever he was, was almost certainly not a Pelagian.
5 Sir Thomas Malory’s Carlion, in Wales , and duty station of Rome ’s Second Legion Augusta in earlier times. Malory identified Winchester as the site of Camelot, and others have referenced Camelford in Cornwall and Cadbury Castle in Somerset.
Two Brief Essays on Politics, the Economy, and Western Culture
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian journalist based in Toronto who frequently contributes to Praesidium. Unless otherwise indicated, the cost of the books he reviews following these short essays is in Canadian dollars.
Some Notes on East Asian Cosmology, Society, and Economy
One of the most interesting aspects of the history and philosophy of science and technology is the study of the interrelationships between cosmology, society, and economy. The idea of looking at the links between Eastern religion, quantum theory, and the success of Far Eastern economies is certainly a provocative one. The beginning point for the serious study of the history and philosophy of science today is probably Thomas Kuhn’s well-known work on the evolution of knowledge paradigms, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thomas Cleary’s book, The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy (published by Shambhala), is a book which could be recommended for those looking at the interrelationships between East Asian cosmology, society, and economy.
There is also George Gilder’s Microcosm, which takes a stab at interpreting the social and political effects of the microelectronics revolution (relating it to the emergence of quantum theory). The basic argument proposes the obsolescence of the state and of the command-economy while exalting of the smallest possible units in the global economic system: i.e., individual entrepreneurs. (A good example of Gilder’s arguments is when he points out the way in which microelectronics—as in the once-proposed SDI system—negated the advantage of a technological “brontosaurus” like the Soviet SS-20 missile.) Another of Gilder’s books on a similar theme is entitled Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life, where he unpersuasively argues that the current media monopoly will be undermined by the further advance of communications and computer technologies. How much has truly changed at this historical juncture, notwithstanding the Internet’s conquests?
One of Gilder’s other books is the ominous-sounding Telecosm. This volume, like most of Gilder’s output, is a frank celebration of technology and the entrepreneur, Gilder being what is in many ways an incredibly facile techno-optimist. (A different side of Gilder, however, is seen in his socially conservative book on Men and Marriage, an expanded edition of Sexual Suicide.) There is in our time an unbelievable intensity of global economic competition, in the context of which unequivocally progressive trends are hard to find. In the 1980s and early 1990s, America—in spite of Gilder’s optimism—appeared to be falling behind.
Another book from this period was Lester Thurow’s Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe, and America. On what appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s to be the Japanese success story, there was published, among many books on this topic, a work edited by Steve Barnett, The Nissan Report: An Inside Look at How a World-Class Japanese Company Makes Products That Make a Difference. Shintaro Ishihara’s famous statement, A Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals, appeared in English translation. For a very hostile analysis of Japan, one could consult the geostrategist Karl Wolferen’s work, The Enigma of Japanese Power. On the Far East in general, there was the Winter 1992 (1991-92) edition of New Perspectives Quarterly, put out by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, on the theme, “Looking East: The Confucian Challenge to Western Liberalism”. However, there occurred in the mid to late 1990s an economic collapse in Asia, especially in Japan. This has to a certain extent confounded those who were looking to the East as an alternative power-center to America. It seems that America, with its “rap, crack, and Big Mac”, its vulgar pop-culture and moral decay, has after all triumphed economically.
Another interesting work, Bryan Appleyard’s Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, is a “humanistic” critique of “the scientific enterprise”. It points to the emergence of “chaos theory” and “indeterminacy” as a kind of “crisis” of modern science. Two other books in a related vein are John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. A new, popular work in “chaos theory” itself, is M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. John L. Casti’s Searching for Certainty: What Scientists Can Know About the Future deals with similar scientific issues.
It is fairly clear a link between a given society’s cosmology and its social norms indeed exists—a relationship which, although fundamental, is rarely given the attention it deserves. One can, for example, establish a pretty clear correlation between the emergence of the post-Copernican mechanistic and Newtonian view of the universe and the subsequent rise of various types of capitalism and liberalism. The modern notion of “the observer affecting the event” and related concepts, of course, have applications far beyond physics—as for example, in an epistemological theory which explicitly embraces the Heideggerian “virtuous”—not “vicious”—cycle. (To wit, the more we know about something, the more interested we become in it; and the more interested we become in it, the more we know about it. The “knower” and “the thing known” cannot be strictly distinguished.)
In social terms, the adoption of this outlook could possibly lead to assigning increased value to the pre-rational and predetermined aspects of our identity, such as our familial and gender roles, as well as our place in local, regional, ethnic, and national communities. In more narrowly political terms, it could signify putting a greater importance on voluntarism (the will) and its exercise in the political arena—as opposed to ostensibly rational debate—and on affective, as opposed to concrete, purely physical results. For example, if we feel that we are part of a great historic collectivity which makes our individual sacrifices meaningful to us, we can endure far more economic and other hardship than if we conceive of ourselves as individuals looking out only for ourselves. The justification for marrying and raising a family is typically, for most people, an affective and non-rational imperative. In fact, it would be difficult for a person concerned only with him- or herself to make any rational argument for the family from that perspective.
It might be argued further that the triumph of “chaos theory” and indeterminacy would presumably lead to greater caution in our constant, ongoing manipulation of the physical and social environments, since we simply cannot truly know or calculate the impact of our various transgressions against Nature. That the earlier economic success of the Far East may be derived from the familial and social discipline of Far Eastern cultures is quite plausible. (Such discipline generally originates in Confucianism—or in some elements of Shinto in Japan). The importance of social factors in the Far Eastern economic miracle cannot be underestimated. With the sense of belonging to a cohesive, homogenous civilization, and with the willingness to make enormous sacrifices for the extended family group, Far Eastern peoples have been able to work extremely hard for what are relatively far smaller pecuniary rewards than American workers receive. It should be also be noted that in South Korea and Japan, the great corporations have themselves reinforced the sense of community by extending a paternalistic care over their employees. In mainland China, as well as in overseas Chinese communities, the small independent enterprise is often coterminous with an extended family group.
Because of this solid base of social conservatism, it could be argued that the downturn in Japan and much of Asia will only prove temporary. At some point, all those economies will come roaring back. It should also be noted that virtually at the height of the crisis, Japanese unemployment was no more than 4%, whereas the equivalent rate in the U.S. was seen as coterminous with a massive boom. Everyone in Japan appears to be willing to make sacrifices to keep the unemployment rate comparatively low.
As Samuel P. Huntington had argued in his famous article (“The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs [Summer 1993]) and book (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order [Simon & Schuster, 1996]), the divergences in the world of the future are likely to be along cultural and civilizational lines. East Asia might well constitute a global focus of cohesion and social conservatism in distinct contrast to disintegrative North American individualism and liberalism. This excessive individualism and liberalism will almost certainly negatively effect the North American economy at some point.
In this context, a case could be made that too much fervor and arrogance are evident in the efforts of the United States to push its rights-dogmatism onto East Asian countries where such liberalism is clearly an alien cultural tradition, often seen by Asians as simply “crazy”. Because of the “absolutism” of the U.S. stance on rights, it becomes more difficult to properly distinguish between the real cruelties of China, such as its treatment of Tibet and religious minorities, and some trivial issues like the caning of a young U.S. vandal in Singapore. Incredible though it may seem, the government of the United States under Clinton, according to some economists’ estimates, actually controlled a greater proportion of the domestic economy than is controlled in China under the present regime. One suspects that some of the biggest critics of China today were some of its biggest fans during the truly bloody Mao period, when tens of millions of people were actually slaughtered. These persons typically hate contemporary, authoritarian China precisely because it has abandoned the grand totalitarian, utopian dream of Mao. The East Asians themselves often interpret the current American “human rights” emphasis as nothing more than an attempt to weaken the self-discipline and competitiveness of their societies, vis-à-vis America.
One might, if inclined to speculate on things Eastern, point out the possibility of a rather more distant future, where the peoples of Europe and heartland America could possibly be given some role to play in a socially and technologically stable, unified, worldwide Oriental empire. It is perhaps only in this way that a massive, enervating Western decadence and decay can be overcome and transcended. One is given a possible picture of such a world in David Wingrove’s bestselling—though somewhat inept, internally inconsistent, and dystopic—popular science-fiction series (which now numbers eight thick volumes)—Chung-kuo. We are certainly living in interesting times—the form of bad luck wished upon an enemy in an ancient Chinese curse.
Down with the Therapeutic Left and the Managerial Right
The Next City was from the middle to late-1990s a prominent Toronto-based Canadian magazine which is now no longer published, although the website (nextcity.com) is still extant. In his editorial commentary in the Spring 1997 issue, “Down with Left and Right”, Lawrence (Larry) Solomon, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, suggested that his title’s terms had definitively outworn their usefulness. Among the responses published in The Next City (Fall 1997), Michael Taube, then publisher of a small conservative zine From The Right (which in the end lasted only three issues) had argued that those terms continued to mean something significant. Nick Ternette, editor of The Left Fax (another small zine), had claimed that “the left as defined by socialists, Marxists, and greens does not believe in more government intervention, but less—it believes as some of the new right does that people should do things for themselves instead of relying on government, and it sees an alternative to free markets... and... government interventionism, namely communalization.”
Mr. Solomon’s response (Fall 1997) can be summarized as a reiteration of the call made in the initial piece for paying less attention to outward ideology. The implicit hope expressed was that there would be more of the practical working-out of difficult modern-day problems and dilemmas by persons of good will regardless of ideology. Although this is certainly a fine sentiment, one finds that in practice there will often be some kind of partisanship.
Nick Ternette’s statement is curious in that it can be read in a very traditionalist way. Does he really mean by it that the managerial-therapeutic welfare-state should be abolished, and that persons should depend on their own resources (or those of their immediate locality)? Does he really advocate a devolution of power to smaller municipalities and rural areas, as against the big cities? Does he really believe that neither provinces nor the federal government in Canada should set any general standards for health, education, welfare, human rights laws, etc.; that only local taxes should be collected; that any resources collected should stay within the locality; and that one should only be bound by the rules, laws, and customs of one's locality?
If Mr. Turnette thinks his position has been massively misrepresented above, he should have been more careful in his rhetoric. One suspects he probably missed the point that most of the communities of the country are NOT the various components of the urban-based “rainbow coalition” continually trumpeted in the media, but rather smaller municipalities and rural areas typically despised and marginalized by Left-liberalism today.
A traditionalist take on Mr. Ternette’s writing may strongly suggest the obsolescence of the Left-Right dichotomy. According to many theorists, the prevalent current-day political reality is the “managerial-therapeutic regime”. That term is carefully chosen, for one could argue that there is a “managerial Right” and a “therapeutic Left” which, although in apparent conflict, in fact represent little more than a debate between “hard” and “soft” managerial styles. The “managerial Right” represents the consumerist, business, economic side of the system, whereas the “therapeutic Left” represents redistribution of resources along politically correct lines and ongoing “sensitization” for recalcitrants.
The Left is also identified today with the pop-culture, which, in a somewhat different way from the therapeutic, seeks to reduce to non-existence all traditional social norms. While ferociously struggling for its vision of social justice and equality, much of the Left before the 1960s felt that many such norms were simply a natural, pre-political part of social existence which it had no desire to abolish.
The profit motive of the corporations, and the rebelliousness of the cultural Left and of late modern culture in general, feed off of each other, as Daniel Bell has argued in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. North American pop-culture (which most definitely includes very reckless and irresponsible academic and art trends) and the consumer-culture, are tightly intertwined. What is fundamentally missing is the sense of an integrated self and society, where a more meaningful kind of identity can be held by persons, and in which real public and political discourse can take place.
It could be argued that the real division of late modernity is between supporters and critics of the managerial-therapeutic regime. The latter include genuine traditionalists, as well as various eclectic Center and Left persons. It may be noted, for example, that Christopher Lasch, one of the most profound critics of late modernity, continued to identify himself as a social democrat. This kind of coalition is prefigured in the words of John Ruskin, who, in an age of a pre-totalitarian and pre-politically-correct Left, could say with vigor, “I am a Tory of the sternest sort, a socialist, a communist.” One of Canada’s leading social democratic thinkers, Gad Horowitz, in his earlier years was a close friend of George Parkin Grant, Canada’s leading traditionalist thinker, and there was some suggestion of a coalition of the traditionalist remnants of Canada with social democrats and socialists against “the American technological empire”. From those early years, one can find enthusiastic declarations by Gad Horowitz in defence of Canada’s British institutions and identity, based on the premise that only if Canada remained British-oriented would there be any hope for genuine social democracy’s continuing to exist in the country.
In his scholarly yet sharp-edged book, Beyond the New Right (1993), Oxford professor John Gray sketched out “an agenda for Green conservatism”. He was not the first to notice that true ecology and true conservatism share many things (as is already prefigured in language in the term “conservation”). That which many reflective persons object to is the subsuming of all political realities in the “capitalism vs. socialism” (said to be equivalent to “right vs. left”) debate. As far as social conservatives are concerned, they only need to reach to The Communist Manifesto for their understanding of capitalism:
The bourgeoisie historically has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest—than callous “cash-payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value... The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe... The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation... The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.…
So much for the idea that capitalism and conservatism are coterminous, or that capitalism- and consumerism-boosting economic or fiscal issues must take precedence over social issues in conservative thinking!
In conclusion, it may be stated that the tempering of the excesses of late modernity by certain traditionalist and local aspects would be highly salutary. Indeed, it might be the only thing that would keep society from descending into various forms of dystopia. Many reflective persons are opposed to what George Grant (following Jacques Ellul) called “the universal, homogenous world-state”. The managerial-therapeutic regime has its own versions of Left and Right (generally speaking, Left-liberals and neo-conservatives). Serious social critics are eclectic in their own placement on the spectrum. The debate between the “official” Left and Right often has little meaning. Honest, reflective critics of “the system” or “the regime” should not flinch from each other because of too-quick preconceptions about what a given political outlook represents.
Reviews of Recent Books Which Strive to Define Contemporary Culture
The Financial Century: From Turmoils to Triumphs. By Reuven Brenner. Toronto: Stoddart, 2001. ISBN 0-7737-3281-0. Pp. 214. $32.95.
Reuven Brenner is a distinguished professor of business and economics who teaches at McGill University in Montreal. This book, which sensibly rejects a socialist-style command-economy, also simultaneously embraces wide-open immigration, and (what the reviewer has called) hyper-capitalism. The book’s outlook is economically conservative or neo-conservative, lacking many social and cultural nuances.
In the Introduction, Brenner identifies his work as one of the type which examines “why and how nations prosper or fall behind”—listing Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as the first. The influence of Adam Smith is clear throughout Brenner’s book.
In Chapter 1, Brenner lays forth his main ideas, predicting “Another American Century”. His book is extremely Americano-centric, seeing America as closest to the free-market ideal that all of the rest of humanity should try to approximate. Brenner states: “Prosperity is the result of matching brains with capital and holding both sides accountable. In every society, there are only five sources of capital... inheritance, savings... access to financial markets... government and crime” (p. 9). Brenner’s outlook is that the success of society should be measured by the
extent to which it allows for widespread prosperity, which is said to flow mostly from unimpeded access to financial markets. For Brenner, anything associated with government is pejoritized: “Government is a monopolistic financial intermediary that makes decisions about taxation, borrowing, spending, ownership of resources, and granting monopolies. Instead of financiers, politicians and bureaucrats decide how to match money and people” (194).
In Chapter 2, “Capital Markets and Democracy”, Brenner argues that it is the openness of capital markets, rather than the possession of the formal trappings of democracy such as elections and “paper constitutions”, that determines the true extent of freedom in most societies.
In Chapter 3, Brenner wholeheartedly embraces “Globalization”. He calls this “The Long Road from Immobility to Mobility”. He argues that one of the most important factors contributing to economic prosperity is a country’s open-border immigration policies. Although this is currently a fairly common opinion, it can certainly be questioned. Some would argue that, given the current-day welfare state, mass immigration mostly enhances the big government agenda. It continually increases the number of voters and clients for big government and its attendant projects of redistribution.
In Chapter 4, “Direct Democracy and Financial Markets: What Do They Have in Common?” Brenner suggests citizens’ initiatives and referenda as among the best instruments for holding governments to account. How would he react to citizens’ initiatives and referenda that aimed at restricting immigration?
In Chapter 5, “Monetary Standards and the International Financial System”, Brenner quixotically calls for a return to the gold standard.
Chapter 6 examines nationalism—which Brenner finds “absurd”. While it may be admitted that nationalism has its negative side, nationalism can also be a focus for the most exalted senses of human purpose and meaning. Nationalism cannot be written off—in a fashion curiously reminiscent of Marx—as merely a tool for government and closed elites to maintain their power.
In Chapter 7, “Extracting Sunbeams Out of Cucumbers”, Brenner criticizes imponderable academic and bureacratic jargon. In Chapter 8, “The Future of Higher Education”, he attacks the overly jargon-ridden, bureaucratized and government-funded universities. But is having most education run by private business truly the panacea for the crisis in education?
Chapter 9, “A Financial Twenty-first Century”, expresses the hope that “investor capitalism” will finally mean the end of big government.
It could be argued that Brenner’s views are centered on a highly reductive view of human nature and the purposes of human existence, making widespread economic prosperity virtually the only worthy human aspiration. He writes, “When capital markets are closed, people turn real issues into moral and ideological ones.” Are not moral and ideological matters often the central issues of human existence? How can they not be considered “real”? Many persons might also ask whether the freewheeling capitalism espoused by Brenner is indeed the best vehicle for achieving widespread economic prosperity, or if it would in fact encourage very steep
inequalities in society. Brenner would probably argue that the flourishing of plutocrats goes hand-in-hand with the achievement of widespread economic prosperity.
Brenner’s common sense is his through-going rejection of the socialist-style command-economy. However, he goes to another extreme, hyper-capitalism. Brenner would argue that the arrangements he advocates are better at creating widespread economic prosperity, and perhaps even true equality, than is the mixed economy which has been accepted today as a workable compromise in most Western societies. Because of his overly economic focus, Brenner misses, downplays, or mis-describes many of the social, cultural, spiritual, religious, moral, aesthetic, and psychological dimensions of the crisis of current-day society.
The Politics of Ethics: Methods for Acting, Learning, and Sometimes Fighting with Others in Addressing Ethics Problems in Organizational Life. Richard P. Nielsen. The Ruffin Series in Business Ethics. R. Edward Freeman, Editor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-1950-9666-5. Pp. xiii + 255. $45.00 (cloth), $29.95 (paper).
This work is said to be “opening up a dialogue between business thinkers, literary figures and corporate managers trying to act ethically” (p. ix). Richard P. Nielsen is one of the leading scholars in the business ethics field. The work includes References (pp. 235-251) and a short Index (pp. 253-255).
After the brief, clear Introduction (pp. 3-9), Chapter 2 looks at “Obstacles to Ethical Organizational Behaviour” in terms of several mostly
negative “archetypes” of conduct drawn from history or literature (Eichmann, Richard III, Socrates’ Jailer, Phaedo, Faust, Dr. Suguro [the Japanese doctor convicted of criminal experiments on American P.O.W.s during World War II]), as well as in terms of negative environments or negative aspects of organizational traditions.
Chapter 3 lays out the framework for the rest of the book, as to the overcoming of these obstacles, in terms of “single-loop”, “double-loop”, and “triple-loop” politics. These may be summarized as methods in which (1) only the immediate problem is raised, and only an immediate solution is achieved; (2) some dialogue and change of mind occurs with the persons involved; and (3) the shared organizational tradition or environment may actually be referred to and possibly changed, or the shared organizational tradition or environment may counteracts individual negativity.
Chapter 4 examines “Single-Loop, Win-Lose Forcing Methods”, typically carried out by “Top-Down Ethics Generals”, or “Bottom-Up Ethics Guerillas”. Chapter 5 looks at “Single-Loop Win-Win Methods”—typically the mutually advantageous “deal”. Chapter 6 examines “Double-Loop Dialog Methods”, identifying three types—iterative (or Socratic), action-science, and action-inquiry. Chapters 7-9 look at three types of Triple-Loop Dialog: “Friendly Disentangling”, “Friendly Upbuilding”; and “Varieties of Postmodernism”. The third type of triple-loop dialog is likely to occur where there are a variety of cultures present in the organizational set-up, especially as found in the situation of Western companies operating in the Third World. Chapter 10 looks at “Internal Due-Process Systems” as “Ethics Processing Machines”. Chapter 11 seeks to summarize how the various loop methods can be used to break down the problems associated with the negative “archetypes” presented in Chapter 2.
The Conclusion reached is the not-too-startling one that today’s leading paradigm should be “Proteus as Organization Citizen”. An Appendix (pp. 219-234), explores “Varieties of Dialectic Change Processes”.
Though many of the observations arrived at in the book would appear to be little more than common sense, the main emphasis attempts to assert left-liberal value content in the pursuit of “good management”. At no point are the possible enterprise and workplace problems and frictions caused, for example, by U.S. big-government regulation in general, and affirmative-action policies and overextended definitions of sexual harassment in particular, seriously discussed. (The possible drawbacks of these policies should at least be raised for the sake of establishing popular consent for them through public discussion.) As the presumptive audience of the book appears to be left-liberals of the “politically correct” type who consider ethical behavior as being unquestionably coterminous with the exercise of their own worldview throughout society, the book is of more limited use in addressing those managers and other persons who have differing interpretations of the lifeworld.
The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. Myron Magnet. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993. ISBN 0-6881-1951-4. Pp. 256. US$12 (paper).
Myron Magnet’s book consists of an introduction and eleven chapters with pithy titles, and includes notes (229-242) and an index (243-256). The notes are not numbered in the text, but rather identified in the notes section by page number together with a two or three-word snippet from the quotation. This convention, combined with a relatively large and quite pleasing typeface for the main text, increases the physical ease of reading the book.
The Introduction, “What’s Gone Wrong?” provides a snappy précis of the work. It begins by discussing the enormous and incongruous contrasts of American wealth and poverty, which foreshadows the imagery of a disassociated society invoked later. The introduction is forthright in claiming that the Sixties constituted a successful cultural revolution which fundamentally transformed American society:
... The cultural revolution was made by an elite of opinion makers, policymakers, and mythmakers—lawyers, judges, professors, political staffers, journalists, writers, TV and movie honchos, clergymen—and it was overwhelmingly a liberal, left-of-center elite. Thus for the last thirty years, the dominant American culture has been liberal culture; notwithstanding Republican presidents in the White House, the ideas and values that have come to Americans from their newspapers and network news programs, their university (and increasingly their grammar and high school) classrooms, their pulpits, their novels and movies and television sitcoms, their magazines and advertisements and popular music, their courtrooms and their Congress, have added up to a liberal, left-of-center worldview. (22)
One’s reaction to this initial statement will probably indicate what one thinks of the remainder of the book.
In Chapter One, “The Power of Culture”, Magnet criticizes the position of economic determinism (whose origins he traces to orthodox Marxism) and argues for the supremacy of culture in determining human behaviour and relations. He is probably not aware of the partial similarity of his argument to Antonio Gramsci’s inversion of the orthodox Marxist view of the ideological superstructure and the economic base. Magnet argues that the negative cultural ideas contained in the Sixties revolution wreaked havoc when they were diffused from the “Haves” to the “Have-Nots” of American society.
In Chapter Two, “The Underclass”, Magnet stresses how prone to difficulties many of these persons actually are, as part of his continuing effort in the book to demythologize the mystique of the helpless, innocent poor. He also points out how well immigrants to America with intact cultural values have done, even though they often begin by working at jobs which “the Haves” harmfully denigrate as “chump-change”.
Chapter Three, “The Hole in the Theory”, refers to explanations of these phenomena based solely on economics. The missing element, according to Magnet, is culture, and an awareness of the evil propensities of human nature.
Chapter Four, “The Homeless”, describes examples of the sometimes ugly behaviour of some of these people, and, after condemning the criminal sub-element within the homeless, goes on to indict the curious Far Left psychiatric theories that led to the release of hundreds of thousands of psychiatric patients from state mental hospitals—who today constitute the single largest category of homeless.
In Chapter Five, “Homelessness and Liberty”, Magnet further examines what he sees as the ostensibly well-intentioned but ultimately harmful approach of psychiatric de-institutionalization. Far from helping psychiatric patients requiring long-term care, this approach has caused them to fall prey to the most utterly degraded kinds of life.
Chapter Six, “Victimizing the Poor”, refers to the process by which “the Haves” invariably tend to portray the poor as “victims of society”, thus, according to Magnet, effectively denying that these persons can in any way improve themselves through their own individual effort and moral fortitude. According to Magnet, John Rawl’s popularily-acclaimed and immensely influential work, A Theory of Justice, played its part in justifying the virtual idolization of an undifferentiated mass of “poor”:
To Rawls, as in the moral imagination of the culture as a whole, the poor had moved in from the fringes and become central. They had become a measure of value, a point of reference, against which social policies and arrangements were to be scrutinized. This was an extraordinary development, making the condition of the poor, rather than the overall national wealth or freedom or virtue or artistic achievement or true democracy, the justification of the whole society. Thereafter the Have-Nots... came to stand as a mute, unanswerable judgment upon the Haves and the social system they uphold. (130)
Chapter Seven, “Race and Reparations”, concerns the difficult issue of the racial composition of the underclass. Maintaining a tone of civility throughout, Magnet argues that Sixties’ liberationism, with its exaltation of an “antisocial” way of life which it saw as coterminous with the ghetto hustler’s lifestyle, undermined the black family and work-ethic, and with it black chances for advancement.
Chapter Eight, “Rebels with a Cause”, includes a coruscating attack on the now-common view of the criminal as victim, entitled to special rights and protections. Norman Mailer’s still controversial-sounding essay, “The White Negro”, is cited as an illustration of this glorification of the hoodlum. Magnet is attempting here to trace the literary and intellectual roots of the present crisis of lawlessness. Magnet argues that the punishment of crime is the cardinal function of the state. Its apparent unwillingness to do so today is probably the gravest consequence of the Sixties cultural revolution—and has the worst effects on decent blacks.
In Chapter Nine, "The Living Constitution", Magnet criticizes judicial activism as a substitute for democratic decision-making. According to him, this has been one of the main characteristics of America since Brown v. Board of Education. Although he supports the Justices’ decision, Magnet criticizes its having introduced a legal pretext for subsequent wholesale judicial intervention. He also argues that the noble ideal of a “color-blind” society envisioned in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has in fact been overturned in favour of coercive integration, “reverse-discrimination” and affirmative-action, which the Supreme Court has unaccountably accepted as constitutional. The idea of the so-called “living constitution” means that the Supreme Court Justices can interpret the law in virtually any way they choose.
Chapter Ten, “Trashing the Culture”, is in some ways the most alarming chapter in the book, as it gives many examples of the penetration of the American academy by forces hostile to civilized discourse. Various leading professors are describing the Bible and long-valued literary classics as merely props for racism and sexism, and they will not tolerate anyone who speaks favourably of these works. In a philosophically chilling though instructive passage, Magnet cites one of the leading deconstructionists:
Boasting of his movement’s subversive intent, English professor J. Hillis Miller defines a deconstructionist as “a parricide. He is a bad son demolishing beyond hope of repair the machine of Western metaphysics. (210)
Finally, Magnet goes on to attack “Afrocentrism” (citing Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in support) which, with its questionable notions of a black Ancient Egypt and a teaching curriculum stressing “the emotional, intuitive, nonrational”, further handicaps blacks in an increasingly technological society.
Chapter Eleven, “The Poverty of Spirit”, concludes the book on a surprisingly optimistic note.
Magnet’s book is an exhilarating read; it is sharp in criticism while maintaining the civil proprieties of discourse. In that sense it probably represents the best of the Western civilization which it stands to defend. Some might argue that a massive ideational wave has been carrying the planet in more or less the same direction (despite occasional lapses and detours) for hundreds of years. Now that we have come to know what living in late modernity actually entails, it may be time for the great counter-critique, for another cultural revolution. Magnet’s trenchant book can certainly be seen as a signpost along the way.
Poetry Corner: Three Poems
David Adams is an attorney based in Houston who writes poetry frequently for the sheer pleasure he takes in it--as do all of us, surely, who persist in the endeavor during these very pragmatic times. John Harris is the President of The Center for Literate Values.
The Lost Karankawa
The crops were good that year, and every task
And too, the wilderness that blessed year
A Catalogue of Slips
I sing the mighty arms that wielded flame
Upon a time, then lost the deadly skill,
As Samson, Sax, or Sasser, or Ankiel.
Or as Steve Blass, who, fresh from triumphing
In hated Baltimore , his lethal sling
Departed, sought from Delphi 's oracle
A diagnosis, as he also sought
A physic from Hippocrates, and from
Clemente Cannon-Arm a sage advice
He sought; and too, the mighty Stargell asked,
Him wielder of the Ashen Club in all
The sieges in the grassy field of Forbes:
“So Willie,” Blass discoursed, “These errant orbs
Go wild! I am undone! Can glory then
Return, or can I Golden Trophy win,
My aimless arm now useless in the fray?
It is as though a stalking curse from one
Offended of the dozen deities
Had caught me from behind!” “Remember, Steve,
What Satchell Sage recorded in his Lore:
“Don’t never look behind you, something might
Be gaining on you,” Stargell thus rejoined.
I play a game before dawn—
An insomniac’s game—
“If I were dying,
What would I say?”
A fan revolves through the night—
A propeller’s blades:
Its drone kneads traffic
Into hoarse dreams.
But now immune to soft blur—
An insomniac’s trance—
“If I were flying,
Where would I gaze?”
The years, the hills, flatten out—
A Siberian plain.
The ones who killed me
Over those years
(“Denounce those crimes in detail
before Justice’s Chair!”)…
I lose their faces
In the blonde steppe;
The names they carved on my soul—
The indictment’s précis…
Engine’s round snore.
Mock-pardon murders again—
Uncondemning the foul:
Those wanton killers
Of the child I was
Enjoy no grandiose pass—
No theatrical wave:
But I am aging.
I’ve lost their names.
No field of innocents slaughtered—
Pricks my iced window
Seven miles high.
No witness sworn on a grave—
No ensanguined resolve—
Can rhyme the murmur
Turning the blades.
I age in games before dawn—
An amnesiac’s games—
“That voice of living,
Whose face is it?”
I spy a game with my son—
A recuperant’s game—
Old man in mourning
Called by a child.
This laughter nullifies fouls—
A child’s eyes banish
Hell to a dream.
John R. Harris
Today the neighborhood looked late twentieth-century, or even not so late. Lupino could faintly remember, as a boy, having to open front doors with manually inserted and turned keys. Not only were the iris-reading lasers of the BeyePass scarcely thought of: typical portals of admittance were not even fitted with PressPads responding to fingerprints. This particular door might have had either security feature at one time (though almost certainly the BeyePass: these broad, low rooflines suggested a state-of-the art residential area before the Freeze—they were the very kind that kept caving in now under the weight of long-compacted snow). Vandals had neatly prized the box from its shoulder-level housing, here as on so many other front stoups. Whether or not the thieves intended to rifle the premises for food or clothing or weapons, they always made sure to come away with the security boxes, which had infinite uses (when broken apart and reassembled) in stealing identities, setting off explosives, screening entry to hideaways, and other favorite criminal activities. Nobody had thought when all the gadgetry was created that it would one day fuel a boom in grand larceny and deadly assault. Who could ever have thought—who but a lunatic—that the world would be reduced to its present state? All the same, the things were like so many damn bullets sitting around in wait for an old-fashioned revolver.
"Central," murmured Lupino into his Ambi, "I’m at the extreme southern end of Elysian Fields. No scan on this residence—another ten-eighty. Do you have any data on the caissons installed along this block?" Something hissed and rasped in his ear. The cold was getting at his fugging responder now, just as it had knocked out the PanelPal in his squad car last month (and his had been almost the last in the squad to go).
"Repeat? I can’t hear you. No, I don’t have any fugging PanelPal—why do you think I’m talking to you? Never mind, never mind. You guys…" and he discreetly switched the whole rig off, which had a nasty habit of suddenly working just when you didn’t need to be eavesdropped on, "not worth… the juice it takes to thaw out your butts."
So Lupino fidgeted with an old screwdriver he now carried about for just such contingencies, almost as if he were unlocking the door instead of coaxing it from its icy frame; and when the panel finally gave with a crisp crack, he drew his nineteen-fiftyish revolver filled with those bullets which had recently served his thoughts in metaphor. The StunDowners didn’t work, either—or not reliably enough in these sub-zero conditions—but the old piece, he had found, would fire true for six squeezes. Very twentieth-century, this new life. More so every day.
Of course, he didn’t really give a damn about the ten-eighty and its possible attendant crimes. If the place hadn’t already been broken into, he probably would have jacked it himself. It was almost midday, and he was even hungrier than usual. Elysian Fields, he knew, had been inhabited as of about six months ago. Some of the houses just across the bridge had betrayed trails of wood smoke through makeshift vents in their roofs, and he could smell the acrid odor of charred logs even now. There might be some food left in a few of these residences still—reports of Vandals had been rare over here. But they would be. Who would file a report, and how would he file it with virtually all of the vital systems down?
The house possessed that pretentious, now fatally ridiculous sprawl typical of about ten years ago, before the Freeze had really set in down here and while power was still up and running. There was barely enough light filtering through the shuttered windows to illuminate his way. (A shutter had probably blown off, in fact, to produce that milky band of haze: jury-rigged from plywood or even old cardboard boxes, shutters were usually a desperate afterthought.) Nevertheless, Lupino could almost have traversed this floor plan in complete darkness. The ample foyer which eventually knelt down a step into a yet more ample atrium, a formal dining area splaying off to one side and a theater or studio off to the other… he didn’t like to use his Flare, just in case a Vandal really were lurking in the shadows. Sleeping it off in some closet, perhaps. If looters had made any entry into the place at all, they would have hit the wet bar for sure. Sometimes there was even glass all over the atrium floor. He had heard crunching under his thick soles since his first step inside, but it sounded more like the frost on his boots against the hardwood than like glass fragments.
As his eyes became adjusted to the penumbra, Lupino began to move more quickly. Now, where was the damn kitchen? That was the one room you could never be sure of finding in the same place—which made food-hunting an even higher risk than it needed to be.
The bar, at least, had not been raided: that was a good sign. A bottle of sherry left out on the counter appeared to have frozen like a brick—but it was almost empty, anyway. Some whiskey under the counter, better insulated and not as depleted, was still liquid. Lupino took a sip, and winced delightedly. Amazing, that something which hit you so cold could instantly turn to fire. Working laboriously through his thick gloves, he managed to slip the bottle safely into his jacket. Now, if only there happened to be some olives….
He noticed, as he leaned to reach the bar’s far end (where a jar of olives graciously awaited him), that a caisson was in some kind of alcove just off the atrium. What a weird place to put it! Must have been where the hot-water heater was before—sometimes they did that, the ones who had run out of money and just had to be preserved for posterity. The shift apparently cut a few corners, though he didn’t know the fine points of how the things were installed. He had never been very curious. The very idea! Crats, who in hell would want to keep his body on ice for a few hundred years, only to be brought back into this life of… of trying to stay alive. But maybe that was the point. Maybe, for some reason, they figured that a millennium down the road, things would suddenly, miraculously be worth living for. People had to believe in something, or… or they couldn’t keep living. But then, they hadn’t kept living. That was the whole point. They had to believe in something so they could die—they had to believe they weren’t dying so they could die! What sense did that make?
Lupino gave one short laugh out loud (and was sorry he had done so: he felt his lips crack painfully). In an almost unconscious movement, he shattered the olive jar on the counter, since trying to remove the lid would only have strained his wrist while producing the same fragments in the end. He scarcely even bothered to step back—the near-instinctive avoidance of the vinegary soup was all but effaced. Instead, he immediately, expertly began picking the icy crust and glass shards from the green nuggets. After a little sucking, they were edible, even tasty.
He felt oddly festive. Something to eat, and a bit of a show. A floor show—the prospect of that stupid caisson looming in the far corner, flat on the floor! He had cut his patrolman’s eye-teeth chasing Vandals (though, back then, they were mostly just adolescent pranksters) out of empty or sparsely occupied houses, where they loved nothing more than to pull the plug on any poor skag who had bequeathed himself to the next eon. It was still rather warm then; sometimes, it was downright hot. He could remember going about in shirtsleeves, back then. The bodies would be ruined almost instantly, so there wasn’t really much point in chasing the punks after they had played their joke. But he had chased his share, full of a sense of duty, scarcely older than the squealing perpetrators, convinced that the rule of law was the antidote to that slow rot eating away at all of them—that shadow of impending doom which, back then, had nothing much to do with temperature.
The funny thing (and Lupino almost smiled again: he caught himself just in time) was that, if a body were to freeze in bed today, it would probably be preserved at least as well for the future, and at no extra charge. He didn’t know if a body so frozen, and otherwise clean of natural ailments, could simply revive and open its eyes should the weather ever let up miraculously, hatching a full day of sun. He didn’t suppose it worked that way—he didn’t really see how it could (frostbite, and all that). But it was certainly worth the risk of a laugh to think of the stiff in that caisson in the corner. The electricity needed to keep him safely iced had long since vanished out here—but he might possibly never have thawed if the shut-down occurred after the Freeze. No, no… that didn’t make sense, either. Why would you go to the trouble of putting yourself in one of those things after you already knew that you were going to freeze, anyway? All the people who had "bagged" themselves had done so back in his cub days, as far as he knew. But no, some of these things weren’t that old. Damn, his fugging memory was even freezing up on him!
Lupino’s fingers lifted the revolver’s muzzle reflexively (the deadly antiquity had never parted from his hand: he had been picking out olives with his left). Yet almost as reflexively, he knew that there was no real danger. The front door had squawked at the same time as a new band of light flitted across the atrium. No Vandal would have entered a house so carelessly—not even his own. (Lupino had a keen sense for how Vandals lived, because he lived practically the same way: he would slide silently through the doorway of his own apartment every evening.) The pistol’s hammer never so much as came to cock. He just waited, munching and watching the foyer.
"Hello?" questioned a voice finally—an innocuous voice, husky but frail.
Still he waited. He swallowed the present olive’s remnants without reaching for another.
"Hello? Is anybody here? Is there… I need an officer. Please, I need help."
And still he waited. Footsteps were drawing nearer. Everything told him that there was no danger—but you always waited for everything plus one, as Sergeant Turk used to say.
A lean figure with bowed shoulders shuffled out of the foyer and to the atrium’s edge.
"Watch the step," croaked Lupino.
The figure turned slightly without any hint of a start. In the dim light, Lupino could discern a long beard laced with gray, and also a couple of dark holes where the eye sockets bored. (He didn’t like long beards himself: they got in the way of snaps and zippers. He scissored his own back to a warm stubble once a week.)
"I’m a cop. What d’you need?"
"It’s my daughter. She’s dying. Not enough food… and I can’t keep her warm. We burned the last chair yesterday. I can’t even thaw water. She hardly opened her eyes this morning. I’ve got to get her…"
"The aid station. Yeah. You should have gone down sooner."
"We couldn’t. There was no way to go. Yours is the first squad car to pass this way in a month. I tried to flag down the last one. I think he saw me, but…"
"Yeah." A patrol car was supposed to cruise this sector daily, but Lupino well knew that most of his buddies found a warm place to lie low, siphoned off their fuel to sell on the black market, and came dragging in at their shift’s end. Sometimes he even sold part of his haul to them—at no discount on the smuggler’s going rate, since he couldn’t suppress his contempt for how they wore the uniform.
Neither of them had moved an unnecessary muscle since the exchange began. "Want an olive?" Lupino offered.
The old man, pausing only momentarily, took the step down as if fearing a catastrophic fall and then shuffled across the hardwood to the bar.
"Let ’em sit in your mouth for a minute." And after studying how the old man attempted to grind several green nuggets at once, despite the warning, he heaved a deep sigh which helped his jacket to open a small gap, and fished out the bottle. "Here."
The dark round eyes beneath the beetling brows flashed for the first time, almost timorously, and the bearded jaw stopped chewing.
From within the layers of clothing that could not disguise a gaunt inner frame, the draught’s lightning bolt inspired a visible shiver.
"Can I… she… this would really do her good."
"Yeah. Well here, I’ll hold onto it for her. We’ll get to her in a minute. Got to check this place out for food first. Did you know… these people?"
"No. Just to wave at. Different circles. They were up and coming. We were retired. Retire in luxury—that was our dream. Our daughter was much younger than our son. She lived with us, until… and then, pretty soon, it was just she and I. She’s a beautiful girl, mister. I was thinking… if you seemed the right sort, I was going to offer her to you. You… you’re a good fellow. She won’t have much of a chance as things are going, even if we get her to…"
"Yeah." Lupino frowned painfully over his shoulder—the other shoulder, on the side away from the caisson. "The kitchen’s probably through there."
"You… you want me to check while you stand guard?"
"No. The place is empty. You didn’t see anyone outside, did you?"
"No. No one."
"I had to shoot a Vandal yesterday… or the day before. They know they can’t break into the squad car. But the stupid idiot thought he could lay for me on the passenger side. I keep my mirrors turned so I won’t be blindsided when I walk up, and I noticed right off that they were turned back up. Idiot. He thought I wouldn’t see that. I nailed him with one shot."
"I noticed your Smith and Wesson."
"You know guns?"
"Uh-huh. Sort of. I did research for Dillinger and Schultz. I went back and looked at old weapons, to get ideas. Sometimes great ideas get discarded in the rush to be different. There was a stunner we designed once, for use in power outages… I actually got the idea for the essential feature from a crossbow."
Whatever that was. Lupino shook his head ever so slightly. "Speaking of ideas… I’ve been having this idea lately. It’s that we’re going back. In time. This gun, almost a century old. But it doesn’t jam. Sure, they devise new things down in Base. But the things we working stiffs actually use… we’re going backward. We’ll be like cavemen soon. Maybe there’ll be… you know, those big elephants."
"Yeah. At least we’d have something to eat! You smart guys, why didn’t you pack us something to eat, if you saw all this coming?"
"We didn’t. Nobody did. It was supposed to be unbearably hot, don’t you remember? The Greenhouse Effect. Come now, you’re not all that young, are you?"
Lupino, with an effort, remembered the phrase, Greenhouse Effect. "Yeah. And that’s why… all those fugging caissons…"
"People started preserving their bodies to avoid the disaster. The very rich, at first. And then… and then the real disaster occurred."
"Yeah, yeah. The Freeze. Didn’t they put something in the air—you know, the atmosphere—to allow more heat to escape?"
"That’s mostly legend. At the time, it was political smear. Then it became legend. No. No, the big disaster, the real disaster… it wasn’t the Freeze at all. It was a kind of insanity. The craze to preserve one’s body for a better time. Even after the Freeze started. Even when it should have been obvious to anyone that we wouldn’t have steady electricity. Winthrop there… or Winslow, or Winfield… he only put in that caisson… it was maybe four years ago, I think. If you can believe it."
"I was just thinking, before you walked in… you know, how he must have been there for ten years. How it wouldn’t make any sense, otherwise."
"No. It didn’t make sense. It was insane. And everyone did it. Everyone with resources, with training and a brain. It was a kind of elitist thing. And then, for many of them, there was nothing else. Winslow’s wife ran off on him, after his sons had been arrested for… oh, when all those young people marched on the power plant."
Arrested, shipped out in chain gangs, and worked to death, Lupino mused. "I remember that."
"It was all a kind of suicide, you see. Mass suicide. Blame the Freeze, if you will. But we could have gotten through this."
Lupino frowned at the remaining olives, then began to stuff them into a pocket, one by one. He wasn’t sure that they weren’t getting through this: he wasn’t sure what it meant to get through. And it deeply disturbed him, not that he didn’t know, but that he hadn’t yet even gotten around to asking himself the question.
Many emergency vehicles were now equipped with treads, but Lupino was just as glad he had held on to his old model and its steel-spiked tires. (Central hadn’t yet figured out that most patrolmen wanted the treads because they came with larger fuel tanks, which meant more of a precious commodity to auction off.) He was able to make good speed down the empty streets. The face in his rear-view mirror, mashed lopsided against the old man’s beard and half-smothered in thick blankets, bore the tint of an ancient sheet of ice. The eyes never opened—they might never open again. Nothing seemed very pressing in these temperatures: nothing seemed to hurry, not death itself (whose arrest, after all, had been achieved—as long as power had held out—by the frigid caissons). But once he had seen how far gone the girl was, it had struck him as obligatory to hurry. He still possessed that much of a sense of obligation somewhere within him (he discovered, glancing in the mirror, as if an unheard-of abstraction were also nestled in the blankets). That the old man himself had not hurried only made a show of hurry the more obligatory. Someone should still hurry in an emergency—someone should still give meaning to the word "emergency". And the job was his. It was that fight for meaning, perhaps—for the job—which kept him from turning around one of the more sophisticated Vandals he would pin up against the wall during the week and muttering, "Let’s team."
At any rate, it wasn’t the old man’s offer which made him force the accelerator to the point of spin-out. No. When they reached the aid station (the glow of the Subterrain first haloing the distance like a sunrise, then the phosphorescent descent down the ramp bringing an instant rise in temperature, then—at once—the station’s exit), he played the hand which the old man had subtly dealt him. "Get her back there now," he said. "This is my mate. Here’s my card." No doubt, the old man himself must have thought that he had just paired his daughter off. Yet Lupino could scarcely repress a note of disgust when the attendant came back with a PalmCorder and said, "We need her name, date of birth… basic Life Stats." What emerged from him was something identifiable as a laugh only by the rush of hot air from his nostrils. "How the hell should I know?" he responded. The old man quickly seized the PC and addressed himself to the blanks.
Ever since Kena, he had hated women, hated them with a detestation that rapidly cooled and grew as hard as the ice which mirrored the sky above. The stupid trix had actually tried to write him a farewell note: his detective’s acuity had led him to a single character traced awkwardly with some cosmetic tool on one of the note pads he collected (with the intent, one day, of writing down some of his thoughts). He had toyed, for about five seconds, with the notion that she must really have cared deeply to attempt such a struggle… but no, it was more likely an attempt at a parting insult. What word would begin with a "c"? Or was it an "o"? Or what word would a moron like Kena think would begin with a rounded letter, or what Kena might think would be a rounded letter?
Within days, he found out that the trop was in the Captain’s sack. Probably why she had left him. Probably why she had wanted to go out in the Underground Arcades so much—to locate a more affluent keeper. What had he expected? He was stupider than she, to have expected anything different. Yet his first actions (after seeing her with the Captain) had been to come back to his apartment, load and hide every weapon that would snuggle into his clothing somewhere, and set out for the Officers’ Quarters. With every step he took, however, he had understood better that the sensors would flag his steel, or else the IRR stun or kill him after he had squeezed off one shot… and whichever one of the two he took down with that shot, the other would look down sneering at him as he died. It would make far better sense to slip a pick between Kena’s ribs one fine day as she fluttered along the arcades, then wait along the Transit Chutes for the Captain to come reeling out of his favorite club.
It had ended at an Exmas party, when the Captain—and all the others—were as drunk as doctors. Lupino had nursed his drinks all evening, watching the doors of the ape house open—watching, in particular, how many hands Kena allowed to slip inside her blouse. She steered clear of him most of the evening, but he noticed that she frequently shot him rather soulful glances across the tables upon satisfying herself that none of the scorts belonged to him. Maybe she thought his lonesomeness was some kind of tribute to her, and was acknowledging it. He had known, somehow, that she would come stumbling over the bodies to intercept him as he made to leave. Sure enough, there she was before his foot could touch the doorpad—just the two of them, suddenly alone. He had spat in her face and, as she recoiled shrieking, kicked her hard and low in the gut, where it wouldn’t show. He didn’t really care if she told the Captain or not; but he had known that she wouldn’t. It would make her look too much like what she was, and would make the Captain too aware of what he had in her. In fact, she had already been passed along twice (that he had heard of) since that eventful night.
A personal freeze had set in, meanwhile. It was somewhat before the Exmas party (some days or weeks or months—who even knew when Exmas was any more?) that he had taken to going armed with his Smith and Wesson as well as the StunDowner. Not that he had turned homicidal: all stunners were lethal unless at the limit of their range (an irony he had happened upon once while idly pondering the word "stun" in his squad car). On the contrary, there was something like a suicidal impulse behind his new bravado. For some reason, he became obsessed with the thought of confronting a Vandal with the century-old revolver. It would be fun to go out literally blazing away. What he hadn’t expected was that the old thing would save his life on a day so cold that all the stunners were malfunctioning, as they inscrutably did in such conditions. He had held off a band of ten Vandals, killing one and wounding two others. They obviously had possessed no familiarity with the classic six-shooter, for they had kept running even after his last shot’s crack. The incident had been observed by Doan of the forty-third, who quickly spread it around. Lupino grew famous over night. His nickname changed from Loop to Cowboy.
The stupidity of all the admiration (the Captain had promoted and decorated him before the precinct in the best of cheer, Lupino repressing the notion of running an ice pick through his entrails at the climactic moment) made him feel more isolated than ever—that and the absurdity of the failed suicide. Not only was he still alive: his name rolled over the Newspix for days, and he was allowed a wide tolerance in assignments and hours. The irony (another irony hatched in loneliness) was that the patrols he ran by gray, cloud-filtered daylight were infinitely more dangerous than those the night shift supposedly performed. (The guys had actually formed "safe houses" topside in abandoned areas where they congregated to consume booze and the parentless girls they "rescued".) Sometimes he wanted to blow the whistle on them all—but how, and to whom? That wouldn’t even be suicide, probably: everyone would just look at him as though he were insane, and then pass on by. It all made him freeze a degree or two closer to absolute zero.
Nevertheless, he permitted the girl—this new girl, this thin white sheet who turned out to have fierce blue eyes—to stay in his apartment. "You can have the bed when I’m on duty," he said—and otherwise, he paid her no more notice than to inform her when he had brought in more food. The old man—Lupino ended up calling him Kurt for some reason—was frequently a guest for coffee or a long off-duty chat. Lupino liked him. He was smart: he knew big words, used them with ease, and moved among the complex ideas they evoked with comfort and enthusiasm. Yet Lupino also noticed (the old man called him "Loop", apparently in affection, since he could hardly have overheard the outdated nickname) that he became the object of stealthy fatherly glances, and that Kurt would hug his Marta with a revealing mixture of pride and encouragement when taking his leave. The girl had plainly not told him that she lived as a virtual stranger in the young man’s apartment (or the younger man—the man who was younger than an old man).
And Lupino found himself wondering more and more, during those frequent on-duty moments when he had nothing else to occupy his mind, why he didn’t make Marta his mate. (A lot of his time in the squad car was spent in "gatoring", as old Sergeant Turk used to call it incomprehensibly with a chuckle: heap the car with snow, ease into the midst of several abandoned vehicles, and sit spying on the neighborhood for illegal activity—or for signs of life, which was usually the same thing now.) It was absurd to think for an instant that a trix like Kena had affected him in some deep emotional way. If he just didn’t want women spying on him and pilfering his possessions (most were themselves pretty good at gatoring), then Marta would have been about the lowest risk he had ever seen. She not only stayed out of his way in the four-room-plus-kitchenette apartment: she did little things for him which he only discovered in her absence, like cooking him something from the cans he brought in, cleaning his boots, or mending his gloves. (Where in hell had she found a needle? He could have gloves for the asking down at Central, but… but he never told her that, because it would have cut off one of their few meager lines of communication). In turn, he found himself bringing her things—not flashy trash from the arcades, as Kena would have craved, but coats and dresses from long-abandoned closets. He had taken the measurements of her garments once with his belt while she was asleep, and by now he had them by memory. So it didn’t seem like he hated her, or even like he suspected her. Why would he—because of Kena? No, it was more like… like something he just had to hold back from. Like not getting too close to a heater when you know you have to go right back out again… or not getting drunk when you know that your mortal enemy is at the same party. It was a matter of survival. Sharing your life with a mate was bad for survival.
One day, Kurt brought him the oldest guns he had ever seen: a Winchester and a Colt Peacemaker. They were genuine cowboy weapons, and he thought for sure this time that the old man must have encountered something about the legendary shootout with the Vandals and was teasing him over it. But there wasn’t a hint of jocularity in the explanation which accompanied the firearms.
"They both use the same caliber of cartridge," lectured Kurt. "A forty-four-forty. The pistol, of course, will help you in close-range defense. But for longer ranges, you need the repeating rifle. You slip the shells in here… and the lever ejects an empty shell when brought down, then throws a fresh shell into the chamber when…"
"Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen Westerns before, Kurt," interrupted Lupino, shouldering him away from the carbine. "Christ rats, man, this is almost in working condition! Where did you ever find it?"
"It is in working condition. They both are. That’s why I brought them to you. Listen to me. I’m not giving you toys for your collection. The day may come when you need these to… to defend my daughter. And yourself, of course. Stunners are all dependent on recharging, and the Ministry controls all the power, ultimately. That means that if the Ministry should decide to black you all out up here..."
"What? Decide? Come on, Kurt, don’t start talking like a con! The big guys need us as much as we need them. Probably more. We make the streets safe. We keep the hospitals running."
Kurt withdrew into a deep armchair and raised those brows which still beetled, even without a light sheet of ice on them. "Very well. Let’s just say that the Ministry might at some time have to conserve energy. A brown-out. What if they issued orders that all good citizens should use no unnecessary energy? What if you were commanded to take what weapons you needed from the precinct, and not to recharge any at home—not even to bring any home? You’re a decent fellow, Loop. You would obey, even though the command would be practically unenforceable. You and a few others—the very ones they might want to be dependent upon them in a crisis. Dependent, or at their mercy. No, wait, just let me finish. The point is that these weapons are simplicity itself. Get together all the forty-four cartridges you can from your arsenal at Central. No one will ask any questions—they’ve probably been sitting around for years, if you can even find them. If you can’t… well, I can get you some shells, you can get the powder, and the lead can be melted down over any flame, as long as there’s good circulation. You’ll need a bullet mold."
"And this is in case the Indians attack?" sniggered Lupino. But only half of him was involved in the jeer: the other half was captivated by the notion of such perfect independence.
"It’s in case you have to fight for your life—and for Marta’s. You’ll have a chance, a reasonable chance. And the more they cut you off from the power, the more of a chance you’ll have. Because, Loop, when they have to go farther and farther into the cold to get you, they go back in time, and it’s the old weapons that will work."
Lupino found shells, oddly enough, by making a rare foray into the old business district and digging through a well-ransacked recreational emporium. Even bow-and-arrow sets were missing—as were most of the old-fashioned firearms, for that matter. But these had apparently been stolen for their iron, if not for some other, unimaginable reason. Boxes of shells lay about in a storage room like an ancient car in a shed, full of dust, unappetizing to the most hearty of molds and protozoans. After carting away to the squad car all that he could possibly use and carry, Lupino improvised a slow fuse to blow up the rest. There was no point in leaving the stash around until a bright Vandal finally caught on to its value. From a block away, the explosion was duller than he had expected. It might have been any one of a dozen bombs that went off every day from end to end of the shrinking metropolis, blasting open impregnable doors or reducing empty structures, sometimes, to a material-rich rubble.
He got his practice firing at dogs. He didn’t like depleting his stun-weapons on them, yet they were a constant threat. He had once seen a small pack devour an infant and take off the mother’s arm before he could make his way across a bridge collapsed under ice. The Winchester’s crack at first puzzled them. They would start but not run, even if a patch of ice splintered at their feet—even, indeed, if one of their number leapt into the air with a yelp. He could pick off entire groups of four or five in so many shots, when he began to master the sport. Finally, in a couple of weeks or so, they began to grow wise to the method, and he could only bring down the leader before the others scattered. It might have been a couple of months.
He remembered from these days an enigmatic scene. He had sniped away at a band of dogs fighting over a human carcass until only one remained, and he had pursued (in the thrill of the hunt) this survivor into a wide-open residence. The dog got away thanks to the house’s roof, which had fallen in some while back under the weight of accumulated snow and left a gaping hole in the rear wall. As Lupino turned to leave, he noticed the familiar squared, low-lying outlines of a caisson—and then beside it, a huge dog which must have been surprised in the sudden deluge of snow. The thick white blanket had frozen hard and cleared, preserving the brute as if for some exhibit. Lupino could observe no red stains, and the roof’s beams had come to rest without touching either caisson or animal, forming over them a kind of lean-to. For days afterward, he pondered: if the sun should return some fine year, and if both dog and caisson-dweller should begin to thaw out, what would happen? If the dog came to life first, would it gnaw off the reviving man’s leg… or would it, under the benign influence of sun, warm human flesh, and stirrings too distant to be called memories, wait patiently for the representative of the master species to open his eyes?
He also thought about the implications of what Kurt had said—the Ministry, rationing, brown-outs, high-level conspiracies. The truth was that he thought about little else behind the superficial diversion of plunking at dogs and poking through abandoned residences. He didn’t like being manipulated, he didn’t like being ignorant, and he didn’t like being comfortable. Ignorance and comfort were as deadly as keeping a woman. He soon realized that he had actually come to enjoy the lonely life of combing the topside wastes—and that those who might wish to manipulate men like him would understand this attraction and skillfully employ it to keep trouble on the margins. What did he know, after all, about the Ministry? He had never even been granted a pass to ride the Transit Chutes beyond Central—he had never even applied for such a pass. What were things like, lower down?
He decided to ask Kurt the very next time they were together. As it happened, the afternoon following this resolution brought them within each other’s eyeshot from far ends of the Elevator’s platform. Lupino was heading home after a day shift, and Kurt was obviously going in the same direction to visit his daughter and "son-in-law". (Lupino was not yet clear on exactly what kind of employment Kurt had secured himself down here, but the old man’s engineering abilities would have been in great demand.) The Elevator was actually a series of a dozen shafts whose cars traveled up one side of the Subterrain’s gigantic vault and then, their floors always perfectly level, began the other side’s descent if summoned. The highway which fed in from topside had once bored under a mountainous section of the city to make an impressive tunnel (or what passed for impressive back in the days of sunlight: Lupino could remember being awed by the descent as a toddler, when some people who must have been his parents first drove this way with him). The peripheries of the underground lanes had gradually widened with the Freeze, and the lanes themselves had also shrunk to two as traffic diminished to a trickle, at last virtually stilled with the sealing of the far entrance and the mandatory parking of most vehicles just beyond the aid station. Now there were layers and layers of apartments built up in the rocky ribs like a hive, their invisible connective corridors served from outside by the Elevator’s shafts. Lupino’s place was near the top—a choice location, in a way (though quarters near the top were smaller), because rising heat from the rest of the interior gathered aloft. As he lay in bed between shifts, he sometimes wondered how far above his head was the earth’s surface. Could he dig through the ceiling and reach it in a crisis? He also wondered how far he would fall if the hive’s steel-reinforced ribs should one day catastrophically yield.
Kurt subtly beat Lupino to the punch in the matter that had instantly begun to loiter on the tip of his tongue as they closed along the crowded platform. There were three other residents who shuffled speechlessly into Shaft Five when its doors opened, and of course discretion in such matters as this must be observed. (Mention of the Ministry was not in any way forbidden, yet Lupino could not recall ever hearing a public discussion of its actions.) Kurt nodded cordially to him, and they shared a wall in the compartment’s rear, pressing their shoulders flat against it. As the cable began to hum, the old man drew his attention to the scene beyond the transparent plastic pane at their side—a descending scene, which shrank into perspective like a colony of alien life forms brought into focus through a lens.
"Look at that. The new trolley is beginning to run beside the aid station—Aid Station Number Four. It’s supposed to reach the Transit Chutes, you know. All electric."
The tarmac of the one-time traffic artery, now reduced to a silver-gray sheet speckled in tiny pedestrians, halted its steady approach upon their heels as the box slid to a noiseless, almost imperceptible stop. One occupant disembarked between quiet kisses of the automatic door. Those who remained said not a word. They stared at the sealed door in a faint hypnosis as the quiet hum resumed. Kurt stared, too—yet he was anything but hypnotized.
"Remarkable, isn’t it," the old man’s voice continued soothingly, "how we can’t get the simplest system to run topside, yet things like these shafts go without a hitch. The engineering is flawless. Perfect craftsmanship."
The second stranger exited now, faintly pausing over the car’s hairline seam with the floor as if to admire its artifice. The door sealed upon his puzzled gaze.
"Twelve shafts operating more or less incessantly, twenty-four hours a day, to serve a residential quarter with ten thousand units, all lit and heated. And the Subterrain glimmers and purrs below them throughout the same twenty-four hours. Shops are always open. Public services are always available. Look at them, all those people getting off the Shuttle from the parking decks to enter the arcades. Like ants. Orderly, efficient… and happy. Under the circumstances, remarkably happy. Never so much as a brown-out to dismay them."
"But you said…."
Lupino had been unable to bite back his words in time. Fortunately, the final stranger was an incurious chambermaid wearing the sanitized livery of her profession. She exited at Level 72 without so much as a backward glance. Lupino’s eyes sprang from her back to Kurt before the door had begun to shut.
Even after the lift began to hum once again, however, the old man’s only response continued to be a vague smile directed beyond the ceiling-to-knees window panel. Their compartment had now migrated to the middle of the silver-gray sheet, as far as the naked eye could tell—for that sheet itself was now a mere ribbon. The entirety of the Upper Subterrain’s east end lay at their feet like … like some game of lights, some clever, pleasant display of miniature tracks and wharves and ramps, all teasingly lit with strings of minuscule bulbs, which a wealthy nursery might construct for toddlers.
"You see, Loop," murmured Kurt through his long beard finally, "the abyss on whose edge we balance is not chaotic. It is, in fact, very well run, very well designed. I had no idea… these last few months have been a great shock to me. We all tried to hold out topside, as you call it, as long as we could, simply because we thought there was nothing down here but a dark, dank network of sewers.. Quite amazing. I don’t know which is more amazing: the miracle of the Subterrain, or the jealous secrecy with which it is guarded."
Lupino was about to say something like, "Then you no longer think I’m going to have to use my Winchester in an hour of sabotage"—but the irony (he was imbibing more irony every day, and not just from Kurt) was too tame, too naïve. His mouth remained speechlessly open. What he grasped at that instant was that, to his "father-in-law", the threat of sabotage was more imminent than ever.
As if he were not fully turned toward the window panel, Kurt responded to the dawn of comprehension on his younger companion’s face.
"Never has a population of this size been so utterly at the mercy of... of them."
"Who?" questioned Lupino nervously, noticing that their floor was next on the digital display.
Kurt turned back to him and bowed him toward the door in one motion. "That’s the second reason for alarm. I don’t know who. We don’t know."
When the door sucked itself away to reveal a carpeted corridor, Lupino could scarcely get his legs to move. The old man smiled again and coaxingly preceded him.
"But… but look," whispered Lupino slapping his palm over the door frame as if to still a loose tongue and peeking up and down the hallway, "I’ve met a lot of these swells. The Captain, the Commissioner—even that guy, Senator Tovaglia, I heard him speak one time at a dinner. They’re idiots! All of them."
Kurt drew him gently onto the carpet. The door silently closed upon a lingering vision of sub-terrestrial paradise.
"When the topmost are at their cleverest, they fill the ranks of the almost-topmost with buffoons."
"But every reason you have for being on the alert is a reason for the opposite," protested Lupino, still in whispers.
His protest had the unwanted effect, apparently, of terminating the discussion which he had longed to have. They were quickly at his apartment’s door, then inside after a scan (he had read Kurt’s iris into his BeyePass several weeks ago). Marta greeted her father with a mute hug. Then the two men sat down and began to talk of… nothing. Trivialities. Lupino’s discomfort was increased by the odd feeling that Marta’s presence might be supposed to signal something: staying mum before the womenfolk… or assuming, on the contrary, that the girl already knew all their secrets. What might she have told him about her father’s notions if the two of them were indeed man and mate? Had he already betrayed to Kurt that he didn’t know as much as he should have? It was an exasperating sensation, and he didn’t exactly know why. Perhaps because it might reflect upon his manhood in the old geezer’s eyes… but also, even more, because he truly had shut himself off from a valuable source of information. That had never occurred to him before, about Marta: a valuable source of information.
"What have you got in the sack?" he threw into a moment of lull, uneasy now with silences. "Another gun for me?"
"The pen is mightier than the sword," returned Kurt in one of his annoyingly inscrutable proverbs. The sack certainly couldn’t contain a sword—and what in hell would he do with a long knife on his rounds? Skin the dogs he shot?
"I know that you can read," continued Kurt, producing a couple of thick volumes. Lupino had occasionally seen books in the houses he searched topside, but few as hefty as these. "Marta says you have ambitions of writing a book yourself."
How had Marta… maybe just a lucky guess, a gambit to convince her father that she was an intimately cherished mate. Was their true arrangement, then, so hard on her self-esteem? Lupino caught her retreating figure in the corner of his eye just in time to see a heavy blush sweep the transparent cheeks.
"This first book was written by one of Marta’s great uncles. It’s about freedom… about freedom and pain, I suppose one might say. About the necessary bond between the two."
"Freedom and pain," mused Lupino as he received the book and began thumbing through it. "I should have a lot of free moments reading this, because it’s going to be a big pain to figure all these big words out."
"I think you’ll find it worth the effort. More so than taking your pleasure along the arcades with your fellow citizens—these drones who imagine themselves both free and amused."
Just like that, they were back in the thick of the discussion he had wished to have—the one which really mattered. Yet he was faintly bewildered by the transition’s suddenness. Kurt did not allow him time to recover, but dealt him another blow, instead, by handing across a still thicker volume.
"You won’t be able to make much sense of this one, either. That’s okay. Any little bit of sense you get out of it will reward your trouble. It’s an old engineering textbook of mine. I looked for something better—something more on the novice’s level, I mean. But I was astonished to find that no books of any sort were to be had anywhere in the Subterrain. Not even in antique shops or junk piles. Not one. Technical pamphlets, repair manuals… nothing of more than, say, twenty pages. Another of my negative indicators. Anyway, I know you’re well aware of all the fuss about the generators, the power plants, the overloads. It’s become the stuff of legend among us. I remember telling you something about old Winthrop’s sons and that desperate protest march when we were having our very first conversation—the afternoon, you know, when I thought Marta was going to die. And after all, the rumors were the obvious explanation for everything bad that was happening, even before they became myths. No power. Too much demand on the generators. Everybody going into those insane electronic cocoons, and then the Freeze… we all believed a conclusion that we had reached largely on our own, or so it seemed, and which we were allowed to keep. Hard times were in the air around us, even while the sun was still shining. Why, the whole caisson craze would never have occurred if people had not already convinced themselves of an impending doom, an apocalyptic..."
Kurt’s tone drifted off in pursuit of his gaze, which had wandered to nowhere. This occasionally happened with him. Lupino knew that he was at least twenty years older, that he recalled a lot more. He had to be fetched back with a jolt whenever he started sifting back in time for first causes.
"But even though we all believed that the power was shutting down... it really wasn’t? Is that it?"
"But there was also a very prominent theory, already much-discussed back in those days of sun, that energy could be produced by other means. Not water, or fossil fuel, or fission. Right under our feet. Do you know what’s beneath the crust of the earth, Loop?"
Lupino avidly wanted to learn more, but he was always vexed when Kurt exposed the depths of his ignorance in this way, especially in front of Marta. Why did Marta make a difference? "Conspiring bureaucrats?" he said in a defensive jeer.
Kurt laughed heartily, letting him somewhat off the hook. A wit, after all, might pose as a fool for a good joke’s sake.
"Read that book, and you’ll see. Read it first—just read the first chapter. Heat, Loop—molten rock and metals are a few miles below us. The stuff that surfaces through volcanoes. It’s a practically inexhaustible supply of energy. And the beauty of building a settlement like this below ground is that, the lower you get, the warmer the temperature grows. Do you understand? Just by digging downward, you create an environment where the climate, during an ice age, would be very livable."
"But… you said several miles down. We’re… nobody in the Subterrain is that far down."
"Nobody that we know of. Not you or I, at any rate. But we really have no idea how deep this little bio-funnel of ours goes, do we? And the energy is certainly flowing from somewhat, great steady waves of it. Look at this—Marta, bring that here, will you? Look, she’s opened a can of green beans. Where do you think these came from?"
Lupino eyed the open can in perplexity—and also the long, thin hand which held them. He peeked under his brows at the girl’s face, and was surprised to find something like a conspiratorial smirk concealed there (or left unconcealed only in his direction).
"Um… they come from topside. I bring those things—those kinds of things—down here whenever I clean out a place."
"No, Loop. You didn’t bring these home. I bought them. The label isn’t like any I can remember from the days when we had sun—but it was on sale long before the Freeze got really severe. And the price for this can of beans was about that of a toothbrush or a sleep band. There’s been no escalation of the price, and there should have been a very steep one. These beans, and other food items like them, are being grown underneath us somewhere through the use of artificial light and, quite possibly, natural warmth."
Over the next few days, Lupino took to loitering along the deeper arcade levels. He had never much liked the rows upon rows of beauty shops, betting booths, antique dealers, hockey lanes, exotic clothing stores, sun salons, swimming coves, tea shops, coffee shops, ethnic cuisine… Kena could have lost herself in such surroundings for days, but Lupino detested the purposeless drift of it all. Now there was purpose to his drifting, however. He paced off the dimensions of every floor, then took a Chute to the tier below, or else followed the corkscrew esplanade. (He hadn’t known that they existed, those gently sweeping walkways at each alley’s end. They were pleasantly lit, shedding a phosphorescent brightness sufficient to keep alive avenues of potted palm trees.) Below the shopping district, he penetrated the administrative quarter, with its queues of discreetly illumined offices built into the walls like a thousand man-and-desk sized cubby holes—and, of course, its sandwich shops. Lupino was nursing a cup of coffee in one of these when he happened to look up and see himself in a long mirror behind the counter. His scraggly beard, his tousled hair… he was suddenly aware that he no longer blended into the crowd. Glancing furtively around him between sips, he saw only clean-shaven, neatly tonsured button-pressers who seemed at once to turn their backs on him and to peek over their cups and rolls. He was quite literally out of his depth. A whole new world flourished down here whose existence he had never remotely suspected.
The Transit Chute of this level was as far as he could go without a B-1 Security Clearance. He managed to steal a long look after the departing cars as he chatted with the guard about a fictitious shoplifter whom he claimed to have trailed to these depths. Important people elbowed past the two of them as if they were part of the sensitized door frame, making for the coaches that sighed almost soothingly down other corkscrew esplanades, specially designed to float their weight. What sort of scene would those streamlined hatches open upon in a few seconds? He had become immensely curious.
On this occasion, he wandered quizzically back to the same sandwich shop as he had patronized before, and ordered another coffee. It was now that he remarked how the place had only one conditioning vent. The temperature was that stable, at what he reckoned to be about a half-mile below the surface. Shifting his position along the counter until he was right under the vent, he found that it was expelling cool air.
Back upon the frozen planet’s crust, Lupino began to indulge another kind of curious whim. He rifled empty residences, not for food or clothing (or not, at least, in those areas he had long since combed), but for books. The pickings were lean, even though no Vandal would have wasted the energy to rip one of the volumes off its shelf. Finding canned vegetables or a bottle of Scotch would have been far easier. In the unlikely event that his hunt found its quarry, he was further disappointed to realize, most often, that the books weren’t worth reading. They were usually full of pictures—albums of family members or co-workers—or else they were manuals for how to retract a sun roof or program a RoutineRunner. When he did manage to locate a work filled richly with print, it typically contained some rambling, half-lunatic disquisition on the end of the world—the sure signs, the judgment of God, the way for the Chosen not to be left behind. After a couple of weeks (or perhaps months), all he had really succeeded in redeeming for his leisure hours was a Western about a cattle drive, a history of motor-hockey, and a dense work by some prison inmate with a very long beard beneath his chin and a very long name under the cover photo.
Lupino would read his treasures during evenings when Kurt didn’t stop by. He rarely discussed his literary endeavors with the old man: he felt certain that he would have exposed himself to mockery—light-hearted, but still irritating. On the other hand, he had come to use Marta as a trusty resource. At first he would make lists of words whose definitions he would later ask of her. Before long, however, he was simply calling to her across a room or two; and sometimes, he would actually go read to her—halting but determined—a passage which particularly impressed him. A wealth of good will always streamed from her fierce blue eyes as she listened. Without fail, she made him feel as though he had discovered something profound.
Whether Kurt learned of this growing interest in books from his daughter or independently sought to nurse it along, he mentioned titles to Lupino more and more often. There was a little of the familiar humiliation in such conversations, since Lupino not only had never read any of the works mentioned but had no means, as far as he knew, of obtaining them. He had grumbled as much to Kurt frequently: it had become his standard rejoinder to Kurt’s standard literary ostentation. The old man mildly teased the young man for being a blockhead, and the young man counter-jabbed that the old man was a tiresome show-off. The brief ritual had become so set that Lupino was wholly startled when Kurt proposed one evening, "Go back to my house and get my books, will you? You remember where it is, don’t you? Go there tomorrow." The thought of having access to Kurt’s legendary library was faintly daunting, for Lupino realized that he would have no further excuse for being a dolt once the great works were in his hands. But his hunger to read them cover to cover—to be able to go back over certain passages again and again—quickly overpowered his reservations. What did he care about an old man’s teasing, anyway? As long as the old man would explain the really hard parts, he could buzz and prick all along the way like some tiny fly.
Elysian Fields. Lupino had come far enough under Kurt’s tutelage to know that the neighborhood’s very name possessed some sort of irony in a world whose ironies had lately been sprouting before him everywhere. He was surprised at the change that had overtaken the district. Had it been so very long since he had last cruised out this way? Certainly the ring of habitation—"the living sector", as Central called it—had been shrinking rapidly. Maybe it was his recent forays down into the bowels of the Subterrain… but to know that, half a mile beneath his feet, well-groomed people were sipping coffee in well-lit, temperate nooks while, up here, former homes were beginning to look like crude natural objects as snow flurries wore away their edges and then compacted into sheets of ice… the contrast had never struck him so hard.. Not even wild dogs were scavenging the streets where he had pulled Marta from death’s cold vice. The streets themselves could not be seen, even in contour: all he could do was steer midway between the orderly rows of white outcroppings which had once housed human beings.
And yet… he spied fresh tracks through the windshield as he neared what he thought to be the correct block. They crossed his car’s path at one point: he halted and craned his neck forward. Maybe half a dozen sets of tracks. Human tracks.
Something warmed and quickened in him as he made the final turn. The tracks seemed to lead straight to his destination. He hadn’t felt the old surge of adrenaline for some while: like the wild dogs, the Vandals had been growing scarcer and scarcer. After shifting into neutral, he filled one palm with his Smith and Wesson and reached to detach a StunDowner with his left hand. Half a dozen Vandals… and the revolver only held six shots. If they put up a fight and the stunner refused to work…. He could call for back-up, but then they would ask where he was, and then they would want to know why he was there. Waste of time. Was he… afraid? Did he actually want to live? When had that happened… did it have something to do with Marta?
Surely his engine would have been heard—the silence of the crypt reigned over the planet’s surface. Nevertheless, Lupino fitted his boots into the tracks before him so that he would not crunch any fresh ice. He held both weapons leveled at the open doorway (open, no doubt, since the day he had carried Marta out in his arms). If a hostile figure appeared, he would let fire with either hand, just in case only one gun worked.
"He’s here," a voice said very plainly from inside. And then…
It was Kurt—Kurt and five others. They had trekked out here earlier in the morning. He asked them if they were all insane.
"This way we won’t be interrupted—or overheard," said a man closer to his own age (as far as a heavy parka would betray), who was the only other besides Kurt to stand up. The others were hunched not uncomfortably around some sort of portable heater on the floor. One of them was brewing tea.
"Well it’s a hell of a secret meeting, when you’ve left arrows to it from here to the Subterrain," Lupino scoffed, and then turned to Kurt. "So we’re not all here just to auction off your books, I take it?"
"The walk was actually quite pleasant," responded Kurt, irrelevantly but with sincere excitement. "The very depth of our tracks shows that the temperature has risen. Perhaps because of the Subterrain’s radiation, to be sure. But… I saw a predatory bird of some kind, Loop! A snow eagle, maybe."
"We need you to apply for promotion to lieutenant," continued the man in the parka.
"And exactly who are ‘we’?"
Kurt was about to intervene, but the younger man cut him off. "Everyone in this room knows all about you, Sergeant Lupino. It’s time you knew all about us. Look, Kurt says you can read, and you’re decorated and something of a hero. Once a lieutenant, you’ll make captain within a year. I don’t have to tell you what imbeciles they’re forced to choose from. Even despots have to be served by minimally competent officers. They’ll welcome your application—you’ll see. Once you make captain, you’ll be able to move at will through many of the lower tiers—the quarters of the Ministry, and possibly even… well, that’s just it. We don’t know what else is down there. That’s why we need you."
"The power plant… is that what you’re looking for?" said Lupino dryly, turning his back on the man and watching steam begin to rise from the kettle. Nobody else, apparently, was aware of the bubbling water.
"I see you’ve been listening to Kurt."
"Oh, some of what he says makes it through my thick skull occasionally."
"Please join us!" pleaded a very small, white-browed man frailly from his crouch, interlacing his gloved fingers.
"Your water’s boiling." Lupino turned back to the leader. "Look, so I make captain and get a high-level clearance. So I discover a… evidence of a system that converts the earth’s internal heat to electricity. What do you want to do—blow it up? It seems to me that the Ministry has done a damn good job of turning a disaster into a miracle. I’m not so sure that they wouldn’t have my vote, if…"
"If you got to vote for them," finished the other; Lupino clenched his teeth. "And what they’ve done a damn good job of is getting everyone off the surface and into their own biosphere, where they have complete control over all life-support systems. Or didn’t that part of Kurt’s message sink in?"
"Nah, I’m just a fugging cop!" Lupino winced inwardly when he heard himself pronounce a word that, since Marta had come to share his quarters, seldom left his tongue.
"Philip, please, this is no way to treat a friend," protested Kurt. "It’s you who are now displaying few signs of intelligence." Then he nudged Lupino toward the rest of the group, where tea was being poured. "You must consider, Loop, that Philip’s wife disappeared recently. She had an important post in the Bureau of Public Health. She was asking questions, and… well, the questions were not well received."
Lupino pulled back and frowned. "Look, I’m sorry about his wife… but we don’t do things like that, okay? Whatever conspiracies you guys have cooked up—or have us cooking up—and whatever slacking and black-marketing goes on in the department all the time, we don’t round people up on some mysterious order and throw them out in the ice."
"And exactly who are ‘we’?" asked the man in the parka very calmly—perhaps too calmly.
"We’ve talked about the Winthrop boys, Loop, remember?" said Kurt coaxingly.
"Crats, that was the National Guard, Kurt—and that was years ago, under Governor… what’s-his-name…"
"It doesn’t matter, Loop. The point is there are many strings to pull—more than we know—and that we really have no idea who’s pulling them, or why. Nor do we know where all the strings are tied. One goes to the squad car that saved my daughter’s life… another, perhaps, goes to an execution squad."
Lupino threw up his arms energetically. It was only then that he recollected the weapons in his hands. Was that why the men around the heater kept crouching so low?
"I… I just don’t know why you seem to get more alarmed every time you see something working better than anyone could have expected." And he sheepishly holstered the Smith and Wesson.
"But Mr. Lupino," said the little white-browed man, extending to him a cup of tea, "if there’s enough energy below the surface to light up the Subterrain, why does the surface community keep shrinking?"
"Because… because it’s easier for all of you to be… you know, looked after… down below," answered Lupino unsteadily, recalling his own impressions during the drive over.
The man in the parka—Philip—seized the proffered cup and delivered it into his now-free right hand. "Q.E.D.," he murmured.
Lupino looked from him to Kurt. "Okay. And just what does that mean?"
Despite a certain friction which never entirely vanished (Kurt had it right: these people who considered police to be uniformed Vandals didn’t seem to mind accepting their help to save a son or daughter), Lupino came away from the morning’s session oddly light-hearted. He wasn’t exactly sure why, even when he logged off his shift and proceeded to pay the initial visits necessary to activate his lieutenant’s application. (The clerk at Personnel was visibly impressed that he could both read and write letters upon the forms with such ease.) Yet the light-heartedness grew steadily: everything he saw and touched seemed to fertilize it. As his step carried him jauntily down the platform toward the Elevator, a joyous truth met him no less face-to-face than had Kurt a few days ago in the same spot. Lieutenant… an apartment among the Officers’ Quarters… special privileges, special perks. It could be a new life, a life he had never dared to dream of before. Life together with Marta. They could have children. There was a well-maintained nursery just for officers’ children, a delightful place with miraculously full trees in it (as far as he could tell from over the walls: occasionally he had been called on to chase down one of the officers who had gone off-duty). Marta would make a perfect mother. With children, the screw-ups of past and present wouldn’t loom so large—there would be another chance. Maybe even a better chance than anyone had ever known in the past, when people had lived only on the earth’s surface. The prospect was exciting, more exciting than anything he had ever felt in his life. But at the crest of each new wave, each new cause for optimism which lifted him yet again after scarcely settling down from the last, was Marta.
The intensity with which he longed to see her, to tell her, somehow brought Kena briefly into the calculation, like the shadow clinging to a sudden deep trough in his high-riding. Could she mess up his application—could she distill a wicked word into the Captain’s ear? She certainly would if she could. Why had he treated her so barbarically before? How could he have stooped to behave at her level? But no… he was soon borne up yet again, where his heart made its own sunlight. The Captain had long since booted Kena out of his life, and she had clearly not worked her way back into the chain of command, let alone farther up it. Why, she was just a cheap trop now, if what he had heard a few months ago was true. In his private daylight, he actually absorbed enough warmth to feel sorry for her during the very few seconds before her complete disappearance from his thoughts.
He lolled about the apartment, spying after some kind of overture or dramatic effect, as Marta executed her usual quiet choreography around the kitchen in response to his return. "How would you like to be an officer’s wife?" sounded worse than absurd, and he killed the silly question on his tongue once or twice. He knew full well that a girl like Marta (not that there were any others like Marta) couldn’t have cared less about status or riches. It was only when she gave him that faintly smiling cock of the head to invite him to his supper that he realized the extent of his stupidity. This wasn’t at all a matter of breaking to her the news of an important promotion, an important residential move. It was… it was their marriage night. He was supposed to tell her somehow that it was their time to be mates in every sense. In the only true sense. To tell her that….
Her look was more puzzled when she came at him the second time, searching his eyes for the explanation he hadn’t yet offered. He caught her wrists and caressed them, then enjoyed the luxury which (he divined) many men never know of surprising in the eyes he loved most a flame always modestly stifled there before. Supper would have to be warmed over.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had received a call over his Ambi to supply back-up. These days, there were few enough squad cars even doing patrol—and even fewer of them actually patrolling, the lazy brickfeet! "Too busy icing dissidents," Lupino grumbled to himself through a smile. But he was also worried. Never in his life had he wanted so much to live. Never before in his life, as far as he could remember (including his childhood, from which two benign adults had been airbrushed early on), had he even wanted to live, he had come to realize. Now it was going to be like this every time he made a stop. Now that he wanted to live so bad he could have cried out, there was going to be a trap around every corner. A fuggin bomb or a ShellShocker with his personal name on it. And he would probably step right back into the only real trap because he was so dog-scared of sticking his neck out. He needed to get himself behind that lieutenant’s desk fast.
He didn’t recognize the number on the other squad car. There was no one inside it. He sat for a while, waiting. Then he noticed that he—that they—were on the wrong side of the street. A house farther down the block was fuming through its layer of snow, a couple of charred lumber ribs exposed through a rent in the white blanket. The contrast was so great, so oddly and instantly depressing, that he might have been looking at the maw of Hell. A uniform was waving at him weakly from the satin-sheeted lawn.
He reversed, then cruised ever so slowly down the block, forcing himself to look to left and right. The smoky hole would have held him spellbound if he hadn’t fought it: the prospect was as bizarre as… as one of Kurt’s woolly mammoths. He couldn’t recall ever having seen anything like it. Exploded buildings, yes. Residences whose occupants had choked themselves while trying to start a fire, yes. But this fire had apparently blazed hot enough and long enough to burn away part of the roof right from under the ice pack. How did you do that sort of thing accidentally?
He recollected the cop—Hathaway—as he climbed out. A rookie. Not a bad kid, just very green. Who else would have bothered to do his rounds so meticulously way out here?
"What have we got?"
"I… I don’t know. A fire."
"Hm. You think so? Why in hell’d you leave your squad car down the block?"
"I… I got the call, but I must have misjudged the street. I don’t know these streets so good. Then I hit the curb when I saw…"
"Damn, kid! You shouldn’t be out here alone. Did you bust a tire?"
"No, I… I don’t think so. I just… the fire was really blazing when I got here. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I… I guess I must have got out and started walking."
"Well, we solved that mystery. What about the fire?"
"I… I don’t know. There are dead bodies inside."
"I… half a dozen, I think."
"Hm. Well, go get your car. And listen, kid. Always check out the car’s far side before you reach for the door. You can turn your mirrors to make it easier. I’ll show you how in a minute. A Vandal would love to get his hands on your squad car."
But Lupino wasn’t thinking about Vandals as he approached the charred hole in the dripping, icy mound. He wasn’t even thinking about them as he slipped his revolver from its holster. Vandals had been known, all right, to execute rival bands in a manner similar to this: but a bomb… he had already ruled out a bomb. He had probably long smelled the car fuel subconsciously before that, too, entered his calculations. No Vandal would waste good fuel on wiping out a few competitors. Anyway, this wasn’t a Vandal neighborhood—too far from the most inviting targets. It wasn’t the usual danger which was opening blackly, cryptically before him. That made it all the more dangerous.
He had to back out of the doorway, his eyes squinting and fiercely watering, in order to soak part of his scarf in snow and mask his face with its protection. He holstered the revolver. Nobody was very likely to be crouching in ambush amid all those pitchy fumes.
His boot kicked something before his eyes could see it. He grabbed one of the body’s limbs (funny how you could tell a corpse just by kicking it in the dark) and tried to drag the mass back through the door. It wouldn’t come. Beyond a certain point, it stuck as if nailed to the floor. With the hand not clasping his scarf tight against his face, Lupino groped along the clothing until, somewhere around one of the ankles, he felt a taut cord run off into the sooty chamber. He fished out his knife and slashed at the cord, then resumed his toil without any further resistance.
He heard Hathaway pulling up the drive as he stood back from his haul and contemplated it. The face was smeared in slick black but otherwise not burned or mutilated. Two white eyes glinted like round pearls in a mud hill, inhumanly motionless and globular. A thick parka shrouded the lean body: no flashy clothes or bright trophies such as he would have expected on a Vandal. He shook his head, replaced his scarf over his lower face, and went back in for another corpse.
"There were six of them, Sarge," said Hathaway behind him when he had stretched another victim out in the snow. This one, too, had needed cutting loose from some kind of tether.
"Yeah, you said that. How do you know?"
"Like I said, the fire was still blazing when I ran up. I could still see. A Little. I could see six of them lying on the floor, right inside. I don’t know, there might be more farther in, I guess. I couldn’t get through the doorway it was so hot. I guess they… were already dead by then. Do you think they were already dead? I mean, it was so hot. And then it just went out. Just all of a sudden, like someone had thrown a blanket over it."
"That’s the way fuel fires are."
"You can smell it, kid. Use your nose."
Remarkably, this man had shut his eyes in resolution—not an easy thing to do when you’re suffocating. Perhaps he had realized that there was no way out, and had concentrated himself on giving up the ghost (as Kurt would have said) with dignity, with… with philosophy. As Kurt would have said.
Lupino fell to his knees. They gave out beneath him, and he fell in a mass beside Kurt’s body.
"What’s the matter, Sarge? You know this guy?"
He had not recognized him right off because the heat had partially singed away his great gray beard. Marta. The Ministry. Execution squads. Great books. Marta.
"No, we’re… yeah. We’re pulling out bodies right now. Yeah, he’s here."
Lupino sprang to his feet as irresistibly as he had toppled from them. He ripped the responder from Hathaway’s collar, sending it to disappear deep in the snow yards off, and curled both his fists into the younger man’s lapels.
"They were asking if I was here?"
"Central, yeah! Crats, Sarge—"
"Did you call in for back-up? I said did you call for back-up? Were you the one that called for me?"
"No! No. I… I thought you just happened along. I thought you might have seen the smoke."
He let the kid slide out of his grip. His mind was racing in too many directions at once. He had to get it all moving in the same direction without any more lost time. Even a tenderfoot like Hathaway… he had already let the kid see too much. They would ask him back at Central. They would pump him about how Lupino had taken it, how he had acted when he examined the corpses. He had already given too much away.
But maybe not. After all, this was his father-in-law. Wouldn’t it be even more suspicious—extremely suspicious—if he displayed no reaction at all to finding his father-in-law dead?
"I’m sorry, Hathaway," he muttered nervously. "This… this guy here’s my wife’s father."
"You’re dipping me, right, Sarge?"
"No. I’m not. He was my… my wife’s father. Yeah. And I can’t figure out how this could happen to him. What’s he doing out here? Who are these guys, the ones he got smoked with?"
It would be a torturous ordeal trying to play the detective in front of this big dumb child who didn’t even know that he would have to review the performance for their handlers later back at Central. He would carry it through for a while, because he had to—because it would be the basis of whatever chance he and Marta could cling to, whatever escape they might still put together. Then he would plead a bad attack of nerves—his loss, the shock of it all. And then he would have to move very quickly, but very normally. A missed step might be fatal.
"Bring the other bodies out here, Hathaway. You’ll have to get your knife ready—they’re tied together."
"Yeah. Tied together."
He had just bought himself a few minutes, a few minutes to think. Obviously, the six "dissidents" had been observed. Obviously, he had been observed meeting them. Why else stage this mockery of their rendezvous at Kurt’s house the other day? And if they knew about that meeting, then what good would it do to pretend before Hathaway that he recognized only Kurt? But then, why haul him over to find the murdered men in Hathway’s gullible presence, and underscore the murder by leaving the six tied together? Wasn’t it so that the young fool could note all of his reactions—reactions which he might suppress before an older man? Maybe they weren’t really sure about the other day—about his role in the meeting. He was a good detective. Maybe they wanted to enlist him in tracking down any other members of the "conspiracy" by arousing him through Kurt’s murder. Or if they suspected him of being part of the cell, maybe he was going to be closely watched in the hope that he would go running with the news to other contacts.
There was far, far too little time to see clearly to the bottom. Maybe it was all just a kind of cat-and-mouse game—a flourish on their part to let him know that he was next, to make him sweat. But he couldn’t afford to sweat. He had to stay dry and cool, so that he could get Marta out.
Something startled Lupino—not Hathaway, who was huffing and puffing from the doorway, but a… a ghost. A mute and fleeting presence at his heel. A shadow. His shadow. He saw it just long enough, from the corner of his eye, to know that it was already fading. His eyes bolted up into the sky as if to catch some culprit red-handed. A pale plate seemed to wait just for that look before it once more submerged in gray, opaque depths of cloud.
Marta, of course, had not been expecting him so early. As he had hoped, she remained self-possessed enough not to cry out from the couch (where she lay curled around a book) when he touched her. He thought he could decipher her initial fear dissolving instantly into joy, then curiosity, and then (in a glow wherein her blue eyes turned violet) a flush of desire. Home early to continue the honeymoon! It seemed a reasonable conclusion—and an astonishingly subtle one to have reached in the five seconds or so before he clasped her hand and lifted her.
He could feel her veritably tingling at his side as he led her to the washroom; and there, as he switched on a light and then a tap, he watched (with what regret) the magic fight a losing battle in her features. Twice a brave smile flashed... but her tantalizing upper lip quickly slackened over her teeth both times.
He averted his gaze desperately to the splattering waterfall. Delay could cost them their lives.
Hugging her impulsively (how he already loved squeezing that slender waist), he nosed his way to an ear and whispered just above the water’s smack.
"Get everything you can as fast as you can. Everything you can carry. Especially clothes, warm clothes. Just enough food for a day or two. We’ll find plenty of food—we’ll eat dog, if we have to. You can get a book, maybe three. The best three. You choose. I’ll have to carry my guns and ammo."
He dreaded finding what transformation he had worked upon the face, but he pulled her resolutely before him by the shoulders. Yes, he had terrified her. How could he not have?
"We have mere minutes, Marta. I left Hathaway—I left another cop thinking I was going off duty early. I told him I was taking a slow drive back. That I needed to think. We have to clear out of the Subterrain before he logs off, because they’ll be all over him as soon as he reaches Central. Once I’m topside, nobody will stop us. I wish they’d try! But… we have to get there first. That’s the trick. Now go! Quick!"
She appeared to make an effort toward the doorway—but it only carried her, as if in an odd reflex, right back before him. Every muscle of her tautly strung face, every sinew in her thin shoulders, was quivering with an inner fever. Her eyes opened as wide as mouths, and their blue shouted. Yet he had to read her lips.
"Yes. Yes." He gripped her shoulders once more. "He died for us, Marta. Now it’s up to us to… to make his death worthwhile." And in a surge of passion which he couldn’t fight back, he added, "I’ll teach our sons which of the bastards to pick off when they start crawling out of their burrows for air."
In the second miracle of its kind that day, her finger was pressing his lips. "Don’t speak like that," she said. Then, like that pale bronze plate in the sky, she silently slipped from view on her mission, drawing magnetically after her wan figure every hope he had ever succeeded in imagining.