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P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
5.3 (Summer 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 (Winter/Spring 2005) may be viewed by clicking here.
© 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 (20045), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Quite without premeditation, we have blundered into a "Star Trek" issue--but as much space (textual space) is also devoted to the weary, all-too-terrestrial bigotry and careerism of the Ivory Tower.
John R. Harris
The author shares a scholarly article about why narrative events tend to occur three times in Homeric epic and other traditional tales: then he explains why such scholarship is categorically unpublishable.
The original Star Trek television series (Captain Kirk et al.) would probably not strike many at first flush as a repository of Christian values... but Professor Paffenroth thinks it can be redeemed from typical Hollywood nullity.
Mr. Wegierski offers a somewhat contrastive view to the foregoing article. The subsequent Star Trek series, especially, were riddled with politically correct ideology and New Age rigmarole, as he sees it.
Is Huxley's dystopia the realization of Marcuse's radically liberated society? A look beneath the surface suggests that the two have much in common.
This short story occurs at Christmas, and is indeed a kind of Winter's Tale dedicated to lost souls denied tenure and livelihood for no better reason than workplace envy. Sound familiar, even in the depths of summer?
A Few Words from the Editor
This may be the oddest issue of Praesidium ever published. The off-beat, of course, need not be synonymous with the uninstructive (except perhaps to empirical science, where only the repetitive has interest). Once upon a time, I developed an intriguing article about oral-traditional style over a period of several years following my dissertation work which explored the clustering of narrated events in threes. I knew of no other study quite like mine, so I was excited about its reception. Only as the ever-more-polished paper met with constant stiff rejection did I begin to suspect that the very novelty of my thesis was proving to be its ruin. I had discovered, in other words, that what commonly passes for scholarship—the journal refereed by a select group of recognized experts (recognized by younger "experts" who have successfully borne a mentor’s theoretical banner through the killing fields of academic employment)—does not brook dissent. The system is not primarily designed to uncover latent truths: the system is designed to keep proving, per saecula saeculorum, what is not really provable, to begin with, but acquires the fixity of truth once a generation has sung its litany.
My revenge is to publish that odd article on the very odd number three here and now. Students of literature will perhaps enjoy the discussion of Homer and the Celtic Middle Ages. More general readers of the journal whose interest is drawn to the "culture wars" may find that my comments following the article proper are grist for their mill. We all know that the ivory tower is tumbling about our ears; yet few of us, I think, realize that even the most insistently backward-looking disciplines of the troubled humanities are more committed to preserving a certain ideological pecking order than to sustaining a Western tradition where the notion of the classic nestles.
Classic: I was aware that the word had been applied to Coca-Cola, but only this spring did I learn that it also has special meaning to fans of Star Trek! Those who know me even through the impersonal medium of a year or two’s issues of Praesidium may well be shocked to see the journal carry two analyses of the popular TV series. In the first place, these are very good analyses, though they also radically disagree. In the second place, they radically disagree—an exercise almost always enlightening in matters of taste! Finally, I realize that I am quite isolated in my indifference to science fiction, and I am unwilling to deny readers the pleasure of these essays simply because I have never sat through an hour of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in my life. I recall as a teenager having to seek out an obscure corner of the house so that I could follow a BBC detective serial called Man in a Suitcase which was scheduled (to its ruin, of course) adversarially to ST. Now there was moral reality! A slandered and wrongfully dismissed CIA agent trying to make a buck in a foreign country by cleaning out the dirty closets of the rich and the powerful without drawing attention… and getting shafted by his employers more often than not, just like old times in the Agency. Ariosto would have enjoyed that one—for Ariosto, I must explain, sits high on my list of moral realists.
It occurred to me, of course, that fortune had again conspired against me in bringing to the journal a rare science-fiction submission for the last issue but none for this one. Mr. Davies’ very sad story about a professor shot down in his tenure review, however (actually about the consequences of this catastrophe), may well turn out to be the better choice for the Summer issue. I say this because the short story raises questions about the academy’s fairness and efficiency which, though posed from a different angle, jibe with my own essay’s. To my mind, the most elite and research-oriented institutions are as deeply mired in careerism and self-aggrandizement as is the political hack’s pasty wade to power. To Mr. Davies’ mind, apparently, the smallest and intellectually least pretentious campuses feature exactly the same kind of egotism operating with more or less the same measure of lethality. That makes a pair of bookends: cynical assessments of the system around visions of men in tights boldly going where none has been before. Is the truth some blend of these extremes? Are not both extremes, rather, true at the same time—homo paradoxicus longing to touch alien fingers over Barnard’s Star even as he circulates uncharitable tales about his rival missionaries?
May the heaven beyond our intrepid starships protect us all from each other—and from ourselves!
A disclaimer: The "Evangelus University" which appears in Mr. Davies’ story is fictitious and in nowise an allusion to schools of a similar name (of whose multiplicity the author was ignorant while writing).
How Never to Write a “Scholarly Article”: On Falling Afoul of Academic Bigotry
John R. Harris
Postmodernists are fond of writing stories within stories—or at least of writing about them. I offer below an article within an essay. I instantly reassure the reader, however, that my purpose is not “metacritical” or otherwise cutely ironic. I am in grim earnest. My opinion of the academy’s conventions for screening articles submitted to any of its myriad journals—lest anything but the most “cutting-edge” work find its way to publication—could not well be more grim. The quotation marks of my title share in this sobriety. I do not intend to rail at the scholarly article from a humorist’s remove: I intend to indict the system behind it of patent fraud.
The occasion of this piece was my return to the undergraduate classroom and, specifically, my teaching once again of Homer’s Odyssey in the context of a sophomore survey. Several years earlier, while still held captive by the naïve notion that I might earn tenure though publishing worthy articles (in fact, publication only ever earned me antagonism on the small campuses where I taught), I composed an article about triadic structures deeply embedded in the plot of traditional texts like the Homeric epics. I argued that a persistent trebling of narrative events of a similar sort must have helped Homer to complicate his tale while remembering where he was amid all its folds. I argued, further, that structuring a plot with triads is a common oral-traditional technique around the world. I offered my evidence. The case seemed to me compelling—and maybe just a little too facile. How could something so transparently true have passed unremarked since the days of Maurice Bowra and Milman Parry?
Yet the article was repeatedly rejected—and not for saying the obvious! What upset me far more than its failure to find a home were the terms of the rejections. The anonymous referee of the highly respected Oral Tradition, for example, sniffed that the paper was “deeply disturbing”—as if proceedings should be initiated to repeal my doctorate, or at least force me into a five-step program. I hadn’t the resources at my disposal which an Ivy League professor enjoys—the libraries, the research assistants, the grant money and time off from teaching. I knew full well that many of my efforts were sophomoric. But I found “very disturbing” very disturbing. Shortly thereafter, I allowed the paper to yellow away in a file cabinet, from which I retrieved it only this Spring, after about a decade. I had a great craving to read it all over again; for, as I came to Homer once more, my mind cleared by a lay-off of years, I found that the article’s argument made more sense to me than ever. In fact, I had discovered new evidence for my case as my group of undergraduates read through the Odyssey in English. There it lay, right on the surface: one needn’t even read Greek to find it. Yet reputed scholars had insisted over and over that it wasn’t there at all—and I have no doubt that they would do so today.
I have reproduced below the text of this ill-fated article for Praesidium’s readership. Many of you, I know, teach a survey class similar to mine, and a few of you (such as Professor Bertonneau) are not novices to the body of theory surrounding oral tradition. I consider it a worthwhile endeavor to elicit responses from sensible people who labor “in the trenches”. My mature verdict about the whole business is, in fact, that the paper was rejected for reasons having nothing whatever to do with Homer or the other texts discussed therein. Having once presented it (and I have introduced only a few changes into the original version), I shall conclude by naming the forces I suppose to be at work. I will anticipate those final remarks only by saying that the academy imposes a sweeping worldview upon its variously focused searches for the “truth”—a complete ideology—and that any investigation which conflicts with mainline dogma is… well, “very disturbing”. This kind of supercilious sophistry operates even within Classical Studies, a discipline which basks in a reputation of relative objectivity and rigor: it most certainly pervades the rest of the Humanities, as well, and has been known to leave its stain upon the Sciences.
Structural Triads in Homeric Epic and Other Traditional Narratives: A Case for Mnemonic Utility
The prominence of triads in such well-known products of folk tradition as Grimm’s Fairy Tales strikes even the most casual and untutored of readers. Many of us must have remarked the magical presence of threes in such stories even before we knew how to read, if we were lucky enough to have been weaned on fairy tales.. The reason for these riots of threeness, however, is anything but transparent.. In the case of certain cultures, such as ancient Celtic civilization, a quasi-religious significance clearly attaches to the number three; but in other traditions, triads persistently crop up without any discernable religious justification. It might seem tempting to conclude that the number three simply fascinates the human mind. Yet many scholars have derided this conclusion as needlessly mystical or denounced it as ethnocentric. The oral works of certain non-European cultures, they warn, bestow upon other numbers the importance enjoyed by threes in the West (e.g., Dundes [“Number Three” and Hansen). The fours of American Indian myth and lore or the fives of China are often cited to repudiate the universal magnetism of the triad.
Such objections are intimidating. In his eloquent preface to a collection of classic essays dedicated to exposing ethnocentric views, Alan Dundes wrote, “It is difficult to doubt the validity of one’s own native categories of cognition. Far too often such cultural categories are projected to the point where they are considered categories of nature rather than categories only of a single culture…. Of equal importance is the fact that cultures also serve as barriers between peoples, often interfering with, if not preventing, meaningful communication” (“introduction” vii). Without doubt, the traits which distinguish people—even two individuals—are innumerable (the very title of Dundes’s anthology, for instance, might be labeled sexist). Yet surely this is why one must eventually return to formulating generalizations; otherwise, all the amassed circumstantial differences so dear to the scholarly comparatist become a barrier as immense as unexamined prejudice. Indeed, to argue that the brains of native Americans or Chinese work differently from those of white Europeans is potentially to indulge not only in ethnocentrism, but in the racism of asserting, “They just don’t think like us.”
I would contend that the academic community has come to consider the particular issue of trichotomy from just such a narrow perspective. Several years ago, Classical Journal carried a stimulating series of exchanges on the subject of threes. W.F. Hansen’s argument that the employment of triads results entirely from cultural conditioning seemed to enjoy a kind of victory by default, since no immediate response challenged his observations. As if to concede an empirical vulnerability without relinquishing an intuitive resistance, Lawrence Giangrande recently opined in the same journal, “My own answer to ‘Why three?’ consists of three reasons. It is charming, traditional, and I like I, despite its non-universality” (66). Since Giangrande’s final words come very close to surrender, however, I believe the issue deserves to be re-opened. Is the mystique of threeness truly a mere cultural accident?
In what follows, I wish to offer a particular demonstration and to make a general point. The particular case primarily concerns the Homeric epics. By analyzing their structure, as many hundreds of scholars have done, one may find evidence of a marvelously simple method of composition which most of those scholars have chosen to overlook, perhaps due to its very lack of complexity: i.e., the triadic stucturing of narrative events. Inasmuch as the number three is neither overtly mentioned nor plainly visible in this function, a deliberate religious or mystical invocation of its powers seems very unlikely. Rather, I would conjecture that the Homeric bard employed triads (at least originally, before our texts were recorded) because they, like the formulaic phrase, assisted him in recalling and ordering a vast amount of matter during oral performance. Twos, of course, would have been more easily recalled than threes to the extent that memory favors brevity, and Homer paired scenes quite often for reasons connected with oral performance. Yet the plurality of two is ambiguous, suggesting comparison or contrast on a single basis (the double-edged sword, the two sides of the coin, etc.), whereas three things offer an unequivocally multiple prospect. They create a sense that the full range of possibilities has been measured (and in ancient Greek, of course, the dual number was not plural in form: only three or more objects were discussed with plural inflections). An array of three happenings also contributes a stronger sense of suspense—of approaching climax—than would two occurrences. Hence the triad would have served the Homeric performer as the most reliable means of pleasantly complicating a narrative without losing track of the complications: it is the least forgettable form of manyness. In this capacity, it really needs no religious or sociological conditioning to account for its attractions. Essential human logic is enough.
The complexity which devoted Homerists like to see in their author, certainly exists, to be sure: triadic structuring seems a simple, if not simplistic, mnemonic device only in abstract. A short tale with a patently threefold structure would be the work of an amateur. A bard like Homer who had arranged his triadic reference points carefully could indulge in numerous excursions around them, thereby drawing the audience’s attention away from their naïve design. Furthermore, when one visualizes this evolving, intricate role of triads in oral narrative, one need hardly wonder that threeness should often have acquired a religious value. Sacred tales about gods and heroes would naturally come to have a threefold motion, which would (in the better tales) appear coyly, almost magically hidden under the narrative’s surface. Added to the logical qualities of the number which rendered it memorable, this gradual association with orally communicated myths must have elevated the three to an especially reverend status. At the very least, utility and sanctity would have complemented each other, for revered objects are less easily forgotten than incidental ones.
In thus conflating the number three’s power to stir emotion and to serve practical necessity, I may seem to be clouding the issue to the logical, literate minds of our academy, which revel in fine distinctions and excel at descrying them. Yet I contend that the triad’s ritual and mnemonic aspects would have drawn strength either from the other, symbiotically: three was useful because it was special and special because it was useful. The culturally conditioned and the rationally ordered, the preemptive and the adaptive, the sacred and the profane, are categories which distance us from oral culture more than they render it comprehensible to us. In an oral culture, there is no distinction between theory and application, properly speaking: there are only particular reenactments of the cosmic. In Mircea Eliade’s elegant terms, “An object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype” (Myth of the Eternal Return 34). To conform to the ritual is to be practical, for the surest way to get things done is to do them in the pre-established pattern.
I am not referring to such obvious and decorative triads in Homeric epic as Diomedes’ three attempts to slay Aeneas through Apollo’s protection (Il. 5.436-37) or Telemachus’s three attempts to string his father’s bow (Od. 21.125-26). These threesomes (like most of those, by the way, which Perry listed impressively to inaugurate CJ’s ongoing discussion) are named explicitly and incidentally rather than enacted: they certainly do little to cement the plot together or to add suspense. At most, they emphasize a plurality of efforts while, perhaps, infusing just a trace of tension or expectation. Fritz Göbel’s study (cited approvingly by both Dundes and Hansen) treats triadism almost exclusively at this level. Even the highly literate Vergil could appreciate the efficacy of three as epic garnishment (e.g., Aeneid 10.685—and, naturally, Aeneas and Odysseus both try to embrace a parent’s ghost three times). The rhetorical conventions of both Greece and Rome fully acknowledged the power of ostentatious threesomes to insinuate an artificial multiplicity into the supporting evidence. Plato’s Socrates knows that three points prove the case and that three embarrassing questions exhaust the other side’s credibility (cf. Republic 1.332c-335d). Aristotle’s Rhetoric favors resonantly threefold groupings right from the start (e.g., the judge’s three feelings in 1.1.5, the three reasons for framing clear laws in 1.1.7, and the three services of rhetoric in 1.1.12). The author of the Ad Herennium often practices triadic argumentation (e.g., the highly stylized charge against Ulysses in 2.19.28-30 or such florid examples of figures as those involving epanaphora and paralipsis in 4.13.19 and 27.37). As for Quintilian, whose monumental Insitutio Oratoria is perhaps more devoted to a philosophy of education than to the practical stages of good oratory, his teaching and thinking are nonetheless prone to trichotomy. In one brief section (2.4.22-33), for instance, he mentions three examples of vice often denounced in commonplaces, the three kinds of thesis, three problems with writing out speeches beforehand and memorizing them, and the three kinds of law. To find Homer similarly using threes in order to impress upon his listeners a plural conception is hardly surprising—his abstaining from the practice would have been far more so.
With some persistence, however, one finds threefold order on a much broader scale. In the Iliad, three Achaean heroes—Diomedes, Patroclus, and Achilles—rout the Trojans irresistibly at different times. There are three duels in which an Achaean and a Trojan champion represent their side before a passive audience. The provocative Thetis appears thrice to her son, if we may view her return in book 19 as a continuation of the previous book’s encounter (the description of Achilles’ shield separating the two scenes is doubtless a late accretion, ingeniously spliced into the visit); and Zeus pontificates from his throne to the assembled Olympians on three crucial occasions. All of these triads are thoroughly obscured by the superficial action of the story and the sheer distance dividing their members. They do not exist to be worshiped, admired, or even noticed by the audience, but they could easily have reoriented the struggling performer to the general scheme of his vast undertaking; for, obscure as they are to the casual observer, they are vital to the plot. Each aristeia is a little more concentrated and ferocious than the last, leading up to Achilles’ greatest of triumphs. Similarly, the duel between Menelaus and Paris looks rather comical beside that between Ajax and Hector, while the Achilles-Hector match provides the epic’s climax. Thetis’s intrusions motivate every major turn of events, from the jeopardy into which the Achaean campaign falls to Achilles’ resumption of arms to the poignant surrender of Hector’s body; and Zeus, having pledged to support Thetis (book 1) and forbidden the gods to assist either army (book 8), finally ordains that Hector should receive a decent funeral (book 24) and so resolves the plot’s ultimate tension. Such clusters of significant events solidify the narrative’s skeleton at a depth where formularization could scarcely have penetrated. Whether or not our Homer—the poet who engineered the surviving Iliad—consciously used triads in this capacity is another matter. He may well not have done so, but their vestiges suggest that his predecessors had found them helpful.
The Iliad contains still other triads which feature a fine orchestration of minor events for easy recall. In book 6—a small masterpiece of characterization—we see the noble Hector from three very different female perspectives: first his moth Hecuba’s, then the ever enigmatic Helen’s, and finally his wife Andromache’s. The exchanges which pass between Hector and each woman reveal a generous amount about the four characters and about Homer’s notion of human nature (a quintessentially classical notion, owing much to the traditional sense of cycle and limitation). These scenes must surely have captivated any audience. While not indispensable to the plot, they offer a sympathetic look at the trauma of a long siege and at the tragic tendency to underestimate looming miseries even among the afflicted. The episode’s triadic nature may have helped to insure that it would be correctly passed along. When Hector’s corpse is returned to Troy in book 24, the same three women—Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen—succeed each other in eulogizing the slain hero. Their speeches are again powerful, as powerful as any great narrator could have desired for his tale’s closing moments; and the threefold bundle is just a little easier to carry in memory, even if the poet who added these final touches was more writer than reciter (which seems unlikely).
The Odyssey shows the Homeric poet relying much more heavily upon triads than in the Iliad. The greater density of triadic structuring here is hardly surprising in view of the Odyssey’s lesser degree of historical resonance, political significance, and formal religious orthodoxy. The Iliad projects a quasi-national struggle of east against west. It reveals a nascent sense of ethnic consciousness in the collaboration of several more or less legendary Bronze Age kings, and the bard would have outraged both traditional and evolving values in radically changing its story. There were names to be applauded, customs to be observed, and—in short—egos to be curried. The sea adventures of Odysseus, in contrast, are rich in popular lore which the bard might have reshaped, multiplied, and displaced with little fear of stirring indignation. If, as some have implied, the Odyssey contains fewer blatant inconsistencies (cf. Page on Iliadic contradictions, 297-340), then the main reason may well be that the performer was freer to put the stamp of his individual genius upon its matter.
The story viewed as a whole immediately displays triadic structuring. The first twelve books neatly halve into the medias in res scene-setting on Ithaca and Ogygia (which includes the so-called Telemachy) and Odysseus’s recounting of his adventures to the Phaeacians. This leaves a rather oversized third member to occupy the tale’s entire second half. Yet the hero’s homecoming could easily have been told as a yarn unto itself, and indeed also breaks into a definite triad: the appearance of a disguised shipwreck whom Eumaeus succors, of a disguised beggar whom the suitors abuse, and of a declared king who metes out justice.
In fact, if I may focus (in rambling epic manner) upon the second half first, I would stress that it has benefited from an extraordinary degree of subdivision into memorable clusters of three. Odysseus passes three days (counting his mid-morning arrival inclusively, as the Greeks would have done) with the swineherd Eumaeus, then three more scouting out the situation in his palace and exacting his revenge. In his beggarly guise, he is insulted three times by the suitors, twice when Antinous and Eurymachus hurl stools at him (17.462 and 18.394) and once when Ctesippus flings a pig’s hoof his way (20.299). There are three impudent rascals from the lower social orders, as well—the upstart goatherd Melantheus, the overbearing beggar Irus, and the sharp-tongued servant girl Melantho—who try the hero’s patience at successive points in the narrative. Three good servants, on the other hand, are to be found in the nurse Eurycleia and the herdsmen Eumaeus and Philoitius, each of whom has a private encounter with the returned master (though the meeting with Philoitius in book 20 is much the least dramatic in our Odyssey). Odysseus has three living family members to confront in Telemachus, Penelope, and Laertes. These scenes of recognition are each rendered quite distinct by the circumstances and personalities involved, making them among the epic’s most memorable passages. Homer handles the slowly mounting tension and gradually emerging characters of his tale’s second half with truly remarkable finesse. The ready points of reference within his triadic groups would have assisted him handily in orchestrating so delicate a crescendo.
Triadism is particularly prominent in Odysseus’s long Phaeacian yarn—a rather self-conscious triadism, apparently, based on the rhetorical principle of increasing members wherein the last element is markedly more developed than the first. The hero relates two brief encounters with the Cicones and the Lotos-eaters before weaving a more elaborate tale out of the Polyphemus incident; he continues with two brief episodes involving Aeolus and the Laestrygonians, then has an especially long stay in the land of Circe; and finally he skirts the Sirens and barely escapes Scylla and Charybdis only to be delayed nightmarishly where the tempting Cattle of Helius graze. The longer adventures themselves display a threefold division. Polyphemus murders and devours members of Odysseus’s crew on three occasions before he is outwitted, the encounter with Circe is actually two encounters framing the trip to Hades (which trip, by the way, presents Odysseus with three distinct classes of spirits: minor individuals—three of them—with news or requests, heroes who fought at Troy, and illustrious women), and the Cattle of Helius are structurally the first element in a catastrophe which sees the remaining crew members destroyed and Odysseus himself nearly sucked into Charybdis. Even the hero’s stay on Scheria contains several triadic components. Odysseus spends a total of three days with the Phaeacians. His first day is punctuated by meetings with Mausicaa and her maids, with the goddess Athena (from whom he has recently been estranged), and with Queen Arete at Alcinous’s court: three august women. The second day (book 8) is also split into three scenes, moving from Alcinous’s palace to the athletic contest to the palace again. All in all, these retrospective books feature the kind of runaway trichotomy that looks too good to be true and leaves one spinning naively mystical explanations—or, in despair, mistrusting his own counting.
The mnemonic explanation, on the other hand, may seem less satisfactory here then elsewhere, for books 9-12 are relatively free of plot intricacies and have little direct bearing on the main plot. The poet could have strung together whatever maritime adventures occurred to him or appealed to him without apprehending any great risk to the narrative as a whole. It might also be argued that most of the Odyssey’s few points of incoherence arise precisely from the strange indifference of these four books to the rest of the epic, and that triadic structuring, therefore, has notably failed to impose that order which I have hypothesized as its purpose. Circe forces Odysseus to visit Teiresias in Hades so that he may learn what awaits him back home—but Teiresias’s advice (11.100-137) is neither specific nor optimistic, and Odysseus assumes a beggar’s guise in Ithaca to find out the same information, in any case. Furthermore, Athena, our hero’s guardian angel, is conspicuously absent throughout these narrated times of crisis, and her excuse in 13.341-43 rings true only for the adventures which succeed Polyphemus’s blinding.
My answer is that oral tales have innumerable versions, and the poet of our Odyssey is clearly selecting and tailoring the traditions for the sake of creating one great narrative. The marvelous sea adventures of Odysseus might well have exhibited a fairly taut coherence in another telling which was entirely occupied with them; in that telling, they might well have received such elaboration that triadic structuring was necessary to keep pieces from being mislaid. We know that Odysseus’s exotic travels were so popular that they survived in translations which ignored or severely distorted other parts of the tale (e.g., the medieval Irish Merugud Uilix). If we consider the material in the broadest possible context—not that of Homer’s Odyssey, but of recurrent themes in folklore around the world—we find that an immense popularity surrounds stories about seductive witches, spirits in limbo, and cannibalistic ogres (cf. Mondi). Hence there is every justification to believe that the sights and deeds in Odyssey 9-12 were often told, embellished, and supplemented by Homer’s predecessors. The triads identified above would have been much less ornate and much more serviceable under such circumstances.
I note here that the foregoing discussion is not remotely a complete catalogue of triadic groups in the Odyssey. For instance, Athena appears thrice to Odysseus disguised as a young inhabitant of a new land (7.19-20, 13.221-24, and 16.155-58). The council scenes in books 2 and 16 are built around three suitors as speakers. The list could grow quite lengthy. Yet in proceeding to later ages, we observe that triadic structures of this sort quickly disappear from the Greek narrative tradition as it becomes more firmly based in literacy. The dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, not to mention the highly literate Euripides, have no such structuring despite a frequent debt to the Trojan War cycle. Apollonius’s Argonautica relates the same kinds of seafaring tales as the Odyssey, yet lacks a single instance of triadic ordering; and Vergil’s Latin Aeneid, which reproduces many of Homer’s explicit threesomes (as mentioned before) in a much more imitative pursuit of the epic Muse than the neoteric Apollonius’s, nevertheless wholly overlooks the master’s threefold structuring. Were triadism dictated exclusively or primarily by a peculiar cultural taste, its absence from these later texts would be incomprehensible.
Not much controversy has been stirred by the assertion that dyads exist in Homer for reasons connected to those which I have offered to explain triads. In a now classic work, A.B. Lord observed that the Odyssey often employs two “parallel” sequences of action—parallel both in the sense of one episode’s mimicking another within the same narrative (e.g., Telemachus’s sojourn in Sparta and Odysseus’s in Scheria) and in an intertextual sense (e.g., the disguised homecomings of Odysseus and Orestes). Lord theorized that the oral poet, having a recent or frequent version of the sequence fixed in his mind, would naturally repeat it to some degree under the pressures of live performance when narrating a similar episode (172-77). This tendency appears prominently on the level of single formulae or short clusters of phrases: one need hardly be surprised, then, to find it embedded in the plot. Subsequent scholarship has emphasized the conscious art which may be discerned in Homer’s dyadism. Besides rendering his matter more easily recalled the second time around, the dyad would also offer him the opportunity of underscoring significant similarities between different characters, and even of suggesting ironic differences between similar situations (cf. Kirk’s contrast of Il. 3 and 7).
These explanations of dyadism, in both their utilitarian and their artistic implications, apply equally well to Homer’s use of structural triads. Indeed, to the extent that the triad arranges a greater volume of material and multiplies the opportunities for foils and contrasts, it suits the reasoning advanced above even better. We seem to discover a new dimension to the Homeric poet’s subtlety every time we carefully analyze one of his mnemonic stratagems. Scholars have already redefined his creativity over the past four decades in response to Milman Parry’s challenge. It should be stressed, therefore, that the mnemonic employment of triads would actually have enhanced an oral bard’s powers of finesse. With the assistance of such structural support, he would have been freer than ever to think ahead to the next phrase, the next line, and the next narrative twist. The best critical studies of the verbal formula have stressed its gift of liberation within restriction—not unlike what the sonnet does in the hands of a skillful craftsman. L.C. Muellner’s assessment of the formula’s virtues could easily be extended to Homer’s use of triads: “Formulas are not cliché’s, receptacles of cant, or merely convenient phrases to help a faltering poet. They are metrical combinations of words in which the heritage of the primordial past could achieve its highest potential for the expression of living poetic meaning” (140).
In the same way, threefold structures are very far from non-dramatic, unwieldy vestiges of crude narration. Properly speaking, the bard’s choice was between a simply tale and a more elaborate tale—not between a tale organized triadically or after “realistic” variation of plural encounters. Since any good narrator desires his story to have a certain intricacy, the recollective help of the triad must truly have been an artistic breakthrough. We have seen how adroitly the Odyssey poet integrates several such structures at once to generate tension. The need to remember multiple elements of the plot is only a need in the first place because multiplicity so often serves the end of a well-told story.
It is worth adding that the presence of threesomes, to the extent that it was ever evident yet not evidently relevant to the tale (as through religious invocation), would scarcely have outraged the earliest audiences of any oral tradition. Modern notions of relevance are heavily influenced by our scientific mentality, which has little patience for imaginative (or “subjective”, as we say) associations between events. Members of a mythopoeic culture would have exercised far more leniency in determining what might or might not have caused ta particular condition or occasion. To their mind, nothing which happened in the stories of the gods, demigods, and heroes could be merely utilitarian, even if we may demonstrate to our own satisfaction today that it was so. The “ornamental epithet” and the “mnemonic triad”, rather, would belong to that level of the cosmos where ultimate truth is expressed. Seen from this vantage, what we would consider largely practical features in the tales and crafts of simple hunter-gatherers or unlettered fishermen would already have appeared vaguely sacred to them from the beginning—the antelope-horn cup, the whalebone keel—and would grow more so as both they and their culture stabilized and developed. “By manifesting the sacred,” wrote Eliade, “any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic milieu.” (Sacred and Profane 12). The reverse of this is also true: that which participates consistently in its surrounding cosmic milieu manifests something of the sacred, for the sacred is none other than that which penetrates existence, day in and day out.
The issues surrounding trichotomy may be elucidated by comparing classical Greek with medieval literature, but they also become even more complicated in several respects. Triads were long ago and are to this day brilliantly apparent in Celtic folklife. Narrative, social custom, superstition, and religious ritual all exhibit a persistent triadism, which is confirmed in each particular area by its prominence in others. Some of this persistence may be attributed to extrinsic influences rather than to native oral traditions and beliefs. To be sure, the oral past, substantial and fertile, clearly shimmers through the pages of many extant manuscripts composed in Irish and Welsh monasteries. The Celtic scribes who consigned their ancestral lore to paper were uncommonly tolerant of paganism (by the standard of the day), despite their own monastic calling. Yet they nonetheless tended to insert, delete, and rearrange, as did all scribes of their era. Hence their writings are a less-than-accurate record of waning orality, unlike Homeric epic, seasoned heavily with allusions to Catholic liturgy and the Trinity. Such compositors can prove surprisingly erudite, often self-consciously so to the point of derailing a simple tale in a wealth of references. The threefold arrangements which, prima facie, seem obvious remnants of an oral heritage are just the modest sort of flourish by which a scribbling monk might have directed audiences toward his new faith.
This is certainly not to say that a peculiarly oral triadism may not be detected in ancient Celtic literature. Indeed, it has often left extraordinary and unequivocal traces. The Welsh Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain), finally written down by some subversive scribe in the early Middle Ages, features dozens of threesomes which have emerged from centuries of oral tradition (Bromwich lxx-lxxvii and Stevens 598-99). A few of these are versified and answer to Morgan’s description of a distinctive folk genre. Most, however, are quite blunt; and we must assume that, rather than constituting an artistic endeavor in themselves, they merely connect similar themes or motifs to assist the storyteller’s or historian’s recollective effort. “Their actual form suggests that they were preliterate,” claims Rutherford, “as triplets of this kind would have been a convenient mnemonic for those who had to memorize them” (48); and the evidence in favor of his argument is most persuasive. We know that the master story-teller of preliterate Wales, the cyfarwydd, memorized voluminous lists of triads in the process of learning his craft. They were, in effect, indices or all the major tales—and many of the minor ones—for which he would be held accountable. The narrator of the Mabinogion occasionally cannot resist orienting his matter within some time-honored triad of this kind. For example, at the end of Branwen Verch Llyr, he tells us that the burial of Bendigeidfran’s head was one of the Three Happy Concealments, its disinterment one of the Three Unhappy Disclosures, and the slap to Branwen which began the tragedy one of the Three Unhappy Blows.
To be sure, an adept oral performer would seldom have used the triads in this otiose, self-promoting manner. Again, what we see, even in the Four Branches of the Mabinogion (the ancient core of the work), is a quasi-literate, or transitional, reportage of essentially oral matter. Triadic name-dropping of the kind just mentioned seems especially self-conscious and remote from oral technique. Perhaps the author in these instances simply wanted to pay homage to the narrative tradition, or perhaps he wanted to show off his knowledge of that tradition. In either case, it would seem more likely that the exhibitionist was truly the literate scribe rather than someone in the line of oral transmission, since a tradition is usually in jeopardy when scribblers feel moved to advertise loyalty to it or strut knowledge of it. Yet the scribes are not above taunting their oral predecessors at times. The recorder of the Breudwyt Ronabwy (Dream of Rhonabwy) declares in open triumph at the end of his work that no one can repeat its lengthy, detailed descriptions—none of which displays triadism—without his written text. (The gray area of transition is discussed eloquently by Hainsworth and Nagler, above all.)
The use of triads merely to shepherd similar themes for convenient storing remains one of their humbler functions in oral narrative, at any rate, and indeed seems largely confined to Celtic culture. Far and away the most common service which threes perform in such narrative lies in organizing its actual plot structure. Here one must examine individual tales with a magnifying glass, for the number three is seldom mentioned explicitly. To turn to the Mabinogion once again, the tale of Branwen is itself constructed in three parts: the princess’s ill-starred marriage, her brother’s expedition to Ireland, and the marvelous experiences of the survivors. A triadic order supports the story’s excursive appendages along with its trunk, as well. For instance, Bendigeidfran feasts Matholwch for three nights at Aberffraw, first on Branwen’s wedding night and then twice after Efnisien’s insult.
The other tales of the Mabinogion’s original core—those about Pwyll, Manawydan, and Math—reflect the same kind of threefold structuring. Pwyll Pendeuic Dyfed divides neatly into the episodes of Pwyll’s substitution for Arawn, his courtship of Rhiannon, and his recovery of their kidnapped son. Upon closer inspection, we again find smaller triadic clusters of action, such as Rhiannon’s three mysterious appearances on horseback. As a matter of fact, the tale of Pwyll turns out to be a relatively weak example of triadic order, since it seems to originate in a dyadic “solar myth” of death and rebirth. Manawydan’s story, by contrast, so abounds in threefold adventures that the tracing of them all would prove intolerably tedious here.
As I have suggested, three episodes or events can be easily remembered, whereas four might be too many to handle and two would hardly yield the desired dramatic amplitude. Some of the Welsh triads are altogether too transparent, however: surely they advertise themselves as well as—or instead of—bringing intricacy to the plot. Particularly in such intermediate tales of the Mabinogion as Llyudd a Llefelys, one finds triadism without pleasing complexity. In this case, the story is quite brief and the plagues to be dispelled quite superficially introduced. Could such grouping be more cultic than mnemonic? The late Georges Dumézil, more than any other, is associated with the notion that Indo-European cultures have a predilection for threes in their mentality based upon their peculiar socio-economic order. According to Dumézil, “la tripartition en magiciens-juristes, guerriers, éleveurs-agriculteurs” holds the secret both to the history and the myth of these civilizations (7).
Whatever one thinks of Dumézil’s theory (which itself is probably influenced by cultural predilection, the Celtic consciousness), both ancient and medieval, was indubitably conditioned to regard the number three as special. On the other hand, a medieval text’s awkward, ostentatious use of triadism is no proof that an oral precedent did not integrate triads much more functionally into the story line. Perhaps Lludd a Llefelys is a scribe’s skeletal recollection of an oral performance, or even a performer’s shorthand: the writer recalls the memorable groups of three, but does not labor to reproduce the artistry of their presentation. His assumption may well have been that future readers would embellish as the bare text refreshed their memory, and he may well have been correct. Though A.B. Lord asserted in The Singer of Tales that literacy immediately shakes off orality, he was later to recant this position, and the Middle Ages are its obvious and irresistible rebuttal. An era wherein writing tries to negotiate a spoken heritage before declaring a fully independent technique may drag on for generations and achieve remarkable stability. Nagy has stressed of the Celtic Middle Ages that “most of what ‘happens’ in these literary texts, on the levels of both form and content, is directly and even self-consciously expressive of this clash” between oral and literate style (368). In the slightly different context of Old English literature, Renoir repeatedly warns that “we should exercise caution in guessing the rapidity with which earlier societies might have crossed the boundary line between preliterate and literate culture” (58). In short, it would be equally surprising if the Mabinogion’s scribes had expurgated all traces of oral technique and if they had preserved it fully and accurately.
By way of reaffirming the complex relationships within the Welsh material, let us briefly consider the Old Irish tradition. In Ireland, story-telling followed much the same course as it did in Wales, except that corresponding tendencies are even more ancient and exaggerated (cf. Bromwich lxiv-lxvii). The Irish fili, too, would have committed to memory a ling list of triadically arranged themes (some of them the same as the cyfarwydd’s) in the process of becoming a professional. These triads are sometimes cited rather ostentatiously in the texts recording the ancient Ulster Cycle: e.g., a late manuscript containing the Tochmarc Emire, of Courtship of Emer, refers to Cú Chulainn’s Three Harnessings of the Sickle-Chariot, and the Aided Con Culainn, or Death Tale of Cú Chulainn, mentions the Three One-Horse Drives of Ireland (Van Hamel 63 and 116). Once again, we are by no means certain that the fili himself (as opposed, say, to a pedantically show-off monastic) was responsible for such name-dropping; yet it seems fairly obvious that, like his Welsh counterpart, he used triadism liberally in the structuring of the plot. A medieval transcription of the Táin Bó Cúalnge in the Book of Leinster (LL), for instance, features threefold action throughout, and is generally agreed to stem from a lengthy oral tradition (cf. O’Rahilly xii-xiv). The Macgnímrada (or Boyhood DeedsO of Cú Chulainn recounted by Fergus to Medb and Ailill includes the following three adventures (LL 739-1217 )). The young Cú arrives at Emain Macha to dazzle Conchubar with his prowess; then he slays the ferocious hound of Culand, winning himself a sobriquet thereby; and finally he takes a warrior’s arms for the first time, and episode which is itself tripartite and one of whose elements involves Cú’s defeating the three sons of Nechta. Later on,. The sorceress Morrígan assumes the form of three different animals in an effort to wound Cú Chulainn, only to be maimed each time herself (LL1989-2011); yet she quickly manages to wheedle a threefold blessing from him in still another shape, and so is cured (LL2103-2113). The climactic context between Cú Chulainn and his foster-brother, Fer Diad, builds to its tragic finish over three days of matching strength against strength (LL 2606-3596).
These examples are among the most apparent, but scarcely begin to make up a complete tally. While other versions of the Táin may not produce the same list of triadic structures, they share the Book of Leinster’s respect for this technique of organization. That different manuscripts should present differing accounts only emphasizes the utilitarian, non-ritualistic side of triadism in the Irish tales. An oral teller could most surely get lost in so many episodes, and he had most surely inherited some conflicting accounts.
Now, if triadism thrives here as in the Welsh texts because the number three is uniquely memorable to Celtic bards for its cultural implications, the technique should thrive even better in the early Christian era. Christianity was grafted onto Celtic paganism quite readily in many ways, and the two traditions would certainly have reinforced each other’s reverent affection for trichotomy. Nevertheless, just as Apollonius’s literate romance abandoned the threefold ordering so pervasive in Homeric epic, so the romances which conclude the Mabinogion—Peredur, Gereint, and Owein—display little of the triadic structuring so evident in the Four Branches. For instance, Enid warns Gereint of attacking brigands three times despite his command to be silent—and then does so yet a fourth time the next morning; and the otherworldly fountain of the last tale is violated three times, but Owein’s further adventures observe no such order. These Welsh romances are written narratives, conceived to be read (though probably aloud, and to others) rather than recited. Their style resembles that of Chrétien de Troyes (who wrote romances about the same three heroes, and may even have influenced the Welsh author) rather than distinctly threefold tales of Branwen and Manawydan. Their ancient Celtic origins notwithstanding, they have little traffic with threes simply because they have left mnemonic concerns far behind.
In Ireland, too, virtually the same decades that produced the last records of the Ulster Cycle saw the arrival of utterly new matter from Greco-Roman antiquity by way of continental popularization. The late medieval translations of Vergil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Bellum Civile, and Statius’s Thebaid into Irish are fairly true to their originals. The Irish Merugud Uilix, however, does not remotely resemble Homer’s Odyssey; the Togail Troí is equally un-Homeric, and in general those romances based on Greek mythology are an impossible tangle of garbled transmission. Even such renditions of contemporary matter as we find in the Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando’s evocation of Ariosto share no significant similarity with their nominal sources. Except for adaptations of Latin epic, then, these stories have been written and rewritten with the utmost license (from the perspective of modern translation). The Irish authors, no doubt relishing a new degree of freedom, have introduced many native stylistic peculiarities, such as an exuberant alliteration during sequences of heated action (a touch found abundantly even in the Irish Aeneid). Yet triadism of any sort—and here is the critical point for our discussion—is almost entirely absent. The single relevant difference between the new romances and the manuscripts of the Ulster Cycle is also the explanation of this vacuity: the romances had not reached scribal hands through a purely oral medium at any point. The scribes did not record triadic structuring because they had not encountered it in their sources and did not need it in their re-tellings; and they had not encountered it and did not need it because triadic order is a mnemonic device of use only in oral performances.
We shall never reconstruct the precise chain of events which gave many medieval Celtic texts their recorded form. Yet I would conclude this section by hearkening to a much more recent Irish story-teller—Tomás Ó Criomhthain—of whose tales we sometimes have both oral and written versions. The contrast observable in Tomás’s narrative technique was reviewed in a recent paper. I offer here a single instructive instance. “Tóír an Chiosa” (Collecting the Rent) was first told verbally to Robin Flower for publication in the collection, Seanchas ón Oileán Tiar (131-35). Tomás himself would later write down the incident in An t-Oileánach. Both versions relate how the women of the Great Blasket Island once drove away the police sent by their landlord with a ferocious pelting of stones. In Tomás’s dictation, we learn that the official steamboat tried to land its launches at three different points without success, being anticipated at the first two points by a mob of stone-wielding females. The third site on the island’s windward side is simply inaccessible due to rough weather, though several men drench themselves in a vain attempt to come ashore. The three landing sites may be a clue of orality. They structure the first encounter in a pleasantly(for there will be more, of course) complicated yet easily remembered pattern, the first two members of which are quite similar and the third of which follows an alternate scenario (like several of Homer’s triads: e.g., the Paris/Menelaus and Hector/Ajax duels and the climactic Hector/Achilles duel). Upon this tripartite episode ensue two more, which are rather less violent and bring the story to a morally uplifting fulfillment as if it were something near to a parable. Both subsequent episodes involve what are now errands of mercy to the impoverished islanders. A boat leaves from the mainland town of Dingle again, this time bearing sympathetic observers who marvel at the misery of Blasket life. The encounter ends peacefully as a boatload of staple goods arrives. Three more boats of foodstuffs follow—a triadic flourish of no narrative importance, since the three missions take place without incident and are mentioned concurrently. In the story’s final adventure, the gentry in Dublin, moved by the accounts of abject poverty which have reached them, send an agent west to view the situation. On his recommendation, the relief effort continues.
The exciting confrontation between armed officials and the island’s womenfolk is thus kneaded into a somewhat rambling narrative full of conventional moralism. The account which Tomás wrote later in chapter 6 of An t-Oileánach (59-61) is stunningly different. A young Tomás is now an active participant in the excitement, assisting in the collection of stones for the women to hurl, and his point of view as a narrator is accordingly quite limited. As the steamboat’s first launch reaches the strand and stones begin to fly, the boy sees a young officer cock his gun ominously… but the trigger is never pulled, and the unwanted visitors retreat. There are no second and third attempts to land on other beaches—just a second attempt to land along the same shore. Many of the characters have a more rounded personality and (in a literate sense) more realism in this version. As for the subsequent errands of mercy, they, too, dissolve into “realistic” detail. The next authorities from the mainland are not conscience-stricken by the poverty they see but beguiled by the islanders’ trick of hiding all but the most sickly livestock. The final visitors are a group of health officials whom the islanders similarly delude by jumping clothed into their beds and feigning illness.
Hence the triadic structures of the Seanchas version have been virtually discarded. Instead of three distinct landing sites, the more reflective autobiographical account mentions three launches which attempt two landings in unison at the same site; and instead of two subsequent episodes which reintegrate the violent original encounter into a communal ethos, the last two vignettes are caustic barbs aimed at a foolish, self-righteous gentry. At least one of the two versions must simply be untrue if both are judged by literate standards of accuracy. We would progress farther toward an understanding of the oral mentality, however, with its concatenations of similar events and its ultimately serene moral vision, if we would concede that the Seanchas yarn has a truth of its own. The triads provide a rhythm and an amplitude to this vision. In an oral idiom, they say that the tale’s optimism is not haphazard or premature, but based upon a patient, thorough experience of life. They are not mystical symbols: they are straightforward assurances that the picture before us is complete. Might Homer’s triads not have had a very similar kind of origin?
A culture-wide gravitation to a certain number which once met largely practical needs may also account for the tetrads of virtually all American Indian societies. These foursomes are often cited to prove that threes cannot have the universal attraction which Europeans love to discern in them. Yet Amerindian oral tales employ triads in the same menner as did the Celtic and Greek narratives, if somewhat less frequently. The phenomenon of Amerindian tetradism, then, does not so much rival triadism as coexist with it. For whatever reason, the Celts had elevated triads to occupy an exalted religious role as well as a humble mnemonic one. Amerindian culture exalted a different number to occupy the most visible and—in a sense—superficial position in its art and rites. Perhaps the four seasons clearly observable in most parts of North America (the cradle of this culture in the Western hemisphere) exercised a decisive influence. Or perhaps the origin of these tetrads was more rational than circumstantial. The number two is at least as deeply embedded in the human mind as three. Indeed, three may be viewed as a working compromise between the polarized absolutes of the dyad. Another way of resolving such a polarized worldview would be to pair off two such poles. At the same time, the tetrad, as a group of two twos, might be seen as a celebration of the cosmos’s essential dyadism, just as three groups of three crop up commonly in the Old Irish tales.
Without indulging in further speculation, we may simply declare that the tetrad holds a special fascination for Amerindians which manifests itself brilliantly throughout their oral traditions. Such passages as the following (from a Brule Sioux myth which clearly serves to explain existing rituals) seem as exuberantly fourfold as the Celtic tradition is threefold.
Iyan Hokshi closed the entrance of his little lodge with a flap of buffalo robe, so that no air could escape or enter. Pouring water from the bag over them, he thanked the rocks, saying, “You brought me here.” Four times he poured the water; four times he opened the flap and closed it. Always he spoke to the rocks and they to him. As he poured, the little lodge filled with steam so that he could see nothing but the white mist in the darkness. When he poured the water a second time, he sensed a stirring. When he poured the water a third time, he began to sing. And when he poured the water a fourth time, those dead, dried-up things also began to sing. (Erdoes and Ortiz 19)
Sometimes other numbers add variety to the tales (Iyan Hokshi happens to have five uncles), yet four is not only preferred in all explicit contexts, but specially revered in religious or ritual scenes. Every North American Indian tradition documents this phenomenon. Four seems to hold the key to the rhythms of the universe. It is not merely aesthetic: it is holy (to the extent that a mythopoeic culture would have distinguished the two). The passage below (also from a Brule Sioux tale) addresses the metaphysical even more directly than the one just cited--and the tetrad is even more in evidence.
“With this holy pipe,” she said, “you will walk like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and the pipestem reaching into the sky, your body forms a living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above. Wakan Tanka smiles upon us, because now we are as one: earth, sky, and all living things, the two-legged, the four- legged, the winged ones, the grasses. Together with the people, they are all related, one family. The pipe holds them all together.
“Look at this bowl,” said the White Buffalo Woman. “Its stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the red man. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of creation. The Buffalo was put in the west by Wakan Tanka at the making of the world, to hold back the waters. Every year he loses one hair, and in every one of the four ages he loses a leg. The sacred hoop will end when all the hair and the legs of the great buffalo are gone, and the water comes back to cover the earth.”
(Erdoes and Ortiz, 50)
As riddled with mystical foursomes as the White Buffalo Woman's instructions are, however, we must not fail to notice that, even here, a triad intrudes. The body “forms a living bridge” between earth and sky: there is no fourth member. The conception of a culture hero interceding between earth and sky (sometimes interpreted as the earthy and celestial components of human nature) occurs in oral traditions around the world. Amerindian raconteurs, then, are no more immune to the triadic logic of mediation than anyone else. Furthermore, they are not above using threes to impart a sense of plurality or urgency, as Demosthenes or Cicero would have done. The triadic cry of Komashtam'ho in a Yuma tale, “Wood, come into being! Wood, come alive! Wood, come here to where I stand!” (Erdoes and Ortiz, 79), builds to a rhetorically effective climax. And when the Navaho gambling-god Nahoilpi fumes in one telling, “I will kill you all with lightning. I will send war and disease among you. May the cold freeze you! May the fires burn you! May the waters drown you!” (Matthews 96), the third element of his curse is itself a triad. Such threesomes occasionally graduate to the status of aphorisms, it would appear, as has so often happened in the European tradition. The protagonist of a Sioux tale, for example, finds out that "a vision comes as a gift born of humility, of wisdom, and of patience" (Erdoes and Ortiz, 72).
Indeed, the native Americans of some areas have bestowed upon the triad a little of that aesthetic/religious recognition usually reserved for tetrads. The prehistoric inhabitants of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico worked triangular motifs into the basically square patterns of their pottery (at a time several centuries before the first European’s explosive arrival). Many tribes of this southwestern region still employ such motifs in their art (Stiles 40-76). A thousand miles farther east, the engineers of the Mississippian mounds, which in many respects seem monuments to the square (cf. Hudson 220-21) and which antedated the European onslaught by about as much as Chacoan civilization, have left occasional evidence of a tendency to construct in threes. It appears that the plateaus on top of the mounds were either rendered rectangular or were occupied by rectangular buildings, and the mounds themselves are often squared against the four points of the compass with marvelous accuracy; yet the number three has nonetheless been admitted into the sacred equation on a few sites.
Again, one cannot contest that, as a matter of cultural circumstance, Amerindians find foursomes to symbolize cosmic truths more effectively than threesomes. Hence the number four is mentioned explicitly, and even ritually, in many of their tales, whereas the word "three" occurs very seldom. Furthermore, since tetrads are (as one might say) on their minds, Amerindian raconteurs frequently organize the essential plot structure of their stories into fours. The favoring of one number over the other, however, is ultimately a question of degree. Threes have by no means been ignored in the art and ritual of this culture, as some would have us believe. Since my objective is to establish only the triad’s utility in oral story-telling, let us examine how threefold structures support the minutiae of especially complex performances, in Amerindian culture as elsewhere.
There is no dearth of recorded tales which demonstrate this practical reliance upon triads beneath the reverend and highly visible adornment of the tetrad. While a given tale, viewed as a whole, is likely to consist of four episodes, one or more of these episodes may well display a threefold order if it happens to be especially long and involved. In a Seneca story about a young lad reminiscent of Cú Chulainn, the boy-hero is forbidden by his father to seek adventure in each of four directions--which he proceeds to do, anyway, overcoming a more ferocious ogre on every new foray. The second and longest episode pits him against the giant Stone Coat. This monster he duly slays after three—not four—trials of strength and wits (Erdoes and Ortiz, 22-3). Similarly, a Blackfoot tale about the boy who brought horses to his people from an enchanted land is ostensibly tetradic in style and organization; but the boy’s journey to the Great Mystery Lake takes him past two smaller lakes, making an obscure but convenient triad. The distance between each of the lakes demands four-times-four days of walking, and, once at his destination, the boy must watch four days for a chance to ensnare the spirit chief. He is instructed, however, to ask the chief for three gifts. The much-coveted Elk Dogs (i.e., horses) are granted, as a result, and the chief assures him that they will approach docilely if he retraces his steps for four days. Yet he receives three commands to be followed at various stages of his return journey: to trust in his magic clothes without looking back, to ignore the horses when they first appear, and to catch one with his magic rope when they finally overtake him (Erdoes and Ortiz, 56-59). Triadic structuring plainly serves the Amerindian raconteur as a mnemonic tool even as he weaves more evident fourfold structures. The two numbers work together harmoniously in his hands, one of them being mystically charged, the other simply a practical help.
The list of instances above could easily be extended. Though native American culture differs widely from end to end of the vast continents which it spans, its reverence for the number four is persistent—but scarcely less so is the tendency of Amerindian story-tellers to build intricate episodes upon a threefold pattern. This simple fact of narrative mechanics is especially clear in western North America, where a substantial body of tradition has been garnered directly from native sources. A Hopi tale in which the sun’s child, like Phaethon, goes to seek his father relates how the boy travels four days and nights on each stage of his journey; yet a mere three stages in all bring him to the sun’s house (Erdoes and Ortiz, 146-47). A Cochiti story about a maiden who refuses all suitors has her ignoring two courtship dances and two artistic displays put on by local beaux before Coyote finally wins her with a third dance and a third display. In other words, there are four original suitors, but the method of Coyote’s suit fills out two triads (Erdoes and Ortiz, 310-11).
As we saw in the Celtic and Homeric traditions, the number three itself is not mentioned in the coordinating of such structural groups. From the oral teller’s perspective, the sheer ease with which three things or similar events may be recalled recommends the triad. It has no immediate mystical value when used as the principle for organizing superficially variegated episodes. This is not to say that triadic religious rites or concepts do not render the number yet more memorable in some cultures—but neither should we assume that the occasional influence of cultural circumstance is the one and only cause of the triad’s mnemonic utility.
 While Western societies certainly lay an exaggerated stress upon their beloved triads, it is not true that the number three has no inherent privileges in human logic. The most compelling case for the triad’s universal character may have been presented unwittingly by Immanuel Kant in fashioning his threefold “categories of the apperception”. As Kant points out, the first two members of each categorical group combine to form the notion of a third, giving us, for instance, the concept of a unitary wholeness from concepts of the one and the many. Kant’s qualitative categories have a particularly dynamic triadism. Here he maintains that we conceive of any perceptible quality—hardness, heat, speed, and so on—as existing between a pair of abstracted polarities. Hence we live in the zone of the eternal third element: the heat which could yet be hotter, the speed which could yet be faster. To our minds, any operative qualification is threefold, including that which is definitely not the feeling, that which is the feeling to perfection, and that which we feel in reality. (Cf. the remarks of Plato’s Diotima in Symposium 202a.)
 Charles Perry, “The Tyranny of Three”, Classical Journal 68.2 (1973), 144-148, first raised the question of why the triad should be so prominent in ancient literature, citing instances copiously. A.A. Bell, “Three Again”, CJ 70.3 (1975), 40-41, challenged Perry’s labeling of triads as pagan by defending their rhetorical utility in the Christian tradition. W.F. Hansen’s paper appeared the next year, briefly charging that the discussion had improperly assumed triads to be ubiquitous in human culture..
 The literature on the oral/mythic mentality includes contributions from philologists, anthropologists, historians, theologians, psychiatrists, and philosophers, among others, and is accordingly vast. My characterization of that mentality here and throughout is relatively uncontroversial. See, for instance, Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982). Even Eric Havelock, whose ideas about the inability of the oral mind to abstract have been widely challenged, stresses the importance in oral communities of rigidly preserving traditional patterns (e.g., his summary of his theory’s evolution and essence in The Muse Learns to Write [London and New Haven: Yale UP, 1986]). Havelock is perhaps most provocative in insisting that the oral mind’s fusion of specific and cosmic is not itself abstract thinking. Obviously, an oral society would endorse his view passionately, since to admit to abstract thinking would be to doubt the immanence and relevance of traditional categories—but the literate mind must remain impressed by such a society’s devotion to accepted patterns not materially manifest in fine detail or at a given moment.
 Göbel’s triads include threefold anaphora and alliteration as well as explicit uses of tris and treis in Homer.
 Ruth Scodel, “Epic Doublets and Polynices’ Two Burials,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 14 (1984) 49-58, studies at one point the prominence of dyadic structuring in Homer (55-57) and refers to the two “inconclusive duels” in Iliad 3 and 7. Her thesis is certainly correct to the extent that the Homeric poet often repeats a cluster of formulae—if not an entire episode—within a few dozen or hundred lines of its first occurrence; and he may often have intended, as many have suggested, an ironic or dramatic contrast between such pairs as the two duels. We must not overlook widely separated third members, however, or third members whose treatment gives the established pattern a new twist, for triads become mnemonically useful in just such cases. Several of Scodel’s own examples might be interpreted as two members of a triad if more attention is paid to action and less to phrasing. Fir instance, Odysseus delivers three despairing monologues at sea if we add 5.408-423 to the two cited, and Homer mentions his weeping at Demodocus’s Trojan tales three times if we count 8.92.
 For the tenuous distinction between folk entertainment and religious/political endorsement, consider Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley: University of California Press 1979), 22-26; and cf. D.L. Page, Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1973), and Rhys Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Berkeley: University of California Press 1956). Ironically, M.I. Finley’s classic, The World of Odysseus, uses the Odyssey to analyze social divisions in archaic Greece without remarking that the aristocratic hero of epic is here suddenly usurping the Everyman roles of folklore. The very fact that the Odyssean poet shows the keen awareness of the lower classes documented in Finley’s third chapter ought to strike us as something new under the sun.
 The Irish tale shows a particular fondness for the Polyphemus episode. Odysseus’s first sight of his long-lost wife and son, in contrast, would have delighted Freud, but lacks even a remote similarity to Homer’s Odyssey.
 I am not suggesting that the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey belonged to a virtually paleolithic community. Nevertheless, Havelock (122) is justified in noting, “Within the field of classical learning itself, there are formidable barriers which block the way to a ready acceptance of what the special theories of Greek orality propose…. An important one is grounded in the belief… that Greek classical literature is a unified phenomenon with an ideal dimension which is uniform and that the survival of the Greek classics as the basis of a humanist education depends upon maintaining this conception of unity and harmony governing the Greek experience.” Oddly, though Havelock’s warning against “belles-lettrist” bias is now eagerly embraced among most classicists, the very scholars who have no patience with idealism seem intent upon a caricature of the past as brutishly beyond—or beneath—inspiration. This, too, is excess.
 For example, the French adaptation of Statius’s Thebaid deletes almost every reference to the old gods, whereas the Irish adaptation so faithfully preserves the pagan effect that pre-Christian Celtic gods and practices are sometimes spliced into Statian scenes (cf. two incidents in George Calder’s edition of Togail na Tebe [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1922], 174).
 An undoubtedly more playful shade colors the popular creations whose genre is indicated by Professor Morgan. For instance, the wandering Irish tailor and story-teller Tag O’Buckley (known to Frank O’Connor and other literary worthies) tells us, “Greek honey, Spanish wine, and Scandinavian beer: those are the three best drinks in the world” (Seanchas an Táilliúra, collected by Seán Ó Cróinín [Dublin and Cork: Mercier, 1978], 160: my translation from Irish). The humorous concatenation of disparate elements—often obscure workman’s tools, characters from local legend, scraps of veiled political commentary, etc.—does not remotely resemble the ancient Welsh book’s preoccupation with narrative themes and quasi-historical events.
 The classic translation of the Mabinogion into English by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (London: Dent 1975) is a reliable text for the student of style. See p. 40 of Branwen’s story; or, in Welsh, Branwen Verch Lyr, ed. D.S. Thomson (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies 1976), 17-18.
 As with any ancient work, the Mabinogion's orality is sometimes obscured by the literacy of those who recorded it. In fact, J.K. Bollard, “The Structure of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion”, Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion (1974-5), 250-276, makes a case for the entire work’s literate finesse and intricacy. It is increasingly plain, however, that oral narration can itself be quite intricate, and such devices as triadic structuring serve to explain how.
 Jones and Jones, op. cit., 152: “And here is the reason why no one, neither bard nor storyteller, knows the Dream without a book--by reason of the number of colours that were on the horses, and all that variety of rare colours both on the arms and their trappings, and on the precious mantles, and the magic stones.”
 The “Four Branches” constitute what may most properly be called the Mabinogi (see the introduction to Jones and Jones, op. cit., especially xii-xviii). Later accretions reflect a variety of sources, from the curious Culhwch ac Olwen with its enormous catalogues--probably not itself performed, but fully cognizant of the ancient traditions--to Welsh versions of the late medieval romances which heavily influenced Chrétien de Troyes.
 Patrick Ford, “Prolegomena to a Reading of the Mabinogion: ‘Pwyll’ and ‘Manawydan’”, Studia Celtica 16-17 (1981-2), 110-125, discusses the Other World Journey involved in the tale. Pwyll takes Arawn’s place for a year and the resumes his own identity at their second meeting, just as he loses Rhiannon at their wedding feast and then reclaims her a year later at the second feast, having done penance for impulsive folly in both cases. The prominence of a yearly cycle in such tales makes their original connection with myths of solar and/or seasonal renewal apparent, and the transit from death to life, winter to spring, or folly to wisdom obviously demands two confrontations. Cf. the rather bare version of such an adventure in the Irish hero Cú Chulainn’s mystical journey offered by the Serglige Con Culainn, ed. Myles Dillon (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies 1975). Douglas Frame, The Myth of the Return in Greek Epic (New Haven: Yale University Press 1978), takes a similar approach to interpreting Homer's Odyssey.
 A more recent product of graduate schools might protest that the “priest/warrior/cultivator” triad ignores slaves and women—but, of course, Dumézil did not contend that the division was fair, only that it was operative. My own objection would be more to the absence of any merchant/artisan class in this scenario. By the time crops are cultivated in one place, cultures naturally need warriors to protect the harvest—and also a marketplace, and craftsmen of swords and spears, and nascent captains of export, etc. The reduction to three here seems indeed an exercise in wishful thinking—inspired (no doubt) by the desire to reduce triadism to a wishful thought!
 For instance, in the twelfth-century Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow)) presents the Boyhood Deeds as a loosely structured succession of feats—indeed, a catalogue—which was more probably compiled from several sources than actually performed.
 Chrétien’s Yvain and Erec et Enide and the Welsh Owein (or Yarlles y Ffynnawn—the Lady of the Fountain) and Gerient vab Erbin resemble each other with a narrowness that cannot be coincidental, while Chrétien’s Percival and the Welsh Peredur vab Evrawc are more distant cousins.
 Another version of the Siege of Troy follows the ancient Greek Dares more closely while retaining the same stylistic attributes, which are discussed at length in G. Dottin, “La Légende de la Prise de Troie en Irlande”, Revue Celtique 41 (1924), 149-180.
 Tomás and Robin Flower jointly authored Seanchas, the former essentially dictating and the latter writing. (See An tOileánach, 248-249, for the encounter which led to this collaborative effort.) A rare 1956 edition was published in Dublin by the Comhlucht Oideachais na h-Éireann and contains a useful bibliography of other obscure works dealing with traditions of the west coast, a few of which have been translated into English. All page numbers cited in the text refer to this volume.
 I have relied heavily on the authenticity of the Erdoes and Ortiz anthology. The editors have collected material with a dominant concern for its traditional character, selecting the most reputable sources from the past and even transcribing several performances themselves.
 The archetype of the heaven-earth mediator is not restricted to any one thematic group, such is its richness of suggestion. Instances in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature appear throughout the work rather than under any specific heading. Autochthony is an obvious expression of earth-origins, and is frequently combined with an element from the sky (as in the case of Erechtheus) or transformed into a symbolic trait (e.g., club-footedness). The lameness of Oedipus and (eventually) Bellerophon, coupled with their conquest of earthborn monsters and punishment for aspiring too high, surely signifies such a type. Clearly, the mediator does not always thrive in his role.
 For instance, the Etowah site in northwestern Georgia features three mounds arranged with exquisite care. The centers of the three mounds form an equilateral—and nearly an isosceles—triangle.
Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1978
Dumézil , Georges. Horace et les Curiaces. New York: Arno Press, 1978.
Dundes, Alan. “The Number Three in American Culture.” Every Man His Way. 401-424.
---. “Introduction.” Every Man His Way. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, 1968: v-xxviii.
Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History. Tr. W.R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1954.
---. The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harper and Row, 1959.
Erdoes, Richard, Alphonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon 1984.
Giangrande, Lawrence. “Tres Quartum.” Classical Journal 82.1 (1986), 65-66.
Göbel, Fritz. Formen und Formeln der epischen Dreiheit in der griechischen Dichtung. Stuttgart-Berlin: W. Kohlhammer, 1935.
Hainsworth, J.B. The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Hansen, W.F. “Three a Third Time.” Classical Journal 71.3 (1976), 253-254.
Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write. London and New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1987.
Kirk, G.S. “The Formula Duels in Books 3 and 8 of the Iliad.” Homer: Tradition and Invention. Ed. B.A. Fenik. Leiden: Brill, 1978: 18-40
Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.
Matthews, Washington. Navaho Legends. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1897.
Mondi, Robert. “The Homeric Cyclopes: Folktale, Tradition, and Theme.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 (1983), 17-38.
Muellner, L.C. The Meaning of Homeric “euchomai” through its Formulas. Innsbrucker Beiträger zur Sprachwissencchaft 13. Innsbruck: Becvar, 1976.
Nagler, M.N. Spontaneity and Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Oral Life and Medieval Death in Medieval Irish Tradition.” Oral Tradition 3/3 (1988):368-80
Ó Criomhthain, Tomás An tOileánach. Dublin: Helicon, 1980.
---. Seanchas ón Oileán Tiar. Dublin: Comhlucht Oideachais na h-Éireann, 1956.
O’Rahilly, Cecile. “Introduction.” Táin Bó Cúalnge. Ed. Cecile O’Rahilly. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970: ix-lv.
Page, Denys L. History and the Homeric Iliad. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.
Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric Verse. Ed. Adam Parry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.
Renoir, Alain. A Key to Old Poems: The Oral- Formulaic Approach to the Interpretation of West-Germanic Verse. University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.
Rutherford, Ward. Celtic Mythology: The Nature and Influence of Celtic Myth—From Druidism to Arthurian Legend. New York: Sterling, 1990.
Stiles. H.E. Pottery of the American Indians. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1939.
Van Hamel, A.G. (ed.). Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968.
Assessment of What Makes the
Foregoing Article “Unpublishable”
If the reader has succeeded in wading through my youthful research into the mystery of triads—or has even viewed it cursorily—he or she will probably anticipate some of my own conclusions about why this piece could not be placed with a scholarly journal. It is rather long. With ever-shrinking budgets and ever-increasing volume of submissions, journals have grown reflexively hostile to anything over five or six thousand words. This doesn’t seem like a very scholarly restriction to inflict upon contributors; but the scholarly community has accepted it without great protest, perhaps because most of its members don’t really enjoy writing, anyway.
I have refereed journals myself, however, and I well know that the proper response to a meritorious but excessively long piece is not flat rejection. One encourages to author to resubmit, rather, and suggests passages which might be deleted or trimmed. Length in itself is not “very disturbing”.
I devoutly hope that the readers or Praesidium were not bored stiff when invited to consider why so many oral-traditional texts seem to be haunted by threefold occurrences. The subject strikes me as having general interest, and even a certain playful quality, since the stories we read our toddlers may well come to mind as we ponder this subject. The subject’s homespun quality may also have worked against it. Many scholars prize their mandarin aura. They relish the air of intimidation which their cryptic jargon and knowledge of circumstantial minutiae inspire among the general public. I can imagine a referee finding my submission disturbing on that basis: i.e., as a forbidden gesture, tinged even with humor, toward common sense and the general student of literature. I once endured the misery of sitting on a committee charged with giving oral examinations to a college’s graduating English majors. The senior member of the department, dressed (as always) like a U-Boat commander, posed a sweating, quailing candidate a question which I found needlessly convoluted. Good-naturedly, I sprang in and rephrased what I took to be the crucial point. The victim managed to wriggle off the hook with a creditable answer, thanks to me; but Herr Kommandant thereupon lifted his sharply clipped beard at me and announced, “I will now take thirty seconds of Professor Harris’s time, since he has taken thirty seconds of mine.”
It is important, in short, to keep enthusiasm at arm’s length and to keep the hoi polloi feeling prickly. Still, I should have thought a referee might have branded my submission “insufficiently scholarly” or “verbose” or “ill-focused” on these grounds rather than “very disturbing”. The very seems a bit much, if its target is mere stylistic lucidity. We are drawing closer to the paper’s major infractions, but we have not quite grasped them.
Of course, the less ingenuous will have known from the start that the triad essay’s great sin was to assume—and even worse, to demonstrate (for the less readily dismissed is the more bitterly resented)—that the human mind is not a blank slate. Modern academe, at least since the First World War, has generally subscribed to the notion that environmental circumstance makes us what we are. This may well be said, indeed, to be the bedrock belief—the core article of faith—in the modern Western intellectual’s worldview. It has certainly informed the development of anthropology and the social sciences. Margaret Meade was easily practiced upon by her aboriginal subjects, thanks to her zealous conviction that she would find Western assumptions about “common decency” turned topsy-turvy in other corners of the world. An ostensibly more objective variety of science is presently attributing our behaviors to genetic conditioning—which approach reduces the role of custom, to be sure, but not by nudging any more cards into the hand held by human reason or the human spirit. Literary scholars have so far succeeded in distilling anything like universal humanity from the texts they study that the word “classic” has become as naïve as the word “canon”. All writing is mere propaganda. Explain why the existing power structure generated a book or allowed it to be published—the conspiracies of emperors and patriarchs, the whitewash of political hacks and publicity agents, the fawning adulation of servile courtiers—and you say all there really is to say about a novel or poem. The favorite works of this crew (for they have their own canon, after all) turn out to be revolutionary polemics or subversive parodies floated by the clever opposition—or else quasi-pornographic outlets for that honest beast which biology has decreed to be the one Universal within us.
The personal investment in cultural relativism (which amounts, let’s face it, to ethical nihilism, since the logical conclusion of the exercise is always that all restraints and taboos are absurd) can be profound. I knew a great many people in graduate school who were there entirely because they loathed the status quo: their “studies” were a fulcrum with which to topple over bourgeois convention. One person I came to know rather well in those days had literally just been released from a mental institution after attempting suicide, and several others were enthralled to drugs or to luridly complicated sexual habits which prevented them from existing in an eight-to-five, the-neighbors-are-watching environment. I do not exaggerate in claiming that any paper which pleads the universality of even one modest rational principle will be received as a direct assault upon this strange tribe’s homeland. If human beings are in any way compelled by reason, then the compulsion may well have consequences in the realm of personal conduct—and such antinomians are provoked by nothing so much as the suggestion that their exotic choices are a dereliction of moral duty.
I will admit, however, that the discomfort of the nervous eccentric is a prick whose true source is difficult to localize beneath the psychic epidermis. Scholars are bound to be far more aware of the assault upon their academic discipline’s workaday order. (So much for the antinomian’s consistency even as an antinomian!) Classicists are especially at fault. Classical Studies are distant: their literary lions have seldom left behind for us reams of intimate letters or pictorial representations of their high brows. To approach them with the archaeologist’s trowel in one hand, then, and the historian’s timelines in the other is very tempting. Sappho and Xenophon and Horace become composites with little of the individual and nothing of the unique about them. We assume that what they say about themselves in their works is true, we infer their tastes and character from judgments made therein, we imagine them surrounded by the kinds of shoes and sewers and trinkets excavated at the latest “digs”, and we massage any gray area (gray being the dominant tint of the whole ghostly image) in the direction of their better-known contemporaries’ habits and prejudices. Not surprisingly, we end up proving to our own satisfaction (if we are proper classicists) that these princes of belles letters were products of their circumstances; for how could we find otherwise, when we admit as evidence of their identity only their circumstances?
Distinctly missing from the witness list is any beacon of common humanity that may leap off the page to an ordinary eye. Vergil’s lacrimae rerum are misappropriated if we permit them to evoke from us reflections upon tragedies which have touched our own lives. No: the classicist, rather, will explain to us that an ancient city sacked went thus and so to its ruin, that the Roman mind ruminating upon fate would have seen things thus and so… and, at last, we are liberated from our crippling delusion that abiding human values might transcend millennia to admit us to a fine insight or invite us to a spiritual commiseration. There are no kinds of experience: there is only experience, always unique to its circumstances, always sealing the present generation from past and future ones—and always, as I have indicated, refusing uniqueness to any individual within any generation. For to surmount one’s poor diet and abusive rulers and horrendous sanitation in a glorious flight toward common humanity would be to demonstrate the uniqueness of genius.
In the foregoing essay, my ninth note mentioned Eric Havelock’s distress at the enduring view “that Greek classical literature is a unified phenomenon with an ideal dimension which is uniform and that the survival of the Greek classics as the basis of a humanist education depends upon maintaining this conception of unity and harmony governing the Greek experience.” Naturally, we can all understand how suffocating must have been the Victorian afterglow which embalmed every ancient utterance as a kind of timeless wisdom. Yet the effort to defract this glow of “idealism” has now proceeded to the point of nonsense. Why, after all, should we study the Classics if they do not remain in any way classic? To leave ourselves surer than ever that everything’s relative—that even the divine Vergil was a pederast and even the noble Seneca a flunkey? But for most of us, this objective of study would prove miserably insufficient to justify an intensive labor of several years, since most of us are not driven by an emotional craving to catch all manifestations of idealism in their underwear. We study the Classics, rather, because we are surrounded by altogether too much soiled laundry, and we are willing to take inspiration where we find it. For the majority of us (a historical majority of us, at any rate), the ancients are interesting despite their inevitable lapses into hypocrisy and brutality—interesting precisely because they were able sometimes to view human existence from a higher level. For today’s classicist, as so finely sketched in V.D. Hanson and John Heath’s Who Killed Homer?, the nugget of gold panned from the stream is one more hint of hypocrisy or brutality. Who but he or she would waste a lifetime digging for fossilized feces?
I deserted the Classics program in which I took my Master’s degree in disgust over this situation. I turned, naively, to Comparative Literature. The essay on triads was offered to several comparatist journals, as well. I do not recall their having voiced as much “disturbance” as the classicists did—but probably because they preferred to spare their vocal chords. (As a group, classicists enjoy the “put-down” with a zest which I have observed nowhere else in academe.) For my apostasy was no less extreme in comparatist circles: the whole point to comparing literature (I discovered late in the doctoral game) was to unearth (more digging) a certain latent solidarity among certain victim-groups, especially females and colonized non-Western peoples. A species of universality was operative—but a non-rational, dehumanizing species. Biology having dictated whether or not you were female or dark-skinned, you could not very well have found any breathing space for the aesthetic in all these “comparisons”. My essay, however (like my dissertation), advances the notion that stories may actually please their audiences quite apart from anything to do with genetic or cultural conditioning. Specifically, a more complicated story tends to delight more than a baldly simple story. Since triads allow the oral performer to introduce such pleasant intricacy into his yarn, they become—in my case—a lightning rod for the ire of comparatists who view all literature as propaganda. And those of us who are not comparatists of this stripe do not referee comparative journals or hold positions in Comp. Lit. departments.
My advice to the young person who loves literature and cannot survive without some degree of idealism is to be his or her best teacher. Read voraciously. Take what you can from the ivory tower: most classicists can teach you a thing or two about grammar (though not all—but that’s another story). Otherwise… otherwise, allow the system to continue to crumble into its own already substantial rubble. Build a personal library. Listen to “experts” skeptically. A recent History Channel production entitled The Roman War Machine blandly alleged through an “eminent classical scholar” that the optimates resisted Julius Caesar’s bid for absolute power only because they wanted the pie’s largest pieces for themselves—all of their voluminous writing about freedom being, of course, propaganda. Very disturbing.
Christian Virtues in Star Trek (TOS)
Dr. Kim Paffenroth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Iona College . He is the author of several books on theology, most recently The Heart Set Free: Sin and Redemption in the Gospels, Augustine, Dante, and Flannery O’Connor (New York: Continuum, 2005) and In Praise of Wisdom: Literary and Theological Reflections on Faith and Reason (New York: Continuum, 2004). The preceding article was taken with slight alterations from a forthcoming book co-authored with Tom Bertonneau: The Gospel according to Sci-Fi: The Classic Television Series ( Grand Rapids : Brazos Press, 2006). Professor Paffenroth lives in Cornwall-on-Hudson , New York , with his wife and two children.
This article explores the moral vision of the original Star Trek series ( TOS ). Several of the virtues repeatedly praised on the show, while by no means unique to Christians, are most often associated with Christianity as among its defining moral values: these are humility, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Other virtues practiced by the crew of the Enterprise—courage, self-reliance, moderation—are certainly compatible with Christian ethics, as well as necessary to living a good and happy life.1 This is not to claim that Star Trek is specifically Christian, only that there are several points in its moral vision that are inclusive of and compatible with a Christian perspective.
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the Prime Directive: Humility and Moderation
 The Prime Directive is one of the most frequently recurring plot devices in the Star Trek universe. The Prime Directive is the categorical command to all starships and their crews that they are not, under any circumstances, to interfere with the development of an alien culture. Such interference would constitute an infection or contamination, and the deleterious effects on both the contaminated and the contaminator might be so far-reaching and unpredictable that this situation must be avoided at all costs. Clearly the writers had in mind the awful consequences of Earthbound imperialism and colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even when outright warfare and genocide were avoided (which was rarely), mere physical contact could be fatal—smallpox epidemics among Native Americans, beriberi among Dutch settlers in Java or malaria among white missionaries in Africa. Even if not fatal, there could be strongly negative effects from supposedly benevolent “cultural imperialism”—economic exploitation, the introduction of dubious political regimes such as communism, the use of colonized peoples as proxies in the colonizers’ wars, and the extinction of all indigenous forms of belief or worship. If these were the awful disasters that happened within the human species when one tribe naively tried to “help” or “civilize” or “improve” another, then much greater care would have to be exercised when interacting with the myriad of life-forms in the universe.
 But, as any viewer knows, the Prime Directive is violated so many times in the course of the series and its sequels that it is in danger of becoming a running gag, where the Prime Directed is either invoked or ignored based only on the exigencies of the plot. There is surely much to this criticism, as the show, like any other, had first to attend to dramaturgical matters, rather than philosophical ones: the stories have to “work” before one can worry about the consistency of their “meaning”. On the other hand, Star Trek so clearly wants to present a moral message as well as an aesthetic experience that one is right to investigate or question its message if this appears to be presented inconsistently or uncritically.2 Even within a plot-driven universe, there is a relative consistency of the Prime Directive’s importance and meaning on the show. No matter how insanely self-destructive the aliens are behaving, Kirk tries his best to remain aloof and uninvolved, though he will always retaliate in self-defense if the locals attack the Enterprise (e.g. “A Taste of Armageddon”) or otherwise threaten the safety of innocents (e.g. “The Cloudminders”, “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”). When the Enterprise arrives too late to stop a planet from destroying itself in the episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”—an episode pointedly aimed at racial tensions in the United States—it hardly seems a triumph of the Prime Directive, but merely a tragedy that any humane person would have done anything to stop if given the chance. Most of Kirk’s violations of the Prime Directive are only in response to previous violations by other humans (e.g. “The Omega Glory”, “Patterns of Force”, “A Piece of the Action”), or by the even more meddlesome and much less conscientious Klingons (e.g. “A Private Little War”), that have resulted in horrible perversions of alien cultures that send them down the road of endless warfare or even genocide. Such remedies are not really violations of the spirit of the Prime Directive, which seeks ultimately the health and well-being of both the alien culture and the whole universe. Instead, they are equivalent to the use of “unnatural” drugs or treatments to cure the smallpox that one’s fellows have inflicted on a foreign race. Such interference by Kirk or a doctor is embarked on with humility, caution, and regret that the situation has come to this. Such treatments are also done out of love and concern for the alien race, not out of a desire to control, manipulate, or use them.
 The ultimate reason for the Prime Directive, therefore, is an accurate and humble assessment of human limitations. Kirk states this clearly to another starship captain who has violated the Directive: “I don’t think we have the right or the wisdom to interfere” (“The Omega Glory”). Kirk generalizes his criticism to “we”, showing clearly that it is not just a shortcoming of this particular captain—as though a person who were wise enough might have the right to “fix” an alien culture, or perhaps that Starfleet could approve of it by a vote—but that no human being could ever have such a right to play God in this way, because no human being could ever attain to such God-like wisdom. This humble acknowledgment of human fallibility and insufficiency in the face of a universe with nearly limitless challenges and dangers is praised repeatedly throughout the series, and it is what often saves the characters from turning into the kind of monsters and bullies against which they fight: “It is, in large part, the humans’ lack of godly pretensions that saves them. Humans have self-doubt; they know they are not perfect.”3 Humans are weak and fallible, but so long as they are aware of this, it makes them stronger than the arrogant and misguided entities—human, alien, or mechanical—who wrongly believe in their own infallibility and moral superiority. The Prime Directive is an important and constant reminder to all the characters of such human weakness.
 In an especially important episode, the series even has the good moral and aesthetic sense to show Kirk himself falling prey to such hubris, in the episode “Errand of Mercy”.4 Kirk offers to protect the seemingly primitive inhabitants of the planet Organia from the evil Klingons. The Organians politely but emphatically refuse and allow themselves to be invaded and even abused and murdered by the Klingons. Kirk and Spock on the planet surface square off against a squad of Klingon troops, while Starfleet and Klingon battle cruisers close in on each other in the space overhead. At this point, the Organians finally reveal themselves not to be primitive and cowardly, but rather to be advanced, incorporeal beings whom Spock estimates are as far beyond us as we are beyond amoebas. The Organians neutralize all Klingon and Federation weapons, and Kirk and the Klingon commander impotently sputter against them, “You’re talking nonsense!” “What gives you the right?!” With a truce forced on him, and his own bloodlust and shocking similarity to the loathsome Klingons embarrassingly revealed,5 Kirk is sheepish and stunned, finally admitting to Spock, “I’m embarrassed. I was furious with the Organians for stopping a war I didn’t want.” It is part of Kirk’s heroism and appeal that he has the wisdom to be “embarrassed” by his shortcomings and hypocrisy, and that he can therefore learn to avoid them in the future and better live out his ideals of humility and freedom, as he humbly and beautifully states it in another episode, “We’re all vulnerable in one way or another” (“Is There in Truth No Beauty?”).6
 Besides learning from the Prime Directive and from superior alien beings, Kirk is most often helped in his quest for moral excellence by his two close friends on the Enterprise, Spock and McCoy. The three are, in fact, so deliberately integrated on the show that they almost function as one whole being, “a highly articulated symbol of wholeness.”7 Like a successful, integrated “family, if not, at times, one personality,”8 they make up for each others’ deficits, complement each others’ opposing qualities, and accentuate each others’ good points. Their complementarity is a commonplace in both fans’ comments and academic analyses of the series,9 and it is obviously of perennial appeal, as variations on the triad also occur in the later series. Besides one of the most wonderful images of profound and dedicated friendship, and of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, the image of the three functioning together as one is another part of the show’s examination of human nature, essentially using each of the three to personify one aspect of a person’s mind or soul to focus and sharpen the analysis.
 This analysis of the human soul in three parts is essentially a modified version of that proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 B.C.E.), who distinguished between reason, appetite or desire, and a hard-to-define quality of “spiritedness” or “passion” (2L:`H – thumos).10 Of all the Greek philosophers, Plato has frequently been deemed the most compatible with Christian beliefs, and several of the Church Fathers, most notably St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), showed how Platonism revealed many of the same truths as Christianity. In Star Trek’s appropriation of Plato’s scheme, Spock represents reason. He is almost always seen at Kirk’s side, providing a logical analysis of the myriad of factors in a given situation, often even including the probability of success of each proposed course of action. But as detailed and detached an advisor as he is, consulting Spock is not just the same as consulting the ship’s computer: unlike a computer, Spock can express preferences that go beyond mere mechanical calculation, and he can make moral judgments. The efficacy and morality of Spock’s decisions are repeatedly shown in the series. For example, when Spock is absent from the bridge in “Spock’s Brain”, a critical decision must be made as to which of three planets to investigate in a limited amount of time. Kirk consults three other officers on the bridge—Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu—but it is obvious from their suggestions that he might as well go “enny-meeny-miny-mo”: unlike Spock, they almost comically lack any ability to sift, weigh, or deliberate over the data, and their choices are completely arbitrary and conflicting. And in “A Taste of Armageddon”, Kirk and Spock are confronted with a civilization that practices a bizarre kind of virtual warfare, in which a computer model calculates who would have died in a real attack, and then the people on the list dutifully commit suicide. When Spock says that he understands their system, the local official is pleased, but Spock corrects him: “I do not approve. I understand.” Spock shows how a soul governed entirely by reason is both effective and serene, but without being indecisive or non-judgmental. Using reason, Spock can discern what course of action is right—“right” both in the sense of “effective,” and in the sense of “morally correct”—and follow it vigorously.
 But the character of Spock just as frequently and vividly presents the limitations of reason, as well as its strengths. Spock reminds his fellows several times that Vulcans were not always peaceful and logical, but only became so through extreme discipline and training, following on a history and an inner nature every bit as savage as that of humans.11 This self-control is made more difficult for Spock by his less logical, more emotional human side, but even his Vulcan half can sometimes be unruly and uncooperative. This is shown in “All Our Yesterdays”, when Spock and McCoy are transported back in time, and Spock feels his reason faltering and slipping away, as he has been transported to a time when Vulcans were unbridled, murderous brutes, and he is himself making the transition to this state; this all-too-easy stripping away of Spock’s veneer of reason and control nearly costs McCoy his life when he crosses Spock. In “Amok Time” we again see the fragility of Vulcan reason even more graphically exploded, and without the convenient and artificial excuse of time travel. Spock’s mental and physical health deteriorate until he is on the brink of death, and he explains that this is because his time of pon farr—the Vulcan mating ritual—has arrived. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy arrive on the planet Vulcan, they find that the ritual is anything but logical: following on an insane, dissociated state of “blood fever”, it moves on to combat to the death using the most primitive of weapons. In exchange for being completely governed by their reason ninety-nine percent of the time, Vulcan males have to submit to an unstoppable descent into bestial madness for the remaining one percent of their lives. In “Mirror, Mirror”, Kirk and McCoy find a parallel universe where there are evil counterparts to all the Star Trek characters. On the one hand, the episode is highly optimistic, showing how the evil Spock seems to be persuaded by Kirk to quit his lowdown ways; but on the other hand, there is a dose of realism when the evil Spock calculates that the evil empire of which he is a part will continue for another 240 years. Perhaps reason can overcome evil, but only on a rather long and painful schedule of centuries, not in the short term horizon of a person’s lifetime. Spock shows how it is good to control one’s baser instincts with reason, but that control probably cannot be maintained at all times, nor can it naively be relied upon to quell base desires in a reasonable amount of time; reason may be the higher part of a person, but it is not the strongest or most durable.
 Even when not overcome by his desires, Spock’s reason is not always sufficient to the task at hand. When Spock takes command of a shuttle craft in “The Galileo Seven”, his decisions are, as always, completely logical, but the situation spirals more and more out of control. On the planet surface, Spock and his crew are attacked by huge yeti-like creatures. Spock’s logical response of firing warning shots rather than killing the natives outright only enrages them further. Spock incites his own crew to the brink of mutiny by refusing at first to bury a dead crewmember, as he deems it illogical to risk further carnage to attend to a corpse that is beyond their help. Spock not only lacks emotions himself, their presence in others throws his calculations into a fatal disarray.12 Further, Spock lacks all sense of wonder,13 or of the sacred: when he pulls a spear from his dead comrade’s back, he can impressively pontificate on the spearhead’s physical properties and workmanship, while oblivious to the mystery or sanctity of the human corpse at his feet. Spock admits to being equally unmoved by the wonder of natural beauty in “This Side of Paradise”, when he sadly notes that he never before noticed the beauty of clouds.14 In “The Savage Curtain”, we find that Vulcan reason also turns out to be quite inadequate when dealing with unmitigated evil. In this episode Kirk and Spock are joined by replicas of Abraham Lincoln and Surak, the legendary founder of Vulcan civilization and devotion to reason, to do combat with a quartet of cosmic villains. Surak unwisely attempts to reason with the unregenerates, appealing to their logic and self-interest, but completely overlooking the fact that they just plain like to be bad.15 They then simply murder him and get on with the business of trying to kill Kirk, Spock, and Lincoln as well. Like the elves in Tolkien’s universe—who are similar to Vulcans in both demeanor and physical appearance—the Vulcans, who represent reason, seem better suited to be auxiliaries and advisors than leaders. In all these instances, reason is shown not just to be weak, but to be inadequate; it is not equivalent to wisdom.
 Taking both the triumphs and the failures of Spock’s reason into account, it seems that the exchange between McCoy and Spock in “The Galileo Seven” well summarizes the show’s evaluation of rationality: when McCoy objects that not all problems can be answered by logic, Spock responds, “I know of no better way to begin.” As often happens in the series, McCoy and Spock are both right. In approaching a problem, or just living our lives, reason is the right place to begin, but it is not the whole process, nor the only way to proceed. All in all, Spock clearly shows how reason is an absolutely necessary, but insufficient and very fragile element of human virtue and happiness.16
 McCoy consistently represents the desires, not just the physical, but certainly including those. In his capacity as a physician, McCoy necessarily has more to do with basic physical needs than the other characters. Even within his medical duties, the doctor seems mostly known for his bedside manner, not for his technical prowess. One senses that Spock’s frequent jibes that the doctor utilizes potions and witch-doctor-like quackery are not totally unfair: if he could cure people just by doting on them, by being kind and loving and reassuring to them, McCoy probably would prefer it to his machines and drugs. Technological marvels remove the humanity and intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship and make it more mechanical and impersonal, like servicing an automobile. McCoy himself belittles futuristic medicine, preferring such ancient and maternal treatments as exercise, rest, and good diet (e.g. in “The Omega Glory”). He is famously and frequently discomfited by the transporter and other physical inconveniences of life onboard a starship. McCoy is also more realistic as to how people’s bodies affect their minds, and vice-versa, eschewing either Kirk’s lackadaisical manner or Spock’s rigid self-denial. In “Charlie X”, McCoy is the only one to notice the fairly obvious fact that a teenage boy who’s never seen a woman before might be experiencing some problems adjusting to life onboard a starship full of ladies in short skirts, and he urges Kirk to give the boy a talk about the birds and the bees. Because of such physicality and loving care, it has been observed that McCoy seems more in touch with his feminine side than the other male characters.17 On the bridge of a military vessel, surrounded by men performing stereotypically masculine functions—Kirk commanding, Spock analyzing data, Sulu firing weapons, Scotty fixing machines—McCoy is a welcomed, sensitive, maternal counter-balance. In a universe of machines that act like people and alien beings who have no bodies, McCoy is a solid foundation in physical reality, acknowledging its limits, easing its accompanying pain, and enjoying its pleasures and beauty.
 Such enjoyment of physicality leads us to the other, less physical human qualities that McCoy embodies, emotion and intuition. McCoy is perhaps the most consistently and overtly happy crewmember onboard the Enterprise, labeled by one critic “the eternal bon vivant.”18 He keeps a special stash of Saurian brandy in sick bay (“The Enemy Within”), and when presented with the possibility of having his heart’s desire, he orders a mint julep (“This Side of Paradise”). His southern drawl only appears infrequently in the series, and is really rather annoying, but it too conveys a certain comfort or ease, and another kind of counter-balance, especially to Spock’s almost Zen detachment and to the Protestant work ethic so vigorously and relentlessly championed by the more Northern Europeans, Kirk and Scotty.19 McCoy proudly and frequently displays outbursts of many other emotions, whether anger, frustration, righteous indignation, fierce loyalty, or romantic love, having his fair share of love-interests in the series (e.g. in “The Man Trap” and “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), despite being much older than Kirk and Spock. None of this is to portray McCoy or his qualities as soft or weak—any more than calling him maternal implies weakness: as we will see in the next section, he saves the Enterprise and his friends as many times as any other character, and his bravery is equally unquestionable, as when he coolly stares down the scalpel-wielding, megalomaniacal superman Khan (“Space Seed”). When Kirk is believed dead in “The Tholian Web”, Spock and McCoy play a prerecorded message of Kirk that summarizes McCoy’s quiet strength: Kirk counsels Spock to seek out McCoy’s advice, and thereby to “temper your judgment with intuitive insight.” McCoy’s emotions and intuitions are as necessary to the mission of the Enterprise or to the healthy functioning of a human soul, as are Spock’s reason and logic.
 But exactly like Spock, McCoy’s qualities of emotion and intuition are also shown to be incomplete and sometimes detrimental to his own well-being and that of his shipmates. His emotional outbursts are not always endearing: they cloud his judgment and endanger others. His maternal side proves dangerous in “And the Children Shall Lead”, when he is put in charge of five demonic children, and unwisely and perilously puts their care ahead of the interests of the crew. His jibes at Spock are usually corrective, but they can turn outright nasty and counterproductive, as in “The Tholian Web”, where McCoy indulges in an absolute paroxysm of illogic, first accusing Spock of lusting after command of the ship, then reminding Spock that he will have command if he simply leaves Kirk behind, then finally accusing Spock of trying to get command by not leaving Kirk behind. Exactly as in the case of Spock and his reason, McCoy and his emotions seem best suited to advise and influence, not to command the ship or a person completely.
 The synthesis and integration of these conflicting faculties of reason and emotion falls upon Kirk, who represents spiritedness.20 He is the embodiment of the original meaning of “virtue”, which is “manly excellence” (the root is still visible in words such as “virile”). Kirk commands, strives, and advances—always with the help of reason and emotion, but not because of them: he is the one who provides the drive and the goal. We can see this is the essence of Kirk by the fact that when presented with his worst fear, it is the fear that he might be incapable of command (“And the Children Shall Lead”). Kirk’s essence is even the subject of its own episode, “The Enemy Within”. A transporter malfunction produces two Kirks, one “evil” and one “good.” But as they are further examined, these initial labels prove misleading.21 The nasty Kirk is, rather, an exaggerated, uncontrolled version of McCoy’s appetitive, animal, emotional side of human nature: his first action onboard is to get drunk, then attempt a rape, and then to shriek, “It’s my ship! It’s mine!” Significantly, it is McCoy who sticks up for the nasty Kirk: “It’s not really ugly, it’s human.” The nice Kirk is like much like Surak in “The Savage Curtain”, but even weaker: Surak could at least decide (foolishly) to parlay with the evil characters, while the nice Kirk lacks all decisiveness, and can only stare dumbly at the facts of a situation without any ability to decide on which course to pursue. Both halves, significantly, lack spiritedness, for the nasty Kirk is also a craven coward who can only attack from ambush. He too lacks decisiveness, and can only rampage around pursuing his momentary lusts; he is as incapable as the nice Kirk of forming a plan or solving a problem, unlike the “real”, complete Kirk. Somehow in the splitting of Kirk, the most crucial element of his humanity has been lost, leaving only two maimed and unviable thirds, not halves. It is only when the two Kirks willingly submit to going through the transporter again simultaneously that they are reunited, forming again a spirited Kirk who can make decisions.
 The essence, then, of Kirk’s spiritedness is his admirable self-control, his ability to moderate the extremes of reason and desire: to desire, but within the bounds of what is reasonable, and to reason and desire in a purposive, deliberate way. This is a description of virtue as basically moderation and maturity, with the corollary that sin is essentially childish, immature behavior. This is shown vividly in another episode that dissects a human soul, “Charlie X”. The Enterprise takes onboard a teenage orphan, Charlie, who has been raised on a planet by Thasians, an alien race whose exact character or capabilities are unknown. Among people for the first time right as he hits puberty, Charlie is confused, moody, and aggressive. Kirk attempts to train the boy in how to control and restrain himself and get along with others. Kirk tries to do this by physical training in judo, a good outlet for aggression, and one that of its essence requires literal, physical give and take with an opponent, rather than just striking and dodging like karate or boxing. He also gives a succinct summary of moderation: “There are a million things in this universe you can have, and a million things you can’t have!” Describing the universe as fifty percent indulgence and fifty percent denial is hardly the most rigorous, demanding level of self-control, but it is not a bad starting place for the kind of training in moderation that would lead to a normal and even virtuous life. But Charlie is both too old and too immature to respond, and the situation turns dangerous when it is revealed that he has developed powerful telekinetic powers under the training of the mysterious Thasians and can kill or maim people with his mind. According to Star Trek, children are definitely not innocent: they are as sinful and desirous as adults.22 Virtue is not innate—it must be learned by long and often arduous training; but a child with supernatural powers could refuse such training and wreak havoc. The Enterprise is saved from this child/monster only by the fortunate appearance of the incorporeal Thasians, who apologize for letting their dangerous charge escape and take him back to their planet. It is one of the sadder moments in the series, as Kirk has been unable to train an unfortunate youngster to follow the path of virtue that he himself does.
 Guided by the humility of the Prime Directive and by their own counter-balancing qualities, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy together serve as one of the greatest paradigms and inspiring exemplars of the humanistic virtues of humility and moderation. They are respectful of others, and even capable of learning from them and thereby correcting their own shortcomings. Working together, they successfully avoid the extremes and moderate their reason and emotion into a synthesis that is both virtuous and highly effective. But deeper and more divine than moderation and humility, Kirk and both of his friends constantly live their lives in the service of others, even at great expense and sacrifice to themselves. These are the higher, “Christian” virtues of compassion and self-sacrifice, to which we now turn.
Christian Virtues: The Golden Rule - Compassion and Self-Sacrifice
 Part of Star Trek’s appeal is in its characters’ wonderful restraint, so sadly lacking in much of the rest of television or the movies. Kirk and his crew never pursue revenge and never use excessive force. An incapacitated opponent, no matter how much damage he has done, is always spared by Kirk (e.g. “Space Seed”, “The Omega Glory”): “Do to others as you would have them do to you.... Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:31, 36; cf. Matt 5:48; 7:12). As we saw above with humility, sometimes Kirk himself falters in this respect, and has to be taught such mercy by superior alien beings, as in “Arena”, which begins with an enraged Kirk pursuing an alien ship which has destroyed a human settlement. Spock counsels restraint, observing that the aliens may not be as bent on aggression as Kirk assumes, but Kirk is incorrigible and overcome again by his bloodlust. As the two ships pass by a star system, both the captains are whisked off their ships by aliens called the Metrons, who put them on an asteroid and instruct them to do single combat to the death. The captain of the alien ship is a Gorn, a seven foot tall lizard who can take anything Kirk can dish out—including having a boulder dropped on him—and who can toss Kirk around like a rag doll. Kirk retreats and finds the ingredients for gunpowder, which he uses to build a mortar. He blasts the Gorn, incapacitating but not killing him. Kirk then refuses to finish off his opponent, acknowledging that he himself had been too hasty in his judgment and too eager to kill. The Metrons are so impressed by this show of mercy—a quality which they had assumed humans too primitive to possess—that they spare both ships and send them on their way. Once again, Kirk has shown himself noble enough to learn from others and from his own mistakes.
 But even higher than the quality of mercy, there is the Christian ideal of compassion, of not just sparing another being from suffering, but of actually alleviating another’s suffering by willingly sharing in it. As noted above, such a quality is especially prevalent in McCoy, who shares his patients’ sufferings and is a better healer because of it. McCoy lives out daily the ideal of the Good Samaritan, who compassionately helps a wounded stranger: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33).23 But Vulcan physiology also affords Spock a unique opportunity to experience compassion, despite his own lack of emotion. In “The Devil in the Dark”, Kirk and Spock investigate the horrible deaths of miners on the planet Janus Six. They find that a creature made of living rock, the horta, is responsible, incinerating the hapless miners with the acid that it uses to burrow through rock. But after Kirk wounds the creature with his phaser, Spock performs the Vulcan mind-meld with it, feeling everything that it feels. Spock cries out in agony, making audible the pain the horta is feeling. Both Spock and Kirk are deeply moved by the experience, now knowing that the horta acted to defend itself and its eggs, and realizing how wrong it would be to kill it. Having felt the creature’s pain and understood its motives, they recognize and seek to protect its rights: they no longer treat it as a monster or “devil”, but as a person, which it is, even if it is not human. Kirk calms the angry miners and negotiates for them and the hortas to live in peace and cooperation. Compassion expands the circle of those we can call neighbor or friend, just as it does in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), who, once he was overwhelmed by compassion, could not help but come to the aid of a member of another tribe, despite their preexisting animosity: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
 An almost inevitable concomitant of compassion is self-sacrifice, the giving up of one’s own well-being and even life for another, in imitation of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.... For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 8:34; 10:45). Kirk echoes this exactly in “Metamorphosis”: “Love sometimes expresses itself in sacrifice.” Each of the main characters—Spock (e.g. “Operation—Annihilate!”), McCoy (e.g. “Spock’s Brain”), and Kirk (e.g. “The Tholian Web”, “Amok Time”)—repeatedly shows himself possessed of such a great and self-sacrificing love as to lay down his life for the others: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). This virtue is so important to the series that it is not reserved just for our heroes, but is also seen in guest characters—e.g. Lazarus in “The Alternative Factor” and Commodore Decker in “The Doomsday Machine”. This highest, most divine love is very rare, but it is widely and unpredictably bestowed on creatures all over the universe—as a grace, we could say.
 The most intense and dramatic example of self-sacrifice is in the episode “The Empath”. It is clearly the most overtly Christian episode in a series that otherwise prefers its religious dimension to be discrete and indirect.24 The episode begins with a quotation from the Old Testament (Ps 95:4) and ends with a quotation from the New Testament (Matt 13:45). In this episode, it is not a matter of one of the three main characters sacrificing himself for the others, but each in turn offers to die to save the other two, and the torture scenes of Kirk and McCoy are deliberately staged as crucifixions.25 In this episode again, our heroes are shown not to be the only ones capable of self-sacrifice, and the episode revolves around the beautiful interplay between the three main characters and another character who is coming to learn about their love and compassion.
 While investigating a planet orbiting a dying sun, Spock, McCoy, and Kirk are captured by big-headed aliens named Vians, who calmly subject them to torture while a beautiful, frail, mute woman looks on. McCoy names the woman Gem, and she shows that she is able to absorb their pain and wounds on to her body, which can then heal in a matter of seconds.26 Between bouts of torture, she kindly performs this service for the officers of the Enterprise, but the Vians increase their torture of McCoy to the point where Gem may die if she empathically absorbs his fatal wounds. We then finally learn the reason for this seemingly pointless sadism: the system’s sun is about to explode, and the technologically advanced Vians can save only one planet’s population from destruction. The Vians have rightly judged that the most valuable qualities of a person or a civilization are compassion and self-sacrifice, so if Gem can learn and practice self-sacrificial love, then her race will be saved: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35; cf. Matt 16:25; Luke 9:24). (The Vians are less good at practicing those virtues themselves, for which Kirk passionately berates them.) By witnessing how Spock, McCoy, and Kirk act towards each other, Gem learns herself how to love in this way, and she is finally willing even to take on McCoy’s fatal injuries, though, good doctor that he is, he pushes her away before she can complete the process. The Vians relent and give the best summary ever of what the series does overall: “You were her teachers.... Everything that is truest and best in all species of beings has been revealed by you.” Just as “Charlie X” is sad because Kirk cannot teach the boy to practice moderation, the end of “The Empath” is one of the most triumphant on the series, because the Enterprise officers have fully educated another being in their most valuable lesson of how to practice the highest form of love.
 More than almost any other television series, Star Trek self-consciously and deliberately poses philosophical and moral questions: “Star Trek is the only television show to have directly posed the question: ‘What is the Good?’... Star Trek may be the only television show that has attempted to convey the peak joy of philosophic contemplation and philosophic friendship.”27 For all its camp and Shatner’s frequently dreadful acting, it presents one of the most sustained explorations of moral philosophy on television to date. It repeatedly examines the nature of good and evil, human nature, progress, reason and emotion, and, most of all, virtue. Star Trek became and remains so popular because it does not just entertain, it inquires into questions of ultimate meaning and purpose with thoughtfulness, ambiguity, and insight. Because of the idiosyncracies of its creator, the show would not do so in an explicitly Christian or even a religious way, but this should not obscure its overall message, which is both humanistic and Christian, in the broadest and best senses of both.28
1 Cf. J. Wagner and J. Lundeen, Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos (Westport and London: Praeger, 1998) 33: “Indeed, the ‘human’ virtues that Trek explicitly upholds, such as self-control, sobriety, knowledge, courage, friendship and attention to duty, are parallel to many of the ideals that Americans can associate with their moral upbringing as Christians, Muslims, Jews, and so on.” The compatibility of Star Trek with Christianity is taken to an extreme in an early commentary on the series: B. Caprio, Star Trek: Good News in Modern Images (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978).
2 Cf. J. S. Lamp, “Biblical Interpretation in the Star Trek Universe: Going Where Some Have Gone Before,” in Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture, J. E. Porter and D. L. McLaren, eds. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) 193-214, esp. 194: “The vision has always been more than a vehicle to carry the storylines; it has also contained a strong element of proclamation. As such, it is a vision of aspiration, a vision for humanity’s place in the scheme of things, at root a prescriptive vision for how a constructive future may and perhaps should look.”
3 Wagner and Lundeen, Deep Space and Sacred Time, 31.
4 It was I. R. Hark, “Star Trek and Television’s Moral Universe,” Extrapolation 20 (1979) 20-37, esp. 23-24, who reminded me of this episode’s importance and offered a trenchant analysis.
5 The episode deliberately accentuates the similarities between the two commanders, having the Klingon admiringly say to Kirk, “You are much like us,” and giving him a name, Kor, that is strikingly similar to Kirk’s: see D. J. Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” in Faith, Reason, and Political Life, P. A. Lawler and D. McConkey, eds. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 261-71, esp. 263: “The enemy commanders always admire Kirk. (Their names too usually begin with the same strong ‘K,’ witness the Klingon commanders Kor, Koloth, and Kang, as well as the superman Khan).”
6 Cf. Caprio, Star Trek: Good News in Modern Images, 77: “Our best heroes, just like David and Paul many other Biblical heroes, have human weaknesses., and many other Biblical heroes, have human weaknesses.”
7 J. E. Ellington and J. W. Critelli, “Analysis of a Modern Myth: The Star Trek Series,” Extrapolation 24 (1983), 241-50, quotation on 243, though they include Scott in the holistic group.
8 K. Blair, Meaning in Star Trek (Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1977), 41.
9 In addition to the works by Ellington, Critelli, and Blair cited in the two previous notes, analysis of the three main characters is treated in R. Hanley, The Metaphysics of Star Trek (New York: Basic Books, 1997) 4-39; and Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 261-71.
10 Cf. Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 265: “Because Star Trek revives the tripartite Platonic soul and particularly its problematic third element, thumos, its account of the soul is fuller than the modern psychiatric account.”
11 Cf. Hark, “Star Trek and Television’s Moral Universe,” 29: “Vulcans do not lack emotions; in their distant past they in fact suffered from an overabundance of aggression. To save themselves from destruction, they developed their logical powers to the extent that these emotions are always in constant control.”
12 Cf. Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 266: “His [Spock’s] mistakes all stem from his failure to share in, or at least understand, an outraged sense of justice, on the part of both the crew and the creatures.”
13 The “sense of wonder” and awe at life and the universe is a fundamental quality of Star Trek: see T. Richards, The Meaning of Star Trek (New York et al.: Doubleday, 1997), 149-85.
14 Spock’s aesthetics are somewhat ambiguous, as he is repeatedly shown to be a virtuoso on the Vulcan harp (e.g. “Charlie X”, “The Way to Eden ”), and even smiles while playing it.
15 Perhaps because of his more extensive experience with evil and subterfuge, Spock seems better equipped to combat it. His evaluation of it in “And the Children Shall Lead” is quite realistic: “Evil does seek to maintain power by suppressing the truth.... Without followers, evil cannot spread.”
16 Cf. Richards, The Meaning of Star Trek, 184: “Star Trek may at times seem to favor reason over revelation, but when it comes right down to it, the series does not trust reason too far. In the Star Trek universe reason always requires revelation as a stay against a lifeless rationality.”
17 Thus Blair, Meaning in Star Trek, 35-40.
18 Blair, Meaning in Star Trek, 35.
19 Cf. Hark, “Star Trek and Television’s Moral Universe,” 32, 34: “The series contains a definite Puritan streak that looks unfavorably upon unmitigated happiness.... But just because Kirk lives by the work ethic, why must they?”
20 This is an important difference from the Platonic analysis of the soul: see Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 266: “Despite Star Trek’s debt to the ancient account of the soul, this is not Plato’s Republic. Instead of spirited auxiliaries assisting a philosopher-king, here spiritedness rules in consultation with both reason and appetite.”
21 See Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 267-68, who uses the more accurate labels “gentle” and “fierce” for the two Kirks.
22 Cf. Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 269: “Star Trek insists upon the dignity of those who meet the difficulties of the human condition with maturity and virtue. Its antilevelling animus is most apparent in those episodes that deal with children (‘Miri’ and ‘Charlie X’) or overgrown children (‘The Squire of Gothos,’ ‘Elaan of Troyius’). There is none of the contemporary idealization of youth. Self-control and responsible action are presented as choiceworthy.”
23 The identification of McCoy with the Samaritan is from Blair, Meaning in Star Trek, 34.
24 See the excellent analysis of L. Kreitzer, “Suffering, Sacrifice and Redemption: Biblical Imagery in Star Trek,” in Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture, J. E. Porter and D. L. McLaren, eds. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 139-63, esp. 142: “’The Empath’ strikes at the heart of the theological dimension of the faith, namely, the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on behalf of others.”
25 Also noted by Kreitzer, “Biblical Imagery in Star Trek,” 144: “The second image, much more graphic in its expression, is the fact that both Kirk and McCoy, each in his own turn, is tortured by the Vians by being suspended from chains in a typical crucifixion pose, with arms outstretched and (in the case of Kirk) the upper body exposed.”
26 She therefore basically combines the powers of two of the X-Men: Rogue can transfer other superheroes’ powers to herself, and Wolverine is capable of miraculous self-healing.
27 D. J. Schaub, “Captain Kirk and the Art of Rule,” 261, 269.
28 Cf. Wagner and Lundeen, Deep Space and Sacred Time, 22-23, 33: “Trek explores this potentially divisive issue in a way that only myth can do, reframing it on a plane where it appears, however illusively, to lend itself to reconciliation—and what’s more, a reconciliation that valorizes humanism while avoiding an overt confrontation with America’s religious sensitivities and even, for some fans and commentators, expressing a serendipitous harmony with Judeo-Christian ideals.... Human self-determination is not, in American popular belief, incompatible with religion. The uplifting, empowering ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment echoes repeatedly in the Star Trek theme of the false-god-exposed; and although such a revelation can be read as antireligious, our culture allows us the latitude to read it in other ways—to have our humanism and our religion too, if we so choose.”
Star Trek: Cultural Vector and Hollywood Cash-Cow
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian journalist, based in Toronto , who contributes regularly to Praesidium.
Note: This article was not prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the Star Trek television series or films.
Star Trek, conceived by Gene Roddenberry, officially premiered on NBC in September of 1966, with the psychologically appealing core of half-human/half-Vulcan science officer Spock (reason), Dr. McCoy (emotion), and Captain Kirk (the reconciler of the two). The earlier-produced pilot-episode, “The Cage”—with Captain Pike and a female first officer (“Number One”)—had been considered as ”too cerebral”. ST has grown into a worldwide media super-phenomenon, despite the cancellation of the original series ( TOS or “classic Trek” or “Trek Classic” to current-day enthusiasts) after only three years. In 1973-1975, there was the animated series (TAS). A year’s worth of episodes was written for a proposed revival in 1978 (Star Trek II); but none of these was ever produced, although certain script elements from these were incorporated into later efforts. Star Trek was decisively revived with a succession of big-screen movies, beginning in 1979, and three new television series: ST: The Next Generation (TNG; September 1987-May 1994), ST: Deep Space 9 (DS9; January 1993-May 1999), and ST: Voyager (January 1995-May 2001). In September 2001, a new Star Trek series, Enterprise , had premiered, which has now come to a conclusion in May 2005.
Born in the period of the Sixties’ revolutions, Star Trek has evolved along with the liberal Zeitgeist. While TOS may look “old-fashioned” by today’s standards, it was initially seen as very “cutting edge” and “dangerously modern”. Reading about some of the problems Roddenberry encountered in getting his show underway, one is struck by what today would seem the almost unbelievable conservatism of senior television people, a group rarely thought of as conservative. Nevertheless, Roddenberry persevered in putting forth his then-radical ideas, nearly all of which (ironically) seem completely tame and uncontroversial when considered from the current-day context. For example, the first interracial kiss on network television occurred in Star Trek. (And it was actually portrayed as occurring under an alien’s “mind-control compulsion”. It may indeed be difficult to believe how stubbornly conservative and prudish American society appeared to be, little more than thirty years ago.) Spock’s rather “devilish” appearance was also extremely controversial.
The choice of the name Spock was interesting in itself. Whether deliberately chosen or through a curious synchronicity, it recalls the Dr. Spock whose liberal child-rearing ideas were an important though infrequently discussed contributing factor to the whole concatenation of 1960s revolutions. One may indeed speak of both Dr. Spock’s and the Star Trek Spock’s “children” or “generation”. (It may be somewhat amusing that on at least one occasion in TOS , Spock was addressed as “Doctor Spock”—as he is said to have a degree in astrophysics.)
The extent to which we see TOS as “socially conservative” today shows the precipitous evolution of the spirit of the current age. One of the most obvious differences between TOS and later series was fewer aliens in the former, especially among Federation crewmembers, as well as the more pronounced national identifications of the human crew (e.g., Scotty, Chekhov, Sulu, Uhura). Some conservatives have termed the more recent Star Trek series “a freak show”. The feeling is that the parade of aliens undermines the sense of a natural human image.
TNG introduced a whole new set of characters who could be said readily to translate liberal stereotypes. Jean-Luc Picard was a far more intellectual Captain, a sort of enlightened CEO. His First Officer, Riker, was a sort of JFK clone (two similar political figures in Canada today would be those dynamic liberals, Allan Rock and Gerard Kennedy). Deanna Troi was the psychological counsellor. Dr. Beverly Crusher was the hard-as-nails female physician. Tasha Yar was the feminist warrior. Geordi La Forge, black and visually impaired, was one minority figure. Data, the android, was the machine in search of humanity. The other minority was Worf, a Klingon. Although, as somewhat of a token “conservative” or “traditionalist”, he often protested the liberal actions of the other crewmembers, he always seemed to go along in the end. Somewhat later in TNG’s evolution, Whoopi Goldberg came on as Gainan, the all-knowing, infinitely wise black woman.
Over the decades, the Klingons had evolved, in a process very typical of Star Trek from a villainous, imperial race (with few redeeming qualities) to something more akin to ancient warrior-societies (with a pronounced sense of honor), although, as part of the metamorphosis, they were actually initially made far more physically ugly (in the first Star Trek movie). In what is perhaps an attestation to the ultimate triviality of a show sometimes taken so seriously, one of the reasons cited for the uglification of the Klingons was a surplus in the movie’s make-up budget! Another anecdote pointing to ultimate triviality was that, at one point, the Klingon ceremonial weapon was apparently copied from an earlier trading card image. (It had made a brief appearance it an earlier Trek production.) Yet another attestation to triviality is that many of the Klingon uniforms were based on recycled outfits from The Planet of the Apes movies (i.e., the uniforms of the evil gorilla soldiers, of which huge numbers had apparently been produced). This probably turned the portrayal of the Klingons in a more savage and barbaric direction than it would otherwise have followed. The process by which the Klingons were physically uglified and then somewhat redeemed, as a great warrior-race was, to say the least, suspicious. NOT to physically uglify them in the first place was something that would have gone against the grain of the collective American mindset.
DS9 was another setting, a space station above Bajor, a troubled planet that had recently been occupied by the Cardassians, an evil, rather hideous-looking race. The withdrawal of the Cardassians had left Bajor divided and in the flux of change, undecided about possibly joining the Federation. The Commander of the station, Benjamin Sisko, was an African-American. His obvious social conservatism was increasingly downplayed in the ongoing episodes, among other things by a change of hairstyle (to bald) and by his growing a beard, giving him a more “cool” and sinister look. The other main figures on DS9 were Kira, the Bajoran female officer; Jadzia Dax, a woman linked with a “symbiont”; the often naive Dr. Bashir (an Anglo-Indian who played what in earlier times would have been called "the twitty Englishman" role); and O'Brien (an obviously Irish engineer), who just happens to be married to a rather shrewish Japanese woman (Keiko). (Yet another liberal device: bringing together a couple from what are some of our own Earth’s most different societies.) Two alien figures are Odo, who is an apparently unique representative of the shapeshifter race, and is the personification of strict duty as the Constable, and Quark, a Ferengi trader and trickster-figure (who looks like a sort of big-eared goblin), who is his comic foil.
The planet of Bajor is a kind of traditional culture, with a long-established religion. What seems not to be realized is that Bajoran culture probably would be utterly undermined by the explanation that “the Prophets” are really just another race of transdimensional “superbeings” (of which there have been innumerable other examples in the galaxy). DS9’s Hollywood producers also show an extreme naiveté in the portrayal of the earlier Bajoran partisan-fighting against the Cardassians, attesting to their all-too-obvious lack of historical knowledge and feeling. For example, it emerges that Odo fulfilled the function of Constable under the Cardassian regime, and that surely would qualify him as a high-ranking collaborator. There was also the case where the Cardassians threatened to destroy several Bajoran villages unless a prominent leader of the resistance surrendered to them. What this ignores is that the occupiers could easily destroy the villages after the leader’s surrender. It is never made clear whether the Cardassians are more “authoritarian” (e.g., like the Western colonial administration of “backward” lands), or “totalitarian” (e.g., like the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany during World War II). The more “reactionary” Bajorans, however, are predictably condemned, as for example in an episode which alluded to a Bajoran "racist" organization which wanted “off-worlders off Bajor”. Kai Wynn, one of the leading “traditionalists”, was shown as increasingly, outrightly evil. The liberal stereotypes about the Jerry Falwells of our own world were thereby again vindicated. The Bajorans were also once denominated as “the Palestininans of the 24th century”—a comment which caused some embarrassment, taking into account the analogous identity of the rather hideous and evil Cardassian occupiers.
Voyager, which premiered in 1995, has a female Captain, a black Vulcan, an American Indian, a half-Hispanic/half-Klingon woman, a holographic doctor in the Spock/Data role, and other exotica. In what is perhaps the most gratuitous example of Star Trek’s tendency to absorption of "the other", there appeared “the Borg babe” (Seven of Nine), a highly attractive female who was once part of the Borg aliens, the Star Trek symbol for the dangers of collectivism and fascist misuse of technology. The ongoing appeal in Star Trek to an often-frustrated “geek” element is obvious; there was a story in the papers that when the actress playing Ezri Dax joined the DS9 show (after the on-screen demise of Jadzia Dax), she was surprised at the extent to which her outfit was padded to accentuate her breasts. The use of such enhancements is apparently a long-time Trek tradition, going back to TOS itself.
One of the central motifs of Star trek, especially in its later evolution, is that the whole universe is "up for grabs" for conversion to the basically liberal values of the Federation. The main theme of Star Trek is encounters with various alien races (which obviously represent different, unruly, untamed, more “primitive” or premodern aspects of human existence), and their eventual “humanizing” or “liberalizing” in the direction of Federation values. This could be characterized as a co-opting or co-optation of these dangerous, unruly aspects of human character and historical experience.
It may clearly be argued that the major non-human races in Star Trek are inspired by various archetypal or stereotypical aspects of human character and historical experience—the Klingon warriors, the Ferengi merchants, the mystic Bajorans, the pseudo-Roman Romulans, the collectivist Borg (probably a take on the Japanese), and so forth. In that sense, Star Trek provides a certain series of templates (especially in a virtually history-less milieu such as that of late-modern, urban North America ) for reaching conclusions about human character and historical experience. However, as will be looked at further below, Star Trek’s “take” on much of human character and historical experience, is overwhelmingly liberal.
What are the values of the Federation, as represented in Star Trek over the years? They are without doubt relentlessly secular-humanist and New Age, as far as human religions are concerned. As far as the author is aware, there has never appeared any emblem or figure of any Earth religion in any episode of Star Trek, apart from the dying pagan god Apollo ( TOS ), an “evil angel” ( TOS ), and an American Indian native spirit (Voyager). There were also references to the Christians-in-Rome situation in TOS (featuring a parallel-Earth where Rome had never fallen, and Christianity continued as a small, idealistic, persecuted sect) and in the Unification episodes of TNG, on the home planet of the Romulans, with “enlightened Romulans” in the catacombs with Spock as their leader. The theme of “Spock, Messiah” has also run through many parts of Star Trek, notably, the third movie. An interesting comment on the evolution of the Spock role and its place in popular culture is Leonard Nimoy’s earlier autobiography, I Am Not Spock (where he pleaded to be recognized not only for his Spock role), to his latest autobiography (with his aged and wizened face on the cover), where he simply proclaims, I Am Spock.
Generally speaking, it may be said that Star Trek mirrors (in virtually every episode and film) Roddenberry’s obsessions with “near gods”, “failed gods”, “false gods”, and “pseudo-gods”, as well as fictive alien religions and cults—most of which could be seen as highly unsettling variants of gnostic speculation.
One often finds a stilted quality in many Star Trek plots, too often relying on the deus ex machina (sometimes literally), often based on the quick technological fix. All too often, one finds some god-like superbeing introduced near the end of the episode, never again to be seen in a future installment. The classic example of this is the Organians in TOS . Although reference was made to the Organian-imposed peace treaty in a few subsequent episodes, at some point these superbeings simply disappeared from the Star Trek universe.
Another aspect of Star Trek is the old-fashioned liberal homage which it pays to classical music and art (e.g., Shakespeare). As far as the author is aware, something akin to rock music and similar musical genres has very rarely appeared in the Star Trek universe. The optimism of Star Trek precludes the appearance of late modern forms of music and art—which, rather than “soothing the savage beast”, can sometimes be seen as actually contributing to making one into a savage beast. The appearance of rock music would throw into relief the possible grunginess and alienation which the Star Trek future is said to have left far behind. Indeed, the Star Trek future (at least for Earth) is irrepressibly “nice” and optimistic. This stands in strong contrast to the “gritty future” or so-called “air-conditioned nightmare” presented in such works as: Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner (a brilliant rendering of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick); and the cyberpunk subgenre of science-fiction in general (typified by William Gibson’s Neuromancer).
Star Trek could be seen as a more positive take on that antiseptic, well-ordered dystopia, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is in some ways nothing more than an elegant updating of the optimistic, super-scientific projections of science-fiction pioneer Hugo Gernsback’s 1920s and 1930s science-fiction and futurism (typified by air-cars, moving sidewalks, and gleaming jumpsuits). It should be noted that the first “dark-future” film, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, had also appeared in the 1920s. In current-day, late-modern society, perhaps all the promise of a shiny, happy liberal “utopia” (which, to a traditionalist, is actually also a dystopia) has moved in the direction of turning into the ashes of a “gritty” dystopia typified by the cityscape, mediascape, and soundscape of Blade Runner.
The Earth of Star Trek’s future is also one where any real national identities are at best superficial. There is not merely a world-government, but an interplanetary and interstellar one. And as in the real world over the last three decades, there has been a relentless push in Star Trek toward advancing the outré and minority tendencies at the expense of more traditional social roles and conventions. White males became increasingly less prominent in the Star Trek shows, and there were often such scenes as, for example, a black female admiral berating Picard for his stupid mistakes. Indeed, some conservatives have complained that the Federation is effectively a matriarchy. However, gay activists have denounced the fact that persons who are unambiguously homosexuals and homosexual couples—as opposed to some situations and characters which hinted at gayness—have never appeared on Star Trek.
One of the perennial traits of Star Trek is its drive to “pluralization”. For example, in almost every culture shown, no matter how uniform, conformist, or masculine-ruled in the beginning, there always begin to appear “women and minorities”. We have now been treated to “the black Vulcan”, a few black Bajorans, an extremely influential female Cardassian leader, and “the Borg Queen” (yet another powerful female figure from that group). Among the Ferengi, who were initially said to keep their females unclothed at home in standard fashion, there has appeared an independent and highly intelligent female, who masquerades as a male of the species.
What this parallels is the unending “liberationist” drive for the first woman or minority “x” in Western societies. For example, stereotypically speaking, after the first black male Supreme Court justice, one awaits the arrival of the first black female Supreme Court justice, then of the first black homosexual or black lesbian Supreme Court justice, and so forth. What is not emphasized is that this process becomes a vehicle for the ever-increasing marginalization and dispossession of able-bodied, straight white males in Western civilization. Anything that prevents the emergence, for example, of a black lesbian Pope is simply seen as “illegitimate privilege”. One need hardly add that there are today no equivalent processes of “enfranchisement” or “empowerment” for white people in non-white societies. Nor does there ever appear to be a point where any given group is “satisfied” with its “percentage of participation”. Almost entirely black basketball teams in the NBA can only be celebrated, not criticized for their objective lack of diversity. Microsoft is being sued for five billion (with a “b”) dollars for alleged discrimination, although, among other things, 20% of its employees are South Asians, it has offered billions of dollars of scholarships to minority youth, and it has an intensive mentoring program for African-Americans. And such immensely wealthy, idolized pop-culture superstars such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan (the basketball player), and Donovan Bailey (the Canadian sprinter) have all at some time voiced complaints of being held back by racism.
It might also be noted that in current-day Western societies, one’s ideological affinities, in some cases, definitively trump the sympathies due to one’s group identity or gender—or, conversely, compensate for one’s belonging to an “oppressor group”. Clarence Thomas is often denounced as an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside); Bill Clinton has been characterized by some black supporters (notably Toni Morrison) as effectively being the first black president (because of his humble origins and fun-loving nature, if one can put such a positive take on Clinton’s proclivities); and in the 1980s, it was asserted that “Margaret Thatcher was not really a woman.”
The central principle of Star Trek (discussed in some of the literature, but which never quite made it onto the screen) is said to be IDIC—Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. This is the central principle that Spock is said to be guided by, which is rather ironic, considering how deeply rooted he seems to be in his Vulcan heritage. Indeed, Spock, in the manner of “accredited minorities”, is allowed to celebrate his flourishing and “thick” identity, whereas others have to embrace the principle of IDIC—of complete openness and amorphous self-definition, where “the universal idea of human rights” (and its proceduralist “working out”) supersedes one’s own possibility of having what might be seen as a more authentic sense of rootedness and self-worth.
Some persons have identified the economic system of Star Trek as “market socialism”: i.e., business is allowed to exist, but it must turn over most of its profits to “the public good” (probably as defined by Star Fleet or the Federation government).
One of the defining moments of Star Trek, so the author believes, was the premiere episode of TNG, where the Mephistophelean figure of Q (an alien superbeing), briefly takes on the appearance of a stereotypical 1950s American army officer, ranting about “Commies”, to show Captain Picard the ”primitiveness” of the human race. Picard flinches at this representation as if it really embodied the epitome of human evil! He also says something to the effect that humanity has progressed centuries beyond this “barbarism”. What is also troubling is how easily Picard can identify an image from over three hundred years ago—presumably the Federation education system continues to be steeped in late-twentieth century liberal demonology, expounding on the evils of U.S. militarism, McCarthyism, and Nixon. Q then takes on the role of a villainous presiding judge on a gilded throne, with red and black robes obviously reminiscent of medieval or Renaissance Europe. This scene of Q’s trial of Picard seemed rather symbolic of a “conspiratorial left” view of America, with Q (the white male overlord) being served by soldiers in thrall to drugs and eliciting the support of a crowd of poor, raggedly dressed “commonfolk”.
It has been noted by some critics that Star Trek often has a rather moralistic or preachy element or tone about it. Many episodes, particularly of TNG, can be interpreted as nothing more than neat liberal “morality plays”, where the audience is expected to draw the proper “lesson” or “message” at the conclusion of the episode. One may indeed wonder if this makes Star Trek typical or atypical of current-day film and television efforts. Perhaps Star Trek anticipates the emergence of “political correctness” as a “new morality”.
Star Trek has spawned a huge number of sometimes very intense enthusiasts (the so-called “Trekkies” or “Trekkers”). The passion of this attachment, the memorization of every episode down to the last word, the attendance of conventions which strengthen “the faith”, and so forth, strikes one as an over-concentration of time and effort. Star Trek has often grown to command a greater allegiance in the hearts and minds and ways of life of its followers than many actual nations and religions which have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Living in the mostly history-less milieu of late-modern urban North America, many young persons have been filled with all manner of ersatz substitutes for “meaning in life”. However, Star Trek is obviously only one of the very many identity options available today. And one should stress that comparatively few of such modern-day identities are total—there is a constant crosscutting and dynamic interplay between the ever-changing and sometimes dizzying array of “roles” one can play. However, most of these “roles” tend to work in a direction which strengthens the current-day system, with virtually all of the “diversity” taking place under a broadly left-liberal banner. For example, one of the little-known aspects of Star Trek fandom is a small yet distinct subgenre of fanzines depicting homosexual relationships between Kirk and Spock!
It might added here, to supply further nuance to the argument, that science fiction fandom is emphatically not monolithic. For example, there are enthusiasts of literary, printed science fiction, who look with varying degrees of disdain at Star Trek or Star Wars fans. Many of the serious SF fans simply see Star Trek and Star Wars as “too vulgar”, or “sci-fi” (sometimes pronounced or written “skiffy”). Some literary SF people openly call Star Trek “the Blob”, since it envelops a huge proportion of the science fiction genre. “Trekkers” (who see themselves as serious students of the phenomenon) look down on “Trekkies” (seen by “Trekkers” as the particularly intense and socially awkward devotees). Some Star Trek fans look down on Star Wars fans, as even more socially awkward than themselves.
Ironically, some crypto-conservative aspects can also be identified in Star Trek, notably the obsession by some with the Klingons (to the point of studying their invented language, which has been codified by a contemporary linguistics scholar) and an often understated hankering for a more ”robust” Star Trek universe. For example, among the most popular Star Trek episodes are ”Mirror, Mirror” ( TOS ), which depicted an “alternate universe” where, instead of the Federation, a vicious Empire held sway; and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (TNG), which depicted an alternate Federation that was far more military-oriented, owing to a protracted war with the Klingons. The “paratrooper outfit” of Security personnel in the first Star Trek movie was quickly dropped, while the handsome maroon uniforms in the second Star Trek movie were highly popular. The old psychological core of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy almost certainly has more appeal than the increasingly de-centered and disintegrated later versions of Trek.
One more relevant point about “Mirror, Mirror” is that it looks to a great extent like a liberal parody of an authoritarian empire. The parallel-Enterprise crewmembers are full of viciousness and lust, continually plotting against each other; they are “without honor”. While it may be admitted that an authoritarian empire would have fairly negative attitudes about those perceived as servile classes or as outsiders, the relations within the ruling and warrior-elites would more usually be characterized by mutual respect. The more telling critique of the authoritarian empire is NOT that it lacks a sense of community-closeness and personal decency in relations within the ruling or military caste, but rather that it treats those perceived as servile classes or as outsiders with contempt.
The DS9 crossover episodes were based on the premise that the parallel-Spock had been able to shift the entire Terran Empire in a peaceful, positive direction—as a result of which it fell prey to a Klingon-Cardassian-Bajoran alliance. Again the theme of “Spock, Messiah” appears—although his apparently positive intervention had highly negative consequences for Earth.
The author of this article remembers glancing at a TNG novel, Dark Mirror, which apparently portrayed a parallel-Picard from the Terran Empire challenging the Federation Picard. But that is itself now an alternate interpretation of the history of the crossover universe.
One thing that can be said about Star Trek, with its hundreds of novels and comic books, as well as an enormous body of fan fiction, is that it can never be a perfectly coherent, consistent universe. Indeed, one of the first Star Trek novels published, Spock Must Die!, can now be considered as only a Trek “alternate history”. (It ends with the Klingons denied space-travel by the Organian superbeings.)
Actor William Shatner’s reactions to the more socially awkward Star Trek fans speaks volumes. A skit on the long-running Saturday Night Live comedy and entertainment show depicted him (dressed as Captain Kirk at a stereotypical Trek convention) screaming at these kinds of hapless, pimply-faced geeks: “Hey, you there, get a life! Have you ever kissed a girl?” At one of the Billboard Music Awards in the 1990s, an obviously drunk, completely bald Mr. Shatner reiterated his message, saying words to the effect, “Captain Kirk is dead—get a life!” (Around that time, the Captain Kirk character had finally been “killed off” in Star Trek: Generations, the seventh Star Trek movie—movie, incidentally, with a cyberpunkish, Nordic villain.) In what is perhaps an ironic acknowledgement of Star Trek’s central role in his life, William Shatner titled his recent book about the series Get a Life. It could be argued that William Shatner’s relationship with Star Trek was ultimately far more ambiguous and profound than is suggested by that one famous or infamous skit—in the end, the great myth swallowed him up, too.
Rick Berman and Michael Piller, often seen as the leading successors to Roddenberry, are unlikely to let such a lucrative cash-cow as Star Trek disappear. It is said that today, at any given time in North America, there is some episode of Star Trek running somewhere. Close to a hundred Star Trek-based formulaic novels and other books are published every year. The franchising of Trek products is virtually endless. There are probably hundreds of thousands of hardcore Trek enthusiasts, mostly in North America, and probably millions of more casual fans around the world. The fact is that Star Trek alone probably outweighs the rest of science fiction combined. (This is certainly one reason for some “more serious” SF fans’ resentment of the phenomenon which they sometimes look at as “the Blob”.)
One may indeed wonder what the future of Trek holds. Voyager ended in May 2001. There was a flurry of speculation before the premiere of the new Star Trek series, Enterprise, in September 2001. Enterprise is set 150 years before the events of TOS , in the Star Trek “future-history”.
There was much speculation about possible “new show-concepts” before the premiere. DS9 had worked out the “space-station in a trouble-spot” idea pretty thoroughly. Voyager had carried out “the perilous voyage home” idea. Some had suggested that “Star Trek: Earth”—set on the Earth of the 24th century—was the way to go. One could also have had a space-station in another, artfully created, highly interesting trouble-spot. There was a faction of fans that there were supporting the idea of a Captain Sulu ship.
The premiere of Enterprise finally arrived with much fanfare. The show introduces numerous innovations into the Star Trek “future-history”—most notably that humans were under Vulcan tutelage for close to a hundred years. The previously constructed “future-history” was also disrupted when First Contact with the Klingons already occurs in the first episode. And there was, obviously, no return to the Old Klingons from TOS .
The central figures in the new series are the human Captain, who chafes at the Vulcan restrictions, and his subcommander and Science Officer, a Vulcan “babe” with a superior attitude. Other notable figures are the female Japanese linguist, the jovial alien doctor, a young white Southern officer, a young black officer, and an English officer. The premiere introduced the main back-story of the series, a struggle against an alien race that accepts massive genetic enhancements as part of a “temporal Cold War”. Given that the mode of time travel shown is the vortex (and that there has already been a time travel film involving them—Star Trek: First Contact), a strong hint emerges that the nefarious time travelers are in fact the Borg.
One’s impression of Enterprise is that it is certainly less politically correct than TNG or Voyager. Some of that is obviously due to its being set 150 years before TOS , in the “future-history” chronology. The soft rock intro theme, “Faith of the Heart”, had annoyed some fans. It was probably chosen in an attempt to widen the audience—in the hope, for example, that more women would tune into the program. It may have been an attempt to demonstrate that the show has an emotional core beyond the techno-gadgetry.
The new Trek series, however, has not been as successful as the previous ones, and was ended in May 2005, after four years.
Some have suggested that the franchise will be orienting itself toward such products as elaborate interactive videogames and an upcoming MMPORPG (massively-multi-player online role-playing game), a virtual Internet interactive environment.
As one of Hollywood’s hottest properties, the Star Trek phenomenon will not likely be allowed to feature significantly (or suffer slow infiltration by) any aspects more congenial to traditional notions of nation, family, and religion. The notion that such an evolution would even be theoretically possible appears far-fetched. If the future becomes increasingly polymorphous, what are we going to be able to say to young people who want to alter themselves surgically to look like Star Trek aliens?
Some Thoughts on Herbert Marcuse vs. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
Let us say that Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School theorist, often considered as one of the intellectual progenitors of the Sixties’ revolutions, were re-awakened several hundred years hence, in the day of Our Ford’s “Brave New World”. What sort of critique would he make of the society, and what would this say about Marcuse’s ideas?
Marcuse’s critique of the Brave New World would presumably focus on the “masked nature” of the society. What appears as a happy, free-loving society is in fact the product of continuous and thorough-going genetic engineering, which imposes class distinctions and barriers from the moment of (artificial) conception. The hierarchy of Brave New World is more rigid than that of any formerly existing society, as it is utterly predetermined. There is no rising even from the Beta class to the Alpha class. Marcuse’s critique of BNW would probably be that it is “not genuine”—it is built on bio-engineering of humans and complete “state” control of human reproduction. It is a society where everyone is absorbed in an all-permeating “false consciousness”. Thus the society of BNW is not really natural, and does not really allow individuals freedom of choice. Inequality is endemic and completely ingrained into the society. The fact that the society is ultimately based on total genetic determinism should totally invalidate it, as far as Marcuse is concerned.
On the other hand, Marcuse would probably approve of many of the features of BNW, if considered apart from the genetic caste system. It is a world which has done away with hunger, poverty, disease, and the fear of natural or violent death. Individuals are allowed “the free play of their sexuality” at all times of their lives, and are uninhibited in any way. The idea of the father, that strict, patriarchal oppressor, has gone away, as well as the idea of the mother, which so unnaturally (according to some modern sexual theorists) oppresses women. Without the father, none of the evils of premodern civilization are present: war, aggression, and conflict have all but disappeared. The image of the all-powerful father has indeed often been identified with patriarchal, authoritarian systems of oppression—the very picture of most premodern societies. The idea of the family is also gone; and it is often believed by thinkers like Marcuse that the tightly knit, authoritarian family is the very model of an authoritarian state, with downward flow of authority and no right to ask questions. The idea of “possessiveness” has also been extirpated in BNW: “everybody belongs to everyone else,” which would seem to be the natural extension of the maxim of equality. BNW therefore appears to be the fulfillment of Marcuse’s sexual utopia.
This somewhat sardonic juxtaposition of Marcuse’s reactions to BNW is deliberate. Marcuse would probably not understand how a society which had the “right” ideas about sexuality would not also be an equality-based and non-hierarchical society.
The first thing this paradox points up is the shallowness of basing one’s views of how society should be constructed exclusively on the mode of the sexual. There is, in fact, no contradiction between the sexual freedom of BNW and its hierarchical structure. In fact, the two can be seen as mutually supportive. There is nothing in Marcuse’s theory which could account for the existence (or the possibility of existence) of such a society.
Secondly, one would like to ask Marcuse about his definition of “hierarchy”. Clearly, it is one which makes no distinctions between “hierarchies” of different sorts—“hierarchy”, which can be seen as the opposite of “equality”, is inherently “bad”, no matter what ends it chooses for itself. In fact, the question of ends does not arise: “hierarchy”, in whatever form, is “bad:. Its opposite, “equality”, is good. Yet the idea of “hierarchy” must indeed have some implicit valuative connotations attached to it in the mind of Marcuse. Fascist or fascistic impulses towards domination, for instance, evidently plummet from “bad” to “worst” in his judgment. When a “hierarchy” promotes the ends which Marcuse promotes, therefore, how is he to criticize this “hierarchy”? He cannot criticize it for the ends it promotes: he can only criticize it for its means.
Paradoxically, John the Savage provides one answer to this problem. In the so-called Cyprus experiment described in the book, a society of Alpha Double Pluses fights a savage civil war. The reason given for this is that no Alpha Double Plus could stand doing Epsilon Semi-Moron work. It may be deduced that Huxley’s point is that, if everyone were equally, outstandingly intelligent, beautiful, and so forth, society in fact could not exist. Though our own society does not resort to bio-engineering humans, people are born with very different abilities and aptitudes. It could be argued that inequality is thus present in human nature itself, and is an indelible part of human nature. BNW, in regard to its genetic caste system, can therefore be seen to be creating un-naturally an extreme form of the hierarchies and stratifications that are normally present in any case, in any human society.
The rejection of this Brave New World because of its hierarchical nature is thus very shallow theoretically. Marcuse must look to what effects the society has on individuals apart from this. In what aspects, for example, does the society of BNW differ from that, say, of Victorian England? The Brave New Society, one assumes, would indeed shine in this comparison under a Marcusean light—for Marcuse would hardly chide Huxley’s visionary world with being ignoble!
Another favorite ground of progressive criticism that is off limits in challenging the BNW vision is acceptance or fosterage of poverty, disease, racism, hunger, and so forth. Huxley’s world has eradicated such tares of humane existence. If everyone is healthy, happy, well-fed, and so forth, what possible critique can a Marxist or capitalist material-determinist make of the society? And if there is sexual liberation in the broadest sense of the word, what critique can a Freudian Left thinker make of it? One might then see that the seeming contrast between the “ideology” or ruling-principle of Brave New World (endless satisfaction of all appetites) and its hierarchical nature are not really contradictory. The highly efficient hierarchy implements “happiness”. As the Director of the Central Hatchery says, it is the foremost aim to be “adults at work, infantile in play”.
If this insight could be brought down to the currently existing world, one might observe that there is indeed no contradiction between functionalism at work and hedonism at home. The typical baby-boomers (for whom the term “bobos”—bourgeois bohemians—has recently been coined), who are sharp stockbrokers or business-people by day, hedonists at night, are the best example of this. Sexual pleasure up to the limits of health and hygiene might well be the slogan of contemporary North American society.
Without some frankly non-materialist notions of the importance of “the real human soul”—which can be used to criticize various ignoble aspects of BNW, including the artificiality and extremity of its genetic caste-system—and of the importance of rootedness in family life, particular culture, and religion as they have been historically understood, it would be difficult to decisively criticize the Brave New World.
The impossibility of coherently criticizing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World society from a Marcusean perspective might well trouble those who would like to put the locus of resistance to late modernity and the current commodity-consumption culture in Marcuse and similar thinkers.
The key to understanding society, in the author’s view, is to evaluate its ruling-principle or ideology. There must be “structure” present in any society. Hence the professed attempt by left-liberals to eradicate inequality or hierarchy could be seen as a spurious fantasy. In practice, they themselves do nothing but create “hierarchies” of adherence to “political correctness”—or of mere wealth, whereupon they meet up with the socially liberal neo-conservative and libertarian enemies of traditional structure..
Window Without a View
Ivor Davies frequently contributes short stories to Praesidium which represent the less idyllic side of academic life. He is not currently employed, or seeking employment, in the ivory-tower setting.
The library was the best memory he carried away… and, for that reason, the worst splinter of those fractured days, now having worn its way deep into his side, toward his vitals.
Kellie had always called it his office, without a trace of malice—but also without much sensitivity. To his mind, "office" meant "campus", and "campus" meant constant interruption by students protesting a grade which was already too high or coaxing him to write their papers with them, for them (unless they had bought or downloaded the paper, in which case his preliminary scrutiny was nervously avoided)… or else the "office" meant Fulton lounging up against his door frame (the ever-opened, student-friendly door) from his own office across the hall to gossip about the real import of the Dean’s remarks at the last general faculty meeting or prattle on and on about baseball or some film d’art he had viewed during his latest foray to the decadent metropolis an hour’s drive from their ivy-laced ivory gates… or, more and more toward the end (and in how different a light he recalled those scenes now!), Candace would come floating in so quietly that he often found her peering over his shoulder with a start (how long had she been there? why did she never knock?) to "confer with his schedule"—so she would say, always more pompous than accurate—before calling the next Curriculum Committee or Self-Study meeting, as if the phone were indiscreet. He had been Candace’s "right hand" in those days (as others had said: never Candace). And being Candace’s right hand had destined him, in some manner which he had intuited far too late and still didn’t entirely understand, for amputation. More than anything, the word "office" conjured up Candace.
The library had been the antithesis of all that. It had been… not private, exactly. He had rejected the word "study" for it after a couple of employments precisely because "study" implied monastic cloistering to him. Though beatifically peaceful, the library was also broad and full of a work of genius. Facing one of the placid light. The architect had outdone himself: it was suburban lanes of the new subdivision, it sat atop an artificial slope, riding a brick plateau which would eventually allow the garage to burrow tamely under a "bonus room" at the house’s split level. A bay window had bowed out majestically over the front yard, its vista filtered but not obscured by the spreading branches of a deep-blushing Japanese maple. He had never quite fathomed what had inspired the architect to put such an meditative room in such a prominent space—for all the houses they had looked at before (all the hundreds, it seemed) had awarded so much space only to the vital functions of eating and bathing and sleeping/love-making (as if anyone but a pathological exhibitionist would want a vast stage to perform such acts), or else had designated valuable square footage for the foyer, the living room, and other places where visitors might be impressed by "outlay". This one room in this one house, however, had apparently already been dedicated to the mind before he and Kellie had first come haunting its doorless plywood precincts on a lazy Sunday afternoon, searching for "open houses". The hardwood bookcases had already been partially crafted. "Drawing room" had immediately, absurdly sprung to his lips. Kellie had no doubt observed his instant infatuation. She had found plenty of positive comments to make about the round island-counter in the kitchen and the "wet room" beside the garage entrance after that… but he had suspected that she was acquiescing to that look in his eye, since he had usually done the heel-dragging before and she had been clamoring to get out of the apartment as soon as both the girls were old enough to ride a bike.
Then, too, it was possible—quite possible—that Kellie had just wanted him to be happy. He had never really denied that about her to himself, even when she demanded a separation. He knew that he had always been in her heart, and that he had done more than merely break her heart—or other, perhaps worse. That he had made her watch while he destroyed himself, or let himself be destroyed by Candace and The System she wielded like a guillotine… and that then he had fiercely resented Kellie’s having occupied a ringside seat. Something like that… something very dark and self-destructive.
But the library had been his retreat, his respite, right up to the end. From its bay window, he had watched mockingbirds nest in the Japanese maple. From behind his desk on Saturday mornings or pacing the scented white-pine floorboards at night, he had wrapped his spirit in all those volumes, all those visions and ideas, which had lured him into this tar pit of a profession, and which he virtually never had a chance to teach—or even, in his preoccupation, to re-read. The girls had sometimes brought in their scissors and paste or coloring books and played quietly while he graded papers, imagining themselves to be engaged in the same sort of labor as Dad. Whatever the circumstances, the room had always made him feel that human history was smiling on him—smiling with pity, with understanding, as if to say, "Times were hard when we lived, as well. If we are unread in your day, we were scarcely listened to in our own. Yet you see that our ideas have survived. You, too, will survive, if only you pledge yourself to great ideas."
It had been the last room he had lingered in—the only room he had really lingered in—before climbing behind the wheel of a U-Haul truck and carting their scarred, crowded belongings off to another state where he would eventually scrounge up a year’s contract position. The state where Kellie’s parents lived—where they could spread their protective, affluent wing over Kellie and the girls now that her bookworm of a husband had fulfilled their dire prophecies. He remembered that lingering moment: he dreamed about it often (not in a bookworm’s dreams, but in harrowing pageants of happiness lost forever—dreams of the library on fire, of biking trips down the block from which he returned to a great empty plywood hulk). The worst nightmare was perhaps the one where he simply re-lived that lingering final moment. The benign lettered spines which had spoken almost audibly to him of patience’s virtue, of wisdom’s triumph, had now vanished. The doors of the hardwood cases lay open, a thick coat of dust blanching their upward surfaces where no one had ever thought to swipe a cloth. Every step echoed endlessly; and when he just stood still, the air-conditioner’s sigh through the empty hallway or the crack of sunlit floorboards expanding where there had lately been furniture welled into the bay window with a different quality, a wave rattling in an abyss rather than soaking into a soft shoreline. The patience and wisdom of the ages had finally lost, its grave—its true and nightmarishly expressive grave—not a box in an attic, but a great room of empty, dusty shelves. For even an attic would presume a house… but the reader of books now had nowhere to lay his head.
That was the worst of it: the library. But for the library, he might have forgotten the house as permanently as he had the succession of three or four apartments before it.
Lockwood was surprised at the sweat raised from his pores by the highway patrol car’s flashing lights. Though the temperature had quickly dropped, imitating the sun’s early solstitial plunge, and though he had consciously declined to turn on the heater, the blue strobe pulsating in his rear-view mirror had instantly made him prickly about the collar. However this bizarre trip ended—this funereal pilgrimage to an overthrown god’s shrine, this hellish hunting expedition for tarred eels—he had not foreseen being pulled over with his stash of "Christmas presents". It was unthinkable. It would be altogether too pre-climatic, too inept. He had no idea how far he was going to descend into his dead sea of vendetta, and he had become a fascinated observer of the dive ever since, having dropped off his final grades, he had actually kept his rendezvous with Clive Dade and his reprobate cronies. Just how dead was his soul? Would it show any signs of life at all? At what depths? But spending the Christmas holidays in an out-of-state jail wasn’t one of the stops where he intended to pause for readings.
Had the instant of fear before the patrol car accelerated to pass him itself been a sign of life? He had imagined himself beyond fear now. In some odd way, that was why he had decided to sit mildly shivering in his windbreaker, leaving the knobs and buttons on his console untouched: because he liked the cold. It resonated with his own winter… his inner death. If he had happened to spot Candace and Milner up ahead in one of the luxurious models funded by their late promotions, he could—beyond any doubt whatever—have nosed them over the side of a towering overpass, himself following to hammer them into the concrete, without batting an eyelash. Yet this fear of the cops, of capture… no, he couldn’t afford to be caught. In that case—in the case of a high-speed chase along the interstate—he would just have to take the plunge from the overpass all by himself.
And that, he decided, was not a sign of life. Even the bitter disappointment the vision roused in him—a futile suicide instead of a thorough execution—did not belong in a living soul.
Thirty-three miles. A light rain was beginning to fall. If ice started to form on the windshield, he would have to switch on the heater despite his affinity with absolute zero. But there had been no severe winter weather in the forecast: just a cold drizzle. He flipped the wipers into motion and stared through their metronomic rhythm, his own eyes never blinking.
They hadn’t intended to spend that first night in the new house. The dry-walling was done, all wires were connected and outlets covered, the water had been turned on… but the painters were due to revisit the bedrooms because they had used the wrong colors. The end of the month was looming, however—the First fell on a Wednesday, when he would be immersed in the Creative Writing Workshop—so he and Kellie had prevailed upon the builder to leave them the key that Saturday. Kellie had spent all afternoon unboxing dishes with Kastia in the spotless kitchen, its cabinets cracking with fresh paint, its drawers exhaling sweet wood fragrances. (He could still see her in his mind: with her chestnut hair bound up tight in a scarf and a sleeveless blouse knotted high above her navel, she had strangely aroused him as he stacked more boxes in the wet room and leaned back to massage his aching spine. He remembered longing oh-so-whimsically to set up the wading pool for the girls in the straw-strewn back yard, then whisk Kellie off her feet into a plushly carpeted closet and untie all the knots.) Katrina, though too young to help with much of anything, had accompanied him to and from the apartment in the puck-up truck. (Her image, too, danced in his mind, belted into her toddler’s seat at his side, her smooth fair brow extremely intent upon the serious business of moving—yet bursting with the blond joy which toddlers find in serious endeavors.)
The four of them had somehow also bundled the sofa and a couple of chairs into the truck. By sundown, they had managed to furnish much of the den as well as all of the kitchen and his "office" (where he had moved most of his books on Friday afternoon: that, no doubt, had been the origin of his aching spine). Kellie was far too weary to cook, even if they had returned to the apartment’s full refrigerator—and most of her cookery was now stored away in its new home. He had picked up some burgers, then, when steering his laden truck back from a final raid upon the apartment. Too sweaty to sit around the kitchen table, he and Kellie had simply collapsed on the den floor with paper bags in their hands. The girls had called it a picnic. They watched something on the TV about a horse or a dog—he had no very clear notion of what it was even at the time. He remembered, instead, the… the exhaustion, yes; but more than that, surmounting the exhaustion and glowing over the evening as the TV’s radiance glowed over their faces (he had forgotten to bring a lamp), he remembered the pride. Their first real home. And it was beautiful. As a grad student, he would have sneered at the phrase "dream home"—he would have sneered at a lot of things, as a grad student. But now he was fully aware that he had embarked upon a dream—raised the gangway, cast off, and surrendered himself to currents beyond his control, yet benign and more grandly purposeful than anything he might have designed. He was home. He had a lovely wife who was devoted to him, two perfect daughters, a job which drew upon his talents and offered him respect and a future. A dream life. After years of feeling that his labors were out of all proportion to their meager rewards, he had stumbled upon the astonishing reality that he was now blessed with far more than he deserved.
One of the girls had piped up with a request to "sleep here tonight" in a cadence that couldn’t be refused—and Kellie and he couldn’t have needed much persuading. The very idea of the apartment suddenly seemed nauseating. So they had made shift. The towels Kellie had brought for wiping dishes clean or which had been wrapped around glass articles sufficed to dry off the girls after a tub bath, performed with perilous kitchen soap. ("Don’t get it in your eyes—it will sting!") Teeth were brushed for an unusual duration to make up for a lack of toothpaste. (But what were they doing with toothbrushes? He must have brought them over by mistake after a quick sweep through the apartment’s cramped bathroom.) Kellie had taken the first turn in the shower while he had settled the girls down on "mattresses" fashioned from the sofa’s cushions hauled into the master bedroom. For covers they had only a sad assortment of threadbare blankets and bedspreads used to cushion the kitchen furniture during its bumpy transit. Kastia had giggled excitedly and Katrina had whined for her panda bea.r ("Suds is at the apartment, hun. Do you want to go back to the apartment? Okay, then. No, I’m not making a special trip just for Suds.") Yet by the time he had switched off the bathroom light, still more wet than dry, the great empty room was soundless, and he had had to wait for his eyes to adjust so that he could step with boundless care around the dormant, motionless bundles.
He remembered that the dark turned out not to be so very dark. Since the windows had no blinds or curtains, the glow of distant streetlights misted unobstructed over their shrouded legs and hips and shoulders. Kellie had nestled close to Katrina, whose hand she would probably continue to hold for an hour. He remembered being satisfied with that. Delighted, even. Blessed. His craving to hold her in his arms had passed over him like a wave, driven farther out to sea by the day’s collected weariness. It was just as much of a delight now simply to press his shoulder against hers. In that posture, before he dozed off (which must have been very soon), he remembered saying some very odd things—odd for him. Something like, "Maybe God really does bless people. Maybe all that curdling sanctimony up at the college… all the prayers… a prayer before every meeting… Candace, her ‘God, just bless our time here today. Just bless our new curriculum, and just bless my new promotion’… but maybe there are real blessings in the world that its Candaces don’t understand."
And he remembered Kellie’s saying, "There are, Rhyne."
"Evangelus University." Somehow the green exit sign with its phosphorescent silver letters looked cleaner than he had remembered it. Washed by the rain, no doubt. Or maybe lit from below with an extra neon tube—a tube awarded by the State Highway Commission for the exit’s increasing popularity. The place had continued to rise in the dynamic world of "Christian" colleges. Lockwood knew of each ascending step, because—in what might have been a vindictive gloat in keener minds, but what could only be called a stupid gaffe in this case—the PR people persisted in sending him the newsletter, The Good News News (with tear-off card in back for pledging financial support: no postage necessary). A new administration building, a new student center, a new Olympic-class swimming pool, a new baseball stadium… new majors in Sports Medicine and Leisure Technology and Food Services Management… EU was definitely striking off the shackles of old Europe to stake out a share of The Good Life (as was new Europe, for that matter).
Lockwood had expected to greet the great bronze cross at the gate with the remnants of what he imagined to be a very bitter smile (he hadn’t the energy to study himself in the rear-view mirror… or the stomach, perhaps). But as his eyes riveted upon the floodlit monstrosity from the vast entry avenue’s bleak prospect (the planted saplings had made little progress in eight months), he felt something like fear again. Not fear, but… dread. Dread unrelieved by any trace of humor whatever. It was the ugliest cross he had ever seen. Blade-edged, robust, massive… sleeker in the rain than ever… it was more like a Space Age pylon waiting for a bridge than a crude instrument of torture. Of course, there had never been any intention of putting a Christ on it. Too Catholic, too heathen (if there was any difference between the two in the minds of EU’s planners). The Christ of this campus had long since sprung off his gibbet like a rock star rising from an on-stage coffin to the cheers of thousands. This Son of Men had made the landscape teem (having once cleared it of trees) with mighty buildings, squared and red-bricked, which resembled the winner’s corner of a Monopoly Board at ten-thousand-times magnification. His blessings upon his people were in-your-face.
Lockwood didn’t quite ease to a full stop. This had been a very foolish move. Naturally, the gate was closed: everything was closed for the holidays. Even if he could have penetrated to the inner sanctum, what on earth would he have done—what futile folly? Unload the "presents" on the Administration Building’s doorstep? He certainly couldn’t carry them to Candace’s office. Besides the locked doors, he would have had to contend with surveillance cameras. A security guard would probably have spotted him. He risked being spotted just by cruising around the turnabout this way. And what were the chances that campus security would ever report a bundle of illegal drugs in holiday disguise to outlets of the sensation-driven public media? At its very worst best, any embarrassment for the university would be quite open to interpretation. One might spin the incident to prove the place’s safety ("EU Police Bust Drug Deal on Vacant Campus"). He might even end up having some innocent student or functionary scapegoated to help an upbeat interpretation spin faster.
Lockwood realized that he had indeed stopped before the gargantuan cross. Its vertical shaft towered over him, looming beyond the floodlights’ reach and an illuminated sheet of mist to bore through the chilly night The insignia of a multinational corporation—a designer/producer of space shuttles or anti-aircraft lasers—could not have been more intimidating. The one option open to him was to dump all the parcels at its gardened, manicured base and phone a newspaper anonymously… the prank of some spoiled-brat freshman, not even front-page news.
For the first time, he registered the device (EU’s administration always called it a "motto") scrolled with insipid ostentation around the bronze mast’s foundation: "The Best Is Yet to Come." His tired brow crinkled, and he gaped. As many times as he had pondered this slogan since his assistant-professor days, it always defeated him. Too bland for a soap box or a shyster lawyer, it remained for that very reason the most cryptic thing, perhaps, he had ever read. What was it intended to mean in an academic context, or in a religious one? Was an empowering sheepskin "to come"—or Heaven itself? Were EU’s gates the gate to Heaven? Was this manner of reminder supposedly of use to the kinds of people who enrolled in the Sports Medicine program? What unflattering chain of analysis could he possibly hope to link up by seeding EU’s lawn with compromising articles? Compromising in what sense, and to whom? People for whom tautologies like, "What must be must be," held mystical magic could hardly be counted on to smell a tiny rat in their perfume factory.
As he sped back down the avenue to the exit, Lockwood avoided his rear-view mirror more earnestly than ever. He could sense his fixed gaze icing over before the merely watery windshield. Round One of this insane sparring match was done, and he had been decked with a single blow.
It was implausible in memory, even impossible… but the day—the evening—when Candace had descended upon their new house, her milquetoast husband dutifully in tow, was a mere seventy-two hours after that blessed night which he and Kellie and the girls had passed sleeping on the master bedroom’s carpet. He had been truly exhausted that afternoon, having already passed a full day on campus and having brought home a stack of papers to grade. The papers, naturally, had had to wait: the last furniture—the heaviest—needed to be out of their apartment by midnight. He had said as much to Candace at the office, and she had raised no problems about his skipping a departmental meeting. (How could she? Even a "pagan" department chair would have released an employee to move his belongings lest he be evicted!) The mere knowledge of how much paperwork was piling up on his shoulders, however, had bent them visibly a little more, he was sure, as he strained and sweated around the dolly carrying their dresser. Kellie had tried to help, and had helped significantly at critical moments; but he required her more than anything else to keep the girls out of the way, and he knew that she had already spent the day—the hours of his office grind—lifting and transporting objects scarcely lighter than he wrestled now. Her work clothes, he remembered, showed off her figure just as unconsciously—and just as flatteringly—as they had the previous Saturday afternoon. Yet, if anything, he felt an abject pity for those frail round limbs, whose smooth skin was hardly rippled by the hint of a muscle even when her wincing eyes almost squeezed out tears. That afternoon almost did both of them in.
And then Candace ("Call me Candy!"). Dressed to the hilt for dinner at one of the finer local restaurants after a hard day padding her agenda with items, her husband spruced up in slightly less glory (as he always was: he could never quite keep pace with His Wife the Professor, and her contempt for his job as a salesman of pianos—one of many such jobs he had scrounged up, apparently, after moving in response to her career advances)… the two of them had something of the obnoxiously regal when they surprised his family in the opened garage. The queen and her consort had come to see how ships were built.
He remembered ogling them through his extreme weariness in what could only have been a rude stare. Kellie had done a little better… and yet the Queen, he remembered, was already making for the wet room and the kitchen before she had been properly invited in. The Royal Consort had hung back briefly—long enough to trace a weak gesture of apology for him as he collapsed onto a cedar chest against the garage’s wall and received Katrina’s nuzzling face upon his knee. Then the man had fled inside, surely knowing that the rest of the evening would be passed in remarks about the house’s interior, probably aware that his inattention to such urgent matters would bring heavy chastisement upon him.
Kellie was furious after they had backed their Lincoln out of the driveway. Hadn’t he said that Candace (like him, she refused to embrace the affectation "Candy") had been fully informed about the afternoon’s drudgery? How dare the "fat cow" (Kellie must instinctively have figured out one of the main motives behind Candace’s envy) come prissing around in evening clothes when she knew what a state they must be in! How dare she not even volunteer her husband for a little work! How dare she not even offer to go fetch them a burger! How dare she come poking her fat nose through every corner of the house with hours of hard labor still ahead of them! She hadn’t even said hello to the girls! (She never had, either, and never would.) Didn’t she know anything about children at all? Couldn’t she see how tired the kids were? Did she think her colleague was just making up an excuse to avoid a meeting—was this some sort of official visit of confirmation? (Kellie always turned as golden-russet as an apricot when she waxed sarcastic.) Did she believe it now—did she get it? They were moving—they had moved! Was that okay with her? Was their house too big, perhaps? Would she have to report to her bosses that the salary for a freshly promoted associate professor was too generous?
At that time, he had never heard Kellie vent quite so much wrath in one eruption. There would be other eruptions later—worse eruptions—just before the separation, when she would rebuke him for not making Kastia do her homework while she was still at her office, and he would flare up that he was bringing home papers to grade even from his crummy adjunct appointment, and she would retort with no-matter-what (for his next response was already brewing—the one about "Do you think I like being a failure, a flop, a has-been, a ne’er-do-well, a dead white male with three degrees and two kids that he can’t support?"). He never heard what Kellie said after that, any more than he had ever heard what she said right before it. But the sheer volume of her delivery would be something neither of them—nor any of the chance bystanders—had ever witnessed in her. It was a strange memory, that evening in the garage when she blew her stack at Candace… strange beside the later memories of her blowing her stack at him. Some part of his being was faintly pleased that she had understood early on what pressures he was being placed under, what an insufferable egotist he had for a boss. To have been so indignant, she must have resented Candace on his behalf, at least a little. She must really have cared. And she must have known that he wasn’t, after all, a complete failure and all those other things—that he had been victimized by human depravity, at least in some measure. She must have felt some genuine sympathy for him, somewhere at the bottom of it all.
But he could not revive that memory of the garage without also realizing that the frenzy to which Candace had driven her was the same to which he would eventually drive her, over and over. And the thought that he was a co-conspirator with the person he loathed most on earth in driving half-mad the mother of his daughters, the companion of his youth… it made him wish he had simply brought a gun with him.
Lockwood followed the near-deserted, semi-rustic highway on a straight trajectory into town, the broad overpass which he had already crossed once from the other direction now dropping him in amongst a litter of car dealerships and motels adorned with tinsel Christmas trees. Where were all the people going on this side? Eating, partying, last-minute shopping… he had entirely lost track of time, but a glance at the dashboard informed him that the mall (the single mall in these parts) would still be open. Yet the streets were indeed less populated than usual (or had his eight months in a larger city—where he was less employable than ever—merely raised his threshold for tolerating traffic?). He flicked on the blinker again and again, navigating as if in a dream. From major artery to minor artery, from minor artery to wide avenue to winding residential street. The Christmas lights he occasionally saw now, sedately distinguishing every fifth or eighth house, stirred a certain sullenness within him. They were never the strings of big, gaudily multi-colored balls he recalled from his childhood. They were usually all white, rather, and always tiny teardrops; they outlined doors and windows at right angles as if celebrating residential architecture rather than taking off irresponsibly up bushy trees or playing tag in the boxwoods. They were an adult (but immature) version of the owners’ cherished fantasies, not an indulgent splash allowed to the new generation’s children. As if to punctuate this observation (which he hatched very methodically, finding a temporary peace in his objective cultural critique), islands of vehicles congested particular driveways and curbsides down every other block. The "adults" were out of their kennels, wassailing in their spiked eggnog or (if of the Evangelus U crowd) imbibing wholesome milk-and-egg cholesterol as the kids played video games back home before bored baby-sitters on cell phones.
The EU crowd, of course, did a lot of entertaining year-round. That was how he had come to know this transit so well: Candace was forever throwing little soirées for the English Department when a special guest whom she wanted to impress was on campus, or when she wished to advertise her student-friendliness to the Dean by inviting over majors or seniors along with faculty. They were painfully uninspired, those "bashes". A merciless outlay of high-caloric but otherwise uninteresting food, a not-very-subtle hazing into parts of the house which Candace had larded with her most expensive furniture, frequent gestures toward "historical curiosities" or "treasures" framed on the wall or nestled on the mantelpiece (a truly fat Candace in smudged black-and-white with no make-up and hair wadded into a bun, Steve the Milquetoast’s odd collection of transformers retrieved from extinct telegraph poles, etc.), the mandatory Bible lain in a very prominent position as if Candace had been surprised in holy meditation when the first guest arrived, the mandatory "scholar’s bookshelves" weakly stuffed with grad school paperbacks and freebees from itinerant textbook-peddlers (Candace had effused over his own book collection when exiting his garage that night, as he had struggled unsuccessfully to rise from the cedar chest)… how well he knew the drill! "Never clocks out… always thinking of the university… opens up her own home to students and faculty"—magic phrases at contract time. At a "student-centered" college like EU, they were far more impressive than those published articles which, Lockwood supposed, had won him her initial and undying envy.
Candace was not only aware of what good copy her "hearthside fellowships" made on yearly evaluations: she had come to exact the same high standard of self-sacrifice from her subordinates—or at least those whom, like him, she wished to beat into the ground. In the two years following their move to the house, she had never been restrained by taste or manners or common decency from observing in her professional capacity, "Now that you have that beautiful new home, you should open it up more to the students." How he had wanted to go to the Dean and shout in his face, "This is what you call Christian family values? I’m trying to raise two girls, and you unleash this harpy on me who seems to think the department has a proprietary interest in our home?" Yet he had, after all, invited students over: he had even invited a few over to the apartment, and done so without being bidden. Small gatherings of creative writers, an interested few from his senior-level courses (Candace rarely let him offer one) who wanted to read some extra-curricular Edgar Allan Poe, a brief attempt to form an alliance with the foreign-language teachers over Kellie’s chicken lasagna… he had actually hosted rather more occasions than Candace. Then that pre-tenure review, when she had the nerve to make out that he was reclusive—that he was inaccessible and aloof! Trembling with indignation (and embarrassment: did he need sworn affidavits from all his guests?), he had rambled off all his recent occasions at the house. She had briefly feigned interest, but at last had responded, "It sounds as though you always have the same two or three over." The hint that he might be pursuing one of the coeds was thickly veiled, but not invisible. To his choking answer that most of the students made other plans on Friday night, she had predictably objected, "So you should clearly try another night." To his protest that he had lessons to plan and children to put in bed during the week, she had archly observed, "We all have lesson plans. Can’t Kellie handle the children?" So much for feminism: so much for the liberation ideology she touted in her vain attempts at publication, and which she always cannily muted in "biblical" traditionalism around campus—Can’t Kellie handle the children?
Yes, he would fix her up good and proper. Merry Christmas.
Lockwood actually eased the window down as he parked along the curb across from Candace’s lawn and killed the lights. The icy rain felt good on his face. He let it trail under his collar—he had worked himself into quite a lather. But his breathing quickly relented now, and the steel returned to his resolve. This was going to work. This, after all—and not the prankish "plant" on the campus (why had he even stopped by there?)—was what he had really intended to do from the start. He had recalled that Candace’s garage door was never lowered (probably a problem with the mechanism: she had bought a rather ancient house for all that expensive furniture—she and Steve the Milquetoast—and certain nooks and crannies of it, much to her chagrin, didn’t function). It would be the easiest thing in the world to visit a cluttered corner of that dark cavern (only one carport was ever cleared for use: Steve’s truck always remained outside) and sock away his "Christmas presents" in a couple of trips, then lodge an anonymous tip with the metro police. ("This professor of mine… some of the guys say she deals. No, I don’t want to give my name. Just look for Christmas packages in the garage." Bye-bye career, hello iron bars.
So this was the big moment. This was what he had planned for, to the extent that he had planned anything. The engine was still running: Lockwood threw it into reverse and eased back along the curb, past a driveway and toward the mailbox of another house. He ventured to flick his headlights on, but found that they only blinded him (especially with their glow refracted by thousands of tiny drops) in his attempt to survey the garage better. This time, having lowered his window once more, he shut off the engine entirely. A gauzy haze, far thinner and dimmer, now spiraled from above—from two remote streetlamps within his bend of the road. As his eyes re-adjusted to their relative dusk, he was increasingly beset by the sense that something was wrong. The house, of course, was empty: that was to be expected. Why languish at home when you could do some serious fawning at one of the many affairs being staged by influential administrators? In fact, he knew exactly where Candace would have dragged Steve the Milquetoast on this holiday evening. The President would have been throwing his annual Christmas party at his palatial residence in Buffalo Heights just about tonight on the calendar. An indispensable fawn—a fawn de rigueur. They would continue to be gone, furthermore, until about ten o’clock, for the fawn demanded a certain investment of time (although midnight partying was unseemly among the EU crowd, even on a festive Friday: eating and sleeping were the two permissible debauches, and they were practiced by all like holy obligations). He had at least ninety minutes to work, and he only needed five. Best to get on with it.
But something about that dead black residence grew more wrong as his eyes saw touches of green beneath the streetlamps, yet saw only deeper black within the garage. It was empty—really empty. As in devoid of clutter. Both ports yawned over a deep black nullity, unrelieved by the gray rim of a plastic storage canister or the gray wheel of a lawnmower or the gray paunch of a fertilizer sack. He had never known Candace’s garage to be ship-shape. And Steve’s truck… where was that? Why were both vehicles gone? Steve’s parents lived just across the state line: maybe he was off on a holiday visit. (And Lockwood guiltily winced: he was supposed to be on his way at this moment to see his own mother, still two hundred miles up the road.) But no… Candace would never have allowed her husband—her resident proof that she subscribed to a "Christian" lifestyle—to disappear before the President’s party. Tongues might wag.
What, then, was going on? His fingers tingled with a notion of reaching for the door’s handle, but Lockwood remained motionless, his shoulder slumped against the upholstery, his face petrified in the chilly mist. He found it incredible that he was wondering, truly wondering for the first time, just what was in those packages. No doubt, he had gotten to know Clive Dade rather too well as a student. How’s that for student-centeredness—having a few drinks with the ballplayers in your class after exams! He had never so much as entered a "watering hole" before the separation: now he hung around one or two as if scouting out other women, but really just to drink. Just to drink without drinking alone. (He would have been dismissed on the spot from EU if they had discovered him in such a place—discovered him merely standing at its accursed door.) And then Dade, having learned over a third round that his English teacher was headed north for the holidays, had exploded into an inspiration that had lit up his flushed blond face—the handsome face of a spoiled athlete, the laureled darling of a society which numbered gladiators and charioteers as among its most respectable, permissible intoxicants. (Dade would have been a great success at EU, as long as he didn’t get arrested while under the influence. The standard of sobriety exacted of students was notoriously more tolerant than that which hung over faculty members—especially if the student in question hit homeruns, scored TDs, or sank three-pointers.)
Dade’s winsome companions had lit up, too. They were all in on it. They all thought, in the arrogance of youth and the egotism of the adored, that they were infinitely more worldly-wise than their egghead composition professor. It had amused him to watch them play him—to watch them believing themselves to be playing him. At the same time, as their flushed, swelling faces lit up like jack-o-lanterns, a dark idea was being born invisibly in his soul’s secret chambers. In the dark coffin where his soul lay.
So he had accepted their offer to carry toys northward to tots in some sister city where their charitable athletic organization had a chapter. (Dade’s malodorous inspiration had flowed soon with the urgency of diarrheic excreta out from under a cow’s tail: Lockwood had never witnessed him in such a spate of creative élan.) He had played along at being played. When the "presents" were packed gratefully into his van by half the starting line-up earlier this morning and the precise directions to the McDonald’s where he was to rendezvous with the charitable sodality’s northern outpost were pressed into his hand with a shake, he had smiled almost sadly. How sad, to reflect that such fools could imagine themselves so clever! He had not smiled since, unless when taking the exit to Evangelus University, that monument to the whole era’s folly, vulgarity, and hypocrisy… and he very much doubted now that he had smiled then.
The presents were not within easy reach, and Lockwood’s curiosity, even as it grew, was matched by his apprehension. He would not have put himself through the contortions necessary to clutch the bow of the nearest package behind the back seat and to crane it delicately forward if… if something like guilt hadn’t stung him again. Something colder than fear, than fear’s cold sweat. Something colder than the fine rain—as cold as steel beneath ice. Was the burn of that absolute zero the proof he had been probing after—the proof that his soul yet contained a spark of life?
All the packages were of about the same size, and he had noticed from how they were handled that none was particularly heavy. Were they just see-through, zip-lock sandwich bags full of heroine or ecstasy or… or whatever it was the kids were all doing… or would the prize be concealed in further wrapping? What would a bunch of airhead college athletes picture as a suitable wrapper for a favorite party-enhancer?
What kind of a mandatory prison term would go with possession of the dehydrated paradise now hiding between his fingertips? To just how many iron bars did he hold the key?
Something downy and articulated met his intruding hand. He had fondled enough stuffed animals over the past eight years to know what he was reeling in before he held the object toward the windshield and the streetlamps. A panda. Black arms, white tummy… white head, black eyes and ears. Hello, Suds.
Lockwood leaned back heavily, his pupils expanding in a kind of panic. Though he began to pant through his nostrils, and though his chest began to pump beneath the windbreaker, he couldn’t manage to prize his jaws open. They shut tighter and tighter, like a steel trap. With the guttural grunt—the pleading, moist grunt—of a first-time assassin, he ripped apart the seam binding white neck to white tummy. A pale powder dusted the air and snowed lightly upon his wrists. His own mouth, finally, also burst open just then. He turned almost convulsively to fill his lungs with frosty rain, over and over, staring wildly in his paroxysm at the empty garage like an exhausted sprinter longing after an unreachable finish line. No lawnmower, no fertilizer… no cedar chest, no fair curls pressing his knee.
"I should have gone back to get her the damn bear," he heard himself wheezing—read his mind saying behind a blocked throat. "She would have remembered that for years. In a few years… she would have remembered that."
They had passed two Christmases in the new house, in their first and last house. Their first and last home. It didn’t seem like much, and yet he scarcely remembered any other Christmas in his life. All of them put together posed little weight on his memory beside these two. His own childhood had known a small house—not a shack, but far smaller than any of the houses inhabited by his classmates at an exclusive private school—where everything was always in order, where there was little to get out of order. His father was said to be a genius (at least by his mother), and for that reason—"and" was always the conjunction used here, never "but"—he was forever failing to advance in whatever job he found as an engineer. He told his boy over and over (his one boy, his one child) to read, to think, to try harder in the face of failure, to embrace adversity as a friend. During these frequent talks (less and less heeded by the boy as they became more and more formulaic), he would excite himself into a kind of visionary frenzy sometimes. Toward the end, the frenzy would be mellowed and the vision magnified by half a bottle of cheap Scotch—not enough to make him drunk, just enough to mellow and magnify. Yet the end was looming by this time, for it would not be a drunkard’s end, but a mangled dragonfly’s.
Christmas had made it all both better and worse in his childhood days. There wasn’t enough money for "extravagant toys"—in other words, for the remote-control airplanes and automatic chess boards that his classmates received. They were saving for his education—he was supposed to understand that. And saving, maybe, for a better house. In the meantime, he got to hang strings of large, garishly multi-colored bulbs around the mimosa in the front yard. They plugged the strings in only for about two hours each night within a week either side of Christmas… but he distinctly remembered his father’s hands reaching into his as they passed the wire, and he remembered the peace in his father’s eyes as they sat on the front stoup’s concrete to admire their handiwork—a peace not distilled from Scottish grain. It would evaporate, that peace, on Christmas Day like the sweet-smelling fumes of a spilt glass, for the day itself—the gifts of books too advanced for the child at his present level—must have deceived his father even less than they deceived him. Once the boy surprised the man weeping when sent to call him to Christmas dinner; and the man had said, "I’ve just got to work harder next year. I don’t know how I can… but I’ll find a way, I swear I will."
Perhaps, then, the first Christmas in the new house hadn’t so much obliterated the misery of his own childhood as it had fulfilled his father’s ever-postponed hopes. His own family was safe now: the ship had finally reached port. He had worked hard, very hard—top in his class at the exclusive private school, a brilliant and accelerated ascent through the cluttered constellations of graduate school, a tenure-track position in a discipline where one advertisement drew three hundred applications (even if the college itself was but marginally respectable… Dad had missed that call, too, warning his son to study something as far away from engineering as he could get). That first Christmas in the new house had not so much counter-balanced the lackluster holidays of his past as it had vindicated all his father’s ambitions, bringing to earth the vision that the "misunderstood genius" could finally chase only with the aid of three Dewars.
The Christmas tree had ended up in the library. He had at first raised a mild resistance, as if his private temple to timeless truth were being invaded by the vulgarities of pop culture. He had been delightfully convicted of his error, however, almost at once, even before Kastia had begun to hang balls and elves and stalactites on every limb within four feet of the thickly blanketed base. The world of TV and casually grazed sofa-snacks did not hold his place of meditation hostage; the room’s meditative qualities, on the contrary, redeemed the tree from association with TV and Cheetos. Nowhere else in the house could its tiny flashing lights have drawn the attention of rare passers-by from so ample a space as the bay window (which, now that the Japanese maple had lost its leaves, made a perfect display case). Yet at the same time, the spiky limbs provided him a certain shelter from the idle curiosity of dog-owners and health-walkers. Even more than that, the tree seemed to steal the focus of all his assembled books away from the desk and to re-direct it to a surprisingly civilized climax. Nature evergreen reconciled to human mistrust, whose primal fears were now not just allayed, but won over, by white and red and green and blue beacons blinking on and off in the thickest underbrush and over the deepest interiors… no great work of art, perhaps; but it spoke to children’s hearts of higher things, of a Father whose watchful eye did not blink and whose benign hand had secured every passage. Was that true? Even if it weren’t, what man would want his children to believe otherwise? Would he give his daughter a stone if she asked for bread?
But what if it was true? During that first Christmas, he had believed it so. Though he had never mastered his discomfort with the ever-ready flow of impromptu prayers at Evangelus—blessings on meetings, praise rendered to the Almighty for the award of a fat grant or the renewal of accreditation, even invocations before classes which certain teachers (he had noticed) pronounced with greater frequency as the week of student evaluations neared—he could no longer deny the emerging evidence that his life was blessed. Were it not for the strains which Candace brought to apply upon him with ever more finesse, he would have been happy beyond what was humanly possible—the very excess of his bliss might have worried him. As it was, he reminded himself that he had published and Candace and the others had not (the source of much toxic envy, as he knew—but also of job security before their joint superiors), that he was reasonably successful with the students, that he was reasonably liked outside his own department, and that he had landed a Nunally Grant almost single-handed. Let Candace snipe away. This was a Christian campus—how could those who ruled it look on while a man with two such adorable children and so ravishing a wife was cut loose for what the vilest slanders could represent as only minor blunders?
The most curious thing of all, though, was that the second Christmas had nestled in a yet more hallowed place among his memories. By then, he had figured out that he would not be credited for the Nunally Grant—that Candace had stolen his work and doctored the committee minutes so that, indeed, he seemed to be the cause of its having been conditionally rejected the first time around. He understood now that Candace would stop at nothing: he understood just how deep her envy of his accomplishments, of his children, of Kellie’s figure—of his library, of the very house where he lived (working garage door, new plumbing)—burrowed in her sick soul. He could no longer cover his eyes or stop his ears to the hypocrisy which fumed from her public prayers like spores from a trampled toadstool. He was at last fully aware that the readings and discussion groups convened before his hearth would not be reflected on his annual evaluation unless he virtually had students sign in before a notary. He grasped, too late, that he had bought the house too soon—that Candace had been using it against him for a year now, elbowing the most difficult or unsavory assignments his way because a man with a lovely home doesn’t say "no" as his tenure review looms. He realized that the house which had represented safe harbor to him one brief year earlier had both incensed his enemy and given her an enormous weight to hang about his neck.
No, there was no open-handed Dutch Uncle or Sugar Daddy à la EU smoothing out the bumps in his road. He had known, already on his second Christmas, that his bid for tenure was doomed. He had known that Kastia would never hang ornaments in the top of a tree set before the bay window, that Katrina would never again draw reindeer after breathing up a frosty film on the bay window’s lowest panes. He had known that all was lost… just as his father, perhaps, had known that all was lost when they had sat together on the concrete stoup admiring their string of lights. It had been a new peace, a real peace—a peace which brought his father’s ghost in from the cold, perhaps, to see the granddaughters he had never known. It had been a celebration of the real God, the God of the meek and poor and suffering and persecuted—not God à la EU.
So why had he, as times indeed grew worse, not been able to retrieve that God? He couldn’t remember.
Buffalo Heights lay back north of the Interstate. The quickest way there would have been to retrace his path along the local highway which passed the University’s main entrance, but Lockwood chose a circuitous route. The rain was intermittent now, and the traffic along the back roads very thin. (Had it ever been thick? When he had once been a resident of this heartland chamberpot, he had possessed a family and had stayed home every evening, always excepting dutiful forays to attend the Big Homecoming Game or the Reception for the Foundation Day Speaker or the monthly Sigma Tau Delta meeting or Opening Night of the New Dramatic Production.) He speculated, however, that traffic was at its ebb just now: he speculated that party-goers would have done their sallying forth an hour or two ago, and that they would not be weaving their unsteady homeward way, cerebral veins swollen with festive cheer, for another two hours. To be sure, the EU crowd was on a different schedule, and on different intoxicants (sugar and caffeine, public prayer, material wealth, exercise of power). But Candy Cane and Steve the Milquetoast would have to be among the last to leave The President’s Holly-and-Mistletoe Holiday Ball. Every good promoter knew that the first impression and the last are the ones that abide.
He would find their Lincoln in the swamp of luxury cars parked along the broad curbsides of Buffalo Heights. (Steve’s truck was probably in the shop.) He would stake it out: no one would notice another vehicle in the row of twenty or thirty. He would follow them home, just to be sure of his prey. And if they went where he expected them to go, and if the garage door still wouldn’t close, he would plant his bait and place his anonymous call from the recently purchased cell phone in his glove compartment, which he would promptly throw away. Gifts of elf-ground sugar to cook Candy’s fat-gutted goose.
The palaces of Sara Jane Avenue (the developer, too, must have had daughters) loomed slowly into view and out of view, one after another, like volcanic islands in an exotic archipelago. Some of the islands were volcanically active: they sparked and glowed even before they were fully in sight, shimmering around their dark neighbors and above the juvenile trees tenderly nestled where bulldozers had passed. Trees too small as yet to hold strings of lights. No, the regalia were lavished almost entirely upon the mansions themselves, often coiling up three stories to brave precarious mansards and steep rooflines in golden celebration (Lockwood had been told that President Bohanon, like many of his neighbors, charitably employed his Mexican gardeners—in cash—to deck the halls, since the grass was now brown and dormant and the last leaf now noisily sucked onto a bag or blown into someone else’s yard. The President had made it known from his pulpit—for he was also a minister—that he believed in the Christian duty to employ the world’s poor and hungry as yard men.) Certainly no high-power attorney or heart surgeon would have risked fame, fortune, and future to crawl out on such ledges unless he had belted down one cocktail too many or lost at poker to a crony with a very wry sense of humor. Oddly, Lockwood noticed no slowly moving file of impoverished pilgrims shuttling their kids through this, the town’s most spectacular display of lights. Why had he and Kellie never driven the girls through Buffalo Heights when they went searching for Stars of Wonder? Because the houses were too far apart? Because, in all their glory, they seemed to point at themselves rather than at something beyond them? Because he and his fellow white-collar drones envied their owners ferociously? No, not that. He saw nothing here that he envied. He would have been supremely happy to spend the rest of his life in the house they already had.
There it was: Castle Bohanon, lit up like an admiral’s flagship, awash in vehicles as if two dozen captains’ launches were moored to its hull. The blue Lincoln (he could easily discern colors in the floodlights which beamed senselessly from the lawn) was indeed rather far from the gangway, wedged up tightly against the curb (Steve must have driven) rather than honored with a space in the scoured, spotless driveway. Such were the costs to be incurred by the last-to-goes. Unless they wished also to be among the first-to-arrives, they were doomed to make a long trek to the front door. (Why, though, would Candace not have aspired to be both first and last? Certainly not because of any inhibition based in taste or discretion. She probably hadn’t been able to get ready in time—all that rouge, all that high hair. He could just see Steve dozing off in front of Sports Center as she clopped about looking for her special Christmas-colored brooch.)
Lockwood snugged in where an early departure (either someone very secure in his position or someone devoid of political savvy) left a space along the curb. The vehicle—a red van, rather larger than his own—turned into the driveway, backed out, and came back toward him before he had turned off the ignition. A strange tremor passed over him in tandem with the alien headlights. Would he be recognized? Would the seven-year investment of his life’s best years at EU have sufficed to earn him a nod if, eight months later, one of his "colleagues" should pass him on a sidewalk? He felt shame just beginning to warm his face, bowed into the steering wheel, as the pallid light slipped away (shame of what?—not of this undertaking, but of his past, his failure to succeed as one of them). On an irresistible impulse, now liberated from the spotlight, he spun around and stared keenly at the van’s occupant as it cruised on. The balding head wasn’t much of a hint… but the van, yes, he remembered the van, with which the bald pate and heavy-framed glasses proved just enough of a clue. Sampson. Religion Department—re-christened "Christian Studies" during his sojourn in a burst of honesty (or ingenuous hypocrisy): the Professor of Religion who had sat on their Nunally Grant Committee. They had had words when Lockwood had approached him about the doctored minutes—when Sampson had treacherously pretended that he retained no recollection of what had really gone on. (Well, who could say? Maybe he had been telling the truth—the ingenuously hypocritical truth of the flunkey who instantly, "honestly" forgets what would be suicidal to remember.) Their raised voices had been overheard; and, since Sampson was both a tenured professor and a member of the elite Christian Studies Department, Lockwood’s bid for tenure had suffered another three or four nails in its coffin.
Lockwood fell back heavily against his neck rest and expelled a sigh that nearly left him lifeless. The whole business still rankled in him—would do so all his mortal days, he had no doubt. Of the four-member committee, he alone had insisted that they not attempt to bring science into the new courses (to be funded by the grant) emphasizing Christian ethics. It was all rather comical, in a way—or ironic, at any rate. He had been the one member of the committee who didn’t believe that Genesis’s epic narrative was a minutely precise empirical guide to cosmological matters (though it was arguable, in retrospect, that Candace and Thigpen really had no beliefs whatever about that or anything else, since their universe revolved around how to promote their own careers). Yet he alone had maintained that the sciences, in and of themselves, could not produce any moral or spiritual insights and should therefore not be taught with such insights backloaded into them. Render unto Caesar, etc. The others—most prominently, Sampson—might have formed an alliance with him based upon what they preached every day: not that the independence of science as a value-neutral endeavor should be respected, but that science was the wicked stepchild of humanism and rationalism. Instead, seeing the Nunally family’s gold at the end of a paper rainbow, they applied themselves to finding various "strategies" for marrying science and Scripture the way a pander goes about bringing together his clients and their heart’s desire. Sampson had strayed farthest down that shady lane, producing florid language about how a new astronomy course (EU had never touched astronomy—too many Genesis-hostile eons to account for, and the speed of light didn’t leave a lot of wriggle room) which would emphasize God’s glory writ large in the heavens.
This, it turned out, was not what the Nunally trustees had in mind. Candace must have sensed that she was sailing in shoal waters. She had backed Sampson so as not to stir his resentment… but she had also kept Lockwood’s own text for that section of the application. The minutes of those meetings had vaguely reflected the dispute and its outcome: Lockwood had remembered to read them carefully after they were typed up. He had neglected, however, to keep a copy where it could readily be recovered from the heaps of similar detritus in his filing cabinet. When Dean Milner had suggested at his annual evaluation, therefore, that he had authored the initial proposal which came back in disgrace, he had been unable to produce evidence to the contrary. The minutes which the Dean had handed him were a clever forgery—or a not-so-clever alternate version never shown to the committee. (What was clever was her anticipating the fallout of failure. The date on Milner’s copy of the minutes proved that Candace had actually chronicled her imaginary opposition to the Star-Spangled Gospel Approach before its flop at the Foundation—an impressively Machiavellian feint. She had figured out that opposing Sampson in the written record would carry no consequences if his idea succeeded, whereas endorsing a disaster might set her timetable-to-glory back several years.) Of course, Candace had also neglected to share with the committee her "hasty rewrite" of the offensive section: only there in Milner’s office had Lockwood discovered his own original text among the final documents. He had looked very bad, no doubt, stepping right into the breach and calling his department chair a forger and a plagiarist to Milner’s face. Maybe she had planned for him to look bad… was she a good enough judge of character beneath her high hair to know that he wouldn’t be able to rein in his indignation and mitigate the slander against him by accepting part of it? Was she diabolically astute as well as diabolically envious?
His last hope, Thigpen, had been the model of how he should have behaved. Thiggy had whispered to him point-blank, in the men’s room, "Teresa’s pregnant again, Rhyne. I need this job. Don’t you know how much Bohanon loves her? His token female. She’s slated for big things—they’re so embarrassed in this denomination about not having any women in authority, even though they denounce it every Sunday. But this is business. They’re not going to throw her overboard. They’re going to throw you under the bus—and me, too, if you make me say what I know. And my whole family. Do you really want that on your conscience?"
So Thigpen had done his conscience a favor, and lied. Had said nothing, as if that were other than a lie. Thigpen would have another three years before his tenure review—but, now that he had sold his soul to Candace, things would be looking up for him.
Lockwood turned the key in the ignition just enough to energize the windows, and slid down the pane which separated him from the frosty air. He was getting heated up again. Odd, that he had never thought of avenging himself on Thigpen. If someone had murdered your child, why would you waste your frenzy chasing down a vulture which had pecked the small body? Thigpen would take care of revenge all by himself: he would be Thigpen for the rest of his life.
The rain had momentarily stopped altogether. Its disappearance seemed to clear a path for the north wind—not a wind as yet, really, but a series of gusts carrying the promise of a frost tomorrow night, perhaps. In the near future, the world would dry out and grow colder. Lockwood shuddered and, in spite of himself, slid the zipper of his windbreaker all the way to the top.
Though lights sparkled from all the flagship’s stays and yardarms, he could see nothing of whatever passed within the mansion. The third-story mansards, outlined in bright, angled constellations, were themselves as opaque as a comatose patient’s eyes. Who lived up there, he wondered? President Bohanon’s children were both in college (in real colleges far away). Were there libraries up there—studies, drawing rooms, meditative spaces—like the one he remembered, and had once thought he possessed? Was there an oubliette for a lunatic aunt? Did they store old furniture there, as if in an attic? (But they had an attic, too.) What did they do with all that space, all that success? All those blessings?
The ground floor was largely denied to Lockwood’s line of vision by the double row of costly vehicles along the landing-strip of a driveway. He was not surprised that he couldn’t see a Christmas tree… but he wondered idly if there were, in fact, any tree to be seen from any angle of the public street. Wouldn’t it be sequestered away in some great vast reception hall or ball room or whatever-the-hell they called such things in houses like this—in some atrium which he himself had never penetrated, since his ilk had been invited to it only at Christmas and he—political ingénue—had always preferred to stay home with his girls? Wouldn’t it be a very private thing, that tree? After all, President Bohanon’s disciples believed that Christmas was about the family. Why place a tree where some bypassing pagan might see it? Lights were different: they showed off the house. But a tree in the front window? Wouldn’t that be ostentation, or maybe even commercialization? Why set the glittering assurance of your personal salvation where some grubby urchin might gape at it from an old car’s rear window—the son of a maid, perhaps, who couldn’t afford a baby-sitter?
Idle curiosity… but Lockwood found it preying upon him so insistently during this interminable wait that he began to fidget. He was seriously thinking about slipping out the door and walking down the street for a better look when he heard voices over the sleek roofs of the parked cars.
God. That nasal whine.
Lockwood’s shoulders pressed the seat with such muscular application that they pained his neck. He could hear himself panting through his nostrils again—with a rasp so loud that he imagined it audible from outside. (Or was he, rather, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation? Had his nerves plastered him against the seat as a condemned prisoner stiffens before a firing squad, or as a thief flattens himself against a wall? Did he fear her—did he fear her? Or was he, rather, giddy with the richness of opportunity opening up before him?
It was inconceivable that she should have emerged on some kind of errand instead of sending Steve—but errand it surely was, for the other voice was not a man’s. Two pairs of hard-heeled footsteps scuffed along the crisp crust of silt which the rain had strewn invisibly over the white driveway. (He could just see where the driveway’s ghostly estuary flared out to meet the street among myriad islands of steel and glass.) In the steady sheen of Bohanon’s ever-loving floodlights far more than with the help of any streetlamp, Lockwood at last saw the frosted, high-stacked hair incongruously sponging its way beyond the blade-clean roofs of polished machines. Yes, he was afraid. To be so close so suddenly to someone you had detested so much for so long was fearful.
She was wearing red: the long-sleeved, low-hemmed red dress (with two small beach balls bulging above the steady swish of red-shadowed ruffles) was about all he could see as the pair began to cross the street. She would have chosen red for Christmas, or so she would say to the sycophants who complimented her (and probably to herself, as well); but she was also convinced, he well knew, that red set off her hair and complexion. She was decked out in regimental full dress to enlist the admiral among her admirers.
The woman on her far side—the shorter woman—would have been some aging superior. Lockwood vaguely recalled the wiry gray hair, but could not put a name to it. Candace would be playing up to her: even from this distance (and he could, as it turned out, hear nothing of the conversation), he could distinguish gestures in the direction of the daughterly—certain forced lilts in the whining voice, a certain droop of the large red-clad shoulders over the smaller ones as the two paused before a car. They extracted several items through the back door. Yes, of course… this dean or assistant director or whoever she was had issued to retrieve some sort of Christmas gift or presentation, and Candy Cane had hurled herself to the line’s head of those volunteering to be of service. Such a sweet young woman… so thoughtful, so helpful. So Christian.
Spellbound by the subtlety of the fawning (once it was clear that he himself would not be spotted), Lockwood watched to two proceed back across the wide street—for the car had been parked along the far curb—without a further thought to how he might exploit the occasion. Now they were back in the driveway, and he awoke from his torpor. What was the matter with him? He had missed his chance at… at something. At running her over. A silent laugh—a single airy thump in his relaxed chest—followed the image of a corpulent mass lying red in the street from something besides a garish dress. What kind of "plop" would she have made on the fender of his van? He thought of watermelons, and of water-filled balloons.
Then, miraculously, she was back in the street all alone. In the middle of the street—a slick, rain-soaked street, an asphalt strip with cars aligned along both curbs. A deadly street, where one might step out from between two cars carelessly on a Friday night and be struck hard, struck fatally, by a nameless vehicle passing along its oblivious way. The image of the corpse soaking up oily water from that street as it spilled its blood into the gutters was no longer a joke. He saw it happening before his eyes. The idiot was simply standing there now, right out in the open, fumbling with something on the roof of the old woman’s car. (They had left one of the extracted packages on the roof forgetfully—and he, too, had not even noticed it.) He could still hit the ignition and warp out of his space with quick acceleration: Sampson had vacated so much room for him that he wouldn’t have to back up. One motion for the key, one for the gear shift, one for the accelerator. She would never know what hit her. And he… he would thump her enough to send her ten yards down the road, then drive right over her. He would flick on the lights just before impact: he would get to see that flaccid, thickly made-up face which had mouthed so many lies to him and about him go stupidly slack just before his fender turned it to paste. Maybe he would carry away some of its brushed-on colors, some of its brains and teeth, on his windshield, where he could watch them all the way back home if the rain didn’t wash them off. He would enjoy that—he might never wash his windshield again. The evidence would be meaningless two states away. No one would ever know… just some local reveler, just some poor slob driving home late from work.…
And then she was gone. The sponge of doctored hair was not mounted on his fender like a war trophy: it was receding once more beyond the darkly-mirroring roofs of parked cars. He had come all this way, burned all this gas, to get just close enough to the bitch that he could imagine running her over. There was nothing more to all his threats, all his resolve, all the cold steel in his soul. His soul… it wasn’t dead. It was a poor, wormy thing, curled up for the winter in some cocoon of fantasy. He was another version of Steve the Milquetoast. Yes, and she had known that about him, probably all along. After all, she had Steve to compare him to. He was a soft touch, and easy mark. A ne’er-do-well, just as Kellie’s parents had long pegged him. Just as some people had said about his father. A man who couldn’t pull the trigger, who couldn’t thrust the sword home, even when his adversary lay vanquished under his foot—not even to save his two children, his wife, and his home. Who hadn’t even been able to compile a long list of students invited to partake of his hospitality (too absurd! too vulgar!), who hadn’t even been able to hit Thigpen with a subpoena or get a search warrant for the original minutes in his and Sampson’s files (too theatrical! too brutal!). He was a civilized man, and she had known it. She had played his "manners" like a drum, just as she had wielded his home like a bludgeon. And he had taken it all, and now he couldn’t even give back. Though his own girls, his two innocent daughters, had been made virtual paupers, virtual orphans… he couldn’t even counterpunch. He was as guilty of their murder for standing by while the murderess did her work, almost, as Candace had ever been in designing his family’s destruction.
And here he sat with a van full of mandatory jail time! The bomb he had transported to blow her to hell was ripe to explode at any moment—whenever a squad car might happen by—and he musing proudly, all the while, over his iron resolve! Expelled from heaven, and not even enough guts to sneak into hell….
The house, his family’s home—his dream home—had proved difficult to sell. As if the abject misery of having to sell it in the first place wasn’t enough (the sign in the yard every time he looked out the bay window, the toys boxed away so that possible buyers might not stumble), he had had to digest the further insult that no one thought the place worth having. In the three months that remained on his contract after he was informed of his termination, they garnered all of three visitors (and two no-shows). The realtor entertained no doubts about the problem: it was the library. The room, he said, was too cold, too pointless—and it was placed in a key position on the floor plan. He recommended taking most of the books off the shelves, for starters. People were intimidated by such evident devotion to so quiet and intense an activity, as if the room had been a private chapel or a small mausoleum. (Not Mr. Plunket’s precise words: he had said something like, "All this stuff makes people think they can’t have fun in here," and mustered a nervous laugh.) Further reflection by the professional salesman of dreams had stirred the idea that they convert the space to a den, make the den a dining room, transform the dining room into a living room, and declare the living room a fourth bedroom. Anything, apparently, would work except having a library. For this, the man would be paid at least a nickel on every dollar the house brought.
But it brought nothing, not even an offer, and Kellie had located (with her father’s zealous assistance) a fairly good job "back home", which she would start the month after his semester ended. Then they could get the girls settled in before the new school year started (their school year now, not his: the adjunct position would open up for him literally on the first day of classes). The house, then, lingered like a best friend on life support, beyond hope of recovery but seemingly beyond hope, too, of timely exit. They nudged the price downward, but to little avail. Mr. Plunket nagged him about the library (for he had completely ignored the fool’s advice), and he had responded with something that left Kellie the sole respondent to the agent’s phone calls for several weeks. Near the Final Exam period, a clean, plump young man had asked if he might see the house without making an appointment through the realtor—for he had to leave town the next morning, he said. Impressed with the tour, he had inquired eagerly about the price. His smooth brow had furrowed a bit at the answer: everything depended, he said, on whether he were offered the job at EU, and whether he could solicit a slight advance on his pay. "Do you know anything about Evangelus University? It’s a beautiful campus! What do people around here think of it?"
The man was interviewing for his own position, though at a much lower rank. He had quickly shut down: his responses were all vague and non-committal. That made three candidates that he knew of. The first and second he had glimpsed as they were escorted a) to the dining hall and b) through the computer lab by Candace in her full-dress finery. All males. It adhered to the pattern which he had seen established in earlier searches: Candace had always resisted the selection of any female as a finalist, particularly of ones younger than she. An odd sort of dedication to the sisterhood… but, of course, he now knew, too late, what clammy grottoes hid her heart’s treasure.
Despite her new job, Kellie had had to return for the closing when the house finally sold in the fall. His teaching labors had just begun; and, however meager the remuneration compared to hers, she could ask off at far less risk than he. Such, at least, were the obvious facts of the predicament as he saw them—but Kellie had not gone willingly, or quietly, and one of their biggest blow-ups had ensued. ("You can’t imagine that I really want to stay here alone at your parents’ house, can you?" he had erupted.) When Kellie had come back, check in hand, they had very little to say to each other. Weeks later, however, she had remarked on the oddity of the event. Mr. Plunket had led them to believe that the buyer had seen the house while they still occupied it and had remained keen from that moment… but when Kellie had innocently discussed with the couple the kitchen’s special features and the bonus room’s possible uses, neither had shown the slightest flicker of recognition, and both had squirmed and babbled. Their behavior convinced her that they had never so much as seen the house, and that they were fronting for another buyer waiting in the wings to pass them a check, in turn.
Kellie… she had always been perceptive, perhaps too perceptive by half. It did not help him to rest any easier, this cloud of suspicion over the house’s closing. He would have liked to picture another family like his own settling comfortably into the same warm spaces, arranging a Christmas tree before the same bay window. He would have liked to think that his abandoned dream might do for someone else. Now he had not even that airy image to cherish. "Fronting" for somebody? What did she mean, exactly, by "fronting"? A drug distribution ring? Federal agents relocating a Mafia informant? They proceeded to have another quarrel.
Lockwood was scarcely aware of when or how he had exited the luxurious demesnes of Buffalo Heights. He was overpowered now by a sense of shame and futility—a self-contempt which embraced not only his prankishly diverting a dubious "delivery" contracted twenty-four hours earlier between semi-intoxicated parties, but which reached back to his very flirtation with intoxicants—his evenings at the bar, his conversations with other women (women other than Kellie: nothing more than talk… but the words themselves were out-of-bounds), his failure to demand more of Kellie—to demand time with his children, to demand that they join him in another dreary apartment, to demand the chance at life whose suffocation he had "politely" permitted in the squamous fingers of beings like Sampson and Thigpen. Why had he even entertained the notion of driving "home" to his mother for Christmas and deserting his daughters—why had this trip seriously been planned, to begin with, before those bright bundles of Mandatory Jail Time had appeared in his stocking? What did his mother need with him? He wasn’t a child any more: he was a man with children. Mother was lonely, she complained about getting old… well, and perhaps she would have a sad death. But she had had her shot at life, in the meantime. So had he, for the most part. He had a few shots left still—but his personal happiness could no longer be the target. Nor his mother’s, either. The duty of the old was not to flee sadness, but to die for the young….
Within such musing lay the explanation, no doubt, of why he now found himself going "the wrong way"—the way he had come rather than north to his mother. He would cut the Interstate in another two or three miles, and he would retrace this afternoon’s journey. It would be advisable to jettison the packages somewhere, in the meantime.
But he also realized, rather suddenly, that he was now in the vicinity of the house. Their house. The sight of the rural subdivision from this unfamiliar angle and in a pitch-dark overcast (for he had only passed Bohanon’s mansion on random jaunts with his family, as one might discover a little-known museum: they had never gone straight from A to B) was not fully unexpected, but not consciously expected, either. It had the surprise of a piece of background music you hear in a crowd which shifts into its next movement—a melody you instantly recall as the most beautiful you have ever heard, but which you had not associated with the overture. He had been driving here in the back of his mind, perhaps, for the past fifteen minutes, homing like an old dog. Perhaps, indeed, he had been bending his turns back toward the southwest less to return to his girls than to find his house. His home. Their home, the one home he had ever been able to give his girls. For to revisit those bricks and shingles would be to see his girls again.
Taking the less familiar entrance—the "back entrance" (he had ridden bikes with Kastia this far: it was the edge of her universe without car-propulsion)—Lockwood cruised up a gentle hill where he had once known blissful happiness, and where he had later known an indescribably gentle sadness. Things looked alien in the dark, of course—but more had changed the landscape than sunset. Christmas lights were fairly abundant here (including some gaudily colored ones wrapped about columns in awkward, uneven loops). More than that, though… the neighborhood, oddly, seemed to have swollen rather than shrunk in the damp shadows. The trees, even without their leaves, had the advantage of more than half a year’s growth since he had last seen them (a significant advantage, for most were very young). Empty lots on corners and where mild gullies had once cut blocks midway through had been smoothed or filled in and built on. The Wallaces had constructed a shelter for their boat. The Cantrells had a new stockade fence around their back yard. The old people with the rose bushes had put their house on the market. Life had stood still for very few.
His heart was already throbbing long before he could see the roofline of his house down the street after the turn on MacKenzie. In fact, he knew that he had decelerated and indulged his conscious mind in this bland philosophizing so as to master something like a terror in his breast—like a long-deprived love nearing a reunion, half-fainting to be there, half-fainting to be elsewhere. He didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want to knock on the door and ask for a peek. He shouldn’t even have come… but now he could hardly keep his eyes on the road.
Then he understood the terror—understood what of the terrible could lie hidden in a reunion. His beautiful house, his home, his dream of the rest of his life… and he wanted to hug it, yes. But something was also very out-of-place, or had somehow been mutilated. Like a brother who returns safe from war, but trailing an empty sleeve… where, then, was the house’s amputation? The bay window was right where it should have been—not very visible, a darker shadow in the brick, the whole wing evading a streetlamp’s shimmer under a broad eave, and certainly illumined by nothing like a Christmas tree or strings of bright bulbs. Why, then, did he keep staring at the window? Because he saw it too well—because the Japanese maple had been hewn down. That rare, exquisite tree… and costly in brute dollars, as well. What fool….
A band of light cut a swathe across his windshield. His mouth, which had opened as if to pose a question to the bowed window across the street, shut abruptly. Realizing that he had parked (he couldn’t recall even switching off the engine), Lockwood shot embarrassed glances at the curbside to ascertain that he hadn’t blocked off the middle of the street. Only then did he look back up, secure that he had not impeded the neighborhood’s rightful flow of life. His mouth fell open yet again, all embarrassment gone.
A blue Lincoln… the blue Lincoln. It couldn’t possibly be turning up the slope: that was his driveway, his half-buried garage beneath the bonus room. Yet he heard the great door’s wheels purring with state-of-the-art efficiency, and he saw a light halo the upper driveway mechanically as the embankment swallowed the blue chassis—a shade of navy blue which he had studied half an hour ago in Buffalo Heights, had sought vainly an hour ago in an empty garage (where something had also been very wrong).
He felt nothing for a while: he soon felt himself feeling nothing. In this moral chaos, this moral void, into which he had been introduced, the only sight to be seen was his searching beacon. There was no implication following any observation, for there was no observation. Had he not parked—yes, maybe an hour ago—in this exact relation to the other house, the aging house downtown with old plumbing and a faulty garage door? Had some of that lethal stardust in the back seat worked its way into the air he breathed—was he insanely imposing that moment on this one?
But the garage, after all—the other garage—had been empty. Empty of every trace of habitation. And the Japanese maple had been taken from his window—his library window—by someone who… who would do such a thing.
Answering his thoughts in an incredible readiness which, over the past minute, had graduated to the level of absolute necessity, a light flicked on in the bay window. Lockwood literally had the impression (the first vague feeling to penetrate his trance) that he had willed the light to come on. A kind of Houdini, a self-torturing magician, he then brought to center stage—to the bay window’s bright center, no longer obstructed by a single twig of the Japanese maple—the person he loathed most on earth. He had just killed her in Buffalo Heights—had transferred her teeth to his windshield and rolled his tires over her flabby ribs. Was this, too, a fantasy? Was something perverse in him willing her to stand before the illuminated bay and pull a huge trophy cup or small china urn from a box? But if his darker genius were orchestrating the mime, why was he puzzled by the object’s precise nature?
She fondled it in her outstretched arms—arms outstretched toward the light source and away from him, her back squarely turned to the window. Then, her red-sleeved forearms still thrust mostly out of view as if bearing a crown (or maybe the Holy Grail), she advanced in regal procession toward… toward the built-in bookshelves. His bookshelves. At the relatively short central shelf, where an upper clearance of over two feet had been preserved for oversized books (he had once deposited his art books there—Rembrandt, El Greco, Manet), she paused meaningfully. The position bisected the bay window, if one were to stand directly before the central panes… and, just then for the first time, Lockwood realized that he had left the van, and that his shoes were nestling in moist, cold grass.
His astonishment caused him to reel. He stepped in a slight declivity, which his toe identified as a hole. The hole where the Japanese maple had been. Yet his eyes not only never abandoned the scene in the library—in his library—but refused to blink. He watched her buttocks swell under the red ruffles as she stooped to the hardwood floor, gingerly settled her urn (white china, after all), straightened, and rather brusquely drew a tall, slender trophy from the oversized-book shelf. The bronze figure on dark wooden mounting traded places with the urn, which now ascended in another flow and ebb of red ruffles.. The bronze figure… it was an odd idol, wielding something like a saber far over its head. A golfer. One of Steve’s trophies… or perhaps—very probably—Steve’s Trophy. The Trophy of Steve—one of its kind. And now there were none.
Now (as he could see plainly, for he was a mere six feet from the window’s glass—the glass where Katrina had once blown up a frost, right there on the other side, and sketched reindeer) the entire spread of the central shelves and cases was given over to various awards and gifts highlighting a brilliant career of stabbing backs at an inferior college. Of books there were few… they had been elbowed to either end of the room, though not in any evident effort to compact them. On the contrary, some lay angled against others as if to consume more space, to fill out a shelf artificially. The day when space would have to be arbitrated between books and trophies did not appear imminent.
Steve was in the room now. Lockwood noticed him as a deaf man might have noticed the postman already walking away from the mailbox (for the casements were sealed tight: this house—his house—had been very well made). The Milquetoast seemed shorter, perhaps plumper. Or maybe just more bent about the shoulders. Older. In eight months, the man had aged. He balanced over his precious trophy on the floor as if fearing that he might fall on it, his arms flapping, a hand extending finally with the index raised. Lockwood imagined that he had heard the word "one"… but the finger might also have been warning, and perhaps the word was "won". One win, perhaps. A whole life, and… no wins, one win. Move over.
When Steve left, his trophy left with him. Lockwood no longer had the sense that he was pulling the strings of these marionettes, or even that he was viewing a carefully planned pantomime. He was, rather, the least significant object in the world. He was out in the cold, not even a fly on a warm wall. Events within the library, no longer a library at all (let alone his library) were the mainstream universe going about its predestined business of entropy, of slow death after vast degeneration. Gone, the books. Gone, the children. Gone, the Christmas tree… and the Japanese maple, on whose unmarked grave he stood.
He was genuinely surprised, with his mind vanquished by this peace of utter numbness, that his hands—his fists—had advanced to the window, whose cold surface they now felt. He was surprised to discover that his body was about to kill her. He would break the china urn over her head first. Then he would pick up trophies and knick-knacks, one by one, and pound her skull with them until her brains ran out on the hardwood floor, staining the white pine forever. He was not being inveigled by some grand illusion this time: had he been physically within the room, he would have killed her. Killed her enough for several deaths, several counts of murder. For the murder was not in his mind this time, but in his fists.
The most curious thing was that his homicidal hands would not break the glass. He felt that they could have: they felt that they could have, and he felt them feeling their power beyond the reach of mere pain. But they would not attack the place where Katrina had drawn reindeer. Somewhere underneath the film along the sashes which had escaped all dust rags (all hired maids’ dust rags), there would be a particle of Katrina’s fingerprint or a knick where she had chewed a sash.
He delivered his Christmas presents to a house rising at the subdivision’s very brink—an unlit place where he and Kastia had never gone bike-riding, because it had been mere field. The slab was poured and dry (except for the rain puddling on it—for the drizzle had resumed with a vengeance), and the outer and inner walls had all been framed out in two-by-sixes. Once his pupils had swollen to receive the darkness, he could see where the doors would be, the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the closets. He found the den, and a pad where the chimney would rest. Here the stockings of the children would hang, and the Christmas tree would be lodged painstakingly before the large window to the left.
He stacked all the packages with geometrical care before the future hearth, building a kind of pyramid. On the top, he placed the panda, its head hanging heavily to conceal the great gash along its throat. Then he stood back and watched for several minutes—an hour—a lifetime—until he thought he could discern a pale tint in the rivulets trickling from the ruined wrappers. His eyes had to blink through the streams running from his hair, as it seemed. Only when he found himself struggling simply to breathe did he waken to the living agony within him.