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P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
5.4 Fall 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 Center’s immediate focus is on publishing, publicizing, and distributing books, pamphlets, and other printed material which furthers the revival of the Western tradition and, specifically, of tasteful literary art and morally responsible analysis. In keeping with its broad purpose, the Center is especially dedicated to representing an intellectually rich faith in the God of goodness and mercy to the academic community, and, equally and concurrently, exposing the community of believers to imaginative, challenging works of art. Our commitment to subtle artistic works of high caliber and substantial content is as firm as our commitment to well-reasoned apologetics and polemics: we seek to serve the cause of truth, not to propagandize." The Center for Literate Values, Objectives, sec. 2
The previous issue of Praesidium (Summer 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 (2005), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
This edition is both relatively short and small in number of offerings—but its quality is as high as ever.
The Post-Literate Student and the Anti-Literate Academy:
A Bad Match at a Crucial Moment
John R. Harris
The very institutions entrusted with kindling in our children a love of literature may be most responsible for smothering the spark. Yet a few changes, though improbable in the current environment, could transform a distressing situation.
A Dark Turn in the Pop-Culture: "Bleak Future" and Occult-Horror Subgenres in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming
Dark Futures in Gaming: Some Further Explorations
Mr. Wegierski’s exhaustive review of "dark fantasy" board games—of which Dungeons and Dragons is surely the most benign—may offer more than you ever wanted to know about such leisurely pursuits; yet we can no more afford to be unaware of the phenomenon’s multiplicity than of its demoralizing effects.
The student-centered classroom of contemporary education would not have made much sense to the truth-centered masters of ancient philosophy.
Michael H. Lythgoe
Mr. Lythgoe’s poetry often helps us to recover a sense of reality in nature—but it does not turn away post-modernity’s long shadow.
Baseball season may be over—but small-town secrets are always in blossom, and the child’s initiation to adult hypocrisy occurs every day.
A Few Words from the Editor
At the end of September, I prepared a bundle for the Internal Revenue Service which included two issues of Praesidium, about twenty pages of completed forms, another dozen pages of supporting documentation, and a check for $150. I have lately received a standardized letter confirming that The Center’s application for 501(c)(3) status has successfully entered the first winding corridor of "the works". Now I am in the initial stages of a long, long wait. I occasionally recall with some anxiety certain forms which might have been filled out more knowledgeably by a professional accountant… but I have also been reassured that simple candor is the best policy in such endeavors. If the IRS sleuths recognize me for the fumbling ingénue that I am, they are less likely to suspect me of trying to sneak by something illicit under their noses—unless, of course, they reason that no one could possibly be so naïve.
A federal tax exemption would allow those who donate money to The Center to claim it as charitable giving. Our operating budget, I presume, would grow rather healthier as a result. One of the strategies we really must adopt, I am convinced, in order to survive is to pay out some kind of remuneration to contributors, since material is beginning to become alarmingly rare (but not, by some miracle, alarmingly inferior, or even approximately mediocre). I understand that any shift so sordid as offering actual cash to authors might undermine the journal’s academic integrity in the eyes of those elite few who live far above such coarseness (and for whom a publication in College English and another in PMLA merely means a permanent raise in salary or, perhaps, an award of tenure). In a less ivory kind of reality, however, we writers must make trade-offs: prepare an essay for Praesidium or read a conference paper before the yearly review with the Dean, keep Praesidium alive with a poem or place the same piece in a journal more "respected" by one’s peers, and so forth. A small check might nudge some of these painful deliberations in our direction. Even yours truly would be very, very happy to take a couple of hundred dollars a year to the bank in return for the hundreds of hours I sacrifice to composing my essays each year. (I dream of sitting in a barber’s chair one more time before I die: I’ve had to cut my own hair for the last decade, thanks largely to the struggle represented by The Center.) Those contributors who belong to our board, I hasten to add, were specially mentioned in my stack of forms as deserving of some small financial encouragement, since they presently receive none whatever. (I also stressed to the IRS that we would adopt a policy limiting the yearly amount paid out to such parties lest any significant conflict of interest arise in the selection process.)
What I most zealously desire to do under the aegis of a tax exemption, though, is to secure enough money from a charitable foundation to publish collections of Praesidium’s essays on certain subjects—pedagogy, cultural decline, disturbing trends in popular culture, etc.—as hardbound books, to be donated to specified educational institutions and also, maybe, to be sold (at no profit to individuals) to the public. We already have an immense wealth of matter from which to choose in our many years of archives. Inclusion in such an anthology, I may note, would give those of you who are academics further reason to write for us: the P&T Committee could not fail to be impressed by your appearance in a handsome volume of profound ideas.
Well… on verra. The Fall issue now in your hands contains a long essay by me, a still longer essay (or sequence of essays) by Mark Wegierski, several short poems by Michael Lythgoe, and a long short story by J.S. Moseby. This quarter’s theme, apparently, is determined and sustained resistance to theme. I typically like to hedge my bets against possible reader indifference to certain subjects by offering at least half a dozen pieces per issue. It didn’t happen this time. Nevertheless, I am confident that most of this issue’s contents will either inform or entertain, if not both. I myself knew nothing, for instance, of the rather sinister board games which Mr. Wegierski explores in great detail—but as a father, a teacher, and a student of our ailing culture, I was heartily glad to find out about them.
The Winter and Spring issues of 2006 will almost certainly, once again, be a Winter/Spring issue. I have already received the promise of several items (and, in one case, the item itself) for an expanded issue which will more than compensate for this quarter’s slightly thinner-than-usual product. We are not in danger of drying up and blowing away, rest assured. We may, indeed, at long last be on the verge of leafing out and blossoming as never before.
The Post-Literate Student and the Anti-Literate Academy: A Bad Match at a Crucial Moment
John R. Harris
The Problem of "Post-Literate Reading"
Few experiences can be more vexing to the devoted reader than the discovery of a text too dense with rare vocabulary to be understood. I remember fighting my way through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in my twenties as incipient panic gnawed at me. I felt so close to my goal—yet it slipped away with every page, every sentence. I was convinced that the ideas which loomed in Kant’s haze—scarcely resolved, alas, by Norman Kemp Smith’s translation—were the oasis after which my parched soul had long sought (for I came of age in the seventies, when honest truth had lately vanished behind hand-holding, flower-lacing, and guitar-strumming). Perhaps I understood about half of what I read, at last. A little knowledge is no doubt a dangerous thing, as the fundamental perversions of Kant by modern philosophers have proved; but in my case, I miraculously navigated past mirages to a self-transcending appreciation of moral duty. I was beatifically lucky in my Kantian struggle.
But that, of course, was philosophy—old school philosophy, rationalist, aimed at universal comprehension even when it was most ruthlessly terminological. By deep and sustained introspection, one can divine the intent of a writer like Kant as one observes oneself wrestling with questions of reality and duty: for any human mind, at the bare-bones level of rationalist critique, is the human mind. What about a novel? Not too long ago in this journal’s pages, I ruminated upon a highly innovative Irish novel by Díarmuid Ó Súilleabháin titled Aistear (see Praesidium 4.1, 37-49). The plot, such as it is, traces a number of characters beyond their death to a land of eternal light. After more than a dozen plane crashes, car wrecks, and other exits, we end up at the Crucifixion and Saint Peter’s denial. A young man with little formal schooling in Irish Gaelic may be forgiven, surely, for finding such elusive strands of action impossible to keep within his grasp. My first attempt at the novel was a failure: only after many years could I address it with more success. A story, you see, is all about particulars, not generalities (let alone universals)—and I was defeated by so many particular incidents communicated in so many peculiar words. My vocabulary was not up to the task..
Those who do not read beyond their mother tongue and who graduated from high school more than two or three decades ago may consider this discussion rather remote from the realm of ordinary experience… but think again. I put it to you that today’s college student is typically in this alarming situation whenever he or she is required to read a work of literature written in the English of a period dating before, say, the twentieth century. Henry James’s vocabulary and syntax are probably impenetrable to most undergraduates, and Joseph Conrad’s as opaque as a Channel fog. Shakespeare’s plays might as well have been written in French—or in Swahili. H.G. Wells may prove accessible, and F. Scott Fitzgerald will raise few obstacles; but somewhere not very many generations of authors ago, the instructor finds that his class hits a wall of comprehension-resistant granite.
There is my Point One: that students in institutions of higher education are incapable of reading many of their tradition’s classics today because they cannot understand them at the ground-floor level of verbal units. Another chasm opens once this one has been bridged—and again, I can illustrate it from my own experience with literature in other languages. I have lately attempted a reading of El Diablo Cojuelo by Luis Vélez de Guevara. This odd little novel, which ran through three printings in the lively Madrid of 1641, faintly reminded me of Rabelais and Cyrano de Bergerac, past masters of the outlandish and the grotesque. Its pedigree was apparently much more specific, however—and its allusions to contemporary Spanish literature and history far too specific for me to identify. I readily grasped that the central character had freed a companionable little demon on crutches from an astrologer’s bottle, and that the diablillo then gratefully escorted the young man of the world throughout Spain as if on a magic carpet to perceive—both panoramically and under the magnifying glass—the progress of modern decadence. I admired the literary device’s novelty, the author’s courage in undertaking so delicate an assault, and the genius of using humor to disarm potential persecution. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are certainly not devoid of further examples apprising us of the intimate connection between wit and acerbic social commentary, Swift being but the most obvious.
The most obvious to me, at any rate, and probably to other English-speaking literati… but I soon grew painfully aware that Vélez’s world was not that of Rabelais, let alone Swift. So many of his allusions raced over my head that I was forever spinning about in the airborne pair’s carnival-nightmare wake—not accompanying them, but hopelessly chasing their ever-more-distant figures. I gave up about halfway through, though the novel is quite short. Diction and syntax were far from helpful: Vélez’s sentences seem interminable, and his words, besides being archaic, frequently pertain to long-extinct curiosities of dress, deportment, and architecture. Yet in dress, deportment, and architecture we find the influence of something beyond a complex vocabulary. First and foremost, it was the author’s culture which I failed to penetrate. I know too little about the frightening plummet of Andulasia’s fortunes in the seventeenth century—nothing more, really, than what I have picked up from Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes—to appreciate the innuendo of a book like this. I am a prisoner of my ignorance, and I honestly haven’t the time to limp from my bottle on the crutches of a dozen history books: El Diablo Cojuelo is not that important to me for the moment.
Again, I suggest that our undergraduate students occupy much the same situation. Even a world as historically and culturally proximate to theirs as Victorian England projects fashions and manners sure to strike them as positively arcane. Why all the fuss over courtship in Henry James? In an age of condoms and hook-ups, our robust, well-tanned sophomores in their gym shorts and flip-flops cannot begin to grasp the nuance behind a seating arrangement or an "improper" glance. Their mores are as neatly severed from the Western world’s of a century ago as my generation’s were from the Middle Ages. They no longer disapprove of hypocritical stuffiness, as we did: they cannot so much as conceive of it. To disdain the salad fork as you move along to your garden greens is one thing: to wonder at a mysterious article called a fork—its appearance distinctly warlike, yet its function said to belong to the feasting hall—is quite another.
Before assigning most of our literary classics to these winsome barbarians, we should have to teach them vastly more cultural history than they presently know. To do less would be a) to foment their loathing of literature (for they have no more time to spend on Shakespeare than I do on Vélez), or b) to suborn the brutal misreadings of literature—the "relevant" or "updated" readings—which have come to be the special province of upper-division English classes. You might as well confront a lifelong denizen of the Sahara with a Constable landscape or a Turner seascape: unless he is first primed with a crash-course on geography and the temperate zone’s flora, the canvas is a mere Rorschach test.
I mentioned the mores surrounding courtship just above. Impinging upon this matter are the morals surrounding sexual conduct—and that raises a third point. Assuming that contemporary students might be equipped to handle the articulate diction and intricate syntax of yesteryear’s author and that relevant customs and conditions could be illuminated beforehand, we should still be faced with a yawning gap in moral values between our forefathers and our children. This can prove highly consequential in literary narrative. Morality is the science of what people ought to do. Its principles are profoundly affected by assumptions about basic human nature. (For instance, if a moral system maintains the value of self-sacrifice, it will be ramified quite differently by those who think us all naturally disposed to serve our neighbor and by those who think us all naturally selfish.) Narratives display characters acting in accord with a certain view of human nature, and also in accord with their individual nature (which may vary delightfully or horribly from the norm). The events of a really good narrative—and here I grow tendentious, but I will assert that aesthetically "good" stories capture us in coils of complexity—thread the external action inextricably through the hidden devices and desires of its participants. A gripping plot which keeps us turning pages demands that we be projecting possible actions, based upon what we understand of the characters’ motives and personalities, into the near future; and the magnetism thus drawing us into the characters depends, in turn, upon our sharing some or most of the author’s assumptions about human nature. A story which ascribes motives to its participants which we find wholly incredible—too noble, too vile, or too ridiculous—is not "real". This is how we usually register our dismay: as an appeal to hard reality. Yet the truth is that a moral chasm has opened between us and the author, whose unhappy presence, in terms of the story purely as an art work, becomes a disastrous aesthetic flaw.
My purposes would be little advanced here if I were to ramble off a string of authors whose moral universe I consider "unreal" to the point of tastelessness. I may mention Michel Tournier in passing. I was forced to expose myself to his novels quite hastily in refereeing an article once upon a time, and I recall being appalled by the deliberate (surely deliberate) triviality of every motive. A Robinson Crusoe-like character growing obsessed with some sort of water-clock, a forgotten apostle arriving moments too late for the Last Supper and being enraptured by the food’s taste and scent… no parody or allegory lay in sight whenever Tournier would devote pages to these irrelevancies whose connection to identified events could have struck only a lunatic as substantial. All of us who have taught literature for a living, I would wager, know this quality as a distinguishing one of postmodern fiction: the parody of mere story-telling, it might be called. When the author reaches a point where a character’s motives are conventionally explored, absurdly inept excursions take place, instead. The result is supposed to be insightful or witty or both. To me it is none of the above.
By way of a more bona fide example, I might cite a response to a novel of my own creation. A love affair was at issue. One of my best-educated contacts cried foul that the narrator should have become so enthralled to so pedestrian a young woman. I harkened to Manon Lescaut in rebuttal—but I was already sweating cascades of self-doubt. Had I been wrong, after all? Do men not really fall in love sometimes with a woman’s mystique rather than with the woman herself—with what they do not know of her, that is, or perhaps with her very flaws when they put her in need of a protector? Is a certain kind of man (and far from the worst) not attracted to vulnerable women because their defense renders him lovable? I could hardly have expected anyone to wade through the book if this basic assertion about human nature were untenable. Eventually I calmed down: I came to realize that my correspondent was deriding, not the plausibility of a young man’s vaulting into a scenario where he could play The White Knight, but the fact that young men sometimes do such things. This urbane reader was, in other words, confusing my story with my recommendations for the Good Life. It was his reading which was tasteless: he assumed that I was preaching, and then accused me of preaching badly.
I suggest that this incident and the deliberate tastelessness of novelists like Tournier are related. Our ailing culture has arrived at a point where even its most erudite—especially they, it often seems to me—have lost all respect for (or perhaps all awareness of) morality’s narrative aspect. They do not recognize that the moral universe’s atom is the chosen act: crisis, perception of crisis, decision to respond and accept consequences. Motive is not an outdated literary convention: it is the necessary elucidation of a character’s act, and hence determines the moral stature of that act. To deny motive—to refuse its communication to the reader or, worse, trivialize its value by communicating an irrelevant motive—is to claim that nothing humanly happens, that an elopement and an abortion and a massacre are simply so many trees falling noiselessly in a forest where seasons grind away absurdly. On the other hand, to insist that all characters’ motives should be mine or yours—should conform to the list of politically correct motives which our clique has compiled—is to confer upon the fallen trees a logger’s utilitarian significance, but not, still, to hear the shock waves which they send through the community. Great stories are seldom moral exempla. They are, rather, maps of worthy ambition and disastrous error which the moralist may profitably untangle later, but whose aesthetic dénouement requires reaching a specific terrestrial destination. Indeed, the fervent ideologue denies morality as much as his frivolous postmodern brother (or alter ego) when he moralistically condemns a tale for not broadcasting the right message at the right volume. For the aesthetic purpose of morality in narrative, I repeat, is to refine, to deepen, and to interweave—yet this is precisely the vector followed by a truly moral intelligence.
Our poor students! If we, their teachers, have so far relinquished any common ground on matters of the human heart that we dare not even speak formally of "human nature", what hope have they of finding the riches within their tradition’s great plays and novels? The good news is that human nature, being fixed for all human time, may be studied by anyone in any circumstances, whatever academic trend may rule about its reality. Frankly, I should suspect that working in a hospital or rearing a family or running a small business might be rather more instructive in the complexities of the human heart than taking a psychology course. I have known students from the blandest of backgrounds to bring to their reading of an ancient epic or a Shakespearean tragedy an understanding of human egotism and human fallibility far in excess of what their highly decorated professors possess. For such students, endowed with the advantages of "street smarts" and life’s hard knocks, our decrepit culture’s neglect of any coherent moral instruction is the very least of what keeps them from entering a century-old classic. That such a thing as human nature does exist is proved by the ease with which they grasp Sir Gawain and Ariosto once the encrustation of cultural difference has been rubbed away.
Yet these students are, one must admit, exceptional. They are usually older than the typical undergraduate, and have usually employed their additional years in getting to know life rather than in fleeing it (like the "professional student" who abounds at large universities). In the others, we do indeed encounter a problem: and it is less one of sheer raw ignorance, I believe (as when the barbarian is introduced to the fork), than of false indoctrination. These younger, more naïve students are convinced that they are wizened veterans on the subject of human behavior—and the source of their illusion is electronic entertainment. By the time they enter college, they have voyeuristically observed so many seductions, passionate embraces, robberies, forgeries, conspiracies, rapes, murders, suicides, coups d’états, and high crimes and misdemeanors that they fancy they have little to learn from anyone—or from all of us put together—about "what really goes on". They are jaundiced and cocky… and immensely ill-informed. Their "taste" in narrative reveals as much. They are quite content to play out stereotypical roles in video games, or at worst (when they must be cheated of their "interactive experience") to read some formulaic pamphlet claiming to be a novel which features their favorite game’s or show’s characters waging yet another war with the evil vampire-android sexpots from between the wrinkle in the time warp. To reclaim a mind littered with such unmoored detritus for the classical novel’s human world of soul-searching and critical action is to clean out the Augean Stables ten times. The semester’s calendar hasn’t enough hours for the undertaking.
And the brainwashing—or brain-soiling—starts early. I am incessantly appalled at the kind of children’s fiction which has been put before my own young son by "professionals", often graced with a Caldicott or Newberry Award. From the tenderest age, apparently, our children are to grow comfortable with the notion that magic can waft them from one setting to another, that Never Never Lands can be approached through secret doors, that avuncular old men (invariably of non-European origin) can fish a deus ex machine out of an antique shop’s attic… and so on, and so on. A little of this goes a long way. I’m all for creativity—but a child nearing adolescence is surely ready to be weaned from scripts where he or she is alternately the only spectator of a miraculous pageant and the pageant’s center-staged wand-waving hero. When do we expect our children to begin to understand that reality is created by the consequences of acts, and that acts can be so meditated as to have happier rather than sadder results?
The tail is wagging the dog: our passive-observer fantasies before electronic screens have now infected even what literature continues to sell profitably among us. Minds thus conditioned simply cannot grasp the stakes in Austen or Tolstoy or Conrad. They are insufferably bored. Where is the pageant? Why do the characters talk so much, think so much? Why doesn’t anything happen (in the unmotivated sense of a spontaneous external cataclysm)? I am not particularly disturbed to hear such questions in a ten-year-old boy. When a college freshman rebels in the same terms, however, we know we have inaugurated an age of post-literacy.
Academe’s Ruinous Response to the Problem
In my experience, the academy’s response to the crisis of post-literacy has been a catastrophic failure. I should say, more correctly, that I have observed no response. In a supreme irony whose humor appears, perhaps, only to those of us who understand "human nature", the products of radical, anti-canonical graduate programs developed in the sixties and seventies have turned out as hermetic and elitist as the "boring" Old Guard—far more so, it seems to me. English departments are driven overwhelmingly by the career ambitions of those who staff them (for the lasting legacy of feminism to the profession was that career comes first, and even non-feminists—males and diehard traditionalists—have followed suit to protect their livelihood). How do you ensure a successful career as a professor of literature? You embrace a shift of emphasis to publication rather than teaching, and you endorse a trendy theory of scholarship which renders last year’s articles immediately "old hat" and rewards mastery of jargon over objective knowledge of content. So engrossed are most mainstream English departments in this dog fight that they have had little energy left over to resist the creeping illiteracy of those under their tutelage, even when they have had the collective astuteness to notice it. Many professors, indeed, choose to exploit the problem so as—once again—to advance their career. When administrations hand down a mandate to attend more to the classroom, such teachers court their students’ favor by showing videos endlessly and assigning everything from comic books to pornography—everything except literature, in short. The student evaluations come back, students declare that they have "had fun", administrators breathe a sigh of relief concerning retention, and the professor garners a teaching award to go with his or her two new five-page publications. The good times roll.
But let me start from the beginning: freshman composition. It is no secret how the system works—journalists with no academic connection whatever have written about it. The typical freshman reader (i.e., the anthology of essays to which the student responds somehow in writing) is replete with hot-button issues: cloning, gay marriage, racism, oppression of women (but usually not abortion or, for that matter, anything related to religion: the hot button mustn’t set the house on fire). The professor is largely handcuffed at textbook-selection time, to be fair. Such anthologies are the only thing out there between an affordable two covers. The publishing industry, which salivates over possibilities for big sales, grinds out these tomes in response to academe’s most vocal, most avant-garde cohort, the coterie of iconoclasts from the nation’s Ivy League schools. You must understand about the teaching profession (for the same is true even of primary and secondary education) that the vast majority of teachers, though themselves rather tame parents and taxpaying homeowners of the middle class, raise not a peep about the hijacking of their instructional materials and philosophy by a phalanx of zealots. They fear being blackballed by the most influential, and also being identified with anti-intellectual extremists at the spectrum’s other end. Besides, they have children to rear, taxes to pay, and papers to grade. Resistance consumes more hours than the day is long.
So freshmen read the same essays, year after year—sometimes different essays, but always the same kind of essay. If lucky, they are assigned George Orwell’s "Shooting an Elephant", which appears in every reader I have ever seen (and is generally the literary highlight of a thousand pages). They are likely to read the late Stephen Jay Gould, as well—an entertaining writer with a brilliant scientific mind, but always toted onto the scene to blast away at some unnamed, implicit mainstay of Christian fundamentalism (the Creation, the benign universe… the religious implications, I repeat, are coy of necessity: the individual professor may season them to taste). I am happy to report that the quality of writing by African-American contributors has ascended over the decades. We are more likely to see Frederick Douglass and Dr. King now than Angela Davis—and even Shelby Steele and Brent Staples are sometimes included. On the other hand, gay apologetics proliferate, and they seem to me to grow more plangent and insipid (e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s "What Is a Homosexual?"—which stunningly succeeds at evading the title’s question). The worst writing, for sheer logical discatenation and resort to sterile sarcasm where proof is required, however, must surely flow from the pens of the last generation’s feminists. Amy Cunningham’s "Why Women Smile" and Betty Rollin’s "Motherhood: Who Needs It?" cull out a few facts disingenuously and impose arbitrary interpretations upon them, often by backing into inappropriate analogies. Their greatest use is in demonstrating to students how not to write.
I have composed this list with The Norton Reader open before me—but the overlap to be observed in the contents of other readers must hover in the neighborhood of 75%. If anything, the NR is more reserved than most. Unless one has entirely lost touch with the realities of Main Street, one will grasp at once that the typical eighteen-year-old will be out-of-step, faintly or completely, with almost every position staked out rather visibly in these collections. I do not say that the positions are uniformly wrong, or even radical. I disagree personally with many of them—but what disturbs me is the very evident effort to indoctrinate, not the specific ideology. All but the dullest freshmen perceive this attempt. The young women tend to tolerate it, and even (apparently) to yield to it somewhat. The young men, however, tend to turn hostile, and to remain that way throughout the semester. They build up a resentment (and in their group, by the way, I would also count women reared in fundamentalist households) which extends to the entire department and continues vaguely toward all the liberal arts. They focus more fixedly than ever on their business or nursing degree. They make up their young minds that they will never read any damn short story, book of essays, or novel for as long as they live if they can just survive their college experience. I suspect that they are proud, in a way, of their bad grammar and inarticulate paragraphs. Every solecism is a sly thumb in the eye of "the liberal elite" (a phrase whose adjective does not change meanings for them when found in "the liberal arts"). All those gays and feminists and atheists—literature is something that belongs to them. To hell with it.
At this rate, the forces of post-literacy, initially unforeseen consequences of too much mind-numbing entertainment and too much instant, unmeditated communication, acquire a kind of rationale. To be post-literate—to avoid literature and disdain elegant writing, to be impatient with questions and mistrustful of skepticism—is to be a solid citizen, a pillar of faith and community. Freshman composition, in my view, nourishes the kind of incipient fascism which it grandly aspires to stamp out.
On to the sophomore literary survey! The Norton-style anthology for these courses (St. Martin’s also publishes one: there must be a few others) has undergone changes over the past twenty years which parallel those in freshman readers. World Literature has truly reached around the globe, even though much of the planet’s surface did not produce literature (in any independent and aesthetic sense) until "colonized" by Western alphabetic writing and printing. Aztec mythology indexed entirely to natural cycle and naturalistic gods (i.e., without character development or representation of fine sentiment) occupies the same block of pages as Milton, for no better reason than that Westerners "discovered" these oral traditions in the seventeenth century. The poetry of the T’ang Dynasty, with its charming individualism and haunting tendency to withdraw, falls a few dozen pages before Grendel comes rasping from Beowulf’s marshes. The intent, of course, is to be "fair"—to give other cultures something like equal time with the West, and to insist that time itself has not always found the West leading the race to sophistication. To be sure, certain themes are also favored over others, the freshman reader once more anticipating the relevant criteria. Any text which seems to reflect upon or nudge forward an example of The Independent Woman is sure to get the Norton nod, as is any work of iconoclasm (an absurd criterion in an endeavor aimed at the typical, were we to accept that aim’s good faith). The Norton’s portrayal of Gargantua is eager to recite the Abbey of Desire’s precepts in a sententious, out-of-context detail which renders them tedious (and reminds me of the "rebellious" sixties’ intellectual tedium). The uproarious mock-epic exploits of Brother John, the cleric awarded with the monastery, find no place. The Lesbian taint of Bradamante’s adventure with Fiordispina in Orlando Furioso, truly insignificant in this sprawling, wry romance, proves irresistible to the same editors, yet they cannot be bothered to reproduce Canto 1, with all its clues to interpretation. (Furthermore, neither Bradamante nor Fiordispina really is a Lesbian at all—not remotely: hence the situation’s naughty humor, wasted on our scholar-editors!)
Political correctness notwithstanding, a sense of indoctrination could not hang heavily over such a survey course, it seems to me, unless the instructor were an irrepressible crusader. The dominant impression for most students, rather, is one of confusion. You might as well take a world tour without ever leaving your aircraft. Ten minutes in ancient Athens, five in seventh-century Medina, six in eighth-century Saxony… and then on to China, Japan, the New World… back to France and Spain… the survey turns into a roller-coaster. No anthology I have ever reviewed attempts to introduce a marginal coherence upon the chaos by providing an oral/literate dynamic in the background and referring to it each new culture and era. After all, that might well be said to smack of universalism: for if all human beings, regardless of cultural environment, tend to think in certain patterns before they develop an alphabet, then the human mind must depend upon certain cognitive structures which precede experience. No heresy is more loathed up and down the ivory corridor… so the instructor takes Rabelais’s advice and "does what he will".
On a practical note, I have not observed many instructors to sweat much over the survey’s strategy. In junior colleges, being a sophomore-level course, it is claimed by those with tenure. At the four-year school, however, it is dirty laundry, and falls into the same repellant heap as freshman composition. Adjuncts tend to staff it. Thanks to financial and other logistical pressures, it is considered a lecture course and hence permitted to enroll dozens of students—perhaps even a hundred. The hapless teacher highlights a few nuggets from the podium whose coyly dropped names may reappear on mid-term or final exam, the student memorizes for the same occasions a few timelines usefully supplied by W.W. Norton, and… so much for the world’s literature. It is entirely possible that presenting classics in such a swirling atmosphere of upheaval, flux, and transeunt omnia stifles any nascent love of literary art better than fire-and-brimstone indoctrination. The lukewarm, as we know, is spewed out.
What brave heart, then—or what twisted soul—actually chooses to embrace more of this torture by becoming an English major? A smattering of students will endure almost any pain to be near literature: lonely dreamers, mostly, for whom writing has become the primary means of perceiving the world. Rather more (although this depends heavily upon the campus and the region) are vocal misfits with whom the ideology of oppression and rebellion resonates—and to whom, of course, purely literary quality (if such a thing exists: it doesn’t, according to their philosophy) is infinitely subordinate to political righteousness. Most are education majors, properly speaking, who must sit through one or two dozen more hours of upper-division English for their secondary certification. It is a mixed bag. The firebrand misfits tend to form one clique, the ed. majors another, and the loner-dreamers to stay alone and dream. In my opinion, whatever chance the literary life might have had to affect the next generation has already been squandered at this point; for most of the student body, obviously, does not belong to any of these groups. My present purpose is not served, therefore, by generalizing about what English professors most often do in their upper-division classes. Let it suffice to say a) that the aesthetic approach to literature ("What intrinsic qualities make this composition beautiful?") is not addressed even at the upper levels—especially not there, where post-structural theory is most active; and b) that much the most likely segment of this odd classroom mix to pursue an English doctorate is the disgruntled misfits. The professional vector, therefore, will continue to point away from the mainstream, like a comet’s orbit carrying it out into unpopulated space.
How the Problem Might Be Addressed
It would be easy, if not facile, to call for a more rigorous enforcement of orthography and a more conscientious instruction in grammar throughout our system of higher education. Students must write more, to be sure. Classes such as the sophomore survey which are filled far beyond the point where one professor might reflectively annotate three or four essays per student per semester should be reduced to manageable size. The business professor and the education professor, furthermore, should assume equal responsibility for policing usage. Anyone endowed with a teaching position at a university should be capable of spelling "anachronism" or of writing a complete, coherent sentence—and of ensuring that students do so.
Yet this, alas, scarcely even amounts to the battle’s first blow. My own difficulties with texts in other languages, after all, could be solved without help if I simply persisted in my studies. Anyone can use a dictionary, and most students will opt to use one if adequately motivated. A problem of a much higher order is presented by the classic text’s distance from contemporary life. The freshman-composition approach to this obstacle is to stage a disingenuous "celebration" of "otherness"—to package short essays representing the alien as quaint, colorful, and diverting. The sophomore-survey approach condescends even further insofar as it center-stages major works of the past or of distant cultures, then abandons the student to whatever thumbnail "meaning" the textbook’s introduction and the flustered instructor care to provide: an erudition deeply indebted to the "keyword phrase". When most students cannot even appreciate the nuance of a century-old work belonging to their own culture, expecting them to profit from two classroom hours of Homer is an ambition lying somewhere between the gullible and the duplicitous.
The apparent antidote to this complaint is a rigid division of course matter according to historical period and cultural setting: a course in Victorian Literature, a course in the African Post-Colonial Novel, a course in Ancient Greco-Roman Epic, and so forth. Though two of the three examples just listed might be said to focus on genre more than place or time, genre is a function of place and time. One cannot study Milton alongside Virgil without remarking several epochal changes which render Paradise Lost something far more like a novel than an epic, surfaces notwithstanding. In the departments of yesteryear, literature used to be taught in just this way: students, that is, were immersed in the historical/cultural milieu of a related set of works so that they might respond sensitively to obscure references and unstated assumptions within those works. Milton was rarely taught beside Virgil, though Virgil was a prolegomenon to studying Milton.
The apparent solution, however, is not the best one in my opinion. At this very late stage in the game—a game which, I reiterate, literate culture is losing badly—hazing literature back to history’s tidy reservation will not restore order. For that matter, the New Turks who began the destruction (or "deconstruction") of literature about forty years ago used history constantly as their crowbar. They perhaps used it cynically, inaccurately, or selectively, creating as much havoc in history departments as in the havens of the beaux arts; but my point is merely that history, even at its best, is something extrinsic to the essential literary phenomenon, the perception of beauty in a text. By indexing these or those terms of the text to The Woman’s Struggle or The Rise of the Proletariat or European Propaganda, one reduces the text to an illustration of certain motives—perhaps fully real and true motives—or of certain trends—perhaps fully objective trends—which nevertheless have nothing immediately to do with the pleasure of reading. Maybe a poem, though paid for by a pompous nobleman who wished to advertise his largesse, has endured because of an elegant metaphor; maybe a novel, though printed under a regime which wished to keep the people subdued, has endured because it projects a sense of vanity in human affairs powerfully from the experiences of its characters. That a beautiful object can be exploited by schemers does not compromise its beauty. The essential nature of beauty, indeed, is to be vaguely, enticingly purposeful—which leaves its mystical gesture toward a far horizon ever prone to misappropriation by some despot or some martinet stealing his way into the background.
We must make our young people want to read and write again, and we will only do so by impressing them with the written word’s beauty. I believe that poetry, for instance, is a perfect match with freshman composition. If the objective of the course is to teach freshmen how to inquire more closely into matters rather than to parrot unexamined platitudes, then no form of writing brings greater delight to the open mind than a poem. I have already alleged (and I hardly suppose the proposition in need of underscoring) that this same course, thanks to the typical anthology’s sanctimonious ideological harping, all too often comes across as an indoctrination. Collections of essays could still be highly useful… but a poem here and there might save the day for the literary imagination. Take a much-anthologized piece by Theodore Roethke, "My Papa’s Waltz". In every class, one or two students invariably read this bittersweet reminiscence of the poet’s working-class father returning home tipsy on a Saturday night as a portrait in child abuse. The "waltz" is indeed a bit rough: the father stumbles against furniture and presses his son rather too tightly in an effort to remain upright. Yet the "villain", if there is one, must surely be the system which sapped this man’s vital energies six days a week, forcing him to seek the joie de vivre in a bottle on those rare occasions when he had the leisure to do so. To remove the culprit even to such a distance is, in my view, the sort of doctrinaire intolerance of humor and paradox which one finds in too many Marxists. Sad the poem certainly is, at some level—but remembering our parents is always sad in this very sense: i.e., that their joy tends to burst forth only through narrow cracks of the day’s care and travail.
Would these insights be out of place amid two or three essays seething with indignation about a childhood in the ghetto or the barrio? Would they not, rather, leaven the utopian social engineer’s agenda with the lacrimae rerum—the awareness that human life at its very best can only be insecure and straitjacketed in conditions? If we want these intellectual raw recruits in our charge to begin thinking for themselves, should we not put before them a kind of statement which states nothing very explicitly, but which instead forces them to picture a context and stay alert for irony? Why, for that matter, should the hotspurs who design freshman readers avoid plainly religious issues—for what could be more consequential to one’s outlook on life than one’s belief or non-belief in a superior power, and the specific character of that power if believed in? I have dangled poems before students like Yeats’s "Second Coming" and Dickinson’s "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" along with the question, "Is this a truly religious poem, expressing a belief in eternal life?" An essay about Darwin, either pro or con, invites the student only to regurgitate what he or she has been reared hearing or to reiterate (in too many cases) the instructor’s strident conviction. An analysis of a poem, by contrast, requires the student to point to certain words and phrases, to connect these with the work’s whole, and—in short—to weigh critically and objectively the greater and lesser possibilities of meaning where the communication’s ambiguity becomes, at last, irreducible. Part of the semester’s exercise might involve the students in writing their own poetry, perhaps—but they will end up doing this by themselves, I suspect, if we only introduce them to the grand (some would say holy) experience of speaking around, through, and just shy of what cannot really be spoken. If we make them independent thinkers in class, they will become poets over vacation.
Into the mix might well be added some philosophical texts, especially ethical treatises. The Norton already presents snippets of Plato and Machiavelli, for which I applaud its editors; but why not go farther? Why clip out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from its context in the Republic? Why not go the rest of the way from Machiavelli’s urbane hypocrisy to Hobbes’s overt misanthropy? I have used Kant’s essay on the wrongness of lying in all circumstances. It isn’t long: dozens of essays of this caliber could easily be trimmed to the proportions of a freshman reading assignment, and the result would be extremely provocative. We should, in effect, be addressing in the first year of college the third and most formidable obstacle to reading comprehension which I named in my opening section: the confusion of moral values. Instead of being inoculated with the Ivory Tower’s behavioristic speech codes and mores à la mode, students would be confronted openly with a range of positions—many of them contradicting others. Do we want them to learn how to think—or do we just want them to embrace all our conclusions lest they think "wrongly"?
On a practical note, I acknowledge that freshman composition programs are also expected to teach methods of documentation on many campuses, an exigency which renders the dry, fact-laden essay a dreary necessity. It invites, as well, a great deal of plagiarism and (in my view) an unconscionable degree of dependency upon Internet sources. I have little to say about this aspect of the course, other than that it is inconsistent with broader, more worthy objectives and cannot be defended in any respectable manner. Are our colleagues in business and history so lazy that they cannot consume half a class period revealing the peculiarities of their discipline’s documentation? English teachers have allowed themselves to be thus imposed upon because the dependency seems to make their field less dispensable. They are happy to be every other department’s ancilla if the gross indignity secures them a fat piece of budgetary pie. I object to the incoherence of it all. One cannot at the same time teach young people how to reason independently and demand that they repeat what others have said throughout their writing. There is a place for scholarship: freshman composition is not it.
The sophomore survey, which is at present the last nail in literary education’s coffin, could easily be the portal to a life of tasteful, dedicated reading. The course’s preposterous globe-trotting and time-traveling have to go—yet not in favor of a cultural and temporal fixity which reduces it to a history class cum literary illustrations. A historical survey of the world would be a very fine thing in the core curriculum. The English department, however, must serve the cause of literature: of taste, imagination, and intelligent mystery. Just as poetry seems a natural fit for freshman composition, so literary narrative seems to me the obvious content for the sophomore course. The sophomore has begun to learn how to ponder life as a result of his freshman experience: he knows (or she, if you prefer—the undergraduate majority is usually female) that institutions aren’t always as honorable as they appear and that issues are seldom cut-and-dried. This person, poised to choose a major and to embark upon a journey which may consume an entire career, is probably now aware that decisions have consequences. One might say that sophomores are writing the first page of their own life’s novel which has been within their power to write. Few lessons could be less welcome at this juncture than the present survey’s implicit doctrine that everyone does things differently, that nothing abides, and that critical choices (therefore) are not really critical at all in the grand scheme of things.
Do I suggest, then, that the sophomore course should consist of several novels, short stories, and dramas selected for their "relevance" to the student’s personal position? Not in the least. I find this sixty-esque formulation, on the contrary, repulsive for its condescending assumption that we teachers can know what is relevant to our students in a narrowly exclusive manner—that we can know the past to be irrelevant, to phrase it from another angle. Students should be exposed to several classics of the past even at the risk of not clearly understanding their historical and cultural context. For why, I ask, do classics exist—why do people keep reading Homer and Dante and Shakespeare long after sea raids and the geocentric universe and aristocratic patronage are forgotten relics? Isn’t it because generations of readers have found a common humanity about these authors which manages to reach them through dense filters of curious custom?
I realize that what I have just written may itself sound very sixty-esque. Organizations like the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics have formed lately in direct response to a pernicious pedagogical tendency which smiles upon transforming the past into the present—which condones reading our personal interests, concerns, and ambitions into texts where they have no legitimate place. I deplore this kind of narcissism myself: but surely the correct road is a middle road. Nobody dies the same death—but everybody dies. Should we say that the subject of death is closed to conversation because none will approach it from exactly the same direction? Do we not tend, rather, in an excess of reverence for individual detail (probably a legacy of the scientific revolution), to underrate the common elements of our experiences? Is not literature, indeed, our last best hope of recovering this common humanity; or if that distinction belongs properly to religious faith, would not the quality of our faith itself be much enhanced by literary narrative? The believer who has accompanied Gilgamesh to the land of the dead better understands that from which he has been redeemed than the believer who reads only one book and mutes whatever voice in him would inquire beyond it.
Furthermore, I cannot think of a better way to impress upon students the crucial differences between their time and another than by having them read narratives about similar experiences from far-flung eras and cultures. Gilgamesh fears death as we do—but not, perhaps, precisely as we do. It seems to stalk him and Enkidu in an objectified, monstrous form (Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven) and to haunt the aftermath of sexual overtures (Enkidu’s loss of power to the prostitute, Ishtar’s lethal rage after her rejection) rather than to be the neutral void which limns our Space Age glitter with absurdity. Death in the ancient world is more fleshed out: it has teeth and claws, or else it has soft feminine curves which dissuade a man from attempting timeless deeds. For the preferred ancient means of surmounting death through immortality has also grown somewhat alien to us: not a soul’s elevation to beatitude after pursuing goodness through worldly persecution, but an eternizing in story and song handed along to future generations. Enough of this "false immortality" lingers in our own culture—the athlete’s aspiration to The Hall of Fame, the lifelong-politician’s creation of a grand library cum mausoleum—that a young person might well be stirred to re-examine his ambitions. Will he court the treacherous, temporary glories of secular triumph as a pre-literate tribesman would have done—or will he, instead, devote himself to invisible principles in largely invisible ways, as the literate life of spirituality once prescribed?
I have in fact often used the katabasis, or Journey to the Underworld, as a basis for organizing the sophomore survey’s syllabus. The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno are obvious selections—as are Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard and Ben Okri’s short story, "Worlds That Flourish". The contemporary Nigerians have actually managed to conserve much of the optimism which accompanies the ancient myth, as have the medieval tales of Arthurian knights traveling to strange lands in search of a beautiful princess or a holy relic. All such voyagers return, and they return enlightened and humbled—spiritually improved by a traumatic ordeal, like Gilgamesh himself. What renders the course most fascinating to me (and, I think, to my students) is to proceed to later Western transformations of the sequence into voyages from which the traveler returns brooding and exhausted (Wells’s Time Machine, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or perhaps, once caught in a hellish labyrinth, not at all (Kafka’s Trial, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo). Nothing I might enunciate from the professorial soapbox could so alert this generation to the vast demoralization which has overtaken the West during the past century or so. I maintain that the despair which sabotages the myth’s essential optimism expresses a significant cultural and temporal gap in terms of human sentiment.
The survey, then, if arranged around certain themes, would at once offer an education in moral reality—in human desire and the consequences of action predicated upon it—and engage whatever moral sense these young readers already have to render distant places and times intimate to them. The theme might well be sexual love, or heroism, or defiance of accepted standards. One may find an abundance of great works on all such subjects. The key is to honor each work, not for its cultural identity (for students often do their best writing when protesting Aeneas’s desertion of Dido or decrying Medea’s sanguinary revenge), but its aesthetic integrity. That is, a student must be dissuaded from calling Medea a lunatic because she claims descent from Helios, the Sun. In Dido’s case, my classes inevitably have rousing discussions about whether she is a victim of the meddling goddesses Juno and Venus or whether, in Virgilian terms, these goddesses are not themselves mere projections of psychic elements within the hapless queen. The rules of the author’s artistic universe are not always easy to tease out. If these rules end up warping basic human emotions beyond recognition, then and only then may a reader correctly charge the author with abusing his medium just to close his story’s loopholes.
Yet most supposed abuses turn out (since these are, after all, time-tested classics) to be culturally conditioned: i.e., the entire original audience of the piece must have accepted as genuine the alleged distortion. Such reflections point the student back in the direction of that multicultural sensitivity so much desired by the contemporary professor—but the salutary path is walked this time as a result of contemplating a complex art object, not on cue and under duress.
May not the same technique be carried into upper-division literary offerings? It would be a shame to fall back upon "theory" after having recovered so many readers and opened so many minds through humanity. I may as well repeat (since I cannot stress it too often) that I am all in favor of supplying students with the cultural and historical context needed to comprehend works remote from their circumstances—but that a literary text is primarily an art work. The post-structuralists who took graduate programs captive thirty years ago, and whose methods continue to dominate many undergraduate major programs, were enemies of historical criticism first and foremost because they offered a rival version of the same thing. They ignored the text’s proportions and its mood to highlight certain elements illustrative of an epochal struggle: the ascent of women, the ascent of oppressed classes, the ascent of the colonized. Though deconstruction was not identical with these neo-historicist efforts, it supplied the solvent necessary to bring down traditional edifices of canon and period. Since words were propped up merely by other words and not by eventual underlying substance, one was free to speculate about who, exactly, had pushed the initial domino arbitrarily to set the whole leaning column in motion. One was even obliged to so speculate: an inquiring mind could do no less. History, of course, suffers from no dearth of dubious motives. Thus one could select one’s favorite conspiracy and elevate it to the position of chief villain. Being a conspiracy, its inner mechanics would always remain somewhat implicit, lost to posterity in destroyed records and unrecorded whispers; and being human motives, the conspiracy’s vital energy would not have a quantifiable effect upon human actions. If one could simply prove them present (and what motive is not present in any human breast?), one might allot them ten or fifty or ninety percent of the total influence without fear of interdiction.
This was bad history, perhaps—pseudo-history, as some of my Old Guard colleagues in history departments would insist—but it was still the modus operandi, at whatever degraded a level, of historical method. Its disparity with a true aesthetic approach is immense. Allow me to hint at the chasm’s size by listing a very few projects which might be carried out in literary studies. The relationship between form and content is so intricate that, as has been observed often, the two cannot be separated. This does not mean, however, that the intersection cannot be explored: on the contrary, its exploration would seem to be one of the first things a literary critic should undertake. Yet I experienced first-hand the icy rebukes one meets in such endeavor when, as a comparatist with a classical background, I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to stylistic effects in epic narrative which were largely unintended, but which nonetheless endowed their texts with an aura once labeled "sublime". I had in mind features like the Homeric formula and Virgilian redundancy—stylistic peculiarities which make the epic ring with innumerable minute echoes, in Homer’s case, or retard its action like a cinematic "slow motion" or "replay", in Virgil’s case. My advisors could not imagine who would want to read such a treatise. To do them justice, nobody in academe was then or is now in the least concerned with the handling of texts in a fashion which fails to index them to historical events. I later tinkered with an article which would have pursued the notion of the "Virgilian formula": a fully literate composer’s affection, that is, for similar sounds in identical parts of the hexameter. I was pondering not only phrases like amor compressus edendi (Aeneid 8.184) and amor successit habendi (Aeneid 8.327), where a key word induces the poet to replicate a sequence of sounds within about 150 lines of the first usage. I was also, and especially, intrigued by phrases like canities inculta iacet (Aeneid 6.300) and planities ignota iacet (Aeneid 11.527), separated by thousands of verses and in nowise portraying the same sort of scene. Such subconscious or wholly unconscious fingerprints applied by the author to his pages often create a seductive charm of extremely subtle operation… entirely too subtle to satisfy "objective" literary scholars, with their self-serving devotion to historical artifact. Needless to say, I didn’t waste my time carrying the project much farther as I began to assess my surroundings better.
Is it so very subjective, though, to assert that Ariosto’s stanzas exert a significant effect upon his narrative? Those of us who have read Orlando Furioso in its original form and have also waded through English prose translations are painfully aware that the degeneration of ambiance between the two is owing, not just to the ineptitude of English with the Italian idiom, but—probably far more—to the sacrifice of the stanza. On the one hand, Ariosto set in motion a constant irony by employing the straight-laced Boiardo’s verse form in his resumption of Orlando’s adventures. On the other—internally, with a keen effect even on those who might never have read a line of Boiardo—he was submitting every new description or reflection to the metronome of meter, the artifice of rhyme, and the ticking clock of an eight-verse time limit. The beaux gestes and forlorn brooding upon which medieval romanciers and troubadours had lavished so many thousands of unkempt verses were now neatly packaged, one after another after another. The formal reinforcement of Ariosto’s profound skepticism—the playful presentation of grand deeds whose grandeur the poet finds highly suspect—is exquisitely apt. Would not such a fine connection of artistic means and ends be well worth studying? If not, then why in the world not—why have departments devoted to literature, if not?
For that matter, any study of the relationship between a literary work’s definite and indefinite elements—its clear-and-distinct, objectifiable qualities (length, rhyme, number of scenes, etc.) and its open-ended qualities (metaphorical suggestion, mood, irony, etc.)—would be highly fertile. I have always thought F.R. Leavis heavy-handed for chiding Joseph Conrad over his use of "meaningless" words like "inscrutable" and "incomprehensible". These adjectives fail to communicate any specific boundary or quality, granted; yet in Conrad they are drifting reminders precisely that boundaries, colors, numbers, and scales cannot contain reality—very urbane reminders, their polysyllabic mumbles implying dispassionate observation rather than romantic excess.
I do not see this sort of thing being written about any author in literary journals or "scholarly" books: I have not seen it written anywhere in my lifetime. Why not? Because discussion of a work’s aesthetic qualities, once again, assumes that there is a universal human mind—a universal level within all human minds—which perceives phenomena in the same way and hence may be treated—though with trepidation—as objective. This assumption of universal human thought processes or spiritual tendencies is heresy in modern academe. It is so because the Ivory Tower has been governed by progressive ideology for several decades now. Progress of the twentieth-century variety vastly differs from mainstream nineteenth-century enlightenment. The liberalism of yesteryear aspired to awaken the common humanity in everyone, precisely, as a means of uplifting the human race. The academic avant-garde which has dominated our campuses since World War Two endorses complete reprogramming of entire populations; and for such a project not to appear as a crime against humanity, individual human beings must be viewed as possessing nothing within but what nature and culture have put there (the survival instinct, the sex drive, worship of local deities, fear of local authorities, etc.). The most innocent, most undeveloped notion of the aesthetic immediately flies in the face of this new orthodoxy. Poems and stories cannot be beautiful in themselves: literature can only be appreciated within its own culture, and then only because those in power have conditioned those in submission to value it.
In so hostile an atmosphere, how would we go about recruiting sympathetic professors? The question lies beyond this essay’s scope; but, in idle self-indulgence, I offer the following profile. The ideal English teacher should love literature, primarily. This would be reflected in the breadth of the prospect’s reading and studies. It might also be suggested by his or her personal creativity—by a résumé filled with short stories, say, or by competence in a musical instrument. The ability to write clearly and grammatically would be a sine qua non. Sloppy, jargon-ridden salutes to the political correctness of obscure works, accepted for publication by arcane journals, would raise suspicion.
You may judge for yourself if English departments, poised though they are on the verge of extinction, are thus revising their criteria. I see no realistic hope for them, as a collective institution. On the other hand, I discern a great hunger among students to find something beautiful in life—something worthy in itself which cannot be devalued by the flux of trend. I also observe a great yearning, often hidden just under the surface, to discuss the meaning of things, the nature of the good life. It is a yearning to tell stories and to hear stories—not fantastical escapist stories, but true stories. Stories whose beauty is woven from their engagement of real moral issues, whose vital pattern-forming force is indistinguishable from the earnestness and maturity of their characters. People will have their stories, one way or another. It will be a crying shame if departments of literature cannot assist them in tapping a rich tradition so that they need not start from scratch.
A Dark Turn in the Pop-Culture: "Bleak Future" and Occult-Horror Subgenres in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian journalist, based in Toronto , who contributes regularly to Praesidium.
The mention of or reference to any companies or products in the following article is not a challenge to the trademarks or copyrights involved.
The purpose of this essay is to draw certain social and cultural conclusions from the burgeoning presence in late modern society of various types of paper and electronic-based fictions and entertainments: in particular, "bleak future" and occult-horror subgenres in science fiction, fantasy, and gaming. While perhaps not the largest of mass phenomena, the obsessions of an often highly intelligent segment of the younger population are symptomatic of many trends and directions of late modern society.
Dungeons and Dragons, the first role-playing game
1999 marked the 25th Anniversary of both the establishment of TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), and the launching of TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons, the original fantasy role-playing game (RPG). Arising from a convergence of interest in historical board-gaming, medieval miniatures gaming, and the huge popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, Dungeons and Dragons pioneered the concept of the RPG. What this essentially consists of is a set of rules and procedures (mostly based on the rolling of variegated combinations of dice—e.g. three six-sided dice [standardly noted as 3d6] or one twenty-sided die [d20])—which allow a person to participate as one individual and character (e.g., a mighty warrior) in a given fantasy world (e.g., Tolkien’s Middle Earth). Whenever there is some important action (e.g. in combat) to which some uncertainty obtains, the dice are rolled to gauge the character’s degree of success in the action. This can range from spectacular triumph to total failure.
The RPG is normally played by a group of people and refereed by the gamemaster—who structures the interactive sequences in a storytelling-like fashion. The individual players’ choices definitely have an impact on the evolution of the "campaign". There is also a structure for increasing one’s skills, powers, and abilities in relation to how well one performs in the earlier interactions. This is usually calibrated in terms of how many monsters one has slain and how much treasure one has looted. (It should also be pointed out that skill-acquiring systems have been enormously refined in successive RPG’s. There are also diceless action-resolution systems usually based on drawing cards, on some variant of "rocks breaks scissors", or on successful performance of small physical tasks.)
The notion of "real magic" (and the presence of magic-users), for which the archetypes are the Merlin of Arthurian legend and the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, is integral to many RPG’s. Equally so is the presence of various non-human races—e.g., elves, dwarves, halflings (i.e., hobbits), and goblins—which appear in Tolkien’s work (supplemented by many more). Another very common aspect is the presence of various interesting, more or less gruesome monsters to fight, typically dragons or goblins. (Goblin-type creatures are very often called orcs in RPG’s, after Tolkien’s usage, and they are very often the standard "cannon-fodder" type of opposition to the player-characters.)
As Dungeons and Dragons became an increasingly prominent aspect of the pop-culture in the early 1980s, there was some concern expressed about the apparently occult nature of the game, fueled by a number of very highly publicized cases of teenage suicides. Indeed, there was a made-for-television movie, Mazes and Monsters (obviously cribbing the Dungeons and Dragons name) that explored the most prominent of these suicides. The hue-and-cry over Dungeons and Dragons in the early 1980s was, to a large extent, ridiculous. Some Christian fundamentalists—who seemed to know next to nothing about the game—launched a series of ill-advised attacks on it. For example, the anti-D & D tracts of Jack Chick—presented in comic-book format—were met with great hilarity by most gamers. In relation to what was to follow in the 1990s, the mostly Tolkienian role-playing background or "world" prevalent in the early 1980s had been very tame indeed.
The Dungeons and Dragons Alignment System
Before further discussion, some comment should be made about the so-called "nine-point alignment system" in Dungeons and Dragons. (There have of course been attempts to further refine this alignment system, but this one can be taken as standard.) One can choose any of these alignments for one’s character. The following nine alignments (for both player-characters and the various other beings one interacts with) are recognized:
The choice of one’s alignment will obviously have major bearing on the style of one’s play. Some further explanation of the meaning of the terms should be made (all of which have a certain degree of arbitrariness to them, of course). By "Absolute Law" is meant a frame of mind that emphasizes the usually "good" belief system one holds, without being overly fastidious about the means that are used to advance it. By "Absolute Good" is meant a self-abnegating ethic of a saint. "Absolute Chaos" means a delight in the embrace of entropic forces of dissolution, anarchy. "Absolute Evil" means the embrace of evil, whether by systematic or anarchic means. "Absolute Neutrality" connotes the attitude of "looking out for number one", or, "What’s in it for me?" The character would side with whoever seemed to offer the greater advantage to him.
The prefixes "Lawful" and "Chaotic" generally indicate the degree to which one is willing to coordinate one’s actions with others (especially to submit to another’s authority) and the degree of consistency with which one holds one’s given outlook. The embrace of Lawful Good precludes the use of certain means, even when positive ends can be accomplished. By Lawful Evil (admittedly a rather contradictory-sounding position) is meant the strict upholding of a code of evil, by systematic means. By Chaotic Good is meant a positive but "anti-authoritarian" outlook that has difficulty responding to authority and might carry out idiosyncratic and/or joking actions. Chaotic Good could mean something like a libertine outlook that is largely good-natured but enjoys and often indulges in riotous and ribald behaviours. Chaotic Evil is also "anti-authoritarian", combining anarchic rejection of others’ authority and the embrace of entropic disorder with the embrace of evil. A Chaotic Evil figure would be guided more by his immediate impulses and emotions than by focussing on the systematic pursuit of evil.
This nine-point alignment system can obviously be seen as better reflecting a Tolkienian-type fantasy world than the realities of human nature. The conscious embrace of evil understood as evil seems to be comparatively rare among human beings. It is sometimes difficult to understand that some of the most evil figures in human history (such as Hitler and Stalin) somehow found themselves "good" in their own eyes. One also wonders if many so-called common criminals do not consider themselves "good". The cackling Hollywood supervillain is an unreal figure. Writers seeking advice on creating "realistic" villains are often advised to write villains (or antagonists) into their stories, from the villain’s point of view—i.e., to pretend that he or she is really the hero of the tale. It may be concluded that the nine-point alignment system probably functions relatively well in the context of a pseudo-Tolkienian fantasy background (once the allowance is made that role-playing tends to accentuate all the stereotypical aspects of written fantasy) but poorly mirrors real-world moral typologies. In many of the RPG’s discussed below, the alignment system of Dungeons and Dragons becomes irrelevant, since there are only different shades of darkness to choose from.
Issues of Artistic Realism in Dungeons and Dragons
It remains open to question whether a board game, or even a role-playing game, can sufficiently capture the flavor and feel of true, high-heroic fantasy. The War of the Ring (a board game brought out in 1977 by Simulations Publications, Inc.—SPI—then the most prominent war game company), based explicitly on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was not without its problems—such as being seen to tamper with a too famous vision. It is said of J.R.R. Tolkien that he both opened up and closed the genre of high-heroic fantasy, for anything that followed would simply be seen as derivative.
It could be argued that those who really want to feel the high-heroic sense of wonder should either re-read the classics of the genre, or read any of the huge number of para-Tolkienian works on the market.
An even more inferior board game brought out by SPI in 1978 was Swords and Sorcery. This game can be seen as slicing and dicing heroic fantasy conventions into a silly hash. Indeed, the term "swords and sorcery" is often used derisively by more serious science fiction and fantasy fans. However, the distinction between high-fantasy and so-called "swords and sorcery" may not be so clear-cut. The classics of "swords and sorcery", e.g., Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Michael Moorcock’s Elric, posit a world easily as far removed from the many inanities of "D & D" as is the Tolkienian vision. There is a harsh Nietzscheanism, an invocation of a hard, difficult world, in many works conventionally considered "swords and sorcery". Another clear distinction was the fundamental innocence of the high-fantasy milieu, especially as typified by Tolkien’s particularly chaste writing, and the sexual elements of "swords and sorcery", which probably reached their apotheosis in the works of Lin Carter (Tara of the Twilight) and John Norman (the interminable "Gor" series—characterized by the ritualized humiliation of women in the "bondage" style).
"D & D", as it is probably most commonly experienced today, is far removed from the charming, graceful Tolkienian mythos while lacking any real sense of the Nietzschean texture of the Conan vision. It is often enough repeated that "D & D" amounts to the personalized power-fantasies (tinged with obvious sexual elements, to say the least) of frustrated and often highly intelligent adolescent (the politically correct term today is "young adult") North American males. There is often a highly unnatural element to all these florid scenarios. For example, one of the things that irritated the author about this approach was when some avid "D & D-ers" had calculated that Gandalf was at most "a 7th level wizard", which meant he had little appeal to those who were at the point of battling gods and demons. Another passage that typifies this kind of tendency was the snide comment that "Dante must have borrowed from D & D manuals to come up with his descriptions of Hell." Yet another example is when dragons firing machine-gun bullets were introduced into a "D & D" campaign.
It is important to look at "D & D" as lying at the root of all role-playing games. It is clear that "D & D" is a specifically late-modern, North American phenomenon. No earlier society could have generated the leisure time available to be consumed by this tendency. No earlier society could have ever been as flippant about appropriating numerous world-mythologies as sheer entertainment—being so completely un-serious about these. No earlier society would have accepted the obsession of its youth with vicarious violence and sexuality in "flights of fancy"—to the detriment of what had to be learned about the nation’s real history, its place in the world, and the tasks which awaited the young as the bearers of the national heritage. For most young people, these new identifications took the forms of rock-music/pop-culture, whereas for more reflective persons, the alluring pseudo-worlds of "D & D" were offered on a platter, as it were.
It may be argued that "D & D" and historical board games have little in common. The former is open-ended, amorphous, largely devoid of history and sociology, mostly a mere chimera or riot of imagination. The latter are rooted in the once-familiar (and, once, very necessary to know) terrain of history. Alternative-history board games remain tied to the exploration of history, whereas science-fiction board games are often based on historical and sociological extrapolations of previous history. At the same time, "D & D" often distances itself from the graceful, allegorical elements of high-fantasy literature and the creative-nihilist Nietzschean overtones of "swords & sorcery".
So "D & D" typically conforms to the vision of open-ended progress, amorphousness, florid lifestyles, and wish-fulfillment fantasies which has increasingly come to characterize the late-modern world.
The main lesson of writing in the high-fantasy genre is that the writing must be done almost completely straight. The author must at all points attempt to strengthen "the willing suspension of disbelief"—he or she must take the world being described entirely seriously. It is probable that a person rooted in real religion or history will find it easier to "sub-create" a world: Tolkien, it may be remembered, was a devout Catholic and Christian. Similarly, readers who is deeply rooted in real religion or history will no more tolerate flippancy in the main text of the "sub-created" world—if they find it attractive to begin with—than about the core beliefs of their actual life-world. So for those kinds of persons, the genre of "comic fantasy" does not work. (Incidentally, "the Faith" posited in the SPI Swords and Sorcery game is treated in a highly derisive way.)
SPI was probably trying to appeal to the most stereotypical elements of the "D & D" mentality when it chose to make the background of its Swords and Sorcery game a thoroughly ridiculous world. As was pointed out above, the very title of the game is a kind of joke, for the term is often used to express disapproval of a work.
The fact is that the very attractive components of the game—the full-color map, the character cards illustrated by Tim Kirk, and the colorful counters—as well as the highly detailed 56-page rulebook were in enormous contrast to the poorly deliberated background. (What could have been considered instead was a somewhat generic, but entirely serious. background.) Although it might have worked on the level of game mechanics, there was something very off-putting about the whole thing. In any event, the game probably looked too complicated to attract the average "D & D-er" into playing it, while historical gamers probably also had little interest in it. Although one heard of the map and background being used for "D & D" campaigns, one also suspects it was too jejune even for that. It probably failed to interest even one "D & D-er" into picking up a historical board game. And it would certainly have little appeal to those who loved fantasy literature in a more noble way.
In retrospect, it could be seen that the Swords and Sorcery boardgame was a signpost along SPI’s slide into oblivion and its eventual takeover and effective destruction by TSR in the early 1980s. RPGs triumphed over wargames.
The 1990s have featured a plethora of ever-darker RPG worlds. There have also been parallel developments in other genres, notably science fiction and fantasy writing, film, television, and the comic-book genre. The comic-book genre is indeed known for its pioneering embrace of various forms of the macabre. It has also been characterized by a "dark turn" in the portrayal of superheroes such as Batman (typified by the breakthrough graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns) or even Superman (where Superman, for example, was subjected to death). The Spiderman comic also went into a period of "gritty realism" where its lead figure was plagued with doubt and afflicted with substance abuse. Horror writing, film, and television have also intensified, probably far beyond what the older writers and directors would have countenanced. All these tendencies are magnified across not infrequently blood-soaked video, computer and interactive Internet games.
Indeed, computer and Internet games (played by modem) have become a huge, burgeoning area, partially eclipsing the dice, pencil, and paper-based games that are played face-to-face. These computer and Internet games can be characterized in terms of several genres: notably, arcade-type games, including so-called First Person Shooters (FPSs) like DOOM; MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs), which can often accommodate virtually unlimited individual characters (these were originally called MUSH—Multi-User Shared Hallucination, or MUD—Multi-User Dungeon); and historical, fantasy, or space empires and empire-building games (such as Civilization); strategic/historical games (straightforward portrayals of military conflict). Arcade-type games can usually be divided into aerospace combat, ground combat, "abstract" (such as TETRIS), or comic (PAC-MAN) subgenres. Combat games can usually be divided into "mecha" (futuristic war-robots), aerospace, air or tank, and larger-scale historical battle and campaign subgenres. There can also be an identified a subgenre of "art" games, such as MYST, which are characterized by little violence and elegant settings. There are also online CCGs (collectible card games), where the participating players are randomly dealt a set of cards.
It may be noted that there is occurring across the Internet gaming culture a decrease of interest in straight historical games, in favor of FPSs and sci-fi/fantasy. Many games which are ostensibly based on a science fiction background are in fact dark space fantasy, dark fantasy, or outright horror.
One of the interesting aspects of media structures today is the vertical integration in pop-culture industries. Thus, electronic video games may produce books, television series, or even films based on the game; films may produce games based on the film; and so forth. This vertical integration is a factor strengthening "the gatekeepers" of the media industries, as it is always the same image (whether in film, game, toy, or clothes media) that is being replicated. This replication of images places so-called "border-dwellers"—those persons who try to introduce more idiosyncratic images—in a weaker position. "Border-dwellers" typically have to spread their message across various eclectic media. However, what one finds is that many persons simply replicate the main images of the media giants in somewhat less-well-crafted form.
It could be pointed out, for example, that there has been a relentless replication of the vampire as one of the central icons of the 1990s, called "the ultimate unattainable sexual fantasy" and the focus of numerous subgenres, including "vampire romances" and "vampire erotica". Among the more successful vampire television series was Forever Knight, which portrayed the half-shaded figure of a "vampire-cop".
Among the most popular RPG’s today are Deadlands: The Weird West (from Pinnacle Entertainment Group), based on the premise that an earthquake sinks California and releases a plague of evil spirits and occult energy in the 1870s, the undead walk the earth, and so forth. Its even more gruesome sequel is Deadlands: Hell on Earth (set in the same world in the twenty-first century, when the evil forces have virtually destroyed humanity).
Another very popular RPG, loosely based on The X-Files television series, is Conspiracy X (from Eden Studios). The curiously named Eden Studios has also brought out the role-playing games, C.J. Carella’s WitchCraft, Extinction (Conspiracy X, one hundred years in the future), Armageddon: The End Times (subtitled, "A Game of War, Myth and Horror"), All Flesh Must Be Eaten ("the zombie survival horror RPG"); and Abduction: The Card Game (humans trying to escape from alien abductors, the so-called Greys of "UFOlogy"). A somewhat earlier X-Files-type RPG was Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind (from Mind Ventures).
TSR had developed its own "dark world" setting for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) system, Ravenloft. There is also the rather bizarre Planescape setting, based on the notion of travel to alternate dimensions filled with incredibly grotesque and usually evil creatures. TSR’s new sci-fi RPG system, Alternity, had an X-Files-type setting, Dark Matter, and they had put dark elements into its space-opera (Star Drive) setting. (TSR had been absorbed some time ago by Wizards of the Coast, which has itself been taken over recently by toys and games giant Hasbro.) A rather morbid AD&D setting is Dark Sun, showing a planet mostly ruled by evil sorcerers. Even a fairly innocuous-seeming product, a strategic board game for the Greyhawk setting, contains elements which point to the tendency of Tolkienian fantasy to be played in an increasingly "cruel" way. For example, there is reference to a particularly fiendish punishment, where a person wears a "Ring of Flesh Regeneration" allowing him or her to be almost continuously tortured over the span of years, if not decades. Other negative elements which twist the basically Tolkienian background of Dungeons and Dragons are the increasingly common role-playing of such figures as "lich lords" (construed to be a form of undead creature, created by vile rituals, who was once a particularly evil human sorcerer) and of professionally sadistic members of guilds of torturers. A recent book which typifies a very well written, but de-ethicized fantasy is Steven Erikson’s, Gardens of the Moon: A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen (Bantam UK, 1999). This stands in strong contrast to recent works more faithful to the spirit of Tolkienian high fantasy, such as Mark Sebanc’s Flight to Hollow Mountain, The Talamadh, Volume 1 (Eerdmans, 1996). (This book has been significantly re-worked and now appears under the title, The Stoneholding [Stoneharp Press, 2004], by "Mark James".) Anthony Swithin’s high-fantasy series, set on a small, mythical mid-Atlantic continent, Rockall—whose existence is assumed to have continued discreetly until this very day—also has discernible traditionalist elements.
Having carefully looked and read through the October ("Halloween Celebration") and November 1999 issues of Shadis (one of the major role-playing magazines, which, however, has now apparently suspended publication), as well as Pyramid issues 26 to 30 (from July/August 1997 to March/April 1998: this is a publication of one of the industry leaders, Steve Jackson Games, which has now shifted to being an online journal at US$15 for one year subscription), one would find it difficult to conceive what age group the publications might be targeted at, and for what age group they could be considered as acceptable. In today’s society, as Neil Postman has pointed out, there is occurring "the disappearance of childhood". One aspect of this is that ever younger children are imbibing images of sex and horror that in the past would have been strictly confined to adults. One could certainly say that these magazines are playing to a lurid, overripe sense of imagination. As is often the case in America (for example, in those so-called "teen slasher-flicks"—admittance to which is only ostensibly restricted), they combine soft-core sexual images with images of more hard-core violence. Indeed, the question of what age of person today is extensively participating in these genres is highly important, and its answer not a little disturbing to think about. Rather young people could conceivably have their entire life outlook substantially warped, particularly by overindulgence in certain subgenres of these RPG’s, which are, as I had pointed out earlier, much different from the standard, early 1980s-style Dungeons and Dragons. Indeed, some younger people would probably be increasingly drawn to these subgenres in search of ever more jaded entertainments as their world seems increasingly boring. It would also probably be a person of greater-than-average intelligence, since for most other young people, heavy metal music, gangsta rap, or horror-movie viewing (or horror fiction reading) would probably suffice to give the necessary jolt.
It must be said that both positive and negative passions can be discerned in and through rock-music. For example, there are general good feelings associated with the music. While there certainly is nihilism, as well, it can in some songs (such as 1980s retro-alternative) be perceived as creative-nihilism. Unfortunately, rock music can be seen as generally diverting or short-circuiting the possible idealism of young people—not only the currently permissible left-wing idealism, but also the politically-incorrect idealisms of religion and nation. There are indeed both good and bad passions in rock-music. The popular music of the 1980s (today called retro-alternative) might be characterized as a mainly "white electronic music", perhaps one of the last stands of a Eurocentric aesthetic in late modernity.
What should be contested is the adage that the multifarious role-playing games discussed above are "merely fiction". I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut who said (and I paraphrase), "We must be very careful about what we pretend to be, lest we become the living image of our pretences." While a person will obviously not literally transform into an evil sorcerer or vampire, such role-playing might well begin to have an increasingly negative effect on his or her worldview.
The major RPG industry leader White Wolf has a whole World of Darkness where one can role-play vampires, werewolves, magicians, wraiths, mummies, demons, and various types of "fey". (The portrayal of the elves as virtual creatures of horror is again much different from Tolkien’s vision.) These forces are typically subdivided into various factions with differing goals, philosophies, and abilities which are described at great length, using various arcane vocabularies pillaged from various languages and fields of study. Interestingly enough, the playing of human "hunters" who oppose these various forces became possible only several years after the initial launch of the "World of Darkness"—which had begun with Vampire: The Masquerade. The RPG was so successful that there was a brief television series based on it. It has also inspired numerous novels, such as Nancy A. Collins’ Sunglasses After Dark, with its vampire heroine, Sonja Blue. Appearing originally in 1989, it won the Horror Writing Association’s Bram Stoker Award as well as the British Fantasy Award. It was re-released in a 10th Anniversary Edition in the year 2000, with some graphic illustrations. White Wolf has also brought out a sci-fi role-playing game, Trinity, based on the premise of Psions struggling against Aberrants, who are twisted former humans with superhuman powers.
Among the more extreme products associated with White Wolf’s World of Darkness is Dead Magic: The Tome of Lost Cultures and Civilizations for Mage: The Ascension. Produced under the imprint of the Black Dog Game Factory, it is clearly marked "for adults only"—although one wonders whether that is only designed to entice younger people. One of the main themes of the book appears to be the elaborate process by which an evil sorcerer can transform into a "liche"—a powerful, undead being. But what is perhaps more troubling is the mixture of real mythology and history that is thrown into a hash to conform to the background of White Wolf’s World of Darkness. In today’s world, where so little is known by non-specialists about the mythologies and histories of aboriginal and ancient societies, it is possible that some people may end up basing much of their knowledge of Mesopotamia, or even of Greece and Rome, on this kind of product. And that would be an intellectual travesty similar in some ways to that promoted in the grossly a-historical (if far less horrific) Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess television series.
FASA (another major company) had earlier supported the sci-fi miniatures system, Vor: The Maelstrom, whose premise was that evil energies had broken the Earth up into a twisted shell, and a few humans clung precariously to survival. One of the flagship RPG systems of FASA is Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine. Shadowrun is mainly based on the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction; however, it introduces a further twist on the theme. There is the introduction of so-called metahumanity (elves, dwarves, orks, trolls), all manner of other creatures of legend (dragons, etc.), and the possibility of magical practice for most beings—including normal humans—into a high-tech, gritty cyberpunk world. The setting’s premise for this evolution is an upsurge of an enormous wave of magical and occult energies around the year 2010.
Some might suggest that our own world today is one "where man meets magic and machine." There is a burgeoning of the most fantastic occult tendencies today, combined with surreal advances in technology. Shadowrun may both point to an increasingly dystopic world, as well as possibly offer some aid in understanding the parameters of such a future, under siege from both the hyper-irrational (the occult, conspiracy theories, extreme forms of rock music), and the hyper-rational (hyper-technology, socio-technical controls, and corporate/bureaucratic rule).
Among the interesting supplements to Shadowrun is the London Sourcebook (1991), which portrays Shadowrun’s vision of the British Isles. Much of England and Scotland are covered by toxic waste areas. On the fringes in Wales and Scotland, magical forces have increasingly taken hold. Wales is a large Elven center, while Tir Nan Og (Ireland) is under the rule of the Shidhe (pronounced "Shee"—"the elves").
There are at least four aspects of this sourcebook that could be seen as reflections on longstanding aspects of English character.
First of all, the notion that the use of magic is tightly controlled and licensed. This parallels the fact that today and traditionally in Britain, guns are very tightly controlled. (One remembers the line from Sting’s classic rock song, "An Englishman in New York": "takes more than a license to own a gun.")
Secondly, there is the office of Lord Protector (which seems to be an especially favored title in many sci-fi scenarios). It could be argued that a term like Lord Protector is too-antique-sounding for this type of background. Also, it is historically associated with Cromwell, who presided over the execution of Charles I (1649); so it has never in fact coexisted with the monarchy, or with traditional aristocratic titles, as it uneasily does in this background.
Thirdly, the hypothesized British society is portrayed as one with all manner of class intricacies, and with various inter-class, inter-ethnic, and "inter-special" (humanity and metahumanity) rivalries. Ironically, given the wrenching effects of the posited hypertechnology and the flux of magic, the hypothesized Britain has emerged as seemingly more traditionalist than it is today. It must be said that the notion of "young Elven aristocrats" is a rich conceit, one perhaps that can be appreciated even more if one has had some actual contact with English notions.
Fourthly, in the fashion common among the British Left, the actual nature of the rule by privileged families (the condition of England for much of its earlier history) is said to be far different than it appears on the surface. The authors of the supplement have taken great relish in "revising" the now-prevalent notions of Elves in the conventions of fantasy, derived most obviously from Tolkien. In a sense, they are returning to a more traditional view of Elfin nature. (It is interesting that in many dictionaries, elf and goblin are listed as synonyms.) While the Shadowrun elves largely retain qualities of physical attractiveness, it is obvious that many of them are "racists", and that (at the extreme) they are plotting genocide. In a not entirely resolved contradiction, the quasi-Masonic organization that is led by the English Druids is actually an advocate of pure-human chauvinism. In the supplement, this "new Freemasonry" is seen as extremely powerful in Britain, far more powerful than the actual Freemasons would appear to be today. It has sometimes been argued that in Britain (as opposed to the Continent), Freemasonry has operated as a right-wing, conservative force.
If the Elves are portrayed as at least somewhat sinister, the picture of Orks and Trolls is also highly "revisionist". The conventional view of these creatures in the fantasy genre is also derived heavily from Tolkien. In a rather striking twist on the familiar theme, while the Orks’ and Trolls’ physical appearance remains rather grotesque, they retain entirely normal intellectual and emotional traits (though perhaps somewhat prone to emotions). Thus, they almost invariably become an oppressed proletariat—others typically judge them by their appearance, not by their character and worth.
One could mention here the Shadowrun-related product, High Tech & Low Life: The Art of Shadowrun (1997), which has an interesting written introduction, followed by virtually all of the art that had appeared up to that time with the Shadowrun products.
Another RPG product of FASA, Earthdawn, gives a prominent role to "The Horrors" in its portrayal of a fantasy world. Earthdawn had been passed on to another company quite some time ago.
The other major intellectual property of FASA is the BattleTech universe. This portrays futuristic combat based around so-called "Mechs" (huge, human-crewed war-robots—for which the generic term, derived from Japanese animation, is "mecha") set in a universe of warring feudal Houses and Regiments. These space empires are mostly inspired by European (Russia, Germany, and Scotland) and Oriental (Japan and China) societies.
FASA announced in January 2001 that it would be closing down by April 2001. However, its two main creations, Battletech and Shadowrun, were transferred to Wizkids LLC. Wizkids has come out with the hugely popular miniatures collectible game, MageKnight, and is owned by the son of FASA’s chief executive (the son was also a co-founder of FASA in 1980).
Games Workshop: Warhammer
Another major company is Games Workshop, which supports board games, miniatures, and RPG’s based on its Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 A.D. backgrounds. The Warhammer background is dark-tinged fantasy. The Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) universe is utterly ferocious, a very dark space fantasy, summarized by the line, "In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war." In such a universe, there is no place for "soft religions" or "soft emotions." Earth’s stellar empire is guarded by ultra-elite, very heavily armored Space Marines, who battle against all manner of hideous foes (Genestealers, Tyrannids, and so forth) reminiscent of the Alien/s movie series. Another race somewhat allied to the humans is the Eldar. One finds that, despite the utter viciousness of the universe, there is an element of campiness in the whole construct. For example, there are Eldar warriors with Chinese Tao emblems, and the Orks who talk in a combination of English "yobbo" and African-American slang. It is probably not a coincidence that Warhammer/Warhammer 40,000 A.D. arose in Great Britain. Some have indeed suggested that it might have some degree of appeal to "fascist or skinhead elements". A fair number of "tie-in" novels placed in the universe are available. Indeed, the combined Warhammer universe could be seen as a fairly major, self-standing branch of gaming. In some large North American cities, it was able to support stores devoted exclusively to itself.
An example of the more horrific side of Warhammer 40,000 is the art-book, Inquis Exterminatus: Images from the Dark Millennium. The images portrayed and the supporting text seem like a grotesque parody of the Middle Ages, and of medieval Catholicism.
Let us now move on to other material. There is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, the main RPG based on H.P. Lovecraft’s delirious horror-stories. The central premise of Lovecraft’s writing is the existence of malevolent, very powerful, demonic creatures that will eventually come to dominate Earth "when the stars are right." These creatures have "slept" for many millennia, but are now beginning to awaken, encouraged by cultists grouped in various cabals. Pagan Publishing has produced a supplement to that game, called Delta Green, which enhances the Cthulhu mythos with extensive, surreal conspiracies. Delta Green is the name of the super-secret U.S. government agency—now operating in deep cover—which is trying to combat the rising tide of evil. Two other gruesome occult-horror games are Obsidian: The Age of Judgement and Kult. The latter is based on the premise that God is an evil Demiurge that tortures humankind by imposing "Illusion" on its members. Only a few occult practitioners can see the "Truth"—although, at the same time, the collapse of the barriers of Illusion bring various demons and evil creatures into the physical world. Interestingly enough, Kult was originally conceived by Swedish role-players, showing the nihilism that can arise in that social democratic "paradise". Obsidian, put out by a company called The Apophis Consortium, is based on the premise that demons have overrun almost all of the Earth except a Bastion, which is a gigantic building.
A game based on secret conflict between different occult groupings on Earth is Unknown Armies, by Atlas Games. Another RPG from Atlas Games is Over the Edge, a game of atmospheric horror set on the mythical Mediterranean island of Al Amarja. Nightfall Games have brought out a game of a very dark future, SLA Industries. Players compete with each other in gladiatorial-like fashion (using various futuristic weapons) under the direction of a vicious corporation, striving to become the most successful killers and thereby win success and notoriety as "entertainment" figures in the utterly debased media (which are also all owned by the all-powerful corporation).
Already in the 1980s, there had appeared a darkly satirical RPG called Paranoia, based on the premise of klutzy clones living in an underground complex run by a nasty, paranoid computer. The RPG inverted many of the standard role-playing tropes, such as concern for one’s player-character. Indeed, in Paranoia the clones were continually being killed off or meeting various gruesome accidents. It seemed like an off-the-wall kind of humor that would probably appeal mostly to rather jaded and cynical people.
The Whispering Vault (from Ronin Publishing) is another popular, Cthulhu-like setting. There was an RPG simply called Psychosis (from Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment)—a company that no longer exists. Last Unicorn Games’ Heresy, a "post-apocalyptic" setting, combined all manner of religious and social transgressions—although that setting was dropped by the company in favor of concentrating on Star Trek. Last Unicorn Games was also introducing darker elements into its flagship setting, the Star Trek universe. These included the portrayal of the more "twilight" world around Bajor (Deep Space Nine) as well as modules for role-playing in the Star Trek "crossover" universe, where, instead of the benign Federation, there was an evil Empire, with the starship crews continually plotting against each other and indulging in the most variegated vices. Of course, this evolution in Star Trek RPG’s is itself derived from the dark turn in the evolving portrayal of Star Trek in television and film, notably with the arrival of the very powerful, evil Borg and Dominion. One could mention here a fairly interesting book critical of many aspects of Star Trek, Michael Hertenstein’s The Double Vision of Star Trek: Half-Humans, Evil Twins, and Science Fiction (Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 1998).
Last Unicorn Games had been briefly taken over by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast. Because of earlier contractual arrangements, the takeover resulted in Last Unicorn Games’ loss of rights to Star Trek-based products. The major collectible card game (CCG) company, Decipher, has now acquired the rights to produce role-playing products based on Star Trek. And it has now hired most of the former Last Unicorn Games’ employees. However, Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast holds the right to produce role-playing and board games based on the enormously popular Star Wars background, which it acquired when the company West End Games (who had produced an earlier Star Wars RPG), went under. It was announced in January 2002 that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast had also picked up the CCG or TCG (Trading Card Game) rights to the Star Wars universe. Until that time, Decipher had produced an extensive array of Star Wars CCG products.
Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast is carrying out a massive effort to make the recently released Dungeons and Dragons, Third Edition (or "3E") the main template or game-engine for many role-playing backgrounds, under the so-called D20 (twenty-sided die) system. D20 Star Wars has already been brought out, and there is a D20 version of Deadlands: The Weird West being designed. It is expected that at some point most of the distinct RPG systems, such as those used in Call of Cthulhu or White Wolf’s World of Darkness, will appear in a version with D20 mechanics. Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast is also allowing any other company to bring out original products based on the D20 system—which they call "Open Source Gaming"—in the hopes of creating a major synergy on behalf of the RPG system. The concept is somewhat derived from the very popular idea (among some computer enthusiasts) of "Open Source Programming" (in an attempt to undermine the monopoly of such firms as Microsoft), of which Linux is the most prominent example. However, the irony may be that "Open Source Gaming" is meant to entrench the hegemony of the D20 system (Hasbro/WotC may well be the dominant gaming company today), whereas "Open Source Programming" challenges the hegemony of Microsoft, the dominant computer company. The essence of the arrangement is that D20 mechanics are combined with another company’s original creative content.
Another RPG brought out by Last Unicorn Games is based on Frank Herbert’s Dune. Although there was a small print-run of the Last Unicorn Games version of the Dune RPG brought out by Wizards of the Coast, it will probably be re-done in D20 format if WotC continues to hold the rights. The Holistic Design Inc. Fading Suns RPG, with its aristocrats, priests, and merchant guilds, is somewhat similar to the Dune universe. However, the idea that Fading Suns valorizes the aristocratic and priestly virtues is highly questionable. First of all, there is the curiously hypermodern emphasis on absolute gender equality: for example, noblewomen are portrayed as just as warlike and aggressive as male aristocrats. Secondly, the attitude to religion is rather derisory: for example, the Inquisitors armed with flame guns who are likely to flame first and ask questions later. One gets the impression that the religions of Fading Suns are almost invariably corrupt—merely a mask for power and sometimes for almost unbelievable cruelty (as in the orthodox religion’s treatment of those possessing psionic powers). Thirdly, there are some highly disturbing elements of genetic engineering, electromechanical body parts, and nanotechnology which could make the background rather horrific. One finds here notions of transgressive technology similar to that of extreme cyberpunk.
So this, too, is a very dark future. It should also be noted that Fading Suns is now being reworked in a D20 version. A fairly representative product of Fading Suns is the Lords and Priests sourcebook (2000), which consists of revised editions of Lords of the Known Worlds and Priests of the Celestial Sun . The historical and sociological templates from which the various noble Houses and religious groupings are derived are fairly easy to identify. For the noble Houses, these include Byzantium and medieval England, barbarous Muscovy, medieval Spain, medieval Islam, and ancient China and Japan. The religious factions are mostly based on medieval Catholicism, such as the main Church hierarchy, the crusading orders, the monastic orders, and the inquisitors. There are also factions of mystics and an order of compassionate healers.
Steve Jackson Games has brought out In Nomine, portraying the struggle between angels and demons in the current-day world, but in a manner very far from (and highly offensive to) Christian beliefs. (This was based on a French RPG authored by an iconoclastic figure identified only as "Croc".) Steve Jackson Games has also pioneered, in a tongue-in-cheek but somewhat disturbing fashion, the whole "surreal conspiracy" concept, typified by their Illuminati games and settings. There have also been some other disturbing modules in Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS), notably Black Ops, a concept based on the premise of a "secret super-agency" fighting against hidden aliens and supermonsters in the current-day world. The very popular CthulhuPunk combines the dark near-future cyberpunk genre with the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. Steve Jackson Games announced releases of products in 2001 around the theme of "Summer of Horror".
It should be noted further that the whole science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk (pioneered by, among others, William Gibson in Neuromancer, 1984) is often characterized by highly transgressive bio-tech (genetic manipulations of the sort which, for instance, give a human being one lizard-like arm), and nano-tech (the notion of micromachines altering human mind, body, and perception). It may be pointed out that today, NASA is said to be developing a nanotech-based deep space exploration tool called ANTS (Autonomous Nano Technology Swarm). There is often in cyberpunk the notion of human beings shoving various things into their brains and bodies (from mind-altering drugs to electromechanical implants of various kinds). Some of the GURPS modules contain the ideas of often gruesome genetic engineering—or "gengineering" (Bio-Tech)—and of technological and magical manipulation, i.e., so-called "techno-magic" (Technomancer). All this points to the malleability of human beings/human nature as one of the main themes of both cyberpunk and current-day society’s "future shock".
Steve Jackson Games is also re-issuing the old science fiction RPG Traveller under the GURPS umbrella. Interestingly, the earlier-posited darkening of the Traveller setting, engendered by a nanotechnology virus or plague that destroyed most of the galactic civilizations has been cancelled in favor of the continuing evolution of the rather benign Third Imperium. This dark turn seems to have proven unpopular among the more serious science fiction-oriented Traveller players.
A new GURPS background being developed is Transhuman Space. According to the Steve Jackson Games website, "This will be a fully supported, completely original hard science-fiction setting which features transhuman themes such as advanced biotechnology, sapient computers, self-replicating machines, aggressive space exploration, and scientific social engineering." The currently projected books in the series are Transhuman Space (core book), In the Well (inner solar system), The Fifth Wave (major power blocs on Earth), The High Frontier (off-world colonies in the Earth-Luna system), The Deep Beyond (outer solar system), Broken Dreams (the darker side of life on Earth), and Blue Shadow (undersea settlements on Earth). The line editor for the series will be David Pulver, who lives in Canada (according to the Steve Jackson Games website).
Another dark-future background being explored by Steve Jackson Games is OGRE. This is a dystopic future of constant war between continental power-blocs (such as the North American Combine and the Paneuropean Alliance), where the most powerful weapons are the huge cybernetic supertanks, called "Ogres" because of the awesome fear they inspire. The core product of the background is a war game which pits one OGRE against a large variety of armor, armored hovercraft, infantry, and artillery units defending a command post. A GURPS worldbook for OGRE has been released, and another one is expected, to be called The Factory States. Also, Steve Jackson Games is promising new horrors, with the linking of OGRE and the Cthulhu mythos.
Dream Pod 9 (known for its war-robots or "mecha" game, Heavy Gear, as well as its Solar System conflict game, The Jovian Chronicles) has also brought out an extreme occult-horror RPG, Tribe 8, with highly questionable references to Christian and Catholic beliefs. Heavy Gear, with its political conflict of a northern vs. southern power on Terra Nova, smacks of sociological ridiculousness. The social and cultural characteristics of the powers on Terra Nova are difficult to place into a coherent sociological framework. It may be noted that there is the very popular Heavy Gear computer game from Activision.
Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) (which has now gone bankrupt) had published an occult-horror module, Shades of Darkness, for their RPG system. They had also issued Nightmares of Mine, a horror-RPG sourcebook. ICE had carried the rights for RPG’s, CCG’s, board games, and maps based on Tolkien’s writings for over eighteen years, but the managers of the Tolkien franchise pulled the plug on the relationship in September 1999. A board game based on Lord of the Rings has now appeared from Hasbro. A CCG game is being released from Decipher when the massive Lord of the Rings movie project debuted in December 2001. Decipher has also acquired the rights to produce an RPG based on Lord of the Rings: they will be heavily utilizing the former staff of Last Unicorn Games for this. Games Workshop has received the right to produce a tabletop miniatures game based on the background. ICE’s MERP (or Middle Earth Role Playing game) was probably the second-best selling fantasy RPG.
Although it is a comparatively little known role-playing system, the Torg mythos is based on the premise of several so-called Cosms (or alternative realities) invading and taking over portions of the reality of our current-day Earth. Among these Cosms are ones of occult-horror, technological horror, and a technological parody of Catholic and Renaissance Europe, known as "the Cyberpapacy".
Another RPG which leans towards an imaginatively lurid background is Palladium’s Rifts. Its premise is that of a future world overwhelmed by a surge of occult and magical energies (resulting in an invasion of hordes of inhuman creatures, including multifarious demons). Rifts combines super-magic with super-technology. The super-technology ranges from suits of power-armor, which vastly enhance the capabilities of human soldiers, to various half-human, half-mechanical battle constructs and entirely electro-mechanical battle robots. A Palladium product with a bit of interesting political subtext is Free Quebec: Rifts World Book 22, which presents the Quebecois of the far-future as still fighting for independence from a North American Coalition. The book has a warning on its first page (part of which is cited below), which may not be exactly reassuring: "The fictional world of Rifts is violent, deadly and filled with supernatural monsters. Other-dimensional beings often referred to as ‘demons’ torment, stalk and prey on humans. Other alien life forms, monsters, gods and demigods, as well as magic, insanity, and war are all elements in this book." Rifts is considered, even by many role-players, as an "over-the-top" background, where the abilities and super-powers are simply overdone. It is said to appeal especially to "munchkins"—the term used in role-playing circles for those players who are keen on spectacularly killing as many creatures as possible and accumulating ever-increasing levels of power within the game.
In August, 2001, there appeared a rather ugly RPG called Little Fears, which billed itself as "the roleplaying game of childhood horror".
In December, 2001, Hogshead Publishing, a company known for its "cutting-edge" games, brought out De Profundis, a "New Style" RPG, inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This "free-form" game suggested, as the main vehicle for role-playing, carrying out an extensive back-and-forth correspondence with those engaged in the game. It also made the fairly bizarre suggestion of solo role-playing, calling it "solo psychodrama". It is difficult to envision how this might actually work. Some could pointedly say that it might consist of something like slowly being driven into a fractured psychological state, perhaps beginning to perceive the fictional malevolent entities of the Cthulhu Mythos (and their impact on the player) as real.
The extent to which some gamers desire an "immersive" gaming experience is attested to by the catch-phrase of the Majestic online thriller/conspiracy game, "Play the game that plays you." Players who had registered online would—as part of the game—sometimes receive threatening and cryptic phone-messages and e-mails relating to the activities they were pursuing in the game setting. Some might take a dim view of this—that people with small imaginations, lacking all excitement in their lives and with too much time and money on their hands—were trying to effectively drive themselves into a state of simulated paranoia in order to heighten the sense that, after all, they "were important"—that "they mattered."
Trading Card Games and Live Action Roleplaying Games
Trading card games (TCG’s) (also called, collectible card games or CCG’s) are a distinct genre from role-playing games, yet many of the same themes pointed out above, continually reappear. Even the standard, Magic: The Gathering, features large numbers of horror images. And then there are CCG’s based on struggles between vampire factions, as well as (again) the Cthulhu mythos. A card game previously offered by WOTC/TSR was C*23, where cybernetically enhanced HyperShock Troopers battled against monstrous humanoid insects called the Angelans. In a recent reorganization, many of the less successful CCG lines at WOTC/TSR were retired. Much of the CCG’s appeal is based on stimulating a combination of gambling and collector’s mania. This is because the cards are sold in sealed packets, and there are only a few very strong cards mixed in with the more standard cards. (It is somewhat like buying tickets in a lottery, where only a few cards are "big winners".)
Another type of role-playing is LARP’s (Live Action Role-Playing) games. This is certainly taking the RPG concept even further. Among the most popular LARP’s are those involving horror subgenres such as the Cthulhu mythos or vampires.
In September, 2001, there appeared a distasteful, darkly satirical booklet, called Vigilante, ostensibly in the form of a LARP, which apparently called on its readers to kill as many people as possible that they "didn’t like".
A rather telling comment about role-playing games on an RPG website—although it was obviously meant to be flip—described them as "kinda like porn, but with more killing." There are certainly convergences there—the appeal to a frustrated "geek" element, the exaggerated theatricality and braggadocio, the "stage-managed" nature of both, the lurid excesses of fantasy and sexual fantasy.
"Geeks" in North America
Many of the games and other products discussed above are really varieties of "geek subgenres" The person who is stereotypically a geek in high school faces the question of whether he can ever transcend his geekiness/geekhood to hopefully go on to something better, higher, and richer in terms of personality and achievements.
There are a variety of terms for the geek—dweeb, nerd, loser, computer-geek, arts-geek, female geek. There are many socio-sexual aspects of the late modern crisis in North America that are wrapped up in the typical geek-predicaments.
There has been a precipitous shift of emphasis in the various geek subgenres. Collectible card games (or trading card games), which are based on the combination of gambling and collecting impulses, could be seen as a highly brazen exploitation of socially awkward young men in a cultural vacuum. In science-fiction fandom, a small core of super-enthusiasts practically defines the genre. For example, the total membership of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)—which also includes Canadian and other foreign writers—is only about a thousand persons. The minimum criteria for full membership are professional publication of a novel, or of three short stories in recognized publications, with payment of at least 3 cents US (recently raised to 5 cents, I believe) a word. The criteria for recognized publication are set so tightly that there are little more than three magazines (i.e., Analog, Asimov’s, and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) that qualify as such. It has been estimated that little more than a 100 science fiction and fantasy authors are making a reasonable living through the genre in the U.S. and Canada. Also, the current-day push towards promotion of women and minorities in science fiction and fantasy is obviously at the expense of the white geek, for whom this genre perhaps remains rare area of triumph in late modernity. Historical board-gaming or war-gaming, which was once a major subgenre, is now fading fast. Numerous pop-cultural factors seem to be working against it. The direction of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) has been towards increasing grossness as well as political correctness. The obsession by some persons (usually of high intelligence) with role-playing games is arguably possible only in an almost entirely historyless milieu.
The above survey of these aspects of pop-culture has been partially inspired by William D. Romanowski's Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life. Three main conclusions can be drawn from this burgeoning tide of society's playing around with dark themes.
First of all, there is the uttermost and thoroughgoing atheism and/or nihilism of many young people today. For such people, the notion of surrounding, powerful dark forces is the basis only of diversionary, jaded entertainments. It should be made clear that they do not actually believe in vampires, demons, and conspiracies—but are even more remote from believing in God. Yet, those who indulge in these amusements in a longstanding and obsessive fashion may open themselves up to a more concrete embrace of evil.
Secondly, RPG’s can flourish only in a history-less milieu, where there are no identifications with the long history of one’s nation or people. It is also a milieu of highly pampered comfort. These young people have virtually never felt any real deprivation in their lives, nor confronted sharp existential dilemmas such as those in a world living under the shadow of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. These young people have never faced a real test of character or conviction. Although we are now said by some to be engaged in "World War IV"—which might contribute to an atmosphere of "moral clarity"—millions of Americans and Europeans appear entirely unaffected by the necessities of the struggle. (Among the most popular albums today is Green Day’s American Idiot, whose ranting anti-patriotic lyrics and spoken fragments must surely strike most Americans—and especially the American soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq—as an abomination.) The self-absorbed participation in imaginative or pseudo-imaginative exaltation as mere entertainment is possible only in a late modern milieu where a person has usually never had to do real work, real thinking, and real fighting.
The third point is that, in the late modern milieu, RPG’s serve a role similar to the "Violent Passion Surrogate" (VPS) described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The life of these young people is all too comfortable, all too boring, and lacks real meaning. The RPG supplies a kind of VPS, ersatz meaning, and (in some cases) "sense of history" (virtually all RPG’s of whatever subgenre have highly elaborate backgrounds). One notices the catchphrase of the Call to Power II computer game from Activision: "History is what you make it."
It may be remembered that the advertising catchphrase of the recent hit-movie, The Matrix, which portrayed a dark future based on extrapolating both AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (Virtual Reality), was simply that "reality is a thing of the past." A number of meanings can be attached to this phrase. For one thing, our own life in late modernity is often so fluid and malleable that it may seem that there is no "hard reality" to ever get hold of. The information traffic we are all caught in leads to a "postmodern blur". For another, the notion of reality may be tied to the sense of both a personal and historical past, of having a sense of ongoing continuity in our daily living. Insofar as we become wrapped up in a never-ending series of fantasies and phantasms, our sense of reality becomes profoundly fractured.
It could be argued that late modernity, as expressed through audiovisual, electronic and role-playing media, effectively "externalizes" and "commodifies" the imaginary, the imagination, and the imaginarium (a person’s imaginative faculties and processes) as a construct outside of the person’s own creative capacities. There is in most cases a profound difference between reading a book and experiencing multi-media. The former usually involves an active exercise of one’s imaginative faculties, whereas the latter is usually a passive reception of someone else’s imagery, even when there is supposed "interactivity" provided.
It could be argued that a sense of imagination usually co-exists vigorously with a sharp sense of reality. In a world where image and reality blend into a postmodern blur, real imagination and creativity are probably as difficult to achieve as a sharp sense of reality.
One may be reminded how much of the late modern world is based on so-called branding: selling the image of a product or celebrity, usually for driving forward or increasing commercial gain. Among the consumerist and consumptionist pushing of commercial brands, there is the mass-marketing of numerous entertainment "franchises"—some of which are based on a once relatively original conceptual impulse—while others are commercially driven right from the start. In both cases, the multiplication of images and concrete objects related to the "franchise" is so overwhelming, that it becomes extremely pervasive across much of the culture. Truly serious religious and national impulses, which have developed slowly over centuries tend to wane in the face of these highly ephemeral, but often fanatically followed, "brands" and "franchises". There is a tendency for the disappearance of non-materialist outlooks (such as those tied to the duties and obligations of traditional religion or nation) in favor of a vast orgy of material consumption and a frenzy of imaginative overloading and short-circuiting that often amounts to intellectual narcissism.
VR offers the idea of solipsistic self-creation where the notion of human nature and natural limits has been utterly abolished. The computer-generated images often purveyed in current-day sci-fi movies (and television programs, especially the new crop of "cyber" programs for children) are often grotesquely unnatural, transgressive, and rather horrific, especially if considered in relation to those sights regularly to be seen in the human and natural worlds. They strongly project a gnostic, pseudo-spiritual transcendence of the material world.
VR is obviously linked to the postmodern (or hypermodern) notions of radical autonomy, and of continual deconstruction, self-construction, and reconstruction, unhampered by God, nature, or history. The notion of the radically disembodied self (divorced from family, history, and religion) is inevitably amorphous. While elevating individualism above all else, the self in late modern society becomes a shallow, banal construct, filled with mass-media images and concepts and pseudo-collectivities, often of the lowest common denominator. So the cult of individualism of late modernity actually leads to an atrophy of true individuality and character, and the submersion of most people in a series of very low, herd- or mass-mentalities.
One may wonder what the ultimate point of life becomes, if it consists of a series of ever more jaded entertainments and diversions. However exciting The X-Files television program is, at some point, a sense of futility and meaninglessness about the whole enterprise probably sets in. It is possible that there may be some satisfaction in taking a beginning-level character in an RPG to a highly proficient and successful figure, displaying the gamer’s own artful acuity and cleverness in the process. But at some point, the player-character (if very successful) will become something like the equivalent of a deity in the "game-world" and character and game interaction will seem ridiculous or too abstract. Indeed, it could be argued that the open-ended nature of RPG’s, while pleasing at first, is ultimately a drawback. On the other hand, darker RPG’s in which the character’s primary game goals are just staying sane or staying alive also seem unsatisfying. In either case, the real experiences gained over what sometimes may be thousands of hours of commitment may be rather meager. Is there even a substantial degree of real friendship built up between persons in the same gaming group? Are there not some better endeavors in which one’s time could be spent? It could be argued that, in the end, carrying out the real tasks of life while trying to gain true knowledge about the world and our human state is not only worthier, but more truly meaningful. Or, to put it in the current idiom (taken from the cutting-edge cyberpunk work, Smoking Mirror Blues, by Ernest Hogan): "Reality is the only game worth playing."
Dark Futures in Gaming: Some Further Explorations
The mention of or reference to any companies or products in the following article is not a challenge to the trademarks or copyrights involved.
In his essay, "A Dark Turn in the Pop-culture", the author has discussed some of the aspects of "Bleak Future and Occult-Horror Subgenres in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming". In this follow-up piece, the author intends to look at some other "Dark Future" settings.
What are some the leading "dark futures" featured in gaming? It may be noted that, with their typical emphasis on planet-wide disintegration and/or corporate control, as well as individual interactions, board games on anything above a tactical level are a rarity. The "dark future" also lends itself to miniatures gaming.
"Dark futures" may be seen as divided into two broad categories: near-future (often coterminous with cyberpunk) or far-future. Probably the best known example of this kind of far-future is Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K), which is a self-standing system, focussed on separate board games as well as miniatures, though it also has a role-playing system based on that "world". Warhammer 40,000 A.D. has been discussed in the previous essay, "A Dark Turn in the Pop-culture".
Shadowrun (Chicago, Illinois: FASA Corporation)
Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine (FASA), is one of the more successful cyberpunk role-playing games (RPG’s). It was discussed in the previous essay.
Cyberspace (Charlottesville, Virginia: ICE [Iron Crown Enterprises])
CyberEurope: A Campaign Sourcebook for Cyberspace (1991); Anders Blixt, Principal Author; Kevin Barrett, Editor; 112 b & w pages, color front/backcover, 17" x 22" full-color map.
This product, put together by a group of Swedish role-players, is (with some exceptions) probably the least gruesome of the cyberpunk futures. It is set in the Europe of the 2090s. Some might feel that the European national governments (with their powerful military forces) and the Roman Catholic Church hold greater power in that projected future than they do today.
The authors write, "The military’s strict code of honor is based on 19th century equivalents from France and Prussia; codes that strongly stress duty, discipline, obedience and self-sacrifice. An officer must always be a gentleman.... The officers see themselves as the defenders of Europe’s culture and greatness against what they perceive as threats from Europe’s corrupt and dishonorable politicians, greedy, unpatriotic and scheming Megacorps and fanatical, incomprehensible Arabs" (p. 74).
The Catholic Church is also engaged in active struggle against the Megacorps. The designers, however, could be seen to have misunderstood the internal politics of the Church. The conservative tradition as it exists in the Catholic Church (as represented, for example, by Opus Dei) is, generally-speaking, as fundamentally anti-capitalist as that of the Catholic Left. In a situation of Megacorps world hegemony, insofar as the Church had some freedom of maneuver, conservative Catholics would be just as "radically" in opposition to the prevalent system as the Catholic Left.
The emergence of a Russian neo-traditionalist, nationalist regime in "The Third Commonwealth of Independent States" is a fair prediction, though it might not necessarily be any larger than current-day Russia (i.e., it would not include Belarus and Ukraine). The notion of Poles in Byelorussia fighting for reunification with Poland is an interesting, if far-fetched, concept. Poland, if it ever departed from its very pacific current-day policies, would be more likely to first claim the area identified in this sourcebook as "Baltia" (i.e., the area around the town currently known as Kaliningrad—called Królewiec in Polish, and Konigsberg in German).
The most gruesome aspects of the future world appear in Great Britain, where the projections are clearly meant as parodic and satirical. The aim of the exercise was presumably a bitter spoof (and a rather poorly executed one at that) on Thatcherite policies. Could anyone believe that the Republic of Ireland will in any possible future be in danger from British imperialism? Indeed, in this sourcebook, Great Britain, which has initiated a brutal occupation of all Ireland, is also the most violent, decadent, and polluted of the countries described. A substantial portion of it (the Manchester-Leeds Deletion) is irradiated owing to some grotesquely tragicomic circumstances.
Some might suggest that a far different view of the future of the British Isles would be better in keeping with the less obviously dystopic nature of this future.
Cyberpunk 2020 (Berkeley, California: R. Talsorian Games):
EuroSource: The EuroTheatre Sourcebook for Cyberpunk (1991) Mark Galeotti, author; 80 b & w pages, color front/backcover.
This sourcebook has some rather interesting touches. Germany is very powerful and looks more traditional than today. France is also a major power. The sociological trend known as "dream-painting" can of course, be seen, as a trend somewhat connected to today’s Generation X. (A similar current-day phenomenon is discussed in Adrienne Miller and Andrew Goldblatt, The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers Who Underachieve [New York: William Morrow, 1989], and in Doug Coupland’s Microserfs.) The "hellholes" in this region are the largely irradiated Turkey, North Africa, and Middle East (apart from Israel); the New Central Europe (a place for cheap-labour, heavily polluting industries, and dumping waste); and (as in many cyberpunk scenarios) Great Britain. (One supposes that this is again an ironic commentary on the Thatcher years.) Great Britain is under a military government that uses Orwellian-sounding abbreviations (e.g., LONDURMARLAUTH—for London Urban Martial Law Authority). In a rather curious twist, the military has removed both the monarchy and much of the traditional aristocracy; indeed, they have apparently murdered the royal family, and Royalists are among the numerous rebel groups fighting the military. Northern Ireland is in a full-blown civil war, but the Republic of Ireland is largely unaffected. The British situation appears especially parodic and overdone, as is the one in NCE. The resistance movement in NCE, consisting of an alliance of the various nationalists, goes by the rather bland name of "3000". (One could call it "Wola"—which means "will" or "freedom" in most Slavic languages.)
In any event, that kind of situation is now very unlikely. Near the end of the Communist regimes, there was indeed an instance where a Polish Communist minister had been bribed into allowing the dumping of several tonnes of radioactive waste in the Polish countryside by a German company. And there was the rather horrendous environmental record of all the East-Central European Communist regimes. However, as the East-Central European economies take off, that will become increasingly unlikely. Some economists have estimated that by the year 2020, the GNP of Poland alone might be equivalent to that of Russia, if current trends continue. Presumably ever-lighter industries will replace the grimy industrial factories.
During an interview with American television, Zhirinovsky had justified his comment of "fanning nuclear waste onto Lithuania" by claiming that the West was dumping nuclear and toxic chemical waste throughout Russia. One wonders to what extent this is true. However, the Soviet Union throughout its history has had an absolutely horrific environmental record, which became widely known only after its fall.
Eurosource Plus: The New Eurotheater Sourcebook for Cyberpunk (1995) José Ramos, Florian Merx, and Steve Gill, authors; 144 b & w pages, color front/backcover.
The ink was barely dry on the previous sourcebook, and it was already in many ways out of date. In a somewhat questionable move, the "future past" timeline from 1990 was continued, thereby already making the "near-future" an "alternate-history". The "hellholes" of this region are as in the previous sourcebook, though perhaps slightly less grim. Poland is characterized as a personal dictatorship, with a crime-fighting secret police called "the Harbingers" (incidentally, the likely Polish term for these would be "Wici"). In a rather ironic commentary on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, a breakaway "Church of Poland" is posited in protest against the further liberalization of the Roman Catholic Church (after the death of John Paul II). Such a breakaway movement is clearly unlikely.
GURPS (Generic Univeral Role-Playing System) Cyberpunk: High-Tech Low-Life Role-Playing Sourcebook (Austin, TX: Steve Jackson Games, 1990); Lloyd Blankenship, author; 128 b & w pages; color front/backcover; glossary; bibliography - books and short stories, comic books and graphic novels, movies and television, magazines and electronic newsletters; index.
Despite the somewhat weaker graphics inside, this is in many ways a superlative product. (A prototype of the sourcebook and other Steve Jackson Games property was seized in 1990 by the U.S. Secret Service as part of an "anti-hacker crackdown". Steve Jackson Games was eventually vindicated in court, and gained a lot of publicity for its products. This raid was also one of the catalysts for the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends online freedom of expression.) The sourcebook benefits from its generic nature, it does not have to take place in one specified cyberpunk background. Thus, the sourcebook can experiment with various alternative concepts, and alternatives to alternatives; e.g. "Cross-Genre Cyberpunk", which may include occult-horror or comic-book superheroes mixed with cyberpunk. In what is probably a typical Steve Jackson GURPS trait, large amounts of information are offered in comparatively short amounts of text; e.g., in one sidebar, "Cyperpunk Soundtracks", there is a list of current music genres that can easily fit into the cyberpunk campaign. For example, New Age music is said to be evocative of floating through cyberspace.
The "Politics" section (pp. 106-109) in "World Design" is outstanding, considering its shortness. Among its clever points is a quick evaluation of the type of future world in terms of how many sovereign powers there exist. The 1-sovereignty model is a world-government, with no competing sovereignties. There are presumably large international armed forces and any local rebellions are quickly stamped out. The 10-sovereignty model presupposes regional blocs that could be in ferocious conflict with each other or have minor conflicts among their small client states. The 100-sovereignty model (which resembles our own world) presupposes a number of larger states and a fair number of smaller entities. The 1,000-sovereignty model could include mega-corporations (such as Microsoft) as sovereign entities. It presupposes intense fragmentation of the world—and suggests that once such a devolution take place, conflicts on the planet would probably become perennial, rendering a return to larger entities difficult.
The booklet’s "Glossary" and "Bibliography" are nice touches. The sourcebook would in many ways be useful to persons interested in the cyberpunk subgenre as well as broader futurological-type endeavors. One of the most striking themes is the "unnaturalism" of the cyberpunk future, with all manner of mechanical and electronic interfaces and grotesque interpenetrations of man and machine, as well as the ever-accelerating dying out of Nature. Indeed, the booklet’s brief look at the future of ecological movements is fairly derisory, though this may not be surprising, given the dark premise.
The World of TANK GIRL (Honesdale, PA: West End Games, 1995); Bill Olmesdahl and Brian Schomburg, authors; 160 b & w pages; color front/backcover. MasterBook system (world-book available separately, or sold in boxed edition with MasterBook, 2 MasterDecks, and 2 10 sided-dice. Full-color image on front and back of world-book is identical to that on the front and back of the box.
Based on the 1995 movie (numerous stills from the movie are featured), this is an overwhelmingly parodic premise. One supposes that by the 1990s, cynicism had reached the extent where even apocalyptic situations were being played for laughs. Perhaps the real subtext of the setting is the desire to feel oneself free of any and all authority.
Incidentally, the often Australian-based, combined theme of water-shortage and strong women occurs in, among other places, Charles Sheffield’s Trader’s World (Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1988; the "Strine" society. However, Sheffield’s work was criticized for being in many ways a throwback to the 1950s on the ethno-cultural axis, as opposed to its decidedly more progressive attitudes in terms of the feminist axis.
Millennium’s End: GM’s Companion (Blacksburg, VA: Chameleon Eclectic Enterntainment [CEE], 1994); Charles Ryan, author; 144 b & w pages, Lingo, pp. 137-139, Appendix; In-Genre Film, pp. 140-143; color front/backcover.
This is a superbly produced product in support of CEE’s Millennium’s End dark-tinged, near-future, techno-thriller role-playing game. Millennium’s End is one of the leading techno-thriller RPG’s.
Twilight: 2000 (Bloomington, IL: GDW [Game Designers’ Workshop])
Twilight: 2000 is the "front end" of the GDW future-history, which now (very fortunately, it may be said) stands as twice-discredited in its near-future, in both the first and second variants. It was originally derived from the series of GDW board war games depicting a NATO vs. Soviet conflict: i.e., World War III. The premise was that, as the major powers increasingly battered themselves in a hopeless war (eventually involving nuclear, biological, and chemical [NBC] components), civilization in Europe itself began to significantly devolve. About the only remaining focus of authority was the remnants of military formations, using increasingly primitive equipment. In such situations, a single tank, if it had a steady supply of fuel and ammo, could be decisive. Twilight: 2000 is a brutal, savage setting, where killing and fighting are continuous. One suspects that mostly history-less North Americans, who are actually the farthest from such a reality, derive the most vicarious pleasure from immersion in such a simulation. Persons who are more conscious of history are likely to be repelled by it.
White Eagle: The Fate of All Poland Hangs in the Balance (1990); Loren K. Wiseman, designer; 48 b & w pages; color front/backcover.
To begin with, the designer has a very superficial understanding of the Polish language, virtually all of the case endings are wrong, many common names of persons and places are misspelled ("Wojiech" should be "Wojciech", "Wojsko Ludowa" should be "Wojsko Ludowe", etc., etc.). Despite an honest attempt to incorporate some aspects of the Polish spirit, the designer simply lacks the necessary historical background. For example, Polish nationalist partisans would not name their formations after the (discredited) Communist-era "People’s Army" (Wojsko Ludowe); and their banners would have the crowned, not un-crowned White Eagle. The premise of this near-future would already be seen by many as offensive, quite without adding insult to injury by (in some very important respects) a perfunctory design effort.
Twilight: 2000, 2nd Edition
East Europe Sourcebook (1994); Craig Sheeley, designer; Loren Wiseman, development; 104 b & w pages; color front/backcover; 17" x 22" full-color map.
The designers have again struck out on their description of Poland, particularly in the "History" section. Contrary to what the designer says, the German minority in Poland is very small today; one wonders what (misleading) sources were consulted. The "History", even in the strictly historical part, borders on the ridiculous. Friction between Poland and Germany is a rather unlikely premise for the beginning of World War III; there are simply very few ethnic Germans in Poland, and Germany is today, it should be remembered, a thoroughly liberal, consumerist, and unmartial society. The idea of Polish-Russian accommodation at the expense of (for instance) the Baltics, Byelorussia, and Ukraine is certainly unlikely: Poles obviously lack the ferocity to carry something like this through, whereas Russian chauvinists typically see Poland as an enemy. The most useful part of this sourcebook is probably the "Vehicles" section (pp. 70-103), with very fine illustrations and stats.
Rendezvous in Krakow, Book One of the Vistula Epic (1995); Loren K. Wiseman, designer; 48 b & w pages; color front/backcover.
Despite some spelling mistakes, this module emerges as the most competently done of the Twilight: 2000 material being reviewed here. The setting is less obviously gruesome than that typical of this game. The core of the setting is the Old Town of Krakow (with a map obviously copied from some tourist guide), which has stood since the Medieval period. This is actually a module where the body count might well remain in the single digits—apparently a rarity in this system.
Dark Horizon: Escape, An APE Game of Prisoner Agents vs. CorpsGuards in a Bleak Future (Magnolia, TX: APE [Advanced Primate Entertainment])
10 Future Warrior Grenadier miniatures; 5 full color floor tile sheets—45 pieces total; 1 sheet including 12 full-color piece and stands; 24 Close Combat cards; 32 page rulebook; 10 UV-coated, erasable player forms; 1 sheet with 120 die-cut counters; 1 felt-tipped pen; 4 6-sided dice; Kevin Brusky, designer.
Scale: "Squares are 1.25" across, and represent about nine feet. Game turns are broken into a series of 15 one-second impulses. This means that four game turns make one minute of ‘real’ time" (p. 4).
This lavishly produced game is essentially rules for a man-to-man combat system (for no more than five combatants per side in any one general area) using the finely crafted miniatures on the floor-tile sheets, with various support sheets. The societal background (a corporate-run dystopia), it must be said, appears to have been put in on a rather perfunctory basis. The main point of the game appears the slam-bang kind of action most often found in arcade-style computer games.
The disjunction between the amount of effort put into the production of physical components and that devoted to sketching out the background is rather too jarring.
Cybernaut: The Duel for Cyberspace (Sacramento, CA: One Small Step [OSS], 1996); Joe Miranda, designer; appeared in Competitive Edge (formerly GameFix) no. 11; printed, full-color cardstock sheet yielding 120 double-sided counters—requires careful assembly; 11" x 17" map; introductory essay, pp. 9-12; rules, pp. 13-20; "A Guide to NSA Strategy", pp. 21-25).
One of the few cyberpunk board games available, Cybernaut is actually a twist on the conventions of the genre. It posits one world government called STATQUO... perhaps something like "World Union for Peace and Progress" or "the United Nations" would have been a more likely term for such an entity. A small number of super-hackers are challenging STAQUO’s NSA (Net Security Agency: the reappearance of German SS runes is highly gratuitous—typical one-worlders are more likely to have a dove or flower as their emblem, the better to mask their hidden agenda, some would say). In a rather sharp reversal of the subgenre conventions, this handful of individuals is said to be initiating the revolution that will topple STATQUO. In the reviewer’s opinion, Joe Miranda should have either explained that these super-hackers’ activities are simply a schematic for what is being repeated tens of millions of times over in that world (as the planet-wide revolution against STATQUO begins), or have refocussed the game on the merely individual flourishing/survival of these super-hackers. As currently posited, the situation has a highly naive optimism about the possibility of revolutions in a dystopian world, as well as a grossly exaggerated inflation of the one resisting individual hacker. The message of cyberpunk appears much different: the individual is thrown into a rather inhuman technological system of which he or she understands little, on which he or she can have little impact, and where personal flourishing/survival is the paramount question. Serious politics is dead.
Supremacy: The Game of the Superpowers (Buffalo, NY: Supremacy Games); Robert J. Simpson, designer; Third Edition, 1992 (First Edition, 1984); 30" x 20" game board, 65 cards, six charts, 370 plastic playing pieces: armies, navies and mushroom clouds; 260 bills of game money; banker’s tray; rule book; four six-sided dice.
This game, in some ways a derivative of the simple, abstract "conquer-the-world" war game Risk, would delineate a highly dystopian world if one were to take it as a literal projection of the future. The main game, and its various supplements and extensions (of which there are too many to list here), is full of really savage weapons-systems, running the full NBC (Nuclear-Biological-Chemical) spectrum, as well as space-based systems (e.g., orbital laser satellites). It gives a whole new meaning to "victory at all costs". Many of these games end with the sprouting across the planet of nuclear mushroom clouds.
Looking at the above items and those discussed in my earlier essay on "A Dark Turn in Pop-culture", I perceive a progressive turning away from politics and history (even in its most attenuated form) in many of the gaming subgenres. There is in the last few years a burgeoning of dark space fantasy, dark fantasy, and outright horror in RPG’s and videogames. It appears that late modern society is indeed being overwhelmed by various kinds of ever more florid simulacra.
Teacher, Make Me Wise!
The articulate exponent of Greek Stoicism Epictetus was no writer. Like Socrates, Confucius, and Jesus, he would have left no record of his teachings if a disciple had not undertaken to set them down. The amanuensis in this case was one Flavius Arrianus (not the Arrian who accompanied Alexander and later wrote a history of his miraculous journey of conquest). As a speaker inured to verbal exchange, then, rather than a dreamer perched with pen in an ivory tower, Epictetus knew well the frustrations of today’s classroom teacher. Not infrequently, if one may judge by the accounts of Arrian, the master chided his pupils for the un-teachable attitudes which they carried into his presence.
Ponder whether this verbal portrait would not fit the profile of many a graduate student and college professor today. It appears in a selection entitled, "To Those Who Take Up Philosophy Only to Chatter About It" (Book II, xix):
Epictetus goes on to concede that building such castles in the sky is of no great harm in literary studies—but that in matters ethical, it wholly undermines the good life.
Have you ever wondered what a zealous disciple of Derrida would do if the smoke alarm went off? Probably not shrug urbanely and proceed to prove that the carbon content of any given atmospheric volume can be considered either toxic or negligible by shifting reference points. Au contraire—we know darned well that he would be the first guy out the door and down the staircase! And have you ever had occasion to observe a Marxist professor’s interest in his IRA’s progress? If people are frauds generally, the pedant captures the very spirit of fraudulence: to borrow a timeless phrase from Eric Voegelin, theirs is an intellectual swindle.
A slightly later essay in Arrian’s collection is dedicated "To One Whom He Did Not Consider Worthy of His Efforts" (Book II, xxiv). A pupil who appears to have attended lectures rather briefly—and always only with the intent of catching the Master’s eye and posing him a question—has tried Epictetus’s patience for so long that he devotes a few choice words to the situation.
Epictetus again recurs to Homer (something all ancient philosophers were fond of doing, as we know from Plato). He observes that even the epic quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles originated in a basic misunderstanding about τα συμφέροντα: the appropriate, the rationally balanced. Both forget their purpose for being on the shores of Troy, and they can only—as we say today—talk past each other. The pupil in question seems to be rather preoccupied with his wealth, his good looks, and his oratorical skill. He is no mere "frat rat", but a full-blown man-about-campus. Epictetus points out to him that he is nevertheless no match for Achilles in any of these dubious assets—yet the semi-divine Achilles still sacrificed the lives of his comrades over an infatuation with his concubine. If the greatest of Greek heroes is unfit to converse with a philosopher, why waste words on someone so bombastically oblivious to the eternal truths immured behind human speech that he expects to be yielded the floor because of his perfumed hair?
Imagine if the contemporary college student were expected to rouse his professors to do their best work by showing up for class, reading the assignment, staying awake throughout the hour, making occasional eye-contact instead of gazing out the window, switching off cell phone, removing headset, shutting down laptop, and even—but this might be asking too much—responding intelligently once a week when a question is posed to the assembled group. No, Epictetus would positively get killed on his student-evaluations. He probably wouldn’t even use PowerPoint. He probably wouldn’t even answer e-mail!
But then, he probably wouldn’t be fool enough to attempt teaching in the present environment; or rather, he would do his teaching from an office desk and over the lunch table and on the evening subway rather than neutering his endeavor in the contemporary classroom.
Four Poems by Michael H. Lythgoe
Lt. Col. Lythgoe is retired from the United States Air Force. He has devoted himself to poetry—both its composition (as a poet himself) and its evaluation with the help of the poets’ personal testimony, which he enjoys collecting. He has published frequently in Praesidium and has lately appeared as a reviewer in Christianity and Literature.
We hiked as campers out past Indian Creek,
Carrying with us some number 10 cans
To pick plump blackberries, to stain our hands.
We walked rows of Indiana farm's corn--silks
And stalks--foot-printing fresh furrows.
The ascending ears grew higher than hikers
Fording streams, scouring ravines to pilfer
Cemetery bushes where berries grow.
A lady in the county came to the library,
Inviting me to pick thumb-thick sweets away
From bush-hogged-brambles, to claim berry
Fruits before they ooze fuzzy decay.
Seedy fruit-fall tattoos a tin bottom,
Awakens tongue-dyed tastes for days unripened.
This sonnet takes me back to Evansville, Indiana where
I spent summers as a camper and lifeguard at a Y camp.
I just drove thru on a trip back to visit my parents’
graves. Same old Indiana corn. Strong memories.
Revised 18 July 2005
Mr. Moseby has contributed short stories faithfully to Praesidium for years, often in a "magic realist" vein. This piece, however, is all too plausible.
From center field, Ty watched the umpire’s blue-clad arm flail the air overhead and then pump. A throaty shriek reached his ears at about the same instant—but not quite. He was aware that sound traveled a whole lot slower than light waves.. They hadn’t even started studying that in school, but he had read up on it. The pause between the barrel’s recoil and the ragged pop when he would see another duck hunter shoot across the marsh never failed to fascinate him.
He fought against the image of cool, misty mornings in the wild. This was what he hated about the outfield: how hard it was to stay focused. Especially with Wade closing out the final inning. Nobody ever hit Wade. He could hit Wade in practice—all you had to do was let your hands take over. A ball going that fast would fly off the bat on contact. A few guys who had faced Wade several times in their own league would occasionally put his pitches in play. But in these out-of-town tournaments, nobody ever touched him. It sure wasn’t going to happen today—not in this tournament. All the other teams seemed to be made up of midgets. In his own start two games ago, Ty had only allowed a couple of base runners—though walks. In this tournament, it probably wouldn’t have been any less boring even at shortstop, where he played sometimes in tight games. The only guys who ever handled the ball this weekend were the pitcher and the catcher.
Another strike three. One more out. Ty straightened up, took a few steps to his left, and moved in. The little kid stepping into the box certainly wasn’t going to pull Wade, and with two outs, he could run the remote risk of having the ball get over his head. There were no runners on base (and anyway, this team would need eight more bases on the field before they could bring the tying run to the plate), so the tiny risk was far overbalanced by the likelihood that any hit would be a weak blooper. Besides, with his speed, he could cover the ground from second base to the fence before anything but a low liner hit the ground. He was faster already than any kid in Houghton Middle School, and he had only just finished the sixth grade.
"Two outs!" shouted Braden from shortstop belatedly—Ty’s favorite position, entrusted to a complete idiot.
"Did you just figure that out?" he shouted back. He was so close to the infield that Milio looked around with a start, and began waving him back from the other side of second like a kid who doesn’t want classmates gathering over the porn hidden in his textbook.
"Cuidado!" Ty mocked him. "Muy cuidado!" He was more afraid of the lecture he would catch from his dad for not re-positioning himself than he was of some paisan’s territorial pride.
The hitter actually fouled the third strike straight back to the screen, forcing Wade to work one more time. The catcher’s mitt popped on cue. The umpire’s arm went up almost wearily, the conclusion all but foregone, and whatever cry he gave with the gesture was lost in the screams and squeals of moms and sisters and girlfriends from the stands. The other outfielders sprinted in, but Ty crunched onto the infield like a reaper coming home at sundown.. Wearily.
"You’re slipping," he joked over his shoulder, refusing to high-five Wade as the triumphant closer emerged from the hugs of more exuberant teammates.
"What do you mean? I struck out the side, didn’t I?"
"Yeah, but it took you twelve pitches." And Ty continued to saunter toward the dugout.
He enjoyed being the cool guy who didn’t whoop and holler and fling his cap… but, frankly, there was also something deep inside him lately that didn’t care to celebrate. He could put it out of his mind while he played; but the last out was in the books now, and there it was again, nagging at him. Just like that—faster than he could run down a fly ball.
"You damn cheaters!"
The voice caught his attention in its disagreement with the joyous uproar behind him. Ty didn’t look up: he didn’t break his lanky stride. But underneath the long bill of his cap, he could see two black kids hanging on the chain-link backstop. Like orangutangs. Judging by their reach, they would have been high-school age.
"You ain’t no f… no freakin’ twelve years old! Ain’t none of you no twelve years old! Bunch of freakin’ cheaters, that what you all is."
He’d heard it all before. He knew the words before they were uttered. He never batted an eyelash—just slouched his way into the dugout. Even when Coach Nick clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Good hit, Ty—the hit of the game!" he just continued on toward the water cooler. Even when he heard, from the shadows and with a Dixie cup to his lips, Sara Poston singing to her younger brother, "Good game, Lassiter, good game! Whoa-whee!"… then more than ever, he just stared into the blue shadows behind the cooler. Even when he heard his father, the manager, call, "In here, guys! Everyone in here!"… even then, he lingered over the last swallow. Then he crumpled the cup into a ball and flung it under the bench with a smack.
The victory celebration at his house that evening was mild—mere pizza and rented videos (though Dad couldn’t let the occasion pass without making them all view a poorly executed run-down in the tournament’s second game: he had had someone filming every minute). Somehow, the triumph was lame. All three victories had come too easily. "We won’t make it through the Southeast Region Finals playing like that," Dad had at lat mumbled, unable to sustain cheerfulness. "We didn’t get challenged, so we played down. At regionals, they’ll kick our butts."
At 7:30 the next morning, Ty heard his father’s pick-up rev and back down the driveway, as usual. Then he turned over… and when he opened his eyes again, it was almost eleven. His mother and sister had tiptoed around the house so as not to awaken the conquering hero. They must have departed together for some summer sale at the mall. He saw a pink "sticky" in the refrigerator as he limped barefoot across the kitchen’s linoleum. It would say "love U" at the end. He didn’t bother to read it.
There had been no practice scheduled for that afternoon—there never was, the day after a tournament—but he was going to the batting cages, anyway. He stopped by Wade’s along the way, his protruding bat bag propping the bike upright against the lofty front stoup’s top course of bricks. Wade and Braden were already locked in a high-scoring ball game on Wade’s PlayStation, and neither acknowledged his entry into the bedroom. He slumped down ion the carpet, leaning a shoulder against Wade’s dresser, and started fingering through some baseball cards scattered over the floor.
:You shouldn’t step on these, you idiot," he murmured to his friend’s back. "They’ll be worth something some day."
"Oh, shee-ooot! Stop it—get it, you… dumb butt!" hissed Braden over his controls, and Wade burst out laughing. Braden started laughing, too, and his moist teeth glistened in the same leer they would have assumed before a triple-x Web site. It was an evil smile… and Wade’s laugh, too, had something evil in it. Ty watched them both spellbound for a moment as they bullied the screen’s images with commands. Was Braden really his friend, and was Wade really his best friend? Why, then, did he feel now that he didn’t like either one of them very much?
He fled the thought, directing his attention back to the cards. An uncreased Juan Gonzales: he deposited it on the dresser, in relative safety. Gonzales would go to the Hall of Fame, unless they decided to keep out steroid-users. But they wouldn’t. They would fake an investigation—the owners, the people holding Major League Baseball’s controls—and then all their favorite money-makers would get a free pass. Gonzales and Sosa would get the kid-glove treatment because of what they meant to Latino fans: that’s what his dad said. But his dad didn’t mind the idea of McGuire as a Hall-of-Famer. His dad wanted to see Pete Rose in, too. His dad… Coach Nick… adults. They were full of high standards—as long as they got what they wanted. All those lectures about steroids… yeah, but what exactly was in the special vitamins he’d been fed for two years now, and which he never saw at the drug store? His dad had mentioned a client, Dr. Small or Short or something (what a joke!—for Ty was fast discovering irony, almost faster than he could bear). He had asked Dad why the whole team didn’t take them, and Dad had answered, "You’re at the stage when you need to start standing out… never know when there might be a scout in the bleachers." And he had asked Dad why Eliot Calvert was already six feet, and was it because his father was a doctor and was giving Eliot something special, and what was it, and… "Knock it off," was his the dependable response.
"You wanna play the winner, Ty?"
"That’d be me!"
Ty shifted carefully in the sea of cards. "I’m going to the cages."
"Shee-eet, man, give it a rest!"
"Do you mind? My mom’s in the next room—you want her to take my PlayStation away?"
"What? I said ‘sheet’. You know, like on a bed? You know, a bed, like where you wanna get Dana Morrison…"
Ty rose quickly, forgetting about the vulnerable mementos around him. He thought he was about to suffocate… or explode.
"Hey, man, did you hear those two black dudes yelling at you yesterday?"
Braden was trying to call him back, to win him over with low-to-the-earth jokes as prickly humid as his smiles. Braden would do anything to be Wade’s best friend—even sucking up to the competition. For Ty somehow had absolutely no doubt at this moment that Braden wanted to be his buddy as a way of impressing Wade. Wade was always impressed by anyone that Ty paid attention to.
"They wanted to say the ‘f’ word, but they freaked when you got too close," Braden continued in gravelly tones of excitement. "You scared the living crap out of ’em, dude."
"If my mom hears us use the ‘f’ word, butt-hole…"
"She won’t. okay? I wasn’t effing going to!"
"They had a point," said Ty shortly.
Both boys looked up at him: the idle PlayStation recycled rock music and crowd roars. "What?"
"Well, look how big we are. Why are we so big?"
He impatiently shifted his emphasis. "Why are we so big?"
He wanted to use the "f" word himself—and he sensed, strangely, that it wouldn’t sound adolescent coming off his lips just now. He vaguely sensed, even, that that was why he did not use it. His authority scared him a little. "Look at you, and you… and me, and Calvert. Milio’s the smallest kid on the team, and none of the teams we played had any kid bigger than Milio."
"He got more hits than you, butt-brain."
Ty wanted to beat them both with his fists. He made a last effort after grinding his teeth—in fact, he was surprised at the effort he was putting into his explanations. "Something’s not right. Something can’t be right. Why are we so much bigger than everyone else we play, if all of us are under thirteen?"
"But the football guys on the varsity squad at Catalina High… the whole offensive line got held back in eighth grade. My dad told me so. And he said it wasn’t unusual—I mean, that everyone does it in the district, not just Clayburg."
Ty saw hurt in Wade’s darkening eyes that was flirting with anger. The funny thing was, he appreciated that anger. It was the first time he had liked Wade all day—it was something honest. Or something honestly afraid of the truth.
"But that’s high school," he said almost gently. "You get to play on a school team until you graduate. Our league’s supposed to be done by age. If we’re too old, we’re cheaters."
"But we’re not too old! Haven’t you ever seen your own birth certificate? We’re just big guys in Clayburg."
"Nobody gripes when a bunch of black guys are six-foot-seven on a basketball team!"
Braden’s irrelevant bid for a place in the conversation shattered it. Ty turned away with a shrug.
"What are you going away like that for? I asked you a question! Haven’t you seen your birth certificate?"
"I see a copy every year we register."
The gentleness had departed him—all longing to explain, to express himself, had departed. Ty gave one more look back at Wade from the bedroom’s door, his fingers grinding in his palms.
"If I’m too old, it would have to be a forgery."
Dinner was the one occasion when all the family sat in the same room. Ty’s parents, reinforced by a sermon that Reverend Blaney dusted off at least once a year, insisted on the sanctity of "family time" in the evening. Ty knew his father’s blessing more or less by heart: it differed only in particulars, so as not to seem like what it was—a formula. "Thank you, Lord, for this food. Thank you for our family, our church, our community, and out nation. And thank you most of all for your incredible grace and mercy." He dreaded the days when Dad commanded him to say it (usually occasions involving visitors). All he could ever do was repeat the formula—and he hated the formula more all the time.
Dad inquired closely into his progress at the batting cage. "You working on your left-handed hitting? The scouts love switch-hitters."
"I worked on it a lot. It’s coming along."
"Good, good." But Dad couldn’t get the first bite of pot roast into his mouth without eying it severely and pursuing, "Don’t ever take a day off. Do something every day. To come out on top, you gotta be awake while everyone else is sleeping, you gotta work while everyone else is resting. You gotta make all your own breaks in this life."
And Ty said nothing, because he never did at this juncture. Neither did Mom or Stacie Lee. In fact, they started chattering about the mall. He hated them for doing that—for completely ignoring, for always ignoring, that Dad had just said the whole freakin’ world, still freshly anointed with his blessing, was a hell with one survivor.
He retreated to his room and pursued his own rituals, his own formulas… up to a point. He was well aware that gazing on every page of the yearbook where Sara Poston appeared had become as much a part of his night as brushing his teeth. He hardly even looked at her any more—just around her, at the grainy, sometimes black-and-white images of how her ears turned, of how her neck angelically became her shoulder, in case he might have missed something before. The rest he had memorized, so memorized that he could look straight at her smile for the camera and see nothing. Tonight he heard her voice, laughing and cheering as he had heard it yesterday afternoon: "Good hit, Lassiter—whoa-whee!" A crummy bloop single—the kid’s first hit in any tournament this summer. He shouldn’t even have been on the team, maybe, except that he covered a lot of ground in the outfield. But what about his hit, his bases-clearing triple? He hadn’t heard her cheer then (and he had listened, even over his father’s muttering from the third-base coach’s box, "You coulda broke your arm with that slide"). Why didn’t she ever notice him? Was she too embarrassed—did she like him too much to call his name? Sure, fat chance! More likely, she hated him for that stupid incident when Braden had christened her kid brother "Lassie" and Ty had suddenly, uncharacteristically, uncontrollably burst out laughing. (It was a stupid name, though: who would name a kid "Lassiter"?) Ever since then, Braden had gotten into his thick skull that he could amuse Ty by picking on Lassiter… and Ty seemed paralyzed by the situation, for some reason. Why didn’t he take the kid under his wing, maybe, and show him how to bunt? (He tried to one time, but Lassiter had hedged suspiciously away: the bad joke had already worn too deep a rut.) Here he had a golden chance to make her like him by helping her klutzy brother—and, through no fault of his own, he came out looking like a bully!
Still, wouldn’t she have noticed how well he played, what a star he was? And he had played better than ever since Lassiter had arrived, knowing that she might hear about his exploits from her brother or even watch him from the stands. Maybe she did hate him… but she would also have to admit that he was the best. (If only Dad could see these thoughts—could realize how much of his game-winning play was aimed at Sara, not a Major League scout!) Wouldn’t that be almost an advantage… almost? To be hated, but secretly admired? Then one day (and he had rehearsed a million such days in his daydreams, lying late in bed on a summer morning) she would see that he wasn’t a bully at all. He would say, "Leave Lassiter alone!" as she watched a scuffle in practice… or he would charge the mound and deck the pitcher for sending a fastball under Lassiter’s chin. His father would kill him for that one, but it would be a small price to pay.
Yet these scripts were never acted out. The only things that happened were indeed like weird little skits where he was acting a part—a part that wasn’t remotely himself, that he hated… but that he had already played out before he knew it. And the parts always just made him look worse. If only he could have walked up to Sara and spoken to her. If only he had classes with her… if only he were not a year behind her.
The lost year, the year he couldn’t catch up… no, time was not on his side. Sara already had boys hanging around her—older versions of Braden, with their tongues lolling out and one hand on their zipper. This fall she would be in eighth grade, he in seventh. It would be his last year to be anywhere near her, until… and then, by the time he got into Catalina High, she would be a sophomore. There wouldn’t just be other sophomores chasing after her, but juniors and seniors. Maybe, if he could have become her kid brother’s best friend (his only friend, the dork)… but what chance was there of that now? It was his only hope, but even that was a chance just to stay barely alive.
That fatal year between them… on this night, Ty began to grow so upset that his eyes bore straight through the yearbook to nothingness. This was not part of the ritual—but was starting to become so. Ever since he had found his mother’s diploma while digging through a closet for his dad’s old program of the 1988 World Series (he wasn’t supposed to be in that closet, his parents’ closet… but it was summer, just a month ago, and everyone had been gone, like this morning—and Dad had already said that he could see the program some time)…. The diploma bothered him at first glance, but it had taken him much of the last month to figure out why. He had needed at least a day to find his way (mentally, then physically) to the snapshot of Mom in her graduation gown, shoved back on a high bookcase in the den. In her graduation gown, yet very clearly ready to have a baby (for Mom had always been thin: she was thin in every other snapshot, and she was thin now). Another week went by before he possessed both the courage and the opportunity to take the photo out of its frame… but the top strip where you usually saw a printed date had been neatly shorn away. Then another week to figure out a sly way—a disingenuously plain-and-open way—off asking her if he had been really been born the year of her graduation. (It hadn’t worked: the look on her face when she said, "Why do you want to know?" had been a defiance… but it had also, after all, been the very answer he needed, the very answer he feared.) Then another week trying to think it all through—or trying not to, focusing on that tournament in Martersville and pretending that he hadn’t found a snake pit under a rock. He had even toyed with theories about his mother’s having a miscarriage, or an abortion. He knew that she had lost a child between Stacie Lee and him (his sister had whispered out the whole secret last year)… but none of the shocking dramas he imagined made any difference to the basic facts. He couldn’t hide those facts in the mysteries of reproduction, or in the not-to-be-spoken tragedies of their household. These weren’t that kind of fact. They weren’t about conception and gestation, or about arguments and stress: they were about public events. A graduation and a birth. She had graduated just before he was born—and her diploma, hidden away in the back of a forbidden closet, said when she graduated.
He should have been in Sara’s class. He was a year older than he was supposed to be.
They lost the regionals that year, though not in humbling fashion. They came within one game of being the fifth team from tiny Clayburg to earn a trip to the national championship in ten years. The final game lurched into extra innings; and though they were soon down a run when Wade gave up a long homer (Ty had told him before that he needed to change speeds once in a while—that throwing flames would burn him), the last at-bat was theirs. Ty bunted his way on, and moved up to third on Calvert’s double. Then the opposition walked the bases loaded to set up a force at home, and Von Landreth flied out a mile high but far too shallow for Ty to tag up. Who should wander into the box then but Lassiter Poston? Ty couldn’t repress a dark glance at his father in the third-base coach’s box… but Dad was sticking with "Lassie". "On contact," he whispered at Ty’s neck. The only kid out there as fast as Ty might have been Poston. Dad must have figured that if Lassie could so much as touch the ball, the tying run would be home and speed would beat the double-play at first.
It did. Lassiter was jammed on a pitch and beat it meekly toward third—so meekly that by the time the third-baseman touched his own sack and gunned the ball over to first, the runner was already decelerating past the bag into foul ground. The game was tied. A few impartial fans roared their appreciation (since the trip had been too long and expensive for many relatives to undertake: certainly Sara was there only in Ty’s imagination). The Clayburg bench was supplying most of the many decibels of bedlam Ty heard all around him as hands reached out to smack his helmet and his shoulders. Something very strange was happening, however—something out of a baseball nightmare. The home and first-base umpires were conferring. Ty noticed it even as the screaming continued in his ears. His mouth fell open: it seemed to him that he could see the plate umpire’s right arm lift and sign "out" before it made a move, as if he possessed some gift for catastrophic prophecy. Then the arm did indeed come up, and the thumb came out. For no good reason at all, and without physically affecting the actual play, Lassiter had run most of the way to first on the grass, clearly inside the baseline. Now that the sky was falling in, Ty could remember seeing it as he sprinted. Inning over. Game over. Tournament over. Season over.
Ty’s Dad was all wrapped up first in trying to get a straight explanation from the umpires, then in arguing that the tying run should at least count. He didn’t see any of what happened next, and Ty could never give him a very plain account, since his own store of images was a great blur. Braden had come up and slammed Lassiter into the chain-link fence. Then he slammed him again, and maybe again. "You ran out of the fucking baseline!" he kept screaming. The clearest image out of the next flurry was of Ty himself rattling Braden against the same fence. Above all, he could see the surprise on Braden’s face—but he could also hear himself shouting Braden’s words back in his face (something like, "We wouldn’t be in extras if you’d put the fucking ball in play in the fourth!"). Then Braden tried to throw some punches at him—but he just rattled him against the fence some more.
Dad said later that it was the most shameful hour of his life—that they had lost fair and square and played a great game, but that to have his own players fighting each other afterward was something he would never live down. No one said a word on the bus home. Only that night (and after a lot of talk on the phone with the other coaches) did he come up to Ty’s bedroom and tell him he was proud of him for defending a teammate who was already carrying a great burden of guilt… but that he was also grounding him two weeks for foul language.
Ty didn’t care. He had hidden the yearbook under a blanket when Dad tapped at the door. Entirely by accident—like a bolt of generous lightning, an act of divine grace—he had finally done something to tie Sara’s brother to him for life. At the time, nothing had been further from his mind… but it had worked out just fine. The whole day, the whole summer, had worked out just fine.
His new affiliation with Lassiter turned out to be both less and more than Ty had expected. On the one hand, he scarcely got any closer to Sara than he had been before. Lassiter was mind-bogglingly unaware that his sister was a Greek goddess. He exerted himself constantly to avoid her and her friends. If Ty phoned to ask about coming over to play pitch, Lassiter would answer, "Okay, my stupid sister should be out of the way all afternoon," or, "No, my sister and her stupid friends are camped out here—I’ll come to your place." If Ty managed to hang onto Lassiter after school on the pretext of arranging a later session at the batting cages (but really waiting nervously for Sara to converge upon them where Mrs. Poston’s van could be expected to cruise up soon), Lassiter would annoyingly work him across the lawn: he would at last announce, "There’s my mom!" as Sara distantly shouted at him. Yet even from the distance, Ty could tell that she was not wasting any effort studying him.
On the other hand, now that school had started back up, Lassiter’s conversation became surprisingly useful—sometimes even interesting. The kid was really sharp in physical science, and Ty was vaguely but increasingly captivated by biology. Lassiter was more keen on building rockets and designing weather balloons, Ty on looking for nests or pulling up plants to see their roots; but their inclinations seemed to dovetail, and they made a formidable team as lab partners. Their experiment to study how fast a baseball decelerated when thrown with various trajectories—overhand from a mound, sidearm from a mound, upward from a pitching machine—was a favorite to take a ribbon at the state fair. Both of them were discovering math as a further reason for living.
Baseball naturally continued to be the basis of their odd friendship. Ty talked Lassiter into signing up for a "fall ball" league (Lassiter had sworn never to touch another bat after his gaffe in the tournament). He told him (sounding like Dad) that the only thing you could bury the past with was the future—that you could be a quitter or get better than ever, but not stand still. The two of them got better than ever from their very different positions in the Race for Excellence, while most of their former teammates chose instead to "risk their future" (another of Dad’s phrases) by playing football. From among the All-Star group, only Wade joined them in devoting all his extracurricular energy to baseball; and Wade, in a way that Ty often tried to define but couldn’t, was no longer as much his friend as Lassiter. He hung around too much with Braden. The two of them, who were also lab partners (briefly), were almost suspended from school for setting up a camera somehow in the girls’ locker room.
Rumors that Lassiter was gay also began to circulate through the campus like the stink of a carcass, whose rotting hide Ty knew instantly, instinctively, must have lain in Braden’s smirking mouth. Ty threatened to cram one kid’s head into his locker for repeating the smears—but he was looking at Braden the whole time, who just stood by smiling. An odd thing happened as the fall wore on. He and Lassiter grew tighter than ever, Ty muscling aside would-be hecklers and Lassiter pretending to see none of it; but Ty was also aware that his repelling of the slanders drew him toward their bull’s eye even as it beat them down in direct confrontations. Braden, he knew, would be whispering the same things about him. It wasn’t a major blow to his ego, his image. Admired for his baseball exploits, he was still generally looked up to… but the distance widened between those who supported him and those who didn’t. He now had many casual friends and a few bitter enemies: not so long ago, he had just had "buddies" in a vast, vague middle ground. Parts of life were turning a blurry gray. Not the least of these was why his social life had turned so black-and-white.
He could have nipped all the rumors—at least those about himself—if he had openly chased after girls or drooled over Braden’s stash of porn. He had several friends among the campus’s female population… but he didn’t drag anyone behind the gym for a kiss and a grope, and he didn’t even ask anyone out to movie. He would have been embarrassed to have either of his parents chauffeuring him on such an occasion, and maybe even more to have his big sister in the driver’s seat. (Stacie Lee repeated everything to Mom: that was why asking her about the birth certificate would be suicidal.) How other kids managed to hold hands or smooch with a parent in the front seat, he couldn’t imagine. But more than that—more than anything—he couldn’t bear the thought of being "unfaithful" to Sara. As long as she was alive in this world, no other girl held much interest for him.
Both he and Lassiter, then, were trapped in a kind of loneliness that no one knew anything about. He certainly couldn’t tell even Lassiter—especially Lassiter—about Sara ("my stupid sister"—what an idiot!). And Lassiter, as Ty realized more and more, was also walled up in a prison: not being gay, but being petrified around girls. That may have meant the same thing to some uncaged baboon like Braden, but Ty could see the difference. Once or twice (or more—more all the time), he had seen how Sara’s "stupid friends" made up to her slim, blond, blue-eyed brother. Ty (who was dark, like his father) actually envied his new sidekick that movie-star look. He wondered, even, if Sara’s girlfriends hadn’t grabbed onto her for the same reason (or the reverse or converse reason, or whatever you called it) as he had "adopted" Lassiter: so that they could bait their hooks for the lean brother with the fair, wavy hair. They came onto Lassiter so strong sometimes that Ty could understand why he wilted. It would have been impossible to pick one jewel out of so rich a treasure chest.
On his side of the ledger, close approaches to Sara gradually became more common—distantly close, and very gradually. Mrs. Poston proved more helpful than Lassiter. She had taken a distinct liking to the quiet, well-mannered young man who was drawing her son toward a healthy team sport (and Ty grew so well-mannered when he found this door of opportunity unlocked that he often felt his face hot with hypocrisy as he biked back home from the Postons). Sara would now wander into the kitchen while Ty was being fed ice cream by her mother. Sometimes she would smile at him. Once she said, "Hi, Ty!"—and then laughed, probably at the silly jingle. To think he’d once called Lassiter’s name stupid!
These encounters electrified his soul, but they also left him downcast afterward. How was he to take the next step? Lassiter was just her kid brother, and he was just her kid brother’s friend. Wasn’t it better hardly to be known at all, perhaps, than to be easily recognized as a nobody?
By November, as their team took dead aim on the fall league’s championship, the rest of Houghton Middle School was entirely swept up in the football team’s homecoming. There was to be a dance, and Sara’s hand had been claimed early by the quarterback (as Ty overheard several times from locker-room gossip). Without Sara, of course, he would not go… and Lassiter never gave a thought to going, but only talked about his "stupid sister’s" date with Clive Clements until Ty finally told him to shut up about it all. He was in the worst mood of his life.
Braden chose that week to ask him between classes, in front of a million students, if he were taking Lassiter to the dance. Ty immediately took out after him, but Braden slipped through the tangle of kids with amazing speed. Ty yelled after him, "Too bad you didn’t run that fast when we played Freemont, asshole!"
Old Mrs. Threlkell, unfortunately, had emerged from a door behind him at just that moment. As he was marched off to the Principal’s office, Ty smacked Wade on the elbow, pointed in his face, and solemnly warned, "Tell your friend he does not play on any more teams with me. Never again."
Ty wasn’t particularly upset by his subsequent two-week grounding. For once in his life, he didn’t really want any close approaches to Sara: her date with Clive struck him, for some reason, as a sign of weak character, if not a betrayal. His dad, besides, was much less hot under the collar about the incident once he had listened to the whole story. In fact, he made a special trip back up to school the next day to tell the Principal what he thought of letting one boy go free for besmirching another’s honor; and, at church that Sunday, Ty saw him refuse to shake Mr. Saddlewhite’s hand. As his mother hustled him and Stacie Lee away, he heard phrases like "porn" and "bad influence" being unleashed (for Ty had not hesitated, in his fury, to apprise Dad of Braden’s favorite pastimes).
Those lonely weeks of isolation just before Thanksgiving also proved very fertile. It was then, with no baseball practice after school and no visiting privileges at friends’ houses, that he conceived his plan to push for advancement into high school a year early. His grades had been exceptionally good this fall, and he could make them even better. He was on the verge of being at the top of the class. Bowling over the paper-shufflers in the front office with his academic performance was one thing. It wouldn’t be enough in itself, probably. But if he could get Dad on his side by saying that he wanted to "play up", to skip eighth grade so he could try out for the high-school team… Dad had always said that one way to get better was to jump in a little over your head (which didn’t add up with cheating to shave a year off your son’s life—but adults made up rules as they went along). Since the Principal’s refusal to punish Braden had already ticked him off highly, Dad could be relied upon, Ty felt, to back up his crazy idea all the way—to go down there and thump people’s desks—if only he were convinced that this "I’m taking my son out of your clutches" approach also made good baseball sense.
Before he unveiled anything to anyone, Ty began coming home during his weeks of incarceration and hitting the books hard. His mother was struck speechless: she didn’t know whether to take his temperature or fall on her knees and praise God. He was going to ace every one of his approaching exams before Christmas. Then, while their mouths were still gaping over his report card, he would reveal how bored he was in seventh grade, how much he wanted to be moved up.
Then he would be with Sara—maybe even this spring, but certainly next fall at Catalina. He would sit in the same classrooms with her. He would no longer just be her kid brother’s buddy: he would be her classmate. And Clive Clements’ classmate, too. She could measure the two of them, side by side, and see which one stacked up better. Clive could have a piece of him, if he wanted—if he dared. After all, they were really the same age. That class was where he belonged. Clive was the one who should have been proving that he could keep up. Who could say—if the varsity didn’t need a new quarterback for a few years, maybe Clive would be held back in eighth grade.
The Friday morning that marked the last real day—the last weekday—of Christmas break was as bright and gentle as the first day of spring. People were talking about the new year’s mildness. The two old biddies who clerked in the courthouse’s office of records were clucking about it as Ty eased himself through the glass-paneled door. He had scarcely needed a windbreaker as he biked the couple of miles downtown to the Clayburg square. Now, in a room absurdly heated for no better reason than that the calendar read "January", he had to slip the jacket off. The dry warmth wrung sweat from him—that and the fear that his way would be blocked. Or that it wouldn’t. He wanted to know the truth almost as much as he didn’t want his suspicions confirmed. Or maybe just a little more.
Now the clerks had noticed him. The one nearer to the counter did a double-take behind her glasses.
"Well hello, there! Happy New Year! Is school not back in session?"
He was as big as an adult—some adults, anyway. It bothered him to be so quickly classed as a kid: it didn’t bode well for his undertaking.
"Um… hi. No ma’am. Next week… school starts Monday."
"Bet you’re ready for baseball season," sang the one at the far end. So she knew who he was—they both knew, because they both cackled like grandmothers. He hadn’t realized just how famous he was in Clayburg. A big minnow in a little puddle.
"What can we help you with today, sir?"
He had to let his lungs pump two or three times before he found enough air for the short reply, already rehearsed into a single nonsensical word. "I-want-to-see-public- records-on-births." Too late, he learned in listening over the phrase that he had left out a "the" somewhere. Would his mouthful still have made any sense to them? His eyes wandered along the walls. Were they in those filing cabinets—the birth certificates?
Then he realized that both women were staring at him with a new intensity. Their eyeballs seemed to have fused with the lenses of their granny-spectacles.
"You know… birth certificates?" He said it like a question.
"Why would you want to see those, Ty?" asked the woman from the far end very slowly, almost gently—but not gently: more as if she were reading a surgeon instructions for removing a heart.
He shifted his weight, and thought about asking them to turn down the heat. "I need to look something up… for a school project."
"But I thought you said school was still out."
"I… I’m doing some extra work. I’m trying to graduate early."
"Oh, my goodness! I haven’t heard that in a while!" The one near him seemed won over, and cackled comfortably, showing her yellow teeth. When he was her age, he wondered, would a year more or less on his total sum mean anything?
But the other one, having very deliberately risen from her swivel chair, disappeared through a door just behind her. Ty grew uneasy. In his imagination, he had pictured someone leading him to a bunch of files and then leaving him alone, as they did once in the library when he looked up an old newspaper story on microfiche. She couldn’t very well bring him out the files in an armload—she didn’t even know what he was looking for (and neither did he, entirely).
"Are you gonna try to go to Catalina next fall, hon?"
Before Ty could answer this maternal question, a uniformed man marched out of the door with the old woman—the old Judas—at his heels. His eyes found Ty instantly, and a smile spread over his face that wasn’t reassuring at all. (Sometimes a pitcher smiled at you like that just before he purposefully launched the ball at your head.) The uniform was light brown, not navy blue: not a cop’s, but maybe a… Ty wasn’t exactly sure.
"You having trouble with some birth certificates, Ty"
"Nossir, I… I…"
"He said it was a school project."
"Well just have your teacher give us a call and tell us what you need. Mrs. Sibley can Xerox it for you, if she needs to."
"I…." Ty tried to protest. He was furious with himself for being so terrified by a uniform and a booming voice. "I was supposed to look it up myself."
"That’s right, just have your teacher give us a call. Those things, you know, they’re all boxed up down there in the basement. Dust… mice… whew, I’ll bet Mrs. Sibley would come right up through these floorboards if she saw a mouse!"
That evening, he was half-expecting to hear his dad’s footsteps measuring the length of the hallway to his bedroom, the more noticeable—the more dreadful—for being quietly placed in a thief’s discreet strides. Part of him said, No, you’re being stupid… they’d never call Dad over something like that. But another part of him said, They’ll tell him, because they’re all in on it—it’s Clayburg’s dirty little secret, and they’ll all get together and throw you in a cell before they let it all out. That part won the tug-of-war, especially after Dad said so little at supper. Sure enough, as he listened to the distant clatter of dishes in the kitchen, the board at the hall’s far end creaked under its carpet.
He recited for Dad the story about the history project. He did it almost too well, too eloquently. He wondered behind his fluid explanation if he had ever in his life spoken so many uninterrupted words to his father.
"So I would be finding out when Mom’s family—the Henleys—first came to the county. Mr. Selis said that would be way beyond what most of the eighth graders are doing for their projects. I’d just have to write it up good. He said I could have into the summer, if I needed to. He said he wouldn’t stand in my way. That would just leave math I’d have to test out of—and that’s more Mrs. Renfrew being a pain than anything else, because I already know more math than most of those idiots in eighth grade."
"Mr. Selis," his dad finally mused distastefully, distantly. "I wonder where his people are from?"
Ty watched the tanned, muscular jaw chew over its next words as he felt his hands begin to ooze sweat. He shoved them furtively under a book lying open in his lap.
"Well, they’ll help you with all that downtown. J.D. said they’d make copies of stuff for you."
"Mr. Selis won’t know the difference. You can tell him you got the stuff any way that makes him happy. Or you can direct him to me. I’ll see he’s satisfied."
Ty looked down into his book: he could feel his palms beginning to dry, and to grow ice-cold. He had lost. Had he really expected to win?
"You wouldn’t be lying to me, would you, Ty?"
The question caught Ty entirely by surprise. He was amazed that his dad could leave himself so exposed, and he looked up at the manly face with the invincible steadiness of shock—not of shocked innocence, but of… shocked guilt, maybe. The shock of someone who knows he is guilty before someone else who’d done the same crime and pleaded innocent.
His dad quickly turned and left the room, pulling the door shut silently behind him.
The next day was Saturday. Ty hadn’t been over to Lassiter’s house since the week before Christmas, when he had seen a pile of presents stacked painstakingly apart from those under the Postons’ tree—had seen, further, that the gift-wrapping in the separate stash bore no Santas or candy canes or sleigh-in-snow scenes—and had been informed by Lassiter that he and his sister shared a birthday on the twenty-third, two days before the Big Day. It seemed to Ty that months had passed since then. How many days, how many nights, in how many dreams, had he been haunted by the faces of the creature he loved most on earth and the reclusive kid who had become something like his best friend? Sara and Lassiter, Lassiter and Sara… the fair, wavy hair… the serene blue eyes… the spotless skin, the slightly upturned nose, the slightly back-tilted ears, the dimpled chin, the cleft in the lower lip, the mild lift between the brows as if to pose a question… they were the same face. The face he always saw before him, if only as a festive background for a sordid world’s sordid present—the "gift" present of present time, an empty box whose greatest delight was its hopeful wrapping… that same face had been catching his warm-up tosses and explaining weather systems to him for the past half-year.
To think that they had expected—all of them, all of Clayburg (for they must all have been in on it)—two such faces to pass merely as siblings born a year apart! To think that they had even had the nerve, the arrogance, to dangle their lie before everyone’s nose (everyone not from Clayburg… but then, who in this hole was not from here?) by actually leaving the birthday of both children the same—by merely inserting a year? For Sara and Lassiter were twins.
But then (he would begin to think an hour later, before going back to his first outrage an hour after that), maybe he was just obsessed with Sara. By his own admission, he saw her face behind every curtain and above every cloud. Maybe, since he was continually denied real access to her, he had started seeing her even in her brother. It wasn’t impossible, was it, for one child to be born exactly a year after another? (He honestly didn’t know, but none of his reading suggested that it was.) Maybe he was just losing his marbles—all that studying, the tension of play-offs, Mom’s diploma…. For that matter, maybe the year printed on Mom’s diploma was wrong. It could happen, couldn’t it? And maybe his size, Wade’s size… maybe it was just vitamins and exercise.
And then, a few days later, along about Christmas Day, he saw Braden’s ugly mug in his nightmares. Braden calling him a faggot. The most beautiful face in the world… and he was beginning to see it in a guy! The girl’s brother, yes—but still! Could that be normal?
With the utter failure of his courthouse end-around play, Ty decided that the best thing to do was work on some way to confirm his mom’s graduation day. He thought they might have the Hardesty College student newspaper on microfiche somewhere. He thought the paper might just list graduating seniors for every spring, and if he went far enough back…. He thought Mrs. Poston might give him a lift to the Hardesty library some time, since she was working on an education degree—to research his history project, of course.
In the meantime—on this first Saturday of a bright new year—he thought he might just have his first-ever private conversation with Sara. He strapped his glove to his bike in case Lassiter wanted to loosen up (the kid had pitcher potential)… but if he could find any way the fit it in, to address Mrs. Poston herself, he was going to announce his plans for entering high school next fall. And then he would say, "Do you think Sara would go over with me just what they’ve done in eighth-grade math? Math is my last hurdle." Or something like that.
To hell with the courthouse, Braden, tournaments, scouts, and lies! It was going to be a great day. He was going to make it so—a new kind of day for a new year, the beginning of his new life.
Mr. Poston, on his way to the golf links, waved him in through the garage door. Tall and lean, the man definitely looked more like Fred Norman than Jim Edmonds… a golfer, not a ballplayer. Would a man like that, mild but aloof, forever unrattled, be capable of sacrificing his son to a maniac local tradition? He didn’t even act like he was "from here".
Sara almost ran into his arms coming down the staircase as he sheepishly rounded a corner.
"Oh—hey! You scared me!"
"I…." He could not imagine anything in the universe more beautiful than her laugh, any sound more heavenly than her laughter.
"So… d’you have a good Christmas?" She was already starting past him.
Maybe it was the shock of having looked—for one entrancing instant—straight into her eyes from one foot away—or maybe it was her awkward pause for an answer in mid-stride, peering back over a shoulder (that thin, perfectly squared shoulder) which wanted to be somewhere else… but the words knotted thickly on Ty’s tongue leapt all at once into the void. He heard them, in amazement.
"I’m going to be in your class next year."
He had stopped her cold. Was that a good sign?
"Yeah. Well… probably. If I can just get one or two more things okayed. As a matter of fact, I was hoping you might sit down with me some time and tell me what kind of math…"
"Ty—Mr. Baseball! I thought I heard your voice. Come on back! Lassiter is in the back yard with his new dog. Sara, go tell Lassiter that Ty is here—but don’t let him bring Dixie in. Did you have a good Christmas, hon?"
Blonde and tall herself, but maturely filled out in all the right places, Mrs. Poston was always impossible for Ty to resist. Even now, when she had just broken up one of his life’s great moments, he couldn’t frown at her. She was like no other woman he had ever known (certainly not like his own mother, whom Clayburg’s minimum standard of two children and its mandatory teetotaling had somehow left as skinny as a board, and as withered as an old board). The Postons didn’t go to their church—they were some weird denomination: but when, on Sundays, he did manage to locate a buxom blonde matron in the pews, the similarity with Mrs. Poston only pointed to deeper, more meaningful contrasts. He had never seen her in a low-cut top, had never smelled strong perfume on her. As far as he was concerned, her advantages stuck out all the better for not being thrust in your face. She had class.
"You don’t want ice cream, do you?" she continued on. How he loved being liked by her! Why didn’t his own mom ever express half as much pleasure in his presence—why did he get nothing but stupid "Luv U" stickies on the refrigerator?? "I know it’s not cold outside… but you’ve got to help us eat up all this birthday cake. That, on top of the Christmas goodies… we’re all going to get as fat as pigs around here!"
"It’s weird about their birthdays," he heard himself saying. What was he trying to do? "I mean, about them being the same day, just one year apart. I’ve never heard of that before."
He keenly looked up under his dark brows to find her blushing. God, he was already uncovering what they had sealed the courthouse to keep away from him—what they had stuck high and deep in their closets. There was no use hiding it, with Mrs. Poston’s blush in town.
Her blush and her silence. His stare lifted and steadied on her when she said absolutely nothing, but only fled to a cabinet. At last she exhaled heavily, raggedly, as if the effort of reaching for a plate had worn her out.
"I’m going to let you help us eat up these cream cheese sparkle cookies. They won a prize one time! Is that okay?"
And she looked back with a beautiful smile—Sara’s beautiful smile—so full of perfect teeth that it erased her eyes; for Ty realized at that moment that people can actually hide behind a smile, hide and not fear anyone’s wanting to continue the pursuit past such a lovely barrier.
Yet he pursued. "Was that here, in Clayburg? Where you won the prize? I heard somewhere that you moved to Clayburg just before Sara and Lassiter were born."
Had he heard that—or had he only wondered it to himself a few minutes ago? Why had he said "Sara and Lassiter" in one lump like that? He hadn’t meant to imply… had he?
The look she gave him fled so quickly (and not behind a smile this time) that he hadn’t time to be embarrassed. Instead, he was drawn in farther than ever. The counter physically nudged his limp forearm as he leaned after her ever so slightly. Her beautiful throat was swallowing.
"They… they were both born here. It was so cold in Wisconsin." Her smile faintly thawed under a flutter of eyelashes. "Someday you’ll go up north, Ty, and you’ll see for yourself. It’s a big world. You can’t imagine down here! Why, we had to leave our apartment through a window the first winter after we were married, the snow was so high! You just can’t imagine."
Ty spoke very slowly, hardly speaking at all. He was aware this time that his question was aimed at her vitals. "Is that why you never go back?"
Is that why you have no photographs of your kids when they were little, he asked behind his wedge of much simpler words. Is that why Lassiter gave me a funny look once when I asked if he had any of Sara’s baby pictures? Was it because there weren’t any pictures—none of either of them? Because they would both have been together, and they would have been the same size, wearing the same suits or pajamas, like my twin cousins? Or was it because the photographs would have dates printed on the back, and you didn’t want to mess them up with scissors—is that why he’d never seen them? Did you burn those photographs, or did you just put them in a box—a box in the topmost back corner of your private closet? Or did you just not take any? Did you think that far ahead? Or did they tell you it would be a bad idea, if you wanted to play the game—if you wanted to fit in and have your son be part of Clayburg’s pride? Was my father one of them, the men who came around and told you how it was here?
His eyes finally fixed on the molded stars sprinkled in red and green sugar. The long, slender, perfect fingers—Sara’s fingers (but Lassiter’s, too)—kept turning them and turning them after settling them on the china plate.
They heard squealing. Through the kitchen’s broad bay window, they turned their heads together to see Sara and Lassiter rolling in the brown winter grass with a young Schnauzer between them. Ty had never observed brother and sister playing side by side, laughing with that same show of luminous teeth The resemblance was beyond mistaking. It hit him like a light but unexpected punch, and it must have hit her, too. He could hear a sudden catch in her breath, even though his eyes remained glued to the vision—the vision of perfect twins. Infant twins ready for bed after a bath in the same tub, toddler twins hugging each other on either side of a rocking horse. Angelic twins—not plump and dark and brooding like his cousins. Twins that everybody would notice. Maybe they were separated—bodily exiled from each other—at some point so it wouldn’t be too obvious. Maybe they were made to play with other friends rather than themselves—maybe that was why Lassiter shied away from his "stupid sister" now, and also from the girlfriends who were out-of-bounds because they were with her.
But at this instant, the perfect twins were reunited. They were the angels in pajamas, more than a dozen years after those snapshots "got lost", and they loved each other in a way that they could never love anyone else, and that no one had quite managed to scare out of them.
He found that he could no longer look at Mrs. Poston, even under his "cave man brows" (as Lassiter called them). There was no need: her silence, her stillness, were even more telling than a blush. The same sight which had riveted his gaze had pierced her like a sword’s thrust. After all, she would actually have seen the "lost" photos.
"I… have to go," he mumbled—and tried to add, "I just stopped by for a minute." But the lie stuck in his throat. He was suddenly terrified of lies.
Mrs. Poston didn’t raise a word of protest. He walked very slowly (the thief-walk of his father) toward the garage door, waiting for her to say, "So soon?" or "Come back!"—to say anything at all, for anything would at least have cast a shadow of doubt on the truth.
Instead, he overheard something like a stifled sob the moment he pulled the door in a pasty kiss from its tight, exact seal of weather-stripping. He very nearly turned back. He wanted to sob with her, and to hug her close (as he should have hugged his mother but never did… and also, maybe, as he longed to hug Sara, an older Sara whose waist would be magically, blissfully thinner than her bust). But he also half-wanted to ask more questions—to ask the simplest question, "Why did you do it?" In the surge of compassion that ballooned into his throat was a spark of fury; and once that spark had popped in his eyes—a millisecond’s dizzy spell—he lunged through the door and slammed it.
He pedaled and pedaled until he thought he had huffed the lump right out of his chest, until the afterglow of the spark in his eyes was the sting of the wind he created. The day had grown late, later by far than he would have guessed. The nes year had grown very old. Already mid-afternoon sat in the leafless trees, streaking the suburban lawns and the silver pavement with bars that would thicken at last into night. It was not, after all, the beginning of spring. The days still plummeted toward their finish just after the sun had deceptively brought every shiver and misgiving to a standstill. In the breeze he felt a lurking promise of frost. Couldn’t even practice hitting in this weather… too close to 50o , when aluminum bats became brittle. Already, it must have been well below that temperature in the shade. The hard, mute shade of leafless limbs.
He hadn’t even realized that he was passing Wade’s house—he hadn’t even recognized Wade in the flannel-shirted figure armed with a leaf-blower. When the figure suddenly flung out the snout of his raucous machine as if to block the way, Ty almost lost his balance. His tires went skidding through a heap of moist, wilted litter against the curb.
"What the hell!" he roared back angrily. "Are you out of your… Wade, you moron! You almost broke my leg for me!"
Most of his vexation was fully audible up and down the deserted street, for the blower had instantly been shut off.
"Hey, I’m sorry!" laughed Wade, not very apologetically. "I just looked up, and there you were! I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon. Can you believe my dad wouldn’t let me watch the rest of the wild-card game until I came out here and—"
"So you had to call me about that?"
"No, no. It’s…." Wade had sidled over to the bike, which Ty refused to point anywhere but up the street. "It’s that butt-head Braden! He’s signing up to play for Paynesboro. Can you believe that butt-brain? He says his dad’s going to take him all the way over there for try-outs in two weeks. Can you believe that?"
Ty shrugged. "I can’t wait to pitch to him."
It was amazing to hear how much like Braden’s laugh Wade’s had become. "Oh, man! Me, neither! Oh, man! My first pitch is gonna put him right on his ass! Oh, man! That’ll be so funny, dude!"
Ty wasn’t smiling. "At least he’ll be legal this year. We all will. But then, we’ll probably sit on the bench for a year."
"Oohhh… so you finally found out! No more Santa Claus for Ty." This was the old Wade, his leers and sniggers keener, more subtle. In a strange way, Ty almost preferred the Braden version.
"So how long have you known?"
"I’ve always known, man!"
"Are you kidding? That butt-head?"
"You didn’t tell him?" Ty wrenched himself around on his seat as if he might leap off. "Why didn’t you tell me?"
"Hey, I couldn’t! My dad would’ve killed me! My PlayStation, my GameBoy, my I-Pod, my scooter—I couldn’t run the risk—he would’ve taken everything!"
Ty turned back around, but without any thought of launching his bike again. He looked right through the thin veils of sunlight sheeting across the skeletal hickory trees. For some reason, he saw his dad’s muscular jaw working: for some reason, it occurred to him that he must look just the same way right now.
"God, don’t take it so hard! You see—this is why I couldn’t tell you! I knew you’d blow it all out of shape."
"Oh, really?" If his fist hadn’t been busy squeezing the life out of a handle bar, he would have grabbed Wade by the collar. "You thought it might bother me to find out that we’re just a bunch of freakin’ cheaters?"
"Oh, shit!" Wade delivered himself of the word confidently from the lonely curbside, and produced just the right laugh to go with it—hoarse, throaty—a laugh which would be Braden’s and his from now on, Ty realized. "Ask your dad to explain it to you. Look, man… nothing is fair. It’s not fair for a little hicktown like ours to have to compete against some big city team. What chance do we have? We’re nobody! We’re just a bunch of shit-kicking rednecks to them! And if there’s ever a scout around, he doesn’t come here, he goes there—to the city! Is that fair? We’re just taking back some of the chances that they stole from us."
Ty shook his head more and more vigorously. "You’re wrong!"
"Oh, I am, am I? And my dad, too? And your dad? My dad says he’s actually built more houses since Clayburg started winning. People are actually noticing us."
"No, you’re wrong. You’re all wrong."
"And your dad, too?"
"Yeah, and my dad, too!" Ty heard his answer bounce back to him from the calm brick exterior with the high stoup, and fought to bring his voice down. "Baseball’s supposed to be about… about being the best."
"We are the best!"
"No, we’re a bunch of freakin’ cheaters!" Suddenly he had a kind of inspiration, and he tried to chase after it with his words. "What if you were in the Major Leagues? You’d be there because you were good, really good. You’d be one of the best. It wouldn’t be because of your size or your age—it would be because you worked your butt off!"
"Exactly! They’re all different ages in the Majors."
"No!" He pounded his handle bar. "No! They’re… you’re as big as you’re going to get by eighteen. It doesn’t matter after that. But right now, it’s… it’s just cheating. You all act like we’re proving something—like we’re the next generation of big-leaguers. We’re not proving anything! Nothing! All the games we’ve won mean nothing! If we make it to the Little League World Series this year, it’ll be the last world series we ever see. I want my adult life to be… I want to get ready to be a real adult. Now I don’t know what I’m going to be, I don’t know how good I am. I might not be any good at all. When am I ever going to get to find that out?"
Wade turned away, reaching for the pull-corrd of his blower, and spat succinctly into the dead leaves. "Braden’s right—you’re weird."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
Ty discovered that he had wrenched Wade’s arm off the cord—he heard his bike clatter behind him.
"Hey, let go! I mean it, man! Let go of me before I call my dad!"
"Just remember who’s in charge. Just remember who’s stronger than you. I can kick the crap out of you if I want to. Just remember who’s gotten stronger. I’m stronger!"
Ty found himself pedaling again as if he were recalling a deed already done—as if he were watching himself looking back on himself, from the other side of those alternative blinding and blind streaks of light and dark which sped over his face like spokes of a wheel. He watched himself run Braden off his scooter and onto somebody’s lawn, and pick Braden up and shake him like a sack of rages. He never got a good look at the other kid who tackled him from behind; but he watched his heart swell inside, as a glutton watches a feast being laid, while Braden and the other kid tried to trample him. The joy of being outnumbered burst into a kind of exultation. He watched himself wear a grimace that might have been a savage smile as he caught Braden’s foot, overthrew him, tripped up the other kid in his legs, pounded the kid’s head into the earth as he held Braden’s belt with his left hand, and finally slapped Braden three times—forehand, backhand, forehand. You’re signing up with Clayburg again, he heard a voice command (it had to be his, but it had belonged to his father once in a quarrel with a drunken parent). You’ll come to try-outs and you’ll come to practice, and if you’re not good enough you’ll sit on the bench. You’ll do what you’re told—you’ll do what I tell you. I’ll tell you because I can. You’ll do it because you’ve got no choice. You can’t keep me off your chest even with someone to help.
He continued to watch it all in his mind back home, over and over, as he fired pitches into an elastic netting and caught their pale rebounds under a single blue shadow now blanketing the entire yard. He asked himself once or twice, between furious slings, why he couldn’t seem to recall those heavenly eyes a foot in front of him just an hour or so ago. Why wasn’t Sara coming back to him… why was it just shaking Wade and slapping Braden? He struck them out over and over again, set their teeth chattering with pitches right under their fists—the two of them, the ten of them, the whole fucking town. Two more weeks of grounding for foul language! Good, make it ten. He was already grounded—he had been grounded all his life. Living in Clayburg was perpetual grounding. Reverend Blaney had told them their parents had grounded them well. Ground this! And he seared more imaginary knuckles, watching himself grind the unknown kid’s face in an unknown neighbor’s manicured grounds.
"That’s a damn good pitch."
Ty shuddered. For once, his dad’s stealthy approach had been entirely successful. How long would he be grounded this time?
"By golly… you’re south of sidearm. That’s almost submarining. It’s got a… a corkscrew to it. When’d you start throwing that, boy? Ty, I asked you—"
"Just now. It… it just came to me." And Ty threw it again—less rabidly and more sloppily, so that the corkscrew opened wider than ever.
"You’ll be unhittable this spring, son."
He had never heard such a tone of respect in his father’s voice before. As if to strangle it before it resumed, he squared around and stared his father in the face. The solid shadow cast by the back yard’s fence washed thickly about the man’s body , but his head emerged into the last sunlight, and he wore an eagle’s majestic squint. Ty felt the same sunlight in his own hair, almost pricking his own eyes. He was already very nearly as tall as the most manly man he had ever known.
"How old am I?" he asked.
Like an eagle cocking its head to peer down upon an infinitely distant hunting ground, the sharp chin rose on a long sigh, the sinewy brow twisted, and the jaw shut tighter than a beak.
"I won’t have you questioning me," answered his dad, calm and quiet. Then he turned to walk away.
"At least… at least tell me it wasn’t your idea!"
Ty swallowed his voice: it sounded tremulous and cracking, like a child’s trying to say, "I love you," or, "I hate you." How could he ever have thought he sounded like a man, let alone this man?
He knew he wasn’t going to receive an answer, anyway. The precise steps that might have belonged to an Olympic gymnast—or a master jewel thief—never wavered an inch off course before disappearing into the house. When he finally understood that he was all alone again—when he began to feel a shiver under his shirt as the night closed in—he resumed pitching, more deliberately now, looking for that big open corkscrew. He saw neither Wade nor Braden any more, and he could hardly even think of Sara. He just saw a hitter, a tall figure with a stick who stood between him and where he had to go.
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