P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
4.1 (Winter 2004)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Fall 200
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2004), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison:
Memoriae minimum tribuit quisquis spei maximum. "He who invests most in hope invests least in memory." Seneca
A Few Words from the Editor
This is possibly the best issue ever of Praesidium.
Pessimism au Pied de la Lettre: Ideological Illiteracy and the Vertical Invasion of the Barbarians
Thomas F. Bertonneau
That our culture has comfortably nestled itself deep into a cocoon of "functional literacy" requiring the least possible effort to sustain is strikingly evident when we consider the superior writings of blue-collar scribblers from just a few decades ago.
Reviews of Recent Books
The book review is a form of literate criticism not featured regularly in these pages. This winter, however, we have received a wealth of such submissions, all of them likely to interest regular readers of our quarterly. Canadian journalist Mark Wegierski ponders books about political philosophy and cultural trend, Michael Lythgoe makes a strong case that fellow poet Scott Cairns should garner further attention, and Peter Singleton recovers a delightfully colorful and minute Irish reminiscence from the ashes of contemporary letters.
The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality, by Derrick de Kerckhove
The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul
The Revolt of the Elites: and the Betrayal of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch
Political Theory for Mortals: Shades of Justice, Images of Death Contestations: Cornell Studies in Political Theory, by John E. Seery
George Grant: A Biography, by William Christian
reviewed by Mark Wegierski
Recovered Body, by Scott Cairns
reviewed by Michael H. Lythgoe
There is an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood, by Criostoir O’Flynn
reviewed by Peter Singleton
On Eternity and Moral Reason: Why Clocks Keep Ticking in Heaven
John R. Harris
The afterlife has commonly been conceived of in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the "end of time". The requirements of God’s all-goodness, however, call for time to continue somehow after mortal existence.
El Día de Hoy (short story)
A charismatic Spanish teacher carries all before his spontaneous overflow of conversational chatter… until he meets Don Quixote’s latest incarnation!
Santa’s Death (poetry)
John R. Harris
Christmas has come and gone. Sometimes it carries away a bit of childhood’s innocence with it.
A Few Words from the Editor
I can’t remember ever having been more proud of an edition of Praesidium. I am delighted to be able to offer to our devoted readers the matter between this winter edition’s covers. All that’s missing is more poetry from Ralph Carlson; and I want to express in these opening lines my humblest apologies for having made a hash of my proofreading in the fall issue, whereof Ralph was the preeminent victim. A couple of egregious typo’s slipped past my tired eye which should have been flagged down at once. At least I was able to purge these in short order from the journal’s online version. Those of you who follow our quarterly via the Internet will, I hope, not even have noticed my gross offense.
Thomas Bertonneau’s previous essays have not only autopsied our post-literate state with a full and sober awareness of how our "quality of life" must suffer (our intellectual keenness, our moral acuity, etc.) but have also provided close-ups of the "corpse" in college classrooms. The essay he has submitted for this edition is in many ways a climax to his investigation. Those of us who protest poor student performance are often written off as cranks, and maybe we are such (teaching is enough to make anyone cranky after a while). Yet it is impossible to dismiss Dr. Bertonneau’s literary relics from more or less a century ago (drawn from a precious trove of family correspondence) as smoke and mirrors. People wrote better at the end of the nineteenth century, when they wrote at all. Not only that, but people with little formal education wrote better than most Ph.D. candidates do today. The word "better", of course, is prima facie argumentative. As Tom demonstrates, however, one may take the argument in any direction one wishes—grammar, diction, rhythm, drama, depth of content—without finding a ground whereon the present vanquishes the past. Our writing has deteriorated, categorically and across the board. What this must necessarily mean at its most alarming level is that our thinking has deteriorated. We do not perceive clearly, we do not assimilate fully, we do not compare justly, we do not infer logically, we do not prioritize maturely. We run the gravest peril of becoming slaves, in the Shakespearean sense. "Give me that man who is not passion’s slave," says Hamlet to Horatio, "and I will wear him in my heart—aye, in my heart of heart, as I do thee." Well… today "passion" is one of those warm-and-cuddly "positive" words in our ailing culture. We have indeed surrendered our freedom to carnal impulse and spiritual whim, as surely as if we had placed shackles upon our wrists and ankles—and we congratulate ourselves upon the transition! One must truly stand back and wonder what Frederick Douglass and his fellow bondsmen, who risked severe penalties in order to become literate, would make of this self-defiling hysteria.
Thanks to a curious magnetism which I did nothing to generate consciously, about half a dozen fine book reviews converged upon me this past month. Though Praesidium has usually left the chore of reviewing books to millions (it seems) of other journals, these reviews were all penned by writers who understand our special interests and who had chosen their matter accordingly. The subject of the afterlife comes up in one of them (although facetiously, as Mark Wegierski suspects)—and that daunting subject happened to be my own in the essay which follows the reviews. I really can’t recall ever having read a paper in any contemporary journal with any scholarly or philosophical pretensions which seriously ponders the nature of life after death. I suppose I should have interpreted that great lacuna as a warning. On the other hand, I’m not very good at reading tea leaves (my zeal is for other kinds of literacy), and I honestly cannot think of a good reason why thoughtful people should not discuss the most consequential of human questions in a mildly scholarly setting. In some form or other, I have wanted to write this paper for years. To my mind, it makes but the tamest of assertions if only one accepts the reality—the full and supreme reality—of goodness: i.e., of a loving and purposeful creator. My intention has not been to make anyone uncomfortable, but to dispel, rather, some of the discomfort which must constantly nag at thoughtful believers in our "post-reflective" age of electronically enhanced delirium.
There is yet another serendipitous echo set up by Mr. Davies’ uproarious chronicle of one day in a mellifluously jabbering Spanish teacher’s life. Dr. Bertonneau’s essay treats lengthily of altering language to suit the street-speak du jour. At the far end of this issue, Mr. Davies shows us a winsome academic whose career mission is precisely to advance that doubtful cause; but his busy tongue is at last stilled, at least temporarily, by none other than… well, see for yourself.
I dedicate my closing poem about one boy and one Christmas to everyone who has children and loves them.
back to Contents
Pessimism au Pied de la Lettre:
Ideological Illiteracy and the Vertical Invasion of the Barbarians
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Thomas F. Bertonneau, a member of The Center for Literate Values’ board of directors since its inception, currently teaches English at the State University of New York’s Oswego campus. He is well known to some as a past executive secretary of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. The previous essays in Praesidium on students’ declining literacy to which he refers may be found in 2.3 (Summer 2002) and 2.4 (Fall 2002).
Encolpius: People fed on this kind of thing have as much chance of learning sense as dishwashers have of smelling clean... Once the rules go, eloquence loses vigour and voice. In short, who since [the old days] has equaled Thucydides or Hyperides in their reputation? Why, not even poetry has shown a spark of life. All forms of literature have been faced with the same diet and lost their chance of a ripe old age. Even the great art of painting has met the same fate since the unscrupulous Egyptians invented short cuts for painters.
Agamemnon: Young man... of course teachers are making immoral concessions with these exercises—they have to humour the madmen. If the speeches they make do not win the approval of their young pupils, as Cicero says, "they will be the only ones in their drama." (Petronius, Satyricon, Sullivan’s translation)
The fatal ease that Count Hermann Keyserling (1880-1946) saw, in 1929, far in advance of better known but rather more belated commentators, as characteristic of the contemporary Western civilization’s attitude toward learning, is certainly not confined to that civilization.1
The desire for "absolute relaxation", in Keyserling’s term, has vanquished a hard-won intellectual discipline before. The surviving chunk of Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon (penned around 50 A.D.) begins in medias res with a discussion of the corruption, indeed the collapse, of Roman education under the reign of Nero. The protagonist of this great Latin picaresque, Encolpius, although a cheat, a fornicator, a sponger, and a thief, is nevertheless classically and competently educated. When he actually earns his living, however rarely that might be, he does so as an itinerant instructor of rhetoric, an office he has been filling lately in Agamemnon’s school. The author of Satyricon gives plenty of evidence of having observed social conditions carefully and of having understood the causality of social behavior clearly. Encolpius presumably speaks for Petronius—if perhaps at one or two degrees of ironic distance—so readers should take seriously the details when Encolpius makes his diagnosis of the prevailing pedagogical malaise. The passage quoted in the epigraph, for example, speaks to what today we would call grade inflation and the "dumbed-down" curriculum. Students have little interest in the difficult mental work demanded by rigorous study as traditionally constituted, Encolpius says; they seek, on the contrary, those "short cuts" to this or that achievement which the teacher-hucksters cynically purvey, and which the parents wittingly abet. Encolpius’ rhetoric suggests that his insights weigh him down with a double onus of outrage and melancholy, as though he were contemplating, in its full awe, the closing of the Roman mind. A bit later in the same sequence, Agamemnon (equally a cheat, a fornicator, a sponger, and a thief) confirms Encolpius’ grim assessment, but gives reasons why he runs his school, as he does, on a basis of pandering standards and sycophantic practices.
As it is with the fisherman, Agamemnon says, so too is it with the teacher, because "he has to bait his hook with what he knows the little fishes will rise for; otherwise he’s left on the rocks without a hope of their biting" (38). Warming to his subject, the lecturer continues:
It’s the parents you should blame. They won’t allow their children to be properly controlled... If only parents would not rush them through their studies! Then young men who are prepared to work would cultivate their minds with solid reading, mould their characters with sensible advice, and prune their words with a stylish pen. They would wait and listen before they try themselves and they would realize that an adolescent taste is quite worthless. (38)
Many a contemporary high-school or college teacher might issue the same complaint: assigning Johnny his well deserved "F" or even his gentlemanly "C" brings threats of a lawsuit from the aggrieved mommies and daddies, the frowning displeasure of the department chairman and the dean, and contemptuous charges of distemper and immoderation from all around. It is beside the point that college students now no longer rush but tarry, some taking five or six years to earn a degree. History professor Thomas Reeves, recently emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Parkside in Kenosha, has written of his students, in an Academic Questions article, that they display a "proud ignorance [that] rests on a seemingly invincible anti-intellectualism" (65). Like Agamemnon, Reeves sees it in large part as a literacy problem. Entering freshmen exist outside the realm of books, libraries, and a sense of literature: "These amiable, polite, almost invariably likeable young people read little or nothing... Reading books and magazines outside the classroom is not something they would even consider doing" (66). My own freshman and sophomore students (Fall 2003) candidly report the same about themselves. "I mostly read the sports pages," is a typical answer to the inquiry.
In Cynthia Ozick’s terms, Reeves’ students or mine possess only a pragmatic literacy rather than a genuine literacy. Beyond a limited technical application, written language simply does not exist for them. In Reeves’ summation, the students "have no intellectual life and see no need for one" (66). Reeves’ observation corresponds to Jose Ortega’s analysis in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), where the Spaniard notes of the new "mass man" that "he is satisfied with himself exactly as he is" (62) and that "his surroundings spoil him" (106). My students, too, like those of Reeves, wish to do as little work as possible and to receive high grades whether they acquit themselves well or not. Most do not. What has produced such intellectually flaccid young people? The obvious answer is: a prior education that eschewed all rigor, that probably eschewed phonics in the lower grades and so lamed students for reading, and that offered little in the way of a meaningful bookish curriculum and less in the way of any discipline for assimilating it. In a word: the regnant ease produced them.
Keyserling’s "absolute relaxation", fostered by visual mass media, has also played a role in creating the current spiritual fiasco among the young. The widespread cult of entitlement, the whole pedagogy of self-esteem as it plays out in the schools and society, communicates intimately with the wish-fulfilment narratives of television and the movies, rooted as they are in vulgar resentment and in the primitive desire for revenge over anyone or anything that forms a barrier between desire and gratification. Petronius, in his day, linked the disintegration of the classical paideia, centered in rigorous rhetorical training, with a general derailment of social behavior—and with a decadence of the arts and sciences. In a later section of the extant fragment of Satyricon, another scoundrel-philosopher, Eumolpus, advises Encolpius on the state of sculpture and painting: "Lysippus was so preoccupied with the lines of one statue that he died of poverty, and Myron, who almost captured the souls of men and animals in his bronzes, left no heir. But we, besotted with drink and whoring, daren’t even study the arts with a tradition. Attacking the past instead, we acquire and pass on only vices" (99). The reference to "drink and whoring" as an abrogation of the "tradition" implicates the classical custom of symposiastic learning, or tells rather of its demise. The notion that the lapse from traditional discipline leads to an "attack" on the past anticipates our own condition.
The most famous section of Satyricon, "Dinner at Trimalchio’s", parodies Plato’s Symposium to show up the difference between a noetically disciplined and a mentally lazy society—a fatally mentally lazy society. Yet the billionaire-freedman and dinner-host Trimalchio has tried, even though he has failed, to get an education. When he comically confuses Homer’s characters with Euripides’ or Sophocles’ with Virgil’s, he at least acknowledges that one ought to conversant with such things. Petronius, who seems to have believed that he lived in the twilight of learning, as of much else, portrays the complete corruption of the old Socratic eros into its rudest and most illiterate forms. If Trimalchio were the best that the age could offer, what then of the worst? Keyserling, who took for granted that post-Versailles Europe was an era of dissolution, worried, as did Petronius, whether any sense of a tradition might survive: "Present-day humanity, which has discarded all inherited melodies, no longer hears the basic tones at all" (412). A willful optimism nevertheless sustained him: "Spirit only grows," he judged, "by the overcoming of natural inertia" (81).
Keyserling’s Creative Understanding offers his pedagogy for a Time of Troubles: it describes the philosophical basis and sketches the syllabus of the Count’s own "Wisdom School", founded in Darmstadt in 1924 and shut down by the Nazis ten years later. Keyserling believed that education had become too much a matter of routine and was latterly too prone to substitute dishonest formulas for the honest discipline of heavy mental labor, to foster genuine thinking. Education, as Keyserling saw it, was ideologically reductive and insipid. He discerned these tendencies at work even in such putatively rational causes as simplified spelling and the reform of the alphabet. "Democracy," he writes, "is considering everywhere and with gusto the introduction of purely phonetic orthography" (76). Not content with the easiest writing system ever devised—twenty-four or twenty-six alphabetic characters and a few guidelines for combining them, as opposed to the scores of characters and amorphous regulation required by the pre- and non-alphabetic systems—the latter-day beneficiaries of the alphabetized consciousness seek the ever easier yet. In the 1920s and 30s, the historical sedimentation in orthography with its vestiges of medieval pronunciation had already begun to make spelling difficult for modern, only superficially educated people. A word like "though" in English, with its materially unpredictable u and gh, will affront a sedulously aural consciousness. What it signifies is also probably a mystery. My students, for example, rarely use the vocabulary of subordination or qualification. Keyserling observes with irony that "Greece should be a warning" (77). He means modern Greece, for "if I am rightly informed, it was the first to take the plan of a new orthography into practical consideration, because of the excessive discrepancy there is in modern Greek between orthography and pronunciation" (76). Fortunately, Keyserling adds, the new Hellas dropped its plan; but the Soviet Union, bound to Greece through Russia and Byzantium, was at the same time considering a reform of Cyrillic so as to write according to a "tempered ear" (77).
As for the tongue of Britain and North America, once Shakespeare’s or Henry James’ and now that of the daily press, "the discrepancy between the orthography and the pronunciation is the most important circumstance which prevents modern English from entirely trivializing the mind" (81). The popular impatience with conventional spelling belongs together with the zealous hostility to tradition that Keyserling detects in the Zeitgeist: "Today the soul of the masses in its relation to the ties connecting it with the past is so complete a tabula rasa as no philosophical empiricist of the seventeenth century ever assumed as a basis for man’s thinking processes" (113).2 About these rumblings over spelling Keyserling offers few details, although his remark that spelling preserves an historical sense is important, as it implies in the reformers not only a blankness about but a positive hostility to the past. For a deeper understanding of the reform-mentality, we can turn to a slightly less eccentric, but no less insightful source, the short-story writer Karen Blixen, known also as Isak Dinesen.
Danish educators of the "progressive" conviction both before and after World War Two pressed hard for spelling reform, as its advocates always call it. The reformers objected to the fact that Danish lexicographic conventions still enshrined phonologic aspects of the language that had gradually disappeared since the middle ages. Blixen draws the line right where Walter Ong and Eric Havelock do: "Most of the present demand for reform in Danish orthography," she writes, "seems to come from people who comprehend and remember aurally" (Daguerreotypes 142).3 Blixen confesses that she herself remembers a word on a visual basis but that many people possess a largely aural memory. In one respect, Blixen errs: she assumes, as many literate people do for whom the decipherment of manuscript and typography has long been a deeply embedded second nature, that "reading is, on the whole, not a matter of spelling but of recognizing words by their appearance" (142). The best research shows otherwise and affirms what one might predict on the basis of Barry Powell’s theory of the origin of the alphabet, that the phonetic principle is inseparable from reading-comprehension in alphabetic literacy right down to the reconnaissance of individual words. But this is a side issue. Blixen sees the counterproductive impetus in the demands of the reformers:
Effecting a reform for the sake of phonetic spelling will require the acquisition of a new phonetic alphabet.
Danish has many different sounds for each letter of the alphabet and our new school books would have to contain new symbols simply for the sounds of the vowels: for the a in har, Kar, Sal, skal, and Skal, for the e in men and Men, for i in Bil, hil, skil, and til, for o in for and fór, for u in hun, kun, and lun, for y in nyt and Spyt, for æ in Sjæl and Skæl, for ø in Brøl, føl, and Øl. It will become more difficult to write our language than it is now, although it is conceivable that, for persons with a particular sense for the sound of the language, it could be more interesting. For the vast majority, reading Danish would become almost intolerable. (151)
The so-called phonetic recasting of the written language would not be phonetic at all, but would represent, rather, a preference for what might be called phonemic literal-mindedness, and would require (as such a system must) many more characters than the minimum of them contained by the alphabet with its attendant finitude of rules. Reform of this sort would help almost no one and would be a backwards step towards the craft literacy required by the cumbersome pre-alphabetic systems. Ortega writes, in Revolt of the Masses, that to be against something that has emerged in the historical course is to be for that which prevailed before its emergence. This is an inescapable law, in application to the written word as much as to anything else.
Powell and Ong both remark that the original Greek alphabet constituted an innovation so simple that it could not be repeated, and that it underwent only two minor modifications, firstly into Etruscan whence into Latin, and secondly into Cyrillic. True enough, the alphabet does not perfectly represent every subtle phonological feature of the language to which users apply it. The point of the alphabet is that one does not need a separate mark for every phoneme of the language. Thus the Danes dropped the Germanic letter ð—pronounced "eth"—five hundred years ago, with the introduction of print.5 The ð is the voiced "th", as in the English weather. In certain cases, however, Danish still uses a plain Latin d to mark a voiced "th" in the pronunciation of a word. The adjective blid, cognate with the English blithe, is an example. In omitting ð, East Norse orthography might be said to have become less phonetic than it previously was. All literate Danes nevertheless know when to sound the voiced "th". Restoring ð might make Danish writing more phonetic than it currently is, but it would also make the same writing more complicated, precisely by a letter.6 Say rather: by proliferating letters in the plural, for this is the conclusion that Blixen reaches. To be truly phonetic, Danish would require five vowels for the a alone, three for the u, and so on, as would English.
The settled alphabet represents not a maximally but an optimally phonetic system, with a few rules and conventions making up for whatever discrepancies exist between the characters in their combinations and the words of the language. The optimal system results from centuries of observation and refinement and already represents the non plus ultra of orthographic ease. Meddling with the optimum does not therefore ameliorate the system; it merely propagates phonological confusion.
Writes Blixen: "I have seen the words det, jeg, til, and ved written de, je, te, and ve; the word med written mæ; and the words hvordan and hvorfor written vodden and voffer" (151).7 Anyone who teaches in K-12 or college will have seen similar deformations, for the proposed new spellings under critique by Blixen resemble the spontaneously reformed orthography improvised in their writing by contemporary North American college students. In an essay that sits on my desk as I write, for example, my eye trips over "freedum", so spelt; a student-writer also puts "there" for their; another one writes "portrait" for portrayed. I have also seen the modal phrase would have spelled as wood of, as perhaps that locution sounds to a wooden ear which has never learned to read through its correspondent eye. A student recently (Fall 2003) wrote this sentence at the beginning of an essay on "Love": "Love is set to be a physical attraction between two humans…" It took me some time to recognize in the phrase set to be, the passive construction said to be. Each one of these errors corresponds to the by-now-familiar oral sense of the language, which today prevails among the cohorts of high school graduates and college freshmen.
Blixen accurately perceives that the demand for so-called simplified spelling originates with people whose language usage is primarily in speech rather than in script. Such people record language as they hear it; they tend to express themselves only within a restricted vocabulary and, from not reading, to lack a sense of words as stemming from a sedimentary past represented by a literary archive. Who recognizes no gross distinctions, as between there and their, will recognize no subtle ones either. According to the ear, there and their are identical, so why should two separate spellings bedevil the issue? The devolution from a settled spelling thus runs in parallel with a devolution from settled semantics. In the penchant for an improvised orthography, lexical equivocations begin to infiltrate the subject’s written language until the mess of phonemically literal-minded ad hoc spontaneities makes coherent prose impossible. It is necessary to add: for those who have enjoyed no real grammar in their prior education and who are probably too old, at nineteen or twenty, to learn any now.
Once functional illiterates become socially predominant, however, the capacity meaningfully to designate the lapse will also have disappeared. There is a connection, moreover, between the disintegration of spelling (only home-schooled children now win spelling bees) and the random mental stabs that students substitute for the thinking that no one has taught them. The rules of spelling, however arbitrary they might be, are nevertheless the school-child’s paradigm for rules of a higher order: the ones that govern logic and rhetoric, for example, and so facilitate any search for truth. This is part of the meaning in the two episodes of Satyricon, where Petronius understands the simultaneity of scholastic indiscipline and moral degeneracy in the empire, the former being but a sign of the latter and the latter rebounding to intensify the former. The journey of Encolpius through the slums of Greek-speaking Southern Italy is also a quest, with many allusions to Odyssey, through the moral shadow-world of the times. The cut-purse, the prostitute, the con-man people the setting at all times. Encolpius has been made impotent by a curse and seeks the cure. He seeks more than that, although he can hardly say what. In the century after Petronius (after Plutarch and Seneca), Longinus would complain in On the Sublime, as Encolpius does in Satyricon, that affluence had first bred ease and ease then impatience with all that is difficult and noble: "This must inevitably happen, and men no longer look upwards nor take any further thought for their good name... their greatness of soul wastes away from inanition and is no longer their ideal" (Fyfe’s translation 251). Longinus sees the chief sign of cultural morbidity of his day in "the world-wide dearth of literature" that "besets our times" (247). A reduction of life to pragmatics—in which people see education only as technical training for a lucrative career—banishes the spiritual dimension, fosters an elite of cretins, and issues in endless confusion and grief.
Blixen turns prophet, too, in her essay, the topic of which might at first seem trivial to a reader. Orthography, however, provides the basis for literacy:
A child who has learned a language through the ear alone has need of what he has learned when he is together with people who speak that language... But the person who has learned a language grammatically and has understood its construction and inner relationships acquires an understanding and a sense for cause and effect; he has learned to reason...
Those modern pedagogues who, by relinquishing the development of the whole human being, want to train youth in such skills as they have need for and can use immediately—they are not less barbarian than those parents who, in the old days, enrolled their sons in the choir of St. Peter’s in the conviction that they had more need for a sure income with a promise for a pension than for anything else. (154)
To implement a readjustment of the alphabet along the lines proposed by the Danish pedagogues of just before and just after the war—for the sake of some imagined simplification—would amount to nothing less than the spiritual emasculation of Danish thought, Blixen argues. She arrives at this radical conclusion because she grasps the relation between the restructuring of consciousness inherent in alphabetic literacy, not to mention in the literature that it has generated over the centuries and millennia, and the general intellectual acuity among a people. Blixen’s analysis of spelling reform meshes with Keyserling’s nearly contemporary critique of the same phenomenon. Both Blixen and Keyserling are in accord, finally, with Petronius, who declared two thousand years ago that a tie exists between pedagogic rigor in the schools and the integrity of the body politic. Throw in the contentions of the theoreticians of literacy (Havelock, Luria) and the consensus is remarkable, right down to Blixen’s acute insight that the demand for greater ease in spelling arises from what one might call the "oral" stratum of a given people, those who have least assimilated the optical sense for language inherent in writing and who cannot therefore see that a mild inconvenience, namely the small effort required to learn an optimal system, is already minimal. In the contemporary North American context, spelling undergoes virtual reformation through the "whole language" pedagogy of K-12, which divorces reading and writing from their phonetic basis. Children who receive such training read and write poorly, but instead of attempting to remedy the default, the schools and later the university respond by reducing the demands built into the curriculum. In the end, one sees what Reeves reports.
Sven Birkerts confirms the pervasive uneasy feeling in a passage in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), where he tells how his undergraduates reacted when he asked them to read Henry James: "These students were entirely defeated by James’ prose... as well as by the assumptions that underlie it" (18). Birkerts reports that it was neither the vocabulary nor the syntax as such in the face which students came to a full stop, although they struggled with these; it was rather that "they didn’t get it, and their not getting it angered them" (18). "It", I suppose, means the indirectness of James’ style, his Victorian settings, the assumption that the reader will figure things out on the basis of the well-placed clues, absent any authorial pronouncement that "this is what the story means." James definitely does not do his readers’ thinking for them. What happens when the author refuses to think for his readers? There is confusion, bafflement. But Birkerts seems to me to emphasize the wrong clause. The phenomenon to which one ought, in fact, most closely attend is the "anger" that "not getting it" provokes.
This anger, noted by Birkerts, is the same as the rebuke that the Petronian character Agamemnon fears in Satyricon should he not assuage the laziness and impatience of his students; the same anger expresses itself again in irritation over the modest difficulty of spelling correctly, as Keyserling and Blixen so carefully explain. Relativism, the philosophy of ease that announces in advance that any argument is as good as any other and which one might think of as sophisticated and modern, simply shows another form of the identical bad humor. The man who, in Ortega’s words, is satisfied with himself finds in the relativistic dismissal of all criteria powerful armor against any challenge to his own claim of adequacy. The analphabetic ire thus signifies something moral and spiritual. No one should forget that Agamemnon refers to the letter-less rabble as "madmen."8 Petronius knew well what he was talking about and Agamemnon thus has his reasons when he says so.
One must indeed delve deeper into this anger, as into its relation with literacy, but there are some preliminaries.
The present essay assumes, as do its forerunners Thinking is Hard and Literature and Literacy, that the situation today represents a decline in comparison to the more or less recent past. The late Jeanne Chall found that, when they took a vocabulary examination first given to undergraduates in 1930, University of Michigan students in the 1980s did poorly by comparison. The fact that remedial English—euphemistically called by other titles, so as not candidly to name it—is now necessary for at least half of public university freshmen suggests the same debacle more massively. Another item in evidence is the richness of pre-World War Two schoolbooks, readers as one formerly called them, by contrast with contemporary printed matter not only for primary and secondary but also for college use at the undergraduate level. Cynthia Ozick writes movingly about the reader from which her newly immigrated Russophone grandmother learned to be literate in English in the New York City Public Schools of eighty or ninety years ago. Statistical evidence interests me less than actual books bought by school districts or samples of student writing, which is why I have introduced the latter, especially, in making my case. I now wish to introduce a different type of document.
The man I knew as my paternal grandfather was really my father’s stepfather. According to the family history, Augustine Aloysius Hamilton married my grandmother, Nellie (née Gayaut) Bertonneau, in Los Angeles in 1925. She was a graceful widow with three children. "Ham", as everyone called him, hailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, via Boston, where he had worked as one of the city’s finest until, a participant in the famous policemen’s strike of 1922, he found himself without his chosen employment. By twists and turns that no one can any longer reconstruct, Ham became a repairs supervisor for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and "ran the shop" in its Los Angeles yards until some years after World War Two. The diesels had come in. He found them dirty and unpleasant after the elegance of steam. Ham was born in the early 1880s. My father thinks it was 1883. He died, a widower of five years, in 1971. He belongs to the same generation as Cynthia Ozick’s grandmother, although he stemmed from a different milieu. Ham maintained the image of a tough and altogether practical character who wrestled with big machines and enjoyed the outdoors, but in whispered asides my grandmother always insisted that he was "educated". She meant that he had gone to school, all the way through the eighth grade, in Halifax, and that he not only could but did read and write. He liked local, which implied California, history.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, the engine repairman drove in rickety automobiles to remote places to tramp and camp. Among his favored destinations, Death Valley loomed large. In spring, 1944, with the nation at war and with the federal government making heavy demands on the transportation industry, Ham and his friend Jim French, another Southern Pacific man, decided that, after a long stretch of labor without hiatus, they needed rest and recreation. Rationing made the venture doubly difficult. "Our tires were too worn to take that trip into rough country," Ham wrote, and "even if they were not, still we could not go" because of the scarcity of gasoline: "Uncle Sam... was using most of the gas, tires and auto accessories to fight the war."
The words in quotation come from a typescript that Gus Hamilton prepared, based on notes taken in pencil during the period of ten days starting on April Fools’ Day, 1944. The typescript, double-spaced and with only one or two inked corrections, bears no title. I believe that it appeared as an article, possibly with illustrations, in the monthly magazine of the Automobile Club of California, but I cannot say this for certain. I call attention preliminarily to the correct application of the conditional tense in the phrase about worn tires beginning with "even if they were not..." and concluding with "still we could not go." A fin-de-siècle Halifax eighth-grade education might at least do that for a fellow—teach him the conditional, the if-then pattern, which baffles my freshmen unanimously. During the expedition, Ham kept notes in his "little brown book". These must have been precise, judging by the references to them in the manuscript itself: "We were in our sleeping bags at 12 p.m."; "we breakfasted at 7 a.m. Sunday morning"; "it was about 11 a.m. when we started a short cut up the rough side of the Slate Range." Ham has logged the entire expedition in this manner, endowing his narrative with a remarkable precision. Even when he recounts the preliminary discussions that he had with French, he couches it in particulars. He does not say vaguely that they thought out loud about hiking in Death Valley. He says: "Jim French and I had talked over the possibilities of taking a trip to Trona on the bus from Los Angeles, hiking with a back pack from Trona over the Slate Range to Ballarat; then proceeding up Surprise Canyon to the Panamint Mountains and down Six Springs Canyon to the floor of Death Valley, then to Furnace Creek Ranch where we hoped we could get a ride out of the Valley on some truck… The return home was to be by busses." Trona… the Slate Range… Ballarat…
The two trekkers obviously planned ahead with the appropriate cartography and other relevant matter at hand. I should like therefore to emphasize the literate character of their preparations. The expectation of a healing sabbatical from the weekly grind of the war-pressed locomotive shops, already pleasant and restorative merely as a prospect, gains piquancy in the details of a carefully considered itinerary. Veteran hikers in the Mojave and beyond and habitual readers of Death Valley lore, Ham and his buddy know a great deal about their journey even before they hit the trail. They would have known and they would probably have consulted Bourke Lee’s two books, Death Valley (1930) and Death Valley Men (1932), and Dane Coolidge’s Death Valley Prospectors (1937), not to mention a wide range of periodical literature. Gus and Jim respond to more than the intrinsic allure of the Valley, powerful though that be. The human—the historical—sedimentation in a place that has challenged human residency and where people have written a chronicle both grim and colorful also beckons them.
Ham needed not only to foresee the logistical problems of the trek, but he had to reckon with the ethical side of it, too. It was more than a problem of pneumatic tires: "Cooking utensils… extra clothing, towel, soap, razor"—these things the two could obtain. Victuals, rather like tires, posed a difficulty, "as foods for such a trip were from the ration-list and taking from home supplies meant sacrifice." A sense of restricted goods, either from natural or from emergent scarcity, has dropped out of the contemporary consciousness, but war-regulations made of essentials a real challenge: "Of course, we had friends—old people and youngsters—so we put in bids to swap foods and thereby got bacon and ham, which were easy to preserve, which helped our problem somewhat." When the bus stopped in Adelanto, out of San Bernardino, the two men drank beer "in an atmosphere of soldiers off duty or on short leave from nearby posts or camps." In Red Mountain, Ham writes, "Jim and I looked over the Silver Dollar," a public house, "where a couple of old dolls leaned a hand on each of our shoulders, but the bartender brushed them away… I guess he sized us up rightly and did not wish to have them waste their time." Ham does not aspire to the station of a littérateur, nor is his document literary in any sophisticated sense. Even so, he has endowed it with touches that tell, not only of facility with the written language, but of his sense—but by no means his theory, as he does not have one—for the relation in narrative of accidentals to essentials. He belongs to Friedrich Schiller’s category of the naïve as opposed to the sentimental. The lessons that constitute adult literacy have taken root deeply in Ham’s psyche and they yield a spontaneous type of competent articulation.
A phrase such as "an atmosphere of soldiers on leave" belongs elsewhere than in the register of casual, of purely spoken, language. The appearance in the Silver Dollar of those same "soldiers on leave" reminds readers again of the wartime context of the story, of the rationing and transportation difficulties. The two explorers reached Chris Wichts’ cabins, a nucleus of abandoned shacks just beyond Ballarat, on foot, on Monday of their journey after a day’s walking. They "were quite surprised to find a man, Russell J. Elliot, in another one of the cabins." They talked to Elliot, who "seemed to be… watching who was going up and down the canyon or possibly ducking the draft board." Here again, the war obtrudes into the nearly uninhabited desert of dilapidated camps and desiccated ghost-towns.
Ham has a keen eye for the elements that contribute to a landscape, as in this description of the foot-path up Surprise Canyon: "We stopped many times on this steep trail for a rest and a drink from the stream that sometimes disappeared into the ground and then came up again. The shadows here are ever-changing and the surfaces of the canyon walls change too as a result of sudden cloudbursts, which are peculiar to this area in August and September. Occasionally we would stop and look back and the scenes made many a beautiful picture…" At the top of the Canyon, Ham writes, "we got our first glimpse of Panamint City – a chimney at the ruins of Louis Munsinger’s Brewery… and the old mill chimney."
French has visited the abandoned town before, so he serves as Ham’s guide:
The first place [that French led Ham] was up to Panamint City boot hill. Gravestones tell many tales. Up in Sourdough Gulch, about 1,000 feet higher elevation, there is only one grave left, and that one, showing much disturbance by the elements is a wood plaque bearing the inscription
IN MEMORY OF ROBERT McHENRY
DIED APRIL 17TH, 1876
AGE 30 YRS. 3 MOS. 13 DAYS
Nearby there was a well-preserved rock cabin and down lower a spring of good water. The sides of the mountain were covered with juniper and pinion pine. We walked down the gulch and over to the once famous part of Panamint City—"Maiden Lane." The gals are long gone—not even a powder puff left—but the memories for some might still be there. We looked around the old mill, all in ruins now, but with enough left to show the marks of workmen who were artists at their trade. The chimney was built of red bricks made a short distance away from clay procured in the immediate vicinity. The quality of the work done at this mill in the building would put many a mechanic of the present day to shame.
Ham sees more than nondescript wreckage in the ruined mill. He sees the practical merit in the building and infers from it the competence of the builders, those "artists at their trade". He even makes a comparison unfavorable to the contemporary counterparts of the vanished carpenters and stonemasons. This non-literal view of things (to give it its inevitable yet ironic name), this ability to grasp the missing cause in the remaining empirical effects, suggests a mind subtle rather than gross in its habits, one attuned to the ironic caroming of human intentions across the billiard table of uncontrollable decades. Indeed, simultaneous beginnings can give rise to side-by-side itineraries of aspiration or failure. Thus the missing "gals" and the missing "workmen" form a parallelism in the sequence, the moral and other implications of which may be worked out by the reader.
Did Ham plan the paragraph this way? I have already said that he writes, in Schiller’s sense, naïvely rather than sentimentally, so I doubt that one could attribute to him any calculation of poetic or oratorical effects. What is my claim? I nominate Ham for what Blixen, in her essay on orthography, calls "a whole person". This ex-Boston cop and railroad mechanic has assimilated a literate attitude, knows his way around language, and finds it natural to sum up an important experience in a written narrative. Ham’s curiosity about Death Valley springs from an historical interest that can only have its basis in a type of bookish lore. That lore animates and enriches the actual foray, when Ham and French undertake it: Ham then makes a record of the trek in a more or less formal chronicle, exploiting a notion—genuine if not explicit—of expressive eloquence combined with specific observation. Now and again in his narrative, the Death Valley literary tradition even asserts itself explicitly. Thus when the two men misplace their packs after a side-trip, wondering whether thieves might have snagged them, they think of "the Small and MacDonald gang", for they "had read about the banditry of the old days."
Perhaps because Ham sees the world naïvely rather than sentimentally, his account can achieve a degree of poignancy—as he and French make their way through the detritus of the Nineteenth-Century attempt to tame and exploit the inhospitable Low Desert—that a more self-conscious writer would fail to achieve. The spectral quality of the landscape itself, the elegy of ruin and retreat, no doubt contributes to the ambiance.
Everywhere in the outlying sand-acres of the Panamint City ghost-town, Ham finds "stone structures of… small buildings with all the woodwork gone and bushes and trees growing up within the foundation… remains of tin, as from a tin shop or a blacksmith shop where probably many a wagon was fixed and horse shod." In Death Valley proper, they poke through the remnants of the Eagle Borax works, near which they note "the graves of Jimmy Dayton and Shorty Harris, two colorful characters of the early day history." On their way out of the deep desert, at Death Valley Junction, they stay in the old hotel: "There were a few men left around cleaning up after the scrapping of the old Tonopah and Tidewater narrow gauge railroad, the roundhouse of which was at Death Valley Junction." In the evening Ham and Jim converse in the bar with "Johnny Mills—a rough-talking old character who had much to do about the twenty-mule teams; also Frank Tilton, who was on crutches." Another colorful fellow, Ole Western, had "worked on many different jobs, including the building of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad and, like any old timer, was full of stories." Quite apart from Ham’s delight in the peculiar flavor of these survivors of the "Twenty-Mule-Team" days, let us note one or two points of moderate elegance in his presentation: the phrase "many a wagon fixed and horse shod", for example, with its unusual plural-singular; or the qualification "as from a tin-shop"; or, at last, the honor done to grammar in the phrase—concerning the narrow-gauge railroad—"the roundhouse of which was at Death Valley Junction." As from a tin shop… Of which… It requires no particular effort for Ham to adhere to grammar or use a figure. I must again emphasize that the writer of these phrases had formally only an eighth-grade education, that he belonged to the laboring class, that he preferred the outdoors and would never have pretended to be a scholar.
My family has also preserved a letter in the hand of my actual paternal grandfather, Gaston Bertonneau (1885-1918), New Orleans born and the scion of a long-ensconced French-speaking line belonging to what, in the Nineteenth Century, were called les gens de couleur libres. Bertonneau, trained in the Latin curriculum of the city’s Catholic schools, went to work in the family business—"A. Bertonneau & Sons," a haberdashery on Dryades Street—just after the turn of the century, and he saw the migration of many of his uncles, aunts, and cousins to California during the decade before World War One. He would eventually follow them, in 1916, only to die in the influenza epidemic two years later. Gaston’s cousin Jeanne Bertonneau had gone west with her parents and siblings in 1912. In January, 1915, she had written to Gaston of her plan to attend the State Normal School in Los Angeles (the forerunner of my own alma mater, UCLA) to become a teacher. Gaston took the opportunity to reply to his young relative in a letter dated 8 February, 1915, beginning with the etiquette, "My Dear Jeanne". "It is needless to tell you," he says, "how we enjoyed your long and interesting letter announcing your entry into Normal and outlining your future plans. Your letter sizzles with so much enthusiasm that I often reread it to rekindle that same spirit within myself." Chance only has preserved this epistle—but how fortuitously for my purpose: it combines the themes of education and reading and infuses both with a passion, a warmth, that cannot be feigned. The idea that Gaston often rereads Jeanne’s words to rekindle in himself her obvious enthusiasm is a bit of natural Platonic philosophy: one soul speaks to another by means of the written word and there results from the exchange an enkindling of enthusiasm.
The openness of Gaston’s words moves me. He writes to Jeanne: "On behalf of the family and myself I congratulate you on your achievement. If you continue to display the same industry and perseverance in Normal that you characterized your High School studies, you are bound to attain the goal that you have so persistently worked for." Education "is one of life’s most treasured prizes." It lifts one "above the crowd" and arms one "better to fight the battles of life." Finally, education constitutes "a source of much pleasure" that fully justifies itself. Gaston writes that if he had his own schooldays to live over, he would study harder and follow Jeanne’s example. Business, he says, is rather "dull". They have just spent a good deal of money in rat-proofing the premises. In learning lies redemption from such dullness.
Towards the end of the missive, Gaston widens his scope. He remarks the prevailing world situation: "From a humane as well as a financial standpoint I should like to see a speedy ending of the European war. It has been the cause of throwing millions of men out of employment and of increasing the cost of living." He comments, too, on the commercialization of the Mardi Gras celebration: "The 1915 Carnival will be carried out on a much larger scale than ever and the indications point to a tremendous crowd of visitors."9 It is purely a coincidence, but Gaston’s letter shares with "Ham" Hamilton’s Death-Valley narrative an acute awareness of how the local situation—whether it is the movement of people in the remote California desert in 1944 or business conditions in New Orleans in 1915—resonates in a global context; how large events elsewhere (those connected with a war) influence small ones at home. Both show also an awareness of social and cultural change, Ham in his descriptions of the ghost-towns, Gaston in his glimpse of the new artificiality of the pre-Lenten festivities in Louisiana. This far-flung, reticular awareness all but defines consciousness. In particular, it defines the kind of consciousness that we call educated and that the schools and colleges ought to foster. In both cases, again, the writer’s sensitivity to the linkage between the personal and the global, or to changes in custom, cannot be separated from the literacy implied by the ease of expression, the naturally elevated vocabulary, and the concomitant lack of resentment against the demands of rhetoric evident in the two documents.
Implicit in Gaston’s remarks to his cousin about learning is a pedagogical observation made prototypically by Saint Augustine in his late-Fourth Century Confessions about schoolboy animosity to the abecedary and to the primer. In quoting Augustine, I ask readers to think of the citation from Petronius’ Satyricon about the corruption of Roman education in the First Century—about the unwillingness of Agamemnon’s pupils to do any scholarly work. Augustine admits to having liked Latin literature when he was a pupil in the Late Antique North African equivalent of secondary school, but he reports candidly that he disliked Greek—to him a foreign language, with a difficult grammar—and never forgot his own recalcitrance in the face of initial instruction. "The first lessons in Latin were reading, writing, and counting, and they were as much of an irksome imposition as any studies in Greek" (Pine-Coffin’s translation 33). Yet, as Augustine adds, "these elementary lessons were far more valuable than those which followed, because… they gave me the power, which I still have, of reading whatever is set before me and of writing whatever I wish to write" (33). The earliest movement in transition from the oral person to the novice in letters inspires a profound reaction yet qualifies as the most important of all the stages in education. I saw this in my son, Joseph Augustine Felix, who balked for a time at further abecedary instruction when he was four-and-a-half, but who now at age eight years reads well above the school expectation.
If, like the Bishop of Hippo, either Gaston or Ham in his school days had kicked against learning his ABCs or rebelled against the elementary reading lessons (doubtless but we all do), such childhood recalcitrance had, for both, long since yielded to a normative civilized adult comfort with the world of letters. The sign that one has reconciled himself to the difficult early lessons is the competency of his reading and writing. Augustine’s own prose provides a perennial example—vivid, detailed, incisive. Gaston and Ham, in their humble way, write competently and without noticeable difficulty.
Contrast their modest achievement with the forced expression of the representative undergraduate of today, the one that Reeves and Birkerts describe and whose prose I have examined in my earlier Praesidium articles. My students—and I can hardly imagine that they differ from anyone else’s—now no longer read their assignments except under the sustained coercion of weekly examinations. At the end of the semester, they invariably complain, in their course-evaluations, about the onus of the requirement. "I would give Professor Bertonneau’s class a higher recommendation," one wrote, "but I don’t like reading books." A year ago (Spring 2003), I asked my "Western Heritage" students to write an examination essay about four titles out of the nine that the syllabus had charged them with studying during the fifteen-week semester: Plato’s Symposium, Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon, Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and Augustine’s Confessions (Books I through IX). I wanted to know whether the respondents could see a large, meaningful sequence embracing all four texts. We had talked, throughout the semester from the first week up until the last, about the theme of order in ancient letters and about the philosopher’s vision of the orderly society. A student whom I will call "Hathaway" produced the following paragraph, typical of the batch:
Plato’s "Symposium", Petronius "Satyricon", Apuleius "The Golden Ass" and Austine’s "Confessions" are all a unique story written in different times, however a few common themes can be found. The most obvious of these themes is the theme of power. Al three stories have to do with power, although different authers wrote them, they were all playing with the concept of society and its controlling ways, such as the way it justifies "right" and "wrong." Austine’s vision is a bit different then this because it also reflects the concept of god, which although is present in both, is a larger part in this particular tale.
Hathaway has probably not done the reading: the vagueness of his expression ("a few common themes") suggests as much. When students reshuffle the terms in which the examiner prompts them, they usually do so because of some embarrassment in their preparation. The notion of "power" emerges I know not whence, unless, in the haste and confusion of writing, Hathaway has inadvertently and arbitrarily substituted it for "order".10 The phrase "a unique story written in different times" typifies the muddled undergraduate diction that I have come to know. The passive construction "can be found" hints at the strange psychic detachment characteristic of the general student relation to letters and to the world. Things happen without agency or submit to reportage only as nebulous possibilities.11 The sentence in which these two phrases appear typifies the foggy idea of syntax that structures (if that were the word) student prose. The pre-fixative construction concept of…as in "the concept of society" is a frequent device—a cliché—in student prose. Attach the word concept to something and the reader will assume sophistication in the discourse, or so the writer thinks. The orthographic innovation auther corresponds to a congeries of others that I have rehearsed in a previous essay, which can be explained by the predominance of the ear over the eye in the cognitive behavior of high-school graduates. Blixen makes this argument elaborately in her critique of spelling-reform, as we have seen. I can imagine an exculpatory argument on Hathaway’s behalf that, in his panic to cover up not having read the assigned work, his prose has become garbled. I often hear that students write poorly because intellectual challenges make them uncomfortable and so disequilibriate them.
The hypothesis is hard to accept. It assumes the existence of a competency that can be upset. Literacy, like bicycle-riding, simply does not work that way. When the student has not done the reading, then he knows that he has not done it. He has time before sitting down to write the essay in class to think about how to fake his way through. If he knew grammar, syntax, and so forth, he would marshal them to his cause—and I might even admire him for it slightly. There is something to be said for well-executed fakery.
As on previous occasions, I feel obliged to add that neither Hathaway nor any of his peers can be held entirely responsible for his prose peccadilloes. Each emerges as the product of his education. Our institutions of education have failed. Hathaway’s writing problems reflect his reading problems. Yet I insist less eagerly than I have in prior instances that one ought to shield students from all blame. There is the matter of not reading, of being averse to the act, as students increasingly are.
We find ourselves back in the realm of resentment: against learning, against subtlety, against literacy, as remarked by Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies, but we are now in a position to understand this resentment more fully than does Birkerts himself.
Gaston Bertonneau and Augustine "Ham" Hamilton were poor by contemporary standards. I remember well the dirt cellar in Ham’s Lincoln Avenue house in Highland Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. Either man might have been a living font of complaint against life’s adversity—if he bought into the modern ideology—but neither was. Contemporary undergraduates who complain about the odium of reading are, by any historical measure, affluent. Their environment constitutes what Keyserling calls the "cult of ease". What should one make of their plaintive disposition? Should one sympathize with their plight? That deprivation neither excuses ire over, nor makes impossible the acquisition of, literacy is witnessed by Frederick Douglass in his Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845). I have previously cited the examples of my step-grandfather and my grandfather in order to show that earlier generations of Americans than the current one might become impressively literate, thoroughly competent and fluent in their articulation, without the expensive folderol of the contemporary high school and college experience—which, in any case, seems to not produce a genuinely adult literacy. Douglass’ autobiographical instance illustrates the same case but more dramatically and poignantly.
At age seven or eight years, Douglass’ owner, Colonel Lloyd, sold him to his cousin Hugh Auld, of Baltimore, a transaction that entailed the boy’s removal from a rural plantation—where even the white folk, in Douglass’ account, seem to have been illiterate—to the city. Auld’s wife Sophia, not yet fully acculturated to slave-owning, at first treated Douglass decently, to the extent of giving him preliminary lessons in reading and writing. What seemed a catastrophe then befell, for
Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." (78)
Auld’s words struck Douglass with the adamancy of a revelation: the ban on instruction—on literacy—lay at the basis of slavery. Nothing else could explain the vehemence of the new master’s injunction against Sophia’s gentle plan: "The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering" (79). From this moment Douglass determined to complete the suspended course. He says, with a measure of irony, "in learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress" (79). He acknowledges both.
But how might an indentured lad, always under supervision, connive his further practicum in bookishness against the legal ban? "If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself" (82). Of foremost importance is the desire to connive it. Mistress Auld having granted Douglass the intellectual first inch, he would now take the scholarly whole ell, come judgment or high water. As Douglass says, he cadged his lessons by making other boys and girls his teachers. Sent on an errand, he would finish it swiftly and then ask what he needed to know from older children whom he met in the street. He had lifted a primer, and the other, older children led him through it: "With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read" (82). Douglass learned to write in the same way, copying the letters made by other children and finally, after he had gotten hold of it, those in Webster’s Spelling Book. The exercise drew itself out and it required sustained deliberate stealth. The details show, not coincidentally, that Douglass learned by the phonetic method and none other.
All the while, Douglass remained focused on the fact that gaining his letters meant an increase in the power of his own consciousness—a widening of his intellectual horizon and a deepening of his ability to fathom his own condition. Soon after becoming a competent reader, he came into possession of that remarkable early Nineteenth Century volume The Columbian Orator, edited by Caleb Bingham. A minim’s glance at the Orator’s contents reveals a remarkable and varied curriculum. Among much else Bingham’s anthology includes Perkins’ Oration on Elegance, Blair’s Exhortation on Temperance in Pleasure, Mansfield’s Speech in the British Parliament of 1770, Milton’s Christ Triumphant over the Apostate Angels, Cicero’s Oration against Catiline—even an anonymous Speech of an Indian Chief. "Every opportunity I got," writes Douglass, "I used to read this book" (83). A dialogue between a slave-holder and one of his chattels especially appealed to him, for "the slave was made to say some very smart things in reply to his master" (83), resulting in "the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of his master" (83). Douglass tells how he read and reread this and the other Orator pieces whenever he could steal the time to do so. Reading never lowers on him as a burden but always drives him as a passion. It is as though he had heard and heeded that same voice that once spoke to Augustine—in a child’s high pitched sing-song—saying, pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it. In the twentieth century, this voice has yielded to that other one that says, turn it on and watch, turn it on and watch.
Later, under the ownership of Mr. Freeland, Douglass once again labored as a field hand far from the city, but not so wretchedly as before. Freeland, perhaps the kindest master in Douglass’ memory (so he avers), kept but three slaves, hiring the rest of his hands. The other two chattels were Henry and John Harris, both "quite intelligent" (119) although illiterate. Douglass egged them on about letters until they expressed "a strong desire to learn how to read" (119). Douglass then began a Sabbath School for this purpose, the activity of which soon began to exert its allure on slaves from neighboring farms. "I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women… The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed" (120). Douglass extols the character of his scholars:
These dear souls came not to Sabbath School because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be so engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. (121)
The scholars inhabit a milieu distinctly unlike Keyserling’s "cult of ease". As soon as the slave opens a book, he runs the terrible risk of "thirty-nine lashes". His passion to become lettered must compete with his knowledge, no doubt sorely earned, of the possible consequence. The slave is not, like Ortega’s mass man, "satisfied with himself". He glimpses the external standard, grasps his deficit by comparison, and wants to conform himself to the criterion. The slave resents, not learning, but the starvation of his mind. He resents the standing bill-of-attainder against the free exercise of his capacity to learn. In opposition to the ardent desire of the slaves to throw off their "mental darkness" stands the hatred of the bigots. We have already reviewed Auld’s rebuke of his wife when she taught a few letters to the new servant. It could be much uglier than that. Douglass tells how, on one occasion, angry interlopers bloodily smashed the meeting-room and sent the scholars running: "Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both class-leaders [in a white Sunday School], rushed in upon us with sticks and stones" (120).
The vandal quality of the assault outrages any educated sensibility. What would I not give to have forty eager learners in my classroom? We should remember, however, that resentment and barbarism, when aimed at literacy, need not take the form of direct action. Where a lingering embarrassment to be seen violating good manners restrains a brutal iconoclasm, such ire will appear in its rhetorical guise as a complaint against the minimum of civilizing rigor. The students in Agamemnon’s school in Satyricon hate rigor and would take their business elsewhere did the corrupt master not pander to their intellectual recalcitrance. Blixen, with courageous acuity, refers to the spelling reform movement in Denmark in the 1930s as "barbarian": she accuses those who want to reduce the instruction of children to that which is merely instrumentally useful—what a slave might need to know—of violating "the whole human being". She even invokes the old institution of the castrato to emphasize her animus. The common luster of the otherwise heterogeneous articles appearing, in the last three decades, in the quarterly journals College English and College Composition and Communication, the major venues of literacy pedagogy in American higher education, is that of a profound antipathy to the norms of written language, to the structures of argument, and to the archive of meritorious books to which Douglass and his brethren so passionately and spontaneously responded.
College English and College Composition and Communication represent the consensus among those on the university faculties most immediately charged with coaxing freshmen to respond to letters. Publication in either forum counts towards tenure and promotion in English departments and writing programs. Yet the hallucinatory nature of College English- or Three C’s-prose, its detachment from literate reality, challenges adequate description. The majority of contributors in recent years are women, which is to say, feminists of one sort or another, often adding the trope of ethnic difference to the all-too-familiar argument. While one detects a retreat from the worst excesses of Derrida- and Foucault-inspired anti-prose of the 1980s, the abandonment of a completely hermetic jargon only emphasizes the nullity of the content. Notes to articles still cite Paolo Freire, Rigoberta Menchu, Michael Bérubé, Bell Hooks, Cornell West, abermasHaand other icons of the 1980s Academic Left; the same writers also promiscuously cite one another until the reader grows dizzy at the self-consuming Charybdis of cross-reference. One gets the feeling, paging through these journals, of being stuck in an eddy of cultural time. But in an eddy is where resentment inevitably sticks him who diverts his psyche, his eros, into an antinomian tantrum.
Surprise need not overtake us, then, when Min-Zhan Lu, writing in Three C’s, declares blithely—and with extreme prejudice—how "scholars now recognize that literacy is a topic, the meaning of which is up for grabs," so that "defining literacy is thus a site of political struggle" (Lu 178). The prejudice lies, of course, in the verb, to recognize, which seals its object under a spurious patent of incontrovertibility. The College English and Three C’s writers consistently abuse Aristotelian terms, like topos, to render the world unreal and to toy with meaning. What Lu calls "the ideal literate self", in her words, "uses writing for the following social goals [inter alia]: to end oppression rather than to empower a particular form of self, group, or culture [and] to grapple with one’s privileges as well as one’s experience of exclusion" (178). Lu lists altogether four such "goals". I shall not ask in what way the tenured radical has been excluded—not from the faculty, that supposed bastion of the old-boy network. I can hardly imagine the same tenured radical grappling, as Lu says, with her privileges. She is more likely to grapple with her carry-on luggage on her subsidized way to the Composition Conference, mistaking the happy privilege for a natural condition. And so it goes.
We can, then, only anticipate that Jane E. Hindman, writing in College English, will praise Lu’s having called for "a revised view of literacy [which] argues for professional reading practices that illuminate rather than mask the oppressive cultural forces inherent in discourse[s]" (Hindman 89).12 Given the fantastic premises of these "cutting edge" thinkers, it only follows that S. I. Dobrin and C. R. Weiser, again writing in College English, expatiate on the novel theme of "ecocomposition". "Ecocomposition," they tell us, investigates "as to what effects discourse has in mapping, constituting, shaping, defining, and understanding nature, place, and environment; and, in turn, what effects nature, place, and environment have on discourse" (Dobrin and Weiser 573). According to the co-authors: "The environment is an area that is created through discourse. We argue not that mountains, rivers, oceans, and the like do not actually exist, but that our only access to such things is through discourse" (573). It sounds like the nth degree of watered-down Kantianism. Or again: "Ecocomposition’s emphasis on relationships is a multifaceted area of study that draws on many other areas of inquiry, including rhetoric and composition, feminism and ecofeminism, ecology, literary criticism, and environmentalism" (574), which barely sounds like English.
My readers will share my relief in the knowledge that mountains, rivers, oceans, and the like really exist. My step-grandfather, "Ham" Hamilton, understood this directly: with blistered feet and a parched throat—somatic indices quite external to any discourse—he exerted his way through the kaleidoscopic canyons and dry-as-bones salt-basins of Death Valley in the war-tossed Spring of 1944. He saw what he saw, keenly, with a kind of physiognomic tact, and without the benefit of feminism or ecofeminism or any other polysyllabic barbarity. In his word-portrait of Panamint City abandoned, he gives us a test-case in the limits of ecological adaptability, imbued with unforced elegy. I imagine that, in his school days, his reading comprised the equivalent of The Columbian Orator. My consanguineous great-grandfather, who met and corresponded with Frederick Douglass in the decade just after the Civil War, published and edited La tribune de New Orleans, the bilingual daily newspaper for les gens de couleur libres in the metropolis of Louisiana from 1858 to 1865. He delivered to Abraham Lincoln in 1865 a petition (unheeded) to proclaim immediate universal suffrage in the former Confederate states and, in 1877, sued the New Orleans School Board to allow his children to attend class across the street rather than across town in the "colored" school. Bertonneau v. School Board is one of the citations in Plessy v. Ferguson. Arnold Bertonneau (1838-1912), like Gaston, wrote in elegantly orotund English, as well as in classically balanced French. He never thought of those tongues as the languages of the oppressor, but as the indispensable medium of the claim on rights. He identified himself as a civilized man—a Mason, an ex-officer of both the Louisiana Native Guards and the Corps d’Afrique, and a noted wine-merchant—purely and simply. His interest in education, not only for himself, but for his children, finds expression in his prototypical litigant status in the matter of a child’s right to attend lessons at the nearest publicly subsidized school.
What Douglass, in his desperate circumstance, wanted and what my great-grandfather, in his less desperate but by no means easy circumstance, also wanted, the contemporary composition faculty—the teachers in charge of the reading and writing curriculum for undergraduates—despises and rejects. These academicians despise and reject the archive of belles lettres, substituting a degraded journalism (often, apparently, articles from College English) for the edification of their students; they despise and reject a clear prose that reflects the external reality, whose objectivity they deny by a sophomoric Nominalism. Their preferences reach down to elementary and secondary school because they have long since hijacked the colleges of education. They have enforced a reign of ideological illiteracy on American education.
It can be no wonder that cohort after cohort of college freshmen, when ministered to by such people, has taken bad counsel to heart and likewise, all too often, despises and rejects what is good because of the demand that the good makes on a native self-satisfaction. We would do well to remember another historical moment pregnant with implication for our own, the Christian triumph of the Late Fourth Century, when fundamentalists of the victorious creed began to turn their resentment indiscriminately against the whole Greco-Roman tradition. The puritanical Donatist faction of the Church was ready, particularly in the aftermath of the Emperor Julian’s petulant attempt to quash those whom he styled as Galileans, to liquidate the classical canon from Homer down to Plotinus. To the benefit of all succeeding centuries, the influential Bishop of Caesarea, Saint Basil (323-379), took a stand. In his Address to Young Men, Basil urged in opposition to sectarian ire that Christians might nevertheless—as his subtitle puts it—Derive Profit from Pagan Literature. Christians must heed their own Scriptures, but alongside them, "the pagan teaching is not without usefulness for the soul that has been sufficiently affirmed" (Deferarri’s translation 387). The followers of Christ have no monopoly on virtue, Basil argues: "and since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours, and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature" (393).
What will the post-literate world left to us by the marauders of literacy and the vandals of taste and tradition be like? What ethos will the new puritans make? The question is not entirely a speculative one, as we have been living in a post-literate world for at least two decades. It can get worse, of course, and it certainly will. Let us begin with a description of the present, after which we can avail ourselves of the science-fiction writers for their glimpses of the future, near and far.
Decades ago observers such as Keyserling, Ortega, Oswald Spengler and Eric Voegelin began noting certain disintegrative trends. Given their precedent, later-celebrated books like Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1974) and Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1986) seem less ground-breaking than journalistic excitement made them appear at the time. Keyserling’s "cult of ease" I have already treated in some detail. We might well turn, then, to Ortega’s "dissection" (his term) of "mass man" in The Revolt of the Masses, as a meditation on cultural decline both prescient and rewarding. Ortega remarks that the mass humanity that has arisen since the beginning of the Twentieth Century bears some resemblance to the type of the aristocratic fils de famille. The hard work of establishing the familial commonwealth has been undertaken by the father and the grandfathers. The son merely inherits. The mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts, in their turn, dote on him, protect him, seek excuses for his lack of enterprise, for his self-satisfaction. "He is a man who has entered upon life to do ‘what he jolly well likes’" (102). Because, in the family, "even the greatest faults are in the long run left unpunished," the son "thinks that he can behave outside just as he does at home" (102). In his imagination, "nothing is fatal, irremediable, irrevocable" (102). As Ortega writes:
None other could be the conduct of this type of man born into a too well-organised world, of which he perceives only the advantages and not the dangers. His surroundings spoil him, because they are "civilisation," that is, a home, and the fils de famille feels nothing that impels him to abandon his mood of caprice, nothing which urges him to listen to outside counsels from those superior to himself. Still less anything which obliges him to make contact with the inexorable depths of his own destiny. (106)
Elsewhere Ortega remarks on the "intellectual hermetism" of the new, historically deracinated man, who "regards himself as perfect" and who, feeling "nothing outside himself", happily embraces what amounts to his "self-obliteration" (69). The blitheness of the contemporary mediocre person, says Ortega, is, "like Adam’s, paradisiacal" (69). It is not only the son, either, for, as the refrain of a top-forty hit of some years ago put it, girls too "just want to have fun." Everyone nowadays wants to have fun. But an appetite directed solely at fun is infantile. We might recall Augustine’s analysis of infancy in Confessions as uncivilized and tyrannical, demanding imperiously of others and flying into a tantrum when those whom it addresses fail to respond. Ortega’s point, however, is that mass man has long since become dominant and has, since the end of World War One, been arranging the social condition to suit his own nature. What, after all, is the so-called service economy—with its global emporium, functioning through the Internet, and its myriad of fast-food shops and cinemas—except the material resource of a supreme technology brought into the beck-and-call of infantile appetite? This reorganization of life naturally influences education, now dominated by the pedagogy of self-esteem, with students increasingly referred to as consumers of a product. Many features added to education since the 1960s anticipate the consumption-model, none more so than student evaluations of courses and professors, which swiftly became crucial in the tenure and promotion of personnel. Note that Petronius’ Satyricon prefigures this state of affairs exactly in its depiction of the schools in Nero’s time. As Agamemnon, the professor of rhetoric, says to Encolpius, if I did not give the students what they want—flattery—I would be the only one in my drama.
The reigning theory of the postmodernists and multiculturalists—that all institutions are a priori oppressive, that the animus of society is to plunder so-called subaltern people of their dignity—is none other than the reigning theory (to call it that) of Ortega’s mass man. The teacher pronounces the student, especially the female or black or Hispanic or homosexual student, ontologically sufficient and declares that all traditional wisdom merely conspires to conceal from the student this selfsame ontological sufficiency. Education will consist in revealing the conspiracy and shaming the conspirators. The same teacher tells the white male student that he is ontologically a predator-oppressor, but that by admitting his sins in a simulacrum of Christian confession and by adopting the language of the radicals—the language of sensitivity to the Other—he too can receive grace and, as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche both put it a generation before Ortega, be licensed do what he will. The students, whatever their individual pre-dispositions, respond to the lesson because popular culture, saturated with resentment against the adult order, has inculcated in them the same liberation from custom and truth ever since any of them began watching television or listening to the radio or playing video games. As the lesson, despite its repugnance, is much easier than applying oneself seriously to a raft of serious books, even the doubting students incline to play along.
When the stages of this catechism extend from Kindergarten through the senior undergraduate year, the result is inevitably a personal stubbornness about submitting to any objective criterion, including the standard paradigm of written language. Another word for the condition is barbarism. Ortega says: "when all [standards] are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism" (72). The notion of a "vertical invasion of the barbarians" comes from Ortega, and describes the triumph of mass values over the ultima ratio of tradition. But what is the character, assuming it to be subject to description, of the barbaric consciousness? For Ortega, the barbarian is the one who cannot distinguish between nature and civilization, who assumes the latter to be the former, and who has no historical sense of the centuries-long struggle that gave rise to the achievements on which he depends but which he fails completely to understand. As "advanced civilisation is one and the same thing as arduous problems," argues Ortega, "historical knowledge is a technique of the first order to preserve and continue a civilisation already advanced" (91). From this stems the paradox, in Ortega’s words, that while "the world is a civilized one, its inhabitant is not" (82), for, as I would argue, he has rejected the written word, the only possible medium of a history and the only possible forum for solving arduous problems. Instead of the canon, the post-literate world will have "news", in the form of ever more simplified print-journalism and television. The "news" will blend increasingly with gossip and "entertainment reporting". Finally, as in the surfeit of stories about Michael Jackson or Paris Hilton, it will morph into pornography. The progeny of the bookless curriculum will also be oral rather than literate in its mental habits, with all the implications that I have surveyed in earlier essays.
Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) comes from a later generation than Ortega. Voegelin lived longer than Ortega and made a special study of the United States beginning on the late 1920s; he lived and taught for many years at Louisiana State University, before and after World War Two. Voegelin, like Ortega, sees the Twentieth Century as a time of civilizational collapse characterized by mass political movements, which he describes as quasi-religions, each intent on making universal its restrictive dogmas. "On the level of pragmatic history," writes Voegelin in Anamnesis (1978), "the deformation of existence has produced ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’; it has revealed itself as a febrile impotence that cancels out in bloody dreams of greatness and has brought the majority of mankind into subjection under mentally diseased ruling cliques" (6). Voegelin insists that he uses the term mentally diseased in a rigorous way, "in the Ciceronian sense of the morbus animi, caused by the aspernatio rationis, the contempt of reason" (6). He does not mean by this only the masses subjugated under the ideological regimes of the Communist world, but those in the putatively free nations as well. Voegelin notes how the scholarship of the humanities has succumbed to the intellectual onslaught of the ’isms, stemming from Marx, Freud, and others. He sees the simplified—but distorted—view of existence offered by the ideologies as perfectly suited to "the populist expansion of the universities" undertaken in North America after 1945; he refers to "the inevitable inrush of functional illiterates into academic positions in the 1950s and 60s" (7). The phenomenon has continued apace, as my brief sampling of Three C’s and College English will have shown.
Addressing the professoriate of letters, history, and the related subjects, Voegelin says that "it has become increasingly difficult to describe this sector of the academic world, with its peculiar mixture of libido dominandi, philosophical illiteracy, and adamant refusal to enter into rational discourse, because the adequate form would have to be satire and, as Karl Kraus noted already in the 1920s, it is next to impossible to write satire when a situation has become so grotesque that reality surpasses the flight of a satirist’s imagination" (7).
The post-literate world is, or it will be, history-less; this is because it is, or it will be, bookless. But the post-literate world also is, or it will be, orgiastic: a great and continuous spasm of resentment against arduous questions, as Ortega calls them, and against the demands of an existentially challenging inherited order. Voegelin’s analysis helps to explain the pornographic strain in contemporary existence. When a people loses its traditional bearings and becomes "lost", he writes, its constituent individuals can no longer "productively contribute to the creation of an order of symbols through which the transfinite processes [of the world] can be made comprehensible in the transparency of myth" (26). Where Voegelin writes "myth" we might easily write literature. Voegelin also writes of the narrowing of the transcendental horizon, which occurs when a people forgets the ideas and arguments on which its coherent existence is founded. So it is, then, that
In the social dynamics of our time, the most important symptoms are the "movements" which in part have an obvious orgiastic character, and the "great wars." The wars are symptomatic not only insofar as they possibly reveal a positive will to orgiastic discharge but also insofar as they must be endorsed because actions that might prevent them have become impossible through the paralysis of the will to order, which can be active only where its meaning is secured by the community myth. (26)
But those who set the mental tone now complain that myths are toxic and that we must, for our own good, spurn them. They routinely denounce virtues—literacy, for example—as myths. Any external principle becomes a myth in the pejorative sense. What is important to the "lost" individual is, as Voegelin says, "discharge". This explains the weird infusion of passionless sex, not only into the market, but more specifically into education where, despite the fact that the feminists denounce intercourse as a patriarchal plot, they also urge students to copulate serially, as long as the ritual includes prophylaxis by condom. At formerly Calvinist Oberlin University, nowadays an exemplary New Age institution, students recently received credit for making their own pornographic videos. At the Potsdam campus of the State University of New York, the administration sponsored a three-day exhibition of whips, sexual prosthesis, and pornographic display, underwritten by the state’s taxpayers.
Petronius made an observation similar to Voegelin’s two thousand years ago: the background against which his picaroons wander in Satyricon is universally pornographic, consisting of brothels of all kinds, mandatory promiscuity with sado-masochism, and, for religion, a pervasive Priapic cult. We now have the Internet, heavily pornography-driven, which extends via the telephone-line into every college dorm-room; the dorm-room, meanwhile, is distant from parental supervision, near to intervention by the radical teacher-overseers. (They refer to themselves as facilitators.) Voegelin also tells us that, even while a great spiritual downfall occurs, the technological civilization will continue to produce gadgets that give an impression of progress, as long as we think of progress, as barbarians do, in purely material terms: the latest sports utility vehicle or computer-game. In saying so, Voegelin responds to Ortega, who believed in the 1920s that the new barbarism implied a near-term collapse of the industrial-technical infrastructure. We do nowadays, in North America, import a large segment of our technicians from foreign countries, such as India, a nation that also supplies many of our medical specialists. The Northeastern power-outage of 2003 did rattle confidence in the utilities. It is a mistake, however, to chart these trends in any short term.
Their insight into the long term is what makes the science fiction writers valuable. The passing decades have only strengthened the plausibility, for example, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Huxley represents the destruction of history in the new calendar, beginning with "Ford" (Henry Ford, innovator of the assembly line), that has supervened on the Gregorian calendar. Book-learning is obsolete, having yielded to "Hypno-paedia", a kind of electronic oral-instruction-while-you-sleep. You only learn what you need to know, however, in your role as specialist. The drug "soma" and the full-sensory cinema known as the "Feelies" function as the panem et circenses of the regime. In constant discharge, the masses have no need of thinking. Literacy of a kind still exists in George Orwell’s 1984, but the program mandates the reduction of English into Newspeak and the destruction of all literature prior to Big Brother. Orwell seems to have gleaned the idea for Newspeak from a Swedish novel of the early 1940s, Kallocain, by Karin Boye. The "Kallocain" of Boye’s title is a drug, mandatory and universal for the citizenry, that shuts down the mental processes and, like Huxley’s soma, synthesizes ecstasy; but there is also an artificial speech, restricted in its vocabulary, whose purpose is to make the old tongues incomprehensible to a rising generation. In both 1984 and Kallocain, the protagonist is a person who has a vague awareness of his plight, but who lacks the resources to understand it completely. The state is hostile to understanding. Like Douglass’ master, the state wants obedience.
I wish not, however, to claim that the current condition resembles that of Orwell’s or Boye’s imagination. Nor are we so dehumanized yet, as in the milieu described by Huxley. The most presciently accurate portrait of our surrender to a post-literate existence comes from a book written half a century ago by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). While still a public figure in the early 1990s, Bradbury espoused the cause of literacy and he complained about the failure of the public schools to foster it. He is worth more than all the post-modern professors put together.
The world of Fahrenheit looks like the familiar one of today: it is clean, with lovely shops; people have access to all sorts of entertainments, many of them broadcast over the air waves and listened to by ear phones. I think of the students filing into my classroom wearing their Walkman headgear, listening to adolescent wailing in the form of MP3 files. Bradbury pictures Mildred, wife of his fireman-protagonist Guy Montag, as reclining on the bed, as though in ecstasy, while she listens to a surging music consisting of drummed-out rhythms and to saccharine melodramas. "She was listening to far people in far places, her eyes wide and staring at the fathoms of blackness above her in the ceiling" (42). When Montag himself experiments with the ear-phones, he hears "a great thunderstorm of sound… Music bombard[ing] him at such an immense volume that his bones were almost shaken from their tendons" until he feels himself "a victim of concussion" (45). Mildred watches her "parlor screens" obsessively. There are three in her salon, each covering an entire wall of the room, and she pesters her husband to buy her the fourth. The screens carry programs, in swirling color and in deafening sound, jejune in character, including a soap-opera in which the viewer can participate by reading lines from a script. Mildred refers to the televised serial as her family, but she can give her husband only a tiny inkling of what the story-line is, when he inquires.
Bradbury’s triumph in Fahrenheit consists in his invention of Beatty, the Fire Chief. Montag’s boss is the man in charge of the official book-burners employed by the post-literate, anti-literate, state. He is the perfect thought-hating ideologue, rancorous about the past, resentful of all spiritual differences, anxious, intolerant—a maliciously soft-spoken fanatic. Donald Pleasance, that master of quiet malice, did not, but ought to have, played him in Truffaut’s otherwise excellent film. In a 1979 commentary on the novel, Bradbury identifies Beatty with those who have attempted to rewrite or censor his own literary work: "Wouldn’t it be a good idea," a "Vassar lady" wrote him, "to rewrite [The Martian Chronicles] inserting more women’s characters and roles" (175); editors of a high-school anthology who included Bradbury’s dinosaur-story The Fog Horn eliminated a metaphor that invoked notions of "God" and "presence" (176). Another high-school anthology revoked "every word of more than three syllables" and "every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention" (176).
Bradbury comments: "there is more than one way to burn a book" (176). In Fahrenheit, Beatty tells Montag that the professional book-burners owe their origin to the advent of two modern insurgencies. The first of these is the emergence of "motion pictures… radio… television," under whose influence a new mental attitude "began to have mass" (54). People acculturated to these influences could not come to terms with books, so the purveyors of print began to ply them with "digests" and "tabloids" and Hamlet as a one-page summary: "Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery… the intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more" (55). The second of the two insurgencies is the one concerned with the growing allergy of the mass to criticism perceived as slight. The principle is: "The bigger your market… the less you handle controversy" (57). Beatty refers to "all the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean" and rhetorically warns those "authors, full of evil thoughts," that they should "lock up [their] typewriters" (57). "Our civilization is so vast," he says, "that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred" (59). Since everyone is individually a minority, including the slow and the stubborn and the uneducable, the censors must expunge all potential offences of any kind. The mass of paltry, spiritually thin-skinned individuals amounts, however, only to a conforming, thoughtless mob. The state wants them to be thus. The state’s policy is to pander to the mob’s essential inanition. The result, which Beatty defends, is
School… shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually… neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts. (55-56)
[Then] more sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. (57)
Bradbury helps us to grasp literacy anew as the codification of anxiety and anxiety—doubt, openness to criticism—as the mark of the civilized person. When Montag rescues a Bible from a mound of doomed books, his friend Faber tells him that only a few copies of that tome still exist. The Scriptures of the scriptural religions turn out to be the non plus ultra of anxiety-producing books. Secretly reading the books that the state employs him to burn finally awakens Montag from sleepy complacency and transforms him into the anxious rebel who plots with others to preserve knowledge against monolithic state-inspired idiocy. From the printed page, Montag draws the knowledge that he is alive, mentally alive, in a way that his environment has always rigorously suppressed. So much of our present condition appears in Fahrenheit 451 that one feels pressed in accounting for it all: the theoretically justified restriction of literacy by ideologues in charge of education, the dumbing-down of the curriculum, the triumph of broadcast culture, the cult of sensitivity and the denunciation of the Great Books—all of these things have come to pass and can be charted into the future. That future will look like the world of Fahrenheit. It is the logical extension of empirical trends.
Note how Beatty’s argument for happiness over anxiety resembles, not only the ego-boosting pedagogy of the self-esteem mongers, but also the wicked injunction of Douglass’ master, Hugh Auld, against teaching the slave-boy his letters. Why learn anything, as Beatty says, save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts, when these things are what will land one a salary and so permit one access to sports for everyone, group spirit, fun? To read is to confront, in Ortega’s phrase, arduous problems. The damnable thing about arduous problems is that not everyone can rise to them, and those who cannot are bound to feel inferior to those who can. So by all means, let us discourage reading or shrink it down to comic books or to digital pornography on the Internet. Like the College English and Threer C’s writers, let us redefine literacy so that illiterates might receive the fulsome praise that their accomplishment ranks with that of those who, like Augustine, can read or write anything that they wish, and who have the wisdom, gleaned from books, of wishing with discipline.
It might seem that I have divagated indulgently from where I began, not just in the present essay, but two or three essays ago in the sequence, when I described Powell’s theory of the origin of the alphabet and Havelock’s theory of the influence of alphabetic writing on Greek thought. When we put together Powell, Havelock, Ong, Luria, Plato, Plutarch, Petronius, Saints Augustine and Basil, Keyserling, Blixen, and all the others on whom I have drawn in making a long argument: when we do this, I say, the pattern becomes clear. The ballistic arc of Western Civilization is also the ballistic arc of literate thinking, of books, and of our anxious confrontation with them. It is by no means far-fetched for Blixen to urge that the reform of Danish spelling will spell cretinism for Danish thought, for the alphabet, which has its own precise inner logic, gives ground to the kind of thinking that structures the orderly world that we foolishly take for granted. My students never recommend books to me (they do no reading outside of school and precious little in it), but some of them do from time to time offer me their graphic novels, fancy cartoon-books on glossy paper, always violent, often with a pornographic tinge. These items are still, one might say, for the eye, as is print, but they are not primarily print; they are primarily image. Nor do pictures encourage abstraction, which, as Havelock and Ong argue, print on its own does, in fact, encourage. Those who cannot make the transition from the immediacy of the sensorium to the theoretical schemes of abstraction mediated by literacy also cannot make the crucial transition from theoretical schemes of abstraction back to the immediacy of the sensorium grasped now at a higher level. Those who lack all history cannot see the present for the culmination of millennial struggles that it really, metaphysically, is. I think of "Ham" Hamilton’s appreciation of the actual Death Valley on the basis of his prior study of it and of the way in which the actuality then informs the study with a renewed vitality. I think of the way an ornate dialogue in The Columbian Orator transforms Douglass’ sense of his condition—and of his possible future outside the choking horizon of that condition.
NOTES1 I refer specifically to Keyserling’s Creative Understanding (1929); see also my previous Praesidium essay, Literature and Literacy: The Decline of Reading and the Stultification of Student Prose (Fall 2002, pp. 12-32), the argument of which the present essay continues. 2 At stake, Keyserling affirms, is a principle: "conventions... provide the frame to all artistic [i.e., creative] activity. The severe form of the sonnet, and more especially of the fugue, is almost entirely responsible for many of the highest achievements of the human spirit, whereas, on the other hand, it is an immediate result of the lack of form of the most modern poetry and music that its creations very often appear so lamentably unspiritual. The more initiative there is in the creator and in the spectator, the more Spirit comes into existence. This axiom must be taken literally, for the spirit is created and exists only through personal effort" (82). Keyserling is not speaking of the soul, with which, according to theology, all human beings are endowed, but of the intellect, reason, what the Greeks in the aftermath of their literacy revolution at the end of the Archaic Period called logos. 3 Blixen’s essay bears the title in English, On Orthography; in Danish the word is Retskrivning, a precise translation of the Greek. Blixen’s piece first appeared in Politiken, the most influential Danish newspaper, in March 1938. 4 Har, the present-tense inflection of the verb to have; Kar, "a grown man"; Sal, "saddle"; skal, the modal verb shall, used for the compound future; Skal, "a shell"; men, the conjunction "but"; Men, "damage"; Bil, "an automobile"; Hil, cognate with the German Heil; skil, the past perfect of the verb meaning to divide; til, the preposition "to"; for, the conjunction "for"; fór, the archaic past perfect of the verb at fara, "to travel"; hun, "she"; kun, "only"; lun, "cozy"; nyt, the neuter form of "new"; Spyt, "spit" (as in "saliva:); Sjæl, "soul"; Skæl, "border" or "property line"; Brøl, "roar"; føl, "foal"; Øl, "ale." 5 So did the Swedes and the Norwegians, but not the Icelanders or the Faroese. 6 Anglo-Saxon, like its Nordic cognate languages, used two consonants that have disappeared from its modern alphabet, the ð and the ÞI—the latter pronounced "thorn" without the vocalization. Weather uses ð and thought uses Þ; but the modern language maintains the distinction conventionally rather than orthographically. 7 Det, "it"; jeg, "I"; til, "to"; ved, "on" or "at"; med, "with"; hvordan, "how"; hvorfor, "why." 8 A special distinction is at work here: Agamemnon does not refer to people who are pre-literates in the sense that they come from a milieu where no literacy of any kind has yet appeared on the horizon; no – he speaks of those who, in an historically literate milieu, vehemently reject the authority of literacy, especially the demands that letters and grammar make on the mind of the subject. 9 Gaston’s description of the newer, larger Mardi Gras ceremonies reminds us of what "Fat Tuesday" in New Orleans nowadays means: three days of public inebriation, vomitus on the sidewalks, and a nationally marketed series of video-tapes and digital video-discs featuring college girls who flash their buxom nakedness to a wandering stranger with a digital camera. When I last attended the New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1978, the motto of the occasion was already "Show Your Tits!" 10 The word power pervades contemporary pedagogy, of course: so one might hazard that the student has heard it so much that he cannot help but substitute for any other theme; the substitution is still arbitrary, but it is understandable as the reflex of someone who has undergone what amounts to long-term indoctrination in a creed. Or the word power might have a connection with the misspelling of Augustine as Austine. When Hathaway wrote his paragraph, the comic film Austin Powers was just out on tape and disc. The power of popular culture to shape student prose is strong. 11 The passive "can be…" construction implies that, were someone to undertake the requisite investigation, then he might discover something to be the case; but the writer himself refuses to accept the undertaking, disdains the effort of it, and, in a similar humor, refuses to express himself unambiguously concerning the topic (whatever it is) under discussion. 12 The title of Hindman’s article, giving all necessary clues as to her prose, is "Making Writing Matter: Using ‘the Personal’ to Recover[y] an Essential[ist] Tension in Academic Discourse." The extra letters in brackets are hers.
Saint Augustine (translated by R. Pine-Coffin). The Confessions. New York: Penguin, 1978.
Basil of Caesarea (translated by R. J. Deferarri and R. P. McGuire). The Letters, Vol. IV. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Thomas F. Bertonneau. "Literature and Literacy: The Decline of Reading and the Stultification of Student Prose," Praesidium, Vol. 2. No. 4 (Fall 2002), pp. 12 – 32.
Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994.
Karen Blixen (as Isak Dinesen; translated by Mitchell and Paden). Daguerreotypes and other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1979.
Robert Conquest. Reflections on a Ravaged Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
S. I. Dobrin and C. R. Weiser. "Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment." In College English, Vol. 64, No. 5, May 2002, pp. 566 – 589.
Frederick Douglass (edited by H. A. Baker, Jr.). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1986.
M. Gibson et al. "Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performance of Class, Gender, and Sexuality." In College Composition and Communication, Vol. 52, No. 1, September 2000, pp. 69 – 95.
Jane E. Hindman. "Making Writing Matter: Using ‘the Personal’ to Recover[y] an Essential[ist] Tension in Academic Discourse." In College English, Vol. 64, No. 1, September 2001, pp. 88 – 108.
Hermann Keyserling, Count (translated by Theresa Duerr). Creative Understanding. Harper & Brothers: New York, 1929.
Longinus (translated by W. H. Fyfe). On the Sublime (with Aristotle and Demetrius). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972.
José Ortega y Gasset (translator unnamed). The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
Cynthia Ozick. "The Question of Our Speech: The Return to Aural Culture." In Washburn and Thornton, Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture. Norton: New York, 1997.
Petronius (translated by J. P. Sullivan). The Satyricon (with Seneca, Apocolocyntosis). New York: Penguin, 1986.
Thomas Reeves. "What Throckmorton P. Wallow Hath Wrought." Academic Questions, Vol. 14, No. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 65-71.
Wayne M. Senner (editor). The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1989.
Oswald Spengler (translated by C. F. Atkinson). The Decline of the West, Vol. I, Form and Actuality. Knopf: New York, 1926.
Oswald Spengler (translated by C. F. Atkinson). The Decline of the West, Vol. II, Perspectives of World History. Knopf: New York, 1926.
Sandra Stotsky. Losing our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. Free Press: New York, 1999.
Eric Voegelin (translated by G. Niemeyer). Anamnesis. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1990
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Reviews of Recent Books
A curious but happy conspiracy of circumstances has brought several book reviews to us this winter from previous contributors. Though reviews are not a regular feature, these promise to hold extraordinary interest for (if not appeal to) our readership.
Technomania: The Skinning of Culture
The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality. By Derrick de Kerckhove. Edited by Christopher Dewdney. A Patrick Crean Book Toronto: Somerville House, 1995. ISBN 1-895-89745-9. Pp. 226, Canadian $19.95 (paper).
In the introduction to this work, the scientifically-trained philosopher Christopher Dewdney (who is himself a media theorist) identifies Kerckhove as probably having the strongest claim to being Marshall McLuhan’s intellectual heir. Derrick de Kerckhove is Professor in the Department of French and Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and
Technology at the University of Toronto, and worked closely with McLuhan throughout the 1970s. It should be pointed out that Christopher Dewdney’s editorial work was very important for this book, as he went through literally thousands of pages of Kerckhove’s notes made over the decades, and brought them together into some kind of coherent whole.
The book’s Table of Contents appears highly daunting. The format of the work is in hundreds of short pensées, which are grouped into nineteen chapters. There are also a few pages of endnotes (pp. 219-226)—a density far short of that expected in most academic works—although, admittedly, perhaps any but the most general referencing may have been impossible for a work of this breadth. Kerckhove’s work indeed lies at an ambitious and ambiguous intersection of speculative and purely academic thought. It is, nevertheless, relatively accessible for the nonspecialist but intelligent reader willing to make an effort.
In the reviewer’s opinion, the work has a particularly uneven quality. Flashes of real insight coexist with banalities, clichés, questionable statements, and outright inanities. An example of the last: "Children who sharpen their hand-eye co-ordination with hand-held videogames experience touch in ways that rival the skills of the professional pianist!" (p. 97: author’s emphasis). The whole work can be seen as an elucidation of the McLuhanesque theme that we as human beings constitute, and are constituted by, our media. The invention of the purely phonemic Greek alphabet is seen as one of the central points of world-history. The pure alphabet is said to have cut human beings in the West off from oral culture, and privileged vision as the primary sense, leading to the technological mode of Western existence. (Arbitrary manipulation of phonemic symbols predisposes one to arbitrary manipulation of nature.) Now, however, the new computer technologies are supposed to lead to a world where a re-integration of humankind’s sensorium (and, therefore, social existence) becomes possible.
There are numerous points of criticism that can be addressed to Kerckhove’s megathesis. One would be to question the monodal nature of his explanation of the Western world-historical dilemma/deviation. For example, some would focus on what they see as the Judaeo-Christian imperative to dominate the Earth, and on its view of human beings as specially-created (i.e., implicitly standing above and apart from Nature), rather than on pagan Greece, as the ultimate source of the current world-historical crisis. Others might argue that excessively rationalizing Greek philosophical and political ideas (originally occurring near the end of true Hellenic Greece), rather than the alphabet itself—as well as the political-moral heritage of secularized Christianity—underlie the current world-crisis. Others might trace the crisis to more recent intellectual origins, such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Romantic period, or Modernism (especially such trends as Darwinism, modern art, and modern psychology). Still others might see the practical triumph of the Industrial Revolution, of the arising of modern technology, mass-industrialization, and mass-society, as much more important than the earlier theorizing by a handful of savants. Some less abstractedly-minded interpreters might see the current crisis as arising from more immediate Twentieth Century events, such as the two World Wars and their consequences/aftermaths, or merely from the recent rush of the Sixties’ and successive social revolutions.
A second major question is the extent to which Kerckhove’s technophile obsession allows him to ignore massive current-day social phenomena. The pampered, cosmopolitan, ultra-technological world Kerckhove flits about in is accessible to only a comparative handful of individuals on the planet today. Kerckhove is emphatically part of what the social critic Christopher Lasch has described as the New Class, the symbolic analysts (following Robert Reich’s terminology), or the knowledge elite, those persons who—repudiating their roots in traditional religions and Nations—constitute a thin and highly privileged slice of the global population. Kerckhove seems to have missed such looming problems as the worldwide challenge to civil order, with the rise of criminal elements, irregular forces, and massive organized crime virtually everywhere. He has missed the profound planet-wide moral crisis, experienced most acutely in urban North America, which might be seen as a form of worldwide social entropy. He ignores the issue of burgeoning overpopulation, which threatens to still further deepen the divide between North and South, and place the societies of the South under incredible ecological strain, as well as raising the specter of massive famine.
Although Kerckhove seems to promise virtually universal prosperity for everyone on the planet, presumably as a result of the acceleration of technology, nowhere does he even attempt to sketch how this economic uplift will occur. The notion of electronics as a medium of "re-integration" is indeed highly suspect. What seems to be occurring worldwide today is the destruction of all rooted, established ways of life, the end of all horizons, in the name of what could loosely be called the Hollywood lifestyle. Kerckhove does not ask if technologically-imposed universalism and internationalism is not really just the imposition of North American commodity-fetishism and banality onto all humankind. It is difficult to accept that such massive changes as the dissolution of a stable self, the assault on reality, etc., by which Kerckhove characterizes the electronic revolution, actually lead one back to the primeval oracular culture, as opposed to total anomie, meaninglessness of life, déracinement, and eventually, the extinction of the human species, or at least of those societies (or groups) who are too totally saturated in the electronic field.
One area, however, where Kerckhove’s analysis was particularly perceptive was in his discussion of East Asian cultures, especially Japan, which have seemed to escape many of the socially corrosive effects of technology. Indeed, the emerging East Asian model (which is being propagated today by, among others, the new "Singapore School")—and which some theorists see as the only serious alternative to the current North American/Western paradigm—seems to offer the promise of a society that is both relatively socially stable, and technologically advanced. (This rising "Orientalism" has even been noticed some time ago—though inevitably negatively interpreted—by the editor of The Globe and Mail, a major Toronto newspaper.) However, it remains to be seen whether the East Asian model can really endure indefinitely.
One would wish to raise the standard in opposition to Kerckhove’s Brave New World, in terms of real relationships occurring between flesh-and-blood men and women; of the family as a family, not as an "artform"; of real imagination occurring in the human mind, as opposed to the simulacrum of virtual reality; and of reflective nationalism/religion/particularity against the late modern combination of florid individual lifestyles and a collective social-moral wasteland. Despite what Kerckhove (and others, like Douglas Rushkoff) claim, it is difficult to accept the notion that "cyberspace" is the equivalent of the realm of God sought in many mystical traditions. These traditions generally warn against such an ascent through artificial or ersatz means. In the radical evolutionary theories of Teilhard de Chardin, what he called “the noцsphere”, which might be conceived of as a global electronic mind, was supposed to represent the final endpoint of human development, union with God. Many, however, would perceive such a physicalist vision as a thwarting of Providence, and see such a drive to the electronization of humankind as the work of another force...
One minor hopeful sign is that Kerckhove's own idea of the centrality of the Internet and computer revolution is partially undermined by his own choice to market his ideas in the form of a printed book. Would not the techno-enthusiasts consider this a pandering to the reactionary literary paradigm? Has anyone noticed how stupid and banal—to say the least—so much of the debate on the Internet is? And it may be noted that the drive to increase broadband transmission rates on the Internet (to allow for video transmission) will probably tend to "dumb down" the medium still further—reducing it, for many people, to just another form of television.
Kerckhove devotes quite a large part of his book to discussion of art. Although one might agree with Kerckhove that art is often a vehicle for conceptually resolving world-historical issues, it does not seem that the art he thinks is cutting-edge is anything more than a vehicle for technological tricksterism. The problem of what kind of authentic art—as opposed to mannerism, kitsch, commodity, genre-piece, or propaganda—is even possible in late modernity, is far more profound than Kerckhove thinks.
Kerckhove also discusses fairly extensively issues of "design" and architecture. These were for a long time somewhat neglected elements in social analysis. Architecture and design is indeed in certain ways critical to the kind of society we live in, or would want to live in. And, looking around at the late modern cityscape, one can indeed be struck by its ambience of barbarous innovation. Kerckhove also identifies Post-Modernism as a trend in architecture, although, emphasizing its ironic nature, he underplays its more serious side of critique of the so-called International Style, and of its attempt to blend the best of the old and new in a more humane way.
It may be pointed out in conclusion that the graphic image on the cover of Kerckhove’s book is rather curious, for an allegedly technophile work. Perhaps this was an act of minor resistance by the book publisher, who, after all, cannot welcome the disappearance of literary culture—and of the livelihood based on it. This image is probably more suggestive of the real effects of hypertechnology than the book’s content: a possible interpretation of the graphic is that the top layer of the Earth, including the oceans and continents, is being skinned like an orange to reveal a globe underneath which looks like a piece of electronic hardware, crisscrossed like a transistor board. What we have is the skinning, not the skin, of humankind's cultures.
Critical Hits and Wide Misses
The Unconscious Civilization. By John Ralston Saul.CBC Massey Lecture Series. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-88784-5762. Pp. 201 pages. $13.95 (paper).
John Ralston Saul, an unusual mix of political thinker and literary writer, is the author of the best-selling Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (1992), and the less-known Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994), as well as of Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (1997). He has published internationally recognized fiction, as well. Many of both his nonfiction and fiction works have been translated, and he himself has written an original novel in French.
The Unconscious Civilization, originally presented as the Massey Lecture at the University of Toronto in
November 1995, received the 1996 Canadian Governor-General’s Award, for English-language nonfiction. With the short-listed books mostly devoted to either sport or personal reminiscences, Saul’s broadly philosophical work clearly deserved the prize. It was the first Massey Lecture to have won the award, and is now one of the bestselling of the Lectures (which include, among others, Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination). The Unconscious
Civilization also won the Gordon Montador Award for Best Canadian Book on Social Issues, as did Reflections of a Siamese Twin. The latter book was also chosen by the major Canadian news magazine, Macleans, as one of the ten best nonfiction books of the century.
John Ralston Saul is indeed one of the most acclaimed Canadian thinkers today, and the husband of Canada’s new Governor-General, Adrienne Clarkson. However, John Ralston Saul’s book, On Equilibrium (2001), proved highly controversial, because he largely blamed the West’s policies for the terror-attacks of September 11. Indeed, there were calls to disentangle the office of the Governor-General from the activist politics of Adrienne Clarkson and her husband. The Unconscious Civilization represents a grand interpretation of world history and of our current predicament, a genre which is becoming ever-more frequent in these millennial times. It is good to have this sense of the profound crisis of late modernity, even if others disagree with your specific analysis.
In his book, Saul takes us, as the saying goes, "from Plato to NATO". For him, Socrates, seen as a skeptical questioner and freethinker, is the central positive figure of Western civilization, whereas his student and successor, Plato—when he begins in his writings to go beyond the faithful recording of Socrates’ life, into the realms of "utopia", "ideology", and excessive "rationalism" (which undermines true rationality), generally represents a negative tendency. Saul is highly critical of traditional organized religion—particularly Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, both of which he sees as standing against freedom and individualism. He therefore sidelines them from his definition of Western civilization. Asserting that the only possible sources of legitimacy in a society are "gods, kings, groups, and individuals" (he sees the first three as related, and strongly prefers the individual), Saul advances the idea that our society has fallen under the sway of "neo-corporatist" groups. He includes in this category not only economic corporations, but also technocratic and specialized groups in general (e.g. academics, lawyers) which only allow individuals a voice insofar as they embrace the interests of the group, and limit public input through deliberately arcane language. Democracy is reduced to a sham when the only thing that matters are the negotiations between these various groups. "Our civilization [is] locked in the grip of an ideology, corporatism… that denies the legitimacy of the individual as a citizen in a democracy. The particular imbalance of this ideology leads to a worship of self-interest and a denial of the public good. The quality that corporatism claims as its own is rationality. The practical effects on the individual are passivity and conformism in the areas that matter and non-conformism in the areas that don’t" (p. 187).
Saul’s critique of neo-corporatism is also a way of criticizing what he calls the present-day "false capitalism", i.e. mega-mergers, stock market speculation, big banks' exploitative profits, etc. With the prevalence of the group interests of the mega-corporations, present-day capitalism is not truly individualistic, and is also against the general good of society. Saul asserts that the tendency towards government budget-cutting is an "ideology" of the economic corporations and their affiliated "experts". Despite greater subtlety, there is a remarkable congruence with the typically left-liberal defense of the welfare-state at its most expansive. His counterclaim is that the private sector is probably more inefficient and more top-heavy with management than the government sector.
Saul does seem to underestimate the self-interested nature of the government bureaucracies. It is hard to believe a view of big government as mostly dedicated to "the public good". One could argue that—apart from some general programs—it is just as much a captive of certain special-interest groups (not big-business) that typically attack the democratic majority. Alluding to the supposed "efficiency" of government services is also rather curious. And his defense of the public education system virtually assumes that it is still something like it was in the 1950s or earlier. Saul simply does not see any "ideology" (distinct from the corporate) in these areas.
Saul’s focussing on excessive "group-interest" as the central problem of late-modern society is not quite right. It is true that transnational corporations and expert groups can be seen as undermining the common life, as can the various minority group-interests—largely undiscussed by Saul—that explicitly define themselves against mainstream society (and receive so much government support). But Saul has also ignored what social conservatives would call the true "intermediary institutions", which can offer a positive group identity. These intermediary institutions or local associations are opposed to both the dislocated individual and the potentially tyrannical, overarching behemoth-state. Saul, explicitly or implicitly, repudiates many of the possible traditional buttresses of social existence—religion, family, meaningful identification with one’s nation and locality, etc.
Saul seems to lack certain nuances in using the term "corporate". Catholic traditionalists have long used this in relation to the sense of an organic society, seen as a living organism. Although this meant, perforce, that the different parts of the social body would have differentiated functions, it also meant—at least in theory—that there existed an obligation to look after all parts of the social body. Saul does not distinguish between "intermediary institutions" which are organic or traditional (or exist in such a context) and those which are mechanical (or
exist in such a context). The modern transnational corporation, for example, does not hold an organic view of anything—it simply sees itself, its managers and workers, and its surrounding environment as purely mechanical arrangements that can be reconfigured, discarded, etc., whenever there is the need to do so as determined by the bottom line. So the term "corporate society" might well be seen as having at least two, completely different definitions, which Saul has somehow melded into one.
The third main definition of the term refers to its use in regimes such as that of Italian Fascism, where the organic and mechanical were often in tension. There is doubtless a certain calculated ambiguity in
Saul’s use of the term "neo-corporatism". Many persons on the Left might perceive Saul’s work as a critique of a supposedly ever-present "neo-fascism", as well as of the monstrous corporations, melded into one giant structure of oppression. It is difficult for such persons to see that the real threat to human societies from big-business today, is of a rather different nature...
The term "corporatist" is also sometimes used to describe the economic system of certain countries in Western Europe, notably France and Germany. These are nations and economies with a large public sector, and a degree of coordination by the government of relations between employers and workers (as opposed to the "confrontational" North American system). As these are societies with extremely generous welfare arrangements (of which Saul would doubtless approve), it is very difficult to fit this definition of the term in with what Saul has in mind when writing this book.
Saul is right when he says that there is a fundamental contradiction between the upholding of late-modern, globalizing, consumptionist capitalism and the homespun virtues of small-town life. The former clearly undermines the latter. He is right to criticize the crude technophilia of a Newt Gingrich (who has chosen the techno-fix Tofflers as his gurus), and the shallow economic focus of most neoconservatives, with their arid exaltation of homo economicus. One can see that this kind of ethos-less capitalism leads straight into hyper-decadence, serving as an icebreaker for the burgeoning of the most florid individual lifestyles, and, collectively, a moral wasteland. One may certainly agree with Saul that the Western democracies should be retaken by the people. This would certainly mean some kind of reassertion of the common public good over rampaging business interests.
However, the results would also probably not be much to the liking of left-liberals and socialists. While claiming to be the real voices of their nations, they have advanced the causes of internationalism and globalization—and brought about the near-extinction of real religion, nation, and family—as much as, if not more than, the transnational corporations and strictly technocratic experts. The fundamental struggle today appears to be between rooted, reflective particularity (which must ultimately have a group or collective focus), and the globalized state of utterly dislocated individuals and various burgeoning pseudo-collectivities.
The Revolting Elites
The Revolt of the Elites: and the Betrayal of Democracy. By Christopher Lasch. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. ISBN 0-393-03699-5. Pp. 276 + x. US $22.00.
Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), one of the leading critics of contemporary late modern society, also wrote The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), among other works. Lasch has been described as a "social conservative of the Left" who—from a base of social democratic ideas, unconventionally interpreted—has moved to play an important part in the emerging communitarian and populist tendencies in the contemporary West. The Revolt of the Elites was completed hardly a week before Lasch passed away, so it represents the last full work of his extraordinary mind.
Much of the book consists of revised versions of essays which appeared in journals as diverse as The New Republic, Tikkun Magazine, New Oxford Review, and Salmagundi. Lasch has nevertheless managed to stitch these together into a unified text, along with a lot of new material, albeit the progressions across different chapters are sometimes a bit choppy.
Lasch has dispensed with numbered footnotes, presumably to widen the appeal of his book. There are, however, some asterisked notes appearing at the bottom of some pages. At one point (141-143), a long asterisked note is, in fact, a mini-bibliographical essay. Most longer quotations made in the text are referenced immediately, within the text, by the author, title, and date of the work. There is also a bibliography (247-260), which is partially annotated, and an index (263-276). Acknowledgements are on ix-x, where, interestingly enough, Lasch expresses his gratitude to his wife for teaching him to use a word processor. In fact, he acknowledges that "without this helpful machine... this book could not have been completed in the allotted time" (ix).
The first chapter of the book, "Introduction: The Democratic Malaise", in fact sketches out the main points and structure of the book, in the manner of a thesis statement. It is a quite excellent summation of the work. In the first sentence, Lasch says he is examining "the question of whether democracy has a future." Lasch’s effective reinterpretation throughout the book of the term "democracy"—that bromide of current discourse—is typical of his highly dialectical ability to look at problems from unusual and unexpected angles and perspectives.
Part I of the book concerns "The Intensification of Social Divisions". The section’s first chapter, "The Revolt of the Elites", contrasts this phenomenon with what was earlier thought to be the primary threat to Western culture, "the revolt of the masses" (the title of José Ortega y Gasset’s work, first translated into English in 1932). Lasch’s inversion of this dictum, and the explanations he deploys in its support, is the core of his book. Despite the appearance of increasing egalitarianism, North American society is in fact becoming increasingly stratified. For example, citing Mickey Kaus, Lasch writes that there is less and less intermarriage between the upper-middle and lower-middle classes—affluent men now tend to marry affluent women, thus sharpening the income-differences between the upper-middle and lower-middle classes (p. 33). Lasch astutely cites Robert Reich’s Work of Nations, which largely celebrated the emerging class of "symbolic analysts" (also sometimes called "the new class", or "the knowledge elite"). Lasch’s analysis is particularly insightful in that it bridges the left-wing critiques of a managerial consumptionist/advertising corporate elite and the right-wing critiques of the bi-coastal media, governmental, and intellectual elites.
Lasch takes an extremely interesting tack to criticize "meritocracy", which is often upheld as one of today’s foremost ideals:
This [new class] arrogance should not be confused with the pride characteristic of aristocratic classes, which rests on the inheritance of an ancient lineage and on the obligation to defend its honor. Neither valor and chivalry nor the code of courtly, romantic love, with which these values are closely associated, has any place in the world view of the best and brightest.… Although hereditary advantages play an important part in the attainment of professional and material status, the new class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts... Meritocratic elites find it difficult to imagine a community, even a community of the intellect, that reaches into both the past and the future and is constituted by an awareness of intergenerational obligation. (39-40)
The "new class" is characterized by "radical ingratitude" and an "incredible ignorance of history", which Ortega had identified as the characteristics of "mass man". In his attack on meritocracy, Lasch has set himself a tough row to hoe.
In "Opportunity in the Promised Land: Social Mobility or the Democratization of Competence?" Lasch takes to task the conventional understanding of the term "social mobility". He argues that the great American democratic promise was that middle-class and working-class people could participate in political life and the life of the mind to a greater extent than was possible in Europe, NOT that working-class persons should be theoretically given the chance to rise to great wealth while abandoning their working-class identity. In the next chapter, "Does Democracy Deserve to Survive?" Lasch surveys the thinness of contemporary political discourse in America, which is locked into ritualistic patterns of praise and blame by "ideologues of the right and left". In "Communitarianism or Populism? The Ethic of Compassion and the Ethic of Respect", Lasch criticizes the emerging communitarian tendency, as in essence, too soft, and hopes to put the locus of resistance in populism. His basic point is the well-worn truth, that respect must be earned, or else it is worth nothing.
Part II of the book deals with "Democratic Discourse in Decline". While addressing "Conversation and the Civic Arts", Lasch devotes a great deal of attention to what Ray Oldenburg has called "third places" (i.e. neither home nor institution) in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlours, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You through the Day. The extension of "third places" is, of course, the neighborhood, with an immensely important socializing function. Lasch notes how much the new class hates real neighborhoods.
In "Racial Politics in New York: The Attack on Common Standards", Lasch boldly stands against the extreme claims of "diversity" and "pluralism", arguing that some sense of common culture and holding persons to higher standards is necessary for any city to continue to function. "The Common Schools: Horace Mann and the Assault on Imagination" consists of a particularly interesting critique of the original, nineteenth-century public school pioneer. Lasch argues that Mann’s scientistic, Enlightenment-derived attempt to ban politics and partisan discussion, colorful history, and "sectarianism" from the emerging public school system, as well as his assumption that all schooling occurs in school (and should occur in school), led to many of the trends that would eventually undermine schooling in the U.S.
In "The Lost Art of Argument", Lasch addresses one of the central issues of the crisis of American democracy, the falling away of widespread public discourse and debate on substantive questions. Lasch criticizes Walter Lippmann’s arguments for attempting to professionalize and center public debate in the media, which were to supply "objective information" to technocratic elites for their scientific, dispassionate decision-making. Lippmann apparently thought there was no real need of a large public, or of
broad public debate. Lippmann, by dichotomizing scientific truth and popular opinion, failed to realize that truth cannot be separated from the debate of opinions. Public debate educates the person participating in it to become a better citizen.
In "Academic Pseudo-Radicalism", Lasch points out that most of the humanities professoriate in America, while apparently enamoured of "radicalism", in fact occupies a highly privileged perch in the system, and that the deconstructionism, jargon, etc., it has spun out has in fact made education less accessible and less truly rewarding for many students.
Part III, "The Dark Night of the Soul", deals with the weightiest spiritual and religious questions. In "The Abolition of Shame", Lasch describes the psychoanalytic discourse in a way which would probably suggest its near-lunacy to any decent, common person. Lasch sensibly says that shame is indeed sometimes called for, and criticizes the "self-help movements", the therapeutizing of society, etc., that batten on vulgarized Freudianism. At the end of the chapter, he says: "Maybe religion is the answer after all. It is not clear, at any rate, that religion can do much worse" (212).
"Philip Rieff and the Religion of Culture" both praises and criticizes Rieff. Lasch praises Rieff for his insights about the necessity for being "judgmental", but criticizes him for his later withdrawal into the academy as the last bastion of culture, and for his valuing of culture over religion—admittedly a rather esoteric critique today.
"The Soul of Man Under Secularism"—a play on the title of Oscar Wilde’s short book, The Soul of Man Under Socialism—is an extremely dense concluding chapter. It consists of rather esoteric arguments against aestheticism and romantic subjectivity, which are part of the undermining of the nineteenth-century democratic (and bourgeois) world with which Lasch expresses a degree of affinity. Lasch also makes a somewhat surprising attack on C. G. Jung, and on all notions that see the development of mankind from medieval to modern in terms of development from a state of childhood to a state of adulthood, as these apparently doom authentic religion.
The last few pages of the book are devoted to suggesting Lasch’s view of Christianity as a profoundly existential faith, which certainly does not imply child-like obedience, but rather constant dialogue and questioning. Citing Flannery O’Conner, Lasch writes:
‘Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints.’ If the whole world now seems to be going through a dark night of the soul, it is because the normal rebellion against dependence appears to be sanctioned by our scientific control over nature, the same progress of science that has allegedly destroyed religious superstition. Those wonderful machines that science has enabled us to construct have not eliminated drugdery... but they have made it possible to imagine ourselves as masters of our fate. In an age that fancies itself as disillusioned, this is the one illusion—the illusion of mastery—that remains as tenacious as ever. But now that we are beginning to grasp the limits of our control over the natural world, it is an illusion—to invoke Freud once again—the future of which is very much in doubt, an illusion more problematical, certainly, than the future of religion. (246)
Lasch’s work is certainly provocative and very much needed as a ringing indictment of the current near-dystopic situation in North America. Some criticisms that may be made of the book is its somewhat disjointed nature; an unusual truculence with some figures (e.g. Rieff and C. G. Jung), combined with excessive valorizing of others (e.g. Leon Wurmser, the psychoanalytic theorist); and the rather too short attempt to describe and defend the existential interpretation of Christianity.
Death and Politics
Political Theory for Mortals: Shades of Justice, Images of Death Contestations: Cornell Studies in Political Theory. By John E. Seery. Edited by William E. Connolly. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1996. ISBN 0-801-48376-X. Pp. 231. $39.95 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).
This work by John E. Seery, an associate professor in the Department of Politics at Pomona College, is indeed highly provocative and contrarian. So much so, that there is indeed some question whether the whole work is not to be taken as ironic or satirical in intent. Among the most salient aspects of the work are a continual punning, wordplay, and use of current-day popular slang to characterize classical concepts. The work includes acknowledgments (193-194), notes (195-224), and index (225-230).
Seery begins by saying that he will be endeavoring to work out a liberal political theory that carefully takes death into account. In the first section of the book, "The Academy" (1-42), he looks at the concept of death in the theories of Hobbes, Arendt, and Foucault. Hobbes endeavors to use the fear of violent death as the basis of a stable political order. Arendt sees the polis as affirming the continued existence in collective memory of those citizens who have died. Foucault points out the contrast between a late modern society that talks little of death, while cruel and violent death occurs continually, especially in the Third World. Noting the supposed inadequacies of these accounts, Seery turns towards the literary mode, notably the descent into the underworld stories, as the beginning of his new attempts to theorize about death.
In the second section of the book, "The Cave" (43-80), Seery attempts to turn around the standard readings of Plato, by first emphasizing the interpretation of Socrates as radical skeptic, and then by arguing that Plato actually follows that Socratic skeptical mode. Much of The Republic, not only the story of Er, but the transcendent outlook implied by the Divided Line and the Analogy of the Cave, were supposedly never meant to be taken seriously.
In "The Tomb" (81-120), Seery follows a quasi-Nietzschean critique of Christianity. He also brings in some post-Freudian, crudely psycho-biological readings of Christianity, which would probably be seen by many as highly offensive. Seery’s suggestion that Christianity be reinterpreted by leaving out the Resurrection seems purely a jest.
In "The Womb" (122-153), Seery looks at the works of a radical feminist, Donna Haraway. He compares her work to Mary Shelley"s Frankenstein, and to the polyphonic cultural meanings of the pop-star Madonna. He ends with an examination of Haraway’s cutting-edge invocation of "the Cyborg" (148-153).
"The Agora" (156-192) lays forth the suggestion that the use of the concept of an underworld similar to that of the ancient Greeks, as a vehicle for stimulating debate, would be helpful for current-day political theory and politics. This is a thought-experiment in which political theorists and people in general would be encouraged to try to address each other from the perspective of thinking what they would say to each other in such an underworld. One does wonder whether such a thorough melding of literary modes and political theory would not be rather ridiculous.
Seery does make some telling points about the divorce between political theory and political action today, as well as about the crises of late modernity. However, in his imprecision about the nature of that crisis, viewing it largely from the perspective of an ultra-radical Left, one might argue that he is not being contestatory enough. Some dead myth of the underworld is hardly going to make an impact on these massive, onrushing crises—the death of the truly social and truly political in current-day Western societies, the overwhelming of the world by instrumentalizing technology, and so forth. This crisis has a clear sociopolitical dimension—the triumph of the managerial-therapeutic regime: a managerial, economically obsessed Right, and a therapeutic Left-liberalism fixated with political-correctness. The possibilities for the overcoming of the crises of late modernity and the attendant managerial-therapeutic regime, would indeed be far more provocative and contestatory questions for discussion.
"George Parkin Grant, 1918-1988: Out of the Shadows and Imaginings into theTruth"*
George Grant: A Biography. By William Christian. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. ISBN 0-802-05922-8. Pp. 473. $39.95 (cloth).
It would be hard to convey the spiritual richness, depth, and beauty of George Grant’s life and thought, within the confines of a relatively short review of William Christian’s biography of Grant, a book which does great justice to both. George Grant’s best known work is probably Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965). William Christian is a professor of political studies at the University of Guelph, who—as a younger scholar—knew the more elderly Grant well, in person. The book is perhaps a bit too uncritical—but Grant has already been criticized enough by Canada’s professional academics. Drawing on numerous primary sources, Christian’s book is both a personal history of Grant and a careful depiction of the philosophical, intellectual, and religious odyssey of Grant’s life. The work includes acknowledgements; a chronology; a preface; twenty-five pithily titled chapters; an epilogue; extensive endnotes; a list of sources—archival and interview sources, works mentioned in text or notes, selected secondary sources, and a bibliography of George Grant’s publications prepared by K. Mark Haslett; an index; as well as photo credits (there are a number of poignant, well-chosen photographs at the beginning of the work). The scholarly apparatus is quite excellent, indeed.
George Parkin Grant is probably Canada’s preeminent philosopher. He is one of the best-known Canadian thinkers, along with literary critic Northrop Frye, media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and Harold A. Innis (McLuhan’s precursor). Rather than attempt to summarize the book’s depiction of the life and thought of George Grant, the reviewer will focus on what he felt were some salient points that struck him as he was reading it.
One of the first, most surprising impressions received—if the eminent Parkin-Grant family to which George Grant belonged is indeed typical—was that the persons upholding the British Empire in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were not power-hungry maniacs or exploiters, but rather people idealistically devoted to public service, progressive ideas, and the amelioration of human suffering. In fact, both of Grant’s grandfathers were farm-boys who had risen to their high educational positions strictly through merit. A long-gone sense of patriotism is conveyed in William Grant’s written marriage proposal to Maude Parkin, that together the families could do "ten times more good for Canada".
Secondly, one can notice that George Grant had been born into a society which today is as extinct as Austro-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, or pre-World War II Poland (indeed, perhaps more so than the latter two)—that is, what could be called British North America, or the Dominion of Canada. It seems to the reviewer that George Grant was a thinker who generally accepted the ideas on which he had been nourished in his childhood—but then had been forced to carry them into the radically different period of late North American modernity—with the result that they became something even greater and nobler than they had originally been.
Thirdly, the now-extinct society of British North America, judging from the account of George’s earlier years, was not some kind of sexist, racist, etc., nightmare-state, but a place where concrete possibilities for the human good and commodious living existed. The reviewer himself was surprised by the extent to which both Roman Catholics and Francophones (French Canadians) apparently moved comfortably in that society. Also, the women in the Parkin-Grant extended family, and, in fact, virtually all the women described in the book, were feisty, independent, and certainly didn't appear or feel themselves to be oppressed. Fulton Anderson, George Grant’s nemesis at the University of Toronto, was apparently openly known as a homosexual, but probably commanded greater immediate political influence and professional respect than Grant himself.
Fourthly, one is struck by the spirit of self-sacrifice (for example, in the unstinting efforts in support of Britain during the two World Wars), as well as of real gentility and courtesy, that persons of Grant’s time were capable. Related to this point was what seemed to be the far greater richness of human personality or character in this period. Men and women would read serious literature and history in search of models and exemplars to fashion their own lives after, as well as raptly listen to classical music for inspiration. One’s personality and individuality were asserted through wit and wisdom, through inner strengths of character, rather than through spiked hair, nose-rings, or body-piercing. It also seemed like a far more wholesome and innocent age—as typified by the example of Grant as an adolescent reading Lady Chatterley's Lover to find out about sex.
Fifthly, there was still a real, literary-humanistic community of ideas one could belong to, often only through one’s own extensive reading and self-cultivation. Ideas mattered. Persons with thoughts as eclectic as Grant’s could receive some hearing in the academy and in more popular fora. For example, the genre of the popular political pamphlet, of which Grant published a few, has entirely disappeared. It was in this sense a freer time—the hold of the lowest-common-denominator, consumption society on virtually everyone’s way of life had not yet been fully established, and the doctrinaire lumpen-intelligentsia exercised less of its totalitarian hold on university and artistic life. Alongside the literary-humanistic community, there existed the public-political community which at least partially participated in higher discourses. One of the surprising points of the book is how many persons prominent in Canada’s public life and history George Grant knew well or at least came into some contact with. That kind of broad reach of influence would seem impossible for almost anyone today, let alone an academic of unpopular views.
A related sixth point is that a genuine public-political realm in general existed to a far greater extent than today. Political pamphlets would be bought by working-class people and avidly debated. There was still the possibility of some sort of interchange between philosophical ideas and the political realm. The efforts to popularize philosophy among the working-classes, as in the adult education initiatives in which Grant participated, have no parallel today. The mass of the common people have
been reduced to "vidiots" and consumers of sports-events and other commodities.
A seventh point to be gleaned from the book is the bitter and acrimonious nature of personal and institutional academic politics, and especially when they spill over into the public and media realms. As Nietzsche had observed, the professors are "human, all-too-human", consumed by pettiness and vindictiveness despite their pretences of objectivity. There is rich irony in the University of Toronto Press’s publishing this book (trying to make lateamends, perhaps?), since during Grant’s life, certain of their professors had played not a small part in making difficulties for him, and he had never been allowed to teach at Toronto. In fact, Grant was unwilling to take up the position he had been offered at York University in 1960, precisely because the University of Toronto planned to exercise virtually total control over York’s curriculum in the first four years of York’s existence. Grant’s relatively low standing in many professional academic circles highlights the ongoing divorce in late modernity between true thought and academic prestige. The book is, among other things, an excellent introduction to the realities of academic politics in the contemporary era.
It would be impossible to do justice to Grant’s thought in a short summary. Grant’s biographer argues that a very well-thought-through and profound Christianity was at its core. Grant felt that there was only one true, metaphysical basis for retaining a reason for moral behavior in contemporary society—the fact that all were equal before God. In abandoning God, late modern, technological society was attacking the inherent dignity of the person, leading to a situation where pleasure-seeking and the application of force would become the norm. The task of the philosopher was as much as possible to put into light the present darkness, as a darkness. Grant believed that the form of Christianity practised in the West had increasingly deviated from its original because of a number of early, fundamental theological mistakes, which then carried on under their own dynamic—most notably in the development of Calvinism—to eventually create the world of late modernity. The "universal, homogenous world-state" in which all of our various prior human identities would be extinguished is virtually upon us, Grant says. This empire of technology is centered in America.
Designated a Red Tory in terms of Canadian politics, Grant had called in 1965 for an alliance of the old conservative nationalist communitarianism (such as that represented by Sir John A. Macdonald and his National Policy), with the new nationalist collectivism of the Left, to fight for what remained of Canada –against the dynamic, technological, liberal, individualist, and capitalist America. It was Canada’s British heritage, its un-American elements, that made social democracy a serious possibility for Canada. While fully aware of Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s flaws, Grant praised him for one main virtue –loyalty—manifested, for example, by his steadfastness against accepting U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. This refusal cost Diefenbaker the 1963 election, when virtually all of the media instrumentalities of the North American managerial classes were turned against him. Lament for a Nation was written in response to this searing tragedy, representing—according to Grant—Canada’s final integration into the American technological empire.
Although often considered a deep pessimist, Grant’s belief in God ultimately gave him a sort of optimism. Because of this belief in an ultimate, unchanging standard of justice, Grant could say that, whatever horrors technological society has waiting for us, and however hopeless the situation appears, "At all times and in all places it always matters what we do." The nightmare-age, according to Grant, does not lie in medieval Europe, or in the period of the British Empire: the nightmare-age is now.
Faith and Poetry
Recovered Body. By Scott Cairns. New York: George Braziller Publishers, 1998. ISBN: 0-8076-1437-8. Pp. 64 pages. $12.95 (paper).
This collection of poetry (his fourth) by Scott Cairns represents some of the best contemporary Christian poetry. Since Elizabeth Jennings expressed some thoughts on how we might judge what was good Christian poetry back in the Sixties, few other writers have dealt with the question directly. Another contemporary poet, Mark Jarman (author of Unholy Sonnets), wrote in an essay that most contemporary poets who consider themselves believers come at the subject indirectly. This reviewer interviewed Jarman (a poet and essayist teaching at Vanderbilt University) and a number of other contemporary poets on Writers and Faith (see The Writer’s Chronicle, August 1997). Most agree that some bad poetry has been published in the name of Christianity. So poets first want to write a good poem, then wrestle with how the language reveals their religious faith. All seem to be firm on the idea that poetry should not preach. The best poems are not theological first, but well crafted first, and reflective of religious faith through language, subject, and imagery—because the writer’s individual beliefs will inform his or her art as a natural process. But everything a "Christian" writer writes will not necessarily stand out as a "Christian" poem. And many Christians look first for religion when they read, if they even read contemporary poetry, and not for the art. Many good poems would not meet the "religious" or "doctrine" test—if the reader is looking for a preconceived example of dogma or doctrine, or wants to read a sermon rather than a poem.
Cairns offers new lessons from Old Testament stories. His poem, "The Turning Of Lot’s Wife", suggests she may have turned less out of fear and more out of compassion for those left behind. His poems also pay tribute to other poets, like Wallace Stevens. And given his wit, his strong sense of humor, he also writes poems with strong sensual language and sexual imagery. His most infamous poem in this regard first appeared in the Paris Review and cost him a teaching job he had already been contracted for at a Christian university. This poem, "Interval With Erato", written as a dramatic monologue, is in the voice of the Muse (Erato) who is frolicking sexually with the poet. The very explicit sexual language of the poem led to what one observer has described as a "close encounter with fundamentalist conservative forces." The poem is in this collection, but was first published in the Paris Review.
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Cairns has strong religious beliefs, but also strong aesthetic standards as a poet. He now teaches at The University of Missouri in Columbia. He has taught at Old Dominion University in Virginia. This reviewer met him at a seminar in Richmond, Virginia, where the topic was Writers and Faith. This Christian poet has pursued his religious faith from Baptist to Presbyterian to his fairly recent conversion to Eastern Orthodox beliefs. He has spoken of his attraction to the patristic writings of the Desert Fathers, and recommends the teachings of Saint Isaac of Syria, born on the western shore of the Persian Gulf in the 7th Century. One of St. Isaac’s Pearls is: "To bear a grudge and pray, means to sow seeds in the sea and expect a harvest." Cairns has forgiven the actions taken against him in the past, and looks forward—in his prayer life, and in his writing life. He sees the discipline of prayer as a help in his creative work. Like another poet who has addressed audiences at Christianity and Literature conferences, Walt Macdonald, Scott Cairns believes art is not as important as life, friends, family. So his view of art is not in the Romantic vein which might argue that the writer ought to do or sacrifice anything for the sake of the new poem. On the other hand, Cairns’ "sacramental poetics" respect the traditional poetry of the past, from Virgil, to Dante, to Milton (lyric poems), to Coleridge, to T. S. Eliot, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost.
The poems in this collection reflect Cairns’ efforts to create his own works which rise above what he sees as merely "expressive" in so much contemporary poetry.
He considers the best poems to be "provisional metaphoric". Multiple meanings, complexity, surprise—these are traits found in abundance in his writings. He is interested in developing lines that wrestle with divine mystery in the material world. His poetry is sensual, seeking to reveal textures of the physical world requiring sensual sounds and language. In his poem, "Archaeology: A Subsequent Lecture", he learns "the pleasure lies / in fingering loose ends toward likely shape, / actually making something of these bits…." The poem discovers how the thin veil of earth can cover a "fallen city".
Another poem in this collection is worth quoting in full:
"Regarding the Body"
I too was a decade coming to terms
with how abruptly my father died.
And still I’m lying about it. His death
was surely as incremental, slow-paced
as any, and certainly as any
I’d witnessed. Still, as we met around him
that last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far tooquickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.
This is a good poem in which to see how Cairns’ work is grounded (pardon the pun) in the earth of this world, yet speaks to a life after death, a spiritual "presence", and "…an inclination / to articulate the trouble / of a word, a world thereafter" ("To Himself" 60).
David Impastato edited an anthology of Christian poetry called Upholding Mystery (Oxford University Press, 1997). One of the poets included in this volume is Scott Cairns. Cairns’ poem, "The More Ernest Prayer of Christ", is the first example of his work grouped in the opening section of poems dealing with the Cross. The final three lines are as follows:
and in that moment—perhaps because it was
new—he saw something, had his first taste ofwhat
He would become, first taste of the body, andthe blood.
The same poem is included in this collection, Recovered Body. The poem addresses the agony in the garden of Gethsemane and is inspired by a phrase from Luke’s gospel, "And being in agony he prayed more earnestly…" This poem is representative of the central theme of the collection here reviewed. Many of the poems in this book are attempting to relocate the sacredness of the body, and connecting our material world to the spiritual world, the transcendent. Cairns, like all poets, has certain obsessions—a color, an aesthetic, a subject, the creative process; in his case the obsessions include this recovering of the body and the Mystery of the Crucifixion.
Specifically, Cairns’ poems are informed more and more by his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, the sacraments, and sacramental language. In an interview published online (The Crossing) under the title, "The Event of Poetry", he reveals how he strives to write poems that enable new understandings of ancient stories, new perspectives. He writes to discover what he does not know "about the world, or about God, or about human relationships." He is critical of poems that simply express an experience. If he reads a poem that is a description of an event, he is apt to be bored. So he writes to rise above the expressive, to make poems that are more than mere documents of an event.
One of the most successful poems in this book is "Loves". The poem is written as an epistle by Mary Magdalen. It challenges the puritanical view
that the body is something less
than honorable, say, in its
…appetites? That the spirit is
something pure, and—if all goes well—
by the body’s bawdy tastes.
The poem’s discovery lines read:
All loves are bodily, require
that the lips part, and press their trace
of secrecy upon the one
beloved—the one, or many, endless
array whose aspects turn to face
the one who calls, the one whose choice
it was one day to life my own
bruised body from the dust, where, it
to me, I must have met my death….
The sacred place in the this poem, cited above, and other poems in this collection, is the place where "body / and spirit both abide…." That place is the human body. The poems in this book which seek to recover the body in his lines include, "In Lieu Of Logos", and "Into Hell And Out Again".
Given Cairns’ recent appearance in the Windhover Literary Festival at UMHB in Belton, Texas, his publications in Image: A Journal of Religion and the Arts, and the publication of his fifth collection of poetry, Philokalia, he seems due for more scholarly attention. A review of Philokalia will follow in a later Praesidium.
Michael H. Lythgoe
Up from Angela’s Ashes
There is an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood. By Criostoir O’Flynn. Cork and Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998. ISBN: 1-85635-219-6. Pp. 350. £9.99 (paper).
Frank McCourt’s jaundiced view of his Limerick boyhood is the proffered pretext (in public relations teases) for this book, wherein O’Flynn claims to show us the other side of the same western Irish city during the same era. Of course, what he’s really showing us is another kind of man. Astride the River Shannon (a little more than ten miles east of Shannon Airport), Limerick is wet, cold, and gritty—or so I have always found it. Eastern port cities like Dublin and Wexford are at least somewhat protected from the Atlantic’s testy squalls by Ireland’s hunched, woolly backbone. The most cursory glimpse at a map reveals that the island’s western side has borne the buffets of strong currents and gale-force winds for eons. The traffic to and from the airport has no doubt done nothing to enhance Limerick’s charm; but even without the stench and racket of lorries and tour buses, this medieval city must have been an austere place of dreary gray stone walls which meant business—first in repelling the Vikings, later in securing Britain’s choke-hold upon her "cattle ranch" (to use O’Flynn’s apt phrase). When I think of Limerick, I am no longer assailed by jaunty, rhyming puns and word-plays: I think, rather, of an oppressive but necessary point of transfer to Galway in the north or Listowel in the south.
But then, I’m not a child. Childhood is the most resilient force in the universe. McCourt’s account rings false not because Limerick’s rain-smudged towers and bridges aren’t real, but because they would never be so to a boy who has known only them. McCourt’s splashing spittoon of a book is the kind of life-loathing, institution-damning lexical torture which the educated among us (for reasons which speak ill of our education) call literature. O’Flynn, on the other hand, has no ambitions of courting the intelligentsia. One would know as much if one had first read his splendid bilingual edition of the itinerant early nineteenth-century poet Raftery’s collected verse, Blind Raftery (Indreabhán, An Chéad Cló, 1998), the commentary of which is worth the price of purchase. O’Flynn grew up as hard as ever any grovel-to-the-gallery hyperbolist like McCourt. He lost several uncles and siblings to war and tuberculosis, his shoes were lined with newspaper in the winter, and he was all but kicked out of the public library for hailing from the wrong part of town (the "isle" of the title which the so-called Abbey River forms in the middle of Limerick). Yet he endured, and prevailed. The destitution of his circumstances did not so much affect him as an obstacle to be overcome as it formed his moral sinew, breeding in him the true poet’s appreciation of rare moments, small mercies, and bonds tightened in hardship. Indeed, one might well say that McCourt’s portrait shows all the horror of filth and privation which one would expect of a thoroughly bourgeois sensibility, and none of the love of a thick quilt or of the warm shoulders pressing one at the dinner table which take their place, at last, among the poor man’s fondest memories. McCourt, by implication, is the advocate of consumerist culture, with its premium upon comfort, convenience, and walled isolation from intruders. O’Flynn’s world has its drunks and cut-purses, but a dense envelope of social vibrancy prevents them from introducing general dysfunction. I leave you to decide which of the two authors shows fewer of the toxic effects of Western materialism.
I emphasize this liberating aspect of O’Flynn’s retrospective because, when the book first appeared on "Amazon.com", some professorial type assumed the burden (in a burst of public-spiritedness, no doubt) of denouncing it for cuddling up to tired old Catholic convention. The book is unrecognizable in such reviews: one finds in them only the chic and lovingly nourished bigotry of the reviewers (some of whom I suspect of not having turned the front cover: a photo of young Criostoir dressed for his first communion). That O’Flynn grew up Catholic is beyond dispute or (for crusading academics) repair. That his memories of Sister Felicitas, the convent school, and (later) the Christian Brothers are mostly cordial and admiring reflects the "sad" fact (for crusading academics) that these were compassionate, devoted people. Wherein would the obligation originate to represent them as otherwise? But that O’Flynn’s style is that of whitewash or apologetic must strike anyone who has actually read the book as ludicrous. Speaking of the seasonal ban on dances, for instance, O’Flynn writes, "My father [a moonlighter saxophonist] and all the other musicians who earned part or all of their income by playing music in dancehalls were out of work for the whole of Lent—and no bishop or priest came and asked… how they were going to pay the rent…" (203). Likewise, the impressive chap who (unwittingly) nails a convent teacher on the far side of a wall during a urination contest is not airbrushed from history, nor are the three stiff strokes which the headmistress deals out to all the contestants. If O’Flynn chooses to remember that disciplinarian warmly because she didn’t communicate his disgrace to his mother… well, is that whitewash or maturity?
One of the account’s most moving episodes is indeed the young Criostoir’s discovery that "whether a person was nice or not didn’t depend on their religion but on how they behaved with other people" (122). This occurs when he spends a morning playing with the "poor little rich boy" son-and-heir of his father’s best-heeled customer. The lad is not only very lonely, but he reveals to Criostoir that, back at boarding school in England, the older boys "did nasty things with the young boys" (121)—an allegation that does more to damn the British status quo, for my money, than all the soapbox anti-imperialist claptrap of all pubs and ivory towers everywhere. The neighbors we don’t speak to are usually sympathetic unless deprived of their humanity by brutal customs. Mr. O’Flynn the coal-vendor actually knows the wealthy Protestant lady in question because they had performed together in an amateur orchestra. Criostoir underscores the power of music to elevate drudges like his father from a miserable existence and to unite people across rigid class and religious boundaries. The inhabitants of what we would call his "slum" would turn out in droves to hear the local band practice "arrangements of arias from the operas of Verdi, Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini and others" (132). If this constitutes a shameless apologetic for tradition, I should like to know wherein the ghetto-blaster has proved more liberating.
There is rather more about childhood games and Mrs. O’Flynn’s resourceful dinner table than most of us care to know. If this book is a trove of rare information, not every pearl appeals to every swine. Since my own grazing habits reflect a taste for the linguistic, I find the sections on Limerick’s dialect—especially its Gallicisms—especially delectable. (Who would ever have guessed that "Tory" comes from the Irish word tóir, "pursuit" ?) Ever alert to irony, however, and shy of ideology, O’Flynn is no revivalist fanatic. When the Gaelic League’s allies in the Church awarded little Christy with an Irish prayer book "in lieu of the usual pound prize" for memorizing the Teagasc Críostaí (a catechism), O’Flynn recalls his grandmother’s words: "’Tis soft the wool grows on them! There’s better men and women died for Ireland that hadn’t two words of Irish! Bad cess to them anyway, they’d give you a pain [sic] where you never had a window!" (186).
Mutatis mutandis, you could say the same thing about certain "scholars" today.
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On Eternity and Moral Reason:
Why Clocks Keep Ticking in Heaven
John R. Harris
I am tempted to place this essay among the fiction, which I typically reserve for the journal’s latter half. I don’t recall ever having written anything quite so tendentious and, in a sense, presumptuous. Since the start of my adventurous vagaries in publishing, I have wanted to bring work to light which was thoughtful and well informed but not shackled in dozens of footnotes or emasculated by mincing scholarly language. I believe that I have satisfied that ambition. Sometimes, however, I fear that I may stray too far beyond the scholarly border of objectivity (not that academics themselves do more than scoff at and scuff over that worried line today). The present essay would surely be an example of such an offense, if ever I have committed it. Maybe I’d better not write what I have in mind at all.
But then, that would be a shame. If you can’t write about the possibility of an existence beyond the one we know, you might as well write more stuffy, mincing prose about Shakespeare’s non-authorship of Macbeth or the effects of Jansenism upon Balzac. No subject would be more trivial than any other, since all would be equally poised at the edge of permanent oblivion. We would truly inhabit the existentialist’s absurd universe, and the expert on the unicorn’s symbolism in the Middle Ages would be no more—or less—ridiculous than the expert on ancient Egypt’s use of the lotus or, indeed, the specialist on the effective treatment of severe cranial trauma.
A compassionate skeptic may observe to me patiently, though, that the issue isn’t the subject’s unworthiness: it is the subject’s complete lack of verifiable content. One might as well argue for a high percentage of giraffe shapes in last summer’s clouds as discuss the nature of a possible afterlife. Of course, this objection is valid at an empirical level. The reality beyond our present one of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches is, in Hamlet’s words, an "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns." Those who have experienced its contours, if it exists at all, cannot come back to describe them to us.
On the other hand, there is a certain obtuse self-indulgence to this argument. The rational motive for belief in an afterlife never has been built upon evidence of the senses—has, indeed, insisted that eternal reality, being imperishable, would not consist of material mountains and trees. It would consist of goodness fully realized, of justice perfectly served yet also tempered by perfectly appropriate mercy. To be sure, no one wants to die, and the most egocentric are the most retrograde to the notion of ceasing to exist; but what mature, responsible people long to see living forever—what they cannot face a single day in this vale of tears without imagining as exempt from death—is the good. Such people, I believe, are quite content to consign their own bodies to dissolution if only the good they so love, and which they have tried hit-and-miss to serve well, may lift their better part into a perfect harmony of the spheres. There the wronged will find justice, the lost will be found, the wounded will be made whole. All the corrections which do not and cannot happen in this sordid, corrupt stew we know as life will occur completely and exquisitely. Morality demands as much. Moral duty in this life demands another life—a fulfillment of this fragmentary life—where all the ends of moral duty are accomplished and revealed as a single end.
So belief in a hereafter, while empirically untenable, is morally requisite. A rational person not only may believe in life after death, but ought to in order to render comprehensible the scruples and imperatives churning mysteriously within him. There can be no genuine morality, no set of unconditional imperatives whose authority may even beckon us to face death, which is based merely in this world. Such is my judgment, and I remain patiently waiting for a materialist skeptic to move me from it logically. If moral law is no more than social programming (i.e., brainwashing), then it must be false as law, an array of tawdry illusions nourished by an exploitative ruling class—but the people who make this claim never want to embrace the necessary conclusion that right and wrong do not exist.1 (Among other things, they would be forced thereby to surrender their high indignation at the exploitative ruling class.) You could say, alternatively, that our electric do’s and don’t’s are taboos left over from genetic programming as old as the saber-toothed tiger. Very similar problems undermine this Bergsonian/Jungian kind of analysis, however; for if we are guided by a hard-wired magnetism which once made us successful cave-dwellers and bone-grinders, then we not only lack control of our movements (the prerequisite for all moral behavior), but our tyrannical intuitions are in fact steering us down corridors now buried under eons of volcanic ash. We are benighted pawns rather than enlightened stalwarts in such a scenario. Indeed, it would seem inevitable that the less learned, less reflective people would be the most "moral"—and the poor idiot would probably be a saint, living as he does at a purely intuitive level.
No, I am not remotely convinced by these alternatives to a morality of "asymptotic purpose": a morality, I mean, where the end of right action rests just beyond any possible worldly horizon. If I may continue to explore this latter system as rational, then, I would say further that any cautious generality we may make about the afterlife which advances the cause of goodness is justified as a belief on that basis alone. In other words, since the next world is a moral necessity only—since it is required, not by science, but by the human love of a goodness beyond human understanding—then it deserves to be redeemed from any clumsily empirical conception which hampers its goodness. Let me illustrate what I mean here by recurring to an ambitious work of fiction. I tried to read Diarmuíd Ó Súilleabháin’s Irish novel Aistear several years ago, when (as an academic) I was researching stories about the mythic Journey to the Other World.2 To some degree, Ó Súilleabháin’s little book got the better of me. It is written in some of the densest Irish I have ever attempted to translate, its diction murderously laced with rare and exotic words unknown to my dictionaries. On the other hand, the novel is all too decipherable. The word aistear means "journey"; and, in an odd and aesthetically fatal way, that’s exactly what the book’s tale is not. The author offers case after case of individuals making the "passage" from this world to the next—perhaps twenty such cases in all over a hundred-page span—yet the transits intersect only in the loosest weave, and the point of common convergence is only represented as a great light exuding balmy well-being. Taken as a whole, the book does not "move". It seems instead to be a series of restarts, no one of which ever finishes the course.
I vaguely recall that this was my initial response. When I decided to have another go at the novel this year (still smarting, no doubt, that its language had vanquished me before), I didn’t really arrive at a different verdict. I’m sure that I found a deeper appreciation for the individual vignettes, some of which are wonderfully poignant. It is of great profit for all of us to remember that every hour may be our last. Ó Súilleabháin’s panorama of newly released souls includes not only an old woman who dies in bed and a fisherman swept up in a storm, but also a young businessman whose jet plane crashes right after take-off and a well-to-do young couple who slam into a truck while zooming along toward their honeymoon cruise. Mortality stalks us around every corner. Yet life eternal—and this is the author’s noble kerygma—quickly snatches us out of the dark stalker’s game bag and sets us on our way toward a true and fulfilling freedom. The message is grandly uplifting.
For that matter, part of what originally bothered me about Ó Súilleabháin’s style resolved itself this time in a Vergilian kind of epic redundancy: his incessant showers of dense phrases, I mean, are more often than not circling the same idea, not so much adding more descriptive detail as saying the ineffable from another direction.
The Other Beings understood perfectly and vividly that distress of his, every human echo of it, every spark which the brain of Man registers in that frightful mid-state he must suffer through as a creature… They understood the strength and cause of those calculations… That was the proper stage for him… An important stage… A reconsidering and a re-preparing for the Awakening… For the Understanding… For the "Life Eternal".3
Rome’s greatest epic poet also wrote in such overlapping waves of meaning. Once I had recovered from a certain vexation with Ó Súilleabháin’s prolixity, I realized not only that his restatements were useful glosses on phrases I could not otherwise have unraveled—they were also a collective indication that the fish within so many verbal nets was constantly slipping away, and was not of visible or mortal scale. The effect is poetic. Anyone who insists upon treating it purely as narration is bound to charge it with tedium and laxity, and to miss its rewards.
Yes, but a novel, after all, is a narrative; and while Vergil advances us to decisive deeds (though their decisiveness has been hotly disputed by contemporary classicists), Ó Súilleabháin remains "mired" in his poetry of passage. What precisely happens on that far shore? If it is altogether too ethereal for words of material import, then why attempt to write its story? If all is light, light, light—a light of ever growing intensity and warmth which stirs in our souls the recognition that they belong wholly to it—then why not write a poem, or a series of poems? What story, what concatenation of discrete events, is possible in such rarefied climes?
As if embarrassed by his invincible lack of substance, Ó Súilleabháin often undertakes to say what the new and higher reality is not. It is not that substantial reality which we know. It is not the agony of the crash-victim’s mother or the stupefaction of those who collect the beautiful young couple’s mauled remains. Grief and tragedy are an illusion. All ties to parents and children, to regret and ambition, peel off like a chrysalis. They are worth telling, these ties, only because something needs to be told in a story. So the story of what the New Life is becomes the story of what the Old Life was, since the latter is the null-and-void shadow of a brilliance which over-exposes the film.
This operation, I may say now, disturbs me not just aesthetically, but morally. Whatever goes on or ceases to go on in the afterlife (for here is said to reside the end of all striving, all motion), we are morally bound to preserve the meaningfulness of mortal, terrestrial life. We who are here just now within this darkened glass must not reach the conclusion that what we say and do is irrelevant to the Light and the Truth. Were our few decades of bodily maturation and shifting social attachments to be sloughed off after death as a snake sheds its skin, we would have no motive to acknowledge a role for supreme goodness in our daily travail. We would be quietists, at best. That is, we would sit on our hands as our neighbors were herded into cattle cars and sing sweet hymns about the Rapture. At worst, some of us would insist upon the absolute severance of our destiny in heaven from our villainy on earth, and we would riot our way through a now pointless waiting period with the disconnected conscience of sociopathic hellions.
I well know that Ó Súilleabháin can have intended for neither kind of aberrant soul to find safe refuge in his poetic, merciful landscape. Yet all of us who tax ourselves with reading and thinking, I should imagine, have seen how the game plays out. A bit too much poetry and too little narrative attracts sluggards as well as gentle spirits and blackguards as well as charismatics. Human life on earth must be consequential with respect to the soul’s eternal life in heaven. That is a moral necessity, even as heaven itself is a moral necessity. To recognize so much is not, however, to conclude that heaven doles out buffets to the wicked or garlands to the virtuous. Once again, such visions have us slipping and sliding in poetry rather than following the chain of moral necessity.
It is a moral fact that morality cannot be satisfied in this life. People of shallow understanding like to represent Original Sin as a Judeo-Christian invention—or, to be precise, as an isolated historical incident, The Fall, within the ancient Hebrew chronicles. This representation, of course, deprives the Eden story of all its proper moral value, since the sins of the father are not and cannot morally be visited upon the son. (The sheer absurdity of this proposition would appear more clearly if it were not breathtakingly outrageous. What minimally decent person of ordinary human lights would condone a law which punishes a child for his great-grandfather’s deeds?) The human race does not require divine grace because Eve bit the apple, but because her bite figuratively capsulizes the inclination in every one of us to play God, to reduce all creation to our pitiful level of comprehension. It is Original Sin which makes the positivist arrogantly reject other dimensions out of hand because, if they exist, they would be beyond the boundaries of his senses. Since he cannot see and touch them, by definition, then he has decreed that they are illusory! In a perverse twist of this perversity, by the way, the biblicist foe of positivism (as he styles himself) seeks to reduce all spirituality to the text of a holy book whose message—he decrees—has the lucidity of a policeman’s notes or lab technician’s report. He insists on full comprehensibility at his ankle-deep level of comprehension. His distinction from the positivist turns out to be entirely a matter of just what external datum is accepted as the touchstone: measurable, reproducible sense impressions or an oft- translated text’s most obvious (to him) interpretation. He chooses the latter as capriciously as his rival-but-fellow positivists choose the former, and all who disagree with him are hell-bound heretics.
Such a mind is often incapable of grasping the true ubiquity of moral failure. It conceives (perhaps obtusely—but perhaps, also, self-indulgently in the more acute) of moral duty as the formal fulfillment of certain explicit commands in the sacred text. The Fall was a legalistic forfeiture of our first ancestors which must be legalistically repaired (e.g., through baptism and ritual profession of faith). The overt reparation having been made, nothing inhibits the "born again" believer from satisfying the letter of the law. He obeys the Ten Commandments and punctiliously accomplishes certain other duties emphasized by his denomination (such as tithing, wearing specified clothes, observing specified habits of tonsure, or abstaining from forbidden food and drink). He keeps his part of the bargain, as he sees it. As far as overtly described behaviors are concerned, he is no quietist. He tows his master’s barge and lifts his master’s bale in full confidence that the end of his life will bring an exquisite release from such arduous and arbitrary tasks—for the tasks, to him, are arbitrary. He stresses that side of them, and glories in it. He would do anything for his master, he tells us, anything at all: even slit his son’s throat, as Abraham very nearly did to Isaac. It all makes no sense, and may indeed defy common sense or repel moral decency… but the master requires it, and he is his master’s servant.
This, need I say, is a horrible inversion of pious duty, as execrable in the intelligent as it is pitiable in the rude and dull. From such a perspective, the afterlife has not even the quietist’s complete disjunction from earthly endeavor: it has now become the diametric opposite of life on earth. Peace in heaven, toil on earth; explanation in heaven, blind obedience on earth; harmony in heaven, grotesque and monstrous extravagance on earth; the warm light of perfect acceptance in heaven, the chilly terrors of paranoid insanity on earth. The loving author of perfect goodness, I urge, must be seen as fulfilling this life’s upward moral struggle, not negating a terrestrial hell of suppressed scruples, stifled conscience, and strangled surges of compassion. This inside-out, upside-down desecration of eternity, I repeat, is indeed a fabrication of our sinful nature’s arrogant tendency to reduce the universe to a fully comprehensible drama: for we can well understand self-annihilation as a tyrant’s test of obedience (gang initiations are little more than this), but we cannot understand the ultimate end of a goodness whose range and depth always exceed the material capacities of our mortal life. In other words, the amputation of reason, with the vital appendages of conscience, shame, decency, proportion, and compassion trailing along behind it, is a brutal surgery often prescribed by arrogant reason.
Let us turn our backs upon such tragic, devastating lunacy. Let us return to the moral necessity of this world’s consequence in the next. I wrote just above that the ultimate end of goodness exceeds the material capacities of our mortal life. What I mean is that even our best actions must retain a certain frustration of being less than we mysteriously long for them to be. One may rescue a child from a burning house, but one may not rescue that same child from parents who bicker endlessly or who intend for him to worship money or fame as they do. One may do one’s little bit in that direction—but it is a very little bit, indeed. Goodness longs for "following up", and this world does not accommodate follow-ups. They are too intrusive. After all, other people besides ourselves must find their way to heaven, too. Perhaps a child’s suffering through a lucrative but miserable career and finally flinging it spitefully in his mother’s face is her best hope of seeing the light. We do not know: we cannot know. So many of us know so much—too much. We know too much to see how little we know. Hence we visit misery upon our children’s lives (yes, the sins of the father are indeed passed along through human means of transmission, though never divine ones), or else we confuse the child and infuriate the parent by trying to save both in a cocksure crusade. Either way you cut it, there are hours of lost sleep waiting in ambush at every sunset of our busy days.
And dreams… when we do sleep, we have perhaps the shakiest retreat of all from the waking doubts which torment us. I shall return to recurrent dreams and nightmares in a few pages. For now, let me underscore that the awareness of moral shortcoming is truly a human awareness which afflicts every thoughtful person. It is no arcane point of doctrine available only as part of some mystery’s ritual observance. The ancient Roman essayist Seneca writes on this subject with as much poignancy as any devout Christian:
But the thoughtful man will not despise those who err: otherwise he would be despicable to himself. Let him ponder how many things he does contrary to good moral principles, how many of those things which he has done require pardon, and he will then grow angry with himself, also. For the fair judge does not pass one verdict upon his own actions and another upon those of others. No one, I say, will be found who can absolve himself. Anyone who calls himself innocent is looking, not at his conscience, but at the [superficially observant] witnesses around him.
De Ira 1.14.2-3
Here, in essence, is that longing which cries out for satisfaction in another dimension. For either the longing for a clean conscience, a purged heart—for a life which left no child deserted but which stole no parent’s child away—is the unwholesome obsession of a sick mind, and must be silenced, or else it is the natural yearning of a healthy soul, and must be indulged with the unearthly vision of a perfect cure. We love the good, we strive to do the good; yet we fail continually, sometimes through ignorance or cowardice, sometimes through undue faith in our own wisdom or a missionary zeal which turns brash. My own rather uneventful life torments me with "sins of omission"—things left undone, usually because I had more concern for the rebuffs I felt confident of receiving than for the good that my "intrusions" might have worked. I have let the baby burn in the house because I didn’t see much smoke, and because the mother glowered at me through a window. In fact, it seems to me that we are either intruding into a family’s hearth or watching a quiet, homely murder all the time. It seems to me that we can scarcely avoid one without blundering into the other.
Heaven help us! And the strictly moral model of heaven, I submit, will help us. There we shall be allowed to "follow up" indefinitely: to go back and apologize abjectly, yes—but also to go back and begin the deed that was never done at all, or to inquire after the condition of a person who did us wrong but could not thereby stifle our love and concern. There we shall be allowed to relive what we were then as what we are now… or if not to relive (for the ground rules of moral reality, like those of material reality, do not permit the done to be undone), then to resume the exchange as we are now. Yet not entirely as we are now; for, in that case, we would be unrecognizable to the one we left behind, or who left us behind—and he or she would be so to us, as well. In a sense, we will become young again, as young as we were when a rupture occurred which left a void in us. We will again be the precise age we were when the limb was severed from our trunk. In all of our innumerable encounters, however, we will also always be our present age, the age we were when terrestrial time stopped. That is to say, we will be mature souls; and because of that maturity, we will find the words which evaded us before. We will know, not just how to tell the truth, but how to draw it fully into the light when it is concealed from us.
I quite literally cannot imagine a more delightful, even ravishing future than such an ongoing series of reunions. To know, at last… to understand why somebody said half a truth when nothing less than the whole truth was needed, or why somebody preserved a complete silence whose chill murdered a friendship; to say those truths at last, to the final syllable, which one had feared to say or did not know how to say, and whose neglect allowed a vulnerable soul to drift out on a voraginous tide… that is what I long to do, what I really long to do beyond all the earthly alternatives I can conceive of. And it is that, precisely, which I cannot do in any great measure while we are here, trapped in time and space—not trapped because time and space exist, but because they do not now, not here exist abundantly enough. Who would have the time to make all the necessary visits, and who could cover the necessary space? To have brought off an honest interview with even one exile from one’s youth several dozen years later—one single lost or missed or stillborn friend, out of so many thousands—is the feat of a lifetime. I dare to say that there are people I yearn to address face to face who died years before I was born! How could I ever reach them in another world which has no time and space? My only chance, rather, is that the next world has time and space out of mind, enough to find Vergil and Dante before the morning dew has dried from the grass.
Dante, of course, had his own very widely circulated ideas on the subject. To be exact, they were the ideas of his day, which he embellished in his glorious fashion. Certainly his vision of the afterlife would never be accused of licensing quietism. Men and women arrived in his paradiso only after rendering a very plausible, very active testimony to their faith in this life. Even Dante’s contemplatives may be said to have actively contemplated, in that they wrestled heroically with complex systems and brought them to apply more cogently to the lives real people lead. (Saint Thomas would be the preeminent example.) The trouble with Dante’s heaven, to my thinking, rests entirely in his narrative; and, as with Ó Súilleabháin, it is both an aesthetic and a moral problem—perhaps moral as a result of being aesthetic. For there is really nothing much to do in this paradise, either: space goes on and on, but time, as the dimension of things done in consequence of one another, stops. At most, exalted souls trip an Arcadian dance to God’s glory, like the charming Matilda who ushers in Beatrice. (Even this scene occurs in Purgatorio 28, where it escapes some of the next work’s dry heavenly didacticism.) The appealing maiden faintly lacks personality, all the same, as if the highest destiny for the faithful were to be enlisted into robotic repetitions of praise. Let us admit that she also raises the disturbing question (much emphasized by Mr. Opton and other malign satirists) of how a god so urgently concerned with freedom and individual personhood could be pleased by incessant flattery. The service is not all wrong, perhaps—but is not all right. It smacks too much of worldly tyrants and their sycophants. To be sure, the principled defenders of the faith whom Dante interviews in Paradise (somewhat as my own idyll would have it) remain as distinctive and nobly willful as mighty crags… too much so, I fear. They seem to me to lean in the other direction of excessive earthiness, as if their saintly lives had truly condensed into stone statuary—arranged to face God’s throne in obeisance, yes, but no less rigidified for that. Their race is run. If they offer their laurels to God instead of sitting upon them, their posture is no less frozen.
Let me put it this way, as I proceed with my tendentious groping. The reward in heaven should be an eternally ample, eternally satisfying portion of goodness—a portion which is no portion at all, eventually, since it draws the soul ever upward into oneness with God. Now, if the reward for repenting of a bad deed were a helping of manna, then the situation would be similar to my offering my little boy a fiver if he makes an A on his math test. My real objective is for him to do well in math one day because he loves mathematics. The heavenly reward for penitence should be the joy of penitence; and of what would this joy consist if not a deeply meaningful exchange with all the other souls involved—with the party one has wronged, with the parties who influenced one to do wrong, with the children under whose gaze one was decisively struck by the cruelty of all wrongness—all of it in the presence of all? Of what would the full joy of doing right, of standing firm, consist, if not seeing the sincere regret of those who tried to beat one back and easing their regret with forgiveness? Such occasions would necessarily consume time. They would be true occasions, social encounters where hearts were opened honestly. One may object that they would therefore involve change—assuaged grief, lifted remorse, forgiven guilt—and that all such changes must already have happened before one enters the gates of Paradise. This, surely, is a quibble founded in poor perception. A person consumed by grief or guilt continues to go astray, doing wrong to himself and others as a means (very often) of self-torment. The heart which has chosen goodness while wrapped in our mortal coil will not abide such abusive expression of its sorrow. The "follow-up interviews" which it pines for—and, let us conjecture, obtains—in Paradise are pure pleasure, of a purity unknown in this life. They are the reward for choosing goodness, not the absolution which frees a tormented soul to be good; for the ultimate reward of goodness must be to dwell immersed in goodness.
I return, then, to the moral necessity of time in that world which we call "after time"—to the necessity of deeds in a realm which is commonly represented as an eternal lapse from deeds. Ironically, the utter suspension of time, of meaningful deeds performed, is none other than hell! In hell, I am convinced, people are truly frozen. The fires that lick them are those magnetic fields which keep them ever spinning on their self-obsessed axis like a top, so that they are incapable of any gesture toward the external universe—toward reality. Inasmuch as the very essence of the human self is that goodness born of God, this is another way of saying that they cease to exist, and that hell (in terms of ultimate reality) does not exist. Since hell is a place of misidentified selves, and since these diseased selves have nothing to say to any other self (nor even any suspicion that such others really exist), they have nothing to do—nothing to do forever—and so consume no real time, and so occupy no real place. Collectively, they are the dumping ground for aborted reality. Though they spin like neutron stars, offering hymns to the eternal glory of themselves, their whirling-dervish futility merely drills a hole into oblivion.
Dante’s version of Inferno is thus a spectacular success, both aesthetically and morally. For something happens here, but really nothing: what happens over and over is the delirious rave of a million terminally ill souls repeating their life’s definitive gesture in a patently annihilating manner. By the time Dante leads us to the pit of this most dismal non-place—this roomy negation of purposeful space—we discover that all activity is indeed frozen as hard as a rock. Even the maggots which gnaw the grave have vanished in the absolute zero of un-being. I need hardly observe that these are the very spirits which would have sabotaged the joys of heaven. Naturally, there are certain people (I suspect we all know) who would never give or receive an apology, and whose poisonous presence in any exchange of good will would infuse more grief, more resentment. What would be the point of a heavenly kind of Nuremberg Trials where sadistic beasts were questioned about their torturous histories? No doubt, anguished hearts whose visible displays in this life gave no hint of a redemptive climax have abjectly—but privately—yielded to the rule of goodness. When it comes to hell, I am not inclined to name names. A prerequisite for the perfect joy of entering a perfectly good state, however, must be that all of those admitted have freely chosen The Good as their good, and have defined their individuality as a path to that supreme good. The sincerity with which we seek after those whose lives we grazed in this mortal chaos of excited atoms is the hymn we raise to God. No sincerity, no song: no song, no admittance. Only reality passes through, and only goodness is real.
I may as well announce at this point that my reflections on the present subject were set in motion by a late, brief, and little-known essay of Immanuel Kant’s, Das Ende aller Dinge ("The End of All Things"). Kant’s detractors, among whose numbers are included about everyone these days with any interest in religious studies, will be shocked to learn that he does not renounce speculation about the afterlife as indefensible pipe-dreaming. On the contrary, he emphasizes (as I have done) that the such speculation is as legitimately licensed by moral reason as it is left in free fall by empirical reason. "When we pursue the passage out of time into eternity," he writes in introduction, "… we thrust toward the end of all things as existences in time and as circumstances of possible experience"; and he concludes this paragraph by observing that the basis of visualizing reality beyond this world’s borders "will be capable of no determination as to its design other than a moral one."4
I flatter myself that I would not have needed Kant to recognize the other world’s necessary adherence to all-goodness, since I have never been able to comprehend faith of any other sort as truly religious rather than partially superstitious. (I will indeed credit Kant, on the other hand, with giving me the "courage of my convictions" by demonstrating—in this essay and elsewhere—that faith can have no objective validity except as worship of goodness: i.e., that my stance did not reflect my personal limitations but was, instead, the only one defensible against all comers.)5 What first stirred me to think about the particular nature of the soul’s eternity was the following remark, which is nothing less than a lucid statement that whatever temporal "freeze" occurs at "endtime" must be viewed from a moral perspective:
Now if the end of the world were to be associated with the finality of things as they appear in their present form—the falling of the stars from heaven like a [collapsing] vault, the toppling of this heaven itself (or its turning like the page of a book), the conflagration of both, the creation of a new heaven and new earth as a site for the blessed and of hell as one for the damned—then the Judgment Day could clearly not be the last day, for other and distinct days would have to follow. Hence the idea of an end of all things draws its origin from reasoning not upon the physical course of things in the world, but upon their moral course. The latter can be constructed only from what is not materially sensed (which is understandable only to moral reason)—and the idea of eternity is of this sort. The representation of those final things which are to come after the "last day" must therefore be viewed as a fleshing out to us of said things according to their moral connections, certainly not their material ones.6
I have just been at pains to express why time cannot freeze in the afterlife, and why the reason for its continued motion is precisely moral. Yet I am not really at odds with Kant here, because the passage above treats timelessness strictly as the full satisfaction of earthly moral endeavor (the slaking of that thirst for righteousness, if you will, which Jesus mentions in the Beatitudes). In this sense, indeed, time stops: that is, the time divinely allotted for committing oneself to pure goodness ends with one’s last breath. A perverse mind or a weak understanding might reproach as cruel—even sadistic—the titanic pressures of final judgment’s "draining hour glass", its every grain driving us toward an irreversible fate for whose assessing our eyes are entirely unfit. If God has an irresistible vision of goodness awaiting our gaze just over death’s horizon, why not give us a peek here and save us immense anguish? The answer to this objection, morally speaking, is that we do have a peek—a great many peeks. We hold children in our arms, we see the relief of the innocent when rescued from injustice; and we also see the tears of abused children and the frustration of the wrongly punished. A soul which requires a closer look than this at beatitude and its absence—which requires reassurance of where its selfish interests will ultimately be best served (a Scrooge-like tour of future hell, perhaps)—is a soul incapable of recognizing precisely that its only true interests are selfless.7 It is a soul already lost, already nullified. To save it would be to save nothing.
In any case, Kant soon changes his register. Having cited Revelations 10.5-6 ("And the angel which I saw… sware by him that liveth for ever and ever… that there should be time no longer"), Kant observes that its terms are self-contradictory—"forever" being abruptly curtailed by time’s end—unless taken to mean that change shall cease, but not time. Of course, change is what defines time in a material context. The moral context, however, permits a subtle readjustment of emphasis. The soul’s true, firm pledge to goodness having been made, there can be no curling back of the road; for goodness is ultimate truth, and a soul which has correctly recognized truth cannot mistake vacancy and darkness for light and presence. Subsequent changes consist of the soul’s steps bringing it ever closer to oneness with God. In a significant sense, because that perfect union is already a forgone conclusion now, even though its completion should require steps numbering infinity-minus-one, change has ceased to exist. There are only successive stages of a reality which no longer admits bumps, cracks, and aberrations.
The second half of the paragraph above is my own rather metaphorical rendition of Kant’s exquisitely dry and compact philosophical prose. Even in attempting the literal translation below, I have felt compelled to take occasional liberties:
But we [can] also say that we think of a duration as unending (as eternity). This is not because we have any clearly determined concept of its length—which is impossible, considering that time as extension is a void category for it—but that that concept has no end since it yields no length of time, only a negative length of eternal duration through which we can advance not one step farther in our understanding. All we can say is that reason in its practical employment upon the final end can never satisfy itself by tracing the perpetual changes along the way; nay even, when it inquires into the principle of immobility and changelessness in the condition of worldly beings, it satisfies itself just as little in its theoretical [e.g., scientific] employment—it would end up, indeed, in a complete paralysis of thought. Thus there remains no other course for it but to portray to itself in perpetuity (with regard to time) a progressive changing of constant steps toward the final end, whose image (not that of a phenomenon, but of something beyond the senses, and so not alterable within time) remains rigidly the same. The verdict of reason’s practical use upon this idea will thus decline to say anything beyond this: that we must arrange our maxims as if, by an unending succession of steps from the good to the better, our moral condition as a source of feelings (as the homo noumenon "whose transformation lies in heaven") will be subjected to no interruption.8
If I do not utterly miss the mark, I take Kant to be saying here that moral reason concedes time’s end in heaven, or even insists upon it, precisely because good time—morally constructive time—advances now without end. Heavenly time has no option to do good or bad: that time-ending choice (in a terrestrial sense of time) has already been made. Now goodness merely expresses what it is—not becomes what it is or becomes more of what it is, for the triumph of goodness is now fulfilled; but is what it is by pursuing the projects of goodness in a million million ways at once, not one of which is presently conceivable to us.
Once again, I am lapsing into my own embellishments of Kant’s guarded observations. I shall return to my personal speculations shortly. I would stress here only that Kant does not disagree with the tendency of my remarks. In fact, as his brief essay winds down, he is so far from insisting upon an absolute halt of time in final reality that he paints a picture of immobility’s ghastly contours which quite surpasses his usual style:
But that a point in time might once be reached where all change (and with it time itself) will halt is a shocking image to the imagination. At that point, all nature would become literally fixed and, as it were, turned to stone. The final thought, the final feeling would remain frozen in the thinking subject without change forever after. For a being who can understand his being and its extension (as duration) only in time, such a life, if it could even be called life, would seem like annihilation; for even to think of himself in such a state would at least be to think something—but thought contains reflection, which can only happen in time.9
Kant continues that the blessed would be locked into singing the same hymn over and over—would, indeed, be frozen forever on the same note! He concludes this section by suggesting that certain mystical traditions of the East seek to rehabilitate the appalling nullity of such a vision by fusing it with re-absorption into godhead ("Chinese philosophers," he notes, "huddle in dark rooms with their eyes shut"), and adds Spinoza to the list of those dedicated to "the annihilation of personhood".10 Naturally, the question is of vital importance to Christianity, wherein the individual person is supposed to be precious to God. Recall Dante’s horrific panorama of a hell whose most frightening depths are indeed frozen as hard as a rock, and you will concede that Kant stands in the mainstream of Christian thinkers in rejecting such apotheosis. As I myself have already proposed, the utter lapse of all activity whatever seems an ideal image of perdition.
Yet Kant is also troubled that moral progress implies the persistence of evil; otherwise, how would progress be possible? "For the condition in which he [man] is for the moment remains ever an evil in opposing relation to the improvement toward which he stands ready to advance."11 This is a profound, and in some ways alarming, objection. It invites the deconstructionist’s rail that all moral systems are simply prejudices bouncing off of each other, with goodness dependent on a contrastive evil for its existence rather than upon any substratum of real, positive goodness. As a moralist, Kant believes that moral progress is not thus dependent—that the progressive clearing away of evil so that goodness appears ever more palpably is genuine. One might go so far as to say, indeed, that he views progress as essential to the very nature of goodness; in other words, that perfect goodness cannot operate otherwise than to define the activity of the moral beings who practice it as betterment. The ethic of the asymptote again… and I certainly do not make light of it, for I have endorsed it myself.
Nevertheless, I cannot think of a more formidable objection to belief in a metaphysical place of moral fulfillment. The timidity which it imposes upon artists and visionaries has not only inspired the hidden nihilism of those mystics named by Kant, but has turned the artists I have mentioned away from narrative and into poetry (which, I suppose, is much the same thing). A story always needs an Aristotelian beginning—a problem, a disequilibrium which must somehow be put right. Yet the believer in metaphysical justice, if also a story-teller, is loath to allow any such imbalance into his dream of eternity, for heaven would thereby be "unheavened". He is faced with what I call "the problem of the problem". Heaven should have no problems, no tension. All imbalance should there find its perfect and permanent correction. Hence a heavenly story, where something actually happens among the blessed, seems a contradiction in terms. How can anything be done with any urgency, any anxiety over the outcome, in a gold-cobbled kingdom from which urgency and anxiety have been exiled? Will the angels be locked out if they don’t deliver their messages before sundown? Will the divine chorus not be able to sing its hymns if the broken harp is not re-strung?
Here I take leave of Kant (perhaps as Dante took leave of Statius, if a witticism may be excused a hint of arrogance). He has brought me as far as he can. My speculations from this point must be entirely my own. I do not intend to stray much farther, in any case. I will say only that the agenda of "following up" which I invoked earlier is immensely time-consuming to execute, and might indeed never be fully executed as we count time on earth. So many people to see: predeceased relatives and loved ones, friends fallen from our ken in this life, people whom we were forced to make suffer, people who made us suffer without malevolence… the stranger whose imploring glance we could not stop to answer, the stranger whose hermetic misery we did not dare to breach…. And from all of these full and fervent explanations would spread further explanations like a pebble’s ripples upon a pond—more people to see, more lives to touch, more balances to set straight. The effort of following up, of setting straight, could easily carry us to the ends of the terrestrial world as we recreated its anguish in our new world of healing. Having reached those ends, we might then be carried to the boundaries of time; for the war which warped the young man who later beat his wife who later deserted her daughter who later broke our heart was probably fought for reasons rooted in distant centuries. Never mind: the roots would now be unearthed, brought to light. For heaven is the place where all is explained and revealed. Justice is really nothing other than having your full case heard in a setting where everyone involved likewise states his case, until the minutest motive of each party finally stands exposed. As for mercy, that must surely be the cauterizing congratulation you receive for being surprised by and ashamed of the evidence of your own selfishness.
This could take forever, couldn’t it? If it couldn’t (and, after all, it wouldn’t—for this world’s forever is as an instant in the other), then there would still remain much to do for the generations of men and women who had squared all their accounts and washed away all their flaws. Of what, exactly, would this "much" consist? Who could possibly say? Perhaps starting over in a new world, now that the past one had finally been laid to rest. Perhaps writing stories where the tension is that of a song or a temple—the tension of simply having to wait, to mark time or traverse distance, before the creation is disclosed in all its harmony. Time and space would be the villains, if you will, just as they would be the great impediment to interviewing one saint after another after another in Dantesque fashion. Yet time and space are not real evils, not moral evil. They are mere impediments, and in heaven their encumbrance would be delightful. Only here on earth are they in league with evil, because only in this life do we have far too little of them. People break solemn engagements and desert those who depend heavily upon them for no other reason, really, than that they cannot be in two places at once. That is to say, they are mortal, and their mortality hems them in. They cannot court someone here and pursue a career there, look after a child or aging parent this morning and be ambassador to Siam this afternoon. It takes time to cover space, and they—we—run out of time. Naturally, our misdeeds have other causes, as well; but probably none is as widespread, and certainly none is as inevitable. Life is constantly slipping through our fingers as we live it, and the bit that we may trap for a while in squeezing sends other bits, hopelessly severed, into an unreachable past.
As I begin to conclude this airy speculation, I ask myself for the umpteenth time if its not-so-objective thrust is insufferably subjective in its major assumption. Does earthly time, in fact, matter—do our actions here count for anything at all? Some of our most mystical advocates of higher reality insist otherwise, including Diarmuíd Ó Súilleabháin. "Henceforth they were entirely new beings, freed from the chains of matter and time," he writes toward the end of his extraordinary novel.12 The nullification of time… what a tempting prospect that is, to be sure, for beings whose time on earth, from a moral perspective, is an embarrassing tangle of miscues and blockheaded blunders! But it is the moral perspective, precisely—the idea of God as supremely good—which requires that we not envision our time on earth as swept away, at last, like chaff. The love of goodness is really the only purely metaphysical sentiment we have, even though it must be expressed through practical actions. Indeed, our actions embarrass us primarily because the love of goodness which motivates them is metaphysical, and not a specific response to a specific practical situation. Our other loves belong to the flesh, and must die with the flesh (for no intelligent, mature person will maintain that heaven is a great dining hall administered by shapely courtesans). Even our love of beauty is wholly inadequate as a foundation for the afterlife. The aesthete’s heaven would very soon wither into an anemic stew of undisciplined daydreams, like an intricate maze whose creator has forgotten to build an exit. Beauty without the direction of righteousness must degenerate into a mere carnality which insanely rejects the limits of the carnal. It is, indeed, another of those blueprints for hell’s self-absorption—an absorption in a false self, that is: a map drawn without north or south, an edifice raised in a zone without gravity.
If mundane morality is the necessary architect of any metaphysical reality, then we must always cry foul at the notion that what we do here on earth doesn’t count. That it should not count against us is quite another matter: since perfect goodness is not of this world, perfect goodness will not condemn us for not creating its image in this world. Those who claim to have achieved such creation are in fact the very idolaters whom goodness rejects, for they, to begin with, have rejected its otherworldliness. Rather, it is the striving after something more than we have, something more than we see and know—the drafting of a design by laws of gravity which make little sense on earth—that redeems us. It is our mortification at what we have done which speaks well of our having tried to do more, to reach a point whose ambitious height would stir a smirk in most people, perhaps. Quite frankly, of all the many people I have ever known who uttered the fatuous remark, "I wouldn’t change a thing… I’d live it all just the same if I could do it over," not one was morally ambitious, though all (I believe) considered themselves rugged individualists. They set their sights on what they could fully grasp, and they had their reward. May God’s grace prevent that it be the only reward they ever receive!
So if our time on earth can neither be overlooked in the light of "endtime" nor held, for all its stumbling and groping, as a disqualification for eternal life, then of what use can it be? A measure of good faith, yes—a testament to our having tried… but to review this "good try" with a paternal nod and a ticket to enter the celestial dining hall would be absurd. The good heart is one upon which moral failure presses, and such a heart’s greatest delight would be to have that weight palpably lifted: that is, not by the assurance of forgiveness which we receive in this life (and whose acceptance itself requires a large—perhaps the largest—measure of faith), but by the realized promise of seeing all made well. Is it so very tendentious of me to suggest that revisiting the scenes of our life is a secret yearning of every healthy soul? Is this not precisely the assumption (an assumption validated countless times by happy results) of psychoanalysis? That is to say, the psychoanalyst assumes that his subject is significantly influenced by earlier events which were in some sense left unanswered or unfinished. Surely we would make no extravagant claim if we should observe that people can be haunted for years—for the rest of their natural life, sometimes—by an occurrence whose moral outrage was allowed to win a certain very sad day. Whether spirits actually haunt particular scenes of villainy by returning to them with the regularity of comets or tides is a matter for the poets to consider. In this life and in this flesh, however, it is apparent to anyone with a little experience that some of us return to past events like ghosts, and that ghosts of the past chase some of us despite our best efforts to rupture patterns and change addresses.
I promised earlier to speak of dreams. The psychoanalyst, of course, takes a keen interest in them, too. Among other things—innocuous or indifferent neurological events like a response to bright headlights on the bedroom wall—dreams are a catalogue of our hauntings. We revisit those places which we yearn never to have left, or those places whose horrors we have fled in body but cannot drive from our spirits. I really have no idea what kind of success these orbits encounter in other people—if the dreams of some people, I mean, turn miserable events upside-down and impose triumphant outcomes upon them. Such enviable transformations do not characterize my own dreams, however, and I have reason to doubt that they are typical of people generally. Otherwise, why would psychoanalysts prosper, and why would troubled consciences or tormented memories proliferate? The fanciful revision of events would be their cure! Alas, I suspect that dreams are all too real in this regard: they do not belie essential moral crises at all, but rather heighten them until they are the most prominent feature of the landscape.
Yet dreams, I think, are from heaven insofar as they anticipate the moral will’s return to unsolved business in dimensions of unlimited time and space. What the dream cannot resolve, on the other hand, will be fully set free in eternal reality. That difference is crucial: it indeed defines the border between this life and the next. Here we have only a legacy of frustration. The best psychoanalyst in the world can but help us to strike uneasy truces with a negligent or abusive parent, a rogue’s gallery of childhood bullies, or a marriage or professional experience that carried away our spiritual vitals in a disastrous blow-up. No doctor can bring all these people back to face us and force a discussion where the most secret designs of all parties lie exposed, not just to others, but to themselves. If we’re lucky, after a series of good counseling sessions we may be able to limp back along our road, fully aware now of just how much has not been answered. It seems to me that some materialist who might consign all such frustrations as populate our dreams to empty folderol would have to be incredibly ignorant of human beings, incredibly undampened by the mortal storms raging all around us. What else but such frustration makes life burdensome—and what person can be said to have lived life who perceives it as being feather-light? On the other hand, to maintain that irrecoverable loss and incurable injury haunts us waking and sleeping, and that nothing much more can be done than applying bandages, is a tenable position. What it lacks is a reason to keep on living, to keep on suffering; for if a body is ravaged by slow-bleeding but mortal wounds, why not simply pull the plug?
Pascal once wrote (with that polemical wit of his which sometimes repels the morally earnest) that if the penalty for losing a bet on the afterlife is to suffer the same nullity as those who win the bet, then one might as well out one’s money on heaven. Naturally, such a calculating motive would not gain one admittance to the heaven of perfect goodness (and, naturally, Pascal knew that). The remark is not really an exhortation to believe, but rather a counter-punch at those worldly-wise materialists whose ubiquity can make one world-weary. Perhaps the morally perfect heaven I have described is no less a Cloudcuckooland than all the rival varieties, with their dancing girls and mugs of ale. But what is the prize, then, for not being fooled? The same six feet of earth as awaits everyone else. I prefer my folly. I would suggest more firmly than Pascal, however, that it is not folly at all: that to have a lasting antidote to one’s nightmares, an invincible hope for one’s yearning, a promise of infinite time for one’s countless friendships fractured by brevity, is the necessary complement to a healthy intellect. This "folly" frees us to walk all the corridors which were built into our minds and hearts. To be too "enlightened" for the company of such fools, on the other hand, is to be left with no reason to be reasonable. For if what we touch is exclusively what exists, then why not grab and gorge like a madman?
I shall close somewhat redundantly (but, I hope, helpfully) by listing the three most cogent reasons I have found for not believing in heaven, and by answering these arguments with reference to that locus of moral perfection which I have sketched.
1) If heaven exists, then what could its denizens possibly do for all eternity? For to do anything would imply that change still occurs and necessity or obligation still exists—but heaven is supposed to be free of all change and all need or force.
This objection has already been adequately laid to rest. Most of its vigor is fueled by well-meaning but crudely concocted popular notions of the afterlife. There will be no balloons and ice cream, nor even any narcotic repetition in perpetuum of some ideally monotonous Gregorian chant. The reward for pledging one’s soul to goodness—not for doing good, which is impossible in the perfect sense required, but for worshiping and yearning after goodness—is to have goodness fully at last. In a reconciling of fragmentary wills into a harmony as inconceivably vast as it shall be inconceivably minute, no tremor of ill feeling or suspicion will remain; and this sublime revisiting of all the history book’s pages will not be change from the state of realized good will, but change within that state—change of a kind that is perfected moral will in operation, and so a stasis (if we must appease logic’s quibble). For the same reason, no need or force will drive the process—not in any terrestrial sense. The perfected will, as it is being what it is, rummages through time and space, now unrestricted to its investigations, in a Big Bang of setting things straight and spreading truth and peace whose waves draw onward as naturally as a magnet draws iron shavings.
I might add that the resemblance of what I have just described to certain terrestrial paradises envisioned by certain social utopians is no accident. The ideological luminaries among us are as keenly magnetized to moral perfection as anyone else; they have simply forgotten, in an arrogance which may well prove fatal to their soul in some cases, that the force field breathes upon us from a realm beyond our insurmountable (in this life) egotism. A single obvious example will demonstrate the vanity of trying to make a heaven of earth by revolutionary decree. Men naturally fall in love with women and women with men, but the consequences of such love sometimes provoke the greatest despair or fury that the human heart can know. People cannot possibly be set free to love where and as their whimsy draws them in this life—certainly not if the love is sexual. The institution of marriage would dissolve, and children would be raised in a toxic atmosphere of disorder and vituperation (as they too often are now, I fear). Medical technology has sought to bless the flexible mating dear to utopians as diverse as Plato and Marx by dispensing with children except when they are specifically desired. Even so, the latter twentieth century, which was quite as much an experiment in utopianism among Westerners as within Communist Bloc nations, must surely have shown us that people suffer fiercely from sharing their sexual partners. The venomous hatred of men one finds in academic feminist circles (viz. the widely current notion on campuses that all sexual activity not initiated by the female is rape) is incomprehensible unless viewed in the pallid light of our cultural adventure in promiscuity.
If even one man and one woman cannot be released from all formal principles to love each other as nature dictates, what hope is there that entire societies might achieve perfect love across boundaries of habit and taste, racial and ethnic disparity, and the insoluble inequities of intelligence and talent? The arrogance of any such undertaking should be so patent in our wizened twenty-first century that its stubborn pursuit no longer strikes me as evidence of a good but naïve heart.
2) If heaven exists, then why should we live this life, especially if salvation is not earned here? For even at its best, this state could only be misery in comparison with the next, and the soonest exit possible from this world would seem the happiest.
This objection, too, has been satisfied above, at least in part. Entrance into eternal life is not won by behavioristically (that is, externally) observing a list of duties and taboos. Instead, this life is a training ground to establish which of us understands goodness enough to miss it even in our best deeds and to long for a closer approach to it. The longing leads through the gate. The laundry list with checks up and down is a recipe for standing still and, perhaps, at last freezing in the hell of mistaken self-satisfaction.
What I would stress in closing is that goodness must "incarnate" itself in time and space. Without things done, there can be no desire for a good exceeding what was possible to do. I have heard skeptics ask, and ask sensibly, why God should have needed to create anything at all if He is perfect in Himself. The answer to this, in fact, is the same, for the question is the same: God’s creation is goodness being good, and we mortals must serve our time within the anguishing world of deeds that we may learn this language of doing—that we may learn through being in matter that our ultimate purpose cannot be accomplished in matter. Only by having something to see can we see that something is missing: only by having something to do can we recognize that something has been left undone.
One of the serious dangers of misguided spirituality is suicide. We must never form a concept of the afterlife’s perfection which leaves it opposed like a photographic negative to the life we have been born into here on earth. The tragedies which consumed the Heaven’s Gate cult, James Jones’s commune, and (so the evidence suggests) most of David Koresh’s followers were all ignited by the benighted belief that terrestrial life is of paltry value. If we conceive of what we shall do in heaven as a program of straightening out or following up what we did on earth, as I suggest, then we shall tend to create situations here and now whose renewal hereafter will be immeasurably richer. The time to begin our infinite visits is while we yet breathe.
3) If heaven exists, then why do loved ones not contact us from it? The faintest of signs would be incalculably encouraging to us after losing a parent or a child, but we are left facing a blank wall.
I have in nowise addressed this protest above, and it therefore seems a fitting note for the finale. Its concerns, furthermore, are less philosophical than sentimental—by which I mean that the two earlier objections would only occur to thinking people, whereas this one forces itself upon anyone with any degree of emotional sensitivity. It is "real life" in a way that the other two are not. Even a philosopher, at last, must stand face to face with his tears; the best philosophy can do is to shorten their mastery of him.
Some people, of course, insist that their loved ones have indeed contacted them from "the other side". My grandmother was among them. She repeated to me several times in her life that her mother (whose untimely death had deeply affected her as a girl) appeared and called her name as she lay hemorrhaging from the birth of her last child. This is hardly the stuff of seances and Ouija boards, to be sure: anyone can have a vivid dream in a comatose sleep. But why, since my grandmother was so receptive to accounts of extra-sensory perception, did she herself not contact me after her death? I was probably as close to her as I have ever been to another human being. Considering her views on "visitation", I would have thought that she, if anyone, could find her way back long enough to give a sign.
Here we are very nearly treading, not water, but thin air. I shall offer a single theory, or thought, or whimsy, or reverie, on the subject, and then yield this unsteady terrain to the poets. If heaven accommodates (at least in the first stages of "heavenly time") an innumerable series of returns to living encounters, as a truly moral longing for goodness would desire most fervently, then the departed soul’s future is irresistibly involved in what would appear to us its earthly past. Time coils backward—yet it also spirals upward. For these afterlife "returns", as I envision them, are not those of a criminal or a detective haunting the scene of the crime. The spirit goes back only to go forward—to set straight, to smooth over, to press further, to build convergence. This way lies the future. It is a future far outstripping anything we can conceive on earth, we to whom it seems a coiling backward. In our present, we are levering its foundational course into place, yet we blindly reproach it for not embracing us in its loops. The truth is that we are the ones whose chin is perched over the shoulder. We look back for those who have left us, expecting them to reappear in our three pitiful dimensions, and give scarcely a glance to the steps we continue to take. We end up walking in circles unless we can shake off our longing for a past here unrenewable, and there is no ascent described by such cycles.
The people we loved and lost have already called us to a higher plane of being by placing us on that plane while they were yet among us. To be riveted upon their loss—and thereby upon loss and death in general—is to court that fatal orbit around a self-contained axis which may eventually erase us in an insane acceleration, a hellish unreality ending in oblivion. The entry into heaven is ahead of us. It is in time not yet spent, in deeds not yet attempted; it is in imposing that higher plane ourselves upon a sad world which doesn’t seem to support it. My grandmother might have consumed her energy in cursing creation for stealing her mother away when she herself was an early adolescent. Instead, she passed her life never raising her voice except in laughter or encouragement. She chose to live here and now without heeding the hard lessons that the here-and-now had tried to teach her. She was a true progressive—not a utopian, not an architect of terrestrial paradises, but a believer in eternal goodness.
Time is always going forward, in heaven as well as here. The difference is that, here, we feel the loss of the past with each step ahead, whereas in heaven the future recovers and redeems the past. Another way of saying the same thing is that time stops in heaven—that the future and the past merge seamlessly like drops in a pan which suddenly decide to pool. But if such an arrest of time is understood to imply a cease of activity, then our understanding, I am convinced, is profoundly mistaken; for it is the nature of goodness to be good.
1Besides secular academics, defenders of such a position are to be found among the clerical community. Former episcopal bishop of the Newark diocese John Shelby Spong, though now indeed an academic, authored numerous tomes which invoked the authority of his holy office to palliate a materialist assessment of reality: e.g., Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (San Francisco: Harper Collins 1998). Or consider Frank G. Opton, a Unitarian luminary of a generation ago, who penned the materialist apologetic Liberal Religion: Principles and Practices (Buffalo: Prometheus 1982).
2The book was published by Coiscém (Dublin: 1983).
3Ibid., 61. The translation from Irish Gaelic is mine.
4See 327-38 of Die Ende aller Dinge in Kants Werke, v. 8 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 1968), 325-39. This and subsequent translations from German are mine.
5Cf. the reflections in Kant’s Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (Kants Werke, v. 6 [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 1968]) surrounding this spirited observation: "We can certainly in no other wise hope to partake of an external, propitiatory service’s devotion, and so of beatitude, than by governing ourselves in the struggle to follow our human duty, which must be the work of our own labor and not of some repeated external influence" (118; my translation).
6Das Ende aller Dinge (op. cit.), 328.
7I might elaborate here that Dickens’s story, while it has delighted generations of English-speakers and is indeed perhaps the best-known piece of nineteenth-century British literature in our post-literate world, is disturbingly pragmatic in some ways. Having been allowed to foresee his damnation, Scrooge could be said to select the course which best serves his own interest. There is ample room to find compassion and true repentance in his motives, as well; but the donkey’s appreciation of the dangling carrot is always compromised by the crack of the whip behind him.
8Das Ende aller Dinge (op. cit.), 334.
12Op. cit., 80. My translation from Irish. I should add that Ó Súilleabháin also styles the next life grandly, in capital letters, as Aistear gan Críoch—"Journey without End" (87); yet his vision of how eternity uses this inconceivable amplitude of time remains utterly opaque to me, unless he imagines a mystical waxing of ecstasy. 13 Cf. Kant’s remark in the final paragraphs of Das Ende aller Dinge (op. cit., 337-38) that the good person’s actions flow "not only from formal duty, but also the pursuit of duty… [and that] he inquires after the subjective ground of his conduct from which it may be proposed to him in anticipation what a man might do, and not merely what he ought to do according to objective grounds." 14 For those who absolutely require a footnote, see Pensée 233 (Brunschvicg; classed also as 418 Lafuma). "You would not show much sense," writes Pascal, "being forced to bet in any case, if you declined to wager one life against three in a game where you have one chance out of an infinite number to win an infinity of life with infinite happiness" (my translation). Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to name but one illustrious modern Frenchman, found this entire discussion in very bad taste. 15 Cf. this remark near the end of Kant’s Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Tugendlehre (Kants Werke, v. 6 [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 1968]): "Thus when it is said, ‘You should love your neighbor as yourself,’ the meaning is not that you should immediately and from the start feel love and later, through this love’s mediation, do good works. Do good to your neighbor, rather, and this good work will bring about (as a conditioning of the inclination to do good) the love of man in you!" (403; my translation).
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El Día de Hoy
I extend my deepest thanks to Praesidium’s editor for helping me with the Spanish in this story. As far as I know, all of the Spanish errors are intentional, since I attempt to replicate what goes on in the corridors of higher education. ~I.D.
9:05 a.m.: "Y ahora, vamos a danzar. Esta música se llama mambo. Vamos a danzar el mambo!"
"But Dr. Voyt, I can’t dance like that—I can’t even dance a step. I can’t! Not anything, let alone that!"
"No entiendo. No entiendo inglés."
"But Dr. Voyt—"
"Escuchen, y no hablen!"
The tape-player clicked, and almost at once a couple of trumpets began to mimic each other’s smart, quick pokes and feints, like a pair of exotic tropical birds necking their way through a frenzied mating rite. The rasping rattles in the background might have been a thousand onlooking cicadas, while the tireless bongos almost smelled of teakwood as they vibrated spellbound, spellbinding "oh’s" through their rounded throats. The group’s most icy knees started to thaw, its most leaden heels to fidget. Two young males who had slouched themselves, defiantly and dangerously, far from the circle against the backward-herded desks watched in amazement as their high-topped Adidas footwear squeaked over the linoleum. Then their gazes grew riveted and their jaws slackened into sullen pouts: the girl from Ecuador, by instant concession of the entire class, had slinked and slithered her way into the very center, right beside Dr. Voyt’s thin blond figure. The professor found her as soon as the hieroglyphic scrawling of her small black pumps wrote its way into his mesmeric fixity upon his own orbit of floor space. Without missing a step, he flung back his smooth young chin and magnanimously ceded center stage, grinning a new gaze over the tightly denimed thighs and hips before him.
"Isn’t a mamba some kind of snake… like, you know, a boa constrictor" droned one of the dull-footed rebels. "Snaky, man!"
"I know her roommate," muttered the other.
"So maybe I’ll study this habla a little more…"
"The bitch wants to learn English, man! Make her come to you."
"Here, snaky, snaky!"
"En español, alumnos, todo en español!" admonished Dr. Voyt through his smile, the music, and his footwork without even glancing their way, leaving both now completely dumbstruck.
10:08 a.m.: "Dr. Voyt, your wife’s on the line. You want me to tell her you’re on your way and transfer you? I mean, transfer her—"
"Can I take it here, Sharmeen? It won’t take long. I wasn’t really headed back to my office."
"Just don’t be indiscreet, Herb," mumbled Dr. Wendell while scowling at the department meeting’s agenda. "Lantana’s looking for ammunition. He’s got this consolidation b.s. on the docket again. Man should have been a CEO. Everything he writes sounds like a prospectus. For that matter, we’ll all end up teaching these ‘business applications’ courses before he’s done. Have you seen this, Nolan?"
"Talk about indiscreet!" laughed a turtle-necked colleague recovering a ream of freshly stapled Xeroxes from the "Jobs Finished" tray. He continued in such muffled tones that Dr. Voyt’s Spanish exchange was easily the more audible conversation. "The walls have ears around here, you know."
"Mas muchas veces no acaba lo que comienza."
"I don’t give a damn. I have tenure."
"Lo sé, lo sé bien. Mas mira…."
"You’d better give a damn. I don’t have tenure, and I can’t afford to back you on that night school thing if you insist on being Bossman’s Public Enemy Number One."
"Océ, querida, okay with me. No digo que para tu propio bien."
"Point taken. Do you think this chatterbox overheard?"
"Which chatterbox? Chanticleer or Pertilote?"
"Good God! You don’t think he’d dredge Sharmeen’s shallow pool for bottom matter…."
"De manera que no importa si se rompe, sí."
"Oh, Voyt’s okay, Phil! You’re too hard on him."
"I saw his syllabus for the Spring, and—"
"Pues bien, no le hace más."
"—ideologically he’s a natural for the conspiracy to overthrow civilization."
"But that’s the whole point. You perceive style as ideology—and I keep telling you, the guy’s nothing but style."
"Entonces, lo haré más tarde."
"And I keep telling you, exclusive devotion to style is ideology in this case. It will kill us all."
"Bien. Okay, darling."
"But that doesn’t make him a snitch."
"Hasta las tres. Bye-bye."
"No. Just a viper at the bosom."
"Sharmeen, I’ll be back in my office by 10:30. If that girl from the student paper comes…"
"I’ll have her wait."
"I’ll… I’ll be so fast, I promise! Just a few minutes at the library. Oh, hey, Nolan. How’s it going?"
"Another interview with the press, Herb?"
Professor Voyt laughed and blushed on his way out to the corridor. "I… it’s about our film project. The kids love it!"
Professor Wendell also made for the exit, but rubbed against his colleague in passing as a ship might ease past an iceberg. "Mark my words. Teacher of the Year."
"There now, Dr. Wendell!" warbled Sharmeen from her desk. "That wasn’t indiscreet, was it? The only thing I understood was ‘okay, darling’!"
10:35 a.m.: "Originally it was just a way of making sophomore Spanish less boring. The textbook just broke their backs. All those grammar drills, all those outdated short stories. Oh, there were a few good stories, you know. But it was impossible to get the kids to respond to them when they really couldn’t understand what was being written."
"But I thought it was your policy not to speak anything but Spanish, even in your freshman classes."
Professor Voyt let out a laugh at the ceiling as he reared back, his hands joining in a clap before their fingers interlaced. "You sure did your research—I’m flattered!"
"Well… my roommate’s a Spanish major."
"Monica—really! I love Monica!"
"Yeah. She’s… she’s sweet."
"Anyway… yes, but I speak Spanish. It’s everyday stuff that they would hear on any real-world street corner, not obscure literary jargon. Besides, I’m always doing something when I talk, so I can demonstrate meaning by action if the class just pays attention."
"So you decided to replace the textbooks by having the students film their own… their own soap operas."
"Umm…." Professor Voyt at once leaned forward with a corrective finger held aloft. "Novelas! They’re called novelas in Hispanic culture."
"You mean by Telemundo and the other major Spanish networks? That seems kind of an ironic name to give a… well, I mean, novel! That was once the greatest literary art form, and now it’s…."
"Okay, if you say so. Hah-hah-hah! Yeah, I never thought of it that way. But after all... is it such an irony? I guess I don’t understand what exactly the distinction is that you’re looking for. Writing and speaking? Reading and viewing? But all that’s just a matter of… of progress. Culture is… how we all live in a certain place at a certain time. And in the twenty-first century, our culture is electronic. So if I want my sophomores to study the narratives of their culture, naturally I’m going to have them interact with the most popular, most representative video-narratives of the day. It’s not just that these are what the majority of native Spanish-speakers they’re likely to meet will know. These shows are also about us. Who cares about fighting a duel nowadays, or marrying the hidalgo’s daughter, or escaping from bandits in the mountains? Life today is about finding someone you love and staying healthy and stopping the rape of the planet."
"It’s about relationships and break-ups, drugs and AIDS, air pollution and corporate greed."
"But when do you teach and when do you follow?"
"I… I don’t follow."
"Well… look, I don’t intend to put this in the interview. The printed interview, I mean. It’s just an example. I’m not trying to rake up old muck. But… for the sake of example, those students who filmed a bedroom scene in their class project—"
"Not that again! Por Dios, baste lo que basta!"
"I know, but… it’s a case in point. Here you have a bunch of adolescents who are just being natural, just doing what they would really do in those circumstances and what most kids are doing…"
"You’re not exactly over the hill yourself, Diane! Hah-hah-hah! It is Diane, isn’t it? What are you, a senior?"
"Yeah… yeah. But my point being, where do you as an instructor throw up some boundary lines?"
"I’m a Spanish teacher, not a priest. My boundary line is that they speak Spanish the way it’s spoken by natives. As for the rest… I’m not condoning that incident. No way! There’s stuff in the student handbook about pornography, and the students in question should have read it. I have a warning in my syllabus now, with references to page numbers in the handbook."
"But that’s not what I’m trying to get at, Dr. Voyt. I’m not wanting to re-hash that at all, like I said. But… well take this, for example. I heard Monica going over some oral presentation for one of your classes, and she says detalles for ‘details’. So then I say, ‘Hey, Monica, isn’t that pormenores?’ I remember that word, see, because I always missed it when I had Spanish in high school. Anyway, she says, ‘No, he wants us to use the more common form.’"
"Actually, they’re both common."
"But… I mean, in principle, that’s what you’re teaching, though, isn’t it? Whatever everybody’s doing is the right way. It was the same deal when I asked her about el día de hoy. I said, ‘Isn’t that like saying ‘"the day of today" or "this day today"?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s how he wants it. The newscasters say it all the time.’"
"And they do, too. The assignment there was to write and film your own newscast, if I remember. I’ve done that one a lot—the kids love it. You’re a journalist, you know that there are certain formulas that go with the territory. But that phrase is also common on the street. It was probably born there."
"Which is just my point."
"Which… what? What’s your point? That my students are learning real Spanish?"
"That they’re… that everything they’re doing could be better picked up on the street. The university just kind of vanishes in your classroom. As a concept, I mean."
"Hm. I never thought of it that way, but I guess you’re right. I want the university as a kind of artificial insulation to vanish from my classroom—you know, the whole ‘ivory tower’ thing. I want this education they receive from me to be real."
"But isn’t the past real? You know… literature?"
"I’ll bet you were an English major at some point, weren’t you?"
"Well, yeah. I still am. Journalism’s my minor."
"I knew it! Hah-hah-hah! Look, Diane, the past is… the past. It’s over, done with. You can’t live in the past. Reality is what’s right now. If you’re not teaching your students to live right now, then what are you teaching them? To live in some kind of frozen world, some make-believe world? Our job is to prepare students to get on with their lives in the real world."
"I see. Yes, I guess I see what you’re saying. And that’s your… your philosophy? That reality consists of taking what’s happening right now, and… and going with it?"
"You know, I really wouldn’t even call it that. I don’t have time for philosophy. Philosophy is for people who want to freeze life and study it under a microscope, as if they were standing outside of it. And I guess they are. They’re not really living, and they’re trying not to let the rest of us get on with living. That’s just not… not real."
Dr. Voyt sighed and lifted his blond brows like a man who has just finished off a grueling labor. Once more, he reared back in his chair. "This has been really interesting for me, Diane—and I’m sure you’ll make it just as interesting for your readers! You’re a great reporter! You really put me through all my paces. It’s been a very stimulating half-hour."
11:15 a.m.: "Vamos a comer, alumnos! Siéntense."
"This bowl needs a spoon. Oh my God, Amanda, did you remember butter for the tortillas?"
"Margarita! Aquí el inglés no se habla."
"But Dr. Voyt, I don’t know… no sé la… la palabra… for ‘spoon’."
"‘Cuchara’. La palabra es ‘cuchara’."
"Well, pássame un otro cuchara, Amanda. And busca el butter, muchacha."
"More arroz. Más. Mucho más."
"Cuidado, moron. It’s muy caliente."
"Yo lo amo it that way, cul de cheval."
"Tamales, por favor."
"Psst! Meg, el buttero. It was en esta dish the whole tiempo."
"Whew! Que relief!"
"Dr…. Señor Profesor Voyt, qué es la palabra para Coke? Yo necesita un Coke."
"La palabra ‘Coke’ es bastante en si mismo, Drake."
"Un Coke, then, señoritas. Pues bien."
"You always say pues bien. Siempre!"
"Arriba el tuyo. Pues bien."
"Dr. Voyt, isn’t Coca-Cola… um, las palabras ‘Coca’ y ‘Cola’ son palabras muchachas. Femininas. Usted dice…just then, you said un Coke. Or you said… dice que es océ para Drake to say ‘un Coke’."
Dr. Voyt smiled over his paper plate with the introspective satisfaction known only to undergraduate teachers and parents watching their toddlers pull on their pants. "Mi siembra que tienes razón, Reesa."
"Did you hear that—did you escuchado todo esas cosas, Meg? Yo sabo more español than Dr. Voyt!"
1:40 p.m.: :We probably should meet one more time before beginning the final draft. What I’m afraid of is those words… where is it?… ‘impacting the entire core curriculum in a manner conducive to the goals of communal harmony, cultural diversity, individual enrichment, as well as responsible citizenship in the global context of stewardship of the planet’s natural and human resources’… um, well, the first part, anyway. Davor, do you have any more of those after-dinner mints?"
"I think I gave my last one to Herb. His freshmen have been doing that latino cuisine thing again."
"It was good this time. I finally talked them all out of trying to do something with red meat."
"Now there’s the ultimate implementation of cultural diversity! I’d like to know how I smuggle that into Accounting and Finance. Maybe have the students eat crow once a month…."
"Or why not just have them practice going belly-up, Sandy?"
"You know, that’s exactly why this final draft scares me. We’ve got specific illustrations of each objective being implemented… but when it all comes together, well, does it come together? How do you teach a multi-cultural accounting class?"
"With an abacus!"
There would perhaps have been more laughs up and down the conference table at another hour. As it was, only Dr. Voyt politely voiced appreciative merriment. The men in red ties on either side of him continued to brood at their opened folders (or at the table’s finely varnished ledge just beneath their folders). Oddly enough, all three men had arranged themselves along the same side, leaving the witticism’s author alone at the committee chair’s right hand, where he spent most of his time scrawling away at the minutes.
"Did you say Shannon would be late?"
"Um…." The chair (a rather substantial man in a rather substantial chair) sought out his wristwatch after heavily recovering his left hand from an armrest. "Shannon said she would be late. At this point… I would say… she ain’t gonna show."
"So much for the token female," murmured someone from Dr. Voyt’s phalanx who was not Dr. Voyt.
"She’ll end up begging off like Peggy."
"Is that what she’s trying to do, Frank? I mean, how many of our last five meetings has she been to?"
The chair sighed, and the chair’s chair groaned. "The committee is composed of volunteers, gentlemen. No one has been pressed into service. Everyone on campus knows how important this grant is."
"So why don’t the women want to be involved? That questionnaire I sent around my department—you know how many women rose to the occasion? Usually, when you say ‘allocation of funds’ around that group, you have to drop your bone and run for a tree. So who’s got the word out about this committee, and why? That’s what I’d like to know."
"Female math anxiety, perhaps?"
"You laugh, but that’s exactly what it’s not. I wish it were. We’re off the record, right?"
"We’ve been off the record. Or else half of us had better start looking for a new job."
"Well, I want it on the record that I want some more of those mints," scowled the chair, and cleared his throat.
This time the laughter was universal. The mist of narcosis was lifting, and the toxic wave of earnestness had safely washed past. Furniture began to creak everywhere, and a folder or two closed noiselessly but meaningfully.
"I’m really serious about one more meeting, gentlemen. As I’ve said, this is a big fish we’re trying to land… and I see real inconsistencies in the overall application of the criteria in our curriculum."
"Which is maybe why the girls didn’t want on board. They know we’re going down. And the next words out of my mouth will not be ‘woman’s intuition’."
"No, try ‘political savvy’."
"Maybe there shouldn’t be any more words out of anyone’s mouth on this particular subject," omened the chair from his slain bull’s hide, sensing a new wave of earnestness.
"I don’t know what’s politically savvy about undermining the Business program. Who do they think keeps this school afloat, anyway? Where do they think most of our majors come from? Hell with it, Frank, this is all about their gobbledygook jargon—why don’t they get their… tails in here with the rest of us and help us figure out how the hell to write this thing with all this… gobbledygook?"
"Now, who are they, again?"
"I can’t come to a meeting tomorrow," said Dr. Voyt usefully (his first contribution since praising his freshmen’s culinary skills). "I have a departmental meeting."
"There you go, take Herb’s department. The Department of… Languages and Literatures. Hey, yeah, I guess that’s where all the majors are, right? What’s ‘a literature’, anyway? I know I’m just a dumb accountant, but I always thought it was ‘literature’. I’d never heard of ‘literatures’ before they changed it over there—and yeah, it was the same they, as we all know."
"Face it, Sandy. You suffer from male verbal anxiety."
"No, but really, guys! Herb, what do you think of what they’ve done to your department? It used to be Foreign Languages. Why should you guys be lumped together with the English Department just because someone didn’t like the sound of the word ‘foreign’? I said someone—that’s all I said!"
"As a matte of fact," resumed Dr. Voyt, "I think the consolidation makes a lot of sense in terms of… well, in terms of all this that we’re doing right now. The communal harmony objective. We’re not divided up any more according to the languages we speak. Spanish and French departments never used to have anything to do with English departments. Now… well, at least on our campus… they all acknowledge that they do one basic thing."
"Except for the literature."
"Aw, be nice, Sandy!"
"I’m not being… hey, I’m just saying…"
"It’s okay, it’s okay," smiled Dr. Voyt winningly. "As a matter of fact, this has a lot to do with the Business program. I mean, just think about it. The more we get students to focus on spoken language, the more we bring them out of the past and into the present. The now. I was just talking to someone about that this morning. And the more students are living and learning about the here and now… well, the more they’re engaged in the world around them. Movies, restaurants, the Internet… and all of that is at the very heart of our modern economy. That’s where we do business."
There was a long silence (particularly in the light of all those chairs which had creaked and folders which had closed moments earlier). Suddenly the chair (the large man in the large chair) righted himself on his elbows with a thud.
"You mean… you mean that the teaching of many languages to our students also opens up new markets, new employment opportunities… which also creates a new sense of cultural diversity, and… and community harmony. A harmony which comes from appreciating diversity… but which is also profitable… the cultural diversity, I mean… as a new… a new commodity. The happy marriage of technology and ethnic difference."
"Whew! You think we could write that up?"
"I think we’d better write that up! That’s the way out of this whole maze we’ve been wandering in! Herb, if you could just get me a draft of that tomorrow—could you do that? Maybe we won’t have to meet. And Sandy, and you other guys, you try saying the same thing—but from your special orientations, of course. Let’s just get us a bunch of drafts of that idea, and we’ll put them all together. We’re going to bag this elephant yet!"
3:10 p.m.: "You seem to be awfully perky today. Have a good day?"
Dr. Voyt rolled back his blond head so merrily in the passenger seat that he was forced to squint into the lowering sun. "Hah-hah-hah! Another day like this and I’ll be tenured on the spot!"
"Ooooh! That good, huh?"
"Wunderlink said I practically saved the grant committee. I think I may have saved Sanderson, too. He was so frustrated at the end that I thought he was going to dig his grave with his mouth. Everybody was on edge, for that matter. But I pulled a rabbit out of a hat. How did I do that? Ai, mamacita, I tell you I was good!"
"Maybe I should let you teach my class tomorrow, and see if your spell rubs off on second-graders."
Dr. Voyt exhaled a sympathetic sigh. "I don’t know how you do it."
"Ah, they’re good kids, but… but it’s getting too close to Spring Break. Why did you talk to me in Spanish this morning? Was there something top-secret about our conversation that I didn’t know about?"
"It was just that crew in the office. I had to take the call at Sharmeen’s desk, so I thought I’d give them a show."
"Uh-huh. And what show was that?"
"A non-English show!" Dr. Voyt pinched his slender wife high on the thigh through her spring dress. "You know how Wendell is always treating me like an illiterate airhead. I just thought I’d show him there are some things he doesn’t know. Just to teach him a little lesson. It really gets to him, I can tell."
"Do you think it’s wise to be getting to him?"
"He can’t hurt me, Minerva. He’d like to, but he can’t. He’s isolated himself in the department by resisting every kind of change."
"Poor man. You have to admire him, kind of."
"Admire him? I don’t know why! All the signals from the president’s office are for updating and integrating. Dr. Lantana just ignores him. He doesn’t even let students e-mail him when they’re writing essays, or whatever it is they do for him."
"Maybe he wants them to stand on their own two feet."
"Yeah, while he sprawls on his…"
"No diga verdes, pícaro!" Mrs. Voyt’s thin brows twitched wryly behind her sunglasses as she smiled, and her front teeth flashed in the smooth bronze cheeks which swelled merrily.
"Have you noticed how long this light takes since they did the road work?"
"Relax! You’ll be at the park in plenty of time. It doesn’t kick off until five, does it?"
"But the organizers need to be there at four-thirty. That’ll probably be the best chance of catching a TV crew, too."
"Oh, so you’re planning to make the news! My husband, the celebrity! You’ve already had one interview today, haven’t you?"
"Ah—I almost forgot! That’s what I was going to tell you! You know, I think Wendell may have been feeding that girl her lines."
"The reporter. For the student newspaper. She was supposed to interview me about the sophomore film projects—but you should have heard the questions she asked! I finally caught on and got her to admit that she was one of Wendell’s protégées… well, an English major, anyway. But you could tell who her advisor was. Pretty sneaky, don’t you think?"
"I guess no day could be perfect."
"Oh, but it was! I saw her coming—I didn’t step in any traps, I can tell you!"
"More of that fancy footwork. Did the mambo go okay?"
"Carajo! The tape-player! We’re going to need one at the rally."
"Well, call Daniel. He has a better one."
"The shame about that interview is, she seemed like a nice girl. That’s the damage they do, the ones like Wendell. They take promising kids and freeze them on the inside, and in the best years of their lives. I hate to sound like one of my freshmen… but a few cervezas would have done her a world of good."
"Bertito! You really are in a mood—de remate endiablado!"
4:45 p.m.: "What’s the cop want with Felipe?"
"What? Where? They’re laughing about something. Probably an officer assigned to cruise around the crowd. See, he’s got a bike."
"You’ve got all those papers and permits, right? You know, the stuff you gotta file for… you know."
"Public assemblies. I didn’t do that part. Hector takes care of that."
"So where is Hector? Maybe the cop’s looking for Hector."
"Carlos, please! You’re driving me crazy! I’ve got to find one politician, one disk jockey, and three singers in fifteen minutes."
"I’m sorry, Herb. I don’t mean to bug you, man. But you don’t know how the cops used to treat us. You weren’t here in the old days. Whenever we’d try to do these things, they’d give us some really long looks, even if they couldn’t shut us down."
"I know, I know."
"We didn’t have anyone like you and Daniel back then—especially you. Now we’ve got Gloria on the city council, and we got you and your equal-opportunity friends at the university… and most important, we got your blond hair and blue eyes. The Anglo community takes one look at you, and they know it’s okay to be here. That’s outreach, man!"
"Nah, it’s true, man! What Anglo guy wants to come out here and listen to mariachi music while someone’s jacking off his tape deck? But you’ve got us past that, you and Gloria and Hector, and sometimes Daniel when he’s not being a…"
"Déjalo, hombre. I love doing it."
"No, really. You’re our heroes. Especially you. We need to give you some kind of award when this is over, like… like The Golden Herb. You’re like our blond Herb Alpert. Remember him? The Tijuana Brass? Yeah, he made it okay with the Moral Majority to be latino. Kind of. And now you. You’re going to make all the Anglos end up loving us. Our food, our parties…"
"Qué tal, Carlitos! How are you doing, Herb?"
"Gloria, thank God!"
Dr. Voyt actually ran a couple of steps to the edge of the stage and embraced the dark, long-haired beauty who opened her arms to him.
"Watch the cord, querido. Hey, you look worried. You know it’s bad taste to start a fiesta on time, don’t you?"
"Yeah, but I can’t find the singers or Hector’s senator friend or the man… what’s his name, from KDRL?"
"Oh, Herb, you should know they’re all where the TV camera is. Admit it. Carlos is getting on your nerves."
"He keeps following me around talking garbage at my shoulder. I can’t hear myself think! Has he been drinking already? I don’t smell anything on him, but… he mentioned Herb Alpert a minute ago."
"You don’t have him down to speak, do you?"
"Who else is going to introduce the Tovars?"
"You have them here? Never mind, I’ll introduce them. Sure, I know the guys, it’s not a problem. Look out, here he comes."
"Gloria knows todo el mundo. The beautiful Gloria! Why should anyone want to look at me when they can feast their eyes upon the Reina of District Seven! I’ll just be one of the guys who smiles in the background."
"Carlitos, don’t get into one of your meditations about the times and the customs. Leave him to me, Herb. Look, Felipe wants you over there. With that officer."
Dr. Voyt welcomely seized the invitation to retire to the other end of the platform. A sudden squeal of amplifiers doubled him over momentarily, but he shook off the assault on his eardrums and staggered his way toward a man in a floral shirt and a police officer in shorts.
"This is Officer Keller, Herb."
"Kellaher. Pleased to meet you."
"He’s on the trail of a couple of really weird desperados."
"They’ve been seen on bikes, even though one is described as about thirty-five and the other… witnesses say he’s an old man."
"Get this, Herb. One of them’s armed with a flagpole and the other with a tree-trimmer."
"What?" The alarmed expression which had started to crumple Dr. Voyt’s features dissolved into a tentative smile. "Did you say…"
"Um… half a flagpole, to be exact… the end with the knob on it… no flag attached." Officer Kellaher thumbed deeper into his notes. "The tree-trimmer is one of those extension things… you know, runs out to twelve or fifteen feet… manually operated. But the end of those things is no joke. Curved blade with serrated edge. A bite from that could be worse than a pit bull."
"And they’re trying to hurt people with this stuff?"
"Well, we’re not sure. The only complaint we have is that the old man was sawing away at a light tower above the TV van. Oh… and the other one, he had a go at one of the camera crew with the…"
"The flagpole. Hey Herb, if that viejo sawed into a live wire, I guess that could provide the fireworks we never did get, huh?"
"That also concerns me. They rode off before I could respond to the call. But they might be back."
"And you want me to… make an announcement?"
"No. No, I don’t want you to disrupt your event. But keep an eye out for them from the stage, would you? You guys up here actually have the best view of the area. If you see anything going on, then you can get on the mike, and we’ll chase these individuals down before anyone comes to harm."
"Officer Gallagher says your state senator guy saw the whole deal over at the TV van."
"Well, Felipe, why don’t you go tell the senator that the show’s up here?"
5:40 p.m.: "Y ahora, señoritas y caballeros… you all know Our Lady of Lakeview, Gloria Calderón. Miss Gloria, I’m going to ask you to come up here and… oh, and there’s the professor. Hey, while Señora Calderón extricates herself from the audio feed, does everybody know Herb Voyt? Herb, take a bow! Where’s your fair lady? Mrs. Herb, take a bow! Professor Herb is vice-president of the Literary Council. He wrote a big grant for us. What? Hey, Gloria, don’t kill yourself, we still need you. Mrs. Herb… what? Ah, Mi-nerrr-va will be passing the hat back there at the concession stand. So when you’re going back to feed your faces, just keep your wallets out."
A roar went up as Gloria Calderón took her place beside the microphone and greeted the audience in Spanish, her head thrown back to shake aside its raven ringlets, her teeth sparkling in the floodlights which had banished dusk to a distant stain beyond the trees. Yet Dr. Voyt’s blond hair was almost as splendid in the background as he leapt to his feet and applauded.
6:04 p.m.: "I just really don’t want you alone, is all. That policeman—Officer Kelly—the one I told you about earlier…"
"I couldn’t make much sense out of what you said. Something about someone attacking a TV announcer with a flagpole…"
"Well, never mind… ah, muy buenas noches! Gracias, amigos! Hey, Candace! You girls decided to venture off campus, eh? How are you liking it? Good! Yeah, tomorrow’s Friday, so… that’s right! Bye, now!"
"As you see, Herb, it’s impossible that I would be alone in this crowd."
Dr. Voyt pulled his wife toward some well-trimmed hedges behind a concrete bench (which had not been in use for some while). "But that policeman said that Daniel shouldn’t have said that about you collecting donations. You might be a target now, he said. You just be sure that some big varón like Alex is around you at all times."
"Hector’s back here, too, Herb. You know he won’t be far from the money. And he’s always got a thug or two with him."
"Good. The more thugs, the better."
"You know what I think?" Mrs. Voyt took advantage of a sudden, roaring forward surge in the crowd as a baseball player was announced to press her husband between two hedges. "I think that skanky Gloria Calderón had better stop hugging you so much. I think I may just climb up on the stage and wrap that long hair around her slender latino neck."
"Minerva!" And Dr. Voyt flashed a grin as he had done many times this day—but for once he did not actually laugh. "Your latino neck is even more slender!"
"Just don’t you be measuring hers to find out."
"I won’t even be back on stage again. Not now."
"Then she’d better keep her sweet ass up there. I’m the jealous type. Better yet, why don’t you come be my bodyguard, varón?"
"I’d love to—and I will. But first I’ve got to see this Senator Hartley off. I told him he could slip out just before the Tovars came on. Of course, I could go with you and send Daniel back up to—"
"No way, Tito! You go with this senator—and be sure he knows your name. You don’t blow your own horn enough."
"Ah!" Dr. Voyt looked away for an instant, his blond locks falling boyishly over his fair eyes. Yet in almost the same gesture, he reached for his wife’s narrow waist. "This has been my day, hasn’t it? I’ve got the hot serve today—one ace after another."
"You just keep on serving them, mijito! You’ve got them all eating out of your hand. Those silly campus girls, those pompous windbag administrators, the councilmen and the politicians… they’re all looking for somebody alive in their graveyard. When they see you, they all want to touch you and catch fire. You’ve got them all in the palm of your hand. You’ve got power, Herb. Power! You don’t even know it, do you?"
"You feel it… you’re beginning to feel it… but you haven’t really wakened up yet from your little grad student dreams. All you wanted was a job at this crummy little university. Well, you got the job… and now we’re going to take off, mi amor! Gloria sees what you are, too—but you’re mine, and not Gloria’s. She came too late."
And Mrs. Voyt pressed her husband even farther between the hedges with her hips, while her lean fingers seized either side of his face and brought it unresisting to her lips.
6:13 p.m.: "She’s right!" whispered Dr. Voyt to the night as the hedge’s leaves still trembled behind him, the festivities on the far side strangely distant now. He touched two fingers to his lips as if in recollection of the kiss, where they also formed a "victory" sign over him in benediction. "She’s right. I’m hot! I’ve got it! I’ve got life! Got it by the horns! Whatever I want. Just believe in myself. Don’t think too much… just be. Just live."
Dr. Voyt bristled slightly in the dusk (the floodlights, too, seemed distant gold stains in the treetops now that he had deserted their trumpeting cone). Senator Hartley’s manly roar could be heard through the gilded foliage in occasional outbursts. "New tomorrow… all that you can be… it all starts here… seize the day."
"Seize the day. Seize the day. Hah-hah-hah! Seize it!"
And Dr. Voyt reached into the gloom—reached high, like Caesar exhorting his troops at the Rubicon.
Severing the thin air between his raised hand and his marbled gaze, a serrated scimitar came to rest lightly againt his windpipe. Dr. Voyt’s mouth suddenly opened very wide, but not even a whisper would issue from it now.
"Silencio, Señor, as you value your life. Sanchez, check his lapel."
"His lapel, jefe?"
"For press credentials, imbecil!"
"Ah… no… no hay nada de esas cositas."
"You do not speak for the decadent press, Señor? You do not paint our glorious tongue in trollop colors with your yo soy’s and your más mejor’s? You do not dance upon the graves of Lope de Vega and Diego de San Pedro, of Calderón de la Barca and the noble dukes of Rivas and Estrada, with your endless footage—straight from your filthy gumshoe foot—featuring putas of the silver screen and all the sinvergüenzas of your ‘reality check’ shows? You do not defame the sublime calling of arms with your ceaseless coverage of leather-jacketed maricones and their Saturday-night specials? You do not corrupt the innocence of the young with your lewd health-report segmentitos on the new alternatives for the little blue pill? You do not cut the heart out of faith and duty like an Aztec brujo for the sake of your thirty pieces of silver? You are not the Judas of the West, the bloodsucker of the soul’s life? This is not you, no?"
Dr. Voyt’s mouth opened even wider under the nudge of the ragged blade, creating a hole even darker than the gathering night. The only sound to emerge from his throat, however, was a slight gurgle of saliva followed by a timid cough.
"Maybe you shouldn’t kill him, jefe. These creencias you speak of are not in the coat pockets."
"Kill him, Sanchez? You are a blockhead! There is no valor in slaying a niñito without arms or armor… though there is precedent, I will grant you, in the nocturnal excursion of Medoro and Cloridano. Yet this Medoro was a lowly churl, wholly unworthy of the love of the beautiful Angelica, who threw herself away in an act of consummate womanly folly after rejecting the greatest flower of Carolingian knighthood."
"So we let him go, then?"
"Go, Pinabello, and tell your betters all that you have heard and all that you have seen. Bid them gird themselves for combat a la muerte."
The curved blade once lifted from his throat, Dr. Voyt staggered backward without ever closing his mouth or blinking his eyes. After two blind steps, he was interrupted by the hedge, and stumbled so heavily into its awaiting branches that he lost his footing. There was a distinct sound of rent cloth before Dr. Voyt regained the public lawn on his hands and knees, then vanished into the shadows.
"You see, Sanchez, this generation has already forgotten how to speak. That young man never delivered himself of a single word."
"I know you don’t like questions, jefe, but why are we doing this?"
"To save civilization, Sanchez! To deal a blow to the back of the collective head which will send the scales falling from its eyes!"
"Así es. But… but… tell me again, would you, about how much I get paid."
"Millions, Sanchez, millions! When they finally capture me, my story will make the Rather Brokaw News Hour of Sixty Minutes. They will all seize upon the oddity of it, for the disease is such that it must eat even its own flesh. Lo del agua al agua, as our ancient proverb has it. A jackal must always be a jackal. So these media in their media frenzy will show me in my prison cell denouncing the media. There will be interviews with Rolling Rock and the other tabloids, and maybe lucrative movie contracts."
"Lucrative, jefe? You mean…"
"Yes, Sanchez. And it shall all be yours. For me the sole reward shall be the coast-to-coast dispersión via satellite of my sacred and solemn message."
"You are a great man, jefe."
"Tut, Sanchez! It is the calling which is great."
And the two men bestrode their bicycles again, the tall, thin one with the pointed white beard readjusting a peculiar cycling helmet after having balanced the tree-trimmer against his handle bar. Then they took off into the dusk’s low russet wound, one weaving from side to side like a circus bear, the other as erect as a galleon.
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"Goodbye, Christmas!" he mourned behind longlashes
Almost touching, from a chest my stubby handspan
Can still measure fully, in that hibernating voice
Sonorous-serious yet, unintended, comic—
A child’s voice—with a child’s gesture, too,
Toward wrinkling that smooth palm-span of brow
(Smoothed under a too-early wakening’s weight—
For he knew Santa fled before the third cock crew).
Smoothness triumphed under sleep’s full moon.
But there haunted me something edge-of-childhood,too,
Taken all in all. The voice a trace too sonorous,
The frown a hair too deep, too moon-with-craters.
My handspan, I worried, would not reach next year.
Grandma had most unwisely alluded
To the red bike’s month-long sojourn in her closet
(Thoughtlessly supplementing feigned ignorance
After our long drive over river and through woods—
Knowledge, how thy handle doth blind its holder!)
"So that’s how Santa does it!" I had quickly quipped:
"It’s grandmas he uses to stock-pile his loot
Before sleigh-shuttles. No sleigh could be so wide,
But grandmas have closets and attics. All these years
I’ve wondered how he does it. How elfin clever!"
But a light had kindled in him, and another dimmed.
As I mull the funereal privilege of plug-pulling
Before the Christmas tree late Christmas night—
That Arcadian Maypole wound in pine needles
Where a game of tag keeps out the solstice,
Shadow ducking behind frosted ball or wreathing,
In furry dark spirals, bristly switches
The way a Caspar David Friedrich landscape
Woos indefinite retreat from stumps, crags, ruins…
Tiny suns staging their rise, all colors,
Red dwarves, blue giants, green Rigels,
In a galactic corkscrew whiplash whorl
Ending or beginning in a Big Tinsel Bang
(Which almost cost me a spill from the ladder),
Creating the same shadows they pretend to tame,
Romancing tunnels, courting purpose in winks…
As the season’s final greeting dissuades my heavyhand,
I think I hear a key turning in Eden’s gate—
On the far side, the inside…
Something’s lost forever.
Not Santa. Who cares for Santa? A rubicundgrandpa
Lugging bags of plunder to spoiled toddlers…
I would as soon not hear another reindeer’s jingle,
Not see another list of pricey, misspelled demands.
But what a sobering moment, to realize at last—
In bed, alone, listening to Dad’s hobble
After pretending to sleep, dozing half an hour,
Now divining the ghosts of streetlights throughclosed blinds,
Of lonely uncles driving wet pavement late—
What a reverse epiphany, a snuffing out of angels,
To realize that it was all just Dad and Mom.
No one but Dad and Mom to care so much,
No elfin intrusion to make wishes come true.
Just Dad. Just me. Already he knows I don’t movemountains.
Volunteer cheerleader housewives at Sunday School
Cast God as Elf King: "Ask, and ye shall have!"
But he already knows. To his boy’s heart I talk
Tough sometimes: "Face the ball… stop whining!"
Pain he grasps, perhaps, as learning’s invitation.
He begins to see, at least, that joy is labor.
Santa-of-the-Sack made no deliveries there.
Life showers few trinkets, whatever the Soccer Momsayeth.
I want him to know that. I want him to shiver
(Little showers, while well-buttoned) that wet streets
Which lonely uncles drive after Christmas dinner
At someone else’s hearth.
I want him to see God straight.
The slack stocking, the fallen tinsel, the treeunplugged—
The absence, the longing, shadows not artificiallythrown
For poetic effect, for Halloween goose bumps, but
Great blunt gaps which nothing we see can fill.
I want him to see that he cannot see God. I want
The pain of torn hope to brush him as delay,
The glory of fired galaxies to brush him as play.
Move along, my child. Move along.
Yet my hand sticks at the plug, and something sticks
Hard high in my chest. I cannot quite send the last
Santa scurrying away forever over the roof
With the other snow ghosts. He won’t come back…
He won’t come back. The voice that mourned,"Goodbye, Christmas,"
Just before inhaling sleep, will never speak again—
Not quite that way. The plug goes, and the room
Falls dark. "Goodbye, Christmas," I whisper
And wait, like a child, for someone to lead me.
John R. Harris
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