Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memoriam

A few things that have been ricocheting through my brain the last few days:

1.) I was glad that people took some interest in my earlier post about the state of American Democracy and my suggestion toward improving it. I should like to state that imposing qualifications for voting in federal elections isn't exactly a cause I plan to lobby for -- just an idea I wanted to toss out there. Thank you for your input, whether you concurred or criticized.
Ultimately, I think a nation is only as good as its people. The simplest and most effective way of making a better America is making better Americans -- and this doesn't just mean making smarter Americans, though that would be a large part of it.

2.) My friend James recently embarked upon a personal mission to learn Morse Code, and asked if I wanted to try to pick it up as well, thereby helping him learn better by way of collaboration. Sadly, I have way too much else on my plate at the moment moment to pile on another such commitment, but thought the very least I could do was give him something to decode as an exercise. So I found a less-famous speech by Abraham Lincoln (given at the White House four days after the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, and nearly four and a half months before the Gettysburg Address), ran it through a Morse Code translator, and sent it over for him to translate.
I found the speech here, in a small online collection of Lincoln's public addresses. Once you start reading a few, it's hard to stop. America's helm has regularly been manned by generals, businessmen, lawyers, schoolteachers (more than you'd think, actually), governors, and diplomats, but to the best of my knowledge, Lincoln was our only poet President. Reading the Gettysburg address makes me wish we still lived in an America whose heads of state could compose their public speeches in the manner of bards instead of advertisers.

3.) Since finishing Dragons of Eden, Siddhartha, and Typee, I've begun plowing through Xenophon's Anabasis: the story of the ten-thousand Greek mercenaries stranded in the middle of a hostile Persia after their employer's attempt at a coup came to a bloody failure.
I am a fiend for the Greeks, and I don't just mean the pop mythology. The histories, the dramas, the philosophical inquiries -- one lifetime just isn't enough to read and dissect it all. Albert Einstein once said: how can [anyone] stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science. (Of course, it was the Greeks who practically invented the concept of coming to an objective understanding of the world via empirical observation and testing, so it is hard to appreciate science without appreciating the Greeks.) In any event, old Al Onestone's tastes are as good as his intuition.
The old Greek texts, translated into English, often have a dry taste -- I can only assume they are much more musical in their original language -- but translation has little bearing on the music of the ideas expresses. (I believe Ezra Pound used the term "logopoeia" to refer to the aesthetic beauty of ideas in poetics, but I'm saying this without ever having read much Pound. This will be remedied after I finish Xenophon.) This was, after all, a culture in which the ability to present a soundly-reasoned and eloquent argument was not only supremely prized, but practically required of its upright citizens. (Somewhere in Thucydides, a statesman remarks that attending political debates was practically a leisure activity to the Athenian populace, since the speeches were always so impressive.) This standard evinces itself in all the Classical Greek texts, and makes any subject they cover a positive joy to read.

4.) It's Memorial Day. This is a holiday I take somewhat seriously: both of my grandfathers served in the Navy during World War II. (My paternal grandfather was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed; my maternal grandfather landed on the beaches during Operation Overlord.) My being, for the most part, anti-war has no bearing on my respect for the military; there is no more of a paradox in this than in the concurrent necessities of being strong and being peaceful.

5.) And so the topics of American Democracy, political oration, the Greeks, and Memorial Day all converge here, at our reading selection for the week: the funeral speech of the Athenian statesman Pericles, taken in its entirety from History of the Peloponnesian Wars (as translated by Rex Warner). One of the reasons for my sharing it is that I can't think of any immediate acquaintances who have actually read the damn thing. I suppose it's not surprising, what with public education redesignating the Classics as ancillary lessons to be breezed through if any time remains after ten months of state test preparation, but it's also a great shame, since the speech is not only one of the most important moments in the textual history of Western Civilization, but a brilliant composition and the kind of public address Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama would be hard-pressed to match.
As usual, I ask that you please spare some time to read this in its entirety. Yes, it is a few pages long. Yes, it will probably take five to ten minutes to finish -- but if you're already just idly browsing the Internet, chances are what you'd be reading or watching instead won't be nearly as good or memorable. (You know in your heart of hearts that this is true.) As you read, I would ask that you consider the myths and truths of Pericles's Athens*, the myths and truths of our America, and think about the places where all possible pairings of the four intersect.

In the same winter the Athenians, following their annual custom, gave a public funeral for those had been first to die in the war. These funerals are held in the following way: two days before the ceremony the bones of the fallen are brought and put in a tent which has been erected, and people make whatever offerings they wish to their own dead. Then there is a funeral procession in which coffins of cypress wood are carried on wagons. There is one coffin for each tribe, which contains the bones of members of that tribe. One empty bier is decorated and carried in the procession: this is for the missing, whose bodies could not be recovered. Everyone who wishes to, both citizens and foreigners, can join in the procession, and the women who are related to the dead are there to make their laments at the tomb. The bones are laid in the public burial-place, which is in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls. Here the Athenians always bury those who have fallen in war. The only except is those who died at Marathon, who, because their achievement was considered absolutely astounding, were buried on the battlefield itself.

When the bones have been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation makes an appropriate speech in praise of the dead, and after the speech all depart. This is the procedure at these burials, and all through the war, when the time came to do so, the Athenians followed this ancient custom. Now, at the burial of those who were first to fall in the war, Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, was chosen to make the speech. When the moment arrived, he came forward from the tomb and, standing on a high platform, so that he might be heard by as many people as possible in the crowd, he spoke as follows:

"Many of those who have spoken here in the past have praised the institution of this speech at the close of our ceremony. It seemed to them a mark of honour to our soldiers who have fallen in a war that a speech should be made over them. I do not agree. These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action, as you have just seen it down at this funeral organized by the state. Our belief in the courage and manliness of so many should not be hazarded on the goodness or badness of one man's speech. Then it is not easy to speak with a proper sense of balance, when a man's listeners find it difficult to believe in the truth of what one is saying. The man who knows the facts and loves the dead may well think that an oration tells less than what he knows and what he would like to hear: others who do knot know so much and may feel envy for the dead, and think the orator over-praises them, when he speaks of exploits that are beyond their own capacities. Praise of other people is tolerable only up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you find people becoming jealous and incredulous. However, the fact is that this institution was set up and approved by our forefathers, and it is my duty to follow the tradition and do my best to meet the wishes and expectations of every one of you.

"I shall being by speaking about our ancestors, since it is only right and proper on such an occasion to pay them the honor of recalling what they did. In this land of ours there have always been the same people living from generation to generation up till now, and they, by their courage and their virtues, have handed it on to us, a free country. They certainly deserve our praise. Even more so do our fathers deserve it. For to the inheritance they had received they added all the empire we have now, and it was not without blood and toil that they handed it down to us of the present generation. And then we ourselves, assembled here today, who are mostly in the prime of life, have, in most directions, added to the power of our empire and have organized our state in such a way that it is perfectly well able to look after itself both in peace and in war.

"I have no wish to make a long speech on subjects familiar to you all: so I shall say nothing about the warlike deeds by which we acquired our power or the battles in which we or our fathers gallantly resisted our enemies, Greek or foreign. What I want to do is, in the first place, to discuss the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great. After that I shall speak in praise of the dead, believing that this kind of speech is not inappropriate to the present occasion, and that this whole assembly, of citizens and foreigners, may listen to it with advantage.

"Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

"We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

"And here is another point. When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits. There are various kinds of contests and sacrifices regularly throughout the year; in our own homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us every day and which drive away our cares. Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.

"Then there is a great difference between us and our opponents, in our attitude towards military security. Here are some examples: our city is open to the world, and we have no periodical deportations in order to prevent people observing or finding out secrets which might be of military advantage to the enemy. This is because we rely, not on secret weapons, but on our own real courage and loyalty. There is a difference, too, in our educational systems. The Spartans, from their earliest boyhood, are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass or lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are. Here is a proof of this: when the Spartans invade our land, they do not come by themselves, but bring all their allies with them; whereas we, when we launch an attack abroad, do the job by ourselves, and, though fighting on foreign soil, do not often fail to defeat opponents who are fighting for their own hearths and homes. As a matter of fact none of our enemies has ever yet been confronted with our total strength, because we have to divide our attention between our navy and the many missions on which our troops are sent on land. Yet, if our enemies engage a detachment of our forces and defeat it, they give themselves credit for having thrown back our entire army; or, if they lose, they claim that they were beaten by us in full strength. There are certain advantages, I think, in our way of meeting danger voluntarily, with an easy mind, instead of with a laborious training, with natural rather than state-induced courage. We do not have to spend our time practicing to meet sufferings which are still in the future; and when they are actually upon us we show ourselves just as brave as the others who are always in strict training. This is one point, I think, in which our city deserves to be admired. There are also others:

"Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need to ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own businesses are extremely well-informed on general politics — this a peculiarity of ours; we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions, for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated. And this is another point where we differ from other people. We are capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them before hand. Others are brave out of ignorance; and, when they stop to think, they begin to fear. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.

"Again in questions of general good feeling there is a great contrast between us and most other people. We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them. This makes our friendship all the more reliable, since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued good will to them: whereas the feelings of one who owes us something lack the same enthusiasm, since he knows that, when he repays our kindness, it will be more like paying back a debt than giving kindness spontaneously. We are unique in this. When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality. Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. And to show this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but real tangible fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by these very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed at being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true. For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.
"This, then, is the kind of city for which these men, who could not bear the thought of losing her, nobly fought and nobly died. It is only natural that every one of us who survive them should be willing to undergo hardships in her service. And it was for this reason that I have spoken at such length about our city, because I wanted to make it clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages; also I wanted my words of praise for the dead to be set in the bright light of evidence. And now the most important of these words has been spoken. I have sung the praises of our city; but it was the courage and gallantry of these men, and of people like them, which made her splendid. Nor would you find it true in the case of many of the Greeks, as it is true of them, that no words can do more than justice to their deeds.
"To me it seems that the consummation which has overtaken these men show us the meaning of manliness in its first revelation and in its final proof. Some of them, no doubt, had their faults; but what we ought to remember first is their gallant conduct against the enemy in defence of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives. No one of these men weakened because he wanted to go on enjoying his wealth: no one put off the awful day in the hope that he might live to escape his poverty and grow rich. More to be desired than such things, they chose to check the enemy's pride. This, to them, was a risk most glorious, and they accepted it, willing to strike down the enemy and relinquish everything else. As for success or failure, they left that in the doubtful hands of Hope, and when the reality of battle was before their faces, they put their trust in their own selves. In the fighting, they thought it more honourable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they fled from the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle; and, in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us.
"So and such they were, these men worthy of their city. We who remain behind may hope to be spared their fate, but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe. It is not simply a question of estimating the advantages in theory. I could tell you a long story (and you know it as well as I do) about what is to be gained by beating the enemy back. What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men's minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action. For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial: it is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark them out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people's hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous. Let there be no relaxation in face of the perils of the war. The people who have most excuse for despising death are not the wretched and unfortunate, who have no hope of doing well for themselves, but those who run the risk of a complete reversal in their lives, and who would feel the difference most intensely, if things went wrong for them. Any intelligent man would find a humiliation caused by his own slackness more painful to bear than death, when death comes to him unperceived, in battle, and in the confidence of his patriotism.
"For these reasons I shall not commiserate with those parents of the dead, who are present here. Instead I shall try to comfort them. They are well aware that they have grown up in a world where there are many changes and chances. But this is good fortune for men to end their lives with honour, as these have done, and for you honourable to lament them: their life was set to a measure where death and happiness went hand in hand. I know that it is difficult to convince you of this. When you see other people happy you will often be reminded of what used to make you happy too. One does not feel sad at not having some good thing which is outside one's experience: real grief is felt at the loss of something which one is used to. All the same, those of you who are of the right age must bear up and take comfort in the thought of having more children. In your own homes these new children will prevent you from brooding over those who are no more, and they will be a help to the city, too, both in filling the empty places, and in assuring her security. For it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake. As for those of you who are now too old to have children, I would ask you to count as gain the greater part of your life, in which you have been happy, and remember that what remains is not long, and let your hearts be lifted up at the thought of the fair fame of the dead. One's sense of honour is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one's fellow men.

"As for those of you here who are sons or brothers of the dead, I can see a hard struggle in front of you. Everyone always speaks well of the dead, and, even if you rise to the greatest heights of heroism, it will be a hard thing for you to get the reputation of having come near, let alone equalled, their standard. When one is alive, one is always liable to the jealousy of one's competitors, but when one is out of the way, the honour one receives is sincere and unchallenged.
"Perhaps I should say a word or two on the duties of women to those among you who are now widowed. I can say all I have to say in a short word of advice. Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you. I have now, as the law demanded, said what I had to say. For the time being our offerings to the dead have been made, and for the future their children will be supported at the public expense by the city, until they come of age. This is the crown and prize which she offers, both to the dead and to their children, for the ordeals which they have faced. Where the rewards of valour are the greatest, there you will find also the best and bravest spirits among the people. And now, when you have mourned for your dear ones, you must depart."

* It should be mentioned, for anyone with a less than working knowledge of Greek civilization, that at this point Athens was an imperial power that had conquered virtually all of Greece except for Sparta and its allies; Sparta in fact won subjugated cities to their side in the war by promising to liberate them from Athenian tyranny. (Of course, it also had a strange tendency to prop up oligarchic governments friendly to the Spartan interest in the cities it "liberated.") Athens was prone to demagoguery, broke truces and engaged in unprovoked advances for the sake of its own gain, and wasn't above slaughtering entire cities as an example to others. Does this make Pericles's praises of its accomplishments and virtues any less true?

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Life of Paris

I've meant to post an excerpt of my favorite chapter (well, one of my favorites) from The Doll for a while now, but never quite got around to it until now. I'm hoping my friend Molly -- who has been visiting Paris -- will read this before she comes back to the States and can report back on its veracity (which I can't do, since I've never been to Paris -- but, for that matter, neither did the author).

This is going to be a pretty hefty chunk of text, but please do read it all. This is the kind of prose I wish people were still writing and reading.

From the day when he first plunged into Paris, a life that was almost mystical started for Wokulski. Apart for a few hours devoted to advising Suzin with the ship-builders, Wokulski was entirely free, and he spent the time in perfectly disorganized visits to the city. He would choose a neighborhood from the index in his Guide, and would go there in an open carriage without even looking at the street-plan. He climbed steps, walked around buildings, hurried through halls, stopped at interesting sights, and drove on again according to the alphabetical index, in the same carriage, which he hired for the day. But, since what he most feared was lack of something to do, he spent his evenings looking at the city plan, crossing out the places he visited and making notes.

Sometimes Jumart accompanied him on these excursions and took him to places the guidebooks did not mention: to merchant stores, to factory workshops, to the homes of craftsmen, to student quarters, to the cafés and restaurants along the streets of the fourth quarter. It was here at last that Wokulski became acquainted with the true life of Paris.

In the course of these trips he climbed towers: St-Jaques, Notre-Dame, and the Panthéon; he went up the Trocadéro in a lift, descended into the Parisian sewers and to the catacombs decorated with human skulls; he visited the world exhibition, the Louvre, and Cluny, the Bois de Boulogne, and cemeteries, the cafés de la Rotonde, du Grand Balcon, and fountains, schools and hospitals, the Sorbonne and the fencing halls, the Conservatory and musical halls, animal fights and theaters, the Stock Exchange, the July Column and temple interiors. All these sights created chaos around him, corresponding to the chaos reigning in his own soul.

Sometimes, running over the objects seen in his mind —— from the Palace of Exhibitions, two kilometers in circumference, to the pearl in the Bourbon crown, no bigger than a pea —— he asked: what is it that I want? And it emerged that he wanted nothing. Nothing gripped his attention, nothing quickened the beating of his heart, or prompted him to action. If, for the price of a walking trip from the cemetery of Montmarte to that of Montparnasse, he was offered the whole of Paris with the condition that it should absorb and stimulate him, he would have not gone those five kilometres. But he walked tens of them daily, only in order to deaden his memories.

Sometimes it seemed to him he was a being which had been born by a strange chapter of accidents, a few days ago, here on the pavements of Paris, and that everything which came into his mind was only an illusion, a dream from some earlier existence which never really existed. Then he told himself he was perfectly happy; he rode from one end of Paris to the other and scattered handfuls of louis d'or like a madman. 'It's all the same to me,' he muttered. If only it weren't for that particle of grief, so minute yet so bitter!


Then he would visit the Exhibition, the museums, the artesian wells, schools and theatres, for days at a time, not to learn anything but to deaden his memories.

Slowly, against the background of dull and ill-defined sufferings, a question began to take hold of him: was there some kind of order in the construction of Paris? Was there one object with which it could be compared, a system according to which it could be regulated?

Seen from the Panthéon and from the Trocadéro, Paris appeared the same: a sea of houses, criss-crossed by a thousand streets, the irregular roofs looked like waves, the chimneys like spray, and the towers and columns like larger waves.

'Chaos!' said Wokulski. 'But how could it be otherwise in a place where a million endeavours converge. A great city is a cloud of dust; it has contingent contours, but can have no logic. If it did, the fact would have been discovered long ago by the authors of guides; for is that not their role...?'

And he examined a plan of the city, mocking his own efforts. 'Only one man, and a genius at that, can create a style, a plan,' he thought. 'But that a million people, working across several centuries an ignorant of each other, should create some kind of a logical whole, it is simply impossible.'

Slowly, however, to his great surprise, he perceived that this Paris, built over several centuries, by a million people, ignorant and each other and with no plan in mind, did, nevertheless, have a plan, it constituted a whole, even a very logical one.

He was first struck by the fact that Paris was like a great bowl, nine kilometres wide from north to south and eleven kilometres long from east to west. To the south, this bowl was cracked and divided by the Seine, which cut it in a bow running from the north-east corner through the centre of the city and turning to the south-west corner. An eight-year-old child could have outlined such a plan.

'All right,' thought Wokulski, 'but where is the order in the positioning of individual buildings . . . Notre-Dame in one direction, the Trocadéro in another, and the Louvre, the Exchange, the Sorbonne! . . . Nothing but chaos. . .'

But when he began to examine the plan of Paris more closely, he notied something that not only native Parisians had failed to perceive (which was less strange), but even K. Baedeker, who claimed the right to know his way about the whole of Europe.

Despite an apparent chaos, Paris did have a plan, a logic, even though it had been built over several centuries by millions of people ignorant of each other and giving no thought at all to logic or style.

Paris possessed what could be called a backbone, the city's crystal axis.

The Vincennes forest lay in the south-east, and the edge of he Bois de Boulogne on the north-west side of Paris. So —— this crystal axis of the city was like a great caterpillar (almost six kilometres in length) which, bored with the Bois de Vincennes, had gone for a walk to the Bois de Boulogne.

Its tail leaned against the Place de la Bastille, its head on the Etoile, its body cleaved almost to the Seine. The Champs-Elysées were the neck, the Tuilries and Louvre its corset, and its tail was the Hôtel de Ville, Notre-Dame and, finally, the July Column on the Place de la Bastille.

This caterpillar possessed many long and short legs. From the head, the first pair leaned to the left: the Champ de Mars, the Trocadéro Palace and Exhibition; to the right they reached as far as the Montmarte cemetary. The second pair (of shorter legs) reached the Military School on the left, the Hotel des Invalides, and the Chamber of Deputies; to the right the Madeline church and the Opéra. Then (ever on towards the tail), to the left the School of Fine Arts, to the right the Palais Royal, the bank and Stock Exchange; to the left the Institut de France and mint, to the right Les Halles; to the left the Palais du Luxembourg, the Cluny museum and Medical School, to the right the Place de la République, with the Prince Eugène barracks.

Aside from the crystal axis and the regularities in the general contours of the city, Wokulski also became convinced (something the guides pointed out anyway) that in Paris there existed whole divisions of human labour and some order in their arrangement. Between the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République were grouped mainly trade and craftsmen; opposite them, on the other band of the Seine, was the 'Latin Quarter,' a nest of students and scholars. Between the Opéra, the Place de la République, and the Seine was export trade and finance; between Notre-Dame, the Institut de France and the Montparnasse cemetery clustered the remains of the country's aristocracy. From the Opéra to the Etoile stretched the neighborhood of the wealthy parvenus, and opposite them, on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Hotel des Invalides and the Military School, was the seat of military affairs and World Exhibitions.

These observations awoke new currents in Wokulski's soul, of which he had not thought before, or only imprecisely. And so the great city, like a plant or beast, had its own anatomy and physiology. And so the work of millions of people who proclaimed their free will so loudly produced the same results as bees building regular honeycombs, ants raising rounded mounds, or chemical compounds forming regular crystals.

Thus there was nothing accidental in society, but an inflexible law which, as if in irony at human pride, manifested itself in the life of the most capricious of nations, the French! It had been ruled by Merovingians and Carolingians, Bourbons and Bonapartes; there had been three republics and a couple of anarchies, the Inquisition and atheism; rulers and ministers followed one upon the other like the cut of gowns or clouds in the sky . . . But despite so many apparently fundamental changes, Paris took on ever more precisely the form of a dish torn by the Seine; the crystal axis was delineated ever more clearly running from the Place de la Bastille to the Etoile; ever more clearly did that districts define themselves: the learned and the industrial, the ancestral and the industrial, the military and the parvenu.

Wokulski perceived this same fatalism in the history of a dozen of the more prominent Parisian families. The grandfather, as a humble craftsman, worked at the rue du Temple, sixteen hours a day; his son, plunging into the Latin quarter, set up a larger workshop in the rue St-Antoine. His grandson, even more submerged in the scholarly district, moved as a great tradesman to the Boulevard Poissonnier, and his grandson, as a millionaire, set up house in the neighborhood of the Champs-Elysées so that . . . his daughters could suffer from nervous dispositions at the Boulevard St-Germain. Thus a race exhausted with work and enriched near the Bastille, worn out alongside the Tuileries, expired in the vicinity of Notre-Dame. The city's topography reflected the history of its inhabitants.

Pondering this strange regularity of facts, recognised as irregular, Wokulski sensed that if anything was to cure his apathy, it would be analysis of this kind.

'I am a strange man,' he said to himself, 'and so have gone mad, but civilisation will rescue me.'

(I will have you know that this wasn't ctrl+c, ctrl+v'd; I copied it directly from the text. It's actually a fun exercise -- Hunter Thompson, you'll remember, used to sit at a typewriter and copy passages from the Great Gatsby to get a feel for how Fitzgerald composed.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Possible titles: Dumb-ocracy? Demo-crazy?

Well, my daily hits counter has been showing successively smaller numbers for the last two weeks. All I can say to this is what's wrong with you people? If I didn't know better, I might suspect you didn't like reading block quotes from obscure Nineteenth Century travel novels.

Ordinarily when I notice people losing interest in my output, my immediate response is to throw out an easy crowd-pleaser: an 8EB comic featuring the Tetris blocks, a whole bunch of words about Final Fantasy, et cetera. Well, not this time. Seeing as how nobody is reading this anyway, tonight I'll be getting a few things off my chest, which I am now puffing out like the pompous elitist you always knew I was.

So the Arab Spring (I refuse to say twitter revolution) happened and is still happening. Everyone's talking about it, everyone's excited about it. Although it remains to be seen how and to what extent, it promises to leave a lasting and significant mark on the global order of the new century.

Democracy buds throughout the Middle East. One by one, the tyrants fall before the people's will that a new and more equitable system of self-rule should be established. I'm all for the deposition of brutal autocrats, but I disagree with the Arabs' choice of an alternative. Democracy doesn't work.

There. I've said it.

Meanwhile, over here in the U. S. of A., the partisans, lobbyists, and activists are gearing up for what will surely be one of the most intense presidential contests in decades. A few years ago, back when I was a ravenous politics junkie, I might have found this thrilling. Election season used to give me the same rush that football fans experience during the playoffs.

There is no incongruity in such a comparison. The drama investing the United States political sphere during even-numbered years is very much like that surrounding the NFL after Wild Card Weekend. The touchdowns and fumbles! The victorious underdogs and sure bets that choke! The rivalries and on-mic trash talk! The screaming maniacs in the bleachers! And the media coverage! Those last four months leading up to the big night in November are like a 120-day halftime show running 24 hours through the blogs, cable, and radio: a loud, poppy, delightful hullabaloo whose engineers get paid by the number of eyes looking its way.

Truly, the United States' election cycle is the best entertainment America has to offer. Unfortunately, it is also the basis of our government -- the process by which the American public selects the architects and executors of its domestic and foreign policies, chooses its head of state, and (at least putatively) sets the political and social agenda for the next two/four years.

I try very hard not to think too much about this. Whenever I do, I always find myself directing a fervent prayer to God for the invention of cigarettes. The alternative responses -- taking up heavy drinking, moving in with a commune of Berlin squatters, leaning how to build pipe bombs -- are a lot more potentially toxic.

American Democracy is not "government of the people, by the people, for the people," as President Lincoln had it. American Democracy is a televised game of blind man's bluff masquerading as serious governance.

It is not impossible that a national constitution founded on democratic principles can work, and I certainly wish the incipient new government of Egypt -- and possibly of Libya and Syria -- every success in figuring it out. But they should take fastidious care to achieve, as close as possible, that difficult balance between "We the People" and "idiot-proof," and not repeat the bad example set by American Democracy.

The problem with American Democracy is simple: everybody gets to vote.

You'll remember from high school history class (I hope) that in the Republic's early years, enfranchised public consisted almost solely of white, landowning males. Yes, it was sexist. Yes, it was racist. Yes, it was classist. But when the Constitution was drafted in 1787, its framers presumed that wealthy landowners were more likely be educated, engaged with the affairs of their communities, and abreast of current events within the nation and beyond.

Managing the affairs of a nation is not an easy business. The people placed in charge of establishing, enforcing, and interpreting the laws of the land must be supremely fit for such a responsibility, educated and principled, capable and willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions, to choose what is best for the nation's long term interests over short-term gratification.

Of course, it sometimes happens that these aren't the people interested in attaining public office. Politics attracts a great deal of narcissists, opportunists, twits, demagogues, charlatans, shysters, and cynics. Any good huckster can sell shit to a simpleton; in public elections, it is often the case that the shit he sells is himself.

In order to ensure that the government is run only by those who are most capable of doing it well -- instead of those with the best ad campaigns or corporate sponsorships -- the citizens responsible for electing them must be able to tell the difference between statesman and celebrities. They must be willing to do their homework, to check facts, recognize when they're being bamboozled, differentiate between empty and substantive rhetoric, and keep up to date with with geopolitics and international affairs.

But this isn't the case. We let everyone vote, just as long as they're over eighteen years old and haven't committed any felonies -- regardless of how ignorant, shortsighted, bigoted, ignorant, uneducated, or uninformed they might be. We cast votes inspired by sound bites, television smiles, bumper sticker colors, pundit noise, television ads, inane catchphrases ("change we can believe in," "legalize the constitution") and appeals to emotion, nationalism, prejudice, fear, and groundless optimism.

We're allowing the inmates to run the asylum. We're letting the children in the backseat tell the driver where to go.

Governance is too important to be steered by people who don't even know how their government works. (A statistic released in 2008 suggests that only two out of five American voters -- and we can presume "voters" is a deliberate word choice referring to the people who show up at the polls and not every citizen of voting age -- can identify the three branches of government.) People who can't even point to Afghanistan on a map have no business influencing policy decisions regarding that region. People who know and care more about television series and celebrity gossip than they do they issues of our times should not be allowed to participate in democracy. It can only be called irresponsible.

We seem to fail to teach our students in civics class (hell, do we even teach civics anymore?) that the extent to which democracy is a blessing is proportionate to how much of a burden it places upon its subjects.

The dangers of letting incompetent voters participate in civics should be self-evident. (George W. Bush was a two-term president for god's sake.) It is for the same reason that American citizens are required to apply for a license and undergo an evaluation before they can drive a car, own a gun, or participate in most other undertakings that could potentially endanger the public welfare. Why does this not apply to voting? It is no less in the interest of the public that the people showing up at the November polls aren't choosing a candidate under the assumption that he will personally pay for their gasoline and mortgages.

This brings us to my humble proposition that universal suffrage be abolished and replaced with something safer and more sensible. Rather than using gender, race, or wealth as a metric for decision-making competence, why don't we establish a written test like the ones administered to foreign-born prospective citizens? If you pass the test, you acquire a voting license. If you fail, you'll have to wait another year or two and try again.

Naturally, there would not be just one test -- voting for different offices would entail meeting different qualifications. Some suggestions:

  • Anyone can vote in local elections, provided they are over 18. It is, after all, only reasonable that an American citizen should have a say in the affairs of his own neighborhood. (Having a say in the direction of the nation as a whole is a different matter.)

  • Anyone can vote in state elections, provided they have completed high school or earned a GED. (If circumstances prevent a citizen from finishing primary school or earning a GED, a basic diagnostic test -- reading, mathematics, some basic science and social studies -- would suffice as well. All the afterwards mentioned offices include this same requirement.)

  • Voting for a Representative requires passing a basic civics exam and being able to demonstrate and understanding of American history, current events, and economics.

  • Voting for President requires passing a more difficult civics/history/current events test, as well as demonstrating a firm knowledge of international relations, geography, world history, etc.

  • Voting for Senators requires passing a similar test as voting for the President, but perhaps it should be subject to a more stringent evaluation. After all, Senators serve the longest terms of any publicly-elected federal officials, as the Senate was conceived to be the more sober and fickle opinion-proof of the two houses. (Surely you recall from history class that Senators were not even elected by public ballot until 1913.)

If you'd like to argue that establishing such a standard wouldn't result in more informed and more sensible voting public, by all means -- I'd like to know your reasoning. What I envision is a nation of voters unimpressed by soundbites; that demands sober debate instead of shouting matches, investigative journalism instead of infotainment, and substantive discussion instead of marketing consultant-devised zingwords. (The fact that Obama had to frame his State of the Union address around an idiotic catchphrase like "win the future" says a great deal about the competence of the American voting public under universal suffrage.)

This will never happen, of course: those in power have too much to lose if the voting bloc becomes restricted to the intelligent, engaged, and informed. The mere suggestion of such a thing on a public platform would be lambasted as un-American, elitist, socialist (somehow), and contrary to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Concerned parties would spend billions burying such an effort (thank you very much, Citizens United), and the backroom argument-framers would ensure that any future discussion of the issue is addressed in terms of "pro-voting" and "anti-voting." Meanwhile, back-and-forths on Twitter become the standard format for presidential election debates and prospective Senate candidates realize they have a better chance of beating incumbents by foregoing the campaign trail in favor of a series of hit appearances on American Idol.

Enjoy the show!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Melville & The Man-Eaters & Gonzalo

Jury duty. What a dull affair. But if nothing else, it gave me the chance to sit down and plow through most of Typee uninterrupted. Here's another trenchant excerpt! (Fun fact: remember how I said Melville's criticisms of Western civilization and praises of the "savages" got a lot of people riled back in the 1840s? Turns out most of these passages got slashed from subsequent printings. Media companies practicing kneejerk self-censorship in the face of public controversy is hardly a new phenomenon.)

As I extended my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the disadvantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by all the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly a less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Tierra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of the ills and pains of life——what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may "cultivate his mind——may elevate his thoughts,"——these I believe are the established phrases—but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking——"Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightening?"

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve;——the heart-burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals. Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed. But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised in enlightened England:——a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged cut and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.

His remorseless cruelty is seen in many of the institutions of our own favored land. There is one in particular lately adopted in one of the States of the Union, which purports to have been dictated by the most merciful considerations. To destroy our malefactors piece-meal, drying up in their veins, drop by drop, the blood we are too chicken-hearted to shed by a single blow which would at once put a period to their sufferings, is deemed to be infinitely preferable to the old-fashioned punishment of gibbeting——much less annoying to the victim, and more in accordance with the refined spirit of the age; and yet how feeble is all language to describe the horrors we inflict upon these wretches, whom we mason up in the cells of our prisons, and condemn to perpetual solitude in the very heart of our population.

But it is needless to multiply the examples of civilized barbarity; they far exceed in the amount of misery they cause the crimes which we regard with such abhorrence in our less enlightened fellow-creatures.... 

The term "Savage" is, I conceive, often misapplied, and indeed, when I consider the vices, cruelties, and enormities of every kind that spring up in the tainted atmosphere of a feverish civilization, I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned, four or five Marquesan Islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans despatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.

I once heard it given as an instance of the frightful depravity of a certain tribe in the Pacific that they had no word in their language to express the idea of virtue. The assertion was unfounded; but were it otherwise, it might be met by stating that their language is almost entirely destitute of terms to express the delightful ideas conveyed by our endless catalogue of civilized crimes.

In the altered frame of mind to which I have referred, every object that presented itself to my notice in the valley struck me in a new light, and the opportunities I now enjoyed of observing the manners of its inmates, tended to strengthen my favorable impressions. One peculiarity that fixed my admiration was the perpetual hilarity reigning through the whole extent of the vale.

There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles, or vexations, in all Typee. The hours tripped along as gaily as the laughing couples down a country dance.

There were none of those thousand sources of irritation that the ingenuity of civilized man has created to mar his own felicity. There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no protested notes, no bills payable, no debts of honor in Typee; no unreasonable tailors and shoemakers perversely bent on being paid; no duns of any description and battery attorneys, to foment discord, backing their clients up to a quarrel, and then knocking their heads together; no poor relations, everlastingly occupying the spare bed-chamber, and diminishing the elbow room at the family table; no destitute widows with their children starving on the cold charities of the world; no beggars; no debtors' prisons; no proud and hard-hearted nabobs in Typee; or to sum up all in one word——no Money! That "root of all evil" was not to be found in the valley.

In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no blubbering youngsters, and no squalling brats. All was mirth, fun and high good humor. Blue devils, hypochondria, and doleful dumps, went and hid themselves among the nooks and crannies of the rocks.

Here you would see a parcel of children frolicking together the live-long day, and no quarreling, no contention, among them. The same number in our own land could not have played together for the space of an hour without biting or scratching one another. There you might have seen a throng of young females, not filled with envyings of each other's charms, nor displaying the ridiculous affectations of gentility, nor yet moving in whalebone corsets, like so many automatons, but free, inartificially happy, and unconstrained.

There were some spots in that sunny vale where they would frequently resort to decorate themselves with garlands of flowers. To have seen them reclining beneath the shadows of one of the beautiful groves; the ground about them strewn with freshly gathered buds and blossoms, employed in weaving chaplets and necklaces, one would have thought that all the train of Flora had gathered together to keep a festival in honor of their mistress.

With the young men there seemed almost always some matter of diversion or business on hand that afforded a constant variety of enjoyment. But whether fishing, or carving canoes, or polishing their ornaments, never was there exhibited the least sign of strife or contention among them. As for the warriors, they maintained a tranquil dignity of demeanour, journeying occasionally from house to house, where they were always sure to be received with the attention bestowed upon distinguished guests. The old men, of whom there were many in the vale, seldom stirred from their mats, where they would recline for hours and hours, smoking and talking to one another with all the garrulity of age.

But the continual happiness, which so far as I was able to judge appeared to prevail in the valley, sprang principally from that all-pervading sensation which Rousseau has told us be at one time experienced, the mere buoyant sense of a healthful physical existence. And indeed in this particular the Typees had ample reason to felicitate themselves, for sickness was almost unknown. During the whole period of my stay I saw but one invalid among them; and on their smooth skins you observed no blemish or mark of disease.

As I read this earlier today, I couldn't help being reminded of a few of Gonzalo's lines from The Tempest. Come on, you know the ones...

Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,——
....And were the king on't, what would I do?
....I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;——
....All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

....I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

I'll have some original material for the next update, I swear. Maybe I can smuggle a sketch pad into the jury box.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Herman and the Cannibals

Lately I've been reading a book called Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, a mostly-autobiographical account of its author's adventures on the South Pacific island of Nuku Hiva after he jumped ship from a whaling voyage. First published in 1846 to widespread success and acclaim (that included glowing reviews by such esteemed literati as Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne), it was the author's first novel and vaulted him almost overnight to the heights of literary stardom.

Even though you've never heard of Typee, critics and readers of the nineteenth century counted it the premature peak of what seemed like such a promising literary career for the young Herman Melville. It's very likely that around 1860 or so, a couple of thirty-somethings sitting down during their lunch break to reminisce about the fondly-remembered plays, books, and pantomimes of their youth, had a conversation that went something like...

JOHN: Hey, remember that book "Typee" that everyone was reading back in the day? You know, the one by that fellow who lived with that cannibal tribe in the South Pacific?

SMITH: Oh, yeah! I haven't thought about that in years! It was great! Who was it by again? That guy, what's his name -- Herbert Melville, right? Whatever happened to him, anyway?

JOHN: Oh, he wrote this piece of shit called "Moby Dick" and no one ever heard from him again. 

SMITH: *sigh* What a waste of talent.

Just to be on the safe side, it might be best to wait a hundred years or so before appraising the value of an artist's work. Today's multiplantinum artist might be the twenty-second century's "Lady who?" while the record or book that sold only 500 copies in its first and only printing run last year might very well be canonized by the listeners and readers of the next generation.

At any rate, a portion of Typee's fame and popularity might also be attributed to the public reaction to its controversial subject matter. The right-wingers of Melville's time took no small degree of umbrage at his suggestion that Western intervention in remote tribal areas stank of deceit and cruelty, and that dispatching missionaries to forcibly proselytize and "educate" the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific was the very antinomy of civilized behavior. For instance:

The French, although they had gone through the ceremony of hoisting their colors for a few hours at all the principal places of the group, had not as yet visited the bay of Typee, anticipating a fierce resistance on the part of the savages there, which for the present at least they wished to avoid. Perhaps they were not a little influenced in the adoption of this unusual policy from a recollection of the warlike reception given by the Typees to the forces of Captain Porter, about the year 1814, when that brave and accomplished officer endeavored to subjugate the clan merely to gratify the mortal hatred of his allies the Nukuhevas and Happars.

On that occasion I have been told that a considerable detachment of sailors and marines from the frigate Essex, accompanied by at least two thousand warriors of Happar and Nukuheva, landed in boats and canoes at the head of the bay, and after penetrating a little distance into the valley, met with the stoutest resistance from its inmates. Valiantly, although with much loss, the Typees disputed every inch of ground, and after some hard fighting obliged their assailants to retreat and abandon their design of conquest.

The invaders, on their march back to the sea, consoled themselves for their repulse by setting fire to every house and temple in their route; and a long line of smoking ruins defaced the once-smiling bosom of the valley, and proclaimed to its pagan inhabitants the spirit that reigned in the breasts of Christian soldiers. Who can wonder at the deadly hatred of the Typees to all foreigners after such unprovoked atrocities?

Thus it is that they whom we denominate "savages" are made to deserve the title. When the inhabitants of some sequestered island first descry the "big canoe" of the European rolling through the blue waters towards their shores, they rush down to the beach in crowds, and with open arms stand ready to embrace the strangers. Fatal embrace! They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love within their breast is soon converted into the bitterest hate.

The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders will nigh pass belief. These things are seldom proclaimed at home; they happen at the very ends of the earth; they are done in a corner, and there are none to reveal them. But there is, nevertheless, many a petty trader that has navigated the Pacific whose course from island to island might be traced by a series of cold-blooded robberies, kidnappings, and murders, the iniquity of which might be considered almost sufficient to sink her guilty timbers to the bottom of the sea.

Sometimes vague accounts of such thing's reach our firesides, and we coolly censure them as wrong, impolitic, needlessly severe, and dangerous to the crews of other vessels. How different is our tone when we read the highly-wrought description of the massacre of the crew of the Hobomak by the Feejees; how we sympathize for the unhappy victims, and with what horror do we regard the diabolical heathens, who, after all, have but avenged the unprovoked injuries which they have received. We breathe nothing but vengeance, and equip armed vessels to traverse thousands of miles of ocean in order to execute summary punishment upon the offenders. On arriving at their destination, they burn, slaughter, and destroy, according to the tenor of written instructions, and sailing away from the scene of devastation, call upon all Christendom to applaud their courage and their justice.

How often is the term "savages" incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples....

It so happened that the very day I was in Tior the French admiral, attended by all the boats of his squadron, came down in state from Nukuheva to take formal possession of the place. He remained in the valley about two hours, during which time he had a ceremonious interview with the king. The patriarch-sovereign of Tior was a man very far advanced in years; but though age had bowed his form and rendered him almost decrepid, his gigantic frame retained its original magnitude and grandeur of appearance.

He advanced slowly and with evident pain, assisting his tottering steps with the heavy war-spear he held in his hand, and attended by a group of grey-bearded chiefs, on one of whom he occasionally leaned for support. The admiral came forward with head uncovered and extended hand, while the old king saluted him by a stately flourish of his weapon. The next moment they stood side by side, these two extremes of the social scale,
the polished, splendid Frenchman, and the poor tattooed savage. They were both tall and noble-looking men; but in other respects how strikingly contrasted! Du Petit Thouars exhibited upon his person all the paraphernalia of his naval rank. He wore a richly decorated admiral's frock-coat, a laced chapeau bras, and upon his breast were a variety of ribbons and orders; while the simple islander, with the exception of a slight cincture about his loins, appeared in all the nakedness of nature.

At what an immeasurable distance, thought I, are these two beings removed from each other. In the one is shown the result of long centuries of progressive civilization and refinement, which have gradually converted the mere creature into the semblance of all that is elevated and grand; while the other, after the lapse of the same period, has not advanced one step in the career of improvement. "Yet, after all," quoth I to myself, "insensible as he is to a thousand wants, and removed from harassing cares, may not the savage be the happier man of the two?"

Speaking of the refinements of progressive civilization, I've been having a lot of fun (though not much success) trying to track Melville's footsteps across Nuku Hiva via Google Maps.
Also, perhaps you've noticed that I've retroactively tagged the Beyond Easy archives for easy future perusal, should you find yourself desirous of perusing archived posts in the future.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Inadvertent fine advice

On Saturday Jen and I took her inflatable raft out on Cranberry Lake. After drifting around and watching the swifts race each other in erratic loops a while, we pulled up to a stone ridge rising up from the edge of the lake. I made up my mind to climb it.

I removed my shoes and hopped out of the boat. Jen, the more experienced climber between us, stayed behind as a spotter -- and to keep the boat from getting pulled into the middle of the lake, of course.

It wasn't that difficult a climb -- only twenty feet or so from the pond surface to the summit, footholds everywhere, and by no means a sheer surface -- but still sufficiently high above the rocks in the shallows that a fall would cost me the use of my legs a good while.

About 3/4 of the way up, I stalled, having reached a position where there was no safe way to proceed. Moving either foot up to the fold at my left would throw off my balance and cost me my wright handhold. Making a grab for the stone a foot or two above my right hand would mean sacrificing my footing, and I could see no obvious place to move my other hand during that crucial half-second of weightlessness between grips. And my present position was taking considerable effort to maintain...

Observing this, Jen called up to me from the raft.

"Pat! Be sure to do the right thing."

She said it so unexpectedly -- at just such a moment, and with such a peculiar weight of meaning that I had to laugh.

I clambered back down a few feet and took an alternate route to the right, and gained the summit within twenty seconds.

Be sure to do the right thing.

The far side of the ridge sloped into a rocky hill with a footpath leading to the rim of the lake, where Jen was waiting for me.

"Thanks for the advice," I told her. "I'll remember it."

Jen looked puzzled. "Huh?"

"Be sure to do the right thing."

She stared back at me for a second. Her face went a little red.

"Wait, what? That isn't what I -- I was talking about the rocks."

"Nevertheless, thanks."

"Get in the boat, weirdo."

I sometimes suspect Jen is a bodhisattva -- a soul who has achieved nirvana during a previous life, but elects to return to the cycle of suffering through birth and death in order to help others find the truth.

("And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh." - Friedrich Nietzsche)

A few minutes later, the raft began deflating when when the duct tape Jen had used to patch a leak came loose. She took both oars, thrust an air pump into my hands, and sped us towards the shore while I frantically fed air to the boat to keep it from sinking.

I'm not sure if there's a simple universal truth to be inferred from that incident, but it was certainly funny.

(Sometimes I wonder at the vagueness of the partition between the absurd and the true.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011


I hate the title as much as you, but it seemed right somehow. Click to enlarge and read!

The sad part is that I didn't quit smoking. I got the idea for the strip and sketched it out back when I was trying to quit, then sorta let it drop when I relapsed.

Now I've settled for trying to smoke more. Hey, at least it's a realistic goal.