Yielding results.

I’ve been trying without much success to write an essay about Francis Fukuyama’s widely misunderstood 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, and how it’s more ambivalent about the apparent triumph of liberal democracy than its conservative critics tend to recognize.

This article in City Journal, “A Primal Struggle for Dominance”, seemed to promise an engagement with Fukuyamian themes. (One of the chapters in The End of History is titled “In the Beginning, a Battle to the Death for Pure Prestige”.) But it was less relevant than I’d hoped. The author, Robert Henderson, rounds up some research illustrating the unsurprising fact that the breakdown of status hierarchies tends to lead to violence – and predicts that, given the ongoing delegitimization of police and other authority figures, the current spasm of leftist street brawling is likely to continue.

As part of his discussion of the stability of hierarchies, Henderson observes that while animals of unequal size are unlikely to do each other much harm when scrapping over food or territory – because the smaller one will quickly submit – in cases where the animals are evenly matched the fight may drag on, leading to serious injury.

In human society our methods for determining dominance are a little more subtle, but size still plays a part. Henderson points to a Dutch study showing that when two pedestrians of the same sex and approximate age approached each other in a narrow passageway partially blocked by scaffolding, the shorter one gave way to the taller 75% of the time.

In a variation of the above experiment, the Dutch researchers enlisted subjects of various heights to walk against the flow of pedestrian traffic and record how often oncoming pedestrians altered course to avoid them. They determined that people were more likely to alter their course to avoid, and less likely to bump into, taller subjects of either sex.

Reading this study, I was reminded of a post from Steve Sailer’s blog last year that highlighted complementary articles from the world of Grievance Journalism.

First there was Greg Howard, a black man writing for the New York Times, who complained about white women crowding him off the sidewalk by declining to make room when they saw him approaching:

Why haven’t I ever just walked headlong into a rude white woman? What lessons tug at me, force me off the sidewalk, tell me that my personal space is not necessarily mine? Because explicit in every white woman’s decision not to get out of my way is the expectation that I’ll get out of theirs.

Then there was Charlotte Riley in The New Statesman, complaining that it was men who “have been socialized, for their entire lives, to take up space” who were crowding women off the sidewalk, and that to even the score she now refused to give way:

You need to really commit to Patriarchy Chicken: don’t let your social instinct to step to the side kick in. Men are going to walk into you: that isn’t your fault.

Sailer imagined a game show called Intersectional Intersection in which various minority, gender non-conforming, undocumented, differently-abled, and otherwise marginalized people would approach each other from opposite directions to see who yielded to whom.

These articles stuck in my memory because around the same time, after spending the afternoon in a heavily Chinese neighbourhood here in Metro Vancouver, I was temporarily convinced that Chinese women were obnoxiously hogging the sidewalk.

Three, maybe four times that afternoon, as I approached Chinese women walking singly or in small groups, rather than scooching over to make room for me to pass, they barrelled straight ahead like I wasn’t there, obliging me to step off the pavement onto the muddy grass.

The next day, back in my own neighbourhood, it happened again, and I found myself thinking, maybe Chinese women just don’t know how to bloody well walk.

Luckily, I was familiar with the concept (although I had to Google the term) of apophenia – the natural human tendency to perceive patterns in random data.

Otherwise I might have done something truly embarrassing, like publish a clickbait article about how insufferably privileged Chinese women were, and how I was therefore entitled to retaliate with antisocial behaviour of my own.

***

I’d watch Intersectional Intersection: I’d be curious to see who’d win. But the results wouldn’t have much scientific validity.

It’s certainly possible that different nations, different subcultures, different genders, have different attitudes to sharing public spaces. Maybe men, maybe white people, really do tend to hog the sidewalk. As a white guy, I’d be the last to notice.

The Dutch height study gives us some ideas for the design of an experiment that might settle the question:

• We’ll need a location with a large number of pedestrians passing each other in a narrow space, while unaware that they’re under observation.

• The pedestrians will have somehow to be categorized by race, gender, or other relevant demographic category. In the Dutch study, there was no interaction with the subjects – the observers assessed their height, gender, and approximate age from a concealed position across the street. With race – nowadays even with gender – this would obviously present problems. Perhaps we could chase people down after they’ve cleared the observation zone, and ask which race, gender, or marginalized group they identify with. I imagine we’ll get a lot of rebuffs from impatient or irritable subjects, whose data will then have to be thrown out. Will this skew the results?

• We’ll need to grade each interaction according to who yielded, which will mean agreeing on how much lateral movement counts as “yielding”. The Dutch study cleverly took advantage of an obstacle that allowed only one pedestrian to pass at a time.

• And ideally, unlike the Dutch study – conducted in a single “mid-size city in the north of the Netherlands” – our experiment should be conducted at multiple locations, with different population mixes, to see how each group’s YQ (Yieldingness Quotient) varies in majority, minority, and evenly-mixed situations.

Alternatively, we could simply ask subjects to report who tends to crowd them off the sidewalk, and discover – what a scoop! – that it’s members of the group against whom they already have a grudge.

M.

My old post on whether crosswalk timers cause car accidents seems vaguely relevant to today’s theme; likewise this more recent entry on the social pressure to turn right on a red light. In 2019 I described an incident of cross-cultural confusion on a crowded bus that could, if I were a maniac, be spun into a generalization about racial privilege.

Dumb Yanks and witty Brits.

A while back I found myself getting nettled by a video posted to the comment section of Steve Sailer’s blog. Given the number of kooky conspiracy theories and racist rants to be found there, it might surprise you that the cause of my irritation was this clip of British TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson and Michael McIntyre joking about crosswalk signals.

I’d never heard of McIntyre, and Clarkson’s name I only vaguely knew – it seems he is the former host of a long-running TV show about automobiles. In view of the hundreds of cars of various makes and national origins which he must have driven, I suppose I must defer to Clarkson’s expertise when he asserts that,

American cars always have the words for what it is written on it, on the switches – it says “cigarette lighter”, “horn”, “lights” – whereas everywhere else in the world, where there are other languages, it’s symbols.

I’ve never noticed this, but I can’t say I’ve paid all that much attention to the labels on the dashboards of the various cars I’ve driven over the years – except when I’ve had to consult the owner’s manual for an explanation of a baffling warning light.

But what I found irritating was Clarkson’s crack that the use of written words instead of pictograms was an illustration of “how stupid [Americans] are”.

I know, I know. The two Brits were only indulging in a bit of mild national stereotyping: Germans are control freaks, Frenchmen are pretentious and chic, and Americans are dim-witted boobs. If it were the Americans who used pictograms, while the rest of the world used text, that too would be adduced as evidence of their dim-wittedness. “Americans – too simple to read four letter words,” Clarkson would declare, and the audience would cackle happily.

My fellow Canadians are equally happy to pass rude comments about our southern neighbours, and it annoys the hell out of me – especially since, unlike the Brits, proud possessors of a rich and largely self-sufficient national culture, we import most of our TV, movies, music, and literature from the States. That jackass you overheard at Second Cup sneering about Walmart-shopping, Big Mac-addicted American morons probably spent the weekend watching Better Call Saul, listening to Lana Del Rey, and reading Slate.

***

In a recent essay I discussed a very politically incorrect old story by G.K. Chesterton, featuring his amateur sleuth Father Brown.

The story, “The God of the Gongs”, concerns a Jamaican boxer who is secretly the chief priest of a voodoo murder cult. When we first encounter the boxer he’s done up in fancy attire and swanking out the door on his way to a big match. Chesterton comments,

And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude – an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk.

This “attitude” is so provoking to Father Brown’s friend and sidekick Flambeau that he comments, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.” (The priest gently rebukes him.) You see what I mean about the story being politically incorrect.

Anyway, in my earlier essay I glossed over the bit about the cake walk. Nowadays the expression is usually used as a synonym for “a piece of cake” – a task so unchallenging that you don’t even break a sweat.

But it originated as a dance performed by black slaves in the American south, supposedly in mocking imitation of the dances of white folks. These slave dances were organized into contests where the winner would receive a cake.

The dance survived at least into the 1920s – jazz fans may be familiar with the old Louis Armstrong number “Cake Walking Babies From Home”. How well-acquainted an English audience would have been with the cake walk, I’m not sure. I suspect Chesterton used the term to vaguely signify all kinds of energetic black dancing.

If I’m understanding him correctly, when Chesterton refers to the “attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices” he means that racial prejudices are rarely wholly false. In this case, the “innocent and insolent” attitude of the boxer is illustrative of some widely shared racial characteristic of black people, also exhibited in the cake walk.

Before you get too mad at Chesterton, I’d point out that back in his day, German and French were also considered “races”, and that he’d use a similar argument to defend the ethnic stereotyping in that BCC talk show clip.

I have no idea, by the way, whether Chesterton believed that racial characteristics were inborn or culturally transmitted. At that time, remember, it was progressives who were obsessed with harnessing the new science of heredity, while fusty old reactionaries like Chesterton (and, over in America, William Jennings Bryan) insisted that all men were equal in the eyes of God.

(But I’m sure whatever Chesterton’s opinion, it would have been expressed in terms that would outrage the same audience that found Michael McIntyre’s stereotyping of Germans and Frenchmen hilarious.)

Nowadays nearly everyone, besides a few dissidents like Steve Sailer, professes to believe that behaviour is determined solely by culture. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would be appalled if anyone interpreted his comments about the stupidity of Americans to mean that he thought Americans were hereditarily predisposed to have lower IQs.

No no no, he’d say, it’s their stupid culture that makes Americans stupid.

***

There’s a shortcut I sometimes take that passes by the side of the library. Often you’ll see groups of homeless guys hanging out on the benches there.

One day a few weeks back, the homeless guys were amusing themselves by heckling the passersby. “Hey, watch out,” one of them said as I approached. “This guy’s gonna beat us up. Are you gonna beat us up?”

“I’ll try and restrain myself,” I replied genially, walking past them.

Then one of them came up with a heckle that was surprisingly on-the-nose. “D’joo do the – the – the New York crossword puzzle?” he yelled after me.

I just kept walking. I was, in fact, on my way to the coffeeshop to read the paper and do the crossword.

Maybe the guy had noticed me before doing a crossword. I can often be spotted on coffeeshop patios around here doing just that.

But the fact that he specified the “New York crossword puzzle” – by which presumably he meant the New York Times crossword – made me wonder. In this guy’s mind, what did the New York Times crossword signify?

I have a friend who used to watch the filmed-in-Vancouver fantasy show Supernatural. As near as I can tell, it’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you replaced all the cute girls with dreamy floppy-haired boys, then made the scripts about 50% dumber.

My friend told me about an episode where a character called Sam was working undercover as a bartender. A co-worker was intrigued when she noticed Sam doing a crossword puzzle – “the notoriously difficult New York Times Saturday crossword”, as Supernatural Wiki glossed the scene – from which she concluded that this mysterious stranger was “obviously highly educated”.

My friend scoffed because she knew that I did the Saturday puzzle all the time, and she also knew that – well, first off, that I’m far from highly educated; but more to the point, that I’m kind of a dummy.

I’m trying to be delicate about this because there are people out there who’ve never managed to finish the Saturday puzzle – I used to be one myself – and who will be annoyed if I disparage it as an unworthy intellectual challenge. They’ll assume that I’m snobbishly flaunting my high IQ.

So listen: I’ve never taken an IQ test. I assume that if I did I’d score around the middle of the pack.

I read a lot. I have a decent memory for certain kinds of trivia. But I struggle with tasks requiring the most elementary math, like doing my taxes, or figuring out which size of M&Ms package has the lowest per-M&M price.

I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can’t give an intelligible account of the plot of a movie ten minutes after I’ve finished watching it. I’m hopeless at games of strategy like chess or Risk. Words and names I remember. It’s sequential thinking that trips me up.

Which is probably why so many of my blog posts – including this one – consist of a series of short, disconnected thoughts, thrown together with only the most half-hearted attempt at organization.

The point is that my extremely middling intelligence is sufficient for me to solve the “notoriously difficult” Saturday New York Times crossword, usually in about twenty minutes.

And if I’m feeling smug after this feat, all I have to do is flip over to the London Times cryptic to be reminded again how stupid I am.

saturday new york times crossword july 4 2020 sunday times cryptic crossword july 26 2020
Compare for yourself: the New York Times crossword and Sunday Times cryptic in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020.

***

I have a theory. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, there’s another one coming along in a few paragraphs.

My theory is that outsiders tend to think American culture is dumb because we’re subjected to so much of it. Hollywood so dominates the global entertainment racket that we can’t escape from its products – from middlebrow costume dramas to CGI superhero epics right down to the latest direct-to-Netflix masterpiece Adam Sandler farted out over the long weekend.

It’s not that American culture is dominated by dumb garbage. Every culture is dominated by dumb garbage. (Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crud.”) It’s just that no other culture has so much power to sluice its garbage directly into foreigners’ brains.

The British produce all sorts of garbage – tawdry reality shows, formulaic sitcoms, vapid pop music. On this side of the Atlantic, we see only a trickle of it. It’s crowded out by American garbage, which is no better or worse than the British variety, just easier for us to absorb, because it speaks to us in homey accents and familiar slang.

When we in North America think of British culture, we’re not thinking of the whole of British culture. We’re thinking only of the small selection of it that American media companies thought we’d be interested enough to pay to see. It’s not all great – a lot of it, like the Harry Potter books, is in fact pretty dopey. But most of the low-quality, instantly forgettable junk has been filtered out.

It’s like how when we think of movies from Hollywood’s golden age we tend to think of immortal classics like Casablanca or All About Eve, rather than the hundreds of movies Hollywood churned out every year that were forgotten before the stars’ names came down from the marquee. If we were to travel back to the 1940s and go to the pictures a couple times a week we’d quickly realize that, actually, most of those pictures were crap. But time has filtered the crap out.

There’s a similar filter hanging across the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of Britain’s crap gets caught in the filter. But America’s crap is projected with so much force that a fair bit of it squeezes through.

(I’d add that American cultural products that are projected less forcefully – by which I mean those that don’t have big money behind them – get caught in the same mid-Atlantic filter. Thus a lot of the more idiosyncratic stuff that might force snooty Brits to adjust their stereotypes about America, they never get a chance to see.)

Okay, that’s one theory. Here’s an alternative one: Brits think American culture is dumber because American culture is, in fact, dumber.

This isn’t necessarily because Americans are dumber than Brits – though it should be mentioned that, both in comparisons of international test scores and in estimates of mean national IQ, the UK comes out a little ahead of America.

However, the same Brits who sneer at American stupidity are likely to be made extremely uneasy by the presence of a bunch of Third World countries at the bottom of the international test score rankings: that’s not the kind of stereotyping that gets big laffs from BBC talk show audiences.

So let’s throw out all that nasty psychometric data and concentrate on what’s really at issue here: creationist theme parks, non-socialized health care, the Second Amendment, and other such cultural manifestations which we shall prove scientifically to be, you know…dumb.

***

A few years back I embarked on what I thought was a straightforward project to determine whether, in the previous decade, there had been more movies made about World War II or the Global War on Terror.

I spent countless hours skimming the Wikipedia plot summaries of obscure films and recording my results in a tidy spreadsheet. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my question was meaningless. Depending on how I defined “movie”, how I defined “about”, and how I defined the conflicts in question, I could jigger my data to achieve whichever result I preferred.

If I wanted to tilt my results in favour of World War II, I could limit my database to the kind of big-budget productions that could afford period costumes and special effects. If I wanted to include more War on Terror movies, well, that conflict was usefully amorphous – any number of vaguely terrorist-themed shoot-’em-ups could be lassoed in.

I consider this abandoned project to have been an invaluable use of my time. It has taught me to be extremely skeptical of any study whose results might be used to prove a political point and whose data set the researchers have the leeway to define.

terrorism falling furniture graph slate star codex

Image source: “Terrorists Vs. Chairs: An Outlier Story”, Slate Star Codex, 2016.

Imagine that one were to attempt to prove the statement, “British culture is more sophisticated than American culture”. Every single term in that statement is open to interpretation – even, to get Clintonian about it, “the meaning of the word is”.

After all, a national culture doesn’t consist only of the literature, music, and art that a nation is producing at this very moment. It extends backwards into time. The modern Greeks, by virtue of having had Homer and Plato and the Parthenon passed down to them from their distant ancestors, enjoy a far more elevated culture than they would if they were forced to fill up their libraries and museums from scratch.

Likewise, modern Britain gets a good deal of elevation from having Shakespeare in its past, even if the average Brit can quote more lines of Love Actually than of Hamlet.

Since we tend, when we think of culture, to think first of symphonies, poems, and cathedrals, rather than advertising jingles, taqueria menus, and big box stores – although in fact culture comprises the chintzy and transient as much as it does the glorious and immortal – Britain’s culture appears richer than America’s simply because of its thousand-year head start.

Does the UK enjoy an unfair advantage from having all those monuments and leatherbound books lying around radiating classiness?

Or does all that mossy old junk actually disincentivize achievement, by making young people feel that everything’s been done already, so why bother trying?

***

Forget the past. Let’s stick to what’s being churned out right now. How might we go about comparing the sophistication level of modern-day British and American culture?

One approach might be to estimate the level of intelligence needed to comprehend cultural products that occupy a similar niche in each country. Is it true, as my own experiences would lead me to suspect, that you have to be substantially smarter to solve the Times cryptic crossword than you have to be to solve the Saturday New York Times crossword?

If so, does this prove that British crossword puzzlers are smarter than American ones – or merely that British puzzle page editors are more elitist than American ones?

Whichever it is, crossword fans and puzzle page editors are hardly a representative sample of the wider population. Let’s expand the scope beyond the puzzle page. Suppose you were to conduct a textual analysis of a year’s worth of stories from the ten highest-circulation newspapers in each country, comparing vocabulary, grammatical complexity, the frequency and type of literary allusions, and so forth. Would this analysis be more meaningful?

us versus uk newspapers by circulation

Top newspapers by paid circulation, USA and UK.

The Yanks might easily come out ahead in such a contest: many of the biggest papers in the UK are lowbrow tabloids, a market niche that is served in the States primarily by magazines.

However, a motivated researcher could easily widen or narrow the data set to give the British side a leg up. Maybe instead of circulation figures, you could look at the most influential newspapers – defining “influential” by incoming links, or Twitter mentions, or journalism prizes, or whatever.

And if that still doesn’t lead to the results you want, well, who pays any attention to newspapers these days? Maybe a side-by-side comparison of primetime TV lineups would be more pertinent…or the most popular podcasts…or the most-followed celebrities’ Twitter feeds…

***

Suppose an unimaginably powerful A.I. could somehow hoover up and analyze all the text, speeches, tweets, Instagram captions, comic books, signage, infographics, computer code, mathematics, movies, music – every product of human intelligence emitted by each country over a clearly defined period – average it all out, and assign a numerical grade. Would even this number be meaningful?

Consider music. Some of the most “sophisticated” stuff – at least measured by the apparent IQ level of the people who claim to enjoy it – is uncomplicated to the point of banality: droning classical of the Philip Glass and John Adams variety; purposely sloppy art-rock in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart; even the swaggering rap lyrics whose untutored exuberance our cultural betters swoon over.

I can’t understand their enthusiasms, but then, neither can I understand people who are into Wagner. My best guess is that some people regard music-listening much as I regard solving the crossword puzzle – it’s only rewarding if there’s some level of difficulty. Any bozo can hum along to a Beatles tune, but to enjoy Tristan und Isolde or Trout Mask Replica you must conquer your body’s natural resistance – boredom in the first case, annoyance in the second – in order to discover the patterns and variations that, in “easier” compositions by Bach or Duke Ellington, are apparent at first hearing.

Apply this logic to other cultural artifacts and it leads to hilarity. Sure, Boris Johnson can quote from memory, in the original Greek, sizeable chunks of The Iliad – but only a middlebrow would be impressed by such virtuosity. Any bozo can learn a few lines of verse in a foreign language – heck, I’ll trot over to the mall food court and round up a half-dozen Chinese immigrant kids who know all the words to “W.A.P.”

On the other hand, the genius of a Trump rally speech, assembled on the fly out of schoolyard taunts, self-promotion, and Seinfeldian observations about life’s minutiae – that’s visible only to the cognoscenti.

***

But I’m getting off track. After piling up a couple thousand words attempting to disprove the proposition that British culture is in any way more conducive to sophistication than American, I might as well admit that deep down I suspect that the proposition is actually true.

It’s not that Brits are smarter. It’s just that British culture seems to offer a bit more headroom in the upper range of the upper middlebrow – the area somewhat above my own browline, where you’ll find perfectly ordinary, unpretentious, bright folks like the ones who solve the Times cryptic crossword.

I can’t prove this proposition. It’s just a rough guess, based on intuition and anecdotal evidence – the kind of shaky conclusion you’d expect from a guy down here in mid-middlebrow territory, among the other New York Times crossword people.

M.

Speaking of pictograms as a marker of intelligence, a few weeks back I pondered the meaning of the elephant of Han Fei. In 2018 I considered the role of the thesaurus in helping authors create the illusion of effortless verbal fluency. And in 2015 I contrasted Bertrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton’s opinions on the “narrowness” of small-town life.

 

Quick and dirty: Once more on cost disease.

After stumbling across my old blog post on “Cost disease and Canadian transit”, the writer and transportation researcher Stephen Wickens sent me a link to a study he authored earlier this year:

Station to Station: Why Subway-Building Costs Have Soared in the Toronto Region

It’s an in-depth look at the question I asked, and failed to answer, in my original post and its 2019 follow up: why are modern rapid transit projects so ridiculously expensive – even after you adjust for inflation – compared to similar projects from as recently as the 1990s?

Subways cost far more now in real dollars than they did decades ago, even though the latest projects have had fewer stations per kilometre and traverse simpler, less-dense contexts. The new lines are projected to cost more despite being delivered during an extended period of record-low borrowing costs. Further, these projects will be delivered using the province’s public-private partnership (P3) program, which is supposed to offer better value for the money.

Although this topic is old news to me and many of my readers – and to readers of Slate Star Codex, whose 2017 post “Considerations On Cost Disease” brought it to my attention – Wickens mentions that the extent of the problem has yet to be recognized by some of our decision-makers:

When asked why we were more efficient at delivering infrastructure in the 1950s and ’60s, the president and chief executive of Canada’s Infrastructure Bank, Pierre Lavallée, smiled and asked: “Is that actually true?” Moments later, SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president, Dale Clarke, responded with: “I think that [greater efficiencies in an earlier era] may be more of a perception than a reality.”

I wish I could say that Wickens’ study had cracked the question of why cost disease took off so dramatically around the turn of the millennium, but I’m afraid that, despite the impressive breadth of his research, his conclusions aren’t much more definitive than mine. Essentially, he concludes (as I did) that it’s the result of the convergence of a number of trends.

From Wickens’ summary of his study at BlogTO:

The biggest factors in these skyrocketing costs, the study finds, are station depths—some stations on the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension, completed in 2017, go seven storeys into the ground—as well as things like rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity, corridor clearing and maintenance, and the cost of delays and “political meddling in the planning process.”

Many of Wickens’ Key Recommendations line up with cost drivers I identified in my earlier posts: rising land values, “infrastructure clutter” complicating construction, and the short-sighted selling-off of disused rail corridors forcing planners to default to pricier alternative routes.

Others, like Wickens’ suggestion to “reuse excess soil beneficially”, would never have occurred to me.

I’m a little skeptical about at least one of his recommendations, “Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts”.

I’ve argued that one of the factors driving rising costs is that it’s easier these days for ordinary schmucks (like me) to keep on top of construction plans whose details, in the past, would have been known only to a handful of insiders.

As I wrote in 2019, “The internet has made it cheaper and easier for obstructionists to organize and demand pricey compromises.” Whether the compromises are for the better or the worse, they lead to expensive reversals of already-made plans – in other words, to “political meddling in the planning process”.

I’m not saying “let’s just leave it to the experts” – only that soliciting a wider range of opinions is unlikely to result in greater consensus, and may well lead to more expensive dithering over the drawing board.

If we’re looking for an honest answer to the question, “How were they able to build so cheaply in the 20th century?” part of it is that they had 20th-century ideas about how to get things done – with less community engagement and more guys in suits barking orders into telephones.

***

The above reference to budget-busting seven-storey underground stations is just one of many in Wickens’ study, which began as an attempt to figure out whether overruns on the Line 1 extension to Vaughan were driven by overly grandiose station designs.

Wickens repeatedly draws our attention to the added expense of bored subway tunnels – necessitating bigger, deeper stations – over the cheaper, shallower cut-and-cover construction used in the last century. Cut-and-cover has been ruled out in more recent projects because it tends to rile up residents and businesses along the affected corridors.

Vancouver readers will be interested in the discussion of the construction of the Canada Line, and subsequent lawsuits brought by Cambie merchants over the effects of having a huge trench outside their storefronts for three years.

canada line construction vancouver cambie street

Cambie Street in 2007. Source: Whatever2009, Wikimedia Commons.

Observing that the choice of cut-and-cover rather than a bored tunnel shaved $400 million from the Canada Line project budget, Wickens writes that:

Courts have awarded three merchants compensation for “injurious affection” totalling $181,040 (though that decision has been appealed), with 97 more cases still to be ruled upon. Even if the $60,000-plus payout average were to hold, a cumulative $6 million would still be a good tradeoff for a $400-million saving. [1]

True, but (as Wickens concedes in the following paragraph) many Cambie residents and business owners would raise a holler at that cold-blooded calculation. The root of the dilemma can be glimpsed in this comment, which occurs in a discussion of “under-investment” in Toronto’s 1959 University-Bloor-Danforth subway project:

Nine construction workers lost their lives and many more were injured on the job. Protecting lives adds costs, but it is not something we should ever economize on.

Never? Never ever? I mean, there’s always going to be some level of risk wherever you have soft, fleshy humans working in the vicinity of enormous metal teeth tearing into the earth. Today we’re willing to accept far less risk than we were in 1959, and in another sixty years our grandchildren may shudder at today’s level of unsafety. Imagine, workers standing out in the sun without OHS-mandated parasol-holders shielding them from harmful UV rays! They were a foolhardy breed, those cancer-ridden hardhats of 2020…

What if future planners decide that protecting the psychiatric well-being of people living in construction zones “is not something we should ever economize on”? What are we, monsters, knowingly exposing children, the elderly, and neurodivergent individuals to dust-filled air, the sound of jackhammers, and burly men using gendered language, just to save a few hundred million bucks?

Forgive me if my facetious tone makes it sound like I’m scoffing at the unnecessary deaths of those 1950s construction workers. I’m not – but it’s easy to imagine them scoffing at the level of safety-consciousness that has taken hold in recent years. In any case I suspect that that safety-consciousness is a big factor in the “rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity” mentioned by Wickens above, and if we’re not going to resist it – which, perhaps, we shouldn’t – then we’re going to have to find somewhere else to cut back. Don’t ask me, I’m all out of ideas.

M.

Update, Sept. 9, 2020: Stephen Wickens kindly emailed to suggest that I’d “misconstrued” one of his Key Recommendations. He’s right. Here’s his recommendation in its entirety:

1) Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts. Even people who never ride public transit benefit hugely from its existence and, with constraints on our ability to add more road space, the benefits of expanded transit will increasingly be more important than ever. The infrastructure cost crisis is growing, and without prompt and appropriate responses it will damage the long-term competitiveness of the [Greater Toronto Area], with harmful knock-on effects for all of Canada. Cities that make wise transit planning decisions will have major competitive advantages in the 21st century. Merely building will not be enough. If we spend foolishly, we undermine the public’s willingness to fund future projects, no matter how urgent they might be.

He’s not arguing, as I lazily implied, for “ordinary schmucks (like me)” to have greater input into the transit planning process. He’s merely saying that a wider range of decision-makers need to be made aware of the fact that cost disease, or the “cost crisis”, as he prefers, is a problem at all.

In fact, you could read a later Key Recommendation as advising that we ordinary schmucks be kept in our place:

9) Approve long-term transit plans based on real evidence. Politicians have hugely important roles to play in ensuring contracts are fulfilled and in choosing service-policies (ridership growth versus broader network coverage for example). They should also retain the best and most powerful role in the process: choosing which projects get approved and funded, but only from a menu of options prepared by transit experts who have been freed to exercise professional independence and publicly speak truth to power. The GTA’s multidecade descent into a transit crisis is rooted at least partly in an ethical breach that needs to be sealed off immediately. When politicians can interfere in preparing the menus of options, we inevitably waste and misuse experts by having them engage in “decision-based evidence making.” Planners and consultants need to be able to safely raise and study good options even if those options are seen as threats to projects promised by politicians in power, or seeking office. Often, the only options that make it to the table are unnecessarily costly and of questionable worth, while more practical solutions receive little or no consideration.

(In a democracy, the rules of polite discourse preclude us from saying, “Keep those uninformed plebes out of the planning process, they inevitably mess everything up”. We must instead direct our ire at the politicians elevated to power by those same uninformed plebes.)

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about Key Recommendation #9. I’m not sure I have much more faith in the wisdom of supposedly impartial transit experts than I do in the squabbling mayors, premiers, and prime ministers who continually rip up and rearrange their tidy plans.

Ideally the two sides offset each other’s worst tendencies – with the experts providing some ballast to politicians’ pie-in-the-sky promises, while the politicians rein in the experts’ tendency to prioritize current fashions in urbanism over the preferences of real, unruly humans. Perhaps the sides were better balanced in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when Toronto constructed the bulk of its subway system at what now seem impossibly modest prices – but I’m not sure. Were experts really more independent back then? Were politicians really more deferential?

However we apportion the responsibility, the politicians and experts of 20th-century Toronto made a lot of what are now generally regarded as dumb decisions – a lakefront expressway; the Scarborough RT; subways stretching ever deeper into the suburbs while downtown stations became dangerously overcrowded. But they made those dumb decisions quickly. In 21st-century terms, they moved fast and broke things.

20th-century infrastructure was cheaper, in part, because decision-makers were willing to risk breaking things. They could take those risks because everything was cheaper – hence, the financial stakes for each decision were lower.

This update is now nearly as long as the original post. You should ignore my blethering and, if you haven’t already, go read Wickens’ study.

1. That $180,000 award to three Cambie businesses affected by Canada Line construction was later overturned by the BC Supreme Court.

Stephen Wickens hasn’t updated his blog for a while, but his 2019 article advocating a commuter rail “Smart Spur” to Scarborough Town Centre (instead of the planned $4 billion subway extension) makes a lot of sense to me. I haven’t been writing much about transit issues either, in part because I fear that, in light of recent events, mass transportation has become passé. If you’re looking for a more literary variation on how they used to do things better back in the 20th century grumble grumble goddamn rap music, I’ve got you covered.

And this grave gent lives on.

Early in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 account of the pioneering days of the U.S. space program, the original seven Mercury astronauts are introduced to the American press.

tom wolfe the right stuff

Although not unpossessed of healthy egos, the seven are taken aback by the universal hosannas with which they are greeted. After all, they haven’t done anything yet, besides endure a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests, an inordinate number of them involving having things inserted up their butts. Most of the seven are test pilots and fighter jocks, but the space program has selected them less for their skill than for their obedience, their unflappability under pressure – and their below-average height, in order to squeeze into the cramped Mercury capsule.

At their introductory press conference, they’re invited to hold forth on their patriotism, their churchgoing habits, their bravery – subjects they’ve been accustomed to avoid discussing in their flying careers, where manly laconism is the rule. Only one of the seven, future first-American-to-orbit-the-earth, senator, and presidential candidate John Glenn, is adept at spinning this type of self-promoting schmaltz. (“Glenn had not gotten this far in his career by standing still in a saintly fashion and waiting for his halo to be noticed.”) The other astronauts do their best to keep up.

But it hardly matters what they say. The ladies and gentlemen of the press know how to spin it:

It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950’s (as in the late 1970’s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space. In either case, the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one’s private life are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health.)

Shortly afterward, the famed pilot and breaker of the sound barrier Chuck Yeager – who was disqualified from the astronaut search due to his lack of a university degree – makes the mistake of responding forthrightly to a reporter who asks if he’s disappointed at not being among the Mercury seven.

The thing was, he said, the Mercury system was completely automated. Once they put you in the capsule, that was the last you got to say about the subject.

Whuh!

“Well,” said Yeager, “a monkey’s gonna make the first flight.”

A monkey?

The reporters were shocked. It happened to be true that the plans called for sending up chimpanzees in both suborbital and orbital flights, identical to the flights the astronauts would make, before risking the men. But to just say it like that! . . . Was this national heresy? What the hell was it?

Fortunately for Yeager, the story didn’t blow up into anything. The press, the eternal Victorian Gent, just couldn’t deal with what he had said. The wire services wouldn’t touch the remark. It ran in one of the local newspapers, and that was that.

In those days, the press had the ability to bury comments that undermined the preferred narrative. Nowadays, of course, some self-appointed upholder of the “fitting moral tone” would pick up on Yeager’s impolitic comment and tweet it to the outraged masses, forcing the media to cover the story. Every outlet from the Washington Post down to Teen Vogue would rush out a thinkpiece explaining why Yeager’s comparison of astronauts to monkeys was divisive, irresponsible, and Not Who We Are – or, as they would have phrased it in the Eisenhower era, downright un-American.

M.

I referenced Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic while reflecting on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism last year. As for the media’s determination to dress up our diet of bare facts with a side-order of the correct feelings, I’ve alluded to it in my discussions of Gell-Mann AmnesiaTonypandy, and Greta Thunberg’s unphotogenic snarl.

The lessons of three elephants.

In the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, the character 象 (in Mandarin, xiàng) represents an elephant. The trunk and head are at the top, legs on the left, tail at the bottom. [1]

Curiously enough, this character also represents representation. To steal some examples from the 象 Wiktionary page:

意象 (yìxiàng) is a mental impression or conception: a thought-representation.
血象 (xuèxiàng) is a hemogram: a blood-representation.
象形 (xiàngxíng) is a pictogram: a representation-shape.

The character (also pronounced xiàng), which is the elephant crammed together with a lopsided man (人), means a picture or image, or (as a verb) to resemble.

How did a squiggle of an elephant come to represent representation? Wiktionary quotes the 3rd century BC philosopher Han Fei, who hypothesized:

Men rarely see living elephants. As they come by the skeleton of a dead elephant, they imagine its living form according to its features. Therefore it comes to pass that whatever people use for imagining the real is called 象 .

This page about the Da Xiang (大象 – a famous commentary on the I Ching) proposes a less fanciful theory:

The meaning “symbolism” for 象 is sometimes said in traditional Chinese lexicography to be an extension from this primary meaning [of “elephant”], relating to the carving of ivory.

In other words, the mental process may have been elephantivoryivory sculpturesculpture in generalrepresentation in general.

But most likely, the character for “elephant” was simply borrowed for a similar-sounding word meaning “image”. Many Chinese characters originated that way.

Suppose that we English-speakers had never inherited our alphabet from the Romans. Instead, like the Chinese, we had evolved a writing system out of basic pictograms. For our word “elephant” we might now have a character like:

But way in the past, some scribe noticed that we needed a character for “elegant”, and after messing around for a while with stickmen wearing bow-ties he figured, screw it, I’ll just use the “elephant” character, and let readers figure out from context which I’m referring to.

No doubt after a few hundred years, when the origins of the characters were lost in the mist, our equivalent of Han Fei would come up with a story about how, since elephants were the most dapper and refined of creatures, it made perfect sense for them to share a character with the word “elegant”.

And foreigners would wonder why, whenever an elephant appeared in an English-language cartoon, he always had a posh accent and wore a monocle.

***

In Robert Graves’ 1938 historical novel Count Belisarius, the narrator (the eunuch slave Eugenius) mentions a certain landmark in ancient Constantinople – the elephant of Severus.

Graves learned of this elephant from the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai, an 8th century guide to the sights of the Byzantine capital. It is, as its modern-day editors have described it, “a confused and often inaccurate survey of some classical monuments and statues” that had survived from the pagan era to awe and befuddle later generations of Christians.

According to the Parastaseis, in a colonnade near the Basilica (a civic building located opposite the “Great Church”, i.e. the Hagia Sophia) there stood a huge statue of an elephant, erected in days of yore by the pagan emperor Severus:

For in the same golden-roofed Basilica they say the elephant lived, an extraordinary spectacle. … And they say that in the same place as the elephant lived Carcinelus, a silversmith who used rigged scales. They say he threatened the elephant’s keeper because his house was being damaged, and he frequently vowed that he would kill the keeper if he did not keep the animal in check. But the keeper would not consent to control the elephant with reins. The user of rigged scales killed him and offered him to the elephant as fodder, but the animal, being wild, killed him too. And when Severus heard this he offered many sacrifices to the beast, and they were at once commemorated in statues in that place.

The editors add that,

Severus honours the elephant for its innate wisdom in thus punishing the hot-headed money-lender. The story turns out to have a moral: statues, if old and with pagan connections (here imported by the mention of Severus), or even if simply not understood in a conventional Christian context, nearly always [in the Parastaseis] have a hidden meaning[.]

Recognizing in this muddle the bones of a good story, Graves tidies it up, upgrading the elephant from savage beast to deliberating avenger:

The elephant of Severus is commemorated by a statue close to the Royal Porch, nearly opposite the main entrance to the Hippodrome. It had waited twenty years to catch a certain money-changer on whose evidence its master had been committed to a debtor’s prison, where he had died. At last, while taking part in a procession, it had recognized the money-changer in the crowd lining the street and had seized him with its trunk and trampled him to death. Investigations proved clearly that the money-changer had been a thief and a perjurer, so the elephant was honoured with this statue, which represents it with its master seated upon its neck. The motto is: “It will be avenged at last.” Many who labour under private and public injustice comfort themselves with the elephant’s message.

Later, when Graves’ narrator plans a conspiracy for the overthrow of an old enemy, he arranges his initial rendezvous by the elephant statue.

***

In Graves’ telling, the elephant of Severus represents not only justice, but patience – it waited twenty years to take its revenge.

On the floor of the Cathedral of St. Front in Périgueux, France, there is a mosaic celebrating patientia and its allied virtue, fortitudo. This mosaic once caught the eye of Hilaire Belloc, who, when recalling it years later in an essay called “On Fortitude”, described it rather inaccurately, exaggerating its size, placing it “on a side altar of the northern transept”, and erasing the reference to patientia. [2]

elephant mosaic périgueux cathedral

Belloc’s elephant in Périgueux Cathedral.
Source: The Girl Who Went To Paris.

If the mosaic had celebrated another attribute customarily associated with elephants – memoria – Belloc’s faulty description would have been ironically apt. But perhaps it’s for the best that he was unable to verify his facts with a quick Google search. The elephant as he misremembered it, with its “quiet eye” and “immovable expression” and one-word motto, set off a “whole train of contemplation” which might have gone off the rails if he’d consulted a photo of the real thing.

Fortitude (and her elephant) were here set up in a Christian church because fortitude is entitled one of the great virtues. Now what is fortitude? It is primarily Endurance: that character which we need the most in the dark business of life. But if fortitude be endurance, it is also creative endurance, and at the same time it involves some memory of better times and some expectation of their return. It involves, therefore, fidelity and hope; and, without those two, fortitude would be of little use: but above all fortitude is endurance.

Fortitude is the virtue of the menaced, of the beleaguered. It is the virtue of those of them that man the wall, or that are called upon to last out. This thing, Fortitude, is the converse to and the opposite of aggressive flamboyant courage, yet it is the greater of the two, though often it lacks action. Fortitude wears armour and holds a sword, but it stands ready rather than thrusts forward. It demands no supplement; it is nourished not from without but from within. It is replenished of its own substance. Fortitude does not envisage new things; rather does it tenaciously preserve things known and tried. It builds, but builds unwittingly, not following an inspired plan nor a mere vision, but of necessity; and from stone to stone of daily conservative achievement.

Sometimes fortitude will earn fame, but not often. Always, however, it will earn reward; for even when the defensive fails at the end, if it has been of an efficient sort it makes an air and a name surrounding and enshrining itself. So have the great sieges of history done. So will our time of trial today, if we use it aright.

Belloc’s time of trial was, of course, World War II. Happily, our time of trial is far less all-consumingly urgent. Indeed, it’s possible for intelligent people of all political stripes to wonder whether today’s emergencies are emergencies at all, or mere smokescreens fanned by our enemies to distract our attention while they divide, demoralize, and fleece us.

With that uncertainty in mind, all three of today’s elephants have virtues to teach us:

The elephant of Périgueux advises fortitude and patience, which are essential in any age.

The elephant of Severus illustrates the virtue of a long memory, to help us put our problems in the proper historical perspective.

And the elephant of Han Fei reminds us that our knowledge of the world consists of a bare skeleton of second-hand reports, and that the picture we build up from that skeleton is unlikely to be as marvelous and strange as the real thing.

M.

1. Take everything I say concerning Chinese language and culture with a grain of salt. Not only am I not an expert, I’m barely a dabbler.

2. I came across “On Fortitude” in Hilaire Belloc’s Selected Essays, but it appeared originally in a 1941 collection called The Silence of the Seawitheringly dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov in the New York Times Book Review.

Cathy and Hareton choose peace over remembrance.

It’s always a surprise, re-reading Wuthering Heights. It’s one of those stories (Robinson Crusoe is another) that has been so pruned and planed down in its cinematic retellings, and the countless homages and parodies thereof, that even being acquainted with the lopped-off parts, it’s easy to deprecate them in memory. So I was surprised again to discover how monstrously Heathcliff behaves toward everyone.

wuthering heights kate beaton hark a vagrant

From Hark, A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton.

I remembered the above episode because of Kate Beaton’s comic, but I’d forgotten how when running off with Isabella Linton, purely to torment her, Heathcliff takes the time to hang her little dog by a handkerchief from a hook outside her house. (The dog is rescued just in time.)

And I’d forgotten how soon Cathy dies. The oft-overlooked back half of the story concerns Cathy and Edgar Linton’s daughter, also called Cathy, and Heathcliff’s progressively more unscrupulous efforts to persuade and then force her to marry his and Isabella’s detestable son, Linton Heathcliff. (Emily Brontë seems to have deliberately chosen her characters’ names to maximize reader confusion.) Having succeeded in his aim, the elder Heathcliff imprisons young Cathy in Wuthering Heights to nurse her sickly husband until his death.

Meanwhile Heathcliff has been taking his revenge on Hindley, the elder Cathy’s deceased brother, by raising Hindley’s son to be a coarse and illiterate farmhand. Although young Hareton is at first enchanted by his beautiful and lively cousin, the genteel Cathy despises him and ridicules his clumsy attempts to be kind to her. Hareton soon decides that she’s an impossible brat and goes out of his way to be offensive when she’s around.

After her husband’s death, Cathy goes on living with Hareton and Heathcliff in an atmosphere of general surliness. Luckily, Heathcliff is increasingly absorbed in his communion with the elder Cathy’s ghost, and loses interest in prolonging his vengeance on the children of his enemies. This slight remittance in the toxicity level is enough to revive young Cathy’s innate good nature. She humbly apologizes to Hareton, and when he at first scorns her overtures (assuming them to be a new ploy to torment him), persists in her efforts to win his friendship.

But she almost blows it by speaking frankly about her loathing for Heathcliff, whom Hareton improbably regards as his benefactor:

Catherine was waxing cross at this, but he found means to make her hold her tongue, by asking, how she would like him to speak ill of her father? and then she comprehended that [Hareton] took [Heathcliff]’s reputation home to himself, and was attached by ties stronger than reason could break – chains, forged by habit, which it would be cruel to attempt to loosen.

She showed a good heart, thenceforth, in avoiding both complaints and expressions of antipathy concerning Heathcliff, and confessed to me her sorrow that she had endeavoured to raise a bad spirit between him and Hareton – indeed, I don’t believe she has ever breathed a syllable, in the latter’s hearing, against her oppressor, since.

The novel ends with Heathcliff dead and Cathy and Hareton happily betrothed, having finally ended the previous generation’s cycle of recrimination by the simple expedient of agreeing not to talk about it.

I realize that this moral is at odds with today’s conventional wisdom, which is that victims should never stop dwelling on their victimization. I don’t claim that letting sleeping dogs lie is always the best strategy for fostering peace, but perhaps it’s better than poking sleeping dogs and demanding that they recite their grievances.

Cathy and Hareton are relics of the Victorian sensibility; we live in a Heathcliffian age.

M.

Quibbling readers might have noticed that my previous post concluded with a Father Brown quote that conveys a moral opposite to the one above. So be it. I make no claims to intellectual consistency.

A tinge of regret.

Ron Charles, Washington Post book critic, in an article I quoted already a couple weeks ago:

As Confederate statues tumble across the United States, TV networks are marching through their catalogues and looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon – more shocking with each new announcement. Just in recent weeks, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from The Office, Community, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Saturday Night Live.

It would be interesting to time-travel back to the mid-2000s, when The Office, Community, 30 Rock, and Scrubs were still on the air, and inform their writers that in a decade or so their attempts at racial levity would be considered so “shocking” that they must be hidden away from sensitive viewers’ sight.

It would be more interesting still if we could summon a time traveller from ten years hence to tell us which of today’s critically-acclaimed, widely-beloved shows were destined for the scrapheap of “racially offensive” material. [1]

joey lawrence gimme a break

Joey Lawrence in Gimme A Break! Image source: Mediaite.

I recall as a child in the 1980s being confused by the episode of the sitcom Gimme A Break! where the teenage daughter, angry at her housekeeper and substitute mother-figure Nell Carter, took elaborate revenge by tricking her little brother into performing a blackface dance routine at Nell’s church. This led to Nell sitting the kids down for an earnest talk about racism.

I asked my babysitter to explain what the big deal was, but her answer wasn’t very coherent. I concluded that blackface was bad because it made nice black church ladies unhappy.

Nevertheless, it was routine in the 1980s, and for many years afterward, for white comedians to slap on brown makeup to impersonate Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder or Sammy Davis, just as they’d slap on sideburns and a fat suit for Elvis.

It didn’t occur to me – or, I’m pretty sure, the performers involved – that these impersonations would someday be damned as “blackface”. It’s only in the last decade or so that the new taboo against casting white people in non-white roles bumped up against the much older blackface taboo to retroactively toxify a whole swathe of previously innocent performances.

However, while the impersonators weren’t trying to be insulting, at least they weren’t specifically flaunting their racial enlightenment. The other category of “rediscovered” scenes newly targeted for removal we might call ironic blackface: scenes meant to illustrate the ignorance of white people who would participate in blackface, like the authoritarian weirdo Dwight Schrute in The Office, or the self-absorbed actress Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock, or the alcoholic dirtbags of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

(As a more recent example, there’s the Washington, D.C. woman who was publicly berated, and later lost her job, over a Halloween costume that mocked TV pundit Megyn Kelly for her comments about blackface.)

I enjoy many of the shows above. Still, I chuckle when I think of their hip, well-educated white writers sneering at their characters’ Neanderthal attitudes – only to find themselves tumbled into the cave with their creations.

Now, I try not to get too worked up about taboos. Every society has them, they’re usually not that hard to follow, and even the illogical ones may serve some important solidarity-building function. Some of us oldsters are having a bit of trouble adjusting to the new taboos because we grew up during an era where the old ones – like those against blasphemy, gay intimacy, and interracial relationships – were crumbling, while the new ones were still being applied in a moderate way. Everyone in the 1980s understood that you shouldn’t use “the n-word” as a racial slur, but nobody held it against you when you quoted a third party using it.

The blackface taboo hasn’t yet gone as far as the “n-word” taboo: as far as I can tell, no-one has gotten in trouble for merely publishing a photo of a person in blackface to illustrate a news article or blog post.

And yet if the mere sight of “the n-word” is triggering to the Woke, wouldn’t the photographs adorning the Wikipedia entry on blackface be equally triggering? For that matter, is it possible that the mere description of blackface could at some point in the not-too-very-distant future be made taboo?

Whipple and the white man.

rex stout too many cooks

In Rex Stout’s novel Too Many Cooks, from 1938, the gourmand private detective Nero Wolfe abandons the comforts of his New York home to attend a gathering of the world’s greatest chefs at a luxury hotel in rural West Virginia. Predictably, one of the chefs ends up with a carving knife in his back.

An eyewitness reports that she glimpsed one of the hotel’s black waiters standing near the alcove where the body was found, raising his finger to his lips, as if to shush another black waiter who was peering in from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the witness can’t identify either waiter, so Wolfe assembles the whole serving staff in his hotel room for questioning. They are respectful but nervously uncooperative. The detective believes they are shielding the murderer out of racial solidarity:

“You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them. If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced by the complexion of the man who committed it, no matter whether you yourself are white or pink or black—”

“You’re wrong!”

The source of the interruption is a young waiter named Whipple, a college student who chafes at West Virginia’s racial etiquette; the headwaiter has already reprimanded him for not referring to Wolfe as “sir”.

Wolfe said, “I think I can justify my position, Mr. Whipple. If you’ll let me complete—”

“I don’t mean your position. You can have your logic. I mean your facts. One of them.”

Wolfe lifted his brows. “Which one?”

“The complexion of the murderer.” The college boy was looking him straight in the eye. “He wasn’t a black man. I saw him. He was a white man.”

…Or rather, at the time Whipple saw the man, he wasn’t precisely white:

“Do you think I can’t tell burnt cork from the real thing? I’m a black man myself. But that wasn’t all. As you said, he was holding his finger against his lips, and his hand was different. It wouldn’t have taken a black man to see that. He had on tight black gloves.”

Whipple explains to the skeptical Wolfe why he didn’t come clean earlier:

“Because I’ve learned not to mix up in the affairs of the superior race. If it had been a colored man I would have told. Colored men have got to stop disgracing their color and leave that to white men. You see how good your logic was.”

“But my dear sir. That doesn’t impugn my logic, it merely shows that you agree with me. We must discuss it some time. Then you withheld this fact because you considered it white men’s business and none of yours, and you knew if you divulged it you’d be making trouble for yourself.”

“Plenty of trouble. You’re a northerner—“

And indeed, Whipple’s reticence is justified by the local sheriff’s reaction – a string of racist insults and threats – when Wolfe brings him forward to share the story he’d previously concealed.

The ziggaboo jock.

It’s pretty clear that Nero Wolfe’s declaration that “The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded” reflected the views of his creator – civil libertarian, co-founder of the radical Vanguard Press, critic of the “myth of national sovereignty”, Rex Stout.

But Stout’s narrator, Wolfe’s regular-joe assistant Archie, is less ostentatiously enlightened: he sees no harm in jocularly referring to the hotel’s serving staff as “those blackbirds”. (His employer enquires whether “by blackbirds you mean men with dark skin”. Archie clarifies: “I mean Africans”.)

In the title story of Damon Runyon’s 1935 collection Money From Home, the unnamed narrator exercises a far more unrestrained vocabulary of racial slurs: “boogie”, “jig”, “smoke”, “smudge”, “dinge”, “coon”, and of course, “ziggaboo”. [2]

damon runyon omnibus

As the columnist Heywood Broun put it in the introduction to Runyon’s most famous book, Guys and Dolls:

He has caught with a high degree of insight the actual tone and phrase of the gangsters and racketeers of this town. Their talk is put down almost literally. Of course, like any artist, Damon Runyon has exercised the privilege of selectivity. But he has not heightened or burlesqued the speech of the people who come alive in his short stories.

Eddie Yokum, the hapless protagonist of “Money From Home”, by a series of unwise choices finds himself dressed in a stolen fox-hunting outfit, impersonating a visiting English aristocrat, and wanted by the law on a charge of dognapping.

Here he’s cowering in the furnace room of a snooty country club, wondering how to make his escape, when he remembers the time he knocked ’em dead in the Elks’ minstrel show with his imitations of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor:

The idea is to black up his face right there and walk out to safety, because Eddie figures that anybody who sees him is bound to take him as an employee of the furnace-room, so he peeks into the furnace, and finds a lot of soot, and he makes his face blacker than a yard up a chimney.

Moreover, Eddie gets another break when he finds a suit of blue overalls left by some guy who works in the furnace-room, and also an old cap, and when he sneaks out the door a little later, he is nothing but a boogie, as far as anybody can see, and not a very clean boogie, at that …

Unfortunately for Eddie, when he emerges from the furnace room he runs into the very Englishman he had been impersonating, who tipsily insists upon leading the black man onto the dance floor and “presenting him to the crowd as a bit of real Southern atmosphere”. So Eddie has no choice but to break out the minstrel act that brought him fame at the Elks’ Club.

Eventually Eddie bows his way offstage and makes his getaway. But his adventures aren’t over. Some days later, attending the big steeplechase at New York’s Belmont Park, with the hope of getting near the beautiful heiress whose charms got him into this whole mess in the first place, Eddie hears that his dream girl is in a pickle:

“There is a rumour that Miss Phyllis Richie’s nigger jockey, Roy Snakes, is off on a bender, or something to this effect. Anyway, they say he is missing, and if they cannot find him, or get another jig jock, they will have to scratch Follow You, because no white guy alive can ride Follow You in a race.”

It seems that Miss Richie’s enemies, knowing that her horse Follow You is a racist who will violently unseat any white rider who dares to mount him, have arranged for every black jockey in New York to be out of commission.

It occurs to Eddie that he can save the day, and win Miss Richie’s heart, with the help of some burnt cork :

Well, all the time Eddie Yokum is blacking up, he is saying every prayer he knows that Roy Snakes or one of the other dinge jockeys appears to ride Follow You, but no such thing happens, and by and by Eddie is out in the Richie colors, and is as black as anything, and maybe blacker, and while Follow You gives him quite a snuffing over when Eddie approaches him, the horse seems satisfied he is dealing with a smoke, and afterwards some people claim this is a knock to the way Eddie smells.

Having no experience as a rider, plus a severe fear of horses, Eddie falls off Follow You at every jump. But thanks to the treachery of their crooked jockeys, every other horse in the race is eventually disqualified, and despite Follow You’s growing exasperation at having to take every jump twice, the way is clear for him to win, if Eddie can just coax him over the finish line.

The trouble is that with all the sweat pouring down our hero’s brow, not to mention landing face-first in the water jump, he isn’t looking quite so black as when the race began, and the horse is starting to have his suspicions…

Blackface Bertie.

p.g. wodehouse thank you jeeves

When in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1933 novel Thank You, Jeeves Bertie Wooster finds it necessary to disguise himself as a black man, the urgency of the situation rules out the burning of cork. Luckily Bertie’s unflappable valet has had the foresight to bring along a tin of boot polish:

“The scheme carries your personal guarantee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you say you have the stuff handy?”

“Yes, sir.”

I flung myself into a chair and turned the features ceilingwards.

“Then start smearing, Jeeves,” I said, “and continue to smear till your trained senses tell you that you have smeared enough.”

The chain of events leading up to this crisis begins with Bertie, ejected from his London flat over banjolele-related noise complaints, taking a cottage on the estate of his old school chum, the cash-poor Baron Chuffnell, AKA Chuffy. Part of the attraction of this locale is the presence of a troupe of coloured minstrels in the nearby village, who, Bertie hopes, might be induced to impart banjolele tips.

The local police sergeant takes a jaundiced view of these entertainers:

“Chuffnell Regis is going down. I would never have thought to have seen a troupe of minstrels singing comic songs within a stone’s-throw of my police station.”

“You view them with concern?”

“There’s been fowls missing,” said Sergeant Voules darkly. “Several fowls. And I have my suspicions.”

Meanwhile Chuffy is attempting to unload Chuffnell Hall on a rich American in order to acquire the funds to marry said American’s daughter, Pauline – who is, as it happens, Bertie’s ex-fiancée. Misunderstandings ensue, culminating in Bertie’s imprisonment on the rich American’s yacht, threatened with forced marriage to Pauline. Luckily the minstrels happen to be aboard the yacht to provide entertainment at a birthday party, and Jeeves devises his scheme to sneak Bertie ashore amid their number.

The plan goes off without a hitch, as Jeeves’ plans generally do, and Bertie flits to pack for the next train to London, leaving his man behind to cover the traces of his escape. Alas, before he can acquire the necessary butter to remove the boot polish from his face, Bertie is chased from his own cottage by a drunken servant who mistakes the black-faced intruder for the devil. Later, at the service entrance to Chuffnell Hall, a scullery maid falls into a fit upon seeing him, believing him to be a spirit that she has summoned with her Ouija board.

Hunted and friendless, wondering where he can scrounge a supply of butter, Bertie skulks among the bushes, reflecting that,

I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life.

As Martin Amis once wrote of the comic gauntlet of “bust-ups, alarms, duplicities and misapprehensions” with which Wodehouse’s upper class twits must contend:

The fact that these pitfalls, when translated to the burly contingencies of real life, can cause genuine hurts and fears merely strengthens the glow of innocuousness. Wodehouse loved to play on the genial insensitivity to suffering that centuries of thoughtless privilege produce. [3]

Innocent and insolent.

Martin Amis’ father Kingsley once anointed G.K. Chesterton’s amiable amateur sleuth Father Brown as one of the “three great successors of Sherlock Holmes”. (Nero Wolfe was another.) [4]

If the Father Brown stories had a weakness, Amis went on, it was not, as some critics had complained, that they were “Roman Catholic propaganda”:

It would be truer to say that what propaganda there is gets directed against atheism, complacent rationalism, occultism and superstition, all those shabby growths which the decline of Christian belief has fostered … My only real complaint is that this bias sometimes reveals the villain too early. We know at once that the prophet of a new sun cult is up to no good, and are not surprised that it is he who allows a blind girl to step to her death in an empty lift shaft. [5]

Atheists and non-Christians of various stripes might legitimately complain that Chesterton has treated them unfairly. But only one of the Father Brown stories strikes me as genuinely offensive (and we’ve established by now that I’m not all that easy to offend).

g.k. chesterton the wisdom of father brown

“The God of the Gongs”, from the 1914 collection The Wisdom of Father Brown, begins with the little priest and his brawny friend Flambeau strolling on a bleak winter day along the abandoned strand of an English seaside town. In apparent idleness Father Brown hops onto the stage of a wooden bandstand, and promptly falls through a rotten spot in the floor. Exploring the dark spaces beneath, he stumbles on something disturbing – a corpse, we deduce, though he is characteristically vague in explaining his discovery to Flambeau.

Next he steers his friend to a nearby inn, where the proprietor is curiously inhospitable to his guests, and even more curiously deferential to his bellowing black cook. Flambeau takes an instant dislike to this cook, who is also the famed prizefighter “Nigger Ned”, on his way to a bout:

He was buttoned and buckled up to his bursting eyeballs in the most brilliant fashion. A tall black hat was tilted on his broad black head … The red flower stood up in his buttonhole aggressively, as if it had suddenly grown there. And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude—an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent—the cake walk.

“Sometimes,” said Flambeau, looking after him, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.”

“I am never surprised,” said Father Brown, “at any work of hell.”

In another Chesterton story, when a hot-tempered Arab is accused of killing an Englishman who had insulted him, the clear-sighted Father Brown recognizes that it is another Englishman who has opportunistically pinned the crime on the foreigner. [6] Encountering the foppish prizefighter for the first time, we assume that he is likewise going to be a red herring; especially when the hotel proprietor whips out a dagger and attempts to murder Father Brown.

But no: like the suspicious sun-cultist mentioned by Amis, the insolent black man is in fact up to no good. Escaping the homicidal innkeeper, Father Brown and Flambeau make their way to the site of the prizefight, where the priest approaches the promoter and explains (with reference to a “book of old travels” which he happens to have in his pocket, describing certain obscure Jamaican folkways) that his star attraction is the chief priest of a secret society of voodoo assassins, and the boxing match the diversion during which one of their ritual killings will occur.

With his secret society exposed, “Nigger Ned” vanishes, leading to a countrywide manhunt that makes no concessions to our notions of civil liberties:

[F]or a month or two the main purpose of the British Empire was to prevent the buck nigger (who was so in both senses) escaping by any English port. Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of greasepaint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk.

(No doubt many reader will be puzzled, as I was, by Chesterton’s reference to “both senses” of the phrase “buck nigger”. My Webster’s informs me that in addition to meaning a “bold, lively, vigorous” young man – “sometimes a contemptuous or patronizing term as applied to a young black or Indian male” – “buck” has an archaic second meaning of “fop or dandy”.)

Modern opinion would find the many instances of “the n-word” the most alarming aspect of this story, but my impression is that in Britain the word was accepted in polite society for some years after it had become taboo in the United States: Chesterton uses it more or less as an informal synonym for “negro”, much as he might use “Yankee” for “American”.

What troubles me is that Chesterton seems not to balk at the racist methods he ascribes to the police in hunting up the escaped cult leader. Ordinarily we can rely on Father Brown to pass some acerbic little remark when the people around him are behaving irrationally, but for once, he lets the hysteria pass uncommented on.

In the final lines of the tale, Father Brown and Flambeau are once again dallying near the beach, wondering that the fugitive cult leader hasn’t yet turned up.

“He must be still in England,” observed Flambeau, “and horridly well hidden, too. They must have found him at the ports if he had only whitened his face.”

“You see, he is really a clever man,” said Father Brown apologetically. “And I’m sure he wouldn’t whiten his face.”

“Well, but what would he do?”

“I think,” said Father Brown, “he would blacken his face.”

And he gestures meaningfully in the direction of “the soot-masked niggers singing on the sands”.

The blackface Diggers.

joan didion slouching towards bethlehem

In Joan Didion’s 1967 account of life among the San Francisco hippies, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, we make the acquaintance of the Diggers, a loose alliance of radical organizations that includes the San Francisco Mime Troupe. [7]

The Digger crowd are standoffish to Didion, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, because they see mainstream journalists as their enemies. One of their leaders asks her, “How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?” Another interviewee, Mime Troupe writer and director Peter Berg, blames her “for the way Life captioned Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures out of Cuba”.

Didion describes a bunch of Diggers and Mime Troupers showing up at a San Francisco park one afternoon where Janis Joplin is giving a free concert. They’re there to freak out the mellow hippies:

I mention to Max and Sharon that some members of the Mime Troupe seem to be in blackface.

“It’s street theater,” Sharon assures me. “It’s supposed to be really groovy.”

The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dime-store plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs. “HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS?” and “WHO STOLE CHUCK BERRY’S MUSIC?”, things like that. […]

I walk over to where the Mime Troupers have formed a circle around a Negro. Peter Berg is saying if anybody asks that this is street theater, and I figure the curtain is up because what they are doing right now is jabbing the Negro with the nightsticks. They jab, and they bare their teeth, and they rock on the balls of their feet and they wait.

“I’m beginning to get annoyed here,” the Negro says. “I’m gonna get mad.”

By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.

“Just beginning to get annoyed, are you?” one of the Mime Troupers says. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”

“Nobody stole Chuck Berry’s music, man,” says another Negro who has been studying the signs. “Chuck Berry’s music belongs to everybody.”

“Yeh?” a girl in blackface says. “Everybody who?”

“Why,” he says, confused. “Everybody. In America.”

“In America,” the blackface girl shrieks. “Listen to him talk about America.”

“Listen,” he says. “Listen here.”

“What’d America ever do for you?” the girl in blackface jeers. “White kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listening to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Who ever sends you money?”

“Listen,” the Negro says helplessly. “You’re gonna start something here, this isn’t right—”

“You tell us what’s right, black boy,” the girl says.

The youngest member of the blackface group, an earnest tall kid about nineteen, twenty, is hanging back at the edge of the scene. I offer him an apple and ask what is going on. “Well,” he says, “I’m new at this, I’m just beginning to study it, but you see the capitalists are taking over the District, and that’s what Peter—well, ask Peter.”

Maybe the Diggers were right to accuse Didion of “media poisoning”. She paints the Mime Troupers as slightly sinister idiots, ruining the afternoon’s good vibes in the name of some half-baked idea of social action they can’t even articulate.

Was this fair? The 1968 documentary Have You Heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe? (viewable, for now at least, on YouTube and at The Digger Archives) provides a pretty thorough immersion in the Digger milieu – almost an hour of interviews, rehearsal footage, and dimestore political theorizing. To me they seem no more crazily ideological than your typical 2020 arts crowd, although of course that’s largely a product of the Diggers’ crazy ideology having gone thoroughly mainstream in the intervening half-century.

The documentary includes long excerpts from the Mime Troupe’s touring blackface production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel – “an outspoken comment on the black man’s condition in America”, per the narrator. (These excerpts begin around 24:40 and continue at intervals until the end of the doc.) We see the minstrels jokily interacting with audience members – white and black – in ways consistent with what Didion describes. Everyone seems pretty chill about it.

san francisco mime troupe minstrel show

Minstrel and audience members in A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel. Source: The Digger Archives.

Putting aside the blackface, the play is extremely relevant to contemporary progressive obsessions: it culminates in the killing of a “black” man by a “white” cop (both portrayed by actors in blackface). Modern anti-racists might find it instructive to see how their grandparents’ generation dealt with the theme – if they could make it through the video without falling to pieces at the sight of six actors (some white, some black) clowning in blackface. They might find themselves agreeing with the reactionary squares whom Peter Berg, in a 1966 letter to Educational Theatre News, blasted for censoring his show:

A Minstrel Show was blacked-out in mid-performance by officials of Olympia College in Washington because of “unsuitability” of its material. The student body audience was loudly divided about the administration’s heavy-handed censorship, and the Minstrel cast called from the stage for a vote. Officials refused, then compounded their Dark Ages policy by clearing the theatre of students and performers.

One of the stars of A Minstrel Show, Peter Cohon, went on to fame as the Hollywood actor Peter Coyote, best known for E.T. You can hear him in the documentary trying to explain what the Mime Troupe had in mind:

When I started in the show, it was like embarrassing, wow. It’s hard to put blackface on your face and be there with three white cats and three black cats in the cast, and you’re making fun of each other, and you gotta be pretty sure where you stand. And you can’t just give lip service to it. Um, before you can swing behind it, you really gotta work some stuff out.

Coyote’s black co-star Jason Marc Alexander, his face half obscured by black greasepaint, adds in a backstage interview:

The way I figure it is, there’s really no-one else saying what we’re saying in the way we’re saying it. We still are dealing with a very old, ugly problem. … And I dunno, I just get the feeling like, uh, this country has done so much running away from itself that it’s going to wind up just going into a circle, just a circle of madness, until it finally, just, flip totally out. Cause there’s so many things we’re trying to pretend aren’t there. And we all know they are.

Which reminds me a bit of something Father Brown says in another Chesterton story:

“And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.” [8]

M.

1. I put in my customary couple hours of half-assed research preparing to write this essay. The two books I skimmed, W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow to Hip Hop, from 1998, and John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, from 2006, probably couldn’t be published today: not only because both authors are white, but because they offer a more nuanced, even sympathetic, analysis of blackface than is currently acceptable.

2. While Rex Stout’s political commitments were openly worn, I’m less sure about Damon Runyon’s. If I’ve correctly decoded the heavy irony in this 1946 installment of his weekly newspaper column – which takes the form of a scathing review of one of his own books – he was a conventional FDR-era liberal, which would of course make him a Nazi deserving of punching, by 2020 standards.

3. From a 1978 review of Wodehouse’s unfinished final novel, Sunset at Blandings, in Martin Amis’ collection The War Against Cliché.

4. The third great successor of Sherlock Holmes, per Kingsley Amis, was John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, with whose adventures I am unacquainted. Amis praises Carr for carrying on in Chesterton’s romantic tradition, but with “the wilder flights of fancy brought under control, the holes in the plot conscientiously plastered over and made good.”

5. This essay, “Unreal Policeman”, is in Amis’ 1970 collection What Became of Jane Austen? The story with the sun cult is “The Eye of Apollo”, from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.

6. The hot-tempered Arab is in “The Quick One”, from The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935.

7. The text of Didion’s article that appears at the Saturday Evening Post website is slightly different than the version that appears in my copy of her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

8. The final Chesterton quote is from “The Purple Wig” in The Wisdom of Father Brown.

I’ve left out of this catalogue of 20th century blackface literature John Howard Griffin’s classic book of undercover investigative reporting, Black Like Me, which I discussed in 2010. Also that year I quoted Joan Didion in a review of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape. I referred to a different Nero Wolfe story in my 2017 musings on coarse-grained versus fine-grained fiction.

Brung up to it: 19th, 20th, and 21st-century morality.

In H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, written in 1898 (revised in 1910), a man named Graham, an ordinary middle-class schmoe from the late Victorian age, falls into an unexplained trance and wakes up naked in a display case 200 years in the future.

It turns out that during his long sleep his assets were placed in trust, the trust acquired other assets, grew to a monopoly, supplanted the obsolete nation-states – and in short, Graham has become de jure owner of the world.

The council that has been ruling in his name isn’t too happy to have him awake and possibly meddling with their arrangements – particularly since a legend has grown up among the oppressed labouring masses that “the Sleeper”, like King Arthur or Frederick Barbarossa, will someday awake and right the world’s injustices.

While the council debates how to dispose of him, they lock him away in a well-appointed private apartment. Killing time, he fiddles with a curious apparatus in the corner and, on stepping back, realizes that its forward surface is a screen upon which miniaturized dramatic plays appear:

It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

He deduces that the curious little cylinders shelved along the wall represent different dramas that can be played on the machine. Swapping in a cylinder at random, he is treated to an adaptation of the opera Tannhäuser, its opening act set in something called a Pleasure City.

wagner tannhauser venusberg royal opera 2010

The Venusberg scene in Tannhäuser, Act I, The Royal Opera, 2010.
Photo by Clive Barda, The Guardian.

At first Graham enjoys the opera, but its frank eroticism soon offends his old-fashioned sensibilities:

He rose, angry and half ashamed at himself for witnessing this thing even in solitude. He pulled forward the apparatus, and with some violence sought for a means of stopping its action. Something snapped. A violet spark stung and convulsed his arm and the thing was still. When he attempted next day to replace these Tannhauser cylinders by another pair, he found the apparatus broken . . . .

He struck out a path oblique to the room and paced to and fro, struggling with intolerable vast impressions. The things he had derived from the cylinders and the things he had seen, conflicted, confused him. It seemed to him the most amazing thing of all that in his thirty years of life he had never tried to shape a picture of these coming times. “We were making the future,” he said, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!”

No doubt an Englishman of the 19th century, reawakened in the 21st, would be awed by our technological accomplishments, which are far more marvellous than even H.G. Wells foresaw. But many of the social changes that we accept with a shrug, if we don’t outright applaud their implementation, the 19th-century man would regard as horrific regressions to savagery.

I picture the 19th-century man seated beside me on the patio of the coffeeshop I frequent here in suburban Vancouver. He watches the parade of pedestrians, cheaply and garishly clothed, their tattoo-covered limbs exposed, rings in their noses and lips, men and women alike shouting obscenities into their handheld magic mirrors. More foul language floats from the open windows of passing cars, accompanied by music of staggering loudness and primitivity.

A vagrant clatters by with a shopping cart, reeking and muttering to himself. I mention to my companion that my city is considered a model of prosperity and good government, and that its gravest problem is that it’s so attractive to outsiders that its residents are unable to afford the soaring rents.

But my Victorian friend isn’t shocked by the sight of vagrants, merely mildly troubled that an additional century of social reform seems not to have improved the lot of the poorest of the poor. What shocks him is the girls in yoga pants and low-cut t-shirts, the crudity of manners among citizens that I’ve assured him are of the middle or upper-middle classes, the universal vileness of speech. I explain patiently that we have our own speech taboos, just as strictly enforced, they’re merely different from the ones of his era – and while we’re on the topic, would he please refrain from commenting on the number of Chinamen. He laughs, uncomprehending.

At some point, I know, the 19th-century man is going to get hold of a newspaper, and learn of the mobs tearing down the statues of his contemporaries, and of men asserting their right to declare themselves women, and of gay marriage, and abortion on demand, and “medical assistance in dying”, and a hundred other developments which I can predict will outrage him. But what worries me is all the things that will outrage him that I can’t predict, because they’re invisible to me.

In The Sleeper Awakes, the two developments that most offend Graham are the decline of motherhood – babies are now tended by robots in vast antiseptic crèches, freeing their mothers to pursue their careers and pleasures – and the fact that the restless white masses of Europe are kept in line by black riot police from Africa. It is the imminent arrival of a squad of African police in London that triggers the final battle of the novel, in which the Sleeper, heretofore a fairly feckless protagonist, finally steps into the heroic role that legend has assigned to him.

No doubt the casual intermingling of the races is one of the things that would unnerve my visitor from the Victorian age. The dissolution of sex roles is another: the notion that it is a “liberation” for mothers to trundle their infants off to daycare, and to share with their men the duty of bread-winning, he would find highly questionable. But I suspect that just as it was that sexed-up Tannhäuser that first aroused Graham’s sense of “archaic indignation”, it is modern pornography that would strike the man of the 19th century as the most obvious sign of our descent into barbarism. “Look, look what your ‘liberated’ mothers and daughters have been reduced to!” he’d exclaim, and I’d mumble and blush and change the subject.

***

In the Washington Post a few weeks back, book critic Ron Charles celebrated the purging of “racially offensive content” from old and not-so-old movies and TV shows, while expressing some ambivalence about extending the purge into his own area of specialization:

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs.

We may snigger at the palpitations of those 19th-century schoolmarms who thought that children would be harmed by frank reference to bodily functions: mere “silliness”, per Ron Charles. But those 21st-century pedagogues who think children will be harmed by “the n-word”, well, their “critical arguments have been illuminating”.

But is it possible that the harms of exposure to taboo language were exactly as dire for the children of the 19th century as for those of the 21st? If you’re brought up to believe that certain words are dangerous, then hearing those words can induce stress, fear, a lingering state of nervous agitation. Certain groups – in olden times women and children, nowadays “people of colour” among others – are thought to be especially susceptible to such extreme emotional responses, so that knowingly exposing them to these dangerous words amounts to an attack on their composure – an act of violence.

From a Halifax music festival’s public apology for permitting a white presenter to speak aloud the titles of some works by the black composer Julius Eastman:

This event caused direct harm to those involved, those in attendance and to the broader communities surrounding our organization, particularly QTBIPOC folks. [1] We recognize and name this as an instance of anti-black racism. … This resulted in surprise, shock, violence, discomfort, harm and a number of associated experiences for the presenters and those in attendance.

I’d intended to balance the above apology with the complaint of the Brooklyn librarian who in 1905 was “shocked” by Mark Twain’s earthy language. But it turns out that the librarian’s crusade to protect the community was, by 21st-century standards, pretty half-hearted: declaring that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were inappropriate for children, she simply kicked them upstairs to the adults’ department.

On hearing of this, Twain drily observed that,

I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.

I suspect that many 21st-century progressives would assent unironically to the proposal that the Bible, to say nothing of Huckleberry Finn, is too problematic to be read by children unsupervised.

***

In 1950, just shy of the chronological midpoint between the publication of Huckleberry Finn and today, Lionel Trilling observed that:

Huckleberry Finn was once barred from certain libraries and schools for its alleged subversion of morality. The authorities had in mind the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar. We smiled at that excessive care, yet in point of fact Huckleberry Finn is indeed a subversive book–no-one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the customary beliefs of his time and place. [2]

That “great moral crisis” to which Trilling refers is Huck’s mounting sense of guilt over having abetted the escape of Miss Watson’s slave:

I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so–I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?”

huckleberry finn dan pearce illustration octopus books 1978

Huck and Jim, by Dan Pearce, ©1978 Octopus Books.

The “right” thing to do, Huck’s conscience tells him, is to come clean, write Miss Watson with the whereabouts of her runaway slave, and slouch home to Missouri to live down the shameful reputation he’s earned. Huck goes so far as to write the letter, and immediately feels better – “all washed clean of sin” – but his complacency is disturbed by memories of Jim’s kindness and friendship. He plucks up the letter – his salvation:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. [3]

***

Having grown up in the 1970s and ’80s, when free speech assumptions were ascendant, and having consequently had my mind soiled in youth by exposure to subversive works by Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, and yes, Mark Twain, I can’t help rolling my eyes at the efforts of censors of all political stripes to safeguard children – and increasingly, college-age adults – against upsetting words and ideas.

But in fairness to the scruples of the 21st and 19th centuries, I should acknowledge that perhaps my desensitization is nothing to boast about. As H.G. Wells’ friend and sparring partner G.K. Chesterton once put it:

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic. [4]

Contra Chesterton, at present it’s the grandparents who are the paralytics, while their grandkids hone their nerve endings to ever finer degrees of receptivity. But never mind, old-timers: your grandkids will someday be despised by their grandkids as coarse-skinned barbarians; while long-vanquished barbarisms will re-establish themselves unopposed, in new guises flattering to those who profit from them.

M.

1. QTBIPOC: “Queer / Trans / 2-spirit / Black / Indigenous / People of Colour.”

2. Trilling’s essay “Huckleberry Finn” appears in his book The Liberal Imagination, from 1950.

3. Though Huck has resigned himself to being a sinner for Jim’s sake, this doesn’t mean he judges other people’s sins less strictly. When Tom Sawyer unexpectedly turns up, Huck is appalled at how eagerly his old friend agrees to assist in Jim’s liberation:

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

4. That Chesterton quote is from an essay called “About Shamelessness”. It’s included in his 1936 collection As I Was Saying and in his 1949 Selected Essays.

Swap in Brave New World for The Sleeper Awakes and I wrote this very same essay four years ago. Come to think of it, the old one is tighter and better. Read that instead. At other times I have considered works by Wells’ frenemies Bertrand Russell and G.B. Shaw.

Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A definite opinion has been established.”

I should start by explaining that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is about a cancer ward. The reviewers, like this one in the New York Times, 1968, are going to tell you that the ward symbolizes the Soviet Union, and the cancer the moral rot eating away at the souls of the Soviet people:

As “One Day [in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]” stands for the agony of all Russia under Stalin, so “The Cancer Ward” irresistibly conveys an image of the immediate post-Stalin period when both victims and executioners were confined, all equally mutilated, in the cancer ward of the nation.

…and that Solzhenitsyn was just being cagey when he told the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers – who had declined to approve his book for publication – that,

The fact is that the subject is specifically and literally cancer, a subject avoided in literature, but nevertheless a reality as its victims know only too well from daily experience.

alexander solzhenitsyn cancer ward

In that meeting (a transcript is included as an appendix in the Bantam paperback edition of Cancer Ward), whenever Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak he made a point of disavowing his earlier, more explicitly political play Feast of the Conquerors, which had particularly upset the bigwigs. He told them that he now regarded his play as “very dangerous”. [1] He could’ve told them to stuff it – one kind of wishes he had – but at this point he still had hopes of pestering them into greenlighting his new novel.

(They never did. They kicked him out of the union a couple years later.)

So sure, he was being cagey. But I think he meant what he said about Cancer Ward. He must have known that his subject would invite all kinds of speculation about its symbolic significance, but it really is a book about life in a cancer ward. That seems to have been a big part of what annoyed the commissars from the Union of Soviet Writers. Why cancer, comrade? Isn’t it just kind of gratuitously depressing? As a member of the secretariat named Kerbabaev put it,

Why does the author see only the black?

This line of criticism echoes one of the debates within the novel, which begins when a patient named Podduyev, a man of rude and unreflecting vitality, is given a book of short stories. To his surprise, one of the stories seems to answer a question that’s been haunting him for weeks, as he has grappled with the reality of his disease. He decides to share his revelation with the others in the cancer ward:

“Listen, here’s a story,” he announced in a loud voice. “It’s called ‘What Men Live By’.” He grinned. “Who can know a thing like that? What do men live by?”

Treating the title as a riddle, he challenges the other patients to offer their speculations. One suggests that men live by air, water, and food. Another, by their pay. Another, by their professional skill.

In the bed across from Podduyev is a self-satisfied little man called Rusanov, a person of some political influence – for instance, rather than wearing the ill-fitting pyjamas assigned by the hospital, he’s been allowed to bring in his own. Later we’ll learn that Rusanov has acquired his position through the strategic denunciation of neighbours and co-workers.

Relaxing his customary aloofness toward the other patients, Rusanov decides to settle the debate:

“There’s no difficulty about that,” he said. “Remember: people live by their ideological principles and by the interests of their society.”

Discomfited by Rusanov’s tone of certainty, Podduyev attempts to summarize the story in his own words. It’s a fable about a poor cobbler who takes as an apprentice a mysterious beggar who, it soon emerges, may have the power of prophecy.

Rusanov has no patience for such mystical nonsense. He interrupts Podduyev, demanding that he skip to the end and tell them what, in the author’s opinion, men live by.

“What do they live by?” He could not say it aloud somehow. It seemed almost indecent. “It says here, by love.”

“Love? . . . No, that’s nothing to do with our sort of morality.”

Upon being demanded to tell who wrote this sentimental tripe, Podduyev haltingly enunciates the author’s name: “Tol . . . stoy.” Not, it soon emerges, Alexei Tolstoy, winner of the Stalin Prize, but “the other one” – that old pious fraud whose ideological errors had been settled long ago by Lenin, who wrote in 1908 that,

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. … On the one hand, the most sober realism, the tearing away of all and sundry masks; on the other, the preaching of one of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion[.]

Having reminded his listeners of these facts, Rusanov retires complacently from the debate.

But the topic comes up again some days later. Along with Podduyev and Rusanov the ward contains a romantic character called Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner subsequently exiled to a remote village in Central Asia. (The location of the hospital is never spelled out, but is presumably Tashkent, where the author was treated for cancer after his stint in prison.)

A cynic with a long scar on his cheek from a brawl with urkas in the Gulag, [2] Kostoglotov inevitably winds up at odds with the doctrinaire Rusanov. But they have in common a sermonizing bent, which one evening inspires Kostoglotov to hold forth on the healing properties of optimism:

“So I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kostoglotov continued, “if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of cesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and that it depends on this cesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumor or whether the tumor resolves.”

[Podduyev] sighed hoarsely. “I’ve mucked so many women about, left them with children hanging round their necks. They cried . . . mine’ll never resolve.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rusanov] suddenly lost his temper. “The whole idea’s sheer religious rubbish! You’ve read too much slush, Comrade Podduyev, you’ve disarmed yourself ideologically. You keep harping on about that stupid moral perfection!”

“What’s so terrible about moral perfection?” said Kostoglotov aggressively. “Why should moral perfection give you such a pain in the belly? It can’t harm anyone – except someone who’s a moral monstrosity!”

“You . . . watch what you’re saying!”

[Rusanov] flashed his spectacles with their glinting frames; he held his head straight and rigid, as if the tumor wasn’t pushing it under the right of the jaw. “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion.”

“Why can’t I discuss them?” Kostoglotov glared at Rusanov with his large dark eyes. […]

“If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” [Rusanov] pulled his opponent up, articulating each word syllable by syllable. “The moral perfection of Leo Tolstoy and company was described once and for all by Lenin, and by Comrade Stalin, and by Gorky.”

“Excuse me,” answered Kostoglotov, restraining himself with difficulty. He stretched one arm out toward Rusanov. “No one on this earth ever says anything ‘once and for all’. If they did, life would come to a stop and succeeding generations would have nothing to say.”

[Rusanov] was taken aback. The tops of his delicate white ears turned quite red, and round red patches appeared on his cheeks.

In a realistic twist, Kostoglotov soon finds himself contradicting himself – he started out arguing for optimism and now finds himself arguing for facing up to the grim facts:

“Why stop a man from thinking? After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog.”

And as the other patients jump in with their own opinions, and Rusanov is distracted by a twinge in his tumor, the discussion veers off in another direction.

***

One of the ironies of this scene is that the more sympathetic figure in the quarrel is arguing for what we would now describe as some kind of holistic “alternative medicine” approach to cancer treatment – the kind that many of us, myself included, would wave off as pseudo-scientific quackery. Shortly after proclaiming his right to think and speak freely, Kostoglotov is invited by another patient to elaborate on a folk remedy to which he’d previously alluded:

“Friends!” he said, with uncharacteristic volubility. “This is an amazing tale. I heard it from a patient who came in for a checkup while I was still waiting to be admitted. I had nothing to lose, so straightaway I sent off a postcard with this hospital’s address on it for the reply. And an answer has come today, already!”

Kostoglotov’s correspondent is a country doctor near Moscow, who (the letter explains) observed that cancer was rare among the peasants he treated. Deducing that this immunity was derived from their consumption of a tea made from a birch tree fungus called chaga, the doctor now promotes the fungus as an anti-cancer remedy. His letter contains a recipe for drying the fungus and preparing the tea: Kostoglotov reads the instructions aloud, and the other patients eagerly copy it down.

The catch is that the chaga can only be found on certain birches in northern forests, far from the Central Asian plain:

“He says here there are people who call themselves suppliers, ordinary enterprising people who gather the chaga, dry it and send it to you cash on delivery. But they charge a lot, fifteen roubles a kilogram, and you need six kilograms a month.”

Rusanov is, of course, outraged by such profiteering:

“What sort of a conscience do they have, fleecing people for something that nature provides free?”

But his Communist principles don’t prevent him from joining the other patients in importuning Kostoglotov for the address of the supplier of the miracle cure. Kostoglotov, however, resolves to share the secret only with a few of his closest friends among the patients.

After this, the chaga is mentioned only in passing; one of the patients gets his hands on some, but we never find out whether it helps him.

Equally unknown is whether Solzhenitsyn tried chaga in the treatment of his own cancer – though some seem to think he did. Lately chaga, which also grows in Canadian forests, has been promoted as a “superfood”, leading to overharvesting of the rare fungus. Whether it actually does anything is open to question.

There is another herbal treatment mentioned in Cancer Ward – “the root from Issyk Kul”, an infusion of aconite in vodka. When Kostoglotov’s doctor discovers that he’s been treating himself with the highly poisonous compound, acquired from a medicine man in the country, she insists that he hand the bottle over to her. He resists:

“When I leave the clinic I’ll want the root extract to treat myself with. I don’t suppose you believe it works?”

“No, of course I don’t. It’s just a lot of dark superstition and playing games with death. I believe in systematic science, practically tested. That’s what I was taught and that’s the way all oncologists think. Give me the bottle.” […]

“Oh, I know about your sacred science,” he sighed. “If it were all so categorical, it wouldn’t be disproved every ten years!”

Former president of the American Cancer Society Vincent T. DeVita described how in the early 1970s one of his patients, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, was told by Solzhenitsyn that he credited a similar infusion – not of aconite, but of mandrake root – for the remission of his cancer.

The ambassador, suffering from advanced cancer of the pancreas, brought Dr. DeVita a handful of mandrake root and some 80-proof vodka and asked for his help preparing the medicine per the author’s recipe. DeVita declined – this wasn’t “systematic science, practically tested” – but gave the ambassador leave to try it on his own.

After the ambassador’s death – from cancer, not self-medication – his wife brought DeVita the remainder of the medicine they’d prepared, and asked him to have it analyzed:

I called the chief of our natural products branch, told him the story, and asked if he would do it. His interest was piqued. “Sure,” he said.

A month later he called me, expressing his amazement: “Vince, this stuff contained two cancer drugs we have had under development, VP-16 and alpha peltatin.” […]

“Not only that,” he continued, but the exact concentration of alcohol needed to extract the alkaloids from the roots is the concentration in 80 proof vodka. “And, you’re not going to believe this, but there is enough drug in eight grams of root to provide a therapeutic dose of VP-16,” he said. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s root-and-vodka recipe had neatly created a version of the medication strong enough to treat cancer.

***

There are two ways to read Solzhenitsyn – well, there are hundreds, I suppose, but let’s stick to the two. You can read him as an uncompromising evangelist for Truth – the Truth that goes on happening while academics and bureaucrats squeak contrary pronouncements from within their clockwork models of ideological clarity. This is the reading typified by the social conservative author and blogger Rod Dreher, who has named his upcoming book Live Not By Lies after an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974 – shortly before he got kicked out of his country:

If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood … or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

Whereas I tend to read Solzhenitsyn as an evangelist of Uncertainty. The last time I wrote about him I quoted this passage from The First Circle. The setting is a prison – once again, Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences formed the basis of the story – and the character being described is the prison’s security officer, Major Shikin:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

Like Major Shikin, Rusanov in Cancer Ward is secure in his own well-meaningness: he only wants to protect his fellow patients from being exposed to dangerous falsehoods. We might scoff at his statement that “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion” – and yet few of us would argue for absolute open-mindedness. The idea that Tolstoy’s supposed ideological errors, as defined by Lenin, should be one of those undiscussable questions strikes us as absurd, just as it would strike Rusanov as absurd that – well, choose your own article of contemporary dogma.

I’m afraid that if I were in that Tashkent cancer ward listening to Kostoglotov prattle on about herbal remedies, I would react much as Rusanov did: “If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” (Although I wouldn’t say it out loud.) While Kostoglotov dosed himself with mysterious rural potations, I would defer to the scientific opinions of the doctors. And if I’d been brought up believing that Lenin had scientifically settled the question of Tolstoy’s literary merit, I suppose I’d defer to that opinion too.

M.

1. If Solzhenitsyn’s Feast of the Conquerors has ever been translated into English, it seems not to be online. Nowadays it usually goes by the name Feast of the Victors or The Victors’ Feast. Russian readers can find it here: Пир победителей.

The author made a triumphant appearance at the play’s belated world premiere in Moscow in 1995.

2. The urkas or urki were thieves (my edition of Cancer Ward translates the term as “hoods”) who, as “socially friendly” elements – enemies of private property – were given an easier ride in Soviet prison than the “politicals”. As Solzhenitsyn explains in Part III of The Gulag Archipelago:

Here is what our laws were like for thirty years – to 1947: For robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm – ten years! (After 1947 it was as much as twenty!) But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, carting off on a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months.

Conscious of their privileged status, the urkas would rob and tyrannize the political prisoners while the guards did nothing:

[I]t was much better for the business of oppression; the thieves carried it out much more brazenly, much more brutally, and without the least fear of responsibility before the law.

Much like convicts in American prisons who take it upon themselves to dole out extra punishment to sex offenders, the urkas regarded their abuse of the politicals as a matter of honour. Solzhenitsyn quotes an ex-convict:

I was even proud that although a thief I was not a traitor and betrayer. On every convenient occasion they tried to teach us thieves that we were not lost to our Motherland, that even if we were profligate sons, we were nevertheless sons. But there was no place for the “Fascists” on this earth.

The “Fascists” included reprobates like Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, sentenced to eight years, followed by permanent exile to Central Asia, for participation in a non-approved university discussion group.

For more on the urkas, this undergrad thesis by Elizabeth T. Klements is worth reading: “Worse Than Guards:” Ordinary Criminals and Political Prisoners in the GULAG (1918-1950)

There must be something about that “Major Shikin” passage from The First Circle that really speaks to me. I first used it in a discussion last year of Jordan Peterson, and a few months later I trotted it out again in a critique of the movie It: Chapter Two. Having used it three times, it’s probably time for me to retire it.

 

Two literary eunuchs.

In this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, that film’s co-star Djimon Hounsou says something odd:

The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.

Now, English isn’t Hounsou’s first language, so he might have misspoken, or been misheard. Or perhaps he subscribes to some esoteric definition of “slavery” that somehow excludes the Roman variety. But on the surface it appears that one of the stars of Gladiator­­ – a movie about slavery in ancient times – came away from it believing that there was no slavery in ancient times.

Speaking of fictional depictions of slavery…

***

“Two literary eunuchs” would be a good title for a bitchy essay about a pair of insufficiently virile male authors. Tolkien and Lewis, maybe? Auden and Isherwood? These nerds? But I’m not sufficiently virile to write such an essay.

Instead I’ll be talking about two actual eunuchs from literature – and from history – the narrators of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.

mary renault the persian boy

Between 1969 and 1981 Mary Renault wrote a biography and a loose trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great. I can recommend them all, but especially the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Persian Boy, from 1972, which describes the most eventful period of Alexander’s career from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who is taken into his personal service.

In Renault’s telling, Bagoas is the child of a Persian aristocrat who, during the dynastic manoeuvrings that brought King Darius to the throne, was killed on the orders of the previous king’s vizier (also named Bagoas, to the confusion of later students of history). Marked for death, the handsome ten year old is instead carried off by one of his father’s murderers:

He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer’s courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. […]

The dealer’s house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer’s feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf.

The newly-made eunuch spends two quiet years as a page-boy to the wife of a local merchant, but as he grows older and his good looks attract the eyes of the men in the bazaar, his owner decides to make a little extra cash pimping him out to his customers. The boy proves so popular that he comes to the attention of the agents of the royal household, and at age thirteen Bagoas is sold again, to begin his training in “the rites of the bedchamber”.

I wonder whether Renault’s book could be published in the current climate of hypersensitivity about depictions of underage sexuality. While Bagoas begins his royal service traumatized by his experiences as a child prostitute, he reluctantly finds himself enjoying his “training” at the hands of an older eunuch. He soon graduates to service in the royal bedchamber, where the ageing Darius handles him gently, kissing and dandling him “like a doll”, but:

In all the time I was with him, he gave no sign of knowing a eunuch can feel anything. One does not tell such things to the King of Kings, if he does not ask.

***

In an Author’s Note, Renault adds that while the real Bagoas’ backstory is unknown,

the conjecture that he was of good birth is not fanciful. Such boys, whose looks had been taken care of and not spoiled by malnutrition or hardship, once enslaved were always at the highest risk of prostitution. Sokrates’ disciple Phaidon (Phaedo) is the best-known case.

mary renault the last of the wine

Phaedo – the namesake of one of Plato’s best-known dialogues – appears in Renault’s earlier novel The Last of the Wine, set among the young followers of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War. She makes Phaedo a native of Melos, an island besieged in 416 BC after defying Athenian demands for tribute. Wounded in the defense of his city, the boy is recuperating in bed when starvation obliges the defenders to submit:

[T]he gates were opened and the Athenians marched in. Presently he heard a great shrieking of women, and the death-cries of men. Soldiers ran in, dragged him from his bed to the Agora, and threw him down among a crowd of young lads and children, who had been herded into the sheep-pound. Just across the square was a pile of corpses newly killed, and still being added to; sticking out of the midst of it was his father’s head. [1]

Purchased in the slave-market by the manager of an Athens bathhouse, Phaedo soon “learned the arts of his calling, and commanded a high price”.

The narrator attempts to befriend the shy, skittish boy who is accustomed to sit in silence at Socrates’ feet. (In the dialogue named for him, Phaedo describes himself sitting on a low stool while Socrates “stroked my head and pressed the hair on the back of my neck, for he was in the habit of playing with my hair at times”.) Phaedo’s new friends are unaware that he is a slave, a fact he conceals not only out of shame, but to protect others from the ignominy of being associated with a bathhouse boy. When he reveals his secret, he is careful to explain that he met Socrates not as a client, but while on an unauthorized break from his trade – he has learned the trick of locking the door so that his manager will think he has a customer, and going out through a window to roam the city.

Later some members of Socrates’ circle send one of their number to the bathhouse to invite Phaedo to a dinner party. This leads to an awkward moment:

“In due course I knocked, and Phaedo opened. All he had on was the paint on his face. I knew then I shouldn’t have come. The next moment he slammed-to the door. He was almost too quick for me, but being rather stronger I managed to hold it. ‘Next room,’ he said through the crack, ‘I’m engaged’ – ‘Wait, Phaedo,’ I began. Suddenly he flung open the door so that I nearly fell inside. He stood there laughing. He looked like something you might come upon in a dark wood. ‘Come in, Lysis,’ he said. ‘Honour the threshold. Who am I to turn away trade?'”

Phaedo is eventually bought by one of Socrates’ friends and set free. He never discusses his past clients, but occasionally the narrator will notice him “watching with irony in his dark eye” as some citizen pontificates about morality.

Luckily for Phaedo, at this time it wasn’t the Greek custom to make eunuchs of their slaves, a practice they regarded with disgust – though as Bagoas states in The Persian Boy, set almost a century later,

[S]o long as they sold boys young into the brothels, I did not think the Greeks had so much to boast of.

***

To resume the narrative of The Persian Boy: After King Darius ignominiously flees Alexander’s army at Gaugamela, Bagoas joins his slow retreat northward through the mountains, faithfully serving his master while his generals and courtiers scheme to depose him. When the coup comes, and the remnants of Persian resistance scatter, the boy finds himself masterless and alone, with no choice but to offer his services in the camp of the pursuing Macedonians:

I waited by the fidgeting horses, while the Macedonians looked at me. Among Persians, the eunuch knows himself marked out at sight by his lack of beard; it was most strange to be in a crowd where no young man had one. Alexander had shaved from his youth, and liked his fashion followed. Persian soldiers would have had any man’s blood, who told them to make themselves like eunuchs; but I don’t think this had even occurred to the Macedonians. They had no eunuchs. I was the only one.

Accustomed to the formal rigours of the Persian court, Bagoas is at first repelled by the easy manners of the Macedonians – “uncouth westerners” who drink heavily, banter playfully with their king, and exercise shamelessly in the nude. They in turn detest him as a “spayed catamite” and resent his “fawning barbarians ways”.

The young king, whom Bagoas find surprisingly courteous “for someone reared in the wilds”, is more receptive to eastern customs. Appreciating his new servant’s elegant manners and remarkable beauty, he employs him as a personal attendant, and later as a Persian language instructor, but declines to invite him to his bedchambers. It is Bagoas who first falls in love with Alexander, and eventually succeeds in seducing him.

mary renault funeral games

Bagoas appears again in Renault’s Funeral Games, set amid the struggles for succession at the time of Alexander’s death. The general Ptolemy watches as Bagoas tenderly nurses the dying king:

At first Ptolemy had disliked this exotic presence haunting Alexander’s living-quarters, encouraging him to assume the trappings of Persian royalty and the manners of a Persian court, having his ear day and night. But he was a fixture one had grown used to.

In Renault’s telling Bagoas became not only Alexander’s lover but one of his nearest confidantes, inspiring his vision of his new empire as a synthesis of the best of eastern and western civilizations. In practice this meant that the relatively democratic norms of Macedonia were supplanted by the pomp and rigidity of Persia.

As word got back to Greece about Alexander’s eastern pretensions – like expecting visitors to prostrate themselves before him – his political enemies began to incorporate Bagoas, in the character of a conniving oriental courtier, into their “anti-Macedonian agitprop”. In her 1975 biography The Nature of Alexander, Renault compellingly refutes the story that Bagoas fabricated a charge of tomb-robbing against a satrap who had insulted him. As relayed by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius:

On one side Bagoas, on the other those whom he had suborned, filled the king’s ears with false charges. Before Orsines suspected that he was being accused he was delivered into bondage. Not content with the punishment of an innocent man, the eunuch laid his hand on him as he was about to be executed. Orsines with a glance at him said: “I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!”

In The Persian Boy Renault makes Orsines genuinely guilty of various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Bagoas’ family.

***

robert graves count belisarius

Unluckily for generations of boy slaves, Alexander’s policy of fusionism led to the adoption of many Persian practices in the west. In a 1937 poem Robert Graves imagined some soldiers of the Byzantine Empire, posted on the eastern frontier, sneering as Alexander’s uncouth Macedonians might have at the decadence of big city customs:

We can know little (as we care little)
Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,
Her white-gowned pederastic senators,
The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,
The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

By the time of the Emperor Justinian – we’re now in the 6th century AD – eunuchs were an integral part of Byzantine court life. Eugenius, the narrator of Graves’ 1938 novel Count Belisarius, though a slave himself, takes a certain pride in the influence of his fellow eunuchs:

It is a principle first learned by our Emperors from the Persian Court that eunuchs, since they are ineligible for sovereignty and incapable of founding dangerously powerful families, can safely be honoured with the royal confidence and used as a bulwark against the possible usurpation of the Throne by a conspiracy of powerful nobles. Eunuchs on the whole make milder and more loyal and more industrious officials than their unstoned colleagues, and their pettiness in routine matters – I do not deny the pettiness – is a strong conservative force. It has therefore long been the practice of rich middle-class families who have enough male children to carry on the line, deliberately to castrate one of the younger ones and dedicate him to a profitable career in the Civil Service. The bastard sons of Emperors too, or of their sons and daughters, are regularly castrated, in order to make useful citizens of them and prevent them from aspiring to the Throne. […]

Thus, to be a eunuch is, in the worldly sense at least, more of an advantage than a disadvantage, as may also be seen by a comparison of slave-market prices. A eunuch house-slave fetches three times the price of an unstoned one; he is worth only a little less than a trained house-physician or a skilled artisan. But a eunuch is seldom a happy man, because the operation has almost always been performed on him before the age of puberty, and he secretly imagines that to be a whole man is something very fine; if only because whole men are apt to jeer at eunuchs and to swear that they would rather be blind or dumb or deaf, or even all three of these things together, than debarred from the sweet and wholesome act of love. Naturally, the eunuch has a ready answer to such boasting: that sex is a madness and never brought anyone much luck. But secretly, as I confess, he is apt to envy the man who can take a woman to bed with him and do more than embrace her as a sister and chastely kiss her eyes.

Unlike Mary Renault, Graves evinces not the slightest interest in the sex life of his eunuch narrator. The passage above occurs during the introduction of the eunuch court chamberlain Narses – another real historical figure – who despite appearing in only a handful of scenes emerges as a more complete character than Eugenius.

When we meet him, Narses is already well advanced in years, a survivor of innumerable palace intrigues, a “dwarfish and repulsively ugly figure” acutely sensitive to slights, who harbours an unlikely aspiration to be taken seriously as a warrior. Antonina, wife to the celebrated general Belisarius, is one of the few to humour the ugly little man when he prattles about military tactics.

To widespread amusement, Narses later convinces the flighty Emperor Justinian to send him as general to Italy, to reinforce Belisarius in his war there against the Goths:

That he was dwarfish and big-buttocked and had a squint and a twisted lip had not seemed very ridiculous when he was gliding along the Palace corridors. … But to see Narses, who had already long passed the grand climacteric of his years, strutting about in the latest fashion of plate-armour … trailing a full-sized sword which was continually catching between his legs and tripping him up – that I assure you was a sight to raise a smile on the face of a man dying of the cholera.

The level-headed Antonina foresees that Narses might prove “a capable officer in spite of his age”, but warns her husband that his touchy personality will demand delicate handling. Her warning proves justified: the eunuch promptly quarrels with Belisarius and sows contention among the other generals, until Justinian is forced to recall him.

A dozen years later, after Belisarius has retired to Constantinople, Narses is again sent out by Justinian against the Goths, and by a series of brilliant victories reconquers Italy. Still later, annoyed once again over private slights, Narses intrigues with the Lombards, who go on to invade northern Italy, putting an end to Byzantine rule there.

***

Whereas Narses has plans and ambitions of his own, the narrator Eugenius is defined primarily by his utter devotion to Antonina, whose servant he has been since she was a child.

In creating his narrator, Graves had even less material to work with (or to constrain his imagination) than Renault did with Bagoas. In fact Eugenius appears only once in the historical record, in the lurid Secret History written by Procopius, who served as private secretary to Belisarius.

In that episode, Eugenius is enlisted in avenging an insult by some unfaithful slaves:

And they say that [Antonina] first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea, being assisted throughout in this impious business by one of the servants named Eugenius…

Note that Procopius never identifies Eugenius as a eunuch – that was Graves’ extrapolation. In fact, in the early stages of the writing of Count Belisarius, Antonina was intended as the narrator. Graves was convinced by his mistress and sometime collaborator Laura Riding to rewrite the early chapters in the slave’s voice, inspiring some prurient eyebrow-waggling over the parallels to the author’s own sex life:

It is often observed that Graves was in effect the devoted slave of Riding, which raises the possibility that he was Eugenius to her Antonina. … [I]t is known that Graves had embraced a life of celibacy for Riding. [2]

At any rate, Eugenius in Graves’ telling, like Bagoas in Mary Renault’s, is innocent of the atrocity attributed to him. Just as Alexander was libelled by jealous Greeks, so was Belisarius by his jealous secretary, Procopius:

Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied – according to his vindictive purposes. (Even I, Eugenius, was introduced into this farrago: for example, I was supposed to have assisted my mistress in the murder of the maid Macedonia: whose tongue, he said, was cut in little pieces and cast into the sea.) [3]

However, Eugenius makes no bones about his involvement in another murder – that of a bishop, whose assassination he succesfully pins on an old rival of Antonina’s. In gratitude, Antonina offers to give him his freedom and a hefty reward besides. He humbly demurs:

“What is money but bodily comforts, which I already possess? What is ‘freedom’ but to be well considered, as I already am?”

Eugenius should have taken his freedom and retired somewhere far from the capital’s “cut-throat factions”; for not long afterward, the scandalous manuscript of Procopius comes to light, full of vile gossip not only about Belisarius and Antonina but about the Emperor Justinian. (In Graves’ interpretation, all the tales about his hero and heroine are malicious distortions, but all those about Justinian are true.)

To save his own skin, Procopius is induced to give false evidence against Belisarius, whom the emperor detests for his own petty reasons. Belisarius is charged with treason, and his household servants are seized and put to torture.

For a slave in such a situation, Eugenius knows, defiant silence is not a winning strategy:

Andreas died under the torture, but in order to vex [the public prosecutor] he did not utter a single cry. I yelled and screamed without ceasing. I knew that to do so would either satisfy the officer of the torture chamber or else disconcert him, so that he would say to the slave: “Enough for the moment, fellow: relax the cords, unscrew!” All my cries were: “Long life to his Gracious Majesty!” and “I know nothing, nothing.” So I escaped. Of the bodily injuries I received that day I shall not trouble you. I am a person of no importance.

M.

1. The real Phaedo, known as Phaedo of Elis, was – as you might suppose – from Elis, which fell to an alliance of Sparta and Athens a few years before Socrates’ death in 399 BC. In The Last of the Wine Renault moves Phaedo’s enslavement over a decade backward in time, to the middle of the Peloponnesian War, and makes him a victim of the most famous instance of Athenian ruthlessness in that conflict.

2. For more about Graves’ decision to make Eugenius and not Antonina his narrator, see “Count Belisarius – Genesis, Gender, and Truth” by Shaun Tougher. For Graves’ turbulent relationship with Laura Riding – “a woman of gargantuan and zany self-esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness” – this snappy book review by Thomas M. Disch covers the essentials.

3. Elsewhere in Count Belisarius, Eugenius denies his involvement in the murder of Antonina’s servant in slightly different words:

That my mistress with my help pulled out Macedonia’s tongue, cut her in pieces, and threw the pieces into the sea is a lie told many years later by the secretary Procopius to discredit her.

Whereas in the passage quoted above, it’s only Macedonia’s tongue that is chopped up. I can’t read the original Greek – which you can consult here – but I gather there’s some ambiguity in Procopius’ phrasing on this point. I can find three translations online:

It is said that she first cut out their tongues, and then ordered them to be hewn in pieces, put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Athenian Society, 1896

She first cruelly cut out their tongues, it is said, and then cut their bodies into little bits which were put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Richard Atwater, 1927

And they say that she first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea…
H.B. Dewing, 1935

In January I referred to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in a discussion of Max Beerbohm and posterity. Years ago while reading The Last of the Wine I noticed that Mary Renault seemed to be the only person puzzled (like me) by the story of the Spartan boy and the fox. And speaking of “depictions of underage sexuality”, in 2018 I had some surprisingly deep thoughts about the Netflix cartoon series Big Mouth.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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