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Strategic capitulation and the Last Man.

In Second Game, a 1958 novella by Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean, a human spy visits an isolationist alien planet to see what he can learn about the natives. He discovers a prideful, scrupulous, single-minded race who resent the human federation’s poking around in their star system uninvited.

robert silverberg editor great short novels of science fiction

When the spy is captured, his interrogators are unable to grasp his protestations of peaceful intentions. Their honour has been insulted. To refrain from war now would dishonour both sides.

Escaping captivity, the spy spends some time wandering around the aliens’ capital city. He comes to admire the natives:

I felt kin to them, as if these people had much in common with myself. And I felt that it was too bad that life was not fundamentally so simple that one could discard the awareness of other ways of life, of other values and philosophies that bid against one another, and against one’s attention, and make one cynical of the philosophy one lives by, and dies for. Too bad that I could not see and take life as that direct, and as that simple.

It is a “universal law”, declared Friedrich Nietzsche, that “a living thing can only be healthy, strong, and productive within a certain horizon.”

In “The Use and Abuse of History” he describes a man bounded by the assumptions and prejudices of his own time and place, ignorant of broader trends in history, philosophy, or aesthetics, his horizon “as narrow as that of an Alpine valley” – yet nevertheless standing forth “in unconquerable health and vigor, to the joy of all who see him”.

He compares that ruddy-cheeked yokel with his effete, cosmopolitan counterpart, who, with all his subtlety and refinement, is too discombobulated by his “continually changing and shifting” historical horizon to summon the courage to accomplish great things. For, says Nietzsche,

No artist will paint his picture, no general win his victory, no nation gain its freedom, without having striven and yearned for it under those very “unhistorical” conditions.

In his widely mocked, widely misunderstood book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama elaborated on Nietzsche’s meaning:

For history teaches us that there have been horizons beyond number in the past—civilizations, religions, ethical codes, “value systems.” The people who lived under them, lacking our modern awareness of history, believed that their horizon was the only one possible. Those who come late in this process, those who live in the old age of mankind, cannot be so uncritical. …

The last man at the end of history knows better than to risk his life for a cause, because he recognizes that history was full of pointless battles in which men fought over whether they should be Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic, German or French. The loyalties that drove men to desperate acts of courage and sacrifice were proven by subsequent history to be silly prejudices.

The spy in Second Game is, in effect, an envoy from the End of History. Realizing that war would be pointlessly devastating to all sides, he announces to the surprised aliens his intention to return home and advise his own government to surrender unconditionally.

But the Last Man has the last laugh. The spy has foreseen that the aliens will be judicious overlords. With their vastly smaller population their culture will soon be softened and tamed by contact with their new imperial subjects.

And so it comes to pass. The aliens are turned into Last Men indistinguishable from the humans who submitted to their overlordship.

Fatal enervation.

When I was putting together my Bibliography page a couple months back I was surprised to find that in the twelve years I’ve been blogging, I’ve never mentioned Francis Fukuyama – even though several of my posts deal with Fukuyamian themes in Fukuyamian ways.

francis fukuyama the end of history and the last man

I have mentioned Nietzsche, from whose Thus Spake Zarathustra Fukuyama borrowed half the title of his most famous book. I should confess that despite several valiant efforts I’ve never made it all the way through Zarathustra, which hasn’t stopped me from quoting (in a review of a C.P. Snow novel) the passage where the paradise of the Last Men is described:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” — say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

Writing in 1992, Fukuyama wondered whether the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the final triumph of the Last Men. As Rod Dreher put it in a blog post reflecting on “the victory of liberal capitalist democracy over communism”:

It turns out that liberal democracy is not an end point, but a means to an end. What is that end? Freedom? Okay, but freedom for what? Progress? Fine, but where are we going? Towards a world of radical individualism, of self-actualized hedonistic shoppers?

For thirty years, critics of Fukuyama’s book – many of whom seem not to have actually read it – have caricatured it either as a self-satisfied blurt of American triumphalism, or as a woolly-minded declaration of the dawning of a yuppie Age of Aquarius. Here’s the conservative polemicist Mark Steyn unflatteringly comparing it to P.D. James’ The Children of Men, which came out in the same year:

While Fukuyama was cooing that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”, Lady James discerned, at the very moment of triumph, a fatal enervation in the “free world”.

Three decades on, The End of History is too ridiculous to read, while The Children of Men endures as a meditation on the west at sunset.

Actually, far from “cooing”, Fukuyama’s tone is sombre, even fatalistic:

When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra told the crowd about the last man, a clamor arose: “Give us this last man, O Zarathustra!” “Turn us into these last men!” they shouted. The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been “all about” these last few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens? Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dis-satisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution? [1]

Thymotic anger.

“In the Beginning,” – to quote one of Fukuyama’s chapter titles – was “a Battle to the Death for Pure Prestige”.

Fukuyama wonders whether the liberal-democratic doctrine of equality can fully satisfy man’s desire for recognition, a drive he traces back to Hegel’s “first man” – a kind of aristocrat in animal skins, ready to go club-to-club with his fellow first men to force them to acknowledge his superiority. [2]

The strain of liberalism descending from Hobbes and Locke emphasized the necessity of constraining men’s sanguinary urges through the adoption of a social contract – a mutual agreement among the combatants to lay down their clubs and submit to be governed. In exchange they would enjoy security and the freedom to engage in mutually profitable economic activities. The desire for recognition – the cause of wars and civil disorder – would wither away, or be redirected into benign pursuits, like science, the arts, and the piling up of material wealth.

Fukuyama stresses the radicalism of this line of thought:

In the civil society envisioned by Hobbes, Locke, and other early modern liberal thinkers, man needs only desire and reason. The bourgeois was an entirely deliberate creation of early modern thought, an effort at social engineering that sought to create social peace by changing human nature itself.

As attempts to engineer human nature go, the liberal experiment was unusually successful. We live amid its results; hence, its radicalism is invisible to us. The bourgeois revolution has nevertheless provoked opposition over the years from thinkers like Hegel who believed that it had severed us from an essential part of our humanity.

Fukuyama discusses several of these thinkers, most of them familiar already to anyone who browses the kind of websites where the neuroses of modern liberalism are diagnosed. The Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, for instance, who in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” imagined an apolitical greengrocer signalling his conformity to communist doctrine by hanging a sign in his shop window declaring “Workers of the World, Unite!”:

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity.

Havel goes on to imagine that “one day something in our greengrocer snaps” and he begins to express his true feelings. He is swiftly demoted from manager to warehouse drudge, his children’s futures are threatened, he is persecuted by co-workers who care no more than he does about the unity of the workers of the world.

Nevertheless, by his rebellion the greengrocer has “enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.” A regime is propped up by the willingness of ordinary people to accept its baloney; when enough greengrocers rebel, the regime totters. As Fukuyama points out,

The man of desire, Economic Man, the true bourgeois, will perform an internal “cost-benefit analysis” which will always give him a reason for working “within the system.” It is only … the man who feels that his worth is constituted by something more than the complex set of desires that make up his physical existence … who is willing to walk in front of a tank or confront a line of soldiers.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis regretted the emergence of “Men without Chests” – men governed by their brains and their bellies, lacking that intermediating element, seated in the chest, which is the source of magnanimity, and sentiment, and virtue, and courage:

It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

In Fukuyama’s view, it is this irrepressible “middle element” – borrowing a term from Plato’s Republic, he calls it thymos – that drives history in the direction of democracy. Ultimately, people won’t put up with being kicked around by communists or fascists or theocrats. They’ll rise up, kick back at the bullies, and set up a government that respects the dignity of each individual citizen – which is to say, a liberal democracy.

But the thymotic anger of greengrocers was only half the story of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe. The other half was the unwillingness of the communist leadership to follow the example of their predecessors in unleashing the army against uppity demonstrators:

Once the Soviets indicated they would not intervene to prop up local allies in Eastern Europe, the only surprising outcome was the totality of the demoralization of the communist apparatuses in all of the Eastern European countries, and the fact that hardly anyone in the old guard was willing to lift a finger in self-defense.

Fukuyama implies that the communists’ horizons had been widened through exposure to contending ideas of the good. Like the risk-averse future humans in Second Game, they were no longer willing to engage in “pointless battles” over what form of government should prevail.

But communists share with Fukuyama the belief that history has a direction – that it moves inexorably towards a more just and rational form of social organization. They merely disagree about what conditions constitute justice and rationality.

Those communists who pragmatically switched sides in 1989, reinventing themselves as democratic socialists, might easily have rationalized their apostasy as a strategic capitulation. Perhaps they saw Eastern Europe’s apparent repudiation of their beliefs as nothing more than a switchback on the winding path leading onward and upward to the End of History.

equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place

30 years on from “the decisive collapse of communism as a factor in world history”. Source.

“History is bunk.”

Turning my copy of The End of History and the Last Man edgewise, I notice that the little coloured Post-Its I use to mark interesting passages – including most of the ones quoted in this essay – are concentrated in the last third of the book.

That’s the section where Fukuyama wonders whether the End of History would be a fit place for humans to live, or whether its inhabitants might “drag the world back into history” out of sheer exasperation.

Jumping back, the first section lays out Fukuyama’s argument that history has a direction – that however events play out in different parts in the world, in the long run all human societies will converge toward a single outcome, determined by innate human psychological drives and by the possibilities opened up by scientific advances.

In the second section, the one I find shakiest, Fukuyama lays out the conjecture that liberal democracy is the final form of government towards which history has been moving.

No doubt this seemed more plausible in 1992. But Fukuyama’s own thesis posits technological change as one of the factors that determines historical progress. Why shouldn’t future advances in technology drive new forms of social organization?

Consider the big-data-driven Social Credit system coming into shape in China, which will permit the government to pry ever more deeply into its citizens’ communications, financial dealings, and private thoughts, and penalize whatever the Party deems to be antisocial activities. Those with high Social Credit ratings will find their way through life smoothed, while those who persist in visiting the wrong websites, or interacting with the wrong friends, will be inconvenienced in subtle ways whenever they attempt to find work, to travel, or to make everyday purchases.

Fukuyama brings in another old friend from the anti-Woke comment threads, Alexis de Tocqueville, to predict how a democratic people – “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives” – might submit willingly to a novel form of tyranny:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. … [I]t provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Rod Dreher has been arguing that such a despotism is under construction in the western democracies – not, or not yet, under the direction of the state, but bit by bit through the actions of gigantic corporations devoted to “protecting” their users from contentious ideas. He calls this “soft totalitarianism”, and compares it to the antiseptic, chemically-pacified, sexually liberated future described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

In fact, a college literature professor told me that when he teaches Brave New World, few of his students recognise it as a dystopia at all.

aldous huxley brave new world

I can believe that. I recall how, as a teenage leftist in the early 1990s, I first encountered the chapter in which World Controller Mustafa Mond extolled the virtues of the society over which he ruled. I thought, “This all sounds okay, actually:”

“The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or loves to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”

When John the Savage, refugee from one of the few remaining domains of unconditioned humanity, contends that such a narcotized, conflict-free life seems to him unbearable, the World Controller cheerfully concedes his point:

“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Compassionate Mustafa Mond. His punishment of the novel’s heroes for instigating a riot is not imprisonment, not torture, merely banishment to an island where, he reassures them, they’ll dwell comfortably among others of their own kind – “people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own”. John the Savage he permits to live freely, despite his violent tendencies; the stability of the regime is not threatened by the presence of a lone Shakespeare-quoting madman.

Fair-minded Mustafa Mond. Even as he censors a “dangerous and potentially subversive” scientific theory, he reflects that it is a “masterly piece of work”, and quite possibly true. A pity; but the happiness of the people must be considered.

Clear-eyed Mustafa Mond, who in the well-known words of Our Ford proclaims that “History is bunk”, and waves his hand:

and it was as though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harapa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk — and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotoma and Jesus?

What is there in the above to offend the 21st-century progressive sensibility? True, we haven’t yet abolished family, though modern sentiment encourages us to apply the word to any close-knit group, related or not. We don’t yet sneer at love, though the high priests of progressivism declare that one can love any number of partners, successively or concurrently. We haven’t yet arrived at the free distribution of soma, though we do have cheap and ever-more potent marijuana; and for those who get themselves addicted to the harder stuff, enlightened opinion declares that the state should supply their substances free of charge, to ensure the addicts’ well-being.

Most importantly, we continue to exalt individuality – up to the point that an expression of individualism interferes with a less privileged individual’s feeling of security.

In “The Use and Abuse of History” Nietzsche described the attractive life of a herd of grazing animals, well-fed and content, knowing nothing of “the meaning of yesterday or today”:

Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it.

The horror that we might someday abandon the human “pride” that sets us apart from the animals, and regress to a state of herbivorous contentment, has been a recurring theme of the dystopian imagination from Nietzsche to Wells to WALL-E. Some of these fictions portray a rebel arising to jolt humanity out of its rut; others conjecture that once we’ve bartered away our thymos, it’s gone for good.

In the non-fiction realm, the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève – whose Introduction to the Reading of Hegel seems to have been Fukuyama’s main source of inspiration – thought that the diminishment of humankind to a species of domesticated animal was really nothing to worry about, if you took a sufficiently broad view:

The disappearance of Man at the end of History, therefore, is not a cosmic catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And therefore, it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called—that is, Action negating the given, and Error, or in general, the Subject opposed to the Object. …

(Fukuyama suggests he’s being ironic there, but who can tell?) In Kojève’s view, the End of History meant the end of war – but also the end of art, the end of philosophy, even the end of wisdom. He was fine with it. After the Second World War he gave up the academic life and spent the remainder of his years, as Fukuyama puts it,

working in that bureaucracy meant to supervise construction of the final home for the last man, the European Commission. [3]

Fighting dragons.

Fukuyama was never a radical. These days he seems to be a resolute centrist, happy to help a Guardian reporter fulfill his weekly quota of anti-Trump gibes. Although in The End of History and The Last Man he’s ambivalent about liberal democracy’s prospects for delivering human satisfaction, he never really entertains the possibility that some other form of government might prove to be superior.

But suppose you’re a bit gloomier. Suppose you look ahead and foresee democracy degrading either into factional chaos or into “soft totalitarian” torpor.

Suppose you start to wonder whether Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is actually all it’s cracked up to be. As Curtis Yarvin puts it (dismissing the “of the people” part of the phrase as a mellifluous redundancy):

Suppose government by the people cannot actually deliver government for the people? Suppose we just have to choose?

What would government for the people look like? We, the people, seem to desire the life of Zarathustra’s Last Man – nothing more than the assurance of our “little pleasures for the day”. But is a government that satisfies all our lazy desires really governing for us?

We see that early in a democratic period, the real power of democracy (the power of the mob) greatly exceeds its formal power. Late in the cycle, this disparity inverts: the formal power of democracy exceeds its real power. Its peaceful, apathetic voters are not only not a mob—they are not even a crowd. These “last men” are too soft to even lift the swords of the primitive and violent ancestors who created their powers.

So those powers must and will be taken from them. In a monarchy where the king is weak, the king will be managed. In a democracy where the voters are weak, the voters will be managed.

In the next paragraph, he goes on to quote Tocqueville: “No form or combination of social polity has yet been devised, to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.” As you can see from the above, Yarvin – better known under his old pseudonym Mencius Moldbug – works from many of the same sources that inspired Fukuyama. But he arrives at the conclusion (premature, I hope) that liberal democracy is beyond saving; that it is incapable of securing our freedom either in the narrow sense – our freedom to think, speak, and worship as we please – or, more broadly, our freedom to be fully human beings.

Therefore we might as well start planning for whatever will replace it after its inevitable collapse. I’m a little fuzzy on what that’s supposed to be: Gray Mirror, the book which will supposedly lay out Yarvin’s political philosophy, is still being released, one long, long, loooong chapter at a time.

In the most recent installment, Yarvin riffs on Cicero’s dictum “Salus populi suprema lex”, or the health of the people is the supreme law

the original and correct principle of all government, famous for millennia, never changed and never improved on.

But what is this slippery thing, the salus populi? Does it refer only to physical health – the guarantee of ample food, warm clothing, and medical care?

Or should the definition be expanded to include psychological health – in which case, perhaps, the government would be justified in removing statues, books, ideas, and if necessary, disagreeable people, if by their presence other people are made unhappy?

Or is there a still more comprehensive definition of salus? One that encompasses not only the stomach and the mind, but C.S. Lewis’ “middle element”?

Yarvin indulges in a sci-fi thought experiment that might be held up against other dystopian visions of the End of History. He imagines the bored, aimless citizens of the near future voluntarily migrating into “sealed villages” – windowless buildings which might be located anywhere – therein to spend the remainder of their lives participating in fully immersive virtual reality adventures. These adventures would be characterized by their intensity:

It is not a coincidence that virtual worlds so often select premodern European social, political and technical parameters—and the older and more fantastic, the better. The most basic human sociology is that all human beings prefer, all things being equal, to live in guilds that fight dragons for a living.

The game designer, in this scenario, bears much the same responsibility for the salus of the virtual villagers as a government bears for its citizens. Yes, bug burritos could be pneumatically delivered to the villagers’ haptic VR pods to keep them in good physical health; drugs could be squirted into their nostrils to keep them pacified. But if their virtual lives are to be an improvement over their unsatisfying real-world lives, the villagers must be enabled to live in a fully human way – which entails the possibility of enduring setbacks, experiencing physical pain, even dying, in the course of their virtual adventures:

When we accept the realization that humanity is not and cannot be in a healthy, manlike condition in the absence of pain, violence and death—not a new revelation, not even a Nietzschean revelation, but one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy—we are forced to accept the general realization that the human experience is in every way shaped by essential difficulty. In hedonomic jargon, humans need disutility. … According to the principle of salus, our bodies must be exercised; our minds must be challenged; our characters must be tested; or we will be less human than we could be.

This thought experiment implies that if humanity should ever conquer all its difficulties, it may be necessary for whoever governs us – whether in virtual villages or in the real world – to devise artificial difficulties, to test our characters and give our lives meaning.

But what chance is there, really, that we’ll ever conquer our difficulties? Even in the unlikely event that all the world’s remaining tyrannies are overthrown, all the banana republics raised to western levels of democratic stability, all the pirates pacified, all the terrorists successfully won over to the doctrine of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – how long will that happy state endure? One last quote from Fukuyama:

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in a previous generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.

Is that not exactly what we’ve been seeing of late? Conservatives like Rod Dreher are right to observe that their values and beliefs are under attack. Young people are no longer willing to live within the cultural horizon that bounded and oriented their ancestors’ imaginations.

Once the rebels have successfully smashed down the boundary markers and levelled the landscape, we’ll begin to discern the outlines of the new horizon, which will shape the deeds and imaginations of the next generation – their morality, and their sense of beauty, and their acts of courage.

This is the horizon which future rebels will struggle to transcend – and in struggling, we can hope, prove themselves human.

M.

1. If you missed the link above, Aris Roussinos’ article in UnHerd says everything I would’ve liked to say about Fukuyama’s conservatism, if I weren’t handicapped by my own discursiveness:

In his aristocratic distaste for the world summoned into being by the temporary triumph of liberalism, his Nietzchean disgust at the Last Man it has created, and his awareness of the stronger and more meaningful passions aroused by the prospect of struggle, sacrifice and glory, Fukuyama is widely at variance with the worldview ascribed to him. Were he writing in today’s more hysterical climate rather than in the early 1990s, he would more likely be accused of meandering towards fascism than of liberal triumphalism.

2. I should clarify that Fukuyama’s take on Hegel is, as he admits, heavily influenced by Alexandre Kojève, who uses the snappier “first men” in place of Hegel’s “modes of Consciousness that have not risen above the bare level of life”.

3. This essay is already bloated with quotes, but I can’t resist cramming in this fine piece of invective from the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. The subject is the respected interpreter of Hegel and engineer of European unity, Kojève:

This man was, in my view, a dangerous psychopath, who brought with him from Russia the same kind of nihilistic fervour that had inspired the Bolsheviks, and who took an exhilarated joy in the thought that everything around him was doomed. He could not set eyes on any human achievement without relishing its future ruin. He lived in a Götterdämmerung of his own imagination, wishing meanwhile to create the kind of post-historical, universal and bureaucratic form of government that would extinguish all real human attachments and produce the only thing he really cared for: the last man, the loveless and lifeless homunculus which he knew in intimate detail since he knew it in himself.

Last month, a bit of fruitless research for this essay led me to consider how the desire for recognition might manifest in a willingness to crowd fellow pedestrians off the sidewalk. Some months earlier, H.G. Wells’ dystopian classic The Sleeper Awakes inspired some thoughts on 19th, 20th, and 21st century morality. Since I’ve elected not to pass comment on today’s American presidential election you might be interested in what I was thinking on the eve of the previous one.

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.

“Pardon me, madame, my name is Tarzan.”

As you might guess, The Return of Tarzan is the second book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series.

If you jump right in thinking, “I know all about this Tarzan guy. Swings from vines. Wears a loincloth. Speaks broken English. I don’t need to bother with the first book,” you’re likely to be confused. The Return of Tarzan starts with Tarzan moping on an ocean liner in the manner of a disaffected earl in a Dorothy L. Sayers story:

Tarzan entered the smoking room, and sought a chair a little apart from the others who were there. He felt in no mood for conversation, and as he sipped his absinth he let his mind run rather sorrowfully over the past few weeks of his life….

He’ll do a good deal more moping in the course of the novel, but he’s never more than a page or two from having to leap into action to protect some innocent damsel. Before long he’s in Paris, thwarting a Russian spy ring and then enlisting in the French secret service.

tarzan hal foster

From the Tarzan comic strip, by Hal Foster.

2019 was the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Tarzan. Last summer a friend and I went to a special presentation at a theatre here in Vancouver, with one of the co-directors doing a Q&A before the movie.

My friend had never read any of the novels, so I told her some of the plot points that were abandoned during the adaptation from print to film, like the fact that Tarzan teaches himself to read and write (from his dead parents’ library) before he encounters any other humans – and that when he is finally taught to speak, his first language is French. So she skimmed the Wikipedia plot summary while we were waiting in line.

During the Q&A she stuck up her hand and said, “I was just reading the plot of the novel, and there’s some crazy stuff in there, like how Tarzan teaches himself to read, and how he goes to Wisconsin. Also I never realized Jane Porter was originally an American.”

“No, she–” said the director.

“Yeah, she–” said my friend.

“Was she? Well, anyway,” said the director, and then launched into a speech about how they’d resolved to disregard the books because of their racist depiction of Africans. My friend sank back into her seat. There was an awkward silence as the audience gauged how long they had to sit there deploring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ racism before they could safely change the subject to Rosie O’Donnell’s performance as a wacky gorilla.

I like Disney’s Tarzan, but it’s pretty morally simplistic compared to Burroughs’ version. The point of the books is that there’s a tradeoff between the harshness and purity of nature and the comforts and corruption of civilization. In the Disney world there’s no tradeoff – the gorillas are just as intelligent as the humans, and more civilized to boot. In the end Jane and Professor Porter decide to stay with Tarzan in the jungle, and why shouldn’t they? It looks like a lot of fun.

Burroughs’ Tarzan spends a good deal of his time brooding over how he fits into neither the savage nor the civilized world. He’s kind of a downer, but he beats up some bad guys every few pages so it’s okay.

M.

 

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by doing so he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. [The dead] need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles.
–Max Beerbohm, “A Clergyman”.

A funny word, posterity. When we picture ourselves in relation to the flow of time, it’s with our faces thrust toward the future – toward posterity – and our posteriors toward the past. Those we describe as “backward” we imagine gazing adoringly at their antecedents while they retreat, as it were, into the future.

Posterity has two meanings, and it’s not always clear which is intended. It can refer to one’s direct descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth – or it can refer more vaguely to everyone who comes after us, whether related to us or not.

Thus the conservative blogger Steve Sailer observes that when the Founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the U.S. constitution that their intention was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”, they had in mind chiefly the descendants of people then living in the United States; while the modern tendency is to interpret the passage as referring to the well-being of the people of the future more generally, including all those who aren’t Americans, but whose children or grandchildren might be, should one of them endeavour to splash across the Rio Grande.

robert graves i claudius

Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, seems to have the more expansive definition in mind when he imagines his readership of the inconceivably remote future. The stuttering Roman emperor, puzzled by a prophetic couplet declaring that he will “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years, concludes that the prophecy is

an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket, and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some 1,900 years hence.

(On second thought, he reflects that his memoir may have a better chance of survival if he simply leaves it lying around unprotected: “Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.”)

Knowing from the same prophecy that Rome is destined to fall long before his manuscript is recovered, Claudius writes not in Latin but in Greek, which he believes “will always remain the chief literary language of the world”. I have no idea what Greek word or phrase would be translated as “posterity”, but Google suggests απόγονοι (apogonoi), which I gather is the modern form of classical Greek επίγονοι (epigonoi), a word that carries its own hint of a double meaning: the Epigoni, meaning “later-born”, were the offspring of the legendary heroes known as the Seven Against Thebes. From them we derive the English word “epigone”, meaning an unworthy successor or imitator – a rather inapt commemoration for the Epigoni, who unlike their fathers actually succeeded in conquering Thebes. (Apparently a 19th century German novel was responsible for the shift in meaning.)

***

It’s common to observe that those with children of their own are more invested in the future than those without. That’s probably true, and yet I suspect it’s childless folks like me who spend more time thinking about posterity, precisely because we’re more self-absorbed: we’re more inclined to brood (because we have more free time in which to brood) over why we’re here, what was the point of it all, and what will survive of us after we’re gone.

As a backward-gazing person, I’ve always been interested in messages from the past to the future: time capsules, that sort of thing. My life has been too uneventful to make journal-keeping worthwhile, but for one whole calendar year – the year 2000 – I kept a journal, in which I looked back on the quarter of a century I’d then been alive, and speculated on what the next quarter-century would bring. On the last working day of the year I printed the journal, sealed it in a big envelope along with some photographs and letters (sealed already in smaller envelopes) that I’d solicited from friends, and mailed it to myself, to be opened in the year 2025.

time capsule 2000-2025

At the time, 2025 seemed nearly as remote to me as the 20th century must have seemed to Claudius – and yet here I am, already four-fifths of the way there. I’m curious to see what messages my friends enclosed for me, but I’m not exactly looking forward to re-reading my journal. I expect it to be quite depressing. Although I can’t remember precisely what in my mid-twenties I expected to achieve by my late forties, I know it was far more than I will actually have achieved. And I fear I have achieved so little precisely because I’m the kind of person who worries more about what the younger version of me would think of the current version, than about what the future version will think of himself.

As for what future generations will think of me: if for some reason you are reading this 1900 years in the future, I can only assume something has gone terribly wrong – an asteroid or nanobot swarm has wiped out all of earth’s literature, except for the contents of a single hard drive recovered from a tide-powered offshore server farm, kept in working order by a hereditary priesthood that has elevated my writings to the status of holy scripture. In that case, it’s only through my blog that knowledge of Shakespeare, Robert Heinlein, and Max Beerbohm has been preserved.

Sorry, 40th century digital monks: I know you’re dying to hear more about what a schmuck I was in my twenties, but I feel it’s my duty to preserve a few more fragments of Beerbohm…

***

max beerbohm selected prose

In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and his amanuensis are visiting friends at their country villa when Boswell solicits the doctor’s opinion on “what were the best English sermons for style”. On this question, as on most, Johnson has strong opinions, and there follows a brief scene of Boswell lobbing out the names of then-celebrated ecclesiastics – Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, Smalridge – and Johnson flicking them aside with a word or two.

Finally another, previously unmentioned member of the party, whom Boswell describes merely as “a Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect”, pipes up to wonder, “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?”

To which Johnson replies, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”

On that abrupt note, the conversation ends, and the clergyman is never heard from again. Beerbohm alone marks his departure:

I know not which is the more startling – the debut of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. …

I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you” – thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears.

A sad fate for the unlucky clergyman; and yet thanks to Boswell’s and Beerbohm’s combined attentions, his sole recorded utterance still rouses the imaginative sympathies of 21st century readers. Can as much be said for whole volumes of Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, or Smalridge? They rose to the top of their profession, they inspired and instructed the rich and the worthy, their reputations were so great that Dr. Johnson could summarize their achievements in a word. And yet 150 years later their names communicated nothing but, as Beerbohm puts it, “a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown”.

He looks forward another 150 years and foresees readers being similarly unedified by a discussion of the famous authors of his own time – and indeed, of the seven names he mentions (Wells, Galsworthy, Mrs. Ward, Caine, Miss Corelli, Upton Sinclair, and Mrs. Glyn) as being comparable in stature, in his era, to Atterbury et al. in Johnson’s, I recognized only three. And it’s barely been a century. Another fifty years should see off the survivors.

By that time Beerbohm will also be forgotten, and with him the flickering shade of that nervous clergyman. But of the latter at least we can assume that he went to his rest confident that a more enduring afterlife awaited him – that he was “above such terrene trifles”.

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

“A Clergyman” inevitably brings to mind Beerbohm’s marvellous short story “Enoch Soames”, in which a talentless author of that name sells his soul to the devil to be transported a hundred years into the future – to the year 1997 – to see how posterity has treated him. I have previously referred to Dr. Johnson in a postscript to my reflections on growth vs. fixed mindset in 2017, and to Max Beerbohm in a discussion of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse a few weeks ago.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.


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.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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