Tuesday, December 29, 2009


“Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. I don’t blame them in the smallest degree. I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lord Henry Wotton)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the mirale of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonley mind of a man.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


“The consequences of our actions take us by the scruff of the neck, altogether indifferent to the fact that we have ‘improved’ in the meantime.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


“Conscience and cowardice are really the same thing, Basil. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lord Henry Wotton)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ghost (1987)

Fantasy Adventure
2,354 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1987. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

Nog slowly crept up to the door and pressed his small ear to its rough surface. He stuck a stubby finger in his other ear and listened intently for any sound that might reveal itself.


Nog waved his hand furiously at Ignatius to get him to pipe down. Humans were like that. Always shouting and clanking their cumbersome armor. Nog was surprised there were so many humans like Ignatius around. An awful lot of them must get eaten by something whose nap was disturbed by their constant clamor.

Nog slinked back to the party. “I couldn’t hear a thing. The door may be too thick.”

Ignatius snorted. “I think it’s your head that’s too thick,” he said in a booming voice. “I’ve always said that dwarven heads are mostly bone.”

Nog looked up at the huge human in gleaming platemail. “Well, Iggy, if you wouldn’t talk so loud—”

“Enough,” Roystnof hissed. “With you two bickering all the time, it’s a miracle we’ve made it this far.”

Nog and Ignatius exchanged venomous looks.

“All right,” Ignatius grumbled. “Just tell that pint-sized twerp not to call me Iggy.”

Roystnof sighed and scratched his beard. “Nog,” he said. “Go open the door. I’ll follow you, and Ignatius will bring up the rear.”

Nog nodded and quietly walked back to the door. He and Ignatius had known each other for many years, but they never seemed able to agree on anything. He was glad Roystnof was along to keep things moving. The wizard always kept a cool head and could be counted on in times of crisis to do what was necessary. That’s why Nog usually did what Roystnof told him to do without question. It had kept the dwarf alive so far.

Nog put both hands on the doorknob and peered over his shoulder to see if the others were ready. Roystnof gave him a nod and he swung the door open.

The room beyond was large and dark, but some strange glowing vapors were swirling together in one of the far corners. The trio entered the room and spread out as Nog and Ignatius drew their swords.

The vapors suddenly coalesced into a bulky humanoid shape. The shape had limbs, a torso, and a head, but its features were smudged in the shine of its own shimmering light. A strange red gem on a golden chain began to materialize around the creature’s neck.

The monster became more defined as it slowly approached the party, floating silently in the gloomy room. It looked like a man. A man whose eyes were sparkling more intensely than the dazzling gem it wore around its neck.

Nog felt an overwhelming feeling of pure terror tremble through his body. The mere sight of this ghostly apparition filled the dwarf with the urge to turn and flee. To abandon his friends and find a place to hide from the horror now blazing before his eyes.

“Do not fear,” Roystnof said as the spirit drew closer. “The ghost exudes an evil aura that panics all living creatures. This fear can be overridden. Concentrate. Do not allow the fear to control you.”

Nog clung to the wizard’s words like a security blanket. He repeated them to himself again and again. Almost without him knowing it, the fear dropped away. It didn’t disappear. It still gnawed angrily in the pit of his stomach, but Nog had it under control.

The musky air suddenly crackled with the flash of a blue bolt of lightning that struck the ghost with full force. The monster was thrown back for a moment, and then it quickened its advance on the wizard who had wounded it.

Nog jumped in front of Roystnof to fend the creature off with his sword. He swung at the ghost in a sweeping arc, but there was no impact. The blade had passed through the body of the specter without damaging it.

The ghost slowly extended a thin, glowing arm and touched the dwarf delicately on the shoulder.
Nog felt a shock wave reverberate through his body and every one of his nerves pulsed with pain. He felt faint and his ears began to ring. The last thing he saw before he blacked out was the malignant smile on the cracked lips of the ghost.

+ + + + + + + + +

When Nog came to, he was not alone. Grimaldi was with him. It was as if Grimaldi had been with him from the beginning of their lives because Nog suddenly knew all that Grimaldi did and was. They were two fused into one. They shared the sum of their separate awarenesses, their separate memories, and their separate life forces. Both of them existed in a single body, and that body was the jewel that hung around the neck of the ghost.

With Grimaldi, Nog now knew exactly what had happened. Long ago—just how long ago Nog was unsure because Grimaldi had lost track of the passage of time—but at some point in the past a young thief named Grimaldi Darkblade and a small band of mercenaries had gone seeking their fortunes.

They had sought out a place, a castle, thought to be haunted and thought to hold treasures for anyone brave enough to face the undead spirits that guarded them. The group of mercenaries had gone into the castle and had fought their way past perils and pitfalls, slowly descending deeper and deeper into the catacombs beneath the abandoned castle.

Grimaldi and his comrades had eventually encountered a ghost, a malevolent monster of chaos. The phantom used its dark powers to capture Grimaldi’s life force and hold it prisoner in the crimson jewel it wore around its neck. The young thief could see out into the world of which he had once been part, and he watched as the ghost turned his body to attack his friends. The ghost was controlling Grimaldi’s body, and was using it to fight savagely against the group of mercenaries.

Grimaldi had watched helplessly as the others cut his body to pieces, defending themselves from the vicious onslaught of Grimaldi’s blade. The ghost frightened off the remaining mercenaries with its evil magic, or caused them to wither and die under its skeletal touch.

Grimaldi had been left stranded inside the gem, and there he had stayed, slowly slipping into the ethereal realm of the ghost.

And uncounted years later, another group of adventurers had come to the same castle for the same reasons. A member of this party was a dwarf named Nog, a stockily built warrior with years of experience in combat.

This group had stumbled upon the same ghost and, alas, Nog had fallen to the same fate as had Grimaldi. However, the life force of the thief was already possessed within the ghost’s jewel. The joining of the two life forces, Grimaldi and Nog, took place when Nog entered the jewel.

They were now one being with two legacies. They were merged by powerful black magic, and it would take equally powerful magic, white or black, to separate them again.

But now, Nog and Grimaldi watch. They watch from inside the gem to see what will become of the wizard Roystnof and the human warrior Ignatius. They watch to see if either will survive to free them from their prison.

+ + + + + + + + +

When Nog awoke he at first thought it had all been just a nightmare caused by another late night at the tavern. But he knew Grimaldi was with him. His thoughts were not his alone. They were being heard by the thief, just as Nog could hear Grimaldi’s thoughts in his head.

His head! He shouted with glee as he pounded his fists against his chest. He had his body back. Or, at least, he and Grimaldi had his body to share.

Nog felt as if he had known Grimaldi all his life. He knew all there was to know about the thief, because they shared the same mind. It was as if a lifetime of the deepest friendship had been compressed into half a second.

The door to the room opened and in walked Roystnof.

Grimaldi jerked their body in surprise and fear, but Nog reminded him quickly who the wizard was. A friend. A person to trust.

“It’s about time you got up,” Roystnof said with concern. “I was beginning to think the spell hadn’t worked.”

“The spell?” Grimaldi asked before Nog could stop him.

Roystnof recoiled. “What’s wrong with your voice? It sounds...different, somehow.”

Nog took control. “I—” he stopped short, suddenly realizing that he didn’t remember what had happened. Grimaldi wasn’t sure either. All they could remember was how Grimaldi had been captured by the ghost and the events up to the point when the monster had attacked Nog. “I’m not sure,” Nog said finally. “Tell me what happened after I passed out.”

The wizard just stared at the dwarf.

“I’m all right,” Nog said. “Just tell me.”

Roystnof cleared his throat. “I knew the ghost had captured your life force the moment it touched you. I’ve dealt with that kind of evil before, so I figured it would turn your body against us. Out of desperation, I cast a paralysis incantation on you, and your body fell helpless to the floor.”

“Then what happened?” Grimaldi asked, caught up in the excitement too much to restrain himself.

Roystnof gave the dwarf another strange look but continued the story. “Then, Ignatius stepped in and with his enchanted blade, he managed to defeat the apparition. That was your mistake. Unenchanted weapons cannot harm such mystical creatures. You shouldn’t have jumped into battle like you did.

“We then took the ghost’s crystal and your body and left the castle. I knew how to restore your life force to your body, but I couldn’t do it in the depths of that dungeon. I needed my books and talismans.

“The rest, was simple. We brought you here to my laboratory, I made the necessary preparations, and cast the spell. It took more energy than I expected, but that’s not unusual with these kinds of spells.”

The wizard made a mistake, Grimaldi told Nog with their thoughts. He didn’t realize there were two of us in the jewel. He doesn’t know I am present in your body.

There was a knock at the door and it opened to admit a solidly-built older man of great height. Nog noticed something familiar about the aged man but he couldn’t place him in either his or in Grimaldi’s memory. Nog was sure he had met this man somewhere before, however, and continued to search his head for some kind of clue. It wasn’t until he mentally removed the lines from the man’s face and changed his gray hair to black that the man’s identity became clear.

“Ignatius,” Nog whispered, astonished.

The lines grew deeper in Ignatius’ face as he smiled.

Roystnof spoke. “An effect of the battle with the ghost. The negative energy of such a creature dramatically accelerates the aging process of anyone it touches. If you’ll notice, you’ve aged about ten years yourself. But since dwarves can live as long as five hundred years, the change isn’t as apparent in you.”

Nog reflected and saw that it was true, His body—their body—was older. Grimaldi couldn’t tell the difference but the thief had only been in the body for an hour.

“Now,” Roystnof said, disturbing Nog and Grimaldi’s thoughts. “Do you mind telling me what’s going on?”

The duo told their story to the wizard and the warrior, both of whom listened intently. Grimaldi told how he had become a prisoner of the ghost, and Nog finished it by describing how they had fused together and were still merged inside Nog’s body.

When they had finished their tale, Roystnof leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on his lap. There was a long moment of silence in which everyone stared at the wizard. Nog was sure Roystnof would know what to do, and he and Grimaldi sat patiently, waiting for him to speak.

“Well,” Roystnof said eventually as he rose from the chair. “It appears that we must find Grimaldi a body of his own.”

+ + + + + + + + +

Toby was lost. He had decided that half an hour ago. He was hopelessly lost and he was going to die. Why did he ever leave his village? He was a fool to think he could survive in the untamed wilderness alone.

Toby had always dreamed of setting off on wild adventures, just like the legendary heroes. He wanted to become wealthy and powerful by his own hand, he wanted to forge his own destiny, he wanted his name whispered on the winds of antiquity.

And so, young sixteen-year-old Toby Toringale had left the security of his village, and with a pack full of food and his father’s sword, had walked off into the unknown.

Toby threw his empty pack against a tree and sat down on the forest floor. He hadn’t eaten in three days and was ready to give up. He shielded his eyes from the sunlight with his hand and he looked at the blue sky above the canopy of trees. He was thinking of how much he would give for some help when he saw the smoke.

Toby scrambled to his feet and ran off in the direction of the smoke. It was chimney smoke. Somewhere up ahead there was a cabin.

After an exhausting run, he stumbled into a clearing and saw the small cabin beckoning to him from across the soil. He dashed up to the door and rapped three times on the cut timber.

His stomach growled as he kicked at some stones in the dirt, waiting for an answer. Toby saw a black rock and gave it a swift kick just as the door opened. It flew into the cabin and hit the owner in the shin.

Roystnof grabbed his leg and gasped in pain.

“Hey, Mister,” Toby said with a relived sigh. “Do you believe in fate?”

Roystnof let a smirk escape him. “Indeed I do,” he said and invited the boy inside.

+ + + THE END + + +

Sunday, November 29, 2009


“It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.”
Bram Stoker, Dracula (Jonathan Harker)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition by Stephen King

Well, it's been about two months since I wrote about a book I've read, and that's because for the past two months I've been reading all 1,153 pages of the complete and uncut edition of Stephen King's The Stand. And mostly not enjoying it.

I'm a Stephen King fan from way back, but I sometimes wonder if I've outgrown him the way I outgrew Piers Anthony. This is not necessarily the book the judge him by, I suppose, because it is one of his earliest, but it also is the one that many fans consider his masterpiece.

I don't see it.

First of all, what exactly is The Stand? After setting us up for a thousand pages for the ultimate battle of good vs. evil, madness comes strolling along in the form of The Trashcan Man with an atom bomb and destroys them both. Is that supposed to be the message we take away from the book?

And then there's Randall Flagg. Is he a man? Is he the devil? Is he something in between? Some primordial force of evil that exerts itself whenever the society of man grows too big for its own britches? I think he's the latter, but it's not like I'm going to get any clues from the old Walkin' Dude himself, because I don't think he knows, either. There are only a couple of pages in the novel where we get to spend time inside Flagg's head, and it probably would have been better if King had never given us those glimpses, because all we get is a jumbled mess. Sometimes he's a man (like when he's thinking about how to defeat his self-appointed enemies and worrying that he may not be strong enough to do it), sometimes he's a demon (like when he transforms while impregnating Nadine with his hellish seed), and sometimes he's the primordial force (like at the very end when he seems to coalesce back out of the nothingness to infiltrate another burgeoning human society).

And then there's this little exchange:

"I can't read the future, Fran," Glen said, and in the lamplight his face looked old and worn--the face, perhaps, of a failed magician. "I couldn't even properly see the effect Mother Abigail was having on the community until Stu pointed it out to me that night on Flagstaff Mountain. But I do know this: We're all in this town because of two events. The superflu we can charge off to the stupidity of the human race. It doesn't matter if we did it or the Russians, or the Latvians. Who emptied the beaker loses importance beside the general truth: At the end of all rationalism, the mass grave. The laws of physics, the laws of biology, the axioms of mathematics, they're all part of the deathtrip, because we are what we are. If it hadn't been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame it on 'technology,' but 'technology' is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: 'Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.' It's a deathtrip. It always has been. So you can charge the superflu off to rationalism if you want. But the other reason we're here is the dreams, and the dreams are irrational. We've agreed not to talk about that simple fact while we're in committee, but we're not in committee now. So I'll say what we all know is true: We're here under the fiat of powers we don't understand. For me, that means we may be beginning to accept--only subconsciously now, and with plenty of slips backward due to culture lag--a different definition of existence. The idea that we can never understand anything about the state of being. And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then irrationalism might very well be a lifetrip...at lease until it proves otherwise."

Speaking very slowly, Stu said: "Well, I got my superstitions. I been laughed at for it, but I got em. I know it don't make any difference if a guy lights two cigarettes on a match or three, but two don't make me nervous and three does. I don't walk under ladders and I never care to see a black cat cross my path. But to live with no science...worshipping the sun, maybe...thinking monsters are rolling bowling balls across the sjy when it thunders...I can't say any of that turns me on very much, baldy. Why, it seems like a kind of slavery to me."

"But suppose those things were true?" Glen said quietly.


"Assume that the age of rationalism has passed. I myself am almost positive that it has. It's come and gone before, you know; it almost left us in the 1960s, the so-called Age of Aquarius, and it took a damn near permanent vacation during the Middle Ages. And suppose...suppose that when rationalism does go, it's as if a bright dazzle has gone for a while and we could see..." He trailed off, his eyes looking inward.

"See what?" Fran asked.

He raised his eyes to hers; they were gray and strange, seeming to glow with their own inner light.

"Dark magic," he said softly. "A universe of marvels where water flows uphill and trolls live the deepest woods and dragons live under the mountains. Bright wonders, white power. 'Lazarus, come forth.' Water into wine. And...just maybe..the casting out of devils."

He paused, then smiled.

"The lifetrip."

"And the dark man?" Fran asked quietly.

Glen shrugged. "Mother Abigail calls him the Devil's Imp. Maybe he's just the last magician of rational thought, gathering the tools of technology against us. And maybe there's something more, something much darker. I only know that he is, and I no longer think that sociology or psychology or any other ology will put an end to him. I think only white magic will do that...and our white magician is out there someplace, wandering and alone." Glen's voice nearly broke, and he looked down quickly.

I know King is in the business of weaving tales about magic--about trolls that live in the deepest woods--but I think he turned this one on its head. There are other hints throughout the novel that Flagg and his followers represent the forces of science and technology, and that Mother Abigail and her followers are the magical druids at one with their spiritual environment. But neither metaphor actually works. Both camps use rationality and irrationality in equal measure, and their ultimate confrontation is a vindication of neither way of thinking. It might've been a better book if King had actually chosen sides.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has the right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sunday, November 8, 2009


“Still you must admit this solves all your problems splendidly: suddenly you’re a free widower. Whenever you like you can marry a beautiful young woman with lots of money, who, furthermore, is already yours. That’s what simple, crude coincidence can do, right?”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Devils (Peter Stepanovich)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Suicide is Just a State of Mind (1987)

Mainstream Fiction
2,281 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1987. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

Jack stared at the forty-four. Big gun, he thought. Cold stainless steel. Eight-inch barrel that fired slugs as big as a marble. Dirty Harry. Make my day. He hefted the firearm into the air and felt its weight strain against the muscles in his wrist. Heavy. With a lot of kick. Put both hands on that baby or she’ll break your arm. Just sight down the barrel and squeeze the trigger. And that’s all she wrote.

Jack swung out the cylinder and dropped three bullets into the holes, leaving an empty chamber between each pair of hollow points. He gave the cylinder a good spin and flicked his wrist, snapping the cylinder back into place. Without pause, without ceremony, he cocked the hammer, placed the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.


Jack brought the gun down and opened the cylinder. He retrieved the bullets and set them down upright on the nightstand, next to the three hollow points already there. He closed the cylinder, wiped his saliva off the forty-four with a rag, and set the gun down next to the bullets.

This was the third time Jack had tried to kill himself. Each night, usually around seven, he would slip a growing number of bullets into Mr. Loudmouth and play a round of Russian Roulette with his tonsils. And tomorrow the odds of Jack surviving would fall to one in three.

Jack got to his feet and walked to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. He was standing in front of the open refrigerator, trying to decide between the turkey and the ham, when the phone rang.


“Hi, Jack? It’s Kelly out at the observatory.”


“Well, I hate to bother you like this, but I’m having some trouble with the drive on the Schmidt, and I was wondering—”

“You were wondering if I could come out and take a look at it.”

“You’re a mindreader, Jack.”

The Schmidt-Cassegrain, Jack thought. I’ve replaced more parts on that telescope than I have on my car. Nearly the only original thing left on it is the objective, a smooth thirty-six inch parabolic mirror.


“Yeah, I guess.”

“Thanks, Jack. I owe you one. Oh, and could you get here as soon as possible? I want to get the Crab before it sets.”

“Twenty minutes?”

“You’re an angel, Jack. See ya.”

+ + + + + + + + +

Kelly Pemberton was a college senior working nights at the observatory for credit. Astrophysics was her major, but Jack had her pegged as someone who just liked to watch the stars. Jack liked her, they had much in common, and he often wished he had known her back when he was in college. All the women he had known then had either dismissed the stars as trivial points of light in the sky or had asked him his sign when they found out he was an astronomer.

When Jack reached the top of the mountain, he parked next to Kelly’s red Toyota and entered the observatory through the office entrance. Kelly was sitting there, reading a Stephen King novel.

“Hey, Jack,” she said when she saw him. “Thanks again for coming.” She put the book down and crossed the room to the sealed door that led into the observatory. She turned out the light and opened it.

“What’s the assignment tonight?” Jack asked as they entered the circular room with the domed roof.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “Some quasar in Draco.”

Jack nodded. “Three Cee Three Five One.”

“Yeah, that’s it. Now, what about this Cassegrain? I hit the drive and nothing happens.”

“Probably a stripped gear. Go get me the toolbox out of the office.”

Jack watched Kelly walk back to the office. She has a nice figure, he thought. She’s nice all around, really. And we have so much in common. Shooting the more spectacular parts of the sky while waiting for the exposure on the assigned target. I used to do the same thing when I worked here back in college. If only I was ten years younger.

Kelly returned with the toolbox. “What’s the damage?”

Jack crouched down and looked at the motor below the telescope. “Yep, stripped gear all right.”

“You don't have to run out for parts, do you?”

“No,” Jack said. “I should have some spares in that toolbox. Hand me a crescent wrench, a screwdriver, and a three-inch gear.”

Jack put his hand out behind him, took the materials from Kelly, and brought them to his face. He remained hunched over the motor for a moment and then stood up and turned around.

“Done?” Kelly said hopefully.

Jack smiled and held out a pair of pliers. “I said a crescent wrench.”

+ + + + + + + + +

“Okay,” Jack said with the stripped gear in his hand. “That should do it.”

“Great,” Kelly said. She began to page through a star catalog.

“Shooting the Crab, eh?” Jack said.

“Yeah. Just as soon as I can find the coordinates.”

Jack nodded. “Five hours, thirty-three point three minutes, right ascension. Plus twenty-two degrees, one minute, declination.”

Kelly look up from the catalog. “Why do you bother memorizing all that stuff? It is written down, you know.”

Jack put the tools back into the box. “Look, Kelly, I did have plans for tonight, so if that’s all you need...”

“Oh sure,” Kelly said. “I understand. Hey, thanks again.”

She followed Jack as he walked back to the office. He opened the door and entered the room beyond, and was about to pass through the outside door when Kelly stopped him.

“I didn’t know you had plans tonight, Jack. I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you by cooking you dinner tomorrow night.”

Jack looked down at her curly auburn hair and her large green eyes. He thought again of how much he really did like her. He thought of their similar interests, of her pretty face, of her beautiful body.

“Come one, you’re not going to turn down a free meal, are you?”

And of her wonderful personality.

Jack smiled. “Okay.”

“Super,” Kelly said with a smile of her own. “Drop by around seven.”

Jack stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He looked up at the sky and saw the mighty hunter, Orion, forever locked in battle with Taurus the Bull. He remembered how he had felt as a child, staring up in wonder at the stars; dreaming of what they could be and what mysteries they could hold. And now that he could pass those distant worlds off as mere balls of hot gas, now that he knew what they were and what powered them, he realized he still felt that same childish sense of wonder.

+ + + + + + + + +

It was fifteen minutes before seven when Jack reached for the revolver. He methodically opened the cylinder, dropped in four hollow point bullets, spun the cylinder, and flicked it shut. His thumb drew back the hammer and he placed the muzzle against the roof of his mouth.

He paused.

He thought of Kelly. He thought of her trying to call after he had not shown up at her place and listening to nothing but the phone ring time and time again. He thought of her eventually working up the nerve to come over here, once she had convinced herself that something must have happened to him. He thought of her knocking more and more loudly on his door and then walking in cautiously after trying the knob and finding it unlocked. He thought of her calling his name out through the empty house and of her finally finding him here on the floor with half his head splattered on the wall.

But I’ve already decided to commit suicide, Jack told himself. After all these years of lying to myself, of brainwashing myself into thinking that things might get better, how can I forget the promise I made to myself and go back to my deluded life? I know this feeling I’m experiencing now. It shows up whenever there’s the possibility of a new relationship. It’s a dream-like sensation. It tells me that things will turn out the way I want them to this time and that I won’t get hurt. It tells me that this will finally be the one that works. It fills me with hope by dangling love in front of my nose like a carrot on a stick. Oh yes, I know this feeling well. It’s the one that lies to me.

Jack squeezed the trigger.


Jack slowly removed the gun from his mouth. He opened the cylinder and took out the bullets. I’ve beaten the odds one too many times, he thought. By this time tomorrow, I’ll be dead.

Jack wiped the gun off with the rag and then used it to wipe the sweat off his forehead.

+ + + + + + + + +

“I’ve been staring up at the stars for as long as I can remember,” Kelly said before she took a slow drink from her wineglass.

Jack was staring at her. He couldn’t think of a time when she had looked better than she did that night. Her auburn hair fell in locks to the shoulders of a dress only a shade removed from the color of her eyes. Shadows from the flickering firelight danced across her delicate facial features, and her smile was more warming than the fire.

“When I was twelve,” she said, “I asked for a telescope for my birthday. I got a Viewmaster instead.”

Jack laughed, and Kelly quietly joined him. The night had gone well. The meal was good, and the conversation was better. I think I’m falling for this girl, Jack told himself. She’s so different from all the other women I’ve known.

“How about you, Jack?” What got you into astronomy?”

“I think I was born with it,” Jack said. “My father was a backyard astronomer, and as soon as I was able to stand I was out there helping him. I was photographing galaxies before I was reading, and once I learned how I simply read everything I could find on the subject. When I was eleven, I built my own four-inch Newtonian reflector. It was crude, but it worked.

“I missed more than my share of school because of staying up late nights trying to catch elusive quasars or periodic comets. A lot of people thought my behavior was obsessive, and it more than likely was, but that never bothered me.”

Jack saw Kelly smile and nod her head as if she knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Realistically,” Jack said, “those twinkling lights in the sky are all I ever really cared about.”

Jack and Kelly sat looking at each other for a long moment in silence. Kelly’s eyes were watering, making them sparkle in the firelight.

Jack felt his heart swell within his chest. This is it, he told himself. The moment is right. Tell her how you feel.

“I love you, Jack.”

Jack almost didn’t hear her. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘I love you.’ You’re so different from all the other men I’ve known. They weren’t looking for a girl like me. All they wanted was to hear how great they were in the sack. They didn’t want to hear the theories of Einstein or lectures on the physical universe. Or, God forbid, any original idea I might have about anything. So, when Mister All-American discovered he needed a dictionary to hold a conversation with me, he dropped me and picked up a bubblehead.”

Jack searched his feelings. He believed he loved Kelly, and he wanted to tell her that, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say it. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

“I understand,” Kelly said. “I know your life hasn’t been easy for you. You’re afraid to give up your love because of how much pain that’s caused you in the past. It’s okay. I know. I feel the same way sometimes.”

Jack’s mind reeled. She was reading his thoughts. He didn’t have to tell her he loved her. She already knew it.

Kelly took Jack’s hand. “We really do have a lot in common.”

Jack held back a tear and kissed her.

+ + + + + + + + +

Kelly woke before dawn the next morning, still in Jack’s sleeping embrace. She felt the rise of his chest against her back with each peaceful breath and the warmth of his body against hers. Their lovemaking had been more than physical. They had shared something intimate, something they both had been searching for all their lives.

Kelly carefully crawled out of Jack’s grasp and slowly out of the bed. She stood nude before the large bay window and could see the Summer Triangle, which would be high in the sky in the coming months, twinkle at her from the horizon. Cygnus the Swan floated on the river of the Milky Way again. Summer was on the way.

Kelly sat down on the edge of the bed and watched her new lover dream. She knew she had found happiness. She knew that her turn had finally come. She and Jack would live the rest of their lives together and never run out of love.

She sighed.

And most of all, she knew she would never again find herself with the muzzle of her twenty-two caliber pistol pressed to her temple.

+ + + THE END + + +

Thursday, October 29, 2009


"Shrugging things off as coincidence is the best way I know of to get in trouble."
David Eddings, The Seeress of Kell (Belgarath)

Thursday, October 22, 2009


“Coincidences ten times as remarkable as this happen to all of us every hour of our lives, without attracting even momentary notice. Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of probabilities—that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustration.”
Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (C. Auguste Dupin)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Civilized Man

“No man, however highly civilized, can listen for very long to African drumming, or Indian chanting, or Welsh hymn singing, and retain intact his critical and self-conscious personality. It would be interesting to take a group of the most eminent philosophers from the best universities, shut them up in a hot room with Moroccan dervishes or Haitian Voodooists and measure, with a stop-watch, the strength of their psychological resistance to the effect of rhythmic sound. Would the Logical Positivists be able to hold out longer than the Subjective Idealists? Would the Marxists prove tougher than that Thomists or the Vedantists? What a fascinating, what a fruitful field for experiment! Meanwhile, all we can safely predict is that, if exposed long enough to the toms-toms and the singing, every one of our philosophers would end by capering and howling with the savages.”
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

Thursday, October 8, 2009


“Christianity gave Eros poison to drink—he did not die of it, to be sure, but degenerated into vice.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Wizard's Revenge (1986)

Fantasy Adventure
2,549 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1986. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

Sir Gildegarde Brisbane rode his quarterhorse down the old forest road, closely followed by his squire on a smaller yearling. His weapons clanked against the light chainmail blanket draped over the horse with each gallop and a strangely shaped bag hit each time with a thud. Soon, the pair came upon a watering hole and dismounted to give the equines, and themselves, a much needed drink.

After a particularly long drink, his squire spoke. “I’ll bet none of the others defeated a wyvern! They would be too frightened to face such a beast!” He gestured towards the sack hung on Brisbane’s saddle. “When you pull its head out of that bag, they’ll probably run in terror!”

“Now, Wisk,” Brisbane scolded. “The Knights of Farchrist are a brave lot. I’m sure each will return with a fitting tribute to the King.”

“It was the largest creature I have ever seen,” Wisk continued. “To kill such a monster is a feat only the bravest of those knights could accomplish.”

Brisbane smiled. Ah, the devotion of a squire. It indeed knew no limits. “We were lucky to find one so soon,” he said, trying to end the embarrassing praise. “We’ll be back at the castle long before any of the other knights, and I can be back protecting my lord.”

“Why do you worry so much about the King?” Wisk asked. “Farchrist is a peaceful land.”

Brisbane smiled at the lad. Yes, for him Farchrist was a peaceful place. Wisk didn’t know about the early years, after the King had just taken power. He didn’t remember the bitter rivalry between the young King Farchrist and the mage Dantrius. He wasn’t present to witness all the malicious attempts the wizard made to steal the throne. He hadn’t seen the trials or Dantrius’ imprisonment and he had never heard the magician’s threats of revenge.

“It’s my duty,” Brisbane said at last, “to protect the King to my own death.”

+ + + + + + + + +

Something was very wrong. Brisbane had left Wisk to tend the horses at the front gate of Farchrist Castle and had ventured inside to search the seemingly deserted palace alone. There were no guards, no townspeople, nobody at all. Something was definitely wrong.

He burst into the audience hall, a room as bare as the rest of the castle. The huge pillars seemed closer together without the throngs of people between them, and for the first time he noticed the beautiful mosaic that was set into the floor. His eyes followed the colorful geometric shapes to the throne, and there he saw the skeletal form of the King.

“M’lord!” Brisbane shouted as he dashed across the tiles to kneel at the King’s feet. The King’s flesh barely hung on his frail bones, he had lost nearly all his hair, and he shook uncontrollably. “M’lord,” Brisbane said. “What has happened?”

The King weakly raised his head to see who was addressing him. “Brisbane!” he gasped. “You’ve returned!”

“Yes, m’lord. I’ve returned, but to what I cannot fathom. Where is everyone?”

The King broke into a fit of tortured wheezing that struck fear into the knight’s heart. His lord was dying.

“D…D…Dantrius,” the King finally managed to stutter before he lapsed into another spasm.

Brisbane rose to his feet, the anger coursing through his veins. He knew he shouldn’t have left the King unprotected. But it had been quiet for years and most people had forgotten the wizard Dantrius. Things had seemed safe. Too safe. And that was the problem. Something had told Brisbane not to go off like the other knights, searching for tributes. His instincts had warned him against it, but Brisbane had gone anyway. And now it was too late.

Brisbane called for his squire, his voice booming through the empty palace. Wisk soon arrived and paused, horrified at the King’s condition.

“Wisk,” Brisbane said. “The King and this castle have fallen under evil magic, the magic of a very evil wizard. I must go and try to put an end to it, but I need someone to stay and take care of the King.”

Wisk looked to the King again and a tear came to his eye. “You can place your trust in me, sir. I won’t fail you.”

Brisbane smiled at the boy and ran from the room, vengeance heavy on his mind.

+ + + + + + + + +

After Dantrius had been released from prison, he was banished from the land of Farchrist, so he traveled to the border and there he constructed a tower in which to reside. Since that day, the Tower of Illzeezad Dantrius and the area around it has been shunned by all wandering merchants, and rumors of evil magic radiating from the tower have cropped up in all the nearby towns.

It was to this place that Brisbane rode in his fury. He brought his steed to an abrupt halt and vaulted to the ground, sword in hand. He marched up to the door, raised his boot, and with a mighty thrust, kicked the door inward. He jumped through the portal but slipped when his feet hit the floor, falling in a horrendous crash of armor and weapons.

“Serves you right!” he heard a feminine voice say. “Breaking down a perfectly good door. Don’t you know how to knock?”

Brisbane scrambled to his feet, making more noise than he had going down. The room was circular like the tower, and had no furniture. The floor was wet with soapy water and, in the middle of the room kneeling over a bucket and scrub brush, was a young woman, obviously a maid.

“I beg your pardon,” Brisbane said, somewhat confused. “But I have a score to settle with your master, the wizard Dantrius.”

“I’m sure he’ll have a score to settle with you once he sees his door!” the maid scoffed.

“Where is the wizard!” Brisbane demanded.

The maid uncrooked her back and put her hands on her hips. “Oh, if you must know, he’s upstairs!” She gestured to her right and returned to her work.

Brisbane looked to where she had directed and saw a staircase rising along the wall until it ended at a trap door in the ceiling. Funny, Brisbane didn’t remember having seen that when he entered the tower. Of course, this was a multi-story structure; one needed stairs in such a building. They must have been there, he just hadn’t noticed them in the embarrassment over his fall.

He began to climb the stairs and was over halfway to the top when he heard a squeaky voice behind him say, “Fool!”

Brisbane spun to see the evil magician Dantrius standing where the house maid had been. He was a short, pipsqueak of a man dressed in a light green tunic and dark green trousers. He was mumbling to himself and making strange motions with his arms. Realizing the diminutive wizard was casting a spell, Brisbane leapt off the staircase and grabbed the handle of the trap door, just as the stairs vanished beneath him.

Hanging a good six feet above the floor, Brisbane knew he was an easy target for another spell. So he let himself drop, even though a fall from that height would certainly hurt in full platemail armor.

Brisbane crashed to the floor as he saw the area where he had been suspended explode in bright green flame. What a fool he had been! Without his armor, he could have easily dropped to the floor and rushed the dwarfish mage before he could cast another spell. Dantrius fought with magic, not with weapons. Brisbane’s armor not only didn’t help, it was losing the battle for him.

The knight struggled to his feet as fast as he could, trying to ignore the pain. But just as he managed to stand upright, a wave of sleepiness overwhelmed him and he collapsed in a dead faint. Dantrius’ magic had finally caught him.

+ + + + + + + + +

Brisbane awoke in a jail cell, stripped of his armor and weapons. Three walls of the cell were solid stone but the fourth was made up of many thin, closely-placed bars. The room beyond these bars seemed unoccupied, but Brisbane could not see all of it. His first thought was to escape. He was a heavily-muscled man and probably could bend those bars, if his strength hadn’t been drained by evil magic.

Brisbane approached the bars cautiously, and as he neared them they began to glow with a pale green light. He slowly reached out his hand, but just before he touched the bars, a sharp green spark shocked him, and he jerked his arm away in surprise and pain. Even if those bars were made of paper, he couldn’t break through them.

Suddenly, Dantrius stepped out from behind a workbench and stood in front of Brisbane, safe on the other side of the bars. “You’ll never get through those bars,” he cackled in an irritating tone of voice. “I’ve enhanced them magically.” He seemed quite pleased with himself.

“What did you do to the King!” Brisbane screamed, forgetting his own personal danger.

“Oh, did you like that?” the puny necromancer piped in shrilly. “That particular curse worked out very well for me. As well it should—it took me several years of magical research to get it right. You see, every couple of minutes, a person under the King’s rule vanishes from this world, and with each missing person, the King himself gets physically weaker.” Dantrius began to laugh.

“Villainous runt!” Brisbane shouted as he rushed for the bars. This time they zapped loudly and nearly knocked the knight off his feet.

“Ooooo!” Dantrius moaned unpleasantly. “You shouldn’t have called me that! I am not a runt. Just because you are such a huge lummox, that doesn’t mean people of average height like me are short!”

“You,” Brisbane said with cool malice, “are a pint-sized, sawed-off, insignificant gnome.”

Dantrius’ face turned red and his green eyes nearly popped out of his skull. “You shall pay for such remarks!” he shouted, his voice squeaking like never before.

The petite prestidigitator clapped his hands and suddenly a huge humanoid beast burst into view. It had limbs as thick as tree trunks, strange patches of green hair, and horrible fangs erupting from a cavernous mouth. It stood at least nine feet tall.

“Otto,” Dantrius addressed the monster, slowly regaining his composure. “Would you please bring our guest out here into the torture room?” He waved his arms and the bars before Brisbane disappeared.

Jumping at his only chance, Brisbane dashed from the cubicle before Otto could block the exit entirely with his bulk. He just escaped the beast’s grasp and dodged around the impish wizard in one swift movement. He saw the door and headed for it.

“Otto! Get him!”

Brisbane was nearly at the door when it sprouted a mass of green slimy tentacles. Cursed magician! Who knew what poison they would inject? Brisbane did not want to find out, so he turned to face Otto, who was immediately upon him. The monster grabbed the knight by the waist and began to haul him to the rack. Brisbane struggled, but Otto was just too strong for him. He squirmed and flailed his arms in vain, trying to break the iron grip. As he was pulled past a table, he desperately grabbed one of the various corked bottles set there, each filled with a different shade of green liquid.

He uncorked the bottle and dumped its contents on Otto, hoping for the best. The huge monster instantly shrunk into a tiny green lady bug that Brisbane promptly squashed under his foot.

“That’s not fair!” Dantrius wailed as he began to wave his hands in preparation for another spell.

But the unarmored Brisbane was able to rush the wizard and grab him by the throat, thus interrupting the intense concentration needed for spell casting. Dantrius hit and kicked the knight as he felt his breath being taken from him. But the mage was weak, so the blows didn’t bother Brisbane.

Eventually, Dantrius’ body went limp and Brisbane let him drop to the floor. He looked to the door and saw the tentacles writhing there shimmer and vanish. Illzeezad Dantrius was dead.

+ + + + + + + + +

On his way back to Farchrist Castle, Brisbane had plenty of time to think of what he had just experienced. And the more he thought about it, the more he felt pity for Dantrius. He felt the wizard had deserved death, for this latest curse and for all the treachery he had caused in the past, that was certain, but Brisbane still felt regret for his part in the mage’s demise.

Dantrius had seemed so childlike in so many ways. He was small of stature, and was very possessive of anything that was his. His magic and his revenge. Brisbane could not imagine how anyone, no matter how evil, could keep a grudge for so long. All those years of seething, bitter hate of King Farchrist must have driven the mage stark raving mad.

But then Dantrius couldn’t really be blamed for this latest—no, it was all over now. It would be best not to think about what could or should have been. Brisbane kicked his steeds’ flanks hard and rode off towards the castle.

+ + + + + + + + +

When Sir Gildegarde Brisbane rode into Farchrist Castle for the second time that day, it was returned to the bustling center it had always been. He requested an audience with the King and was quickly granted it.

The audience hall was packed, as Brisbane was used to seeing it, and the King was the slightly pudgy man Brisbane remembered. A huge table sat off to one side and was covered with all kinds of savory meats and delicious sauces.

“M’lord,” Brisbane said solemnly as he lowered himself on one knee before the King.

The King rose to his feet, his regal robes falling over his broad shoulders and down to his ankles. “Sir Gildegarde Brisbane, my kingdom thanks you and I thank you.”

The crowd burst into thunderous cheering. The King raised his hands and the din slowly diminished.

“And,” the King continued, “for the brave deed you have completed, I formally ask you to assume the position of Captain of the Farchrist Knights, to train them in the knightly disciplines you have perfected.”

The hall was silent as Brisbane remained crouched before his lord. He thought about the death of Dantrius again. Had it really been necessary? The wizard had been an evil man, but he hadn’t been a monster, like the wyvern. Couldn’t something have been done to avoid his fate? And why did Brisbane feel so responsible?

“Brisbane?” the King questioned, strangely nervous.

Brisbane raised his head and slowly stood before the King. “M’lord,” he said. “I cannot take good Sir Walford’s position for what I have done. I am sorry.” Brisbane turned and rushed from the chamber.

The King slumped into his throne, shocked as the murmurs began to rise throughout the hall.

+ + + THE END + + +

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


“But children can be very early taught, that their happiness, both now and hereafter, depends on the formation of habits of submission, self-denial, and benevolence.”
Catherine E. Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home

Sunday, September 27, 2009


“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Books vs. Life

“Oh, we can stand a little hardship, I guess. The race hasn’t degenerated that far. In a book, now, it would be kind of terrible; if you forced characters in a book to eat as much grapefruit as we do, both the art boys and the humanitarians would stand on their hind legs and howl. But in real life— In life, anything might happen; in actual life people will do anything. It’s only in books that people must function according to arbitrary rules of conduct and probability; it’s only in books that events must never flout credulity.”
William Faulkner, Mosquitoes (Dawson Fairchild)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I’m not in the habit of tooting my own horn, but I am really happy with the entry I wrote on Brave New World after listening to it years ago as an audiobook.

From December 6, 2004:

The next audiobook after The Handmaid’s Tale and another dystopic vision of the future. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as My Antonia or The Moon and Sixpence, but I believe I will add it to my get and read again list anyway. It’s a classic, after all, and its vision of the future is stark and compelling. In fact, now that I think on it, I realize that it’s the vision that is worth revisiting, and not so much the story.

There were really two things here that, although taken to a ridiculous extreme, reflect poorly on our present society and make me wonder how truly close we are to that Brave New World. The first is the idea of conditioning. In BNW, people believe what they believe because it has been conditioned into them, a conscious part of their education as well as reinforced ad infinitum during their periods of sleep. Hypnopedia is what Huxley calls it. But even in our own society, absent subliminal messages played repeatedly in our sleep, I wonder how much of what we believe we believe because we have been “conditioned” to think a certain way. “People believe in God because they have been conditioned to believe in God,” Mustapha Mond famously says, but he also questions the philosopher who said that philosophy is the practice of coming up with bad reasons to believe what we believe intrinsically. “As if people believe anything intrinsically.” That will make you think. Do we know or believe anything apart from what our environment has taught us? Can we? How is that different from being conditioned to believe a certain thing?

The second is the idea of consumption. In BNW, to consume commercially-produced products is more than patriotic, it is a sign of good citizenship. To mend clothes that have torn or fix things that have broken—rather than getting new ones—is seen as antisocial and wrong. After all, consumption drives the economy, keeps people employed, and therefore gives purpose to a thousand otherwise meaningless tasks and the people that perform them. And all of the “approved” forms of recreation require elaborate and expensive equipment to participate in. There’s nothing you can do by yourself (with a pen and a piece of paper, for example). Everything requires a group and the latest in an unending chain of upgraded tools and devices. Again, I see this as different from our own society only in degree, not in basic premise.

I also like the way Huxley brought in the title. John is a “savage” raised by Indians on a reservation where the rules of BNW don’t apply. He is given a book of Shakespeare’s plays which he reads voraciously and basically memorizes. Like Miranda upon seeing men from across the sea, he quotes, “Oh, brave new world that contains men such as these,” when he finally meets men from the BNW society.

The last part of the book is an interesting analysis of how the world of Shakespeare cannot co-exist with the Brave New World. BNW has eliminated all forms of human passion by declaring that everyone belongs to everyone else, and abolishing the family unit as the basis of society. Babies are born in test tubes and children are raised in conditioning centers. No one has a wife to cheat on or a lover to pine for. No one has a child to care for or a brother to compete against. For the BNWers, it is the ultimate expression of human happiness because there is no war, crime, or strife of any kind, and people spend eight hours a day making positive contributions to society and then take a recreational drug (called soma in the novel) and have sex with each other as much as they want. For John the Savage, it’s a world turned upside down and, after an initial fascination, a decidedly insidious one. He much prefers the human passions of Shakespeare, even if they too frequently lead to heartache, betrayal, and death.

There’s much more to say about this book—the caste system in which embryos are nurtured or neglected from the very beginning to produce the right number of geniuses to keep innovation moving forward and the right number of morons to keep the machines running, for example—but again, almost none of it is about the story. It’s almost all about the premise. Bernard Marx is no Winston Smith, and there isn’t a time when we care about him as much as we do the other.

I’m not sure there’s much new substance I could add to that, although having now read it in hard copy, I’ve made notes on several dog-eared pages, and that gives me a prime opportunity to cite several passages from the text itself that expound on one of the novel’s main themes—conditioning.

The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning perhaps says it best on page 15:

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”

The whole opening section of the novel is, in fact, an introduction to the way BNW develops and conditions its children to fulfill the social destiny that’s been determined for them. It’s a conditioning that Bernard Marx and then John the Savage rebel against, the first from within and the second from without the construct of that conditioning itself.

I say at the very bottom of my previous entry that Bernard Marx is not Winston Smith, and what I mean by that is that Marx never captures the reader’s compassion and fealty the way Smith does, even though they are both fighting against the inhuman machinations that control their societies. Marx is ultimately not BNW’s protagonist, the way Smith is 1984’s. In BNW, that honor ultimately goes to John the Savage, but Huxley allows us to flirt with Marx for a while before introducing his novel’s real conflict.

Marx’s most endearing scene, for me, is when he speaks out against his conditioning, in language his love interest Lenina (similarly, no Julia) can’t hope to understand.

On their way back across the Channel, Bernard insisted on stopping his propeller and hovering on his helicopter screws within a hundred feet of the waves. The weather had taken a change for the worse; a south-westerly wind had sprung up, the sky was cloudy.

“Look,” he commanded.

“But it’s horrible,” said Lenina, shrinking back from the window. She was appalled by the rushing emptiness of the night, by the black foam-flecked water heaving beneath them, by the pale face of the moon, so haggard and distracted among the hastening clouds. “Let’s turn on the radio. Quick!” She reached for the dialing knob on the dashboard and turned it at random.

“…skies are blue inside of you,” sang sixteen tremoloing falsettos, “the weather’s always…”

Then a hiccough and silence. Bernard had switched off the current.

“I want to look at the sea in peace,” he said. “One can’t even look with that beastly noise going on.”

“But it’s lovely. And I don’t want to look.”

“But I do,” he insisted. “It makes me feel as though…” he hesitated, searching for words with which to express himself, “as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body. Doesn’t it make you feel like that, Lenina?”

But Lenina was crying. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” she kept repeating. “And how can you talk like that about not wanting to be part of the social body? After all, every one works for every one else. We can’t do without any one. Even Epsilons…”

“Yes, I know,” said Bernard derisively. “‘Even Epsilons are useful’! So am I. And I damned well wish I weren’t!”

Lenina was shocked by his blasphemy. “Bernard!” She protested in a voice of amazed distress. “How can you?”

In a different key, “How can I?” he repeated meditatively. “No, the real problem is: How is it that I can’t, or rather—because, after all, I know quite well why I can’t—what would it be like if I could, if I were free—not enslaved by my conditioning.”

“But, Bernard, you’re saying the most awful things.”

“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed. “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We begin giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated.

Indeed, Lenina doesn’t. She has never had any reason to question her conditioning. To her, Bernard’s pining for something other than what he has been conditioned for is unnatural, almost obscene. But when they visit the savage reservation together, we see in Lenina’s reaction to that society’s sights and sounds both a horror of things different and a deep abiding understanding of at least one basic element of all human culture.

Lenina liked the drums. Shutting her eyes she abandoned herself to their soft repeated thunder, allowed it to invade her consciousness more and more completely, till at last there was nothing left in the world but that one deep pulse of sound. It reminded her reassuringly of the synthetic noises made at Solidarity Services and Ford’s Day celebrations. “Orgy-porgy,” she whispered to herself. These drums beat out just the same rhythms.

There was a sudden startling burst of singing—hundreds of male voices crying out fiercely in harsh and metallic unison. A few long notes and silence, the thunderous silence of the drums; then shrill, in a neighing treble, the women’s answer. Then again the drums; and once more the men’s deep savage affirmation of their manhood.

Queer—yes. The place was queer, so was the music, so were the clothes and the goiters and the skin diseases and the old people. But the performance itself—there seemed to be nothing especially queer about that.

“It reminds me of a lower-caste Community Sing,” she told Bernard.

And as I said before, it is Marx’s and Lenina’s introduction to John the Savage and his society that provides the vehicle for the ultimate conflict in the novel—not the one between Marx and his conditioning, but the one between the controlled, stable society of BNW and the random, myth-believing society of the savage reservation. Both societies are flawed—in neither one do the citizens embrace the truths of their existence. And it is only World Controller Mustapha Mond—our antagonist—who is in a position to understand the price that is paid to make the Brave New World possible.

In a scene reminiscent of Smith’s truth revealing encounter with O’Brien, John asks Mond why there can’t be things like Shakespeare’s Othello in his society.

“Because our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel—and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. 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 lovers 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. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!” He laughed. “Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!”

The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, “Othello’s good, Othello’s better than those feelies.”

“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”

This is the section in which Mustapha Mond famously says, “People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to believe in God,” but that sentiment seems at odds with this thesis, which Mond presents just two pages prior.

“That sickness is old age; and a horrible disease it is. They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns toward the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false—a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”

I can’t tell if Huxley is trying to say something permanent about God here—if he does and doesn’t actually believe that God is an ultimate and transcendent truth of our existence. He seems to smash the idea with Mond’s more famous line two pages later, but the rest of the discussion seems to argue that God is something Mond has to protect the BNWers from, like Shakespeare, in order to have the happiness and stability they seek.

One final point. John the Savage seems to hold his own throughout this climactic discussion with Mond, and we the contemporary reader, who feel more affinity for John’s Shakespeare than Mond’s feelies, wish John to succeed, want him to destroy this unfeeling Brave New World if he can. But John doesn’t, and after his banishment, we see that perhaps our fealty to his savage predilections was misplaced.

John is ultimately tortured by the ideals of his savage world, and he actually flogs himself as punishment for sullying the purity he seeks to maintain. Pledged to holding sacred and constant the memory of his dead mother, Linda, the memory and carnal desires associated with an unfulfilled encounter with Lenina cause him to quite lose his mind.

“Strumpet! Strumpet!” he shouted at every blow as though it were Lenina (and how frantically, without knowing it, he wished it were), white, warm, scented, infamous Lenina that he was flogging thus. “Strumpet!” And then, in a voice of despair, “Oh, Linda, forgive me. Forgive me, God. I’m bad. I’m wicked. I’m…No, no, you strumpet, you strumpet!”

It makes you wonder which side you’re supposed to fall on. Ultimately, I realize that the choice of the Savage is no better than the choice we face as the reader. Which society should we embrace? The one based on the passions of our distant past, or on the calculated happiness of our stable future? And if we choose neither extreme, an even larger question looms. How do we ensure that we walk the correct and delicate line between them when others will invariably want to pull our society in one direction or the other?

Monday, September 14, 2009


"The sense of belonging is one of the great gifts men get in battle."
James A. Michener, Tales of the South Pacific

Monday, September 7, 2009

Art and Artists

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Basil Hallward)

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

“Even now I cannot help feeling that it is a mistake to think that the passion one feels in creation is ever really shown in the work one creates. Art is always more abstract that we fancy. Form and colour tell us of form and colour—that is all. It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Basil Hallward)

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

"The only artists I have ever known, who are personally delightful, are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what the are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more pictureesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realise."
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lord Henry Wotton)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

I remember admiring Theodore Roosevelt after reading H. W. Brands’ treatment of his life in TR: The Last Romantic. That book, and one of its key chapters, even inspired me to write my River of Doubt short story about famous fathers and less-famous sons and how an individual’s strength of character can sometimes become so all encompassing that it takes the place of the human person that gives it life.

Well, I’m a bit less admiring of Roosevelt after reading Morris’ treatment of him in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Brands and Morris are both skilled biographers, but they have different interpretations of TR’s underlying character, and given the life experiences that I’ve had between the two readings (I finished Brands in late 1998), I find Morris’ portrayal disturbing in several fundamental ways.

Essentially, what comes through more strongly in Morris’ treatment is Roosevelt’s jingoistic Americanism, and his belief that Americans as a people and as a nation were destined for greatness through imperial expansion.

In describing Roosevelt’s participation as a featured speaker at the Independence Day 1886 celebration in the small town of Dickinson, Dakota Territory, Morris says:

With all his boyish soul, he loved and revered the Fourth of July. The flags, the floats, the brass bands—even Thomas Jefferson’s prose somehow thrilled him. This particular Independence Day (the first ever held in Western Dakota) found him feeling especially patriotic. He was filled, not only with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, but with “the real and healthy democracy of the round-up.” The completion of another book, the modest success of his two ranches, his fame as the captor of Redhead Finnegan, the joyful thought of his impending remarriage, all conspired further to elevate his mood. These things, plus the sight of hundreds of serious, sunburned faces turned his way, brought out the best and the worst in him—his genuine love for America and Americans, and his vainglorious tendency to preach.

The book Morris refers to was a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, one of the first senators from the state of Missouri, and a strong proponent (like Roosevelt) of American expansion.

The most controversial chapter of the book is that devoted to Benton’s doctrine of westward expansion, which Roosevelt defines as “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” The “Oregon” of the 1840s—an enormous wilderness stretching west from the Rockies, and north from California to Alaska—was a prize that both the United States and Britain were entitled to share. But the “arrogant attitude” of Senator Benton, in claiming most of it, “was more than justified by the destiny of the great Republic; and it would have been well for all America if we had insisted even more than we did upon the extension northward of our boundaries.” Warming to his theme, Roosevelt declares that “Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba would, as States of the American Union, hold positions incomparably more important, grander and more dignified than…as provincial dependencies of a foreign power…No foot of soil to which we have any title in the Northwest should have been given up; we were the people who could use it best, and we ought to have taken it all.”

I think at one time my eye would have simply glossed over some of these phrases, but now they seem to jump out at me—“…swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us...” and “…justified by the destiny of the great Republic…” seem especially egregious and indicative of Roosevelt’s unabashed “might makes right” and “we’re better than everyone else” style of Americanism.

I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit how long it takes me to learn the lessons of history—how often my eye glosses over words that contain fundamental context and understanding. As a quick aside, read this short passage about Roosevelt’s experiences in the Badlands of Dakota Territory:

Here, for thousands of square miles around, were juicy pastures, sheltered bottoms, and open stretches of range whose ability to support countless thousands of bovine animals had been demonstrated over the centuries. Now that the buffalo and red men were on their way out, cattle and white men could move in.

Forever I thought the buffalo were slaughtered mostly for sport, but this book’s analysis of the spirit of empire and colonization that pervaded Roosevelt’s thinking and that of his time has shown me that this can’t possibly be true.

Thomas Hart Benton was not the only book Roosevelt wrote. Indeed, Roosevelt was, among many other things, a published author of some note, and these themes show up again and again in his books. One critic, reading Roosevelt’s History of the City of New York, said this:

“Mr. Roosevelt preaches too much. He lays down the singular proposition that a feeling of broad, radical, intense Americanism is necessary if good work is to be done in any direction…The sooner we get over talking about ‘American’ systems of philosophy, and ethics, and art, and devote ourselves to what is true, and right, and beautiful, the sooner we shall shake off our provincialism.”

Probably nowhere is this chest-beating Americanism more prevalent than in Roosevelt’s campaign for, participation in, and myth-making triumph in the Spanish-American War. He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, serving in the first McKinley Administration, and did about everything he could to maneuver the country into the war, including ordering (probably without the authority to do so) the Navy to annex the Phillipines as some kind of protection against global domination with Spain. When war with Spain in Cuba eventually came, Roosevelt immediately resigned his position with the Navy and went on to lead a regiment in two of the most famous battles of the war.

And it was, of course, in Cuba and on San Juan Hill where the myth of Teddy Roosevelt was finally and forever enshrined in people’s memory. One eyewitness described Roosevelt’s performance like this:

Perhaps a dozen of Roosevelt’s men had passed into the thicket before he did. Then he stepped across the wire himself, and, from that instant, became the most magnificent soldier I have ever seen. It was as if that barbed-wire strand had formed a dividing line in his life, and that when he stepped across it he left behind him in the bridle path all those unadmirable and conspicuous traits which have so often caused him to be justly criticized in civic life, and found on the other side of it, in that Cuban thicket, the coolness, the calm judgment, the towering heroism, which made him, perhaps, the most admired and best beloved of all Americans in Cuba.

Talk about writing for posterity. It’s hard for me to believe this is an accurate depiction of thoughts that took place during the battle, untinted by the knowledge of Roosevelt’s subsequently meteoric rise from retired Army colonel to the Governorship of New York, the Vice Presidency, and the Presidency.

But let that pass. What I don’t like most is Roosevelt’s own attitude about the war, his special role in it, and what he evidently felt it had released him to do.

For Roosevelt himself, the “crowded hour” atop San Juan Heights had been one of absolute fulfillment. “I would rather have led that charge…than served three terms in the U.S. Senate.” And he would rather die from yellow fever as a result than never to have charged at all. “Should the worst come to the worst I am quite content to go now and to leave my children at least an honorable name,” he told Henry Cabot Lodge. “And old man, if I do go, I do wish you would get that Medal of Honor for me anyhow, as I should awfully like the children to have it, and I think I earned it.”

With fulfillment came purgation. Bellicose poisons had been breeding in him since infancy. During recent years the strain had grown virulent, clouding his mind and souring the natural sweetness of his temperament. But at last he had had his bloodletting. He had fought a war and killed a man. He had “driven the Spaniard from the New World.” Theodore Roosevelt was at last, incongruously but wholeheartedly, a man of peace.

One can’t help but wonder how much of American history would have been different if Roosevelt could have found a less bloodthirsty way of proving his own manhood to his own satisfaction. Indeed, this equation of manliness and bravado seems cemented in who Roosevelt was.

…his tirades on the currently fashionable topic—became alarmingly harsh. “What matters a few broken bones to the glories of inter-collegiate sport?” he cried at a Harvard Club dinner. (Meanwhile, not far away in hospital, the latest victim of football savagery lay paralyzed for life.) He declared publicly that he would “disinherit” any son of his who refused to play college games. And in private, through clenched teeth: “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up as a weakling.”

Of course, Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was killed as an early Air Force pilot in World War I, charging off to prove his manhood in the same fashion his father had and, true to form, Roosevelt, although mortified with sadness, was as proud as he could be.

But despite these shortcomings, as the force of Roosevelt’s character shines through in Morris’ prose as well as it did in Brands’, it attains a certain and never-ending buoyancy that I do find appealing. This is from Morris’ prologue:

Theodore Roosevelt is a man of such overwhelming physical impact that he stamps himself immediately on the consciousness. “Do you know the two most wonderful things I have seen in your country?” says the English statesman John Morely. “Niagara Falls and the President of the United States, both great wonders of nature!” Their common quality, which photographs and paintings fail to capture, is a perpetual flow of torrential energy, a sense of motion even in stillness. Both are physically thrilling to be near.

And his bookishness is also something that cannot be failed to be mentioned. This extended passage concludes Morris’ rich prologue, which is constructed as a snapshot of Roosevelt’s activities on a particular day in his Presidency—New Year’s Day, 1907.

Later in the afternoon, the President, his wife, and five of his six children are seen cantering off for a ride in the country. Although reporters cannot follow him through the rest of the day, enough is known of Roosevelt’s domestic habits to predict its events with some accuracy. Returning for tea, which he will swig from an outsize cup, Roosevelt will take advantage of the holiday quietness of his dark-green office to do some writing. Besides being President of the United States, he is also a professional author. The Elkhorn Edition of The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, just published, comprises twenty-three volumes of history, natural history, biography, political philosophy, and essays. At least two of his books, The Naval War of 1812 and the four-volume Winning of the West, are considered definitive by serious historians. He is also the author of many scientific articles and literary reviews, not to mention an estimated total of fifty thousand letters—the latest twenty-five of which he dashed off this morning.

In the early evening the President will escort his family to No. 1733 N Street, where his elder sister Bamie will serve chocolate and whipped cream and champagne. After returning to the White House, the younger Roosevelts will be forcibly romped into bed, and the elder given permission to roller-skate for an hour in the basement. As quietness settles down over the Presidential apartments, Roosevelt and his wife will sit by the fire in the Prince of Wales Room and read to each other. At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute.

This is the time of day he loves best. “Reading with me is a disease.” He succumbs to it so totally—on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door—that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text.

The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. “Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.

On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (“until I could stand them no longer”), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jöhn Uhl, “a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,” and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history.

The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, “doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.” Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell.

Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of present-day Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.

Theodore Roosevelt, for whatever faults I may wish to find in his political philosophy, was a reader and a writer—and he continually sought to expand his knowledge and understand his world. This devotion exposed him to a collection of ideas almost unique to someone of his day, teetering as he was on the cusp of the 20th century, and it gave him a kind of eternal optimism for the progress of the human species.

“At no period of the world’s history,” says Roosevelt, “has life been so full of interest, and of possibilities of excitement and enjoyment.” Science has revolutionized industry; Darwin has revolutionized thought; the globe’s waste spaces are being settled and seeded. A man of ambition has unique opportunities to build, explore, conquer, and transform. He can taste “the fearful joy” of grappling with large political and administrative problems. “If he is observant, he notes all around him the play of vaster forces than have ever before been exerted, working, half blindly, half under control, to bring about immeasurable results.”

It almost humanistic, this perspective, mixed as it is with Roosevelt’s own brand of individualism and imperialism. It seems clear to me that his constant reading and the consciousness expanding that came with it seasoned his views in a strange and forward-looking way, but unfortunately couldn’t quite redeem them.

During his years as a rancher, Roosevelt had acquired plenty of anti-Indian prejudice, strangley at odds with his enlightened attitude to blacks. But his research into the great Indian military heroes for The Winning of the West had done much to moderate this. Now, touring Pine Ridge and Crow Creek on behalf of the Great White Father, he looked on the red man not as an adversary but as a ward of the state, whom it was his duty to protect.

Roosevelt describes his view like this:

Here we have a group of beings who are not able to protect themselves; who are groping toward civilization out of the darkness of heredity and ingrained barbarism, and to whom, theoretically, we are supposed to be holding out a helping hand. They are utterly unable to protect themselves. They are credulous and easily duped by a bad agent, and they are susceptible of remarkable improvement when the agent is a good man, thoroughly efficient and thoroughly practical. To the Indians the workings of the spoils system at the agencies is a curse and an outrage…it must mean that the painful road leading upward from savagery is rendered infinitely more difficult and infinitely more stony for the poor feet trying to tread it.

This innate sense, that the American Indian represents the savage and barbarism, and that the European immigrant and their descendants represent civilization and progress, is ubiquitous in Roosevelt’s thinking, as it remains in the thinking of many today. His multi-volume epic, The Winning of the West, is absolutely rife with it—in fact, seems to depend on it for its narrative cohesion. In it, Roosevelt says things like:

During the past three centuries the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces had been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its importance.

He assails the “warped, perverse, and silly morality” that would preserve the American continent “for the use of a few scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership.”

And concludes that:

The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman. The rude, fierce settler who drove the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him. American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori—in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people…it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.

They say one should not judge historical figures by the standards of modern times, but I’m not sure that’s what I’m doing when I find myself recoiling at these words. There were plenty who criticized Roosevelt for these views in his own time.

But Morris, like the good biographer he is, stops short of casting judgment, and rather allows his subject to hang—for good or bad—by his own thoughts and deeds. The most profound chapter in the book is the 18th—called The Universe Spinner—which focuses more than most on Roosevelt’s worldview, juxtaposing it against his participation in the festivities associated with the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Morris writes:

Grover Cleveland’s adjectives on Opening Day—splendid, magnificent, grand, vast—were no different from those Roosevelt himself had lavished on America in all his books. The symbolism of the flags, and of the little Spanish admiral dwarfed by a three-hundred pound American President, was pleasing to him, but not revelatory. Nine years before, in his Fourth of July oration to the cowboys of Dickinson, he had hoped “to see the day when not a foot of American soil will be held by any European power,” and instinct told him that that day was fast approaching. When it came, it would bring out what some consider his best, what others consider the worst in him. This overriding impulse has been given many names: Jingoism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Chauvinism, even Fascism and Racism. Roosevelt preferred to use the simple and to him beautiful word Americanism.

Friday, September 4, 2009


“Getting angry is as bad as getting scared.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Robert Jordan)

Thursday, September 3, 2009


“Nobody knows what tribes we came from nor what our tribal inheritance is nor what the mysteries were in the woods where the people lived that we came from. All we know is that we do not know. We know nothing about what happens to us in the nights. When it happens in the day though, it is something.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Robert Jordan)

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Body

“Come now, brother, what is this body which you clothe with such diligent care and nourish gently as if it were royal offspring? Is it no a mass of putrefaction, is it not worms, dust, and ashes? It is fit that the wise man consider not this which now is, but rather what it will be afterwards in the future—pus, slime, decay, and the filth of obscene corruption? What thanks will the worms render to you, who are about to devour the flesh you nourished so gently and tenderly?”
Peter Damiani, The Monastic Ideal

Monday, July 27, 2009

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Picked this one up at the library’s semi-annual book sale and couple of years ago. I saw the movie and remember liking it—especially Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Colonel Behrani—so I decided to read the book. Funny thing. When I was about halfway through the book I accidentally left it on an airplane and had to order another used copy through Amazon. Based on the library’s prices, at most I paid fifty cents for it the first time I bought it. On Amazon, the used copy was one cent, plus $3.99 shipping and handling. So, worst case, the book cost me $4.50, compared to its $14 cover price.

It’s worth a lot more. According to the paperback version I have, the novel was a finalist for the National Book Award, but evidently didn’t win it. Even not knowing what competition it was up against, and even though I enjoyed the novel immensely, I think I can see why it didn’t win.

The back cover talks about three main characters coming into conflict with one another—Colonel Behrani, once a wealthy man in Iran, now a struggling immigrant willing to bet everything he has to restore his family’s dignity—Kathy Nicolo, a troubled young woman whose house is all she has left, and who refuses to let her hard-won stability slip away from her—and Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself falling in love with Kathy, and becomes obsessed with helping her fight for justice. But I think the novel is better interpreted has having only two main characters who are in conflict with one another—Behrani and Kathy—with Lester as a lesser character, a kind of hapless Iago who inserts himself into the conflict and brings the final and ultimate tragedy.

Dubus himself seems to support this interpretation through much of the novel by switching the first-person narrative back and forth exclusively between Behrani and Kathy—an appealing and well-crafted technique that really lets us see and understand these two central characters and the forces that have shaped them. Lester only begins to come into the same kind of focus at the beginning of Part 2—more than halfway into the novel—but only from the third-person perspective of an unnamed narrator. We certainly learn more about Lester in these passages, but we obviously don’t hear his thoughts in the same way we continue to hear Behrani’s and Kathy’s. In making this narrative decision, Dubus technically keeps Lester positioned as an interloper between the two protagonists, but the lines between them all begin to blur and the casual reader can be excused for losing track of who bears the final responsibility.

To me it’s clear. In both the book and in the movie, it is Lester who manufactures the problem and who turns it fatal by trying to address it in a ruinous and sometimes ridiculous fashion. The fact that Lester is a deputy sheriff is played to greater effect in the movie, where this viewer was left with the disturbing impression that it was Lester’s perspective as an officer of the law which directly resulted in the tragedy—his need to impose his “good guy” and “bad guy” labels on the situation and then to act in accordance with his rigid training and procedures to resolve it. In the book it is more obvious that Lester is acting entirely outside the boundaries of the law, making his status as a police officer more ironic than central to the rising action.

What I like best through the bulk of the novel is the way Dubus seems to refuse to take sides in the Behrani/Kathy conflict—showing both their redeeming qualities and their selfish flaws in equal proportion, and leaving it up to the reader to decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong. This overall perspective is maintained even as Lester begins to insert himself into the conflict, and even as the tragedy unfolds. Through Lester’s actions, Behrani’s son is mistakenly shot and killed, Lester is arrested, and Behrani murders Kathy out of vengeance and then commits murder/suicide on his wife and himself rather than face the shame and sorrow that has engulfed his family. The novel could and should have ended with Lester in his jail cell in protective custody, reflecting on all that had happened and drifting off to sleep on his bunk.

After what seemed a long while, Lester’s body began to feel like part of the bunk. He was breathing deeply through his nose, and as sleep began to take him he mouthed a prayer for Esmail [Behrani’s son], for his full recovery [Lester not knowing that Esmail had died from the gunshots], and he saw himself holding and kissing Bethany and Nate [his children]. Then he was in a boat on some river and Carol [his wife] and Kathy were lying beside him and there were thunderheads in the sky but there was nothing to do about them, and so Lester closed his eyes, one arm beneath each woman. Something rumbled far off in the eastern sky. The air began to turn cool. He breathed in the smell of fish scales and perfume and damp wood. One of the women let out a whimper, as if in the middle of a bad dream, but Lester just settled deeper into the bottom of the boat and waited, waited for the river to take them where it was going to anyway, to the inevitable conclusion of all he had done and failed to do, the air cooler now, almost cold, the boat beginning to rock.

But the book doesn’t end there. What follows is 17 more pages of Kathy—who isn’t dead after all. Behrani strangled her to unconsciousness, evidently, but not death. These extra pages feel a lot like band-aid and a betrayal. They betray the consistent tone of not taking sides Dubus had expertly maintained through the rest of the novel. As dismal as her life now is, Kathy is alive and Behrani is dead—and that’s not fair given the rules initially set. And they’re also a kind of Hollywood band-aid slapped over the open wound that we would have otherwise been left with. This reader would have certainly preferred the open wound, and I suspect the National Book Award Committee probably would have, too.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +