Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Antonia by Willa Cather

This is the last time I’m going to read My Antonia—at least for a while. Last time I blogged about it (see below), I thought I would read it over and over again, like I was doing with Moby-Dick, but I’ve decided to let this one drift into past memory for a while, the same way I have with Melville’s whale.

There’s a story that Antonia tells in the middle of the book. It’s about a tramp that comes out of nowhere while she is working on Ole Iverson’s farm.

“After a while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close I see it was a tramp. His toes stuck out of his shoes, and he hadn’t shaved for a long while, and his eyes was awful red and wild, like he had some sickness. He comes right up and begins to talk like he knows me already. He says: ‘The ponds in this country is done got so low a man couldn’t drownd himself in one of ‘em.’”

He wants to kill himself, but Antonia doesn’t take him seriously—thinks he is just crazy—but when Iverson puts him to work something terrible happens.

“He cut bands all right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs. Harling, he waved his hand to me and jumped head-first right into the thrashing machine after the wheat.

“I began to scream, and the men run to stop the horses, but the belt had sucked him down, and by the time they got her stopped he was all beat and cut to pieces. He was wedged in so tight it was a hard job to get him out, and the machine ain’t never worked right since.”

No one knew who he was. After getting his body out of the machine they searched it.

“They couldn’t find no letters nor nothing on him; nothing but an old penknife in his pocket and the wishbone of a chicken wrapped up in a piece of paper, and some poetry.”

“Some poetry?” we exclaimed.

“I remember,” said Frances. “It was ‘The Old Oaken Bucket,’ cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn out. Ole Iverson brought it into the office and showed it to me.”

“Now, wasn’t that strange, Miss Frances?” Tony asked thoughtfully. “What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? I thrashing time, too! It’s nice everywhere then.”

The Old Oaken Bucket is a poem by Samuel Woodworth about the fond recollections we have for scenes of our childhood—a theme Cather adopts for My Antonia. And how poignantly strange is it that Antonia herself can’t understand why anyone would kill themselves in summer—oblivious at that age of the regrets adults often have for their youths, even when her own father took his own life—years before in the dead of winter—for many of the same reasons.


It took more than two years, but I finally got around to it. I listened to this as an audiobook in July 2004, bought it shortly thereafter, and now got around to reading it. Here’s the entry I made back then:

My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t read this one. It’s an audiobook I took out from the library and listened to while I was driving back and forth from work. I liked it a lot. I’m tempted to buy it so I can put it on my shelf. I started out not sure if I was going to like the story, but I did. It grew on me in a way I would not have predicted. And the prose, the prose is like an unknown Van Gogh tucked away in someone’s attic. An absolute treasure. Guess what I like best about the story. How sad it was. Not overtly sad, not get out the Kleenexes and have a good cry sad. But subtly sad, sad just below the surface like some deep hidden current in a black river. The recollections of world-weary Jim Burden who, as a boy, had gone to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska prairie, and had met an immigrant girl named Antonia who comes to embody everything that is honest and real through his interactions with her over the span of several decades. He loves her, says so himself, but never romantically, and you can sense the unspoken regret in his first person narrative. This is a book very much about the lives people lead, the choices they make, and how their relationships with those who happen to be around them help to shape their understanding of who they are and what life means. It makes your heart ache. I want to read it again.

That and more.

I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There was some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

This comes early in the book, shortly after Jim arrives in Nebraska, and I think it sets the tone for a lot of his experiences on the prairie. He grows up, goes to exciting places and does important things as a young man, but he doesn’t seem happy later, at least not happy like he is laying here in his grandmother’s garden.

That afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about the Black Tiger Mine, and about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying men. You never really knew a man, he said, until you saw him die. Most men were game, and went without a grudge.

- - - - -

The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledge, or out through the grating of his father’s bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings.

Cather’s prose is filled with little tidbits like this, combining story with homily in a way that is unobtrusive and clean. She’s really good and telling truth with her fiction.

One could hang about the drugstore, and listen to the old men who sat there every evening, talking politics and telling raw stories. One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy. There was the depot, of course; I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, ‘where there was some life.’ He was sure to bring out his pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces. For a change, one could talk to the station agent; but he was another malcontent; spent all his spare time writing letters to officials requesting a transfer. He wanted to get back to Wyoming where he could go trout-fishing on Sundays. He used to say ‘there was nothing in life for him but trout streams,’ ever since he’d lost his twins.

Willa Cather was someone who understood loneliness.

These were the distractions I had to choose from. There were no other lights burning downtown after nine o’clock. On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches. They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning-lathe. Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all. On Tuesday nights the Owl Club danced; then there was a little stir in the streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight. But the next night all was dark again.

This has got to be one of the best paragraphs I have ever read. How many times have I done the same thing? Looking at the little houses on the side of the road and wondering what kind of life went on inside them? Repulsed by the meanness of it, but at the same time anxious for the fellowship that comes with understanding the world of another living being. I’ll lose it. I always do. I spend nights typing lines like this out, but they pass into the forgotten realm of the past as easily as if I hadn’t. Is this why I read Moby-Dick over and over again? And is it why I’m going to start reading My Antonia over and over again?

I walked home from the Opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me—Lena and Tony and Anna Hansen.

‘Oh, Jim, it was splendid!’ Tony was breathing hard, as she always did when her feelings outran her language. ‘There ain’t a lawyer in Black Hawk could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to him. He won’t tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself, didn’t he, girls?’

Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, ‘What made you so solemn? I thought you were scared. I was sure you’d forget.’

Anna spoke wistfully.

‘It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go to school, you know.’

‘Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim’ — Antonia took hold of my coat lapels — ‘there was something in your speech that made me think so about my papa!’

‘I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony.’ I said. ‘I dedicated it to him.’

She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.

I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.

Jim is graduating from law school and he gave a commencement address. He is already seeing Antonia infrequently, and he soon will be leaving and not returning for a long time, if ever. Yet they share this connection, this connection through language and shared memory and tragedy. Anna speculates that it must be wonderful, having fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and having the words to put them in. It is. And that’s why people like Cather write novels, isn’t it?

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the ‘Georgics’ where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. ‘Optima dies…prima figut.’ I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas;’ ‘for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.’ Cleric had explained to us that ‘patria’ here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatial Romana, but to his own little ‘country;’ to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the ‘Aeneid’ unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, that his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the ‘Georgics,’ where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, ‘I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.’

I can’t be the only one who sees some autobiography here from Cather. Virgil’s Italy is Cather’s Nebraska.

‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, ‘How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I’ve disappointed you so? Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little. I can’t wait till my little girl’s old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You’ll always remember me when you think about old times, won’t you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.’

Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? It seems to me that this is a good summation of the book’s theme. People can mean a great deal to each other, and it is wonderful when they do. Wonderful and sad all at the same time.

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

This is the last paragraph of the novel, and pretty good one as last paragraphs go. It again stresses the formative bond Jim and Antonia shared, and makes it clear those early experiences shaped them both in ways neither of them could ever master. How much of this is true? Are we forever shaped by what we experience and the people we meet when we are young? I think of my own youth, and how so many connections to it have been severed. If Cather is correct, what does that mean for me? Jim had Anotnia, the idea of Antonia, as part of his mind, influencing his likes and dislikes even when he didn’t realize it. Who is part of my mind, and will I ever see them again? Do I even want to? Is that another idea for a novel? A childhood unconnected to an Antonia or the idea she represents, and the adult that grows from it, searching and forever not finding that missing part of himself?

FROM JULY 20, 2004:

I didn’t read this one. It’s an audiobook I took out from the library and listened to while I was driving back and forth from work. I liked it a lot. I’m tempted to buy it so I can put it on my shelf. I started out not sure if I was going to like the story, but I did. It grew on me in a way I would not have predicted. And the prose, the prose is like an unknown Van Gogh tucked away in someone’s attic. An absolute treasure. Guess what I like best about the story. How sad it was. Not overtly sad, not get out the Kleenexes and have a good cry sad. But subtly sad, sad just below the surface like some deep hidden current in a black river. The recollections of world weary Jim Burden who, as a boy, had gone to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska prairie, and had met an immigrant girl named Antonia who comes to embody everything that is honest and real through his interactions with her over the span of several decades. He loves her, says so himself, but never romantically, and you can sense the unspoken regret in his first person narrative. This is a book very much about the lives people lead, the choices they make, and how their relationships with those who happen to be around them help to shape their understanding of who they are and what life means. It makes your heart ache. I want to read it again.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


“Experience always means bad experience, does it not?”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

This one has a lot going for it. I stumbled across a reference to it while reading Battle for the Mind by William Sargant. The subject matter seemed to be of particular interest to me—a historical narrative of supposed demonic possession, religious fanaticism, sexual repression, and mass hysteria which occurred in the 17th century in a small French town called Loudun.

But before I get to all of that, take a look at the book’s opening two pages:

It was in 1605 that Joseph Hall, the satirist and future bishop, made his first visit to Flanders. “Along our way how many churches saw we demolished, nothing left but rude heaps to tell the passenger, there hath been both devotion and hostility. Oh, the miserable footsteps of war! . . . But (which I wondered at) churches fall, and Jesuits’ colleges rise everywhere. There is no city where these are not rearing or built. Whence cometh this? Is it for that devotion is not so necessary as policy? These men (as we say of the fox) fare best when they are most cursed. None so much spited of their own; none so hated of all; none so opposed of by ours; and yet these ill weeds grow.”

They grew for a very simple and sufficient reason: the public wanted them. For the Jesuits themselves, ‘policy,’ as Hall and his whole generation knew very well, was the first consideration. The schools had been called into existence for the purpose of strengthening the Roman Church against its enemies, the ‘libertines’ and the Protestants. The good fathers hoped, by their teaching, to create a class of educated laymen totally devoted to the interests of the Church. In the words of Cerutti—words which drove the indignant Michelet almost to frenzy—“as we swathe the limbs of an infant in the cradle to give them a right proportion, so it is necessary from his earliest youth to swathe, so to speak, his will, that it may preserve through his life a happy and salutary suppleness.” The spirit of domination was willing enough, but the flesh of propagandist method was weak. In spite of the swaddling of their wills, some of the Jesuits’ best pupils left school to become free thinkers or even, like Jean Labadie, Protestants. So far as ‘policy’ was concerned, the system was never as efficient as its creators had hoped. But the public was not interested in policy; the public was interested in good schools, where their boys could learn all that a gentleman ought to know. Better than most other purveyors of education, the Jesuits supplied the demand. “What did I observe during the seven years I passed under the Jesuits’ roof? A life full of moderation, diligence and order. They devoted every hour of the day to our education, or to the strict fulfillment of their vows. As evidence of this, I appeal to the testimony of the thousands who, like myself, were educated by them.” So wrote Voltaire. His words bear witness to the excellence of the Jesuits’ teaching methods. At the same time, and yet more emphatically, his entire career bears witness to the failure of the ‘policy,’ which the teaching methods were intended to serve.

When Voltaire went to school, the Jesuit colleges were familiar features of the educational scene. A century earlier their merits had seemed positively revolutionary. In an age when most pedagogues were amateurs in everything except the handling of the birch, their disciplinary methods were relatively humane and their professors carefully chosen and systematically trained. They taught a peculiarly elegant Latin and the very latest in optics, geography and mathematics, together with ‘dramatics’ (their end-of-term theatricals were famous), good manners, respect for the Church and (in France, at least, and after Henri IV’s conversion) obedience to the royal authority. For all these reasons the Jesuit colleges recommended themselves to every member of the typical upper-class family—to the tender-hearted mother, who could not bear to think of her darling undergoing the tortures of an old-fashioned education; to the learned ecclesiastical uncle, with his concern for sound doctrine and a Ciceronian style; and finally to the father who, as a patriotic official, approved of monarchical principles and, as a prudent bourgeois, counted on the Company’s backstairs influence to help their pupil to a job, a place at court, an ecclesiastical sinecure.

Okay. Two things.

First, Huxley does a lot of things like this during The Devils of Loudun—he branches off on an interesting side line to give the reader more context about the times and the people he is writing about. Let’s call them pontifical commentaries. More on them in a moment.

But second, for those you familiar with the devotion some modern alumni have for their Jesuit college alma maters, have you ever read a better description of their theocratic purpose and the source of this sometimes fanatical allegiance?

A big part of Huxley’s main story revolves around a priest named Urban Grandier, who is eventually convicted by church officials for causing the demonic possession of a whole convent of Ursuline nuns, and then tortured and burned alive as a result. Huxley makes the clear case that at least part of the reason Grandier is vilified is because he has made some powerful enemies in Loudun by acting in a chronically un-priest-like fashion with some of their wives and daughters. As Huxley explains:

Grandier lived in the grey dawn of what may be called the Era of Respectability. Throughout the Middle Ages and during the earlier part of the Modern period the gulf between official Catholic theory and the actual practice of individual ecclesiastics had been enormous, unbridged and seemingly unbridgeable. It is difficult to find any mediaeval or Renaissance writer who does not take it for granted that, from highest prelate to humblest friar, the majority of clergymen are thoroughly disreputable. Ecclesiastical corruption begot the Reformation, and in its turn the Reformation produced the Counter-Reformation. After the Council of Trent scandalous Popes became less and less common, until finally, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the breed dies out completely.

And here’s another of those interesting pontifical commentaries Huxley makes, referencing the oratorical power Grandier had been blessed with, and which he used to weave his spells over the minds of his parishioners and conquests.

When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause, we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which most human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents.

One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is that Huxley is especially skilled at getting into the heads of his subjects, of seeing the world through their eyes, and explaining their motivations and drives in terms the modern reader can understand. And in doing so, he also usually manages to uncover the dark underbelly of Catholic doctrine—the fundamental belief system that can so easily be twisted into mass hysteria and abuse. Here he comments on the doctrine of Original Sin, and how it effectively removes all innocence from the world.

The purity of the dew-dabbled lily, the innocence of lambs and little children. Yes, the friars would be green with envy. But, except in sermons and in heaven, all lilies fester sooner or later into rottenness; the ewe-lamb is predestined first to the indefatigably lustful ram, then to the butcher; and in hell the damned walk on a living pavement, tessellated with the tiny carcases of unbaptized babies. Since the Fall, total innocence has been identical, for all practical purposes, with total depravity. Every young girl is potentially the most knowing of widows and, thanks to Original Sin, every potential impurity is already, even in the most innocent, more than half actualized.

And it is this half-actualized depravity that is taken to its most diabolical and, in a strange turnabout, holy extreme, as the nuns accuse Grandier of being the cause of their demonic possession. Their confessions are laced with reports of the sexual escapades that the power of Grandier’s sorcery has compelled them to commit, and as they do so, they realize that the baser and more deviant they can claim those acts were, the more power the doctrines of confession, exorcism, and absolution will seem to have. It’s a tight little package that manages to spiral in on itself and create its own abyss. As Huxley writes:

What a cosy squalor, what surgical intimacies! The dirt is moral as well as material; the physiological miseries are matched by the spiritual and the intellectual. And over everything, like a richly smelly fog, hangs an oppressive sexuality, thick enough to be cut with a knife and ubiquitous, inescapable.

But with his long view of human nature, Huxley is careful not to condemn these actions of artifacts of the past, not even as artifacts of the religiously-minded.

But looking back and up, from our vantage point on the descending road of modern history, we now see that all the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural, that convinced materialists are ready to worship their own jerry-built creations as though they were the Absolute, and that self-styled humanists will persecute their adversaries with all the zeal of Inquisitors exterminating the devotees of a personal and transcendent Satan. Such behavior-patterns antedate and outlive the beliefs which, at any given moment, seem to motivate them. Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behavior, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism and true religion.

I bolded one sentence above because it really drives home the point that I came to appreciate while reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris—that it’s not religion that creates atrocities, it is dogma; religious, secular, or otherwise—it is blind allegiance to unproven beliefs that creates such havoc in our world and in our human relations.

Huxley’s ability to get inside the heads of his subjects is truly impressive and, in doing so, he helps illuminate one extremely important point.

In the paragraphs which I follow I shall describe very briefly the frame of reference within which the men of the early seventeenth century did their thinking about human nature. This frame of reference was so ancient and so intimately associated with traditional Christian doctrine that it was universally regarded as a structure of self-evident truths. Today, though still most lamentably ignorant, we know enough to feel quite certain that, in many respects, the older thought-pattern was inadequate to the given facts of experience.

Huxley is not a sloppy writer, nor one that chooses words cavalierly. His reference to “self-evident truths,” as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” did not go unnoticed by this reader. He is reminding us that what we now hold as self-evident truths are but reflections of the thought patterns that dominate our time. Will ours someday seem just as antiquated as those of seventeenth-century Catholicism?

And it is those antiquated ideas of seventeenth-century Catholicism, as much as modern thinkers would want to ridicule them, that truly dominated and drove the narrative that Huxley describes. The belief that God and the Devil were real, and that their minion angels and demons did battle on earth for the souls of men, was so entrenched in everyone’s understanding of reality that it became one of their culture’s self-evident truths. Every event, no matter how ordinary, could only be seen through that lens. Witness the following from Grandier’s eventual execution—burned at the stake like the demon he was believed to be.

The fire burned on, the good fathers continued to sprinkle and intone. Suddenly a flock of pigeons came swooping down from the church and started to wheel around the roaring column of flame and smoke. The crowd shouted, the archers waved their halberds at the birds, Lactance and Tranquille splashed them on the wing with holy water. In vain. The pigeons were not to be driven away. Round and round they flew, driving through the smoke, singeing their feathers in the flames. Both parties claimed a miracle. For the parson’s enemies the birds, quite obviously, were a troop of devils, come to fetch away his soul. For his friends, they were emblems of the Holy Ghost and living proof of his innocence. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that they were just pigeons, obeying the laws of their own, their blessedly other-than-human nature.

It is a foreign story, told from a perspective we have to struggle to understand, and yet there is something compelling to us about it, about all stories from the past, even though their characters lived in different circumstances and did things different from anything we would contemplate doing. This alluring aspect of history is no mystery to Huxley.

The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different. In the personages of other times and alien creatures we recognize our all too human selves and yet are aware, as we do so, that the frame of reference within which we do our living has changed, since their day, out of all recognition, that propositions which seemed axiomatic then are now untenable and that what we regard as the most self-evident postulates could not, at an earlier period, find entrance into even the most boldly speculative mind. But however great, however important for thought and technology, for social organization and behavior, the differences between then and now are always peripheral. At the centre remains a fundamental identity. In so far as they are incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence, human beings are faced, at every time and place, with the same problems, are confronted by the same temptations and are permitted by the Order of Things to make the same choice between unregeneracy and enlightenment. The context changes, but the gist and the meaning are invariable.

Heed this. Inside all that flowery prose, Huxley has hit the nail precisely on the head. He’s talking about history, but the same parallels can be drawn for fiction. They charm us because they illuminate the fundamental truth of our existence.

For it is this desire for self-transcendence that is truly universal in the human species, and the root cause of all our fidelities to the spiritual and religious. This is such a crucial point for Huxley, and so central to his analysis of the events driving The Devils of Loudun, he includes a thoughtful and discursive appendix on the subject. It opens:

Without an understanding of man’s deep-seated urge to self-transcendence, of his very natural reluctance to take the hard, ascending way, and his search for some bogus liberation either below or to one side of his personality, we cannot hope to make sense of our own particular period of history or indeed of history in general, of life as it was lived in the past and as it is lived today. For this reason I propose to discuss some of the more common Grace-substitutes, into which and by means of which men and women have tried to escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves.

He goes on to describe three primary “Grace substitutes”—intoxication (“beer does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”), sexuality (as was very much the case in Loudun), and herd-intoxication (from which section Sargant quoted in Battle for the Mind). The objective of all three is to transcend the limitations of the individual—the first two typically self-sought, and the last typically imposed by the will of an Other. But whichever road is taken, self-transcendence of these stripes is almost always a trap from which there is no safe return.

This is a descending road and most of those who take it will come to a state of degradation, where periods of subhuman ecstasy alternate with periods of conscious selfhood so wretched that any escape, even if it be into the slow suicide of drug addiction, will seem preferable to being a person.

If you’ve ever seen and were confused by the television show Intervention—this analysis is all you really need to understand an addict’s motivations.

Huxley goes just about everywhere at one time or another during the course of his narrative, including the pagan origins of Christianity. But his take is interesting, as it seems to illuminate that Christianity didn’t just steal from pagan religions and make its rituals its own. Because of its missionary agenda, Christianity in fact blended with a variety of different pagan religions—a different one in every place where it tried to gain supremacy. And this missionary zeal was never entirely successful.

In that year of grace, sixteen hundred and thirty-two, more than a thousand years had gone by since Western Europe was ‘converted to Christianity’; and yet the ancient fertility religion, considerably corrupted by the fact of being chronically ‘agin the government,’ was still alive, still boasted its confessors and heroic martyrs, still had an ecclesiastical organization—identical, according to Cotton Mather, to that of his own Congregational Church. The fact of the old faith’s survival seems somewhat less astonishing, when we remember that, after four centuries of missionary effort, the Indians of Guatemala are not perceptibly more Catholic than they were in the first generation after the coming of Alvarado. In another seven or eight hundred years the religious situation in Central America may have come, perhaps, to resemble that which prevailed in seventeenth-century Europe, where a majority of Christians bitterly persecuted a minority attached to the older faith.

So much of what we think of as Christianity is not pure Christianity at all—but a hybrid of Christianity and the local religion that the missionaries tried to replace. In fact, there is no pure Christianity at all—just one kind of hybrid after another. When the worshippers of the old fertility religion were persecuted by the Church for their beliefs, they weren’t accused of worshipping another god, they were accused of worshipping the devil. But they didn’t worship the devil, any more than the Guatemala Indians did before the missionaries arrived. The Church called it the devil, but it wasn’t really. Just another god who reigned for thousands of years before Yahweh and Jesus.

He also spends a fair amount of time analyzing the philosophical perspective of the time and comparing it to other schools of thought. In doing so, Huxley reveals a kind of penchant for Zen Buddhism, quoting such aphorisms as:

“If you wish to see It before your eyes,” writes the Third Patriarch of Zen, “have no fixed notions either for or against It.”

Which strikes me as inimitably practical advice.

But in the end, in tune with his theses about the ubiquity of human experience, he sees Zen Buddhism and Christianity as exhibiting only differences of degree and not of kind.

But it is only through the datum of nature that we can hope to receive the donum of Grace. It is only by accepting the given, as it is given, that we may qualify for the Gift. It is only through the facts that we can come to the primordial Fact. “Do not hunt after the truth,” advises one of the Zen masters, “only cease to cherish opinions.” And the Christian mystics say substantially the same thing—with this difference, however, that they have to make an exception in favor of the opinions known as dogmas, articles of faith, pious traditions and the like. But at best these are but signposts; and of we “take the pointing finger for the Moon,” we shall certainly go astray. The Fact must be approached through the facts; it cannot be known by means of words, or by means of phantasies inspired by words. The heavenly kingdom can be made to come on earth; it cannot be made to come in our imagination or in our discursive reasonings. And it cannot come even on earth, so long as we persist in living, not on the earth as it is actually given, but as it appears to an ego obsessed by the idea of separateness, by cravings and abhorrences, by compensatory phantasies and by ready-made propositions about the nature of things. Our kingdom must go before God’s can come. There must be a mortification, not of nature, but of our fatal tendency to set up something of our own contriving in the place of nature. We have to get rid of our catalogue of likes and dislikes, of the verbal patterns to which we expect reality to confirm, of the fancies into which we retire, when the facts do not come up to our expectation. This is the “holy indifference” of St. Francois de Sales; this is de Caussade’s “abandonment,” the conscious willing, moment by moment, of what actually happens; this is that “refusal to prefer” which, in Zen phraseology, is the mark of the Perfect Way.

And finally, in another one of his pontifical commentaries, Huxley combines all the analysis of the permanence of the human condition throughout history to provide a startlingly lucid dissertation of post-modern philosophy and the politics that can arise from it. He starts by talking about Grandier’s judge and executioners, people who still worked as they understood things to save Grandier’s soul.

Since Lauberdemont’s time, evil has made some progress. Under Communist dictators, those who come to trial before a People’s Court invariably confess the crimes of which they have been accused—confess them even when they are imaginary. In the past, confession was by no means invariable. Even under torture, even at the stake, Grandier protested his innocence. And Grandier’s case was by no means unique. Many persons, women no less than men, went through similar experiences with the same indomitable constancy. Our ancestors invented the rack and the iron maiden, the boot and the water torture; but in the subtler arts of breaking the will and reducing the human being to subhumanity they still had much to learn. In a sense, it may be, they did not even wish to learn these things. They had been brought up in a religion which taught that the will is free, the soul immortal; and they acted upon these beliefs even in relation to their enemies. Yes, even the traitor, even the convicted devil-worshipper had a soul which might yet be saved; and the most ferocious judges never refused him the consolations of a religion which went on offering salvation to the very end. Before and during execution, a priest was always at hand, doing his best to reconcile the departing criminal with his Creator. By a kind of blessed inconsistency, our fathers respected the personality even of those whom they were tormenting with red-hot pincers or breaking on the wheel.

For the totalitarians of our more enlightened century there is no soul and no Creator; there is merely a lump of physiological raw material moulded by conditioned reflexes and social pressures into what, by courtesy, is still called a human being. This product of the man-made environment is without intrinsic significance and possesses no rights of self-determination. It exists for Society and must conform to the Collective Will. In practice, of course, Society is nothing but the national State, and as a matter of brute fact, the Collective Will is merely the dictator’s will-to-power, sometimes mitigated, sometimes distorted to the verge of lunacy, by some pseudo-scientific theory of what, in the gorgeous future, will be good for an actuarial abstraction labeled ‘Humanity.’ Individuals are defined as the products and the instruments of Society. From this it follows that the political bosses, who claim to represent Society, are justified in committing any conceivable atrocity against such persons as they may choose to call Society’s enemies. Physical extermination by shooting (or, more profitably, by overwork in a slave labour camp) is not enough. It is a matter of observable fact that men and women are not the mere creatures of Society. But official theory proclaims that they are. Therefore it becomes necessary to depersonalize the ‘enemies of Society’ in order to transform the official lie into truth. For those who know the trick, this reduction of the human to the subhuman, of the free individual to the obedient automaton, is a relatively simple matter. The personality of man is far less monolithic than the theologians were compelled by their dogmas to assume. The soul is not the same as the Spirit, but is merely associated with it. In itself, and until it consciously chooses to make way for the Spirit, it is no more than a rather loosely tied bundle of not very stable psychological elements. This composite entity can quite easily be disintegrated by anyone ruthless enough to wish to try and skillful enough to do the job in the right way.

It’s all there for you to see. The next time you’re trying to understand the gossamer divide between the political Right and the political Left, come back and read this section. They’re running different plays, but they’re both using the same playbook.

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Two more bits. Short paragraphs on other miscellaneous topics that are just too good to pass up without notice. First, on the universality of Shakespeare:

In practically any comedy or tragedy of Shakespeare one cannot read twenty lines without being made aware that, behind the clowns, the criminals, the heroes, behind the flirts and the weeping queens, beyond all that is agonizingly or farcically human, and yet symbiotic with man, immanent in his consciousness and consubstantial with his being, there lie the everlasting data, the given facts of planetary and cosmic existence on every level, animate and inanimate, mindless and purposively conscious.

And second, on great men:

By those who serve him, a great man must be treated as a mixture between a god, a naughty child and a wild beast. The god must be worshipped, the child amused and bamboozled and the wild beast placated and, when aroused, avoided. The courtier who, by an unwelcome suggestion, annoys this insane trinity of superhuman pretension, subhuman ferocity and infantile silliness, is merely asking for trouble.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


“So many things I do and feel are reflections of what is expected and accepted. I wonder how much of it is anything else.”
John Steinbeck

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chapter One


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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They called him the Peasant King. His name was Gregorovich Farchrist and he grew up in poverty. When he was twenty-one he organized and led the rebellion that shattered the old regime to ashes. After the monarch had been hung in the street and his body had been fed to his dogs, after his manor house had been burned to its foundation and it ruins smashed and trampled into the earth, the peasants had carried their leader upon their shoulders and had named him their new King. The day was called the Day of Vengeance and the calendars started over again at Farchrist Year One.

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Gil’s mother died five days after his eighteenth birthday. Her death left him alone. His father had died before Gil had been born and, although Gil knew who his father had been and what position he had held, Gil did not know the circumstances of his father’s death. His mother had never talked about it and Gil had learned at an early age not to ask.

Gil’s mother had thought her son needed a male role-model to emulate as he grew, so when Gil was two, she married a man named Otis Parkinson, a somewhat wealthy tavern owner. Until after the wedding, Otis, like the rest of the small village of Scalt, knew nothing about Gil’s father and who he had been. But Gil’s mother told Otis the whole truth on their wedding night so Otis would know how to properly raise his stepson. Her fondest and most secret dream was to see her son attain the same position his father had held, as well as his father before him.

Gil respected his stepfather during his childhood, but he never felt any great love for him. Otis raised Gil to be virtuous and to place personal honor before all else. His education included a deep devotion to the god Grecolus, who made him and all the world. Gil was to lead his life in goodness and purity, and to preserve the sanctity of all such good life. Although it was necessary for him to accept the name of Parkinson as his mother had, Gil was told not to be ashamed of the name with which he had been born.

Gil accepted all he was taught and he held it dear to his heart. He was young, but he could feel it strengthening his budding soul. All he was taught seemed so right to him. The world was a beautiful place in which he played an important role. His love for his creator kept him alive and his faith in himself kept him strong.

When Gil was twelve, he met Roy Stonerow. The man came to town in a horse-drawn wagon and moved into a recently vacated house down the road from Otis’ tavern. The cart had been bulging with his possessions, all of them covered by a red tarpaulin. Roy Stonerow had been a young man of twenty-four when he came to Scalt that day. His hair had been black and he had worn a full beard that dipped an inch below his chin.

Gil had been playing outside when Roy Stonerow and his wagon rolled up, and Stonerow quickly recruited Gil and his little friends to help unload the towering pile of goods from the wheeled cart.

The things Gil carried into that house that day astounded him, and would change the course of his life. It seemed that Roy Stonerow was a wizard of sorts, and he had the paraphernalia to prove it. He had boxes and boxes of tubes, flasks, mortars and pestles, bowls and mixing utensils; all with which to create his bubbling potions. Old and yellowed parchment with strange red and black writings were carted off by the bundle, along with stacks of books, some tomes as thick as Gil’s head. Locked chests had filled the bottom of the wagon, which either appeared laboriously heavy and were as light as a feather, or appeared small and manageable but were too heavy to lift.

All of Gil’s friends left when they saw the thing to be carried out of the wagon. They had heeded the warnings they had been given about the evils of magic and wizards. Magic was the tool of Damaleous, the Evil One, and those who used it were his servants.

Otis had given these warnings to Gil as well. But as much as Gil knew these warnings to be valid, and as much as he knew magic to be an abomination against Grecolus, the more Gil was fascinated by sorcery.

After the moving in had been completed, Stonerow gave Gil a small pentacle medallion of silver as payment for the help he had cheerfully given. Gil ran home to tell Otis and his mother about Scalt’s newest resident and to show them his new necklace. Otis spanked Gil that day for the first and only time in his life. The older man called the medallion a Token of the Beast and threw it deep into the woods behind their home.

It took Gil a week, but he eventually found that small silver medallion in the underbrush of the forest, and this time he kept it hidden from Otis and his mother. He also kept hidden his visits to Stonerow and the friendship that developed between the two of them over the next six years.

As those years passed, Stonerow told Gil more and more of his personal history. Orphaned at a young age, Stonerow had been adopted by an aging wizard who had passed the rudiments of magic along to Stonerow before he had died when Stonerow was seventeen. Most of the things in the Stonerow’s house now had once been the property of this old wizard.

After his death, Stonerow took to wandering, and in his travels he met up with a pair of warriors, one of whom was a dwarf, and together the three of them had set out on dangerous quest after quest for treasure and power. On the last such adventure, Stonerow had found some ancient tomes of magic, which he had decided to study and master over the next few years. This was why he had retired to the peaceful village of Scalt.

But history was not the only thing Stonerow taught Gil in those ensuing years. Gil quickly and secretly became a student of magic. Stonerow taught him how magic worked in their realm of reality. It was an underlying force inherent to all things in the universe. But it was a dangerous force to control once the user discovered how to employ it. Therefore, Stonerow said, one must not progress too quickly in their study of magic. If so, the user can become a slave to the power and will use it for horrible purposes. It was not the magic that was evil but the mage who has lost control over it.

Near the beginning of Gil’s education, Stonerow gave his pupil a test of his magical force. This would see just how inherent the force of magic was in Gil’s body and mind, and that would determine how powerful he could become through devotion to the craft. The test required Stonerow to cast some low-powered spell, using Gil instead of himself as the medium. Normally, spells were cast by the wizard through himself, using his own mystic force to channel the magic to his desired end. But a particularly powerful wizard could cast spells using the magic of another body, and Stonerow was just such a wizard.

The spell used was a simple light spell, with the intensity of the resulting light indicating the extent of Gil’s potential. The candles in Stonerow’s home were snuffed out and the spell was cast. To Gil’s youthful surprise, the result filled the room with a bright flash of light against which he had to shield his eyes. The master announced that his pupil had significant potential.

As the years continued to pass, Gil progressed slowly in his craft for he always had to keep it hidden. If his mother or Otis had ever found out, it would have been all over. Magic, to say the least, was not popular among the Grecolus-fearing populace, and although no one had any suspicions about Gil, everyone knew what Stonerow’s profession was. As a result, the townsfolk kept themselves as far removed as possible from the wizard and his practices.

Under these circumstances, Stonerow knew he could never prime Gil into the wizard he might one day become. Magic needed one’s full attention and one couldn’t always be looking over one’s shoulder for the accusatory fingers. One night, Stonerow and Gil talked it over and together they decided Gil should give up, or preferably delay, his magical training until he wasn’t so much under the gaze of Otis and his mother.

But now, the lessons and ethics Otis was teaching him were somehow less important to him. Gil no longer believed magic to be the coldly evil power that worship of Grecolus demanded. This was such a basic belief of the devoted—that magic was the tool of Damaleous to inflict his presence upon the world—that without it, Gil’s entire faith began to erode. Stonerow had taught Gil some simple tricks before he had stopped his studies. Stonerow had called them cantrips. They were not spells as such. They were not that powerful, but they were magic nonetheless. Gil could conjure up small insects or make strange noises echo from seemingly nowhere. By his old beliefs, because he could do these simple cantrips, he was a servant of Damaleous and was irrevocably bound for the lake of fire.

Gil had never before had any doubt that this was true. But now that he had met Stonerow and had learned what he had from the wizard, he embarrassingly found his old ideology a bit silly. He was still young and very confused over all the seemingly contradictory information he had received in his short life. Gil had no one to work it out with, either. His mother and Otis could never know about the source of his new ideas, so there was no help there, and Stonerow, who Gil had by then begun to think of as an older brother, offered only his side of the argument. He denied even the existence of Grecolus and Damaleous. As a result, Gil spent his adolescence mired in a bog of spiritual confusion.

He became depressed and spent most of his time methodically going through the chores of his life like a bystander. Otis would often comment on his zombie-like attitude and how he had been neglecting his divine studies. Otis would ask what it was that was bothering him, and offer any help he could provide, but Gil just couldn’t bring himself to tell his stepfather of the turmoil with which he was wrestling.

When his mother took ill, and it became painfully clear that there was nothing anyone could do for her, Gil suddenly realized that he needed to know what had become of his father. He would sit beside his mother’s bed, begging her to tell him what had happened, but she would always refuse him. Gil would keep at her until Otis would drag him away, saying his mother needed her rest.

On his eighteenth birthday, Gil’s mother called him to her sickbed and told him the time had finally come for Gil to know the truth. As Gil already knew, his father had been a Knight of Farchrist and had served under the Farchrist line of Kings just as Gil’s grandfather had done. Gil’s father had thrown himself into his knighthood. His father, Gil’s grandfather, had been killed in knightly service when Gil’s father was only three years old and, from a very young age, Gil’s father had decided to become the most pious and devoted Knight that he could be. Raised with all the strictest knightly virtues ingrained into him, he became a Knight of Farchrist when he was twenty-one under the reign of King Gregorovich Farchrist II.

What Gil did not know, and what his mother now told him, was that a year after his knighting, Gil’s father met and fell in love with Gil’s mother. He had been forced to suppress his love for her, however, because Gil’s mother was a commoner, and it was beneath his station to consort with such a woman. He began to seek any excuse he could find to go into the city so he could see her. They were deeply in love with each other, but both of them understood and respected the strictures placed upon him because of his station.

This situation continued for some time. But on the night King Gregorovich II died, Gil’s father was so saddened at the loss of his lord, he could no longer bear the separation from the woman he loved. He went into the city that night, went to Gil’s mother, and cried out his grief in her arms. She comforted him as best she could, and in a moment of passion, they culminated their lingering love for one another in a fitful burst of lovemaking. When Gil’s father left that night, she was already pregnant with their son.

Gil’s father was wracked with guilt in the ensuing weeks and eventually his knightly disciplines compelled him to confess his transgression to the new King. Gregorovich Farchrist IV, the great grandson of the Peasant King, was astounded. In his opinion, never had the name of Farchrist been soiled so horribly. One of his Knights had coupled out of wedlock with a commoner, breaking the laws of both his society and his god. The King considered the infraction unforgivable, and he quickly stripped the knighthood from Gil’s father and had him escorted from the castle.

In his misery, Gil’s father went to Gil’s mother after his dismissal and told her to leave the capital city immediately. Once word spread of her part in the scandal, the townsfolk, who loved their King and the Knights, would not take kindly to her presence among them. She asked him why he refused to escape with her, why they could not go off somewhere together to spend the rest of their lives apart from the society that would not tolerate what they had done, but Gil’s father would give her no reply. He kissed her briefly on the cheek and left. In the morning, his lifeless and crumpled body was found at the bottom of the cliff on which Farchrist Castle stood.

Gil’s mother had been crying long before she reached the climax of her tale, the tears silently spilling down her cheeks like belongings she knew she could not take with her to her grave. Gil tried to choke back tears himself, but occasionally one would escape him, rushing down his face to stain the fabric of his tunic. Finally, his mother reached out and took her son’s strong hand. She looked at him in silence for a long time before saying that loyalty was the most precious trait a man could possess.

Later that night, she slipped into a coma and in less than a week she would be dead. After her death, Gil would often think about what she had told him that night. He would think about it in the quiet dark of his room, late at night after the tavern had been closed and the rest of the village was asleep. He would think about it while sitting on the edge of his bed, unable to sleep, while gently rubbing the surface of the silver inverted star that Stonerow had given him.