Saturday, September 24, 2011

Women with Men by Richard Ford

This is a book of three long stories, one of which I enjoyed far more than the other two.

The Womanizer is the favored one, a tale about a man dissatisfied with his life and enchanted by the idea of what a better life might be. Martin Austin is his name, a salesman for an industrial products company, and on a trip to France he meets Josephine, a woman to whom he attaches all his starry hopes. For life with his wife, Barbara, has become a dull routine.

Late that night, a Tuesday, he and Barbara made brief, boozy love in the dark of their thickly curtained bedroom, to the sound of a neighbor’s springer spaniel barking unceasingly one street over. Theirs was practiced, undramatic lovemaking, a set of protocols and assumptions lovingly followed like a liturgy which point to but really has little connection with the mysteries and chaos that had once made it a breathless necessity. Austin noticed by the digital clock on the chest of drawers that it all took nine minutes, start to finish. He wondered briefly if this was of normal or less than normal duration for Americans his and Barbara’s age. Less, he supposed, though no doubt the fault was his.

Good prose, there. There and throughout Ford’s writing. But the prose alone is not what makes the story so memorable, nor is it its theme or storyline. What makes the story so memorable is the character of Martin Austin himself.

He wondered, staring at the elegantly framed azimuth map Barbara had given him when he’d been awarded the prestigious European accounts, and which he’d hung behind his desk with tiny red pennants attached, denoting where he’d increased the company’s market share—Brussels, Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Paris—wondered if his life, his normal carrying-on, was slipping out of control, yet so gradually as not to be noticed. But he decided it wasn’t, and as proof he offered the fact that he was entertaining this idea in his office, on an ordinary business day, with everything in his life arrayed in place and going forward, rather than entertaining in some Parisian street cafĂ© in the blear aftermath of calamity: a man with soiled lapels, in need of a shave and short of cash, scribbling his miserable thoughts into a tiny spiral notebook like all the other morons he’d seen who’d thrown their lives away. This feeling now, this sensation of heaviness, of life’s coming unmoored, was actually, he believed, a feeling of vigilance, the weight of responsibility accepted, the proof that carrying life to a successful end was never an easy matter.

He’s a bumbling fool, this Martin Austin, at once attuned to the way is which success in life hangs on the most precarious of balances, but utterly unable to connect that wisdom to any of the actual choices he makes in life. The story is a detailed summary of how he blindly throws his life away, all the while in ironic opposition to his near constant perception that he is in control of things. He is confident, mostly, swept up in the exhilaration of risk, and convinced that in his choice to abandon one life with Barbara and launch another with Josephine he has never been more alive and in control of his destiny.

It would be pleasant to walk there with Josephine, Austin thought, to breathe the sweet air of chestnut trees and to stare off. Life was very different here. This apartment was very different from his house in Oak Grove. He felt different here. Life seemed to have improved remarkably in a short period. All it took, he thought, was the courage to take control of things and to live with the consequences.

Except that Austin is in control of nothing. He’s jumped out of the plane, but now he’s in free fall, and he’s left his parachute behind. And the essence of his unrealized powerlessness is wonderfully displayed by Ford in one of the most painful but beautifully-written sections of the story.

Austin and Barbara are childless, but Josephine isn’t, and when he shows up practically unannounced at Josephine’s apartment in Paris—after separating from his wife and risking his job—he manages to convince Josephine to let him watch her young son, Leo, while she runs an important errand. Although he promises not to leave the apartment, he takes the boy to a nearby park, and promptly loses sight of him as his mind swims euphorically in his new-found courage and all the freedom and control it has offered him. Ford is brutal with the reader as he communicates the inexorable foreboding and terror. We’re horrified for Leo and, oddly, sympathetic for Austin, sympathetic in a way only men can be with their hapless and dimwitted selves.

When he looked around again, Leo was not where he’d been, standing dreamily to the side of the older boys, watching their miniature cutters and galleons glide over the still pond surface. The older boys were there, their long tending sticks in their hands, whispering among themselves and smirking. But not Leo. It had become cooler. Light had faded from the crenellated roof line of the Ecole Superieure des Mines, and soon it would be dark. The man having his picture taken was walking away with the photographer. Austin had been engrossed in thought and had lost sight of little Leo, who was, he was certain, somewhere nearby.

He looked at his watch. It was six twenty-five, and Josephine could now be home. He scanned back along the row of apartment blocks, hoping to find her window, thinking he might see her there watching him, waving at him happily, possibly with Leo at her side. But he couldn’t tell which building was which. One window he could see was open and dark inside. But he couldn’t be sure. In any case, Jospehine wasn’t framed in it.

Austin looked all around, hoping to see the white flash of Leo’s T-shirt, the careening red Cadillac. But he saw only a few couples walking along the chalky paths, and two of the older boys carrying their sailboats home to their parents’ apartments. He still heard tennis balls being hit—pockety pock. And he felt cold and calm, which he knew to be the feeling of fear commencing, a feeling that could rapidly change to other feelings that could last a long, long time.

Leo was gone, and he wasn’t sure where. “Leo,” he called out, first in the American way, then “Lay-oo,” in the way his mother said. “Ou etes-vous?” Passersby looked at him sternly, hearing the two languages together. The remaining sailboat boys glanced around and smiled. “Lay-oo!” he called out again, and knew his voice did not sound ordinary, that it might sound frightened. Everyone around him, everyone who could hear him, was French, and he couldn’t precisely explain to any of them what was the matter here: that this was not his son; that the boy’s mother was not here now but was probably close by; that he had let his attention stray a moment.

“Lay-oo,” he called out again. “Ou etes-vous?” He saw nothing of the boy, not a fleck of shirt or a patch of his dark hair disappearing behind a bush. He felt cold all over again, a sudden new wave, and he shuddered because he knew he was alone. Leo—some tiny assurance opened in his to say—Leo, wherever he was, would be fine, was probably fine right now. He would be found and be happy. He would see his mother and immediately forget all about Martin Austin. Nothing bad had befallen him. But he, Martin Austin, was alone. He could not find this child, and for him only bad would come of it.

Across an expanse of grassy lawn he saw a park guardian in a dark-blue uniform emerge from the rhododendrons beyond which were the tennis courts, and Austin began running toward him. It surprised him that he was running, and halfway there quit and only half ran toward the man, who had stopped to permit himself to be approached.

“Do you speak English?” Austin said before he’d arrived. He knew his face had taken on an exaggerated appearance, because the guardian looked at him strangely, turned his head slightly, as though he preferred to see him at an angle, or as if he were hearing an odd tune and wanted to hear it better. At the corners of his mouth he seemed to smile.

“I’m sorry,” Austin said, and took a breath. “You speak English, don’t you?”

“A little bit, why not,” the guardian said, and then he did smile. He was middle-aged and pleasant-looking, with a soft suntanned face and a small Hitler mustache. He wore a French policeman’s uniform, a blue-and-gold kepi, a white shoulder braid and a white lanyard connected to his pistol. He was a man who liked parks.

“I’ve lost a little boy here someplace,” Austin said calmly, though he remained out of breath. He put the palm of his right hand to his cheek as if his cheek were wet, and he felt his skin to be cold. He turned and looked again at the concrete border of the pond, at the grass crossed by gravel paths, and then at the dense tangle of yew bushes farther on. He expected to see Leo there, precisely in the middle of this miniature landscape. Once he’d been frightened and time had gone by, and he’d sought help and strangers had regarded him with suspicion and wonder—once all these had taken place—Leo could appear and all would be returned to calm.

But there was no one. The open lawn was empty, and it was nearly dark. He could see weak interior lights from the apartment blocks beyond the park fence, see yellow automobile lights on rue Vaugirard. He remembered once hunting with his father in Illinois. He was a boy, and their dog had run away. He had known the advent of dark meant he would never see the dog again. They were far from home. The dog wouldn’t find its way back. And that is what happened.

The park guardian stood in front of Austin, smiling, staring at his face oddly, searchingly, as if he meant to adduce something—if Austin was crazy or on drugs or possibly playing a joke. The man, Austin realized, hadn’t understood anything he’d said, and was simply waiting for something he would understand to begin.

But he had ruined everything now. Leo was gone. Kidnapped. Assaulted. Or merely lost in a hopelessly big city. And all his own newly won freedom, his clean slate, was in a moment squandered. He would go to jail, and he should go to jail. He was an awful man. A careless man. He brought mayhem and suffering to the lives of innocent, unsuspecting people who trusted him. No punishment could be too severe.

Austin looked again at the yew bushes, a long, green clump, several yards thick, the interior lost in tangled shadows. That was where Leo was, he thought with complete certainty. And he felt relief, barely controllable relief.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said to the guardian. “Je regrette. I made a mistake.” And he turned and ran toward the clump of yew bushes, across the open grass and the gravel promenade and careful beds in bright-yellow bloom, the excellent park. He plunged in under the low scrubby branches, where the ground was bare and raked and damp and attended to. With his head ducked he moved swiftly forward. He called Leo’s name but did not see him, though he saw a movement, and indistinct fluttering of blue and gray, heard what might’ve been footfalls on the soft ground, and then he heard running, like a large creature hurrying in front of him among the tangled branches. He heard laughter beyond the edge of the thicket, where another grassy terrace opened—the sound of a man laughing and talking in French, out of breath and running at once. Laughing, then more talking and laughing again.

Austin moved toward where he’d seen the flutter of blue and gray—someone’s clothing glimpsed in flight, he thought. There was a strong old smell of piss and human waste among the thick roots and shrubby trunks of the yew bushes. Paper and trash were strewn around in the foulness. From outside it had seemed cool and inviting here, a place to have a nap or make love.

And Leo was there. Exactly where Austin had seen the glimpse of clothing flicker through the undergrowth. He was naked, sitting on the damp dirt, his clothes strewn around him, turned inside out where they had been jerked off and thrown aside. He looked up at Austin, his eyes small and perceptive and dark, his small legs straight out before him, smudged and scratched, his chest and arms scratched. Dirt was on his cheeks. His hands were between his legs, not covering or protecting him but limp. As if they had no purpose. He was very white and very quiet. His hair was still neatly combed. Though when he saw Austin, and that it was Austin and not someone else coming bent at the waist, furious, breathing stertorously, stumbling, crashing arms-out through the rough branches and trunks and roots of that small place, he gave a shrill, hopeless cry, as though he could see what was next, and who it would be, and it terrified him even more. And his cry was all he could do to let the world know that he feared his fate.

It’s a fascinating piece of writing, heart-wrenching and true from start to finish, as Austin continues to deceive himself until the very bitter and painful end. When it’s over, and Leo is reunited with his mother, Josephine has the harshest of all possible verdicts for Austin and his wayward understanding of himself.

She shook her head and crossed her arms tightly and looked away, her dark eyes shining in the night. She was very, very angry. Possibly, he thought, she was even angry at herself. “You are a fool,” she said, and she spat accidently when she said it. “I hate you. You don’t know anything. You don’t know who you are.” She looked at him bitterly. “Who are you?” she said. “You do you think you are? You’re nothing.”

You don’t know who you are. He doesn’t. That, ultimately, is his crime, and the object lesson for us all to take away from this story. How many of us, wandering through this life from job to job and relationship to relationship, don’t know who were are, and what wreckage are we leaving behind?

In the end, Austin remains clueless, wondering to himself in his small Paris apartment what is it that connected or detached him from the people around him, and if it is something that he could have controlled, or if he is just a victim to some larger force that pushes people together and then drives them apart.

+   +   +   +   +   +   +

The third story in the book is called Occidentals, and near the very end I stumbled across a short exchange that I think well summarizes Ford’s view on writing and the essential question he is asking in each of the stories in this book. In Occidentals, Matthews is an author, and here he is meeting with a French translator about the forthcoming foreign publication of his novel.

“Your book will be better in French, I think,” she said. “It’s humorous. It needs to be humorous. In English it’s not so much. Don’t you think so?”

“I didn’t think it was humorous,” he said, and thought about the street names he’d made up. The Paris parts.

“Well. An artist’s mind senses a logic where none exists. Yet often it’s left incomplete. It’s difficult. Only great geniuses can finish what they invent. In French, we say…” And she said something then that Matthews didn’t understand but didn’t try. “Do you speak French?” She smiled politely.

“Just enough to misunderstand everything,” he said, and tried to smile back.

“It doesn’t matter,” Madame de Grenelle said, and paused. “So. It is not quite finished in English. Because you cannot rely on the speaker. The I who was jilted. All the way throughout, one is never certain if he can be taken seriously at all. It is not entirely understandable in that way. Don’t you agree? Perhaps you don’t. But perhaps he had murdered his wife, or this is all a long dream or a fantasy, a ruse—or there is another explanation. It is meant to be mocking.”

“That could be true,” Matthews said. “I think it could.”

“The problem of reliance,” she said, “is important. This is the part not finished. It would’ve been very, very difficult. Even for Flaubert…”

“I see,” Matthews said.

“But in French, I can make perfectly clear that we are not to trust the speaker, though we try. That it’s a satire, meant to be amusing. The French would expect this. It is how they see Americans.”

“How?” he said. “How is it they see us?”

Madame de Grenelle smiled. “As silly,” she said, “as not understanding very much. But, for that reason, interesting.”

“I see,” Matthews said.

“Yes,” she said. “Though only to a point.”

“I understand,” Matthews said. “I think I understand that perfectly well.”

“Then good,” she said. “So. We can start.”

Now, go back a read that again. Except every time it mentions “French,” think “Women,” and every time it mentions “English” or “American,” think “Men.” The things that separate French and English literature are the same things that separate Women and Men. What Women find satiric and silly, Men find deadly serious. And vice versa, I suppose.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


“Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennett)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

When I picked this one up I thought it was a sequel to Brave New World. It isn’t. It’s an essay by Huxley about how “the subtle terrors he prophesied for the 26th century are here now.” Now, being 1958.

It holds up pretty well. There are some things he talks about that are strange and out of place to a modern reader—predictions of future terrors that seem quaint and ill-informed—but many other things he seems to get exactly right. Here’s what he says, for example, about advertising:

The principles underlying this kind of propaganda are extremely simple. Find some common desire, some widespread unconscious fear or anxiety; think out some way to relate this wish or fear to the product you have to sell; then build a bridge of verbal or pictorial symbols over which your customer can pass from fact to compensatory dream, and from the dream to the illusion that your product, when purchased, will make the dream come true. “We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just the auto, we buy prestige.” And so with all the rest. In toothpaste, for example, we buy, not a mere cleaner and antiseptic, but release from the fear of being sexually repulsive. In vodka and whisky we are not buying a protoplasmic poison which, in small doses, may depress the nervous system in a psychologically valuable way; we are buying friendliness and good fellowship, the warmth of Dingley Dell and the brilliance of the Mermaid Tavern. With our laxatives we buy the health of a Greek god, the radiance of one of Diana’s nymphs. With the monthly best seller we acquire culture, the envy of our less literate neighbors and the respect of the sophisticated.

And here’s what he says about political candidates, and their need to appeal rather than explain:

In one way or another, as vigorous he-man or kindly father, the candidate must be glamorous. He must also be an entertainer who never bores his audience. Inured to television and radio, that audience is accustomed to be distracted and does not like to be asked to concentrate or make a prolonged intellectual effort. All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy. The great issues of the day must be dealt with in five minutes at the most—and preferably (since the audience will be eager to pass on to something a little livelier than inflation or the H-bomb) in sixty seconds flat. The nature of oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among politicians and clergymen to over-simplify complex issues. From a pulpit or a platform even the most conscientious of speakers finds it very difficult to tell the whole truth. The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.

Both spot on, if you ask me. And his social commentary is as penetrating as ever, piercing through the veils of myth that are often draped over our society and to its hardened core. For example, here’s how he responds to the view that humans are a social species:

If these views were correct, if human beings were in fact the members of a truly social species, and if their individual differences were trifling and could be completely ironed out by appropriate conditioning, then, obviously, there would be no need for liberty and the State would be justified in persecuting the heretics who demanded it. For the individual termite, service to the termitary is perfect freedom.

And there are other places where he simply explains things in ways I have never heard them explained before. Writs of habeas corpus, for example. I’ve heard them mentioned a lot, and know that presidents like Lincoln have suspended them in times of war, but I’ve never really known what they were. Well, Huxley explains them this way.

A person who is being kept in prison on ground of doubtful legality has the right, under the Common Law as clarified by the statute of 1679, to appeal to one of the higher courts if justice for a writ of habeas corpus. This writ is addressed by a judge of the high court to a sheriff or jailer, and commands him, within a specified period of time, to bring the person he is holding in custody to the court for an examination of his case—to bring, be it noted, not the person’s written complaint, nor his legal representatives, but his corpus, his body, the too too solid flesh which has been made to sleep on boards, to smell the fetid prison air, to eat the revolting prison food.

Now I can see why suspension of such a right is so vilified by libertarians. Even in times of war, an accused should have such a right, shouldn’t he?

But what I really want to touch on is Huxley’s apparent view of the human species and its ability, or lack of an ability, ultimately, to govern itself. He begins his chapter on Propaganda in a Democratic Society this way:

“The doctrines of Europe,” Jefferson wrote, “were that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limits of order and justice, except by forces physical and moral wielded over them by authorities independent of their will. … We (the founders of the new American democracy) believe that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice, and that he could be restrained from wrong, and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice and held to their duties by dependence on his own will.” To post-Freudian ears, this kind of language seems touchingly quaint and ingenuous. Human beings are a good deal less rational and innately just than the optimists of the eighteenth century supposed. On the other hand they are neither so morally blind nor so hopelessly unreasonable as the pessimists of the twentieth would have us believe. In spite of the Id and the Unconscious, in spite of endemic neurosis and the prevalence of low IQs, most men and women are probably decent enough and sensible enough to be trusted with the direction of their own destinies.

This is a remarkable chapter, one that trumpets both Huxley’s near-inerrant powers of prognostication, but which also highlights every human’s inability to contextualize the future in anything but the present. As shown above, he readily concedes most of the Jeffersonian view that people can effectively govern themselves (although perhaps not as efficiently as a dictator), but adds one important caveat. They must be given a “fair chance,” which he describes more or less as a prosperous, well-informed democracy. In such a society, people have the best capacity to govern themselves well, and if they succumb to the manipulation of a dictator, that dictator must corrupt at least one of those three conditions—prosperity, freedom of information, or democracy.

And Huxley knows that such corruptions have happened and will continue to happen.

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asiatics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can, and no doubt, it will.

Of the three conditions necessary for people to have their “fair chance,” it is freedom of information that Huxley sees as the most threatened and most vulnerable, even in otherwise prosperous and democratic societies.

Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill. Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory. In the field of mass communications as in almost every other field of enterprise, technological progress had hurt the Little Man and helped the Big Man. As lately as fifty years ago, every democratic country could boast of a great number of small journals and local newspapers. Thousands of country editors expressed thousands of independent opinions. Somewhere or other almost everybody could get almost anything printed. Today the press is still legally free; but most of the little papers have disappeared. The cost of wood-pulp, of modern printing machinery and of syndicated news is too high for the Little Man. In the totalitarian East there is political censorship, and the media of mass communication are controlled by the State. In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite. Censorship by rising costs and the concentration of communication power in the hands of a few big concerns is less objectionable than State ownership and government propaganda; but certainly it is not something of which a Jeffersonian democrat could possibly approve.

And here, I think, is where Huxley gets it wrong, where he succumbs to the natural limitations of his own mortal worldview. Huxley did not live to see and could not have imagined the rise of something we call the Internet and the communications power it has put back in the hands of the Little Man. The Power Elite still control a good deal of the messages that are broadcast, but the rise of Internet narrowcasting through blogs and Twitter feeds and YouTube videos have stemmed the fatalistic asymptotic slide towards fewer and fewer voices. The Big Man may still win out in the end, but interestingly, if he doesn’t, if we remain awash in the millions of viewpoints never more than a few mouseclicks away, then we may need to worry about Huxley’s other primary caution about propaganda in a democratic society. In the end, the battle will not be between information and misinformation. It will be between the relevant and the irrelevant. Never, he cautions, underestimate man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this appetite. They might long for distractions, but the distractions were not provided. Christmas came but once a year, feasts were “solemn and rare,” there were few readers and very little to read, and the nearest approach to a neighborhood movie theater was the parish church, where the performances, though frequent, were somewhat monotonous. For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment—from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumblepuppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase, “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

The Internet, for all it has done to empower the communications and viewpoints of the Little Man, has brought with it a whole new world of distractions in which that Little Man may happily and willingly enslave himself.

There are times when Huxley almost seems to say that there isn’t anything malevolent or perhaps even conscious about these corruptions of the Jeffersonian vision for human self-governance. They may very well be the intrinsic and inevitable result of our own human nature. But he always returns to a description of how that nature—as self-emergent as it may be—will be manipulated by those who seek to do so. As he is wrapping up near the end of his short text, he refers directly to the oligarchs that are consciously turning the screws of our society.

Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over-population and increasing over-organization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms—elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest—will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial—but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.

And although I’m much more persuaded by the idea that decay is our natural and not our calculated fate, there are times when I think something like this has already happened—that the American nation has been corrupted by just the kind of conscious but non-violent totalitarianism Huxley describes in this paragraph. But the argument is undercut, I think, but his own use of the term “non-violent totalitarianism.” Can such a thing actually exist? Isn’t totalitarianism, by its very definition, violent? Doesn’t it have to be? How else could freedom be restrained? And if the term is self-contradictory, then I have to find another way of approaching the concept.

If I’m right, and totalitarianism is by definition violent, then perhaps Huxley is wrong about the non-violence. In this construction, our oligarchs and their solider-policeman servants do and will use violence whenever it is necessary to protect their carefully orchestrated status quo. This is the view of conspiracy theorists.

Or perhaps Huxley is wrong about the Pickwickian decay of democracy and freedom being non-violent? In this construction, the oligarchs have succeeded in enslaving us without resorting to torture and murder, but by our own numbing need for security at any price. It is only non-violent in the sense that we have agreed to submit rather than be bashed in the head. This is the view of cynics.

Or perhaps Huxley’s whole view is utter hogwash. No such takeover has happened—violent or otherwise—and we are as free as we have ever been. ‘Ever been’ are the key words there. If you believe we have always been free—at least, in the view of Americans, from the founding of our unique nation—then this construction results in the view of patriots. If you believe, however, that we have never actually been free, in 1776 or at any other time in human history, then this construction sets up the view of the anarchist, who believes the oligarchs have rigged the game from the very beginning.

Which view do you hold?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Chapter Fourteen


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The King’s School for Boys was what some people would call a stark, cold, and unfriendly place. But to Gildegarde Brisbane II, in the years between the ages of six and sixteen, it was home. Many boys found it hard to deal with the strict regulations, the driving and sometimes seemingly cruel schoolmasters, and the endlessly tedious assignments and exams. But to young Brisbane, this was all icing on his cake of faithful service to Grecolus. He excelled in most of his duties and subjects and, indeed, in the areas in which he performed less admirably, it was not due to any lack of effort. The other boys made fun of him there, as boys are wont to do, but Brisbane never let it bother him. He never said it to their faces, but he knew they teased them because they were jealous of the special relationship he shared with their creator.

+ + +

Four days before the end of Farchrist Year 105, Gildegarde Brisbane celebrated his nineteenth birthday. His friends held a small dinner party in his honor, and it was at this occasion that Allison Stargazer met Roystnof and Illzeezad Dantrius for the first time.

Shortwhiskers had gone to see Stargazer at her cottage a week before to deliver the invitation and to discuss whatever was left hanging after their brief conversation in The Lazy Dragon. Now that Brisbane knew a little more about Stargazer’s past, he felt he could make some fairly good guesses at what they had talked about.

First and foremost, Brisbane was sure they had a long and detailed discussion about Illzeezad Dantrius. Stargazer had said she had heard Shortwhiskers speak of him, but that was before Brisbane knew of Stargazer’s part in the expedition to Dragon’s Peak, and now Brisbane figured that that was just a lie for his benefit. If Stargazer had known Dantrius personally, and felt the same way about him that Shortwhiskers did, the dwarf probably had to do quite a bit of talking to get her to come to a dinner party at which Dantrius would be in unfortunate attendance.

Secondly, Brisbane supposed Shortwhiskers would tell Stargazer that he had told Brisbane about her past. Shortwhiskers had said she probably wouldn’t mind if just Brisbane knew, and Brisbane hoped that was true. He hadn’t told anyone about it and certainly had no intentions of doing so.

Finally, Brisbane hoped Shortwhiskers had in some way explained Roystnof and his magic to Stargazer. Roystnof, after all, was not a servant of Damaleous. His magic power came from his own will and there was no reason why Stargazer should take any offense to it. Brisbane hoped the dwarf had tried to convince her of this, but if Stargazer was like any other Grecolus-fearing faithful Brisbane knew, the dwarf would have little luck.

But whatever it was that Shortwhiskers and Stargazer had talked about at their private meeting, Stargazer had accepted the invitation to dinner. Brisbane was happy for that if for nothing else. She arrived at their little rental cabin as the sun was nearing the tops of the trees and Brisbane met her in the front yard.

“Welcome,” Brisbane said as he offered a hand to her and helped her up the front steps. Her grip was strong but there seemed to be almost no pull against his arm.

“Thank you,” Stargazer said. “And happy birthday.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Brisbane on the cheek.

Brisbane tried not to blush. “Thank you,” he said. “Would you like to come inside and meet everyone?” He offered the question as gently as he could.

Stargazer folded her arms under her bosom. “The time must come, I suppose.” She bowed her head and mumbled some words to herself. When she looked back up, Brisbane realized she had been praying. “I am ready,” she said.

Brisbane opened the front door and led Stargazer into the large living room of their rented cabin. A warm fire crackled in the fireplace and seated in the warm glow, in overstuffed chairs, were Shortwhiskers, Roystnof, and Dantrius.

All three men got to their feet as Stargazer entered the room. Shortwhiskers quickly crossed the room in an attempt to greet her first. The two exchanged a few words as Brisbane stood by and watched the expressions on the faces of Roystnof and Dantrius.

“Thank you for coming, Allison,” Shortwhiskers said. “I was worried you wouldn’t.”

“I came because you asked me to, Nog,” Stargazer said. “And to celebrate Gil’s birthday. I did not pick the guest list, nor was it my place to do so.”

“Yes,” Shortwhiskers said uneasily. “Well, I hope things go a little better than that. If everyone acts so formally, I may be asleep by the second course.”

Shortwhiskers got a smile out of Stargazer on that one and he took the opportunity to guide her over to meet the two wizards.

“Allison Stargazer,” Shortwhiskers said. “I would like you to meet Roystnof and Illzeezad Dantrius.”

Stargazer approached Roystnof first. The wizard was dressed in his usual black and red but in no way did his appearance give away his magical powers. His van dyke had recently been trimmed and his hair neatly combed.

“Miss Stargazer,” Roystnof said as he bowed a little. “Nog has told me much about you. I am glad to finally make your acquaintance.”

Stargazer nodded. “Nog has told me about you too, sir. I would be interested in hearing your views on the shrine you discovered on your last expedition.”

Roystnof smiled royally. “It would be my pleasure.”

Stargazer then turned to Dantrius. The mage was dressed neatly and still smelled of the soaps with which he had bathed. His long black hair framed his cracked face, gouged with the fingers of erosion, and his icy blue eyes glared out from under rough brows.

“Well,” Dantrius said. “This has been quite a little reunion for me, hasn’t it? First the Dwarven Ambassador and now the High Priestess. One could even say that young Brisbane there represents the figure of his grandfather, the Knight. I don’t think, however, that the Prince or anyone representing him will be able to make an appearance.”

Brisbane was surprised at the frankness of Dantrius’ comments, revealing as he had that he knew Stargazer had been the high priestess on the expedition to Dragon’s Peak. Did that prove what Shortwhiskers had said about him, about his role in those events? Brisbane wasn’t sure, but he now knew that everyone in the room, with the exception of Roystnof, knew the whole story of that doomed expedition.

Stargazer spoke softly. “Nog has told me that you are a sorcerer, Dantrius.”

“Sorcerer?” Dantrius replied, seeming shocked. “I fear Mister Ambassador pays me too great a compliment. I can do some minor tricks, yes, but a sorcerer? No, I don’t believe so.”

“It didn’t surprise me,” Stargazer said, ignoring his protestations of innocence. “I was dismayed that someone could deceive the King so, but I was not at all surprised to find out you were serving evil forces.”

Dantrius allowed a pained expression to pass over his face. “It’s nothing to hold against me, Your Matriarchy. Ideological opposites are not as different as they may seem on the surface.”

“Your kind disgusts me,” Stargazer said grimly.

Dantrius smiled. “And here I was hoping you would favor me with a dance later this evening.”

Shortwhiskers cut in. “Perhaps we should move into the dining room and begin our dinner. Before someone completely loses their appetite.”

Brisbane presented himself next to Stargazer and hooked out an elbow. Stargazer gave Dantrius a cold stare and then turned, slipping a hand inside Brisbane’s arm. He led her into the dining room.

Brisbane showed Stargazer to her chair and sat down next to her. Shortwhiskers came in and sat on the other side of Stargazer, followed by Roystnof and Dantrius, who took their seats on the other side of the table.

Shortwhiskers picked up a small bell set at his place and rang it. Shortly, a man dressed in white, hired for the occasion, came in through the swinging door that led to the kitchen, welcomed all the guests, and recited off the menu for the evening. He then went off to fetch the first course, returning soon with a tray cluttered with five bowls of thick broccoli soup. He placed a bowl in front of each guest.

Brisbane was reaching for his spoon when he saw Stargazer out of the corner of his eye bow her head and fold her hands in her lap. He quickly brought his own hands to his lap and, for the first time in many months, he offered the small ritual prayer of grace to Grecolus.

When he had finished the mental recitation, Brisbane was ready to eat, but he kept his hands folded because he noticed that Stargazer had not yet finished her prayer. He wondered what she could still be praying about, but then remembered what Shortwhiskers had said out her.

She worships Grecolus in the old ways.

Brisbane knew nothing about this. He thought the rites and rituals he had been taught were the way Grecolus had been worshipped since creation and had no knowledge of any other kind.

She’s a healer, Brisbane heard Shortwhiskers’ voice echo in his head. Claims her power comes from Grecolus himself.

Power. That’s what Shortwhiskers had said. Her power. Brisbane had originally thought the dwarf was referring to her medical skills, but now he was not so sure. He remembered the scene when Stargazer had healed (used her power on) the old man, Skinner. It had been like she was casting a spell, hadn’t it? She had placed her hands on his abdomen, moved them about, and chanted in an unfamiliar tongue. What was there about that process that could realistically take away pain? Nothing. But Skinner had relaxed and he had looked better. It was as if Stargazer had taken away his pain by magic.

Stargazer finished her prayer and began to eat her soup. Brisbane quickly followed and let his ponderings go for another time. He knew he would have to find a time to ask her about it eventually. What was the difference between what she did for Skinner and what Roystnof did with his red book?

“Nog tells me,” Stargazer suddenly said pointedly to Roystnof, “that you found Dantrius as a stone statue in some mysterious garden south of here. The victim of a basilisk?”

Roystnof put his soup spoon down. “Yes.”

“And that you, through your use of magic, restored him to the form present with us this evening.”

Roystnof nodded. “This is true.”

Stargazer returned her attention to her soup bowl for a moment. All around the table everyone enjoyed a few spoonfuls of the fine soup. There was some kind of cheese in it with which Brisbane was not familiar.

“He also tells me,” Stargazer went on, “that inside the shrine you discovered, you encountered some kind of demon, a demon that withstood attacks from both Nog and from Ignatius Roundtower. He says that it was your magic that helped Gil finally destroy the creature.”

“Again, true,” Roystnof said. “Without my slow spell, I fear the demon would have been too much for Gil to handle.”

“I see,” Stargazer said. “And just why did you choose that particular spell? Couldn’t you have brought some sort of fireball down on its head or something? I mean, it seems like such a minor act against such a powerful adversary.” Her voice was subtle and suggestive.

Roystnof considered Stargazer’s words for some time. “Listen, Miss Stargazer, I know what you must think about me and my magic and, frankly, I don’t care. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to you speculate about my motives. I used the spell I thought most helpful in the situation. I helped destroy that demon because it was endangering the lives of my friends. Now, you can speculate to yourself all you want, but you will never come closer to the truth than that.”

Silence fell around the table. Brisbane looked at Roystnof’s angry face and felt a resurgence of the love and respect he felt for his friend. Shortwhiskers kept his eyes switching between Stargazer and Roystnof. Dantrius slurped his soup.

“I’m sorry,” Stargazer said finally. “It was not my place. You surprised me with your passion.”

Roystnof accepted the woman’s apology and the rest of the soup was finished in silence. The hired man came in to take the dishes and returned with salad plates for all of them.

“Roystnof,” Stargazer said, starting the conversation again. “I hope Nog has told you that I plan to accompany you when you set out again in the spring.”

“He has,” Roystnof said.

“For personal reasons,” Stargazer continued, “I am very interested in the shrine you discovered. Nog has told me about it in his words, but I would very much like to hear it described in yours.”

“It was rather plain, really,” Roystnof said after chewing the crisp lettuce. “A cube of stone made out of great slabs of rock. Inside were the rotted remains of what I took to be kneeling benches and a faded mural.”

“A mural?” Stargazer asked.

“Yes,” Roystnof said. “A pair of giant hands parting a cloudbank. Quite a striking image, actually. The basement was completely empty except for the demon we found. I have no idea what the space was once used for.”

“The demon,” Stargazer said. “How do you suppose it got there?”

“Somebody conjured it up,” Roystnof said matter-of-factly. “The pentagram was still on the wall.”

“The pentagram, yes,” Stargazer said. “Do you have any idea who might have conjured such a beast in such a holy place?”

“No,” Roystnof said. “It could have been most anyone.”

Stargazer turned her attention to Dantrius. The pale man held a cherry tomato poked on the end of his fork and was eyeing it dubiously.

“What were you doing in the garden, Dantrius?” Stargazer asked. “What were you doing at that shrine?”

Brisbane held a forkful of lettuce halfway between his plate and his mouth. This was a question he was very interested in hearing answered. It was something he wanted to know, something he had wanted to know since Roystnof had first transformed Dantrius from stone to flesh. The rest of the guests seemed equally anxious to hear the mage’s answer.

Dantrius smiled. “Exploring,” he said simply. “The basilisk trapped me before I could even enter the shrine.” He placed the tomato in his mouth and slowly drew the fork out from between his lips.

“When were you there?” Stargazer asked insistently. “How soon was it after you had left the King’s court?”

“That’s my business,” Dantrius said. “But because it is of no consequence, I will tell you anyway. It was almost immediately. When I left the King’s employ, I started to travel south, searching for friendlier environs. I had been trapped as a stone statue in that garden for nearly the entire intervening time between then and now. There is precious little mischief I could have perpetrated.”

“I’m sure,” Stargazer said uneasily.

Dantrius suddenly stood. “But please, could we dispense with this interrogation session?” He lifted his glass which, at this time, was only filled with water. “We are here to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend, Gildegarde. I would like to propose a toast in his honor.”

The others suspiciously reached for their glasses and held them in front of themselves.

Dantrius cleared his throat. “Here is to young Gildegarde Brisbane. May his life be better than ours have been and longer than the wisest man’s.” Dantrius took a ceremonial drink from his cup, sat back down, and returned to his salad.

All around the table, glasses were brought forward, and uncertain sips were taken.

The rest of the dinner was mostly uneventful, although the food was delicious. The main course was a sumptuous pork roast with potatoes and gravy and steamed carrots. For dessert, they were served the richest chocolate cake with a scoop of immaculate vanilla ice cream. Brisbane’s appetite seemed unstoppable and he devoured helping after helping. The others seemed to nearly gorge themselves as well, except for Stargazer who, although she ate a little bit of everything brought to her, she never seemed to clean her plate.

When the dinner was over, they all retired to the living room to let the hired man and his crew clean up the mess and wrap up the leftovers. Brisbane was hoping for some friendly conversation around the fireplace, but as the others found comfortable chairs, Stargazer drew him aside and said she thought it would be best if she left.

Brisbane did not argue, although he really wanted her to stay. He asked her if she would like him to walk her home and she said that that would be very nice. Brisbane told the others they were leaving and they quickly set out.

It was full dark when they stepped outside, the sun having set a while ago. Stargazer drew her coat around her frame and they marched off, away from town and in the direction of her cottages.

“I had a fine time tonight, Gil,” Stargazer said, her breath puffing visibly out of her mouth. “Regardless of what happened with Roystnof and Dantrius. It was a wonderful dinner party.”

“I’m sorry we can’t all get along,” Brisbane said. “It would make things much easier in the spring.”

“Yes,” Stargazer agreed. “It would.”


“Yes, Gil?”

Brisbane was afraid to ask the question. “Do you really believe all magic-users are servants of the Evil One?”

“It is what the scriptures tell us,” Stargazer said without pause. “Magic is the tool of Damaleous to turn people away from Grecolus.”

Brisbane was working up the courage to ask her about her healing skills but, before he could get it out, Stargazer asked him a question.

“Where do you think they get their powers from?”

There was something about the way she had said the word they. Brisbane knew she was not referring to all wizards in general. He knew she was talking specifically about Roystnof and Dantrius.

“As far as Dantrius goes,” Brisbane said, “you may be right. It wouldn’t surprise me for a minute if he was worshipping Damaleous. But Roystnof? No, I can’t believe that about him. I’ve known him since I was twelve and never have I seen any evidence of it. And if he can do magic without worshipping Damaleous, what does that say about where magic really comes from?”

“Careful, Gil,” Stargazer warned. “You’re coming close to blasphemy. I know how you feel about Roystnof; Nog told me about your relationship with him. You think of him as an older brother, or perhaps even as a father figure. This worried me at first, but now I see he is a man of character, regardless of his religious beliefs, and that he had not corrupted you.”

Warning lights were going off in Brisbane’s head. Evidently, Shortwhiskers had not told Stargazer about Brisbane’s short term apprenticeship to Roystnof, and she as yet had not seen the medallion Brisbane wore behind his tunic. If either of these were made known to her, Brisbane had the impression that Stargazer would have nothing more to do with him. As Brisbane did not want that to happen, he decided it was a necessary deception. Besides, neither he nor Roystnof was really worshipping Damaleous anyway, so it wasn’t really a lie. It was just something he wasn’t telling her.

“I did not mean to call the scriptures wrong,” Brisbane said truthfully. “I just have no proof that they are correct.”

“That is why you need faith, Gil.”

They were nearing Stargazer’s cottages. The one she lived in was dark, but the one where she tended to the sick and injured of Queensburg was lighted. Brisbane walked her up to the door of the latter.

Stargazer turned to face him. “There are a few I want to check on before I turn in,” she said, taking both of Brisbane’s hands in hers. “Thank you for walking me back, Gil. Your gentlemanly manners are impeccable.”

Brisbane shrugged. “It seems to come naturally to me. Especially for someone as ladylike as you.” Even while he was saying it, Brisbane couldn’t believe how lame it sounded.

Stargazer stood on her tiptoes and kissed Brisbane on the cheek for the second time that night. “Happy birthday,” she whispered in his ear and for a second her hushed and throaty voice in his ear reminded him of how Angelika’s seductive voice sounded in his head.

Stargazer broke away from him. “Come and see me again. Soon.”

“I will,” Brisbane said.

Stargazer smiled.

She likes me, Brisbane thought. By Grecolus, she really likes me. She’s giving me the benefit of the doubt with Roy because she likes me. She wants me to be good. She doesn’t want to believe I would worship Damaleous.

Stargazer turned and entered the cottage. She gave Brisbane a little wave goodbye before she shut the door.

Brisbane just about ran home.