the beer was fine, the work was sweaty, and the women, oh so pretty.
[on second thought, this chapter of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, has been rewritten]
On second thought, most of you, however few it might be, should not be reading this. It has politics in it and, I’m guessing, if you have matriculated in the public school indoctrination system, not of the sort you’d like. You’ve better things to do than argue politics with a stranger. Worse still, I think, if you actually know me. Likely, the only politics you’re interested in are your own. And in any case, you’ll be told by the authorities that this is only a yarn. A novel, of sorts. An odd sort, granted, but not to be taken seriously. A mere opuscule from a minor life. A narrative of unlikely events, perhaps unfortunate. A clothesline of fabrications strung out to dry. A bildungsroman of miseducation. A catachresis of wrongheaded parrhesia. A faction, or, more likely, just a fiction of bad ideas. But, I say in return, it is at least as accurate what you’ll read in the morning papers, or you’ll hear on the nightly news, and far more true.
For example, do you notice how human flaws often manifest themselves around human virtues? The beautiful woman who fails to develop her mind is a cliche, for a reason. Bright people too often fail to study, relying on their innate capacity to understand and thus fail the rest of their lives, while the greatest athletes are often those born with average physical abilities but an extraordinary desire.
An archetype of this is the Welshman Ernest Rhys. His father and family worked the coal mines of Carmarthen and Newcastle. Though first trained in the ways there, he found his true love in books. Largely self-taught, he went to London and lived out the rest of his life as a great and provocative litterateur amongst the old boys from Oxford and Cambridge. Always poor, his keenest pleasure was in helping other authors, and he was a friend to many of the greatest in his time—W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Edward Thomas, and D.H. Lawrence among them. His own writing was very good, both poetry and prose, though not perhaps of the very best, yet he never showed the sort of literary jealousy you can readily see in our own time in the pages of The New York Review of Books, for instance (or almost any book review for that matter).
It was Rhys persistence that caused Joseph Dent to establish the Everyman’s Library with the aim of publishing 1000 of the greatest books ever written, in a small and affordable format. Simple genius! This one successful effort changed Twentieth Century letters by more than a hundred Ezra Pounds, making the best literature available to everyone who cared, and was copied over again many times with small variation by others, including the Modern Library of Albert Boni and Horace Liveright in America. It certainly sparked my own desire to fill my shop with the best literature that I could find—to establish my republic on existential terms as a physical rampart to my own castle of dreams. Importantly, you can read his self-told story for yourself. Among Rhys best work, Everyman Remembers has been available in many fine bookshops since 1931.
In establishing the Everyman Library, Rhys wrote a short introduction which offered the raison d’etre of the effort. This essay was keenly entitled A Republic of Books, and was, for me, my first encounter with such an idea—another reason for the naming of my bookshop that I neglected to tell the FBI. Let them find it out for themselves.
“The average man, the man who does not read anything but newspapers, thinks of books as the sealed packets of an exotic intelligence, which it will not do him much good to open. He knows nothing of the fine salt-reek in the pages of Hakluyt, or the hearty strain of the ballad-book. . . .“It fell about the Lammas tide / When the moor-men win their hay,” But by this neglect he leaves unused his sixth sense—that which quickens all the others, that which can add rooms to his house and a region to his brain. If over-night he had been in Nantucket with The American Farmer, De Crevecoeur, or walking the Edinburgh Canongate with Sir Walter Scott, he has a fresh vista to his street when he turns out in the morning, . . . In this faith, some six or seven years ago, we set out to build a new republic—a Library-in-Being, that should have in view throughout the play of literature upon life.”
The only mistake I can see there is a matter of the ages—the men (and women) of our time no longer read the newspapers—for good reason perhaps. There is too little worth reading in those pages as they have generally become the Pravda and Izvestia of our time. The ‘average man’ has lazily turned, these days, to the easier consumption of the internet and television; and there only to find a dilute juice of outrage, sensation, or pathos, politically strained of harmful pulp and nutrients, while leaving their deeper knowledge of the greater world to the 140 characters of a thumbed text, or worse, the spew of others with little interest in truth but always great want to be recognized.
Rhys was a ‘socialist’ of an old sort, in the mold of Victor Hugo and Goethe. He had faith in the ‘elective affinities’ of mankind—Max Weber’s dynamic between Protestantism and capitalism as seen through a literary prism of individual value that would level the playing fields for all. I have believed it to be a benign philosophy at root and far far from the horrors of National Socialism and the communism of Soviet purges, even if it does presage all of that horror. At least, in that older socialism, government is not the source of good. That, Rhys believed, could only arise from the hearts of men. And literature was the tool.
Ernest Rhys would not recognize the literature of our time. Even as a tool, it is a cheapened device made of base metal; a shiny appliance of the modern G.E.—that is, of a general education that brings all minds to a common political correctness and acceptable mediocrity as a norm; certainly not the fruit and harvest of free souls that Rhys imagined. Near all of it is now soiled with the scab of cynicism. And given the enervated putz of a tool our literature has become, there will be no progeny. The literature Rhys loved—the novel, the essay, and poetry—those small books on a neglected shelf—are but a shade of those generations past. The modern iterations, their pages cut to fit the pad, or the tablet in procrustean sameness, are filled with complaint without resolution, criticism without consequence, and glee at the misfortune of others.
The greater excitement in words today is found in the headline, the tag line, and the click bait. The malleable photo, well shopped, is now the bleated key to enlightenment. The text is no more than a Strunk & White reductionism of language to what will least confuse the publicly educated masses.
What is a ‘Lammas tide.’ Who are the moor-men?’ if you have to ask you should not use the allusion. Keep it clean. Keep it simple. Remember, you are writing for minds that had been shaped by G.E.
What of Dr. Johnson’s instruction, ‘Be as wise as you can.”
I admit then, that until I read Mr. Rhys essay about his envisioned republic, I had not read Johnson, or Boswell. By that time I was used to escaping from the clutches of the G.E. by reading Dumas, and Stevenson and Twain. And when I first came upon the little book, found in a used bookshop on 49th Street in New York, that contained those thoughts from Ernest Rhys, my world exploded, as from a bomb—an anarchist’s device. The peaceful Fabian, Mr. Rhys, had finally sabotaged my public school education. Perhaps in the nick of time.
Naturally, the newspapers did not contain an account of that detonation. Lives were not lost—they were found. But I am sure I was not the first casualty, nor the last. And I would not have been ready to understand the import of this blast had I not first read, more than once by then, the accounting of his own adventures by one Huckleberry Finn. Nor, perhaps, could I have accepted my new found independence of spirit without the prior examples of a David Balfour or Jim Hawkins. Certainly, I was already a disciple of Mr. Doyle’s elementary wisdom, “when you have eliminated the impossible, what ever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It appeared clearly to me then that what I wanted was not an empire, or a kingdom, any more than a club, or a fraternal order, or a clique. What I wanted was a republic—a commonwealth built upon a solid constitution. And I quickly found the principles to make it work.
Not incidentally, my search for those tenets of conduct led me through the Everyman jungles of Aquinas and Descartes and the deserts of Plato and Kant, as well as the vast somnial plains of Hobbs and Hume, before I found both compatriots and provender in the gardens of Thoreau and Montaigne. Admitting that I was of a simpler mind was the key to all that. If life required too great a study, it could not be lived by the mortal likes of me. I was not a monk. Nor was I ordained to follow. I had been set on the road less travelled by the Everyman Classics, that embodied figment of a coal miner’s son’s imagination.
My own ‘light out for the Territory’ from the authoritarian clutches of Aunt Sally became the lesser exploration of ideas and this naturally required a grasp of the history that made them possible, watered them with the blood of saints and sinners, or, if necessary excavated them like bones from the dust. For several years I could not read fiction but for the greater need to find out what happened next, and why. History can be compelling in that way. I consumed Gibbon one summer while mowing lawns to pay for my addiction. Well, how did all that happen? I found Herodotus and Thucydides, to explain. I went on a jag and read three biographies of Lincoln all in a row, and that after finishing Bruce Catton’s accounting of the Civil War during my last year in high school. (I was barely allowed to graduate for lack of the proscribed credits). And it has continued on like that, through all of my life, though I did soon enough return to fiction, because even the best historians have trouble understanding the human heart.
And it was amidst this revelry of words, that I found myself.
But none of this is news, really. Each of us have our own trajectory. Landing safely, is the thing. But a fear of flying, or at least avoiding the crash, can keep some people on the ground forever. Not a deep thought, just a fact.
Mr. Rhys had spoken of “The average man, the man who does not read anything but newspapers.” Where was he, or she now, in fact, without even those pulpy rags to clutch in the air above their morning cups of coffee. Lost, perhaps, in the wood that was never harvested for the pulp that was never ground for the pages that were never made? Lost entirely to that small fraternity, the self-chosen few, ‘the reading public’ that might have been a customer of mine.
Why? Simply, because the newspapers no longer carried ‘news.’ They have long since taken up the larger mission of converting the heathenry to the correct political persuasion.
When did the papers become such blatant propaganda? I grew up knowing things were slanted one way in the New York Times, and another in the Herald Tribune, but I was still deluded by the ideal that the ultimate intent of either was to find the truth that was there—to report what had happened and not what was wished (though I have read that the press was even more scurrilous in Jefferson’s time and we still live with several of those lies told then, the truth be damned). But I will not be telling you now, here, what is history and what is supposed. As I’ve suggested, that is for you to judge, if you will. All of it is literal, as best I know it, even if cast at last as flotsam upon the littoral margin of that great sea of ignorance I call my own.
To the beaches then! “To fight unto the last spit of sand, and defend the truth of it there, though the tides will clean the slate of our blood by morn.”
And thus I recall. “Far and away, in ancient mundane, there lived a man who was not quite sane.” As both the fabulist Cervantes and the fabulized Munchausen well explained, mere sanity is not the standard in an age of madness. (Of course, I have also seen that psychiatry, like journalism, is often used for nefarious purposes. And I would doubt my own sanity, if it weren’t for the prior doubts of others. If they are wrong about so much, why should they be right about this? That is especially so if I am speaking of Margaret.)
No, the battle is joined on a previously hallowed ground. Too many have knowingly died for me. For me! As if they could see across the centuries!
This then is the argument. Is our freedom given, taken, or made?
I readily agree that the origin of philosophy may be found in religion. But that is only akin to recognizing that the beginnings of science are in alchemy. In any case, there is little comfort to be had in lead poisoning, or warmth to be had in gold. Nor is this to say that religion has been surpassed. No. The gaining and keeping of knowledge through the written word has only just begun—a few thousand years at most, amidst eons—and faith will be needed to survive our mistakes, or good whisky, if nothing else.
Ho! Imagine the mind of man before zero was believed!
Already, our schools are severing that tie between words and meaning that made what little civilization we have possible. Again we have begun to melt down the presses to make bullets as we reduce all literature to the gossamer ephemera of bites and bits, albeit safely stored for our own good, as we are told by authority, in clouds—in clouds, mind you! Why, only the Shadow could cloud men’s minds in such a fashion!
In your time, as it was in mine, I expect we will poison ourselves anew with rage. Convictions will be lost and found. And though faith is born of fear as much as remorse or revelation, we will have some few successes along the way with which to fortify ourselves—that is if we, the lot of us, survive long enough. And if we do, we can always reconsider our reasoning to fit the circumstance, and reckon again from that zero sum that we cannot see, or touch, because, once appreciated by its absence, we know that ought is there, and too, whether or not we can count on it.
In the great movie, North by Northwest, the agents of evil have mistaken Mr. Thornberry for another fellow entirely. The ensuing chase is a wonderful Hitchcockian confection and I have watched it a dozen times with delight. That is including the previous Saturday night, which is generally my reserve evening for such things. But I was convinced now that I was not the wrong man, but rather, the right man for the wrong reason.
I had written a novel once, that was intended as a sort of reverse on Orwell’s 1984. The idea was simple enough. What if there had instead been a more perfect world in that past imperfect year (which still lay ahead of me at the time I wrote the idea down). If Orwell can see the future so clearly, perhaps I could witness the past! Utopias are by definition impossible, if for no other reason than the inherent intention of perfecting the human beings who are the citizenry. Human beings are not perfectible, no matter how they are culled. It is a key flaw in the Catholic theory that we were made in God’s image. Millions of words have been churned by righteous scholars on that account alone. But, made by God or not, we are certainly not his doppelgangers, especially the stinky bits, and no more silkily perfectible than the overused and now threadbare sow’s ear.
Note: this is just one of several commonalities that Catholic theology has with Marxism, and why the two religions have grown so closely in the last hundred years or so. Marxists too believe that man is perfectible, or should be. But all of that is perhaps besides my real point in that novel of thirty years ago. I simply wanted to see what the real opposite of a ‘Big Brother’ society might entail. To think it through and see for myself. That is the fun of writing a novel, you know. I suppose this is something like the pleasure a mathematician gets in working out a theorem. Only, there is very likely more sex involved in what I do.
“Why don’t you write something more positive,” my mother once asked. I responded that at least I was positive what I was saying was true. She didn’t think that was humous. But the question begged a better answer. She was of a generation that survived a Great Depression, and a World War that, as I saw it, had yet to end. She had done this, against all odds, by keeping a positive attitude and avoiding personal depressions. Here I seemed to be wallowing in the very stuff she had managed to avoid.
Once, when we were at a museum, she had criticized some over-lauded piece of modern art—I think she called it childish—I had leapt to confirm the statement and tried to communicate my own mission to her. I thought she would be pleased to hear that I agreed with her good judgement, and that I saw my own writing as an antidote to such gormless and vacuous waste of oil and canvass.
“But someone must like this, or it wouldn’t be here.”
She was an artist herself and wanting very much to understand. I remember those words clearly, more than forty years later.
That was the nut of the matter to me. Someone liked The Great Gatsby, despite its nihilism and vapidity. Why? Because of technique? Mechanics? Was there any character in that short novel you’d love to be friends with? Gatsby himself, perhaps, just for the vigor of his determination. But the rest were simply and determinedly sad ciphers in an artificially sordid world. What made this worse to me was the lack of any reality. The balance of mankind, working for the best they could do, were ignored. It was a Hollywood world with no hint of appreciation for the craftsmanship of the fabric used to clothe it. Someone had liked the clean neat prose of Mr. Fitzgerald enough to ignore what the words actually said. This astonished me. How could that be! Why could it be?
The questions themselves troubled me, for how could it be left to me to ask?
But then it was a child who had once observed, “The Emperor has no clothes.”
The issue to be taken in our daily lives, as mundane as those might be, is simply whether all is well so long as there is sufficient beer, and work enough to pay the bills, and women to please. (And, I suppose, the women might equally want men to pester, though I am often unsure why.) Does it really come down to that? I still don’t believe so.
The dictate of an oligarchy of five Supreme Court justices who think themselves wise enough to overrule the collected wisdom of three hundred million citizens is the sort of hubris common to our age. As is the dictate of a President who can mock the Constitution by executive order, and a Congress that will let him do it repeatedly, in order to gain some special political favor for themselves. The divine right of kings was more benign. It’s just the sort of subjective malice our forefathers attempted to thwart by devising a balance of power between three branches of government. But that device would only work in practice, as they well understood, if there was good will. Being of a Christian frame of mind, they dearly believed in good will. They did not dictate a particular religious viewpoint, but they did assume that it would be drawn from the Western culture they knew. This is obvious by any reading of the words they wrote. Even the atheist Tom Paine saw that!
Rather than the nepotistic rule by oligarchy to which we have degenerated, or the chimerical vagaries of democracy (rule by the mob and the many), or monarchy and its constituent aristocracy, or the much simpler autocracy of dictatorship, or even anarchy (if an absence of government, i.e., zero, can be counted as a system), we were given a representative Republic with our rights entailed by a Constitution! Had—as in past perfect, imperfect as it might have been.
You often hear, if you are interested in such things, a libertarian of some stripe or another make the assumption that free markets will make free minds. A catchy turn of phrase. Well enough, such economics might at times. But too often this proposition is described by using the word ‘capitalism,’ as Max Weber did, or as Ayn Rand did. (Of course, in turn, she abjured the use of the word ‘libertarian,’ even though she appropriated so much of that particular faith.) Now, thirty years beyond the assumption of another sort of capitalism by communist China, and sixty years after the Nazis war machine used a variant of that scheme of things with government command and control to obliterate many millions of lives, and one hundred and fifty years after Karl Marx invented the very word ‘capitalism’ to describe the larger market mechanism of capital accumulation (and thus unleashed, by mere publication, this most horrific nightmare of political philosophy and the consequent holocaust upon mankind), there are still many who think of using that tricky terminology to describe free and open markets. I bring this up not only to touch again on the power of the written word but as a nice example of how words can be used and abused. The accumulation of ‘capital’ is merely a function, as is investment. Banks do it daily, and show little interest in free markets so long as they control their own interest, and ownership itself can be willed by a king, or a city council by eminent domain, and still, the exchange of accumulated wealth between individuals is conducted within the most primitive tribe. Such activities have nothing necessarily to do with any precept of liberty. Markets are not ‘free,’ by definition, else there is nothing to sell. This is not semantics. This is a demand that words be used more carefully. Grammar aside. My little shop around the corner exists ( has existed) in a nation of relatively open markets—comparatively free in the sense that I can still trade, for the most part, with whom I please. In other words, I exist now by a mere linguistical qualification. And too, my blood, sweat, and tears are now shed by permission as much as choice.
All of this matters here, and to me, because I am thought to be a traitor by my government. To what? And in what way? I parley words. They traffic in lives. Am I the traitor, or are they?
And that night, the FBI was not waiting for me at home. I looked for the dark figure within the shadows of a car, or cigarette smoke curling somewhere beneath the gaslights on the street. Nothing.
I could only try to sleep.