Friday, July 10, 2020

Sunrise in the South Pacific

“There it is, sir!” he cried,
and pointed in the very eyeball of the dawn.  
For a while, I could see nothing
but the bluish ruins of the morning bank …
Then the sun rose, pierced a gap
in these débris of vapours,
and displayed an inconsiderable islet,
flat as a plate  upon the sea,
and spiked with palms of disproportioned altitude.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas (1896)

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Independence (new rollout for 2020)

The Fourth of July celebration -- in origin quite earnest, and a time for historico-political speechmaking and some semi-military display -- has gradually softened and loosened, like an old sweater, into a fairly agenda-free holiday for kids:  Family, fireworks, fun, and french fries -- the four Fs of sweet July.  Well I recall, how we as kids  lined up along Ridgewood Avenue, excitedly half-comprehendingly, to watch the parade flow by.

As you grow older, some of it does get old.  Brief bursts of bright blotches against the night sky  no longer move me -- not, at any rate, so much as the least glimpse of God’s own handiwork, like the more permanent pattern-and-colorburst on the leaves of a coleus, or a lady cardinal in the bush.

But in another way, the meaning of this day grows ever deeper, even sombre.  For the success and permanency of the American Revolution was by no means a foregone conclusion -- we were truly in uncharted territory back then.   The more you learn about history, and the more history itself keeps happening, you are forced to conclude:  Most revolutions  go awry.

To begin with our own.   Contrary to the impression we got in school (back in the fifties, when we all sat dutifully at our desks), at the time of the Declaration of Independence, a bare one third of the American population was in favor of rebelling against Britain; a third against; a third undecided.   The perfect setting for an immediate post-revolution civil war.  Yet it did not happen (the Civil War a century later fell along quite different lines).  The only threat came again externally, in 1812 (“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”), when the wrath of the British Empire was again turned against us, and the nation’s capital was set in flames.   The pinwheels and cherry bombs of latter days  commemorate an actual peril.

Nor were the political logistics of the Revolution so simple as that of one entity rebelling against one other:  at the time, we were not yet quite even America, let alone the UnitedStates;  but an assemblage of upwards of a dozen colonies, founded at different times by various creeds and ethnicities (Catholics in Rhode Island, Puritans in Massachusetts, Quakers and various German sects in Pennsylvania, and so forth) many of which had been at odds with one another back in the mother country, which is why some of them came here in the first place.  Yet they fought side by side;  and when victory was won, did not then fall to quarreling over the spoils, nor into strife as to which should be cock of the walk;  but together founded  a unified nation.
By contrast, India was one country at time of independence from Britain -- yet immediately fractured, savagely, along sectional lines.  What had been contemned as the British “yoke”  turns out to have been a garde-fou (et les fous se sont emparés de l’asile).

Remarkably as well, we managed, over the years and (by now) centuries, to maintain (most of us) extremely cordial, even intimate relations with the Mother Country -- an unusual trans-hemispheric affinity, unmatched by the relations of the Latin American countries to Spain and Portugal (let alone Haiti or Algeria to France).

Consider next the French revolution -- “next”, because in fact it was subsequent to our own, having broken out in 1789;  though the way Europeans run on about it, you’d think it was the first revolution in the history of the world.  Anyhow, it remains a proud occasion;  the French version of Independence Day is Bastille Day, celebrated on July 14, with great fanfare.  (For our friendly nod to our old ally, click here:  Merci la France.)

Yet their revolution was -- franchise oblige -- a gorawful bloody cock-up.  Not content with overturning centuries of monarchy, the revolutionaries proceeded to la Terreur, and to a sort of overreaching ideological Gleichschaltung that foreshadowed the Bolshevik excess, and of successive waves of revolutionaries being eaten by their children, in a way that prefigured the Stalin-era trials. And to crown it all, it didn’t even stick:  within a couple of decades, the kings were back.
France did not ultimately found a Republic that stuck, after the imperial and revived-monarchical interludes, until 1871, with the Third Republic (which segued into the Fourth and Fifth, not without strife, but without a relapse into pre-Republican polity).   Nor did this event stem in any direct way from the events of 1789.  As William Shirer tells it, in The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969, chapter “A Freakish Birth): 

It came into being by a fluke.  The National Assembly, elected in 1871 … had not wanted a Republic.  Nearly two thirds of its members were Monarchists.  But they could not agree on a king …

So the lawmakers … sort of backed into the harness of a republic … by a majority of one vote … 353 to 352 -- though there would have been a tie  had one deputy, who was against it, not been late in arriving for the balloting.  Even then it was not clear to many members that they were actually choosing a republic.  The day before, they had rejected it, or thought they had.
By contrast, the Constitution that came out of our revolutionary days  has lasted and guided us down to the present, with comparatively modest and incremental additions.


Since the end of the Second World War, world history has been spotted by rebellions and revolts, mostly anti-colonial, in quest of independence.   And for the most part, the results have not been pretty.
MyanmarZimbabwe.   Algeria. Somalia.  Cambodia.  South AfricaCongo.  The fragment that is Pakistan, and the mini-fragment of Bangladesh.  And now more recently, South Sudan and Azawad.  Names like tombstones along the  the corpse-strewn path of History’s forced-march.
And thus the American declaration of independence, which shone at the time, shines yet more brightly now, against the contrasting dark.  It is as though the metal of which men then were made, deemed sturdy bronze at the time, were revealed, in the fullness of time, with the reckonings in and the dust dispersed, to have been, in actual and astonishing fact, of purest gold.


[Update, 4 July 2020]  The above reflections were written some years ago, re-posted annually by way of commemoration.   But at present, the nation seems more riven than at any juncture of my lifetime  since 1968.  In particular, the valedictory-nostalgic dismissal of fireworks along with french-fries as one of the simple childhood pleasures that one outgrows, has come up against a startling volte-face, as, in the now-lowering national mood, these have taken on implications  no longer celebratory, but menacing.]

Thursday, July 2, 2020


the twilight-loving bats    begin to flit about
-- Washington Irving ,“The Legend of the Enchanted Soldier”, in The Alhambra (1832)

The shadows of the valley
grew deeper and deeper,
until all was dark.
-- Washington Irving ,“The Legend of the Moor’s Legacy”, in The Alhambra (1832)

They sat on the boarding-house porch  and saw the sun plunge  into the same crack in the earth  from which the night emerged.
-- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Le Comité de salut public, then and now

During the French Revolution, it was the Comité de salut public that administered La Terreur, to the happy satisfaction of les tricoteuses.  Chez l’Etat islamique, a similar service is provided by the Hisbah (حسبة).  Chez nous, analogous informal entities have developed spores.
Thus anyone who, within CONUS today, would make so bold as to utter… anything at all, must reckon with reconnaissance by an army of thin-skinned, gimlet-eyed, flinty-spirited Robespierres, tirelesssly scanning all human output both visual and verbal, written or oral, for any hint -- any whiff -- any least scintilla  of aught that might possibly be construed (if you twiddle your tunings of reception just so, and set your head at an angle) as distaff-distancing, or melanistically invidious, non-recevable par la pensée unique.

And what of our past?  This American sketch from the last century but one  provides an example, with an apparent Erstbeleg to boot:

As we swept from the shore, I cast back a wistful eye upon the moss-grow roofs and ancient elms of the village, and prayed that the inhabitants might long retain their happy ignorance, their absence of all enterprise and improvement, their respect for the fiddle, and their contempt for the almighty dollar.
-- Washington Irving, “A Sketch from a Steamboat” (1837)

The now-banal epithet “almighty dollar” has passed into cliché, and would in no quarter raise an objection or an eyebrow.  But the unsuspecting author (and wordsmith) was apparently reviled, by the speech-police of his day;  and when the piece was later collected, he defended himself in a footnote:

This phrase, used for the first time in this sketch, has since passed into current circulation, and by some has been questioned for savoring of irreverence.   The author, therefore, owes it to his orthodoxy  to declare that no irreverence was intended, even to the dollar iself, which he is aware is daily becoming more and more an object of worship. -- W.I.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Dakota Winter

Ever restlessly moving West, the young Wisconsin native  winds up in as-yet-untamed  Dakota:

Level as a floor,  these acres were,
and dotted with the  bones  of bison.
-- Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), p. 244

Sufficiently disheartening.  Yet how much moreso, as the season grew bitter, and those bleached bones  proved the only bulwark against death by freezing:

Winter!  No man knows what winter means 
until he has lived through one  in a pine-board shanty
on a Dakota plain 
with only buffalo-bones  for fuel.
-- Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), p. 248

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Dakota Summer

Apprehension on the prairie,
amid frightening light:

An ominous change had crept over the plain.
The winds were hot and dry,
and the grass, baked on the stem,
 had become as inflammable as hay.

The birds
were  silent .

The sky, absolutely cloudless,
began to scare us with its light.
The sun rose through the dusty air,
sinister  with flare  of horizontal heat.

-- Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), p. 247

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Personal Penguins

Upon suffering some tummy-trouble:

“It must have been that caviar,” he was thinking.  “That beastly caviar.”  He violently hated caviar.  Every sturgeon in the Black Sea  was his personal enemy.
-- Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (1928), p.  67

There is something reverent and respectful about have a personal relationship with each individual sturgeon, albeit one of enmity.   In the case of penguins, such a distributed relationship exists -- but in this case, one of amity.

And it was in that spirit that Doctor Justice set forth upon his visionary project of individually naming each and every penguin.  The project was a success, and is now famed throughout the civilized universe.   You can read about it here:

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Inner Life of Turtles (and the sagacity of owls)

“By nature  a tortoise may be no stupider than a bird.  But you must admit that its way of living doesn’t exactly encourage intelligence.”
-- Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (1928), p.  102

That it does not; but, contemplation.

For a meditation upon the contemplative nature of our shelly friends, try this:

And, for those of us who just can’t get enough of these fellows, these:



The owl has met a variety of folkloristic fortunes around the world, being seen  here as a sage, there as a fool.  Being partial ourselves to the former image, we were delighted to stumble upon this passage

The prince was overjoyed to find the owl so deeply versed in topography, and now informed him, in confidence, of his tender passion  and his intended elopement, urging him to be his companion and counselor.
“Go to!”said the owl, with a look of displeasure.  “Am I a bird to engage in a love-affair? -- I, whose time is devoted to meditation and the moon?”
-- Washington Irving, “The Legend of Prince Ahmed Al Kamel”, in The Alhambra (1832)

But all turns out well, as the fowl allows himself to be persuaded.  After the adventure, the prince appoints the owl his privy-counselor -- “It is needless to say that never was a realm more sagely administered.”