The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.4 (Fall 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Pomeroy’s Reign in the Days of Vast Decline
It was the stupidest thing the Higher Powers had ever done. Not the stupidest they would ever do, for they had long evinced an ability to defy tame belief and surpass their previous record-setting descent into the moronic. For now, however, it was the mark to beat. The reasoning behind it (for there was always reasoning: a syllogism in their hands was like the Black Box in a toddler’s toy basket) ran thus. Students never stay for classes on Thanksgiving week; the week could not be entirely canceled without squeezing the schedule somewhere else; students love to party; the restored Revolutionary Era village near the campus was brimming with educational possibilities; therefore, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, his noon class would adjourn (he was informed) to Winfield’s Tavern, where (he was informed) he could deliver his planned lesson with a few minor adjustments (he was assured) during a hearty luncheon.
Pomeroy didn’t even feel his heart sink. This was beyond a mere sinking, where one casts about for a lifeboat and finally for a floating chair. This was more like having the keel of the ship suddenly split in two beneath one’s feet, thanks to some dazzling feat of engineering incompetence, and getting to behold the flora and fauna of the deep blue sea for an instant before cold suffocation in the brine. It had something of the awe-inspiring. It was the Grand Canyon of stupidity.
With two weeks’ notice, furthermore (what genius!), he hadn’t really time to consider options after the initial paralysis wore off. His pedagogical creativity remained as spellbound as ever on Sunday evening, admiring an Everest whose sheer ascent dissuaded a single presumptuous upward step. He had budgeted into his syllabus last summer a period to discuss the contents of a major essay the students were to write over their break. Somehow this discussion must now be conducted above a clatter of knives and forks catching the blaze of a great walk-in fireplace and the bustle of lads and lasses with buckles on their shoes and garters at their elbows. And, of course, with the excitement of a long-awaited holiday dead ahead—a holiday that the setting would signal to have begun already… drawing and holding attention would be as easy as melting iPads into Minié balls. Would he wheel in a Document Camera dressed as Francis Marion? Under what section of the University Gun-Free Policy would he be terminated and prosecuted if he fired off a round of wadding from a 44-caliber dueling pistol?
The setting was the more preposterous in that his course matter was a) world literature, not American history, and b) confined to works no later than the Renaissance, which would rank even the latest of them ahead of the Mayflower chronologically. All of this because his class just happened to fall during the lunch hour… at least he wasn’t Sanderson, who was faced with having to teach Statistics in the Tavern’s other wing, or Sensenbrenner, who (rumor had it) had been informed that he would teach Adolescent Psych in the Village Blacksmith Shop during the next hour.
The panoramic, breathtaking stupidity of it all was… awesome. He went to bed Sunday night without an inkling of a strategy, and slept like a baby.
His ten o’clock went well, considering that only eighteen out of forty-two students showed up. There was no doubting that attendance in traditional classroom settings fell through the floor. If he had scheduled an exam, like Blanchard, he might have bullied a few more into showing up… but then would come the indignant quasi-religious protests about the holiday and the off-the-cuff sob-stories about Brother Bill being home from Iraq for a few days, and… and he would just have had to schedule a re-test. Why bother? Resistance was futile.
Then he duly observed his office hour, which offered a time of quiet mediation even more monkish than usual. He noticed that Cindy wasn’t pecking away in the adjoining office. How were they supposed to convince students to stick around when half the teachers had already skipped out?
At eleven-fifty, he still had no bright ideas. Time to lock up and stroll across the mall to Winfield’s Tavern.
Adjustment Number One: adapt to room filled to capacity. He would never have guessed that a mere lunch—even a free one (i.e., cost hidden in Student Activity Fee) at a gourmet tourist spot—would have kept the whole class, more or less, from leaving last Friday. No one immediately noticed him in the dim light of low, rough-hewn crossbeams and the flickering oil lamps and candles (the walk-in fireplace being little more than embers). The day was overcast, as well, and little daylight penetrated the lace curtains. Yet so much polished bronze and pewter lay about the room, and the servers’ cuffs and collars were starched so white, that a certain festive aura indeed illumined the space. This no doubt fed the spirited tempo of a dozen conversations—which, in turn, adapted the brightly flickering impression to a second sense. A mere step through the door left one feeling that one was “hail fellow, well met” even without being recognized.
Pomeroy deposited his briefcase (wondering now why he had brought it) within a clutter of nylon-and-Velcro backpacks piled like beaver skins beneath a massive cast-iron hat-rack. The dark, unfinished timbers of the wall still exhaled a piney odor after all these years of funneling tourists (a third sense won to fa-la-la festivity). Tufts of imperfectly planed wood here and there made him think of a buffalo’s hump, for some reason. It was a nice ambiance.
Would the world end, really, if he just elbowed his way into a seat and ate lunch? The taste would surely be All Hallows hearty, too: Winfield’s Tavern had top-notch reviews.
For the occasion, the various tables had been set end-to-end so as to create one long surface, covered by a single cloth, apparently (implausibly… but he couldn’t find a seam) woven in red and white.
“Hi, Professor Pomeroy! Sit here, sit here!”
“Yo! Professor!” Lucas the Ballplayer—what a voice! He had heard its trail of conversation before opening the door.
“Hail, noble Roman!”
As Pomeroy lifted his right hand, he realized that he had not relinquished his umbrella; and he realized, too, that he had clung to it subconsciously as a sort of prop for whatever oratory he was going to deliver. For, yes, the world would end if he just sat down and ate like one of the kids. How would they write their paper? They would not. It would have to be postponed, with no time left for a postponement… and so it would have to be skipped, and the class would become a mockery as a core course, with no assignment that forced its students into thinking for themselves. And a little part of the world—one more little part in a long, long sequence—would end. One more stone carried off from the Parthenon, as he would tell students often in a proverb of his own making…
As he strolled deeper into the room, followed by a ripple of “hello’s” that he found strangely poignant (perhaps because, after all, these rough ignoramuses were “good kids”, and he couldn’t help loving them), Pomeroy confronted Adjustment Number Two.
There were actually two rooms in this wing (he hadn’t set foot in the place for years—not on his salary), and half of his class was seated at another long table in the second room. The door frame separating the two spaces was almost flush with walls and ceiling, an expanse of such width that it must surely never have borne actual doors; but he worried about its psychological effect. Speaking in one room—in either one—would leave the occupants of the other feeling free to continue their own chatter. It was tough enough getting them all to shut up in a rigidly squared classroom.
Sheer genius, this. The Titanic of dumb ideas.
He dodged a serving girl’s rustling skirts. She smiled prettily, her hair gathered back in a scarf. God, had girls really been that much prettier when they wore clothes up to the neck?
“What does that say? It’s not Spanish. Is it Latin?”
The Three Nursing Musketeers on the other side of the table, their plates among the last to remain empty, had commendably occupied themselves by examining artifacts on the walls. Directly behind them was the oil portrait of a soldier, his hands resting on the gilded pommel of a sword, his eyes gazing hawkishly into the distance under a blond wave of hair pulled back into a tail. The fingers were miserably executed, as if the painter had invested all his talent and labor in the face. It was probably an original—possibly a couple of hundred years old.
Pomeroy eased his way through the space (not a small space, but reduced by the end-chairs) between the two tables honoring, as it were, of the transom above them, bowed under a mounted stag’s head, and bent toward a scrawled, badly yellowed card attached to the portrait. The proximity of three such young faces next to his was mildly disconcerting, but he concentrated. (One of them was wearing too much perfume.)
“Is his name Die-chay? My father has a friend named Daiches.”
“Ah… no. Dáiche is short for dá fiche… because the rest is in Gaelic. Oh, how cool! This little card is all in Gaelic, and it’s bound to be virtually as old as the painting itself. Although I wouldn’t have thought a Scot would spell Gaelic that way two hundred years ago… a bit of a mystery there. Maybe I’m not seeing it clearly. The scrawl is so tiny in this light… amazing what fine lines a quill can draw, and my eyes are not getting any sharper. I’m sure no ballpoint pen did that. But I can make it out now. Dáiche bliana in aois… ‘He was forty years old when he came to this land… with his wife and children… aon nighean amháin agus trí mhic leis—‘one daughter and three sons’.”
“It says 1748, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it sure does. That would probably be after the battle of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie, you know, was such a disappointment to his faithful. I mean, obviously after it, if the date’s right… but also quite probably in consequence of it. The man and his family were refugees.”
Pomeroy was aware that the “nurses’ table”, at least, had fallen a little quieter behind him even before he straightened up. At the other table, Lucas was still pranking huskily away.
“The Celts counted by twenties, you know. Twenties and hundreds. They kind of took their bearings every time they reached a multiple of twenty or one hundred. One twenty, two twenties… does anyone here happen to know a little French? Do they not teach French any more in high schools? Really… no one? Renée… no? Well, I suppose that doesn’t surprise me. The French have dealt themselves out of the West’s cultural discussion pretty fast.”
“There’s always Canada, Doc. Eh?”
Pomeroy tried not to laugh. Lucas’s buddy Pierce could actually be funny.
“So none of you knows how to say ‘eighty’ in French? Quatre-vingt: ‘four twenties’… eh? The other multiples have followed suit with Spanish and Italian, imitating Latin. Quarante, soixante… but “eighty’ for some reason resonates with the old Celtic method, from the days when the French were Gauls rather than Franks. That one word is like an ancient fossil, a trilobite, that you find in the mortared gravel of some nice new building’s stucco. There it sits, incredibly old, and no one notices it, and no one would make anything special of it if he did notice it.”
“Why do Canadians say ‘eh’ all the time?”
“What’s a trilobite?”
“An ancient fossil. He just said.”
“A trilobite, hon, is a shelled critter that crawled around the oceans in the days of plesiosaurs. Or actually well before then. A plesiosaur? A really wicked-looking dinosaur that swims… long, long neck and long, long teeth. It had a very inclusive menu.”
“That’s kind of sad,” mulled Leandra, the brightest of the nurses.
“If you were on the menu, it was!” bubbled Lucas.
“No. I mean…” Leandra sighed and turned away from the rude hunk of manhood at the other table’s end—an action made easier by the waitress’s arrival with her food. “I mean it’s sad to think about million-year-old fossils in something that you walk on every day. And nobody knows.”
“Well, I suppose it is sad, in a way. But those are the terms of human life—of all life, really. Everything is built out of pieces new and old, mixed indistinguishably, and all we see is the present product. It’s not so sad when you realize that … when you realize how very little of the whole we can ever possibly take in. It’s the sort of thing that makes me kind of smile, anyway. Oh, it’s not a superior smile—not like, ‘All those dopes have no idea there’s a trilobite in the south corner of the new Writing Center.’ Because if you really get it, you know that you, too, are missing things beyond number and measure. Because there’s no way you couldn’t. A human being just can’t take it all in. Like this painting. I said that the spelling was a little off. Did someone fake that card to increase the portrait’s value? Or maybe not… but this man, James… MacNiece. Was he a refugee from Culloden? Or did he have a brother already settled in the Carolinas? How can we ever really know what goes on inside any human being, let alone this guy from long ago? Every one of us has a trilobite buried inside.”
“Slade’s has evolved into a slug.”
“The ways of the soul are an abyss, says Heraclitus. But… so we can at least have a little humility when we uncork our theories about things. That’s the pinnacle of wisdom—the height, the summit: to know that… not exactly that you know nothing, as Socrates said a bit rhetorically, but to know that you can never know everything.”
He was losing them. The background chatter, which had magically died down, was picking up again. Pomeroy bailed out from behind the nurses, the protruding door frame, and the stag’s head, and for some reason started pacing a squashed figure-eight that would carry him continually from room to room (with frequent close passes behind Lucas). He hadn’t planned the maneuver in any sense—it recommended itself subliminally as the best way to keep them all together, as a good sheep dog would know instinctively how to haze a flock. He allowed (for the same unreasoned reason) his steps to drag a little over the smooth but undulant flagstones, announcing his presence even as his words ebbed. That, too—the fifth sense, the very feel of the cool stones under his soles—had the mystery of a joyous rite.
“Who was this prince called Bonnie, Mister Pomeroy? Was he gay, or something?”
“Bonnie, young Einstein… from the French bon, Latin bonus. That’s right—Spanish is bueno. The Stuarts, Britain’s exiled Catholic royalty, set up shop in France, and a certain amount of French found its way into the Lowland Scots dialect of English. Anyway, Bonnie Prince Charlie was… just another man… another man who thought himself extraordinary because he had been brought up to believe so. You’re all said to have high self-esteem, in your generation. They didn’t teach you anything in high school, but they did make sure that you had plenty of self-esteem. Well, just imagine that you’d been brought up to believe that you should be king—that God in heaven meant for you to be king. Lucas would be even worse than he is now. Prince Charlie, you know… he was probably no better or worse than any other man would have been in those circumstances. But he was no warrior, and no leader of men. A man, probably, like Nicholas II of Russia—the poor sod who was butchered, along with his wife and six children, by Lenin’s thugs, as if that would somehow make the world a better place. Six children gunned down in cold blood, for the glory of the Revolution.”
Pomeroy had reached the end of the outer table, the one farthest from the kitchen and the coming and going of servants. Yet he didn’t hear any chatter at his back now. A six-foot musket was slung from the piney wall with its powder horn just in front of him. He ran his umbrella along its brown-gray, ice-smooth bore.
“People are always looking, looking, looking for their leader. You know—the Leader. The chosen one who will transform their lives. Prince Charlie, Charlie Manson… Hitler and Mussolini… Lenin and Mao… Gandhi and the James Jones… you’ve heard of most of them, right? Well… some of them, or others. You know what I mean.”
He had resumed pacing back through the entry room. The piled backpacks just escaped the sweep of his umbrella.
“They can be really good or really bad leaders, but… why do we need so much to be led? Why do we always say we need a great leader for president? Can’t we lead ourselves? Why do we need someone to tell us what to do? Is that why the founders of this place—this village’s original—left their plowing to go snipe at redcoats?”
End of the inner room. Kitchen clatter in the distance. He reined himself in a bit as he finished his curve.
“We want so much for tomorrow to be different from yesterday, though. Well, maybe you don’t—not at your age. You want every day to be like today. But imagine that you have no parents to help you get by—and you won’t, pretty soon. You may have to help your parents get by, in about ten years—and then you’ll have your own families, as well. And someone promises you a way out of the hole you’re in—the grind, the drudgery, the routine, the same-old-same-old. Just vote for me, he says, and all your miseries will be gone, or at least reduced steadily on their way to total disappearance. Maybe that’s an even better rhetorical strategy, the gradual reduction. Because misery will never leave us alone, and most of us aren’t stupid enough to think otherwise; but the gradual reduction… maybe it can convince us that misery is slowly leaving us more alone. We’re such children. I treat you as children sometimes, but I’m one, too—and so are people my age and older. Childish. Remember your Tacitus? ‘Everything in the shadows has a special promise.’ It’s always Christmas at election time, isn’t it? You always think the unopened package just might contain something unbelievably nice, nicer than you ever knew how to want. They pull that trick on us every time. Yeah, and my older brother always falls for it, too.”
Pomeroy gave a poke at the magnificent walk-in fireplace’s embers. He was riding the wave now. How far it might carry him or where it might land him, he had no idea and no concern. The silence behind him was perfect. He even indulged himself by tossing a new log onto the fire (a gesture he well knew, if only in the embers of the subconscious, was theatrical).
“You could call that sad… always chasing the rainbow. Let’s see… who was the philosopher who stumbled and broke his neck as he was gaping up at the stars one night? Didn’t I tell you about that—wasn’t it Thales? Ah, you guys don’t remember this stuff. But anyway, that seems to be happiness in the twenty-first century: always reaching for the stars, and half-believing that we’ll make it next time. Always waiting to be happy, and always looking for the charismatic figure who will make us happy since we can’t seem to manage it on our own.”
He turned back to the group—both rooms—aggressively, as if he had been smacked in the back of the head. (A serving girl cowered almost to her knees and whispered a pewter pitcher into place.)
“Do you believe that? Really? Pierce, do you believe that you’ll magically find another ten miles an hour on your fastball, or that some guru with a twelve-step program for a thousand dollars can get you there? Or that a daily injection will do the trick? Or wouldn’t it be smarter just to drop your arm angle and learn to throw sidearm? Are you more likely to be happy because someone or something lifts you to the top, or because you think out your situation, recognize your limitations, and figure out a solution? If you have a patient with an undiagnosed ailment, Nurse Raney, would you just shoot him full of the new miracle drug, or would you stabilize him and find out the history of what he’s eaten and where he’s been?”
(An inner voice started nagging him: “Okay, leave that. Get back on track—it’s now or never.”)
“This… in a way… you see, it’s our great weakness as literate people. We’ve learned to master our environment. We analyze and create. Science… we practice science. And scientific solutions are artificial: they supplement nature by understanding nature, and then doing more than nature intended to do. So we’ve become accustomed to the idea of artifice. We invent stuff that didn’t exist before—that’s how we reach happiness. A man can’t fly! For all of human history until about a century ago, people would say, ‘That’ll happen when people fly!’ But now people fly every day—everyone does. Some of you will this afternoon. Anything’s possible for us… we think.
“For traditional cultures, that’s not the direction of happiness. You know from the mythology we read back in September that traditional peoples look backward, to the age of the heroes. For them, there are no more heroes to come. The best is already behind. And sometimes I think maybe their cultures were happier than ours—because just keeping to the same old program was happiness for them. They didn’t have to change the sun’s course or invent heart transplant surgery. They accepted what came their way—they were really good about accepting things, although we tend to sneer at them for that. I do myself, sometimes. They seem so dull! But they knew that Thales should have been watching his step. They told and re-told that legend, in fact, because it made them laugh. Everyone knows that you can’t reach the stars—and if you keep trying, you’ll end up in a ditch! Cute.
“It wasn’t a bad happiness… can I have one of those rolls? If it worked, and if you could get back to where you were yesterday, it wasn’t a bad happiness at all. If you could stay just like this, just as you are now—in college, friends around you, people who care about you—wouldn’t that end up being a pretty happy life? Kind of an eternal childhood… and that’s what traditional life was, at its best. Life before the Fall… before Knowledge. But even in those cultures, things just won’t stay the same forever. The clans that rose for Bonnie Charlie, the young chevalier…they didn’t think they needed for him to do anything but show up. The claymores would swoooosh, a few heads would roll…” [he rolled his r’s in the bonnie Scots manner: more theatrics]… “ach! a gran’ dee wi’ muckle slauch’ter an’ glay mony a hero! They’d go home at the end of the day, carrying a few dead, a few of them missing a finger, and they’d have such fine stories to tell their grandkids one day! They weren’t fighting a revolution. They weren’t looking for anything more out of resistance than a return to yesterday—that and a chance to prove their manhood today. Too bad about the artillery… that hadn’t ever been part of the program before. A bunch of ferocious, long-haired men in kilts waving broadswords and rushing into a spray of cannon fire… that wasn’t what they’d reckoned on. Traditions have a way of throwing themselves into the saw’s blade because they can’t figure out in time just what a buzz-saw is. Yeah… not much happiness there.”
He had reached Lena, the first girl to greet him when he’d entered. Her huge brown eyes followed his every step, neglecting the plate beneath them. He bent slightly into them.
“So off to the New World!”
It was a line intended to signal a breather, and he had expected some tittering and jabbering to fill in as his spiritual sails sagged, waiting for a new gust. But nobody offered a syllable. He chewed his roll to cover the doldrums.
“Would you pour me some of that ale, please?”
“Actually, it’s tea.”
“Well, we’ll pretend it’s ale. In this light, it could be anything.”
“Could we order some…”
“Easy, lads, easy. You might not be suspended for long, but I’d be fired for sure.”
Buzz-saws. A weak transition… but he’d try it.
“Speaking of buzz-saws… there were plenty of sawmills in this area. You’ve heard of throwing the caber? No? Well, of course not… but I thought that some of you who are from this area might have. Haven’t you ever attended any Highland games? Yeah, it’s the log—it’s the fine art of log-throwing. Probably a skill imported from the Old Country, ironically, because the Highlanders became pretty adept at deforesting their own land for the English. Remember what we called ‘homeostasis’ when we read Homer, where a new practice melds right into the old traditions, as if it had always been there? The English needed wood, wood, wood to build their fleet after they became a major sea power. Before they started devouring their forests, Northern England and Scotland would have looked like parts of Oregon and Washington state. Thick primal forests… the kind of setting where Celtic warriors would have come pouring out as Tacitus describes them, or as Caesar represents them in northern France. Really frightening. The soul of the woods, huge and terrifying and always lurking behind those thick tree trunks. What is it? Well, you might be right—you might well be right: certainly part of the motive for deforestation might have been to deprive the clans of their most successful tactics.”
“Like killing the buffalo?”
“Yes, kind of like killing off the buffalo to wipe out the plains Indians. Or defoliating the jungle to neutralize the guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong… ask your dad. Okay, ask your granddad. Yeah, I’d never thought of it that way… but I’m sure some of the longer heads in eighteenth-century England might have seen deforestation as a brilliant tactical move in a chess match with the northern rebels. I should really look into that.”
Enough eating and drinking. Don’t let them get away.
“But the people who originally built places like this tavern… oh, they would have remembered Culloden and even told stories about it. But they weren’t thinking any more about reviving the clan system and dedicating their lives to the service of a chieftain. What’s that? No, no… this place is definitely restored! Even the furniture… I don’t think they’d leave two-hundred-plus-year-old chairs and stools out for the likes of us to squirm around in! But sure, it’s hand-made. They still hand-make a lot of stuff around here. A trip to some kind of craft fair probably would have been an altogether better plan than this lunch, if you want my inexpert and unauthoritative opinion.”
Don’t gripe. Drop it.
“What is it? Well, that’s a good example of what I mean by how complicated things get. It’s the trilobite in the Writing Center. The Scots immigrants certainly didn’t work actively to dismantle their clan ties. They crossed the Atlantic, like so many immigrants of their day, to preserve as much of the past as they could. They wanted to be free to live as they had lived before. But the lifeblood of the clan system, you might say, was occupying relatively close quarters with other clans all around.”
He spoke very quickly now. This was another good wave, but he had to climb up and hold on or it would get away.
“Your enemies play a major part in defining you, in a traditional culture. You desperately need them! Clan Ranald was not Clan Niall. You married within your group, enforced your group’s boundaries, avenged killings of people in your group, raided cattle from people not in your group… it was like a bunch of atoms of gas bouncing off of each other. If you cool them down and remove the friction, the gas loses its familiar properties. And the New World was a great cooling-off tank for Old World customs.”
But the colonists expanded in this cooling tank… would someone notice the breakdown of the “gas” analogy? No—not if he just pressed on.
“There were no real boundaries, practically none—not like what people had known back in Europe. And as people fanned out along the frontier, they had to become more self-reliant; and as they became more self-reliant, they became more innovative. And as you become more innovative, you inevitably become less wedded to tradition, even though you don’t see it happening. You still have your customary dress and food and religion… but even dress and food probably have to change in response to locally available resources, and religion… well, the way a self-reliant man sees God isn’t the same as how people do who think of themselves only as extensions of the community, like the digit of one finger related to a whole body. When you… when someone close to you dies, for instance, and you have no extended family around… then you make your peace with God in a very different way than if there’s a big funeral with dozens of cousins in attendance. You guys wouldn’t know that, maybe, but… just imagine yourselves on the frontier, where deaths were fairly common. A lot of infant mortality, a lot of women dying in childbirth… and your nearest neighbor is five miles downriver. How do you absorb that? There’s no big church nearby, no stream of friends and neighbors bringing plates of food for the next month. The God of the Old Country… the way you see him changes… slowly, or not so slowly. And not entirely—but even what stays the same doesn’t stay quite the same.”
“And there were no aborigines in the Old Country,” said Landon, the class polysyllabist, after knocking over a candle in his bid for more spoonbread. “And no slaves, either. Everyone you saw there was just like you. Now, in the New World, the Christian belief in brotherhood was… as you might say, out the window.”
“Mm… fair enough. Though I wouldn’t make colonization out to be a heart-of-darkness experience. Toqueville says that the Indians—or the Native Americans, if you prefer” [leave “aborigines” alone: Lucas was still sniggering over it] “—he says the Europeans really didn’t hunt them down like savage animals. There were bound to have been skirmishes, sure, just as the clans fought with each other back in the Old Country. And because the native tribes were also ultra-traditional, they would also have seen a certain amount of spirited confrontation as an ennobling thing, a way of proving their manhood. But I think to say that there was this great Nazi-like program of racial extermination ongoing—that wasn’t Landon’s charge, I know, but many have made it, and some of them are your professors—I think that’s entirely uncalled for in most cases. At least before the Civil War. The worst episodes of that kind of thing occurred during the big push westward across the Mississippi. But Toqueville says that the native tribes often went into retreat just because the wildlife they hunted would mysteriously start to flee westward miles and miles in advance of European settlements. He says the bells around cattle would drive the buffalo herds away permanently. And he also says—this was his second factor, maybe a little more deliberate than the other but not by much—he says that the natives would get hooked on European luxuries, like iron and fine clothing and firearms and, of course, firewater. You know… alcohol. Booze. Oh, yes—I need to remember that your generation didn’t grow up watching westerns. But the Indians, anyway, suddenly needed to have things that they’d never needed before. And so they started to over-hunt. They had nothing to bring to the white man in exchange for all this loot except for furs, and so they depleted their own woods and rivers.”
“That’s just like the Highlanders cutting down their own forests.”
“Well… yes, I agree with you, though we haven’t really established that that particular conspiracy ever happened. We’re just theorizing about that one. And here, too, I’d be reluctant to say that a bunch of county legislators or militiamen ever sat in a tavern like this one and said, ‘Let’s have them hunt their own food to extinction!’ Oh, I know, there were the infamous blankets infected with smallpox during Pontiac’s Rebellion—really appalling, brutal stuff. And so was the native way of slaughtering the invaders… and the smallpox, in any case, was probably already among them through contact with Europeans. The truth behind atrocities of other times gets so very muddled. But I would say that the greatest driving forces behind the extermination of the Indian were… were tragic forces. Things not really planned by anyone. Things too big for any one person to see coming, to grasp fully. The great tragedy of being the wrong sort of culture in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The eerie politeness continued, but there was now more scraping of plates, almost in echo of his own rather pedantic wrap-up. He was about to surprise them… and maybe himself.
“What can we really do about such things? Because all of us belong to one side or another in any clash of cultures. Even the person who proudly tells himself he’s a multiculturalist is spouting a nonsensical kind of idea that would only occur to somebody in an advanced literate culture, where the appeal of picking one’s own culture apart and charging it with high crimes becomes very appealing, for some reason. It doesn’t solve anything, though, does it? What would a good little multiculturalist have done to preserve the native tribes? Put him in a time-machine, send him back to old Virginia, and make him Royal Governor. Okay… so what does he do now? Could he have called back the fleeing deer and the bears? Would he have just told his fellow Europeans to pack all their wicked gear back into their ships and go back where they came from? But other ships would be bound to come later. Would he create some kind of eighteenth-century United Nations—after becoming the King’s special minister—that would police the Atlantic coast to keep any adventurous ship from making landfall? Why? Who would pay for such an incredibly expensive project? People don’t do things that gravitate against their self-interest in a disastrous way—and, believe me, this would be a disaster economically. How many thousands of peasants back home would have to starve in order to keep this UN policing flotilla afloat whose objective was to ensure that nobody would derive any advantage from the New World’s resources? Don’t you see that the nation with the most ships in that fleet would be sure to overrun the new continent, sooner or later?”
His umbrella lifted into thin air spontaneously like a rapier, adroitly missing the nose of the mounted buck’s head.
“The rest is fairy tales—sheer fairy tales! You can’t make the human world any better by pretending that people aren’t human—that they’re super-sweet angels or puppets on some PBS kids’ show. You have to take us as we are, and then try to appeal to our better side. But… but this other approach is crazy talk. It ends up getting far more people killed. Good intentions can hold back bad inclinations just long enough to create a tsunami when the dam finally cracks. It’s like… like creating the gun-free zone on campus. Good intentions—the very best. And then a lunatic storms in one day with a pair of Glocks, and we’re all fish in a barrel while somebody’s trying to reach Security on a cell phone.”
“Yuh!” cheered Lucas. It wasn’t the sort of confirmation or enthusiasm that he particularly wanted.
“Look, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think. I’m not preaching or talking politics—and I’m certainly not trying to rain on anybody’s parade, right before the holidays. Don’t take this as depressing. No. I’m an optimist, on the whole… or I consider myself an optimist. Maybe I’m not by someone else’s definition… but that’s the whole point. Why would you say that it’s not cold outside just because we’re not living in Antarctica? It’s chilly for where we are, and we speak in reference to where we are. So when one talks about human progress, one has to do so with reference to human nature. Why would you talk about progress with reference to angels? We’re not angels. Is that pessimism? Is it? To say that we’re not angels? Or is it lunacy for someone to say that we are… or sheer stupidity?”
He paused between the two tables, the two rooms—at the heart of his figure-eight.
“You’re not children any more, so I’m not going to tell you a bedtime story. I’ll just put it this way. People must have freedom in order to progress. You can’t make them progress by taking away their freedom and herding them around with thousands of police. Unless they can regress and digress, they cannot possibly progress. They must learn on their own, or at least for themselves as they learn through and with others. And a certain amount of regression and digression is inevitable in that process. They will make mistakes. It’s a tragedy that so many native peoples died out when Europeans arrived in the New World. And it’s a moral outrage that the institution of slavery evolved in parts of the New World. And it did evolve… from white indenture to black slavery. But slavery was outlawed because we finally took its true measure—something the Greeks and Romans never did. And Americans finally outlawed it in spite of a lot of external forces making a fat profit off of it and egging them on to sustain it. Arab slavers rounded up African slaves, and English and French slave ships smuggled them over right under the noses of their own cruisers. We worked our way through that… but not because some superman told us how to do it. No… no, I’m sorry, I don’t agree—Abe Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, and he wasn’t superman.”
Do NOT digress on Abe Lincoln. Get it done.
“Where would the superman come from, anyway? Why would he know better than the rest of us? Would he be the son of God—is that what you believe? Do you believe that God will send down a higher being to be our president and tell us what to do? But most of the people who feed you these fairy tales don’t even believe in a god… so where does the superman come from? Isn’t he just one of us? And if he makes us do things that we wouldn’t have done without him, won’t we just backslide into our former ways when he follows the same old mortal path to the grave? Or if his police beat us until we can’t imagine doing things any other way, then won’t we just be robots—and how, then, can that be called human progress? If we are, in fact, replaced by well-programmed robots, will human progress then have become a path that completely annihilates our humanity? Does that make any sense to you? Does that make any sense to anybody in… in either one of these rooms?”
Silence, of course. He grabbed the back of Leandra’s chair, right under James MacNiece’s brave scowl.
“The people who made this chair, or something like it… who pioneered the techniques used to make this chair… they wanted to be free. And they screwed up, because they were free. How much are you going to hate them for that? Or how much do you respect yourself for never lifting a finger because you’re afraid you might upset a cobweb? You can’t be perfectly good, and you can’t even be better by being nothing at all.”
It was then that Pomeroy became aware of the tavern lad, standing discreetly beyond the far table (under the musket) and tapping his starched left cuff as if it concealed a wristwatch.
“I… this is too much. It’s just too much. Why did they ever do this to me? I hope the food was good. I haven’t even had a chance to taste it.”
“You had a roll…”
“Oh, yes! I had a roll, and it was good, as I recall. And the ale was really good. Now… listen now. This is your assignment. You were supposed to write a comparative essay, and I was supposed to fill you in on the parameters. We’ve done everything today except talk about literature before Shakespeare. Well, okay, I’ll give you Tacitus. And a Homeric reference here and there. So… so let’s open it up wide—way open. Take any part of the struggle in the New World, and compare it with some similar struggle that we’ve studied in the ancient or medieval world. Take the Indians, or the Scots clans that immigrated here, and compare them to Homer’s Greeks. Compare them to Tacitus’s Germans. Or think about “The Wanderer” and the tribal movements across northern Europe in the early Middle Ages, and draw a parallel with the social upheaval of American native peoples as Europeans nudged them aside. Or think about the doomed age of chivalry, and how a certain segment of the aristocracy clung to their armor and their chargers even after firearms appeared. Or… well, you can write about any of the questions we mentioned last week, as well… but I’m throwing it open so that today’s exercise won’t have been a complete waste.”
“Can we write about… what you said about progress?”
“Leave the backpacks for just one more minute, please. Rachel wants to know if you can write about progress. Can you do that and also refer to stuff we read in September and October? I should think you could… sure. That would be a great topic. Differing attitudes toward progress as traditional cultures shift into more literate ones. As Achilles becomes Socrates. Email me if you have questions. And don’t anybody say that you didn’t understand the assignment, just because I rambled a bit… okay, a lot. You can ramble, too… but you’d better turn something in!”
Pomeroy suddenly found that the heart of his figure-eight was the worst possible place to be in the traffic of the two rooms. He tried to dissolve back toward the door frame, then the wall.
“Have a happy Thanksgiving, Professor Pomeroy!”
“You too, Mandy… thanks, Allen… yeah, you too… see ya… yes, happy…”
He wanted to keep one eye on his briefcase. Why had he brought it, in the first place; and having brought it, why had he deposited it on the pile of backpacks?
“I really, really enjoyed your lecture. I don’t even know how you did that, in this room.”
Lena’s huge brown eyes ambushed him from beside the great fireplace. She had waded against the exiting stream and all the way around a table, he realized.
“I’ve learned so much in this class!”
“Thank you, Lena.”
“Well… have a happy Thanksgiving!”
“Yes, and… and you, too!”
It was difficult to be not quite an old man, to be… four years now from the last shot of the victorious anti-life uprising that cancer had led against his wife’s body, and to have students like Lena almost melting over him. With what horror would this doe-eyed coed have recoiled if, semester ended, he were to ask her to dine with him at Winfield’s Tavern—just the two of them, at a table next to the walk-in fireplace? How long would it take her parents to call the President’s Office? Would he even be allowed to finish the Spring semester before termination? Child-molester…
“You, too! See ya!”
Or would he not, rather, be viewed simply as a pathetic not-quite-old man? Or if she giggled in declining his offer, for how many semesters would that giggle ripple through the coeds of his ensuing classes? Would they create some kind of lottery to see which of them he would ask out next?
“Um… at least a thousand words long. Minimum.”
Or might she actually accept? It was, after all, the twenty-first century, and he was physically fit for his not-quite-advanced age.
J. Alfred Pomeroy, he smiled to himself… and his smile faded as his gaze settled upon a toppled but surviving briefcase, the last student chattering her way out the exit. Child-molester. Disgusting.
How old would James MacNiece’s wife have been when he married her? How much younger than he?
“Do you think I could have something to eat now?”
“Well… certainly. Of course. But… we’ll have to rearrange the tables. Then I can take your order.”
“Take my order… so the free luncheon is now… no longer free…”
“I’m sorry. That ended at one o’clock.”
“Um… I’ll pass,” he sighed.
He ran into Sanderson on his trudge back to campus.
“So how did statistics go at Ye Olde Tavern? A good time had by all?”
“Actually, I think it went very well. I told the Provost that he could sit in, and I think he was impressed. The students worked in groups on their iPads over lunch, and then they sent their solutions back and forth to each other, and I assigned an overall grade on the basis of…”
Pomeroy nodded, nodded. Quite the ingenious pedagogical integration of a colonial tavern into a lesson plan: iPads.
“And how did yours go?”
“Oh, I… I don’t really know. I mean, I really don’t. I don’t have the slightest idea. I may have just given the most stunning virtuoso performance of my career… or I may have just said enough to get myself fired ten times over.”
“Or both… eh?”
Sanderson laughed and laughed, supremely pleased with his repartee. Pomeroy smiled, too, recalling that Sanderson was a Canadian… and he thought of those athletic blockheads Pierce, Lucas, and Slade on their way back home to play College Man Returned for a Weekend. It wasn’t at all a bad role. He aimed his smile into the milky gray sky, and wished them a prayer of Godspeed.
Ivor Davies has written fictional autopsies of academe for this journal rather regularly over several years. He lives relatively contented in the Southeast but does not care to publicize his academic affiliation.