Obsolete, Impractical, Informative
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 5 - JANUARY 12, 2002
"New prejudices will serve as well as old ones to harness the great unthinking masses."
On Hope, by Henry William Brownejohns
Saccade, by Alexander Swartwout
The Swiss Army, by Ephrain Underhill
Incidence with a Cat, by Henry William Brownejohns
The Fulton Street Platform, by Alexander Swartwout
A New Squid, by Eliza Anne Bonney
The Weather, by Ephrain Underhill
Return to Three Weeks Issues
WHETHER IT IS WORTH HAVING ANY
A Diversionary Ramble Around an Elusive Abstract Concept
And an Outline of our Preference for Despair, Mixed with a Willingness to be Pleasantly Surprised
by Henry William Brownejohns
In considering the low expectations of our depressed and daylight-depleted midwinter readership, it seemed like a safe and appropriate time to launch into a speculation upon a broad subject with little factual content, and scant grounds for argument in any direction. The editors, in committee, dismissed Aesthetics, Solitude, Obesity, Justice, and Charity in turn as potential subjects for this essay, opting instead for the fairy concept named in the title. Anger, Love, Nutrition, and Flammability were also declined, but they were only put aside for later issues. Taking into account our own moods, our fast-approaching deadline, and especially the prospective inclination of this time of year, rife with its utopian resolutions and unreasonably renewed optimism, it was unanimously agreed that I should here hold forth on the ageless specter of Hope - its worth, its purpose, and its imprint upon the objective universe, governed as that is by the cold, detached laws of Nature.
It is moreso apt to rassle with Hope this particular January because it seems there should rightly be so little of it. The world is in a state of hazard unseen since at least 1939, with Argentina in collapse, Peru in flames, India and Pakistan poised for a nuclear border war, and Central Asia and the Middle East not much more than a row of dominoes in a stiff breeze, attended by belligerent tyrants with viable complaints. Israel is engaged in an escalating war within its own borders with no diplomatic activity to speak of, so that concerning the past twenty years of negotiation, to say that the situation was back at Square One would be to overstate the case. Africa in general remains such a social and political maelstrom that its woes often aren’t even expressible in words, to judge by their scant representation in the dockets of the newsmen. Who knew that in Zambia, for example, protesters recently stood and danced on the bench of their Supreme Court, with familiar claims of election fraud and judicial favoritism, and the government, legitimate or not, is now coping with mass insurrection? And amid this all, the United States has been agitated into a frenzy of half-cautious aggression, which no matter the arguable virtue of its intentions, has an effect upon the rest of the world similar to that of a favored grapefruit being removed from the third row from the bottom of the citric pyramid at the fruit-stand. This is the world for which a bevy of New Year’s opinion-page Longfellows have semi-consciously expressed vast and heartwarming Hope.
Even from the dowdiest media sources we hear at this time of year how much Hope there is in the new year, how renewed the promise of the world is now that it has returned to a certain coordinate in its orbit. Hope itself would seem to be the last hope of an oversized and underinformed human population, and for us, it is thus a wonder worth examining. For Hope is the primary currency in times of trouble, and we are avid numismatists of calamity.
Hope, most simply defined, is the conviction that the future is going to be an improvement on the present. It is not the product of happiness and satiety, as our superficial instincts might first suggest, but rather one of cynicism and discontent. An optimistic individual has no need for hope, because to him, things are always inclined towards wellness, so that a better future is either not necessary, or safely assured. An age like ours, where conversation is filthy with blather about Hopefulness and Promise, is an age, therefore, of deep doubt.
Surely, a more amply conferred-upon philosopher could improve and elaborate upon the simple definition of Hope given above, but there are none present here, or at any rate none willing. Sticking to our definition, then, Hope is bound to Time, and can be said to generally increase with the duration being considered. As an illustration near at hand, I am told by my colleague Mr. Swartwout that he has more hope for the year 3000 than he does for tomorrow, and I think his is a common conceit. It might even be reducible to a direct mathematical proportion, but we haven’t got anyone to do that, either. In this vein, anyway, let us further infer that Hope, being time-based, is similarly relativistic. At the speed of light, then, Hope would be slowed to nil. A ray of light thus enjoys the most perfect liberty anywhere in Nature, propagating as it does without care, reflecting without judgement, refracting minus complication, coloring the universe serendipitously, existing outside of Time, and going about utterly without Hope, or regret.
But we are our slow and corporeal selves, and beset all too often by Hope and regret. Might this temporality of Hope, when taken on a more human scale, tie it to that equally human concept of Progress, then? In the palmy days of 1750, that regular popinjay M. Anne-Robert-Jacques, baron de l’Aulne Turgot, blustered, “At last all the clouds are dissipated. What a glorious light is cast on all sides! What a crowd of great men on all paths of knowledge! What perfection of human reason!”
Indeed, Newton had just squeezed out the calculus, the planets had all been set neatly in their elliptical orbits around the sun, and the paths of knowledge were unusually crowded with unusually exceptional men. It was easy for M. Turgot, cloistered in his French chateau, to roll up his frilly sleeves and expound with conviction upon the inevitable Progress of human affairs. Hope practically came with common sense in those glimmering days, and throughout Europe the only means of blasphemy consisted of doubting human potential. It was this same era from which we get Pope’s “Hope springs eternal.”
But you are hardly revealing an undue pessimism by finding such a stance perfectly naïve. To modern eyes, the theory of Progress is fairly well tarnished, if it is not buried altogether. For all the obvious accoutrementation of human life that we today enjoy - from representation in the wilds of outer space to the ease of meeting naked people from any nation on Earth without leaving the comfort of one’s own family room - the modern citizen nevertheless is ingrained with the opinion put forth nicely by Mr. Mencken: “That the average civilized man of today is inferior to the average civilized man of two or three generations ago is too plain to need arguing. He has less enterprise and courage; he is less resourceful and various; he is more like a rabbit and less like a lion.” However you wish to frame it, to believe in unfettered Progress today will win you as many adherents as a flat-earth theory; which, incidentally, is another of those advances unforeseeably laden with drawbacks.
Somehow we have come to assume the inferiority of the present, even while we congratulate ourselves with every improvement to our accessories. We are developing a subconscious sense that history is not a matter of advancement with time, but merely one of semi-cyclical complication. Every improvement is accompanied by a problem of proportional dimensions, and as our improvements have been lately exponential, so too are we the most villainous bunch to ever walk upright on land. According to the formula for Hope laid out above, our deepening dilemma should then increase our reliance on it, even as it erodes our faith in Progress.
To be fair to the generally benevolent if sometimes purblind macaronis of the Enlightenment, many of that age’s most exceptional men were keen to the intricacies of this paradox even as M. Turgot was innocently whipping himself into a utopian froth. For example, Mr. Pope himself actually suffers from a legendary case of underquoting: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast:/ Man never is, but always to be blest/ The soul, uneasy and confined from home,/ Rests and expatiates in a life to come.” Pressed into the service of generations of cursory optimists and greeting card poets, good Mr. Pope was, once allowed to finish his thought, showing himself to be discreetly cognizant of how the calculus might one day serve rocketry well, and other such liabilities of M. Turgot’s beloved Progress. Mr. Pope’s only concession to the future was the potential of death, which at least is a fresh gamble. Earthly Hope, anyway, is independent of progress, independent of skepticism, and independent of reality.
So if we can be thus assured in our minds that there can be no progress without equal regress, then why do we bother with Hope, at all? Surely we can hope that India and Pakistan do not incinerate millions and irradiate billions for wounded egos; and we can hope that God, like any proper father, simply descends on Israel soon and takes it away from everyone, until they learn how to share, for crying out loud; and we can even hope that so-and-so wins the Super Bowl, or that our chauffeur is in good spirits this afternoon and is able to stay out of traffic. But we are too wise to believe that any of these are signals of real progress.
Hope is but a vestigial artifact, a dumb instinct wired into our lower brain. In learning about the neural mechanisms involved in memory, the young neurologist will be intrigued by the counterintuitive importance of forgetting. The mind is as carefully constructed to forget things as it is to remember them, as a defense against the torment of remembering, say, every time we sipped our tea, every time we brushed our teeth, or every time we tied our shoes. The mind is innately selective, designed to fail more often than not.
I think that Hope is a similar function. If we lacked our tendency to be hopeful, just like our tendency to forget, our well-worn higher awareness of the fallacy of progress would stop us in our tracks. We know that if the Indians and the Pakistanis do not annihilate each other and the rest of us this year, it hardly shows an improvement in the human condition - either they’ll do it next year, or somebody else will. But we are hopeful anyway, because otherwise, we stall out completely, we would become less than human. We would not get out of bed, we would not order breakfast, and we would not worry about the weather. It is as vital to ignore the likelihood that nothing matters as it is to forget all those little instants in life - like turning doorknobs and climbing stairs - that really don’t. I contend that even the most sourpussed French existentialists were in possession of at least some recessive Hope, or else I don’t expect they would have written so many novels.
So Hope is both an appendix-like organelle that embarrasses our species’ sense of vanity by its superfluity, as it is a failsafe, without which we would be paralyzed by the impossibility of truly improving anything. To go further and say that hope is a mechanism of self-preservation is both too obvious for a sensitive professor like myself to bother declaring, and too reductionist for me to be willing to defend. Let my contrarians answer: when, after all, was the last time a human being did anything for the universe’s benefit?
Now, at the risk of losing the tenuous intellectual grasp of my serotonin-starved readership, I would like to outline how it is possible, in spite of the seemingly congenital nature of hope in the human heart, that I nevertheless possess very little, if any, of the stuff. I am not a hopeful person. I am too keen to the awful truth of reality, the simple beauty of entropy, and the senselessness of rejecting any of this for unfounded paradisiacal pinings. As an exceptional man, and a demagogue unwilling to play coy games for the consolation of the reader’s ego, I must frankly admit that I am too devoted to the sentient and skeptical part of my mind to pander to my animal heart. But does this mean that I am unhuman, or that, as according to my own previous theorizing, I am irrevocably idled by the sheer terror of my clean line of sight to oblivion? And does it mean that I am insensate to the remedy of our problems, that the outcome of border standoffs, civil wars, and Super Bowls do not interest me? I can say, happily, that none of this is the case.
While I do not subscribe to Hope, which I have postulated is a pointless investment, I am yet a devout humanist, full at once of an unconditional love of Homo Sapiens, and also an unshakeable skepticism regarding his importance. Indeed, the whole of Nature is such a treat to my doomed senses that to only admire it selectively is as foolish to me as to think that men will some day stop lying and fighting, will improve each other’s lives and achieve social equilibrium, and will cherish strangers and their dogs like their own kin.
I will humbly boast that my mind is a veritable Shroedinger’s cat of superposed positions; an expectation and acceptance of deepening trouble, with an unchangeable adoration of the elaborate process that will bring it about. This is the stance described by Mr. Pope in his Essay, and it is the one elaborated by the bulk of those exceptional men of M. Turgot’s time. It is humanism, and it is both hopeless and relentlessly inspiring. Human nature is not adapted to rapid change, and anyway the laws of probability overrule what good humanity could ever do. But to witness it, to admire its better moments, to rue its worse ones, and to participate in a manner that pleases oneself and that species to which one is devoted, is indeed enough to fuel a person who by reason chooses to abandon Hope. 3W
MR. SWARTWOUT’S RASHNESS
In the last number, Mr. Swartwout famously took the measure of printing the phone number of our Attorney General Ashcroft, in order to rouse the impotent ire of the American public, and turn it into something less pathetic. Mr. Underhill and Ms. Bonney both expressed concern over the wisdom of the action, and suggested that Mr. Swartwout might have become a shade overheated during the composition of his essay, as that estimable personage has been previously known to do. Mr. Brownejohns, our chief, remained circumspect, yet quiet. While both Mr. Underhill and Ms. Bonney firmly supported Mr. Swartwout’s sentiments, they pointed out that, especially considering the Draconian nature of Mr. Ashcroft’s abuses, it may not be in THREE WEEKS’ best interest to antagonize him so directly. Mr. Brownejohns asked Mr. Swartwout if the phone numbers were valid, and Mr. Swartwout affirmed it by dialling and then hanging up quickly. It was put forth that the numbers were, after all, on public record, and whether Mr. Swartwout was at his most serene when he printed them was inconsequential, compared to the interesting effect such an experiment might have. Happily, since the publication was released, THREE WEEKS has not received any overt chastisement from the Justice Department, and additionally, Mr. Ashcroft has noticeably faded from prominence in recent days. We do not know if this is the result of our reader’s verbally berating his unfortunate secretary, or if it is because he has simply come to prefer doing America ill favors in greater secrecy. In either case, we think the episode is a good example of our dedication to even our worst impulses, and the effectiveness of the editorial process in place. This notice is included only to reassure the reader that neither is Mr. Swartwout in any more trouble now than he may have been previously, or is he going to be any more reserved in his opinionation, for fear of federal retribution.
OUR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS’ EXCUSES
In our ongoing effort to bring a little international perspective to these pages, we have only been impressed by the unlimited resourcefulness of our correspondents in finding ways not to provide us with anything. A report from Sydney was imminent, until our man there was smoked out of his house by the brush fires. The latest from Buenos Aires has been postponed, because we made the mistake of allying ourselves with an affluent socialite there, who has fled to the countryside to wait out the unrest. And three separate European contacts of ours have claimed that the introduction of the new currency there has prevented them from being able to calculate the proper postage for their dispatches, and that everything they had sent us has just been returned insufficiently stamped. We hope that our less domestically inclined readers will continue to show as much stoicism as our own Mr. Brownejohns, who, with every report of failure from around the globe, only folds his hands and peers more thoughtfully from his window.
FOR THOSE KEEPING A CLOSE COUNT
There will be those among you who have already noticed that between the date of this publication and our last, the difference is three weeks and four days. This is neither an error or an indication of loosening standards; it is a long-considered adjustment to our schedule that will allow us to be published on shimmering Saturdays, instead of hoary Tuesdays, and it also gave us a nice little vacation. If this seems an unforgivable breach of calendrics, consider it next to the British Empire of 1752, which only took twenty-four hours to go from September 2 to September 14 for the sake of the Gregorian calendar; or next to the dubious practice the Times has just mercifully suspended of printing the sports section upside-down for three months, as a commentary on American vacuity, or a hedge against printer’s fees. We think that our motives are as valid as these institutions’, and that our crimes are considerably less heinous.
What One Is, and a New Theory Regarding Them
An Improvement in the Reader’s Vocabulary and Humanity’s Self-Knowledge
by Alexander Swartwout
In all of the English lexicon, there isn’t likely any word with a greater discrepancy between the grace of its sound and the mundanity of its meaning as saccade. While it brings to mind either the maneuver of some dainty ballerina or an elegant ornamentation of Neoclassical architecture, it is in fact nothing better than a bodily function, and one so banal and inconsequential that it is a testament to the breadth and wonder of the language that there is even a word for it. For a saccade is this: the rapid movement of the eye, from one fixed point to another, as it scans objects and its surroundings. Typically, the eye performs between three and five saccades every second. Even as you read this worthy line, you are unwittingly guilty of a whole spree of them, and yet you get no ovation for their flawless execution; only the incessant accumulation of visual information, and a headache. And of saccades, there are a wide variety - prosaccades, antisaccades, reflexive saccades, remembered saccades, and delayed saccades, among them. It is nothing less than a tribute to the obsessive curiosity of our species that there are teams of physiologists around the world who have dedicated their careers to the study of these minute flickerings of the eye.
And their efforts have lately been rewarded with a new hypothesis on the mechanics of the standard saccade, as our race marches forth out of the gloom of ignorance. But to appreciate the progress, first you must appreciate the problem. For, if you are a full-grown adult with even one working lobe in his brain, you must have already asked yourself ‘What about the instinctive twitching of my eye does the Institution of Human Knowledge still not understand?’ Follow along.
Imagine you are such an antiquarian that you possess either a watch or a clock with a second-hand. You are gazing at it, as it clicks around the dial, one, two, three. Then you are distracted, and look out the window momentarily, before you return to the second-hand. Does the thing seem, for the briefest of instants, to be standing still, before it resumes its regular count? Don’t chalk it up to a deficiency of your brain any longer; this is a sensation that is universal among us, and at long last, it has a scientific basis.
A saccade lasts somewhere around 90 to 150 milliseconds, and during that time, the visual field is for obvious reasons going to appear hideously blurred. But our brain does our sanity and our equilibrium a favor, by suppressing the input from its optic nerve during a saccade, so that every time we change our gaze, we are not sent into fits of seasickness. And in place of this turbulent view, the old noodle provides us with something of a prediction, as to what we are likely to see when our eyes finally land on their target. For the few milliseconds of a saccade, we are treated to a picture, formulated in our minds, of the scene it expects to see - having just been looking at it before it was distracted by the action outside the window. In the case of a watch ticking along on its rounds, this results in a few milliseconds of ‘seeing’ an imagined second-hand, before the real thing reaches our retina, and resumes its real-world count. Thus, the apparent lag in that first second back.
I don’t think I can very well conceal the pleasure I take in such a thorough explication of such an obscure piece of minutiae, and I don’t think it is necessary. To me, this is a fine demonstration of everything that is right with humanity. This little phenomenon so agitated some lonely soul out there, that after years of theorizing and experimenting, at last the subjects were herded into the laboratory, and their response times were measured, looking at, and looking away from, a digital counter on a computer screen.
There are enough of those who dream of the grandest stage, and whose arrogance transmits into the race’s great bids for glory, travelling to the stars, plumbing the depths of the seas, and conquering the forces of nature. But there are also just enough of those who become obsessed with the crevices of human existence, and shine such a light into them, that we emerge, all of us, wiser, more in awe of ourselves, and more sure of who we are, and how, exactly, our heads work. 3W
THE SWISS ARMY
To this blissfully ill-informed civilian, it was news fit enough to print that Switzerland even had an army, but of even greater interest is the report just received of referendums lately held in that neutral nation to decide whether 1.) its soldiers should be given guns, and 2.) whether the continued existence of the army was required at all. A Swiss soldier abroad, we understand, is currently equipped with not much more than a uniform, his wits, and one of those famous knives; and yet his duties take him occasionally to the same hazardous locales as the rest of the Western armies’, where he is handed ‘observational’ and bureaucratic responsibilities, in the name of token international cooperation.
Primarily, the Swiss Army is a civilian defense force, and one of the country’s proudest institutions. It was the continuation of the Army in this capacity that was left up for grabs in the recent public referendum. The minority felt that Switzerland was really and truly a nation without enemies, and the Army could be finally disbanded, its resources put to better use, while the majority came out and voted to maintain the force, both for its practical purposes, and for its symbolic presence. However, in deference to the first referendum, the Army will remain unarmed - a detail which requires some enlargement, for its seeming counterintuitiveness to American ears.
Embarking on a bit of half-hearted research, I learned that those particular and famous knives just mentioned were first developed in 1886, and distributed to soldiers of the Swiss army for the purpose of dismantling and cleaning their rifles, without requiring the use of several tools. By this time, however, Switzerland had already adopted its infamous policy of neutrality, which actually came about because they were tired of being overrun alternately by the French and the Austrians. In 1815, the Swiss at last drove Napoleon’s army from its territory, and, in a remarkable feat of level-headedness, ceased their pursuit of the enemy at their own border (apparently content with their sovereignty, in a first for the historically expansive Europeans), shut and latched the gates, and shouted “truce” through the keyhole. And that was it for Switzerland. So the rifles being cleaned and dismantled in the 1880’s were purely defensive measures, and history shows us that they never found much use. By the time World War I ended, the Swiss were Optimists of the highest order, and the only guns an Alpine soldier were likely to be using were for basic training and bear hunting.
Meanwhile, those knives had proven exceptionally popular, and the two companies under contract to make them for the Swiss Army began to butt heads over which of them should also have the right to sell them to American Boy-Scouts and Smoky Mountain-men. Now, if you believed the Swiss were uncannily able to walk a diplomatic tightrope in the midst of international aggression, listen to how nimble they are in affairs of business:
To appease the various allegiances within their own polyglot country, the Swiss Army made contracts with one company in its French-speaking district [Wenger] and one in its German district [Victorinox], that each should produce exactly one half of all the knives required. Once it was determined just how limited a market the military of Switzerland was going to remain, and the companies were bitten by the bug of rampant capitalism and intoxicated with the pheromones of the virgin American marketplace, the Swiss government once again mediated between the two companies, whose advertising strategies both hinged on the fact that they were the “real thing,” and thus conflicted in the uncomplicated mind of the Western consumer.
It was finally agreed that Wenger could register itself as the “Genuine Swiss Army Knife,” and that Victorinox would thereafter be the “Original Swiss Army Knife.” Everybody, somehow, was happy, and Switzerland was still neutral. Only now they had knives and not guns.
Now, neutrality, of course, is an idealist’s notion that can have no perfect, practical application in reality. Everyone must have an opinion, and is ethically bound to act in support of his beliefs. The rise of Nazi Germany in Switzerland’s own backyard seems to have been a custom-made field test of the practice of neutrality, and it only proved how impossible such high moral roads are to steer upon. How could an ethical nation really remain neutral in the face of this unequivocal, indubitably evil entity? The answer lies with the number of countries extant today who boast of being unswervingly ‘neutral’ - that is, none. These days, neutrality means going along with the group, so long as it doesn’t involve being too destructive. And though Switzerland is not in fact a member of the United Nations (a referendum on this subject is due in March, for what it’s worth), the staunch moral character of those people, their unparalleled sense of social responsibility, and a basic human need to go with the group, motivates them to assist in U.N. actions, in either a bureaucratic or mysteriously ‘observational’ capacity. What the Swiss effectively decided in their last round of balloting was whether Swiss soldiers should ever engage in one of these popular ‘peacekeeping’ missions with anything more lethal than their corkscrews; and they decided that, in the name of ‘armed neutrality,’ they should not.
On the one hand, here is a group of folks plunged into the crossfire, by dint of association with some arbitrary international cooperative, and dressed up in uniforms which, to a belligerent, are the only signal he needs to start shooting - shouldn’t they be allowed to shoot back? Also, they still have those damned knives, and yet nothing to take apart or reassemble with them. They are good for nothing but opening bottles and picking food out from between the Swissmen’s teeth, and though that’s admirable enough around a campfire in Appalachia, it’s less favorably looked upon, no doubt, by fellow peacekeeping soldiers in a Balkan minefield.
On the other hand, if your army is actually armed, a great deal more is expected of them, and in very little time governments around the world are going to start expecting Switzerland to mobilize and invade in response to the littlest offense. A similar thing happened in the last decade when the police in England finally began carrying sidearms. All of a sudden, giving a crook a sound chasing just wasn’t enough - now they had to be caught, cuffed, and arrested, and failing this, they should be shot at. This changed the whole circumstance of being an English policeman, and a lot of the respectable ones got out of the business altogether, while a whole new breed of sadists took their place. It is, I hear, a lot less pleasant to be a cop - or a robber - in Britain these days, whereas once those were occupations a gentleman could aspire to, when his other options looked bleak.
And so would it have turned out for a Swiss soldier, if the electorate had wished it so. The ranks would have been emptied of intelligent, careful, thoughtful folks, and probably been replenished by snarling, bloodthirsty brutes - if Switzerland indeed houses any of these. Meanwhile, the former would be out of work, and would’ve had to hand in their knives.
But this is not even the best reason for the Swiss to have rejected the rifle referendum. What is ultimately at stake in such debates is the cherished political ideal - neutrality - first adopted when Napoleon was run out of the Alps. Just because an ideal fails in practice, I believe, is no reason to discard it. A world operated on merely the shards of perfect ideas would be a better world than the one we have, built on lukewarm convictions and compromised pragmatism. When we decide, for example, that we will not fight at any cost, and then discover that our foe is the Devil himself, and reluctantly, we eat our words and vanquish the bastard, we should, by all means, go right back and say we will not fight at any cost, and not water down our oaths to better suit reality. The Swiss are neutral. Their soldiers have no guns. Let them be punched in the eye a hundred times, I will give them greater honor if afterward they can still say the Swiss are neutral, and their soldiers have no guns.
They have retained their Army, of which they are rightly proud, but they have restricted its capacity for aggression - a remarkably nuanced outcome for a national election. On the whole, it seems, they are better, saner people than we, and they have the remarkable ability to maintain their high-mindedness even in the desophisticating mob-mentality atmosphere of a political campaign. No matter how many times it doesn’t quite work out, expect the good people of Switzerland to get up and claim neutrality, for better or worse.
It is my hope that the Marxists, the anarchists, and the Zoroastrians, among others, are heeding the Swiss example of stubborn dedication to incipient principles. There is much to be admired in such refined hardheadedness. If you possess a doctrine which feels proper, do not immediately cast it away when you step out into the daylight and it suddenly looks preposterous. I say you’re a quitter if you do. Wait, perhaps, for the weather to change, and remain convinced that when it does, the beauty of what you’ve had all along will recover itself; and on top of it all, you’ll boast the admirable quality of consistency. Eph. Underhill
INCIDENCE WITH A CAT
Inspired to Brief Reflection
A Prejudice is Preserved
by Henry William Brownejohns
I was aboard a subway train lately, among my fellow men, when one sat down beside me carrying a box, the contents of which were mewing loudly. There were holes in the box’s sides, though the man tried to keep his jacket draped over the whole thing, probably to spare the animal within the ugly spectacle of so many carelessly dressed people, and other unseemly panoramas common to the modern transit system.
I have never been disposed with any particular favor toward cats. I have maintained an opinion of them like to the one they always seem to hold of me. I glare at them, and they glare back. They barely conceal their disdain for me, and I hardly keep mum on mine for them. Now and then, one of them will - if they still have their claws - succeed in a malicious hit-and-run upon my bared hand or too-near face. For my part when thus victimized, I take pride in a higher moral standard than that of the feline, and I turn the other cheek and think ill of them from the next room over. This is how I have coexisted with the feline order through the years.
But now here in a box upon a rattling train deep below the ground was this cat producing a string of the most pathetic bent notes imaginable, and my ever-changeable heart began to be dampened with sympathy. It occurred to me, listening to the tiny puling of this animal, that the generally dour demeanor of the whole species might merely be compensation for a whole world of injustices suffered by the little beasts, inflicted both by Nature and by circumstance. Faced with such a spectacular terror as the New York City subway seen through a porthole in an inescapable container, the common cat has no means of expression other than the same miniature E-flat that he uses for such comparable banality as dinnertime conversation or idle threats against the family dog. Such a fatal restraint on the expression of the soul: to have only one word in your vocabulary, to have it be nothing more forceful than mew, and to have such a puny voice to utter it with!
Perhaps I have henceforth been too critical of the feline situation, overemphasizing their small transgressions, while regarding too shortly their plight and their virtues. Briefly, I pondered a total reformation, and coming out in favor of cats altogether.
Yet, for all the weight of this single epiphany, I was still too hindered by a thousand formative memories of the sting of unmerited slashings, doled out by generations of pampered house-cats, for crimes no worse than overpetting. My sympathy for the terrorized cat in transit faded - he would be home soon, and gorging on better food than two-thirds of humanity, and he would be no more humble for his trial. There are certain reconciliations that will simply never be made. 3W
THE FULTON STREET PLATFORM
An Examination of the Qualities and Effects of the Wooden Ramp now Overlooking the Site of the World Trade Center
by Alexander Swartwout
The American animal has found itself in an entirely novel laboratory since autumn, and any student of human behavior has got to be exhausted keeping up with every new compulsion that has arisen in the public since then. At the present moment, the most significant one of these is the popular urge to gravitate towards calamity and destruction - as opposed to keeping safely distant - as testified by the construction on Fulton Street of a stark wooden platform, intended for improving the view of the rubble of the World Trade Center.
More people now gape at apocalypse over the edge of this porch in a day than do gaze at creation from the peak of the Empire State Building in a week. When this reporter visited downtown around ten on a weekday morning - just an hour after the thing is opened - the line of aspirant gawkers extended ten blocks, zig-zagging from Broadway to Chambers to Church and beyond, and was four persons thick from beginning to end. It is outside my expertise to speculate on the meaning of this, but it is no fluke. People want to see the mess.
The platform itself occupies said Fulton Street right where that road descends into the low landfill plain upon which the Trade Center until late stood, on what would be the sunny side of old St. Peter’s church, if there were such a thing. The hundred or so people on the line closest to admission end up corralled in a row right in front of that historic chapel’s Broadway colonnade, wherein by now everybody knows twice-over that Washington went to pray after his inauguration, and which is now off-limits to all but the workers at the site, for whom it is an appropriately dignified sanctuary. The fence in front of the church, a row of daunting cast-iron fangs, is now thickly encrusted in banners, posters, flags, shirts, hats, wreaths, photographs, candle wax, and an enamel of felt-tip marker ink, professing allegiance to America, adoration of firemen, sadness for loss, malevolence towards certain Middle-Eastern militants, and a previously unheard-of devotion to New York City, voiced by whole cities, towns, states, and elementary schools, all of which not too long ago famously held our dear Gotham, and its arguably unwholesome eccentricities, in deep suspicion. Now it is eulogized a million-fold, and often in unmetered verse. While the heart cannot but be moved by so much uninhibited human expression, the mind cannot but recall associations with one’s high-school yearbook, or the gates of Graceland.
The spectator, having survived a wait said to be as short as an hour and a half or as long as three, is released from the pen in front of the church, and is ushered around the corner on to Fulton Street, where that great startling gap in the sky greets them, and below it, the inviting ramp of the platform. The visitor ascends on the right side of a long flat dividing wall, which separates the comers from the goers, who are descending on the left, presumably sated. The ascending ramp - the right ramp - is maybe sixty or seventy feet long, and rises perhaps fifteen or twenty (the downward slope of the land adds a significant sense of height to the platform itself), but the descending ramp - the left ramp - is perhaps as long as one hundred to one hundred and twenty feet, so that its slope is much more gradual than the ascending one. The presence of the rectangular barrier wall between them would indicate that there is some covert psychological tinkering going on here, like a scientist slowly altering the maze for his mouse, to stimulate specific reactions.
What I am getting at is that the ramp, to newcomers on the right side, is a steepish affair, though not so much that even the very feeble couldn’t climb it. Then at its height, of course, the legs are forgotten, and the mind and soul are traumatized by the wreckage visible from the platform. And at last, when the spectator comes to, or is gently hustled out by the attendant police officers, they enjoy a relatively gradual descent, along a much longer more subtle incline, and they are unable to see the trick because of the wall. The spectator, unaware of the manipulation, probably senses that their perception has been altered by the profundity of the platform experience, while in fact it has been altered by the protractor of the designer.
The immediate appearance of the thing would suggest that the architect has spent a good deal of time considering Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial in Washington, which has a similar geometry - frankly, it surprises me that it garnered any thought at all. The ramp has so far gone unattributed, called simply a municipal construction, but somewhere in the responsible corps of civic engineers, there is some very keen reasoning going on, all the more so because such a platform is hardly something a city architect would have stowed away ready-made plans for. One would expect a depressed, unwilling, anonymous architect doing government work like this to simply throw together a scaffold stage, and vanish from culpability. Rather, the subtle effects of its design almost compensate for the morbidity of its conception.
Its materials, of everything, most explicitly betray its haste. It seems to be made of unfinished pressure-treated wooden planking, set upon a frame of hollow steel structural tubing. Looked at from the front or the side, as it can be only by recovery workers and policemen, it is nothing but exposed steel pipe and chain link fence, apparently installed to keep anybody from taking up residence underneath it. For those sightseers for whom it was built, though, it is inoffensive and well-fitted bare wood, nicely adorned with subtle lights along the footpath, a No Smoking sign on a piece of typing paper at the entrance to the ramp, a forgivably crooked banister along the low retaining wall, and a steadily thickening filigree of devotional scribbling. With all the unauthorized writing-on-surfaces that has erupted around town, one would think it was the Vandals themselves who had been traumatized.
Now, for a full and satisfactory report upon this first viewing platform to be built on the singed edge of the World Trade Center site (there are two more in planning, though their locations are undisclosed, at least to me, who, admittedly, only asked a hot dog vendor), I felt it was important to take a hard look at the people who were there to utilize the thing. I do not think this is an irresponsible or superfluous approach to architectural criticism at all - for all its visual grace, the Guggenheim is an enigma until one understands the agonizing fatigue it instills in the marginally interested art viewers who visit it; to appreciate the magnificent skyward thrust of the Empire State Building, one must consider the incredible banality of the business that takes place within; and for a thorough reckoning of the sturdy splendor of the Brooklyn Bridge, one must also take into account how many sons-of-bitches cross that thing every damned day.
So it was that I examined the people who had lined up for the chance to see, for each their own reason, the place where something large once was. The crowd, as far down the line as I was energetic to survey, was various; there were groups of old women, nuclear families, gatherings of friends, teenagers, adults, all of no particular descent. Taking a cautious series of samples, they all turned out to be visitors to the city, no natives. While a few Europeans could be spotted, holding very still and carefully saying nothing, for the most part - as evidenced by their generally tasteless but expensive manner of dress - the spectators were all from, and fairly well representative of, America. This is unsurprising.
The section of the line in front of St. Peter’s and thus closest to the platform was subdued only by the standards of an American gathering. They were fidgety, earnest, and wove a gaudy quilt of soft small talk in the chilly air; all while liberally exercising their instant cameras and miniature video recorders, choking posterity with 360-degree coverage of every moment of their experiences.
From here, the line became progressively more restive as it was measured along its length. Nobody was dressed in anything resembling a funereal manner. Oversized parkas and oversized pants and oversized sweaters and oversized sporting jerseys, of every color, were typical, along with an ample supply of stiff, recently bought hats commemorating the destination of the wearer’s vacation. Only a block down the line, it would have been difficult to distinguish this crowd from one waiting outside a circus or a costumed ice-skating revue.
And nicely complementing the spectator’s somewhat amateurish solemnity was that professionally convivial feeling only known in the midst of such an obscene number of police officers as can be found in the proximity of the Trade Center site. It seemed there was a veritable division deployed there, and the resulting informality cannot be duplicated anywhere - it is, interestingly, as close to civil anarchy as any of us can hope to experience. Amid such a contingent of police, the concept of crime becomes sheer absurdity, and suspicion itself seems to undergo a molecular chain reaction until it is converted into inert curiosity; yet when something inevitably does go wrong, it is seen as not much more than a good banana-peel pratfall - amusing, but too familiar. For example, while I stood scribbling my notes, a delivery truck screeched to a halt on Broadway, cut off by a small family car swerving for a better view of oblivion. The car, full with husband, wife, and the kids, was loudly deprived of its mirror and front bumper. Twenty police officers within whispering distance smirked at the scene, until one finally ambled into the street, picked up the car’s mirror, and handed it through the passenger window to the horrified wife. Her husband, at the wheel of the car, remained suspended for a moment longer, awaiting the Taking of the Report, and the Pleading for Mercy or the Assignment of Blame, until the sound of car horns behind him and the indifference of the blue uniforms combined to catalyze his senses, and he went on his way.
I cannot help but reflect further upon the motivation for so many people to make such a pilgrimage as the one given focus by the Fulton Street platform, and its imminent duplicates. It is possible that this is merely the same flock of tourists who would have come to see the World Trade Center standing at its height, and to have mimosas and Shirley Temples fifteen hundred feet in the air, and now they were here by sheer inertia. But it was impossible to escape the strange emanation of dutifulness, if not downright righteousness, coming from the patient crowd. Studying the blustery and sentimental tone of the loopy epigrams and poems and dedications written on every surface, it became clear that here were thousands of people convinced that they were not only doing themselves a favor, but that they were doing America one, by peering at the emptiness inflicted upon the city. For the torrential flow of pop-psychological recipes being swapped, it almost seems as if people aren’t sure who needs to be healed, and for what.
There has surely been a hefty amount of personal reflection in the wake of the fall, and a majority of the shallow thinkers amongst us are already insisting that our country has been somehow improved by all of it. Indeed, my own instincts tell me that considerable reflection is bound to improve the depth of an individual. Yet, having experienced the crowd awaiting their chance to gawk at the months-old debris like a shrine, I concluded that our preference to mourn communally has in fact stunted the process per individual. Because at large, there is no evidence that Americans - or any one particular American - are an improved people.
For one, we do not seem to love democracy any more than we did - we certainly have not been willing to come to its defense, against either our hyperactive governors or our own sluggish momentum. And in the entire opus of dedications written across the flags and sidewalks and walls of the city, there does not seem to be so much as an inkling of the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution, or even the Emancipation Proclamation, which I feel might make an eloquent inscription given the time and the place. Instead, most are amateurish poems, jabbing at slippery unexamined emotions; some are reflexive and occasionally relevant references from religious tracts; and a surprising amount are empty slogans to America’s strength that are reminiscent of truck commercials or sneaker ads, more than they are testaments to the value of liberty and the privilege of self-government.
It may be that instead of rediscovering a love of our country’s actual principles, we have merely come to love its power. We feel it is this, our power, that has been attacked, and that this is more troubling than any assault on our intangible rights. We love our power and surely we have rallied admirably around it. And we also love souvenirs.
For this is the presence on the streets of lower Manhattan that is so flagrant that it almost fades from notice - the sheer mass of souvenirs and their indiscreet hawkers. Hats honoring letters of the alphabet, chiefly N and Y, not uncommonly U, S, and A; gloves and scarves in red, white, and blue; posters, framed prints, postcards, all in defiance of history by showing unchanged what the platform pilgrims have just come to confirm, and all at a fair price, considering the adrenaline bound to be in abundance at such a scene; and keychains, wallets, statuettes, candles, t-shirts, sweaters, cigarette lighters, ballpoint pens. Now more than ever, people love getting souvenirs, and people love making souvenirs. I realized that the fence in front of St. Peter’s was more than anything else a depository for souvenirs, homemade and store-bought, all on the same glitzy and doleful theme, including signed flags, t-shirts that say just what the wearer was feeling, and various agglomerations of glue and tinsel and snapshots and glitter. Thousands of souvenirs are delivered to this spot, and then a sort of benediction occurs on the deck of this wooden platform, where the sins or the guilt or the dark curiosity of the earnest home-craftsperson are absolved, and then, descending the left ramp, they are free to renew their store of tchotchke from the cluttered tables of the vendors.
In one respect, this is America being itself, unself-consciously expressing its vapidity and its frivolity, and in its own honest way coping with the unfriendly machinations of history. A patriot of my acquaintance recently expressed her disdain for the use of billboards as empty expressions of solidarity, by replacing the advertising with unadorned images of the flag - this was the ultimate betrayal of the American way of life, she declared; to set aside our ambition and our business for a temporarily overheated concern about current events. To a point, this is a fair argument.
But the platform on Fulton Street was built because there was a tremendous demand for its uncouth vista, and now, with the thing open, and Americans free to wallow in its macabre pleasures, every indication is that there will be no redemption, of any kind, found in the whole unpleasant business. Americans’ abstract reckoning is becoming more and more stunted, and we are failing to see the meaning of our symbols more frequently than we have before. The flag, now, is merely a flag, the Constitution is merely a constitution, the president is merely a president. That one is meant to represent the fundamental cohering value of another, which the third is ostensibly sworn to protect in the name of the people, represented once again by the first, is utterly lost in the swirl of hurt feelings, wounded pride, and rampant souvenir-lust that have replaced our ancestors’ unwavering indignation against all things inhumane, their spectacular practical adaptability, and their unerring sense of the importance of their great social experiment.
The viewing platform on Fulton Street thus would seem to be a near aesthetic success, if it were not at the same time a veritable plank off of which the sybaritic American people were marching, abandoning the better values of the ship that had got them there. It is reasonable to go and ascend the thing and cry, perhaps; there may be those who are not impacted by bad news at any distance (in fact, the demand for the platform seems to confirm that American quality of extraordinary myopia that leaves us generally unmoved by anything that isn’t perched upon our noses), and who will benefit by a journey to the site. But while the scar of the invasion remains for all to see, and for each to interpret for himself, the developing spectacle in its proximity tends to remind us more of how much comfort we find in shiny things, and how little we want to be bothered with the troubles of the world, rather than how we should engage them.
POSTSCRIPT. To allegedly spare pilgrims from having to wait in such long lines as I have described, the city has recently announced that tickets will be handed out for access to the platform, at the Seaport, where, I presume, people will have to wait on line to get them. This is a nice transference, solving nothing; however it does create another potential souvenir, the coveted ticket-stub, which dutiful Americans will likely crave.
A NEW SQUID
A PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN CEPHALOPOD MAKES ITS DEBUT
The embattled field of marine biology has made its own assault upon the lately hyperextended consciousness of the news reporters by announcing that there is now a new squid. Even as nations are rising and falling, wars burst out and are extinguished, and individual geniuses of evil, goodness, ability, and incompetence vie for the limited attention of the press, the public, and history itself, that small misunderstood contingent of outcasts, the marine biologists, have gone so far to even produce a photograph of their new discovery that has captivated the globe.
The number of things about the new squid that are intriguing is incalculable. Its apparent commonness is one of them; the squid, now that it has been identified, turns out to reside in large numbers in the deepest parts of all the world’s oceans, and probably has for millions of years. Also, its size, which averages around twenty-five feet in length. It is not the giant squid, the enigmatic forty-foot Architeuthis - which has so far eluded both the nets and the cameras of the primate Homo Sapiens - but it is a giant squid, and what’s more, it was totally unexpected. Architeuthis has been with us in legend and shadowy anecdote for ages, and has left a long forensic trail of its existence, on ships, whales, and seashores, as if to tantalize our curiosity while mocking our imprisonment on land and in the shallows; the new squid, meanwhile, comes upon us as if belatedly out of Eden, unconceived by human minds until this late date.
Physically, the new squid is utterly unique on the Earth - its mantle is a broad pair of ‘wings’ comparable to enormous elephant ears, instead of the narrower, rocket-shaped body of the wider array of known cephalopods. And while most squid are graced by two long ‘whip’ tentacles among eight shorter gathering ones, the new squid’s entire contingent of tentacles are full length, presenting an impressive confusion of tendrils extending the whole length of the tremendous creature. Furthermore, they are arrayed in a peculiar fashion: every tentacle is attached to the body by a perpendicular appendage which radiates out from the creature’s center, and it is from the ends of these stalks that the long tentacles dangle - so that the whole monster comes across to our sensibilities like a great gelatinous tie-rack or a set of coat-hangers hung with viscid streamers. It would seem to be the only squid known to possess what are arguably elbows. The newness of the new squid is inexhaustible.
And it has been found just when human progress seemed to have come to a halt and was beginning to roll back on itself. The new squid represents a much-needed advance against the insurmountable ignorance that our species so enjoys reveling in, like children in a mud-puddle. At last nature is able to surprise us again, by unveiling an alien being frolicking in the depths of our own sorry world, long after most people were convinced that the secrets of the Earth had been entirely dredged up, and biology was out of tricks. It is with understandable smugness, then, that the marine biologists all point out - as a sidebar to the story of the new squid - that a full 90% of the Earth’s biosphere remains unidentified, and most of that in the utter depths of the sea.
As for the new squid itself, so far it still exists in the desirable purgatory of namelessness. Shortly, though, the marine biologists will figure out one or two things about its behavior, and then christen it for posterity and field guides, and when that happens, the new squid won’t be a new squid anymore. It will be but another granule of information ostensibly possessed by the warden of human knowledge, and like all such possessions it will be discounted, taken for granted, generally forgotten about, and somehow will wind up endangered as a result of our particular maladroitness in managing what we believe we understand. For humanity, a thrilling day in which we have further banished the shadows of ignorance from our tiny plot adrift in the infinite universe. For the new squid, a sorry transition from existing as part of the great disordered mass of Nature, to existing as a part of the self-conscious iota of Things Named by People. Elza. Anne Bonney
THREE WEEKS is pleased to return the Eavesdropper to its pages, after a temporary suspension. The reasons for the interruption are exactly the sort of arcane, trifling technicalities that should hardly interest you, otherwise it would be you, and not us, who was publishing a paper. Good enough for now is that there was no room in the last number, overflowed as that one was with exceptional material of greater import. And to be perfectly fair, none of the editors were much in the mood during the hectic crush of the holidays to mix with society, high or coarse, for the low purpose of gleaning material for this space.
Let the reader feel at ease, though, that we hereupon return to form, and present to you a few of the strands of dialogue overheard by our keen ears, on our unmentionable rounds, all for the sake of literary pleasure, anthropological curiosity, and voyeuristic satiety. It shall remain as long as the things people say still utterly fascinate us, and we remain too aloof to ever partake of the conversation ourselves; and also as long as something better does not require these columns, that might enhance our reputation.
-It’s a good idea not to get involved with your contemporaries. They mess up your ideas.
-Yeah, you’ll get messed up, it can confuse you. That’s why I stick to old stuff. I try not to see new stuff.
-Maybe when I start actually making something, I’ll avoid my contemporaries. How about you, you been making anything?
-What have you been up to? Have you made any video art?
-Don’t have a camera. I’m saving though.
-So you don’t really have to worry about being affected by new stuff, until you’re working.
-But you shouldn’t, I mean, you can’t just get hung up on doing something original. You’ll go nuts. Everything is ripped off of something else, I mean, I know that.
-Look at this. You know, when they look back on America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, they’ll say there was a great poet named Jewel.
-She’s like our Socrates.
-Number one selling poet of all time.
-Number one selling poet. There’s a weird thing to be.
-Me, I like a little structure in my poetry. Emily Dickinson.
-You like them crazy. Reclusive, supergenius crazy types.
-Sure. You’ve got to have something to complain about. Every great author is a great complainer.
-Yeah, he was complaining. “Catcher in the Rye” is full of complaints.
-Excuse me, I’m sorry, did I hear you say that Jewel is the number one selling poet of all time?
-That’s what it says here.
-Oh, that’s so depressing.
-I didn’t know so many people cared so much about poetry.
-(Do you think we’re talking too loud?)
-It’s just Jewel. People hear her name, and they’re: huh!? Number one of all time.
WINTER’S UGLIEST MOMENT
It was the Romans who decided that January, of all the months, was the one that the year should begin with, and so they named it after Janus, the two-faced god who also preceded St. Peter as the attendant at the gates of the afterlife. Janus because, being doubly phizzed, he was eminently capable of looking both forward and back at once, which is just what one does at the turning of the calendar - then, and ever.
The English had held out longer than most, insisting until well into the eighteenth century that the year began toward the end of March, but they didn’t have the fortitude to turn back the tide of Roman influence and rescue the rest of us, and make New Year’s a flowery festival. And so two millennia after its otherworldly rationale had run out, and far from the balmy climes of Caesar’s empire in which it was decreed, we still choose the night between December and January to do our celebrating - in the harshest, darkest moment of the year.
It is still Janus’ month in New York, and for his trouble we are scorched by a sun that isn’t warm, we are burned by a frigid wind that comes from two directions at once, and we are forbidden the only pleasure that winter ever promised. That is, the quietude and beauty of snowfall, awaited all autumn by the impatient and their children, until Winter finally arrives, and reminds us that it is never as idyllic as our memories claim.
Instead, concrete and bare skin are both gritty and dry, and a steady, omnidirectional gust evaporates the very tears from pedestrians’ eyes, let alone any clouds that might deliver snow, at best, or filter the ugly winter sun, at worst. It is one of the most unpleasant aspects of the whole season, the color of that sun, and the betrayal it seems to imply. For the sun to be so weak, to wheeze out such a pallid yellow illumination, and to do it from such a disadvantageous angle in the sky - it is treachery by Nature that only worsens the inevitable collective Seasonal Affective Disorder. If January’s arid wind momentarily fails to blind, then the harsh, frozen sun will find its way from low over the horizon; both of these failing, we will probably be done in by our own enervation.
It is small consolation that the days, we are told, are already growing longer. Such good news won’t really be apparent for at least another month, considering how ludicrously short our turn on the bright side of the globe has gotten. Meanwhile, millions of individuals labor under a sense of personal disaffection, struggling to haul themselves out of bed even after ten hours of sleep, straining to keep interested in waking life after five, and plodding through the jaundiced day, ashamed and perplexed that they should be so unreasonably sullen, while everybody else seems to be making due.
A good snowfall would change all this. Cold and darkness are tolerable conditions if they are accompanied by supernatural landscapes, a muffle over the city’s roar, and the unshakable giddiness of seeing familiar things disappear beneath snow. The only intriguing promise Winter offers is this one of transformation. So far, while it is Winter, yet everything remains the same.
The weather elsewhere, in the meantime, has resumed its priority in the news of the day - another one of those significant milestones that the public is on watch for, indicating our recovery from the traumas of the autumn. Seven feet of snow in Buffalo, a foot and a half in Georgia. New assurances that the global climate is warming, combined with equal portents that our current ‘interglacial epoch’ is coming to its end. Either we are plunging into a subtropical global climate in which the air will become muggy and unbreathable, and the coasts will be flooded, or we are on the brink of a new 100,000 year ice age. Scientists are, reportedly, eager to see which it will be.
As for the rest of us, and especially we Knickerbockers, it is enough to make it through another day without cracking a lip - ours or a stranger’s. Don’t misinterpret this; we are cold weather people, but it isn’t the cold weather that we like about cold weather - it’s the nifty effect it has on precipitation, and the consequent effect that has on cars, pedestrians, and work schedules. Hothouse or icebox imminent, it is perfidious January and we can’t be bothered with anything but getting through. Eph. Underhill