Obsolete, Impractical, Informative
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 6 - JANUARY 12, 2002
"A cat may look at a king."
The Shape of the Heart, by Henry William Brownejohns
Our Ongoing Indignation, by Alexander Swartwout
What People Aren't Reading, by H.W. Brownejohns and Eliza Anne Bonney
A Dream of Silks, by J. Ephrain Underhill
The Weather, by Eliza Anne Bonney
Return to Three Weeks Issues
A SUCCINCT SURVEY OF THE DISCREPANCY BETWEEN THE ORGAN AND THE ICON
And Also Some Clarifications Regarding the Fourteenth Day of February, The Cultural Significance of Which is Here only Reluctantly Acknowledged
by Henry William Brownejohns, et al
As very much as it pains your editors to lend even the slightest credence to the greeting-card company’s orchestrated dominance of this the shortest month, it is in any case required of us, as we have dedicated our time and our wills to studying this great country as it is, and not as we would like it to be. If such were the case, we could skip this entire essay, as it would be superfluous, and lack meaning, as the month would lack the so-called Valentine’s Day, and be predominated by reverence of Lincoln, the Mexican Constitution, and precognizant marmots.
But such is not the case, as the shelves of the nation’s stores so redly and sweetly attest, and the reservation books of the coziest restaurants affirm. The fourteenth of February, which is nearly upon us, has been usurped by the interests of capitalists and the overly affectionate, which inflict such an incommensurate cost upon the happiness of the rest of us.
What strikes even deeper into our sensibilities, though, is a degree of abstraction that has for so many generations gone unquestioned, and which rises to its heights at this time of year. Being the sort of people who, when we ask to know what time it is, and it is 7:08, expect to be told it is 7:08, and not ‘ten after,’ we also cannot presume that the typical intelligence is satisfied with what passes in our cultural iconography for a heart, which resembles not at all the actual cardiac muscle so mercilessly planted in our chests and ignited for what seems an interminable run of life-giving beats.
We wander through the aisles of the candy shops and the stationers, with no intention of buying anything, and with only the barest recognition of how any of this paraphernalia could either salve an isolated soul or improve one afflicted with a companion. But we are struck with curiosity about this form, , this bulbous and pointed ideogram, the meaning of which sits so deep in our subconscious, and yet the form of which is so far from the thing it ostensibly describes.
The human heart is an admirable muscle, possibly the best of all of them, if they must be set against each other. It is vaguely conical in its shape, although any description of its form can only approach a topological estimate, as the thing is, in its natural habitat, so layered with fat and gore and connected to a slew of tubular arteries that its own appearance is lost to view. There are four main chambers in it, two of them atria, two of them ventricles, and they are connected to each other by discrete valves like the rooms of a low-rent duplex. The interaction of these chambers, by which I mean their sequential contraction and relaxation, is so intricate and mathematically elaborate that the world’s most powerful supercomputers are only as yet able to crudely approximate it - thus the difficulty of formulating artificial replacements. And of course the whole purpose of the thing is to thoroughly pump blood through the body, ensuring healthful coloration and a few other benefits.
Now, a being descended to our planet with no capacity for symbolic recognition might find it peculiar that in the coming days, people will be giving each other as gestures of goodwill representations of this circulatory organ that sits ordinarily in every chest. Such an alien must also find curiosity in these gifts’ crude resemblance to an actual heart, which, at this late date in our technological development, is a familiar enough object to be more skillfully rendered. If the reader is at all as curious an individual as my fictive extraterrestrial - and woe if he is not - then he also wonders at this disparity.
It so happens that the heart within which our chocolates are delivered is not at all the anatomical heart, but something quite a bit more vague, and ancient. As an ideogram, such a heart as this is thousands of years old, appearing on Neolithic cave walls, pre-Columbian American pottery, and Bronze-Age European artifacts. It is doubtful that even our Stone-Age ancestors were such lousy draughtsmen that they intended this symmetric blossom to represent the grisly giblets within our chest, and certain that by the ascendance of Bronze-Age civilization, an artist could not, if he wanted, make a better picture of an anatomically correct ticker; rather, the best theories available suggest that the very makeup of the heart-shape holds its own (non-biological) significance.
I have it from some very dependable symbologists that the lines of the heart ideogram suggest, in their origination at a base and convergence from two arcs at the top, the abstract Coming Together of Two, or Convergence; this can be compared to an equally ancient sign, which seems to be the opposite of the heart shape:
This one represents One-Becomes-Two, the un-heart, and it was developed into a symbol for growth, and division. It is not too much of a leap to recognize how the heart-shape’s linear indication of Convergence was soon interpreted to mean the joining of two people, or tribes, or gods, or anything, in some kind of union. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, heart-shapes often gave way to Divergence glyphs, suggesting the formation of the family, and then the resulting offspring.
Reflecting on the ancient significance of the heart-shape, it pleases me to consider this: that the iconic language inscribed every day on the Home-Ec notebooks of millions of teenaged girls, describing their sought-after union with Chad the quarterback, is virtually unchanged from the one carved into the dank walls of oil-lit caves thousands of years ago. With only a little more pictographic sophistication, they could represent their whole familial fantasy - children, house in the suburbs, a sensible car.
Before I am too near the subject of Love, and the heart’s suggestion of same, let me depart, for a moment, from discussion of the heart-shape, to elucidate the historical significance of the heart-metaphor itself. Anatomically, of course, the human heart is located as near to the center of the body as our ungainly form will allow us to estimate. This, in league with its long-known function of circulating the blood, has made it the most overburdened metaphorical object in our entire lexicon.
The heart being central (its Latin name, cor, gives us core), and being that region of the body where many of our visceral reflex reactions take place (though these are more often contractions of the diaphragm and the intercostalis muscles), it was a short inferential leap for our primitive ancestors to say that here also must be the essence of our personality - our will and our wit. The heart has long been presumed the home of courage, sentiment, and passion - again, in large part due to the involuntary contraction of surrounding muscles in situations of heightened awareness, and of course the necessary increase in heart-rate at such times.
The heart was the only organ included with the body during mummification in pharaonic Egypt, a requirement imposed by the residence of the life-essence in that organ. (That the pictogrammatical Egyptians indeed paid such attention to the anatomical heart further debunks the supposition that the ideogrammatic heart-shape is nothing more than poor likeness of it; the Egyptian hieroglyph for the anatomical heart is in fact a vase.)
Through its significance in the ancient tarot, the heart was used as one of the four icons found in standard card decks when they came to prominence as an entertainment in the Middle Ages, and as a (female) sign for love, family, and growth, it was given secondary significance only to the (male) spade, or sword ideogram, which stood for strength, reason, and death. The tertiary diamond, incidentally, is rather a cornered square which stands for energy and courage, and the club is a symbol for dumb luck, and money, making it the least of the suits.
The metaphorical/anatomical heart has even served a good deal of time as the presumed seat of intelligence - the Greeks under Aristotle had vague notions about the brain being run by the heart rather than the other way around, and in the Middle East and India the concept was abstracted further, in that the heart was the literal abode of divinity, which guided mortal intelligence. God’s presence in the hearts of men returned to Europe with the Christians, whose cross-shaped churches, presumably meant to signify the body of Jesus Christ, find their altars in the analogous location of the heart.
Travelling south from the chest, though, there is also a long tradition of groin-devotion and bowel-worship, which delegates some of the emotional significance of the heart to less romantic organs. A fellow in a real jam, of course, will feel constriction in his chest, certainly, but he will also likely experience some sensation in his stomach and elsewhere. This biological coincidence, and a few mystical superstitions about the vertical axis of the body, resulted in a cultural confusion of purpose between the mind, the heart, and the nethers.
So at last we get to Love, which, being that most sanctified capacity of humanity, was of course presumed to originate in the center of the person, in their heart. In those cultures that were earlier described as descended from the cave artists who signified Two-becomes-One as , it was an inevitable connection between this symbol and the organ from which its sentiment ostensibly originated.
This means, though, that other cultures, which could not keep from noticing how much of Love seems to occur not in the heart, but in the gut, this same symbol of Two-becomes-One, of Convergence, came to represent the bowels. For example, many Scandinavian unisex toilets are still represented thusly: .
Examining our marginally less scatological cultural heritage, we now can see the connection between the heart-shape and the metaphorical significance of the anatomical heart; the two forms are unrelated entities which are connected by their association with physical love. Hypothetically, then, if a cultural tradition had been passed down which supposed that love originated in, say, the knees, and they shared our same ideogrammatic heritage, than to them would signify those femoral hinges, as to us it signifies the engine of the circulatory system.
The reader will forgive me for passing over the limitless other metaphorical meanings of the heart, which, having understood the divided origins of the object itself, are at once perfectly obvious to the sharp-minded symbolist, and largely uninteresting. A heart on fire, for example, indicates strong passions, such as religious fervor. You are invited to run with your instincts from there.
Now, if only history were written by the simplistic imps who bring us our televised entertainment, I would be able to lazily report the story of St. Valentine, patron of love, whose symbol would be a big, frilly, red heart. He would have died of flaying by rose bushes, or high blood sugar, on February 14th, and thus we celebrate his memory annually by feigning love through exorbitant spending. Sadly, none of this is true, and it cannot even be faithfully reported that there ever was a St. Valentine.
In fact, there are at least a half dozen of them in the canon, though, the Church’s bookkeeping being what it is, people have lost track, and there may be even more. Two of them even have their feast day on February 14th, making it difficult to believe that there is any one amorous martyr responsible for the greeting-card company’s windfall. Those two, incidentally, were beheaded, not force-fed truffles; and one being a priest, and the other a bishop, there is little in any of their stories to suggest courtly romance.
A surer derivation is the ancient wisdom of the Romans, who knew - the way that we know no two snowflakes are alike - that on the median day in February, all the birds choose their mates for the coming year, and thus get to the work that will bring about hatchlings by springtime. This day was known as Lupercalia, the feast of a particular woodland sprite, and only tangentially something of a Roman patriotic holiday; and one which passed down a long tradition of exchanging gifts with a secretly chosen companion, in sympathy to the birds doing the same in the trees.
Familiarity with Lupercalia faded with the fall of the empire, but by this time both the Valentines had been martyred, and it made sense to transfer the February traditions onto the concurrent religious feasts. By the eighteenth century, it seems, the confusion was complete, and people were exchanging secret notes containing either ribald witticisms or missives of unspeakable desire. It would be another couple of centuries before this could be adequately industrialized, institutionalized, and brutally enforced by overwhelming cultural homogeneity upon millions of otherwise understimulated plebeians. But happily we have so arrived.
All of this, anyway, remains subject to debate, because there is also some suggestion that the day described thus by Chaucer - “...on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” - was actually May 2, a more climatically appropriate time for the pursuit of Eros, and coincidentally another of the feast days of the many St. Valentines. I mention this only as a reprieve for desperate - and solitary - skeptics, who will accept any ammunition against the imminent tribulation of the fourteenth. It is always possible that the whole thing oughtn’t to properly take place until May, and by then, quite possibly, your luck will have changed.
DEVELOPMENTS IN BRUNCH
In response to our missive against the sprawling of brunch service across all the hours of the day, or coincident to it, two of our local gastronomeries have adjusted their weekend hours. One has extended their opening to 10 a.m., where it had previously been 11; and the other has extended brunch’s end to a decadent 4:45 p.m., from 4. The retentive reader will notice that this first adjustment is in favor of our proposition that brunch, being at least half breakfast, should be available in the morning, while the second maneuver is an affront to our intention of reigning in this anarchic meal, to keep it from contaminating the evening, and to recover a semblance of civility to the weekend.
Mr. Brownejohns has found some meager satisfaction, in that all this validates his theory of the intrinsic nature of Progress and Regress - every improvement is matched by, at minimum, an equivalent corruption. The rest of us, who have long been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, only worry that this ongoing tinkering with its simplicity is a sure sign that old Rome is due for a fall.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION, OUR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS, AND THE MISPERCEPTION OF BROKEN PROMISES
Nothing grates at the editor’s hearts more than that the Notices page for the last five numbers of this paper has seemed more and more like a senseless and desperate collection of lies, formulated by the publisher, perhaps for the purpose of continually enticing those readers who are otherwise not enticed by us. Promises have been repeated in this space that as soon as circumstances are right, the readers will be able to enjoy dispatches from around the globe, directly beside the usual honorable prose of the domestic staff. Also, we have several times requested that our readers, if they have a dilemma in their lives that seems too baroque for their own addled minds to solve, should send those to us, so that we might offer a resolution which is as rational and as sensible as any of the sentiments in this paper. None of this, obviously, has yet come to fruition. Still, we wish it to be known that the Conflict Resolution Program is a standing offer, and should one of our loyalists find themselves inextricably bound by puzzlement and misfortune, they should not hesitate but to explain it to us, and await our wise counsel. We just do not believe that the people who read this publication are free of troubles, and couldn’t use our help. And as for our foreign correspondents, we insist that they do exist. If we do not fraternize with the most reliable people in the world, we surely think their insightfulness and eloquence are worth the anguish. As we have been hearing it, postage continues to be rejected, embassy mailrooms continue to be looted, third-world mail-sorters continue to censor and destroy epistles, and exotic animals, including a whole catalogue of small primates, continue to show their brutal disdain for the written word and for sheets of paper in general. We take comfort in that the sheer laws of probability suggest that we are due to receive one of our correspondent’s notes any moment now, and that the high-flown reader of international reportage should simply desist, and put their faith in us.
OUR ONGOING INDIGNATION
THE INTELLECTUAL LEFT UNDERACHIEVES
Why We Remain Petulant, and Why That is OK
And Why the President’s Diction Matters
by Alexander Swartwout
An unwelcome segment of the population, which I will here call the Good Sports, surfaced in the immediate wake of the convoluted election of 2000, and began stroking the rage of both sides, insisting that it would not be worthwhile to seethe for four years, no matter who was eventually appointed to the presidency. That such spineless shills are abundant in this country is no great surprise; much of the criminal manipulation of our gullible population is fomented by these Good Sports, convincing us that everything is for the best, and that if things don’t fall our way, then maybe our way wasn’t meant to be. The Good Sports have annulled the consciences of Americans to the selfishness of giant vehicles, and the preposterous cost, both material and moral, of designer sneakers and sweatshirts. The average, kindly, mild-tempered American consumer approaches his Ford dealership possibly uncertain that a seventeen-foot, four-ton Expedition is just what he needs; and to say nothing about the soothing words of the car salesman himself, the most persuasive voice in favor might be that of the Good Sport - who could be a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, anybody with both an inkling of political awareness, and a plenitude of nihilism. Go ahead, they will say, some people may think it’s wrong, but you truly need one, and besides, soon enough scientists will be able to reverse whatever damage you do to the atmosphere, and you can have a new electric engine installed. It’s OK, for now, go ahead. This is the motto of the Good Sportsman, the one that makes losing a fixed game OK, or not living up to your highest principle a forgivable transgression. Some of us occasionally act as unwitting Good Sports on our own, convincing ourselves or others that one little breach of our standards is nothing to be too concerned about, that just one candy-bar wrapper thrown into the street isn’t anything to beat ourselves up over.
As I have said, that such figures are plentiful among us is no great surprise. What was most astonishing about the Good Sports who appeared after the Supreme Court anointed George W. Bush to the presidency was how many of them were members of the intellectual left - and beyond this, how many of these Good Sports didn’t even know they were members of the ‘intellectual left’ - a point which I will get to in good time. (Notice that I have neglected to capitalize it; a group with as large an unwitting membership as this remains a generality. Marxists know they are Marxists. Red Sox fans know they are Red Sox fans. But the American intellectual left is largely unaware of itself.)
I would like to make a demonstration of Good Sportsmanship, or the enabling of contented defeatism and the relaxation of righteous vexation. The reader can easily identify themselves as a member of this lowly group if they have only barely made it to this paragraph, and have already expressed irritation at being forced by the editors of this paper to revisit, once again, the subject of that forsaken election of 2000. If your eyes have rolled, your lungs have exhaled to excess, or your tongue has muttered anything obliquely synonymous to ‘Enough already,’ or ‘Give it a rest,’ then you may well be a Good Sport. Perhaps you have told others, the complaints of whom you had grown tired of humoring, that it is over, it was last year, it is time to move on. Maybe you are content with the results of the whole process, maybe you are not; in any case, you have first conceded your own indignation, and now you are assisting others. And yet to me, and indeed to any philosopher with his scruples intact, it is only natural that there should be no statute of limitations on a breach of civil process as egregious as the election of 2000, nor should the passage of a year petrify our outraged ethical sensibilities, and cause us to forget such things merely for our health.
Now, it is granted that nearly half of the voters in this country are apt to be perfectly content with the status quo, having themselves placed their vote in that election for the man who now holds the office. And their exasperation at any revisitation of it is not so much Good Sportsmanship as simply the victor wishing to enjoy his spoils. But, dutifully circumambulating among the youthful, the refined, and the generally left-leaning social caste, I have found most of the shushing and pleading for closure seems to me to have come not from the boastful victors, but from the losing side, of all places, and furthermore, from the intelligentsia of that side.
It does not escape my attention that even readers of this lofty pamphlet might find discomfort in the use of such words as intellectual and intelligentsia. To the over-compensated leftist it smacks of elitism to speak of his intelligence as if it were anything that might distinguish him from the so-called masses. It is only a testament to his lack of it, then, if he is truly persuaded that this makes any sense. Throughout the history of human civilization, the intellectual - artists, writers, scientists, ponderous thinkers, and the humanely and liberally educated in general - has existed as a discrete entity of society. The ‘masses,’ meanwhile, have historically been politically disengaged, most people not having the disposition, the social advantages, nor the desire to concern themselves beyond the scope of their most proximate concerns. Surely there are members of the commonwealth who, provided better advantages and opportunities, would find in themselves the need and capacity to exercise as an intellectual, but it is never to be a universal impulse; it is not within the scope of nature to provide an entire population with identical ambitions. And so, it has been the occasional good fortune of the general population that the ‘intellectual elite’ has often been graced with, in addition to fortunate birth and mental proclivity, a streak of humanitarian sympathy; and from this we come to the long tradition of the leftist intelligentsia, which has often, though not always, fallen on the side of the common majority against the powerful few.
But enter the current era, and not only will you have difficulty finding anybody willing to accept the informal title of intellectual, but you will not even be able to find one who might admit that he is favored by any excellence of mind or reason. The intellectual left, which of course is exactly the sort who founded this country, for the enjoyment of all, is no longer willing to admit to its existence, out of fear, I think, of offending the sensibilities of two hundred and fifty million avowed commoners. The man who has been coaxed into proudly calling himself Joe Six-Pack, and prides himself on the considerable accomplishment of holding a job, raising a family, and offering his children a better opportunity in their maturity, when asked a hundred times, would not feel a lick of shame in admitting that he wasn’t any sort of ‘intellectual,’ regardless of his opinion of his own intelligence. The intellectual, meanwhile, whether a college-trained political scientist or an academy-trained artist, will, a hundred times as often, deny that he is any different from Joe Six-Pack, even if his degree, his ambition, and his enjoyment of mental exercise all speak otherwise; and he will do it because he fears either his own exceptionalism, or a breach of the social equilibrium that he feels must be enforced to a fault. Consequently, this denial of identity among the young generation of American intellectuals makes them an inferior bunch, as would a marathoner who doesn’t want anybody to know he runs, be a lousy marathoner. There are those who go so far as to conceal their intelligence, who actually prefer to pretend to not know something, or believe in anything philosophical, than to be pegged as a thinker, and get caught up in what they perceive as the nonegalitarian politics of social formulation.
These are the most surprising ones. Intelligent, conferred, thoughtful, urbane members of the indisputable intellectual class who, in the wake of the 2000 election were playing Good Sports, and begging their compeers not to carry a grudge for the whole term, and insisting that things weren’t really so bad. When, in November of 2001, the results of the final Florida vote as tallied by the consortium of independent media outlets were released, and it was apparent that the Supreme Court’s decision was contrary to that much-touted specter the Will of the People, the Good Sports reemerged, many of them this time on the pages of the newspapers and on the screens of the networks, and assured everybody that there was no reason to re-inflame our emotions and analyze our mistakes too closely - the deed was done and things weren’t so bad, after all. The Economist ran a wry editorial correction, apologizing for every usage of the phrase ‘President George W. Bush’ it had printed up until then, but this was a rare case. The New York Times, meanwhile, notoriously reported the story of the final tally in such a labyrinthine manner that its presumably literate readership came away unsure just what they had been told. The Times’ headline suggested that the recount had found Mr. Bush an indisputable victor, but the text of the article, in fairly comprehensible, if disordered, Timesian English, seemed to say that he was only the winner in one very specific way, and in a half dozen less stringent ways, he kept coming up short. It was a squeamish and dodgy editorial style, unforgivable even with the argument that in wartime, it won’t help anything to go and declaim the commander-in-chief. More to the point, this was the impotent elite of the left, consoling themselves that such things happen to the best men.
In fact things are as bad as they can be. The low self-esteem of the left has infected their alleged vicars in the halls of power, and the Bush Administration is running rampant and unopposed through the china shop of our already flawed republic: memos drafted by conservative think-tankers (who are careful not to call themselves intellectuals either, at the risk of associating themselves with liberalism or coffee-shop hedonism) are circulating about cracking down on the treasonous statements of college professors who are examining the war with dreaded and unpatriotic objectivity; the promise of the last ten years, of relieving the vast middle class from its overwhelming debt, and its even more dire looming Social Security insolvency, has been cashed in, in just six months of handouts to energy and industrial conglomerates; and the Executive branch has wrapped itself in a veil of secrecy that is choking off the economy, the environment, and what remains of America’s international reputation.
There is, in any case, no rationale for abandoning the position that the election was criminally inadequate. Not even the sunniest moralist would expect to reverse what is now history, but what is the cost of maintaining one’s outrage? This is not a banana republic whose stability is threatened every time the smarty-pants ask hard questions of the authorities. It matters not that we are at war, or that new enemies have made themselves known and have thrown down their gauntlets. If anything, it gives this country’s opposition leverage in their own skewed rationales, that if America cannot even maintain its own multifarious ideals without smoothing over its disagreements with delusion, then it surely must be the seat of evil that they have presumed it to be.
Mr. Bush, or his more acute advisers, have sensed the identity crisis of the intellectual left as well. Mr. Bush is of course a ready target for pedantic criticism, for his frequent difficulties with basic grammar and the logic of speech. But the schoolmarms of the intelligentsia have been all too squeamish to make any connection between such well-documented failures of verbal expression and the absence of lucidity and mental nuance it suggests resides in the office of the presidency. Rather, Mr. Bush is kidded affably for his gaffes, and they are turned into a coffee table book - one from which he reads, incidentally, at fundraisers and conferences, good-naturedly poking fun at his leaden tongue, and downplaying the real weight of lingual errors like calling his Pakistani allies the derogatory “Pakis,” and turning Hispanic into a verb. It may be too much to expect Lincoln every time - or it may not - but as this paper happens to be concurrent with the Great Emancipator’s birthday, it is worth considering the magnitude of the discrepancy. I hold that, quite simply, if someone cannot formulate a clear and subtle thought into even a semblance of a reasonable sentence, then he does not possess the mental tools, which indeed must be extraordinary, necessary to steer the world’s largest government. This should not be an excessive demand upon the individual given the highest office in the land, and it is not a concern that for any reason ought to be lessened with time, if the situation is not improved. Beyond this, by my historically dampened standards, it is only fantasy that a statesman might also cast phrases so eloquent that they remain to inspire for generations beyond their utterance.
Yet, persuaded by Mr. Bush’s good-natured self-mockery, even his critics fail to make any such connection, and in turn they come to his defense. I have heard too often from the lips even of anarchists that it isn’t worth nitpicking the man’s grammar, only his policies. Intellectuals and reasonable people who should be outwardly dismayed that such a flagrant rube has been carried to the highest seat of power instead feel guilty about criticizing his powers of verbalization. At some point, it simply became uncouth to make mental acuity a qualifier for any sort of occupation. It is affirmative action - that great conundrum of the American left - taken to ridiculous extremes. It does not matter the color of one’s skin, or the origin of one’s descent, or the strength of one’s body, to be afforded the same opportunities as any and all human beings; yet in a frenzy of over-compensatory egalitarianism, now it does not matter either the capacity of one’s cerebrum.
But of course it should, and there is nothing more disheartening than finding oneself preaching to his own slouching choir before being able to take it outside the church; yet that is where we stand. It is simply an exaggeration of idealism to think that a carpenter in Buffalo or a firefighter in Sacramento possess the same facilities and the same ambitions as a sculptor in New York City or an editor in San Francisco. Even through the atman of this distantly clutched paper I can feel the social guilt seeping out of the readership’s fingertips, as if to make such statements as this is to make unforgivable judgements against the ‘filthy plebes’. Rather, I am justly reiterating the obvious and fortuitous multiplicity of our society. An able and cognizant intellectual left is the very best champion of the typically disengaged general population - they are not, as they seem to fear, their latent taskmasters or a detached, snooty elite caste, if properly engaged.
This is why the paltry performance of the American intelligentsia is so troubling. It is merely aggravating to be told by my own ideological peers that my indignation is only stubbornness, and that nothing is as serious as I make it out to be. But it seems certifiably apocalyptic when these same closet intellectuals cannot even perform in their own shadowy cloisters of civil discourse. All too many of the Good Sports in the intellectual left simply do not even know that there are referable election results to be had, they do not know of the machinations of the wartime Bush Administration, they do not know, as this paper stated in its inaugural issue, who their damned congressional representatives are - they seem to aspire to the mediocrity which has been iconized as the zenith of American intellectual life, by the media, and by those in power.
As an example, consider this sadly forgotten episode: during the final debate for the New York State Senate seat between Long Island congressman Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Clinton included a quotation from E.B. White in her closing statement, an effort at establishing solidarity with some literate New Yorkers still skeptical about her devotion to her new state. While Mr. Lazio naively pleaded the fifth, no less a prominent figure than George Pataki, Governor of New York, and major t-bar in the wobbly scaffold of George W. Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism movement, chastised Mrs. Clinton not for the content of her arguments, but for lifting a quote from such an obscure source as this White character. Mr. Pataki didn’t know who the guy was - and it wasn’t so much that he was putting his own ignorance on display (Mr. White, besides being one of the twentieth century’s, and New York’s, most prominent authors, also hailed from the same hometown as Mr. Pataki), but his contempt for Mrs. Clinton’s intellect, which had dared to use literature as a lodestar, and not common cultural trivia or speechwritten rhetoric. A large segment of the New York Republican delegation made fools of themselves that day, backing up Mr. Pataki’s avid ignorance, but they were playing a card handed to them from the national office.
Throughout that season’s campaign, Mr. Bush’s camp lobbed accusations of bookishness, nerdiness, and snootiness at his opposition, mainly Al Gore. It was a sinister perversion of populism, which had for a hundred years served the Democrats, but now was portraying them as the elitists, the booksmart do-gooders out of touch with Joe Six-Pack. And most remarkable of all, nobody was as convinced of this as the intellectual left themselves. After an upbringing watching the charming-dumb characters in their sitcoms and b-movies getting the girl without fail, now the Republican campaign against intelligence had firmly established the fact in the whole of the American consciousness that to be smart was to be out of touch, and there was no greater crime than detachment in our newly utopian pantisocracy. The Republicans have for a decade now been marching to the drumbeat of ‘Values,’ and not once has intelligence or curiosity been among those. Maybe once these were desirable, but now they are framed as sins against the innocently simple, writhing masses of humanity
That this rightist, anti-intellectual usurpation of populism was and is a perfect fallacy, the humiliated left is too pusillanimous to point out. Mr. Bush’s amiable doltishness has so far served as an impenetrable cover for a plutocracy and nothing else, while his entourage has discovered the silver bullet against the opposition - continually debase their self-esteem. Any criticism reeking even slightly of academism is quickly labeled elitist sniping, and nobody has cowered faster than the academics and their protegés.
The American intellectual must commit himself to a thorough self-examination, reconstruct his overcooked spine, and persuade himself that there is no shame in utilizing his curiosity and intelligence. The American intellectual must be true to himself; firstly, by determining once and for all whether he is an intellectual, or if he would prefer an unchallenged subsistence in the great amoeba of the American public. Are you intelligent; content, or still aspirant; do you socialize with that class historically known as intellectuals, with artists, writers, philosophers, scientists; do you possess curiosity about profound universal questions and arcane esoteric ones; do you appreciate the history of human knowledge and have some innate desire to contribute to it, or to possess it entirely; at any time do your considerations extend to the whole of humanity and the entirety of history, or are your concerns limited to your own situation, and the present moment? This is not a Cosmopolitan magazine quiz, where we can numerically assure you that you are a member of the group, but it might help to give some indication towards it.
Lastly, the American intellectual must determine if he is truly ashamed of himself, as he has been persuaded to be by the psychological campaigning of the true elite, the aristocracy (which, do not be mistaken, only feigns simplicity for political gain - they are intellectuals too, and confident ones, for their wealth); or if, properly dedicated, he might apply himself for the betterment of his society, in spite of the perceived snickerings of the proverbial football team.
by Henry William Brownejohns
It is by now well enough known that my respected colleague Mr. Swartwout is prone to get into a fever in his essaying, and for this his esteem is only increased in our view. It is probably less common knowledge that his fevers tend to come only in very close proximity to the printer’s deadline for this paper, which, though we are fiercely independent people, is nevertheless an unbending and unalterable fixed point in time, our printer being adamant and physically gifted.
Mr. Swartwout will seem to be a man of perfectly even keel for two full weeks, until suddenly he disappears on a gloomy Sunday evening, and returns to the office on Monday afternoon all bedraggled and clutching a sheaf of papers, containing an essay such as the one above. So it very often falls to my pleasure to sort through Mr. Swartwout’s more fervent passages with little time to offer him suggestions or time for revision, before the thing must be made decent and readied for press. This is the blessing we bestowed upon ourselves by setting our publication schedule as we have, and it is one of those blessings that one often counts only reluctantly, as it frequently seems to be disguised as an onus instead.
As regards the opinion stated above, I felt it was important to make an observation of my own, it being too late to properly confer with my associate, and integrate such thoughts into a less irascible draft. And that is to point out that Mr. Swartwout, in bringing his judgement against the intellectual class in America, is nevertheless writing from a stance that presumes that there is an intelligent class in this country. It is a testament to Mr. Swartwout’s being more humanitarian than basilisk that he intuitively starts from such a generous position, when it could have been as credible to argue that rather than underperforming, the intellectual class is simply absent. Many a demagogue, indeed, might start from the premise that people are as exactly as light-minded as they seem to be, and that the phenomena brought forth above, like the Republican slanderings of intelligent discourse as ‘detached bookishness,’ really are just the knee-jerk movements of a horde of rubes who have come to political prominence in this country.
Upon examination however, there is little logic to such a scenario; while Mr. Bush may or may not be a harbinger of a more slow-witted, more straight-talkin’ American political scene, it is difficult to believe that the whole ascendance of his movement was not orchestrated by some very able intellects. Few people doubt the savvy of Mr. Cheney or the rationality of Mr. Powell, and as many really believe that Mr. Bush truly stumbled to power on his own accord. The intellectual right is alive and well, it would seem, only they have tactfully discarded the title, and turned it against their opponents in the venue of the American public.
Still, it is remarkable that Mr. Swartwout can put on a display of such facundious bile that is at once rooted in a conceit to the magnificent inherent capabilities of the human intellect. Mr. Swartwout is giving the public intelligence the benefit of the doubt, which in such a hard-headed and unsubtle era is a fair leap for a devoted skeptic.
And, having some sense of the nature of Mr. Swartwout’s fevers, I tend to believe that he does not even see his own exceptional contradiction, and so I here lay it out for reader and author alike. I think it is also necessary for the very purpose that Mr. Swartwout illustrates - to draw out the cowering American intellectual, who so apparently hides from loud noises and harsh words, but needs to recognize the extraordinary opportunities afforded him by his station, a thing he has only Fortune and Chance to thank, both of whom he ought to, profusely. And then he may proudly take up his principles and act nobly by them. 3W
WHAT PEOPLE AREN’T READING
IMPLICATIONS OF A FINAL VISIT TO THE COLISEUM BOOKSTORE
by H.W. Brownejohns and Eliza Anne Bonney
By the time you have come to be stooped over these words, and have begun to comprehend them, the Coliseum Bookstore on 57th Street will already be closed, and it will be too late for the as-yet unrepentant reader to go there and throw themselves in the way of the locomotive of commerce, which has doomed that noble place to oblivion, or relocation. At this belated date, not only have the most dedicated bibliophiles in the city had their chance to pay their last respects, but every publication in the metropolitan region, from major newspapers to neighborhood coupon circulars, has had its turn at a sentimental eulogy for the Coliseum, all adhering to that journalistic formula reserved for the shuttering of any venerable, family-owned business giving way to Progress and the Corporate Future. You have likely read articles of this sort posthumously and melancholically praising delicatessens of unparalleled homemade knishes; typewriter-repair shops whose noble purpose has been served and whose obsolescence is admitted with geriatric stoicism; inherited haberdasheries whose stubbornness to the changing of fashions was only matched by their reluctance to pay the increases in their regulated rent. Lately, all of this nostalgic journalistic energy has been turned upon the woebegone independent bookstore, idiosyncratic, disheveled, beloved by too few, and regretfully bowled over by the influx of enormous corporate franchises. Dozens of such tales have been told in the past few years, and the Coliseum has been thus portrayed at least as much since it announced the expiration of its lease in the fall. Only the Voice had the temerity to mention that such institutions only make it into the news when they are on their death-beds - the reporter’s sympathy is a stance assumed only after he has been invited to the wake.
The whole teary ritual is frankly revolting to this paper, however, and there shall be no repetition of such sentiments here. The deed is, by now, done; the city is forever changed; nothing shall ever be the same again; and it would be a waste of our skill to summon up the flowery language appropriate for mourning. Rather, the closing of the Coliseum seemed a rare opportunity to learn something, much in the manner that the discovery of the last clan of a remote aboriginal tribe, though it be surely doomed, may still offer some glimmer of its customs to an attentive anthropologist.
So, one week before its final closing, with clearance discounts exceeding 50 and 60 percent, we visited the Coliseum to inventory what was left. Instead of recounting what we know and what we remember and what we like and what we will miss about the bookstore, we chose to use its demise as a gauge to better measure the mood and interest of the metropolitan public. Being as keen as we are to the frugality of the American people, and their scavenger instincts, we hypothesized that whatever had not yet been swept off the shelves of the Coliseum might then indicate the negative space of the public taste, by which the actual form of that vaporous object might then be inferred.
Most of the shelves were indeed already bare, and the aisles were buzzing with a solemn, ravenous crowd, to whom a comparison with a pack of pea-coated hyenas tempts us too much to skip. Patience and civility existed only as the barest membrane against anarchy, and equilibrium was only maintained by the universal focus of eyes upon the spines of books. It was in this charged environment that Ms. Bonney and myself set out to conduct our inventory.
In our first turn through the place, we noted only those items which nobody seemed to want among the best-sellers, new releases, and featured items. After four weeks of cut-rate discounts and frenzied end-of-the-world salesmanship, we found still intact stacks of the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, the 2002 Guinness Book of World Records, and the Office Kama Sutra. Possibly reflecting the American public’s short attention span for current events, or the publishing industry’s hyperactive reflexes and lousy accounting, there was also a considerable remaining supply of Bin Laden, the Man Who Declared War on America, Holy War, Inc., and Taliban. The Unfinished Election of 2000 also mouldered in its shrink-wrap, testifying more concretely to the scant stamina of public interest, let alone public indignation. Happier indicators, perhaps, were that nobody wanted much to do with Danny Bonaduce’s Random Acts of Badness, or Alan Dershowitz’s Shouting Fire, either.
In the Art section, it seemed we might find a good abstraction of the public mood, by measuring against those books which not even the most passé socialite was willing to lay on their coffee table. Rousseau was doing poorly, though we weren’t sure what this meant; Blake was also, although it’s possible that the populace is just tired of him, considering his recent retrospectives, and of course his notorious sugary richness. There weren’t any Surrealists lingering around, but Surrealism, a veritable grindstone of a book, and probably a narcotic one, remained untouched. M.C. Escher, conundrumist of mathematics and visual design, and muse of high school boys who dislike sports, also had yet to be grabbed up; while Charles Russell, the magnificent painter of cowboys, and presumably, muse of grade school boys who do like sports, sat idle and unwanted beside Alfred Stieglitz - who is just plain out of style. A book called After Raphael, Painting in Central Italy in the 16th Century had, probably, only its publishers to blame; and Beauty, Honor, and Tradition; the Legacy of Plains Indians’ Shirts, by Joseph and George Horse Capture, had both its publishers and History to fault for its neglect.
In Travel, there was only abundant evidence that few people were bound for Kenya, Syria, Poland, and Portugal. Even fewer were headed for Menorca, or Languedoc and Rousillon, though the dearth of atlases in Reference suggested that people now at least know where those places are. Domestically, several Texas and Atlanta guidebooks remained as testimony to those locations’ absence on the itineraries of the American vacationer; neither did America’s National Parks inspire anyone, though probably because it is widely known how those places have been soundly pillaged by the industrialist consorts of the current administration. The same might be said, come to think of it, of Texas and Atlanta. And the prevalence of Gay and Lesbian Europe indicates that either this group feels it is a sage time to stick close to the hearth, or that travelling to Europe is fairly accomplished with sexual neutrality, and at competitive prices.
Holding as we do a low estimate of the cognitive fortitude of the general American public, we were therefore most surprised by what books had been passed over in the Coliseum’s admirable Science section. Our cynicism suggested that we would find Einstein, Darwin, Feynman, Gardner, and Gould all undisturbed, while full-color intellectual pornography such as the New York Times Book of Natural Disasters or Bobbi Low’s Why Sex Matters long sold out to the lascivious herds. To our astoundment, we instead found almost none of those noble names formerly listed, but inventoried the lingering stock thusly: David Bainbridge’s Making Babies, Sex, A Natural History, Lesley Rogers’ Sexing the Brain, Laura Marks’ Sexual Chemistry, Ed Ricciutti’s The Snake Almanac, Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, and the Myth of Monogamy by David Barash, PhD., and Judith Eve Lipton, PhD. - two doctors whose objectivity on their subject we frankly question. Granted, the Great Theorist was represented, but only by the remedial Quotable Einstein. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology remained, but in only a cheap paperback edition, and we suppose that devotees of that classic will mainly want theirs hard-bound. The ubiquitous Lives of a Cell was also there, but we have come to believe that that very book has itself become capable of asexual replication, and wouldn’t be surprised if a hundred people had bought a copy, and one still remained on the shelf. Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics was still available, which we took as a sign, of all things, that literary postmodernism has finally passed, or that its practitioners are no longer aware of their heritage. And the whole of Wolfgang Pauli’s five-book lecture series was untouched, meaning that the common man has either finally got the hang of electron theory and electrodynamics, or he has ceased to care. Similar thoughts for Alexandropov’s Combinatorial Topology, which, at sixty percent off, we would have expected someone to snatch up if only for the stature it would lend to a dolt’s bookshelf.
At last we made our way to Literature, which at the Coliseum has always been a formidable aisle, compressing the browser between a wall of newer editions and modern works, and a partition thoroughly laden with paperback classics of every pedigree. By the time of this visit, the whole arrangement had been combined into a mishmash of high and low, new and old, like the pipe dream of a surly postmodernist graduate student in comparative literature. There were a gathering of wafer-thin Sam Becketts, including Stirrings Still, which lingered probably because it is just 28 pages of twenty-point type, and can be read more quickly than the reviews on its jacket. Also was Westward, Ho, not too far from S.J. Perelman’s Eastward, Ha, neither of which we think deserve such neglect, though we can more easily understand it of the former.
We found Ambrose Bierce, Heinrich Böll, Bertholdt Brecht, and Harold Brodkey, all of whose once prominent cults have apparently faded - and bringing our count of disparaged Nobel Prizes to two. (We would soon come across a single copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, technically making it three, but which would help us to see things the people’s way a little better.)
Of all the worldly leavings of the merciless Brontë clan, only Charlotte’s Juvenilia remained, perpetuating the mystery of her appeal, while next door, Stephen Crane suffered from one of the most considerable cases of disregard in the whole store - the Red Badge of Courage being as widely available at sixty percent off as it was at list. Whatever is indicated by this, it seems like a prominent feature of the current public taste, and we invite somebody with more time and better focus to study it for us.
Of Dickens, whose works may as well be used for reef-building for their profusion, only Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby could be had, and only one copy each. It seems more likely to us that Dickens was snatched up quickly for his utility in home-improvement - stepladders, high-chairs, window-jams - than for any further contribution to literature, which must by now surely be utterly maximized. The same struck us about the presence of only one Henry James novel, Roderick Hudson at that, though the Earth must by now be shouldering an ocean’s weight of them.
There were too many copies, we felt, of Peter Carey, and not enough of Douglas Coupland, although there were three of each. There were probably just enough of James Fenimore Cooper, mainly The Deerslayer, whose luck never recovered from his terminal handling by Twain. There was, as it were, no Twain, as his American secular sanctity increases proportionately with people’s inability to understand him.
There was far too much of H.G. Wells, including six Time Machines, and this directly next to an excess of Jules Verne - Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and From the Earth to the Moon. This confluence of undue disregard made us think that this might just be a particularly shadowy section of bookshelf; or else that people, like to the ones who don’t think they need Wolfgang Pauli’s five-volume explication of electrodynamics, wrongly presume that Wells and Verne can’t teach them anything new. We moved these books to eye-level, swapping them with Silas Marner. This was our only breach of objectivity.
Of the several popular Patrick O’Brian swashbucklers, only the second, Post Captain, was still available to fulfill collections. Close by, of the unheard-of Dudley Pope “Lord Ramage novels,” seekers could still get the third, the fourth, a few of the seventh, and the ninth. And below this, Poe was also available in serial, his Tales and Sketches, Volume 2 seemingly not as vital to the ghoulishly inclined as its prequel. Speaking of giants offering unwanted sequels, none was more giant than Shakespeare, who indeed still lingered with Histories, Volume 2, containing Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Henry V, and Henry VIII. At least people are realistic about their capacity to take in too much of the Bard in a short period of time. We have seen sufferers of this delusion, who tried to read the Complete Works straight through, and who neither enjoyed the reading, or could ever speak quite normal colloquial American English again, but stammered and occasionally transposed their sentences in that peculiar way of someone who’s been living abroad for a long time, speaking no English.
Approaching the lag end of the dwindling offerings we found that Thornton Wilder’s Bridge Over San Luis Rey, with three copies still to be had, seemed to have lost the luster of its Pulitzer. And of William Carlos, Tennessee, and Diane Williams, the unfamiliar latter author was only barely more shunned than the two household names she shares a portion with. Beyond the tail end of the alphabet, we came upon a section of accidental miscellany, a deposit of books that had been seemingly picked up and carried by a neap tide of literary curiosity, and then had been set down by the pull of fiduciary necessity. Here, in the purgatory of public taste, were two Gertrude Steins, neither of them notable, two Typees of Melville (elsewhere, even those gargantuan annotated editions of his had been snapped up, possibly in a misunderstanding), Gore Vidal’s Hollywood, and Spenser’s Shorter Poems. This last one inspired us to visualize a scene in which a smug, yet secretive Sir Edmund Spenser fan - just imagine them out there somewhere - realizes at the last moment that to be a Spenser fan is to believe in the frivolity of brevity, and at the last minute does Sir Edmund the honor of recognizing the Shorter Poems as mere trifles, concessions to capitalism, and replaces it on the shelf with ritual dignity, for a less discerning gourmet of poesy.
This stands as a fair inventory of the books which remained in the Coliseum bookstore one week before that place was rendered defunct. During our egress, we made a few other notes, mainly about the vast supply of paperback diet books gone untouched, and the ready availability of the Official Red Book of U.S. Coins and the Standard Catalog of U.S. Stamps, which taken together might suggest that people are in no mood for faddish regimens of self-discipline, nor are crass monetary concerns the reason that people are collecting coins and stamps. We also noticed a sufficient supply of our colleague’s infrequent journal McSweeney’s, given the honor of accompanying a stack of 2001-2002 Harry Potter Student Planners, which only says the public taste, even in a feeding frenzy, is fickle.
Where there is evidence enough for sound speculation, we have done it, but for the most part, the reader is invited to formulate their own conclusions. Generally, we discovered that the presumably kindly, placid people who enjoy reading and who will miss the Coliseum bookstore most are no more protected from the basest instincts of their reptilian sub-brain than the yokels who instead of devouring the body of their beloved bookshop spent the same period of time howling along the sidelines of a sporting match, or fighting cocks in a basement somewhere. That the reading public of New York City could find no more dignified way to bid farewell to the Coliseum than to quietly and reverently ransack it only speaks to the limits of human action, and the fundamental similarities between every person, bookworm or barbarian. We remain, as ever, both pleased and put off. 3W
A DREAM OF SILKS
DELICATES ARE IMPROVED, PRETERNATURALLY
by J. Ephrain Underhill
For several days, an idea has been bobbing about in my consciousness - until I supposed I had merely had a particularly vivid dream about it - of goats being bred for the production of fine silk. Such surreal tableaus not uncommonly fix themselves in my mind; I awoke twice last week certain that I was the president of the United States, and also a respected physician, only to be surprised by the lack, outside my door, of any trustworthy aides ready to do my bidding, and the absence, within my brain, of any medical knowledge whatsoever.
Accustomed as I am to such stubborn and recurring fantasies, it was thus a shock when, in a lucid moment while descending into the embrace of an afternoon nap, I realized that the silk-excreting goats were indeed from my waking memory, and not a dream. It had been gleaned from the depths of the newspapers, rather than the crevices of my id.
There had been a report on recent advances in synthetic silk manufacture, which I had possibly skimmed over one morning on my way to other items, or read thoroughly in a state of only partial wakefulness. (The week I spent thinking the goats were from a forgotten dream makes me incline towards the latter.) The U.S. Army and a Canadian biotechnology company have both developed a gene-splicing method for producing spider-silk proteins in mammalian cells - those of hamsters and cows, for now. To date, this remarkable process has taken place in petri dishes, but the Canadians say they have already raised several goats with the spider-silk gene spliced into their genome, and expect that when the goats begin milking, the stuff will contain silk proteins ready for spinning.
In the course of such informative tales, I find the revelations usually come fast and furious. For all the incredulity roused by the prospects of goats being milked for silk, I was still more startled by how little I knew about this delectable substance at all. For example, the particular silk spun by a spider for the radiating spokes of its web - known as dragline silk - has greater per-pound tensile strength than steel. Spider-silk is therefore an ideal material for bulletproof vests, among other things, which suggests the Army’s interest in a substance that might otherwise be thought of as a little dainty for GIs. The historical difficulty with harvesting spider-silk is in the temperament of the spider; they are simply not given to being raised in a farm and performing for the common good. For the span of human civilization, then, we have been settling for silkworm-silk when we have been settling for silk at all, and yet apparently any connoisseur knows that the silkworm’s stuff is vastly inferior, even if the silkworm is more community-minded, and less creepy.
So the silk community is duly excited for the prospects of goat-silk, which of course will really be spider-silk produced on a goat’s milk scale. Fine-tuning of the process still faces considerable hurdles - the actual spinning mechanism of the spider remains a mystery to Science, if you can believe it, and as much as half of spider-silk’s strength is generated by the specific method of spinning employed therein, a secret technique of aligning the long silk-protein molecules that only the spiders know. Still, even the unspun synthetic spider-silk is thought to be a vastly superior fiber to anything the underachieving silkworm could do in its best hour; and don’t think the arachnids can forever conceal from the all-seeing eye of Science the secret mechanism within its hindquarters. We may be less than a decade from a new generation of lingerie that is at once sensual and impervious to artillery, and to top it off we may have it from none other than the teats of a goat, where our unfortunate forebears would simply never have thought to look.
I expect that I can now be wholly forgiven for carrying this dispatch around in my mind thinking it was only an incongruous dream. If there is none other, than just the newspaper’s increasing resemblance to a catalogue of phantasmagorical opium-visions is reason enough to get up in the morning. Soon enough, our unprecedented underwear will be another.
One would hope that by the time this report is read, the reader will by necessity be once more indoors, possibly fireside, almost certainly imbibed of hot coffee or tea or chocolate or toddy, and perhaps even curled beneath a blanket drawn up to protect them from the bluster and snow of a proper Winter - and not, as its writer currently is, basking in quasi-Floridian warmth, a stranger to her long underwear, and like a bear too early roused from hibernation, a little crossed up.
The page upon which this report is being filed was first prepared on a Thursday afternoon, ball-point pen uncapped and blessed with a ritual dollop from the author’s tongue. But that day it was raining steadily, and though it seemed a fine time to write meanderingly about the weather, I became too affected by it, and I dozed off to the plashing of broken gutters and wet sidewalks, not to awake until dinner, the shame of American literature.
In the days that followed, the thermometer made such ascents that it seemed more reasonable that the instrument was defective than that it signified any empirical fact of nature. But such was the case, and in the latter half of January, New York shed its sweaters, and saw the true shapes of its people, in place of those bulky masses of down and dark nylon that stand in for the citizenry during a typical Gotham winter.
The president gave a State of the Union speech and most people had their windows thrown open, which may be the first time such a notable, if arbitrary, conjunction has occurred. Turtleneck events like Super Bowl parties and the stuporific spectacle of the Winter Olympics are at this writing still imminent, and yet such cozy thoughts only intrude on the generous natural warmth of the air. Winter, when it returns, will be, I think, much harder to bear, the lot of us having been waked, as it were, from the hypnotic state of darkness-toleration and epidermal insensitivity so critical to the survival of our damp brittle season. But it is right and proper that it does return, because nobody can honestly claim to have so thoroughly enjoyed the balmy days past that not once did they encounter this kernel of profound fright: something must be terribly wrong.
If the anchorpersons keep telling us that our confidence in the economy has been battered again and again by the unsure hand of our governors, then we can extend the logic far further and confess that our confidence in the stability of the very climate of our planet is at an all-time low, and it has not been helped by the well-documented spite those same governors feel for it. Here is the first era in history in which a population actually harbors doubts about the planet’s capacity to continue supporting their existence, and if you aren’t convinced, try and find a single soul who didn’t enjoy the late warm snap without also acknowledging a tiny subliminal alarm. The climate is cyclical, of course, and largely out of our control (though our collective behavior does seem to have a slow and steady effect upon it). The warm snap could be a fluke, or it could be a new annual event; regardless, people have finally become neurotic enough to sense that nature is not an independent contractor. She is building our house, and at long last most people seem semi-conscious that it won’t pay to skimp on the perks for her crew. I even credit that deep vein of Puritan guilt that runs so surely through the American heart, to make us know that anything as nice as a seventy-degree day in January is something we must surely expect to pay for eventually. Of course, if you are the sort who thinks a proper Winter is grist for one’s character, then this subtropical anomaly already is the price, of a previous crime.