On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 2)

This continues the review, copied and slightly edited from my personal journal, of Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Slight editing aside, this remains (as journal entries often are) a bit rough around the edges, so I hope the reader will continue to look past those rough edges to the ideas under discussion.

Thursday, September 14 – Chapter Two: “The Life and Death of Democracy.”

I will pass over the historical primer and “reference guide” that occupies the latter part of the chapter, as well as the specific “tools” of Athenian democracy, and focus on the central point about the “purity” that Plato’s Republic insists on, but that is divorced from reality and unrealizable in real life. Aside from foreign armies and war, Woodruff writes, “there are other enemies of democracy” and “they have a better weapon than the sword. Instead of killing Demosthenes [the scandal-ridden democrat who warned Athens about the danger Macedon presented, and whose warnings they ignored “until it was too late”], they write about his flaws, his ambition, his corruption, his flirtations with the old aristocracy. Or they write about the failings of Athenian democracy. Demosthenes’ career is as messy as the democracy he defended – gloriously independent, powerful and ineffective by turns, sometimes corrupt. Democracy is like that.

“Remember this as you read what follows: You can’t kill democracy by killing its defenders, but you can kill it by insisting on perfection, by rejecting everything that is human and flawed. No democracy we find in practice is ever perfect. Still, every step toward democracy is a step in the right direction – it makes things better for at least some of the population. Other, more utopian ideas work the other way around; they draw us toward making things worse.

“Plato’s dream of a philosopher kingship illustrates the point. His ideal city makes no concessions to human imperfections. Plato does not claim that such a city is possible; he presents it as a shining ideal. But unlike the ideal of democracy, Plato’s ideal leads us the wrong way. Every step we take towards his philosopher kingship would curtail someone’s freedom” (pp. 23-4).

That said, Woodruff does address democracy’s dark side before launching into his historical guide, “but,” he adds, “your own good sense should lead you to take [what he says about that] with a grain of salt.To dwell too heavily on the failures of Athenian democracy is to join the chorus of anti-democrats, who tainted the idea of democracy with these examples for many centuries. By doing so, they held back the cause of freedom and committed an error in logic. The ad hominem fallacy (against the man) is to reject an idea simply because of the character of someone who holds it. In this case we should call it ad urbem (against the city); rejecting Athenian ideas merely because of Athenian bad behavior. The ideas should be judged on their merit.”

But: “To ignore this part of the story is also harmful. Anyone who takes the road of democracy must be acutely aware of the moral hazards along the way” (pp. 37-8). I will pass over this brief accounting of those moral hazards, as they are not themselves the point of this study.

Chapter Three. Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant).

“A tyrant,” Woodruff writes, “is a monarch who rules outside the law, who came to power without the support of law, who is afraid of the people he rules, and who is therefore unable to listen to advice. A tyrant may not always be abusive of the people he rules; he may have their best interests at heart. But his fear prevents him from deliberating freely; it warps his judgments, and the bad decisions he makes out of fear may destroy him or weaken the city. That is why the democratic poets of Athens [the dramatists: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides] present tyranny almost as if it were a form of mental illness. Plato, a generation later, will do so explicitly” (p. 64).

It happened in Athens, particularly in democracy’s first century (before the people had taken this lesson to heart), that the party of the many, the people, would in turn act tyrannically: “In this way, two-party government collapses into an oscillating tyranny, as each side brings out the worst in the other, by frightening the other into acting tyrannically” (p. 65) – hence, the problem with majoritarian rule, which, by excluding all other voices and arguments, becomes the “tyranny of the majority” (or the mob), which is what minority groups (Mormons in 19th-century Missouri; LGBT; immigrants; etc.) have to guard against. Whether by the many or the few (whoever is in power at the moment) – let’s say, Christian theocrats like Senator Cruz and Vice-President Pence – the results are the same for those vulnerable to their edicts.

Anyway, “If you observe any of these symptoms in your leadership [and Trump and his wrecking crew do come to mind], be wary. A plague could be on the way, and it could fatally weaken your freedom:

  1. A tyrant is afraid of losing his position, and his decisions are affected by this fear.
  2. A tyrant tries to rise above the law, though he may give lip service to the law.
  3. A tyrant does not accept criticism.
  4. … cannot be called to account for his actions.
  5. … tries to prevent those who disagree with him from participating in politics” (p. 66). In respect to that last point, consider the President’s and many Republican members of Congress who are so intent today – in the name of protecting us from the imaginary scourge of voter fraud – on harnessing fraudulent “evidence” to suppress the votes of black and brown, young (students) and old, any Democratic-leaning community!

This paragraph is especially pertinent to our moment, and not just starting with Trump: “The story is simple and has often been repeated in history. A troubled people welcome a strong man to power, because he promises order and comfort. But the cost of tyranny is exorbitant. Order and comfort without freedom – that, after all, is the condition of sheep that are being fattened for slaughter. Ordinary Athenians understood this metaphor very well, and some came to see that it perfectly reflectied their condition under the tyrants” (p. 70).

Prometheus Bound

One final point, though there are others: “Freedom lets leaders be wise, while tyranny declares war on knowledge. This theme is dramatized in a fairly early Athenian play, Prometheus Bound, in which Zeus is frightened of the future and believes he can save himself only by forcing knowledge out of Prometheus. He orders Prometheus to be chained to a rock. Force does not work, however, and we must imagine, that later in the play now lost to us, Zeus relents from tyranny and works out an arrangement with Prometheus” (p. 72).

Oh, one last point: courage is the antidote to fear; “we risk a tyrannical solution unless both sides can set aside their fears and bring courage to the negotiating table” (p. 79). Among so-called progressives today, it is figures like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, in the Congress, and Hillary Clinton, whose new book spends a lot of energy attacking the “foolish” idealism of Bernie Sanders, who must put aside their fears and get behind, for instance, that democratic socialist from Vermont’s newly introduced Medicare for All bill, which increasing numbers of Congressional Democrats – and increasing percentages of the population – are coming to peace with. (I was somewhat encouraged today, after reading another critical take-down of Clinton’s foolish book (What Happened), when I read an extremely enlightening argument that spells out and justifies the proposed measures in that bill. Even if not by this Congress, passage of such a law, until very recently considered (as the clown in The Princess Bride kept saying) “inconceivable,” may very credibly happen sooner than we imagine.)

Now, rather than give short shrift to the very important arguments that follow, it is time that I quit for another evening.

Saturday, September 16 – Chapter Four, Harmony.

Without harmony,” Woodruff writes, in the little gloss that heads the chapter, “there is no democracy … without harmony, the people have no common interest. What could ‘government for the people’ mean, if the people are so badly divided that there is nothing they want together?” (p. 81; emphasis in original).

And here is the problem that most threatens: I would like to think that we might agree, as a people, on basic values; but I am forced to acknowledge that a good many Americans (too many of them in political office, but not them alone) do not believe that every human being has a common right to shelter, to sustenance, to a free or affordable education and medical care. Only from such agreement on values can we examine, honestly and united, the facts on the ground that must inform our decisions. And it is not a given, it is not self-evident, that this unruly populace can be brought to agree on enough things to save us from the disintegration of life and civilization as we have known it. Every good sign is matched by two (or more) bad signs. We will not be able to pull off a fair national economy, let alone an international one, if we can’t see the light on climate change and war and peace. And even if a majority of Americans are brought to their senses, the forces that must be confronted within government and society are overwhelming in their amassed power: the military-capitalist-industrial complex, for starters (does itself encompass the main force of darkness?).

Woodruff discusses three metaphors that were current among the Greeks, three images or metaphors of harmony: 1) the bundle and stick; 2) a woven fabric; and, 3) music. While each has its point, the second is better than the first and the third, than the second. In Aesop’s political fable of the unbreakable bundle of sticks – “So it is with you, my sons. If you are in harmony, you will be unconquerable by your enemies; but if you quarrel, you will be easily taken” – it is suggested that we must all “fall into line with each other, as if they have to agree about everything. And it also suggests that the reason to fall into line together is military”; “but being rigid, as the poets of democracy knew, is not a good thing:

If they bend, they’re saved, and every twig survives,

But if they stiffen up they’re washed out by the roots.

“So says a young man in Sophocles’ Antigone, trying to talk sense into his father, who is a rigid older man with leanings toward tyranny” (pp. 85-6). The old man, of course, is Oedipus’s successor, Creon, who not only ignores his son, Haemon, but accuses him of a treasonous sympathy for a wisp of a girl over his father, king, and state. And when he is finally brought to his senses, both the courageous girl, Antigone, and the son who does love her, are tragically dead – as is Creon’s authority. This is the kind of “harmony” that politicians like Dick Cheney and Donald Trump speak of. It is a harmony that must be coerced, and any dissenter is the enemy. So it is a false harmony, a cheap illusion.

The image of the woven cloth comes, naturally enough, from women’s voices, which in Athens’s limited democracy are not to be heard in public, though the poets have made them speak. In Aristophanes’s comic play, Lysistrata, in which he imagines what might happen if women took over the government, their spokeswoman speaks of, after “scrubbing the gobs of sheep shit off the city”; “spreading it out and flogging it to get rid of the bad guys – / The sticker-burrs and those that organize themselves into a tangle to get elected” –

After that, comb

Good common will into a basket, mixing everyone

Together. Residents, aliens, foreigners (if you like them),

Mix them all in.

And for the god’s sake, these cities that are colonies of ours,

Understand them as separate balls of wool, off

By themselves. Take of these and bring them together

And join them into one, then spin them onto a huge

Bobbin and weave that cloak for the people.” (pp. 86-7)

This feminine metaphor is a great improvement on the first one, but the music metaphor is still better. “Weaving brings together only two kinds of thread, the vertical and the horizontal. But musical harmony can accommodate all sorts of difference in pitch and tone quality and rhythm. This,” Woodruff concludes, “is the best image for the kind of agreement necessary for democracy. Plato uses this image, too. In the Republic Plato writes of the harmony that brings every element in the city together, so that they ‘sing one song.’ The ‘one song’ that Plato wants to hear is not the least bit democratic – it is a general agreement that only a philosopher-king should rule. So this is a far cry from democracy” (pp. 87-8).

But the Athenians learned that “a harmonious group of citizens can disagree about almost anything – so long as they agree on the rule of law.” Woodruff elaborates: “If anyone is allowed to rise above the rule of law, that breaks harmony. When you put yourself above the law, you separate yourself from the other citizens, you take advantage of their good behavior, and in doing so you plant the seeds of conflict between those who can get away with breaking the law and those who cannot. Demosthenes says that it is a thoroughly democratic principle that no law be passed unless it bears on all citizens equally, since ‘each man shares equally in the system of government.’ After the rule of law, two more rules: First, citizens must agree to pull together on civic education and festivals, so that all of its citizens are, as Cleocritus said, ‘fellow dancers.’ Second, they must not create unnecessary discord by trying to force each other to sing the same note; they must accept a harmony of differences. I shall say, then, that living in political harmony means three things: adhering to the rule of law, working together for the common goals, and accepting differences” (pp. 89-90).

This is to have barely scratched the surface of this essential topic, but I cannot go on. A couple of very important parts of the chapter involve discussions of the failure of tolerance that was the trial and execution of Socrates, a failure of democracy that, for all Socrates’s provocative antidemocratic talk, has been a stain on the idea of democracy ever since: the mob that killed the great philosopher, and a detailed account and interpretation by the historian Thucydides of the ravages of ill-considered military action, his “brilliant essay on how human beings behave under the stress of war, on what drives them to war, and on the excuses they give to each other for the monstrous violence that people at war are inclined to think necessary.” (“‘War is a violent teacher.’”) (p. 104) Key passages on those are cited here at some length; what they have to say is sadly prophetic of our miserable times.


            Chapter Five. The Rule of Law.

There is Aesop’s fable about the frogs and the snake: the frogs wanted a more secure life and asked Zeus for a king. Seeing that they weren’t a bright lot, he stuck a piece of wood in the pond, but they treated it contemptuously and asked for a better king. Zeus, in his anger, sent a snake which dined on them.

“And so it was – and still is – when people are frustrated with the law’s stupidities and delays or inconveniences,” Woodruff writes. “If they wish for a ruler who will rise above the law, they are offering themselves to be devoured” (p. 112). So here we are with Trump, and Jeff Sessions, and all the other disrupters of law and order (in its name, of course) lined up with them to ravage the rule of law.  With tanks and tear gas and guns, we will put down the petty criminals and protesters with their slingshots.

I like the discussion, here, of civil disobedience, which is not a contradiction to the rule of law:

“Ordinary citizens also sometimes come out against the rule of law,” Woodruff writes. “They do this not simply by breaking the law, but by arguing that the law they have broken is wrong, and that they ought therefore not to be punished for violating that law. The modern principle of civil disobedience is that one should accept penalties for breaking laws even when the laws are bad, and the point of this is to uphold the rule of law while giving people a way to show how bad a statute is.

“Civil disobedience was never explained in ancient Greece, but the idea behind it seems to have been well entrenched. Socrates was expressing a widely held view: either accept the rule of law – and take whatever penalties the law prescribes for your actions – or leave the city and go into exile.

“The idea of the rule of law seems simple, but it has been hard to live by. Exceptions look very attractive from time to time” (pp. 115-16).

In this context, Woodruff also mentions international law, which both our present-day U.S. empire and the Athenian empire have thought should not apply to our exceptionalist states. But to return to civil disobedience:

“The old attack on law did not distinguish between two principles: supporting the rule of law on one hand, from obeying every law all the time, on the other. It’s easy to gain sympathy for breaking silly or immoral laws, but it is another thing to understand the rule of law altogether. The distinction has been well understood in modern times since Henry David Thoreau chose to break the law on taxes, while supporting the rule of law by going to jail. This distinction is what makes civil disobedience possible.

“Supporting the law means not trying to put yourself above it. It means that when you find yourself in violation of the law, for whatever reason, you do not try to corrupt the system to your benefit” (pp. 120-21).

Antigone, it bears pointing out, even though the concept did not exist explicitly in her time, was a worthy practitioner of civil disobedience. In Thoreau’s case, of course, the refusal to pay his tax is made noble by the context: his refusal to put his money behind the immoral war of aggression against Mexico, by which we ended up, essentially, stealing the very Western land from which we presently want to exclude Mexicans and other alien races.

Woodruff mentions one more essential reason for defending the rule of law, and that is the link between law (and the civilization that it upholds) and language: “Without language, we could not communicate, but we have to communicate,” he writes. “Without law, we could not abide in orderly communities, but we cannot survive apart from communities that maintain certain levels of order. Human beings naturally develop some sort of law, just as they naturally develop some sort of language. But there is no one set of law that all must have by nature, any more than there is just one language that human beings naturally speak” (p. 121). This concept of language and its link to law and civilization is important to principles of rhetoric, as elucidated by Isocrates, among other Greeks, and the Roman, Cicero, both of whose texts I came to admire under the tutelage of Professor Rivers.

Now, once again, I must stop. This is a time-consuming venture, but it seems to me that the task deserves a long, patient treatment rather than the briefer summation or sampling. Why rush, in any case? If you’re going to do a job, do it well, as the maxim goes. Though perhaps it might still be possible to deal with what follows more succinctly?

“And so it was – and still is – when people are frustrated with the law’s stupidities and delays or inconveniences. If they wish for a ruler who will rise above the law, they are offering themselves to be devoured.”. — Paul Woodruff


On the Ideal and the Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 1)

The text that follows comes, with slight adjustments, from last year’s personal journal of September 12, 14, 16, and 19-21. The fact that I spent so much time reporting and commenting on this book (Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy) attests to the importance I gave it at the time and that I still give it. I hope my readers find my notes – excerpted over the next few weeks – useful and provocative, in the best sense of the word.

Paul Woodruff


Tuesday, September 12 – Aside from the series of translated texts that my friend Charles Allen gifted to me (gifted, as a verb, though until recently I have sneered at the usage, does have its utility), a few months ago he unloaded on me a few texts of a political nature. Out of the ones I selected from the stack he showed me, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, by Paul Woodruff (2005. Oxford University Press. 284 pages, with notes and index), is the one that stood out in my mind as a priority, should I only get around to reading one of them. Last night I completed my reading of it. It contains so much that is both timeless and painfully pertinent to the moment’s decline of our democratic ideal, that it is certainly one of the most (if not the most) important politically-focused books that I have ever read. If anything can get me focused enough, in the general principles that our nation’s and world’s future depends on, to pull me out of the despair that I am so often on the verge of spiraling into, this would be the book.

Another of those books, with its focus on Classical rhetoric and the wrongly-maligned sophists who were so important to the practice of “First Democracy,” as Woodruff calls the ancient Athenian model, is the investigative journalist I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, which I borrowed from the University of Southern Indiana’s library for a report in Professor Thomas Rivers’s “Contemporary Issues in Rhetoric” course in the summer of 2000 and, so, do not have a copy in my library. It is a book that revolutionized my perspective on the old aristocratic philosophers Plato and Socrates, with their anti-democratic bias. Since then, I. F. Stone’s name has come up here and there, recently on Charles’s tongue. The first thing that caught my attention when I finally sat down to read this book not too long ago, was Woodruff’s two-page dedication to Stone. One thing Woodruff does is to give a more balanced view of Plato and Socrates, what they got right as well as wrong, but he makes it equally clear that they were, indeed, enemies of democracy, however legitimate some of their concerns may have been.

“I cannot pretend that mine is the kind of book he would have written,” Woodruff writes in that dedication. “It is too short on detective work, too long on theory, for him. But not, I hope, too short on idealism. During the year that I saw him almost daily, I would sometimes despair about American democracy, or about human educability, or about anything, really. Then he would gently pull me back. ‘It should be,’ he would say, reminding me not to let my dreams be trimmed to fit our current failures. Democracy should work, he meant. Education should support it. And so on” (p. vi).

In the preface that follows, he continues this thought about democracy:

“Democracy is government that tries to bring a specific ideal into practice – the ideal of government by and for the people. I call it an ideal because I do not think it has ever been fully reflected in an actual government” (p. ix).

In his introduction (“Democracy and Its Doubles”) Woodruff posits that democracy, “like many beautiful ideas,” “travels through our minds shadowed by its doubles – bad ideas that are close enough to be easily mistaken for the real thing.” The ancient Athenians “tinkered with the system for nearly 200 years,” he continues,” “and it was working smoothly when the overwhelming power of Macedon brought it down. Alexander the Great inherited despotism from his father Philip, and he passed it on to successors who maintained it for generations. It was this despotism that killed democracy” (pp. 3-4).

The Athenians knew what democracy was, and sustained an ongoing debate about the ideas – central to the book’s focus – on which it was built. But we Americans, even the most educated among us, do not understand it – and are “complacent in [our] ignorance.” Sometimes, in our attempts to define it, we fall back on the Constitution, “forgetting that this was written by men who feared government by the people and were trying to keep it at bay.

“The Constitution,” he writes, “is a magnificent solution to the problems faced by the founders but it is not democratic in itself and the virtually scriptural authority that it now enjoys is a drag on the evolution of democratic processes in the United States. Perhaps that is a good thing,” he adds; “the founders may have been right to insist that republican institutions would serve us better than democratic ones. But we should call things by their right names, if we are to avoid confusion. A republic is not necessarily a democracy. The Athenians were not held by by a written constitution. Instead they had an oral tradition that served mainly to preserve a handful of essential ideas, while the system itself could evolve through democratic processes” (p. 4).

The Athenians knew what democracy was, and sustained an ongoing debate about the ideals on which it was built..

“When Athens was true to democracy,” Woodruff writes, “it was gloriously successful.” And the Athenians tended to learn from their mistakes, making adjustments that improved it, though its failures were dramatic. “Athens’ failures frightened many thinkers away from democracy. Historians and philosophers of the time saw the dark side of Athenian politics more clearly than the bright, and they tended to blame the dark side on democracy. They passed their judgments down to succeeding generations of thinkers, with such success that democracy carried a bad odor for over 2,000 years” (p. 5).

So here we are today, in an age where we are keen on exporting our own freedom in the name of democracy, while our presidents “often take cover behind executive freedom – even though this belongs more to monarchy than democracy” (pp. 6-7). Woodruff admits, again, that its enemies have a powerful case against democracy, but his “hope in this book is to bring democracy out of the shadows of complacency and suspicion, and into the light where its essential ideas may be debated” (p. 7).

Those central ideas, which occupy most of the book, are seven: 1) Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant); 2) Harmony, which in a sense might be the most vital; 3) The Rule of Law (these three being present in all ancient concepts of government, the others pertaining strictly to democracy, and thus more controversial); 4) Natural Equality; 5) Citizen Wisdom; 6) Reasoning Without Knowledge; and, 7) Education.

The three of democracy’s “doubles” that Woodruff focuses on in the introduction are: 1) Voting; 2) Majority Rule; and, 3) Elected Representatives. The problem with voting is that it is a process that can be manipulated, leaving many feeling that they have no real voice; “what is crucial to democracy,” he writes, “is how issues and candidates are chosen and presented for voting” (p. 10); this is why Professor Rivers always said that civic participation and discussion are the supreme civic virtues, not voting. As for majority rule, it often is no more than mob rule; and, in a two-party, winner-take-all system like ours, only the winners feel truly represented in the resulting governance. Likewise, while some representative bodies were necessary in Athenian democracy, the Athenians severely restricted the powers of elected officials and filled representative bodies by other means that prevented bribery from entering into crucial decision making – this in the interest of keeping an excessive power out of the hands of the wealthy.

Underlying the seven virtues are others “such as justice and reverence” – reverence having more to do with humility than anything, a knowledge of the limitations of human knowledge and, thus, a check on excessive pride, or hubris – “but these are so widely admired that they do not pick out a system of government” (p. 15).

In the end, this introduction comes back around to the notion of idealism that Woodruff attaches to the example of I. F. Stone. And here lies some really beautiful writing.

“Call democracy a dream, if you will, but keep dreaming democracy,” he writes. “I admit that visions are unrealistic; they are supposed to be unrealistic. ‘Being realistic’ leads to stagnation and an easy accommodation with failure. We should always want to work out better ways of being democratic. We should always be looking for systems that engage more citizens in decision making, for public education that gives more people the tools of self-governance, and for courts that deliver more credible justice. In short, we should want to move closer to the ideal. But how can we do so without a vision of where the ideal is?

“We can’t. And in the absence of vision, we are not making progress towards democracy. Quite the opposite. As I write this book, the United States seems to be edging further away from the essential principles of democracy. The growing political power of wealth undermines equality, the retention of prisons abroad on a base on Cuba threatens rule of law, and the rising number of electoral districts that are safely in the hands of political parties reduces the value of people’s votes. You may wish to defend these trends, but you should know what they mean.

“The enemies of democracy are fear and ignorance. Fear feeds on ignorance, and fear leads to ignorance. Frightened by the many dangers around us, we may be tempted to trade our freedoms for what look at the time like safety. Lacking a clear vision of democracy, we may not realize that when we traded away our freedoms we were trading away part of democracy itself, since freedom and democracy are inseparable. Or, in the excitement of winning an election or a lawsuit, we may forget that democracy is for all the people – for the losers as well as the winners in the latest contest.

“I concede,” Woodruff writes in conclusion, “that a vision of democracy is not realistic, because it cannot be put fully into practice. But it is practical nonetheless, because it can guide us towards reform or, at least, it can keep us from circling back the way we came. We can follow the North Star, traveling north, with no hope of reaching the star itself. But we do need to know the difference between the star and all the other bright lights twinkling overhead. The doubles of the North Star would lead us in circles. And, even when we know how to identify the North Star, we must have a clear night if we are to use it as our guide. On a cloudy night, we might be tempted to paint an image of the North Star on the back of the traveler ahead of us. But following other travelers could lead us astray. We must see the star with our own eyes if we are to follow it truly.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This last line puts me in mind of what our great national philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, of the American Transcendentalists, meant when he spoke of self-reliance. To be a man, he said, one must be a nonconformist. The true “American Scholar,” to borrow from another of his most brilliant essays, is the one who depends on his own seeing, and who is not hide-bound to either the light of others or the lights as he saw them yesterday. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of petty divines and small politicians. We are beholden, Woodruff would add, to the former vision of the ancient Athenians not so that we can duplicate and mindlessly follow them in a completely different political and cultural environment, but so that they can suggest to our minds the great applications of those seven basic ideas to the particular circumstance we face. And this, I believe, is a good place to leave this discussion for the night.

“The Sweetest Dish”: On the Healing Magic of Storytelling

51BBuzGzKIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Forgive me my absence of these several months. By way of apology, rather than excuses or explanations, I offer the following pages – on the art of storytelling – from last fall’s personal journal. It is only lightly edited.

Saturday, October 14 – It is arguable that the lead character in my friend Marian Allen’s book Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage (2016, Corydon / New Albany, Indiana: Per Bastet Publications. 125 pages) is Farukh, the storyteller, “from the distant land of Sule” (p. 54). He does make an appearance in five of these thirteen stories, and dominates the two mythic tales (“The Mountain Who Loved the Moon” and “How the Tortoise Got His Shell”); that’s more than the next two in line, the members of the Festival Players’ acting troupe. But while Farukh’s presence is made explicit in only two of those five instances, one must imagine that he or someone like him is implicitly there in the others from which he is apparently absent or invisible. Because, at its heart, each of these tales is, in its own way, a study of the art of storytelling. Now that I finally sit down to read them through in their final form – I remember several from her reading of the drafts at our writers’ group meetings – I really take the measure of Marian Allen as a specialist in that art. This only makes me more determined, someday, to read the Sage trilogy of fantasy novels from whose world these new, shorter tales are spun.

“Hear! Hear!” Farukh exclaims at the outset of the second and shortest tale, “The Mountain Who Loved the Moon.”

“Yes, it is I, Farukh Suria’ Apa-Dan , storyteller extraordinaire. Settle upon the cobbles of the marketplace, here, around my rug, and listen.”

And then, his story told, the request for coins: “Please toss them into my hat. If I find enough in there to buy something to soothe my voice, I’ll tell you another” (p. 18). He emerges as something of a rascal, a personality, a presence as permanent as the towns and countryside through which he travels, as vital as the bigger actors who populate the different tales.


Marian Allen

“There are two people who are always welcome in any village in rural Istok,” we read at the beginning of “The Sweetest Dish”: “a good cook and a good storyteller”; and, further: “Some say that feasts attract storytellers – pratiers, as they’re called in Istok – the way honey attracts badgers, but truth is, when a pratier shows up, forehead crossed by colorful beaded band, a reason for the feast is found” (pp. 85-6).

And, at story’s end, this wonderful line: “Everyone agreed that the sweetest dish is one that comes with a story” (p. 90).

At the end of the brief introduction to “The Warmth of Midwinter,” second to last story, these two paragraphs, which end with a similar sentiment:

“‘This story,’ said the storyteller, ‘ takes place in the land of Layounna, not far from the capital city of Kadasad, on the bank of the Fiddlewood River. The time was in that lean and cheerless passage of the season, and the year was such-and-such.’

“The audience chuckled. Who cared what year a story happened? In the mouth of a good tale-spinner, a story took place around you – to you – even as it was related” (p. 102).

The itinerant acting troupe, in their consecutive tales (“Heart’s Desire”; “The Planting of Evidence”; “Command Performance”) serve a similar function, with their theatrical productions. Though, like roving Gypsies and circus or carnival crews, they were not always trusted after certain hours: “A city supper and beds in an inn were rare treats,” we read early in the latter of these stories.” “Only large towns were sophisticated enough to risk allowing such rascals as actors to linger overnight” (p. 49).

But the open road, the freedom and the risk of the unknown path, are themselves fruit of much popular and even literary narrative. This is certainly the case in these tales, which often bring the protagonist up against the known borders of their worlds, landing them in mortal danger. Will they have the qualities of strength, imagination, and determination necessary to meet and prevail in the face of the uncanny and the shifting tales of fortune?

th9XH9XU5FI remember, in a television production of The Arabian Nights that I really enjoyed, the role of the old, white-bearded storyteller whose crucial task it was to coach an extremely vulnerable Sheherazade in the art of suspense, of leaving the, in her case, lunatic-psychotic listener on the edge of his seat, so that she could gain one more day to entrap him in the healing magic of her fictions. The importance of story was so well articulated there; I used the film to good effect with my English students.

Likewise, from literary writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and the wonderful Sholom Aleichem, I have learned the extent to which the story is central. It is central even in experimental works like Joyce’s Ulysses, though few readers will be able to get through the artifice to the narrative; Virginia Woolf does it just as artfully, but with a narrative simplicity – even as it flowed on the protagonist’s consciousness, on the stream-of-consciousness on which the larger narrative is woven in Mrs. Dalloway.

Marian has asked me what it is that distinguishes “literary” fiction from the genre fiction that she and other writing group members tend to work in. I don’t know how well I’ve been able to answer that, only to point to some of the techniques that I have used (in A Bride Called Freedom, for instance) to make the historical romance visibly pertinent to our present moment. Explicitly pertinent, I might say, as I do by juxtaposing the modern voice of Viviana whose emails become the frame through which 19th-century Argentine legend is made immediate to both North American past and present. Each work has its own method, which may be more subconscious than conscious. In “Courting Mel,” my romantic comedy that will grace the pages of the anthology that I’m presently struggling to put together, among other things there are a series of allusions to the immediate backdrop of build-up to war in Iraq that gives the romance some of its darker edge. Then there comes the allusion to Twain’s “War Prayer,” which puts (in Cameron’s mind) the story’s dilemma of love won or lost up against the dilemma of the one who prays for victory on his own nation’s field of battle – and, thus, blight and destruction on the enemy’s. Thus and so forth.

But I mention all that because, here, in the simple grace of Marian’s “genre” fantasies, the seriousness and importance and pertinence of the work are implicit in the craft itself. She who has ears, let her hear. There were at least a couple of moments in these stories – I won’t try to pinpoint them now (I read, as I rarely do anymore, without marking up the text!) – where it occurred to me that I wish a certain contemporary politician, not to mention a few of his more reactionary cohorts, could read this and reflect on its teaching. But, of course, some ears are not made for hearing, and I suspect that he is beyond comprehending, incapable of shame or self-revelation. But, there the wisdom lies, in all its simplicity and its nuance.

My present journey amongst Marian and her crew of southern Indiana writers has certainly helped me to push aside whatever snobbery might exist or might have existed in (especially my youthful) ambitions as a distinctly literary artist. Though, in fairness to that idealism, what I really felt a revulsion toward were the cookie-cutter Harlequin Romances and such. And, beyond that, I have always been open to instruction, as when I picked up Louis L’Amour’s memoir – Education of a Wandering Man, I think it was – which led me to take a respectful, if brief, glimpse at the art of his Western fiction. At the same time, I have always been attracted to the populist in literary fiction: John Steinbeck, for instance, read and admired by the common man. And that’s the kind of literary writer I have always wanted to be. Even in my wildest experimentation, I have been at pains to make the experimental form accessible and comprehensible.

th461VYQDSA new milestone in this evolving understanding of the subject occurred on Saturday, last week, at the Imaginarium in Louisville, where I attended a panel discussion on which sat Marian’s pseudonymous daughter, “Sara Marian” (well, her flesh-and-blood daughter, who uses that pseudonym). She, like me, had literary pretensions, and has abandoned her early efforts along those lines, viewing them as hopeless failures. But now, with her rather popular (one of Per Bastet’s top two sellers) The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, in the writing of which she simply tried to write a good story, she feels that she has expressed a good deal of what she had hoped to say in a more deliberately literary fiction. Inspired, by the way, by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky! How could I not love her?

That book, I gave as a gift a couple of Christmases past to my daughter Nadina. Don’t know if she’s read it yet, but someday I must. As for me, while also having moved on from my early efforts, I continue to fashion a more deliberately literary body of work; and, at the same time, I have some faint hope of returning to some of that early but, ultimately, unsuccessful work and crafting something more palatable to a general public. If I succeed at that, I imagine that my present sojourn among so-called genre writers like Marian Allen and her charming daughter will have played a role equal to, if not superior to, my “literary” influences and models. This book – Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage – makes that ever so clear. The proof is not in the pudding so much as in the story, the narrative, dressed up however it might be in literary apparel. I don’t believe there is any need to look down one’s nose at this popular literature, so long as it is finely crafted and imagined. As this work is.

On the souls of men and horses: Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy”

Note: Rather than a polemic against my nation’s punitive society, reflected clearly enough in our benighted immigration policy, our broken justice system, our mad rush to ecological devastation and/or nuclear annihilation, our increasingly unequal economic regime that punishes our humanity and rewards selfishness and greed – need I go on? – rather than that, let me share a page from my journal (Oct. 3, 1999): an extended meditation on Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; and Cities of the Plain).

Martin Luther King, Jr. : “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It is my hope, as I reflect again on this classic American literature, with its austere yet not unhopeful vision, that the worst of whatever ill destiny beckons humanity today might still be averted. May life continue, for our children and grandchildren, in something resembling its usual patterns – its arc still bending slowly toward mercy and justice, however erratically and impossibly in the seemingly indifferent universe we inhabit.

While what follows does necessarily contain some spoilers, I can only suggest the wealth of detail that has made it, for me, such essential reading. I offer it in the spirit of the best of what we call (not pejoratively, I hope!) “literary criticism.”


These three novels, as I have already noted, comprise McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy.” The first volume, which I have read three times now, remains in my heart the most beautiful and perfect, though this latest re-introduces that original hero in an equally compelling story. Volume two introduces another recurring hero, the only one, as it turns out, who will survive into the new millennium where we last see him. As a series these novels constitute, in my estimation, the elevation of the genre “western” to serious literature that will stand the test of time and any comparison to classics of any time and place.

These are not happy stories. Their central themes concern violence and love and loss, perhaps primarily loss. And yet these are stories that, without the slightest touch of sentimentality, even as they are wrenching out your heart along with any last illusions you might have entertained that so-called “happy endings” are generally possible, have nevertheless enriched your heart in a way you wouldn’t want back for any of those illusions. And it is not, for all of its brutal darkness, a vision of humanity that is entirely bereft of hope. For every vision of senseless and hateful violence and betrayal, for instance, there is a counteracting vision of human goodness, even if it is of the sort that doesn’t prevail in historical-political terms.

The view of Mexican history and society that emerges, for instance, is nothing at all if not destructive, yet the generosity and open-heartedness of the common Mexicans encountered (the poorest and least society-bound of those) is everywhere evident. And this affects our heroes’ judgments of the world at least as much as the acts of violence do. It is this aspect of the novels that ultimately redeems that violence and supplies the reader with that modicum of hope that is still present through so much despair. For living, after all, despite all of its very real and inescapable disappointment, is not something we are generally anxious to be rid of.

All the Pretty Horses tells the story, primarily, of John Grady Cole, a young Texan cowboy with a great love for horses and at least as soft a spot for women. At age sixteen, after the death of his grandfather and the loss of the family’s ranch, he goes off with a friend to try his fortunes in a still more rugged Mexico. This takes place in roughly the late ’40’s (or early ’50’s), post-World War II, as the old ways on his Texas prairies are being lost. As he and his friend cross into Mexico, they are joined up by an even younger and more impetuous runaway, who ends up bringing them to considerable grief and himself to a desert execution. The story that really takes our heart like no other, though, involves John Grady’s passionate love affair with the daughter of the owner of the hacienda he and his orginal buddy work on for awhile.

Later, after being taken prisoner for that indiscretion and for their connection with Jimmy Blevins, after witnessing at some distance his dreadful death, after a brutal stint in a Mexican prison, John Grady meets up one last time with that lover and asks her to come to his country with him, promising (as we cannot doubt he would have attempted) to protect her and stay with her alone. My dad, who shared my initial enthusiasm for this book, told me that he was broken-hearted when, despite loving him, she would not go. In the end, John Grady engages in a dramatic gunfight to retrieve all of his own and his former companions’ horses (the other friend has returned home already by bus, from prison) and narrowly escapes death by gunshot, as he’d previously escaped it by knife wound in prison, before slipping back across the border. It’s a supremely heart-rending and beautiful story.

The Crossing tells the story of Billy Parham, who just slips across the border from New to Old Mexico on a quixotic quest (he is also about sixteen at the time) to return a pregnant wolf that has been hunting his father’s cattle and that he has trapped. This tale commences prior to our involvement in World War II, in the early ’40’s, so when he and John Grady Cole meet up for volume three, he is several years his senior. While on my first reading of this novel back in ’94 or ’95 I did not like it as well as the first, my appreciation for it has certainly deepened with this second reading. In any case, it is worth the price of the book just for that opening melody with boy and wolf, which stretches on for over a hundred pages and ends with boy disillusioned by the brutality of men and what he has to do just to bury that poor animal with its unborn pups in its native mountains.

“Doomed enterprises,” we read at the commencement of part two, as he has just buried it, “divide lives forever into the then and the now,” and indeed that is the tone of this story from then on: of resignation and despair. Billy goes home, eventually, only to discover his father and mother murdered, his horses stolen, his brother (age 14) orphaned. He and Boyd cross back into Mexico in pursuit of horses. In the end, they retrieve the horses, but Boyd is almost killed by gunshot and, after being nursed back to health, leaves Billy and runs off with a poor Mexican girl who becomes his sweetheart. Billy crosses the border again, tries to join the army and is rejected because of a heart murmur, works for awhile on ranches and then goes back in search of his brother who has disappeared into the mists of legend and song, where he and his bandit girlfriend have merged with others in a popular corrido. In the end Bill returns home bearing his brother’s bones, much as in the beginning he’d come to Mexico with a wolf – and then had to bury it.

In Cities of the Plain, Billy and John Grady are both working on the same ranch outside of El Paso, Texas, halfway between their separate starting places. In the opening scene, Billy is introducing the younger John Grady to a whorehouse in El Paso’s twin city, Juárez, Mexico. John Grady, while not wanting to approach her with the older men present, sees the girl he falls in love with. Perhaps she reminds him, at this moment, of the rancher’s daughter, but in the end it is she herself that he loves. He catches up with her, later, in another establishment, and he makes love to her there and learns that she returns his affection. He plans to marry her and almost sweeps her away but for the betrayal that necessarily befalls.

Prior to that, there is the tenderness of his preparations of the country cottage that he will take her to, and all the tenderness of his attention to her. In the end, though, they are betrayed and she is murdered. When he discovers her random body in the morgue (the tale of how she came to this captivity in a Ciudad Juárez brothel is horrible and pathetic), he goes almost mad with grief, then returns to either kill or be killed by the brutal slave trader who had her killed. In the end, after a battle that rages on for several pages, he kills the overconfident assassin and then slips off, it turns out, to also die from his own wounds. He dies as his older friend Billy Parham comes to his rescue, that closing image (prior to the epilogue) of Billy, grief stricken at the loss of a second little brother, carrying him across a Juárez intersection just as a Mexican woman is preparing to cross with a group of school children in their blue uniforms, is truly wrenching.

In the epilogue, Billy goes on to further wanderings and solitude, ending up at the beginning of the second millennium (year 2000 or 2001?) where he meets another wanderer who tells a strange and lengthy parable that winds up being, I rather think, the author’s transparent meditation on the nature of memory and stories and their various levels of truth. That part to me was puzzling and disorienting; I found myself agreeing with the character Mr. Parham, who says to his interlocutor at one point: “I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be.” There was some meat there, no doubt, such that I might puzzle over to more effect on a future reading, yet perhaps the story might just as well have ended with the spare account of the older Billy Parham’s wandering, before and after that strange encounter.

The closing scene, less dramatic than that of him bearing John Grady’s dead body from a Mexican alley, is deeply moving for what it says to the more common disillusionments of all our lives, disillusionment met with still a touch of the sweetness of all of that living. In it the old man, who should have died years earlier of a murmuring heart but is left instead to remember those who died in his place, has taken up his winter’s residence with a family that gave him a place to sleep not unlike the place he had slept last in his parents’ home. He awakes from dreams of Boyd and is comforted by the woman of the house, who then asks him about Boyd.

 Boyd was your brother.

Yes. He’s been dead many a year.

You still miss him though.

Yes I do. All the time.

Was he the younger?

He was. By two years.

I see.

He was the best. We run off to Mexico together. When we were kids. When our folks died. We went down there to see about gettin back some horses they’d stole. We was just kids. He was awful good with horses. […] I’d give about anything to see him one more time.


She patted his head. Gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it. The ropy veins that bound them to his heart. There was map enough for me to read. There God’s plenty of signs and wonders to make a landscape. To make a world. She rose to go.

Betty, he said.


I’m not what you think I am. I aint nothin. I don’t know why you put up with me.

Well, Mr. Parham, I know who you are. And I do know why. You go to sleep now. I’ll see you in the morning.

Yes mam.

That moves me so much, perhaps, because, as young as I still am in years lived, I feel so much like that, of no great account and in the end unworthy of any particular remembrance. As if all I’d dreamed in my youth had come to nought, as if, as in these tragic lives, things had really turned out much differently from what was dreamed. As, in essence, they have, and of course must. Even if, as I still dream in unguarded moments, I’ll be like Frank McCourt, retired schoolteacher whose first book becomes a sensation. Even so, the lived experience of this world can be nothing like what I had once hoped. My marriage, for all its stubborn persistence, is far away from the youthful idyll that lent it such promise, and my loss of faith in any orthodox religion has marred the happiness that we had mapped out for each other. And so much else has happened. It really is as the character in Cities of the Plain said. What’s the hardest lesson to be learned? “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They aint comin back.”

Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the bombing by General Franco’s forces, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), of the town by that name in Spain’s northern Basque region.

The title of that last novel, Cities of the Plain, is suggested in a brief passage in The Crossing, in which a lone Mormon heretic comments on the justice of God in context of a Mexican earthquake. It is Biblical in origin, no doubt, referring subtly (never directly) to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins against humanity, their sexual perversions and terrible violence. This is a fair allusion given the inhumanity of the sex trade taking place in this Mexican city, fed by the lust of its twin American city and the violence done to the simplest of the residents on either side of the border.

One significant idea running through this trilogy, expressed most explicitly as the boy Billy Parham is trying to recover his stolen and brutalized wolf, is the arbitrariness of national borders and the price that is paid by the poor and powerless denizens that are caught up in their national or international politics. He speaks of this matter with one of the wolf’s captors, who are using it as bait in a public dog fight, from which agony the boy will ultimately have no choice but to release it by shooting it.

You think this country is some country you can come here and do what you like.

I never thought that. I never thought about this country one way or the other.

Yes, said the hacendado.

We was just passin through, the boy said. We wasn’t botherin nobody. Queríamos pasar, no más.

Pasar o trespasar?

The boy turned and spit into the dirt. He said that the tracks of the wolf       had led out of Mexico. He said the wolf knew nothing of boundaries. The young don nodded as if in agreement but what he said was that whatever the wolf did or did not know was irrelevant, and that if the wolf crossed that boundary it was perhaps so much the worse for the wolf but the boundary stood without regard.

[…] The boy only said that if he were allowed to go he would return with the wolf to America and that he would pay whatever fine he had incurred but the hacendado shook his head. He said that it was too late for that and that anyway the alguacil had taken the wolf nto custody and it was forfeit in lieu of the portage. When the boy said that he had not known that he would be required to pay in order to pass through the country the hacendado said that then he was in much the same situation as the wolf. (italics mine)

This passage reveals a quality of the text that I greatly enjoyed, the bilinguality of it. Indeed, whenever direct quotes involve spoken Spanish, the words are recorded as spoken in Spanish. In this case, the Mexican party does use some English. In other cases, where this is not so, a significant exchange may take place entirely in Spanish, but it is quickly followed with narrative in English and with the use of indirect quoting so that the non-Spanish-proficient reader will still not be lost. This is a technique that I find, together with the dispensing with orthodoxies of punctuation, makes the story more authentic and immediate than it would otherwise feel. In fact, it is through this authenticity that much of the novel’s central beauty is revealed, as in this exquisite and tender passage in All the Pretty Horses:

After awhile the two girls came back. The taller of them held up her hand with two cigarettes in it.

John Grady looked at the guards. They motioned the girls over and looked at the cigarettes and nodded and the girls approached the bench and handed the cigarettes to the prisoners together with several wooden matches.

Muy amable, said John Grady. Muchas gracias.

They lit the cigarettes off one match and John Grady put the other matches in his pocket and looked at the girls. They smiled shyly.

Son americanos ustedes?


Son ladrones?

Sí. Ladrones muy famosos. Bandoleros.

They sucked in their breath. Qué precioso, they said. But the guards called to them and waved them away.

Dust Bowl migrant with children

That simple  passage, the boy lying heroically to please the child, the child sucking in her breath and saying, “How precious,” moved me more deeply when I first read it than I can say. I hope the more sophisticated English-language reader, picking up at least on “famosos” and “bandoleros” and “precioso” would catch some of the reason for that. In any case, what is implicit here is explicit in other places, as in The Crossing where Boyd’s other life as a Mexican bandolero, an American Robin Hood casting his lot among his poorer brethren, is immortalized in popular balladry. The poor and powerless pitted against the rich (albeit only comparatively) and powerful countrymen who represent law and order: to them the famous bandoleros are naturally enough precious, worthy of their love and honor. So it is fitting, as John Grady and his friend are led off then, that those little girls were seen crying.

There are many other passages, in either of these novels, of supreme beauty and truthfulness. One of my favorites, if not my absolute favorite, is from All the Pretty Horses, when John Grady and his friend are working at the ranch. They go off into the mountains with a bunch of horses and the Mexican vaqueros and an old survivor of the Mexican Revolution named Luis. Luis speaks some truths about men and horses and the souls of both of them:

  … He’d loved horses all his life and he and his father and two brothers had fought in the cavalry but they’d all despised Victoriano Huerta above all other visited evils. He said that compared to Huerta Judas was himself but another Christ and one of the young vaqueros looked away and another blessed himself. He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent’s flesh for its bite. He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war on horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances  attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal. He said that if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were.


Y de los hombres? said John Grady.

The old man shaped his mouth to answer. Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men  could be understood at all was probably an illusion. Rawlins asked him in his bad Spanish if there was a heaven for horses but he shook his head and said that a horse had no need of heaven. Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses also perish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothin out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there  being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmillAs to why this passage moves me so deeply, I, who would not even know how to ride a horse, I can only say that it takes my breath away. So does this whole trilogy, which I place in my heart’s canon alongside the Quixote and the best of the Russian masters. Even as it breaks my heart, it has the power that only great literature can of repairing it. At least in that moment that I can hold it there, before sinking again into the banal struggles of my prosaic existence.


Confabulating with Cows and Herding Cats

Aside from my collection of essays, announced in the previous post, hot off the press at Per Bastet Publications is issue 21 (Herding Cats and Other Alien Creatures) of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group’s Indian Creek Anthology Series. I happen to have short fiction in issues 20 and 21, the most recent of which I also edited.

My story for the present issue is briefly described in the volume’s foreword, which I excerpt below. My contributions to the previous issue (XX: SIW Goes Platinum) include a series of comedic short-shorts under the general title “Madcap Midwestern Mythologies” and scattered throughout the volume; and “Brotherhood of Man and Beast,” a comedy about the encounter and unlikely friendship between a conservative Christian preacher and a teacher of the literary-rhetorical arts of Charles Darwin. I have written about them previously.

Following, by way of introduction to the new volume, is the text of my foreword:

As I was reading the recent English translation of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s The Farm in the Green Mountains, the chapter called “Confusion in the Chicken Yard,” I reflected on the theme of this twenty-first volume of the Indian Creek Anthology Series. Herdan-Zuckmayer’s book is a memoir about the author and her husband Carl’s experience, as political refugees from Nazi Germany during the first half of the Forties, running a farm in backwoods Vermont. Neither she nor Zuck, as Alice called him, were experienced farmers. So the account of their time in that American wilderness – with its echoes of some of the more remote rural communities in southern Indiana – was full of humorous adventures as they labored to herd those chickens and other farm animals into some semblance of order.

The “herdee” in question, in this passage, was Hermann, an ungovernable goose who was enamored of a duck and violently resisted their being housed every night in separate sections of the poultry shed. “Without the broom,” Herdan-Zuckmayer writes, “we could not have controlled Hermann, who was wild and dangerous. In fact, the broom often played an important role in driving the animals home, in separating fighters, and in self-defense.”

All the farm animals, except for the goats who liked “to nibble at the broom straw,” were afraid of it. All they had to do was “hold the broom in front of [them], like a witch who is ready to mount her broomstick to ride to the Blocksberg, and the animals scattered and took flight in the desired direction.

“Even the hair on the cats began to stand on end, and they arched their backs and started to spit when the stubby face of the broom approached them. It seemed almost like a magical fear of the witchly attributes that made the animals run away.”

A sort of writerly magic exists in the collaborative effort that has brought together the nine stories, two poems, and single work of creative nonfiction in this latest production of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group. In “Herding Cats,” the poem that opens the volume, Jen Selinsky speaks of the magician’s act involved in bringing together such a “wild assortment” of writers and authorial visions, both in person and in these pages. She is followed in almost seamless transition by Marian Allen’s fast-paced, antic, police comedic-drama “By the Book,” which places the literary arts where they belong at the center of sentient life: the action unfolds on the planet Llannonn, in and around a “Living Library” (“a group home for people who chose to make careers out of memorizing stories and novels and reciting themselves to anyone of good character who presented a library card”) where quick-drawing and impassioned Assistant Librarian Holly Jahangiri leads the charge against a band of ruffians who have been waylaying some of the Living Books.

From across the pond in Great Britain, our own “alien” writer, Andrea Gilbey, contributes “A Furry at the Bottom of My Garden, or, The Cat Who Fell to Earth.” What, on the surface, is a charming comedy of errors, in Andrea’s deft hands becomes also a comprehending glimpse into the lonely experience of “otherness.” She does this with a lightness of touch capable of planting, in the garden at the bottom of her readers’ hearts, a resurgence of compassion in this world of competing nationalisms that are so quick to place human beings in boxes or shipping containers stamped with such dehumanizing labels as “illegal” or “alien” or “refugee.”

The two pieces that follow, J. Baumgartle’s fictional “Cat Power” and Janet Wolanin Alexander’s memoiristic “Humans: Herders or Herdees?” share the anthropomorphic conceit of being narrated by the little furries at stories’ center: in Baumgartle’s story, which shares some of the social consciousness hidden at the heart of Andrea’s tale, the narrating cat is instrumental in preventing a minor environmental atrocity; in Alexander’s, the series of cats who have insinuated themselves into the lives of “the Js” (Jim and Jan) make the case for a re-ordering of that power structure.

“Leader of the Pack” is Brenda Drexler’s whimsical recasting of the Shangri-Las’ 1965 hit, its feline dialogue connecting it happily with Disney’s anti-tragedy The Aristocats. Ginny Fleming’s hilarious “Cat-O-Strophic Spelling,” for its part, makes lemonade out of an almost-tragic metamorphosis that, through some seriously bad “spelling” (of the magical, not orthographic sort), takes an apparently mismatched pair of human lovers in a direction in part feline, but ultimately and rather sweetly canine.

The “wistful lion” that, in Baumgartle’s elegant poem, “hauls itself slowly upright from the pride-scented grass” to survey its landscape, would seem to beckon toward the guardian goyle and its kitten-goyles in the richly imagined fantasy world of Bonnie Abraham’s “Out of the Cabinet.” Mistress Playit Wrenmother and her “small covey of future mages” paint a subtly humorous picture as they traipse through the school of wizardry and surrounding city, engaged in some of their own at-once less catastrophic and more cosmically significant spelling than the lemons-to-lemonade spelling of Fleming’s story.

That fantasy, with its almost Biblical overtones, leads to the Lakota Sioux spirituality underlying the science fiction of T. Lee Harris’s “Ghost in the Machine,” in which Captain Miranda Morningstar, a United Americas Marine Corps Ghost Walker, is called on to investigate an explosion that shook the asteroid where they are based; only, in a process that her shaman called “the snapping of the tether between body and spirit,” her spirit leaves the body behind in anticipation of her mission. T. Lee’s story is full of darkness, light, and the vicarious thrill of mortal combat with some truly alien creatures.

Returning, at last, in “Covenant Restored,” to the familiar mortality of this present Earth, Glenda Mills explores the making and sundering of human relationships from a Catholic perspective; her narrative is one woman’s inner struggle that lands, with hope but no more assurance than any of life’s ventures, in a new romantic attachment whose initial promise is to be sealed with the purchase of a cat. And finally, I offer my own somewhat dark-edged (but ultimately exultant) romantic comedy, “Courting Mel,” whose struggling middle-aged lovers – heads of a colorfully eccentric Mormon family – find their way, before a backdrop of looming war in Iraq and a rebellious teenage daughter’s dalliance with a biker several years her senior, through their own crisis of faith and love.

I am much indebted, in this my first year editing SIW’s Indian Creek anthology, to Marian Allen and T. Lee Harris with their twenty years of previous experience; but also to the club’s other members, old and new, in particular those who have lent me their excellent writing. It is without the slightest hesitation that I recommend our combined labor to a reading public that completes our sister- and brotherhood of lovers of the incomparable magic of good stories. We hope that you will be at once entertained and edified by our work.




Confabulating with the Cows: Wit, Whimsy, and Occasional Wisdom from Perry County, Indiana: 1992-94

On the definition, worth, and “public purposes” of the arts and humanities

Roberto M. Ortiz

I have been reading, on and off for most of the summer, a book that I bought used in Buenos Aires when I was down that way in 2005: Ortiz: Reportaje a la Argentina Opulenta [Reporting on Opulent Argentina], by Félix Luna. I picked it up now, in my lingering post-Inaugural funk, in search of some insight—some mirrored reflection, perhaps, from WWII-era Argentina’s oligarchic society and presidential politics—into our parallel, if by no means identical, predicament in the latter years of this 21st century’s second decade.

Who knew that, at the book’s most climactic and poignant moment, I would happen upon an answer to conservative columnist George Will’s recent complaint in the National Review (in the context of the current president’s intention of fulfilling the long-nurtured dream of certain Republicans of eliminating all funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities) about the stubborn undefinability and dubious practicality of those suspect domains?

This from Ted Genoway’s “Mixed Media” report in the September/October issue of Mother Jones: “‘We subsidize soybean production,’ [Will] wrote, ‘but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding?’” In a passage that might shed some light on the psychology behind Wills’s complaint, Genoway also cites novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s statement about the president’s motives: “‘The NEA and NEH are in Trump’s sights because they promote the expression of the messy, complex American spirit,’ she wrote for Quartz. ‘Art is not tractable, containable, or even easily defined. That makes it the very opposite of what autocrats want: propaganda.’”

Félix Luna

Be that as it may, last night, as I finished reading the suspect pages in Félix Luna’s artful and innovative 1978 history of the brief, tragic presidency of Roberto M. Ortiz, I knew that I had the material for today’s essay.

A little background before I cut to the nitty-gritty:

I knew nothing of Ortiz when I stumbled on the brittle paperback. I had forgotten the little that I had read about him, decades ago, in Robert Crassweller’s Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina (1987), which consisted of little more than the fact that his strong-arm predecessor, Agustín P. Justo, who had assured Ortiz’s victory in the ridiculously fraudulent 1937 elections, “was doubtless surprised when Ortiz emerged as a throwback to Roque Sáenz Peña [famous for his electoral reforms of 1912] and established his administration squarely on the base of honest elections. But fate took a hand, and not for the better. Ortiz had advanced diabetes when he came to office and soon became almost blind. By 1940 he had to step aside while the vice-president took over in all but name.”

The mostly loose pages of my brittle copy of Ortiz, in any case, after having suffered the tender abuse of my scribbled marginalia and a spilled glass of water, have lost their spine and are held together by a rubber band. What drew me to the book was the author’s name. Félix Luna (1925-2009), a journalist, historian, and poet, was known to me as lyricist to a song that was the original inspiration for my novella, A Bride Called Freedom, and which I knew from the great folk singer Mercedes Sosa’s rendition of it.

Mercedes Sosa with composer, Ariel Ramírez, at the piano, and lyricist, Félix Luna, at work on their album Mujeres Argentinas [Argentine Women]. Among its songs was “Dorotea, la cautiva” [Dorotea, the Captive], which inspired the novella A Bride Called Freedom.

Luna also wrote the very useful A Short History of the Argentinians, which I purchased in its English translation during that same trip twelve years ago, and in whose pages I had also read (and then forgot) that particular man, Ortiz, who did not immediately stand out among the parade of more broadly known and less ephemeral characters.

Another point of reference is to María Rosa Lojo’s novel Las libres del Sur [Free Women of the South], with its allusion to the name of its subject, Victoria Ocampo’s famed literary magazine Sur [South], which, aside from the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, and essayist and fiction writer María Rosa Oliver, boasted such male luminaries as the Argentine stylist, Jorge Luis Borges; the Spaniards, José Ortega y Gasset and Federico García Lorca; and, among many others, the North American Waldo Frank, author of the Ortiz book’s suspect passage with its prescient answer to George Will’s question about the definition and worth of the arts and humanities.

Of equal pertinence, if less directly, is Lojo’s latest novel, Todos éramos hijos [in my yet-unpublished translation: All of Us Were Children], which focuses on Argentina of the early-to-mid 70’s, in another parallel historical moment before, during, and immediately after Juan Perón’s brief return, after nearly two decades in exile, to the nation’s presidency.

In all three of these parallel universes—Argentina, on the verge of Perón’s first decade in power; and again, three decades later, on the verge of the generals’ infamous and brutal dictatorship, with its tens of thousands of murdered and “disappeared” citizens; and our own America of the Obama-Trump era—lies the specter of a rising authoritarianism that either is itself or closely resembles fascism. If any proofs of that association remain necessary, after the recent spectacle of enraged white-supremacist nationalism in Charlottesville, I recall the witness (reported by some media sources during the run-up to the 2016 election) of one or two Holocaust survivors, elderly women who said that the present mood in the United States was eerily reminiscent of Germany’s in the 1930’s. I would think that, if anyone knew, it would be they who had been present.

Spanish original of Luna’s Short History of the Argentinians

But, back to Luna’s Ortiz. Its subject, if I may elaborate a bit on the above-cited sentences from Crassweller’s book, was the son of Spanish immigrants, born in Buenos Aires, who, with a combination of political acumen and a reputation for knowledgeable, intelligent accomplishment and what we would call bipartisanship, became the compromise candidate for the winning coalition of conservative and associated parties in the 1937 election. His presidential inauguration in February 1938 came at a time—after the 1930 coup that had ended a decades-long period of constitutional governance and orderly elections—of blatant electoral fraud and political violence. The outgoing strong-arm president, who by law could serve more than one term, but not consecutively, fully expected that Ortiz would carry on with the old program and turn the reins over to him again in six years.

But Ortiz, hardly a fiery revolutionary but a convinced and genuine small-d democrat, located on a scale somewhere around Aristotle’s “golden mean,” instead began a determined campaign of electoral reform and accountability that quickly won him a strong popular support and love that would in little time, after his inevitable downfall, be transferred to the only-superficially democratic Perón (or “democratic” by a more authoritarian definition) and his charismatic wife, Evita. Aside from that, given the remarkable political skills that made him so resilient to all the dirty tricks his opposition threw at him, for a brief moment he seemed almost invincible.

By the climactic moment in this virtually Shakespearean tragedy—all that remains, after last night’s reading, is Ortiz’s resignation and immediate death and Luna’s closing synthesis of elements and conclusions—Ortiz is functionally blind and hoping for a surgical fix that might restore enough vision so that he could return to office. Meanwhile, in a pattern eerily similar to our current president’s feverish dismantling of Barack Obama’s nominally progressive legacy, the vice-president whom political expediency had forced on Ortiz has been busy dismantling all of his strategic victories. While in his personal life, aside from the political and medical travails that dogged him, and the dark, menacing backdrop of the European war that conspired against the whole democratic program, Ortiz was overwhelmed with grief over the unexpected death of his beloved wife, constant companion and confidante.

It was as if the painstakingly constructed walls of his public and private existence were falling in around him. Only an unwavering faith in that grand civic project and an indomitable commitment to carrying out, to the best of his ability, the people’s business, could have sustained him through the sinsabores, as he reportedly confided to a friend after abandoning the presidential abode for good: “Ay, Miguel! The presidency has given me many satisfactions, to be sure, but … so many tribulations!”

Finally, at the climactic moment of this tale of a virtuous power exercised and brought to ruin, after the tardy revelation by a visiting surgeon of the irremediable severity of his condition, feeling betrayed, then, by the local doctors to whom he had entrusted the honest accounting that, for whatever reasons, they withheld from him, Ortiz immediately steps down on the basis of this new clarity. He turns the reins over to his political successor with a quiet dignity and without drama. He takes his farewell from an adoring public with frankness and sorrow, but without a hint of self-pity or incrimination. So that for him, as Luna writes, “the episode is finished. More than finished. Because now, indeed, everything had collapsed around him.”

So it is here that I must pause on a note about the poet-historian’s narrative style. This has to do with the “disconnected, even absurd” fragments—actual texts from the national media of the day: newspapers and magazines, radio broadcasts, and so forth; the crass ingenuousness of its advertisements, the pretentiousness of its society pages, the celebrity gossip and reviews of theater and cinema, the spectacles of sports, crime, politics, science—that he inserted at the end of each chapter.

“The explanation,” Luna writes, “is that I have not found another artifice more capable of carrying the reader, intuitively, with the magical contact of flower against skin, to the surface of Ortiz’s country, of that Argentina still innocent, sentimental, and credulous, attached to conventionalities, words, and rites” from a traditional, local society on the verge of international significance and transformation. It is a literary device designed to give a more complete picture, than the personal and political drama itself can deliver, of this newly prosperous Argentina in transition, this nation with its increasingly confident working class and a critically dysfunctional political class (with its “miopic, egotistical leaders” who, out of pride and the love of power, would not make a single concession to the people’s apparent will and Ortiz’s visionary reform) and the oligarchy it represents.

Waldo Frank, mentioned above as a contributor to the literary journal Sur, is an important figure in this “novel about Victoria Ocampo.”

Each selection—and, together they serve as a sort of mirror held up to a whole society—is neatly designed to complement the political story that has been unwinding in the preceding pages. And it is thus that we come to the following “suspect” passage, the literary portrait that perfectly accentuates the pathos and the tragedy of this singular politician in his moment of overwhelming defeat (and which must be understood, in this context, along with the more brief transcriptions from the Spanish above, as merely the rough draft of a potential translation):

“SUR turns ten years old. The new barbarians, provisioned with technologies that they have inherited from European culture, are destroying Europe’s freedom and, as these lines are being written, hurling tons of explosives on the English populace, while all the world’s material resources and many of its intellectual resources are being employed on the perfecting of the means of destruction.

“I just wrote two sentences: one brief and the other long,” the essayist continues….

I wish to demonstrate that they are related. SUR represents a creative effort of the human spirit: it is a cultural organ in which all Americans should take legitimate pride, since it directs and projects the traditions of literature and art toward the needs and experiences of the present. Its origin is the great tradition of the Western world that began in the Mediterranean, and its life bears our dreams and our plans, our love, toward the future. The disastrous fact that I have consigned to my second sentence—the new barbarians’ war against the human spirit—also has an origin in the Western world’s past. It is not a coincidental horror. It is an inevitable fruit of the errors and immaturity of that world, in the same way that SUR is a consequence of the more-or-less fulfilled aspirations and endeavors of that world.

The springs, today, are more tense than ever. Paris, beneath Hitler’s obscene boot; London, a solitary battle field; Madrid, prisoner of the betrayers of Spain and of Jesus. It is difficult to continue thinking that we face a crisis of truth [or: true crisis?] and not a result of what has for ages been the world’s typical condition. But that knowledge is essential if we are to transcend said typical condition. And there lies SUR’s function. An entity like SUR never openly governs: it does its work secretively and obliquely in the hearts of men. But its work is the Word of human freedom and dignity.

There is no other literary organ in the Americas today whose devotion to these values is more intelligent than that of SUR. And Europe’s twilight confers on SUR a worldwide preeminence. Therefore, SUR is not a simple local celebration; it has worldwide importance in the vast American world to which history provides, in this moment, a decisive hour.

Waldo Frank, in Sur, Year X, December 1940.

Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the bombing by General Franco’s forces, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), of the town by that name in Spain’s northern Basque region.

Leaving aside any modernist or romantic excess of the impassioned chronicler—we may, after all, learn as much or more about humane and democratic living from the Indigenous peoples of the earth, whom we have tended to rather thoughtlessly dismiss as barbarians or savages—the statement is good in its articulation of a practical and moral justification of the literary and other arts as they exist alongside governance and commerce.

What good are the arts and humanities, our civilization’s resurgent barbarians want to know? Oh, nothing much: it is just, given their origins within the spiritual aspirations and nascent religions, philosophies, and sciences of our species, that they are the basis of our humanity, the formation and nourishment of our conscience; in the eloquently utilitarian words of 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living”; they do not dictate, they do not propagandize (except, as Burke has also pointed out, in the pure sense of reasoned and impassioned persuasion), but reveal in all their nuance the complex and ambiguous realities that face us, from a virtually limitless variety of perspectives, in our own voices and in the voices of others, through our own eyes and through the eyes of others; so that, standing against the peddlers of division and fear, of hatred and endless warfare, we may learn the arts of tolerance and a common citizenship, even a universal citizenship (citizens of the world, as Borges would say)—maybe even in time to save ourselves and a livable habitat from the false determinism of a nature exclusively red in tooth and claw.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmillBut there I go again, tilting at windmills like Luna’s poor, noble, pathetic Roberto Ortiz, like Cervantes’s idealistic and lucid lunatic, Don Quixote, dreaming “impossible dreams” that might or might never be realized.

And yet, don’t those humane visions nourish our spirits much more than the deadly, broken logic of warmongers and the punitive masters of fear and austerity? Doesn’t noble Don Quixote—sprung from Cervantes’s imagination like Athena from Zeus’s head—still live in the human heart with the clarity of humankind’s most obstinate, enduring hopes? Doesn’t Ortiz’s failed but virtuous quest inspire beyond the apparent futility of death—and bear fruit in the labor of later generations?

Other dawns have followed other dusks, in Argentine as well as American history. Surely it is never too late to appeal to the better angels of our human nature. And even though we fail, who knows what bedraggled, wised-up phoenix might still be born from the ashes of our faith, our folly, and our love in action? For perhaps the coming apocalypse, if not wholly averted, might preserve a remnant capable of imagining a better civilization than this primitive one we left in tatters.