[Another titillation from A Republic of Books, the novel in progress, the rest of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
Smelling guns and firing roses
a killing with kindness
‘There are more booby traps in the original Constitution of the United States than in a congress of naked women—not intentional, to my reading, but the by-product of the authors’ inexperience, never having done this sort of thing before in public and thus lacking the judgment to avoid such mistakes—including those greater matters such as slavery and women’s suffrage, and the more subtle ones such as the stultifying tenure of incumbency, the easy corruption of public office through ‘pay to play,’ the false front put up by supposed ‘checks and balances’ weighted like a thumb on a butcher’s scale in favor of the Presidency, and the so-called ‘electoral college’ meant to avoid the uneducated stupidity of the mob by preserving the idiocy of the powers that be, each of which have wrecked their own special havoc—but the one we have to fear the most once more, at this particular juncture of our history, when all the others have already played themselves out in the worst way again and again, is the power given to the Supreme Court by itself (at the behest of Chief Justice John Marshall) in 1803, in the case of Marbury vs. Madison. This was an unconstitutional act by every measure, and set the standard for all the extracurricular judicial hijinks to come.’
That was the key element in my blog of that morning. I figured the bit about boobies would raise the appropriate hackles among the humorless pseudo-feminists.
Nancy Claire appeared in front of me again as I finished correcting the rest of this for posting.
“You look very intent. Are you writing now?”
“Just the blog.”
“What are you on about this morning?”
“Freedom of speech.”
“You wrote about that yesterday.”
“I did. There’s a lot to say. The powers-that-be want to shut me down.”
She smiled, knowingly. How much did she actually know?
“I don’t think they really care about you. Not really. Maybe what you represent. Perhaps someone cares about the people you upset. But the ruling class doesn’t even know your name. I promise you. They don’t read. Not even what the New York Times or Washington Post tells them to read.”
“That’s a very incendiary remark from someone who earns her living from those same folks.”
“Well, it cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? I want you to know I’m seriously interested and I know what I’m about.”
Timed perfectly to this admission, as if scripted and choreographed, an egg hit the window and slid—oozed really—down the glass. Then another. And each of these was accompanied by the sort of disheartening sound you hear when a small bird hits your windshield on a drive.
What art was in this, as the yoke of the egg glows golden with sun and the edges are silvered in the light by the albumen (the clear dropping faster below as if in exclamation), with bits of shell littering the flowing landscape in reverse the way hardened lava darkens the fiery heart of a magma drool? Withal, there must be beauty to be had from the projectile egg! But then a second strike made little more than modern art of it all. I turned to Nancy Claire and shrugged as dramatically as possible as I went for the door. I suppose I could have been more agitated had they thrown chickens instead. She smiled oddly in return. I had no idea of what might actually be humorous to her in the moment as my temper rose.
This was not the first attack of this kind. Through the years there have been several. But unlike those previous demonstrations of disagreement, this was not the act of a single perpetrator. Though, the group was small. Four or five. I stopped counting when passersby stopped among them to see the carnage and cars slowed the traffic in the street. They were all women.
“That’s a shame,” one of them said as I opened the door. “You better clean that off before it hardens. I hear it hardens very quickly in the sun.”
Now, I was finally inspired.
I pulled my cell phone out and took a picture of them all assembled and returning my stare and then another as they dispersed. I would post the pictures on the website later. However, taking their picture was only symbolic. As they likely knew too well, there was no law enforcement that would hold them to account. And I would not.
But this zeitgeist is not in the spirit of the country to which I was born. Yet it is not I who has moved. The borders have changed. And as I have mentioned before, you have time to think when you are cleaning egg from a window.
C. S. Lewis is a good Christian to argue with on such matters. In his little book of genius, The Screwtape Letters, an epistolary correspondence between an elder devil named Screwtape and his novice nephew, Wormwood, concerning the proper guidance of his very first charge, ‘the Patient,’ there is a preface to the paperback edition which includes this wonderful conceit he attributed, at least in part, to his good friend G. K. Chesterton, that “Satan fell through force of gravity. We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity, and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”
It is my reply that ‘the Constitution is not a suicide pact.’ Who said that? Lincoln? Not exactly so. Nor only Justice Robert Jackson. It is one of those phrases that has always been with us, with sentiments going back to The Federalist Papers. It is an understanding that the principle of liberty by itself does not always stand the challenge of real life, and life comes first, or else the test is moot and all chance at happiness lost. It does not beg for a pragmatic way of life, or giving up ideals altogether. Allowing for our greater ignorance, it supposes only that values are always based on judgment, whereas ideology of principle is usually in pursuit of purity; that ideologues live in eternal frustration and idealists are always destined to be cynics if they live long enough; that idols always have feet of clay and human beings generally do the best they can under the circumstances. That is to say, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. It is the law, nothing more. Not God’s truth, but man made, and thus imperfect, however great.
Still, I have sometimes wondered if all is lost. If the world was already so insolvent as it was, say, when C. S. Lewis wrote about Screwtape in 1941, then how can we possibly overcome the weight of our debt now. In the very first of those epistles, Wormwood was advised that reason and doing have been surpassed and through “the weekly press, and other such weapons, . . . your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic,’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally . . . The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground . . . By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason, and once awake, who can foresee the result?”
I was thinking tonight of those Russian booksellers who cannot sell anything that is not approved by Mr. Putin. Unlike the workings of the old Soviet Union, Mr. Putin uses the more modern techniques of repression—well, that and a little bit of the old way when necessary. An oligarch who gets out of hand is likely to have a timely accident or heart attack. A dissident who flees will be magically poisoned while strolling in Covent Garden. But a bookseller, stationary as he is, would more likely to meet with a sudden fire, or a trashing at the hands of thugs. Thus ‘modern’ would be defined as the sort of repression that has been practiced since the gulags. The bookseller has a choice, of course. In that more modern sense of the word, he is ‘free.’ If he rejects the proscribed book, he can continue to sell all the others. But if he sells the forbidden work, he will loose his shop to save his integrity. Does he give that up too? It might even be a book he dislikes himself. This is the question of the husband who still loves an unfaithful wife. Does he love books enough to stand by them even if they are unfaithful to his ideals? Love is just one of the several reasons why ideology has flaws. Love is a too human effort, and thus naturally flawed. Does he give his wife up because his definition of marriage is not the same as hers? Many would. Some would not. (Personality and looks might play a part.) But then, should marriage be absolute, or is it a real bond between mortals to whom any absolute is an abstraction?
I suppose I was always a better bookseller than husband, and the financial straights of my shop would indicate that I have never been the best even at that. But I have never been unfaithful, to either cause.
I think of the Russian bookseller. Is he old enough to have been at his trade when the Soviets ruled? When any title of merit was proscribed? Has he survived through all the chaos in-between, only now to be faced with the final prospect of failure at the hands of a thug with the face of an Eichmann and the manners of Henry the Eighth? (He will have to move to a smaller apartment, and he will miss his friends on the street as well as the customers who depended on him.) Should he carry the forbidden book to appease a damaged soul and suffer the consequences, or should he persevere? Too many questions, I say. Avoiding answers with questions is Jesuitical but not faintly saintly. Saints are idealists. I am no saint.
The first amendment to the Constitution places freedom of the press among the first of equals along with religion, and speech, assembly, and the right to petition. As a matter of fact, in its way, this is my petition, is it not? The first amendment does not guarantee that I will believe in a God, nor that I will have anything worth saying, or ever be of a mind to say it if I do; nor does it demand that I associate with others, no matter their interests or affiliations; and it certainly does not insist that I write anything at all. It is a law without teeth—honored in the breach, as it were, as most of life is. It falls behind the rest of the Constitution, like a caboose. It is there as an attachment. An amendment. An after-thought. Now, what am I to do with it? I have nothing to do with it! I was simply born beneath the shadow of that umbrella. (but all that is really the fault of my parents. Had they had the good sense to have born me in Ireland, I might have been a poet, or a cutter of turf—which is only peat by a better name. I would have been happier being a poet, or just cutting the turf in that Emerald Isle. Obscurity of meaning appeals to my sense of mystery. The bog is in me. Then again, I am much fonder of Robert Frost than T. S. Eliot. Obscurity has its drawbacks. Frost burns hotter in me. And Yeats hotter yet. Obscurity is a bother when you are trying to choose a path to take.)
The question is, should I go or should I stay? Something of the reverse of the old Clash song. I was never asked to be here in the first place. It was my choice from the first, so there is no one else to blame and thus no one else to ask. I have remained on my own accord and what I have reaped is my own reward. Now, the tuneless noise of the Clash is what I’ve got in my head. Not the Vespers of Rachmaninoff. Just what I deserve, no doubt. But this is what I did for love.
Years ago, amidst one of those countless arguments that so scratched our marriage record, Margaret accused me of having an Appetite for Destruction. The reference escaped me. I believe this happened shortly after she had gone alone to the Orpheum to see the rock band Guns and Roses. In that I had never bothered with drugs, the complaint seemed gratuitous. But she explained—loudly—that the books were my drug. My addiction was to the words. She was glad she had gone, after ten years of subdued motherhood. She wanted the break. She needed it. She only wished she had not gone alone. But my own appetite for a brawl would not be sated. (She would not have used the word ‘sated.’) The argument itself was incidental but it is one of the few I actually remember. I had objected to the banality of that bands song lyrics and repetitiveness of the music and I turned the volume up on the record player to make my point. One of the children started crying. Maybe all of them did. I only remember Elly, pulling at her mother’s leg and looking at me with hurt magnified by tears in her eyes. Not a good scene, as they say.
Margaret was a Rolling Stones fan when I first met her and soon after she made me go with her to see them in New York. I had no interest then and less later. And following a first attempt to like Rachmaninoff, she would not go with me to Jordan Hall to see the only classical concerts there that I could afford—because they were free.
Why does this matter?
Because, alike a preference in music, all of this is not just a matter of opinion. If so, I have already lost the battle. Yes? Classical music is the choice of less than one percent of the population, so I cannot argue for public support. Nor can my small shop compete with Barnes & Nobel even though they are now losing the larger war to the internet. The existence of my shop is incidental to the public mind concerning what is worth fighting for. A Guns and Roses concert could draw more paying customers in one night than I would bring to Charles Street in one year. There is no comparison to be made. And there is no question about which is more important to the average citizen.
Thus, it is time for me to go.
As I say, I don’t blame the Russian bookseller for his Hobson’s choice. And for the same reason, I do not blame the publishers in Russia who fail to criticize Putin and his henchmen. However, I do hold the author’s responsible. The samizdat of the Soviet era was more vibrant with ideas than the current Russian literary scene. It could be well argued that it was this underground literature that finally brought the old bosses down. Certainly the new bosses deserve the same. But then again, we mustn’t forget the key element to the other three: a public that cares enough to know what they have lost and what must be done.
I remember a short story from the Russian underground press in the 1970’s. I am not sure the author was even known. This piece concerned an old women who had been alive since the revolution and had always kept a secret shelf of books behind the stove in her apartment. For fifty years she had kept them safe, dusting the coal soot off of them every week. At last, a neighbor had committed some political crime or another, and the whole building was searched. The books were found.
A policeman interrogates her. She does not look like a trouble-maker to him.
“Why these books? What is your objective?”
He pulls one volume off the shelf and tosses it on her kitchen table.
“Where did you get this?”
She shrugs and knits her fingers.
Babushka! You are making it hard on yourself. Tell us where you got it and we can go easy.
She says, “Independence Avenue.”
“The New Thought.”
“There is no shop by that name.”
“There was in 1921.”
He is gobsmacked. (Or whatever the Russian is for that.)
“You are telling me you bought this book in 1921!”
“Yes. All of them. On the day of the directive forbidding them. The bookman there picked them out for me especially.”
“But they are new!”
The policeman looks inside one book after the other and realizes the dates are old.
“You have kept these since 1921? They look unread!”
She shrugs. “I cannot read.”
The policeman sits, his mouth gaping again. She waits quietly, hands folded in her lap.
At last he asks, “Why did you keep them hidden away if you cannot read?”
She looks up at him sweetly. “Because they were written by someone, and published by someone else, and sold to me by the bookman, and I should have the right!”
Even in the Soviet Union.
When I read this story, it seemed like the sort of thing that Arthur Koestler might produce. Or perhaps, more appropriately, an alternate universe by the brothers Strugatsky. Something from far away. A nightmare land where the normal and abnormal lived side by side. Where little old ladies might have conversations with monsters. But this was now the place that was my own.