Washington Irving, “Salmagundi” (1807–1808)

My friend then proceeded to inform me that for some time before, and during the continuance of an election, there was a most delectable courtship or intrigue, carried on between the great bashaws, and mother mob. That mother mob generally preferred the attentions of the rabble, or of fellows of her own stamp, but would sometimes condescend to be treated to a feasting, or any thing of that kind, at the bashaw’s expense. (208)

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Salmagundi was a short-lived periodical written by Washington Irving with the help of his brother. Much like the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, the Salmagundi was a cooperative effort between the Irving brothers. The articles in each issue are extremely varied, including poetry, stories, commentary by the editor “Launcelot Langstaff” or the Captain of a Ketch, “Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan,” or other sketches and stories. Many of these characters are drawn from Irving’s life and social circle. In spirit they remind the reader of the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle in that they are a reflection of a culture coming to know democracy and eager to debate the profound, the serious, and the mundane within the commons. As much as the Federalist Papers, the Salmagundi is a product of the American Revolution, and the emerging unique American political and cultural identity. It should be more commonly studied, in part because reading them is so pleasurable.

The completed Salmagundi consists of twenty issues, published over a little over a year (January 24, 1807 to January 25, 1808). They are all divided into a few parts and each total around 15 pages each (I am not sure how much each issue would have been in the original type). They were meant to be read in short bits, probably in the company of others or in a public space. The “public use of reason” fills up every page. They are essentially political documents, posing as social satire.

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Most issues open with commentary by Launcelot Langstaff, introducing the characters that have submitted articles and occasionally talking about his encounters with various denizens of the city, focusing on their conversations about politics and social life. We can notice a few things about these commentaries. First, Langstaff is interested in publicizing private conversations, although they are fictional, they seem to be rooted in real experiences and considerations of the day. In the age of universal surveillance, much has been said about the importance of privacy and the unjust interference into private lives. On the other side of the question is the necessity of a vibrant public life that seems to undermine privacy for the public good. We accept this for public figures. Their affairs and hypocrisy are considered socially relevant in a democratic society. Does this not privilege those leaders? Suggesting that they are more important to a democracy than the average person. I wonder if there is a larger argument to be had about the role of the privacy, the commons, and public discourse. Better to have your private life exposed than to lose the commons of public discourse.

As a piece of evidence that that authors of the Salmagundi hold no private thoughts sacred, consider the February 24, 1807 edition, which has at its core the exposure and publication (without consent it seems) of the private travelogue of one Jeremy Cockloft, the Younger. The only justification for this invasion of his privacy is that the notes “may not prove uninteresting to my readers.” (94) This journal is exposed with the same irreverence as the day-to-day oddities of the New York Assembly Hall. Despite saying later that “whether we write, or not write, to be none of the public’s business,” the authors are shameless in putting nearly everything they can into the public record. (189) Mustapha Rub-a-Dub makes a comment in one of his letters arguing that all people want their place in the sun, if only for a moment. As a text, the Salmagundi suggest that this was possible in a democratic society.

One of the most memorable figures in the Salmagundi is Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan, who befriended Langstaff while he visited America. He wrote letters back to Tripoli, but they were not sent off before being translated by Will Wizard (another contributor to the Salmagundi), who knows all languages. The early United States was no stranger to European travelers commenting on the new republic and its absurdities. Rub-a-Dub’s comments seem to build on these other Old World observations of the United States. He serves to ridicule American government systems, pomposity, and disorderly society. It is hard for an American not to feel proud at his comments about American women “boxing the ears” of their husbands or the order from below created by the militias. Here is his conclusion on the military: “Such, my friend, is the gigantic genius of this nation, and its faculty of swelling up nothings into importance. Our bashaw of Tripoli, will review his troops of some thousands, by an early hour in the morning. Here a review of six hundred men is made the might work of a day! With us a bashaw of two tails is never appointed to a command of less than ten thousand men; but here we behold every grade from the bashaw, down to the drum-major, in a force of less than one tenth of the number. By the beard of Mahomet, but every thing here is indeed on a great scale.” (120)

Yet for all the mockery and fun and satire of the Salmagundi it a celebration of a young republic and the democracy that was being lived out on the streets and public spaces. It also broached serious political and international questions such as women’s rights, suffrage, impressment at the seas, government corruption, and even social class.

Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Technology and Democracy

“The repulsive feature of slavery is the thing, not its name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of the classes that are below him to recognize—and in but indifferently modified measure—the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are the slaveholder’s spirit, the slaveholder’s blunted feeling. They are the result of the same cause, in both cases: the possessor’s old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.” (385–386)

In this quote, Mark Twain is giving a transhistorical definition of slavery. Fair enough, I suspect. He does the same with technology, which emerges as either a tool of oppression or a means of liberation. Modern or medieval they have those same potentialities.

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To begin, I want to say that Mark Twain gives technology a great deal of autonomy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While we know he was caught up in the excitement for technology of his age. This enthusiasm led to his bankruptcy around the time that this novel was published over his investments into the Paige typesetters. I am not sure if we should read A Connecticut Yankee as Twain’s suggestion that context does not matter in the application of technologies, but that certainly seems to be the implication of the novel. The introduction of nineteenth century technologies to the sixth century promotes political and social reforms. While it is a great novel and very entertaining, it is not at all convincing that a sole time traveler could introduce the infrastructure of industrialization to the sixth century. Even in that episode of Star Trek where Data goes back in time (bumping into Mark Twain as a matter of fact) he only builds devices, not an entire infrastructure.

The novel works as a polemic against slavery and arbitrary hierarchy. Where does technology fit into this picture? Most clear is how technology was the key to the rise of “The Boss” in Camelot. A time traveler, he was able to introduce first small technologies in order to become the greatest wizard in England. First secretly and then openly he rolled out a technocratic republic to replace the medieval monarchy of Arthur. This included public schooling, newspapers, industries, and modern weapons. “The Boss” uses technology to battle the evils of chivalry and over turn their dominance over the enslaved peasants. He is at times a “boss” trying to benefit himself and solidify his leadership of Camelot, but he is also a Robespierre always eager for a political revolution and willing to use technological reforms to affect it.

After touring the countryside, “The Boss” and King Arthur are placed into slavery. After their escape, “The Boss” emerges eager to take on the cult of chivalry. He does this in a tournament, where he comes armed with a lasso and a revolver. After killing a dozen or so knights, he proves to all observers the triumph of his technology (really wizardry to the observers), but not yet his values. The revolution “The Boss” is after required violence.

There is a bit of hypocrisy in “The Boss” over democracy. First, he is very much interested in securing his own power. For all his talk of destroying aristocracy, he did not seem to trust peasants with their freedom (they would need to be civilized first). In this he may reflect the values of nineteenth-century Western imperialism. When describing his battle in the tournament he thoughts: “It was born of the fact that all the nation knew that this was not a duel between two mighty magicians; a duel not of muscle or the mind, not of human skill but of super human art and craft, a final struggle for supremacy between the two master enchanters of the age.” (494) In this, he simply shifted the terms of the debate to what was most advantageous to an industrial-era machinist. Not quite a democracy, more of a technocratic meritocracy is in his mind. Like in many meritocracies and technocracies, the terms of merit are defined by those already in power.

If “The Boss” is able to put nineteenth century technologies into medieval England while leapfrogging centuries of economic and political developments, it is not clear that democracy could be placed in Camelot without first some elements of the reforms of “The Boss.” He mentions that democracy is the only way to remove barbarism from the legal and political system. And as far as “The Boss” is concerned, elevating democracy requires brining along all of the nineteenth century along with him. Of course, that is what puts him in a bind at the end of the story when he is holed up with his technology with the corpses of 30,000 knights trapping him in.

The climax to the story comes with the Church’s interdict over “The Boss” and his endeavors. This act is inspired as much by his political reforms, as his technological introductions. He promised to transform Camelot into a republic by replacing the king, when he dies, with an elected leader. The interdict leads to his fall, another suggestion that no matter how easily the technology is able to be placed in a new environment, the political and social transformation “The Boss” sought was an impossibility. For Mark Twain, social changes comes much more slowly and much more violently than technological revolutions. The challenge is not to transcend time, but to ensure that our moral and social values are reflected in the technologies we use.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part Two. Pierre in Revolt

“If a frontier man be seized by wild Indians, and carried far and deep into the wilderness, and there held a captive, with no slightest probability of eventual deliverance; then the wisest thing for that man is to exclude from his memory by every possible method, the least images of those beloved objects now forever reft from him. For the most delicious they were to him in the now departed possession, so much the more agonizing shall the be in the present recalling” (357)

I included this from Pierre only because of my inability to take Melville’s advice here, and I suffer daily from it.

As I left things at the mid-way point in Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Pierre Glendinning learned of his long-lost half-sister and married her after learning of her past. In the process, he alienated his mother, the woman who has hitherto dominated his life and controlled his future. He also left his fiancé, Lucy. Not insignificantly, at this point Pierre began a series of revolts that would dramatically change the course of his life. If Isabel, his sister, truly reflects the more primal and democratic and free America (leaving Pierre to symbolize the old aristocratic culture), then we can read the novel as the triumph of the democratic over the aristocratic. This may seem to be fighting old battles, but we must remember that the United States did not fully free itself from aristocratic influences with the Revolution. The aristocrat remained in the landed elite, in the slaveholder, and in the various anti-democratic forces not so easily undone.

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The largest revolt Pierre pursues is his entrance into the city. He sees evidence everywhere of the more democratic and diverse climate. In a humorous exchange with a coach driver, he finds that his aristocratic bellowings have little impact on the driver, mocking his dictatorial pretentions with “though to be sure, I don’t know nothing of the city where I was born and bred all my life—no I know nothing at all about it.” (271) But it went beyond the attitude of a single cab driver. Pierre feels he is surrounded by the dregs of society, none of whom respected his name and station. “Day-dozers and sluggards on their lazy boxes in the sunlight, and felinely wakeful and cat-eyed in the dark; most habituated to midnight streets, only trod by sneaking burglars, wantons, and debauchees; often in actual pandering league with the most abhorrent stinks. . . this hideous tribe of ogres.” (271)

He attempts to make his living by writing, maintaining faith in his earlier aptitudes. He did not quite understand how little his talent for poetry would fetch him in the urban American city. The “fine social position and noble patrimony of Pierre” was worth less than nothing on the streets of the city. In an interesting passage, Pierre finds himself contemplating what it will take to survive and the requirement that he learns a trade. His arrogance and overblown self-esteem convinces him that he could learn and adapt to any useful trade. He even makes the mistake that the mind and body are essentially detachable in the workplace. This is a common capitalist ploy, to pretend that they work regimens they impose on workers is less odious than it is. “But not only could Pierre in some sort, do that; he could do the other; and letting his body stay lazily at home, send off his soul to labor, and his soul would come faithfully back and pay his body her wages.” As if to strike home his point Melville adds. “So, some unprofessional gentlemen of the aristocratic South, who happen to own slaves, give those slaves liberty to go and seek work, and every night return with their wages, which constitute those idle gentlemen’s labor.” (304) This just goes to show that a simple relocation is not enough to create a democratic spirit in the individual. In any case, his pondering about manual labor are not that important as he settles in for a life of writing.

New York in the 1850s

New York in the 1850s

Another point of Melville’s, it seems, is the utter violence of such breaks. They are perhaps necessary for liberty, but they do often cause harm. This is seen in the return of Lucy to the story in the final acts. But rather than resist her fate, she seems to accept it, but in the process is pulled along with Pierre into his dramatic transition to urban, democratic life. The result, although not lurid, was perhaps scandalous. A menage-a-tois results, with the three dwelling together in the city. Pierre is unable to produce for the low-brow marketplace of the city. His book is rejected by publishers. He is sued for the advances he received because the pages he was sending the publisher were not seen as suitable for the market. His publishers call him a “swindler.” (I wonder if Melville ever heard those very words?) Driven beyond the bend he murders the new heir to his estate (and Lucy’s new finance), is taken to jail. Lucy dies when unable to come to terms with the reality of his relationship with Isabel (wife and sister).

It is difficult to get beyond the silliness of the plot and even as a Melville admirer I found the book to be a bit of a burden. Of course, the book is a mess and not Melville’s finest. I do think there is something powerful in the story about the changing American scenery. Pierre certainly moved from the aristocracy to where he would need to assert himself by his own merits, but that environment he entered was dominated by capitalist print culture. In a sense, he merely found out that in democratic culture, he is required to service another master: the market. How freedom can exist in the market has never been fully explained to me by the capitalist apologists.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part One. Old America, Young America

“Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he cannot love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sign is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!” (41–42)

It has been almost a year since I started my series on Melville, but I abandoned it after completing my reading of Moby-Dick. One of my goals this year is to roll up all these lose threads and starting looking at authors in complete sets. (We will see about Henry James—fourteen volumes—when we get there.) The third volume of the Library of America collection of Herman Melville includes his final three novels (Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man), the short-story collection The Piazza Tales, various prose writing—including some of his awesome stories and reviews—, and finally the posthumously published Billy Budd. Only the final work represents a return to sea fiction. Notice with me that Melville produced his six works of sea fiction between 1846 and 1851 (ponder that G.R.R. Martin). Pierre came out a year later in 1852. He had another period of rapid production between 1855 and 1857. During the rest of his life—he died in 1891, over twenty years after his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne died—he published only poems and some small pieces. Reviewers and his family thought Melville insane during this period. In order to meet expenses, Melville took a job from 1866 until 1885 as customs inspector for New York, following Hawthorne’s path. But while the position served as a temporary measure for Hawthorne before he produced his great novels, the customs house would be were America’s greatest writer would spend the rest of his days. He made only $10,400 from the sales of his books. How many great works are lost to us because of that job in the custom house?

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Pierre, or the Ambiguities begins with Melville’s praise for the “Majesty” of the Berkshires, followed almost immediately with the genealogical history of the tale’s protagonist Pierre Glendinning, rooted in an aristocratic family. The contrast between the monarchical and aristocratic England with the democratic America is one of the major tensions through the story. While in Hawthorne we see the endurance of family traditions, in Melville’s America these legacies are more distant and seem to have less hold, or at least are overwhelmed by the tide of democracy. In the first chapter is the quite political statement: “In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old.” (13) A few pages later, he makes clear that the American elite migrate to the cities and build houses, while in Europe they would build country estates. Pierre was of the European type¬¬—a country aristocrat—in urbanizing America. What is left of Pierre’s family maintains the symbols of aristocracy, but are truly a family in decline. The past generations are even taller, with more grand careers, and more “majesty.” Moby-Dick thrust us right into the multiple, democratic world of the whaling whip. Pierre starts us someplace more static but moves us into the city, transforming the young Pierre Glendinning in the processes.

As the novel opens he is slated to marry Lucy. Soon enough Pierre learns that he has a half-sister Isabel, announced in the form of a letter. She announces her desire to see him and the deep connection she shares with him. The letter has a profound impact on Pierre who wants to seek out his sister rather than pursue the marriage with Luck. “Well may this head hang on my breast,—it holds too much; well may my heart knock at my ribs,—prisoner impatient of his iron bars. Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves; and in Opinion’s world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest.” (110) With his commitment to seek out his sister, Melville shifts to telling the back story of Isabel. Unlike Pierre, who was raised by a matriarch intensely interested in dynasty and family reputation, Isabel was thrust into the world detached and in the wild. “Pierre, the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman’s breast; I seem not of women born. My first dim life-thoughts cluster round an old, half-ruinous house in some region, for which I now have no chart to seek it out. . . . It was a wild, dark house, planted in the midst of a round, cleared, deeply-sloping space, scooped out in the middle of deep stunted pine woods.” (137)
Isabel seems to be a metaphor for America. In her early years, her only company were “an old man and woman,” both all but silent toward her and only mumble about her to each other. Like Europe looking on the infant America. Isabel began to speak her own polyglot, language (again, like America). Isabel is eventually taken in by a woman, who educates her, especially in music. She still lacked any ties to her heritage, but her father was sending money in support.

In many ways, Pierre and Isabel seem to represent two sides of America. Isabel is longer in the wilderness, primal, free, musical, lacking the need for guidance of adults, liberated. Pierre is younger but closer to the mythical traditions of his family, more obedient to his family, and more civilized, growing up under relatively strict guidance. There is the America that could not entirely break free of European traditions of hierarchy, obedience and power: the side of America that was never quite comfortable with freedom.

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After hearing the story of Isabel, Pierre decides to redeem her place in the family, which is attempts by marrying her. By telling her story, Isabel is able to pull Pierre away from his family and lead him on a path to rebellion.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1838)

All of the Nathaniel Hawthorne stories in this set were published in 1838, mostly in the Democratic Review, which became his major platform for the next seven years of his life. He is also still ten years from picking up the pen to write his second novel A Scarlett Letter. It is also only eight years since his first published stories. Perhaps not enough of us read these authors (or listen to musicians) chronologically. There is a perspective gained by following the artists mind as they play with themes and live their lives. I notice a couple turns in Hawthorne’s writing in this year. One is a growing social and political critique grounded in the world that he lived in. He is becoming a more contemporary writer and less focused on the deep history of New England. This led him to a couple of sketches of contemporary figures (compared to his early sketches of Puritans). Second, he began to take some time to appreciate the nature around him. I do not think he was ever destined to become a nature writer of the caliber of Thoreau, but he did take out some time to smell the roses, so to speak.

The stories are “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure,” “Endicott and the Red Cross,” “Night Sketches,” “The Shaker Bridal,” “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore,” “Thomas Green Fessenden,” “Time’s Portaiture,” “Snow-Flakes,” “The Threefold Destiny,” and “Jonathan Cilley.” The first of the last of these will draw most of my attention today, but I will give a passing glance at a few others which seemed to me can teach us something useful for living free lives.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” works as an extended critique of an aspect of American capitalism build on speculation. There has long been a tension in American capitalism between the creation of real wealth through labor, reflected in the work ethic, the frontier spirit, the strong manufacturing base of the early twentieth century, and the union town. Doubtless, the American economy created an enormous amount of wealth, through various forms of exploitation, but it did create. At the same time, speculation and schemes ran throughout American history. These are the forces always desiring to create wealth as if by magic, and always at the expense of someone else. As the character Frank Sobotka pointed out in the second season of The Wire, the speculators won out.

They were always there. They bought up paper money cheap after the Revolution on hopes they would be redeemed for real currency. They bought land on the frontier for a dollar an acre and flipped it to settlers. And they constructed the den of trickery called Wall Street. Americans are good at creating riches from magic. This is the central tension in “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure.” “This wealth, according to tradition, had been accumulated by a former Peter Goldthwaite, whose character seems to have borne a remarkable similitude to that of the Peter of our story. Like him, he was a wild projector, seeking to heap up gold by the bushel and the cart-load, instead of scraping it together, coin by coin. Like Peter the second, too, his projects had almost invariably failed, and, but for the magnificent success of the final one, would have left him with hardly a coat a pair of breeches to his gaunt and grizzled person. Reports were various, as to the nature of his fortunate speculation; one intimidating, that the ancient Peter had mad the gold by alchemy; another that he had conjured it out of people’s pocket’s by the black art; and a third, still more unaccountable, that the devil had given him free access to the old provincial treasury.” (525–526) Peter Goldthwaite searches for this treasure and finds much evidence that the fortune did not go beyond the paper. “Peter saw piles of yellow and musty account-books, in parchment covers, wherein creditors, long dead and buried, had written the names of dead and burned debtors, in ink now so faded, that their moss-grown tombstones were more legible.” (528)

How many people struggle to pay their debts, sacrificing life or family or happiness? How many of those people ponder the actual significance of their debts in the broader scheme of things. Like the debts recorded in these ancient ledgers, they are vapor. Unfortunately, they are used all too frequently to enslave the living. How many myths have such power as the myth that paying one’s debts is a moral absolute? (See David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, for more on this.)

As the story progresses, Peter destroys the home searching for the treasure. This story really should have been revived in the aftermath of 2008.
“Endicott and the Red Cross” revives an old theme of the tension between tyranny and liberty in Puritan New England. It is also the first appearance of the red “A” as a sign of public humiliation. “It was the policy of our ancestors to search out even the most secret sins, and expose them to shame, without fear or favor, in the broadest light of the noonday sun.” (544) Endicott may have been a deep moralist, but he was also strongly opposed to external tyranny. But is this not always a tension in intentional communities? Hawthorne would experience this first hand when he lived on Brook Farm a few years after these stories were written.

“Foot-prints on the Sea-shore” is the nature writing I referred to above. Hawthorne approaches the scene with a degree of philosophical distance, but as with “Little Annie’s Ramble” he is enjoying the simple act of walking through a location, in total freedom, allowing his imagination to do the work. No, he is not bound by the reality of the scene. Listen with me: “Here can I frame a story of two lovers, and make their shadows live before me, and be mirrored in the tranquil water, as they tread along the sand. Here, should I will it, I can summon up a single shade, and be myself her lover. Yes, dreamer,— but your lonely heart will be the colder for such fancies. Sometimes, too, the Past comes back, and finds me here, and in her train comes faces which were gladsome, when I knew them, yet seem not gladsome now. Would that my hiding place were lonelier, so that the Past might not find me! Get ye all gone, old friends, and let me listen to the murmur of the seas,—a melancholy voice, but less sad than yours. Of what mysteries is it telling? Of sunken ships, and whereabouts they lie? Of islands afar and undiscovered, whose tawny children are unconscious of other islands and of continents, and deem the stars of heaven their nearest neighbors.” (567–568) I think we found little Annie grown up, but not lacking some of her childish spirit.

“Time’s Portraiture” is a memorable discussion of how horrible the passage of life can be, how great the burden of the past can be, and how the birth of new children makes us think (wrongly) that time is forestalled. Hawthorne ends the tale with a suggestion that we let time die because he so often pulls us into the past rather than projecting us into the future. The horror of Time is that is roots us to dead things, dead moments, and dead eras.
“Jonathan Cilley” is a nice little sketch of a young politician (I suppose near Hawthorne’s age) who died in a duel. He did not express much interest in contemporary politics in his earlier works, but the 1830s began the era of democracy in the US and I suppose politics became more difficult to avoid. Hawthorne was drawn to his humility and his honesty. Ah, the honest politician does not exist in contemporary politics. After 150 years, we no longer believe this figure exists. Hawthorne was sincerely impressed by Jonathan Cilley. In Hawthorne’s obituary, a figure like Cilley simply could not survive the brutal party politics, as reflected in his death in a duel, brought on by a political challenge. I think is worthwhile to read this sketch simply to think on where we have gone politically since 1838. Maybe there is still hope for political pleasure and political authenticity. If not, we need to ask why we can no longer look at a political obituary like this one by Hawthorne without cynicism.

John Cilley

John Cilley

Aldo Leopold: The Last Decade

A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Aldo Leopold’s career in professional wildlife management and conservation. Much of his career was spent in the United States Forest Service. He was thus an agent of state-directed conservation and “management.” As his life spanned from the Progressive era to the height of the New Deal project, it is not surprising that he looked to the state for answers. As my last post tried to map out in broad terms, over the course of the 1930s, Leopold lost faith in “civilization” and the state as agents of conservation. By the end of the 1930s, he was looking to the “farmer as conservationist” instead. If A Sand County Almanac was Leopold’s last words, it is striking that the state is almost absent. Surely it has a place in the background and he probably never thought that it had no role in rectifying the relationship between humans and the land, but Leopold was largely thinking in terms of an ethical transformation led by various vernacular forces. I even can see Leopold moving toward an idea that there is an utter disconnect between all aspects of “civilization” and the land.

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In 1941, in a then-unpublished manuscript “Yet Come June,” Leopold wrote: “Empires spread over the continents, destroying the soils, the floras and faunas, and each other. Yet the trees grow. Philosophies spread over the empires, teaching the good life with tank and bomb. Machines crawl over the empires hauling goods. Goods are plowed under, or burned. Goods are hawked over the ether, and along lanes where Whitman smelled locusts blossoms morning and evening. Quarrels over godos are planted think as trees along all the rivers of America. . . . Trucks carrying goods race the railroads. Cars carrying consumers of goods race the trucks. Yet the trees grow. . . . Chemists and physicists harness power, biology harnesses plants and animals, all for goods. Politics is the redistribution of goods. Literature and the arts portray the drama of the haves and have-nots. Research is not to decipher the universe, but the step up production. Yet the trees grow.” (457)

Leopold tackled education in a 1942 conference talk called “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education,” which worried that the place of the land in education rested on economic utility: career preparation or policy formulation. As a result wildlife education was largely rooted in the uses of the science. Of course, by this point, Leopold was done with such concerns. Instead he view that wildlife education should aim “to teach citizens the function of wildlife in the land organism.” (466) He even foreshadows the growing influence of ecology in other disciplines. Of course now, scholars in fields as far afield from biology as history and philosophy have discovered that their work is enriched by incorporating the ecological. Leopold juxtaposes wildlife education (what we may now call ecology) with “conservation education,” which is concerned with the preservation of one small part of nature for human use, often at the expense of others. “The basic fallacy in this kind of ‘conservation’ is that it seeks to conserve one resource by destroying another. These ‘conservationists’ are unable to see the land as a whole.” (528) In other words, these conservationists are unable to “think like a mountain.”

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Leopold’s turn away from the state as an agent of conservation can be seen in another essay, “Land-Use and Democracy,” published in 1942. At this point he is able to look back at the entire New Deal project and its role in conservation. What he sees are the accoutrements of conservation with little meaningful movement toward a revision of our relationship with the land. “Just so we deal with bureaus, policies, laws, and programs, which are the symbols of our problem, instead of with resources, products, and land-ises, which are the problem. Thus we assuage our ego without exposing ourselves to contact with reality.” (476) This should certainly be familiar to us. As we are driving off the cliff of climate change and extinction it would be hard to find a government that does not claim to be moving toward responsible resource use (or sustainability or whatever euphemism is popular now). And what of the concerned public. Most, Leopold points out, are content voting for politicians who promise to back conservation or sending money to groups engaged in good work. That is, laying responsibility on “bigger and better laps.” (477) Democracy seems ill-suited to change the use of the land. As individuals our ecological decisions are often horrifying (putting a dead tree with many years of life ahead of it in our homes for the holidays or eating wheat produced through the destruction of the prairie), even if our sentiments are with the land. If the public cannot be trusted, it is up for government (technocracy) to mitigate our worst tendencies. Yet, government makes a hash of it. Either government simply has no power over what is most necessary to pay attention to (such as the day to day use of land involved in agriculture) or taking well-meaning and even beneficial actions that simply do not help much (artificial reforestation, regulating game fish populations, or rodent control.

For Leopold, the conclusion is that meaningful conservation must come from the bottom up: “collective self-renewal and collective self-maintenance.” (482) For this to happen, perhaps we need to accept that moral or cultural change is a prerequisite.

While most people will likely only read A Sand County Almanac as a record of Aldo Leopold’s vision, I think there is an important lesson that comes from looking at the evolution of his thought from the beginning of his career until the publication of that monumental text. In Leopold we have a state conservation worker who learned that the state looks at wildlife with one set of eyes (to use James Scott’s phrase, conservationists tended to “see like a state”). These days we still tend to look to governments (or now transnational governing institutions) to act to fight climate change. This is precisely what Leopold was warning against when he argued that conservation must come from the bottom up.

Philip K. Dick, “The Simulacra” 1964: Celebratocracy

If I were to teach a course on the novels of Philip K. Dick, I would be very tempted to put The Simulacra at the center of the syllabus.  Only its confusing and fragmented plot would lead me to hesitate.  The Simulacra provides a very well developed and convincing model of power and politics within the broader meta-universe of PKD’s writings.  At the same time, PKD pulls on other threads such as time travel, marriage, mental illness, and androids.  These disparate themes that plague his work and can frustrate readers, are, as I suggested in my comments on We Can Build You, integral to the late capitalist mind: confused, disjointed, attention-deficient, and impatient with totality.

simulacra1simulacra2

The Simulacra seems to exist in a parallel version of the world of We Can Build You (or maybe it is set a half century later).  In WCBY, Maury Rock and his daughter Pris Frauenzimmer develop the technology to create simulacra.  In The Simulacra, one of the leading manufacturers of of androids, prepared to gain a major government contract, is owned by Maury Frauenzimmer.  The direct parallels end there, but we are likely in a similar world, but with the logical conclusions of the world of WCBY extended forward.

I am not going to bother with the plot, because the main power of The Simulacra is in the construction of this very convincing world.

In the first chapter we learn that the West is under some form of authoritarianism.  The Earth is still divided between the Communist East and the West, but neither can be seen as democratic.  The government in the United States of Europe and America (which is run out of Germany and is heavily influenced by the German language and worldview) is banning all psychiatry due to is lack of scientific precision.  The last psychiatrist, Dr. Egon Superb, is continuing his practice in spite of the law.  As we quickly learn, he is allowed to keep his job in order to not cure a patient (famous psychic pianist Richard Kongrosian).  With psychiatry debunked, and all treatment approached through chemicals, the only reason to keep one around is to ensure that someone remains crazy.

The next chapter takes us to the Abraham Lincoln apartment building.  This provides us more evidence that we are not in a totally free society.  People’s primary work and living identity are in communal apartment buildings.  These people pray together, work together, and are even required to pass examinations to remain a member of good standing.  People’s only major investment is their home in one of these communal apartment building.  People’s major interaction with the government is through talent shows put on by these communal buildings.  The changes are so low, it is more like a lottery than a true talent contest.  Everyone’s great dream is to be chosen to perform for Nicole Thibideaux, the first lady of the USEA.  People voted, but their true love was for Nicole.  “Now there was just the one party, which had ruled a stable and peaceful society, and everyone, by law, belonged to it.  Everyone paid dues and attending meetings, and voted, each four years, for a new der Alte–for the man they thought Nicole would like best.”  Nicole remarried every four years to a new der Alte.  Thus, we have matriarchy rooted in the love of a celebrity.  Perhaps Dick was reflecting on the rise of female stars in film and opera and popular music.  Perhaps he noticed the greater love Americans had for first ladies (Jackie Kennedy) than for presidents.  In any case, it is not that women have true political power.  Nicole is loved by all men.  Men dream of her.  Imagine being with her.  Marriages in the communal homes are functional.  Everyone’s true love is for Nicole.

France got there first.  Meet Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

France got there first. Meet Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Do we really care about the losers at the two ends?

Do we really care about the losers at the two ends?

 

The real power is in the class of Ges (Geheimnisträger), who know the truth.  Nicole is merely an actress who took over for the real Nicole as she aged.  The der Alte, despite elections is an android propped by up the Ges to provide the facade of democracy.  One of the characters speak of a matriarchy.  On the surface it seems to be a celebratocracy.  In reality, the USEA is a technocracy, like so many of Dick’s imagined political systems.  This seems to me not entirely unlikely.  The infrastructure for a faux participatory democracy is there, as reflected in the proliferation of reality TV, where we elect our singer or even participate in choosing mates for eligible and wealthy bachelors.  The Obama campaign famously used small donations delivered via the Internet to make people feel like they were part of a movement, even if the real contributors to the campaign were the corporate elite.  I cannot prove, but I suspect there are celebrities who are more well-known the most political figures.  Millions take the love life, illnesses, and reproductive lives of these people seriously.  I guess that a celebratocracy is more likely than a full dictatorship seen in 1984.  Voting is even a part of the television.  “Savagely, he went to the TV set and pressed the s knob; if enough citizens pushed it, the old man would stop entirely–the stop knob meant total cessation of the mumbling speech.  Vince waited, but the speech went on.”

The Simulacra, like most of these 1960s novels of PKD, show his intense anxiety over married life and monogamy.  It is hard to not see Dick as always willing to assume the worst in the character of women.  Here, Vince Strikerock of the Abraham Lincoln complex, discovers that his wife has shacked up with Chic  Strikerock, his brother.  Vince loves Julie but realizes that this is abnormal.  For most, marriage if functional.  Voting rights for women are a product of their ability to bear children.  He asks: “What was marriage, anyhow?  An arrangemetn of sharing things, such as right now being able to discuss the meaning of der Alte giving an eight A.M. speech and getting someone else — his wife — to fix breakfast while he prepared to go to his job at Karp u.”

The Simulacra also considered the normalization of mental illness.  The fact that is can all be treated with chemicals instead of intensive psychological investigation suggests the necessity of mass-produced solutions to mental illness.  The key, integral nut in this novel is the pianist Richard Kongrosian, who believed he is becoming non-corporal and is being replaced with a rancid stench.  He also has other psychic powers and is able to use them at an integral moment in the plot to avoid a coup against Nicole.  But it is when other characters express their potential mental illness, we realize that Richard is not abnormal.  Everyone can now choose their mental illness as if they are shopping.  Now you can choose your mental illness to fit your personality type. Anti-social? We have Aspbergers or if you are really hard-core the rare Schizoid. Religion? Paranoia may be best for you. Nothing watches over you quite like God..and the government. A diligent hardworker down on your luck? Well, the disorganized schizophrenia might be right for you. Do you like to shop? For you we have a new and improve obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now never fell guilty about buying that dress in every color. A go-getting? Take a case of biploar. The depressive state will give you a much needed break.

A theme I teased out when looking at The World Jones Made is Dick’s use of the solar system as a frontier, much like the American frontier.  We see that again here.  The moon and Mars and other orbs in the system have indigenous populations, are seen as a place for rootless people to get a new start, and seem to provide a potential salvation from the political rigidity of Earth.  Dick is, I argue, a follower of the idea of Frederick Jackson Turner.  The fact that Dick’s extraterrestrial locales are so shitty leads us away from this interpretation, but when we look at the motives for emigration among characters we see a space for hope.  The question we need to ask is, why does the frontier always turn out so shitty?

The final chapters deal with the rise of a Civil War between the secret police and the military as well as the potential devastation of humanity.  As in all nuclear wars, the victor does not matter as much as the forces that can take advantage, in this case Neanderthals (we are never not reminded we are in a PKD novel).  The novel is entirely pessimistic in everything from predicting the manipulation of time travel by the state to the rise of neofascist forces in the USEA.  Any hope is hidden away in the horrific potentialities of division between the military and civilian powers.  In a sense, the technocracy cannot hold the facade together forever.  There is some hope in that.