This is a story of mine that was broadcast on the BBC World Service in 1996. Back then they had a program to which anyone could submit a short story (by mail) which, if accepted, was broadcast three times over the course of a week. At that time the World Service’s weekly English audience was 30 million. Three broadcasts of the same story reached a large number of people, perhaps as many as a million.
I mention this because I figure the broadcast of “Logging On” as well as another story of mine broadcast a year or so later, “The World,” was and probably will remain the high-water mark in terms of numbers for the audience of anything I have published or will publish, not to mention the prestige of having one’s work accepted and used by an organization like the BBC. Not that numbers mean anything in themselves. There is only one reader, and that happens to be you at the moment.
The story was read — dramatized, really — by Don Fellows, an unknown to me at the time but someone I have since discovered was an accomplished and well-known actor (you’ve probably seen him in any number of movies or in a Masterpiece Theater production), American but having spent most of his working life in Britain. He makes the story into something better than it is, as any good actor can (I’m opposed to fiction being read by professional actors for that reason; a good actor can make the telephone directory sound like Shakespeare). But I like to think there’s enough to the story to merit consideration on its own.
Now for the interesting stuff.
The story is of course fiction, a product of my imagination. But there are elements to it that are derived from real events. One of these is the account given by the American student of her trip to Poland and the Nazi death camps. That’s an account, virtually verbatim, that was based on an actual description I read by someone I knew who had made just such a trip. Its inclusion in my story resulted in a complaint to the BBC from the Polish consulate in the UK.
There were also other letters as a result of the BBC’s broadcasts of this story, each of them positive and, judging solely on the basis of the writers’ names (not a good way of judging anything, I admit) from Jewish listeners.
It’s a long time since this story was aired (I got up at, I think, 4:00 a.m. to tape-record the first broadcast [via shortwave radio] — 9:00 a.m. GMT). It’s not the same story I would write now, human personality being, like the river of the Greek proverb, not being something you can step into twice without its having become something different from what it was. But the story is still recognizably my own, and it seems to have largely survived the passage of time.
The version of the Internet portrayed in the story now seems, to say the least, quaint. The Net may have been more advanced at the time this story was broadcast than when the story itself was written, but only by a few years. No texting, no smart phones, no email as we know it today. Finding a weather report for Tasmania available online directly from the other side of the world seemed miracle enough. Messaging with a stranger in Berlin while sitting in your bedroom in Brooklyn seemed like the stuff of science fiction. What hasn’t changed is human nature, and if a work of fiction succeeds it’s because it’s captured some aspect of that alternately admirable or discouraging constant.
Actually, I don’t. I don’t “support” straight marriage either. It seems to me legal civil union should be all the government ought to be in the business of offering. Anything more than that — exchange of vows and wedding rings and stale cake — all that should be left to religion. Or to nothing at all.
But it would be naif for me to expect the feds or the states to rescind their recognition of straight marriage in favor of a civil agreement between consenting adults. People do need the force of law to back up their claims to parental rights, real estate and the pension of someone whose house they might have spent the last forty years cleaning, not to mention the feeding and snotty-nose wiping of said-spouse’s offspring. All of which could be accomplished by a civil union for either gays or straights, but marriage is enshrined, as they say, in the law.
I confess to reacting with irritation to arguments by gay people that they deserve the right to have their love or other non-taxable sentiments formally recognized the same as that of straight people — maybe I expected more of them after all they have suffered at the hands of straight bigotry — though I do understand that being gay does not exempt you from being a patsy for romantic fantasies or preclude your right to indulge them. I react with similar irritation to straight people’s marital fantasies, the flimflam of fancy dress and bank-account-breaking receptions with Bach or Beatles music and drunken uncles. To me it’s all a gross money-making social confection imitating the more cynical arrangements the rich have historically perpetrated in order to acquire each other’s land and gold (a couple recently turned up at a church near me in a white Cinderella coach drawn by two white horses). Not to mention that, gay or straight, there’s even odds the marriage is going to end up in a divorce court (someone should do a study of the longevity of legal versus so-called common-law marriages; my money — though not a lot of it — is on the latter).
But, as I say, I’ve seen the light on the gay marriage issue, even though I find all this jawing about the right to love whomever we will is romantic nonsense as far as the issue of legality is concerned and just confuses the issue. The I-do’s and I-will’s unto death forever forsaking all others is so much non-nutritive fluff laid on by a judge or justice of the peace to make the ceremony sound and feel like a house-of-worship wedding. All that matters is the legal contract (and, of course, what the principals themselves understand they are committing themselves to quite apart from the state’s involvement). And contracts between legal persons (i.e. not slaves or other non-persons) in our so-called civilization really is sacred, if only in a bourgeois way. It’s one of the pillars of our socio-economic setup. Ergo, if gay people are persons in the legal sense, and they certainly are in this country at least, they have every right to enter into a contract of their own choosing which must be recognized by the state. You can’t exclude someone from making a contract if they have the legal standing to do so. Thus gay people (persons) have the irrefutable right to enter into the contract we quaintly refer to as marriage.
Of course, if your belief that persons of the same sex should be allowed to marry is based on moral argument, there is no point discussing it. Those in favor see the issue as self-evident, and those who don’t see it the same way. You can only win a moral argument by pitching it to the choir, a la Thomas Jefferson. There are no “self-evident truths”…except for those for whom there are.
One footnote of interest (don’t read this if you’re one of those who cry at weddings or dream of white dresses and happy-ever-afters). I recently read Frederick Douglass’s account of his years in slavery (it’s available for free at www.gutenberg.org and should be read by every American and would-be American; it’s much more relevant to present-day America than most of the distractions that pass as newsworthy). In it he reproduces the language of the legal contract by which slaveowners claimed the right to possession of their human chattel. One of the phrases in that contract guarantees the right “to have and to hold” said human chattel. Could it be that’s what the phrase really means, or used to mean, in the marriage ceremony as well? It would be interesting to find out if both men and women pronounced those words before modern times, before, say, 1800. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was only men who did so (viz. the bride’s vow to “love, honor and obey”) and by so doing were guaranteed the legal right to do more or less as they would with their newly acquired human property.
* The historian Shlomo Sand writes: “Arising as it [the modern state] did from the heart of Christian civilization, it exhibited certain distinctive features from the start. Just as the church organized the faith during the medieval era in Europe, the modern state regiments it in the modern era. This state sees itself as performing an eternal mission; it demands to be worshiped, has substituted strict civil registration for the religious sacraments of baptism and marriage, and regards those who question their national identity as traitors and heretics.”
I thought the following excerpt from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov might be interesting to revisit the day after the election of a new pope in Rome. If nothing else, “The Grand Inquisitor” is a masterpiece of Western literature and is even published separately from the rest of the novel. It certainly expresses the enmity felt by Russian Orthodoxy toward Roman Catholicism (it was only when I read Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba that I realized how keen that enmity is). But there’s more to it than diatribe. I leave it to you to decide how much more and what it’s value, beyond great literature, may be.
Note: I abbreviated the narrator’s (Ivan Karamazov’s) introduction to the tale, a brief history of Russian religious morality writings. The narrative itself is presented as a long poem that Ivan has an idea for some day writing. He’s relating it to his rather saintly younger brother Alyosha.
The translation is by Constance Garnett. The entire novel is available for free at the Gutenberg Project.
Chapter V. The Grand Inquisitor
“Even this must have a preface—that is, a literary preface,” laughed Ivan, “and I am a poor hand at making one. You see, my action takes place in the sixteenth century, and at that time, as you probably learnt at school, it was customary in poetry to bring down heavenly powers on earth….
“He [Jesus] comes on the scene in my poem, but He says nothing, only appears and passes on. Fifteen centuries have passed since He promised to come in His glory, fifteen centuries since His prophet wrote, ‘Behold, I come quickly’; ‘Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father,’ as He Himself predicted on earth. But humanity awaits him with the same faith and with the same love. Oh, with greater faith, for it is fifteen centuries since man has ceased to see signs from heaven.
“And behold, He deigned to appear for a moment to the people, to the tortured, suffering people, sunk in iniquity, but loving Him like children. My story is laid in Spain, in Seville, in the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when fires were lighted every day to the glory of God, and ‘in the splendid auto da fé the wicked heretics were burnt.’ Oh, of course, this was not the coming in which He will appear according to His promise at the end of time in all His heavenly glory, and which will be sudden ‘as lightning flashing from east to west.’ No, He visited His children only for a moment, and there where the flames were crackling round the heretics. In His infinite mercy He came once more among men in that human shape in which He walked among men for three years fifteen centuries ago. He came down to the ‘hot pavements’ of the southern town in which on the day before almost a hundred heretics had, ad majorem gloriam Dei, been burnt by the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, in a magnificent auto da fé, in the presence of the king, the court, the knights, the cardinals, the most charming ladies of the court, and the whole population of Seville.
“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. That might be one of the best passages in the poem. I mean, why they recognized Him. The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments. An old man in the crowd, blind from childhood, cries out, ‘O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!’ and, as it were, scales fall from his eyes and the blind man sees Him. The crowd weeps and kisses the earth under His feet. Children throw flowers before Him, sing, and cry hosannah. ‘It is He—it is He!’ all repeat. ‘It must be He, it can be no one but Him!’ He stops at the steps of the Seville cathedral at the moment when the weeping mourners are bringing in a little open white coffin. In it lies a child of seven, the only daughter of a prominent citizen. The dead child lies hidden in flowers. ‘He will raise your child,’ the crowd shouts to the weeping mother. The priest, coming to meet the coffin, looks perplexed, and frowns, but the mother of the dead child throws herself at His feet with a wail. ‘If it is Thou, raise my child!’ she cries, holding out her hands to Him. The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at His feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips once more softly pronounce, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and the maiden arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.
“There are cries, sobs, confusion among the people, and at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church—at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the ‘holy guard.’ He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on. The guards lead their prisoner to the close, gloomy vaulted prison in the ancient palace of the Holy Inquisition and shut Him in it. The day passes and is followed by the dark, burning, ‘breathless’ night of Seville. The air is ‘fragrant with laurel and lemon.’ In the pitch darkness the iron door of the prison is suddenly opened and the Grand Inquisitor himself comes in with a light in his hand. He is alone; the door is closed at once behind him. He stands in the doorway and for a minute or two gazes into His face. At last he goes up slowly, sets the light on the table and speaks.
“ ‘Is it Thou? Thou?’ but receiving no answer, he adds at once, ‘Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that. But dost Thou know what will be to-morrow? I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but to-morrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have to-day kissed Thy feet, to-morrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it,’ he added with thoughtful penetration, never for a moment taking his eyes off the Prisoner.”
“I don’t quite understand, Ivan. What does it mean?” Alyosha, who had been listening in silence, said with a smile. “Is it simply a wild fantasy, or a mistake on the part of the old man—some impossible quiproquo?”
“Take it as the last,” said Ivan, laughing, “if you are so corrupted by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic. If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so. It is true,” he went on, laughing, “the old man was ninety, and he might well be crazy over his set idea. He might have been struck by the appearance of the Prisoner. It might, in fact, be simply his ravings, the delusion of an old man of ninety, over-excited by the auto da fé of a hundred heretics the day before. But does it matter to us after all whether it was a mistake of identity or a wild fantasy? All that matters is that the old man should speak out, should speak openly of what he has thought in silence for ninety years.”
“And the Prisoner too is silent? Does He look at him and not say a word?”
“That’s inevitable in any case,” Ivan laughed again. “The old man has told Him He hasn’t the right to add anything to what He has said of old. One may say it is the most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism, in my opinion at least. ‘All has been given by Thee to the Pope,’ they say, ‘and all, therefore, is still in the Pope’s hands, and there is no need for Thee to come now at all. Thou must not meddle for the time, at least.’ That’s how they speak and write too—the Jesuits, at any rate. I have read it myself in the works of their theologians. ‘Hast Thou the right to reveal to us one of the mysteries of that world from which Thou hast come?’ my old man asks Him, and answers the question for Him. ‘No, Thou hast not; that Thou mayest not add to what has been said of old, and mayest not take from men the freedom which Thou didst exalt when Thou wast on earth. Whatsoever Thou revealest anew will encroach on men’s freedom of faith; for it will be manifest as a miracle, and the freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago. Didst Thou not often say then, “I will make you free”? But now Thou hast seen these “free” men,’ the old man adds suddenly, with a pensive smile. ‘Yes, we’ve paid dearly for it,’ he goes on, looking sternly at Him, ‘but at last we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it’s over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?’ ”
“I don’t understand again,” Alyosha broke in. “Is he ironical, is he jesting?”
“Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. ‘For now’ (he is speaking of the Inquisition, of course) ‘for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned,’ he says to Him. ‘Thou hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings; Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou hast promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?’ ”
“And what’s the meaning of ‘no lack of admonitions and warnings’?” asked Alyosha.
“Why, that’s the chief part of what the old man must say.
“ ‘The wise and dread spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence,’ the old man goes on, ‘the great spirit talked with Thee in the wilderness, and we are told in the books that he “tempted” Thee. Is that so? And could anything truer be said than what he revealed to Thee in three questions and what Thou didst reject, and what in the books is called “the temptation”? And yet if there has ever been on earth a real stupendous miracle, it took place on that day, on the day of the three temptations. The statement of those three questions was itself the miracle. If it were possible to imagine simply for the sake of argument that those three questions of the dread spirit had perished utterly from the books, and that we had to restore them and to invent them anew, and to do so had gathered together all the wise men of the earth—rulers, chief priests, learned men, philosophers, poets—and had set them the task to invent three questions, such as would not only fit the occasion, but express in three words, three human phrases, the whole future history of the world and of humanity—dost Thou believe that all the wisdom of the earth united could have invented anything in depth and force equal to the three questions which were actually put to Thee then by the wise and mighty spirit in the wilderness? From those questions alone, from the miracle of their statement, we can see that we have here to do not with the fleeting human intelligence, but with the absolute and eternal. For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature. At the time it could not be so clear, since the future was unknown; but now that fifteen hundred years have passed, we see that everything in those three questions was so justly divined and foretold, and has been so truly fulfilled, that nothing can be added to them or taken from them.
“ ‘Judge Thyself who was right—Thou or he who questioned Thee then? Remember the first question; its meaning, in other words, was this: “Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.” But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth, if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone. But dost Thou know that for the sake of that earthly bread the spirit of the earth will rise up against Thee and will strive with Thee and overcome Thee, and all will follow him, crying, “Who can compare with this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!” Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished, yet Thou mightest have prevented that new tower and have cut short the sufferings of men for a thousand years; for they will come back to us after a thousand years of agony with their tower. They will seek us again, hidden underground in the catacombs, for we shall be again persecuted and tortured. They will find us and cry to us, “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” And then we shall finish building their tower, for he finishes the building who feeds them. And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great and strong? No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them—so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.
“ ‘This is the significance of the first question in the wilderness, and this is what Thou hast rejected for the sake of that freedom which Thou hast exalted above everything. Yet in this question lies hid the great secret of this world. Choosing “bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find some one to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find some one to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, “Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!” And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same. Thou didst know, Thou couldst not but have known, this fundamental secret of human nature, but Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone—the banner of earthly bread; and Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven. Behold what Thou didst further. And all again in the name of freedom! I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born. But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom. In bread there was offered Thee an invincible banner; give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. But if some one else gains possession of his conscience—oh! then he will cast away Thy bread and follow after him who has ensnared his conscience. In that Thou wast right. For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance. That is true. But what happened? Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all—Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.
“ ‘So that, in truth, Thou didst Thyself lay the foundation for the destruction of Thy kingdom, and no one is more to blame for it. Yet what was offered Thee? There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness—those forces are miracle, mystery and authority. Thou hast rejected all three and hast set the example for doing so. When the wise and dread spirit set Thee on the pinnacle of the temple and said to Thee, “If Thou wouldst know whether Thou art the Son of God then cast Thyself down, for it is written: the angels shall hold him up lest he fall and bruise himself, and Thou shalt know then whether Thou art the Son of God and shalt prove then how great is Thy faith in Thy Father.” But Thou didst refuse and wouldst not cast Thyself down. Oh, of course, Thou didst proudly and well, like God; but the weak, unruly race of men, are they gods? Oh, Thou didst know then that in taking one step, in making one movement to cast Thyself down, Thou wouldst be tempting God and have lost all Thy faith in Him, and wouldst have been dashed to pieces against that earth which Thou didst come to save. And the wise spirit that tempted Thee would have rejoiced. But I ask again, are there many like Thee? And couldst Thou believe for one moment that men, too, could face such a temptation? Is the nature of men such, that they can reject miracle, and at the great moments of their life, the moments of their deepest, most agonizing spiritual difficulties, cling only to the free verdict of the heart? Oh, Thou didst know that Thy deed would be recorded in books, would be handed down to remote times and the utmost ends of the earth, and Thou didst hope that man, following Thee, would cling to God and not ask for a miracle. But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. And as man cannot bear to be without the miraculous, he will create new miracles of his own for himself, and will worship deeds of sorcery and witchcraft, though he might be a hundred times over a rebel, heretic and infidel. Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling Thee, “Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.” Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle. Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before the might that has overawed him for ever. But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature. Look round and judge; fifteen centuries have passed, look upon them. Whom hast Thou raised up to Thyself? I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him! Can he, can he do what Thou didst? By showing him so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much from him—Thou who hast loved him more than Thyself! Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter. He is weak and vile. What though he is everywhere now rebelling against our power, and proud of his rebellion? It is the pride of a child and a schoolboy. They are little children rioting and barring out the teacher at school. But their childish delight will end; it will cost them dear. They will cast down temples and drench the earth with blood. But they will see at last, the foolish children, that, though they are rebels, they are impotent rebels, unable to keep up their own rebellion. Bathed in their foolish tears, they will recognize at last that He who created them rebels must have meant to mock at them. They will say this in despair, and their utterance will be a blasphemy which will make them more unhappy still, for man’s nature cannot bear blasphemy, and in the end always avenges it on itself. And so unrest, confusion and unhappiness—that is the present lot of man after Thou didst bear so much for their freedom! The great prophet tells in vision and in image, that he saw all those who took part in the first resurrection and that there were of each tribe twelve thousand. But if there were so many of them, they must have been not men but gods. They had borne Thy cross, they had endured scores of years in the barren, hungry wilderness, living upon locusts and roots—and Thou mayest indeed point with pride at those children of freedom, of free love, of free and splendid sacrifice for Thy name. But remember that they were only some thousands; and what of the rest? And how are the other weak ones to blame, because they could not endure what the strong have endured? How is the weak soul to blame that it is unable to receive such terrible gifts? Canst Thou have simply come to the elect and for the elect? But if so, it is a mystery and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, we too have a right to preach a mystery, and to teach them that it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience. So we have done. We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts. Were we right teaching them this? Speak! Did we not love mankind, so meekly acknowledging their feebleness, lovingly lightening their burden, and permitting their weak nature even sin with our sanction? Why hast Thou come now to hinder us? And why dost Thou look silently and searchingly at me with Thy mild eyes? Be angry. I don’t want Thy love, for I love Thee not. And what use is it for me to hide anything from Thee? Don’t I know to Whom I am speaking? All that I can say is known to Thee already. And is it for me to conceal from Thee our mystery? Perhaps it is Thy will to hear it from my lips. Listen, then. We are not working with Thee, but with him—that is our mystery. It’s long—eight centuries—since we have been on his side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Cæsar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work. But whose fault is that? Oh, the work is only beginning, but it has begun. It has long to await completion and the earth has yet much to suffer, but we shall triumph and shall be Cæsars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man. But Thou mightest have taken even then the sword of Cæsar. Why didst Thou reject that last gift? Hadst Thou accepted that last counsel of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth—that is, some one to worship, some one to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap, for the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men. Mankind as a whole has always striven to organize a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union. The great conquerors, Timours and Ghenghis-Khans, whirled like hurricanes over the face of the earth striving to subdue its people, and they too were but the unconscious expression of the same craving for universal unity. Hadst Thou taken the world and Cæsar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Cæsar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him. Oh, ages are yet to come of the confusion of free thought, of their science and cannibalism. For having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end, of course, with cannibalism. But then the beast will crawl to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood. And we shall sit upon the beast and raise the cup, and on it will be written, “Mystery.” But then, and only then, the reign of peace and happiness will come for men. Thou art proud of Thine elect, but Thou hast only the elect, while we give rest to all. And besides, how many of those elect, those mighty ones who could become elect, have grown weary waiting for Thee, and have transferred and will transfer the powers of their spirit and the warmth of their heart to the other camp, and end by raising their free banner against Thee. Thou didst Thyself lift up that banner. But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us. And shall we be right or shall we be lying? They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them. Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!”
“ ‘Receiving bread from us, they will see clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from them, to give it to them, without any miracle. They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands, while since they have come back to us, the very stones have turned to bread in their hands. Too, too well will they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy. Who is most to blame for their not knowing it?—speak! Who scattered the flock and sent it astray on unknown paths? But the flock will come together again and will submit once more, and then it will be once for all. Then we shall give them the quiet humble happiness of weak creatures such as they are by nature. Oh, we shall persuade them at last not to be proud, for Thou didst lift them up and thereby taught them to be proud. We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all. They will become timid and will look to us and huddle close to us in fear, as chicks to the hen. They will marvel at us and will be awe-stricken before us, and will be proud at our being so powerful and clever, that we have been able to subdue such a turbulent flock of thousands of millions. They will tremble impotently before our wrath, their minds will grow fearful, they will be quick to shed tears like women and children, but they will be just as ready at a sign from us to pass to laughter and rejoicing, to happy mirth and childish song. Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs and innocent dance. Oh, we shall allow them even sin, they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin. We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission, that we allow them to sin because we love them, and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves. And we shall take it upon ourselves, and they will adore us as their saviors who have taken on themselves their sins before God. And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children—according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient—and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity. Though if there were anything in the other world, it certainly would not be for such as they. It is prophesied that Thou wilt come again in victory, Thou wilt come with Thy chosen, the proud and strong, but we will say that they have only saved themselves, but we have saved all. We are told that the harlot who sits upon the beast, and holds in her hands the mystery, shall be put to shame, that the weak will rise up again, and will rend her royal purple and will strip naked her loathsome body. But then I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin. And we who have taken their sins upon us for their happiness will stand up before Thee and say: “Judge us if Thou canst and darest.” Know that I fear Thee not. Know that I too have been in the wilderness, I too have lived on roots and locusts, I too prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful, thirsting “to make up the number.” But I awakened and would not serve madness. I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble. What I say to Thee will come to pass, and our dominion will be built up. I repeat, to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if any one has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. To-morrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.’ ”
Ivan stopped. He was carried away as he talked, and spoke with excitement; when he had finished, he suddenly smiled.
Alyosha had listened in silence; towards the end he was greatly moved and seemed several times on the point of interrupting, but restrained himself. Now his words came with a rush.
“But … that’s absurd!” he cried, flushing. “Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him—as you meant it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church…. That’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome, it’s false—those are the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!… And there could not be such a fantastic creature as your Inquisitor. What are these sins of mankind they take on themselves? Who are these keepers of the mystery who have taken some curse upon themselves for the happiness of mankind? When have they been seen? We know the Jesuits, they are spoken ill of, but surely they are not what you describe? They are not that at all, not at all…. They are simply the Romish army for the earthly sovereignty of the world in the future, with the Pontiff of Rome for Emperor … that’s their ideal, but there’s no sort of mystery or lofty melancholy about it…. It’s simple lust of power, of filthy earthly gain, of domination—something like a universal serfdom with them as masters—that’s all they stand for. They don’t even believe in God perhaps. Your suffering Inquisitor is a mere fantasy.”
“Stay, stay,” laughed Ivan, “how hot you are! A fantasy you say, let it be so! Of course it’s a fantasy. But allow me to say: do you really think that the Roman Catholic movement of the last centuries is actually nothing but the lust of power, of filthy earthly gain? Is that Father Païssy’s teaching?”
“No, no, on the contrary, Father Païssy did once say something rather the same as you … but of course it’s not the same, not a bit the same,” Alyosha hastily corrected himself.
“A precious admission, in spite of your ‘not a bit the same.’ I ask you why your Jesuits and Inquisitors have united simply for vile material gain? Why can there not be among them one martyr oppressed by great sorrow and loving humanity? You see, only suppose that there was one such man among all those who desire nothing but filthy material gain—if there’s only one like my old Inquisitor, who had himself eaten roots in the desert and made frenzied efforts to subdue his flesh to make himself free and perfect. But yet all his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom, that these poor rebels can never turn into giants to complete the tower, that it was not for such geese that the great idealist dreamt his dream of harmony. Seeing all that he turned back and joined—the clever people. Surely that could have happened?”
“Joined whom, what clever people?” cried Alyosha, completely carried away. “They have no such great cleverness and no mysteries and secrets…. Perhaps nothing but Atheism, that’s all their secret. Your Inquisitor does not believe in God, that’s his secret!”
“What if it is so! At last you have guessed it. It’s perfectly true, it’s true that that’s the whole secret, but isn’t that suffering, at least for a man like that, who has wasted his whole life in the desert and yet could not shake off his incurable love of humanity? In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly, ‘incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.’ And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the counsel of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long. Is not that tragic? And if only one such stood at the head of the whole army ‘filled with the lust of power only for the sake of filthy gain’—would not one such be enough to make a tragedy? More than that, one such standing at the head is enough to create the actual leading idea of the Roman Church with all its armies and Jesuits, its highest idea. I tell you frankly that I firmly believe that there has always been such a man among those who stood at the head of the movement. Who knows, there may have been some such even among the Roman Popes. Who knows, perhaps the spirit of that accursed old man who loves mankind so obstinately in his own way, is to be found even now in a whole multitude of such old men, existing not by chance but by agreement, as a secret league formed long ago for the guarding of the mystery, to guard it from the weak and the unhappy, so as to make them happy. No doubt it is so, and so it must be indeed. I fancy that even among the Masons there’s something of the same mystery at the bottom, and that that’s why the Catholics so detest the Masons as their rivals breaking up the unity of the idea, while it is so essential that there should be one flock and one shepherd…. But from the way I defend my idea I might be an author impatient of your criticism. Enough of it.”
“You are perhaps a Mason yourself!” broke suddenly from Alyosha. “You don’t believe in God,” he added, speaking this time very sorrowfully. He fancied besides that his brother was looking at him ironically. “How does your poem end?” he asked, suddenly looking down. “Or was it the end?”
“I meant to end it like this. When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all His answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more … come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”
“And the old man?”
“The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”
“And you with him, you too?” cried Alyosha, mournfully.
“Why, it’s all nonsense, Alyosha. It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student, who could never write two lines of verse. Why do you take it so seriously? Surely you don’t suppose I am going straight off to the Jesuits, to join the men who are correcting His work? Good Lord, it’s no business of mine. I told you, all I want is to live on to thirty, and then … dash the cup to the ground!”
“But the little sticky leaves, and the precious tombs, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, how will you love them?” Alyosha cried sorrowfully. “With such a hell in your heart and your head, how can you? No, that’s just what you are going away for, to join them … if not, you will kill yourself, you can’t endure it!”
“There is a strength to endure everything,” Ivan said with a cold smile.
“The strength of the Karamazovs—the strength of the Karamazov baseness.”
“To sink into debauchery, to stifle your soul with corruption, yes?”
“Possibly even that … only perhaps till I am thirty I shall escape it, and then—”
“How will you escape it? By what will you escape it? That’s impossible with your ideas.”
“In the Karamazov way, again.”
“ ‘Everything is lawful,’ you mean? Everything is lawful, is that it?”
Ivan scowled, and all at once turned strangely pale.
“Ah, you’ve caught up yesterday’s phrase, which so offended Miüsov—and which Dmitri pounced upon so naïvely, and paraphrased!” he smiled queerly. “Yes, if you like, ‘everything is lawful’ since the word has been said. I won’t deny it. And Mitya’s version isn’t bad.”
Alyosha looked at him in silence.
“I thought that going away from here I have you at least,” Ivan said suddenly, with unexpected feeling; “but now I see that there is no place for me even in your heart, my dear hermit. The formula, ‘all is lawful,’ I won’t renounce—will you renounce me for that, yes?”
Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.
“That’s plagiarism,” cried Ivan, highly delighted. “You stole that from my poem. Thank you though. Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.”
They went out, but stopped when they reached the entrance of the restaurant.
“Listen, Alyosha,” Ivan began in a resolute voice, “if I am really able to care for the sticky little leaves I shall only love them, remembering you. It’s enough for me that you are somewhere here, and I shan’t lose my desire for life yet. Is that enough for you? Take it as a declaration of love if you like. And now you go to the right and I to the left. And it’s enough, do you hear, enough. I mean even if I don’t go away to-morrow (I think I certainly shall go) and we meet again, don’t say a word more on these subjects. I beg that particularly. And about Dmitri too, I ask you specially, never speak to me again,” he added, with sudden irritation; “it’s all exhausted, it has all been said over and over again, hasn’t it? And I’ll make you one promise in return for it. When at thirty, I want to ‘dash the cup to the ground,’ wherever I may be I’ll come to have one more talk with you, even though it were from America, you may be sure of that. I’ll come on purpose. It will be very interesting to have a look at you, to see what you’ll be by that time. It’s rather a solemn promise, you see. And we really may be parting for seven years or ten. Come, go now to your Pater Seraphicus, he is dying. If he dies without you, you will be angry with me for having kept you. Good-by, kiss me once more; that’s right, now go.”
Ivan turned suddenly and went his way without looking back. It was just as Dmitri had left Alyosha the day before, though the parting had been very different. The strange resemblance flashed like an arrow through Alyosha’s mind in the distress and dejection of that moment. He waited a little, looking after his brother. He suddenly noticed that Ivan swayed as he walked and that his right shoulder looked lower than his left. He had never noticed it before. But all at once he turned too, and almost ran to the monastery. It was nearly dark, and he felt almost frightened; something new was growing up in him for which he could not account. The wind had risen again as on the previous evening, and the ancient pines murmured gloomily about him when he entered the hermitage copse. He almost ran. “Pater Seraphicus—he got that name from somewhere—where from?” Alyosha wondered. “Ivan, poor Ivan, and when shall I see you again?… Here is the hermitage. Yes, yes, that he is, Pater Seraphicus, he will save me—from him and for ever!”
Several times afterwards he wondered how he could on leaving Ivan so completely forget his brother Dmitri, though he had that morning, only a few hours before, so firmly resolved to find him and not to give up doing so, even should he be unable to return to the monastery that night.
The script of our lives is written in the back room of a sleazy bar by a no-name genius. Our own, more plausible narratives get stood on their heads by his prodigious but heartless invention. Our stories make sense. Children outlive parents. Love endures. Things happen for a reason.
The script writer decides otherwise. Who pays his bills, keeps him in cheap booze so he can turn out these twisted scenarios day after day, century after century?
And it’s not just our private lives he scripts. Think of the other shocking stuff he comes up with. We thought we knew we were made in the image of the creator of the universe, immortal, destined for eternal bliss. This Darwin character, the scriptwriter’s brainchild, tells us we’re second cousins to the slime on our shower curtains. Others like him can prove the rocks we stub our toes on are nothingness populated by a sprinkling of atoms, themselves just bits of unpredictable energy.
The scriptwriter breaks our hearts, destroys our faith as casually as you or I break an egg. His characters’ misery, the cruel twists of the plot we have to live as real life, are no concern of his. He gets paid by the line: so many drinks for so many lives upended by the unthinkable. He must feel contempt, if he feels anything at all, for the feebleness of our imaginations. Does he read our plays and novels, watch our movies? Naive as those are, our expectations for the real world are no better. We expect happy endings, justice, a purpose to our existence. Our gullibility only eggs him on: Fools like us deserve the worst he can dish up.
Maybe he’s right.
Professors make their living talking and writing about the worldviews that form the backdrop to the works of a Shakespeare or a Homer. And yet, those writers endure not because of their cosmologies but despite them. Their art is “long” because it is not dependent on ephemeral or ludicrous philosophical or religious systems but on something else, something also more profound than good craftsmanship or poetic talent. What makes art long — when it is long, when it endures beyond its time — is its subject: our human nature. That, when it is portrayed by the hands of a master like Euripides or Cervantes, is what remains reliably constant from age to age. Euripides’s teenagers talk and think like today’s teenagers, and his tragic heroines suffer the same way their real-life sisters do today and have done since the fifth century B.C.E. and before.
The same can be said of great biblical literature. The Song of Songs, despite its strange metaphors, expresses passionate love in a moving way recognizable to anyone alive today. The machinations, jealousies and sudden bursts of sentiment in the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel, are perennial. The rest, the prescriptive and proscriptive codes of behavior and other parochial preoccupations, unless you are a believer, are dead to us.
I realize “human nature” is a very general term. To some it can mean human beings at their worst, or it can mean something immutable in a way different from the sense I understand it. What I’m referring to is the commonality, neither good nor bad, or both if you like, the identity and image of ourselves we recognize in everything we call art, from the musings of Catullus about a stand of trees that will ultimately end up as a ship, to the music of Bach, from those haunting funeral portraits of Roman Egypt, to the novels of Anthony Trollope. They all carry the ideological baggage of their times — Roman deities, 18th-century Pietism, class snobbery and simple prejudice. But we find ourselves and our kind in them nevertheless, and therefore they endure.
Our individual lives are short, or at least seem so in retrospect – vita brevis —but art is long and for that reason, until and if we evolve into something other than what we are, is dependable, not as a religious faith or substitute for one, not as something which can be grounded in mathematical certainty, but as a kind of manual for our species, points of common reference and ultimately of comfort as well, along with, of course, great beauty, binding us together in mutual recognition despite superficial differences, healing us after we have behaved badly as individuals or as a people, reminding us who we are – not the “we” of the short-term, the modern “we” or the European, Asian or African “we,” but the perennial one, as identifiable in the cave paintings of Lescaux as in a Vermeer portrait, in Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Jesus and Jane Austen, Chaucer’s Alice whose breath (like my wife’s) smells like apples, and in Mozart’s Requiem, full of childlike dread and pity.
If we want to know what it is to be human that’s where we turn, not for philosophy or rules of conduct but for a self-portrait, imperfect, full of questions that will never be answered, and perhaps don’t need to be.
I recently watched a public television program about Neanderthals. It seems they’ve been upgraded. They apparently had better technology than our own ancestors, including an industrial technique for producing a bonding material for use in affixing spear points to shafts, etc.–the very first industrial-grade technology. They also clearly had the physiology for speech and must have used it to produce all the other clever (i.e. human) things they did.
Also, they weren’t really so bad-looking after all. The actors who played them looked different from the actors playing our ancestors. But they looked very human nonetheless. The principal Neanderthal had a rather hooked nose and bore a remarkable resemblance to a contemporary American movie actor. The Cro-Magnon looked like a Knight of the Round Table. His nose was so straight you could have used it to survey a building site.
And then they did a DNA test. 1,000 samples from all parts of the world, to see who had the most Neanderthal genes in the current human population (they’ve known for some time there was hanky-panky going on between us and them). Surprise! Europeans! Specifically, people from Tuscany (3%)…. Tuscany.
The least Neanderthal DNA? (almost none): Sub-Saharan Africans. Then Asians (1%). Well, what a shock. Neanderthals turn out to have bigger brains than us, invented precision tools we couldn’t duplicate till modern times, had an industrial-grade technology, language, funeral rites, used makeup, for petessake…were general all-around smart SOBs. And guess who has the most Neanderthal genes today? White folk!
Sorry about that, you guys in Ghana and Botswana. Just when we had decided to let you into the human race, most of us, we get this new information about Neanderthal genes (the use or purpose of which today in our DNA, if any, is not known). And you Chinese? Nice try. But no cigar.
And now some clever little Harvard type is planning to clone a Neanderthal. What will we do with her after she’s born? Acknowledge her as a superior life form? Or put her in a cage and sell tickets.
I see a long line of Yuppies clambering to buy a piece of her to inject into their offspring so they can get a leg-up on the other applicants for a place in The Very Best White Pre-School Money Can Buy. Then those children’s offspring do the same…until, one day…the Dream comes true. A master race! Not our race. Not exactly. But close enough.
The program ends with Sir Lancelot making a move on a Neanderthal lass who’s obviously smitten by his fabulous Anglo-Saxon/Tuscan looks. He spots her watching him from behind a tree, just like those lovers in Bollywood films. She ain’t no Guinevere, but she has a certain feral appeal.
And the rest is you-know-what.
My new story “Pigeons” now live at: http://thefeatheredflounder.com/2012/12/pigeons/
He was a tall man in perhaps his late sixties, not especially handsome. After her initial unremarkable impression, the next thing that struck her was that she should find such a man interesting at all. She was married to someone three years younger than herself who looked like he had not yet seen fifty. She rarely noticed other men, much less found them intriguing. Why, then, was she following this one past overnights for toddlers, past analgesics and into a part of the pharmacy she had never had reason to visit before?…
My new novel, Song of the Mockingbird, is now available as an ebook at Amazon.com. Soon it will also be available for Nook and at Smashwords for all other platforms. It will be out in paperback via my publisher Savvy Press early next year.
You can read the first three chapters here.
From the “dust jacket”:
“SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD is the story of a mature woman’s self-discovery. Five years widowed but still bound to the man to whom she was married for thirty years, Doris gradually comes to discover her life not only is not over but is just beginning in a way she had never imagined possible. In the process, she also discovers a good deal about her marriage that contradicts the ideal image of it she has nurtured all her adult life.
Meanwhile, her daughter’s own marriage is breaking up. After her father’s death Evelyn willingly took over his role as her mother’s guardian. Strong-willed by nature, she is nevertheless at a loss when she is no longer able to control her husband’s will. Alone with a small child, she comes to discover that the mother she has treated almost as a second child is a source of strength where she had least expected one.
Doris’s odyssey includes close friendships with two women who despise each other, a love affair which awakens her to a sense of her own sexuality she had never thought possible, and a new relationship with the daughter she has previously seen as merely a female clone of her late husband.”
This is one of my longer (78,000 words) novels. Usually I write that many words and then cut about 20,000. This time, even after the edit, the book is still hefty by my standards. That’s partly because I follow two story lines instead of one–the mother’s as well as the daughter’s–intimately connected, as you can see from the synopsis, but each treated fully as its own narrative. I typically don’t concentrate on more than one main character, but this time the material and my state of mind (on which I’ll elaborate shortly) were such that I felt like taking a shot at a more traditional novel form. It doesn’t quite match the four or five plot lines of a Dickens or Trollope, but following two characters in detail rather than one meant for me keeping a couple more balls up in the air than I typically do.
Now, to my state of mind while writing this book…
I think of this book as my “second symphony,” not because it was the second novel I wrote–I had written several before it–but because I wrote it in the kind of mood that I hear in Brahms’s second symphony and Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.
Brahms labored long and hard on his first symphony, always hearing Beethoven’s 9th thundering behind him. When that first symphony, a great masterpiece in its own right, was finally out of the way, he seemed to revel in the sheer joy of creative freedom evident in his second. It seems to sing for the pure pleasure of singing. It’s as if it was written while the composer was on a well-deserved vacation, which he may well have been.
I hear a similar delight in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, the one so rarely performed, though his first is a war-horse of every symphonic orchestra, or used to be. In this case it’s not so much a question of Tchaikovsky’s getting out from under the deep shadow of the greatness that preceded him as his finally finding full confidence in his own massive talent and allowing himself to enjoy it.
I remember writing some chapters of Song of the Mockingbird in Prospect Park seated at one of the deserted picnic benches near the children’s playground. It was autumn, this time of year, chilly but sunny and pleasant to be out of doors. I too was in a relaxed, happy frame of mind, as sure of my story-telling abilities as I am ever likely to be and delighting in the pure pleasure of recording each new line of narrative or dialogue in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. Something must have happened to give me that wonderful mental freedom and creative confidence–it may have been the period when I had an agent enthusiastically shopping around the novel I had completed before this one. I don’t really recall. What I do remember is the sense of working at the very top of my abilities and enjoying every minute of it.
Which is not to say this book is the best thing I have written, or to make any judgment of what I did or did not achieve with it. I can’t make that call, and in any case authors always think their last book, in my case My Bess (which also has a middle-aged woman as the main character, come to think of it), though my readers seem to prefer Look at Me Now, if sales are any indication. After a book is done, the author is just another reader, after all. What’s special to me about Song of the Mockingbird, though (all an author’s works are special to her/him in some sense, just as, to restate the cliche, each child is special to a parent), is that sense I had for the first time of being up to the challenge of writing a “real,” i.e. old-fashioned, multi-plot narrative like the Big Boys and Girls did back when the novel was the world’s greatest and most popular art form. That and the way the writing flowed as easily as the pencil did across the lined yellow paper as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground around me.
From Letters of Note (http://www.lettersofnote.com):
In 1926, on discovering that his novel, “Arrowsmith,” had been awarded what was then called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, author Sinclair Lewis wrote the following letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee and declined the honour. He remains the only person to have done so.
For Release Thursday, May 26th, 1926
To the Pulitzer Prize Committee,
Courtesy of Mr. Frank D. Fackenthal, Secretary,
New York City
I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel “Arrowsmith” for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented….