Worldly Wisdom Blog


This blog welcomes the intellectually curious and imaginatively adventurous. It derives in part from the book Worldly Wisdom: Great Books and the Meanings of Life but goes beyond the purposes of that book. It explores the meanings of life in classic writings not represented in Worldly Wisdom and also includes occasional reflections on culture and politics, along with tales of travel, fiction and non-fiction.

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Adventures in Travel



A Bon Vivant’s Dream

          You might think of April in Paris, as the song of that name says, adorned with “chestnuts in blossom” and bursting with the “charm of spring.” But the reality is often closer to T.S. Eliot’s lines, “April is the cruelest month,” wrenching “dull roots” from the “dead land” in a chilly “spring rain” Cold and rainy, bringing barely a harbinger of summer.  I’d take October in Paris over April any day. It has the pleasures of waning summer. Some tourists may still be there, but not in hoards, and the colors are out, the air is clear and fresh, and the gaiety of children frolicking after school in the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens on sunny autumn days brings smiles to your lips and youth to your heart. When Ernest Hemingway complained in his Paris memoir that in October the rains come and the wind beats fallen leaves against the window panes, he was slanting his memories. October in Paris is usually just fine. Never mind the rain that does come in time.

            We had lived in Paris for five years in a flat on the rue de l’Odeon. My wife, Martine, was a journalist, and I was trying to write, what else?—a novel. We loved every minute of our Parisian life—the morning café au lait and croissants down the street in the Carrafour de l’Odeon or elsewhere on the nearby Boulevard Saint Germain, fresh fruits and vegetables from the open market in the rue de Baci, and crisp baguettes from any boulangerie, strolls through the picturesque streets of the left bank, browsing among the book stalls along the Seine, dining at the ubiquitous sidewalk brasseries. Yes, life in Paris was good, especially in the early autumn between the tourist inundation of summer and the long winter nights that begin in mid-afternoon.

            The end of summer also brought the grape harvest and our annual visit to the champagne country, ninety minutes east of Paris. We’d gone there for years, always  staying in the same room of a chateau, now an elegant hotel, on the outskirts of Reims set on a hill with manicured gardens rolling down toward the delicate spires of the sixteenth-century cathedral of Saint Remi rising in the middle distance beyond the garden’s surrounding trees. We’d been told of this chateau by Jacques Sevinchy, an acquaintance who had said it had one of the best restaurants in France, given three stars by the Michelin red guide. And he should know, since he had long been one of the Michelin judges. What a life Jacques led, we often said to him a bit enviously. He lived a bon vivant’s dream, traveling around France, staying in the best hotels, high and low, and dining in the best restaurants, lavish and modest, rating them all as he saw fit. By now Jacques knew many of them like family or friends, whom he nonetheless didn’t hesitate to chastise for disappointing him. He was an especially harsh judge of the most celebrated restaurants. He said their pretensions demanded it. Twirling the impressive curl of his moustache, he could distinguish a dozen types of duckling served in Paris’s oldest restaurant, La Tour d’Argent (from which he had voted to strip one and then two of its three Michelin stars for growing tired and failing to keep pace with the inventiveness of new culinary trends and lighter cuisine); he could question a quenelle at Taillevent for being a gram too heavy; he could tut-tut a truffle soup at Paul Bocuse for being insufficiently earthy; he could fault a pigeon at Alain Ducasse for missing a balance of crispness and succulence; and on and on. But we never heard him murmur a sound of dissatisfactions with the food at the chateau in Reims.

            As it happened, Jacques was staying there when we arrived, completing his latest round of visits to the twenty or so three-star restaurants of France. We had come to know him familiarly after Martine had written an article on the Michelin guides during our first year in Paris and he had graciously, but discreetly, served as a resource and then had equally graciously and discreetly befriended us, despite Martine’s husband being a vulgar American. I know it was Martine’s beauty and elegance that attracted him, but he had always showed me a friendly courtesy and even curiosity about my work.

           We found him this time sitting on the veranda that overlooks the garden. He had just finished his lunch and was sipping champagne and gazing toward Saint Remi. Exchanging surprised greetings, we offered him our usual envious sighs. He smiled, rather wanly, I thought,  and we talked briefly about his latest culinary explorations, which he reported with his customarily sardonic wit about sauces gone awry and waiters gone missing and wines that could fuel machinery, but with somewhat less of his customary panache. Always enjoying his company, we invited him to take a drive with us that afternoon into the countryside to watch the late grape harvest. He declined, pleading a need to finish some work and to take a nap, but he amiably asked us to join him for dinner. That was an invitation we would never refuse. We agreed to meet for champagne in the conservatoire, an airy glass-enclosed space off the dining room overlooking the garden.

            Martine and I left him and, putting off the countryside venture until tomorrow, drove instead into Reims along tree-lined streets that showed off the city in radiant fall colors and that were home to many a champagne maker. We paused at the cathedral of Saint Remi, which always seemed larger and farther away as seen from the terrace of our room at the chateau than it proved to be up close, and then we went on into the old part of the city to visit the historic thirteenth-century cathedral of Notre Dame, where the truce of World War I was signed, and where in an earlier chapel on the site, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It wore its age well and still overwhelmed with its monumental size, which dwarfs the rest of city from miles away. But it hardly seemed suited to the modern metropolis that has smothered most remnants of Medieval Reims. The cathedral stands as a reminder of an age that had patiently allowed centuries to erect such monuments to the eternal life, unlike the modern city around it born of times when temples of business get built in a hurry and might be torn down in mere decades to make way for new commercial edifices. Here we could see the historical passage from the eternal to the ephemeral.

               We wandered meditatively through the cathedral and browsed the neighborhood searching for traces of long ago. We found some in a few cobbled streets and shadowed alleys, but they were only fugitives from the past. After exploring the “old” city for a while, we got back in the car and headed for local champagneries to sample the finished product of what we would see being harvested the next day. We stopped briefly at Mumm’s stately home to sip some varieties of their signature Cordon Rouge, which Martine found to be a trifle sweet, and we paused at Taittinger’s nondescript tasting room to sample the dry Taittinger brews, more to Martine’s liking, although I enjoyed them both.  Then on to Pommery, a palatial historic establishment just across the boulevard from our chateau. There we descended underground to the massive caves carved through chalky stone and explored the maze of corridors lined with thousands of bottles, each given a quarter turn daily while the champagne ages. After tasting a few of their rather floral styles, we bought a bottle of vintage Pommery to take home. Having sipped about nine champagnes altogether, we were ready to return to our room for a rest before dinner. It had been a fine afternoon, and a suitable prelude to one of the best meals to be had in France, with a man whose esteemed imprimatur vouched for it.

            We arrived in the conservatoire early and sat on a plush period sofa to await our companion for a glass of champagne and to choose our dinner selections from the menus brought by the waiter. While we were absorbing the place, I noticed in the waning daylight outside some workmen unloading a brightly colored object from a truck onto the lawn. As they laid it out, it looked like a carousel canopy, and I wondered if they were preparing for a carnival to celebrate the harvest, or to stage a party for a wealthy guest. I flagged the waiter and asked what was going on in the garden. He glanced outside and replied in softly accented English, “A balloon. Someone arranged it to sail over the countryside tomorrow.” “Nice idea,” I responded and thanked him.

            Jacques arrived moments later, and we toasted the occasion with the featured champagne of the night, a delicate Billicarte-Salmon produced in a village north of Reims. We exchanged reminiscences of previous meetings and summaries of our activities since our last encounter. We told him of our writing and the pleasures of our Paris days, and we probed him for culinary explorations and discoveries. He complied with good stories in his usual charming manner but with, I thought, more than a trace of cynicism. Then, after poring over the menu we ordered dinner, and a few minutes later, the waiter returned to say that our table was ready whenever would care to go in. Finishing our champagne, we followed him into the elegant ersatz Louis XVI dining room, and on through into a more intimate space on the far side matching the conservatoire, although it was not glassed in and had a fireplace at one end. We were led to a table with a nice view of the garden. Dinner unfolded as wonderfully as we had come expect. The salade Pere Girard, mingling greens with morsels of foie gras and lobster lifted us from our seats; the langoustine melted on the tongue; the pigeon with quice sent us soaring; the peach soufflé took us to heaven. And the orchestrated champagnes made us not want to return to earth.

            But for some reason, Jacques did not seem quite as animated as usual or as taken with it all as Martine and I were. He nodded approval and made some notes, and he chatted cordially as always, but the normally contented smile on his face that we liked so much was fleeting. Perhaps he was disappointed with the food after all. Or maybe just tired. Or even bored. But can a bon vivant living a dream suffer boredom, or what the French bewail as ennui?

              When we inquired where he was going from here, he paused and said he was scheduled to go to Burgundy and then Provence. “Ah,” I sighed. “What a life you lead. And driving south from here will be a marvelous trip. The countryside is so beautiful right now.” Then I thought of the balloon.

           I drew their attention to it still being assembled in the garden and turned to Martine. “We should take a balloon from here some time. How lovely that would be, sailing over the champagne country.  Have you ever done that, Jacques?” I asked.

        “Oui. I’ve ridden balloons a few times here and there around France. C’est très jolie. You float over the countryside, above it all but seeing everything in the silence of the sky. You almost feel that you could go on pour toujours sans cesse. (forever without end).” He let his words trail off as though he were losing himself in the thought.

       “Sounds divine,” Martine said.

        “I wish we could go tomorrow,” I put in. “Maybe next time. We could all go together. Would you be interested?” I asked Jacques. He was still kind of lost in thought. Then he looked at me, and for the first time since we had met him yesterday, his eyes appeared to brighten and a happy smile broke across his face.

        “Perhaps,” he said softly.

         The three of us exchanged more reminiscences and reflections through the rest of dinner down to coffee and cognac and the heavenly peach soufflé.  Finally, Martine and I said good night, looking forward to our drive through the country tomorrow and hoping for blue skies. Jacques joined in our hopes and bid us bon nuit with a nice smile. We would see each other again at breakfast before going our separate ways.

         The sun was gleaming when we got up the next morning. Stepping out on our private terrace in the fresh clear air, we were greeted by the spectacle of a resplendent autumn day in the garden of the chateau. The reds of the maples, the oranges of the oaks, the yellows of the locusts all engulfed us in a kaleidoscope of colors framing the spires of Saint Remi. And spread out on the broad green lawn in the center lay the equally colorful hot air balloon being prepared for flight.

           We dressed and descended to the dining room and sat at a table by the window. When Jacques didn’t appear, we concluded he would probably arrive in due course, and we proceeded to order. Then we savored omelets, buttery croissants, and café au lait, while looking out the tall windows to where workmen were now inflating the balloon in the middle of the expansive lawn. Its buoyantly multicolored panes swelled slowly with hot air from the burner. As its folds unfurled, it gradually bobbed off the grass and swayed in the breeze, a gigantic colorful bubble amid the autumn leaves under a clear blue sky, its basket tethered to the ground by a couple of lines and weighted down by bags of sand hefted in by workmen before igniting the burner. Wishing we could take the flight, we watched the workmen finish their job and withdraw. We resumed our breakfast speculating on what had delayed Jacques.

           A few minutes later, Martine pointed outside. “Look!” she said with an urgent tone.

           A workman was racing down the lawn toward the balloon, waving his arms and shouting. The balloon’s basket had been untethered, and someone was tossing bags over the side . The basket was waggling. A pillar of flame was rising brightly from the burner, sending more hot air into the balloon. By the time the workman got there, the balloon had lifted from the ground.  He could not reach it.

          Half a dozen people were now running from the chateau in the direction of the ascending balloon. We signed the check and went out to the garden to see what the commotion was about. The crowd stood helplessly looking upward as the balloon rose above the tree tops and drifted toward the spires of Saint-Remi. A man and woman left them and came back ranting at a manager who had come out of the chateau. While he was trying to calm them, a workman approached from the lawn and handed the manager a thick envelope and a note of some kind, gesturing back to where the balloon had been. The manager read the note aloud and opened the envelope. He drew out what looked to us standing a few yards away like a handful of Euros. He examined the note back and front and shook his head in puzzlement. Then he cast a final look at the departing balloon and invited the animated couple to go with him into the chateau.

          Curious, Martine and I walked over to the workman who had brought the envelope and asked him what had happened. He was still a little agitated, and my French wasn’t good enough to make out all he said, but I gathered that the couple we’d seen had rented the balloon and someone had taken off in it. The workmen had then found an envelope and a note left behind on the ground and had given these to the manager.

         “Qu’en était-il dans l’enveloppe?” (What was in the envelope?), Martine asked.

         “C’etait d’argent” (It was money), he answered.

         “Qu’est-ce que la note disait?” (What did the note say?), she added.

         “Il disait, ‘Veuillez me pardoner. Adieu.’” (It said, ‘Please forgive me. Good-by.’)

         “C’est tout?”  (That’s all?), I prodded.

          He shrugged and said, “Seulement les mots ‘Guides Michelin’ imprime dessus” (Only the words Michelin Guides printed on it).

         “What!?”  I gasped and turned to Martine. “Could it be? Jacques? He never said he could fly a balloon. And why would he go off like that?”

          Spontaneously our eyes focused on the sky beyond the trees at the end of the garden. The balloon, its colors radiant in the morning sun was now floating off over Saint Remi. We watched it go, gently levitating up over the city on a peaceful, inexplicable journey to the champagne countryside, and out of sight.

            I asked the workman how far the balloon could go. He shrugged again and said it could go as far as the air currents could take it until it ran out of fuel. And, if the guy in it knows anything about flying balloons, that could be a very long way. To the Alps anyway or the Mediterranean.

           Martine and I inquired about Jacques at the chateau and learned that he had packed his bags and paid his bill but had left the bags in his room. He was nowhere to be seen.

           “He did it!” I exclaimed. “He’s in the balloon. But why? To where…?”

            Mystified, we decided to make our drive into the countryside as planned, thinking that maybe we would find the balloon on the ground and Jacques seated in a village café, sipping champagne and smiling at his adventure.

           We didn’t find him or the balloon. And in the late afternoon, we returned to the chateau, checked out, and drove back to Paris, talking about the mystery and what Jacques had in mind. Surely he knew what he was doing. But where was he going? Did he fly off to pursue the bon vivant’s dream, or did he do it from ennui?

           A couple of months later, I read in a Paris newspaper that a long-time Michelin judge named Jacques Sevinchy was being replaced. The article gave no explanation except to say that it appears he had curiously disappeared from Reims in a balloon.  His words came back to me: Pour toujours, sans cesse.

On Parole in Aspen


Aspen had been a rough and tumble town once, roiling with grizzled silver miners  digging their way to imagined riches. And some had succeeded. Fifteen thousand people lived there by the 1890s. It had culture, too. An opera house and a grand hotel, both built by a founder of Macy’s department store in New York, who had discovered Aspen not long after the miners had. Oscar Wilde had even visited the neighboring town of Leadville teaching the miners aesthetics and galvanizing their spirits with tales of the rambunctious Renaissance artist and silversmith Benvenuto Cellini, stirring them to a barrage of pistol fire in Cellini’s honor. But that Rocky Mountain glory suddenly ended when the country went off silver in 1892, despite William Jennings Bryan’s rousing protest to the Democratic convention of that year about crucifying the country on “a cross of gold.” Aspen pretty much died, like all old west silver towns. Until it came to life again half a century later with the arrival of skiing and an infusion of new money and culture.

Within a few decades, it had become one of the glitziest vacation retreats in the world. Old Victorian houses once teetering toward collapse sold for fortunes, and movers and shakers and movie stars and billionaires erected palaces on the mountain sides and up secluded valleys. In the ski season hotel rooms could practically cost blood, like silver in the old days. And glamorous parties lit the nights. In summer, visitors flooded to outdoor concerts, and the prestigious Aspen Institute drew notables to high-minded seminars and high-powered conferences at its campus on the outskirts of town. This was a place no socialite or celebrity or influence monger could miss out on. A capital of the glitterati and the culturati and the oligarchy and policy makers, all together in a dressed-up old west town surrounded by multi-million dollar mountainside estates.

I had come to be with them.  Well, not really. I had never cared for that kind of scene. But I had been invited to participate in a conference on human rights at the Aspen Institute and figured it would be worthwhile. It was. Still, I found the socializing around the conference wearing thin pretty soon. So, one evening I wandered into town past trendy restaurants and fashionable boutiques and eventually ran across a liquor store that looked like it had been there in times past and had a loyal clientele. I went in and asked a rugged guy if there is an old pub or something like that where locals go for relaxation and conviviality. He answered, “Harold’s.”  It was owned, he told me, by a crusty family who viewed the modern Aspen renaissance with a jaundiced eye, and whose down-town property, worth millions, they clung to defiantly as a haunt for working people who wanted to escape the glitter and the culture that had engulfed the town. Sounded like my kind of place.

I tracked it down on a narrow street a few blocks away tucked into a line of gentrified old commercial buildings. It seemed to have survived the silver mining days and been brushed up like its neighbors during Aspen’s “restoration” but then allowed to decline again into a more fitting rustic state. “Harold’s” read a florescent sign over the door.  Signs for Coors and Budweiser beer blinked in small windows on each side.

I pushed open the creaky door and met a haze of cigarette smoke. It occurred to me that the place could be violating ordinances against smoking in such establishments, but the smoke was a welcome throwback to the past in this ecology-health-culture-celebrity-obsessed town. Inside I paused to take in the scene. No beautiful people here. The bar was lined with the denim- and leather-clad backs of gnarly guys and of a few hearty gals all bellied up to pitchers of beer. Nearby other denizens gathered around pool tables in serious play. I made my way to a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered a pitcher of my own. After scanning my fellow barflies I swiveled to study the room. Many of the faces were lined, the clothes plain, the manners coarsely civil amidst the lively chatter. Workmen with calloused hands, cleaning people carrying the scent of bleach, hotel and restaurant laborers weary after long hours of serving the affluent, rugged ranch hands and other workers from outlying neighborhoods at home in this tavern where they could kick back and drink beer among their fellows who had never been in a movie or made a fortune or read Plato or adored Mozart or worried about global markets or philosophized about human rights. These were earthy people with their own stubborn pride and individuality and attachment to an Aspen of the past. They couldn’t live in the town anymore because real estate, rents, and taxes had climbed too high, but they kept the town and environs running and would come here after work or from their modest homes down the valley or their trailers in a camp on route 28. And here they could share camaraderie and tell tales of the fabled mining town and of their adventures in the mountain life, when they had time to live it.

The sounds of country music emanated from an antique jukebox, alternating between mournful anthems about lonely truck drivers on the road, loyal at heart but hungry for love, and angry songs assailing prissy elites and arrogant authorities. The pool tables lit by bright domed overhead lights changed hands frequently as players took their shots while their luck held then moseyed to a narrow shelf along the wall where their beer awaited. The clicking of pool balls punctuated the rough sociability of the room, and a curse would erupt from time to time when a pool shot went awry.

“Shit! A miscue!” The words burst from a hulking guy with a beard and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Jiffy Lube as his cue ball made only a light click glancing off his target. How amusing, I thought. The refinement of “miscue,” a tough guy’s curse over a missed shot at the pool table. But that’s exactly what it is isn’t it? A cue that misses. A miscue. And a just cause for a curse.

Tough guys who commit miscues. And tough broads, too. While a few of these women were sprinkled along the bar, a whole bowling team of them surrounded a couple of pool tables. They were on their way, so I overheard, to a tournament at Miracle Bowl down the valley. They had matching leather jackets with metal studs spelling DTOM over an image of a coiled snake. And they had their own bowling balls in bags stamped with that moniker on the floor along the wall beneath the shelf holding pitchers of beer and glasses. I watched while one of them, standing tall with wide shoulders, a pony tail, heavy eye-shadow, tight jeans, and cowboy boots, took a gulp from her glass and then racked up the balls. She made a shot that hit the mark with a sharp ‘crack’ as loud as gun fire. The balls scattered like buck shot. One dropped into a corner pocket, and she cruised coolly around the table, lined up the cue, and smacked another ball into a side pocket. Again, with a surgeon’s precision and a pugilist’s punch, she deftly sent yet another ball down a pocket, then one more. But her next shot fell short. No cursed “miscue” though. She shrugged, ambled to the wall and refilled her glass. A heavy-set companion with her jacket off blew out a lungful of smoke, snuffed out her cigarette, flexed an arm tattoo, stepped up and knocked a ball so hard into a corner pocket that it clattered all the way down to the rack below. She sniffed and swaggered to the next shot, which sent the remaining balls careening around the table, but none into a pocket. “Fuck,” she mumbled and sauntered to her pitcher. One after another the members of the team took their shots with the assurance and muscular bravado of their Don’t-Tread-On-Me-style—which I gathered was the name of the team. Crack. Smack. Clunk. Clatter.  They cleared the table with each pass through the team. I watched them for probably half an hour. Then they polished off their beer, cased their cues, donned their jackets, grabbed their bowling ball bags, called out “Yo!” to the female bartender, who responded with a robust: “Kick ass, girls!” and, with fists punching the air, they passed through the door to the street.

My gaze followed them and then switched to the bartender. She looked as tough as they did. Not large but solid, with a voice like a bellows, a laugh like the mating call of a moose, a full head of fuzzy hair accentuating a face of imposing but not unattractive features that had weathered a lot of seasons and had intimidated many a mountain man. She could fill and top off a batch of mugs and pitchers with perfectly-timed pulls of the taps without a flicker of hesitation while carrying on conversations and sharing jokes with customers. She seemed to know them all. A good-hearted soul who must’ve been here for years. Maybe one of the owners. She could joke and curse and even flirt in her rugged way. But I suspected she brooked no disrespect or rowdiness. She’d refuse to serve and send packing anyone who couldn’t handle their liquor or who misbehaved according to her rules.

“Don’t walk in if you can’t walk out,” one of the signs read above the bar. And another: “Stay out ‘a my face in my place.” And “You fight, you’re taillights.” This was Aspen civility, old style. That didn’t make this a ladies tea room. It was plenty boisterous. Just within the limits of the house and of the hardy hostess at the bar.

While eyeing her, I saw the door swing open and a guy come in, look around, and swagger to a vacant seat at the bar. He was husky but not very tall, unshaven and wearing a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat like many others in the room. The bartender approached him with a pointed look and a casual, “What’ll it be?” He obviously was not a regular. He ordered a pitcher of beer in a gruff voice that carried down to me. She took her time filling the pitcher and delivering it to him. The guy grumbled something and settled into his beer.

I worked on mine while watching more pool players and absorbing the atmosphere, a world away from the new Aspen. I drifted back in time to what the town might have been like in the early days. Yes, there was an opera house and a fancy hotel. But bars like this and the people in them were the real Aspen. The real West. Places that had true stories of real life to tell. Not like those in the opera house. I’d have liked to see it in those days. But would I have wanted to live in such a place? I doubted it. I knew the idea of the old West had more appeal than the reality. I let myself get lost in that idea.

Suddenly my reverie was broken by a noise near the other end of the bar. I strained to see what it was. A gravely voice erupted above the occasional curses from pool tables and the contained conviviality of the room, “Don’t mess with me!” A fist pounded the bar and glasses shook. It was the guy who had come in not long ago. He was face to face with the guy next to him, who had somehow caused offense. His pitcher was half empty.

The bartender stalked down to where they were sitting and told the loud guy to keep it down. This was her place and she makes the rules. He growled something. She leaned across the bar. “I don’t know who you are fella,” she snarled in a voice everyone could hear. “But watch your manners or you’re outta’ here.” He spat words back at her that I couldn’t grasp. Without hesitation, she swung an open hand that smacked his cheek. The slap resounded through the room The place went quiet.

Stunned, the guy glowered at the bartender. Seconds passed in silence. Then, collecting himself, he straightened up as tall as he could, squared his shoulders, and pushed back his hat. He tossed a few bills on the bar, swung off his stool, stood firm facing the bar, and bellowed, “I don’t have to take this shit!  I’M ON PAROLE!”  Marching emphatically to the door, he flung it open, and haughtily went out into the night.

The room burst into laughter. I laughed, too. But as I paid my bill and left, his words stayed with me. And as I strolled back to my room at the Institute, they mingled with thoughts of the lofty discussions that would go on there in the next few days among international notables on human rights policies to change the world. Everyone there would be important in some way, many self-important, all proud of themselves and their work for humanity. Me too.  But I wondered who among us would feel prouder and have a keener sense of personal dignity and their own humanity than that crusty guy who silenced the smoky saloon of hard-working, hard playing characters and the rugged bartender with his defiant words: “I don’t have to take this shit! I’M ON PAROLE!”?


A Stranger to Power: On Church and State in America

 When you visit the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on a school day in May you can barely reach the exhibits illustrating America’s constitutional and political history from its origins down to the lately shed judicial robe of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. Hoards of school children press the glass of every showcase and surround every free-standing object, reading the legends, listening to the recordings, fingering anything they can touch, jotting notes, and chattering inquisitively. They are only there on field trips, of course, and glad to escape school, but their curiosity seems real. And we could say their teachers have new incentive to stimulate that curiosity.

A portion of this new incentive could come from the opening of the ConstitutionCenter itself in 2003, supplying a high-tech educational resource and an inviting field-trip destination adjacent to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. It could also come from the continuing popularity of a Hollywood adventure movie released in 2004 called National Treasure swirling around fictional mysteries and legacies of the nation’s founding. But more consequential—or so I would like to think—is the fact that these teachers and their students live in a time when constitutional issues crackle in the political air. There are many reasons for this. But we need look no farther than controversial actions of the Supreme Court.

The Center aptly alerts visitors to the role of the Supreme Court in American history first with a presentation on the epochal case of Marbury v. Madison. In deciding this case of 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall and his colleagues elevated the Court’s original status among the three branches of government from the third rank to virtual equality. They did this by exercising a judicial power not prescribed in the Constitution: the power to interpret the Constitution as the ultimate law of the land and thereby to overturn acts of Congress as unconstitutional if the Court judges that appropriate.

The Center proceeds to note that Supreme Court Justices have often disagreed over how to use this power. And a wall panel pertinently explains that such disagreements nowadays often divide the Court between “originalists” (or “textualists”), who interpret the Constitution according to their understanding of the original meaning of the text itself, and the “non-originalists” (or “contextualists”), who interpret the Constitution according to their understanding of the historical contexts of both its framers and the cases that come before the Court.

Although the Center does not dwell on it, few constitutional issues mattered more to the nation’s founders, and perhaps none more sharply divides “textualists” and “contextualists” on the Supreme Court today, than the relation of church to state. In fact, questions about the relation of church and state animate public debate and inflame personal passions in America nowadays more than at possibly any time since the founding. This is not a bad thing, for it gives all Americans good cause to take interest in constitutional issues, even if it also gives us cause to take sides.

Conservatives deserve most of the credit for the current debate over church and state. During the past few decades they have increasingly decried court rulings and liberal legislation that, so the zealots among them contend, have delivered America over to a tyranny of secularism and have brought, in the words of the media liberal-baiter Bill O’Reilly, an outright “war on religion.”

As evidence, they point an accusing finger at the judicial banishment from public schools of official prayers, Bible readings, religious instruction, the teaching of “creationism” and “intelligent design,” displays of the Ten Commandments, and so on, along with restrictions of religious symbols on government property. They tag as kindred evils efforts to erase the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as the legalization of abortion and the expansion of homosexual rights. Such pernicious acts, these conservative critics argue, have divorced church and state beyond anything envisioned by the nation’s founders.

As Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it, apropos of Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the Court’s rulings on church and state in recent decades “are way out of step with what the founding fathers intended.” More audaciously, demagogue O’Reilly tirelessly wages an angry televised crusade against perceived enemies of religion and what he labels the “bogus separation of church and state.” In this combative spirit, the Texas Republican Party threw down the gauntlet in its Platform of 2002 with the fighting words: “Our Party pledges to do everything within its power to dispel the myth of separation of church and state.”

Conservatives blame this “myth” on a fallacious interpretation of the First Amendment. And some trace the fallacy to a Supreme Court decision of 1947. This decision came in the case of Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing.  There a New   Jersey man had sued the Board of Education and the state for violating the First Amendment by subsidizing with taxpayer money the transportation of children to parochial schools as well as to public schools. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black surveyed the history of religious persecution and strife that had led to the First Amendment’s safeguards on religious liberty, then he stated categorically: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”

Justice Black was, as he noted, drawing on words of Thomas Jefferson, who as president had written a historic letter in 1802 to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association assuring them that the First Amendment guaranteed a “wall of separation between church and state.” One Supreme Court justice had previously cited Jefferson’s metaphor in a decision of 1878, but Black was now adopting it for the first time as a firm constitutional principle broadly and categorically separating religion from government.

Ironically, Black’s majority opinion in this case actually ruled for the defense. “New Jersey has not breached [the wall of separation] here,” Black concluded, because the subsidy merely facilitated the transportation to school of all children in the district, whereas to deny this subsidy to students of parochial schools would discriminate unfairly against them. The First Amendment, he explained, “requires the state to be neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers, it does not require the state to be their adversary.”

The dissenters in the case embraced Black’s eloquent argument for the separation of church and state but figured it warranted a ruling for the plaintiff instead of the defense. “This is not,” they wrote, “just a little case over bus fares.” It was about “public money devoted to payment of religious costs,” and that “is the first step” toward “the establishment of religion.”

As it turned out, the majority holding for the defense in the case cast only a faint historical shadow. But Black’s dicta declaring that the First Amendment “erected a wall between church and state” that “must be kept high and impregnable,” and that this wall “requires the state to be neutral” regarding “religious believers and non-believers,” cast a distinct historical shadow. And to some eyes it was a long dark shadow indeed. For Black’s dicta set a precedent (echoed in subsequent rulings beginning the next year with McCollum v. Board of Education, which removed religious instruction from a few Illinois schools) that many conservatives, especially on the religious right, condemn for propagating a spuriously secular and even irreligious reading of the First Amendment’s opening lines.

Symbolically reflecting this conservative reaction, the fundamentalist preacher and activist Flip Benham, head of Operation Save America, has been known to sport retro wing-tip shoes in homage to pre-1947 America. More substantially, the Christian home schooling movement blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s, and Christian authors set out to rewrite American history to teach the hidden “truth” about it. The essence of this truth is, as Jeff Sharlet summarized in an article on the topic in Harper’s Magazine of December, 2006: “The nation was conceived of as Christian” by the founders, and therefore “the separation of church and state is either a myth altogether…or meant only to prevent a single denomination from prevailing.” A flood of textbooks and revisionist histories now purvey this “truth” by demonstrating how, contrary to the alleged ignorance and lies of secular historians, Christianity gave birth to this country and has overwhelmingly shaped its character and history. The internet now delivers these books to homes through hundreds of Web sites and resources dedicated to, as the Web site of the American Christian History Institute (founded in 1978) announces, “Restoring America’s Biblical Foundations” and “historic Biblical method of reasoning.” David Barton’s The Myth of Separation (1989) has become a standard work for this historical vision, and Barton’s high position in the Texas Republican Party surely got the book’s title phrase into the Party Platform in 2002. The more apocalyptic versions of this Christian American history also warn that in the last half century or so an evil cult of secularism has ascended—abetted by an overweening government and by adverse court rulings on church and state, abortion, and homosexuality—that may require God’s fiery intervention to annihilate.

The outspoken Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, moved by a kindred view of what he deems America’s wayward, latter-day judicial history, has repeatedly assailed that history and vowed to bring church and state closer together. He told an audience celebrating the nation’s second annual Religious Freedom Day in 2003, “the separation of church and state was not our tradition” originally. And he reiterates the charge from the bench at every opportunity.

In a dissenting opinion in McCreary v. ACLU (2005), for example, Justice Scalia proclaimed, “the Court’s oft-repeated assertion that the government cannot favor religious practice is false” because the principle of “‘governmental neutrality between…religion and non-religion’” has no source in “the words of the Constitution.”  He went on to cite a litany of early “governmental invocation[s] of God” and traditional official practices favorable to religion (which other justices have also cited in upholding, not denying, the separation of church and state). He then accused the justices in the majority of outright “hostility to religion” for ruling in this case against displays of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky court houses. He further claimed that the majority’s errors not only traduced the Constitution but betrayed “the interest of the overwhelming majority of religious believers in being able to give God thanks and supplication as a people, and with respect to our national endeavors.”

Justice Scalia did not stop there. He added a flashy coda to his theme. While the First Amendment does allow government to promote “public acknowledgement of religious belief,” he wrote, as in displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, this government sanction belongs only to devotees of “monotheistic” religions. “It is entirely clear from our Nation’s historical practices,” he explained, “that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.” In Justice Scalia’s “originalist” interpretation of the First Amendment, because monotheists wrote the Constitution and often invoked their God, that document implicitly grants wide latitude for the American government to advocate monotheistic religions but not other modes of religious belief or disbelief.  Secularists who worry about the future separation of church and state in America might see in Scalia’s peculiar and far-reaching rejection of Justice Black’s “neutrality principle” here a piquant justification for their concerns.

Writing for the majority in this case, Justice David Souter politely labeled Scalia’s constitutional claim for monotheism a “surprise.” But in an impassioned concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor affirmed that “we do not count heads before we enforce the First Amendment,“ for “the religion Clauses…protect adherents of all religions, as well as those who believe in no religion at all.” And, she added resoundingly, given the troubles “around the world” stemming from “the assumption of religious authority by government,” anyone who seeks to “renegotiate the boundaries of church and state” in America must “answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

The contentions of the religious right and Justice Scalia on the fallacious separation of church and state have, of course, found support aplenty in the Bush administration. Moved by his own born-again religious impulses as a man who names Jesus Christ his favorite philosopher, President Bush has acted to make government more hospitable to religion in a host of ways. To name a few: he has extolled Justice Scalia’s “originalist” jurisprudence and appointed like-minded justices to the courts; he has launched “faith-based initiatives” by executive order; his Department of Education has issued new guidelines assisting voluntary prayer in schools; he proclaimed Religious Freedom Day in the aftermath of 9/11 as a rallying call and morale boost for American believers; his Department of Justice, heavily manned by evangelical lawyers, has shifted its focus in civil rights from advancing racial equality to combating “religious discrimination” (which means undoing constraints on government aid to religion); and he welcomes a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Such attitudes, ambitions, and actions by those on the political right opposing the separation of church and state have induced many on the political left, like Isaac Krammick and R. Laurence Moore in The Godless Constitution (1997) and members of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (created in 1947 to combat government funding of religion after the paradoxical Everson decision), to discern here a dangerous deviation from what they view as the secular American tradition. Some fear that this deviation could take us down the road to theocracy—a goal unapologetically advocated by fanatical evangelicals. These liberal fears may be no less excessive than much of the right-wing rhetoric. But liberal critics can reasonably argue that the conservative assault on the separation of church and state at least distorts or ignores a lot of history. And they can start at the nation’s origins, where conservatives also like to start, but from a different perspective.

On looking into this history, we should first see that these divergent perspectives, which fuel the controversy over the separation of church and state today, derive from a certain tension between the two religion clauses of the First Amendment. These clauses say: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first, or Establishment Clause, protects religious freedom by preventing the federal government from granting any religion official pre-eminence or the legal authority to intimidate citizens. The second, or Free Exercise Clause, adds the protection that no federal law can prevent people from freely practicing their own religion.  

Here is the tension: what some people consider “the free exercise” of religion other people consider an “establishment of religion” (a tension not lost on the Supreme Court, where it was most recently remarked by Justice Stephen Breyer in Van Orden v. Perry [2005]). The secular left tends to stress the Establishment Clause to curtail the state sanctioned role of religion in public life. The religious right tends to stress the Free Exercise Clause for the opposite reason: to expand the state sanctioned role of religion in public life.

In pursuing their ends, those on the right assert that the First Amendment prohibits only an established state church, not other official endorsements of religion. And, like Justice Scalia in McCreary, they can cite a litany of  historically supportive instances, such as the daily invocation of God by the Supreme Court, morning prayers in Congress, and George Washington’s purported addition of the words “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office (despite this being historically undocumented and not reported until the 1850s). Those on the left acknowledge, and often mention, the same litany but consider its contents more ceremonial than substantive. They contend that the First Amendment prohibits not only an established state church but anything substantively implying or “respecting” it in intent or effect. That is the separation of church and state in spirit. And they can support this contention by drawing on the well-documented historical contexts surrounding and succeeding the framing of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the two religion clauses were added to the Constitution to win the ratification of states demanding more protection from the federal government than they found in the text of the Constitution. These clauses also served an unusual political alliance in the eighteenth century. This was an alliance between secularists and religionists. The secularists, notably James Madison (who contributed more to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than did anyone else) and Thomas Jefferson, saw the political empowerment of any religion as a threat to all democratic liberties as well as detrimental to religion. The religionists, notably Baptists and Presbyterians, saw the political empowerment of religion serving only dominant sects—a condition in Europe from which they had fled, but which still existed in the colonies—and therefore a threat to the free exercise of their own faith and to the welfare of Christianity in general.

Before the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison and Jefferson had carried out a successful struggle to secure religious liberty in their home state of Virginia. Not long after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had proposed a bill to the colonial legislature vigorously advocating the freedom of religion from political authority. Nearly ten years later this bill became law, assuring that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument maintain, their opinion in matters of religion,” and that none “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” This short document, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, expressed Jefferson’s deepest convictions and set a standard for religious liberty and the separation of church and state in Virginia that the First Amendment would echo and that other states would follow.

Meanwhile, Madison had penned an influential brief in 1785 arguing that a bill sponsored by Patrick Henry before the Virginia legislature to provide public funding for “Teachers of the Christian Religion” portended “a dangerous abuse of power.”  In this “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (later frequently quoted, especially by the liberal-minded) Madison identified that danger in many of the law’s probable consequences. But two of these consequences, one political and one religious, stand out for their historical relevance today.

First, Madison wrote, by taxing citizens for the dissemination of Christianity, even if all sects shared in the proceeds, the bill clearly entailed, “the establishment” of the Christian religion. And, he warned, “who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?” The political empowerment of religion in any form, he explained, has always caused troubles for “Civil Society,” and “in no instance have [ecclesiastical establishments] been seen [as] the guardians of the liberties of the people.” Hence, Patrick Henry’s bill “establishing” Christianity violated the “equal title to the free exercise of Religion” that all citizens of a democracy must possess.

Second, Madison argued in detail, the political empowerment or establishment of religion does religion itself more harm than good. It “is a contradiction to the Christian Religion,” he declared, to think it needs government backing to survive. “For it is known that this religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.” Not only that, Madison went on, “the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity” because “it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced amongst its several sects,” unlike the religious oppression and religious rivalries over political power that have spewed “torrents of blood…in the old world.” What is more, Madison emphasized, “ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.” Just look at what happens “more or less in all places,” he said: “pride and indolence in the Clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” By contrast to this sorry fate of established religions, he later proudly wrote in a letter of 1819 referring to Virginia, “the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”

Madison’s forceful advocacy of that separation thwarted Patrick Henry’s bill and helped Jefferson’s Statute on Religious Freedom become law in Virginia. And, as the separationists expected, both democracy and religion benefited.

Jefferson and Madison were not godless men. Few people in their day were. They often invoked God, even while affirming their secular political principles. But Jefferson and Madison understood that American democracy, with its many religious sects, could not thrive unless church and state were distinctly separated to head off religious strife. The framers of the Constitution, with Madison in the lead (Jefferson was then in France), honored this separation in several conspicuous ways: they studiously made no reference to God in the text of the Constitution (although the date of its signing was given in the European Christian convention “year of our Lord”); they insured in Article VI that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office”; and they attached the religious restrictions on government in the First Amendment.

But these secular-minded separationists also had allies among the minority dissenting clergy before the Revolution and after. And some of these clergymen were more adamant about formally separating church and state than were the secularists. They insisted upon constitutional protections against the political empowerment of religion  which Madison had originally judged unnecessary because the Constitution gave government no authority in religious matters, and because he thought the very diversity of sects would prevent any from gaining dominance. One of the most prominent of these separationist clergymen was the New England Baptist Reverend Isaac Backus, an evangelical convert from Congregationalism during the First Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century.

Vexed by discrimination against his own sect and by taxation to sustain the established Congregational Church in Massachusetts, Backus nevertheless refused to  solicit political privileges for his own flock. Instead, he sought a sharp break between church and state as the only prospect for evangelicals to enjoy religious freedom. He delivered a long sermon to this effect in 1773 entitled “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day.” There he ardently argued that “God has appointed two kinds of government in the world,” the “civil” and the “ecclesiastical,” and they “ought never to be confounded together.” For where they “are well distinguished according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but when they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”  He later reiterated some of these opinions at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he also snapped that giving political power to religion “may make hypocrites, but cannot create Christians,” and that “liberty never flourished perfectly” where religions have held such power.

Similar conflicts and convictions led the Danbury Baptist Association to write to Jefferson in 1801 telling him how they “rejoice” over his election as president because “our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty.”  They went on to avow that “religion is at all times a matter between God and individuals,” and that “the legitimate authority of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who does ill to his neighbors,” leaving “religious opinions” alone. Unfortunately, they added, the state of Connecticut still discriminated against Baptists, even as a few other states had established churches until Massachusetts abandoned the last of them in the 1830s. It was this letter that elicited Jefferson’s now-famous words on the First Amendment’s “wall of separation between church and state.”  Jefferson knew this amendment protected religious freedom against only acts of Congress (constitutional protections against acts of the states had to await the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, and it was not until 1940 that the Supreme Court, in Cantwell v. Connecticut began applying these protections explicitly to matters of religion), but he was thumping the principle. Evangelicals today who debunk that “wall of separation” would do well to recall their forebears who had assiduously helped build it and had even inspired Jefferson to frame the potent metaphor.

Backus and the Baptists did have some markedly different goals from the secularists. The secularists aimed to shield religious and other liberties from the political power of any religion or “faction”—the evil that Madison had famously inveighed against in Federalist Paper #10—that would attempt to impose its will on all people. For his part, Backus sought to nurture a nation of Christian believers, and he was convinced that separating church and state would give his faith the freedom to achieve that end, unconstrained by political privileges and undaunted by religious rivalries. But the formative alliance of secularists and religionists like Backus helped produce the constitutional separation of church and state that liberal-minded people today identify with the First Amendment and the American tradition.

Anyone who doubts that this separation took root in the early years of the republic has only to read that most astute observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville. A little more than half a century after Jefferson, Madison, Backus, and others joined in their common cause against perilous entanglements of church and state, Tocqueville arrived from France, officially to study prisons and unofficially to examine American democracy. The book he and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, later published on the prisons goes largely unread today. But the book Tocqueville published on his other topic is the most important ever written about this country: Democracy in America.

An aristocrat by birth, Tocqueville had plenty of doubts about democracy, even though he considered it historically inevitable and had modest hopes for it. Wary of its leveling tendencies, he disdained American democracy’s socially corrosive and conformist “individualism” (a word he gave currency), ridiculed its materialistic “hypocrisy of luxury,” and rued its general vulgarity. And he suspected that its inclination to let social equality eclipse personal liberty could bring the tyranny of a vast paternalistic government to enforce that equality. These kinds of criticisms later made Tocqueville a mentor to many modern conservatives.

But what Tocqueville found most remarkable, surprising, and positive in America was the condition of religion. Among the many penetrating observations, arresting analyses, and prescient predictions of Democracy in America, none are more significant, thought-provoking, and germane to America today than those on this subject. He deserves to be quoted at length because what he says on religion in America is insufficiently known and should be required reading for participants in the current debate on the relation of church and state. What is more, as a thinker respected by conservatives, and one who deemed religion both necessary for human well-being and indispensable to democracy, he also bears a credibility that should give pause to those who judge the separation of church and state in America to be a fallacious, come-lately, liberal idea.

“On my arrival in the United States,” Tocqueville writes, “it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye.”* Americans were extraordinarily religious. And even more extraordinary, they identified their religiosity with democratic liberty. “Among us [the French],” he explains, “I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions. Here I found them united intimately with one another: they reigned together on the same soil.” He set out “to know the cause of this phenomenon.”

“To learn it,” he continues, “I interrogated the faithful of all communions.” And to his heightened astonishment, everyone told him the same thing: “All attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of church and state. I do not fear to affirm that during my stay in America I did not encounter a single man, priest or layman, who did not come to accord on this point.”

Tocqueville could not have been more unequivocal about this. And the more he probed the topic, the more eye-opening and momentous the facts became to him. The clergy in America, he observes, “seemed to distance themselves from power voluntarily and take a sort of professional pride in remaining strangers to it.” And yet, religion was prospering through “an innumerable multitude of sects” that influenced both “mores” and “intelligence.” He began to “wonder how it could happen that in diminishing the apparent force of a religion one came to increase its real power.”

This new curiosity led Tocqueville to reflect on how the relation of religion to politics in America differed from that in Europe, and on the consequences of the differences for both religion and liberty. The conclusions he reached are as emphatic as his observations on the separation of church and state in America are unequivocal.

“I know that there are times,” Tocqueville says, “when religion can add to the influence that is proper to it the artificial power of the laws and the support of the material powers that direct society.” However, “in obtaining a power that is not due to it,” he cautions, “it risks its legitimate power.” That happens because “when a religion seeks to found its empire only on the desire for immortality that torments the hearts of all men equally it can aim at universality,” but “in allying itself with a political power, religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.” Consequently, by “uniting with different political powers, religion can therefore contract only an onerous alliance. It does not need their assistance to live, and in serving them it can die.”

In short, when religion acquires political power, it loses its soul. At the same time, it rouses hatred among those who suffer at the hands of that power. Tocqueville’s older contemporaries had seen this happen dramatically in France as the political power of the Catholic Church had alienated Enlightenment thinkers, stimulated irreligion, and become the target of revolutionaries shouting Voltaire’s battle cry: Écraser l’infâme!—Crush the infamous thing! The effects of allying church and state, as Tocqueville now understood even better than before, were bad for both religion and liberty.

Tocqueville goes on to explain why a wide separation of church and state counts even more in democracies than in traditional societies. “Insofar as a nation takes on a democratic social state,” he writes, “it becomes more and more dangerous for religion to unite with authority” since “the time approaches when power is going to pass from hand to hand.” Therefore, “if the Americans, who change their head of state every four years, who every two years make a choice of new legislators and replace provincial administrators each year…had not placed their religion somewhere outside of that, what could it hold onto in the ebb and flow of human opinions? In the midst of the parties’ struggle, where would the respect be that is due it? What would become of its immortality when everything around it was perishing?”

Tocqueville might have overstated the instability of democratic government. But he was as concerned about the fate of religion as of liberty in democracy. He thought both were necessary to keep each other alive. And he saw them both threatened by entanglements between church and state that could be manipulated by politicians temporarily in power.

He concludes with plaudits for the healthy condition of both religion and liberty in America. ”In America,” he sums up, “religion is perhaps less powerful than it has been in certain times and among certain peoples, but its influence is more lasting. It is reduced to its own strength, which no one can take away from it; it acts in one sphere only, but covers the whole of it and dominates it without effort.” As a result, “religion, which among Americans never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it.”

In the facts he observed and in the conclusions he drew, Tocqueville provides as compelling a testament to the historic separation of church and state in America, for the good of both, as one could find. But then why, we might ask, did conservatives decide that the separation of church and state is an evil modern myth perpetrated largely by fallacious court rulings over the last half century or so? History tells this story, too.

Conservatives might wave away Tocqueville’s unequivocal reports and emphatic conclusions on the separation of church and state in America by arguing that religion nevertheless held a more central place in American life when Tocqueville traveled the country in 1830 than it does now. In many respects they would be right. Some of Tocqueville’s own observations attest to that. The 1830s were a simpler time when God was still routinely invoked in public life, Christianity was pervasive, and secular public schools did not exist (although Sunday mail service, initiated with the U.S. Post Office in 1810, continued in spite of religious objections, thanks to powerful legislators like Kentucky senator, future vice president, and devout Baptist Richard M. Johnson, who was determined to keep church and state separate; Sunday mail service later dwindled as unnecessary and ended officially in 1912). But the next hundred years would bring social and cultural changes that religionists would not like. And activists would try to redress those changes.

These religious activists were responding in part to the progressively secularist bent of state public schools. Before the advent of these schools in the mid-nineteenth century as an educational expression of American democracy, virtually all schooling was sectarian, and the Bible was the standard instructional text. The rise of state public schools funded by taxes thrust the education of the young and the relation of church and state into an unprecedented secular context. And this raised inevitable conflicts over the traditional religious content of schooling. To defuse these conflicts, the states permitted nonsectarian Bible readings and prayers (albeit Protestant, not Catholic, as Noah Feldman explains in his thoughtful book on church-state issues in America, Divided By God) in schools to instill moral guidance. But by the end of the nineteenth century only one state, Massachusetts, required Bible reading or prayer in the schools, and several state courts had banned such practices for violating their state constitutions.

This secular trend, bolstered by Darwinism, was bound to breed discontent among people who regarded the schools as extensions of churches for teaching Christian morality. Manifesting this discontent, a few states began in the twentieth century formally mandating or facilitating public school prayers, Bible readings, religious instruction, the teaching of “creationism” as science, posting the Ten Commandments, and so forth. These actions led to legal challenges under the Establishment Clause and to the court rulings that conservatives revile as secularist extremism. Before this time, the Supreme Court had only occasionally addressed religion cases, and these pertained only to the Free Exercise Clause. Clearly, the official promotion of religion by the states in the twentieth century raised judicial issues focusing on the Establishment Clause as never before.

Justice William Brennan remarked this development in his long concurring majority opinion in Abington v. Schempf . The decision in this case of 1963 banned official Bible reading and recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, inaugurated in 1913 and codified in 1949, from a Pennsylvania school district. “What is noteworthy about the panoply of state and local regulations” installing religious activities in public schools, such as had prompted this and similar cases, he wrote, “is the relative recency of the statutory codification of practices which have ancient roots….”

The most celebrated case pitting secularists against a fresh official intrusion of religion into the schools was, of course, the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925. It followed from an anti-Darwinist Tennessee law enacted the same year, amidst a wave of religious fundamentalism, prohibiting the teaching in all public institutions of “anything that denies the story of Divine Creation as taught in the Bible” and teaches “instead that man has descended from lower animals.” As expected by the secularists who had persuaded Scopes to break the law so they could then challenge its constitutionality, Scopes was convicted. But the case did not achieve their anticipated success on appeal. The conviction got overturned on a technicality by a state court, and the law remained on the books until 1967. This was a year before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Epperson v. Arkansas found a similar law, enacted in 1928, to be unconstitutional.

The Epperson decision foreshadowed future judicial rulings against attempts to slip anti-Darwinist religious teachings into the classroom in the guise of “scientific creationism” and later “intelligent design.” In 2005 the transparency of this strategy provoked a Pennsylvania judge not only to throw out classroom instructions that deceptively presented “intelligent design” (ID) as science. In a lengthy, meticulously detailed, and widely reported decision, he excoriated the “activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board” and their allies for, in the previous year, revising with “breathtaking inanity” the “biology curriculum to advance religion” and then later trying to “disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy” (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board). Here the hubris of religious activists in public schools ran afoul of even a Republican jurist. And he cautioned potential critics against branding him an “activist judge,” because his decision simply responded to the actions of a religious “faction” whose “imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy” obligated him to rule as he did “to preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Besides conflicts of religion with science, the courts have dealt with a stream of cases from the mid-twentieth century onwards occasioned by other recent official insertions of religion into the schools. For instance, the McCullom decision of 1948 removed from Illinois schools religious training begun in 1940; in Engel v. Vitale (1962) the Supreme Court negated a New York state edict issued shortly before requiring the reading in schools of an official prayer designed for this purpose by the state Regents; and in Stone v. Graham (1980) the Court ruled a Kentucky law of 1978 unconstitutional for requiring that the Ten Commandments be “displayed on a wall in each public elementary and secondary school classroom in the Commonwealth.” These are only three of the better known cases.

Outside the schools, the Supreme Court heard twin cases in 2005 involving later twentieth-century displays of the Ten Commandments on government property. In one of these cases, McCreary v. Kentucky, the majority disallowed displays that had gone up in Kentucky courthouses in 1999. But in the other, Van Orden v. Perry, the majority permitted such a display erected on the Texas State House grounds among other historical memorials in the 1960s (Justice Breyer switched his swing vote partly owing to the display’s relative longevity). These decisions, by the way, came not long after Alabama’s inflammatory Chief Justice Roy Moore lost his job for defying a federal court order to remove a two-and-a-half ton monument of the Ten Commandments that he had brazenly installed in his courthouse in 2001. Since then, Moore has anointed himself a martyr to the crusade against the separation of church and state, and has fueled his sympathizers’ righteous rage with a book characteristically entitled So Help Me God: The Ten Commandments, Judicial Tyranny, and the Battle for Religious Freedom.

Resistance to modern-day intrusions of religion into public life also motivated the ultimately fruitless legal battle to expunge the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. These words had made their way into the sixty-two-year-old document only in 1954 to signal America’s godly anti-communism (just as the phrase “In God We Trust,” fashioned during the Civil War to adorn certain coins and added to them all in 1938, became the official national motto in 1956 and first appeared on paper currency in 1957). There was no long-lived American tradition to defend here, only religious rhetoric of late vintage coined to serve very modern political purposes.

The list could go on. No wonder many liberal organizations today, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Freedom from Religion Foundation,, and, are toiling to fend off the mounting pressures from the right to marry church and state. Exemplifying these toils, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State led a successful fight to thwart Congressional funding for Bush’s “faith-based initiatives” to assist religious social programs. Then, after Bush implemented these activities anyway by executive order, the Freedom from Religion Foundation brought a suit against them as a violation of the First Amendment. But in June, 2007, the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority ruled that taxpayers have no legal right, or “standing,” to litigate against such presidential executive acts—Justice Scalia also blasted as “an inkblot on our jurisprudence” the precedent (Flast v. Cohen, 1968) that still allows taxpayers to contest Congressional spending specifically beneficial to religion.

Liberal critics can therefore legitimately argue that much of what the religious right regards as a venerable American tradition of government promoting religion in schools and public life is not venerable at all. It is instead the fruit of labors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by religious activists to officially and legally ensconce religion in public schools and public life in ways not seen before.

To be sure, the advocates of closer bonds between church and state today (apart from the unapologetic theocrats) insist that they aim not to “establish” religion. They seek only to rectify secular excesses and restore what they consider the genuine American tradition by permitting more religion in schools and public life and thus more legitimate “free exercise” of religion.  Such things as prayer in public schools, displays of the Ten Commandments on government property, and laws against abortion and homosexuality do not, they argue, constitute the “establishment” of religion but rather the “free exercise” of it, whether these practices are venerable or new.

This returns us to the tension between the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Reasonable people can disagree over where we should draw the line between the “free exercise” of religion and its “establishment.” When the Supreme Court has occasion to rule on this subject, the justices have their own judicial “tests” for deciding—albeit these tend to be quite unalike for conservatives and liberals, and Justice Scalia characteristically scorns the liberal tests as unprincipled subjectivity. But it is historically wrong to deny that insuring a decisive separation of church and state mattered deeply to the founders, as well as to many of their contemporary religionists, notwithstanding the reverence they all shared for a Divine Being, and that this separation, in principle, went beyond merely prohibiting a single state church. It is equally inaccurate to deny that this separation has run through the American tradition as a guiding principle, even if people have disagreed over what it entails—and even if, notwithstanding conservative complaints about the expanding separation of church and state, government has come to spend more tax money on religious or quasi-religious causes, as Noah Feldman emphasizes, than the founders would likely have allowed. And with America now being at once the most culturally pluralistic and most manifestly religious country in the developed world, how can anyone, as former Justice O’Connor asked, honestly say that this principle has not served religion in America well to this very day?

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Isaac Backus, and Alexis de Tocqueville were surely right. When religion becomes entwined with political power, it might gain some secular authority but it loses much spiritual authority. For it then breeds in its followers political assertiveness, moral arrogance, and Pharisaic observances, while arousing enemies who attack its secular power and even its very existence. We are seeing some of these unhappy effects in America today, just as we are seeing the ill-effects of religion’s political power in many Islamic nations.

That said, we neither respect history nor serve the debate on church and state today to see an “establishment of religion” in every symbol and semblance of religion in public life. We should not over-interpret these things, and we should carefully weigh the costs as well as the benefits of trying to eliminate them. Let us be reasonable and honest on both sides.

In the end, we might well take some of Tocqueville’s observations and ideas as a guide to thinking about the proper relation of church and state. Let us remember above all that Tocqueville saw the clergy choose “to distance themselves from power voluntarily and take a sort of professional pride in remaining strangers to it.” To remain a stranger to power. This could be a wise motto for churches and religious leaders to follow, mindful of Tocqueville’s conclusion that “in America religion is perhaps less powerful than it has been in certain times and among certain peoples, but its influence is more lasting.”

As Tocqueville recognized, confirming principles of America’s founders and many of their contemporaries, the true home of religion is the church, the family, and the human heart, where it thrives through its “free exercise.” Religion does not need, and can be impaired by, political power and prominence in public life. By the same token, the true home of democratic liberties is politics and the public life. And these liberties can indeed be impaired by anyone who would use politics and the public life for religious purposes. In this light, we should use restraint in promoting religion and its symbols in politics and the public arena. Both religion and democracy have more to gain by limiting the public role of religion for the sake of  liberty than by limiting the public role of liberty for the sake of religion.

American democracy has gained much from religious liberty, and religion has gained much from American democracy. We owe this to the separation of church and state as a historic principle. Let us help both democracy and religion continue to flourish by insuring that religion remains a stranger to power.

* I quote from the sections of Democracy in America (translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop) headed “On the Principal Causes that make Religion Powerful in America” and “Indirect Influence that Religious Beliefs Exert on Political Society in the United States.”




It was after midnight when he slouched into the hotel on CopacabanaBeach. The long day of meetings in São Paulo had labored on through dinner. He’d vowed to take the half-hour flight to Rio afterwards, whatever the time, just to escape the deadly corporate strategy sessions on how to build new markets for disposable diapers. Yes. Disposable diapers. He  would be among the pioneers, he had been assured. South America was virgin territory for them, so the research department claimed. Mothers there hardly knew what disposable diapers were. And once they found out, the VP of marketing had crowed, there’d be fortunes to be made. Especially in Brazil. The biggest market. But top management said they had to move fast. Competition would be ferocious. He carried a recent Wall Street Journal article making the case, distributed at the breakfast meeting: “South America’s Emerging Markets Poised for Battle Over Diapers.”

But he didn’t care. Not anymore. Professional ambition, and the zeal for marketing products like disposable diapers, had leaked out of him–he cringed at the image. Even with a fortune to be made. Even if Cuddlies, Snugglies, Cozies, by whatever name–“Ickies,” he called them–were the key to South America’s economic future, the engine of development, the makings of utopia, a panacea for freedom and the good life, and all the rest of the humbug that the company philosophers high-mindedly puffed. He shuddered to think of the nonsense he’d heard colleagues say: “When Cuddlies are in every house and shack and shanty in Brazil you’ll see a new country. A nation of energetic, productive people who feel more alive from day one of their lives! And they’ll never go back. We’ll have customers forever. We can diversify with a whole line of products. Cuddlies for infants in various weights and absorbancies. Then Cuddly underwear. Cuddly pacifiers. Cuddly pajamas. Maybe a movie tie-in. Remember Pocohontas underpants? Why not Cuddlies in Disney movies?  Why not….?”

He decided a day in Rio de Janeiro would take him away from all that. Maybe give him a new start. Before going home to the empty apartment in Manhattan where Sylvia used to be waiting. Until six months ago when she announced she was leaving him for her workout trainer at the gym who could do wonderful, profoundly moving things for her. What could those things be, he wondered?  He guessed he would never know. She was gone. And he would go home to diaper theory.

So Rio would be an escape. It wasn’t like him to do that. But  he did it anyway. And he felt good about it.

Once in the hotel room, he emptied his pockets on a table, threw off his suit jacket and stepped out onto the terrace. Seeing the arc of CopacabanaBeach seven stories below lit by the street lamps of Avenida Atlantica swooping in a great crescent from his hotel at one end around to the other where Sugar Loaf mountain rose boldly under lights, he mentally patted himself on the back for coming. He absorbed the exhilarating sight his own self-satisfaction for a few minutes, then splashed water on his face, changed into casual clothes, locked his valuables in the closet safe to protect them from the urchins he had been warned descend from shanties in the hills to pilfer from tourists, and headed down for a drink at a sidewalk café along the broad sea-side avenue.

The Avenida Atlantica was alive in the warm December air with visitors sampling the scene and locals, cariocas, whose night had hardly begun, eating and drinking and merry-making. He took an empty table in a nearby café spread along a stretch of the avenue. Bent on plumbing the adventure, he ordered a caipirinha, which the waiter, with arching eyebrows and flailing arms, described as a Brazilian concoction of sugar cane liquor called cachaçha, sugar, and lime juice that  lifts the spirits like Carneval. That sounded just right. When it came, he sipped it timorously, then thirstily. Limeade, he said to himself, and quickly ordered another, settling in to watch the parade of ambling passers-by.  Then she sat down.

“’Allo,” a husky female voice said. Startled, he jerked his head around. There across the table a woman smiled at him. It was an easy smile, and it revealed a broken tooth she made no attempt to hide. Quite pretty, though, he thought. Large eyes. Strong features. Long dark hair. Rather young, but he could not tell for sure. The light was dim, and he suspected she wore a lot of make-up. Then studying her face a little he detected enough lines around her mouth to show that youth had passed a while ago.

“Hello,” he replied, uncertain if he should speak or ignore her. Who was she? A tourist?  Not likely. A friendly carioca? Possibly a prostitute? Probably. He’d been warned about them, too. They’re legal in Rio, he remembered some guidebook had said, but that doesn’t make ‘em honest.  He wasn’t searching for that kind of escape anyway.  Too dangerous.

“I am Ciéla,” she said warmly.

“Nice name,” he answered without thinking, hearing the melodic syllables, See-ayy-la.

“I like. From my madre. She Spanish. She love to look at the sky. Sun. Stars. The heaven. So she call me Ciéla. For the sky. The heaven.” She gestured heavenward and widened her smile.

Kind of sweet, he said to himself.

“You American?” she asked.


“First time in Rio?”

“Yes. I just got here.”

“You like?”

“I guess so. It’s pretty.”

“Ees beee-yooo-teee-foool.  Sometime rain. But every time beee-yooo-teee-foool. I luvv.” She flashed her broken-tooth smile again.

He returned a quick grin, and shifted his eyes to the street.

Her voice came back. “You beezness een Rio?”

He paused. “Not really,” he said distractedly.

“How long you stay?”

“I leave tomorrow.”

“Ah, soon.”

Then for reasons he could not have explained, a perverse curiosity came over him. And he asked nervously, “You, uh, work here?”

“Yayss,” she answered pleasantly. At “Hotel.”

“Which one?”

Casually, she motioned up and down the avenue. “All.”

He gazed at her. No pretense. She was a prostitute. That was what she had meant wasn’t it? But she was softer than he had imagined someone like her would be here. Yes, even sweet.  His curiosity grew. Feigning nonchalance, he asked, “Do you like it? Your work?”  Stupid question! he scolded himself silently.

“Yays. I like,” she said without hesitation.

No stopping now. “Why?” he blurted out.

“Ohhh, I like because ayvree day somtheen new. Deefrent. Adventur!” She said it with a laugh.

He didn’t know whether to believe her or not. New? Adventure?  Nonsense! She can’t  really think that. The happy, good-natured hooker? A cliché. An act. Phony.

Then she leaned toward him and spoke in a solemn tone. “My seester, Maria, she marry. No good for her. Alwayz unhappy. My life better.”

“But,” he said impulsively, “aren’t some of the men you meet,…aren’t they, well, bad to you?”

“No. No,” came the swift reply. “O, maybee one time or two. Not like Maria.  Husband heet her many time.  I go only with men I like. And they like me. I make them happy. Every time. Every day!” She grinned broadly, and sat back, running a hand through her long black hair. The glare of a street light fell over her face, revealing more age than he had seen at first. He couldn’t stop focussing on that broken tooth. She lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the faintly stirring night air. Then she leaned across the table again and whispered heartily, “and I luvvv sexx.”  Her natural laugh burst out once more. She tossed her head back. Then she puckered her lips tightly around the cigarette.

Speechless, he gulped down the rest of his second ciapirinha and waved to the waiter for another. He wanted to leave, but he couldn’t. So what if she was just playing a role to lure a customer? She was good. Good at seeming both innocent and adventurous?  Her word!  And likeable at that.

He blinked when he heard her say, “Your beezness, you like?”

He didn’t answer. Why talk about that. He mumbled, “Oh, I don’t know.”

“Your beezness make peepul happy?”

He squinted at her. He’d never thought of it that way. There was the marketing hype, of course, all that stuff about changing peoples lives with disposable diapers.  “Sure,” he sighed , “that’s what we say.”

“What you do, your beezness?”

He squirmed in his chair. No way was he going into that. He got his drink and downed a long swallow. “Uh, children,” he said groping. ‘I, uh, work with children. Clothes to, uh, keep them dry and, uh, warm.”  Clever, he thought, a marketer’s ingenuity. He held the glass to his mouth to conceal his silly satisfaction.

“Ahh.. Goood. Makes them happy. I have son,” she said proudly “Seex year old. Hee ees beee-yooo-teee-foool.”  Reaching into her purse, she withdrew a photograph and held it out to him. “Carlos,” she beamed. Taking it carefully, he examined the picture. The boy stood on a beach in orange swimming trunks holding a volley ball against his hip.  She was right. He was beautiful. Lean and slender. Olive skin, dark curly hair, big round melting eyes, and a wide bright smile.

“Yes, he is very handsome,” he said returning the photograph.

“He verryy happy. And verrryyy smart.” She tapped her temple. “He go to school every morning. Father ees American,” she added emphatically to make a point.

Taking the bait, he asked, “The father…is a…?”

“Yays.  From Boston.”

“Does he know…?”

“Yays. He know. He come. But not now. Not any more.” She turned away, and he saw a hint of sadness flicker over her face in the street lights. They sat without speaking, watching lovers strolling past and the palms lining Avenida Atlantica wafting quietly, and the full moon hovering over the bay beaming a rippling white line across the black water into the shore.  Minutes passed. Then her husky female voice said softly.

“You go weeth me now?”

He stared at her without answering. She wore her alluring expression, mingling innocence and adventurousness with that peculiar, warm, broken-tooth smile. Almost involuntarily a voice from inside him said, “OK.”

He signaled the waiter and paid the check nervously. They got up and made their way  through the tables to the sidewalk and on to his hotel. He didn’t know quite what he was doing, and hoped no one would suspect, even though he knew it didn’t matter. But when they shut the door of his room behind them, and lay on the bed, everything changed. For him.

Ciéla was loving. Uninhibited. Joyous. She bathed him in her knowing excitements. He felt a passion he had never known. And an unexpected desire. It started with delicious sensations, and deepened to where it lit a flame inside that spread heat throughout his body. And with that heat he found himself feeling a tenderness for her he had never imagined, wanting nothing so much as to give pleasure to her. He didn’t know where it came from, this desire. It was simply a desire to please, to make her happy. And he went with it, bestowing on her every affection and delight he could discover to give. Some things he didn’t know he could do. He’d never done them before. He’d never thought of doing them. “Strange,” he thought, as he caressed and gently massaged her shoulders and neck, “why should I care?” Why did he want to make her happy?  Why did he feel this warm ecstasy flow through him as he attended to her every loving sensation?  And why her, this whore working the hotels of Copacabana, who claimed to like the “adventure” of her prostitute’s life and to “luvvv sexx,” and who hid her sadness behind a winning smile?  But he soon stopped asking, and gave himself to it. To the feeling. To the night. To Ciéla.

The first gray light of dawn was creeping into the sky when he opened his eyes and peered over the bed and out through the open balcony doors. He yawned, rubbed his face, and stretched, feeling pangs of stiffness in his muscles and joints that soon reminded him  where he was. Ciéla lay next to him already awake. She rolled on her side and raised up on an elbow. “’Allo,”  she said, with a smile he thought too full for the hour. He saw the broken tooth. It had become an emblem of her good nature.

“Hello, “ he whispered, and touched her cheek lightly with the tips of his fingers. For a few minutes, they voicelessly traced the features of each other’s faces, just becoming visible in the dawning light.

She broke the silence almost inaudibly.  “You nice. You make me verryy happyy.”

“I’m glad. You are nice, too.”

“Your wife, veerryy lucky.”

“I don’t have a wife.”

She paused. “Then your girlfriend, veerry lucky.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

She lifted her fingers to her mouth and played with her lips as if coyly about to reveal a secret. “Then I lucky,” she whispered and smiled, bending down to kiss him lightly. He gathered her in his arms and held her close.

She breathed into his ear words he could just barely make out. “Don’t go. Pleez, don’t go.”

Taken aback, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“Don’t go home today.”

He swallowed hard. “I…I have to.”

They lay for a few moments in a quiet embrace. Then she pulled back and sat up slowly. He saw that her cheeks were moist with tears. She wiped them with the palm of her hand.

“How strange,” he said to himself again. “It is all so very strange.”

“Go tomorrow,” she sniffled.

“I can’t. I’m sorry. I have to go today.” He felt odd having this kind of a conversation with a prostitute in Rio   de Janeiro. Then he added, partly to be polite, “But I’ll be back.”

“When?” she asked with a calm insistence that surprised him.

“Soon. Very soon,” he answered awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say, or feel.

Ciéla sank silently back against the pillow. Through a window daylight could be seen creeping above the horizon, whitening the wisps of clouds drifting ocross the morning sky. Then she said she had to leave to get Carlos ready for school at home where her mother watched over him at night. She pressed a kiss on his forehead, and slipped out of the bed.  Soon she had washed in the bathroom, pulled on her clothes, combed her hair, dabbed on some makeup, and walked to the door. He threw on a robe, collected a wad of Reals from his wallet, and held them out to her. She paused. Shyly she let him close them into her hand.

“Pleez come back,” she said softly.

“I will. I promise. Soon. Maybe next month.”  Then an idea hit him. “Give me your address and your phone number. I’ll write to you. I’ll let you know when I’m coming. I promise.” He snatched the newspaper article from the table where he had dropped it earlier, tore off a corner, and gave it to her. She found a pen in her bag and, holding the paper to the wall, scrawled on it and handed it back. He stuffed it into the pocket of his robe.

“You are very nice, Ciéla,” he said earnestly. “I like you very much. And I will come soon.”

She gave him a half smile and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she drew back and opened the door. “Obrigada,” she whispered. ”Thank you.”

Obrigado,” he echoed, summoning his only Portugese. “I will see you soon, Ciéla.”

She offered a half-smile again with an ambiguous nod, turned around, and vanished down the corridor. He closed the door slowly and leaned his back against it. “How very strange,” he repeated aloud, shaking his head. Then he noticed the room feeling warm and humid and wanted some fresh air. Seeing the closed curtains at the balcony shifting languorously in the sea breeze, he walked over, drew them aside and stepped out. The sun, still hidden below the horizon, was now throwing a yellow glow into the summer haze. Sugar Loaf  and the islands off shore in the distance were taking form in the eastern light. The sweeping arc of Copacabana still sparkled with street lamps just before the day fell upon them, until in a stroke, they went off. He could make out a couple of runners jogging along the broad black-and-white swirling patterned sidewalk of Avenida Atlantica abutting the beach. And a group of adolescents was setting up a volley ball net on the sand to get in their play before the heat and crowds arrived.

Then he saw her. At least he thought it was her. Walking away on the swirling pattern of the beach sidewalk. The first rays of the sun peeking over the horizon shot across the water and caught her in their beam. It was Ciéla. A wave of elation rushed through him, followed by an undertow of regret. What was going on? The sunrise. The beach. The ocean. Rio. Memories of that joyful night. The sight of Ciéla. Yes! Yes! Ciéla!  “The hell with it!” he muttered. “I’ll stay!”

Impulsively, he shouted, “Ciéla, wait! Ciéla!”

She walked on. His heart sank. Then he remembered. Shoving a hand into his pocked, he pulled out the crumpled piece of newspaper. Leaning forward against the balcony railing, he ironed out the wrinkles with his finger tips, and studied the writing. “Ciéla Gesualdo. 743….”

A gust of wind suddenly whipped over the balcony. And like a mischievous child, it plucked the paper from his hands, blew it up and around in looping circles and out into the soft morning air. “Damn!!” he cursed, and reached out for it, leaning farther and farther over the railing with his arm flailing and fingers grasping for the taunting scrap, which bounced tauntingly on the playful breeze beyond his straining fingers. Desperate, he lunged for the fugitive as it skipped mockingly away. For a moment he felt like he was flying toward it, riding a kindly swell of that jaunty breeze, as he fell, crying her name, Seeee-aayyyy-llll-aaaaaaaa…..

Ciéla didn’t hear. She had climbed into the bus for her early morning ride home to Carlos. Sitting at a window, she was telling herself that this nice man who had made her so happy would, after all, be just like the others. He wouldn’t come back. Not to her. He didn’t even tell her his name. The bus moved off. Ciéla looked out at the palm trees flitting past, the wide velvety beach tapering into the surf, the ceaseless waves rolling rhythmically to crash in sparkling spray on the sand, the rising sun silhouetting Sugar Loaf and the rocky islands and glistening over the water of the perfect bay, kissing Rio awake. She smiled to think this was hers. Every day. And every day, something new.


Hemingway’s Ghost

James Sloan Allen


    “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

The book flapped shut, and Burton Sharp let it drop over on his stomach as he lay in bed beside his sleeping wife, Sylvia. His head sank back into the pillow. He switched off
the bedside lamp. His eyes blankly fixed on the lazy rotations of the ceiling
fan in the dim moonlight filtering with the night air through gauzy curtains at
the window. What a soft sentiment, he said to himself. Nostalgia? Regret? This
from Ernest Hemingway, the tough-guy writer who loved to kill as much as he
loved to live?  Whose life as a big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman, bullying boxer and bullfighting aficionado, two-fisted drinker and intrepid war correspondent was as famous as his books?  To live such a life!  Free. Adventurous. Literary. How many young men have yearned for it?  Or used to. Me too, Burton admitted. Me, too.

Then it hit him. Maybe Hemingway didn’t get what he wanted, after all. Why the nostalgia, even regrets, at the end, in that last line of that last book, A Moveable Feast? A memoir, no less. But not about the legendary life and the stellar literary career. Instead it’s about the beginning, before all of that. Why did Hemingway look back over the years of adventure and fame and seem almost sorry, as if he had lost something? What was it? Paris? Youth? The Twenties? But that’s probably how most lives work out, Burton ruminated, sleepily following the hypnotic circles of the fan. A trail of incidents, people, places, events that we leave behind, a trail that leads us to where we are, but that we can’t see clearly until we look back, for then some incidents that had hardly caught our eye have become landmarks, and others that once jolted us have left barely a trace. Neurosis comes from this, of course, Burton reminded himself, when we secretly cling to some moments so tightly that we cannot move on. But it’s not neurotic
to remember. Or to regret.

Burton Sharp could feel himself swimming in a stream now, as he tended to do late at night, hoping it would carry him, like free association in psychoanalysis, to undiscovered
places and unexpected truths. The next words came to him as an echo: “The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment, and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”  The end of Swann’s Way. Proust meets Hemingway. Burton smiled inwardly at the pairing. The wan, loquacious novelist of the French belle epoche’s lustrous social world, who wrote in bed all day
breathing the thick unchanging air of his cushioned room, here together with
the hardy he-man writer who whittled literary language to the bone and wrote of
cold heroics and emotional desolation and lonely death, and who boasted that
he’d choose action over fiction any day. Yet, here they were partners in images
of memory and regret, in a Paris of long ago.

Pleased with himself, Burton Sharp closed his drooping eyelids and allowed the stream
to ebb away into the rhythmic lapping of shallow waves on the beach below the
open window. He liked tropical nights. Key West was a good place to enjoy them. Simple to get to. No customs to go through. And a hospitably historical town. He had come here years earlier researching his first Hemingway book. But that seemed a life-time away. Before he knew Sylvia.

Burton and Sylvia had been married for nearly twenty-five years now. Before they met, Burton had written some short stories, and published a couple of them that nobody read in obscure literary quarterlies. And he had finished a novel that no one would publish.
That’s when he had settled on becoming a professor of literature. He had
resented the clichéd come-down, and chafed at the prosaic demands of academia.
But he had submitted to those demands, teaching pedestrian students and
grinding out scholarly articles on American literature and a critical book on
Hemingway. And he had married Sylvia, a younger colleague at their small New
England college. Now he was writing a new Hemingway biography, to put in the
pulse of life that others had left out. Or so Burton told everyone. Sylvia
kidded him that he was just sublimating his desire to be Hemingway. But that’s OK, she would say, because sublimation is safe adventure; it can feel as good as the real thing without the dirt and discomfort.

Burton and Sylvia had arrived in Key West that afternoon for the spring semester break and a reprieve from the northern chill. Burton was also tracking down some fugitive
details for the book. And he was trying to decide what to do about Paula.

Paula, a graduate student with irrepressible allure, who had fluttered on the
periphery of his consciousness through a class he had taught on The Lost
Generation,  until one day she had flown right into the center. She had come to his office for advice on research topics about Hemingway. Heaving with adulation, she had asked “Professor Sharp” if she could work with him on her Master’s thesis because “you know all the interesting things about literature” and “are so-o-o exciting to talk to.” Then
she came again. And again. And again. She wanted more than advice. Burton knew
that. Why else would she keep coming so often and keep asking these unnecessary
questions, and dress like that, and heave, and adulate, and linger? Burton was yielding. He knew that, too.

Burton loved Sylvia, or he had loved her long enough that he didn’t think about it anymore. But deep in middle age and feeling that he was losing a little more of himself
each day, he could not resist the attraction of…what?  Was it Paula’s seductiveness that made his blood rush and his head fizz and his knees go rubbery? Or was it Paula’s
adulation of him? Burton was honest enough to make the distinction. But he
could not honestly make it here.

He was glad to get away. He wanted to sort out his feelings and weigh what kind of life was left to him, and to Sylvia. Sylvia, good Sylvia. She never pretended to be what she
wasn’t, or to know what she didn’t know. But she always seemed to know the
important things. Sylvia had discrimination, and modesty, and integrity, and
what Burton publicly praised as her Buddhist virtue of detachment. Rare
qualities in academia, he would say. Her colleagues agreed. Good Sylvia. Paula
was different. She lacked discrimination. She winked at modesty. She blinked at
integrity. She could never be detached. She heaved and adulated. And this got
her into Burton’s mind. He couldn’t get her out. He wanted her. He admitted
that. But he wanted to absolve himself first. Somehow, he hoped, Key West would

Voices of late-night passers-by talking and laughing in the street pulled Burton back
from the edge of sleep. He heard the roar of a motorcycle gunning its engine a
few blocks away. Probably heading for Sloppy Joe’s, he guessed.  He pictured the cavernous bar on Duval Street, famous for the drinking bouts and boxing matches Hemingway had held there to prove his prowess against the kind of ruffians who had given Key West its original character as a scarfaced-seaman’s-hangout, and whose tradition lives on in burly bikers wearing leather skull-and-crossbones jackets who gather in packs there to drink today. Burton took himself back through time to the story
of how Sloppy Joe’s original owner, Hemingway’s boozing and fishing pal Joe
Russell, had moved his establishment one night to Duval Street from its cramped
location up Green Street not long after Hemingway had met the young Martha
Gellhorn at the bar on a summer afternoon in 1936, and four years later made
her his third wife and left for Cuba, and that was twelve years after he had
first arrived in Key West flushed with youthful renown as the author of tough
short stories and The Sun Also Rises and newly married to his second wife, Pauline, who had taken him from his first wife, Hadley. One new wife and new life after another. A trail through wives and exploits and books and honors. And then…regrets?

Enough! Burton pushed the meandering skein from his mind, rolled over and burrowed his head under a pillow. He willed himself to sleep. But his sleep was not easy. It
swarmed with restive dreams.

Burton saw himself in Paris, before he had ever been there. In the working-class neighborhood up behind the Pantheon, he was entering the diminutive Place de la Contrascarpe, bordered by dusty shops, weather-beaten apartment houses, and a couple of nondescript cafes, where a quaint fountain in the center splashed under a ring
of shady trees. He recognized the spot. It was only steps from the bathroomless
third-floor flat on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine where Hemingway and Hadley and
their infant son nicknamed Bumby had lived at the beginning, when they were very poor and very happy. Here, Hemingway had said, he would walk home through the leaves that blew off the trees in the wind, and  the rain would pelt the apartment windows when the bad weather came after autumn.

Then Burton saw him. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the square. Young, husky, dark-haired, clean-shaven except for a black mustache, a coffee cup and a glass of wine at
his elbow, bent over a notebook, rapidly scrawling. Hemingway, and a story “writing itself,” as he said stories sometimes did. That is the life, the dreaming Burton said aloud to no one. Writing literature in Parisian cafes. Talented and free, creating a myth, and
living it. Burton wanted to speak to him, to ask about his life, about Paris,
about writing, about anything. He walked across the square and under the trees
and around the fountain. But when he reached the outer tables of the cafe,
Hemingway had disappeared. No cup, no glass, no notebook. The dreamer could
only stand there watching leaves scatter through the empty chairs.

Then the scene dissolved, and Burton found himself in another, larger Paris square. The bustling Place St. Michel on the Seine. There, through the windows of another
cafe he saw Hemingway again, hunched over his notebook at a table, with a
coffee cup and a half-filled glass at the ready. Writing about Michigan, the
dreamer suspected, because Hemingway had said he did that one rainy autumn day
while drinking a Rum St. James in “a good cafe on the Place St. Michel” when Michigan was far away. The dreamer opened the cafe door and went inside. He turned toward the table at the window. It was vacant. No cup. No glass. No notebook. Nobody.

The dream went on, hazy and vivid, tantalizing and real. To the Cloiserie des Lilas
at the other end of the Boulevard St. Michel, where it intersects with the
Boulevard Montparnasse, and where Hemingway often went to write, he confessed,
like “a blind pig” or with “the air of a man alone in the jungle” after he and Hadley and Bumby moved to the adjacent Rue du Notre Dame du Champs in 1923, where they were still very poor and very happy. And there he was. Writing fervently at a table outside under the sheltering trees. And then he wasn’t.

Again and again the dreamer found Hemingway at the cafes where he wrote and ate and drank and socialized along the Boulevard Montparnasse–the Dome, the Select, the Negre de Toulouse, and the unnamed–and then close by at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Hemingway visited Gertrude Stein in her long-time home when he was shaping the literary style that became his own, and that Gertrude Stein claimed credit for teaching
him, and to whom, like other writers–except Ezra Pound–he was not as gracious
in his memoir as he might have been. Hemingway was everywhere. Then he wasn’t.

The dream gathered speed as the dreamer tracked Hemingway from Paris to Spain for
the running of the bulls in Pamplona and for the Spanish Civil War, then to the
Serengeti Plain in Africa for safaris, and on to the commodious residence
outside Havana where Hemingway lived for twenty years after Key West, and back
to wartime Europe for real-life heroics, then to Sun Valley and the house in
neighboring Ketchum that he shared with his fourth wife, Mary, where in the
fall of 1960 he put the final touches on A Moveable Feast, and early one morning the next July put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger three weeks before his sixty-second birthday.

The gunshot blast woke Burton with a start. He sat up and pushed a trembling hand
through his thinning hair. Where did all that come from? But it was no mystery.
He had been trailing Hemingway for years. It was his profession. And his hobby.
Sylvia said it bordered on obsession. And being here in Key West and reading
the memoir, and puzzling over its elegiac tone, how could he not dream some
such dream?

Burton slumped back on the pillow. The questions intruded again. Not that Hemingway’s suicide troubled him. That was an honest act, Burton had always said, because Hemingway was in decline and ill. But what about Paris? What about the nostalgia in the last book finished before the suicide? Was the tone just a topos, a literary mood struck for effect?  That wouldn’t be like Hemingway, Burton insisted.
Hemingway despised mere effects. “Write one true sentence.”  That was
Hemingway’s creed. He’d repeated it in that last book. But what about the hints
of sentimentality? Could true sentences be sentimental? True sentimentality? Not possible. Sentimentality is a false emotion. So, what was Hemingway’s true
emotion in those last lines of regret that sounded almost sentimental?, Burton
asked himself. And what about the bitterness before the regrets? Bitterness
over “the rich,” as Hemingway scornfully labeled them. Once “you have the rich,” he had snarled, “nothing is ever as it was again.”  That was rich Pauline, the second wife, the wife of the Key West years, and her crowd, who came with success. Bitterness and regret? And nostalgia? Had Hemingway let his life slip away from him? What had he lost? What had he wanted?

Stop! Burton scolded himself once more. This is just a preoccupation of the night. Let it
go. Besides, perhaps tomorrow there’ll be clues at Hemingway’s house. Burton
pitched onto his side. One hand fell against Sylvia’s, resting on her pillow.
She didn’t flinch. Sleeps like she’s hibernating, he said mentally. Nothing
disturbs her. Lucky Sylvia. Good Sylvia. He drew his hand away and rolled over.
Closing his eyes tight, he concentrated on the seductive tropical sounds of the
sifting palms and the lapping surf outside, and eventually he floated off on
imagined waves of an endless sea to beckoning images of Paula.

The next morning Burton groggily bemoaned the restless night as he and Sylvia had
breakfast on the back porch of their Bed & Breakfast overlooking the ocean
on the Atlantic side of the island away from the hubbub at the western end of
town. It was known as the Dewey House, named for the philosopher John Dewey who
had vacationed in it during his later years. Burton and Sylvia liked the
intellectual pedigree. And Burton had invented a scene of Dewey and Hemingway
meeting at Sloppy Joe’s in the 1930s– Hemingway, the young buck flexing his
muscles and his fresh reputation as the rough, plain-spoken all-American
writer, and Dewey, the grand old man of American philosophy, admired world-wide
for his down-home pragmatism and high-minded democratic principles, both
toasting to plain honesty and earthiness, the American style, in philosophy, in
literature, in life. Now, Burton remarked, the Dewey House is just a modest B
& B. And Hemingway’s house is a major tourist attraction, a shrine.
Literature has eclipsed philosophy.

Burton and Sylvia bantered through breakfast, enjoying the ocean glistening in the morning sunlight under a pale blue cloudless sky, and sailboats bobbing against the
azure backdrop as if in an Impressionist painting. Then they set out for the

The walk from South Street along Whitehead Street took them past nondescript bungalows and a few pretty, two-story “conch” houses, some a hundred years old, enduring emblems of historic Key West charm, quaintly mingling Victorian fussiness and French-New Orleans grace, their wrap-around porches and balconies lined by
filigreed railings evoking languorous evenings of tall cool drinks and breezy
relief from tropical heat. When they reached the Hemingway house at the corner
of Whitehead and Olivia–across from the towering lighthouse oddly out of place
here, practically in the middle of town–tourists were lined up at the entrance
in the six-foot high brick wall encircling the property. Burton grumbled while
they waited, paid the fee, and went through.

A jungle of trees and plants almost hid the grandiose conch house, twice the size of any other in town and built of stone, not wood. It could have presided over a lavish
plantation in the South Seas. Its yellow walls and green porch and balcony
running around the two floors blended into the jungle and the verdant,
penumbral grounds. Walking down a winding footpath, Burton pointed out the
smaller mansard-roofed  cottage behind the main house where Hemingway would go to write in the upstairs studio. And, there were cats. Inconspicuous at first, they soon seemed to materialize everywhere. Dozens of them, lazing on the porch, munching from bowls of food, crawling through the bushes, curled up under trees.

“Six-toed, many of them,” Burton explained. “Scruffy mongrels descended from Hemingway’s own. Cats evidently could do no wrong for Hemingway. They were probably the only animals he wouldn’t kill. He shot dogs to protect ‘em.
Key West is a haven for cats now. They’re everyplace.”

“Why the attachment?” Sylvia asked.

“Probably because they’re always a bit feral, untrainable. Hemingway liked that in animals.”

Burton and Sylvia loitered among the cats in the yard and sat in a couple of garden chairs studying the handsome house and watching tourists milling about. They could
overhear tour guides retelling how Hemingway and Pauline had bought the house
in 1931 with a gift of $8000 from her rich, generous uncle, and how Hemingway
had written great literature in it, and how he had left permanently in 1940 for
Cuba with Martha Gellhorn, and how the house had been sold in the 1950s with
the furnishings still in it after Pauline died. Burton had seen and heard it
all before. On his earlier quest for Hemingwayana. But this time was different.
He didn’t like it.

“It’s wrong,” he muttered to Sylvia. “A theme park. A circus. Tourists traipsing all over, gawking and craving cheap anecdotes to tell back home. False. Phony. Un-Hemingway.”

“Don’t be so supercilious, Bertie,” Sylvia chided him. “You’re a tourist, too, you know.”

“Oh, that hurts. Isn’t this research?”

“Well, if you want it to be, you’ll have to do more than complain. Let’s go inside.”

“With all of them?”

“You can do it. Hemingway would expect courage.”

Taking her muttering husband’s hand, Sylvia led Burton into the throng pouring through the house. Inside, tour guides were purveying their pat histories in every room.
Burton suddenly tugged Sylvia aside through a brief opening in the mass, and
urged her up a stairway. At the top, skirting another clutch of visitors, they
ducked into an unpeopled room. It was spacious and spare, with a large, ornate iron
bed  cordoned off against one wall. On the bed, a plump orange tabby cat sprawled, blissfully asleep, oblivious to any intrusion.

“Hemingway’s bedroom,” Burton tersely observed.

“He might not like the circus atmosphere,” Sylvia said, “but he would like the integrity of the cat, wouldn’t he? Or is it a prop?”

“The ‘integrity of the cat’?” Burton replied approvingly. “Nice. Yes, it’s the truest thing here.” He reached over the cordon and grazed the cat’s fur with his finger tips. The
creature languidly stretched out its legs, splayed its paws, and contentedly
slept on. “No prop,” he assured her.

Voices swelled near the doorway, and the room began filing with murmuring visitors in loud clothes. “And this was Ernest and Pauline’s bedroom,” the guide announced to
his ogling flock.

Burton and Sylvia withdrew through a door at the opposite end of the room and hastened down a corridor to an outside door that opened onto the front balcony. From there, through the lush foliage, they could see a river of people gushing through the
front gate from tour buses on the street.

“Yuck!“ Burton grouched. “But can you imagine what it must have been like here in the
Thirties? The tropical grandeur of it. The peacefulness. No tourists.”

“No air-conditioning,” Sylvia added.

“But that’s the point,” he said. “It would have been so natural, authentic, quiet, steamy,
languorous.” Then he heard an inner voice say, “What would Paula be like on a
steamy, languorous night?” A thrilling sensation coursed through him. Impulsively, he turned away from Sylvia, ignoring her comic retort about air-conditioning being part of nature’s plan. Then he recovered himself and, wheeling around said with mock ominousness, “If we don’t go now we might never get out. We’ll get caught in the crush and left as bony remains, like the great fish in The Old Man and the Sea after
the sharks got him.”

Sylvia groaned at the ungainly allusion. “Bertie, your literary humor can be about as deadly as a shark. Just not as cutting.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that when I need it.”

They elbowed their way back to the stairs and down through an ascending tide of bodies. Outside again, they wedged through the incoming visitors and squeezed out the gate. Taking a deep breath and brushing off the invisible noxious detritus of the
aliens, they charted a course for a quiet place on the shore where they could sit and have a drink and take in the beneficent serenity of the ocean. Strolling up Duval Street, they passed an unbroken row of cafes, boutiques, T-shirt stores, souvenir shops, and the other usual fare of resort towns. But one thing wasn’t usual. It was oddly conspicuous. That was Hemingway. His face was everywhere. Not the younger man of his Key West days, but the familiar Papa Hemingway, aging, handsomely bearded, his white-hair combed onto his forehead. It was a logo. In advertising. On building signs. T-shirts. Jackets. Curios. Glass ware. Dinner plates.

“Hemingway is as big here as Shakespeare is in Stratford-upon-Avon,” Sylvia exclaimed.

“Bigger,” Burton responded. “He’s got American consumerism going for him. And it’s gotten a lot worse since I was here before.”

Approaching Sloppy Joe’s, they saw a string of shiny motorcycles lining the curb outside. A cacophony of voices backed by the pulsing beat of the juke-box reverberated
from inside through the open window walls out into the street. In the capacious, rustic interior, they could see scarred wooden tables and banged up chairs jammed with midday revelers. Leather jackets and flowered shirts, rough guys and tough broads, boisterous college kids and novelty-seeking tourists, all drinking and inhaling the musty atmosphere, watched over by a gigantic smiling face of Papa Hemingway extending across a wall behind the bandstand.

“Hemingway votaries in the temple,” Sylvia cracked. “Do you suppose they all read him?”

“Do they read at all?”

“You’re such a snob.”

Jabbing each other genially, Burton and Sylvia left the votaries at Sloppy Joe’s  and went up Green Street where they paused beneath a sign at Captain Tony’s depicting a rugged seaman boasting this was “the original Sloppy Joe’s.” From the sidewalk, they peered into a smaller, darker, nearly deserted bar, every surface seemingly cluttered with tacked-on mementos of patrons past, and proudly exuding the grimy patina of reverential age.

“They’re probably preserving Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s fingerprints on the bar,” Burton said sarcastically.

“But such respect for history,” Sylvia remarked.

They moved on to Front Street accompanied by the thunder of more motorcycles gunning their way to Sloppy Joe’s, or just calling attention to themselves, and by tourists
disgorging from the waterside hotels. As they reached the end of the street near the shoreline restaurants, Sylvia took hold of Burton’s arm and slowed to a stop. “Bertie,” she said reflectively, “have you noticed anything unusual about a lot of the men here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Something odd about their appearance.”

Burton studied the pedestrians and the motorcyclists coming and going. He began to see a pattern.

“Hey, you’re right,” he said. “Older guys. Cropped white hair. Trimmed grey beards.
Hemingway look-alikes!”

“One or two you wouldn’t notice,” Sylvia pointed out. “But ten, twenty, more. What a spectacle. What do you think it means?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Pretending to be someone you’re not? To have a more interesting life than you have? It’s really very ironic when you think about it. Hemingway being honored
by mass imitations of his appearance! But now that I say that, it occurs to me that they actually have Hemingway look-alike contests here every year. They advertise ‘em in tourist brochures. I had thought it was a joke. But it’s a cult.”

Sylvia cocked her head slightly and threw Burton a quizzical smile.

“What’s that expression for?” he asked.

She chuckled softly and linked her arm in his. “Time for that drink,” she said.  Minutes later they were seated at a café on the water ordering drinks and a light lunch.

“The Hemingway look-alikes,” Sylvia picked up the subject again, “do you think  they’re doing the same thing as the Elvis imitators?”

Burton hesitated. “Not really,” he began. “The Elvis guys are at least acting out fantasies that fit Elvis. He was a creature of the entertainment culture that depends on the mass media and marketing and publicity and the fawning identifications of ‘fans’ with ‘celebrities.’ Can you imagine, say, Moses look-alikes trekking the hills of Judea, or even little Napoleon look-alikes glowering from horseback around Europe? You need our crass modernity for that. But Elvis, yes. His imitators are just like him. Entertainers, antic pretenders, show biz fabrications. The Hemingway imitators belong to that culture, too. But Hemingway didn’t. Hemingway was no Elvis. He’d hate it.”

“Are you sure?” Sylvia prodded. “Hemingway liked fame, didn’t he? And he got a lot of
‘celebrity’ from magazines and from movies of his books, and he fraternized with movie stars.”

“OK. LIFE magazine and movies of his stories and books might have made him familiar. But it wasn’t ‘celebrity’ then. I mean, Hemingway wasn’t just a creature of publicity. He had genuine ‘fame’ for doing something significant. And he would have despised a world that confuses celebrity with achievement, fantasy with reality and that doesn’t care about the difference, and that lives for the theme park version of reality,
pretending all the time.

“He wouldn’t have just laughed it off?”

“Nah. Hemingway didn’t laugh that way. Not the frivolous laughter that accepts anything as long as it’s amusing or campy. Elvis look-alikes, bad TV, that stuff. Grinning with a trophy of the hunt, yes. Guffawing with buddies over drinks, yes. But not just casually laughing things off, or spewing the phony social mirth of cocktail parties that people use nowadays to take the place of words. Anyway, there’s not much humor in Hemingway’s books. A bit of satire, but it’s usually biting, deriding people he knew, or writers he liked to send up–The Torrents of Spring, who reads it? No real humor.”

“You figure Ernest was too earnest for that?” Sylvia quipped.

“Ugh! And you complain about my humor! But you’re right. His version of the importance of being earnest  wasn’t Oscar Wilde’s. Hemingway was never trivial. He saw life as struggle, a contest of wills. The hunter and the hunted. The drama of death. Noble. Tragic. His idea of a good time was to carouse or fight or kill. He’d never be a mere tourist. Never just sight-see or sit on a beach. And never just pretend. ‘Write one true sentence.’ That’s what he believed. And that’s the irony of this town. It’s all about
tourism and frivolity and pretense. And Hemingway’s in the middle of it!  If he saw it today, he’d be repelled and run away again.”

Sylvia held her eyes on Burton for a time without speaking. “Bertie,” she began tentatively, “I don’t know a lot about Hemingway, but I suspect you’re idealizing him. He was, I’d bet, closer to his imitators than you say. Didn’t he brag about everything he did, and about things he didn’t do? And wasn’t he always brazenly acting out his myth of
himself as a heroic, honest guy, trying to prove something to himself and
others? Didn’t he pretend, after all?”

Taken aback at Sylvia’s uncharacteristic intensity, Burton sat in silence. Maybe Sylvia was right again. Hemingway was proud, and a braggart, and he could be vain. But was
he false, or pretending, or self-deceived–like when he insistently plied the Gulf of Mexico hunting Nazi submarines? Burton began feeling discomfited. He didn’t know why. And he didn’t want to argue.

“Well,” he said distractedly, skirting the subject, “maybe so. Maybe so.”

“That’s a pretty tepid response,” Sylvia said. “I don’t think you believe it. You know, Bertie,” she went on, “you seem a bit preoccupied and on edge lately. Anything wrong?”

He couldn’t say anything. He just wanted everything that needed saying to have been said already. Whatever that was. And for it to be all right.

“No,” he feigned. “Just tired. Food will help.”

They lunched and idled through the balmy afternoon gazing at cruise ships coming in, at sailboats skiffing away, and at buoyant parasailors riding high through the far wide sky, their brightly colored parachutes tethered to speed boats towing them back and forth beyond the harbor. Then they browsed oddity shops–a huge seashell emporium offering decorative crustaceans of every shape, a couple of cat-themed boutiques selling objects celebrating Key West’s patron pet, and the Key Lime Pie Company purveying every culinary use of key limes known to humankind. As the late-day shadows lengthened, they wandered back to the shore and the seaside gathering place called Mallory Square. “We have to see the sunset from here,” Burton said. “Otherwise you’ve missed Key West.”

They were not alone. Hundreds of people were sauntering into the square. And jugglers, mimes, musicians, fire-eaters, and other performers were preparing their acts. Burton and Sylvia found a spot near the water. By the time the sun had lowered to the
horizon, the entire square was filled, and music, laughter, and bursts of clapping were resounding in the air. Then, as if on cue, the sun, poised against the crimson sky, inched downward, growing larger and a duskier orange as it descended beyond the glassy waters, silhouetting sailboats against its fire. Cameras clicked. Approving oohs and ahhs rippled through the crowd. When the sun’s quivering crest finally slipped out of sight, a radiant array of colors washed up into the sky. And the audience erupted in sustained applause. Taken aback, Burton and Sylvia glanced at each other and shared a muffled laugh. The show was over. The sunset was an entertainment, along with the
jugglers and mimes and musicians and fire-eaters.

“Well done, sun!” Burton joked, as he and Sylvia ambled off with the others, to return through town, past the crammed cafes and rowdy bars, the T-shirt boutiques and curio
shops, to the Atlantic side for dinner–and for the obligatory Key Lime pie, Sylvia bent on finding the Platonic version of this indigenous confection. Later, sated and tired, they settled back into their philosopher’s bedroom for the end of their Key West day.

Sylvia fell asleep almost as soon as she wrapped herself in the sheets. Burton lifted a book from the stack on his nightstand. To Have and Have Not. Another of Hemingway’s airy literary titles that belie the gritty fiction inside, Burton had sometimes complained. Hemingway had culled them from phrases of other authors. Not exactly “true sentences,” were they, Burton admitted. Was that pretense? This was not a very good novel, either. But it was written in Key West, and set in and around the island. You have to read it if you go, Burton had instructed friends. For the flavor, if nothing else. He
started reading it for the third or fourth time, but he couldn’t get into it. He dozed and tried again. No use. Something was pulling at him. The dream? The town? Paula? The flush of excitement he had felt at the Hemingway house? Yes, that was it. That feeling. Or was it some other emotion about the house? He had to go back. Without the tourists.

He waited a while, distractedly reading and fitfully dozing. Then he eased out of bed, put on slacks and a shirt and sandals, and slinked out the door. It was well after
midnight. Padding along the streets, he passed loving couples in tight embrace and party-goers straggling home in this ever-reveling town. When he got to the house, he dallied along the walled yard, letting a car come and go. Then, seeing he was alone, he hurriedly found a foot-hold in the craggy bricks and hefted himself up the and over the top.

He dropped clumsily to the ground on the other side, crumpling to his knees among the
foliage. It was easier than he’d feared. Not as high as he’d expected. Not as impenetrably over-grown. Only a scuff or two to show for it. Now, not a sound,
except for his restrained panting. “Glad Hemingway liked cats, not dogs,” he wheezed, standing up against the wall. The nearly full moon in the clear sky cast a bright night light down through the trees, falling in patches on the grass like camouflage. The moonlight was so bright it reminded Burton of movies that have night scenes filmed in daytime with the camera lens tightened to make the foreground dark, but daylight still shines in the background. It’s artificial night once you see it. This moonlight glared almost like that. But, Burton mouthed the words, this was an honest night.

He surveyed the house. Most of it lay in deep shadows. But the portions of the walls that caught the moonlight gleamed in an eerie yellow-green. Great place for a
Halloween party, it occurred to him. And much better than earlier in the day. No circus. Quiet. Authentic. True.

He stepped cautiously through the shadows across the lawn. Remembering the chairs where he and Sylvia had sat that morning, he groped toward them where he could sit and have a good view of the house. He lowered himself into a chair. A screeching
yowl tore the silence like a banshee in attack. Leaping up, he saw a small black form bound into the gloom. A cat. He’d sat on a cat. Shaken, he warily sat down again. When he regained his composure, he detected other cats lying on the chairs, beneath the chairs, on the grass, beside tree trunks, against the house. It was their place now. Hemingway would like that, Burton speculated. Let the cats have it. They don’t pretend. They’re just themselves.

Facing the house, Burton envisioned Hemingway here. He had done some good writing in this house, or in that cottage out back. Not as much as the tour guides claim, but enough. A Farewell to Arms had come just before he settled here. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came after he’d left and switched his affections to Cuba and to Martha Gellhorn. But there was the first bullfight book. The first Africa book. Some of the best short stories. True, the one novel he wrote start to finish while living in the house, To Have…, wasn’t very successful. He must have been too close to Key West to write about it well. He usually wrote about things better when they were past and distant.
Hemingway had admitted that. “Transplanting yourself,” he described it when he told of writing about Michigan while sitting in that “good café in the Place St. Michele.” He had to go to Paris to write about Michigan. And to Key West and Cuba and Idaho to write about Europe and Africa. He did write The Sun Also Rises close to its subject in Paris and Spain. But, Burton remembered, Hemingway had then revised it in Austria that winter of 1926 when he had fallen in love with Pauline, and “the rich” had come into his life. And everything was different after that.

Hemingway’s memories of Pauline and her ilk weren’t happy. So he couldn’t have been very contented here. The Key West novel wasn’t happy. But, Burton asked himself,
what did Hemingway write that was happy? “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was about as far as Hemingway could go. He wrote it here after the first trip to Africa. Francis Macomber is happy for about one minute before his wife accidentally blows his head off with an elephant gun on safari.

Burton liked this tidy insight. Of course, he conceded, “happy” was probably too “domestic” a term for Hemingway. Hemingway never cared for domestic life, or for women, either, at heart. He needed female affection. But that’s not the same thing. He
had to be active, manly. Was that pretense? When he lived here he was usually alone writing about masculine action, or fishing in the Gulf with Joe Russell or drinking at Sloppy Joe’s, or he was far away. He traveled more and more during the Thirties. Africa. The Spanish Civil War. Lengthening stays in Cuba. Then he left for good. The second marriage was over. The third was beginning. And with it came For Whom the Bell Tolls and new acclaim, then a good war in Europe he relished playing a part in and
“liberating” the Ritz Hotel in Paris–was this another pretense? But his World
War II novel didn’t work. How could it with a title like Across the River and into the Trees?  A Hemingway parody. The third marriage didn’t work, either. How could it with a wife like Martha Gellhorn, that resolutely independent woman who couldn’t live in Hemingway’s shadow or abide his histrionics? And then–The Old Man and the Sea. His best. On his mind for fifteen years. It brought a Pulitzer. And clinched the Nobel Prize. But after that, for the last ten years, almost nothing. Or nothing that he finished or was making into something memorable. Except the memoir. Why?

Burton left the question hanging and took in the moonlight playing among the shadows of the evocative scene. From the corner of his eye, he vaguely discerned the cats
lying next to him. He came back to them again, the dumb honorable nature of animals. None of the self-consciousness that makes people pretend and prevaricate. Just honest instincts. Hemingway admired them for that. The Old Man and the Sea returned to
Burton’s mind. All true sentences. Crystal clear. But, it now struck him, wasn’t that a story about loss, too? Hemingway had believed he was writing about the old man’s courage and manliness and endurance, and about the noble fish’s beauty and strength and valor, and all of that Hemingwayesque morality. But in the end, it turns out to be about loss. The old man kills the valiant fish that he has come to love. As he must, to prove his manhood, to test himself against nature. “I love you fish,” he says, ”but I must kill you.”  Then he loses the fish, his victory, his triumph, his honor, to the sharks, bite by bite, and he winds up with nothing but a skeleton and with regrets for having taken the
great free fish from the sea, depriving it of its splendid life–for nothing. And he goes home to bed sad, and he dreams of lions that he had once seen roaming in Africa. Loss and regret and dreams of happier days. And so the story closes: “The old man was dreaming of the lions.”  Was that Hemingway himself?  Burton asked in a flash of
discovery. Was he, too, dreaming of the lions at the end? “But this is how Paris was in the early days when….”

Savoring the image, Burton scanned the moonlit yard. The shroud of shadows was drawing back as the moon passed to the west, bringing the front corner of the house into the light. Very grand. And spooky. Burton’s curious eyes played along the lower
porch railing and up the moonlit corner column to the second floor balcony. He blinked. His head jerked back. He blinked again. He squinted. Was that a figure standing at the railing in the bright moonlight? He closed his eyes and shook his head.  He opened them again and focused on the balcony, the figure was still there. Burton leaned forward, his hands on his knees. He gaped. Was it really…him?

Older than when he had lived here. The Papa figure. Bulky chest, safari shirt, khaki shorts, cropped white beard, short white hair. Gazing motionless toward the moon.

Burton sat almost breathless for what seemed like minutes. Was this the dream? Again? He tried to wake up. But he couldn’t. Then, as in the dream, an urge came over him. Slowly, he stood up. And he crept through the shadows to get closer, fixing his eyes on the figure above. He stopped near the front of the house beneath the balcony.
Unlike the dream, Hemingway didn’t vanish. He was still there at the railing. Burton could now see that he was cradling something in his arms, stroking it lightly. A cat. The hands that loved to kill were caressing a cat with the tenderness of a child. Out of character. Or was it?

Burton craned to scrutinize the face. He couldn’t tell for sure, but the features, although aged and bearded, appeared almost soft, kindly. This was not the hearty face of  the photographs. The boyishly grinning hunter and fisherman. The ruddy pugilist. The champion drinker. The fervent writer. It wore the deep lines of time and had about it a contemplative aura, as though he were summoning images from the past. The eyes seemed to glint in the light. It wasn’t a sparkle. That face could not have sparkling eyes. They were more likely rheumy with premature age, reflecting the moonlight that they searched into. And except for the fingers stroking the nape of the cat’s neck, the figure
remained unearthly still, leaning against the railing, looking off into the night.

Burton didn’t move. The two of them were locked in a tableau. For how long, Burton couldn’t tell. Finally, the figure above shifted slightly, stepped back from the railing,
waited a few seconds in the light, and disappeared into the shadows.

Burton stared. Was it the dream? Or a dream within a dream? Or…? Baffled and disoriented, doubting his senses but unwilling to deny them, he then thought he saw a feathery object wafting down from the balcony. He watched it come to rest on the branches of a bush near the ground. He looked up again. No one. Irresistibly drawn, Burton stole toward the object. He leaned down and plucked it from the leaves. An ordinary sheet of paper. Holding it in the moonlight, he could just make out a page of faintly typed words. He brought it close to read. Three disconnected lines came out to him: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her….  Paris was never to be
the same again…. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very
poor and very happy.”

The paper dropped from Burton’s fingers. He froze. He trembled. Then gradually he raised his eyes once more to the balcony above. Empty. He brought them down and nervously glanced around. Nothing but the shadows and the moonlight and the weird
nighttime forms. Breathing haltingly, he bent down and picked up the paper. And
a mysterious sensation of tranquillity began rising within him. Swiftly it engulfed him in a beneficent spell.

Without thinking, he knew what he would do. He moved as if levitating through the darkness to the front steps of the house and up onto the porch. Through the glass window of the front door he could see only the silent night of a haunted house. Crouching down, he slid the sheet of paper under the door. Then he backed down the steps, and made his way through the moonlight and the shadows across the grass to the wall. After a last gaze at the vacant balcony bathed in the eerie yellow-green
light, he hoisted himself up and over the wall. Somnambulistically, he traversed the deserted streets to the Dewey House, where Sylvia breathed heavily in unruffleable sleep as he crawled into bed beside her and left the mystifying night behind.

When Burton Sharp awoke, it was afternoon. He was alone. He sat up and rubbed his bleary eyes, coaxing consciousness into his befogged mind. Encountering the day, he
fragmentarily recalled the night. A vague feeling of uncertain quietude passed over him. A calm amidst turbulence. He didn’t want to analyze it. He clambered out of bed and staggered to the window. Sylvia was reading in a chaise lounge under a broad umbrella on the private beach. He pulled on shorts and a shirt and stumbled downstairs and outside.

“Well, you must’ve had a bad night,” she said sympathetically.

“You might say that.”

“I was starting to worry. What’s going on?”

He ordered coffee and juice and a croissant. And he told her the story. About the first dream. And about the second–but no, it wasn’t a dream. And about the house. And the
figure. And the ghostly page.

“Either your imagination is getting richer or you’re losing your grip, my dear. Or maybe
you’ve just spent too much time with Hemingway.”

“Thanks for the confidence. But at least I understand something better than I used to.”

“What’s that?”

“‘The meaning of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment.’”

“What are you talking about?”

“What happened to Hemingway. Why it ended as it did. Not the suicide. That had more causes than it needed. But the regrets. The nostalgia. For the early days. All the adventure and the bravado and the books and the fame seemed to fall away at the end. And, like his old man of the sea, he went back to dreaming of the lions. When he was very poor and very happy at the beginning.”

“I’m not sure I follow you, but it sounds like you’ve found Hemingway’s ‘Rosebud.’  The
secret of a lost happiness?”

“Sort of. He had a love in his first marriage that he lost, or let go, and whose happiness he would never know again. Maybe that love reminded him of the nurse he had wanted
to marry in the Italian hospital during World War I, who broke his heart after he got well and whom he wrote about so fondly in A Farewell To Arms just after he had left his first wife, Hadley. Anyway, the end of his first marriage came to trouble and sadden him. But I think there was more to his regrets and nostalgia than the loss of an early love. He probably longed as much for Wordsworth’s rosebuds as for Charles Foster Kane’s.”

“Wordsworth’s rosebuds?”

“Yeah. The youthful feeling, or usually it’s youthful, of…how does it go?…the feeling of ‘something evermore about to be’ that makes us ‘set the budding rose above the rose full blown.’  You know how it is. In the beginning we have the optimism of ‘something ever more about to be.’ Later, our lives easily let us down. We lose ourselves in our successes as well as in our failures. We can even, unknowingly, become people we would not have wanted to be. Then, when we look back, our lives appear very different from what we had seen at the beginning, or what we had wanted to see. In the beginning Hemingway had his budding rose. Then he got what he wanted, or what he thought he wanted, and he became someone else. And he gave up a happiness he would later remember with sorrow. But he couldn’t see any of this until the end.”

“A rose is a rose is a rose.” Sylvia recited jocularly.

Burton shot her a mildly pained expression.

“Forgive me, Bertie. I didn’t mean to be dismissive. But you sound so grave. Is there more to this than Hemingway? You want to tell me about it?”

Burton didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what he felt. That ambiguous feeling of unsettled quietude was stirring inside him again. “It’s nothing,” he lied, and looked
blankly through her.

“Well, c’mon,” she said cheerfully, “before you lapse into hopeless melancholy. We can take a walk with what’s left of the day, have a drink and an early dinner, maybe go to a
movie or a cabaret. Forget Hemingway for a while. It’ll clear your head. How about it?”

Burton shrugged compliantly.

They changed clothes and dawdled through rest of the afternoon, exploring the town’s
cemetery for its witty epitaphs, touring the Truman White House for its reassuring Americana, and roving aimlessly until early evening brought them to another ocean-side cafe beside Mallory Square. There they again watched the sailboats skimming over the water and the parasailors flying against the sky. Then as the crowd began assembling for the nightly performances in the square, Burton felt that peculiar uncertain quietude of the morning well inside him where it had been percolating all day. Abruptly he blurted: “Let’s get out of here.”

“What do you mean? Don’t you want dinner? Where do you want to go? A movie?”

“I mean leave Key West. Now.”

“What?! Now? Why?”

“I’m not sure. I just want to get out of here. Do you mind? We can get a car and drive through the other Keys. Then fly home from Miami.”

Sylvia assented without understanding. She perceived more than a whim at work. He had been behaving strangely since they had arrived. But she knew how to pick her
battles, as well as how win without fighting.

They took a taxi back to their room, where Burton rearranged the flight plans and reserved a car. A convertible, Sylvia had suggested, to make the most of the trip. While
Sylvia started packing, Burton went into the bathroom for a quick shower. Toweling
off afterwards, he stood before the mirror. “My God!” he gasped. An unrecognizable, old face looked out at him. His hands rose impulsively and clutched at it. His eyes bulged. His mouth fell open. His heart pounded. With fumbling fingers he slathered foam over his cheeks. “One true sentence. One true sentence. Bullshit!” he hissed between gritted teeth as he swiped and hacked with the razor, back and forth, up and down. He rinsed off. Blood oozed from half a dozen nicks. The cropped gray beard was gone. He shoved the white hair back from his forehead, exposing a deeply receding hairline regularly
habitually by a studied comb-over. “To hell with…adulation!” he growled.

Grabbing his toiletries, he stalked into the bedroom.

“Whaaaaat’s this?” Sylvia exclaimed, catching sight of his face.

“You have to ask?” he mumbled, stuffing clothes into his suitcase.

“Ooohhh Kayyy,” she said, dropping the question, but guessing the answer. She came over and kissed him on the cheek. He paused and turned toward her

“You’re a bloody mess, you know, Bertie,” she said affectionately, dabbing his face with a tissue.

“So are you, Sylvie,” he whispered with the hint of a smile, lifting the tissue from her fingers and lightly wiping her smudged chin. He kissed her fondly on the forehead.

They finished packing and, bags in hand, headed out the door. Sylvia let Burton go in front as she stayed at the threshold to check the room, routinely guarding against
misplaced things. “Hey, Bertie,” she called, pointing to the night table, “you forgot your books.”

“No I didn’t,” he shouted back from the stairs and kept going.

Sylvia swung her head around toward the stairs. Burton had gone. She arched her eyebrows and pursed her lips in surprise. Moments passed. Then her lips parted and curled up a little at the corners. She nodded, and pulled the door closed behind her.

They paid the bill, with apologies and a penalty for the early departure. And, after a short taxi ride to the airport to get the car, they were off, top down. Traffic coming into Key West clogged the causeway linking this western-most Key to the others along narrow Route 1 and on to the mainland 160 miles away. But no traffic was going in their direction at this hour. They were going out, due east on an open road. Warm tropical air flowed over them. Burton at the wheel turned the radio up to hear above the hum of the road and the whoosh of the traffic. The cracking voice of an elderly Frank Sinatra was finishing a Sondheim song: “Send in the clowns…. There ought to be clowns.… Don’t bother.… They’re here.”  Burton and Sylvia exchanged slow smiles that grew into gentle laughter. He reached for her hand and took it in his and squeezed it hard. He said nothing. He didn’t need to. Sylvia knew. They were going back to the beginning.

Burton pressed the gas peddle to the floor. The wind rushed against their faces and flapped their hair. Overhead, wisps of high cirrus clouds were brightening with rays of gold and pink and lavender. Behind, the wide Western sky was a swirl of deepening orange and magenta and purple. In Mallory Square the crowd was applauding the sunset.

The Dancer With The Fish-shaped Eyes


          It was five years ago that I had first come to Madras. And I had liked it. Yes, it had the same air of restrained chaos that typifies Indian cities. Its streets and sidewalks teemed with people amid streams of honking vehicles, gypsy-like women clutching infants swarmed into traffic at stoplights to beg from captive drivers, hovels of the poor were strewn like rubbish along neglected thoroughfares, sprawling billboards boosted the melodramatic movies made in abundance here, and modern offices, ramshackle huts, and staid Victorian edifices stood shoulder to shoulder. But Madras also has a glistening sea shore on the Bay of Bengal, where the wide sandy Marina Beach runs for miles, giving reprieve from the heat while inviting bathers into a perilously sea that sharks have claimed as home.

            The city is called Chennai now, expunging another remnant of the Raj. But it looked the same.  I had come back to consult with an editor about an article I had agreed to write for her magazine. And I was planning to visit an acquaintance in the shipping business here whom I had met in Montevideo,Uruguay when he was there trying to buy a used tanker, and I was there researching an article on local artists, and we had found ourselves sitting together one night at a tango show.

            “The tango is very intense,” he had said to me as we walked out together returning to our hotels. “It is almost mythological, full of stories and passions. Classical Indian dance has that, too. But Indian dance is not about ordinary people. It is about ritual and religion. Have you seen Indian dance?”

            I had told him I had indeed seen it and even knew an Indian dancer in Madras.”

            Delighted that I knew his city, he had invited me to visit him at his home inMadrason my next trip toMadras. He promised to take me out for the best food in Indiaand to see the best Indian dancers in Madras. Now I was here taking him up on his offer.

           We went to a glittering restaurant where we dined on dishes from the four south Indian states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, sumptuously mingling cinnamon and nutmeg and cumin and cayenne and tamarind and I don’t know what else, and reminding me why the early Europeans searched for a swift trade route to India. And the dancers were all that my friend had promised. Sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, the graceful women riveted every gaze to the small polished marble stage where, to the music of a sitar and a drum, they elegantly performed movements and gestures and expressions that had descended from centuries past, wordlessly telling the epic stories of Hindu mythology. Angling their feet sideways and slapping them on the shiny stone, crooking their lithe arms and curving back their long fingers, alternately smiling and frowning while arching their eyebrows and widening their flashing eyes, they portrayed violence and love, fear and tenderness, defeat and victory, sorrow and joy. And they took me back to that time five years ago when inMadrasI had first seen the dancer with the fish-shaped eyes.

            Her name was Samya. It wasn’t that she was more beautiful or more graceful or more dramatic than other Indian dancers. But she was the first one I had truly watched closely. And I had watched her because I had talked to her, and because of her eyes.

            I had met her at lunch the day before with the same magazine editor I was here to see again. I was working at the time on an article for her about Hindu temple art. Samya was in her early twenties, I had guessed, and was the daughter of a friend of the editor. Indian parents are very protective of their daughters, she explained, even when those daughters Samya had grown up. So her highly educated, sophisticated parents had arranged for her to learn the trade of magazine editing under the tutelage of this kindly editor. Samya didn’t want to do it. She was quick to announce that. She wanted to be a classical dancer. But her parents wanted her to have a profession that would serve her better than dancing. So they had struck a compromise. She would learn editing if her parents would let her continue to study dance and to perform. She hoped her determination would exhaust their resistance.

            At lunch that day the three of us talked about art and writing and magazines. And Samya lectured me on Indian dance.

            “It is not just art,” she had said. “We’re not like you in the West. Our dance is more than dance. Our art is more than art. It is an act of ritual and spirit and life. Like the sculptures on Hindu temples. They are gods and goddesses, often swaying their hips, as in dance. And our most important god, Lord Shiva, who is the Destroyer of Evil, is also the God of Dance. He is often depicted dancing in victory over evil surrounded by a ring of flames. And his son Ganesh, who brings good luck, dances, too. If you want to understand Indian temple art, you must understand Indian dance, and to understand dance you must know temple art.”

             I had taken a few notes thinking I might use an anecdote for my article. Then I asked her what makes a good Indian dancer. She said that Indian dance may not look as difficult as Western classical ballet because the footwork is simpler. But the art of Indian dance isn’t in the footwork. It comes mainly through the hands and arms and face. You have to get every gesture and expression right. Then she said something that I will never forget.

           “A female dancer must become like a temple sculpture. All very sensuous and full and round, not like skinny Western dancers,” and she patted her cheeks and lips and shoulders and breasts and hips. “And you must learn to move your body in different directions at once and bend your fingers way back. And”–this is what I will not forget–“you have to have large fish-shaped eyes.” As she said this, she lifted a hand to her face in front of one eye, pinched her thumb and forefinger together, splayed her other fingers back, and opened a pointed elongated space between them. She had created a large fish-shaped eye. When she lowered her hand again, I could see, as I had not noticed before, that her own eyes were like that. Especially when she opened them full. They were firey dark and unnaturally big and bulging, the lids arching high in sensuous curves from beside her delicate nose and then sloping gently down to soft points near the edge of her face like a long fishes tail. She smiled with her full red lips. Yes, I could see. Hers was an Indian dancer’s face. I asked where I could see her perform. And I went there the next night.

           She was a temple sculpture come to life. Draped in radiant silks, her rounded form moved simultaneously in several directions as though born to it, while her bare feet pranced and slapped her arms and hands fluidly told the epic story along with dramatic expressions on her face. But arresting my stare were those large fish-shaped eyes. Yeats was right, I had said to myself–in her you cannot tell the dancer from the dance.

           I did not see her dance again because I had had leaveMadrasthe next day. And in the five years since I had seen many other Indian dancers. Always I had watched their fish-shaped eyes. But I had never seen eyes as large as hers. Now, as I watched more dancers dance the ancient Indian tales, captivating the room, I thought, yes, these are wonderful dancers, but they cannot match Samya. And I wondered, what happened to her? Was she dancing and living the dancer’s life she had wanted to live?  Or did she give it up to become an editor? Or did she get married and settle into another life? Since I was having lunch with my editor the following day, I would ask. She would know.

           When the evening ended, and I thanked my friend for generously giving me more fond memories ofMadras, I was already looking forward to lunch. And as soon as our lunch business was done, I asked my editor what Samya was doing now. This is what she said.

            “Samya continued to study dance, and she finally convinced her parents that she could be a successful professional. And she became one of the best classical dancers inMadras. But then one night there was an accident. She fell down some stairs back stage  before a performance. They found her unconscious with a leg badly broken at the knee. No one saw it happen. She later explained that she lost her balance after stepping on a something sharp in her bare feet. She was in the hospital for weeks. Then she had worn a cast for many weeks.  She feared she would never be able to dance again, not in the way she wanted to. And when she was able to try, she was right. She couldn’t do it. She tried and tried for months, but she couldn’t bend her knee completely or balance on that leg. Eventually, she gave up. She started teaching young dancers. And I invited her to write about dance for the magazine, which she did for a while. Her parents were pleased about that, although there were, of course, sorry about the reason. Then she got engaged to a long-time admirer, whom she knew would always adore her and be good to her. Her parents were happy about that, too. But her heart wasn’t in it. Any of it. You could see that in her face.

           “Then one day she didn’t come to the office as she had said she would . She left no message. And she wasn’t at home. We couldn’t find her. No one knew where she had gone. She said nothing to anyone. She just disappeared.

           “It was more than a week later that I got a call from a police officer I knew who was helping us search for her. He asked me to come down to the medical examiner’s office. They had recovered the remains of an unidentified woman washed up on Marina Beach. The sharks had been surprisingly kind to her, he said. They had left her relatively untouched. A couple of other things were also unusual, he added. ‘She is dressed in a dancer’s silks,’ he told me, ‘and she has the most remarkable fish-shaped eyes.’”




by James Sloan Allen


             Stuart Murphy swung his car onto the highway, joining the daily throng into the city. Horns honked. Fumes swirled. Traffic crawled. He peered emptily through the windshield.

            “The world is too much with us,” he sighed; “late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

            Stuart knew his Wordsworth.  And he relished nice literary phrases. A middle-aged former literature professor, he was driving from his Scarsdalehome to the office in New York Citywhere he now edited scholarly books and The Journal of European Literary Traditions. Favorite lines of literature often got him through the day, punctuating the tedium of work–reading dull manuscripts. writing dull letters.

            “But what did Wordsworth know about the world being ‘too much with us’?” he mused, oblivious to the sea of cars ebbing and flowing around him. The question stirred his professorial imagination, and he went on earnestly: “Wordsworth’s world was so much simpler than ours. And yet it had so much more–what?–weight to it.  Everything nowadays is so ephemeral.  Novelty.  Fashion.  Celebrity.  They’re all anybody cares about.  It’s all so…shallow.  So…inconsequential.”

            These complaints were not new to Stuart.  But today they struck him harder than usual.  Thinking back to Wordsworth, he picked up the thread and started mouthing a lecture. “People cared about real things then.  History.  Society.  Philosophy.  Literature.  They knew their literary lines, too. Clichés, maybe.  But who today even knows what a good literary cliché is?”  Stuart paused to absorb the idea. “A good cliché, a really good cliché,” he continued, pleased with his unfolding insight, “is more than an advertising jingle or a bit of banal movie dialogue.  It’s more like an epiphany.  It reveals something every time you hear it.”

            The blaring horns of cars behind him jolted Stuart out of his meditations.  He propelled the car forward, lost his train of thought, and after a mentally vacant drive arrived at his office bracing for another day of routine.  Closing the door behind him, he sat down at his desk, leaned back in his chair, and again let his mind drift.

            “I would prefer not to.”

            The passively defiant words of Melville’s Bartleby rose to Stuart’s lips. He chuckled.

            “Now, that is a good cliché.  A life-affirming idea.  It signals something important.”

            The phrase took hold of him.

            “I would prefer not to,” he repeated. “And maybe,” Stuart whispered through clenched teeth, “I won’t!  I’ll just walk away. Go someplace where the world isn’t ‘too much with us.  But where?”

            “I could just get in the car and drive,” he thought. “But that would be no change. Europe?  No. That’s about the same.  It has to be farther away.  The other side of the world.

            “Hong Kong?  Too commercial.”

            “Bangkok?  Lethal traffic.”

            “Bali?  Tourists.”

            “Singapore?”  The sound appealed.  And so did the image formed by fiction and movies. The Crossroads of the Orient, and all of that. “But it’s modern now,” Stuart reflected. “And it’s got a repressive political regime. Still, it is as far away as I could go. And there’s a great old hotel where famous authors have stayed.”

            “But could I really do it?” he asked himself.  “Can I really leave? Just like that, if only for a while?”

            He had no family.  Only an inheritance.  And he had a career. “But what,” he questioned dismissively, “is that?”

            Within the month, Stuart Murphy was on his way.  The twenty-four hour flight throughTokyoleft him drained.  And yet, as the plane touched down, he felt exhilarated.  He was on the other side of the world.       

            “Welcome toSingapore,” came the pleasing voice on the plane’s loud speaker. “The local time is 6 PM.”

            No one said: “Have a nice day.”  That was a good sign.

            Stuart had heard that Chiangi airport is perhaps the best in the world–large, clean, efficient.  But he was not prepared for the futuristic setting that greeted him.

            Vast expanses of glistening cleanliness.  No crowds.  Polite service personnel.  An electric monorail to whisk him from the plane to the baggage claim where the bags were already waiting. It was not exactly exotic.  But it felt fine.

            The drive into town flowed peacefully along a wide uncrowded highway through a lush and manicured landscape.  The calm and beauty were idyllic.

            Then the city came into view. Stuart’s heart sank.  It looked like Seattle.  Or Houston.  A skyline of towering mirrored-glass buildings designed by Western architects.

            “My God!” he thought. “Did I make a mistake?”          

            Once in the urban maze, the taxi soon wheeled into the broad driveway of Raffles Hotel.  The hotel looked strikingly like the photographs taken a century earlier–the gracefully ornate three-story Victorian facade distinctively angled at each end toward the entrance and capped by a classical pediment in the center, with a welcoming portico stretching across the front. But now the hotel had recently been restored to appear almost new, pristine, and whiter than snow. Remembering that in the early photographs Raffles had stood on the harbor, Stuart surveyed the scene. No harbor. Only glass-and-steel behemoths looking down on the picturesque nineteenth-century hotel like predators on a prey. They had pushed the harbor out of sight.      

            Spurning the blight, Stuart turned toward the hotel’s imperial entrance, where a resplendent red carpet, extending to the driveway, glowed against the white surroundings, and where liveried doormen were poised at attention.  They drew open the doors, and he strode into the lobby.  The red carpet led across a bright marble floor to an imposing mahogany staircase.  An atrium rose with the stairs and its landings to the height of the building.  From the base of the stairway to the walls he saw to his delight the chairs and tables, flowers and potted palms of the “Authors’ Lounge,” which had long enticed visitors for refreshment amidst the ghosts of renowned guests like Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham–especially Somerset Maugham, who, so the hotel liked to imply, had visited Raffles many a time. Stuart knew all about them.  He began to feel that he had come to the right place.

            “Greetings, Mr. Murphy,” said the desk clerk graciously. “We have been expecting you. The Somerset Maugham Suite is ready as you requested.”

            He signed the register and followed the bellboy outside along a covered corridor encircling a courtyard.  The heat now hit him for the first time.  Heavy, wet, tropical heat that evoked images of explorers slashing through jungles and colonial bureaucrats sweatily conducting the affairs of empire.  He liked that.

            They reached their destination. “Somerset Maugham Suite,” read the plaque on the door.  “This was Mr. Somerset Maugham’s suite when he stayed here,” announced the bellboy.   He undid the latch. Stuart stepped into a sitting room as cool as mountain air.   A chilled ice bucket holding a bottle of champagne rested on a dining table beside a bowl of tropical fruit.  Photographs of Somerset Maugham hung on the wall. An archway opened into a large bedroom where oriental carpets lay on a dark hardwood floor around a massive bed.  A ceiling fan rotated noiselessly.  In one corner stood a desk studiously strewn with Maugham’s books and memorabilia.

            Stuart tipped the bellboy, who quietly vanished. He approached the desk, fingering its surface, and sat down in its worn leather chair. He picked up a sheet of stationery and read the letterhead: “Raffles Hotel. Somerset Maugham Suite.” 

            Stuart smiled, drank in the atmosphere, and thought, “Yes. I have escaped.”

            He sat there for a while, his yearning to explore fighting with exhaustion. Aided by thirst and hunger, exploration won out.  Searching the hotel guide, Stuart noticed the Long Bar, birthplace of the Singapore Sling.  Perfect.

            A winding stairway on the far side of the hotel delivered Stuart to a barroom that could have been a stage set for a nineteen-forties movie in Singapore–smoky air, rattan furniture, ceiling fans, cages of tropical birds, languorous patrons sipping tall fruit-filled beverages.  Stuart sank into a chair along the wall and ordered a Singapore Sling. It came in no time, and was gone just as fast, the sharpness of the gin enfolded in pink sweetness.  It was as sweet as children’s punch.  He ordered another.  Feeling the spirit of the place, he craned to hear what other patrons were saying.  The indistinctness of their covert voices fed his curiosity.

            The second drink went down even easier than the first. And then a third. The room began to grow a bit hazy, the figures in it distant, the sounds of voices, the clinking of glasses, the squawking of the caged birds, grew muffled. It was all taking on an air of unreality.

            “No. This is reality,” Stuart assured himself. “A fiction come to life. All that Somerset Maugham and Hollywood movies had portrayed. The old Singapore, where intrigues were hatched, liaisons were hidden, and forlorn souls came to lose themselves forever. It’s delicious.”

            Delicious. The word awakened Stuart from his reveries. Hunger gripped him. Recalling the hotel’s Tiffin Room, where, he had heard, you could get the best Indian food in southeast Asia, he signed the check and went out into the night. The air was torpid and fragrant. Stuart breathed it in voluptuously as he made his way through the palms and hibiscus.

            The Tiffin Room’s lights radiated welcomingly through the windows, beckoning Stuart like a moth to a flame.  Entering, he was engulfed in the scents of curry and countless other spices rising from the buffet of pakuras and samosas, chutneys and vindaloos, biryanies and jalfrazies.  He piled his plate high, seated himself beneath a fan near gently wafting palm fronds, ordered an Indian beer, and feasted.  As he scanned the room, he was amused to see other patrons dressed in their natty whites playing the role of colonials, casually snapping their fingers to summon the crisply uniformed and obedient waiters.

            “A colonial theme park,” he said to himself. “That’s what Raffles is. Renovated to recapture the past as pictured by writers and movie makers and tourists. Better than the original, though, I am sure.”

            By the time Stuart returned to his room he was drifting along blissfully on alcohol and the sensation that he had found what he had been looking for. He stretched out on the bed and reached for a volume of Maugham’s stories on the night table. Flipping through it, he paused at “Rain.”  He knew it well.  The tale of Sadie Thompson, a harlot who seduces a Christian priest in Samoa.  The tropics had got the better of the priest.

            Thumbing farther he came to “The Fall of Edward Barnard.’ Stuart followed its account of an ambitious young man who abandons a promising commercial career in Chicago for the dissolute idleness of Tahiti. Friends seek him out to save him. But they fail. Edward Barnard will not go home. Stuart lingered over the closing line, ruefully spoken by the young man’s former fiancée: “Poor Edward.” 

            “Poor Edward, indeed,” Stuart thought as he closed his eyes and let sleep overcome him.

           Stuart got up the next day still fatigued from jet lag. But breakfast in the courtyard revived him, and he set out to see the old Singapore.

            “Bugis Street,” he instructed the taxi driver, naming the street where generations of male travelers had sampled the bawdy pleasures of the exotic East.

            “And I’d like to see the Arab quarter.”

            “Very good,” said the driver in barely accented English.

            They drove through block after block of new office buildings.  Pedestrians in Western business clothes crowded the sidewalks. It was “rush hour.”  A modern city on its way to work.  But something seemed odd.  The traffic. There were few cars on the streets. No honking horns.

            “Where is all the traffic?” he asked.

            “Restricted zone,” came the reply.  “At certain times of the day you have to pay a fee to drive into the center of the city.”

            The driver pointed to a permit attached to his windshield.  “You get one of these when you enter the zone. The government does this to keep traffic out.”

            The car pulled to the curb at a roadside police station, where an official retrieved the permit. Above them an arch spanned the wide avenue, emblazoned with the words: “Restricted Zone.”

            “The government is very strict,” the driver explained as they resumed the trip beyond the city center. “But people benefit. The streets are clean.  The schools are good. Everyone owns their own apartment, with government help.  We all save money. And there is no crime. How can anyone live in America,” he added, “with so much crime and violence?”

            Taking the bait, Stuart spoke up, drawing on his newspaper  knowledge. “But are you free to do and say what you want?  Here you can be put in jail for all kinds of things, can’t you, even for just buying chewing gum or dropping paper on the street or criticizing the government?  And you can get officially caned for an adolescent prank.”

            “You Americans have strange ideas of freedom,” the driver responded soberly. “Here we are free to live a good life in safety, and to have respect. In America you are free to show disrespect and to be poor and to rob and kill. Who is better off?”

            Stuart sat back in silence thinking of New York City where crimes occur every few minutes. “What is real?” he asked himself. “Maybe you can invent a world.  Just as Raffles is a colonial theme park, Singapore is an urban theme park, a perfectly ordered city. An adult Disneyland with people living in it.  What kind of freedom is there in Disneyland, anyway?  Who cares?  And isn’t Disneyland a model of what people think the world should be?  Clean?  Safe?  Prosperous?  Contented?”

            Unsure of his own conclusions, Stuart gazed through the taxi window. The modern office towers had yielded to low older buildings. The pedestrians were less Western-looking now than those earlier, but nothing he hadn’t seen at home. Finally the taxi came to a stop in front of an open market. Stalls filled with oranges, pomegranates, melons, durian, and other fruits and vegetables extended far from the street.

            “This is it,” said the driver.


            “Bugis Street.”

            “This? What do you mean? It’s just a marketplace.”

            “The old Bugis Street was torn down,” explained the driver. “The government didn’t like it because it attracted trouble. Now it’s a market for everyone.”

            “There is nothing here to see,” Stuart said disappointedly. “Let’s go to the Arab quarter.”

            “Oh, you have seen that already.  We drove through on the way here. Muslims were selling goods on the sidewalk.  You want to go back to the mosque?”

            “No.” Stuart had seen mosques.  He had hoped for an ethnic enclave with colorful costumes and native customs.  “Let’s go to the Chinese quarter.”


            The taxi went off toward the other side of the city, circling the Restricted Zone on a broad avenue that rolled through residential neighborhoods and landscaped hillsides. Eventually they turned down a narrow street and entered a section of rather tawdry-looking shops. Chinese were everywhere. The taxi eased around tight corners and came to a stop.

            “This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Singapore,” said the driver. “You can go in.”

            Climbing from the car, Stuart saw a weathered wooden doorway squeezed within a block of shops.  Through it he could see an open courtyard clouded with incense.  He stepped inside tentatively. Votaries were kneeling here and there, and Buddhist priests were performing rites.  A few tourists were viewing artifacts of Buddhist piety.  Stuart sensed an atmosphere of Buddhist detachment from the world, the temple an island of contemplation and transcendence–except for the intrusion of tourists.

            Raising his eyes to the sky above, Stuart caught sight of dragons curling from the corners of the temple roof toward the heavens, warding off evil spirits.  They signaled the confidence of faith and tradition.  Then beyond the dragons, Stuart’s eyes focused on other forms.  The skyscrapers of modern Singapore rose just blocks away, piercing the heavens indifferently. Against this backdrop, the temple dragons’ soaring defiance of evil fell into a theatrical gesture, a quaint dumb show.

            “Could any Buddhist believe in the efficacy of temple dragons after seeing this?” he wondered.

            “How old is this temple?”  Stuart asked one of the priests who was doubling as a guide.

            “It is the oldest in Singapore,” he answered proudly. “A hundred and fifty years.”

            “But Buddhism is thousands of years old,” Stuart retorted. “Weren’t there Buddhists here before that?”

            “Who knows?  Before the British came there were only fishermen.”

            “Uh, huh,” Stuart responded uncertainly.

            “Maybe that is the clue to Singapore,” he thought. “It’s not an Asian city at all.  It has no history before the British.  It’s a colonial city.  A creation of old Stamford Raffles himself,” who, as Stuart knew from his tourist researches, had established a British outpost around 1820.  “So Raffles Hotel is about as authentic as anything here.”

            Gratified at this discovery, Stuart returned to the taxi.

            “Is there a real Singapore?” he asked the driver.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean a Singapore that represents what Singapore really is?”

            “Orchard Road, I guess,” the driver replied with a hint of hesitation.      

            “Take me there.”

            Back again onto the wide avenues. Up and down the rolling manicured hills. In twenty minutes they arrived at the top of a busy commercial thoroughfare.

            “Orchard Road,” announced the driver.            

            Stuart’s eyes took in the real Singapore. Garish hotels and glittery shopping malls, chrome storefronts and neon signs, movies theaters and fast food outlets lined the street as far as Stuart could see.

            “You can buy anything here,” the driver declared. “Clothes.  Jewelry.  Carpets.  Cameras. Televisions.  Cars.  Anything.  Do you want to get out and walk?”

            “No,” Stuart sighed. “I think I’ll just go back to the hotel. ‘The world is too much….,’” he grumbled.      

            Stuart closed the door of the suite behind him with relief.  The coolness and quiet isolation were a balm. He poured a drink and ordered something to eat.  Then he lay down on the bed.  The overhead fan softly stirred the air with its silent, hypnotic rotations.  Taking up the Maugham volume, he opened it at random.  “I was in Pagan, in Burma, the narrator of the story “Mabel” began, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay”.  Stuart was again in the world he had come to find.

            He could not remember just when he fell asleep, but when he awoke the next day he could hear the sound of rain on the leaves outside. It was a comforting sound, assuring him that he could avoid the “real world” for a while.

            “I’ll just stay in the hotel today,” he decided firmly.

            After ordering breakfast he studied the hotel plan again to chart an itinerary.  Restaurants.  Shops.  Pool.  Bar. The usual.

            “But what’s this?  A museum?  A hotel museum?  This could be amusing.”

            Breakfast arrived promptly, served on the parlor table from where Stuart watched the rain outside. It was pouring so densely that he could hardly make out the main wing of the hotel across the courtyard. And yet it was gentle not harsh.

            “Ah, tropical rain,” he said to himself. “Torrential and drenching. But soft and warm.”

            After finishing the mangoes and croissants, Stuart left for the museum. The canopied corridor sheltered him from the rain while letting the moisture permeate the air. It led him past hotel shops–Oriental Antiques, Hassan’s Carpets, dozens of others–until it took him up a flight of stairs to Raffles Museum. Walking in, he found himself amidst memorabilia of Singapore’s history as an outpost of empire and a stopping place for wayfarers. Photographs, decals, correspondence, newspapers, as well as emblems of other colonial hotels which, along with Raffles, had “civilized” the East for Western travelers long ago–the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand in Rangoon, the Continental in Saigon, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Cathay in Shanghai.

            “Those were the days,” he thought as he examined  the artifacts. “The days of real travel, when the East was far away.”

            A framed newspaper story caught his eye. “Tiger shot at Raffles,” blazoned the headline of The Straits Times.  The year was 1902.  He leaned forward to read the harrowing account in the mock melodramatic style of the day:

            A day or two ago, Stripes, a tiger belonging to a native

            show broke from captivity and to all intents and purposes

            disappeared.  The watchman alleges that the tiger

            interviewed him and after giving him

                                            A Few Friendly Scratches

            made off, presumably swimming gaily up the Singapore river.

            From this point he was missed until the closing hour of the

            Raffles Billiard Room last night when, Lo and Behold! he

            stared through the verandah railing of the Billiard Room and

            gave the bar “boy” a stiff shock.  This was rather

                                            Too Much For The “Boy”

            who promptly secluded himself and awaited developments.

            Finding the tiger did not seek a personal interview with

            him, the “boy” stealthily emerged, and “scooted”!, hurried

            by sundry scratches from under the floor beneath the

            billiard table. Mr Phillips of Raffles Institution was         

            roused from his bed and, taking his rifle, proceeded to

           the scene of the action                                      

                                              In His Pajamas.

            The tiger was still under the floor. There was no doubt

            about that. Yet no amount of peering into the gloom could

            discover his presence. At last the hunters got sight of the

            tiger. That is to say, they

                                              Saw His Eyes Gleaming.

            Mr. Phillips put one of those nasty hollow-nosed bullets

            right between the pair of eyes, and Stripes laid down

            and died

                                               Dead As A Nail.

            A museum note somberly reported that this was the last tiger killed in Singapore.

            Stuart liked the story. And the style. And the museum. He bought some reproductions of old photographs and some luggage stickers and went to find the Billiard Room where valiant Stripes had met his doom.

            The rain was still coming down in sheets. Stuart was glad. It gave him a pleasant feeling of tropical isolation.

            As he left the museum he passed before a shop window where a mannequin stood in a dashing white double-breasted linen suit and white fedora. He eyed his own non-descript American outfit and said, “I must have it.”

            A few minutes later, Stuart Murphy emerged transformed.  The suit, the hat, a silky white shirt, a floral tie, and woven leather shoes made him into a character out of the fiction and old movies he adored.  In his late Fifties, slender and a bit over six feet tall but slightly stooped, his aging faced lined more from thought than from experience, Stuart now floated along the corridor with a new-born panache.  Admiring his reflection in the shop windows, he was all he imagined himself to be.  A man of the world, thriving on adventure and rich with marvelous memories.

            He found the fabled Bar and Billiard Room standing a few yards from the main building near the front. It had not changed since the early photographs–or it had been changed back again. 

            “I would like to sit near the billiard table, if I may,” he asked the waiter with decorous politeness  They circled around the bar to the far end of the room.  There stood the table, its green felt gaming area brightly lit against the rich dark wood of the room.  Shuttered windows let in a soft illumination from the gray day outside.  Rain pelted the roof.

            Stuart sat down and ordered a drink, conjuring up visions of the hapless tiger and the ferocious hunter in his pajamas who had made history here.  Not world history, but history all the same.

            Looking around the warm convivial room, he saw the usual tourists and businessmen who had made the modern Singapore an economic boom town. Yet they all seemed rather like bit characters in the drama he was living. He felt at home. He belonged here more than they did.

            The rain continued intermittently for days.  Stuart stayed in the hotel.

            Finally, the weather changed.  Stuart did not leave.

            A week went by.  Then another.  Stuart stayed on.  He was often seen in the public rooms. The Long Bar. The Tiffin Room. The Bar and Billiard Room. The Authors’ Lounge. The Museum. The shops.  But he ventured no farther.  His white suit and fedora became a familiar sight.  As did the dog-eared copies of Somerset Maugham that seemed an inseparable part of his attire.

            Most of the staff came to know and like him.  He was always polite.  And he left good tips.

            “Good morning, Sir. What will you be doing today?”

            “Oh, I think I’ll just stay in and do some reading.”

            “Good afternoon, sir.  What are you reading today?  More of the same?”

            “Ah, yes.”

            “Good evening, sir.  Will you be with us much longer?”

            “Indeed I will.”

            One morning as Stuart was preparing for another of these sublimely repetitious days, the telephone rang. 

            “Good morning, sir.  This is the manager.  I would like to speak to you about your bill. I am afraid your credit card will no longer accept charges.  I must therefore ask you to arrange to settle your outstanding bills and arrange for future payments before we can continue to provide you services.”

            “I am terrible sorry,” Stuart replied cordially.  “I don’t know how this could have happened.  I will take care of it immediately.”

            Stuart sent a FAX to his accountant back home:

            “Please wire me $30,000 at once and see that my credit card charges are          covered from now on. Do whatever you must–SM”

             The transaction completed, Stuart lay down on the bed to await the wire. He reached for Maugham.

            When the money came, accompanied by a laconic note from the accountant–”What the hell are you doing?!”–Stuart paid his balance and assured the manager that there would be no further misunderstandings.

            More weeks went by. He had to move from the Somerset Maugham Suite occasionally to accommodate other guests who had booked it long in advance, but he always came back.

           Communications from his accountant became more urgent and exasperated.

            “Your reserves are dwindling. I take no responsibility!  Come to your                              senses!!”

             “Just do what I ask!–SM”

              “The cash is nearly gone. What are you going to do!!?” Are you crazy!”

              “Sell! Stocks. The art collection. The house. The car. Everything. It means                                   nothing to me!–SM “

             All the while, Stuart never strayed from Raffles.

            But a change was coming over him. He receded almost completely from the world outside. He never read a newspaper or a magazine.  He wandered the hotel aimlessly. And he would sit for hours in the Authors’ Lounge reading Maugham and watching people passing through the lobby.

            In time, the change took another turn.  Stuart began to talk to people. Tentatively at first, then with accumulating confidence, he would approach waiters, shop keepers, hotel guests, as if to share a confidence.  Once he had their ear, he would tell them of his adventures and of the peculiar characters he had known.

            “When I was in Chiang Mai before the war,” he might whisper to a waiter, “I knew a man not unlike that one over there,” pointing to a lone diner at a neighboring table. “He wanted to sell me his business there because his wife had run off with a missionary. I declined, knowing how bad luck clings to things in the Orient.”

            Or drawing close to a guest in the Authors’ Lounge or the Long Bar he would share his memories of intrigues in Jakarta and loves in Papeete, of mysteries in Denpasar and discoveries in Calcutta, of dangers in Macau and seductions in Shanghai.  Listeners usually grew curious.  Some would relate incidents of their own.  Then they would excuse themselves and go away.

            Eventually, Stuart added another twist to his behavior. He started to write. At first he appeared to be idly writing letters. Then his concentration deepened. With heated intensity he began  filling page after page of stationery from the Somerset Maugham suite. The waiters could not have failed to notice.   

            “You write a lot these days, sir,” one of them observed while serving a drink. “If I may ask, are you writing a book?”

            “Oh,”  Stuart replied, “I am writing about many things, places I have been, people I have known. Human nature is so peculiar, you know. Let me tell you about a time when I was in Kathmandu….”

            “Uh, excuse me sir,” interrupted the waiter, “I am being called.”

            Stuart picked up his pen again. “Kathmandu in winter,” he began, “was the perfect place for a hunted man to hide….”

            As more weeks went by, Stuart steeped himself ever deeper in his work. Each day brought a new outpouring of creative energy. The pages piled up. His life was full of meaning. He moved among his haunts exuding a strange combination of distraction and concentration. His white suit grew yellowed and unkempt, his fedora stained and shapeless.

            Early one morning a knock came at his door. Stuart opened it to see the manager.

            “Mr. Murphy.  I am afraid you have another large unpaid bill. Your credit cards have been canceled.  Mail to your bank and your accountant is being returned unopened.  So we cannot continue to accommodate you.”

            “I beg your pardon?”

            “Mr. Murphy,” the manager repeatedly emphatically, “you have no funds. You seem to have no one to assist you. And quite frankly, Mr. Murphy, I regret to tell you that you have become something of an embarrassment to the hotel. I have no choice but to inform you that you are must leave Raffles.”

            “Oh, there is some mistake,” Stuart said with assurance. “You want someone else. Surely you know me. My name and initials are everywhere. Look.”  He pointed to the plaque on the door. And he displayed the SM engraved on the cufflinks clasping the frayed cuffs of his favorite shirt, and gestured toward the luggage stacked against the wall. “After all,” he went on, “I do a lot of my writing at Raffles. On my personal stationery, see.”  He plucked a sheet of it from the table.  “And many of my books are here. I would be happy to autograph one of them for you, if you would like.”

            The manager started to object but thought better of it.  After a pause, he simply said, “I will look into the matter further. Forgive me for disturbing you.”

            Stuart closed the door satisfied and prepared for another day of work. He made a feeble attempt to straighten his suit, donned his disheveled hat, gathered up a batch of stationery and a book of Maugham stories and departed for the Authors’ Lounge.

            He settled into his usual chair advantageously situated in a corner from where he could view the comings and goings of hotel guests. It was home to him now. Placing the stationery on the cocktail table in front of him, he leaned back and let the book fall open in his lap. The pages fanned. He looked down as they rested at the story “Honolulu.”

            “The wise traveler travels only in the imagination.”

            Stuart didn’t need to read this opening line.  He could recite it from memory.  And often did  It was a good cliché.  He reached for some stationery, took out his pen, and began to write:

            “The tramp steamer cast off as the dawn came up in a summer haze, and a blanket of stifling heat descended upon Singapore. We were headed for Pago Pago. But where didn’t matter. We were on the sea again….”

            Stuart’s concentration was broken by the voice of the bellboy: “Mr. Maugham.  Paging Mr. Somerset Maugham.”

            Patrons in the lobby and the Authors’ Lounge looked quizzically at the bellboy striding toward the odd figure in the rumpled white suit sitting in the corner, his arm raised to attract the boy’s attention.

            “Mr. Maugham, the manager would like to invite you to his office. Would you be so kind as to come with me.”

            “Certainly,” Stuart said graciously.  “Maybe he wants to apologize for this morning,” he thought, “or perhaps to plan a reception for some of the guests to meet me and take photographs.  That’s always good public relations for a hotel.”

            Stuart got up and, donning his hat and his cosmopolitan air, followed the boy through the lobby.  He nodded at attentive guests, pleased to be known and admired. From the lobby, the boy led Stuart down a hallway that Stuart hadn’t seen before. Stuart wondered how he could have missed it.

            They came to an unmarked door at the back of the hotel.  The bellboy knocked.  The door opened.  “Please come in,” the manager said, as he ushered Stuart into a small room where, in the soft light filtering through shuttered windows, the Singaporean police were waiting.         


Hadrian’s Moon


James Sloan Allen

           I woke up smiling. It had happened again. How many times? Over how many years?  It had started on an early trip to Rome with my husband, George.

The morning had come early that day. And the night had run late, carried along by convivial voices resounding over the cobblestones and echoing off antique walls in the piazza outside our hotel. Our piazza was noisier than most, attracting tourists and Romans to socialize in its outdoor cafes and to lounge around the fountain in front of the Pantheon. We had wanted to stay here anyway, in an old hotel on the Piazza della Rotunda. Just to look out the window at the most perfect building in the world.

Squeezing sleep from my eyes that morning, I could see gray light seeping through the tall thick wooden shutters that enclosed the windows and that had muffled, without silencing, the sounds from outside during the night. I drew in the windows and pushed out the shutters. And there it was. The Pantheon. Its magnificent colonnaded portico crowned by a pointed pediment, and its graceful dome rising above to the hole-in-the-top oculus, an eye open to the sky. Standing almost exactly as it has for almost two thousand years, ever since the emperor Hadrian built it to honor the Roman gods. Hadrian, it had always pleased me to remember, was one of those five good emperors when Edward Gibbon had said presided over “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”  I knew things like that as a student of Roman history. And I had liked that about Hadrian. I liked Gibbon, too, for his extravagant praise of the good emperors, and for saying that he had decided to write of Rome’s decline and fall one evening while “musing amid the ruins” of the half-buried Roman Forum as “barefoot friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter.”  I could never visit Rome without picturing the melancholy Gibbon sitting in the ruins listening to the friars’ evensong in the eighteenth century and resolving to tell the world how this greatest of all empires had fallen, leaving its capital to barefoot friars.

But the Pantheon remained. The impeccable, enduring Pantheon, the one unruined monument of ancient Rome, almost as perfect now as ever–probably because the Christians, like those singing friars in the Forum, had made a church of it. And yet, I remembered, how curious it was that Hadrian had claimed no credit for building it. The bold Latin inscription across the pediment reads: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” A historical red herring, I would explain to my students. Once historical memory of the Pantheon’s origins was lost, history had understandably attributed the Pantheon to Agrippa, the renowned general who had defeated Marc Anthony and had become second-in-command to the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and who had built an original temple on this site a hundred years before Hadrian. Hadrian got no credit for the Pantheon until the 1890s, when industrious archeologists unearthed evidence that it had arisen during his reign and had simply retained the original inscription to Agrippa in an act of deference that Hadrian commonly observed . I liked this story of the good emperor, too. Very Roman.

Rome is full of such curiosities, if not such architectural perfection. It is a mongrel city, made of bits and pieces of history jumbled together in a dozen styles. You never know what will turn up around the next corner. A Roman ruin. A random column. A Medieval gargoyle. A Renaissance fountain. A Baroque church. A lively piazza. Cataloguing the styles that morning, I had noticed a pair of banners hanging on a wire beside the Pantheon announcing festivities for the completion of a year-long renovation of the piazza. The asphalt surface had been replaced by cobblestones, returning the Piazza della Rotunda to its historic character, before it was given over to automobiles. We go forward to the past, sometimes, I had thought, even in Rome.

That is where my morning reveries had stopped that day. And where my story had begun. For I had caught sight of a human figure in front of the Pantheon barely visible in the rising light. It looked like an old woman cloaked in black, a cowl shrouding her head, and bent forward almost at a right angle, leaning on a cane. A crone preparing to beg, perhaps? But the hour was much too early for that. Why was she there?

Staring more intently, I detected an animal at her feet. Then two. Then three. Ah, Roman cats. You can’t be here long without seeing them. They slink along alleys, flash through entry ways, doze in cafes. They’re everywhere. I wondered how they survive, who feeds them. Or are they just another of Rome’s native curiosities? Part of a mongrel city as hospitable to cats as it is to history and to history’s ruins.

A cluster of these cats now entwined themselves around the feet of the crone, as she posed before the Pantheon like a drooping specter. The light was up now, and the first rays of the sun were catching the rooftops. Sounds of sweeping and of water spraying against the cobblestones ended dawn’s silence. The city was awakening.

I watched the piazza come to life. Workers sprayed off yesterday’s dust, vendors opened news stands, waiters arranged tables and chairs at the outdoor cafes, delivery men hauled food from trucks parked in the narrow side streets. And sunlight began falling across the columns of the Pantheon from the side, grazing each one with a thin band of light, then bathing the façades of the sixteenth-century buildings bordering the piazza on the west and calling to life the colorful mural of a Madonna, or some other innocent, on the upper floor of one of those façades.

I don’t know just how long I stayed there that morning leaning on the window sill and musing on two thousand years of Roman history greeting the day. But the first tourists broke the spell. Following their predictable path from the wide Piazza Navona a few streets to the west toward the cramped Fountain of Trevi close by on the east, they would quickly become hoards, reminding any Romanophile that much of the eternal city now exists mainly for transients. Another irony.

Before turning away, I looked at her again. The crone. Still standing at the front of the Pantheon in her crooked pose, bent at the middle, the cowl covering her face, one frail hand propping herself up with a cane, the other now stretching out for alms. Cats lying at her feet. She was working the tourists after all. And some of them were complying, dropping lira into her hand, while others held back, snapping pictures of the decrepit, spectral figure against the great pagan temple. Perhaps she was a con artist who had an act that she knew many tourists couldn’t resist. Who knows, she might live in a comfortable house on the outskirts and travel here by car for her performance.

With this disillusioning fantasy, I had turned from the window and begun readying for a day of tourism. We were quite young then, and George was always a willing, if slightly cynical, tourist. But we were going to avoid the usual “sights.” That day we wanted to find a different Rome. So we strolled back streets that most visitors neglect and walked along the Tiber River that wends through the city nearly hidden by its banks, a trickle that goes practically ignored compared to the Seine in Paris or the Thames in London. We explored Trastevere across the river where working people live and few tourists go because it is a thriving part of Rome, not a monument. And we wound up on the Aventine hill in the south, where the poet John Keats rests in the “English” cemetery under the epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”–“Evocative,” George had said, “but what does it mean?”–and from whose shady crest you can see the sun set over the Tiber behind the Janiculum and the distant dome of St. Peter’s.

By late evening, we were back in the Piazza della Rotunda after dining not far away on the sublime fettucine Alfredo at Alfredo alla Scroffa, which boasts of inventing the dish and deserves honor, whether the claim is true or not, for the elixir it serves. We sat at a busy café in the piazza where seasoned waiters dressed in black fronted with white aprons, scampered about exuding a charm fashioned to win the hearts of lonely ladies from the likes of mid-western American towns who have dreamed of Roman romance, and who get just enough of it this way, a staged dose of solicitous Italian male attention that they can take home with them in memories of imagined raptures, and can invoke with far-away-looks for inquisitive friends, and can thereafter enjoy sweetly and safely in their sleep. These are the guys who can do it.

“Ah, buono sera.  You like cappucino? Gelato?” said a waiter pleasantly. We ordered espresso and sumbucca. “Mille grazi.’”  With a smile and a crisp approving bow he clicked his heels and glided briskly away. We watched him go and followed the others as they darted back and forth, catching bits of their salutations and banter with customers. “Bella notte, signorina.” “Ah, veryy nice.” “Splennndeedo.”  It was all Roman charm. The convivial piazza. The summer night. Safe romance. Eternal Rome.

Then through the bustling waiters and crowded tables, I saw her again. The crone. Was it the same one? She was still in front of the Pantheon, now illuminated by lights aimed at it from around the square. She had hardly moved since morning. But the Pantheon was now closed. Why was she here at this hour? Maybe she did live in the streets. I pointed her out to George. “From central casting, I’d say,” he replied nonchalantly.

We lingered a while relishing the Roman night, then finished our drinks and went back to the hotel. Later, I lay in bed, listening to the voices outside wane. Unable to sleep, I went to the window and watched the last few café patrons drift away. The waiters started to stack their tables and chairs against the walls and to shutter the doors. The lights illuminating the Pantheon had gone dark, other lights around the piazza flicked out, and the piazza fell silent. But the scene remained surprisingly bright, the Pantheon standing in a soft luminescence. I leaned out the window and looked upwards. A radiant full moon hung in a starless sky. It bathed the dome of the Pantheon and washed over the piazza with a glow that picked out the contours of the cobblestones–how poignant that they should be a new evocation of the past–and threw distinct shadows down from the temple and from the fountain’s gargoyles, shadows that seemed to belong to such a night.

Suddenly, I saw a shadow move. It passed in the moonlight from the corner of the Pantheon to a narrow street running along the western side of the former temple toward the back. A trail of creatures low to the ground moved with it. It wasn’t a shadow. It was the crone. And the cats. Or so I concluded. This gets mysteriouser and mysteriouser, I had said to myself, like Alice in Wonderland.

Curiosity and the luminous night banished my timidity. Leaving George sleeping, I slipped on some clothes and stole out the door. Down two flights of stairs, I was outside in the quiet, deserted piazza. As if stalking a spy, I sneaked through the shadows against the buildings toward where I had seen the mysterious entourage. I couldn’t see them now, but I went forward, having no clear idea of why, or of what I expected to find.

When I reached the spot by the Pantheon where they had been, I peered down the narrow street. Not a trace. Irresistibly, I pressed on, driven by what I knew to be a silly fascination and a trace of slightly dangerous excitement. Twinges of nervousness pecked at my stomach as I left the open piazza behind for the uncertain trail I was following. Firming my will, I told myself that if I found nothing, I would continue on all around the Pantheon. Then I could at least go home with a story of a solitary moonlit walk in the deep of the night around the two-thousand-year-old Roman temple that is the most perfect building in the world. On through the darkness I went, careful of my steps, which involuntarily grew quicker as I plunged into the night.

As I neared the rear corner of the temple, my nerves tightened more. Moonlight falling on the ancient bricks of the temple’s back wall created a weird patch-work of jagged surfaces and shadows. But no sign of the crone and her cats. They must’ve gone off down one of the tangled medieval streets and alleys fanning out from here, I thought. No point trying to guess which. Suddenly sensing how alone I was in this nighttime  foreign place, I braced for the next stretch and headed swiftly down the street behind the Pantheon toward the far side, glancing here and there for my prey. No trace. When I reached the far corner, I relaxed a bit and entered a small adjacent piazza brightened by the moon to make a cursory check for the crone. No one. A tall statue in the center caught my eye. It depicted an elephant holding an obelisk on its back. I had seen it before and knew it to be by Bernini. In the moonlight it appeared even more whimsical than in daylight, not at all an emblem of wisdom, as its inscription stated. Amused by the sight, I forgot for a moment why I was there, thinking how mongrel Rome keeps surprising and amusing you. Then I started back toward the hotel.

Hurrying along the street to the east of the Pantheon toward the Piazza della Rotunda, I was now eager to complete the adventure, and no longer concerned about why I had begun it. As I approached the piazza, the bright moonlight reflecting on the cobblestones and building facades in the wide open space emboldened me again. I slowed my pace. The night had once more become too inviting for me to leave just yet. Then it occurred to me that inside the Pantheon on a night like this, with a full moon shining down through the oculus, must look kind of magical. I had to see it, if I could. Maybe I could peek inside between the massive front doors.

Soon I was standing at the base of the majestic columns at the front. I stepped into the dark portico and made my way to the bronze doors rising twenty feet from the ground. There I pressed my face to the narrow open space where they met.

I could barely see through. A column of moonlight poured down through the wide opening in the dome. My eyes followed it to the floor, where it lit a circle in the middle like a theatrical spotlight. What I saw there so startled me that I bumped my head against the doors. In the large oval spotlight stood–the crone!  Less crooked than before, she was swaying back and forth and waving her arms and tossing morsels in the air that momentarily caught the light as they fell. Surrounding her on the floor to the edge of the spotlight and into the darkness were–cats. Dozens. Scores of them. They jumped to catch what she tossed. They rolled. They ran. They tumbled. They stood on their hind legs. They batted the air with their paws. They made the floor seem alive. They almost seemed to be dancing with the crone. But they made no sound.

I stared. How did they get in? A hidden passage? An underground conduit from a nearby ruin? That would be like Rome. But is this really happening? I asked myself.

I watched for five, ten, fifteen minutes. The crone and the cats. The cats frolicking, all as silent as the night, a mysterious performance in a heavenly light that had shined on this stage every night of the full moon for close to two millenia. Tourists see the sunlight come through. But who sees the moonlight?

Maybe Hadrian knew, I thought. The oculus lets in the moonlight as well as the sun. Here was the perfect Roman building, for sure. The perfect temple for worshiping all the gods of heaven. The perfect stage for moonlit rituals. The perfect setting to celebrate the mysteries and magic of the night. The perfect place for congregations of the mongrel cats of Rome. Hadrian must have known.

Finally, a bit dizzied I eased away from the door. Somehow, I found my way across the piazza to the hotel and up the stairs and into the room and under the sheets, and there I dissolved into sleep.

And then I dreamed, for the first of unnumbered times, of what George and everyone else to whom I told the story dismissed as only a dream. Perhaps it was a dream. But I could never believe that. Because that night forever changed Rome for me, becoming my very image of the Eternal City’s wondrous history and eclectic hospitality. And it always leaves me smiling, whenever, asleep or awake, I see again that faceless crone and her Roman cats silently dancing in the Pantheon under Hadrian’s moon.

Tristram Shandy and the Humanity of Laughter


Tristram Shandy and the Humanity of Laughter

James Sloan Allen

Everybody likes to laugh. It feels good, and it can turn darkness into light. “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing,” said Mark Twain. “The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”  Comedy can even help cure illness or at least assuage pain. The renowned critic Norman Cousins demonstrated this when he curtailed a debilitating disease with funny films (and vitamin C), as he reported in Anatomy of an Illness.  Nowadays some hospitals offer an internal television channel of full-time comedy called the Chuckle Channel to spur health and counter the often unhealthfully disheartening TV fare of daily news and violent entertainment.

 No one has known the power—and humanity—of laughter better, or written about it with greater genius and deeper affection than that genial Anglican cleric and ribald comic novelist of the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne. His Tristram Shandy remains the quintessential comic novel of all time.

Many people today find Tristram Shandy unreadable. Its abundant allusions to other books, its frequent breaks and odd punctuation, its blank, black, and mottled pages, its fractured chronology, and its long, tangled, Shandean digressions can try patience. But it lives as a book that everyone should read for many reasons. No less a reader than Sterne’s contemporary Thomas Jefferson said in a letter that “the writings of Sterne form the best course of morality that ever was written.”  Later Friedrich Nietzsche lauded Sterne (in Human, All-Too Human) as “the most liberated spirit of all time” for his unconventional prose and lively embrace of life’s ambiguities and vicissitudes.  Johann von Goethe declared (in Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre) that Sterne was “the first who lifted us above pedantry and philistinism” and “was the most beautiful spirit who ever created; anyone who reads him immediately feels full and beautiful.”  That is all high praise, and it has continued on through later authors like Joyce and Woolf who found it inspirationally modern. In short, Tristram Shandy is a laughing book to think about.

I’ll briefly—with some Shandean digressions—take us through some of the things Sterne wants us to laugh at and think about down to a summation of Sterne’s liberated and beautiful spirit and his laughing and yet moral vision of life.

First a few words on comedy. For one thing, comedy is other side of tragedy. Both upset expectations of how life should be. We meet tragedy in literature and life when terrible things happen to noble or good or even merely innocent people, leaving lasting scars and sorrows. Comedy turns some of those same upset expectations—about truth, authority, morality, mortality, rationality, and other things that shape our lives—into laughter. And we laugh because we are not threatened. Whereas tragedy engulfs and harms us, comedy detaches us, manipulating recognizable situations to produce off-beat perceptions and give us a pleasurable emotional release in laughter, even at things we might fear. No wonder some religions have barred comedy for undermining piety and subverting their power.  The scholar Umberto Eco wrote a famous novel about this—The Name of the Rose, a medieval murder mystery centering on the Catholic Church’s suppression of a supposedly lost treatise by Aristotle commending comedy.

There are, of course, many kinds of comedy and many kinds of laughter, from loving to cruel. But the kinds that run through Tristram Shandy never sink to the mean-spirited, contrived to boost the laugher’s ego at other people’s expense. They always lift us up, as they poke gentle fun at our expectations of how life—and literature—work. As Sterne explained in an evocative sermon called “The Levite and the Concubine” (marked by his typical eccentric style) “there is a difference between…the malignity and the festivity of wit,—-the one is a mere quickness of apprehension, void of humanity,–and is a talent of the devil,… a setting up trade upon the broken stock of other people’s failings—perhaps their misfortunes;…it is a commerce most illiberal” and “has helped to give wit a bad name.… The other comes down from the Father of Spirits, so pure and abstracted from persons, that willingly it hurts no man” but helps “sweeten our spirits, that we might live with such kind intercourse in this world, as will fit us to exist together in a better.” Sterne’s mirthful, dancing mind skitters from laugh to laugh with this generous “festivity of wit” and reverence for humanity. And it makes Sterne’s comedy more than diversion. As he says in his dedication of Tristram Shandy, “whenever a man smiles—but much more so when he laughs—he adds something to this Fragment of Life.”

Sterne well knows that Tristram Shandy comes at comedy from a most unusual angle. Although he pays ample homage to his favorite authors—notably Rableais, Cervantes, Robert Burton,  and Swift—he tells us early on (through the voice of Tristram, who narrates the book) that “ in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself “ neither to classical rules nor “to any man’s rules that ever lived” (4—all quotations from the Modern Library edition).  And he implores us to “laugh with me, or at me,” but “let me go on, and tell my story in my own way” (7).  But he later says, “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humored Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good—And all you heads too—provided you understand it” (349). And he adds, “I wish it may have its effect—and that all good people…may be taught to think as well as read” (45).  To do our hearts and heads good and teach us how to think and to read—these are unusual aspirations for a comic novel. Patient readers see how he succeeds.  

Look at how he begins. It is surely one of the strangest beginnings in literature. It has Tristram himself commenting on the ill-fated act of his parents’ conceiving him one Sunday night owing to his mother interrupting his father at the seminal moment by asking if he had wound the clock as he was supposed to do that night. That “very unseasonable question” (2), he says, caused his father’s concentration to go awry, dispersing the “animal spirits” and planting the seed of a literally misbegotten life. This epochal interruption of Tristram’s begetting signals Sterne’s most striking, and often confusing, way of telling his story: interruptions followed by digressions.

Anyone who has tried to read Tristram Shandy has seen how the story wanders from subject to subject sometimes aimlessly—and finally the book ends almost nowhere, anti-climactically as a professedly “cock-and-bull story.” It takes Sterne nearly a third of the book to get from Tristram’s account of his own conception to his account of his birth, while Sterne introduces us to a host of other characters and meanders through their lives and ideas and the events leading up to Tristram’s finally entering the world in a prolonged scene of comic tragedy. Then from there on we really don’t see as much of Tristram as we do of other characters. His “life and opinions,” as the subtitle promises, run in the background as the tale wends its twisty way to the much-anticipated love story of Uncle Toby—which occurred before Tristram was conceived—followed by the anticlimactic ending.

 Sterne is clearly making fun here of our expectations of how stories get told. But, lest the Shandean digressions throw us off, he tells us to appreciate them. For they give us a clue to how to read and think. “Digressions,” he says, “incontestably, are the sunshine,–they are the life, the soul of reading” (54). But none can be “a poor creeping digression…it must be a good frisky one, and upon a frisky subject too” (497). He even gives us a chart of how his story goes with its frisky digressions in loops and tangents defying straight lines. He also puts in a couple of mottled pages as the “motley emblem of my work. (176). And he says that anyone who wishes to understand human life, past and present, must think rather like that. “If he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line” (28) as he looks around and pursues this and that before he comes to the conclusion or gets where he is going.

 These Shandean digressions therefore do more than complicate the tale. They reflect the way Sterne believes human life unfolds and the mind works. And that is how they teach us how to read and think. The accidental, the incidental, the odd turn here and there lead us from one thing to another without design, accumulating consequences that shape our lives. Sterne traces a series of such accidents and incidents as he has Tristram tell of his own birth, invoking thwarted plans, missing mid-wives, an inept doctor, intractable servants, stubborn knots, mishandled forceps, and misunderstood names resulting in the child being born with a crushed nose and being christened with the wrong name. Such is life. A series of misadventures. “We live in a world beset on all sides by mysteries and riddles,” Tristam laments (507).

Amidst these mysteries and riddles the human mind tries to make sense of it all. It does this with ideas that link one experience to another, sometimes by intent, sometimes willy-nilly. These ideas draw our attention to things and prompt digressions. Sterne is playing here with John Locke’s influential theory of the Association of Ideas, which describes how our minds begin as blank slates on which experience then writes ideas, and as these ideas get associated with one another, we learn to think and understand the world. I said Sterne plays with this theory, and play he does. For he makes as much fun of it as he honors it.

It supplies the comedy that begins the book. Tristram’s mother interrupted her husband with the “unseasonable question” asked about the clock because he wound it once a month on the same Sunday they shared intimacy. That intimacy and the clock went together in her mind—an unfortunate association of ideas at an inopportune moment.

Tristram’s Uncle Toby becomes the fullest comic embodiment of the association of ideas. A former soldier who suffered a groin injury in battle, Toby develops an obsessive “hobby horse” about military matters, especially fortifications, as he reads voluminously while recuperating. Then, with his servant Trim, he constructs a vast fortress and reenacts military operations, and everything he does or thinks or hears or sees becomes associated in his mind with martial doings. Sensations remind him of his military past; conversations take him off to fabled battles; he even embarks on his love affair with the widow Wedman as a military campaign. It all makes for splendid comedy.

Sterne has fun with Locke’s theory throughout the book. But Toby’s hobby horse and  Tristram’s misconception give Sterne occasion to poke fun at more than Locke’s theory. They also let him show throw an unexpected light on military life and the act and consequence of procreation. In Tristram Shandy, Toby’s militarism is quite a laughing matter. And for all his preoccupation with it, Toby shows himself to be so unwarlike by nature that he literally will not kill a fly—of which more later. By the same token, while Sterne ridicules militarism he bestows a peculiar seriousness on sex, procreation, and childbirth, a reversal of common expectations of what matters most in history.  Tristram’s father, Walter, upholds those traditional expectations when he deplores what he judges to be the near bestiality of human procreation and extols the heroics of war and the “glorious…act of killing and destroying a man,” along with the “honorable…weapons by which we do it” (522).

But throughout Tristram Shandy Sterne delights in showing about how sex and its consequences can wield more importance than anything else. In fact, you can read Tristram Shandy as a serious comedy of sexuality, from the opening scene of Tristram’s begetting through the long metaphoric discourse on the historic influence of big noses to Toby’s failed love affair with widow Wedman from impotence and then the inadequate performance of the bull at the very end. But to dwell on that theme can obscure Sterne’s higher purposes. That said, one of these incidents does invite a few moments time because, besides the opening scene, it has won more sustained notice through the years than any other in the book. It is the vivid account of Trim’s first love. (Denis Diderot affectionately incorporated this almost word for word in the novel, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, inspired by Tristram Shandy and modeled on the relationship of Toby and Trim,)

A former corporal wounded in the knee during a battle, Trim recovers in a peasant household nursed by a virtuous young woman referred to only as Beguine (a charitable lay-sister). One day “the fair Beguine” offers to ease the itching of his knee with massage. This she does—through a narrative of exquisite detail much abbreviated here—first with one finger, then two, then three, “till little by little she brought down the fourth, and then rubb’d with her whole hand.” Then slowly, “she passed her hand across the flannel, to the part above my knee…and rubb’d it also. I perceived, then, that I was beginning to be in love—As she continued rub-rub-rubbing—I felt it spread from under her hand…to every part of my frame—“ until “my passion rose to the highest pitch—I seized her hand–.” Here Toby, to whom Trim was telling the tale as reported by Tristram, breaks in to say in all innocence: “—And then, thou clapped’st it to thy lips, Trim,…and madest a speech.” Tristram declines to tell us “whether the corporal’s amour terminated precisely in the way my uncle Toby described it,” but concludes, “it is enough that it contain’d in it the essence of all the love-romances which ever have been wrote since the beginning of the world” (464, 465).  Has the erotic comedy of “love” ever been more artfully described?  After reading Trim’s tale, who could fall in love through caresses without remembering Trim’s knee and the gentle parody of love it holds?

Sterne clearly elevates sex and procreation and childbirth above the glories of war, while getting laughs from them all. Even Walter Shandy, despite his penchant to exalt the likes of warfare and theory, showed himself subject, rather embarrassingly, to the power of sexuality when mis-begetting Tristram.

This returns us to Tristram’s comical conception. Sterne’s elevation of this subject points to another bit of parody. That is, Sterne treats Tristram’s conception and birth with a comic seriousness that becomes a parody of tragedy.  Tristram’s mis-begetting, his mis-handled birth, and his mis-christening count as tragedy to Tristram’s father. Walter fervently believes large noses go with success in life—Sterne devotes chapters to this belief—as do appropriately dignified Christian names. When his mis-conceived child comes into the world with a squashed nose and then, instead of being nobly christened Trismigistis, a god-like name, he gets errantly given the lowly, sad moniker of Tristram because the priest has received faulty instructions, Walter thinks his world has tragically collapsed. Sterne makes comedy of his tragedy.

Walter’s efforts to compensate for the tragedy by providing Tristram an ideal education also becomes comedy. The theoretically-minded Walter decides to write a detailed child-rearing manual—an novelty in those days, capped by Rousseau’s Emile, published in 1764, three years after Sterne’s account—entitled Tristra-paedeia, to insure that Tristram will grow up well. But Walter’s labors go for naught because, while he consumingly devotes himself for three years to writing this book, Tristram develops with no paternal attention at all. Walter’s actions here, like his scholarly study of noses and many another instance, exhibit his penchant “to force every event in nature into an hypothesis by which means never a man crucified TRUTH at the rate he did” (521).

This crucifiction points to the target of Sterne’s humor more pervasive than any other. That is the collective follies of abstract theory, intellectual pretense, pedantry, high seriousness or “gravity,” and the hypocritical and inhumane attitudes that often flow from them. Sterne wants us to laugh at life and learn from our laughter (albeit not only from that) and shun pretentious philosophy, Pharisaic self-righteousness, melancholy theology, and all nonsense of what he derided as “learned blockheads” (Penguin notes, vol III, ch xxxi).

Consider the scene of Trim and his hat. This does not stir laughter, but it illustrates Sterne’s view of truth and pretense. The scene actually deals with death. Tristram’s brother Bobby has just died. And while Walter Shandy pontificates philosophically to Toby about death, all but forgetting his deceased son, the servants speak of it differently down stairs. There Trim comes in to learn the news and gives his own discourse on death. But nothing he says speaks as forcefully as a gesture he makes with his hat. “Are we not here now,” he says, “and are we not (dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!” (287). Reflecting on Trim’s act Tristram observes that although Trim spoke commonplace words on life and death, “the descent of the hat was as if a heavy lump of clay had been kneaded into the crown of it.—Nothing could have expressed the sentiment of mortality…like it,–his hand seemed to vanish from under it,–it fell dead,–the corporal’s eye fix’d up on it, as upon a corpse…” (288). And Tristram concludes, “Ye who govern this mighty world and its mighty concerns with the engines of elegance,—who heat it, and cool it, and melt it, and mollify it,—-and then harden it again to your purpose–…–meditate—meditate, I beseech you, upon Trim’s hat” (289).

No comedy here, but the simplicity of Trim’s act spoke volumes about human mortality. Unvarnished perceptions and honest emotions take us closer to the reality of human life than any theory. As for those whose minds remain mantled in theory and intellectual pretense, Sterne snaps, “I write not for them” (156).

The whole book makes this case in a variety of ways. But Sterne gives us one character who particularly exemplifies it. It is the Parson Yorick, Sterne’s alter ego—Sterne published his own sermons under the pen name Yorick, as he did his last book, A Sentimental Journey.

Said to have descended from the jester of the same name in Hamlet, Yorick is also a jester despite being a cleric (like Sterne himself). A gangly fellow, Yorick rides around his parish on a skinny old horse said to resemble Don Quixote’s Rocinante. People laugh at him, and he joins “in the laughter against himself” because “he loved jest in his heart” (13). And his jesting heart cannot resist making light of seriousness and the attitude of “gravity” that he finds at once risible and hypocritical.

“Yorick had an invincible dislike and opposition in his nature to gravity,” Sterne writes, or rather “to the affectation of it…as it appeared a cloak for ignorance, or for folly….Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say, that ‘gravity was an errant scoundrel’; and he would add,–‘of the most dangerous kind too,—-because a sly one’” since “the very essence of gravity was design, and consequently deceit;– ‘twas a taught trick to take credit of the world for more sense and knowledge than a man was worth” (19). Fired by this distaste for the affectation of gravity.Yorick skewered every sign of it. And he found plenty of them. Being “a man unhackneyed and unpracticed in the world” (19), he gave free reign to “his wit and humour,–his gibes and jests” (20) (like his namesake) at the expense of anyone affecting gravity to serve himself. But he failed to see that the sources of his jests didn’t laugh with him. Eventually, some of these aggrieved “Jestees” attacked him one night and gave him a thrashing. Although he survived the assault, he died soon afterwards, not from his injuries but, “as was generally thought, quite broken-hearted” (22). Mourners marked his grave stone in the church yard with an epitaph in the plaintive words of Hamlet: “Alas, poor YORICK!” (24) After these words comes a full black page of grief.

While Yorick exemplifies Sterne’s love of jest and antipathy to affected gravity, he also embodies some other virtues that Sterne commends. These include honesty, modesty, and charity—Tristram clelebrates him for skirting the appearance of self-righteousness by never telling anyone that he started riding his ramshackle horse in order to serve the old and sick reliably instead of having a better horse that less needy parishioners would borrow  and overuse). He was a well-intentioned fellow, if naïve about some effects of his jests. 

But more than Yorick, the moral center of Tristram Shandy is Uncle Toby. Toby and Trim ramble about the book like Don Quixote and Sancho. Don Quixote had his hobby horse in knight errantry, Toby has his in military affairs. But both are noble souls, brimming with humanity—Sterne even has Toby say that “the peerless knight of La Mancha…with all his follies, I love more and would actually have gone farther to have paid a visit to than the greatest hero of antiquity” (15-16).

Toby possesses a humanity rooted in innate honesty, simplicity, sincerity, humility, and charity. He is no jester, but he spurns affectation, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy—and he whistles a tune whenever he hears high-falutin’ talk, which happens a lot with his brother Walter. And his humanity shines brightest in his charitable generosity of spirit toward all living things. He is one of the truly Good persons in literature. That is not an easy thing to portray. Plato observed this when remarking that the rational and orderly life gives little to represent in literature, whereas conflicts and troubles provide endlessly arresting material. Dostoevsky tried to fashion a Good Man in the character of Myshkin in The Idiot, but he had to make him nearly mentally defective to do it. Tolstoy gave us a morally ideal person in Platon Karataev, a spiritually impeccable figure who calmly endures all suffering, but who has to live a rather other-worldy life to make that possible. Somerset Maugham thought he had presented a Good Man in the story “Salvatore,” whose title character has a simple goodness of heart, but he doesn’t have much of a life. Toby’s goodness has more vitality and illuminates the moral life at large.

Toby might be bit of a simpleton, but despite the goofy things he does—like Don Quixote—he teaches Tristram the humanity of moral goodness. He does this first in an off-hand incident that no one who reads it will forget. As Tristram recalls it, “one day at dinner” a pesky fly “buzz’d about his [Toby’s] nose, and tormented him cruelly.” Finally, Toby captured the pest, and “rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand”  he said, “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:–Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go poor Devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—-This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

Sentimentality?  Perhaps. And yet Tristram tells us that “I was but ten years old when this happened,” and “the lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby has never since been worn out of my mind.” He adds: “This is to serve for parents and governors instead of a whole volume on the subject”—like Trim’s hat (87). Later, Tristram—or Sterne—draws on Toby as his model for how to treat critics (some of whom had scoffed at the early volumes of the  book): “Never to give the honest gentlemen a worse word or a worse wish, than my uncle Toby gave the fly which buzzed about his nose at dinner time… ‘get thee gone,–why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me” (127).  Another time, a second appearance of flies prompts Toby to scorn racial prejudice and mistreatment of the weak and to extol human sympathy. This occasion has Trim telling of his brother once encountering a “negro girl” in a shop who held a bunch of feathers “flapping away flies—not killing them.” At this, Tristram reports: “—’Tis a pretty picture! said my uncle Toby—she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy—.”  Then Toby and Trim begin discussing whether all people, including negroes, have a soul. Toby decides that they must, for God would have it no other way, and Trim agrees, otherwise “it would be putting one sadly over the head of another.” But then why, Trim asks, “is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?” And they agree again that it is “because she has no one to stand up for her.” So, Toby concludes, this “recommends her to our protection—and her brethren with her,” since only “the fortune of war” has “put the whip in our hands now,” and the future might remove it. In any case, they wind up, what matters is that those who have power never “use it unkindly” (491).

Sterne opposed slavery in his sermons, and gentle Toby, who would not hurt a fly, speaks for him here. Sympathy, mercy, generosity, all lived in Toby’s heart. To call it sentimentality misses the emotional matrix of morals—a subject of lively interest in Sterne’s day, as in Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759) and Roussseau’s Emile (1764). Toby even considers military life not so much a source of glory as an aid to “the good and quiet of the world” by protecting “the lives and fortunes of the few from the plundering of the many” (494).

Tristram mentions such qualities of his uncle’s character many times, and he pauses his narrative in one place to observe a variety of Toby’s virtues. “Here it is,” he says “—my heart stops me to pay to thee, my dear uncle Toby, once for all, the tribute I owe thy goodness…

–Thou envied’st no man’s comforts,–insulted’st no man’s opinions. –Thou blackened’st no man’s character,–devoured’st no man’s bread: gently with faithful Trim behind thee, did’st thou amble round the little circle of thy pleasures, jostling no creature in thy way;–for each one’ service thou hadst a tear,–for each man’s need, thou hadst a shilling” (174).

 Who can resist Uncle Toby? As loveable as Don Quixote, he surpasses that knight in the unwavering tenderness of his soul and the universal generosity of his heart. We root for him to succeed in his Quixotic wooing of the very willing widow Wedman. And we smile at him at the end when he fails for reasons of sexual impotence he cannot grasp—in a subtly amusing scene where the widow, curious about his virility, delicately questions him about the location of his groin wound, and he naively responds by describing the location in the battle where it occurred—and then retires from the field to prepare a list of the widow’s virtues. Tristram tells us that the ever-forgiving Toby has no capacity for suspicion, resentment, or anger. Always he looks for the good and somehow finds it. “I love mankind” (493), he says earnestly, without pretense or the yen for abstract ideas that can induce a philosophical love of mankind blind to the lives of actual people. Toby demonstrates his genuine love of people again and again in little acts of humanity. 

For all of its wackiness, Tristram Shandy gives us a humane vision of life for sure. And it is no more simplistic than the book. It is a comic vision born of human experience, wide reading, philosophic ideas, and a moral imagination. This vision takes us from a perception of how life and thought unfold in unpredictable twists and turns and lengthy digressions, and it goes on to good advice about how we might live in this uncertain and often troubled world with generosity and laughter. I would sum up the best in Sterne’s Shandean vision like this:

 We come into this world with whatever our nature and circumstances provide us. And these can be mighty peculiar. We then live our lives “beset on all sides by mysteries and riddles” (507), as experience leads us on a meandering course that defies plans and lets seemingly random incidents often yield momentous consequences. At the same time, our minds flit from idea to idea with a logic of association that we do not entirely control as we respond to the rush of experience. This can make for a very muddled existence, fraught with disappointments and sorrows and warranting a tragic sense of life. But that is not Sterne’s conclusion.

His conclusion begins with the epigraph to volumes I and II. This  line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus might be translated as: “The troubles of human beings come not from practical reality (pragmata) but from doctrines (dogmata) about reality.” Or more simply: It’s not life itself that causes us the most trouble but how we think about life. That means our challenge lies in thinking right about it (Buddhists have, of course, always said this; Walter Shandy could be a case study in wrong thinking). Sterne gave his own variation on this idea in a letter of 1764 (Penguin notes vol. VIII ch xliii). “In short,” he wrote, “we must be happy within—and then—few things without us make much difference—This is my Shandean Philosophy.”

When we ask how we should think about life in order to “to be happy within,” we learn what Sterne meant by teaching people not only how to read but how to think. That turns out to be not one way of thinking but a cluster of related Shandean principles. Sterne the cleric/novelist wove these principles through his sermons and his novels. Among these are the moral virtues he conferred on Yorick and especially the qualities of character he gave to Toby—the gentle and unassuming nature, the generous and forgiving heart, the innocent religiosity. Who can doubt that Toby was happy within?  (In a sermon on the deceptions of conscience that Sterne includes almost verbatim in Tristram Shandy as written by Yorick, he advises marrying humble religious belief to humane secular morality, which can temper each other and guard against both religious self-righteousness and irreligious self-assurance, while also fostering a generous humanity. 

But the more conspicuous Shandean way of thinking flows from Sterne’s zest for letting the mind wander happily in “the spirit of Shandeism” (as he wrote in a letter of 1761) —notice, by the way, that Sterne spells Shandeism with an e instead of a y in allusion to religion; to him, Shandeism was a kind of religion. Sterne says this spirit saved him from throwing in the towel at bad times because it kept him from dwelling for “two moments on any grave subject,” and soon he would always find himself to be “merry as a monkey—and as mischievous too, too” (Penguin notes vol. IV ch xxii). That is a virtue of the digressive mind.

Sterne put this virtue in a nice image in his sermon “The House of Feasting and the House of Mourning.”  Reflecting there on why “God made us,” he writes, “say we are travellers,” who, while mindful of “the main errand we are sent upon…may surely be allowed to amuse ourselves with the natural or artificial beauties of the country we are passing through,” for “it would be a nonsensical piece of saint errantry to shut our eyes.” In A Sentimental Journey Sterne/Yorick the traveler adds: “What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.” The Shandean journey of life wends where it will and gives the mind abundant subjects to think about and to laugh at.

Yes, laugh at. For wit, Sterne insists (contra Locke) holds no less importance in life than judgment and sometimes more. He even has the often mis-guided Walter Shandy concede: “Everything in this world is big with jest—and has wit in it, and instruction too—if we can but find it out” (312). Sterne found it everywhere. And he thought we needed to find it to fend off troubles and live well. As he says, Tristram Shandy “’tis wrote against anything,–‘tis wrote…against the spleen;–in order” through “laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices” from the body (237). Sterne judged laughter good medicine.

He actually dedicated the book to William Pitt with a testimonial to laughter (quoted in part earlier) as an antidote to life’s physical and other trials. “I live in a constant endeavor,” he says there, “to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,–but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life.”  Is there a more humane prescription for humor than that?  In the same spirit, begins the sermon above by saying that to believe “sorrow is better than laughter” might do for “a crack’d-brained order of Carthusian monks, I grant, but not for men of the world.” After all, he continues, consider “what provision and accommodation the Author of our being has prepared for us that we might not go on our way sorrowing…some of which he has made so fair, so exquisitely fitted for this end, that they have power over us for a time to charm away the sense of pain, to cheer up the dejected heart under poverty and sickness, and make it go and remember its miseries no more.” Sterne makes God as good-natured as he is—and in another sermon he says God must have granted human beings a great capacity for good because otherwise God could not expect people to become good.

Sterne brings these themes together in a celebratory conclusion at the end of volume IV. “True Shandeism,” he says, “think what you will of it, opens the heart and lungs” and “makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully around.” And he has Tristram fantasize there that if he could, like Sancho Panza, choose a kingdom to rule, it would be “a kingdom of hearty laughing subjects” who are “as WISE as they [are] MERRY” and therefore “the happiest people under heaven.”

Here is the Shandean utopia of the Shandean religion. A place where everyone embraces the wandering journey of life with a cheerfully digressive mind; where laughter turns darkness to light, alleviates pains and sorrows, and nurtures a generous humanity; where wit and merriment aid judgment and wisdom, and where judgment and wisdom encourage wit and merriment. And where all agree that every time a man smiles,–but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to the Fragment of Life. That is the humanity of laughter.


Liberals Don’t Get It: It’s Human Nature

Liberals often don’t seem to get it. The current brouhaha over the contraception provision in the new health care law proves it again. Liberals propose what they judge to be reasonable policies for serving the American people—like expanding health care protection—then they stagger when many of those people recoil with impassioned accusations of evil government intentions, frequently supported by pseudo-facts. Liberals greet such outbursts with bemused head shaking, and usually a little condescension, wondering how people can be so irrational. But that’s what they don’t seem to get. It’s human nature, alas.

The liberal faith in rationality–and, ironically, it is as much faith as fact, after all–has now got the Obama administration into a battle with the Catholic Church and right-wing ideologues over religious freedom. The Catholic Church opposes contraception in general and claims that the mandate for insurance companies to provide contraception coverage violates the church’s freedom to deny that protection to employees of its universities, hospitals, and other affiliated institutions. The administration marshals scientific facts of health benefits, statistics of near universal use of contraception among women, and rational arguments to defend the rule. But that is all beside the point. Religious convictions don’t yield to facts and arguments. They are rooted in emotions and faith–for better and worse. And right-wing ideologues can feast here on a so-called  anti-religious campaign of an over-reaching liberal secular government.  Even if the great majority of Americans favor the administration’s contraception policy, the fervor of the right on issues like this–whether genuinely felt or politically opportunistic–always ignites emotions and channels them to conservative political ends. Obama will suffer the political consequences, just as he did during the original health care controversy, contrived as it might have been. How the Obama-ites failed sufficiently to foresee this displays nothing more than the liberal blindness to the power of unreason in human nature.

It is not news that liberals tend to count on human beings to value rational coherence, common sense, and facts in claims to truth. This tendency goes back a long time. We might say it started with Aristotle. He philosophized in the Ethics that rational choice (“activity of soul in accordance with a rational principle”) distinguishes human beings from all other creatures. And he concluded from this that people live best when theygovern their lives rationally, steering clear of doing too much or too little of anything. His Ethics, as he said, led directly to his Politics, where he explained how laws can facilitate this “blessed life” of the rational good, at least for those able to achieve it. Aristotle was no egalitarian. He was a liberal-minded humanist confident in the rationality of human nature to give us the good life.

Later, John Locke parlayed a kindred, if more politically radical, idea of human rationality into an intellectual inspiration for modern democracy. “Reason,” he wrote in the Second Treatise on Government (1690), “teaches all mankind” that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions,” and therefore government should protect these natural rights from the less rational and more selfish impulses that lurk in the hearts of human beings. What is more, he went on, people have a right to rebel against governments that neglect this protection.

Thomas Jefferson echoed Locke in the Declaration of Independence. There he justifyied political revolution to preserve the “self-evident…unalienable rights” of human beings to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In that same year (1776), the Scot Adam Smith applied a related liberal rationalism to modern economics. In The Wealth of Nations, he  argued that capitalism benefits everyone because a free market has an “invisible hand” that leads the rational economic self-interest of individuals and nations to general prosperity.

These pioneers of political and economic liberalism glowed with optimism. They envisioned a benign future for societies freed from irrational authority and shaped by rationality at last. Later, the pioneer of social liberalism, John Stuart Mill, aspired to the same end against a social tyranny unwittingly born of liberal democracy itself.  Confident that reason will prevail over unreason in an open society, Mill insisted in On Liberty (1859) that individuals should be completely free to think and to live as they choose—even if not to everyone else’s “convenience,” short of doing obvious harm. Only through such unfettered individuality can the mind grow, and individuals, societies, and humanity flourish. I might add that Mill’s younger contemporary Karl Marx carried the liberal confidence in rationality—albeit not individualism—to the conclusion that only a communist utopia could free human beings to live truly rational human lives politically, economically, and socially.

Such historic names only mark a few familiar early classics of the liberal rationalist tradition. I do not mean to imply that this tradition has denied human irrationality—or that ideologues and activists on the far left have not made use of it.  But the liberal tradition has clearly expected reason to eclipse unreason in an enlightened life. The conservative tradition has been more skeptical and “realistic”—and opportunistic.

Here we could start with Plato, whom Karl Popper famously derided as the original enemy of the “open society” for his ideal state ruled by an intellectual elite and hostile to change. Plato imagined this elite trained to harness their own irrationality in order to govern everyone else. To achieve these ends, Plato advocated, for one thing, censoring art from childhood onwards, lest it feed the “low elements of the mind,” subverting reason and the state itself—as he thought art has a tendency and power to do. Plato stands at the origins of the political conservatism that grasps human irrationality and tries to harness it for the public good in  a society of inviolable order (modern libertarianism is another breed).

The father of modern political thought, Machiavelli, saw human irrationality even more clearly than Plato, but he was not as politically idealistic. He gave us in The Prince  a picture of politics as an arena of bestial struggle where rulers must cope with human beings “as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined.” And, in truth, as he said, they are  “ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit,” they deceive themselves no less than others, they succumb to fear over love, prefer appearances to reality, and they side selfishly with immoral leaders over moral leaders while professing to do the opposite. Machiavelli was cynical, perhaps. But his observations on human nature and politics have made The Prince a perennial source of political advice—and a book more congenial to conservatives than to liberals.

Not that modern conservatives would dub Machiavelli their mentor. That title went first to Edmund Burke (some conservatives might pick the psychologically pessimistic Thomas Hobbes, but his conservatism held more ambiguouity), who viewed human nature less harshly than Machiavelli but nonetheless found it deeply irrational, requiring historical anchors and institutional constraints, not rational enlightenment. Burke denounced the French Revolution early in its course for defying this truth as it uprooted traditional social, political, and religious institutions and attempted to implant a more rational egalitarian order in their place. That act, he declared, could yield only chaos, because without the non-rational bonds of tradition and authority and religion human beings will run amok—which they did during the Reign of Terror. Burke’s reactionary French disciple Joseph de Maistre went still farther in this direction. Seeing little in human nature but animality and evil, he declared that “man, in general, is too wicked to be free” and urged authoritarian politics and infallible religion as the sole prospects for saving human beings from themselves.

In America the revolutionary democratic spirit gained inspiration, to be sure, from rationalist ideals of equality and natural rights. But the American political system actually took form from some rather more conservative judgments about human nature.  James Madison gets much of the credit for this. The “father of the constitution,” Madison, notably warned in the influential Federalist #10, for example, that “as long as the reason of man continues fallible,” human beings will act from the “self-love” and “passion” that are rooted in “the nature of man.”  And they will form “factions” aggressively seeking to impose their own selfish interests on everyone. Such are the “mortal diseases,” Madison lamented, “under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

You cannot change human nature, Madison conceded, but you can restrain some political consequences of self-love, passion, and faction. To do this, he advocated a representative, instead of a direct, democracy. For when citizens choose legislators to represent them, those legislators must compromise among diverse interests—and the more of these interests the better. These compromises cause the legislative process to be laborious, but they lessen the pernicious effects of self-love, passion, and faction. To further thwart those effects, Madison proposed splintering political power at all levels. Hence America’s constitutional structure: separation of federal and state authority; a federal legislature divided between a House of Representatives representing many small congressional districts and a Senate containing but two senators for each state; and discrete, counterbalancing responsibilities for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. America may be the world’s preeminent liberal democracy, but it owes its constitutional structure—and political stability—to a rather conservative view of human nature. If this sounds like a basic civics lesson, it is even more a lesson in political psychology.

I should also point out that the rise of the social sciences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often supported the conservative, more than the liberal, view of human nature—if  not always conservative politics. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, and their fellow disciplines showed that much of human behavior has roots in non-rational, often unrecognized, needs and desires. Sigmund Freud became the emblem of these intellectual discoveries, of course—and he grew more pessimistic about human nature after World War I, even chiding Marxists in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) for thinking they could fashion a rational utopia devoid of instinctual human aggression. A contemporary of Freud’s, the influential French intellectual George Sorel, focused directly on social/political psychology in Reflections on Violence (1908). People don’t really act on facts and rationality in politics, he said, but on social myths. These are big, simple ideas and images that seize emotions and spark political action, even though these myths can never be realized in fact. And he advised making the most of this human reality for radical political change. Both Communist and Fascist propagandists did just that in the dark years of the twentieth century. And some, like Mussolini, tipped their hats to Sorel for the gift.

No one saw the pernicous effects of this kind of politics clearer than George Orwell. After World War II, he demonstrated in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) how political language on both the left and right had come to manipulate minds and emotions instead of telling the truth. Then he put this idea to chilling fictional effect in 1984, a novel about nothing so much as the psychology of political domination, bequeathing to us the adjective “Orwellian” for the political management of language and facts to stifle rationality and control how people feel and think.

Meanwhile, the fledgling profession of advertising mirrored and abetted these developments by supplanting previous reliance on the public’s rational judgment with appeals to feelings and desires. As the professional advertising publication Printers’ Ink baldly put it in 1920: “The appeal to reason doesn’t contain the elements that make a man want to do the thing you want him to do…. Emotions must be aroused.” Along with Sorel’s “social myths,” here lies the seed of modern political campaigns.

Recently, the widely publicized writings of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff (such as, The Political Mind, 2008) offer telling variations on these themes. His branch of science, Lakoff says, proves that the human brain by nature contains not only inherent powers of rationality but those of emotions, illogic, and unconscious impulses. And he scolds liberals nowadays for largely overlooking this fact and depending on a naive notion of human rationality. Consequently, he says, unlike conservatives, who are quite at home with human irrationality, liberals fail to “frame” political issues and policies with manipulative language that influence the emotional undercurrents of thoughts in order to achieve their political ends—as the Bush administration did with Orwellian bravado. You need not be pernicious to do this, Lakoff implies, only psychologically realistic—although nowadays right-wing media demagogues and their political acolytes exploit this “realism” daily to rouse hostility against their enemies on any subject, not unlike the orchestrated “Two-Minute Hate” episodes in 1984.

There is, by the way, one conspicuous exception to the conservative tradition of stressing the irrationality of human nature. This is the theory of the free market.  Following Adam Smith, exponents of the free market have always believed it driven by rational self-interest and poised to make rational self-corrections if necessary. But the economic cataclysm of 2008 proved them wrong. Even the libertarian economic guru Alan Greenspan expressed “shocked disbelief” that so many managers in the financial markets could have taken the irrational risks they did. He and other conservative free-market economists seem to have possessed a faith in human economic rationality that no traditional political conservative would have embraced. When it comes to economics over the last century or so, liberals have tended to be more conservative than conservatives—liberals don’t trust “economic man” and free markets to operate altogether rationally, and so they seek institutional constraints to rein them in. But, economics aside, in politics, liberals remain more the rationalists and conservatives more the non-rationalists (notwithstanding neo-conservative intellectuals who hauled baggage of liberal rationalism with them from the left to the right when they promoted the Iraq war with raional certitude and utopian idealism).

Political conservatives today frequently even scorn the liberal demand for rationality as a mere sign of liberal intellectual elitism. And they have successfully demonized the very term Liberal as code for every social, political, economic, and cultural evil. Liberals themselves have caved in to this, now defensively defining themselves as “progressives.” At the same time, the anti-tax, anti-government, anti-egalitarian, anti-secular, anti-abortion, anti-gay, and other anti-  movements have turned the politics of the far right into a crusade of rage that feeds on myths and traffics in incendiary slogans, outrageous accusations, and self-righteous hatreds. When self-proclaimed patriots urge overthrowing the federal government or advocate state secession, cheering every failure of the nation’s Democartic president and spurning every success; when crowds rally against a purported conspiracy by the president to turn America into a socialist/fascist/communist state (whatever that means); when crowds scream about a planned government take-over of health care (including, in an utterly irrational charge, government control of Medicare!);  when large numbers of Republicans continue to assert that Obama was born in Kenya; when religious so-called “pro-life” zealots murder doctors who perform abortions, and their pious allies hypocritically applaud; when rabid right-wing demagogues in the media and politics brazenly invent and repeat factual untruths to stir fears and focus resentments; and when millions of Americans consume such right-wing propaganda from radio and TV daily and consider it news—I could go on and on—you know that political conservatives have made human irrationality their chosen arena, a place bereft of common reason and defying most reality except that of irrational human nature itself. Here is the same political twilight zone inhabited by the likes of Holocaust deniers and the Arabs still convinced that Jews were behind the events of 9/11.

So it should come as no surprise that liberals today–including the very centrist Obama administration–seem blindsided by the ravings from the right against what they try to do. Like their liberal forebears they dismiss these ravings as the aberrations of irrational individuals and groups. And they try to prevail on their own more rational terms.

But if the Obama administration and liberals hope to gain sway over the forces of unreason on the right, they had better reread and heed the likes of Machiavelli and Madison, Sorel and Orwell, and other psychological realists. This would encourage them to see the paradox of their own irrational blindness to the irrationality in human nature. And it could help them anticipate and head off the irrationality that is bound to come at them from the right every day–whether that comes from rabid ideologues, opportunistic politicians, or honest believers. It could also show them how to adroitly turn human irrationality to their own reasonable ends. Liberalism could never thrive on the irrationality of human beings, as much of conservatism has done. That would betray its hopeful, if sometimes naive, vision of creating a better world. But that shouldn’t keep liberals from having the realism to recognize and accept, even to appreciate for its virtues and and exploit for its benefits, how irrationality works. It’s human nature, for the better and the worse.