Some time ago when The Orthosphere was novel, Kristor, in addressing the issue of how I might best contribute to the enterprise, suggested to me in private correspondence that not every posting needed to be a fully worked out, objectively couched essay. Shorter, more personal or subjective postings might serve justifiably – postings that reported, say, moments of intellectual clarification, attempts to live in a context of liberal soft tyranny, important formulations discovered in reading, objects of longstanding connoisseurship, or the like. A posting might even be modestly autobiographical or self-explanatory. What follows is an amalgam of all that.
Despair in our Time of Troubles
The powers that be having given SUNY Oswego’s faculty the luxury of a six-week winter break, I found myself faced with the problem, beginning just before Christmas, of devising ways to make my leisure productive. Politics and psychology had teamed up to make difficulties. Everything about the presidential election left me in a bad mood – from my suspicions of massive voter fraud in Ohio, to my despair over a voting majority willing to endorse the nihilism of the liberal establishment, and to my crippling sense of injustice that fifty point one per cent of the electorate could foist on the entirety of the nation the most massive deconstruction of a rational polity that had ever been undertaken – not least in the beast of the Health Care Bill.
Not that the Democrats fueled my spleen all by themselves. The pathetic performance of the GOP candidate and the general witlessness of the Republican Party also stirred up considerable ire. Beyond those things – the American-European sponsored takeover of North Africa by the most savage strain of Islamists is sickening and demoralizing. So is the public arrogance of France’s pipsqueak president in the face of the million-plus person “Manif” march through the streets of Paris although the march itself was a moderately hopeful event. Equally sickening are the ceaseless reports of racial violence and the ubiquity of a vulgar, race-based politics in the American republic. Any day’s headlines at The Drudge Report will demoralize any culturally perspicuous person. We are living through what Eric Voegelin, in The Ecumenic Age, called “the grotesque in Western deculturation.”
The first order of business, as the winter break began, was to find a way to divert my thinking, at least momentarily, from the panorama of that grotesque, so as to focus it on worthwhile themes.
I confess to being an escapist although I beg no forgiveness for it. As I tell the students in the science fiction course that I regularly teach when I invite them to taste the delights of A Princess of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the honest way to judge an escapist romance is to measure it against that from which it seeks escape. Burroughs was an already middle aged husband and father struggling to support a family whose extreme boredom in the lines of employment available to him in the first decade of the twentieth century had led him to despair. In creating “Barsoom,” his version of Mars, Burroughs was recreating himself by an act of sustained – and, I would argue, moral – imagination. While it is true, in the sense that it is intrinsic to reality, that one eats his bread only by the sweat of his brow, it is not true that one must love (one must only endure) the labor that sweats the brow that puts the loaf on the table. Sometimes that labor, as in the tedium of clerking, is not lovable.
My first and typical recourse, then, was to read an escapist novel or two, which for me invariably means science fiction. I returned to an old favorite, Alfred Elton van Vogt (1912 – 2000). Descending into the basement and sorting through the plastic bins in which ninety per cent of my books are stored, I culled two linked titles in old Ace paperback editions – The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951) and The Weapon Makers (1952). Although both appeared, as novels, in the early 1950s, van Vogt had in fact cobbled them together from a cycle of short stories that appeared in the 1940s. What to say about van Vogt? His stories often begin with a startling idea; he liked logical paradox; and he had a good sense of pulp-style action. He almost never succeeded in carrying out the implications of his premises in a coherent fashion, however; and the logical paradoxes got so tangled with one another that the only way to resolve the mess was by magical intervention or a deus ex machina. Never mind. Despite its flaws and despite the lack of literary polish, the van Vogt story is almost invariably a good evening’s entertainment.
The Isher books turned out to have implications for the present, political moment. Both are novels of revolt against arbitrary and tyrannical regimes that operate beyond good and evil and sow misery among people. The motto of both stories, which is also the motto of the titular “Weapon Shops,” is, “The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free.” Isher weapons have the peculiar character that they respond only to their owner and they only operate in defense against aggression. The existence of such weapons has made it impossible for the regime to realize its dream of total control over the populace. I omit further details. What I report is that, although my excursion into van Vogt had reminded me of politics, it had diverted me sufficiently from my agitation that I could calmly contemplate non-political matters. I recalled that just before the election, when I was reading René Girard and Nicolas Berdyaev (among others) with my senior seminarians, I had wanted to revisit Eric Gans’ discussion of the Trinity in his book Science & Faith (1990). The connections between Gans and Girard are that Gans studied with Girard at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s and that Gans develops the basic Girardian intuitions in startling new directions in his own work. Gans, who in addition to being Professor of French and Comparative Literature at UCLA also once ran a science-fiction bookstore in Santa Monica, directed my dissertation – on “The Anthropology of Modern Epic.” We are old friends.
Science & Faith (the Ampersand belongs to the title) makes a concise, fascinating introduction to what Gans calls Generative Anthropology; it bears a subtitle, The Anthropology of Revelation. The fourth and final chapter of Science & Faith, “The Christian Revelation,” begins by distinguishing Christian from Mosaic revelation: “Christian theology does not preserve the simple Otherness of its Mosaic origins. Where the Jews worship a non-figural God, Christianity restores figurality to the sacred center.” Gans points out that the Jesus of Paul differs noticeably from the Jesus of the Gospels. In Paul’s discourse, “Jesus plays the exclusive role of the Christ,” but in the Gospels he is “above all the prophet of a radically reciprocal morality.” The fact of the difference makes a requirement for mediation; and the theme of mediation, Gans writes, “points to the fundamental theological mystery of Christianity… the Trinity.” Gans hopes that his “originary hypothesis,” a theory about the punctual origin of language, consciousness, and morality, as well as the basis of Generative Anthropology, can “shed new light” on the Trinity.
As for that “originary hypothesis,” several sentences in Science & Faith, Chapter 4, gloss it. This one – “the common origin of morality and ethics is the originary scene of representation” – becomes a generic explanation once we reverse its syntax: A scene of representation is the common origin of morality and ethics; or, the basic structures of morality and ethics are so closely in conformance with the basic structures of language and consciousness that all these things must share a common origin. For example, the equality implied by the ability of every human being to use language and make utterances suggests that, “The equality of all men before representation is the original foundation of both their equality and their difference in society.” Following Girard, Gans supposes that language, ethics, and morality come into being, from the point of view of their beneficiaries, as revelation. “Origin” always implies “revelation,” and vice versa, whether it is Modes before the Burning Bush or Saul, about to become Paul, on the Road to Damascus.
We recall that Girard places the origin of institutions in the anthropogenic improvisation of sacrifice. Gans places the origin of institutions in a pre-sacrificial moment of originary consciousness before the sparagmatic appropriation and consumption of the victim, in an “exchange of signs” designating the emergent central object of the emergent social periphery: “The exchange of signs at the moment when designation replaces appropriation in the originary scene provides the model of perfect reciprocity that morality extends to the totality of human relations.” In the Gansian scheme, the central object of the scene need not be, as it invariably is in Girard’s anthropology, a victim; it need only originally have been something (a bit of attractive meat, for example, brought back from the hunt) that excites appropriative mimesis and thus endangers the community. Gans recognizes that this scene became a basis of ritual sacrifice, the reality of which in an archeological context he does not doubt.
Gans asks his readers to pay attention to the difference between Peter’s understanding of the Crucifixion and Paul’s understanding of it. He quotes Peter from Acts 2 on the meaning of Pentecost: “This man, who was put in your power by the deliberate intention and foreknowledge of God, you took and had crucified by men outside the law”; and “You killed him, but God raised him to life.” Peter, as Gans writes, directs “this surprising accusation against an audience of potential converts.” The important feature of Peter’s sermon is its separation of the Crucifixion on the one hand and the Resurrection on the other into two pristine elements. It is very different in Paul’s vision. Paul has been something like a professional Christian-hunter. In a flash of light, Paul hears a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” For Peter the grammatical second person refers to other people; for Paul, hearing it spoken by Jesus, the grammatical second person refers to him. In Gans’ words, “Saul intuits a fundamental connection between persecution and divination” that Peter appears not to have understood. Although Paul did not participate in the betrayal of Jesus at the time, he feels suddenly the guilt of having participated in it more deeply than does Peter. “Paul’s intuition [was] that Jesus himself, in the role of crucified savior, must occupy the central position in the new theology that would guarantee [Christ’s] moral doctrine.”
As Gans sees it, “The Trinity is a structured explanation of the phenomenon of revelation.” Considering revelation, Gans writes that it “has for its object the structure of the scene of representation, as the originary hypothesis presents it,” with the human periphery “concentrated around its central object.” It falls out this way, in the analysis: The “central being,” i.e., God, appears to its witnesses as a subject with a proper will, which it exercises, in that it “is inaccessible and as such possesses a force of repulsion that keeps men at a distance from it” and “it thereby guarantees communal peace.” But the same “central being” also appears as “the collective victim, a gift made to the community by the force inhabiting its central locus and incarnating itself in it.” Gans adds that in this “modality,” the “central being” resembles “the ‘signified’ or idea (logos)” of linguistics. Finally, “the central locus is the revelatory opening produced by the double nature of the [central] being insofar as it is (1) generating (2), the divine power generating its concrete incarnation as coequal with it and inseparable from it, or in linguistic terms, as signifying it.”
More Pulp Fiction
It is amazing how much of science fiction, especially the supposedly trashy science fiction of the pulp era, fixates on the thematics of archaic, sacrificial religion. Burroughs ought to be exempt from the label of “trash,” but he exerted his powerful influence on the genre. It is worthwhile noting that the second installment of his Martian saga bears the title The Gods of Mars (1912). The task of the Burroughsian hero John Carter in this volume of the series is to be the deliverer of the Red Planet from the clutches of a false, and blatantly sacrificial cult, that of the “Holy Therns.” Numerous Carteresque pulp heroes fulfill the same role, some of them repeatedly. None rises to this recurrent occasion more effectively than Catherine Louise Moore’s Northwest Smith. Smith is a semi-outlaw who makes his living in procuring and selling archeological treasures on the black market. In his search for goods, he generally stumbles into hidden domains of Mars or Venus, or into hiccups in space-time, where despotic beings maintain mastery over their subjects through periodic displays of sacrificial spectacle. These despots assume the divinity acquired fatally by the victims, stepping into the scenic center after the deed has been perpetrated and benefiting from the aura now endowed on the locus.
Moore’s writing, especially in her Northwest Smith stories, has an ethical sophistication rare in pulp fiction, whose typical formula, far from being revelatory of sacrifice, relies on it, setting up depraved black-hats who torment the protagonist until the last act, when the protagonist slaughters them picturesquely, much to the delight of the reader. But Moore’s writing is also beautiful in its prose, a minor miracle of style, incorporating elements of the French Symbolist poetry that its author must have known and treasured. Moore’s affinity for Baudelaire and the others is not coincidental because they too were aware of the centrality of sacrifice in the development of culture. In light of this paragraph and the foregoing one, I invite readers to re-examine the fairly widely know Baudelairean sonnet “Correspondences,” with its singular “man,” who in crossing through a “forest of symbols” that eye him, disappears in the next line only to be replaced by various sensuous metonymies that rather defy being interpreted as anything other than the remains of a sparagmos as seen from the point of view of the Bacchae.
There are levels, naturally, in pulp fiction. For every surprisingly sophisticated writer like Moore or Clarke Ashton Smith, there are dozens of others whose intellectual focus runs fuzzy and who retail is pure titillation; there are also sophisticated writers who, to pay the rent, sometimes took the low road under pseudonyms and simply played out the formulas. Henry Kuttner, the husband of Moore until his death in 1958 at age forty-four, was one of those. Stephen Haffner, who runs The Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, has issued a volume of Kuttner’s pseudonymous hackwork under the arch title Thunder in the Void. I found myself reading this anthology, of items that originally appeared in Weird Tales and Astonishing Stores, while making notes about Gans’ discussion of the Trinity.
Kuttner’s story “Avengers of Space” sums up the recipe for this type of “low” science fiction. The hero and his collaborators have built a spaceship, funded in part by a newspaper that intends to send a reporter along to write copy about the voyage. The crew is only postponing the takeoff until the reporter arrives. The reporter turns out to be a girl, Lorna, in her early twenties, who arrives only seconds ahead of a black sedan full of gun-toting Mafiosi who want to steal the vessel for their own purposes. The hero rescues Lorna and retreats with her into the spaceship, which launches itself. In fleeing the gangsters, most of Lorna’s clothes have come away, so that by the time she reaches the refuge of the spaceship, she has been reduced to the trappings of her glamorous 1940s lingerie. There are complicating developments, unimportant to my exposition. On Mars, the adventurers encounter a cult of ape-men, controlled telepathically by a hypertrophied brain in a glass sphere, who kidnap Lorna, strip her bare, and lay her out to be sacrificed to the false god concocted by the brain. The hero rescues her and carries her nakedness in his arms back to the spaceship. On a moon of Jupiter, the adventurers encounter a race of dwarfish, intelligent dinosaurs, who despite the species-related incompatibility, kidnap Lorna, strip her bare, and ogle her preparatory to the sacrifice. The story, or rather my willingness to keep reading it, illustrates the anthropological observation that what attracts us also repels us. I am attracted by the story largely because the badness of it fascinates me, just as the nakedness of Lorna fascinates even the ape-men and the dwarfish, intelligent dinosaurs.
One might venture the theory that all of popular culture works this way – and that contemporary popular (or, rather, commercial) culture only exaggerates the trend in an ultimate manner prior to the revival of actual sacrifice. When Lady Gaga or some other idol of unseemliness makes herself look bloodied, ugly, and vulnerably or aggressively naked onstage, she is, in some dumb fashion, instinctively assuming the traits of a victim, so that she can manipulate the audience by simultaneously attracting and repelling them.
The Trinity Resumed
Gans notes that his explanation of the Trinity departs only a little from Augustine’s explanation of the Trinity, to which the saint devoted an entire treatise, as well as passages in other works like his Confession. In Gans’ summary, Augustine analyzes the Trinity thus: “(Father) object seen, (Son) external vision, (Spirit) attention of the mind.” Gans comments: “The ‘object seen’ is a reality independent of our vision, a ‘thing in itself,” whereas “the ‘external vision’ is our image of the object, its signified, seen as outside us.” Finally there is “attention of the mind.” This last “links the objective object [or] referent to the subjective image [or] signified,” and it is the equivalent of “the scene of representation on which the substantive identity of object and vision is understood.” In his books, Girard emphasizes the Third Person of the Trinity as the Paraclete, which he translates as “The Advocate.” Girard’s interpretation supports Gans’ interpretation unconditionally, for the Girardian function of “the Advocate” is to speak on behalf of the innocent victim and to insist on his personhood. That is what Paul resolves to do. Gans writes: “To the extent that we ourselves are persons only thanks to the scene of representation” – that is to say, to the innovation of language and consciousness together – “this attribution of personhood to the components of the scene forces us to recognize the place whence we speak.” That “place” would be the periphery, which is where everyone stood when Jesus died, mocking and cursing him. Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, dissociates himself from that periphery; Paul identifies candidly and completely with those who persecuted Jesus and at the same time recognizes the wickedness of the crowd’s unanimity, its need for atonement. For Pauline Christianity, to be a person is to be aware of having participated in the death of Jesus, but it is also to grasp that the Crucifixion did not magically make Jesus into God, because Jesus, unlike the heroes-become-divinities of myth, was already God.
As Gans writes, “The Trinitarian doctrine elaborates in theological language and within the limits of the theological perspective a general theory of the scene of representation as it is constituted in the revelatory event.” I would gloss that sentence as follows: It is revelation that makes us human. Revelation makes us human by making us aware of our psychic constitution, which is structurally founded on awareness of God. The Trinity, however, alters the original character of this awareness. Whereas “in the original hypothetical scene, master, victim, and central locus are distinguished by the different physical behaviors that they provoke in the participants at the periphery” and therefore remain attached to the ritual locus; in the Trinitarian alteration of the scene, as typified by Saul/Paul’s revelation, the locus ceases to be a particular, ritually sanctified place and becomes identical with the moral conscience of the subject. “Augustine’s insight that the scene of human consciousness has the same structure as the Trinity is an affirmation of the originary structural identity of the internally and the externally realized scenes of representation – God and man.”
Gans remarks how, on the Road to Damascus, Paul “first addresses the voice with the term ‘Lord’ (kyrios) normally used to address… the God of the Hebrews.” When Jesus names himself as the speaker, this verbal gesture “should not be read as contradicting Saul’s original assumption, but as enriching it.” Paul in his vision discovers something new about God just as he discovers something new about humanity. Paul’s discovery of this newness is related to the passage in his apostolate from the old Law to the new, simplified morality of absolute reciprocity preached by Jesus.
Voegelin would have recognized that Gans had stumbled on the presence in Paul’s experience one of those differentiations of consciousness that mark the only real progress made by humanity. Of course Gans, like Girard, would point out that the text itself has made this discovery, just as he would candidly report his familiarity with Voegelin. If, as seems to be the case, Peter blamed “his master’s death on everyone but himself,” Paul by contrast had “never claimed to be a disciple of Jesus”; and it thus fell to Paul that, “he alone was able to understand the sense of the resurrection, in a way that allows the non-believer too to understand it and to be converted by it.”
The Samurai Trilogy
My problem as the winter break began was to recreate myself by sloughing off the despair of the electoral season. There is something sacrificial about presidential elections: Two stand; one must be eliminated. Or in the most recent case (hence my depression), two stand and no matter who is eliminated, a whole polity must be given over to professional men of resentment in order that it might be dismantled in diasparagmatic ecstasy by those who have reviled and attacked it all their lives, and whose ministry consists in seducing others to share their invidiousness. I had recourse to pulp fiction, to the Gansian discussion of the Trinity, and (thanks to that Ethical Mono-Theos called Amazon.com) to a number of films that I had always wanted to study but had never gotten around to seeing. (I call Amazon.com an “Ethical Mono-Theos” because it rewards the industrious who keep good credit by manifesting things-that-they-want on their doorsteps, not quite instantaneously, but with pleasantly alacritous dispatch. Gans writes that words differ from things in being infinitely reproducible and costless; he regards the market as a means whereby to make things as plentiful as words – and he regards that as a moral purpose.) .
One of the films that I wanted to study was, or rather three of the films that I wanted to study were, Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy of the 1950s. Virtually all educated people who went to college between 1970 and 1990 know Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films, especially The Seven Samurai (1954), which they saw in the “Art Houses,” situated near every major college or university campus. It occurs to me as I write that The Seven Samurai has something in common with a Burroughs story. It concerns men of feudal-chivalric disposition who find themselves outmoded as the old political order disintegrates and a chaotic interregnum sets in before the new order, which will entail its own problems, establishes itself. The eponymous Seven fight, not for money, but for honor, and must serve masters – the villagers – whom in the old order they would have disdained in favor of the aristocratic reeves and barons.
Whether Kurosawa had Christian inclinations or not, a supposition made by more than one Western critic of his oeuvre; his Samurai nevertheless behave like Christian Knights in a Thirteenth-Century romance. Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) has always struck me as especially Christian, particularly in its final sequence when the poor farmer accepts the burden of adopting the abandoned infant and takes it home to his already underfed family.
Inagaki’s films, which also star Toshiro Mifune in the leading role, are less well-known than Kurosawa’s, but many people have at least heard of his Samurai Trilogy. The trilogy tells the story of Musashi Miyamoto (1584 – 1645), who began life as a village thief and miscreant but who, under training of a Buddhist priest, became the leading swordsman of his day and the paradigm of spiritual-martial discipline. He had a fascinated and envious rival, Sasaki Kojirō, with whom in 1612 he fought a notable duel on Ganryu Island, using only a wooden sword. Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) is the third film in Inagaki’s trilogy. The other two are Musashi Miyamoto (1954), which came out in the same year as The Seven Samurai, and Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1956). As in Kurosawa’s films, the setting is important, for the early Seventeenth Century was another “Time of Troubles” in Japanese history. Miyamoto’s discipleship to his priest-teacher, his strict adherence to a code of honor, and his defense of traditional order all stand in contrast to the disorderliness and cynicism of his era.
Being a peasant by origin, Miyamoto sympathizes with the plight of the farmers in hard times and like Kurosawa’s dispossessed samurai he defends a village against bandits who are samurai-gone-bad. Miyamoto is particularly chivalrous to women. Inagaki provides a love-story, with two women, one aristocratic and one of peasant origin, who have affection for the swordsman. Miyamoto’s defeat of Sasaki coincides with his espousal of Otsu, the peasant girl. Undoubtedly the original Star Wars trilogy owed much to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958), but it owes as much to the Samurai Trilogy.
Inagaki filmed his story in a color process – could it be an early type of Fujicolor? – that is unlike any other color I have ever seen in film. I generally prefer black and white – modern commercial color processes are like eye-candy that threatens to rot one’s cones. Color enables Inagaki to present the incidental details of his setting vividly, down to the beautiful architecture of the aristocratic houses and the gowns of the aristocratic ladies and geishas alike.
The Trinity Resumed
Voegelin’s commentary on Paul makes an interesting comparison with Gans’ commentary on the same. In The Ecumenic Age (1965), Voegelin writes of Paul’s situation that “when the conflict between the revealed truth of order and the actual disorder of the times becomes too intense, traumatic experience can transform the mystery [of existence] into metastatic expectations”; and he writes of Paul’s “response to theophany” that, as an “analysis of existential order [it] closely parallels the Platonic-Aristotelian.” That is to say, despite being informed by “metastatic expectation,” it resists the Gnostic temptation, as Voegelin liked to say, to immanentize the eschaton. “Compared with the more compact types,” Voegelin writes, “the Pauline myth is distinguished by its superior degree of differentiation.” In striking anticipation of Gans’ Neo-Augustinian reading of Paul, Voegelin writes that “Paul has fully differentiated the experience of man as the site where the movement of reality becomes luminous in its actual occurrence.” The Voegelinian word site closely forecasts the Gansian term scene. Again, as Voegelin puts it, “The movement in reality, that has become luminous to itself in noetic consciousness, has indeed unfolded its full meaning in the Pauline vision.” And again, as Voegelin puts it, “In Paul’s myth, God emerges victorious because his protagonist is man.”
In The Ecumenic Age, Voegelin addresses the Trinity only obliquely and indirectly (indeed, there is no entry under “Trinity” in the book’s index). In a letter (1953) to his friend Alfred Schütz, however, Voegelin did address the topic of the Trinity directly. He writes to Schütz that, “the achievement of the Trinity dogma is to have combined, in one theological symbol, experiences that must remain differentiated if speculative fallacies are to be avoided.” According to Voegelin, the Trinity symbolizes three themes: “Radical Transcendence, Intervention of Grace, and the Spirit among the Faithful.” In the Trinity, the subject of revelation encounters not only the radically transcendent God who is equivalent to the philosophical “ground of being”; he also encounters the transformative power of that God “reaching into ‘nature’”; and finally he experiences “the presence of the Spirit in the community of the faithful.”
In Science & Faith, Gans writes that, “The subject of Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus was not Jesus the propounder of a radical moral doctrine, but the crucified Christ whose grace will liberate us from sin.” For Gans, developing a Girardian motif, language and consciousness involve numerous paradoxes. For example, “to persecute Jesus,” as Paul in Gans’ reading discovers, “is to create the conditions for dialogue with him.” This is so because, “to combat Jesus’ doctrine,” as Paul did in his phase as a religious policeman, “is to persecute a person, and thereby to resurrect his voice.” In a similar formulation, “to desire to expel [Jesus] is to insure his presence, and thereby to reveal that persecuting him one in fact desired his presence.” Writing of the Trinity itself, Gans argues that, “Master, victim, and opening are the three modalities of existence of the center of the originary scene,” while adding that “personhood is implicit in each of the three because the most fundamental definition of a person is that which can be the origin of a word.” In another paradox, the “central object” of the Trinitarian scene “is master only inasmuch as it is victim.” Gans’ term opening is another of his lexical choices that brings him to near to Voegelin, for whom the Trinity expands the subject’s all-important “openness to existence.”
Old City Hall Tavern
Frequently during a given week, around two o’clock in the afternoon, I say to my wife, “I’m going out for a walk.” What I mean is, I intend to walk the mile or so from our residential neighborhood to Oswego’s Water Street district, where the chief institution – which I regard as the city’s social and cultural center – is Larry Klotzko’s Old City Hall, a bar and restaurant. And I intend to drink at least one pint of hoppy beer from one of the taps. Old City Hall takes its name from the fact of its occupation of a 160 year old building that, in addition to serving as a ship’s chandlery, and a general market, also served for time as the city’s actual administrative offices, including its jail. The building is large – a basement and three floors. The bar and restaurant ensconce themselves on the first floor; the second floor is un-restored, while the third floor is in noticeable progress of restoration. Larry acquired title to the building more than thirty-five years ago; the building is his poem and he is a poet, plowing a good deal of profit back into the building, whose architectural felicities bespeak the elegance of the civic mid-Nineteenth Century mentality. Concerning the third floor, this functioned, possibly until the 1920s, as a concert-hall and ballroom. Eleven years ago, when my family came to Oswego to be permanent rather than mere summer residents, in looking for work, I tried my hand at some journalism. I recalled having read in a biography of the pianist-composer Louis-Moreau Gottschalk that he had visited Oswego several times in the 1850s and during the Civil War. Searching the microfilm morgue of The Palladium Times, I found the reviews of Gottschalk’s three recitals. The Oswegonians regarded Gottschalk’s visits as signal events and were happy to host that Son of the South.
I have a New-Orleansian connection through my father (the Bertonneaus are, in fact, an old New-Orleans family, belonging to the gens, so called, who sought refuge in that city during the race-slaughters that gave birth to Haiti). That Gottschalk, a New Orleansian, played his créole dances and other keyboard bijoux in Old City Hall expands for me the richness of any visit to Larry’s public house.
The structure is brick; the first-floor interior, a large space, is vaulted. The long eastern wall is penetrated by large windows overlooking the Oswego River where it flows, via the harbor, into Lake Ontario. Several of those windows have seating accommodations, where the client of the establishment may contemplate, as it occurs to him, the river’s Heraclitean perpetual flux that paradoxically always remains the same, or at least keeps the same name, seeming to be the same thing, recognizable. The idea of the river is constant even though the river itself is in flux. The usual emptiness of the harbor also functions paradoxically, reminding him who studies the local history that 150 years ago Oswego’s was one of the busiest harbors on the lake. I have seen a photograph with the sailing ships so thick in the road stead that pedestrians might have exercised the Imitatio Christi by walking on water, so to speak, from one side of the river to the other. In winter, Larry keeps the large iron stove continuously and hotly stoked, suffusing the premises with its warmth and fragrance.
For the college-crowd from SUNY Oswego that begins to arrive late in the evening when classes are in session, a tavern is about cheap drinks and inebriation. For the afternoon crowd, the regulars, some of whom have brought their custom to Larry for thirty-five years, a tavern is about sociability and conversation. One the one hand – cheap spirits; on the other hand – participation the Spirit. Not that the regulars are miserly. The convention is to buy one another drinks and to share the appetizers that come out of the kitchen at the other end of the building from the bar. The regulars also tip better than the kids, just as blue-collar types tip better than academics. Now Larry once told me, and I know not whether he was pulling my leg, that he modeled the bar itself, all polished wood and finely fitted, after the shapeliness of an old girlfriend’s bosom. Certainly the carpenter, whoever he was, has calculated the curve of that bar to correspond to something formidable and to confound the tedium of a Great Wall separating the drinkers from the bartenders. It never cuts off the end of the room, but in the finality of its curve returns to the back wall. Sitting then at the west end of the bar one sits with one’s companions in a semi-circle looking east through one of the windows to the river.
I have no conversations on campus. I have the stark suspicion that the phrase “collegial discussion” ceased having application at least two decades ago, when the heavy-handed speech-codes and ethos of “sensitivity” began in earnest to quash the unhampered debate about ideas among the so-called scholars of the so-called professoriate. Now one might try to have a conversation on campus, but the range of topics would likely be limited to the Trinity of race, class, and gender. To suggest that these topics can indeed be discussed would arouse apprehension, provoke hostility, and invite persecution. Everyone already knows what he needs to know about race, class, and gender, so why rock the boat? Let the kids sit at their desks and listen to the lecture. They will repeat the exhortation to have a “conversation” about this, that, or another thing, but they will also learn never to do anything as foolish as actually to instigate a conversation. I do, however, have many friendly and enriching conversations at Old City Hall. I have come to appreciate the rich learning often possessed by people who either disdained college or, tasting it briefly, went on with their lives.
Take my friend Fader (I met him at Old City hall). He will tell you that he went to Cayuga College in Auburn for a year and then went to work. He worked for the city-government in Oswego for a long time and is now retired. I argue to Fader, knowing well his premises, that the cosmos has a psychic substrate. It is more than matter and void. In congenial disagreement, Fader responds: “Well, yes, we are minded; we are in the universe; therefore the universe is minded.” I emphasize the congeniality. It is a measure of grace.
Lisa, who tends bar and who cannot be older than her early twenties, turns out to be an aficionado of vintage film, especially of Errol Flynn. She knows, for example, that Basil Rathbone fenced with greater expertise than Flynn even though Flynn won all his on-screen sword fights with Rathbone. She can name Eugene Palette, who played Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and she knows that he played a similar role, alongside Tyrone Power, in The Mark of Zorro (1940). She praises John Wayne for the superb performance he puts on for John Ford in The Quiet Man (1952). And she has seen The Seven Samurai. Not even the “Film Studies” students who turn up in my English courses know these things; they have not seen The Seven Samurai, and when I say that they ought to have, they give me dirty looks. Is Lisa’s unexpected knowledge a species of grace? It is at least a kind of happiness of communion.
The bar is empty today. The weather, extremely cold, has kept people in their houses. I brave the frigidity, partly for the exercise and partly for the chance of a conversation. Wrapped in my “hoody” and wearing sunglasses against the snow-glare (the sun has come out), I look like the Unabomber, my wife remarks. Once at the tavern, I sit watching the river, warming myself in the aura of the wood stove. Kristor once wrote to me, urging me, as he said, to “show us how you think or what you think about” on a given day. In re-reading these paragraphs, how I think and what I think about rather shock and appall me. I am unsure whether I have kept my Sauls and my Pauls straight. I can nevertheless face The Drudge Report, or rather, face the apocalypse of modernity, anew.