On the Heat of the Day
During the past fifteen years, hot weather reminds me of a specific event and a landscape in which that event took place. With my family, I was making the loop between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Midsummer was searing the basins beneath the big seams of mountains and the snow encrusting the upper facets of the peaks had mostly melted, but it was still cool at high elevations. The frosty breath of the summits came down from the sky like the chill exhalation at the mouth of a cave.
With a couple of my kids, I set out early in the morning to walk up one of the canyons between the huge, sea-colored flanks of the Grand Tetons. The trail was exciting to me because I knew that with sufficient persistence and skill, one could hike the pathway up to where Mount St. John, or, perhaps, the Grand Teton itself gestured to the sky at its uttermost height, cold crescent of stone looming overhead like the blade of a scythe held against a blue throat. All paths are exciting if we know that they lead to the summit. Of course, we weren’t going more than a couple of miles at the most, but, nonetheless, it was nice to put our tennis shoes to the well-trodden path and march single-file toward the hills.
We passed a bare ridge where a river cascaded over terraces, the water magnified and minatory where it roared over the rocks to become a small, placid stream in the shadow of the hill. The spray from the water was icy cold. Then, we zigzagged up to the top of a small ridge, admired the crests and turrets of the peaks overhead, then, descending toward a lake filling a deep stony moraine. Beyond the lakeshore, the trail angled across a grassy slope toward the cleft in the mountain wall.
The path went up and down. As we were descending a high treeless slope, the trail diagonal across the sun-baked hill as a groove in the waist-high grass, we encountered another hiker climbing upward toward us. The hiker was bearded and wiry. A huge backpack hunched him forward and he made a bell-like jingling sound as he slowly ascended the slope, moving deliberately, step by step. It was now mid-morning and the sun was shining brightly, flooding the hillside with hot, bright light. I recall that the air felt a little dusty, thick with golden pollen, and that the heat made the pine-trees above and below, encircling the pond, exude a sweet resinous perfume. The scent of the pines was warm and dense, the very distillation of summer.
We stepped aside to let the hiker pass. He was wearing a stained bandana and his beard was flecked with grey. Sweat glistened on his forearms. His walking stick carefully probed the path ahead of him.
"It’s getting downright warm," the hiker said to us as he passed.
I think I agreed with him. We went down the slope and the hiker was soon lost to view. At the base of the hill, the trail curved up another steeper and more rocky slope, advancing around big outcroppings and the ascent looked a little daunting. So we turned around and walked back past the whirligigs of the cascade to the trailhead parking lot.
Since that day, every time that it is hot outside, or, even, warm in my car, during the months from April to October, I remember that path, the smell of the pine resin and the odor of the golden pollen illuminated in the sunshine, and I imagine the backpacker coming up the slope toward me, nodding just slightly beneath his sweaty bandana, and greeting us with the words: "It’s getting downright warm." This is my representation for summer heat. It is as integral to me as the foods that I like or the books that I have read and admired. Somehow, this little image, and the hiker’s words that label it, are an essential part of who I am, my personal emblem for summer.
Last night, long after midnight, lightning speared through my bedroom and woke me up. I climbed out of bed and went to the toilet. My bedroom is air-conditioned from the window, but the hall and the bathroom were humid and warm. Immediately, the warmth in the dark rooms triggered my recollection of the sunny mountainside in Wyoming and I heard a voice telling me that it was "getting downright warm."
It occurred to me, then, that this memory is a sort of inner dialogue, a speech that I recite to myself that defines me. It is a tiny aspect of an immense oration that I speak to myself, memory somehow embodied in interior discourse. This interior discourse establishes my identity.
We go through our lives hoping to find a perfect listener to this presentation of ourselves that defines us. We hope that some day, somehow, someone will listen to the voice that sounds ceaselessly in our head, always linking our past to our present through a network of memories that are articulated as the discourse ceaselessly continues. Some people are fortunate to think that God listens to them and attends to this interior dialogue – I call it a "dialogue" because there is a part of me that speaks and a part of me that listens simulating the ideal auditor for which I yearn. For such people, I suppose, their day-to-day existence is a kind of prayer. All of us desire someone to love us – and to love us not merely for our outward attributes but, also, for our secret selves, that is, the being of our being that speaks to us from our memories. Fundamentally, we want to be heard. Someone must attend to the dense, lyrical speeches that my memory makes to me to establish my place in the world.
But, as I grow older, I recognize that no one is listening. No one will ever listen. There is no friendly outsider to tell me that I have done well, that my speech made to myself is beautiful or has meaning. One day the inner dialogue will become silent and no one will have heard it. Ultimately, I will remain unknown.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
On Inhuman Modes of Locomotion
Even in the context of Lucan’s gore-soaked Pharsalia, the scene is spectacular: the Witch of Erictho squirts a cadaver’s chest full of “boiling blood”, “laves its organs with pus,” moon-slime, and other repulsive substances in order the resuscitate the dead man as an oracle. Pompey’s son, Sextus, seeks occult intelligence as to the outcome of the imminent battle, and has commissioned the witch to draft an unfortunate casualty of previous fighting as spokesman for the Underworld. Motive and prophecy, however, don’t concern me. I am interested in the way that the reanimated dead man moves:
Soon, the thing is pulsing in every limb
The sinews strain, and the corpse lurches up from the ground –
not inch by inch, not limb by limb, but heaving itself
up from the earth, standing erect all at once.
Pharsalia, Book VI, 754 - 757
(Translated by Jane Wilson Joyce)
One imagines the rigid corpse pulled into an upright position by the witch’s power without flexing its limbs, presumably stiff with rigor mortis. This motif echoes the witch’s earlier manhandling of the dead body, “hauling” it over cliffs and ledges by a “hook with grim leashes jabbed” into the livid flesh. (VI, 638) Crucially, the cadaver’s locomotion is unearthly, uncanny – the undead is suddenly heaved into view.
The German film maker W. F. Murnau surely must have known this passage from the Pharsalia. In his 1922 vampire movie, Nosferatu, Murnau stages an appearance of his monster exactly as imagined by Lucan. The undead creature has been resting in his native earth in a coffin in the hold of a ship bound to Bremen. Rats swarm from the coffin spreading plague on the doomed ship. As the men begin to die, the camera approaches the dark hatchway leading into the black and cavernous hold of the sailing vessel. Suddenly, Nosferatu rises from that hatchway. He doesn’t climb forth from the darkness, nor does he hover or levitate upwards. Rather, the creature rotates into an upright position as if on a hinge at his heels. The corpse-vampire is entirely rigid; the motion is swift and decisive. It is like those targets simulating terrorists or robbers that suddenly swivel into a pop-up position on a police firing range. The effect is startling and horrific. (Werner Herzog reproduces this effect fifty years later in his re-make of Nosferatu).
Once an inhuman creature or one of the undead has made his cataleptic appearance, another problem exists to be solved: how should the undead ambulate? Two options appear to exist.
Sometimes, the undead move with surprising speed, whisked over the ground as if they were pulled along on a trolley. In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, we learn about the distinction between the gait of English as opposed to American zombies:
American zombies are at least out front about (being inhuman), tend to stagger when they try to walk anywhere, usually in third ballet position, and, they go, like ‘Uunnhh... uunnhh’ with that rising and falling tone, whereas English zombies are for the most part quite well spoken, they use long words, and they glide everywhere, like, sometimes you don’t even see them take steps, it’s like they’re on ice skates...
Inherent Vice, p. 132
A couple aspects of this description deserve comment. “Third ballet position” refers to the position of feet with toes facing in opposite directions at almost 180 degrees from one another; the back of the front foot is nestled against the middle of the rear foot. From this contorted position, it is impossible to walk – one would stumble and fall immediately. Pynchon suggests that American zombies lack proprioception – that is, suffer from an inability to perceive where their limbs and members benumbed by death are located. Unable to propriocept the relationship of feet and ankles to one another and to the ground, American zombies twist into the “Third Ballet Position” and so, inevitably, stagger and, perhaps, fall. This description seems to arise from a misunderstanding of the Frankenstein monster’s gait. The Frankenstein monster doesn’t get entangled with his own feet. Rather, he is dead and so longs, I think, to return to the earth. This means that every move that the monster makes is like a dead meat falling forward under gravity’s influence – the monster’s miserable mortified flesh longs for repose and so he is constantly staggering forward, each step dropping heavily onto the earth and overbalanced so that he is propelled forward. This form of ambulation, derived from Karloff’s portrayal of the monster in the early 1930's has shown considerable longevity; George Romero’s Pittsburgh zombies in Night of the Living Dead, first spawned in 1968 and continuing to haunt us today move with that same heavy, lumbering gait.
Pynchon’s book is set in 1970, at the start of the Manson family trials. Therefore, his description of English zombies seems anachronistic – the quick, feral undead originate in the new Millenium. These lithe, swift, gliding English zombies are the invention of Danny Boyles’ 2002 film 28 Days later (and reappear in the 2007 sequel 28 Weeks later). Not all English zombies move with such elan. The zombies that appear suddenly in London in Shaun of the Dead (2004) are a reversion to the slow, staggering, clumsy zombie of the Frankenstein model. But, generally, it seems that British undead move swiftly, as if on feet magically equipped with roller-blade wheels. A good example is shown in an episode of the British TV comedy The IT Crowd named The Haunting of Bill Crouse (2006). For reasons too complicated to limn, the show’s female protagonist, Jen, is thought to be dead. In fact, she is very much alive. On the night preceding her alleged demise, Jen went on a date with a boorish co-worker, Bill Crouse. When Crouse hears the rumor that Jen has suddenly died, he boasts to everyone that “(he) was the last person to sleep with her.” Jen hops a ride on a mail cart pushed by a little gnome of a mail clerk, grinning as he hustles her down the corridor. The cart flashes by Bill Crouse’s office and his window is masked in such a way that he sees nothing but Jen’s grinning face gliding past with uncanny speed – a jack-o-lantern head whisked by his window without any indication of stride or gait, an entirely horizontal motion that, like the corpse in Lucan and like Murnau’s Nosferatu, presents a sudden looming appearance, but without flexion of muscle or joint. Needless to say, this apparition terrifies the hapless braggart, Bill Crouse.
Poets are often concerned with how inhuman things move. Robert Lowell describes
giantfinned cars (nosing) forward
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
(“For the Union Dead”)
Carl Sandberg tells us that the fog “comes on little cat feet.” In Psalm 19, the sun
comes forth from his pavilion like a bridegroom,
like a strong man rejoicing to run his race...
There is nothing hidden from his heat.
And it was either Robert Johnson or Son House in 1930 who first wrote:
Got up this mornin’
Saw Blues walkin’ like a man
I said “Good morning, Blues
Give me your right hand.”
In Zarathustra, Nietzsche reminds us that all great events come on “dove’s feet.” This image quotes Homer’s Iliad at Book Five, the episode where “Hera of the white arms” and “Bright-eyed Athene” intervene in a battle at Troy, darting through mist “walking as if with the feet of turtle-doves” toward man-killing Ares.
On Jacques Derrida
Whoever composed the German Nibelungenlied, writes
“Daz wer et wig mit swerten” So sprach Gernot
“da sterbent wan die veigen die lazen ligen tot.
“If they venture to attack with swords,” Gernot said,
“Those fated to die will die they’ll be left lying dead.”
I wish to draw attention to the word in Mittelhochdeutsch written “veigen”. In the twelfth century this word meant “one whom Fate has chosen for death”. This concept was entwined with old Germanic belief that Walkuere – that is, “choosing maidens” – selected certain warriors beloved to them for death in battle. In this way, the miserable fate of being hacked or clubbed to death in combat was transformed into a privilege – the Walkuere lifted the slain man from the battle field and carried him to Walhalla, the place of the “chosen ones”. (Wal means “chosen”). Hence, after the battle with the Luediger and his Saxons:
do wurden ouch die veigen von vriwenden sere gekleit
(Then, the men killed in battle (veigen) were much mourned by their friends.)
Mittelhochdeutsch veigen is cognate with Old English faege. In Beowulf, this sentence employs that word:
Bil eal (th)urhwod
Meaning something like:
The sword pierced right through
the flesh-body of the man doomed to death.
And, in my favorite formulation of the old Anglo-Saxon ethos, the word occurs:
Wyrd oft nere(th)
unfaegne eorl (th)onne his ellen deah.
Which may be translated:
Fate often spares
a warrior who is not doomed to die (unfaegne) if he does brave deeds.
lines 572 - 573
Beowulf was written in the ninth or tenth century of the common era. The Nibelunglied, although based on much earlier material, reaches its current form by monastic labors in the 12th century. By the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the word faegne has vanished from English, leaving no traces. In German, however, the word has morphed into feigen or feige. Curiously, feigen now means “cowardly”.
This history is an interesting demonstration how the meaning of words will subtly change into a related, but, often, opposite concept. Feige is not quite the opposite of veige, but the meaning is shifting in that direction. Veige might denote reckless courage, since the man doomed to death in battle knew that he was destined for the pleasures of Walhalla. Christianity intervened and condemned to oblivion the charming battle-maidens. Without Walkuere and the hope of Walhalla, death in battle might seem a sordid misfortune. Indeed, in the absence of the Teutonic mythology underwriting heroism in combat, a reasonably man might well regard the prospect of being doomed to death by sword or axe as something that might induce fear or cowardice. Thus, I think, the word subtly shifts in meaning to, ultimately, signify something approaching the opposite of its original meaning – or, at least, something related to the original meaning, but radically changed in color and texture. It’s not so much that the old notion of veigen has vanished, but that it is hidden within the modern word, still imparting something of its weight and density to feigen but in a concealed, or occult, way.
These reflections are inspired by a song that I heard on the radio one afternoon while driving home from Minneapolis. The program was about torch singers and one of lyrics that I heard puzzled me:
Sounds corny and seedy, but, yes, indeedy,
Give me the simple life.
These words occurred in the context of a song praising simplicity over sophistication. “Corny” seemed a stretch to me – signifying yokel humor and sentiment – but, at least, I could make sense of the word in the lyric’s setting. “Seedy,” on the other hand, seemed totally wrong – “seedy” means to me “shabby and disreputable.” So I was lead to wonder whether “seedy,” as recently as 1959, had a meaning different from the present: did the word once mean something like “hayseed” – that is, a rural, unsophisticated person?
In fact, I can find no evidence that “seedy” has ever had any connection to the so-called “simple life” lead by farmers and small town merchants, the life of the “hayseeds” in our society. Mark Twain used the word thus:
He was soiled and seedy and fragrant with gin.
And, since the mid 1700's, the word has been attested to refer to rundown, shabby, disreputable people and things. This constellation of meanings seems based on an etymology that describes a flowering plant in its decline as “seedy” – the bright blossoms are faded and withered and the dying plant is full of seeds; in its senescence, the plant is physically dilapidated. “Seedy” has never been a synonym for “corny” or for “rural and unsophisticated”. The use of the word in the lyric is simply wrong, an artifact of a rather contrived rhyme scheme.
“Give me the Simple Life” was a hit in 1959 for Julie London. The song is a standard and has been performed, in one shape or another, by artists as disparate as Rosemary Clooney, the Four Freshman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Taylor, and Benny Goodman. Consulting the lyrics, I find that the actual chorus in which the word occurs is:
Some like the high road
I like the low road,
Free from care and strife,
Sounds corny and seedy,
But, yes, indeedy!
Give me the simple life.
From this example, it seems abundantly clear that the lyricist either doesn’t speak idiomatic English or is so casual with the meaning of his words that, in effect, the chorus is a kind of scat singing – just nonsense syllables to form a bridge. The low road in idiomatic English certainly doesn’t mean the “humble, unassuming way.” Rather, as with seedy, the phrase low road has an entire complex of moral meanings, implying deceit, treachery, and shamelessness. Surely, the fresh-faced lady singer can not be implying that she is prepared to take shameless, deceitful, and backstabbing low road in preference to the high road. Accordingly, it seems that the peculiar and distorted meaning of seedy connoted by the song is a rather severe perversion of the ordinary meaning of that idiom, the result of inartful phrasing and a rather naive desire to have “corn” rhyme metaphorically with “seeds”(and rhyme literally with “indeed”).
But, what if, for some reason, Give me the Simple Life were to become established as culturally significant? What if lots of people knew the words and sung them frequently? What if choral directors performed the song often at high school concerts? In that case, I would wager that the meaning of seedy would shift. If Give me the Simple Life were to become iconic and inescapable, there is no doubt that seedy would be transformed like veige into feige. Under that improbably circumstance, seedy would come to mean “rural and unsophisticated” – perhaps, in addition to its other definitions – and, for that matter, the low road would suggest a “humble and unassuming” approach to life. But older meanings of seedy would not vanish. Rather, they would sound within the word when pronounced, the way that overtones resonate subtly, unheard but present, when any musical note is intoned.
My point is that words signify within an aura of related meanings. Most words imply and, in a ghostly way, invoke their opposites. Furthermore, a word bears within itself a long penumbra of subtly contradictory meanings – concepts that are akin to the word’s ordinary meaning, but variant.
All poets know this.
On this humble insight, Jacques Derrida founded a system and doctrine with a thousand apostles and as many heresiarchs.
On the Constitution of Indigenous Law
John Borrows is a Canadian law professor and specialist in indigenous law. At his lecture, Professor Borrows read a chapter from his memoirs which he, then, explicated. Borrows seems soft-spoken and has the earnest demeanor of a preacher. He is a member of Ontario’s Chippewa of Nawash First Nation and Anishinabe.
In his sermon, Professor Borrows suggested that Indian legal practice is constituted by four factors: custom, positive declarations of law, environmental analogies, and deliberation. This argument was incidental to Borrows’ principal theme: law guides volition and that, even in their most diminished capacity, people retain some ability to choose the good. In this context, Borrows advanced the notion that no one is outside the law.
My focus, however, is on Borrows’ assertion that Indian law is not a theory or idea, but a practice. And a practice that can be viewed as based on custom, decree, nature, and deliberation. Borrows’ rhetorical method was to present a story densely encoded with parable-like features and, then, suggest some of the meanings that might be implicit in the narration. I take this rhetorical strategy to exemplify an element of indigenous legal practice – that the law is a system of stories or narrations by which we make sense of the world. The question that I undertake in this note is whether this vision of the law departs significantly from what the ordinary lawyer experiences in his or her practice day to day.
With one exception, everything Borrows’ defined as constituting a legal practice is manifestly part of an attorney’s routine experience. The exception, perhaps, is the element of environmental sensitivity – this was the most exotic feature of the Borrows’ analysis and, on the basis, of one question from the audience, possibly the most difficult concept for his listeners to understand. I will try to make sense of the environmental aspect of the law at the conclusion of this note.
Certainly, lawyers experience legal issues as arising in the matrix of stories told to them by clients. These stories are measured against other stories – that is, the statements of fact presented in legal opinions. Story-telling is clearly an integral part of modern jurisprudence. One need only compare the fulsome, in some cases, luridly detailed statements of fact accompanying modern decisions with the brief abstract and syllogistic factual recitations of 19th century opinions to be convinced that the present practice of law is intensely narrative. In the 19th century, law to some extent labored under the burden of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, certainly one of the most harshly non-narrative, and abstract, theories of jurisprudence ever presented. Similarly, law was often viewed as integrally connected with logic. In fact, law is a practice of rhetoric, appealing to much more primordial grounds for decision than mere logic. Stories have much greater, more primal appeal than logical reasoning and, accordingly, modern legal practice is intricately narrative.
Custom plays an enormous role in the routine practice of law. Normative practice is guided by mostly unwritten traditions. Party-depositions are routinely taken in the office of the attorney producing the witness. Under Minnesota practice, doctors rarely testify in person at trial; it is customary to take a deposition that can be read into evidence at the hearing. In complex cases, attorney’s routinely agree to depose one another’s experts – although this is not authorized under the Minnesota Rules of Court. Protocols of mediated settlement conferences and other informal procedures are all customary. Indeed, even substantive elements of the law – for instance, the valuation of cases – is a matter of unwritten tradition and custom. Who says, after all, that a soft-tissue low back or neck injury without objective symptoms is worth between $7500 and $12,500? These things are established by custom.
Central to Anglo-American jurisprudence is the decree of lawmaker. Statutes and case authority play a primary role in applying the law to human conflict. Apparently, this is true, although in some instances to a lesser degree, in Indian law. Here, the chief distinction between indigenous law and Anglo-American legal systems would seem to be the fact that the latter’s jurisprudence sometimes pretends to be blind to other factors. But this pretense is always undermined by the extent to which the nature of the narrative, the equities that the story implies, and the customs and traditions in which the narrative is embedded are important factors in resolving any dispute.
Finally, the notion of a deliberative synthesis of the other elements of law into a juridical decision is crucial, arguably, to all systems of conflict resolution. Deliberation is the process that weigh alternatives, that selects among possible outcomes, that fuses the story with the skeletal allegories of the law that seem to stand outside the narrative, but which are, in fact, by custom and tradition implied from within the story. All conflict-resolution requires that the decision-maker, the Judge, provide persuasive reasons for his or her decision – it is in the framing of the reasons for a decision that the deliberative process is exercised.
Notably, I have excluded the environmental factor from this analysis. This feature of legal process seems often ignored in Anglo-American jurisprudence. As I understood Professor Borrows on this point, an indigenous jurist frequently applies analogies from the non-human world to establish meaning. On this point, a colloquy between Borrows and one of the people listening to his lecture was helpful in teasing-out an important distinction. Borrows idea of using nature as a reference should not be confused with Natural Law. Natural Law, as developed by thinkers like Aquinas, is actually a law of human nature – it is an argument from principles thought to be constitutional to human society. Since all men live in communities, for instance, theft will always be considered criminal – that is a logical consequence of what it means to be human. This sort of analysis derives from a Platonic consideration of what is essential to the kind of thing analyzed. In the alternative, this analysis, in the from adopted by Aquinas, is teleological – it is developed from an idea as to what constitutes the proper end or purpose of human existence. In each case, Natural Law derives from the nature of man, either as he must be constituted to live in meaningful communities or as he must act to achieve his end – that is, salvation and admittance into some hypothetical Kingdom of God.
I take Borrows’ sense of this environmental factor as more diffuse and problematic. His examples suggest that principles of proper decision making are encoded in natural phenomena. We can decipher meanings helpful to the decision of human conflict from the energies in nature. Borrows began the portion of his memoir read in the lecture with geographic and geological remarks – there were fossils embedded in the stones on the seashore and an escarpment rose a few miles inland from the lake marking the edges of the ancient seashore. We can learn justice from a stone or a rock formation or the orderly stratification of sediments encoded in cliff face. A albino bird provides an omen. But no one knows what the omen means – perhaps, the omen is merely a sign of the human need to find portent in the natural world, that compulsion, itself, a sign that we discard our connection to the non-human natural world only at our peril.
An example of this sort of reasoning occurs in Taoism as domesticated by Confucius. Confucius describes the processes of nature as definitive to human nature. Notice that the direction of the metaphor is reversed from Natural Law. Natural Law reasons from man’s nature to a decision and devises rules constitutional to nature from human needs and ends. Confucius, often, seems to reason in the reverse process – because non-human nature operates in a certain manner then human beings also should be obedient to those processes:
In the old time, Khwan dammed the inundating waters and thereby threw into disorder
arrangement of the Five Elements...the principles of Heaven’s method were allowed to go into ruin.
Confucius often describes the laws of natural phenomena as Heaven or Heaven’s method. Acting in violation of those rules disorders man’s relationship with the world and is a form of lawlessness. (One wonders how these principles accord with the monumental destruction of nature at the Five Gorges Dam in modern China).
Confucius’ principles of Heaven and acting in accord with Heaven’s method apply even when nature has been destroyed or, to use his term, denuded. Just because the mountain formerly clad in trees, and defined therefore by its foliage, has been denuded and all forests hacked-down does not mean the mountain has ceased to be a mountain. The mountain remains holy even though it has been ruined:
To these things (overgrazing and immoderate harvest of trees) the bare and appearance of the mountain is owed and, when people now see it, they think it was never finely wooded. But is this the nature of the mountain?
Confucius says that the wise delight in flowing water. The fate of water is his analogy for man’s nature:
Man’s nature is like water whirling around in a corner. Open a passage for it to the est and it will flow to the east. Open a passage for it to the west, and it will flow to the west. Man’s nature is indifferent to good and evil, just as the water is indifferent to the east and west. To which Mencius replied: Water will flow indifferently to the east and west, but will it flow indifferently up and down? The tendency of man’s nature to good is like the tendency of water to flow down...Now by striking water and causing it to leap up, you may make it go over your forehead, and, by damming and leading it, you may force it up a hill – but are such movements according to the nature of water? It is the force applied which causes them. When men are made to do what is not good, their nature is dealt with in this way.
This sort of reasoning, I take to be similar in character to what Professor Borrows termed the “environmental” aspect of Indian legal practice.
And, come to think of it, such analogies are not always absent in standard Anglo-American legal practice. An ambulance-chasing, greedy lawyer is said to be a “shark”. And, recently, in a much publicized decision Judge Rosenbaum from his Bench in Minneapolis initiated an opinion denying a fee petition in a class action lawsuit with the succinct statement: “The remoras are loose again.”
A remora is a little creature, but the ancient Greeks and Romans, at least, thought them to be very powerful. Lucan tells us that entire armadas have been stalled in the turbulent mid-ocean by the drag of remoras attached to the wooden hulls of the ships.
References: Professor John Borrows’ lecture was delivered on September 15, 2009 at the University of Minnesota, the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy and Society Lecture: it was entitled “Physical Philosophies: Teaching and Practicing Indigenous Law”. The citations from Confucius are from Doeblin’s The Living Thoughts of Confucius, Casell (London), 1942 at 75, 77, and 121. Also see In re UnitedHealth Group Incorporated PSLRA litigation, order in Class Action dated September 4, 2009 (J. Rosenbaum, District of Minnesota).
If the mind is to remain sane, some wishes must be forbidden. An old man’s wish to be young again falls into that category. This desire for youth is so powerful, seductive, and painful that it torments even the young – this is the hidden significance of the beer and jeans commercials, among a thousand others, clogging the airwaves.
So I will not indulge in this desire in the brief memoir.
In 1979, I left Minneapolis where I had lived most of my life and moved to Austin, Minnesota to practice law. I regretted leaving the big city. Many of my friends were involved in the arts such as film and dance and I was sad to be moving to one of those last enclaves in the State where no one had ever heard of Garrison Keiller and where the Prairie Home Companion was unknown because there was public radio station to carry that signal. My girlfriend lived in Hopkins and, although she had been raised on a truck farm that produced melons and tomatoes, she had no desire to come with me to southern Minnesota. It seemed that many aspects of my life previously important to me would end when I emigrated to Austin.
I was 24 and thought that one day I would be an important artist and writer. Most things that I had attempted had been successes. I expected that if I didn’t become famous as a writer, I would become a well-known, world-recognized lawyer – such are the fantasies of youth. And I thought that leaving Minneapolis was an important stage in my biography, something that should be commemorated by a big party. So I invited a lot of people to a friend’s house to say goodbye to me. Note: these people didn’t host the party. In retrospect, I guess I was less important to that clique of friends than I had believed – they didn’t hold the party for me, I held the party for me.
In those days, I was obsessed with the idea of staging action and events before a large rear-projection screen. I rented a screen of that sort and put it in the garage where the keg of beer and bar with hard liquor were located. On the screen, I ran a super 8 mm. loop of a film shot at a previous party – for a romantic young person, I guess, a party is like high opera; I was much influenced by the descriptions of parties in Greenwich Village in William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions and I wanted my going-away party to be similarly fabulous, memorable, sinister with import, voluptuous with romance. We made films of people at the party cavorting in front of the rear-projection screen on which their images were also cavorting. I think it would be unbearable for me, today, to see those pictures.
At noon, hungover, on the morning after the going-away party – which I remember as being sad, humid, and rather desolate – I drove down to Austin, took possession of my little apartment, and a day later started at the law firm where I have labored the last 31 years. I had expended all of my money on the party and it was two weeks before my first paycheck – and, then, a car payment on my tiny Chevette was due. I recall eating canned chili and hot dogs for a month or so. Then, I had a little money. I was frugal. My girlfriend didn’t come to Austin and so I didn’t have anything much to spend my money on. For a few months, I didn’t have any friends outside of the law firm. I worked and, sometimes, went to a partner’s house for supper. I was well-liked at the firm because I was enthusiastic, willing to learn, and worked hard. After six or seven months, I had a surplus of money. So I went to the Oak Park Mall where there was a store that sold Hi-Fi components and bought myself a stereo. I spend a thousand dollars – a lot of money in those days. In 1979, you listened to music that was pre-recorded on records – although that form of audio reproduction was started to look obsolete – and little cassettes. Most people favored the cassettes at that time.
My dad, who had come from a hamlet in central Nebraska, always yearned for a Hi-Fi system. When I was in elementary school, he bought a kit from Radio Shack and spent many hours sitting at the kitchen table welding tiny wires together. When he was done, he set up the tuner-receiver in the basement of our house; we were working at that time to panel the nasty, moist concrete walls to make a kind of rec room. My dad connected some more wires, installed a long cable to serve as an antenna, and, then, plugged in the little silver console. We had some small speakers on a bookshelf, as I recall, and, after some difficulties – my father couldn’t find the tiny clitoral nub of the signal – a beautiful sound emerged to echo across the basement. It was a silky smooth, honeyed sound, an early FM announcer laid back as if half-comatose on cough syrup and qualuudes, then, a thousand strings playing some Broadway show-tune – it was such a dense, fine sound and the announcer’s voice had a patina like polished, old pewter and the music was a hallucination in your brain, something sounding from inside your sinuses and the cavities behind your eyes. We didn’t have a turntable – we were too poor for that and my father couldn’t afford, at that time, to collect records; you can see evidence of similarly straitened circumstances in the Coen Brothers great A Serious Man, in which the hero is half-destroyed by the demands of the Columbia record club and, like my father, had to climb onto his roof to adjust the antenna for the electronics in the house. The beautiful, seductive sound of the Hi-Fi system was something that was too good, too beautiful, too pure and voluptuous for us. After awhile, a tube blew and the Hi-Fi system gathered dust on the shelf. Then, when I was in ninth-grade, I think, my Dad suddenly had enough money and we bought a stereo system and began to collect classical records – Beethoven’s symphonies first, then, Mozart, then, Bach. But that was later... People today, at least in America, can’t conceive what a good, expensive stereo system meant to a young man. Lifestyle magazines like Playboy monthly featured recipes for Hi-Fi excellence and every fuck-pad was supposed to equipped with a high-end stereo to please the ladies. Concomitant to any successful seduction was a high-fidelity serenade of music by Keith Jarret or Pat Methaney or something, slippery and grand like Rachmaninoff. (I favored Patti Smith, Louis Armstrong and Dvorak – tastes that I knew I would have to revise if I hoped to become a successful lady’s man). I recall uncrating my components, swigging whiskey from the bottle, and, then, stitching them together with special high-fidelity copper cables. Finally, I had the thing all connected. I turned on the power and saw the tuner-receiver glow – it was a bluish-green night-light: how beautiful, I thought, to see my beloved’s naked body infused with the romantic glow from that console! I peeled the plastic shroud off my casette – it was an album, Comes a Time, by Neil Young. (In those days, I read two magazines cover-to-cover: The Village Voice and Rolling Stone; both had highly recommended the album.) I turned the knob on the amplifier to about 30% – those old stereos were powerful – swallowed another gulp of whiskey and lay back on my old, used couch. The music started. It was the most beautiful thing I could ever imagine: “Powderfinger” by Neil Young. The sound was a sword in the darkness lit by lightning – my own stereo, my own apartment, my job as a lawyer, my future opening before me with the promise of innumerable, wonderful adventures. How wonderful it would be — but, no, that thought is vain and shouldn’t be even acknowledged, let alone indulged...
Since that time, I always get a rush of excitement whenever I hear Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”. The song vibrates with a looping country-western and folk sound – like an ancient ballad from some immemorial past suddenly occupying the present, a little non-plussed, perhaps, but still vital and moving and meaningful. The feed-back guitar chorus always sings like a church choir. For years, I’ve tried to decipher the song’s lyrics – you can hear them pretty clearly, but it simply isn’t clear what they mean.
Interpreting rock and roll lyrics is pretty much a fool’s exercise. I recall spending many stoned hours trying to figure out the meaning of enigmatic lyrics written by Lennon and McCartner. “Now you know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,” for instance, from Sergeant Pepper’s “A Day in the Life” – what could that mean? Are they saying that the people who attend the annual Proms concerts at the Albert Hall are “assholes”? (In fact, about ten years ago, McCartney said that he needed a line for the lyrics, free-associated, and came up with those words – they came from a headline about filling the various potholes in London streets. The asphalt required to fill that number of potholes would “fill the Albert Hall”. But how this helps to construe the song at large is mysterious.) And so, I’ll try not to slip into the dim, reefer-smoke-laden suburban basements of such criticism with respect to “Powderfinger”. In fact, my thesis is that the song is, more or less, indecipherable.
“Powderfinger” narrates a fatal encounter between a young man and a mysterious gunboat. The song’s protagonist is twenty-two when an armed river-going vessel approaches the remote village where he lives with his kinfolk. The young man’s impulse is to defend the village and so he attempts to shoot at the gunboat with a rifle. In the process, he is killed. The narrative identifies itself as inexplicable with respect to its point-of-view: the ballad is told by the protagonist, that is, narrated by a dead man. Accordingly, the entire form of the ballad partakes of the uncanny. It is interesting to observe that Neil Young’s lyric reverses the deceased narrator’s ordinary function. Two prominent examples establish the norm: William Holden’s posthumous narration in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950) and the ghostly narrator in the song “The Long Black Veil”. In both cases, the posthumous narrator knows what happened. The dead see the whole picture and can explain things that might otherwise seem mysterious: how does a young screenwriter end up floating face-down in the decrepit pool of an aging silent film star’s mansion? Why does a woman “roam these hills in long black veil”? The dead narrators have privileged information and they use their knowledge to decipher the mystery. By contrast, death doesn’t solve anything for Neil Young’s narrator – he remains as befuddled by the events that killed him as he was when he “raised (his) rifle to his eye/ Never stopped to wonder why...”
The first stanza establishes the situation:
Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river
With a big red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail
I think you better call John
‘Cause it don’t look like they’re here to deliver the mail,
And it’s less than a mile away
I hope they didn’t come to stay
It’s got numbers on the side and gun
It’s makin’ big waves.
Significantly, the young man’s first impulse when he sees the gunboat is to call for his mother. Our hero is not a warrior but a hapless “mama’s boy” who finds himself confronted with a situation that he can’t understand. Observe how the first stanza presents the young man’s perceptions exactly as he experiences them: in the distance, the boat is a white speck on the river, then, the narrator sees the beacon and the flag and a man. What is this boat? The narrator’s hesitancy, his doubts, are precisely conveyed by the way that the third-to-last line is sung: the boy says “...it don’t look like they’re here to deliver” – and the word “deliver” is extended immensely to emphasize the rhyme with “river” – “the mail” (these last two words added as a kind of afterthought to rhyme with “the mail”). The sense that the lyric presents as sung is that the young man hopes fervently that the gunboat is the innocuous mail vessel, holds that notion in his mind as long as possible, and, then, dismisses it only reluctantly. As the sinister gunboat comes closer, the proximity of the vessel is measured by the fact that the narrator now can see “numbers on its side” – a pun that means both that the vessel is literally numbered like PT-109, for instance, but also that it represents a superior, “outnumbering” force. Waves slap the dock where the young man stands. As the wake of the gunboat approaches, the narrator senses that he must do something. But what?
First, the young man reviews his resources. He needs counsel. But from whom:
Daddy’s gone, my brother’s out hunting in the mountains,
Big John’s been drinkin’ since the river took Emmy-Lou
So the Powers that Be left me here to do the thinkin’
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wondering what to do
And the closer they got
The more those feelings grew.
Diction like “Daddy” and “Big John” suggest the immaturity of the 22-year old narrator. “Powers that Be” is a lame cliche – the young man doesn’t know what to do and there is no one “to do the thinkin’” that the situation requires. Neil Young’s craft is obvious in the way that the indecisiveness in this stanza, increasing as the boat approaches, mirrors the physical details of the boats advance shown in the first stanza.
The narrator takes up arms against the gunboat. And with the rifle in his hand, he canvasses his memory for some maxim, some proverb, some snippet of wisdom to tell him what to do:
Daddy’s rifle in my hand felt reassurin’
He told me: Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothin’
But when the first shot hit the docks I saw it comin’
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why.
Then I saw black,
And my face splashed in the sky.
The narrator doesn’t understand what is happening. But it is “reassuring” to raise a rifle against what might be an enemy. The maxims of fatherly wisdom which the protagonist recalls are incoherent, impossible to understand. “Red means run” – what can this mean? Did the protagonist and his father once go to a big city and notice that when the traffic semaphore turned red pedestrians have to run to evade the cars intersection? How does “red mean run”? And what can it mean “that numbers add up to nothin’”? Of course, in combat, outnumbering the enemy is usually decisive. Surely, “numbers” must add up to “something”. But if “red means run,” the “big red beacon” requires that the protagonist take to his heels. On the other hand, if “numbers add up to nothing,” the young man need not fear the superior firepower of the approaching gunboat – counsel that he stand his ground and fight. Accordingly, the excerpts of fatherly wisdom that the hero recalls seem to suggest exactly opposite responses to the peril.
As the hero ponders these maxims, rifle at the ready, the gunboat fires a warning shot. The young man misperceives the danger – he thinks that he can see the shot coming, when, in fact, all that he witnesses is the effect of the gunblast after it has hit the dock. Of course, as the song demonstrates, no one sees the shot that kills him – it happens too quickly for any response. To listener sof my age, and to a Canadian like Neil Young, the line “never stopped to wonder why” unmistakably resonates with Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” – “theirs not to reason why”. As reflex, and because the heft and shape of the gun is reassuring to him, the young man takes aim. The gunboat fires and blows the young man’s head off – “his “face” splashes “in the sky.”
The last stanza is the young man’s envoi, his valediction and farewell.
Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Think of me as one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love,
I know I’ll miss her.
The young man’s prayer, which is tragically retrospective, is to be “sheltered” from volatile, indecipherable circumstances in which the explosive gunpowder is lit by a finger that “never (asks) to wonder why”. The young man’s finger in proximity with the gunpowder yields the chimerical trope of the “powderfinger” – that is, the 22-year olds dangerously volatile response to the threat that he perceives against those that he loves.
“The thought that pulled the trigger” is love for the young man’s family and, in particular, the unnamed girl saluted in the last line. The narrator hopes that his death can be understood as meaningful, that is “covered,” by his noble motivation. Yet, the nobility of the young man’s motives, the desire to defend and protect those dear to him, coupled with the volatile, indecipherable situation results in meaningless tragedy. The young man is killed and, in fact, like all of the dead “fades away” in human memory.
Listeners attempting to interpret this song always speculate as to the nature of the boat and the intentions of those occupying it. They wonder where the story is set and ask why the young man is reflexively xenophobic. I think this sort of analysis is unproductive. The exact point of the lyrics is that young man doesn’t know what the appearance of the boat means. He has no one to give him counsel. The poem doesn’t give us any clues as to why the boat appeared, whether it was hostile, whether the young man’s reaction was unreasonable or excessive – instead, the lyrics put us in the young man’s shoes and require us to experience his own confusion and desperation. We can’t know what the boat means or its intentions – all we know is that the young man has been raised to regard outsiders as dangerous and firearms as the remedy to that danger. From this predisposition which is innate – “never stopped to wonder why” – this small, but savage, tragedy flows.
The Armed Forces recruit young men whose natural reflexes are patriotic. These young men wish to defend those that they love. War is their powder. The trigger-finger twitches and the explosion follows. But, as the song shows us, the threat is fundamentally misunderstood, indecipherable to the warrior, or, worse, perhaps not a threat at all.