Monday, September 15, 2014

Crime Stories and Their Audiences by Colin Watson


Mysterious Press, 1971

‘It is more that fifteen years since Colin Watson’s Snobbery with Violence first appeared, a pioneer study using crime fiction, that most popular form of reading, to, in the author’s own words in his chapter on the thirties vogue for oriental villains ‘tell something about the way…people thought, what they feared and what they despised.’ There have been academic studies of popular fiction in much of this field since, chiefly American in origin, but none I think seriously supersedes this book and certainly none can be read with anything like as much ease and pleasure.’(Preface by H.R.F. Keating, 1986)’


‘that School of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good-class tweed through twentieth-century literature.’- Alan Bennett


Charging commercial institutions with failure to educate public taste is an indulgence from which intellectuals will only be deterred when they grasp that a non-existent contract can neither be breeched or enforced. If commerce is to be indicted for anything, it can only be for commercialism, and whether that is a crime or not is a political question. Very few people who walked into the High Street from a library forty yeas ago with three or four thrillers and romances under their arm had the slightest misgivings about the freedom of choice they had just exercised. Even fewer would have been prepared for a moment to credit that the ‘good read to which they were looking forward was part of a process that debilitated taste, shrank discrimination and impoverished thought.

Despite the economic crisis, chronic unemployment and widespread misery in industrial areas, the mood of the people not immediately affected by these things was predominantly one of satisfaction. Gilt-edged Victorian and Edwardian optimism had taken a far less severe a knock from the murderous futility of the 1914-18 war than one might suppose. The middle class had suffered its share of casualties, of course, but it mourned them as it would have mourned bereavement by pneumonia or motor accident. Anger was hardly felt at all, and if there was little of the kind of pride which a nation-wide clutter of memorial masonry made pretence of witnessing, the ‘sacrifice’ by so many fathers and sons and brothers and uncles was accepted by most as having been a dutiful and responsible act. The Great Bore was over, the threat from foreigners had been remove for the moment, and the prospect visible from city suburb, commuters’ village and provincial township was one of secure continuance of the old order and its gradual enrichment by the innovations of progress.

Thus it was quite possible to be leading a comfortable existence in a pleasant residential area of Gloucester or Hereford and be genuinely unaware that less than fifty miles away in the Welsh valleys whole communities were living on a bare survival level. Kindly Londoners who would have been shocked by the spectacle of a child shivering with cold simply refused to believe stores of schools on Tyneside in which, summer and winter, nearly half the pupils sat barefoot in class. The stories were true, as were those of Durham shipyard towns where only one man in three had a job, and areas in Lancashire and Cumberland were malnutrition had hoisted the tuberculosis rate to between ten and twenty times that of the Home Counties. But distance – even a short distance – was a great insulator of conscience. So was the notion, inherited from the Victorian self-help school, that misfortune was somehow the consequence of fecklessness and therefore the unalterable lot of those who had allowed themselves to slip to the bottom of the pile. Yet another aid to the equanimity of the comfortably placed was the preoccupation of the Press with cheerful and trivial themes. With very few exceptions indeed newspapers were dedicated to the profitable Northcliffe slogan ‘give the public what it wants.’

What the public – the middle class, reading public – clearly did not want was disquieting dispatches from beyond the frontiers of its own experience. Circulation managers noted that too frequent reference to menacing political situations abroad depressed sales, as did ‘sordid’ stories of industrial depression at home. News selection and treatment were adjusted accordingly. The News Chronicle (formerly Dicken’s Daily News) was practically alone among national daily newspapers in consistently presenting foreign and home events with due regard to the realities of the situation. The readers of the rest were shown an Italy and Germany whose rulers, while not quite gentlemen, perhaps, were too busy building autobahns and getting trains to run on time for the entertainment of any aggressive intentions; a Russia of measureless malignance and cardboard tanks; a France consisting of the Promenade des Anglais, rude night clubs and the Maginot Line; and a motherland to which prosperity was slowly and surely returning while Mr. Baldwin tamped his pipe, Mr. MacDonald mixed his metaphors, and Gracie Fields led a crowd of happy, be-shawled mill girls in a chorus of ‘Sing As We Go.’

The euphoric conspiracy was not completely solid. Apart from the predictable fusillade from left-wing polemicists, there came protests from relatively respectable quarters. Wells warned and Shaw taunted. George Orwell’s dark prophesies frightened a few people. Hilaire Belloc declared England to be ‘done’ before he lapsed into since in order to contemplate the enormity of the demolition of Hanacker Mill. The intellectual poet, Auden and Isherwood, blistered the smug compatriots whose salvation they were to leave others to complete when the opted for America in 1939. A particularly unkind cut, coming as it did from the author of  The Good Companions, 1929’s top favorite among solid citizens, was delivered by J.B Priestly in 1934. His English Journey confirmed by personal testimony that there exited on a large scale places and conditions of unimaginable awfulness. Some library committees in the areas he described, persuaded that Mr. Priestly had been less than fair, declined to stock the book.

Outside the rotting industrial areas, developments favorable to the expansion of a ‘leisure’ literature continued steadily during the 1920s and 1930s…by the end of this period crime, adventure and romance fiction accounted for three-quarters of all novels published in the English language…..




Sunday, September 14, 2014

Life of Nate Shaw

And durin of the pressure years, a union began to operate in this country, called the Sharecroppers Union – that was a nice name, I thought – and my first knowing about this union, this organization, that riot came off at Crane’s Ford in ‘31. I looked deep in that thing, too – I heard more than I seed and I taken that in consideration. And I knowed what was goin on was a turnabout on the southern man, white and colored, it was something unusual. And I heard about it being a organization for the poor class of people – that’s just what I wanted to get into, too; I wanted to know the secrets of it enough that I could become in the knowledge of it.

Now I heard talk about trucks comin into this country  deliverin guns to the colored people but I decided that was all talk, tryin to accuse the niggers of getting into something here that maybe they weren’t – and maybe they were. But didn’t no trucks haul no guns to nobody. Colored people hadn’t been armed for nothing; it told like that just to agitate the thing further. Of course, some of these colored folks in here had some good guns – you know a Winchester rifle is a pretty good gun itself.  But they didn’t have nothing above that that.  It weren’t nothing that nobody sent in here for them to use, just their own stuff.
Well, they killed a man up there, colored fellow; his name was Adam Cole. And they tell me – I didn’t see it but I heard lots about it and I never did here nothing about it that backed me off – Kurt Beall, the High Sheriff for Tukabahchee County, got shot in the stomach. He run up there to break up this meetin business amongst the colored people and someone in that crowd shot him.  That kind of broke him up from runnin in places like that.

And the white folks woke up and stretched themselves and commenced a runnin around meddlin with niggers about this organization. And it’s a close thing today. One old man – and he was as big a skunk as ever sneaked into the woods – old man Mac Sloane, come up to me one day- he didn’t come to my home, he met me on the outside – old man Mac Sloane come to me hot as a stove iron, “Nate, do you belong to that mess they carryin on in this country?”

I just cut him off short. I didn’t belong to it at that time, but I was eager to join and I was aimin to join, just hadn’t got the right opportunity.

“No, I don’t belong to nothin.”

Mac Sloane, white man, said, “You stay out of it. That damn thing will get you killed. You stay out of it. These niggers runnin around here carryin on some kind of meeting – you’d better stay out of it.”

I said to myself, ‘you a fool if you think you keep me from joining’. I went right on and joined it, just as quick as the next meetin come. Runnin around and given me orders – he suspected I might be the kind of man to belong to such and organization; put the finger on me before I ever joined. And he done just the thing to push me into it – gived me orders not to join. . . .

Had the meetins at our houses or anywhere we could have em where we could keep a look and a watch-out that nobody was comin in on us. Small meetings, sometimes there’d be a dozen, sometimes there’d be more, sometimes there’d be less- niggers was scared, niggers was scared, that’s telling the truth. White folks in this country didn’t allow niggers to have no organization, no secret meetins. They kept up with you and watched you, didn’t allow you to associate in a crowd, unless it was your family or your church.

It just worked in a way that the nigger wasn’t allowed to have nothing but church services and, O they liked to see you goin to church, too. Sometimes white people would come into the Negro church and set there and listen at the meetin. Of course, it weren’t nothin but a church service goin on. But if a nigger walked into a white church, he’d just be driven out, if they didn’t kill him. But if a Negro was a servant for white people, then they’d carry him to church with em, accept him to come in and take a seat on the back seat and listen at the white people. But if you was an independent Negro you’d better stay away from there. But if you was a white man’s dear flunky, doin what he said to do, or even on the woman’s side, if they was maids for the white people, well thought of, they’d take em out to their home churches, dupe em up in a way. They knowed they weren’t goin to cause no trouble –and if they did, they’d just been knocked out of the box and called in close question. But they never did act disorderly; just sit there and listen at the white folks’ meetin quiet as a lamb. And when the white folks would come in the colored churches, good God, the niggers would get busy given em first class seats – if there was any in that buildin the white folks got em. They was white people; they classed theirselves over the colored and the colored people  never did do nothing but dance to what the white people said and thought. White people was their bosses and their controllers and the colored people went along with it.

First thing the organization wanted for the colored people was the privilege to have an organization. That’s one of the best things they could ever fight for and get on foot. From my boy days comin along, ever since I been in  God’s world, I’ve never had no rights, no voice in nothing that the white man didn’t want me to have –even been cut out of education, book learnin, been deprived of that. How could I favor such rulins as have been the past?

Conditions has been outrageous every way that you can think against the colored race of people. Didn’t allow em to do this, didn’t allow em to do that, didn’t allow em to do the other. Knowin and comin into the knowledge of what was goin on and how it was goin on in the United States as far as I knowed, which was the state of Alabama as far as I knowed, Tukabahchee County – I knew that it was a weak time amongst the colored people. They couldn’t demand nothing; they were subject to lose what they had if they demanded any more.


Good God, there wasn’t but few privileges that we was allowed. If you was flesh and blood and human you tended to want to help and support your friends in the community, and male something of yourself – white folks didn’t allow you that privilege. But we had the privilege of workin for the white man – he who had the chance had better do it; get yourself together and get over yonder in Mr. So-and-so’s field or anywhere else he told you and do what he tell you to do.  And when pay time come he’d pay you what he wanted to, and in many cases it’d be less than what he’d pay a white man. And some work, like pickin cotton in the fields, white folks didn’t fill a basket – most of em. That was nigger’s work. And if a poor white man got out there and picked cotton, he wass picin cotton like a nigger. Colored man just been a dog for this country for years and years. White man didn’t ask you how you felt about what he wanted to do; he’s just go ahead and do it and you had to fall under his rulins. And bein in his home country, he been allowed to do as he please by the capital of the United States.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

‘So what’s the story of this place, old man?’

Alan gazed into the fire without twitching a muscle. The skin stretched taut over his cheekbones and shone. Then, almost imperceptibly, he tilted his head towards the man in blue, who got to his feet and began to mime (with words in pidgin thrown in) the travels of the Lizard Ancestor.

It was a song of how the lizard and his lovely young wife had walked from northern Australia to the Southern Sea, and of how a southerner had seduced his wife and sent him home with a substitute.

I don’t know what species of lizard he was supposed to be: whether he was a ‘jew-lizard’ or a ‘road-runner or one of those rumpled, angry-looking lizards with ruffs around their necks. All I do know is that the man in blue made the most lifelike lizard you could ever hope to imagine.

He was male and female, seducer and seduced. He was glutton, he was cuckold, he was weary traveller. He would claw his lizard-feet sideways, then freeze and cock his head.
He would lift his lower lid to cover his iris, and flick out his lizard-tongue. He puffed his neck into goiters of rage; and at last, when it was time for him to die, he writhed a giggled, his movements growing fainter and fainter like the Dying Swan’s.

Then his jaw locked, and that was the end.

The man in blue waved towards the hill and, with the triumphant cadence of someone who has told the best of all possible stories, shouted: ‘That . . .that is where he is!’

Arkady and I lit a hurricane lamp and sat on a couple of camping chairs, away from the fire. What we had witnessed, he said, was not of course the real Lizard song, but a ‘false front’, or sketch performed for strangers.  The real song would have named each waterhole the Lizard Man drank from, each tree he cut a spear from, each cave he slept in, covering the whole long distance of the way.
We sat mulling over this story of an antipodean Helen. The distance from here to Port Augusta, as the crow flew, was roughly 1,100 miles, about twice the distance, -so we calculated- from Troy to Ithaca. We tried to imagine an Odyssey with a verse for every twist and turn of the hero’s ten-year voyage.
I looked at the Milky Way and said ‘You might as well count the stars.’

Most tribes, Arkady went on, spoke the language of their immediate neighbor, so the difficulties of communication across a frontier did not exist. The mystery was how of a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word of Q’s language, would know exactly what land was being sung.

‘Christ!’ I said. ‘Are you telling me that Old Alan here would know the songs for a country a thousand miles away?’
‘Most likely.’
‘Without ever having been there?’
‘Yes.’
One or two ethnomusicologists, he said, had been working on the problem. In the meantime, the best thing was to imagine a little experiment of our own.

Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta a song-man who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and the played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country?  The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once – just as we would the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – but the meaning of the words would escape him.  All the same he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own words over the ‘nonsense.’
“His own words for country round Port Augusta?’
‘Yes,’ said Arkady.
‘Is that what really happens?’
‘It is.’
‘How the hell’s it done?’

No one, he said, could be sure. There were people who argued for telepathy. Aboriginals themselves told stories of their song-men whizzing up and down the line in trance. But there is another, more astonishing possibility.


Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’.

 Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. , One phrase would say, ‘Salt-pan’; another ‘Creek-bed’, ‘Spinifex’, ‘Sand-hill’, ‘Mulga-scrub’, ‘Rock-face’ and so forth. An expert song-man, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along a Songline he was. ‘He’d be able’, said Arkady ‘to hear few bars and say, “This is Middle Bore” or  “That is Oodnadatta” – where the Ancestor did X or Y or Z.

‘So a musical phrase, I said, ‘is a map reference?’

‘Music’, said Arkady, ‘is the memory bank for finding one’s way around the world.’

‘I shall need some time to digest that.

‘You’ve got all night,’ he smiled. ‘With the snakes!’

The fire was still blazing in the other camp and we heard a burble of women’s laughter.

‘Sleep well,’ he said.





Friday, September 12, 2014

Joseph Conrad's 'Outpost of Progress' by John Gray

In The Silence of the Animals; On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by John Gray; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y. 2013

Joseph Conrad wrote ‘Outpost of Progress’ in 1896, and it is a story at least as ferocious and disabused as his later and better-known novella Heart of Darkness.

It is about a pair of traders sent by a Belgian corporation to a remote part of the Congo, 300 miles away from the nearest trading post. Most of their work was done by a native interpreter, who used a visit by some tribesmen to sell some of the outpost’s workers as slaves in exchange for ivory tusks. Initially shocked at being involved in slave trading but finding the deal highly profitable, Kayerts and the other European Carlier accepted the trade. Having made the deal, they were left with little to occupy their time. They passed their days reading cheap novels and old newspapers extolling ‘Our Colonial Expansion’ and ‘the merits of those who went about bringing light, faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth’. Reading these newspapers, Carlier and Kayerts ‘began to think better of themselves’. Over the next few months they lost the habit of work. The steamer they were expecting did not come and their supplies began to run out. Quarrelling over some lumps of sugar that Kayerts held in reserve, Carlier was killed. In desperation, Kayerts decided to kill himself too. As he was hanging himself on a cross, the steamer arrived. When the Managing director disembarks, he finds himself face to face with the dead Kayerts.

Conrad describes how Kayerts ‘sat by the corpse (of Carlier) thinking; thinking very actively, thinking very new thoughts, His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! Appeared contemptible and childish, false and ridiculous. He reveled in his new wisdom while he sat by the man he killed.’  But not all of Kayert’s old convictions had vanished and what he still believes in leads him to his death. ‘Progress was calling Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return from that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done.’

In setting his tale in the Congo, where he had observed the effects of Belgian imperialism at first hand when he visited the country in 1890 to take command of a river steamer, Conrad was making use of a change he had himself undergone. Arriving with the conviction he was a civilized human being, he realized what in fact he had been: ‘Before the Congo I was just a mere animal.’ The animal to which Conrad refers was European humanity, which caused the deaths of millions of human beings in the Congo.

The idea that imperialism could be a force for human advance has long since fallen into disrepute. But the faith that was once attached to empire has not been renounced. Instead it has spread everywhere. Even those who nominally follow more traditional creeds rely on a belief in the future for their mental composure.  History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but –everyone insists – the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair like that which unhinged Kayerts.

Among the many benefits of faith in progress may be that it prevents too much self-knowledge. When Kayerts and his companion ventured into the Congo the aliens they met were not the indigenous inhabitants but themselves.

They lived like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in contact them (and of that only imperfectly), but unable to see the general aspect of things. The river, the forest, all the great land throbbing with life, were like a great emptiness. Things appeared and disappeared before their eyes in an unconnected and aimless kind of way. The river flowed through a void. Out of that void, at times, came canoes, and men with spears in their hands would suddenly crowd the yard of the station.

They cannot endures the silence into which they have come: “stretching away in all directions, surrounding the insignificant cleared spot of the trading post, immense forests, hiding fateful complications of fantastic life, lay in the eloquent silence of mute greatness.’ The sense of the progression of time, which they had brought with them, begins to fall away. As Conrad writes towards the end of the story, ‘Those fellows, having engaged themselves to the Company of six months (without having any idea of a month in particular and only a very faint notion of time in general), had been serving the cause of progress for upwards of two years.’ Removed from their habits, Kayerts and Carlier lose the abilities that are needed to go on living. ‘Society, not from any tenderness but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men, forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and forbidding it under pain of death. They could live only on condition of being machines.’
The machine-like condition of modern humans
 May seem a limitation. In fact it is a condition of their survival. Kayerts and Carlier were able to function as individuals only because they had been shaped by society down to their innermost being.

Two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds . Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of the police and of its opinion.

When they stepped outside their normal surroundings, the two men were powerless to act. More than that: they ceased to exist.

For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a pace in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. ‘Humanity’ is a fiction composed of billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final. But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are –as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier- ‘like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what to make of their freedoms’. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living. Casts a glimmer of meaning

The myth of progress casts a glimmer of meaning into the lives of those who accept it. Kayerts, Carlier and many like them did nothing that cold be described as significant. But their faith in progress allowed their petty schemes to seem part of a grand design, while their miserable deaths to seem part of exemplary futility their lives had not possessed.







Burial at Inishmaan by John M. Synge

The Aran Islands by John M. Synge; Maunsel & Company, LTD, Dublin, 1911


After Mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in the cottage next mine, more than once before noon I heard a faint echo of the keen. I did not go to the wake for fear my presence might jar upon the mourners, but all last evening I could hear the strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little crowd of idlers, the next of kin laboured slowly at the coffin. Today, before the hour for the funeral, poteen was served to a number of men who stood about upon the road, and a portion was brought to me in my room. Then the coffin was carried out, sewn loosely in sailcloth, and held near the ground by three cross-poles lashed upon the top. As we moved down to the low eastern portion of the island, nearly all then men, and all the oldest women, wearing petticoats over their heads, came out and joined the procession.

While the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, and began a wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took her turn in leading the recitative, seemed possessed for the moment with a profound ecstasy of grief, swaying to and fro, and bending her forehead to the stone before her, while she called out to the dead with a perpetually recurring chant of sobs.

All round the graveyard other wrinkled women, looking out from under the deep red petticoats that cloaked them, rocked themselves with the same rhythm, and intoned the inarticulate chant that is sustained by all as an accompaniment.

The morning had been beautifully fine, but as they lowered the coffin into the grave, thunder rumbled overhead and hailstones hissed among the bracken.

In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature, and at this moment, when the thunder sounded a death-peal of extraordinary grandeur above the voices of the women, I could see the faces near me stiff and drawn with emotion.

When the coffin was in the grave, and the thunder had rolled away across the hills of Clare, the keen broke out again more passionately than before.

This grief of the keen is no personal complaint for the death of one woman over eighty years, but seems to contain the whole passionate rage that lurks somewhere in every native of the island. In this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for instant, and to reveal the mood of beings who feel their isolation in the face of the universe that wars on them with wind and seas. They are usually silent, but in the presence of death all outward show of indifference or patience is forgotten, and they shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of the fate to which they are all doomed.

Before they covered the coffin an old man kneeled down by the grave and repeated a simple prayer for the dead.

There was an irony in these words of atonement and Catholic belief spoken by voices that were still hoarse with cries of pagan desperation.

A little beyond the grave I saw a line of old women who had recited in the keen sitting in the shadow of a wall beside the roofless shell of the church. They were still sobbing and shaken with grief, yet they were beginning to talk again of daily trifles that veil from them the terrors of the world.

When we had all come out of the graveyard, and two men had rebuilt the hole in the wall through which the coffin had been carried in, we walked back to the village, talking of anything, and joking of anything, as if merely coming from the boat-slip, or the pier.

One man told me of poteen-drinking that takes place at some funerals.

‘A while since,’ he sais, ‘there were two men fell down in the graveyard while the drink was upon them. The sea was rough that day, the way no one could go to bring a doctor, and one of the men never woke again, and found dead that night.’


Monday, September 8, 2014

Until My Eyes Are Closed by Manes Sperber


And when, in the detention camp I was listening to the young “Galerist,” refugee (parroting my speeches), I felt exposed to my own mockery. Instead of weaving on the “loom of time,” I had become one of the innumerable voluble kibitzers who were, in the taverns and family circle, wining battles fought by others. I resolved to consider from then on how my actions, my writing, and my speaking might appear in caricature. I did not stop analyzing the events and discussing their consequences, but I listened to myself he way a caricaturist observes the face of a pompous speaker before he unmasks it by drawing it.



But if anyone ever distracted me from politics, it was some of my “epistolary clients”. What they had to reveal to me about their and their families lives so that I might write exactly what they wished to express included hardly anything that I did not already know about their miserable everyday life, a life filled not only with need worry, and fear but also with many great and small hopes, joyous surprises and fulfilled expectations. And yet I learned far more about them than they learned about me –but what was that? I learned that one must never stray to far or too long from concrete things, from details that succeed one another, intermingle, and in the end simply determine the substance and for of one’s daily existence. More clearly than before I discovered that under all living conditions a principle of order develops, a system of outer and inner certainties. In none of the organizations to which I had ever belonged had I really met the common people but here, in this motley crew of volunteers, I met for the first time since leaving the shtetl, though this time as an adult who knew what misery and worry about one’s daily bread are.

When I bent forward in absolute quiet, it sometimes seemed to me as though I heard a voice in addition to my own – no, not the voice of the “common” man but one that probably as not changed in a thousand years, the weak voice of a heavily breathing person who walks with too heavy a load on his back, walks and walks and never arrives.

When I was a child, I used to listen in the pauses between religious services to the students of the Talmud as they read the text, its translation, and the commentary sotto voce in singsong fashion. They sat in the dark corners of the prayer room in front of desks that held tomes dimly lit by a candle. The melodies of these recitations were not substantially different from one another, but in me they aroused a strangely relaxed feeling of patient expectancy. On many occasions Aramaic sentences were repeated, and in between there was a recurrent question in Yiddish: “Un tomer farkert?”[And perhaps the other way around?] This is what the student asked when, after a great deal of deliberation, he had reached a conclusion. However, this satisfied him for only a moment, and he immediately began to consider whether an entirely different conclusion, even
 a diametrically opposed one, might not just be valid, or perhaps the only valid conclusion…
as I listen to another person in a serious discussion or speak myself, the question “Un tomer farkert?” often comes up. Thus the source of my occasionally impatient tolerance might be this childhood experience, for as a deeply impressed child I. repeatedly admired those young men who, having reached their goal, looked back and asked themselves whether they had not missed the right path and their goal.


The Gray Notebook by Joseph Pla


In the cafĂ© Tomas Gallart says “Bankers are gentlemen who lend you an umbrella when the sun shines. When it rains, don’t count on their help.”

Coromina has been closely following the news from the Russian Revolution in the dailies and the incessant journalistic commentary on the nature of socialism. He declares that Gallart is right, that the capitalist system is simultaneously chaotic, disorderly, irrational, capricious, wasteful and stingy. Anyone who needs a loan from the banks to pursue an opportunity, however good it might be, is going to be tortured dreadfully.

“What Coromina just said,” Gori excitedly remarks, “is literally, axiomatically, and undeniably true. The capitalist system is disorderly, irrational and chaotic. Irrational is the exact word.  And because it is entirely capricious, it is painful, cruel and sad. Yes, Coromina is absolutely right. The capitalist system is everything he said and a lot worse than that. We could spend all night listening to its drawbacks. But if you don’t mind, I want to ask one question: Do you, after everything we’ve said and everything we could go on to say, do you argue that we need to replace this system with another system that is developed a priori?”

“Sometimes I think so, yes.”

“You do? Good God! I beg to disagree. You really think that the conclusion to draw from all the failings of capitalism we’ve just run through – failings that are undeniable – is that the system ought to be replaced? I think, on the contrary, what we’ve demonstrated is that it is absolutely necessary to defend and sustain it on every front. Capitalism is irrational, chaotic, incomprehensible, disorderly, capricious, unjust, painful, sad, and ridiculous…just like nature and life. A banker will only listen to you, an intelligent, energetic, respectable man, if you are going to earn him money.  Then he goes and opens his vaults to the gentleman who lives three doors up the street and is a total idiot. Nature has given me this awful nose when it could have given me a perfect specimen. The fellow who lives like a beggar and never washes is now rich, having inherited a fortune he doesn’t know how to handle. We could have all been endowed with strong, resistant, perfect spleens but instead have to make do with spleens that are worn out already.”

“So what do you conclude from all this?”

“I conclude that nature, life, and capitalism all flow from the same source. Capitalism was born from human life for the same reasons that grass grows from the earth in the springtime. That it is born and flourishes naturally doesn’t make it moral or immoral. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about nature. Nature is pure cosmography, total indifference. Nothing has a transcendental purpose. At most, this natural drive and growth are symptoms of undoubted biological vitality, a natural power drive.”

“A vitality that creates such injustice, that is so repulsive, loathsome, intolerable-“

“Entirely agreed. But then I have never seen nature attempt to be just. Has anyone? It would be perfectly just for nature to endow me with an elegant, graceful, enticing nose, given my romantic my romantic disposition, yet look at the deplorable schnozzle I was landed with. Wouldn’t you think it ridiculous if I tried to replace the nature we have with one that was more just, a nature that supplied perfect Greek noses and strong sturdy spleens impervious to alcohol? You’d think it plain crazy. You are up in arms at the wickedness of capitalism and want to replace it, want to kill its biological character, its spontaneous growth and inner drive. You want to replace it with a regime that is rational, just, orderly, and satisfactory from the perspective of routine everyday morality. You believe that by simply replacing a real, however cruel, with an artificial, albeit hypothetically perfect one, you will improve the lot of mankind. I doubt it! I don’t believe it! The French like to say the best is the enemy of the good. My opinion is that exchanging a real albeit irrational system for this other one, in spite of the proposed system’s theoretically perfection, will lead to something infinitely worse, much more painful and intractable and with many fewer opportunities.”

“You are a hardened conservative, says Coromina, on edge, “with no imagination.”

“And you are a child in diapers,” Gori retorts, tipping two shots of firewater into his coffee.