R  A  L  P  H
  The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities 
Spring 2000

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Learning by Heart
Contemporary American
Poetry About School

Maggie Anderson,
David Hassler, Editors
(University of Iowa Press)
his one's a honey. Almost two hundred poems by over a hundred poets, some famous (Philip Levine, Donald Hall, Gary Soto, Richard Brautigan), some unknown. But it's not the quantity --- it's the quality. Whoever did the picking knows what they are doing, for there are few losers here. This, by Frank Kooistra, "School Buses," comes very close to being American haiku:

    Six of them: great orange, great golden carp
    Lined up at the railroad crossing, red stop fins fanning
    Each waits, each listens, and crosses in turn
    Headed for the lily shoals of children.

This collection isn't namby-pamby stuff: there are tales of school bullies, beating up on "faggots," back room sex, and "Catatonia: In a Classroom for the Slow to Learn," which begins:

    Jason, look at this book, I say,
    but feel like I'm in a dream he's having.
    a ship at anchor off the island he is
    that dispenses words like boats to his shore.
    He knows better than to talk.

The text is divided into seven parts, including "O Where Are They Now?" "Sports and Clubs," "A History of Our People" and, under "Homeroom," an old favorite from the late Richard Brautigan:

    Oh, Marcia,
    I want your long blonde beauty
    to be taught in high school,
    so kids will learn that God
    lives like music in the skin
    and sounds like a sunshine harpsichord.
    I want high school report cards
         to look like this:

    Playing with Gentle Glass Things
         A

    Computer Magic
         A

    Writing Letters to Those You Love
         A

    Finding out about Fish
         A

    Marcia's Long Blonde Beauty
         A+!

Nuns turn up here and there, whacking hands with rulers, nuns who rustle drily inside their gowns; there are teachers who give us Large black letters/floating unanchored on the page. One girl student makes love with an one-armed pimply-faced kid in the back of a bus; there is the high school band Boom, boom,/To a field where it goes boom boom until eight forty-five... A teacher realizes "the number of students I have taught/is enough to populate a small town, which,"

    I can see it nestled in a paper landscape,
    chalk dust flurrying down in winter,
    nights dark as a blackboard.

A suggestion: instead of paying annual homage to the famous and respectable lardheads of the East Coast Smart Set, why don't the Pulitzer people pay attention to their charter, and give a few prizes to the likes of Anderson and Hassler --- who show a marvellous ability to cull through thousands and thousands of poems and come up with such a funny, wry, sad, winsome, elegant selection. It's about school, they tell us --- but just like when we were eight or ten or thirteen school was so much our world, the world here is just that.

---María Cortez


Death du Jour
Kathy Reichs
(Scribner)
emember the old days of murder mysteries --- Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, the Thin Man, the Continental Op? We'd get a couple of murders and some terse writing. Our brassy detective would figure out how to evade the klutzy police, he'd make some astounding connections and catch the villain...and that would be it.

And the murders themselves: shot through the heart or head, bludgeoned, drowned, stabbed to death, ice pick. Pretty simple. All the victims were, well, of reasonable age, and they were a pretty unpleasant bunch, anyway --- people who deserved to be shot, bludgeoned, drowned, stabbed or ice-picked to death. Murder itself was practically an afterthought. It was the dialogue, the characters and the story that gave us the chance to marvel at the cunning of a Holmes, the cynical snippishness of Marlowe, the dry wit of the Thin Man. Death definitely, was not de Jour.

How things have changed. And not for the better. We might as well blame Patricia Cornwell for starting it all, for now, in Death du Jour, comes Temperance Brennan, lady forensic specialist. And we don't just get a couple of murders. No --- in these days of inflation, we get ten or twelve.

We also get an inflation of information, more than we could ever possibly want to know about what the murder weapon did to the body, how it did it to the body, what the body looks like postmortem. The lectures --- what are these tales but medical school lectures? --- on exactly what the body's like when it gets exhumed, exactly how it feels and smells, exactly how it rots, exactly how many bugs have taken root in it, how the bones have gotten separated from flesh, what the flesh feels like, what the bones look like, and how everything squeezes into the bodybag. As they say in Spanish, ¡Fúchi!

Then we get a written report by our lady pathologist, which is mostly nonstop forensic babble ("I found the radioplaque fragments in the femur were the result of postmortem impact,") and, always, a sub-rosa pathological report on how tired Temperance is, how little sleep or good food she's getting, how stressed she is, how difficult it is for her, in her forensic way, to attract suitable lovers, except for those not-so-clean police types. Temperance Brennan even dissects her meals --- snips of chives and basil; the lettuce is...well...torn, not cut.

The world has always had its stable of creeps. A few hours with Shakespeare, the Bible, the Greek classics will give as fine a selection of rapists, ghoulish brutalists, and baby killers that you could ask for. The whole business of Orestes, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and the Trojan war grew from nothing less than Atreus cooking up Thyestes' sons into a crusty baby pot pie --- then feeding the whole sordid mess to the father, his unsuspecting brother. No Michelin three-star eatery this!

Fortunately, most of us don't have to deal with creepy people on a daily basis. We leave that to our police and our forensic pathologists. They will, no doubt, have a fairly glum view of the world, and Dr. Reichs proves the truth of that in her writing --- and the story she has to tell is pretty revolting.

It's also a prize #1 Boor for any fan wanting only a good night in the sack with a crackerjack mystery --- for Reichs always manages to up the vomit level by the details she selects for our delectation with her tweezers, bags, dissection tools, and microscopes. There are, in addition, in the body department, an eighty-year-old lady, a 150-year-old nun, and --- the coup de grace --- two four-month-old twins, one of whose heart has been yanked out with a corkscrew or some such device, so that

    I could see a distinct pattern in the baby's flesh, a crudiate central feature with a loop at one end.

The technical language, I suppose, gives us a verisimilitude --- so we know we ain't dealing with some smarty-pants illiterate like Sam Spade.

Can we be alone in thinking that the mystery genre has crossed the bridge from interesting and slightly ghoulish fun, with appropriate cynical dialogue, now transformed into a competition of let-me-show-you-how-revolting-I-can-be? Those of us in the geezer class remember with especial fondness Philip Marlowe venturing out to the seedy part of the Los Angeles basin and find a body, getting beat up a bit himself, all wrapped up in his singular mordant wit. No crudiate central features for him.

Cornwell, Reichs and their ilk are, in truth, spoil sports. They've taken an interesting genre and put it into a trunk, stuffed full of bones and body tissue, putrescent flesh, rotting eyeballs, and brain-goo. It gets so bad that when we get to the required hump-sex-pant scene, we find that the clinical nonsense has rubbed off on our libido, too:

    My nipples throbbed and fire surged through my body...His hand cupped my left breast, then gently bounced it up and down...Current shot through my lower torso...

Current? What kind of current? Current events? Current assets? The Gulf Current? Reich's ritual passage of love-and-lust turns out to be a pathological report on tumescent tissue with interpretive analysis of the mucoid discharges. We half expect Doctor Temperance to do a CAT scan on her boyfriend's private parts to check his level of arousal. In ergs.

They tell us that when she's not writing moist prose, Dr. Reichs works as a forensic anthropologist for the State of North Carolina, one of fifty in the country. Let's pray to the great gods of murder mysteries that the other forty-nine don't get it in their heads to start whipping out novels, too. There are only so many dripping pipettes that we, the hapless reader, can take.


--- Lolita Lark


Fast Dancing
On Rhumba Beach

brought the movie "8-1/2" down with me to Puerto Perdido, and one night I was watching it, and about half-way through, ran into Saraghina dancing on the beach? Do you remember?

Saraghina is huge. She lives in a bunker. Give her a coin, and she dances the rhumba. Guido --- the hero of "8-1/2" --- is consulting with the Bishop about the movie he is supposed to be making, and the fact that he is feeling lost. As the bishop stops to listen to the singing of a bird, Guido turns around to see a barefoot peasant woman coming down the hill, and immediately he is transported back to when he was in Catholic school, age twelve or so --- and Saraghina.

He and his friends would play hookey from school, would run off to the beach to find Saraghina. She lived in one of the concrete bunkers left over from WWII. They would get down to the bunker and call out to her, "Saraghina. The rumba."

She erupts from the bunker, this huge, beefy woman, with the malevolent face, and one of the boys gives her a coin, and she --- in her black, somewhat heavy, tattered dress --- looms up before us. The music begins (magic music, the rhumba from nowhere) and begins to move. She runs her hands up and down her hips, her eyes flicker deliciously, as does her tongue. She smiles, the music begings to boom. She kicks up her heels, dances enthusiastically, kicks the sand, makes a heavy leap, presses her huge body against the side of the bunker, smiling laciviously, eyes rolling wildly. She licks her lips, pulls down her dress ever so slightly to tantalize them with her massive breasts. The boys are crazed --- jumping up and down, clapping, kicking their feet in the air --- moving in time to her delicious dance, all moving together to the music. The rumba is loud, slightly distorted, divine.

Then come racing two of the masters from the school, two priests running in their long black robes. They spot Guido dancing with Saraghina, and he turns and runs, and they chase him up and down the beach, finally run into him, catch him, haul him back to school to be chastised by the fathers.

"For shame," says the school master, with his pinched face. "For shame." His mother is brought in, and she cries for shame. Guido tries to go to her, and she pushes him away. "For shame," she says. He is forced to kneel on pebbles for atonement, in front of the whole school. The priests read to him from the "Lives of the Saints" --- tell him about those who have resisted evil, the temptation of women. They tell him that Saraghina is the devil.

As soon as he is through with confession, he runs back to the beach. He sees Saraghina sitting, looking out at the waves, humming her song. He stops, maybe fifty feet from her, kneels down in his black cape, waves his black cap at her. She turns around slowly, and slowly smiles and says "Chaio."

The sequence with Saraghina is a mini-drama right out of the early days of film, as if Fellini had gone back to 1910. With its rapid action, the sharp blacks and whites --- the whites of her eyes, Guido's cape, the white sands of the beach, the black robes of the priests --- it's wonderful slapstick. Me and old movies --- you're talking about someone who has seen "City Lights" over a hundred times. The last time I watched the sequence from "8-1/2," Jorge and Poldo came in, were immediately pulled in by the action, the wild racing back and forth on the beach, Saraghina's rumba.

They thought I had made the movie right there where we live, with the video camera I bought at Wal-Mart last summer.

"Where is she?" they said. "What's her name?" they said. "We want to meet her!"

--- Carlos Amantea

[This story also appeared in salon.com]


Waiting
Ha Jin
(Pantheon)

here are some books that refuse to leave you alone. I don't mean the ones that are so good that you don't want to stop for a minute --- the ones where you keep on reading until your eyes are hanging out, ripe cherries on the bush.

No --- I'm speaking of one that gets lodged with you somehow, and (you, a word junkie) when you need something to read, there it is, and all the others you should have around are back in the study, or under the bed, or lost in the computer room.

Waiting is just such a millstone. It got lodged between front and back seat of my car, and during the course of a week --- a week in which I seemed to spend too much time waiting at bridges and waiting at the laundry and waiting in freeway pile-ups --- there was Waiting. Reluctantly, I would pick it up, and army on, cursing myself that I forgot to travel with something more hefty and satisfying from the pile of other books rising up Gargantua on my bedtable, Karakatoa in the bathroom, King Kong about the computer.

I was thus saddled for what seemed a month of stalled cars and carbon monoxide not with, unfortunately, King Kong --- but doctor Lin Kong, the star of Waiting, and his honey of eighteen years, nurse Manna Wu. Kong can woo Wu but no marry because of a previously arranged marriage with the home-bound, ugly, foot-bound (only in China!) Shuyu. Much of the tale takes place shortly after the Great Leap forward, in a medical facility in the wilds of Muji, China. That's Muji as in moo-gee. We might think of it as a post-Maoist (or post-partum) version of General Hospital, but it's not as sprightly. Nor as interesting.

Oh, there are moments. The rape scene is a knock-out --- if you are into rape scenes --- for the author gets into the head of poor Manna Wu. Her day-terrors and nightmares afterwards are real and grisly and fearsome. But outside this and outside of the sugar red-bean paste pies, coptis powder (for diarrhea), and salted jellyfish --- it's dark days not only for the characters, but the reader --- stuck out there on the steppes or plains or badlands of melancholic Muji without a dose of coptis.

I suspect it is the style. It's consciously flat, on all sides --- like a chopstick. And some of the literary bridges make you want to scream:

    Dark clouds were gathering in the distance, blocking out the city's sky-line; now and then a flashing fork zigzagged across the heavy nimbuses...a peal of thunder rumbled in the south; then raindrops began pitter-pattering on the roofs and the aspen leaves....

Or

    As they strolled along the path between the turnip and eggplant fields behind the mess hall, they began talking about recent events in the hospital. After the Cultural Revolution had broken out the year before, the medical staff here had divided into two factions. They would argue and quarrel...

This kind of writing wants to make you yell "chop" --- as in cut --- or even "Chop-Suey," as in bad Chinese cooking.

Word is now that Oprah barely nosed out Waiting for this year's National Book Awards. What in god's name is going on in the incestuous charnel pits of the East Coast literary stew-pot? Have they no taste --- outside of noisy television ladies, sugar red-bean paste pies, and salted jellyfish?


--- C Q Wang


Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas"
A Buddhist Psychology Of Emptiness
David Ross Komito
(Snow Lion)
agarjuna was an abbot in a Buddhist monastery who gave lectures to a large audience of seekers. Two of his students always smelled of sandalwood, and, it turned out, were not only sweet-smelling, but were water serpents. Only in Tibet.

Well, Nagarjuna went off with them to the octopus' garden under the sea to study the "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras, and then returned to the human world to teach these elements of perfection.

We have here seventy stanzas "Explaining How Phenomena Are Empty of Inherent Existence." The stanzas are presented in order, then are repeated with an exact translation in Tibetan, along with commentary by the author. This edition was done with the assistance of a master from the Sera Monastery in Tibet, Geshe Sonam Rinchen.

It's rough waters there in the oceans of what the translator refers to as "The Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness." It's not unlike trying to wade through Hume, Locke, Whitehead, et al., all at once. For example, Stanza 46 tells us:

    If form depends upon the nature of the four inherently existing elements then it should be like the four elements, that is, it should have a fourfold nature. Alternatively, the four inherently existing elements would have to have a singular nature, like form. But because form doesn't have a fourfold nature like the elements, and because the elements do not have a singular nature like form, therefore, how could form arise from the four inherently existing elements as its cause? In fact, form exists conventionally through a dependent relationship with the four elements.

Get it? Neither did we. It puts us in mind of Byron's comments about Coleridge, who

    has lately taken wing,
    But like a hawk encumber'd with his hood, ---
    Explaining metaphysics to the nation ---
    I wish he would explain his Explanation.

If the exotics of Buddhism are your meat, so to speak, then you could easily spend the next ten years trying to understand these water dragon truths. Since, in Buddhist world, time doesn't exist --- perhaps one could do worse things with one's day. Please let us know if and when you figure them out. We are curious mellow.

--- A. W. Allworthy


Cider with Laurie
Laurie Lee Remembered
Barbara Hooper
(Peter Owen/Dufour Editions)
uddenly our absent father died --- cranking his car in a Morden suburb. And with that, his death, which was also the death of hope, our Mother gave up her life. Their long separation had come to an end, and it was the coldness of that which killed her. She had raised his two families, faithfully and alone; had waited thirty-five years for his praise. And through all that time she had clung to one fantasy --- that aged and broken, at last in need, he might one day return to her. His death killed that promise, and also ended her reason. The mellow tranquillity she had latterly grown forsook her then forever. She became frail, simpleminded, and returned to her youth, to that girlhood which had never known him. She never mentioned him again, but spoke to shades, saw visions, and then she died.

Lucky is the writer who has stumbled over the prose of Laurie Lee. Not only was he a perfect modern romantic and a poet, he wrote a gem of a memoir of growing up in rural England. It appeared there as Cider with Rosie. (In the United States --- since most of us don't associate cider with getting tanked --- it was called Edge of Day.)

It's the tale of growing up poor in Slad in rural Gloucestershire with an eccentric mother, several kind and loving half-sisters, a father who never appeared, eccentric neighbors --- all part of the innocent pre-automobile life we can now only dream about. It's a country tale, recounted with a literary style that raises it miles above the thousands of let-me-tell-you-about-my-innocent-childhood biographies that pour fourth yearly from the presses.

Laurie Lee was an incurable romantic who --- once he left Gloucestershire --- travelled to Spain with his guitar in the 1930s, fell in love with Andalusia (and with several Andalusian ladies), fought in the Spanish Civil War, and returned to England where he wrote and published poetry and countless essays, finally dying at home in Slad not long ago. Cider with Rosie was published in 1959, was an instant hit, translated into eighteen languages, going through countless editions in England and in the United States, where it's probably still in print, and if it isn't, our publishers should be led out into the streets and shot en masse.

It is a wistful tale of a country town that --- even as Lee was blossoming --- was dying. This life and death of an Edwardian village, and the life and death of his slightly balmy mother, are described with care and gentle child-joy. Lee was a writer who mastered the difficult act of honoring the boundries between warm sentiment and vulgar sentimentality.

Barbara Hooper, the writer of Cider with Laurie, met him towards the end of his life, and here fills out his tale with interviews with friends, fellow poets, the denizens of Lee's favorite pubs, the inhabitants of Stround, and appropriate scholars. One of her goals is to show us the contradictory stories he told about his days growing up in Slad and the various and different stories he (and others) concocted about his journeys, and his war-time adventures in Spain.

What a sorry, spoil-sport task she's given herself --- and us. Leafing through Cider with Laurie is about as much fun as coming down with the cholera. One suffers through page after page of Hooper's pedestrian, tedious, wooden, lifeless prose in pursuit of the obvious. It leads us to wonder --- when someone has described his life wonderfully well on his own --- why must some pickle-headed ninny come along with a literary shovel to dump the jewels of words (along with the dung) at the side of the road?

"The Stround of Laurie's secondary school days was a lively, bustling town," she tells us --- and we think, "We know that already, lady. Laurie Lee told us so." In recapping Cider for Suzie, Hooper, turning into a common scold, writes, "Some of the incidents described hover nearer to myth than history." And we think, "O shut up."

When she describes his times in the Spanish Civil War, she wants us to know that some of his peers questioned how and when and even if he served on the Loyalist side --- and we think, "All great lives are fictions."

My personal theory is that those who write about great writers should themselves be great --- or at least good --- stylists. If they presume to second-guess good writers --- they should seek some other field outside of being a common scold. Do something legitimate, for a change. Make doilies. Study astronomy, agronomy, or parsimony. Go to writing school to learn how to build a worthy declarative sentence.

For those readers who needs must read up on this deliciously eccentric wandering minstrel, you're better off with Valerie Grove's recent Laurie Lee. Which at least has the courtesy to let the author do much of the talking.


--- R. P. Weise


The Winner of the
Slow Bicycle Race

Paul Krassner
(Seven Stories)
Once Paul Krassner asked me for a loan. I sent him a ten page, typed, single-spaced letter explaining why I couldn't loan him the money. Carefully hidden near the bottom of page nine was stapled a check for $5,000.

The letter was filled with big words to take up more space, viz; If you think assertively of the dialectics of such an existential paradox of need, as necessity is perceived, you will find that we must accept phenomenology --- per se --- or, alternatively, to eschew it. At worst, it becomes a stipulatory act, one of retroaction, etc etc.

I figured he would either read the whole ridiculous existentialist exegesis and find the prize at the end of the trail --- or would throw it away after the first page, in which case, the check would never be cashed --- and no one would be the wiser.

Well, the son-of-a-bitch evidently reads everything that comes in the mail. The check was cashed, and I promptly forgot about it. Not Krassner. For years, he kept whittling away at the debt, sending me dibs and dabs at random intervals, $25, or $50, or $100. Last winter, almost thirty years after the fact, I received the final check for $500. I wrote him immediately, said he was the only person I knew who paid back a loan, and asked if he would please let me loan him some more just so we could keep up the connection.

But I may have made the whole thing up. Those of us who survived the 60s know that not only do we all make up our own facts to suit our own needs --- we know, too, that there are no facts: only the fictions we choose to saddle with the belief that they are the truth. Some, like Krassner, call them "satire." Slow Bicycle is chock-a-block full of these fictions. We have here the compleat writings of Paul Krassner, presented, in keeping with his acute sense of time, in reverse order. The first essay is dated 1995; the last is 1958. In between we find Lenny Bruce, Joseph McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson (in coitus interruptus), the Pope, Jack Kennedy, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Hinckley, Donald Duck (in coitus interruptus), Thomas Eagleton Seagull, Kitty Litter --- and all those others who made acid trips seem so unnecessary because these characters, and their deeds, were so unreal.

Slow Bicycle gives us humor conferences, theologically correct condoms, letters to Patty Hearst, letters to Life Magazine, and a tart letter to Dick Gregory, who was demanding a ban on rolling papers because they are "used to smoke marijuana." Krassner wrote to him to chastise him for his lapse of judgment, if not memory. "You must remember how marijuana-smoking was not exactly an unknown pleasure in the civil rights and antiwar movements," he said. Krassner suggested that Gregory address the problem of cocaine instead:

    A $150 billion business leaving in its wake murder, addicted babies, jail time, robberies, ruined lives and billions of dollars spent on punishment, protection and treatment...The American chemical companies, Exxon Chemical and Shell Chemical are the leading suppliers of an ordinary chemical called methyl ethyl ketone --- the chemical of choice for Columbian businessmen to process cocaine base into cocaine...According to the Los Angeles Times, U. S. experts in Columbia were quoted as saying that as much as 90% of the 13 million pounds of American-made MEK imported by Columbia winds up being diverted for use in cocaine manufacturing...So why not boycott Exxon and Shell?

Krassner pretends he is a satirist. In fact, he hides behind his wit to tell us ghastly facts about our life and times. He tells us that the REALIST will stop being published soon, because reality "keeps nipping at the heels of satire, more and more overtaking it." He then goes to list twenty-one of the most astonishing of these, including:

  • America Online purged the word breast from profiles of women seeking to share information about breast cancer;
  • The National Association of Radio Talk Show hosts has presented a Freedom of Speech Award to G. Gordon Liddy;
  • Heroic firefighters from the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City are featured in a 1996 beef-cake calendar;
  • When Michael Jackson collapsed while rehearsing for an HBO special, folks backstage were quited as saying, "He looks pale;"
  • Kidnapping has become such a way of life in the Philippines that gangs now accept checks to cover their ransom demands;
  • The Department of Agriculture allows two pellets of rat fecal matter per two kilograms of breakfast cereal.
And our personal favorite, not listed here --- but that appeared in an earlier edition of The Realist --- "The background music used for a recent telethon for Muscular Dystrophy was She Walks Like an Egyptian."

O Krassner. You are right. Satire is no longer appropriate. Life has just gotten too strange. Thank god you were around for the years when we needed you. And thank you for writing one of the funniest biographies, at least since Boswell's Life of Johnson --- that being The Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture. Between this and The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race, we've got most of a generation pegged as it should be: pegged as mad and wrong --- but pegged nonetheless.


--- L. W. Milam


What If?
The World's Foremost Military Historians
Imagine What Might Have Been

Robert Cowley, Editor
(G. P. Putnam)

ccording to Historian Barry S. Straus, if there had been a certain battle in the Middle Ages that went the other way, you and I would now be practicing Muslims. Can you imagine Oprah, Madonna and the Goo-Goo Girls appearing in jilbabs, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, and Donald Trump intoning, "There is only god, and his name is Allah?" and all of us drinking sugary-sweet mint tea, on our knees, five times a day, bowing to the East.

The battle in question happened at Portiers --- on the fields of Tours --- in 732, where a Frankish army turned back Muslim invaders. The thesis is that, without the defeat, the Arabs would have continued northward, possibly taking over the whole of what is now Europe. Instead, with the victory of Charles the Pippinid, his grandson Charlemagne was able to lay "the foundations for what would follow in Europe --- from kingdoms like France and Germany...to the Christian culture of cathedral schools and decorated manuscripts."

Too, there is one Thomas Fleming, with his "Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution," including a reversal in Washington's attack on Trenton, Benedict Arnold's victory turning into a loss at Saratoga, or Captain Patrick Ferguson, "inventor of the first breech-loading rifle," who, at Brandywine Creek, had George Washington in his sights --- but decided not to shoot, because "He could not bring himself to shoot an unarmed enemy in the back."

Then there's Editor Cowley's own "The What Ifs of 1914" --- where Great Britain, in the first months, teetered between neutrality and alliance with the French. It is possible, says Cowley, that had the English stayed out of the war, the conflict would have lasted scarcely two months, and

    The war would remain a continental affair...A bit more of France, including Nancy would be incorporated in the Reich...Germany would have initiated a Central European Economics Union.

Cowley even claims that at Gheluvelt chateau, on October 31, 1914, a young private, Adolf Hitler, might have been killed or captured, and "History --- the real version --- would have been deprived of one of its true monsters."

This is all historical if not hysterical nonsense, of course. What If tells us less about the vagaries of history than it does about the myopic blindsidedness of your typical professional historian. What these science-fiction stories dwell on is a pretense of logic and historical determinism; what they all ignore is sweet chance, and the basic illogic of humanity.

"If Charles Martel had lost..." But what if Charles Martel had lost, and his loss scared the hell out of the Franks, and a week later, the battle had been rejoined, to their ultimate victory? If Washington had been shot --- are we to believe that in the colonies there was no one to take his place --- a lowly Captain, let's call him Robert Fudge, who was as ambitious and as cautious --- perhaps even a better strategist than Washington (after all, Washington lost more battles than he won). With the great man gone --- Fudge would have risen quickly to the top, and maybe sooner, maybe later, would bring the colonies to victory.

And World War I ending after a mere thirty-nine days? Who is to tell us that a quick German victory, and the capture of Paris, would have emboldened the English and alarmed the Americans --- so that in 1916, or 1927, or 1938 --- another of those endless "crises" so beloved of the colonial powers of the 20th Century (perhaps in Southwest Africa, Indonesia, or Pago-Pago) would have caused a second outbreak of War --- World War One-and-a-Half --- along with a new, perhaps even more vile version of trench warfare. This might --- who knows? (you and I and the historians don't) --- have led to an even longer, a more horrendous conflict.

And with the death of Hitler --- who is anyone to say, much less Robert Cowley, that "History...would have been deprived of one of its true monsters." Another Hitler might well have come along, and, with a later war, stumbled onto something called the atomic bomb. Which might have finished off 200,000,000, or 2,000,000,000...or all of us.

What we have here is the preternatural belief by intellectual chauvinists that history was, is, and always will be right and reasonable --- and predictable. Fleming even goes further. He says that if we had lost the Revolutionary War,

    Americans would have been on their way to becoming replicas of the Canadians, tame, humble colonials in the triumphant British empire, without an iota of the independent spirit that has been the heart of the nation's identity.

In the old days, we would have called this arrant jingoism. For some of us, the chance to be more like the Canadians --- with their lively Parliament, their abhorrence of war (and their refusal to be arms-supplier to the world), with their generous and lively public service to the arts --- magnificent city planning, the CBC, the Canadian Film Board: for America to be more like them would have been a divine gift for all of us in the Lower and Benighted forty-eight.

Alas, if only Washington had had the good sense to surrender to the British at Manhattan. What splendor and peace would have been visited on this country of ours. Instead of the unpleasant, apocalyptic present, our land lashed about in its death throes with plagues of violence, neo-Puritanism, internal terrorism, drug war madness, and a misguided, ruinous need for international hanky-panky (Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Bosnia) --- we would have had the chance to become as restrained, and as elegant, as our neighbors to the north.

--- W. K. Jenkins, PhD


Five Great Books
For Spring

Between Silk and Cyanide
A Codemaker's War 1941 - 1945
Leo Marks
(Free Press)
It's ostensibly about the world of secret codes and coding. In reality, it is about the coming of age of a slightly damaged, slightly neurotic, very funny, very insightful genius of code. Marks' writing style lies half-way between J. D. Salinger, S. J. Perelman and Mark Twain (with the Marx Brothers thrown in for comic relief). Underneath the frolicking we find a deadly serious world, for his is a country fighting for its life.

Opium
A History
Martin Booth
(St. Martins Press)

Booth goes into the history of this, still the most favored narcotic, East and West. Our addiction to it started centuries ago, and now it has ended up on the streets of every major city in the western world. Booth manages to show the all-too-important economic determinism of this and all drugs: "Many poor youths turn to the drug trade to make a living for heroin, whilst it will not make a street dealer rich, it will bring him in more than many a legitimate wage packet might."

The Cockroach Papers
A Compendium of History and Lore
Richard Schweid
(Four Walls Eight Windows)
The Cockroach Papers is chock-a-block full of all sorts of ghoulish information. It is also mixed with tales of Schweid's personal journeys, here and there, with and without roaches. He has researched his subject well, and while he didn't make these miserable pests more loveable, at least he is making them more interesting.

Beatus of Liebana
Codex of the Monastery of
San Andres de Arroyo

(M. Moleiro, Aptdo F. D. 179,
08080 Barcelona SPAIN)
Well, it may cost an arm and a leg, may even break your arm when you pick it up, but it is so glorious, printed with such care and affection that you will want to remove and frame the different pages, line the walls with them. The paper by the way, is handmade, and Editor M. Moleiro says it is "designed to match the same thickness, touch and smell of the original...using the same techniques as those used in the 13th Century." Limited edition of 987 copies. It arrives packaged in its own carefully wrought massive wooden box.

Gems of Wisdom
From the 7th Dalai Lama
Glenn H. Mullin
(Snow Lion)
108 short ruminations on "the enlightenment tradition" from a Dalai Lama who lived three centuries ago. The poems speak of the entanglement of human relations, samsara,, the pain of not knowing the self, the "fire of anger," the avoidance of harm to any and all creatures, and the virtue of the quiet mind. Deceptively simple verse with excellent commentaries by Glenn Mullin.

 

RALPH
Box 16719
San Diego CA 92176

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