Saturday, October 16, 2010

Marking out the Sadnesses

Listen, the blue wall rises above your head
there is no marking out the sadnesses.

Forget the poetry, then, and just struggle with the words in a straight line. A whispery morning of spiderweb.

Knox dragged his cannons from Ticonderoga to Boston, a terrific feat, straight over the Berkshires in the dead of winter. I think about that kind of thing. Another way in which I am wrong. I'm not supposed to care about it, but I do. About one percent of the American population died in the six years of what we call the Revolutionary War: it was (proportionally) the most costly war in American history, save the Civil War. I don't quite understand why, or how, it has fallen out of the public consciousness so thoroughly, become so quaint and unfashionable. I'm conscious of the solecism, talking about it on my blog as if it was important. The Civil War, now, it's all right to talk about that. But to even mention the Revolutionary War is to line up with cranks, with tiresome men who button the top button of their polyester shirts and talk too loud and have infallible plans for making a million dollars. It's not that I would even have agreed with the revolutionaries. I would have hunkered down, calling down plagues on both their houses, neither Tory nor Patriot: it takes more than a penny tax on government xeroxes to drive me to start murdering my fellow human beings.

But, of course, they didn't know what I know: they didn't know that you could feel just as dispossessed, just as humiliated, just as lorded over, by a fully representative government: they didn't know that mass democracy would end up looking less like Athens than like late Imperial Rome. They thought they were fighting for their fundamental dignity. So maybe I would have fought on the Patriot side, after all. Few people more thin-skinned about their dignity than I am. I understand that explosion of anger.

I served on an English Department graduate student committee, at Yale. We sponsored some event, for which we bought a deal of wine. The next morning I and another student were summoned by the chair of the department to bring all the empty bottles, so that he could see that we – the committee – weren't squirreling some away on our own account. I was incensed. It was with considerable difficulty that my friends persuaded me not to quit Yale on the spot. They couldn't see why it bothered me: why the casual implication that I would cheat and steal, if not closely watched, should be offensive. The only person who understood my anger was the fellow-student who'd come to us from West Point. Nobody else seemed even to grasp the concept.

I marvel at George Washington, at his steadiness and perseverance. It had to do I think with the quality described by that queer, old-fashioned word: honor. It's what's missing from our lives, public and private. We have our Franklins and Jeffersons and Hamiltons: we have worldly cleverness and ideological fervor and vaulting ambition. Plenty of all of those. What we desperately lack is that dogged resolve, that determination to do nothing mean or underhanded, which earns over many years a deep, abiding trust.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Their honor they put last, in the chief place. That was what counted. And you can feel it, when 18th Century men write about their honor, or the horror of being dishonored: it's central to them, a mainspring of their thought and action. For something so central to simply vanish from a culture is astonishing. (I say “men” advisedly. The concept of honor for women was an entirely different and lesser thing: it had to do mostly with sexual fidelity, and it's hard to see it as much more than an instrument of subjection. More about that anon.) Your first guess, of course, would that “honor” hasn't really vanished: it's just going by another name. People do still talk about integrity, about being true to yourself, that sort of thing. And that, certainly, is half of what 18th Century men meant by honor.

But there's a stark difference. Integrity, being true to yourself, is a strictly private affair. It's nobody else's business: it's between you and your conscience, or (if you do God) between you and God. No one can rob you of your integrity. No one can make you be false to yourself.

Someone can, however, rob you of your honor. Honor is not private: it is held by others. In escrow, so to speak.

Not just any others, of course. There were hordes of disgusting chatterers and scribblers in Revolutionary times, just as there are now, gossips and hirelings, people who will assassinate character as readily as they'll eat a scone. It was understood that you simply ignore such people.

I suppose one reason that “honor” dropped out of our consciousness is that we are now supposed to take the mass of human beings seriously. I'm afraid I can't do that. As sentient beings possessed of Buddha-nature, as infinitely precious spiritual equals, certainly. But as judges of my honor? I hardly think so. I don't give a damn what they think of me.

Another reason is the sexism of “honor,” and the value that we now place on the domestic sphere: we hold men to a far higher standard, in their domestic lives, than the 18th Century did. Reading aloud to the kids and doing your share of changing their diapers and being there to hug them when they need it – we value those things, now, as much as we value anything, and rightly so.

Or again, you may bridle – I do – at the honor of gentlemen who signed a document asserting that all men were created equal, and then went home to be served coffee by their slaves.

The fascinating thing to me about Washington, what made him so extraordinary, is his absolute certainty that he was doing his best. He was so sure of it that he achieved a humility and mildness that are astonishing. He was the least resentful of men. He was not a typical man, of course: it was widely recognized even at the time that his moral qualities were extraordinary. I'm not the first person to admire them. Just down the street here, almost within sight of Tosi's, is a statue of the man, be-wigged and be-sworded, standing in a frozen swagger: that high-bridged nose, those small unimpressive eyes, gazing off into posterity. Only someone amazingly self-confident can endure being betrayed, abused, and traduced so calmly.

“What about your self-respect?” they asked.

“Self-respect? I don't have any of that,” I answered.

“Then I think you'd better get some,” they said, shortly. I suppose they are right: but I don't quite know where, at this late date, one goes shopping for it.

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