Posts Tagged ‘Essay’

Not Only by Private Fraud but by Public Law: Thomas More’s Utopia and the Imperfectability of Human Nature

May 5, 2012

A perplexing aspect of the second book of Thomas More’s Utopia is the obvious moral superiority of the Utopian pagans in comparison to their ostensibly Christian European counterparts as depicted in Book One.  Why is it, many have asked, that one so pious as More would present such a virtuous community of pagans.  The obvious answer to this riddle is that More intended to offer the Utopians as an ironic foil to the vice-ridden Englishmen of Book One.  Is there a better way for More to demonstrate how unchristian his countrymen are than to compare them unfavorably with heathens?  This reading of the dialogue is best defended by examining its construction:  Thomas More catalogs various forms of European depravity in Book One in order to remedy them in Book Two.  This is a nice, neat thesis.  However, it is inconceivable that More, a man who died in  defense of religious and political principles, would seriously propose that the ideal society was an odd form of pagan totalitarianism.

So what the devil was More up to?  Many critics who have rightly rejected the notion that More was seriously suggesting that Utopia represented an ideal society have proposed that, in addition to satirizing the sorry state of European civilization in Book One, he was also lampooning all efforts to improve society in Book Two.  In this vein Richard Marius suggests that, “More meant his readers to rebuke Raphael rather than praise him.”  Perhaps; however, we should do both.  Raphael should be praised for recognizing that Tudor England was in need of reform but rebuked for proposing solutions which disregard the folly of human perfectibility.

The vigorous nature of the attacks on the rampant injustice in English society which More makes in Book One repudiate anyone who would argue that More’s singular objective in writing Utopia was to lampoon those who would try to create a perfect society.  It is true that the Utopians are in many ways like “a doctor who cures diseases by creating another,” but the extreme nature of the diseases illustrate  the high level of repugnance he feels for the ills which plague his society.  More is offering serious medicine to combat serious ills.  As with Swift’s  A Modest Proposal, the drastic nature of the remedies proffered in Book Two of Utopia is a cogent reminder of how hideously unchristian English society was. By proposing such ridiculously severe solutions, More highlights the prevalence of greed and corruption in sixteenth century England.

Considered as a whole, the two books of Utopia compose a convincing repudiation of Tudor society.  In Book One More paints an unsightly portrait of the manner in which the nation was ruled; in the second book he creates a pagan society which is morally superior to it in many was.  More is not suggesting that paganism is preferable to Christianity; rather, he is asserting that the Europeans are so unchristian that they are put to shame by comparison to a prechristian society.

More’s most strident criticism is directed at the harsh economic disparities in England and the political corruption which fostered a system which was grossly unfair to those at the bottom.  The first evidence of the excessively unjust nature of this system is the debate on public hanging, a practice which “goes beyond justice and beyond the public good.”  As is pointed out later in the discussion, capital punishment for petty crimes is an extreme measure, far more severe than the penalties prescribed for thievery in the Old Testament.

Thomas More’s England was a kingdom with two distinct sets of rules for rich and poor; the latter group was viewed as little more than subhuman chattel by the former.  It was common for kings to pursue policies designed to insure a surplus of paupers who would “devote all their energies to starving” for the contingency that they might be required to defend the realm in wartime:  “[y]ou might well say that for the sake of war we foster thieves.”  The existence of a class of thieving peasants who were kept to be slaughtered protecting the king’s interests in war was the result of  systematic efforts to remove them from their land in order that the wealthy might increase their profits by raising sheep, which would ultimately “devour human beings themselves and devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.”  This endemic system of inequality which existed in More’s time is admonished by Raphael in his pithy observation that “to have a single person enjoy a life of pleasure and self-indulgence amid the groans and lamentations of all around us is to be the keeper, not of a kingdom, but of a jail.”

The inhumanity of the policies which wring additional profits for the wealthy by destroying the peasantry is articulately characterized by Raphael’s assertion that England’s better days are behind her: “The unscrupulous greed of the few is ruining the very thing by which your island was once counted on as fortunate in the extreme.”   When Raphael laments how this vicious cycle of peasant extirpation will ultimately feed the gallows, it is obvious that More’s Catholicism cannot be reconciled with a set of social arrangements whereby “alongside this wretched need and poverty you find wanton luxury.”

Although Book Two of Utopia is clearly no “model for reform” it has two functions:  It simultaneously mocks those who would insult God in their attempts to create a heaven on Earth while it emphasizes the religious hypocrisy of More’s age.  If More’s solutions would often throw out the baby with the bathwater, they nevertheless emphasize how putrid that water has become.  Of course it is silly to make golden chamber pots.  But this silliness emphasizes how the love of gold caused wealthy Englishmen to replace peasants with sheep.  Many of the solutions to England’s ills proffered in Book Two are absurd, and it is this very absurdity which accents what a corrupt society More’s England was.  Such is the power of satire.

Because Thomas More proposes perfectly reasonable political reforms alongside such ridiculous occurrences as golden chamber pots, we must concede that he had more than one objective in mind when writing Utopia.  Many of the policies pursued by the Utopians are common sense practices which might have benefited More’s England.  For example, it would have been good public policy to simplify the legal code in England because “it is most unfair that any group of men should be bound by laws which are either too numerous to be read through or too obscure to be understood by anyone.”  Like the Utopian “custom of debating nothing on the same day on which it is first proposed,” it is a practical suggestion submitted in the interests of good government.

Portions of Utopia represent perfectly reasonable models of reform, yet they are the products of a society of happy heathens who instantly accept Christianity when given the chance.  Thus the reader should pause and ponder what it is that More is trying to tell us about how society can and should be ordered.  A clue to More’s feelings in this regard can be deduced from the ironic observation in Book One that “well and wisely trained citizens are not everywhere to be found.”  It is simply inconceivable that a devout Christian like More would seriously propose that postlapsarian humanity was capable of creating Utopia on in this realm.  As gratifying as it might be to imagine Utopia, a place where “nowhere is there any license to waste time, nowhere any pretext to evade work–no wine shop, no alehouse, no brothel anywhere, no opportunity for corruption,” it is inimical to More’s Catholic cosmology to suggest that such a society is a serious earthly possibility.

The temptation of political corruption is endemic to human nature.  The spectacle of monied interests attempting to circumvent the legitimate workings of government should not surprise anyone living in the United States of America today.  As More demonstrates, these were also serious concerns in sixteenth century England.  In Utopia, Raphael repeats the recommendations of a councilor who suggests that all ministers should debate their affairs only in the king’s presence to dissuade those who might attempt “to curry favor, [or] find some loophole whereby the law can be perverted.”   Thomas More was disgusted by the manner in which the wealthy used their political clout to rob and abuse the neediest members of society.  Indeed, Raphael denounces royal complicity in this scheme whereby “the rich every day exhort a part of their daily allowance from the poor not only by private fraud but by public law.”

Thanks to Thomas More, the word Utopian has come signify anyone who would propose impractical visionary schemes.  But this does not permit us to forget the fact that Utopia is a serious book which demonstrates not only the ubiquity of vice in any human community but also the impossibility that mere mortals could ever create a perfect world.  However, this does not mean that it is futile to attempt to improve society.  More was a thoughtful statesmen who worked to improve his country when he wasn’t busy burning Protestants.  And hidden within the satire of Utopia are some serious proposals regarding how to build a better–though not ideal–world.

by Richard W. Bray

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

October 2, 2009

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Today we are nearly unanimous in the belief that all forms of slavery constitute an unpardonable crime against humanity because murder, rape, torture and the forced separation of families are its inevitable consequences. It is therefore difficult for contemporary readers to imagine a time when apologists for slaveholders were not limited to the Southern states and widespread assumptions regarding the innate inferiority of blacks made slavery morally and theologically justifiable to many Americans. Because black slaves were usually depicted by white southerners as helpless, childlike creatures who would prove utterly incapable of subsistence on their own, it followed logically that slavery was the most beneficial arrangement for both the simpleminded slave and his paternalistic master.

Viewed in its historical context , Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, published less than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, is a bold and ironic exploration of the role race has played (and continues to play) in our national psyche. It is unsurprising that this tale about a successful slave rebellion was not celebrated by supporters of slavery in the years between the Nat Turner Rebellion and the Civil War.

Like many contemporary reviewers, Arnold Rampersad is excited by the deliberate militance of Babo’s rebellion. For Rampersad, Babo is not only the central protagonist of Benito Cereno, but a literary creation worthy of the accolade, “the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction” (164). This is a legitimate reading of the story which Rampersad cogently asserts by delineating Babo’s place in the pantheon of black protagonists, from Uncle Tom to Bigger Thomas. However, at the risk of disagreeing with one of our most distinguished critics, I would assert that there is an alternative reading of Benito Cereno. The perspective of Melville’s narrative suggests that Babo—although an outstanding a specimen of black manhood— is not the central focus of the story. According to this reading, Benito Cereno is not essentially about black people; it is about how white people choose to view black people.

American myths and fantasies regarding the true nature of black folks are brilliantly depicted by Melville in the person of the story’s narrator, Amasa Delano. Rampersad quotes C.L.R. James’s observation that Delano “itemized every single belief cherished by advanced civilization…about a backward people” (165). Indeed, Delano “cherishes” the notion that black people are inherently childlike creatures designed by his Creator to serve whites because it is a reassuring conviction: “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person” (Melville 1356). For a Massachusetts seaman who had previously profited from slavery without having to confront it directly, a great deal of potential psychic pain is avoided by the way Delano would deny African their basic humanity. For Delano, slavery is simply another form of animal husbandry: “In fact, like most men of good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to a Newfoundland dog” Melville 1357).

Delano, like many antebellum Northerners, refused to accept black people as fully human because doing so would have required him to confront the horrors of slavery. His “undistrustful good nature” represents the naïve willingness of prewar Notherners to accept Southern propaganda which defined slavery as a benign institution (Melville 1327). Rampersad neatly sums up Delano as “the embodiment of fantastic white liberal values (notably the famed American virtue called innocence)” (171). Delano’s innocence vis-à-vis slaves in Benito Cereno is so extreme that it beseeches readers to ask why Melville chose to tell this particular story from such a peculiar vantage point.

By presenting diabolical and treacherous black revolutionaries through the parallax view of a man incapable of detecting their humanity, Melville creates irony which approaches satire. The possibility that the slaves have indeed taken over the ship is so inimical to his world view that Delano invents fantastic explanations for the bizarre sequence of events he encounters on the San Dominick. Ironically, Delano’s initial response to the rebellion is to question the Benito Cereno’s breeding: “The man was an imposter. Some low-born adventurer, masquerading as an oceanic grandee.” Delano continues his internal debate concerning Benito Cereno’s authenticity right up until the inevitable slave uprising, virtually ignoring a plethora of evidence that it was the slaves who were running the ship. Despite several not-so-subtle clues, Delano is constitutionally incapable of entertaining the possibility that the slaves had taken over the San Dominick. Even when Benito Cereno and three white sailors leapt into the ocean, Delano still could not fathom that black men might ever be anything more than servants of white men. The final irony of Delano’s brief tenure on the San Dominick is his ridiculous assessment of the mutiny, where attempted murder is seen as evidence of the black man’s inborn domestication: “a servant, a dagger in his hand, was seen on the rail overhead, poised, in the act of leaping, as if with a desperate fidelity to befriend his master to the last” (Melville 1368).

Captain Delano’s outlandish naiveté when confronted by rebellious slaves in Benito Cereno is a metaphor for the manner in which many antebellum Northerners preferred to view African Americans. When Delano is unable to fathom the distress Benito Cereno feels with Babo holding a razor to his throat, Melville is suggesting that it is easier to accept the doctrine of white supremacy at a distance. Northerners who rarely had dealings with blacks were probably more susceptible to the comforting myths of innate black inferiority than the Southerners who interacted with slaves on a daily basis. By making the true nature of the rebellious slaves invisible to Delano, Melville demonstrates how persistent denial can be in the face of evil.

by Richard W. Bray

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part 2)

September 23, 2009

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous
Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

Somehow, E. M. Forster, who detested imperialism, falls into this trap. The Indian characters in A Passage to India are all exotic. They are constitutionally incapable of acting like mature, honest and rational creatures. Dr. Aziz, the most sympathetic and well-developed of Forster’s Indians, is unable to appreciate the value of honesty. On the day of the incident in the Marabar caves he tells “a great many lies.” (175) He does not lie with malicious intent, he simply comes from a culture which puts no premium on honesty. He is, therefore, someone who has “no sense of evidence.” (302) Deeds which would be described as evidence of hypocrisy when performed by an Englishman are written off as the result of a mysterious culture so foreign as to defy any type of human universalism. Without a hint of irony the narrator declares of the Indians: “What they said and what they felt were…seldom the same.” (120) Aziz is not being a snoop when he reads Fielding’s mail because “The sanctity of private correspondence had never been ratified in the East” (344) .

Yet there is no question that Forster personally preferred the company of Indians to Anglo-Indians. In fact, he could hardly contain his contempt for the latter. When accused of being unfair to the Anglo-Indians Forster responded, “how can I ever like them when I happen to like the Indians and they don’t” (Das 14). With the exception of Fielding, none of the British in the novel could be described as sympathetic characters, and Fielding utterly rejects the Anglo-Indian creed. Many of the Anglo-Indians in A Passage to India are well-rounded, but the colonists represent the most wretched traits of the English temperament. As Benita Parry observes, “by temperament and choice the Anglo-Indians are outsiders, hostile to India whether it be mosques, cave or temple, participating in none, understanding none, resenting all” (Parry, Delusions, 279).

In his efforts to portray the Indians as morally superior to their colonists, Forster unwittingly practices Orientalism by creating characters whose thinking and motivation are alien from the Anglo-Indians. By imagining India as a people and a nation which might represent the antithesis of the cold-hearted, hypocritical, rapacious Anglo-Indians Forster inadvertently creates natives who, at best, can only be seen as half human. Ironically, in this attempt to “humanize” the Indians vis-a-vis their conquerors, Forster has truncated their humanity. Forster’s tendency to oversimplify his Indian characters is also a function of the philosophical struggle which permeates all of his fiction–the quest to find transcendence without God (a monumentally frustrating aspiration). Abdul R. JanMohamed observes:

The metaphysical preoccupation of A Passage to India is a culmination of problems that Forster had been examining throughout his work, and his decision to cast his concerns in terms of Indian philosophy is innocent and logical. But the narrative decision to turn India into a metaphysical protagonist inherently antithetical to Western liberal humanism probably stems from larger cultural differences, the machinery of which is similar to that of the manichean allegory (JanMohamed 96).

As Forster, the renowned humanist, attempts to make his Indians more sympathetic than their evil colonizers, he diminishes them into hideous caricatures. There are instances when it would be difficult to discern his depictions of Indians from those of an overtly racist apologist for Imperialism such as Kipling. Forster’s Indians are not merely prone to mysticism, but incapable of rational thought. Even Aziz, a man of science educated in the Western tradition, is unable to judge his friend Fielding rationally. This is because “(S)uspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumor, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way that the Westerner cannot comprehend” (311). Why must suspicion, or, for that matter, any other normal human emotion, manifest itself differently in the person of an Indian than it would in an Englishman? The passage suggests that this difference in processing emotions is somehow racially based.

We would expect a westernized Indian like Aziz to be torn between two cultures. But he is not nearly so complex; he is western only in manner. His secularism is merely an affectation and therefore no match for an ancient instinctual mysticism. When his children exhibit idolatrous behavior we see how superficial his rationalism is: “He didn’t want them to grow up superstitious, so he rebuked them, and they answered yes, father, for they were well brought up, but, like himself, they were impervious to argument” (332).

But Aziz is not simply an irrational mystic–he is a childlike, fatuous creature who would certainly qualify for several of Benita Parry’s synonyms for exotic. By constantly fretting about whether his guests are well cared for he confirms the narrator’s conclusion that “(L)ike most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it was tainted with the sense of possession.” (157) So, despite substantial westernization, Aziz, as a representative of his race, is constitutionally incapable of understanding something that would be obvious to any mature Westerner. Further evidence of his puerility is demonstrated when, in response to the death of Mrs. Moore “he wept like a child and ordered his three children to weep also.” (290) Aziz is unable to handle his emotions in a manly way, the way Forster’s alter ego Fielding would. When Fielding tries to speak intimately with Aziz about the strain in their relationship, he terminates the conversation with the ludicrous declaration “I say, shall we go pour water on to Mohammed Latif’s face. He is so funny when this is done to him” (279).

Dr. Aziz, whose behavior hovers between immaturity foolishness, is someone an intelligent reader might imagine to exist. Godbole, on the other hand, is a crepuscular creation who personifies a contempt for Hinduism which Forster made no effort to conceal. Forster’s letters regarding the Gokul Ashtami Festival are “extremely condescending” (Crews 153).
I cannot see the point in this, or rather in what it differs from ordinary mundane intoxication. I suppose that if you believe your drunkenness proceeds from God it becomes more enjoyable….I don’t think I can describe it better than this, and it is difficult to make vivid what seems so fatuous. (Hill, 160-61).

If Forster means to present India as a “metaphysical protagonist,” as JanMohamed argues, then Dr. Aziz and Dr. Godbole obviously represent the relative regard Forster had for their respective faiths. In contrast to his disdainful reaction to Hinduism, Forster was “aesthetically gratified by a religion that is not grossly anthropomorphic” (Crews 152). Indeed, his frustration with the confusion and inconsistency of Hinduism heightened his appreciation for the moral absolutism of a monotheistic religion.

…just as I thought nothing could be more beautiful a muezzin with a most glorious voice gave the evening call of prayer from a mosque. “There is no God but God.” I do like Islam, though I have come through hinduism to discover it. After all the mess and profusion and confusion Gokul Ashtami, where nothing ever stopped or need ever have begun, it was like standing on a mountain. (Hill, 193)

As the living embodiment of this “mess and profusion and confusion,” Dr. Godbole at best can only be described as a hideous caricature of a Hindu. He is a rambling mass of riddles and non sequiturs who frustrates Fielding by arguing that all people are equally responsible for whatever took place at the Marabar Caves. In contrast to Aziz who has “no sense of evidence” Godbole has no conception of reality. Nothing Godbole says is of value to the Westerner because he “had never been known to tell anyone anything.” (342) His pointless verbosity which never “stopped or need have ever begun” ridicules the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism. Forster is not restrained in his mockery of Hinduism, as illustrated by the comment, “Godbole’s conversations frequently culminated in a cow.” (198)

While in India E. M. Forster continued to struggle to make meaning out of his life. This endeavor was complicated by a condition which is the antithesis of invincible ignorance. An inveterate secularist, Forster nonetheless yearned for some type of spiritual union. He was able to find some comfort in his personal relationships with individual Indians, but his personal Passage to India was frustrated by the unfortunate reality that England and India (and therefore, Englishmen and Indians) are not polar opposites.

By some strange alchemy of literature, Forester’s art is not damaged by this confusion. One might even argue that he achieves aesthetic harmony by oversimplifying his Indians. (A similar point can be made regarding his female creations.) However, that which is artistically appealing can be socially disastrous. By degrading a people who had been abused and exploited by his countrymen for centuries, Forster exposes another “peril of humanism.” Art cannot be justified merely for its own sake.

by Richard W. Bray

Works Cited

Crews, Frederick. The Perils of Humanism. Princeton: Princeton
U P, 1962.
Das, G.K. “`A Passage to India’: A Socio-historical Study,”
Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. John
Beer. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986. 1-15.
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. 1924. San Diego: Harcourt,
Brace, 1984.
_____. The Hill of Devi. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The
Function of Racial Difference in Colonial Literature,” Race,
Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Chicago: U of Chicago P. 78-106.
Parry, Benita. Delusions and Discoveries Studies on India in the
British Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.
_____. “The Politics of Representation in `A Passage to India'”, A Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. John
Beer. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986. 27-43.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part One)

September 22, 2009

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous
Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

E. M. Forster, the product of a culture which sought to rule the world, depicted the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of the imperial mind-set harshly and cogently. His outspokenness in favor of Indian independence at a time when the “Jewel in the Crown” was perhaps the greatest symbol of English pride and prosperity was courageous and sincere. Forster rejected the racist, eurocentric doctrines of the “white man’s burden” despite the fact that they were a central tenet of the liberal humanistic tradition which created him. Forster had the unique ability to view his culture as an outsider, a perspective which is often illuminating. But when Forster tries to explain actions and phenomena of a people whose culture is radically different from his own, he inevitably retreats into a eurocentric perspective which betrays his own inability to depict the non-European as fully human.

By bravely voicing the conviction that India deserved full political independence at a time when Gandhi was still looking for ways to “transform British imperialism into a happier institution,” Forster exceeds even the most enlightened liberal thinking of his time. (Das 3) In A Passage to India he repeatedly points out that imperialism is an ugly, dehumanizing institution which is inherently unjust and morally debasing to both subjects and colonizers. Yet, despite his eloquent renunciations of the imperial enterprise, Forster is ultimately incapable of viewing Indians with the clarity which makes his Anglo-Indians such compelling specimens of depraved denial. In contrast, Forster’s Indians are merely caricatures; ironically, they possess many of the characteristics which British writers attributed to them in order to justify British rule in India: they are irrational, fatuous, lazy and dishonest.

By creating Indian characters who are too petulant and immature to deserve the political independence he champions, Forster is perpetuating an ancient European intellectual tradition which is deeply ingrained in the collective Western consciousness. Much of Europe was the “Orient’s” servant before it was its master. Several centuries before Europe colonized the Levant, the East invaded Europe in the name of Mohammed. The eight-hundred year struggle to reclaim Europe from Muslim infidels engendered a fear and revulsion towards the region. In many ways, our modern conception of a single European culture was born out the somewhat unified effort to repel these heretical invaders. The “Orientalist” school of interpretation represents an effort to examine how the historically static negative European impression of “Oriental” people influences literary and political discourse. A strong case has been made by these scholars that European imperialism has been promoted by literary and academic output which demeans and dehumanizes colonial subjects. Edward Said thus describes the cultural significance of this historical phenomenon:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilization and languages, its cultural contestant and one of the deepest and most recurring images of the Other. (Said 1)

When Forster, an artist lionized by eminent critics such as Lionel Trilling and Frederick Crews for his “humanism,” creates Indian characters which validate Europe’s “deepest and most recurring images of the Other,” it becomes clear how intricately racism has been woven into the fabric of western thought. The Enlightenment love of liberty and justice extends only to a man’s perceived peers. The inherent inferiority of people of color was rarely questioned by many of the most celebrated champions of democracy “…liberal cultural heroes like John Stuart Mill, Arnold Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, George Eliot and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism.” (Said 14)

Imperialism and liberalism coexisted because the plunder of men like Clive, Yale and Rhodes brought material wealth to Europe which few were willing to question. Eventually, apologists like Kipling would glorify imperialism as a gallant and noble institution which actually benefited its victims. This was done by intimating that “Orientals” were racially devoid of the moral and intellectual faculties which European males possessed in abundance. A series of binary oppositions was utilized to denigrate imperial subjects in comparison to their colonizers. If white males are brave, honorable, and masculine, then orientals are cowardly, immoral and effeminate, all qualities which imply an inferior status. Language, therefore, becomes a major element in the mass subjugation of peoples. No one understood this better than the British who

devised a way of dividing the world which made British rule in India appear a political imperative and a moral duty. The strategy of discrimination and exclusion can be deduced from the series of meanings produced by the word “exotic”: dissimilar, unrelated, extraneous, uncomfortable, untypical, incongruent, eccentric, anomalous, foreign, alien, abnormal, aberrant, deviant, outcast, monstrous, fantastic, barbarous, grotesque, bizarre, strange, mysterious, unimaginable, wondrous, outlandish (Parry, “Politics,” 28).

by Richard W. Bray

VIRTUE IS “A PERPETUAL CLOG TO PUBLICK BUSINESS” (Part 2)

September 18, 2009

VIRTUE IS “A PERPETUAL CLOG TO PUBLICK BUSINESS”

Swift knew from his reading of history that “the same vices and the same follies” were a ubiquitous feature of human institutions and efforts to create any kind of utopia were destined to fail. As an avid reader of antiquarian texts, he “had a sense of belonging to a civilization with a tradition of inherited political wisdom that stretched back to fifth-century Athens” (Lock, 33). Therefore, he “did not look at the problems of his age as new or unique” (Lock, 34). As he did in The Battel of the Books, Swift employs actual historical figures in “A Voyage to Laputa” to illustrate the timelessness of human folly.

It was Swift’s religious background which instilled in him the sense of innate human fallibility which was only reinforced by his personal experiences. Jonathan Swift was an Anglican clergyman who devoted his life to the promotion of the precepts of Christianity as he understood them. This perspective predisposed Swift to view humanity as both unworthy and incapable of achieving anything remotely approaching worldly perfection:

A fundamental element of Swift’s pessimism was his religious conviction that political corruption and disorder were, in man’s fallen state, more natural than their opposites (Lock, 4).

Of course, there is no single valid biblical interpretation of human nature. Ironically, in many ways, Swift’s low regard for humanity was closer to Hobbes’ deistic “doctrine of humankind’s essential power hunger and egotism” than it was to his fellow theologian, the Third Earl of Shaftsbury, who portrayed humankind as altruistic and benevolent in his Characteristics (Knowles, 25). Though Swift was repulsed by Hobbes’ theology, Gulliver’s Travels presents a very Hobbesian portrait of humanity.

The pervasive picture of human depravity depicted in Gulliver’s Travels is aided by the satirical technique of reversing the reader’s perspective of Gulliver’s physical stature. By transforming Gulliver via his travels from behemoth to dwarf, Swift assaults his reader’s expectations and perceptions of the story’s protagonist. In Lilliput, Gulliver towers over his captors not only in physical stature, but also in his moral character. In refusing his Emperor’s order to destroy the Blefuscudian forces, Gulliver is displaying his superior ethics. When Gulliver travels to Brobdingnag, however, his situation is completely reversed. Not only has his physical stature suddenly diminished, but his moral standards vis-a-vis his new hosts are likewise reduced. As a result of this reversal Gulliver “becomes the object of satire, whereas on Lilliput he had largely been the vehicle for satire on what he observed” (Knowles, 82-3).

Gulliver’s moral stature, and, by inference, the ethical standing of the human race, shrinks along with Gulliver’s body because the residents of Brobdingnag have much higher standards than human beings. This becomes clear through Gulliver’s interactions with the King of Brobdingnag. Swift employs some of his most brilliant satire as all of Gulliver’s efforts to impress the King with examples of the achievements of European civilization simply confirm his suspicions about innate human depravity. After the King has meticulously questioned Gulliver on European culture, he offers this assessment of Western civilization:

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century; protesting it was only an Heap of Conspiracies, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce (Gulliver, 107).

The King’s estimation of English political institutions is equally harsh. When Gulliver explains to him the qualities required to succeed in court, he observes wryly: “You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator” (Gulliver, 108). It cannot be denied that such pithy commentary by the King of Brobdingnag reflect Swift’s own political experiences. But the King’s final appraisal of human nature goes much farther than simply criticizing the excesses of a particular monarchy or the vulgarities of royal intrigue. The King is appalled when Gulliver, in an effort to gain his favor, offers to reveal the secret to the destructive power of gunpowder. He is “amazed how so impotent and groveling little Insect as I (these were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman Ideas” (Gulliver, 110). The King eloquently articulates the deep-seated misanthropy which permeates much of Swift’s writing when he offers this harsh indictment of human nature:

But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pains wringed and extorted from you: I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of odious little Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth (Gulliver, 108).

While conversing with the ghosts of the ancients in Laputa Gulliver continues to be confronted with the specter of inborn human degeneracy. It is here that Swift is asserting most cogently that human depravity is universal and timeless, and, therefore, not simply a product of a particular age or a single political institution. After speaking with an assortment of philosophers and kings, Gulliver is overwhelmed by the ubiquity of political corruption. Swift makes the amusing observation that personal integrity, rather than being the stuff of great leaders, is actually anathema to the machinery of government:

Three Kings protested to me, that in their whole Reigns they did never once prefer any Person of Merit, unless by Mistake or Treachery of some Minister in whom they confided: Neither would they do it if they were to live again; and they shewed with great Strength of Reason, that the Royal Throne could not be supported without Corruption; because, that positive, confident, restive Temper, which Virtue infused into Man, was a perpetual Clog to publick Business (Gulliver, 171).

This is a vituperative assault upon the humanistic view of human nature. Yet things continue to go from bad to worse as Swift saves his most potent salvos against humanity for Gulliver’s final journey, the “Voyage to the Huoyhnhnms.” Just as Swift, a great lover of hoaxes, must have enjoyed shrinking Gulliver in order to demonstrates humanity’s minuscule moral stature, he surely delighted in creating a breed of humanity subservient to its favorite beast of burden–the horse: “As Gulliver experienced a huge reversal from giant to pygmy, now the world is turned upside down as he recounts the relationship between human and horse in England” (Knowles, 121). This forces the reader to reevaluate many of his/her basic assumptions about human nature.

By creating a world where humanity is represented by the Yahoos, Swift personifies humanity’s most wretched feral tendencies. By forcing the reader to observe the Yahoos from the perspective of a wholly rational creature the novel demonstrates how indistinguishable Western man is from his animal nature. Gulliver is driven mad by the realization that an animal which appears to be a common horse is his moral superior in every way. Swift catalogues various vices and shortcomings in order to demonstrate how a race of truly rational beings might compare to humanity.

In the land of the Houyhnhnms there were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, House-breakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, Splenetics, tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuosos; no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; No Encouragers to Vice, by Seducements or Examples (Gulliver, 242).

Even more damning of humanity than its status and ethically inferior to the Houyhnhnms is the inability of Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm Master to distinguish him from the Yahoos. He is never willing to concede that Gulliver represents a race which might differ significantly from the Yahoos in moral stature despite the fact that Gulliver speaks, reasons and wears clothes. Gulliver’s descriptions of human exploits confirm his master’s worst suspicions about humanity, just as Gulliver’s braggadocio had appalled the King of Brobdingnag. The master actually comes to regard Gulliver as representative of a life form even lower than the detested Yahoos who have no excuse for their lewd behavior. Humans, on the other hand, have intellectual gifts which logically should prevent them from committing the type of atrocities Gulliver has described to his master who concludes that

although he hated the Yahoos of this country he no more blamed them for their odious qualities, than he did a Gnnayh (a Bird of Prey) for its Cruelty, or a sharp Stone for cutting his Hoof. But, when a Creature pretending to Reason, could be capable of such Enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that Faculty might be worse than brutality itself (Gulliver, 215).

When Gulliver finally accepts his master’s appraisal that all the people he has ever known are, in essence, “Yahoos in Shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized”, he is echoing Swift’s gloomy assessment of human nature (Gulliver, 243). As the reader follows Gulliver through his descent into madness, it is difficult to remain optimistic about human nature. Gulliver begins his journeys as a proud man who is happy to brag about human exploits; he ends up revolted by the mere presence of people, preferring the company of horses.

This leaves us with the question of why Swift would write a book which paints such a dismal portrait of human nature. Is Gulliver’s Travels, as has been suggested, simply the misanthropic ravings of bitter, frustrated man who was himself headed into the throes of insanity? Or did Swift write, as he insisted, for the “Universal Improvement of Mankind”? It is notable, however, that Swift never proposes any strategy for such a daunting task. When one considers that Swift’s theological predisposition was based upon the innate corruption of humanity such protestations ring hollow. It seems likely that this was simply another one of Swift’s jokes.

by Richard W. Bray

REFERENCES
Case, Arthur E. Four Essays on Gulliver’s Travels. Gloucester: Princeton UP, 1958
Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. London: Prentice Hall, 1996
Lock, F.P. The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990
Swift, Jonathan. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York:Norton, 1973
Varey, Simon “Exemplary History and the Political Satire of Gulliver’s Travels,” The Genres of Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Frederik N. Smith. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990 (39-54)

VIRTUE IS “A PERPETUAL CLOG TO PUBLICK BUSINESS”: THE UBIQUITY OF CORRUPTION IN HUMAN INSTITUTIONS IN JONATHAN SWIFT’S GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (Part 1)

September 17, 2009

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VIRTUE IS “A PERPETUAL CLOG TO PUBLICK BUSINESS”:
THE UBIQUITY OF CORRUPTION IN HUMAN INSTITUTIONS
IN JONATHAN SWIFT’S GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (Part 1)

Winter 1998

Gulliver’s Travels is a testament to the ubiquity of corruption in human institutions. In all of Gulliver’s adventures the reader is confronted by examples of greed and vice which render humankind and its political institutions degenerate. This is not surprising when one considers that Swift was an Anglican clergyman who sincerely believed that postlapsarian humanity was inherently depraved. Yet Swift was also a diligent political operative and erstwhile pamphleteer with a considerable appetite for the adversity and acrimony of party politics. Swift’s political activity remained consistent with his Christianity–he fought for the establishment of peace, justice and political stability within the framework of his conception of the ideal political arrangement, a benevolent monarchy balanced by a diligent nobility. Despite some notable victories, Swift and his Tory allies were effectively exiled from the halls of power after the Death of Queen Anne and the ascension of the Whigs under King William I. This left Swift dispirited, and his natural tendency to cynicism was heightened by the aftermath of this brief period of political triumph:

his brilliant pamphleteering in 1711-13 on behalf of the Tory government’s peace policy was successful in its immediate aims. But the death of Queen Anne and the triumph of the Whigs blasted Swift’s hopes that the peace would inaugurate a new era of prosperity and stability under tory auspices (Lock, 1).

In many ways Gulliver’s Travels was an attempt to vindicate the reputations of Swift and his Tory compatriots, particularly, Oxford and Bolingbroke. Swift was proud of the role Tory ministers had played in the negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended hostilities with France in 1713. Swift believed that the charges of appeasement and even treason leveled against the Tories were motivated by Whig blood lust and war profiteering. As a condemnation of such horrific human behavior, Gulliver’s Travels is far more effective than Swift’s nonfiction account of his involvement in party politics, History of the Last Four Years of the Queen.

Gulliver’s Travels abounds with allusions to the type of political machinations which led to his retirement from politics and his eventual self-imposed exile back to Ireland. This has led many critics to assume that the book, particularly the first two sections, is an allegory for Swift’s personal trials and travails in service of Queen Anne. Throughout the past two and a half centuries, numerous reviewers have tried to find historical counterparts in even the most minute occurrences from Gulliver’s Travels in their efforts to prove the book was really intended merely to lampoon Swift’s particular political rivals. This absurd reading of Gulliver’s Travels is, thankfully, no longer as prevalent as it once was.

Those who would argue that the scope of the intended meaning of Gulliver’s Travels is limited to a parody of contemporary English politics ignore not only Swift’s protestations to the contrary, but common sense as well. Swift’s personal experiences had a profound affect on his satire, as did his cynical reading of history and his basic theological predisposition. Swift “believed in the general conformity of human nature” and this nature was inherently corrupt (Lock, 33).

The central theme of Gulliver’s Travels is the imperfectabilityofhumanity and the universality of political corruption. Although the book contains many allusions to specific people and events from the period of the queen’s last ministry and other periods, it is not a political allegory in which every character, action, and motive contributes to a portrait of a single period (Varey, 41).

Once we accept the universality of Swift’s basic message it is possible to separate particular references to his personal history without falling into the trap of looking for a grand design of allegory in Gulliver’s Travels because “if there is no allegory, there still may be covert allusions to actual persons and events (Lock, 111). Such allusions are most prevalent in Gulliver’s “Voyage to Lilliput.” Arthur E. Case, an advocate of a highly allegorical reading of Gulliver’s Travels, does expose some interesting parallels between the book and Swift’s personal political history. He is convincing, for example, when he points out, as others have, that the “High Heels” and “Low-Heels” of Lilliput are clearly references to the Whigs and Tories, just as Big-Endians and Small-Endians represent the absurdity of the theological dispute between contemporary Catholics and Protestants (Case, 73). Moreover, Swift is obviously recounting the difficulty the Tories faced in negotiating the “Treaty of Utrecht” when the Emperor of Lilliput warns him that “we labor under two mighty Evils; a violent Faction at home, and the Danger of an Invasion by a most potent enemy abroad” (Gulliver, 29-30). But this is surely a timeless phenomenon which, for example, afflicted both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The shabby, ungrateful treatment Gulliver receives from the Emperor and his backbiting ministers in Lilliput after he has saved their kingdom in wartime and helped negotiate a just peace is analogous to the way Swift and his Tory compatriots were dealt with by the Whigs who replaced them. Upon defeating the Blefuscudian navy, Gulliver refuses on moral grounds the Lilliputian King’s request that Gulliver should obliterate “the Big-Endian Exiles, and compelling that people break the smaller End of their Egg; by which he would remain the sole Monarch of the whole World” (Gulliver, 34). Gulliver quite properly maintains that he is unwilling to follow the King’s demand because he “would never be an Instrument of bringing a free and brave People into Slavery” (Gulliver, 35). Here there is an obvious parallel between the Lilliputians and the “Whig desire for a crushing defeat of France (which) is pictured as a malicious and despotic wish of the Emperor to humiliate and tyrannize” a vanquished foe (Case, 75).

Case makes a cogent case that Gulliver’s experiences in Lilliput serve as an allegory for the diplomatic exploits of the Tory ministers Oxford and Bolingbroke during the last four years of Anne’s reign. Gulliver appears to relive this decisive period in Swift’s life. According to Case, the strongest arguments in favor of this interpretation of the “Voyage to Lilliput” are “its consistency and the exactness with which it follows the chronology of the events which it symbolizes” (Case, 79). Unfortunately, just three lines after making this assertion Case is forced to concede that “there are, of course, a few cases in which Swift takes slight and unimportant liberties with chronology for the sake of simplicity” (Case, 79). However, Case bolsters his argument by demonstrating how the four charges made against Gulliver are similar to the actual charges brought against Oxford and Bolingbroke (Case, 77-8). And there can be little doubt that the accusations of the treason faced by Gulliver for his role in negotiating a humane peace treaty with the Blefuscudians echo Whig declarations “that the Tories were robbing England of the fruits of victory by granting the enemy (France) easy terms” in the Treaty of Utrecht (Case, 75). The official charges against Gulliver, that he “did, like a false Traitor, aid, abet, comfort, and divert the said Ambassadors” mirror the attempts by Whigs to prosecute Oxford and Bolingbroke for their loyal diplomatic service to the crown (Gulliver, 49). It was horrific for Swift to see his personal heroes betrayed and humiliated as the result of fratricidal political intrigue which certainly exacerbated his natural proclivity for political pessimism. Gulliver is obviously referring to Oxford and Bolingbroke when he observes, in a rare moment of intellectual clarity that: “Of so little Weight are the greatest Services to Princes, when put into the Balance with a refusal to gratify their passions” (Gulliver,35).

If Swift merely intended to vindicate his allies and attack his adversaries when writing Gulliver’s Travels, the work would not have survived the scrutiny of time. Rather than simply exposing the moral depravity of those who had done him wrong, Swift was writing for the ages. His goal, then, was “to attack not particular Whigs or Whig policy, nor even Whiggism, but the perennial political disease of which Whiggery wash only a contemporary manifestation” (Lock, 2). Gulliver’s Travels is much more than the embodiment of Swift’s personal political frustrations; it is an attempt to chronicle the universality of political degeneracy and the frailty of humanity and its institutions. Swift himself articulates this fact in his angry reaction to a French translator of Gulliver’s Travels who has the temerity to suggest the book “was not written for France, but for England, and that what it contains of direct and particular satire does not touch us” (Knowles, 30). Swift’s response to this is direct and explicit:

If then, the works of Mr. Gulliver are calculated only for the British Isles, that traveller must pass for a very wretched writer. The same vices and the same follies reign everywhere, at least in the civilised countries of Europe, and the author who writes only for a town, a province, a Kingdom, or even a country, so far from being deserving to be translated, does not even deserve to be read (Knowles, 30-1).

by Richard W. Bray

Seinfeld and Gilligan’s Island

September 9, 2009

Seinfeld and Gilligan’s Island

I’m reluctant to admit this publicly, but I never really liked Seinfeldd. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about having such peculiar tastes. On the contrary, I enjoy being the iconoclast. But whenever someone says that something that really happened is “just like that time on Seinfeld when…”, I say coyly, “I must have missed that episode.” In the past, when I still had the temerity to admit that I don’t watch the show, I was just asking for trouble. People act like I’m the one who has a problem because I don’t enjoy watching a bunch of thirty-(and then forty)-somethings behaving like clueless perpetual adolescents.

Tales of urban angst just don’t appeal to me. Frankly, I just don’t give a rat’s patootie whether or not a bunch of Caucasian grownups are able to get their soup and still make it to the movies on time. (You may contend that Jews are not exactly considered white in America, which is certainly an arguable position, but I would put them in the Recently White category, along with the Irish and the Italians. See, for example, Ignatiev’s provocative How the Irish Became White.)

I have nothing against people who choose to live in big cities. But unless you’re filthy-stinking rich, urban living just doesn’t make sense for educated, upwardly mobile grownups. I can understand why it would be exciting to live in the big city at an age when a person is young, fearless and practically penniless. But sooner or later, it’s time to put away childish things.

(Full Disclosure: I am an unrepentant suburbanite. I am happiest living in a house on the ground with as many trees and plants around as the modern city planning will allow. When I see a show on tv about grownups who make enough money to get the hell out of the concrete jungle, I almost wince at their lack of good sense. I can practically smell the stink of Jerry’s apartment and hear the cockroaches scuttling around his kitchen.)

But the real reason I don’t enjoy Seinfeld is, curiously enough, the same reason I never enjoyed watching Gilligan’s Island: Just as Gilligan and company will never get off their island, the characters on Seinfeld are a bunch of stupid losers who will never rise above their mundane quotidian quest for…I can’t even guess about what would make these people happy because the whole point of the show is about their perpetual frustration. I simply can’t root for these people, which is essential for me when I watch a sitcom.

I can handle a movie or a novel peopled with a bunch of pathetic, unlovable louts. But when it comes to watching a sitcom week after week, I have to care about the characters. Of course, this is totally subjective. Ted Baxter, Louie De Palma and The Harpers, despicable as they may be, are all vulnerable and thus lovable to me. Go figure.

by Richard W. Bray

Cool is a cool word

September 3, 2009

cool word

Cool is a cool word. It is extremely elastic (twenty-eight definitions in dictionary.com), but I’m more impressed with its staying power.

The Urban Dictionary has 128 definitions for the word cool, including:

#5. An adjective referring to something that is very good, stylish, or otherwise positive. It is among the most common slang terms used in today’s world.

#16. Perhaps the ultimate slang word.

#32. [A] word that can be used by everyone, young and old and not sound weird, too modern or used [exclusively] by any certain race.

The amazing thing about the word cool is its linguistic longevity. Synonyms for cool (definition #5, very good, stylish, or otherwise positive) have come upon the scene with great speed and regularity over the last fifty plus years. This is probably because coolness has a strong element of exclusivity. As soon as the old and uninitiated latch onto the latest word for cool, it’s not cool anymore, and a new word will quickly emerge to take its place. Here is a partial list of words for cool which have come and gone over the last several decades (in no particular order):

Groovy, neat, hip, def, phat, heavy, bitchin, awesome, swell, sick, wicked, fresh, radical, gnarly, hunky dory, stupid, keen, radical, dope, sweet, fly, key, live, chill, tight, excellent, boss, dandy, hunky dory…

All of these words, usually sooner rather than later, have fallen by the wayside. But not so for cool, which inexplicably lives on and on.

by Richard W. Bray

Confessions of a not-so-Old Curmudgeon

September 1, 2009

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Confessions of a not-so-Old Curmudgeon:
A Reactionary Screed for our Time

I never thought I would be such a young old fuddy duddy. As a not exactly doddering forty-six year old, I’m not quite ready to go into those fist-shaking, when-I-was-your-age, Sonny diatribes, but I seem to be much closer to the stereotype of the guy chasing kids off his lawn than I am to my own youthful self.

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I got really annoyed when people over forty spoke derisively about my music my movies, my clothes, my g-g-g-generation. I swore that no matter how old I got, I would never make scornful sweeping generalizations about people just because they were younger than me. This conviction was bolstered with the knowledge that, as sociologist Mike Males and others have pointed out, What’s the Matter with Kids These Days? has been a perennial preoccupation for grownups for thousands of years.

Well, that was then, this is now…

When did people become so damn helpless? It’s gotten to the point where a large percentage of young people can’t scratch their derrieres without texting eleven friends to brag about it. Cell phones have become an indispensable appendage, but instead of liberating young people, telephones are like a ball and chain fettering them to a network of nattering nonsense. From the moment they arise until they pass out (maybe I’m projecting a little too much from my own youth here), people are in constant contact, and it’s clearly arresting their development. Today, people can communicate with one another at any time from just about anywhere on the planet, but that doesn’t mean we have to.

Solitude and separation can be a good thing because they help to clear the mind and refine the thinking process. For example, when I took my youthful sojourn to Europe, postcards were my only contact with my friends for over three months. This gave me time to reflect on my life and note the difference between cultures.

And is it possible for the narcissistic youth of today to have more than two friends over for a beer without taking a bunch of pictures and posting them on Facespace or whatever the hell they’re calling it now? (And we thought the baby boomers were the ultimate paragons of solipsism.) Despite having access to more information about what’s happening in the world than any previous generation, today’s youth are more prone to utilize this marvelous technology for enhanced navel gazing. Information from virtually any newspaper on the planet is available at our fingertips, yet so many of us would rather hear the latest mindless tweet from some pseudo-celebrity.

Unlike many of my cantankerous predecessors, I’m not saying that the youth of today are too rebellious. On the contrary, these screen-addled drones aren’t angry enough. Where’s the outrage for the four thousand mostly young people who have died in a totally unjustified war? Where’s the rage over global warming? Where’s the anger about rising tuitions which will force today’s college students to live in debt bondage for much of their careers? And why aren’t young people marching in the streets to protest how us grownups have mortgaged away their future in so many ways?

Today I’m too young for the rocking chair (but old enough to find thoughts of such rhythmic swaying somewhat comforting). I always thought I was the kind of guy who would remain hip until I was at least sixty. Now, I’m not even sure I want to be cool any more.

by Richard W. Bray

“But That’s Okay”

August 31, 2009

I had a roommate in college named Skippy (not his real name, but it should have been) who was a Philosophy major. We would proofread each other’s papers. The funny thing about his papers was that he never said anything and he always got a “B”. I mean always, on every paper and in every class. I remember reading the final paper he wrote for his final class as an undergraduate. I forget the actual topic, but basically it said that some guys said this while other guys said that with a noncommittal conclusion. By the time I finished reading the paper, Skippy had already began celebrating the accomplishment by making a healthy dent in a quart of Coors.

I handed him his paper.

“Interesting.” I lied.

Skippy snatched the paper from my hand. With quart in one hand and paper in the other, he romped around the house, barking, “Yes, it’s good. But it needs something extra.”

Skippy ruminated on the paper as he finished his quart. Finally he shouted out, “I’ve got it!”

He took the paper upstairs to his room, reinserted it in his typewriter and added this sentence to the conclusion: “But that’s okay.”

We all laughed and laughed at this, never thinking that he would actually turn in a paper with such an absurd ending, but, being Skippy, he did. I couldn’t wait for Skippy to get the paper back. As a History major, I knew that any one of my professors would have had a fit if I had pulled a stunt like that.

When Skippy finally got the paper back, his professor made no mention of the “But that’s okay.”

Oh yeah, the paper got a “B”.

by Richard W. Bray