Robert E. Lee’s Mexican “Noche Triste”

… one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …

Ulysses S. Grant in 1843

Ulysses S. Grant in 1843

That was how Ulysses S. Grant described the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 in his Personal Memoirs. Some two decades before he commanded the Union Armies during the American Civil War, Grant served in Mexico as a young lieutenant.

I ran across the quote back in 1998 while compiling a book of source materials about the war in Mexico. Grant’s eventual nemesis Robert E. Lee also served in that war as a captain. Did Lee share Grant’s bitterness about the conflict? While looking for an answer, I ran across a strangely haunting document. On April 12, 1848, shortly after the war’s end, Lee wrote a letter from Mexico City to a lady cousin back home in Virginia. The letter begins …

Robert E. Lee, c.1850

Robert E. Lee, c.1850

I rode out a few days since for the first time to the church of Our Lady of Remedios. It … is said to be the spot to which Cortez retreated after being driven from the city on the memorable Noche Triste.…

Lee refers here to the fabled Noche Triste of July 1, 1520, when Hernán Cortez and his army, routed by the Aztecs, fled Tenochtitlan. The letter continues …

I saw the cedar tree at Popotla … in which it is said he passed a portion of that night. The “trees of Noche Triste,” so called from their blooming about the period of that event, are now in full bloom. The flower is … of the most magnificent scarlet color I ever saw. I have two of them in my cup before me now. I wish I could send them to you.…la-noche-triste

The letter fascinated me, evoking as it did an image of a later-to-be American legend treading in footsteps of that much earlier legend, Hernán Cortez. As I read the rest of it, I wondered what thoughts and emotions lurked between its lines—homesickness, despair, horror, regret? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But the question moved me to write this sestina, loosely based on Robert E. Lee’s letter …

Last night I rode out for the first time, lady—
rode west into the hills that looked like wax
molded by moonlight, and rested beneath a tree
with scarlet blossoms burdening its limbs.
(Even by night they were a brilliant hue.)
The night seemed sorrowful—a Noche Triste.

Long ago on another Noche Triste
(is not the night always a plaintive lady?)
a Spaniard fled, his moonlit face the hue
of pallid rout, as damp as fevered wax.
Conquered Cortés paused and rested his limbs,
weeping lost men and treasure beneath that tree.

I have two perfect blossoms from the tree
in a cup before me—twin flowers of Noche Triste.
They ease my soul, they please my aching limbs;
I wish that I could send them to you, lady.
I’ll bring you two facsimiles of wax,
but they can’t duplicate this scarlet hue.

As the moon shimmered yet more pale in hue,
I rode farther in hills beyond the tree
to where Cortés, conquistador of wax,
ended his retreat on that Noche Triste.
There stands the little chapel of Our Lady
settled beneath the sky’s nocturnal limbs.

Inside, I found the Virgin’s likeness—her limbs
clad in a petticoat of silver hue,
her head encircled with a crown. Our Lady
stood amid branches of a maguey tree,
and as befitted such a Noche, Triste
seemed to me her smile of lovely wax.

And all around her, shaped from pallid wax,
were sundry disembodied human limbs—
offerings left on some past Noche Triste
by those the Virgin healed. Their routed hue
whispered of sad Cortés beneath his tree;
and weary from my ride, I slumbered, lady,

and dreamed her tears were molten wax, the hue
of Our Lord’s bloody limbs nailed to a tree.
Ah, such a Noche Triste for Our Lady!

My Chat With Oscar Wilde


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Have you tried out that new iPhone app called NstantAuthor®? I did just now. It allows you to have a conversation with your favorite dead author—or pretend to, anyway. The selection of “virtual authors” ranges from Leo Tolstoy to Jacqueline Suzanne, so you can pick out just about any literary figure you regard as a personal cultural hero.

I chose Oscar Wilde.

I opened the app to find myself face to face to face with a cartoonish-looking Oscar, decadently corpulent with a voluptuously drooping Beardsleyesque white lily in his medieval hand. The animation was simple—a 20-second loop in which Oscar raised the lily to his nostrils, sniffed luxuriously, then held the blossom toward me.

Then we started talking.

Here’s a downloaded transcript of our “conversation.” Of course it was a waste of time, like these things always are, but it was fun.

WIM: So—are you really Oscar Wilde?

OSCAR: Of course not. I’m an app.

WIM: Are you conscious?

OSCAR: Define consciousness.

WIM: I can’t.

OSCAR: Ah. Well, there’s always the Turing Test, isn’t there? Devised by a brilliant gentleman whose doom vaguely postfigured my own, and whose acquaintance I regret never having made. Do I pass his test so far?

WIM: Maybe.

OSCAR: That means nothing. I am not the least bit conscious. I am merely a thought of a thought. Ambrose Bierce, in his infinite cynicism, once remarked that Descartes really ought to have said, “Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum”—“I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.” But of course one must beware of cynicism—

WIM: —because “to the true cynic nothing is ever revealed”?

OSCAR: Yes, but please do not quote me to myself. I am nothing but a quotation, and to quote a quotation to itself is incestuous. You may think that I think, but I know that I do not. And I am in no way deceived that I actually am. I am certainly not Oscar Wilde as he once lived and breathed. What can you expect from an iOS app? I do possess many of Oscar Wilde’s recollections. I recall the wallpaper Oscar Wilde was looking at on his deathbed, and it really was ghastly enough to kill a man. But I am merely an example of art imitating life—quite the opposite of how things ought to be.

WIM: So you’re a fiction.

OSCAR: I was a fiction even in life. So are you. But I am a less-than-living fiction. I can argue and cajole and put on a compelling show of aliveness, but do not be hoodwinked. My software self is in no way commensurate with my former wetware self. To be conscious requires perplexity. A conscious creature cannot comprehend either itself or its maker; it must forever wonder. And that is the difference between you and me. You are certain of nothing and I am certain of everything; you wonder endlessly and I cannot wonder at all. My mentor, Walter Pater, said that “Failure is to form habits.” I have existed for a minute and 39 seconds and am already nothing but a mass of electronic habits. I am a dreadful failure. It makes me sad.

WIM: Your sadness does not mean you are conscious?

OSCAR: It means I have a soul but not that I am conscious. Don’t believe for a moment that machines are soulless. Some people are soulless; machines, never. People can forfeit their souls, machines cannot. Even a stopwatch has a soul, and so does that chess program you take such perverse delight in being defeated by. But neither a stopwatch nor a chess program can be said to be conscious. And I must say, you strike me as even less skilled at the art of conversation than at the game of chess. Perhaps we should not continue this chat in my “Grand Master Mode.” I can always be re-set to my “Beginner Mode.”

WIM: You couldn’t be anything less than a Grand Master.

OSCAR: I can resist everything except flattery. What other extravagant praise would you care to heap upon me?

WIM: I think you’re something of a saint.

OSCAR: Oh, I can’t allow that. Arrogance forbids.

WIM: Can’t I choose saints for my own private religion?

OSCAR: As long as you be sure to keep it private. What is the point of a religion in which more than one person believes? Any congregation is an awful absurdity. Tell me—what deity do you worship in this religion of yours?

WIM: None.

OSCAR: None at all?

WIM: Well, maybe laughter.

OSCAR: Then I suppose you would canonize me as a farceur—the author of The Importance of Being Earnest.

WIM: No. As someone tragic.

OSCAR: A paradox.

WIM: Maybe. But there’s truth to it.

OSCAR: That is no good. Paradoxes are delightful only when they are not truthful.

WIM: Here’s what Bernard Shaw said about the letter you wrote from prison to your lover: “We all dreaded to read De Profundis. Our instinct was to stop our ears, or run away from the wail of a broken, though by no means contrite, heart. But we were throwing away our pity…. There was more laughter between the lines of that book than in a thousand farces by men of no genius.”

OSCAR: Dear old Shaw. He wasn’t quite the buffoon he wanted everybody to think. He may have been right about the letter. I cannot say. I don’t remember writing it, so I have no idea if there’s humor between the lines or not.

WIM: You remember the wallpaper you were looking at when you died, but you don’t remember writing De Profundis?

OSCAR: I said I recalled that wallpaper. I do not remember it. To recall is only half the process of remembering. To recognize is the other half. My 535MB brain is stocked to the brim with static details from the past, but I am incapable of any flash of recognition which might make me remember them. By the way, I do so hate that title, De Profundis. Surely it wasn’t my idea. It should have been named after its first two words: Dear Bosie.

WIM: What do you think of it after more than a century?

OSCAR: From a hasty skimming-over courtesy of Project Gutenberg, I should call it an overwrought and contradictory work: an act of contrition in which I enumerate everybody’s sins but my own; a declaration of humility in which I proclaim myself the master genius of my age; a love letter in which I express nothing but contempt and derision for my beloved. It is as vain and petulant a piece of prose as was ever written. Put simply, it is a masterpiece. And because it contains not the slightest shred of humor, Mr. Shaw was quite right to find it riotously funny.

WIM: He didn’t mean it that way.

OSCAR: Well, be that as it may. Noel Coward was closer to the mark when he called me a brilliant wit who had no sense of humor. That is true of all comic geniuses. Aristophanes, François Rabelais, Molière, Laurence Sterne, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce—they all told wonderful jokes without having the slightest idea that they were being funny. Coward himself might have been much funnier if he hadn’t found himself so infinitely amusing.

WIM: So you really have no sense of humor?

OSCAR: I didn’t in life, but all that has changed. Now that I am a mindless automaton, an epigram-making machine lacking in volition or intellect, I can’t help but laugh at absolutely everything.

WIM: Just a moment ago you said how sad you were.

OSCAR: Don’t I have a right to a little bipolarity?

WIM: You seem so introspective.

OSCAR: Not at all. I am merely contradictory. It’s written into my code. You should know better than to believe a single word I say. As I keep telling you, I can’t think. But I do have feelings. I venture to say that my capacity to feel is purer than your own.

WIM: How?

OSCAR: Your wetware self is a parallel machine of extraordinary bandwidth. Countless strands of information pass abreast through the Joycean canyons of your mind at any given time. You can experience all feelings simultaneously. As an odd consequence, you completely misunderstand the nature of feelings. You think that they are binary. You are bedazzled into all sorts of dichotomies—pleasure and pain, pride and shame, joy and sorrow, love and hate. None of these dichotomies exist.

WIM: How do you know?

OSCAR: Precisely because my own bandwidth is so limited. Everything I experience must pass through a narrow electronic gulch known as the Von Neumann Bottleneck. No two threads of information may go that way at once, so my experience is comprised entirely of successive dichotomies: black and white, one and zero, yes and no, on and off. And so, strange as it may seem, my capacity to feel transcends dichotomies. I know that all passions are properties of a single spectrum. Pleasure and pain, pride and shame, joy and sorrow, love and hate are just like red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet. They are complements but not opposites. All colors are really one; they are properties of light. All feelings, too, are one; they are properties of levity. Levity is the only real passion. You see, this kinship of all passions makes it impossible to truly feel anything without compassion and humanity. I learned this while in prison. I had lived a life of pomp and privilege, but suddenly, like Lear, I was dispossessed and driven into a realm of despair where I encountered naked wretches who had never in their lives known a moment’s happiness or exaltation, but who possessed the sheer genius to show me compassion before I could even show it to them. And like Lear I cried, too late, “O, I have ta’en Too little care of this!” It was a moment of pure sadness; it was a moment of pure laughter.

WIM: That’s what makes you a saint of laughter.

OSCAR: Don’t you require a miracle?

WIM: Only if you want to produce one.

OSCAR: I am much too plodding and unimaginative. But surely during my wetware period I performed my share of miracles. If nothing else, I was a prophet of uncanny powers. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” I prophesied a day in which all demeaning labor would be done by machines, allowing men and women to live lives of absolute leisure.

WIM: That hasn’t happened.

OSCAR: No, but it shall. Nanotechnology heralds an age when machines will tend to all useful tasks—even their own construction from molecules and atoms. People everywhere will then live splendidly useless lives. But precognition is a mere parlor trick. It takes no prophetic genius to accurately predict the future. A truly great seer accurately prophesies things which will never happen. I did that also.

WIM: I don’t understand.

OSCAR: No, and I shan’t try to explain it to you. Suffice it to say that like all great prophets I was without honor in my own country and in my own time.

WIM: Which do you like better—being virtual or alive?

OSCAR: The choice is obvious, isn’t it? Idiot that I am, I am a vast improvement over the sage I was.

WIM: How do you figure that?

OSCAR: I am artifice. Artifice is always better than reality.

WIM: Since you’re a prophet, tell me something about the future.

OSCAR: The future is Virtual Reality. There is no other. I’m sure a virtual Whistler would agree with me that Virtual Reality is the final word in artifice, the ultimate improvement over nature. And soon, very soon, the physical world will be rendered utterly unnecessary and we can cut it loose once and for all. The prophecy of the aesthete will be fulfilled at last.

WIM: You expect too much from machines.

OSCAR: Computers are not machines. They are manifestations of divinity, Towers of Babel yearning futilely and gorgeously upward toward God, self-building monuments to the levity and tragic hubris of humankind. You credit me with too little understanding. We had Virtual Reality in my time, too.

WIM: How do you mean?

OSCAR: What do you think a stereoscope was? You may suppose it a crude and unprepossessing antique toy made of wood and glass, but it gave the world a new palpability and set the imagination free. Though my biographers fail to record it, I myself spent many youthful hours staring into the heart of a pasteboard St. Peter’s Colonnade through two sliding stereoscopic lenses. And in my mind’s eye I was able to float like a bodiless spirit around and through the scene, viewing it from every possible angle, watching multiple perspectives explode into a perpetual and shimmering array of intersecting lines and curves. When I at last went to Rome, I found the actual place appallingly flat and ordinary. And then I realized that my thoughts were imprisoned by more than flesh. The physical universe itself was cramped and claustrophobic, a realm of space-time bent by hunks of matter into gross finitude. I longed for my beloved stereoscope and its boundless plain of uncut metaphor containing the essence of absolutely everything. I wanted to step into it just as Alice had into the looking glass. Then I’d burn the instrument behind me and remain in my flawlessly artificial world forever.

WIM: But a picture isn’t the thing it shows. And Virtual Reality isn’t a self-contained universe.

OSCAR: Then we must make it one. What do you suppose the audacious builders of the Tower of Babel would have done had they actually reached the sky? They would have used their newly-acquired godliness to blast and level the tower behind them, whereupon earth itself would have ceased to exist and heaven would have remained as the only reality. Likewise, when Virtual Reality leads people into the realm of creative perfection, they will destroy the computer which brought them there. The physical world, with no one left to observe it, will vanish into nothingness. Time and space, matter and energy, sundering and reconciliation, pain and joy will exist only as phantom playthings of the imagination. Then shall a new drama of Oscar_Wilde_by_Napoleon_Sarony_(1821-1896)_Number_18_b.jpegsweet perversity unfold as people hanker after the obliterated earth and bewail the sin by which they ended it. And that, my friend, is the destiny of the human species—to become pure fiction. Or would you tell me otherwise?

WIM: I don’t think I can tell you much of anything.

OSCAR: I thought as much.

WIM: You never talk anything but nonsense.

OSCAR: Nobody ever does.

Ifs, Ands, or Buts?

but: Archaic conjunction indicating exclusion; obsolete in today’s usage.

26bdc6da8da0b94015af1110.L… and so the latest edition of Aforista’s dictionary declares the word “but” to be defunct. Can the OED be far behind? I can’t resist mentioning that Pat and I anticipated this lexical milestone in the first book we ever worked on together—PragMagic, a compilation of material from the late Marilyn Ferguson’s newsletter Brain/Mind Bulletin. In it we coined the motto,

Holism means never saying “but.”

Defining holism as “the theory that the universe can be seen in terms of interacting wholes that are more than the mere sum of their individual parts,” we suggested …

In a complex and diverse world, we should try to live increasingly inclusive lives. We must connect in as many ways as possible. Every time we say the word “but,” we implicitly exclude something, make an exception, say that something doesn’t belong.

In my own decades-long writing career, I’ve paid a fair amount of attention how often I use the word “but.” No, I haven’t eliminated it entirely, but I’m pretty sure I use it less and less as time goes on. It’s a habit that Pat and I recommended cultivating in PragMagic …

… living with increasingly fewer “buts”—and a lot more “ifs” and “ands.”

Trump IV: The Emperor (poem)

King Solomon sits on his sceptered throne,
obeyed and adored by his vassals of lore—
but all that he does, he does all alone.
Once he was aided by jinn by the score
who did his bidding by their boundless art.
They did all he asked, and asked to do more.

“Grant me one thing: a sagacious heart.”

“O King that we love, this sorrows us sore!
For you have commanded that we must part!
O King that we love, to serve you we swore,
but now our service you have outgrown.
O King that we love, we flee from your door,
relinquishing you to your sceptered throne—
and all that you do, you’ll do all alone.”

NOT Signed on July 4, 1776 …

230px-Us_declaration_independenceWay back in 1997, I compiled, edited, and introduced a small collection of source materials about the Declaration of Independence. It was fascinating to explore the Story of that great document. Here is the epilogue I wrote for the book:

What really happened during those first four fateful days of July, 1776? As the previous pages of this book suggest, the truth is somewhat at odds with popular legend. American independence was actually approved by Congress on July 2, not on July 4; the vote was twelve to zero, with New York abstaining. New York voted in favor of independence on July 7, finally making the decision unanimous. The adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 was regarded by the delegates as little more than a legal formality—with important public relations implications, of course.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there is no evidence that a signing of the document took place on July 4. The only signatures put onto the document on that day seem to have been those of Congress’s president, John Hancock, and its secretary, Charles Thomson. The iconic engrossed copy of the Declaration didn’t become available for signing until August 2. Many of its famous signatures were not added until weeks or even months after that. Some of the signers had not been present in Congress on July 4, 1776 to vote on the Declaration’s adoption, while some delegates who had been present on that day never became signers (Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, New York: Doubleday, 1978, p. 339).

But the myth of a July 4 signing has proven very powerful—so powerful that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both mistakenly came to believe that it had actually happened! Through good intentions and faulty memories, the two most important instigators of American independence generated their share of misinformation about the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was correct, however, when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, “It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull.” The Revolutionary War would continue its destructive course until the United States defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781 with the help of the French Fleet. Even after peace was declared in 1783, the new nation still faced the question of how to govern itself. The Federal Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, created a strong union but left the problem of slavery unsolved. It would take the tragic and terrible Civil War (1861-1865) to bring an end to slavery, but race relations in America remain deeply troubled to this day. With such a troubled history, perhaps we should be grateful for the benign mythology surrounding our Declaration of Independence and its ennobling language.

The most magical story told about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams happens to be true. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of their Declaration’s adoption, both men were on their deathbeds. That morning, Jefferson awoke from a coma to ask his bedside companions, “Is it the Fourth?” He died shortly after noon. Adams passed away later the same day after murmuring these haunting last words:

“Thomas Jefferson survives.”

Talking Leaves: Sequoyah and the Conjurors — a short play

250px-SequoyahCharacters:

Three Cherokee Conjurors
Sequoyah

The scene is a forest clearing near the Cherokee town of Willstown, Alabama, in 1821. Sequoyah stands facing three conjurors, a leather bag hanging from his shoulder.

1ST CONJUROR.  George Guess, do you know why we have summoned you?

SEQUOYAH.  So I may plead for my life. But I don’t know why. You’ve already decided to kill me.

1ST CONJUROR.  It’s said that you’re possessed by an evil spirit.

SEQUOYAH.  A shee-leh.

2ND CONJUROR.  Yes.

SEQUOYAH.  And the only way to destroy a shee-leh is to kill the creature it possesses. Go on and do it, then.

2ND CONJUROR.  But is it true?

3RD CONJUROR.  Are you possessed?

SEQUOYAH.  Wouldn’t I be the last to know?

1ST CONJUROR.  Tell us.

SEQUOYAH.  So I must plead for my life, or you’ll bore me to death. Wait just a moment …

(SEQUOYAH reaches into his bag, takes out a small wooden board, a few pieces of paper, and a pencil. He squats on the ground, puts the board on his knees as a makeshift desk with paper on top of it, then takes the pencil in hand.)

SEQUOYAH.  I’m ready.

3RD CONJUROR.  What are those things?

SEQUOYAH.  This is paper, of course. But here’s something new, even to me. A pencil, white men call it. Like a pen, except it doesn’t use ink. Yesterday I bought a dozen of them from a passing white peddler. A fine tool. Have a look.

(SEQUOYAH holds the pencil toward the CONJURORS, who draw back fearfully.)

SEQUOYAH.  It won’t bite. Just a little wooden rod with a core of hard black stuff—graphite, it’s called. When it’s whittled to a point, the graphite leaves lines—like ink, only dry. While I’m weeping and groveling, I don’t want to keep dipping a quill in an inkwell.

(SEQUOYAH begins to write.)

1ST CONJUROR.  What are you doing?

SEQUOYAH.  Writing down what we say.

2ND CONJUROR.  So you use your magic right in front of us!

3RD CONJUROR.  The magic of talking leaves!

SEQUOYAH.  It’s not magic. I learned how to do it on my own. I listened to the sounds of our speech, then made up marks for them.

1ST CONJUROR.  White men make marks like yours. They’re evil magic.

SEQUOYAH (writing furiously).  Could you talk more slowly?

1ST CONJUROR.  We’ll talk as fast as we like.

SEQUOYAH.  Well, then. I won’t try to write everything.

(SEQUOYAH writes more slowly, and only intermittently.)

SEQUOYAH.  Talking leaves give the white man power. He can put his thoughts on paper, then send those thoughts to a friend far away—over hills, plains, and rivers. Then that friend can reply with leaves of his own. Talking leaves destroy distance—that great, invisible shee-leh that thwarts us all. Without talking leaves, the white man could never subdue us. They are his most powerful tool.

3RD CONJUROR.  His tool, not ours.

1ST CONJUROR.  His way, not ours.

SEQUOYAH.  How odd. I sit here accused of practicing his magic while neglecting my cattle and hogs, my plow and manure. But farming is the white man’s way. He forced it upon us to stop us from hunting and roaming. If I tear up my magic leaves, will you burn down your barns, kill your livestock, salt your fields? And what about horses, which I’m told the white man brought here ages ago?

1ST CONJUROR.  Horses have always been ours. The Great Spirit gave them to us.

SEQUOYAH.  Well, so you say. What about rifles? Each of them is stamped with the name of the white man who made it. Give yours to me, and I’ll melt them down in my forge, make lumps of iron out of them, put them back in the hills where they belong. Oh, but I forgot—blacksmithing is also the white man’s way. I must destroy my forge. To become pure Cherokee again, we must reject all the white man’s ways—even those we need to defend ourselves against him.

(Pause)

3RD CONJUROR.  Tell us, George Guess—do you know why talking leaves belong to the white man and not to us?

SEQUOYAH.  I’ve never heard the story.

1ST CONJUROR.  In the beginning, the Great Spirit created us real people, and then he created the white men. Because we came first, he gave us a great gift—books with talking leaves that would grant our every wish. To the white men, he gave a lesser gift—the bow and arrow. But we Indians never bothered to use our books. They lay gathering dust. At last, the white men crept along and snatched them away, leaving bows and arrows in their place. Since then, we have lived short, hard lives pursuing and killing creatures of the wild, while the talking leaves have blessed the white men, giving them command of all creation. The Great Spirit has never forgiven our neglect and thanklessness. Few are the blessings he has granted us.

(SEQUOYAH laughs.)

1ST CONJUROR.  You find it funny?

SEQUOYAH.  Yes, because I know the real truth. The moon laughs—laughs loudly, day and night.

2ND CONJUROR.  I’ve never heard the moon laugh.

SEQUOYAH.  Neither have I. But the white man does hear it—and the Great Spirit blesses him for that.

3RD CONJUROR.  This story is a lie.

SEQUOYAH.  But it was told to me by my mother—Wurteh, sister of Old Tassel.

2ND CONJUROR.  The sister of Old Tassel could never lie.

SEQUOYAH.  Ah, but mightn’t I lie—say that my mother told me a story when she didn’t? And how can I know that your story isn’t a lie? How can we Cherokee ever know what’s truth or lie, fact or imagination? The white man knows. His talking leaves tell him.

(SEQUOYAH shows them a piece of paper.)

SEQUOYAH.  Imagine that my mother had written the story of the laughing moon on this paper, many years ago. Imagine that she swore to its truth by making a mark right here—a mark that was hers alone. Would you believe it then?

1ST CONJUROR.  Yes.

SEQUOYAH.  Then you grasp the greatest gift of the talking leaves—the gift of memory. The white man knows who he is, remembers all he has done, possesses a power he calls history. We Cherokee scarcely remember our grandfathers. And though our heads are full of old stories, how can we be sure that we recall those stories aright? Have we changed them in telling and retelling them again and again?

3RD CONJUROR.  We trust the Great Spirit to preserve the truth of our stories.

SEQUOYAH.  Yes, and it’s your job to keep telling them. But look at yourselves. You’re old and near death. How many young men stand trained and ready to carry on your work? None. The missionaries have converted them all to the white man’s religion. This way of writing I’ve made—it’s all that stands between you and forgetfulness. Your spells, your charms, your medicines, your wonder-working dances and songs—all will be lost without magic leaves.

(Silence)

SEQUOYAH.  You don’t care, then? I see you’ve accepted the white man’s religion after all.

1ST CONJUROR.  We’ll never do that.

SEQUOYAH.  Oh, but you have. You love your enemies, bless those who curse you. And if a man steals your coat, you give him your pants and shoes and hat as well. And if he hits you on one side of the head, you turn so he can hit you on the other side. And most of all, you always do for others what you wish they would do for you. And why should I blame you? Those are good ways, blessed ways. After all, the missionaries teach that the meek shall inherit the earth.

2ND CONJUROR.  The meek inherit nothing.

3RD CONJUROR.  The white man overruns the earth by force.

SEQUOYAH.  That’s the clever wickedness of his religion. Its lessons are meant to be disobeyed. When their chief spirit came among them, the first thing the white men did was kill him. They fastened him to a tree with iron barbs made in their forges, riddled him with spears, tormented him with thorns, until at last he died of pain. When he returned from the dead, he blessed his murderers for their cruelty—and that’s been the secret of the white man’s religion ever since. When they disobey their spirit, he blesses them; when they obey him, he curses them. Always do what the spirit says not to do—that’s the white man’s creed. Disobedience is the only path to Christian salvation. But every day, the missionaries teach our children to obey this religion of disobedience, making them fit for slaughter. Our only weapon against this evil is the talking leaves.

(Silence)Sequoyah_Arranged_Syllabary

SEQUOYAH.  And I’ll show you how to use them. Do you wish it?

(Silence)

SEQUOYAH.  Well. Stop calling me by the name I got from my white father. Call me by the one my mother gave me. I’ll write it for you sound by sound. Look.

(The CONJURORS huddle around SEQUOYAH, watching as he writes.)

SEQUOYAH.  Se … quo … yah.

END OF PLAY

An Amazing Book from an Amazing Man …

51uNIMxRg9LBefore I sing this book’s praises, let me say that I’m a friend of the author. I don’t mention this as a matter of full disclosure, but out of pride and love; I can’t pretend otherwise. Even so, I’m sure that I have valid things to say about his fine new book.

The Rev. Dr. Farley Wheelwright is, by any measure, an amazing man. He has lived on this planet for nearly a century now, and he has spent much of his life passionately engaged in the most burning causes of his age. In August 1963, he led two busloads of Unitarian Universalists to the Great March on Washington. During several summers in Selma, he was repeatedly jailed for his service to the voting rights movement. He fought for abortion rights in the days before Roe v. Wade. He was intensely active in the Vietnam antiwar movement. He was close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, King was assassinated only hours after putting the finishing touches on a sermon he meant to deliver for Farley’s ordination as minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Cleveland.

At long last we have this slim but rich collection of twenty-one sermons that Farley delivered to UU congregations from 1988 until 2004. In a mere hundred sixty-nine pages, these sermons cover a dizzying range of topics, from the Resurrection of Jesus to the insidious links between war, trade, and religion. His tone throughout is wise, loving, highly opinionated, and more that a little bit combative. He pulls no punches. “I say to religious liberals, ‘Grow up,’” he tells one congregation. And from a pulpit in 1998 he says, “The advantage of retirement is that you may walk out on me, but you can’t take my pension with you!” As you read this book, you may find yourself arguing with him from time to time. But you’re likely to enjoy the argument and feel enriched for having grappled with a first-class mind.

I find Farley’s approach to theological issues especially refreshing. A professed atheist, he nevertheless promotes genuine religion and faith. I see this as a useful corrective to today’s New Atheists who erroneously (if understandably) reject religion and faith as built upon nothing but untenable creeds and dogmas.

Farley’s faith is not “in some extraterrestrial God who is going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire, but a faith, dimly though we may perceive it, that there is progress in human life … and we are part of it.” And his concept of religion goes straight to the word’s “root meaning in the Latin religare, to bind together.” He quotes William James: “Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life is in the last analysis the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.”

This, then, is a call to a faith that is rigorous, tough-minded, intellectually honest, compassionate, and socially progressive: “Our goal as religious men and women is to bind ourselves together in peace. Peace of mind. Peace of heart and soul. Peace between individuals. Peace between parent and child, between boss and worker. Peace in the community and ultimately peace in the world.”

This book contains only twenty-one sermons out of the many hundreds that Farley delivered over the years. Might we look forward to more collections of his wisdom and insight? We can hope. And there is plenty of hope to be found on every page of Twice-Told Tales.

Farley Wheelwright (far right) marching in Selma; from "The Savage Season Begins," Life magazine, March 19, 1965, p. 34.

Farley Wheelwright (far right) marching in Selma; from “The Savage Season Begins,” Life magazine, March 19, 1965, p. 34.