Tolstoy and the Shaker

AnnasWorldcoversmallThe work Pat and I do together leads us on some fascinating detours. While we were researching the Shakers for our multiple-award-winning novel Anna’s World, we ran across a startling letter from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy himself …

I received the tracts that you sent me, and read them, not only with interest, but with profit; and cannot criticise them, because I agree with everything that is said in them …

Tolstoy was writing to Frederick W. Evans, a Shaker elder based in New Lebanon, New York.The date was February 15, 1891. By then Tolstoy was a thoroughgoing Christian anarchist-pacifist, cantankerous and iconoclastic enough to look back upon his own masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina with utter disgust. And the communistic, celibate Shakers were right up his alley. He and Evans kept on writing back and forth, exchanging ideas about religion, society, and justice.

shakers-dancingFrederick Evans had been a socialist since his youth. In 1830, when he was about 22 years old and every inch a materialist and secularist, he went out scouting New York state for a place to found his own utopian community. He stopped in New Lebanon to visit the Shakers there, expecting to find “the most ignorant and fanatical people in existence.” Instead he was promptly converted, convinced that he had found just the ideal society he had envisioned.

Evans’s life as a Shaker was anything but cloistered. He served the Shakers as an ambassador to what they called simply “the World.” At the height of the Civil War, Evans and another elder visited the White House, petitioning President Lincoln for exemption from the draft. Although deeply opposed to slavery and actively supportive of the Union, the Shakers were steadfast and devoted pacifists for whom fighting was morally impossible.

Lincoln was impressed by the elders. After they finished making their case, he asked …

“Well, what am I to do?”

“It is not for me,” Elder Frederick replied, “to advise the President of the United States.”

“You ought to be made to fight,” Lincoln said. “We need regiments of such men as you.”

Even so, Lincoln granted the petition.

10606140_910718692290831_759700197982803500_nIn their correspondence, Evans and Tolstoy hit it off famously. When Evans died, Tolstoy wrote a letter of sympathy to another Shaker elder …

I can not tell you how sorry I am, not for the death of our dear and honored friend Evans, but for you and for all those who loved him and were fortified by his spirit. I am one of them.… I loved him very much.

In Anna’s World, I hope that Pat and I wrote a novel that both Frederick Evans and Leo Tolstoy might enjoy. I expect that our chances might have been better with Evans. Shaker intellectuals weren’t too otherworldly to disdain all fiction, and they much admired Tolstoy’s then quite scandalous story “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

But I suspect it would have been tougher to please Tolstoy, whose literary standards eventually got to be downright quirky. In his old age, he had this to say to poor Anton Chekhov

You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.

Ruins for the Future


I see this meme pop up from time to time. And yes, I too feel a certain pang about the Library of Alexandria. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if our grief might be a tad misplaced. For one thing, just which of the four fabled destructions of the Library of Alexandria is supposed to still upset us? Its reputedly accidental burning by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE? Another accidental ruination by the Emperor Aurelian ca. 270 BCE? A markedly deliberate destruction at the orders of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 CE? An apparently apocryphal ravaging by Caliph Omar in 642 CE?

A single iconic “Burning of the Library of Alexandria” seems to linger in literate imaginations as a catch-all metaphor for the loss of any and all intellectual riches throughout the ages. But just what percentage of all the great ideas lost to time can really be blamed on those four purported catastrophes in that one place? A pretty small percentage is my not-so-humble guess.

A more pertinent if more unpalatable question might be — should we still be upset about it? In his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright doesn’t specifically mention Alexandria, but he does mull over another catch-all metaphor for cultural waste, the so-called Dark Ages. Wright challenges Thomas Cahill’s assertion in How the Irish Saved Civilization that Irish monks singlehandedly rescued humanity’s most indispensable treasures from barbarian hoards after the fall of Rome. Wright quotes Cahill:

Had the destruction been complete — had every library been disassembled and every book burned — we might have lost Homer and Virgil and all of classical poetry, Herodotus and Tacitus and all of classical history, Demosthenes and Cicero and all of classical oratory, Plato and Aristotle and all of Greek philosophy, and Plotinus and Porphyry and all the subsequent commentary.

Wright’s response to Cahill:

Well, them’s the breaks. But what people of the early Middle Ages most needed wasn’t a good stiff dose of Demosthenes. They needed mundane things, such as a harness that wouldn’t press on a horse’s windpipe.

Wright isn’t being as callous as he might sound. His guiding optimistic idea in Nonzero is that human history is a halting but inexorable proliferation of “non-zero-sum” games — a sometimes wobbly but ever-forward march toward increasing intellect, sophistication, and cooperation. This perpetual advance will continue, Wright insists, with or without the all-too-perishable poems, plays, novels, and artworks that we so touchingly revere. The truer essentials of progress are the more prosaic but vastly more durable technological memes ranging from horseshoes to iPhones — and these have an uncanny way of turning up when we need them.

Another such argument is voiced in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. In a scene set in early nineteenth-century England, a precocious fourteen-year-old pupil pines to her tutor about Julius Caesar’s destruction of the Library of Alexandria:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library … ! How can we sleep for grief?

Septimus replies:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

Much more trenchant is a passage from Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra. Here the elderly tutor Theodotus brings Julius Caesar desperate news:

THEODOTUS. The fire has spread from your ships. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.

CAESAR. Is that all?

THEODOTUS (unable to believe his senses). All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?

CAESAR. Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.

THEODOTUS (kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant). Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.

CAESAR (inflexible). If it did not flatter mankind, the common executioner would burn it.

THEODOTUS. Without history, death would lay you beside your meanest soldier.

CAESAR. Death will do that in any case. I ask no better grave.

THEODOTUS. What is burning there is the memory of mankind.

CAESAR. A shameful memory. Let it burn.

THEODOTUS (wildly). Will you destroy the past?

CAESAR. Ay, and build the future with its ruins.


The Wand Bearer — Still in Progress …

Juggler in the WindOnce in a while Pat and I receive a note from a reader who enjoyed our award-winning novel Juggler in the Wind and asks when to expect the rest of Randy Carmichael’s story. Please rest assured that we are still working on the Wand Bearer chronicle. Like many stories that Pat and I tell together, this one has grown way beyond our expectations. It has become much more ambitious, time-consuming, and I might say life-consuming than we had anticipated. It’s taking time to complete. We’re grateful for your interest, and we hope you can be patient.

Among other things, Randy Carmichael’s tale is becoming a love story of mythic dimensions. Here’s a short sample of what’s to come:

“Look,” she said.

            I followed her gaze. She was staring between the maple trees at the mountains. They were so magnificent, I wondered why I hadn’t stopped to look at them already. Of course, during the drive, I’d been too scared to look at much of anything. And since we’d arrived in Turtle, I hadn’t really had the chance.

            The mountains rose up sharply beyond a stretch of forest at the edge of the town. On the slopes you could see where the timberline abruptly ended, and above that level lay indescribably huge blue-gray slabs of bare rock, all rising toward snowy peaks with clouds forming wispily around them. Those peaks looked so razor sharp, you could imagine cutting your hands if you tried to touch them.

            “Beautiful, huh?” I said, with exactly the lameness I’d hoped to avoid.

            “They’re so white on top.”

            “It’s cold up there. The snow never melts that high.”

            I felt dumb saying that. Of course she knows that already, I thought.

            She turned and looked at me. Her small, jewel-like eyes switched from blue to green, the way I’d seen them change before. You could swear that they talked when they did that. Right then, they spoke of surprise.

            “You’ve seen snow, right?” I said, laughing.

            A hint of darkness burst out of those brilliant eyes. Had I hurt her feelings? She looked back toward the mountains, her mouth slightly open with awe. Those full, wide, glinting lips seemed out of place on her lean, long, pale face—but then, so did all her features: the narrow, inward slope of a nose that appeared to sit just a little off-center, a round little dome on its tip; those sharp cheeks that reminded me of points on a compass; the chin that jutted maybe a fraction of an inch farther than I might have expected; the alarmingly high brow with curling auburn hair parted high above and behind it.

            Not a single feature wasn’t beautiful. It’s just that you’d think they were from different faces—the faces of a dozen or so equally lovely girls. And the blend of features—no, not a blend, more of a collisionwas like a collage, made up of pieces cut out and put together by some super-amazing artist to create a face too wonderful to be quite human.

            The rest of her body was like that. She was willowy but not tall—almost exactly my own height. Standing there in her brightly-embroidered white muslin dress, she reminded me of a twig you might cut from a tree—straight here, turned there. Her legs bowed together a little at the knees, and her slim arms with almost outsized hands hung down and meandered about, as if trying to find out where they belonged exactly. Her back swayed inward lower down, then straightened sharply into her long neck, where her head tilted to and fro, from side to side, striking every possible angle with endless curiosity.

            I guess it was right then that I realized just how drawn to her I was. And somebody who wasn’t—well, me might have seen her quite differently, as a typically gangly teenage girl. “She’ll grow out of it,” an adult might say. People have said that about me.

            But she’d never grow out of it, I was sure. She wasn’t really born into that body—it had been given to her somehow. She would spend all her days trying to find her way into it. And that struggle made her all the more beautiful. It transformed what ought to have been awkwardness into a gracefulness you couldn’t quite make sense of. Even with her odd edges, she seemed all gentle curves—long, sweeping, elegant.

            “The snow—it’s so white,” she murmured, still staring at the mountaintops. “It’s like—like silver, only purer, brighter. It’s … it’s …”

            Her high, hushed voice trailed off as she kept on gazing. I wondered—how could she be so astonished by snow? Well, I knew that Circus Olympus had wandered across the country from Florida, where the troupe likely spent its winters, and where there was never any snow. And during summer tours across the country, the troupe probably didn’t see snow. Still, hadn’t Jill seen snow on, say, television? No, nobody in the circus had a TV as far as I knew. But what about photographs, postcards?

            “You’ve never seen snow?” I asked.

            She didn’t reply for a moment, as if I weren’t there. Finally, without averting her eyes from the mountain, she said …

            “It’s been so many years. So many lives.”

            I remembered something she’d said back on the road, when that hot wind had been so deadly …

            “We’re all old.”

            And again I wondered …

            How can she be old?

            I felt a tingle in my face, especially my cheeks. It’s a familiar tingle that I get whenever I’m upset, worried, frightened, angry—any of a whole variety of emotions. What do I look like when I get that tingle? Does my face tighten or go slack? Do I turn red or pale? I’m sure I don’t look my best when that happens—certainly not smart or cute or handsome or any other way I wanted to look around Jill. I was just as happy that she was looking at the mountains and not at me.

            But then she turned directly toward me. She smiled a stunning, broad smile, her gleaming teeth arranged as oddly and yet as marvelously as everything else about her. If she wanted to see snow-like whiteness, all she had to do was smile at herself in a mirror. But somehow it was hard to imagine Jill ever looking in a mirror. Beauty came so easily to her, surely she never gave it a moment’s thought.

            “Let’s go,” she said.

            “Where?” I asked.

            “There,” she said, pointing to the mountain peaks.

            “To the mountains?”

            “Sure. Way up to the top. Where the snow is.”

            “Uh—we can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            How could I begin to explain? Didn’t she understand already? Didn’t she realize that those mountains were miles away? And as for climbing them, didn’t she have any idea about rope and gear and equipment, not to mention the athletic skill involved—and the daring? Just looking at those peaks, imagining myself up there scaling sheer cliffs at outrageous heights, made my legs wobble queasily. And, oh, how cold it must have been, with air almost too thin to breathe. I’d always figured that mountain climbing was for crazy people. And I doubted that anybody had been crazy enough to scale those peaks.

            “We just can’t,” I said stupidly.

            She laughed brightly, her eyes switching from green to blue again. “Stay here if you like,” she said. “I’m going.”

            That alarmed me. Not that I thought Jill was really going to get near any serious slopes on her own. But what if she headed off into the woods at the edge of the town, trying to make her way toward the mountains? What if she got lost? What if she ran into dangerous animals? I didn’t figure I could talk sense to her about this whole thing. So if she took off in a run, what was I supposed to do—run after her and tackle her?

            Her smile faded, and she turned away from me to look at the mountains again. Her eyes switched from their pale blue to a golden color, and her pupils pulsated in a slow but steady rhythm. She seemed hypnotized. I didn’t understand what was going on in her head, but I was relieved that she was staying put, as rooted where she stood as the nearby maple trees.

            She was somewhere else now—and wherever it was, I wasn’t anywhere nearby. So I turned away from her and walked back toward the inn.

Trump VI: The Lovers (poem)

“So tell me—what is love?” asked Socrates.
The banquet guests fell silent in their cups,
covertly craving inebriated naps—
until the comic playwright broke the pause:

“The Trickster Titan labored many days,
molding our kind from river clay by the scoops;
twin souls he devised, combined in single shapes—
twin-male, twin-female, or coupled he’s and she’s.

“Zeus feared the might of our three-gendered kind
and cleaved us double with his lightning spear,
then threw our halves to the dispersing wind.

“So what is love? A phantom-limbed desire,
a quest for something just beyond the wound—
an aching palpability of air.”

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

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 doesn’t mean you’re 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.”