Following the railway lines, nineteenth-century civilization was a slender-tentacled octopus extended upon an immemorial rural quiet.
~ William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians
Where this mysterious cephalopod had come from and how it had got so big, no one could say. Presumably it had crawled out of the sea one night, or perhaps it had arrived by steamer from a distant star. A few things were certain: it was accompanied by its own parasites in the form of bankers, lawyers, and insurance salesmen. It couldn’t abide the thought of unemployed children. And that film of soot we’re taught was spread all over the cities by belching late-Victorian factories? Ink.
For what is war? …What is it but the getting together of quiet and harmless people, with their swords in their hands, to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds?
~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Rather than kill their enemies, Indians of the great plains would sometimes count coup on them – which meant to approach near enough on the battlefield so that they might have killed or injured them, but only to tap them with a stick instead. It was a symbolic deathblow, a humiliation. In the western world, since the age of chivalry, we’ve been more concerned to preserve the honor of the ambitious and turbulent than to preserve their lives. This we call civilization.
While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish heap of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age… A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labours.
~ Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry (1820)
By 1820 Peacock himself had published no fewer than nine volumes of poetry. The good-humored butchering of one’s own sacred cows can be a source of rich and unexpected nourishment. I wonder if this capacity for self-satire belongs to nature or to the critical influences of civilization. It’s surely one of the signs of a civilized people. You don’t imagine the Vandals and Huns went in for this kind of thing.
It was an instructive, well-earned and ridiculously warm weekend. The wife and I managed an escape from house and children to spend two nights holed up at the Goose and Turrets, a charming little inn on the coast at Montara, twenty miles south of San Francisco. The grand three-storied house is a century old, set on a green property thick with fuchsias and fruit trees and wrapped about by a giant hedge like a castle wall that keeps out everything but the fog and the hummingbirds. In the black of night, reading before the fireplace of our pine-floored room, the crash of colossal autumn breakers at the shore can be heard from a half mile away.
We spent Saturday and Sunday in the city. San Francisco is famous for cold summers, but the latter half of September is gorgeous. This year, that late September glory passed well into October and we found ourselves in shirtsleeves seated outdoors for afternoon tea, carrying our jackets rather than wearing them as we threaded a path below the skyline – astonished, despite the calendar and the fear for the economy, by the great parade of flesh and credit cards in the Union Square shopping district, and the children playing in shorts while parents dozed comfortably on the grass at Yerba Buena Gardens.
Given the passions of the presidential election and the daily carnage of the economy, it’s an odd time to indulge in a weekend away. But such are the sacrifices we make for civilization. It’s a raid on the barbarism of the age to sit at breakfast with strangers, to argue what is true patriotism and what sentimental claptrap, to map out schemes for agriculture, healthcare, and market reform, and to revisit all the absurdity, demagoguery, and serial elations and disappointments of a long, long campaign cycle. It’s an even greater triumph of democratic discourse to change the subject – without drawing blood – to the lovely patterns on the china, the portrait of Marcel Marceau on the wall, the economics of travel by small plane, or the question of where to get a decent dinner.
There is a peculiarly American habit of thought that allows us to imagine we are so individually determined as to owe little or nothing to the nurture of our country or the contours of its history, and that we owe even less to our fellow citizens. It is a pleasure to be reminded now and again what a lie that really is.