2018 in Books

2018 in Books

Few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist the opportunity to read aloud.

2018 has shaped up to be an excellent year in reading. I somehow finished fifteen more books than I had the previous two years. Admittedly, many of my books this year were quite short; some of Plato’s dialogues are arguably more like pamphlets than books, and I read twelve of them this year. These slim volumes were, I hope, compensated by a few ponderous tomes. I stumbled through the two final books of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, at 1092 and 870 pages; George Santayana’s 862 page treatise on ontology; 1300 pages of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; and finally William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, weighing in at a tedious 1614 pages. I also attempted to read a 1400 page history of New York City; but I was forced to take a break halfway through to recover from an acute overdose of urbane facts.

The two most prominent themes of this year’s reading have been art and science.

I learned about the works and lives of Picasso, Miró, and Goya, and I savored Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s sketches of brain cells, which are as much artistic as scientific achievements. I also read two books of John Ruskin’s eloquent ravings on the value, morality, and beauty of art. Henry Adams concurred with Ruskin about the superiority of medieval art, as he demonstrated in his book about Chartres. Giorgio Vasari, however, took the reverse position, arguing that the Renaissance saved Europe from centuries of barbarous art; and he proved this thesis in his reverential biographies of Renaissance painters and sculptors. But by far the most compelling book on art I read this year was a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which reveal a man of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence.

My reading in science began with two classics in the philosophy of science: Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—both excellent. But after learning the theory I wanted to know the practice; so I started blundering my way through the classics of the Copernican revolution. I began with Ptolemy’s Almagest, and followed this with Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Kepler’s Harmonies of the World, and Galileo’s Two New Sciences and Sidereus Nuncius; and I finally reached the capstone of the scientific revolution with Newton’s Principia. Looking at this list, I feel rather proud of myself; but in truth most of this “reading” consisted of flipping through pages of incomprehensible mathematics. I needed secondary sources to even achieve a basic understanding, relying on an abridged and annotated version of Ptolemy, Very Short Introductions to Copernicus and Galileo, and a popularization of Newton written by Colin Pask. And am I any the wiser for all this toil?

I had hoped to do half of my reading this year in Spanish; but with a total twenty books I did not even achieve a quarter. Luckily, many of these were excellent. Federico García Lorca’s trilogy of plays is a remarkable look at the force of tradition in rural Spain. The poetry of Antonio Machado was perhaps even more profound, with its blend of metaphysical calm and romantic sensitivity to nature. I also read two superlative novels from Spanish masters: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, and El árbol de la ciencia by Pío Baroja. To do my homework, I sampled Spain’s golden age, reading Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla, and Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo. But the highlight of this year’s Spanish books was undoubtedly Don Quijote de la Mancha, which I read in the modernized version by Andrés Trapiello. Not that Cervantes needs any help, but Ortega’s and Unamuno’s commentaries on the Spanish masterpiece did widen my appreciation of that most infinitely entertaining of novels.

The two authors who most dominated my year were Shakespeare and Plato, as I labored under the optimistic delusion that I could read both of their complete works. I still have a long way to go, of course; but any time spent with these two masters is rewarding; and I hope to continue my naive ambition next year. I read very few works of English language fiction this year, of which E.M. Forster’s Howards End was the standout work. As usual, I tried to read about New York and the United States while I was home during the summer. This lead me to pick up Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, Ron Chernow’s Titan, and Alistair Cooke’s America. None of these was as revelatory as The Power Broker, which I read last summer; but each one shed some light on my vast and aggravating homeland.

The most exciting event on Goodreads this year has been my recent ascension to the most followed reviewer in Spain, with 1,700 new followers just this month. Believe me, I’ve been as baffled as you must be. The mystery was partly solved when I investigated the list of my followers, and found that a large part bear the obvious traces of fake accounts. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly assert that I have not paid for any bot service, and I have no idea why they would choose to follow my reviews. Perhaps the computers have a taste for pretentious prose.

In any case, I would like to thank my fellow reviewers and followers, man or machine, for contributing to this excellent year of reading. You support me in my own endeavors, you inspire me with your intelligence and curiosity, and you provide me a community of thoughtful readers and writers. So may 2019 be as good a year for book enthusiasts as the this one has been.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 7

Don Bigote: Chapter 7

The story to far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves

Don and Dan Find Happiness

“Dude, that was the weirdest thing that ever happened to me!”

Bigote and I are walking back from the cave towards camp. We’re both feeling a little woozy. I think it was from breathing so much methane. It felt like we were down there for hours, but according to my watch it was only about 45 minutes.

“Indeed, my faithful companion,” Bigote replies. “It was a remarkable experience. To think that there is such a race of mutated beasts living deep under the earth’s crust! And to think that their society is so horribly deranged! My word, how far our frail nature can stray from the path of reason and righteousness. It is ghastly to even contemplate the depths that we may fall to.”

“Like, literally though.”

“Unfortunately for us,” he continues, “the information they provided us, though fascinating from a scientific and anthropological perspective, is entirely useless in our fight against the conspiracy. Indeed, I am at a loss to decide whether it would be worse living as a Subterranean, scorning all love and passion and tradition, or living under the dastardly conspiracy, being forced to eat a vegan diet, speaking nothing but Spanish, praying to Allah five times a day, constantly in fear of being accused of sexism, racism, homophobia… Well, now that I think about it, the conspiracy is indeed worse.”

“But don’t they, like, also speak Spanish in Spain?”

“That is a common misconception, Chopin,” Bigote says, wagging his finger. “Owing to the similarity of the words ‘Spain’ and ‘Spanish,’ you would think they were related. But in Spain the people speak ‘Castellano,’ which is a Romance language, historically related to Spanish, but not at all the same.”

“Isn’t castellano just Spanish for ‘Spanish’?”

“Indeed not, my foolish friend. Castellano means ‘Castilian,’ deriving from the great medieval kingdom of Castille.”

“Huh… Well, anyways, do you think that all the stuff that Harry told us about life down there was true?”

“I have no reason to doubt of his honesty, Chopin. Do you?”

“Not exactly but, I mean, it’s just so nuts. Like, maybe he was just some wackoo high on cave fumes who hallucinated the whole thing. I mean, he never showed us his city. It could be all in his head.”

“A certain amount of skepticism is healthy, Chopin, but this would make the room of mirrors rather difficult to explain, not to mention Harry’s method of, er, communicating verbally.”

“I dunno, there are some pretty talented people out there. Like one time on TV I saw a guy who could play the guitar with his feet. And on MePipe™ I saw a guy painting with only his mouth, since his arms and legs had been amputated or something. And also I saw a girl who could make her—”

“Yes, yes, Chopin, the world is full of extraordinary and freakish people. But think! Could any madman consistently speak so coherently and articulately? Could a man who had lost his senses, breathing underground fumes, elaborate a whole imaginary world, one which has no relationship to the one that you and I know?”

“Oh, I guess you’re right. Crazy people are never good talkers.”

“Precisely and indubitably right, Chopin.”

Soon we arrive back in camp, and head to our bunk bed to lie down. But we find that, while we were away in the cave, some people had left their stuff on our beds. And it’s nice stuff too—fancy leather luggage, with an insignia and everything.

“These hippie fucks,” I say, picking up one of the suitcases. “Can’t respect people’s space.”

“It is a simple oversight, Chopin. No harm done.”

“God these things are heavy.”

“Indeed they are ponderous.”

“What should we do with them?”

“You go and inquire as to the identity of their owners.”

“And you?”

“I am weary and will retire.”

“Ah, okay then.”

Even though I’d much rather open the suitcases and nab a few things, I grunt approval and go to find these rich tree-hugger bastards. It doesn’t take long though.

Two guys I don’t recognize, in long black overcoats, are standing right outside the front door of the cabin, smoking fat brown cigars.

“Hey, did you guys leave some fancy suitcases on bunk beds in there?” I ask.

“Ah, I believe it was we,” says a younger one with blonde hair and blue eyes.

“Well, they’re our beds.”

“Oh, I am terribly sorry,” he says, and flicks his cigar. “It’s just I am so used to the servants handling these things. Take this for your trouble.”

And he hands me a big shiny diamond.

“Bro, are you serious?”

“It is a thing for your troubles.”

“Wow! Feel free to leave as much shit in our beds as you want, bro.”

“Much obliged.”

I walk back inside. Bigote is already laying down on the top bunk.

“Dude, you wouldn’t believe what the suitcase guy gave me.”

“Not now, Chopin. I am weary from our subterranean adventure.”

“But look at this!” I say, holding up the diamond.

“I said not now, my most insistent companion.”

“Whatever bro.”

I sit down on the bed and look at the diamond. I’m no jeweler or anything, but it looks legit. Those guys must be filthy rich. What are they doing out here? If I had money like that, I’d be in a jacuzzi on a plane, surrounded by like seventeen thousand naked babes, all models, and eating nothing but steak and milkshakes and giant spring rolls. And that would just be my Monday. Why would you come to take some wack ass drugs in some random ass forest? Some people just have no imagination.

But wait a minute. If these people are as loaded as they seem, then it would be a really smart idea for me to make friends with them. At the very least I might be able to bum a fancy cigar. So I walk back to the door, where the two guys are still there smoking.

“Hey guys,” I say, trying to be all charming. “I forgot to ask your, like, names and stuff.”

“Ah, how rude of us,” the younger man responds. “My name is Franck. Franck von Hochgeboren.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say, and shake his gloved hand.

“And I,” says the older guy, “am Professor Allesprachen.”

“Alyspricken?”

“Just ‘Professor’ is fine.”

“Any relation to that Dr. Krajakat guy?”

“Relation? No, no, no.”

“Well, I hate to ask but, uh, could I trouble one of you for a smoke? You see I left my cigars back in Alabama.”

“Yes of course,” Franck says, hands me a cigar, and then lights it.

Now, I’ve smoked a good deal of wacky tobacky in my day, but I ain’t never smoked a cigar. I start gagging as soon as I puff.

“Careful, young one,” Professor says, patting my back. “You are not supposed to inhale.”

“What? Then how do you get high?”

“It is… more for the flavor.”

“Wow, weird. Is this, like, a European thing?”

“These are from Cuba.”

“Oh word. Is that where are you fellas are from?”

“We are from Geheimnisland.”

“Ga what what?”

“It is a little-known microstate surrounded by the country of Germany,” Franck explains. “Actually, my father is the king.”

“Woah, no way. Does that mean you’re the prince?”

“Yes, indeed. Though I am currently in exile…”

“Like, you’ve been kicked out?”

“It is a long story. Tell me about yourself. You still haven’t told us your name.”

“Oh, shit. I’m Dan Chopin.”

“And what brings you to Europe, Dan Chopin?”

“Uh, well, that’s sort of a long story too. Basically my boss, Don Bigote, is on this quest to, er, fight against this evil plot that he thinks is going to cause the end of the world.”

“My word!” Professor says. “He sounds like an important man. I would very like to meet him.”

“He’s asleep right now but I’m sure he’ll be happy to talk to ya’ll when he wakes up.”

And then, as if on cue, who but Don Bigote himself, mustache drooping from fatigue, walks out the door.

“Chopin, is that you? I had a nightmare about the conspiracy and… Oh, I didn’t see that you were engaged in a prior conversation. Excuse me, gentlemen.”

“You must be Don Bigote,” Professor says, extending his hand.

“Uh, why yes, yes I am.”

“My name is Professor Allesprachen. Your friend here has been telling us that you are on a quest to save the world.”

“Chopin!” Bigote says, turning on me with panic and anger in his eyes. “How many times to I have to tell you to be careful! You cannot go about telling all the world about our mission. You never know who you can trust!”

“I assure you that we pose no threat,” Professor says. “We are merely two Germanophone travelers on a tour of the world.”

“Is that so?” Bigote says suspiciously. “Tell me, then, what you are a professor of, exactly?”

“I am a professor of physics, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, biochemistry, ethnolinguistics, and ontolo-theological gastroenterology.”

“Very impressive,” Bigote says. “But if that is true, then answer me this question. Is the glass half full, or half empty?”

“Neither. The glass is exactly as full and as empty as the laws of cause and effect dictate it to be, which means that its content must be consistent with the moral imperatives of the cosmic order. In other words the glass could not possibly be fuller, nor could it be emptier; it simply is, in itself. Consequently, any opinion as to its fullness or emptiness reveals only an impotent subjectivity.”

“Exactly!” Bigote says. “I see that we can trust these men, Chopin. They are much too wise to be a part of the dastardly conspiracy.”

“Indeed not,” Professor Allywhatsit chuckles. “It takes years of deep study and meditation to answer such questions. No spy, however clever, could plausibly imitate true science.”

“You are a true master of philosophy! It is an honor to meet such an accomplished man.”

“Pish, pish, you are too kind,” Professor says. “Now, let us go inside so you can explain to us this quest of yours.”

I think these two guys got a thing for each other. It’s destiny.

We go inside and sit down on some of the beds facing each other. All the dirty, smelly hippies seems to be at one of their creepy drug ritual orgy things, so there’s nobody else around.

Bigote clears his throat to speak. Franck and Professor lean in eagerly.

“Now,” Bigote begins, “what I am about to tell you may seem outlandish, but I assure you that every word of it is true. All too true, I am afraid. The world in which we live, though apparently enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, is currently deep in the grips of a conspiracy—an enormous plot whose reach extends far into the beginnings of recorded history. This devious plot has been planned, organized, and executed with ruthless efficiency. Its goal? To destroy Western civilization as we know it.”

“How horrible!” Franck yelps.

“Indeed!” Professor says. “But tell me, who is responsible for such a heinous crime against humanity?”

“Who? Who! I shall tell you who: the Muslim-Mexican cabal.”

“Do you mean those fellows who do not eat pork?” Franck says.

“Yes, them.

“And the people who like to eat burritos?”

“Well, technically that’s tex-mex,” I say.

“I see,” Franck says. “How very odd. I never suspected that those two groups of people had any sort of connection.”

“Well, they do,” Bigote says. “In fact, it is fair to say that they are but two manifestations of the same evil force. And it is my quest, as well as that of my faithful companion here, to either foil the plot, or, if it is too late, to preserve whatever remnants of Western civilization so that we are able to rebuild after the fateful collapse.”

A moment of silence follows, as Franck and Professor Smorgasbord look gravely at each other. Then, they nod to each other, and Franck turns to speak:

“What you have said affects me deeply,” Franck says. “I thank you very much for your trust and honesty.”

“It seems that fairness dictates that we should tell you of our own quest,” Professor says.

“You have a quest as well?” Bigote says, surprised.

“Oh yes,” Franck says. “And it is worth telling the story from the beginning.”

“I am extremely eager to hear it.”

The Quest for True Happiness

As I have mentioned, my father is the king of Geheimnisland, which makes me the prince. Now, you will not find Geheimnisland on any map. Its real location is somewhere within Germany. But even I do not know exactly where it is.   

You see, the kingdom maintains the strictest secrecy with the outside world. By complete chance, our castle sits on the world’s largest deposit of diamonds. Diamonds are so plentiful that we use them to pave our roads, build our homes, and even to pick our teeth; and we also sprinkle diamond dust on our food as a garnish. For whatever reason, the outside world values these shiny rocks enormously, so we sell some of it at an enormous profits to neighboring countries. We have used this money to purchase and develop the most advanced technology, enabling us to conceal the entire kingdom (which is about the size of a fair-sized city) from the outside world.

For untold generations, my family has enjoyed a life of the utmost luxury. Indeed, we long ago lost all notion of any other mode of life. My upbringing was no exception.

I was woken up every day by a symphony orchestra, playing pianissimo, in order to gently rouse me from my silk bed. Then I would eat a breakfast of roast beef, curried lamb, baked codfish, and all other sorts of delicacies, washed down with copious amounts of champagne. This would provide me the energy I needed for the harem. In Geheimnisland, it is considered the royal prerogative, indeed the royal duty, to exercise the power of copulation to the utmost limits of the human physique. Thus I would spend most of the day engaged in the strenuous exertion of libidinous activity.

At noon I took a break for the midday feast, which consisted of lobster, clams, paella, lasagna, and figs, this time accompanied by dark beer. After this I would have a massage, sit in the hot springs for half an hour, and then take a short nap. Again, a symphony would wake me up at three o’clock, and the routine would repeat itself until about seven at night, when I would have my final meal of the day, which consisted mainly of steak, fried eggs, and risotto, this time with a fine port wine as a beverage. After dinner I would go to the theater, to see a spectacle involving elephants, acrobats, and dancing girls. An attendant would read poetry to me as I lay in bed, and finally I would drift off to sleep.

For many years I accomplished my princely duties uncomplainingly. The extraordinary physical exhaustion induced by my rigorous schedule of intercourse left me with little time or energy to reflect. But one day, as I was deep into my rounds in the harem, it dawned on me that I was unhappy. Though I accepted that I had grave responsibilities as prince, I also wondered if there was not more to life than endless amounts of food, alcohol, and sex. Thus, that night, instead of having poetry read to me as I lay in bed, I requested the presence of the court scholar, Professor Allesprachen.

Now, you must know that Allesprachen is a native of Geheimnisland; and it is one of the most sacred laws of my kingdom that no native born citizens may ever leave the kingdom, for whatever reason, upon pain of death. I should also note that, aside from his duties supervising the concealment technology of our kingdom, Allesprachen was also obligated to spend several hours in the university harem, in order to maintain his tenure. Thus Professor was not able to give me any personal insights into another mode of life. But with his extraordinary mind, he had deduced some consequences about what life outside Geheimnisland must be like.

“According to the principle of sufficient reason, it can be demonstrated a priori that felicity is an effect of a cause,” he told me.

“I see.”

“And accordingly, such a cause, acting under different circumstances, must, following the logic of modus tollens, produce an entirely different outcome.”

“Of course!”

“And so,” he said, “the consequence may indubitably be surmised that the pleasure enjoyed elsewhere must, if the thesis be rendered compatible with the antithesis, synthesize into distinct forms.”

“Brilliant!”

After this interview, Professor Allesprachen humbly returned to his chamber. But I could not sleep. I was tantalized by the endless possible modes of life existing elsewhere in the world that I would never know; and I was depressed that, having been born a prince of Geheimnissland, I would spend the rest of my days fulfilling my duties in the royal harem.

I spent all night tossing and turning. In the morning, I decided that I was too unhappy to go on, and resolved to go visit my father, the king. I caught him as he was oiling himself up to begin his own rounds in the harem.

“My son! What brings you here, so early in the morning? Surely, the women are expecting us.”

“Yes, father, I apologize for interrupting you. But there is something I would very much like to speak to you about.”

“Speak on, my beloved son.”

“I wanted to ask why we are obligated to spend so much time in the act of fornication.”

“What a silly question! This has been the way of our family for generations. It is our most sacred duty as members of the royal family!”

“Yes, father, but why?”

“What has come over you, son?”

“I… I have been wondering if, perhaps, our time might be better employed.”

“Better employed? Son, are you ill? Our kingdom is depending on us! If we stopped our schedule of copulation, the whole fabric of our society would crumble!”

“But, father, must there not be other ways of life, happier ways of living?”

“Tut, tut, my son. Get this idea out of your head. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, as my own father always used to say. But believe me, there are many who envy us.”

“But…”

“Surely, you must admit that sexual intercourse, however tiresome, has its own pleasures.”

“I do.”

“And what would our women do if we did not employ them?”

“I don’t know.”

“You see? As my father used to say…”

“But, father, what if I wanted to take a break for a few days?”

“My son,” he said, as he brushed his chest hair. “I am trying to be patient with you, but frankly you are being ridiculous. Now, get this silly idea out of your head, return to your room, get oiled up, and begin making your rounds. The women are not going to sleep with themselves!”

And with a jolly laugh, he patted me on the shoulder, threw off his robe, and got down to business. I did the same; but inwardly, I resolved that I would not let myself be trapped by tradition. I was going to find a way out of Geheimnisland.

Luckily, I knew just the man to help: Professor Allesprachen.

Again, I summoned him to my bedside.

“Professor, tell me about the technology that conceals our kingdom.”

“Oh, your highness, I could not bore you with such a trivial subject.”

“Do not be reticent, my dear Professor, for I am eager to know.”

“As you wish, your highness. Our kingdom is surrounded by a powerful forcefield, whose radius extends to the very frontiers of our territory. From the inside, this barrier merely looks like the blue sky; but from without, cloaking technology makes the protective sphere appear like a large mountain. We have a treaty with Germany, made long ago, which obligates that country to provide constant military surveillance of the surrounding area, in exchange for a yearly supply of diamonds from our mines.”

“What you say interests me most profoundly. But tell me, oh most wise philosopher, what the world values so much in our shiny rocks? I could never understand it.”

“To be quite honest, your highness, I have not fully grasped the issue myself. It seems that it is the rarity of the rocks that is the source of their value.”

“But, surely, many things in the world are exceedingly rare, but they do not fetch such a price.”

“That is true. According to my research, outsiders have taken quite a fancy to the way the rocks look, and use them when they propose matrimony.”

“Matrimony?”

“It is a form of courtship in which a man and a woman bind themselves together for life.”

“For life?”

“Indeed, it is a strange custom.”

“I find it quaint. But tell me, my good friend, would not a small bit of polished glass look the same as one of our diamonds?”

“You are of course correct, my liege. I too am baffled by the ways of outsiders.”

“Oh, well. I suppose they would find our harems rather a quaint custom, too.”

“I can only imagine.”

“Now, Professor, lean in closely. I have something important to tell you.”

“As you command.”

“Is anyone listening?”

“I believe we are alone.”

“Professor, I need to confess something to you. But first I want you to promise me that you will keep it an absolute secret.”

“My prince, you may repose your complete confidence in me.”

“Professor, I want to see these outsiders for myself.”

“Sire, I share your curiosity. But surely you know it is forbidden.”

“Of course I know. I want to escape Geheimnisland.”

Allesprachen paused for a minute, deep in thought.

“My liege,” he said finally, “while I am bound to obey you, I owe a higher loyalty to your father the king.”

“Yes, Professor. I know what I am asking is illegal. I know that it would be an extraordinary risk for us both. I ask you this in the faith that happiness, real happiness, may finally await us. Not this dreary life of endless feasts and orgies. Surely the reward justifies the risk.”

He remained silent, brow knit.

“Of course I would understand if you refused, Professor. I would only ask that you keep your promise to tell nobody of my request.”

“My prince,” he said finally. “Your desire for knowledge inspires me. I, too, share your weariness with the ways of our kingdom, its endless heavy banquets and its infinite concubines. I will help you.”

“I knew you would understand, Professor. But what shall we do?”

“Give me three weeks to prepare our means of escape. Then, on midnight of the twenty-second day, come to my chambers in the university. But be careful to avoid detection, and make sure to fill your pockets with some spare diamonds: we will need them on the other side. For the sake of avoiding suspicion, I suggest that we do not meet until then.”

“I trust completely in your judgment, Professor. Farewell.”

The time passed slowly. I was so eager that I could hardly contain myself. But I did my best to maintain appearances. Indeed, I accomplished my duties at the harem so conscientiously that my father was very pleased with me. I admit that the thought of leaving made me feeling bittersweet. However wearisome your life may be, familiarity creates some affection. The thought of never seeing my concubines again gave me some pangs of melancholy; and I regretted that I must leave them without even a goodbye. But when I considered my father’s life, how ragged and miserable it must have been, my resolve was strengthened.

On the appointed day, I stole away from my bed as the clock struck twelve, when all the world was tuckered out and fast asleep; and I tiptoed through the university harem to Professor Allesprachen’s chamber. As he directed me, I knocked thrice, gently, on his oaken door. He opened his room dressed in goggles, boots, gloves, and a heavy coat.

“Come in, come in,” he said. “Everything is prepared. But before we go, you must put on some warmer clothes. I am afraid it will be chilly at higher altitudes.”

I dressed as he instructed me. Then, he led me into his workshop. In the center was a large object, covered with a cloth; he strode over and pulled off the covering to reveal a strange machine. It consisted of two seats on an elevated platform, with a control panel in front; the seats were surrounded by two metal rings that could rotate freely.

“You surely are a genius!” I cried. “Tell me, what is this contraption?”

“My prince, we must take advantage of the time, but you will see soon enough how it works.”

Then he motioned for me to get inside; he followed, but not before flipping a switch that caused the roof to open up. With a turn of a key, the machine buzzed to life; the metallic rings began to spin furiously around us, until they became a complete blur. He put his hands on the control panel, pushed a lever, and we began to hover.

“A flying machine? This is amazing!”

Then Allesprachen pulled a nob and we began to ascend at an incredible rate. Soon the university buildings appeared as little toys far below us, and finally were indistinguishable in the darkness of the night. I was exhilarated but terrified, and grabbed onto my seat for dear life.

“How high do we need to go?” I shouted; but the rushing wind made any communication impossible. I was grateful that Allesprachen had given me the winter clothes, since the temperature continually dropped as we ascended, and the wind roared terribly.

Finally Allesprachen pressed a red button and the spinning rings began to emit a strange blue light. The next moment we came to a halt, and a huge mountain appeared below us, covered with snow, illuminated by the silver light of the full moon. Allesprachen pressed the button again and we stopped. The rushing of the wind died down, and the world became uncannily silent.

“What just happened?” I asked Professor in amazement.

“It worked. We have broken through the forcefield,” he told me. “We are free men.”

“My dear Professor!” I said, and hugged him tightly. “You are a genius! You truly are!”

“Do not mention it, my prince. But that we have escaped we must decide where to go.”

“Ah, you’re right… I am afraid I hadn’t thought of that. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Well, Sire, this depends on what you wish to do and see. Shall we travel to exotic climates, or perhaps to iconic monuments?”

“My deepest desire is to finally discover true happiness. The great sights and monuments of the world can wait.”

“This request is far more complex than perhaps your majesty assumes. All the world is full of men and women striving for happiness, in a million possible ways, but nobody agrees on what it consists of.”

“Alas! Are we no better off now than we were back in the harems? Surely there must be some promising destinations.”

“My research has uncovered some possibilities. For example, there are some people in a land called Colorado who shave their heads and believe the key to happiness consists in sitting down on the floor and thinking about nothing.”

“How intriguing! Shall we go?”

“Your wish is my command.”

And, saying this, he pushed a gear and the machine began to speed forward at a tremendous rate. The world outside became an indistinct blur; we passed over clouds, mountains, lakes, rivers, and towns, all in an instant. The wind blew so fiercely that I was sure I would be thrown off the machine and fall to my doom. But before I could gather my senses we had slowed down and had begun descending rapidly; in five minutes we were safely on ground. We had traveled so far west that it was late afternoon, and the sun was shining brightly.

After we climbed out of the machine down onto the sandy soil, Professor pulled out a little device from his pocket and pressed a button. Suddenly our contraption vanished from view.

“My heavens! Where did it go?” I asked.

“Fear not, my Prince. I have activated its invisibility mode, so that it cannot be stolen while we are gone. Now, follow me.”

Allesprachen led me down into a wooded valley. In the distance I could see a plain white building, surrounded by large green tents. As we neared I spotted people wearing orange robes, walking slowly through the woods, one after the other, in complete silence. Soon we arrived at the central building. The door was open, so we went right inside. At the end of a long, dimly-lit hallway a middle-aged man was seated on an elevated platform, cross-legged, eyes closed.

I felt hesitant, unsure of the proper etiquette and somewhat overwhelmed by the wealth of new experiences. Still, my determination to find happiness spurred me on. I spoke:

“Oh most exalted master. We come from lands far away to learn the secret of true happiness. Please take pity on us, and instruct us in your ways.”

The man did not open his eyes. I wondered if he was asleep, he remained so motionless. But after a few moments he gave an almost imperceptible nod from his head.

All at once, people sprang up from all sides. They led us away to another chamber, stripped away our clothes, gave us our robes, and then shaved our heads and our beards. An elderly lady brought us to a balcony overlooking the valley below. She pointed to two pillows, side by side on the floor.

“Sit here,” she said. “Clear your mind completely. Any time you have a thought, hold your breath until you feel lightheaded. Do this until your mind resembles a pool of water on a windless day.”

Without a word, we obeyed, sitting on those cushions far into the night. I felt dizzy and lightheaded, partly from holding my breath, and partly from the lack of sleep and food.

Sometime around midnight, one of the nuns came to take us to our tent, where we were each given a cot to sleep on. The next day we were awoken before dawn, led to the same cushions, and left there until lunch. This was the only meal of the day, and it consisted of a bowl of boiled beans and a glass of water. We were instructed to eat in silence. Afterwards, we went back to the cushions; and just like the first night, we stayed there until about midnight. This routine was repeated for about eight weeks altogether, during which time we said not a word.

At first I had so many thoughts that I nearly suffocated myself trying to clear them away. But eventually my mind became ever-more placid, until I hardly remembered my own name. Our bodies wasted away from lack of food and sleep; but our minds became immune to all sensations, positive or negative, until we could hardly be said to be people at all.

When eight weeks passed, the same elderly lady led us back to the master. He was in the same exact position as before, as if he had been there the whole time. We knelt in front of him, bowing our heads. Then I heard a voice, :

“You have done well,” he said. “Now you are ready for the next phase of enlightenment. Return to your mats, and ponder this ancient saying: ‘The only place is no place. The only form is emptiness. The only answer is silence. The only happiness is nothingness.’ When you have discovered the meaning of these words, return to me.”

Without a word, we arose, and were led away from his holy presence. As soon as I was once again seated on my mat, I began to turn over the saying. Three weeks went by without any progress. The words seemed like nonsense to me. I reproached myself for my inability to penetrate the secret. I felt shame for my creeping doubts that, after all, the words had no meaning at all. I despaired of ever attaining happiness. Oh, the nights of mental agony! Oh, the days of torture!

Finally, on the first day of the fourth week, while I was feeling particularly low and helpless, a noticed a little worm squirming on the ground in front of me. I felt a strange sympathy for the creature, thrashing about blindly on the rocks. Was I so different? Just then, a red-breasted robin swooped down and snatched up the poor creature. A moment of despair struck me. Is the world so cruel and pitiless? Is life to empty of meaning? But then it dawned on me. An insight. A revelation. Yes! I had the answer! I had finally understood the meaning of the master’s words.

I got up from my pillow and rushed to the master, excited to tell him the news. But he was not in his usual spot in the temple

“Master? Master? I have it! I have the answer!”

No one replied. But then I heard a muffled voice on the other side of a wall. I got closer, and found a small doorway in the corner of the temple. I listened: there were voices on the other side, several of them. One of them I recognized as the master’s. I considered going away and returning at another time. But then I wondered: was this a test? Perhaps it was time for me to enter the inner sanctum? So, resolving myself, I pushed open the door.

What I saw shocked me to the core.

The master was sprawled on the floor, naked, surrounded by dozens of empty bottles of liquor. He was flanked by five or six young women, equally nude, who were caressing the most holy of holy monks.

I stood there, aghast, for thirty seconds or so. They were all so drunk that they hardly noticed me. “Shut that damn door, you’re letting the breeze in,” was all the master said. I obeyed, closing the door on the horrid scene. Then, I rushed to find Professor Allesprachen. As usual, he was sitting on the pillow, deep in meditation.

“Professor, Professor!” I said.

He looked up, shocked that I was breaking our vow of silence.

“I just saw the most horrid thing. Oh, you will not believe it! I can hardly believe it myself. The master was engaged in fornication! Oh, the horror of it!”

“I was wondering why so many of the nuns were young and attractive,” Professor said.

“Most wise and faithful friend, what shall we do? Even here, we have not escaped the harems of our home! Is humankind doomed to sex? Is happiness impossible?”

“Do not despair, my Prince. This monastery is only one of a million endeavors to achieve happiness. Let us leave and try another method. The world is vast and full of strange traditions. Surely somewhere we can find a place free from coitus.”

So the two of us quietly changed into our normal clothes and bid adieu to the monastery. We flew away in our machine, in search of a new mode of life.

The rest of our story is too dreary to relate. Suffice to say, we have experimented with many religions since then—men and women who read a very old book and speak to the characters in its pages, and a similar cult in which people kneel and pray before golden altars and statues of deceased holy figures. But, sad to say, despite the vehement and repeated condemnations of sex that the practitioners of these lifestyles avowed, we found that, nevertheless, copulation remained an integral part of their practice. Indeed, we have found that the adherents to these religions were most keen to practice the type of sex that they most bitterly censured, such as homosexuality or pedophilia. It is extremely strange

§

“What a remarkable tale!” Bigote says. “But can it all be true?”

“I can vouch for every word of it,” Apfelstrudel says.

“Hold on a minute,” I say. “Are you telling me that you guys are from a place where all you do is eat, sleep, and bone, and you escaped so that you can be happy?”

“That is correct,” Franck says.

“You are fucking crazy, bro,” I say.

“Why do you say that?”

Suddenly a distorted voice booms throughout the camp.

Come out with your hands up. We have you surrounded.

“What on earth is that?” Franck says.

“Oh shit.”

“It’s the conspiracy!” Bigote cries, whipping out his pistol. “You’ll never take me alive, you dirty commie brussel-sprout eating Muslims!”

“Surely it is just the police,” Allesprachen says. “It must be some sort of misunderstanding.”

We have traced your vehicle here. There is nowhere to run, police killers!”

“Police killers?” Franck says.

“It’s a long story, bro,” I say. “We’ve been through some shit to get here.”

“There is no need to panic, gentlemen,” Allesprachen says. “If only we appeal to there reason and rational judgment, we should be able to clear up this misunderstanding.”

“There is no reasoning with these dogs!” Bigote yells. “And I for one am not prepared to be taken to their lair, in order to watch vegan cooking recipes and feminist TED talks for days on end. I’d rather go down in a blaze of glory!”

And with this he cocks his pistol.

“Oh dear, this seems serious,” Franck says.

“It couldn’t be any more serious,” Bigote replies. “Chopin, get your gun. This is going to be ugly.”

“Perhaps,” Franck goes on, “we can be of assistance. We still have Allesprachen’s flying machine, concealed just outside. The four of us could squeeze in.”

You have one minute to come out with your arms raised, or we will open fire.”

“Let’s get the fuck out!” I scream.

The two Geheimnislanders lead us outside. Professor hits a button on some sort of remote control, and the machine pops into view. It’s a crazy looking thing, sort of like the time machine in that crappy nineties movie that I saw once on television when I was a kid.

There’s only two seats, so we pile on top of each other. Franck and I sit on the seats and the old guys sit on our laps. Bigote’s ass is boney, let me tell you.

The metal rings start spinning until they’re going so fast it’s just a blur. The machine actually starts to lift off. And here I thought these German dudes were nuts. Soon we’re over the trees. Below us, I catch a little glance of the Portuguese police officers, guns raised, advancing on a bunch of those hippies. Dr. Krajakat and Pierre are down there, arms up, kneeling, while two officers approach with handcuffs. I doubt ayahuasca is legal.

Soon we’re so far up that the people below us are invisible specks, and I can see faraway mountains and a distant coastline. So we float away to our next destination, where I’m sure there are more wackos waiting for us.

Review: Le Morte d’Arthur

Review: Le Morte d’Arthur
Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table

Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table by Thomas Malory

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It happened one Pentecost when King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table had all assembled at the castle of Kynke Kenadonne and were waiting, as was customary, for some unusual event to occur before settling down to the feast, that Sir Gawain saw through the window three gentlemen riding toward the castle, accompanied by a dwarf.

I fully expected to dislike this book. The prospect of five hundred pages of jousting knights struck me as endlessly tedious, and I only opened the book out of a sense of respect for its status as a classic. But immediately I found myself entranced. This is a thoroughly engrossing read. And I should not have been surprised, since it delves so heartily into the two staples of popular entertainment: sex and violence. Indeed, one of the most amusing aspects of this book is how completely out of harmony is the chivalric code with the Christian religion; the characters do nothing but mate and slaughter, while the name of “Jesu” is on everybody’s lips.

Sir Thomas Malory assembled Le Morte d’Arthur out of several pre-existing legends, some of which he translated from French manuscripts, with a few stories of his invention thrown in. His major innovation was to arrange these traditional tales into a semi-coherent order, beginning with Arthur’s ascension to the throne and ending with his death at the hands of his son. The result is a patchwork of stories nested within stories, all told at a pace which, to a modern reader, can seem ludicrous. Major developments occur on every page, one after the other, in a staccato rhythm which can make the stories appear bluntly humorous, even if it was not Malory’s intention.

The world depicted in these pages is so frankly unreal, the level of violence so constant and gratuitous, that its final impression is that of a cartoon: “They fought once more and Sir Tristram killed his opponent. Then, running over to his son, he swiftly beheaded him too.” Daily life is entirely hidden from view. There are no peasants, no merchants, no artisans; there are no friends or happy families. There are only questing knights, heavily armed men who are obsessed with challenging one another. And though they profess a knightly code of conduct, even the most chivalrous of knights are seen to be unscrupulous murderers and, with few exceptions, unrepentant adulterers. The hero of this book, Sir Launcelot, feels very few pangs of guilt for continuously sleeping with his liege’s wife, Gwynevere; and he is the best of knights.

But the characters are so flat, their actions so stereotyped, their lives so monotonously dramatic, that I found it impossible to view them as moral actors, praiseworthy or damnable. They are, rather, centers of this bizarre world that Malory constructs. And it certainly is an exciting place. Monsters, magicians, enchantresses, prophesies, curses, visions, and of course endless combat and manic love—the small isle of Britain can hardly contain it all. Sure, there are parts of the book that drag, particularly during the tournaments. Malory’s descriptions of combat are heavily stylized, consisting of the same basic elements over and over again; and, as in the Iliad, large engagements are pictured as a series of individual contests between heroic foes. But for the most part Malory combines his traditional motifs together dexterously, enlivening larger stories with innumerable episodes, creating a raucous forward momentum.

As a result of all this, I greatly enjoyed Le Morte d’Arthur, even if it was not for the reasons that Malory intended. I found the book delightfully absurd, almost parody of itself, a sort of whimsical fantasy novel. What Malory hoped to convey with these stories—whether they are supposed to represent a model of heroism, an ironic comment on violence, or a response to the Wars of the Roses—I cannot say; but his book is better than any television show I know.



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Review: The Age of Napoleon

Review: The Age of Napoleon
The Age of Napoleon (The Story of Civilization, #11)

The Age of Napoleon by Will Durant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally I have come to the last book in this series. It was four long years ago when I first read The Life of Greece; and these have been the four most educational years of my life, in part thanks to The Story of Civilization. Though I have had some occasions to criticize Durant over the years, the fact that I have dragged myself through ten lengthy volumes of his writing is compliment enough. Now all I need to do is to read the first volume of the series, Our Oriental Heritage, in order to bring my voyage to its end. (I originally skipped it because it struck me as absurd to squeeze all of Asia into one volume and then cover Europe in ten; but for the sake of completion I suppose I will have to read it.)

Durant did not plan to write this volume. His previous book, Rousseau and Revolution, ends with a final bow. But Durant lived longer than he anticipated (he died at 96), so he decided to devote his final years to a bonus book on Napoleon. It is extraordinarily impressive that he and his wife, Ariel, could have maintained the same high standard of writing for so many decades; there is no notable decline in quality in this volume, which makes me think that Durant should have written a book on healthy living, too.

The Age of Napoleon displays all of Durant’s typical merits and faults. The book begins with a bust: Durant rushes through the French Revolution, seeming bored by the whole affair, seeing the grand drama only as a disruptive prelude to Napoleon. This showcases Durant’s inability to write engagingly about processes and events; when there is no central actor on which to focus his attention, the writing becomes colorless and vague. Further, it also shows that Durant, while a strong writer, was a weak historian: he provides very little analysis or commentary on what is one of the most important and influential events in European history.

When Napoleon enters the scene, the book becomes appreciably more lively. For reasons that largely escape me, Durant was an unabashed admirer of the diminutive general, and sees in Napoleon an example of the farthest limits of human ability. Though normally uninterested in the details of battles and campaigns, Durant reveals a heretofore hidden talent for military narration as he covers Napoleon’s military triumphs and defeats. Some parts of the book, particularly near the end, are genuinely thrilling—an adjective that rarely comes to mind with Durant’s staid and steady style. Granted, he had an extraordinary story to tell; Napoleon’s rise, fall, rise again, and fall again are as epic as anything in Plutarch.

But as usual Durant shines most brightly in his sections on artists, poets, and philosophers. The greatest section of this book is that on the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. (For some reason, Durant sees fit to exclude Keats, even though the scope of Keats’ life falls entirely within that of Napoleon.) Less engaging, though still worthwhile, was Durant’s section on the German idealist philosophers; and his miniature biography of Beethoven was a stirring tribute. Many writers who properly belong in this volume were, however, paid their respects in the previous, most notably Goya and Goethe, since Durant thought that this volume would never appear.

Though I am happy to reach the end, I am saddened that I cannot continue the story of Europe’s history any further forward with Durant. He is an inspiring guide to the continent’s cultural treasures.



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Review: A Very Short Introduction to Galileo

Review: A Very Short Introduction to Galileo
Galileo: A Very Short Introduction

Galileo: A Very Short Introduction by Stillman Drake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is not a single effect in Nature, not even the least that exists, such that the most ingenious theorists can ever arrive at a complete understanding of it.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Very Short Introduction series is the range of creative freedom allowed to its writers. (Either that, or its flexibility in repurposing older writings; presumably a version of this book was published before the VSI series even got off the ground, since its author died in 1993.) This is a good example: For in lieu of an introduction, Stillman Drake, one of the leading scholars of the Italian scientist, has given us a novel analysis of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition.

Admittedly, in order to contextualize the trial, Drake must cover all of Galileo’s life and thought. But Drake’s focus on the trial means that many things one would expect from an introduction—for example, an explanation of Galileo’s lasting contributions to science—are only touched upon, in order to make space for what Drake believed was the crux of the conflict: Galileo’s philosophy of science.

Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for failing to obey the church’s edict that forbade the adoption, defense, or teaching of the Copernican view. And it seems that he has been on trial ever since. The Catholic scientist’s battle with the Catholic Church has been transformed into the archetypical battle between religion and science, with Galileo bravely championing the independence of human reason from ancient dogma. This naturally elevated Galileo to the status of intellectual heroe; but more recently Galileo has been criticized for falling short of this ideal. Historian of science, Alexandre Kojève, famously claimed that Galileo hadn’t actually performed the experiments he cited as arguments, but that his new science was mainly based on thought experiments. And Arthur Koestler, in his popular history of astronomy, criticized Galileo for failing to incorporate Kepler’s new insights. Perhaps Galileo was not, after all, any better than the scholastics he criticized?

Drake has played a significant role in pushing back against these arguments. First, he used the newly discovered working papers of Galileo to demonstrate that, indeed, he had performed careful experiments in developing his new scheme of mechanics. Drake also points out that Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was intended for popular audiences, and so it would be unreasonable to expect Galileo to incorporate Kepler’s elliptical orbits. Finally, Drake draws a hard line between Galileo’s science and the medieval theories of motion that have been said to presage Galileo’s theories. Those theories, he observes, were concerned with the metaphysical cause of motion; whereas Galileo abandoned the search for causes, and inaugurated the use of careful measurements and numerical predictions in science.

Thus, Drake argues that Galileo never saw himself as an enemy of the Church; to the contrary, he saw himself as fighting for its preservation. What Galileo opposed was the alignment of Church dogma with one very particular interpretation of scripture, which Galileo believed would put the church in danger of being discredited in the future. Galileo attributed this mistaken policy to a group of malicious professors of philosophy, who, in the attempt to buttress their outdated methods, used Biblical passages to make their views seem orthodox. This was historically new. Saint Augustine, for example, considered the opinions of natural philosophers entirely irrelevant to the truth of the Catholic faith, and left the matter to experts. It was only in Galileo’s day (during the Counter-Reformation) that scientific theories became a matter of official church policy.

Drake’s conclusion is that Galileo’s trial was not so much a conflict between science and religion (for the two had co-existed for many centuries), but between science and philosophy: the former concerned with measurement and prediction, the latter concerned with causes. And Drake notes that many contemporary criticisms of Galileo—leaving many loose-ends in his system, for example—mirror the contemporary criticisms of his work. The trial goes on.

Personally I found this book fascinating and extremely lucid. However, I am not sure it exactly fulfills its promise as an introduction to Galileo. I think that someone entirely new to Galileo’s work, or to the history and philosophy of science, may not get as much out of this work. Luckily, most of Galileo’s own writings (translated by Drake) are already very accessible and enjoyable.



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Review: Newton’s Principia

Review: Newton’s Principia
The Principia

The Principia by Isaac Newton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is shown in the Scholium of Prop. 22, Book II, that at the height of 200 miles above the earth the air is more rare than it is at the surface of the earth in the ratio of 30 to 0.0000000000003998, or as 75,000,000,000,000 to 1, nearly.


Marking this book as “read” is as much an act of surrender as an accomplishment. Newton’s reputation for difficulty is well-deserved; this is not a reader-friendly book. Even those with a strong background in science and mathematics will, I suspect, need some aid. The historian of mathematics Colin Pask relied on several secondary sources to work his way through the Principia in order to write his excellent popular guide. (Texts by S. Chandrasekhar, J. Bruce Brackenridge, and Dana Densmore are among the more notable vade mecums for Newton’s proofs.) Gary Rubenstein, a math teacher, takes over an hour to explain a single one of Newton’s proofs in a series of videos (and he had to rely on Brackenridge to do so).

It is not that Newton’s ideas are inherently obscure—though mastering them is not easy—but that Newton’s presentation of his work is terse, dense, incomplete (from omitting steps), and at times cryptic. Part of this was a consequence of his personality: he was a reclusive man and was anxious to avoid public controversies. He says so much himself: In the introduction to Book III, Newton mentions that he had composed a popular version, but discarded it in order to “prevent the disputes” that would arise from a wide readership. Unsurprisingly, when you take material that is intrinsically complex and then render it opaque to the public, the result is not a book that anyone can casually pick up and understand.

The good news is that you do not have to. Newton himself did not advise readers, even mathematically skilled readers, to work their way through every problem. This would be enormously time-consuming. Indeed, Newton recommended his readers to peruse only the first few sections of Book I before moving on directly to Book III, leaving most of the book completely untouched. And this is not bad advice. As Ted said in his review, the average reader could gain much from this book by simply skipping the proofs and calculations, and stopping to read anything that looked interesting. And guides to the Principia are certainly not wanting. Besides the three mentioned above, there is the guide written by Newton scholar I. Bernard Cohen, published as a part of his translation. I initially tried to rely on this guide; but I found that, despite its interest, it is mainly geared towards historians of science; so I switched to Colin Pask’s Magnificent Principia, which does an excellent job in revealing the importance of Newton’s work to modern science.

So much for the book’s difficulty; on to the book itself.

Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Matematica is one of the most influential scientific works in history, rivaled only by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Quite simply, it set the groundwork for physics as we know it. The publication of the Principia, in 1687, completed the revolution in science that began with Copernicus’s publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium over one hundred years earlier. Copernicus deliberately modeled his work on Ptolemy’s Almagest, mirroring the structure and style of the Alexandrian Greek’s text. Yet it is Newton’s book that can most properly be compared to Ptolemy’s. For both the Englishman and the Greek used mathematical ingenuity to draw together the work of generations of illustrious predecessors into a single, grand, unified theory of the heavens.

The progression from Copernicus to Newton is a case study in the history of science. Copernicus realized that setting the earth in motion around the sun, rather than the reverse, would solve several puzzling features of the heavens—most conspicuously, why the orbits of the planets seem related to the sun’s movement. Yet Copernicus lacked the physics to explain how a movable earth was possible; in the Aristotelian physics that held sway, there was nothing to explain why people would not fly off of a rotating earth. Furthermore, Copernicus was held back by the mathematical prejudices of the day—namely, the belief in perfect circles.

Johannes Kepler made a great stride forward by replacing circles with ellipses; this led to the discovery of his three laws, whose strength finally made the Copernican system more efficient than its predecessor (which Copernicus’s own version was not). Yet Kepler was able to provide no account of the force that would lead to his elliptical orbits. He hypothesized a sort of magnetic force that would sweep the planets along from a rotating sun, but he could not show why such a force would cause such orbits. Galileo, meanwhile, set to work on the new physics. He showed that objects accelerate downward with a velocity proportional to the square of the distance; and he argued that different objects fall at different speeds due to air resistance, and that acceleration due to gravity would be the same for all objects in a vacuum. But Galileo had no thought of extending his new physics to the heavenly bodies.

By Newton’s day, the evidence against the old Ptolemaic system was overwhelming. Much of this was observational. Galileo observed craters and mountains on the moon; dark spots on the sun; the moons of Jupiter; and the phases of Venus. All of these data, in one way or another, contradicted the old Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. Tycho Brahe observed a new star in the sky (caused by a supernova) in 1572, which confuted the idea that the heavens were unchanging; and observations of Haley’s comet in 1682 confirmed that the comet was not somewhere in earth’s atmosphere, but in the supposedly unchanging heavens.

In short, the old system was becoming unsustainable; and yet, nobody could explain the mechanism of the new Copernican picture. The notion that the planets’ orbits were caused by an inverse-square law was suspected by many, including Edmond Haley, Christopher Wren, and Robert Hooke. But it took a mathematician of Newton’s caliber to prove it.

But before Newton published his Principia, another towering intellect put forward a new system of the world: René Descartes. Some thirty years before Newton’s masterpiece saw the light of day, Descartes published his Principia Philosophiæ. Here, Descartes summarized and systemized his skeptical philosophy. He also put forward a new mechanistic system of physics, in which the planets are borne along by cosmic vortices that swirl around each other. Importantly, however, Descartes’s system was entirely qualitative; he provided no equations of motion.

Though Descartes’s hypothesis has no validity, it had a profound effect on Newton, as it provided him with a rival. The very title of Newton’s book seems to allude to Descartes’s: while the French philosopher provides principles, Newton provides mathematical principles—a crucial difference. Almost all of Newton’s Book II (on air resistance) can be seen as a detailed refutation of Descartes’s work; and Newton begins his famous General Scholium with the sentence: “The hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties.”

In order to secure his everlasting reputation, Newton had to do several things: First, to show that elliptical orbits, obeying Kepler’s law of equal areas in equal times, result from an inverse-square force. Next, to show that this force is proportional to the mass. Finally, to show that it is this very same force that causes terrestrial objects to fall to earth, obeying Galileo’s theorems. The result is Universal Gravity, a force that pervades the universe, causing the planets to rotate and apples to drop with the same mathematical certainty. This universal causation effectively completes the puzzle left by Copernicus: how the earth could rotate around the sun without everything flying off into space.

The Principia is in a league of its own because Newton does not simply do that, but so much more. The book is stuffed with brilliance; and it is exhausting even to list Newton’s accomplishments. Most obviously, there are Newton’s laws of motion, which are still taught to students all over the world. Newton provides the conceptual basis for the calculus; and though he does not explicitly use calculus in the book, a mathematically sophisticated reader could have surmised that Newton was using a new technique. Crucially, Newton derives Kepler’s three laws from his inverse-square law; and he proves that Kepler’s equation has no algebraic solution, and provides computational tools.

Considering the mass of the sun in comparison with the planets, Newton could have left his system as a series of two-body problems, with the sun determining the orbital motions of all the planets, and the planets determining the motions of their moons. This would have been reasonably accurate. But Newton realized that, if gravity is truly universal, all the planets must exert a force on one another; and this leads him to the invention of perturbation theory, which allows him, for example, to calculate the disturbance in Saturn’s orbit caused by proximity to Jupiter. While he is at it, Newton calculates the relative sizes and densities of the planets, as well as calculates where the center of gravity between the gas giants and the sun must lie. Newton also realized that gravitational effects of the sun and moon are what cause terrestrial tides, and calculated their relative effects (though, as Pask notes, Newton fudges some numbers).

Leaving little to posterity, Newton realized that the spinning of a planet would cause a distortion in its sphericity, making it marginally wider than it is tall. Newton then realized that this slight distortion would cause tidal locking in the case of the moon, which is why the same side of the moon always faces the earth. The slight deformity of the earth is also what causes the procession of the equinoxes (the very slow shift in the location of the equinoctial sunrises in relation to the zodiac). This shift was known at least since Ptolemy, who gave an estimate (too slow) of the rate of change, but was unable to provide any explanation for this phenomenon.

The evidence mustered against Descartes’s theory is formidable. Newton describes experiments in which he dropped pendulums in troughs of water, to test the effects of drag. He also performed experiments by dropping objects from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. What is more, Newton used mathematical arguments to show that objects rotating in a vortex obey a periodicity law that is proportional to the square of the distance, and not, as in Kepler’s Third Law, to the 3/2 power. Most convincing of all, Newton analyzes the motion of comets, showing that they would have to travel straight through several different vortices, in the direction contrary to the spinning fluid, in order to describe the orbits that we observe—a manifest absurdity. While he is on the subject of comets, Newton hypothesizes (correctly) that the tail of comets is caused by gas released in proximity to the sun; and he also hypothesizes (intriguingly) that this gas is what brings water to earth.

This is only the roughest of lists. Omitted, for example, are some of the mathematical advances Newton makes in the course of his argument. Even so, I think that the reader can appreciate the scope and depth of Newton’s accomplishment. As Pask notes, between the covers of a single book Newton presents work that, nowadays, would be spread out over hundreds of papers by thousands of authors. The result is a triumph of science. Newton not only solves the longstanding puzzle of the orbits of the planets, but shows how his theory unexpectedly accounts for a range of hitherto separate and inexplicable phenomena: the tides, the procession of the equinoxes, the orbit of the moon, the behavior of pendulums, the appearance of comets. In this Newton demonstrated what was to become the hallmark of modern science: to unify as many different phenomena as possible under a single explanatory scheme.

Besides setting the groundwork for dynamics, which would be developed and refined by Euler, d’Alembert, Lagrange, Laplace, and Hamilton in the coming generations, Newton also provides a model of science that remains inspiring to practitioners in any field. Newton himself attempts to enunciate his principles, in his famous Rules of Reasoning. Yet his emphasis on inductivism—generalizing from the data—does not do justice to the extraordinary amount of imagination required to frame suitable hypotheses. In any case, it is clear that Newton’s success was owed to the application of sophisticated mathematical models, carefully tested against collections of physical measurements, in order to unify the greatest possible number of phenomena. And this was to become a model for other intellectual disciples to aspire to, for good and for ill.

A striking consequence of this model is that its ultimate causal mechanism is a mathematical rule rather than a philosophical principle. The planets orbit the sun because of gravity, whose equations accurately predict their motions; but what gravity is, why it exists, and how it can affect distant objects, is left completely mysterious. This is the origin of Newton’s famous “I frame no hypothesis” comment, in which he explicitly restricts himself to the prediction of observable events rather than speculation on hidden causes (though he was not averse to speculation when the mood struck him). Depending on your point of view, this shift in emphasis either made science more rational or more superficial; but there is little doubt that it made science more effective.

Though this book is too often impenetrable, I still recommend that you give it a try. Few books are so exalting and so humbling. Here is on display the furthest reaches of the power of the human intellect to probe the universe we live in, and to find hidden regularities in the apparent chaos of experience.



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Review: Howards End

Review: Howards End
Howards End

Howards End by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is the little things one bungles at. The big, real ones are nothing when they come.


The last time I reviewed a novel by E.M. Forster, I wound up blubbering with praise; and now I find myself in similar circumstances. As with A Passage to India, I find Howards End exemplary in every respect: the themes, characterization, the prose, the pacing, the plot. I ought also to mention Forster’s versatility. Though rarely funny, Forster is capable of romantic lyricism, gritty realism, and flighty philosophy. Most convincing of all is his control. Nothing is overdone or heavy-handed—which requires a mixture of technique and taste. While exploring social problems, one never feels that the novel is being unduly interrupted; while constructing a character into an archetype, one never feels that the individual is lost; and the story, though carefully plotted, rarely feels predictable or contrived.

Yet Forster is not a great novelist for his skill alone. He is great because of his insight. More than any novelist I know, Forster is able to connect the inner with the outer life (which is the theme of this novel, and the source of its most famous quote: “Only connect”). Forster is able to show, in other words, how social and economic circumstances breed characters; and how even intelligent and well-meaning characters fail to escape the bounds of their class and nation. He shows, for example, how the money inherited by Margaret and Helen allows for their mental freedom; how Mr. Wilcox’s life of business molds him into a well-meaning shell; and how, despite his best efforts, Leonard Bast cannot help but be shaped by his poverty.

However, if the novel has a message, it is this: even if the inner life is powerless to change material circumstances, it is ultimately the more important aspect of life. This is because, when a tragedy strikes, and mere business acumen or worldly knowledge will not suffice, it is emotional fortitude that is required. Mr. Wilcox has a sort of false strength—a fragile ego he hides behind, a sort of masculine bluff which is easily shattered. Margaret, by contrast, is able to endure tragedies because of her self-knowledge. She is not afraid of the darker aspects of her mind; thus she can look with equanimity upon herself and others, accepting their flaws while seeing their potential. This is what Forster means by “connect”: connecting “the beast” with “the monk”—that is, admitting one’s desires instead of hiding behind a false screen of decency. Only so can we achieve self-knowledge.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 6

Don Bigote: Chapter 6

The story until now:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God

Don and Dan Find Themselves

“Tell me what you saw,” Dr. Krajakat says, in a low soothing voice, to Don Bigote.

“It is somewhat obscured in the misty recesses of my memory, but I clearly remember the exalted feeling of having made an important discovery.”

“Yes?” the doctor says coaxingly.

“Perhaps discovery is not the right word… It was more like a vision, a sort of sense of being in a world where every wrong is right, a kind of utopia of freedom and righteousness—blessedly free from the dastardly conspiracy that so plagues the world today…”

“And did you see…  her?”

“Her?”

“Yes, her.”

“You mean, the mother?”

“Yes, her! Mother Ayahuasca!”

“I did!” Bigote says, with a tone of eureka. “I remember it all now… She came to me from above, like an angel, with her flowing green hair and her flaming red eyes… and she picked me up and held me in her arms, and whispered something in my ear…”

“What was it?” the doctor hisses.

“That… everything, everything is opposite.”

“Yes!” the doctor says, throwing up his hands in triumph.

“I think he’s ready,” Pierre says quietly.

“Yes, I agree,” the doctor says. “I quite agree.”

§

“Listen,” I say, “you can’t trust these people. They’re all loonies here.”

We are sitting, alone, in our bunk beds in the campsite.

“I believe at least most of them are not Canadian, Chopin,” Bigote tells me. “In any case, I do not see why you are so alarmed. If these people were working for the conspiracy then they surely would have pounced already. What would be the point in waiting?”

“But, dude,” I say, “just think about it. We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, everyone is a hippie on drugs, and this doctor wants to send you into some cave. I mean, how can they know it’s safe? There could be bears, snakes, wolves, or… whatever there is in Portugal. Or you can get lost, or fall into a pit, or the walls can collapse and you can be trapped like those miners in that country on the news.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Bigote says. “I have no fear for my personal safety. Besides, the chance of attaining knowledge which, very possibly, will be vital in our battle against the conspiracy, is worth whatever the concomitant risks of this procedure. And if something happens to me, you will be left behind to carry on the mission.”

“So you’re seriously going into the cave?”

“I am.”

“You’re gonna trust these people you just met with your life?”

“Most heartily.”

“Well then,” I say, “I’m going with you.”

“Now, now, dear Chopin,” Bigote says, laughing, “I am flattered by this display of squirish loyalty, but do not be rash. I am a man of experience and training, and, moreover, owing to my comparatively advanced age, it could hardly be argued that an accidental death would be greatly tragic. But in your case there is an obvious and manifest difference; you are young, and (the conspiracy permitting) you have many years ahead of you, some of which may indeed be happy.”

“If you’re going, I’m going,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Pray reconsider.”

“I’m not leaving you alone to be killed by these crazies.”

“Oh, such words are harsh.”

“This is the way it’s gonna be,” I say, imitating my mom.

Now, I am hoping that by insisting on going with him I might get him to wise up to the loco-ness of this plan. It’s a gamble, I know. But what else am I going to do? I am in way too deep with Bigote now to back out. We’ve broken who knows how many laws; we’ve seen people killed, and then stolen their stuff. I mean, it’s all the way or bust, the way I see it.

“If this is how you feel,” Bigote says, “then so be it.”

Oh shit.

§

“This is the entrance to Sub World,” Dr. Crackerjack (or whatever his name is) says, pointing to a small sliver of an opening in a hillside. “This is where Mother Ayahuasca dwells. The cave was discovered about a decade ago by a married couple on a picnic. The two of them stumbled in, and now the both of them are high shamans in the rainforests of Brazil. We pilgrims have been visiting the magic cave ever since. It works wonders.”

“I am thoroughly intrigued,” Bigote says. “Let us waste no more time!”

“Wait!” Pierre shouts, as Bigote starts marching towards the cave. “We have got to tie you up first.”

“Tie us up?” I say, already so nervous my bowels are misbehaving.

“So you don’t get lost,” he explains, and then pulls out two long nylon chords from his backpack. Quickly and expertly, he wraps one around my waist, ties it securely, and does the same with Bigote.

“They are prepared,” Pierre says to the doctor.

“Okay, now the both of you, listen to me carefully,” the doctor says. “Walk into the cave slowly. Be careful, since it is completely dark inside, so take care not to hit your head or to fall. However, this stage of the journey only lasts a few minutes. Eventually you will see a light in the distance. Follow it. The rest will be clear.”

“I thank you for your counsel,” Bigote says. “And now, no more words. For it is a time of action.”

Pierre and the doctor nod gravely. Bigote turns to the cave and begins to march. I follow him, trying my best to walk normally despite the knot of anxiety in my abdomen.

We reach the cave’s mouth. Like he’s an astronaut in a movie or something, Bigote turns to me, nods, and then steps into the cave. I mutter a kind of fake prayer (you know, the kind of weird under-the-breath wishing that even non-religious people do), try to walk inside, but then I panic and hesitate for a second. A part of me says, fuck this, let’s go back. Then I worry that I’ll lose track of Bigote in the darkness, so I gulp down my nerves and walk inside.

I hit my head on the rocks immediately.

“God fucking shit…”

“Peace, Chopin,” Bigote’s voice says, ahead of me. “This is no time for obscenities.”

“Sorry, sir, it’s just these rocks are so hard.”

“Indeed, they are quite durable, as I have myself noticed through observation. Unless I am mistaken, the cave is primarily granite.”

I walk forward, hands out in front, until I bump right into him.

“Careful, my faithful companion,” Bigote says.

“Oh, sir, I don’t like this,” I say, grabbing onto his arm so as not to lose him. “Can we just sit down here for a few hours, and tell them it was great when we come out?”

“What an idea!” Bigote laughs.

We are edging forward, him in front, me behind, clinging to his boney arm. Normally I’d feel weird in this situation but, you know, when you’re in a cave different rules apply. This is what I’d always say to my buddies when we were in the man cave.

We move on in total silence and total darkness, the only sound the soft padding of our feet on the rocky ground as we slowly shuffle forward. It feels like how I imagine it is to be in one of those sensory-deprivation chambers that I saw on a video that one of my friends—well, she’s not really my friend, but I follow her since she’s sort of cute—posted on LickFace™ a few months ago. It’s like these things where you go into a pod that’s full of warm water, and when the door closes you can’t feel or see or hear or smell anything, and you’re supposed to be like super zen or something like that (though I gotta say so far this cave is not at all zen). I don’t know, it’s something people in Norway to do, I guess because they’re bored from the snow.

For about five minutes nothing much happens. Well, it could have been an hour for all I know. Time is hard to estimate when your in a cave like that. But just then, somewhere in the blank space in front of us, we hear:

Thump.

“Oh my god of my god oh my god,” I say, and hug Bigote’s waist. “We’re gonna die.”

“Calm yourself, Chopin,” Bigote says. He tries to keep moving ahead but I hold him there.

“Let go of me, you fool.”

“Shhhh,” I say, squeezing him as tightly as I can.

We listen for a few moments. I’m breathing hard from panic, and Bigote is huffing from trying to breathe with my arms clenched around his chest. I’m sweating like I’m trying to work off a hangover at the gym, and I feel like my legs are made of jello shots.

And then:

Thump.

It sounds closer this time. I lose it completely.

“Oh please oh please, let’s go!” I start crying and babbling hysterically. “Oh, sir please let’s get out of here. Oh! Owowowow!”

“Will you quit that nonsense!” Bigote says, and tries peeling my arms from around his waist.

“Look you, whatever you are!” he then shouts into the darkness. “Unlike my assistant here, I am unafraid of things that go bump in the night! So, beware, for that makes me dangerous!”

“Oh god, please somebody help us!” I scream. My eyes are streaming tears, my nose is dripping mucus, and I’m farting uncontrollably. My arms and legs are frozen in place—Bigote’s stuck in my embrace—we’re completely defenseless. This is the end, I know it.

And, just then, we hear another noise. It sounds like:

Psssssfffffftt.

In other words, it sounds like a hissing and slightly wet fart. A sharp shart, if you will.

I don’t know whether this is a good or a very bad sign… but the sound keeps repeating. I listen in wild fear, mentally trying to make sense of what it could be… a bear? a snake? a rabid beaver? But the more I listen, the more the sound begins to take shape. Yes, it is most definitely flatulent, but it also has a certain… articulation. Wait, it’s somebody speaking!

“Pssslease pffdon’t fffffffpanic,” the fart voice says. “You have arrived.”

§

The cave is gone. Either that, or we’re gone. I’m not a philosopher or anything, so I don’t know. Point is, we’re not in the cave anymore.

Instead, we’re in a room where all the surfaces are made of little pieces of glass, like a fun-house or something. It’s super trippy. Everywhere I turn, up, down, right, left, I see myself in a thousand little pieces. And since everything is reflecting everything else, the room is multiplied infinitely in every direction. Like I said, it’s super trippy, and it gives me a stomach ache—as if I wasn’t feeling weirded-out enough already. Worse than the mirrors is the smell. It’s nasty, like something rotten, or like that one time I did an experiment in chem class using sulfur. But the worst part of all is that there is someone in this room with Bigote and me…

It’s a man, I think… He’s completely naked, so it should be easy to tell. But he’s standing on his arms, with his legs up flapping in the air, and his ass pointed right towards us. A pretty hairy ass, too, which is why I think it’s a dude.

“Welcome,” he says. But the voice doesn’t come from his mouth… He literally farts the words out of his upturned ass. I gag a little.

“How dare you act so obscenely, you curr!” Bigote shouts.

“Please be calm,” the ass retorts. “I assure you that I mean no disrespect.”

An uncomfortable silence follows, as Bigote and I try to figure out what’s going on. Finally Bigote says:

“Are you Mother Ayahuasca?”

At this, the ass explodes into staccato, rapid-fire farts: pft-pft-pft-pft-pft-pft. I think it’s laughing. I gotta admit I’m very impressed. One of my buddies back home can fart on command, but he has nothing like this level of control. This guy could be on a TV show. When he settles down, he says (or farts, not sure):

“I apologize for laughing, but everyone who comes down here asks me that, even though I implore them, when they return to the surface, to dispel this myth. And frankly, I do not see what a hallucinogenic concoction from the Amazon rainforest has to do with us, down here.”

“Who are you then?” Bigote says.

“My name is Harry,” the ass responds, folding his upturned legs with dignity. “And I am a member of the Subterraneans.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The Subterraneans. You see, thousands of years ago, when people began to settle down and start farming, a small group of dissenters decided that the agricultural life wasn’t for them. The rigid schedule, the bland and steady diet, the sedentary lifestyle—they found it to be an unbelievable bore. So they struck out to find another way. Eventually, during a bad storm, some of them got lost in this cave and never found their way out. Over the millennia we have adapted to our new domain. Indeed, I think you will find that we are much happier than you surface dwellers.”

“So why are we here?” Bigote asks.

“Well, you see your surface bodies would be completely unable to cope with the conditions inside our city, so we have constructed this chamber to allow for communication between our two worlds. The mirrors, you see, are to magnify the meager source of light we have available. And the atmosphere is equal parts oxygen and methane (you likely have noticed the smell), so that we both can breathe. We, of course, have no need of light or mirrors in Sub City (as our capital is called), since our world is pitch black, and our eyes have long since atrophied from disuse.”

“I see,” Bigote says. “But why are we here in the first place?”

“Ah, well it’s part of a new government outreach program. We decided that diplomatic isolation was no longer a defensible policy in a globalizing world, and so built this chamber to make contact with the surface world. The fact that ayahuasca rituals take place here was a lucky coincidence.”

“So,” Bigote says, hesitating, “you are here to explain your world to us, is that right?”

“Correct.”

“My attention is yours.”

“I believe the best procedure is for you to ask me what you wish to know. I will answer as best I can.”

“How are you speaking out of your ass?” I blurt out, dying to find out.

“Chopin, how rude!” Bigote says.

“No, it’s quite alright,” the ass says. “Everyone asks me that. In short, the lack of oxygen deep underground caused a change in our biology. We switched from breathing oxygen to breathing methane, and our anuses thus became the primary mode of communication. The ability to delicately manipulate objects or to run quickly are also of little use where we live. Thus, we switched from feet-walking to hand-walking, freeing our muscular feet for the heavy lifting needed in carving out our existence underground.”

“That’s crazy, dude.”

“No, it is evolution.”

“Well,” Bigote says, “I suppose I should start with the most obvious question: Is your society, too, under threat by the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy?”

“What is that?”

“Why, it is the most dastardly plot in all of history! It is a scheme formed by the alliance of the religion of Islam and the nation of Mexico, along with various other groups such as feminists and vegans, in order to destroy western society as we know it!”

“It is a conspiracy formed between a religion and a nation?”

“Yes, that is exactly it.”

“Oh no, that is not a problem here,” Harry says. “You see, we have found that religions are more trouble than they’re worth. Centuries ago, we had a lot of problems with this institution. Everyone was getting all worked up over which god to worship, what god said what, who was the true prophet of god, what kind of hat god wants you to wear, what kind of food god wants you to eat, and on and on. So eventually we just decided to abolish all religion.”

“Even Christianity?”

“If that is a religion, then yes.”

“That’s monstrous!”

“Whatever you may think, it has worked out quite well. We haven’t had any violence due to conflicting supernatural beliefs in hundreds of years. We did the same thing with nations, too, since we found that people would get similarly worked up over which nation was the best—with the best customs, the best food, the best culture, and all the rest—so we decided that nations are formally illegal.”

“My God!” Bigote says. “But some nations are the source of brilliant and vital traditions!”

“We have found through experience that any group that does not include everyone, and which requires its members to eat, act, and think a certain way, causes social issues that are best avoided through unity. That is why we also outlaw special diets (except for medical reasons) and political parties.”

“But if all this stuff is against the law,” I say, “then half of your people must be in jail.”

“Why, you surface-dwellers are always shocked when I say this, but we have no jails in Sub World.”

“Let me guess,” Bigote says, “mass execution?”

“The thought of such barbarism!” Harry said, fart-chuckling. “No, no, nothing of the sort. We have a very efficient process for dealing with people who break the law. First, they must publicly apologize in front of a large crowd. This is to engender a sense of shame and responsibility. Then they must complete a certain number of community service hours, which normally consists of some menial task, such as garbage collection. Meanwhile, they attend therapy and rehabilitation sessions, in which they are given the psychological and social support to properly readapt to society. This is followed by a probationary period, in which they are provisionally allowed to return to normal life, with periodic monitoring to ensure their proper readjustment.”

“I highly doubt the efficacy of this procedure,” Bigote says.

“Oh, I assure you it’s quite successful. My father once had to undergo this process because he got a speeding ticket in his mole-mobile. And now he obeys the speed limit ‘religiously,’ you might say.”

“That is all fine and dandy,” Bigote says, “but what about the unrepentant criminals? Surely there must be a certain number who refuse to participate, or who are too violent to be amenable to such gentle correction.”

“There have been cases in the past when rehabilitation was impossible, and the criminal was sent into exile into the deeper recesses of the caves. But such a thing has not happened in generations. You see, our criminal system is not simply recuperative, but preventative. Yearly psychological examinations, administered in schools (and all of our teachers undergo psychological training), allow us to catch troublesome cases early, when therapy is most effective.”

“Excuse me the luxury of disbelief,” Bigote says, waving his hand. “But I doubt that all the therapy in the world can eliminate our violent tendencies. Surely, there must be assaults and murders in your society.”

“Yes, occasionally.”

“And you are saying that you do not administer a harsher punishment to those who take a human life?”

“In the case of murder, the perpetrator is forced to attend a meeting of reconciliation with the family of the victim, in order for the criminal to realize the full extent of emotional pain he has caused, and in order for the victims to avoid harboring self-destructive hateful or vengeful feelings. The ceremony ends with everyone rubbing their anuses together, which is the traditional gesture of goodwill in our society.”

“This is absurd! Such a procedure hardly satisfies the dictates of justice! The perpetrator of such a heinous act must suffer. To force the family of the victim to forgive him is cruel! They have a right to be angry.”

“I assure you, for generations we tried to use a system of castigation—corporal punishment, isolation, imprisonment, even death—to deal with crimes, but the end result never fully satisfied. Harsh punishments had the double drawback of making criminals unavailable or unfit for useful social roles in the future, while failing to act as a serious deterrent to other would-be criminals. So we had lots of crime and lots of prisoners. Furthermore, though there was a sense of emotional satisfaction in punishing wrongdoers, we found that indulging in such sentiments led, in turn, to anti-social behavior on the victims’ part, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence.”

“Such dry logic may have its certain appeal,” Bigote spits, “but we are creatures of sentiment, and our emotional natures cannot be denied.”

“We have come to the opposite conclusion,” Harry replies. “Long experience has taught us that many emotions, positive or negative, can have unintended negative social consequences. Love is an excellent example of this phenomenon.”

“Oh, I would like to hear this.”

“Our original hypothesis was that individuals would naturally be best able to choose a partner for themselves. But this had puzzling consequences. Separation was common, and many couples who remained together reported high levels of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, especially when children were involved. After some investigation we were forced to conclude that individuals are inept at choosing partners. In well over three-fourths of the cases we looked into, the choice was unambiguously sub-optimal. Curiously, it is not that individuals are, on the whole, bad judges of character: they do well in choosing friends. Rather, we found that the intense feelings of passionate love commonly involved in courtship severely clouded people’s ability to make wise decisions about a partner.”

“So then how, in your infinite wisdom, do you manage marriage?”

“It is a simple system. First, love-matches are heavily discouraged. We have anti-love campaigns in school, and anti-love poems, songs, and stories are very common in the media, illustrating the danger of this temptation. And we have found that, in the absence of media promoting the idea of romantic love, it very rarely develops spontaneously. Our studies have shown that most love is merely the imitation of fictional tropes—and, of course, imitating fiction is not sustainable. In the rare cases that a couple does spontaneously fall in love, then they are assigned community service in different communities, to ensure the destruction of the relationship.”

“You are monsters!”

“I admit that it seems rather hard when we have to separate an enamored couple. This happened to one of my cousins, a few years back, a terribly excitable girl. But the social stability achieved through this process speaks for itself.”

“Social stability?” Bigote says. “How can loveless marriages be stable?”

“You see, love is allowed to develop within the marriage, but not to precede it. When a person is ready to marry, they follow this procedure: they apply to the Department of Partnership. Then psychologists evaluate members of the opposite sex (or whatever the case may be, depending on the individual’s preference) among the individual’s  friends—the theory being that freely-chosen friendship leads to more stable marital bonds than passionate emotional choice. When a suitable match is found (using various psychological criteria), the marriage is proposed, and continues with the consent of both parties. And I am happy to say that this procedure has almost entirely eliminated divorce. You see, when love is not involved, people enter a relationship with moderate and realistic expectations, and so are seldom disappointed enough to wish to leave.”

“This is a travesty!” Bigote snorts. “This is like solving the problem of heart attacks by putting everyone into an artificial coma. You have robbed life of all its poetry!”

“Poetry is a matter of taste,” Harry replies. “And in my opinion our anti-love poets produce some truly beautiful lines. For my part, I have been in a happy marriage for thirty years, and have not grown tired of my wonderful wife even once.”

“But this whole business of letting committees decide things, it’s preposterous,” Bigote says, waving his arms. “You can never achieve greatness in any realm of life through mere procedures and logic and calculation. Passion is the spark that sets fire to our life, and makes them worth living.”

“For a long time, there were many in Sub World who agreed with you. And of course we have exhaustively tested out this hypothesis. But ultimately we have had to reject the idea that passionate desire is socially useful. In many realms of life, it is quite the opposite—socially destructive. Take politics as an example.”

“Go on, then. Tell us how wrong we are.”

“Well, for a long time it was assumed that the people who were the most motivated to be politicians should be the ones in charge. Thus we experimented with a democratic system, in which these individuals would compete for votes, the theory being that the person who receives the most votes would be the one who is the most skillful leader, the most motivated worker, and the most ideologically representative of the population. But we were mistaken in this. Time and time again, the people who won were merely charismatic. While some proved to be capable leaders, the large majority were exalted mediocrities, whose only true interest was power and prestige, and who were willing to say anything to get it.”

“I admit that this has been our sad experience on the surface world as well.”

“Another problem we ran into is that our leaders, once established, bred an incestuous community. By this I mean they would mainly associate with one another, becoming an isolated class. Rather than working on behalf of the community, they merely worked to further entrench themselves in their positions. Sure they would appear to oppose one another ideologically. But this was mainly a show to convince their voters of their own legitimacy.”

“Again, I have seen it happen all too often,” Bigote says. “So what did you do about it?”

“The solution was easily found, once we abandoned the idea that people should follow their passion to become leaders. Rather, we realized that the reverse is the case: people with no interest in leading should lead, since they are the least likely to be corrupted by access to power. Thus we have replaced elections with a lottery. A person randomly chosen is more likely to represent the views of their community, rather than the interests of the elite. But of course even a normal person may have their judgment warped through access to executive control: so this is why we strictly limit the amount of time that any person can spend in the government. For most positions the term limit is one year. After this year is up, the next leader is chosen through another lottery process. It is called the Yearly Shuffle, and it’s a great festive occasion. My grandfather and my sixteen-year-old daughter were both chosen so far.”

“My word!” Bigote says. “A lottery!? Very well, I admit that such a silly procedure may help to eliminate corruption. But this comes at the cost of great leadership. Where would the world be if Charlemagne, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Ronald Reagan were passed over by some random process, or were only allowed to rule for one year! Yes, there are plenty of corrupt politicians in the world—of this I am much too certain—but great talent naturally rises to the top, and compensates for this human waste!”

Just then I feel a strong pressure on my abdomen—and it isn’t what it usually is.

“Ah, it appears it is time for you to go,” Harry says. “Give my regards to that doctor up there, and do let him know about Mother Ayahuasca.”

Suddenly I am tugged from behind with so much power that I fall backwards, lose my breath, and black out.

§

A confused mass of voices reaches my ears:

“Are they alright? Wow, they smell awful. How’s their breathing? Normal? Get the smelling salts. Keep them on their sides, that’s it.”

Slowly the world stops spinning, and I begin to recollect myself. Asleep? Was it all a dream?

Someone sticks something under my nose, and I am overwhelmed by a powerful rancid smell.

“Jesus fucking hell,” I say, sitting bolt upright and thrashing around with my hands. “Get that shit away from me.”

“It appears that he is fine,” Pierre says. “We pulled them out before the methane got to their heads.”

“Tell me, young one,” Dr. Krajakat says to me, smiling, as he bends down towards me. “Did you see it?”

“See what?”

“The… the place where everything is opposite?”

“Opposite? I’ll say! Down there, everything is ass backwards!”