Of Lucky Ducks and Kingdom Come
Truth? No one wants the truth, except the defeated—and they only want half of it. - Yardley Birdsmith, The Practical Bricklayer
And the Lord your God then raised me into the sky, and He revealed to me the lives of men and the lives of His beasts, and He said unto me, 'Forgive thy Creator.' And He hath now set me backeth upon the dirt, and I tell it unto you, that He left the earth and then the heavens and went in shame.
In eighteenth century Britain, the fashionable would tell you that the tastiest meats came from animals that had been tortured to death. Gourmands debated whether a piglet was rendered most tender by being flayed to death with knotted horse hair or skinned alive while hung upside down. A bull was not fit for human consumption unless its last twelve hours, at least, were spent bellowing in unbearable pain. The sophisticated palate claimed to be able to tell by its taste exactly how an animal had died. A dinner party delicacy was a duck or goose cooked and eaten while alive. It took care, and talent, to cook a duck and keep its heart beating. (Tips: leave the feathers on the head and neck, force feed it applesauce and water at appropriate times, do not bring it too close to the heat.) The successful entrée did not expire until very nearly the very last of the meat had been sliced off and served. To have a first portion presented without the duck’s cry might give the host or hostess to hot tears of social failure.
This is true.
Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot criticized these practices, but they were critical fellows, the former being a professional satirist and the latter being, besides the funniest of London’s literati, a mathematician, obese, asthmatic, disdainful of due credit. There wasn’t much about British society either or others of their ilk found admirable. There wasn’t much about human society they found admirable, however much they enjoyed it. Some fellows were like that.
When God, I like to think, looks down upon the earth, He judges man kingdom by kingdom. There is no individual salvation. One would need to separate a man from his psychology, and how does one do that?
Deduct from a man those sins attributable to his mother and brothers, to his friends and his neighborhood, to his school and city and country—and what is left? You would have to say, if you cared at all for truth, that the degree to which we credit or burden a man with character or essence outside the sum of influences upon him, genetic as well as environmental, is precisely commensurate with our preference for ignorance.
Each man, we have to have it, is by circumstance predestined for good or evil, or that the contract for salvation is contrived with so many loopholes that to fulfill its obligations little is required but the claim of good intentions.
How could the Creator signally give Mr. Pope credit for his criticisms, when, given opportunity, he would have satirized paradise? No, God looks down and judges man kingdom by kingdom.
I don’t know that, of course. I don't know that God looks down upon us at all. I don’t know that He is even there.
But, if He was reigning over eighteenth century Britain, when He heard nightly the tortured cries of a million of his creatures, I think He needn’t have so much as opened his eyes to condemn the lot of Brits. He needn’t have bothered at all assessing culpability for colonial depredations, slave trading, the invention of an economic rationale that would excuse the destruction of communities; if one of the results were profit. He need have bothered with the excuses, historical excuses, of those who pleaded that their sins belonged to the times no more than He need have bothered with the sociological excuses of the murderer.
The eighteenth century, coincidentally or otherwise, also saw a revolution in agricultural production that dramatically increased what a given farmer could produce, was the century, too, that included the date from which the number of people on earth began its two and a half centuries of geometric doubling, that in which the first of economists claimed for the occupations of men the paradigm of rats, that that others had as the Age of Reason, that which, at its end, had Thomas Malthus observe that human populations, as with those of rats, would expand just beyond the available food supply.
When I think on this, what we’ve made of what they made, which is not that often, but when I do, I keep in mind that our economic principles and political systems were devised by men and women who also thought that the height of gastronomic delight was to slice meat from a duck open-eyed and quacking its last.
We look about the world, think about it, and do so with blindspots and gaps (the existence of which we are largely unaware of). We are commonly quite content to have our minds knit these gaps over; as we do with our more famous optical versions.
Most people will readily admit to factual blindspots in their views of the world, science, and history. Some fewer will concede that their minds have knit over philosophical omissions. And fewer still, many more fewer, will allow that their moral sight is riddled with psychological occlusions.
But it is true.
And if there are tests that reveal our visual blindspots, our factual ones. The blindspots that might make evident, what we are morally blind to, would paradoxically occlude what we are not.
As a child, my descents into sleep drifted through considerations of the life of man that was before history, civilization, and even language. The walls of Jericho were built ten thousand years ago. Ur was founded a thousand years before that. In southern Russia there have been found urns of wheat seed more than twelve thousand years old. The cave paintings at Lascaux have been dated to seventeen thousand years before the present. Those at Gargas and Altamira reach back twenty-six thousand years. The oldest so far found might be those at Chauvet, forty thousand years old. Homo sapiens, us, or those with brains that were no different from ours, appear in the record no less than two hundred thousand years ago. That’s more than ten thousand generations, and it had to be that in one of them the first man said “God” or “Love” or “Duty.” Leakey’s Lucy didn’t. Homo erectus hadn’t the requisite brain cells, lacked Broca’s area. Homo habilis spent one point six million years chipping the same flint hide scrapers. But someone first said, “There is a God.” Someone first said, “I love you.” Someone put something new in the world when he or she said, “It is my duty.”
There is elegance in reducing conundrums to an irrefutable moment of poetry, but our minds can’t leave well enough alone. If we could, we wouldn’t have ancestors who first said that we have thousands of years subjected to reason by trusting, or hoping, that cause and effect, its ugly step-sisters Analogy and Syllogism, rule that new in the world.
The physical universe is so apparently deconstructible by these methods, whatever the reason, does not mean that what these methods might suggest is deconstructible. There is no reason to suspect that the same rules of rationale that reveal evolution, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, and bridge building can be honorably used to deduce our way through God, duty, justice, and truth.
But that’s what we do. It’s how we think. Our mysticisms stack like nesting Russian dolls.
The religious soul yearns through a mind that sees the paradigms of its God everywhere. Those who see in the apparent randomness and chaos of the subatomic world, a justification of their moral nihilism are no different. And neither are free-market proponents who see in nature the natural truth of his economics.
But here we are.
I had thoughts about twenty, thirty, forty years ago that a new understanding of man, of the self, was in the offing—and so it was. I am reminded of the sophisticated Russian diplomat who in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria was observed, at the Cold War’s height, reading Pravda by an American friend. When he was asked why he would read it, when he knew it was all lies, the Russian said, “But they are our lies.”
What else could he say?
What else could any of us say?
My mind goes back to those cavemen, the three stooges of human history, the three who stood up and first said, “There is a God,” “I love you,” and “It is my duty.”
I can yet in my mind see the sky against which they are silhouetted. I know the dark green of the grass as well as if I had lain in it, died in it. But why they said those words I, like you, can only impose what I would like to believe upon them.
Yet, there they are, about as beautiful and noble and tragic—and comic—as ever has been man, though had they not been, had they not said those, we would see them as foolish, destructive beyond measure—and maybe, in time, we will.
Human beings raised without language and parental love are, we are told, mute, hostile savages, but that this is inextricably wound up in the communities from which we spring. How could we think otherwise?
When I think of society, I best have in mind Whitman’s poem The Sleepers. In it, his spirit drifts over his nation while all are dreaming. He looks down upon the multitude of people, the children and the aged, the smug and the desperate, the free and the imprisoned, the lovers and the lonely, and he wonders upon their yearnings. He does so with a graciousness grander than what could be plainly stated, even by him. It cannot be fixed. The paradoxes cannot be solved.
I have, for a few years now, been in ascendancy to richdom, and here I find myself thinking and uttering—well—lies, our lies. How distasteful I’ve become to myself. My mind fabricates rationales, solves paradoxes, and condemns others. I like to suspect that what dispirits me is traceable to the fact that I belong to a large and powerful country. One cannot help but think the thoughts the large and powerful countries think. But I don't know.
What our souls yearn for guides the collection of facts in our heads, the formulations of our philosophies, the structure of our morals. This I know is true, so true that we can trace back from the facts in our heads, our philosophies, morals, what it is exactly at the front of our consciousness and being.
Beyond the advice implied in that, I do not know that I have words that resonate so strongly as these:
None of us wants to destroy the earth, no one does, though we’re doing it anyway, all of us are.