Okay, I think we took that subway one stop too far.

– Bill Maher, Real Time (May 3, 2019)

Maher was talking to Moby, who had just made the point that the third-largest contributor to global climate change is animal agriculture. Not addressing animal agriculture, Moby said, was like worrying about lung cancer and not addressing tobacco. This won warm applause.

On a roll, Moby went on. He didn’t like human beings very much (being a pro-animals activist), so maybe it would be just as well to ignore climate change and “you all keep eating beef and bacon until you die.” Everyone understood “you” was being used in the most general sense, but the second-person pronoun sounds personal, and the audience felt…thrown off the Moby train. The silence was like a tunnel with no light at the end.

Maher put the show back on track with his reference to subsurface transportation. In some ways, a lively conversation is very much like an unfamiliar route on a subway. You have a destination in mind but can’t see what’s ahead. Which is why not getting off the conversational train at the right moment is a mistake that everyone with the power of speech has made.

An unlively conversation, too, is like a ride on the subway – on a line that is all too familiar, rolling on rails to the same dreary platforms. As conversational commuters, we must mind the gap.

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Most people call it razor wire.…The US military prefers a less menacing name: concertina wire.

– Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Communities on Border Seek to Lose Barbed Wire,” LA Times (March 24, 2019)

In fairness, the military has been calling it concertina wire since World War I – not for euphony but because a flat coil of wire stretches to a great length, like unfolding bellows of an accordion. In those days, barbed wire was sometimes compared to a prickly vine, such as blackberry. One of the major manufacturers was the Thorn Wire Hedge Company.

H. G. Wells called it “an ugly and vicious plant that trailed insidiously among its fellows” (The Wonderful Visit, 1895). In another Wells novel, a Mr. Benshaw uses barbed wire to discourage country walkers from taking shortcuts across his property. “But it was not a very satisfactory sort of barbed wire. He wanted barbed wire with extra spurs, like a fighting cock; he wanted barbed wire that would start out after nightfall and attack passers-by” (Bealby: A Holiday, 1915). Sixty years later came razor wire, designed to lacerate like a knife rather than puncture like a thorn.

There is an unforgettable image of barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). A French soldier, killed by nonstop machine-gun fire, falls into a “cradle” of wire: “His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.”

…time, the destroyer, has begun to pile up rubble. Sharp edges have been blunted, and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without a trace.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

Memory is like geology for Levi-Strauss, or at least the part of geology that tears down the forms that it built up before. You could call it deconstruction.

This is the perspective of age looking back, aware that continents and monuments have slipped and slid, some sunk out of sight forever. This is not the perspective of forward-looking youth, when the whole world is new and yet to reach its height.

The peak that stands out in memory is a least-likely survivor, grinning idiotically after all others have been worn down to nothing. You strain to remember the face of a loved one and yet can recite every word of the song from Mr. Ed.

Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands, / Imperial amidst the lesser heights, and like / Some mighty, unimpassioned mind, companionless / And cold.

– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)

“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.

It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.

No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.

Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:

Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…

Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:

e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…

Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.

Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.

Find the full text of the poem at https://ualrexhibits.org/tribalwriters/artifacts/Poems-of-John-Rollin-Ridge.html#MountShasta

Mountains are the bones of the earth…

– John Ruskin, The True and the Beautiful in Nature (1843)

The bones of the earth are covered by thick layers of soil, which are like skin and muscle. When human bones and muscle move, you see outer surfaces of the body – shoulders, torso, thighs – bulge in some places and form hollows in others, like hills and valleys. Ruskin wants you to look at a landscape the way an artist looks at a living model, a subject “full of expression, passion, strength.”

Ruskin then notes: “But there is this difference between the action of the earth, and that of the living creature, that while the exerted limb marks its bones and tendons through the flesh, the excited earth casts off the flesh altogether, and its bones come out from beneath.”

In other words, the stony peaks and crags that inspire feelings of grandeur in alpine tourists may be seen as horrendous jutting injuries. As Maria might have sung it with the von Trapps, “The hills are alive with the screams of landforms.”

If you’d have looked at Batman, you’d have never thought he was a stone-cold killer.

– quoted in Larry J. Siegel/Criminology (1986)

Batman was a 14-year-old Brooklyn gang member who wore a cape. Everyone was afraid of him because he shot people without provocation, and without emotion. He was as unfeeling as the most lifeless product of nature, a stone. Behind the stone comparison is another comparison: emotional warmth is like body temperature, with both being seen as defining characteristics of humanity. “He’s a cold fish” and “cold-blooded murder” are variations showing that, when it comes to being a human being, reptilians need not apply.

Emotional warmth becomes empathy when linked to human powers of imagination, as seen in the Henry James short story “A Landscape Painter” (1866), in which Mr. Locksley bares his heart to Miss Quarterman: “You have a great deal of imagination, but you rarely exercise it on the behalf of other people.…Your crime is, that you are so stone-cold to a poor devil who loves you.” You could say the same of Batman, if you weren’t afraid being shot.

Falstaff dies by degrees in Shakespeare’s Henry V. As recalled by the Hostess, he asked for extra blankets on his bed because his feet were cold. Just making sure, the Hostess says, “I put my hand into the bed, and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and so up’ard and up’ard, and all was as cold as any stone.” With a groin gone cold, it was clear the drunken, gluttonous, cowardly parasite, and paragon of human flesh, was no more.

Photo: “Falstaff on His Death Bed,” George Cruikshank (1792–1878)

How bad are the mosquitos?

Apparently they were very bad in India and Burma during the colonial era. In a dark tribute to “Malaria” (1906) by Adela Cory Nicolson (pseudonym Laurence Hope), the mosquitoes formed clouds as they traveled, and they grazed like cattle on sleepless British administrators:

Clouds of mosquitoes, gauzy in the heat,
Rise [on] spangled wings aloft and far away,
Making thin music, strident and faint,
From golden eve to silver break of day.
The baffled sleeper hears th’ incessant whine
Through his tormented dreams, and finds no rest.
The thirsty insects use his blood for wine,
Probe his blue veins and pasture on his breast.

They were so bad, according V.C. Scott O’Connor, that British officials were driven to desperate measures in domestic furnishing: “In some houses, there is a special room, a kind of inner citadel and last refuge, which is wholly of iron gauze, and within it, the master of the house sits like a vanquished lion in a cage” (The Silken East: A Record of Life and Travels in Burma, 1904).

Photo: Zoohistorian/Wikimedia Commons