“Alexander didn’t torture the Gordian knot when it wouldn’t come untied.” – Lydia Davis, “Kafka Cooks Dinner”
“A person has other concerns, but at each moment in its life, a cat has only one concern. This is what gives it such perfect balance, and this is why the spectacle of a confused or frightened cat upsets us: we feel both pity and the desire to laugh. It faces the source of danger or confusion and its only recourse is to spit a foul breath out between its mottled gums.” — Lydia Davis, “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall”
Ninety-eight years ago on this very day the so-called Great War (aka, the World War, aka the First World War) “broke out,” as wars are said to do. How did this misfortune come about? Through an unstoppable cascade of double-dog dares, to wit:
A Serbian nationalist assassinated an Austrian (aka, Austro-Hungarian) duke;
The Austrians (aka, Austro-Hungarians) demanded some stuff from the Serbians for reparations;
The Serbians said, No way, man;
The Austrians (aka, Austro-Hungarians) said, You don’t give over, we’re going to attack;
The Serbians said, So attack, we double-dog dare you;
The Russians said to the Austrians (aka, Austro-Hungarians), We be friends with the Serbians and if you be attacking them, we be attacking you;
The Austrians (aka, Austro-Hungarians) said, So attack, we double-dog dare you;
The Germans said to the Russians, We be friends with the Austrians (aka, Austro-Hungarians, though we prefer the Austrians) and if you be attacking them, we be attacking you;
The Russians said, So attack, we double-dog dare you;
The French said to the Germans, We be friends with the Russians, since their dukes and duchesses and stuff all speak French, and if you be attacking them, we be attacking you;
The Germans said, So attack, we double-dog dare you;
The British, who more or less wanted to stay out of things–or, truth be told, wanted to play all these other folks off against each other so they could scoop up the pieces–said, We don’t really have a dog in this fight, but we do be friends with the Belgians so if anyone (and Germans, we mean you) thinks to march through Belgium to get to, oh, let’s say France, perchance, well, you see, it would be a terrible bother, but we can’t see how we would have any choice other really, than to come to their aid, what with it being impolite to do otherwise;
To which the Germans said, We double-dog dare you, you irrelevant English swine (which was fisticuffs-provoking insult to those British who were not English).
All the double-dog dares being in place and ignored, the attacks and counterattacks and countercounterattacks and countercountercounterattacks ad nauseam began and forty million (40,000,000) dead people later they ended. Along the way, Japan and the United States entered the war, also as part of the double-dog-dare cascade, to wit:
Japan saw an opportunity to pitch in with the what were called Allies and scoop up German territories in the Pacific. They double-dog dared the Germans to try and stop them, to which the Germans muttered, We cannot stop you, all our dogs are in other fights.
The United States just wanted to make money and when the Germans started fucking with the money-maker by sinking United Stateser ships, the United States said, Stop it or we’ll pitch in with the what are called Allies and we will show you a thing or two.
The Germans said, You are degenerate Americans and we double-dog dare you.
So the degenerate Americans from the United States Thereof pitched in and the what were called Allies won and the decline of Western Civilization, which began on this date ninety-eight years ago, continued apace, with the American Empire coming along after yet a second world war (they couldn’t get it right the first time?) to shine and burn brightly as the final efflorescence of what for a half-millennium had been a powerful civilization pretty full of itself but quickly at its end going to the dogs.
“Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it’s really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place—relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table. Or having to make a drawing that looks like the thing you’re drawing.” – Adam Gopnik, “Life Studies”
“‘The market’—like ‘dialectical materialism’—is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers—mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers—who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed the pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.” – Tony Judt, “Captive Minds”
“A plot is the means by which fiction portrays the consequences of actions, but it is not like a pool table; one event never mechanically causes another. In a plot each event provokes other events by making it possible for them to happen–possible but not inevitable, because human beings are always free to choose their response to provocation.” — Edward Mendelson, “The Perils of His Magic Circle” (emphasis in original)
“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers.” – Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land” (emphasis in original)
“Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (‘It’s only my opinion…’). Rather than suffering from the onset of ‘newspeak,’ we risk the rise of ‘nospeak.'” — Tony Judt, “Words”
“Whether we should endure the violence of the state, as a defense against the yet more fearful violence of our neighbors, and whether there comes a point where the violence of the state must be resisted are great recurrent questions of moral and political life.” — Robert Bartlett, “Lords of ‘Pride and Plunder'”
“Under our Constitution there can be no such thing as either a creditor or a debtor race. That concept is alien to the Constitution’s focus upon the individual. To pursue the concept of racial entitlement–even for the most admirable and benign of purposes–is to reinforce and preserve for future mischief the way of thinking that produced race slavery, race privilege and race hatred. In the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American.” — Anthony Scalia, Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Mineta, 534 U.S. 103 (1995)
“The novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth—not a different truth: the same truth—only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.” – Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (emphasis in original)
“I have done the best I could for my country; to the last I have done my duty as I understand it. That I must have made many mistakes I cannot deny. I do not see any great blunders; but no one can judge of himself. Our consolation must be that we have tried to do what was right.” – Major General George B. McClellan, upon being relieved of command of the Union Army of the Potomac, 1862
“Whatsoever a man sows, that must he reap, and he not only reaps what he sows but he must reap all he sows. When we plant a seed of good or of evil we are hardly aware how large a tree may grow from it or how much fruit it may bear.” — Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)
“One meets all sorts of men in the army, and he often finds himself in a crowd of the very roughest of the human species. But human nature is very much the same everywhere. No matter how ‘rough’ a man may become, or how wicked, he naturally admires the excellent qualities of others, and condemns their faults very much the same as do those more cultivated and virtuous. To be popular with such men, it is only necessary to be unselfish. A selfish man is popular nowhere. His ill nature will creep out in a thousand ways in spite of him, and bring all his virtues into contempt.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)
“The scenes in a soldier’s life are continually shifting, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, and we soldiers get to be nearly as indifferent about the matter, and care as little where we go, as a horse cares where his driver may see fit to drive him. And we have just as little voice in the matter as a horse has. One day a soldier may be in his tent comfortable, contented, and happy, and the next day on a march with but few of the world’s comforts and but little cause of contentment except what he finds within himself. A soldier’s time and services are not his own, they belong to the Government which he has sworn to defend, and it is his duty to be ever ready and obey with alacrity whatever the Government calls upon him to do. Sometimes a streak of good luck will turn up to a soldier whether he deserves it or not, and sometimes they won’t turn up though he may deserve it ever so well. It would be easy to mention a great many good boys in the ranks who have been doing duty at the front since the war began, but to whom no soft detail has ever been given, or any particular favors shown.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)
“If a man wants to know what it is to have every bone in his body ache with fatigue, every muscle sore and exhausted, and his whole body ready to sink to the ground, let him diet on a common soldier’s fare till he has only the strength that imparts, and then let him shoulder his knapsack, haversack, gun and equipments, and make one of our forced marches, and I will warrant him to be satisfied that the duties of war are stern and severe, whether we march or face the enemy on the field of battle. A fellow feels very much like grumbling at such times as that, and when we march on and on, expecting every minute to halt but still hurrying forward, when every spark of energy seems about to be extinguished, and the last remnant of strength gone, tired, hungry, sick and sore, who blames a soldier if he finds it hard work to suppress thoughts of a quiet home he has left behind him, with its comforts and endearments, and if he sometimes turns his thoughts to himself and wonders if he, as an individual, will ever be compensated for the sacrifice he is making. What if the rebels are whipped, and what if they are not? How does it matter to him? One blunder of General Grant’s may make final victory forever impossible and all our lost toil go for nothing. I tell you some of our hard marches put one’s patriotism severely to the test. It finds out a fellow’s weak points if he has got any, and we don’t claim to be without them.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)
“The most singular and obstinate fighting that I have seen during the war, or ever heard or dreamed of in my life, was the fight last Thursday. Hancock had charged and driven the enemy from their breastworks, and from their camps, but the enemy rallied and regained all but the first line of works, and in one place they got a portion of that. The rebels were on one side of the breastwork, and we on the other. We could touch their guns with ours. They would load, jump up and fire into us, and we did the same to them. Almost every shot that was made took effect. Some of our boys would jump clear up on to the breastworks and fire, then down, reload and fire again, until they were themselves picked off. If ancient or modern history contains instances of more determined bravery than was shown there, I can hardly conceive in what way it could have been exhibited. This firing was kept up all day, and till five o’clock next morning, when the enemy retreated. Gen. Russell remarked that it was a regular bull-dog fight; he never saw anything like it before. I visited the place the next morning, and though I have seen horrid scenes since this war commenced, I never saw anything half so bad as that. Our men lay piled one top of another, nearly all shot through the head. There were many among them that I knew well, five from my own company. On the rebel side it was worse than on ours. In some places the men were piled four or five deep, some of whom were still alive. I turned away from that place, glad to escape from such a terrible, sickening sight. I have sometimes hoped, that if I must die while I am a soldier, I should prefer to die on the battle-field, but after looking at such a scene, one cannot help turning away and saying, Any death but that.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)
“The band discoursed a dirge-like piece of music, when the prisoners [John Tague and George Blowers] were conducted to their coffins, on which they kneeled, and the guard filed around and took position in front of them, scarcely half a dozen yards distant. A sergeant put a circle around the neck of each, from which was suspended a white object over the breast, as a target for the executioners. The prisoners were not blindfolded, but looked straight into the muzzles of the guns that shot them to death. The guard were divided into two platoons, one firing at one prisoner, and the other platoon firing at the other prisoner, but there was no reserve to be ordered up in case of failure. Blowers had been sick, his head slightly drooped as if oppressed with a terrible sense of the fate he was about to meet. He had requested that he might see his brother in Co. A, but his brother was not there. He had no heart to see the execution, and had been excused from coming. Tague was firm and erect till the last moment, and when the order was given to fire, he fell like a dead weight, his face resting on the ground, and his feet still remaining on the coffin. Blowers fell at the same time. He exclaimed, ‘Oh dear me!’ struggled a moment, and was dead. Immediately our attention was called away by the loud orders of commanding officers, and we marched in columns around the spot where the bodies of the two men were lying just as they fell. God grant that another such punishment may never be needed in the Potomac Army.” — Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)
“The duties of a soldier are very unequally divided in regard to time. Some days he may have nothing whatever to do but to pass the time as best he can; and then of a sudden he may be called upon to perform all that his physical powers can possibly accomplish, and often his power of endurance yields to exhaustion, and he is obliged to stop ere his task is completed. These extremes of physical exertion may not accord with the strictest rules of physiology, but they certainly do not conflict with the rules of military life.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)