The divine inhumanity of barbecue

Cain offered God vegetables, Abel offered meat, and God liked meat better. Byron was a sometime vegetarian, and in Byron’s play Cain, the hero scorns meat-eating with heretical, high-Romantic passion. He threatens to knock over Abel’s altar, “with its blood of lambs and kids, / Which fed on milk, to be destroyed in blood.”

When Abel protests that God has found pleasure “in his acceptance of the victims,” Cain bitterly replies:

His pleasure! what was his high pleasure in
The fumes of scorching flesh and smoking blood,
To the pain of the bleating mothers, which
Still yearn for their dead offspring? or the pangs
Of the sad ignorant victims underneath
Thy pious knife?

The first militant vegetarian?

Against repressive antisentimentalism

Dear Mark,

When you and I read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or this spring, in a group that met every morning for a week in the second-floor cafeteria of the Houston Street Whole Foods, we had many arguments about the nature of marriage. Now I seem to be joining you in another, though our private conversation has become, in something like the ambiguous transformation wrought by marriage itself, public. Either/Or, as you know, is divided into two parts, the first written by a Seducer, who approaches the problem of human relations aesthetically, and the second by a Judge, who approaches it ethically. Neither approach proves satisfactory; a better title for the book would be “Neither/Nor.” To the surprise of those of us who know you personally, your essay “On Repressive Sentimentalism” has caused some in the blogosphere to mistake you for a figure like Kierkegaard’s Seducer. In disagreeing with you, I suppose I run the parallel risk of sounding like the Judge, who is, I believe, in somewhat greater danger of losing his soul, because in order to preserve decorum, he seems willing to smother the spark that makes human relations possible at all. Keeping the danger in mind, I will risk answering you.

I dissent from many of the claims in your essay, but I feel my resistance most strongly to the following sentence:

Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage.

If you believe that gays who marry resemble people offering to take out the trash, then you believe that gays who marry are offering a service. I presume you mean that they are surrendering their sexual wildness for the sake of social approbation and in the process are making a gift of sexual orderliness to the common weal. If that is all marriage is—a bargain wherein autonomy is traded for status—then it is indeed a ridiculous bargain for any sexually potent adult to make. (Lurking behind the cartoon figure of the promiscuous gay man, whom your essay eulogizes, is his inevitable twin, the gay eunuch.) But surely it’s possible to imagine marriage as something else, something that our Kierkegaard reading group tried to investigate, as did the reading group that followed it, which tackled Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness. Would it be mere rhetoric to suggest that marriage is in fact itself a form of wildness?

Your claim in the sentence quoted above, which is a sort of a joke, has two lemmas. First, you imply that marriage is a surrender of sexual liberty. I don’t think that’s accurate. Marriage is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell standing side by side in the closing scene of His Girl Friday, nattering on with the same jollity when handcuffed to each other as when not handcuffed. Marriage is indifference to handcuffs. There are always opportunities to escape. The strange discovery that makes marriage possible is that one has the liberty not to—the liberty to make the same choice, day after day—and that one happens to want to make a consistent choice. It is a paradox, at least. Will one happen to want to make the same choice forever? Maybe not. Separation and divorce are always possible, in our world, and maybe they give marriage its poignancy. The possibility of separation proves that no two people stay chained to each other unless they want to. It even seems to be the case that people who want to stay chained to each other sometimes can’t manage to. It is at any rate an error to think that marriage is a surrender of liberty. It is an exercise of it.

The second lemma of your joke is less seemly. It is mockery of anyone—in this case, gays—who wants the general social approbation implied by marriage. I suspect that you yourself will find this indigestible if you stop and think about it. Do you really intend to mock homosexuals, who have long been considered and in some circles still are considered pariahs, for wishing to have proof that they are no longer so thought of, at least as a matter of law? Your joke will only seem funny to readers who have taken social approbation for granted for so long that they now see only its conformist aspect and no longer its psychological and social benefits. Yes, yes, society bestows its approval conservatively; do you really think that people who have gone without it for most of their adult lives are unaware of that? You are somewhat in the position, here, of a millionaire who styles himself a radical and makes fun of the lengths that other people will go to in order to become rich. The radical thing would be to share the wealth, or to campaign for a more equitable economic system.

I’m not denying, by the way, that people in a marriage customarily agree to forgo sexual opportunities outside it. I’m saying merely that they agree to because they realize that they want to forgo them. Such a realization cannot happen to a Foucauldian motley of bodies and pleasures. Bodies have no free will; left to their own devices, they say yes to every pleasure they can obtain. Such a realization can only happen to a self, or to something you might even denominate a soul. Selves and souls, you might reply, are fictions, and I agree that they are not a given but are something people make in the course of living. I believe, nonetheless, that they are worth making. Keats called the world a “vale of soul-making,” and on that understanding, a refusal to make a soul is a denial of incarnation—a refusal of one of the world’s highest pleasures and deepest experiences. I am not of course saying that only married people have souls. I am saying that it’s worthwhile to have a soul, in part so as to have the capacity to make a choice like marriage, but mostly because it would be a shame to go through life without ever thinking about what Hopkins would call the sakes of it. This is diving rather deep in order to answer a relatively shallow question, I admit, but this way of arguing about marriage seems to require it.

I dissent from any deprecation of the self, and a fortiori of the soul, in the name of liberating the body. A liberated body is merely an animal, and there are stark limits to the liberty that an animal is capable of. Human liberty goes further—it involves something else—and to exclude that something else from a human life is sort of to miss the whole point, frankly.

What exactly that something else is, in a marriage or in a life, is hard to say without misrepresenting it. Emerson recommends modesty on the subject, and I wonder if your error has been to show such an excessive modesty that in your essay you pretend, as a conceit, that this something else does not even exist. But it does, I believe, even if it is invented.



Notebook: The Golden Age of Piracy

Gladys Hulette, New York Tribune, 22 October 1916

"Bootylicious," my review of Peter T. Leeson's The Invisible Hook, appears in the 7 September 2009 issue of the New Yorker.

As in the past, I'd like to offer on this blog some description of the sources that were useful to me in writing the article. The customary caveat: this post won't make much sense if you haven't yet read the article in question first. My first thanks, as usual, are for the book under review, Leeson's Invisible Hook, which is dapper and brisk besides being very well researched.

The best descriptions of pirates come from people taken captive by them. Captain William Snelgrave, whom I use to start my article, tells his story in A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade, which, though published in 1734, is mysteriously unavailable in Google Books. The only physical copy I can find for sale is a 1971 reprint—for $430. Talk about piracy! Within the scholarly world, Snelgrave's narrative is also famous for his observations of Africa and of slave-trading, which he defends. Another captive, Captain George Roberts, describes having been seized near the Cape Verde Islands in 1722 in The Four Years' Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. "You Dog! You Son of a Bitch! you Speckled-Shirt Dog!" one of his captors curses him. Asked who he thinks his captors are, Roberts submissively answers that "I believed they were Gentlemen of Fortune belonging to the Sea," only to be told off once more: "You lie by God, we are Pirates, by God." Roberts tells a good yarn, so good that some have wondered whether it might be fiction, but I think it's too good for that. When, for example, one of the pirates maroons Roberts on the high seas in a boat with no sail and no provisions, the pirate bestows on Roberts, in parting, a musket with a small amount of powder, calling it a special gift. The gift puzzles Roberts. In fact, though Roberts never figures it out, a loaded gun was traditionally given by one pirate to another when he marooned him—so the marooned man could shoot himself instead of starving to death slowly. It would take a subtle novelist to resist writing the scene where it dawns on Roberts what the musket is for; it seems more likely to me that Roberts's experience and ignorance were both genuine.

Two more captives tell their stories in the General History of the Pyrates, a book I'll describe in a moment. One of them, Captain Evans of the Greyhound, is quoted in my article saying he prefers to keep his hand and lose his gold. At the moment when another captive, Captain Macrae, is afraid that he's going to lose his life, "a Fellow with a terrible Pair of Whiskers, and a wooden leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck." To Macrae's surprise, the blustering fellow acclaims him "an honest Fellow," and the testimony saves him. (After reading this story, I wasted a fair amount of time trying to figure out who "the Man in the Almanack with Darts" was, and here's the answer, courtesy of Notes and Queries, 13 June 1908: "The reference . . . is evidently an allusion to the woodcuts in the ephemerides of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries illustrating the supposed effects of the planets, &c., on the diseases in various parts of man's body. . . . The arrows are merely lines pointing to the head, heart, breast, legs, feet, &c., of a small naked figure."

The Pirates' Ruse (detail), February 1896: Male pirates, dressed as ladies and gentlemen, lure a merchant ship closer, while their mates hide with their weapons below the bulwarks Several buccaneers left narratives. The most famous is The Buccaneers of America (first English edition, 1684) by A. O. Exquemelin, a Frenchman who served with Henry Morgan and later became a surgeon in Holland. Exquemelin has some nice observations of life in the New World—flamingo meat and crocodile eggs are very tasty, he reports, and one of the few drawbacks of Caribbean life are these insects known as mosquitoes ("most vexing of all is the noise they make in one's ears")—but there's so much torture in his story that it's quite grim and grisly. I read Alexis Brown's translation, but there's an older translation available for download on Google Books. The Library of Congress offers an online display of the illustrations to the 1678 Dutch edition. Another buccaneer, Basil Ringrose, wrote an account of further depredations that picks up where Exquemelin left off, and it has often been reprinted as the second half of Exquemelin's book.

Pirates (as opposed to buccaneers) left few first-hand documents. The General History reprints a few fragments from what it claims was Blackbeard's diary: "rum all out:—our Company somewhat sober:—A damn’d Confusion amongst us!" And there is the occasional threatening letter, such as the one from Henry Every that I quote, which is reprinted in J. Franklin Jameson, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period (1923), a collection of letters, reports, and legal documents, glossed with very helpful footnotes. There is also the testimony that pirates gave in court, the amplest source of which may be the four volumes (well, two of the four volumes) of Joel H. Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age.

And then there's Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1724), which is droll and vivid. You want the version edited by Manuel Schonhorn, because it's the most meticulous, even though Schonhorn thought that "Charles Johnson" was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe. In fact, Arne Bialuschewski has shown that it was almost certainly a pseudonym for the journalist Nathaniel Mist.

Between them, Exquemelin's Buccaneers and Johnson/Mist's General History are the source of almost all the great stories about pirates. Given the standards of historiography of their era, they're considered to be remarkably accurate. Still, they do contain instances of embroidery, including, in the case of Johnson/Mist, a long Voltairean (in style though maybe not spirit, depending on the level of irony you choose to read it at) fantasy about a pirate utopia in Madagascar called "Libertalia." Another problem: Johnson/Mist's book is a jumble, chronologically speaking. Only modern history will help you sort wheat from chaff. C. R. Pennell has written an excellent bibliographic essay about pirate scholarship, which appears at the start of his collection Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, which itself contains a broad sample of historical essays, including several on pirates other than the English-speaking ones. To speak very generally, pirate history comes in two sorts: those that describe piracy as a system, and those that describe it as a series of events. (I'm speaking crudely, of course; all do both, to some extent.) Leeson's book falls into the first category, as do such works as Christopher Hill's essay "Radical Pirates?" (1984) and Marcus Rediker's wonderful Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. (Rediker's pioneering effort on pirates was a chapter in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 – 1750.) Villains of All Nations is lively and astute, and in many ways Rediker's Marxian analysis of pirates anticipates Leeson's. Rediker also seems to have read every pirate-related document ever created. Somewhat lighter in spirit, but also very responsible, is David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, which overlays pirate sociology with a tour of the literature and film created out of pirate lore in later centuries.

As for books that offer a more narrative history of pirates, English-speaking pirates did so much dastardy that it's hard to fit the whole story between two covers. One book that manages to tell the full tale is Patrick Pringle's Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (Norton, 1953), which covers it all—Elizabethan privateers, colonial-era buccaneers, and Enlightenment-age pirates. Pringle was a sedulous researcher, but new facts have come to light in the half-century since he wrote, so he can't always be relied on as a final authority. His felicitous style more than compensates, though; he's something of a wit. On the matter of pirate governance, he, too, anticipates Leeson's arguments:

Those seamen, mostly illiterate and uneducated, freed from moral and legal restraints, would to-day be regarded as unfit for self-government. . . . Where discipline is removed, self-discipline emerges in the most unlikely places. . . . It worked. Anarchism on a small scale usually does, if it is left in peace. Anarchism on a large scale has not yet been tried.

For in-depth and fully end-noted history, three relatively recent accounts are as riveting as adventure tales: Peter Earle's The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean (1981) describes the buccaneer Henry Morgan's opportunistic but (in English eyes) legal raids on Spanish territories in the 1660s and 1670s; Robert C. Ritchie's Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (1986) lucidly narrates Kidd's late-seventeenth-century plundering against a background of political intrigue between Whigs and Tories; and Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007) tells the story of the last generation of Golden Age pirates, those of the early eighteenth century, including Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Samuel Bellamy, and the role played in their demise by Bahamas governor Woodes Rogers.

A note on pirate sex: B. R. Burg argued in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1983) that pirates practiced homosexuality more freely than their contemporaries. The circumstances do suggest that this might be likely, as do Bartholomew Roberts's pirate articles, which forbade the presence of any "boy or woman" on board. I'm reluctant to rule it out, knowing what one knows about the British Navy, the original employer of most pirates, and about the propensity of modern-day historians to sweep such matters under the rug. (In Under the Black Flag, for instance, Cordingly quotes Roberts's articles, including the diktat against "boy or woman," and then writes, "There is no mention in this code . . . of homosexuality." Argh, as the pirates say.) But there's not enough evidence to make any positive assertion. The ultimate source of a number of supposed accounts of pirate homosexuality is Louis Le Golif's Memoirs of a Buccaneer, widely suspected of being a twentieth-century fiction. When Le Golif's tales are excluded, very little evidence of pirate sodomy remains. Ringrose's narrative is the source of the anecdote in my article of the servant who claims to have been buggered by his buccaneer master. (Confusingly, the relevant passage does not appear in the reprint linked to above, but only in the original 1685 edition.) The servant confesses, however, just as his master is losing a power struggle with other buccaneers, so his confession might be true, might be part of a smear campaign, or might be both, but in any case it isn't a happy moment of love and liberation. Also intriguing is the testimony given in a court case involving a pirate named Powell, who told a sailor, "I wish you and I were both ashore here stark naked." Rediker reports the line as possibly containing an erotic charge, but when read in its original context (the line appears at vol. 3, page 186 of Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age), it seems more likely that the statement was recalled in court as evidence of the extremity of Powell's wish to be off the pirate ship, not as evidence of sexual interest.

Pirates, you will not be surprised to hear, are all over the internet. In conclusion, as a representative sampling, here are American soldiers flying Jolly Roger in Afghanistan, a Victorian toy theater for rehearsing the adventures of Blackbeard in your pinafore at home, and an early episode of the exceedingly goofy "Auto-Tune the News" featuring both pirates and gay marriage.

Rad tot lit

"Children of the Left, Unite!" my essay about Tales for Little Rebels, an anthology of radical children's literature edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Phlip Nel, appears in the 11 January 2009 issue of the New York Times Book Review.

An afterthought: Though, as you will see if you read my essay, the play about the beavers left me cold, I learn from Vicky Raab, writing at the New Yorker's Book Bench blog about Sally Quinn's new history of the WPA theater, that when it was staged with roller skates in the 1930s, it seemed "so thrilling that it incited children to rush the stage." De castoribus* non est disputandum, evidently.

* Declension corrected! A proper Latinist points out that not the genitive but the ablative is required here.

Innocence vs. experience

Pedro the Lion’s song “Penetration” begins

Have you ever seen an idealist with gray hairs on his head?

which reminds me of the passage in Emerson’s lecture “The Transcendentalist” where he says

Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, “Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?” And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists?

which reminds me, in turn, of late Melville. Yesterday, on the electronic discussion group ISHMAIL, the scholar Peter Norberg traced the origin of the motto that Melville is said to have kept pasted to his desk at the end of his life,

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

It comes from a discussion of Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Madame de Stael’s Germany. Stael reports a favor that one character asks of another, and then adds an observation of her own:

“Remind him,” he says, “when he shall be of riper years,—remind him that he ought to have respect for the dreams of his youth.” In fact, as we advance in life, prudence gains too much upon all our other virtues; it seems as if all warmth of soul were merely folly . . .

After work today, I walked down to the library at 42nd Street, digital camera in pocket, to watch the anarchists rally. On Fifth Avenue, I happened to fall in with them, and I eavesdropped. A young woman asked the young man with a crewcut carrying their furled banner to slow down, because someone in back couldn’t keep up. “You’re six foot one,” she said, “and for every step you take, she has to take, like, four.” He wanted to arrive on time; she accused him of insensitivity. “We’re all adults here,” he defended himself.

I went partly out of curiosity, partly out of remorse at having been out of town during the proper protest on Sunday. Even in my youth—especially in my youth—I wasn’t much of an anarchist. (For the record, that’s understatement.) And I am more or less constitutionally incapable of joining in chants.

Still, it was a spectacle, which I feel conflicted about having fed. Over at n+1, Marco Roth has written, perceptively, that “When you find democracy entertaining, you know you’re a little off the right track—because it suggests you’ve become a spectator of yourself as a participant—similar to watching yourself have sex.” And the photograph that I wanted to take, but which the stutteriness of digital technology more or less defeated, was of the cameras nearly outnumbering the anarchists, surrounding their little bubble of human messiness like the black, lunar probe-shaped viruses that circled a cell and then punctured its membrane in the diagram in my high school biology textbook.

A line of police kept the protesters from returning to the front steps of the library, and the protesters seemed unable to decide whether to turn their backs to the police or to address them. Where was the fourth wall? It didn’t matter; the cameras were everywhere. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching,” but the warning wasn’t necessary. The police themselves were videotaping.

Will it hurt the Kerry campaign? The anarchists looked very much like middle America expects them to: tattoos, head scarves, sleeveless T-shirts. After the leader announced a march to Seventh Avenue, there was confusion, and I overheard a credential-wearing photojournalist mutter, “So fucking stupid.” The professionals, in other words, were not impressed.

And there wasn’t a lot of forethought on display. The protesters chose an extremely narrow gate for their exit. The police allowed them and the audience to file out. Then the police unrolled a ribbon of orange mesh and began to charge down the 42nd street sidewalk to clear it. If you haven’t experienced this, it’s sort of civil disobedience meets musical chairs. If the police finish “wrapping” a section of the sidewalk and you’re on the inside of the wrapper when they’re done, you’re arrested. In the one round of the game that I stayed to watch, it was not that hard to escape; maybe it isn’t meant to be. The police seemed mostly to catch photojournalists—players who were disadvantaged, no doubt, by not having looked up from their viewfinders.

I slipped forward along the walkway hidden by hedges that skirts the library’s north side and debouches at the Bryant Street Cafe. There a middle-aged woman rose, drink in hand, to accost a parks employee. “I hear the anarchists have organized a protest on the internet, but how can they do that?” she asked. “If they’re anarchists, how can they organize anything?” She seemed to feel she’d hit on a real stumper.

“They didn’t,” the parks employee answered.

That’s about as much as I witnessed. I think I’m supposed to be more chagrined by the silliness than I am. I see the Times is already calling the incident at the library a “brawl.” The word implies an evenhanded situation, as if the protesters resisted or fought back. They didn’t, from what I observed. They were trying their best to look angry and nonconformist, and their enemies will be happy to see them that way. But it was difficult, in person, not to notice that they were also well-intentioned and hapless—young and imprudent. They seemed full of life.