America starts here

What the hell is it with southwestern Pennsylvania these days? How is that such an ordinary place keeps get mixed up with such extraordinary headlines?

It’s rare enough for any part of Pennsylvania to make a ripple in the national consciousness. As geographer Pierce Lewis notes in Chapter 1 of A Geography of Pennsylvania (E. Willard Miller, ed., Penn State Press, 1995), “A recent study has shown that Pennsylvania conveys no very clear image of regional identity; by many Americans it is seen as an ordinary kind of place.” But in highly stressful times, such ordinariness can begin to seem attractive, as Americans search for emblematic expressions of bedrock national virtues. You want examples of old-fashioned fighting spirit and moral rectitude? The headlines say, Look no farther than your own backyard.

It may be that Americans are growing tired of being the swaggering, trash-talking policemen of the world. If that’s true, it’s no wonder that the low-key, self-deprecating style cultivated by folks in my neck of the woods might seem refreshing. When cultural geographers rank the fifty states according to the presence or absence of state pride, Pennsylvania is all the way over on the other end of the spectrum from Texas. We are the anti-Texas!

This is in part because different regions within the state are so distinct. Our veteran senator Arlen Specter – who is, whatever else one may think of him, a very bright man – once admitted in an interview that, for the purposes of campaigning, he divided the state into six distinct regions, with a different campaign style required for each. Wilbur Zielinsky, in A Geography of Pennsylvania, identifies seven “culture areas.” According to Zielinsky, geographers debate about how much of Western Pennsylvania may actually be considered an extension of the Midwest, and whether the extreme southwestern corner of the state constitutes the tip end of the “Upper South.”

We weren’t always so self-deprecating or lacking in regional self-identity. Southwestern PA first gained national notoriety in 1794 with the Whiskey Rebellion. This began as a local revolt against federal excise taxes, and quickly spread south throughout the backwoods areas of the then-frontier. George Washington – one of Western Pennsylvania’s original land speculators (today we call them “developers”), with a strong personal stake in the insurrection’s outcome – led 13,000 federal troops over the Allegheny Front to crush the revolt. Considering that many volunteers in the Revolutionary War had fought against the British precisely because of their resentment of excise taxes, some historians view the violent suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion as tantamount to a counter-revolution.

When the Whiskey Rebellion was crushed, what had been a sharply defined, separate regional identity quickly dissipated. The most rebellious elements of the population relocated to more inaccessible portions of the Appalachian chain, to be replaced by later maves of somewhat more tractible immigrants. Some contemporary historians feel that the Whiskey Rebellion’s influence on the United States may actually have been quite salutary, helping to solidify the anti-Federalist positions of Thomas Jefferson and his associates. Be that as it may, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the original stronghold of state’s rights sentiment was a portion of the country now exceptional for its lack of regional jingoism.

But the appetite for radical democratic organizing lingered. As a center of the steel industry and a bituminous coal region, southwestern Pennsylvania (including Pittsburgh) has seen its share of epic labor battles. The great Homestead strike of 1892 led to one of the bloodiest battles in American labor history, pitting Pinkertons and the Pennsylvania National Guard against 25,000 locked-out workers and their families. Although it represented a step backward for labor relations, repercussions of this battle would eventually be felt around the world. Alexander Berkman’s failed assassination attempt against strikebreaker Henry Clay Frick, and its total lack of impact on political events, helped turn his companion, Emma Goldman, against the then-popular anarchist dogma of “revolution by the deed.” Goldman subsequently became one of the world’s most influential advocates for individual freedom and social anarchism, and her thoughts on the limits of violence would influence countless other revolutionaries and social change advocates for decades to come.

In an even darker episode, the Johnstown Strike of 1937 provided industrial bosses with the first opportunity to see if a new, “scientific” approach to strikebreaking pioneered by the Rand Remington company in Elmira, New York could be successfully copied elsewhere. The National Association of Manufacturers would later cite the Johnstown Strike as a model for how to employ the so-called Mohawk Valley Formula:

“A citizens’ committee is formed under the slogan of ‘law and order.’ Mass police powers are invoked against the strikers by dramatizing real, imaginary, or provoked instances of ‘violence.’ Back-to-work sentiment is stimulated by the presence of massed vigilantes, a pretense of normal plant operations, mass meetings, press and radio publicity, dissemination of demoralizing propaganda, the circulation of back-to-work petitions, and a well-timed dramatic opening of the plant so prearranged that a substantial body of non-strikers or outside recruits marches into the plant en masse. The employer manipulates pressure groups to discredit the strike as the ‘lost cause’ of a ‘radical minority.’ With public support, he can, if necessary, employ extra-legal means of thwarting unionization.”

This procedure became an essential tool for industry to defeat unions after the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which for the first time required management to bargain with workers’ representatives. Again, the outcome of the Johnstown Strike had impacts around the world. Elements of the Mohawk Valley Formula are still routinely employed, not merely against labor organizers but environmental activists as well.

I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on this history over the last nine months, as I’ve become involved in a fight to maintain public control over a popular state park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Despite strong local opposition to a proposal to build an exclusive, country club-style resort in the park, and despite the fact that three-quarters of the 19 groups in our anti-resort alliance are based in the local area, resort proponents have sought to portray us all as “outside agitators” intent on imposing our effete, anti-jobs agenda on a vulnerable populace. And an informal “citizen’s committee” of wealthy local elites has formed to try and concentrate influence on state-level decision makers and outflank us “agitators.”

Although I have been known to question the value of patriotism, I don’t deny that questions of national, regional and tribal identity play a key role in politics, especially in helping to shape people’s willingness to fight or to refrain from fighting. Who are we – a nation of jack-booted thugs and trigger-happy sadists, or the valiant firefighters of the world? As individuals, should we follow our leaders and root for the home team no matter what, or must we obey the dictates of our own consciences, even rising up in revolt if the circumstances demand it?

For many Americans, events in southwestern Pennsylvania have helped to crystallize these questions. First came the Quecreek mining disaster of July 2002, which drew television reporters from far and wide with its dramatic story line. Focused on the horror of being trapped deep underground, the nation was unprepared for the miners’ successful rescue, and many found their nonchalance and stoicism inspiring. (The extent to which this disaster had been precipitated by the extreme incompetence and callousness of the mining company, encouraged by newly-relaxed safety standards championed by “President” Bush only weeks earlier, unfortunately never garnered much publicity.)

Then came September 11. Whatever the exact circumstances surrounding the crash of Flight 93 at Shanksville, PA, transcripts of phone conversations with the passengers leave little doubt that a coordinated uprising against the hijackers did take place. Local firefighters and first responders became linked in the public imagination with the heroes of the World Trade Center disaster in New York City, as well as with “the 40 brave souls [who] fought armed terrorists to save the lives of others and some unknown national landmark,” as the Flight 93 Memorial Information Center puts it.

The latest example of the “ordinary heroism” of southwestern Pennsylvanians emerged just this week. Somerset County native alerted officers of Iraqi prisoner abuse, trumpeted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Bernadette Darby said she received a phone call from her husband, Spc. Joseph M. Darby, about three weeks ago, informing her that something was going to happen with his unit and that she shouldn’t worry.

“‘He said he wasn’t in any trouble and I shouldn’t worry,’ said Darby by phone from her home in Cumberland, Md. ‘I asked him what was going on but he wouldn’t tell me.’

“According to details of an Army report released yesterday, Darby, 24, a Somerset County native and member of the 372nd Military Police Company, was the one who alerted officers about the alleged torture of Iraqi prisoners of war by others in his Cresaptown, Md.-based unit, leading to criminal charges and possible court-martial of several soldiers.

“Bernadette Darby, who along with her husband grew up in Somerset County, said she had heard of the incident on the news, but was not aware of her husband’s role until a reporter from the Baltimore Sun phoned her yesterday.

“‘I was shocked and proud,’ said Darby. ‘I am behind him 100 percent. He felt something was wrong and I couldn’t be more proud of him.'”

In his expose of the prisoner abuse scandal in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersch quotes from a transcript of a military hearing. “A government witness, Special Agent Scott Bobeck . . . told the court . . ‘The investigation started after SPC Darby . . . got a CD from CPL Graner. . . . He came across pictures of naked detainees.’ Bobeck said that Darby had ‘initially put an anonymous letter under our door, then he later came forward and gave a sworn statement. He felt very bad about it and thought it was very wrong.'”

If we look at cultural rather than political boundaries, intertwining story lines form an even more interesting weave. Like Joe Darby and the Quecreek miners, Jessica Lynch also hails from these mountains. To me, Lynch earned her hero status when she repudiated – in a firm, if understated manner – the false heroism that the military propagandists had tried to attach to her story. According to her Iraqi nurses and doctors, Lynch’s extreme naivete and lack of affectation made a deep impression on everyone who came into contact with her. In contrast with the brutality and cynicism of the U.S.-led invasion, these very ordinary virtues seemed extraordinary.

But then there are those soldiers in the now-notorious photos, also from the mountains. One of the soldiers under investigation is from southwestern Pennsylvania, in fact. Four of the others are from rural Virginia, and one, Lynndie England, is from Fort Ashby, West Virginia – less than twenty miles from the Pennsylvania border. England is the inanely smiling young woman posing with the degraded bodies of her captives whose only crime was to be identified as “outside agitators” . . . and to be dark-skinned. This, too, is the face of America – we might as well own up to it. But that’s another, far less heartwarming story . . .

Marginalia: on a quote from Thoreau


Let me know your thoughts on this:

“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa – it turns the man of science to stone.”
– H. D. Thoreau, quoted by William Hamilton Gibson

Why? Because it’s all too marvelous? Because it’s impossible to fully comprehend and partial comprehension is all we’ll ever get? The beauty will distract from/distort the science?

The Sylph



I’d want to know the context of this remark before saying exactly what I thought he meant. But of course the wonderful thing about isolating a quote is that it opens up multiple possibilities for interpretation – it frees the mind to explore it in ways the author may never have consciously intended. In this way, merely by cutting it loose, a brief passage of prose may be converted into something very like a poem.

This is of course a roundabout way of saying, “I don’t know!” You could take this a number of ways. I suppose HDT was indulging in a bit of sarcasm at his more “scientific” colleagues’ expense. (Didn’t “naturalist” meant “scientist” at the time?) But perhaps he meant to include himself in the criticism – I can’t tell.




Yes, you’re probably on to something there. Our [recently deceased] friend George spent many a day with his nose in his works by HDT in search of the context of this quote . . . I’ll try googling, as you probably already did.
I found it in Spirit in Nature, from Vol. 5 of the Journals (March, 1853 – November 1853). Not much context, just stuck in there by itself.

The Sylph



I don’t think this arrangement of quotes, “Spirit in Nature,” originated with Thoreau. Thanks for the link though – a lot of good stuff! I thought the following was especially telling:

“He is the richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life. If these gates of golden willows affect me, they correspond to the beauty and promise of some experience on which I am entering. If I am overflowing with life, am rich in experience for which I lack expression, then nature will be my language full of poetry – all nature will be fable, and every natural phenomenon be a myth. The man of science, who is not seeking for expression but for a fact to be expressed merely, studies nature as a dead language. I pray for such inward experience as will make nature significant.”

I find the egotism here a little nauseating. Nature as raw material makes me think of the ideology of resourcism – maybe an inescapable way of talking about Nature in the 19th century. Hell, I don’t think we’ve emerged from its shadow even today. Nevertheless, the bit about scientists and dead languages has the ring of truth about it.




Got it! Thanks to a full citation in an essay by Scott Slovic, I was able to locate the original entry in the journals (we have the Dover complete edition). A shame George didn’t use the Internet – though perhaps the prolonged and fruitless search carries its own rewards, e.g. in discovering nifty things along the way? The quote was indeed only a fragment; here’s the whole paragraph. (This should strike a chord with you, given your recent experience with lichens.)

“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. I feel I am dissipated by many observations. I should be the magnet in the midst of all this dust and filings. I know the back of my hand against a rock, and as I smooth back the skin, I find myself prepared to study lichens there. I look upon man but as a fungus. I have a slight, dry headache as the result of all this observing. How to observe is how to behave. O for a little Lethe! To crown all, lichens, which are so thin, are described in the dry state, as they are most commonly, not most truly, seen. Truly, they are dryly described.”

This is very strange to me. HDT evidently believed enough in science to think that its dry methology did constitute a form of direct seeing, and he rejected that – or at least felt that it must be tempered by the imagination. This puts him very far from the via negativa.




Yeah – he’ll only study lichens if they’re growing on him. They could never get his interest otherwise, the dried up crispy crusts of hardly knowable matter that they are (without optical aids) . . . Yet his interest in man as fungus is via-negativistic in spirit, is it not? I suggest that the pre-‘easily-obtained-optical-aid’-age contributed to his indifference vis-a-vis the lowly lichen.



Hi again,

Just out walking to the Far Field, gazing in wonder and some sadness at the profusion of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal inside that tiny ten year-old deer exclosure – and bare ground everywhere outside it.

Not to beat a dead naturalist, but the Thoreau quote does remind me of reactions I’ve had myself. For example, on wildflower outings I am always insisting on the common names; the Latin strikes me as it evidently struck Thoreau – too dry. Why should a dead language be the language of first resort to describe a living being? The common names are imprecise, yes – precisely because they are part of a living language that is constantly in flux.



Living language, yes. Actual communication? Almost impossible. The species names are dry to me too, but the genus brings a mental image – a gestalt of the plant in question. So many times when I’m trying to communicate with someone about a certain plant and they know only the popular name, it’s nothing but frustration. Common names have regional patterns, duplicate applications, historical meanings – it’s just a mess. I used to feel the way you do about it but if the mission is communication, the advantage of each species having its own name can’t be beat. I too worship Linnaeus. Trying to discuss the properties of plants without getting specific IS seeing nature with only a sideways glance. It doesn’t always matter – in fact, it usually doesn’t. But remember, these little entities have evolved their separateness. Their tiny histories, which led to what they are this minute, are rich food for the imagination. If you let yourself get wrapped up in not only Linnaeus but Darwin too, natural history is far from dry. A dead language is PERFECT for use as a labeling language. Hats off to Linnea!

Must get to work here now . . .



I’m thinking maybe we ought to give a listen to what Scott Slovic has to say about it, since he situates the quote within the much larger context of Thoreau’s entire life and work. His estimation of St. Henry is more charitable than mine, though he does acknowledge Thoreau’s “frequent haughtiness of tone.” (That’s definitely the major thing keeping me from becoming a rabid Thoreauvian!) From Marginality, Midnight Optimism, and the Natural Cipher: An Approach to Thoreau and Eiseley:

“By seeking the wholesome margins of civilization, Thoreau achieves the clarity of spirit necessary for full appreciation of his existence. From this position of voluntary exile from society, whether for a brief walk in the woods or for a two-year habitation of the shoreland near Walden Pond, he gains both emotional health and insightful perspective. In the essay ‘A Winter Walk,’ he argues that life itself is ‘more serene and worthy to contemplate’ when he is ‘standing quite alone, far in the forest’ (Natural History Essays 59). So it is not merely the observer’s perspective that improves through marginality, but his very life.

“Yet the appreciator of the natural cipher must take care, if he is to enjoy fully the mysteries and beauties of nature, to rely on an appropriately marginal way of seeing. On March 23, 1853, Thoreau notes in his journal that ‘man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye.’ Direct scrutiny of the natural world, he writes, ‘is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone’ (5:45). By learning to observe from the margins, Thoreau manages to contemplate the meaning of things without becoming distracted, even paralyzed, by their surface appearances. On November 5, 1857, he proclaims:

Sometimes I would rather get a transient glimpse or side view of a thing than stand fronting it – as those polybodies. The object I caught a glimpse of as I went by haunts my thoughts a long time, is infinitely suggestive, and I do not care to front it and scrutinize it, for I know that the thing that really concerns me is not there, but in my relation to that. That is a mere reflecting surface. (10.164)

“The subtle suggestiveness and sense of relation far outweigh the visible qualities of the object itself for the man who is poetically or divinely alive. And marginal glimpsing allows such an observer to avoid the glare of directness and savor the delicate meaningfulness of his experience. Marginality, for Thoreau, is both a kind of environment and a method of observation – and both contribute to his awakening.

“What Thoreau desires in this marginal existence is a general sense of meaning, not a tightly (if deeply) spelled out typological system like the Puritans’ or a Linnaean catalogue of facts (disparaged by Emerson in his section on language in Nature, 1836). Thoreau wants simply to experience the immediacy, the multiplicity, and the beauty of the natural world. He is a lover of details, even details without broader meanings and metaphorical equivalents. In the ‘Thursday’ chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he writes:

When compelled by a shower to take shelter under a tree, we may improve that opportunity for a more minute inspection of some of Nature’s works. I have stood under a tree in the wood half a day at a time, during a heavy rain in the summer, and yet employed myself happily and profitably there by prying with microscopic eye into the crevices of the bark or the leaves or the fungi at my feet. (A Week 300)

“The pleasure of such activity results not from the ability to identify and explain all the observable phenomena. No, Thoreau, like Mather with his strange occurrences in the heavens, realizes the necessity of looking ‘through and beyond’ nature (5:45) – he peers microscopically only to savor the magnificent minutiae, not to rationalize and categorize them. . . .

“The perspective of the traveler – marginal, estranged, freshly alert – is just what Thoreau desires, only without having to cover vast stretches of land and water. ‘To the sick,’ he notes, ‘the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world’ (320). Yet little of the actual world is needed if the observer manages to maintain a marginal perspective.”

(Weber Studies, Winter 1992, Volume 9.1)

AFTERTHOUGHT: Artists and thinkers aren’t the only ones who know how to exploit “the wholesome margin of civilization.” Literal and figurative margins are also a very fruitful terrain for merchants and capitalists. The seizure of marginal lands – as commons, an essential element (though not always a large one) in the subsistence economy – resulted in the marginalization of hundreds of thousands of people, who would then comprise the disposable human resources for the Industrial Revolution. One man’s margin is another man’s profit. And this process continues: for example, when a pharmaceutical giant obtains the patent rights on a people’s traditional plant medicine, what is that but the enclosure of the commons in a slightly new guise? We are not so much a nation of immigrants as we are a nation of displaced and uprooted people – people alienated from Nature in a far more violent manner than the modern would-be transcendentalist would care to imagine.

Gary Nabhan has a good essay on refugees and land-hunger (focusing on the Middle East) in the current issue of Orion, abridged for the web version.

SEE ALSO the entry for February 11, “Some quotes on the art of seeing.”

How to be a megalomaniac, and other hot tips

For those of you with actual lives and actual careers, I understand that Wednesday can be particularly tough to get through. In the spirit of helping all of you’ns weather the day with grace and good humor, I’ve decided to post some links to stuff a few shades lighter than the usual somber fare here at Via Negativa.

First comes a review of a new satire on the poetry business – admittedly sort of an obvious target for satire (“like shooting similes in a barrel,” notes the reviewer.) Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z., a first novel by Debra Weinstein, is racking up the glowing reviews, perhaps in part because so many reviewers still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a legacy of their own tenures in MFA programs. According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Ron Charles, “In this brilliant elegy to the abuse of subordinates, all of Z.’s requests rhyme with ‘absurd.’ She’ll sign her letters only in a particular order.

“She sends Annabelle back to the Salvation Army to paw through piles for her favorite pair of shoes. The buttons on her blazer must be replaced because she can’t ‘live with the constant jangling.’ Several times, she castigates Annabelle for failing to keep sufficiently close watch on the supply of hand towels in the bathroom. ‘I like the paper to be thick and textured,’ Z. cautions. ‘The feel should be more cotton than paper.’

“‘A less noble person would feel degraded,’ Annabelle says without missing a beat, ‘but I take Z.’s assignment as a challenge.’ In fact, she’s flattered to be ‘the guardian of Z.’s psychic space,’ thrilled to be enjoying status unlike anything she’s ever experienced before.'”

It sounds as if the eponymous Z. has received special training of her own. New Age “Magick” guru Philip H. Farber actually leads workshops on How to be a Megalomaniac; I have an old flyer advertising one of his seminars in upstate New York several years back. “Whether you’re a full-tilt guru wannabe or a former follower with the will to know how your mind was warped, you’ll agree that this seminar is the ONE TRUE WAY. Learn the hypnotic secrets of the televangelists! Perform miracles that will amaze your friends and entrance your followers! Learn to sling total absurdity in a way that will have them reaching for their checkbooks!”

Now you can get the entire course on just two videocassettes – at $50 postage paid, a fantastic savings!

Now, let’s say you’ve taken the course, you’ve assembled your inner circle of worshipful disciples, and you’ve purchased your first gold-plated, “green” Hummer – itself the charismatic focus of a brand new cult. But you still feel strangely empty. What to do?

Why not consider purchasing a fine military aircraft? Don’t worry, no background checks are required. Just fill out a few, brief forms.

If that’s not enough to get you fired up, you might want to check in with the Guy Upstairs – in some people’s estimation, the world’s original megalomaniac. Fill out a questionnaire and get right with the LORD. Then, why not while away a pleasant hour or two with Friedrich Nietzsche – after God, possibly the funniest megalomaniac that ever lived?

O.K., just kidding! But there are actually some very serious people out there who have written very serious books about Nietzche’s alleged sense of humor. Check out Comic Relief: Nietzsche’s Gay Science at At least one reviewer seems to suffer from Nietzsche’s own malady: “This book is not funny. Higgins is not funny. Nietzsche’s Joyful Wisdom is not funny. This book, as discussed in the preface, was contracted by a silly university press — one of the silliest of them all.” (Jesus, buddy, go buy a McDonnell-Douglas military aircraft or something.)

Incidentally, there is one – just one – Nietzsche joke out there, from what I can tell. It’s the very same joke I first read on a bathroom stall in the first floor of Sackett building at Penn State’s University Park campus back in June, 1984. A post at O Mundo de Claudia has the original; someone in the comments suggests a faintly amusing variation.

But it is, after all, hump day, and perhaps megalomania would seem more exciting if you saved it for the weekend. Here in the Northeast, at any rate, it’s a cloudy, rainy day. If you can manage to take off early, what could be better than to spend the rest of the afternoon curled up with a nice, light romance novel? The White House invites you to peruse the Second Lady’s stirring tale of the Old West, “when men were men – and women were property!” I’m getting hot already . . .

But whatever you do, try to keep your priorities straight. Here are the Top Ten Reasons Why Beer is Better Than Jesus. I think I’ll go get me some religion right now.

Ten thoughts about possession

1. People don’t actually own anything.

2. Ownership of land may seem obvious to us, but it wasn’t to American Indians. They thought they were selling usufruct rights. And given that one can own surface rights without owning subsurface rights, possession of land can become effectively mooted by the conversion of soil into “overburden” to be scraped away and dumped elsewhere.

3. Possession is inherently ephemeral – and again, the law reflects this. Eminent domain provides for the use of property for the “public good,” though that concept can mutate almost beyond recognition. Most new highways, for example, will not do the land or the public any long-term good. And in some parts of the country, it’s becoming an accepted practice for local governments to condemn private property and turn it over to real estate speculators – with the justification that, for example, private residences do not constitute the “highest and best use” of land in cases where retail or industry might be more profitable and would return higher tax revenues. In times of war, virtually any private property may be seized for any reason. Finally, the existence of inheritance and estate taxes (an indirect subsidy of real estate speculators and private contractors) suggests that the privacy of property is little more than a useful fiction; everything ultimately belongs to Uncle Sam.

4. Do we own ourselves? Clearly not. There is no constitutionally recognized right to privacy. The government can institute a draft at any time, which means it retains the ultimate power of life or death over its citizens, despite what the Bill of Rights may say. Even more tellingly, it’s a crime to kill yourself, and a crime to kill others unless you are in uniform and following orders from the government. (Very few murders by police are ever prosecuted. And the U.S. government goes to great lengths to ensure that its soldiers may not be prosecuted by any international court for crimes committed while in uniform.) We do not own our own freedom: we cannot engage in so-called victimless crimes, such as ingesting certain banned substances. Given that the main reason for banning these substances appears to be societal discomfort with the alteration of the consciousness, we must conclude that our minds are not free, either. And individual liberty of movement – what imprisonment robs ones of – seems intrinsic to self-ownership. (If imprisonment were recognized as a form of slavery, the United States would probably be the world’s second-largest slaveholding society, right after China.)

5. Are there any limits to possession? How you answer this question depends on whether you believe anything can truly be known. If even an idea can be copyrighted or trademarked, nothing is safe. Consider that access to drinking water is being privatized around the globe. In Texas, an entire underground aquifer is owned outright. And life forms can now be patented – a blasphemous notion if there ever was one! Probably only the fear of adverse publicity prevents someone like Monsanto or Microsoft from patenting the human genome.

6. Are there any historical precedents for reversing categories of ownership once they have been admitted? Yes. At one time, it was assumed that owners of land had full rights to everything on it. Then market hunters wiped out wildlife populations in large sections of the East. Now, game species are recognized as being held in common, by the citizens at large. Endangered species and migratory birds are subject to national and international regulation respectively. Under the Clean Water Act, the regulation of wetlands belongs to the federal government. The animal rights movement seeks to extend legal recognition to nonhuman species; the wildlands movement advocates recognition of the self-willed (“wild”) and self-owned qualities of the land itself.

7. What does it mean to own something? If legal titles can be revoked – or voided by the overthrow of governments – then surely we must look beyond the law. “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” This implies that if/when the concept of possession is universally recognized as illusory and absurd, the practice of law will wither. What will remain? Without ownership – which is to say, without unique and unequal privileges to the earth’s bounty and to products of human labor – what promises would still be so critical that people might need special protection against their violation? Murder, incest and rape would not stop being wrong; what would likely fade is the societal appetite for retributive justice, once these types of crimes were no longer seen as crimes against a form of property.

8. What does it mean to be possessed? I venture to suggest that possession inevitably entails abuse, to owner as well as to the thing owned. There may well have been one or two benevolent slaveholders in the Old South, but human nature being what it is, I doubt there were many more than that. Because, in the first place, what is possession? I maintain that, at one level, Possession is the power to do with another anything we wish. This definition strikes me as perhaps little more than one half of a tautology, however, because power and possession do seem to be two sides of the same coin. Can we understand possession apart from power, or power apart from possession? Only if the self/other distinction can be dissolved through various forms of ecstasy (including death).

9. Wouldn’t complete self-sufficiency also render the need for power over others obsolete? The need, perhaps, but not the reality. The reality is that we are all completely interdependent. This points to a second, more basic definition of possession: it is a human, cultural abstraction of bodily consumption. The violent assimilation of foreign matter into one’s own body for conversion into energy and waste products is unavoidable. As we consume, so shall we be consumed. In this light, Death appears as the ultimate owner. But paradoxically, in death we also sense the potential for self-transcendence. In rebelling against the authority of death, we determine to live in truth – whatever that means. Every culture, every language grapples with this problem a little differently. In the West, we have traditionally talked about grace and about love. Both concepts partake of the aura of the gift.

10. This, I would argue, is what lies at the root of human experience: the intuition of mortal being/becoming as a gift. Power and possession, I suggest, are much more recent abstractions. To become fully aware is to recognize one’s own incommensurability with that portion of life and time one has been granted. Without such an awareness, the relationship between self and Self will begin to resemble the relationship between two parties in an economic transaction. Priests assert ownership over gods, gods assert ownership (“possession”) over priests. This may be inevitable. But it is a mask; and behind that mask lies the leering death’s head. The unadorned truth seems to be that from the beginning everything shines with its own light. Beauty, like truth, is intrinsic – which is another way of saying that things or beings ultimately resist all forms of calculation or manipulation. Consumption in the beginning is an innocent act; only when we cling to forms – when we try to possess things – does life appear tragic.

In the American Dream

The sleep of the just is just as we’ve always been told. Picture with me, if you will, the bathroom slippers arranged neatly by the bedside, the dog in his customary spot curled up, as dogs will do, with his nose a few inches from his anus. Equally at bay are the sour smells of anxiety and the endless odor-free winter of despair.

The sleep of the just is peaceful as a cemetery, calm as the aftermath of a therapeutic airstrike necessary to conquer terror and quell unrest. The downed wires, the cratered streets permit no troublesome motors to mar this earful of silence. From time to time a cellphone might trill from somewhere under the rubble, a tasteful snatch of classical music as pleasing as a cricket on the hearth.

The sleep of the just is uncommonly deep. Deep as the color of the sky above Fat Poplar, New Mexico. Deep as the voice of the taiko drum at Itsukushima-Jinja, carried out on the tide through the iconographic red torii that stands across the inlet from Hiroshima.

The sleep of the just, we are meant to suppose, is profoundly settling: we sink incrementally into the bed of that sunless river. Like a well-built house that can withstand the removal of a thick seam of coal several hundred feet down. Some mornings, one might find a new crack or two in the windows, doors that need a bit of extra planing before they’ll shut. Right angles gradually go more and more off true.

Ah, for such a rest of the over-stimulated senses! To forget everything, including our own names! Folded away between fresh sheets, breaths still tasting of after-dinner mints, one heartbeat away from the spent flesh of all our fondest desiring . . .

Still undergoing revision as of Tuesday morning.