(urth) Short Story 61*: Civus Laputus Sum

Fred Kiesche godelescherbach at gmail.com
Tue Apr 29 12:00:53 PDT 2014

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On Tue, Apr 29, 2014 at 2:33 PM, Marc Aramini <marcaramini at gmail.com> wrote:

> * "Forlesen", number 60 needs a bit more polish but I will finish it.  I
> am skipping ahead temporarily.  Also testing this new email - hope it is
> not spammed.
>  "Civis Laputus Sum" appeared in *Dystopian Visions* in 1975 and is
> reprinted in *Storeys from the Old Hotel*. The wolfe-wiki does an
> excellent job in identifying several of the references, but I want to take
> a closer look at the symbolism of the whales' heads in the chapters of *Moby
> Dick* Jeremy has memorized, as I believe those heads map to Stursa and
> Jeremy pretty perfectly.
> Our narrator Jeremy, a scholar on a floating island university consisting
> of literary academics called Disagreeables and aging athletes called
> Blazers, finds a book which has escaped the burning and purging of many
> other volumes. He sits down to read it and begins to talk to it (or rather,
> its long gone author). His place on the edge of the floating island, hidden
> behind the hawthorns, is seldom visited by anyone because of the proximity
> to the drop - the Blazers fear their balls might be thrown over. Below, fog
> has covered the earth. The majority of books have been burned long ago and
> the library space used for games. One of the antigravity units is failing
> and causes the island to list and sway - it's failure is considered
> inevitable.
>  The university was launched probably 15 years before this point from
> Philadelphia, and the academics continue to hold their sterile meetings and
> have memorized *Moby Dick. *As Jeremy talks with Marcia, an aging athlete
> trips and falls, almost hitting them. His fellow Blazers jeer and laugh at
> him. As they attend their scholarly meeting, Stursa, the aging athlete,
> shows up. Jeremy then finds his book in the basement of the library where
> it escaped incineration and goes to read it, and Stursa comes to speak to
> him. There, the attempted reconciliation by Stursa for their youthful
> disagreement, in which Stursa threw Jeremy into a bush, proceeds. Jeremy
> seizes the opportunity to tell Stursa they need a man to play Queequeeg in
> their existential adaptation of Moby Dick, with the fog bound earth being
> the Whale itself and the island as the ship. Jeremy will play Ishmael, and
> he brings up the scene where Queequeeg must bravely dangle on the side of
> the ship. He can finally have Stursa at his mercy, where he can cut him
> free and send him to his doom ... the only question remains: "Should I show
> [Stursa] the knife?"
>  It does seem that the books are utilized for fuel or for some purpose in
> keeping them aloft - while both factions are somewhat juvenile and less
> than adult, the lack of practicality and passion found in the
> Disagreeables, from the motley one eyed lens of Marcia to the dispassionate
> recital of scholarly work to which only Stursa listens attentively, would
> seem to indicate that there is a practical reason for the burning to which
> they object. In addition, the adequate food stores and the relative
> emptiness of the island indicates that use of library space is not the
> primary issue. It seems that they are burning them gradually, as there are
> still personal books to read. The poem Marcia writes that flatters Jeremy
> as the "iron watcher" posits what life is like below: "What do they do in
> the fog-locked cities, in the dripping towns of Rome and Albuquerque and
> Damascus? There is vegetation, says one who watches - the iron observer of
> the stone bench ... Through the parting mists he has seen great trees. Always
> great trees." Perhaps the atmosphere is no longer suited to humanity, but
> will bring about a world perfect for giant vegetation. Jeremy paraphrases
> the rest of her poem, which no one listens to, in which the mist is
> compared to a bridal veil like that around Venus.
> Marcia carries a tome by Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Barrett is mentioned, and
> Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Twain, Dickens, Orwell, and Agee are listed as being
> cast already into the fire. Of course Laputa in the title references the
> floating island of impractical scholars in Gulliver's Travels. The whole
> situation of choosing to memorize works against the threat of their burning
> is of course straight from Bradbury's *Fahrenheit 451*. Let us take a
> look at the actual chapters Jeremy's responsibility was to learn:
> Jeremy has memorized chapters 71-75, and these are directly relevant to
> the characters' positions, literally and symbolically.
>  Chapter 71 involves the Pequod encountering the Jeroboam, which has been
> overcome by a possibly insane man who proclaims himself to be the angel
> Gabriel. He has taken over the ship and his prophecy of doom proved correct
> for their captain. When Ahab attempts to deliver a letter to the Jeroboam,
> which has been stricken with plague, Gabriel returns it at knife point to
> Ahab, declaring that his obsession with Moby Dick will cost him to be cast
> into the same depths as the Jeroboam's captain.
>  Chapter 72 involves the monkey rope that will tie Queequeeg and Ishmael
> together, and it is on this situation that Jeremy pins his hopes of killing
> his childhood bully. In the Moby Dick chapter, Ishmael talks of how it
> makes them brothers, and that if Queequeeg should fall, he should
> undeservedly fall to his death, too.
>  Chapter 73 Involves the killing of a whale whose head is mounted on the
> side of the ship, but the brunt of the conversation involves the claims
> that Fedallah is influencing Ahab with his false promises that a ship
> adorned by two whales heads can never founder, and that he is indeed the
> devil, with his hidden tail. He seems to lengthen Ahab's shadow, hiding and
> crouching in it, and encourage the obsession.
>  Chapter 74 is relevant in describing one whale's head - one that has
> eyes on both sides but can never see behind or in front, even if an enemy
> were coming at it from the front with "knife raised". Clearly this is the
> inspiration for Jeremy's frantic question: "Should I show him the knife?"
>  Chapter 75 describes the other head mounted on the side, mostly in terms
> of its huge pouty lip, and stresses its differences from the other whale.
> The ending description, directly quoted in the text, says "The Right Whale
> I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale a Platononian, who might have
> taken up Spinoza in his later years."
>  These two decapitated whales match pretty well to Stursa and Jeremy: the
> Stoic Stursa who says he always liked literary things but just went along
> with athletics because he was good at it, and looks on the bright side of
> being moved back upstairs: "It won't be so bad. I'll be able to see over
> the side again, and it's good for your legs. I guess everybody was
> surprised I came to the reading today ... I always kind of liked that stuff,
> only I didn't want to say so. You know how the guys are. ... I didn't want to
> interrupt your reading. I just wanted to say, you know, that a guy does
> what he's good at. ... You can't blame us, can you? We were just kids." This
> is more or less his attempt at apologizing to Jeremy for throwing him, and
> it also shows that Stoic take life as it comes attitude and accept it
> without much reflection.
>  This is contrapoised against the world of ideas and books that have a
> dualistic nature to some degree, reflections of a higher world that seem
> literary and platonian in nature ... and in old age, bookish Jeremy has
> latched upon Spinoza's form of ethics too - that things are not inherently
> good and evil, simply good and evil for men in their outcome. Thus he has
> justified his vengeance. From his perspective, it will be good for him, bad
> for Stursa. Both whale heads are, however, decapitated, and soon to be
> sunken before the Pequod itself founders below in its quest for Moby Dick -
> this sterile island is doomed to crash into the earth soon, too - coming
> too close the impossible dream of returning to a livable earth, an earth
> ruined by man, will destroy it.
>  The wolfe wiki also notes that Paul's famous Civus Romanus Sum - "I am a
> Roman Citizen" to delay his trail until he could be transported to Rome is
> mirrored in the title; "I am a Citizen of Laputa" - Laputa being the
> floating island of sterile and impractical intellectuals who can't do
> anything that isn't abstract in Gulliver's Travels.
>  While Stursa does not seem as intellectual as Paul, he does say that as
> a Slav he has been stomped upon, and he at first persecutes the academics
> (by throwing them into a bush, for example) and then joins them, just as
> Saul persecuted the Christians before his conversion. He makes a
> conciliatory gesture with Jeremy. This will prove personally costly, though
> all of them seem doomed anyway.
>  In history, Paul is beheaded, a nice little echo of the beheaded whale
> head on the side of the Pequod, whose giant lip Jeremy imagines as Stursa's
> pouting lip pressing against the wall before he cuts the rope.
>  While Stursa is a legitimate Slavic name, I could find no sure meaning
> attached to it, so perhaps the rearrangement of the letters into Tarsus
> really does have some merit symbolically. The German word stur indicates an
> obstinate or willful man, but I do not know if there is any linguistic
> connection at all.
>  Wolfe's take on academics is given voice in his introduction to *Storeys
> from the Old Hotel*:
>  "Civis Laputus Sum is one of my periodic semiserious hits at academics,
> who often seem to feel that the only good writer is a dead writer. I do it
> mostly to show that I'm not good yet, and because it's such fun to see
> tenured professors who've built whole careers on criticizing some poor
> bastard who had to hustle to make the rent bluster and huff when they're
> criticized a bit themselves."
>  In "Morning Glory", the soulless misery and yearning for a higher truth
> in darkened tunnels showed colleges as separate from the glory of the
> mystical and holy, repetitious pattern and research expectations leading to
> an inescapable maze. This look is much simpler: bitter, ineffectual
> academics dreaming revenge on dim, more respected athletes, who will age
> and be unable to play the games that mean so much to them in time, and
> become relatively "useless" far sooner than their academic counterparts -
> though here all aspects of the university seem impractical - the people
> with the need to "do" have already left in helicopters, and no one can
> repair the systems: "Have you ever thought of what might happen if we were
> to drift into the Antarctic? We could be driven to the ground by snow and
> ice. From that standpoint the listing is actually beneficial, since it will
> enable the island to shed the stuff more readily. Until we get our guidance
> system back - if we ever do - I say list away."
>  Both the Blazers who age and the Disagreeables who recite their poetry
> and hollow academic ideas will have no lasting impact, and their sterile
> Laputan University is doomed to capsize soon. I think the narrative voice
> encapsulates the attitude towards the inutility of the majority of study at
> the university: derivative critics rather than artists, and so much
> resource spent on meaningless games - and this is the future that was
> deemed worthy of being saved above the fog? The head of the academics is
> Professor Conne, with its obvious aural connotation.
>  Well, it sounds as if the world has become cooler and more lush under
> the fog: the Arizona deserts have become rainforests, with giant trees
> everywhere. This verdant future has come at the cost of probably unlivable
> conditions under the fog cover: "They released some finely divided
> substance that catalyzes and maintains it. Fifty years ago they knew that
> pollution over St. Louis was causing fine, dirty rains -"
> The only confusing aspect of this is whether that release was just
> accidental or intentional, since the fog is not called by the more
> pejorative term smog. Intentional release to combat pollutants and cool the
> earth gone wrong or incidental result of poor pollution control? Jeremy's
> claims to see a whale below are somewhat dubiously considered.
>  St Louis actually experienced a "day the sun didn't shine' in 1939, a
> dark fog which lingered for 9 days. If Jeremy is referring to this event,
> this could place the timeline of the story in the mid 1990s, though it
> seems the island has been floating for about 15 years. (Obviously a
> post-1975 publication date launch).
>  There is an odd statement Jeremy makes, saying his murder will be "the
> first time in five thousand years one of us has taken the life of one of
> them." If taken literally, this really complicates the time line. More
> likely he is just exaggerating the importance of their animosity. Is he
> talking about Biblical creation? Certainly a scholar has defeated an
> athlete through indirect means before, but to attribute "Disagreeables" and
> "Blazers" as having a 5000 year animosity is quite subjectively skewed. The
> "us" and "them" dichotomy is probably 15 years old, or, in a more
> collegiate sense, at best a few hundred years old in terms of ill will
> between athletes and scholars.
>  How literally will the existential filming of Moby Dick be made? (On the
> doomed island about to crash, existentialism seems a pretty good
> philosophical backdrop). If it is at all accurate to the set up of the
> book, Ishmael and Queequeeg will actually be tied together, but in the text
> Jeremy indicates that "It would be I, Ishmael, who would pretend to hold
> the rope." If Jeremy were to show the knife at that point and it were
> faithful to the book Moby Dick, it is quite clear Stursa is as strong as he
> ever was and might be able to stoically cast them both over the side. If it
> is less faithful to the book and the monkey rope is tied to an object
> instead, then Jeremy is safe, though he must fear the obvious murder being
> filmed and might be tossed over the side as well in reaction, as the
> Platonian/Spinozan whale head was in Moby Dick.
>  What is the book that Jeremy has found and talks to? Can it be deduced?
> Is it a volume by Wolfe? Something by Hawthorn or Poe, in light of the
> gloating murderous "Should I show the him the knife? ... Should I show him
> the knife?" as he reads by the hawthorns? Probably not, but he speaks to
> the book as if it were alive - the story is the "you" he addresses.
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F.P. Kiesche III

Husband, Father, Good Cook. Reader. Keeper of abandoned dogs. Catholic
Liberal Conservative Militarist. Does not fit into a neat box or category.
"Ah Mr. Gibbon, another damned, fat, square book. Always, scribble,
scribble, scribble, eh?" (The Duke of Gloucester, on being presented with
Volume 2 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.) Blogging at Bernal
Alpha. On Twitter as @FredKiesche
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