(urth) Short Story 61*: Civus Laputus Sum

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes danldo at gmail.com
Tue Apr 29 13:00:23 PDT 2014

That would be because Marc changed to Gmail.

On Tue, Apr 29, 2014 at 12:00 PM, Fred Kiesche <godelescherbach at gmail.com>wrote:

> NEWSFLASH: This e-mail did not end up (first) in the spam folder. Went
> right into the inbox.
> 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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Dan'l Danehy-Oakes
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