I have just returned from a week in New England—Boston mainly, where the American Association of Geographers (née Association of American Geographers) held its annual shindig. I’m very far from being a regular at this event, especially of late, but various factors induced me to break my abstinence and make what may well be my last appearance among the bon ton of geography.
One inducement was an invitation to sit on a panel organized to discuss a book entitled The Anarchist Roots of Geography. How my name came to be considered remains a mystery, but the fact that the invitation came at the last minute strongly suggests that it was an act of desperation undertaken as a last resort in a thick fog of confusion. Why this invitation was, to me, an inducement is also something of a mystery, but I remember that it seemed like a good idea last Fall. As I explained in my exordium, I may very well be the only self-identified reactionary in the discipline of geography, and have sympathy for anarchism only insofar as I am naturally refractory, anti-social, and opposed to being bossed around.
Although this panel met at 8:00 a.m. on the first morning of the conference, it drew a sizable audience of anarchists and fellow travelers, both types being nowadays plentiful in geography. My remarks boiled down to the observation that theoretical anarchism (as opposed to the practical, bomb-throwing sort) is a gnostic sect. Its essential gnosis is that Thomas Hobbes was correct to say that the Will to Power springs from fear, and that fear causes men to create the Leviathan State, but that Hobbes was wrong when he said this fear was justified because the state of nature is a “war of all against all.”
Stated even more succinctly, the anarchist gnosis is that humans are naturally cuddly as bunnies, but have been rendered scaly as snakes by they lie that they are not.
I’m not here to develop or defend this argument, but mention it only to point up the irony of a couple of incidents connected to this Anarchism panel.
One of the other panelists was a feminist whose hair may or may not have been blue, but whose feet were most certainly shod in army boots like unto those worn by Loweezy Smith (consort of Snuffy, and no relation to the author). The gist of her comments was that the “anarchist community” was, in fact, a “manarchist” tyranny. Whether due to their brutish insensitivity, or simple brutish brutality, anarchist men apparently daily inflict countless “microagressions” (yes, she used the word) against feminists.
Clearly, this lady in the boots saw herself as She Who Must Be Obeyed, although her resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha was not otherwise pronounced.
The other incident occurred as I left the panel in the company of my middle son, who is fourteen and had sat through the gabfest, at the back of the room. Strolling down the busy hotel corridor, he put this rather trenchant question:
“Dad, what did that have to do with geography?”
“Not much,” said I.
“I mean, doesn’t geography have something to do with the land?”
“Sometimes,” said I.
“Those people were only talking about politics.”
“Why is that?” he ingenuously asked.
“Beats me,” I disingenuously answered.
Looking back, I see that I should have taken this opportunity to draw him aside and explain that anarchists only pretend to oppose the Will to Power, and that their pretense of gelassenheit is, in fact, just another sly expression of the Will to Power.
As to why this particular scramble for Power was taking place at a meeting of what my son felicitously described as geographists and geographizers, that would take more time and tedium than any fourteen-year-old could be expected to endure.
I also gave a paper at this conference, my performance appearing on the program at 6:40 on Friday evening, when all the right-thinking geographists and geographizers were ensconced in nearby taprooms, grog shops, and disorderly houses. One reason for the unfortunate timing was that the participants in my “session” had not organized themselves, but had instead been thrown together by the meeting organizers because of some broad resemblance in the topics of their papers. In our case the broad resemblance was a concern with “education.”
The meeting organizers had also appointed me as the Chair of the session, which means that I was expected to introduced speakers, cut them off when their twenty minutes had elapsed, and then do my best to rouse a little appreciative hand-clapping in the audience.
Needless to say, our audience was exceedingly small. Perhaps I should say it was intimate, for it was limited to the speakers in the session and a handful of their friends and family (including my very patient son).
First up was a fellow from England who told us that education should be more Marxist, although he of course dwelt on his sharp disagreements with some other fellows who believe education should be more Marxist. He told us that he was not a geographer (nor, I suppose, a geographist or geographizer), but that he attends geography meetings (at the expense of British taxpayers) for reasons that should be (but were not) apparent to all.
The second speaker was an elderly gentleman from the Republic of Georgia who outlined a syllabus he had designed to teach geography without running afoul of the Soviet authorities. As his English was limited, he helpfully projected the script from which he read on PowerPoint slides. Although he had his family with him, he kept looking to me with a worried and rather apologetic expression on his face, perhaps under an apprehension that I was a Soviet agent.
The third speaker was a young woman from Taiwan who uses eye-tracking technology to study how people connect the objects on a map with objects in the landscape in front of them, and thereby “orient” themselves in space. The salient mental operation is called “object rotation,” and in the performance of this operation, men and women are not equally gifted. The young woman from Taiwan is herself gifted in the mental operation known as “staying on the right side of history,” so she said this inequality is a great mystery.
Our fourth speaker didn’t show up, perhaps because he was detained in some taproom, grog shop, or disorderly house.
I came last in order of presentation, but not in spirit, vigor, or vim. My topic was, indeed, the need for geographers to show some spirit by embracing the romance, poetry, beauty and heroism that are naturally connected to the study of faraway places, the surveying of spacious landscapes, and the pleasures of exploration (real or vicarious). Students are not, I pointed out, sour old husks—at least not yet. Whatever their faults, they are full of life and a confidence that the earth is filled with wonders. It is therefore stupid, and very possibly evil, for us to blight this vitality with dolorous “criticism.”
To give my jeremiad some semblance of academic respectability, I tied my argument to two ideas from Thomas Carlyle. The first was his fictional bugbear Professor Dryasdust, a plodding German pedant who succeeds in making everything boring and drab. Being a bit of a pedant myself, I pointed out that Carlyle got this character from Sir Walter Scott. In both Scott and Carlyle, Dr. Dryasdust is the enemy of romance, poetry, beauty and heroism, and a great proponent of “dismal science.”
Many today think that economics is the “dismal science,” whereas for Carlyle (who coined the phrase) it was one branch of dismal science. Dismal science stood in opposition to “the gay science,” a phrase that was understood from about 1500 until about 1980 as the name of romantic poetry. Gay science represented human existence as a glorious thing that was filled with romance, poetry, beauty and heroism. It proposed that “man has a soul in him different from the stomach,” unlike dismal science (i.e. positivism), which represented the world as nothing more than “a kitchen and a cattle stall.”
Although he perked up at the mention of gay science, the English Marxist seemed to disapprove of what I said. The contingent from Georgia said they agreed with everything I said, but wondered if saying it was altogether prudent. A young man from Taiwan asked me why they were not taught such things back home. I should have answered that it is because Dr. Dryasdust still controls all of those parts of geography that have not fallen under control of the geographizers, geographists, and She Who Must Be Obeyed.
Geographizing is a weary business, and neither I nor my son are gifted with limitless patience, so we played hooky more than once. This delinquency no doubt impaired our knowledge of geographism, but some might find compensating improvements in our knowledge of geography. In our wanderings we found some romance and poetry (albeit of a melancholy sort), some beauty, and even a little heroism.
A Short Gallery With Comments
Boston is the most strikingly post-Christian city in America, the field being strong and the striving for distinction fierce. I think this is because the relics of Christianity are so conspicuous, the hulks of dead churches littering the landscape like bones in a desert. In the center of other American cities, most churches have either been razed, or are indistinguishable from the hockey arenas and department stores by which they are surrounded. This banner was popular on Boston churches. It was poignant to contrast the gothic architecture with which the West was born and the humanitarian sentimentality by which it will be buried. Looking more closely at the banner, one wonders if Egypt may indeed be a fitting symbol of post-Christian America. Or perhaps failing to understand the meaning of Egypt in biblical iconography is the most fitting symbol of all.
While in Boston, I read that Harvard University will shortly change the last line of its song “Fair Harvard.” As presently written, this song exhorts the school to strive towards its destiny of truth and goodness, and to eschew “moss-covered error,” “til the stock of the Puritans die.” It seems that even Harvard has come to recognize as “moss-covered error” the pretense that the “stock of the Puritans” is still with us in this world. The “spirit,” perhaps, but not the “stock.”
There is, of course, some truth to the theory that derives Progressivism from Puritanism; but the theory is wrong to suggest that Progressivism was the telos of Puritanism. One doesn’t get Progressivism out of Puritanism without gross violence to Puritanism. I think this is most evident when we consider the stark difference in the attitudes these creeds take to pretty lies. The Puritans really hated pretty lies, whereas Progressives love any lie that is pretty enough. I’ve seen modern tombstones decorated with a fishing pole, a bowling ball, and a tractor trailer truck; but never one decorated with the brutal realism of this old Puritan stone.
The old churches have small placards, such as the one my son is reading here, explaining the economic, social, and physiological meaning of box pews. If there was a placard that ventured to interpret the theological meaning, I missed it. The placards gave us to understand that a box pew was simply a status symbol and a shelter against cold drafts; and they missed no opportunity to remind us that low-status congregants (especially Blacks) were exiled to shame and shivering in the galleries. The theological significance of box pews is, of course, found in the last verse of Joshua 24, with its rather strong suggestion that we ideally approach the Lord as families, and not as a motley mob who simply squash into a pew all together.
I have a brother in New Hampshire, and one afternoon the three of us hiked to the summit of Mount Moosilauke, which is just shy of 5,000 feet and therefore still buried in snow. The name means bare summit, and Moosilauke is not misnamed. On this particular afternoon, the summit of Moosilauke was also whipped by a wind that could have stripped all hair from the head of a young man, this wind enhanced by a pelting rain that it drove through two waterproof layers. Staggering down Moosilauke, with pale hypothermia close on our heels, I had occasion to reflect on the folly of pretty lies, and the even greater folly of dismal science. Real life is always within spitting distance of death.