The Yahoos Will be With You Always

“He goes to the riverside —
Not hook nor line hath he:
He stands on the meadows wide —
Nor gun nor scythe to see
. . . .
Knowledge this man prizeth best
Seems fantastic to the rest.”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Wood Notes,” 1840)

I took my two sons to the river the other day.  They fished without success, and later wrestled in the chattering water on the shoal. I sat on the river bank, dry and toying with neither “hook nor line,” only refreshing myself with “a green though in a green shade.”

The second tag is from Andrew Marvel, and the “green thought” of which he speaks is fancy.  Not fancy in the sense of ornate or refined (which my thoughts by the river were not), but in the old and original sense of fantsy, fantasy, or fantasia.  “Green” thoughts are free, not harnessed and driven like mules that drag a plow.  They go where they please and stop to sit when they like.  They spring up like trees, and grow to weird, fantastic shapes under no compulsion but their own.

And because green thoughts are so very much like trees, they flourish beside a river.

As faithful readers know, I have a fanciful and vagabond mind.  I can put it to work to keep clothes on my back, but, even then, I dream of letting it wander down an open road.  This is why I nod with understanding when I read those lines from Emerson:

“Knowledge this man prizeth best
Seems fantastic to the rest”

And also, alas, this one as well.

“What he knows nobody wants”

A rational mind marches forward with a method, and at the end of the day has gotten somewhere.  A romantic mind wanders off on a whim, and is lucky to make it home for supper.  Each looks on the other with some degree of amazement.

* * * * *

There is also a third sort of mind, and this one no less amazing.  I speak of the mind—if that is the word—of the shaggy and savage Yahoo.  In Gulliver’s Travels, Yahoos are a race of filthy, cruel and lascivious beasts, strangely inflated with pride, who stand as a symbol of everything that is vain and vile in man.  As I am a man myself, I must tread carefully when speaking ill of Yahoos.  Every man is a Yahoo by nature, and in the heart of every Yahoo there is the conceit that he is better than a mere Yahoo.

Like poets, Yahoos are drawn to rivers, but not in search of green shades in which to sprout green thoughts. They are drawn to rivers because they are fond of lonely places in which they can assemble to frolic in secret orgies and raise a little Hell.

The resemblance of these Yahoo orgies to the infamous black (or witches’) Sabbath is not small, there being in both not only an eruption of lewd pandemonium, but also this fondness for deserted and out-of-the-way places.  As a sixteenth-century witch hunter put it, when hags convene to invoke evil spirits, the place

“to be chosen [is] melancholy, doleful, dark and lonely; either in woods or deserts, or in a place where three ways meet, or among ruins of castles, abbeys, monasteries, or upon the seashore when the moon shines clear”  (Reginald Scott, The Discovery of Witchcraft [1584]).

And in these out of the way places, witches (like Yahoos)

“fall a dancing and singing of bawdy songs.”

When witches assemble, their frolic is the infamous “dance with the devil,” by which evil women renew their hellish pacts.  Also known as “raising Hell,” the witches’ nocturnal dancing, singing and drinking—not to mention their alleged coupling with demon lovers—bear a striking resemblance to the midnight revels of the shaggy and savage Yahoos.

* * * * *

My sons and I walked down to the river from the dead end of a long dirt road.  Like many lonely dead ends, night often finds this one haunted by reveling Yahoos.  This I know from the tell-a-tale remains of their feasting and drinking: the profuse litter of aluminum cans, cellophane bags and paper wrappers that once contained the industrial comestibles that Yahoos especially relish.

I once heard an archaeologist explain that archeology divides a prehistoric campsite into a “drop zone” that was at the feet of the gnawing savages, and a “throw zone” that was behind their backs.  As a prehistoric feast progressed, the drop zone would be sprinkled with the husks of nuts, the throw zone strewn with the bones of beasts.  At a modern Yahoo orgy, cigarette butts are dropped and beer cans are thrown, but the zones are much the same.

The Yahoo is, I’m afraid, a slovenly beast, whether at home or abroad.  As Swift wrote, he is disposed to “nastiness and dirt,” nasty being here used in the original sense of covered with filth.  Indeed, this word nasty likely comes from the archaic word nesty, or nest-like, and thus should call to mind the fetid den of an especially filthy beast.  And it is true that, wherever he goes, a Yahoo at once sets to work making himself a nasty nest of his own refuse, waste and debris.

* * * * *

Here is the path by which we made our way down to those green shades by the riverside.  As you can see, we did not make our way “through the greenwoods, dark and deep,”* but rather through a nasty Yahoo nest.

The last time I walked this path to the river, the way was blocked by the shell of a large, old-fashioned television set, which the Yahoos had shattered and perforated with a couple dozen rounds from a shotgun.  I counted the spent shells, which they naturally left on the ground, along with their spent canisters of beer.  At a subsequent orgy, it appears that the Yahoos returned to toss what remained of that old television set from the top of the bluff, for it now lies much nearer the river.  This unusual exertion was, no doubt, rewarded by howls of Yahoo jollification.

As you can see in the photograph, the charred remains of a mattress have taken the place of the old television set as the centerpiece of this nasty Yahoo nest.  This is, I must confess, a triumph of Yahoo ingenuity, for if one does not mind the soot and stink of burning polyester, or the hazard of explosive ignition, or the sight of charred springs poking through bubbling plastic, a gasoline-soaked mattress must make a very convenient bonfire.  At any rate, it certainly makes a fire suited to burn at the center of a black Sabbath, dance with the devil, or orgy of wild Yahoos.

* * * * *

In Jonathan Swift’s great satire, the Yahoos dwell alongside the gentle, rational, and cleanly Houyhnhnms. The Houynhnms have the bodies of horses, and even their speech has a distinctly horse-like quality.  In fact, Swift intended that the word Yahoo be pronounced as much as possible like the whinny of a horse.

Ya hoo-oo-oo!

This was his sly way of saying that, every time a horse whinnies at the approach of a man, the horse is just calling that man by his proper species name.

Ya hoo-oo-oo!

Because the Houyhnhnms were rational, their society was perfectly ordered, and the only political question that remained to be debated in their councils was,

“Whether the Yahoos ought to be exterminated from the face of the earth.”

Should such a question be raised in a council of which I was part, I assure you I would argue against extermination.  Much as I loathe the nasty nests with which they are wont to clutter the ways to my green shades, this earth is no doubt big enough for the both of us.  And the bigness of the earth is enhanced by the profound laziness of Yahoos.  Toiling to toss that old television set off of the bluff was an unusually laborious feat for the sluggish Yahoos.  They are, by nature, roadside creatures who prefer to eat and drink in or beside their vehicles.  They will, to be sure, drag a gasoline-soaked mattress some short distance before they set it alight, but this is only to to avoid blistering the paint on their cars.

Although I would not vote to exterminate them, I do know what Gulliver was feeling when he said that he preferred

“to leap into the sea and swim for my life rather than continue among the Yahoos.”


*) “Still through the greenwoods, dark and deep, / Should my little wood-path creep . . . . Then downward to the quiet dell / Where the lily swings its bell.” John Witt Randall, “Fancy’s Kaleidoscope” (1854).

10 thoughts on “The Yahoos Will be With You Always

  1. Pingback: The Yahoos Will be With You Always | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Yahoos Will be With You Always | Reaction Times

  3. I will trade you yahoos that drink and shoot trash for the street sh*ters and drug users that drop used needles everywhere. Its not just SF that’s like that. Seattle and Portland are close behind them. That’s excluding the violent homeless. We can throw those in for free. We can even offer a 2 for 1 deal.

    • I was in SF a few years ago. The smell of urine was overpowering in some streets. I lived in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980’s, just after they emptied the mental hospitals, and I’ve thought of writing a post on some crazy “bag ladies” I knew. Knew isn’t quite the word, but I did have dealings with some of those men and women. Lots of them were just crazy, and lots of them were just really rotten people who were on the street because they had burned everyone who might have given them shelter. They were not the romantic hobos I had read about in Jack London.

  4. In Oklahoma the rivers and creeks are relatively unmonitored for yahoo activities of the kind you speak. My younger brother and a number of his friends from early childhood frequently gather at a location at a creek south of the town in which they were all raised and still live or live near. They camp there for days at a time and fish for catfish. They’re all good guys in their mid-thirties, all married with children and gainfully employed and so on. They’re also all a bunch of yahoos in a sense, but not in the sense of your Yahoos you speak about in the post. Although I’m pretty sure that no more than fifteen years ago they might have dragged an old mattress out to the site and set it ablaze and some of the other stuff. Whether they left the place littered with beer cans and other evidence of their having been there is extremely doubtful. At least more than once.

    • As I say, all men are Yahoos to one degree or another. It comes out most strongly around the age of 20, in what we call sowing wild oats. A sensible society accommodates and contains this, directing its young men towards true manhood. I built some bonfires in my youth, and was not above augmenting the spectacle with some thick black smoke from burning tires. When I wrote my article on the Texas Aggie Bonfire many years ago, I argued for a middle ground between castrating masculine energy and allowing the Yahoos to run wild. In the years leading up to the tragic collapse of Bonfire, the Yahoos were running wild. And then the collapse provided a pretext to castrate masculine energy.

  5. The footpath through the brush in your photograph is modestly beautiful in its combination of the cultural, that is the footpath, with the natural, that is the brush. It is not the most beautiful sight that I have seen, but if the garbage were cleared it would be picturesque. What appalls me in the figure of the burnt mattress scarring the tableau is the intention to profane that modest beauty by uglifying it. You are right to suggest the sacrificial character of the burnt mattress, but it also has a pornographic character. (I believe that you have indeed hinted at that.) Not all burnt mattresses are physical objects. The ugly anti-concepts of our ideological age are quite like burnt mattresses scarring what would otherwise be an attractive prospect.

    • The river itself is rather lovely, so the path is enhanced by anticipation, and would be very pleasant if not covered with debris. I find it very curious the way that some materials are beautiful in ruin and decay, whereas others are hideous. Why does ruined stone look so much better than ruined cinder block? A rotted log can be very beautiful, but a rotted couch is not. The mattress seems especially grotesque because of the bed is associated with sex, and also with the vulnerability of sleep. Violence against a mattress certainly suggests rage against someone who used to lie on it, as if the mattress were a sort of voodoo doll.

      • Nature is often beautiful in death and decay. Man-made stuff not s’much.
        When I lived in Alaska many moons ago I was struck early on by the natural beauty of the dying salmon spawning in the rivers; beauty at least to the eye of this beholder and my wife and friends.
        And who among us doesn’t appreciate and admire the stunning beauty of an Autumnal forest, yet is incensed at the sight of a dying neighborhood? Hoover Dam is beautiful in its own way. As long as it is kept operating. But if ever it is shut down and abandoned, it will immediately begin to uglify in disrepair and decay. I should imagine the Grand Canyon will always remain beautiful to the eye of the vast majority of beholders. And etc.

  6. Pingback: That Terror Alone can Check the Wandering Mind – The Orthosphere


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