The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Allegory of Law

Once, when the world was young and there was little to tell or remember, there was a land where only good people lived: people who only thought and said and did good, who had never harmed one another.

Now it happened one day that a man found his fields torn up and another man told him that vermin were abroad in the woods. So he dug pits and covered them over to catch the vermin so he could take them somewhere they would do no harm.

But there were no vermin. The man who thought he saw vermin had seen only shadows and branches swaying. What had ruined the fields was something else. When the man looked in his traps in the morning he cried out and wept, for his traps, which would have caught and stunned vermin, had caught and killed three children.

There was no justice in the good land, because there were no offenses; there was no one to say Punish and no one to do punishment. But there were the stares and silences of three families. So the man with the field walked into the woods one day, and did not return.

That man had had children of his own, two sons; and these children, too, were stared at and not spoken to by three families; for these two children reminded them of the dead children; and no one in the good land knew the hiding of pain, no more than the hiding of any other feeling; and they could not lie.

Two of the three bereaved families had children, a daughter for each. The daughters stared, but were not silent. The sons of the man of the field reminded three mothers and three fathers of three dead children; but they reminded the sisters of when they had not been alone. So they kept secret company, and grew close.

When they began to appear together, all were pleased by it. The silence was over.

As they grew older, they grew closer, until one of the daughters was with child. All had been pleased; and now all were delighted. Every family in the good land found some separate way to approve and applaud.

But when the day came, the daughter bore a dead child. Before the week was out, she followed it.

Then all were silent in the good land, yet there was no staring. All knew that something was broken, and no one knew how to fix it. They could only hope that if what was broken was not touched, it would heal.

Three families gathered together and wept together. They went to the living daughter and made her swear not to speak to the man she loved.

The son who had been a father wept and cried out; and his brother also wept, for now they were both alone.

Three families went to the son they had warned against, and told him that there must be some danger in his blood; that he should not come near the daughter again; and that they had dug a trap to keep him away, for he was as deadly as any wild animal that kills.

He watched his bereaved brother weep, and tried to comfort him; but he had no comfort, and he needed comfort himself. So, being young and strong and scorning danger, he went to see the daughter he loved.

He fell into the trap and was pierced through with spikes.

Three families wept at this; but what else could they have done?

When the people gathered the last son rose and spoke:

“I was a son; now I am no son, for I have no father. I was a lover; now I am no lover, for I have no beloved. I was a father; now I am no father, for I have no child. I was a brother; now I am no brother, for I have no brother. Three families have taken all these things from me. I was a son, a lover, a father, a brother. Now I am nothing and no one. They are sick. They killed my brother as though he were an animal, which is the worst thing that anyone has ever done. Send them away, do not let them return. They are sick.”

One of the mothers of the three families rose and spoke in turn:

“There is in truth sickness among us: sick blood, poison blood. It killed three children. It killed our daughter and our grandchild. We did not kill. We set out a trap and gave warning. Animals are not warned. That man walked into the trap as his father walked into the forest. He did not mean to return. Send this man away while there are still daughters among us.”

No one knew what to do then. Sometimes the people had talked over things, like where to dig a well, or when to hunt or harvest; but what could be said about this?

So they went to the oldest and wisest among them, and said to him: “Be our king, and decide what we should do. For we have never doubted before who we trust.”

Then the king said: “There will be no easy talk nor free looks among us while any of them are here. The three families shall go west, and the man alone shall go east.”

There were caves in the west and caves in the east with clear water and good hunting. In the west the three families received many visitors, for they had ties of blood. Their daughter, who remained among the people, often came to see them. But in the east the last son was alone. No one visited him.

After years he could bear the quiet no longer, and returned from the east.

Now the king had said that the last son should not be permitted to return – meaning that he should be persuaded to stay away, and that no one should help him. But when he was seen returning some young men determined on their own to carry out the king’s order. They stood together in the way, shoulder to shoulder. When the man tried to walk right of them, they stepped into his way; and when the man tried to walk left of them, they stepped into his way. He shouted, but they did not answer. And when he tried to push past them, one of them pushed back.

The man was not old, but loneliness and despair had shrunken his hunger, and he had shrunken with his fasting. So when he was pushed, he fell; when he fell, he broke; and when he broke, he died. But none of them could say who had pushed him.

The young men carried the body to the king, who wept at the sight, and told them that he had never meant for them to kill. But it was too late; and so that the king’s word would hold, the young men took the dead son east, and buried him near his cave.

When the news went west, the families smiled among each other; which had never been done before at any human death. When they returned, no one tried to stop them, because they feared what might come of that. At first the families were not seen among the people, nor by daylight; but soon they began to walk abroad and in the sun, in defiance of the king’s word.

So the king asked them to come to him. They came, for they expected that his word would be lifted. But he said that he could not let them profit from killing. He told them to go back.

Two families assented. But one family would not be separated from their daughter. They refused the king’s word. And when the other two families saw the refusal, they refused as well.

When they left him, the king began to think. He spent the evening in thinking. The purpose of a king was to prevent killing; but still there had been a killing among them. Now the king’s word was refused. If killing could happen while the king’s word was received, what could come of the refusal of the king’s word? What good is a king if he allows profit in killing?

In the night he walked the streets, and chose six young men – the young men who had heard his word before – and told them to wrap their faces and swear to forget. That done, the king told them to bring the three men and three women before him at a high place above a long fall into deep water.

The king told them that they should leave, and go where none of the people would ever speak to them again. They laughed, and said that it was better to live among human faces than in the caves of the west.

He asked again: “Will you leave? It is my part to prevent killing. By staying you profit from killing and approve it.”

They refused. “We have never killed.”

So the six masked men took hold of them and threw them over to vanish in the water. When no one saw the families, they believed that the families had received the king’s word and returned to the caves of the west.

After that, there was beauty, and peace, and happiness; but in that land where only good people had lived, now there was silence in the caves, and a question no one dared to ask, and between the people and the king were men with secrets in their eyes.

Small Worlds

When I was a child, and we drove through a city, there would always be a moment – usually when I first came into sight of a block of apartments – a moment I would feel a mixture of panic and vertigo – horror. So many windows, so many doors. Ten thousand people could live in there. More people than I could ever know in one lifetime or a dozen. More names, even, than I would ever know. Why should the world even include so many people? Were there even ten thousand kinds of people? How many were repeats? How many were redundant?

That was a horrible thought: that most of the human race has no individual reason to exist; that most of us exist only to fill out the numbers for the workings of a smaller world, a real world, extras in a movie we will never see.

The other thought was worse: ten thousand people and every one an end in themselves – every single one enough to justify the existence of the whole species – so that with just one brief look out the side of a van racing past, looking down from the overpass, I glimpsed a world absolutely worth knowing ten thousand times over and ten thousand times over impossible to know.

Thus, despite a love of the arts, my first ambitions were all scientific: I wanted, like Avicenna’s God, to compass the universe of particulars by knowing universals.

We have tricks to evade large numbers of things, but they fail us with people. Seven billion fish or flowers we know how to divide to conquer, cutting out bite sizes with the sharp 7±2 we’re born with. But we cannot use the same trick with people. True, we have a neurological constant for numbers of people, about 150, the famous Dunbar’s number. But Dunbar’s number is not recursive. Society is not structured by communities of 150 combining into meta-communities of 150 communities in an Apollonian gasket of social circles. People belong to different communities. One-sided relationships cut across all communities. Thousands of communities exist side by side. And outside communities, there are the new people. People are always being born, and having been born are always growing up, and having grown up are always demanding our attention.

How, then, do we stay sane in a world of seven billion people? But no one lives in that world. The evasion is not quantitative but qualitative. We make our own worlds, our own small, manageable worlds: family, friends, faces that dwarf crowds. In the foreground, your world contains people significant in your personal history or netted by your routine; in the background, those made familiar (note the etymon) by news or entertainment, by admiration or reputation.

Small worlds vary in two dimensions: whether they are closed or open, and whether they face inward or outward. In a closed world, role and person are identical; in an open world, the cast changes. (But note that the distinction of role and player is never absolute: there is always a tension.) In an outward-facing world, the population screen each other from society; in an inward-facing world, the population are the eyes of society on each other.

The closed and outward-facing world is the world of the village. The open and inward-facing world is the world of the social network, where direct ties are always weaker than abstract commitments. The closed and inward-facing world is the world of the cadre, the team, the colony. The open and outward-facing world is the world of the movement, the religion, the institution, and the corporation.

Of course, you can live in different worlds in sequence; but you can only live in one world at a time. I would say that you must choose, but the choice will probably be made for you. You were born into one kind of world; and you are unlikely to move from one to another except at some socially oiled articulation of the lifespan.

The world is beyond comprehension, beyond recognition, beyond reach. It always has been. We do not have the choice to know the world. We have three choices only: to hide from the world, filtering it through stereotype and prejudice; to dilute ourselves in the world, lost in the big picture; or to trust that the extremities of the particular and the universal touch – to trust that human nature is best read in a human being’s nature, that human diversity is mirrored in a human being’s variety, and that the beginning of human kindness is kindness to a human being.

To say that we should love our enemies assumes that it is easy to love our friends. The mind is full of passionate poisons, resentment and shortsightedness, which work to confuse us. How many keep a leashed civility with their enemies who love with snarls and teeth? How many who pity the unfortunate stranger are shamed by and despise the weakness of their own? How many choose the attractions of envy over the bond of blood? How many fear more to be thought by strangers to love too well or too openly – to be weak or soft or fond – than to be thought by loved ones to love less, or not to love?

All this sounds very bourgeois, very gemütlich. But small worlds are not just shelters; they are also the laboratories where the world of the future is being discovered. The inside jokes and private conversations of one generation become the mainstream of the next. Not every small world can reshape the great world; but nothing can reshape the great world until it has shaped a small world first.

What are you? Are you what you say you are? Or are you what others say you are? Of course you are both, and neither. They are the two ways of living in a world that, like a lens, curved one way, concentrates light onto you and, curved the other way, sheds your light. But the lens is required: a small world, answering the animal conditions of life, spares you the freedom, clothes you enough, to survive the great and human world.


Talking is a pleasure in itself. It is good to be able to talk about anything; it is good to be able to talk to anyone. But most talking is not between people; it is between roles. On a long trip on an elevator you will hear how talk has a life of its own. Two people start talking; one gets off, someone else gets on; the talker says to the newcomer what they would have said to the other talker; and so on until the talking has survived the replacement of each of the talkers.

Of course, we are all in the metaphorical elevator: we must all exit at some stop, hoping that our places will be taken. But the places we leave metaphorically are changed by having been ours; the places we leave when we physically step out from them are the same places we stepped into.

Most talking is like this. Most of what is said, even between people who know each other well, has only token use, is said only to have said something. The rest belongs to the relationship, not the participants. You say something to your child, and it is what any parent would say to any child; to your wife, to your husband, and it is just what each would say to the other; to your friend, it is what friends say to friends; to your acquaintance, it is how decent people talk to each other; to a stranger, it is what anyone would say under the circumstances.

This sounds wearying; but in truth we expect nothing else. Still, some people want more. Their expectation is to be able to speak with those they are close to as person to person, without rule or model; or at least – if rules are necessary to smooth close joints – to spare conventions with acquaintances or strangers, to speak man to man.

This speaking as oneself, beyond or before roles, they call conversation. The name is curiously solid. The world friend has been attenuated, but we do not pretend that we can have conversations with authority: your boss can say to you, “I want you to think of me as your friend”; but not “I want you to think of this as a conversation.” And though the Internet has “conversational” for its epithet, a particular online exchange must be remarkable to receive the name.

There are things that cannot be conversed about and people you cannot have conversations with. There can be conversations about politics or religion only between indifferent people: political or religious commitments do not recess. Likewise, you cannot have conversations about personal commitments equal to these public ones: you cannot have a conversation about your family or your vocation, because there you are not independent, and therefore not conversational.

If to converse is to speak as yourself, why not center conversation there? But the most personal topics are the least individual: the more personal a detail, the more resistlessly it sorts you. Tell your pains, hear your type; tell your pleasures, hear your disease. There is room for the individual only after development, in the faculties aesthetic, philosophical, and – especially – critical. Consequential as they are in commitment, they are harmless in conversation, like composite explosive. Later you can fit the detonator and announce yourself to the world. Here, for now, your thoughts are free, rapid, and sure as the thoughts of angels.


[In honor of my great-grandmother, who tried to bequeath her cast-iron frying pan to my mother expressly as a weapon.]

J. Pilcrow and D. Fleuron (eds.), Historical and Critical Perspectives on the Neglected Women’s Martial Art of Pan-Fighting: Proceedings of the First International Symposium of the Association for Pan-Fighting Studies, Endower Institute Press, 2008, 25pp., $45.00 (hbk), ISBN 01123581321345589144.

Panhandle: The Dawn of Pan-Fighting in New Kingdom Egypt, Asta Faience.

Panic: Pan-Fighting in the Classical World, S. P. Quiller-Round.

Traveling Pan: The Frying Pan on the Silk Road, T. Kent.

Pan Demonium: The Suppression of Pan-Fighting, 1100–1400, C. N. Bacon.

Scramble and Coagula: Pan-Fighting as Alchemical Metaphor, Al Chocodon.

The Flat of the Blade: Pan-Fighting as Metaphor in the Medieval Fechtbuch, Alber vom Tag.

“Fried” or “Flattened:” Revisiting the Rolling Pin Debate, Mann van Dough.

A Flash in the Pan: Underground Pan-Fighting in Early Modern Europe, Martina Scriblerus.

Casting Iron: Pan-Fighting in Song Dynasty China, Hill Barton.

Flipping the Pan: Pan-Fighting in Japanese History, Usagi Tsukino.

Citizen Crêpe: The Pan-Fighters of Paris in the French Revolution, Scarlet Orczy.

Fires and Frying Pans: “Pan-jitsu” in Nineteenth Century Europe, E. W. Barton-Wright.

Panning for Gold: Pan-Fighters on the American Frontier, Clementine Darling.

Pan Left: Pan Fighting in Silent and Pre-Code Hollywood, Alan Smithee.

Panzer: Pan Fighters of the Résistance, William Martin.

Pan and Scan: Pan-Fighting in Contemporary Film, A. Gaffer.

Panstand: Pan-Fighting in American Youth Culture, Susan Cue.

Panman: Pan-Fighting in the Arcade Video Game, F. P. Shooter.

Pandom: Pan-Fighting Communities Online From BBS Through Facebook, A.T.N. Baud.

Uncut pages

Sometime last year, while I was in town, I bought a battered old book out of a box in an antique store. The book is the 10th volume in an edition of Demosthenes in Greek and French on facing pages, printed Paris 1821. It bears the name of a Louisiana monastery that must have bought the set.

Let us round down and say that it was shelved for a 150 years – and in a monastery, a place I imagine, romantically, as reading’s proper kingdom. The outside shows wear; someone took the trouble to put a bookplate in it, and to number it twice on the title page. 150 years worth of cleaning and lifting; 150 years in a monastery library – and the pages have never been cut. The book has never been read.

I can guess what happened. The set was bought by the last generation of French-speaking monks, for the last generation of French-speaking students. The next generation spoke English; and French or Greek were both Greek to them (or German, as the store labeled it).

The tragedy of a worthy book unread is common. To ignore it is part of the discipline of library reading. I find a book whose very existence delights me – beautiful, brilliant, every page glows, would that I could write so well. In an idle, careless moment I flip it over, glance at the sticker or slip that records each checkout. 12 years ago, someone checked it out; 10 years ago, someone else; and then me. I wonder: of what species am I a member? At least there are the three of us.

But this is crankiness. To be useful, books must be abundant: just enough is too few. Infrequent checkouts are almost a sign of health: the book exists in enough copies relative to its readers that some can be deputed to serve as in lighthouses, rescue stations, radar installations, to watch and bide until their hour arrives – the flare goes up, the alarm goes off, the reader arrives.

I hear that many libraries now throw away books that go unread for a year, two years, three. They justify their footprint and budget in serving the tastes of their readers; shelf space for books not in fashion is a scholar’s humor. New-book bookstores work on that principle: the book that no one buys is remaindered, ends as pulp or ash. Commerce is pure democracy: to the majority, all; to the minority, nothing. I suppose that libraries have the right to decide that survival is worth the price of this attitude. And I, who have fatted on discard racks, have no standing to complain.

All writing is of one or more of three kinds: writing for a known audience; writing that creates an audience; and writing that has no true audience. And all three kinds can fail.

You write for an audience; but you have misjudged them. You overestimated them, and they paw through the pages in a staring stupor. You underestimated them, and they flip through the pages in annoyance and disgust. Though pawed over or flipped through, these pages are as uncut as any.

You write to create an audience; but it never shows up. You gathered them together, but you were molding dry sand. You reach out for them, but someone else has already gone farther, and the new heights you worked so hard to reach – someone else has stepped over them, on the way to something even newer.

You wrote for no audience; you made a self-standing mirror of your own mind, copied the microcosm in you and put stars in its firmament; but your mind’s image does not show it to advantage, and your microcosm lacks tourist appeal. Mocked or neglected, these pages are as uncut as any.

How hard it is to communicate at all! To have something to say, to say it, and to have it heard, are each separately as much as can be expected from a lifetime. To routinize the feat, the apparatus of society divides it between academic, writer, journalist; think-tanker, speechwriter, speaker. That they ever happen together is miracle and mercy. It is half the pleasure of reading just to see that it can happen.

As for this book before me: books with uncut pages (“unopened pages” is the proper name, but too weak for a title) are not rare, but not common, and no more are being made.

The easiest way to part such pages is with the edge of an index card; I have boxes of “Super-Dex” Rotary Cut cards, from when such things were still made in Brooklyn, that could do the job and still give a good shave. I tried it on another book with an anomalous pair, and succeeded. But when I come to it: why?

I try not to buy books as artifacts: it is a waste of money and space better given to books for reading. But this is a book I picked up cheaply to practice my French; it is more valuable to me as a curiosity than as a book. I harden my heart to say: here is a book that failed. Its pages shall not be cut.