Small worlds

When I visited cities as a child, there would always be a moment, usually when I first came into sight of a block of apartments, when I would feel a mixture of panic and vertigo—horror. Ten thousand people could live in there! Ten thousand! More people than I could ever know in one lifetime or a dozen. More names, even, than I could ever know. Why should the world even include so many people? Wouldn't a more limited quantity suffice?

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 and exists only to fill out the numbers for the workings of a smaller, real world. The converse 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, I encountered 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 a universe of particulars by knowing universals.

And there are six billion people in the world!

We have tricks to evade large numbers of things; but they fail us with people. Six 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 200, the psychologists' cohort; but that is a limit in simultaneity for a single group: we can belong to multiple groups, and we do not cease hearing new names, seeing new faces. No one so old or so nobly busy as to forgivably say: "I know too many people; let me meet no more."

How, then, to evade the vertigo of living in a world of six billion people? But no one lives in that world. The evasion is qualitative. We make our own worlds, our own small, manageable worlds: family, friends, faces that dwarf crowds. In the foreground, your world comprises people significant in your personal history or netted by your routine; in the background, those made (note the etymon) familiar 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 dialectic.) 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.

Of the four possible combinations the two most easily understood are the closed & outward-facing world (the most historically common, and perhaps the only one possible outside of towns and cities) and the open & inward-facing (the world of the social networker, where direct ties are always weaker than abstract commitments. The others have never distinguished whole societies, but are always present. The close & inward-facing world is the world of the cadre, the team, the colony; the open & outward-facing is the world of the movement, the religion, the institution, and the corporation.

Of course, one can live in different worlds in sequence; but only one 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 now, and has always been, beyond comprehension, and beyond recognition, beyond reach. We do not have the choice to know the world. We have only three choices: to hide from the world, filtering it through stereotype and prejudice; to dilute ourselves in the world, pictures of a monstrous and centerless sanity; 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 simply that we should first love all, even our enemies, presupposes that it is easy to love our friends; but it is not so. 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 take the implications 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 not to love, or to love less?

All this sounds very bourgeois, very gemütlich. Certainly it is neither classical nor modern: it does not stipulate Virtue or Community. These are both real, and both necessary; but to be necessary is not to be primary. To credit Virtue implies that you are what you say you are; to credit Community implies that you are what others say you are. If both are fundamental, both could not be true; but both are true—there are great men and timely men, and some who are both—which means that both are capacities, not states and not things; that both ways of living in the one world presuppose the life of a world that, like a lens, curved one way, sheds your light and, curved the other way, concentrates light onto you. But the lens is required: a small world, representing and answering the animal and human conditions of life, spares you the freedom, clothes you enough, to move in the great world.


Talking is a pleasure in itself. Someone who can talk about anything has a distinct virtue, as does someone who can talk to anyone. But most talk is not between people; it is between roles. Perhaps 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 he would have said to the other talker; and so on until, like a living thing, the form of the session of talk has survived the replacement of each of its parts.

Of course, we are all in the elevator: we must all get off at some stop, and can but hope that our places will be taken. But the places we leave metaphorically are changed by having been ours; the places we leave when we step out 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 relation, 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 most people expect nothing else. We take it for wearying because those who cannot stand it, complain. 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 rule is 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, for example, 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 "conversation" for its epithet, a particular online exchange must be remarkable to receive the name.

There are things that cannot be conversed about and people who cannot have conversations. There can be conversations about politics or religion only between indifferent people: political or religious convictions, as far as they are 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 most resistlessly it sorts you. Tell your pains, hear your kind; tell your pleasures, hear your disease. There is room for the individual only after abstraction, in the faculties esthetic, 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.


N. B. In honor of my great-grandmother, who tried to bequeathe her cast-iron frying pan to my mother expressly as a weapon.

J. Pilcrow and D. Fleuron (eds.), Historical and Criticial 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.

Table of Contents.

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 Crépe: 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 Fronter, Clementine Darling.

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

Panzer: Pan Fighters of the Résistance, William Martin.

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.

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

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—this edition—printed 1821 in Paris. 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, perhaps) 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 of, 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, the 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 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. This is a book I picked up cheaply to practice my French; it is more valuable to me withal 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.