Houyhnhnms and the People of the Lie

The Houyhnhnms are a race of highly intelligent and civilized horses. They live in a remote land first revealed by the Englishman Lemuel Gulliver in the 18th century, and described by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

The Houyhnhnms speak a language, and use the curve between the hoof and the pastern to grasp objects, in the same way that humans use their hands.

They have no wars, no poverty, and almost no disease. They are completely ruled by reason and the laws of nature. They live together with all our human virtues and none of our vices. The very idea of “evil” is unknown to them.

One reason for this is that Houyhnhnms do not know how to lie. They use language for communication and understanding, and not deception, so “to say a thing that is not” makes no sense to them.

Current research sponsored by Ormondroyd’s suggests that the Houyhnhnms’ inability to lie stems from equine nature, not nurture. Most human children have learned to lie, or at least dissemble, by the age of two. Indeed, learning to lie might be part of human psychological maturation.

Our first lies represent “the beginning of the end of idealizing parents”, according to David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.-- the dawning realization that parents are not omnipotent. He cites Psychiatrist Arnold Goldberg remark, "The first time you see a limit to your parents' powers is a developmental step forward, towards a more realistic view of others." The reader is also referred to Twain’s My First Lie, and How I got Out of It.

What then do we make of the adult lie, the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance that devastate our world? It is our ability to lie to ourselves and to others that makes it possible to murder, steal, wage war, cheat widows and orphans, and pave over forests. Men like Joel Schumacher and Paul Verhoeven continue to be employed as film directors despite all evidence to the contrary.

As highly intelligent creatures, Houyhnhnms have the ability to imagine a crime against another. They are not kept from villainy because they are angels, but because they cannot rationalize such a crime. They cannot lie to themselves about motives or justification.

Both Orwell and Solzhenitsyn have written much more profoundly about how lies provide the fertile ground necessary for human misery to grow.

We can only add the casual observation that humans prefer lies to truth; we are drawn to them like a crack baby seeking its addiction in its mother’s milk. The forced laughter of the radio sidekick telling us these people are having a good time, the avuncular politician who flatters and panders, the body count fantasies of the action film, we are surrounded by lies and elevate the master liars to the highest ranks. Those who delude themselves as well as their followers run for president.

Truth tellers are only honored in retrospect, when Truth is the daughter of Time. The little boy who announced that the emperor had no clothes was not rewarded for his vision, and as Robert Heinlein put it, “in the Country of the Blind, the one-eyed man is in for a hell of a rough ride.”

How do we make the truth as attractive as the lie? How do we ask Americans to listen to complex issues when simple answers are so much sweeter? We discover democracy when we recognize that every serf in Wat Tyler’s army has some value equal to the king; we did not anticipate that the American mob would prefer bleached and sugared bread to whole wheat thought. This is a bitter realization for sons and daughters of Athena, a triumph for the children of Machiavelli.

We cannot imitate the Houyhnhnms, because they are virtuous by nature, not by choice. Animals are not often pulled in two directions, feeling two things at once as humans do. Jim Harrison has observed, “When a cat doesn’t know what to do, it sits down.”

A degenerate species of humanoids called “Yahoos” live in the land of the Houyhnhnms. They are very stupid and very nasty, and have to be controlled by the Houyhnhnms because they cannot control themselves. Yahoos have spread out over most of our planet and can interbreed with homo sapiens.

For this reason Lemuel Gulliver wished he could always live with the Houyhnhnms. It only takes a moment for a handful of Yahoos to destroy even out noblest achievements. Men and women like Jonathan Swift, with their heads and hearts broken by their fellow man, may well turn to the company of animals for comfort. Fanny Hackabout-Jones, in a biographical novel by Erica Jong, observed that Swift’s misanthropy was not that of a malicious conservative; rather it was the bitterness of a disappointed lover.

The Death of Saul Bellow

From his obit in the Times:
"Like their creator, Mr. Bellow's heroes were all head and all body both. They tended to be dreamers, questers or bookish intellectuals, but they lived in a lovingly depicted world of cranks, con men, fast-talking salesmen and wheeler-dealers....Mr. Bellow grew up reading the Old Testament, Shakespeare and the great 19th-century Russian novelists and always looked with respect to the masters, even as he tried to recast himself in the American idiom. A scholar as well as teacher, he read deeply and quoted widely, often referring to Henry James, Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert. But at the same time he was apt to tell a joke coined by Henny Youngman."

My favorite Saul Bellow novel-- by that, I mean the one I re-read the most, for comfort, guidance or stimulation-- is "Humboldt's Gift". I love the combination of high and low culture, from characters that should be played by Dennis Farina, Bruno Kirby (as Ron Cantibile) and John Cusak (as the young Charlie Citrine) to intellectual and philosophical flights and a central figure of Humboldt that would be played as-- I don't know, Zero Mostel as Harold Bloom? Don't forget Carole Raphaelle Davis as Charlie's footsie playing mistress Renata.
(Carole Raphaelle Davis played the Italian Wolfram and Hart representative in "The Girl In Question" one of the funniest episodes in any Whedon enterprise.)
Whenever I need bracing-- fairly often with melancholy Scots-Irish genes and only a dab of French sensuality-- I can turn to this from "Humboldt's Gift":
“For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satifaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the tangle and JUSTIFY THE CYNICISM [emphasis mine] of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either. Look at those good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies." (from HUMBOLDT'S GIFT)

The VanGoghs of this world are to get their reward in Heaven. Do we despise Andy Warhol for making self promotion and factory art production pay off? Or do we admire him as a trickster who sold the emperor new clothes? American as apple pie. Why is Elvis recycled constantly and Big Mama Thornton forgotten? Five bars of her "Hound Dog" will blow out any Elvis left in your system.
There is some truth in the complaint "'It's 'cause he's white!"-- there is more than one kind of "whiteness" in America. There is a kind of whiteness, blandness of the spirit that lets us stay asleep, pretends to be authentic but in fact doesn't upset anyone.
This was most evident in Pat Boone's covers of Little Richard; Elvis was an acceptable compromise to the culture between Boone and Big Mama.
Does anyone really believe that Elvis was "transgressive" because Ed Sullivan wouldn't show his hips moving? Censoring Elvis was a masterpiece of PR; nothing sells faster in America than shocking your grandma. When Elvis was swallowed up by Vegas, it was a fulfillment of prophecy.
Joss Whedon wondered if part of "Buffy's" artistic success was based on its unwillingness to not be "comfortable" relationship with the audience's expectations about genre.
Is this entirely the fault of capitalism and a world where perception is formed by advertising skills? A system that says the 40th most popular song or film or book in America is not as worthwhile artistically as the top ten?
They had the opposite problem in Soviet Russia, or Revolutionary France, where the "successful" artist was the one who pleased the most people in power. The painter David and his "Death of Marat" or "Liberty Leading the People"-- my god, he's got the chops still, but my god what a monster.
Power loves flattery; the crowd craves reassurance, even if it's a cynical rowd being reassured by "Sin City" that we indeed live in a corrupt world where beautiful noir women wear sidearms (and sleep with horribly scarred men.)
If we operate on a patronage system, do we cross our fingers and hope that the Medici just thrown money at us and leave us alone? The MacArthur grants are a good idea-- I love what John Sayles has done with his-- but you're still counting on knowing someone who knows someone who...
Maybe the best art in America is going to always be the stuff that relies on happy accident, like Louis Armstrong shooting off a gun on New Year's Eve, and then being sent to a Waif's Home where someone had donated a trumpet.
Or combinations of people coming together to mold "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca".
Or the Hernandez Brothers making us "fall in love with ink and paper" because of the "Archie," Kirby and Ditko comics their mother brought home?
There is a great deal of the bird singing because it must in American art. Muddy Waters' voice carries across the fields and then transfers to success on the Chicago stage because it's in his nature.
We are not surprised when the scorpion stings the frog because "it's in his nature". Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when the artist or the art form break through the rubble to reach the sun.
I've got it easy; nothing stops me from writing or drawing except a want of ink and paper. The frustration I feel is caused by not winning "The Smile of the World" as Warhol or the Beastie Boys have.
I would be a happier fellow if I concentrated on the work and let the selling. getting and spending take care of itself. My artistic frustrations should be based on whether I got the work done and done well, not whether it sells or not. I ought to be more concerned about craft, whether my sentences are polished or my drawings as anatomically skilled as they should be. And almost everyone you know, including yourself, is going to try and distract you from that. They don't know how else to measure your worth, except to ask if it's been published or not, if it's sold or not, and if so, how much has it sold?
It's a bit easier for musicians or magicians to focus their energy on craft and less on the audience. If I don't start worrying about the audience-- readers and editors-- I end up writing on the inside of a closet in my own blood, and in a language that only I can read.
The poor bastards i feel sorry for are those whose art depends on a group effort and lots of money: dancers, actors, playwrights, filmmakers... I knew a New York actor who was rejected three times for the same role in a play: the first time because he was "Too Young", the second time because he was "Too Old", and a third time because he looked "Too Young" again.
(Producers and directors ought to be licensed, like psychotherapists; their power their subconscious wields in American culture is frightening to behold.)
Bracing words from Saul Bellow, the streetwise zaydeh I never had-- except that by writing it down, he does indeed pass it on to those who need it.

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."

"Take our politicians: they're a bunch of yo-yos. The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of cliches the first prize."

"You're all alone when you're a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride on the subway will do that. But it's much more interesting to talk about books. After all, that's what life used to be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America. Nothing has replaced that."

"I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you.'"

"A man is only as good as what he loves."

Wood Elves, Crackers, and Class Warfare

“Elf” is a generic term for faery-folk who appear human except for their pointed ears. “High Elves” are tall and
elegant and aristocratic. “Wood elves” are shorter, sometimes quaint fellows running through the woods wearing red
caps and pointed shoes.  
High elves have the same relationship to wood elves as modern humans have with the genus “Redneck”.  Jokes
about their haircuts, clothing and personal habits are similar in tone:

Q. What are a wood elf’s last words?
A. “Watch this!”

Q. How can you tell if a wood elf is a virgin?
A. She can run faster than her cousin.

Some helpful analogies:

Wood Elf
* pixie cut
* pointed cap and red shoes
* Aversion to cold iron
* Evolved from Nature Spirits

* billed cap and wife beater
* Sullen expression when speaking to teachers or policemen
* Didn’t pay attention during the Industrial Revolution

*Incest, self-destruction, attempts at meta-amphetamine production by persons who’ve never
studied chemistry = about the same.

These stereotypes are grossly unfair to Wood elves, and reflect the prejudices fostered by Tolkein and more recently, the special effects highjinks of Orlando Bloom. The High Elves of "LOTR" have penetrated the zeitgeist much more than Wendy and Richard Pini's portrait of Wood Elves in the "Elfquest" series.
The editors of Ormondroyd's do not subscribe to this calumny; if forced to choose up sides, it is the position of our editors that “High Elf culture” is itself a mockery of European aristocracy and its rigid class structure.
What must we do when the culture of our "social betters" is just as noxious as the habits of the "lower classes"? Both high and low wreak havoc, except that the aristocracy-- including that obnoxious dynasty from Ohio now inhabiting the White House-- is much better financed.
This is admittedly a bad tempered post.