In which the Author introduces himself and then sets out
What follows here is a very loose account of my voyages into the world of talk as found, often accidentally, often against my own will, and seldom as I hoped.
I took with me only a few presumptions, for as Lao Tzu advises, a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
First, that while Tradition and Reason and Faith and Nature continued to be magisterially treated on our family estate in Nottinghamshire, I would undoubtedly now venture into realms where all this had been eclipsed by notions invested with a sudden incomprehensible magic like webbug, subnet masking; dark mysteries like autoresponder, emoticons, spider and phishing; nautical adventures like swift boating, Bluetooth, and bail outs, and fun terms like infotainment, swops, hedge fun, Gaga, and algo rhythms; phrases fraught with reckless danger like chillax, ripcording, Raw Dog, and ping; charged gametic words like cockblock, cyberrhea and thrival. For me, all these words teemed with hidden meaning.
Secondly, having observed a new form of communication, but only hastily, I immediately attached it to the spoken word, to talk, to an immediacy and persuasiveness that the printed word elided. I therefore concluded that if I did not wish to remain in the Old World, which would soon be eclipsed by talk, I should readily set out on a voyage into new realms where everyone could find a space to communicate with everyone and could personalize the world in a way inconceivable to my ancestors, as perspicacious as they were.
What I hoped to discover was a world of vibrant, interactive conversation, of talk not restricted to a drawing room of one’s own or a dear friend’s, talk not confined by space but talk that transcended the boundaries of time and space, talk unfettered from the vagaries of chance and event and what these unhappily make of us.
My dear Reader, you can see how this fascination to step outside my provincial awareness and to talk in this bold new way — though I am a man who realizes as Lermontov writes that an intelligent man prefers people who listen to people who talk – how this took hold of me and prompted a quick departure from my beloved home.
Unfortunately, our ship was set astray one dark night by a ferocious storm, broke up upon those angry waves, and next morning I found myself a sole survivor on an unknown shore.
At first the island seemed to me impenetrable jungle reaching almost to the shoreline. Bog grass gave way to bamboo and just as abruptly as if Nature was correcting itself every ten meters, bristly foxtail grass and cocksfoot grass and then to right and left Indian paintbrush, knotweed, and lady’s-slipper. I found love-lies-bleeding and moccasin flower as well as monkshood and jack-in-the pulpit. I found profusion and confusion of flora.
After no more than an hour’s walk, I came to an open plain of little quaking grass and wood meadow grass and spied a range of hills in the distance. At the base of those hills I saw smoke swirling upward and by noon day could clearly see thatched roofs.
A village! Food and drink. Perhaps the storm had brought me to a propitious beginning of my journey after all for here indeed was the answer to a castaway’s prayers. Anxious to tell my tale, I ambled forward, now observing any number of inhabitants moving about.
It was the way some moved about that stopped me in my tracks and caused me to crouch down, desirous now of seeing and not being seen. What I had observed, my dear Reader, was somewhat erratic and therefore disturbing behavior. Hidden as I was, I spied for perhaps an hour, my uneasiness growing.
What I saw of the inhabitants’ behavior which disturbed me was this: a walking forward, a sudden stop and then a walking backward, a pause of varying length and then a walking forward but on a slightly different trajectory. While some performed this ritual only once, I observed a woman bent over with age walk only a few steps before stopping, reversing and redirecting. She had a basket over one arm and I presumed she was shopping. She reached no destination during the time I observed her.
Puzzling and even more puzzling for then I saw a young man marching straight into my view and then out of it without ever stopping. So while some seemed to be forwarding and reversing themselves repeatedly, others seemed less inclined and still others seemed not at all affected by this strange disposition which I immediately defined for myself as some sort of dementia. I was therefore now hesitant in making myself known but hunger and thirst got the best of my discretion and I once again ambled forward.
I was welcomed graciously and with the sort of commiseration one in distress ideally expects of others. By nightfall I was settled comfortably in the home of Mr. Parsall, mayor of Jumpback, which was the name of this village and I assumed it had the same pertinence as calling a colony of lepers a Leper Colony.
The Parsall brood was large, ranging from diapers to strapping six footers to an elderly granny stationed in a rocker by the fireplace. I ate well for Mrs. Parsall proved to be an excellent cook, and drank liberally of the home brew which was reminiscent of The Guinness. I had all the comforts of home but there was a strangeness in their talk which paralleled the strangeness I had observed earlier in the manner in which the villagers walked about.
The Mayor, a man about my own age, spoke in stentorian tones but then would pause for what I must say was often an uncomfortable length of time and when resuming would qualify some of what he had previously said. Mrs. Parsall was loquacious but not untouched by this tendency. Only young Ned Parsall, a lad in his early twenties, could carry on in a normal fashion so that normal conversation and exchange could take place. I also noted that he and his younger siblings were the only ones that did not visibly wince now and then as I spoke.
I have been in Jumpback for one week and can now, dear Reader, report to you what I have discovered of this unusual village.
The history of the village is extraordinary: just as Australia and Devil’s Island had become the far off lands to send the incorrigibles of the British and French empires respectively, and Siberia had been a land of exile and Guantanamo a place of quarantine and so forth, Jumpback had become the godforsaken place to send scoffers, deconstructors, nullifidians, disillusionists, skeptics, flip floppers, zetetics, re-examiners, self-grillers, and deep-well probers. What these had evolved into were the present inhabitants of Jumpback, a people whose genetic tendency to jump back and re-examine everything they do, say, and hear gradually brought them to a state of aporia, of taking no path, saying no word and hearing nothing they could accept as true.
Their end was ignominous: they were shelved in charnel house waiting rooms and gradually wasted away as they could no longer bring themselves to eat or drink, jumping back, if you will, and questioning their own hunger and thirst.
Now you will be fascinated if I tell you, my dear Reader, that such a tragic state of affairs did not in any way discourage or distress the villagers for they saw the slow incubation of this malady as an augmenting campaign against illusions, self-deception, chicanery, propaganda, sophistry, disinformation, White Papers, spin, stratagems of market and pol, truisms, product jingles, solid foundations, accompanying statistics, raw facts, numbers that never lie, patent leather credentials, maps and templates, fundamentalist beliefs, and the reliability and transparency of language. Among a host of other matter and manner upon which I dare say civilization as we know it is built.
I did not hesitate then as soon as I had fully and reliably grasped the nature of the Jumpback disease – for disease it indeed was – to inform Mayor Parsall in a private audience that his whole village had inherited a particularly virulent form of paranoia and that there were not only talking cures for this but a whole array of cocktail pharmaceuticals that could be prescribed, to the extent their purse allowed. My talk did not fail to produce the usual painful winces from the man but I went on regardless and thus laid bare the full extent of my thought on this matter.
He quite surprised me then by asking me why I traveled to which I responded that I sought new lands and new talk, hoping to invigorate the staid reliables of my own homeland. You think then, he asked me, that your talk is somehow shaped by where you live and when you happen to be living? I said surely that was the case but, glimpsing his strategy, I added that while such variables clearly affected some matters, others were just as clearly unaffected. Here I mentioned my faith in a Celestial Entity and a Spiritual World, the immovables of our human nature, the indisputable recognition of happiness and progress, the marvels of human reason, the blindness of love, the fascinations of Mother Nature, the awesomeness of the beautiful, the great boon of language, the tool making inventiveness of the human race, and our enviable freedom to choose.
He winced painfully at each of these. In a response that I cannot defend except to say I found his censoriousness deeply offensive, I added to my list.
“Our individual uniqueness has nought to do with when and where,” I began. “Our objectivity cannot be diminished regardless of whether we are at the South Pole or the North Pole or whether it is the year 1000 or the year 3000. We strive for justice, condemn the evil actions of evil men, can talk our way into useful compromise, and can ultimately with truthful words drive out falsehood.”
“And yet,” the good man began, overwhelmed no doubt by the presence of what he could jump back on as many times as he wished without impairing or imperiling the validity of my words, “And yet, you believe that you can journey to different places and hear different talk.” I told him that I didn’t expect to hear different talk regarding any of what I had just enounced and if I did my sojourn in that land would not be long. To this he then remarked that if he understood me correctly I maintained that though the purpose of my travel was to encounter different talk I would terminate that encounter in lands where the talk was different than my prior assumptions. He asked me whether I found myself in a paradoxical situation. I could see that his paranoia drove a clever sophistry in debate.
“I am open to all that I see and hear, sir. If upon review I find that any of it violates what I have just declared as universal truths and principles, I dismiss it. That does not prevent me from choosing to adopt what I find to be in accord with those same principles.”
“So you are free to choose within the confines of what you call principles?”
“As every right thinking man and woman is, sir,” I declared as an obvious challenge to his own unfortunate paranoic state of mind.
“And when you visit a different land,” he continued, after his usual stop and go nonsense, “you come prepared to see and hear within the untouchables of your resident beliefs? Are you then open to seeing and hearing what is there? Are you then freely choosing when your choice is already constrained by unquestionable notions?”
“Belief in God is not a notion, sir,” I retorted, feeling the heat rising in me, though I am in fact a quite imperturbable man. “Nor is belief in reason and objectivity, justice and mercy, love and happiness, progress and success. Our free mind, sir. These, sir….”
“…are words,” the Mayor said in a low voice, eyes cast down. “And phrases. Some resonate gloriously I grant on any occasion and in any land but they are extremely difficult to bring to ground. Most of these ascend to the level of grand illusions. For instance, you say you are a unique individual and yet you repeat the same litany of unassailable Truths as every other visitor to Jumpback. If you do jump back and interrogate this matter of uniqueness you discover that there is more sameness than uniqueness among humans, just as it makes greater sense to say that zebras look alike than to base an individual uniqueness on their variant stripe patterns.”
“I find the comparison insulting, sir, and not at all consequential.”
“Is it consequential then to investigate why this assumption of individual uniqueness, this illusion, is held by so many at a particular time, and I might add, in particular places? May I add that it is more firmly announced in the United States than it is in Europe or Asia.”
“Perhaps Americans are more unique…but certainly I would not agree to that.”
“Neither would I,” the Mayor replied, “but it may be that the New World more firmly inscribes this illusion than elsewhere. That would mean that one of your cherished inviolables is actually subject to a cultural mood.”
“I protest, sir, because you refuse to acknowledge that individual uniqueness is grounded in freedom of choice which is unarguably an inviolable that you cannot violate with your skepticism.”
“I understand as you apparently do not,” the Mayor told me, “that my freedom to choose is confined within the boundaries of someone else’s choices. I do not feel violated by this but only the need to examine closely those boundaries and the power sources that erect them. I feel violated when I think that my freedom to break out is impeded by my own adoption of the sacred words `free to choose.’ If we ultimately feel that we are free to choose over and beyond all restraints and boundaries then those have no consequence and are not interrogated. Whatever is outside our personal choice has no hold on us. It is in this way that the enslaved obstruct their own freedom and allow the inequities and injustices of sheer power to go unruled.”
I found all this confounding sophistry to say the least and myself jumped back on the declaration that I for one would not enjoy a life of jumping back and scrutinizing every word someone said and every thought I myself had. This brought a smile and not a wince from my host.
“And yet,” I continued, “I admit to a certain curiosity as to your way of thinking.”
He replied that perhaps in spite of the axioms that framed my travels I might yet be open to an examination of them and thus make my travels worthwhile.
“Surely,” the Mayor said, smiling, “it would be a tragedy for a man who sets out to hear and see something new if he were to be totally guided by what he has already seen and heard.”
I burst out with the question as to how this was to be avoided and, still smiling, he said “Jump back on everything.”
In the next few weeks I took up in good faith the practice of jumping back, which was most difficult the more firmly attached you were to what required a jumping back. It was rather like going through a large menu to see what you liked best.
I discovered that besides being very firmly attached to my own individual uniqueness and my freedom to choose, I was deeply attached to a “love conquers all” notion, valiantly willing “to die for my country,” always ready “to stand up for justice,” always in “pursuit of happiness,” certain “the truth was out there,” anxious that we all “assumed personal responsibility,” a devotee of technology making everything ‘better, faster, easier,” certain “human nature” was unchanging, and quite sure that talk, no matter how muddled at times, would eventually “get the truth out.”
The Mayor had spent a lifetime jumping back on all of these: We talked within prevailing truth stories.
We loved within Hollywood portrayals.
We were patriotic the way John Wayne taught us.
We defined justice within a private personal space.
Happiness was defined by marketers.
The truth was a cherished story of the present.
We were as personally responsible as a fish who bites into a hook. Notions of what was better, faster and easier were market creations. Different times and places told different stories of human nature. God, like liberty and democracy, were useful words in recruiting for nefarious purposes people who didn’t practice jumping back.
The spiritual was a spinmeister’s carte blanche.
Everyone’s God called upon us to do such and such but all you could hear were the words of men.
Everyone had a sacred spiritual text representing the word of God but every word was written by men.
The Mayor winced most when God and the spiritual world became a crucial part of the talk because jumping back had revealed much chicanery. He was especially alert to its use by political and economic power. The Mayor would also talk about “a sense of freedom” as a cultural matter. And liberty was a governmental/citizen compact defined by law, which meant by words. The Constitutions granting the most liberty – in words — were in practice the most suppressive. Democracy was a word that meant a great deal less than those who didn’t practice jumping back assumed. Rule by those who win majority vote elections did not guarantee social justice or economic justice if the majority were filled with illusions.
I supposed, dear Reader, if new and startling talk was what I had set out to discover, here in the quaint village of Jumpback I had all I could wish for. But I confess that I very soon began to jump back from the Mayor’s words for I believed that my loyalty to the Queen was a noble thing and that I would indeed give my life for my country. I believed that Truth was not simply words that fit the temper of the times but a presence both immanent and transcendent. And liberty was not simply another word to rouse fools to foolish tasks but, like air, only properly appreciated when one is denied it. And men may twist the spiritual to meet their own wicked needs but that cannot sully the glory of deity itself.
Further, I believe each man has his own story of happiness: for the glutton, it’s a chop, for the lecher, it’s a pretty woman; for the greedy, it’s gold; for the proud, it’s fame and so on. Undoubtedly all of what we desire is there in our own bustling society but I see no command therein to be happy in any one manner.
As far as the cultural sway over human nature is concerned, I believe that the people of Jumpback exemplify my belief and it is this: In different times and different places different dimensions of our nature are brought forth. Here in Jumpback our quite human tendency to bring up our mental cud, if you will allow the image, and review it has overrun all other dispositions of our nature. And it is this excess that I began to draw back from, my own nature being one which– in the words of Aristotle — seeks to observe the mean.
I believe the Mayor perceived my own quiet retreat from his jumping back philosophy and accordingly he advised me to join his son, Ned, in each morning’s Jumping Back on Truisms gatherings. I agreed and next morning followed young Ned to the gathering where I found a group of about thirty young villagers and a handful of elders. The seating was circular amphitheatre and Ned and I took seats about half way up. At promptly 9AM a young lady rose from her seat and walked to the center of the stage below us.
“Everything said is said by an observer,” she informed us in a loud voice. “Jump back.”
A chap below me stood up and bellowed:
“The evidence speaks for itself” to which someone stood up and bellowed: “Who speaks the evidence but an observer?”
At that Ned stood up and said:
“Every observer is positioned somewhere, at some time.”
“Identical observations made in different places and at different times transcend the positioning of any one observer.”
I turned around to eye the speaker, one of the elders.
Ned stood up again:
“Every soul may testify that the Earth is flat and every Pharisee testifies that Christ is guilty.”
I suddenly found myself provoked to comment and so, dear Reader, I was boldly on my feet before I knew what I was about.
“True observations withstand the test of time. Falsehoods blow in the wind.”
I sat down again, feeling flushed but somehow victorious, as if I had delivered the coup de grace of jumping back.
Surely my truism would stand and bring this round to an end. But I must report that it did not for an obese person stood up and said:
“The present moment raids the past to find what supports its own truth stories. It leaves the rest to blow in the wind.”
While I was searching for a challenge, an elder took center stage and in a loud voice declared: “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
This brought on a flurry of jumping back activity which I relate to the best of my recall:
“The ways and means of here and now curb the will while shaping its goals.”
“The will of man shapes the world.”
“The world shapes the will of man.”
“What we hold as real today was once only imagined.”
“Reality is a corrective rod to the fanciful mind.”
“No human lives in the world in other than a human way, which is a world filtered through stories.”
“We are already in the world and part of it though we believe we are outside it and telling stories about it.”
“We are more bound to genetic and cultural scripts than to an autonomous will.”
“Anything you will strongly enough can be achieved.”
“What we call a strong will is no more than a will to power that has managed to impose itself on the world to the consternation of the many.”
“The Losers have no strong will to win.”
At that point, young Ned jumped up and yelled “Stop! For God’s sake, stop!” This outburst produced no challenge but all, including myself, stared bewildered at Ned, who could not manage to say anything else but, holding his arms out as if to hold off any who wished to stop him, rushed down the steps and then out of the building. I was momentarily at a loss as to what to do. Another speaker took center stage and flung out another truism:
“Interpretation is a measure of that power which gives sense and meaning to actions and words.”
I was interested in the responses to this but was more concerned as to what had caused young Ned’s outburst.
I did not find him until later that night when I was myself wandering about the darkened streets of the village, jumping back on what I had heard that day and also trying not to do so.
I was about to turn around and go to bed when someone called to me from the bushes. It was young Ned and he had a small pack on his back. I asked him what he was intending and he told me that he had decided to follow in my own footsteps and take to traveling for he was sick of jumping back and greatly feared winding up in a total catatonic state, which was the destiny of all the Jumpback villagers.
I then asked him where he was heading and he pointed to the far off hills over which a full moon hung. Beyond those hills was a village his father called Illusion but he had heard years before from one of its inhabitants was really named Trickle Downs. And he decided he wanted to go there. I at once agreed that it was a proper destination and quite astounded him I think when I said I too would be off if he would wait the short time it would take me to retrieve my own pack and walking stick.
And so less than an hour later and short of midnight we took the road leading into the hills beyond which lay the village of Trickle Downs.
All published chapters archived: Travels of a New Gulliver