March 31, 2015

Why I don't get back there much

The question came up today, in an unusual setting, for the first time in many years - why don't I go back to Alaska much?  Well, I haven't heard that one for a while.

So wrong-footed was I, that none of my well-worn one-liners came to mind.  It took me several seconds to mentally reconstruct my repertoire, and to select from it from a suitable retreat-under-fire:

"Well, when I have the money and time to go to Alaska, I also have the money and time to go to Paris, so I flip a coin and for some reason it always comes up heads, and off to The Continent I go, ha ha ha."

I have various other excuses.  For many years I said I would not go back unless I could be governor.  I have half a mind to try and enforce that one at some point, but the state's gentle shift from a quirky libertarian brand of frontier conservatism to Monster Raving Loony batshittery now diminishes the probability of success for that project.

For many years I could complain about the dearth of espresso machines on The Last Frontier, but that issue appears to have been largely rectified:

Wait...none at the airport?  Forget it.

And, I hasten to assure you, my reticence has nothing to do with some effete aversion to the hard outdoor living that's so integral to the Alaskan lifestyle.  I've been up mountains on three continents, and usually gotten back down again.  I can load and fire a Winchester Model 88 and any non-automatic pistol you could name (fuck those automatics, I hate them).  In a world where ordinary men cower at the sight of a squirrel, I'll slap a bear off my bacon faster than you can say "heyday of the Anthropocene."  Alaska brings that out in me - when I'm back there I feel rough-and-ready, energized, defiant, devil-may-care, and...well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The effect of place upon behavior and outlook is an evergreen topic, studied by sociologists, psychologists, and men of letters alike.  And yet it seems there is always something more to learn.  Indeed, meditation on this exact topic persuaded one of the most brilliant men of all time to recant his prior work and reframe his thinking along more flexible lines.

Let me again draw your attention P.G. Wodehouse's homage to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, the (1925) Mulliner story "Honeysuckle Cottage."  Departing from his usual New Comedy plotting, the Master instead tells a ghost story, in which a hardbitten writer of mystery novels inherits a cottage from an aunt famous for her sentimental romances.  There is one condition, however - he must stay there at least six months a year.  He duly moves in, but finds the cottage is haunted, and slowly but inevitably corrupts its occupants with visions of syrupy pastoral romance as surely as the One True Ring turns its bearers to Sauron.  Thanks to the intervention of a nutty but loyal dog, he narrowly escapes its power and returns to London to resume his hard-bitten crime writing career.

"Honeysuckle Cottage" was one of Wodehouse's favorites, and was also appreciated by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who can only have read it after the Tractatus but before the Philosophical Investigations.  I am certain that the story, with its mutually exclusive language worlds of detective fiction and romance stories, was a turning point in Wittgenstein's thought, leading him away from the doctrinaire A=A framework of the Tractatus and toward a more flexible and muscular conception of language as a system of mutually intelligible games, a system in which words have context-dependent uses, not exact meanings.  I believe a diligent review of The Blue and Brown Books will confirm this to even the most hardened skeptic.

Like any great thief, Wodehouse returned to the scene of the crime a few years later, using a similar plot device in another (1928) Mulliner story "The Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court".  Perhaps Wodehouse noticed that the haunted house device had been borrowed by John Buchan in his "Fullcircle: Martin Peckwether's Story" which was part of his successful anthology,  The Runagates Club.  Some view "Unpleasantness" as a pastiche of the Buchan story.  I suppose this is true, in the same way that King Lear is a pastiche of Holinshed's Chronicles.

Our hero, Aubrey Trefusis (née Bassinger) has grown up at Bludleigh Court ("Lesser Bludleigh, near Goresby-on-the-Ouse, Bedfordshire"), but now habitually avoids it, living as a poet in London.  He meets a girl named Charlotte, falls in love, and learns that she has been invited to a party at his ancestral home.  The place, he warns her, causes in its inhabitants an inexplicable tendency toward slaughter, an irresistible urge to kill God's creatures.  He joins her in hopes of sheltering her from this peril.

Upon arrival, Charlotte notes that "from every wall there peered down with an air of mild reproach selected portions of the gnus, moose, elks, zebus, antelopes, giraffes, mountain goats and wapiti which had had the misfortune to meet Colonel Sir Francis Pashley-Drake before lumbago spoiled him for the chase. The cemetery also included a few stuffed sparrows, which showed that little Wilfred was doing his bit."

Soon, she finds she is not quite herself, writing this poem for the Christmas issue of Animal Lovers Gazette:

Good Gnus
 (A Vignette in Verse)

 When cares attack and life seems black,
 How sweet it is to pot a yak,
       Or puncture hares and grizzly bears,
          And others I could mention;
 But in my Animals "Who's Who"
 No name stands higher than the Gnu;
       And each new gnu that comes in view
          Receives my prompt attention.

 When Afric's sun is sinking low,
 And shadows wander to and fro,
       And everywhere there's in the air
          A hush that's deep and solemn;
 Then is the time good men and true
 With View Halloo pursue the gnu;
       (The safest spot to put your shot
          is through the spinal column).

 To take the creature by surprise
 We must adopt some rude disguise,
       Although deceit is never sweet,
          And falsehoods don't attract us;
 So, as with gun in hand you wait,
 Remember to impersonate
       A tuft of grass, a mountain-pass,
          A kopje or a cactus.

 A brief suspense, and then at last
 The waiting's o'er, the vigil past;
       A careful aim. A spurt of flame.
         It's done. You've pulled the trigger,
 And one more gnu, so fair and frail,
 Has handed in its dinner-pail;
       (The females all are rather small,
          The males are somewhat bigger).

Before the story is over she, intoxicated with bloodlust, chases Pashley-Drake (who is clad only in a loincloth for sun-bathing) about the grounds, peppering him with an airgun.

And that is why I don't get back to Alaska much.


Blogger JAB said...

It's a challenge, that place, to those whose souls coalesced in the subarctic air. When I left, I wrote a piece for POL for which I was roundly criticized for saying that the opportunity for Alaska's best self, an economic paradise in terms of both opportunity and core equality, had been squandered by greed and corruption and hollow aspirations to class privilege, and would not return.

Each trip back seems to confirm what I said in 1997. My face drops, my humor shrivels. Alaska feels like Animal Farm.

There can be a very bright future for Alaska if there is an ascendency of the broad, culturally complex Native community, however you wish to define that (which is a larger and larger share of the population,) and whether this group, which is committed to Alaska over the long haul, can find a connection to the progressive elements of the majority culture- to the kind of deep liberalism of the people who wrote the state constitution, and to some kind of economic vitality not based on morally toxic energy multinationals.

But the brilliant efforts of the most far-seeing of Alaska's stateswomen and men of the mid-century may well be squandered on the unholy coalition of the corrupt, the ideologically sociopathic, and the grotesquely religious. So often, I cannot bear to watch it. It makes my stomach churn, my heart sink. Modern Alaska has a way of shitting on my Alaskan soul.

April 1, 2015 at 9:49 PM  
Blogger The Other Front said...

As I think about it, instead of hoping Alaska could become Iceland, maybe we should just go to Iceland...

April 2, 2015 at 12:23 AM  
Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Personally, I'm too busy complaining about the place I live to complain about places I used to live. They're all pretty nice when you're just visiting. (Except: Boston sucks.)

April 2, 2015 at 5:38 PM  

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