Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 16


Mac and Vignis lived in a large house on the outskirts of town which had a good deal of land around it, but which didn't quite qualify as a mansion. It did, however, have a circular drive lined with trees leading to a modest but handsome portico. I had hardly gotten out of the car when I saw Vignis at the top of the steps. There had been a change. The house might be rather modest relative to Mac's fortune, but Vignis, now with an unlimited clothing budget, overwhelmed the house. Her embrace was as enthusiastic as ever, and I felt like a railway duke as I was led inside to see what an interior decorator could do when set free of financial restriction.

I was duly impressed, and we talked for a bit about the obvious. When I asked her how she liked Huntington, she replied,

"Pretty well. It's on roughly the same scale as Scranton, and there are the same sorts of people."

"Have you gotten used to being queen?"

"I do try not to queen it, but everyone treats me as if I were. I may have to settle for being a princess."

As we were happily discussing her change in fortune, the lunch bell rang. I was hungry from the morning's deliberations and knew that, wherever Vignis was, there would be plenty to eat.

As so often, it appeared that she had an agenda. Once we had taken the edge off our hunger enough to allow us to talk, she remarked that she had been studying philosophy. I replied,

"Well, my mission is to decide whether the Norfolk and Western should be sacrificed to the greater good of the Eastern Circle. So yours is to investigate some of Plato's theories?"

"No. This was my idea."

"Women always say that."

Vignis shook her head vigorously and said,

"I've discovered that Mac has the wrong philosophy."

"I didn't know there was any such thing as the wrong philosophy. Or the right one, either."

"Well, there may not be, really. I guess it's impossible to prove them right or wrong. But, what I mean is, he's got the wrong one for him."

"Isn't he mostly a Platonist with some ideas from Kant and others thrown in?"

"Yes. It's all very orderly. It'd be just right for someone who wants to lie back and contemplate beautiful things, and who has contempt for most of what goes on in the world."

"That's not exactly Mac, is it?"

"No. He's passionate and active. He may claim that change is unreal, but he'd be totally lost in a world that really didn't have it. He's always lived in the middle of a total mess with no order at all, and he's only happy when he's doing things."

All this came out with a rush. It was obvious that Vignis had no one else with whom she could talk about these things, and had been waiting for this opportunity. I replied,

"Atwater said something similar to me up in Dundee. It's surprising that Mac ever got involved in philosophy in the first place. I doubt that they teach much of it at West Point."

"It's an unusual interest. I only took a course because it was required. It seemed to me a matter of arguing endlessly over things that no sane person would have questioned in the first place. But I can see now that it provides a certain consolation."

It wasn't obvious to me why Mac needed any consolation, but I didn't want to appear to probe. There was then a pause of the sort that indicated that Vignis was deciding whether or not to tell me something. I knew it would be about Mac, and, while I was curious, I hoped that it wouldn't be embarrassing. I could have kept her from confiding something she might later regret, but I remained silent. It wasn't long before she said,

"The real trouble is that none of this was Mac's idea."

I was astounded.

"You mean the railway and the philosophy? Who else's could it be?"

"His father's. He died three years ago, but he had most of it plotted out, both the railway and the philosophy that goes with it. I don't mean that Mac isn't fascinated by both, but it's still dependent on his father. On his own, he wouldn't have gone off in those directions."

"What do you think he would've been?"

"Some sort of adventurer. He might have gotten involved in finance and railways, but not in such a systematic way. He would've been more spontaneous, and would've enjoyed himself more."

It was the first hint I had ever had that Mac wasn't enjoying himself. I wouldn't have credited it from any other source. I asked,

"What was Mac's father really like?"

"It's hard to know. Mac doesn't talk about him. His aunts constantly talk about General Ezra, as they call him, but their accounts are so sentimental that it's hard to penetrate whatever may be behind them. I think they probably drove their brother crazy without realizing it. All I really know is that he lost a leg in the war. Then, he hardly got back when he lost his wife, Mac's mother, to the influenza epidemic of 1919."

"That would be enough to make many men bitter. But Atwater talks about him in a rather different vein. He seems to have been witty and good company."

"Everyone outside the family says that, but, within the family, he seems to have inspired a certain amount of fear. Even Mac's aunts talk about his terrible temper."

"There are lots of men who're charming to friends and acquaintances, but pretty hard on their families."

"Yes. Not so different from my father."

I wasn't one who believed that Vignis' father was charming under any circumstances, but I let it pass. Vignis volunteered,

"In the years immediately after the war, Ezra's own health declined. He needed a good deal of care, and he wouldn't let most of his relatives near him. As nearly as I can make out, Mac hired the nurses, did a good deal of actual nursing himself, and took most of the responsibility for his father."

"It's hard to imagine that. Mac carrying a bedpan?"

"Well, the nurses must have done most of that, but Mac seems to have done some of it. It wasn't good for him."

Vignis herself looked quite unhappy, but no less beautiful, at this juncture. It occurred to me that she was lucky not to have married Mac a few years earlier, in which case she would probably have done the nursing. But I hardly wished to say so. I asked instead,

"Is that when the old man took up philosophy?"


"Well, that's natural enough for an intelligent man in the circumstances. That's almost what philosophy is supposed to be for."

"Yes. The only trouble is that he chose a philosophy suitable for an old bed-ridden man who thought he didn't have long to live. He then convinced Mac of it."

During this discussion, we had moved from the dining room to the living room, balancing our coffee cups on our laps. Vignis looked very earnest and sat up quite straight in a chair in which one was intended to relax and stretch out. Then, finally, when she did let out her breath, cross her legs, and lean back, I could see quite considerably under her skirt. While I certainly enjoyed looking at her long slim legs, it was also clear that I was expected to provide encouragement. I wasn't sure exactly how to, but did remark,

"I noticed today, when Mac was conducting the meeting, that he was quite open to the ideas of others and not at all dogmatic. I would have expected a Platonist to be quite bossy and a bit of a know-it-all. I gather Plato himself was like that."

That turned out to be the right thing to say. Vignis responded quite enthusiastically, her skirt rising still further. Then, when she finally noticed, she gave a little laugh, and got it down again. She said, somewhat apologetically,

"These chairs do that. I try to remember."

I probably could have admitted that I enjoyed the whole proceeding, but I have never had the facility for saying such things to women. I instead went on in the same vein,

"It also looks as if the labor situation isn't going to be very Platonic. Everything's very neat at the top, but, down below, there are all sorts of groups swirling around and a lot of potential chaos."

"Mac would say that that's just temporary, but I think the environment is always going to be more like Plato's flux, which he hated, than his world of Forms."

Agreeing tacitly, I asked Vignis what sort of philosophy she thought would suit Mac. She replied brightly,

"Have you ever heard of Soren Kierkegaard?"

"I believe I have heard the name, but that's all."

"He's my father's favorite. He was a Danish philosopher, and, since Iceland belongs to Denmark, he's a natural one for Icelanders to be interested in. Besides, my grandfather went to the university at Copenhagen and knew him slightly."

It amused me that, even though Vignis' father was awful, and she knew it, she still naturally inclined to his judgment when it was time to choose a philosopher. I urged her to tell me about Kierkegaard.

"Well, the central notion is that the self is only a relation which relates itself to itself. I think that means that we're just a bridge between what we've done in the past and what we intend to do in the future."

It sounded pretty obscure to me, but I made a stab at it and asked,

"So at any given moment, we have a past and get to graft one of a number of futures on to it?"

"Yes, and we're morally responsible for that choice."

I hadn't read Kierkegaard, but I had seen enough of Mr. Momsen to realize that any philosophy he liked would put most people in the wrong most of the time. I asked tentatively,

"And we shouldn't congratulate ourselves until we see how it all turns out, which we won't be in a position to do until we're dead."

"Yes. He says that we can't know whether we're relating ourselves to ourselves in the right way. Not only that, if we think we're doing it the right way, that's a strong sign that we're doing it the wrong way."

It also turned out that another way of relating oneself to oneself consisted in thinking about oneself. In that case, a belief in one's own sincerity and honesty was a strong sign that one was being insincere and dishonest. As I put it to Vignis,

"So someone who prides himself on his self-awareness is in fact in the grip of a greater delusion than someone who doesn't think about himself at all."

Vignis grimaced a little.

"I know that you pride yourself on your self-awareness, James. But, of course, he may be utterly wrong about that."

"Maybe he isn't. I've often consoled myself with that belief. When you expect people to tell you bad things about yourself, in court or otherwise, it helps to think that you already knew about them. But maybe that's just a false defence."

"Oh James, I was afraid that you'd have a bad time in court. Was it really awful?"

"Pretty bad, but it's done. Why do you think that this philosophy would be any good for Mac?"

"It seems to discourage reflection, and Mac doesn't like reflection. So this would justify him."

"Most people would think that the essence of philosophy is reflection. And Mac's the only railroad man I've ever met who likes to talk about philosophy."

"Mac values philosophy because he thinks it's useful. Whenever he talks that way, he's laying plans for the railway. Or other things."

Vignis blushed a little as she spoke. I had never heard Mac plan anything that didn't concern the railway. Could it be that he made love in what he took to be a philosophical way? Vignis made an odd little gesture with her hands, and it seemed that he very well might. If so, she wanted his efforts to be directed by a different philosophy. I replied tactfully,

"Yes. Well, it probably is better for a man of action not to worry overmuch about his actions, particularly the ones he's already taken. If, however, he still wants to be philosophical, it might be better to have a philosophy that never allows anyone to justify anything."

"Kierkegaard's also religious and moralistic in a funny way. Rather like father. But I wasn't going to tell Mac about that part."

"Are you also going to censor the fact that he's your father's favorite philosopher?"

Vignis knew when she was being teased and laughed. She added,

"There's something you'd like about Kierkegaard, though. He was fascinated with seduction."

She was teasing back, and I remembered then that she had met Cindy Lee, and had never heard the sequel. I didn't bother Vignis with it then in my curiosity to find out about the great philosopher's adventures. I was soon enlightened.

"He wrote a book about a seducer who slowly and painstakingly gets a woman to the point where she'll submit, but then never touches her."

"Is that what he did himself?"

"Well, he was deformed with a hump on his back, so that might explain a few things. But he did find a woman named Regina Olsen who was willing to marry him. Then, he changed his mind and refused to marry her because he said he couldn't "enter out into the general", whatever that means."

"Are you sure he wasn't just out of his mind?"

"Only in some ways. I think it was probably a matter of privacy. He couldn't face sharing all the secrets he thought he'd have to share with a wife."

"Do you know what his secrets were?"

"No. Probably sexual fantasies."

"I must say, this philosophy sounds more like me than Mac. As you know, I have some sexual oddities. I also have some funny inhibitions which often get in the way. Cindy Lee understood me pretty well, but now she's gone."

After I had told the latter part of the story of Cindy Lee, Vignis responded,

"Of course, that's sad for you, but she's happy and you can still be her friend. It was awfully nice of you to help them. I also think the whole episode was probably good for you."

I admitted as much, and we then went on talk in a lighter vein. I have always found that half the fun with a woman like Vignis consists in just watching her face as she speaks, and throughout the play of her emotion. At times, I did continue to think about Mac's, or Plato's, philosophy of love making. It was obvious enough. Vignis would be a very near exemplification of the Form of Beauty. It was odd to imagine Mac ever admiring another person in that way, but I had long known that almost anything might happen within a marriage without being suspected. In this case, the things Vignis said, and didn't say, gradually convinced me that Mac was trying to make her into his goddess.

Unfortunately, Vignis didn't want to be the Form of Beauty. She wanted to be treated as something much more ordinary. Not only that, she didn't think that Mac himself really wanted the Form of Beauty. It was up to me to help her devise, and convince Mac of, a philosophy which would put her in a quite different position.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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