Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 23

Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius

There are some things that are best done quickly. Marriage is best done almost immediately. Otherwise, something may go wrong. Sidonie and I both felt that, and John Henry was hardly surprised at our plans. He had virtually brokered our marriage, had warned me that Sidonie was crazy, and had warned her that I was a pervert. In fact, it occurred to me that he stood to our marriage much as I stood to that of Mac and Vignis. I had also warned Vignis about Mac and omitted only to warn Mac that Vignis was, as he later put it, a "god-damned banshee."

Getting married quickly was, however, no easy matter. Even though Sidonie was eighteen and had all the proper papers, we encountered extreme suspicion at the Cincinnati courthouse when we applied for a marriage license. The man in charge said only,

"You can't marry her."

Of course, as a northern state, Ohio had no laws against black-white marriages. When I threatened to sue the man, he backed down. As the forms were filled out, Sidonie said in her clear musical voice,

"A few years back, the citizens of Cincinnati gathered here and burned the courthouse down."

I, humoring her, asked,

"Why did they do that?"

"As a warning to the corrupt officials who worked here."

The man who hadn't wanted us to marry turned almost purple, but said nothing as he retreated to an office at the back. The license was handed to us by a woman who seemed not at all sympathetic. She then pushed a brown paper bag at Sidonie. I rather wondered if it might contain a boa constrictor, but Sidonie opened it on the spot. Inside, there was some literature concerning venereal disease, a bottle of stuff to use in cleaning windows, and a bottle of aspirin. She said to me, perhaps intending to be overheard,

"They want us to treat our venereal diseases with aspirin, and to keep our windows clean so they can look in and see that we're doing it properly."

When we finally emerged, I asked Sidonie,

"Did they really burn the courthouse?"

"Yes. It was some fifty years ago, but I thought that man needed to be reminded of it."

There was then the problem of finding someone to actually marry a forty three year old white man and an eighteen year old black woman. While the white ministers wouldn't perform inter-racial marriages out of disapproval of miscegenation and fear of the social consequences, most black ministers were afraid of the consequences in a much more personal and elemental way. It was a measure of Mrs. Hawkins' standing within her community that she found a man to do the job in a few hours.

Since the wedding was to be discreet, Sidonie didn't wear the traditional white gown. She instead wore a cream- colored dress of light-weight silk which, while in decidedly good taste, greatly stimulated my imagination. I wondered how John Henry could look at her and not regret the present arrangement, but he seemed to be in unusually good spirits.

As we set out walking, four abreast, down the alley, I was sure that we looked like a wedding party. Sidonie might not have a white dress, and might not be a traditional sentimental girl, but her face was still bright with romance. I was tremendously pleased and proud as she stepped along between John Henry and myself, sometimes taking our arms for support as she negotiated the rough bricks of the alley. At one point, she whispered to me,

"Are you imagining what we'll do together later?"


"Being married will make it even more exciting."

We crossed the main street rather conspicuously, but, of course, everyone assumed that Sidonie was John Henry's bride. Mrs. Hawkins would be her mother, and I would be a white benefactor, very likely the employer of one or the other.

The chapel was only a couple of blocks further on. Buildings had been built around it so closely as to virtually block the windows, but the front door was still unobstructed. Before going in, Sidonie took my arm, removed one-by-one her silk pumps, and dabbed at them with a handkerchief supplied by Mrs. Hawkins. I suspected that her whole outfit had been purchased in Paris, and that this was her first opportunity to wear it in America.

The interior of the chapel was dark, owing to the blocked windows, and it was a minute before I realized that there was a man at the front, the minister. He was obviously very nervous. He wanted to get it done, in order to satisfy Mrs. Hawkins, but to then get us out before anyone realized what he had done.

The ceremony was, in the nature of the case, somewhat anti-climactic. However, when Sidonie and I were lined up in front of the minister, I stole a glance at her. That was all I needed. It was quite unnecessary for anyone to kiss the bride.

On the way back, Sidonie and I walked together in front. When we had gone some distance, she gave me a shy look and said,

"Shall we wait to start living together until we get settled in your railway car?"

I wasn't averse to this suggestion, despite what she had whispered to me going the other way. Fascinated as I was by her, and much as I wanted to undress her, I was also nervous about sex. At any rate, I wanted first to have an opportunity to prepare myself mentally.

It seemed to me, at that time, that I had to be able to form an adequate concept of a woman before I could make love to her. It had been easier with Cindy Lee because I had first approached her objectively, as a possible employee, and had thus come to know quite a lot about her before anything very much happened between us. Sidonie was much more confusing.

Some men might have thought of her as a virgin child bride. Quite apart from knowing that she wasn't a virgin, that image of freshness, shyness, and innocence wasn't appropriate to Sidnoie. Nor was it something that I really wanted.

On the other hand, her extreme youthfulness did excite me, and, worldly as she was, it was a kind of precocious wordliness which carried a certain naivite in its particular form of rebelliousness. I knew that I would have to start from there in fixing my concept of her, but didn't know in exactly what direction I might be led. Partly in jest, I took her long cool hand in mine and said to her,

"I'll have to wait until I've arrived at a proper concept of you."

She laughed and replied,

"I'll give you a succession of clues as we go along."

Having arrived at the main street, I heard a voice greeting Mrs. Hawkins from the side. As it turned out, there were two men, both elderly, but one very tall and the other very short. Both their aspects combined, in a surprising way, reputable and disreputable elements.

Both men were extremely polite, raising their straw hats, first to Mrs. Hawkins, and then to the rest of us when we were introduced. But, as they spoke quietly about the weather, I noticed a cold dignity and a certain uneasiness in Mrs. Hawkins. I felt sure that she disapproved of them, and it occurred to me that they might be like the man named Pie who had originally recruited John Henry. It was obvious that they were used to managing affairs.

The taller one then looked us over and said,

"You all look very fine. May I ask if this is a special occasion?"

The question was certainly within the bounds of good taste, but it was put in an insinuating impertinent way. I think that Mrs. Hawkins was on the point of refusing point blank to give them any information when Sidonie told them cheerfully that we had just been married.

The shorter of the two men smiled as he looked from myself to Sidonie. The taller, with his thumbs in his suspenders, rocked back, as if in mock surprise, a pleasant look on his face. Of course, one is supposed to smile when informed of a marriage, but these weren't those sorts of smiles. They were the sort which are ordinarily produced by a dirty joke.

Perhaps it was just as well that these men reacted in this way. At any rate, there seemed to be no hostility to the idea of a white man marrying a black woman. For that matter, they seemed to have nothing against a middle-aged man marrying a young girl. One sensed that they had known many instances of the same thing, and had laughed about those too.

The shorter man, unctousness oozing from his voice, asked who the minister had been. It was a highly conventional question, but even I could see that it was loaded.

These two elder statesmen might simply have enjoyed accumulating information. On the other hand, I could imagine them blackmailing the minister with the threat of telling the Ku Klux Klan that he had been marrying couples who were not of the same race. I replied loudly that the Reverend Mr. Southgate had married us, making up the name on the spot. After that, we got away quickly.

That evening, we had a discussion of philosophy in the kitchen. Sidonie had been trying to improve on Mac's Platonism, as reported by John Henry and myself. She said,

"The trouble is that Plato disliked and thought unreal any kind of change or motion. Even circular motion wouldn't have satisfied him. It would be real only insofar as it traces a circle, but, since we already have the concept of a circle, the motion doesn't add anything."

Sidonie suggested instead a form of Aristotelianism.

"Aristotle wanted to study change and motion instead of declaring it unreal. And there aren't any Forms which exist abstractly apart from their exemplification. Where Plato would probably have thought railways noisy smelly abominations, Aristotle might have found them interesting."

As she explained Aristotle's principal doctrines, I felt as I did on the couple of occasions when I have gone to performances of Shakespeare's plays. Even though I had never read the plays, almost every sentence was vaguely familiar.

Ordinary substances, such as tables and chairs and people, are composed of both matter and form. The limiting cases are substances of pure form, if there were any, and, at the other extreme, prime matter. This is a hypothetical "pure stuff" which can't exist on its own. Change is generated by "unmoved movers", such as persons, who may, in indirect ways, owe their own capacity to move to other unmoved movers.

Most important for our purposes, each substance has an essence and a corresponding set of potentialities for action. Sidonie said,

"I'm not too thrilled with Aristotle's position here. There's no general way of deciding what essence a given substance has, and, even when it's decided case-by-case, it often seems arbitrary. We, as humans, are distinguished from other species by both our rational animality and our featherless bipedity. Aristotle thinks it's obvious that the former constitutes our essence while the latter is only an accidental feature. On the other hand, if you're being chased by a tiger, the question of whether you have feathers that you can fly with might be more important than whether you're rational."

I noticed, both then and later, that, while Sidonie understood academic philosophy, she had very little patience for distinctions and theories that couldn't be tested rather directly in practice. I replied,

"From Aristotle's choice of essence for us, I gather that he was less interested in our survival as animals than in our capacity to solve scientific problems."

"I think we're supposed to be rational even when we're being animals, but that's less clear. Is there, for example, a rational way of taking a shit?"

Sidonie then went on to explain why, despite her own moderate distaste for Aristotle's philosophy, she thought it might be useful to us.

"The fuzziness in the doctrine of essences suits us perfectly. We can decide what substance has what essence. The essence of a locomotive is to pull as much as possible as fast as possible as far as possible. The essence of track is to carry trains and penetrate or overcome obstacles such as mountains and rivers."

"That sounds rather grandiose."

"Yes. If philosophy is going to be of any use at all in railroading, it would have to be, wouldn't it?"

John Henry came in at this point. It wasn't always easy to tell when he was amused, but he seemed to be at this moment. Mac might have originally convinced him of the importance of philosophy, but I sensed that he was beginning to have his doubts.

Sidonie, ignoring his attempts to deflect her, attempted to convince him of the truth of Aristotle's views. For me, the spectacle was an odd one. I could hardly believe my good fortune in actually being married to the girl by my side. She was still in her wedding dress, and it looked as well suited to a discussion of Aristotle as to a wedding.

It was only slightly bizarre that she was now trying to convince the man whose bed she was used to sharing, if not invading, of a philosophy. It did occur to me that the two of them might have something to work out, and that philosophy might play some role in it. On the other hand, I couldn't make out any veiled meanings. Finally, John Henry remarked equably enough,

"I don't see what good this will do, even if you're right. No one's going to convince the boss of anything he isn't already inclined to believe. And, then, it won't have much use for anyone else. When I'm the engineer, I already want to get the most out of my engine. Even if I believe that I'm helping the engine fulfill its essence, it won't help me up the grade."

Neither Sidonie nor I argued that point. What philosophy, indeed, would help anyone up the grade? We then turned, naturally enough, to a position John Henry had taken up and started to mix with the bizarre sort of Marxism he espoused when speaking to the men.

The stoical philosophy of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was, in some ways, useful to him. Sidonie said that Marcus Aurelius didn't really have a philosophy, just an attitude. On the other hand, it expressed very neatly a soldier's outlook with its insistence that pain and hardship hardly mattered, and its distinction between pleasure and satisfaction.

John Henry's standard pitch to the young blacks was that they were soldiers in what amounted to a revolution, and that, the more successful they were, the more likely they were to encounter violent counter-attacks. He constantly argued that it was necessary to live a life with a good deal of hardship and few of the ordinary pleasures in order to win the eventual battle.

There were a number of the emperor's sayings and slogans which were relevant to this point, and John Henry could quote them in the big deep voice which was so different from his ordinary speaking voice. The idea that he could get the same, or more mileage, out of the sayings of Aristotle was laughable and absurd. He did add,

"Any philosophy that's at all useful will also have to be a bit of a religion."

Later that evening, Sidonie and I took our cups of tea up to her room. When we entered, we sat carefully in the two chairs facing one another across the little table. Still in our finery, and facing one another with the bold decorousness of a Victorian lady and gentleman, we prepared to converse in an elevated and elegant way in a highly suggestive atmosphere.

The room was small, but it had been prettily arranged. When I asked if she were always so well organized, she replied,

"It's usually a hopeless mess, but, now that I'm a respectable married lady, I thought I had to pull myself together. I don't know how long I can keep it up, but I'll try."

"It seems very much like a French boudoir."

"It's meant to be. A boudoir is actually a rather public place. A lady can entertain her friends there, even gentlemen friends, without creating a scandal."

"Can she entertain a single gentleman friend without compromising her reputation?"

"Even that. It might be thought improper only if she so entertained her husband. However, the couple could avoid even the appearance of immorality by behaving with particular circumspection and discussing philosophy. What did you think of John Henry's position?"

"I can see that we'll need something more exciting than Aristotle. What's Marcus Aurelius like?"

"His Meditations consist only in moral maxims, all of an uplifting and edifying sort. He's worse than Benjamin Franklin. He also recommends resignation in the face of almost everything. Here's an example."

Sidonie rose gracefully and stepped to a bookshelf, one hand slightly lifting and guiding her full flowing skirt. She then found her place in a book, and read to me,

"Does anyone do thee wrong? It is to himself that he does the wrong. Has anything happened to thee? Well, out of the universe from the beginning, everything which happens has been apportioned and spun out to thee. In a word, thy life is short. Thou must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice. Be sober in thy relaxation."

Sidonie was laughing as she read the last sentence. I was forced to join her, even when she added,

"The main good thing about him appears to have been his skill as a general. He also had the early Christians thrown to the hungry lions."

One was never sure when she was serious, but, quite apart from the difficulties of the Christians, there was a problem. I suspected that John Henry had lent her his favorite book, and would be deeply upset if he knew she was making fun of it. When I said as much, she replied,

"Seriously, it's a terrible outlook for someone whose ancestors were slaves not so long ago. I hope your friend Garner didn't encourage him in it."

"I don't think so. Besides, the self abnegation hardly sounds like John Henry at all. I'm sure that's not the message he gives the workers."

"Oh well, I know what's happened. Until recently, he's had damned few books to read. People like that make favorites of any books they come by, but then they twist them around to say whatever they want them to say. By this time, he's developed an outlook that has practically nothing in common with Marcus Aurelius, but he still likes to think that it came from a Roman emperor."

"Yes. I guess the best thing we can do is not mention Marcus and hope he goes away."

"Well, in one way old Marcus is a little affecting. The poor man was constantly commanding armies that were in danger of being overrun by barbarians while his wife was carrying on affairs with the milkman and the postman. All this was written only for himself, and he evidently had to talk to himself in this way before he could face the next day."

"I didn't know you ever felt sorry for anyone."

Sidonie laughed.

"You mean, you've married a woman under the impression that she's utterly heartless?"

"The last one was highly proper and moralistic. Anything's better than that."

"No. What you really want is for your new wife to be just as proper, if not moralistic. And I am proper. So I'm going to make you go back to your own room now."

At the door, I picked up Sidonie's smooth hand with its long tapering fingers and kissed it. She smiled, pushed me gently out of the door, and whispered,

"When I know you better, I may let you unbutton me in back."

The next morning, Sidonie announced,

"I've decided to quit college."

I asked,

"Will Mr. Richards be disappointed?"

"I don't think seriously. What are you doing today?"

John Henry and I were going out to have a look at the C&O, and we invited her to accompany us.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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