Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 31

Guggins Philosophy

Late yesterday, Sister Harkins received word that her brother, an RAF pilot, failed to return from a night mission over Germany. She manages, very nearly, to carry on as normal. I wish that there was something I could do to help, particularly since her fiance, a pilot in the same squadron, runs the same risk. I am also struck by the contrast between the real war that is going on here in Europe and the sort of play war that I have just been describing. However, even the play war turned out to be deadly enough in the end.

Back in Portland, Speed, John Henry, and I settled down in relative anonymity and read the newspapers. Although the northwest has always tended toward liberalism, the coverage was not unfavorable to us. The strikers had, from the beginning, shown violent and lawless tendencies. The fact that we had put down what amounted to riots without killing anyone was noted in our favor. It had also been noticed that, on the last occasion, the mob had contained many roughnecks who had never had any connection with the railway, or, according to one paper, any sort of honest work.

In fact, our operations had gone so well that General Davis came out to congratulate us. When we had a chance to talk alone, I explained to him exactly why I had sent Biggar out the back gate. Davis replied,

"Well, it's quite possible that Biggar would have opened fire before you would have. That could have been unfortunate to say the least. On the other hand, you might have waited too long. I haven't seen the ground, but you can't wait until a mob is right on top of you, even if you have a couple of BARs."

"I actually don't have the slightest idea what I would have done if the mob had come through the fence."

"Those are the sorts of things we never do know about ourselves until we've had some relevant experience. But, whatever might have happened, you won a victory. I've never believed in questioning success very much."

"No. Of course, that was just one battle. Even though the brotherhoods aren't making as much noise as I would have expected, there are still a whole lot of very angry Southern Pacific employees in Eugene."

Before Davis left to continue his tour of inspection, it was agreed that Biggar would remain in Portland with his battalion for at least another week.

The next day, Sidonie arrived. She had heard inflated stories of my prowess as a military leader, and greeted me with mock shyness as she got off the train. She was also even more elegant than usual. She said to me,

"Now that you're a prominent general, I'm going to be a proper general's lady. I understand that that's like being a colonel's lady, only more so."

"It's a good thing that you look the way you do. The obvious abbreviation for "Commanding Officer's Wife" is used widely on military bases, particularly if the lady in question looks a little that way."

I already knew from John Henry's experience that the hotel wouldn't refuse Sidonie because of her race. However, inter- racial marriage, not to mention inter-generational inter- racial marriage, was more than most establishments could deal with. In order to avoid the sort of scene we had encountered elsewhere, she took a separate room, fortunately on the same floor as mine.

Sidonie had, almost from her arrival in America, dressed exotically to give the impression of being foreign, and thus avoiding the color bar aimed at black Americans. She had found that it wasn't enough to be Haitian or Jamaican. The Caribbean was, it seemed, too close to home. However, any supposed homeland in Africa or Asia would do, particularly since she was always assumed to be an aristocrat, if not a princess.

This time, however, the general's wife costume, while very handsome and impressive, didn't look foreign. I wondered how we were going to manage at restaurants.

Our marriage, at that stage, had settled into a pattern of cyclic changes and ambiguities which was to last for some time. There were times when we came together, both sexually and otherwise, with extraordinarily good results.

There were other times when we were separated physically because I was travelling while Sidonie remained in Huntington, or were separated intellectually and spiritually. During these latter times we didn't fight. On the other hand, I knew better than to come to her room at night. Most of the time, we were somewhere between these extremes, negotiating implicitly and not knowing quite where we were headed.

I now think it probable that Sidonie had lovers during those years. More to the point, she had been in the habit of taking lovers when I met her, and had never stopped. Even then, I half knew it. However, since she never did contract the French, or any other, disease, Sidonie's infidelities, to whatever extent I was aware of them, could be tolerated. What was important was something of which I was acutely aware. Sidonie loved to act out fantasies of every kind, and she took whatever props came her way. It made little difference whether the prop was an article of clothing, a whole physical environment, or a lover who happened to be right for the supporting role that was open.

This play-acting was partly motivated by the need to get into restaurants, but it went far beyond that. I thought at the time that it was a reflection of Sidonie's youth. As it turned out, it became more intense as time passed. Even so, I liked it and encouraged it.

When I went to Sidonie's room to take her to dinner that evening, she greeted me in an Indian sari with a red spot on her forehead. She said,

"It's the easiest of all. You just get beautiful material, and have it hemmed. Lots of Indians from the south are darker than I am."

"How did you ever find out how to wrap it?"

"There was an Indian girl in Paris who became part of our circle of friends. She showed all of us. You don't use any pins at all, but girls in India even manage to play sports in saris."

Sidonie had substituted a modified silk blouse for the cotton jacket which, she said, wasn't very attractive. Looking down at her feet, I saw that she had made another modification to the Indian national costume. She loved expensive imported French and Italian shoes, and also liked fine silk stockings. When I remarked on her footgear, she replied,

"They wear heavy ugly sandals, and it takes away from what's really the most graceful costume in the world. It'd be better to go barefoot, but I'm not prepared to do that in the winter. Vignis agreed that I ought to wear shoes like this."

When Vignis and Sidonie agreed on something, it was as much as settled. But, of course, I hardly wanted to argue. I liked the way that Sidonie looked very much. I said,

"If you'd come dressed like that, we could probably have registered together at the hotel."

Sidonie shrugged and then smiled as she replied,

"I think I like having my own room. Then, when you come in, I'm the hostess and you're only the visitor."

On that evening, toward the end of January, 1933, I was the general and Sidonie was the Indian maharani. I discovered, as the evening progressed, that she was not eighteen, but thirty eight. It further turned out that the general was not her husband, but a commander of mercenary forces in her employ. That is to say, I guessed these things. There was always an element of vagueness and mystery in Sidonie's fantasies, but I was expected to understand well enough to do what was needed to satisfy her. It was because I became so much better at that than any other man could have been expected to be that I gradually became confident that I wouldn't lose her.

When we got back to the hotel after dinner, Sidonie led me to her room, not by explicit invitation, but with a look. She then tossed to me the end of the sari which had been thrown over her shoulder and twirled away across the room as if she were dancing.

The next afternoon, there was a message from Cindy Lee in Eugene. There was more trouble, but of a different kind. There was no strike, and no disorder in the yards, but the men had launched a campaign at the passenger station, trying to get people to take the Oregon Electric rather than the SP.

When I read the message out at dinner, Biggar was for ignoring it altogether.

"They have a right to stand in front of the station with their signs if they want to. It'd be inappropriate to show up with the battalion and beat them up."

No one disputed that, but Speed, who knew Cindy better, said,

"I don't think she would have sent the message unless she felt that something more was going to happen."

It was decided that someone should go down to Eugene to look into the matter further. I pointed out,

"The trouble is that the strikers have had plenty of opportunity to know our faces, and a re-appearance by any of us might cause trouble."

Speed laughed and added,

"The trouble might be that one or more of us would get the stuffings beaten out of us without the battalion there to protect us."

I responded,

"Speed and I are used to disguises. We could go."

Biggar said,

"The disguises had better be good."

Sidonie had been sitting quietly all this time, but she now burst out,

"I can disguise you both as priests, and then go with you."

Biggar was loud in his approval. He said,

"People look at a priest, see that he's a priest, and then look away without noticing anything else."

I was sure that Colonel Biggar did just that, it being implicit that a priest wasn't a real man, and hence not worth bothering with. Other people might be more curious about a priest, but most railwaymen were probably more like Biggar than otherwise. Speed said that he hadn't the faintest idea of how to act like a priest. Sidonie, who had had more experience with the Catholic priests of Haiti than she might have wished, answered,

"It's easy to be a certain kind of priest. All you have to do is introduce yourself as Father Trent, be reserved and dignified, and keep reminding yourself that, in moral terms, you're far superior to anyone you meet."

Speed allowed that he could probably do that, and Sidonie undertook to get the necessary outfits the next day. She said,

"I can pretend to be some sort of flunkey who's been sent to the clerical supply store by some priests who are passing through."

After dinner, Sidonie and I went out for a walk, not down by the docks where Speed liked to go, but into a park with what would, in spring, be elaborate flower gardens. On a winter night, the bare earth with jumbled stems wasn't inspiring, but, looking down the hill in the other direction, we could see the port spread out below us and the lights of ships and tugs moving slowly in the harbor. On emerging on the other side of the park, we noticed a little corner market which happened to be open. Sidonie wanted something for late night snacks, and I waited outside while she went in. Knowing that she never bought anything without carefully inspecting everything in the store, I took a turn around the block.

I had turned only one corner, into a pleasant but narrow street, when I observed a tall blonde woman in a tan coat hurrying in the other direction on the opposite sidewalk. There was something in her look, proud and cool, which affected me strongly.

It's hard to explain why it happened just then, particularly after the previous evening I had spent with Sidonie. I can only say that sexual activity, far from extinguishing desire, may only trigger still further sexual activity of various kinds. Not only that, a man in his forties, after the kind of success I had had with Sidonie, may come to think that everything lies in his power. It may seem that restraint is for other people. And then, there's the known fact that sexual tendencies are almost entirely resistant to change and influence of any sort.

The woman screamed, and I ran around the next corner. I then peeked back around a tall hedge to see if she were, by any chance, following. She was, as best she could in her heels, and she was also shouting and pointing in my direction. Before I could move on, I felt a huge hand on my arm. It was much too strong to allow any possibility of escape, and I looked up into the broad blonde face of a huge Swedish longshoreman.

In addition to unreasoning panic, I felt wholly ridiculous as, twisted sideways by that grip, I tried, quite uselessly, to kick my way free. The lady, flushed handsomely, shouted at me,

"You pervert, I'll teach you a few things!"

I was caught between two Nordic giants, the female one of whom seemed about to hit me over the head with her handbag. In that instant, I sympathized with the plight of some of the strikers in Eugene, trapped hopelessly as they waited to be clubbed over the head.

When the blow came, it felt as if it were a nightstick rather than a handbag. I would have been dropped neatly on to the seat of my trousers, but for the hand holding me up. As it was, I ended up, still in the grip, but half-dazed with my jaw hanging open. While I knew that much worse was to come later, in police court, I wished abjectly to surrender to any available authority. Unfortunately, the Scandinavian goddess, looking not unlike Vignis, was preparing to biff me a second time. I, unable to do anything else, gaped up at her as she wound up with her handbag, a look of happy ferocity on her face.

Just then, there was another scream from behind me. I knew that it was Sidonie. I did just have a chance to wonder whether it was because I was being beaten or because she was discovering in a first-hand way my true nature. To my surprise, she yelled,

"A man just exposed himself in front of me!"

The giant longshoreman called back,

"Yes, maam, I've got him here."

My female adversary suspended her blow while Sidonie came rushing up. She said,

"That's not him. Besides, I saw him run that way. Come quick."

There was a moment of hesitation. The blonde woman may have realized that she had lost sight of me when I went around the corner. The giant had apparently not seen the act, but had come running from another direction. Sidonie actually tugged on his arm, and all three went off, the giant running and the women following. In pain, but also with profound relief, I struggled to my feet and went slinking back to the hotel.

When Sidonie came back, she was laughing. She said only,

"He got away."

I hardly knew what to say. Indeed, I said very little. After a bit, she said,

"That was close, James. It might not work every time. When you need to do that, we'll have to arrange it so that I'm the one who comes along. Or, if that's not good enough, I'll hire someone."

When we went to bed, Sidonie examined my various bruises with more sympathy than I probably deserved. I finally thanked her for getting me out of trouble.

"Nothing else could ever have gotten me out of the grip of that man. He must've been as big as John Henry."

"Yes. He collared someone else, but the other lady and I both said he wasn't the one."

"Was the other lady convinced in the end that it wasn't me?"

"I think she may have had her doubts. It wouldn't be good for her to see us together on the street. But, tommorow, you'll be a priest. I'll go out bright and early and get the costumes."

"You are good to me. She called me a pervert. Perhaps I am."

At that point, there was a telephone call from Speed concerning our plans for the morning. I managed to sound as if nothing unusual had happened that evening. Speed knew about me, of course, but he may have thought that Sidonie had straightened me out. When I hung up, Sidonie went back to the same conversation.

"I have my fantasies, and you humor me. Your thing isn't really so different from acting out a fantasy. It'd be fine if, instead of screaming and calling the police, women responded by lifting their skirts."

"I suppose one might say that I'm acting out a part in a play, but that the other performers haven't learned their roles. Have you ever been interested in acting."

"Yes. I wasn't very good, but it gave me ideas. In Haiti we did mostly Moliere. It was a girls' school, so we played both the men's and women's roles. It was easy to be a man. You just put on knee-breeches over your stockings, a ruffled shirt, and an elaborate coat. To be a woman, you had to get into corsets and petticoats over hoops. It was very restricting and uncomfortable, but it gave you an interesting perspective. You couldn't accomplish anything by physical action, and you couldn't even run away. So it was all a matter of persuasion and manipulation."

"The only Moliere play I've seen is the one where the wife practically gets seduced by her husband's friend while the husband hides under the bed."

"That's Tartuffe. I was the wife, trying to act twice my age."

"You were doing that today, too."

"Yes, I'm not thrilled with being young. In Paris, we had a Dadaist drama group, where we sometimes wrote our own scripts and sometimes improvised. I never played a girl."

Sidonie then laughed and asked,

"Do you have just your one act, or have you tried other things?"

"Just the one, I'm afraid."

"Everyone has lots of roles, really."

In order to establish this fact, she launched into an account of a study that had been done in Haiti.

"It started when a crazy white man named Guggins came down from America to study us natives. He first found out that the only people who could understand his French were more sophisticated than he was. So, then, he learned Creole and eventually went out to the villages. He there got people to let him hide in their huts and watch them in their interactions with others. He may have bribed some of them to allow this, but many thought it was an honor, and wondered if he might be a Voodoo loa."

It turned out that, while the Creole farmers were mostly too poor to be on a money economy at all, they all possessed things that were considered luxuries, perhaps special teas or little bottles of home-made spirits. They also had an elaborate social life which consisted of visiting each other's huts and being entertained.

"Guggins found that the hosts could play a half-dozen roles. In each role the guest was offered something different to eat and drink, but it went far beyond that. In some cases the host would act as if he and his guest were both important people, and so on. The guests could also play different roles, but not all combinations were compatible. The host would generally see the guest coming, and could tell by his expression and walk roughly what role he had in mind. The host would then have a chance to choose his own role."

"Were there cranky people who deliberately chose incompatible roles?"

"They probably didn't get visited much. However, good players of the social game were able to switch roles in mid-visit, requiring the other person to do so as well."

"Was his point that people in advanced countries do much the same thing?"

"Sure. A personality is just a set of roles, together with a series of triggers which are tripped by other people."

"These roles don't necessarily involve fantasy, do they?"

"No. A baby's cry causes the mother to go into a mothering role, whether it be breast-feeding or something else. There needn't be anything fantastic about that, at least unless she hates breast-feeding and has to imagine herself doing something else to do it."

"I see. Fantasy can enter when one is sufficiently conscious of one's role to have an opinion of what one is doing."

"Once you start having opinions like that, its very hard to keep fantasy out, even if you try to."

We were in bed with the lights out by this time, but Sidonie popped out of bed, turned the light on, and rummaged in her old brief case for a paper. She handed it to me with a pleased smile and insisted that I read it then and there.

A Note on Fantasy

by Sidonie Toussaint Witt

It is traditional for idealists to say that the distinction between dream experience and waking experience is that the latter is more coherent. One can dream of seeing the front of a house, but have the whole thing vanish in front of one's eyes without anything happening that could have destroyed it or obscured the view.

Real houses do not vanish in that way. Moreover, their appearance changes in regular ways when one moves gradually to different viewing positions; one can see the back of the house when one goes behind it; there is a resounding noise when one pounds on the front door; and so on. None of these regularities can be counted on in dreams, and it is for this reason, and no other, that we consign dream experience to the realm of fantasy and say that it is only coherent experience, which most people have during their waking hours, which represents reality.

The trouble is that coherence is a matter of degree. As we experience sensations and feelings, we generate, mostly unconsciously, a large number of predictions. These concern, not only what it will be like to pound on the door of the house or look at it from the back, but the sorts of people who live in the house, their probable behavior, and, along down the road, a rough estimate as to how long the house will continue to exist. Some of these predictions always turn out to be false, perhaps ten per cent or more. In a dream, the percentage of false predictions would be a great deal higher, let us assume for the sake of argument, 90 per cent or more.

If the figures are something like that, there is a considerable gulf between dream and reality, enough to tempt us into postulating an absolute break between reality and fantasy.

Unfortunately for the traditional view, there are phenomena in between dreams and "waking experience." There are waking fantasies in which the conscious self may manage to give his or her experience a great deal of coherence. There are also "active fantasies", in which case the subject undertakes actions which provide and provoke large numbers of sensations and feelings which are not under the voluntary control of the subject. In a well designed active fantasy, the subject produces hypotheses at the same rate as in other waking experience, and a similar proportion of them may be confirmed as time goes on. If one acts the part of the Empress Eugenie at the right place at the right time, one might be treated much as the Empress herself might have been, and so be confirmed in one's role. There is no single prediction, or small set of predictions, which determines decisively whether or not one is the Empress.

If the experiences of an active fantasy cannot be distinguished from the experiences of ordinary "veridical" experience by coherence (percentage of hypotheses confirmed), it might be said that the active fantasy is different because it all starts with a "big lie" - for example, "I am the Empress Eugenie." No matter how well things go from there, the subject will always know, really, that she is not the Empress.

This position, however, assumes that, if we are sane, we "know who we are to begin with." It is only the inmate of the asylum who acts the part of Napoleon without first saying to himself, "I'm going to pretend to be Napoleon."

The problem then is that most of us could not pass any very searching examination on the subject of our true nature. We may be good on our birthdates and the items we put in our curriculum vitae, but we are likely to be deluded about much more important things. A sane person may know that he is not Napoleon, but, in fact, many "sane" people have delusions about themselves so thoroughgoing that the inmate who does think that he is Napoleon may appear realistic and level- headed by comparison.

Many people, for example, systematically twist and misrepresent almost every interaction they have with others in such a way that, given their premises, their actions will turn out to be the ones any rational and virtuous person would choose to perform. The Napoleon of the asylum, on the other hand, may have a fairly accurate picture of his status vis-a-vis his fellow inmates, and may be much more willing to listen to criticism than the average person outside the wall.

The point, then, is that we cannot distinguish veridical experience from fantasy by saying that veridical experience is that possessed by sane people when they do not decide to play-act.

We are thus thrown back on the criterion of coherence, and we have seen that, in varying kinds of active fantasies, any proportion of predictions, high, low, or medium, may be confirmed. Since there is no criterion for picking out which ones are critical, there are an infinite number of degrees to which experience can be characteristic of reality.

One part of Sidonie's doctrine, at any rate, was congenial to me and to the version of Kierkegaard's philosophy that I had adopted. I was already convinced that, when we most believe ourselves to be genuine and not engaged in play acting, we are most likely to be doing just that. Assurances of sincerity are always suspect, even when they don't come from a used car salesman, and assurances of sincerity from oneself to oneself are the most suspect of all. While it didn't follow that we are not play acting when we think we are, I was open to the idea that we might learn about the real world and ourselves at such times.

I eventually asked,

"Have you shown this to Mac?"

"Yes. He said that this is the result if you start off with relativistic assumptions. For him, the Forms act as the standards of reality. Something is real only insofar as it matches them. There's no need to worry about coherence."

"I don't think I believe in Forms. But I always thought that I knew from experience what was real."

"You don't test reality from enough angles. You always make the same assumptions. You don't have to try being Napoleon. Just try being Mac for a few days."

I said that I would give the matter some thought.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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