Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 33


The police were making arrests that evening. Cindy wanted to go to them and tell them that Axel had been with her, but we persuaded her to wait. The next morning, Axel called her and said that, while he was being questioned, he didn't seem to be under suspicion. A number of the men had told the police that he wasn't there, and it seemed that he wouldn't need her evidence.

Even so, there was no question of getting Cindy to leave town with us on the morrow. On that last evening in Eugene, while Sidonie and I sat in the lobby, Cindy had a drink with Speed in the adjoining lounge. There was a glass partition, and I could see them in intense conversation. Sidonie said,

"Cindy may trust you more, but she's happier with Speed."

"Yes. Speed's style of slightly disconnected conversation seems to make her feel better."

"He calls you "captain," and he addresses me as "my lady." What does he call Cindy?"

"I think I've heard him address her as "lieutenant," which is her rank on the GER."

"Look now. She's actually laughing."

It was true, and she came out to join us a few minutes later, leaving Speed to his beer. Sidonie, apparently sensing that she wanted to talk with me, made an excuse and went upstairs. Cindy immediately said,

"I've finally decided that I didn't help kill those people."

I thought that I had already convinced her of that, but I was pleased nonetheless.

"Good. Did you talk with Speed about that?"

"He thought it ridiculous to even worry about such a thing. The trouble is, I don't think he'd ever feel guilt. He says he thinks only about the future, never the past."

Just then, Speed emerged from the men's room and smiled at us on his way to the elevator. His expression, and even some of his motions, were those of a man buttoning up his fly. I had to look closely to see that his priestly costume was, in fact, in proper order. Some process of association brought to my mind a question which I put to Cindy,

"Do you think Speed guessed what the men were going to do?"

"Why do you think that?"

"He located us in one of few safe places anywhere near the track. We were on the platform the day before, where we would've been killed."

Cindy replied quietly,

"I think he might just have been taking precautions."

That didn't entirely answer my question. Speed had anticipated the possibility, but had perhaps thought that the chances of the men wrecking the train were very slim. Would that have justified his getting us out of the way, but not telling the stationmaster to throw the signal to stop the train? And in that case, what would the stationmaster have thought of such an instruction coming from two priests, even if one of them claimed to be General Witt? The matter was truly incalculable.

For my own part, I would have been willing to stand on the platform on the second occasion without even thinking about it. That was innocence of a sort, and I have, now and again, acted the part of a naive bumbler. Speed was hardly that.

With those very confusing thoughts in my head, I risked scandalizing the chambermaid by going to sleep with Sidonie. Early the next morning, she, Speed, and I said goodbye to a sleepy Cindy and took the bus to Portland. When we finally got to there, everyone was talking about the wreck in Eugene. John Henry had gotten copies of the papers, and we settled in our hotel room to read them.

There was frank outrage everywhere. One paper hadn't even bothered to interview the officials of the railway brotherhoods, and gave the impression that the union leaders had ordered their men to wreck the train with the greatest possible loss of life. The article concluded by expressing the hope that those leaders were satisfied with the death of the three crewmen and a hundred or more innocent bystanders. Speed nodded with particular satisfaction when he read that account.

The other papers did publish the denials of the brotherhood officials, one paper in such a way as to suggest that the reporter believed them.

No one in our little group supposed for a moment that the wreck had been ordered from on high. Quite apart from what we had seen for ourselves and what Axel had told us, the brotherhoods were run by fairly traditional and respectable men, ones who wouldn't dream of doing such a thing. However, as Speed said,

"People'll say that the brotherhoods did it and leave it at that."

The person who had the least to say was John Henry, and he seemed really rather depressed, more so than any of us who had been in Eugene. I finally asked him what he thought, and he replied quietly,

"I suppose we can now bring in as many of our own men as we want without any opposition, at least if we do it fast."

Speed, of course, thought the same thing. It was just a case of hitting the enemy while he was still stunned. Sidonie was more diffident.

"If we now spring to take advantage of the carnage, it'll look as though we hoped that it, or something like it, would happen."

As a businessman, not to mention a general, I had to side with Speed and John Henry. We would bring in more engineers, this time for ordinary engines, more firemen, switchmen, and maintenance of way people. We would take on all the brotherhoods at once. Of course, given the vast size of the Western Circle, we could hardly make a dent in terms of numbers. On the other hand, we could bring in a sufficiently large non-union contingent to enable us to reduce the existing pay scales and replace at least some strikers permanently. For the moment, anyone who struck would be suspected of incipient violence. That meant that we would be able to appeal to the authorities, local, state, and federal, for protection.

The next day, to my surprise, Cindy Lee appeared. Axel had proclaimed his love for her, but had insisted that she be out of the way while the inquiries were going on in Eugene. He also suggested that she take that opportunity to divorce her husband. She told me that she didn't like the continuing deceit, but that, once she had gone through this bit, she hoped to get back on track.

In our group, the men, including myself, seemed inclined not to talk about the wreck itself, but only about its implications. Cindy, though, was still obsessed with it. Sidonie was fascinated in a different way. She wasn't much inclined to guilt herself, and, of course, had no cause to feel any in this case. But she was frankly sorry that she had remained in the hotel that morning, and hadn't been with Speed and myself to witness what she said must have been the most extraordinary thing anyone might expect to see in a lifetime.

I felt uneasy about that attitude, not being at all sure whether I wanted to have seen it myself. Between Cindy wanting continued philosophical reassurance and Sidonie wanting gory details, I welcomed it when John Henry seemed willing to talk to them both. He pointed out,

"In Stoicism, everything is determined. The wreck couldn't have been avoided."

It was Cindy, not Sidonie, who replied,

"It wouldn't have occurred if they hadn't put a de-railer on the track."

"But they were the sort of men who will always react with violence in those circumstances, and they had exhausted other kinds of violence. There were forces that made them do what they did."

"If that's true, then our future is determined, too. Why try to make decisions if you can't even control your own actions?"

"It's determined that we'll make the decisions we do. They, in turn, determine our actions."

"I don't want my decisions to be determined in advance."

"Isn't it better that our decisions are determined by our character and experience, as opposed to their being chance events not determined by anything?"

That was something of a rhetorical question, but Cindy didn't give up easily.

"Isn't there something in between a random chance event and a determined one?"

"That's what some people call free choice, but it's a delusion. If a decision isn't caused by prior events, then it's a chance event. In that case, it wouldn't even make sense to praise or blame the person who makes the decision and acts accordingly. If it's determined by the character of the person, you can say, at least to that extent, whether the character is good or bad."

Cindy having no immediate reply, John Henry continued,

"There was one ancient philosopher who said our choices are dependent on atoms swerving in our heads. Their course isn't determined, and so he claimed that we have free choice. Murderers, like the ones at Eugene, are poor guys whose atoms swerved the wrong way."

Cindy still wasn't happy with John Henry's position, even though it seemed to absolve Axel and herself from anything they might have done or not done. The practical upshot of John Henry's view was a maxim similar to that of Speed: Don't worry about the past except insofar as it helps predict the future.

Later that evening, John Henry intimated to me that he wasn't entirely satisfied with the stoical philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He said,

"I don't have any problems with the determinism and its ethical implications. But there isn't much more than that to the whole philosophy. It's not what a man could call a metaphysics."

There was, however, another philosopher whom John Henry had come upon who did have a metaphysics. This was Sankara, the greatest of the Indian philosophers, who had lived in the seventh century A. D. John Henry said,

"All I've got is a funny little dialogue, written by a man in Missouri, which supposedly took place between himself and Sankara. Since they lived some twelve hundred years apart, this man, Bawson, may be crazy. On the other hand, he does seem to know something about Sankara."

John Henry offered to loan me the pamphlet.

"It's very short. I found it in a second-hand bookstore. It includes a Braille version. I suppose the author may have been blind."

I took the material to bed with me that night. It was, indeed, very short.

A Conversation between Mr. Charles W. Bawson

of Moberly, Missouri and Professor Sankara

Prof. Sankara:

It is commonplace, Mr. Bawson, that objects tend to go out of existence more easily than they come into it. Existence always requires organization, and organization tends to dissolve. The vast majority of spatial locations are absolutely emply the vast majority of the time.

Mr. Bawson:

But if nothing necessarily exists, then there might be nothing at all.

Professor Sankara:

Not so. Even if nothing in particular can be said to necessarily exist, it might still be necessary that something or other exists.

Mr. Bawson:

I can hardly admit that my consciousness doesn't exist, since I must be conscious even to deny it. But there's nothing to keep someone else from doubting it.

Professor Sankara:

Quite so. There must of necessity be consciousness, but it needn't be mine or yours. It could belong to anyone, if, indeed, even that makes sense.

Mr. Bawson:

You give us very little, my dear professor. Most people believe in a whole world of objects and persons. But, on your criterion, there's only consciousness, which might not even have a body connected with it.

Professor Sankara:

Having shown that there is something, it's much harder to show that there is something else, some second entity. You have to prove, not only existence, but difference, that the new thing differs from the one already established.

Mr. Bawson:

But we can hardly say anything about the first thing. So we would virtually never be in a position to say of anything else that it is different.

Professor Sankara:

It would amount to showing that something is not conscious, or not a part of consciousness.

Mr. Bawson:

It's impossible in the nature of the case to show that something is not conscious. For all we know, a piece of rock might be conscious.

Professor Sankara:

Correct. Consider now that a predicate such as "red" makes sense only if there is something to which it can be applied and something to which it cannot be applied, that is, something to which its complement can be applied.

Mr. Bawson:

If everything were red, or nothing were red, could I not say as much?

Professor Sankara:

In neither case would you have the concept at all. A predicate marks a difference, in this case the difference between the red and the non-red. In a world in which there is no such difference there can be no use for the term.

Mr. Bawson:

But we have been left with the presumption that there is only one thing. In that case, no predicates at all will be useful. We couldn't even say that it is conscious because the predicate "conscious" wouldn't mark it off from anything else. Since language is based on predication, we have no justification for saying anything at all.

Professor Sankara:

Very good, Mr. Bawson. We have said all that there is to be said concerning philosophy. There remains only the description of delusion.

Mr. Bawson:

You mean an account of the forces which cause us to believe in more than there is?

Professor Sankara:

Well, of course, some of us are not deluded. We would here be pursuing a hypothetical study. What features of ever- changing consciousness would, if they occurred, tend to produce, in the naive, a belief in the independent existence of objects and other persons? But that is something for another day.

Mr. Bawson:

I can hardly wait to explain these things back in Moberly. I wonder if you could come to speak to our Rotary Club.

Professor Sankara:

Perhaps so. I take it that a suitable honorarium could be arranged?

It was several days before I got some time alone with Sidonie, and mentioned the dialogue John Henry had given me. I further remarked,

"He always seems to be attracted to philosophies a thousand or so years old."

"More to the point, he chooses ones that are stated in a few dozen pages at most. Is this one short?"

"Yes. The thing he gave me is only a few pages."

Sidonie hesitated, and then said,

"It's a great secret of John Henry's that he has trouble reading. It takes him forever to struggle through a few pages. He understands the material well, no matter how hard it is, but he has trouble just recognizing the words. He loves to have people read to him. I used to do it by the hour."

John Henry suffered from the difficulty generally known as dyslexia, a matter of the neural connection between eye and brain. It obviously had nothing to do with intelligence, but, for a southern black man with little formal education, the subject was a highly sensitive one. John Henry had read an amazing amount under the circumstances, and he had also learned Braille in an attempt to out-flank his problem. Since that had no visual element, he mastered it quickly. On the other hand, not much was available, and even the best readers of Braille go very slowly. When Sidonie saw that the dialogue was also in Braille, she said,

"I'm sure he didn't get this in a second-hand bookstore, as he told you. He orders Braille materials from the Association for the Blind."

"Well, I'll certainly keep his secret."

"Apart from Mac's influence, I think this is one of the reasons that John Henry likes philosophy so much. It's something that everyone has to read slowly, and he's not at so much of a disadvantage."

"Yes. It's too bad only that he has to go for philosophers who didn't write much."

"Sankara wrote a lot, but most of it is unavailable to those of us who don't read Sanskrit."

"Well, that little dialogue seems to have set John Henry going. He's all set to tackle Mac on the subject."

"Mac has a lot of surprisingly varied philosophical knowledge. He might just know something about Sankara."

As it developed, Mac did know something about Indian philosophy, and wasn't averse to learning some more. He took bits and pieces from here and there, and put them together with John Henry's bits and pieces. In the following months, Sidonie watched them with some amusement.

There was one assumption that was shared by the Buddha, Sankara, and a good many other Indian philosophers, that life inevitably involves much more pain and suffering than can ever be compensated for by its pleasures and satisfactions. This was part of an extremely deep and underlying cynicism according to which any human action will only make matters worse. Most Indian philosophers recommended passivity, and would probably have recommended death by abstaining from food and drink if they hadn't believed re-birth and continued life to be the inevitable consequence for anyone who hasn't reached a very special state. Sidonie at one point remarked,

"It's funny to see men as passionately committed to action as Mac and John Henry in the grips of an outlook that hardly thinks it's worth while to get out of bed in the morning."

There were, however, some things in Sankara which appealed naturally to Mac. Like Plato, he denied the reality of the world of appearance. He would also have denied the existence of Plato's forms if he had known about them, but Mac had long been used to people who didn't believe in the Forms.

Even more important to Mac was the fact that, starting as Sankara did, there was no way of justifying any set of ethical principles. Mac had always talked, albeit sceptically, about Kant's ethical principles. Unlike Plato's ethical doctrines, he didn't seem to be able to interpret them to support any course of action which he happened to favor. Kant's ethical theory could now be jettisoned for good reason. Mac said to me one day,

"You know, son, since John Henry and I've gotten on to Sankara, I've felt a whole lot freer in a practical way than I did before."

I reported this to Sidonie. She responded,

"I doubt that Mac, John Henry, or even Charles W. Bawson, has any real idea what Sankara thought."

"I think Mac is using what he takes to be Sankara's philosophy as a rationale for doing whatever he wants to the railway brotherhoods."

"How could Sankara's position help him do that?"

"I have no idea, but Mac can twist things around until anything is a justification for anything."

"God help the brotherhoods."

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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