Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 45


In January, the coldest darkest January I had ever experienced, Hall the Wise started coming by Vignis' cafe in the evenings. He became, by degrees, a sort of auxiliary member of our group.

By that time, any prospective new member had to run the gauntlet of all our opinions. Willy, as the town's other main eccentric, tolerated Hall easily enough. Indeed, he sometimes engaged him in long discussions on diverse abstract and obscure subjects. These were entirely unemotional on Willy's side, and he did, to the extent that it was possible, take some of the violence out of Hall's speech.

Vignis, long used to Glencannon, seemed also to adapt relatively easily to Hall. After all, he was a useful citizen, and she liked customers for her tea room. With Mac, it was the same but a little more so. Hall was really a better inventor than a blacksmith, and he had made many useful devices for the railway. Some were things that it would have taken months to get from America or England, and some were things that had no parallel anywhere. For myself, I found that, even though I couldn't entirely get rid of my cough, Hall's injections helped me. The procedure was always exactly the same, and I kept them up weekly all winter.

Above all, we were willing to tolerate Hall because most of our news of the outside world came through him. Among his other vocations, trades, and hobbies, he was an amateur radio operator with a powerful set on which he could both send and receive. He picked up broadcasts from both Europe and North America, and, since it took newspapers and magazines a long time to reach us, he was our only source of current news at a time when things were happening fast in Europe.

I can remember our sitting there with the fire roaring and snow landing on the glass roof one evening when Hall burst in with his toothy grin and announced,

"More bad news. There's gonna be war soon. Within a year, there'll be a million widows and orphans, ha ha ha!"

One simply had to ignore that sort of thing from Hall. Afterwards, he would tell us what he had heard on the BBC and the German news services. Even bad news helped to dispel the natural depression and boredom of a winter in Iceland.

It was only Sidonie who really objected to Hall. As fellow communists, they should, in theory, have been friends. But, of course, communism is so emotional and nerve-wracking that it's more likely to create enemies than friends. In this case, Hall was the leader of the faction which wanted to stay strictly neutral in any war, and Sidonie was the leading light, if not the acknowledged leader, of the faction which was willing to go to the aid of France if she were attacked.

There was, however, much more to it than that. Sidonie thought that Hall was immoral, not only as someone willing to let the world go to hell if Iceland remained at peace, but in his conduct of his insurance business.

Some years previously, when the Salvation Army had flexed its muscles in Iceland, it encouraged, not only churchiness and sobriety, but responsibility of all kinds. Although not affiliated with the Army, life insurance agents had followed on its heels with the message that a newly sober man would do well in spending some of the money formerly spent on drink in buying some protection for his wife and family.

While Hall hated the Salvation Army with a fine passion, he did benefit in this way from its activities. If a man turned up with his wife, Hall would sell them life insurance. However, there were other men who were careful not to have their wives anywhere in sight when they conferred with Hall. These were generally men who, having bought insurance a few years previously, now regretted their impulsive decision to divert money from something which could provide so much comfort on cold winter nights to something that would come into play only when they were cold themselves. Hall could be of service in these circumstances.

If any substantial sum had been put into insurance, Hall could often cancel the policy and get some of the money back. He could also cause letters to be sent from Reykjavik and Hartford, Connecticut which would tend to convince the spouse that the insurance, or some alternative insurance, was still in force. Or, if that were not feasible, he could arrange for a portion of future premiums to be covertly re-directed and ultimately spent in the bars.

We didn't know most of this at the time. Vignis would certainly not have tolerated it, nor would she have allowed Mac and myself to wink at it. Sidonie had her suspicions, but they were so bound up with the affairs of the local party that she couldn't divulge them, even to Vignis. The most she would say to me was,

"I can't imagine why you all want to associate with someone who doesn't even have the rudiments of civility."

It was true that Hall had no civility, but it was odd for Sidonie to make that sort of complaint. It certainly went beyond that, and probably beyond the matter of the insurance. Hall was an ugly stocky little man with buck teeth and bad skin. He was, really, rather repulsive. Once, Sidonie awoke screaming in the middle of a nightmare. As I held her and felt the sobs shaking her body, she told me that Hall had been making love to her in her dream.

It has been held that we actually want everything we dream to happen in reality, no matter how bad we think the dream. I don't believe it. Sidonie, for example, genuinely wanted not to be touched by Hall. But the dream did show that she thought of him in sexual terms, probably because she perceived him as being sexually motivated himself. In this she was probably correct. He would, very likely, have responded to the slightest encouragement. I am certain that she never gave it. For that matter, it was common knowledge that none of the girls and women in Buthir would have anything to do with him. He had previously more or less bought a young wife from one of the few truly trashy families in Iceland, but even that hadn't lasted. The girl, only fifteen to Hall's forty five, had run off with a travelling salesman.

As we got to know Hall better, he became somewhat more forthright in expressing his views on insurance. He never, of course, told us what he actually did. But someone who had known about that would have realized that his theoretical position constituted a rationalization for his practice. He openly admitted, for example, that he thought it perfectly pointless to buy life insurance. As he said,

"It doesn't do a son-of-a-bitch any fucking good until he's dead, and then nothing'll do him any good."

Men most definitely didn't talk that way in front of ladies in Iceland, but, by then, we had accepted that Hall couldn't, in any language, speak in a substantially more pleasing manner. When it was pointed out that it might do someone else some good, he replied, rather curiously and much more quietly,

"How can I understand someone else's experience unless I suppose I'm having it myself? But, if I begin by supposing I'm not having any experience at all, I can't combine that lack of experience with the experience of receiving money because I'm dead."

Mac was delighted. He declared,

"Son, I believe that you're a philosopher. We'll fix you up with a little Plato, and ..."

Sidonie wasn't delighted, and cut Mac short. She already knew, from all those discussions of Marxism, that Hall was a theoretician. Indeed, he was good enough so that she couldn't publicly and obviously refute him in a way that would have discredited him in the eyes of the other party members. She now looked as if she thought she had an opportunity, at least in front of us, and asked Hall,

"On your view, does it even make sense to speculate on anything that might happen after you're dead?"

"Well, I can predict what might happen in the year 2000, when I'll fucking well be dead. That means that, if I were to find myself alive then, I would experience certain things."

"So nothing is ever predicted flat out. It's only conditional on something else?"

Sidonie looked somewhat contemptuously at Hall, but I put in,

"That seems reasonable to me. There are hardly any things that might happen that don't depend on something else happening first."

I found myself included in Sidonie's scornful look. She said,

"Hall's position is much more radical than that. He's saying that anything that can happen will be dependent on some prior experience of his."

Hall laughed and replied to Sidonie,

"You can't predict my experience any more than I can predict yours unless each of us imagines ourself to be the other. That's hard to do, so it's better to just try to predict your own experience."

Sidonie replied, still contentiously,

"What about things that happened before you were born? Can you only talk about whatever vestiges of them there may be at present?"

"No, I can say that if I had been there at the time, I would have experienced the things directly. I won't ever be able to go back in time, but I can imagine being born in another time."

Mac liked this better than Sidonie did, and suggested to her that, in the world of Appearances, this was as much reality as the past, or anything else, could be expected to have. I could see that the Forms were about to be brought forward, but it looked as if Hall would have no more use for them than for anything else he couldn't experience in a fairly direct way.

For better or worse, Hall wasn't himself a direct and open man. When he found out about the Forms, he said nothing insulting about them. Most probably, he thought that a certain lip-service to them would ensure a multitude of blacksmithing commissions for the railway.

After the game was done and we returned home, I questioned Sidonie further about Hall's view. At one point, I remarked,

"With all that emphasis on sense experience, which can vary so much from one person to another, it sounds to me as if what there is depends on who you are."

"It probably would. Hall reminds me a bit of the American pragmatists. He's probably never read them, but he's a reflective person of an untutored sort. Those people do generally end up with a view similar to that of some established philosopher. After all, the main positions have long since been staked out."

I was informed that the luminary of pragmatism, now dead, was Charles Sanders Pierce. He himself wasn't an academic philosopher, and had worked for the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey most of his life. When informed that he had never been considered highly reputable, and had, in fact, been drunk a good deal of the time, I was immediately predisposed in his favor. According to Sidonie, Pierce was interested in the net information that was conveyed when one person said something to another.

"The hearer starts out with a great many beliefs about all kinds of things, as Pierce said, on the shelf. What the speaker says activates some of these beliefs and allows them to be applied to the immediate situation. If you tell a man that someone is standing behind him, he may turn around, ready to greet a friend, or he may expect to be attacked. In any case, the net upshot of what you say, in conjunction with the hearer's existing beliefs, will lead him, first, to expect a set of sensations. And then, he has to prepare whatever behavior he needs to deal with them.

If someone said the same thing to you and I, we'd probably expect different sensations and react in different ways. On the whole, your expectations concerning the sensations to be produced by something like the railway would be more accurate than mine. In fact, I might actually have different sensations because of my different starting point. In that case, we might both be right."

I replied,

"That seems an awfully bare world, nothing but sensations to be expected and behavior to be prepared. And they don't even match up from one person to another."

"The idea is that there's enough common ground in our expectations to allow us to communicate."

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Indeed, if this was pragmatism, it was just an extension of the intuitions I had had rowing back to the harbor. It also sounded healthier than Kierkegard's philosophy.

I must admit that, in the long run, Hall made a greater impression on me than I might have wished. Even in the cold of winter, Willy and I went rowing, usually in darkness and usually in the same boat, and I sometimes discussed Hall's views with him. Where Hall's radical pragmatism seemed to open up a new world for me, a world with many fewer worries, Willy took it almost for granted. As he said,

"A long time ago, I stopped thinking about most things. Ever since, I've been concerned only with matters of daily life. I saw a Latin inscription once which said that it was necessary only to navigate. That's enough for me."

I took it that the time he spoke of was that of his breakdown. Evidently, Willy had then given up all ambition and settled down to live in stretches of a few hours at a time.

At that moment, we were rowing fast through a cross-sea a few miles offshore. Total darkness had set in at three in the afternoon, and it had become a bit of a game between us to try to guess the course to the inlet. We sometimes made bets in Starvation money, and I had fifty thousand pounds of that evening's money laid on a course of northeast by east. I pointed out to Willy,

"We're really betting on a visual appearance. In a little less than an hour we'll look back over our shoulders. If there's a high dark unbroken line, you win. If it dips in the middle, I win. We may later be concerned with other sights and some sounds, but, the minute we see anything at all, the bet will be settled."

Willy was too much an Icelander to be drawn very far into philosophy. When he said as much, I pointed out that Vignis and Hall seemed to have no such compunctions. He replied,

"Vignis is really half American, and, anyway, it's only because of Mac that she's taken up philosophy. Hall is different, but I don't think he's really an Icelander."

That was the first I had heard of it, and I asked,

"Doesn't he speak Icelandic as a native?"

"It's hard to tell because he speaks in such a peculiar way. But I think his native language might be Danish or something else."

"Well, I suppose, if you talk the way Hall does, people aren't so likely to recognize your accent."

It didn't seem a matter of any great importance to either of us, and we made our landfall before long. I lost.

There were, of course, some industrial accidents during the course of the winter. The tunnel was the source of some of them. Rocks and loose material would fall before the ceiling could be shored up properly, and a number of men were injured. Our Swiss engineer wasn't impressed, and said to me in his heavily accented English,

"Injuries are nothing. You be lucky if no one is killed."

Fortunately, no one was killed. Hall put casts on a few arms and legs, and one man whom he couldn't treat was sent off in the back of a truck for a long and painful ride over the gravel road all the way to Reykjavik. He ultimately survived both the tunnel and the road, and Vignis prevailed on Mac to promote him when he eventually returned to work.

Even though I wasn't working on the tunnel, I managed to lose my footing on some ice and sprain my ankle. Hall gave me some extra injections which he said would promote faster healing, and it was during one of these extra sessions, around the beginning of February, that a peculiar incident took place.

I was standing in Hall's doorway, about to get my shot, with my shirt pulled up and the rest of my clothing about my ankles. I always jumped when I got the shot, and, in order not to lose my hat, I was holding it in place with my right hand.

It was hardly a romantic scene. The street consisted only of frozen mud with cobblestones irregularly placed, and it was bordered on the other side by the narrow guage line. In the morning darkness, I could hardly see the harbor beyond it.

On my left, along the curve of the street, a seccession of oil lamps, placed haphazardly, disclosed piles of trash, both railway and otherwise, and some little shop-fronts, none selling anything that the discriminating might wish to buy. Nevertheless, such light as there was revealed touches of color, the red of a sign, a patch of yellow in a pile of junk, and even the pink of an apparently abandoned baby carriage. There wasn't a person in sight, but anyone would have realized that there were inhabitants who might materialize at any moment.

Hall was taking his time about sterilizing his needle, and the light breeze on my mostly bare body caused me to tremble a bit. Just then, a young woman burst suddenly out of one of the shops and began to push the baby carriage in my direction. Evidently, there had been a baby in it all along.

I was smiling pleasantly when the young lady saw me and gave a little scream. Then, she saw Hall behind me with the great needle and laughed. She was opposite me, at no great distance, when Hall thrust, catching me as I was tipping my hat to the fair passer-by. I shot into the air, as usual, and then tripped and fell forward. I could hear peals of pretty Scandinavian laughter as I recovered my hat and pulled my clothes together.

There were, of course, no adverse consequences to this little incident. In Iceland, everyone accepted that one had to settle for such medical treatment as might be available, even if it wasn't provided by a doctor in a white jacket in a sterilized examining room.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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