January 13, 2020
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Turtle Rules

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Over the years, in writing the Spectacle, I have sometimes experienced a kind of topic inflation. Especially come January, I freeze like a deer in headlights trying to compass a topic which will express all the Immense Issues of the Human Future. Most New Years', I feel as if I am gazing into cavernous darkness, aiming the frail beam of my Hope Punk flashlight. Sometimes I outline an idea I have no desire to write.

This year was like that. From early 2016, almost everything I wrote was about Donald Trump, Sophistry, Late Capitalism, fascism, the end of democracy, the end of our world, with occasional glimmers of, and detours into, what I vainly have named "Wallace's Wager": to live as if one were an Optimist.

Since I am not a deadline poet (nobody pays me; nobody can assign me topics I don't "feel") a better approach to writing the Spectacle is to distinguish between dry obligatory prognostication and inspiration. There are ideas which persuasively and attractively ask to be written. Here is one.

Twenty-two years ago, I wrote an essay on Losing a Wheel and a conservative frenemy (in a much simpler time) joshed that he wanted to see the essay I would write on "Breaking a Pencil".

Yeats sang, in what I regard as the greatest English language poem, The Circus Animals' Desertion:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

For eight years or so, I have been at work on a Mad Manuscript on the idea of free speech, which a few days ago reached 8,000 pages (Bragging Alert: yes, I am somehow writing 1,000 pages a year, don't know how). One of the ideas I engage with intermittently is that of Rule-Sets. Since I don't believe in Natural Rights, the Rules on which we agree are everything. This has made me highly alert for hidden consensual Rule-Sets: small agreements made in daily life. I have developed Rules-Radar, which pings when there is a Rule-Set, however small, in the vicinity.

Sometimes I have discovered such Rule-Sets only by breaking them (in pre-radar or non-radar days). The one time I played D&D, as a barbarian, I turned a team-mate, a thief, upside down and shook him to see what was in his pockets--I was acting as I imagined a barbarian would. The dungeon-master, with a moue ("a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste"; doubt I ever used that word before; don't know how I know it), said: "We don't do that". In other words, "You just violated our rule".

In France, there is (or was) a right of reply to newspaper editorials; apparently, in the 1960's or thereabouts, it was not applied, on consensus, to statements made in Liberation, the Communist newspaper. I find this fascinating. On further exploration, I surmise you would arrive at this explanation: "We are all siblings in the same polity; as infuriating as they can be, these are our Communists. Who by the way showed great courage and took on the hardest, most suicidal tasks during the Resistance" (which, in the 1960's, was less than 20 years in the past). "If we try to force them to publish contrary opinions, we will have a completely unnecessary fight; it is better for the general smooth functioning of our polity to grant them Hothouse Flower status and except them from the general right of reply rule".

Sometimes a few words, or even an expression or body language, can signal the existence of a Rule-Set (be the tip of the rule-iceberg). Thoreau in Walden quotes a tailor, Tom Hyde, who, asked for his last words on the gallows, said, "Tell the tailors to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch". Lambent (another word I have rarely used; seems to be a day for innovation) in all this is a tailor's Rule-Set.

In what I have dubbed my "Research by Wandering Around" for the Mad Manuscript, I have identified what I rather clumsily named "Speech Locuses", places which act as Strange Attractors of free speech, like barber shops, beauty parlors and the Southern country store. These places are doubly fascinating because they have their own rules of behavior and are places to learn the adjoining community's rules. "There was a fine point in the mores of the back-porch shelves: Careless, sloven persons put the dipper back in the bucket after they had finished drinking, but the well-bred put it down beside the bucket or hung it on a nail driven in a near-by post. This was not primarily a point of sanitation, but rather a principle of rural chivalry". Thomas Clark, Pills, Petticoats and Plows (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Company 1944) pp. 49-50 Barber shops across the centuries had "their regulations in poetry and prose. Forfeits used to be enforced for breaches of conduct as laid down in laws which were exhibited in a conspicuous manner, and might be read while the customer was awaiting his turn for attention at the hands of a knight of the razor. Forfeits had to be paid for such offenses as the following: 'For handling the razors,/ For talking of cutting throats,/For calling hair-powder flour,/For meddling with anything on the shop-board'. Shakespeare alludes to this custom in Measure for Measure, act v., sc. 1, as follows: 'The strong statutes/ Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,/ As much in mock as mark'". William Andrews, At the Sign of the Barber's Pole (Cottingham: J.R. Tutin 1904) p. 16 "First come, first served--then come not late,/ And when arrived keep your sate". pp. 17-18

John LeCarre in his Smiley novels referred to "Moscow rules" of espionage (restrictive, careful, self protective rules used when you are in a most dangerous city, involving communicating via "dead drops", prearranged meeting places you scan several times a day, etc.). In the Mad Manuscript, I sometimes identify Almost-Books (works I will never write on interesting and coherent topics). An Ology of Rules is a good one. After naming these, I sometimes discover they already exist. I longed for a "History Of Toys" and discovered Antonia Fraser had written it. "Ology", by the way, is my shorthand and excuse for not consulting the "Egghead Cheat Sheet" I prepared and which hangs above my desk allowing me to look up "Epistemology", "Eschatology", and "Ontology" (not to mention "Morphology") each time I encounter them in my reading--words of which I will assuredly no longer remember the definition when I meet them again. I could argue that my use of "Ology" tips you to a Rule-Set I use in writing (and being written by, by the way) the Mad Manuscript, and the Spectacle.

Do you mind my pausing to say, in passing, that Montaigne is my hero? I just read his essay on Imagination, in which he wanders through sexual dysfunction and farting, before considering his own rambling process. (Another glimmer of a Rule-Set: for twenty-five years, I rarely linked to outside sources in the Spectacle. If you follow a link to another of my essays, you are still on my web-site. If you follow the link to Montaigne, you are not. Why did I make an exception now? It doesn't seem so important any more.)

All of this is by way of long-winded introduction to a very brief meditation on turtles. There is a Rule I have learned about turtles crossing a highway. You pull over safely on the shoulder nearby, and carry them in the direction they are walking. Assuming there are woods or greenery on the other side, you place them a few feet in, out of sight of the road if possible, and leave them there, desperately hoping they will not turn back and be killed. If you carry them back to their starting point, it is very likely they will walk right back on to the highway. Turtles are very single-minded. (Crossing highways, they are doubtless following a Rule of their own, which is obscure to us.)

You do not ever bring healthy highway turtles home to keep them as pets. Injured highway turtles are in need of rescue. Here on Long Island, there is a very excellent human being who specializes in that. I am on her mailing list, so would know whom to contact if I found a wounded turtle.

Since I recently once broke the rule I have just stated, my Rule-Set (Meta-Rule-Set really) demands I tell you. Once a year or so I have picked up box turtles, some stunningly beautiful individuals, and carried them across highways. As a child, I would have brought them home without a second thought, but now know better. Five years ago or so, in September, I found a snapping turtle hatchling, hours out of the egg (she still had her yolk sack) walking on a road nowhere near any pond I knew of, and brought her home, believing otherwise she was doomed (to be run over, or eaten by a crow, or to dehydrate before finding any water). If you, educated and thoughtful reader, complain that all snapping turtle hatchlings are born near water, I agree, but add that it is not uncommon for birds to pick up hatchlings, fly with them for miles and accidentally drop them alive in alien locations. (There!) I brought her home, with very good intentions, of keeping her over-winter and releasing her when warm weather came again. And I tried, but by then we had bonded, and it felt too much like an abandonment. Dinner plate-sized, she lives in a fifty gallon storage bin in my living room today.

I am having a vision, as I write this, of rules as holographic images. As a child, I was fascinated by the idea that "If you cut [a hologram] in half, each half contains whole views of the entire holographic image. The same is true if you cut out a small piece-- even a tiny fragment will still contain the whole picture". The rule about carrying a healthy turtle across the highway is a complete holographic image of a higher morality. It is Jesus' "Do unto others" rule and even possibly a vision of God: you would want a higher intelligence to carry you across a dangerous highway in the direction you were going. It is Kant's imperative. It is a potential Rule for raising children or teaching students. It is an elegant Metaphor, as all life is Metaphor.

When my prickly, difficult mother was dying of leukemia, she checked herself into the hospice-hotel wing of Beth Israel, where my brother and I sat with her in what we knew would be her final days. As I went out for a sandwich one night (it was also September), I saw a large praying mantis clinging to the hospital door. I picked it up--it agreed to perch on my wrist--and carried it across the avenue to the nearest greenery, in front of an apartment building on the other side. Turtle Rules also apply to praying mantises, you see. Strangely (think of Jung's concept of Synchronicity; his most compelling example involves a scarab beetle which banged on his window just as a patient mentioned scarabs) I had always thought of my mother as a sort of praying mantis. That night or the next (I don't remember), minutes before she passed away, her last words to me (and the nicest thing she had ever said) were: "I'm glad you're here".

By the way, when I did a Google search minutes ago on "images whose fragments contain the whole" or some such, the first result was in a book called Synchronicity--which seems an instance of Meta-Synchronicity (and not the first I have experienced).

Someone whose name I no longer say (there's another Rule) once offered an Exemplary statement: "Ninety percent of life is just showing up". I see turtles, praying mantises, and my mother across dangerous roads. Perhaps someday someone will do that for me.

Yeats sang, at the end of that same poem:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.