All the world’s a stage …






Because Greek tragedy and comedy
originated with a chorus that danced
and sang at the Theatre of Dionysus,
a reading of the Orestia, Oedipus, Medea,
or a modern on-stage re-enactment,
can’t recapture the power of those early
dramatisations of human foolishness,
acts of adultery, ambition, anger and
the gods interference in these affairs,
leading on to disaster or, at  least,
satirical jokes, – performances by a chorus
of young men trained for military service,
singing and dancing at maximum intensity,
bet they had the Athenian audience
sitting on the edge of their seats.






She wasn’t going to
put up with it, and her
a mere girl, defying
the State, Euripides
tragedy, ‘Antigone,’
possibly the first debate
on separation of Church
and State.






Masks, like the spots and stripes of
tigers or leopards lurking in undergrowth
may be a cover up for sinister intent,
for a Macbeth, say, who smiles and smiles,
yet may, behind that smiling mask, be  
a damned villain waiting for nightfall
to carry out an undercover
nefarious (or murderous) event.

Just as likely though, wearing a mask
may be concealment for a shrinking self
the donning of a protective covering
like the turtle and the whelk, or as in classic
drama, putting on the mask of an Achilles,
now there’s a way for an un-heroic actor
to become a hero, just for one day.






In the Bard’s pantheon of villainy
I suppose Macbeth and Richard the third
run neck and neck. Same motive
prompted each, naked ambition
requiring the violent removal of king
and kinsman, double default in the
overturning of the heavenly order,
an order intended for duplication
here on Earth. ‘Fair became foul,’
indeed, and ‘foul fair, for this
nefarious and duplicitous pair.

Macbeth’s crimes, from murder of king/cousin
then chain reaction on to assassination of
a trusted friend, regressing from bad to worse
with the slaughter of Macduff’s innocent wife and
children, even Lady Macbeth couldn’t come at this.
Richard destroys brother/king, does this make it worse?
Little princes, trusting nephews, murdered in the tower,
does it make it less heinous that Richard is crippled?
Perhaps his hunch back set him apart,
froze human sympathy from his heart,
the heart has its reasons, perhaps?

Then there’s Iago, I’m placing him in the pantheon
though he didn’t actually murder anyone
until Act Five, and one of them was but a knave,
the other only a wife who wouldn’t back him in
his calumny. Do these count against the catalogue
of killings by the other villains? Maybe not if you
leave out Iago’s other malevolent actions at a distance,
his machinations to spread doubt and confusion in
Othello’s mind.That’s what Iago’s about, not ambition
but all embracing malice, spreading misery
and mayhem wherever he gets the chance.

It’s difficult, isn’t it, making these fine
distinctions regarding murder and mayhem?
Numbers’game? Maybe motivation ? So many
ways of assessing assassination in the canon.
Macbeth’s hot ambition, thinking he’d get away
with just one crime, he and Lady Macbeth
thinking they could handle the guilt. Richard,
pathologically icy, forget guilt, had his reasons
via dissembling nature, read his opening speech.
With Iago, it was malice, that’s it, pervasive
malice against the world and everybody in it, acts
of malfeasance for kicks, helping him wile away
the weary hours …tomorrow and tomorrow and …






There’s a play that makes me laugh, written down
under – that’s Australia, name of ‘Miss Tanaka,’
a kind of musicale,  kabuki,  drama mix set in Broome.
Opens with a witty meeting, beneath a tropic moon,
between the Jewish manager of a pearl shell business,
he’s newly arrived from Europe, nineteen thirty-nine,
and the son of an old pearl diver crippled by the bends.
From the start there’s misunderstanding but underneath,
a subtle understanding, between the two young men.

“Charles – Charles Alanquon Rubin Mott –
The Mott family? The Anglo-Oriental Pearl-Shell Company?”

“Kaz -u – hi – ko.”

“No speaka da English?”

“It’s my name.”

“A thousand pardons.But you’re – ?”  

“Japanese father.”

And when the Japanese father, Mr Tanaka, pursued
for gambling debts promises his several debtors
each the hand in marriage of his beautiful niece,
supposedly arrived from overseas, the son’s obliged to
take on the role of Miss Tanaka, try to solve the mess.
You can guess the rest – everyone falls in love with the
oh – so enigmatic and attractive Miss Tanaka including –
you guessed it, the Jewish manager – witty conversations
between the two, as before, but now compounded by
Miss Tanaka’s flirtatious charm, all this taking place
against a background of kabuki staged-fights by suitors
and a cherry blossom dance, that climax in
a proposal of marriage and an almost-acceptance,
so Shakespearean, and you could say, bitter-sweet,
all this just as a predicted violent typhoon hits Broome,
… and I won’t tell you the rest …






The tempest (?) –  reality or apparition(?)

All within a play of course, nice play
on how we human actors create our
own living dramas that clash with,
or sometimes catch an intimation of,
a mysterious reality out-there, perhaps.
Why the play’s very theme’s ‘deception.’  
The very events we witness here on
Prospero’s  island – used to be Caliban’s
but now it’s not –  we view because of it.

Everyone’s landed on the island because
of a take-over deal between Antonio,
Prospero’s brother, and Alonso, king
of Naples, that robbed Prospero of
his dukedom in Milan, Alonso and
Antonio now brought to shore and
judgement by a seeming tempest, dire
spectacle of storm and shipwreck that
Prospero has ordered with his magic.

The play’s the thing, of course, to catch
the conscience of the king and perhaps
of Antonio, planned by that master
manipulator, Prospero, and ministered
by his airy servant Ariel. Nothing
but transmogrified scenarios from
beginning to end, masques, and music
that sends the actors into dreaming sleeps
like tricksy Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:

Full fathoms five thy father lies …
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Magic’s in the air and in the language too
that resonates with strange conjunctions
like ‘sea-change’ and ‘sea-swallowing’
and ‘heart-sorrow’ and ‘spell-stopped.’

Not that the actors need much confusing
when you see how easily they deceive them-selves.
Do Gonzalo and Antonio describe the same island?
One describes a place advantageous to life,
the other ‘as’twere perfumed by a fen.’
Then there are the case studies of confused identity,
Stephano mistaking Caliban for a moon-calf,
Caliban thinking Stephano fell from heaven,
Miranda seeing Alonso and Antonio for the first time,
marvelling at beauteous man-kind and exclaiming:
‘O brave new world that has such people in it.’

And just to confuse the audience, consider the
final scenario where Prospero addresses us
across the stage proscenium, breaking the magic,
you’d say, except that he’s asking us to release him
and his acting crew, asking us to breath air into the
sails of his craft and send him on his way back to Milan.
What are we supposed to do? Any wonder that
 the audience departs the play still held in a kind
of waking dream.






Neolithic tribes began it to invoke fertility,
stave off famine. Egyptians on the Nile
continued mimicking the sun in a ritual dance.
Visigoths and Greeks and Gauls also did it,
sliding in a circle round some focal symbol,  
maybe fire, or idol, or tree, or may-pole,
while chilly Lithuanians and Letts up north,
likely imbued it with a bit more energy,
tempo multo-vivacissimo.

Meanwhile down south, leaping high as the corn,
tribal Africans surpassed them all by their riotous,
mimetic and ecstatic variation.






Scent of tea roses wafting
in the air, coupes of sparkling
champagne at the bar, art deco
lighting creating a golden
atmosphere for the tea dance.
Tinkling piano, ‘I’ve got you
under my skin,’ couples gliding
across a parquetry floor,
doing their best to emulate
Ginger and Fred’s perfect






Dancing the tango, slow uncoiling,
moving to the pulsing, breathing music
in unison with his black eyed partner
all gravitas and grace. On the dance floor
he’s a god.

The last tango, it’s over, he hurries home,
needs a clean shirt, tango shoes
polished to the utmost gloss …
and he’s out of there
in a rush.





‘Technique,’ Fokine said,
‘is mere means to expression,’
if you don’t know that …






Height of the cold war, I remember
in one of those bleak news reels
my father used to watch on T.V,
in the middle  of filming troop movements
and views of subdued people in grey
industrial towns, the camera moves in
to focus on soldiers, a smiling Cossack.
Suddenly he’s down on his haunches,
in a puddle, does the famous
Cossack  improbable movements, defiant
dance against the elements, O Kalinka,
 – and everyone’s entranced.






The Final Act in classic drama
is when the hero gets the girl,
(in comedy) or at least attains
some understanding, (in tragedy)
while in both, (comedy and
tragedy) the villain gets his or her
come-uppance. Whereas in real life,
lacking an author’s direction, a finale
likely ends in a less-ordered, well,
messy really, (non)-resolution.



In me very first edition of Serf Under_ground Journal  I referred ter Plato, up-there on the hill, advocating  a political system to arrest all change, a system  to create a society of equilibrium, a ship of state steered by a philosopher king.

Nassim Taleb, in his book ‘The Black Swan,’ questions the possibility or desirability of this, given that out-there, black swan events abound, those Hume’s thanksgiving-turkey-events that are impossible ter predict.

In his next book, ‘Anti-fragile,’ Nassim Taleb takes ‘The Black Swan’ to its natural and prescriptive conclusion. Since black swans dominate society and history, Taleb’s problem is how to avoid interference with things we do not understand, what he calls the complex fourth quadrant zone, avoid the errors made by men in suits, the ‘experts,’ who think that what they do not see is not out-there, or what they do not understand does not exist.

The Anti-fragile is beyond resilient.

Taleb describes the anti-fragile as the opposite of fragile, not just dealing with volatility but learning from it. Anti-fragile is beyond resilient, it’s the process of benefiting from shocks in evolution, cultures, technical modifications, it’s the examples of economic and corporate success in dealing with the unknown. Becoming anti-fragile, Nassim Taleb says poetically, is learning how to love the wind, how to domesticate the mysterious and the opaque.

He presents a chart, a triad mapping:  (F) fragile domains in human affairs, (R)  Robust domains in human affairs  and (A) Anti-fragile. For example:
*Knowledge: (F) Academy. (R) Experience (A) Erudition.

*Errors: (F) Hate mistakes.( R) Mistakes are just information. (A) Love mistakes since they are small.

*Education : (F) Classroom. (R) Real life. (A) Real life and libraries.

*Political Systems: (F) Centralized Nation State. (A) Decentralized Federation of City States.

*Biological and economic systems: (F) Efficiency optimized, ( R) Redundancy (A) Degeneracy.(Functional redundancy.)

Stressors are cool.

That which is inanimate, when subject to stress either undergoes fatigue or breaks. That which is living is both fragile and anti-fragile. A human body, to a point, can benefit from stressors and self repair though we eventually wear out, hopefully leaving behind genes or a book etc.

Stressors are information. Your body is a complex system that gets information not via logical apparatus but through stress via hormones or other messages we haven’t discovered yet. In small children, pain is risk management.

In our ancestral habitat we humans were prompted by natural stimuli, fear, hunger, desire, that made us work out and keep fit for our environment. Taleb relates a story about Mithridates, King of Pontus, who ingested measures of toxic substances to build immunity, practicing hormesis, which was well known to the ancients, the  knowledge that a little bit of an otherwise harmful substance can benefit an organism by triggering resistance and other healthy effects. Things that are anti-fragile benefit from volatility, suppress volatility and they will weaken and die. We all know how our muscles atrophy after a long illness. Comfort can also weaken us via physical disuse and modern diseases.

Taleb’s book ‘Anti-fragility’ is about how not to be the thanksgiving turkey or even how to be a turkey in reverse, figuring out the difference between true and manufactured stability. Volatility is information. Variations can act as purges, for example, small forest fires compared to conflagrations that do extreme damage. For similar reasons long periods of economic stability are not good for the economy. Firms become weak during long periods of prosperity and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate under the surface. The longer one goes without a trauma the worse the damage when it occurs. A volatile market doesn’t let people go such a long time without a clean-up of risks, thereby preventing such market collapses.

Denying hormesis, the natural anti-fragility of organisms, comes from top-down government playing conductor. We fragilize systems by denying their randomness, putting them in the procrustean bed of cushy and comfortable – but harmful moderation. Taleb notes the irony of  Lenin, creating his project of the great top-down centralist State, spending much of his time writing in Switzerland, the most robust small government State on the planet.  

Modern States – Blind ter Opacities.

Say, those politicians, economists and academics out-there err when they think they can confidently predict and control complex events even a little way into the future. Tsk!  Why we can’t even predict the stock market a few hours from now. Much of our modern structured world has been harming us with top-down policies, subject ter what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Soviet-Harvard’ delusions, over estimations of the scientific knowledge of a phenomenon,  which try to do precisely this.  

Taleb identifies the top-down problem as hubris. The largest fragilizer of society and greatest generator of crises is the over confidence of platoists with absence of skin in the game. Bureaucrats, bankers and academics have too much power and no real accountability, They get the upside and the citizens get the downside when the nerds make errors. Think Erlich, Sachs, Stiglitz and Greenspan. Some amnesiac ‘experts,’ like Stiglitz, forget their errors in judgement and later write I- told-you-so-books telling how they predicted the crisis they actually helped bring about.

A main source of the economic crisis that started in 2007, Taleb identifies in the iatragonics of the attempt by the uber fragilista ‘expert,’ Alan Greenspan, to iron out the ‘boom-bust cycle’ causing risks to go hide under the carpet and accumulate there until they blew up the economy. The same naïve interventionism was also applied by the UK government of fragilista Gordon Brown whose own grand mission was to ‘eliminate’ the business cycle.

Artificia docuit fames, Sophistication is born out of hunger.

Volatility is information as Taleb notes, yet we tend to focus on post traumatic stress disorder while ignoring post traumatic growth, how persons harmed may surpass themselves. Innovation comes out of trouble, problem situation trial and error.

Artifia docuit fames. : The excess energy from over reacting to setbacks is what motivates innovation. Think of those uneducated tinkerers that initiated the Industrial Revolution, Arkwright developing the water frame, Kay inventing the flying shuttle, Hargreaves inventing the spinning jenny.

Hmm even a serf understands this. Necessity is the mother of invention. Innovation doesn’t come from putting someone through the Harvard Business School class taught by a highly decorated Professor who has never innovated anything. Matt Ridley, in a well-known TED TALK, ‘When Ideas Have Sex, ‘ recognized the unforeseen beneficial consequences that free exchange of goods and ideas through human trading may bring about. It’s another argument for black swan effects since you cannot forecast collaborations, direct them or see where they’re going… not top-down, but bottom-up innovations that have changed the world.

Some Nassim Taleb Handy Hints fer Non-predictive Decision-making.

By grasping the mechanisms of anti-fragility we can build a guide ter non-predicting decision making under uncertainty says Nassim Taleb.

Get out of the fourth quadrant top down- decision making and inter looking at yr options.
In face of lack of knowledge, first do no harm.  So if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, eschew noble intent meddling. Tsk! Let volatility hold sway. Procrastinate. Keep yr options open and keep outta’ debt, yr more resilient that way. There’s lots more in Nassim Taleb’s stimulating book but that’s enough fer now. Enough ter remind yer that the open society is cool.


Big Wind. Theodore Roethke.

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Cracking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.



On the littoral uncertainty prevails.

Herewith a serf’s synthesis of previous editions of the Serf Under_ground Journal, expanded by a collection of serf poetry concerning living on the littoral.

If yer’ve read ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb, regarding uncertainty and humanity’s poor record in prediction – demonstrating how prediction is influenced by confirmation bias and black swan events coming out of left field to surprise us – n yer don’t need a serf ter tell yer that we can’t be certain what the fuchure holds.

One of history’s early observers of confirmation bias, Michel de Montaigne, in his essay, ‘Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received,’ recognized how easily we succumb to the tyranny of old tribal views, nothing so outlandish that cannot be demonstrated in public practice somewhere in the world.

So what of the predictions of doomsayers, Thomas Malthus, Paul Erlich et al?  Well, it’s all there on the record. We know how The Reverend Mister Pessimist, Thomas Malthus, argued in his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1798, that a golden age in the future could never be attained because population had a tendency to increase more rapidly than food. In the interim it didn’t happen but that didn’t deter other predictors of catastrophe like Paul Erlich in ‘The Population Bomb,’ 1969, or members of The Club of Rome with their ‘Limits of Growth,’ 1972.  Despite the best seller status of the books, their predictions were a flop.

This from Max Anacker on Judith Curry’s blog, ‘Climate Etc,’ 20/06/13 @ 4.23am:

‘Population increased in a whopping 1.7x from 1970 to 2010 at a compounded rate of over 1.6% per year. But at the same time, agricultural output, i.e. crop yield of major crops, (rice, corn wheat,) increased by 2.4 x.’

Something the doomsayers did recognize, however, even though they were wrong about predictability, was that – naychur – is – dangerous.

And so another aspect of life on the littoral – Nature is dangerous and don’t you forget it.

Consider how precarious was life fer the average peasant living in Europe, Asia or Africa during the 40,000 years, prior to the Industrial Revolution. For all that time, daily life centered on gathering or producing enough food jest ter stay alive. In the West, as in Asia, whether in 1500 or 1800, yer typical family lived close to the bread-line. Grain provided more than 80% of the family diet, in Asia, rice, in the West, bread and porridge, soup or in hard times, thin gruel. Famine was a widespread and common occurrence. The great famines of India, 1022-1033-1052, wiped out entire provinces, the 1064 famine and out-break of the plague in France killed 100,000 people.

Seems climate has always been variable and unpredictable. The period of the 1600’s, was a bad time fer serfs. Advancing glaciers in Europe were an object of terror. Glaciers swallowed up French, Swiss, Italian and Austrian farms on the foothills of the Alps. Sometimes processions of villagers, led by a priest, would journey to the edge of a glacier to pray that it would halt.

Historian, Tony Brown’s research, ‘The Long Slow Thaw,’ documents events of this period, known as ‘The Little Ice Age,’ and evaluates and reconstructs the Central England Temperature record from its beginning in 1659. This highly scrutinized temperature record is the oldest instrumental record in the world today. In his study of CET, Tony Brown incorporates in his study the cooling of the LIA, and a prior Medieval Warming Period, both identified by Hubert Lamb, first director of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. (CRU.)

The wealth of cross referenced historical data, temperature records, almanacs, diaries, that Tony Brown presents, support Lamb’s research and the European Chronicles of LIA periods of intense cold, of glacier advances and harvest failures.

Hmm … weather is variable, maybe that’s the only certainty in climate studies.

Living on the littoral as we do, better adapt and try our best to be anti-fragile.


Let’s begin with cheap energy, the back-bone of the anti-fragile economy, its contribution ter human welfare can hardly be exaggerated.

Once upon a time all work was done by humans using their own muscle power. Then came a time when some humans, pharaohs ‘n such got other people, the serfs, ter do the work for them, building pyramids, digging ditches, trampling grapes and so on.

With the Roman Empire came the age of oxen, then horse power, each a major step fer human kind. In turn, with the invention of the water mill, yer getting’ the introduction of inanimate power. Later, in the low countries, where water power was not an option, the invention of the windmill, along with the burning of peat, enabled Holland in the 1600’s to become the workshop of the world. But it was the invention of the steam engine, triggering the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s, and the use of stored fossil fuel energy in coal  keeping it going, that gave us economic lift off.

Fossil fuels were a game changer. For while renewable technologies are self replenishing, when they become exhausted overtime, their renewal is too slow ter meet demand. And while fossil fuels are not infinite, coal is sufficiently abundant ter allow an increase in both economic activity and population to a point where they generate sustainability without hitting a Malthusian ceiling.

Even today problems of storage and intermittency limit the efficiency of renewable energies. Peter Lang, a geologist and engineer with more than 40 years experience in energy projects throughout the world, including R&D and policy advice to governments, reviewed and costed a University of NSW study  ‘Simulations of  Scenarios with 100% Renewable  Electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market.’ (Elliston et al 2011a) While the NSW University study provides no costing of the renewable scenarios it did recognize that even with highly optimistic assumptions, renewable energy has insufficient capacity to meet peak winter demands, no capacity reserve and is dependent on a technology, gas turbines running on bio-fuels, that exist only at small scale and at a high cost,’

Peter Lang costs the four scenarios of the Elliston study and a fifth scenario, nuclear powering his paper, ‘Renewables or Nuclear Electricity for Australia – the Costs.’ Peter Lang  28th April 2012. ( Ref Serf Under_ground Journal, 3rd Edition. ‘Energy’s A Staff of Life.’)

Peter Lang’s costing is done on the basis of * CO2 emissions intensity, * Capital cost,
* Cost of electricity and * CO2 abatement costs. He finds compared to the four scenarios, nuclear is roughly ¼ the cost in relation to CO2 emissions intensity, 1/3 the Capital cost. 1/3 Cost of Electricity and 1/3 CO2 abatement costs. Of the four renewable scenarios the fourth has the lowest cost electricity but has CO2 emissions that are 2.8 x higher than nuclear.


Classical economists considered innovation belongs outside the system of economics like earthquakes, climate or war. Joseph A. Schumpeter argued, on the contrary, that innovation and entrepreneurship, moving resources from old and obsolete to new and more productive employments, is the very essence of economics. For Schumpeter the basic fallacy was an assumption by John Maynard Keynes and other economists that the healthy economy is an economy in static equilibrium whereas Schumpeterr argues that a modern economy is always in dynamic disequilibrium. Schumpeter’s economy is not a closed system, but is forever growing and changing.

As soon as one shifts from the axiom of an unchanging self contained economy to Schumpeter’s growing, changing economy, what is called profit becomes not something stolen from the workers, but the source of capital formation to defray the costs of the future, the costs of maintaining jobs and of creating new ones. Profit is the cost of staying in business, the cost of a future in which nothing is predictable except that today’s profitable business is tomorrow’s white elephant.  

Liberty of the Individual And Free Speech.

When the Athenians became a maritime society coming in contact with different laws and social customs, a strange thing happened. They began to recognize that laws and social customs were man-made and were therefore able to be criticized and changed.

In sixth century BC Athens, Pericles expressed this recognition in his great Funeral Oration delivered after the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, when he used the occasion to celebrate Athenian democracy:

‘We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as a preliminary to acting wisely.’ And ‘while only a few may originate policy, we are all able to judge it.’
In the Athenian society of Pericles Funeral Oration, justice is sounding particular to individuals and not simply for the good of the state. Must say serfs like the idea of individual freedom and democratic guvuhmint, not top-down authority with its siege mentality censorship laws and ‘we will tell you what you need ter know.’

And living on the littoral where uncertainty prevails, serfs also favour policies by guvuhmint that foster productivity and adaptability ter what ever tsunami comes ter land. Regarding uncertainties, this from Faustino, former economic and policy adviser to both the UK and Australian governments and also to the Queensland government:

‘As a policy economist, I’ve often said that we can’t sensibly make long-term economic forecasts or projections, and that it is not possible to base policy on them. …  I have seen, time and time again, the dangers of high spending, long-term government projects.  …  
A system which allows decentralized decision-making by those with skin in the game and relevant knowledge and expertise is likely to produce far better results and will be more adaptable when forecasts inevitably prove wrong.’

(Posted on Climate Etc 16/05/13 @11.45 a.m.)




‘They were never wrong,
the old masters,’ says
Auden, ‘about suffering,’
when someone, Icarus say,
is falling from the sky,
near-by revelers, heedless,
in their pleasure – boat,
just sail on by.

Then there’s the old masters
on survival, Shakespeare’s Lear,
out in all weathers,
Dostoevsky on tenement life
in the raw, and more,
Roethke on what goes on in
root cellars, all life’s rich variety
explored in the litera-chure.


Naychur is dangerous and don’t
you forgit it. That speckled thrush
that chortles so sweetly has
just devoured a worm. You yrself
might escape harm if you
remind yourself, often, that
‘Nay – chur – is – dangerous!’

Dangerous. as the tiger, burning
bright, that even in sleep is
likely to overlay its cubs, or
dangerous, as voracious fire,
devouring all before it, spitting
out the charred remains, oh so
contemptuously, as it leaps
upon a forest glade, gullies
and all that lie therein,
animal and vegetable, nothing
vegan about fire … or
in contrast, there’s ice, some say
it’s worse than fire. Remember
poor Otzi, Bronze Age traveller,
snap-frozen in the Tyrol
in a sudden storm, swallowed
by one of those hungry
glaciers that engulf whole
villages, churches where
praying congregations seek
insurance from the elements
to no avail. Nay-chur has its way.


At the ocean’s edge, glittering crustaceans
And shelly treasures mesh,
Like a Chanel garment that’s beaded at the hem.

Today she wears her palest satin robe
That dips and dimples as she moves,
Swishing like a Venetian princess
Who glides across the marble floor of her palazza
To the deep accompaniment of a muted cello.

Don’t be fooled. Beneath that civilized exterior
Lie Freudian depths, fathoms of instincts blind,
Kelp coiling, slithering serpent entwined.
And like Medusa she rises up,,
Naked save for a necklace of whale bones
And the smashed hulks of ships,
To glory in, recoil from, and glory in,
The savagery unleashed.


Splash! In he goes.
finesse there’s none
but in pelican measure -
meant success -


Plans go awry
the centre (usually)
does not hold.
Just when you
think you might
seize the day,
turns out something
(usually) gets in the way.
Oh well, keep saying
‘you live to fight
another day,’ whatever
catch phrase that
suffices to ward off
melancholy or
despair, don’t
go there.


Within the stone – walled hive
the rustling of cardinal silk,
while on the slopes outside,
peasants scrabble
for scraps from the priests’ table.


Newcomers have moved into
the tenement tree. Epigone,
lorikeet interlopers asserting
gangland claims on its clusters
of winter flowers. Upper story residents,
a pair of crested doves, are already
moving out, can’t stand the noise.
‘Ours!’ shriek the new tenants, ‘It’s ours!’
They’ll defend the tree, or even
one blossoming branch, if need be,
against all comers, as long as
the seasonal flowers hold out.
Then, like itinerant workers when
the seasons change, they’ll move on.


The rift valley changes in the fading light, and
In deep caverns the Prince of Darkness stirs.
Against the night, the small band make
A circle at the fire, its yellow flames
Reflected in their eyes. Night falls, beyond
The fire-lit circle the big cats prowl.

The tribe survive dark nights and living in
An arid land. A stray thunderstorm creates
A brief oasis – follow the lightning – on
To greener pastures – be always on the move,
What’s next? The shaman’s rain dance, then
After ancient wells and boat construction
-    aquaducts.


In ancient  Mediterranean ports
Phoenician trading craft, triremes, fishing boats,
Carrying exotic goods
And seditious thoughts.


O, we are creatures of the light, of enlightenment,
Drawn by the light flickering on the river,
The riffling silver threads disturbing its opacity,
Drawn to the litter of stars that spark
In the dark abyss of night, to the harvest moon,
Palpable as a globed fruit, forgetting that
Its light’s reflected from the sun,
Shine on, O shine, harvest moon.

Seeking through poetry and science to probe
The secrets of the heavens and deep abyss.
We yearn for honey from the golden hive,
Enlightenment – O.


Across the antique crowd at the antique fair
I see her face so vulnerable and young,
Enclosed in the antique silver frame
She seems to ask, “Why am I here?”

Cherished daughter held in the silver frame,
A whisp of Venetian lace caught at her throat
With real pearls, she seemed secure within
The family walls, but here she is, alone without a name.

What sad event has brought her here,
A childless marriage, perhaps her early death?
Uncaring grandchild? Relatives from overseas
Selling the estate, don’t know or care?

We all seek certainty but there’s none,
Except the certainty that things must change.
We collect antiques, shore up the family home,
But dynasties fall, plans soon come undone.


A nest has fallen to the ground.
Though so cunningly made it could not withstand
The sudden Spring storm that brought it down
From its niche in a tall pine.

See how meticulously its maker has woven
Each separate blade of grass in and out, each
Blade brought in by air and stitched together
With cob-web by the small beak, the nest
Then shaped by the bird’s round breast and
Inlaid with its feathered down. Already
Ants are investigating the broken
Egg-shells scattered on the ground.



Every year the forest creeps closer,
Small pines encroaching in the meadow,
Tiny outposts in enemy territory.

Seems to the aging couple, days and years
Are also changing, days seem shorter, nights darker,
Does the harvest moon wane faster than before?

Tonight there’s a frost. Against the cold he selects
Another pine log from the pile, lifts it firmly
With his strong forearm, throws it on the fire.

The fire crackles and sends out sparks. In its glow
His wife looks like the girl he married long ago, hair
Glinting, shadows concealing lines around the mouth.

Shadows too, hide his stooped shoulders,
Bowed by years of doing battle with
The elements. In the dark forest, the bark of a lone fox.

Early morning, sun’s already melting the frost.
The postman calls, bringing a letter, a rare event. Foreign
Postmark, the couples daughter arriving from France,
Grandchildren in tow, they’ll spend Easter on the farm.

Outside, the day grows warm,
In the budding plum tree
A thrush bursts forth in song.


Beside the highway
Stands the old tree.
Last of its line,
Rough monument to space and time,
Holding in its crown the sky’s light
And a few white birds,
Then a circlet of stars
As the Earth turns.


‘This rock I hold
in my hand,’ the
geologist said,
‘was here before
Columbus crossed
the Pacific,
even before
Gondwana Land
broke up, this rock
was here.’


You could say
That she was on a quest
Through forests miniature
And dense as any
Hidden valley of the Amazon.

You could say
That hers’ was not a test
Of courage but of skill,
Of learning patterns and
Particulars of living plants.

On her knees she peers
Into another world,
Where hurrying ants follow
Scented trails, and mantids
Lurk in thickets, like ancient beasts.

She has learned that in these forests,
Like Darwin’s archipelago
Where species are distinct,
The banded and the spotted
Clover do not mix.

Knees reddened on hard ground,
Fingers separating lolling plants,
She has found a patch
Of unmarked clover yielding
The mutant talisman.

Ah! She finds another four leaf clover,
Then two more. These
Will protect her family from
Chaotic forces that prevail
Beyond the ordered world of plants.


‘… and they lived happily ever after …’

In grim fairy tales – ‘Yes.’ Despite the harsh
realities of ogres ‘n similar malevolents
turning up in unexpected places, nevertheless
true romance exists, hero and princess get to meet
and all ends well.

… whereas, out on the littoral,
lasting romance is probably a fiction.
Look at all those true stories in the mags,

Likely it won’t last a hundred sleeps,
yet we keep hoping against hope.
Hope springs eternal, look at
the enduring popularity of
T-V soaps.


Rose, do not be destroyed in your heart by the worm
that flies in the night in the howling storm, for rose,
you are a symbol of hope eternal, more
permanent than a stone monument buried in
sand, you speak to us more compellingly than
the passion deferred of a Grecian urn – your
soft, unfolding, cusped perfume speaks to us of
human joy, of the one, the true, the everlasting love,
of the minstrel’s song, of Romeo and Juliet.


A flicker of embryonic dust
In the primordial void
And then …

Eons on from the singularity
An imploding core of
Gaseous cloud explodes, strafing
The fledgling universe with starlit galaxies ….

The wind from the steppes
Shakes the thorn bush in the cleft of stone,
Blowing away the footprints
Where homo habilis has trod,
Singing the stanzas of the world’s creation  ..

Lit by the rays
Of an electric globe,
Like a dusty opal the canvas glows.
The painter loads his brush
With cobalt, to create
A universe.


Across the great continents, drifting
Shadows brush the plains with
Fugitive mist. Distant
Mountains, ridges of lapis lazuli
Rim the sky that lifts
Across latitudes from somber
Indigo to brilliant azurite.

Earth is the water planet,

All its great continents shifting
In a world awash with seas,
Crested waves rifting its shores.
Noah’s flood is with us yet,
Its opal waters inundate the land
With mirrored pools,
Lakes that love the sky.

Water planet,

Viewed from space, like a snap shot
From the gods, a shimmering orb
Netted in a cloud haze.



The shining river mingles with the land
Where bees and trilling birds sound
The old harmonies. Echoing their song
In lifting arpeggios the river reeds respond.



Welcome ter the 13th Edition of Serf Under_ground Journal. Say, hope yer not superstitious.

Apropos the above heading I wish ter put forward a modest proposal with reference ter reading literature, and it is this: ‘that literature, in mysterious ways, expands our human experience and understanding of our human condition.’

Now I know yer likely ter disagree with this in a number of ways. Considering that we’ve all experienced the difficulties of communicating with real people out there, difficulties in decoding their language, in reading their expressions, interpreting their actions, and much of the time they, us (?) are practising a certain amount of obfuscation, how much more tricky then, the problem of communication from books. – mere squiggles on a page, word things representing non-word-things, tsk!

Regarding interpreting written documents of history, in me 5th Edition of Serf Underground, ”History’s Chequered History,’ I argued that contextual studies and identifying problem situations of protagonists can help overcome present bias and the tyranny of distance. I concluded that a study of real people in the past, studied in context, can be a feasible and rich and chastening experience, enlarging our understanding of human behaviour. Yer could say, someone did, that ‘the proper
study of mankind is man,’ so studying history is okay.

But what about studying literature? A second question yer might ask is ‘how can the papery whispers of fictional characters mimicking real life expand human experience, offer, as Inga Clendinning describes it, ‘an indexed guide  to life,’ adultery, anger, ambition, angst, even sometimes altruism? My answer is that behind these fictional characters and plots hides a silent creator, the author, a real person. The canon of literature that avid readers turn to for enjoyment again and again, a canon that includes many points of view and modes of exploring them, are written by authors with rich imagination and perception, who turn the characters in their creations into living human beings involved in a particular aspect of human experience.

So do we read literature for instruction? I don’t think so. Is it written to teach virtue? Generally no, long sermons do not make for engrossing literature. Do we feel that literature is authentic communication that expands our experience so that we may appreciate, however precariously, something even of a society separated from our own by more than two millennia? As a reader this is what I feel …  So dear reader, let’s take a walk through literature, an indexed study, adultery ter angst, and see what we will see.

When it comes to big drama regarding adultery and anger, the Greeks did it well, not too much introspection but lots of big effects and grand panoramas befitting the consequences of revengeful and treacherous behaviour, and these enhanced by seductive patterning, making sure we’re caught up in the action.


In The Iliad of Homer, here the adulterers, Paris and Helen, speak with Hector, hero, brother of Paris, pretty boy, who is later killed defending Troy. Hector rebukes his brother:
‘ Strange man! It is not fair to keep in your heart this coldness.
The people are dying in the city and round the steep wall
as they fight hard; and it is for you that this war with its clamour
has flared up about our city….

Paris replies:
‘ It was not so much in coldness and bitter will toward the Trojans
that I sat in my room, but I wished to give myself over to sorrow…
Come then, wait for me while I put on my armour of battle.
or go and I will follow, and I think that I can overtake you.’

Helen addresses Hector:
by marriage to me, who am a nasty bitch evil-intriguing,
how I wish that on that day when my mother first bore me
the foul whirlwind of the storm had caught me away before all these things had happened.
Yet since the gods had brought it about that these vile things must be,
I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is,
one who knew more modesty and all things of shame that men say.
But this man’s heart is no steadfast thing, nor yet will it be so
ever hereafter: for that I think he will take the consequences.’

(Bk 6, lines 326-354. R. Lattimore Translation)

Helen here acknowledges the repercussions of her actions, whole armies battling , families destroyed, and as we know, after the fall of Troy, dangerous homecomings, the wily Odysseus taking all those years to make it back to Ithaca … Agamemnon, say, we won’t go into that! All this echoing down the ages told in poetic tributes to the beauty of Helen of Troy. In Yeat’s poem ‘Long-Legged Fly,’   we see Helen practising the perfections of her dance, part of her  legendary allure that will become one of the great myths of Western literature:

‘That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall the face,
move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child.,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up in a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.’

Helen is perhaps the first femme fatale adulteress in literature, for another where the focus is her own destruction, Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina.’

… Indexed guide ter life, up ter ‘Anger.’ Hmmm, concerning revenge, Euripides’ Media is hard ter beat.


A little context is required. To interpret the plays of the great dramatists of the 5th century BC in terms of modern theatre or modern political or social movements is likely to lead to a skewed reading of the action. The three tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays in a period of great political and social experiment. Their plays were presented at Athenian festivals that took place in an open theatre accommodating around 1,700 spectators. The Athenian audience witnessed ‘a cycle of dramatic performances presented amid high civic splendour and religious ritual.’ These festivals were considered more than mere entertainment. The competing dramatists had a solemn responsibility, as E.F. Watling points out. Their dramas were expected to ‘touch the deepest centres of man’s individual and corporate consciousness.’
This is what Euripides aimed at in his play Medea. In the heroic tradition, Euripides makes Medea the central figure on stage, the tragic hero whose violent actions and rescue by the gods, (the play’s ‘deux ex machina’ ending,) must have presented some puzzling features for its Athenian audience.  

When Euripides wrote his tragedy, he had many variants on the Medea legend to choose from but chose to create a more shocking version than any of the old stories. The play’s exploration of Medea’s psychological states, her actions and language and the surprise ending which implies that the gods are on her side, do not fit with any narrowly defined role, ‘evil witch,’ woman scorned’ or ‘barbarian outsider.’

Medea’s first speech describes her as a loyal wife to a self-serving husband. In describing her own plight to a sympathetic chorus of women, Medea relates how all women are oppressed in a society controlled by men, how a husband is bought with a woman’s dowry and she must go into her husband’s home, not knowing how he will treat her. And should:
‘a man grow tired:
Of the tediousness at home, he can go out and find
A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look
To one man only.’

The women’s chorus are on Medea’s side. They consider she should punish Jason and even support her planned revenge on Creon and his daughter. Only when Media commits infanticide are the chorus repelled:
‘ O miserable mother to destroy your own increase.
Murder the babes of your body, stone and iron you are, as you resolved to be.’

Stone and iron Medea has become. Euripides presents her in the play in heroic terms reacting to dishonour like Sophocles’ Ajax:
‘Let no one,’ she says, ‘think of me
As humble or weak or passive; let them understand
I am of a different kind; dangerous to my enemies,
Loyal to my friends. To such a life glory belongs.’

In this tradition Medea overcomes all obstacles to carry out her terrifying plan of revenge. For breaking his marriage vows, Jason will be denied all family, new wife, powerful father in law, and his own two sons will be taken from him.

As Medea is about to murder her children the audience witnesses the psychological struggle between her maternal feelings, ‘…don’t, don’t do it! and her grim resolve, ‘ I must steel myself to it,’ Medea’s language reflects her  uncompromising determination to act which is the mark of the tragic hero. In the scene where we might expect Medea to pay for her hubris and crime against her children, she is rescued by the gods. Seated in the chariot of the sun god she addresses Jason like a god. ‘Go,’ she commands him, ‘and bury your wife.’

When Jason dismisses his oath breaking as insufficient cause for Medea’s acts of vengeance she replies:
‘And is that injury
A slight one, do you imagine, to a woman?’

Medea does not doubt that the gods do not find it a slight injury. In the final scene where they rescue Medea, Euripides is posing a challenging question for Athenian individual and corporate consciousness at the festival: Should a society in which men have the power to carelessly break a solemn marriage oath with impunity be surprised if moral chaos and social disintegration follow?

… Could hardly stand writin’ this … On a lighter note, fer a good novel on revenge yer might like ter try Alexandre Dumas’  ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ :(


Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth,’ is a psychological drama exploring through metaphors of darkness and light, themes of moral order and disorder, betrayal and guilt, and a descent into darkness by Macbeth and his wife, which is brought about by their overriding ambition.

Although the play is set in Medieval Scotland, it reflects the Christian tradition and politics of Elizabethan England, the belief that society reflected God’s heavenly harmony. As God ruled in heaven, the natural order on Earth mirrored this harmony and included loyalty to king and kinsmen, protection of women and children and guests in the home.

In the play’s opening scene an incantation by three witches from the underworld introduces the audience to the central metaphor of the play:
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’
I think we are seduced by this metaphor, not only by the paradox expressed, how has ‘fair’ become ‘foul,’ but also by the patterning in the language, the alliteration and the rhythmic balance, at odds with the negative message. Say, it’s off key, warning of things ter come.

At the beginning of the play, believing the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become king, Macbeth and his wife, planning to murder the king, welcome darkness. Darkness allows them to conceal the enormity of what they intend to do, and allows them to commit the crime without being seen. When Macbeth first considers killing Duncan the king, he invokes darkness:
‘Stars hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.’

Listen ter Lady Macbeth’s violent incantation when she considers killing Duncan herself. It could have been an incantation by the three witches, ‘thick’ night,’ ‘fog’ and filthy air':
‘ Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunniest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold’ ‘

After Duncan’s death, as Macbeth is planning to murder his friend Banquo, we are able to respond to what his psychological state by his words as he looks out into the gathering dusk waiting for darkness:
‘Light thickens
And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.’

The imagery suggests that Macbeth has become other than human. Tsk! He has become one of night’s black agents. By the end of the play, Macbeth has not only violated the natural order by murdering his king and kinsman, and then his friend, but by brutally murdering Macduff’s wife and children as well.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth believed that they could overthrow the moral order without suffering the consequences. Later, as they begin to feel their guilt, darkness is no longer valued but feared and becomes a metaphor for guilt and despair. Lady Macbeth, maddened by guilt must keep a candle by her bed. She walks in her sleep, symbolically washing her hands. ‘What, will these hands never be clean?’
As Macbeth watches the army of Macduff approaching, he learns of his wife’s suicide.

A digression before the drama’s finale, concerning Shakespeare’s innovations with blank verse. Blank verse and the iambic pentameter as a medium for drama was less than fifty years old when Shakespeare wrote his tragedies. An insightful study, ‘The language of tragedy,’ by Russ McDonald, analyses Shakespeare’s exploration of its rhythmic possibilities to signal or underscore the emotional and psychological moods of his protagonists.  For example, in Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking speech, the disjointed monosyllable and broken repetitions communicate her agitation:
‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? -
What, will these hands ne’er be clean? – No more o’ that,
my lord, no more o’ that. You mar all with this starting.’

While Macbeth waits to confront Macduff, believing the witches’ prophecy that he will not be killed by ‘man born of woman,’ he gains no joy from his powerful position.
The famously reiterated polysyllables of his last soliloquy:
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day’
To the last syllable of recorded time,’
communicate to us how interminable life has become for Macbeth.The surprise break in rhythm with ‘the acoustically matched, monosyllable doublet, ‘struts’ and ‘frets,’ ‘  and final stress falling on the word, ‘nothing’ give a feeling of Macbeth’s inner darkness.  .
‘Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
And yer know the  rest  … Those witches with their ‘man born of woman,’  are as duplicitous as Macbeth himself. Now on ter Angst.


When it comes to insight into a protagonist’s state of mind, no idiom does it better than a well written novel. Here the stage soliloquy is by-passed fer a reader’s god-like access to a character’s thinking, and sometimes varied perspectives, significant events revisited by other actors in the drama.

‘Dinner at The Homesick Restaurant’ by Anne Tyler is this kind of novel, a witty, okay a wise, exploration of angst, the anxiety, pain and guilt experienced in one family, the problem situation seemingly the cost of parental truancy.

The novel is more subtle than that.The initial focus on the central character, Pearl Tull, aged eighty-five years and dying, her drifting remembrances partly focus on the moment, thirty-five years ago, when her husband, travelling salesman Beck Tull, suddenly announces he is leaving for good, partly on the years that follow, the struggle to make ends meet and  on the mystery of her children’s development …

‘Something was wrong with all her children – attractive, likeable people, the three of them, but closed off from her in some perverse way ….she wondered if her children blamed her for something.’

 The novel opens with Pearl recalling her first son, Cody, a difficult baby, born late in her life, developing croup, that was in 1931 when croup was serious. Her frantic efforts, alone with Cody, trying to restore his breathing. Telling Beck they needed to have more children : ‘I don’t know why I thought just one little boy would suffice.’ Pearl’s anxiety about her children remains central to the novel, but gradually the focus expands as we see the family’s life through her children’s eyes, the unexplained absence of their father, the episodes which shape each child’s relationships with Pearl and with each other…

‘Their mother was on one of her rampages. “Pearl has hit the warpath,” Cody told his brother and sister. He always called her Pearl at such times. ” Better look out.” he said. “She’s dumped Jenny’s drawers.”…”Jen?” Cody asked her, “What did you do?’
“Nothing. Jenny said in a wavery voice.’

They file downstairs. In the kitchen Pearl is slicing a brick of Spam. The recriminations begin, … not enough that she works till five, comes home, chores not done …tales from her customers about Cody’s disreputable behaviour, … Pearl over hearing Jenny on the church steps last Sunday, … makes her voice shrill, ” Melanie I just love your dress. I wish I had a dress like that.” your sister says so everyone thinks, “Poor Mrs Tull, she can’t even afford a Sears and Roebuck dress with artificial flowers …”

Cody says:
“But that was Sunday.”  … “This is Wednesday, dammit. So why bring up something from Sunday?”

‘Pearl threw the spoon in his face. “You upstart,” she said. She rose and slapped him across the cheek. “You ugly horror.” She grabbed one of Jenny’s braids and yanked it ….”Stupid clod,” she said to Ezra and she took the bowl of peas and brought it down on his head.’


Cody suffers from obscure guilt, ‘ Did I make my father go away?’ But mostly feels anger, directing his anger at his mother and his brother, ‘his mother’s favourite.’ the theme of Cody’s remorseless recriminations. Cody constantly teases Ezra, finally stealing and marrying Ezra’s fiance and later subjecting her and his son, Luke, to jealous protectiveness from Ezra and his mother. Cody becomes a wealthy time study expert. In his personal life he is dissatisfied with the present, revisiting past slights, and is always making plans for the future.

Jenny, a pediatrician, always feels unworthy. Abandoned by her second husband, lashing out at her young child, she seems destined to follow her mother’s path. Ironically, it is her mother’s visit that rescues her:
‘Pearl stayed two weeks, using all of her vacation time. The first thing she did was call Jenny’s hospital, arranging for sick leave.Then she set about putting the world in order again. … Becky, who had hardly seen her grandmother till now fell in love with her.’

Adversity instructs. Jenny marries a divorcee with a large family and becomes a loving and cheerful stepmother. The eldest stepchild, looking at a photograph of Jenny, aged thirteen, sees a “concentration camp person.” “It’s somebody else, he told her. “Not you, you’re always laughing and having fun”

Ezra, always the most selfless of Pearl’s children tries to keep the peace. He inherits a restaurant from a friend and turns it into the Homesick Restaurant, a place for lonely people. He regularly arranges reunion dinners for his family at the restaurant. Pearl in her veiled hat, fretful, spending much of the time in the powder room, Cody resentful, Jenny toying with a lettuce leaf, none of the family except Ezra enjoy food. They never finish one of his dinners, fighting and stamping out halfway through, or sometimes not even managing to get seated in the first place.

There is one dinner they do finish. In the novels insightful ending, Pearl’s funeral dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, with all the extended family present, Beck Tull appears.There’s a revelation, particularly for Cody.

But before that another insight. In Pearl’s last years, almost blind, she asks Ezra, who never married and lives at home, to read the diaries she’s kept from her youth. She’s looking for something:

“I hitched Prince and rode downtown for brown silk gloves and an ice bag. Then got out my hat frames and washed my straw hat. For supper fixed a batch of -‘

“Move on,” his mother said.

He riffled through the pages, glimpsing buttonhole stitch and watermelon social and set of fine furs for $22.50. “Early this morning,” he read to his mother, ” I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration running down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, Why I believe that at just this moment  I am absolutely happy.”

His mother stopped rocking and grew very still.

“The Bedloe girl’s scales were floating out her window,” he read, “and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on a beautiful little green planet.
I don’t care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me.”   

That was the end of the entry.”Thank you, Ezra,” his mother said. “There’s no need to read any more.”

Heh, so many ways of viewing situations in fiction and er …the real world. Novelist
Henry James created an insightful metaphor regardin’ literary creation, his ‘house of fiction,’ how writers create their fiction from different vantage points, some in the house of fiction’s upper story, balconies all around – you know who I mean – lower down, windows some large, others small, some mere slits, some jest gouged out chinks low to the ground.

Regardin’  the last item in  our indexed guide ter life, ‘Altruism,’ altruism, we saw it in
Ezra, now fer Cervantes’ Don Quixote.


Pierre Ryckmans has written a perceptive essay, ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ in which he argues that Cervantes’ novel transcends Cervantes conscious intention  Ryckmans’ essay explores how in a novel’s deeper meaning, authors, like the characters they create, may sometimes fool themselves.

Ryckmans tells us that Don Quixote was written for a practical purpose, to produce a best seller that would make its author lots of money. Cervantes, prior to ‘The Don’ was a hack writer and soldier of fortune, captured by pirates, sold as a slave, and after years in captivity returning destitute to Spain. With Don Quixote intended as  lampoon against the literature of chivalry and knight-errantcy, but which became a work of art, suggests that it is unlikely that Cervantes had full control of what he wrote.

The novel begins with Cervantes describing Don Quixote:
‘This gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do, which was the case for most of the year, – gave himself to the reading of books of knight-errantcy … and so, from
little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.’

Don Quixote resolves to turn himself into a knight. The conflict between his lofty ideals and trivial reality become the subject of the novel, the series of preposterous mishaps that take place, mostly as the result of cruel practical jokes that others play on him. In the end he wakes up from his dream and realises that what he has chased with such absurd heroism  is an illusion and  he literally dies from a broken heart.

On the subject of Cervantes unsympathetic treatment of his protagonist, Ryckmans  
cites Vladimir Nabakov’s distaste for Cervantes and his admiration for his creature:

‘Don Quixote has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought-and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.’

Ryckmans points out that that when we reproach Cervantes for his lack of compassion the more we believe in the reality of the world he has created and his creatures.

So was Don Quixote mad? Ryckmans refers to another essay ‘Don Quixote’s Profession,’ by Mark Van Doren regarding  Don Quixote’s illusion .Van Doren argues that the don was not mad and was not under a delusion that he was a knight and does not play at being one, what he undertakes is a ‘profound apprenticeship, the true way of learning.and key to understanding.’

In Chapter X1, Don Quixote says to Sancho Panza:
‘ I will no longer conceal my design from thee. Know then my faithful squire, that Amadis de Gaul was one of the most accomplished knights-errant; nay, I should not have said he was one of them, but the most perfect, the chief, and prince of them all …In the same manner, Amadis, having been the Polar star and sun, of valorous and amorous knights, it is him we ought to set before our eyes as our great example, all of us that fight under the banner of love and chivalry; for it is certain that the adventurer who shall emulate him best, shall consequently  arrive nearest the perfection of knight-errantry.’
Van Doren observes that we talk of Cervantes’ protagonist now ‘because we suspect that in the end he has become a knight.’  

‘He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant.’  (VN)


Well we’ve come ter the end of our walk through literature, So many ways in literature narratives are created, narratives confirming ways that characters perceive their world. So many ways, yer might say, that we livin’ on our green planet, also reconcile  ‘facts’ to our fictions with consequences not generally good. You might also say, that life fer those not Socrates, wisest of men,  or Michel de Montaigne, arch skeptic, or Jane Austin, in her character portrayal, mistress of the Dunning Kruger effect,  (say, if yer haven’t read her, no hope fer yer) … is by and large, created narrative.

So we revisit the modest proposal : ‘that literature in mysterious ways expands our human experience and understanding of our human condition.’ Let each and all of yer decide … I would not expect a unanimous decision.



Welcome ter the 12th edition of Serf Under-ground Journal. Terday, ‘Skin in the Game. ‘Herewith:

Having ‘skin in the game,’ taking responsibility fer yr own opinions and actions , behaviour explored by Nassim Taleb in his book, ‘Antifragile,’ more of that later, and by individuals before him, Michel de Montaigne and the divine Socrates, yer’ll see why I call him that in the next paragraph, is an intellectual tradition believed ter have originated in 5th century BC Athens.

The historic Socrates, the democratic individualist of Plato’s early writings, in ‘The Meno’ is seen educating a young slave.:) In ‘The Apology’  Socrates argues that if he is wise, as claimed by the Oracle at Delphi, it is only because he recognises how little he knows. These words and his injunction in ‘The Crito’ to ‘care for your soul,’ are an appeal to intellectual honesty and a skeptical reminder of our intellectual limitations. In the ‘Crito,’ Socrates, on trial on charges of corrupting youth, chooses death over exile rather than compromise his principles and loyalty to the democratic laws of Athens, exemplifying his belief in individual responsibility.

And then there’s the skeptical pessimist, Michel de Montaigne, denizen of the Renaissance, committed in his essays, ( ‘essayer’ ‘to attempt,’) to skeptical studies of himself, examining his personal opinions and behaviour through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly, his own judgement..

In his longest essay, ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ Montaigne famously remarks, ‘Que sais-je?’ (‘What do I know?) reflecting his belief that humans are not able to attain true certainty. In another essay, ‘Of Experience,’ he observes ‘ ’tis impossible to find two opinions exactly alike, not only in several men, but in the same man at diverse hours,’ nor, says Montaigne, is there ‘one book to be found either human or divine, which the world busies itself about, whereof difficulties are cleared by interpretation. The hundredth commentator passes it on to the next still more knotty and perplexed than when he found it.’

Montaigne would see youth educated to independent thought by means of dialogue  and critical enquiry, the tutor encouraging his student’s curiosity by field trips to interesting places. In reading, the student should be encouraged to ‘examine and thoroughly sift anything he reads and lodge nothing in his fancy upon simple authority…’

Say, Michel de Montaigne was pretty advanced in his ideas about educating youth, ‘youth’ meaning, of course, well born young males. Though it’s said Montaigne took pains with the education of his only daughter, educating girls, even the highborn, was a hit and miss affair. Moravian educator, John Comenius, in the seventeenth century was an early advocate of universal education.

Regarding responsibility fer your actions, the following from Montaigne’s essay, ‘Of Custom And That We Should Not Easily Change A Law Received,’ quoted in me previous Edition of Serf Under_ground:

‘For my own part I have a great aversion to novelty, what face or what pretence soever it may carry along with it, having been an eye witness of the great evils it has produced  … And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs and so dreadful corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high concern, into the bowels of one’s own country…’  ‘who so ever shall take upon him to choose and alter, usurps the authority of judging and should look well about him and make it his business to discern clearly  the defect of  what he would abolish and the virtue of what he is about to introduce.’

…’the defect of what he would abolish and the virtue of what he is about to introduce.’
Regardin’ agency problems Nassim Taleb has some astute comments on what we’re gettin’ into when someone gets the upside of an event and a different person gets the downside, what Taleb calls the agency problem of asymmetry.


In Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile,’ in his chapter ‘Skin in the Game, he examines in complex modernity, a growing problem of privilege without obligation. ‘Protected by ‘modernity’s connectivity’ and ‘new found invisibility of causal changes, ‘ makers of policy in large bureaucracies and corporations may cause harm to others without , themselves, being exposed to risk.

In the chapter, Taleb presents a Triad Table of decision makers in society, the first group, those with no skin in the game who receive benefits without risk to themselves, a second category, those with skin in the game, responsible for their own actions, – and a third category, those who take harm for the sake of others – the heroic, who may or may not be misguided.  

In the first category Taleb includes bureaucrats and politicians, consultants, theoreticians in academies, corporate executives, bankers and journalists who make predictions. In the second category he lists citizens, lab experimenters, authors, small business men, merchants and speculators. In the third category are knights, soldiers maverick scientists, artists, innovators and investigative journalists.

Taleb sees a growing trend of ‘experts’ transferring fragility to others and would welcome addressing asymmetries of risk, enforcing ‘skin in the game, as in the ancient Code of Hammurabi,  hmm … perhaps in some cases not quite so severely. According to the Hammurabi Code, fer example, bridge engineers were obliged ter sleep under their own bridges. In Catalonia, the tradition was ter behead a failed banker in front of his own bank! Skin in the game.

Taleb calls the phenomenon of causing harmful action without accountability the Stiglitz Syndrome after Joseph Stiglitz, who, unlike Nassim Taleb with his own skin in the game predicting Fannie Mae’s failure, made a public assessment that: ‘on the basis of historical experiences, the risk to the government from a potential deficit in GSE debt is effectively zero. (A/F p387.) Had Stiglitz been obliged to invest his own funds in Fannie Mae he might have been more critical. While the collapse of Fannie Mae cost the tax payers billions of dollars, Joseph Stiglitz, with selective amnesia, says Taleb, went on to publish an I told ya’  so book post Fannie Mae’s demise. Academics seem not designed to recall their failed predictions, think Erlich! Nassim Taleb is also critical of what he calls the talker’s free option, where a journalist like Thomas Friedman through his influential newspaper op-eds helped bring on the Iraq War, but paid no penalty and continues to write for the op-ed page of the New York Times.


In tricky Nature, actions can mean life or death. There’s an evolutionary argument here against institutional narratives that reward ‘ cheap tawk’ and favouring free enterprise, doers who succeed or fail by their own actions. In the latter case, regardin’ trial and error, failure comes at no cost to the public, while success may bring public benefits.

I’ll jest conclude with a comment by Faustino, that I posted in my first edition of Serf Under_ground Journal, reposted from Climate Etc 16/05/13 (10.25pm.)

‘As a policy economist, I’ve often said that we can’t sensibly make long-term economic forecasts or projections and that it is not sensible to base policy on them. A speech by Bank of England economist, Ben Broadbent notes that “even when we look only a year ahead, the unpredicted component in annual GDP growth – the noise’- has been significantly greater than the signal … the economy has always been volatile.” ‘
CE 16’/05/13 11.45 am.) ‘I have been an economic and policy adviser to UK, Australian and Queensland governments with a focus on drivers of economic growth and I have seen, time and time again, the dangers of high-spending, long-term government projects … A system which allows decentralized decision-making by those with skin in the game and relevant knowledge and expertise is likely to produce far better results and will be more adaptable when forecasts inevitably prove wrong.’


Varied Responses  to the Theme of Responsibility.

Philip Larkin.

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losers, loblolly-men, louts -
They don’t end as paupers.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all to well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad – like
Squats in me too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say its hard to lose either,
When you have both.


Creon: Now tell me, in as few words as you can,
Did you know the order forbidding such an act?

Antigone: I knew it, naturally. It was plain enough.

Creon: And yet you dared to contravene it?

Antigone: Yes.
That order did not come from God. Justice,
That dwells with the gods below, knows no such law.
I did not think your edicts strong enough
To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws
Of God and heaven, you  being only a man.
They are not of yesterday or to-day, but everlasting,
Though where they come from, none of us can tell.
Guilty of their transgression before God
I cannot be, for any man on earth.
I knew that I should have to die, of course,
With or without your order. If it be soon,
So much the better. Living in daily torment
As I do, who would not be glad to die?
This punishment will not be any pain.
Only if I had let my mother’s son
Lie there unburied, then I could not have borne it.
This I can bear. Does that seem foolish to you?
Or is it you that are foolish to judge me so?

Plato’s Crito.
A dialogue between Socrates and Crito on the question of  whether Socrates should escape his unjust sentence of death, as Crito urges, or accept the verdict:

Socrates: Well then, how can we consider the question most reasonably … Do we say that one must never willingly do wrong, or does it depend upon circumstances? Is it true as we have often agreed before, that there is no sense in which wrong doing is good or admirable? Or have we jettisoned all our former convictions in these last few days? Can you and I at our age, Crito, have spent all these years in serious discussions without realizing that we were no better than a pair of children? Surely the truth is just what we have always said. Whatever the popular view is, and whether the alternative is pleasanter than the present one or harder to bear, the fact remains that to do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonourable for the person who does it. Is that our view or not?

Crito: Yes, it is ….

Socrates: … Suppose that while we were preparing to run away from here (or however one should describe it) the laws and Constitution of Athens were to come and confront us and ask this question: ‘Now, Socrates, what are you proposing to do? Can you deny that by this act which you are contemplating you intend, so far as you have the power, to destroy us, the Laws and the whole State as well? Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgements which are pronounced in it have no force, but are nullified and destroyed by private persons? – how shall  answer this question, Crito, and others of the same kind? There is much that could be said by a professional advocate, to protest against the invalidation of this law which enacts that judgements once pronounced shall be binding. Shall I say ‘Yes I do intend to destroy the laws, because the State wronged me by passing a faulty judgement at my trial? Is this to be our answer or what?



On the tyranny of custom, nothing so outlandish, Montaigne observes, that cannot be demonstrated in public practice somewhere in the world. Hey, haven’t we all watched some of those exotic anthropology programs on the BBC?  In his essay, ‘ Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received’ Michel de Montaigne describes religious beliefs, systems of guvuhmint, marriage and burial rituals, attitudes ter women and education of children that seem absurd to us but not ter them. Close ter home, jest take a critical look at some of our own practices, food fads fer instance, and fashions in dress and adornment.

Herewith some extracts from Montaigne’s essay,’ Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received.’ … with a few serf comments thrown in.

On The Power of Custom.

‘He seems to have had a right and true apprehension of the power of custom, who first invented the story of a countrywoman who, having accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and daily continuing to do so as it grew up, obtained this by custom, that, when grown to a great ox, she was still able to bear it. For in truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She, by little and little, slyly and unperceived, slips in the foot of her authority, but having by this gentle and humble beginning, with the benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannic countenance, against which we have no more the courage or power so much as to lift our eyes.’

How much custom stupefies the senses is shown by ordinary experience; ‘ Smiths, millers, pewterers, forgemen and armorers could never be able to live in the perpetual noise of their own trades, did it strike their ears with the same violence that it does ours.’

‘But the effects of custom are much more manifest in the strange impressions she imprints in our minds, where she meets with less resistance. What has she not the power to impose upon our judgements and beliefs? Is there any so fantastic opinion (omitting the gross impostures of religions, with which we see so many great nations, and so many understanding men, so strangely besotted; for this being beyond the reach of human reason, any error is more excusable in such as are not endued, through the divine bounty with an extraordinary illumination from above), but, of other opinions, are there any so extravagant, that she has not planted and established for laws in those parts of the world upon which she has been pleased to exercise her power.’.

‘Barbarians are no more a wonder to us, than we are to them; nor with any more reason, as everyone would confess if after having travelled over those remote examples, men could settle themselves to reflect upon, and rightly to confer them with their own.’

Nature and Convention.

“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to derive from nature, proceed from custom; everyone, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received among his own people, cannot, without great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause …But the principle effect of its power is, so to seize and ensnare us, that it is hardly in us to disengage ourselves from its gripe, or so to come to ourselves, as to consider of and to weigh the things it enjoins. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow this track; and that common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine: from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is also believed to be off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably, for the most part, God knows.’

Concernin’ naychure and convention, I referred in my Fourth Edition of Serf Under _ ground Journal ter ancient Athens’ break with a past attitude of tribal societies, the belief that social customs are no different from natural regularities. This break with the past was the revolutionary insight by the first critical duelist, Protogoras, and by Socrates after him, that nature does not know norms, that social norms are man made.

In the first volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies’ Karl Popper attributes the break down of magical taboos ter the beginnings of sea communications and commerce in Athens. As population growth led Greece ter create new daughter cities, new cultural contacts undermined the feeling of necessity in which tribal attitudes had been viewed.

Tsk! As Montaigne, the rational pessimist describes, how easily we succumb ter the tyranny of the old tribal view, prescribed by religious certainties, poor education and parochial living. And jest as laws of conscience seem to be derived from nature, Montaigne observes that laws of government, likewise, are rarely subjected ter criticism:

‘Such people as have been bred up to liberty, and subject to no other dominion but the authority of their own will, look upon all other form of government as monstrous and contrary to nature. Those who are inured to monarchy do the same; and what opportunity soever fortune presents them with to change, even then, when the greatest difficulties they have disengaged themselves from one master that was troublesome and grievous to them, they presently run, with the same difficulties, to create another; being unable to take into hatred subjection itself.’

Hey, is that a mote in yer own eye ?

‘Whoever would disengage himself from this violent prejudice of custom, would find  several things received with absolute and undoubting opinion, that have no other support than the hoary head of custom. But the mask taken off, and things being referred to the decision of truth and reason, he will find his judgement as it were altogether overthrown, and yet restored to a much more sure estate. For example, I shall ask him, what can be more strange than to see a people obliged to obey laws that   they never understood; bound in all their domestic affairs, as marriages, donations, wills, sales and purchases to rules they cannot possibly know, being neither written nor published in their own language, and of which they are of necessity to purchase both the interpretation and the use? Not according to the ingenious opinion of Isocrates, who counselled his king to make the traffics and negotiations of his subjects, free, frank, and of profit to them, and their quarrels and disputes burdensome and laden with heavy impositions and penalties… I think myself obliged to fortune that, as our historians report, it was a Gascon gentleman, a countryman of mine, who first opposed Charlemagne, when he attempted to impose upon us Latin and imperial laws.’

Making us rather bear those ills we have …

‘And now to another point. It is a very great doubt, whether any so manifest benefit can accrue from  the alteration of a law received, let it be what it will, as there is danger and inconvenience in altering it; for as much as government is a structure composed of divers parts and members joined   and united together, with so strict connection, that it is impossible to stir so much as one brick or stone, but the whole body will be sensible of it.’

‘For my own part, I have a great aversion from novelty, what face or what pretence soever it may carry along with it, having been an eye witness of the great evils it has produced… And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high a concern, into the bowels of one’s own country… ‘who so ever shall take upon him to choose and alter, usurps the authority of judging and should look well about him and make it his business to discern clearly the defect of what he would abolish and the virtue of what he is about to introduce.’

‘So it is, nevertheless, that Fortune, still preserving her authority in defiance of whatever we are able to do or say, sometimes presents us with a necessity so urgent that ’tis requisite the laws should a little yield and give way … better to make laws do what they can when they cannot do what they would. After this manner did he who suspended them for twenty-and-four hours, and he who, for once shifted a day in the calendar, and that other who of the month of June made a second of May.’    

Say, maintaining stable guvuhmint was a matter of real concern fer Montaigne and fer Plato, one millennium earlier, as both men had experienced civil war. Plato writing ‘The Republic,’ sought to arrest all change, his perceived cause of all society’s ills, through his blueprint fer a Utopian hierarchical society ruled by a philosopher king.

Montaigne, the rational pessimist, was suspicious of any social engineering since change could so easily lead to new and unforseen disorders. Better ter stay with the present system than risk the public peace be overthrown, introducing  as he said, the ‘many inevitable mischiefs and a dreadful corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train.’

Considering suffering, as serfs do, and considering that laws are man made as Protogoras claimed, I’d say it is our business ter improve them if we find them objectionable. But serfs, living on the littoral ‘n such, are suspicious of sweeping changes likely ter affect the food supply. Serfs have experience of famine. As opposed ter utopian engineering of society, demanding strong centralizing rule and likely dictatorship, serfs go along with piecemeal engineering, a method of identifying and reforming specific social ills and introducing cautious changes that can be tested, altered or revoked in law. Modest reforms are less risky than sweeping changes, because one thing we do know, you and me, and that is we jest ain’t good at predictin’ consequences and black swan events … And I’m gonna’ leave it there.   




 “…thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.”

The still youthful Dr. Wynn – attentive, defensive – eyed the elderly patient who sat before him. If this man resembled any previous patient of the institute, then Dr. Wynn could not remember whom. In his blithe composure, Mr. Ashe could almost be a senior and retired colleague on visit from, say, Austria. Yet he was suffering the most extravagant and vividly detailed delusions.

Now he was requesting a recorded consultation – through paranoia, through grandeur?

The old man’s manner, so practical, so downright venerable, was in sharp contrast to his actual condition. That made things easier in some ways, harder in others.

“Mr. Ashe, there is no reason why we can’t record our consultation, yet there is no reason to do so either…”

“Dr. Wynn, please indulge me. I know that my account of my life seems fanciful, and gives ample justification for my admission to your institute. Yet, if you will allow me to repeat it here in just a little more detail – I won’t take much of your time – you will certainly come to see the purpose of the recording. It is not to be a video record, merely voice.”

“Easily done.” Dr Wynn fiddled to set his computer for recording. “Please, Mr. Ashe, proceed. We have a few minutes.”

“Thank you. I’ll be brief.”


I was born a Jew in Egypt shortly before Queen Cleopatra’s dalliance with Julius Caesar, which gradually allowed that extraordinary lady to confirm her power over Egypt. I was very young when she poisoned her young brother – and husband! – Ptolemy, to become undisputed queen. Can one refer to a woman and Greek as a pharaoh? Certainly, she deserved the title.

I know, Doctor. I’m rambling already.

As a youth whose father was a minor royal physician, I had the great luck to grow up around the court of Alexandria. Sometimes I was included in the feasting and entertainments, when Mark Antony and the queen delighted and scandalised the world with their extravagance.

Alexandrian nights! Never again such refined abandonment, never again, such study of the sensual. I smell it even now, weakly, when newly poured wine is placed near flowers on a warm evening. Ah, but so weakly now…I had my youth, Dr. Wynn!

My father and I were on one of Antony’s vessels which was wrecked in that last battle, at Actium. My father perished, I swam ashore – to nothing.

So began my wanderings. Not knowing what fate awaited me under Octavian in the newly annexed Egypt, I began to wander around the gulf of Ambracia, then north, then east. Because I had acquired an educated manner as well as a true foundation in medical matters, I was able to practice and earn as I advanced. It was natural for a curious young man to go east, and still more natural for a Jew. My identity changed to that of a mature professional. Octavian, now Emperor Augustus, more wise than cruel, would never have cared that my father had been a physician to his enemy.

Still, I wandered, established no family, made brief friendships only to be torn away by unexpected problems or opportunities. It puzzled me, this lifelong ananke, this necessity or compulsion, which seemed at work even then, in my first century of life, to move me along.

I only settled among those of my own religion in old age. Far away in Rome, Tiberius was emperor. At eighty, I was an almost retired physician living in Jerusalem. There, as I emerged one day from a shoemaker’s shop, a trivial event, to which I paid little attention at the time, was to bring about a peculiar physical change in me. Or so I think. So trivial was the matter, that if it were not for subsequent rumour and myth-mongering, I should have trouble remembering it. In fact, there is so little to tell of the moment, that I shall leave it aside.

Nonetheless, I seemed to stop aging after the age of eighty, whatever the cause. It was something I scarcely noticed at first; soon I was to regard it as  a blessing, for, not only did I not age in any visible way, my health and energy were stable.

My history after these years are the history of my race. In a word, survival in dispersion. I have been over and about the whole world, Dr. Wynn, and experienced most things – but not death. There you have it: my madness.

Over centuries, working still as medical man, but often as labourer or scholar or teacher, I wandered.

Briefly in the service of the emperor Hadrian, as a consultant in antiquities, some force made me whisper to him: “Enough war”. Those were not my words, rather my message, which was conveyed…Well, you’ll see how my message is conveyed.

At the time of which I speak, the stabilising of empire by Hadrian and his successors was undertaken. To think that I lived through that great Roman peace under him and Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius! How I relished those far-flung friendships and untroubled journeys over half a world, with a single language and currency. Peace seemed an automatic thing then. I alone knew that nothing, however durable in appearance, lasts longer than its moment.

When I speak of knowing emperors, do not think I have the power to approach and persuade the great. I have the power to find words when some force lets me confirm what an enlightened man or woman has already conceived. How I often come near to exalted persons is as mysterious to me as is my lack of mortality. Remember also that it is not only the exalted with whom I have such contacts.

I was not always a Jew. In France, I was never Jewish, for some reason. When the great monastic movement of Cluny began, I was fortunate to be a respected monk who had the ear of Duke William. What a joy to see Cluny flower, its ideas coursing like new sap into an awakening Europe. Then the sap congealed. What became of Cluny is what becomes of all institutions. Those who are shocked by the demise of Pan-Am or Polaroid should try living as long as I have lived!

And even while Cluny decayed, as a chief pharmacist and lay brother, I was able to watch over the birth of the Cistercians. Ah, the spirit of Cîteaux: discipline which leads to the cultivation of the stubbornest mind and soil. (I was very recently able to transmit my experience of Cîteaux to the kibbutzniks.) Yes, when Clairvaux was just a bare valley, it was I who whispered “Reform, make new” to the illustrious Bernard. Yet he was ready for the word. I change nothing on my own.

Whether to the famous or the obscure, it was always “Reform, make new” which I whispered: the idea, if not the words. Nothing lasts. Make the best and watch it decay. So reform, reform and reform again! As the centuries pass, I find it is my story which convinces best, when believed or just part-believed. As I soak up experience of constant decay and reform, it is my simple story which carries the message, rather than a philosophical discourse.

In the fiercely independent strongholds of half-barren Tuscany, in Lucca, in Siena, I toiled – don’t think me greedy – for a new economic way called capitalism. Empire, slavery and the manor would not give way quickly to this new spirit, nor would that new spirit reside long in Italy. But there, where men called me Lombard rather than Jew, there your economic world was born. Don’t thank me yet.

I was always a Jew in Spain. (Strangely, if I have a country, it is Spain.) When the counts of Castile looked over their empty territorial gains after the Muslim tide surged back, it was population and thus trade which they needed. I became a fosterer of trade, above all, in those slowly rejuvenated borderlands. Religion was in excess, war had been the norm. So I put aside war and religion and traded, confected. I personally taught those western Castilians, who spoke a kind of Portuguese, to make hams and pastries from the meat and fat of beef, till the product was sought out by all, Christian or Jew. They still pay more for those products than for the pork equivalent!

On the bare meseta, along old Roman roads of Trajan (whom I’d met nine hundred years before), the east-west trade came and went. Dissecting this line, through Burgos, passed wool and other riches between north and south. I was even at the ocean’s edge, to haggle with shy Maragato traders, mysterious little race of both mountain and sea! How I loved Spain! My all too brief years in the Juderia of Segovia! What stern elegance!

Truly, I think I am a Spaniard, if I am of any nation. As we prospered there, so we Jews became hated. Soon Spain could afford intellectuals and dogma and regulation. We were dispersed. Trade withered, even as gold poured pointlessly in from the New World.

I passed on to the north of Europe, to Germany and Poland and beyond.

Sometimes I found an ear, to which I could whisper my message. More often, of course, I did not. But among protestants of the north, wherever men were breaking free of remote authority and absentee landlords, I was able to help transplant a little that capitalist spirit which took root first in Italy. I have no power of my own. I speak to the disposed.

When I drifted to the New World – now you will see how fanciful I can be, if your diagnosis of delusions is correct – I was no longer merely a capitalist and protestant. I was also a Quaker! I was actually whipped behind a cart for my abolitionist views! Normally, I avoid such scenes, and I have no idea what purpose was served by the unpleasantness. Perhaps there was an onlooker on that day who was to be impressed by my bloodied back. Luckily, I heal well.

And when I first came here to Australia, as a shrewd Yorkshire cloth merchant, I was able to catch the ear of Governor Macquarie. He was in a wretched state, and would remain in a wretched state. Frustration, opposition and guilt over his own brutality and errors were gnawing at him. But I was able to confirm him in his intention to overstep, to defy, to make this country an abruptly formed, rough-hewn nation for all its inhabitants, rather than a plantation for remote investors.

The thought was his, the governor’s. I merely whispered a confirmation by telling him my story. By this point, lessons and discussion were seldom needed. People like stories, Dr. Wynn. After so many centuries, it is now mostly just the story. Questioning men can find their answers somewhere in my past, now it is such a long past.

You’ll wonder how I persuade such active, practical people of the truth of my immortality. Soon you will see how.

Doctor Wynn, I could go on. You are a man of extended interests, and I sense that the history element of my account is actually entertaining you a little. Such breadth of mind bodes well in a scientist – in this age of the computer model and the facile statistic.

I don’t always tell my story with impunity, but in the era of psychiatry, for example, where there is no risk of torture or incineration as a magus…the worst that can happen to me is hospital food and a forced rest? I’ll risk that.

But I can also see that the practical man in you is resisting the spell. I would expect no less. I am a physician myself. This is the end of the interview, is it not?

Before we end, can I ask you to do something? I’m aware that you have not recorded our conversation. No. Please don’t excuse yourself. I’m a doctor too. Having assumed I am mad, you have merely humoured me. You have also assumed that an elderly man has no knowledge of the advanced aspects of computers. But you know what they say about Jews and IQ! No, it doesn’t matter. I simply ask you to hit any key on your computer after I am gone from this room. You can hardly avoid it, I suppose! I’m not sure it will work, but, after long experience, I sense it will. There will be a recording of my voice, though you are shaking your head a little skeptically.

And now, Doctor Wynn, if you would not mind lending me a copy of your own published work on trauma and delusion. It’s just behind you, on that higher shelf, is it not? I shall treat it carefully.


Doctor Wynn thought for a moment, then decided to lend the book to the old man. The response of Mr. Ashe to his text might well constitute a type of research. He turned, reached up, took the book, and turned back to his patient.

But Mr. Ashe was no longer there.

For a few minutes, the doctor patrolled his room, even looking under furniture and into cupboards. No sign.

Next he opened the door to his rooms, and asked his secretary, Mrs Gibbs:

“Did Mr. Ashe come past here?”

“Mr. Ashe?”

“My elderly patient, Mr. Ashe. Has he passed?”

“Has he entered?”

“Of course he entered. Did he come out?”

“Doctor, I remember a Mr. Ashe among the patients. But…no, I can’t recall him coming to your rooms.”

Doctor Wynn was never impatient or sharp with staff. He simply went tense, muttered a vague “thanks”, then went back inside.

Now he tried to find the old man in earnest, even checking windows, which were hermetically sealed in the air-conditioned premises.

He slumped against his desk and thought, while his eyes prowled still. At last he walked round the desk to his keyboard. A hesitant finger paused over the Y key, as if it were explosive, then he depressed it.


By now, doctor, you will have sought me and not found me. You will have noted that I have only left behind a vague memory of me in your staff and patients. Had you tried to record my account of my life, you should have recorded nothing, except these words I now utter. And there will be no record of these words, except in your mind.

Please do not think that I am in control of any of this, or that I am endowed with special knowledge. I am a man, I am real, I was really here. What I have is a story, that is necessarily more compelling with time and the aggregation of new experiences. I am the Past, I am History and I have a purpose.

I was not the patient. You were my client. Yes, you were meant to hear my story. The reason is not clear to me, since I am not in charge of this force, this destiny. Through my story, I am meant to whisper something to you, the same thing as to all the others: Reform and make new. But the nature of that reform is unknown to me, especially since I was only meant to be with you briefly. With my next client, I may live and work twenty years, and I may never tell him or her my story. Sometimes I am to acquire new experience laboriously, since I am still a human, with the common human burdens of learning and blundering. Sometimes I tell my tale and I am gone in minutes. Mostly, now, it is just the tale. People so like stories!

I have made a guess. I have guessed that the human mind will be the subject of study in the coming age. Its capabilities, its disorders, its contradictions will soon be examined in the light of parallel new knowledge: artificial intelligence, physiology, accelerated evolution…but what do I know? It is time for old things to be proven wrong before new things are assumed right before those new things are old and proven wrong. This I know, because it never changes.

My guess is that you will be at the centre of this explosion of research and interest, which will dwarf the efforts of the twentieth century in the field of mind. My story is meant to correct and balance, but only you can determine how. Reform. Make new.

Is it the spiritual that will be lacking? Not necessarily. I am no God botherer. Neither is God a New Ager. Perhaps you just need to know that the immediately visible and ascertainable are not truth, they are merely what they are. They are good enough in their cramped way, but they are not truth. It is extraordinary how many men who call themselves scientists lack this most fundamental of understandings. The eclipse of so many hard-held theories never gives them pause, as they rush to publish and dogmatise anew. Now they have computers!

That you should advance patiently without hubris. That you should gape at the black enormity of what you can never know…and still advance. This is my best guess at why you have been made my client. But look more to my story than to this sketchy interpretation. Reform. Make new.

I am a kind of midwife, placed where there is great groaning, a great pregnancy of the spirit. The stiff, habituated mind resists. And that is when I whisper, as I whisper to you now: Make change, Dr. Wynn.

Make change and yet do not be changeful. The changeful mind is peevish, unobservant, claiming certainty, rushing ahead of change. Do not love the novel, because it will too soon be stale again. Let all things ripen, fall in their time, and then…make new! Observe the time. Be watchful by the vat and kiln. Let every brew ferment and expend its bubbles and its warmth. Let every kiln cool slowly, so slowly…Ah, but then seize, act, control, exert!

This is what I have learned, and what you needed to hear.

Please believe I was actually here. I, History. I, the Past. How you interpret my words is up to you. But my words are, as always: Reform and make new!

Everything decays. Everything! You must reform and make new!

I have a real name, not Ashe, though I have gradually ceased to use it since a chilly spring day in Jerusalem.

You see, as I walked out of a bootmaker’s shop in my eightieth year, I stumbled across an execution procession. The Romans were the most extraordinary mix of the brutal and refined. Crucifixion may seem coarse, yet consider! After a messy and showy preparation, a victim dies by toxic shock or suffocated by his own weight at a very slow rate, even over days. So Roman.

The victim in this procession would not last days, so appalling was his state. As he chose to rest right in front of me, I, as physician, simply said: “Go quicker, fatigue yourself, lose blood and end it sooner!”. My comment has been reported as a complaint at having my way obstructed, but it was not so. Quite the contrary.

Yet it really does not matter whether I was impatient or compassionate. The victim said something like: “I shall indeed hasten, but you will stay till the end of the world.” I took that to be a delirious comment, thought little of it, and removed myself from the pitiful scene.

It was a brief occurrence, to be put out of mind, since I am not the type to linger over painful spectacles. And I do not now regard myself as having been cursed. Knowing now who that victim was, it seems unlikely that he would be interested in cosmic paybacks and ironies. Rather, it seems to me that this was always to be my lot: a life of wandering and a life which does not end. Some people would like that! For me, it is just my role. As the Greeks of my youth might say: it is ananke, it is necessity. And, through this ananke, I say this final time: Reform and make new!

I am History. I am the Past.

I am Ahasuerus, of whom you may know, mistily, through distorted legend.

I am the Wandering Jew.