Fitting that our episode about sacrifice lands on Mother’s Day. I love you mom.
These are really long but each is great. Maybe printing them out would be worthwhile (I personally can’t read shit on the internet, not anything longer than 300 words). Which makes me a hypocrite.
1930s, Pacific Grove, California
John Steinbeck is most known for his Grapes of Wrath, a book that has nothing to do with angry, personified stone fruit. His contribution to American letters continued brightly until his death in 1962, including this non-fiction below.
The Depression was no financial shock to me. I didn’t have any money to lose, but in common with millions I did dislike hunger and cold. I had two assets. My father owned a tiny three-room cottage in Pacific Grove in California, and he let me live in it without rent. That was the first safety. Pacific Grove is on the sea. That was the second. People in inland cities or in the closed and shuttered industrial cemeteries had greater problems than I. Given the sea a man must be very stupid to starve. That great reservoir of food is always available. I took a large part of my protein food from the ocean. Firewood to keep warm floated on the beach daily, needing only handsaw and ax. A small garden of black soil came with the cottage. In northern California you can raise vegetables of some kind all year long. I never peeled a potato without planting the skins. Kale, lettuce, chard, turnips, carrots and onions rotated in the little garden. In the tide pools of the bay, mussels were available and crabs and abalones and that shiny kelp called sea lettuce. With a line and pole, blue cod, rock cod, perch, sea trout, sculpin could be caught.
I must drop the “I” for “we” now, for there was a fairly large group of us poor kids, all living alike. We pooled our troubles, our money when we had some, our inventiveness, and our pleasures. I remember it as a warm and friendly time. Only illness frightened us. You have to have money to be sick- or did then. And dentistry also was out of the question, with the result that my teeth went badly to pieces. Without dough you couldn’t have a tooth filled.
It seems odd now to say that we rarely had a job. There just weren’t any jobs. One girl of our group had a job in the Woman’s Exchange. She wasn’t paid, but the cakes that had passed their salable prime she got to take home and of course she shared so that we were rarely without dry but delicious cakes. Being without a job, I went on writing- books, essays, short stories. Regularly they went out and just as regularly came back. Even if they had been good, they would have come back because publishers were hardest hit of all. When people are broke, the first things they give up are books. I couldn’t even afford postage on the manuscripts. My agents, McIntosh and Otis, paid it, although they couldn’t sell my work. Needless to say, they are still my agents, and most of the work written at that time has since been published.
403 BCE, Athens.
Xenophon was a soldier and historian long before academic standards. Born in Athens, he grew to love and favor Spartan society. His Hellenica is both a history of his own life and the latter part of the Peloponnesian War.
As the enemy were coming forward, Thrasybulus told his men to ground their shields. Then, putting down his own shield, but otherwise fully armed, he spoke to them as follows, standing in the center of the line: ‘Fellow citizens, I want to remind some of you and to inform others that those on the right wing of the enemy’s advance are the men whom four days ago you defeated and put to flight. Now for the extreme left. Yes, that is where the Thirty are, the men who robbed us of our city though we have done nothing wrong, the men who drove us out of our homes and who, by their proscriptions, have victimized our dearest friends. And now they find themselves just where they never expected to be and just where we used to pray that they would be. For we are face to face with them and we have arms in our hands. In the past we were seized and arrested when we were asleep, or eating our meals or going about our business in the market; we were exiled when we have not only done nothing wrong but were not even in the city. And because of this the gods are quite evidently on our side now. In the middle of fair weather they send us a snowstorm to help us, and when we attack, few against many, it is we who are granted the right to set up the trophies. So now they have brought us to a position where these enemies of ours, because they are advancing uphill, cannot throw their spears and javelins over the heads of the front ranks, while we, with spears javelins and stones all thrown downhill, cannot miss our mark and are certain to inflict casualties. One might have thought that at least with their front rank we should have to fight on even terms. But in fact we have only got to do the right thing and let our weapons fly with full force, and not one of us will miss his man, since the whole road is packed with them. They will be cowering under their shields trying to keep out of the way, so that you will be able to thrust at them wherever you like, as though they were blind men, and then leap in on them and cut them down.
‘And now, my friends, I want each one of you to act so that afterwards he will know that he was the man who won the victory. For this, please God, will be a victory that will give us back our country, our homes, our freedom, our honor and, for those who have them, our wives and children. Happy indeed will those of us be who, after the victory, will see the light of the gladdest day of our lives. Fortunate, too, will be the man who dies; for no one, however rich, could acquire for himself so splendid a memorial.
‘Now at the right moment I shall strike up the paean, and when we call on the War God, then let us all be of one mind, and let us make these men suffer for the insolent wrong that they have done to us.’
After saying this he turned about to face the enemy. As yet he made no move, because the prophet had told them not to attack until one of their own number was either killed or wounded. ‘When that has happened, however,’ he had said, ‘we shall lead you on. You will follow and victory will be yours. But for me, so far as I can see, it will be death.’
His prophecy came true. When they had taken up their shields, he, inspired, it seems, by some kind of fate, sprang forward in front of them, fell upon the enemy and was killed. He lies buried at the ford of the Cephisus.
Jeanette Winterson was born in England in 1959. Her novels make me think of a dream written by an automated hand bent on beauty and precision. This excerpt comes from The Passion, which is set in Napoleonic Europe. Dedicated to Sasha.
The astute gambler always keeps something back, something to play with another time; a pocket watch, a hunting dog. But the Devil’s gambler keeps back something previous, something to gamble with only once in a lifetime. Behind the secret panel he keeps it, the valuable, fabulous thing that no one suspects he has.
I knew a man like that; not a drunkard sniffing after every wager nor an addict stripping the clothes off his back rather than go home. A thoughtful man who they say had trade with gold and death. He lost heavily, as gamblers do; he won surprisingly, as gamblers do, but he never showed much emotion, never led me to suspect that much important was at stake. A hobbyist, I thought, dismissing him. You see, I like passion, I like to be among the desperate.
I was wrong to dismiss him. He was waiting for the wager that would seduce him into risking what he valued. He was a true gambler, he was prepared to risk the valuable, fabulous thing but not for a dog or a cock or the casual dice.
On a quiet evening, when the tables were half empty and the domino sets lay in their boxes, he was there, wandering, fluttering, drinking and flirting.
I was bored.
Then a man came into the room, not one of our regulars, not one any of us knew, and after a few half-hearted games of chance he spied this figure and engaged him in conversation. They talked for upwards of half an hour and so intently that we thought they must be old friends and lost our curiosity in the assumption of habit. But the rich man with his strangely bowed companion by his side asked leave to make an announcement, a most remarkable wager, and we cleared the central floor and let him speak.
It seemed that his companion, this stranger, had come from the wastes of the Levant, where exotic lizards breed and all is unusual. In his country, no man bothered with paltry fortunes at the gaming table, they played for higher stakes.
The wager was a life. The winner should take the life of the loser in whatsoever way he chose. However slowly he chose, with whatever instruments he chose. What was certain was that only one life would be spared.
Our rich friend was clearly excited. His eyes looked past the faces and tables of the gaming room into a space we could not inhabit; into the space of pain and loss. What could it matter to him that he might lose fortunes?
He had fortunes to lose.
What could it matter to him that he might lose mistresses?
There are women enough.
What would it matter to him that he might lose his life?
He had one life. He cherished it.
There were those that night who begged him not to go on with it, who saw a sinister aspect in this unknown old man, who were perhaps afraid of being made the same offer and of refusing.
What you risk reveals what you value.
These were the terms.
A game of three.
The first, the roulette, where only fate is queen.
The second, the cards, where skill has some part.
The third, the dominos, where skill is paramount and chance is there in disguise.
Will she wear your colours?
This is the city of disguises.
The terms were agreed and strictly supervised. The winner was two out of three or in the event of some onlooker crying Nay! A tie, chosen at random, by the manager of the Casino.
The terms seemed fair. More than fair in this cheating world, but there were still some who felt uneasy about the unknown man, unassuming and unthreatening as he seemed.
If the Devil plays dice, will he come like this?
Will he come so quietly and whisper in our ear?
If he came as an angel of light, we should be immediately on our guard.
The word was given: Play on.
We drank throughout the first game, watching the red and black spin under our hands, watching the bright streak of metal dally with one number, then another, innocent of win or lose. At first it seemed as tough our rich friend must win, but at the last moment the all sprang out of its slot and spun again with that dwindling sickening sound that marks the last possible change.
The wheel came to rest.
It was the stranger whom fortune loved.
There was a moment’s silence, we expected some sign, some worry on one part, some satisfaction on another, but with faces of wax, the two men got up and walked to the optimistic baize. The cards. No man knows what they may hold. A man must trust his hand.
Swift dealing. These were accustomed to the game.
They played for perhaps an hour and we drank. Drank to keep our lips wet, our lips that dried every time a card fell and the stranger seemed doomed to victory. There was an odd sense in the room that the stranger must not win, that for all our sakes he must lose. We willed our rich friend to weld his wits with his luck and he did.
At the cards, he won and they were even.
The two men met each other’s gaze for a moment before they seated themselves in front of the dominoes and in each face was something of the other. Our rich friend had assumed a more calculating expression, while his challenger’s face was more thoughtful, less wolfish than before.
It was clear from the start that they were evenly matched at this game too. They played deftly, judging the gaps and the numbers, making lightning calculations, baffling each other. We had stopped drinking. There was neither sound nor movement save the clicking of the dominoes on the marble table.
It was past midnight. I heard the water lapping at the stones below. I heard my saliva in my throat. I heard the dominoes clicking on the marble table.
There were no dominoes left. No gaps.
The stranger had won.
The two men stood up simultaneously, shook hands. Then the rich man placed his hands on the marble, and we saw they were shaking. Fine comfortable hands that were shaking. The stranger noticed and with a little smile suggested they complete the terms of their wager.
None of us spoke up, none of us tried to stop him. Did we want it to happen? Did we hope that one life might substitute for many?
I do not know our motives, I only know that we were silent.
This was the death: dismemberment piece by piece beginning with the hands.
The rich man nodded almost imperceptibly and, bowing to us, left in the company of the stranger. We heard nothing more, never saw either of them again, but one day, months later, when we had comforted ourselves that it was a joke, that they had parted at the corner, out of sight, given each other a fright, nothing more, we received a pair of hands, manicured and quite white, mounted on green baize in a glass case. Between the finger and thumb of the left was a roulette ball and between the finger and the thumb of the right, a domino.
The manager hung the case on the wall and there it hangs today.
Roland Barthes is so French. Just read him. He was dead the moment his pen hit the page. So am I.
The Tour [de France] possesses an ambiguous ethic: certain knightly imperatives constantly mingle with the brutal demands of the pure spirit of success. It is an ethic which cannot or will not choose between the commendation of devotion and the necessities of empiricism. A racer’s sacrifice to his team’s success, whether self-generated or imposed by an arbiter (the technical director), is always exalted, but always argued as well. Sacrifice is great, noble, testifies to a moral plenitude in the exercise of a team sport, of which it is the great justification; but it also contradicts another value necessary to the complete legend of the Tour: realism. There is no place for sentiment in the Tour, this is the law which enlivens the spectacle’s interest. Here the knightly ethic is perceived as the risk of a possible submission to fate; the Tour resolutely rejects anything which might seem to affect in advance the naked, brutal risks of combat. The die is not cast, the Tour is a confrontation of characters, it requires a morality of the individual, of solitary combat for life: the journalists’ problem and preoccupation is to contrive for the Tour an uncertain future: throughout the 1955 Tour, protests were made against the general belief that Bobet was certain to win. But the Tour is also a sport, it requires an ethic of the collectivity. It is this contradiction, in truth one never resolved, which obliges the legend constantly to discuss and to explain the sacrifice, to recall each time the generous ethic which sustains it. It is because sacrifice as a sentimental value that it must tirelessly be justified.
Here the technical director plays an essential role: he guarantees the link between end and means, conscience and pragmatism; he is the dialectical element that unites in a single laceration the reality of evil and its necessity: Marcel Bidot is a specialist in these Cornelian situations which require the sacrifice, in one and the same team, of one racer to another, sometimes even, which is even more tragic, of one brother to another (Jean to Louison Bobet). Indeed, Bidot exists only as the real image of a necessity of an intellectual order, and which, for this reason, in a universe by nature emotional, requires independent personification. Labor is carefully divided: for each group of ten racers, there must be a pure mind, whose role, moreover, is in no way privileged, for here the intelligence is functional, its only task is to represent to the public the strategic nature of the competition: Marcel Bidot is therefore reduced to the person of a meticulous analyst, his role is to mediate.
This mediation of the intelligence between the pure ethic of sacrifice and the harsh law of success translates a composite mental order, at once utopian and realistic, consisting of vestiges of a very old ethic, feudal or tragic, and of new requirements proper to the world of total competition. It is in this ambiguity that the essential signification of the Tour consists: the masterly amalgam of the two alibis, idealist and realist, permits the legend to mask perfectly, with a veil at once honorable and exciting, the economic determinisms of our great epic.
Viktor E. Frankl, father of Logotherapy and Holocaust survivor, contends that it’s our (main) task to find and create meaning in this blustery vacuum of an existence.
It had been a bad day. On parade, an announcement had been made about the many actions that would, from then on, be regarded as sabotage and therefore punishable by immediate death by hanging. Among these were crimes such as cutting small strips from our old blankets (in order to improvise ankle supports) and very minor “thefts”. A few days previously a semi-starved prisoner had broken into the potato store to steal a few pounds of potatoes. The theft had been discovered and some prisoners had recognized the “burglar”. When the camp authorities heard about it they ordered that the guilty man be given up to them or the whole camp would starve for a day. Naturally the 2,500 men preferred to fast.
On the evening of this day of fasting we lay in our earthen huts- in a very low mood. Very little was said and every word sounded irritable. Then, to make matters even worse, the light went out. Tempters reached their lowest ebb. But our senior block warden was a wise man. He improvised a little talk about all that was on our minds at that moment. He talked about the many comrades who had died in the last few days, either of sickness or suicide. But he also mentioned what may have been the real reason for their deaths: giving up hope. He maintained that there should be some way of preventing possible future victims from reaching this extreme state. And it was to me that the warden pointed to give this advice.
God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons- to offer my comrades a kind of medical care of their souls. I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired, but I had to make the effort and use this unique opportunity. Encouragement was no more necessary than ever.
So I began by mentioning the most trivial of comforts first. I said that even in this Europe in the sixth winter of the Second World War, our situation was not the most terrible we could think of. I said that each of us had to ask himself what irreplaceable losses he had suffered up to then. I speculated that for most of them these losses had really been few. Whoever was still alive had reason for hope. Healthy, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society- all that could be achieved again or restored. After all, we still had our bones intact. Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future. And I quoted from Nietzsche: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich staerker.” (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger).
Then I spoke about the future. I said that o the impartial the future must seem hopeless. I agreed that each of us could guess for himself how small were his chances of survival. I told them that although there was still no typhus epidemic in the camp, I estimated my own chances at about one in twenty. But I also told them that, in spite of this, I had no intention of losing hope and giving up. For no man knew what the future would bring, much less the next hour. Even if we could not expect any sensational military events in the next few days, who knew better than we, with our experience of camps, how great chances sometimes opened up, quite suddenly, at least for the individual. For instance, one might be attached unexpectedly to a special group with exceptionally good working conditions- for this was the kind of thing which constituted the “luck” of the prisoner.
But I did not only talk of the future and the veil which was drawn over it. I also mentioned the past; all its joys, and how its light shone even in the present darkness. Again I quoted a poet- to avoid soundling like a preacher myself- who had written, “Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.” (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.) Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
Then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades (who lay motionless, although occasionally a sigh could be heard) that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours- a riend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God- and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly- not miserably- knowing how to die.
And finally I spoke of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. It was in the nature of this sacrifice that it should appear to be pointless in the normal world, the world of material success. But in reality our sacrifice did have a meaning. Those of us who had any religious faith, I said frankly, could understand without difficulty. I told them of a comrade who on his arrival in camp had tried to make a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that.