Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (37 page)

The writer looked at the Class of ’50 with a kind of despair—and something like terror, too. Because if they came to run things, experience wouldn’t merely modify them and steady them. It would harden them like an old man’s arteries. It would mean more-of-the-same until they’d be living in a completely unreal world of their own with no real way of communicating with the rest of us. Growing and changing and trying new ways would only frighten them. They’d have the power, and what they’d use it for would be to suppress growth and change, not knowing that societies need growth and change—to live, just like trees or babies or art or science. So all he could see ahead was a solid, silent, prosperous standstill—and then some sudden and total collapse, like a tree gone to dry rot.

Well I don’t know what you think of all this—or if you understand how hard it hit me. But I’ve tried to explain to you how all my life I’ve been plagued by these—well, I call them wonderments—how, when something makes no sense, it kind of hurts. When I was a toddler I couldn’t sleep for wanting someone to tell me why a wet towel is darker than a dry one when water has no color. In grade school nobody could tell me why the sound of a falling bomb gets, lower and lower in pitch as it approaches the ground, when by all the laws of physics it ought to rise. And in high school I wouldn’t
buy the idea about a limitation on the velocity of light. (And I still don’t.) About things like these I’ve never lost faith that somebody, some day, would come up with an answer that would satisfy me—and sure enough, from time to, time somebody does. But when I was old enough to wonder why smart people do dumb things that kind of faith could only last so long. And I began to feel that there was some other factor, or force, at work.

Do you remember
Gulliver’s Travels?
When he was in Lilliput there was a war between the Lilliputians and another nation of little people—I forget what they called themselves—and Gulliver intervened and ended the war. Anyway, he researched the two countries and found they had once been one. And he tried to find out what caused so many years of bitter enmity between them after they split. He found that there had been two factions in that original kingdom—the Big Endians and the Little Endians. And do you know where that started? Far back in their history, at breakfast one morning, one of the king’s courtiers opened his boiled egg at the big end and another told him that was wrong, it should be opened at the small end! The point Dean Swift was making is that from such insignificant causes grow conflicts that can last centuries and kill thousands. Well, he was near the thing that’s plagued me all my life, but he was content to say it happened that way. What blowtorches me is—
why. Why
are human beings capable of hating each other over such trifles? Why, when an ancient triviality is proved to be the cause of trouble, don’t people just stop fighting?

But I’m off on wars again—I guess because when you’re talking about stupidity, wars give you too many good examples. So tell me—why, when someone’s sure to die of an incurable disease and needs something for pain—why don’t they give him heroin instead of morphine? Is it because heroin’s habit-forming? What difference could that possibly make? And besides, morphine is, too. I’ll tell you why—it’s because heroin makes you feel wonderful and morphine makes you feel numb and gray. In other words, heroin’s fun (mind you, I’m talking about terminal cases, dying in agony, not normally healthy people) and morphine is not—and if it’s fun, there must be something evil or wrong about it. A dying man is not supposed to be made
to feel good. And laws that keep venereal disease from being recognized and treated; and laws against abortion; and all the obscenity statutes—right down at the root these are all anti-pleasure laws. Would you like the job of explaining that to a man from Mars, who hadn’t been brought up with them? He couldn’t follow reasoning like that any more than he could understand why we have never designed a heat engine—which is essentially what an internal combustion engine is—that can run without a cooling system—a system designed to dissipate heat!

And lots more.

So maybe you see what happened to me when I read the article about the Class of ’50. The article peaked a tall pyramid inside me, brought everything to a sharp point.

“Have you a pencil?” said the young man. All this time and he hadn’t yet lost the dazed look. I guess it was hard to blame him. “Pens are no good on paper napkins,” he said.

I handed him my felt-tip. “Try this.”

He tried it. “Hey, this is great. This is really keen.” A felt-tip does fine on paper napkins. He studied it as if he had never seen such a thing before. “Really keen,” he said again. Then he drew this:

“Yinyang,” I said. “Right?”

He nodded. “One of the oldest symbols on Earth. Then you know what it means.”

“Well, some anyway. All opposites—life and death, light and dark, male and female, heavy and light—anything that has an opposite.”

“That’s it,” he said. “Well, let me show you something.” Using another napkin, folded in two, as a straight edge, he laid it across the symbol.

“You see, if you were to travel in a straight line across a diameter—any diameter—you’d have to go on both black and white
somewhere along the way. You can’t go all the way on just one color without bending the line or going a short way, less than the diameter.

“Now let’s say this circle is the board on which the game of human affairs is played. The straight line can be any human course—a life, a marriage, a philosophy, a business. The optimum course is a full diameter, and that’s what most people naturally strive for; a few might travel short chords or bent ones—sick ones. Most people can and do travel the diameter. For each person, life, marriage, whatever, there’s a different starting point and a different arrive point, but if they travel the one straight line that goes through the center, they will travel black country exactly as much as white, ying as much as yang.… The balance is perfect, no matter which way you go. Got it?”

“I see what you mean,” I said. “Your coffee’s cold.”

“So’s yours. Now look: suppose some force came along and shifted one of these colors away from the center point, like this—” And he drew again.

We studied his drawing. He drew well and quickly.

He said, “You see, if the shift were gradual, then from the very second it began there would be some people—some lives, philosophies—who would no longer have that perfect balance between black and white, between ying and yang. Nothing wrong with the course they traveled—they still aim for the very center and pass on through.

“And if the shift continued to where I’ve drawn it, you can see that some people might travel all the way on the white only.

“And
that’s
what has happened to us.
That’s
the answer to what seems to be human stupidity. There’s nothing wrong with people! Far and away most of them want to travel that one straight line, and
they do. It isn’t their fault that the rules have been changed and that the only way to the old balance for anyone is to travel a course that is sick or twisted or short.

“The coffee
is
cold. Oh, God, I’ve been running off at the mouth. You’ll want to get back to the office.”

“No, I won’t,” I said. “The hell with it. You go on.” For somewhere along the line he had filled me with a deep, strange excitement. The things that he said had plagued him all his life—or things like them—had plagued me, too. How often had I stood in a voting booth, trying to decide between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, the Big Endians versus the Little Endians? Why can’t you tell someone, “Honesty is the best policy—” or “do as you would be done by—” and straighten his whole life out, even when it might make the difference between life and death? Why do people go on smoking cigarettes? Why is a woman’s breast—which for thousands of artists has been the source of beauty and for millions of children the source of life—regarded as obscene? Why do we manipulate to increase the cost of this road or that school so we can “bring in Federal money” as if the Federal money weren’t coming from our own pockets? And since most people try to be decent and honest and kind—why do they do the stupid things they do?

What in the name of God put us into Viet Nam? What are ghettoes all about? Why can’t the honest sincere liberals just shut up and quietly move into the ghettoes any time they can guarantee that someone from the ghetto can take their place in the old neighborhood—and keep right on doing it until there are no more ghettoes? Why can’t they establish a country called Suez out of territory on both sides of the canal—and populate it from Israel and all the Arab countries and all the refugees and finance it with canal tolls and put in atomic power plants to de-salt seawater and make the desert bloom, and forbid weapons and this-or-that “quarters” and hatred? In other words, why are simple solutions always impossible? Why is any solution that does not involve killing people unacceptable? What makes us undercopulate and overbreed when the perfect balance is available to everybody?

And at this weary time of a quiet morning in the Automat, I was
pinioned by the slender bright shard of hope that my dazed friend had answers.

Go back to the office? Really, the hell with it. “You go ahead,” I said, and he did.

III

Well, okay [he went on], I read that article about the class of ’50—the Silent Generation—and I began to get mad—scared, and it grew and grew until I felt I had to do something about it. If the class of ’50 ever got to run things, they’d have the money, they’d have the power. In a very real sense they’d have the guns. It would be the beginning of a long period—maybe forever—of more-of-the-sameness. There didn’t seem any way to stop it.

Now I’d worked out this yinyang theory when I was a college sophomore, because it was the only theory that would fit all the facts. Given that some force had shifted the center, good people, traveling straight the way they should, had to do bad things because they could never, never achieve that balance. There was only one thing I didn’t know.

What force had moved the center?

I sat in the office, dithering and ignoring my work, and tried to put myself together.
Courage, mon camarade, le diable est mort
, is what I said to myself. That mean anything to you?

No?

Okay—when I was a kid I read a book called
The Cloister and the Hearth
, by Charles Reade. It was about a kid raised in a monastery who went into the world—an eighteenth-century kind of world, or earlier, I forget now. Anyway, one of the people he meets is a crazy Frenchman, always kicking up his heels and cheering people up and at the worst of times that’s what he’d say:
Courage, buddy—the devil is dead
. It stuck with me and I used to say it when everything fell apart and there seemed nowhere to turn and nothing to grab hold of. I said it now, and you know, it was like a flash bulb going off between my ears.

Mind you, it was real things I was fretting about, not myths or fantasies or religious principles. It was overpopulation and laws against fun and the Dust Bowl (remember that? Well, look it up some
time) and nowhere to put the garbage, and greed and killing and cruelty and apathy.

I took a pad of paper and drew these same diagrams and sat looking at them. I was very excited. I felt I was very near an answer.

Ying and Yang. Good and evil—sure—but nobody who understands it would ever assign good to one color and bad to the other. The whole point is, they both have to be there and in perfect balance. Light and dark, male and female, closed and open, life and death, that-which-is-outgoing and that-which-comes-together—all of it, everything—opposition, balance.

Well now, for a long time the devil had a bad name. Say a bad press. And why not? Just for the sake of argument, say it is the yang country he used to rule and that is the one that was forced aside. Anyone living and thinking in a straight line could spend his whole life and career and all his thinking in ying country. He’d have to know that yang was there, but he’d never encounter it, never experience it. More than likely he’d be afraid of it because that’s what ignorance does to people, even good people.

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