Porta de le bonbarde

After finishing the “final edit” of my novel last week, I realized that 1) the ending sucks; and 2) there’s not enough pent-up tension throughout to sustain the reader through 33 chapters and 126,000 words.

So I’m going through it again one last time – because novelists shouldn’t let their novels suck.

At the end of Chapter 7, our heroine leaves Istanbul from the southeastern end of the district of Galata. Old maps of Istanbul call this gate the “Porta de le bonbarde” – the Cannon Foundry Gate – seen below at the top right of the image.

Galata_CannonFoundryGate

Why your dildo makes me nervous

I was the man in that bookstore, and this is my side of the story.

Two kids come running in, a panting woman close behind. I think nothing of it at first: “Mom can’t keep up. Been there, done that.”

When I was a kid, I trapped crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, before my family moved to Cedar Rapids. Nowadays, I take my kids fishing on the Mississippi every chance I get. It can be tough to keep up with them.

But the woman stops a few feet from the entrance and stares at me, then moves sideways in to the nearest stack of books, her eyes on me the whole time.

I’ve seen crabs that look less suspicious.

I get distracted by the package in my jacket – an anniversary present for my wife – and try to adjust it without looking uncomfortable. My kids, besides being blabbermouths who will rat me out the first chance they get, are voracious readers and they forced me to stop at this bookstore before heading home. It would be nice if I could surprise my wife just once.

My movements don’t go unnoticed. The woman comes out from behind the bookshelf. Her nervous crablike eyes swivel around the room and settle on me.

I look for the two kids she came in with. And then it hits me. “Those are her kids, right?”

She’s doing something with her purse. Rotating it around until it hangs down in front of her vagina. Then she pats her purse and gives me a knowing look, one eyebrow raised.

“What does that mean?” I think. I catch her eye and smile, hoping she’ll just go away.

But her odd behavior makes me wonder what’s in her purse and if those really are her kids. Maybe she’s stalking them. I remember that article from Utah about the female teacher with a secret life as a sexual predator. Four kids have come forward so far.

Behind her, in the historical fiction section in the corner, my kids are waving to me.

I have to walk by crab-woman to get there, and I notice she’s been standing by the display of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

She scuttles out of the way. Her hand is in her purse, and she’s sweating. I tell myself to breathe, and inadvertently catch a whiff of her: perfume over body odor.

Things start to add up. Harried single mom, standing in the erotic book section, sweating, giving me the eye.

The dildo in her purse makes me nervous, and I want to run, to get my kids as far away from her as possible.

But I don’t, because they each have a book in their hands, and that pleading look in their eyes that says they already spent their allowance on something else.

By the time we get up to the register, the woman is gone. I pay the clerk, my kids are suitably thankful, and we walk out the door.

As we leave, I look for the woman and her kids. They’re a block down the street, walking fast, and I find myself hoping that she gets whatever it is she needs.

G0ldi3L0x and the Free Bears

Once upon a time … in a medium-sized town, which lingered between a very large forest and an endless prairie, a boy lived with his mother in an Urban Promise Zone. Their little rental unit was equidistant from his school and her workplace, and every weekday morning they would leave together, wave goodbye at the corner, and walk in opposite directions. The boy hated his school, the mother hated her government job, and every afternoon they would walk home and share stories of oppression over a dinner of fast food.

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Who wants free love anyway?

A play in one act.

Narrator: In the early years of the 21st century, repentant free-love hippies took over the California legislature and put an end to the unregulated sexual behavior of their grandchildren, who were now students at University of California campuses across the state. Concerned about the rape pandemic sweeping through the culture, these New Puritan lawmakers passed the Affirmative Behavioral Consent Act for the Safety of Students. Now, only a few years later, we embark on our own sexual discovery of two young lovers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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The Ransom of Green Chief

It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were fishing up in Minnesota – Doug and myself – when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was a crazy idea – as Doug said afterwards, “born from an afternoon of righteous partying” – but we didn’t find that out till later.

There was a town up there, Thief River Falls, whose government was honest as the day is long, of course. Folks who live where the two rivers meet are as taciturn and self-satisfied as any who ever threw a silver dollar across the Mississippi.

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Machiavelli, the Great Recession, and the Cloaks of State

Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli. Source: USA Today book review.

This year, 2013, is the 500th anniversary of Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince. One might think that the arguments it introduced have long since been settled, but there will never be an end to this ancient debate: What are the rules of political power?

The question has an urgency for me as I work on the next-to-last draft of my novel. What does “freedom” mean to a slave girl who has escaped from the theocratic Ottoman Empire of the 1600’s? And what does it mean for a boy whose life so far has been waged on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years War, whose family has been killed by forces of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire?

But there is also a more conventional urgency to the question, as citizens the world over survey the ongoing fallout of our modern Great Recession, and the response by our national political leaders.

Which brings me back to The Prince, the treatise that helped launched the modern absolutist state. Written in 1513 after its author was exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, it was first published posthumously in 1532.

The world hasn’t been the same since.

Before Machiavelli, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In a sense, it was thought that rulers did well when they did good; they earned the right to be obeyed and respected inasmuch as they showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.”

As St. Augustine asked in City of God, “If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise?”

After Machiavelli … well, here’s where it gets interesting. Again, the Stanford Encyclopedia (emphasis mine):

For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command; but goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good. Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power. … Only by means of the proper application of power, Machiavelli believes, can individuals be brought to obey and will the ruler be able to maintain the state in safety and security.

It should be obvious to us all that rulers before Machiavelli were rarely virtuous or moral. It was that very fact which led him to write The Prince. In today’s parlance, we call his philosophy realpolitik, “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.” Again, from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

Without exception the authority of states and their laws will never be acknowledged when they are not supported by a show of power which renders obedience inescapable. The methods for achieving obedience are varied, and depend heavily upon the foresight that the prince exercises. Hence, the successful ruler needs special training.

Now, regardless of what the modern citizen of Western Civilization thinks of these ideas — and they elicit an almost universal hatred, at least in public discourse — the author himself was not the personification of evil. He had a wife and kids, he wrote poetry; and, as a book review of Miles Unger’s biography notes:

Rather than planning to write an ageless best-selling book, Machiavelli hoped to impress the new ruler of Florence, so that he might regain a salaried government job.

If the book had stayed within Italy’s borders, history would be different. But the ideas spread, as ideas are wont to do, and the German princes took hold to disastrous effect. German historian Friedrich Meinecke, whose The Doctrine of Statism in Modern History was published in English in 1957, wrote that Machiavelli’s ideas were nothing new to Italians; he simply confirmed what already existed.

In Italy the theorists’ doctrine, that raison d’état stood above statute law, had not really said anything new, but had only confirmed an existing situation. For here Roman Law, which was saturated with the spirit of the ancient raison d’état, and which absolved the rulers from being bound by the laws, had continued to remain alive; and the early decline of the feudal system, the early appearance of violently energetic city-tyrants and rulers, had not permitted here the formation of that tough crust of law founded on custom and privilege, which in Germany obstructed the rise of the modern State. Whatever rights and customs there were seemed to someone like Machiavelli so much the reverse of dangerous, that his raison d’état was capable of recommending that they should be respected as much as possible.

As noted above, Germans had a “tough crust of law [that] obstructed the rise of the modern State.” Not to be denied — especially not during the ravages of the Thirty Years War — Teutonic princes embraced Machiavelli with a vengeance.

The Corporate State of the Ancien Régime and with it the idea of a good old inviolable type of justice, contained in provincial customs and provincial laws, had become bankrupt during the Thirty Years War, because it had left the State defenceless. In order to create the new defence of the [standing army], and to overcome any resistance to it on the part of the Estates and established privilege, the will-to-power of the ruler was now able to invoke the assistance of just this new idea of justice, of the [public welfare], and thereby justify and ennoble itself spiritually.

Meinecke identifies one idea — “the one which was most useful from a practical point of view and most efficacious historically.” Namely:

[T]hat it was perfectly permissible for the demands and necessities of the ‘public good’ to violate statute law and the laws which the State had made.

Over a couple hundred years, as the modern European state grew from infancy to adolescence, Machiavelli’s ideas — as Meinecke put it — “became a weapon which the modern State could brandish with full conviction and with a good conscience.”

During that time, both authors and the public displayed a rabid interest in the subject of state power. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 18th century, the public’s interest in the abuses of realpolitik waned, as the public interest is wont to do, and finally “the subject went out of fashion altogether.”

The fervour slackened off when absolutism had on the whole attained its aim … It had now ceased to be modern — not because the thing itself had vanished from reality, but because it had become self-evident, and because the learned public, which took an interest in the State, had meanwhile diverted its attention to the new ideas arising out of the movement of the Enlightenment.

At least in Europe. Not so much in America, because in 1774 the First Continental Congress was established in the British colony of America, and Americans embraced an idea called “the consent of the governed.”

continental-congress

Continental Congress Appointing George Washington Commander and Chief

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776

Stop and consider these competing ideas for a moment:

1) Citizens of the State have no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. The State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is “the public good.”

2) The State is granted power by citizens, which it shall use to secure certain natural rights that belong to all human beings; and the State’s powers can be revoked by citizens who no longer consent to be governed.

Now compare these ideas to what is evident in your own personal life. Regardless of what country you live in:

Do you believe in your right to personal privacy? Good, because (in Western Democracies at least) the State has decreed that the right to privacy is paramount.

Or maybe the State will allow only certain kinds of privacy, because it routinely violates the spirit of the law with CCTV cameras on every corner, full body scanners at airports, and ultra-high-tech drones flying over your neighborhoods. Don’t like it? Get used to it.

Do you believe in the right to personal protection? Good, because (in America at least) the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.

On the other hand, if you simultaneously believe the State can arbitrarily criminalize the most popular form of self-protection (the semi-automatic rifle or handgun) “for the public good” — well, then, what will prevent the State from removing that right altogether if it determines that all gun ownership violates “the public good”?

Do you believe in the pursuit of happiness? Do you simultaneously believe — if your “happiness” is a 32-ounce soda on a blistering hot New York summer day — that the government can ban you from buying a 32-ounce cup of soda with 16 ounces of ice floating on top? Some people do, including Sarah Conly, author of “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.”

It seems to me that the very real advances in governing written down by America’s Founding Fathers — as flawed as they were in many respects — are being abandoned for the philosophy of Machiavelli.

Or at least for that of the German princes of 1666, for in that year Gustav Freytag reprinted Images from the German Past, a cutting satire on “the woes of the German people in the seventeenth century and its lifelessness and rigidity after the Thirty Years War.”

In the book, a young and promising lawyer is taken into secret chambers to view the devices of State.

Pretend that you are this young counselor. Look closely. I dare you to deny that what you see are the exact same tools of power used by the absolutists of old. (What follows is paraphrased from Meinecke.)

The cloaks of State. Beautifully trimmed on the outside but shabby on the inside, the cloaks are embroidered with names like “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Such cloaks are worn when one goes to meet the representatives of the people, when one wishes to make the subjects agree to pay subsidies, or when, under the pretext of a false doctrine, one wants to drive someone out of house and home.

One completely threadbare cloak, which is in daily use, is called “good intentions.” This is worn while laying new insupportable taxes on the citizens, infuriating them with endless regulations, or inaugurating unnecessary wars.

The spectacles of State. With these,  gnats can be made into elephants, or little kindnesses on the part of the Prime Minister can be made into supreme acts of mercy.

There is an iron instrument with which the President can enlarge the gullets of his advisers, so that they can swallow great pumpkins.

Finally, a ball of knotted wire, furnished with sharp needles and heated by a fire within, so that it draws tears from the eyes of the beholder, represents the Principles of Machiavelli. The ruler is keeping this in hand too, but so far he has not yet used it, for his subjects are docile and he does not wish to pollute his name publicly.

Then naturally too, the politicians themselves are using their own private ratio status for enriching themselves quite shamelessly. One of them actually proposes that the cohabitation of heterosexual couples should be taxed, in order to raise money to stop global warming.

Having looked behind the curtain, it’s clear that we’re witnessing the return of the absolutists. The question is, will we do anything about it? Or, like the citizens of Europe before 1776, tired of trying to fend off the oppression, will we yawn and divert our gaze?

A tip of the hat to a few sources of inspiration:

(Edited for clarity and conclusion.)

The Kidnappings that Launched a Thousand Ships

As the process of writing my novel comes to an end, I don’t waste much time on books that lend nothing to the story. I’m making an exception for Herodotus.

In my story, an ancient unreadable manuscript finds its way from Istanbul to the Baltic. (Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book…) In an earlier draft, this manuscript was an ancient version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told the tale of an even more ancient migration from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. My fevered author’s brain imagined that my book could mirror a mythic reversal of that epic journey.

Alas, my storytelling skills were not up to the challenge.

But my interest in that ancient world has not waned, and thus I bought a copy of Herodotus: The Histories for fifty cents at a garage sale.

The kidnapping of Helen brought about the Trojan War, but Herodotus tells us what brought about the kidnapping of Helen. And so, without further ado…

“Herodotus of Hallicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds — some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians — may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people’s fought with each other.

“Learned Persians put the responsibility for the quarrel on the Phoenicians. These people came originally from the so-called Red Sea; and as soon as they had penetrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the country where they are today, they took to making long trading voyages. Loaded with Egyptian and Assyrian goods, they called at various places along the coast, including Argos, in those days the most important place in the land now called Hellas.

“Here in Argos they displayed their wares, and five or six days later when they were nearly sold out, a number of women came down to the beach to see the fair. Amongst these was the king’s daughter, whom Greek and Persian writers agree in calling Io, daughter of Inachus. These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.

“This, according to the Persian account (the Greeks have a different story), was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.

“Later on some Greeks, whose name the Persians fail to record — they were probably Cretans — put into the Phoenician port of Tyre and carried off the king’s daughter Europa, thus giving them tit for tat.

“For the next outrage it was the Greeks again who were responsible. they sailed in an armed merchantman to Aea in Colchis on the river Phasis, and, not content with the regular business which had brought them there, they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. the king sent to Greece demanding reparations and his daughter’s return; but the only answer he got was that the Greeks had no intention of offering reparation, having received none themselves for the abduction of Io from Argos.

“The accounts go on to say that some forty or fifty years afterwards Paris, the son of Priam, was inspired by these stories to steal a wife for himself out of Greece, being confident that he would not have to pay for the venture any more than the Greeks had done. And that was how he came to carry off Helen.

“The first idea of the Greeks after the rape was to send a demand for satisfaction and for Helen’s return. the demand was met by a reference to the seizure of Medea and the injustice of expecting satisfaction from people to whom they had refused it, not to mention the fact that they had kept the girl.

“Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. The Asiatics, according to the Persians, took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not so the Greeks: the Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam. From that root sprang their belief in the perpetual enmity of the Grecian world towards them — because the Persians claim Asia and the barbarian races dwelling in it as their own, Europe and the Greek states being, in their opinion, quite separate and distinct from them.

“As to Io, the Phoenicians do not accept the Persian account; they deny that they took her to Egypt by force. On the contrary, the girl while she was still in Argos went to bed with the ship’s captain, found herself pregnant, and, ashamed to face her parents, sailed away voluntarily to escape exposure.

“So much for the what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgement on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”