The Mask of Apollo


Mary Renault was a great writer who set her novels mainly in ancient Greece. I think her best work was the retelling of the Theseus cycle of legends, in The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea, but The Mask of Apollo was also very nicely done.

The narrator is Nikeratos, an actor, in the 4th century BC. By chance he meets Dion, closely related to Dionysios the tyrant of Sicily, and through him Plato. Nikeratos is impressed by both, but especially by Dion, and is uncertain why. He has to think about the matter for awhile.

The novel is set at a time when Plato has gotten old, after Athens had reached a height of culture and power unprecendented in Greece, and then had thrown it away in the Peloponessian War. Humiliation had followed in Athens (Nikeratos is Athenian, as is Plato), the Spartans had briefly been the dominant military power in Greece until thrown down from that position by Thebes, and the 4th century is one looking backward at past glories, and wishing for them to come again. Nikeratos diagnoses his attraction to Dion as the wish for a king to lead Greece back to glory, a feeling that many others felt.

His acquaintence with Dion brings him the lead role that the tyrant Dionysios has written (writing plays was Dionysios’ hobby, one that he got pretty good at), and helps bring it first prize at a festival in Athens. When Dionysios learns of this, he throws a party, is stricken with a fever, and dies. His son, whom he has never allowed to learn anything about being a ruler, inherits, though Dion is far better qualified, being a military man and quite incorruptible. Dion’s friendship with Plato has introduced him to philosophy, and made him an even better man.

With Dionysios’ death there’s an opportunity for Plato to attempt to create the ideal city he wrote about in The Republic. Plato felt that only a philosopher king could hope to lead a city to virtue. The problem was to find a king willing to study and practice philosophy. Most powerful people are not interested.

The second Dionysios, on inheriting power, is mostly interested in using it for pleasure. He has little character, but is interested in Plato, a powerful personality who impresses him mightily. Becoming familiar with Plato’s writings, he sees the figure of Alcibiades, the brilliant and rash young man who becomes close to Plato, but doesn’t become a philosopher, and ends having squandered his talents. Dionysios sees himself as another Alcibiades (though by no means as handsome or intelligent) and yearns for the reputation of Plato’s best disciple–without having to work for it. Plato is willing to take many pains to try to persuade him, but it doesn’t work. Dionysios is jealous, and easily led by others hostile to Plato. Eventually, out of jealousy, he exiles Dion, sells his properties, and declares Dion’s wife (whom he has had to leave in Sicily) divorced, and marries her to a friend. Dion now has reason to overthrow Dionysios.

He does so, and is welcomed deliriously by the citizens of Syracuse, but having lived under a tyranny for 40 years, these have little judgment in politics. A demagogue manages to persuade them that Dion is a traitor, and they throw him out again. Eventually Dion does attain supreme power in Syracuse and the rest of Greek Sicily (part of the island is occupied by Carthaginians), but has shown that he doesn’t have the fiber to be a successful ruler.

The demagogue who had had him ousted is tried for treason (he was power-hungry, but incompetent), but Dion asks the Syracusans to forgive him. Restored to freedom, he continues with the same tricks, and Dion allows someone to murder him. The forgiveness was compatible with philosophic principles; the murder was not.

In the end Dion is assassinated by someone he trusts, who thinks he’s become a tyrant. From there Syracuse descends into chaos. The citizens, having lived so long under tyranny, are irresponsible, willing to follow any demagogue anywhere. There are repeated coups, trade and population decline, and don’t revive for quite some time. If Plato’s prescriptions were to work, one suspects that he needed a higher-quality citizenry to work with.

Meanwhile, Nikeratos is back at work as an actor, after having witnessed much of what had happened in Sicily. He is beginning to get old, but happens to meet the young Alexander, before he became the Great. He sees someone with perhaps as much intelligence as Dion had had, but with less philosophic background, though Aristotle is his tutor. Aristotle was somewhat less than interested in Plato’s view on government.

Nikeratos also sees in Alexander a young man hungry for honorable achievement, and doubts that he can find the food he needs for that aspect of his ambition in the world of that day. In hindsight we can admire Alexander’s leadership skills, his attempts to get Greeks and Asians to live together amicably (though not extremely successful), but wonder at his mourning that he had nothing left to conquer. Had he been more of a ruler, and perhaps less of a military man, he might have been an earlier Augustus, who administered an immense empire that had been torn by civil war, and made it rich and peaceful again.

The Greeks got the king they were looking for, but how much of what Alexander accomplished worth accomplishing? There will probably be as many answers to that question as points of view. It does seem that Renault is right in saying that humans periodically want kings. Charisma is exciting, but what makes a really good king often is not. She has Nikeratos encapsulate this in commenting on how much wisdom the philosophers had, but that they didn’t know a crowd.


Randite Conservatism


When I was a teenager I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged several times. I wasn’t, unlike a lot of conservatives now, favorably impressed. I remember discussing this with a patient in the hospital where I was then working. She was saying that Atlas Shrugged was an exciting book, and she’d liked it for that. I said my dominant impression of it was, pound, pound, pound: you MUST believe this.

Robert Anton Wilson, a writer I’ve often enjoyed, said that in his young adulthood he did a lot of intellectual exploring, joining a variety of groups with different worldviews. Two such groups, with very different worldviews, were the Trotskyites and the Randites. He said they had one thing in common: members were expected to totally buy into the worldview. Both were ostensibly in favor of freedom, but not the freedom to think for one’s self. He had the same reaction I did, and from closer up.

What exactly did Rand say in Atlas Shrugged? As I remember it, society would fall apart if the people who produce new ideas and products went on strike. That these people were being exploited and expected to support people who were their inferiors, and who didn’t care to exert themselves. Rand was Russian, and had lived under the early years of the Communist regime there. It was an extreme society on the way to becoming more extreme, so there was some reason for her extreme reaction.

The problem with her formulation was the usual one: it was too black and white, or at least susceptible to being taken that way. Communists demonized capitalists, and capitalists demonized Communists. Each was a system that had started out with a good idea that got corrupted. Production of goods on an industrial basis produced a higher standard of living for a lot of people, but capitalists seem always to have been reluctant to share their profits with employees. The Communist idea that the actual laborers should get at least a fair share of the profit, if not the whole thing doesn’t seem wholly wrong. But both systems provided scope for abuse and tyranny. Communism in practice became a nightmare in Russia and elsewhere. Capitalism had its share of nightmarish episodes too, which highlighted the need for regulation when people were unwilling to regulate themselves. The question always is, who will guard the guardians? It has yet to be satisfactorily answered for very long.

Fast-forward about 60 years, in Wilson’s case, and about 45 in mine. Randites have reached positions of power, and their point of view seems to be plausible and acceptable to many. They have decided that wealthy people (the job-creators) are good, and that people who depend on jobs or on government support (“handouts”) are bad. They’re determined to either convince the rest of us or impose what they believe on us. And they have a handy lever to help them.

The previous president of the USA started two unnecessary wars at the same time as lowering taxes so we couldn’t pay for them without borrowing. That left us with a dangerously immense debt that threatens the whole country. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to cut spending. Randites beliefs, which agree with those of conservatives, is that most of the cutting should be from social services–Medicare and Medicaid in particular– (strong individuals shouldn’t NEED social services) and specifically from Social Security, which doesn’t contribute to the debt. The idea is that people will either learn to stand on their own feet or go under. That’s Social Darwinism, a point of view I don’t care for, though I don’t disagree that individuals should be as self-sufficient as possible.

There are other members of society that don’t or shouldn’t need help, like big corporations, but conservatives don’t wish to cut THEIR assistance from government. That assistance includes tax breaks and subsidies that most individuals can’t get. Conservatives say that 47% of the country pays no taxes, forgetting that most states have sales taxes, and that these impact unemployed or underemployed people much more than they do others. But facts are not the point here. The point is identifying an enemy that a fairly large part of the electorate can be counted on to hate. The enemy here identified are the poor and middle class.

Consider where cuts have been made in the past 5 years: police, firefighters, and public education. Conservatives have been dismissing public education for years, and touting charter and private schools as giving far superior education. The record, from what I hear, is mixed on charter schools, and private schools can’t serve the educational needs of all. This country’s education has become inferior to that of quite a number of other countries. Conservatives want this country to not only compete with the rest of the world, but to dominate it. Destroying public education is a bad way to achieve that goal.

It does, however, fit with the conservative form of the Correct Line, which includes never switching from a hydrocarbon energy system to a more sustainable one, absolutely unregulated capitalism (in which profit is the only ethic), denial of any validity to climate change science (especially that human activity is an important component of climate change), and (of course) that minorities are inferior and to be hated. Domestic politics could get nastier, but this is quite nasty enough.

But what about international politics? We may still be the most powerful nation in the world, though China seems to be catching up fast, but thanks to the previous president, we’re no longer the richest. National wealth has become private wealth, and if China decides to call its debts in, we’re going to become a Third World country in nothing flat. To rebuild our wealth we need all the good brains in the country to be well-educated and productive. In cutting education, conservatives are helping to destroy our competitiveness.

Competition is a holy word to conservatives. But, as John Kenneth Galbraith observed in a history of economics, a lot of effort has historically been put into suppressing and destroying competition. That, I think, is what’s going on here, underlined by the gerrymandering that ensures safe Republican (but less often Democractic) seats and the attempts to block certain classes of voters and to change Electoral College rules. Evidently Republicans don’t believe enough in their own message to allow it to compete in a truly open market, as it were.

A science fiction novel by James H. Schmitz, The Demon Breed, has an alien race trying to invade a human world. The race is repelled with relative ease and few human casualties. The people doing most of the repelling are very intelligent and highly trained, but in the circumstances have to work almost alone. The alien race ultimately fails because it has assumed that humans could not possibly be superior to them. That’s an unwise assumption to make. That’s something the Republicans ought to take note of in their attempt at conquest or reconquest.

There’s another aspect to this situation. Samuel Johnson, of whom I wrote recently, was a self-made man fully as much as Ayn Rand achieved her success mostly by herself. The difference between him and Rand’s followers is compassion. He suffered most of his life, and rather than allowing it to make him hard, recognized the suffering of others and deplored it, helping as many of them as he could. He didn’t expect everyone to accomplish as much or in the way that he did. He realized not all could be so talented or so strong. He also appreciated what help he got. He often had to struggle alone, but eventually he did get help, and was able to make the most of it.

Randites like Paul Ryan, as well as other conservatives, prefer not to acknowledge the help they’ve received, from government as well as other sources. No doubt it makes them feel superior to think they’ve succeeded altogether independently, but it’s not true. Some of them had wealth to begin with. Others had help from the government in one way or another. They also had the advantage of living in a society in which individual talent is accepted and rewarded. Apparently acknowledging that would make them feel inferior, so they prefer to pull the ladder they climbed up behind them, to prevent others from climbing it.

In doing that, they are short-sighted, to say nothing of unpatriotic. If they succeed in their aims, they’ll have power as individuals and a group, but their country will suffer. That may not matter to them. Dehumanization is a popular way to make it easier to treat groups you don’t like badly, and deny responsibility you have to the society as a whole. Of course you can redefine society as you like, but that won’t change the facts. When all society is not included in the definition, you are inevitably leaving out individuals that could help your country compete in the world. That’s not only hypocritical, but eventually suicidal.

Anarchism and Government


Imagine a government just disappearing. At all levels. There would be chaos for awhile, maybe quite a while. Eventually people would start organizing, though, to defend the country, or maybe just the locality, then to provide police, firefighters and other services citizens need. Maybe these would be provided on a different basis, though, who knows? But there would be a government again. Wouldn’t there?

One of the current ideologies is that the free market is inherently good, and government inherently evil. I subscribe to an investment magazine which has been running an interview with a business owner, who is an exponent of that theory. He charges government with being based on violence and essentially being a parasite and obstructing freedom, particularly of the market. He says he’s an anarchist.

What the man says is not untrue. Government does grow from the barrel of a gun, as Mao Tse-tung put it. It does limit freedom, and in fact that’s one of its functions. If government is to serve the greatest good of the greatest number, some forms of freedom can’t be allowed.

But the man says he’s an anarchist. Just what does that mean? As I understand it, anarchist belive in having no government, that humans are rational and can regulate themselves with out having an authority over them. It’s a nice theory, but history tells us it has yet to be possible.

There are castles in Europe because at the time they were built there was no central authority to enforce the law, and people needed a safe place to run to when their neighbors came calling. Would people like the Vikings be allowed to conquer parts of England, Ireland, France, Russia and Sicily now?

Or has the human race evolved since then? At the end of the First World War a spontaneous revolution took place in Russia. Less than a year later the Bolsheviks overthrew that government and became more repressive than the Czars had ever been.

In China the so-called Empire ended about 1912 with the rise of Sun Yat -Sen, who was followed by Chiang Kai Shek. The Nationalist government never controlled the whole country, so there were powerful warlords in various places (as there were in Afghanistan when we invaded, and may still be), and were never able to prevent the rise of Communism under Mao and its ultimate takeover of the whole country. 

After World War I a liberal socialist government that many Germans didn’t like took over. The Nazis and Communists had private armies, and political murder was particularly prevalent in Bavaria, as Hitler had his headquarters in Munich. Everyone knows what eventually happened in Germany.

These examples say to me that anarchy only works for some: those with money and power. People with money are the ones rightwing ideologues particularly admire and compare other people to. They see too many people being dependent on government and our liberties vanishing. In part, I agree with them, but don’t think they’re talking about the whole picture.

Governments aren’t the only ones who can use the power of the gun, nor are they the only entities people can become dependent on. Most of us in this country are dependent on the transportation system that brings us food and other things, the power grid that brings us electricity, etc.

Josef Stalin was a criminal in the Caucausus long before the 1917 revolution. Mao’s Communists lived off the land in China. Stalin and Mao eventually headed their own governments, but they used force before they did that.

In this country, if the government were to be significantly weakened, the picture would be different. As things now are, large corporations and industries use lobbying to ally the government with them. It’s more difficult for ordinary citizens to ge the government to do what they want.

But if the government becomes significantly weaker, you might possibly see private armies being used by different corporations or parties against each other.

More likely, I think, is that the wealthy will conclude a stronger alliance with the government, and any repression will be carried out against ordinary Americans, especially minorities.

It’s particularly ironic that the people speaking against the government are, in my opinion, employed by people who intend to use both private and government power against ordinary citizens. even more than they do now.

So obviously I see the danger more on the Right than the Left, which is not to say the Left couldn’t become dictatorial too. I think that’s less likely, at the moment, at least in this country, but doubt that the difference would be great for most people. Would you have preferred to live in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia? The differences were mostly cosmetic. Both were most interested in persecuting and killing their enemies, with the welfare of their citizens a distant second at best. I don’t see much to suggest we couldn’t have more of the same in much of the world, including here.

Liberty is a wonderful ideal. The question is always: for whom and for what. Ordinary Americans don’t have the power or money to protect their liberties against determined predators, whether those are from the governement or private sector. Some individuals have guns and ammunition. That won’t be enough to protect them against government power or private armies.

The government in this country, unlike a lot of others is theoretically supposed to protect ALL its citizens. In practice it makes choices, and tneds to favor the wealthy and powerful. As much as the wealthy and powerful protest against government, in practice they like it very much–as either an ally or a tool. They won’t be for anarchy unless they’re sure it will be to their advantage. Some have suggested, though, that they’ve already been preparing for it.

I wish I could believe that human rationality could unerringly protect us from these dangers. It’s possible that we’ll find a way to shift our social paradigm towards a more peaceful and benign society, but it will take a lot of watchfulness and action to prevent disaster. I don’t see the possibility of a workable benign anarchy any time soon. Such a system would have to put strict limits on power-seeking (which would make it no longer an anarchy), or a charismatic individual or powerful group could easily take over. If enough people were to become truly selfless, they could influence others to cooperate in a truly rational way. Absent that, the power-seeking element of human nature would be difficult if not impossible to resist. It’s been with us for as long as we know about. It might be possible to get rid of, but that would require dramatic changes. American culture encourages just the opposite.

Some find communalism absolutely inimical to American values. Others, while valuing individuality, object to the extremes to which it can be taken. Individuals can still achieve positive things more or less alone, but to resist predatory and totalitarian groups requires organizations, which in turn are always at risk for corruption. Only a whole new paradigm and approach is likely to remove this danger.

Samuel Johnson


I had known the name of Samuel Johnson, mostly as the object of James Boswell’s famous biography, but had known almost nothing about him before reading John Wain’s 1974 biography of him. Judging from that, Johnson seems to have been a man entitled to a great deal of esteem.

He was a man who suffered much. He caught scrofula as an infant, leaving him short-sighted and pock marked. He also had a variety of nervous tics, so that he was never physically attractive. His family had little money, and was not  entirely happy, but they did have books, as his father was a book-seller, and Johnson early demonstrated that he had a powerful mind, which was to enable him to, after much struggle, earn a comfortable living after coming from almost nothing.

His mind enabled him to attend Oxford, but not to stay long. He tried to become a schoolmaster, but was unsuccessful. After that he went to London and became a writer at a time that writing didn’t pay well at all. He was able to survive, as many around him were not, and then, with the project of his famous dictionary (one of the few other things I’d heard about him), finally began making a secure living. That was after about 20 years of struggle.

The thing I find so admirable about him is his compassion. He knew many people that most would shun, and often found redeeming qualities in them. And he was angered at anyone who took a frivolous view of human suffering. Some self-made men say that if they can do it, anyone can. Johnson saw deeper than that. “Johnson was so achingly aware of the vast quantity of suffering that went on around him, and the gratuitousness of so much of it, that he always preferred to draw people’s attention to the plight of the victims than to encourage them to be complacent about it.”

A writer named Soame Jenyns wrote A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, which Johnson reviewed. The theory expressed was of a great chain of being, courtesy of Leibnitz, in which there are beings both higher and lower than mankind. Johnson didn’t care for this argument, but he was particularly offended by Jenyns’ suggestion that each level of being has advantages that balance its disadvantages, and what Jenyns thought these were. Thus, the sufferings of humans may provide an advantage to beings on a higher level, as the sufferings of animals in a slaughterhouse provide an advantage to humans. Therefore, “…the poor are exempt from many annoyances that beset the rich; that to be ill is to know certain kinds of enjoyment denied to those who are welll; that to be foolish, or even mad, may be quite pleasant when seen from inside; that ignorance is a positive advantage in people born to a low station, since the poor are made comfortable by ignorance, and not to be robbed of it…”

Johnson replies: “Life must be seen before it can be known. This author and Pope perhaps never saw the miseries which they imagine thus easy to be borne. The poor indeed are insensible of many little vexations which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyments of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment, but this happiness is like that of a malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh.”

It’s easy for those who live a comfortable life to imagine other people’s suffering to minor or imaginary. It may also  be easy for someone who suffers to feel that he or she is the only person who does. This error Johnson never falls into. He knows he suffers, but also knows many people around him also suffer, and does what he can to help many of them, many of whom most people would shun because they’re unattractive in various ways.

Eugene O’Neill, the great American playwright of the last century saw this too. His last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, based on his brother’s sad life, illusrtrated that broken people can understand each other in ways people outside their situation can’t.

The author says of Johnson that he never let go of a friendship, whether or not the person was wealthy or poor, attractive or not, intelligent or not. One of his friends had been a talented writer who claimed to be the illegitimate son of a noblewoman, who had given him up for adoption and tried to ensure that he never found out who she was. We may or may not believe this story, but Johnson believed it, and persisted in friendship with the man, despite the man’s self-destructive behaviors. The man drank, quarreled with the people who tried to help him (and there were a good many of those), wasted money when he did have it, and ended in prison.

While Johnson had many poor friends, or people in whom no one else could see any virtue, he also had many wealthy and intelligent friends. One of his friends formed a club around him, where they could meet and talk about anything of interest, and being active and intelligent, many things were interesting to them. At one point they considered starting or reviving a college, and determined that among them the only important subject they couldn’t teach was mathematics. Surely a great range of learning.

In one discussion Edmund Burke says that, having had a great deal of experience, he’s learned to think better of mankind. Johnson says, “From my experience, I have have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed to cheat, than I had any notion of; but more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived…As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.”

This is a generous observation, by a man whose life might not have predisposed him to generosity. But Johnson was always generous, and to a great many people. The work by Jenyns, mentioned above, was one of the few that he full-out attacked. He believed that people could agree reasonably.

The dictionary he compiled is one of the reasons he’s still remembered, and Wain says that though his was not the first in England, it served a particular use in standardizing English spelling, which could be wildly individualistic. He had two other projects of similar scope: An anthology of Shakespeare’s plays, which he undertook to reprint after purging the texts of various corruptions, and commenting on. According to Wain, the comments are the most interesting part of the work, as Johnson knew Shakespeare’s work intimately, practically able to recite each play. He could point out mistakes, or where Shakespeare had been lazy or careless, but revered the writer for seeing more deeply into the human condition, of whatever social level, than almost anyone else.

The other was an anthology of Lives of the English poets. In practice, he took no poets earlier than 1660, and didn’t include living poets, but it was still a huge task. As with the Shakespeare anthology, the fascination is largely in what it reveals about Johnson in his comments.

His other major work came from his trip through highland Scotland with James Boswell. He talked with as many people as he could, from all walks of life, using interpreters as necessary, and entered people’s houses, from the most primitive huts to the comfortable houses of ministers and lairds. He had hoped, but known he wasn’t being realistic, to see Scotland’s ancient life, but found instead a country in decline. The last Stuart rebellion had been in 1745, and with its defeat the English had taken the country over and changed everything, to the point that a great many were leaving for America. Each that left left a gap in the community, and the land was becoming depopulated. Johnson saw this as inhumane and not in the interest of the Scottish people, though they were divided, with the lowland Scots knowing nothing of the highlander’s life, and vice versa. He saw nothing good and conquest and colonization, and though he was proud to be English, didn’t agree with many things that England did.

He later traveled to Wales and France, but wasn’t as impressed with what he found there, perhaps because he traveled with wealthy friends and couldn’t come in contact with ordinary people as much.

These wealthy friends gave him perhaps the most comfortable time of his life, in allowing him to live with them for large parts of each year, being available for conversation, and making sure he had what he needed and wanted. Eventually, though husband died, and Johnson and the widow fell out, something very painful for both. At that point it was just a matter of time till Johnson declined and died, his health never having been good, and since he was approaching his mid-seventies.

Wain writes this biography about a subject not just interesting, but one that he admires wholeheartedly. Johnson was a learned man in the best sense: steeped in literature, but a participant in the wider world who was always curious about it and wishing to meet as many people of different sorts as he could, and becoming friends of many of them. He was, unfortunately, a frequently unhappy man: deeply religious, but with a religion that loaded him with guilt, because, Wain believes, of his sexual feelings, which he was most of his life unable to express very freely. In his kindness and generosity to others, he seems to have largely made up for this, though, and Wain says that in his last days, when he knew he was going to die, he seems to have come to some kind of peace, and was able to face death in that state of mind. Surely something each of us must desire for ourselves, and surely a man worth emulating.

The Booth Family


The family that produced John Wilkes and Edwin Booth was a strange one. Everyone knows who John Wilkes Booth was, though probably few know much about him. Not everyone knows that his brother, Edwin Booth, was the greatest actor of his time, as their father, Junius Brutus Booth had been. Nora Titone, in My Thoughts be Bloody. tells the story that few people have known.

Junius Brutus Booth was a romantic, who took Lord Byron for an idol, which may not have been wise. He was also an actor and became a star in his native England and much of Europe as well (he spoke a number of European languages), married and had a child. Then he met a young woman with whom he fell in love. His way of dealing with the situation was to run with her to America and become a star there, supporting both families without his legal wife becoming aware of his second family.

He and his wife duly arrived in the USA, he put her in an isolated cabin, and began touring the country, making a great success. One drawback of this way of life was that he had to tour 9 months a year to earn enough money, leaving his wife isolated. They were able to adjust to that, and began having children together–they would eventually produce 10. But cholera reached the cabin, and one of the children died. When Booth heard about it he hurried home and went mad, digging the child’s body up and trying to make it live again. Within the next couple of weeks two of his other children died, but he didn’t over-react to that. The experience had taken a toll on him, though.

When he began touring again he also began drinking, and his behavior got erratic. Sometimes he would be drunk on stage, sometimes he wouldn’t make a show, sometimes he’d drink his money up, or give it away. His wife traveled with him some, and was able to get him to behave better, but she became pregnant again, and had to stop. The solution to the problem turned out to be having his son Edwin drop out of school at age 12 and tour with him. Edwin found ways to keep his father away from alcohol at least some of the time, he watched his father perform, and eventually began performing with him, so it was a good apprenticeship for him, but overall a mixed blessing. He wanted to return to school and obtain an education, and another problem was that John Wilkes, only a few years younger, was his father’s favorite, and resented Edwin being so close to him.

John Wilkes Booth was handsomer than Edwin, looking more like his father, but also resented authority and was violent. At one point he attacked his younger brother Joseph, and beat him so badly that their mother sent Joseph away to school to protect him from John Wilkes. John Wilkes also rebelled in the schools he was sent to, and eventually got sent home, where he largely did what he pleased.

Then the thing happened that Junius Brutus Booth had feared: his legal wife found out about his other family. She and their son came to America and pursued Booth legally. He had to pay a lot of money to them, and the affair didn’t finish until the woman died in the 1850s. Booth still had some assets, including a 150 acre farm, but wanted more so he could retire securely.

By this time Edwin Booth was 18 and was tired of touring whith his father. His oldest brother, June, had left the family much earlier, and had moved to California, arrriving there after the Gold Rush had started. He suggested to his father that this would be a good place to make a lot of money quickly. At first the plan was to leave Edwin at home, but at the last minute Junius Brutus decided Edwin had to come along, and told him if he didn’t the trip wouldn’t happen. So Edwin went.

They traveled by way of Panama, which of course didn’t yet have the canal. They therefore had to travel for a week through the jungle, not a healthy thing to do, before catching a ship on the western side. They made it that far and took ship to San Francisco. By the time they got there, though, Edwin was rebellious, wanting little to do with the operation. He started drinking himself, in fact. HIs father proceeded, and made good money, then planned to return. Edwin decided he wanted to stay in California. He went out on his own to act in various places, though bad weather didn’t help, and he got stranded. Meanwhile, his father returned to Panama, where he became sick and had all his money stolen. He managed to return to the USA, give a last performance in New Orleans, but then died. His remains were shipped to Cincinnati, where his wife found them, after expecting to see her husband. Of course this was a terrible shock to the family, and suddenly they had no income.

They moved to the farm, and tried putting John Wilkes in charge of it, but that didn’t work. John Wilkes managed to alienate both black and white workers, so that the family became poorer than ever. But since they couldn’t find anything productive for him to do, he was allowed to do as he pleased, and his mother even gave him money. So he rode horses, drank, flirted with the girls, and dreamed of becoming an actor like his father. After the cholera epidemic his father had tried to keep a barrier between his profession and his children, but with only mixed success. June, the oldest, had become an actor, but didn’t have a great talent, though he was a nice person. Edwin DID have the talent, and served his apprenticeship with his father, so that he knew a great many plays and the business to go with them. John Wilkes was handsome, but undisciplined and ignorant of show business.

At this point Edwin returned to the east and bailed the family out of financial trouble. He had spent enough time in San Francisco to make good money, and he had good prospects in the east. This didn’t make him more popular with John Wilkes, who had had all the attention previously. But he and the family had little choice: they needed money and Edwin had it.

And was about to get more. He started working in the east and had great success there too. Meanwhile, John Wilkes tried acting himself, but didn’t do very well at it. He hadn’t served the apprenticeship that Edwin had, so tried to use his good lucks and athletic ability to compensate. They weren’t enough. He didn’t want to start at the bottom and work his way up, and the acting companies he worked with didn’t care for his attitude. He knew he needed a mentor, but Edwin wasn’t willing to act as one. At one point their brother June came back east, and spent a fair amount of time with John, who appreciated the attention, but that didn’t last long.

Then John tried to work as a leading man, but that didn’t work out either. He kept having accidents, the first (and most ludicrous) was his manager accidentally shooting him in the buttock. Even when he could work, he didn’t make a positive impression. It was obvious that he didn’t really know the craft of acting, and hadn’t learned to speak well. He spoke his lines in the dialect he’d grown up with, which also didn’t make a good impression.

His resentment of Edwin grew, as Edwin said they could only work in separate parts of the country, and gave John Wilkes the South, while Edwin took the North. Edwin didn’t want any competition in New York City, even though John Wilkes couldn’t have offered him much.

Around this time Edwin’s wife died, and he withdrew from acting.

By this time the Civil War was beginning. Edwin, and most of the rest of the family were partisans of the North, at least in part because some of Edwin’s prominent friends (at least one of whom had collaborated with John Brown) were. One of the curious things in the book happened about this time when John Wilkes was in Alabama, and dared to speak in favor of the Union. People in the area didn’t like that at all, and let him know in no uncertain terms. You’d think this might have influenced his subsequent views, but it didn’t. He eventually decided that the South was the victim in the war, and declared solidarity with them.

John Wilkes happened to be visiting Edwin in New York City at the time the draft was initiated, which caused a huge riot, lasting at least a week, in which many were killed, and buildings burned. One of the provisions of the draft was that anyone who could find someone else to take his place and pay the government $300 could get out of it. Irish immigrants were incensed at this, since they couldn’t get out of the draft themselves, and felt victimized by it. They were the main rioters, and looked for blacks and Union soldiers to kill. Edwin had a black servant and  a friend who was a Union soldier recovering from a wound, so his household was in danger. John Wilkes was the one who went out to see what was happening and get food and other supplies. He felt Edwin owed him for that, but Edwin shortly after put together an investment in a string of theaters, and left John Wilkes out.

That may have been the final straw for John Wilkes Booth. His killing of Abraham Lincoln may have been true to his political beliefs, but these were conditioned by his family history and his own inadequacy. He identified with rebellion, including both the South and the Irish rioters, whom he considered victims of the Union government. Vaulting onto the stage after shooting Lincoln also suggests that he saw what he was doing in theatrical terms more than anything else. He had certainly managed to get a whole nation’s attention, so one could say he’d succeeded in his enterprise.

We can only speculate what might have happened if he hadn’t killed Lincoln. The president wanted to conciliate the South after the war, and that didn’t happen after his death. Too many northerners wanted to punish the South, and did so. Whether Lincoln, if he’d lived, could have worked things out differently we’ll never know. What we do know is that this country has never gotten over the trauma of the Civil War, as we see in present and past politics. It would be nice to think that Lincoln might have changed that, but it’s probably unlikely. The country sowed the wind with its adoption of slavery, and the way it developed, then reaped the whirlwind. It seems quite possible that we’ll reap another whirlwind which may be at least partially attributable to the Civil War.



David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is autobiographical, with his addiction at the center of it. In a way, his use of alcohol and drugs may have been relatively benign at first, breaking him out of various patterns, and into a wider kind of life, but that’s the kind of thing that is benign for only so long. The title refers to a night that he got into a quarrel with someone over the phone, who warned him not to come over because he had a gun. Carr has been a journalist most of his life, and when he decided to write about his experiences, he also decided to approach it journalistically, by interviewing and recording people he’d known and interacted with during his years of excess. When he interviewed the guy with whom he’d quarreled, the guy said that HE didn’t have a gun, but he thought Carr might have had one. Carr had no memory of that, and didn’t like guns, so that seemed mysterious.

It so happened that the night in question he was also absconding from his apartment because he couldn’t pay the rent, and had called someone to pick him up. He stashed some things in garbage bags, met the friend in his truck, and (as the friend later told him in an interview) asked the friend to go into his apartment and remove his gun and drug paraphernalia. The friend did, and found both gun and paraphernalia. Carr’s memory was untrustworthy.

Carr did a lot of things in his late teens and twenties. He traveled around, took jobs in nursing homes and restaurants, among other things, and went to college some of the time. But a lot of what he did was drink and take cocaine. The cocaine led to dealing, and of course to friends and lovers too. And of course the cocaine escalated to smoking it, freebasing, and eventually needles. He had relationships with good women that he spurned for women with drugs, but ultimately for the drugs themselves.

In the meantime he had become a journalist, not exactly on a big scale, but enough to make something of a living at, and found that it was a calling for him. He really enjoyed tracking down people and finding out their stories. He was gregarious and aggressive, qualities a reporter needs, and that was something positive in his life when there wasn’t much else.

Things began changing when his significant other became pregnant. That didn’t stop either of them from alcohol or cocaine consumption, so that one day they were getting high when suddenly her waters broke–two and a half months early. They made it to the hospital where twin girls were born, both of whom had to be on ventilators (they weren’t able to breathe on their own) as well as various IVs and other attachments. Semi-miraculously neither of the adults had any horrible diseases, and the girls weren’t addicted to cocaine. They were able to go home with the junkie couple with various attachments that they still needed, and somehow they survived. Not because the couple suddenly became good parents, though they did make some effort, but because of friends willing to help, bringing diapers and food when needed, for instance.

Carr kept getting into trouble, and finally realized that he had to enter treatment. He did so, arranging for foster care for the girls. Their mother wasn’t yet ready for treatment and decided to go to Texas (from Minneapolis, where they lived) to get her breath, more or less. She didn’t come back very soon, and Carr didn’t send the girls to her when she asked. Once out of treatment he started on the 12 step path. He became a single father, though with a lot of help from his family, who would help with food and diapers as well as baby-sitting. His daughters had given him the push he needed to try for something better.

He tells a story of when he was in treatment and after 3 months was doing pretty well. He was invited to a wedding, wanted to go, and made arrangements. But the person in charge of the center wouldn’t let him go. He couldn’t absolutely stop Carr. Carr could have left, but wouldn’t have been allowed to come back, and the center was a good one. The man in charge was a no-bullshit person who knew all the scams, and wouldn’t let them pass. In later years Carr couldn’t remember why he eventually hadn’t gone to the wedding–until he interviewed the guy who had been in charge of the center. The guy said weddings were risky places for addicts, and he hadn’t felt Carr was ready. He told Carr he’d said to him, “Why don’t you just get those little girls high too?” That was the right button to push. Carr finally had people he cared more about than drugs, and that question scared him to death.

So he started working at rehabilitation. The mottos were corny, but he took them seriously, and started to pile up days of sobriety. Meanwhile he worked at whatever writing job he could dig up to support himself and his daughters. He eventually got a steady job in Minneapolis, and decided to also give up casual sex, since that didn’t promote the kind of atmosphere he wanted his daughters to live in. After that, much to his surprise, he met a woman with whom he had instant chemistry, and though they weren’t very similar–she came from a fairly well-to-do family, and was a Republican–she felt the chemistry too, and they got married.

This book roused some interesting feelings in me. I’d read about addiction–William S. Burroughs was one of my favorite writers for awhile–but this book brought up some of my own addiction issues. My life hasn’t been very similar to Carr’s. I was never a party animal, and though I like to write, I’ve never been a journalist. He has the kind of personality a good journalist needs. I don’t.

My addictions also differ in being legal. I used to smoke pot, as almost everyone did in my generation, but while I had some very enjoyable experiences with it, I eventually stopped smoking it because it brought up feelings of guilt. That’s because I wasn’t doing anything much with my life, and was using addictions to reading and smoking cigarettes to keep myself from feeling. I had an experience somewhat parallel to Carr’s: Influenced by a woman I was involved with for awhile I decided to go to nursing school, did so, got my degree, and started working. I wasn’t at all sure I could do the job, so I had to try quite hard, and found that my perspective changed: I stopped focusing on my “problems” all the time (and blaming others for them) and started seeing them in a different light. I had run away from relationships in the past from fear of commitment (how stereotypical is that?), and suddenly realized I didn’t HAVE to be with anyone, which paradoxically freed me so I COULD be. After some four years of working as a nurse I met someone online, there was immediate chemistry, though we were very different kinds of people, and I eventually moved from where I’d been living for more than 20 years to get married. The marriage wasn’t altogether blissful, but it did connect me with real life, however imperfectly. I also acquired step-grandchildren, whom I adored, and who adored me too, probably more because I was part of the environment than because I was anything special. A lot of that ended with my wife’s early death.

Her death shouldn’t have been a great surprise, because her health was never good. She had Lupus, a chronic immune system disease that severely limits what a sufferer can do. Unfortunately for my wife, we were living with a lot of drama pretty much the whole time we were together. Eventually it got to be too much, she had a heart attack and died, and things were suddenly different.

Having made an effort to change, and having made some progress at it doesn’t guarantee anything. Progress made doesn’t stay made without further effort. Carr found that out after 14 years of sobriety, when he found himself cleaning up after a party and taking a sip of the drinks he had mixed together. From there he backslid for several years, even trying cocaine again, and though he never got as self-destructive as he had been, he gradually realized he was in trouble, and had to start over again. He WASN’T normal, in the sense that he could take a drink or two and stop. For him it was all or nothing. And to keep from losing all he’d gained, it had to be nothing.

I corresponded with a friend a few years ago who has been in AA a long time. He had decided to stop participating in Facebook, and told me that he had had to work very hard to change, that the change had been glacial, but that once it DID start it was very real. What I take from that is he understood that he didn’t have it made, and chose not to do things that were unnecessary.

Sobriety must be, for someone who has become addicted, very difficult. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles are two famous musicians who were addicted to heroin. Both had to quit because of troubles with the law, and both immediately took up alcohol. A very different drug, but also a depressant. I’d guess that each switched one habit for another. That’s not sobriety.

Carr had  gone from working on a paper in Minneapolis to one in Washington, DC, then magazine work, then work with the New York Times. You don’t get a much better journalistic career than that, and besides he had his wife and daughters. Part of him wanted to take the chance of losing all that, but the rational part told him not to. The story about addicts is that they’re always addicts, whether they’re indulging themselves with whatever they’re addicted to (and John Bradshaw, a psychologist popular in the 1990s, said that people can get addicted to ANYTHING) or not. Carr found that to be true for him. It’s true for me too.

After my wife died my grandchildren stayed with their paternal grandmother. Their mother, my stepdaughter, was torn up by her mother’s death. She tells me now that her mother and another friend had warned her to get ready for her death. She regrets she didn’t do so, but she didn’t want to believe in the possibility. Neither did I. She went overboard in a variety of ways,  and wasn’t able to function as a mother. I thought it was wise of her to let their grandmother have them, but it still was terribly painful. She was very angry and demanding then, and eventually I threw her out. The expressed reason doesn’t matter; what I thought at the time was that as long as she stayed with me she’d never try to do anything on her own. I’ll never know for sure, but I think that may have been true.

Now she, her husband and their two children have moved in with me. We struggle, but I feel that if we stick together we can succeed. I think they agree.

Carr realized he had to start over again, using AA groups, taking the corny mottos seriously, and start building his sobriety again. He did that. He still knows that success isn’t guaranteed, and that of all the friends he had in the drug scene, he’s one of the few to come out the other side. How is it, he asks, that so many died or completely ruined their lives, while he came out with a great career and family? He doesn’t have an answer. Destiny is a funny thing, and something that we may have little control over. I wonder why my wife had such a difficult and unhappy life, while I always had friends and people willing to help when I needed it. I don’t know the answer either.

All either of us knows is that we have to try and keep trying, that success isn’t guaranteed, that you’re not defeated until you die, unless you let yourself be. And that’s always a temptation.