Now You See Us, Now You Don’t

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working my way through A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians. For a 21st century American, I find, reading about the Victorians is the act of staring into what is sometimes a window and sometimes a mirror.

Looking in the window, we see that on the whole, the Victorians were less troubled than we by the plight of the poor and more devoted to flights of public piety. We would not with an easy conscience turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the poor and their children starving to death in plain view in the streets of our cities. Neither, I think, would we refuse to seat a member of Congress solely on the basis of that member’s unwillingness to swear an oath on the Bible.

There is much talk about religion and devotion to God in our time, but piety just doesn’t inform our public life the way it did for the Victorians–Pat Robertson and his ilk notwithstanding. Congress doesn’t debate theological matters the way Victorian Parliaments did.

Charles DarwinI have to admit that an exception to this arises in the case of Darwin. The Kansas State Board of Education and the alleged “controversy” about evolution come to mind. In our time, however, opponents of evolutionary theory try to use scientific language to advance their point of view.

The Victorians were under no such constraint. Bishop Wilberforce, debating evolution with the biologist T.H. Huxley in 1860, is said to have asked whether “it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that [Huxley] claimed his descent from a monkey.” Not to be outdone in ad hominem argument, Huxley replied, “If…the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” Both parties earn an A+ for rhetoric but a D- for science.

Looking in the mirror that the Victorians hold up to us, we see a people so convinced of their own virtue and noble intent that in general they approve of everything they do on the world stage. For the Victorians this included the posturing and incompetence of the Crimean War as well as the oppression and opportunism of the Raj. For us, the same self-satisfaction and blundering tone-deafness are apparent in our military adventures and alliances over the last 50 years. Too often, as it was for the Victorians, the underlying principle seems to be that since we’re nice people, what we’re doing must be right.

For our lives as individuals, the Victorians also hold up a mirror. For us as for them, the most able and admirable are not always the most influential. Hard work and fair play are not always rewarded. The verities of the age may tell us one thing and our experience something else.

Like the Victorians grappling with the implications of Darwinism, many of us face a longing of the spirit that our attainments do not comfort or address. Thomas Hardy speaks for many of us as much as he did for his contemporaries when he wrote, “I have been looking for God for 50 years, and I think that if he had existed I should have discovered him.”

Would a Coyote Lie?


by Mark Jarman

Is this world truly fallen? They say no.
For there’s the new moon, there’s the Milky Way,
There’s the rattler with a wren’s egg in its mouth,
And there’s the panting rabbit they will eat.
They sing their wild hymn on the dark slope,
Reading the stars like notes of hilarious music.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?


And yet we’re crying over the stars again,
And over the uncertainty of death,
Which we suspect will divide us all forever.
I’m tired of those who broadcast their certainties,
Constantly on their cell phones to their redeemer.
Is this a fallen world? For them it is.
But there’s that starlit burst of animal laughter.


The day has sent its fires scattering.
The night has risen from its burning bed.
Our tears are proof that love is meant for life
And for the living. And this chorus of praise,
Which the pet dogs of the neighborhood are answering
Nostalgically, invites our answer, too.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?

I thought of this poem last night when a dog barked outside. It’s unusual in this neighborhood. The dogs here are well-cared for and well-trained. They seldom find much to bark about. Listening to the dog, I began to wonder if the coyote I saw in the street a few years ago was making his rounds again. Probably it was just wishful thinking. It is mid-winter, and much of the time I feel trapped indoors.

We live in a time of shrillness, and too many of the voices in what currently passes for public discourse have taken to howling and barking. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” wrote Yeats. The problem is not new, and we find it everywhere.

In the current issue of Newsweek, a reader from California pronounces that “The president is a socialist ideologue…” In response to the same article, a reader in Connecticut insists that the president “has done nothing but capitulate to the right and to Wall Street.” The howl and the bark. Mr. California and Ms. Connecticut cannot both be right, and in this instance actually manage both to be wrong. They howl and bark to make stupid sound smart and scared sound strong.

The coyote doesn’t howl for emphasis because the howl is the message: “I am a coyote, and right now I am in this exact spot.” The dog barks in reply, “I am a dog, and right now I am in this exact spot.” It’s all true, and they are both right.

As always, the time is right now. As always, politics and punditry don’t have much to do with actual living. Knowing this, couldn’t we as human beings just try a little harder not to be stupid and scared and not to take it out on each other? Couldn’t we leave the howling and barking to the coyotes and dogs?

They’re really good at it after all, and we aren’t.