Works in the Collection

A Taste of Olson

In Cold Hell, In Thicket
It Was. But it Ain't
This
Human Universe
A Foot is to Kick With
Call Me Ishmael
Projective Verse
Bagatto
The Moebius Strip
ABCs
A Lustrum for You, E.P.
La Preface

To Bet

 

IT WAS, BUT IT AIN'T

 

It is like that Bulldog Drummond mystery, of leaving the room in your hotel to come back and find that there is no such room, the manager shows you, there is no such number, no door, nothing as you had had it, no recognition of you, no belongings, the registry doesn't show that you ever put up there, you were never here, you know the face, the place, you were here, but all is bland, the smiles are proper, the shaking of the known heads over your bewilderment - only, no help, you don't exist so far as anyone here lets on. You are thus suddenly without a place. And you are thus anonymous, you are without a face, a name, clothes, set down in the midst of the city a no-face. And not even treated badly, simply treated blandly, as they are bland.
It is crazy, where one history has left us. You damn well know Thucydides. It is any day. It is as it has been. It is commodity. But the door has been erased. The shrewdness which ran the house, the curiosity which led you out into the street, the business - you come back and all is changed. They don't want your money. They don't want you!

And the other, Herodotus? It is as though Thucydides wanted to be sure, like tha manager of what was just now your hotel, that all your nonsense about having lived here, that this was where your belongings at least were - "where are my things," you shout, "where's my luggage, you bastard?" - that all your protestations are just what he says any other history is, not the equal of his eye-witness. That evidence. That you see the door ain't there. It was. But it ain't. You can see for yourself. Listen to the hotel keeper:

I do not think that one will be far wrong in accepting the conclusions I have reached from the evidence which I have put forward. It is better evidence than that of the poets, who exaggerate the importance of their themes, or of the prose chroniclers, who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public, whose authorities cannot be checked, and whose subject-matter, owing to the passage of time, is mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology.

It was a nice room. And it was in Soho, near good restaurants. Your first time in London. The whole city spread out before you. Oh, yes. Oh what intimations. Ah, commerce. O Europe - Real city! But now you got No place. You ain't Any face. You is No face. Where to turn? To whom to appeal? Affiant, what will you sign, do you have even hands to sign with?

If you read (as I suppose these two books are represented together, and are translated in a modern idiom so that you may read them as you might read books of your time, thus, as such, they are serviceable and cheap, one dollar, one can hardly do damage to the texts, they were powerful men, and some of the ancient method of telling either of the stories has been freshened by setting down into footnotes pieces of information which are not immediately relevant, or, as the translator of Herodotus says, "interrupt the narrative"!), if you read them as two different kinds of history of two different wars following not too long a time after each other, the Persian and the Peloponnesian, - well, you can. Indeed, any of us will, to the degree that we do know where we live, that we are in this house, it is a winter day, the fire is in the grate, these things did happen, at least one can be sure Thucydides did happen, men as states will continue to be like this, politics is as usual the pursuit of gain, this is the sour cross, and the rue will be your sour grace that you are here in a room with a number. Only you ain't, quite. Modernity is done in. You have come back from shopping - and nobody knows who you are.

Now the advantage of Herodotus, in this situation, is of the simplest: he says the voice is greater than the eye. If you shout - if you tell your story - he listens to you. He doesn't give you that nod and finger which destroys you, wagging, and saying, look, you ain't there. He says, you say so? OK, I believe you. Truth is what is said, not, what is seen. Your own report is good enough for him. You say you lived here? OK. You did. These things happened to you? OK. Sign here. Your name, please. That's all. Your goods will be restored in just a minute. You see, we limed up your room while you were out. We made a whole new hallway. If you look closely - I mean, closely - you'll see the faking. There was a door here. Only it's gone. That's all right: we'll fix you up elsewhere. With a better view. Glad you called us. The customer, is always, right! Thank you sir.

The old door is gone. And suppose the most curious thing about the present is the way the new door ain't what its makers intended. It turns out one is damn lucky to be turned out, to have to scream at the bland ones that one damn well did live here. One has to insist that one is because one says so.

And where Thucydides is loaded with all these accurate statements of deputations, of all nationalists, Herodotus, who was himself a migrant and knew what happens when men have to be recognized for what they are, not to what they belong, is always talking of men and things, not of societies and commodities. It is very nice to be so addressed. It helps, when one is suddenly out in the cold. He reminds us.