The Humanist by Randy Koch

— Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda; 1573; on Sepúlveda’s estate in rural Spain

I might have considered marriage had I

found a woman who knew her true nature—

one who understood that, by their very

design and origins, women fail to

humanize the world, cannot ascend by

exemplary works to the heights of men,

cannot, even, comprehend their own inability

to comprehend—that might have been

a woman with whom I could have joined

my life. But had she understood such things,

had she shown an affinity for thought that

considered her own deficient self, then clearly

she would not have been marriageable, for—

women being incapable of such deliberation—

she would obviously have been a counterfeit,

one whose sole purpose and modus operandi

is deception, both of self and others, and

therefore not marriageable. Or, if we imagine,

no matter how implausible this hypothetical

creature might be, and only for the purpose

of argument, that she were capable of intellectual

consideration of this magnitude, then most

certainly she could not have been a woman

or had taken the form of a woman but endowed

with a man’s mind and likely deficient wholly

of a soul. Marriage to a creature such as this

is unthinkable—and precisely what sort

of creature that might have been, I cannot

say, though the Greeks would serve well here,

with their keen discrimination and meticulous

catalogue of griffins and centaurs, basilisks

and chimeras, Minotaurs and harpies. One should

bring such minds as theirs to bear on so

incoherent a creature that this consideration

of marriage has led me to imagine. Let that be

a lesson to me, an aide mémoire to disregard

the interrogation of those less discriminating

in their own lives than in their thoughts, who

theorize about life but live a life in theory, who

inquire about the absence of another in my life.

How might I have passed my days had I succumbed

to marriage as so many others have? How would

such a union—or any union sanctioned by Crown

or Church, for that matter—have been possible,

have been in keeping with all thought and action

preceding this moment? “It is incumbent on us,”

Aristotle said, “to control the character of our

activities, since on the quality of these depends

the quality of our dispositions.” Therein resides

the heart of the matter, for to resort to marriage,

even for the sake of promulgating the species

or continuing one’s family name, or principally

because it is the time-honored rationale, results

in the perpetuation of that tradition and all

subsequent flaws inherent therein.

Of course, Elena once deigned to lesson me

on this affair with “It takes two to bake a true

loaf,” which she thought clever and insightful,

as was evident when, with a toss of her auburn

hair, she turned to the door and left the room,

her Lydian hips in full swing and as conspicuous

and inimitable as the bell in the cathedral tower

when calling the flock to mass. Her role as maid

presupposes the possibility that her rebuttal

would ring with the least bit of logic, though

logic was neither her intention nor her capability.

She seemed, by chance, to proffer the principle

that man being as fundamental as woman to

the procreative act, whether producing male

or female, means that the woman is, therefore,

no less than man and man no greater than

woman. She fails, of course, to perpend

the errancy of her claim and the ease with which

it might be refuted: a man, too, might plant

a kernel of corn in the fertile soil, but the stalk

and subsequent ear that arise bear no more

resemblance to the man or the soil than does

the female child—at birth or subsequently—to

the man, and neither does she, by nature, have

man’s capacity for prudence or temperance,

intelligence or magnanimity, wisdom, humanity

or humility. I have done well by her, having kept

her in the same air as all these books, beyond

the reach of creatures easily hypnotized

by those hips, transfixed by those tresses,

drawn into some dark unreasoning chasm.

One need only open the gate and step through

the pastures, fields, and vineyards to find evidence

of the natural order of living things. Even

in the apparent chaos of the vines, the spiraling

tendrils reach out like a man’s thoughts to grasp

the trellis to lift it toward the light and those

spiraling little feelers unable to reach wood

or wall wither away, useless in the vine’s unending

pursuit of sun and refreshing rains and summer air

that lead to a rich harvest. But if the vinedresser fails

to provide support for the vine and, therefore,

it cannot lift itself from the ground where insects

and rot, mold and the base threats of life drag it

down, it sinks in the rain-sodden soil, hidden from

the sun by the unfolding branches above, and left

to crawl and search as well it might for something

to hoist it out of its inevitable descent back

into the earth. Here the fault is due the vinedresser,

though the only harm that comes to him is the loss

of grapes that would have grown and ripened had he

been diligent in his duties. But even in diligence,

he would not have changed the fundamental

nature of the vine, for a vine, whether staggering

along the ground for a hold to help it up or climbing

the supports he has driven into the earth, is still

a vine, the difference in the latter only its fruitful

ability to serve the vinedresser, the vintner,

the nobleman or prince capable of appreciating

the wine thus produced by all those beneath him

who are meant to serve his more noble nature.

I’ve not moved from this bed in four days now,

not since the return of the damp-induced congestion

and chills I suffered on my return from Yuste

several weeks ago. All is not lost, however,

since my mind is not affected by the obstruction

in my chest, the least function of the mind

being to drive the body to survival through

its reliance primarily on the hungers, reflexes,

instincts, emotions. But, more notably, it maintains

its greater function, reason, which controls

the humors, brings order to the senses’ chaotic

perceptions of the world, and directs one

to moral action. How does one, confined by

a recalcitrant body, though, act on the bleating

of sheep, the clouds’ shadows slipping across

the face of the sierras beyond the window,

the thrush’s flute-song, the women’s voices

downstairs, the rattle with each breath in my

chest? The only responsibility is to care for that

which God has given me—putting my health in

Elena’s hands and my mind in my own. Let the

gossips prattle on about my emotions, for little

do they—gossips or emotions—profit me.

Earlier Elena climbed the stairs, set a cup of tea

on the bedside table, and drew the drapes

as I held before me the pages in which I was

absorbed. A melody emanated from her, one

I did not recognize, but sprightly and pleasant

and unobtrusive to my study. She went to the

hall, returned with a blanket, stood at the foot

of the bed, and held it, draped over both arms,

before her. She waited.  I put aside the papers,

looked to the tea, the drapes, and then Elena.

She stood upright and firm, though with a touch

of weariness on her face, and her hair limp across

her forehead and at her neck. “Do you need this

now, sir, or shall I leave it for later?” “Now,” I said

and gathered the other pages scattered around

the bedcover and on either side of me. She opened

the width of the blanket across the foot and then

from the side unturned it and, bending near, drew

the end up to my chest. Her breath smelled faintly

of olives and garlic. She stood up and at length

peered at me. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“I’ve not thought of it,” I said and set to arranging

the papers about me. “You’ve no color,” she said.

“And should I?” I asked. “What color would you fancy

that I be?” She crossed her arms. “Your hands.

They’re shaking. You’ve a chill?” “No,” I said.

“The blanket suffices.” She persisted: “I could send

someone for the doctor. He’s—” “Asleep,” I said.

“It’s late,” “and there’s no need.” She stood next

to the bed as though expecting me to change

my mind despite the years she’d known me. Then,

as I searched for my place in the handwritten pages,

her palm came to my forehead. It was cool, and

she let it rest there. I turned aside, and brushed it away.

“I’m not a child for you to explicate with an insensible

hand,” “The fever’s returned,” she said. “I’ll bring—”

“No need.” I said. “It’s only the heat of thought.

But you couldn’t know. Go,” I said. “I’m fine.” She

peered at me as though she meant to debate

or upbraid me. Then she crossed the room and

left, pulling the door shut behind her.

Those papers have troubled me for years now,

and still I fail to find the catachreses, the illogic

in the reasoning, the basis for the jurists’ claim

that “its doctrine was not sound.” Is, therefore,

Moses unsound when he quotes our Lord God,

who proclaims that “of the children of the strangers

that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy,

and of their families that are with you, which they

begat in your land: and they shall be your possession”?

This is but one reason for asserting that the war

on the strange barbarians, who, by all lights, are

children and dependents of the Spaniards, is just

and that putting them to worthy Christian labor

is warranted. But even lacking the voice of God

and the hand of Moses, our conquerors’ requisition,

only four times removed from Christ our Savior, is

incontrovertible, for Christ gave to Peter His authority,

and Peter conveyed it to the popes, and the popes

through the bulls of donation to the Crown, and

the Crown to those now afoot in that strange land.

There, where the natural laws of men and earth

are unknown—rivers running inland rather than

to the sea, fires burning so cold they make men

shudder, stones rooting themselves to the earth

and sprouting young that roll away, and erect

creatures with tails or between their legs heads

fixed—our duty is to bring reason and knowledge

of the one true Faith and to impose both, whether

by force of words or force of swords, on those

dark-skinned creatures whom Las Casas calls

humans. Let no one question his generosity nor

his innocence in applying such a term to those who are,

in truth, barbarians, for brutes they are and shall remain.

The evidence is transpicuous: for they are

illiterate, unable to write their own tongue and instead

draw pictures like children. For they carry loads on

their backs as naturally as mules and other beasts

of burden. For they are cowardly as women who flee

in the face of battle. For they have divers gods and

do not worship the one true Christian God. For they

sacrifice their own to their gods, the unwilling victims

dismembered and devoured. For they practice

sodomy, the abomination of all civilized peoples.

And by all these measures, which any reasonable

human being considers just and fair, those creatures

native to the lands of the New World, are unquestionably

barbarians. And because Aristotle declares that both

“barbarian and slave are the same in nature,” so, too,

these homunculi, these monsters of men, these sub-

humans should and must serve their natural, literate,

brave, faithful, unadulterated, Christian masters.

I do not claim that they are bears or monkeys, for

their houses and streets, trade, cities, and elected

monarchs counter such an idea, but in only these

ways do they differ from such savage brutes.

Where is the defect in that reasoning? Fever

or no, I perceive this unchanging truth, though

for others—Las Casas and his jurists—the blinds

have been drawn over it. And if I am susceptible

to emotion, and well I might be concerning this

issue, I should surely be excused, for this is the sole

issue concerning the true nature of civilization and

civilized people. Clearly my memory of so public

a discrediting of these truths has provoked mind

and body, for my hands cannot keep still and

imagining that confrontation with my detractors is

dizzying. Are those steps in the hall I hear?

Elena’s melody? Has she come with a cool

cloth? Is that you? Bring it now, for this burden

is too much, and though I try I cannot lift

myself from under it all.

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Categories: Issue 2 - Spring 2012, Periodicals, Poetry | Tags: | Leave a comment

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