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The Things They Auctioned

GUEST COLUMN

By John Lyon | November 2019
John Lyon has held teaching and administrative positions at several universities, including Notre Dame, Ball State, Kentucky State, and St. Mary’s (Minnesota). More recently, he taught literature and history at a classical academy in Wisconsin. He has also farmed, raising berries, flowers, vegetables, and apples, and operated a stall at the local farmer’s market in Bayfield County, Wisconsin.

The first hickory nut fell Thursday: a lime-shaded, rust-streaked shell not yet cracked, not yet discovered by squirrels for winter storage. The approach of the fall season was as surreptitious as ever: full sun, startlingly blue skies, “the wind at your back,” omnivalent green landscape punctuated only by the riot of color of late summer flowers.

He decided to go to an auction Saturday.

The setting was idyllic: a lightly graveled, sand-colored road leading from the town, winding through steep, deeply wooded hills on the right, while on the left a dark creek wandered from edge to edge of the valley, which it had eroded over the ages from the hills yet beyond it. Oak, walnut, hickory, maple, and a sprinkling of birch kept the morning sun at an appropriate distance. Every half-mile or so, homes had been carved into the woods, or set on land laid level by the creek.

The site was mechanical: a pre-manufactured house sitting on a standard cement-block foundation. The steel-sided, roofed, and structured shop and garage extended the sense of geometry and factory across the rural, non-farm lot. The site had been designed for the enjoyment of those whose senses had once been blighted by the power and imminence of the city. Its landscape was something incidentally entertaining, visually consumable, like the electronic media that dominated the “inscape” of the house.

The sale goods were typical: machines for keeping the grass down and the forest back sitting studded in neat rows, awaiting the auctioneer’s attention. Furniture of uncertain design and construction lingered vagrantly in semi-aligned rows, which segued into a series of flatbed farm wagons littered serendipitously with domestic debris and shop castoffs.

The auctioneer’s assistant was surprising: a cleanly dressed young man of some Anabaptist persuasion, black-hatted, suspendered, and with a trimmed beard. He squatted on the edge of the first farm wagon, ready to help the auctioneer display the wares and hand goods over to purchasers. Perhaps this young man was on his “year of decision,” a wayfarer between two worlds, immersed in the waters of the Great Satan, which, if steadfastly resisted, would lead to full immersion in the waters of baptism.

The first items auctioned were pornographic magazines: box after box of graphic titillation for men who had never left boyhood; woman displayed in her fool glory for man in his hardness of heart. The Anabaptist winced not. The clean-cut young man of a most strict persuasion handling material designed for males of little if any persuasion but of definite moral inclination brought the observer up short. As he turned to leave, he stumbled on a stone.

Of course, the still form of pornography is passé; a much fuller source of stimulation is available always, immediately, electronically to sight, sound, and “virtual” tactility. No doubt some of the older magazines could be considered by cognoscenti as collectors’ items, antiques.

The source of scandal for the observer was not simply the presence of graphic pornography or an Anabaptist pimping it. We are inescapably and all together denizens of our time and place, to say nothing of our species, regardless of what sort of moral or aesthetic fabric we might weave about us to fend off the shameful, the obscene, the self-pitying, the contagious, and the reductionist. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

What sent shivers up the observer’s spine, however, was the deep, grinding vibration of the very tectonic plates of human moral behavior grating subterraneously past one another, signaling a surface eruption long overdue.

The idyllic scene, the mechanical setting, the typical auction items, the unanticipated handler of goods, the blatant pornography: all mixed promiscuously together on the yet inhabitable surface of things. An American amalgam, an unabashed, unskirted minicosm. No city mice and country mice anymore, just “cintry” mice shacked up where, or wishing, they could. No pornea, nothing shameful in the great discombobulated American pornocracy. To paraphrase an adage in a fashion particularly apposite in a democracy: The shameful doth never prosper. What’s the reason? Why, if the shameful prosper, none dare call it shameful! Or, put more directly in the lines of Alexander Pope:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

The sun shone with a different slant as he drove home. It was later in the day, and the woods were darker. Sounds came less directly: the creek less sibilant, though the wind was in his face now. Nearer the town, his attention was arrested by a billboard advertising some janged-up Elvis Presley commemorative conclave. All that was found necessary was displayed: abdomen, hips, and thighs. When, in a less provocative age, Elvis made it onto national television, Ed Sullivan cut him off at the midriff. Now, they advertise human machinery, the whole reduced to the part; they make a moral desert and call it entertainment.

The appositeness here of Robert Frost’s lines concerning mechanization and specialization of function struck him: “It might be called ungentle / But so thoroughly departmental.”

He recalled also a comment passed on to him by a friend who had lectured not at all uncritically about America at an Iranian university. After the presentation, a young woman stood up and asked, “Is America, then, the Great Satan?” The friend’s response was, “Why bad-mouth Satan?” He had never been quite sure of the accuracy of this moral hip-shot, though it was obviously effective rhetoric.

This auction, however, had made him rethink the substance of the matter. If, at a public event, there was no shame in displaying for sale years’ full of the monthly occasions of one’s sexual foreplay and endless mental rutting, then American society had moved significantly toward shamelessness, and the Iranian woman’s implied characterization of us struck home.

Though Augustine had never quite been one of his favorite sources of inspiration, Thoreau had been. One hour at a Midwestern auction had not quite reversed the polarity of his preferences, but he had come to be disabused of some layer at least of whatever romantic sentiments shrouded the ghost of Pelagian Arcadianism in his soul. And having witnessed the public sale of a personal collection of material, the only earthly purpose of which was salacious to a new generation of non- or negligible-generators, the harsh truth enshrined in a Latin saying came to mind quite forcefully: Et in Arcadia ego. That is: “I also am in Arcadia.”

Arcadia: the ideal, idyllic, pastoral, and fictional paradise into which our simian ancestors somehow stumbled. The speaker, the ego, is generally taken to be…death.

The creek will yet flow, the forest shade, the sun slowly incline, and all things that have loaned meaning through beauty to the incessant striving of our lives will perdure — we presume. In our striving, however, we have decided to separate in function things we have found functioning together in “nature,” in “the way things are.” We will restructure nature. Restructuring seems to be our function, our role in “nature.” It is what we do, what we have been doing, in Eden and East of Eden. And it is our undoing.

Life, for those who live in the country, has come more and more to entail what life in the city entails: separating discovered function from intended function. We want sexual pleasure; we do not want children. We want the creek to flow, the forest to shade, and the sun to incline; we do not, however, want loaned meaning. Like Marx and his master, Prometheus, we “hate all gods.” Consequently, we find ourselves bound to a rock in the Caucasus.

 

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