The Paper Forge: From Literary Concept To Technical Creation

§00. Practical invention following conceptual abstraction | The civilizational significance of literary art lies, firstly in model generation and secondarily, in the application the generated model. The preferred format for model dispensation varies (novels, novellas, short stories, manifestos, poems, etc…) but the effect of all great literary works is, at least in one way, the same: That the generated concepts of the fictive world are externalized so as to impact the real one by the creation of a new cultural milieu(s) or invention(s) (the latter of which will itself, if sufficiently applied, generate the former). To illustrate this point are twelve examples of literary conceptions which drove practical and significant technical invention.

§01. Creation of the credit card | Everyone knows the credit card, its conceptual inventor, Edward Bellamy, however, is considerably less well known. A college drop out and fiction author, Bellamy’s 1888 utopian scifi novel, Looking Back, prefigured both the modern debit card and contemporary department stores.

§02. Invention of the TASER | The Tom Swift series contained over 100 novels, one of which was, Tom Swift & His Electric Rifle (1911), which saw the titular hero traveling to “Darkest Africa.” Interestingly, Swift’s device formed the conceptual basis for the TASER, originally TSER (‘Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle’).

§03. Invention of the modern helicopter | In 1886 Jules Verne published the novel, Robur le Conquérant (Robur the Conqueror), also known as The Clipper of the Clouds. The story follows Robur and his airship, Albatross. It so inspired Igor Sikorsky that it lead him to invent his own flying machine; the modern helicopter.

§04. Invention of the open water submarine | After reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, inventor Simon Lake became enamoured with undersea travel. As a consequence of this newfound passion he designed The Argonaut (completed 1897), the world’s first successful open-water submarine. Jules Verne congratulated him via letter. [The ‘20,000 leagues’ in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870), referred to the total distance traveled whilst under the sea, not the lowest depth to which the Nautilus descended.]

§05. Invention of teleconferencing | In his book, In the year 2889 (1889), Jules Verne wrote of a technology called the ‘phonotelephote’ that allowed for “the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires,” conceptually forerunning modern video-conferencing technology.

§06. Origin of the word ‘robot’ |  The word ‘robot’ is a relatively new addition to the english language and finds its origin in the play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (1920) by Karel Čapek (1880-1938). The play concerns the story of a industrialist who creates a class of synthetic people called ‘roboti.’

§07. Inspiration for chain reaction theory | In 1932, British scientists determined how to split an atom. The same year, physicist Leo Szilard discovered H.G. Wells’ novel, The World Set Free (1914), which helped the scientist to understand “what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean.”

§08. The literary inspiration for the world wide web | In 1964 Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, Dial F for Frankenstein, was published in Playboy. The plot concerned a telephone network that becomes sentient. This concept greatly impressed Tim Berners-Lee, who later went on to MIT where he laid the groundwork for the world wide web.

§09. Creation of geostationary satellites | Between 1942 & 1945, the Venus Equilateral short story series by George Oliver Smith (also known by the pen name Wesley Long), was published in Astounding Science Fiction. The stories were the first in popular literature to make mention of geostationary orbit.

§10. Creation of the waldo/telefactor/remote manipulator | Robert A. Heinlein’s 1942 short story, Waldo, tells the tale of a genius born with crippling physical weakness, who fashions mechanical arms to ameliorate his difficulties. ‘The waldo’ (telefactor) of the nuclear industry was named in recognition of Heinlein’s innovative idea.

§11. Invention of self-replicating program | The sci-fi cyber-thriller, The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brenner, described a self-replicating program that spreads throughout a computer network. In 1982, Shoch and Hupp created the first computer worm (self-replicating and spreading computer virus).

§12. Inspiration for warship combat information centers | In the 1930s-40s the Lensmen novels series by E. E. Smith, proved popular with readers in its depiction of the adventures of a fantastical galactic patrol. The Directrix, a command ship featured in the series, directly inspired the creation of warship combat information centers.

 

 


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Sources

  1. Bill Ryan. (1995) What Verne Imagined, Sikorsky Made Fly. New York Times.
  2. Charlotte Ahlin. (2018) 11 Real-Life Inventions Inspired By Science Fiction Novels. Bustle.
  3. Daniel P. Kirkpatrick. (2012) Dail F For Frankenstein: The Birth Of The World Wide Web. Living In The Metaverse.
  4. Gabriel Thebeholder. (2015) 33 Inventions Inspired by SF. Slide Share.
  5. Howard Markel. (2011) The Origin Of The Word ‘Robot.’ Science Friday.
  6. Trent Hamm. (2014) Edward Bellamy, Inventor of the Credit Card. The Simple Dollar.
  7. Vangie Beal. (2015) The Difference Between a Virus, Worm & Trojan Horse. Webopedia.
  8. Yazin Akkawi. (2018) The Role Of Science Fiction In Design. Prototypr.

  1. Archive.org: Astounding Science Fiction collection.
  2. George O. Smith wikipedia entry.
  3. Venus Equilateral wikipedia entry.

 

Hawking’s Final Black Hole Research Paper: Black Hole Entropy & Soft Hair

Stephen William Hawking‘s final black hole research paper before his death on Einstein’s birthday, Black Hole Entropy & Soft Hair, has been released via Cornell University Library. The paper was written in collaboration with Cambridge and Harvard researchers, Sasha Haco, Malcolm J. Perry and Andrew Strominger.

The paper deals primarily with the conundrum know as the Information Paradox which states that information (underlying quantum wave-function) can never be destroyed and that information taken into a black hole can never escape, yet, black holes, as Hawking posited in the 1970s, have a temperature and since they have a temperature they will eventually dissipate and if they dissipate then so too shall the information there contained, thus engendering a paradox. Something that theoretically cannot happen MUST happen as per the theory. If the information cannot be destroyed but cannot escape, then where does it go? Does it go anywhere?

Two prominent lines of argument arose:

  • Black don’t actually evaporate. Hawking was wrong.
  • Or, black holes DO evaporate. Hawking was right. The information is hyper-compressed into a space which remains after a black hole vanishes.

Hawking, Strominger, Perry and Haco instead posit that a black hole’s outgoing radiation (Hawking Radiation) is imprinted with the information previously imprinted on the black hole on photons which Strominger termed “soft hairs” and is thus returned to the universe, resolving the paradox. Neither soft hairs nor Hawking Radiation has been proven to exist but it makes sense via the formal logic being applied to black holes. Hopefully, it can, at the least, be utilized as a stepping stone for physicists studying black holes moving forward.

The abstract to the monograph is provided below.

Abstract: A set of infinitesimal Virasoro L ⊗ Virasoro R diffeomorphisms are presented which act non-trivially on the horizon of a generic Kerr black hole with spin J. The covariant phase space formalism provides a formula for the Virasoro charges as surface integrals on the horizon. Integrability and associativity of the charge algebra are shown to require the inclusion of ‘Wald-Zoupas’ counterterms. A counterterm satisfying the known consistency requirement is constructed and yields central charges cL = cR = 12J. Assuming the existence of a quantum Hilbert space on which these charges generate the symmetries, as well as the applicability of the Cardy formula, the central charges reproduce the macroscopic area-entropy law for generic Kerr black holes.

PDF of the paper: Hawking et al. (2018) Black Hole Entropy & Soft Hair

Tomb of the Father: Chapter Two, Home & Hearth

Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to his shadow by some eldritch witchery and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions where one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales for forgotten times and well lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.

When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the quitch and bracken and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most lavish of paintings. He could almost hear its call.

Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of ever size and shape. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.

He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”

Suddenly there came a raucous calling, a intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.

Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden, the way the earth could so swiftly devour. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to dust. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor, those seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.

He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen, How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been!

As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.

*

Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of queer shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the phantasmal skeletons of some macabre stage-play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present perfidy.

Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces were covered by cloth halfmasks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congression, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.

Bodies.

Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun. They were male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed for the moment to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.

One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.

“What easy fool is this?”

“No fool, sir. But a traveler.”

“Those that here make passage are foolish enough to warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”

“Tis a pitiable sight. Wherefore didst they meet Dactyl’s scythe?”

Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scarfaced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.

“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”

“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”

“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thy, with your calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”

The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.

Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cartmen at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.

Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass turning from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte which rose as the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:

Ħaberale

The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay there beyond. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling up towards the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of this land, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.

“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”

Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.

“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”

“If that is your venture then you’re headed the way all awrong. Your foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“The night last I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants it seemed.”

“Three you say?”

“Now two.”

“We thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to your business, traveler?”

“My business is my own to keep.”

“Suit thyself. One word of parting, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we leave you, sir.”

Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks all aflutter. He brushed his locks from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. Then he thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green. Times had changed indeed.

Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.

*

Gunvald woke in twilight and passed through the northern archway of the quaint little conglomeration of hamlets as the sun rose full and fierce above the distant mountains heralding the end of Night’s devious reign. Through and beyond the northern stone archway ran a well worn path of rough cobbled stone which merged with the town’s main thoroughfare. It was at this junction that a statue of the goddess Marta lay, a man standing beneath it. The man was young and slim and dreadfully pale and wore a thin leather patch about his left eye. He was dressed all in tatters and sat cross-legged upon the ground beside a little wooden bowl which he glanced at from time to time as if he were afraid it might grow legs of its own and run off to be with its own kith and kin.

Gunvald’s footfalls sounded in short order upon the little, tatterdemalion man’s ears at which point he languidly raised his shaggy, windswept head and affixed the traveler with a most marvelous gold-green eye.

“Greetings and salutations, m’lord.”

“I’m not yer lord, beggar.”

“Not yet, good sir, not yet. Give it goodly time.”

Gunvald wondered momentarily if the man were mad, decided that it mattered not; he was pitiable all the same.

“Wherefore do thy wear that mangy patch?”

“Tis not for fashion, sure enough. But for those necessities of form that civilized men do aspire to. When War upon the Men of the Rimn was declared I, to my everlasting shame, made to abscond from those duties that bind blood to blood. Alas, I failed even in my wretched treachery and was apprehended and press-ganged to the front lines in service to Tor. It was there mine eye met the fearsome edge of a grayman’s axe, hence the patch.”

“Then thou must except my apologies, I myself am a veteran of that heinous enterprise and would never have spoken so tersely to thee had I known…”

The yellow eyed man held up his hands in entreaty and shook his head sadly, knowingly.

“Tis nothing. One as wretched as I am deserving of no apologies.”

Shamed to silence, Gunvald stood a moment in awkward contemplation, his thoughts coming to him with unusual langoriousness. It was in that meditative reverie that he spotted a small cloth mat, rolled and neatly bound with an old vine. A sleeping cover more suited for a cot than the rocky, pitted ground.

“Have you lodgings?”

“No, m’lord. All that I have I carry on my person. Everything else I lost in the war. Now I lodge with the goddess, who, in her grace, has embraced me warmly.”

With a look of horror and self-vexation, Gunvald dug into his left pocket and withdrew a small handful of coins, silver and stamped with the Royal Seal of Tor, a stylized chimera perching atop a proud, jagged spire of stone on one side and on the other the stylized face of King Chester III, Sovereign of Tor.

He proffered the mintage to the faineant without hesitation.

“I can’t accept that, m’lord. Tis far too great a sum.”

“If you shan’t accept my gift I shall force it upon thee.”

“Your magnanimity exceeds all expectations, sire. May Marta bless thee!”

The man-at-arms cracked a wry smile.

“Of that, she’ll have a most arduous time. Tell me, vagrant, what do I call thee?”

“Frey, m’lord. Jameson Frey.”

“Well met, Jasmeson. I am Gunvald. May Marta bless thee likewise.”

“One word, before your leave-taking, m’lord.”

“What is it?”

“The town overfloweth scoundrels.”

Without another word he turned and left off from the shrine as the pale vagrant bowed respectfully as if to some imperial magistrate. Some forty feet down the road Gunvald entered the town proper, passing through the old, low, stone archway which let out into the thin and winding main thoroughfare, passing between two old cobblestone huts, their smokestacks painting the sky gray with their exhaustive alcahest. He followed the road aways, passing between row after row of small cobbled huts with low hanging roofs of laiden brown thatch, small circular windows exposing the heads of a silent and solemn population who gazed out upon the lone wanderer with a mixture of wonder and fear. Their eyes spoke volumes, the unmuttered words those of caution, a collective flashing of looks that seemed to say, “Beware!”

His pace quickened in tandem to his pace, soon he settled into a light jog and closed his hand about the door of the fourth house to the left of the entryway. He braced himself for the coming encounter and feared his heart might wake the inhabitants with its knocking. Then he entered.

Inside there was only a old woman who looked up without surprise, as if she had been expecting him. After a moment, her eyes adjusted and a look of somber knowing came unto her face.

“I remember that face. Gunvald Wegferend, it pleases me to see you alive and well, dour faced as ever.”

He remembered the old crone, Paega well, she the former nurse-maid to his beloved and a fishwife at that.

“I trust you’ve been well, old fox.”

“Ack, don’t try your charms on me, I’m too old for flattery.”

“Very well.”

“To answer true… I’ve been better, all here have-”

He interrupted suddenly, unable to contained his excitement and curiosity.

“Leofflaed… is she here?”

The fishwife paused and gave a long, sad sigh before answering.

“Leofflaed is gone.”

“G-gone?”

“Due your feelings for her I shan’t keep anything aback. Her father sold her to Lord Eadwulf, the cattle baron, I trust you remember him. She lives with the lord even still, in that old stone manse upon the southern plain.”

“Hamon sold her?”

“Yes.”

“For what purpose.”

“To pay off a gambling debt.”

“What purpose for Eadwulf?”

“It were better I not say.”

Gunvald face was red with wrath, his fists trembling. He wanted to loose his rage without hesitation and would have had Eadwulf been there before him.

“My Leofflaed, sold like a common whore!”

“Hush, now, young master Gunvald. She was never promised to you. All vows made were between thee and she alone and none other. Now come, sit, you must be weary with your travels.”

“Nay, but I thank thee for thy troubles, Paega.”

He turned to leave but the old woman rose and grasped his forearm.

“Do nothing rash, young master, Eadwulf will not permit it and-”

“I’ll not be lectured to, especially not by a woman. Now take your hand from me this instant.”

She did as he commanded, fear and worry mixing in equal measure from the dull pallor of her withered cheeks and the slight glint in her weathered, squinting eyes.

Without another word he left off out of the house without closing the door and stalked through the streets with a lion’s fury. For a moment the man was directionless and then he remembered the old inn. A drink would well enough calm the nerves as it dulled the senses. For the present the soldier wished to feel nothing at all.

As he made way to the old inn Gunvald was perplexed by the empty streets which, in his youth, had been so full of mirth and gaiety and merchants haggling their glitzy baubles and minstrels singing songs of heroic struggles of some olden, mythic age, all of lion-slaying and monsters and magical princes and damsels and goddesses so fair they would blind all mortals who dared gaze upon their supple, naked forms. Now there was nothing but silence, broken at sullen intervals by the cracking of the old flags, green and emblazoned with the chimeric crest of Tor, that flew above the ramshackle houses from the watchtowers where they stood before the low, stone walls, overgrown with moss and unkempt as if in abandonment.

It looked liken to the domain of the dead.

He continued along the thoroughfare and passed beyond the low-born housing and moved on to the town square and passed the shuttered armory and the barren fish-market where only a few shadow-faced gypsies sulked, and moved to stand before the inn as an icy wind blew in from the north and crows gathered in the sky and landed upon the eaves, cackling as if with malicious mirth at his present plight. The looked to be Loessians, those curious folk what had crossed the great desert that moored itself to the World Spine and bulwarked the whole of the Kingdom of Tor from the other noted lands. Gunvald wondered at their presence: What were they doing so far from home?

Abruptly, one of them looked to Gunvald with keen interested and muttered something in a foreign tongue to a younger compatriot. The younger man drew himself up and instantly ran off, headed for inn to which Gunvald was headed. The armored traveler paid the boy no minded and moved to stand upon the low, flat veranda of the venerable establishment. He barley recognized the place, so hewn with odd etchings and strange graffiti was it, all in some foreign hand. Loessian, he fancied.

A old man sat upon a overturned bucket upon the leftmost side of the wide porch of the itinerant’s lodge. He was a sunken-eyed creature, dour and vacant, garbed in a thick fur coat and hat, a long wooden pipe gently set between his small, yellowed teeth upon which he puffed from time to time with methodical regularity. At length he spoke without turning.

“You know what they say? Those wall-scrawlings?”

Gunvald shook his head.

“I’ve little penchant for symbolism.”

“Tisn’t symbolism, tis Loessian. I don’t like the way they leer. Like cats.”

Gunvald waited a moment, expecting the old man to say something else and at length, after a long, meditating puff of his wickwood pipe, he did.

“You know how to swing that sword you carry?”

“Well as any.”

“You’ll need it shortly. The sword and the knowledge of its swinging.”

“Is that a threat, old man?”

The withered smoker screwed up his face, as if insulted and then spoke with forced restraint.

“Nay, a warning. I remember you. Gunvald, wasn’t it? Allotar and Aedelstein’s boy, but a boy no longer.”

“I don’t recall ye, old man.”

“Didn’t expect ye to. I knew your parents, knew them well. Thyself I met but on two occasions, ye but a babe, dew-eyed and grasping.”

“I do not wish to be rude, but I’m in no mood for chit-chat.”

“Fine then. To the heart of my warning. This lodge is owned by Lord Eadwulf’s right-hand man, Baldric, a very dangerous and intemperate man. His cohorts are seldom better. It is also, formerly, the favored haunt of the Loessian gypsies you see leering at us so ill-mannerly. Baldric can’t abide the Loessians and they, likewise. There are often fights. Killings. There are other places to drink than here and for a triumphant Son of Tor, I would gladly spare the whole depth and breadth of my samovar twice over, or more.”

As Gunvald opened his mouth to answer the doors to the inn swung open at the behest of a powerful hand, a powerful form swiftly following. A man, some six feet tall emerged, looked left then right then left again towards the duo and moved to stand before Gunvald. Gunvald turned full about and beheld the newcomer. He was some forty years of age with a thick and well trimmed beard all of red set below small black eyes and innumerable scars that ran from temple to cheek and from chin to neck. Gifts of the battlefield.

For a moment all was silent as the scar-faced man gazed upon Gunvald with great intensity. The next moment he surged forwards and latched Gunvald with a powerful embrace.

“Valiant Son of Tor! Welcome back, welcome back! A venerable procession I would have prepared had I known of thy arrival!”

Gunvald returned the old battle-hound’s embrace with a merry smile.

“You’re looking well, Uncle.”

*

The men sat around the rickety wooden round table in the center of the raucous inn. The lodging was all of thick-cut timber, with a small chandelier made of antlers and bone and which illuminated the laughing faces and the amber brew, overflowing, below. Gunvald smiled faintly as he looked about the old establishment. Exactly as he had left it. It was good to know at least some things had remained the same since the passing of the war. The room was still long and rectangular. The pitted, polished bar still stood in the back left corner, arranged all with brilliant crystalline glasses that proudly shone down upon the stuffed animal heads that lined the walls like curious spirits and the chortling merry-makers who swilled their hearty brew and smoked their oversized pipes, dancing light like dutiful sentries. Prune-faced was the owner who barked orders at the service wenches, their youthful limbs, limber and fast dancing about the shuttered ambit, wheeling great mugs of ale and mead and some strange smelling concoction that escaped Gunvald’s ken to the baying host therein who clacked their heels and struck up a tune here, or there quipped back and forth, arguing over a game of cards. The whole of the place a whizgig of energy and motion. A pen of mirthful chaos.

Gunvald starred down into his mug, watching the light play across the contents halcyon surface as Baldric conversed with his men, they all armed to the teeth and red-nosed with alcohol. At length he turned and raised his glass to the meditative veteran.

“Here’s to Gunvald of Tor, Hero of South, Scourge of the Gray!”

“To Gunvald!” The men exclaimed with ecstatic unison as they tipped weighty flasks to lips and downed half the contents therein. They were young to middle aged, armed and armored, but poorly, and each bearing the sigil of Lord Eadwulf, a furious, brass bull, upon the pommels of their well-sheathed swords.

Gunvald at length raised his own glass and looked to each and every local visage and then intoned imperiously.

“To Tor, and all her bloodied men!”

“Here, here!”

After the cheers the Baldric ordered them back to their posts around the perimeter of the town, leaving the gruff vassal alone with his nephew. He turned to Gunvald and glanced to his cup; empty.

“Well that surely won’t do. Not at’tall.”

“I’ve had well enough.”

“Of mead, perhaps, what say you to the other delectable treats afforded us?”

Baldric smiled mischievously as a sultry waitress sided up to him, bearing a bowel of nuts and two fresh pints of mead, which she set gingerly down before the two seated warriors. She looked first to Baldric then to Gunvald and smiled pleasantly. When Gunvald made to pay her she shook her head and held up her heands in entreaty.

“For a hero such as thee, tis on the house. As many as you like. Tis our pleasure, m’lord.”

“I thank thee, and you’re old master,” Gunvald responded stoically, his eyes leaving the dark pool of his cup only briefly, then returning to distanced reverie. The bar maiden stood uncertainly for a moment, as if she wished to speak but could not formulate the words until at last she bowed, saying only, “Well, I do not wish to disturb thee any longer.”

Baldric gave a laugh and, as she left off, slapped her straight upon the bum.

“Get ye off to the other guests, Ebba, my pretty, little minx.”

“Incorrigible scoundrel!”

The bar maid made a show of huffing and puffing but crack a delighted smile despite herself and whirled away tsk-tsking.

“Have ye lost ye manhood entire to the cup?”

“Nay.”

“Ya didn’t even spare Ebba a glance, an she a right ole looker – oh how she makes my heart leap with every new visage! Should go after her, I saw the way she was a’looking at ya-”

“That isn’t what I want.”

“Well, what do ya want? Hell, you and the rest of the town haven’t yet realized it, but you’re a bloody hero, you can have anything you want. Anything. Hear me, lad? I should know, I read you’re letters and the missives tracking your legions movements through the Rimn. When I read the last one my soul nearly leapt from my body, my heart, ceased it’s knocking and… I don’t mind saying it, tears sprang into me eyes. It had come by wing from one of Eadwulf’s falconers; it read:

Fenrald’s 3rd Legion surprised by Grey ambush at Rivenlore.

No survivors.

“Upon its reading I froze and there starred at the words and read them again, but they did not change. The horror was immovable. So many of my friends. Dead. Buried or burnt all. The worst of it was the casting of my mind to thyself, my dearest nephew – to have lost you to that stony, ice-wrapt waste… I know not what I would have done! And yet, here ye sit, glum and stolid as ever, but here and well and alive none the less! I was o’erjoyed when the next letter came – the war was ended; the Grey Chief slain. Split from knave to chops and shoulder to shoulder, his head unseamed from his villainous corpse! And by none other than by thee, my dearest nephew.”

“I’m surprised ye have yet to send for Eadwulf. He’ll be desirous to know of my presence.”

“Oh, no ye don’t, I know you’re ways, ye want me ta call him so that ye can return to the dutiful fold of His Grace. So that you can get aback te fighting! Well, ya’ave slain well enough and now, to rest.”

“Twas four months in the crossing from the Rimn to Tor alone. I’m rested well enough. Now send for Lord Eadwulf.”

“Ack, that kin wait – looky ere, tis Freyda. Isn’t she just the bonniest thing-”

Without warning, Gunvald slammed his fist hard into the table and turned frightfully upon his uncle, his eyes wide, intense and burning with some effulgent property that filled Baldric’s mind with a sudden terror.

“Spare me the bar-room whores. Take me to Eadwulf. Now.”

Robespierre, Absolute Idealism and the Nature of Man

“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.”

Such were the words spoken by Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre and such are perhaps those that best encapsulate the essence of the man who would come to embody both moral incorruptibility and The Great Terror that stemmed from it.

In this piece I do not wish to critically examine the historical events surrounding Robespierre so much as the man himself, specifically his personal philosophy (which are, all to often, boiled down to mere catchphrases, cut-up from his speeches and collected writings). However, it is impossible to completely separate the man and his ideas from the events of the French Revolution and so, for those who are unfamiliar with all three – a brief primer.

Background.

Maximilien Robespierre, like many of the prominent members of the revolution, came from a middle class family. Born in Arras, Robespierre’s father was a lawyer, his mother, the daughter of a relatively successful town brewer and innskeeper. Young Maximilien’s early life was a comfortable and conventional one, though it was not without its difficulties. Chief among theses was the death of young Robespierre’s mother who, in 1764 perished giving birth to her fifth child. The child perished along with her. It was a event which had a tremendous effect upon Robespierre, filling the now disenchanted child with melancholy and sadness.

At the age of 11, Robespierre would demonstrate his burgeoning, yet already considerable, intellect by winning a scholarship to the Louis-le-Grand (a college which the famous geologist Élie de Beaumont would later described as being “-most fertile in great men-“). The boy from Arras exceeded all expectations and mastered all of his studies, especially Greek and Latin (he became so well known as a master of Latin that his colleges granted him the title “The Roman”). It was here that the child was introduced to the two major influence that would factor into his adult philosophy, Roman and Grecian Classicism and the collective works of The Enlightenment philosophers (namely J.J. Rousseau).

However, the most important event which young Robespierre would take part in at the school had little to do with academics; in 1775 King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, briefly visited the school. As was custom, a poem was recited for His Majesty’s pleasure – a poem recited by none other than young Robespierre himself. The king paid little mind.

After graduating from the Louis-le-Grand, Robespierre set up a modest legal practice in Arras. As a lawyer he was quite skilled, often deploying the Enlightenment ideals he’d read in his numerous books during a trial, and developed from the trade the perfunctory eloquence he would become famous for later on in life. Whilst not working at his practice he wrote poetry decently well, if not with any particular originality, was respectable and sociable but aloof; serious but constantly fussy about his appearance and very caring towards his family. By all accounts, a slightly eccentric, well-read but rather unremarkable person.

All that changed with the fulminate chaos that was The French Revolution.

In 1788 Robespierre, who had become popular for his writings and oratory within the Rosati, Arras’ literary society, gave a speech about the Estates-General, the legislative body of France which was comprised of the three estates, those being the 1st Estate (Clergy), 2nd Estate (Nobility), 3rd Estate (All other members of the realm, primarily middle-class and commoners). Robespierre argued that the Estates-General did not represent “The People of France,” and thus pushed for reform.

In 1789 Robespierre, after numerous publications and reformist public speeches to rally support, was elected Fifth Deputy of the 3rd Estate of Artois to the Estates-General (which had not met formally since 1614). At the same time, King Louis XVI argued with the aristocracy over taxation with the latter refusing to provide money to the monarch and threatening to revolt if the heavy financial burdens were not lifted. But it was not just the aristocracy that threatened to cast off the yolk of the woefully inadequate king, but also the peasantry, who grew just as restless under the oppressive taxation system and growing dirth of food and water. To allay fears and prevent a two-tiered insurrection, Louis XVI, under advice of his council, convened the Estates-General at Versailles on May 5, 1789. However, things did not go smoothly; though the nobles and the commoners both agreed largely on fiscal reform they could not come to a agreement on the manner in which voting should be conducted. The commoners wanted “one man, one vote” whilst the nobles wished to maintain their veto powers which allowed them to always be able to out-vote the commoners (despite the fact that the 3rd Estate accounted for 98 percent of the total population). At an impasse the meeting devolved into a raucous shouting match. The 3rd Estate would eventually meet in secret and take a vow to never disband until a new constitution was created and enforced; to this end the group adopted a new title – The National Assembly.

Shortly after this turning point, violence began to erupt throughout the capital; the monarchs powers had been curtailed which made resentful peasants violent and thoughtful members of the middle-class paranoid over the possibility of a military intervention. Rumors of a military coup and popular disdain for the Royal Family (specifically Marie Antoinette who had earned the nickname “Madame Deficit” for her lavish, thoughtless spending), the Aristocracy, Clergy and old order in general as well as the dismissal of Jacques Necker, financial adviser to the king and a beloved man of the people, whipped the commoners into a frenzy and on 14 July 1789, the medieval fortress-prison of The Bastille was stormed by the peasant National Guard. The prison guards and officers were ruthlessly slaughtered in the violent siege, their heads raised up on pikes like gory trophies.

The revolution was well on its way but Maximilien Robespierre was just getting started. During the course of the revolution, Robespierre joined and ascended to the top of the anti-royalist social fraternity known as the Jacobin Club (aslo known as, Society of the Friends of the Constitution). He would use the club as a power base, garner the title of Incorruptible, for his sexual indifference, refusal and denouncement of bribe-taking and general purity of principal, establish a short-lived new state religion, create the fundamental architecture for The Great Terror that would claim the lives of thousands of French citizens and, for a brief period of time, reign over all of France in a near autocratic capacity until his fall from power and subsequent execution at the hands of his revolutionary colleagues.

Philosophy.

It is for the period known collectively as The Terror which the dainty, bespectacled Robespierre is most well known and it is this period which grants the most significant insight into his personal and political philosophy.

Though many modern critics of Robespierre have described him as a blood thirsty tyrant, this view of the man is historically inaccurate. Robespierre was not driven to execute thousands during The Terror due to some some sadistic pathology (like his contemporary, the bestial journalist and incendiary political radical, Jean-Paul Marat), rather Robespierre’s primary motivations seem to be duty to The People. However, The People, to whom Robespierre was not the French populace but rather a idealized populace utterly shorn of vice, violence and venality – this is one of the great through-lines of the man’s collective writings and speeches: the reference to X, not as X but rather, as X should be.

His fixation on The General Will can be starkly observed in much of his writing, such as his Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, 21 April, 1793) where he writes,

“The principal human rights are those of providing for the preservation of existence and freedom.”

and,

“The object of all political association is the maintenance of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man, and the development of all his faculties.”

It is obvious from these passages (and the document as a whole) that Robespierre believes strongly in the idea of Natural Rights, that there is a immutable essence to Man which is fundamentally good and just which has been perverted by the tyranny of the royal line, the clergy and the aristocracy. Freedom, for Robespierre, is the chief principal, that is, freedom from the first and second estates of the realm – the Enlightenment idea of a return to Man in his Natural State. This is founded upon thinkers such as Rousseau who believed that man was a fundamentally different creature in “a state of nature” as opposed to someone such as Hobbes who believed that man in his natural state lived a short and brutish life. Robespierre’s overarching philosophical project then, can be said to be a extension of Rousseauian naturalism, that is, to create sufficient conditions for a return to the Natural State of Man.

Robespierre’s universalist principals – “By sealing our work with our blood, we may see at least the bright dawn of universal happiness.” (Speech to the National Convention, February 5th, 1794) regarding freedom and nature, however, are in sharp contrast to his fervent French Nationalism.

“We must smother the internal and external enemies of The Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.” (Speech to the National Convention, February 5th, 1794)

Much like Stalin, Robespierre’s political philosophy is fraught with contradictions – he was against violence, yet for violence, he was for freedom, yet pushed for tyrannical show-trials, he was for naturalism, but forcefully attempted to artificially change the course of human nature. Perhaps most strikingly he equivocated virtue and terror as one in the same. Terror, in a time of societal upheaval, was virtue. Pity to traitors was treason itself.

Whilst he was correct that there is such a thing as human nature (most people, most of the time act in X way and behave in Y fashion to Z stimuli) and also correct that human nature could be (theoretically) changed, he failed to grasp the momentous undertaking such a feat would require for success. For instance, archaeological evidence provided via the Genographic Project suggests that Eurasian hunter-gatherers crossed over into the North Americas around  47,000–14,000 years ago – consider how little these groups changed after their resettlement! Up until the conquest of America the disparate descendants of these hunter-gathers had only the faintest glimmerings of civilization and thousands of years had to have passed to reach such a point and yet men such as Robspierre think that by sheer force of will, Man can collectively shred his innate and finely tuned biological impulses towards collective hierarchical cohesion – a total failure of biological-historical understanding.

Robspierre believed: Man is by nature good, but becomes corrupt through unjust institutions and laws; he is born free, but becomes a slave to injustice. All of society is merely a “social contract” and this contract may be changed, at any time, should the “General Will” deem it so. In essence, he unwittingly advocated for the absolute tyranny of the mob (a tyranny which characterized much of the Revolution). And how such lofty, egalitarian aspirations still echo in a nearly unaltered state, with the populist cries emanating from the modern world’s liberal democracies, words that Robspierre spake himself.

Despite his liberal and egalitarian trappings, Robspierre was not quite a populist in totality, for Rousseau’s dictum rang ever in his words and actions, “The spirit of the people may reside in an enlightened minority, who consequently have the right to act for the political advantage.” And who better to head up this “enlightened minority” than Robspierre himself – inheritor of Rousseau’s legacy? Thus, it was really “the spirit” of the people rather than the people themselves that was paramount, a sort of societal mysticism. Such beliefs follow naturally from his views on religion; he was not an atheist. He strongly believed that reason should ever be subordinate to faith (at all levels of The State) in some variation of a supreme-being as this belief was conducive to the good health of “The People.”

“[Robespierre remarking upon the goal of the revolution] What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men.”

Such is the philosophy of those who disregard the true Laws of Nature, those which are not subject to debate or contravention: inequality, brutal violence, suffering and death. Such is the philosophy and life of those who grant man some perfect placing in the ordering of the world, some immutable collective purity rather than acknowledging his proper place as a creature of adaptation and circumstance. Such is the philosophy of the transcendentalist-who-does-not-know-he-is-a-transcendentalist; who would gladly leave the earth in ashes to reach the glorious “moon.”


Sources:

  • The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre, by Norman Hampson (1974, Duckworth)
  • Robespierre, by Colin Haydon, William Doyle (1999, Cambridge)
  • Fatal Purity, by Ruth Scurr (2006, Macmillan)
  • Maximilien Robespierre, Master of The Terror by Scott McLetchie (1983-1984)
  • Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen by M. Robespierre (21 April, 1793)