Dates, Names and the ‘Ecstatic Truth’

…in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort…

via Werner Herzog Film: Statements / Texts.

At some point, you know, this just gets to be a bunch of blockquotes…

…but I was thinking the other day about history, and how sometimes seemingly historical things get ladled into unsuspecting places. Like how the froyo guy around the corner from me always seems to be a little surprised that I didn’t spoon some chocolate sprinkles on my quivering ziggurat of mango and strawberry.

But, here, pop culture is the vessel I am thinking of.

Often a smart-sounding character in a book or movie will hold forth on esoteric historical topics, like the smug, sass-mouthed Will Hunting — “You got that from Vickers’s ‘Work in Essex County,’ page 98, right?” — in that one movie, you know, without anyone in the audience ever really knowing if there was such a book or if it even has 98 pages.

Another example is the famous “path of the righteous man” speech delivered by Sam Jackson in the movie “Pulp Fiction.” In the movie, Mr. Jackson begins by saying that he is quoting from the bible. Of course, he isn’t; Mr. Jackson’s version is more overwrought than the King James could ever be. But, in fact, his words do not diverge wildly from the original, and a broad-minded soul might say that it is probably closer to the “ecstatic truth” intended by Ezekiel’s authors.

Also interesting is that this subtle difference, the fact that Mr. Jackson is not really quoting the bible, did not exactly ripple through movie theaters with a jolt like, you know, some of what happens at the end of the bible. (Or, for that matter, at the end of some movies we could mention: “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!”) Most viewers, I am guessing, didn’t notice. Or more likely, didn’t care.

So not only had [Terry] Gross apparently not bothered to look that verse up, Tarantino hadn’t either!

via Rondam Ramblings: The shocking truth about Ezekiel 25:17.

Still another example, and the point of the story, is a fun exchange from Season 3 of the oft-quoted here “West Wing.” The president is chiding his personal assistant, Charlie Young, for his glib approach to some college homework.

President Bartlet: You know, Charlie.
Charlie: Yeah.
Bartlet: History can’t be reduced to dates and names.
Charlie: Well, I’m pretty sure this final can.
Bartlet: Nah. I’m starting you out with a copy of the speech George Perkins Marsh used in 1845 to rouse the agricultural community of Rutland, Vermont. Then you’re going to need to study on the word “ecology,” as coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel.
Charlie: Am I being punished for something?
Bartlet: Better in the original German, of course, but obviously the translation will be fine.

Now, I had always been curious about the president’s reference to Mr. Marsh. I had not actually heard of him before (sorry) and was curious how much of all that was true. Did Marsh talk to the farmers in Rutland? Did it happen in 1845? Does it have anything to do with a broader view of history?

George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Answer: Marsh did, in fact, deliver a “rousing” speech to farmers in Vermont. His remarks are considered to be groundbreaking in the area of environmentalism. He didn’t speak in 1845 (it was Sept. 30, 1847), but the rest of the TV version is right on. Perhaps even more right on than the balance of what can be found about Marsh’s speech on the Web.

The speech, like I said, is advertised as a clarion call for conservationism, one of the first to be warbled in the United States. I wasn’t there, but apparently his remarks, on the environment, especially, electrified the crowd of beard-pulling, syrup-sucking farmers.

Twenty years before Theodore Roosevelt was even a rude idea in his father’s mind Marsh was jabbing a thumb in the air and railing about the harsh effects of the unrestrained hand of mankind. And getting cheered for it.

But if you read the speech for yourself, you find that not quite a fifth of it refers to environmental subjects; the balance is a celebration of America, a history lesson, if you will. Marsh is ticking off the advances in the various industries, as he called them — he means modern farming, the steam engine, and like that — that were made possible by our then-young republic. In other words, President Bartlet’s notion that history is more than “dates and names” emerges immediately in Marsh’s text.

The first quarter of the speech is a straightforward endorsement of the American way of life, albeit as it was lived in the 1840s.

He begins by discussing agriculture in broad terms, and steers his audience to a compelling two-pronged point: Just as the land of America has given the world natural wonders — maize, tobacco, fisheries and gems, yadda-yadda — the operation on that land of “certain features of our institutions” has provided benefits, too. What Marsh is getting at is real estate; America was built on liberal, but clear, property rights, not “feudal tenures” and other Old World rot. The American farmer, secure in his land and free to make improvements, he says, is the foundation of the country’s prosperity; it makes everything else possible. It’s quite Hayekian.

And so on.

Having warmed to his subject, Marsh starts to nibble around the edges of ecology. He begins by musing about the unpredictability of weather and climate — “which have hitherto baffled the researches of the acutest inquiries” — but is soon addressing the clumsy footprints of humanity.

“…man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.”

It is a tantalizing brush with the modern idea of climate change, but in fact Marsh is mostly interested in smaller effects. He spends a lot of time talking about acclimating warm-weather plants to colder regions, for instance. And from there, he muses about what heretofore unknown or unfamiliar animals, vegetables and grains have yet to be discovered or properly domesticated for human use. (Burp.) Then he reverses ground a bit to add that there are many well-known farming techniques — use of manure, irrigation — that could stand improvement, too.

And then it comes. Marsh introduces his desire for “a better economy in the management of our forest lands.”

Trees are more valuable now as timber and fuel, he says, than they once were. But even so, he adds, too many have been cut down. He ticks off the benefits of wooded land: it shelters and nourishes (with its decaying foliage) vegetation; helps to hold fertile soil in place; and protects water supplies. What’s more, it’s beautiful. And for chrissake, he says, look what you louts are doing to it!

“…every middle-aged man, who revisits his birthplace after a few years of absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theater of his youthful toils and pleasures.”

In this case, Marsh is ready to look backward. He says that forests in Europe are protected by law; in America, he laments, the only protection is “enlightened self-interest.” And so on.

Marsh is on a roll. He has more than 2,000 words to go. Where does he take us?

  • Artichokes are awful. (He really hates artichokes.) 
  • Hey, guys, stop laughing about horticulture.
  • Have some dignity, can’t you? Your houses are a mess.
  • Try to appreciate the greasy-knuckled mechanics; you need their industry to sell your crops.

Several minutes, I imagine, from the end, Marsh is talking about “the blessings of a well-ordered home,” and begins to drone on a bit, when he hits upon one of my favorite lines. He is arguing that by taking pride in their work, farmers ensure their own success. “A son of Vermont,” he says, by way of proving his point, “will find little to please in the slovenly husbandry, the rickety dwellings and the wasteful economy of the Southern planter.”

Ow. That smarts. And I’m not even from the South.

Marsh goes on, pushing the buttons of his buttoned-up Yankee listeners. He pokes a stick at “the coarser manners of the Western squatter,” and then takes a giant dump on the Middle West. “Who,” Marsh wants to know, who has seen Vermont’s “unrivaled landscapes unfolded from our every hill, where lake, and island, and mountain and rock, and well-tilled field, and evergreen wood, and purling brook and cheerful home of man — [I imagine here that he took a deep breath] — would exchange such scenes as these, for the mirey sloughs, the puny groves, the slimy streams, which alone diversify the dead uniformity of Wisconsin and Illinois!”

And so the phrase “ecstatic truth” rings on. And on.