“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Here lies the Coalheaver

Having fallen out of love with the daughters of Urthona, LI has been curious, lately, about this place. America: did it ever harbor the fine, high promise of lifting the man forged manacles of an artificial and perverting social necessity from the human soul – did we ever have territories to light out to, or was it all gamed from the get go? We decided that it was time to read Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine is a puzzle. We’ve been reading the American Crisis. Talk about your embedded reporter – Paine joined the Continental Troops in New Jersey and watched Howe’s troops march from New York City to Philadelphia, capturing the latter in 1777. As he puts it, beautifully, in the American Crisis, I:

'Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them. Britain has trembled like an ague at the report of a French fleet of flat-bottomed boats; and in the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment! Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world. Many a disguised Tory has lately shown his head, that shall penitentially solemnize with curses the day on which Howe arrived upon the Delaware.”

Now that is language for you. If there is any use to polemics, it is that they aid the “mind growing through a crisis” – they record that experience in garish knife strokes grooved into the mind, so it glows through the posterior amnesia that we’d like to settle down over the pains and gaps of the past, over the sheer excessive loss, over our overwhelming stupidity. It is curious to think that Paine should know this so well in 1777 – or so well in 1776, when he wrote Common Sense. Paine, after all, was a very recent immigrant from England, and had, until then, made a series of blunders both in Thetford, the village in which he grew up, and London, to which he immigrated in the vain hope of promoting himself, which included a failed marriage, various failed businesses, and little formal education. How he got his voice and his conviction is a bit of a mystery – or at least, to us, the inheritors of the monuments of the privileged classes and their shills, insofar as working class cultural zones open and close in history and leave dark tracks outside the main course of it layed down for those who know how to see it, or want to see it. Not that there is a complete divergence – quite the contrary, at crucial moments the natural order of things is shaken by lumpen or working class energy all the way to the top. But the top has amazing powers of recuperation, generates amazing tentacular re-births, and has to be chopped into bits by every succeeding generation all over again.

At Thomas Paine org there is a set of online bios, including one by Robert Ingersoll and one by Thomas Alva Edison. Conway’s bio, done in 1890, is very quaint. In this passage, a working class cultural zone is briefly glimpsed. The twenty seven year old Paine moves to the small English village of Lewes to take a government position there:

"Paine" was an historic name in Lewes also. In 1688 two French refugees, William and Aaron Paine, came to the ancient town, and found there as much religious persecution as in France. It was directed chiefly against the Quakers. But when Thomas Paine went to dwell there the Quakers and the "powers that be" had reached a modus vivendi, and the new exciseman fixed his abode with a venerable Friend, Samuel Ollive, a tobacconist. The house then adjoined a Quaker meetinghouse, now a Unitarian chapel. It is a quaint house, always known and described as "the house with the monkey on it." The projecting roof is supported by a female nondescript rather more human than anthropoid. I was politely shown through the house by its occupant, Mr. Champion, and observed in the cellar traces of Samuel Ollive's -- afterward Paine's -- tobacco mill. The best room upstairs long bore on its wall "Tom Paine's study." The plaster has now flaked off, but the proprietor, Mr. Alfred Hammond, told me that he remembers it there in 1840. Not far from the house is the old mansion of the Shelleys, -- still called "The Shelleys," -- ancestors of a poet born with the "Rights of Man," and a child of Paine's revolution. And -- such are the moral zones and poles in every English town -- here in the graveyard of Jireh Chapel -- is the tomb of William Huntington S. S. [Sinner Saved] bearing this epitaph:

"Here lies the Coalheaver, beloved of God, but abhorred of men: the omniscient judge, at the grand assize, shall ratify and confirm that to the confusion of many thousands; for England and its metropolis shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. W. H : S. S."
While Paine was at Lewes this Hunt alias Huntington was a pious tramp in that part of England, well known to the police. Yet in his rubbish there is one realistic story of tramp-life which incidentally portrays an exciseman of the time. Huntington (born 1744), one of the eleven children of a day-laborer earning from seven to nine shillings a week in Kent, was sent by some friends to an infant school.

"And here I remember to have heard my mistress reprove me for something wrong, telling me that God Almighty took notice of children's sins. It stuck to my conscience a great while; and who this God Almighty could be I could not conjecture; and how he could know my sins without asking my mother I could not conceive. At that time there was a person named Godfrey, an exciseman in the town, a man of a stern and hard-favoured countenance, whom I took notice of for having a stick covered with figures, and an ink-bottle hanging at the button-hole of his coat. I imagined that man to be employed by God Almighty to take notice, and keep an account of children's sins; and once I got into the market-house, and watched him very narrowly, and found that he was always in a hurry by his walking so fast; and I thought he had need to hurry, as he must have a deal to do to find out all the sins of children. I watched him out of one shop into another, all about the town, and from that time eyed him as a most formidable being, and the greatest enemy I had in all the world."

I've seen that exciseman. He operates as a narc, a counter-terrorist agent, and an advisor to Donald Rumsfeld.

Paine obviously comes out of the same roots that brought forth William Blake – and Shelley.

LI will have more to say about him in another post.

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