Stirred, Not Shaken

The history of the British crown is a history of revolt, usurpation, connivance, thrall, and intrigue. In that respect, it is akin to most other monarchies. It parts ways with its Continental cousins in its persistent acrimony towards subjects. Consider King Cerdic. Widely considered to be the first proper king of the Saxons in Wessex, this interloping swine slaughtered the Briton incumbent Natanleod, effectively incinerating the remnants of the bitter near-victory of the Iceni over the Roman occupation five hundred years earlier. Cerdic’s brutal line lasted until Danish boggart Sweyn Forkbeard, husband of Sigrid the Haughty, swept on with threshing oar to spank poor, feckless Æthelred the Unready right off the throne. At least for a few months. Back and forth these two fetid dynasties waged their petty contests for dominance over a squalid archipelago populated by illiterate mud-squatting peasants. Back and forth for fifty years and change these doomed lineages wrangled. Back and forth until French fop William the Bastard settled their hash but good. In 1066, this flaccid pirate king handed Harald the Flatulent his baggy ass at Hastings. By the conventions of the primitive Whig hagiography that once passed for the history of Great Britain as taught in the United States, the Norman Invasion of 1066 marked the beginning of proper British history. The Celtic, Jute, Saxon, Briton, Anglo, and other assorted tribes, clans, and proto-nations were but prelude to the glories of the houses of Blois, Anjou, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, and after the Acts of Union, Hanover, and finally Windsor (nee Saxe-Coburg). A great deal of fuss here in the forlorn colonies attends key moments in that squalid potted history. Certain provisions in a Manorial accord from 1215 allegedly provide the underpinnings of what eventually became the English rule of property law. The impious sacrilege of pudgy Tudors severing ties with Rome not over the corruption of simony and the decadence of the Pope, but rather that the head of state could dip his quill in a fresh pot of ink helped justify the fissiparous tendencies of Protestantism abroad. The surly ouster of James II and the sallow capitulation of William the Orange to the Exchequer upon his restoration gave the English-speaking world the basis for parliamentary government, in which the former locus of power became little more than a gelded, gilt symbol for the adoration of the stinking public rather than the hard kernel of bloodthirsty tyranny it had been for so long. 

This diorama history, this ramshackle leavened puffery mistakes appearance for substance. The Glorious Revolution was an outcropping of the same popular national sentiment that urged Cromwell to so cavalierly indulge the sport of regicide. Empire came so naturally to the English spirit as a byproduct of their centuries of conquest and invasion, generously aided by the French obsession with All Things Big. Big institutions, big sovereigns, big enterprises, big courts, and most importantly, big ideas captivate the French imagination. Not content with merely shrugging off the reign of the despised Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre and his band of merry cutthroats torched the very idea of heritable nobility. Westward expansion, dominion of the seas, and of course the murderous contest to see which inbred Western European cousin-fucker sporting a diadem and a sceptre could waggle the biggest Imperial boner were all expressions of a common predilection for abhorrent grandeur. This penchant for dreaming big and acting big is the sebaceous carbuncle sprouting from the buttocks of the political wasteland left behind after Rome abandoned her holdings in the West. Every cargo cult king grasping in vain for Caesar’s brass ring, every popinjay noble strutting his befouled tail-feathers before his muzzled peasants, every simpering cleric earning his thirty pieces in the sale of holy relics dug out of a potters’ field held the same overarching root sentiment: we are but thralls to something much larger and more terrifying than ourselves. This mud ideology is so deep, so primeval, so dormant that it took the demolition of all the daughter institutions for any of us to notice it was there in the first place.

And it was Dave who reminded me of the Wessex legacy that had perished. “Hey Sam, the king is dead.” He pointed towards the shore.

The setting sun was against me, and my glasses were belowdecks. “Long live the king, Dave.”

“Huh? No, the name of that boat over there. The SS Rex Mari over there.”

“Rex Mari? That’s a weird choice.”

“Doesn’t it mean ‘king of the seas’?”

I scrabbled around in my head for a moment, silently reciting my third declension tables. “No. No it doesn’t. It either translates to ‘king from the sea’ or ‘king for the sea’. I think ‘king of the seas’ would be Rex Marium.”

Dave raised a curious eyebrow. “Explain the difference.” I found myself unable to detect a hint of irony in his voice, so I endeavored to answer sincerely.

“Okay, so ‘mare’ is a neuter noun. It ends in a long i for the dative and ablative cases. Dative is used for direct objects. In English, we use the prepositions to and for to indicate direct objects. Therefore, ‘king for the sea’ as in the king is in a subservient role of dominion would be an apt translation, supposing the skipper of yonder vessel intended that interpretation.”

“Rather than being merely illiterate?”

“Yeah. The other possible declension is ablative. This is used when you need to describe the means by which something happened. Here, the truncated translation would be ‘king by the sea’, but ‘by’ wouldn’t have anything to do with physical location, but rather than the king ascended to his throne by the grace of Neptune or something like that. You see the difference?”

“I do indeed. So what’s so weird about the choice then?”

“It’s dissonant with the world that laid that keel.” I pulled my watch cap over the tips of my ears. “Before the civilization perished, we took our victory over nature for granted. I can imagine a captain in Agamemnon’s navy naming his doomed ship subservient to the god of the waves, but not a modern Commonwealth subject, not even a Canadian.”

“Okay, so no ablative, but the dative still works, doesn’t it? Isn’t the big 17th century early Enlightenment revelation that the sovereign is the servant of the people? ‘King for the sea’ sounds to me perfectly consistent with that idea, that the executive power exists to serve constituents rather than the other way round, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yeah, of course I agree.” The evening temperature inversion was settling in. It would be a foggy night. “But how common do you suppose those old Enlightenment ideals were among Vancouver Island sailors prior to the end of all things?” I made a mental note of the barometer reading. “Weigh that against the likelihood of a simple grammatical error.”

“Ye of little faith.”

“That’s the problem, wasn’t it?” I snickered grimly. “One of them, anyhow.”

Dave leaned back, put a foot against the wheel. “Now you have my undivided attention.” This was untrue. His eyes were on the water, the wind, and the sails. His attention was clearly divided, and I would have worried were it any other way.

“The first thing you said when I came up from belowdecks. ‘The king is dead.’ The instant rejoinder to that is ‘long live the king.’ That, my salty friend, is the most densely-packed statement of politically-relevant theological virtue in the entirety of the English language.”

“Elaborate.”

“Gladly. Recall that the three so-called theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. You know, just like in 1 Corinthians 13:13.”

“Sure. ‘The greatest of these is love.’ What of it?”

“Well, ‘the king is dead’ but we shall neither wail nor gnash our teeth because ‘long live the king’ and so long as we hold faith with the old, staid institution of the monarchy, the nation and her crown live on in perpetuity. Men may come and go, but the state abides all.”

“I thought that was the dude.”

“Nyarlathotep walks the earth in many forms.” I scanned the shore for a spot to camp. “Viewed another way, ‘the king is dead’ is anything but a lament, and ‘long live the king’ is the yawning hope that maybe the next guy won’t be a total ninnyhammer like the last bozo.”

“That’s faith and hope, but what about love? Isn’t it really all you need?” My eyes were trained elsewhere, but I could hear the half-smirk, half-grin in his voice.

“The love is in the punctuation.”

“What now?”

“How do you punctuate ‘Le roi est mort, vive le roi?’ Comma? Dash? Full stop? Semicolon?”

“They’re just printers’ marks. What difference does it make?”

“Well, a comma binds the sentiment closely together. The regime persists. The house stands. Edward V is dead, long live Richard III.”

“I think I see where you’re going with this. A period would be a termination. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Richard III is dead. Long live Henry VII.”

“A semicolon or a dash would be somewhere in-between. Queen Victoria is dead; long live Edward VII.”

“So you’re saying that the punctuation, which only ever appears in print, signifies the love of the nation for its head of state? That’s pretty clandestine, dude.”

“If you’re going to indulge petty sedition, it usually pays to be clandestine.”

“Agreed. But you haven’t gotten to the problem yet.”

“Quite so. The problem, at least the one in America is that we switched almost exclusively to the period. Hell, towards the end there we were going with nearly full paragraph breaks, if not chapter headings.”

“Hey, I think I see a pier up there. Maybe we could camp there by the treeline.”

“Good idea.” I set the bumpers out along the starboard gunwales. “In the old US, the right was the guardian of the virtue of faith: faith in enduring institutions, faith in the New World take on organized religion, faith in the tenets of the civilization. In contrast, the political left were paragons of hope: hope that by determination and will, the injustices of the past could be conquered, hope of new beginnings, hope that someday the promise of equality before the law and equality of opportunity could finally be available to one and all, and not merely to a privileged, select few.”

“That’s an interesting way of looking at things.” The tone in his voice suggested to me that he found it anything but interesting.

I persisted nonetheless. “And it was the political version of love that held these two together. I’m not sure what to call it, but it was the unspoken punctuation that got left and right to work together for common purpose. Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Van Buren all asked for and got commas. But Nixon? Tyler? Wilson? Hoover? Bush? Periods.”

“Well, Bush was a period without another sentence.”

“The other Bush.”

“Ah. Kate.”

“Shut up, Dave.”

“Right.”

“You see what I mean though, right? Political polarization on important questions relating to the fundamental character that defines Western Civilization started to drift apart.”

“I guess. I never really kept up with opinion polls.”

“Well, it’s true. They drifted apart, and that’s troubling enough as a matter of a crisis of faith. But more troubling is the crisis of love. The left and the right need each other to sustain a big ol’ project like governing a huge nation. You need the faith faction to love the hope faction lest the apparatus grind to a halt under the weight of its rust. And the hope faction needs the faith faction to keep it from building a house on a foundation of quicksilver. ‘Greatest among these is love.’ You quoted the right bit.”

“You and I have had parts of this conversation before. You claim that it was hope that died as the bombs fell. Now you’re saying it’s faith and love?”

“I can’t quite say for sure. Look, the saying about kings is primarily a political liturgy, right? I think when hope perished, it was all hope: political, commercial, and even interpersonal. But the political bonds were loosening in America for decades before something finally snapped. Faith in Western Civilization, once sowed and rigorously fertilized in young minds…”

Dave interrupted dramatically. “Ewwww”

I turned to glare in his direction. “The old cult of American exceptionalism, the cult of the Constitution, the cult of the Scottish Enlightenment: these were stripped from basic civics education, stripped from the songs, from the books, from the movies and TV shows and the culture. The cult of faith was left to wither in favor of the cult of hope. And the two fell out of love.”

“And then the hope was discovered to be hollow, so fuck it, let’s nuke the world?”

“I’m not sure I’d put it that way, but yeah. I guess so.”

“So what killed hope?”

“Beats me. I think that might be why the Baroness has me looking for a mad prophet.” I flushed crimson. “Uh, pretend I didn’t say that.” I should have known better than to blab secrets, but my hackles were up, which means that my inhibitions were down. “The way I see it, faith is what sustains us, hope is what compels us, and love is what binds us. It’s a three part cocktail and leaving an ingredient out is like drinking straight vermouth: sure, you can do it for a little while, but it’s nowhere close to being as satisfying as a proper Martini.”

“Wow, I could really go for a Martini now that you mention it.”

“Yeah, me too. Maybe one of these houses has something we could ransack.”

“We can check, but don’t count on it.”

“I never do, Dave. I never do.”

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