DIALOGUES OF SCAMANDER


By Marvin Lear


Dark Theme


Editors' Note

The story below appeared in issue 3 of "The Double Dealer."

While we wish we could provide more details about the author of the following story, what information we have comes from an issue of a defunct literary magazine "The Dial":

"Marvin Lear is the nom-de-plume of an American editor whose published volumes have attracted the notice of the discriminating."

Whoever Marvin Lear may have been, his writing on politics and humor—as told through the eyes of Greek figures Scamander and Polycrates—is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared in 1921.

I. RED BREECHES

SCAMANDER

When I was a youth, I was a devil in politics.

POLYCRATES

So we all were, Scamander. I am quite certain that nobody, since the beginning of time, wore redder breeches than I did when I was twenty-one. I was a great enemy of kings, Scamander, and reasonably hard on aristocrats. I was the arch-lover of mobs in my day, and nobody could have explained to you, better than I could, the perfection of popular government. But my red breeches have faded sadly in the weather.

SCAMANDER

I am as great an enemy of kings as I ever was.

POLYCRATES

I, too, have a certain distrust of them still. And—though I am growing old at a great rate and my hair is thinner above my ears—I am as great an enemy of bad kings as I was at twenty-one. I have, however, somewhat abated in fury. I have long withdrawn from the arena of political imaginings. I hold no more fantastic mass-meetings and parades in my soul, nor do I attend them in fact. The infinite inanity of our accomplishment in that field of endeavor nauseated me long ago. I cast, practically or metaphysically, no ballots. I learned early, Scamander, that the intelligent voter, "being completely swamped, is for all practical purposes completely disfranchised." I seldom allow my fancy to stray into the mazes of human government. But when it does so—for all that my hair has grown thin over my ears and I have some rheumatism of recent arrival—I find myself donning, faded as they are, the old red youthful breeches of revolt. With good kings I have no quarrel. But I am an enemy of bad kings as always.

SCAMANDER

It is idle to make distinctions of good and bad, when all kings are undesirable.

POLYCRATES

It has been agreed, however, by the writers on political economy, Scamander, that a king of some sort is necessary, though you stuff him with goose-down. And I think we are privileged to call that king good who is wise, cultured, and sober, who has a warm but not easily prejudiced sympathy, who has complete control over his passions, and who has himself—or obeys counsellors who have—sufficient foundation in learning and morality to decide questions of individual or general importance with a sober and unbiased judgment. And I think we are privileged to call that king bad who is foolish, ignorant, and capricious, who is selfish to the core and liable to the most insane and unfounded prejudices, who will believe anything that is told him, easily swayed by any chance wind of doctrine from whatever quarter of pandemonium who has over his passions no control whatsoever, but flies into irrational rages and furies like any wild beast, and who has not sufficient foundation in learning or culture (to say nothing of morality) to determine with reliable judgment the simplest questions in human economy.

SCAMANDER

You refer without question to the king of Bavaria who, at his coronation, barked like a dog.

POLYCRATES

I refer to our present incumbent.

SCAMANDER

This is a democracy.

POLYCRATES

This is an absolute monarchy. A ruler of whatever sort, Scamander, and especially a despotic ruler, may be termed, for metaphysical convenience, a king. And I persist in my way of thinking that our present king, being a conglomerate person composed of the mass of our compatriots, is a devilish bad one. I personally know that he is foolish, that he is ignorant, and that he is capricious. I know that he is selfish, with no respect or consideration for his inferiors. I know that he is easily persuaded away from, or into, any opinion. I know that he is prey to a thousand silly prejudices. I know that he will believe anything whatsoever, and venture to assert that I could sell to him a bottle of pink water for a handsome price, if I would insist it was good for the piles. I know that he has no control over his passions and that when aroused he is as merciless as a jungle-brute. I know that he has no foundation in learning or culture to enable him to decide the serious question of human economy.

And in his presence, Scamander, though I may eventually be hanged for it, I have worn, wear, and shall continue to wear red breeches.

II. THE SONS OF METANIRA

SCAMANDER

There can be no question, Polycrates, that the immediate necessity of our civilization is a satirist of colossal attainments.

POLYCRATES

Satirists of colossal attainments appear with no more frequency, Scamander, than tremendous comets.

SCAMANDER

Nothing else can save us.

POLYCRATES

Then we are lost. The two men who have lived among us that might have reached colossal attainment in satire were, one of them, unfortunately, deficient in courage; the other, too bloated with spleen—and they are, anyway, dead. It is not improbable that we must wait a full hundred years for another, for such men are not born from every marriage, nor with every blue moon. All ages have produced twenty great warriors, poets, statesmen, to one great humorist. Most ages, however rich they may otherwise be, produce none at all. The gift of irony—which most magnifies a humorist, Scamander—is the rarest gift in the world. And if the value of literary genius were determined by scarcity, as is the case with old books, pewter and postage-stamps, Voltaire and Anatole France are priceless in a way Homer, Virgil, Milton and Dante can never be. Indeed I have long held an unexpressed conviction that the great humorous literature of the world is the best literature of the world.

SCAMANDER

There is nobody else in breeches will agree with you.

POLYCRATES

It does not matter. My conclusion is sound, and it satisfies me—which satisfaction on one's own part is the only criterion of the perfect opinion. The great humorists, Scamander, give us not only as much as the poets and romancers and the philosophers: they give us more. Like the poets, they give us beauty—beauty of thought and beauty of style, richness and exhilaration of fancy, amusement and delight. But where the poetry of the world is, metaphysically speaking, superbly stupid, the great humorous literature of the world is almost incredibly wise. And in giving us their wisdom which we should otherwise need to seek in the philosophers, the humorists give us what the philosophers seldom or never give—that beauty and exhilaration, amusement and delight. The poets and romancers, Scamander, give us beauty and to spare; but there is very very little wit in them. The greybeard philosophers give us wisdom indeed, but it is wisdom without beauty, without delight, tedious in the telling. The poets and romancers have prattled for generations in tinkling or clinking speech that never wearies, but they have never told us anything (excepting one or two, Scamander, here and there, and these were gentlemen so complete that they were humorists too, as Shakespeare was, or madmen like Blake and de Nerval who were divinely wise, not because they were poets, but because they were mad).

It is only the great humorists who can tell us the truth in such a way we will believe it. I defy you to show me a magnificent passage of poetry in which mankind is properly drawn as a monkey, and in which it is clearly demonstrated that his destiny as a spiritual soul does not essentially matter. The philosophers do occasionally confide to us this conclusion, but they do it in so melancholy a fashion that one is as shy of believing it as of catching the mumps. Yet when we listen to the great humorists, Scamander, we find ourselves so enchanted by the exhilaration of their fancy and the exuberance of their speech that we are quite carried away and, before we know very well what we are about, passionately embrace the truth as though it were some sort of good news.

The great humorist, however, as I began by saying, is as rare as a great comet. His character is determined by rare prerequisites, still more rarely found in conjunction. The prerequisites of a great humorist, or a great satirist, Scamander, are, firstly, grandeur in irony, wisdom and art, and, secondly, courage. It requires spiritual courage to face the amazing farce of existence and it requires social courage to interpret it. A great satirist incurs danger. He may be starved, imprisoned, ostracized, or hanged. Worse may befall him. You will recall Abas, the son of Metanira, who was changed into a lizard for laughing at the gods. Without question, the profession is dangerous. Most of us, being very cowardly devils, prefer to laugh in our sleeves.

******

Cover Image: Engraving of Polycrates and Anacreon. From Vorzeit und Gegenwart: Eine historische Lese-Gabe zur Unterhaltung und Belehrung für alle Stände (1832)