14 Feb 2010

Mark Helprin’s “Jacob Bayer and the Telephone”

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Mark Helprin

I was just reading Mark Helprin’s recent The Pacific and Other Stories, and came upon the marvellous Jacob Bayer and the Telephone (published originally in Forbes ASAP in October of 2000), a profoundly conservative critique of Modernism presented as a fable set in the turn of the last century Jewish Pale of Settlement in White Russia.

“It will bring peace and assure prosperity. In an era of instant communication, no longer will countries go to war. It cannot but revolutionize all our affairs for the better, as we have begun to witness. The citizens of Koidanyev are not philosophers or theologians. They have not chosen to go on the road, like you, to chase dreams. They simply want to live their lives in peace, and, because of the telephone, they look forward to this century, which will be the greatest century of mankind. We in Koidanyev do not wish to be left out. Is that a sin?”

“Yes,” said Jacob Bayer, “it is a sin. Ceaseless, feverish, desperate activity for fear of not having what someone else has, is a sin. Pride in one’s creations is a sin. The conviction that one has mastered the elements of the universe, or soon will, is a sin. Why? They are sins because they are a turning away from what is true. Your span here is less than the brief flash of a spark, and if, after multiplying all you do by that infinitesimal fraction, you still do not understand the requirement of humility, your wishes and deeds will be monstrous, your affections corrupt, your love false.”

“What does this have to do with the telephone?” the simpleton asked again, painfully.

“The telephone,” said Jacob Bayer, “is a perfectly splendid little instrument, but by your unmetered, graceless enthusiasm you have made it a monument to vacuousness and neglect. Recall the passage: I, Kohelet, was King over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven….I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

Now came to Jacob Bayer, without his asking, the gift he had of seeing terrible things. He bowed his head, tears came to his eyes, and he said, in despair, “Koidanyev will be destroyed. The tall trees will be cut, the houses will burn, even the stones will be buried. And the souls that have chased the wind will be scattered by the wind.”

In the long silence that ensued, Jacob Bayer’s vision slowly glided away from the silent onlookers, like a thunderstorm that has cracked and boomed overhead and then flees on cool winds, its flashes and concussions fading gently.

“Nonsense!” cried Haskell Samoa, awakening the crowd and quickly turning them against the man they might have followed a moment before. “The Napoleonic Wars have been over for a century. The nightmare you describe has left the world forever, banished by the light of reason. Man can control his destiny, and this light will grow stronger. What could happen? I do not doubt that before us lie the most glorious years in history, and, in contrast to their coming wonders, you are a specter of the darkness and a reminder of the dreadful past. The commission has decided that you must leave and never return. You may stay the night, but in the morning you must go.”

“It won’t be the first time,” said Jacob Bayer.

“Are all the towns and all the people in the towns wrong? Can that be? Is it only you who knows the truth?”

“Rabbi,” said Jacob Bayer, “the truth sits over Koidanyev like the hot sun. It has nothing to do with me.”

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