Utopia 2184:
Chapter the First

In Which Saint Thomas More and I
Pass between Bishops
into a Yew Walk

This is the vision that came to me at the commencement of our epoch of troubles. At the bare commencement, I say, for as yet the populace trusted in petroleum transport and grid electricity. (Grid electricity! The little space heater of those days, designed for warming a single room, drew 1500 watts, and so did the work of fully two horses.) At the bare commencement, I say, for as yet only Hiroshima and Nagasaki had demonstrated the military utility of the heaviest elements. At the very barest commencement, I stress, for a scant thirty months had passed since the second Bush had taken the oath hitherto reserved for Americans elected President.

It was summer in Upper Canada, a heavy summer afternoon with an incandescent haze - harbinger of climate change - smearing the wide sky. So often confined in Toronto streets, I was on this quiet afternoon rejoicing in the ampler skies of the David Dunlap Observatory in the northern suburbs. Our Observatory lawns were still green, their bordering trees still strong, our snapdragon even exuberant in the July heat, the nearby transmission lines still humming.

I write here 'our' for the (barely) adequate reason that I was myself an Observatory volunteer. My horticultural mission that afternoon, though, was less to snapdragon than to eight rosebushes, an Observatory donation from Mum.

An end to dandelions! I probed and stirred cautiously with my thin weeding tool, extracting the last of the deep-rooted weeds from beneath that thorny bough. (A Grootenhurst shrub, or was it an Adam Cuthbert? In both cases, the nursery catalogue had intimated, strong flowering would run from June to the first frost. It was a time when the south of Ontario could still expect frosts, say in October.)

And now to fill the little duster with death to leaf-cutters, and now to uncoil the great watering hose from the workroom under our telescope dome.

But in the midst of this Sunday's token endeavour at leading a life of ecological rectitude, a heaviness assailed my limbs. I left the pesticide untouched. Neither did I link hose to spigot. I stretched out instead in the shade of our white dome (largest telescope on Canadian soil), on the close-cut sward, in a weariness as unto death.

And lo - I knew, tottering as one totters on the edge of sleep, that some great altering impended. Death? Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour.

Or, rather, in place of death, a troublesome tutorial in living, taught by some Saint?

Oh blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine ...

Those words are by William Low. It is customary to sing them to music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

If a Saint, then who?

A well-worn Catholic joke: A certain man makes wrong turning after wrong turning. Allowed to choose between Cambridge and Oxford, he chooses Oxford. Disaster. Allowed to marry at most one of Miss X and Miss Y, he reaches for the former. Wrong again. Blessed with a choice between Science and Law, he makes his career in Law. Bad, reel bad. And then the chance for a fresh start, for redemption, in distant Australia. The Qantas 747 in an uneasy limbo between Heathrow and Perth; a starboard hydraulic system failing in sudden turbulence; an engine out; a preposterous reassurance from the overhead loudspeakers, about ditching in the Indian Ocean being for this crew a 'well-rehearsed procedure'. The fuselage already bucking and shuddering in its final approach to waves that, at the instant of impact, surely exert the retarding force of granite. The tormented one buries head in arms, sobbing in the faith of his simple forbears, 'Saint Francis, Saint Francis, save me!' To which a voice answers from the scudding clouds: 'Do you mean Saint Francis of Assisi? Or ... Saint Francis Xavier?'

How could the choice of Saint be a minor matter? Let, then, I asked, my Saint in this hard hour be Thérèse. Not she of Avila, the Spanish Theresa, who allegedly snapped at God in a road accident, 'It's no wonder You have so few friends, You treat them so badly.' Rather, let it be firm, quiet little Thérèse de Lisieux. Thérèse, spoiled in infancy, and neurotic, for all I know, congenitally. Thérèse, born in 1873, and granted, at the unusual age of 15, permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux. Thérèse, dead in that same convent in 1897 from tuberculosis. Assailed also with depression, or to put it in the Saint's own categories, with grievous temptations against faith and hope.

Thérèse, who wrote of Christ, 'I try to be nowise concerned about myself, and to abandon unreservedly to Him the work He deigns to accomplish in my soul.'

Thérèse, who helpfully added, 'Should we attempt great things, even under pretext of zeal, He deserts us.' Thérèse, Doctor of the Church. Thérèse, who allegedly handed out roses in the trenches of World War I. (Thus, I suppose: 'Here guys, tiens, prends cette rose; bon ...')

Thérèse, depicted in hundreds of churches - no, I suspect in tens of thousands - carrying roses.

In place of Thérèse, I got the Man for All Seasons, Thomas More.

The Saint was predictable in appearance, matching the Holbein portrait to its final brush stroke. His rich black robe was stiff with the propriety of a high Tudor official. The red gold in his great chain gleamed dully in the blazing Ontario afternoon. His very gait personified Law. He seemed no less a part of our establishment than our Associate Director in his mid-Victorian farmhouse at the far end of the grounds, than our distinguished scientific guest-observers, than our NATO-sponsored post-doc in his gatehouse lodge. No less a part of it than our telescope operators, or our new electronics specialist from Novosibirsk, or his Toronto-trained co-specialist. No less a legitimate part of the local setup than our operations manager or our contract programmer.

The programmer. Implementing interface to new charge-coupled-device camera, so that the team might the more rapidly obtain spectra from dim stars. Certain other days in programmer's working week assigned to 400-processor supercomputing Linux cluster, in material fact beside physics tower on downtown campus, in administrative fact attached to new hadron-hadron collider in Geneva. Hadron-hadron collider one of the most sophisticated experiments in science so far, in any branch of science, in any epoch.

And certainly the Saint seemed no less a part of our establishment than our little bevy of tour guides and cleaners and volunteers.

It was as though he had been strolling around the facility at least since its First Light. That date happened to be the last day of May in the Year of Grace 1935. Perhaps he had spent that whole ample human lifespan (one would expect as much of a Tudor lawyer) seeing to it that each pertinent point of tort or conveyance was addressed in our documents, each necessary signature appended, each requisite seal affixed.

What was still more astonishing than the Saint's cool chez-soi-ness, what was in fact bizarre beyond words, was the transmogrification of our garden.

Our Observatory landscaping, I must reiterate, is constrained. The lawns have proportions appropriate to a modest English country seat, such as might be held by a Life Peer or by some none-too-close relative of the current Roil Femmily. It possesses, in other words, proportions appropriate to a big city park. Onto this rather ample canvas we have put, in our necessarily straitened circumstances, a mere hundred or two hundred spring bulbs; the eight rose buses I've already mentioned; some timid little clumps of English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia; some hefty annuals from the University; some additional annuals from Mum and me. Our trees and shrubs, while good, even fine, are not of a kind calculated to require anything beyond cursory maintenance.

Imagine, then, my astonishment to see behind the Saint formal flower beds, plus one of those herbal "knot garden" thingies they show you in Stratford-upon-Avon, plus massed topiary.

Clearly the Saint awaited some opening remark from me. And clearly it was necessary for me to struggle, however feebly, with some imitation of Tudor English, in the painful awareness that he would forthwith in his glory shine. Rising politely to my feet, then, and brushing soil from my Levis, and running hand through tousled hair in default of a comb, I gestured to the topiary: 'Prithee, how can this be, for marry, I know not a Tudor landscape gardener?'

To this the Saint made grave reply: 'Nay, what Philopena - or, as Thy modern Schoolmen are wont to say, what Marque or "grade", quis gradus, wert Thou accorded by Thy learnèd Professor Thy Lord and Master both Spirituall and Temporall, our trusty and much-belovèd expositor of subtile photonicks Professor Doctor Sajeev John, in the Quantum Theory of the Three-Hundred Levele, in the Fall Semester of the Year of Grace One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Three?'

To which interrogation I, lamely, 'C minus'.

And the Saint: 'Thus, then, Thy University - "Sicut arbor aevo" declare its armorial bearings, its fame veriliy crescant "Like a great Tree unto the Age" - thus, then, Thy greatly loving University of Toronto, acting in a wisdom which verily passeth understanding, did award Thee a Marque some slight level above the ignominy of F, E, D Minus, D, or D Plus. And Thou, forsooth: didst Thou then pursue the Sequel course?'

To which I: 'Get thee away from me, for I was a sinful man, who dared not take on duties beyond his station.'

And the Saint, in rebuke: 'Hath Sacra Scriptura no parable of buried talents?'

As he thus revealed to me that - aw Shucks, aw Heque - it would have been sort of, kind of, nudge-nudge-wink-wink ahem-ahem sensible to enroll in PHY457, however nasty the third-year quantum theory that I so narrowly survived, the formal gardens bulked more imposing than ever. There was more than a little menace, I reflected, in the looming of those nine-foot topiary chessmen: here a Rook, and there a Pawn, and here a Knight, and between two Bishops an opening to a dark brick walk lined with yew.

Bishops. Whoever named the chessmen understood the Church. The Knight hops cheerfully on a dog-leg, the Rook slides with solid English or Norman-French self-assurance along rows and columns. The Bishop, by contrast, slithers, with ecclesial wile, diagonally. Nay, further: each side in the chess war starts out with two Bishops, one constrained forever to execute his slithers on the white squares, the other constrained to black.

It was, as I say, between great nine-foot topiary mitres that a paved yew walk beckoned. Yew, the tree of Death. Yew, the lych-gate tree, here flanked by Bishops.

Since the Saint was evidently expecting me to keep up my side of the dialogue in a social situation that made a dissertation defence seem the lightest Starbucks badinage, I plunged ahead recklessly. I improvised, grabbing what I could of Tudor idiom, remembering what little I could of quantum philosophy. I really did, I'll here insist, correctly recall that in quantum mechanics things can in advance of the experimenter's active intervention be sort of both thus and not thus, with the single electron both flying through slit A and flying through Slit B, the experimenter's inrushing act of observation alone pinning reality down to one alternative in place of the other.

'Dost Thou,' I therefore said, 'herewith aver, with the Quanticks Logicians forsooth, this most excellent Observatory in advance of observation's instant both to lack AND to possess a Topiary Garden, both to lack AND to rejoice in a paved Yew Walk' (the yews now cast a particularly alarming shade, their boughs gleaming golden as though to underscore the Saint's heavy chain of office) - 'dost Thou, my eminent and learnèd Master' (I insult my profs, really I do, but I am ashamed to say that before the Saint I momentarily judged grovelling to be the better part of valour) - 'dost Thou herewith aver those very Yews in advance of observation's instant - and I plead further that we stand now outside the temporall flow which alone embraceth observation's instant - dost Thou herewith aver those very Yews both to grow in and to grow NOT in Upper Canadian soils?'

Then the Saint: 'Well Thou reasonest, deftly Thou syllogizest, knowing that Quantum Logick existeth even while (ever the Bachelier-malgré-lui, ever the self-styled off-scouring of the Schools) perduring invincibly ignorant, knowing kiss-me-Sweet-and-Twenty-all of its très riches particulars.' (Sainte Thérèse, pray for me now, pray that this dude not lapse further into the Norman French of his so deadly - yes, for him quite strictly and literally deadly - Tudor legal practice.) 'But lo, not Toronto's subtlest Doctors, not the archangel Gabriel, nay, not Thy professing Heisenberg, can name...'

Here he waited for what we in the more literary flights of my native Estonian - more of that later - call a repliik. (A repliik. As over coffee and Schwartzwalder Torte, in some literaarne salong. Salong comes from French, though most of our other useful citified words, for instance kirik and politsei, are from German.)

And lo, I repliiked in melody - with sudden inspiration, in the realization that the Saint, now standing as he was outside the flow of history, was likely enough to know a scrap of twentieth-century Percy Grainger: 'How can I name all the wild flowers that grow / In a rightly quantized garden?'

This was evidently one of the various correct responses on this tricky spot quiz. With a grave nod of approval, the Saint beckoned me to the ominous Bishops, beckoned me to follow him as he walked with a judge's or Teaching Assistant's gait down the avenue of yews.

Long did we tread, in silence, I at first brashly whistling the Percy Grainger air, then keeping my spirits up with this or that cradle tune from my exile-Estonian childhood, then whistling not at all, but the Saint evidently entirely at ease whether I chose to whistle or not. A Yew Walk! A kilometre, a second kilometre, our entry point in the topiary at last an infinitesimal speck of blue, Hardy's or Littlewood's vanishing epsilon in a great dim greenness, with a long, thin ribbon of glare overhead.

Mathematics. Hardy - or was it Littlewood? - on government work in London, during the Great War. A technical report carefully composed, the manuscript now handed over to clerical staff for typesetting: 'and thus epsilon becomes vanishingly small.' The King's Printer, or His Majesty's Stationery Office, or some such, scouring wartime London for the right fonts, and finally succeeding. The galley proofs adorned with a row of epsilons, set first in, as it might have been, a twelve-point size, then in ten, then in eight, then in the six or four appropriate for classified ads.

Mathematics. Professor Michael Edelstein, born 1917 March 21. Departed this life 2003 January 27, of natural causes. Arrived Jerusalem 1937, thus escaping Holocaust. From 1964 onward, a founder of the research programme at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

A small seminar room in my first undergraduate year, in the early months of 1971. Back then, I must explain, my school was Dalhousie University in Halifax, not the University of Toronto. ('Oh,' said the Secretary of St John's College, Oxford, a few years later, when I had succeeded in temporarily escaping Canada. She was eyeballing my file. 'Oh, you're from Dal-HOO-sie.' - 'We call it 'Dal-HOW-sie, actually.' - 'Oh. I'm sure you do.' - But I digress.)

What do we mean, asked Professor Edelstein's chain of reasoning - we had to write our own textbook, from the lectures and Professor Edelstein's own spirit-duplicator crib notes - what do we mean when we claim that the limit of, say, the ratio of x to sine x (the sine here being of course evaluated in the manner of the severer mathematicians, in radian measure), as x approaches zero, is one? Mathematics stands outside time, so the language of 'approach' can at best be metaphor. But it is easy: we mean merely that for any positive epsilon, no matter how small, there exists some positive delta such that if the distance of x from zero is a nonzero number less than delta, then the discrepancy between x/sin x and 1 is less than that excruciatingly tiny preassigned epsilon. For any epsilon, no matter how small. After a mere hour's reflection, it makes sense.

And then Professor Edelstein, pleading for comprehension, in the heavy accents of Estonia or Germany or his native Poland or the old 1930s Mt Scopus campus of Hebrew U. in Jerusalem: 'Fullerton, Guptill, Karmo. You geeev me ENNNNNY epsilon ... and I can proe-DEUCE a delta.'

Those last words in roughly the tone of the Handel aria about knowing that my Redeemer liveth.

Then worse: 'If you do not understand ziss defini-shun, you stay outSIDE muss-em-mah-tiks.'

Dear Professor Edelstein, undoubtedly one of my three best teachers in any branch of science or humanities, in any department on any campus, but all the same adept at escalating the terror.

Mathematics. According to Littlewood, a certain precisian professor said 'quartic polynomial ax-to-the-fourth plus bx-to-the-cube plus cx-squared plus dx plus e , where e need not be the base of the natural logarithms.'

Mathematics, University of Toronto. Fall semester, 1991, and spring semester, 1992. Impenetrable mysteries in MAT257, the Edelsteinean univariate concepts now generalized to spaces of n dimensions, in a topic our impossible author is pleased to call 'Calculus on Manifolds'. In the general terror, a few of my classmates stay calm. One of them later completes a doctorate, undertakes postdoctoral reserach in graph and knot theory, proclaims in a book that mathematical ability is a myth, demonstrates in tutoring the disadvantaged children of Toronto that our educational system fails its students by expecting them to fail. Puts his stuff up at http://www.jumptutoring.org. 'JUMP', he explains, means 'Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies'.

A phrase from liturgy: '...your whole church offers thanks and praise together with John Paul, our Pope, N.N., our bishop, and all whose lives bring hope to this world.'

A vanishing epsilon, as I say.

The Saint himself did not whistle, but did at length quietly begin (was this standard operating procedure for a Renaissance scholar on a protracted garden stroll?) to recite Latin verse, more to himself than to me. I inwardly lamented, not for the first time, my deficiencies even in Latin. My reading in poetry, in particular, had been confined to a glorious semester's Catullus, plus a few hundred lines from the Master the Saint was now so effortlessly recalling.

And yet there did, at length, come a half-comprehensible passage in his opaque recitation.

(I recall, as I repeat these words to you, our footfalls on the bricks. I recall the buzzing of summer bees somewhere over our heads. I recall, with the Latin, the vanishing epsilon.)

Fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus.

I guess that means, at least roughly, 'And meanwhile it flees, it flees: irrecoverable, irreparable time.'

There followed an unreal darkness in the sun, even as I have seen it with my own retinas at annular eclipse. The path under our feet (we pressed forward in steady rhythm, now quite without speech) seemed still harder, the flanking yew hedges still taller, and I knew more than ever that I was out of time's flow.

Or, rather, this is what I now knew: I knew, as we know in language beyond words, that my cremated dust was long laid to rest in the little Ontario woodland flanking the Observatory. I knew, as we know in language beyond words, that not my life in this world alone, but my two unhappy centuries, were long past. On the one hand the twentieth century, the century of State terror, which I perhaps in a sense had encountered in the faces of my parents, or again of Professor Edelstein. On the other hand the twenty-first, a century of terror propertized.

State terror. 1962, late October. Mum, and a little girl from next door, and I are at the kitchen table. Also here is a neighbour from across the road, strong and solitary Mrs MacRae or McRae, but Nana in my playmate's parlance and mine. We sometimes visit Nana. Nana never comes to visit Mum. Now she is at the kitchen table, asking about Cuba. President Kennedy, she says, has been on television. Mum and Dad don't have television yet.

It occurs to me now, four decades later, that Nana had a reason for consulting Mum. Mum had been in war, Nana knew; Mum, Nana knew, knew Europe, read books and newspapers avidly, knew war. Mum and Grandma had fled in September of 1944 from the advancing Red Army, their guide in navigation along Estonia's narrow highways, through bog and farmland, a page Mum had ripped from a school atlas.

Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in an interview of 2002 October 16 published on the Web by the Washington Post:

we found out that ... US destroyers were dropping signaling depth charges on a Soviet submarine near the quarantine line that was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo - totally unbeknownst to the US Navy. The Soviet captain lost his temper, there could be a world war up there, let's take some of them down with us, etc. Cooler heads prevailed, specifically the sub brigade deputy commander named Vasily Arkhipov, who was onboard and calmed the captain down.

That fresh historical research suggested to some 2002 analysts that the civilization of 1962 came closer to destruction than had hitherto been believed. On their reappraisal, it was a submarine officer named Vasily Arkhipov who forestalled nuclear detonation.

Propertized. A useful participle. Said of that which has been rendered a piece of vendible property, has been taken out of high public space and inserted into the more readily accessible world of Wal-Mart.

2001 September 11, 08:59 or 09:00 or 09:01 or so, Eastern Daylight Time. Frequency-modulated radio tuned to the local Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The newsreader says a plane has struck the World Trade Center. How unfortunate, I think: what a singular accident in civil aviation. Let me keep the radio on at least for a few minutes, so as to acquire details.

State terror, 1941 June 14 or so. The story (but I have not tried to verify it) is that when the NKVD came for my little Uncle Rein and his parents, little Rein could not find his other shoe, and so stood just half-shod in the cattle car that bore him on the long rails into Siberia.

I knew, as we know in language beyond words, that the very Observatory was now a mere trace of masonry in a quiet mown hayfield in energy-starved, drought-stricken savannah, the onetime condominiums and shopping plazas of surrounding Richmond Hill now low piles of rubble on which tough goats grazed.

I knew that my family in Canada, Britain, and Estonia, my very books and papers, were now scattered or destroyed.

I knew that these sombre yews lay, with each measured step in our meditative and relentless progression, less and less in Upper Canada, more and more where? - in the south of England! - even as one probability distribution in the quantum mechanics of the atom's outer reaches (if I remember the theory aright) melds into another.

This was a quiet England, Catholic again in its monarchy and numerous other legal forms, Catholic again in much of its sensibility, an England at peace with itself under fig trees and mangroves in the steamy glare of a greenhouse-warm July.