I’ve been accused of sharing the besetting vice of our times — gloom, despair, pessimism. There’s certainly plenty to kvetch about, but it’s also true that we take too little time to acknowledge we are surrounded by wonders. Here’s one.
The other day I was pushing on through volume six of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” which has now reached Munich, 1938. In a flashback, however, the narrator is remembering a summer’s day in rural England 24 years earlier when he was a small boy.
A party is gathered in front of a country house as a guest takes his leave. An embarrassing domestic disturbance has just occurred and now a local eccentric has passed by, redoubling the mortification of the hosts. Finally, the narrator’s Uncle Giles arrives with a tidbit of news. Some Austrian archduke and his wife have apparently been assassinated in Sarajevo. We know the idyll is over, though the characters do not.
The narrator’s comment is, “No one yet realized that the Mute with the Bowstring stood at the threshold of the door, that, if they wanted to get anything done in time of peace they must be quick about it. Already, the sands had almost run out.”
The hourglass allusion, with its hint of Omar Khayyam, is obvious, but who is the Mute with the Bowstring? It’s an arresting image. Once upon a time we might have paused and tried to look up such a phrase, if we lived with a reference library at our fingertips. Or jotted it down and later sought enlightenment from persons more learned than ourselves. More likely, we would have scratched our heads and moved on with the narrative.
Today, it is a matter of 30 seconds to put the question to Google and — bang,zoom — like magic in a fairy tale, back comes the answer. Several of them. It turns out that ‘mute’ in this context actually meant deaf. In the elaborate Turkish court and seraglio of the 16th and 17th centuries, which numbered as many as 10,000 persons, deaf servants were highly prized for their silence. What they couldn’t hear, they couldn’t be bribed to pass on. Clearly, the White House of today could use a few such retainers.
Interestingly, the deaf of that place and time had developed a sophisticated system of signing, but that’s merely a bit of tangential information gleaned along the way. To return to the mute with the bowstring, he was a special case. He was the sultan’s executioner who, at a nod of his master’s head, silently strangled with a bowstring those who had betrayed the court or fallen out of favor. Obviously this allusion gives Powell’s reminiscence about the advent of World War I, and how overnight it destroyed the peaceful Indian summer of late Victorian and Edwardian England, a spooky Arabian Nights shimmer.
But Google doesn’t stop there. It turns up additional references to the subject that are of interest. Anthony Powell was born in 1905 and there is much in “A Dance” that is autobiographical. His narrator, Nick Jenkins is a Powell surrogate and, like Powell, would have been about nine-years-old in the fatal summer of 1914.
The great novel of the public school life of English boys, Kipling’s “Stalky and Co,” was published in 1899 and might well have been on young Powell’s reading list as would the popular naval yarns of Captain Marryat. Google tells us that in both Stalky and Marryat’s “The Pasha of Many Tales,” the mute executioner with the bowstring puts in an appearance.
This example is a trivial instance, but imagine it multiplied by the millions and billions. Yes, the top Google searches of any given day may be for Diddy punching Drake, grumpy cats, or photos of half-clad Kardashians, but those silly crowds are small potatoes compared to the countless individuals seeking everything from quantum mechanics to ukiyo-e prints.
Imagine the laborious and time-consuming search that a few years ago would have been required to winkle out the meaning of “the mute with the bowstring” or a thousand other daily posers. What’s the origin of winkle, for instance? Now, the answer is immediate.
Perhaps one reason we are often troubled by the world and its woes is that they are all at our fingertips in the blink of an eye — typhoons in Asia, tyrants in Africa, folly in high places and cruelty in low. Our former bliss was a species of ignorance.
But the knowledge of evil is not all that is now at hand. We now also have access to the knowledge of good and great, the riches of history, literature, arts and sciences. Type a request for enlightenment and a silent electronic servant provides whatever you want to know, more reliably and comprehensively than the mutes of the seraglio ever achieved. As Martha would say, “It’s a good thing.” And a miraculous one. God bless the computer geeks, every one.