Traditional depiction of Washington at Valley Forge
Week Five: Chapter 5 “The Light Sings Eternal” (pg. 59-70 Hilaritas edition) Part IIBy Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger
In Chapter Five we immediately encounter George Washington, toking peacefully in his tent. This has been brought up in the comments, previous posts, and in Eric’s Introduction to this volume but the other prominent example of a stoned Founding Father is found in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. (Another pop culture reference to the patriotic pastime of pot smoking comes from The Firesign Theater’s Everything You Know is Wrong which RAW references at the beginning of Cosmic Trigger.)
In Pynchon’s novel Washington is not presented on the battlefield but in the years before at his home in Mt. Vernon- like Benjamin Franklin, who appears earlier, there is the typical Pynchonesque-shiftiness to the character, and his appearance is used to combine humor, drugs, and social dissection. It is Dixon, who had spent time in South Africa observing the Transit of Venus, who recognizes the scent after Washington has spoken to a slave churlishly, upsetting the surveyor. Washington, to smooth things over, begins to pass the pipe.
The character who makes this scene fascinating is Gershom, a black Jew enslaved by Washington. Although he is told to go prepare hog jowls for the white gentlemen’s oncoming munchies, he instead takes the pipe and joins in their conversation. As the foursome consume more cannabis, Gershom--whose name is perhaps a reference to that most impressive academic scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem--seems to take the reins of the conversation. The scene culminates with Martha, who “smelled the Smoak” and figured the boys would be hungry, bringing in a plate of desserts out of Scooby Doo.
Dixon’s discomfort with Washington mirrors his earlier disgust with the racist tyranny in South Africa and clearly links it to the depravity of the Colonies. The presence of Gershom gives a place in the circle with the three white dudes who are generally celebrated by history, further subverting the scene Pynchon has created.
While Pynchon may have read Nature’s God, RAW points out in the Appendix of Illuminatus! and in Sex, Drugs, and Magick that Washington’s enthusiasm for cannabis is on the historic record. And further study indicates that he was growing it for “medicinal” purposes and was influential in the spread of hemp across the Americas.
During their smoke sesh Washington gets a little spooky, as one is wont to do, and begins discussing plates with mysterious inscriptions, unearthed in the distant frontier. The narrator of the novel, Reverend Cherrycoke, steps in to note: “[t]here remains a residue of Belief, out to the Westward, that the mere presence of Glyphs and Signs can produce magickal Effects,- for the essence of Magic is the power of small Magickal Words, to work enormous physical Wonders.” This connection between mystery and the (then) West is present in both Mason & Dixon and Nature’s God and, as I noted earlier, ties into the traditional American theme of wilderness as the land of subconscious wonders/terrors.
James Moon is promoted to Colonel by Washington after he refuses to recant that he has witnessed a rock fall from the sky. Later, when he is transformed back to Seamus Muadhen after his out of body experience, Washington confides in him that he had encountered a strange man in a glowing craft who predicted the future in detail.
I could find no mention of this exact incident but it does sound similar to the encounters with sky people documented by writers such as John Keel and Jacques Vallee. I believe that this is an extrapolation of a story that I imagine many of us encountered in storybooks: Washington’s Vision at Valley Forge.
The general account goes that Washington was overheard by a young man telling an officer about praying in the woods near Valley Forge when an angel appeared before him and accurately predicted his success, presidency, and events of the country's first few decades. This is usually reduced to a “see big historical guy pray good have faith” gibberish but it actually began as a piece of Civil War propaganda. The tale was presented by “99 year old” Anthony Sherman who related it to a journalist, Charles Wesley Alexander, who published the story in 1861. Naturally, this is all bullshit and Alexander penned it himself to bolster the Union during the fledgling year of America’s bloodiest conflict.
I found an account from the Roswell Daily Register that recounted the story above along with another that claimed Washington would occasionally get advice and encouragement from “little green men” on the frontier during the Revolution. The story goes on to say that Washington believed them to be an advanced, eccentric Indigenous people. If anyone knows of other stories about Washington encountering the uncanny I would love to hear them or be pointed in the right direction.
Before Seamus meets with Washington he is convalescing with the wounded Marquis de Lafayette who is very bothered by the Quakers’ speech patterns. I have two things I’d like to say about the Marquis’ predicament: firstly, that his fear that he was in a British prison and that they were trying to drive him mad is a rather blatant reference to what had happened to Sigismundo at the hands of some nefarious parts of the Marquis’ own government. My second point isn’t so much of a point but a personal anecdote about why I was able to perfectly picture the look on Lafayette’s face. This is because of a Christmas dinner I had with my Uncle’s mother’s relatives who were from Germany and exclusively German. At the time my maternal grandmother, who was still alive but had Alzheimer’s, was under my care most of the time during weekends and holidays and was well enough to get out of the house. While my family talked to the relatives through my Uncle’s mother, I tried to be game by loudly mispronouncing German authors/beers and smiling and nodding with them when they would correct or repeat the name. After a while I looked across the table at my grandmother who was sitting, her first fork of food halfway to her mouth, in wide-eyed confusion at what I’m sure seemed like a moment when the world stopped making any sense. I did love her very much.
Lafayette also muses on Voltaire’s Micromegas, an excellent short story that is often pointed to as an early example of science fiction. Micromegas is about a giant being from a planet orbiting Sirius who travels about the galaxy until he comes to Saturn. There he meets another gigantic being, although smaller than Micromegas, with whom he is able to converse about many subjects. Eventually the two come to Earth where they wade in our Oceans and decide the planet must be uninhabited before meeting a boatful of scientists and philosophers to whom Micromegas promises a book answering all of mankind’s questions. The book is found to be blank after his departure. Fitting and quite like some “real” encounters people have claimed to have had with space beings.
To return to James, he’s shot and split into a trinity of selves: a body, James Moon, and the old Seamus Muadhen. The truth of masks is transcended and James is cast aside as an imposter to please the British. Oppression runs deep and, aside from nationality/race, this dialogue could be replaced with a variety of characters from a variety of backgrounds during a variety of times. In light of yesterday’s first part of this post I will close with the following:
“Once we were all stars and we’ve been making Punch and Judy puppets of ourselves.”