Philosophy in the Surf
by Amos Vogel
The policeman doggedly pushed his way through the throng of spectral bathers, admonishing those who wore no bathing suits to get dressed immediately. He handed each a green ticket, instantly watersoaked, answerable two weeks hence at the local courthouse. In this ghastly scene, thunderclouds breaking admist sudden flashes of lightning, the waves incessantly beating against the shore in measured, irrevocable surges of power, both victims and prosecutor were bathed in the same unearthly light.
The very fabric of society is attacked by nudism, murmured the policeman while filling in the name of his next victim. It excites the imagination of the unwary and leads to further breakdown of our sex mores, already undermined by salacious magazines, Hollywood and advertising.
Damn it, said Max, as he hurriedly put on his pants. Never discuss law with a philosophizing policeman. Such a man is unsufferable, his hypocrisy boundless. Not only does he have a gun which he means to use when necessary but he also believes he can carry on a man-to-man discussion about the deeper philosophical implications of the particular law he wishes to defend, with another person who is unarmed. To have a true discussion with anyone, you must be on the same level as he is. But to be preached at by a man armed is truly unbearable, as his argument, however common, is secretly fortified by that instrument of power. This is known both to you and him. You tolerate this knowledge because you must, he because to admit it would rob the vulgarity (or brilliance) of his intellectual arguments of their power.
I saw you, said the policeman and handed Max a ticket. You cannot deceive me. Though you now wear your bathing trunks, you did not do so before. Your act, though now a thing of the past, nevertheless took place. Your guilt, though (fortunately) no longer visible, is fixed for eternity, and this small, relatively innocuous, watersoaked, green summons is merely a token of this eternal guilt. But even your speedy submission to its call does not remove this irredeemable nature of an act once it is committed. Our actual role in society, my dear, suffering friend, is not to defend this or that particular law, as simple people are fond of believing. It is to remind you of the irrevocability of acts so that your lustful hand shall be stayed and you shall not stray from the path of righteousness we have laid out for you in our infinite goodness.
Well, said Max, who could no longer contain himself. If my guilt is fixed for eternity and the ticket summoning me to Brooklyn County Court irrevocable, I must learn to live within the limitations of human existence as best I can – and he removed his pants once more.
Evergreen Review, June 1966
© Amos Vogel/Evergreen Review
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