Study Guide

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Visions of America

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Visions of America

He spake that evening of America, saying: "My friends—this is a continent that beckons with its mighty crags, its thunderous rivers, its gloomy forests, so filled with unknown life. Yes? God has spread here a mighty canvas, stretched and ready for the artist's hand. Everywhere there is bounty, demanding to be plucked from the tree; and trees, that, in their ancient beauty, beg to be felled and made into ships and houses on the illimitable hills of this land, offered so freely to civilized man. I believe fully, gentlemen, that the Golden Age shall come again in this new Eden." (1.5.39)

Mr. Gitney's going on about how America is basically a big buffet table God gives to the "civilized man" and that "civilized man" should just go hog-wild and do what he wants with what he's given—like build houses and ships and stuff. His attitude is kind of like that guy who kills all the truffula trees to make thneeds in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.

Well canst thou imagine that I could not hazard our little portion on such a dangerous business, which venture can end only in financial ruin and the destruction of Christians by heathen tomahawk and the tricks of barbarous Deviltry. I should not be sorry, did the Lord sweep the savages further to the west; but I doubt His divine will shall ever be expressed through Virginians. They are not his especial people. (1.13.12)

This is from Dr. Matthias Fruhling's letter to his wife, and, just so you know, that "Dr." in front of his name doesn't mean he can't be a total racist… which he pretty much is, if you can't tell already. But what's ironic is that his brand of racism would actually leave Native American people alone. We're guessing if the rest of America followed Dr. Fruhling's ideas, Native Americans would be a whole lot happier about their place in American history.

My mentor murmured in Latin, "We Americans are not fond of the customs duties. We do not appreciate taxation."

"What," I asked, "are customs duties for?"

He answered almost too quickly for me to translate, "These? For the Crown's protection against the French and for the extermination and rout of the Indians so we might settle. We forget men must be paid to kill. Even an act as simple as leveling a village is costly; rapine is not cheap; and children, I am afraid, will not burn themselves." (1.18.20-22)

Octavian's talking to Dr. 09-01 here, who's trying to explain to Octavian why a Customs Inspector is being tarred, feathered and beaten in front of them. 09-01 is also pointing out an interpretation of taxes that remains relevant today—you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who's exclusively pleased with what the taxes they pay funds.

Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all, once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. (2.10.4)

If you swap "music" for "America" in this passage, you basically have the American dream in a nutshell: an America that's for anyone, even if that person is from some other place. So the question is, then, why doesn't Octavian describe America the same way he describes music?

It was a catalogue of horrors. Page after page of N****es in bridles, strapped to walls, advertisements for shackles, reports of hangings of slaves for theft or insubordination. He had, those many months, been collecting offers for children sold cheap, requests for aid in running down families who had fled their masters. For the first time, I saw masks of iron with metal mouth-bits for the slave to suck to enforce absolute silence. I saw razored necklaces, collars of spikes that supported the head. I saw women chained in coffees, bent over on the wharves.

Mr. Gitney burned Bono's fashion catalogue an hour later.

"Let us rid ourselves," he said, "of this noisome object."

But I could not rid myself of it. It was the common property of us all. (2.13.17-20)

This is a vision of America that doesn't fit into Mr. Gitney's view of what America (or slavery) ought to be—to him, everything should be about the moon, the stars, and lots of data. But clearly that's not reality, and—as Octavian points out—the ugliness of reality is something that belongs to everyone; it can't just be burned away.

We heard the countryside was full of insurrection. In every town, Loyalists and rebels rose against each other. Men were beaten; some were shot at in jest. The spirit of Anarchy spread everywhere his light and agitated wings. (2.17.3)

Note how distant this whole scene seems to everyone at the College, including Octavian. It starts with "We heard," which automatically removes Octavian from a close understanding of the war. There's also a balance in the sentence "Men were beaten; some were shot at in jest." But that's the College, for you—the College isn't comfortable with the live action nature of History.

"It is easy for dreamers to speak of abolishing slavery," said Mr. Sharpe. "It is easy for women of leisure to sit in their mansions, singing harpsichord-tunes about slave-girls and reading sentimental novels of injustice. They have no knowledge of common realities—how the market works. They give no thought to the Africans themselves —- to the chaos and riots which should ensue, the starvation, the burning of public buildings, the invasion of Indian tribes, if the people of your nations—"

"What nations is that?"

"Perhaps you should tell me."

"Am I not an American?"

"Are you not? To what nation do you belong, then?"

"I belong," I answered in a voice shrill and tight, "to the nation of whosoever—without profit—pursues the good and the right." (4.12.42-47)

There you have it: the two core competing visions of what America should be about in this book. For Mr. Sharpe, America has to run according to its capitalist principles, which means that—yeah—slaves are American, but only insofar as they are part of the cogs in the wheel of a prosperous American economy. Octavian, on the other hand, presents a vision of America that history textbooks try to present: an idealist's hope for America.

The only thing is, Octavian's smart—and bitter enough about his enslavement—that he doesn't name America as that nation.

"We have labored too long under a government that has sought to curtail exchange; such interference is unnatural. We shall see a brave new day, Octavian, when the rights of liberty and property are exercised, and when all men are free to operate in their own self-interest. And as each individual expresses his self-interested will, so does the democratically voice speak, the will of the common people, not kings or ministers; and when the self-interest of every citizen speaks together, then and only then does benevolence arise." (4.12.64)

How does America's people "speak" democratically? If you're Mr. Sharpe, it's all about money. Money—or the "exchange" of it, the pure pursuit of "self-interest"—is what allows people to show their will.

Another way to think about it: Mr. Sharpe's gesturing toward consumer capitalism—the freedom to buy and own what you want, and in that buying, you reveal what you want out of your nation. If that's a BMW or the latest H&M dress, then that's what the nation is supposed to help you pursue. Anyone who gets in the way of that? Watch out. (You've seen what Black Friday at Walmart is like, right? Expand that to a global level.)

"Look about you, Octavian. We are all part of a web of finance and exchange from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Consider the most pleasant scene of pastoral repose. It is nothing but a vision of consumption." (4.12.65)

Mr. Sharpe may be the main bad guy of the book, but that doesn't mean he's completely wrong. He has a point about that "pastoral" scene because it's true—consumption goes on even in the most natural settings, especially when human beings are involved.

[…] I thought on the word freedom, and could picture nothing that it might be, nor the years; nor whether I would one day sit beside my river; nor whether I would hang, nor fight, nor what man I would be, nor what woman I would take to wife; nor what would be the fate of this nation, birthing like a Caesar, tearing its mother midst blood and travail. I knew only the rain and the old man who toiled to keep pace with me; and I knew our goal. We left the Patriots behind us. (4.12.163)

This is the final "vision" of America the book leaves us with, and it's definitely not the typical spiel you hear about the amazing birth of our nation. Nope—Octavian's ready to leave it all behind and go to the Brits. He has no vision left (all those "nor"s); he only has the moment.

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