No — Nasty, Brutish, and Short are not the alter egos of Curly, Larry, and Moe, although the comedic talents of those crass Marxian wannabes might well be so described. Nor do these adjectives describe the life of the latest Wall Street brokerage firm to go down the tubes in the flush of the sub-prime mortgage debacle.
Some readers will no doubt recognize “nasty, brutish, and short” as the words used by Thomas Hobbes, in his classic work of political theory, Leviathan, to describe the quality of human life in the hypothetical “state of nature” that preceded the creation of the institution of the State. Actually, Hobbes described this condition as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But I quote the version I received recently from a loyal reader of this column.
Writing a column, you know, is like throwing a message bottle into the ocean. Feedback from readers is like seeing a rescue ship on the horizon.
“Scribe! You scribble not in vain!”
In my case, a few ships arrive electronically (yes, I have readers — two — in the outer archipelago of Steilacoom!). But, more often, readers respond in face-to-face encounters, wherever they happen to bump into me.
One day, I watched in exasperation as the tattooed kid at Noah’s Bagels yet again toasted the bagel which I had ordered untoasted. It’s a ritual, I guess. I say: “Sesame bagel widashmear, please.”
He asks, “Toasted?”
I reply: “Who toasts a fresh bagel?”
He serves it toasted. Like — am I speaking in code?
But this time a stranger nudged me in the ribs: “Here’s a PNW bagel-etiquette column awaiting your pen, Jaffee!”
Another time, an obviously demented caffeine freak at the Columbia City Starbucks forced my tall non-fat vanilla latte to grow cold while he catalogued a series of errors in a recent column on Jewish Gangland.
More recently (I kid you not!), an irate reader accosted me, at a shul kiddush, no less, and accused me of “aiding and abetting our enemies” in a column I had published in the Seattle Times on Israel’s 60th anniversary. Like my late father, Abe Jaffee, used to say: “Well, at least I made an impression!”
But back to the Hobbesian inspiration that occupies us at this moment. I owe it, as I said, to a reader. I’ll call him “Phil the Checkout Guy.” Phil is my favorite fan. Shortly after I began this column in the spring of 2004, he recognized me in his checkout line at Albertson’s and stopped the action to give me my first taste of journalistic celebrity.
“Hey, Prof!” he exclaimed. “Great column last week!”
To the puzzled shoppers awaiting their turn at the checkout, I modestly explained: “You see, I write this little column in the Jewish paper...” But, boy, did I feel terrific!
And, as the years go by, and as the columns somehow continue, Phil never lacks an encouraging word of appreciation as he totes up my bill and remains startled that, while living in Seward Park, I still have a North End telephone prefix (525, if you’re interested).
Phil, it turns out, is something of a literary man. One Sunday, as I concluded my shopping, I noticed that he was manning the “12 items or fewer” register. So I took my heavily laden cart to another register for checkout. Phil spied me in line and, as usual, called out a friendly greeting and waved.
Waving back, I felt a need to explain why I had neglected his checkout line.
“Sorry, Phil, I’ve got a load of stuff and you’re in the 12 items lane!”
To which Phil offered the reply that supplies our theme today:
“Well, Marty, life is nasty, brutish, and short!”
Ever quick on the uptake, I replied with all my Bronx wit: “You betcha, Phil!” As I wheeled my stuff out to the lot, I called back : “Hey, I’m gonna quote you on that!” But Phil was already at work toting up a customer’s “12 items only” purchase.
Later that day, I wondered: “Where did Phil get that bon mot from?” Was it, perhaps, an odd Nietzchean aphorism stuck in his mind from Philosophy 101? A few minutes with Prof. Google, however, straightened me out on one thing, at least. The quote was from Hobbes! Phil wasn’t making it up!
But another, deeper question, remained: did Phil know he was quoting Hobbes, or did he just get lucky? I suppose I could satisfy my curiosity the next time I’m at Albertson’s by just asking Phil to come clean. Does he, in fact, spend his evenings reflecting upon the philosophical sources of the ideology of the modern State?
Actually, I’d rather not know. I prefer to believe that my world is blessed with a Checkout Guy who glosses routine social interactions not with bumper sticker wisdom worthy of “The Simpsons” (“Life stinks. Then you die.”), but with reference to a 17th-century classic of political philosophy!
I enjoy my fantasy that Phil the Checkout Guy is a gilgul (spiritual offspring) of the Talmud’s mysterious Prophet Eliyahu — yep, the Seder guy! — who roamed the Babylonian flood plain, appearing here as a pauper in a ruined synagogue and there in a bleak oasis as a camel-driver, delivering to a worthy Jew a glimmer of events in the world Behind the Veil, or identifying the Messiah as a leper at the gate of Rome, changing his rotting bandages ever so carefully so that, should the shofar of Redemption sound, he could respond without delay.
For, thanks to Phil, I stand reminded that, as long as our minds search out the truths of the spirit and our feet are rooted in the earth’s loam, this worldly life — short though it may be — need be neither nasty nor brutish, but something that reaches toward the sublime!