Meditations on Inconsistency: The Hobgoblin

Kage Baker was generally pretty scornful of American attempts at philosophers and metaphysicians. Thoreau, Emerson, Kerouac, Whitman … she found them all rather puerile and just a little too fraternity-minded. Being of both an historical and intellectual bent, she read them all extensively – but in the end, she also dismissed them as shallow boys.

She loved Kerouac’s passion and love of the life of the road – she felt it, too – but she couldn’t approve of his habit of dumping the impediments of family for adventure. “He’s like that guy in Close Encounters,” I remember her saying. “Kids and wives only get in the way when the High and Distant Horizon calls you. That sucks.”

Thoreau amused her; she felt he’d come up with one of the best societal drop-out schemes ever. Gary Trudeau, whose Doonsebury strip she loved, had absolutely discerned the amiable flakiness underlying Thoreau’s philosophy when he created the Walden II Commune. Whitman was another borderline flake, Kage judged – so looped on sensuality, so high on life, that he’d have gotten himself locked up if he hadn’t also been blessed with a shrewd and angelic way with words. Whitman’s poetry was grand, but as Kage (a landlady’s daughter) observed: “I’d never lend him a $20 or rent him an apartment!”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, patron saint of  Transcendentalism, flatly annoyed Kage. He wrote with assumed authority, she said, on things he’d never engage in personally – austerity, communalism, “natural” life, abolition. He lived a rather comfortable middle-class life while espousing quite a different lifestyle: he was, for instance, anti-slavery but did not lecture on it because he was nervous about attracting public notice on the subject. His famous statement – “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – Kage saw as the most enormous and self-referential cop-out imaginable. It excused anything; it rationalized everything; it defended nothing.

Kage was contemptuous of inconsistency. It offended her, it smacked too much of hypocrisy. If it was accidental, she regarded it as a weakness, as being too flaccid to maintain your own mind under the force of other people’s. “Infirm of purpose!” cries Lady Macbeth to her vacillating hubby – he’s been complaining of Duncan’s rule for pages and pages, yet he hesitates to finally act on his own rebellion; it’s Lady M. who grabs the knife and does for the old king. And sets up up the idiot guards to be framed for it, too.

Not that Kage advocated knifing sleeping old men, or even incompetent guards. She just felt consistency was a lot more important a character trait than old Ralph Waldo (who, among other oddities, took up atheism when it paid more than his job as a pastor) did.

That hobgoblin didn’t ride her shoulder. She turned her laser eyes on the little creep, and fried him to a greasy stain on the ground.

It was possible to get Kage to change her mind, but it was no easy task. (I can hear the squeaking of rolling eyeballs from all our sisters and friends now …) She was adamant. She was steadfast. She was staunch. She was stubborn as a rock wall; which may, over the centuries, lean and soften and even fall apart – but will never completely stop being a wall. When it’s been reduced to a line of discoloured dust in some ancient stratigraphy, you will still be able to tell it was, once, a wall … that was Kage.

Mind you, if she subsequently was presented with enough good evidence that contradicted her stand, she might change her mind. She did, sometimes in enormous ways. Times pass, circumstances change, people grow – and shrink, too. She could and did change, at need. She just didn’t find most needs large enough to over-rule her instinctive constancy.

Kage was constant. She admired the North Star for its legendary faithfulness, and was rather horrified when she learned the thing actually shifts; she never trusted it after that, and lamented its state as if Polaris had taken up smoking opium.*

Kage was, as she once described one of her own characters, as true as steel.

*Correction/update: it has been accurately pointed out to me that Polaris does not move (thank you, Steve Skold!) except insofar as it is retreating from us along with everything else in our expanding Universe. This is true. But due to all sorts of wobbles, wibbles, and precession of equinoxes, the site of True North in the sky is not always marked by that particular star. Nor will it be always be. That was my point, and that this normal, natural occurrence shocked Kage. But the stars are no more unchanging than are the day’s mayflies.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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