The West |

The Measure Everything Machine and Other Sketches (an excerpt)

by Mark Wallace

edited by Mathew Timmons


A man devotes much of his energy to studying poetry. At times he even manages to write poetry, yet whenever he sits down to write, he thinks of all the great poets throughout history who have written such wonderful poems and he feels like he could never live up to their standards. Because of this feeling, he’s not able to write many poems. Every time he tries to write he feels ashamed. He often falls into long mocking conversations with himself in which he obsessively lists all his failings as a writer and all the terrible things those failings have caused. Maybe the most common of these is that if he really were a great writer, the world would be a better place. People would no longer be as unhappy and desperate, and they would acknowledge the greatness of his wisdom and the role he had played in their happiness.

Meanwhile, like most people he has work for a living. He gets an advanced degree in literature because he worships it. He doesn’t do much better at writing literary criticism than he does at writing poetry, because of his shame, although now and then he’s able to write essays in which he praises great writers of the past. Still, that’s hardly enough to give him a successful career as a scholar or critic. Eventually he ends up teaching at a community college, where his lack of publishing success isn’t an issue and his energetic praise of the classics makes him seem a man committed to high standards in education.

While in graduate school, the man married. Not surprisingly, his wife learns to be as frustrated about his flaws as he is. She doesn’t demand that he succeed as a writer, but the way he talks about his literary aspirations but won’t do anything about them annoys her, sometimes desperately. “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you just write?” she often asks him. After awhile, she no longer listens to his answers, all of which are designed to keep his problems as they are.

Because he worships poetry so much, he goes to many literary readings by well known poets. He feels torn between admiring them and feeling angry that they are having the success he wants. Just as with his own writing, he notices that the writing of these successful poets is flawed, sometimes badly. Yet other people don’t seem to notice and continue to praise this flawed work. The man decides that many successful poets don’t deserve success any more than he. Their abilities are not superior to his, yet such poets seem indifferent to his high standards. They seem pompously to assume that they are essential figures in the latest generation of the literary pantheon when they have no more right to feel that way than he does.

Finally the man feels annoyed enough that he has to do something. Instead of writing in praise of great literature as he used to, he begins writing short essays criticizing the flaws of contemporary writers who annoy him. He finds this writing much easier. He doesn’t have to live up to standards that he feels he can’t, but he can point out how other writers are not living up to those standards either. He writes about this problem with great energy. Still, when he’s done he rarely feels happy. He has continuing spasms of self-doubt since he knows that describing the flaws of others doesn’t eliminate his own. But it seems at least temporary relief to point out that just because he is flawed, that hardly means others aren’t.

As he grows older, he watches as people not only of his own generation go on to success in literature, but people younger than him as well. He becomes more and more appalled by the foolishness of youth. Young people more than others act as if they have talents that they really don’t and believe silly ideas that contradict the wisdom found in genuinely great literature, wisdom to which these young people seem not only indifferent but sometimes hostile.

One change that occurs during this time is the rise of the Internet. The Internet allows all sorts of writing to find a public forum, sometimes quickly. It’s also a quicker way of telling other people what you think of them. In fact, with the Internet, people can tell people what they think of each other without having to face them or consider the consequences of their comments. People can simply send, angrily, exactly what they wish to say to anybody whose e-mail or other Internet address they have.

The man begins using these online possibilities as a way of telling other writers what he thinks about their work. He finds it much easier to do this not only because he doesn’t have to do it face to face, but also because much of the time he is writing to younger people who don’t intimidate him like older writers or writers of his own generation did. By now he has many years practice seeing through the hypocrisy and limitations of others.

Still, even these greater options for telling people how they have failed his standards don’t make him happy. Oddly, other people don’t seem to accept his standards and sometimes argue with him, suggesting that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Others simply ignore what he says.

Finally, nothing significant changes for him even in this new era. He annoys people now and then and takes some satisfaction in noting their frustration, but that doesn’t help him write more poetry of his own. In fact, having all these opportunities to criticize others gives him even less time than before for writing poetry.

With his desire for greatness, his inability to live up to his own standards, his feelings of self-loathing, and his annoyance and rage at others, he becomes one more part of a world defined significantly by people who, believing that they cannot be happy or do what they want, make every effort possible to make sure that others cannot either.


Debate of the Poets

One of the most popular entertainments at the court of the King is the Debate of the Poets. It runs five days a week for nine months a year and is open to the public. The audiences that fill the coliseum support their favorites rowdily and heckle enemies.

Each poet who speaks in the Debate takes an argumentative position based on a set of values that criticizes the set of values offered by the previous poet. It is also crucial never to exactly repeat the values of any predecessor. Thus if one poet praises rhyme, the following poet will likely criticize rhyme, and while the poet after that may praise rhyme again, it cannot be praised in a way that matches exactly with any earlier praise.

The changes in the Debate by no means need to focus on the main point of any previous argument. In fact all expert observers consider that a crude, one-dimensional approach. They prefer those poets who, with a wily sense for exposing weaknesses that less subtle observers wouldn’t even notice, pick apart a minor issue, or even a small point of fact, with deft precision. Rarely does one of the poets meet a charging, directly aggressive attack with a charging counterattack, although some of the finest poets will offer a charging, directly aggressive counterattack at precisely that moment when no one expects it.

In fact one of the most famous moves in the history of the Debate, Garbaciak’s Double Charge, involved an unexpected directly aggressive counterattack on the main point at a moment right after an unexpected aggressive counterattack on the previous main point. If it was impressively subtle to offer a crude response right at the moment when everyone expected subtlety, to follow that with a second equally unexpected crude move astonished everyone. The brilliance of Garbaciak in offering for a second time the least subtle (and therefore least expected) move possible had been written about and annotated in many scholarly volumes covering the history of the Debate.

Over time, it becomes inevitable that one of the poets will make an argument that comes close to being exactly the same as an argument made at an earlier point in the Debate’s history. When something like that happens, other poets in the Debate explore the similarities at great lengths and always note, finally, some small difference between the current argument and the old one it resembles. In fact one of the most infamous arguments in the Debate’s history occurred when a poet argued that even if an argument was, word for word, the same as an earlier argument, the fact of its taking place at a different time and under different circumstances meant that its meaning necessarily would be different than the earlier argument. This particular argument, which came to be known as Menard’s Folly, was immediately controversial and has remained so. If Menard’s Folly was taken to be the case, then much of the finesse necessary for the Debate would collapse, since there would no longer be any need even to attempt to offer an argument different than earlier ones.

Unlike in the rest of the kingdom, where the kinds of information available and the things that people are allowed to say are monitored closely and subject to legal penalty, the poets in the Debate are encouraged to speak freely on any subject and to use any information from any source. The absolute freedom of topic, attitude, and information means that the Debate theoretically can go on for as long as the kingdom continues to exist. The issue of the End of the Debate has been much debated, since the Debate’s theoretical infinity can hardly disprove the idea that the Debate and the kingdom it is part of may have (and some have suggested, certainly will have) some final historical moment. What specifically the poets will be debating at the moment of the End of the Debate has been much debated.

Poets in the Debate are allowed freedoms denied to the rest of the kingdom only under the guise of the No Effect Act, the founding decree of the Debate when it was first instituted ten centuries earlier. According to the No Effect Act, no argument made in the Debate of the Poets is legally allowed to have any consequences on the life of the kingdom beyond the Debate. The law is policed rigorously. Anyone caught enacting any idea from the Debate of the Poets is quickly and sometimes severely punished. Of course many poets have argued that despite the No Effect Act, some ideas from the Debate actually have affected the kingdom, since it’s impossible to police all effects at all times. The point remains contested. Some poets argue that while actual effects in the kingdom may exist, those effects are so minimal as to be inconsequential. Others argue with rigorous logic that in fact no such effects can be proved, since any apparent links between the Debate and actual effects elsewhere are just as likely to be coincidence, and no ironclad argument can be made for showing with certainty how one event ever really alters another.

People from all over the country eagerly compete to be allowed to become one of the poets in the Debate, although many other people in the country aren’t interested. The screening and rituals associated are long and grueling. Once admitted as a member of the Debate of the Poets, a person maintains the privileges for life: a fine suite of rooms in the poet’s section of the capitol, selection from the best food and drink and clothing. Poets are even allowed to travel when not engaged in the Debate. Because of the No Effect Law, they are always accompanied by legal chaperones who make sure that when a particular poet engages with non-poets, ideas that come from the Debate of the Poets are not put into action. In most instances the chaperones aren’t necessary, since almost all people in the kingdom believe in the value of the No Effect Act and would be offended if anyone suggested that they had used an idea from the Debate. This attitude is especially pronounced among fans of the Debate, who love the Debate often because they feel it’s an entertaining escape from real life, a feeling whose truth the poets have often debated.  “Where’d you get that idea from? A poet?” is one of the worst insults that anyone in the kingdom can give. The phrase is associated with a long history of brawls and manslaughter.



Because of their religious beliefs, four people, two men and two women, are part of a minority that is repeatedly harassed, sometimes beaten, and occasionally even arrested by the police of the country where they live.

They move to a village in a remote, distant corner of the country, right near the border of another country. The isolation of the village makes harassment less constant, although the country’s military occasionally sends small units through the area to seize resources, intimidate the villagers, and now and then haul away someone who will never be seen again.

Unfortunately, the other country that they now live near is at war with even another, more distant country, one of the great powers of its time. In response to information that its enemy is developing a secret military force near this remote border, the distant power orchestrates an air and landstrike on the region. It kills many people and arrests many others, on both sides of the border, including the two men and women, who were not citizens of the country under attack and had never even crossed into it.

On the run from one country, the four find themselves prisoners of another, one far away, where life is very different from anything they have known. This country flies the prisoners to the other side of the world, leaving them on a remote island at a military installation that it polices carefully.

The distant power maintains this military installation as a place where it can lock up people it fears or hates. The country does not have to grant prisoners at the installation a fair trial or any political rights of the kind its citizens have. The four are imprisoned on the island for the next five years.

Usually separated from each other and sometimes starved, beaten, denied sleep, or tortured by various techniques involving cold, heat, or water, they nonetheless occasionally get to see each other. When they do, they talk about the terrible luck of being political refugees from one country who have been arrested and imprisoned by another country as part of a war in which they played no role except living near it.

Five years later, inside the distant power, a new government takes over, one that opposes many of the policies of the old government. In reviewing cases on the island installation, the new government officially acknowledges that many people imprisoned on the island were never enemies of the country in the first place. Some simply happened to be in the wrong place or were members of religions that the previous government persecuted or disliked.

After a long period of bureaucratic review, with many statements and counter statements issued by lawyers of the distant power, the four people are scheduled for release from prison. But their scheduled release causes a new problem regarding where they can go. As members of a persecuted minority, they are not welcome to return to their original country, even the border village where they once lived. But the distant power that has just freed them does not want them either. Despite the actions of the new government, many citizens of the distant power hate and fear all the island prisoners, whether or not they are guilty of anything.

Finally, another nearby island, its own country with its own government, one considered insignificant in the world, allows the four to be transferred to it and freed. They are flown to the island, where its government buys them a few clothes so that they can look for work and gives them each two months rent in small apartments in a cramped, impoverished part of the island’s main city. They are expected to look for work. If they are persistent enough, they will likely end up with laboring jobs or jobs in local stores. They are, however, temporarily given a bit of high profile greeting. They are interviewed and have their pictures taken. In one of the pictures, they are shown eating ice cream that they have been given for free by a small store near their small apartments.

The photos cause a scandal in the media outlets of the distant power that recently released the prisoners. How is it possible, these media outlets cry, that proven enemies of the country should be released onto an island paradise, treated like royalty, and given all the free ice cream they can eat? These media reports are seen all over the world and lead to protracted debate.

The story of these four men and women thus becomes, in the public eye, not only in their original country and in the distant power that imprisoned them, but also for many nations around the world, an example of what happens when dangerous terrorists are treated too leniently and allowed too much freedom. After all, every nation has the right to protect itself from its violent, fanatical enemies.