The Election Fiesta in Ultra
This is the first published fiction of Mr. Griffith, a Tacoma-born journalist who is now senior staff editor of TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE,and the other Luce publications. He is author of THE WAIST-HIGH CULTURE.
A Story by Thomas Griffith
ONLY because my wife can resist no side road, and the more unpromising a road the better, did we find ourselves that morning in Ultra. It is a place that hides itself in most civilized disdain from the rest of the world. We happened upon the road outside Geneva, rutted and unimproved, and bearing no indication of where it led. As we inched over one hill and down another, with tree branches brushing against our windshield, it became apparent that no one else had been over this road, not in weeks, not in months.
We had jounced perhaps three quarters of an hour —I would have turned back long ago had a turnabout presented itself—when as we crested a small rise we saw in front of us a stern young man, waving us to slow down, motioning our car over to a shed covered with straw and foliage. We parked beside a pre-war Plymouth and a beat-up Citröen that looked like the wheelhouse of a Civil War gunboat. As we got out of the car, we were subjected to a barrage of hostile comment from the young man, speaking a patois of French and German hopelessly scrambled together. He persisted, though he could see that we were uncomprehending; it suddenly occurred to me that we were the first people in his life to whom his own language carried no meaning. At last, the idea frightened him: he scampered off up the hillside.
Ten minutes passed, ten minutes in which we sat docilely on a rock, and then down the hillside came the young man again, and beside him a quite beautiful young woman, not buxom, as young mountain-village girls so often are, nor coarse-handed from chores (a fatal handicap to me in peasant beauty). It was her fine-boned face you noticed first, and then, after her surprising costume, the chic white lipstick.
She looked at us with a curiosity that was not entirely hostile, but there was a firmness to her features that indicated accustomed authority, and I felt that it was I, not she, who owed an explanation of our presence. We were just tourists out wandering, I said, and now might I ask where we were and why we had been stopped.
“You are in Ultra,” she said. The name meant nothing to me. “You do not belong here,” she went on, “but since you are here, there is no help for it, and you must come along.” She spoke in unaccented but precise English, the kind one might learn from phonograph records. Neither she nor the young man was armed; we were not physically menaced or taken captive. We were not wanted here, that was plain to see, but we seemed to be more an inconvenience than an enemy.
As we climbed over a knoll, and then along a path, she turned to us once more and said: “I am from the Culture Contamination Council.” I got the impression that this was intended to explain not her rank, but her knowledge of English. Contamination from what? So this is going to be one of those places, I said to myself—a Shangri-la, a Brigadoon, a monastery — where all the world is shut out and people try to live out a yesterday. Not for me those broody inhospitable places where you bake your own bread, live in stone cells, and mumble together. Maybe there is more goodness there, but I suspect that human cussedness will out another way. I was just adding philosophical contrariness to my fatigue and resentment when up ahead the path widened into a roadway and there before us stood an object quite unfamiliar to any yesterday. It was a motorized golf cart.
She expected our surprise, and took pleasure in it. “You see, we are modern after all,” she said, as if having read my thoughts. “In Ultra we do not reject the world. But we do not merely accept it, like you. We take from it only the good.” She motioned us to our places in the golf cart; she revved up the motor, and we moved off ever so slowly. “To travel by machine is good, isn’t it?” she asked, enjoying in moderation one of our inventive triumphs. “But not automobiles. They are so brutal-looking.”
That explained, then, the camouflage on the garage down below, and explained as well the serious set on this young and beautiful girl’s face. She must be in charge of screening her fellow citizens from the world outside. I thought of her strange role. To live in ignorance is no difficulty: millions of people in remote villages do. But to know, and to do without; to be aware for oneself yet to deny that knowledge to others; to take all this responsibility — I could see that to be a member of the Culture Contamination Council in Ultra was an exacting duty.
At the crest of the next hill the ill-defined mountain scrub ended. Below us lay a rich valley — grape arbors, fruit trees, rows of crops. And set on the brow of the hill beyond, serene and magical, lay Ultra itself. We drove into the city. Except for the absence of cars and the presence of golf carts, it might have been any European hill town of a certain age; not one of the dead and poor ones, but a prosperous town, with neon signs and modern buildings amidst the old. And then, as my eyes became accustomed to it, I grew aware of what was so strange about Ultra: it was that the modern buildings looked a little ancient, and some of the ancient ones looked most new. I knew I was in a place where chronology was out of joint when I saw a gas station, pumps and all, built in Romanesque.
The girl’s name was Fleurie. We sat in a modern, clean, and fluorescent-lit bar that might have been in Copenhagen, as its original probably is. She ordered Scotch for us, and for herself had half a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion with a wedge of Brie.
“How did we come to be as we are?” The question seemed a natural one to her. “First the world left us, and then we left the world. There was an avalanche. Our valley was thought to be buried, and it was forgotten about. You will find the name of our town still on maps, but on Swiss maps we are in France, and on French maps we are in Switzerland. Nobody came to see us. We lived by our own wits, and felt a little neglected. . .
“How long ago? Perhaps three generations, I cannot be sure. You see, we regard writing as the cause of most of the world’s troubles. We do not keep records: the past must not accumulate and predominate. When we had regained our feet, there were people among us who wanted to go down the hill; we would have slipped right back into the world that hadn’t missed us. We were saved by the wisdom of a shoemaker we call Jude the Shrewd. He argued that we should continue to learn about the world’s improvements and its new medicines, but be intelligent about it. We live in peace, and the world is always making war; we are happy, and most people are not. So let us live our own lives. And once a year, let us choose among our wisest and most incorruptible men. Let them appear in the world and decide what to bring back, telling no one where or who we are. That way we shall have the best of both worlds.”
I laughed at the banality of this familiar desire, but stopped when I saw that to Fleurie it was received wisdom. “Oh, it wasn’t as easy as Jude the Shrewd expected, of course. People down below took advantage of our ignorance. And that is why we formed the Culture Contamination Council.
“It is such a burden, the secrecy,” she sighed. “We who are councillors live among our friends, but cannot tell them what we learn. Luckily they are happy and are not curious; that is how we know we are succeeding.”
“It must be a great honor to be chosen.”
I regretted, as soon as I had spoken, the implied doubt in my voice that one so young should be a culture commissar. She smiled to see me embarrassed, for she was not.
“I have read about your chairmen of the board, your experienced graybeards, your hierarchies. But here we choose the young fresh minds for the council. Only they could enthusiastically respond to the new of your world despite all the rest — your bombs and hatreds and hypocrisies.”
She had a way of saying these dogmatic things in a manner that did not offend. Still, my wife was a little piqued: “You are willing to take from us, then, but not to contribute.”
“Jude the Shrewd counseled us that we could not help the world as easily as the world could destroy us. And look around you: doesn’t it matter that there is one place in the world where people are contented?”
The cafe had been filling up; our fellow customers were animated without being boisterous — I thought of the Dutch or Danes. Fleuric was right: there seemed to be a special contentment in the air; people drank for pleasure, not from weariness or wariness or strain.
The evidence before us was reassuring, but still we had doubts.
“If you arrange everything for them, and shut out the world, how do the people escape boredom?” I asked.
“Ah, because we do not make the mistake that gloomy pious communities do. They think tranquillity and contentment are the same thing. We accept change. We have taken a very important philosophical concept from you — the idea of Fashion — only we have shaken away its bad side.” She cut herself another wedge of Brie. “We think that novelty is good, but not all the bustle you go through, all the competition, the creativity, the trouble and expense to be first, the urging of the ladies’ magazines and the advertising to make everyone want the unfamiliar. That makes restlessness.”
I conceded that our merchandisers overdo things but that creativity needs restlessness and tension.
To my surprise, she answered firmly: “Creativity — that is one of the bads we most want to avoid. It is a selfish desire to excel. When we decided that music is good, we imported phonographs, but not pianos or flutes, for if our people played instruments, we would be faced with all their artistic temperaments. We have heard about that!”
She said it so solemnly that we all laughed.
THANK heavens the Ultranese do not consider alcohol a contaminant. Darkness was coming on when we left the bar and strolled the streets, Fleurie, my wife, and I. I was still full of suspicious questions. Fleurie had no doubts or seeming reservations, and answered easily: an assured believer makes the best propagandist.
We again passed by the filling station.
“A 1954 model,” Fleuric explained. “That was our Romanesque year.”
“Yes. We learned, like you, that the new docs not provide enough novelty. I read of your antiques and stamp collections, but we stripped away the selfish advantage you find in these, and took the lesson that Fashion can come from the old too, for change and novelty are what matter. But in Ultra, when we change we must all change, so everyone votes for the architectural style of the year. And whatever style is chosen, everything must be built in it that year — houses, park benches, office buildings. Everyone must then master all the crafts — the woodworking, the masonry, the plumbing — appropriate to that style. That’s the beauty of Fashion — it gives everyone so much to do. Like when you change your skirt lengths!”
She was babbling along. We were by now quite friendly.
“One year every building was modern. It was so easy to do that the craftsmen complained that they had too little chance to use all their skills. This year our building style is baroque. It’s very popular — it takes so much effort! But it’s hard to foretell at this point what style will be chosen at the next Election Fiesta.”
“The election what?”
“Oh, I assumed you knew all about that, but how could you? It’s the big event of the year in Ultra, the religious holiday of our democracy. In a few days, they will begin stringing up the colored streetlights for it. You must stay.”
Again that funny sensation: were we guests here or prisoners? I looked at my wife, and recognized that slight shoulder signal of hers, born of years of discreet transmission of married decisions in the presence of strangers. “Why not? Vacations are for new experiences, aren’t they?” her signal conveyed. I nodded assent to Fleuric’s invitation.
“Tell us about the Election Fiesta,” I said.
“Everything comes together then. It’s a celebration, a fair, an election, a time to adopt new moral ideas, a choosing of the style of the year. It’s the event our culture council prepares for all year, gathering up ail the new ideas and gadgets from the outside world, screening out anything that might cause social harm. And then the people choose among them, for after all it would be morally bad to have everything. Besides, although we have learned, like your farmers in America, how to grow surpluses every year, we are not endlessly rich.”
“And what about the adoption of new moral ideas?” I asked, not willing to let that one go by. As Fleurie explained it, anybody can propose anything for the good of all, and if half the people vote yes, it is adopted.
“Of course, we don’t want to hurt the losers, and so we have Sensors, to divine what the people are thinking. They are very necessary, for we don’t have newspapers — we found them too depressing — and besides, we rather discourage reading. It’s too private an activity, and encourages superiority. But if the Sensors become convinced that half the people will not support a Moral Idea, then it is not put to a vote. That way the Election Fiesta is always a happy occasion for everyone.”
“But don’t they ever misinterpret the people’s judgment?”
For the first time, Fleurie looked discomfited. I thought she even blushed. “Yes, I think they did this year, on the women’s-clothes question,” she finally said, looking down at herself.
I had been wondering about her costume, ever since she first came into sight down the hillside, and I had been staring all the while, not unappreciatively, whenever I dared. For Fleurie, with her dark hair, her candid eyes, her white lipstick, her slim figure and leather sandals, was wearing a topless dirndl, with what looked like some hurried modifications. After the first shock, and confronted by all the other surprises in Ultra, I had grown used to her costume, as one does on a beach when everyone is in bikinis. I believe voluptuousness to be a state of mind in the wearer, not the observer. Fleurie’s beauty was more like an airline stewardess’s: wholesome, efficient, and always in selfcontrol.
“I think the Sensors got confused, as they often do when the subject is women,” she said. “They discerned a majority by combining the nature vote, the beauty vote, and the peasant vote, and came out wrong. It has made everyone restless. In the winter, the farm women complained it was too cold in these costumes to do the outdoor chores. At first the young men all liked the style, but now the mature wisdom of all the men is that any style in which some women have more advantage than others is undemocratic.”
WE HAD a fine dinner, well served, and then Fleurie parted from us at the statue of Jude the Shrewd in the main square. Our hotel, the Ultra National, was just opposite, a massive affair built in 1959 in Flamboyant Gothic. It was one of my first disappointments. For one thing, the span of each Gothic arch in our bedroom was about the size of a telephone booth, and I thought the architect might have been more imaginative than to put a shower head in one, and an open WC in the other. The hotel had not been much used; we may have been the first foreign guests. The service was the kind of indifferent minimum one finds only in the wealthiest of democracies.
Things brightened considerably next morning when Fleurie arrived at ten, bringing with her a handsome young man dressed, as were all the Ultranese males, in slightly sharp Italian suits. She introduced him to us as Strude, the grandson of Jude. He was also a member of the Culture Contamination Council. She did not add, though it was plain to see, that in whatever form courtship takes in Ultra, they were glowingly in love.
We set out for a walk through the streets of the town, admiring this building and that, and talking all the while. Overnight I had filled my head with many questions. Strude did his best to give helpful answers, though to him things were the way they were, and I could get little philosophical interpretation from him. Yes, there were rich Ultranese, but no poor. No, the rich were not the most respected: one could only have more of the same possessions as the others, so what was intelligent about that? It suggested a lack of faith in the community’s ability to provide. Who are the most honored here, then? The useful, answered Strude: the electrician, the teacher, the plumber. Still, there must be some prestigious position in the community. “Certainly,” said Strude proudly. “The Cultural Contamination Council.” It was a job only for the young.
Were there, then, I wanted to know, no honored posts for the ciders of Ultra?
Oh, yes, Strude answered offhandedly — as trainers in techniques of masonry and engine repair, and all jobs requiring settled thinking, such as banking, window-washing, clerking. The old, he said, feel more comfortable when their jobs arc routine. A touch of youthful arrogance in his answer made me reflect, though I did not say, that more mature wisdom might have avoided Ultra’s senseless alteration each year from one building style to another.
“You are so young,” I finally said. “Is there no further honor awaiting you or Fleurie?”
“Yes, only one,” Strude answered, “The rarest: the Purchase Commission. Each year from our council one person is chosen to become one of its three members. It is the highest honor in the community because it is the highest duty. The Purchasers must go down into the world, and while withstanding its corruptions, make our necessary purchases. Such a person must be as wily as the sellers, yet pure in heart. He must be trained, as are your astronauts, to cope with an alien environment. And therefore, like your astronauts, he must be young.”
To myself, I was comparing the Purchase Commission as he described it, not with astronauts, but with those Chinese delegations one sees gathered solemnly around isolated dining tables in Moscow, Prague, or Havana—men who must deal with a corrupted outside world and huddle together because none of them can be trusted out alone in such attractive iniquity. Why, though, was I constantly making a Communist comparison in this pleasant community? After all, Ultra had no armies, menaced no neighbors, preached no antagonisms. Perhaps it was the militancy of Strude’s self-satisfaction that disturbed me, or the fact that Fleurie so admired his strong convictions.
Strude and I seemed destined for debate, while the two women looked on. The core of our disagreement was over the subject of creativity and originality. I’m afraid that I even heatedly taxed Ultra with being a derivative culture, a community of smug copycats. He was unnettled, as if I had merely described the truth.
“You have left out the importance of choice,” Strude replied. “Anyone can think up extremes; wisdom lies in the proportion and selection. Your society talks so much of creativity that we thought we must be missing something; we made a study of its qualities in our cultural laboratories, and concluded that its merits were a myth — a necessary myth for you, but not for us. You like to romanticize over someone who made art and died poor, but it is the later discovery of his talent that really matters to you, for then it is to someone’s profit, or vanity, and the essential factor of Fashion is present. You sentimentalize creativity, and therefore must put up with dirty hair and bad manners.
“We Ultranese decided that it was more intelligent to wait until a style crystallizes into a Fashion. And we concluded that this is really what your civilization also does. You respect creativity but reward Fashion. The proof is in your own index of value (which is not ours): namely, money. Who gets your biggest awards? — the men who write your most banal tunes, not your difficult symphonists, and the designers who adapt someone else’s originality to make dresses or wallpaper or musicals.”
He was just getting worked up when Fleurie tugged at his arm. We had stopped in front of a most charming new hamburger joint, done in baroque. We went in for lunch. I admired Fleurie’s new apricot-colored, almost flesh-colored, topless dirndl, and she accepted my praise as one does who finds a compliment unperceptive. They had brought us there to see another surprise: a television set. “That was our most audacious decision,” said Fleurie.
“Our people like the Westerns for the horses and the scenery, but not those silly helpless women. We also show your football, but never explain the rules, so that the people can enjoy it as a beautiful brutal male ballet. But what they like best are those commercial short stories — the lady with the frowning forehead, those drawings of hammers and lightning, and then the little magic pill and the lady happy again. We show it over and over.”
Having heard so much about our intellectuals’ discontent with television, they had taken elaborate steps to screen what came off Telstar, but found that in another language, the advertiser’s harsh insistence is only an untranslated noise. “Commercials are your supreme American aesthetic achievement,” Fleurie said enthusiastically. “What care goes into them, unlike the programs themselves!”
I wondered whether television would make the outside world so attractive that the sealed-off Ultranese would be restless. “We never show your travel propaganda,” answered Strude. “We insist on showing the outside world as you say it really is — in your newsreels. We run the best ones repeatedly, because all pictures showing soldiers creeping through a jungle, or space vehicles blasting off, are fundamentally the same: we don’t feel the need that you do to keep changing the examples.
“Our Sensors find that less than 2 percent of the Ultranese show any curiosity to see your America. To them it is a place where rivers are always flooding, blacks on the streets are beingpushed back by the police, and the young people dance with morose agitation standing apart from each other.”
Strude, I thought to myself, would have the right kind of implacable militancy to serve on the Purchase Commission.
“On television, it makes such a difference not to understand the speeches,” Strude continued. “It frees the mind to study the faces. The faces our people trust most are Barry Goldwater’s and Chou En-lai’s. Naturally, this method is a little unfair to General de Gaulle. Those gestures, those expressions! Our people consider him the drollest comedian on TV.”
After lunch, we parted, agreeing to meet that evening to view the night paintings. The first was only a few blocks from the hotel, elaborately set on a flower-banked podium in the center of the square. I recognized it at once as an exact copy of the big Coca-Cola weather sign that used to flash over Columbus Circle in New York City. The advertising message meant nothing to the Ultranese; its cycle of weather forecasts had been speeded up so that it went through its entire repertory every five minutes, with sun rays flashing BRIGHT, followed by jagged neon darts signalizing RAIN. As an art form it made most action paintings look pallid. It was the favorite night painting of the year, though the one we went to next, called the Camel, still had its partisans. They liked the man with the O-shaped mouth, blowing smoke rings every few seconds. Since tobacco was as unfamiliar as Coca-Cola in Ultra, I watched the people’s laughing puzzlement.
The four of us, in our knowing superiority, were giggling at the innocent watchers when a young man who had been edging through the crowd at last spotted Fleurie and Strude. He approached them solemnly: “I bring you word of the commission’s decision. You two will be the candidates for the Purchase Commission.” He drew himsell up, and almost clicked his heels together as he added: “May the more deserving win the Election Fiesta! ”
I saw Fleurie and Strude look at one another, not in joy.
RESTLESSNESS, we had come to see, was the emotional condition our young monitors most feared in Ultra, for it indicated community (or consumer) boredom and dissatisfaction. And yet restlessness, we now felt, hung in the air, along with the lights of the forthcoming Fiesta, dipping in swags between the lampposts. Perhaps the restlessness was less apparent in the townspeople than in our young friends who were showing it all to us. By now I had come to regard them as the two sacrificial servants of their prosaic people. In a community so dedicated to banishing competition and envy, it was they who were driven to guilty knowledge of the rush of external things, and compelled to rivalry.
One day Fleurie and Strude came by to take us to the open court, for I had asked to sec how justice operated in Ultra. It was their first public appearance together since being chosen to run against one another; the townspeople eyed them as if they were celebrities, and I thought Fleurie and Strude were a little oversolicitous of each other.
The court they took us to was in an open square that looked a little like an up-to-date repertory company’s sparsely simple set for a Shakespearean play. The judges sat on a box set high on stilts that might have served as Juliet’s balcony. Below were two officials called Presenters, and the disputants, and a gossipy group of perhaps two dozen women. These women, and anyone else who might show up, would form the jury.
Law had ceased to matter much, Strude explained, ever since the adoption in 1945 of the Moral Idea that “contracts encourage retribution,” and the corollary of the following year that “lawyers increase trouble.” Such notions ran parallel to the general antiliteracy movement in Ultra, part of the widespread feeling that anything written down destroys spontaneity. From these two propositions had come the monumental decision of 1953 that the most familiar contract of all, that of marriage, should be abolished. At once, said Strude, all the unrest about marital friction had ended; where there was no marriage, there could be no divorce.
“But I see everyone together in couples, out with their children,” said my wife. “How can that be?”
“It merely proves that people are naturally monogamous,” said Fleurie.
“Once you’ve started falling into pairs it’s too wearing to change,” added Strude. “Oh, there may be a little restlessness at first, for a few days in the spring. And again, when couples reach their forties, they take a last look around. But that is all. A convenient familiarity with one another is what keeps couples together, not laws.” I could see that my wife wanted to ask, as did I, at what stage of this process Fleurie and Strude found themselves, but knew no way of putting the question. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been at all embarrassed to explain their arrangement.
A court case was in progress, and we watched. Two Presenters, both agents of the state, stated the positions on either side: a merchant was being sued by a woman who claimed that the merchandise was not as represented,
“ The merchant is bound to lose,” said Strude, having sized up bull and matador. “Law is not very important anymore, and the only jury it attracts are the kind of women who watch TV all day. Naturally they will side with the woman!”
Ever since written contracts were abolished in Ultra and lawyers put out of business, Strude went on, it was no longer necessary to lie precise about the wording of agreements; in fact, any person trying to lean too hard on the exact terms was assumed to be intentionally deceitful.
After very little discussion, the women in the square shouted against the merchant.
“These women are convinced from watching TV that they are expert at reading character in faces, so the facts don’t influence them much, except as a statement of the drama. It is that way in your courts too,” added Strude, in that smug way of his, “but we have the honesty to proclaim it.”
That night my wife and I had dinner alone in our Gothic hotel, a setting that never did much for our spirits.
“It’s not that I am hipped on clothes,” my wife began, “but they’ve got us wrong on Fashion.”
I knew that clothes wasn’t what was bothering her; it was being surrounded by the complacent superiority of a contented society. “It’s as if everything has to be arranged so that everyone can live in warm water,” I said. “But only by knowing the cold can one appreciate the warm.”
I heard myself saying this, then added: “My God, I’m getting as sententious as Strude!”
In my own life back home, I am not one of those joy-in-competition boys one finds in every business. But after two weeks in Ultra — well — “You know what I miss here most?” I asked my wife. “The savor of good healthy malice.”
Next day we told Fleurie of our decision to leave the day after the Election Fiesta. She was disappointed but not surprised: in her sympathetic reaction I could read that too much had been asked of our generation to be able to appreciate Ultra on such short exposure; we had lived too long in corrupt and unworthy pleasures.
“It will be all right,” she said a little stiffly. “There will be only one formality required of you.”
IT WAS the night before the Election Fiesta, and still no decision on who would be chosen for the Purchase Commission. Why the delay, why the indecision? Fleurie and Strude, now ill at ease with one another, had come to take us to the ball that traditionally opened the Fiesta season. I suppose the carnival was fashioned after Rio’s, but in Ultra the abandon seemed insufficiently wanton.
Close to eleven o’clock there came a sudden silence punctuated by a battery of bongo drums and a rattling of maracas. Up to the microphone stepped a middle-aged Sensor, looking just a little absurd in the sharp Italian clothes that did not properly set off his dignity.
“We have finally sensed an opinion,” he announced, speaking louder than the microphone required. “There need be no election.”
A cheer of relief went up.
“Your choice for the Purchasing Commission would be — and therefore is — Fleurie!”
Another cheer, bigger than the first, was confirmation that the Sensors had correctly sensed the prevalent opinion. What had decided the majority, I wondered. My wife was convinced that the topless dirndl fiasco worked in Fleurie’s favor, generating a common wish for a woman’s practical voice in purchasing. I was just as eager to believe that, as in my own country, some earthy democratic instinct spots sanctimonious falsity in clean-living types like Strude.
My wife and I rushed to congratulate Fleurie; she smiled her gratitude, but out of the corner of her eye I could see her watching Strude, whose smiling expression was correct and unfathomable. Poor Fleurie had not wanted to lose, but how little had she wanted to win!
All program committees underestimate the cumulative fatigue of ceremony and noise: extravaganzas always go on too long. The rest of the Election Fiesta is a blur to me. Maybe this is also because the day after the fiesta, my wife and I were told to report to Jude the Shrewd hospital. The hospital people — doctors and attendants — seemed nervous. Fleurie was there too. Already the discipline of her new responsibility had begun — learning the world’s trading practices, acquiring a “trousseau,” as they called it, for the outer world. But she had wanted to see us through the final step.
“You know us to be a people who mean harm to no one,” she said. “But we are determined not to be invaded. We do not fear armies. What we fear most is television’s well-intentioned rude curiosity. That would be the end of us.
“Our doctors have developed a new anesthetic called Nepenthe. You will forget only these weeks in Ultra, nothing else.” She hesitated a moment, then added: “It’s perfectly safe. Your own American researchers have also been fascinated by the role of scent in memory, and have come close to what we are doing. You need only think of a favorite scent, and we shall then do our best to re-create it. You see, in Ultra we want your substitute memory to be always pleasant.”
We thought awhile of favorite scents: my wife settled on the windblown fragrance of rosemary and thyme on a Mediterranean hillside. I wanted the cedar smell of a Western campfire. Our requests stumped them, and it took a while for them to prepare their compounds. When we emerged from our euphoric anesthesia, my wife and I were being led from the golf cart down to the camouflaged garage where sat our car.
That was six months ago. Though we have told no one of Ultra, I have often thought of it. The drug worked imperfectly, which is why I have grown heartily sick of the scent of cedar; it rises up whenever I try to push my recall too far.
Memory, as it forms the past into retrievable bundles, also hardens it. I remember now a fleeting impression I had at the time, that when Fleurie mentioned the American researches into scent and memory, she was trying to reassure herself and the Ultranese doctors rather than me. Then it came over me, what my reservations had been about — the argument I could never articulate to Strude about originality and creativity, my misgivings about loserless elections and pretested contentment. For my final memory of Ultra is of the doctors who had created something all their own, but stood in fear of their own audacity.
I’m back now in the land of choice, or so they tell me. All kinds of cigarettes and gasoline to choose from—or is it just the advertising campaigns we choose among? Those fellows who make their cars or their television comedies as alike as possible and then shout their narrow differences; I just wish we had more real choices to make. For that’s what the modern game is about. Threading our way among importuners, nibbling at the new, rejecting the blatant, seeking out the distinctive. I’ve become a skillful urban mouse, adept at sneaking in for the cheese without having the trap snap down on me. Maybe it’s not the most important game in the world, but if you live in the city, it’s about the best exercise you get.