An exciting contest

Felipe Fernández-Armesto judges a revealing after-dinner game

November 28, 2013

“Death!” cried Miriam, a tall young woman with a sculptural body and a serious face, who terrifies the men in my class.

“Yes!” breathed Claudia, the class coquette, whom they all admire and some adore.

We were lingering over drinks. Our distinguished visiting lecturer had left, after boring us about 17th-century martyrs. Nestor, a usually taciturn Latino graduate, had proposed an after-dinner game of his own invention. He called it “What word most?” On slips of paper, we all wrote a few verbs of our choice – “frightens” or “inspires” or “sickens” or “horrifies” or what you will – to complete the sentence, “What word most…?” In each round, one slip was drawn and each player in turn had to answer the completed question and justify the answer. According to Nestor, the winner would usually be chosen by vote, but in recognition of my hospitality, the class decided that on this occasion I would award the laurels.

The sentence that had elicited Miriam’s and Claudia’s replies was, “What word most excites?”

‘It’s obvious that Alex Salmond and that ilk’ - she smiled deliciously at her adept Scotticism - ‘would hate independence. If they get it, they’ll lose their whole raison d’être’

Miriam vindicated death. She called it the last adventure in a depressingly familiar world. She described vividly how death excites art. “Death”, she said, “is the only perfect practitioner of charity, provoking penitence, extirpating pain, freeing the sick, imprisoned and enslaved.”

In the ensuing silence, I was tempted to give her the prize, but Claudia intervened. “On the contrary,” she announced. “Death crushes opportunity. The adventure, as far as we know, lasts only an instant. Eternity, if that’s where it takes us, will be changelessly dull. The word that most excites me is ‘Yes’,” and she prolonged it with a fascinating sigh.

“ ‘Yes’ opens doors, fulfils hope, fortifies faith, stimulates invention and confers blessings. Death says ‘No’.

“I always try” – and her glance caressed the room – “to say ‘Yes’.”

Nathan, the class clown, proposed “sex” as his word. The others shouted him down. Gordon’s turn was next. He had come to Notre Dame because of our programmes in Celtic studies and he wanted to do doctoral research on the Gaelic literature of Scottish resistance. I knew he was obsessive, but not fanatical. I could guess what his word would be and, sure enough, “independence”, he proclaimed.

His classmates responded with affected revulsion, as if in response to a bad joke. “Political terms ought to be banned from the game,” Miriam said. “Politics are good for nothing except to replace discontent with disillusion. If you guys ever get independence, all you will have achieved will be the pleasure of hating Edinburgh more than London.”

“Right,” agreed Nathan, turning serious for a moment and looking squarely at Gordon. “Haven’t you learned anything from being in this hemisphere? The Hispanic republics all split into fragments in obedience to the ambitions of their selfish little elites and ended in poverty and misery. Meanwhile, Brazil, Canada and the US have held together. We conquered divisiveness, forgave each other our civil wars, managed to value pluralism, and have become model states for the world. We still have separatists in the US – mainly in Texas and Puerto Rico – but we treat them with benign indifference because we know that a conflictive past is a basis for a collaborative future.”

“I can’t understand, Gordon,” said Claudia with that peculiar air of condescension permissible in a pretty woman, “how you can let your politicians hoodwink you. It’s obvious that Alex Salmond and that ilk” – she smiled deliciously at her adept Scotticism – “would hate independence. If they get it, they’ll lose their whole raison d’être. The SNP [Scottish National Party] will be annihilated or collapse, like squabblers in a bunker, with no enemies except each other. They clamour for independence only to focus electoral resentment on a distant target. They should be careful what they wish for.”

Jordi spoke next: “Your Scotland reminds me of my Catalonia. We had our ‘Act of Union’ with the rest of Spain within a few years of yours with England, for the same reason: a small country can’t be a great power. The results included rebellions suppressed, culture oppressed and our language marginalised, but the rest of the kingdom came to value Catalonia’s special place, as the English came to value Scotland. Marriages, migrations, military service and economic and imperial collaborations strengthened ties. It would not make sense to undo all that history for present discontents. Your Alex Salmond, like our Artur Mas, wants a referendum only as long as he hopes to lose it: the campaign will bring him more publicity, more celebrity, more funding, and with defeat will come more blessed motives for resentment and more votes.”

“No one admires Scottish culture more than I,” added Baz, an Irish-American student who plays in the Notre Dame pipe-and-drum band. “And I admire your pride and patriotism, Gordon. But nationalism isn’t patriotic. As our dear professor says, a patriot wisely wants his country to be better; a nationalist stupidly thinks it’s already superior. It’s a superannuated, destructive ideology.”

It was time for me to sum up. “I agree with your critics, Gordon. But you’ve proved your point by exciting so much debate. I award you tonight’s prize – as long as you pour it for the rest of us. By coincidence, it’s not a pure malt, but a bottle of blended Scotch.”

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