Rip Van Winkle: A parable

Rip Van Wrinkle, writes Washington Irving, was ‘sorely perplexed,’ and nearly everything about him, including his appearance, had changed. His musket had rusted over, his beard had grown down to his waist, and the public places he used to frequent were no longer there or were in a state of disarray. In place of his old friends, who had once issued ‘idle speeches’ and chatted away the hours, were voices emitting a ‘perfect Babylon jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.’

Estranged, he looked upon his fellows with strange, hen-pecked eyes. Who were they? Ah, but who was he? Who was this antique figure? The people did not recognize him, though the older ones vaguely recalled the man’s being a loafer.

Where was his family, the Van Winkles? he asked them. They said that for many years his beloved dog Wolf had been dead, and his wife, ornery Dame Van Winkle, had passed away but a few years ago. But what of the house? ‘The house [had] gone to decay–the roof fallen in, the windows shattered, and the doors off the hinges.’ His friends–those with whom he’d often loafed about and discoursed? Dead or all but dead.

But who was he, they asked. Merely a humble man, he replied, a loyal apologist of King George. King George!, they cried, A Tory! A spy!, and had to restrain some of the hot-tempered among them to ensure that Rip wasn’t forcibly removed. But here was no mob, revolutionary exuberance subside, and civility would soon win out.

Truth is, Rip had fallen asleep before the American Revolution had begun, only to awake some twenty years later, after the United States had been born. During that period, social reality had changed, and so had the many claims of authority as well as the various forms of sense-making. Rip’s predicament–having fallen asleep in one epoch and having awoken in another, having fallen into doubt about nearly all types of legitimate authority–is also ours. What can we do to extricate ourselves from our perplexities and greet each other not in a Babylon of jargon but in the same language in hopes of making something good and beautiful and new?

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