It was at the time when missions fell into ruin and their possessions were divided by the Mexican authorities between neighboring estates, before the appearance of Americans. The causes of the missions’ downfall were multiple. The Sonoma mission disintegrated because of grizzly bears. These made a discovery that the mission’s cattle could serve as a larder of fresh meat, and ignored the Indians who guarded the herds. The mission therefore invited from the Presidio in San Francisco a few soldiers with muskets. Syphilis brought by them developed into an epidemic, lethal to the Indian converts.

The golden era of huge landed estates was short but magnificent. Their growth did not encounter any limit and they embraced hundreds of thousands of acres. No agriculture was practiced, only the raising of large herds of cattle and horses. The wealth derived from it expressed itself in sumptuous harnesses and carriages, saddles inlaid with silver, the elegant dress of cavaliers and ladies, as well as in an animated social life. One would visit neighbors, attend dancing soirees and balls, observing good manners, the forms of civility, honor, respect for the elderly, and politeness toward women. Strangely enough, that gallantry and hand-kissing, that jingle of spurs and furtive looks from above fans did not have for their background marble or jasper. As Arthur Quinn relates in his history of Marin County, the houses of those nabobs did not show much care for comfort and had hard-beaten dirt for their floors. That dirt and, in general, a warm climate favored the breeding of an immense quantity of fleas. I cannot imagine the whirling in dance of those caballeros and señoritas, otherwise than as their pretending they were only their upper parts, while he and she felt below a terrible itching and nearly fainted from their desire to stop the dance and scratch themselves, even to bleeding.

Above and below—this leads to a thought about parasites annoying a human being, though their presence is usually passed over in silence in descriptions of phases and events of history, also in films about the past. Yet practically always, human thoughts, feelings, and decisions were accompanied by fleas, lice, and bedbugs, since it was impossible to get rid of them, except by burning cities, though that was done for other reasons. California Indians managed to solve the problem by burning their villages to the ground from time to time and moving to other places; yet it was easy, for their huts were of reeds.

The civilization of politeness and of fleas, the pride of “the native sons” of California, came to its end when their rule was supplanted by money, innocently at first announcing its might when the first English-speaking adventurers appeared, mostly deserters from whalers. In the middle of the century a new era began, of capital gone wild and of houses with bathrooms.

Meanwhile and Make-Believe

To get up in the morning and go to work, to be bound to people by the ties of love, friendship, or opposition—and all the time to realize it was only meanwhile and a make-believe. For in him hope only was permanent and real, so strong that he was impatient with living. He was to catch now, in a minute—to catch what? A magic formula which contains all the truth about existence. He would brush his teeth and it was just here, he would take a shower and practically pronounce it, had he not taken a bus, it would have revealed itself, and so on all day long. Waking up at night he felt he was working his way toward it through a thin curtain, but then, in that striving, he would fall asleep.

He did not regard this affliction of his kindly. He agreed with the opinion that he should be there—entirely present, in a given place and moment, attentive to the needs of those who were close to him and fulfilling their expectations. To think that they were just for meanwhile and that he practiced make-believe with them was to harm them, yet he was unable to renounce the thought that, really, he had no time for life with them.


Premises for a society of the future. Innumerable varieties of mental illness, the insane walking in the streets and talking to themselves, as today in California, a widely spread license in sex, drugs, and crime. Thence a need to gather in small communities united by their respect for reason, common sense, and purity of habits. Perhaps even poetry survives among a generalized savagery, now health in the midst of sickness, just as once it was sickness in the midst of health.

—Translated by the author and Robert Hass

This Issue

May 15, 1997