Linesmen

Powwow (1969) by Gene Davis. From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

How an ancient council turned lines into borders.

Art is like a border of flowers along the course of civilization.
-Lincoln Steffens

In the beginning, there was a dot. The dot went for a walk, and formed a line. The line evolved, multiplied, diversified. Soon the earth was covered with all types of lines.

Not long after, there came man. Man went for a walk, and formed another man. They too evolved, multiplied, diversified, and soon the earth was filled with all types of men.

Now somewhere along one of these walks, man and line met. This was disconcerting to man, as he had never seen a line. Unsure of what to do with it, or even what it was, he captured and pocketed it, and summoned all the other men of the earth to a grand meeting. Between them all, he hoped, they would define this strange phenomenon and lay the issue to rest.

The historian was the oldest amongst the men, so naturally he went first. He called the line a time line, and tossed it like a fishing net across the others’ memories. He recorded names, ordered events, set precedents, drew parallels. He tied the line into a loop, so it would repeat itself, and tainted it in different shades from different angles and sides.

The merchant glimpsed an opportunity, so he went next. He called the line a trade line, and promptly stretched it over land and sea. He then set off along it, transporting silk and spices, gold and silver, ivory and salt. He carried chessboards in one direction, religious texts the other. Apples West, chocolates East. Exchanged knowledge for sugar, wine for rice, art for oil and coal.

The scientists were less hasty. They needed structure; a definition based on data, methodology. The mathematician placed the line on a graph, a plane, a chart. He then presented it to the others, who recorded precisely what they saw. The astronomer observed a spectral line. The geologist, a fault line. The chemist, a bond line. The physicist, a field line. None could prove the others false; they would need more experiments, more tests, more time.

The artists were experimental too, but of a more spontaneous kind. They got creative with the line, to everyone’s delight. They made it thick, they made it thin. Long, short, straight, and curved. The Romantic’s line was delicate and fine. The Realist’s, accurate and neat. The Impressionist blurred it in a colorful haze, from which the Cubist made it reappear in a jagged, frenzied daze.

The writer unfolded a story line, to the tune of the pianist’s melody line. The comedian delivered a punch line, which the athletes then took for a finish line. Some ran, some swam across it. Jumped over, crawled under it. Swung high above the ground from it, walked deft and precariously along it.

This meeting had turned into great, loud, fun. All the men were clapping and cheering. All the men but one.

The politician awoke grumpy from his nap and frowned as he looked around. The meeting had clearly gotten out of hand. It was time to take it into his own.

He cleared his throat and silence fell as he took the floor. He looked down at the offending line that had cost him his sleep, then around to address his fellow men.

“This line is a dividing one that has spurred enough controversy and debate. As guarantor of mankind’s safety, and to preserve the peace, I hereby declare it a border line and banish it to the edge of the map.”

His advisors nodded in approval. The council agreed. And man immediately set to work, enforcing the party line. The cartographers drew, the engineers designed, the workers built. The following morning, when man awoke, the headlines read:

Dividing Line Now Border Line.

No one really knows just how the devolution of mankind began, but it happened somewhere, sometime along those lines. Man’s own strategy turned on him; falsely accused and put to wrong use, all the lines united and became border lines. Those within them feared those without them, and suddenly everyone was obsessed with crossing them.

Once demarcation turned to separation, nothing, it seemed, could stop the lines gone rogue. History could recall no precedent. Trade could find no route. Science ran out of experiments, and art ran dry. For once, even the politician could find nothing to say. The border lines had turned to enemy lines, front lines, dead lines.

Then something remarkable happened. It took the whole world by surprise. One sunny day, one little child and his brand new box of crayons happened to pass a border line. He stopped to examine it, looked around cheekily, pulled all his crayons out of the box… and colored all over it.