A walking onion popping up through the cobbled path made me a little uneasy. I thought it was a weed and almost plucked it out. But a naturalist friend told me I’d regret it if I didn’t wait to see what it would do. Even though it was an eyesore and smelled weird, I trusted him and left it. At the end of the season it buckled and fell over. Unimpressed, I was about to pull it up again. But my friend said I needed to be patient. What happened was, when the first one fell over, it planted itself next cobble over, and sprouted into a second, and then a third. That’s what walking onions do. Now the three musketeers, or magi, or more likely, Huck, Jim, and Tom are headed my way.
Mark Twain would have something to say about these onions, I thought. Sure enough, a little sleuthing revealed a poem (Those Annual Bills) Twain wrote about having been skinned by the tax man when he was down and out from bad investments and a greedy publisher. Still harboring prejudice, I expected his antagonist to be the stinky onion peeling him and making him cry. Instead, he pines:
"Those joyous beans are passed away; Those onions blithe, O where are they?"
Are these the blithe onions that walked away? If these truly are Mark Twain’s onions, what message would they bear? Seems to me they’d have something to say about what we humans are doing here in civilization, especially concerning how we're treating each other and everything else.
Is anything more freeing than believing in ethics’ relativity? When wracked with guilt over some insurrection, I can bend over, plant my head in another belief system, and just keep walking. Or I can start peeling it and take heart that someone has done something worse, and worse than that, and worse than that. As I peel back the layers, flaking off my flimsy wrongdoing, my tears disconnect from my emotions. My guilt eases the closer I get to the basest stinking core of the worst humanity has to offer. Compared to that, truly, I’m as innocent as a bean in Thoreau’s garden. Relatively speaking, I’m blithe as an onion and sweet as a pea.
A believer in ethical absolutism peels layers of cultural differences and finds at its core one unifying ought. If I peel the onion this way, I discover under all the differences that separate us, one absolute principle that defines right and wrong for all human beings. Most if not all the world religions have some version of the Golden Rule, or the ethics of reciprocity: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The ethical nihilist peels layer after layer of the absolutist's refuse and finds at the core, nothing. And so the ethics of reciprocity skews: “Do unto others before they have a chance to do it unto you.”
But Mark Twain’s onions have come all this way to deliver a different message. We’re sick of being used as metaphors, they say. Ain’t it enough that we feed and nourish you? Ain’t it enough that we bring sweet harmony to your frying pan? Ain’t it enough that our puff-headed cousins bring poetry to your gardens? Ain’t it enough that we move you to tears when you peel at us? But you have to go and metaphorize us. What for? You peel us to get to the heart of the matter ‘cause you feel like something’s the matter with your heart. To get to the real you ‘cause the one you is you guess ain’t good enough. To bring you in deeper with one another ‘cause some book Tom probably would’ve wrote says you should.
We come to tell you you got it backwards! To our ethical relative: just because we’re different don’t mean we mean different. You don’t believe an onion can teach you something? Ain’t no matter. Mark Twain told the truth, he even said so himself - stretched it maybe, but mainly speaking…. He’d say to your ethical absolutionist: it’s way hard to go against what you been taught but the core can’t teach you nothing if you can’t read the subtle like layers around it. And to our ethical nihilist, he’d say: if there weren’t no core, there wouldn’t be nothing to peel and ain't no sense peeling nothing. There ain’t nobody need tell even us onions that if there weren’t no core - family and friendship and fellow feeling like that - that’s an awful bad sign. Quit peeling. Look at us. We start at the core and grow layer by layer till we are what we’re supposed to be – good for somebody beside ourselves.