About Friendship and Democracy

“To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents.”
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV

I’ll never forget a beautiful Peruvian girl, breathtaking she was, and a true friend, Ivy Arbulu. May she rest in peace. Every now and then, I think of Ivy, and I chuckle about the time she told me to my face that I stank like a gringo. Ivy said she could smell me coming all the way down the corridor of Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. We were both graduate students in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese in the early 90s. Ivy—I hate using pronouns for Ivy—had the most beautiful eyes you could imagine. Like those giant glassy dark eyes in paintings by El Greco. You could drown in them. Ivy’s voice too was mesmerizing. Low and raspy, sultry even, unlike anything I’d ever heard out of the mouth of an American girl. Ivy smoked too much but I’m still not convinced tobacco was the reason she sounded like that. Then again, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Jefferson, if I’m thinking about Ivy, then I’m “substituting sentiment for demonstration.”

I guarantee you that anyone who knew Ivy will have no problem verifying this anecdote. Ivy was most of all beautiful because she was aggressive, direct, honest; and dammit, if Ivy wasn’t far to my left politically, my antithesis. Ivy was drunk that night at St. Maarten’s Café on the Corner in Charlottesville. She wasn’t angry, no, just righteous and ready for a fight, and smiling about it. Maybe I did stink. But I probably had it coming for a long list of other reasons too. I might have pissed her off that morning in the class we were taking on Garcilaso. Maybe I said something obnoxious earlier that evening. It’s in my nature. I once tried to convince her that watermelons and Arum-lilies were unspeakable symbols of the death of the Incan Empire. She wasn’t buying it. She hated Derrida, most Marxists do. Ivy was, how to describe her? Neo-Bolivarian.

My response to being told I smelled like a gringo was as honest as her insult, and I delivered it with a touch of reciprocity, which I rightly assumed she expected: “Ivy, I’ve always thought you Mexicans are the ones who smell funny. Like cumin. Guantanamera. Guajira guantanamera. GuantanamEEEra.” She laughed instantly, and long. Ivy was always quick to laugh.

I still cry when I think about Ivy. She died too young. Cancer, though I can’t recall which kind. I don’t think it was of the lung. Ovarian? I visited her a handful of times in the hospital at UVA. One time I brought her a CD of a standup comedy routine by Louis CK. It was before his fall from grace. She loved it. Ivy was always quick to laugh. I also saw her while she was still at her home in Scottsville. The largest of her three German Shepherds bit me—he must have smelled my fear. We didn’t laugh about that.

Ivy died a few months later. In my last memory of her she stands before me, wobbling, weaker than I’d ever seen her. She’s wearing one of those paper hospital robes and socks after some goddammed radiation treatment. She looks up at me, leaning against a metal stand on wheels from which an IV bag dangles over her head. She stares at me for two or three seconds with those big brown eyes, rotating her head slowly, as if curious about something I’m saying. Then she smiles and straightens up, but her eyebrows arch in sadness, and she says, “¡Mírame! Mira lo que me ha pasado al cuerpo. Esto ahora soy yo, Eric. A que soy un desastre.” For once, I couldn’t look away. I still cry when I think about Ivy, but then I shake it off. She could be mean. Like Liz Taylor she was, only Hispanic and more exotic, more sultry.

We were students together at the greatest university ever built, a university conceived specifically to spread democracy in the only direction it has ever been designed to go—out, down the road, way on down south, out to sea, and then to the stars. Last week, I came across the following passage in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)—it’s from Query XIV. It made me remember Ivy, and it made me laugh. I realized he can’t be serious—check that—he’s serious but not in the way you think. He’s probing, testing, throwing down yet another gauntlet. And I know this thanks to Ivy. Ivy’s why I don’t like walls. Ivy showed me what the Founder meant. But she died before I could tell her about it. Hell, she died before I realized what she had taught me. Most of all, she died before I could thank her.

And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgement in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.

I’m inclined to believe that from the sanctimonious perspective of most of today’s readers, this is as bad as we get from Mr. Jefferson. And yet, if that’s all there is, we don’t need the Louisiana Purchase, and we sure don’t need seashells at 15,000 feet in the Andes Mountains, to make the case for Jeffersonian democracy. The way to salvation is as simple as Sally Hemings, Query XVIII, and the Bill of Rights. Love, self-respect, and independence. And maybe a handful of insults now and then just to remind us that we’re all human.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image 


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here: ericcliffordgraf.academia.edu/research.

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