Central to the way we function in the world is the idea of cost/benefit. We turn this measure on everything.
There was a story my uncle Lionel used to tell. He was a dapper European Bourgeois of the mid-twentieth century. He had all the accoutrements: A position, he was a “Head of Department” in the Portuguese Post Office. He owned his own home, on a side street just a block from the big park in Guarda from where, on a clear day, the mountains across the Spanish border were visible beyond the granite Deco/Modernist Hotel Tourismo. He was a widower, even there he was archetypical: His beautiful dead wife, my Father’s sister, consumed by tuberculosis in her prime. The quiet and faithful servant/mistress who tended his every need. He looked like George Sanders, the too smooth too suave actor.
I would sit to his left at table whenever we visited. He would have me spell-bound with his presence; aquiline features and long, straight, silver-gray hair parted in the middle. This part of Portugal, repository of Germanic genes via the Suebians after the fall of Rome, over Celt-Iberian roots and icy-cold mountain-top winters, felt more like Switzerland or Austria, or Germany than a Latin country. For me he was a cross between a movie idol of the thirties – the days of his youth – tinged with more sinister images of officious Germans of the following decade. He would have played a convincing Gestapo Agent.
Immersed in a world I would only later read about and find correspondences in, say, Thomas Mann. This world not far removed from The Magic Mountain! Right down to the cold, hard sanitarium just down the autostrada – I almost wrote autobahn…. Strains of desire and cruel passions, hidden behind ice, locked in social roles with the force of law.
There at his table I was immersed in early twentieth century European mores and manners, in the way such civility hides and harbors deeper brutalities. I also ate very well. We had the cornucopia of wonderful, local food – still available then, along with the fine skills and dogged talents of his aforementioned servant who was also a wonderful cook. One meal stands out, a roast kid with wild morels. All these dinners had at least three courses and ended with a sweet, with fruit and cheese, and then coffee.
This is when he would come into his own, relishing his duties as host and as uncle. He would reach his platinum-and-jewel-ringed fingers across the table-cloth to gather-up his engraved-and-gold-inlaid silver lighter. Tamping cigarettes in a blue, cellophane wrapped packet, he would press one firmly into a long stemmed holder. Sending a silvery cloud of blue-tinged smoke towards the high ceiling, he would settle back in his seat to do simple magic tricks, tell stories, and end the evening with a few jokes.
This was life before mass media. There was a Blaupunkt Radio on the sideboard, that most modern sign that this was the home of a man of means. But for the most part, the old habits of entertaining were still in force, and a host had a responsibility to his guests to beguile and amuse them.
This rather long preamble brings us to one of his chestnuts. It showcases him as a wily entertainer while giving us a glimpse at the crudity just below his polished surfaces. All of us around that table were scant few generations removed from a life of the soil.
There was a monkey at the Lisbon zoo. He loved to mum and beg for treats from the visitors. He would make faces. People would toss him peanuts. He would reach out nimbly, grabbing them in midair and quickly shove them into his mouth. Swallow them down in a hurry to be ready for the next one that might come his way.
Well, one day, someone – either without thinking or out of malice – threw him a coin instead of a nut.
Now, the old Portuguese coins had a nomenclature all their own. Not quite of a complexity to British standards, but certainly not straightforward and rationally metric as might be expected at first glance. Old terms were still in use from the days before Salazar’s “Republic.” A nostalgia for the pomp of royalty at this time displaced by dictatorial “efficiencies.” An escudo was likely to be referred to as un Rei – a king. A large sum of money would generically be termed un Conte de Reis. Nominally, a thousand escudos, an enormous sum before the turn of the twentieth century. Yet another way to hold onto past glories. The perennial national pastime in Portugal.
Right now I can’t remember exactly the term for an escudo in coin. Something Rei…. Anyway, this was what was tossed to the monkey.
He did as he was wont. As soon as he had caught it it went straight into his mouth. He swallowed hard with satisfaction at a job well done. Ready for the next thing to come his way.
The problem was, this coin was not digestible. It was also too big to pass on its own. The poor monkey was deathly ill and had to be operated on to remove it.
No fool this monkey! They never are in the end, in such stories. Except that invariably they remain objects of ridicule.
Once he had recuperated and was back at his normal post on the end of a dead branch in his enclosure. Right up against the tall metal bars at the front of his cage. He returned to his old business, begging for peanuts.
It’s just that he added something new to his routine. Whenever anyone threw him a nut – or any item at all – he would first hold it up to his ass and “See if it fit!”
This would always bring forth a round of hilarity from everyone at the table. Tio (uncle) Lionel would beam in the glow of our approval as he would raise up one “cheek” from his chair and mime the monkey’s deliberations on whether this gift was a “keeper.”
So it goes with our cost/benefit. We take whatever comes our way and we shove it at our assholes to see if it will fit.
There’s the humor of the story: Foolish monkey/foolish us!
But this story, its setting; all the paraphernalia of its embededness in “civilized life;” provides a prime example of how we are conditioned. At the heart of all such stories, from Aesop on down, has been this need to make light of and embarrass us out of our “naive” reactions; to instil in their place a “knowing” archness. A gloss of sophistication that will inoculate us to the “necessity” that even when we see the futility or the danger inherent in the “way things are,” we will smoothly shrug and laugh it off, and get back to what we “know…”
In this case what we know is to put everything to the test; cost/benefit.
The presumptions here are as vast as they are hidden!
To begin is the presumption that we can “know” what the costs are and what would benefit us! Our track record does not reflect well on this! Enshrined within Economics, the “study” of cost and benefit, we have all sorts of caveats and special rules to ensure that neither will be clear. Between “externalities” and “unintended consequences” we wash our hands of any responsibility for the “choices” we make while continuing to insist that the collections of arcana and shared delusions that mark this and all “professions” will guide us into doing it right, “This Time!”
“If only MY school of economic theory is followed instead of any other!”
This is no small point! As with our monkey whose “eyes were – well, in this case bigger than his sphincter!” – we are dazzled by shiny promises. We swallow what the world cannot pass. To laugh this off and continue as before is the tragedy of civilizations. One likely to be put to a final test sooner or later.
The monkey had it right!
Sometimes it takes a crude, a gauche approach, to cut through the convolutions and clotted blockages of our conditioning! What the body knows is available to us. If only we give it ears instead of constantly throwing our Ego’s commands at it! Our bodies – and by this I don’t mean a “mind/body dichotomy.” Let’s use the term organism to show an inclusion of all the parts that make up what we want to call the “individual:” The indivisible. Our organism is capable of navigating a world of threats and violence while not losing sight of pleasures and joy.
But our thinking rushes in to defend the illusion of an Ego by insisting that, contrary to all evidence, it knows. It can tell anyone who listens what to do. It will “save us.” The alternative is to “play the fool!” To be the “hayseed,” unable to “act civilized.”
Tio Lionel’s Twentieth Century should have disabused us of these notions! The private hell his young housekeeper lived, caught between her rosary and her “duties.” The general disturbances from 1914 to 2001 and now beyond…. How easy to elide it all into a grand narrative of “Good against Evil!”
That might have played for one world war, but two? And then all that has followed?
I was fortunate. History lessons played out before my eyes at foreign, yet familiar, tables. Recurrent themes popping up in whatever locale I happened to find myself. Curious and even enticing fantasies of how life might be lived that ultimately could not hide the violence and futility at their hearts. These early lessons that much was broken, broken at a deep level, prepared me for what we face today. A world perceived only in palimpsest. Tracings and re-tracings, carried back through the depths of time, and most telling in the ruts and the gaps they left us to puzzle out. A pattern amidst the wear and confusion.
Authority hides its hollow core behind all manner of fronts and projections. If we can see it for what it is, empty promises and veiled threats ready to burst out into open violence, as the lights go out and the household goes dark. Or, on a wider stage, when the same combination of blindness and inattention give it full sway. Once we do see it for what it is, what then? Join into its continuation? Chasing cost/benefits we cannot untangle no matter how hard we might try?
Or do we say, “Enough!”
Our organism, as ridiculed and discounted as that poor little monkey, waits patiently to help us find a way.