Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Adventures of Pinocchio: More on Swindlers and Fools

Carlo Coloddi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio", first published in 1880 and the inspiration for Disney's animated classic "Pinocchio", is also set in a world of Swindlers and Fools, to the point of caricature, which makes illustrating the idea a bit easier. Pinocchio is obviously a gullible Fool; the Fox and the Cat are Swindlers, and so on.

The scene I was most struck by was one neatly capturing the concept of life as a finite pie: one in which you will be lucky to get a few crumbs; slices reserved only for those who take at the expense and suffering of those around them.

Life as a finite pie is - I would argue - a foreign concept for most of us, simply because we have never experienced it firsthand. We are lucky, because if we did, it is very likely that in short while most of us would be Fools, and a few of us would be Swindlers. Most of us would have nothing, while a few of us would have more than their share.

But let's get back to the example. In the scene, the Showman Fire-eater - the basis for the character "Sromboli" in the watered-down Disney version (the cricket, incidentally, is crushed and killed by Pinocchio in the original) - calls on his two puppets, Harlequin and Punchinello, to bring Pinocchio to him:

"Bring that puppet here: you will find him hanging on a nail. It seems to me that he is made of very dry wood, and I am sure that if he were thrown on the fire he would make a beautiful blaze for the roast."
At first Harlequin and Punchinello hesitated; but, appalled by a severe glance from their master, they obeyed.

So Harlequin and Punchinello bring in Pinocchio pleading desperately for his life, and the Fire-eater (who "had not a bad heart") for whatever reason takes pity on him. He is saved.

Remember, however, that in this world life is a finite pie. If Pinocchio is not going to burn for the mutton, something - or someone - else will. And that is precisely what happens:

" you can see I have no more wood with which to finish my mutton, and to tell you the truth, under the circumstances you would have been of great use to me! However, I have had pity on you, so I must have patience. Instead of you I will burn under the spit one of the puppets belonging to my company. Ho there gendarmes!"
"Take Harlequin, bind him securely, and then throw him on the fire to burn. I am determined that my mutton shall be well roasted."

The gendarmes grab Harlequin. Pinocchio, beside himself, now pleads for the life of his friend Harlequin, all to no avail. Finally, Pinocchio - for the first time in the novel - shows he may just have what it takes to become a real boy. He says:

"In that case, bind me and throw me among the flames. No, it is not just that Harlequin, my true friend, should die for me!"
These words, pronounced in a loud, heroic voice, made all the puppets who were present cry. Even the gendarmes, although they were made of wood, wept like two newly born lambs.

Fire-eater, similarly touched, grants a pardon to both Harlequin and Pinocchio. Note, however, what he has to say about it:

"I must have patience! Tonight I shall have to resign myself to eat the mutton half raw; but another time woe to him who chances!..."

Thus life is a finite pie. Every act has a measurable consequence; for every give there is a take. Pinocchio is spared, therefore Harlequin must burn. Harlequin is spared, therefore Fire-eater must eat his mutton half raw.

But wait a minute, you say. Eating mutton half raw is a great deal different then being burned alive!

Yes, that is true, but that is just the point also. Fire-eater is a Swindler (albeit one, apparently, with some relative measure of compassion); Harlequin and Pinocchio are Fools. The consequence for Fire-eater is inversely proportionate to his slice of the pie.

In a world where life is a finite pie, stratification becomes inevitable because if someone must swindle for gain, someone else must therefore be fooled for loss. In such a system, when gain for one invariably results in loss for the other, we are left only with some sense of moral ethics (individual character, compassion, empathy, courage, virtue, sacrifice, etc.) as the sole counteractive force tempering suffering and oppression. And when that fails, if we are lucky and happen to live in a place that allows it, we are forced to resort to laws (in this light, a litigious society could therefore be viewed as one of individual moral failing)...

Now in the world I personally have had the good fortune live in, none of this could happen of course. Because in my world, although you could make a strong argument there exists a Fire-eater, he happens to have a large pile of wood for his fire, and therefore it is vastly easier for him to pardon Harlequin and Pinocchio. He has no dilemma or conflict; he never has to consider whether or not his mutton will be half raw at their expense.

In this same world I have had the good fortune to live in, one could argue also that the large pile of wood is rapidly dwindling (and one could also argue that this same pile was itself derived from a world of Swindlers and Fools, hidden from us behind a curtain, across an ocean, or over a border).

The question, then, is what will happen to this world when the pile of wood runs out - when the only way that Fire-eater can get his mutton properly cooked (as he prefers it) is by tossing one of his puppets into the fire?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Swindlers and Fools

Before I even begin a discussion of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's "What is to Be Done?", I want to talk about his world of Swindlers and Fools, for in order to appreciate the characters in his book, it is important that we first accept the parameters of the ethos from which they emerged.

The basic idea of Swindlers and Fools is this:

Suppose that life offers absolutely no possibility whatsoever except arduous and unrewarded toil, oppression, and suffering. Life is a finite pie from which you will be lucky to get a few crumbs, and the only souls who receive a slice are those that do so at the expense and suffering of those around them.

In such a world, one has only two choices: either (A) become a swindler - someone willing to take whatever they can get from others for their own personal gain, regardless of how it effects those around them; or (B) remain a fool - someone who resigns themselves to their dismal lot in life and accepts its innumerable cruelties.

In Chernyshevsky's own words:
Your entire previous life led to the conclusion that people are divided into two categories: fools and swindlers. “Anyone who isn’t a fool is surely a swindler,” you thought, “and not to be a swindler means that you’re a fool.” This view, Marya Aleksevna, was very accurate; until quite recently, Marya Aleksevna, it was completely accurate.
At the time his novel was written (1863), Russia was very much this kind of world: a world of extreme social stratification, class inequity, poverty, inhumane working conditions, devoid of human rights, absolutely no opportunity, etc.

Unfortunately a description that could and can be effortlessly applied to many parts of the world both then and now (including Russia). In fact, I was struck last night by a scene in Slumdog Millionaire, which presented the "Swindler or Fool" moral dilemma very well. Now, this film has received both criticism and praise, but no matter what you think of all that the moral dilemma holds true:

Early in the film, the gangster Maman has enticed Mumbai street children into his "orphanage" in order to train them to beg for money. To increase the children's earning potential, Maman uses chemicals to blind those who can sing well (to make them more sympathetic). One night, Maman and his cronies blind a boy in front of Salim and present him with his moral choice:

Choice #1. "Go get your brother Jamal and bring him to us. We will blind him too, but it will benefit you. You will become one of us. By helping us, you will get things the others don't. More importantly, you will learn that swindling others is the only way to avoid being taken advantage of yourself. Now in order to do this, there is only one caveat: you must become ruthless and heartless, like we are. So let's start with your brother Jamal."

- or -

Choice #2. "Remain a fool and remain someone who will forever be taken advantage of by people like us. You will get nothing, just like the others. In fact, who knows what will happen to you? Perhaps we will blind you instead."

The entire premise of this world is that these are the only two choices. If you accept the premise (as millions have and do) then you must choose one or the other. And the sad part is, of the two, anyone remotely clever or wise or ambitious will (if they can) opt for choice #1 - the swindler!

Don't dismay; this should be heartening, in some respects, because in terms of human nature, it means that in a different world operating under an alternate premise (one, suppose, that offered a few more choices), there might be fewer swindlers (and therefore fewer fools as well). It means that swindlers have the potential to be more humane and compassionate, if given more plausible alternatives. Good (or rather, improved) soil yields a healthier crop.

In many parts of the world, the soil has indisputably improved. There are still massive problems, of course, but the fact that we all know there aren't only two choices is relative progress. As is the possibility that life is not a finite pie. Our rejection of this premise is a given, so much so that it is difficult for us to imagine a world of Swindlers and Fools. It is a luxury we have - no, it is a right - a right that many, many people in this world still do not.

The most wonderful thing about this right is that it requires nothing but a change of thinking to claim it.

Back to Slumdog Millionaire. In the "feel good film of the decade", at least, there is hope.

Salim opts for:

Choice #3: Grab brother and run like hell.

Hope embedded in this action lies in its potential to prove Swindlers and Fools to be a false dichotomy. Yet Salim never truly escapes it; he remains conflicted by this moral dilemma throughout the story, and ultimately opts to become a Swindler, to his and moreover others' detriment.

Chernyshevsky presents a character in his novel that is a "third" kind of person, neither a Swindler nor a Fool. His name is Rakhmetov and I'll talk about him in my next post. What's great about him is he just so happens to be a Russian nihilist, not unlike Bazarov in Fathers and Sons - but with a wonderful twist - and thus we'll see how all this begins to tie together.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Russian Nihilism: Faith, Science, and the Bitter Atheist

Let us suppose that you believe in God, very deeply (if you do, this will obviously require less imagination then if you don't).

Let us suppose that you also believe in the Divine Right of Kings - that is - you believe (again, very deeply) that God has placed a single person to rule over your Land: an Emperor, holy and sacred. Your faith in this Emperor is no different than your faith in God; they are one and the same.

Whether you believe in God or not, this second item will likely require more imagination, as there aren't a whole lot of people left in the world who still believe in the Divine Right of Kings, and for good reason. It hasn't really worked out too well in the modern age.

Anyhow, there you are, happily feeling this way, when things take a turn for the worse: you and your family begin to suffer. There has always been suffering, so that's nothing new (not to make light of human suffering) but this time, when you attempt to figure out why this suffering has come to be, you and those around you cannot help but notice the Emperor and his policies seem to be causing all the trouble. Try as you may to lay blame elsewhere, the facts point back to that you have always held most sacred.

In other words, for the first time you find fault in your own unquestioned core beliefs.

In an instant, everything you ever believed in is a falsehood. For to call the Emperor into question is to call God into question - and ultimately to call belief itself into question. Suddenly one's entire world is unstable rather than sound. What is true? What is real? It is like a game of jenga (I know, bad analogy): pull one piece out and the whole thing topples.

Why? Because profound contradictions against an unquestioned world view create pressures so extreme that when core beliefs finally rupture, the result is not to crack but to shatter. Core belief is resilient; it holds on as long as it can, even in the face of absurdity, so when it finally goes, it goes in style. It bursts like a dam.

Van Gogh described himself as a "bitter atheist". I always loved this idea: a "bitter atheist" - someone who has been terribly disappointed, betrayed. Someone who once had a profound faith, and then lost it. A very, very different someone than the fellow who turned to atheism out of logic or reason or upbringing, without the accompanying companion of shattered faith (booooring!). Yes, a "bitter atheist" and an "atheist" are not the same thing at all. The former has more to paint about.

We live in a change state culture, that is, a culture where rapid and profound change is the norm, where each generation presents a disconcerting "gap" (not true of all cultures and societies), where each advent in technology presents new social challenges, and thus where, when things break, indeed they tend to shatter...

Leaving a lot of bitterness to go around, I suppose.

But I digress. Back to nihilism. Back to the poor soul who has just realized everything is a falsehood. Let's help this fellow out at once! Apparently he has a few questions...

Q: So, if I have recently learned that everything I believe in is not true, then how do I go about discovering what is true?

A: Well, you begin by clearing off the table:

  • If everything I know is a lie, then nothing exists.

Q: Nothing? That's no fun. There must be something, right? Some truth? How do I find it?

A: Very, very carefully! Trusting nothing as given (throwing out every assumption you have ever known) you must observe the world around you and make note of everything you can see, touch, hear, smell, feel, etc., no matter how trivial. Later you will look at what you have observed and see if any patterns emerge. Then you will put these patterns to the test and discover if they reveal any truths. Thus:

  • Nothing exists, except that which I can observe with my senses.

Q: A little less vague, please?

A: You will eventually refine this approach into a concrete method: you will create a hypothesis of what might potentially be true, then you will do your very best to prove it isn't, using your full powers of observation and reason. Thus:

  • Nothing exists, except that which you can prove empirically to be.

Now that sounds familiar, doesn't it? Yes, that sounds like a scientist. And the method sounds like the scientific method. Because it is. From this idea - nothing exists except that which you can observe with the senses - modern science is born (or at least refined).


Thank you, Russian nihilism. Now let us look at one of the greatest books ever written, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, to illustrate this extraordinary paradigm shift in point of view.

In the white corner, we have Nikolai Petrovich. He is the father; he loves and admires nature, he believes deeply in the Tsar and God. Nature is divine and poetic to him.

In the red corner, we have Bazarov. He is a nihilist: nothing exists to him except that which he can observe with his senses. Therefore, he recognizes no authority. He does not believe in God or Tsar; he generally has disdain and contempt for any institution supporting what he cannot logically prove to exist.

In the middle we have Arkady, Nikolai Petrovich's son. Arkady looks up to Bazarov, but also admires his father, setting up a wonderful moral dilemma and tug of war. To illustrate, while Nikolai Petrovich cites verse (essentially divine, c'mon its Pushkin), Bazarov has little regard for his sentimental, romanticized view of nature...

"Yes, this is spring in all its glory," said Nikolai Petrovich. "Though I agree with Pushkin - do you remember those lines in Eugene Onegin?

To me how sad thy coming is,
O spring, O spring, sweet time of love!

"Arkady!" shoted Bazarov from the tarantass. "Send over a match will you, I've nothing to light my pipe with."

Meanwhile, Pavel Petrovich, Nikolai Petrovich's aristocratic brother, is far less tolerant of Bazarov than Nikolai Petrovich himself:

"What is Bazarov?" Arkady smiled. "Would you like me to tell you, uncle, what he is exactly?"
"Please do, nephew."
"He is a nihilist!"
"A what?" asked Nikolai Petrovich, while his brother lifted his knife in the air with a small piece of butter on the tip and remained motionless.
"He is a nihilist," repeated Arkady.
"A nihilist," said Nikolai Petrovich. "That comes from the latin nihil-nothing, I imagine; the term must signify a man who... who recognizes nothing?"
"Say-who respects nothing," put in Pavel Petrovich, and set to work with the butter again.
"Who looks at everything critically," observed Arkady.
"Isn't that exactly the same thing?" asked Pavel Petrovich.
"No, its not the same thing. A nihilist is a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered."
"Well, and is that a good thing?" interrupted Pavel Petrovich.
"It depends on the individual, my dear uncle. It's good in some cases and very bad in others."
"Indeed. Well, I can see this is not our cup of tea. We of the older generation think that without principles (Pavel Petrovich pronounced the word as if it were French, whereas Arkady put the stress on the first syllable) - without principles taken as you say on trust one cannot move an inch or draw a single breath. Vous avez change tout cela, may God grant you health and a general's rank, but we shall be content to look on and admire Messieurs les... what was it?"
"Nihilists," said Arkady, speaking very distinctly.
Later on:
"What have you got there, leeches?" asked Pavel Petrovich.
"No, frogs."
"Do you eat them or breed them?"
"They're for experiments," Bazarov replied indifferently, and went into the house.
"So he's going to cut them up," observed Pavel Petrovich. "He has no faith in principles, only in frogs."
Pavel Petrovich has little regard for Bazarov:
"What a calamity it is to have spent five years in the country like this, far from mighty intellects! One becomes a complete fool. You struggle not to forget what you have learned - and then one fine day it turns out to be all rubbish, and they tell you that sensible men no longer have anything to do with such nonsense, and that you, if you please, are an antiquated old fogey. What is to be done? Obviously the younger generation are more intelligent than we are."
And Bazarov has little regard for Pavel Petrovich:
"Do you think I'm going to pander to these provincial aristocrats! Why, its all personal vanity with them, the habit of being top dog and showing off... But enough of him! I've found a rare specimen of water-beetle, Dytiscus marginatus - do you know it? I'll show you."
Note that Fathers and Sons was first published in 1861, while Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859, roughly the same time and intellectual milieu. Thus the natural extension of "nothing exists except what can be observed by the senses" is essentially equal to "look at this very interesting idea I have just observed with the senses!"

Perhaps this explains the often visceral juxtaposition between faith and science. A shame, really, because when you compare Nikolai Petrovich's divine love for nature with Bazarov's emprical/revolutionary love for nature, the bottom line is they both love nature! Whether one recites Pushkin or the other mumbles in Latin makes very little difference, one could argue.

A false dichotomy. But a dichotomy nevertheless, and one worth examining in more detail.

Considering that we are living in the "period after the fallen Emperor in which the principles of nihilism have supplanted principles of the divine, to varying and unsettling degrees", it seems to me we should spend some time looking at the Russian revolution, at Chernyshevsky's "What is to be Done?" and some other items, from a new, modern angle (not a Marxist one), in order to see if we can make some sense out of what is happening today. I'll do that in my next few posts.

Of course, there may be no relevance to this at all... And most people find looking back at history so incredibly dull, anyhow. For them I leave this description of Nikolai Petrovich's servant:
Everything about him, from the single turquoise ear-ring to the dyed pomaded hair and his mincing gait, proclaimed him to be a man of the advanced modern generation.
1850s, baby. Now that's punk rock.