Archive for September 2010
(Just dumping here an essay which someone, probably one of my parents, had quoted; was probably included in some textbook.)
Alfred George Gardiner (pseudonym “Alpha of the Plough”), Pebbles on the Shore, 1916:
On Umbrella Morals
A sharp shower came on as I walked along the Strand, but I did not put up my umbrella. The truth is I couldn’t put up my umbrella. The frame would not work for one thing, and if it had worked, I would not have put the thing up, for I would no more be seen under such a travesty of an umbrella than Falstaff would be seen marching through Coventry with his regiment of ragamuffins. The fact is, the umbrella is not my umbrella at all. It is the umbrella of some person who I hope will read these lines. He has got my silk umbrella. I have got the cotton one he left in exchange. I imagine him flaunting along the Strand under my umbrella, and throwing a scornful glance at the fellow who was carrying his abomination and getting wet into the bargain. I daresay the rascal chuckled as he eyed the said abomination. “Ah,” he said gaily to himself, “I did you in that time, old boy. I know that thing. It won’t open for nuts. And it folds up like a sack. Now, this umbrella….”
But I leave him to his unrighteous communings. He is one of those people who have what I may call an umbrella conscience. You know the sort of person I mean. He would never put his hand in another’s pocket, or forge a cheque or rob a till—not even if he had the chance. But he will swop umbrellas, or forget to return a book, or take a rise out of the railway company. In fact he is a thoroughly honest man who allows his honesty the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he takes your umbrella at random from the barber’s stand. He knows he can’t get a worse one than his own. He may get a better. He doesn’t look at it very closely until he is well on his way. Then, “Dear me! I’ve taken the wrong umbrella,” he says, with an air of surprise, for he likes really to feel that he has made a mistake. “Ah, well, it’s no use going back now. He’d be gone. And I’ve left him mine!”
It is thus that we play hide-and-seek with our own conscience. It is not enough not to be found out by others; we refuse to be found out by ourselves. Quite impeccable people, people who ordinarily seem unspotted from the world, are afflicted with umbrella morals. It was a well-known preacher who was found dead in a first-class railway carriage with a third-class ticket in his pocket.
And as for books, who has any morals where they are concerned? I remember some years ago the library of a famous divine and literary critic, who had died, being sold. It was a splendid library of rare books, chiefly concerned with seventeenth-century writers, about whom he was a distinguished authority. Multitudes of the books had the marks of libraries all over the country. He had borrowed them and never found a convenient opportunity of returning them. They clung to him like precedents to law. Yet he was a holy man and preached admirable sermons, as I can bear witness. And, if you press me on the point, I shall have to own that it is hard to part with a book you have come to love.
Indeed, the only sound rule about books is that adopted by the man who was asked by a friend to lend him a certain volume. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t.” “Haven’t you got it?” asked the other. “Yes, I’ve got it,” he said, “but I make it a rule never to lend books. You see, nobody ever returns them. I know it is so from my own experience. Here, come with me.” And he led the way to his library. “There,” said he, “four thousand volumes. Every—one—of—’em—borrowed.” No, never lend books. You can’t trust your dearest friend there. I know. Where is that Gil Blas gone? Eh? And that Silvio Pellico? And…. But why continue the list…. He knows. HE KNOWS.
And hats. There are people who will exchange hats. Now that is unpardonable. That goes outside that dim borderland of conscience where honesty and dishonesty dissemble. No one can put a strange hat on without being aware of the fact. Yet it is done. I once hung a silk hat up in the smoking-room of the House of Commons. When I wanted it, it was gone. And there was no silk hat left in its place. I had to go out bareheaded through Palace Yard and Whitehall to buy another. I have often wondered who was the gentleman who put my hat on and carried his own in his hand. Was he a Tory? Was he a Radical? It can’t have been a Labour man, for no Labour man could put a silk hat on in a moment of abstraction. The thing would scorch his brow. Fancy Will Crooks in a silk hat! One would as soon dare to play with the fancy of the Archbishop of Canterbury in a bowler—a thought which seems almost impious. It is possible, of course, that the gentleman who took my silk umbrella did really make a mistake. Perhaps if he knew the owner he would return it with his compliments. The thing has been done. Let me give an illustration. I have myself exchanged umbrellas—often. I hope I have done it honestly, but one can never be quite sure. Indeed, now I come to think of it, that silk umbrella itself was not mine. It was one of a long series of exchanges in which I had sometimes gained and sometimes lost. My most memorable exchange was at a rich man’s house where I had been invited to dine with some politicians. It was summer-time, and the weather being dry I had not occasion for some days afterwards to carry an umbrella. Then one day a sensation reigned in our household. There had been discovered in the umbrella-stand an umbrella with a gold band and a gold tassle, and the name of a certain statesman engraved upon it. There had never been such a super-umbrella in our house before. Before its golden splendours we were at once humbled and terrified—humbled by its magnificence, terrified by its presence. I felt as though I had been caught in the act of stealing the British Empire. I wrote a hasty letter to the owner, told him I admired his politics, but had never hoped to steal his umbrella; then hailed a cab, and took the umbrella and the note to the nearest dispatch office.
He was very nice about it, and in returning my own umbrella took all the blame on himself. “What,” he said, “between the noble-looking gentleman who thrust a hat on my head, and the second noble-looking gentleman who handed me a coat, and the third noble-looking gentleman who put an umbrella in my hand, and the fourth noble-looking gentleman who flung me into a carriage, I hadn’t the least idea what I was taking. I was too bewildered by all the noble flunkeys to refuse anything that was offered me.”
Be it observed, it was the name on the umbrella that saved the situation in this case. That is the way to circumvent the man with an umbrella conscience. I see him eyeing his exchange with a secret joy; then he observes the name and address and his solemn conviction that he is an honest man does the rest. After my experience to-day, I think I will engrave my name on my umbrella. But not on that baggy thing standing in the corner. I do not care who relieves me of that. It is anybody’s for the taking.
यूयं वयं वयं यूयम् इत्यासीन्मतिरावयोः । किञ्जातमधुना येन यूयं यूयं वयं वयम् ॥
yūyaṃ vayaṃ vayaṃ yūyam
ity āsīt matir āvayoḥ |
kiṃ jātam adhunā yena
yūyaṃ yūyaṃ vayaṃ vayam ||
Translated by John Brough (1977):
In former days we’d both agree
That you were me, and I was you.
What has now happened to us two,
That you are you, and I am me?
A simple poem, simply translated, and I was struck both by its simplicity and how popular it seems despite (because of?) it. Here’s the place to mention something trite, like “even the simplest poems can be beautiful”. It’s also an example where word order does matter in Sankrit; rearranging the words wouldn’t give the same meaning.
The poem is attributed to Bhartrhari, which, given the nature of such attributions, may mean we don’t know exactly who wrote it. (It doesn’t appear in all recensions.)
[Ryder, probably translating from the variant reading that has “kiṃ jātam adhunā mitra” (so it’s addressed to a friend specifically), does:
Yes, you were I, and I was you,
So fond the love that linked us two;
Alas, my friend, for friendship’s end!
Now I am I, and you are you.
Unrelated: Regina Spektor, Us
A long (long!) article on the Greek financial crisis, by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair:
Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds.
It tells the story of Greece’s tragic descent into utter financial ruin. The entire country seems to have conveniently chosen a bunch of monks to blame for it all, while the faults lie elsewhere.
The story is well worth reading in the full, but to switch topic, these excerpts from the beginning and the end:
But beyond a $1.2 trillion debt (roughly a quarter-million dollars for each working adult), there is a more frightening deficit. After systematically looting their own treasury, in a breathtaking binge of tax evasion, bribery, and creative accounting spurred on by Goldman Sachs, Greeks are sure of one thing: they can’t trust their fellow Greeks.
But there’s a second, more interesting question: Even if it is technically possible for these people to repay their debts, live within their means, and return to good standing inside the European Union, do they have the inner resources to do it? Or have they so lost their ability to feel connected to anything outside their small worlds that they would rather just shed themselves of the obligations? On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act: all Greek banks would instantly go bankrupt, the country would have no ability to pay for the many necessities it imports (oil, for instance), and the country would be punished for many years in the form of much higher interest rates, if and when it was allowed to borrow again. But the place does not behave as a collective; it lacks the monks’ instincts. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?
If there is such a thing as civilizational spirit, Greece seems to have lost it (going by the article). A lot of Greeks are very bright, though, so let’s see.
In this regard, Greece seems a scary version of what India may have been, and may still become. Both are wounded civilizations (though Greece is probably closer to dead), and one can see, in India as in Greece, the spectacle of empty pride in an old great civilization by people who cannot legitimately claim much connection or even awareness — while simultaneously the country attempts to discard all that and absorb American culture, and is impatient the process isn’t happening faster.
Well, if an insight from a five-day glimpse is to be trusted. :-)
People commonly use the word “procrastination” to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what’s happening as merely not-doing-work. We don’t call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working.
— Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictiveness
Also see: Disconnecting Distraction (with a frightening new note at the top).
To be continued…