Complexity

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Are most humans inherently incapable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, or can almost anyone develop such a capability?

Yesterday I heard live coverage of the eviction of campers at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an occupation that began as a protest against rich people being further enriched by a corrupt financial system. After several weeks of camping in the park, the protestors morphed into an ongoing settlement of people who, judging from interviews I heard with a number of evicted campers, wanted to continue living in Zuccotti Park indefinitely because: “Where else am I supposed to go?” “The one per cent got rich ripping everyone else off.” “There are no good jobs left in America because the rich people sent all the jobs to China.” “It is my constitutional right to camp here as long as I want.” “Private property is a conspiracy of the one per cent.” “This is the beginning of a revolution.” “They can’t make us go.” “It’s time to make a stand.” “The system is totally rigged.” “It’s much better here than in the homeless shelters.” “We are family.”

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

A friend recently said to me, “I guess we should have voted for Hillary, now that we know what a fraud Obama is.”

“Are you serious?” I replied, having previously thought this person to be moderately intelligent.

“Well…just look at what he’s doing.”

“What does that have to do with Hillary? What makes you think she would do anything differently than Obama? She works for the same people he works for. She does whatever her handlers tell her to do.”

“Well…but under Clinton…”

“Don’t go there,” I warned. “Don’t rewrite history, please. Bill was the master deregulator, the champion of NAFTA, the destroyer of the safety net, enemy of our industrial base, servant of the fat cats. Don’t you remember?”

Remembering things is another human capability I wonder about. I am astonished by how little anyone remembers about anything. When I remind people that Al Gore, before his enthronement as an environmental guru, led the campaign against the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the usual reaction is disbelief. “He’s also a proponent of nuclear power,” I add, “and said so to Congress shortly after he made a big splash with his global warming movie.”

“No!”

Yes.

So if we can’t remember anything, and we can’t understand complex situations, where does that leave us?

The novel Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain is a comic tragic story of a well-meaning intelligent person who remembers things and is capable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, living in a society of racist imbeciles and self-serving charlatans. If the title has deterred you, I encourage you to give the book a try.

At the outset of the story we learn how our hero got his nickname, and how the dreadful label dramatically altered the course of his life.

[In that same month of February, Dawson’s Landing gained a new citizen. This was Mr. David Wilson, a young fellow of Scotch parentage. He had wandered to this remote region from his birthplace in the interior of the State of New York, to seek his fortune. He was twenty-five years old, college-bred, and had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school a couple of years before.

He was a homely, freckled, sandy-haired young fellow, with an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort. But for an unfortunate remark of his, he would no doubt have entered at once upon a successful career at Dawson’s Landing. But he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it ‘gaged’ him. He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:

“I wish I owned half that dog.”

“Why?” somebody asked.

“Because I would kill my half.”

The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:

“’Pears to be a fool.”

“’Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”

“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”

“Why he must have thought it, unless he is the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn’t thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?”

“Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general dog, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was, but if he owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and—”

“No, he couldn’t, either; he couldn’t and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion the man ain’t in his right mind.”

“In my opinion he haint got any mind.”

No. 3 said: “Well, he’s a lummox, anyway.”

“That’s what he is,” said No. 4, “he’s a labrick—just a Simon-pure labrick, if ever there was one.”

“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool, that’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.”

“I’m with you, gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass—yes, and it ain’t going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead. If he ain’t a pudd’nhead, I ain’t no judge, that’s all.”

Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over the town, and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name; Pudd’nhead took its place. In time he came to be liked, and well liked, too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed. That first day’s verdict made him a fool, and he was not able to get it set aside, or even modified. The nickname soon ceased to carry any harsh or unfriendly feeling with it, but it held its place, and was to continue to hold its place for twenty long years.]

Ah, subtlety, another of the lost arts, along with complexity and memory—attributes of an interesting mind, of the sort of intelligence I love engaging with, and just the sort of intelligence that is so painfully lacking in our contemporary fiction and plays and movies and humor. I love subtle irony, subtle sarcasm, subtle innuendo; and because I employ such subtlety in my speech, people are forever falling away from me as from something uncanny, so I feel compelled to say, “I was only kidding. That was a joke. Let me explain. Please.” But by then it is usually too late, as it was too late for Pudd’nhead, and I am taken for a fool, or for someone who likes complexity and subtlety and remembering what happened not so very long ago.

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that make horse races.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

So…while the various Occupy encampments around the country were being raided by police, and the tents and belongings of several hundred campers were being removed, a video game called Modern Warfare 3 was released in America, and within twenty-four hours the game sold 6.5 million copies and grossed 400 million dollars, with the Japanese and German versions of the game soon to be released. “This game’s Survival Mode features one or two players fighting endless waves of enemies, with each wave becoming increasingly difficult. Despite being so frequently compared to the World At War Nazi Zombies Mode, enemies do not spawn at fixed locations like the zombies do; instead, they appear at tactical positions based on the current location of the player.”

This may be a stretch, but can you imagine a video game entitled Occupy Wall Street wherein the player(s) not only have to figure out how to successfully camp at Zuccotti Park and keep the police at bay, but also try to achieve objectives beyond continuous camping? Killing the enemy will not be an option in this game; which means subtlety, complexity, and an excellent knowledge of past protest movements will be extremely important in any game-winning strategy, which means, of course, no one will buy the game.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Goodnight, Gracie.

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