January 06, 2007

Food and the gods

We knew we wanted to lie-in this morning, so last night I fed Ichy a bit extra, in the hope that it would last her until lunchtime. She heard the scraping of my hand in the packet and came straight to the kitchen from her previous repose: and when she arrived she went, again directly, to the bowl and began to eat.

I liked that, its simplicity, its absence of acknowledgement. I am a Catholic by birth but Protestant in inclination: I like modesty and simplicity, the absence of decoration, the absence of effusiveness. If there must be social ceremony I would rather it were brief. The greater the show, the greater the feeling of insincerity. The more convoluted our declarations, the more they express obligation: the more extensive the ritual, the more one experience it purely as ritual. If one is expected to say "thank you", then how can one discern honesty? Where is truth, within the performance of an obligation? A refusal to say "thank you", that has meaning. But the declaration may have meaning or may not.

Often, I think, I would prefer its absence, as it is absent in the cat. Holst wrote, of music:
Never compose anything unless the not-composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you
which is another way of saying that we should not speak unless we have something necessary to say: and necessary in the sense of valuable, of contributing something, not in the sense that it is necessary to observe an obligation. One might address that problem another way, by removing the obligation, or not observing it, as Quakers refused to observe the obligation to remove their hats. One should at least consider it, for if a social obligation is empty enough, it is surely emptier still if it goes unexamined, if it is performed without one even understanding why it might exist.

In a pause after conversation, the younger boy said in his small, clear voice, "Mr Shevek doesn't have very good manners".

"Why not?" Shevek asked before Oiie's wife could reprove the child. "What did I do?"

"You didn't say thank you."

"For what?"

"When I passed you the dish of pickles."

"Ini! Be quiet!"

Sadik! Don't egoise! - The tone was precisely the same.

"I thought you were sharing them with me. Were they a gift? We say thank you only for gifts, in my country."
In my country, if I had a country, we might do the same: or more likely, simply nod the head, acknowledging the gift, but make no comment on it. Since if we feel obliged to say we like it, how can they who give the gift believe that what we say is true?

Whatever you say, say nothing: it seems the opposite advice to Holst's, but it is complementary. Say nothing. Say nothing that does not need to be said. Write nothing unless you need to, not unless the not-writing of it would be a positive nuisance to you. And do not make a fuss. A cat, once fed, will make no fuss, but simply eats, even if, unexpectedly, the food is given earlier, or in a greater quantity, than the cat expected. She eats. But human beings, receiving unexpected bounty, invent gods and praise them. Manna from heaven has to be from heaven. It cannot just happen as exigency, as a stroke of fortune.

Why do they do this? Because they want to convince themselves that their fortune wasn't fortune. That they were rewarded for their piety or moral excellence, because the gods reward the good. It is the gospel of success, by which we live, that success comes because we work for it - and hence deserve it. That when we get a break, it was a break that we deserved. We cannot simply enjoy it, or observe it, but we have to make a moral lesson out of it, one that we disguise by calling on a god.

I do not like it. I do not like it because I despise the arrogant corollary, that if we fail there must be a lack of effort, or a lack of virtue in our failing. More and more the world in which I live appears to me divided in this way, that on one side there stand the successful, and on the other side the unsuccessful. In that great struggle I am with the latter. On the losing side. Because we are most human when we fail. Because it is when we fail that we find ourselves in need of one another. Of one another, not the blessing of a god. Of one another, genuinely, from no obligation but, rather, from need.

To err is human, and to fail, more human still. To call on god is futile: to link success with moral virtue is the law of dog eat dog. Which seems to me so foolish, when, if we are dogs, most of us are small and frightened dogs. Do not say thank you for good fortune: you neither deserve nor fail to deserve it. It would be better simply to accept it and say nothing. In the manner of the cat.


At January 20, 2007 4:22 am, Anonymous Ian said...

<nods head>


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