Wednesday, December 20, 2006

From: Snook (The Elder) at Table

Wherein Snook distinguishes between Right and Left.

I have a theory ... Easy there, what are you getting up for? ... But I just told you that I have a theory? How am I supposed to explain it with you traipsing about the sideboard getting more beans? Sit down ... No, you'll appreciate this one. I've got diagrams and everything.

You know how I'm always after nailing down types? Types of men, I mean. Well I think I've managed it this time. Listen.

It has, as you will of course know, long been the pursuit of thinking persons to devise a method by which an individual's quality might be determined quickly and easily by some obvious outward sign of his ... You didn't? Oh, yes! Indeed, it is to the lasting regret of all us alchemical thinkers that books, as it were, cannot be told by their covers. And many of us maintain that that particular saying is just popular cant; that it is an entirely fulsome piece of superstition.

(... No ... No, my dear--if you'll permit me to interrupt you--I think you might be under a slight misapprehension as to the meaning of the word 'fulsome'. You're getting it confused with wholesome I think, and it means quite near the opposite ... No, no. That's quite all right. A common enough mistake.)

Now, where was I? ... Sorry, yes. Types of men. Well, it occurred to me yesterday, as I was going north on University Avenue (towards College, as I had some business there to attend to), it occurred to me, I say, then and there, that you can judge a man by his appearance. So long, that is, as he's carrying an umbrella.

... You're laughing, I see, which is quite understandable. But just bear with me for a second.

Fix in your mind's eye the image of a man making his way along any well-trafficked pedestrian thoroughfare, carrying his umbrella--encumbered, it needs be noted, with a briefcase too, so that he's unable to hold the thing by its handle--with its point facing those walking towards him, as per Figure 1.

Now, ask yourself: what sort of man would carry his umbrella thus?

... Do you think so? ... You think that there is the suggestion of something threatening about a man who carries his brolly with the point facing forward. Fascinating. You're under the impression that his must be an aggressive personality; that he has little concern for his fellow men, except, that is, as oversized pincushions. Excellent!

And this fellow here then, in Figure 2? What say you of him? Yes, indeed! A far less intimidating fellow isn't he? What with the point of his umbrella pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Conscientious, clearly ... Yes, likely very polite too, I dare say. Certainly, by all appearances, a responsible fellow at the very least.

Well that's fine and good and exactly as I suspected you would say.

Now, I wonder if you would permit me to give you my own analysis of our two figures here? ... Well, never mind, I shall do so anyway.

I should point out, first of all, that it is very interesting to me that you made your judgements of these fellows solely by virtue of the surroundings in which each of them, as I described, found themselves. Rather than from the perspective of the men themselves. Your concern was of how they should appear to the other pedestrians in their midst. Particularly those walking towards them. Is that right? ... Yes? ...

What would you say then if I were to tell you that you are the worst kind of cynic, madam?

... Now, now, now. You haven't let me explain why I would accuse you of this ... Well, that's what I shall do, if you'll just give me the chance.

It seems to me that with the respective nuances of our two umbrella bearing figures here, we have THE outward and visible sign that distinguishes the inward graces of, in the case of Figure 1, the Traditionalist, and in the case of Figure 2, the Progressive. Or to put it in more accessible (if a little less accurate) terms: the Conservative* and the Liberal.

... Really, you must stop laughing! If you don't, I will be forced to join Lenore--who, you see, is gesturing at me with some vehemence from across the room to save her from that obese gentleman brandishing the pork chop--and then you'll have been deprived of the rub of my little theory.

Thank you.

I should say, for my own part, that contrary to your method of appraisal, I prefer to imagine myself in the place of the subject himself (rather than in that (or those) of his milieu, i.e. the myriad individual concerns that, as I have described, are moving about him, towards him, and that are, as such, in a constant and unaccountable state of flux). From this perspective it seems to me that the motivation of the sort of person who chooses to carry his umbrella with the point facing forward is not, as you suggest, to threaten so much as it is to control. Which is not to say that he wishes to control his environment, so much as he hopes to control his participation in that environment.

This way, it is my strong conviction, should our Traditional fellow happen to impale someone on his umbrella, it is clear that he is prepared to take full responsibility for his carelessness. A novel idea, yes, and terribly idealistic. Such is the democratic impulse in all men, I guess. But given that he has taken the extraordinary precaution of always keeping the lethal end of his accessory within view, the odds of such an impaling are, I think you'll concede, considerably lower than if he didn't.

Not so in the case of our Progressive! Concerned that the point of his umbrella might appear, as you say, threatening, he keeps it behind him. But, if he's thought about it--which is to say, if he's thought of anyone apart from himself--he'll recognize that this is far the more dangerous, and therefore irresponsible, of the two stances, as he is unable to keep track of the hazard he poses to those about him (particularly those behind him).

So why should he do it then?

(... No, it was a rhetorical question, my dear. I asked that I might answer.)

You are familiar, I assume, with this populist fallacy: "the win-win scenario"? ... Oh but it is a fallacy ... Well, because such a result can only be produced in a technical sense; the reasoning being: given that any outcome producing a quote-unquote winner necessitates the existence of a quote-unquote loser, it is only then possible for a win-win situation if, by some logical loophole, the loser is prevented from claiming his loss.

But, you see, the loss itself--even if orphaned--remains in any case ... Yes, it is nonsense. Glad to see that you agree with me ... No, I'm not dissembling; I was just coming to that. Our Progressive carries his umbrella with the point behind him because he knows full well the convenience this affords him in the face of the best and the worst case scenarios. On the one hand: he has the eminently desirable appearance of being unthreatening. On the other: should he happen to impale someone with his umbrella from behind, he is able to play at victim himself.

"As you can see," he would say in the event, "I do not have eyes in the back of my head. The person--the impalee, shall we call him? (it seems only fitting as his part was not the lesser one in this unfortunate occurrence)--approached me from behind, tripped or some such bit of tomfoolery, and now has the point of my umbrella lodged between the sixth and seventh of his ribs. The fault simply cannot be mine, alas. Accidents happen after all, and most unfortunate that this one should've happened to me--what with all the precautions I took, viz. holding the point of my umbrella away from the oncoming pedestrian traffic in an unthreatening manner."

And so you see that out of concern for appearances, rather than with attention to them, you have made a monster of a man, and an icon of, at best, an intentionally witless idiot, and, at worst, a recreational litigator.

And you wonder that I call you a cynic!

... Yes, I guess that is it. Though I don't see the need to put it so tartly. My point was just that while it holds that looks can be deceiving, when observed from the correct angle, they can be relied upon to be entirely revealing too. So long as the persons concerned are carrying umbrellas ... Well, yes, the fatal inconsistency does appear to be that both figures are smoking. But this is fairly easily explained. Figure 1 is indulging the bowlful a day society permits him of Dr. Surgeon General's Asthma Mixture, while Figure 2's pipe is filled with a half-and-half blend of Evian and phosphate-free dish soap.

... No, I wouldn't say that it was a total waste of time ... Well, fine, if you feel that way ... I think though that you protest too much, madam. Am I to take it that I've touched a nerve? That, perhaps, you carry your parasol point aft?


* Snook's reluctance to bridge the gap between "Conservatives" and those he (rather nebulously) calls "Traditionalists" might be explained by the fact that there aren't enough confessing Conservatives existent who understand, or who are willing to admit, that a baseball cap is not an acceptable substitute for an umbrella. --ed.