Friday, July 17, 2009

Flipsides of Alienation

Many years ago now, Brigitte once bought a pack of cigarettes an enterprising outfit had produced. The cigarettes looked real, felt real, had a tobacco odor. She gave me one without revealing the background. I lit the thing up, took one puff, held it at arm’s length. I said: “There’s something wrong with this cigarette. It, uh, it lacks a theme.” I had a Churchill quote in mind. Churchill supposedly sent back a pudding once, saying to the waiter: “Tell the chef, this pudding has no theme.” My cigarette was made of some kind of grass carefully doctored in all of the irrelevant ways. But it had no nicotine.

There is the story of the young man who went to work for a pair of brothers, master dyers. They made a highly prized color purple. After two years of learning, our man left one day and organized his own shop in a distant town. He used the same ingredients as the Purple Brothers. He had timing, temperatures, vessel-sizes, sequences—everything right. But at the end he got a sick-green dye nobody wanted. He labored months but kept on failing. He went on to another trade. But years later he ran into one of the Purple Brothers. They went and had a beer. Our man confessed. “What did I do wrong?” The Purple fellow laughed. He said: “Remember how we used to send you out to fetch fresh rolls every morning? Well, while you were gone we added it—the secret ingredient.”

When a person is said to be alienated, the assumption is that all is well with the society. Something is wrong with the alienated person. But the flip side of this is that the lack may well be in society, not in the person. What happens when the salt of the earth hath lost its savor?

Alienation may be the right, the healthy, the creative response to a situation. But for most people this is a painful process. We tend to blame ourselves; we think that we are maladapted. A Sufi story comes to mind. This concerns a man who learns that, as of a certain date, by evil magic, all of the water naturally flowing would be poisoned and the poison would make everybody mad. The man labors hard and hides several large vessel of good water deep in a cave. When the day comes, the people really do—they go crazy. All sorts of madness spreads. But our fellow retains his sanity. He secretly fetches his still-good water late at night and carefully sips it all day. But he soon feels, well, alienated, separated, estranged, alone. For weeks he holds out but, in the end, he can’t stand it any more. On that day he goes to the flowing fountain in the town, drinks of the poisoned water, and goes crazy like the rest.

As you can you tell, I’ve been listening (if only in nauseated dribbles) to Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings—and to the health care debate. I'm also a regular reader (more honestly a skimmer) of the New York Times. What’s wrong with me? I keep drinking deep of the poisoned water, but it doesn’t seem to work on me.

Added Later: Strange how things happen. On the evening of the day on which I wrote the above, I visited for the first time a link on Siris to a blog called Nova Scotia Scott where I found, in the side-bar, the following quote:

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us’.” — St Antony of Egypt

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