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Tuesday, July 19

Bill and Ted vs Kaiser Soze: does freedom from stochastic reasoning give an edge against the devil?

On reviewing my achives for July I got a start when I saw the entry for July 6, which of course was a day before what's now known as "7/7" -- the date of the London massacre. For readers who missed Marc Schulman's letter I republish it below. This time I supply an answer to his question.

"Pundita:
I'm curious about something. Ever since I was a teen-ager, I've been absolutely fascinated by the 1930s. While I've read numerous books on the subject, I still can't understand how the western democracies could allow Hitler to have his way in Europe. After all, he made no secret of his ambitions and intentions -- they were all in Mein Kampf.

Yes, there are plenty of explanations, such as perceiving Nazi Germany as the bulwark against communism. Be that as it may, the blindness of Europe's statesmen (with the notable exception of Churchill) remains incomprehensible to me.

My knowledge of the 1930s is the prism through which I view our current situation. Like Hitler, bin Laden and his ilk have made it crystal clear, in their spoken words and writings, that they seek the destruction of Western civilization.

And, as in the 1930s, numerous statesmen (again in Europe!) and millions of ordinary citizens have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, notwithstanding 9/11. Further, the United Nations is as ineffective and toothless now as the League of Nations was then.

The parallels between now and that sorry decade seem so obvious to me that I am again finding it to be impossible to truly understand those who do not see what I see and instead are irate because [America's] behavior is less than perfect.

So here's my question: is your prism the same as mine and, if not, what is it?"

Dear Marc:
Our prism is not the same. Yet when I received your letter I wrote a reply that tried to look at the situation from your prism and I answered from that view. I'm used to doing that sort of thing; it's automatic with me -- it's the consultant's way.

I was about to send the reply then I thought, 'This guy has been haunted by the situation and era he wrote about; he's given a great deal of thought to it over many years. He's asking you on a personal level what you really think.' So then I couldn't send the reply. I gave up for a time, simply published your letter and asked others to comment.

The really interesting thing about the storyline for the film, The Usual Suspects, is that came it to the author in almost a random or accidental way -- or maybe serendipitous is the best word. Anyhow, he didn't start out to write a study of evil. He was just casting around for a good story, and he looked at his surroundings, and in the manner of the stunning end of the story, he picked up the idea from things he saw at the time.

But this made the film no less a work of art. What you're left with, after the shock wears off and you've had time to think about it, is whether the story Verbal told about Kaiser Soze is true. If so, that would make evil comprehensible. Because everything else he told was a distortion or a lie the question is left hanging in the air.

I once witnessed an assassination attempt on a revered public figure. It happened in full view of thousands of people. I was sitting not three yards from where it happened. A man jumped out of the seated throng -- a completely unremarkable man -- and began squeezing the life out of the intended victim.

There were several strong men sitting not even a foot from where it happened, men who would have given their life without a thought to save the public figure. They didn't make a move to intervene, even though they were looking straight at the death battle.

It flashed into my mind, "Maybe they think the man's hugging him." I screamed a warning but the scream did not emerge. I tried to jump up to help the victim. I was unable to move my limbs. The more I struggled to scream and move my limbs, the more I was overcome by a feeling of lassitude, a desire to close my eyes and sleep.

I had never lacked physical courage. My mind raced frantically, trying to find a way to overcome the lassitude. The words of a friend on the NYPD flashed to mind from a long time before: "If you're ever attacked don't yell help, yell fire."

Summoning every iota of willpower I had, and every bit of compassion I could muster, I screamed at the struggling victim, whose face was contorted with agony and revulsion, "Don't hit him!"

It came out more of a squeak than a scream, but it was as if a spell had been broken. I was able to move my limbs again, but the men sitting nearby suddenly leaped into action. It took five of them -- all around 6' tall -- to peel off the attacker, who was maybe 90 pounds and 4'9. It took 12 strong men to wrestle and half-carry the thrashing attacker out of the auditorium. Meanwhile, the event continued as if nothing had happened.

I was so shaken by the incident that all I could do at first was sit there shivering. Finally I turned to the woman sitting next to me and commented, "My God! Did you see what happened!"

The woman asked mildly what had happened. Startled, I described what had taken place. No, she hadn't seen the incident. "I must have dozed off for a time."

I turned to the person behind me and put the same question. No, had no recollection of anything like that happening.

After the event I went from person to person in the dispersing crowd, asking the same question with a growing sense of horror and disbelief. One person mentioned seeing what looked to be someone with an epileptic seizure carried out of the auditorium but no, he had not seen any disturbance around the public figure, no attack.

Finally I found a friend, Alexandra, who'd entered the event late and stood at the back of the auditorium. After pouring out the story I added, "I'm almost beginning to doubt the incident happened. Understand I'm not hearing contradictory accounts of what I saw happen. I'm hearing that people saw nothing happen."

She replied thoughtfully, "Perhaps it was just one of those moments when everyone was looking the other way."

Her observation set me to shivering again. It hit that my struggle to regain my physical functions, which had seemed to drag on for hours, probably occurred in a matter of a few seconds. The entire incident could have been just one moment in time.

Without telling me, Alex, who was a sharp-witted Oxford graduate, decided to investigate my story. The next day she dropped in to say hello to an Indian official in the ashram's administration she was on chatting terms with. She was circumspect on the theory that if there had been an attack the official wouldn't want to acknowledge it. In the middle of talking about the weather she casually asked what had happened to the man who'd attacked Baba the day before in the Poornachandra.

Surprised, the official studied her for a moment then replied, "Do not trouble yourself about that man, madam. The most one can ever do with evil is give it a good thrashing and send it on its way."

The little band of young St. Petersburg intellectuals and artists that George Gurdjieff guided through the Russian revolution to Georgia and eventual safety in France understood so little about the rigors of the journey at the onset that the women set off in high heels.

Russia had descended into chaos, into madness. One day the Red army would be in control, the next day the White. Both sides had descended into savagery. The group that Gurdjieff wended through the horrors didn't know there was no going back, that things in Russia would not return to normal. Gurdjieff knew, and he knew of the fresh horrors to come.

Gurdjieff had been raised at the intersection of the modern and ancient worlds; he'd been exposed to many languages, many peoples from incredibly diverse backgrounds. And he'd been exposed to much horror. If I recall he was half Armenian; anyhow, it's said he became a member of the Armenian underground after a series of massacres carried out on the Armenians.

The extraordinary experiences of his youth, his extraordinary journeys to find and study with 'remarkable men,' coupled with his intelligence, allowed him to see many things that were quite invisible to most others.

This led him to the idea that humans exist in a state of sleep that only the most arduous training can overcome. He dedicated much of his life to finding ways to shake people out of habitual thinking patterns that he believed reinforced the tendency to sleep.

But he came to a pessimistic view, or perhaps a very pragmatic one: that the river of daily life, the demands of the socialization process and fitting into society, make it impossible for all but a very few to awaken from a mental state he considered sleep.

Is the kind of evil I witnessed a blind, almost mechanical force? A byproduct of processes, as with carbon monoxide? I don't know, any more than I can guess the answer to the question left hanging by The Usual Suspects. I do know from experience that evil has a way of convincing us that we can't win, thereby landing us in a mental trap.

It's been observed by researchers that humans are natural odds players, even though we're pretty lousy at intuiting how the law of chance actually works. We have a tendency to fight hardest if we think we have a chance at victory -- the High Noon phenomenon. If people think they're up against something too big for them, they tend to mentally shut down although I won't go so far as to call it literal sleep, as Gurdjieff did.

By the time I landed in that auditorium, I'd been in so many scrapes that I didn't think in terms of winning and losing. I'd learned to act with no hope about outcome. If my reverse psychology ploy hadn't worked to unfreeze my limbs, I would have tried to think up something else. And something else and something else....

That means I don't entirely agree with the person who advised Nicks. I'd say the most we can ever do with evil is just keep trying to keep our wits about us. Hey, it's something to do while waiting for God, or the gods, or saints, or Ancestors, or angels, or Whatnots, or all of 'em to put down their newspaper and notice some fool humans are in a tight bind again.

But that's just my experience, my temperament. Others, provided they managed to see what was going on, might have spent the time praying rather than struggling to think up a way to outsmart the devil. I guess that makes me a fool, or maybe even an idiot. Indeed, I've always felt a great kinship with the idiots in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (I & II).

Of course outwitting death is not the same as outwitting evil. So we are left with the ponderous question: Would Bill and Ted be a match for Kaiser Soze? My money's on yes. Provided the idiots remembered to hedge with prayer.

(For more on the strange incident recounted in this essay and the themes under discussion see the July 20 post, The Orleans Rumor and footsteps in the dark.)
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