Monday, August 6, 2007

Boxes

On guard duty his last week in National Service (in David Lodge's Ginger, You're Barmy), Jonathan is reading a book:
"What yer reading?" said Earnshaw, who had left his desk. To avoid the labour of an explanation, I passed him the book. He glanced at the title on the spine [Seven Types of Ambiguity], and began to read where I had left the book open, his brows knitted.
      "What's it about then?"
      "Literature."
      "Yer, but what's it about. Anything 'ot in it, like?"
      "It's not a story. It's literary criticism. It's—"
      "Wodjer wanner read that sort of crap for?" he interrupted, handing back the book.
      "I happen to be interested in it."
      "Won't do you any good, will it?"
      "As a matter of fact it will, though that's not why I'm reading it."
      "Why, what good will it do yer?"
      "I hope to make the study of literature my career."
      "Gerna be a teacher I s'pose. But what good will it do yer? Or the kids yer teach. What use is lit'rature?"
      I opened my mouth to launch into a defence of the study of literature...getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said...and then closed my mouth. I was not eager to return to the university because I thought my research would be of any use, to myself, or to others. All human activity was useless, but some kinds were more pleasant than others. The Army had taught me that much philosophy. There was no such thing as communication operating over the whole of society. In fact, there was no such thing as society: just a collection of little self-contained boxes, roped untidily together and set adrift to float aimlessly on the waters of time, the occupants of each box convinced that theirs was the most important box, heedless of the claims of the rest. Success did not consist in getting into the box where most power was exercised: there were many people who were powerful and unhappy. Success consisted in determining which box would be most pleasant for you, and getting into it. If you were forced to inhabit an unpleasant box for a time, then you could make it as comfortable as possible until you could get out. Luck or cunning were the most effective attributes in this world, and cunning, though it worked more slowly, was the more reliable. [pp. 196-197]

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