Coconut

I may have posted about this before. It is now a trope of the internet, but I discovered it in a Polish author decades ago. There is, or so the story claims, a method of trapping monkeys by putting a piece of something tasty inside a coconut attached to something fixed, such as a tree. The monkey’s fist is too tight to pass the hole, but it could escape by letting go of the treat. Monkeys, or if this is true, probably one particular species, can’t get their heads round this dilemma, and end up in the stewpot or laboratory. Closer to home, sometimes we can work out what our domestic familiars must be thinking, a corner our minds can see round, but they can’t. Before we get too complacent about our conceptual prowess, I am pretty sure the reverse is true also.

Reason traps us in much the same way, as the self-help of the internet will explain. Where I read about the coconut, the punchline was the question: what general advice would you give the monkey? So, “just let go” is not allowed. I am not at all sure there is anything you could usefully say to help the monkey get unstuck.

I have expressed considerable pessimism here of late about reason as our helpmeet. Sweet reason ought to serve us, but she has lately turned shrewish and strident. The thought is that reason has fallen. The last thing I want to do is let go of that better memory, with bitter barely a phoneme away. We can talk ourselves into anything, and burn witches. I’m sure I have posted about that too: we laugh at the barbarism of the ducking stool and the pyre, but the judges at witchcraft trials were not fools, and they believed they were defending rationality and progress against atavistic herbal pagan remnants. There’s a strange sleight of hand between the idea of those simple remedies (the willow bark) as dangerous superstition, and diabolical truth.

There’s a relativistic can of worms lying around near here that I will not open. Perhaps that’s where the intellectual interest lies, but my focus is desperately practical. Granted we are at loggerheads, all around; my pessimism is an aporia. Either reason is fallen, irremediably corrupted, and we have no recourse; or we should hold as tight as that monkey to the ideal of reason that we remember from just a few short years ago, before the world went mad. But what if the mistake is not that we have swapped that sweet helpmeet for Luther’s harlot, but that we turn to reason when it cannot illuminate? Each believes he holds the truth, but all are trapped. Reason, perverted, is a blinker, not a glass; but the fault is ours for pressing it too hard.

The warning sign is too much theory, what I have called here the “superstructure”. For instance, various political positions are commonly defended by a sort of folk economics, which to unpick would require far more subtlety; and economics isn’t even a real science — indeed, to be useful it must be modest in much the same way I am trying to work out. There is a famous sociology book by Thomas Merton in which he advocates the development of “mid-range” theories, that is, sociology as a discipline becomes ineffective when it tries to explain how everything fits together, but the pieces with which that might be attempted can be quite robust. He may be agnostic about whether more comprehensive progress could come later, but I dare say by the time that might become possible, sociology as a discipline will have turned into something else altogether.

I was thinking this morning about my mother. Like all mothers, she is difficult; that is the tragedy of motherhood. After all these years, I think I understand her quite well, which is to say I have a theory of my mother which she would be unlikely to find congenial or convincing, which I (inevitably) nonetheless believe is broadly correct. And I really do believe it, I can’t summon any false humility, though I understand in the abstract that my view is partial. But it doesn’t help. She won’t change. It would be cruel to say any of it. It just makes me sorry for her pain, a sorrow not softened by the view that we all suffer in similar ways, each in our own private cave.

What is left, after reason, but kindness?

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