13. Pascal's wager, local application

After the marshalling of the foot soldiers, when the minds had had their fill, it was the stomachs' turn. Once upon a time inns and town hotels had provided for that aspect, thus entering tradition and know-how into the feeding of the faithful. And attention to this question was important at the local level, where the demands and habits of the palate constituted the Culture of cultures.
Real entertainment of this kind belonged to the past, however, canteens and catering-firms had taken over, in particular up north where the attitude was more puritan, the food more plain. The calorific intake was attended to in a dining hall surrendered by children after the school day, cold cuts delivered in cake boxes. From a certain point of view this was nothing to feel sorry about, you avoided stiff restaurant bills and navigated off the shoals of the ancient wholesale dealer culture. Information pertaining to possible shipwrecks in these waters always had an unpleasant tendency to reach the ears of voters, so it was a wise precaution to make nothing reflect badly on the political feeding. If you contented yourself with school meals, at least you could not fall under suspicion of lining your pocket at the tax-payers' expense.
On the other hand the pleasures of the wholesale dealer had always tended to be the pleasures of the worker as well, when there was cash to hand. And in modern time the 'Jansson's temptation', prepared with adequate saltiness and rounded off with the necessary amount of double cream, was the apple of the eye of the underclass, together with cold baths and distilled beverages. In a similar way the underclass would adopt and in some distant future tend and preserve French wines and low-calori delicacies, nicely arranged on white porcelain. Plus the mineral water, the speculative art interest, the golf and tennis customs. But so far the delights of some past century were considered the highest good, and on this point the present time well knew its debt of gratitude to the past. Nor did Harry keep future aims before his eyes where feeding was concerned, he wanted to preserve the dark-panelled rooms, the long tables with white linen, the carnation vases and the chandeliers, the ancient waitresses whose mothers had been called 'Waitress!' when the Party was young. And this all the more since he felt some sort of guilt because all this was threatened with extinction; it was based on an extensive economy that couldn't sustain too heavy a duty, too detailed scrutiny. So he had acted a little in secret, arranging that the participants once the meeting was finished were stowed into buses and transported to a nutritive institution, where the banner of innkeeping was hoisted.
Now they were happily at their destination, and with a glance at the arrangements he had dispelled the fear that his hope would come to nought.
'Here, Harry, you really could content yourself with digging where you stand.'
'Ah, indeed. And not a minute too soon, I'm starving, my stomach is hanging from my backbone.'
Another voice rumbled from the end of the table. 'No no no - not dig! - keep in mind what Harry said: you shouldn't dig in a smorgasbord, you should catch as you go along.'
Easy, carefully inserted repartee of this kind heightened the appetite and helped digestion, the whole attitude naturally belonging to the smorgasbord culture, probably there as long as the pickled herring recipes and the table arrangements.
'What kind of new infliction are we saddled with by the powers that be, Harry?'
Harry chuckled. 'I always believed that it came from the grassroots.'
'No, you didn't; a woman who has an untidy home doesn't open her door and let neighbours in to see the mess.'
'True. Then it's an infliction from the powers that be, how do you handle such a thing without affronting them?'
'The powers that be are us, aren't they?'
The one who had approached him with an invitation to high spirits and playful eyes was Konradsson, municipal bureaucrat from a small town with a margarine factory a bit up on the east coast, in addition an old schoolmate of Harry's, which didn't make matters worse. Konradsson belonged to that fraction of humanity which, whatever the situation, always spoke out, saying a word too much rather than ducking. There was something irrepressible, proud in this defective adaptation to facts and pecking orders, a reminder of the ancient Dalecarlian "du" to the king. If Harry had his choice he would have managed with this aspect of human behaviour alone, but unfortunately there was a competing expression, at least one. It squinted to the left, squinted to the right and finally kept silent, with an air that said: I have said nothing and cannot be quoted. Such verbal constipation was considered a virtue mainly in academic circles, but the sect had its confessors in politics as well.
In the wake of Konradsson Holm was sheltering (the right man in his right place, Harry thought; Holm was K:s political shadow) rocking on his heels, waiting for his turn in front of the dishes. As soon as the powers that be were mentioned he had directed his eyes to the ceiling and adopted the air: I have said nothing, and cannot be quoted. Harry noticed and couldn't help teasing him: 'Or what do you say, Holm?'
Holm smiled sheepishly and shook his head: least of all would he say something that incurred the risk of being quoted by Harry Jönsson.
'Maybe the intention was instead that the powers-that-be should be put to digging. Which might bring to the fore some feeling for what is going on in the depth of the people.'
An insidious thought, presented across the buffet by some anonymous culture bureaucrat from the capital. The keyword 'powers-that-be' had been overheard and now returned almost as an accusation. Harry memorized an appearance, here he might have come across one of the originators behind the absurd proposal. Holm had turned white, from fright or annoyance, and lowered his head, his expression spoke in plain terms: Now look where a loose tongue takes you, when there's too much jaw play you dig your own grave.
'Then maybe it is prudent to assume that the origin is neither at the top nor down at the base?'
The man on the other side shrugged his shoulders. 'Not that I know for sure. I just offered a thought that struck me.'
'Isn't there a risk that each side only detects what it is programmed to see: von oben or from below?'
The other one had offered all he had to give, he shrugged his shoulders again: 'Maybe'.
In front of him stood the abominable third: the diplomatic type that started by opening up and then decided to keep quiet. The discovery lit a fire in Harry (the glow made acting easier). 'I thought you might know more since you entered a conversation the way you did. Do you know the exact origin of this stupid idea?'
Holm towed his stuffed plate out of hearing with a tormented expression, but Konradsson joined Harry. 'Of course he knows. That's the TUC man for culture standing there, if he doesn't know, nobody knows.'
Next he towed Harry around the table and let the two of them have a closer look at each other. 'Sigurd Hansson, I guess he should be counted under the kingdom's powers that be, and Harry Jönsson, one of the local petty pontiffs.'
'I felt pretty sure who I was addressing,' the man for culture said.
'But I didn't know who was addressing me,' Harry retorted. 'Hansson? Are you related to Per Albin?'
'Not to my knowledge. Maybe I should say: I much regret he's no relation, it might have served as a recommendation?'
'Come and sit down. I want to hear what you have to confess just between you, me and the wall.'
The other tried to get away a second time: 'As a matter of fact I know nothing.'
'Then tell me about that. I want to hear how much nothing is, your version of it.'
'An idea of this kind is born out of the air. Nobody knows when it first came up, but suddenly it is as if it has been there all the time. And then it is decided.'
'A matter of course! All ideas are hovering in the air! But why didn't this idea remain there, instead of suddenly diving into the ground?'
The man strained a little, demurred, but Harry didn't let go of him.
'Why, why,' the other whimpered. 'We know what the matter is.'
'Aha, aha, we know what the matter is.'
'Yes, roughly. We have lost contact with some sort of prompting mandate from the base.'
Konradsson shrugged his shoulders. 'Politics has changed character. It is based on market polls today, doesn't recognize other driving forces.'
'Maybe, yes. But this polling isn't entirely innocent. It calls demands to life with leading questions. Should we be content with that? I think our goal should be to reach down to deeper needs and wishes, the ones that aren't exactly on display...'
'So we lost contact with the prompting mandate, and awareness of this lies in the air, and this awareness tells us to dig a little deeper...' Harry brought the conversation back on the rails, with a cautious hand.
'Something in that line, yes. On the other hand, this is not my own line of thinking. I think it's fairly evident by now that the whole idea of progress is one big illusion. As social beings, when it comes to it, we move neither backwards nor forwards, but more like a compass card in different directions from one and the same centre. As far as I can see it's a fairly constant human being, that occupies new manifestations of his or her inventiveness. From that point of view it's rather meaningless to go hunting for driving forces. But I guess it's a concession to those who are still of the opinion that we are moving in some particular direction.'
For a moment both listeners were struck dumb by this diplomat nature, who suddenly spoke his mind. Harry had an intense feeling that he had come across a challenge that exceeded his capacity, it could only be refuted if he took Per Albin by the hand.
'So, that's why we are expected to dig, to unearth the old ghost.' Harry drummed his fingers against the table. 'I think it's unnecessary and superfluous. On the contrary I am of the opinion that there is no choice for us. Under all circumstances we must act as if progress was reality, as if it was proven and revealed in each and every second. Whether it is actually there or not.'
'I agree,' Konradsson prompted. 'There is no alternative.'
'Pascal's wager,' the culture man from the TUC nodded. 'Granted! But if you act on those premises, I think there should be a light way of handling all actions, not promising too much, not overdrawing on the future.'
'What is Pascal's wager?'
'You had better believe in God whether he exists or not; if he doesn't exist you lose nothing from the deal, if he exists you are certain of being admitted to Heaven.'
'Aha, aha. Well, if I had been a religious man I would have bet on redemption through grace instead. But now I am not, so I bet on what can be done about conditions in this life. And exactly from those premises you must act intensely, passionately. Promise the moon.'
He was exaggerating there, but it was provoked by the situation.
The other shook his head, he was not in agreement. 'Lie intensely, lie passionately.'
'Imagine that you unearth the skeleton of a woman dying in childbirth, before Semmelweiss. Are you going to say: it's fairly evident that she would have died in any case, even today?'
'Here you are really training the big guns on me. If you bring up Semmelweiss, then of course I'll surrender, but I'll cross my fingers behind my back.'
'Why would you do that?'
'Because I mean net progress when speaking of progress, and then it's not certain that the fact that a woman and a child survive is all to the good. It contributes to population growth in a precarious situation, they might be born into a paltry, vegetating existence.'
'You have to tackle that on the next step, or the one after that.'
'And so on, ad infinitum, amen.'
'Those are the conditions under which we live and act. Everything is connected to everything. But it's an indisputable gain from an individual point of view not to have to lose one's life just in order to bring a kid to this world.'
'It's the same as with Sisyphus,' Konradsson interpolated. 'When he reaches the summit it's progress number one. Then he has to lug a second stone up the mountain-side in order to support the first one. And the second one is progress number two.'
'You are wrong: it's one and the same stone that goes up and down again. It's like I said before: a zigzag movement.'
'No no! For God's sake: what we have here is myth! You have to have a little fantasy in your interpretation, adapt to the real situation.'
The TUC man muttered below his breath: 'The myth of progress...'
'Now listen here,' Harry said. 'You are mixed up in this matter, I'm pretty sure of that by now. I suddenly get the impression that you are like an atheist forwarding a prize question concerning the best proof of God's existence - just in order to get his own dilemma straight. Am I not right, am I not putting my finger on the sore point?'
'It's not that personal. I am not committed to this question, not going about thinking about progress every minute of the day.'
'I am not suggesting that! Instead we repress such questions. That's why they "hang in the air".'
'I might be tempted to enter a quite ordinary wager with you.'
'And what would that be about.'
'That i can lug twenty-five boulders into position simultaneously, so that even you agree that it's net progress.'
'How will you manage that?'
'I'll just put my spade in the soil and dig where I stand.'
'That sounds obscure.'
'I will invite you as an observer when it's coming off.'
'And what is at stake?'
'If I cannot get it done, if you do not admit that I have pulled it off, I'll give up politics.'
The other blinked. 'I think I shouldn't enter into a wager of that kind. I well know what an asset you are to the Party. Enough people are killed in action all the same, to the right and to the left.'
'I am not going to fail.'
'What would the stake be on my part?'
'If you acknowledge defeat you let go of your doubts, becoming an ardent apostle of progress. Or whatever you choose to call it. I might even be satisfied with: an apostle of the small achievements.'
Konradsson breathed open-mouthed, marking each turn of events with small, quick head movements, as if sitting at the ringside of a tennis match. The man challenged gave a low chuckle (now Harry remembered his family name: Hansson): 'And when is the outcome to be decided, at the first cut of the spade?'
'No, I need more time. This day, this hour, in five years' time.'
'If we are alive by then.'
'May we be so lucky!'
'I'm a little curious about what's on your mind.'
'You'll learn, in due time.'
'OK, it's a deal.'
Harry rose to his feet. 'Normally I'm a teetotaller, but this must be sealed with something more spiritual than mineral water; it's a vielosäufical question at stake. Evald, get us two glasses of your strongest, we need some ceremony. I'm going to wager with a man from the capital, whose name is Hansson. Take your poorest glasses, because afterwards they will be in pieces.'
When the glasses arrived Harry lifted one, saying: 'Hansson against Jönsson, and the whole of this company is my witness: Progress exists!'
'It may be so, but it must be proven,' said the man whose name was Hansson and who came from the capital.
They both emptied their glasses at one draught and threw them in neat arcs over their shoulders. The proprietor had understood the hint and was ready with a broom. Around them the minds had caught the issue, and the discussion got going: Was it fairly evident by now?
'You are an academic, aren't you?' said Harry and put his arm over the other's shoulders. 'Are you sure there is no distant cousin begotten by Per Albin? Of course there is, we all have one! Per Albin and the Holy Birgitta! Evald, give us each another glass, I must try to untie the tongue of this guy. Take for example the barrel affair that has been pestering us of late. Do you think we can just stand up declaring there are no barrels! No, we have to toe the line and act as if they existed. And the same goes for the idea that you could stand up and say: we are not moving forward, we are not getting anywhere. Society is a black hole, i agree with that in my dark moments, we do not have the slightest idea of what is going on around us, and history is ambivalent, to say the least. But from that to stating: we are not moving forward. No no! That won't do, the entire population would rear up immediately. A wise politician is always guided by Pascal's wager. Besides, there is another objection than Semmelweiss to notions of the kind you were spreading at the table. I wonder if you have given it a thought.'
'You just fire away, I'm beginning to get used to your style. When you pounced on me at the table I felt as if I had been charged with speeding and possession. I was on the point of disappearing through the floor.'
'Good, good,' Harry chuckled. 'It may turn out an advantage in discussions if the opposite side trembles in front of you. But don't you plead innocence with me; if anyone was pouncing, it was you. I was thinking of the influx of refugees from the third world and the permanent voting cast by this on our societies, or rather: the fact that they arrive as refugees and choose to stay and obtain citizenship. Doesn't that prove that we stand one or two steps ahead of their native countries and hence that we have made progress? I might even bring the matter one step further: this torrent of humans is useful to us, in confirming the fact that we have made and make progress - if there is some doubt concerning this issue.'
'Well, I don't know if we should bank on that. Assuming that European imperialism once upon a time created some sort of imbalance, that raised our side of the seesaw and lowered the other side, one might venture the thought that our progress is linked with a backward movement in other places and that the overall system always maintains some sort of equilibrium. The inhabitants of the opposite side know for a fact how matters are and have come seeking redress, and our bad conscience bids us to receive them.'
'It seems to me you recognize the existence of progress by that. Progress in one place.'
'Progress is always effected at somebody else's expense: bread for one is death for the other.'
'We'll pull them up to our level in our next step, pull them with us.'
'Progress and her obscure twin: Avantgardia! How about my alternative then: Those who come flocking to us from all sides are pulling us and the whole, back to some tolerable and sustainable average?'
'I see it more like this: we have thrown a lifeline - although it cannot be denied that they are hauling it backwards. But that is part of progress as well: that you throw a glance at your rear-mirror all the time, keeping before your eyes what was once your goal.'
'Well... I think you simplify matters all the time.'
'I hear that, your "well..." is enough to make me understand that.'
'In addition: what we have built up in order to pursue some kind of policy is now turning into a ballast. Our own weapons, or maybe I should say our own tools, are turning themselves on us. We make ourselves dear in all possible ways, and this in turn is used against us by employers, by moving manufacturing outside our sphere of influence. Wait, wait, before you say something: I am not saying that employers act progressively when they do this, on the contrary, but they are not our pigeon, not in this case. The problem is our own tools, they are no longer used in a constructive way. The stone that we tugged to the top is rolling backwards, downhill.'
The other made a gesture of resignation.
Harry filled up the glasses and shoved one across the table. 'I agree with you there, we are part of the problem ourselves. But we mustn't throw in the towel just because of that! Instead I would consider how to loosen the brakes and how to resharpen our tools. And how to start moving again. Wasn't this the distinguishing mark of our great leaders of old: their ability to discern movement within society, taking it by the hand and converting it into human progress at the right moment?'
'Your opinion seems to be that we are no longer making any progress?'
'We are no longer making any progress,' Harry answered confidently.
'We might even be moving backwards in several respects?'
'In several respects we are moving backwards,' Harry nodded.
'And we have lost our role as a pioneering nation.'
'We have little to pride ourselves on any longer, as a nation,' Harry answered.
'And you are saying this in plain language, without second thoughts?'
'Only here and now, conditioned by the situation.'
'In the long run you still want to swear by progress?'
'There is no alternative.'
'At least you are no ordinary hypocrite. Earlier you said movement and not progress, was it a slip of the tongue?'
'It was consciously done. If you have a political compass you know what is to the front and the rear in most situations and vehicles. The concepts of progress and politics hang together like clay and straw.'
'So to cut a long story short you want me to stand up and dissociate myself in public from the whole - abortion?'
'No, that would only make evil worse. Instead I think we should make an effort to find a really subversive interpretation of the opening sentence in itself. I haven't been able to do it, alas, the proper flash of genius won't turn up. I am harping on this string day and night. Maybe I'm too closely involved to see clearly, or maybe I lack the proper way of handling it.'
'Then it's no use me tackling the problem.'
'No harm in that. Do you know what I think? The solution will be presented to us, not in black on white, but in red on grey. Written in block letters on a concrete wall. It will stand there, as plain as the nose on your face. The freedom to think really radical solutions is present only on the outskirts of society.'
'And if the message doesn't reach the - outskirts? If they do not grasp the task we are facing them with?'
'They already have,' Harry answered. 'Tonight someone had written across the shelter at the bus-stop outside my house: Live if you can. I bet it's an echo from your timely sentence.'
'I must say: that was some quick echo.'
'Haven't you heard the sound when Tarzan is roaring? The jungle telegraph not only has a hell of an echo, piercing the very marrow, it is incredibly fast as well, faster than lightning.'
He thought with satisfaction, without revealing the thought to the other: There, we always were good at telecommunications. As long as the jungle telegraph functions there is hope for us.

26 kB, last corrected 27.8.05, 27.11.08.

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