20. A Ph. D. diploma is something to have. (Always this Hasse)

Other ordeals, more like headaches or pinpricks, but you still had to address them, passivity might be punished, one way or another. One started as a rumour: Hasse, the menial computer factotum of the municipal administration, was not what he seemed to be, but a prince in disguise, possessing a diploma on 150-gram quality paper, proclaiming him to be a Ph.D.
The rumour lit red warning-lamps in the mind of the municipal councillor and he immediately tried to placate all intiated: Leave that to me, please. No union, no acts of reprisal, no larks, just leave the Ph.D. diploma to me.
In spite of this promise it took him fourteen days to compose himself and address what might in the end turn out to be a very serious problem, calling for action considered and prepared in minute detail. First: the computer factotum wasn't involved by sheer accident, with other juveniles the fellow shared a sort of vulnerability to certain aspects of the modern world. Or he was just a catalyst, always going the whole hog in situations that weren't really cut up to be consumed as whole hogs. Hasse in turn was only one side of the problem; at the other side were the scholars who copied the work of others or reproduced the telephone book as scholarly work. And weren't footballers, actors, entertainers awarded honorary degrees on the most dubious grounds? The Ph.D. institution in itself was being gradually eroded, and few could claim to be free of guilt. Besides, hadn't academic titles been a commodity in demand, bought and sold for thousands of years? And last but not least, wasn't it the historical task of the Party to level all differences of position and rank between men and women, yes, wasn't there somewhere in the small print a clause reading: For every citizen a Ph.D. diploma?
At the core of the problem lay the question: did objective quality or qualification exist at all, or were they mere phantoms, products of some confusing ideology? Harry's society didn't waver when faced with this particular dilemma; you spent for some qualified errand or some qualified service and got your money's worth, partly thanks to the Party-induced legislation guarding consumers' rights. Nobody was likely to have acquired a Ph. D. diploma on 150-gram quality paper without qualitative reciprocation. It was on this point that the municipal councillor felt the need to proceed with the utmost delicacy, a politician always had to defer to the widespread opinion that all value was ultimately measurable by money, one way or another. If a Ph.D. diploma on 150-gram quality paper was put in question prematurely, wasn't that in turn likely to affect the ultimate basis of all society: the value of good money?

Or, from another point of view, wasn't the miserable computer factotum just claiming his historical due when purchasing a Ph.D. diploma, shouldn't that option at least be considered first? Now, without going events too much in advance, we can assume that the municipal councillor was aware of the fact that any leveling initiative that might still exist had moved away from politics to other arenas. Political reform no longer was able to deliver the thing in the field of equality. On the other hand there was a widely distributed illusion of uniformity, a ubiquitous virtual equality, covering up the fact that house-owners of the world still amassed wealth, while tenants got poorer and poorer. Taking this one step further: there was every reason to believe that wisdom or knowledge or insight was amassed in some similar way; intellectual house-owners experiencing preferential treatment while the tenants of thought had to provide for themselves, one way or another. Arriving at this conclusion, the municipal councillor told himself: There is a virtual Ersatz to be had in this world, and it shouldn't be discarded wantonly, anticipation may be the precursor to true possession, the karaoke singer tomorrow's Sinatra. Next he went to the computer factotum and said:
'You know: there are scholarships for gifted people, we could fix one for you; you could study computer science part-time at the university and work part-time for the municipality.' He did not say: and get a real degree.
The guy got the hang of it immediately, he wasn't born yesterday. 'It's so damn boring, I couldn't stand it.'
So he had tasted the thing. 'But you sure know how to handle computers. And how to fix them.' Harry well remembered the day when Hasse evicted a Trojan Horse that had sneaked into the municipal stable, using nothing but his bare hands, back then Harry had himself been ready to award the guy a Ph.D. diploma.
'That I do.'
'Hm', said Harry. 'I must give this some further thought. I will bring up the matter again, later on, when I'm finished. In the meantime I'm asking you one thing: play down this diploma a little, will you? I am not saying that you don't deserve it, a Ph. D. diploma is something to have, but not everyone out there can see it. By the way: How much did you spend for it?'

Since days of old a grilled saint had taken upon himself the task of protecting the local diocese from fire, performing so well in that function that the registration books had largely survived the blazes of history. There were records to vindicate that the municipal councillor descended from men and women who had excelled in wisdom and insight for centuries: clergymen, bell-ringers, school-teachers, Flemish weavers, matrons, midwives. (Still, not one of them had possessed, or even hankered after a Ph.D. diploma, this need was quite fresh in history). Most close to Harry in this sequence his own father, the stationmaster, who had spellbound the nation for five memorable weeks by gradually unveiling his profound insights into the nation's railway stations before the centre of true knowledge, the TV programme "The 10,000 Kronor Question". How he had sweated in the hermetically sealed booth - the editorial staff insisting on him wearing his uniform - all spotlights on the stationmaster, sixty seconds of dramatic effect, while a people of practical and resourceful railway connoisseurs had rejoiced and suffered with him! This way and only this way word, or knowledge, became flesh. It all had ended with a fright and an annihilation of capital: when asked for the number of tracks connected to the turntable of Töreboda Railway Station he had answered four, and the right answer had been five, at least that had seemed to be the correct answer at the time concerned. It was not until later that diligent research revealed that the locomotive stall of Töreboda had been expanded; originally it contained only four tracks.
Marked by the double stigma: exposed as an ignoramus and at the same time as a spendthrift wasting ten thousand crowns, the stationmaster fell headlong into a deep depression, from which to begin with well-meaning efforts by friends and loved ones couldn't lift him. Harry could still recollect the shape of the black cloud casting its shadow over the Jönsson family during those months, even if the Lutheran working morale had stood the strain: trains continued to run according to the time-table. Finally salvation had arrived in the shape of Anton Hellberg, the blessed adult educator (and Harry's class-teacher), who, working in the local narrow-gauge evening class, had unearthed blueprints clearly showing the original plan of the Töreboda locomotive stall; a wall had been knocked out and an extra rail had been added. This devastating mistake by the jury immediately got repercussions in the standard language; henceforth the nation would refer to an erroneous statement, exposed by better-knowing efforts, as a "Töreboder". The stationmaster felt to a certain extent vindicated by this contribution to the living language, after a while he started to smile at one corner of the mouth and again took cakes when such were offered at a party.
It was not until much later that the proper 10,000-kronor-question asserted itself: what had induced a civil servant to throw his his deepest emotions, his innermost thoughts, his hope of eternity into the gape of every Tom, Dick and Harry? The bread of the state was little but safe, and a stationmaster was expected to look for his reward primarily to the small but safe pension, in the second place maybe to the medal for assiduity and honesty in civil service, everything over and above that was hubris, most condemnable. In spite of this widespread opinion, history knew of more than one Icarus, who had flown too high and scalded himself on the spotlights above the TV cameras. The reprehensible moth urge was to be found under all sorts of uniforms, matching the ambition for the small but safe pension, you could take it for granted also in bakers, chimney-sweeps and stationmasters.
Home in on the stationmaster where he saunters about outside the station, flag rolled up under his arm! (Harry could do it on request, the film starting the very moment he shut his eyes). There is something brooding and unrelieved over his appearance, even considering his sovereign command of his territory. His own train is put away on a side-track, but he is still dreaming of a more comprehensive time-table, a larger line, no doubt about that! He bends over an old woman, talking loud because she is hard of hearing, reassuring: it's just a delay, the train arrives on track three in six minutes. He relieves a mother of her pram, lifting it over the dangerous tracks, in passing throwing a glance at the signals, wipes some dandelion down from the lapel of his jacket, corrects his peaked cap. His uniform is announcing: I am a non-commissioned officer of function, servant of the public, I am not patrolling my platform in order to gain public love, or affection, or for that matter: appreciation, no, when it comes to it I saunter about here for the sake of the small but safe pension. There is nothing more to it.
He was a free-thinker and a materialist and a freemason and a spiritualist too, and each new quality added to his equipment, making him less simple, less transparent. Among the people surrounding him the son could establish how uniforms hid unexpected capacities; the warrant officer composed chamber music, the customs officer carved amber, the surveyor turned bowls of cherry-wood. That is the human soul, Anton Hellberg explained, his forefinger raised: the soul always tries to find an exit; don't forget your human soul, Oskar! And the free-thinker and materialist, immediately scenting somebody pulling wool over his eyes, raised his finger, fighting back: Science knows one single exit in man, and that's the ass; if you insist on that tack I will fart a sonata for you!
Did someone hear a cock crow? Harry wasn't sure; Anton Hellberg had a reputation for being able to attract capercaillie cocks by putting a finger in his mouth and chuckling, he could probably crow like an ordinary cock without moving a single finger.

Now, did the councillor pretend to appear in the contemporary 10,000 Kronor Question, did he dream of spellbinding millions with proven mastery of "Municipal affairs"? Given the option Harry would have answered: No, and no again - without feeling that he distanced himself from his father for that reason. The time had sloughed its skin, the nominal value of prize sums soaring with general inflation, the substance of prize questions crumbling with some accompanying reversion. (Which of them carried greatest weight was unclear). There was no honour implicit in proven knowledge about the turntable of Töreboda, an irrevocable break had happened relative to the past, the stationmaster's streaming sweat in the question booth was incomprehensible, the producing glands taken out of service. In contemporary quizzes contestants were asked questions like: three of the cardinal points are south, north and east, give the name of the fourth - cashing in a hundred thousand if they happened to turn their noses to the west. 'I would have answered southwest, just in order to have a fifth', Harry muttered, and everyone familiar with the history of the 10,000 Kronor Question nodded in agreement, there was a sore point far back in history, and it was the task of good sons to repeat and amplify the misdeeds of fathers. Taking this one step further: wasn't there an inverted logic to the whole thing; shouldn't Harry, being sort of a municipal father to Hasse, get himself a Ph. D. diploma on 150-gram quality paper? He discussed the matter with fellow party-members, they advised against in unison: If tabloids get their eyes on that paper you are finished with politics, Harry, a dead dog.
'If I attach the price tag at the bottom, then?'
'A dead dog, mark our words. By the way: how much do they cost, roughly, do you have any idea?'
Well, then only the customary political expedient remained: discussing the matter interminably. In the meantime the silverfish could be expected to nibble from the reverse of the diploma, in that way the 150 gram quality paper would gradually lose, both weight and quality.

14 kB, last corrected 23.10.06, 27.11.08.

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