Aristotle, Turtles, and Everyday Faith in People, Part 2. Major Girlfriend Problems of a Prince


Image: Puabi, Sumerian queen, painting by Sana Almimar, from Yahoo creative commons search leading to the Wetcanvas forum.

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Sorry, you’ll really have to read Part I first, before you read this, if you haven’t already.  It’s short, but it introduces a word that I use here.  This Part is much longer, but as you’ll see, it makes sense to publish it all in one go, because it’s an intact story of its own.

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So – sometime after the events described in Part I, Xus got into major trouble again and basically got us all kicked out of the country.  This Part finds us in the country next door.  It is a very strange place.  It doesn’t have interstellar contact with the Earth, as our country has, and it is isolated from us.  Its inhabitants were brought in from a now-lost Ancient Near Eastern civilization on the Earth, and they have pretty much remained ancient ever since.  My book, This Moonless Sky, doesn’t tell you which civilization they came from, but if you do a web-search on any of the words of their language, or the names of the gods they worship, you will soon find them.  I haven’t given many of those clues here, so in order not to frustrate you, I will tell you that they’re Hurrians.

(My book may look like it’s fictional, but some sleuthing by readers will reveal that that easy judgment may be premature. )

When Xus got kicked out of the country – temporarily deported as a legal punishment – three of us ended up going with him: his girlfriend Eleya, me, and my boyfriend Yith.  We tried to go through the Hurrian country (‘Qodra’ in our language) without attracting attention, but a series of strange events brought us to the attention of the authorities.  Eventually we were captured and interviewed by the Emperor.  That went surprisingly well for us, and when you see us now, we are travelling to our next destination with a military escort.  We’re also accompanied by the 17-year-old prince who is the heir to the throne, Khashib-arssibi.  (Scholars who know the Hurrian language will recognize that his second name belongs to a related ancient language, Urartian – but there’s an explanation for that.)  We don’t know much about him, but since he’s around our age, we are eager to get to know him.

Yith is the only one of us who can translate the prince’s Hurrian language (which we call sQodravtse), so he is interpreting for everyone else.

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I secured myself again into the snuggles of my translator on another log (beside the campfire at the military encampment), and we got to have a proper conversation with prince Khashib for the first time.

 Until we arrived, he had been sitting neutrally on the log, contemplating the fire and stroking at the nearly invisible, fine, dark down of his incipient beard. None of the soldiers ranked high enough to approach him for a conversation, and he wasn’t inviting any of them. His half-brother was over on another log making cat’s cradle string puzzles with his new boyfriend and giggling uproariously. This looked to be as much new romantic jubilation as amusement about the game: I think we all judged that dropping by and interrupting the fun would be gauche.

When Khashib saw Yith and me looking his way, he gave us a friendly glance and a directional flick of his head. We joined him gladly.  He had a bottle of best red wine ishukhnidis (local silver currency) could buy, and he offered each of us a swig out of the bottle itself. No wine beakers here – he was really roughing it in the bush. We began a conversation with the sQodravtse equivalent of ‘what’s up?’ and continued from there. He eventually commented on our amicable relationship, and we felt emboldened to ask him about his own love life.

“Your father told us he has fifteen wives and thirty concubines,” Yith said. “How about you?  Are you single?”

“Haha, my father, yes. He appreciates female companionship. Well, I do too, a lot, but I’m stuck on one mysterious girl right now.”

“Really! Who, and why is she mysterious?”

“Her name is Ann-allai. She’s a fourth cousin on my father’s side. She lives with her mother here in the city, though her father’s an administrator in one of the southwestern districts. I think they planted her mother here in Damosun (the capital city), with her in tow, in order to get us together. My dad is in on the plot, I’ve no doubt. But in spite of all the manipulation, I still think she’s spectacular. She’s not just more beautiful than any other girl in the sight of the Eagle (= allusion to the royal family), she’s also extremely intelligent; she even reads and writes (the 88-letter Akkadian cuneiform ‘alphabet’ – not easy!), though no one taught her. I lost my heart to her the first time we met. It’s her that’s the problem. Or maybe it’s me, and I don’t know it. We’ve dated, but we fight half the time.”

“What about?”

“Strange stuff. Like, she’ll arrive in a beautiful robe and I’ll say, ‘incredible, that’s fantastic’ and she’ll say, ‘Oh? Do you really mean that or are you just laying it on thick?’ Or she’ll say, ‘Oh, you commented on the robe itself but not on how I look in it!’ And she’s kind of like half-teasing and half-serious. Or if I comment first about how she looks in the robe, then she’ll say I’m avoiding saying what I think of the robe! And it seems I get taken by surprise – every time – and I say something like “No, it looks great,” or “you look great” and she always says “What is ‘great?’ Why do you always use that meaningless word ‘great?’” And I’ll say something like “‘Great’ means ‘really good’ and ‘I love it’” and she’ll say, “Yeah but when you use it all the time like that, routinely, it just sounds like ‘ho hum.’” And just when you think she has to be pulling your leg, she bursts into tears and rushes off into her room with her maids, maybe to change her clothes, maybe to send out a maid to sort of negotiate for her. Like, the maid will ask me to tell her what she should wear. And heaven help me if I say “I don’t know.” “Oh, she says if you don’t care at all, you can leave.” That sort of thing.

“She’s not always like that. Sometimes she’ll be completely different and we’ll talk with pleasure and she’ll smile – she’ll smile until she’s completely taken over my heartbeat and all my body needs to do is breathe. I fall for her totally every time she’s like that.

“One night, it was her birthday, and I managed to talk with her alone for a few minutes and I did what I’d been thinking about for weeks – I told her I loved her. Just like that. She looked me right in the eye, with her eyes shining like the silk in her dress, and then I saw a teardrop – ho boy – and she said, ‘I think you’re just in love with being in love. Are you sure that you love me?  Are you sure you’re not just trying this on?’

“I mean, come on. Am I sure that I love her? Why does she think I would say a thing like that if I didn’t mean it? So I said, ‘No, I really mean it,” and she was like ‘I’m not sure you really know enough about it to say that.’ Then she seemed very upset and angry with me. So then I lost my temper for a moment and I said ‘oh, I give up,’ and then within seconds she was just a lake of tears with a little face floating in it. So I said, ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ and on and on. She finally gave me a smile again like an hour later and our next date was OK but a bit formal. I don’t know what she’s thinking and I have no idea what to do.”

“Hmm,” Yith said, “sounds anti-approphetic, don’t you think, Marrik?” (I won’t try to explain ‘anti-approphetic’ now, but see 3 paragraphs below, at “our theory.”)

“I think so, but let’s consult with our expert,” I suggested. And sure enough, when I looked at Eleya, she was looking back at me. I invited her over with a little downcurved nod, and she joined us, bringing her protégé (a recently liberated 8-year-old slave girl, Keli) with her. On the way, she stopped momentarily to gaze in Xus’s direction, but he was heavily engaged in some swordplay lessons he was getting from a group of the officers. He gave her a brief grin before plunging back in to the clangor of metal.

Eleya and Keli sat down next to me on the paperbark log. “We decided Keli’s tongue needed a rest,” she said, cupping her hand over the girl’s forehead and stroking her bangs (We had just done some emergency bush surgery on her tongue). Keli seemed perfectly content just to hang out at Eleya’s side. She gave the prince a polite little bow of her head.

With some help from Yith, I described Khashib’s situation to Eleya, and also our theory that Ann-allai was trying to achieve a positive effect by casting negative scenarios and making Khashib repudiate them.

“Could be,” Eleya said. “Let’s look for more clues. Ask Khashib if one of those frustrating moments has ever happened in connection with a party, or a public event, or a trip somewhere.”

This was communicated. “Yes!” Khashib exclaimed. “More than once! For example, two months ago or so, she asked me if I wanted to go with her to the dedication of her cousin’s baby at the temple of Khebat. I had something on my mind at the time, but I said, ‘yeah, that’d be great, let’s do it.’ Well, then she told me the time of the dedication was still to be arranged and she’d let me know, but she sounded a bit odd. After that, nothing happened. A couple of weeks went by. I started wondering when the dedication was, so I asked her the next time I was over visiting. And she said, ‘Oh, that happened last Saturday; you didn’t seem all that interested so I just went with my mother and my friends.’ And I said, ‘but I said “yes” very clearly; I was interested in going with you! Why would you do that?’ She said, ‘Well, you didn’t sound very convinced, so I didn’t think you really meant it.’ I got a bit frustrated and I said, ‘What’s going on? I always think that when I’m telling the truth, it’s the truth. Whatever the tone of my voice is, I stand by what I say. What am I supposed to do? Do I need to have my ‘yes’ carved into a gold block by the scribe so I can give it to you in an offering-chalice?’

 “So then she was, ‘Oh, you’re being sarcastic, I see, you couldn’t be bothered to take a real interest in something I’d enjoy and now you’re trying to make me feel guilty! If you were so interested, why did it take you seventeen days to even ask about it? Especially you – you could have had royal messengers come to ask every day, and then I would have known you were really interested. You can’t be bothered, but you’ll maybe let me lead you like a bored little child going along with its mom. I think I deserve better than that, and my cousin deserves better too!’ Then she walked away in a huff, but by the time she reached the door, it was a sobbing huff.

 “My father just said, ‘ah, she’s being a woman; if you like her, marry her, and if she gives you trouble, just excuse yourself and go spend the time with someone who’s happy to see you.’ But I don’t know, I want to understand, I want to get along with her. She’s amazing when I can stop fighting with her. Anyways, how can I rule people in their millions if I can’t judge things right with my own girlfriend?”

 “Can anyone judge things right with their own girlfriend?” Eleya asked slyly. “But don’t worry, I’m not taking what you say lightly. Yes, there’s a problem here. Maybe it’s a two-sided problem, but I only understand one side of it, the woman’s side. The guys are right, she’s crazy about you. She’s so interested that she feels terribly vulnerable and so she’s looking for ironclad confirmation that you really care. But her approach has a built-in problem, and in our culture, we have a name for it – anarisoteineistas. Now, how am I going to explain that?”

 I heard her ask that and I thought ‘impossible.’ The 10-sqlew (10-dollar) word she pulled up from our textbook is based on the root ‘arisot:’ it means ‘the state of being deficient in arisots’ (an – without; arisot – bootstrap exertion; einei – adjectival modifier; stas – state or status)  How to explain an ‘arisot,’ a bootstrap affirmation, a platform in helical logic, to a boy from an ancient culture that had probably never even heard of Aristotle? Then try to explain what perception of life is like for people who have trouble bootstrapping, as opposed to those who can control how they do it. Oi. It would take weeks to lay it all out.

 But then Eleya got an ‘aha’ look in her eye. “OK,” she said, winding up. “Every time you say ‘yes,’ it’s like a religion. The same thing is true for ‘no,’ too, when it’s used in an agreement or, let’s say, in a statement of something that’s supposed to be true. The person who says ‘yes’ has to be like someone who is offering completely sincere faith to a god. Because some people do say ‘yes’ without true faith. It’s easy to say ‘yes’ without really being sincere, just as it is to make a religious sacrifice in a way that’s just ‘going through the motions.’

 “On the other side of the conversation, the person who listens to you has to accept your gift of complete sincerity that lives inside the ‘yes’ or the ‘no.’ This is difficult, because there’s no way to prove that the ‘yes’or ‘no’ truly contains the gift. It might or might not. A listener who’s nervous might listen to the ‘yes’ for some extra clue – maybe something about your emotions, or maybe something about how beautifully you decorate the ‘yes’ with other words. That’s where your comment about the ‘yes’ engraved in gold was spot-on. In fact, though, all those extras, those adornments, can also be faked. The gift, ultimately, has to be recognized purely in faith.

 “Now, that’s really difficult. One of our great priests said ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ How can something like that be justified? Just hope for something, and then say that it’s true! ‘No!’ – you might think, ‘that’s an open invitation to delusion.’ Wishful thinking. Gullibility. In extreme cases, madness. We can’t go there. So the cautious spirit can be very non-religious about ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – but especially ‘yes’ because it’s the word that raises the hopes, and with them the spectre of madness.

 “If I assume, on faith, that your ‘yes’ always has the gift of your reality in it, then your girlfriend is showing you that some of the time, depending on her mood, she has a basic faith problem with seeing that gift there and accepting it. When that happens, we would say she has a butcher’s-eye view – she sees the brain of ‘yes’ but not the mind. She sees the machination but not the animation. (Yith let that sentence pass by as too hard to translate.) Yeshua (= Jesus), the person we believe was the one God in human form, said a very profound thing that seems simple: ‘let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.’ On the surface, it just means, ‘say what you mean when you say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’’ but at a deeper level, it says ‘always act with faith in your discussions with other people.’ It’s a call to full time faithfulness, a religion of truthful communication. It’s not recommending a naïve viewpoint that accepts everything at face value like a fool does – the idea is to put out faithful information and then judge incoming words with the possibility of faith held firmly in hand.”

 “Well, that sounds a lot like trust, and you’re basically saying that Ann-allai doesn’t trust me,” Khashib said with a sigh.

 ‘Trust is the karma of faith’ was our sDiyyanantse (our own nationality’s) saying about the relationship between those two terms, but Eleya clearly couldn’t get into that, especially not when it would mean explaining the middle term: trust is the self-reinforcing momentum of a profferal of faith.

 “Here’s the problem: she trusts you and she doesn’t – it’s spotty. She’d probably trust you with her life in a real crisis, but whether you truly like her robe or not – that’s a much more poignant matter.” Here Eleya smiled rather broadly but then crunched her face back into serious mode.

 “When it comes to the robe, she and her own values have to engage you, not some adventuring, valiant, manly duty. But you gave me another clue about her when you told me how she acted when you assured her you’d really wanted to go to the ceremony with her. Why wouldn’t she give you the benefit of the doubt even there?”

 “She really doesn’t trust me at all.” The prince stared at the fire grimly, and took another gulp from his bottle before passing it on to me. I guess princes don’t have any germs to speak of, eh? I had another swallow. Tasty.

 “Not true,” Eleya continued, “the real problem is, she doesn’t trust herself. And again, it’s the same problem – anarisoteineistas. If she could even admit that you might have been fully sincere, then she’d have to admit that she might have been wrong. But she didn’t give even a hint of that. It’s very hard for someone with anarisoteineistas to admit that they’re wrong. You see, self-confidence also has nothing in it that can be touched and proven. You have to give yourself that same gift of realistic trust as a matter of faith, just as with ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Otherwise, you have what we call a ‘regress problem’ – hm, how would I explain that?

 “It’s like a philosophical joke from our old world (Earth), about a mystic who was asked what held up the world, and he said the world was carried by a giant. So a skeptic in the crowd of listeners asked him, ‘what does the giant stand on?’ He said, ‘it stands on the back of a giant turtle.’ ‘What does the turtle stand on?’ ‘It stands on the back of another giant turtle.’ ‘And that turtle?’ ‘The same.’ ‘So what happens when you get down to the bottom of all the turtles? ‘My clever friend, there’s no point in trifling with me – it’s turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way down!”

 Now, the little gift of faith we call an ‘arisot’ is like a single turtle that can stand in mid-air and not fall down. You just think ‘I can do this,’ and through that assertion, with some help from your skills and energies, you can. You climb up on that turtle and there you stand. If you took away the turtle and doubted yourself, you would probably fall. If you don’t feel like you have the turtle, then you have to look down and see what else will support your confidence. Maybe you’re worried about whether you’re right or not, so you want to think that you’ve been right before, that you have a track record of good judgment – a stack of right decisions, one on top of the other. That could hold you up instead of the floating turtle.

 “Being right becomes very important, and being wrong is not just a nuisance – it’s potentially shattering, the beginning of a very long fall. To admit an error is like saying ‘I can just as easily be wrong as right.’ So how can one go on? What holds up your world? The turtles of rightness have to go all the way down.”

 “How can she be so stupid? Especially since she doesn’t seem to be stupid?”

 “Oh, that’s not stupidity. One of the things we learned is that highly intelligent people are very susceptible to anarisoteineistas. The arisot, the little gift of trustworthiness ready to bind with trust, or vice-versa: as you can see, it’s not completely real. It’s somewhat fake. It’s a tad unsound. It lacks true substance. If you overuse it or use it in the wrong place, you could become a gull, a constant dupe. There’s a whole profession of people – we call them ‘arisot locusts’ – they might translate better from Marrik’s language (English) as ‘confidence artists’ – who specialize in making false assertions and plundering incautious people. People may respond to being defrauded that way by saying “I’ll never trust anyone,” which is typical human anticonservation-of-power – responding to a mistake in one direction by going too far and making an equal mistake in the opposite direction. But even people who recognize that they need not suspect fraud of everyone may still be agnostic about the arisot – they may have a sort of intellectual detachment that tells them, ‘I know that this thing isn’t in evidence.’ Then, the more they care about something, the more susceptible they become to stalling in their trust, looking for extra clues, challenging with doubt, demanding reassurance that never quite seems to satisfy, and feeling alone, abandoned, slighted, misunderstood, eccentric and sidelined.

 “This is only part of a bigger problem. In our country, if you walk down the street and eat an apple, let’s say, you’re not supposed to just throw the core on the street. It makes a mess. Our cities put out refuse bins for people to throw waste into, and they hire people to take the waste away, to a dump outside the city, every day or even more often. Yet still, some people will just throw the waste on the street anyways, especially some of us young people. The reason is that we feel that the cleanliness of the city isn’t ours to keep up.  We feel small and unimportant and isolated in a little world of our own. In our philosophy we say that when we feel this, we belong to a political party called the monoconservatives – the party where each member limits most of their interest to their own status, as if they were highly separated from common life. To get out of this shrinkage and know that you can manage the way you affect people and the way they affect you, you need an arisot. You need to make a gift of faith that says, ‘I put forward that if I care about the other members of our society, they will for the most part care for me – not that everyone will, since indeed, I’ve been acting cut-off myself for the last while, but enough will do it to make the cooperation work in my favour. (And if many people are corrupt and that last assertion isn’t true, I can still do work that will improve society and make them more cooperative, the way I would wish us to be).’

 “Now, this arisot is very religious, because society doesn’t hear your pledge and immediately come back and say ‘I love you.’ Essentially, you act well for others as a blessing that includes them and yourself, and you pray that they will bless you and themselves the same way – but you may have to wait, as with God, and you may have to wonder, ‘is this real or am I fooling myself while society, in truth, is impervious and dead-at-heart?’ Experience eventually shows that enough of these arisots can build a friendly community, but it’s a great struggle of faith to attain it. In our books, they say that social life is all an economy built on arisots, and that includes our internal society of self-encouragement – these arisots are the invisible coin of all positive movement.  Knowing how to exchange them, and knowing what to do about the counterfeit coins that some people mix among the real ones, is the essence of developing a friendly land and a friendly mind.

 “But it’s devilishly difficult to teach people to use this invisible and slightly fake-feeling device, and therefore someone like your girlfriend is hard to reach. What would someone say to her about it? She could take a grade 11 lectics course – that’s the philosophy of opportunity-choice – but not here! The natural instinct of rulers has been to try to teach this topic through fear, through exclusion of other possibilities, by punishing every perceived deviation from passing on real arisots – fraud, negligence, pointless fighting, and so on. As you can see, this only hems in the problem by a fraction – your girlfriend’s responses wouldn’t be affected by any rules coming down from authorities.

 “So societies without lectics are condemned to fear and to philosophical blundering, unless the rulers and religious leaders and artists have a genius for rhetoric that can sway people in the right direction.”

 “The chaos just seems normal to them,” Yith chimed in. “The situation with your girlfriend reminded me of something a writer from Marrik’s culture (William Shakespeare) said: ‘O, that woman who cannot make her fault her husband’s occasion, let her never nurse her child herself, for she will breed it like a fool.’ In other words, if she’s not clever enough to turn the blame on you for everything, then she’s not qualified to raise your kids.”

 “Haha, that’s a thought,” Khashib said with a grin. He brushed a flying ash flake out of his hair. “I suppose for now I just have to accept her as she is, and try to find some way of cajoling her into knowing when I’m being genuine. It occurs to me that I could tell her I’m not like my father – it can’t look good to her that my master and mentor goes from woman to woman to woman. No doubt she wants more interest from me than that. And she’s got it, if she can only understand that. Anyways, I feel like I understand her better now, and maybe that will automatically make my yeses have a higher gold content, so to speak. Thanks! You guys are amazing! My dad was right that hanging out with gods – or whatever you guys are – was a good idea.” (The emperor had decided that Yith was a minor god).

 “Aliens are often a good tonic,” Yith observed. “There’s lots to learn in this universe, and everyone just gets a fraction of it. The more alien, the better, most of the time.”

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