Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Secret of Life

Imagine yourself strolling around a town you don’t know too well, wondering whether to call in somewhere for a cup of coffee. You've almost given up and reluctantly settled for a Costa outlet, when you see a traditional second-hand bookshop on the other side of the road.

‘That’ll do,’ you say to yourself. 'It may even have a coffee shop.' You nip across the road, skipping lightly as a young gazelle over a huge puddle. On pushing open the door, a reassuring bell tinkles and a delicious bookish aroma greets your senses like an old friend.

‘Foul weather,’ grunts an aged, dusty-looking proprietor from behind half-moon spectacles and an ancient desk piled high with books.

‘Isn’t it just?’ you reply automatically, eyeing with anticipatory pleasure the maze of crowded shelves stuffed with books. ‘I'm just browsing,’ you add with characteristic honesty.

‘Aren’t we all,’ grumps the proprietor, returning to his books.

You find yourself eyeing a shelf labelled ‘Esoteric’ which sounds an interesting place to begin. As you peer at an array of tight-packed spines, trying to find an interesting tome to fondle, your eye falls on a slim volume bound in black cloth. It is crammed between a book on modern magic and an excitable account of crop circles, but you manage to extract it with a little care.

The title is stamped on the cover in faded gold lettering – The Secret of Life.

Oddly enough there is no author and very little information – not even the usual publisher’s details. The book seems to have been written in the nineteen thirties – a typical product of the times with good quality paper and bound in black cloth. Maybe it was printed privately?

You begin reading and soon become gripped by what the unknown author has to say, because this book really is about the secret of life. It describes the human condition in such a way that you have to buy it. The price is pencilled on the fly leaf - £2.50 – far too cheap and far too interesting to leave all alone on the shelves.


So what might be written in this amazing, but imaginary book? The secret of life obviously, but what does it actually say? 

Suppose you are so impressed by it that you decide to tell everyone you know all about your remarkable find. How many of your friends and family would be interested? How many would dampen your enthusiasm with a covert verbal shrug?

Suppose you risk copyright laws, putting it on your blog and publishing it as a free e-book? How much interest would there be?

Very little is my guess. I think many of us already understand the human condition fairly well - in our various ways. But there are good reasons to prevaricate. In fact I think the demands of social cohesion compel us to prevaricate.

Hierarchical societies need to maintain important illusions from the top to the bottom of the social scale and throughout academia, professions the media and particularly politics. Yes we may allude to these illusions indirectly, but if anyone should make it their business to tell it as it is, then they will not be heard. At least, not by many.

In general, those who tell the truth do not manage to climb the greasy pole. The only way to get round the problem is to tell the truth privately but dissimulate in public.

As we all know.

Those who insist on telling the truth publicly, will with only a few rare exceptions fail to rise. So dissimulation is built into social cohesion – it is vitally important and without it, social cohesion would fail to cohere.

So what is the secret of life? Many of us already know - or suspect we know - but can’t say. Even if someone does tell the truth about the human condition, they do not get enough positive feedback to make a habit of it. 

We all need positive feedback, but for certain, socially sensitive issues we don’t get it. There are things we cannot say outside small but receptive social contexts - such as blogs or the pub. 

Even though they are true.


Anonymous said...

I have the secret of life which I can vouchsafe to you all, er, after receipt of the usual readies in the plain brown envelope, natch!

Anonymous said...

Well, there is the 'dogwhistle' issue. Each of us seems as if tuned by our nature/education/class/upbringing/life-experience to a particular kind of issue or message. Which means off message = off tune = message ignored.

As for the human condition. I asked around and several friends agreed they had not really 'grown up' in the sense of understanding life and its rules and limits until quite late - mid 50s say. Which implies that those between the mid 20s and mid 50s probably don't really understand what is going on in any broad sense and are easily exploited. That's what you get when you go to a state school. One the other hand a friend who went to a posh school read Cicero and Pliny and the rest and was then shoved off to the former colonies where the basic principles of government were made very clear whilst he was in his 20s. Mind you, it really would not do to teach everyone the tricks of the trade - give the game away old boy.

A K Haart said...

David - that's funny, I had exactly the same idea!

Roger - interesting comment - mid 50s sounds about right to me too. Not sure why, but I think you have to acquire a certain range of personal experiences before the messages click into place. In our world, that seems to take decades.

Sam Vega said...

I tend to agree with Roger that there are a large number of potential Secrets of Life, and that we are by upbringing or circumstance predisposed to hear only a narrow range of them.

I often start reading a book with a vague sense of the feelings you mention, but they usually fade quite quickly. Perhaps, as well as being socially inconvenient, their loss is deeper than this. Maybe we are programmed by evolution to have little use for the truth. Nature would tend to favour the strong, the handsome, and the practically-enquiring over the disinterested seeker. Unless the secret of life gets us a fertile mate, it has distinctly limited value.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I wrote the post with the idea of turning it into a short story at some point.

However, your point about fading feelings gives a new twist. The words in the book could change with each reading so that eventually it reads like something the finder would have written anyway.

Mind you, it sounds familiar somehow!

James Higham said...

Wonderful piece, AKH - I could almost have been the one finding that slim volume and buying it.

A K Haart said...

James - thanks!

Sam Vega said...

Before you write the short story, have a look at Borges' story "The Library of Babel". I found it to be almost uniquely unforgettable.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I've just downloaded a copy. It's a powerful image he creates and I suppose these days an infinite library could be a book of infinite possibilities. An e-book logged into the universe.