‘Therefore, I tried the hammer…’: On how not to receive a gift

The impetus for the following letter was a guffaw. Last week I ordered a copy of Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time and, by mistake, had had it shipped to my conversation partner’s residence.  Here: a non-gift for you! Thanks!

In his turn, he had mailed the book to me. On Monday, I noticed that the package was heavy, and when I opened it, I saw that he had included a cache of Harvard Loeb Edition books (if you’re not familiar, these are the creme de la creme). A true gift then! Ah!

In the letter, the literary persona makes an allusion to the color green. The Harvard Loeb books are this lovely shade of mint green.

Dear W,

I noticed first that the box was heavy. Almost immediately, I ruled out the possibility of your sending sandwiches. Also telling against the sandwich hypothesis was the cost of shipping. Who in his right mind would spend $21 on the delivery of sandwiches for one philosopher? I felt convinced that sandwiches could not be the items inside. In fact, I was sure of it.

The thought of sandwiches lingered. As I opened the package, my mind began leaning–perhaps an apter word is tipping–so then my mind began tipping toward exercise equipment. My apartment, I considered, could always use a decent kettlebell. I have pictures of lakes, of swans, a picture of a 50 yr. old view of the Mississippi taken in spring. In addition, I own a foam roller, a couple pair of Tom’s, but yet no kettlebells. So far, I have not given into despair.

Let’s return to the box, shall we? By now, I have managed to lug the heavy thing upstairs, up all 5 flights of stairs. By now, I was dog tired, the light was shining gaily, the doves were doing their coo-cooing, a new afternoon was blossoming like a child’s second set of teeth. I realized the time was right to act swiftly and decisively, and so I did the latter.

First I tried prising apart the package with the aid of my bare fingers. The tape, sturdy and true, did its job, twice it appears: once to hold items inside, a second time to keep prying fingers without. I yanked, the tape stretched, the package yawned, but nothing budged or broke or gave forth. Mussels, clams, first loves dot dot dot.

I admit, I felt frustrated. (Add an adverb here, if you please.)

Next, therefore, I tried the hammer (I lie). No, I went for the scissors that were scintillating near the cutting board. I tried them, and the tape yielded, as if by the Dao. Just as good wood bends without breaking, it is said, so good scissors cut without shaking. By God, I thought. What scissors, I exclaimed. What magical, incisive scissors. I sat and thought long about the properties of scissors. I thought of silver blades and of razor’s edges. I thought of dawns and of new worlds, but mostly I thought of cutting.

After this moment of pure bliss, nirvana, and whatnot and after a 2 hr. conversation with one conversation partner about bliss, nirvana, and whatnot, I returned to peer inside. It seemed time, so I gave myself full-bore and whole hog to the task at hand. Inside, I found Dreyfus’s book. In the end, it came through unharmed. Hurray!, I said. Hurray! So this is what was weighing everything down all along. I felt lighter, as if I had been relieved of a very heavy burden.

Doubt is like that, I suppose, heavy until it is light. Unbearable otherwise. Know thyself.

I took the box to the recycling bin, a few green threads hanging loosely out the back, and thought how fortunate we humans are to have the capacity to reason deductively and, failing that, to proceed inductively. You see how I have managed to make it in NYC so far.


Some Educational Notes

1.The literary persona, above, is an unreliable narrator, modeled partly on Swift’s narrator from A Tale of the Tub. If you missed this, then consider re-reading the letter with this conceit in mind. (Incidentally, there’s also more than hint of the mock heroic and the melodramatic about the piece.)

2. Among other things, what is being dramatized is the failure to receive a gift properly. Also a set of moral defects: garrulity, self-absorption, self-deception, insincerity, lack of attunement to reality (consider all the cliches and heavy-handed language).

3. The letter exhibits a series of reasoning errors: errors in deductive reasoning first, then errors in inductive reasoning.

4. A meta-level consideration: by writing such a letter to a conversation partner who is himself an excellent writer (a writer far better than I), I’m attempting to thank him in a form that could prove suitable. (Then again, could also be a second error…) Playful and suitable and fun.

5. One job of good jokes, I gather, is to put our reasoning errors on full display. Laughter is a signal that (a) “we all get it” (mutuality), (b) we acknowledge the error, and (c), by acknowledging the error, we are on the way to repairing it. We are learning to see cues for it next time, to keep an eye out for this kind of error in the future. Laughter, on this construal, is a first step on the road to reasoning better.

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