Stone Soup, mutual dependency, and a new economic order

In “The Story of Stone Soup,” as Antonio Dias tells it, a wandering beggar comes upon a village. Hungry and tired, he goes to each door and is met with the same answer again and again. There is, he is told, not enough to go around, and the door, half-opened, is soon closed upon him. Nearing despair, he notices a rusty old pot, an abandoned fire circle, and some kindling here and there, and decides to build a fire. He adds some water to the pot and a stone from his pocket.

As the fire grows tall and the fumes rise high, the villagers, with curiosity piqued, wander out from their homes and ask him what he is about. “I’m making soup,” he says. “Stone soup,” he clarifies. The first villager replies that he has “never heard of it.” In Antonio’s version, we read on:

“It’s a magic stone. It makes a wonderful soup! If you’re willing to wait a little bit, you can have some with me!”

He gave the pot another stir. They sat down together by the fire. She couldn’t take her eyes off the pot. She sniffed the air, trying to detect the aroma of the soup in the smoky, damp, cold air.

“This is a wonderful soup. But,” he hesitated. With conviction he added, “You know! It would be so much better if we had a potato…” His voice trailed off wistfully.

The woman blurted out, “I have a potato!”

And so it comes about that the villagers show up, inquire in turn, and, mesmerized, add to the pot what they have–an onion, some cabbage, some carrots, a ham bone–with the result that the stone soup manages to provide for all.

*

For a while, the skeptic has been standing very impatiently off stage. Let’s give him some lines. No doubt, he would have entered the scene at the point when the first villager arrived and scrunched up her nose. Unmoved and unconvinced, the skeptic would have thrown up his hands and said, “Oh, come now! What is the beggar offering in the end, and what reason do we have for believing him? As far as I can see, he has no goods to sell and no skills to alienate. For observe that he has not laid down any warm clothes, nor has he brought any good food. Lest we forget, he is a beggar: hence not a cobbler, a mender, or a farmer; and not a carpenter, a builder, or a shepherd. He is not even a cook, for his soup is neither edible nor nourishing. Indeed, it is nothing save a stone and some water. Stone soup it is not. In short, with nothing in hand and without skilled hands, he comes empty-handed. It is not clear to me that he isn’t just out to swindle, and I don’t see how one could quiet my suspicions.”

The skeptic poses a reasonable challenge. Give us a reason, he says, show us something, give us some grounds for our beliefs. Unless we can give him some reasons, we cannot be justified in believing that the beggar is anything but a swindler or a charlatan.

Can the beggar be vindicated? The case is more doubtful still. Recall that no villager has ever heard of stone soup so that the beggar can’t even appeal to evidence of the prior existence of stone soup as an anchor point in reality. Stone soup is only a conceit, an idea both vague and indistinct, a vision whose motivating force may come only from Schwarmerei (in German, the word refers both to illusion and to excessive enthusiasm). Following the beggar may lead us into disaster.

*

I have heard and felt the skeptic’s doubts. During the past week, I have read the story many times since Antonio first asked me to write something about it. I have spent some time puzzling over a vindication. Let me open my hands and in just, careful generosity offer a reply to the skeptic.

The beggar’s charm, I would argue, is manifested in charisma, and his art is the art of magic. He offers up the thought that more can come from less, that the staid way is not the only way, and that things can change in virtue of how we change our collective way of life. For consider: as he makes the soup, the beggar is transforming himself from a beggar into a visionary of a different, more just economic order. And what he is offering, it seems to me, is a thoroughgoing transvaluation of the concepts of scarcity and abundance.

In the beginning, the villagers assume that scarcity holds sway. Times are tough, hostility is the way of the world, and distrust abounds. They assume that there is no other way to get on during hard times but to hoard, to turn away the guest, and to turn aside from their fellows. For them, nothing apart from scarcity is remotely conceivable. So that the visionary, once a beggar, must turn things around. In this, he does no more than invite each who comes forth to conceive of an economic order in which the little bit that he has can be “alchemized” such that the whole can become more than the sum of its parts; in which each can contribute something, a little, a little bit, whatever it is he can give; in which contributing to the common good can entail partaking of the final bounty; in which the lack of social trust can be overcome in a blessed time of amends making; in which–and this may be the most important riposte to the skeptic–the vulnerability of each person can be honored but limited (it is a potato, yes, but only a potato; in giving this potato, I might bleed and lose, true, but even if I lose, I won’t lose my skin; I am not asked–no, not once–to give more than I can spare).

What the beggar-cum-visionary is offering, then, is the conceit that our fragile mutual dependency can be the basis for an economy of abundance. And that, I think, is quite a radiant vision of life brought to order.

Do you find my reply to the skeptic convincing, or am I courting Pollyannaism? How can someone who is neither an expert nor a salesman avoid the fate of the con man? Do we have reason to believe in such a vision, or are we making a groundless leap of faith?

On rites of passage and walkabouts

I met Peter Barnett, an Australian in his 50s, through Paul Monk, a former intelligence officer in Australia and presently a consultant and polymath, to whom I had, some months back, sent a note of praise about one of his papers on cognitive biases, to which he had replied with thanks, and because of which we had had a conversation over Skype which had led, in turn, to his mentioning offhandedly that his brother-in-law Peter, who at this point would be on his way back from visiting his son who would be finishing up school in California in the spring, would be in town. Care to meet Peter? I said sure.

Yesterday morning, Peter and I walked about Central Park and talked, would you believe it?, about walking about. For many years, Peter has been leading “rites of passage” outdoor educational programs for at risk children then passing into adolescence. He sees all the disenchanted youth, especially the indigenous youth who have turned to drugs, and he wants to guide them away from going under. I spoke of the trellis as the sort of structure that urges the vine toward good growth, as a framework that is neither too constricting (read: old fashioned discipline) nor too hands off (read: laissez-faire education), and as a lattice-work that supports a plant’s coming to full fruition. Peter liked the image so much that he told me a story that one of the elders once told him. He stopped where he was; I stopped where I was; he held up his hands and told me this:

The elder is a teenager, undergoing a rite of passage. He is brought by his elders into the wild and must live by his wits, his skills, and his intelligence. He thinks that he is all alone but he is not, for the elders, all unseen, are always in the background.

When he gets too good at killing animals and becomes hubristic, they pull aside the animals and he is humbled. When he grows despondent and melancholy, they let in small animals that he can hold onto and be held by. For however long the young man can endure without going under, they change the conditions in the hope of strengthening his attributes and cultivating his talents. Some young men will last only a few weeks; others will last for months.  The elder telling the story lasted for 6 months and, in later years, became the elder of his tribe.

The lesson of the story is that wise educators are those who ensure that the one who is on his own is never all alone.

On night visions and homecomings

On the way to the airport well before dawn, my middle sister told me about the recurring nightmares she’d had when she was a girl. There was the one about the angry man with the red eyes. The one about my mother who’d become the mean witch from the Wizard of Oz. And the one about the Incredible Hulk who’d turned evil. In each case, the dream had been precipitated by an intimation or experience of death. In one case, she’d tried counting by 2’s to distract herself from envisioning; in another, she’d stayed up all night to protect us while we slept. This led to her two weeks of insomnia.

Have you had insomnia recently, I asked. No, that was years ago.

Mid-air and half-asleep, I remembered my recurring boyhood dream. In it, I feel my teeth getting loose. I think they’re going to come out, I bring my hands up to my mouth, but they don’t. The teeth stay put while moving about. Then, I go to speak, but my jaw is half-locked, not locked entirely but out-of-sync. My teeth rub up against each other, painfully but not as painfully as I expect them to, while my jaw moves discordantly, out of tune. The truth is that I can speak, can speak just fine, but the words that come forth clot out. These intelligible words are not the right ones.

For me, this is the shudder of a death that is mine. The meaning of the nightmare is not pictorial but metaphysical. It is not that there is some structural flaw in the architecture of my mouth nor is there some cognitive degradation in the hardware of my brain but rather a metaphysical rivenness in the order of things. In the face of the Unfathomable, my mouth is relatively intact whereas my words cannot but come forth broken. For someone like me who’s lived his life according to right speech, the terror abides still.

And will this be how Death comes, comes kindly for me? With whatever I say being the wrong thing but without the ability to make amends with some last rites? No matter my philosophical meditations on death, no matter my nightly ruminations or morning exercises, regardless of my lifelong preparations (Cicero, recall: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”), will I befoul the earth and the air, leave polluted a consecrated space, despoil the lives of others in my final moments? That is horrible.

Maybe this is why the wise (and lucky) among us, sensing the end, know to close their mouths and put out their hands and rub.

*

When I got home, I checked the lights and the heat. I looked in the refrigerator and checked the pantry. I turned on the faucets and watered the plants. I imagined having dogs at once forlorn and ebullient. Food, heat, light, life: the basics, the essentials. We’re inclined to think that these are no more than material necessities, but they may very well be inchoate philosophical thoughts.

It could be that our thought-actions are of home. Omphalos. Thought-actions that are a three-fold answer to a three-fold question:

Do you exist, ask the pigeons in the tree. (Yes, here I am.)

And have you forsaken us, plead the plants and the animals. (No, my friends, I’ve not forsaken you.)

And are you grateful, entreat the lights and the heat, grateful for this and for everything. (Yes, I am. Danken, my friends.)

On cat days

When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; and when I am walking alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are sometimes elsewhere, for most of the time I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

–Montaigne, Essays

1

Watch the tabby cat. She basks and when she’s not basking, she preens. Anon, she stretches her tummy toward the earth and sky. Maybe she takes a bite or two. Or maybe her paws need flexing, so she flexes them a few times. That’s enough. The shimmering blinds now catch her eyes. Not now, though. Later perhaps. She basks some more, then awakes. Ah, the blinds: they’re stirring still she sees. Like a dancer, she catches them off guard, mid-swat.

When she has a minute to herself, she consults her checklist: play, bask, sleep, eat, swat. Yes.

 2

Do you know that, in the winter, I like to wake up before the sun? I like to sit and watch the sun come up from my window seat. In the spring, I wake up with the sun but in the winter before. In the winter, I sleep longer and move more slowly. I can’t help it. It’s OK.

At 9 o’clock, I pause and listen for a moment, sometimes two, to the church bells ringing nearby. Ah, still out of tune, still lovely. At noon, the same, also the same tune. At 6 o’clock, it is now dark, has already been dark since half past 4.

A few weeks ago, the churchmen threw me for a loop. They changed the tune on me. At first, I was sad, a little, a little sad, but after a while I grew to love the 6 o’clock song as much as I love the 9 and 12.

In winter, my body gets tired early. Reading is the first chapter of sleeping. But before going to bed, I like to lie on the floor and think about the day. I think about the people I help, and I wonder whether I’m helping. At all. Enough. Ever. Enough. Sometimes I’m sad because–I don’t know why–maybe it’s because I said the wrong words at the wrong time or maybe it’s because I misled her by accident. But, to be honest, most of the time I’m not sad. I think I’m doing good and I think they’re doing good. To me, the day was sweet.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Spiritual Exercise: On Giving Pleasures Their Due”