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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

don't do it

Nobody knows anything.

This statement was made famous by William Goldman, the screenwriter and novelist, who was making a comment on the movie industry. He was pointing to the fact that many people in that industry, especially studio executives with high salaries, claim to understand the industry and what makes movies successful, and indeed must believe this in order to justify said high salaries, even though the facts seem to point quite the other way. The great majority of movies are flops both critically and commercially. To Goldman the inescapable conclusion was that, all chest-thumping aside, nobody in the movie industry, not even those who have been in it longest and have enjoyed the most success, really knows what makes a movie successful. Nobody knows what's going to work. Or, in brief: nobody knows anything.

But why stop there? Is this condition merely an aspect of movies, or is it a more general phenomenon? When it comes right down to it, who really knows what they're doing? Does anyone?

Take the Iraq War. The stated reasons for the invasion were Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's links with Al Qaeda. For the sake of argument, let's assume everyone was sincere and honest about this from the start. Before long it came out that these reasons were in fact nonexistent. On the face of it, it would appear that the invasion was therefore a boo-boo, even in its own terms. Assuming sincerity and honesty, a lack of knowledge led to a mistaken and highly costly and bloody action, and we have every reason to think that Goldman's dictum applies 100% in this case as well.

That's a spectacular instance, but by no means the only one. You don't have to be a Buddhist to see that ignorance is the driving force behind much of our activity, perhaps all of it. From Thalidomide to CFCs to pumping groundwater dry throughout the world (currently under way--soon much of the world will be without water to irrigate crops with or to drink): action is confidently undertaken on the basis of incomplete knowledge, with disastrous results.

We hear of the "law of unintended consequences": everything we do brings a harvest of unexpected knock-on effects. Many of those are unpleasant, and have us scrambling to take new ill-informed actions to try to deal with them. I'm wondering whether the law of unintended consequences is the motto on the flip side of the coin of "nobody knows anything".

It feels good to do things instead of just sitting around on one's duff. I often feel bad about how little I do. But if we look at it objectively, the world would probably be in a lot better shape if more of us spent more time on our duffs and not trying to do things. This is the view of Hinayana Buddhism (sort of), as well as the Hippocratic Oath: "first of all, do no harm". As in first aid, the wise, disciplined approach is often a matter of not doing too much. Meditation, indeed, is really just a calculated strategy of sitting on one's duff.

Ha--here's maybe a case in point. I was just seeing Kimmie off to work. On the front porch, I swung the door closed behind me--only to have it slam on my fingertip. Smash. I gave it a good one, and it hurt plenty (still does--I'm typing this with my left hand).

I didn't know what I was doing.

( don't worry--I've been applying an ice-pack, and it's starting to calm down.)

Yeah, I'm liking sitting on my duff--the perfect activity for those of us who don't know anything.

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