Or: To Win The Game Loosing
Bitter weather this was. The snow had lost its beauty in the way it buried the landscape in a cover of frost, depriving every living creature of its breathing space. The ground was frozen, and ironically the only sign of life was the white of the snow, reflecting the moonlight in shades of blue and silver. The strong winds blew one thick cloud after another over the moon’s face, giving a flickering impression to the scarce light there was. The soft ups and downs of the softly contoured hills on the horizon, sprinkled with poplars swaying back and forth in the winds, drew a picture of mystery and revelation alike.
A small figure in bent-over posture, wrapped in some cloth that hung in the thick layer of snow, was taking cumbersome steps through this sea of ice. The crunching sound of its feet complemented the steady swoosh of the storm around its head, adding some sense of infinity to this weather. The heavy cloth covered head, shoulders, and even legs of the figure, that, in the dim light of the small hut that it was slowly approaching, revealed itself to be a short man carrying a small bag with him from which there arose a lightly clinking, metallic sound.
The man was shivering violently, from time to time having to pull up the cloth so that the wind would not carry it away. He had to cough drily every now and then, a heavy cold having taken hold over his overall condition. At moments he would have to stop to catch breath from the complete exhaustion that pulsated through his veins and, as he feared, might finally overwhelm him before he would reach the hut that serenely waited for him, silently stood over there, on top of the next hill. The warm light extending from it, disrupted only by the heavy snow flakes and a layer of fog in between him and the hut, kept alive in him a fire that felt so beautiful it hurt.
After a while, when the moon had started to fade away behind the dark clouds, leaving the land in a darkness that even the reflection in the snow was unable to compensate for, the man came so close to the hut that his heart started to pound faster. The excitement of the prospect, the inner elation of anticipation made him, after a long time of only very slow progress, acquire some pace again. Suddenly, he tripped and slipped back down the small hill on top of which the hut was situated. The cloth that had so safely covered him slid off his shoulders and fell into the snow; the clinking bag flew into the air and landed somewhere in the darkness. He landed on his back, in the snow, and the rags and tatters he was otherwise wearing were unable to withstand the wet and ice-cold snow underneath him. The small man lay there, as helpless and vulnerable as a newborn. His shivering grew more and more dramatic, his entire body vibrating in spastic movements, his limbs stiffening, his lips now turning blue. He lost consciousness.
“Don’t you freeze me to death!” A big man, holding a petroleum lamp in his left hand, pulled up the small something that he had found lying in front of his hut when he had gone out to obtain some of the wood he had collected in the shed. The small something didn’t respond, nor did it move much, but it immediately swung its arms around the big man’s neck and held onto him. The big man had to laugh, his heavy belly moving up and down in synchrony. “Someone is in need, it seems! I see.” After picking up the large cloth that lay out there, he swung half of the small something over his shoulder, with the other half dangling along, threw the cloth on his other shoulder, and in his hands balanced the petroleum lamp and the chunks of wood he had previously gathered.
When the heavy wooden door swung open, and with it the small man was permitted into this isle of light and warmth, everything inside of him began to pulsate again: life! It took a few minutes for his joints and muscles to slowly thaw, although the steaming chicken broth he was served by the big man, along with a hearty “Here you go!”, certainly sped up the process. It took him another couple of minutes to realise where he was, and how he had gotten here: he was inside the hut, that not so long ago had appeared to him so close and yet so distant. He must have frozen to unconsciousness after the fall that had struck him to the icy ground of the hill, upon which, in turn, the hut was situated.
The small man, still drowsy in some way or another, took a slow look around him, and discovered, glance by glance, a beautiful little universe which he had the privilege of stepping into; or more accurately, as he added in thought, being thrown into. The place revealed itself to him as a minuscule tavern or hostel, and even though it was situated in the literal middle of nowhere, there were even two other guests! Sitting at a table in the back end of the hut, they appeared to be playing a card game, boisterously in the middle of it over a couple of emptied-out pints. He heard their resounding roar taking turns with shouting and swearing. The deep voice of the big man abruptly woke him from his contemplations. “Well, what takes you here my friend?”, he asked. “You look like you’ve got quite an adventure behind you! Not so many a soul gets lost this far, you know.” With a large smile he displayed two rows of tobacco-yellowed teeth and, leaning onto the table the small man sipped his soup, stared at him intently.
“I have been looking forward to getting here all this time. I am so sorry to have bothered you, not having made it all the way to the door. Do you mind terribly?”
“I mind terribly,” the big man replied, his grin suddenly disappearing, the stare continuing to pierce its way to the small man, who now turned a little pale. “Terribly!” The big man burst out laughing, leaned back, held his big belly, and added: “I’m fooling you! Don’t take me so seriously, I am just a lonesome soul in this solitary hut, making a fool of everyone that makes the horrible, horrible mistake of entering! Don’t worry, you’re safe here.” Ignoring this embarrassing joke, the small man regained the colour of his face and retorted: “Whom do I have the pleasure of getting acquainted with, if I may ask? And who are those other guests of yours? Assuming they are guests.” “Well, I am happy to introduce myself as the Host, while those two amicable souls in the back carry the names of Fortune-Teller and Revolutionary. As you may have already guessed, one of them is a fortune-teller and the other one … a revolutionary! — I won’t tell you who is who, though. That’ll be your own pleasure of finding out.” Again, the big man burst out laughing, leaned back, and held his big belly while one or two tears rolled down his shiny, red cheeks. “But who are you?” “Why, thank you for this introduction. I myself am the Jewellery Merchant, and proudly so, trading some of the most wonderful artefacts of gold, of silver, of bronze, pieces that carry precious stones which break the light a million times — be it the altruistic amethyst, the awesome amber, the crowning crystal, or the dazzling diamond; whatever floats your boat I carry in my… wait, where is it?” The small man looked around with sudden unsettledness in his light eyes, drew hectic gestures of confusion into the air and began to strobe all of his pockets, with an increasingly bewildered complexion in his small face. “But what is it?”, the big man asked, raising his bushy eyebrows and folding the thick and shiny skin on his forehead.
“I must have lost it! My bag! All the precious commodities! My riches, my treasure trove, my luxuries, my all and everything! Where has it gone? You didn’t happen to see something else out there when you picked me up, did you, dear Host?” The confusion stung with anguish into the merchant’s face. “Not that I was aware of, my dear Jewellery Merchant, but if you want I will have another look. It is dark outside, so I guess I must have overlooked it! I am sorry to see you upset.” “Well, in that case let’s wait until the next morn. There is no urgency for you to go out there again, into this violent cold and dark. I am quite sure the daylight will save us some troubles. As long as the night doesn’t steal my goods, I think we’re quite safe!” “As you wish! I won’t force my help onto you, will I? No, the night doesn’t do that thing. And in the absence of living things out there I believe you’re quite right in assuming your safety.” And the host had to laugh again. “Now, why don’t you sit with these fellow souls over there, I am sure they will happily introduce you to the rules of their game!” And so the merchant got up from the rickety-rocky wooden chair he had been sitting on thus far, in an experienced gesture smoothing out the folds in the cloth he was safely wrapped in again, and walked over to the back of the hut, approaching the table which the two drunkards fought rabidly over their cards at. The night was only just about to begin.
The revolutionary looked up from above the edge of the glass he had just raised to take another sip, then stopped his movement halfway, decided to put down the glass instead, clenched his right fist, held it against his chest, got up out of his chair and shouted: “Come, o brother, and drink with us in solidarity of all the workers of this world! Solidarity! Love! Brotherhood! I am already so in love with you, come sit down now and tell us your story.”
“You’re the Revolutionary, I take it?”, the merchant replied.
“Quite precisely who I am, indeed!”, the revolutionary said and, after swinging to the side only to then catch himself, sat himself down.
“Well, it’s a pleasure,” the merchant went on, “and let me introduce myself as the Jewellery Merchant, travelling from one distant place to the next, trading some of the most wonderful artefacts of gold, of silver, of bronze, pieces that carry precious stones which break the light a million times — be it the altruistic amethyst, the awesome amber, the crowning crystal, or even, yes, even the dazzling diamond!”
The other man, who had until now been staring at the bottom of his glass, while absent-mindedly stroking the hand of cards he was holding, now awoke from his fuzzy interiority and said: “Now, the pleasure is in fact all on my side! I am very happy to meet you, dear Jewellery Merchant! I myself am called the Fortune-Teller, and that is indeed what I profess, too. Although that is a somewhat reductive term, if you will, as I don’t limit my doings to telling fortune, no, I tell truth! Truth is what I seek, and truth is what I find, and truth is what I present, and truth is what I share, and… yes, I guess that’s about it. Isn’t it, dear Revolutionary?”
A grin from left to right extended over the face of the revolutionary. “That’s about it, I’d say! Couldn’t agree more. So much in your words, yet so little. How modest! How… modest!” — “Well, let me tell you, isn’t that what we all look for, so desperately, yes, with so much fervour, truth, truth, and truth? I am truthful, my friend. Ask me something, and I will tell you what it is about.”
The merchant cleared his throat. “If I may interrupt —” — “Yes you may!”, the revolutionary exclaimed — “— then I would just like to ask what sort of game you are playing? I would certainly be most happy and willing to join.”
“Well,” the fortune-teller began, “I will happily introduce you to the rules. But first you need to know, this is not an easy game. I have been trying to explain it to the Revolutionary right here, but he just won’t get it. He is so turbulent! He would simply knock over the table before the first round, and trust me, we’ve tried a couple times. Now, the game is but a deck of cards, yet the rules, my friend, the rules do complicate it. And it is not that I don’t want to trust you, it isn’t that at all, trust me, it is only that I would like you to be aware of the fact that you will need to spend some time listening to my explanations, another bit of time understanding and comprehending the rules I will present to you, and yet another bit of time to practice and experience. Most importantly, however, remind yourself that this is a very logical game, there is nothing that doesn’t make sense, and in spite of every oh-so-complicated intricacy there is an answer to every single one of them. The game has provided you with the answer before you have even posed the question, my dearest Jewellery Merchant. Isn’t that marvellous? It is!” A glare of excitement lit up in the eyes of the fortune-teller, an almost feverish passion shone from him.
“Now, that is indeed quite something,” the merchant said, pondering and staring into the air. “I guess I will need myself a pint after all!” He waved towards the host, indicating with his short fingers that it would be absolutely lovely if he could be served a pint. It did not take the host more than two minutes, during which the table’s conversation had no option but to stagnate, to swing over and thump on the table a glass full to the brim with dark ale. After taking a deep sip, which he celebrated with an unmistakable slurping, the merchant went on to say: “You make it seem to me as if I wouldn’t even stand a chance of entering the … intricacies, as you call them, of this game of yours in the first place. What makes you presume so? What impression have you got of me to draw those conclusions before reading the chapters?”
“I am not such a great friend of interruptions,” the revolutionary said, interrupting, and then interrupting himself with a prominent burp, “yet I must say, there is some peculiar secrecy going on, dear Fortune-Teller. In all honesty, you have actually never given me a chance of understanding the rules! You have explained them to me, yes, but you are clearly in a position of power — you know them better than anyone else in this hut, and perhaps will always know them one bit better, as you obviously have invented them yourself. There is always the possibility of you knowing yet another rule that we, supposedly, will have forgotten about. Therefore I cannot trust you, dear Fortune-Teller. I simply can’t. You tell me how I ever would. Most importantly, however, it is your profession that gets in the way: If you always tell the truth, then you are the game, you see?”
After this fervent speech, both the fortune-teller and the jewellery merchant took a deep breath, about to say something. When they realised that only one of them would be able to say something, both said, simultaneously: “You go first,” and then, “no, you,” just so then neither of them would say anything at all. Finally, the fortune-teller took it on him and spoke: “I believe I see what you’re trying to get at, dear Revolutionary. I see what place you’re coming from, and as you know I see the truth and even the future. I see rage, and I see frustration alike. I see how your passions are getting in the way of your judgement, and I also see how that not only gives you the impression of me being unjust, but how it also keeps you from seeing yourself. Were you only to just once put aside your passions, and let reason take sway for the time being, I am sure we would make a great couple of players in this game.”
Now the merchant added: “I agree with both of you. Dear Revolutionary, please take no offence in what I am about to say, as I am certainly no opponent of yours, that be assured. This secrecy you’re talking of, how does it come to you? Where do you see yourself in the perception of that secrecy? Is, in your eyes, and with all due respect, the Fortune-Teller hiding something from you or, as he himself just proposed, is there something in your vision that keeps you from seeing? And to take this another step further, could it be possible that there is some truth in what both of you are saying? Could it be both secrecy and blindness, and neither at the same time? Could it be that each of your perspectives come with a particular pair of glasses that make the other seem to lack understanding for oneself? If it wasn’t freezing outside, although perhaps another couple of ales will mitigate, I would step outside right now and gather my bag of riches which I carry and trade. Among them there is one most intriguing invention I have discovered just recently, a combination of glass and tin, reflecting so sharply that it enables one to carry one’s own image in one’s pocket — you can travel with yourself wherever you go, simply by getting out this flat piece of glass and discovering your own image as in a silent loch.
I call it ‘Mirror,’ and I am bringing this up now, with the two of you, for one very specific reason: By means of it, you can look at yourself; and yet, you are never looking at anything else but a mere piece of glass, throwing back at you the light that you throw into the world. And you can hold it in any direction, so not only does it reveal to you, possibly, and only if you take a very close look, yourself, but also can it make you reveal to others their selves. In addition to that, —“
“— and here I’d love to interrupt you!”, the revolutionary remarked. He had to burp again, this time a second longer than before, then continued: “This ‘mirror’ of yours, isn’t that a lovely invention? A lake with no breeze that fits in your pocket; a clean window against a dark enough background to make you visible. Wonderful, wonderful indeed! I love it. But, and now this is not so insignificant an objection altogether, but what then? What does it tell you, this lovely reflection? Does it remind us of more than the tale — or shall I say tragedy? — of narcissus? Where is the action, is what I like to say, where is the deed? We, my brothers and fellow future heroes at the front line, need to unite our powers, those of our bare hands, to change and by change I would not know what else to mean than overthrow! What if not overthrow!”
The fortune-teller, with every verse the revolutionary had been adding to his insistent crescendo, shook his head more and more energetically. He sighed, and waved away a fly that had been bothering him in the face for the past few minutes. Then he took a deep breath, making noticeable a considerable degree of fatigue, and said: “How you keep addressing us as ‘brothers’ I find peculiar. Am I really your brother? Really, that is, in reality, I can tell you: no, I’m not. You’d wish I was, so we could together experience this passionate connection that you call solidarity, yes, wishful thinking this is, fantasies, but is it more than that? I doubt it, or to be precise: I deny it. Hopes, wishes, desires, urges, inclinations, tendencies — all but ado! The prophecies, the predictions, the causations, now that is what I stand for. History is such a profoundly boring story, if you take a close look: From A comes B comes C. Yesterday yields today yields tomorrow. Period. Yes, that’s all! It’s pure physics, isn’t it, the forces that never disappear.”
“I disagree,” the jewellery merchant said. “History isn’t boring. It contains so much meaning! And it’s so much more than mere causality: Just like life does from day to day, it speaks to every single person involved in a different way. This is where I agree with you, dear Revolutionary, namely in that the Fortune-Teller’s physics are a position of power — they suppress the plurality of views. A, B, and C are all such suppressors: They forgot about all those nuances in between every single one of them. The whole alphabet, for that matter, is an inherently exclusionary system!”
“That is where you go too far and not far enough, dear Jewellery Merchant,” the revolutionary intervened. “You go too far in that by stretching the oppression of the units to the whole system of units — are you intending to attack the whole system of abstract thinking? That would leave us with a mere metaphysical flux, which is where, in turn, you don’t go far enough. You tap into both of our worlds, the Fortune-Teller’s and mine, like an arbitrator, but in dematerialising you become an active agent of alienation. This may be a different kind of alienation, but it is alienation nonetheless. What would you do in the event of revolt? You would, I could imagine, sit idly by the sides, in a safe enough place, perhaps a balcony hanging above the alley through which we march, take notes and — reflect. You would think about how every single one of us is a gem in his own right, how every single of our chants would count in its own right, shine brightly like a red ruby or whatever it is that you’re selling; but at best you end up with a lovely pitch for your products, elevating every single one of them to semi-divine status and neglecting the material steps you need to take if you were to not sell those jewels, but make them.”
The merchant leaned back, leaving his glass at the edge of the boldly unadorned table, and had to think about the possible event of that glass falling from the edge, bursting into glistening shard that would stick out, like the tips of icebergs from a grim sea, from the puddle of beer that would foam all over and spread out, then slowly subsiding into the wooden floor of the hut, leaving the shard exposed, naked and now clearly not even close to resembling icebergs any longer. But the glass didn’t fall; it just stood there, pointing at the danger yet refusing to give in to it. Taking himself back to the conversation, the merchant lifted his small face up and back to the round, saying: “What would I do in the event of revolt is perhaps not the best way of judging what I am intending to say to you, my friend, and I am most certainly not intending to deny the material sphere, which seems to be so dear to you. First, we have to face the conditions of the absence of the revolt: How much of the responsibility for that absence do you bear yourself? How much do I? How much the Fortune-Teller? Second, we have to not leave it at that, but rather pose the further question: What is responsibility, in light of the glittering reflections that throw back the piercing rays of sunlight from the world? It suggests the ability to respond, not the response in itself. Your yesses and noes don’t bring us much further than the chemical solution that still contains all the ingredients it brings together.”
“But what about the invaluableness of a straightforward answer?”, the fortune-teller objected. “What if the solution helps? What if it alleviates?”
“Then,” the merchant replied, “it is help and alleviation of some sort, but it must not push aside the possibility of other solutions to the same problem. Therefore, a solution can only be one as long as it avoids pretending to be a dissolution.”
“Ha! This talk of straightforward answers is but privilege speaking! And here I certainly agree with you, dear Jewellery-Merchant: I agree that there should be a way of taking away the unitary basis of truth, to the extent that by means of this we will be able to turn things upside down — we will be able to formulate an alternative, to voice our language! To say to the powerful, look at the podium you’re standing on, it’s made of cardboard! The rain will soak it, then it sinks in, and then you stand where you belong: on a par.”
“Here I must object,” the merchant said. “You are contradicting yourself, I believe: On the one hand, your cardboard podium is a beautiful metaphor I would like to dwell on for a bit — you say that, after the rain has fallen, the powerful finds himself on a par with the rest. On the other hand, you propose a utilisation of the tools I have described for the sake of ‘turning things upside down,’ so, I would guess, you would just like to build a little podium for yourself, wouldn’t you?”
“The dilemmas you two are introducing,” the fortune-teller now added, “stem from one common cause: Uncertainty. Your uncertainty comes from a passion that resides in both of you, a glaring passion to be a misfit. You’d love so much to not conform, that you pose nonconformity with the clearcut norms of society as a way purely of asserting otherness rather than adding much to the world we live in after all. The Revolutionary puts that into violent practice, producing nothing but discomfort and disorder, thereby simply, yet ironically, I must say, disseminating the uncertainty he took as a starting point. The Jewellery Merchant, in turn, dwells on that uncertainty and upholds it as a law of nature, which is, in fact, an argument about certainty. He is thus closest to the point I am making, even if he is absolutely blind to being that close. I know that for sure! You, my dear Jewellery Merchant, covered in this cloth that you appear to just wrap around your shoulders so as to then be able to get up, drop it, and say: I have revealed something to you! By doing this, in fact, you are driven by the utmost interest in certainty, only some certainty that you would love to go closer to the essence of things than that which I offer to you in my, I guess, way-too-clear terms. Your metaphysical language of authenticity doesn’t end up getting anywhere, because it pretends to indulge in uncertainty while in fact it would only ever be able to get somewhere by means of admitting that all it is there for is to discover certainty in revelation. Yet all is already revealed! Don’t you see? Really? I am here telling you I know the truth, yet you respond with disbelief, simply, I would say, out of some pleasure in disagreeing. You are both, in that sense, and don’t take this personally, the rebellious pubescents that have not yet reached maturity.”
“Unbelievable! Host, have you heard what this guest of yours was saying? How can this be!” The revolutionary got out of his chair, about to leave the table, then realised that he was too drunk to trust his legs to really carry him so far, so he decided otherwise and just stood there, subtly swinging from side to side. The host briefly looked up from his business when he heard his name, smiled, and got back to what he was busy with. The revolutionary continued: “I am in very, very high dudgeon, you should know and remember that, dear Fortune-Teller! Everything you just said points at the essential problem that we, the suppressed people of this terrible earth, are facing day in day out: The suppression, the injustice, the privilege, the power! The horrible truth-play that you are enacting on your pompous stage, facing a drugged audience that prays to your goddamned crystal ball, believing in you being the solution, while in fact they were simply too absent-minded, too distracted to notice that you are in fact the problem!”
“I don’t like the aggressive tone of this conversation,” the jewellery merchant said. “Dear Revolutionary, if you were so kind as to sit back down, I would appreciate that. I think we are all able to have a peaceful conversation as three adults, and in spite of the ale that we have all been drinking. But you, dear Fortune-Teller, have similarly overstepped the limits of what I would find acceptable, rhetorically. I say this out of my very own perspective: I tend to walk bent-over, why is that? Well, I duck in humility, faced with the overwhelming wonders of the world. They all speak to me, yet all in such different ways. The diamond breaks the light in so many ways that I would never dare to speak of ‘the light’, only of the incredible multitude of different kinds of light. A ray of sunlight falling upon the earth at noon is fundamentally different from the ray falling upon it just before the sun sets. And neither of them can claim to be the true light, both of them are lights, and they may stem from a common source, which would be the sun, yet they each make a unique, marvellous appearance in the place we inhabit.”
The big man walked over to the table, suddenly disrupting the sphere of fiercer and fiercer debate that had filled this corner of the room.
“I see,” he said to the small man, “I see you have found some respectable friends in these two gentlemen here.” This time, for some reason, he did not underline what he was saying with a grin. Nor did he lean back, rejoice in laughter and hold his big belly which would move up and down in synchrony. This time, instead, he squinched up his face, pulling down his bushy eyebrows, and lifting his chin so as to give a clearly dissatisfied facial expression.
As if that had not been obvious enough, he added: “I am however dissatisfied with one thing.” The three men seated at the table all looked up to him, with the stares of three absolute greenhorns. “You, and I mean all of you, have discussed this game for the duration of more than one pint now, without ever doing more than stroking your goddamned cards! What’s that good for? Isn’t the point in playing simply just to play?” With arms akimbo, legs apart as if ready for battle, he stood there, sweating, shining, smelling, a wet kitchen towel over the left shoulder, a dry one over the right.
At first, none of the three seated men knew what to say. They first kept staring at the host, then at the table, at the cards, and finally at one another. Who of them was right? And who was righter? What was the purpose of the game, if not to play it? Had their conversation been part of the game? What would that say about their qualities as its players?
The fortune-teller repeated: “Well, the point is to allow for the truth to seep through every single player’s mind, every one of them accepting and fully embracing the primacy of the revelation. As long as the rules are being followed strictly according to procedure, one avoids falling prey to chaos and instead remains on the safe side of life.”
The revolutionary repeated: “Well, the point is to fight the conditions of the game instead of simply playing. As long as the production of the rules is up to a select group of the powerful and the wealthy, I will stand by the picket line!”
The jewellery merchant repeated: “Well, the point is to let every point be a point in its own right. In order to get at the game’s subjectively valid meaning, one needs only to consider each player’s position and what each of those comes along with. The answer is to pose another question.”
And there they were, three men, drunk with ale, a fourth taking care of them, in the warmth of this lonesome hut on a lonesome hill in a lonesome world. The snow was falling, the poplars swinging in the wind that accelerated the landing of the snowflakes on the thick blanket of crystals that covered this landscape, luridly reflecting the silver light of the moon. What none of the men in this hut realised, out on the secluded countryside, far removed from life in the cities, was that this coat of snow, clandestinely hiding the merchant’s bag of jewellery, made the world around them disappear.