Sunday, February 09, 2014

La Hora Chapina

The Guatemalan approach to timekeeping has been a source of both frustration and occasional wonder to me. In this series of short extracts from his essay In Praise of Unpunctuality, legendary Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski goes a long way to setting my mind at rest on this matter...

"In making my promise I also make my decision, thereby depriving myself of the freedom to choose between the two possibilities before me...His expectations will be rational only if he knows that I am punctual; only then can one say of me that I failed to fulfil expectations...Thus, assuming the rationality of all the agents involved, only the person who notoriously fulfils the expectations of others as to his punctuality can fail to fulfil those expectations; only someone who is notoriously punctual can turn out to be unpunctual. To say of someone that he is ‘notoriously unpunctual’ is therefore absurd. The initial definition given above therefore characterizes an empty set, for it is self-contradictory; an ‘ingrained regular habit of failing to fulfil people’s expectations’ etc is an impossible phenomenon...Simple logic compels us to the conclusion that un-punctuality cannot be anything other than an extremely rare and exceptional occurrence.

"The benefits of unpunctuality are manifold, both for individuals and for society as a whole...First, unpunctuality does much to inculcate the habit of logical thought. For if our expectations regarding people’s future behaviour, expectations based on repeated empirical evidence of connections between their behaviour and their promises regarding it, were fulfilled in every case without exception, our illusory faith in the infallibility of ordinary numerical induction would be strengthened, and our ability to guard against the disappointment to which expectations based on induction of this kind might give rise correspondingly weakened...If the conviction of the fallibility of reasoning based on purely numerical induction is to take firm root in our minds, our experience must provide the phenomenon of unpunctuality in the above sense.

"Second, unpunctuality confers benefits of a moral nature. If our faith in the stability of the connections between people’s states of consciousness (expressed in their declarations) and their behaviour were confirmed in every case without exception, our faith in free will would be destroyed, and we would be forced to conclude that people’s actions are entirely predictable. By the same token we would stop treating other people as genuine moral agents...believing that human behaviour is utterly predictable entails failing to believe that people are responsible for their actions. Lacking any grounds for believing in the responsibility of other people, compelled by logic to treat them like machines with no will of their own, we would have no reason to hold their unpunctuality against them and berate them for it. Moreover, if everyone without exception was always punctual, unpunctuality could not be condemned as a bad habit. And since the condemnation of people who are un-punctual curbs or at least in large measure reduces their unpunctuality, the lack of this restraining influence would lead to a dangerous increase in the habit of unpunctuality among the population.

"Thus unpunctuality is essential if punctuality is to exist. In other words, unpunctuality is a necessary condition for combating unpunctuality – not because there would be nothing to combat if it did not exist, but because if it did not exist, it would assume dimensions which would make it impossible to defeat; its spread would be uncontrollable. A pedant might question the validity of this argument by pointing out that it concerns only relations between people who are assumed to be rational agents. For only rational agents would refrain from expecting punctuality until they had repeated evidence, over a long period of time, of connections between other people’s promises and their later behaviour. But what if there are people who expect punctuality without legitimate grounds, thoughtlessly, for no good reason whatsoever? Then the whole argument will be undermined. This objection can be answered as follows: if there are such people, then unpunctuality becomes even more beneficial, indeed virtuous, for it will be just punishment for their intellectual sluggishness, lack of logic and groundless expectations. It would be our duty to flaunt our unpunctuality before such people as often as possible, on a grand scale, enthusiastically and without restraint. Thus among rational agents unpunctuality is highly beneficial. Among non-rational agents it is equally beneficial, though for different reasons. Ergo. . ."

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Pietr the Latvian

For me there have always been two Parises: the abrasive, permanently on-the-edge environment where something might kick off at any moment - the Paris of my own experience - and the romantic and artistic hotspot that has consistently lured Americans in their droves since the end of WWI. 

The latter version of Paris was given its most recent reboot by Woody Allen. Picasso's biography would seem to indicate that there was considerable overlap between these apparently alternate renderings in the early part of the last century, but one slightly fanciful interpretation of Midnight in Paris would be that it sets out to expose the tendency of contemporary American visitors to commence time-travelling inside their heads the moment they arrive in the French capital. 

And as Allen suggests, the Paris of the American imagination is still swaddled in the glamour of the Jazz Age. I had been willing to concede that this Paris - although now preserved largely only through its residual physical representations rather than living human culture - was real enough back then. Which is why my discovery of Simenon's first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian, has been so revelatory. He shows us Paris in the late 1920s and it is every bit as rude, seedy and racially combustive as the city we see in Engrenages and many other more au courant native representations of the city.