Good morning, Animals, and welcome to our first lecture. Can we offer you some puddles to drink? Please settle down, quit flapping, stop bellowing, retract your claws and lower your tails; thank you. Now, before we start edifying you, we’re going to level with you. We’ve been concerned about your performance lately, which has been, well, less than enterprising. You just don’t seem very plugged-in. Of course we understand that you are all anachronisms and that as anachronisms you have been ‘grandfathered in’. We are not expecting you to become astroanimals or anything; but out of concern for your viability, we’d like to help you salvage your sagging careers and regain some relevance. This is an opportunity to hitch your wagon to a star! Humans are stars, having risen through the echelons of Earth to practically transcend it! If you attend our lectures we will not microwave all of you and we can help you get on the same page as us.
We used to be on different pages ourselves, or sometimes not even on a page at all. Our old calendar had only ten pages – ten months, starting with March and ending in December, which left winter just a numberless stretch of days. Since we reformed the calendar, adding January and February, there are no longer any off-calendar days. All days are on-calendar. The calendar reformation is a good example of what is possible – you can reinvent calendars, you can even reinvent yourselves. We hear different ones of you going around saying ‘It is my lot to be a yak’ or ‘It is my lot to be a mudpuppy’ or ‘It is my lot to be a green water dragon’ or ‘It is my lot to be a bagworm’ or ‘It is my lot to be a megabat’. Do you not realize how fatalistic you sound? You sound like turnips! In this series of lectures, we are going to set out some important principles to help you break out of ‘turnip thinking’.
To begin, let’s discuss the power of numbers. As the father of eugenics wrote, ‘Whenever you can, count.’ Larry here will now hand out stickers with this motto on them, for you to post on your burrows and bowers, the sides of your nests, the entrances to your caves. The counting habit is going to help you cultivate the three Rs – rationality, reasonableness and regulation – you with your unregulated ids – and eliminate subjectivity. Subjectivity is like a banshee, nonexistent and therefore easy to eliminate. Sometimes, when you see the emerald and ruby and sapphire sparkles on the snow, it seems like you are rich; sometimes it seems you can’t get along without someone, seems the winter will never end, seems the moon is abnormally big coming over the mountains. But measurement dispenses with all the seeming: the bank account is low, the moon is normal-sized, etc.
Count whenever you can! We use our fingers and toes, but you can use your toes and toes, or pincers or flippers or whatever, and you snakes can make toothmarks in a branch. However you do it, you should start counting everything you see – clods, azaleas, skunks. Plants being stationary are generally easier to count than animals, though stay away from furze because it has no plural. ‘Furze’ is one of those uncountable nouns like ‘information’ or ‘butter’. When you do start counting animals, start by counting strangers – and remember not to look in their eyes, lest they lose countability. Counting strangers is like counting words in a foreign language. If someone writes to us in Kickapoo – ‘Ämănutei wĩpani’ or ‘Măgānăguhanu, nezegwize, ähitci ĩna Wĩza‘kä‘ḁ’ – counting the words comes easy. But if somebody writes to us in English – ‘I need you’ or ‘I don’t need you’ or ‘Let’s get revenge on the old buzzard’ – we can get caught up in the meaning and forget to count. Meaning undermines objectivity.
The words that really matter are the words for numbers – one, two, three, four, five – or yan, tan, tether, mether, pip – or hant, tant, tothery, forthery, fant – but see there, how arbitrary words are! Someday we should replace all our words with numerals. Numerals are absolute, and think of their stamina compared with words. Numerals never run out – you just add one more, one more, one more: sheep four, sheep five, sheep six. You don’t have to come up with a new name for every sheep, just a new sheep for every number, and if sheep seven gets squished, another one can take her place. Names aren’t as transposable, and names can sound like children’s songs, like the village of Nobbin and the hill of Nabbingo. Names are also unnecessarily meaningful, like the old Armenian words for the days of the month. They had a day called Tumultuous and one called Hermit and one called Dispersion, and a day called Beginning, which came right before the day called Beginningless. How today could be Beginningless when yesterday was Beginning is a boggling question dispelled by calling the days Sixteen and Seventeen.
Now, we humans have the advantage that our modern culture is principally composed of countable things. Sports and politics and business and social media, with their rankings and followers and prices and indexes and polls and points, help us keep our heads thoroughly in the numbers – unlike you giraffes with your heads in the clouds. We do our best to quantify the clouds, but they and other components of the weather elude us sometimes. Lightning is elusive, incendiary, highfalutin. (Literature used to be like lightning, but now that we have subjected it to Big Data, literature is more like sheep. Never have we burst into flames when we got hit by a sheep.)
Anyhow, if ever we get flummoxed by the weather, we can always turn to our clocks. Clocks are the consummate counters, even better than bankers because they never sleep and especially they never dream. No minute is off-clock. What we know about ourselves, from research articles we’ve read, is that what we find most attractive in a face is symmetry. It was inevitable, then, that we would fall so hard for clocks. We have actually entered into an exclusive relationship with them and can’t imagine being tempted by someone less symmetrical.
To be a great counter, like a clock, one must be on guard against perceiving distinction – but of course where there are no distinctions, none shall be perceived. You animals have your own advantage in that within your species you all have the same faces, like nickels, so you probably don’t even need to worry about sticking to strangers when you count! Your relatives look just like your strangers, and it’s not like you hamsters would be counting hamsters without a hitch but then your dream hamster scurries by, making you lose count. This unfortunately does happen to us sometimes, though not with dream hamsters. The worst is when we’ve been counting people with clocklike consistency but then the granddaughters run by. Granddaughters mess up the metric, and they grapple us to them with their little fingers. This is called the adoration problem and it contaminates the purity of calculation.
The point is to never be snagged by the particular. ‘Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,’ wrote Jeremy Bentham, and this means that everybody is everybody. Everybody says, ‘I’m not everybody,’ but of course everybody is. Just listen to two everybodies arguing about who is everybodier: it is as ridiculous as two twenties arguing over who is twentier.
We feel sorry for those in the adoration business, the adorazzi, the mystics and musicians, muddleheads when it comes to numbers. ‘Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere’ – the Psalmist’s singling out of one day like that is so delusional: there are no deluxe days, just as there are no deluxe hamsters. Every day is every day; every day is precisely the same little square inch as every other day. The Psalms are full of bad math and seemings and vicissitudes. There is nothing like a musical instrument for exacerbating vicissitudes, and in the Psalms you find lyred people, luted people, fluted people, tamborined people, completely abandoned to their vicissitudes, and hare-brained harpist kings longing for someone invisible. (Bad enough to crush on someone visible.) We think of the Psalms – actually the whole Bible – with dismay. Here we are computing on our computers, and there is Miriam getting all carried away on the timbrel. ‘Still playing the timbrel, Miriam?’ – that question really encapsulates our thoughts about old testaments.
The one distinction that is really valuable to make is between Essential and Superfluous. Up to a certain number things are Essential, and over that they are Superfluous. As names go, Superfluous is actually a good one to have on hand. Any offspring beyond two or three you can name Superfluous. Having counted ninety-nine of his sheep into the fold, the sensible shepherd will call the hundredth one Superfluous and turn in for the night. No need to traipse around in the chilly, rainy, brambly dark, searching for a lamb called Superfluous. Counting enables one to distinguish between Sufficient and Surplus, although somehow in India the cows got into the sacred racket, which makes no such distinction. (Indian math has a history of being irrational – India is where they came up with irrational numbers and mathematical infinity.)
When we were two we loved all the cows, and every hamster was our dream hamster. But then we grew into good calculators. Calculation converts the sacredest things into inventory. To milk the milkable, beef the beefable, boot the bootable – to utilize everything we can, offal, tripe, excrement. Not all wines turn out wonderfully but you can still serve the inferior ones after the guests are plastered. Though live koalas are a bit fragile, koala pelts are ‘able to withstand hard usage’. In our next lecture, this Thursday, entitled ‘How to Stay Relevant in the Modern World’, we will elaborate on this exciting principle, so please be sure to bring all your little branchmates, cavemates, warrenmates and puddlemates.
Image © Barry Senft, Cat, 2016, Fountain House Gallery