Monday, November 22, 2010

Truth to Power and Law of the Jungle

One of my favorite stories in Joyce's The Dubliners is the funny (and ultimately heartbreaking) Counterparts. It's always remained to my mind the perfect illustration of one of society's most absurd constructs: the situation in which someone with much less physical or mental power than another person can control the stronger person. This doesn't happen in nature, but in government, corporations, and even the art world it's quite common.

Here's a snippet of Joyce's story in which Farrington (a man "tall and of great bulk") is having a very bad work day. His boss Mr. Alleyne ("a little man wearing gold-rimmed glasses on a cleanshaven face") could not be less pleased and summons Mr. Farrington to his office so that he will know it in no uncertain terms:
“Farrington? What is the meaning of this? Why have I always to complain of you? May I ask you why you haven’t made a copy of that contract between Bodley and Kirwan? I told you it must be ready by four o’clock.”

“But Mr. Shelley said, sir ——”

“Mr. Shelley said, sir .... Kindly attend to what I say and not to what Mr. Shelley says, sir. You have always some excuse or another for shirking work. Let me tell you that if the contract is not copied before this evening I’ll lay the matter before Mr. Crosbie.... Do you hear me now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you hear me now?... Ay and another little matter! I might as well be talking to the wall as talking to you. Understand once for all that you get a half an hour for your lunch and not an hour and a half. How many courses do you want, I’d like to know.... Do you mind me now?”
You get the dynamic. But then, a bit later in the story, something wondrous happens. Wondrous in that it doesn't occur more often:
Mr. Alleyne and Miss Delacour were standing outside the counter and all the clerks had turn round in anticipation of something. The man [Farrington] got up from his desk. Mr. Alleyne began a tirade of abuse, saying that two letters were missing. The man answered that he knew nothing about them, that he had made a faithful copy. The tirade continued: it was so bitter and violent that the man could hardly restrain his fist from descending upon the head of the manikin before him:

“I know nothing about any other two letters,” he said stupidly.

“You — know — nothing. Of course you know nothing,” said Mr. Alleyne. “Tell me,” he added, glancing first for approval to the lady beside him, “do you take me for a fool? Do you think me an utter fool?”

The man glanced from the lady’s face to the little egg-shaped head and back again; and, almost before he was aware of it, his tongue had found a felicitous moment:

“I don’t think, sir,” he said, “that that’s a fair question to put to me.”

There was a pause in the very breathing of the clerks. Everyone was astounded (the author of the witticism no less than his neighbours) and Miss Delacour, who was a stout amiable person, began to smile broadly. Mr. Alleyne flushed to the hue of a wild rose and his mouth twitched with a dwarf s passion. He shook his fist in the man’s face till it seemed to vibrate like the knob of some electric machine....
Joyce has a much bigger point to make with this story than the one I'm extracting from it (read the whole thing...it's so perfect and devastating), but it occurred to me when I saw this commercial the other day...



...that we continually operate in this unnatural way. You'd never see lions or gorillas let a smaller or less powerful member of their clan them push them around. There's a law in the jungle that says the most powerful rule.

And then I saw this new piece by William Powhida. It's a work that would make drunken sailors on shore leave blush (well, if they were familiar with the workings of the art world), and like most rants, it's not entirely balanced, but it does illustrate the same law of the jungle at work that Farrington's inadvertent truth to power quip did. That is, that those with the mental or physical power could exert it if they chose to and that those without the power to withstand or combat it should never let themselves forget it.

Of course there can be consequences within our societal structures. Farrington knew he'd pay dearly for his jibe, probably for as long as he worked there. But boy, oh boy, did he enjoy recounting it to his friends. And it must have felt very good indeed to exercise his real power just that once.

What this all may mean for your personal art careers, I'll leave up to you all to consider....

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Gam said...

funny,

I just walked away form a paying situation where the lunacy went too far for too long - maybe I should have laid the bare the assumptions grounding the logic of their lunacy, but it wasn't worth it.

it isn't the strongest that survive, but the best fit that thrives. Don't fit in their toilet? - walk away.

thanks for the readable link Ed! Strange how anothers' irritation can put ones own into a perspective
(hope i haven't insulted you somewhere along the way)

11/22/2010 10:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

".....and even the art world it's quite common."
EVEN! Come on Edward, don't seem so surprised.
It's the current norm in the art world. And it's been happening for awhile in everything else in Corporatist USA. The big swallow the small whether in media, or consumer products, or the service industry. The little guy doesn't stand a chance these days.

11/22/2010 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

...unless the little guy taps his/her own physical (but preferably intellectual) power boldly, as Powhida does...as Farrington did...as the commercial's bully does

just saying

11/22/2010 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I agree.

11/22/2010 01:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Jedd Haas said...

I've had the opportunity to deliver a couple such "taps" to certain notable politicians, in public. It's very enjoyable and I recommend that everyone endeavor to seek the gratification such encounters bring.

Great story, by the way.

11/22/2010 09:42:00 PM  
Anonymous kate said...

... and even if it doesn't change anything, you have done what you needed to do.

11/24/2010 09:00:00 AM  

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