Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In recent years, I have made a point of writing a special blog post the week of July 1, in observance of the anniversary of my departure from the US. Although his blog has been dormant since Covid-19 sent me to New Zealand, this week I must insist on tradition. Sure, I never thought that the fifth anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations would find me trapped behind closed borders. But is that any excuse to let standards slide?
It was only last week when Maria Konnikova’s excellent new book, The Biggest Bluff, came out. I had been looking forward to it since I heard that she was working on it as long as two years ago. The book follows the author, already a respected science writer and a psychology PhD, as she learns to play to poker as a way of studying decision-making in the face of uncertainty. Within a year, she had studied the game so well as to go from total novice to tournament champion, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
In the book’s final pages, underscoring the inescapable nature of chance or “variance,” Konnikova recounts a fable all too familiar to me. Here is her version:
A farmer loses his prize horse. His neighbor comes over to commiserate about the misfortune, but the farmer just shrugs: who knows if it is a misfortune or not. The next day, the horse returns. With it are twelve more wild horses. The neighbor congratulates the farmer on this excellent news, but the farmer just shrugs. Soon, the farmer’s son falls off one of the feral horses as he’s training it. He breaks a leg. The neighbor expresses his condolences. The farmer just shrugs. Who knows. The country declares war and the army comes to the village, to conscript all able-bodied young men. The farmer’s son is passed over because of his leg. How wonderful, the neighbor says. And again the farmer shrugs. Perhaps.
She describes the tale as of Buddhist origin. In the 2007 film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin also included a version of this story, also ascribing it to Buddhist tradition. But in fact it’s not.
It’s an oft-repeated Chinese proverb: “A man loses his horses, and yet who is to say whether it is benefit or bane?” Though it has undergone permutations through centuries of retelling, the fable that the proverb refers to originates in Huai Nan Zi, a text completed by 139 B.C., in the chapter called “Aphorisms for Life in the Mortal Realm.” The original story, as I translate it, goes like this:
There is a man who lives near the fortress [Great Wall, so frontier] who has knowledge of fortune-telling. One day his horses run away into the land of the Huns. People come to give their condolences. But the man says, “Who is to say it’s not good fortune?” A few months later, his horses return with a great many tall and strong Hunnish horses. People come to congratulate him. But the man says, “Who is to say it’s not bad fortune?” As his household is now wealthy with good horses, his son comes to love riding. One day the son falls from a horse and breaks his thigh. People come to give their condolences. The father says, “Who is to say it’s not good fortune?” A year later, the Huns launch a massive invasion across the border. All able-bodied young men who live near the fortress have to pick up a bow and join the army. Out of every ten men, nine die. But his son is exempt because he is a cripple. Father and son both survive the war. Thus you see that in good luck lies disaster, and disaster transmutes into good luck. The mysteries of fate are beyond human comprehension.
Or, as modern psychologists like Konnikova would say, the human mind struggles with chance and probability, with randomness. It’s why we’re desperate to impose order on the chaotic world around us even through magical thinking such as astrology and other superstitions.
Honestly, until I read it again in Konnikova’s book, I never thought to look up the original version of the fable. It’s more interesting and layered than I realized.
Unlike in Konnikova’s version, which is close to the version I remembered, the important thing about the new horses is not that they are feral but that they come from the land of the Huns. Ancient Chinese horses were short and stocky, of the breed now called Przewalski’s horse. Horses from Inner Asia were much bigger, providing the Huns who rode them with a distinct military advantage over the Chinese. For this reason, Central Asian horses were an extremely valuable commodity.
Indeed, it is important to the story that the man lives near the frontier: it is why he comes into possession of foreign horses, and it is why his neighbors are the first called upon to fight. And the liminal setting hints ever so tantalizingly at a distant foreign origin for one of the Chinese language’s best known proverbs.
But it’s not a Buddhist story. Huai Nan Zi was written by committee. Prince Huai Nan, a grandson of the emperor, entertained many scholars in his palace. As a group, he and his intellectual friends wrote Huai Nan Zi, gathering together all of their thoughts on politics, philosophy, science, and many other topics. On major points, the book usually adopts Daoist principles. And scholarly consensus is that Buddhism had not yet spread to China at the time of the book’s composition. Therefore, whatever eclectic sources the authors of Huai Nan Zi might have relied on, it is essentially impossible that any of them traced to Buddhism.
I wonder, though, whether any of them could be traced to Judaism.
Okay, I have no evidence for this. But in thinking of the fable from Huai Nan Zi, I inevitably thought again about the biblical story of Job, a tale worth rereading for our time of pandemic if there ever is such a time.
You know the story: Job, or Iyov in Aramaic, is a righteous man, and for his goodness God has rewarded him with a loving family as well as substantial wealth. But then Satan (Hebrew for “adversary” or “accuser,” as the pre-fall archangel) comes to God and suggests that Job is only good because God has given him a comfortable life. God and Satan agree on a divine wager: Let Satan take away all of Job’s blessings, and they’ll see whether the righteous man still worships God.
Degree by degree, Satan torments the good man. He destroys his property. He kills his children. He gives him loathsome diseases. After each misfortune, Job’s neighbors come to him to suggest that Job must have done wrong to deserve divine punishment. But again and again Job remains faithful to God, until finally he can’t take it anymore, and he cries out against the Lord. “My complaint is bitter,” he says. (Job 23:2.) Why should a good man suffer such terrible misfortunes?
Out of the whirlwind, God answers with a majestic non-answer, in fact a series of unanswerable questions:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . .
At least on one level, God’s answer is entirely unsatisfying. His questions boil down to saying, “Shut up, I’m God.” He completely ignores the crux of Job’s complaint. And yet Job is apparently satisfied and repents: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
I know of no evidence that the ancient Hebrew story might have traveled eastward from the Middle East to reach the ear of someone at Prince Huai Nan’s court, though similarities like the nosy neighbors strike me as noteworthy. Regardless, we ought to read the two stories alongside each other as two ancient cultures’ considerations of the question of chance and fate.
The authors of Huai Nan Zi, coming from a fundamentally atheistic mindset, did not attribute the vicissitudes of fate to any god but seemed to understand, as modern science does, that randomness is simply a fact of life. Just as cards at the poker table are dealt out randomly, giving one player a great hand and another absolutely nothing, so life isn’t just or unjust; it simply is. The Daoist who understands the Way understands that there is nothing to do except to embrace life as it is.
The author of Job, coming from a monotheistic worldview, approached the question from the moral perspective of theodicy. If God is both all good and almighty, then why does He let bad things happen to good people? Most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible argues that misfortune is always divine retribution for one sin or another. Job demolishes this view. Bad things happen to good people all the time because God doesn’t care where you have been naughty or nice. That’s Santa Claus, and only children expect Santa Claus. God’s actions then become just like blind chance, like the randomness that scientists speak of, which the human mind has so much trouble accepting.
Ecclesiastes, that other great “wisdom book” of the Bible, phrases it this way: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”
So, in the end, Job admits that he has spoken of something that he cannot understand. And in the end Huai Nan Zi enjoins us to accept that the mystery of fate, of randomness, surpasses human comprehension.
The annus horribilis that is 2020 sure feels like a year surpassing comprehension. Just as Satan afflicts Job’s body with loathsome disease, so now a global pandemic afflicts us all in one way or another.
Some have taken the view expressed in much of the rest of the Bible, that Covid must be some kind of retribution for humanity’s sins. Instead of Yahweh, the God in this scenario seems to be nature or the earth, and our sins seem to be our poor stewardship of the environment.
Some have tried to count the blessings in disguise, such as the reductions in pollution. “Nature is healing!” many said upon hearing about animals reclaiming spaces previously ceded to humans, though some of that news turned out to be fake.
But, as experts have pointed out, it was always only a matter of time before a pandemic like this struck. The last time it happened was the Spanish Flu just over a century ago, but it was bound to happen again sooner or later, just as a poker player is bound sooner or later to get a royal flush, if she plays for long enough. Indeed, if she plays for long enough, then she is bound to get another royal flush. So we were always bound to come upon another pandemic of a magnitude similar to the Spanish Flu.
Why now? Why us? No reason. It could have happened ten years ago, or not have happened for another hundred.
Now millions are sick and hundreds of thousands are dead. And even those of us lucky enough to stay healthy, to have our families stay healthy, find our lives disrupted. I find myself, on the fifth anniversary of the start of my travels, back under my parents’ roof.
What does any of it mean? Nothing. The mysteries of fate are beyond human comprehension.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."