The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Planetary Survey No.3: Born to Serve

The Gindoolian Panobligoids, dominant species of the planet Thodd, are known as a modest race, but this is a considerable oversimplification. The fact is that, though the Panobligoids have a highly advanced technological civilisation, incorporating atomic energy, artificial intelligence, and the rudiments of a reliable postal service, they refuse categorically to take the least credit for these achievements – just as they refuse with equal vehemence to accept the slightest responsibility for any act whatever, be it good, bad or indifferent, which they as individuals may happen to commit.

The Panobligoids, according to their native philosophy, never act, but are always acted upon. Should, for example, a brick be thrown through a window, the Panobligoid who perpetrated the act of throwing would be looked upon as merely an involuntary agent of the brick’s desire to be brought into contact with the glass, or of the glass’s desire to be brought into contact with the brick, or of the mutual desire of brick and glass to be brought into contact with one another. One might think that, with only inanimate objects to blame for every instance of vandalism or destruction that occurs, the Panobligoids' strange phenomenology would at least confer upon them the blessing of being able to remain at peace with one another; this is, unfortunately, not the case. The burning question on Thodd at the moment, over which one ten-year holy war has just been completed, while another is fermenting busily on the horizon, is precisely the question of how one can tell, when more than one object is involved, which of the objects is exercising its will upon the passive Panobligoid who obligingly completes the transaction.

Most sentient life forms believe some kind of conscious volition to be the main force underlying their own actions; a similar sort of volition, in the shape of gods or spirits, is often thought to control the lower species, and sometimes also certain naturally occurring inanimate objects, like rocks and rainclouds, which may have some potential for affecting the life of the species. There are even recorded cases of belief in spirits which inhabit artificial objects such as roads, buildings and household appliances. It is not, therefore, their absolute faith in the conscious intelligence of their surroundings, including everything from the largest tree to the tiniest thimble, that makes the Panobligoids unique; rather, their true singularity resides in their absolute disbelief in, and total incomprehension of, the notion that they themselves, the dominant species of the planet, might possibly exercise similar powers of thought and volition.

The race’s single language, Mesomendoptic Gindoolian, offers some revealing insights into the mechanics of the Panobligoid mind. An English sentence like I threw the brick through the window cannot be translated literally into Gindoolian, since the latter language, naturally, lacks an active voice. The nearest one could get might be a paraphrase along the lines of The brick was precipitated through the window by an action of my arm; but this would in fact be a highly misleading and distorted rendering. As will be seen, a statement of that sort in Gindoolian would constitute a controversial and wholly unproveable affirmation of an extremely contentious philosophical position. In order to preserve the neutral connotations of the original, one would have to employ still greater circumlocution and say The brick and the window were brought into contact with consequent fragmentation of the window due to a propulsive action achieved by the brick in co-operation with a movement of my arm.

A simpler statement, such as The brick was precipitated through the window, would imply an unequivocal assertion that one object or the other – in this case the brick – was the true power behind the event. That sentence, consequently, would be in accordance with the Theory of Direct Contact, which maintains that will is exercised to greater effect the nearer the Panobligoid is to the object exercising the will, and that will is exercised to the greatest possible effect if the Panobligoid is actually touching the object. The utterance of such a sentence would be greeted with huge approbation by the natives of Blogistoc, the northernmost continent on Thodd; however, in the southerly continent of Loctibogs, where they subscribe to a different theory, the same sentence could, if uttered in the presence of reliable witnesses or recording equipment, render the speaker liable to summary execution. In Loctibogs the prevalent doctrine is that of Corporeal Supremacy, which considers parts of the anatomy to be separate objects with wills of their own, and which therefore contends that the will of a Panobligoid’s own hand would tend to override the will of an altogether separate entity such as a brick. It would thus be safer to say, while in Loctibogs, The brick was precipitated through the window by the action of my hand, which implies that the hand exercised the strongest will.

The situation is complicated by the presence of a third theoretical position, which holds that the greatest will is exercised by the object on which the transaction ultimately has the greatest effect, which in this case would be neither the Panobligoid nor the brick, but the window; and complicated still further by the presence of factions within each school of thought which indulge in rivalries quite as savage as those which exist between the schools of thought themselves. Between proponents of Direct Contact, controversy rages over what happens when a Panobligoid has a different object in each hand: do the objects exercise equal control over him, with each perhaps taking charge of one half; does the larger object exert more control, or does the extent of domination depend on being in the right or left hand? Corporeal Supremacists bicker with similar fervour over where the lines of demarcation should be drawn on the map of Panobligoid anatomy: does the autonomy of the “hand” end at wrist, elbow or shoulder; and, if the hand is independent from, say, the wrist downwards, what happens when a conflict of interest occurs between the hand and the forearm?

The more one observes of events on Thodd, the more it looks as though the Panobligoids have the worst of both worlds, having on the one hand forsaken all moral responsibility for their actions, and on the other failed entirely to reap any of the benefits which usually arise from such renunciations. Paradoxically though, if there does exist for them, among all their continual agony, conflict and chaos, a single cardinal comfort, then it is a comfort which derives from this same renunciation: the certainty of a purpose in life. The Panobligoids know, in the innermost fibres of their being, that whatever happens, it happens at the wish and behest of something, somewhere, and that this something is presumably gaining a certain satisfaction from the fact that its wishes are being carried out. The provision of this sacred satisfaction, even when the supposed beneficiaries are nothing more than windows, bricks, or vaguely differentiated bodily parts, is the sole purpose, hope and aspiration of every achievement of the Panobligoid civilisation and the Panobligoid individual.