Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Thought Experiment

From Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: Chapter 9, The Envious Self. This always cracks me up. Personally, my answers would be B, 7:
You are standing by your paper-tube in Englewood reading the headlines. Your neighbor comes out to get his paper. You look at him sympathetically. You know he has been having severe chest pains and is facing coronary bypass surgery. But he is not acting like a cardiac patient this morning. Over he jogs in his sweat pants, all smiles. He has triple good news. His chest ailment turned out to be a hiatal hernia, not serious. He’s got a promotion and is moving to Greenwich, where he can keep his boat in the water rather than on a trailer.
   “Great, Charlie! I’m really happy for you!”
   Are you happy for him?
(a)  Yes. Unrelievedly good news. Surely it is good news all around that Charlie is alive and well and not dead or invalided. Surely, too, it is good for him and not bad for you if he also moves up in the world, buys a house in Greenwich where he can keep a 25-foot sloop moored in the Sound rather than a 12-foot Mayflower on a trailer in a garage in Englewood.
(b)  Putatively good news but — but what? But the trouble is, it is good news for Charlie, but you don’t feel so good.
 (check one)
If your answer is (b), could you specify your dissatisfaction, i.e., do the following thought experiment: which of the following news vis-à-vis Charlie and you at the paper-tube would make you feel better?
(1)  Charlie is dead.
(2)  Charlie has undergone a quadruple coronary bypass and may not make it.
(3)  Charlie does not have heart trouble but did not get his promotion or his house in Greenwich.
(4)  Charlie does not have heart trouble and did get his promotion but can’t afford to move to Greenwich.
(5)  You, too, have received triple good news, so both of you can celebrate.
(6)  You have not received good news, but just after hearing Charlie’s triple good news, you catch sight of a garbage truck out of control and headed straight for Charlie — whose life you save by throwing a body block that knocks him behind a tree. (Why does it make you feel better to save Charlie’s life and thus turn his triple good news into quadruple good fortune?
(7)  You have not received good news, but just after hearing Charlie’s triple good news, an earthquake levels Manhattan. There the two of you stand, gazing bemusedly across the Hudson from Englewood Cliffs.
(check one)
In a word, how much good news about Charlie can you tolerate without compensatory catastrophes, heroic rescues, and such?

A few excellent articles about Percy and his ‘self-help book’ can be found here, here, and also here.

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