Departments

Losers

What makes a loser? There is nothing special about him. Being dull, awkward, foolish, and feckless only makes him unlucky, and being unlucky is not enough to make a loser. What makes him a loser is not that he loses, but that he does not know why he loses.

Losers have always been with us, since Thersites at least, but of course they are rare in hierarchical societies, where everyone is born with a part to play, where every kind of failure is keyed by coordinates of folly and vice. Being a loser is idiopathic, because losers are inconsequential; they do not even have anyone to let down.

He may have abilities, even remarkable ones, but he spoils them. He stops too soon, or he goes too far, and all his good intentions, all his hard work, come to nothing. Worse, just by being the one who has them, he makes his own abilities ridiculous. For his skills, we call him a geek; for his wealth, we call him vulgar; for his commitments, we call him pretentious. He is not a loser because he never wins; he is a loser because even when he wins, he loses.

What makes him a loser are not his mistakes but how he doubles them. Defying logic, he spans the extremes without ever touching the center, impaling himself on both horns of every dilemma, robbing Scylla to pay Charybdis.

He is the one who has nothing to say, but never gets to the point; the one who can’t take a hint, and can’t take a joke; the one who never learns, and the one who never gets over it; the one who can’t talk around girls, and babbles around women; the one who can’t express himself, and the one who gives everything away; the one who never takes a chance until he throws everything away.

In short the loser is a bad actor playing himself. Nothing feels real to him unless he is playing to the balcony. In the beginning, he tries too hard; and every time someone leaves, he tries a little harder. In the end the seats are empty and there he is, alone on the stage, the singularity where tragedy and comedy meet: the clown who does not know he is a clown.

The Traveler

“You haven’t gone yet? You should go. It’s the right time of year, too. It’s wonderful with all that space, and those views, and not a tourist in sight. I wish everybody could go.

“What? What did I…? Oh. That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? Like ‘nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.’ But that really is how it goes. Whenever we find something that’s really a jewel, people just descend on it until they suffocate it. I can’t even go to Venice anymore. I swear it’s sinking out of embarrassment.

“If we were smart, really smart, we wouldn’t blab about things like that. We’d organize a guild or a secret society. We’d have apprenticeships and an initiation. Seven years of studying languages, and etiquette, and survival skills to become an Honorable Traveler with the right to visit. Plus another ten years of study before you get to take a camera.

“Instead, we love it so much we have to tell somebody about it. And they have to tell somebody and we all love it to death.

“Maybe that’s too harsh. I don’t want to seem elitist. The fact is I pity the tourists even more than I pity the places they ruin. They have no way out. They cross oceans and continents but they pack their boredom, and ignorance, and petulance.

“I don’t know why they bother, unless it’s because they still have that instinct that tells them growing up means leaving home. But no matter how far they go, they drag home along behind. It’s not even travel; it’s just a change of venue.”

Pythagoras

Notes repeat themselves, higher or lower, at the interval we now call an octave. Double or halve the speed at which a string vibrates and the sound, in some sense which is as convincing as it is gratuitous, remains the same. And between notes in simple ratios, most of all the interval we call the fifth, there is a sweetness sweeter and more dizzying than wine.

Between the octave and the fifth, the world almost seems made for us. This appearance is deceiving. The world is not just unfair, but rigged. Chances are you know what it is to pick up part A, and part B, never having doubted they went together, only to find that they don't quite fit. The world is like that. Between the octave and the fifth there is a small but shattering discrepancy we call the Pythagorean comma.

The comma of Pythagoras is as bad as the flaming sword. It means that music, even music, must always be compromised, whether by a diet of a few safe notes, or an intricate microtonal dissection of the octave, or a distortion of the fifth.

This distortion (the Western approach) goes by the name of temperament. Since the Middle Ages the West has known and used several exquisite systems of temperament for particular purposes, but in the last century they gave way to a single system brutal in its simplicity. Equal temperament deals with the Pythagorean comma the way the senators dealt with Romulus, when they caught him in a sudden fog, hacked him to pieces and, walking away with the pieces hidden under their togas, called it apotheosis.

(Are the jitters of the West, its frantic days and restless nights, the symptoms of our addiction to this uneasy music, the Pythagorean comma working its way deeper and deeper under our skins?)

Of all things with value, music is the purest, the most abstract. If even music must compromise, what hope is there for anything else? None at all; but do not take it too hard. Consider poor Pythagoras, twice betrayed, once by music, once by math. Traumatic as Gödel, Turing, Russell, and Tarski were for us, how much worse was it for him, the philosopher who thought number was truth and music was beauty, only to find that numbers could be irrational and music sheltered wolves.

The last century was not, as it boasted, the moment when thought ran up against the limits of certainty and perfectibility. From the very beginning, the whole arc from faith to doubt, from certainty to anxiety, has always been with us in Pythagoras and his comma.