Sunday, August 27, 2006

Learning the Art of Rule in Nepal

I take my seat in a restaurant. The waiter hands me the menu with both his hands-both hands when only one is needed-showing he will deliver his whole self into my service, then standing further back from the table than necessary to emphasize that he hardly dares to come close to one so glorious as I. Like a palace guard, he honors my presumed desire for undisturbed concentration while I make the crucial decision upon which the whole activity of the restaurant will depend, and, should I wish to squander my time by daydreaming or lighting a cigarette, it is his delight to serve me, ready to leap forward with a lighter, then back to his station, for it is my pleasure; it is the pleasure of the august, after all, that is the true purpose of the restaurant, which each of its servants single-mindedly serves. He extends his arms further than necessary, to show that I should not have to make the slightest effort to receive service, for the essence of service is that its receipt be effortless. Without a gesture I have become his master; he has offered himself for any use legal in a restaurant, but he does not wish to allude to this possible limitation of his for it limits my power over him, and he wishes me to feel that my power, in his presence, has become limitless. As I look at the menu he stands two feet from the table at a forty-five degree angle behind my right side ready to bend forward attentively should I start to speak in too low a voice, ready to act as if Aladdin had called him. He is teaching me how to act like Alladin, the man who seems to himself to have fallen into great fortune, but has really been an unacknowledged king all along, and who, so long as he keeps this lamp, this genie, will know that all of his previous life has been a mistake. I lightly rub the menu.

From my waiter's invitation to practice the art of rule, Machiavelli could have learned the arts of the Medici, the ones he so graciously recorded for Lorenzo to prove he understood, that Lorenzo might offer him a position as a secretary. "I am your waiter and yours alone. I offer you perfect service and protect you from all interference with your will. Whatever can be had here can be had through me. Would you like us to bake that dog now passing by the window? He can be ready for your second course. Tell me if any of our customers speaks too loudly for your taste. We will notify him. If the does not respond satisfactorily, when it is time for his dessert, we can consider arsenic." He could say this, but he need not. I could answer, "I know of a diuretic that turns urine bright blue. It is brown and tasteless and can be put in chocolate, butterscotch, or the brown sugar used in flan sauce." I know he knows I know he would be reluctant to negotiate such offers, for they could lower the tone of the establishment, but my acceptance of the power he offers me is to so fill my imagination that I should not think there is any obstacle to my will. Machiavelli could write The Prince because the waiter is a maker of princes, and Machiavelli had been made a prince, late in life, over and over in restaurants. Imagination is empathic: in contemplating our acceptance, we understand the offerer. What more did Machiavelli do than to offer himself in turn to Lorenzo as the waiter had offered himself? "See, Lorenzo, here is your menu, the menu you have always loved. We can make all of these dishes especially for you. Having so many decisions to make, we know it is too much to demand of you to do any more than to point your finger or utter the name."

This is how the art of rule is taught, by the willing partner, as dancing and love-making are taught, not by the esteemed, wise, and elderly advisor,
but by the waiter, the servant, the wife, the concubine. For the very reason that Machiavelli could learn what he needed merely by freeing his imagination in the presence of a waiter, Lorenzo had no need to accept his application. For Lorenzo had learned when yet in the nursery all that Machiavelli had to teach; Lorenzo was taught by the wetnurse, who feared for her life if he cried, by the butlers, the coachmen, the maids, the manservants: he was taught what every king, but no commoner, knows before he can write his name. This was Machiavelli's genius, that he could figure out by the age of forty what Lorenzo knew when he was five. For waiting is a secret fully revealed only to the one waited upon, as a courtesan, though everyone can see she is a courtesan, and imagine they know what that means, teaches her secrets only to the men who win her assent. Love itself, the art of equality, is taught by lovers to each other, but power is taught by the submissive, who pass down the secrets of rule from the powerful, who have taught them. Just as callous men believe submissive women have given them in bed that which distinguishes them from boys, their manly prerogative to make decisions for others, though they have no more insight or care than they had as boys, so the waiter offers me my will and the servant gives the king his crown. It is fear and closure that make the asymmetry: the waiter learns to live in fear because he believes he has no alternative, and, having adapted himself to fear, learns to create the climate of fearlessness in his partner. It is because of this that kings were justified in calling themselves lions. This was what Machiavelli misunderstood: he was writing to Lorenzo, and Lorenzo calculated, but had no fear, so what use could he have for the book? Machiavelli thought himself, and we think him, an intelligent man because he had understood Lorenzo's secrets, but why should that have impressed Lorenzo? Lorenzo had always known his secrets, and did not even need to regard them as truly secret, for they'd always been known to his servants, who had taught them to him, having learned them from his father. We think Lorenzo untutored, but that is only because we do not understand his education; we do not understand education itself, most our hardest work as students is complete by the age of two and a half, when we have finally guided most of our neurons into position, to make ourselves as ready for birth as other mammals are when they pass through the birth canal. We forget the previous time, our own truest studenthood not being having been flattering to us, not containing the images of competence and power we wish to remember of ourselves. To us, the education of the Prince must be conveyed in words, but that is only because we do not attend to our waiters, as Machiavelli finally learned to, as he sat reading history in restaurants.

See: Alladin learned to be Alladin from his genie, the dancing partner of his will, who told him what he could do. Think of Crown Prince Dependra, who knew almost from birth what Alladin learned. What was to stop him, when Birendra, his father, so foolishly tried to forbid him to use a right any computer programmer in the city could assert against his parents, the mere
right to marry the bride he'd chosen himself, from killing his entire family and himself on the basis of a larger right he'd been offered in infancy by the family servants, at his parents' command-the Divine Right of Kings? The Divine Right of Kings is learned while the neurons are still seeking their destinations, at the time when they can still choose to form direct passages from desire to the index finger that will press the trigger, to the eye that will look down the gunsight.

It has all passed now: no one has the true education of monarchs anymore: it has all been watered down, it's all in need of refresher courses. Dependra was the last "man" in the moral lineage of Lorenzo; Elizabeth, Carl Gustaf
of Sweden, Margrethe of Denmark, preserved for sentiment, have had to grow
up. News of monarchy's covert survivals still appears from time to time, for
instance, in the Hitlerian rages of Once-Imaginary-Prince Alexander Haig,
who thought himself next in line for Reagan's throne, but it is no longer
the ever-ready threat that formed the bass drone of kingship-the threat that
has now been efficiently mechanized in nuclear weapons and removed from the Kingly Presence, which could only reap personal and relatively local vengeance. Kingship was the perfect preservative for the will of infants: the court dwarves were its standard bearers, living out their lives so the king could mock his own heart. Witness the rage of a pampered four-year-old who believes his father has punished him unjustly: he wills his tyrant to just disappear, then discovers he has no genie, and must reconcile himself to that the next day. The education of kings was training in the
availability and use of genies, to keep that vivid will alive. That was the
peculiar skill monarchs had. Imagine Lorenzo laughing as he read The Prince:
"And the man imagines I owe him something for pretending to give me what I've always had?" Dependra and Lorenzo: these were the kind of people who ruled nearly all our family's ancestors for well over a thousand years, some of us for three, four, five thousand. We all learned to serve them, those infants in ermines. No wonder it took us so long to throw them off: they were all mass murderers with the military and judiciary at their service. No wonder we have enshrined as our humble family heirlooms so many of the habits of servility. No wonder so few of us have dared to learn to think for ourselves.

The yogi spends decades to create the form of consciousness a wakeful fetus in a womb with a view would have. His real struggle is against the effects of the myriad experiences of degradation we all undergo in normal life. How could monarchs understand that the rediscovery of childhood is life's greatest treasure when they had never lost their own? The bulk of the political history of the world is the story of what we have suffered so that
a few people could treat the world as their own mothers' wombs. Rather than
contemplating the perception that underlies our accommodation to mutual
disrespect, monarchs discovered another method to gain the respect every
fetus deserves, elegant in its mathematical simplicity. One can rapidly
increase the ratio between those who respect one and those who do not by
suddenly exhibiting a marked decrease in the latter. This makes the
remaining members of the latter group conceal their disrespect behind a show
of the greatest esteem, letting their anarchic or communal disrespect wither
away as the State grows in the flourishing person of the Monarch. The
assembled subjects then glance around and discover the unanimity of the
appearance of respect, to the great pleasure of the monarch in his womb with
a view, leaving only philosophers to puzzle, in their distracted yogic way,
over the relationship between appearance and reality.

And now, in this restaurant, I can turn to this waiter and ask, "Did you
teach Dependra too?" And he would think I'm odd because I would be showing
the wrong attitude toward my teacher. I can ask him to sit down and talk to
me, but he would not be so rude as to accept. His employers would never
allow it, for they believe they know his job even better than he does,
having been taught it by people far more powerful than themselves. I can ask
him to read with me Bhupi Sherchan's poem, "To the Memory of the Martyrs,"
but he will not at first see what it has to do with the tragedy in the
Palace, or with him, or with me. "A very nice poem, Sir," he will say, "it
has a pleasing sound."

The distinction between monarchy and tyranny Aristotle and Russell made out,
the tyrant being newly born of the people and wanting money, the monarch
carrying tradition and wanting esteem, is not easily applied to Nepal. From
1846 to 1951, the Rana family bore Nepal's peculiar tyrannical "tradition,"
not born of the people, and demanding both money and esteem, which it
delivered into the hands of the royal Shah family, carrying a freshly
composed "tradition," part Nepali, part British, part Indian. The Democracy
Movement of the 1940's, thought, on an unhistorical model of Britain, that
monarchy could, in a friendly way, divest itself of power in favor of
democracy. Those dozen members of the royal family were the real bearers of
the Rana tradition in Nepal, trying to look like a constitutional monarchy
for the sake of Commonwealth funding, but harboring a conviction of divine
right more like Elizabeth I's than Elizabeth II's, though Hindu. Now that
they are gone, it has become a feat of imagination to understand what the
Democracy Movement actually was. In the 1950's the King had one man killed
inch by inch, starting with his fingers and toes, searing the stump of each
new amputation with a searing iron to staunch the blood and let him live for
the next one. That was what kingship was always made of: it was the
institutionalized capacity for the absolute liberation of the angry
imagination of infants. As Russell said, all monarchies contain only one
true patriot: the monarch himself. That is what Acton was thinking on when
he wrote, "All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The world was attending to other things when Nepal went through its greatest tragedies, though they had the same intensity, if not the dimensions, of the works of Hitler and Pol Pot. It is hard to imagine now a courage as great as
Bhupi Sherchan's was when he published his poem, for he knew it would single
him out for the rest of his life for the king's displeasure, a displeasure
the king was free to act upon whenever he happened to feel the whim to turn
the page of a book. Even to imagine the poem, let alone put it on paper,
required a courage we believe we do not need to call upon, to find out
whether it is there. He became a man offering himself for martyrdom for the
rest of his life, in order that his friends not be forgotten, though few had
even noticed either their existence or their loss. If there is supposed to
be a difference between moral and physical courage, reflect that what we
sometimes blandly call moral courage requires an entire lifetime of
awareness of having intentionally put oneself in perpetual physical
jeopardy. By speaking a few words one can knowingly choose to embark on the
life of a volunteer near the front lines knowing the act itself destroys the
possibility of retirement. What a force of passion it takes to speak those

What insensitivity can drive a literary critic to declare that "aesthetic
quality" is entirely distinct from "political content"? It declares the very
attitude the waiter has: "A very nice poem, Sir, it has a pleasing sound."
The waiter makes his remark because he has conceived for himself the goal of
being the perfect servant, and so fails to perceive his own role in creating
kings and his own potential to share in the aspirations all around him. The
critic failure is exactly the same: he has set for himself the goal of
becoming a servant of "educated and refined taste" that is, the taste of his
sedate social and intellectual superiors, and so fails to perceive his role
in creating sedation, and his own potential for sharing the hopes and dreams
of humanity. This, we are to suppose, is more civilized than allowing
oneself to feel the force of the poet's aspirations. That is another quiet
murder, an aestheticized murder of hearts and minds, akin to the
strangulations in closets the Ranas excelled in. Formalist critics would
have us do with poetry what the Ranas did with bodies: seal them into the
stucco walls of their mansions.

Poetry is the speech of living people about the most important experiences
of their real lives. That, to understand and articulate one's actual
experiencing, imagination and rhetoric may be helpful, that one's working
through of experience may be aided by placing it in an imagined or
historical context, that one works over one's experience with whatever
appears most relevant to revealing its core of personal meaning, that its
meaning may be shared by large numbers of people, and so some aspect of it
might be best expressed in a rhetorical or group form: all of that is
secondary. We all have political experience. We should. We are political
creatures: we live our lives with other people, in arrangements made with
them. If we fail to have political experience, we are what the Athenians
called "idiots." Bhupi Sherchan could not afford to be that, for poets must
be humans; but upscale waiters and formalist critics, conspiring with
prosaic madness, seek to transform themselves into idiots to please their
monarchs, real or imaginary.

But it is easier to persuade the waiter to converse than the critic. The waiter is more realistic. The waiter deals with people with real monarchical pretensions, whereas the critic's monarch is concealed in the critic's own imagination, where the critic knows he conducts continuous secret surveillance. The waiter can sometimes realize he is not being overheard.