Problems & Adventures

Stengers writes that an adventure can only begin in response to a problem. Thus the old father's perverse decision to set his sons a problem by disposing of his property 1/2, 1/4 & 1/6. The problem being that when you feed three sons, eleven camels & those particular fractions into your problem-solving machine you do not get a solution, but rather an "adventure." Presumably, one is supposed, when confronted with a problem in this way, to go along with the adventure, as opposed to giving the machine a whack with a hammer. To do this requires a certain kind of humility that is shown admirably by the boys in the parable. Instead of escalating from giving the machine a whack to whacking each other, they seek ot the village elder. In seeking out the elder they recognize the fundamentally social nature of their problem. It cannot be solved alone, or even within the family; instead the sons must resort to the wisdom of their community (embodied in the figure of the elder) in order to sustain their adventure long enough to solve their problem. Of course, this is not a one-off proposition, but an ongoing prescription for leading an adventurous life. Still, the boys were lucky, too. They had a community to whose wisdom they could appeal; they had a problem to which the "necessary fiction" of the twelfth camel could be applied; & they were themselves humble enough to seek the community's help in the first place. At no point along the way is the hearer of the parable asked to take anything on faith; instead, he/she is merely asked to look at the "cash value" of various possible solutions, such as killing & eating one of the camels. Not very many of these alternatives are addressed in the parable, but they are implied. It is further implied that none of them would have the value of the elder's fiction--they would not have been adventures. Looked at in this way, an adventurous solution to a problem may be preferable to a non-adventurous one even if it lies, i.e., tells a lie by creating a necessary fiction such as the boys owning a twelfth camel, or the existence of God. (Spinoza's god rather than Descartes'.) The elder is a pragmatist.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Problems & Adventures”

  1. But in the parable the twelfth camel is only a place holder. One the problem of the inheritance is solved it can be given back to the elder. In what sense did the brothers ever actually own the twelfth camel? I’m not saying they didn’t, but how would you characterize that “necessary” state of things?

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