"The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd." ~ Walter Lippmann
If You Love Something...
Exclusive to STR
'set it free. If it doesn't come back, hunt it down and kill it.
(An inquiry into the nature of ownership.)
I bought a book at the thrift shop the other day. A thrift shop run by a group of women calling themselves "The Assistance League." The book is Whiteman, a novel by Tony D'Sousa, 2006. I paid for it, put it in my bag and took it home. It was a hardback, first edition, first printing. I paid two bucks for it. The flap says '$22.00, more in Canada .' The dust jacket is a beautiful design in reds, yellows and whites with a painting by Ouattara Watts.
It's a thoughtful meditative story of a young man gone to Africa on some form of do-gooder mission. He ends up in a very primitive rural village in the Ivory Coast region. He is as foreign to his village hosts as they to him. I'm about halfway through it and am enjoying it immensely. I recommend it.
My story here, however, is different. On the first page of that book, that blank sheet of paper before any of the 'book' begins, is a carefully written note: Read, Enjoy, and Pass Along! Please leave in a public place for someone else to pick up. And don't forget to write down where you are from! 1. Dinosaur , CO (no other entries as of yet)
In the book we have a clash of many cultures. One clash is that between the tribe our narrator lives with, a tribe who has a permanent village settlement, around which they clear small fields and grow various foodstuffs. Camped nearby is a migratory tribe who tend a herd of cattle and live by selling and consuming the milk. The two tribes interact but each regards the other with disdain. The landed tribe is structured and uses some punishment as a means of seeking compliance with its norms. The migratory tribe appears more relaxed and tends its herd with gentle suggestion and care rather than with whips and sticks. Once the lush grass upon which the cattle feed is gone, the migratory tribe will up and move along to another area, setting up camp there.
All of this action is occurring against the distant murmur and sometimes roar of the competing conquerors in the form of the French and English, the Christians and the Muslims--somewhat along the lines of how birds and fish live within the constant larger forces of tides and storms that lash the coast.
And, speaking of the coast, another book I read just last week is similar in subtext. Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King, is the true documentary of an American merchant vessel which crashed aground on the West African coast in the very early 1800s. The ship was lost on the rocks but all hands made it safely to shore along with much salvage from the ship in the way of silver, food, clothing and such. Within a matter of days at most, a nomadic tribe of Arabs comes upon the shipwrecked sailors, proceeds to commandeer all of the spoils and then enslave the men. Shortly thereafter, this tribe encounters another and there is a great deal of trading of spoils and slaves and so the men are split and separated. This same scenario occurs again and again over the next few weeks with other groups. Life among these nomadic Arabs is marginal at the very best, with the white merchant slaves getting the dregs of what meager food and water the desert may occasionally grudgingly give up. The men waste away to mere skeletons hanging on very tenuously to life. It appears the Arabs were more adapted to this life and could go for days without food and water and still be able to trudge across the desert, where the white men would simply collapse from exhaustion. The Arabs appeared to be totally without empathy. They may have thought that these slaves of theirs were simply seeking to avoid the harsh life of the desert. In one instance it was revealed that the Arabs apparently did not understand the concept of fainting and beat an unconscious man unmercifully, trying to get him to get up and walk. Whatever the thinking, in many instances the slaves were beaten and left to die alone when they could not negotiate the searing sun, freezing nights, and dearth of water and food.
Yet at other times, there seemed to be a sense of human compassion between slave and master that defied understanding. They were property and yet they were also companions and comrades depending upon... well, it was impossible for the white slaves to grasp what the reasoning was.
There were certain customary laws among these nomadic desert-dwelling tribes. One of these was the idea that if there was food and/or water, it was available and to be shared freely with all and sundry. For example, if one tribe, wandering across the desolation of the dry sands, should encounter an encampment of another group, the encamped group would proceed to bring forth food and drink for the new arrivals and share without limit, even if the amount of stores was insufficient to properly feed the first group. This appeared to be unquestioned. There did not seem to be any sense of property rights in 'first possession.' In fact, it was as if there was the antithesis of property rights ' the obligation to share, regardless of the consequences. The exception was where the slaves were concerned. Being slaves, they didn't count as humans, I guess, and so while all others were feasting or at least quenching their thirsts, often the slaves were left with nothing, even when they might have been on death's door for lack of food or water. In these instances, it was interesting to observe the inconsistent manner in which these human properties were treated. In some situations, they were brought into the circle and provided with a bountiful repast, at other times completely ignored and left writhing in wretched misery. There seemed no consistency, no given concept of human mutuality that could be discerned.
It seems to me there is more of an inclination to share with others when there is little to share, and more of an inclination to behave niggardly when life is easy, sure and flush.
Another interesting cultural norm among these nomadic Arabs appears to be the idea of the defining conditions of ownership of property. It appears that the notion of property was fairly clear and standard (by which I guess I mean that it makes sense according to my cultural norms). But if one took the property of another which that other has not been attentive to, and if that other did not immediately seek redress and reclaim that property, it was then understood that the property had been rightfully transferred to the person who abducted it, and it was henceforth acknowledged as his property as long as he maintained and protected it with sufficient ardor. So ownership would seem to rely, to some extent, on the intent and investment of the owner. Which gives some support to the expression: possession is nine-tenths of the law.
All of which brings me back to the thrift shop book. It seems a reasonable assumption that the person who made the notation inside the cover of the book had purchased the book from its original owner, presumably a book vendor, and then had intentionally set it free, with a proper declaration stating the terms of its ownership. So now I find it in my possession, having actually paid for this book which had been given its freedom, and I am pondering my position. It is said that stolen property remains stolen until returned to its owner, regardless of whose hands it may have passed through or what sums have been paid for it in its travels. What then of this book? It would appear to me that, even though I have paid for it, it is not mine, rather it is owned by itself, free to share its pleasures and ideas wherever it might find a willing audience.
I am reminded of the nature of human slaves. Many born "free" (not born to humans who were already considered as slaves), they were captured and sold, but then it was occasionally the practice that they were allowed to once again purchase their own freedom, or to have it granted to them by their then current owner. But using the logic of this process, they would have just as easily been subject to recapture by someone else and re-enslavement as per their original transition from freedom into enslavement. Possession? Possession grants rights of ownership? How very strange a concept.
I must say that the intersection of this book's life and travels with mine has caused me quite a bit of consternation on this matter of property rights. For those who proclaim that property rights are clear and self-evident, I suggest that you may be practicing a form of religious idolatry.
As for the book, I think I will find a proper spot for it and set it free according to its nature, and with due respect for the story it has shared with me. The problem then remains for me--what to do with the rest of my books. I think the concept of "mixing one's labor" has some value in the equation, but does the act of placing manacles satisfy that requirement?
It does appear that the older I grow, the less I know for sure.