Friday, December 5, 2008

Where Ideas Come From

I've started reading Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathan Glover, and a little light went off in my head when I came to these lines on page 23:

"The idea of humiliating a blind beggar appals us. Narrow self-interest might lead someone to take the blind beggar's money away; retaliation would be unlikely, and there will be no social sanctions if no one else is around to see. But the idea disgusts most of us."

The light was like a flashbulb illuminating a picture: a blind beggar with a bowl in front of him, and in that bowl is a 20 dollar bill. Nobody else is in view. You walk up to the beggar, and you look down, and see the 20. What do you do? Do you take it? And if you don't, what's stopping you, if not some inner sense of morality that has nothing to do with religion, but just fellow-feeling for an unfortunate human being?

Then I thought, okay, what if you need 20 dollars? What if 20 dollars will buy you medicine that could save your life, and you're dead broke, and that 20 is right there for the taking? What do you do then? Wait--too selfish--what if it's not for you, but for your kid--your baby needs medicine and you need $20 to get it, $20 you don't have. Do you take the blind beggar's $20? And if you do, doesn't the fact that you need it for someone else make it okay? Like you could say to the blind guy, "You agree with me that saving a child with this $20 is a good thing; you'd let me take it if I asked you." It's as if the fact that there's a third party involved negates the idea of theft, because it's going towards something.

So then I went back to the original image of a blind beggar with a bowl. No possibility of unselfish rationalizations. There's going to be a $20 bill, and you either take it or you don't.

At which point I started turning it into a story. Blind beggar and bowl on an empty street; no one watching. The beggar is really blind. Person #1 walks by. Never looks at the beggar. Never acknowledges the beggar's existence. Eyes straight ahead, walks past the beggar and down another street corner. Gone.

Person #2 walks by. Sees the beggar. Stops. Pulls out a $20 bill. Drops it in the bowl. But because it's a bill, it doesn't make a sound, so the beggar doesn't know he's been given something. Person #1 frowns, grudgingly pulls out some change, throws that in the bowl as well. Beggar says "God Bless you" when he hears the change hit the bowl. Person #1 walks off satisfied, because his/her generosity has been recognized. Turns down a street corner. Gone.

The beggar and his bowl, as a breeze comes up. The breeze swirls down the street, and when it gets to the beggar, the $20 bill corkscrews out, floats like a leaf in the air for a moment, and then falls to the street outside the beggar's bowl.

Person #3 walks by. Sees the beggar. Sees the $20 bill outside the bowl. Hesitates for a moment, then keeps walking. Walks by the beggar. Stops, turns around, looks at the $20, maybe even starts to walk back; and then shakes his/her head, turns his/her back on the beggar, and walks down the street. He/she looks back once more before turning a corner and vanishing.

Person #4 walks by. Sees the beggar. Sees the $20 bill outside the bowl. Without hesitating for a second, he/she reaches down, takes the $20, and puts it back in the bowl, then heads down the street, turns a corner, and is gone.

Person #5 walks by. Sees the beggar. Sees the $20 bill inside the bowl. Without hesitating for a second, he/she reaches down, takes the $20, pockets it, heads down the street, never looks back, turns a corner, and is gone.

Five people; five different responses to the beggar and his bowl, and the beggar and his $20.

"So what happens next?" I ask myself. And my immediate response is, "The beggar gets up, takes off his black glasses or whatever he was wearing to convince people that he was blind, looks down the street where the five people were walking, and smiles." Which means that there's something bigger going on here. These five people are now part of a moral experiment, and the blind beggar is running it.

I wrote down a title ("Five Points"). I wrote down "Melville's Confidence Man" next to it, because this could be a modern version of that novel. Then I started making premise notes: "Five people get five different chances to show what they're made of. Five different moral/ethical choices. The first one: no one sees them (or because they think the beggar is blind, they believe no none is watching. Same thing.). Second choice: a stranger witnesses, and they all know they're being watched as they're being tested. Third one: a friend or acquaintance witnesses. Fourth one: whenever one is tested, the other four are the witnesses (establishing/connecting the groups at last). Fifth one: the world sees it, which means it's televised live or something.

"How does it end? No idea yet. What are the choices they face? No ideas yet. Who are the five? Good question. Say the fifth person, the one who steals the $20, is the best-dressed of all five, whether male or female, and visibly richer than the other four. Except possibly the first person, who would be on the same social scale as #5. For symmetry's sake, that means Person #4, who puts the bill back in the bowl, would be the poorest. Which leaves #2, the one who gives the $20, and #3, the one who sees and hesitates but keeps on going. The obvious choice would be a woman for that person, so let's go with a male. And this is just test #1, after all. In the other tests, the reactions of the five will differ depending on who's watching and what that means to each of them."

Which is where I stop making notes and drop my pen and shake my right hand because it's cramping up.

And that's where ideas come from.

1 comment:

The_Dove said...

In O Henry's world, you leave the $20 bill, your baby dies of scarlet fever, and the beggar comes into your corner store to buy the bottle of methylated spirits he uses to drink himself to death with the $20 you didn't take. At Christmas.