Monday, October 31, 2005


I was reading an anthology of little known science fiction writers yesterday when I came across this one. It was about Albert, an autistic character who was never good at anything except to make machines who could do what he could not--- that is, everything. He was a clod, a loser, a schnook--- a true blue schlemiel. The following is an excerpt from the short story Eurema’s Dam by R.A. Lafferty, on the night Albert was given the highest award the intellectual world could give. It was noticed that almost all the major inventions for the past three decades were traced back to Albert, and on this night, he was finally acknowledged.

Albert had the speech composed for him by his speech- writing machine, but for some reason he did not use it. He went on his own, and that was disaster. He got to his feet when he was introduced, and he stuttered and spoke nonsense:
“Ah--- only the sick oyster produces nacre*,” he said, and they all gaped at him. What sort of beginning for a speech was that? “Or do I have the wrong creature?” Alfred asked weakly.
Everybody was watching him with a pained expression.
“Nothing rises without a leaven,” Albert tried to explain, “but the yeast is itself a fungus and a disease. You be regularizers all, splendid and supreme. But you cannot live without the irregulars. You will die, and who will tell you that you are dead/ when there is no longer any deprived or insufficient, who will invent? What will you do when there are none of us defectives left? Who will leaven your lump then?”
“Are you unwell?” the master of ceremonies asked him quietly. “Should you not make an end of it? People will understand.”
“Of course I’m unwell. Always have been,” Albert said. “What good will I be otherwise? You set the ideal that all should be healthy and well adjusted. No! No! Were we all well adjusted, we would ossify and die. The world is kept healthy only by some of the unhealthy minds lurking in it. The first implement was not a scraper or celt** or stone knife. It was a crutch, and it wasn’t devised by a hale man.”
“Perhaps you should rest,” a functionary said in a low voice, for this sort of rambling nonsense had never been heard at an awards dinner before.
“Know you,” said Albert, “that it is not the fine bulls and wonderful cattle that make the new paths. Only a crippled calf makes a new path. In everything that survives there must be an element of the incongruous. He paused and gaped, and gulped a big breath.” Dolts!” he croaked out fiercely then. “What will you do for dolts when the last of us is gone? How will you survive without us?”
Albert had finished. He gaped and forgot to close his mouth. They led him back to his seat. His publicity machine explained that Albert was tired from overwork, and then the thing passed around copies of the speech that Albert was supposed to have given.
It had been an unfortunate episode. How noisome it is that the innovators are never great men. And the great men are never good for anything but just being great men.

(*the hard pearly internal layer of the shells of some molluscs such as oysters and clams, used, for example as a gemstone and as a decorative inlay
**a prehistoric chisel or axe that has a metal or stone head with a bevelled edge)


It was a brilliant story. It clearly showed how ‘weird’ people are the ones who actually change the world. Examples are John Nash, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Adolf Hitler, and Napoleon Bonaparte--- well, the list is simply endless. Nash was schizophrenic, Gates was a drop-out, Hitler was a frustrated painter, Bonaparte was among the first of us who used platform shoes. Lafferty brought the subject home, and we should take to heart the warning that was bleeping in Albert’s ‘ridiculous’ speech.
After reading the story, Emile Durkheim’s concept of deviance came to my mind. He held that deviance is any kind of behavior that is substantially different from the widely accepted standards of society. Just think of Madonna, before everyone wanted to be like her. She wore pointed bras, and who ever did that? The man on your right who has purple flowers on his polo is deviant. The CEO with the nose ring while playing golf is deviant.
Put simply, deviant people are the cracks, the weirdos, the misfits--- anyone who does not tie in with the popular view of the world as propagated by the media and your conservative parents.
Karl Marx took Durkheim’s concept one step further. He asserted that without deviant people, the world will never get a move on. This was also the same cue that Lafferty took. As Alfred said, only the sick oyster produces nacre and the cripple calf, a new path. If we all acted the same and thought the same, no one will venture to go out of their way to change anything. Our minds will remain stagnant, and the only thing which will be moving towards anywhere would be the Earth on its axis, on its travels around the sun.
So, after all, we need each and every one of the schlemiels we can get. Let’s not abuse them and better, let’s not try to change them. They have their own roles to play in the orchestra which is life.


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