Private In Public
(from Beverly Hills Stories)
- I'll say good by. I don't know if I'll ever be back in Silverlake.
- Where are you going?
- Beverly Hills.
- Well, I'm sure you're not someone who burns bridges, and can come back with your friend here.
- I do burn bridges.
- What are you going to do to the guy? Your friend.
- He's not my friend. Just another victim of our social stupidity. I'll put him in a story.
- What will you write?
- Something inspired by the anthropologist Levi Strauss. Know him?
- No. I'm a retired building inspector. If someone dug up a corpse maybe I'd have to look up an anthropologist to decide if the land had to declared a protected historic place. Is that his book you're reading?
- No. Last in a series of Swedish detective novels from the 60s and 70s. This one has a pornographic film producer murdered by the father of one of his actresses whose life he ruined, then the prime mister of Sweden assassinated by a victim of heartless economics. We think we have such a different way of life from the primitive peoples. But you know, things haven't changed much.
- How so?
- Instead of human sacrifice and cannibalism, people exchange things. They'd kill each other if that would get them better exchange, only don't kill each other because that will interfere with the efficient accumulation of property through exchange. At least that's how we explain to ourselves what we're doing. It's far from the truth.
- The primitives Levi Strauss studied gave gifts to each other, following detailed rules about who to give to and when to give. Since they lived in a closed community, enough would indirectly find its way back to every giver to make gift giving possible. Despite the human sacrifice and cannibalism of our constant exchanges, we are no different from the primitives in our gift giving. Without it our economic system would collapse. Want to get back to work? Or should I go on?
- Sit down in the shade.
- Do you have coffee? I left the house in a hurry to get away.
- I can make a pot. Back in a few minutes.
- So. You're not coming back to Silverlake.
- This is our last conversation. But you'll finish building your walls someday soon. Where did we leave off? Alright. We do our human sacrifice in our exchanges, trying to get the better of each other. My idea is that we make each of us our private community and make it mobile with these exchanges of property. Each exchange creates a new neighborhood in which we calculate whether we can start making gifts, and get gifts in return enough to live, though not in direct exchange.
- I don't see that.
- An investment is a bet that what's been bought, or produced out of purchased labor and parts, will be able to be sold at a profit.
- The exchange aspect is human sacrifice and cannibalism, but the investment is like the gift giving in a community of gift givers.
- Exactly. Everyone really understands this. We trust in the future, or more accurately, we trust in our scientific calculation of which arrangement of property is likely to create a community in which gifts will be made back to us.
- I never looked at it like that. Interesting. Technology applied to primitive customs.
- Scientific cannibalism. The last line of this last novel in the series of Swedish detective novels is: Marx had it right. You asked what I'll write about my "friend". First I'll write about Silverlake. The mystery of why everyone is covered with tattoos. Skin is the boundary between private world and public world. Why write a symbol on that boundary? Why give an image of yourself to the public? What do you get out of it? Is it a tribal identification, or only an ornament?
And I'll write about the courtesies of the girls who work at the Lark cake shop which vanished as soon it was obvious I was going to buy only one small coffee a day. One of the girls seemed to offer friendship, but that vanished too when it was clear I couldn't support a life with her or even alone.
I thought a long time about her. I was sure the offer of friendship was real. What if the courtesies were also real? What if social media posts detailing what we have for breakfast are not mere superficiality, but real attempts to bring oneself out into the world when we felt isolated, with no one really paying attention to anyone except for practical purposes? What if a social media breakfast message was the most real thing in the morning, and the 'how are you today?' at the cake shop also real, and the friendship of the girl also real, and the tattoos also real openings of a conversation?
However I found within days of moving to Silverlake conversation couldn't be. No one wanted to talk. They looked up from their computers or phones asking what I could possibly be doing in their lives, what sort of spam was I arriving in their inbox. Same goes for the hospitality offered by my "friend" up the street here. Most of his living was in making his private house public, renting parts of it by the day through the internet. His invitation to stay with him was a gesture supposed to bring good Karma, bring reward, financial reward in particular, remaining within the primitive but shifting from cannibalism of exchange to gift economy.
If the courtesies, the tattoos, the offers of friendship and hospitality really are gifts, there must be a community of gift giving. If you go on giving without expecting return, or even forseeing return, someone has to be in the community to give you something or you'll be drained dry. The tattoos, courtesies, invitations, social media breakfast posts were constructing imaginary communities.
Last week I got invited to a Sukkot celebration by a real estate speculator I'd met in the company of the Guru of Beverly Hills. The Guru's another story. I met the speculator this time by chance walking by his house. The invitation to his sister's house he said was a "mitzvah" a good deed. He said there was a dying guy there I should talk to.
Same week I met at Starbucks a woman who told me and anyone who'd listen she had a deadly disease, her family wouldn't come to the hospital with her for an operation, no one cared about her, she couldn't trust the doctors, all they wanted was her money, which turned out to be considerable, she lived alone in a million dollar Beverly Hills condo, and it turned out the doctors were telling her she didn't have the fatal disease and she wouldn't believe them, her mother called her every day, had bought here a new computer a month before which she hadn't picked up at the Apple store because an employee she thought was discourteous to her. Free from interest in getting at the truth of life, complaining totally without concern with the people she made her complaints to, she waited for something to happen.
All the same pattern: private life opened to the public, then closed off without development. No conversation to be held with the tattooed. No further courtesy with the courteous, soon not even a hello at the cake shop, no friendship with the friendly. And what accounted for this? I think it really might be the judgement that no community with me could be constructed. No magical community. I didn't have the funds for it.
So I'll burn my bridge back to Silverlake writing this. Our last conversation at your front yard. You know what I wanted from all these people?
- Real conversation. Openings to somewhere, anywhere. No. Not anywhere. Not someplace that leads right back here. Ask a businessman why he does business, he'll say it's a creative act. Creates what? Jobs for people. The businessman's private act of creativity is a public job creation. But the job creation comes back from the community in some unknown manner, a fatality of an economic system that is protected to act in accord with its spontaneous order. In fact, when you look closer, put all the private creative acts of businessmen together and the public result is the loss of jobs, and even deliberate economic destruction if that is part of the creative act of making money. If other people's generosity doesn't meet with the same immediate reward as their own, that is alright, It is not part of the system of mitzvahs, good deeds, home invitations, courtesies that the gift giving of private self gets an immediate compensation. All in time will work itself out.
A billionaire recently made public his private opinion that it was unfair his secretary paid more tax than he did. He didn't offer to pay his secretary's tax. He didn't offer to pay his 100,000 employee's taxes, which he very easily could do, employees he pays so little to that a large number of them don't have enough to eat and receive free food from the federal government. The billionaire makes his gift, he's satisfied the world community gives him back in its magical way, his employees too, in time, will be rewarded.
Our modern economic system, so advanced, turns out gets its justification from the so-called primitive "gift economy". Private life being made public is behind it all. Not functionality, not efficiency, not stability. We're people helping people, just as before.
- We're people helping people kill and eat each other.
- We're people helping people kill and eat each other. Yes. We apply our scientific thinking, we operate the gift economy with an experimental attitude, and the result is a sort of stability. It works, but has no connection to the technology of making better and worse lives for human beings. We use our technology only to perfect human sacrifice and cannibalism. I'll write something like that. Maybe expressed a little better. Depends on whether I think my gift is being done in a community, whether something will come out of it magically that can support me and my gift giving.
Last night before I can open the door to Starbucks the kid working behind the counter is signaling me to come in. He tells me the rich woman with her diseases has asked them to stop me coming there. The world was not returning her "courtesy" with me, had not paid her back for making public her private life, I was harassing her, the law should be callled on me. So the staff had to decide, which of us do they support, or neither.
- What did they say?
- They 'had my back', were on my side. They knew her, were going to ask her, not me, not to come back.
You see? Sometimes conversations do get started.