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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Possible questions for 8/13's "Library: The Lottery of Babylon"

Possible questions for 8/13's "Library: The Lottery of Babylon"

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
I'm so looking forward to this!  Hopefully by now those of you who may attend have read the story, and begun forming ideas of what we might explore.  For a second read, it can help to have someone else's reactions to a text.  Or if you're on the fence, this sketches some directions our discussion could take.

• First paragraph:  Aleph, Beth, Gimel.  Pretty sure that's ABC, but the use as a class designator seems to be the point.  He underlines the capriciousness of class by adding odd qualifications:  A's, "on nights when there is no moon owe obedience" to C's.  Then even more "random" permissions and restrictions, like a Dungeons and Dragons game.  Though we don't yet know why the narrator has experienced all these highs and lows, the connection to the fiction of relationship is pretty clear:  he has walked in the shoes of many others.
• The evolution of the Lottery from rudimentary gambling pots.  I love genealogies.  Of course modern lotteries are quite popular, without the spice of "unlucky" numbers:  so is it plausible that people might prefer to take a downside risk?  It has been established that people dread losses more than they pine for gains, but those experiments are done with isolated subjects.  Could it be the thrill of seeing someone lose that would draw bettors?  Perhaps the relief of thank-god-it-wasn't-me?  It makes "mathematical" sense, because it allows many people to feel "lucky" by comparison with the loser.
• Doesn't randomizing of roles parallel "sacrifices" made by primitive societies?  Is there some psychological need no longer being fulfilled because we don't do this?  Or maybe we do, but don't recognize it as such.  "As everyone knows, the people of Babylon are great admirers of logic, and even of symmetry."  Doesn't that describe us, our economics, our legal system?
• Equal access/subjection to the Lottery.  "The poor ... saw themselves denied access to that famously delightful, even sensual, wheel" of fortune.  Political philosophers worry a lot about freedom of participation, but here people are pulling the opposite way.  The result:  "the Company was forced to assume all public power."  Note that the story was written during the depths of a worldwide Great Depression.  Compulsoriness seems to work to transform Chance into Fate, but why do we want that transformation?
• We see the Company becoming an occult religion–not because they want to, but because people want to believe someone is in charge.  And the motive to believe that was the hope of gaining differential access to the powers-that-be in order to become favorites, to corrupt the very system they wanted created.  I realize now that I have used this idea, too, in my writing:  fairness does not feed the ego–we want a system capable of making us feel "special".  The result of this:  differences become regulated, but not guaranteed.
• Regulation spurs the theorists, who as usual beat the horse to death:  "If the Lottery is an intensification of chance..., then is it not appropriate that chance intervene in every aspect of the drawing, not just one?"  "In reality, the number of drawings is infinite."  Is this a derivation of the Forking Paths, or a parody?
• The penultimate paragraph highlights the yin and yang:  we strive to eliminate chance and the same time we inject it into our lives:  "Under the Company's beneficent influence, our customs are now steeped in chance."  The methods we use to "correct" chance are deemed "(in general) trustworthy–although, of course, they are never divulged without a measure of deception.  Besides, there is nothing so tainted with fiction as the history of the Company."  Should the NSA like or dislike this story?
• The last paragraph completes the Borgesian cycle:  having invented the Company, the Company becomes a myth.  It need never have been founded, because any "drunken man who blurts out an absurd command" may be doing God's will.  But if it didn't exist, someone would need to create it, right?

This email will be posted to the Discussions>Message Boards, where you can add more, or even answer one of the questions.
Jay C.
Novato, CA
Post #: 1
I still want to push my Parable/Conspiracy Theory interpretation.

We start by setting an exotic locale, and what better than Babylon, fabled, mysterious and gone, even the rubble is gone, but the melody lingers on.

Magical. Borges has made a living from magical.

There is a hidden agency, different from the gods and thus influential over believers and nonbelievers, behind all of our fortunes, good and bad. There is a plan, and it has evolved to meet our changing needs.

What do we want ? Order ? The appearance of order ? Stability or change ? A feeling that someone is in charge, bringing order out of chaos ? Would we prefer mythology, or reality ?

We live in a world of both randomness and determinism. The submolecular is random; the molecular is so predictable that we can produce billions of identical functioning products.

But our Manichean mindset thinks this is contradictory. We want either/or, not both/and.

Maybe we want more certainty than the world can give us ? Our epistemic demands are outside the box we live in, like two-dimensional people asking three-dimensional questions.

The lottery gets its energy from this tension.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 171
One way to "push" an interpretation of a text is to cite passages that the interpretation clarifies. What choices that Borges made make sense in the light of that interpretation?

Borges is said to be a father of 'magical realism', which I understand as as realistic (minimal commentary) style applied to a magical universe.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 173
Next time we do a Library meeting, we should dedicate some time to a creative, versus a critical, approach. Especially when the style is realism, we should take that as an invitation to imagine ourselves in the world created by the writer.

What would be the psychological and sociological benefits of living in this vision of Babylon? Would you get used to the drawbacks, or would you never notice them if it was how you grew up? What would be the substantive differences with American life? With life in other countries? Clearly, Borges leaves a lot of room for interpretation: how small could you make the difference between the Babylonians and ourselves? Perhaps you can already find traces of the Company in our own civilization?

Do you know of movies or other books that envision a utopia or dystopia with parallels to Borges' Babylon? Other thinkers with similar ideas? Does it compare to known "primitive" societies?

We claim to find his world strange, but doesn't it bear an uncanny resemblance to the board games we played as children? What, exactly, happened in our development to make it become strange?

What might happen when Borges' Babylonian interacts with those like customs more like our own? If the two societies meet and merge, which will dominate?
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