After A O Barnabooth
by Joe Palmer
[ fiction - october 11 ]
We can do nothing to events, and events can do nothing to us, whatever we may think. – Valéry Larbaud, The Diary, p 47
[Fictional Swedish-American Archibaldo Olson Barnabooth, the richest person in the world, whose annual income one hundred years ago was approximately £10,860.000.00. Larbaud (1881-1957), his creator, was heir to the Vichy water fortune.]
Having freed myself from social duties and broken away from my inherited caste, disposing of my real property, my horses, and my yacht, I am at last free to experience the world as an ordinary rich person among the three million millionaires in the United States. Of course you know that a million dollars today is worth only one hundred thousand dollars of half a century ago, but I am more than a millionaire many times over, yet I am a slave to my fortune, non tam viles quam nulli sum, not at all cheap but of no account, not worth a damn.
How can we not appear ludicrous when we do as we must do? Ofttimes forces beyond my control seize me and force me to satisfy the honor of my special station by acting out my role as the richest, by doing things definitively, by taking a stand against that which is infra dig, beneath my dignity, infra dignitatem, not for me, chum, I say, such insults and affronts are not my business, yet I am obliged by circumstance to right the world’s wrongs, like certain other snobs, for example:
“I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was,” said Oscar Wilde about a piano-player in a saloon in Leadville, Colorado where he saw the sign, Please do not shoot the piano player. He’s doing the best he can.
Wilde, that self-willed dilettante and apostle of the best taste, held himself to be a defender of the arts. Myself, I am beyond snobbery. I would never stoop so low as to defend or condemn by murder that which passes as popular music, much less pay attention to it. Or so I thought before the world trapped me into living alongside the mobile vulgus in this ochlocracy not of my doing.
I had told them this popular voting for senators and presidents would get out of order, and the unions, minorities, mobs, and mafias would take over running the Congress. The fickle crowd and its mobocratic majorianism must be forced back under control before I, A O Barnabooth III, will ever return to America. In such a pique, I quit the lucrative lands of my immigrant forebears, and set off for the other side of the earth, there to find acceptance of me as I am amongst kings and maharajahs.
I would love to live in a world without people, yet I must confess to waving at King Phumiphol here in Khrung Thep as he passed in his open yellow Rolls-Royce while the pedestrians were groveling on the sidewalks. I caught his eye, his only eye, by the way, we both having lost one in separate automobile collisions in Switzerland [Only the best lose an eye in Switzerland], and he, apparently a regular fellow, waved back to me. I’m told what I did was to commit lèse majesté, and so I could have been summarily beheaded for my offense, but, however, I am richer than the King, and, besides, he has duties, and I have nothing whatsoever to do but fly around the world and compare the flowers I admire. I might as well not exist. It is not heaven here, no matter what they say. It is lonely here beyond the top.
It was in Bangkok, in Siam, where no excuses are ever given, that I confess I wanted to shoot the piano player. Surely such feelings demean the super-wealthy like me. I admit to reacting to the pileup of expectations and reality. Please know that I am no fan of the piano as a musical instrument. All pianos sound somewhat out of tune to my perfect ear, the equally tempered scale they use an abomination. But, a kitten on the keys would by comparison sound masterful if you were to hear Khun Chen from Chonburi ivorizing on an out-of-tune baby grand, as I did.
I had married in order to have companions because I was so lonely, and because I felt compelled to produce male heirs who would inherit my curse of wealth, companions with legitimate claims to my money. In order to increase the chances of having healthy children, I had had my major domo choose a fecund Fräulein as a mate, one of those hearty Brunhildas from the cover of the Nazi Youth magazine Wille und Macht.
We had gone en famille to Bangkok decades ago in the days when people still traveled in style by steamship or par avion, when the old grand-hotel standards of Victorian propriety and bourgeois gentility were still in place. We dressed as if we were going to a royal wedding; running shoes or jogging suits being unacceptable in those days. How bizarre to see grandmothers dressed for track and field events in commercial aeroplanes! The airline stewards used to greet us personally before each leg of the flight, and the stewardesses called us by our titles as they ushered us aboard to our preferred seats. We were still somebodies worthy of respect by virtue of social class.
The old ways had not yet entirely succumbed to the leveling power of bread and circuses, of social welfare, television, and sports stadia. More than once upon a time gentility had demanded subservience and politeness. Everyone knew his place, and if he stepped out of it, he was reprimanded and dismissed or disappeared. Now even beggars sleep in motels, and food has become feed. Fressen [for beasts to eat] nicht essen ist, although to watch native Germans eating like cattle in a Bierstübe, one would think so. MacDonald’s is not the Le Cordon Bleu. You are what you eat, they say. Garbage in, garbage out. Yes, perhaps that is the answer to my question about why we are so despicable. In the play Pericles Shakespeare has a fisherman asking how the fishes live in the sea. Another responds, “Why, as men do aland - the great ones eat the little ones.” It follows that we great ones are only fabricated syntheses, concoctions made up of little people. Sad.
It is not at all easy to live as a rich man today because there are so many poor people getting in the way, yet avoiding hoi polloi is essential to our state of wealth relative to the 99.99th percentile of richness. Why be rich if not special? I am much richer than my rich “friends,” which fact and state of being compound my discomfort. The best I can do to honour my exalted position is to continue to buy the nicest things and then give them away. I do not have a true friend poor enough to graciously accept a gift from me. And you think you are often lonely! My hobby is buying expensive, rare, precious things and giving them away. I think giving polo mallets to street urchins amusing, don’t you? O, look, a rosa rugosa, a wild rose!
Some of the simply rich are afflicted by a need to demonstrate their wealth by creating surreal and remarkable illusions. A few years ago, in a pastry shop in Mogadiscio I refused an invitation to dine with Wilga Geenrivers, heir to the Sunoco fortune, on her palatial yacht standing offshore, there being no harbor at Mog. Bill Holden and I had been drinking at the Beach Club with Harold Fink, the UK Consul, and had gone to buy biscuits for tea when we encountered Ms Greenrivers, her chauffeur, and a chimpanzee, riding in an open touring car. Wilga and her driver were in the back seat while the chimpanzee at the steering wheel in servant’s uniform and cap was apparently steering the vehicle through the streets, attracting great crowds of Fuzzy-Wuzzies jabbering away in their amazement. I want nothing to do, myself, with such vulgar shenanigans.
We had taken our time, flying in our personal de Havilland Comet to Barcelona where we stayed at a hotel on the beach at Sitges a few miles outside the teeming, vulgar, modern city. One day in the city, after paying homage to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s sui-genetic chef d’oeuvre, we took a walk on Las Ramblas, the ancient marketplace, looking for lunch. We strolled about, admiring the old buildings, barely avoiding the circling flaneurs and mountebanks. As we leaned in with the crowd to better hear a large, green parrot cursing in Catalan like a sailor, I felt a hand slide into my right front pocket on my blind, monocled side where I carry my confetti money. I have deep pockets, as they say. I took the hand in my pocket in my own, and walked away with the pickpocket. After a few steps we stopped. Both he and I withdrew our empty hands. Grandly moustachioed, a wan man of middle height, he was dressed like a banker in a bowler hat, carrying a folded newspaper to conceal his sleight of hand. To his astonishment I offered him a fistful of 1000 peseta notes. He bowed to me and said, “Buenas tardes, Señor,” as he accepted the money and strolled away, an amusing and possibly interesting sneak thief.
Approaching our destination in Las Ramblas, the fabled medieval restaurant Los Caracoles (The Snails), where the patron wearing a cook’s hat sits on a stool in front, drinking wine from a skin by squirting it onto his forehead and letting it run down beside his rather large nose into his waiting lips, a pretty girl reached from a window and tugged at the sleeve of our eleven-year-old son.
“Hey, Niño, go fuck your feest!” she screamed. The child stumbled and blanched. He turned, stuck his middle finger up and rotated his wrist above his head, in silent reply. He was still learning how to put up with this crude, indecent, proletarian world.
I was then reminded of John Jay Chapman, the American writer, who in remorse at having struck a friend in bitter anger, then stuck his fist into a coal fire, as if to punish his fist. Chapman, Emerson’s echo, merely an apostle of Transcendentalism, wrote that politicians usually opted for corruption when faced with the choice between "lucrative malpractice and thankless honesty." Chapman assumed that they, the people, have the will to make things right. He was wrong. We are all friends of thieves. And there is nothing we can do about it, nor should we, had we the time, energy, means, will, obligation, or need. This world is as it is, as we perceive it, and there is not a damned thing you can do about it, nor anything I would change except my boredom.
In order to demand excuses, someone has to be responsible. If there is no free will, no one is at fault. Que sera, sera, they say. Whatever will be, will be. Since there is no free will, we may hope that at least order and discipline obtain some of the time, if they are to be at all, according to chance.
For example, the new oligarchy today is made up of corporations, that is, of big business cooperatives such as the corporations of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the new Nationalsozialismus power. The mighty strength of big business, consequently, is absolute, not problematic, but formative and essential. Now that corporations are legally persons, according to the Supreme Court of the United States, we are all either colonists or péones. There is no more bourgeoisie, no more “middle class.” And perhaps there never was, for I do not see how only a few thousand pounds sterling annually can make a difference in one’s lifestyle, things being so inexpensive.
Slavery follows when one buys stock in a corporation that is a member of ALEC. You thereby become a Simon Legree, a slave owner, you, and at the same moment you are also a slave to the interests of the corporation. O miserable slaves are we, happy and free! Tra-la! Marcel Duchamp, thou shouldst be living at this hour! And Tristan Tsara.
Cavafy was wrong. The barbarians are still at the gates of the palace. Now some of them are corporations. What has become of the barbarians is that they have become us.
We flew on to Athens and Heraklion, where we watched the sun set over Mount Ida (Soracte), on to Tehran by BOAC to climb the El Burz Mountains in order to gaze, astraddle the backs of donkeys, at the Caspian Sea below. The children seemed to like that.
The Orientals in Persia refused to grant us the right to land in our in personal airplane, saying we had no business with them. They evidently do not know who I am, nor do they care. I rather enjoy the feeling of non-existence or triviality that their refusal engenders in my breast. It is so nice to be nobody terribly important to someone for a while.
Then we went on to our new residence in Siam, passing through a memorable clear-air turbulence over the Bay of Bengal, thinking of tigers below that might eat us. There was no apology for the carnival ride and re-entry into smooth air after the wounded had been sedated and bandaged. The captain said not a word about the bloody noses and broken wrists, merely announcing the distribution of free drinks in tourist class. Que sera sera. Fasten your seat belt at all times. Take your medicine. Say your prayers. Wish in one hand... It takes a turbulence sometimes to get my rapt attention.
O, why did we have to fly with those wretched people? Was it simply too difficult to arrange our sightseeing with our own airplane? Visas, landing rights? Who do they think they are, those Customs officials? I do get touchy. Wouldn’t you?
At least, we were personally received on arrival, not herded and corralled through Customs. While our temporary residence, a new compound next to the King’s palace was prepared for us, The Rockefeller Foundation temporarily put us up in a forbidding hotel, the Erawan Hotel, a retro-fitted, moldy, air-conditioned mausoleum, the former palace of the royal concubines, where a shrine with its statue of the Hindu elephant god Airavata daily attracts hundreds of petitioners hoping to attain pregnancy. Formerly the King’s offspring often rose to royalty, depending on luck and the fecundity of individuals, as does everything. The Erawan Hotel had not once been a stately colonial palace, for Siam was never colonized, whose central garden was cheapened and vulgarized by the addition of a modern, chlorinated swimming pool. We took our meals beside that dank pool on the terrace, my wife of the moment and I with our little boys, gasping in the relatively fresh air outdoors in Bangkok under umbrellas at café tables. nbsp;
The dining room at the Erawan had been an unpleasant funeral parlor we avoided after our first dinner in Siam, a British-inspired collation of fried fish, with cornflakes for the children. Surrounded by menacing jungle shrubs, gasping for breath, we all came down with Bangkok Belly, la turista à la siamoise. From then on every meal was rice and chicken soup on the terrace in the garden where waiters in white coats saw to our desires while a small Chinese man in a black tuxedo suit played popular and standard songs by tin ear at the piano, an out-of-tune baby grand, gasping for breath as we were in the steamy air.
Being waited upon hand and foot at poolside, we paid little attention to the piano at first, but then when conversation lagged we heard the Rolling Stones’ “I Cain’t Get No Satisfaction” attempted in C with only two chords. You must admit that G7 is a fine chord, an essential chord, one of my favorites too. However, like a floating turd in a swimming pool, G7 in F’s place is off putting, in fact, it is unbearable. The playing reminded me of school music and Little League Baseball with its wild pitches, and in particular of Georges Cartuyvels with his concertina, a beggar in the Bois de Vincennes, who was my secret friend when I was a child. Georges, however, knew only two chords. The small man at the piano had few chords too, but mostly in the wrong places. He reminded me of Isaiah Berlin’s contention, like Archilochus and Erasmus, in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox:” the fox knows many little things but the porcupine knows only one big thing [Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum].
In my discomfort, I summoned the headwaiter. I told him that we were very appreciative of the elegance of the service and the attention to detail on the part of his devoted staff, but the piano music was so bad that we would rather not have to listen to it while we were having our lunch. “Please tell him to stop playing. His pianism is nauseating.”
The headwaiter, bowing and scraping, nodded his agreement to me, marched over to the piano player and spoke earnestly into his right ear for several moments. Then he returned to me, and bowing again said, “Khun Chen say thank you very much.”
The waiter assumed I was asking him to tell Chen I enjoyed his playing, but his playing was excruciatingly original and unmusical. Chen then stood at the piano bench, turned towards us and, smiling idiotically, bowed from the waist.
I tipped Chen one hundred baht, a nominal amount.
So, when do you know you are understood? And how is it that you go on as if everything is hunky-dory? By what magic do you perceive that others understand you?
In Siam, where we were seldom to understand anyone at any time, and certainly few seldom understood or cared what we said, smiles do the work of a hundred strategies to prevent and contain disappointment, disagreement, confusion, doubt, puzzlement, misunderstanding, and conflict. Anything short of a flat-out no is taken as agreement. In the event that crucial cross-purposes lead to violence, as in murder or insurrection (exceedingly rare there), an apology is sufficient.
To say to forget about it is sufficient apology for allowing malevolent fate to control one’s actions, such that Death is no one’s responsibility in Thailand. It is written. It is our karma, in the stars. There is no free will and so there is no guilt.
Like all other physical and psychological events in Siam, even rage earns the response, “My pen awry.” In the Siamese language, a variety of southern Chinese, the negative is carried by “my,” the copula by “pen,” and the substantive thing by “awry.” So, My pen awry is, “It’s nothing. Nothing is awry.” Forget about it. Fugiddabowdit, as our cook Tony would say when it meant you are really, truly not responsible, but not when it meant we will get even with you later, you son of a bitch.
I knew a girl in Siam who killed her lover because he refused to marry her. She had lots of money. The court said naughty, naughty. She said she was sorry. The court said my pen awry. In the West we have the same system. Rich people are different from you, but not me. I fear I am like them. I take some consolation in feeling that I resemble certain others who are held to be rich (although, of course, not as rich as I am). It is comforting to feel that one belongs somewhere.
We mover and shakers make a special effort never to say no. We always say yes, just like diplomats, salesmen, and the Siamese. So what? It does not make any difference whatever we say. That is why I am more content than I have ever been to live in Thailand, in Old Siam, with my wives, concubines, and children, and people who never say NO. I wish I had a friend.
The only thing I know how to do is to buy nice things, and give them away to poor people.