Reasons to be cheerful, Part 2
10 January 2021 | Once more into the breach
We presented ourselves at the optician's the next morning, fully equipped with driving glasses, wallets, credit cards, face masks, and a brown envelope stuffed with cash. We were ushered one at a time into the consulting room, a dark, cluttered, airless, virus-culturing black hole about the size of a broom cupboard. I held my breath as long as I could and then breathed in sips out of the corner of my mouth opposite from the optician, who was crouched down, breathing in my right ear while he adjusted the mediaeval instrument of torture that he had just clamped onto my head.
Once he had got that screwed firmly in place, he flicked a switch and shone what appeared to be an anti-aircraft searchlight straight in my eyes. I was beginning to believe that I'd been snatched from the street and had inexplicably woken up in Gestapo headquarters, a feeling that was reinforced when the searchlight went out and two dim patches of red and green light struggled through the stygian gloom. A voice suddenly shouted in my ear "Vot Kann you see, Englander scum?"(3)
"An indistinct patch of red and an equally indistinct patch of green" I replied.
Slightly thrown by this, he fiddled around with the cranial iron maiden and slotted in a random selection of lenses which looked like they could well have originally been ground by van Leeuwenhoek.
"And now?" he enquired. In all truth it wasn't much better, but I thought I'd give it a go.
"B... A... H..." He interrupted me.
"Stop! Stop! You don't need to read out the letters. Just tell me if you can see them."
"Well, not really - They're all a bit of a blur."
He took on a look that was a 50/50 mix of despondency and reproof, as if I were spoiling his game by deliberately not playing by the rules. He slotted in another seemingly random selection of lenses and looked at me expectantly. If anything, this was worse, but I decided to go along with things for a quiet life and assured him I could read down to the penultimate line in both colours. I thought that this was pushing things a bit, seeing as even someone with the visual acuity of a peregrine falcon would have needed an astronomical telescope to have read print that size at that distance. I half-expected him to challenge me on this, my having fallen into his cunning trap, but instead his demeanour brightened, and he moved on to stage two. This involved another piece of high-tech apparatus, namely a pencil.
Having ensured that my head was firmly clamped into the scold's bridle, he waved the pencil up and down and side to side, telling me to follow it with my eyes. Why he had to use a pencil instead of the finger that was holding said pencil is probably a jealously guarded secret, hidden away in an arcane, highly classified, dusty tome in the library of the opthalmologists' guild.
My successful completion of this considerable visual challenge signalled the culmination of the eye test. He ticked a few more boxes, signed with a flourish, smiled, and handed over the results sheet and a bill for 30 euros a head. Or 15 euros an eye.
I must admit that I had been a tad concerned about this whole medical business. Not being allowed to drive would severely limit our sybaritic nomadic lifestyle. I needn't have worried. This was not the most stringent of examinations. It was a signally ineffective process for preventing potential mass slaughterers from parking his guide dog on the passenger seat before getting behind the wheel and inadvertently taking out a bus queue. It made the old Jersey eye test look like the course to qualify as commander of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine, which is reputed to be the toughest on the planet. Most of what we had been through either had no effect on its supposed objectives or actively worked against them.
I was floundering as to how to square this incompatibility when I had one of those rare flashes of inspiration which link two apparently unconnected concepts and shine light on both. While I was thinking about the exam, a random synaptic connection provoked the memory that in Melanesia there is a social and psychological phenomenon called a cargo cult.
The cult started in WW2 when the indigenous hunter-gatherers were exposed to the, to them unimaginable, material wealth of first the Japanese and then the Allies. Knowing nothing of modern manufacturing processes or aerodynamic theory, they viewed the airborne arrival of all these desirable goodies as nothing short of magic.(4)
When the war ended and most of the allies went home the supply of technological trinkets dried up. The natives reacted to this by making fetishes(5) out of local resources. Palm leaves, coconuts, animal skins and lianas were turned into remarkably realistic radios, control towers, radar antennae, and especially aeroplanes. They would use the fetishes to conduct rituals which mimicked the behaviours of the Allied technicians, trying to persuade the Gods into resuming the flow of goodies.
Their efforts have been spectacularly unsuccessful for nearly 80 years. Not so much as a couple of mirrors and a Yorkie bar. Mind you, all of Christendom, along with Islam, Baháʼí and Messianic Jews have been waiting in vain for the Second Coming for over two thousand years.
The reason for the Melanesians' lack of success was that their rituals, like all rituals, concentrated on form and style at the expense of content. They could reproduce radio operators' jargon exactly, but they had no understanding of electromagnetism. Coconut halves can make quite plausible headset earpieces, but you'll never call down an artillery barrage with them. That's not to say that they were any more credulous or less intelligent than any other peoples. Given their knowledge and belief systems at the time, their actions made sense. Well almost. (6)
Then it suddenly struck me. All became clear - this wasn't really a medical examination designed to achieve a specific purpose. It wasn't a stringent assessment of my fitness (or otherwise) to drive. This was a ritual. It was a strictly choreographed kata we had to go through to appease the jealous and vengeful Gods of the IMT, the Instituto da Mobilidade e dos Transportes. The clerks, civil servants and bureaucrats were the priests and the rituals reinforced and validated their place, rank and title. The whole business had precious little to do with safety or the common good. It was a prime exemplar of Parkinson's Law. (7) It also had the added benefit of having a revenue-raising exercise tacked on to it.
Thus was my cognitive dissonance resolved. The form was the content. Reaffirming the status quo wasn't just a side effect of the process, it was its whole raison d'etre.(8)
(3) Sorry - that was just lazy cultural stereotyping and anyway he wasn't German. Won't do it again.
(4) "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" - Arthur C. Clarke (1917 - 2008)
(5) It's not what your grubby little minds are thinking. A fetish is an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit. The sexual connotations were derived from it later.
(6) Bearing in mind that these are also the people who believe that Prince Philip (AKA 'Fellah b'long Missis Queen') is a Divine Being.
(7) Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909 - 1993) made a reputation and a tidy income by articulating three bleeding obvious ideas as if they were esoteric side branches of quantum physics. In essence they are:
1 Work expands to fill the time allotted.
2 An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.
3 Officials make work for each other.
No shit, Sherlock.
(8) Arranging the whole bloody entry just so that he could end it in French -What a pretentious ponce!