In this world of recycled cardboard and stained plastic that shines for a second and litters for the rest of eternity, the proposition of a new sort of hero – even as a fancy exercise only – is quite pleasant really. So let’s consider this mythological hero who is “foretold to be buried in the first impossible object.” Like all things foretold, this tickles and sparkles initially, full of joy and happiness: oh, that surely means immortality now – be it of the sort where one cannot rather than will not die – that same immortality that the young perceive to be in fact youth without old age and life without death, as more aptly described in an old Romanian tale1
This hero who thinks he cannot die for as long as there isn’t an impossible object to contain his remains has to be a rather optimist fool2 to be overly happy about this “great” advantage. As he does not even have any sort of control over some physical artefact that ensures him that his time has not yet come3, he is basically not much better off than all the other people that ever lived: even assuming that he just happens to know one key circumstance of his death (rather than one circumstance of his burial), so what? Oh, you will ONLY die impaled through the single crooked horn of a purple cow with 7 tits. Or poisoned by the smelly farts of 50 beautiful maidens that ate -unknowingly and – even more unlikely – in total silence- their father for dinner. Or when the poplar yields apples and the willow blossoms full of gillyflowers4. The world is full of impossible things that turned out to be quite possible, especially when the human mind brands as impossible whatever it has not yet been forced – rather painfully – to acknowledge as fully possible.
One might argue that this hero is actually just a sort of less-concrete Koscei: his island is fully in the realm of thought and his needle is simply a strong belief in one “law” of nature or the other that he chose for himself. In this move away from the concrete, the hero of the impossible casket might simply be a hero of a different sort, a fighter of the mind rather than the sword. But that doesn’t really sit too well with this choice of using such weirdly childish heuristics then, naively pegging all of a sudden the event of his death on the existence of this object5. After all, even basic incantations of the statistical sort go along the lines of “correlation does not imply causation.” Let’s look a bit at this in the context of equating chances of dying with chances of impossible objects.
The only thing that supposedly marks this hero’s death as special is the fact that the circumstance he knows of his death is an unexpected and presumably rare one indeed. Based on this rarity of the event – indeed, “impossibility” even, as suggested by the “impossible object” – the hero (or maybe his followers) who was apparently not very good at Maths6 develops his overly optimistic “heuristic” we are told, which simply keeps checking the world for that impossible object and if it does not find it (or rather if it does not know of its existence) it assumes all is well and dandy, fine week ahead with absolutely 100% chances of survival. While this makes perhaps for a very good approach to sane living and arguably a happy disposition, it sucks beyond description as a rationale of any sort. A better word for it might be wishful thinking or perhaps feeling or maybe idiocy or downright lack of brains, depending on your disposition. We are being told that this approach leads to a “mental conundrum” due to the fact that this same shitty heuristic will go ballistic as soon as it learns about that impossible object being not only fully possible all of a sudden but actually real. Basically before learning of the existence of such object, the heuristic was overly optimistic. To compensate that of some sorts, it then goes overly pessimistic. It really sounds to me more like a recipe for bipolar disorder than an heuristic7. A kinder way to look at this is simply that people tend to underestimate the unusual/unexpected and otherwise overestimate – out of fear/unknown – its destructive impact as soon as they catch a glimpse of it. Not very heroic perhaps, but quite usual really.
The inescapable truth of the matter is that every person – hero or no hero – actually has only one… death. Or at least one next death that they are currently concerned with. This means in turn that there actually is some unique circumstance for every single death – be it one of time, place or person as it were. Sure, it doesn’t make for much fun to be predicted that you’ll die ONLY when YOU die, but basically that’s all there is to it. Whether an impossible object materializes to contain your remains when you die or you are just cursed to not even be buried until that impossible object becomes possible – by the way, those are only 2 cases that totally trash that idiotic heuristic – or an impossible island is found and a needle is broken are really just touches meant to make heroes feel better about it. Presumably heroes need to feel better about their death. Or their followers need to feel better about their hero’s death. Or maybe both heroes and their followers just need an excuse – we’ll call it heuristic – to lull their mind into forgetting about the possibility of their own death in order to do what makes them heroes. Who knows exactly. The only thing that is clear however is that there is no mental conundrum in the predicted fate itself – it’s all in the broken interpretation and understanding of it, as usual.
I’ve been reading this precise tale recently to my 4 year old who…welled up by the end of it, full of sadness for the hero. I used to absolutely HATE this story as a child, make of it what you will. ↩
And one who did not read/listen to enough stories as a child, too! ↩
As Koscei had, at least in theory, since he could have kept that needle wherever he pleased, supposedly. ↩
Cand o face plopu’ pere si rachita micsunele – meaning quite never. ↩
Arguably, the poor hero might be totally innocent of such heuristic, while the horde of idiots surrounding him push it with all the power of their sheer number. ↩
Nor were the heroes really expected to be good at Maths. Or even very bright really, they had other qualities overall. I had many laughs as a child reading a tale – was it Mongolian? – in which the hero is all the best and all that, but his HORSE is always better. And his horse even goes as far as to tell the hero in no uncertain terms at some point: if you were as bright as you are bold, then you’d look ahead at THAT! The story’s title in my re-translation from Romanian would be “Tevene Mioghe and his horse Demir Shilgi” – it’s a several-generations saga in which half the time is spent looking for a horse good enough for each successive newborn hero. ↩
Then again, I do not trust heuristics much. Especially when they are very optimistic. ↩