F.A.Z.-Column by Emanuel Derman : The Noose

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trap door Bild: REUTERS

If a juvenile prank gives rise to pangs of guilt, it feels like a noose tightening around your neck, like a trap-door opening into the depths of dammnation. This is how moral conscience is formed.

          3 Min.

          When he was a boy of four, he liked to play with the garden hose in front of their house, watching its stream arc through the air. He stood on the red cement walkway that ran from the front gate of the garden to the front door of the house, and gripped the rubber hose, directing its hard brass nozzle so that the parabola of water that spurted of out it landed on the little lawn on the right. Then, tired of that, he wanted to make the water to go to the little lawn on the left. 

          (Deutsche Übersetzung: „Die Schlinge“ von Emanuel Derman)

          He grabbed the body of the black rubber snake with both little fists and swung it in delight, aiming to make its hard brass mouth soar through the air in its own parabola over to the other side, wanting no water in the parabola to even touch the cement walkway.  The  nozzle soared through the air like a stone from little David’s slingshot and struck the forehead of his father who had come up behind him. His father was taken to the hospital for stitches. It was entirely the boy’s fault.

          „I need to speak to you about something“

          During the rainy winter vacation when he was eleven, he and a few friends were stuck  indoors. One day, in an idle moment, they decided to play a prank on the middle-aged couple who had recently moved into a new house at the center of the block. In those far-off days, even people who didn’t own grand estates gave their houses names, and this couple had cozily named theirs ‘Come Nearer.’ Childless, they were unsympathetic to the noisy afternoon dodge-the-traffic children’s soccer game that took place in the middle of the suburban street. Whenever the soggy leather ball soared over their fence and into their rock garden, they confiscated it. So, on that day, he and his bored childish friends wrote an anonymous note to the couple to while away the afternoon. Your husband looks like the man on the Ritmeester cigar box, they wrote. Perhaps you should change the name of your house to ‘Go Farther’. They dropped the note in the couple’s mailbox and promptly forgot about it.

          A few days later, as he and his family were preparing to go out to a wedding, the lady of the couple showed up at their front door. I need to speak to you about something, she told his mother. I’m sorry, his mother answered, but we’re just about to go out. Could we talk tomorrow?

          Hearing the conversation from his bedroom upstairs, he knew exactly what the lady wanted to talk to his mother about. The noose was now fastened about his neck; he could tell no one; he went about his business, trembled in silence; he waited for the trapdoor to open. Finally, the lady returned to speak with his mother. Another neighbor across the street, she said, had seen the boys drop the letter into the couple’s mailbox, and turned them in. The boy had to apologize, kiss her plain pale white cheek and be kissed in return. The noose loosened. But it had all been his fault.

          This was another land, another time

          One day, when the boy was fifteen, his cousin told him that he knew, “for a fact,” that an older girl in their high school class had slept with her college-age boyfriend. The boy reported this to his best friend; his best friend reported this to his girlfriend, who happened to be the younger sister of the girl who, “for a fact,” had slept with her boyfriend. She reported this to her college-age boyfriend, who, worried about being slandered – this was another land, another time – called the fifteen-year-old boy and threatened to sue him as well as speak to his parents about the slanderous rumors he had spread.

          Another trapdoor, the noose around his neck, the void beneath him. Two days later the slandered boyfriend showed up at the boy’s front door and spoke to his parents. The boy admitted he had passed on the rumor given to him by his cousin. The boyfriend called the cousin. The cousin, cunningly, denied any knowledge of any part of the story, so convincingly that they boy himself began to doubt his own memory. Perhaps, his cousin’s mother speculated, he had dreamt it.

          As he approached adulthood, his conscience grew stronger. It reached its apex in midlife, then weakened and grew a little less successful at preventing him from getting what he wanted. And what he wanted wasn’t that awful. He had no uncontrollable urge to kill or maim anyone. It didn’t take a conscience to stop him from doing those kinds of things. His conscience’s achievements were two-fold: (a) to prevent him from doing things that might cause shame to himself, his parents, family, friends, or colleagues, and (b) to make him feel really bad if he did manage, somehow, to do the things others disapproved of.

          Balancing the conflicting desires of his own and others was complicated. He felt obliged be fair to everyone and therefore agonized too much about the consequences of his actions. Whose desires were paramount? Was it fair to object to someone else doing something that would harm him? When someone expected something of him he didn’t want to do, was their pain at being denied what they wanted worse than his own pain at providing it? He noticed that whereas he felt he had to justify his wants by logical argument, other people seemed simply to do what they wanted with no need for justification at all. The existence of their desire was sufficient.

          He had been a model. Sometimes he had behaved badly, by his own account and that of others. Who didn’t? Though there were many trapdoors in life, there were very few genuine nooses.

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