The Talking Horse

I knew going in that the renovations were going to cost more and take longer than expected.  But even when you expect them – and plan for them – cost overruns and delays (some self-inflicted, others Acts of God) are a nuisance.  Case in point: third week without a dishwasher and second week without a working kitchen.  Three more to go.  But the TV console is reinstalled and the couch – covered with dust as it is – is back in the living room.  Thank the Heavens for tender mercies.

The first floor of my condo was not the only thing getting a facelift as the year ground to a close.  After almost six years at Canada’s Departments of Finance and Justice, and in my twentieth year of call as a lawyer, I have left both ministries and my profession for a new opportunity at the Competition Bureau of Canada.  I have been there almost two months, but it already feels like an excellent fit.  The position is brand new, which means that I have considerable latitude in shaping it; it covers five disparate areas of accountability, which fact makes the job both intellectually and personally challenging.  On top of all of this, next month I start a new teaching gig, in French, at the University of Ottawa.  Coffee has always been a good friend; until April 14, it will be my best friend.

No major travels this year.  In January I skipped my “annual” Alpine vacation as a controlled experiment to see if my annual cold was related to the stresses of the travel, or the British tourists at Verbier, or a combination of both.  I still got the cold; might as well have been in the Alps (the snow was phenomenal).  In a fit of extreme optimism, in May I started planning a long-ish trip to Tokyo and Beijing in December; ticket bought, I all but forgot about that pesky little thing called a “visa” until much later, at which point I was cutting it too close.  Between the uncertain visa situation and the fact that my friends were no longer likely to be around (see above, “fit of optimism” and planning seven months ahead), prudence dictated a course correction.  Fortuitous, in the end, given said delay and said cost-overruns in said renovations.

No major travels this year, but I did get back to Europe – a week with the University and ten days on my own.  In Geneva I visited old friends; in Paris, I visited old haunts; in Berlin, visiting old friends and old haunts, I gathered enough courage to pay homage to some of the victims of Nazism at Plötzensee.


The first thing you see as you enter the execution chamber are the meat hooks at the end.  There, hundreds were hanged, eight at a time, using piano wire for a slow and painful death.  And then you see the tiles on the far left wall and the grates in the middle of the chamber; that was for the blood, when the guillotine was being used.  All in all, 2600 or so were executed in one way or another in this small room attached to a still-functioning prison.  The interpretation centre gives you the numbers, but it also gives you some of the stories; it is informative and poignant without being maudlin or shrill; and it is not the meat hooks or the guillotine-grates that you remember, but the sad human stories of heroic and not-so-heroic lives cut short.

Given the total human cost of Nazism, this seems a drop in the bucket, and the victims here were no more deserving of their fate than the other millions of victims; given the barbarity we have witnessed this side of the twentieth century, the horrors of this particular chamber do not appear exceptional or exceptionally sinister.  And yet.  There is something exceptionally disturbing, diabolical even, about Plötzensee and its meat hooks.  On the way back, as we wound our way around the glorious Charlottenburg Palace, parked our bicycles, walked in the gardens and the Orangerie and sampled the food at a festival of sorts, I realized what it was that I found so exceptionally evil.

In his first address as Prime Minister, Churchill had this to say about what he termed – and was to become known as – the Battle of Britain:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

If Auschwitz and Dr. Mengele stand for perverted science, Plötzensee represents the epitome of perverted law, serving, as it did, as the slaughterhouse for the Nazi “People’s Court”.  It is not so much the fact of the kangaroo courts – they existed before in other countries and have been deployed to malignant effect since – but that the Nazis turned a country and a culture of laws into a madhouse of “laws”.  Civilization hangs over a dark abyss by a thin thread.


But, the thread holds; don’t be distracted by the pessimists, the fear-mongers, the cynics and the doomsayers.  This Holiday Season has been particularly sobering in that respect: the environmentalists who see the approaching cataclysm and the anti-terrorists who see the oncoming apocalypse, and all manners of conspiracies and End-is-Nigh prophecies in between.  I’m cautiously hopeful.

In his book, The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch has an entire chapter on “Optimism.”  The premise is simple:  “Trying to know the unknowable leads inexorably to error and self-deception.  Among other things, it creates a bias towards pessimism.”  Not just unknowable – the future – but, in the strictest sense of the word, “inconceivable.”  He identifies blind optimism as “proceeding as if one knows that the bad outcomes will not happen.” Similarly, blind pessimism “seeks to ward off disaster by avoiding everything not known to be safe.”  He could have been describing almost all of this season’s conversations when he observed that “a recurring theme in pessimistic theories throughout history has been that an exceptionally dangerous moment is imminent.”  And this is his answer: problems are inevitable; problems are soluble: “The ideal towards which this is working is not that nothing unexpected will go wrong, but that when it does it will be an opportunity for further progress.”  He says of ageing (and this could be universalised to almost all other aspects of our lives, be it climate change or ISIS): “Although it is a complex problem by present-day standards, the complexity is finite and confined to a relatively narrow arena whose basic principles are already fairly well understood.”  He then recites a traditional optimistic story:

Our hero is a prisoner who has been sentenced to death by a tyrannical king, but gains a reprieve by promising to teach the king’s favourite horse to talk within a year.  That night, a fellow prisoner asks what possessed him to make such a bargain.  He replies, “A lot can happen in a year.  The horse might die.  The king might die.  I might die.  Or the horse might talk.”

And it is so that another year comes to an end.  The horse ain’t talking yet, but I still have a day to go ….

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