Inspired by Swift

Gulliver meets the Oopers

Lemuel Gulliver’s world was black. No light, no sound, infinite darkness and solitude. Am I dead?, he asked himself. No, surely not. He opened his eyes.

Still, everything remained black. My God, I am dead! Lemuel Gulliver began to panic. Then, slowly, he realised that panicking itself meant life: My heart is pounding, he thought, therefore it must be beating. Life! Sweet, God-given, beautiful life! But what sort of life is it, to live as a man dead?

Memory failed him but in bursts, though those bursts helped him understand his predicament. Yes, a shipwreck. But he had got into a lifeboat, which had carried him precariously through the swell of the storm.

Of course, the lifeboat! Gulliver raised his hand, and laughed loudly to himself as it hit the planks. He was on land, and it was the upturned lifeboat had given the impression of his premature trip to Hades. He pushed with all of his strength, and shifted the boat over to lie beside him on the beach.

For minutes he lay still. His eyes needed to adjust, his arms to recover, and his mind to regain some composure. Once the blackness of the lifeboat and the whiteness of the sudden return to light had begun to balance, he appraised his condition. It was indeed a beach upon which he lay, marked with dunes and occasional tufts of a tall grassy plant. The water, which apparently had once been turbulent enough to deposit his unconscious self along with its inverted boat some way up the beach, now was smooth and still.

To his right, behind one of the dunes, he could make out rooves denoting that a settlement was not far away. One in particular, a great grey spire, stood out like a flagstaff. Realising that he needed water, food and assistance, Gulliver uneasily got up and started walking toward the town.

As he crested the dune he became aware of another walker, making her way along a path that would bring her closer and heading like him in the direction of the town. He got to the path and waited for her to approach.

“Hello, madam, I don’t mean to burden you but find myself in innumerable difficulties. I’m a traveller who has got himself shipwrecked in this country, and who finds himself in need of water, provisions and other assistance. Can you help me?”

The woman stopped, smiled at him, then executed a perfect curtsey before she replied. “Good day to you, sir, and is not the weather fine? My name is Kaye Allen, delighted to meet you. I’m sorry to hear about your problems and certainly want to help, please come with me to our home, where my husband and I will feed you and lodge you while you make your arrangements.”

Gulliver introduced himself and thanked her heartily for her generosity. Together they walked towards the town, the flagstaff spire always ahead of them. Kaye Allen was engrossed during much of the walk in the task of writing postcards: many of them addressed to different people each containing short messages. Gulliver asked about the spire, and she answered but not before finishing the current postcard, and packing away it and her pen.

“It is best that you not inquire about such things, sir. That building is associated with immorality and debasement, and it would not be becoming for an Ooper to associate with the sort found there.”

“An Ooper, madam? Pardon me but I have never encountered that word before. What is an Ooper?”

“Why, Mr. Gulliver, I am an Ooper, my husband is an Ooper, and indeed our whole community is comprised of Oopers. It is our religion, our philosophy, and our way of life. But let us not talk of that now. There will be time enough later. Let us now make our way onward, the afternoon draws on.”

The rest of their walk to the Allens’ house was mostly without event, though once a man approached them to ask the time. Gulliver thought there was something odd about Mrs. Allen’s reply, though he could not determine what it was as it seemed polite enough. She stopped, smiled at the man, then executed a perfect curtsey before she replied. “Good day to you, sir, and is not the weather fine? My name is Kaye Allen, delighted to meet you. I believe the time to be something after five of the clock, see the sun already begins to set.”

As the twilight drew in they arrived at last at the house. Kaye’s husband was already in, and he greeted Gulliver warmly. He smiled, then executed a perfect bow before saying “Good day to you, sir, and is not the weather fine? My name is Turmo Allen, delighted to meet you. Please, find the wash room upstairs and feel welcome to borrow some clothes, while we prepare dinner.”

Gulliver felt better for a wash and a change of clothes, but not so much improved as he did when they sat down to eat. While the food was simple, it was plentiful and he had no conception of how long it was since he had last eaten. The Allens were very precise about setting the table. Before each dish was served, the fork would be placed on the left of the setting just so. Then the knife to the right, just so. Then the water glass, just so, and filled with water from the pitcher, just so. Finally the dish was brought, placed just so in the centre of the setting, and they would sit, pick up first the fork then the knife, and begin eating.

Gulliver asked about this Oopers religion that Kaye had mentioned, and found Turmo to be most effusive on the topic.

“We Oopers live our lives according to the books of the lady Adele of the golden mountain. The legends say that many centuries ago, before the Oopers, the people of this region were simple backwards folk who believed strongly in superstition. They spent their time in constructing procedures for each other to follow, such procedures becoming more baroque and complicated with time. Even in emergencies and when under attack, if they had begun one of their procedures then needs must it be finished.

“One day, so we are told, a hot air balloon of many colours landed in the market place of this very town. The occupants declared themselves to be emissaries of a wonderful place, a tall tower of ivory on an island far away. They said that they too had previously been enslaved by their procedures, but that they had freed themselves through enlightenment and that they could teach this freedom to our forebears.

“One of their number was the lady Adele of the golden mountain, and it is she who wrote their teachings in the books that have come down through the generations, yea even to us, and taught us the lessons of these people of the balloon. You have seen my wife, Kaye, writing many postcards for her correspondents both near and far?”

“Why, Mr. Gulliver, I have even written one for you.”

“The people of the balloon taught us that complex procedures can be avoided, and our community can function together better, if we instead send each other messages. Our whole philosophy and way of life is based on this message-sending. It has delivered us from the oppression of our procedures, enlightened our society, and advanced us immeasurably.”

Gulliver interrupted at this point. “Thank you, sir, for your most edifying explanation, and thank you madam for your message. May I read it?”

Mrs. Allen laughed. “That would not do at all, Mr. Gulliver! Due process must be observed. See, I have gathered all of the cards that I have written so far today. Tomorrow morning I will take them to the post office, and there they will be despatched to their recipients. Including you! Once you have formally received your card, then you may read your message. Not before!”

“But is that not an example of the sort of procedure you say belonged to the simple times of your forebears? Is that not unnecessarily convoluted and slow, as you could simply tell me the message now or give me the card?”

“No, sir, it is not. We Oopers have done away with the procedure, and replaced it with this simple act of message sending.”

“Then why not give me your message now?”

“That would not do at all, Mr. Gulliver! Due process must be observed.”

Gulliver could sense his own frustration mounting, and thought it prudent to change the subject. Unfortunately in his haste he forgot Mrs. Allen’s reaction to his previous enquiries regarding the spire, and that is the topic to which he next turned.

“It is best for you if you avoid that place, sir,” Mr. Allen quickly responded. “It is a Church, a building associated with the debased Phuncers and their heretical acts. No true Ooper would go there, and it would not do for you to be tainted by their evil ways. Now let us talk no more of them.”

Gulliver recognised that he was not being the most gracious or entertaining of guests, so did not suggest any further metiere for their conversation. In the absence of his conversational selections there was nothing for the Allens to respond to, so the rest of the dinner proceeded in silence until they all departed to bed.

Escaping to the Phuncers

Morning breakfast passed much as evening dinner had. While the Allens were polite enough, Gulliver found it infuriating to deal not only with their strange, repetitive rituals but also with their insistence that they had left such procedure behind. He quizzed them upon this topic.

“You say that the Oopers have freed themselves from the shackles of procedure, yet I observe you both greet me using exactly the same set of rules. Do you not see that this itself is procedure?”

“No, sir, you miss the subtlety that was taught by Adele of the golden mountain. See, while we each say an identical greeting to you, my husband bows before doing it while my action is to curtsey. All people say the greeting, but specifically those people who are men perform a bow while those people who are women perform a curtsey. This ability to make more specific amendments is what liberated the Oopers.”

“But still, all you are doing is executing this procedure!”

“I wish, sir, that I had more time to discuss this with you. But now I must attend to my messages.”

With that, Kaye Allen returned to her postcards and Lemuel Gulliver, with more civility and politeness than he felt, thanked her for the hospitality he had received which in fact had been generous and left their abode hastily. His aim was to discover his location and how he might return home.

Once he was outside, his eyes were once again drawn to that strange spire, the Church by which his hosts had been so repulsed. Perhaps here he would find some useful information, or at least a different insight into this unique land. Resolved to learn more, he set out in the direction of the Church.

As he walked the mile or so to the tall building, he saw plenty of Oopers, recognised by their strange rituals and their stacks of message cards. The closer he came to his goal, however, the thinner their numbers, and when he finally arrived at the huge quadrangle outside the Church there was not one Ooper to be seen.

That is not to say that the square was empty, but clearly the people here were of a different background. They were gathered into groups, usually comprising four to six people, who criss-crossed the square purposefully in files. Perhaps these were the Phuncers he had been told about. Gulliver proceeded toward the Church to learn more.

Outwardly, the Church reminded him in passing of some of the religious institutions he remembered from his home. Indeed where his own house of prayer signed its identity with the Greek letters alpha and omega, this Church even had a similar symbol: the letter lambda. Confident that he was on somewhat familiar territory, he entered.

Gulliver started when, just inside the doorway before his eyes had adjusted to the gloom, he almost bumped into a file of a half dozen people who were on their way out. He mumbled an apology, then introduced himself.

“My name is Lemuel Gulliver, what is your name please?” If the lead person in the file heard him, she did not make it evident. She consulted a clipboard she was holding, made a note on it, then whispered something to the second person in the file. He did the same, and so on down the line. Finally the person at the back checked his clipboard, made a note, and replied “How do you do? My name is Alonso.”

Gulliver was not certain what had just happened. Perhaps the woman to whom he had addressed himself had not heard him clearly. He cleared his throat, and repeated: “My name is Lemuel Gulliver, what is your name please?” Again, she looked at her clipboard. This time, though, she apparently saw something that satisfied her (Gulliver could not be certain, but he thought she was looking at the note she had just made moments earlier) and showed that to the man behind her. He, in his turn, found the corresponding note on his board and showed it to the third. As before, it was the last of them who replied “How do you do? My name is Alonso.”

While this was happening, Gulliver had been able to take a look at the lead woman’s board. It was full of fragments of conversations, the left column apparently representing sentences that had been uttered to her (see! There is the very greeting I introduced myself with, written at the end of the page!) and so he guessed that the second column was the list of responses she had passed on to her colleague. Gulliver surmised that this tally represented an efficiency of sorts: by remembering all of her previous discussions, she could show her friends the answers she had previously given without having to construct them anew.

Conversation was, understandably, engaged at a slow pace. All the while Gulliver addressed himself to the woman at the front of the file; all the while she passed the discussion back through the chain of six; all the while Alonso (he assumed that this name referred to the ultimate member of the group) issued the responses.

“Tell me, is this the place of the Phuncers?”

“Why yes, this Church is our holy building, and you are welcome within it.”

“I hope to learn something of your people. Why is it that you carry on in these files?”

“One of the oldest tenets of the Phuncer creed is that a person has more capability as a member of a group than as an individual. By composing our different abilities we become more efficient.”

“I see, that is an interesting philosophy. When did it arise?”

Here, an interesting modification to the usual process occurred. As before, the question was passed back through the file and the notes were made, but the fourth person made a record, then put their board down, picked it up anew and read back that note. Making another, they repeated the process. And again. (Gulliver could just about see the board, and it seemed that they had written the symbols “1 +” over and over.) Finally satisfied, they passed the whisper on again until Alonso could give a response.

“It was six decades ago that our movement came into being.”

“What was the purpose behind its creation?”

“Back before we were liberated, the people of this part were oppressed by a government that forced people into performing all manner of complicated and perverse rituals and procedures. Our forebears sought to free us from these procedures, from the imperatives coming from the State.”

“And is your number many?” (Again, the repeated setting and resetting of the clipboard.)

“When first we started we were few. We formed a commune that sought to minimise State interference within its boundaries, and to achieve self-sufficience. Recently our number has become bolstered, and even those among the heathen Oopers have joined us and learned from our teachings.”

“And has this surge in membership changed your position?”

“We are now so numerous that our whole conception has changed. Rather than seeking to reduce interaction with the State, we intend to overthrow it completely. Yea, anarchy! But not the chaos that you may associate with it. Compositions of individuals each performing their prescribed function can yield a higher order.”

This last response had taken longer than usual for the group to formulate. Whereas before they had communicated with each other, one after the other, in building their response, they had needed outside help here. One of their file broke rank, and went out from the Church into the square. There, Gulliver saw that he approached a besuited woman, greeted her politely, then a complicated exchange of handshakes, papers and stamps ensued. When this procedure was complete he discussed something (Gulliver assumed the current conversation between himself and Alonso’s group) with her a while. On concluding this business he raised his hat, returned to the file and continued the whisper game.

“Who was that person with whom your colleague discoursed then?”

“She is a civil servant. We occasionally need to engage their help in carrying on our business.”

“You mean she represents the State?”

“Yes, quite so. They can be very helpful in our achievement of our aims.”

“But didn’t you say that you were planning to replace the State?”

“Planning? Yea, it is our very destiny! All trappings of State will be dissolved and a functional order, a higher order, will take its place.”

At this, Gulliver realised that he was not getting much further than in his discussions with the Oopers previously. He bade his interlocutors farewell, and returned to the square.

All around, he saw the Phuncers, and all around, they reminded him very much of the procedures that they, as the Oopers, claimed to have left behind. The way they followed each other around in files. The recording previous discussions in their clipboards. The convoluted discussions with civil servants.

They shared other traits with the Oopers: their claim that they had moved beyond the things that they still actually practiced every day, and the complete refusal to accept nor even see that this was the case. This gave Gulliver a start: maybe there was something both groups had in common, some shared memory that accounted for their commonalities? He had to find out more.

Gulliver unravels

As Gulliver pondered this strange town and its inhabitants, he found himself back in Ooper territory. This was unsurprising as there were many more Oopers than Phuncers that he had seen since his shipwreck. He also realised that he was at the University, with the buildings somewhat coarsely modeled on the ivory tower that the Allens had described to him. This presented perhaps the best opportunity he had to understand this place. He looked for signs and campus maps, and eventually located the library.

Realising that there were political implications to his research, he asked the librarian for the writings of Adele of the golden mountain and associated criticisms and commentaries. She happily met his greeting (a curtsey, then “Good day to you, sir, and is not the weather fine?”), went away and brought back a whole stack of books which he took to his desk. There were the books by Adele herself, and contemporary discussions such as “Oopism: An Evolutionary Approach” (some wag of a student had subtitled this “On the Origin of Classes by Means of Artificial Selection”) and Bertrand de la Tour’s “Oopist Construction”, which seemed to have been written by a contract lawyer. There were also more modern interpretations of the earlier texts, such as Cecil R. Martin’s “Clean Living” and “Clean Liver”.

But this was not enough to satiate Gulliver’s curiosity. Once the librarian had returned to her postcards, he paged through the catalogue to try and find anything on the Phuncers and their foundation. There was nothing explicit, but “Religion: Heresies” and “Politics: Anarchy” seemed appropriate places to look. He soon discovered a couple of likely tomes: “The Structure and Interpretation of Careful Phuncism” and “Concepts in Political Languages”.

And so Gulliver read. There was to much to read in one sitting, but he also didn’t want to risk the Ooper librarian seeing all of his material. He hid books behind shelves, rushed out to the University’s refectory to get a brief meal and slept in a corner of the campus. For three days he read, living like a hybrid of a hermit and a monk.

The more he read, the more he was shocked: he was reading the same thing in two different places! Each collection of material described the problems that had beset the town when the focus had been on procedures, and lay out a manifesto for moving beyond this situation. Each manifesto was broadly the same: break the procedures into focussed skills; find individuals who are good at those skills and give them the single responsibility of working in that skilled area; compose teams that can more efficiently complete large tasks by combining their skill areas.

At some point, then, the two had declared a holy war. Each knew that their own approach was correct and the other was heretical. But what was the source of their disagreement? Gulliver thought back to a previous encounter, in which two peoples considered each other mortal enemies due to their choice of which end of a boiled egg to eat first. At least, he thought to himself, those people disagreed on something.

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