Holier than Them

I can’t believe that other people have the same kind of questions as I do -other normal people, that is. But it’s not like I’d open up to a stranger in one of those old-people seats in the central corridor of a mall, or even at a shared table at the periphery of a food court -you never know whether they’d panic and hit the emergency button on their phones.

Long before The Invasion of the Body Snatchers -the 1956 black and white version, of course- I had questions about aliens. True, I’d never thought of them hatching from pods, but hey. And then there was the paradox phase when I was in high school -you know: Zeno and his one about Achilles racing but never catching the tortoise…

But the one that occupied me the most in those days was Parmenides’ What is Not. Like, you can only make a statement about something if there is something for that statement to be about. It is called a negative existential: a statement that denies the existence of something cannot be true unless there is actually something that the statement is about. It’s in the same vein as ‘This statement is False’, I suppose, but more subtle. Enough to keep me awake nights, anyway.

A person can lose himself in permutations and combinations, especially when is becomes ambiguous. For example is can be a descriptor, or a pointer; it can also slide into an existential function if you’re not careful. And when I was young, I was not -careful, I mean. I continually confused its declaration of being -as in He is– with its function as a pointer -There he is.

What does any of this semantic quagmire matter? Why step in it? I suppose that’s another of the myriad questions I have asked over the years. Still, perhaps because of faulty wiring -or maybe just plaques and neurofibrillary tangles- the questions keep bubbling to the surface like peas in simmering soup.

The latest, though, are holes. I have to confess I had not thought much about these, except that their flavours were remarkably Parmenidean -if one can reliably attribute qualities to something that is not, that is… Because, the more I think about them, the less I can say. They are not the doughnut, and yet without them, the doughnut is not a doughnut, is it? A fascinating thought, and one that I saw outlined in an article in one of my favourite online publications, Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/is-a-hole-a-real-thing-or-just-a-place-where-something-isnt

In an essay entitled ‘Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?’ Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton, discusses the ontogenesis of holes. In the case of a doughnut, where the actual dough removed can be sold as an independent entity -Timbits, or Munchkins as examples- are those entities the holes? ‘Yet surely they are not, as the hole is created by the Timbits’ or Munchkins’ removal, rather than being identified with what gets removed.’ And, ‘… if we do not take the removed dough to be the hole, then what do we take the hole to be? Are holes material things, where material things are physical (like tables and chairs), or are holes immaterial things, where immaterial things are not physical (like abstract entities)? Or are holes not even things at all?’ You gotta love this stuff, eh? Like, if holes are things, which material thing are they? … Could they be part of the host, perhaps the lining of the hole? Maybe. But how thick is the lining for the hole?’ And ‘we do not think that we eat the hole of a doughnut when we eat the host lining of dough, do we?’ You see how holes could rob you of sleep, right?

Pretty abstruse, and trivial, you might think, and yet… And yet I am reminded of an incident in a department store a few years ago.

I was returning an article of clothing I had been given as a Christmas gift. I had hated the colour the moment I opened it, but fortunately my benefactor had underestimated my girth, so I was instructed to exchange it for something more approximating my size. She didn’t mention anything about colour, so I had found a shirt in a far less garish colour and stood in line with them both over my arm.

I suppose I should have anticipated a wait right after Christmas, but the man ahead of me seemed frustrated at the clerk at the Returns Desk.

“There’s no top button hole, do you see…?” he said shoving it in the face of the poor clerk.

The beleaguered clerk, forced a smile onto her obviously tired face. “That’s fine, sir,” she said, with exaggerated politeness. Just find another shirt with a button hole, and we’ll be happy to exchange the two.”

That seemed like an appropriate compromise to me, but the man was still incensed.

“How could you sell a shirt with no button hole in it?”

The clerk asked to see the shirt again to examine it. “You’re absolutely right, sir,” she admitted, after a rather cursory examination.

The customer turned his head towards me, as if to underline the error the store had made in actually attempting to sell a shirt with a missing hole.

“But, on the other hand,” the clerk continued, there is no top button to go into the missing hole, either…”

“What?” The customer grabbed the shirt back from the clerk and held it up for her to see. “Look,” -he was positively yelling now- “What’s this if it isn’t a button for the non-hole?” He pointed at the extra button at the top of a line of buttons, and then held it up for everybody waiting in the line to see.

The clerk’s eyes momentarily rolled upwards, until she realized she was probably not fulfilling her role in loco parentis as it were, for the store. She managed to steady her eyes, and gently retrieved the shirt from the man. “You missed a buttonhole half way down the shirt, sir,” she said, in a voice that would have made a kindergarten teacher envious. “The style of the shirt is to have an open collar… There’s not supposed to be a top button.”

The man blushed and deflated immediately in his embarrassment.

The clerk regained her motherly smile and in an obviously inspired moment, said in a soothing voice “So, you see there’s nothing missing sir… No non-hole for a non-button;  you get more shirt than you thought for your money, eh?”

The line erupted in clapping, and I decided to be a bit more careful with the clerk.


















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