Folded, Spindled, Mutilated
22 November 2010
In the early stages of the Computer Age there were punched paper cards that held data, and in order for the data to be correctly read by the machine the punched cards needed to be kept flat and in good shape. It came to be the custom to print on these punched cards “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” In an early protest against the growing anonymity, depersonalization, and dehumanization of the Machine Age, a slogan began making the rounds — rapidly co-opted for commercial purposes and printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers — that played upon this: “I am a Human Being: Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” One must be of a certain age to remember this.
All of us are folded, spindled, and mutilated to a greater or lesser degree — we live blighted lives. Some of us do it to ourselves through self-destructive behavior, and some of us have it visited upon us by the unwanted attentions of a hostile world. It is natural to look for someone to blame so that we have on object — a scapegoat — upon which we can unleash our anger and indignation, our resentment at having been thwarted in life. It is natural, but it is also dishonest. Most of the forces that fold, spindle, and mutilate our lives are embodied not in an individual but in what Braudel called the structures of everyday life. That is to say, our lives are mutilated by forces that are much larger than any individual, and which cannot be changed by even the most heroic efforts of an individual.
Steven Lubar of the Smithsonian Institution has an interesting essay available online on the topic of early punch cards: “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate: A cultural history of the punch card.” In this essay Lubar writes:
“In the 1930s the University of Iowa used cards for student registration; on each card was printed “Do not fold or bend this card.” Cards reproduced in an IBM sales brochure of the 1930s read “Do not fold, tear, or mutilate this card” and “Do not fold tear or destroy.” I’m not sure when the canonical “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” first appeared; it’s one of those traditions whose author and origin is lost in the mists of time.”
There are also apparently at least a couple of books devoted to the topic.
In her famous essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf discusses how the life of the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is stunted and deformed because of the social circumstances of the time in which the novel was written. That is to say, the structures of everyday life were, for Charlotte Brontë, oppressive. Woolf made a comparison between Tolstoy and Brontë (as well as George Eliot):
“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoi lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world,’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”
Of Brontë herself Woolf wrote:
“…one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”
And who is not at war with their lot? How many of us are satisfied with our lot, or accept it peacefully? Who can accept with equanimity the outrages and injustices of the world? And if someone could simply accept this without rebelling, would we suppose that this was for the better, or that such an one lacked some essential human spark? The condition of which Woolf writes is not only the condition of female novelists of the nineteenth century; it is also the human condition.
Few if any of us express our genius (if we possess any) whole and entire. T. S. Eliot wrote in his repudiated book, After Strange Gods, “…the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born in an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” (I quoted this previously in Microcosm/Macrocosm.)
As the life of Brontë was “deformed and twisted,” “cramped and thwarted,” so are many if not most lives. The theme has inspired some of the greatest poetry in the English language. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” is a meditation upon thwarted lives:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Gray even conscientiously recognizes both the possibilities of fame and ignominy:
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.
Gray tells the story of those lives that were folded, spindled, and mutilated long before there were such things as computer punch cards. Indeed, the lives that Gray celebrates in his poetry were lived under the agricultural paradigm, so we see that deformed and thwarted lives are not unique to industrialized civilization. Industrialization may accelerate and exacerbate the deformation of lives, but the problem does not originate with industrialization.
It is relatively easy to think of examples of lives thwarted by spectacular episodes in history, like war or terrorism, but by far the most pervasive forces that thwart lives are those rooted in the Braudelian formulation I used above, the structures of everyday life. As implied by Gray’s Elegy, poverty and rural isolation once thwarted a great many lives. Rural isolation is less of a concern now, and is diminishing over time, but poverty, and the fear of poverty, continues to mark lives the world over.
Most of all, fear in its many forms deforms, twists, and cramps our lives. Economic fear is for the industrial paradigm the equivalent to the pervasive fear of hunger under the agricultural paradigm. When almost everyone worked on the land, and the land was only marginally productive, a bad harvest meant hunger or starvation in the coming winter. This was true from the advent of the neolithic agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. Now almost everyone works at a job instead of working on the land, and a bad economic harvest — a recession or other economic dislocation — means hardship and possibly also financial ruin and penury.
One thing that European observers of the US often get wrong is in not understanding the role of fear in the US economy. The social safety net in Europe is relatively generous. Go to a large European city, even a large city of the former Eastern Bloc, and you will see almost no street people. I know whereof I speak; I have been to almost every major city in Europe. As fellow industrialized peoples, the Europeans ought to understand the Americans if anyone does (perhaps also the Japanese), but in fact they do not — and Americans similarly misunderstand the Europeans.
In the US, fear of loss of one’s job, fear of poverty, fear of homelessness, is real and palpable. Talk to people and you will hear it in their voices and see it in their faces. It is one of the things that makes life in the US a little bit weird at times, as when you see people spiraling out of control over little things (like the current tempest in a teapot over TSA screeners) and it becomes all-too-apparent from a studied distance that this is misplaced anxiety, according to a classic psychodynamic model, that is being expressed in a safe way, because one cannot express one’s fear directly because that would call into question the foundations upon which one has constructed one’s life.
There are also many more subtle forces that thwart lives, and the more subtle they become, the more pervasively they are inter-woven into our lives, the more difficult it is to be objective and honest about what is thwarting us. Let me put myself out on a limb and give a specific example: a great many people (especially those of the working class) marry young and have children very young, without thinking about it. Some are impelled by biology, and some by cultural context, but whatever the motivation (or, more likely, lack of motivation, so that it is mere inertia that creates one’s situation), the result is the same, and that result, more often than not, is feeling trapped by circumstances. In middle age I have come to see how many people are tolerating rather than enjoying their lives, often resentful of their situation, feeling trapped in their marriages and trapped by their obligations to children. Sometimes these obligations are spelled out in legal proceedings, but most of the time it is a moral obligation that is felt, staying together “for the children” and not wanting to “rock the boat.”
Ultimately we fold, spindle, and mutilate ourselves. There is no other to blame (and no anonymous, faceless machine to blame), though we may grasp at straws and blame scapegoats for our situation. In our honest moments, we know this. Much of the time if not most of the time, our unhappiness follows almost inevitably from the choices we have made. But we should not be too hard on ourselves for having disappointed ourselves, as we are all of us working from imperfect information (to borrow a term from economics).
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