on the Simian Grasp of the Universal Laws of Karma
and the Heretofore Unannounced Principle of the Ecological Conservation of Speed;
or, Monkeys in Rockets! How’d that Happen?
by James Farganne
It happened the same way that all Great Monkey Developments take place: certain monkeys, having perfected the art of sleeping well at night after perpetrating horrendous acts of exploitation against other, more docile, more disadvantaged, or maybe just far less ambitious and greedy monkeys, found new and more potent ways of defying the Principle of the Ecological Conservation of Speed, which here makes its formal memetic debut in the speed-dense cyber-jungles of our post-war, pre-Apocalyptic Monkeyworld.
Monkeys, you see, even the dimmest of them, have always displayed at least a rudimentary grasp of the Universal Law of Karma; any monkey with an opposable thumb — meaning, according to set theory, ALL MONKEYS — knows that there are ways of using that opposable thumb that are likely to get it broken by another monkey.
As the opposable thumb plays a big role in the monkey’s chances at evolutionary success, that monkey is likely to think twice before using that opposable thumb to steal a banana or a scrap of lemur flesh from another monkey of equal-to-greater size or maybe just hotter temper and more will to fight. Smarter monkeys, perceiving this most basic of karmic dilemmas — risk the karmic retribution of a broken evolutionary breakthrough, or go hungry long enough to find either a smaller, more timid monkey from which to take a banana, or take the trouble to go and find a banana of my own — will either opt for one of the latter two options, or, if the monkey is even a smarter specimen still, will engage in the rudiments of what we “higher” monkeys have come to refer to as politics: he will approach the other monkey and investigate the various possibilities of swindling the other monkey out of the banana, maybe convincing the other monkey that there are better bananas in a certain tree that only he, the conniving one, knows the location of, but he would be quite happy to show the pre-Australopithecine mark before him holding the purportedly inferior banana, he would be quite honored, in fact, to lead the original, the primordial dupe, to this Tree of Ultimate Bananas … for the mere price of the banana at hand. It’s a limited-time offer! Decide now. The smarter monkey explains this in grunts and gestures, all the while picking fleas from his mark’s coat and casually transferring them to his mouth. What the monkey might lack the foresight, at this stage in monkey mind development, to foresee, is what will happen when his physical equal finally figures out that there is no such Ultimate Banana Tree, probably never was such a tree, and probably never will be such a tree. And thus the Law of Karma prevails upon us monkeys again, as it always does, at ever more hazily rarified levels of connivance and obfuscation.
The smartest monkeys — at least smartest in terms of pursuing the gratification of abnormal levels of greed — have been the ones who were at the same time dumb enough to use their superior intelligence to convince themselves that the Universal Law of Karma could be beaten: that, in the minds of ancient monkeys whose distant progeny were destined to populate lands with lawyers, the Universal Law of Karma, like mundane laws, might contain loopholes that could be exploited for the better accumulation of large, rotting stockpiles of brown bananas and lemur carcasses carefully guarded by brawny, less intelligent monkeys who were nevertheless just intelligent enough to know that if they went apeshit occasionally for the right monkeys, against the right monkeys, they received, for their services, all the free brown bananas they could eat.
Another emotion in which the simian persuasion has always excelled is envy or, when envy is coupled with greed, jealousy. We can imagine the monkeys squatting at the edge of the savannah, squinting, from the shady safety of nearby trees, out at the leopards and cheetahs rippling after frail impala at dazzling speeds through the waves of heat. Pulsating mirages of lakes of blood out there made lemur scraps look like chump change. We can see the first intrepid monkey who dared to hop onto the back of a lioness crouched in the tall grass below his perch up in the baobab. There must have been many such casualties before some of the more clever monkeys finally considered that cats might be by their very nature opposed to partnerships of any kind, be they negotiated or imposed. Subsequently, who can surmise how many ages of experimentation with jackals, hyenas, and vultures transpired before they abandoned the scavengers — after all, what good was going faster if it meant running away from the object of all this, namely, the food? — and focused on fast, blunt-toothed creatures with no taste for, indeed no ability to digest meat?
Thus the Great Zebra Attempt. But it wasn’t long before the monkeys were again loitering in their shady copses, crestfallen. The Zebras had mostly just sat there, swishing at the simians astraddle their backs with shit-streaked tails. And, duh, they didn’t eat meat, so of course they didn’t chase after prey. And even if they did chase after prey, they lacked both the ability and the inclination to kill the stuff. We can see the monkeys hurling their feces at one another in frustration, batting their heads against their trees … for now, a new kind of greed had been born, and therefore, as per monkey psychology, a new need. But this need was not so tangible as stockpiles of brown bananas. It was a new need — that’s right, that’s right, you got it! — the need for speed! And this new need swept through the monkey collective mind with viral intensity. Flash forwarding several thousand generations, after untold difficulties crossing narrow channels of water, finally the biggest, baddest, boldest, most opportunistic and least compunctious of our ancestors emerged on vast alien stretches of sand and not much of anything else where they were able finally to wrestle a new kind of hump-backed critter to the ground that spat in their faces but eventually proved biddable enough to provide a ride that, though somewhat hard on the genitals, was manageable with the help of new technology: papyrus chokers and reed sticks. Prey was still out of the question, so the new concept now was game. For that, they had reeds they had learnt to sharpen with stones they had sharpened with harder stones. (These stages of using harder materials to sharpen progressively softer materials had taken a long time to perfect; however, the process in itself had greatly sharpened the monkey mind …)
Now the only problem was — no game. None worth pursuing, anyway. That thing lurking in the river was too fierce, its skin was too tough, nobody was willing to risk proximity to those jaws. The birds picking its teeth? They wouldn’t make a snack, much less a meal. Who can fathom for how many generations they wandered left and right and left again, and north, always some of them pushing farther north, toward longer and shorter nights and days, toward cooler climes, growing bigger, taller, stronger, tougher, rockier, trollier, more artful and cunning as selection, generation after generation, took its merciless toll?
Meanwhile, there were those who’d had no interest in going that much faster and had been pretty happy to snooze the hotter parts of the day away with a gutful of banana and too the prospect, later, after wakey-wakey, of snatching that chittering little lemur from out of that tree and getting some flesh on for a change. Those monkeys undoubtedly suffered much less. They also probably “advanced” quite a bit, though at a much more leisurely pace. They would, however, achieve great things, credit in the eyes of distant prosperity for which their northern brethren would later steal, as had become their specialty — indeed, for the elite among them, their veritable raison d’etre.
Now we imagine the first band of monkeys to master the art of breaking actual horses. Meaty yet agile they must have been, to have so tenaciously clung to the lathery flanks of their new subjects, chosen largely for the fact that they grazed on grass (no shortage of that), they didn’t bite, and they didn’t seem very capable of trafficking in ideas. With what a sense of superiority, whooping and hollering and screeching and trampling over the shaman’s tent, they must have entered the closest village, to announce their new Conquest of Speed! And of course to spell out in no uncertain terms what that Conquest meant for slower, more behind-the-times monkeys.
Now up to this point the karma — the karma amongst the monkeys, the horses, and the earth and the water and the sun that engendered them and sustained them from the alpha to the omega, from the first grunt unto the last — that karma, even to a greedy monkey, was more or less clear. It required only a slight adjustment in the zero-sum karmic balance. That adjustment was that certain beings (monkeys) were suddenly afforded abilities (chasing and killing prey at high speed, chasing down runaway servants at high speed, migrating greater distances in shorter times) that Nature had not granted at birth. In fact, Nature had given them just so much speed as was needed for sufficient numbers of them to sprint short distances to the safety of trees. Their speed limit matched their metabolism perfectly, as well the kinds of foods they ate (it takes no speed to chase down a banana, and little more for an individual in a group to help ambush a lemur in a tree).
By contrast, the cats, who needed vast supplies of taurine and other amino acids in the form of sleek, twiggy-legged, doe-eyed flesh rockets, nyumnyum, zooming around, were blessed by millions of years of evolution with the speed they legitimately did need. And they needed no opposable thumbs to sit around and pick lint out of their navels with, pining and pondering about what they lacked, outraged by the very thought that not every gift in Nature’s repertoire belonged to them.
What the monkeys didn’t take into account was Nature’s built-in conservation of speed; and that to violate it was to tamper with Nature’s infinitely delicate web of interdependency. Certain more metaphysically-minded monkeys, much later down the line, having shaved off what shocks of hair their noggins yet retained, would sit in frozen caves, warmed only by sackcloth, pondering this order of affairs; and later still they wove conceptual models for it, a famous example being Indra’s Net.
To violate the Conservation of Speed, a monkey must monkey around with his mental wrench, tampering with a machine of such hair-raising complexity that it is probably an outright use of metaphor, this calling of it a “machine”. (“The Tao that can be named,” opens the Tao Te Ching, China’s contribution to the Axial Age, “is not the true Tao.”) And it is a zero-sum game, self-referent, self-sufficient in its totality, and the Law of Karma is just a way of denoting the knack it has, over the longest of long hauls, no less than in this very instant of eternity, of enforcing the checks and balances necessary to keep it going along with no beginning and no end, beyond the very reach of those conniving cognitive processes by which monkeys make time.
In short, to defy one’s natural speed limit — the highest speed you can travel on the strength of your own legs — is to do the following:
- require energy beyond your normal dietary intake to feed your speed-need.
- extend your mind and volition into other bodies, as well as inert instruments.
In the first case, acquiring that extra energy will often entail subjugating those weaker than you and siphoning energy from them. As they are already weaker than you, the problem arises of where to draw the line beyond which overexploitation will result in their demise. This takes a lot of intelligence; not all speed-freak monkeys are quite up to it. So that many more must die in service to their speed addiction, and that many more must labor under their yoke. Not to mention the horses whose legs occasionally break under the unnatural strain of conveying their passengers’ extra weight. They must be put down, as their utility has suddenly been transferred from a source of a speed to a source of food. These transactions — for already, in these valuations, we begin to see the nascent flickerings of currency-consciousness — are not without consequences. Over time they burn holes in the delicate weave of Indra’s Net. Gods of accountancy are invoked. They impose sanctions of famine, drought. Occasionally they slip into the rank and file to incite revolts. The speed-freaks, the elite, learn to manage their minions (and their own fear of them) by staging ever grander, more opulent, and more terrifying shows of their power, their cruelty, and their wealth.
A real genius of a monkey it finally was that persuaded the other monkeys, both master and slave, that there was a kind of magical value, as ineffable as it was inedible, in this shiny nugget the colour of blazing midday August sun.
Of course the horse was the speed standard for many, many thousands of years. This didn’t stop the monkeys, though, from dreaming of reaching higher speeds. This dream would have to elude them until they had developed tools of sufficient weight and strength to bore far enough into the Hide of the Mother to extract her sebum, which they could then learn to refine and to burn in controlled explosions which drove turbines which spun wheels at (eventually) such speed that soon enough monkeys were filming other monkeys shooting over deserts made of white salt in metal projectiles not even designed for the killing of game! And even before they monkeys had come that far, they had overcome their wing-envy by devising flying tin cans with sebum-burning devices of ever-increasing power and complexity to drive them. These flying cans soon proved invaluable in the waging of wars over sebum-extraction turfs.
And thus the karmic knot grew more entangled, and thus karmic debt-load deepened. For there was a price to be paid for the anomaly of monkeys managing to propel themselves at speeds faster than sound. The brunt of this price was to be paid, not by the minority speed-freaks, but by the majority of monkeys who would never get to enjoy the speed-need rush of all those Gs. The price was to be paid in ponderous levels of monkey misery, by now spread throughout all regions of this suddenly (sigh) cornerless Earth, but more densely distributed in regions closer to the Equator, but spreading “North”, so to speak, at speeds roughly concomitant with the vanishing of pristine rainforests that are home to those monkeys who never managed to make the leap to any level of speed-greed-fulfillment. Well, high speed requires timber, dammit, and lots of it, so screw those losers in the treetops — even if they are kind of cute.
Speed-freak monkeys need other things besides speed, including the ability to converse over long distances with others of their kind by using little boxes that bleep, the manufacture of which requires rare earth minerals which desperately hungry monkeys in the very seat of our common simian origins are constrained to kill each other for. Though surrounded by fertile land, they must find something to sell in order to eat. This strange state of affairs goes back to the first metallurgical monkey performing the first successful experiment in alchemy: creating value out of the scarcity of something monkeys can’t eat: in this case, gold.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Monkeys can eat gold, and they do. From the medium-speed monkeys who spend their lives working to amass numbers that represent slips of paper that no longer even actually represent the gold that once represented, as far as we can intuit, some kind of alchemical sun-god magic appeal, to the highest jet-set speed-freaks who no longer traffic in such droll currency, but rather trade in the rising and falling fortunes of the mid-speed monkeys who consume at their hypnotic beck and call, any monkey that can afford a bottle of cinnamon-infused alcohol distilled in a land of blond-haired and blue-eyed monkeys, a liquor swirling with glittering flakes of that precious malleable, can afford to ingest, and inevitably to excrete from their hindparts, gold.
Certain more mystically-minded monkeys, howling and chattering from what more mainstream monkeys discount as a “lunatic fringe”, maintain that the speediest of the species, the ones who profit most from this precarious flouting of the Conservation of Speed in the service of Greed, are concealing from the rest of their kind technologies that circumvent the very Laws of Nature that are commonly claimed by their Scientific Priesthood to uphold the System of Conservation itself. The term in circulation for this fabled loophole is “Free Energy”, and if it exists, it is purported to be able to propel future generations of monkeykind at speeds outstripping the inconceivable velocity of Light.
In the meantime, the monkeys continue to feed a cycle of violation based on addiction by extracting and burning, buying and selling, consuming and hoarding, going boom on the backs of others who must in turn go bang and bust; by channeling an aeons-old primal fear, the fear of masters who must manage many slaves, the unutterable fear of a sudden settling of cosmic accounts, of a sudden and devastating return to the ultimate justice of zero-sum equilibrium, into a low-cost longing for some return to a more simple and sustainable lifestyle — perhaps a cottage in the Hamptons with a pond, a garden, a chicken coop, and maybe a cellar full of wine.
Still, you can see it in their eyes, their maudlin eyes, as they recline in their chairs on a starry night, the music of the crickets stirring in their hearts fantasies of having returned, if only for a short time, to the bosom of their being. Being once monkeys, always monkeys, monkeys perhaps to the end of time, they can’t resist it — that pull — the same pull of desire that inspired that first would-be lion jockey on the plains of Africa, unfathomable ages ago — if only the Escalade had a warp drive, some kind of a galactic GPS — oh, the places we could go …