by Theodore Dalrymple (January 2013)
I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, djinns, demons, witches or fairies, with one notable exception: the Sock Fairy. The Sock Fairy inhabits, or hovers around, every washing machine in which my wife or I ever put my socks. He, she or it manages somehow to turn what were six perfectly matching pairs of socks when put into the machine into (say) three pairs plus three odd socks. How this transformation is achieved, I do not know, but it is achieved with the greatest regularity and efficiency. Likewise, I do not know what benefit or pleasure the Sock Fairy derives from this; I suspect it is a malign or cynical pleasure from witnessing my exasperation and impatience as I try to rematch my socks once they are removed from the machine. The Sock Fairy, by the way, follows me wherever I go, with as much persistence as the crying baby that never seems to grow up and that has been within a row or two of my seat on every flight that I have taken in the last forty years.
The Sock Fairy has been responsible for the wastage of many hours of my life and a great deal of misery and frustration. It is extremely difficult to match socks once the Fairy has been at them; for example, it cannot be done in artificial light, but only in bright natural light. This is because many socks are very similar, in pattern and colour, but not absolutely identical. Once you have made a mistake in matching them, there is a knock-on effect: the mistake is amplified, and it becomes more and more difficult to pair the socks. In the end, I am left with a number of orphan socks that I put in a separate bag (which grows ever more stuffed with socks) in the vain hope that one day I shall be able to turn them into pairs.
While not physically heavy work, matching socks once the Sock Fairy has had his, her or its way with them is emotionally trying and even exhausting. One very soon feels wrung out by it. One’s despair is almost of existential proportions as one struggles with recalcitrant socks; what is life that such a trivial pursuit should take so much time and effort? When pairing my socks, I am reminded of the man that Logan Pearsall Smith once described, who considered suicide because he could no longer face the tedium of having to tie his shoe-laces every day. Half an hour of sock-pairing leaves me not only tired, but without the sense of satisfaction that successful accomplishment gives one. After all, they are only socks, the humblest of parts of a man’s attire. (If they were anything other than humble, surely one would see more advertisements for them? Armani never advertises socks, even if it sells them.)
The process of pairing my socks dents my self-confidence. I think I have found a pair of identical socks but when I look more closely I discover, or think that I discover, slight differences between them, either in colour or in pattern or in texture. I am no longer sure that I can believe my own eyes; perhaps the faint difference in colour (for example) is not intrinsic to the socks, but is the result of different experience in the washing machine – in biological or human terms, the difference between them is not genetic but environmental. Then again, I assume that the two socks of a pair are identical when bought, an assumption that may not be justified and in truth I have never bothered to check when buying a pair.
The Sock Fairy is a subtle demon, as subtle as the serpent in the Garden of Eden: for he, she or its produces dissension between me and my wife. I start off with the full intention of pairing the socks exactly, but after a short time I lose my determination and think that any pairing, provided only that it is not too grossly discordant, will do. After all, if on close examination I cannot be sure that the socks are not a pair, surely no one is going to notice that they are not (if they are not) when I wear them. Nobody examines the socks of his interlocutor that closely.
When it comes to the pairing of socks, however, my wife is deontological rather than utilitarian. Good enough is not good enough. Once you accept to wear different socks, however similar they may appear on casual inspection to be, you are on the slippery slope that leads to scruffiness, to wearing ties with soup stains, to looking like a tramp. And we are fast approaching the age at which it would be very easy to let ourselves go. We might even become smelly.
A solution to the problem might be to buy a very large number of pairs of socks of exactly the same colour and design, or at least of perhaps two or three colours (one cannot wear brown socks with grey clothes, or black socks with green or beige clothes). The problem here is that stores rarely carry a sufficient number of identical socks of the right size and colour to carry one through a week or two – assuming one changes one’s socks every day. One could, of course, make do with two pairs if one were prepared to wash one’s socks daily instead of accumulating them for a week, but this is a counsel of perfection that is not in accordance with human psychology.
Sock manufacturing companies (which are practically all in China these days) are clearly in league with the Sock Fairy, if not actually in his, her or its pay, because, while they produce pairs of socks that are very similar to one another, they constantly change the design by just a little, sufficient to make exact pairing very difficult or near impossible. If were Heraclitus alive today, he would not remark that you cannot step into the same river twice, but that you cannot buy the same pattern of socks twice. Whether this has quite the same metaphysical significance I am not sure.
It is many years since I first became aware of the problem created by the Sock Fairy, and so far have found no solution to it. But there is an interesting lesson about human psychology here, and it is this: how quickly one assumes that an irritation in life or an apparent problem is the result of ill will on the part of an animate being with some kind of grudge against one. Of course, when socks appear to have gone missing in the washing machine, I am perfectly aware that the appearance is unlikely to be the reality: that the rule is ten socks in, tens socks out, and so forth. It is much more likely that I mistook the number of socks that I put in the machine than that any of them disappeared in the wash. And if any of them did disappear there would be a perfectly rational, that is to say materialist, explanation of their disappearance,
But although I think this with what I might call the official part of my mind, that is to say that part of my mind that I am willing to acknowledge as being fully mine, yet (if I am honest) I cannot entirely rid myself of the suspicion that there is an animate force somewhere nearby that has worked against me when socks appear to have gone missing or become dis-paired. Naturally, the suspicion is not sufficiently strong for me to do anything about it, by (for example) trying to propitiate the Sock Fairy with some kind of sacrifice. What, apart from socks, would the Sock Fairy want or be satisfied with? It is probable that socks are not an end in themselves for this nasty being: as flies to wanton boys are we to the Sock Fairy.
Our propensity to see malign forces at work against us is quite strong, and no doubt Darwinists would attribute survival potential to it (after all, we have survived with such a propensity, haven’t we?).
Here is another small and trivial example of our inherent tendency to paranoia: when I drive I quite often make small mistakes, and when I make them other drivers assume not that I have made a genuine mistake, but that I have tried to obtain an advantage for myself by my conduct at the wheel. Often when I drive in a town that I have never visited before, I find myself in the wrong lane to get to my destination, and have to change it. In the meantime I might have overtaken a long line of cars in the lane that I now belatedly want to join, and it will occur to no one that I have overtaken in that lane that I am simply unfamiliar with the town. To judge from the expressions on each of the driver’s faces, he interprets my action not as mistaken but as unjust, unfair, psychopathic, an underhand attempt to save myself a bit of time at his expense. The true explanation, that I am a stranger in this town who does not know his way, occurs to no one, not even for a fraction of a second, as a possibility, as part of what doctors call a differential diagnosis. And indeed, many drivers in this mental state are prepared to act upon their supposition, seeking to exact their revenge if they are able a few hundred yards up the road. One of my friends extends his paranoid interpretation of behaviour on the road to those who seek to overtake him, which he takes as a personal affront or insult.
We are never very far from paranoia. If you go to a foreign country whose language you do not speak and whose culture you do not understand, you will be inclined to think, if you hear a group of people laughing among themselves, that they might be laughing at you. You are afraid that you appear ridiculous in their eyes, especially if you are conspicuously different from them in appearance. The more delicate or fragile your ego, the more readily you will become paranoid; but no doubt almost everyone has a threshold for becoming paranoid.
The number of pathological conditions that result in or are accompanied by paranoia is very large; one might almost say that paranoia is the most common psychological consequence of physiological disturbance (that and depressed mood). I think, then, that I am justified in saying that paranoia is never very far below the surface of human mentation.
There is another aspect of our psychological propensity to attribute bad motives to others: it is highly enjoyable. Which of us does not actively enjoy speaking ill of people? And we should rather be the object of malice than the victims of chance, for at least malice directed at us reassures us that we of some significance to someone, that we are worth harming. Very occasionally I had patients whom I would not have wished to deprive of their paranoid delusions, even if I had been able to do so. Their delusions, though uncomfortable in some ways, explained to them their situation in life in a way that flattered them; they suffered because they were at the centre of an immense conspiracy organised by the most powerful forces in the world. Therefore they were not as insignificant in their own eyes as they were in those of the world, far from it. To have deprived them of their delusions upon which they had irreparably wasted their lives, to have made them face their true situation, would have been cruel, even if at times they suffered because of them.
I wonder how many of us can do entirely without our illusions, how many of us can face reality, especially about ourselves, exactly as it is? Humankind cannot bear very much reality, said T S Eliot, and I suspect he was right. On the other hand, humankind cannot survive too much illusion either. It is a difficult balance to strike, especially for oneself.
Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.
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