Friday, January 29, 2010

The Parable of the Low Hanging Fruit (Part IV)

The great scholar concluded that his time would be best spent in the quest of low-hanging fruit and directed Schiavo to not only oversee the cultivator but to hold him to a precise schedule that would detail exactly how many pieces of fruit and of what size would be produced by when. But, when Agrono, heard this all he could say was, “I know the orchard will be bountiful but I cannot predict what each tree will bear.”

Omniscio found himself riding farther and farther away from the academy and coming back either empty handed or in possession of inferior fruit. In some instances his reputation was such that it did indeed lead him to sources of superior fruit but Omniscio did not understand the need for, or had little inclination to cultivate relationships with the families. If he could not get what he wanted with one request, he rode on. The more time he spent looking for low-hanging fruit, the less he took note of the growing abundance of his own orchard. Yes, the thought occurred to him that one day Agrono’s trees would be full of delectable fruit but he was certain that it would never be enough to keep him ahead of Hermeneuti and Heuristico. The fear of being eclipsed left him blind to fact that his academy often had more fruit than it could consume.

As Omniscio’s travels increased so did the expenses associated with them. If he had to spend so much in the search for low-hanging fruit, he reasoned, than Agrono should do with less. Schiavo found it wrenching to inform Agrono that his already modest budget needed to be cut here and there. “If we prune too much too soon,” the cultivator warned, “the trees will not thrive.” As the exactions continued, Agrono grew more exasperated until he cried out to Schiavo, “What does Omniscio want? What have I not done?” And Schiavo could only watch that pain in that expressive face deepen when he answered, “He wants more low-hanging fruit.”

With growing outrage, Schiavo watched the great scholar spend more and more without result while the cultivator, coping with less and less, continued to bring the best from his growing trees with every passing season. The provisioner tried many times and in many ways to tell Omniscio in the most tactful manner that it would be wise to spend less on his own pursuits and more on Agrono’s surpassing successes but the scholar was now the one who could not separate the fawn of truth from the foliage of self-deception.

But Schiavo could not help feeling ever more righteous in his indignation and so decided to cultivate an orchard of doubt with the calculated planting of single seed in particularly rich manure. The next time Irrasciblo dropped by the panty purportedly to pass the time of day but really to pilfer a piece of his favorite parmigiano, the provisioner pretended to be fretfully poring over his ledgers.

“What ails you?” asked Irrasciblo.

“I wish I could tell you but all is not well,” said Schiavo, knowing this would only whet Irrasciblo’s curiosity. “I fear for the Academy but it is not a matter I can discuss.”

“Well,” huffed the stuffy scholar, “If it involves the Academy it must involve me.”

“I know no one cares more about it or is more true to it than you,” the provisioner proffered.

“Indeed,” he harrumphed, expanding to his full girth.

“But my loyalty is to Omniscio.”

“At an academy, all must be loyal to the truth!”

And so it went, with Schiavo alternating between innuendos of wrong doing and professions of loyalty until Irrasciblo was demanding to know.

“Well, then, duty calls me to share it with you,” the provisioner finally agreed, “but only if it is kept in utmost secrecy.”

The more Irrasciblo offered his assurances that it would be so, the more certain Schiavo was that it would be common knowledge before the evening was over. With seemingly ceremonial gravity, Schiavo put the ledgers under Irrasciblo’s proud nose and pointed out how it was becoming ever more difficult to meet the Academy’s needs given Omniscio’s quest, a curiously expensive quest in contrast to Agrono’s remarkable frugality.

The provisioner fed Irrasciblo’s igniting indignation with an ever richer sauce of ruminations of ruin, culminating with the question of what might happen to the Academy should Agrono withdraw his services. Irrasciblo, now professing himself the cultivator’s greatest champion, averred that such an injustice could not be allowed to occur. When Irrasciblo finally strode from the pantry like a portly paladin, Schiavo was not certain of what he had set in motion but he knew that Omniscio would eventually bear the brunt of it.

Any academy can be described as a place “where everyone mutinies and no one deserts,” but it should be added that the insurrections of the intelligentsia are invariably indirect. The captain of an academy is rarely confronted by his querulous crew much less set adrift in an oar-less dory. He is instead subjected to widespread ridicule and derision that he will only get wind of occasionally. So it was that when Omniscio returned from his forays, he found every lively room he approached fall silent when he entered, then, in the farthermost corner, he would detect something snide being said sotto voce followed by a titter or two. As fast as he might wheel his head in one direction or the other, the source of these seeming slights seemed to have slipped from sight.

And, in those days there were even a few professors who were not above sharing with students their misgivings about their peerless leader and so Omniscio was awakened increasingly in the night by the splat of some over-ripe fruit on his chamber window followed by an adolescent guffaw or two but when he leapt to the window the culprits had vanished in the night. Then an even braver soul slipped a handbill under his study door announcing a student production of an original satire entitled, “The Quest of Cornucopio: A Fool’s Errand.” But, when he insisted this send-up be squelched, he was told that no one could be found who knew anything about where or when it might be staged.

And, alas, there were even a few students who wrote to their parents complaining that the great Omniscio was rarely seen at the Academy, much less tutoring one of his charges, and that it was bruited that he was forever in search of fruit to treat a chronic and severe case of constipation. Soon the scholar was receiving letters from powerful and prominent fathers asking him to respond rumors of frivolous expenditures, mismanagement and a failure to provide proper oversight of his own academy.

Omniscio did not understand why these things were occurring. After all, productivity had never been higher and his thesis had been proven. The more fruit he acquired, the more his academy achieved. He explained all this in carefully reasoned letters bolstered with fact after fact but none of it seemed to make any difference. Rooms still fell silent when he entered, fruit still forcefully found its way to his window and pointed letters piled up in his study. “Have I reached these heights only to be dragged down by the ignorant, by those who cannot comprehend the singular significance of what I have done and what I am trying to achieve?” wondered Omniscio from one restless night to the next. He did not realize that when one releases the gnawing thing within on another, the beast always circles back on its breeder.

Yet, as Omniscio weighed his options, he reasoned that only the performance of his academy would protect him against the most powerful critics. If productivity remained high, the means of achieving it could only be faulted so much. If it slipped, any and all of the means would be questioned and blamed. So, of all the things he might do, the most important was the acquisition of fruit. Omniscio was becoming like the wayfarer who, fearing his purse would be taken by imagined bandits, began filling his pockets with stones but, no sooner were three stones in his pocket did he imagine being attacked by four bandits and so added another, only to imagine yet another bandit who required yet another stone. By the time he reached the river, his pockets could hold no more stones and, as he began to cross, the weight of them all began to pull him under yet he could not force himself to let go of a single stone lest he meet with bandits on the other side and so lost both his purse and his life.

The great scholar was now traveling farther and farther, over many days in each direction, in search of more low-hanging fruit. Each day he found him on a different road, and each night in a different inn. He spoke to no one and dined by himself, rebuffing the efforts of fellow travelers seeking solace in the company of another. On one such occasion, he had sequestered himself in a corner of the dining room and hunched over a bowl of soup, the taste of which he never noticed and the rim of which he never looked beyond, as his spoon, like his mind, stirred vegetative bits desultorily about. He paid no attention to the two travelers, one a young teacher, the other a graying merchant, sitting between him and the crackling fire, until one, when asked whence he traveled answered “the Academy d’Empirici” – the school founded by none other than Hermeneuti and Heuristico.

“And why do you travel?” asked the merchant.

“In pursuit of knowledge,” explained the young teacher.

“Knowledge of what?”

“Fruit,” said the young teacher.

Omniscio was now one large ear.

“But you come from the Orchard of the Middle Land,” observed the merchant. What more do you need?”

“The very abundance of a thing lessons the curiosity of why it is so,” the the teacher instructed, “We have an abundance of fruit but it would be most unwise to assume what always has been will always be.”

“Yes, yes,” thought Omniscio.

And the teacher’s words also made great sense to the merchant who had learned that everything was subject to change – the sources of goods, the markets in which they could be sold and the customers who would buy them – and that one must always watching for where change might lead. He nodded appreciatively but asked, “Yet, what is it that can’t be studied there?” he asked.

“Because we have so much, we ask only when the fruit will be in season. Those who have less ask how to best prune the tree so that it might yield more. Those who have even less, ask how to feed the soil so that it might bear a more fruitful tree. I seek fundamental knowledge, to learn from those who have learned from the soil up.”

“Excellent,” thought Omniscio. “Very fine reasoning.”

Again, this too made great sense to the merchant who had learned that one must have deep knowledge of the sources of the goods that one trades in. “So where do you find such knowledge?”

Just as the young scholar spoke there was a clank of tankards at another table followed by a boisterous laugh causing Omniscio to miss what was said.

The young teacher continued to speak most admiringly of someone but every time the name was mentioned, the fire would go pop-a-crackle, or a stool leg would screech on the stone floor, or a song would break out at the other end of the room, causing the great scholar to miss what he strained so mightily to hear and to know. And yet, he could not scream “silence” or do anything to let himself be known. He must know who this person was but it could not be known at the Academy d’Empirici that Omniscio had learned from them!

And so Omniscio strained and jockeyed and sidled this way and that, trying to discover the identify of this great scholar the young teacher was seeking when he heard the merchant ask,

“And if this man has not written his knowledge down, how have you come to know of it?”

“Because knowledge is so evident in what he has produced. The plums of Agrono speak volumes.”

“And where do you hope to find him?”

“The Academy d’Omniscio,” smiled the young teacher. “Only two days hence.”

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