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The Lottery in Babylon



Common wisdom and Statistics 101 alike maintain the following axiom regarding lotteries, and one's participation therein: You cannot lose if you do not play. Unless, of course, you happen to participate in the Babylonian lottery.


The ultimate loser


Described by Argentinian author Luis Borges in a fantastically warped collection of stories titled Ficciones, the eponymous yarn details the mechanics and surrounding social constructs of an ancient, fictional lottery. Initially (at least), the luck of the draw functions like any other like-minded contest of winner-takes-all. After numerous iterations (and under the auspices of a culture that equated symmetry with the divine) the governing organisation grants the ultimate winner a companion in the form of... the ultimate loser. One could now have terrible miseries visited upon oneself simply by possessing the losing lottery ticket.


Terms and conditions


As with any lottery, Terms and Conditions apply - in this case, unwieldy leather-bound volumes contain microscopically-printed clauses, the text of these weighty missives shrouded in contradictory legalese and continuously modified and improved upon by a secretive company of (presumably defrocked) priests... who, in accordance with the law, visit exotic flavours of Orwellian doom upon unsuspecting members of the public in inexplicable and whispered-about ways. (Clearly not much in the world has changed since ancient Fictional-Parallel Babylon's apex).


Optional or compulsory


Central to this blog post, participation in the lottery was initially deemed optional, but later decreed to be compulsory for all but the ruling elite. This mattered a great deal to those who ended up with the figurative (but often painfully literal) short end of the stick. Not playing was clearly no longer a valid strategy.


Furthermore, by spreading misinformation and ensconcing 'correct' thought, the organisation managed to retain the essential air of mystery surrounding its byzantine operations. In due time the lottery became imbued with a sense of fatalism amongst the plebtarian masses. Few were old enough to remember the times preceding it, and those who could, privately questioned the reliability of their memories in the face of the overwhelming official positions. To borrow a phrase, the lottery became weaved into the tapestry of daily life. Questioning its reasons for existence was unthinkable.


Among other things, Borges intended his story to be a metaphor for the hardships and joys of life, eventually truncated by the inevitability of death. I have, however, come to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about this story since moving to the Netherlands: a place where directness, pragmatism, logic and common sense prevail and generational insanities that conflates myth with history are limited mostly to private and interpersonal opinions.


Simply put: The Dutch will do something if it makes sense to do so.


What other reason would they need?


Author:

Kepler Engelbrecht

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