December 27, 2010

Degrees of Seperation

Photo: The Delta by ecstaticist on


`Did you know that you are acquainted with Barack Obama?´, Eric asked me.

Eric is a friend of mine. None of these`online friends´that you will pick up by the dozen to pimp up your MySpace account - no - a real friend, of flesh and blood, who doesn´t disappear but will meet and bear with me even on bad hair and bad mood days. I didn´t find him on the web, I simply found his door plate ... isn´t that old fashioned?. It said Conflict Manager. Everytime I drove home, I passed this door plate and heard an inner voice repeating conflict manager, conflict manager... Not having conflicts, but being a conflict at that time, I ended up ringing his doorbell one day. I met the man, his giant cobra snake (the snake, a SHE, was enthroned it her terrarium like a Queen, in the middle of the living room, sun-bathing under her infrared, lazily gazing at me with despise when I winched), his messy practice (which instantly gave me a feel of home), his huge collection of fossiles, his brillliant mind. Eric´s hourly rate: 60€. The first session took us 2 1/2 hours and cost me 60€. The second took us almost 3 hours (we also started talking about his own conflicts that were related to mine) and cost me another 60€. I started feeling uncomfortable - didn´t Freud say that a psycho should always, always, without fail!, respect the legendary 50-minutes-slot?

At the beginning of the third session (I had already crossed the magic border that is crying in front of who I believed was my psycho), I told him that I wondered how I would be able to afford him - or how he would be able to afford me - if we went on like this. `Remeber, I´m not a psychoanylisist´, he replied, `I´m a conflict manager. I studied theology, physics and archaeology, then I trained myself to help people and companies out of their conflicts and problems of communication. Usually not the kind of problem you´re presenting, but your conflict is not only of relational but also of communicative nature, and very interesting to me as I happen to be in the same situation as you are, so forget about the 50 minutes. And don´t worry about the payment.´ I gave in. But at the end of that session, I handed him a little stone that I found in my left pocket (a stone my son probably offered me) and reminded him that this would meet the need of symbolic payment , just as in children psychoanaysis.

He took the stone. Then looked at me for a while, in silence. I glared back at him. Then he started smiling and asked: `How about friendship?´ `OK´, I said, `if you lower your cigarette consumption to 5 per hour when we see each other.´ That´s how we became friends.

`Me, acquainted with Barack Obama? Sorry Eric, I don´t get your point...´

`Alice. You are acquainted with Barack Obama, just as you are acquainted with every Chinese rice farmer on this planet, by just six degrees of separation


`The Small World Phenomenon, Six degrees of Separation Theory, also referred to as the "Human Web"... It refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is no more than six "steps" away from each person on Earth. The easier way to understand this is that person A only needs a maximum of five people in between to connect to person B. (Supposing person A and B don't know each other.)´

`Ah. You mean that everybody knows somebody who knows somebody etc....?´

`Exactly. MySpace, Facebook, StayFriends, Skype, LinkedIn, all those hundreds or thousands of "new" so-called social community network are based on the old concept of the Human Web, they are a modern manifestation of it, which proves that Frigyes Karinthy was a visionary.´

`Who was Frigyes Karinthy?´, I wondered.

`Well, he was a Hungarian author and has been regarded by some as the originator of the notion of Six Degrees of Separation. After World War I, statist theories on optimal design of cities, city traffic flows and neighborhoods and demographics were in vogue. These conjectures were expanded in 1929 by Karinthy, who published a volume of short stories titled "Everything is Different." One of these pieces was titled "Chains," or "Chain-Links." The story investigated in abstract, conceptual, and fictional terms many of the problems that would captivate future generations of mathematicians, sociologists, and physicists within the field of network theory. Due to technological advances in communications and travel, friendship networks could grow larger and span greater distances. In particular, Karinthy believed that the modern world was 'shrinking' due to this ever-increasing connectedness of human beings. He posited that despite great physical distances between the globe's individuals, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance far smaller.

As a result of this hypothesis, Karinthy's characters believed that any two individuals could be connected through at most five acquaintances. That was the basis of the theory, as it has later been propagated by Stanley Milgram , John Guare, Duncan Watts and others. There´s a charity network website nowadays called, and last year Facebook launched a platform application named “Six Degrees” that has been developed by Karl Bunyan (London network), which calculates the degrees of separation between different people.´

`That´s amazing, Eric. But you know what? Evenif we´re able to find or contact almost anyone by a few mouse clicks today, I don´t think communication has become easier or less complicated in either case... Look, what if a person you love, someone you care for, is just one degree of seperation away from you (by the mere fact of being the other one, a different one than myself, in the sense of Sartre´s concept of L´Autre - as in "l´enfer, c´est l´autre", but also in a positive sense, as a mirror of soul or even a genuine source of love - ), what if you know 20 ways to reach that person, but can´t use any of them, simply because none of them is used by your vis-à-vis?´

`You mean the old who-calls-first-dilemma?´, Eric asked.

`Yes. I mean no. Well, more or less. It is more about non-communication, the lack of synchronicity . How can I explain better? Oh, have you read "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene? One of my favourite novels! London at World War II, a man (Maurice) and a woman (Sarah) obsessively in love, she´s married to someone else but doesn´t want to divorce, he´s a writer. One night, while making love at his house, they are hit by a Blitz bomb... he is badly injured and nearly dies. After this incident, she breaks off the affair with no explanation. He mourns the loss of her for two years, and when her husband (Henry) contacts Maurice because he (Henry) has become suspicious that Sarah has a (new) lover, Maurice hires a private detective to find out. But once the detective gets Sarah's journal for him, he learns that Sarah made a promise to God not to see her lover again when she thought he was dead after the bombing, if only he would survive. Maurice realizes that his jealousy is misdirected; he should really be jealous of God. He understands Sarah's actions now, so he can't hate her anymore. He realizes that Henry didn't win her back after all, so there's no point hating him neither. Maurice ends up with all this pent up emotion and no where to direct it.

Sarah herself is struggling mightily with her ambivalence towards God and the promise she made Him in a moment of desparation:

A vow's not all that important--a vow to somebody I've never known, to somebody I don't really believe in. Nobody will know that I've broken a vow, except me and him--and he doesn't exist, does he? He can't exist. You can't have a merciful God and this despair.

Finally Sarah agrees to meet with him again. But, already stricken with a cough, returning home from their luncheon in the rain she becomes quite ill, sickens and dies of pneumonia... there is a sort of half-hearted attempt here to defend the lovers and minimize their sin, as when Maurice contemplates hiring the detective:

It isn't, when you come to think of it, a quite respectable trade, the detection of the innocent, for aren't lovers nearly always innocent? They have committed no crime, they are certain in their own minds that they have done no wrong, "so long as no one but myself is hurt," the old tag is ready on their lips, and love, of course, excuses everything--as they believe, as so I used to believe in the days when I loved.

But we don't really believe that's how Greene feels. After all, the heroic figure is not Maurice, who wants to continue sinning, but Sarah, who stops even though it kills her. After her death, a few heavenly miracles occur, and even Maurice is conveyed to belief in the end.

Well, there´s a much more in the book - within this setting, Greene methodically explores themes of love and hate, faithfulness, "the nobility of the struggle with sin and he moral heroism of those who can conquer it" (as a critique puts it) , and the presence of the divine in human lives.. - But the point I would like to make in relation to that six degrees of separation thingy is:

Although today, everything has changed (in terms of communication techniques), nothing has changed (when it comes to people´s moral and emotional ability to communicate with each other). We are still Sarah and Maurice. If we don´t even know, simply can´t make up our minds, whether or how we are morally allowed to intimately communicate with someone who matters (matters a lot! Like someone we love), who cares about the degree of seperation? One degree is equivalent to a thousand degrees, then! It is even more cruel, because we can´t cheat on ourselves anymore ("maybe the stage coach has been raided and the courier was killed, maybe her/his letters got lost and sank with the post ship, maybe he´s lost my phone number, maybe she can´t make a phone call because her husband is observing the telephone...?").

Come on, face the truth: if you get no news, your vis-à-vis wants to stay silent, for whatever reason (and there you go again, wondering why, struggling with yourself, the oneself, with love, faith, morality, truth, pride...).´

Eric looked at me in silence, then nodded.