The Monkey's Paw (An illustrative story)

In Futurists, (  we had commented: 
"These modern Prometheans assure us that they can contain the ills we anticipate by predicting and controlling the future. But with so many of them occupying leadership roles in society and with so much already gone wrong in a very short period of time, it is incumbent upon us to study their work and bring into existence powerful moderators to their roles."  The inherent danger in unbridled Promethean actions is aptly illustrated by the story "Monkey's Paw" which follows: 

This is a story about two people whose longing to change the future pitched them head-long into the wishing well.

Major Harris, who had returned from India after twenty one years of service, narrated a fascinating tale of strange scenes and doughty deeds, of wars and plagues and of a distant its peoples. His host, Mr. White said, "What was it you started telling me the other day about a monkey's paw, Harris?" Harris took something out of his pocket and proferred it. White drew back with a grimace but his son Herbert, taking it, examined it curiously. It was just an ordinary little monkey's paw, dried to a mummy. "And what is there special about it?" inquired Mr. White, as he took it from his son and placed it on the table.

"It had a spell put upon it by an old fakir, a very holy man," said Harris, "He wanted to show how fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."

"Who had it before you?" Mrs. White inquired. "The one who had it before me was the first one and he had his three wishes. I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death! That's how I got the paw." Harris was obviously agitated with the memory of his own experiences. He snatched the paw from White suddenly and threw it upon the fire. White stooped down quickly and retrieved it.. "If you don't want it, Harris," said the old man, "give it to me and tell me, how I make the wish." "Hold it up in your right hand and wish aloud," replied the Major reluctantly, "but I warn you of the consequences. Heed my advice and throw it back into the fire; better let it burn. But if you want to persist, do be careful and wish for something sensible; otherwise, strange consequences are bound to follow; that was what the fakir advised.. They might happen so naturally that you might attribute it coincidence."

After Harris left, White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. "I don't know what to wish for, and that's a fact. It seems to me I've got all I want." His son Herbert said, "If you only cleared the house of the mortgage, you would be happier, wouldn't you? Well, wish for two hundred pounds then; that'll just do it."

His father, smiling at his own credulity, held up the talisman and said distinctly, "I wish for two hundred pounds." A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a sudden cry from the old man. His wife and son ran towards him. "It moved," he cried, with a glance of disgust at the paw as it lay on the floor. "As I wished, it turned in my hands like a snake." "It must have been your fancy," said the wife, regarding him anxiously. He shook his head. "Never mind, though; there's no harm done, but it gave me a shock all the same."

In the brightness of the wintry sun next morning, they laughed at their fears as they viewed the dirty, shrivelled little paw which lay pitched on the sideboard with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues. "I suppose all old soldiers are the same," said Mrs. White. "The idea of our listening to such nonsense! How could wishes be granted in these days?" "Harris said the things happened so naturally," said the father. "Well, don't break into the money before I come back from the factory," said Herbert as he left for work.

The wife laughed at her husband's credulity and teased him; yet when the mail brought only a tailor's bill, she felt a little disappointed. When a stranger knocked at the door and she opened it , she could not help making a mental connection between the two hundred pounds and the fact that the stranger was well dressed and wore a silk hat. She waited patiently as, with great hesitation, he said at last, "I was asked to call. I am from M/s Maw and Miggins." The old lady asked breathlessly, "Is anything the matter? Has anything happened to my son Herbert?"

"I am sorry," began the stranger. "Herbert was caught in the machinery. The factory wished me to convey their sincere sympathy with you in a great loss, but they disclaim all responsibility. In consideration of your son's services, they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation."

Mr. White dropped his wife's hand, and gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, "How much?" "Two hundred pounds," was the answer. Unconscious of his wife's shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor.

The old people buried their dead son and came back to a house steeped in shadow and silence. It was all over so quickly that at first they could hardly realize it, and remained in a state of expectation as though something else should happen - something else to lighten this load, too heavy for old hearts to bear. But the days passed, and expectation gave place to resignation. Sometimes they hardly exchanged a word, for now they had nothing to talk about, and their days were long to weariness.

Suddenly, one night, the old lady thought of the monkey's paw and said hysterically to her husband, "I only just thought of it. Why didn't I think of it before? Go down and get the thing quickly and wish our boy alive again." All her husband's importunities were in vain. "We will have one more," she cried triumphantly, "get it quickly and make this wish. We had the first wish granted; why not the second?"

With great reluctance, the old man held the talisman in his right hand and his wife cried in a strong voice, "Wish!". "It is foolish and wicked," he faltered; yet, he wished aloud, "I wish my son alive again." The talisman fell to the floor with a resounding crash and he regarded it fearfully. In the dark of the night, as the couple lay on their bed with strange thoughts, they froze as a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door. "What's that?" cried Mrs. White, as a loud knock resounded again through the house. "It's Herbert!" she screamed and ran to the door. "For God's sake, don't let it in," cried the old man. "You are afraid of your own son?" she cried, struggling. "Let me go. I'm coming Herbert; I'm coming."

As she struggled with the rusty bolt to unlock the door, White found the monkey's paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish. The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. As the old lady finally opened the door, a cold wind rushed in and a long wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him the courage to run to her side and console her.

Are we to conclude from this chilling tale that any attempt to influence the future will inevitably bring devastation on our heads? If we view the story as a parable, who is the sergeant-major and who is the' fakir and what is our monkey's paw?

Let us suppose that the sergeant-major is technology, the old fakir, science. Then our monkey's paw is DNA; is rockets; is atomic energy; is cybernated computers—is all the products of science which technology puts into our hands for releasing powers till now locked in the vaults of the universe. Our monkey's paw has, indeed, the power to grant wishes. And for what shall we wish? For the power to create life? To mutate the human species, maybe programming out our tendency to violent and aggressive behavior? To defer, perhaps to abolish, death? To create superhuman thinking machines? To create a heaven on earth? To create vehicles to take us to new earths, new heavens?

Does anyone question the power of our monkey's paw to grant these wishes? Is anyone prepared to deny the possibility? If we can no longer take even our mortality for granted, we must understand that the human condition has fundamentally and irre- versibly changed. We no longer know, if we ever did, what il means to be human,

Now, the old fakir, we are told, put a spell on the monkey's paw because "he wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. "Of what, then, must we beware in the use of our monkey's paw? What is the catch? The old couple's first wish was for financial security. Their second wish was to undo the unexpected consequences of the first, and their third was to head off the anticipated consequences of the second, At the end of it all, they were infinitely worse off than before they began,They had achieved security but at what a price! The price was noth- ing less than their future. When their son was "caught in the machinery" of fate, their connection with the future was severed. The old fakir had made his point,

But if they had been wise enough to take account of the possible consequences of their wishes and if they had been wise enough to recognize what they really valued- might they have changed the future in a positive direction and disproved the dictum of the old fakir? We can only speculate, for in the story they did not.

But let us apply this parable to our common experience. A governing drive of Western man has been to subdue nature and to arrogate its powers. Thus we have tampered with wind and weather, with water and land, with forest and fields Unaware of the price we would have to pay, we have filled our surroundings with our machines and our filth. We thought we were making better things for better living through chemistry, through highways and cars and planes, through supermarkets and laundromats. Fate - was it? - decreed otherwise, and here we are about to make our second wish - to bring nature back to life. Yet we have only the beginnings of an understanding of our relationship to nature--of what is possible and what desirable. Are we ready to rub the monkey's paw?

Or let us take another analogy, this one a little further into the future, in that our first wish is still ahead of us, Scientists are at this moment conjuring up the power to create living forms according to our plan. Today we can grow any number of genetically identical carrots. Tomorrow-how about twenty Einsteins? Or twenty Frankenstein's? Or twenty of you?

Or, a third analogy. Our wish has created a race of servants for humanity, first the automated and now the cybernated computer, and we are waiting to see just how much they can do for us. Each new generation of computers attains more of the attributes of intelligence we once thought unique to human beings.

You may very appropriately want to ask me how we are going to resolve the ever- acceleratingly dangerous impasse of world-oppised politicians and ideological dogmas. 
I answer, it will be resolved by the computer.

. Buckminister puller

When computers can write their own programs, correcting the mistakes of their human programmers or making their own choices of what and how to think - when computers can reproduce themselves - will they choose to remain our servants? And if not, will we have a second wish or will they take away our monkey's paw?

We have, it seems, allowed our technology to outrun our understanding. Like the old couple in the story, we have lacked the wisdom to make wishes in a form which can guide our advance into a possible and desirable future.

The question of whether human choice and action can influence future events is both a philosophical and a practical question, It is a very old question and a pressing, current one. Regardless of what the answer may be - if there is an answer - it seems certain that human beings will continue to try to choose their own destiny. Perhaps it is time to get good at it.

To Embrace the future

 Dreams of eternal youth, of perfect beauty, wisdom, and goodness, of universal love, peace, plenty, and happiness are notlalgic visions of a never-never land shared widely in our culture. Today's technology mocks us with hair oil and television, and dangles before us visions of robots to do our work, replaceable body parts, and vacations on the moon, If it can be conceived, we are told, it can be done. In fact, if it can be conceived, our experience suggests, it will be done. Tell a vision, and it shall be yours. Science and technology have brought us to a point in history when we can have virtually anything we want—or are told we want. Knowing this, we are no longer able to tolerate the limitations and frustrations which we have from our beginnings accepted as "man's fate," as inescapable features of the human landscape.

Growth and becoming and possibility
necessarily point toward the future;
so do the concepts of potentiality and hoping,
and of wishing and imagining. . . .

Abraham H. Maslow

Yet, the more we get, the less we have. Experiences of beauty, joy, freedom, ful­fillment seem fewer, seem paler in the total context of our lives. And so we wish with Omar Khayyam that it could be otherwise. But we do not really know what to wish for, much less how to wish well. We have no image of a civilization of the future. Even the poets, artists, and philosophers among us (and within us) can evoke little in the way of a numinous, luminous vision of what life might be like, of what as human beings we could become. What anticipations we have are, from the standpoint of human values, the random projections of science and technology. We are the watchers of a light and sound show which is all light and sound—signifying nothing.

The problem is not that we lack a sense of what we want changed. We can probably agree on certain necessary '•social conditions for a civilization of the future, Any desirable future depends on a world without war, a world without deprivation, a world without social injustice, a world in balance between man and the rest of nature, a world in which personal alienation and isolation are replaced by community.

The problem is rather that we lack a sense of the human purposes which these changes would serve. Such changed conditions must be viewed as enabling conditions rather than as visions of the destiny of humankind in its full range of relationships to the universe - or universes, past, present, and future. They are comparable to the psychologist Abraham Maslow's "basic needs" which must be met if we are to continue to develop our potentialities.

It is these very potentialities which generate in humankind the desire to set conditions for their fulfillment. We would not seek the condition of peace, for example, if we were not pulled by the future, by a dimly perceived vision of something "beyond" our present experience of war, violence, brutality, destructiveness. Something in us yearns not for peace as such, but for the chance to discover what life might be like. what we might become in a peaceful world.

If one could form a compelling image or vision of what life might be like in that world, we would find ourselves almost automatically taking the necessary steps to get there. The more forcefully a vision of a desirable future impresses itself on one's mind, the greater its possibility of attainment.

The purpose of this book is to toss three spans across the chasm in our under­standing between present realities and the possible futures of humankind. To venture forth on one or another of these spans may seem as tenuous as climbing a rainbow, for each span is a construct not of fact but of belief. Each offers a different perspective on who we are and what we might become. One projects the path to the future as the effort to master nature, another as the quest for self-transformation, and the third as the search for wholeness.

The differing images of ourselves and our possible futures are formed by the works of writers whose beliefs about the nature and purpose of human life are as compelling as they are often incompatible. None is "right" or "wrong"; all are needed.

And. while the hypothesis reflected in the very structure of this book is that the third span may provide the best hope for humankind—incorporating, as it does, some of the best features of the other two—this, too, is a belief, awaiting the test of your inquiry,

What is possible for us? What is desirable? What is our nature, what our destiny? No one can answer these questions for anyone else, if indeed there are final answers. But perhaps Star Sight will help you discover answers, however tentative, within yourself, so that you may choose your own role in the unfolding drama of the future. 

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:

Hither and thither moves/ and mates, and slays/
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

You may believe, as "The Monkey's Paw" suggests, that we are nothing more than pieces on a chequer-board ruled by fate, 
in a closed, finished universe. You may believe that the limits of the possible are more remote than people have dared to dream;

You may believe that we are nothing less than the creators of a universe yet to be born.

We stand on the peak of consciousness of previous ages/
and their wisdom is available to us.  
History—that selective treasure house of the past which each age
bequeaths to those that follow—has formed us in the present
so that we may embrace the future. What does it matter if our insights/
the new forms which play around the fringes of our minds,
always lead us into virginal land where/ like it or not/
we stand on strange and bewildering ground?
The only way out is ahead, and our choice is
whether we shall cringe from it or affirm it.


The following piece by an unknown author sheds further light
on our inability to wish wisely:

The Kalpataru tree is a magic tree.
It listens attentively to our every wish and, in due time, grants them all.
Most of our wishes may be very unwise,
but the wishing tree fulfills them all, just the same,
hoping that you will learn by experiencing the consequences.

The gifts that it gives are like the links in a chain.
Each wish is linked to another, and the chain itself holds us in its tight grip.
As we grow, our wishes increase, the grip tightens;
and it seems as if we could never wish enough.
Our wishes had been quite simple when we were children,
but steadily they became increasingly complex and more difficult to fulfill.

The Kalpataru had kindled in us a spark of fire by granting our first wish
and this has now grown into a blazing fire
which we do not know how to control or extinguish!

We generally do not know what is good for ourselves.
Instead of leaving it to the Lord to grant our needs,
we demand from God the granting of our desires, like the petulant child.

The result, according to Oscal Wilde:

  When the Gods choose to punish us,
  they merely answer our prayers!

 To have all our prayers answered might be a curse!

At the end of this very well-written article: Desire under the Kalpataru Tree 
the author Pradip Bhattacharya concludes thus:

"This, then, is the picture of 'Desire under the Kalpataru':
Desire, if powerful, does get fulfilled, but brings in its wake a price to be paid which, more often than not, outweighs the gratification experienced through fulfillment of the desire. ....  It is Yayati who sums it up in words of deceptive simplicity that go straight to the mark:

Desire never ends,
Desire grows with feeding,
Like sacrificial flames
Lapping up ghee.
Become the sole lord of
The world's paddy fields, wheat-fields,
Precious stones, beasts, women...
Still not enough.
Discard desire.
This disease kills. The wicked
Cannot give it up, old age
Cannot lessen it. True happiness
Lies in controlling it. (Mahabharata Adi parva, 85.12-14)

The experience of Vyasa's Yayati is echoed by a great epic poet of the occident John Milton, in 'Paradise Lost':

...They, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with lust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes.

This is the existential experience which  pervades the Mahabharata and which Vyasa, the oriental seer-poet, envisions as an outcome of man's fascination with the Kalpataru. Vyasa creates a marvelously eidetic picture of this symbol in the words of Krsna in the Gita (15.1-3):

Mention is made of a cosmic fig-tree
Rooted above,
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
the knower of this fig-tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above,
its flowers are the objects of the senses;
below the ground flourish more roots,
giving birth to action.
You may not see its real shape,
nor its end, birth and existence.
Slice this fig-tree with non-attachment.  "

'The Monkey's Paw' story is adapted from a short story by W.W. Jacobs: