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In Praise of the Hammer

Right here on my desk, I keep on my desk an object that gives me immense pleasure. It’s a small prehistorical tool, at first sight, a chunk of stone not bigger my lighter. If I had to describe its shape, I’d say that it looks like a three-dimensional comma -- a curved piece of flint endowed with two sharp, converging edges. That’s all.

And it still works. You can use it to cut string or cardboard, for instance. I’ve tried. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could slash your wrists with it but, curiously, it would be virtually impossible to cut yourself with it by accident. If you hold it in your hand and make a fist, the thing fits snuggly between your fingers and the palm of your hand, and then it feels as if it were always meant to be there -- a part of your anatomy that culture misplaced long ago and nature will at some point restore in order to make you a truly superior animal.

In technical terms, this ancient tool would be classified as a “scraper.” Indeed you can see how its convex head could be used to remove the skin off a small carcass, say, a hare’s. But as I’ve learned, it must have served other purposes too. If you think of it, there wasn’t much space to spare in the backpack of an ice-age nomad, so this piece of flint was probably more than one tool. Even I, who can afford the luxury of three kitchen drawers to store my tools, have been known to use my screwdrivers and hammers as ice picks, seedling lifters, roach smackers, and god knows what else.

The use of my Paleolithic tool depends on how you hold it. Its convex edge can also be used as a knife perfect for cutting through an animal’s flesh. The concave one must have been ideal for tearing through the animals tough sinews, while its chunky handle may have come handy for crushing the joints of the animal. And the tools function would not have been exhausted after the hare was roasted and eaten. With its tip, (badly chipped now,) one could have pierced holes on the animals hide after leaving it in the sun to dry, drenched in urine. Then, the left overs of the meal could have been sewn together with leather strips or twine and become a pouch.

For someone like myself, who visits hardware stores like a pilgrim eager to make her ten-buck sacrifice at the shrine of human problem-solving, this tool is priceless -- a sort of amulet I reach for whenever I’m caught in a knotted sentence. The truth is that from a collector’s point of view, my little piece of flint is worthless. Strolling through some areas of the Pyrenees you are as likely to step on a busted Paleolithic tool as on an ordinary pebble. Even a small provincial museum would reject it, simply because it’s broken. Or rather, because it’s “used up.” I’ve often wondered whether its original owner threw it out because it had seen better days, or simple lost it -- just as one loses ones keys or the metro-card. Ironically, the more cracks in an old master-painting, the better its chance to be called a “masterpiece.” But in an age when our electronic devices become obsolete before they can gather dust, even the prehistoric tools displayed in the museums are all virtually brand new.

You could say that the Swiss-army knife is an obvious heir of this artifact, except that, strictly speaking, it is not really a tool, but rather, an assemblage of tools, while my old stone is a single tool capable of performing a variety of tasks. And this matters, because this functional and morphological difference hints at the demise of prehistoric thinking, a process that developed gradually as the itch for specialization forced our tools to splinter and multiply, eventually exploding into veritable labyrinth of mechanics and functions we now live by. By contrast, the physical thing and its uses are so well integrated here that, in a platonic sense, my shapely stone deserves a place in the tool-box of the gods.

If we were to follow Plato’s notion, we would have to say that the efficiency of tools is directly proportional to their aesthetic appeal. According to him, whatever is good (whatever works) is true and that which is true, is by definition beautiful. And he was right, one of my most dependable tools is a screwdriver from the early 1900’s I bought years ago at a flea market, which is endowed with a hefty bone handle -- a delight to both the fingers and the eyes. The thing is so fetching that, if it were not for its usefulness, it would be hanging on my wall.

Indeed the versatility of Prehistoric artifacts has not left us altogether. Think of one of their relatives the common hammer, which can drive a nail into a piece of wood and pull it out, separate the planks of a wooden box and nail them back together, break into someone’s apartment and then smash his skull, among many other things. Chances are that you won’t throw that hammer away. Unlike your laptop, your hammer will never become obsolete. When you think of it, when was the last time you bought a hammer? There’s always one around -- the previous tenants’, your ex-lovers’. Whenever you buy a hammer it’s simply because you can’t find the old one. Unlike electric drills, digital clocks and iPods, hammers don’t break down. They just get lost or stolen but if they break (usually the handle). Their demise amounts in human terms to a natural death in ripe old age, the end of a noble, self-effacing career. Or else, think of, the five-in-one, one of my favorite tools, which can be used not only to scrape cement or old paint from hard-to-reach crevasses, but also to mix plaster and spread it afresh like a very good shrink working on your psyche.

By and large, most common artifacts are essentially, sensible updates of ancient ideas. Consider this: after having saved young Commodus, the stupid and cruel child of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman physician Galen was allowed to experiment on the mangled bodies of gladiators, which is how he came up with what is the basic tool-box of surgeons to this day. But if a steel ax lasts longer than one made of flint, the improvement of its modern update is merely cosmetic. An ax is an ax. Take the rubber sheath that covers the handles of most of today’s hammers, which is meant to increase the grip of the old ones, but which you know is not only superfluous but impractical since, sooner or later it will crack in your hand leaving you with a smooth steel rod that’s sure to slide off your fist and make you hit your finger instead of the nail.

And what about that marvel of technology? The ratchet screw driver -- the most memorable present ever given to me by a lover. According to my most sophisticated friends, this tool may have well been the epiphany of a watchmaker, who thought of putting the perfect partnership of a tooth-wheel and a pawl at the service of less metaphysical tasks than counting time. It cuts wrist-work in half, and can make the most effete of intellectuals capable of putting up a bookshelf in minutes. Or else think of the most poetic of all, the carpenter’s level -- simply, a steel ruler housing a small glass bile filled with water, a tool capable of revealing the order of things through the quiet spectacle of an air bubbles dance.

Many of the tools in today’s hardware stores can claim a venerable pedigree. The origin of these artifacts is so remote that their names are among the most arcane in all languages -- Jack plains, scratch owls, gimlets and so on. Asking for them at the shop demands considerable verbal flare, a gift associated today with people who don’t usually waste their time in classrooms: plumbers, supers, carpenters, handymen, janitors, the real heirs of prehistoric know-how.

But then there are the modern ones those that hardware stores don’t carry, and that put very little demand on ones vocabulary since they’re called more or less by the same word in all languages: the TV set, the VCR, the DVD player, the cell phone and the queen of all, the PC. Of course calling these modern artifacts “tools” is merely a case of literary license, for strictly speaking, they are machines. The difference is fascinating. A friend of mine puts it tersely: a tool helps you perform a task while a machine performs it for you. This clever definition suggests that the real motivation behind technological progress is not imagination but laziness. So, being an incurable idealist, I’d rather consider an alternative one, that of Sister Genoveva de Jesus, my fifth-grade teacher -- a woman trained in the economy of dogma and the elegance of Augustinian prose: “A machine is the result of forcing two or more tools to work in conflict.” Her example was the pulley, the simplest of all, which is composed of two parts, a “lift” and a “resistance” -- or, as she’d put it, a piece that’s intent of performing an action and another one that refuses to comply. The eloquent nun may have sown in my soul the seed of an idea I’ve been mulling over ever since: the suspicion that a friction of wheels is at the core of all mechanical creations. Thus, the more complex the machine, the greater its potential for both marvel and disaster.

And the clever woman’s version of how this conceptual shift was historically possible is even more interesting: although our dependency on machines is usually associated with the industrial revolution its roots can be traced back to the early Neolithic, for machines entered history hand in hand with monarchy. They fulfilled a need to push agricultural productivity beyond mere sustenance as the population grew. They made possible the erection of megalith, then pyramids, then temples and palaces -- impressive public monuments, which ensured the cohesiveness of increasingly larger societies and the power of increasingly smaller elites. And what did this mean really, cognitively?

Let’s go back to the last Ice-Age.

In the popular imagination, Paleolithic people continue to be pictured as helpless low-IQ brutes, enslaved by superstition and disease. For all the challenges they faced, what science has discovered about them suggests that they ate better, slept longer, had more sex, and far more free time than us. To be sure, their lifespan was not long, but had we lived in their world ours would have been far shorter. They probably wore their teeth out softening animal hides in order to put them to good use. On the other hand, because of their low-carbohydrate diet they had no cavities. Though the fossils of our Ice-Age ancestors show more bone fractures than any of today’s hockey players, they seemed to have survived these traumas quite well, judging by the osseous calluses shown in their broken bones. And, apparently, they did not die from heart attacks, strokes or cancer. Typically, they succumbed to catastrophic events, such as severe wound infections following animal attacks or accidents and mainly childbirth.

Clearly we are more advanced than they were but I wonder if we are truly superior. We may have conquered outer space and high art but, when you think of it, how many of us can design a sky-rocket, write a perfect sonnet or sing Casta Diva? In terms of sheer economy the division of labor in those small clans and the responsibility for creative thinking was far more evenly spread than it is now. Most of us rarely do more than drag ourselves out of bed every morning in order to make it to the office or the factory, only to pass out in front of the TV or the computer at the end of the day. We depend on a vast technological structure, but very few among us are responsible for it, or aware of its workings. As Jorge Luis Borges once put it, even turning the light on or answering the phone amounts to an animistic act of faith, since most of us don’t really understands how it happens. So, when the phone doesn’t work or the electricity is out we become totally helpless -- truly primitive. (Reader, do you really know how to make a fire? I do, that is theoretically. Practically, I’d be at a loss. Can you take a stone from the park were you walk your dog and shape it into a weapon -- a scraper, a knife, a hammer? I suspect not.)

So one wonders, was Paleolithic thinking truly primitive? Who could have been more practical than those people who carried their sense of the world tuck in their knapsacks and in their minds, and spent most of their energy outsmarting predators, escaping natural disasters or looking for the next meal? I imagine that when the need to survive was under control, these people were able to indulge in a sort of mind-play only possible when the world is a labyrinth of enigmas and the satisfaction of the most basic needs is hard to come by.

This is precisely the sort of thinking that most of us have lost, caught-up as we are in the anxieties of credit card debt, pressing deadlines, break-ups, and weight gain. In fact, what we perceive as our ancestors limitations may well be the source of our complexity. Millions of years of survival in an ever changing landscape -- gathering food, selecting, manufacturing, and handling tools is what has given our brain the capacity for sequential thinking and sustained memory, and what has made possible our know-how, our empirical thrives, our imagination and reasoning. Most importantly we owe to them our capacity to fashion and use the most important of all tools, language. It is to all those years we spent carving our way into the world, equipped with nothing but pieces of flint, that we owe this strangely vivid sense of experience that we call consciousness.

An unimaginable gap separates us from those creatures who confronted the world armed with nothing but their cunning and some pieces of stone. And yet, the demise of their thinking -- of the views of the world that went with it – has made us face their mirror blindfolded. It is us who live entangled in mysteries, awesome structures we depend on but can’t either control or comprehend. Our sense of community is a mass-media production. Every cent in our pockets is an illusion contingent with the Byzantine workings of global finance. And our tools, once concrete extensions of our bodies, have become inflations of our lust for leisure and our boredom, distractions from the threats imposed upon us by an indomitable force: civilization. Small wonder that we’ve come to relate to our machines as if they were alien entities. Making them work for us instead of against us calls for a skill our ancestors reserved for things beyond their comprehension -- for appeasing earthquakes, securing fertility, and communing with the dead: faith.

I will not burden the reader with the details of my current technological collapse. My PC “went blue,” my printer wouldn’t respond, my phone’s battery went dead. But my prehistoric tool still shines on my desk, daring me get up, run to Riverside Park, catch a fat squirrel, pig out, cover my face with mud marks and spend my after-dinner time dancing naked under the moon, fall asleep on the grass, and then go back to doing something I’ve come to miss lately: thinking.