The World's First Nerds?

Photo by mrtwism.
One of the stories I was forced to read in middle school has stuck with me: "Bargain" by A. B. Guthrie. A recent train of thought motivated me to track the story down and buy a used edition of the Guthrie anthology containing it. (Warning: spoilers ahead--my search started with just the clues "wood alcohol" and "story" on Google.) The story takes place in a small town in the old West. The two main characters are a somewhat bookish shopkeeper and a big, drunken, illiterate (both important plot points) town bully who, among other obnoxious behaviors, refuses to pay his bills. Over such a dispute the bully crushes the shopkeeper's hand beneath his boot. Thereafter, the shopkeeper gives up on collecting his bill and even gives the bully a job as a deliveryman. At the end of the story the bully is found out in the winter wilderness, dead, along with some barrels of wood alcohol (clearly labeled "POISON", but... aha! you see?) which he had been transporting for the shopkeeper.
Perhaps no masterpiece, but it is a nicely plotted little story, and I think it relates to an underappreciated theme, which is the unending struggle between two elements of humanity which we currently call the jocks and the nerds. Although both these terms are of relatively recent coinage, I suspect the distinction is psychologically innate--at least for men--I'm not sure about women. The jock-versus-nerd struggle provides a subtext for a lot of other things going on, like certain disagreements I witness at the office, or Republicans versus Democrats (surely you can see which is which), or the relationship (if one may call it that) between the Sam and Norman characters in Psycho.
And then there is this... consider the relationship between the Greeks and Romans during the Roman empire. The Romans kept Greeks as slaves. Greek slaves made excellent tutors for one's children. Greek academic achievements were highly respected, to the point where they were practically regarded as the source of all higher knowledge. Nonetheless they were slaves; they can't have been completely respected.
(By the way, there is a remarkable contrast, which I don't fully understand, between the Roman and American attitudes toward slavery. Romans were happy to educate some slaves and arm others [the gladiators]. American slaveowners considered that their survival depended on keeping their slaves ignorant and unarmed.)
My layman's reading of the situation: the Romans respected the Greeks for their knowledge and at the same time looked down on them for having been conquered by force of arms (although the Greeks had been empire builders in their own day). I therefore view Greeks as the original nerds, Romans as the original jocks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I never realized the terms "nerd" and homosexual were considered synonymouse.