Westerners who take their cultural assumptions to other parts of the world are sometimes surprised by the social necessity of bargaining. They've been conditioned to check the price label on an item and either pay what it says, or leave it on the shelf. But buying even a small trinket from most shopkeepers abroad is not so simple. You're expected to make an offer, hear the vendor's counter-offer and his deeply-felt rationalization for why he could not possibly afford such a meagre amount as your bid, appreciate the worth of each other's position, and eventually be allowed to pay something more than a local would, but considerably less than those who refuse to engage in the process might. Often, ritual servings of tea, Coke or something stronger (in non-Muslim nations) are involved. In fact, the actual purchase and exchange of money are almost incidental to the social transaction, where one practises humour, role playing, and street psychology in order to arrive at a disposition where both sides feel valued.
It might be helpful to recall some famous bargains of the past, and to reflect on their outcome. If, for example, we consider the very early parts of the Bible, think of Adam and Eve, who traded paradise for an apple. However, the apple's core was knowledge, so perhaps we teachers owe our profession of education to their bad bargaining skills. Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, which I understand to be not the similar-sounding porridge, but rather a kind of potpourri of left-overs concocted in the days of no refrigeration.
The Trojans and Greeks bargained badly, unable to agree whether Helen's beauty was worth a whole city or not, and the result was the destruction of Troy. Marc Anthony traded potential rule of Rome for the love of Cleopatra, and we all know how that one turned out. What an asp.
In Marlowe's Faustus, the scientist trades his immortal soul for (once again) knowledge, plus a kiss from the same Helen. I remember hearing in one of my university English courses that some stagings of the play, to show how deluded Faustus really was by the Evil One, replace an actress's beauteous face with the north end of a goat heading south.
Robert Johnson, the blues immortal who died before 30, was also reputed to have traded his soul, this time at a crossroads, for his skill with a guitar. This legend is recalled in the Coen Brothers' movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Having heard his playing, I think he made a better bargain than Faustus did.
Peter Pocklington bargained away Canada's all-time greatest hockey player for mere money, and got a nation's hatred for free.
But these bad bargains of the past pale beside today's offerings on the Internet. On-line auctions like E-Bay, and classified ads on Craiglist and Kijiji, offer not only good buys 24/7 but also some questionable items, and scammers and con-people are just as likely to make offers as are real buyers with actual money. I found, for example, an article on a British newspaper's site that celebrated some of the most dubious items offered on Craiglist.
My favourite is something I bet none of your friends have: “Autographed copy of Plato's Republic: 1st edition of The Republic signed by its author. There is of course a reasonable amount of wear and tear, (light highlighting and underlining, dog-eared pages, back cover missing, etc.), but it is in overall good condition considering its age."
If that one doesn't catch your fancy, ladies, I have a deal for you from the same list: "Disgruntled American seeks Canadian for political asylum, maybe more: Are you a lonely, possibly desperate Canadian woman aged 18-50? Tired of trying to find a good man among your flannel clad, Labatt's drinking, moose hunting country men? Willing to take in an American who is fed up with his country? Then I'm the guy for you! Maybe you're a bit overweight or suffer from "Lifelong Ugly Duckling" syndrome. I don't care." Who could say no to a bargain like that?
I don't mean to suggest that all bargains are bad ones. Consider the instructive case of Montrealer Kyle Macdonald, who started out with a paper clip, and kept trading on-line (aided by considerable publicity) until: “The quest is ending as envisioned: MacDonald is due to become the proud owner of a three-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot home provided by the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan.“ Now that's bargaining.
What, you don't agree? Maybe you'd prefer a chance to buy a piece of history... I just happen to own the rights to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace