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AADISHT KHANNA
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Popularising Philosophy: Many an (eternal) truth is said in jest

he humourist's lot is an unhappy one. And for Indian humourists, it's particularly unhappy these days, when so many people are ready to take offence at something. Indian skins have been getting thinner and thinner, and people are often outraged that their idols, identities or causes are being made fun of.

Fortunately, I don't know any Indian jokesters who've suffered the fate of Ludvik Jahn, the protagonist of Kundera's The Joke, who spent five years exiled to the Czech mines for daring to joke about Trotsky on a postcard. At worst, they suffer abusive emails or Internet comments – though some of these do contain effusive hopes that the jokester suffer a lingering death. This is a difference of degree, though not kind, from the abuse that funny schoolboys suffered in the nineteenth century. P.G. Wodehouse wrote sadly of the plight of the young humourist who had to bear his fellows' censure: 'You are a funny blighter, aren't you?', expressed in tones of deep suspicion and scorn.

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Clowns have had the privilege of telling truths nobody else will speak. Jokes are only funny when they’re true.

In the long run, the joke is probably on the people suspicious of humour. Clowns have had the privilege of telling truths nobody else will speak – something we see in the tales of Gopal Bhar, Tenali Raman, Shakespeare's plays, and the many pastiches they inspired. Jokes are only funny when they're true, even if this truth is bitter or unpleasant.

If there's truth at the heart of jokes, then possibly jokes can help us understand eternal truths. At least, this is what Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein have tried to do in Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... - a slim volume which tries to explain three thousand years of philosophy using jokes old and new.

Cathcart and Klein were philosophy students at Harvard. When they graduated, they discovered that philosophy degrees were not in high demand in the job market, and so Cathcart became a social worker and then a hospital administrator, while Klein became a comedy writer. Later, they reunited to write this (and have followed it up with Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through These Pearly Gates and Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington).

t's difficult to fit the entire history of ideas into two hundred pages. Plato and a Platypus manages to pull it off, though. Admittedly it sacrifices depth for breadth (and also some atrocious puns), but there are worse ways to be introduced to philosophy than through jokes.

For example, ethics, the great preoccupation of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, is illustrated with a Jewish joke:

A young rabbi was an avid golfer. Even on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, he snuck out by himself for a quick nine holes.

On the last hole he teed off, and a gust of wind carried his ball directly over the hole and dropped it in for a hole in one.

An angel who witnessed this miracle complained to God, "This guy is playing golf on Yom Kippur, and you cause him to get a hole in one? This is a punishment?"

"Of course it is," said the Lord, smiling. "Who can he tell?"

While Classical Stoicism is pulled into the modern age with a story about a dentist:

The Coopers were shown into the dentist's office, where Mr. Cooper made it clear he was in a big hurry. "No fancy stuff, Doctor," he ordered. "No gas or needles or any of that stuff. Just pull the tooth out and get it over with."

"I wish more of my patients were as stoic as you," said the dentist admiringly. "Now, which tooth is it?"

Mr. Cooper turned to his wife. "Open your mouth, honey."

You won't be able to write a thesis, or even talk at length about them just by reading the short descriptions and the jokes, but this book will probably pique your interest enough to get you reading more.

Plato and a Platypus is published by Penguin.

 
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