From Op-Ed Magazine Archives

Waxing Philosophical

Originally published in Op-Ed Magazine’s February 2008 “Antithetical” issue

Two Philosophers

Two philosophers are walking towards a gate on a path that leads into a wood. H is a young man with a regal bearing. P is a white-haired old man. They wear blood-stained clothing. They pass through the gate and into the wood.

H: My thesis is this: that being and not being are incompatible.
P: Mutually incompatible, then?
H: Just incompatible, fishmonger.
P: Not mutually?
H: That is my answer.
P: To what question?
H: Whether to be or to not be.
P: I don’t follow you.
H: Please don’t. We’re incompatible.
P: Mutually?
H: No, each of us alone is incompatible with the other. “Mutually incompatible” is, if not an oxymoron, redundant.
P: Nevertheless, I’ll attempt to follow you. Is “not being” death?
H: It is true that death is to not be living.
P: Is then living “being?”
H: It is true that living is to not be dead.
P: Hmmm.
H: You understand me, then.

They walk in silence for a time. H plucks and eats an apple.

P: Shalt one kill?
H: Thou shalt not.
P: Never?
H: Not until thou shalt be commanded to kill every living thing in a city.
P: Shall one be?
H: In Jericho, shortly after receiving an incompatible edict.

More walking in silence. H occasionally picks up a rock and bounces it softly off of P’s head.

P: It’s unlikely that Tupac Shakur will have joined a klezmer band.
H: Unlikely, yes. But google “Yiddish Klezmer hip hop.”
P: Forsooth?
H: Indeed. And Elvis Costello has written a ballet score.

The walk has become a bit of a steep climb. P is perspiring noticeably. H picks up the pace.

H: Can the universe grow if it contains everything that exists?
P: Not according to Hoyle, my friend.
H: But steady there! Stars are flying away from us in all directions.
P: I don’t notice.
H: Faster and faster and farther and farther. The universe expands.
P: Relatively, then, our minds shrink?
H: It would appear so–but then how to explain Einstein?
P: Psychologists do try.
H: Warren Zevon figured him out. He wrote that Einstein “was making out like Charlie Sheen.”
P: Albert was quite a ladies’ man, then?
H: Do you mean “a possession of more than one lady?”
P: No, of course not! Perhaps I should’ve said “ladies man.” Maybe I did, in fact, and you heard an apostrophe that wasn’t there.
H: But “ladies man” sounds like a contradiction in terms. An antithesis.
P: Now you’re just being difficult.
H: So you say, but verily I say unto you, it is the General Theory of Relativity that is difficult. That, my fusty nut of a friend, is an antithesis.

H stoops to pick up another stone. Warily, P drops a few steps behind him and they trudge on in silence for awhile. H throws the stone at a rabbit. He misses.

H: Did I ever tell you the story of the turtle and the hare?
P: I do seem to recall it.
H: Did you understand it?
P: It was Greek to me.
H: I will retell it to pass the time.

A hare walks into a bar. The bartender asks her “What’ll you have?” The hare asks for a beer and a bowl of soup. The bartender draws a tall, cold glass of a dark beer and drinks it. Then he draws another, and hands it and a large bowl of hot soup to the hare. He may have ladled out the bowl of soup, but this isn’t clear. It just seems to have appeared. Not everything can be explained. Some things just are.
 
Time passes. The hare still waits for her soup to cool. She’s on her third beer, and seems to be feeling no pain. A turtle walks slowly (of course!) into the bar. It is a turtle, not a tortoise: it can swim. The turtle, like the hare earlier, asks for a beer and a bowl of soup. As before, the bartender first drinks a beer himself, and then produces a cold beer and a bowl of hot soup for his customer. The turtle begins to loudly slurp the soup.
 
Almost immediately, the turtle complains to the bartender that there is a hair in the soup. The hare denies it vehemently. “I haven’t even tasted my own soup,” she says, “and I’ve certainly not touched yours! Furthermore, there’s a turtle in my soup!”
 
The turtle answers, “But it’s turtle soup, you dumb bunny. There’s supposed to be a turtle in it. And mine’s quite good, apart from the hair in it.”
 
“What’s wrong with hare soup?,” demands the hare. “Are ‘hare’ and ‘soup’ mutually incompatible, then?”
 
“Each is incompatible with the other,” answered the turtle, “but rabbit stew is a another story altogether.”

P: You’re not going to tell me a story about rabbit stew now, are you?
H: No, of course not!
P: What is the moral to the story of the turtle and the hare then?
H: There is no moral: it’s just a story. It’s a fable that every story must have a moral.

The philosophers have crested a small hill. The path now slopes gently downward.

P: Do opposites really attract?
H: Often, they do. I find myself strangely drawn to a Japanese dancer who is anything but gloomy.
P: You astonish me, Holmes!
H: Holmes?
P: An error. A non sequitur. Let it pass. The dancer?
H: Yes, the dancer. Or maybe the wife of a photographer, lonely and alienated in Tokyo.
P: Ah, La dolce vita!
H: The good life indeed! You know of whom I speak. But she is gloomy. So that would not fit.
P: No.
H: But back to your question: opposites. Consider for a moment the Spratts, the Mister and the Missus. You know their story well.
P: He can eat no fat.
H: Correct. Conversely, of course, she thrives on it. But they are opposite only in this very limited respect. In everything else, I can assure you, they are two peas in a pod.
P: I don’t doubt it. How about, then, The Dish and The Spoon?
H: Well that’s an absurd example, you tedious old fool. What is it about a spoon and a dish that suggests opposition? Clearly a complimentary pair, if ever one existed. Opposite and incompatible and are often one but not the other.
P: Meaning?
H: Opposite but not incompatible. In fact, opposite and compatible are often both.
P: Both?
H: Opposite and compatible. The Yin and the Yang; the mortar and the pestle; the tongue and the groove.
P: The Jerry Lewis and the French?
H: Ah, now that is a conundrum.

Now P picks up a stone. H eyes him suspiciously and picks up a stone of his own. The philosophers walk in step, without speaking, each repeatedly tossing his stone into the air and catching it. P fumbles his, whereupon H stops, waits for P to advance a few steps, and then throws his stone at the middle of P’s back. It strikes home with a loud “thud!”

P: Ouch!
H: I’ve written a limerick.
P: Really? Show it to me.
H: I haven’t written it down, you base-born varlet. I’ve written it in my head.
P: Doesn’t seem possible to me. It’s dark in there, and you have no quill.
H: I shall recite it then. Write it down with a quill, or a pencil, or scratch it into the dirt with your toe; I don’t care.

A squat little man from Wyoming
With a heart artificially humming
A mean, disagreeable sort
Shot a friend just for sport
And growled “His fault–had it coming.”

P: What possible relevance does that have to anything? And “humming” doesn’t rhyme with “Wyoming.”
H: So it’s without reason or rhyme, you say? But why must a limerick be relevant?
P: We’re philosophers. Walking through a wood. Surely everything we say must be profound?
H: Relevant and profound are two different ideas, and not contradictory. Perhaps the limerick is profound and irrelevant.

P rolls his eyes and motions to H as if to say, “after you.” H walks on and P follows. A small castle looms in the distance. After a time, they pass by it–it is just a stone’s throw from the path–and they can see that there is a knight standing under its walls looking up. Another knight, high in a turret, is leaning over the wall and shouting. He has a French accent and seems to be heaping abuse on the knight below. A cameraman films the encounter. H hurls a rock toward the castle, but it falls short. Looking back over their shoulders at the scene, the philosophers continue their trek.

P: Did that man just drop a dead cow on the other man?
H: I believe he did.
P: Strangely played.
H: Yes, strange indeed.

The woods begin to thicken around them, darker and more dense than before.

P: I have developed an intense yearning for a small glass of sangria.
H: I have a bottle right here. Let us repast.
P: Can we repeat the past?
H: Bob Dylan says that we can repeat the past, of course we can.
P: Here, I have a small capon, braised in butter and golden brown.
H: Tragic!
P: How so?
H: In no case is a concoction of sweet red wine to be served with roasted chicken. I have that on very good authority. They are incompatible. We shall have to forego our repast.
P: If we can repeat the past, it hasn’t passed and it isn’t past.
H: Yes, the very idea is an absurdity.
P: An impossibility.
H: An outrageous incompatibility!
P: A mutual incompatibility.
H: Well, no, I don’t think so.

P has disappeared from view. H walks on quietly until he hears footsteps and noises behind a curtain of leaves. Alarmed, he pulls out a dagger and stabs at the rustling. P staggers out from behind the foliage and is bleeding from a fresh wound. Silently, he looks at H, looks down at the wound, and then turns to resume walking down the path. H follows, and together they approach another gate on the path. Behind the gate is another wood. Together, they pass through the gate. H bends down to pickup another rock.

H: On the other hand …