The Joker (Part 3)

One of Alan’s most popular lecture series, and for good reason—in The Joker, listeners will find out why every society needs fools in order to remind itself not to take life so damn seriously.

We’ll begin by refreshing memories as to what went before. In discussing the theme of the joker I have been talking about a point of view—the joker’s point of view—from which not only our social institutions but also the formations of the natural world are seen as games. Be careful of the word “game.” It doesn’t mean as “trivialities.” Because when we say, “It’s just a game,” this often means it’s just trivial. There can be important games, as when we play the piano or musical instruments. We’re not necessarily doing something frivolous, but we are playing. And there is something in the nature of all play that is not serious, but at the same time may be sincere. And I tried to give you the picture of the multiplicity of natural forms on the one hand, and of human social institutions and all the things we do and consider important and busy ourselves with as human beings—I tried to give you the point of view from which these can be seen as games; as things being done, as it were, simply for themselves and not for some ulterior motive. And therefore, these games are, in a way, best played when they are played as games.


Although it’s really alright for people to take them seriously, except that they are a little bit deprived. They’re missing something. And so when the joker sees a person taking his life seriously and regarding himself as extremely important, there is something a little bit funny about it and he is inclined to get the giggles. And he knows that the very intensity of seriousness with which the individuals concerned are taking these games will be a kind of foil for the subsequent bursting into laughter when he sees that it wasn’t serious after all. You see that? You might say there are these classes of people: there are the very far out people and the very far in people. Now, ordinarily we say someone’s very far out when they are oddballs, when they are exceedingly unconventional. But I want you to turn the picture ’round and look, as a conventional person, look at a square as a person who’s very far out. That is to say, he is so involved in the seriousness of the game he is playing that he is lost. He doesn’t know where he started from, and he thinks he’s there. But he’s completely lost. Because he is actually—under the cover of his assurance, of his status, of his position in society—he’s really a very anxious person.


I said a lot yesterday about the way in which our society shows anxiety because it cannot permit the existence of people who don’t belong. And it cannot really permit the criticism of laughter. It cannot permit the presence of the old-fashioned court jester, because these people are so far out. They’re so involved. But from a certain standpoint, you see—from the joker’s standpoint—he doesn’t condemn such people. He rather congratulates them on their heroism for getting so lost and involved. But to keep the far out people from going quite insane there have to be far in people. And the far in people are those who keep contact with the original goings-on behind the scenes. They are like the prompter in the theater. Where there are the actors out on the stage, relying on their memories, et cetera, and they’re supposed to get completely involved in the play. But there’s a concealed prompter with a script in front of him, and he is the connection of the actor on the stage with the green room behind the stage.


And, you see, in this dramatic analogy of the universe the green room is the central point, the stillpoint of the turning world. The green room is how God is when he’s back home, not involved in all these games, and takes off the mask—see, on the Hindu theory that everybody is a mask of God. Like a wonderful line in one of Chesterton’s poems:

And now a great thing in the street

Seems any human nod,

Where move in strange democracy

The million masks of God.

The million masks of the joker. Because the joker is the player; the trick-player who plays ultimately the great trick on himself. So, really, there can be no resentment about this. Nobody to blame, nobody to turn around to in the end and say, “You, you bastard! You did this to me!” Because it’s always you who are ultimately responsible.


So this prompter, you see, keeps the actor on the stage in touch with the green room. And so there are certain people in the world who might be a kind of a priesthood sometimes—although priesthoods are apt to become corrupt and square. But a kind of people in the know. There always has to be somebody around in the know so that, as it were, the wheel of society and of existence—the wheel of the squirrel cage, the wheel of the rat race—can have an axle firmly planted. And at the center, then, there have to be the far in people. So this is the domain of jokers.


Now, having developed that side of the joker—the person who sees through the social institutions as games—I went on in the second session to discuss another aspect of the joker as the sly man in comparison with the monk, the fakir, and the yogi. All those three undertake in certain different ways disciplines which have the intent of releasing them from their karma. The individual, in other words, challenges his involvement, his attachments, his limitations, his finitude, and endeavors to overcome it. But in each of these three cases the individual involved stirs up an immense opposition because he serves notice upon the devil—or, shall we say, upon his karmic creditors—that he is about to leave town. And so all the creditors come rushing to the door: all his past sins catch up with him and the devil lays his temptations in the way all the more thoroughly. So that the sly man is the one who, when he is going to leave town, does so instantaneously without any prior announcement.


And so in this way there is, shall we say, a cunning manner of becoming a Buddha, and that is to become one instantly without any preparation or warning whatsoever. This is why Zen is called the sudden school, and why satori is a sudden awakening. Because it has to be done without the slightest warning. But then I pointed out that the moment you have any idea about doing this, you’ve already ceased to be sudden. That is to say, the moment you seek for some spiritual attainment—which is becoming a Buddha, becoming awakened, becoming released, getting in there—you already served notice upon your creditors. So that, somehow or other, you find that you have to do it without intending to do it. And that is a double bind which you impose upon yourself when you say, “I must find a way of doing this spontaneously.” That’s the old, old basic double bind “you must be spontaneous.” You are commanded, or you command yourself to do something, which is acceptable only if it happens spontaneously. Then you think about that and say, “Well, well, well. What a fix that is. Here am I, saying I must be surprised. And I’m going to lay plans to surprise myself.”


So by going through this you discover, naturally, that that can’t be done. You can’t surprise yourself on purpose. Yet that’s what you have to do. So what about it? You come to a state of total paralysis. You’re stuck. The one thing that is terribly important to be done can’t be done. It has to happen; it really does if you’re earnest about this. You want to get out of the trap. But you can’t do anything about it—either actively or passively.


But then, as you begin to see what you are doing all the time, you notice a very odd fact, which is that you can’t help being spontaneous. If I say to you, “Good morning,” and you say, “Good morning,” what is that? Did you plan this answer? Did you make preparations to grow your hair? Do you make decisions about having blue eyes? You see? About breathing—is this all planned? About beating your heart? And what about your thinking? Even if it’s very blocked thinking, even if you feel from a certain point of view that you’re all mixed up. What is going on anyway? You see, you can’t stop it. It’s like trying to—we were discussing the Gurdjieff thing yesterday, the self-remembering exercise: the attempt to live completely in the present. Well, that’s not only a Gurdjieff idea, that’s a very ancient yoga and Buddhist discipline. To be completely here and now.


But, of course, as you pursue this you discover you can’t do it. Because you couldn’t even know when to go shopping unless you made plans and started thinking about the future. You couldn’t move. But then you discover, you see, that, in the long run, there’s nothing to think about except the here and now. There really isn’t anything else. Because even when you make plans for the future, you remember the past, you’re doing it all in the present. Your memory is a present activity. There’s no way of not being self-remembering and having presence of mind. So when you discover that, there’s nothing left to you but to have a good laugh!


Well, now, I want to develop to a greater extent something I only touched on yesterday afternoon when we were discussing anxiety and laughter and the relationship between the two. I suggested that anxiety and laughter are really the same phenomenon but seen from different points of view. As we all know, we can have shudders of horror and shudders of delight, tears of grief and tears of joy. And it’s the same shudders and the same tears in either case, but they have a completely different meaning.


Now, life is a matter of oscillation. Life is vibration. It’s yoeeoeeoeeoeeoeeoeeoeeoee the whole time and all the way through. The question is, how are you going to interpret that. Is it tremble, tremble, tremble, or is it laugh, laugh, laugh? That’s the great thing. And sometimes it’s one, and sometimes it’s the other. So that the whole thing of the joker is he comes into being, as it were, at the point when the anxiety-interpretation of the trembling becomes the laughing-interpretation.


We were talking about monks who had skulls in their cells to remind them of mortality. And we think of the skull as a grim thing. But Chesterton had the poem about the skull:

Chattering finch and water-fly

Are not merrier than I;

Here among the flowers I lie

Laughing everlastingly.

No: I may not tell the best;

Surely, friends, I might have guessed

Death was but the good King’s jest,

It was hid so carefully.

So you can see the skull not as a grim thing, but as a laughing thing. It’s all that’s left of a human being. And all the surface is peeled off, and nothing but this beautiful bone remains. It laughs.


Now, why? What is it about death being a jest? We discussed the problem of the zebra. You remember? Whether a zebra is a yellow horse with black stripes or a black horse with yellow stripes. And, of course, you can see it either way. And you can argue till all is blue about which side is right. And let’s suppose that a black horse is a horse of ill omen (even though striped with yellow), and a yellow horse a horse of joy and good omen (even though striped with black). This is our eternal problem. We are in the state of egocentric consciousness, firmly convinced that death is a threat. We are so convinced of this, even though individuals may say, “Well, I’m not really afraid of death. What I’m afraid of is dying in an unpleasant way.” Nevertheless, since almost all moralists and people concerned with ethics seem to agree (whatever their differences of opinion) that survival is a good thing. In some sense, if not survival in this body, even the most—I mean, the people who would rather be dead than red firmly believe that that is true, because they believe there is a hereafter where they can go, and where they can be rewarded for the courageous stand against evil which they have taken. You see? So that’s still some kind of insistence on the value of survival. And we all cling to this idea of survival with tremendous passion.


But we have been fooled. Because survival is an important ideal only so long as you have bothering you the bugbear of death. That the world might stop altogether, and that your death, so far as you are concerned, is curtains forever. And that is really the bogey. You see, it’s all very well to rationalize and say, “No, it’s not death I’m afraid of, it’s the pains of death.” But if you think about it deeply—there are several stages in thinking about it deeply. The first stage is the real horrors of endless night: of the futility, of the whole conception that one’s own life or indeed the whole life of the cosmos might be nothing but a flash, and beyond that nothing, nothing, nothing in all directions. When, for example, we think of the physicist’s idea that the universe is running down, that all energy is seeking a stable state. Supposing, for example, to give an illustration of what they mean: I have a jar of black pepper and a jar of salt. And I pour them together into another jar, and I can see the white salt and the black pepper fairly well delineated. Then I start shaking the jar. And slowly, slowly, slowly, the black and the white disappear into a gray. That can never be sorted out again into black and white. In this sort of way, as things go on, the universe, they say, tends to attain a stable state; to run down, run down, run down until that’s the end. And nobody knows how it could possibly start all over again.


But I always say—and I feel it in a sort of funny, intuitive way—that what happened once can happen again. If this world started sometime—supposing there was a colossal explosion which set all these galaxies flying out—then what existed before that explosion must surely have been something like the stable state to which we shall run down in the end. And if it went bang once, there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t go bang again. I suppose there are temperaments in logic. I have a temperament whereby I just cannot—I mean, it seems to me absolutely basic that what happened once can happen again. But there are other people who so cherish the unique that they can conceive the idea of something like existence happening only once.


But, you see, something that happens only once doesn’t happen at all. What happens if a given sound consists of only one vibration? What is the up-crest of a wave apart from the down-crest? Can you conceive that? That’s the same kōan as “what is the sound of one hand?” You see, it always takes two. You can’t have a purely left-sided person. Imagine! So, in this way, just as you can’t have just one vibration—I mean, it’s like the saying: the greatest strength of mind is to eat one peanut, which can hardly be done. So there isn’t just one vibration. A dit but no dah sort of thing. You have to have it do more. So in just the same way, when you magnify this principle, there isn’t just one cosmos or one big explosion that starts and stops. All stopping implies starting. Someone just wrote to me, “We haven’t parted because we never met.”


So the whole point of saying this is the realization that existence is eternal. The going out of existence implies the coming in. And St. Thomas had some points here when he said there could never have been a time when there was not being, because if there had been a time when there was nothing, there was nothing in nothing to produce something. But he didn’t quite have the point, because what he didn’t see was that nothing is productive in the sense that you can’t have nothing without something. They go together. And all this thing is an argument, again, about whether the zebra is yellow striped black or black striped yellow. And what we see is that the black and the yellow, the darkness and the light, are simply two phases of the same. And that realization is exactly what transforms anxiety into laughter: suddenly to see that you just—after all this anxiety—that you don’t have anything to worry about.


Now, that doesn’t mean that there will not, in our future, lie some extremely painful experiences, or experiences that we would ordinarily interpret as horribly painful. We may all die of ghastly diseases, or of radiation burns, or of unimaginable things. But look here: I very briefly touched on pain yesterday and the way pain is interpreted. If you interpret pain as something that is destroying you and is going in the direction of total death, then it’s very serious indeed, and it’s perfectly terrifying. But I’ve been investigating experiences of people who have undergone torture. I don’t know if anybody in this room has; it’s always possible—and if so you can correct me. But the worst part of torture is the beginning when, of course, you’re full of all your illusions and all your fears about black and white and the terror that black may win. But it’s said that, as torture proceeds, it slowly changes the state of mind of the victim to a kind of drunken, masochistic, giving in to the torture, so that it becomes something that he cooperates with. And that, if the torturer notices this, he knows he’s through and has to kill him. So in other words, there is a point at which pain becomes an experience without having a negative interpretation put upon it. It becomes, in other words, converted into ecstasy. It simply becomes, you see, a way of going through extraordinarily far out sensations which have no meaning. If they have meaning—the meaning of threat, the meaning of death looming at the end—and you know this is the tearing-apart and destruction of you, then you see it is absolutely horrendous.


But if it has no meaning at all—just transpose yourself into another dimension to illustrate it, because the dimension I’m talking about is a very tough one. But let’s go back to a simpler one. Let’s take sounds. Now, if you lie down and listen to all the goings-on in this area, and you will planes moving, and cars, and fog horns, and all kinds of crazy sounds, you see? People this way and that, so on. And you can listen to that and find it very interesting, very beautiful. But if someone were to do what John Cage does and put you in a concert hall with the expectation of hearing music, and by having a purely silent playing of the piano compel you instead to listen to all the sounds going on around you, you would be shocked and feel that some kind avant-garde hoax had been perpetrated.


You see, it depends on the set, on the way you approach the experience. Now, you can listen to sounds that are ordinarily considered unpleasant in a totally unprejudiced way. You can listen to discordant musical noises and find them extremely interesting if you listen carefully enough. You can listen to a squalling brat and find it musical. That this child—I’ll never forget waking up one morning and listening to a child whining. The child wasn’t saying anything, there were no words in it, it was just a plaint. And it wasn’t exactly crying. It was a kind of eeeeh-weeeeeh-waaaaah-ooooooooooh-eeeeooo! There was something marvelous about it; this child’s wonderfully articulate protest against some sort of nuisance.


And so listening into those things without interpreting them, listening to one’s own interior frustration and pain in the same way, without interpreting it as being on one side or the other—on the good side or the bad side, on the black side or the white side—is what makes it possible, you see, to transmute these things. But you can’t do this—you can’t really, honestly transmute pain into a form of play, a form of weird far out sensations that are basically just that—so long as you fail to see the inner unity of the opposites. So long as you fall for the idea that you are nothing more than this particular life, than this particular ego, which came from nowhere and is going nowhere. While you remain under that illusion, you see, you—first of all, you don’t see your identity with everything else that exists.


Now, if death, then, is the joke—I remember the biggest joke on death I ever saw. I mention this in my book. We visited the Capuchin Friar’s Crypt in the Via Veneto in Rome. Some of you may have seen it. Where there are three underground chapels where everything is made of bones. And the altar is made of bones, the pedestals of the altar are all shin bones, and then there are piles of skulls. And the decoration of flowers on the ceiling are ribs alternating with vertebrae. And the vertebrae are the flowers, and the ribs curl this way, curl this way, curl this way, the twining stems. And the whole thing is bones. And they have even a few intact skeletons dressed in monk’s robes standing on either side of these altars. It’s the craziest thing you ever saw. And then, when you have seen it and you come out, there is a little friar with a beard taking your offering at the top of the steps. And he had a funny, wicked gleam in his eye. And one could see that this was a joke. The whole thing was a joke. It was constructed by people who had somehow overcome the fear of death. You couldn’t possibly have such a thing as that. I was fascinated by it because I thought that, on the day of the resurrection, there’s going to be a tremendous [???] fitting all those bones together and everybody getting up the stairs for the last judgment!


So if it is seen that death is the jest. But the question is, you see: we are so tormented by the bugbear of it being the real end, by the imagination of the possibility of being in the dark forever. Now, you really must think this through, because it is a pure delusion. If you think, first of all, seriously about annihilation of consciousness, you will realize that annihilation of consciousness couldn’t possibly be an experience. But being in the dark forever could be an experience. I mean, supposing you were buried alive, and somehow you were immortal, but you had to stay shut up in a tomb for always and always and always, that would be pretty grim. But the annihilation of consciousness is not an experience at all. There isn’t anything there to be afraid of. So if that’s what’s going to happen, there’s nothing to worry about, I assure you.


But on the other hand, if you think about it longer—about a state of eternal not-being at all, you know—you realize that nature abhors a vacuum. And that, since—just as the universe happened once, it can happen again—since you were born once (you know, it did happen; really), well, it can happen again. Only, the next “you” won’t remember the one now just as the one now doesn’t remember the one before. Not because you’ve forgotten, but because memory is transmitted along certain channels. It requires the vehicle of brains, for example. It requires books and other records to maintain it. But as I pointed out yesterday, the fundamental what-have-you that underlies all this doesn’t need a memory. It doesn’t need to store memories, just in the same way as you don’t need to be conscious of the inner formations of your brain.


Also—I mean, here I’m talking speculatively—also, there are curious connections where we don’t see any. That is to say, the interval between events is not insignificant. Just as you don’t hear melody unless you hear the interval between tones—it’s the interval that counts—so, in the same way, are blank intervals between successive manifestations of the universe and blank intervals between your who you are altogether and dying and someone suddenly becoming a baby. The blank intervals are not insignificant. Every painter knows, every architect knows, that the space around an object or inside an object is just as important as the object. That, again, is the fact. If you don’t notice the importance of intervals and you don’t notice the importance of space, it is as if you had settled on the carpet here for the black design being the thing and the white background having no significance.


So what about the inside of this room? What about the shape of space that it encloses? We would say this is nothing more than a certain quantity of air. But don’t you see that the distance, the space between that wall and this window, is life-room? That is not nothing. That it’s just as important. It comes into being at the same moment as the walls come into being. It connects them. And so, likewise, the space between our planet and other planets is not insignificant.


So once you see that intervals of apparent nothingness are significant intervals, that their size makes all the difference to what’s happening. When the intervals between dits are short, the note is high. When the intervals between the dits are long, the note is low, or large; the high being little. See? Why do we say high and low as distinct from little and big? Big instruments make big noises, little instruments make tiny noises. But at any rate, it’s the interval that’s important.


So, then, once you see the importance of the interval, you have seen that the white is as important as the black. Or the other way ’round if you want to change your analogy. You see how you can switch these analogies? In one case the white can be the nothing, the unimportant, whereas the black is the mark somebody made with a crayon. Or the other way around, the black can be the darkness, and the white is the flash of lightning that appears in the darkness. Change your analogies. It’s like saying… once we used to say about high matters, you know? High matters. Lofty thoughts. But now we don’t. It’s more fashionable to say deep matters and profound thoughts.


Someone was telling me yesterday in the group here that they were going to an Indian village in New Mexico where they had Christianity. But when the speaker referred to Jesus and God and so on, he pointed down all the time. Because, you see, he felt that things grew up like this from below. Whereas, of course, the ancient cults out of which the Jewish and Christian religions grew had the idea that the life of the sun and the rain came down from the heavens and fertilized the feminine Earth, which then responded. But these things keep changing because you can keep switching your point of view. You can see the black as the design against the white background and the white as the design against the black background. And you can flip back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.


And the more you do that, the more you realize that the pairs go together. Anxiety is the state of trying not to flip. All life is flipping. Its flip-floppability is the condition of life. This way and that way. When you’re trying to resist flip-floppability, you’re anxious, you see? When you push against it, it throbs in a way that you interpret as fear. And all rigid personalities—people who can’t swing, who have no movement in their hips, as it were, and psychologically—they are resisting flip-floppability. But when you understand flip-floppability and that this is the way things are, then you laugh. Because that is the big flip-flop.

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