The Joker (Part 4)

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.

This morning I was discussing the joke of death, and the principal point that I was making was that that death and life—or, that is to say in other words, the interval and the event; death being the interval between events, between one appearance and another of human beings in the same way as winter is the interval between the appearance of the leaves in spring and their disappearance in the fall. But there is, you see, the chronic fear that the interval may be all that there is; that the interval may triumph, and there may be no event. And I was trying to show you that there is a polarity between the event and the interval between events in such a way that you can no more have the one without the other than you can have the crest of the wave without the trough. And that this goes on and on and on in endless cycles where there are small intervals and waves, which group together and make up a set of intervals and waves, and they in themselves constitute the crest of a larger wave with a much longer trough. And then again there comes the group of intervals and waves on a short rhythm. And that this thing that goes like—you see? Like this, you see?—that this thing in its turn is the crest of a still greater wave, and that the nature of being is that this is the scheme of things.


But the joke about it, what makes it exciting, is the constant anticipation that there might not be anything again after the interval, that it might all come to an end. And the real problem in order to turn death into a joke—that is to say, suddenly to recover from this terrible anxiety that it might be finished, and then transmute the vibration-trembling of anxiety into laughter—it is the same thing. Only, the trembling of laughter is the trembling of anxiety seen from a different point of view.


Now, what are the things that are obstacles to our being able to see that? It’s almost as if life were itself a guru. And you know how gurus throw out tests to their students to see if they can pass these various initiations, all of which require nerve in the face of some formidable obstacle. All fairy stories are full of this. And so life itself throws out all kinds of reasons for supposing that we are faced with something serious instead of something playful. And I want to discuss with you a few ways which, in Western history, this obstacle has been thrown out, and how we today are bamboozled by these obstacles.


In the history of Western civilization there have really been, in the past 2,000 years, two dominant mythologies. One has had a long run and the other has had a fairly short run. But they are both ways of terrifying you so that you won’t see the point. But at the same time they are, perhaps, not merely negative things, but challenges: barriers of the same kind that a guru would offer. For example, in the study of Zen, each kōan is referred to as a barrier. And if you can pass the barrier, you see, you get in, in, in. But the function of the teacher is to put the barriers up to see how you’ll react to them.


So, in a way, we could say that the two great mythologies which have dominated the Western world in the past 2,000 years are two barriers. The first, of course, is the Christian mythology. And in the Christian mythology the individual is made to feel that he is strictly on probation, that he does not really belong, that if he is at all a son of God he is so by adoption and grace. He isn’t really one of the family. Let me explore the theology of that a moment.


In Christian theology, God has only one son. The monogenēs, or the only begotten son of God, who is the second person of the trinity, the lógos: the divine idea of itself. The trinity constitutes a family. Naturally, it’s therefore threefold, because for the Greek mind—and it was the Greek mind that molded Christian theology—meaning entirely depends on the structure of the Greek language. And Greek in common with all Western languages—and indeed also Sanskrit, from which it is derived—has a sentence structure in which there is the subject, the verb, and the predicate. And we can’t make any sense without those three things. We have to have an “I love you” or an “I know you” sentence for there to be any love or for there to be any knowledge. There must be the lover. The lover can’t love without having a beloved. And the lover doesn’t relate to the beloved without the relationship of love between them. So there you have the subject, the predicate, and the verb. And so naturally, in Greek, the very inner nature of reality, of the godhead itself, must be threefold, following the structure of Greek thought and Greek grammar.


So in this way, the inner life of the godhead is completely self-sufficient. There is the son, the object of God’s love, so that God doesn’t need any created world of finite beings as the necessary object of his love, so that he can be love, you see? So then, the created world is something extraneous. It’s something that the Lord threw off in a fit of exuberance. And although it is very much beloved by him, he doesn’t in any way depend on it. He, in a sense, fathered it. But he fathered it out of nothing. It had no true mother. And so, in a way, it’s an orphan. And the relationship between the creator and the creature in popular Christianity has always been the relationship between the king and the subject. And the relationship between the king and the subject is very strange; estranged. Because the king—in the archetypes of kingship which existed in the Near East in ancient times, and upon which this theological imagery was originally modeled—the king was really afraid. He always appeared in the throne room with his back to the wall. He didn’t stand in the middle of his people and look around at everybody like that. He stood with his back to the wall like this. It’s funny how all altars, Buddhas, and things have their backs to the wall. Because there you can’t be stabbed. And you have your guards and your henchmen on either side of you. And all the people prostrate themselves, because that way you can watch them all. They can’t see you and you can see them. So you’re safe.


And that’s the imagery, you see, which has given us our Western conception of God, of the father whose children have become a little bit too much for him. He’s had too many. And they had to be kept in their place. And so he’s a little bit frightened. And so the rules are set up: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! You just do so-and-so and so-and-so.” And you must feel grateful for having been fathered. You’re a miserable worm—inwardly. Because without me you might not have been. You owe everything you have to my having produced you. And you are a debtor. And because you’re a debtor you have a duty. “Duty” is the same word as “debt,” “debit.” You owe life to me, who produced you. Although I won’t admit I had a great deal of fun doing it. And so you must all crawl.


Now, you see, that conception of our relationship to reality has been the popular idea for centuries in the Western world. So that you never really knew where you stood with the authority. Because the authority gives you the impression that you are so bad, intrinsically, that at any time you ought to be punished and eaten up. And it’s only a matter of mercy that you’re not being eaten up. So the prayers of the Christian church are full of the idea “Oh Lord, we are not worthy. And since it is only of thy great mercy that we continue to survive at all, we humbly beseech thee,” et cetera, et cetera. Imagine! Going around with that feeling about the nature of reality: that it is watching you all the time, that you’re always on probation like a released prisoner.


And therefore there is an all-seeing eye at every moment of the day and night, surveilling you much more efficiently than any big brother could watch you through tiny TV cameras in your bedroom. I know a friend of mine who is a devout Catholic, and in her toilet there—but she is different; she has a sense of humor—and in the toilet (you know, it’s an old-fashioned one: there’s a tank and a pipe coming down to the john) there’s a little placard on it with a big eye painted. And in Gothic letters underneath it it says, “Thou God seest me.” So always, everywhere, according to this mythology, there is the eye of the paternal judge watching you.


Now, what can you do with a situation like that? If that’s the way things really are, you don’t know whether this lord has a sense of humor and whether you can say to him, “Hey, look, don’t take such an advantage of me like that! Turn down that light a little. Close off your eyes sometimes. You don’t need to be all that particular. You know I can’t do anything to you. I can’t knock you over. Why do you need to bug me all the time?” That “Ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh” sort of attitude is too much. And so people couldn’t stand it. You know, 600 years of it was enough. And it became intolerable. Really intolerable. Because everybody knew they were sinners, and that they were doing all the things against the rules in the book, and nobody could possibly put up with it. So the only thing they could do to relieve themselves of this horrible father figure was to make out that the universe didn’t have a father at all. That it was really an orphan. Not even virgin-born. It didn’t even have a mother. In other words, in order to escape from the mythology of a conception of ultimate reality which was much too intelligent and much too nosy, people had to invent a conception of the ultimate reality that was completely banal and dead.


So the second Western mythology is the mythology of the mechanical universe, which is a fluke emerging from a process of absolutely blind energy. And you must notice the language in which the great thinkers of the 19th century thought about the world. Freud, for the basic psychic energy, used the word “libido,” which in 19th century Vienna was exceedingly uncomplimentary. Libido: blind lust. And so, in the same way, the science philosophers of the 19th century talked about the world as being based on brute force, unintelligent energy, and worked out a conception of man as a really rather unfortunate natural fluke. Consciousness, reason, and indeed also the passions and feelings and desires of the human heart were nothing but the end product of a roulette wheel of natural selection.


It’s a most curious paradox that those philosophers of the 19th century who denied the supernatural origin of man—and who insisted that man is simply a part of nature, one of the members of nature—nevertheless set up a state of alienation between man and nature without precedent. I am a part of nature. I am something that nature fluked into being. But nevertheless, this fluke is something that nature doesn’t care about. It doesn’t care about my ego and its future. All that is important to nature is the species. The individual is irrelevant.


At the same time this philosophy arose when we were becoming conscious of the sheer magnitude of the universe. And it took the first impression of this vastness as a pretext for making little of human beings, and saying, “What do you matter in this huge cosmos? You’re just a little fluke. You’re just a little nothing at all. This thing goes way on, on, on, on, on beyond all imagination. And therefore man is just so much fungus on a rock, and a very tiny rock at that.”


In other words, it took the standpoint: let’s set up a scale between two limits. And this is the traditional Western opposition. On the one end of the scale, to the left here, you have matter: the inert, the clay put into shape by the potter. On the other end of the scale you have spirit, which is intelligence. And these are what mathematicians call limits. And the limit is something you approach, but you never actually get there. Now, what the 19th century mythology did was to think of all things towards the limit called matter. It said, in effect, there is this dead material stuff. It is energetic, but the energy is unintelligent. It’s a kind of roaring mechanical energy like fire, or electricity, or so on. It is not intelligent. And everything is really that. What we call human intelligence and consciousness are merely complicated forms of this primordial energy. And they are nothing but that. In the same way, we are evolved from lower orders of animals, and I can trace my ancestry to a protoplasmo globule—Poobah says. And, you know, that’s what you really are. You’re only a complicated protoplasmo globule.


Now, do you see the intent behind this mythology? The intent is to deprecate. The intent is, as we say now, to put down the human being because the human being felt that, hitherto, he had been put up too far in the wrong way. You are a child of God, and the Lord loves you very dearly, but… you know? That’s just insufferable, to be put up in that way. You have an immortal soul. Your life is endless, but it can very well turn out to be a life of endless agony when you fry in hell. And that was a very serious threat to both the Protestants and Catholics. And so it’s much better, much more comfortable, to have a dead universe than a living universe so everlastingly threatening.


So, then, the mythology of the 19th century, under which most of us still operate—we operate under it because it has become so plausible. The science out of which this mythology arose has been so effective, it has produced such a marvelous splash of technological marvels, that the point of view of those scientists who started the whole thing going has become amazingly persuasive and convincing. After all, if I can reach into your brain with a very, very subtle instrument, and I can poke about inside and press there, and suddenly, on a certain point, when I press it, a world of memory comes to life so vividly that you see it before your very eyes. I remove the instrument, it vanishes. I touch another place—you experience intense pleasure, absolutely unbelievable pleasure. I remove it, the sensation vanishes. Every time I touch inside, you get a sensation externally of intense reality. And I say, “After all, I was only just pushing things in your brain. You see what a push-button thing you are? That’s it. I can just poke around and you can see anything. But all that’s happening is I’m putting a little electrode or something on parts of your brain. That’s all you are, poor fish! You’re just a sensitive sponge inside your headbone.” Well, that gets very persuasive, you see?


And people are therefore in a position—they are prejudiced—to favor a mythology that will make out that you are, after all, nothing but something or other. Nothing but a kind of a complicated neurological jello. And that point of view, as I said, has become enormously convincing. It’s plausible today, whereas the old point of view of God the father and all the angels isn’t plausible. It seems kind of weird in relation to what we know about the state of the universe.


Now, what we have to see is that both of these points of view are equally mythological. And there’s no more reason to take one than the other. And that what these points of view reflect are nothing other than certain attitudes to living, Now, you see, if you want to live in a way that always is saying, “I think that life is disgusting”—supposing you want to deny being—then you can always describe it in ways that are offensive. You could always say playing the violin is just scraping cat’s entrails with horse hair. That puts it down. And you say people who play golf, they’re a bunch of idiots who go out, take a walk, and hit a stupid little ball with sticks. People who like music are just a bunch of idiots who sit around and go out of their minds listening to a lot of complicated noises. See, there’s always a way of talking about something to make it sound terrible. Equally, there’s a way of talking about something to make it sound great.


Now, what do you want to do? Do you want to live your life in such a way that you’re always saying to it, “Eeeh, bwuuh, bleeeaaaah!” You know? Do you want—is that a good way to conduct things? Or do you want to live your life in such a way that you say, “Come on! Let’s go!” You see? “Let’s swing this thing!” On the one hand, you see, you’re always intentioned against it. Do you remember—I pointed out to you this morning that the person who’s constantly anxious is a person who is resisting the flip-floppability of things? Life is vibrating. It’s going bllwwp, bllwwp, bllwwp, bllwwp, bllwwp all the time, and the anxious person says, “God’s sake, don’t do that!” Because, you know, you might do it too much! “I don’t want to bllwwp like this. Makes me feel nervous! Stoppit!” And so, as he puts his weight on this bllwwp, bllwwp, he goes bllwbllwbllwbllwbllwbllw, like this, you see? He gets trembling. So instead of him saying, “C’mon, let’s bllwwp! Let’s go and do this thing,” so, in exactly the same way, the person who wants to say, “Well, you’re nothing but some kind of chemicals. And they’re just a lot of… you’re a bag of pus and blood, basically, with a few bones inside.” And that person is doing the same thing, you see, as the person who’s putting pressure on the flip-floppability of things, and so he gets anxious.


And a person who does this “Aaaaah,” he wants to say—look, think about your friends and the people who are philosophical and enthusiastic materialists. They’re always going to pose themselves as a certain kind of hero. After all, you’re just a dreamer. But I face facts. See? I’m a hard-headed realist, and as a matter of fact I’m an intellectual porcupine. I have my prickles out all over the place because I’m the kind of person who—in the academic world, at any rate—is full of rigor. I ask: “What, precisely, is the evidence about this?” And I’m analytical. And I don’t like woolly and vague thinking. I like it clearcut. And you can see that porcupine’s bristle going krrrrr-ck right through like that. See? All this is a personality type who wants to play that role, whose message in saying all this jazz is, “I’m the kind of person who is all dry as a bone, but I believe that that is strength and that’s reality.” And another kind of person says to him, “Oh, you are intolerable! You’re so dry, you’re so dull! You rattle! You don’t have any juice in you, and what we need is juice. And we need flow. We need lilt and rhythm and gaiety,” you see? So that’s an opposed mythology. And that’s another character part you’re going to play.


So we’ve got to consider: these are games. You see? As I tried to show you earlier. That the kind of roles we play are the kind of games we play. But the question is: which is the optimal game? Certainly, we can’t do without some prickly people because life is prickles and goo, and it’s basically gooey prickles and prickly goo. But the gooey people are always trying to make out that it’s only goo, and the prickly people are always trying to make out that it’s only prickles. Now, we do need both, see? But the question is, fundamentally: which game works better? The game that resists the vibration, the flip-flop, or the game that goes with it. Obviously, the game that goes with it, that cooperates with the general scene, will be a longer game and a more amusing game than one that totally resists it.


I said “totally” advisedly, because it’s great fun to resist it at times. See? It’s just like when somebody massages you, you know? And they’re really experts. And those fingers are just vibrating like this on your back. You can give and just go fwooof. But it’s also fun, sometimes, to tighten your muscles against it so as to feel the full impact of this thing, you see?


But the real point I want to get across is that what seems to us the hard boiled common sense of a mechanistic view of the universe is nothing other than a myth. You don’t have to be taken in by this, because there is no more solid argument that that is the way things are than any other argument about any other way things might be.


Now, it goes like this, you see: again, think of the idea of limits. We’ll take different limits this time. We’ll take one limit, on the right hand here, as consciousness. Extreme, lively sensitivity. And on the other hand we’ll take the opposite limit, which is geological—the stone, the blind energy, the electrical force without any consciousness whatsoever. These are observable things. We see the living human being on one extreme and we see the stone or the fire on the other. Now, our 19th century mythologist wants to describe this limit in terms of this one. He wants to say that consciousness is nothing but a very complicated form of minerals. Why can’t you go the other way and just as easily say minerals are a very simple form of consciousness? That works, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, here is this mineral. [Gong strike] I knock it, and it says that to me. This is a rudimentary form of consciousness. This thing inside is not making a noise to itself because that requires ears. But in some way this thing is going yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee to itself; it’s shaking like that. And that’s its consciousness, its response, its resonance. It isn’t totally unconscious. But its consciousness is extremely simple.


Now, you may think I’m spinning fairy stories. But is that any more of a fairy story than to say that your consciousness is nothing but chemistry? I mean, you think you’re conscious and that you have this high and mighty state of affairs, but actually, of course, if we look at this very realistically, all this is just colloidal substances wobbling around. You see? Both that story and the other story can be made to seem equally fanciful. But the question is this: if I say about the gong, “Look, my friend, I respect you because you are a little bit conscious.” See? “You relate to me; you’re kind of a younger brother.” And, you know, then there’s something endearing and warm about this attitude to things. Whereas if I say, “Pfft, you’re just a piece of metal. And as a matter of fact, I’m just a piece of metal, too.” That’s a kind of insult. The people who believe that are really suicidal maniacs. They want to put themselves down. They are against their own life and they take a great pride in being that way, and they call it being realistic. And I’m only saying it’s a better gamble to take it the other way and say the best thing you can say about it: that this is a living being, but not so much of a living being as a snail or something that actually wanders along and wiggles. So, you see, the pressure upon us of the whole mythology of the 19th century—the whole attitude of putting down the universe because the previous myth had been too uncomfortably alive—is simply a way of looking at things.


Let me give another illustration of the same thing. If you study the various forms of life from the standpoint of natural selection, you may come up with a rationalization for everything. Somebody wants to know: “Why do butterflies have eyes on their wings?” Some butterflies. Well, somebody scratches his head and says, “Oh, well, there must be an explanation for that.” There’s an explanation for everything. Why is there an explanation for everything? Because the universe is really a tight engineering job. So why do some butterflies have eyes? Well, it so happened that some fluke of a butterfly got an eye on its wing, and birds would avoid it because that eye looked at them and it was just too much. So those butterflies that had eyes on their wings bred, whereas the butterflies that didn’t have eyes got eaten up more easily. Although some of them had other alternatives, because of not having eyes, they were invisible and the birds couldn’t see them. And so more of that kind survived, although those with the terrifying eyes survived, and so they didn’t get eaten up either. So those tended to multiply. So this is a perfectly easy, simple explanation of why butterflies have eyes on their wings. Or some other things—some birds with extraordinary plumages which look so obvious that anybody could catch them; any cat, any hunter. No, they survive because they were so attractive to their females. And so they bred very well—as a matter of fact, this isn’t true. They didn’t. And, you know: any explanation will do—provided it seems to explain. Now, that is one way of looking at things. You can make an extremely consistent theory for the different kind of species of flowers and birds and insects, and all their markings and so on; just why they have them.


But, on the other hand, you can equally well explain it in a completely different way. You can say it would be exceedingly dreary if there were nothing but one uniform type of life. Supposing there’d never been anything but amoebas. And they were just globules. And they divided, and then they divided again, and then they divided again. You know, that could’ve gone on and could’ve been terribly efficient, because the minute you went to hit an amoeba you would strike it but suddenly find you’d killed only one of them because it split just before you hit. That’s a marvelous arrangement. And they could split very fast. You could suddenly go at another with two hammers, hoping to catch both amoebas, but suddenly they split, split, split, split, and there were eight of them before you knew where you were. That would be fine. But actually, or the reason why there is all this colossal variety and all these patterns on butterflies’ wings is that nature is a poet and is simply having a wonderful time making all this variety, and doing all these various things. And that explanation is just as plausible as the efficient explanation.


You see, the philosophy is to a large extent to a matter of taste. What sort of explanations suit your personality? If you’re an anal-retentive type and rather tight, then you like the efficient explanation. On the other hand, if you’re an effusive type you like the poetic explanation. But there are, though—beyond this—certain considerations of which of these explanations affords better games. And the economic, anal-retentive explanation can give good games up to a point. Because there’s all the thrill of working out the chains of interconnection, all the reasoning whereby, finally, you go through all sorts of rational connections and explain why the butterfly has a big eye on its wing. [???] But where do you end up? You end up in a mechanical straightjacket. You’ve got to be careful along the other line approach that you don’t just end up in a morass. You could do that. So you look for a middle way.


But the point that emerges from all this is: don’t be bamboozled into fearing that the black will win because the white is the only thing there is. And the black, the nothing that surrounds it, will eventually engulf it. All these are, as it were, nursery stories to terrify children. You live in a cosmos where the light of consciousness and the darkness of unconsciousness go back and forth just as the crests and the troughs of the waves. And this situation of yang and yin, positive and negative, is exceedingly productive. It’s like a male and a female who become the parents of all sorts of children. And out of yang and yin, black and white, come all these adventures through the original stratagem of pretending that the one is and the other isn’t, that yang is and that yin isn’t. Both have equally good arguments on their side, and one now wins, and the other now wins. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. But don’t be deceived. The two are always together.


And the thing that you most fear—the awful, awful thing that could happen—think it through: what could that be? What could the very end be? What is it that you dread? And you’ll find out that if you go down, down, down, down, down, down, down into what you dread—to be swallowed up, to be annihilated, let the horrible scorpion-spider mother, the octopus thing catch you and take you down into its inmost guts—what will it do with you? Why, it’ll transform you into itself. And then, when you are it—as I said, every creature feels like it’s a human being. Because, after all, that’s “I.” So fish, when they’ve eaten up something, and that thing has become them. You know? And then the fish looks around and says, “Gee, that was a good dinner.” And it feels human. And the fish looks around and it sees things that aren’t fish, and they look like cows. And human beings wandering around there, they look like predatory monsters of some kind; awful looking things, ghastly teeth and weird inhumane arms and legs on them. Not nice, orderly fins and tails, and beautiful scales on the side like a really good person should look.


So, you know, this thing of death and of being transformed is where our life reaches a certain point where it has to go bllwwp. And in the moment you go bllwwp, you forget. You lose control, you see? That’s the sensation. When control is going, just on the verge of the crisis where it’s going to bllwwp—and you say, “Well, where was I? Gee, this is strange. I’m alive. I don’t remember where I was before.” That’s the sensation of coming to birth. And you grow and grow, and you become more familiar with this and more familiar. When you’re completely familiar it goes bllwwp, and you’re new all over again. See? It’s quite different. We can never believe, you see, when it gets to the point where we know it’s about to go bllwwp, you never believe that it will go into life. We always think it’s going to go into something dreadful.


But, you see, once you know it’s going to keep flipping, and it’s going to keep flipping, and it’s going to keep flipping, and the only thing is to go with that flip. See? Get ready to go. Are you ready? BLLWWP! Then you can laugh—because you know there’s no way out.

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