Friday, February 2, 2007

WHY? A User's Guide Part I

There is an urban legend which recounts the story of a prospective student going to sit an entrance examination for one of the Oxford colleges. The professor who set the entrance examination that year was something of a clever-dick, a man anxious to keep the standards in college as high as possible. Accordingly, he pored over the problem he wanted to set the prospective students with more than his usual scholarly assiduity.

When our prospective student opened his paper during the examination, his eyes fell on the following instuctions:

Please answer the question as fully as possible. Ask for extra sheets of paper as necessary.

Question. Why?

Answer. ...


After the examination, the examiner, our clever-dick professor, bowled back to his Oxford fellow's den with something of the effeminate bustle acquired by many disorganized intellectuals. Donning his reading glasses, and opening the first paper in the pile of examination papers (as it happens, the paper of our prospective student), his eyes fell on the following response to his carefully crafted puzzler:

Question. Why?

Answer. ...Why bloody not?


The legend is enticing, although one has to suspect that if it is true, the student in question had already decided he would not go to Oxford and that he might as well pass out of his interview with flying colours (to use those famous lines from the cartoon legionary Beau Peep: 'Have you heard of the expression "with flying colours?'" 'Yes?' 'Well, I have to tell you that you failed "with flying colours"').

There are all kinds of formulations of the question 'why', but the most memorable, at least in the twentieth century are associated with war. I grew up in the age of that anti-nuclear war poster with the mushroom cloud and the word "Why? across the bottom. The one artistic gaff in the Sergei Bondarchuk's wonderful film Waterloo, sees a British Grenadier drop his rifle in the midst of the battle and start running about yelling 'Why?' like some mad Greenham Common peacenik. To be fair, its artistic highlight is also during the battle when the music of a waltz, danced in an earlier pre-battle scene, accompanies a slow-mo passage of Wellington's cavalry at full charge.

Robert Graves did his own marvellous version of 'Why?' in a poem the title of which escapes me for a moment. He takes the Romantic convention of the lonely man wandering in the wood, and blows it to pieces. His lonely man in a wood is a dead 'Boche' whose decaying body has turned green and whose face is a mass of coagulated blood.

But, heck, this is the Internet, and so, in a clickstant, I can find it:

'A Dead Boche'
TO you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
"War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

Obviously, there are different questions tied up in all these examples, but they all go back eventually to 'why?'

How does one begin to answer such a question? It depends I suppose what level you are speaking about. With minimal technical difficulties, the 'why' of the pathologist is going to come down to about the same, regardless of whether the subject is lying under the sunny canopy of a forest in the Ardennes or on a chilled mortuary slab. The physical 'why' eventually comes down to a cessation of the biochemical system suporting life.

The human or philosophical 'why' is more elusive; of that there is no doubt. The frustration captured by Graves and even by Bondarchuk's Napoleonic peacenik used to be called the 'problem of evil'. It goes a lot further than the battle field, of course, even if its most potent symbols are found there.

But this is a blog, not a thesis, so I'll cut to the chase.

There has to be an answer to 'why?'. How we actually comprehend the answer is quite another matter. Some people regard it as an agnostic mystery that is destined always to be obscure. Others, like me, are happy to confess the mystery, but live, waiting for some kind of understanding slowly to emerge from the sometimes awful silences of God.

But there has to be an answer, even if it difficult to discern. The alternative is simply too terrible to contemplate. This is not because absurdity in itself is too terrible to contemplate. There is no time now to deal with Freud's reductionism about religion, but it can pretty safely be concluded that it is not a flight to an ideal world of childhood; more like an adult opening of eyes to one's own limitations and those of one's existence. Tragedy and comedy either have a hinterland of meaning; or, as for Ionesco, it's all just tragedy in the end, even it it's comedy.

No, it is unthinkable – pace Freud and Ionesco - that 'why?' should not have both a hinterland and an answer. In that case, 'why?' means nothing at all, or at least no more and no less than anything in a universe of absurdity.

And in that case, 'why?', as our prospective Oxford student could have told us, might as well be rephrased:

Why bloody not?

No comments: